Sunday, June 5, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 19:10; sermon starts around 26:36)
You might remember that last week, when we last left our friends the disciples, they were standing just outside Bethany: feeling confused and anxious, staring up into the sky and trying to wrap their brains around what just happened. They were stuck in this strange, uncertain time of limbo without a clue of what would happen next. Jesus had risen from the dead, which was good – and then he ascended into heaven, which was… weird. He blessed them and he left them with this promise that he would send them an Advocate, a divine Spirit of power and truth. But in this moment, these disciples had no idea what was coming for them; they just chose to trust in this promise that the Spirit would move.
Going into Synod Assembly over the last few days, there was a lot of this anxiety and uncertainty, particularly among clergy, and especially among my colleagues who work in the Synod office. The election of a bishop is a big deal in the church, and Brian Maas is a tough act to follow, especially after a full decade of being bishop. Ten years ago is when I first started discerning a call to ministry, right around the time Bishop Brian was elected, and for me he has been a constant presence, a mentor and supporter and someone I deeply admire all the way through my candidacy journey and into the parish – he has never not been bishop for as long as I’ve been in ministry.
I think it’s safe to say it was a very emotional assembly for pretty much everyone present. There were lots of tears shed as we said our goodbyes to Bishop Brian and his wife Debbie. They weren’t all tears of sadness; many were simply tears of gratitude, thankful for these last ten years – and thankful that they will both be sticking around the synod. And there was also celebration that Brian will be moving into a new call as the Vice President for Mission and Spiritual Care at Immanuel. But there was still sadness, all the same.
And there was a lot of anxiety about who would step into that role next. I have so much love and respect for my colleagues in the synod, but those are some BIG shoes to fill – and not just because Bishop Brian is like eight feet tall. The office of bishop demands an almost impossible constellation of gifts – as a pastoral caregiver, as an administrator, as a preacher, as a CEO, as an ambassador for the church, and more. Nine candidates had allowed their names to go forward to take a chance at being bishop. And we as an assembly gathered around them, praying for a Spirit of wisdom and discernment, praying for God’s will to be revealed to us. As we gathered, we had no idea what was coming for us; but we chose to trust in this promise that the Spirit would move.
The first night of the assembly, we sat through two rounds of questions with all nine candidates. They gave mostly fine, churchy answers, but there wasn’t really anything that stood out as particularly inspiring. A couple of them said things I really disagreed with – and I’ll admit I spent a good portion of that first evening huddled anxiously over drinks with some of my colleagues, worrying over how this election would turn out.
But then something strange – and strangely familiar – began to happen. By mid-Friday, the field of candidates had been whittled down to seven, and they were given another chance to address the assembly. One of the first to speak was my good friend, Pastor Scott Johnson. To be honest, I can’t actually remember exactly what he said – but what I doremember is exactly how I felt. I felt it deep in my guts: the sudden, unmistakable flicker of the Holy Spirit; and it said: “That one. That is the next bishop of the Nebraska Synod, right there.” And clearly I wasn’t the only one feeling this nudging of the Spirit, because on the next ballot, Scott suddenly jumped from the rear of the pack into the top three – and just two more ballots later, he was declared Bishop-Elect of the Nebraska Synod. The Spirit moved.
Despite our misgivings and our worries, despite the lingering grief and burnout of the past few years, despite the challenges facing the church and the divisions boiling over across the larger body of the ELCA, the Spirit. Showed. Up. The Spirit showed up – just as Christ promised – just as it has done faithfully for thousands of years. We showed up with no idea how this election would play out – and the Spirit guided us into a collective glimpse of the future toward which God is calling us; it revealed to us the leader that God has called to shepherd us into the next stage of the journey.
I arrived at Synod Assembly anxious and full of trepidation – but I came away with a heart full of joyfulness and hope. I am so thrilled and proud to see my friend step into this role (though I do feel a little bad about the huge weight of responsibility that we just placed on his shoulders – lol). I am thrilled to know that we have chosen a forward-looking bishop – someone who is already at the leading edge of the church’s ministry, working as a campus pastor – a bishop who names the reality of our present moment and the challenges the church is facing, yet still speaks about the path that lies before us with a sense of hope that is deeply rooted in faith.
But more than anything else, my heart overflows with a deep and abiding gladness – because of this sense of joyful certainty that all of this is the Spirit’s doing. When we gathered in Kearney, we had no idea what was coming for us; but we chose to trust in this promise that the Spirit would move. And holy cow. The Spirit moved.
And what a profoundly fitting thing it is that this should happen, of all weeks, on the weekend of Pentecost. As we read in our first reading from Acts, these disciples that we last left lost and leaderless are suddenly swept right into the future that God is calling into being. The Spirit pulses through all those gathered with the sound of wind and tongues of flame, and God’s expansive vision of salvation is revealed: good news of love and mercy that is for all people and all nations and for all of creation. And God has now empowered these followers with the gifts and tools they need to join in this mission work.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the way forward is going to be completely smooth or easy for them. There is now a ton of work for them to do, an entire world to evangelize and only a handful of believers. And there will be resistance – I mean, just a few chapters later in Acts, we read the brutal account of the death of Stephen, who is the first martyr of many in the early church.
Likewise, for us, the way forward isn’t going to be any smoother or easier – even with a shiny new bishop. It seems like we have finally emerged from what has been a very challenging season of the church – but that doesn’t mean we get to just hit cruise control and sit back. We are entering a new season of the church, in which we will face new challenges, while likely still wrestling with many of the same questions we had before.
But as we celebrate Pentecost once again, we remember that we have every reason for hope – every reason for confidence – as we move forward into this future. We read the story of Pentecost every year to remind ourselves that God is faithful and trustworthy – and that the Spirit shows up! We remind ourselves that no matter how tired or burnt out we may feel, no matter how hopeless and broken this world – and this church – may seem, that God is still profoundly capable of knocking our absolute socks off in transformative and astounding ways.
Thanks be to God, we will never truly have any idea of what’s coming for us – we just know that God has given us this promise that the Spirit will move. And as generations of the faithful have witnessed – and as our own siblings in Christ around the synod experienced this weekend – this is a promise we can put our trust in. This is a promise we can trust that God will keep – enthusiastically, and eternally.
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