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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