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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Epiphany 02/09/2020

When I served in L’Anse back in the late 90’s, there was an old guy there by the name of Gus Soli. He was about 80 years old, but one of those people who you feel privileged to be their pastor in part because you feel like they give you more than you give them; there’s quite a few of your out there actually. Gus though was a good and kind soul, very faithful, very supportive of the pastor.

A couple of years after I got there, Gus was in the hospital and he was dying, I don’t remember of what, but he was dying and he knew it. Hospital stays were a little longer back then and I’d been visiting him regularly during the time he was there, but it was about 10 o’clock at night and one of the nurses at the hospital called and said Gus asked if you could come over; he wants to talk to you. The hospital was pretty much across the street from the parsonage so I was there in a couple of minutes.

When I got there, Gus was awake and more alert than he’d been earlier in the day and he said to me, “Pastor, do you think I’ve been good enough?” Even as a relatively new pastor, I knew that this probably wasn’t the time to discuss Lutheran theology and justification by grace through faith, that it’s not what you do, it’s what Christ has done for you, so I just said, “You’ve been good enough Gus; you’ve been good enough.” He died the next day and another thing I remember is that night there was a spectacular display of the northern lights which I would like to think was Gus saying, “I’m OK.”

I tell you that story because Gus’s question, “Have I been good enough,” had a big influence on me relative to the importance of preaching about grace week after week because…as much as we preach it, I think we still find it hard to believe which is understandable because we’re used to the ethic of, if you want something, you work for it and earn it, the old “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

As a result, while I don’t pretend to have thought about all this in the moment, here’s Gus, a lifelong Lutheran, in church every Sunday so I have to assume he’d heard grace preached pretty regularly during his 80 some odd years, but at the end of his life his question was still, “Have I been good enough?” and I’m pretty sure he’s not the only lifelong Lutheran who would have that question. Anyway, it was a moment, and a question that might have seemed relatively insignificant but it had a lot of influence in how I’ve approached preaching over the years. I hope you feel like you get a pretty steady diet of grace.

But then I also think, that’s not the whole story. Grace is gospel, it is good news, but we remember that Luther talked about law too, law and gospel. We also remember that Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law.” With those voices echoing in our ears, “Have I been good enough?” is a good question because despite our dependence and confidence in God’s grace won for us in the cross of Christ, we are still called to be good enough.

Maybe it’s not what you want someone’s deathbed question to be, but for any of us, as we walk our journey of faith, it’s a good question to think about because without question, there are many parts of the Bible that provide reminders of what it means to be good enough. We are called to a way of living that reflects what we believe and today’s readings provide good examples.

The first reading from Isaiah comes out of the time when the Jewish people had returned to Jerusalem after being in exile in Babylon for fifty years or so. It was an exile that the prophets attributed to their failure to walk in the way of the Lord; it was a return attributed to the faithfulness of the Lord, and the Lord’s unwillingness to give up on the people. Because of that, those who returned knew that it was important to worship and honor their God, the Lord. Apparently though, it didn’t take long for them to fall back into pre-exilic behaviors, in particular to worship practices that lacked sincerity. They were going through the motions of the appointed fasts and rituals thinking that that would be enough for them to be considered good enough.

Speaking the word of the Lord though, Isaiah told them that their worship was not pleasing to the Lord. Instead, they were called to take action, called to loose the bonds of injustice, to free the oppressed, to provide food for the hungry, to clothe the naked, to provide shelter for the homeless. For the Lord, that’s what being good enough was all about.

I don’t think the prophet was saying that worship was a waste of time. I don’t think he was saying that worship done with reverence and sincerity doesn’t matter, at least I hope that’s not what he was saying. Worship is an important part of religious formation, in our case of Christian formation, a critical part of an authentic relationship with God, an important means of mediating the presence of God. But worship, however it’s done is not an end in itself but should be accompanied by actions that serve the neighbor. As Martin Luther said, God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbor does. What we do does make a difference. So not just in Isaiah but throughout the Old Testament, there is a call to be good enough. Today’s Psalm starts with “Happy are they who fear the Lord and have great delight in God’s commandments,” and it doesn’t end there. In his teaching, Jesus picks up on the same theme

In today’s reading, part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that he didn’t come to abolish the law but that not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Most of the time Jesus was short on specifics concerning the meaning of things he said, leaning instead toward thought provoking images and stories, and that’s the case today with the salt of the earth and light of the world images.

“You are the salt of the earth,” he says but doesn’t go on to say, “and by that I mean you should go out and do the following things.” Action however is implied. Just as salt is used to bring out and enhance the taste of food, those who follow Jesus are called to elicit goodness among those they serve but there’s no how-to manual. Connecting the dots though, especially with this being preceded by last week’s beatitudes, for those with ears to hear, being salt would seem to have to do with being aware of and acting on behalf of those Jesus describes, the poor and the meek, those who mourn, those who are reviled and persecuted. It has to do with being merciful and acting as peacemakers. Living in the Kingdom of God though, there is a call to be good enough.

Jesus also says, “You are the light of the world.” Light is a familiar image, the dominant image during the season of Epiphany, but it’s used a little differently here. We think of Jesus as the light of the world; in John’s gospel it’s one his “I am” statements, “I am the light of the world,” but here it’s “You are the light of the world.” It’s quite a statement if you think about it, connecting as it does the identity of those who follow Jesus with the identity of Jesus himself.

You are the light of the world is another call to be good enough. It’s easy to get fixated on the darkness and brokenness of the world but Jesus’ call to us is that we reflect his light which is the light of justice and mercy, the light of welcome and forgiveness especially for the least of these. The forces of darkness want us to throw up our hands and say, “What difference does it make? The little I can do doesn’t matter.” They want us to become resigned to the way things are. They want us to lose hope. But Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” Again, there’s no how-to manual; the call to respond is different for each of us, but there is a call to respond. There is a call to be good enough.

There is law and there is gospel and we do need both. The law tells us what we ought to do, that we ought to be good enough. The gospel tells us what God has done for us because we are not good enough. Part of the beauty of Lutheran theology is how it allows for tension between law and gospel and calls us to live within that tension and to find our way in the tension of knowing both that we are called to be good enough and that we are dependent of God’s grace.

Living in that tension, Gus’s “Have I been good enough?” question is a good one for us ask. Some days we do better than others; but we can ask without fear and we can act without fear, because we do know about God’s grace.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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