Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Reformation Anniversary 10/28/2018

Today we celebrate 148 years of Bethany Lutheran Church; that’s a pretty long time. I was thinking that at this point I’ve been here for a little more than 15 years, a little more than 1/10th of that 148 years. As best as I can figure, at some point in the coming year I’ll become the longest serving of Bethany’s 18 full time pastors. I’ll bet however, that I’m the only one of those 18 who has seen a 25-30% decline in attendance during his watch. Let me stay long enough and who knows how much more damage I can do.

I don’t think I can take all the credit for the decline in attendance as many things have changed over the course of 148 years, some of them good, some of them bad, but one thing I think about relative to the state of things these days is that the cultural component of the church isn’t what it used to be. I don’t know for sure, but I would suspect that the reasons for the founding of Bethany back in 1870 were as much cultural as they were religious. For the Swedes who came here to work in the mines it was a way to preserve Swedish language and culture, culture that included the Lutheran church as one component.

The cultural component hasn’t entirely changed. It isn’t as overtly Swedish as it once was, but many of us are Lutheran because, even if not part of our ethnic culture, being Lutheran is part of our family culture; our family was Lutheran and we still are. For some of you, your family was part of this particular Lutheran church and you’re still here. In that respect then, many of us are still cultural Lutherans.

These days however, there are fewer of us or at least there are fewer people for whom being Lutheran is an important part of their culture and identity. Someone uncovered a video that was made here back in 1993, 25 years ago, and Gary turned it into a DVD and I watched it. Some of you are in it although it’s a much younger version of you. One of the things the video does though, is to visit all the Sunday School classrooms and most of the classes had about as many students as we now have in the entire Sunday School.

Most of the kids in that 1993 video would be between 30 and 40 years old now and where are they? I’m sure that many have moved away to find work; that’s part of what’s going on, but I doubt that they all have. What I know though, is that with a couple of exceptions, they’re not sitting out there and their kids aren’t in Sunday School. They’re still cultural Lutherans and maybe some are in church somewhere, I would hope so, but surveys would show that religious identity of any kind, Lutheran or otherwise, isn’t real important to a large percentage of people in that age group.

Which leads to the question, does Lutheran identity even matter anymore even for those who are still in church? Besides being Anniversary Sunday, today is also Reformation Sunday, the day that has always kind of celebrated Lutheran identity, but it’s also the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost and some would say that these days it would be better to skip Reformation Sunday and just continue with the regular lectionary. The thinking is, why continue to celebrate a split in the church when the emphasis these days, at least in the ELCA, is to seek greater unity as we find common ground with other denominations? Add to that the fact that Lutheran identity is hard to pinpoint and it could easily lead to the conclusion that after 501 years, it’s time to end this Reformation commemoration; lay it to rest.

What then, if anything, does it mean to be authentically Lutheran these days? I can assure you that there is no one answer to that. Some would say that it has to do with being confessional which means accepting that the teachings contained in the Lutheran Confessions, the Book of Concord are completely faithful to the teachings of scripture. I would argue that that makes the Book of Concord equal in importance to the Bible in a church that claims sola scriptura, that scripture alone is our rule of faith and those on the other side would respond by saying that their belief doesn’t violate that because the Book of Concord is completely faithful to scripture so you see where that gets you; you can go round and round and get nowhere.

I do value the Lutheran confessions, but I also think that you have to take into account when and why they were written so interpretation is needed. Like the Bible, the confessions are part of a living tradition. Rather than getting hung up on who is more confessional than who though, being Lutheran, let’s go sola scriptura and look at the lessons appointed for Reformation Sunday not just this year but every year.

We start with Jeremiah and the announcement of a new covenant. A covenant is a relationship agreement and this one comes with the statement, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” It’s a relationship centered on forgiveness. That’s followed by Psalm 46 and the image of God as our refuge and strength. It’s the psalm that inspired Luther to write “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” the hymn most associated with Reformation Day, maybe the hymn most associated with Lutheranism. From Romans, we get some of the verses crucial to Luther’s theology of justification by grace through faith: “They are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” In the gospel are statements about truth and freedom: “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free,” with Jesus, the Son, being the agent of that truth and freedom.

Think about the images though: there’s the promise of a relationship in Jeremiah; the psalm is an image of God as a refuge and fortress; Romans is about a gift of grace, the gospel is about freedom. Relationship, refuge, grace and freedom; every Reformation Sunday, those are the images and you could say that forgiveness underlies all of them. In a discussion of Lutheran identity and what it means to be Lutheran, those images provide a pretty good place to start: relationship, refuge, grace and freedom.

For me, what it means to be authentically Lutheran doesn’t have to do with marching in lock step with Luther; instead it’s about these scriptural images that Luther helped to articulate, with grace being the central image. That’s another one of Luther’s solas, sola gratia, grace alone. Grace is at the heart of Lutheran theology and if a church is going to call itself Lutheran, that grace, revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus, that grace revealed in the teaching and forgiveness of Jesus, has to be the central proclamation.

I perhaps never thought I would say this, but who we are as Lutherans is, we’re evangelicals. It’s a word that has been co-opted these days by one particular group that calls itself Christian but in many respects has become more of a political action group than it is a church.

But in the early days of the Reformation, those who followed Luther weren’t called Lutherans, they were called evangelicals and it would probably have been better if that name had stuck. Because evangel means gospel, and an evangelical is one who proclaims the gospel and that is what we do. We proclaim that our relationship with God, our covenant with God, is secure as a free gift of God’s grace. We take refuge in that relationship which then frees us to love and serve and welcome and forgive others in the name of Jesus, who has forgiven us and made us free.

Relationship, refuge, grace and freedom; those are all evangelical words, they are gospel words. They are not uniquely Lutheran words but they are words that help to identify who we are, especially in how we read and interpret the Bible, leading me back to…

… sola scriptura…part of what it means to be authentically Lutheran, part of what it means to be authentically Christian for that matter, is to read and interpret the Bible as it was meant to be read and interpreted. That involves a conversion of imagination which enables us to be part of the world the Bible gives us, a world that is created and ordered by God, a world that is loved and saved by God, a world where humans are created in God’s image with the ability to learn and love and relate to one another and with God, a world imagined as a garden that God plants for humans to enjoy and cultivate.

Entering that world and that reality provides possibilities that go beyond those who, on one end, want to force the Bible into literal categories that deprive it of wonder and mystery and those on the other end who will only accept that which science and observation says is possible, predictable and measurable, again depriving life of wonder and mystery. I would say that allowing the reality imagined by the Bible to be our reality is part of being not just authentically Lutheran, but authentically Christian.

It’s only in reading the Bible this way that you get to the beauty of its theological truth revealed in its many images of relationship and refuge and grace and freedom. It’s only in reading the Bible this way that leads to the truth of Jesus’ love and forgiveness which is the good news, the gospel, the truth that makes you free.

If observing Reformation Sunday helps to reaffirm and proclaim that truth, it is worth continuing.

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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