Wrapping our minds around the gospel

A centennial sermon for Bethlehem Covenant Church

by Ryan Eikenbary-Barber

This sermon was preached at the 100th anniversary of Bethlehem Covenant Church in Minneapolis.

I first visited Bethlehem Covenant Church in November of 1990. My friend David Palmquist brought me home with a few other stray North Park College freshmen for Thanksgiving break. We slept in the parsonage basement. Pastor Kent and Bonnie Palmquist generously included us in a family meal of barbecued turkey at the Bevis household. It was a fun trip!

Of course we worshipped at Bethlehem Covenant on Sunday. I was reminded of my home congregation, First Covenant Church in Seattle, and also of my new worshipping community, North Park Covenant Church in Chicago. Those three churches were uncommon at the peak of the church growth movement, because they still sang out of hymnals, still had choirs, they still played organs, and the preachers still wore robes. I felt right at home at Bethlehem Covenant.

But it wasn’t the traditional music and formal clothes that made Bethlehem so unique during that era of “purpose driven” churches. The sermon was well written and thoughtfully preached. The prayers were reflective and insightful. The music and the liturgy fit the gospel lesson. The congregation spent the Sunday school hour talking calmly and wisely about the intersection between faith and science. After the service, we drank coffee and spoke to thoughtful believers about serious things. Phil Johnson was carrying copies of Pietisten in a canvas colporteur bag that he decorated with the names of great Christian thinkers like Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard! As I told David on the drive back to North Park, “You don’t have to check your brain at the door at Bethlehem Covenant Church!”

This morning, I would like to preach a word of holy appreciation for Bethlehem Covenant Church. Over the last 100 years Bethlehem has loved God with heart, soul, strength, and mind. I want to celebrate the unique culture of this church that attracts teachers and students of the gospel. The danger of preaching an anniversary sermon is diverging from the good news of Jesus Christ into sentimentality and flattery. So I will also challenge the congregation to honor the past by embracing the future. You have a robust history of loving God with open minds. For that to continue for another couple of centuries, Bethlehem must find new ways to wrap your minds around the gospel. It will require more than brains, but heart, soul, and strength to effectively communicate the good news of Jesus Christ in this contentious moment in history.

Today we will turn to Proverbs 1:1-9. My friend and mentor Phil Stenberg jokes that the Proverbs are the “bumper stickers of the Bible.” Sure enough, there are a bunch of bite-sized nuggets of wisdom in Proverbs. I am more interested in Solomon’s preamble to the bumper sticker wisdom. Solomon promises his readers that there is a reward waiting for us when we pursue God with an open, sincere mind. Our Lord Jesus Christ followed in his ancestor Solomon’s footprints, frequently using proverbs and parables to make God’s wisdom come alive in a fresh way. Let us remember to bring our brains into the sanctuary this morning and dig deep into the wisdom of God.

The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:

For learning about wisdom and instruction,
for understanding
words of insight,
for gaining instruction in wise dealing,
righteousness, justice, and equity;
to teach shrewdness to the simple,
knowledge and prudence to the young—
let the wise also hear and gain in learning,
and the discerning
acquire skill,
to understand a proverb and a figure,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom
and instruction.
Hear, my child, your father’s instruction,
and do not reject your
mother’s teaching;
for they are a fair garland for your head,
and pendants for your neck.

The book of Proverbs is credited to Solomon with contributions from the men of Hezekiah, Agur, Lemuel, and other wise people. Solomon is famous for his great wisdom, but also his collapse into foolish idolatry. Solomon’s story begins with a pious desire, “Give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong” (1 Kings 3:9). Solomon is credited with about 500 pithy sayings in Proverbs, but we are told he “spoke three thousand proverbs” (1 Kings 4:32). The great wisdom of Solomon did not stand the test of time. “As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God” (1 Kings 11:4).

Wisdom requires a learning spirit and a lifelong humility before God. Solomon’s life story is a warning to all of us: don’t lose your awe and wonder of God. Solomon’s foolish demise reminds us to keep studying God’s Word with our friends and neighbors at church.

We all have something important to learn from the Proverbs. This book is a course of study designed to foster wisdom, discernment, and character. Proverbs was written to educate children in the ways of the Lord. This book is the Sunday school class and the confirmation class of the Old Testament. But you never outgrow this catechism. Proverbs is not like modern self-help books that you read once and abandon on your bookshelves. This book teaches the moral habit of wisdom that is formed over the centuries in communities of faith.

Consider the lovely Hebrew vocabulary words that Solomon uses in verse 2 to introduce this course of study. We are offered “learning” (lada’at): to become conscious, aware, to observe, and to realize. We are promised “wisdom” (hokma): acquired learning, moral knowledge, and skill. We are given “instruction” (musar): discipline and correction. We can expect “insight” (bina): intellectual discernment and interpretation. Long before Plato and Aristotle, Solomon suggested that the pursuit of wisdom leads to the good life. What makes biblical wisdom unique is that we require good teachers and diverse classmates to open up God’s Word.

Bethlehem Covenant Church has always had great teachers. Rev. Milton Friedholm was a committed student and teacher of God’s Word. Perhaps that is the common characteristic of all the preachers at Bethlehem: we diligently dig into the scriptures in order to teach the gospel. This oak pulpit remains firmly rooted in solid biblical scholarship. But I contend that it’s the lay teachers of the church who have faithfully guided Bethlehem’s into a culture of learning and discipleship.

Bethlehem has been blessed to include some of the finest teachers to ever work at Minnehaha Academy. Some of the teachers that stand out in my memory are T.W. Anderson, Flora Sedwick, Guido Kauls, Rabbi Paul Swanson, Evie Swanson, Harvey Lundeen, Paul Isaacs, Forrest Dahl, Rich Enderton, David Hawkinson, Becky Anderson, Steve Ramgren, Blake Christiansen, and my favorite teacher Amy Eikenbary-Barber.

Bethlehem has always had a strong representation of public school teachers bringing the love of God into the larger world. Some who I remember are Elwood Lindberg, Dick Johnson, Steven Lindquist, Linda Merriam, Becky Ramgren, Karna Sjoberg, and Alyssa Isaacs.

Bethlehem has also been well represented in local colleges and universities: Ralph Anderson, Duane Johnson, Sandy Johnson, Jon Jensen, and Maryann Smith. Forgive me! I am sure I’m missing many, many more. If you can think of other great teachers that only emphasizes my larger point. Teachers are not threatened by new ideas, different opinions, and tough conversations. God uses the spiritual gifts teaching and learning to make Bethlehem a very special place.

Over the past century, Bethlehem has become a safe place to study, interpret, and apply God’s Word. Together, we have pursued the truth. Frequently, we have disagreed with one another. Consistently, but not compulsively, we have stayed united because we really are better together. That inclusivity; that posture of learning from people you disagree with, is getting harder to pull off. It is nothing short of a miracle that God’s Spirit continues to move in that particular way 100 years after the foundation of Bethlehem Covenant Church. My prayer is that the learning and teaching culture of this congregation will endure and spread in the decades and centuries yet to come.

Bethlehem is an educated church, but you don’t need a college degree to benefit from this culture of learning and teaching. Today we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the incorporation of Bethlehem Covenant Church. The mission actually started nine years earlier in 1913. Peter Edquist was a janitor at Minnehaha Academy, not a teacher. Edquist was a simple man with a burning passion to help the children in this neighborhood discover the good news of Jesus Christ. The first students were not scholars, just normal kids searching for the kingdom of God.

Edquist rounded up 35 students in 1914. There were 50 Sunday school students in 1917. By the time Edquist died in 1922, there were 198 children involved in the Sunday school program. Bethlehem Covenant Church officially started in 1922, but the mission of Christian education was already long established. For the last 109 years, this community of faith has had an organizational culture of teaching and learning together.

The book of Proverbs does not falsely promise that learning, wisdom, instruction, and insight comes from advanced college degrees. Solomon explains that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The Hebrew word for “fear” does not imply anxiety or dread. I prefer the translation, “The reverence of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;” or better yet, “the awe of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Solomon invites us to assume a learning posture before God. We do not need to cower before God like a mean and unfair teacher. Our God is the Loving Teacher who invites us to seek the truth, to ask good questions, and to be transformed by the good news of Jesus Christ.

The awe of the Lord is the primary theme of Proverbs. For example, turn to Proverbs 2:5 where Solomon promises that awe leads to the knowledge of God. Turn to Proverbs 8:13, where the awe of God leads to hatred of evil and pride. Turn to Proverbs 10:27 where the awe of God is associated with long life. Turn to Proverbs 14:27 where awe of God helps us avoid death. Proverbs 15:3 promises wisdom, humility, and honor. Proverbs 22:4 associates awe of the Lord with wisdom, wealth, honor, and long life. The main lesson from these proverbs is that the awe of the Lord is foundational to attaining wisdom and living the good life.

When the Covenant Church was formed at our first annual meeting in 1885, a young preacher named F.M. Johnson preached a sermon on Psalm 119:63. The verse, “I am a companion of all who fear thee” has always defined the Covenant Church. We are friends with Christ and we are friends with everyone in awe of God. Our Christian unity has always been fragile. As the Covenant preacher and scholar Eric Hawkinson put it, “From the beginning there has been a defenseless quality in Covenant life, like a bluebell growing on the edge of a wheel furrow on a traveled country road.” Bluebells may look weak, but they are resilient flowers, bouncing back when they get knocked down, and rising from the dead each spring. Bethlehem Covenant Church has that same resilience!

There are so many reasons to pull apart right now. It is so much easier to be with people who think like us, vote like us, have the same education as us, have the same views on sexual ethics as us, and sing the songs we like. The key lesson of the Church Growth movement was the “homogeneity principle,” that churches grow quickest when everyone thinks alike. That’s a sociological fact, but it threatens the integrity of the gospel. Of course we love to see the church grow and thrive, but market-driven church growth strategies can quickly turn into pagan idolatry. Jesus came to tear down the walls between us, not to endorse right wing churches or left wing churches. There is no prophetic preaching, there is no genuine community, and discipleship doesn’t happen when size is the only measurement of the congregation.

The book of Proverbs offers us a better way of doing life together. When we are united by our common awe and wonder of God, we can hear hard truths, we can stick together in times of conflict, and we can disciple new believers. That’s why learning and teaching congregations like Bethlehem might just thrive as the younger generation abandons churches that never made a genuine difference in their spiritual lives.