A Sermon about Being a Church That Is Always Reforming

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Augustana Lutheran Church
30 October 2016 + Reformation Sunday
John 8.31-36



one-liners-jokes-e1431002792545There are more than a few one-liners peppered through the Bible—single verses plucked out for their pithy expression of some essential theological truth. Today we encounter one such one-liner: “[Then] you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

The problem, of course, with one-liners, and this one in particular, is their tendency to lose all meaning and be reduced to some nice quote you might expect to see cross-stitched on a throw pillow.

These are words we hear every. year. year. after. year. on Reformation Sunday. And what fresh perspective could I possibly have to offer on this text, or on the history of our Lutheran tradition we commemorate today?

And on the cusp of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in which our church body is stressing unity with the Roman Catholic Church, is more talk of a divisive historical event really what we want to be about?

Still, I do think we need to be about the business of reformation (lower case “r”). But it probably won’t look like the way we’ve always done it.


Phyllis Tickle, who up until her death just over a year ago spent her life writing on religion and spirituality, has argued that the church goes through a major reformation about once every five hundred years. If you’re doing the math in your head, that means we’re about due for another one.

I believe we’re living in the thick of it. Just last weekend, pastors, seminarians, and theologians from across the country descended on my seminary in Chicago for a conference born out of a movement taking hold of the ELCA. It’s a movement that challenges our assumptions about what it means to be Lutheran, which for too long has meant being part of a certain ethnic group or eating a certain type of food.

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Inaugural “Decolonize Lutheranism” gathering at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, October 22, 2016 (photo credit: @johnczhang via Twitter)

It’s a movement whose core ideology our presiding bishop Elizabeth Eaton writes about when she says: It’s not our culture and cuisine that define us. It’s our theology. That’s not to say Germanic or Scandinavian heritage shouldn’t be celebrated, but beer and brats and lutefisk and aebleskiver are not what it means to be Lutheran. Nor do people of German and Scandinavian descent have a monopoly on defining what it means.

And so in the midst of this movement, a modern-day reformation, we have the opportunity to reclaim Lutheranism apart from the cultural trappings that have obscured its original message of the radical nature of God’s grace.


Maybe, then, it might be more helpful to look less to the “Lutheran” part of our identity and more to “evangelical” part of our ELCA name. (I know, I know…reclaiming that word is another sermon entirely…) But at its core it simply means of or relating to the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.

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So we return to Jesus’s one-liner in John: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

“But we’re descendants of Abraham. We’ve never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

But we’re good Lutherans. We already know that we’ve been made free because Martin Luther said so.

The problem with the response the people give to Jesus in our gospel text is the same problem, I suspect, that happens with many Lutherans on Reformation Day: We appeal to our history, our status as a particular people, to suggest we have it right, and no one else. We’re not in need of freedom or reformation anymore.

But the church is always reforming. That’s the whole point of the Reformation. The moment we think we have nothing new to say is the moment we are most desperately in need of it.

Jesus’s response combats the notion that one’s ancestry or ethnicity or denominational affiliation determines one’s need for freedom. Instead, he says: Everyone who commits sin is in need of freedom. And as we hear in Paul’s letter to the Romans, that really does mean everyone.

Because sin, as Martin Luther himself has described it, is the condition of being curved in on one’s self.

I’ve jokingly referred to Reformation Day as “Lutheran Superiority Complex Day” because we have a tendency to ascribe such great value to this one day about this one historical event at this one point in time that we lose sight of why it was so radical.

It was so radical because it awakened a whole people to the freedom given to us in Christ. It’s a freedom unlike mere personal independence, but rather a freedom that sets us free from “sin” and the ways we become curved in on ourselves and become self-absorbed, both individually and institutionally. It’s a freedom that ever draws us into closer relationship with God and with one another. It’s a freedom that allows us to be the church that is always reforming and reimagining itself.


220px-a_time_for_burning_filmposterOn the last day of my first class in seminary, long before I ever heard about Augustana Lutheran Church, we watched this documentary, A Time for Burning. (Maybe you’ve heard of it?) After it was over, I looked up this peculiar church in Omaha, Nebraska, to see if it was still around. Much to my surprise, the congregation that was once shook to its core by racial tension and controversy was now a vibrant Reconciling in Christ congregation with a woman pastor—a congregation I would come to learn, two years later, was intentionally looking for an LGBTQ+ intern.

And now here we are in the midst of A Time for Building, a capital campaign driven by a need to update our facilities for a wide variety of ministries that call Augustana home every day of the week.

This is what it means to be a church with its roots in the Reformation: that we can look fondly to our past and our heritage but without getting stuck in it, boldly and prophetically looking to the future, being daily set free by the gospel to love and serve the world and the God who made it.


It’s not often that I also post my chosen hymn of the day, but this is one of my favorites and (I think) best captures what the Reformation is all about:

The church of Christ, in ev’ry age
beset by change, but Spirit-led,
must claim and test its heritage
and keep on rising from the dead.

Across the world, across the street,
the victims of injustice cry
for shelter and for bread to eat,
and never live before they die.

Then let the servant church arise,
a caring church that longs to be
a partner in Christ’s sacrifice,
and clothed in Christ’s humanity.

For he alone, whose blood was shed,
can cure the fever in our blood,
and teach us how to share our bread
and feed the starving multitude.

We have no mission but to serve
in full obedience to our Lord;
to care for all, without reserve,
and spread his liberating word.

Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #729

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How can I keep from singing? + A Sermon Hymn-Sing for the Commemoration of Three Lutheran Hymnwriters

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Augustana Lutheran Church
23 October 2016 + Lectionary 30C
Luke 18.9-14



Music permeates our culture. How many times have we caught ourselves singing along (some of us admittedly more poorly than others) to the radio in the car or in the shower? It’s simply hard to imagine life without music.

It’s hard, too, to imagine the church without music. (For starters, our service today would be a heck of a lot shorter.) Indeed, one of the greatest treasures of the Lutheran tradition is our hymnody, but singing has always occupied a central place across denominations. It was John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who thought it was so important that he wrote seven rules for congregational singing. You can still find them at the front of the United Methodist Hymnal today.

Among them, Wesley suggests: “Sing Lustily – and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half-dead or half-asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.”

But not too lustily, Wesley warns, hence his next rule: “Sing Modestly – do not bawl so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation that you may not destroy the harmony.”

Sing modestly. Do not bawl. Advice, perhaps, one might give to the Pharisee in our gospel text today, who strives to make his voice, his prayer, his act of worship, stand out above all the rest.

So it makes me wonder: What is the purpose of our worship together, with all its elements, singing included? If Wesley’s recommendations and Jesus’s words are to be taken seriously, it’s certainly not for the sake of showing off our piety, or showing up those next to us in the pews.

This week, on our calendar of saints, we commemorate three great Lutheran hymnwriters—Philipp Nicolai, Johann Heermann, and Paul Gerhardt. Names I imagine most of you have never heard before, but whose hymns I bet you do know.

As our liturgical rubrics suggest, the hymn of the day is the assembly’s opportunity to proclaim the word of God in song. I don’t think we can overstate the importance of that, so we’re going practice it and sing not one but three extra hymns of the day.


philipp_nicolaiFirst, singing laments. Lament is not a denial of God’s existence, but quite the contrary: Lament testifies to God’s abiding presence despite all apparent evidence to the contrary. Lament, in the biblical tradition, always ends with a vow to praise God for God’s faithfulness.

When Philipp Nicolai was a pastor in Unna, Germany, at the end of 16th century, the plague struck the region, resulting in the deaths of thirteen hundred people in a mere six months. At one point, Nicolai was presiding at as many as thirty funerals a day. Such were the circumstances out of which  emerged his hymn “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying” — a hymn that fully acknowledges the reality of “night,” both literal and figurative, while looking with eager joy toward night’s imminent end.

Wake, awake, for night is flying,
the watchmen on the heights are crying;
awake, Jerusalem, at last.
Midnight hears the welcome voices,
and at the thrilling cry rejoices:
“Come forth, you maidens! Night is past.
The bridegroom comes! Awake;
your lamps with gladness take!”
Alleluia!
Rise and prepare the feast to share;
go, meet the bridegroom, who draws near.

– Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #436

johann_heermann2Singing also strives for justice. Liberation theologians have long taught us that God stands in solidarity with the oppressed, so much so that God in Christ becomes one of the oppressed. It’s incarnational, really: God taking on our flesh, our condition, and even all the pain that comes with it. This is what we mean when we confess that Jesus is Immanuel, God-with-us.

So when we sing Johann Heermann’s hymn,  “Ah, Holy Jesus,” we might put our contemporary martyrs in the place of Christ: those who have been killed in acts of senseless violence because of the color of their skin or the person they love or the faith they practice. The hymnwriter asks who is at fault for Jesus’s death, answering, “I crucified thee.” Heermann’s hymn, in a new context, might help us confess the ways we maintain systems of injustice.

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended
that we to judge thee have in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
O most afflicted.

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.

– Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #349

paul_gerhardtLast but not least, singing also celebrates. Even in the darkness of injustice that infuses our world and dominates our headlines, we are a people who know, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, that Good Friday must ultimately give way to Easter. Paul Gerhardt’s classic Easter hymn, “Awake, My Heart, with Gladness,” announces Christ’s triumphant victory over death, as we sing of the hope that “no gloom shall ever shake, no foe shall ever take.”

Awake, my heart, with gladness,
see what today is done;
now, after gloom and sadness,
comes forth the glorious sun.
My Savior there was laid
where our bed must be made
when, as on wings in flight,
we soar to realms of light.

This is a sight that gladdens—
what peace it does impart!
Now nothing ever saddens
the joy within my heart.
No gloom shall ever shake,
no foe shall ever take,
the hope which God’s own Son
in love for me has won.

– Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #378


When we sing the hymns and spiritual songs collected in the pages of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, we proclaim the gospel — the good news that is for all people and especially for those whose voices have historically been silenced and those whose lives society has said don’t matter. In other words, we don’t sing for our own sake, but we sing the humble yet defiant song of the tax collector for the sake of the world.

Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. As we bring our journey through Luke’s gospel to a close over the next few weeks, these words remind me yet again of another song several chapters earlier. It’s a song that speaks of the lowly being lifted up and the hungry being filled with good things. It’s a song sung by a newly pregnant, unwed, Jewish peasant teenager, and it’s a song that reverberates throughout the pages of scripture.

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It’s also a song we’re invited to join and proclaim to all the world. A song of a God who so loves us that we are compelled to ask: How can I keep from singing?

Lessons Learned from a String of Yarn: Reflections for LGBTQ+ History Month on National Coming Out Day 2016

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Originally published in The Door, the student and community newsletter of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago


I often remark that I find it amusing that the first person to whom I came out was a pastor. That was in 2011 and all the more remarkable because it came on the heels of graduating from a college of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), the culmination of just over twenty years of growing up in that conservative, fundamentalistic tradition. That pastor to whom I came out ended up being the reason I gave his church—and the church—a second chance, and just over four years later, I would write of my call to public ministry in my endorsement essay (the second of three steps in the ordination process for my denomination): “I want to in some small way be for others what that pastor was for me—that is, an instrument of affirmation and reconciliation.”

Fast forward to this past April: I was sitting in the chapel at St. Francis Retreat Center, just outside of San Francisco, for my first Proclaim gathering. I knew only a small sliver of the folks assembled in that room for Eucharist. But then something amazing happened: we read a litany. It was a historical litany, marking momentous occasions in the history of LGBTQ+ persons in the life of the church—including the dates of so-called “extraordinary” ordinations (those not officially recognized by the denomination) and those that have happened since the ELCA’s 2009 vote to affirm LGBTQ+ persons in ministry. As the litany was read, those who were present were invited to stand as they heard their names and respond “This is my body!” They were also passed a ball of red yarn, holding on to part of the string before tossing it to the next person, and so forth.

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Proclaim Gathering 2016 + photo credit: Emily Ann Garcia

The text of the litany was printed in the worship bulletin, and so I could see where it ended: with a list of names symbolizing the future of Proclaim, Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, and the wider church. My name, too, was on that list, and I, too, held part of that strand of yarn. Before long, everyone in that chapel was literally connected by a single red string of yarn, and even though I still did not know many of these people, I knew I was a part of that group, a part of the larger cloud of witnesses, both living and sainted, on whose shoulders I stand as I continue to navigate my own journey in ministry. This is my body.

When I think about LGBTQ+ History Month, I think of my own personal history, and I think of that first pastor to whom I came out and all the fabulous trailblazing queer pastors and rostered leaders who have made it possible for me to do what I love and that to which I am lovingly called by God. And I know, too, that as the years go by, my name will move further and further back on that litany of names and ordinations and that I will be a part of someone else’s history. It’s an incredibly exciting—and nerve-wracking—vision, but one I believe can be said of all LGBTQ+ persons in and preparing for ministry.

Dean Esther Menn quoted a verse from Isaiah during my incoming class’s orientation week: “[Thus says the LORD…] I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43.19). Now, she was talking about the new curriculum, and Isaiah was talking about something else entirely. But when I hear these words—I am about to do a new thing—I hear God’s promise as encapsulated by the ELCA tagline: “Always Being Made New.” Our church is always being made new, and God is constantly up to new things. Who knows what the future of mainline Protestantism and our small denomination within it will look like in ten, twenty, fifty years? But I do know that queer people will continue to be a part of it. Our gifts for ministry are important, and our history is a rich one. Our future, too, is one of promise. God is doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?

Close the Gap: A Prayer for Health Care Justice

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This weekend, I had the opportunity to join in an interfaith prayer vigil with the advocacy group Insure the Good Life, a project of Nebraska Appleseed that aims to urge state legislators to close the Medicaid gap – a gap that currently leaves tens of thousands of hard-working Nebraskans uninsured and without access to quality health care. It was a powerful event of prayer, solidarity, and witness. The bulk of the day’s program consisted in sharing stories – personal or on behalf of friends and family members. I firmly believe that we can quote all the facts and figures we want, but that it is the power of personal stories that is crucial in creating change.

Following these testimonies and words from other speakers, I offered this closing prayer (the inspiration for which came during a midnight stroke of insomnia…the best kind!). I offer it here as a resource to fellow clergy and faith leader colleagues. You are free to use this prayer as inspiration for your own, or in whole with proper attribution.

O God,
you are life,
source of all that is.
By your word
you brought forth sun and moon,
stars and planets,
plants and every green thing,
animals and all that has breath.
By your wisdom
you evolved our fragile home
through the millennia.
By your mercy
you sustain your creation,
today and everyday.
By your might
you guide your people
through sunshine and storm.

In one particular time and place,
you made yourself known to us in Jesus,
whose ministry took him to the margins,
to those whom society had declared
unclean, undeserving, unworthy.
In a spirit of mercy and holy rebellion,
Jesus reached across boundaries
and healed by his touch,
restoring life and life abundant
to those who had been cut off from community.

Your healing is known
across all faiths and among all cultures.
So inspired by the great love you have shown us,
make us agents of that same holy rebellion–
the divine obedience that manifests
your love and mercy for all whom you have created.

Bless the work of our elected officials
and the ministry to which you have called them.
Remind them of the communities they have promised to serve,
and inspire them to strive for justice,
especially for those most vulnerable,
that all may have access to quality health care,
and so all may be strengthened in body and spirit
to serve your planet and your people.

Send us forth with your blessing,
on this assembly gathered here,
to be a blessing to all we meet,
to receive blessing from those we least expect,
to bear one another’s burdens,
and to love, fiercely and unapologetically;
in the strong name of the Holy One
to whom we pray.
Amen.