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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 09/21/2014

If you were raised Lutheran you probably have memories of confirmation, maybe good memories, maybe not so good. Either way, you probably remember that the catechism was the focus of instruction, with the catechism representing those things Luther thought were essential to the faith, the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the sacraments. The content hasn’t changed very much but the way we go about teaching has changed; there’s a lot more room for questions these days as opposed to simply memorizing everything along with Luther’s “What does this mean?” explanations which is what many of us remember.

This year the primary focus is the Apostles’ Creed and I also get the Nicene Creed in there too because I think it’s interesting to compare the two. You may not know it, but creeds are somewhat controversial these days as there are those who think they are outdated statements of belief that don’t say much to people today. Most of the non-denominational mega-churches that pack in thousands avoid any creed and you could attend Lutheran churches where you wouldn’t find the creed as part of the order of worship either. I might avoid the historic creeds too if I thought they represented absolute statements of faith, believe it or else, but I don’t. I see the creeds as starting points in how we talk about God as Christians, statements that provide us with a framework, statements that also connect us to the historic church.

In the early church, particularly after Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, it was thought that creeds were necessary to bring some uniformity to what people believed as beliefs, particularly beliefs about Jesus, were pretty varied. The problem then and now though is the idea that if you don’t accept the statements in the creeds lock, stock and barrel, you don’t belong, you’re a heretic. As a result, the creeds have been misused; we’re outraged by what a group like ISIS has done in the name of Islamic fundamentalism, but Christianity has blood on its hands too, sometimes Christians killing other Christians for beliefs thought to be heretical. When I read about Martin Luther it’s a miracle that he survived, but that’s another story.

For better or for worse, creeds became an important part of Christianity but that wasn’t the case for Old Testament religion which centered more on practice, what you did, rather than what you believed. About the closest you come to something like a creed in the Old Testament is Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone,” a fairly simple statement of faith with no additional explanation. Throughout the Old Testament though, in the stories of the people of Israel and their experience of God, their God, the Lord is portrayed and experienced and understood in a lot of ways; the testimony isn’t at all uniform and apparently they were OK with that; they could live with the differences.

One phrase that comes up a lot though, one that is very important to my faith and my understanding of God, one that I shared with the confirmation kids last week when we started talking about the creed is, “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” It was in last week’s psalm, it’s in this week’s psalm and it shows up a lot of other places too. It’s not exactly a creed, or is it? It’s not a comprehensive statement about God, but it describes how many people have experienced their relationship with God. I would say that it’s a phrase that describes the God described as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the creed. “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

Psalm 145, today’s source for this phrase, is a psalm of praise, a statement of joyous and grateful confidence in the creator. It’s a psalm that was and I assume still is important in Jewish practice as it is to be recited three times a day just like the “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one” verse that I mentioned a moment ago. It’s not just in Jewish practice though, Psalm 145 is also one of the most frequently used psalms in our lectionary. Many psalms praise God or give thanks to God for specific things done on behalf of the one offering prayer, things like rescue from illness or persecution or enemies. This one though is an example of praise to God simply for being God, for among other things, being gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

We only get the opening verses today but overall, Psalm 145 is about the faithful reliability of the Lord; it represents trust and confidence in the Lord’s governance of the world in the face of all other claims. As is the case in Jewish practice, it’s a psalm that bears repeating because in repeating it, in offering praise to God, the perspective of the one praying is changed. It could be argued that we as human beings have a fundamental need to offer this kind of praise because it takes the focus off of us and acknowledges that our existence and well being is rooted in an Other, a God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

So often we get hung up on ourselves and our problems and many of the psalms reflect that too. If you read through all of them they represent the full range of human experience including lament and complaint and why me? But then interspersed throughout and finally culminating with this psalm and the five that follow, there is this praise just for God being God.

It’s as if collectively, this group of psalms represents our need, every once in awhile, to step back and remind ourselves that, “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised”…just because. The value of coming back and repeating a psalm like this is that in doing so we speak a new world into being and the world we speak into being has at its center the Lord who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Think about how much you need that world. The world that is offered to us most of the time is not reliable, impacted as it is by the effects of sin, the effects of life lived outside of the will of God. That world is real, we do have to deal with it; but a psalm like this one today is a reminder, as we speak it, that there is something else. We offer praise to God and our perspective is changed; we look outside of ourselves and become part of the world that Jesus called the Kingdom of God. When our focus is inward, only on ourselves and our problems, there is no praise and the kingdom is hard to find.

Today’s first lesson and gospel can be understood as illustrations of the need to step away from that inwardly focused self-centeredness so that we are able to offer praise. In the Jonah story, Jonah was preoccupied with himself and his judgmental view of the world. He could recite “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion,” but he couldn’t offer it as praise because he was too worried about the Ninevites, who he thought were evil, afraid that they too might be blessed by the Lord and he didn’t think they deserved it. He could say the words but it wasn’t praise because while he wanted the Lord to be gracious and merciful to him he didn’t want those words to apply to everyone.

In the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, those who worked all day couldn’t offer praise because they were too focused on “it’s not fair.” Worried about that, they were unable to recognize that the landowner had acted with graciousness toward them too. There was reason to offer praise, but they couldn’t see it as long as they were preoccupied with comparisons and feeling like they had been cheated.

The one who prays Psalm 145 leaves the world of Jonah and the world of the laborers, the world of self-centered me first comparisons. The one who prays Psalm 145 enters the world of praising God for being God. We don’t stay forever in either world; the psalms as a whole reflect the ways we negotiate back and forth. In offering praise though, we remember that, as the last verse of today’s anthem said, “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet” and we also remember that the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. It’s not the creed we recite every week, but maybe it’s the beginning of really understanding the God who is described in the creed.

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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