The following is the majority of the sermon I preached at American Lutheran Church in Filley, Nebraska on Sunday February 12, 2017. The passages appointed for the day by the revised common lectionary (Epiphany 6A) included Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, and Matthew 5:21-37.
Grace and peace to you this day, and greetings from your 100,000 sisters and brothers across the Nebraska Synod. I know that Bishop Maas was with you a couple of months ago, and he again sends his greetings and gratitude. On his, and the whole synod’s behalf, I want to say thank you again for your generosity and the many ways you have stepped up to answer God’s call to serve your neighbor in your many ministries and special gifts in honor of American Lutheran’s 85 plus years of ministry now. So, with all my heart, please here my sincerest thanks and gratitude.
Thank you also to Pastor LuRae for the invitation to be with you today. I am excited to be here, to be present with you and hear some of your stories.
Again, my name is Timothy Siburg and I am the Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod, and a deacon in the ELCA. Of all of my many tasks with my role and ministry, one of my great joys is getting to be out in congregations seeing God’s work lived out in creative and new ways, and hearing and sharing the many stories of God at work through the love shown for and through God’s people.
Stories of Abundance and Stewardship
Since moving to Nebraska this past fall from Washington state, I have had the chance to see the abundance of God in action all across this state. I have heard about congregations who have given up some of our their church building space, for example, to house a wood shop to create prayer chests and furniture for those in need in their community.
I have witnessed a congregation which has turned its entire basement into not just a “care closet,” full of donated clothes, shoes, and food, but it’s organized like a store, and people in need in the community can come and take what they need.
I have felt God’s abundance through the gratitude and graciousness of warm welcomes like I have received here in congregations like yours in Scottsbluff, North Platte, Wayne, Aurora, Tekamah, and many more. I’ve seen people show up and fill an auditorium for a benefit, like last night in Fremont for a friend in their community, a sister in Christ battling cancer. And I have seen partnerships with serving arms to do the good work of ministry through groups like Mosaic, Lutheran Family Services, and many others.
I have seen how God’s abundance is being lived out in the way people live their lives, and steward all that they are, and all that they have- their time, their gifts, their possessions, their passions, vocations, questions, ideas, dreams, and stories. And in this, I have seen God’s story to continue to unfold, and to be able to help point to it.
Stories of God at Work
The beauty of God’s story is that it is on-going. Just as God is with us, Emmanuel, God will continue to be present with us.
In the Old Testament reading today from Deuteronomy, we hear some of the story of Moses preaching and laying out what’s at stake once again for God’s people, Israel. It’s a message that’s all about life, and abundant life that is only possible through the living God.
Moses proclaims, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.”
There’s no dancing around this for Moses. This is life and death sort of stuff, and has taken on tangible form in the midst of Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness, hoping to soon cross the Jordan to the land that God has promised to give to God’s people. Moses reminds the people again of the stories of God’s love and promises. The stories of the God of Abraham, and the promise God made with Abraham, the covenant of the Shema.
Moses so deeply wants the people to hear him and understand. He wants them to “Choose life so that they and their descendants may live.” That’s God’s hope too. God wants us to choose life, abundant life, a life we can only find in God.
That really is also the point of the “law.” Lutherans like to talk about this thing called “law and gospel.” You might hear about how the “law brings you to your knees,” and the good news of the gospel frees you. This might well be true.
But there is another way to think about this law. One of my favorite seminary professors, Dr. Terence Fretheim, argued in class often that the purpose of the law is the hope that “life may go well for you.”
That really seems to be what Moses is getting at. He wants the people to remember their identity, and their relationship with their God. He wants them to enjoy and live the abundant life only possible through God.
Now putting on my stewardship hat for a minute, at the heart of stewardship is this hope and message of the abundance we know in God in Christ. It’s like what the writer of the letter of 1st Timothy compels, in order to “take hold of the life that really is life,” the life, death, and resurrection of the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Life in Relationship
This abundant life though is not one in isolation. It’s also not just one in sole individual relationship with God. It’s one in relationship with each other, all of our fellow Children of God. And that seems to be what’s on Jesus’ mind in this portion we heard today of his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is offering thoughts, questions, and rhetorical responses to how to be in relationship with each other.
Jesus preaches, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
Now obviously as a Director for Stewardship, this passage catches my eye because it talks about the importance of giving and offering up of oneself, that which God has first entrusted to us. But that act of giving, is a deeply spiritual and relational one.
When we give, it’s not all about us. It’s about showing our gratitude for God by returning just a portion of all that God has given for us, and entrusted to us. It’s like the hymn we’ll sing in a few minutes, “We Give Thee But Thine Own,” using that which God has given to our care, to serve our neighbor.
It’s about reaching out to those in need, those around us, to steward that which God has given for the sake of God’s world. A world that is called, created, and loved into being, to be in relationship with God.
Life is not abundant without relationships and community. And because of this, it also means life is not one absent of conflict. Why do we confess together just about every time we worship? Because we need to be reminded of the forgiveness that is given pure and simply through the gifts of God. Through God in Christ’s love, we are reconciled to God, and likewise, we are called to be reconciled to one another.
That’s why it’s such a beautiful thing for Jesus to frame our giving and offering around our relationships with each other. If there’s some area of hurt or forgiveness that’s needed, seek it and be reconciled. Through the reconciliation comes peace; forgiveness; freedom from pain, sorrow and guilt; and abundant life. It’s for this reason that in worship we often have a time of passing of the peace before offering, so that, perhaps, if you need to seek out another, you have the chance so that all may give back to God with joyful hearts.
Valentine’s and Vocation
This is all nice, well and good, I know. But what does it mean for us today?
Maybe an answer lies in Paul’s words to the Corinthians? Paul writes about how we are all called into vocations, lives of service to our neighbors in our relationships, roles, and duties. He writes that, “we are God’s servants, working together; we are God’s field, God’s building.”
This recognition of our call to be for our neighbor is part of our joyful response to the goodness, gifts, and promises of God. Or put another way, how might you answer the question, “What is your joyful response to what God has done, continues to do, and promises to do for you?” “What will you do, because you are so moved by God’s love and gifts, that you will do for the sake of your neighbor?”
How will you steward your time? How will you share your talents, treasures, passions, stories, and gifts?
All of these and so much more, are who you are. Put another way, how will you live as a Child of God, freed and loved by God, but in that freedom and love, called to love and serve your neighbor?
This isn’t about earning brownie points to heaven. Salvation is a free gift of God, one that we can’t earn even by following all the laws laid down for us, which is impossible anyway. Rather the question about our response, is one about life. How will we live our lives? How will we live through the love and promises of God?
Will we live in scarcity and fear? Will we put up barriers between ourselves, and cut off relationships?
Or will we live in abundance and promise? Will we seek out relationships with our neighbors- those we know and those we don’t’ really know yet? Will we show up for our neighbors going through the hardest parts of life, joining them in our deep love we know through Christ?
As Valentine’s Day is this week, what is a way that you feel the love of God at work in your life? How about the love of God at work through the life of someone you know- a neighbor, family member, partner in ministry? How about how you see the love of God at work through those around you- your neighbors and strangers? Around your community? Around the world?
Today’s a good a day to remember all that God has done, and to open our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds, to see what God might be up to in God’s abundance in our midst. God is active. God is present. And God’s gift and promise of love is for you, and is shown to others through you.
Maybe that doesn’t make a great Valentine’s Card that Hallmark can market and sell- but the depth of it, makes it possible to show God’s love to all those you meet, through your words, actions, and the way you live your life in relationship with one another.
No matter how you answer the question of what will your joyful response to the gifts of God be; know that you are called, created, and loved to be uniquely who you are. And thank you for being the beautiful Child of God you are- sharing love, hope, light, and peace with the world. Amen.
References and Works Cited:
 Deuteronomy 30:15-16, NRSV.
 Paraphrased from Deuteronomy 30:19, NRSV.
 1 Timothy 6:19, NRSV.
 Matthew 5:23-24, NRSV.
 1 Corinthians 3:9, NRSV, paraphrased.