Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
I write this letter to you two days after the historic installation of our new bishop. The Rev. Patricia Davenport was elected in May at our synod’s assembly to serve a six-year term as bishop. She also happened to be the first African descent woman elected as bishop in the ELCA!
At the installation service, the preacher and other speakers focused on how the Holy Spirit is at work in our church to continue to do new things. As we look towards the end of this month, and the 501st anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, I ponder the question: what makes our church Lutheran?
In America, the Lutheran church was initially a church of immigrants: those coming from Germany, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, among others. For too long, though, we have continued to define “being Lutheran” among these ethnic lines. “Lutherans drink beer,” or “Lutherans eat lefse,” or “Lutherans make Jell-O salad.”
While the traditions of particular peoples can and should be cherished, they are not the only definitions of what it means to be Lutheran. At the bishop’s installation, we sang “A Mighty Fortress.” We also sang “We’ve Come This Far By Faith,” a great African American spiritual. We had a traditional procession, two by two. We also had impromptu dancing and celebrating in the aisles. It was a beautiful reminder that to be Lutheran does not have to do with what foods we eat, what music we sing, or where our ancestors came from.
To be Lutheran is to celebrate God’s grace. To live each day knowing that we are claimed, loved, forgiven, and sent by God. To be Lutheran is to accept who we are, our faults and our failures, and our gifts and possibilities. To be Lutheran is to be a follower of Jesus, who invites us and all people to a new way of viewing the world.
At the 500th anniversary of the Reformation last year, we rightly spent time looking backward, commemorating those saints of the past who have brought us to today and reflecting on the joys and sorrows of those many years. At this 501st anniversary, we must set our sights forward. Who will we be as Lutherans in these next 500 years? Or these next five years?
Questions like this can create anxiety, because they imply that things are changing. And change is scary sometimes. When I look at a changing church, I too have worries about what the future will bring. But mostly I have hope. Because the Holy Spirit continues to be on the move in the church, and our future is in God’s hands. We can look to the future without worry or anxiety, because whatever the future brings, God will be with us, always reforming and making all things new.