Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 8/15

Jesus asked, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” and he answered his own question, “No, I tell you, but rather division.”  Wait a minute; what about “Prince of Peace,” and “guiding our feet into the way of peace” and all that?  How can the same one who told a parable about the forgiveness of a father for his prodigal son also talk about parents against their children and children against their parents?  Will the real Jesus please stand up.

          You can add this to the list of things we wish Jesus hadn’t said and we could have avoided this text today, I could have avoided it because in addition to being the 12th Sunday after Pentecost August 15 is also the commemoration of Mary, the Mother of our Lord so we could have gone with the Mary lessons which are nicer.  I stuck with the regular lectionary sequence though, partly because I’d already started working on these lessons before I realized there was a choice but also because, in case you haven’t noticed it after seven years, I kind of like the texts that create a little tension. 

I think it’s useful to wrestle with the rougher edges of what Jesus has to say as well as with other dissonant and challenging voices in the Bible; otherwise things can get a little dull, Jesus gets a little dull.  I read an article recently that talked about how one of the results of avoiding the more difficult texts is that kids in Sunday School and Confirmation these days are being taught a pretty bland version of Christianity where Jesus is nice, so they should be nice and that’s about it.  It’s not a bad message, but most kids can have Jesus as a model of niceness mastered by the time they’re seven or eight years old so it’s no wonder they get bored if that’s all there is.

          Nice Jesus is a good starting point but you have to move on.  There’s more, and the more is where it gets interesting.  The word of Jesus is not always easy.  It can create division within families as he said and probably all of us know at least something about that kind of division; we see it in our own families.  But what I want to talk about today is another kind of division that faith in Jesus can create, a kind that the author of the letter to the Hebrews gets at…which is, division or conflict that can occur within each of us, the internal struggle of faith. 

Reading through this letter, the presenting issue within the community seems to be about frustrations with their faith.  They had become Christians and they were excited about it, but things were not going as they had hoped and expected.  Their initial enthusiasm had carried them for awhile but as time passed, time that included a number of trials and difficulties, their energy had been sapped.  The expected return of Jesus that was supposed to make all things right had not happened and so some were struggling.  Was it all worth it they wondered. Maybe what they had been taught about Jesus was wrong.  Maybe there was nothing to this faith that they had bought in to. 

          Frustration was the problem in this community.  Disappointment was the problem.  They thought that faith in Jesus would bring them a sense of peace but within individuals and within the community there was division rather than peace.  For some, as they wrestled with questions, there was also the feeling of being all alone with no one to turn to.

          Christian faith is not always easy.  We want the Prince of Peace but inevitably we run up against realities in the world and in our lives that call the Prince of Peace and all the promises about him into question.  There’s tension caused by bad things that happen along with unfulfilled expectations, and we want the tension to go away, but it persists or comes back at us in another form.  We want to have faith and we want it to feel good.  We want God’s presence in our life because we’ve had it before so we know what it’s like, but now it feels like God is gone, that he’s someplace else.  We don’t want to abandon God, but it feels like God has abandoned us; within our very being there’s division, not peace; we’re divided about what we should believe and it’s frustrating.

          I had someone come to talk to me a few weeks ago who pretty much said everything I just said, someone who had become unsure about all these things we say are true.  I said, “Welcome to the club.”  I mentioned this at the retreat I went to down at St. Norbert’s a couple of weeks ago and one of the other pastors there said, “You should have told whoever it was that they just passed the entrance exam for seminary.” 

I guess there are some who don’t experience this internal struggle and division but “the dark night of the soul” as it’s sometimes called is pretty common.  No question or doubt that any of us have is new.  People of faith have been asking our questions from the beginning.  We might all have someone we envy a little bit because we assume that they do have it all figured out, that they have that unwavering faith that brings peace, for me the ones I put on that pedestal are the monks up in the Keweenaw that I visited last weekend, but the reality concerning those whose faith we envy is probably different than what we imagine.

          Taken seriously, the word of Jesus is not always easy; Christian faith is not always easy.  It’s not always easy for us and the letter to the Hebrews is evidence that it wasn’t easy in early Christian communities either.  The author of this letter takes an interesting approach though.  He doesn’t try to explain anything away.  He doesn’t make any effort to defend God’s action or lack of action within these individuals or within this community.  He takes things as they are, he takes life and the world as it is rather than joining the people in longing for a world where everything happens just as they’d like it to and nothing bad ever happens, a world that sounds good but has nothing to do with reality.  You can long for it all you want, and everyone does, but it’s not the world you live in.

          The author of Hebrews deals with the world we live in. What he does in response to the questions in this community is like what a coach does in trying to motivate a team.  He wants to help these people deal with the game of life and the game of faith as it is, even though there is no fool proof playbook, even if the rules of the game aren’t always followed exactly or are subject to interpretation.  So a lot of this letter is encouragement, not explanation.  It’s encouragement to hang in there despite uncertainty and discouragement.

          The author offers this encouragement in a number of ways but the one that dominates is the reminder that those who are having trouble remaining faithful are not alone.    What he does in a sense is to open the family album and look at the pictures.  He goes through a fairly extensive list of the cloud of witnesses that has gone before, those Old Testament characters who have faced obstacles but have hung in there, people who have experienced their own internal conflict and division but who have persevered, people who kept challenging themselves and who kept challenging God.

          What the author of Hebrews describes might be called the theology of showing up.  The people that he mentions weren’t perfect and their faith wasn’t perfect any more than our faith is perfect or even the faith of those we envy is perfect; but they continued to show up, they refused to give up on God, and showing up ultimately had its rewards.

          We talked about this a little at St. Norbert’s too, about how part of being a pastor is exactly that, just showing up, showing up to do what you are supposed to do on Sunday morning or at the nursing home or the hospital or the third committee meeting of the night. 

          As I was thinking about it though, it’s true for all of you too.  It’s true whether you’re talking about life or about faith; a big part of it is just showing up refusing to give up on yourself or on God.  I’m preaching to the choir here because I think a lot of you figured this out a long time ago.  When you show up for worship and for all the other ways you’re involved in the life of the community, you gain something.  You realize that you are not alone as the author of Hebrews said.  You receive encouragement from the cloud of witnesses around you, and you also become part of the cloud of witnesses helping to provide the encouragement that someone else might need.  Showing up helps you to clarify where you fit in and how you fit in. 

Perhaps most significantly, when you show up, when you persevere, you find Jesus present, present in someone else or in something said or something sung.  When you show up the truth of the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for you hits home as you feel yourself being transformed in the mysteries of the church.  It may not happen every time, but it happens.  Your own journey of faith will make more sense…if you show up, again and again.

Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.  Listen!  There is a cloud of witnessed cheering you on.

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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