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

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?

Endorsement Essay

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‘Tis the season…for endorsement essay writing! (Okay, so it’s not as festive as Christmas, but I tried.) Today, a couple of fellow seminary students asked for some advice in writing their essays, and so I offer my own endorsement essay as an example. I offer this to my colleagues who follow me in the ELCA candidacy process because it was so incredibly helpful for me to see the sample essay of another colleague ahead of me last year. But I also offer my essay as a (small but vulnerable) sliver into my own call to and understanding of ministry. And so without further ado, the essay. Enjoy!


I. Call to Ministry

I doubt any of us who were baptized as infants can remember that day, but I am certain we have witnessed enough of them to know the great joy that accompanies it. The first Sunday I worshipped at my current congregation we had five baptisms, and five times we sang, “You belong to Christ; in him you have been baptized! Alleluia, alleluia!” As our liturgy proclaims the newly baptized to be “marked with the cross of Christ forever,” we boldly declare whose we are and to whom we belong and that sin, death, and the forces of evil do not have the final word. The best part is that baptism is a gift by which God reveals God’s new reality for God’s people. Baptism is also a beginning that “inaugurates a life of discipleship.”[1] It gives us our identity as children of God and grounds our vocation in that identity, to love and serve all people. Being claimed by God’s grace, we, like Jesus, are immediately driven out into our wildernesses and are compelled to proclaim God’s message of reconciliation by word and deed (Mark 1.9-15).

The life of justice-seeking discipleship that flows from baptism is also intertwined with call, and my own experience reflects this. For as far back as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a pastor, but it is not until recently that the Spirit’s call has become louder. In 2011 when I graduated from college with a pre-seminary concentration, I had just begun the process of coming out as gay. While that is a difficult matter by itself, it also meant that I could no longer in good conscience pursue a life of ministry in the denomination of which I was then a part. In my search for a more welcoming church home, I visited Urban Village, a still-young church plant in Chicago. In my first conversation with the pastor, I told my story and was fully welcomed, affirmed, and invited into the community of Urban Village. He recognized my gifts and passion for ministry, and for the following two years I felt more involved in the life of the church than in twenty years of growing up within her walls. From marching alongside reconciling churches in Chicago’s Pride Parade to distributing “ashes to go” on Ash Wednesday to engaging with newcomers and serving them communion, I was doing in those moments what I have since come to know as the model of “public church” that my seminary is committed to—witnessing openly to God’s love in acts of reconciliation and works of service and justice. I knew that is what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing, and I simply cannot imagine doing anything else.

I have found myself called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament because I desire to be a public leader in the church, specifically in the context of the local parish. That is where I feel most at home. The world is a broken and terrifying place, in need of the message of God’s love more than ever, and I believe that it is by preaching the Gospel that liberates and by sharing the Meal that unites that we are refreshed and empowered to go forth and stir up people from complacency from the world as it is in order to begin to recreate the world as God intends. I believe that my experiences of the joys and challenges of church planting with Urban Village and Holy Trinity, participating in the radical hospitality of service with campus ministry, and engaging in social justice with community organizations have given me a strong foundation to stand on as I grow as a public leader and help to shape the church and the congregations I hope to serve. Most exciting about my call is what I have said many times before: More than anything, I want to in some small way be for others what that pastor at Urban Village was for me—that is, an instrument of affirmation and reconciliation.

I think the most challenging part about this call is also the most beautiful. One weekend when I was at a small group leaders’ retreat at Urban Village, we were given some time for quiet contemplation. I have never been great at sitting still in silence, and so in need of something to do, I opened a pew Bible to Exodus and started reading Moses’s call story. He says to God, “Who am I that I should go?” Exactly, I thought. In the midst of hearing and experiencing all sorts of external affirmations that I should go to seminary, still I doubted that I really had what it takes to pull off being a pastor, especially compared to all the seminarians, interns, and other leaders who surrounded me at Urban Village and who (I thought) were so much better at it than me. But God’s answer: “I will be with you.” As surely as God was speaking to Moses, God was speaking to me. In that moment of internal affirmation of call, I knew that despite all my perceived shortcomings, God had something in mind for me. Much later, during my summer spent doing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, I was reminded again of the uniqueness of my gifts. In dialogue with my fellow interns and supervisor, CPE upended my self-expectations and allowed me to be authentically me. Through preaching and pastoral care, I gained more confidence in my own pastoral identity and authority and even calling myself “chaplain.” As one CPE colleague said, “I don’t have to be [this expectation of me]. I can just be me.”

I am also reminded of the great cloud of witnesses God has given me, as God gave Moses his brother Aaron. I am reminded of that reality looking at a Polaroid from my baptism day, surrounded by my parents, sponsors, and pastor, and I am still reminded of it when I look around at my fellow seminarians in class and in chapel or the people sitting next to me at church every week. Thanks be to God that none of us does ministry alone! My understanding of the priesthood of all believers means that the work of reconciliation and justice to which each of us is called is a communal effort. Some, like me, have been called to preach and preside, but God gives gifts to all “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4.12). Indeed, as I was reminded this summer, we all have different but equally valuable gifts to bring, and we also have the privilege to bear one another’s burdens and the gift of being invited into their stories. We don’t have to fix, but we do get to listen—to wonder, to follow, to hold.

II. Faithfulness to the Church’s Confession

I have been Lutheran all my life. I was baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran church and educated in Lutheran schools from preschool through college. To this day I could still answer, “What does this mean?” And yet, during all that time, I could not tell you what made me different from other Christians. It was not until being separated from the church of my upbringing that I began to experience Christianity in all its diversity, and my experience in seminary so far has taught me what it means to be distinctly Lutheran.

For me, the heart of the Lutheran confessional witness begins with my saint-and-sinner identity. I am at once a good creation of God but also corrupt by sin and utterly unable to save myself, yet I also believe that I am saved by grace through faith apart from works for Christ’s sake. Lutheranism is a movement that takes sin seriously but grace even more seriously. That is to say, we are realistic about the human condition revealed to us by God’s Law, and when we brought to despair on account of it, the immediate proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is made all the more joyous, liberating us from sin and rescuing us from despair. The Confessions emphasize that we are declared righteous before God because of Christ’s righteousness, and this grace is wholly a gift, not dependent on anything I say or do (thank God!). Even my faith in this grace is not my doing, as Luther writes, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith.”[2]

This doctrine of justification also informs my pastoral care. Because of its honesty about the human condition, it also creates space for lament. And lament is not hopeless ranting but faith in God despite all evidence to the contrary. Amy, one of patients this summer, taught me this in the course of an hour visit where she related loss upon loss in her life. For perhaps the only time in her life, she had space to process openly and freely, and I had the privilege of standing with her in Good Friday and holding Easter for her when she could not.

Speaking of Good Friday and Easter, paradox is also one of the treasures of Lutheranism that I cherish. As in my pastoral care, it also influences my preaching. As Barth famously quipped, a minister ought to preach with a newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. To preach Law is to tell the truth about the human condition and everything that is wrong with the world, and to preach Gospel is tell the truth about God’s grace and proclaim that God’s relationship with all of creation is wholly restored. The two must be simultaneously affirmed because one without the other is meaningless. The Gospel is all about restoring broken relationships. As God in Christ has reconciled the world to God’s self, God has also given us this ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5.18-19).

Therefore, when I am asked to serve in accordance with the Scriptures, the Creeds, and the Confessions of the ELCA, I am really being asked to be faithful to the Gospel and to let its message of liberation and reconciliation permeate all that I am and do. My role as a “diligent and faithful” rostered minister in this church will be grounded in Word and Sacrament, as the confessors write, “[The church] is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel.”[3] In addition to our confessional and scriptural emphases, Lutherans are also a sacramental people. Our proclamation of the Gospel and administration of the Sacraments highlight the importance we ascribe to the means of grace. While God is certainly not limited to revealing God’s grace in Word and Sacrament alone, God has indeed promised that such grace is found in bread and wine and water. The ordained minister is, in a phrase, the means of the means of grace.

Grounded in Word and Sacrament, the mission of the church always needs to extend outward. As our vocations are grounded in baptism, the font in our worship spaces reminds us that the Sunday assembly is only the starting point and that how we live our Monday-through-Saturday lives matters. Put differently, the church does not exist for its own sake but for the sake of the world. Empowered by the Gospel and fed by Christ’s body and blood, active engagement in the work of justice and peace begins in the local congregation.

Our faith compels us to follow the example of Jesus, who regularly associated with “tax collectors and sinners” and healed many who were considered “unclean” and the marginalized whom we would prefer to ignore. To say our attention is directed to the fringes is to focus on meeting people where they are and as they are. I am reminded of Stephen’s final words before his death: “The Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands” (Acts 7.48). He reminds us that God is not present only in our houses of worship but is in fact found among “the least of these.” For me this summer, the least of these were found in dark hospital rooms, like Mr. Lacey, one of my patients who was recovering from a stroke. He had severely limited mobility and spoke with considerable difficulty, and we shared maybe ten minutes of conversation in the course of a two-hour visit. When the nurse came in to move him from his wheelchair to his bed, I told him I would leave to let him rest unless he wanted me to stay. He did, and he said to me, “It’s good that you’re here… I feel better having your blessing.” And so I stayed until he fell asleep. In those quiet moments, I began to feel his loneliness, but I realized that, while I got to leave at 4:30, that feeling was his every day. If I weren’t there, he truly would have been alone, but I was there when no one else was and to remind him that he wasn’t alone.

I could tell endless stories about my clinical experience as a chaplain this summer, but for me, it keeps going back to the doctrine of justification, which implies not only that we are freed from our sin but freed for good works to the glory of God and for the benefit of our neighbor. As redeemed creatures, we have a faith active in love ethic, as Luther writes:

Although the Christian is thus free from all works, he ought in this liberty to empty himself, take upon himself the form of a servant, be made in the likeness of men, be found in human form, and to serve, help, and in every way deal with his neighbor as he sees that God through Christ has dealt and still deals with him. This he should do freely.[4]

Faith active in love for the sake of the world enables us to be theologians of the cross and call a thing what it is—and so we acknowledge systemic evil and injustice. But our response is always one of love because the church is not in the business of condemnation. If we are going to err, then we ought to err on the side of inclusivity. Our task is to proclaim the Gospel message of liberation and participate in the ministry of reconciliation. God’s grace is for everyone, and it is not our place to decide who gets it. Amy’s story, Mr. Lacey’s story, and stories like theirs put flesh on the bones of my intellectual framework and inspire me in this odd and wondrous calling.

The Lutheran confessional heritage has given me a framework and way of seeing the world that makes sense to me. The heritage in which I stand has given me many gifts, not least of which is our fondness for paradox. I believe in the continual cycle of death and resurrection that ultimately ends with resurrection, and above all, I believe when all else fails I can dwell in the mystery, knowing God’s grace is sufficient.

III. Faithful Living

When I reflect on my first year of seminary and my journey of discernment so far, many joys and challenges come to mind. Personally, after three years of not being in school full-time, it was a challenge to become re-acclimated to the demands of an academic environment. The semester before I started as an M.Div. I took one class as a “special student,” which not only made the transition back to school easier but also introduced me to the seminary community. Prior to starting seminary, I had also been working nearly full-time; fortunately, my job was flexible enough for me to reduce my hours, first to three and then to two days a week to allow for adequate time to devote to my coursework.

My vocational and spiritual development since starting seminary go hand-in-hand. Last semester, daily chapel was a priority for me since my work schedule in the fall did not permit this. It was wonderful to have those worship opportunities, to be immersed in the rhythm of the church year, and to be surrounded by colleagues who daily reminded me of our common identity as beloved children of God. This year, I also have the privilege to serve as sacristan on chapel staff and look forward to being a more intimate part of communal worship life.

Being entranced during my first year at seminary was also a big milestone, and as a gay man, I am thrilled that I now have the support of Proclaim, the professional network of LGBTQ seminarians and rostered leaders in the Lutheran church. I trust it will be a tremendous resource for me throughout candidacy, internship, first call, and beyond.

This year I have also come to grow significantly in my passion for justice issues. I wrote in my entrance essay that I did not see the role of pastor as that of community organizer, yet I have come to appreciate that their functions are more similar that I had previously realized. At the core, both are about building relationships with people around shared interests for the sake of the local and global communities. Last fall, shortly after the Ferguson grand jury decision, I had the opportunity to join LSTC and other Hyde Park seminarians in a “walk-out” to protest the injustice of the verdict and to make a public witness of our church’s commitment to confronting racism and advocating for racial justice.[5] That was a powerful day for me. I also had the opportunity to contribute an article to our seminary’s blog about the experience as it relates to our new curriculum’s emphasis on being and doing public church.[6] Moreover, while I still feel deeply called to Word and Sacrament, my CPE colleagues recognized my gifts for chaplaincy too, and to be sure, the tools of chaplaincy are not unlike those of pastoral care in the parish.

I have already mentioned that daily chapel at LSTC contributes greatly to my spiritual nourishment, but I am also fortunate to have a local home congregation. The Holy Trinity community has been fully supportive of my call and my studies, and I am happy that I will be able to continue to worship there on Saturday nights for another year before I go on internship. While I certainly have no shortage of opportunities to nourish my faith, this year I have begun to focus more on practicing self-care. In January I joined the University of Chicago gym and have made a concerted effort to exercise regularly, and I have also been more mindful of my eating habits. Overall, I have found that balancing responsibilities and recreation contributes positively to my whole wellbeing, but it will also require deliberate attention to keep it in practice. I am also in the process of seeking a therapist and spiritual director to continue the self-learning of CPE and to follow the recommendation of my entrance panel.

As an example in faithful service and holy living, I will also be expected to make a commitment to lead a life worthy of the Gospel of Christ. Such a standard is intimidating, to say the least, especially since my first reaction is that no one is “worthy” of the Gospel. That phrase from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (1.27), however, conveys an idea much richer in meaning than it seems. The verb Paul uses in this passage has a basic meaning rooted in exercising one’s rights and duties as a political citizen. Paul’s meaning, therefore, carries the connotation of living a life that reflects one’s “citizenship” in the Christian church, with an emphasis on the communal nature of that church. In other words, leading a life worthy of the Gospel has less to do with securing individual salvation but everything to do with living together in response it.

The pastor, like everyone else, is first and foremost a baptized Christian and part of the priesthood of all believers. (S)he is not set apart as one having “moral or spiritual perfection” but rather as “one sent by the church to lead the community of faith through the ministry of word and sacrament.”[7] Therefore, as the appointed leader of a congregation, my words and actions will not only reflect on my local community but also my synod and the whole church. My responsibility is to all of these entities, and it is ultimately to the Gospel.

My responsibility as a public minister “whose life and conduct are above reproach” includes both faithful service and holy living. Faithful service means regularly participating in the means of grace and making them available to others, always being available as a pastoral caregiver, and being grounded and encouraging others in spiritual practices. It also means cherishing and respecting the mutual accountability of my ministerial colleagues and learning from each other. Lifelong learning and study of Scripture, theology, and the arts of ministry are also vital to be the best possible leader I can be. Similarly, holy living means integrity and trustworthiness, particularly in relationships, and it means consistency in all aspects of one’s life.

All things considered, living a life above reproach ultimately has to do with fostering the witness of the Gospel and my ability to carry out public ministry. The expression of that Gospel is nothing less than compassion and acts of radical hospitality, care of creation, and striving for peace and justice in all the earth.


[1] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), 20.

[2] Martin Luther, “The Small Catechism,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 355.

[3] Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., “The Augsburg Confession,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 42.

[4] Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), 75.

[5] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity, and Culture,” September 1993.

[6] http://bit.ly/1NRcyTL

[7] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “Vision and Expectations: Ordained Ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” April 2010, 7.

That time I preached about the Reformation during Advent…

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Sermon for ML 403 Preaching Lab
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
1 December 2015
Jeremiah 31.31-34 (Reformation Day)


[With thanks to fellow ML 403 student Analyse Triolo for the recording!]


When I was handed the little slip of paper for my final preaching text, I honestly anticipated what feast or festival I would be given with a bit of dread. After all, we’ve heard a sermon on an Old Testament text for the feast day of a New Testament apostle. And just two weeks ago, we heard three sermons on good old triumphalistic Christ the King Sunday. So not to be disappointed, I got… Reformation Day. I mean, really, what could a Lutheran seminarian possibly have to preach about the Reformation to a room full of the same?

We all know the story of the Reformation. So instead, journey with me on my research for my Religious Heritage paper, about 450 years beyond the time of Luther, to a lesser known but no less important era of our shared ecclesiastical history.

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Jacob Preus

Still some two decades before the dawn of the ELCA, our sisters and brothers in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod had just elected a new president (their equivalent of a presiding bishop), Jacob Preus. That same year, the seminary in St. Louis had also just chosen John Tietjen as its new president. But these two men could not have been more different.

Preus represented the old guard—what we might today call a fundamentalist. For his part, Preus was simply trying to hold together a church body with a fraught and fragile history, insisting that what they’ve always believed could still hold true and be counted on. But his view also thought of Lutheranism as a box: You either agree with us or you don’t. You’re either in or you’re out.

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John Tietjen

But trouble was brewing at the seminary in St. Louis. With the support of President Tietjen, the faculty began to rattle the box. They dared to suggest that the old way might not be the only way or the best way for a changing context. Thinking outside the box, they suggested that Lutheranism was instead a platform. As God’s word cannot be contained, neither can its proclamation.

The faculty of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis—and later Seminex—spoke against a system that tried to contain God’s word within an outmoded framework, privileging the old guard at the expense of those who sought to reform it.


When we gather every October 31st to commemorate the Reformation, we remember another group of reformers that likewise spoke against a system that tried to contain God’s word for a select, privileged few. Isn’t that interesting how church history tends to repeat itself?

The church of Luther’s day, as we know, tried to make salvation a commodity that could be boxed and bought. But Luther and the reformers knew that that’s not how grace works. Grace, they insisted, is freely available to all because it cannot be contained.

d84437ad811812321867d0b64ffc7efff8c5a434124475e335ecaa5d614ab147And surprise of surprises, this is a problem even older than church history itself. We see the same dilemma unfolding in our reading from Jeremiah this afternoon. The exile was one of the most earth-shattering events in the history of ancient Israel and spanned much of the prophet’s career. When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, they didn’t just take captives. They also destroyed and looted the Temple—the one place where the Jewish people thought God could be contained.

And this is the audience to which Jeremiah speaks his prophetic word. Talk about a challenge in pastoral care! And right smack-dab in the middle of the book comes our reading today: a vision of God’s new covenant and promise of restoration. Of course, Israel’s history of disobedience is nothing new, and in a way, neither is the certainty of God’s clear intent to forgive, no matter how many times God’s people mess up.

But there is also a sense that this “new covenant” is going to be different: It will “not be like” the old covenant, “no longer” will it be how it was in the past. The people thought God could only be found within their now destroyed temple, but God comes to them in a new, surprising way.

Jeremiah prophesies that not only can God’s word of grace not be contained, but that it comes when and how the people least expect it: the law will be written not on stone tablets but on their hearts, and this new covenant will include all people, not just the people of Israel. It disrupts their expectations of a neatly confined God with limited interests.

And so Jeremiah prophesies to us: In the moments that it feels like God is not where we have to come expect, we can look to the heritage of our tradition and our ancestors in faith for the confidence that God comes in quite different ways beyond our comfortable expectations and presuppositions. As we hear this word of reformation in the midst of the Advent season, I’m also reminded of the hymn text: “Unexpected and mysterious is the gentle word of grace.”


Lest we get too full of ourselves and our ELCA Lutheran pride on Reformation Day, we might do best to remind ourselves that God’s word is not limited to the Seminex movement either, nor is it limited to the pages of the Book of Concord. But as God’s word in Jeremiah is for all people, so then it must be able to speak always afresh to new contexts.

seminexThe logo that was designed for Seminex, after the faculty and student majority had no choice but to leave, depicts a chopped down, dead tree stump. But emerging from that stump is a new shoot of leaves. New life out of dead matter. That’s the message of the gospel. For the people of Jeremiah’s day, it meant God emerging from beyond the confines and rubble of a destroyed temple. Some time later in the history of salvation, it meant an empty tomb in a garden while it was still dark.

The good news today and every day is that God’s word of grace is always surprising and always being made new and manifested in unexpected and disarming ways. It can’t be boxed in—not in a temple, not in a sealed tomb, not in this chapel, not in doctrine or dogma made by humans. And for that, thanks be to God.

Some Thoughts on Charleston

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I haven’t really said anything about Charleston because, really, what more can I say that hasn’t already been said? I first heard the story on NPR on my way to CPE Thursday morning. To say I was horrified, like so many others, would be an understatement.

The next thought that came to my mind was that not one year ago I was on vacation in Charleston and fell in love with the city. I looked up the church on Google maps and saw that it’s only a few blocks away from the hotel I stayed at. Suddenly I realized it’s very possible that I may have unknowingly walked by one of Mother Emanuel’s members during my week-long stay.

Now, Charleston’s a big city, and the likelihood of that possibility is slim–but it exists. And it serves to underscore the reality that those killed Wednesday night are not just crime statistics but actual flesh-and-blood human beings. The age range of the victims goes from 26 to 87. These are people’s children, siblings, parents, grandparents, friends. I may have never met any of them, but those who did know them will live with irreplaceable loss for the rest of their lives.

I also read that two of the pastors killed were graduates of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, a sister institution of my own seminary in Chicago. The beloved community of Emanuel AME lost their spiritual leaders this week–the very people that they should be able to turn to when tragedies like this happen.

But this runs deeper than personal and institutional loss. This is about a problem in our country that just won’t go away. Ferguson. Staten Island. Cleveland. Baltimore. Charleston. It’s a litany of incidents of violence and disregard done to black bodies in this country, and it goes back to the very beginning. Slavery. Jim Crow. Lynchings. Mass incarceration. This is a systemic problem.

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Charleston case as a federal hate crime, and I applaud that decision. But this case seems to be more the exception than the rule. Not to mention that, as painful as it is to utter, Charleston will happen again. The only question is where and when.

So what do we do?

Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, urges us to get to work:

Each of us and all of us need to examine ourselves, our church and our communities. We need to be honest about the reality of racism within us and around us. We need to talk and we need to listen, but we also need to act. No stereotype or racial slur is justified. Speak out against inequity. Look with newly opened eyes at the many subtle and overt ways that we and our communities see people of color as being of less worth. Above all pray – for insight, for forgiveness, for courage. [1]

But how? Among those of us who have been in the trenches doing this work for a while, I can’t imagine I’m the only one who asks, “What more can we do?” Or to echo the psalmist, “How long, O Lord?”  How many more Fergusons and Charlestons do we have to go through?


This week, my Facebook feed has been filled with posts about Charleston. I read a few articles and watched a couple videos, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. Not because I didn’t want to or because I didn’t care. I just don’t know what to say anymore. And frankly, I’m tired of all this crap.

But I do know that we the church need to keep showing up. We need to keep showing up where the pain is, where the suffering is, where the brokenness is. And we need to keep witnessing to the radically inclusive Gospel that declares Black Lives Matter. We need to be the ones to declare to the evil of racism, no matter how many times it takes, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped!” (Job 38.11)

When the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Emanuel’s senior pastor and one of those killed on Wednesday night, was elected state senator, he was asked how he could reconcile being involved in politics with being a religious leader. He said, “Our calling is not just within the walls of the congregation, but we are part of the life and community in which our condition resides.” [2]

I don’t know if Rev. Pinckney knew how prophetic his words would be, but I think the best way to honor his memory and the memory of the other eight beloved children of God is to never forget those words. For indeed, whether we like it or not, our community is bound up in an inescapable network of mutuality. I only pray that all people might come to recognize that.


[1] http://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/7753

[2] http://www.npr.org/2015/06/18/415537203/when-charleston-s-c-pastor-spoke-people-listened