Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 10/5

          The condensed version of the early history of Ishpeming would go something like this; iron ore was discovered, mines were established and immigrants from a number of foreign countries came to work in the mines.  That perhaps overlooks a few details, but in a nutshell, that’s it. 

Then…while it might not have been the first thing they did after they arrived, it didn’t take long for each of the immigrant groups to start a church.  So in the late 1860’s and 1870’s Cornish miners, for example, founded Grace Episcopal, the Swedes founded this church, the Norwegians after one year of uncomfortable co-existence with the Swedes founded Trinity and Finns established Bethel a few years after that.  I assumed Italians must have started St. John’s Catholic downtown but it was actually the Irish and then a few years later French Canadians broke away from St. John’s and started St. Joe’s; and so it went with many churches of many denominations up and worshiping in Ishpeming by the late 1800’s.

          Each church started with a distinct ethnic identity as early on that was an important dimension of things.  For Bethany, and probably the others too,  there was also the hope that the church would be a positive moral example in a mining culture that was apparently pretty rough and decadent, but preservation of Swedish language and culture was a high priority because as the years went by, in school, everyone would have to learn English, but in the church the native language could be and was preserved; but not forever. 

          Whatever the reasons though, churches with their high steeples became prominent architectural landmarks in Ishpeming and in a lot of ways that hasn’t changed too much.  There are still lots of churches here; some have relocated to other parts of the city as Bethany did forty some years ago; in some cases the steeples aren’t quite so prominent; but there are still lots of churches.  What’s different is the number of people who worship at those churches; there aren’t as many as there used to be. 

          You know that this is a topic that gets hashed around a lot and many reasons are cited but I think the biggest reason for the decline in the number of people worshiping is a major shift in thinking about God and church that has taken place over time.  When those first immigrants arrived in Ishpeming one could pretty much assume that everyone believed in God and that they would probably claim that they were Lutheran, Catholic, whatever.  So it was logical for them to want to build churches.  These days, surveys still show that the vast majority of people say they believe in God, but church affiliation may have nothing to do with it. 

In addition to that though, in the 1800’s it was hard to imagine the world without God; atheism was not really an acceptable intellectual alternative or it made you an oddball anyway.  Today that’s different.  It is culturally OK not to believe in God to the point where in some circles you might even feel defensive or embarrassed about acknowledging belief; and it is certainly OK not to belong to a church or go to church; it’s OK to claim you’re spiritual but down on organized religion; nobody’s going to harass you about it.  In the late 1800’s into the 1950’s and early sixties, that wasn’t the case.

The result of all this is that attendance here at Bethany isn’t what it used to be.  Twenty years ago on average there were about forty more people in worship on a Sunday.  The ELCA just reported its 16th straight year of declining membership and attendance despite numerous efforts to reverse the trend.  Yet the numbers continue a slow decline. 

          So…is there really anything to celebrate on our 138th anniversary or at this point should we just quietly let the years pass, maybe gear up for something special on the 150th anniversary for those who are still around?  Should we admit defeat and say that this traditional Lutheran thing just isn’t working?  Should we go in a different direction? 

For example, should we make worship more contemporary, put the organ in mothballs and replace it with guitars and drums and praise music?  Surely the young people would come in droves if we did that.  Should we junk the hymnal and just project everything up on a big screen?  That’s trendy.  How about skits instead of a sermon, make it more entertaining?  We could develop small group ministries and make the church a self-help center.  You could have the council tell the pastor to preach the prosperity gospel, “God rewards the faithful with material blessings;” that’s more appealing than Jesus wants you to take up your cross and follow, wants you to sacrifice for others.  Or maybe the council could suggest that the pastor lighten up on the Bible and theology and be more of a purpose driven motivational speaker. 

          All of these things are being done in Lutheran churches and others in an effort to jack up the numbers.  Sometimes it even works, but not always; there’s no guarantees.  I should add that there is a degree of legitimacy to all of these approaches or most of them anyway.  They can be done well and with integrity.  But…they’re all gimmicks and gimmicks last until the next one comes along, and then what do you do?

So my answer is “No” to all those other directions we might go; that might be the next pastor, but not me.  My answer, however, is “Yes” to the question about whether or not we have anything to celebrate and I think it’s more than just a celebration of the past; it’s about the present and the future too.

It would be something of a stretch to interpret today’s parable of the wicked tenants as being about the situation of the contemporary church but broadly speaking it is about being responsible tenants of the vineyard.  In what we are doing here at Bethany I would like to think that we are being responsible tenants of the vineyard entrusted to us.  To me, being responsible tenants means that we continue to do what we’ve been called to do since those Swedish immigrants founded this church in 1870. 

It means that this is a place where the life giving message of salvation through Jesus Christ is proclaimed authentically; where the message of the Bible is honestly preached and honestly heard including those texts that are difficult, even contradictory, including those that challenge ways of living that we find pretty comfortable and that our society says are good.  It means being a community that is at work interpreting and reinterpreting, always looking for new insights into the mystery of God, not trying to solve it all, jus trying to engage it honestly. 

Being responsible tenants means this is a place where Christianity is proclaimed and heard as the grace filled, hope filled religion that it is, respecting the tradition from which we come.  It means the ethic of Jesus is acted on to the best of our ability such that we are not just an echo of the prevailing culture but an alternative to it because that’s what Jesus and the prophets before him were.  It means we worship in a way that may not be particularly entertaining because worship isn’t designed to be entertaining, but we worship in a way that evokes the mystery and presence of God in words spoken and sung and sacraments experienced.  Being responsible tenants means proclaiming Jesus, God made flesh, a God who loves us, who forgives us and accepts us and invites us into an honest relationship when things are going well and when we can’t figure out what’s going on, those “where are you God” times.  I’d like to think that we are being responsible tenants and that’s worth celebrating.

The trouble with being responsible tenants is that it may not make us the biggest church in town because what we do winds up being about a faith and a God that upsets you sometimes, that challenges and troubles you sometimes and not everyone wants that; some would like church just to be happy, feel good time all the time.  Yet it can often be those upset, troubled times that bear fruit, and which open us to new possibilities.  Think about Jesus; an awful lot of his ministry was about upsetting and challenging people, (witness today’s parable) but it bore fruit; lives were changed.  It cost Jesus his life, but then it was out of the brokenness of the cross that new life came, new life that includes each of us.

On this anniversary Sunday there is reason for hope, for now and for the future, hope that is not grounded in any gimmick or program or person but in the God we call Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the God revealed in Jesus, the God who brings new life even out of death.  This God is a God not of the same old same old but of newness who works in ways that are sometimes mysterious and hard to discern, a God who is not bound by any of our arbitrary timelines or conventions, a God who in good time transforms things that we think are unchangeable.   It is in this God that we hope and that alone is worth celebrating.

In the meantime, we are called to be responsible tenants of the vineyard, responsible and hopeful tenants, producing fruit for the harvest.  It has happened here for 138 years and by the grace of the God in whom we hope, Bethany will continue to be a fruitful vineyard. 

Enjoy the turkey!  There is reason to celebrate!    


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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