Sunday of the Passion 2017

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Preacher’s Note: I encourage you to watch the video below in its entirety, especially if “Sunday of the Passion” (instead of simply “Palm Sunday”) is new to you. In the Lutheran tradition, as well as that of our many ecumenical partners, while we begin this day with a festive palm procession proclaiming “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”, the tone of the liturgy soon changes as we hear the full account of Jesus’s passion and death.

This year on Sunday, we hear Matthew’s account. First, I offer a brief homily/introduction (text below) to what we are about to hear. Then our passion readers — Augustana members Grace Klinefelter, Mike Klinefelter, and Jack Hutchinson (from left to right in the video) — read the passion as a trio of voices, not as a drama so much as readers’ theatre. In this way, and through song and silence for meditation, the congregation is invited to enter into the story, connecting the ancient narrative to our own context.

And this is only the beginning of Holy Week — arguably the most important week in the Christian liturgical year. If you’re reading this and the full experience of Holy Week — Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Great Vigil of Easter, and Easter morning — is not part of your practice, I strongly encourage you to join your congregation or another local assembly in the observance of these sacred days. You won’t be disappointed.


Augustana Lutheran Church
9 April 2017 + Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday
Matthew 21.1-11; 26.14-27.66



What day is it? Palm Sunday? Sunday of the Passion? At the risk of making things even more confusing, I’m going to suggest yet another name for this day: Paradox Sunday.

Paradox abounds in our liturgy today. We began with a festive palm procession, commemorating Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. With the crowds we shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” And we wave our palm branches vigorously.

But now we turn to the heart of today’s liturgy: the passion reading — the full account of Jesus’s suffering and death. Those shouts of “Hosanna! Save us!” become “Crucify!”

This is the paradox of Palm / Passion Sunday: We hold in tension the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and his subsequent execution at the hands of the Roman empire.

The passion story is indeed central to the Christian faith and tradition, so much so that we will hear it not once but twice this Holy Week. Today from Matthew, the particular gospel for this year that we have been following since Advent, and on Good Friday from John. But far from being an exercise in redundancy, these two accounts give us two distinct portrayals of the passion.

On Good Friday, we will hear John’s passion which shows a crucified Christ who is in control of all the events which happen to him, essentially presupposing the victory of the resurrection before it even happens. But today, Matthew depicts a Christ who is utterly abandoned by his friends and followers. Jesus is betrayed, denied, and deserted, and even mocked repeatedly while hanging on the cross. No wonder he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!”

Which brings me to another point: Today we don’t simply read the passion story; we hear it read aloud as readers’ theatre and we enter into it with song and silence for meditation.

Entering into the story is also to ask where we find ourselves in the story. The options, however, are bleak: Are we the ones who abandon those who suffer and thus ignore injustice? Or are we the ones who are abandoned and suffer injustice? I suspect many of us have been in both places at different times.

Even when we’re not the ones who experience abandonment, injustice, and oppression, I suspect we also find ourselves crying out with the Matthean Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?” — when refugees are denied entry into a safer country, or when our national response to the suffering of the Syrian people is an attack on that country which only perpetuates violence and exacerbates suffering, or just this morning when two Coptic churches in Egypt were bombed in the middle of their Palm Sunday services.

It’s difficult in the midst of such suffering, whether directly experienced, or witnessed helplessly, to glimpse the possibility of hope and new life. And yet, that is also what Matthew leaves us with: In the long view, God has not forsaken Jesus. As biblical scholar Raymond Brown writes, “Matthew did not hesitate to have the moment of Jesus’ birth marked by a star in the sky; the moment of his death is even more climactic, marked by signs in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth” (44) — an earthquake which causes tombs to burst open and the dead to come to life, the tearing of the temple curtain, the confession of a Roman military official.

The paradox of Palm / Passion Sunday that holds in tension the triumphal entry and the death of Jesus also suggests another paradox: death and resurrection. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s savor Holy Week in each moment — the palms, the passion, the garden, the meal, the cross, the tomb — as we contemplate the mystery of our salvation in these sacred days. To paraphrase the Easter Vigil liturgy, this is the week. Let us begin.


+ THE PASSION OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST ACCORDING TO MATTHEW +

The Last Supper 

One of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment Judas began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” Jesus said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.

When it was evening, Jesus took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?”

Jesus answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”

Hymn: Go to Dark Gethsemane (stanza 1)

Gethsemane

 When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.”

Peter said to him, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples.

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again Jesus went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Again Jesus came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once Judas came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, who will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.

Hymn: Ah, Holy Jesus (stanza 1) 

Jesus Before Caiaphas

Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end.

Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’” The high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?” They answered, “He deserves death!” Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?”

Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” When Peter went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.”

Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment the cock crowed. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

Hymn: Ah, Holy Jesus (stanza 2)

Jesus Before Pilate

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave the silver for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”

Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.”

Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas!” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then Pilate asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” So Pilate released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

Hymn: Ah, Holy Jesus (stanza 3)

Jesus Is Crucified

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head.

They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before Jesus and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

Hymn: Ah, Holy Jesus (stanza 4) 

The Death of Jesus 

Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if God wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 

Hymn: They Crucified My Lord (stanzas 1 and 5) 

Earthquake and Confession of the Centurion

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.

Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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A Sermon about Journeys

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img_0899Preacher’s Editorial Note: I have the privilege of serving a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) congregation, meaning they have made the decision to be intentionally welcoming and affirming of the diversity of God’s people, particularly those in the LGBTQ+ community. When I was looking for an internship site, it was important both to me and to the field education directors at my seminary to find a site that is RIC to provide me with a safe place to complete my internship year. I am grateful for Augustana’s welcome and also for their future support of an LGBTQ+ intern in the next academic year.

Today, Augustana celebrated nearly thirteen years of being an RIC congregation. Our worship was enhanced with the music of the River City Mixed Chorus (a choral ensemble made up of LGBTQ+ persons and allies). I also preached perhaps my most personal sermon to date, the text and recording of which follows below. I am happy beyond words for the support of all the communities along my journey that have made it possible for me to do what I am called to do. Deo gratias.


Augustana Lutheran Church
5 March 2017 + First Sunday in Lent (RIC Commemoration)
Matthew 4.1-11



I admit, when I learned that Augustana’s annual Reconciling in Christ commemoration would coincide with the First Sunday in Lent, I was nervous. Lent, after all, is traditionally a season where words like “repentance” and “sin” are thrown around in excess—words that have come to be triggering for many in the progressive church and especially for those in the LGBTQ+ community.

I’m also usually not one for diverting from the lectionary, but the texts assigned to the First Sunday in Lent this year—one from Genesis about the fall into sin (there’s that word again) and another from Romans, a letter written by the apostle Paul who is responsible for many of the “texts of terror” used to justify homophobic and transphobic violence—made even me take a few liturgical liberties.

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As I began to mull over what I might preach today, I found myself drawn to the gospel text, the one reading I did not change. It tells the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Much could be said about the story itself, but what most attracted my attention was the larger context. Immediately before this passage comes the story of Jesus’s baptism, which we just read moments ago, and immediately following is the account of the launch of Jesus’s public ministry. Taken together, this pattern of baptism-wilderness-ministry suggests the pattern of the Christian life—or we might say the journey.


My own journey began at the font at Trinity Lutheran Church in Utica, Michigan. The subsequent years of Lutheran schools from preschool through high school drew me to Concordia University in the near suburbs of Chicago, where I originally planned to study secondary education in English. After one field education experience in a 7th grade English classroom, that was enough of that for me, and I opted instead for the pre-seminary program.

Then, late in my senior year, I began the process of coming out as gay. While that task proves difficult enough on its own, it also meant that I could no longer in good conscience or for my own safety pursue ministry in the fundamentalist faction of the Lutheran church in which I was raised.

Enter Urban Village. The young, United Methodist church plant I discovered around that same time fully welcomed and affirmed me for who I am and invited me more deeply into the community. For the next two years, I found myself more involved in the life of the church than ever before, as my own theology began to be re-formed. It was also during that time that I began to pay attention to my call to ministry again.

The next phase of my journey brought me to Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Chicago, which in many ways felt like coming home to the rich heritage of my natal tradition but with a refreshingly progressive spin. The Holy Trinity community continues to support me through seminary, and I am grateful to call them family.


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The River City Mixed Chorus sings a trio of choral anthems for our Reconciling in Christ (RIC) commemoration at Augustana on Sunday, March 5, 2017. (photo credit: Josh Evans)

Today as we celebrate nearly thirteen years of being a Reconciling in Christ congregation, I tell you my story to tell you this: Inclusion matters. Inclusion matters because it saved my life. Inclusion matters because it reawakened my call to public ministry. Inclusion matters because of comments like this one that I received just this past week from a queer friend who also grew up in an ultra-conservative congregation: “Even something as simple as seeing someone like me at the front of the church means a lot even after having been out for years.”

Inclusion matters, but inclusion also demands confession and repentance of the ways we are complicit in systems of oppression. In a quote attributed to Indigenous Australian artist and activist Lilla Watson, we hear: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

The work of liberation and reconciliation is an ongoing activity. Being a Reconciling in Christ congregation today means that when we see the water protectors of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe forcibly removed from their lands, we speak out. It means that when a presidential order threatens the lives of our immigrant and refugee siblings, we hold candlelight vigils and call and write to our elected officials out of the deep convictions of our faith. It means that when transgender persons of color are murdered at alarming rates, while our lawmakers are more concerned about where the hell they pee, we demand justice and accountability for their lives taken too soon.

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The struggle for justice is hard, and I’m  especially grateful this week for the new ABC mini-series When We Rise, chronicling the LGBTQ+ rights movement, beginning in San Francisco in the early 1970s. In the first episode, Ken Jones, a Navy officer in the Vietnam War who has just been reassigned to a base in San Francisco, struggles with coming to terms with his sexuality and, at the recommendation of a Navy chaplain, finds himself in the congregation of an anti-gay fundamentalist preacher. But as he leaves the service, he spots a gay bar down the block and walks in as a drag performer is singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” He’s greeted by Mama Jose, who says to him: “God has delivered you to this place of refuge.”

Not long after, that place of refuge is raided by police, who start beating and arresting patrons. While others lock arms in solidarity and protest, Ken runs away.

Later in the episode, he returns to the bar, apologizing for his cowardice and vowing to stick around the next time it happens. As he is welcomed back with open arms, and joined by the other main characters for the first time, Mama Jose declares, “All of you combined, locked arm in arm, are stronger than you know. You could lift us all up.”

The struggle for justice and the work of reconciliation is hard, but we always stand on the shoulders of those who came before and lock arms with those who fight alongside us.

For those of us who are Christian, Lent offers us the opportunity to return to the font, to remember our baptism, and to renew the covenant we made at the waters in renunciation of evil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God, and the ways of sin and oppression that draw us from God. It’s a tall order, but the promise of God is certain: In baptism we are named and claimed as God’s own, and throughout this season, throughout the wilderness journey, we are ever led back to the source and font of abundant life.

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A Sermon for Ash Wednesday about Being Human

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Augustana Lutheran Church
1 March 2017 + Ash Wednesday
Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21


Ash Wednesday is a curious thing, isn’t it? First, we hear a gospel text that begins with a warning against practicing our piety before others, urging us instead to give alms, pray, and fast in secret. And then we proceed to dab our foreheads, perhaps the most publicly visible part of our bodies, with ashes — doing exactly what Jesus just told us not to do.

It’s also not a particularly popular message to go about proclaiming “you are dust and to dust you shall return” — words evocative of the funeral liturgy — “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

So you can imagine my surprise when I found myself in a young, urban church plant in Chicago that decided to take Ash Wednesday to the streets, offering ashes to passers-by at train and bus stops and other busy intersections and gathering places in the city.

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“Ashes to Go” with Urban Village Church, Chicago, Ash Wednesday 2012

I remember the first year I participated in this “Ashes to Go” tradition. I was paired with one of our pastors and a fellow parishioner, and we were stationed outside a blue line train stop during the morning rush. After a while of imposing Chicagoans with ashes, I’ll never forget what came next: An SUV coasting down Damen Avenue — mind you, this is a fairly busy street — slows down as it approaches us. The driver’s window rolls down, and a woman, spotting my pastor, yells out, “Hey! Can you come here and do the kids real quick?” And he did, right in the middle of the street.

I’ve participated in Ashes to Go in the years since then, and what strikes me, again and again, is the response among those who stop to receive ashes — grateful for the opportunity when they might otherwise have not been able to make it to church or simply have forgotten all about it.

This curious thing we do — marking our foreheads with small crosses of ash — is a powerful ritual. It’s a reminder of our mortality, our creatureliness, our utter dependence on and connection to the earth.

Sara Miles has spoken of her own experience taking Ash Wednesday to the streets in her home city of San Francisco, remarking how often people run after her asking for ashes while she’s out and about. For Miles, the profundity of the ritual lies in the rare opportunity to be physically touched by a stranger and told the truth about who we are.

The fact is that we live in a culture where we’re being sold almost daily the idea that we’re immortal or that somehow we can delay or deny the inevitability of death or control the outcome. But the truth is quite the opposite, and so Ash Wednesday comes as a countercultural, even welcome, relief to let our guard down and to acknowledge that we’re not the ones in charge. This day is a reminder of our mortality, and so reminded, it’s also an acceptance and coming to terms with our limitations as human beings.

On Ash Wednesday we confess our shortcomings, but we repent in dust and ashes not for the sake of feeling sorry for ourselves and certainly not for showing off to others. We do so because we know that God’s mercy and capacity to forgive and to heal are always deeper and wider than we can imagine.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes this in his prayer, “Marked by Ashes”:

We are able to ponder our ashness with some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.

Ash Wednesday stands at the beginning of Lent, the church’s preparatory season for the celebration of the resurrection, and so we receive these ashes today as anticipatory of Easter itself and the certain promise of our new life in Christ.

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It’s no coincidence that the ashes that will shortly be traced on our foreheads are traced precisely where the water of our baptism began our new life in Christ.

We are marked with water and named as God’s own in our baptism, and we are marked with ashes on this day too as God’s own fiercely beloved people.

A Sermon for a Faith Grounded in Mystical Experience

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Augustana Lutheran Church
26 February 2017 + Transfiguration of Our Lord
Matthew 17.1-19
Vicar Josh Evans



I have a confession to make: I hate the Transfiguration. Or maybe more to the point, I hate it because it seems so hard to grasp and  to make any possible meaning out of it. But I love what the Transfiguration means. Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but bear with me.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain… Six days after what? In the preceding chapter in Matthew’s gospel, we encounter a memorable scene: Peter, who confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, is called “blessed” by Jesus and told he is the “rock” upon the church will be built. But lest Peter’s ego should get the best of him, only a few verses later, Jesus sharply rebukes him — “Get behind me, Satan!” — for his misunderstanding of what kind of Messiah Jesus was.

The details there are not important, but suffice it to say that it was probably a confusing, upsetting time for Peter. And so it’s not difficult to imagine why Peter is the one who, upon witnessing this strange and wonderful spectacle on the mountain, suggests they build tents and stay a while in this moment of glory and excitement.

So what happened on the mountain that was so awe-inspiring that left Peter grasping at the opportunity to make it last?

Karl Rahner, one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the 20th century, once argued for the rediscovery of the mystical foundations of Christianity as vital to the church’s survival — mystic, by one definition, meaning “one who has moved from mere belief systems…to actual inner experience.”

By that way of thinking, what happened on the mountain, all that was witnessed by Peter and the other two disciples, was a mystical experience — something so inexplicable and beyond comprehension that it simply had to be experienced.

I also suspect that these sorts of mystical moments often come to us in situations like the one Peter found himself in — in the midst of the turmoil and confusion of everyday life.

The closest thing I’ve ever had to a mystical experience happened a few years ago when I was at a small group leaders’ retreat with the church I used to attend. The retreat was designed for those, like me, who were about to embark on small group leadership, as well as a refresher course for seasoned leaders. It was those seasoned leaders I remember looking at, thinking how inadequate I seemed for this work compared to them.

At one point, we were given some free time to roam about the building for contemplation and prayer. Never having been great at spiritual practices which require me to sit in silence with nothing to do, I found an empty pew in the sanctuary, opened a bible to Exodus, and began to read, just to pass the time.

I was reading the familiar story of Moses encountering Yahweh, the Hebrew god, in the burning bush, giving excuse after excuse about what Yahweh has asked him to do. Who am I that I should go? Moses asks. Exactly! I thought. Who am I that should lead this group? Who do I think I am? And Yahweh answers Moses, I will be with you. It was as though those words were being spoken directly to me that day. I will be with you.

And they were overcome fear. Because sometimes mystical experiences can also be downright terrifying. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, found himself in a state of shock, doubt, and fear the night he received the first revelation of the Quran. According to tradition, he alternated between feeling that, at best, it was all a hallucination or, at worst, it had been a confrontation with an evil spirit.

Terrifying — because mystical experiences like Mohammed’s and the disciples’ and even my own mean something is changing. In Matthew’s gospel, the Transfiguration marks a decisive turning point from Jesus’s public ministry to what he will soon encounter in Jerusalem, events we too will soon recount as we inch closer to Holy Week. Peter and the other disciples, in this moment of change, need the memory of what is happening to stay with them because of what is about to happen.

Like Peter and the disciples, we constantly find ourselves in states of change — everything from job to family to personal transitions. They’re in between moments of both holding on and letting go, oftentimes at once excruciating and exciting.

And that, I suspect, is the whole point of the Transfiguration: permission to be in those in between moments of holding on and letting go. The Transfiguration as mystical experience acknowledges this tension, offering something to hold on to as we let go.

As they were coming down the mountain… The Transfiguration is more about the journey down the mountain than the mountaintop experience itself. Yes, it’s about coming down the mountain to the valley below, but let’s  also not overemphasize the destination at the expense of downplaying the journey.

With Transfiguration Sunday, we mark the turning toward our Lenten journey — a journey in which we call to mind the paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. But, as one theologian reminds us, “Until we have personally lost our own foundation and then experienced God upholding us so that we come out even more alive on the other side, the theological affirmation of the paschal mystery is little understood and not essentially transformative.” In other words, the journey is a thing to be personally experienced, even savored.

I don’t think that Peter and the other disciples could have ever conceived intellectually of what would happen on the mountaintop that day. It had to be experienced, and having been experienced, it changes them. The glory of the mountaintop moment, the mystical experience of God’s enduring presence, gives them strength for the journey ahead.

It gives strength for the moment, for moments of change, and for leaping into an unknown future, letting go of all control and certainty, while at once holding on to the  memory of what has been and looking to the hope of what can and what will be.

A Sermon for the Salted and Unsalted

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Augustana Lutheran Church
5 February 2017 + Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Lectionary 5A)
Matthew 5.13-20


Now with video!


rhyjdghe-4pdYou are the light of the world! You are the salt of the earth! It’s almost impossible not to break into a song from Godspell when you hear these words. (It’s stuck in your head now, isn’t it?)

But for as peppy as Stephen Schwartz’s musical setting of the fifth chapter of Matthew is, I’ve also found myself asking: What happens when we don’t feel very much like the salt of the earth and the light of the world? What happens in those moments when we do indeed lose our saltiness?

I don’t think it’s much of stretch to call to mind those moments when we’re simply not feeling it, whatever “it” is: our jobs, our volunteering, our protesting, even our church-going. So when Jesus tells us, “You are the salt of the earth,” I suspect there are times when it’s easier to simply throw up our arms in despair or surrender.

Then there’s the metaphor of salt itself. Sort of an unusual choice for Jesus to pull out of thin air, isn’t it? The uses for the ubiquitous condiment that I’m guessing most, if not all, of us have in our kitchen cupboards are many. In fact, by one count, there are over 14,000 uses for salt, or so says Mark Kurlansky in his book Salt: A World History. Salt, too, he writes, even has ties to major events of world history—from the salt tax that inspired Gandhi’s movement for Indian independence to a salt shortage that helped fuel the American Revolution.

Salt, despite doctors’ and dietitians’ warnings, is also crucial for the human body to propel oxygen through our blood. Quite frankly, we simply cannot live without it. Likewise, a good chef will tell you that salt is crucial for cooking, bringing out and enhancing the other seasonings and flavors of a dish.

The ancient world, too, had an understanding of the multiple uses and connotations of salt—from sacrificial rites and a symbol of covenant faithfulness to food preservation and seasoning. Jesus’s saying would have evoked many of these layers of meaning among his listeners.

And yet, I think an equally crucial piece of this simple statement — You are the salt of the earth — is the first word: you. In translation, it’s impossible to notice, but in the original Greek of the New Testament, that you is plural (as in “you all”). And the very fact that the Greek text includes the pronoun itself is emphatic: Y’ALL are the salt of the earth.

Grammatical nuance taken together with all these layers of meaning, this passage might be rendered something like: You are all salt for each other, enhancing one another’s being, including and especially when you don’t feel very salty yourself. You are salt for each other when you carry one another’s burdens, tangibly reminding each other of God’s covenantal love for all people.

This back-and-forth of seasoning and being seasoned is part of the life of faith. Indeed, it goes without saying that life itself is full of ups and downs. Life is very rarely lived in a straight, uneventful line from point A to point B, but it probably looks a little more…chaotic. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing—but quite the opposite.

In her latest book, Lesley Hazleton poses the question, “What is so very wrong about losing one’s way?” She compares wandering through life to a physical journey or road trip. Sure, there’s a certain sense of security in knowing exactly where you are on your GPS screen, but it also precludes any chance of meandering off the main path. In other words, to avoid the chance of getting lost also eliminates the possibility of adventure or spontaneity. In so doing, Hazleton writes, “you leave no room for the original meaning of happiness… a variant of ‘hap,’ as in fortune or chance… a matter of openness—to the fortuitous, to the unexpected, to moments of grace.”

Moments we enter feeling less than salty but which we leave having been seasoned, enhanced, carried by another. You are salt for each other.

I’ll admit that the last few months haven’t left me feeling very much like the salt of the earth. The day after the election, we opened our doors at Augustana, offering our sanctuary as a safe space for those who might be feeling scared, angry, and vulnerable with the results.

That day, difficult as it was, seems to have paled in comparison to the past couple weeks of the new administration, where executive orders have threatened the healthcare of millions, the sacred lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and the safety of our refugee and immigrant populations. I didn’t feel very much like the salt of the earth this past week when one of the ESL teachers here asked me to photocopy some immigration paperwork for her students and I was suddenly confronted by the fact that the administration’s harmful new policy was affecting actual people that I see every day outside my office. It made me feel both angry and powerless.

But also this week, along with Pr. Jan and a handful of other Augustana folks and about 1500 others from across the city, we gathered on Tuesday night in Turner Park for a candlelight vigil to hear firsthand the stories of refugees and the witness of local religious leaders speaking out against unjust immigration policies and reminding us that our faith compels us to welcome the stranger. Peppered throughout the crowd were specks of light, whether from candles or cell phones, shining all the more brightly as the sun set. People literally holding light, being light.

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Candlelight vigil in Turner Park, January 31, 2016 (photo credit: Josh Evans)

It was a life-giving experience to be surrounded by that cloud of witnesses, being light and being salt for each other. And not only for each other but also as a witness for the city, for the country, for the world.

Amidst fearful times that threaten our most vulnerable communities, we hear Jesus’s words of promise that we are the salt of the earth, for the sake of each other, with the capacity to resist.

A Sermon about Change and Being Called as Dearly Beloved Disciples

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Augustana Lutheran Church
22 January 2017 + Third Sunday after Epiphany (Lectionary 3A)
Matthew 4.12-23



How are your New Year’s resolutions going? I won’t make us do a show of hands (though that would be kind of fun), but I’m willing to bet most of us who made some sort of resolution for 2017 will likely fail, if not already. In fact, there’s even an unofficial holiday, observed every January 17th: “Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day.” (Who knew?!)

A statistic I stumbled across in Forbes magazine suggests that only 8% of people actually achieve their intended resolutions. The reasons for failure are varied, from making too many resolutions to setting goals that are simply unachievable. In short, our resolutions often set us up for failure. And of course, as we all know, change is hard.

Change, it seems, is the order of the day in our gospel text. John the Baptist has been arrested. Jesus retreats and moves to Galilee. He begins to proclaim that the dominion of heaven has come near, and he starts recruiting followers. Followers who experience drastic change, immediately leaving their occupations, families, and livelihoods. And they go throughout Galilee, as Jesus only intensifies his public ministry of teaching and preaching and healing.

If the calling of these first few followers is any indication, it’s a given that change is caught up in what it means to be a disciple. Indeed, discipleship demands transformation.

Last Monday, in the thick of the ice storm, I happened upon an episode of the daytime talkshow The View. One of their guests that day was Arno Michaelis. His story began in an alcoholic household with parents who would often fight. By his own admission, he reacted by lashing out and turning to bullying and violence as an outlet. By the time he was a teenager, he had gotten into the punk rock music scene, an interest which led him to fall in with the white supremacist movement. Eventually, he would become a founding member of one of the largest white supremacist organizations in the world, using his own band as a platform for his hate-filled agenda.

Then, slowly, his life began to be interrupted.  He attributes his gradual awakening to people he claimed to hate—people of color and sexual orientations different from his own—who showed him kindness when he least deserved it. At 24, he became a single parent to his young daughter. A few months after that, he lost a second friend in a violent street fight. “It was the slap-in-the-face moment,” he said, that gave him the opportunity to leave a life of hate behind.

Today, Arno has become an anti-hate activist. In 2012, one of the members of the hate group he had previously helped form killed six people at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Following the shooting, the son of one of the victims reached out to Arno in an attempt to better understand what had happened at his place of worship. The two have since become close friends.

It’s an inspiring story of transformation. Though most of us have never and probably will never experience a change quite that dramatic in our own lives, the call of discipleship is nonetheless caught up with change.

One pastor (T. Denise Anderson) writes of this week’s gospel text and the abrupt call of these disciples, “[Their] assignments have to change because the culture—indeed, the world—has changed. God’s call often seems to be directly related to some major shift that requires a strong witness.”

In the aftermath of the most divisive election in recent history and a new administration that has left many of us feeling afraid and angry—indeed, in the midst of national change—our call as disciples only intensifies our public witness to a radically inclusive, justice-seeking gospel that proclaims love, not hate. Just last night, I participated in the Women’s March downtown, with hundreds of thousands of others around the world who did the same. It was a powerful witness that love can and does indeed trump hate.

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Women’s March through the Old Market in Omaha, NE (photo credit: Josh Evans)

Often, though, I fear that we lose sight of the why in favor of the what, focusing on the work itself and its results and not our calling and identity that compel us.

I suspect this is also why so many New Year’s resolutions fail: We are coerced into making commitments to better ourselves that are not really goals that are important for us and who we authentically are. When you’re not in touch with your own identity, it’s easy to suffer burnout and lose energy for the things we think we’re supposed to be doing.

Yes, change is demanded in the life of a disciple, but it is a call to change systems that are hurting people, because indeed we are already changed through the work of Christ. The Reformers called this idea the third use of the law in our book of Lutheran Confessions. For the Beloved Community of the Church, the law—God’s unchangeable will for justice—becomes “a sure guide, according to which [we] can orient and conduct [our] entire lives” (FC Ep VI.1). The call of the disciple, therefore, is to do those things which the law requires—to do justice and to love kindness—freely and without compulsion, and most especially in the face of hatred and all the forces that tell marginalized communities they don’t matter.

We can follow this path of discipleship—Jesus’s call to “follow me”—precisely because of who we are as beloved children of God, made in the divine image, with inherent sacred worth and dignity. These first followers of Jesus most assuredly had no idea what on earth he meant by becoming “fishers of people.” But the fact they were called to begin with indicates that Jesus saw something of value, some potential, in them.

This is true for us, as well. As another preacher (David Lose) writes, even when we don’t know what being a child of God exactly means, or when we’re not confident of what precisely we’re being called to do in the world, we can rest in the assurance that God values, honors, and loves us, just as we are.

This is a truth that we need to be reminded of, regularly. Being a disciple is hard work, and we need to be fed in that work. We are fed every Sunday at this table. We are fed in fellowship during adult forum, coffee hour, and our potluck meals. We are fed in small group book studies, and we are fed in relationship with other people, both within and outside of these walls.

Once we are fed, I suspect we will find that the rest will follow.

A Brief Reflection for MLK Day

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…which started out as a Facebook post that became a wee bit too long.


The first class I took in seminary was The Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr. I learned so much in that class — from readings from King, from classmates, and of course from the brilliant Dr. Pete Pero.

One of our first assignments was reading a trio of King’s sermons, and one short but profound quote that has always stuck with me comes from the one entitled “The Drum Major Instinct,” preached in 1968, just months before his assassination. About serving, King says:

“You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.”

A tall order, indeed.

I’m also reminded of another quote, this one from King’s famous letter from Birmingham city jail:

“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied’…

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is…the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

I quote these words, not as a preacher (as though I can say them with the same authenticity and integrity as King), but as an act of confession — a confession that I have far too often been part of the “white moderate” of which King speaks. And I suspect this is a confession I will need to continue to make — a confession that my calling to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA requires of me:

“Consistent with the faith and practice of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, every minister of Word and Sacrament shall…speak publicly to the world in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world.” (ELCA Constitution, Chapter 7.31.02)

The gospel is clear: God in Christ has reconciled the world unto God’s self. Likewise, our calling: We are agents of reconciliation, love, and justice. Not for some “more convenient” time in the more distant future, but now. Now, in a world where people are hurting. Now, in a world where people live in fear. Now, in a world filled with refugees and immigrants and people afraid of losing their health insurance under the ACA.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is not just a federal holiday that means no work, no mail delivery, and posting quotes from “I Have a Dream” on Facebook. It’s a call to be about the work of justice, always, a call to confess when we fall short, and a call to recommit ourselves to that work.

All you need is a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.