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

What’s the Catch? A Sermon About Costly Grace, Discipleship, and (of course) Threading Needles with Camels

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Grace Lutheran Church
11 October 2015 + Pentecost 20B
Mark 10.17-31


What’s the catch? It’s the question we ask when things just seem too good to be true. After four years of college and almost two years of seminary, I know that the surest way to attract poor students to your event is to offer free food. I’ve certainly taken advantage of my share of those opportunities—but always wondering: So what do I have to sit through, or sign up for, or commit to? What’s the catch?

It’s a question that I imagine was also on the mind of the man we meet in our gospel text today. Surely he had caught wind of Jesus’s rapidly spreading ministry—the healings, the exorcisms, the miracles, the resuscitations. And we know he’s intentionally seeking Jesus out. When he sees Jesus with the crowds and the children, he goes out of his way, distracted from his journey. There’s a sense of urgency and sincerity to his inquiry: he runs up to Jesus and kneels before him. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s a fair question, and he’s genuinely curious. What do I have to do to get in on this? Is it too good to be true? What’s the catch?

In response, Jesus is direct. Like a good Jew, he recites to him Torah, God’s law, and specifically the Ten Commandments. Do these things. That’s the catch. And like a good Jew, the man responds, “I have kept all these since my youth.” Check, check, and check! And then Jesus pauses and looks at him, lovingly, before continuing, as if to say, “You really don’t get it, do you? Let me try again.”

See, Jesus didn’t recite back all of the commandments, or even a random assortment. You might recall from the days of confirmation class that there are two “tables,” or subsets, of the Ten Commandments: the first table deals with our relationship to God, and the second deals with our relationship to other people. It’s this second set that Jesus highlights. You might also recall the famous passage a couple chapters later in Mark’s gospel where Jesus is asked which commandment is the first of all and he responds: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your mind, and with all your strength… [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12.30-31). Jesus effectively summarizes the two tables of the commandments, which is to say that in today’s passage, he effectively tells the rich man, “Love your neighbor.”

Jesus doesn’t discount this man’s keeping of the commandments, but he does tell him he is missing something. What Jesus is getting at is the difference between what we might call following “the letter of the law” versus “the spirit of the law.” In other words, the point is not following the commandments for their own sake but for the sake of communal justice. It’s not enough, for instance, to refrain from outright stealing from our neighbor, but, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor… then come, follow me.” Jesus makes looking out for our neighbor a prerequisite to discipleship, as if to say, “There’s your catch.” Love your neighbor. Take care of them. Then you’ll know what it means to follow me. But the man is shocked at this and goes away grieving.

image unashamedly stolen from Paul Eldred’s blog, whose excellent sermon on the same text you should also read

Then, following the pattern from last week’s reading, the conversation moves from the public sphere to the private circle of the disciples, where Jesus elaborates: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” But the disciples don’t get it either, so he says it again and even adds an intentionally absurd comparison, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” And still they don’t get it.

Echoing back to the rich man’s question, the disciples ask, “Then who can be saved?” What’s the catch? And pausing and looking at them in the same way, Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” What? Another catch?

Perhaps it’s understandable then when Peter, exasperated, declares, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” What more do you want, Jesus? And then Jesus finally lets in on what his movement is all about: “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” This message that Jesus is proclaiming is going to turn things upside-down and inside-out. It’s getting back to the heart of God’s law that is concerned about justice, and it insists on removing those things, like wealth and greed, that get in the way.


So how do we inherit eternal life? What’s the catch? As good Lutherans, we know that there is no catch. Grace alone, right? Well, yes and no. And before you run to Pr. Kevin and accuse the seminary intern of heresy, let me be perfectly clear: We are indeed saved by grace through faith for Christ’s sake apart from works. (Did I get that right?) It’s what our Lutheran faith is all about, and for good measure, lest we forget, it’s even posted on a sign on one of our bulletin boards here. But it’s also much more than that.

Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, famously wrote about the “cost of discipleship.” With a fierce commitment to peace and social justice, Bonhoeffer offered a prophetic critique of the church of his day which had been sold out and corrupted by the Nazi regime, often openly endorsing Hitler’s politics to preserve itself. It ignored state-sanctioned tyranny and the violence being done against the Jews and other minorities at the expense of the gospel they were supposed to be preaching.

For the church of Bonhoeffer’s day, “grace alone” had turned into an excuse to ignore social sin, resulting in a failure to resist injustice. In other words, “grace alone” had turned into “cheap grace,” as Bonhoeffer writes:

Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before… Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship. [1]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945

Cheap grace is a misunderstanding, Bonhoeffer claims, of what Luther had in mind when he said we are saved by grace alone. Cheap grace ignores the fact that Luther’s discovery of grace thrust him from the cloister to the world. For Luther, being saved by grace was only half of the point, and its necessary corollary was rooted in the obligation of discipleship. Put plainly: Grace is indeed a welcome word of good news to the sinner, but grace doesn’t just let us sit back in idleness as before, as though nothing has changed. Because of grace and the inbreaking of God’s new reality, everything has changed. The sick are healed, the dead are raised, the poor are lifted up, the outcast are welcomed in, the first are last, the last are first, the humanly impossible is divinely possible.

Costly grace, far from a “one-and-done” occurrence, is a living reality. Costly grace calls us to follow Jesus, like the rich man and the disciples. Costly grace beckons a life of discipleship, which Bonhoeffer knew all too well. Costly grace drove him from the confines of his comfortable career in academia to the confines of a concentration camp. Bonhoeffer risked his own life for being bold enough to speak out against the gross injustice and corruption he saw going on, and it ultimately cost him his life. Cheap grace lets us acquiesce in the face of injustice; costly grace demands that we call it out.

The life of discipleship to which Jesus invites the rich man and to which he calls each of us is not about following rules for the sake of following rules but for the sake of our neighbor. Like Bonhoeffer knew, discipleship means questioning the status quo when it contradicts God’s will for justice. It means standing in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. It means removing all those obstacles that get in the way. It even means practicing civil disobedience—or is it divine obedience?—when our state’s budget crisis threatens our most vulnerable populations, as our own local Lutheran bishop and countless other people of faith have done in a series of demonstrations this past summer.

faith leaders, with a camel, at a “Moral Monday” rally this summer in protest of the Illinois state budget cuts (photo credit: Tom Gaulke)

So what’s the catch? How do we enter the kingdom of God? Again, let me be perfectly clear: we are saved by grace through faith because of what God in Christ has freely done for us. But because of Christ’s redeeming work, we are freed to love and serve our neighbor. It’s not that we’re earning grace, but rather that we’re living in response to it. The kingdom of God is all about justice, and it’s a work in progress to which each of us is called to participate.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Cost of Discipleship,” in A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 308.