A Sermon about Being a Church That Is Always Reforming

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



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #729

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

– Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #436

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

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

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

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

– Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #349

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

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

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

– Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #378


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

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

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

A Sermon about Listening and What It Means to Be a Disciple

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photo credit: Alex Witt

 

 

 

This is the first sermon preached at my internship site. Click here and here to learn more about the congregation I will be serving for the next year in the city of Omaha, Nebraska.


Augustana Lutheran Church
17 July 2016 + Lectionary 16C
Luke 10.38-42



It’s been a hard couple of weeks. I’ve found that one of the ways I cope with tragedies is by showing up to vigils and protests to stand and to grieve and to be angry in solidarity with the community. Last Friday, I was able to join demonstrators at the corner of 120th and Center in what was an overwhelmingly peaceful protest in response to the shootings in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas. Many of those gathered carried signs:

“Black lives matter.”

“No justice, no peace.”

“Racism kills.”

And one particularly poignant sign held by a young Black woman: “I am Sandra Bland.”

That rally Friday night reminded me of another. It was November 24, 2014, and I was in Chicago. It was the night that St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch would announce that the grand jury had decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson earlier that year. What I remember most about that night is all of the waiting for those of us gathered in vigil outside of police headquarters — and then the silent, and nervous, listening as we huddled around a radio to hear McCulloch’s announcement.

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outside Chicago police headquarters, November 24, 2014


Listening has indeed been on my mind since I began reading the gospel text for this week. Mary, Luke tells us, “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” But Martha, left by herself to coordinate her sudden out-of-town guests, is understandably upset and tries to get Jesus to tell her sister to help. But Jesus instead commends Mary for listening.

Is Jesus suggesting that Martha’s acts of hospitality toward him are unwelcome? Is he being a bad guest? To read it that way, and understandably so, we might come to the conclusion that Jesus is placing a higher value on one sister’s expression of love over the other.

But, in a blog post this week, Karoline Lewis warns us against falling into the trap of comparing these two sisters and assigning value to their actions. Instead, she suggests that this is a text about discipleship and about who gets to be called a disciple of Jesus.

Consider last week: The Samaritan, a foreigner despised by the Jews for his ethnic identity, is the one who shows us what it means to love our neighbor. And now: Mary, a woman, takes the place of a male disciple, transgressing social boundaries to show us what it means be devoted to God’s Word. Representatives of two marginalized groups that Jesus lifts up as the model for discipleship — a discipleship that means being attentive to God’s Word and to the needs of others. Being and doing.

But again, it’s not about choosing Mary over Martha. The kind of hospitality that Martha shows is indeed important: that much Luke makes clear. But it is a matter of from where her actions flow:

Martha does what she does because it’s what society has told and conditioned her to do. It serves to maintain the status quo — in this case, trying to keep Martha distracted from claiming her place as a disciple by virtue of her gender.

But Mary chooses to disregard those social boundaries. She recognizes that loving God and being attentive to God’s Word take precedence, and Jesus commends her for this — essentially putting his seal of approval on an act of “civil disobedience.”

And then Luke helps us connect the dots: Together, the parable of the good Samaritan and the story about Martha and Mary highlight what it means to be a disciple — to “hear the Word of God and do it.” Devotion and service. Both are important, but one will naturally flow from the other.


Jesus’s commendation highlights the first of these: listening. Because it is what is being listened to that is important. And that, namely, is God’s Word — the good news, as Paul reminds us, that “through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to God’s self all things” (Colossians 1.20). That, dear people, is the bedrock of our faith, and it is only that we are freed from sin that we are also freed for the service of our neighbor. Doing flows from being.

Luther puts in this way in a letter to the pope in 1520:

“This is a truly Christian life. Here faith is truly active through love, that is, it finds expression in works of the freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with which a [person] willingly serves another without hope of reward… Although the Christian is thus free from all works, [we] ought in this liberty to empty [ourselves], take upon [ourselves] the form of a servant, be made in the likeness of [humankind], be found in human form, and to serve, help, and in every way deal with [our] neighbor as we see that God through Christ has dealt and still deals with [us].” [1]

Faith active in love is the gentle corrective Jesus offers to Martha, and to us, in his commendation of Mary’s devotion. Faith active in love is what it looks like when we combine Mary’s devotion and Martha’s service. Faith active in love is another way of saying that we are a public church — a church beyond the four walls of a sanctuary, immersed in service to our community.

wordsacramentBut we are also still, above all, church, rooted in Word and Sacrament. Emily Heath, a UCC pastor in New Hampshire, writes this:

“I am sometimes worried that we in the progressive church put the cart before the horse when it comes to social justice. It’s not that I believe we are advocating for the wrong things; it’s that I believe we sometimes advocate for the wrong reasons, acting first and then wedging theological meaning in later.” [2]

What we need to reclaim, says Heath, is discipleship. Indeed, she even goes so far as to call it “the next big thing” she envisions for the church.

It’s when we lose sight of “the church’s one foundation,” as the hymn puts it, that we become just another public advocacy group. Because when the church is reduced to a public advocacy group, then the church has nothing to say:

when an unarmed Black man is shot to death by police;

or even when an armed Black man is shot for trying to tell police he had a legal concealed weapon on his person when he’s just trying to reach for his ID;

or when a truck plows through a crowd in France and kills dozens, including at least ten children, celebrating a national holiday.

But the church does have something to say. The church has a message worth listening t0 — and worth proclaiming.

The church proclaims Christ crucified for the sake of the world.

The church gathers to confess its sin and trust in the promise of God’s forgiveness.

The church listens to the Word that promises a God who has been, is, and ever shall be with her peoples to wipe away every tear from their eyes.

The church attends to the mysteries at table and font.

And certainly not least of all, the church, so filled with these things, is sent into the world to strive for justice and peace.

In other words, the bedrock of our faith — the gospel of Jesus Christ — comes first. And upon that foundation, like a garden of fertile soil, spring forth the fruits of peace and justice. Doing flows from being.

The disciples of the church of Christ — you and me — hear the Word of God and do it. It starts with hearing, really listening, for when we listen to the gospel, we hear a message of God’s extravagant grace for us and for the whole world.


[1] Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian,” in Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), 74-75.

[2] https://emilycheath.com/2014/09/16/the-next-big-thing-for-the-progressive-church-putting-the-horse-before-the-cart/

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.