Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Reformation 10/25/2015

For any of us, it’s probably hard to imagine Ishpeming as it was in 1870. Reading the histories that have appeared in the various Bethany anniversary booklets over the years, it sounds like it was a pretty rough place what with cursing, wild drinking parties and brawls in the saloons that had proliferated (and you’re all thinking that’s easy enough to imagine; that hasn’t changed; many businesses struggle to survive downtown but the bars seem to do very well). In any case, according to the histories, that perceived moral decadence was the reason a small group of Swedish Lutherans began to gather on Sunday mornings in a rented hall in the late 1860’s, a group which became the Swedish Lutheran Bethany Church on October 2, 1870. We are the descendents of that group as we celebrate Bethany’s 145th anniversary today, on Reformation Sunday 2015.

No doubt there is truth in the history that says the formation of Bethany represented an effort to offer a different voice in that rough and tumble early mining culture, but for pretty much all churches at that time, the formation of a church also represented an effort to preserve the ethnic culture and language of those who formed it. If it had just been about being a Lutheran presence to counter moral decadence there wouldn’t have been a Swedish Lutheran Church and a Norwegian Lutheran Church and a Finnish Lutheran Church all within a couple of blocks of each other in downtown Ishpeming and of course the effects of that ethnic identity persist today; even though the population has declined and no one is doing services in the native language anymore, Bethany, Trinity and Bethel continue on their separate ways, efforts to do things more cooperatively tend to meet with resistance. Someday that will change, but in the meantime, here we are and there they are.

Last year was the first year, the first year at least since I’ve been here, that Reformation Sunday was also Anniversary Sunday. I think combining the two was more a matter of convenience than an act of genius on anyone’s part, it was just the Sunday that worked best, but in a lot of ways it makes sense to combine the two so that’s what we did again this year.

The problem with days like this is they can just wind up being a trip down memory lane. Such trips aren’t necessarily bad, but Anniversary Sundays shouldn’t just be a nostalgic look back, Reformation Sunday shouldn’t just be about what Martin Luther did a long time ago. Properly observed though, in addition to reflecting on the history, both commemorations can raise the question of what it means to be Lutheran. Does it mean anything these days? It’s a question that Bishop Elizabeth Eaton poses in the October issue of the Lutheran magazine and, as always, she has some thoughtful things to say.

She mentions that for awhile there was a trend toward eliminating denominational references in church names, the thinking being that for many people such tribal identifying markers don’t mean anything and in fact may be an obstacle for people who assume that they don’t belong because being Lutheran or Methodist or Presbyterian or whatever isn’t part of their background. The move to eliminate denominational identification didn’t gain a lot of footing except among mega churches with generic names like Willow Creek, NorthRidge and Lakewood. Tell someone you’re going to Willow Creek or NorthRidge or Lakewood and they don’t know if you’re going to church or to the mall or to the country club and maybe you don’t either.

It might surprise you to know that I sometimes struggle with what it means to be Lutheran or I ask myself why I continue to be Lutheran apart from the fact that it’s a Lutheran church that provides me with a salary. It’s a good question though for any of us to think about, maybe especially for clergy because it has a way of keeping you honest.

For someone like me though and for many of you, your church affiliation wasn’t anything you thought much about, you were born into it at least in part because of your ethnic origin; many of us are of Northern European descent like those Swedes that founded this church 145 years ago. There’s no denying that Lutheran identity had a lot to do with ethnic origins but as we celebrate today, while we don’t have to apologize for our Swedish heritage, in the year 2015 and moving forward, that heritage doesn’t mean much and it shouldn’t mean much. Stripped of that ethnic identity though, what are we left with? Is there anything that makes us distinctive? Are we just a nice group of people? I hope we are, I think we are, and that’s important in welcoming people, but that isn’t what makes us Lutheran and its not the food and the coffee hours either.

If we take away all those things, what we’re left with is really good theology, theology centered on the grace of God. When I think about what it means to be Lutheran grace is the word I start with and come back to. For me, the emphasis on grace is Martin Luther’s greatest gift to the history of Christianity. It’s not that other Christians or people of other faiths don’t include the concept of grace; we don’t have the grace market cornered, but Luther’s personal struggles and fears about a wrathful, angry God and his close study of the Bible made him realize that the God of the Bible, the God revealed in Jesus is a gracious, loving, forgiving God. As Lutherans then, this is what we proclaim week after week, over and over again because it’s the message the world needs to hear and because it’s the truth.

From Jeremiah, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” From Romans, “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ.” From John, “If the son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” It’s all grace; it’s not about keeping score because if it was, no one would win. By grace God breaks the cycle of death and despair and enslavement to sin; we’re given a new beginning that isn’t about what we do or have done, it’s about what God has done for us.

There are things I find attractive about other faith traditions, about other theologies and I do think we can learn from each other, but no one does grace like we do and it is what makes the Lutheran expression of Christianity different. One of the problems if you remove denominational markers is that for the uninitiated, it makes it seem like we’re all the same, but we’re not. There are good things about other faiths and traditions and there are good people who are part of those faiths and traditions. There are common beliefs and many similarities, that’s true; but they wind up being nuanced differently and those nuances make a difference. Relative to grace, one of the differences that can show up is when a proclamation of grace is then followed by “Yeah, but.”

If you talk about grace and then follow it with “Yeah, but,” and start to put restrictions on it, and that is what happens a lot, when you do that you’re not talking about grace anymore, you’re back into the works righteousness that haunted Luther, back into fear of a wrathful, angry God. When it comes to being made right in the eyes of God, there are no “Yeah, buts,” no conditions. It’s done! Period! That is the heart of Lutheran theology! Yes, we identify ourselves as sinners, we know that, we know that the law convicts us but we also know the truth revealed through Jesus, and that truth gives us new life and makes us free indeed. We are justified by God’s grace as a gift.

When it comes to how we respond to that gift, OK, now we’re talking about something different. Regarding the response there are many expectations, many desired behaviors, mostly modeling the ethic of the Bible, the model of self-giving love that Jesus embodied. That’s the challenge of living as a follower of Jesus and it’s a huge challenge that we face every day. But the gift of forgiveness and new life is already given and you can’t undo it with “Yeah buts.”

There are many interpretations concerning what Martin Luther did 500 years ago, interpretations concerning what we call the Reformation. I have to think though, that Luther didn’t see the Reformation beginning and ending with him, but that reformation would be an ongoing process and so it goes on in many places, in many ways, including right here. Something is happening here, even if what it is isn’t always exactly clear. Wherever and however reformation continues though, it will always be about God’s grace because that is what makes us Lutheran.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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