The Call of a Deacon Doesn’t End when the Church Goes Online – an Ordinaton Sermon for Deacon Koren Lindley

Koren’s ordination bulletin.

I had the privilege of being with the people of Luther Memorial Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska online, and with a few in person for the ordination of Deacon Koren Lindley on Sunday May 17, 2020. Deacon Koren has now been called and installed as Director of Family and Social Ministry, at Luther Memorial Lutheran Church in Omaha. What follows is the majority of the manuscript that I preached from based on Koren’s selected readings: 1 Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 23, John 13:12-17, and John 15:1-17. A video of the ordination service can be found in the post below. Blessings on your ministry Koren! We’re glad to have you with us in the Nebraska Synod.

Grace and peace in the name of God in Christ who is with you, for you, calls you, and loves you. Amen.

What a great day, and what great stories of God’s work we have, to ground ourselves. In them we remember that Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. He reiterates his new and greatest commandment. And lays out his hopes for those whom he loves- for how they answer God’s call to serve, and to live life together as the Body of Christ in the world. This morning, you may have heard in worship a story that comes between these two portions, about how Jesus will ask the Father to give them an “Advocate” to be with them forever, the “Spirit of Truth.”[1] This Advocate will be God’s on-going presence, that breathes life and opens our eyes. This Good News, connects well to the story of Samuel and his call and Eli’s accompaniment in discernment with him; as well as with the reminders of God’s presence with us, that we hear in Psalm 23.

This all is Good News for the wonderful day it is today! And for the odd day it is too. It’s a great day in the life of the church, and in the life of Koren. But a strange one for the church and the world. Such are the juxtapositions of life and ministry right now. The way things were, is no longer our reality. The world and church that Koren began her studies and preparation for, has changed, and that’s an understatement. But still, we gather today for one of the most joyful rites and events in the life of the church- an ordination; and an installation. It’s a two-for the price of one great day in the life of the church.

Koren's ordination- Timothy preaching online
From one such household, joining the ordination online. (Photo courtesy of Allison Siburg)

To the best of my knowledge this is the first ordination of a deacon on the ground of the Nebraska Synod- as the ELCA in its wisdom affirmed this as the official entrance rite for Ministers of Word and Service, Deacons, at its Churchwide Assembly last year. It’s also probably the first ordination to happen in a church building with no more than ten people present. But God’s call doesn’t end when the church goes online. And certainly, the call of a deacon doesn’t end when the church goes online.

This church which has called Koren to this moment and this ministry, is surrounding her over the many miles and contexts of this world through the wonders of technology, in these days of working from home and worshipping online. And I trust that all of you across this state, fellow disciples and leaders of this synod and this church, join with me in giving thanks and praise today.

But let us not make the mistake and think that today is all about Koren. It’s not all about you, my friend. Though I know you already know that. You have chosen to be ordained, even when most of your friends and colleagues could not be with you today in person. Your selected stories we just heard read prove that too- they are stories about life together, answering God’s call to be with God and with God’s people. These stories have guided you in this journey of life and discipleship. They have caught your imagination. And they have grounded you in the deeper why: Why now? Why in this ministry? Why church? Hmm… What might God be up to?

giving of stole and cross
Signs of call and the office of Deacon, waiting to be presented to Koren. Photo credits for many of these belong to Pastor Steven Lindley. Thank you Steven!

Our first lesson, the call of Samuel, might seem like kind of a funny story. Except, as the story begins we hear that, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”[2] Perhaps that time might not have been so different than the one we’re living in right now. A time of fear and anxiety. A time of pandemic and uncertainty. A time where though, the promises of God are true, the way they are being proclaimed has changed so rapidly. But this change is part of the nature of call.

A call is the beginning to a life of following. It’s what one hears when they hear an invitation to “come and see that the Lord is good.” It’s what one hears when they might start to wonder, “what might God be up to here?” The nature of the way we do things may be changing in some ways. Time will tell. But I wonder if we might glean something from the wisdom of Eli’s teaching to Samuel, and to Samuel’s willingness to humble himself to listen, to learn, to wonder, and to follow. Neither Eli nor Samuel could have known fully what was to come, but they were open to the Lord’s call. As Eli instructed Samuel to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”[3] And Samuel did indeed respond to God’s call.

Koren, you heard these words in this story in a new way shortly after you sensed a deeper call towards ministry while teaching your congregational youth about this story on a Wednesday night. I’m sure you related well to that, just as any deacon and pastor has, and really anyone when they sense they are being called to a vocation. Because when one receives a call to a sense of purpose in life, it’s a reason to celebrate. But it’s not the end of the story, it’s only the beginning. The beginning of a journey to discovery. A journey of humbling oneself. A journey of walking with others, and walking with God. A journey that, no matter the profession or vocation, will take one out of their comfort zone and quite possibly out of the community or context that they have grown up in and know best.

deacon pitcher
The pitcher and bowl, presented to the newly ordained as signs of the office, and a reminder of our call as Deacons to wash feet and serve. And perhaps also a reminder of our baptisms.

Eli might well have been a Deacon. Because like Eli, as a Deacon, part of your call is to help others sense their own potential call, and to guide and walk with them too, believing that everyone is called through their baptisms.

Call isn’t something reserved for just those set apart for specialized roles or offices like deacons and pastors. Rather, it’s part of our life together as God’s people. When washed, cleaned, sealed, and claimed in the water and with the Word, God is making a covenant with us, and we with God. God invites us into life with God as a Child of God- a life of meaning and a life that is a journey of discovery- to be part of the world as God’s own.

This is something that we Lutherans call vocation– something deeper than just a job, but a belief that there is an intersection between call and life; between gifts, passions, interests and strengths; and the needs of the world and of our neighbors near and far.

Vocations can ebb and flow. As a deacon, they certainly will. That’s part of the journey. This journey out of our baptisms and through life as the baptized can be exhilarating. But it can also be exhausting. At times, it might even mean we feel like we’re walking through life without purpose, or like a failure. Those dark valleys are real for everyone, even for those of us in ministry. And these feelings that come with them are not unlike the ones that we’ve all been facing during this pandemic time we’re living in now. But in this life together and journey as disciples following the call, when we come to our knees in prayer and moments of sorrow, when we dwell in God’s word and are reminded of God’s promises, God opens our senses just a bit to a bigger glimpse of what God just might be up to in the world.

We are not alone in our calls. As Bishop Brian Maas presides and Pastor Carm watches on, Pastor Steven and Brigham present Koren with her stole.

We remember that we aren’t alone in it. The psalmist says as much in Psalm 23, “you are with me.”[4] Our cup overflows with God’s presence, promises, and abundance. We all know this psalm. It needs no introduction. Koren learned it from her kindergarten teacher and it has always been her favorite since then, because so simply and profoundly in only six verses it reminds that God is always with us, and caring for us. The promises of God are proclaimed here in such a way that most anyone who has grown up in a church environment can repeat these words by memory.

When the life of ministry gets hard, or the life of our various vocations feels unending, we can return to them and remember that God is with us. That God is for us. And that God loves us; just as a shepherd is with, for, and loves their sheep. There’s a lesson about accompaniment here. But all these lessons point back to the One who gave himself for us. The one in whose name we are called, and in whom we trust that the Good News of Easter is true.

It is a privilege and gift to accompany and walk with the People of God through the good, bad, and ugly of life, that you get to do as a Rostered Minister of this Church. And you’re not alone in this ministry. You know this. Your family is with you- especially Aiden, Emerson, Zoe, and Brigham. Your husband, Pastor Steven is with you. Your congregation here of Luther Memorial is with you. Your colleagues like Pastor Carm and the nearly thirty deacons serving in the Nebraska Synod are too.

Lindley family
The whole Lindley family with the newly ordained, Deacon Koren Lindley.

A gift and challenge for you, may well be that you are part of a unique ministry couple. A deacon married to a pastor. I’m convinced that might be one of the greatest gifts you have here in this synod, Koren. As you are ordained today, you and Steven will become the sixth such pastor and deacon couple in ministry together here in Nebraska. You’ll join the likes of Pastor Jim and Deacon Karen Melang; Pastor David and Sister Anne Hall; Pastor Scott and Deacon Kristin Johnson; Pastor Sarah and Deacon Nicholas Cordray; and my wife Pastor Allison Siburg and me. So, when the times feel odd as you walk the life of ministry together in your various offices and roles, and in your vocations and relationships, know you can lean on all of us too. We get it, and we rest in the promises with you, answering God’s call ourselves and walking in this journey with you.

In that upper room that fateful evening, Jesus had one last lesson, “a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.[5] It’s in this command, that deacons accept their calling to serve others. Our service is grounded in God’s love first and foremost, for us and for all of God’s children. We aren’t God, but as God’s children, we are heirs of the promise, and disciples of the way. We’re called, created, and beloved, to open our hearts as God works through us.

Caroline at Koren's ordination
During the service, I found out later, that my wife, Pastor Allison, and Caroline read the story about Jesus washing the Disciples’ Feet in her Children’s Bible. That definitely made me smile.

Jesus got down on his knees and washed the disciples’ feet.[6] We’re called to do likewise, because “servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.”[7] Jesus is embodying the response- of what a life of ministry looks like- the life of a deacon- where we get down on our knees for our neighbors’ needs and meet them with presence and promise, the Good News of God that has come near for me and for you, and with acts of love borne for all.

People of God, there is no greater joy than answering God’s invitation and call. Christ himself says this, claiming, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”[8] This call is one to a life of deep meaning and purpose. It’s a call to a life of discipleship which has a cross at its center. It’s not one without pain, heartache, and challenge. But it is one of presence. The presence of God with us, and the presence of God through us.

In his last hours before being handed over, Jesus tries to make this clear to those whom he loves, saying, “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”[9]

Deacon Koren, receiving her charges from Pastor Carm.

There will be times when the fruit might be hard to see, or when it might not come and blossom as we might expect. Like any gardener or arborist might say, that is when pruning is necessary. That’s something Jesus talks about that God does even for him, just as God does for us. It happens in relationship. God abides in us, and we ourselves abide in God to do God’s work in the world. We do so, as we’re called to love and care for others as Christ commands, and this work continues today. Pandemic or not; worshipping online or not; ordained or not- we all are the Body of Christ and are pruned (and need to be pruned) throughout life. It’s part of life together, accompanying one another. We change. We transform. Hopefully, it’s for the better, and we grow.

As we abide, and are transformed in God’s love, we follow our calls and serve together. As a Deacon, you have some unique roles to play in this. You’re called on behalf of the whole church to be a voice and presence at the intersection of where the church and the world meet. This is even more critical today in this period of rapid change- the pace at which has only sped up these past couple months during this time of COVID-19.

The two Deacons gathered in person, and in spirit with the nearly 30 other Deacons of the Nebraska Synod, and on behalf of all Ministers of Word and Service in the church. (and with safe physical distancing)

As a Deacon, you are called to be at the threshold. The image I like to imagine this, is when in person worship is happening and people are gathering in person, the Deacon is the one who is out on the steps between the church building and the neighborhood. The one who has the listening ear to the world- to lift up its needs and share them with the faithful through prayer and service. But also, the one who is called to proclaim the Word for, and out among the world. This is what Word and Service looks like.

And this is precisely why the call of a Deacon doesn’t end when the church goes online. No. It only becomes more important, because the needs are so great: to let those who are sick, grieving, and are in fear, know that God is with them; to remind us all that we distance physically from one another and wear masks right now when at the store for the sake of our neighbors; and to let all of God’s people in the world know that they are known and loved by their Creator, Father, and Savior.

the newly ordained koren
The newly ordained, Deacon Koren Lindley. The newest rostered minister of the Nebraska Synod, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Koren, Luther Memorial, has seen your gifts and called you to share them with the congregation and the community at large. They have sensed needs in the world here, and discerned that God has been calling and guiding a Deacon to walk alongside them. In a few moments, the congregation will not only affirm your ordination with Bishop Maas, but he will also install you to walk with and alongside the saints and sinners of this faith community.

Luther Memorial, when I was with you last summer, and we talked and thought all about word and service ministry, I told you this would be a wonderful thing and a wonderful day. But know, just as with any pastor or leader, there will be times when you might be disappointed in Koren. That’s life, and it’s where grace comes in. Somethings may not go as planned, but together as God is with you and you are doing God’s work, you’ll find your way.

And Koren, as you know as a pastor’s spouse, and it is true as a deacon too, there will be times when your call, congregation, and ministry may disappoint or frustrate you. That’s part of what it means to walk with- in the good and bad. But it’s also about us knowing that we are called together for this work, and that together we work through the challenges for the sake of God’s work in the world, and especially for the sake of serving our neighbors.

We do this because Jesus gives us all a new commandment, “To love one another.” That’s precisely why Christ goes to and through the point of the cross- for you and for me- because of God’s deep love for us. We all have the duty and the joy to live out this Good News. To point to God’s saving work that has been done and God’s promises that are true today. To point to and witness to God’s work and the Spirit’s movement that is all around. And to live our life in response in joy and gratitude.

rostered ministers koren ordination
The celebratory Rostered Minister photo, all four of us at a safe physical distance from one another. Bishop Brian Maas, Deacon Koren Lindley, Deacon Timothy Siburg, and Pastor Carm Aderman. (This might be the one time in my life I get to stand behind Bishop Maas because you know, I’m shorter, and he’s not.)

Koren, you have answered God’s call to this point and to this community. You have answered the why questions: Why now? Because it’s not all about you, and the call and work of a deacon does not stop when the church goes online- because God’s call and work never ends. Why this ministry? Because you are called to it with unique gifts and passions, and because this congregation and you have communally discerned this. And why church? Because you believe the Good News is true. That God is for you, with you, and loves you, and you can’t help but want to share that with the world as God calls you to it.

Thank you for answering this call. And thank you People of God for walking with Koren to this day. Thank you, Luther Memorial, for affirming her gifts and for calling her as a Minister of Word and Service. Together, go and serve! Do the work to which you have all been called in your baptisms– knowing that it is God’s work that is being done. Alleluia, and thanks be to God. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] John 14:15-21, NRSV. The gospel lesson for Easter 6A in the Revised Common Lectionary.
[2] 1 Samuel 3:1, NRSV.
[3] 1 Samuel 3:9, NRSV.
[4] Psalm 23:4, NRSV.
[5] John 13:34, NRSV. And echoed in today’s second passage from the Gospel, John 15:12-13, and 15:17, NRSV.
[6] John 13:1-11.
[7] John 13:16, NRSV.
[8] John 15:11, NRSV.
[9] John 15:16-17, NRSV.

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