Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Reformation Sunday - 10/30/2016

When the Swedish Lutheran Bethany Church was organized in 1870, the Christian church landscape in Ishpeming was very different than it is now; in fact there really wasn’t much of a landscape at all. From what I could find, small groups of Lutherans, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians were holding informal services when they could in the early years of iron mining, but it wasn’t until the years between 1870 and 1890 that churches began to formally organize. In 1870 though, the church landscape was still pretty bare.

Then think about the situation today: there are four ELCA Lutheran churches with Ishpeming addresses, Bethany, Bethel, Trinity and Faith, there’s a Missouri Synod Lutheran church, a Free Lutheran Church and there are at least two different Apostolic Lutheran groups; eight Lutheran churches all together. There are two Catholic churches, at least two Baptist churches along with Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Assembly of God, Covenant, the Salvation Army, Cross Bridge and several other smaller groups scattered around, I’m not exactly sure who they all are and that’s just Ishpeming. If you added Negaunee and Marquette you’d have a few more Lutheran groups and a few other denominations and/or non-denominations represented.

Depending on your perspective, you could say that Martin Luther either deserves the credit or that he deserves the blame for the current landscape. 499 years ago tomorrow, he posted his 95 Theses that challenged some of what was going on in the Catholic Church at the time. Now the historical consensus is that he wasn’t out to cause trouble; he was just following the accepted academic practice of that time, hoping to spur some conversation with church officials. If that’s the case, he got far more than he bargained for, essentially opening a can of worms containing reasons for division, a can that continues to reveal new contents even 499 years later.

I just finished teaching a Lay School class on American Church history and what I found is that it is horrifically complicated with splits and divisions of the church over one thing or another, sometimes mergers and then break ups after the mergers within pretty much every denomination. I also found that to have any understanding at all of the American scene, you do have to go back to the time of the Reformation and consider some of the issues and challenges and proposed reforms that emerged then.

In many respects the reforms Luther was hoping for were relatively modest; but his challenge to the authority of the church, the authority of the Pope in particular, was not modest and that’s really what caused the lid to come off the can. If Luther, an unknown Augustinian monk could question the word of the Pope and the decisions of the Councils and get away with it, if Luther could call for reform, others could too, and they did.

Even more than questioning the Catholic church, the reformers questioned each other about their beliefs and understanding concerning what reformation should look like and that, over time, leads to a community like Ishpeming having so many different churches all calling themselves Christian, leading many I am quite sure, to wonder just what the differences are and… does it matter? Is the abundance of choices out there a good thing or a bad thing?

Looking at the scene today, some might conclude that all the churches are pretty much the same, that despite denomination names or lack thereof, we have more in common than we do differences; it’s just that worship styles vary from one church to another. They would say that we all proclaim Jesus and we all teach good values and isn’t that what really matters anyway; that you’re a good person, that you learn the golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do to you. They would say that what you believe doesn’t matter that much; it’s up to you.

Others would conclude that we’re not the same, that just being a good person isn’t enough. They would say that what you believe does matter, that salvation depends on the correct beliefs and doctrines. For them, the differences in belief and practice are so significant and so great that for all practical purposes, we’re talking not just about different denominations, but about different religions, branches of Christianity that seem to believe very different things. Just looking at churches that call themselves Lutheran, despite everyone claiming the same heritage, the differences are enough that we might be talking about different religions within one denomination.

The religious landscape is quite a mess 500 years later. I don’t know what Luther would have thought would have been a good outcome of what he started, but it’s probably safe to say that what currently exists wouldn’t be it. The truth though, is that most people probably don’t think too much about all the theological differences. If they go to church at all, they go because that’s where they’ve always gone, that’s the denomination they’ve always affiliated with, or they like the people or the pastor or the style of worship or… they have a good youth program or a good choir or a good coffee hour for that matter.

I’m quite sure that in many cases, if people actually knew the professed beliefs of their church, they might not go there…or they might, having reached the aforementioned conclusion that what you believe doesn’t matter, that the theological differences in churches don’t matter as long as they all teach good values. One reason for the decline in church attendance though, is that being a good person and learning the golden rule doesn’t require a church.

Then there are those of us who think all this does matter. Here we are, observing the 499th anniversary of the Reformation and celebrating 146 years of Bethany Lutheran Church. Some of us do care about this stuff and so we try to make sense of it. We’d like to think, first of all, that what Luther did was a good thing even if the results were and continue to be a bit chaotic. We’d also like to think that Bethany Lutheran Church is a good thing, that it is and has been and will continue to be an important point of Christian reference on the religious landscape of Ishpeming.

Regarding Luther, any honest assessment of him has to conclude that he was a mixed bag. He did open a can of worms, but on the other hand, some of his theological insights are invaluable, especially justification by grace through faith. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified grace as a gift…he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus…a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” All of that is from the Apostle Paul, part of today’s reading from Romans which was a critical passage for Luther in his search for a gracious God.

From Luther we learn that we’re not sinners in the hands of an angry God who is chomping at the bit, ready and willing to cast us into the fires of hell. Luther wasn’t the only one but he was an important voice in helping to make known a gracious God, who through Jesus, the Son, sets us free so that we are no longer slaves to sin as it says in today’s gospel reading. As Luther says in The Freedom of a Christian “a Christian is a completely free lord of all, subject to none,” in other words, freed from sin, then he couples that with “a Christian is a completely dutiful servant of all, subject to all,” in other words, freed for service to others. Freedom from and freedom for. Luther was flawed but he did make important and lasting articulations concerning Christianity, justification by grace through faith being but one.

Regarding the many directions Christianity has taken and continues to take since the time of Luther, negatively speaking it does create quite a mess, but positively, the challenges of Luther and others brought to the surface issues that otherwise would have simmered beneath the surface. Some of the issues, past and present, might seem like what Luther called adiaphora, things that don’t really matter, but for those who do think they matter, at least there is freedom to talk about it. For any of us, there is permission not just to follow in lock step without questions, but to wrestle with the issues that the reformers and others after them wrestled with as you try and determine what you really believe without being labeled a heretic.

That brings me to this church, Bethany, as we move a little bit past our 146th Anniversary. It would be presumptuous to say that any one church is indispensible to the religious landscape of its community. If we suddenly closed our doors, there are other places you could go, other churches I could serve. Bethany’s impressive historical record of Lutheran Christian witness and service would still stand.

Church anniversaries do celebrate the past but they should even more be about looking ahead to the future and again, while Bethany might not be indispensible to the future, I think we continue to be an important Christian voice on the Ishpeming landscape. We are Lutheran here not because of rigid confessionalism, but because we honor not just the confessions but the spirit out of which they came, a spirit of faithful wrestling with the tradition, wrestling like that in which Luther himself engaged. As it says in the tagline on the ELCA website and in our Northern Great Lakes Synod TV ads, it’s a spirit that really does accept each of us as a whole person, questions, complexities and all. That’s who we are; it’s not just a tagline.

For me, that’s what it means to be authentically Lutheran 499 years later, that’s what it means to be Bethany Lutheran Church 146 years later. We remain centered and grounded in God’s grace as revealed in Jesus Christ.

For us, that is the truth, and it does make us free.

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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