Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Easter 05/24/2020

One of the liturgical options for this Sunday is to observe it as Ascension Day which was last Thursday; since most churches don’t have services that day and since it is classified as a principal festival, the thinking about that option for today is that even if it’s a few days late, the Ascension deserves its due. Most years we have held an Ascension Day service even though it winds up being attended by only a handful of people; this year we did post a short Ascension reflection online Thursday.

Today though, the lectionary for this Seventh and last Sunday of Easter invites Ascension Day reflection as the first reading repeats part of the Ascension account from Acts. The disciples were gazing into heaven in apparent awe as they watched Jesus disappear into the clouds until…two men in white robes, angels we presume, tell them that Jesus will return, but now… it’s time to go. They were in the midst of dramatic, life changing events and had been for a while which made me think…we’re also in the midst of dramatic, life changing events and have been for a while. With that in mind, it caused me to pay more attention to where the witnesses of the Ascension went and to what they did after they left the Mount of Olives.

The text says that they went to the room upstairs where they were staying. Was it the same room where they had celebrated the Last Supper with Jesus, the same room where the Risen Christ had appeared to them? We can’t know for sure but I think what we can assume is that for them it was a safe, familiar place, a place that would supply some degree of comfort and reassurance that things were going to be OK, a place that would give them some sense of Jesus still being present with them.

It’s not hard for us to relate: if you’re old enough, think back to the Sunday after 9/11; I assume that this church, like pretty much every church in the country, had more people present that day than on an average Sunday. It didn’t last long; within a week or two it was pretty much back to the regulars, but as that dramatic, life changing event began to unfold, people were looking for a safe, comforting place to be and for many, church was such a place, a place to be reassured that, despite evidence to the contrary, things would be OK and God was still present.

Or think about now; people haven’t been able to physically go to church for two months but it would appear that for many, even virtual church has been providing a safe, comforting place to spend some time during our present life changing event. Some of you have told me how, especially at first, it was nice just to see images of the inside of the church as it was a little slice of normal in an abnormal world. You’ve also said how some of the older material that’s been included has been a comfort, seeing yourselves and others, sometimes younger versions of yourselves and others, sometimes with the dead alive again, that has also been a comfort. Even through a screen, the church is safe and familiar, able to provide a sense of God’s presence.

Concerning those Ascension Day witnesses, the text says that when they gathered in that upper room, they devoted themselves to prayer. At the end of Luke, it says they were continually in the temple, blessing God. What that says to me is that maybe even more important than being in a safe, comfortable place, they also fell back on words and rituals that were familiar as they sought stability in a confusing and unsettling situation. At times when words are hard to find, the old familiar ones can wind up being the best ones, the ones that we need.

A couple of weeks ago Kathy and I watched a program on Netflix called Springsteen on Broadway. With sports on TV reduced to replays of old games I’m thankful these days for the streaming networks that offer endless programming possibilities, some of which are really quite good and this was good. If you don’t know, Bruce Springsteen is an aging rock star who’s been at it for years and is still out there doing his thing although I must say that it’s his old stuff from the mid 70’s and early 80’s that I like the best.

A couple of years ago though, for about a year, five nights a week, he performed Springsteen on Broadway, essentially a one man show pretty much telling his life story and singing some of the songs that reflected parts of that story. The show went on for two and a half hours and after watching it I thought, I can’t imagine him doing this five nights a week for a year; it had to have been exhausting. If you like Bruce Springsteen at all and have Netflix, it is worth watching.

Anyway, he was raised Catholic in a small town in New Jersey where it sounds like the Catholic church was very much a central gathering place for the community. He talked about attending Mass every Sunday along with weddings and funerals plus he attended Catholic schools, the whole nine yards, all of which he hated, yet many years later, he still considers himself a person of faith and Catholic even though he drifted from much in the way of practicing his faith a long time ago.

At the beginning of the show he talked about an old tree in his front yard where he used to sit and play with his toys when he was 7 or 8 years old, using his imagination like little kids do; it was a place of comfort for him. At the end of the show he told about going back to the old neighborhood not long ago. A lot of the houses were still there with different people living in them, the church was still there, a lot that was familiar, but the tree in front of his house was gone, just some of the roots still evident in the ground, and he said it made him sad, this part of his life that wasn’t there anymore.

As he stood there though, and looked around and up the street at his old church, he said that the words that came to him were words that he had said day after day after day at school growing up, not really thinking much about them at the time. They were the words of Lord’s Prayer, Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, you know how it goes, but he said the whole prayer. In that moment, even for someone who had written thousands of words of is own, those were the words that came to him, those were the words he needed.

That’s the power of the word; that’s the power of ritual. It gets in there, it becomes part of us even if we’re not paying close attention, and because of that, it’s there when we need it. We’re a week away from Pentecost when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit and what I’m describing is the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Easter season for this year comes to an end this week. Especially in the first weeks of Easter when we hear about resurrection appearances, I’ve talked about how we maybe wish we could have such an experience that would make it all real for us or maybe we wish for one of those dramatic Old Testament manifestations of God. For most of us it doesn’t work that way. Instead, through words and sacraments and rituals held in sacred spaces, we experience the Holy Spirit becoming part of us often in ways of which we’re not even really aware…until we need to be aware…and then it becomes real and God’s presence is felt.

We live at a time when religious practice of any kind is dismissed by a lot of people as a waste of time and for those who do engage in religious practice many flock to the churches that have become what I might cynically call entertainment centers, those that don’t have anything resembling what many of us think of as church, actually there are Lutheran churches that have more or less gone that route. I’m not saying that there aren’t good and faithful people who attend those churches or that the Holy Spirit isn’t somehow at work in those places or that the gospel isn’t proclaimed there.

What I would argue though, is that there is something about a beautiful worship space, there is something about the words and rituals that have been used by Christians since the beginning, there is something in all that, that enables a sense of comfort and divine presence when it is most needed whether we’re talking about the disciples following the Ascension of Jesus, or 9/11 or the coronavirus or whatever comes next. I would argue that those who dismiss those ancient words and rituals as meaningless, are missing that something.

Today’s reading from Acts includes Jesus’ charge to his disciples that they are to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. As we come to the end of the Easter season, we’ll end worship today with one final proclamation of “He is Risen!” That proclamation with all that it implies about what Jesus has done for us on the cross, with all that it implies about new life and new possibilities and forgiveness, that is the proclamation to which we are still called as we live as Jesus’ witnesses.

The words and rituals we need to make that proclamation have been handed down to us over the course of 2000 years. They are words and rituals that still provide comfort and still evoke the divine presence of the Risen Christ.

He is Risen! He is Risen indeed!

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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