Governance, Volunteers, and Boards, Oh My!

In this second week of learning about church administration, I read about boards, governance and planning. If you want to follow along, this week I’m reading and reflecting on chapters 3 and 4 of Church Administration by Robert N. Bacher and Michael L. Cooper-White.

There was a great deal of helpful and practical content in this section on a variety of topics: the role of a council, its theological foundation, how to call and orient new members, how to manage risk and conflict, how to have good meetings, and how to keep on track.

As I read through these sections, I recalled specific situations and people from my congregation currently, but also churches in the past; good and not so good situations.

On page 55, Bacher and Cooper-White articulate the need for the chair (or president) of a council to draw from the quieter members who otherwise don’t speak up very often in meetings. Likewise they also encouraged the chair to intermittently, especially during discussion on “hot” issues, to do a “round table” and ask for the thoughts and/or questions of each council member before proceeding with more formal discussion or decided-upon action through a vote. Using a reference such as Robert’s Rules of Order is helpful to keep meetings moving, but the authors warned to avoid “heavy-handed legalistic meeting conduct.” At a previous congregation, I observed that one council member in particular was helpful with referring back to Robert’s Rules of Order when the meeting got stuck. She was outspoken and confident, helpful but also made me nervous.

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I couldn’t help but listen to the question rolling around in my head as I read these chapters:

How do you trust people to be leaders and bring their expertise and gifts…and trust them?

I could take on all the work myself… I could waste time searching for sixty name tags instead of asking my co-worker where the box is. I could cold-call dozens of people to help with my project instead of asking my co-worker for a list of her all-star adult volunteers. I could plan for five hours of large-group teaching content about vocation instead of having students learn about vocation by also serving and talking with a trusted adult.

These are some of the administration-related questions that surfaced during my internship project a few months ago. I had a dream that students and adults could discover and feel affirmed in their vocations by learning together, serving together, and debriefing together over 5 weeks. There were (and still are) 30 students. So with my 30 mentors, that’s 60 individuals’ contact information (& parents’ email addresses), schedules, assessment results, assessment codes, and booklets to track, manage, and somehow get into a tidy bin for the confirmation pastor at the end of five weeks to demonstrate their learning.

How do you trust people to be leaders and bring their expertise on a board, on a council, or for an internship project?

I’m still not completely sure, but I think it has to do something with this: It’s not about making people do things for you, it’s about seeing and pointing out an opportunity for that person to try out a gift that you’ve seen in them over and over again.

I’m so lucky to be in this work, because when I hear that someone at church is really into mentoring, and wishes that our church was more into mentoring, I can tap on their shoulder and say “Hey, I heard that you were really into mentoring, and I could use someone with your passion and presence as I try out this project for a couple weeks, could you help me?”

As an intern, I’m probably doe-eyed thinking that all things governance and administration can be significantly altered if we just identify and invite people into opportunities. Rather than the bulletin announcement, “NEEDED: 1 council member,” maybe it’s a tap on the shoulder that affirms someone’s quiet but persistent leadership, and without that tap on the shoulder, they would have never known they had that gift, or a gift.

Has there ever been a time when it was necessary to trust another leader and it was tough to do? Was there ever a time you trusted a leader with a responsibility, volunteer or otherwise, and they betrayed your trust? Why do you think it’s so hard to trust others and delegate responsibility? What are the gifts of trusting others with responsibility?

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A Red Thread: An overlooked and necessary part of ministry

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You can’t see it here, but after I read this paragraph I wrote in the margin “anxious,” boldly underlined. Church, why do you require so much effort in areas that I’m not very good at? In Church Administration by Robert N. Bacher and Michael L. Cooper-White, we read how the burgeoning church, just decades after Jesus’ resurrection, responded to the call to follow Jesus by engaging in these administrative efforts:

  • fiscal challenges
  • ecumenical relations
  • raising money
  • establishing and managing volunteers
  • creative communication (no cell towers or phones)
  • reconciliation among congregations
  • “[preserving] of the church as a Christian institution”

Oh boy. How is an ordained person, who often is one of two or less paid staff in the average ELCA congregation, supposed to do all that?

This is, of course, where I started. In a panic, thinking that I needed to gather all the information I could on a topic that I don’t have much strength in, so I can “do it all” and “be it all” to my future first congregation (God willing, I will be in a first call soon after internship). #superpastor (yes, I will reflect on my reflection).

If you know me at all, you know that I function from and believe in serving from a strengths-based place. God made and makes us all loved and worthy children of God who each have a unique set of experiences, stories, backgrounds, gifts and strengths (Luke 10:27). So why do we waste so much time fixing or filling the holes of places that we aren’t as good in, rather than asking for help and giving family, friends, congregants, or our fellow humans the opportunity to serve and lead from their strengths too?

I told my internship supervisor about this hidden assumption of mine. As I learn (and experience) my assumptions and questions on internship, we thought this was the best topic for my last class, a .5 online independent study with a hilarious, creative, and un-bounded vision caster for the church and the world, Dr. Terri Elton. So, I’m studying church administration. I will be walking through our main text, Church Administration, two chapters a week and interviewing church administrators along the way. I will post my weekly reflections here. I’m excited to book-learn and church-learn in my internship context, and I hope you also contribute in the comments on your contextual learning and questions. I have a feeling I’m not alone in my wondering about how to engage with administration while keeping myself from the temptation of doing it all myself.

Because here’s my starting point; my starting hunch (I know, hundreds of words later, but I’m getting there; you made it here, I’m proud of you!). Church administration is not something to visit or revisit only at times of crisis. It’s a red thread that is woven through every small group, every worship service, every quilters’ group, every late night council meeting, every community meal, and every staff and non-staff’s service experience.

You guys.

This is in everything. All the time.

And this isn’t something to panic about, like when you first learned about germs as a 1st grader; aahhhhh they’re everywhere! It’s something to reorient as a ministry alongside other ministries in a congregation. Bachor and Cooper-White explain that “administration” comes from the Latin ad + ministrare, meaning literally “one who ministers to.” To me, this means the ministries of a church are literally arranged and managed by those gifted in counting, governing, planning, and doing other administration-y things. These people are ministers.

“…[the] one whose work is primarily administrative is no less a faithful servant than those who mostly preach, teach or counsel…it is time for the church to reclaim the holiness of vocations that involve a major measure of administrative work” (vii).

This work, the behind-the-scenes of work of budgets, money, supervising, and schedules is holy work. This work is done by specific people in a congregation, but it’s also work that each leader does a little (or a lot) of in their role. In both ways, we’re reminded that all of our contributions are significant as we are each ministers, and part of the priesthood that God calls us to be (1st Peter 2:9).

You might be thinking, “Allison, but you went to school for and will make an awesome pastor-minister person! How can we all be ministers if you’re the minister?”

Good question. It’s both. A congregation has a minister or ministers (some have a synodically-authorized one if they’re tight on cash), and we’re all ministers. Those who are ordained in the ELCA administer communion and baptism and preach, and are in a separate space (or “office,” like the office of the president or the office of a superintendent) and get compensated. Those who aren’t ordained (or who aren’t on staff) don’t get paid by the congregation/synod/community.  There are other distinctions between ordained ministers and all other ministers (everyone else, as we’re all called and children of God), but the point is that this concept is not black and white. If you’re reading this, looking back at your phone or laptop screen, we’re the same and we’re not. All at the same time.

As you can see by all my parentheses in that paragraph, I’m not satisfied with my own answer, because to say “it’s a both and!” or “it’s just another Lutheran paradox!” is I think a cop-out. Are we the same or are we different? What is it? Where is the peace and justice in knowing that one of us gets all the Starbucks gift cards for our faithful public ministry, and one of us just doesn’t? (it always comes back to coffee, doesn’t it). We’ll leave this topic for another day. I can feel Terri looking at my word count so let’s move on, at least for now. Priesthood of all believers and ministers (the theme of), I’m coming back for you!

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What I wanted to land on as I reflect on these first two chapters of Church Administration is that when a group of motivated people gather to serve and discern God’s call, administration is a pair of glasses that they need to wear in order to carry out that service and discernment effectively. Bacher and Cooper-White write that administration and governance are enacted, “when two or more persons engage in a common purpose” (1).

When two brains, or two hearts, or two strengths connect and say:

  • “Let’s try this new church thing.”
  • “What if we try this church thing like this?”
  • “I wonder what it would be like if we did church this way?”

…there is one purpose. There is a common purpose. Administration is a color in that new portrait of what the church looks like today. We could leave out that color, but we could be leaving out the color that ties all the rest of the colors together, or makes all the other colors work together. They just work.

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I think Paul had this hunch about administration when he was first leading congregations who were sorting out what it meant to follow Jesus; a resurrected savior with an unpredictable, unbelievable story. How do you spread that message? How do you engage an entire community around a faith in Jesus that doesn’t peter out, but blazes a new path and direction in a world that is ripe with possibilities for new life, second chances, and new growth for all? That’s the urgency. That’s the call. So how does a congregation utilize the gift of administration as a red thread that helps us do our diverse ministry and work, and respond to God’s call most effectively?

That’s what I hope to learn more about in these six weeks with you. When was a time when you felt in over your head with administrative tasks (yes, “conflict” is a topic that will be explored in the weeks to come)? What pushed you to ask for help in administrative stuff, or what are you hoping to find help in, as an ordained, otherly-rostered or non-official pastor person, when it comes to administration?

Eye to Eye with a Prodigal Son: Where Are You?

I preached this sermon at my internship site this past weekend on the prodigal son story from Luke 15 (NRSV):

So here we are at a story we hear once every three years – the story of a reckless son who runs away from home, and with a changed heart, is welcomed home by his dad with a big feast and a big party.

This is one of the most well-known parables that Jesus tells to make a point. He’s telling it to a group of Pharisees and scribes—as a part of the “Lost” stories: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. In a lot of Bibles, the little title above it will say “The Prodigal Son” – which means recklessly extravagant—that the younger son recklessly spends his dad’s money, and likewise, the Father showers extravagant love to his son as he returns, even though this son is repenting for all the money he wasted and life decisions that ran him into the ground.

But if you ask people from other areas in the world, they don’t see it that way. When asked “Why did the Son end up where he did?” An answer from Russia: famine. Another from someone in Africa: Nobody helped him. In North America: He squandered/wasted his money (Powell, What Do They Hear?). Perspective matters.

Just like it totally matters if you are the oldest child or youngest in your family as you read this text, right? If you’re a younger child, you might identify with the younger son who was wanted to travel and see a whole different place but realized he had been wasteful and receives the abundant love of his Father as comes home. But if you’re the older child, you want justice for the son who stayed diligently by his family at the house.

One way or another, you are in this story.

The first people to hear this story would have been appalled. The younger son doesn’t even say “please,” he just asks for the money that will be left to him, and he leaves. In the ancient world, asking for this money, is like saying that you would rather have your parents be dead. It’s pretty awful, but the Father gives it to him, and the younger Son spends it on “dissolute,” meaning, “lacking in morals.” A famine comes, he starts eyeing the pig’s food jealously, and he confesses his sin and comes home. Before he even get to the house, his Dad is runs to the returning son, gives him nice clothes, throws a big party and supper, and it’s like he doesn’t even need to hear his son’s confession—he is just overjoyed that his youngest son is back.

But the older son.

He’s in the field, and in addition to his own work, he has been picking up the work his younger son tossed aside ever since he left. No one found him to tell him the news that his brother has come home, but as he was working and approached the house, he heard it. Music, celebrating, affirmation, laughter, connection, forgiveness.

I wonder, in that moment, the older son said to no one in particular: “But I stayed.”

You can hear the spite in his voice when he confronts his dad, “I have been working like a slave for you & have never disobeyed or did anything wrong or anything that wasn’t helpful.” It’s important for us to hear his anger, but also to hear his allegiance that boarders on obligation. He’s hoping that his hard and harder and hardest work and perfect attendance will earn his dad’s love. His recklessly extravagant love. His joy and his gratitude has been worn to a nub. It’s almost as if his lack of joy keeps him from hearing.

His dad, ready to celebrate, ready to hold one son under each arm, looks at his oldest and says:

Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.

I can almost hear his dad wondering inside: Where are you? Where are your eyes? Where is your spark? I want to tell you this—you need to know! This is yours! I am yours! Why can’t you hear this, I’m right here!

But he can’t hear that.

Because his mind is loud with the stirring thoughts, trying to add, subtract, divide all the ways he somehow failed:

“…the harder I worked, It felt like I was a slave for you”

“…the longer I stayed, did you see me?”

Did you see me? Dad, did you see me?

Yes. I saw you, and I see you now: Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.

When you stumble, try and forget God, and leave home, son, you are seen. When you keep tally of wrongs, and bitterness almost eats your heart, daughter, you are seen. When you forget that you are dust, and to dust you return, child, you are seen.

The giver of new life, the savior, makes beautiful things out of dust, and makes beautiful things out of us.

When our eyes are closed, when our hearing is drowned out by “what ifs” and “if I only I was better”—God takes us by the face and says “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” I see you. You are a beautiful thing made out of dust, and everything that I make is good.

Now this story ends with a celebration, as all the Lost stories do.

But if only all our days ended with celebrations. Maybe there is a part of you that is lost, or someone you know who is lost. This story lives in the pages of Scripture and it lives deep in our hearts as people who shame the wise with our foolishness and faith in a recklessly extravagant God.

I’ll end with these words from a compline night service that would bless a person into their night.

“Be present, merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of life may find our rest in you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

This sermon was greatly inspired by this, this, and this.

The Gift of Water: Yes I Preached on Genesis 24

My internship site has Wednesday Lenten services, and I preached at the first one this year. Our theme is “Water for the World” and we are using resources from the good people at ELCA Global Hunger to help our people learn about water scarcity, water sanitation, and water stewardship. Just before the service I preached this, we had a “Walk for Water” around the church for all ages, and I think people had a lot of fun!

So here we begin our Wednesday evening Lent services. Forty days of walking and forty days of waiting. Forty days of turning away from ourselves, and forty days of turning to God.

Now, Lent was the furthest thing from my mind a couple weekends ago. I was at a fun conference with my people. We were watching the Superbowl. We had munchies, chips, salsa, even those meatballs and I think there were little toothpicks.

And then this commercial comes on, and it’s the sound that captured my attention more than the image. But this man is standing there in his pj’s brushing his teeth, probably like many of us do, or at least I hope you do [Google search “Colgate water ad”].

This year during Lent we will be focusing on water. We will explore the challenges that some face to get clean water, like you saw in the video, and get clean water on a consistent basis. We will explore what it means to live as a people of God, whose neighbors internationally and domestically have significant challenges to getting clean water and have responded in some life-giving and inspiring ways. The Bible is rich with stories that talk about water—this ordinary element that for many of us comes easily.

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This week’s Bible text comes from Genesis, the first book of the Bible. We read from Genesis 24: 1-21

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years; and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things. 2Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his house, who had charge of all that he had, ‘Put your hand under my thigh 3and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, 4but will go to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for my son Isaac.’ 5The servant said to him, ‘Perhaps the woman may not be willing to follow me to this land; must I then take your son back to the land from which you came?’ 6Abraham said to him, ‘See to it that you do not take my son back there. 7The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and swore to me, “To your offspring I will give this land”, he will send his angel before you; you shall take a wife for my son from there. 8But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there.’ 9So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master and swore to him concerning this matter.

10 Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and departed, taking all kinds of choice gifts from his master; and he set out and went to Aram-naharaim, to the city of Nahor. 11He made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water; it was towards evening, the time when women go out to draw water. 12And he said, ‘O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. 13I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. 14Let the girl to whom I shall say, “Please offer your jar that I may drink”, and who shall say, “Drink, and I will water your camels”—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.’

15 Before he had finished speaking, there was Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, coming out with her water-jar on her shoulder. 16The girl was very fair to look upon, a virgin whom no man had known. She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up. 17Then the servant ran to meet her and said, ‘Please let me sip a little water from your jar.’ 18‘Drink, my lord,’ she said, and quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink. 19When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, ‘I will draw for your camels also, until they have finished drinking.’ 20So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels. 21The man gazed at her in silence to learn whether or not the Lord had made his journey successful.

So Abraham, sends out his servant to find a wife for his son, Isaac. The servant brings some gifts to sweeten the deal, including 10 camels. 10 camels! Can you imagine getting to that water well, and not just seeing your neighbors retrieving water, but also 10 slobbery, moaning and groaning camels from walking all day by a servant who was gifted the task of walking not one camel, but all 10 at the same time. In this romantic setting of ten groaning, hot camels, the servant enjoys the hospitality of a woman named Rebekka who offers him and his camels water.

But the real core faith idea here comes into today is blessing. See – whenever you hear that Abraham is in a Bible story, God’s promise to bless him is always a theme, and almost like its own character in the story. A few chapters back, God promised Abraham that he will receive a great nation, and his kids and grandkids and great-grandkids and great-great-grandkids will be rich in life and love, and that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 15, NRSV).

In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. That’s a big promise! But that is the promise that Abraham and his family, and the people of Israel, and now the people of God carry, and depend on.

God promises abundant life and love for everyone.

So why do 1.8 billion people drink from contaminated water?

Why did in a city in America, a city of 100,000, people were affected by lead-poisoning, seeping in from their domestic water pipes?

So why has the state of California been in a drought for 4 years?

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Why do many experts say that the next civil war will not be fought over guns, or racism, or classism, but will be fought over water?

Because we’ve forgotten that God does not bless Abraham for the sake of Abraham. God blesses Abraham so that Abraham can bless others.

The same water that blesses our lives is the same water that God call us to bless others who have little access to it.

This is the work that the ELCA Global Hunger is a part of. And it’s not just programs that gift water and then that’s it. These are programs that build wells with those who live in third world countries, so that they are not only receiving life-giving water for their families and their business, but so they learn how to maintain and multiple these water-sustaining efforts. The blessing of water becomes a lifelong blessing to quench the thirst of generations and generations to come.

God has blessed you and promised you abundant life and love. How might you take this blessing, and turn it into a blessing for someone else?

Maybe take a blue water box and as a family, fill it up for the month of Lent with loose change and pennies you might find in the couch?

Maybe make it into a contest and see who can waste the least amount of water when you wash dishes, shower, or wash your hands?

Or perhaps even turn off the water as you brush your teeth tonight?

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Whatever idea, don’t limit your creativity. As you are a blessed child of God, how might you bless someone else with the gift of water?

Amen.

Isolation and Toughen Up: What Jesus’ Temptation Isn’t About

This is a sermon I preached last weekend at my internship site based on Luke 13:1-13 (NRSV).

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Grace and peace to you from Jesus, our savior and lord. Amen.

There are a lot of ways I could start today’s sermon. I would like to start with a recognition of God’s love for all, especially on this holiday of Valentine’s Day. But I can’t take my systematic theologian hat off. If only it were true, what happens in systematic theology class, stays in systematic theology class. But this is not true. In fact it even more so launches me back into life and communities, and makes me like a faith detective, wondering what God is up to all the time.

So here’s the deal.

I first, in the face of this gospel story, I have to acknowledge that this gospel text today has been horribly misused by pastors, theologians, and preachers for years. Jesus’ temptation by the devil has been used to as justification for people to stay in abusive relationships, as if to say, “If Jesus can make it past the devil, why can’t you?” [which I know, who would say that, but it has been said] It’s been used to push down those haunted by addiction to stay quiet and not seek help, as if to say “If Jesus can make it past the devil, why can’t you?” This passage has been used to silently encourage people like you and me to believe if they only believe hard enough, they can save Jesus from the devil and from the cross, just enough so we can earn back our sainthood.

Now these are really heavy topics of addiction and abuse. Topics that affect our neighbors, co-workers, friends, family, and maybe even you personally. But that’s even more reason why it’s important for you to hear that Jesus’ temptation is not about us needing to feel shamed for not being able to get through it alone.

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So, I have some bad news that is also good news today. Jesus is not asking us to save him. Jesus is not asking us to suffer alone. Jesus is not asking us to stay in relationships that hurt.

Today, Jesus is showing us the only thing that got him through the wilderness out to the other side. Jesus is showing us the Holy Spirit.

It’s easy to miss where the Holy Spirit comes in because it was right in the first sentence: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit.”

What does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit? As you’re in the wilderness no less? The wilderness of walking to the cross, for these 40 days of Lent; what does that mean? That means that as Jesus’ gaze faces the cross, the Holy Spirit never abandons us. Never abandons us to moments of hopelessness and blindness, as a resurrection people, hopeful for a resurrected world. That’s how we get through it.

When I was on staff at Trinity Lutheran back in Minnesota, we were in the midst of a call process for an associate pastor of lifelong learning, the role in which I supplied interim-bridging work for them. In a congregational meeting, the chair of the committee shared how they first discerned who they were looking for in a pastor. They asked God for discernment and prayerful discussion. As he described it, they were looking for someone, “Filled with the Spirit.” And I do believe they got that, an awesome colleague of mine. They called someone “filled with the Spirit,” and that gentleman who described their committee discernment process has stuck with me. He spoke as if he was filled with the Spirit (not that he wanted to be a pastor), but something about that conclusion spoke to my heart. As a congregation and their representatives, they longed for someone filled with the Spirit. It wasn’t just one person. They felt called to find someone together. As a community, they longed.

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For a community to long. They longed in only a way that only a group of people can long.

It’s like Job in the Old Testament. His friends hear that he has experienced unthinkable tragedy, and they come to support him. They didn’t even recognize Job, but what they did was they cried, put dust on their heads, and ripped their clothes (a ritual for expressing grief in the ancient world).* They cried with Job. They sat with Job for a week. Can you imagine sitting for a week? I mean, and hour, tops. But for a week? They did this because they learned from their ancestors, that you do not let someone long for justice by themselves. You sit with them, and you long together as a group.

Whenever there is comfort, consolation, sitting together, there is the Holy Spirit. We don’t do this alone! The Spirit always works in tandem, in partnership, in community. In Jesus’ temptation and testing with the devil, he is radically guided. He is not alone. The Holy Spirit does what it means – it’s in advocate and a helper.

This journey to the cross, our journey through Lent, is the most radical display of solidarity—we are no longer shackled by theology that justifies isolation, abuse, privilege, and justifies hurt.

We find good news in this because through the Holy Spirit, we share the weight of the cross as we undertake the enormous task of serving our neighbors and share our joys with each other. We lift those together. We embrace those together.

Today Jesus is embracing a new reality. He does not become what the devil wants him to be. To every request Jesus replies to the devil by quoting the book of Deuteronomy which he studied as young Jew, as if to say, “Devil, you may have weapons of trickery, craft and power, but I have an identity in the God of Israel whose love and hope will never bow before another—an identity that cannot and will not change.”

An identity that cannot and will not change.

An identity that says, you, Son of God, get up and walk.

An identity that says you, daughter of God, get up and walk.

This gospel passage has been in so many terrible ways to justify unhealthy decision and behavior. This passage is not about “who is better” or “who is stronger” or “who can endure more.” Instead, PLEASE hear that this is about walking through the wilderness, and remembering that you are not alone because the Holy Spirit is leading, guiding, and filling you, and wherever the Holy Spirit is, there is advocacy, there is companionship, there is peace. That is the promise we hear today.

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A depiction of the Holy Spirit by Kristen Malcolm Berry

As we face Jerusalem, we are not alone. The Holy advocate, the Holy companion, the Holy Spirit guides and fills you. Let it be so.

* They later condemn Job, so their “support” becomes a little suspect.

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This is what I preached at my internship site on the First Sunday after Epiphany, on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22:

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

[It was a little bit of a whirlwind of a preaching morning, two weeks ago, as my supervisor gave me a ride to the airport for my 1:06 flight right after the second worship service, but the sermon itself I think went well. It was certainly a good reminder as I was traveling off to Minnesota for a week-long intensive Public Worship class at Luther Seminary (which I need to blog about too). I hope you will hear some words of promise and peace here as you perhaps are preaching or leading in worship this weekend. So, here’s what I preached:]

It’s hard not to think of your own baptism when you hear about this gospel story of Jesus’ baptism. Not that I could remember it – for my baptism, I was just 2 months old. I was a newbie to this whole human thing, and from what my parents tell me I was not having it. You know those baptisms that feel like they just go on forever because the kid is just crying though the whole thing? That was mine!

I threw my parents off so bad that they switched my first and middle names – so I could have been a Mabel before you today, not an Allison, but they got it squared out. Allison Mabel was declared a baptized & chosen child of God.

Jesus was an adult when he got baptized by John the Baptist. The heavens were opened and God speaks—yes God speaks, not an angel, not a messenger, but God speaks directly and says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It’s unclear if just Jesus heard God say this, or if everyone in the world heard this.

I think it was probably the latter. If we’re talking about the heavens opening and the announcement of Jesus’ ministry, I’m gonna say—that must have been a pretty loud announcement.

Today I want to share with you just a couple gifts of this passage.

I could tell you all the theological holes, discrepancies, or missing plot points, but today I just want to talk about its gifts.

Because, truthfully, sometimes I think I beat-up on Bible passages, and honestly I have been trained to in my theological education—thinking that I’ll get to the root of it; to the real truth of it if I deconstruct it to its atoms and molecules.

But what if we treat this passage like how Jesus is treated here—someone who is talked about as someone who is worthy of love. Someone who is a gift. Someone who is loved, and who is so loved that the person who loves him isn’t afraid to show it or shout it. What if we started there?

The first gift of this passage is that Jesus’ baptism is a marker and a commission into his earthly ministry. It’s like God’s scrapbook page for this memory is full of stars and big hearts and cute metallic eye-catching graphics. This is a big day. Even the universe understands it as a big day as it says “the heavens are opened.” This means that not only is Jesus’ life changing, the world is changing, because of the restoration, healing, and revitalization God will bring through Jesus, the Christ, our Emmanuel.

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What if these were God’s scrapbook choices? Not bad. Needs more sparkles.

When God is with us, things happen, and Jesus’ baptism gets a big, beautiful bookmark in the book of God’s story.

The second gift of this passage is that Luke crafts this story so beautifully, that we see Jesus as a fulfillment of Israel’s desire and longing for a Messiah. Psalm two echoes God’s words saying, “I will tell the decree of the Lord. He said to me ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you.’” In Isaiah 42 we read, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights…he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.” The Israelites in exile, away from home, prophesied about one who will save the nations and establish justice in the earth.

Jesus has been chosen for a task much bigger than him. He is a part of something bigger than himself. Wow, what a feeling that must have been.

But I think the greatest gift of this passage is God’s direct proclamation of love. Rarely do we hear God speaking directly to people—we see angels, and messengers, and speaking through his disciples (and bushes).

But here we hear directly from God. There is no middle-man (or middle-woman).

The heavens have torn open, and now there is nothing that can separate us from the love, and, justice, and voice of God. Wow, what does that mean? I know it means something. God says, “You are my Son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

Isn’t that what we all want to hear? That our dads or moms are proud of us? “You are my Son/You are my daughter. You are beloved. I’m proud of you.”

I’m lucky that I have awesome parents and an amazing husband who tell me that. But not all people are lucky enough to hear that every day. It broke my heart the other day when I read that in 2013, 21.8% of high school students didn’t make it to graduation.

21.8%.

That’s 1 in 5.

This study said the number one reason why students are dropping out of high school before they graduate is because they are disengaged. They don’t know why this material matters and they don’t consistently hear why they’re there.

I wonder if this is a question that ever wanders into your brain when you think about faith?

That you ever wonder, “Why am I here at church?” “Does it matter that I’m here?” Do you want to hear beyond a shadow of a doubt that you’re supposed to be here? I’ll just say it from my perspective: I want to know that I’m not wasting my time. I want to hear that I’m not getting the wool pulled over my eyes and I want to hear that my deepest fear isn’t true: that I’m not a part of the most elaborate, complex, two-thousand-year scheme to get us to believe that a man in his 30’s in modern-day Palestine could bring salvation to everyone in the world.

Oh come on– Maybe you’re thinking, “Oh come on, Allison, we don’t need to know that. We know that this is all true, and we’re children of God, loved by God, and worthy of love. Of course we know that.”

Then why do 21.8% of high school students drop out of school before graduation?

Why were there almost as many shootings than days of the year last year (and not just in 2015)?

Why is suicide the 2nd leading cause of death among young people ages 10-24?

Because have fallen out of the practice of proclaiming to each other that you are loved–in all of your uniqueness, in all of your gifts, in all of your strengths, in all of your ‘oops’ moments, in all of your acceptance letters, mental unstable-ness, bankruptcies, promotions, second chances, and all of your ideas that start with “I wonder if that would work?”

Just like we are called to the vocation of showing and saying our encouragement to one another, God tells Jesus, proclaiming to the world, at his baptism that he is loved, and it’s a passage is begging to be read out loud on a consistent basis to our kids, our adults, and our people that they are loved.

The heavens are opened, and the world hasn’t been the same ever since.

Jesus is made new, and we are made new, in our understanding that we are loved & our unique gifts make God’s smile open like never before. Amen.