I’m Dreaming of a Church Budget: Not Like the Ones I Used to Know

In this third week of learning about church administration, I’m learning about finances and budgets. If you want to follow along, this week I’m reading and reflecting on the chapters titled, “Budgets and Balance Sheets: Deeply Doctrinal Documents” and “Raising the Resources: Theology Talks and Money Matters!” (pgs. 93-142) of Church Administration by Robert N. Bacher and Michael L. Cooper-White.

I don’t know why, but I was tickled pink when I read this quote, this urging, in chapter five:

“…treat budgets and finance as ways to get there, that is, a means to mission fulfillment” (95).

Dear reader, this week we are encouraged to think of budgets and finances as a way to close the gap between the present and the day when our community’s mission is realized, when “we’ve made it.” The budget is a tool to make that mission come alive; with budget and finances we, the church, are granted the opportunity to make a difference in the world as articulated in our church’s mission statement.  It can happen. Missions can be fulfilled. Missions can come alive. Missions can change the world. Finances and budgets help us close the gap between today and the day that a mission is realized.

I’m pretty sure this is not how many congregations understand their finances. I’m pretty sure they understand them like this, like how I understand them way too often, which is through a series of fear-based, lacking-in-peace questions:

  • Are we in the red or the black this month?
  • Did we get enough money in the last month?
  • Will we have enough to pay off the mortgage/this month’s electricity bill/pay for the bulletin paper/[insert your favorite financial anxiety question here]?

This got me thinking: What if during an annual meeting, the budget and finances were talked about in terms of the fulfillment (& projection of fulfillment) of particular goals or the congregation’s overall mission?

I feel like that would lead to a whole different kind of annual meeting. If I’m being frank, that’s the kind of annual meeting I would want to go to.

I’m discovering that this kind of financial planning has a name: narrative budgets. Grace Duddy Pomroy writes that a narrative budget, “tells the story of the congregation’s mission and ministry, connecting every aspect of the budget to it.” I get the sense that a line-item budget can be partnered with this approach, but narrative budgets frame financial planning differently all together.

I’m sure I’m in a dreaming space that people fall into before they step into a first call, but think about it. In fact, look at it: Here are examples, and I like this one in particular.

Not to toot my own horn, but the part of me that designed the Storytellers curriculum is REALLY into these narrative budgets. When you get to run Storytellers in a small group, or a larger web of small groups, you end up strengthening a community’s understanding of how God’s story is speaking through their story and values. I think, ultimately, that’s what congregations’ annual meetings, and their material, try to achieve.

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Each individual in a congregation is not on an island of spirituality and Jesus-living. We are connected as one body of Christ, and as God works through us, we get to honor and co-create with God the next chapter of our congregation’s story. Even a single congregation’s story is bigger than that congregation (See Matthew 1)!

I think that’s how narrative budgets nail it on the head for me. When budgets are the “why” of “Why we need to hold an annual meeting,” our actions show that our ultimate trust and love is in money. But when you can show the story through pictures, video and/or art of the moments when money made possible a moment of the Kingdom of God breaking through – then you have a story, a narrative, that speaks to radical Spirit of God that powers, changes, and uplifts the mission, the “why,” partly made possible by the “how”: the budget and financial ministry of a congregation.

Do you have experience with narrative budgets? How is it going? Did you walk with a congregation through a transition to using a narrative budget and how did that go? I am curious how others have interacted with this, or church budgets in general, in their congregation.

Bacher and Cooper-White explain that the role of the pastor is to be an interpreter. Interpret the budget as a means, or the “how” to the “why” of the congregation (it’s mission). I’m sensing that there is a prime opportunity to not only strengthen and clarify the financial ministry of the congregation, but keep accountable and imagine big about what a congregation’s mission is. Now I understand why Luther Seminary’s class on finances is called “Money and Mission.” When they are aligned, there’s no other way to understand God’s grace, love, and gifts other than abundant.

I’ll end with this quote from Bacher and Cooper-White: “What is budget and finance stuff? Busy work or a way to serve?” (96). As tough as it is, I sure hope it’s the later.

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?

Advent Week 1: Yes, We Are Called to Hope

After hanging up Christmas lights for the first time on our house, a house we are graciously hosted in by my internship congregation for the year, I’ve concluded that today I am tired and my productivity has left the building. So I turn to you, friends. It’s Advent. It’s been bugging me, so let’s do it. I’ve been trying to avoid writing a weekly blog series on this time of waiting for Christmas because I have too much to do. I’m in month three of my pastoral internship. I fear I’ve tilted to the attitude of I’m “too busy” when it comes to my creative outlets. So let’s stop pretending that being “too busy” is something outside my control and admit that it’s a choice. So I choose to write: here it goes.

Getting ready to eat. Yes, all 12 of us fit in the dining room, woohoo!

Getting ready to eat. Yes, all 12 of us fit in the dining room, woohoo!

This weekend and Thanksgiving was fabulous. We had a warm, full house of family from both sides for a few days of eating, laughing, napping, and eating, lots. I truly have every reason to proudly name the theme of this week’s Advent reflection: hope.

Yet the violence and fear in the world weigh on me heavily. The preacher this weekend at my church (my supervisor) shared that Jesus says to his people that awful, violent signs of the end of this world are coming, and yet, be hopeful, because “your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21: 25-36).

Are you sure about that? Jesus, have you looked out the window recently, to Paris, to Minneapolis, to Syria, because I don’t see a place that is shouting to me that redemption and reconciliation is near?

But that’s precisely what we’re called to do. In the face of death, redemption and resurrection is on its way. Ironically, in a time of celebrating the incarnation of God through Jesus, this tiny baby, we hear the message of Good Friday & Easter: there is no resurrection without death.

Our biggest threat is not violence: it’s fear. Fear that keeps us from remembering who we are. I’m paraphrasing what our preacher said, but what I heard was, “Name your fear now, before it continues to grow, consume, and spread.” Fear helps protect us from harm (see “Inside Out”), but when it’s our dominant emotion, it keeps our walls so high that there’s no hope to reach and connect with another person, another community, or another group.

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I admit, this is not the happiest reflection the theme of “hope.” But when we fear, we lose our capacity to hope. When we hope, we untighten our fists of fear and hold the future with open hearts and open wills. Yes, my first reaction, too, is “no thank you! That sounds a little too scary.”

But when we hope for God’s grace and love to come, we become less fearful of the changes to come, and become more grateful than we ever thought possible.

Advent week 1: We are called to hope.

You are not Jesus: this was a weird sermon

Hello friends! I preached this last weekend at my internship site. My sermon’s based on Mark 10:35-45:

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him [Jesus] and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

I don’t know about you, but I had a ton of fun at the blessing of the pets last week here at Messiah. Did any of you come? It was awesome. So many fun furry creatures // and one snail. But perhaps even more awesome than seeing the animals and their owners, was my triumphant welcome home by my cat at the end of the day. See it was my husband who brought our mildly-social cat, and as I came home our cat scrambled toward me for a snuggle, as if to say “Did you know what he did to me today?” All of the sudden I was the greatest pet owner, and it was an awesome feeling.

In today’s gospel, the disciples are scrambling to be the greatest, and to feel awesome.

Jesus and the disciples are struggling to make this whole discipleship thing happen, and the disciples just want more. Jesus has just predicted his death for the third time, or described what’s to come. The disciples are becoming increasingly agitated and anxious. Their fear is keeping them from listening, which happens to all of us when we are afraid.

So to find some security, James and John ask Jesus a weird request: “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus entertains the question, and they go on to say they want to sit at his right and left hand in glory. To this, Jesus asks if they can drink the same cup, and be baptized in Jesus’ baptism. Which to us – a church that baptizes and do communion, it’s like okay – John and James are like ‘Sure, why not!” But Jesus says that these seats of glory aren’t his to grant. Then to all the disciples Jesus says “Whoever wishes to be great, must be your servant… for I came to serve, not to be served, to give my life as a ransom for many.”

Even as I write this, and now preach this, I can’t help but feel for Jesus. Yes, the disciples are lost, figuratively and literally, they hear their leader they left their former lives and former worlds for is really really going to die. But think about Jesus. Once again, his people don’t get it. He’s saying that you can baptize, you can commune, but to sit with me in heaven? To live in the same presence of me, in the paradise, that is now and not yet? That’s not mine to grant. And it’s not yours to grant either. You’re not Jesus. This is where you end, and I start. You do not have the capacity to save people. Jesus says: That’s my role, and not yours.

You are not Jesus.

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I think sometimes we get tricked into thinking that we’re Jesus. We’re the saviors. We’re the greatest. We’re the most free. We win.

But we both know, winning, freedom, greatness – is that what a life following Jesus is all about? Jesus says no. Jesus says “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.” Whoever wishes to be great must be radically not free. Must be bound. Must be dependent. If this sounds like things you don’t want to be – you’re not alone. This life doesn’t look all that great to me either.

But what’s the life that is constantly marketed to us? Did you know that you see anywhere from 300-3,000 brands or logos each day? They say: Be more free! Be independent! Be perfect with this product! Save all the children!

But we’re not Jesus.

I’m not Jesus.

I can’t say that from now on I will never try to fix or save someone, but I certainly won’t forget the last time the universe told me that saving a person’s soul was not a cure I could grant.

As a seminary student in the Master of Divinity program, this summer I finished a credit or a class in which I got to learn in whole different kind of classroom – a hospital in downtown Minneapolis. I was on the staff of a spiritual care team as a chaplain. I got to visit with patients, their families, their friends, and the awesome, awesome staff of my assigned space – a medical/surgical unit/wing.

At the beginning of the day, the team of our unit – nurses, staff, coordinators, and the chaplain (me) have rounds – sort of like an update meeting of the last 24 hours.

Now as a chaplain, a ministry person, and not really a morning person either, I was lucky if I caught one or two words of medical words thrown around in that fast-paced meeting.

But when I heard the phrase, “…he doesn’t know that yet…” I knew I had to ask. I put my elbows on the table and asked “What was that again?”

We’ll call him John. John doesn’t know upon discharge (healthy enough to go home) he was going to jail. He was found overdosing on drugs while in rehab, and he was detoxing in the hospital on his way to immediate incarceration. John didn’t know that when he was healthy again he wasn’t headed home.

Now, no one told me I had to visit him. But when there’s a 22-year old patient on your unit who is headed on a dark path, who came from a dark path, it’s hard not feel tugged by the Spirit’s call.

The police officer floating on the unit kept an eye on me as I entered the room, and with the encouragement of his assigned nurse, I knocked and entered John’s space.

He was kind. The supervisor in the room quietly read her book as John and I talked about his family and friends, and why he was there.

Now, I don’t claim to be some miracle-worker, but I felt like I was getting through to him. He even brought up his questions about the Christian faith. I felt like the coolest chaplain – even a drug user talked to me about God – awesome!

But he kept asking me if he could take a walk. And his phone rang while we were in there and he tried to talk quietly, suggesting to me that he wasn’t cured of his dealing habits.

But he was just a kid. 22. He just needed someone to believe him, right? He just needed someone to care for him, and love him, and give him everything he needs, right?

The next day, as I talked with my supervisor and other chaplain interns about this interaction, it became clear that I had an intense feeling of wanting to save John.

I just wanted him to feel like someone believed in him. I just wanted him to feel like someone believed him.

I just wanted to save him.

He even told me what he believed about God! Or – perhaps he emotionally manipulated me, because that’s what users do. They search after what they want at any cost, and ultimately, what they want is something deeper than drugs, but the result is often what harms them the most. Because John wants what we all want – To feel loved. To be told he matters. To know he’s missed. So maybe we’re not that much different?

In his disease, I was on the cusp of being swept into his swirl of masking and manipulation.

But he just needed to be saved, right?

And I could save him, right?

The funny part is that no one else was really prompting me to think this. I don’t remember anyone specifically telling me “Allison – you’re awesome, you can save people, you can fix people, go for it!” No – but this does come from messages in our culture that have squirrelled their way into our bank of wisdom. So in some ways, I expect myself to save people. That inner voice is just so loud and I can’t find the volume knob sometimes.

But I bet it’s in you too. You hear inside yourself that you can save people and fix people. That you can be Jesus.

Where does that come from?

The part of you that says ‘I don’t need anybody.’ The part of you that says ‘I’m independent. I’m free. I’m the greatest.’

The part of the disciples that steers their decisions and requests when they’re afraid.

My hunch, is that we’re so afraid as individuals, as a country, as a world that we don’t trust each other or another presence to save us. I’ve got to do it, it has to be me. Jesus saves me? Jesus saves you? That’s nice. I’d rather save myself, thank you very much.

The good news that Jesus gives us – is that we are not bound by the responsibility to save, liberate, and redeem ourselves.

We are free to not be Jesus.

As followers of Jesus, we are freed from the task of being the name above all names. Because being the most independent and the most free is exhausting.

But we’re not totally off the hook – It’s not up to us to save the world, but it’s up to us to do the best we can.

We are given opportunities and gifts and strengths not to save people, not to fix people, but to serve.

We are truly freed, or you could say, “freed up” to serve our neighbor.

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This is the kind of service that doesn’t involve the expectation that we’re going to get something back

This is the kind of service that makes other people wonder, “Why is that guy so willing to go into these dark places and shine a light of hope, and help people out?” To this he might say, “Because Jesus has freed me from the task of saving myself so I can serve my neighbors.” This is the kind of service that makes other people wonder “Why is the girl so excited to serve a meal or clean tables to people who seem to constantly be out of luck?” To this she might say “Because I get to serve my neighbors since I don’t have spend my time worrying about how I’m going to save myself.”

Out of the darkest moment that Jesus is walking toward in Jerusalem, out of the crucifixion, comes his resurrection, not only of our body, mind, and soul, but a resurrection of this world. This is our joy – that we now live in a kingdom, in a paradise now, and not yet, and we as freed people get to share that joy with the world. That is the challenge and the mystery and the beauty of following Jesus – we get to share the good news that a savior has come and it’s not you. We’re not Jesus. That burden has been lifted and we are free to not serve ourselves but serve our neighbor with this good news propelling us into those dark places where the light is dim, but our hope is fierce and speaks a word of life and light into spaces that we thought deserved left to be dead.

Jesus listens to the disciples request today to sit at his left and right side in glory. A bold request, I’ll give them that. But Jesus doesn’t give them an answer they like – and once again the disciples are at a loss for where they went wrong. They’re so afraid of what will happen next that they want to claim a piece of Jesus before he is crucified. All they can see is Good Friday. All they see is their need to be free and be saved and forget that Jesus is Jesus, and they are not. They are blind to the joy of being a disciple which is being freed up to serve their neighbor – not to save, not to fix, but to serve their neighbor. And that just might be the best news of all.

A sermon in which I didn’t have to say Washington after Tacoma

Hi friends. I promise I’m not trying to ignore you. My pastoral internship started a few weeks ago. If you were to ask me “How’s it going?” I would stumble over a response that tries to express my stubborn gratitude, fear, and my terrifying optimism that I don’t even recognize.

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P.S. These tealight holders? Shoot. I’m so glad I don’t shop online… often. For now, pretty holders, you will look pretty and live on my laptop.

Back to the sermon: The first time I preached at my internship site, Messiah Lutheran Church (in the same state where I’m from) was two days ago. It felt familiar since I’ve done pulpit supply over the last few years, and it felt different — scratch that, it felt new. There’s a whole other blog post! But for now, this is what I said. It’s based on Mark 9:30-37 (NRSV), with Allison commentary:

“They went on from there and passed through Galilee [a metaphor for home, Mark 1:16-20, fishing becomes adventures with Jesus]. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ [say that again?] But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. [they’re afraid] Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. [they’re still afraid] He sat down, called the twelve, [come to Jesus meeting] and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.'”

Here’s what I said:

Grace & peace to you from our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

Hi, I’m Allison your pastoral intern this year. I just want to take a moment and thank you for all the ways you have welcomed Timothy and me. It’s such a blessing to be back in the Northwest. Some of you have already had us over for dinner and shared your stories with us, and even given us some of your amazing barbecue (Jim I’m looking at you) – we just can’t thank you enough, after our road trip out from Minnesota last month to here. Which reminds me…

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Did anyone take a road trip this summer? Does anyone wish the had taken a road trip? Have you ever been on a road trip, and there’s that one guy? Kicking the back of your seat or humming the same song over and over again? Now, in all of my road trips I’m not going to say which people I’m thinking of (I’m probably one myself)! But they’re the ones that you have to turn around and say, “Don’t make me come back there.”

I think Jesus was at a point like that in this gospel passage. I mean, we’re nine chapters in, and they’ve put some miles on together. His disciples were arguing and it was driving Jesus crazy.

Truthfully though, I think it’s more than bickering. I think the disciples are afraid because these are high stakes and they’re far from home, and they’ve put their lives on hold to follow this man.

And just before this, Jesus says something big: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” Woah. We just met you and now you’re going to die? Holy moly what is going on. The disciples are probably sad, confused. This is all turning into defensiveness and anger as they want to know who is the greatest disciple. So Jesus shows him a child and in the face of their fear says, “Welcome this child in my name and you’ll welcome me. Whoever welcomes me, doesn’t welcome me but the one who sent me.” (paraphrasing) Who knows where the child goes, but in whatever happens next, Jesus has made his point. The big joys and tears of a child, are no match for your arguing and fear. Don’t welcome your fear – welcome this child.

Welcome this child. This squealing, constantly moving, laughing, crying, loving, snuggling child.

I have to tell you, when I read this passage I imagined my God-son whose back in MN just climbing up a storm around one of his parents, mouth wide open, giggling like crazy, swarming around him that makes it hard to keep up with him.

Jesus says, “Welcome him.”

The child in this gospel story is meant to invite the reader to think of other vulnerable people we are called to welcome, like our neighbors or friends or family members who are sick, in tough situations, or people in trouble. But I think this story is just as much about the child within us as the child next to us.

Jesus says, “Welcome him” or “Welcome her,” as if to say “Welcome you.”

[editor’s note: this is heavily influenced by Brene Brown here, here, and here, so, Brene THANK YOU and I am terrible for not mentioning you in my sermon]

Because — we see the disciples are arguing about who is the best. They’re one-up-ing each other because they don’t think they’re enough. They keep their confusion and questions to themselves because they’re afraid of what will happen to them and to their leader Jesus; and let’s face it, they’re afraid of life in general at this point.

They’re afraid. They don’t think their enough. They can’t see past themselves.

Then Jesus plops a kid in front of them, as if to say “LOOK.” Life is greater than worrying about if you’re enough or worrying about what tomorrow brings. Love is this child. Welcome yourself so you can welcome her.

Now, this sermon could easily turn into: Get a better attitude! Don’t worry, be happy! Stop thinking silly things like you’re not good enough or pretty enough or smarter enough; just change your thinking and love yourself!

If only it was that easy. Thankfully, Jesus gets that this is complicated. Vulnerability is complicated.

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Two words: College applications. Talk about vulnerability. We even had a class in high school where we to write an essay about ourselves to practice writing college essays. To me, it felt like “Here is me, please judge me, measure me, and rip me to shreds, just please don’t tell me about the room you all adults sat in together to do this.” I felt so open, so vulnerable: me, on paper, for strangers to see, to correct my grammar, to critique my argument about why I’m the best and I should go to your college.

So to battle this feeling of not feeling enough – I tried to hide. I didn’t apply to any colleges, until my confirmation mentor suggest her alma mater – Pacific Lutheran University In Tacoma, Washington [to which the congregation and I laughed at how I didn’t have to say “Washington” for the first time in five years]. She said, just try it out, visit campus, I loved it, maybe you will too. So I did. I don’t think it had anything to do with the college itself, but the fact that it felt like someone could advocate for me if my application was as terrible as I thought it was going to be.

So during dinner a few months after I applied I got a phone call & it was my admissions counselor at PLU. She said, “We think you have gifts for this community and we want you to come here.” I asked her a few times if she was kidding, and she kept saying she was for real. I dropped to the ground in tears. I felt enough, and them some. Someone believed in me. And I knew my family and my parents believed in me, but it’s something about hearing it from someone who’s not your family that takes a lot of courage to hear, and to believe. So I took a chance and believed her. Someone wanted me. And not only wanted me, but articulated that I was needed there – that that place would be different if I wasn’t there.

I wonder – Isn’t that the beauty of the body of Christ? This group, this church, is different when you’re not here. Your gifts are needed in this community – the community of Messiah, of Vancouver, of this world. This place is different when you show up.

I think that is what Jesus is trying to tell us today. That child that he holds up? She is vibrant, and full of energy, and cries loud, and laughs so hard her body can barely take it. She knows nothing else but to show up as completely herself. She has yet to learn by watching adults around her that you escape to the bathroom to cry, you laugh appropriately even when something isn’t that funny, you keep their thoughts at bay so as to not risk others thinking you’re stupid or out of touch with reality.

But here’s the funny thing, your age isn’t even the whole story. On Friday we were at Chuck’s Produce, and “Stayin’ Alive” came on intercom. A woman starts dancing her way out the store, while the clerk has the face of, “Oh my goodness.” But this kind of unabashed openness to whatever comes your way is what Jesus asks of us.

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I mean, look at this small human’s face.

Jesus says stop vying for worthiness and competing for value and for joy; because your value can not be filled like a jar weighed down with change at the end of the day; your value and your worth come from me – your savior and redeemer shines brightest when you open yourself up to failures, to judgement, to risk, but also to belly-clutching laughter, to radical ideas that no one else has thought of, to vulnerability that helps you say what you need and what you want.

God says that God is the root of all of that.

We can’t pick and choose the ups and the downs. In the unknowns that are always with us Jesus doesn’t say, “Welcome your fear,” or “Welcome defensiveness.” Jesus says “Welcome her” and Jesus says “Welcome yourself–all of yourself.”

Because if you miss the risk to be yourself, you might just miss the chance to see the fullness of God working in you.

Jesus sits down and holds you, and says, “Welcome this child.” Amen.