Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 8/23

          By the time Jesus finished the bread of life discourse the crowds that were following him weren’t so big anymore.  As the text says, “Many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”  “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” they said, referring to what you’ve heard for the past five weeks, all the talk of eating flesh and drinking blood and eating bread that will make you live forever. 

It is a difficult teaching and indeed it could and did cause people to stop following Jesus.  Historically though, it just represents one of the early reasons to stop following, but there have been and are lots of other reasons whether they stem from a core of beliefs that is difficult to accept or from a way of life and an ethic that is difficult to accept.  If you take it seriously though, the message of Christian faith is rather strange.  It does get watered down and softened, made easier and more user friendly, less controversial so it doesn’t ask too much of anyone, but if you take Jesus and his message seriously it’s easy to come to the conclusion, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

          And yet there is always that group who does accept it.  There are always those who, when faced with other paths, other choices, join Peter and say, “Lord to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  There are always those who, despite the difficulties, find life giving truth in God made flesh in Jesus Christ.  They consider all the reasons for not following but join Peter in his statement and they also join Joshua in an earlier context saying. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”  There has always been that group that follows, not in certainty but in faith, faith that Jesus and his words are spirit and life, that Jesus is the Holy One of God.

          We, gathered here this morning along with other Christians around the world, are the latest group to answer, “Lord to whom shall we go?” and Jesus bids us to follow knowing the imperfection of our ability to follow, knowing that those who worship in different Christian churches around the world don’t agree on all points of doctrine and policy, knowing that even those of us sitting here don’t all agree on all points of doctrine and policy.  What we do all agree on though, is that Jesus has the words of eternal life. 

So we follow, not in lock step uniformity but in some respects in fear and trembling, not always sure that we get his words right, in fact knowing that we don’t always get it right.  But together with those we have disagreements with, we are all counted among those who boldly confess Jesus Christ as Lord.  We all trust that by God’s grace we are forgiven so that even if we get it wrong, there is forgiveness, there is another chance.  

          After a week of rather contentious debate at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly it’s good to remember that.  It’s good to remember what we are really about as a church.  It’s good to remember what is central to our faith, to remember that what it is that gives us unity and makes us one in Christ is not won or lost in a vote at Churchwide assembly.  What happened in Minneapolis is important; there are those who are happy about it, there are those who are profoundly disappointed; but what should be most important for everyone is that those who voted for the changes in the rostering policies of the ELCA and those who voted against them all confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  All agree that Jesus has the words of eternal life.  That is what is central to our faith!  That is where our unity lies and a vote doesn’t change that.

          In our disagreement, if only we could let that unity be our starting point or to put it another way, to let faith in Jesus be our starting point.  Instead though, we allow those things that we don’t agree on and will never agree on to define us.  That in turn sets up a winners and losers scenario the result of which may be that some feel more welcome than others, others who find themselves on the “losing” side of whatever the issue is.  As I heard said several months ago as this week’s vote loomed on the horizon, it’s one of those issues where if anyone wins, everyone loses and I do think there’s truth in that.  However these things come out, as a church we get defined by our in house squabbles rather than by our faith, which can provide one more reason to stay away for those who are looking for reasons, and can also serve to perpetuate a stereotype of the church that isn’t very appealing.

          Discussion of that stereotype came up in a couple of different places for me last week.  It’s no secret that in most of our churches people under the age of 50 are hard to find.  At the council meeting last Monday night one of our members who is under 50 said that for many people that age there is a stereotype of the church as being dogmatic and judgmental and stuffy, not very open, believe it or else, a stereotype that is very difficult to overcome such that no matter how often you say, “My church isn’t like that, come and see,” they don’t believe it and they don’t come.

          The next day at the pastor’s text study the same thing came up in a different context and it wasn’t me that brought it up.  Part of that discussion was that churches try to change the stereotype with gimmicky things like rock bands and projection screens, but that those are just surface changes.  They may have their place and they may have some positive effect; Jesus’ words of eternal life after all can be proclaimed and heard in many ways.  But rock bands and projection screens also represent an accommodation to popular culture that can have the effect of making church just one more form of entertainment.  What we’re talking about goes deeper than that, and the truth of it is, there is no quick fix.

          The work of changing a stereotype is slow and steady and requires patience.  It takes a long time to create a stereotype and it takes a long time to break one down.  In the case of the church it’s also a “don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater” thing.  There is much that is good about the history and tradition of the church and you don’t want to lose that; some things that are stereotypical are not bad and one must keep that is mind.

          What happens at Churchwide assemblies does effect stereotypes and what role this week’s actions play in that remains to be seen but I hope and pray that it ultimately helps to change a stereotype and serves to highlight our unity in Christ and his words of eternal life.  As an individual congregation we will to continue to be about changing unhelpful stereotypes as slow and painstaking as the process is, as discouraging as it can sometimes be.  It doesn’t happen as quickly as we’d like, but it is our mission. 

As we do this I don’t think we have to run away from our Lutheran identity either even if for some there are stereotypes attached to that.  I believe that Luther gave us a tradition of ongoing reformation and interpretation that invites new insights and allows us to say that maybe the church’s traditional understanding of the Bible needs to be revisited sometimes, as it was in his day and as it has been concerning issues like slavery and divorce and the role of women in the church.  The Bible was used to defend oppression in all of those cases until a new interpretation was allowed.

          Lord to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  Part of the stereotype that we have to change is the one that says those words of eternal life are only for certain people.  Jesus has the words that everyone needs to hear and so we must be about finding ways for everyone to hear them.

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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