The Rev. Michael Wilker, senior pastor at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Washington, D.C., was upset Friday afternoon.
Wilker, a 1982 graduate of Owatonna High School, had just received word that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and his local bishop were asking churches not to meet in their sanctuaries Sunday because of threats of violence against the churches.
“President Trump and his supporters have so warped the transition of power that they have even corrupted the freedom to worship without fear,” said Wilker. “I don’t know what we are going to do, yet.”
Like many other congregations across the nation, Wilker’s church has been livestreaming its services for months because of the COVID-19. Each Sunday, 12 people would gather in the sanctuary to lead the service from the church. On Sunday, Jan. 17, Wilker was the only one at the church. Others participated from their homes.
“These are scary times and infuriating,” said Wilker in an interview following the Jan. 6 deadly riots on Capitol Hill. “I wasn’t pastor of these people during 9/11, but some of them say the fear they had last Wednesday was the same as 9/11.”
Unlike 9/11, Wilker said, these terrorists are homegrown. “It’s people from the U.S, who attacked the Capitol.”
Perhaps most infuriating to Wilker were the signs bearing Christian symbols being carried and waved against the backdrop of a noose attached to a wooden beam.
He said the blasphemous imagery and acts were all too reminiscent of President Donald Trump posing for a photo in front of a church with an upside-down Bible in his hands during a Black Lives Matter protest last summer.
“I’m a Lutheran pastor and I’m dealing this as a theological issue,” said Wilker. “We are a nation of sinners right now.”
And Wilker told his congregation as much on Jan. 10, the Sunday after the Capitol riots.
“You and I and our nation need to be healed and freed from the idolatry, cruelty, greed, and violence,” Wilker said from the pulpit.
“Since the European Reformation, when we are most faithful to God in Jesus Christ, Lutherans have sought to reform of civil society whenever it has failed to care for our neighbors, protect all people, and enable human societies to flourish.”
In his sermon that Sunday, Wilker cited three temptations Christians must avoid:
- To believe that God’s two ways of governing through the church and government are entirely unrelated. This happens when faith is privatized and seen as unrelated to God’s hidden work in civil life. (This was one of the ways German Christians justified support of the Nazi government.)
- To dismiss government as unnecessary or wholly evil.
- To allow any government, country, political movement or party to claim a privileged relationship with God or special status in God’s plan for redemption.
“Christians and our churches must repent of the ways some have harmfully traded in steadfast Christian ideals for a false white Christian nationalism and white supremacy,” said Wilker. “We must address the fear the white Christians have about the loss of political power.”
Wilker’s congregation is 90-95% white, although most who live in the suburbs surrounding D.C. are African American, Latino and Asian. He said most of his parishioners grew up in the Midwest and moved to D.C. as young adults because they wanted to do something good.
They’re civil servants, said Wilker, adding that some work for Congress, while others work at the myriad of government agencies that keep the government running.
“Lutherans see government as an institution through which we can do good,” said Wilker.
And that belief for Wilker dates back to his formative years in Owatonna.
Wilker credits his home congregation at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Meriden and his family for his deeply rooted belief that helping people – at home and abroad – is how we love our neighbors.
“In church, our congregation raised money every year for the farmers in Africa,” said Wilker recalling a banner that hung in the church. It had North America and Africa on either side, with a hoe connecting Meriden and Tanzania in the middle.
He was in high school in 1980, when the American Lutheran Church called for divestiture in companies that supported Apartheid because it was a sin.
“Sitting around the kitchen table is was clear to me was that my parents as Christians shared a common belief -- love thy neighbor,” said Wilker, adding that they had different ways to doing it.
“I’m worried there is a large body in the United States who don’t love their neighbor any longer,” said Wilker.
The benefits of leading an active civic life was further engrained by what he’d learned from his grandfather, Levern Wilker, and through 4-H.
Wilker said his grandfather became a soil conservationist after he retired from the farm and he volunteered for Al Quie, who represented the First District in Congress.
And it was a 4-H trip that took the young Wilker to D.C. for the first time. During that week-long trip on citizenship, Wilker said, he learned that to be a good citizen is to act with informed concern for yourself and others.
Wilker also said high school social studies classes helped shape who he’s become today. “All four years, we had such good opportunities to learn about history in the world.
After graduating from OHS in 1982, headed off to St. Olaf College in Northfield to earn his undergraduate degree in History and American Studies. But it was through his experiences with the Lutheran Volunteer Corps (LVC), a full-time volunteer and leadership program based in D.C., that Wilker’s path to the ministry became clear. It’s also where met his wife, Judy, who was also a LVC volunteer in D.C.
After earning his master’s in divinity at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Calif., in 1994 and Wilker was ordained at his home church back in Meriden. He served as a pastor in churches in California and New York, before returning to D.C. in 2005 to become president of the Lutheran Volunteer Corps. In October 2011, Wilker accepted a call to the Lutheran Church of Reformation, where he is the senior pastor.
In many ways, Wilker’s life path resembles those of his parishioners. He left the Midwest and finds himself in Washington, D.C. to live out his baptismal calling to help others.
Wilker and his family try to return to Minnesota at least once a year to visit his mother, Jon Wilker, who taught health at the junior high for years, and his brother, Kent, and his family who reside on the family homestead.
Baptism of Our Lord Sunday
January 10, 2021
The Rev. Michael Wilker
Lutheran Church of the Reformation
Grace and peace to you from God our creator, from Jesus our Lord, and from
the Holy Spirit the bringer of peace.
As all Jerusalem and the country of Judea go to baptized by John in the River
Jordan, Jesus is among the repentant. When Jesus comes out of the waters, the
heavens are torn open, the Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove, and the
voice of God says. “You are my beloved.”
Baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the voice of God
also speaks to you: You are my beloved. You are the beloved of God.
Today we are suffering from the trauma of the insurrection and terrorist
attack upon the Capitol. I pray that the healing peace of God descends upon
you. Just like each person in a family experiences grief differently, each of us in
our body politic suffers from this trauma differently. Be gentle with
yourselves and one another. Rest when you can. Seek help. Set boundaries for
your health and safety. You and I and our nation need to be healed and freed
from idolatry, cruelty, greed, and violence.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ begins with such a cry for
liberation from sin. A messenger in the wilderness prepares the way of the
Lord. This messenger can bring comfort, judgement and purification, and can
be a guard and a guide.
For John the Baptist the message is a call to repentance and renewal. The
River Jordan is the river John’s ancestors, descendants of enslaved Hebrews in
Egypt, finally crossed after their 40-year journey from slavery into the
In his day John was calling his people to acknowledge and leave their present-
day slavery behind. The call to repentance was comprehensive and included
both the personal and political.
Notice who responded. The Gospel of Mark says everyone in Jerusalem, the
capital city, and the whole country of Judea came to the river. Luke’s gospel
gets more specific: soldiers, tax collectors, and people with more wealth than
they need were the ones who responded. Today, we would say these are
military and police personnel, civic servants, and most of us not living in
These are the people who are repenting, learning and acknowledging their
complicity with idolatry, cruelty, greed, and violence.
They ask John to guide them to change and John instructs them:
i. Soldiers—do not threaten the people and be satisfied with
ii. Tax collectors—collect only what is allowed and no
iii. People who have too many clothes or
resources—share with your neighbor.
iv. Notice John doesn’t tell them to leave their roles, but
to reform their civic work for the good of the neighbor.
And Jesus is among the repentant who seek renewal. Often the people seeking
repentance and renewal don’t recognize Jesus as the savior among them.
Sometimes they don’t hear or understand the voice of God blessing and
commissioning Jesus. Even when people do sense something divine about
Jesus, they often misunderstand and still fail. Peter, one of Jesus’s chief
disciples, who sometimes is referred to as a zealot (possibly a Jewish
nationalist group seeking to overthrow the Roman empire by force), pulls out
a sword to prevent Jesus from being arrested on the night before his torture
and execution on the cross.
Yet, Jesus is among the military, police, civil servants and residents who come
to the river for repentance and renewal. Jesus is there—Jesus is here—with
and among our civil work and life.
Since the European Reformation, when we are most faithful to God in Jesus
Christ, Lutherans have sought to reform of civil society whenever it has failed
to care for our neighbors, protect all people, and enable human societies to
flourish. We recognize the ambiguity that civil government at all levels can be
a force for good or for evil, and most accurately, both in some combination. It’s
a realistic view of government and civic institutions. This realistic
understanding can help us avoid an idolatrous endorsement of politicians, the
government, or its policies and also avoid a cynical rejection of the good
government and civil leaders and workers provide.
Luther and the Lutheran church have also taught that engaging in civic work is
one of the chief ways we live out the blessing and call of our baptism.
Household, church, work/school, and civic life. In all four arenas baptized
people join God’s work to care for creation and love our neighbors as
Last summer the ELCA released a social message titled “Government and Civic
Engagement in the US: Discipleship in a Democracy.” One of the authors,
Pastor Amy Ruemann, the ELCA director of advocacy, will be Reformation’s
guest preacher next Sunday, January 17, as we commemorate Martin Luther
King, Jr. as a renewer of the church.
Our church recognizes at least three temptations that must be avoided:
The belief that God’s two ways of governing through the church and
government are entirely unrelated. This happens when faith is
privatized and seen as unrelated to God’s hidden work in civil life. (This
was one of the ways German Christians justified support of the Nazi
The dismissal of government as unnecessary or wholly evil.
The temptation for any government, country, political movement or
party to claim a privileged relationship with God or special status in
God’s plan for redemption.
The ELCA social message also makes an important connection between role of
empathy in civil work and the role of forgiveness.
b. As used in political discourse, empathy includes the capacity to
recognize and honor every human being as a person with dignity
and rights. For the Christian, empathy is one way in which love
and compassion (Matthew 25:31-46) may be embodied in the
world of civil authority, through God’s left-hand work.
c. As the gospel message of forgiveness releases individuals from
incapacitating anxiety about their own salvation, it opens up
space in their worldly lives for a sense of vocation of service to
their neighbors. Empathy cannot negate the pervasive and
insidious power of sinful self-centeredness or the fear that lies
behind it. Nevertheless, empathy helps us see even strangers as
neighbors—to become aware of our biases—as we try to imagine
the world from perspectives other than our own and act
So what now?
1. We trust God’s forgiveness is lavish and has the power to raise the
dead to new life. However, we are not a church of cheap grace and a
quick fix. When we sin we must be stopped, have our power to harm
taken away, held accountable for the harm we have down, and repair
the harm with our own resources when possible. All of this is part of
the process of repentance, repair, and reconciliation.
Therefore, on Friday, ELCA presiding bishop Eaton has joined the
leaders of the Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and African
Methodist Episcopal churches calling on President Trump to
immediately resign or be removed from office.
2. Christians and our churches must repent of the ways some have
harmfully traded in steadfast Christian ideals for a false white
Christian nationalism and white supremacy. Jesus Saves, Crosses,
Bibles, Trump=Jesus the Messiah.
3. We must address the fear the white Christians have about the loss of
political power. Since 2008, the country has moved from being a
majority Christian nation to one that is no longer a majority Christian
nation (from 54% white and Christian to 44% white and Christian).
Anger, denial, bargaining. “The decline of the old, Constantinian
synthesis between the church and the world means that we
American Christians are at last free to be faithful in a way that makes
being Christian today an exciting adventure.”
4. We can continue to understand and dismantle white racism in the
American church. Please attend our dialogue series on Sundays at
8:30 and Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m. This is part of the work of the
5. We can love our neighbors here in DC and repair the harm of racism.
We can continue our alliance with African American and other
congregations (Jews, Muslims, Christians and others) through the
Washington Interfaith Network. This Thursday, January 14, WIN
member congregations NY Ave Presbyterian and Emory United
Methodist are hosting a seminar with the Rev. James Lawson, one of
the architects of the 20 th century movement for civil and human
rights. He taught the Gandian principles of active non-violent change
to John Lewis, Diane Nash, and others.
6. We are open the gates of welcome for refugee resettlement and
immigration reform. Refugees and immigrants have been scapegoats.
With Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Lutheran Social
Services, and our Capitol Hill Good Neighbors ministry we will have a
lot of good work to do.
Finally, Worship and seek spiritual renewal in the waters of creation. Go to
the waters. Come to worship. Bring your whole self and all that you touch.
Bring your work and studies, your household, family and friends, your
church, all your sorrows, all your dreams, your whole life. Turn to God and
be refreshed and renewed. Jesus is with you as you come to the waters.
Jesus is with you in the waters. The heavens are open and the voice of God
says, You are my beloved.
Thanks be to God. Amen