This weekend (March 11th & 12th), I had the joy of visiting First Lutheran Church in Kearney, Nebraska. Pastor Sylvia Karlsson invited me to come, preach, and visit, as part of the congregation’s stewardship season of focus during Lent. Over the course of the weekend, I preached the following sermon, visited with many different people, and also had a fun evening of a barbecue stewardship dinner filled with conversation and questions and answers with me. What follows is the manuscript that I mainly preached from. The sermon was based on the congregation’s stewardship focus from Ephesians 4:1-16, and the appointed gospel passage from the revised common lectionary for the second weekend of Lent, John 3:1-17. If you would like to listen or watch this sermon, the 11:00am service was recorded and can be viewed including the sermon here

Grace and peace from our God who created you, calls you, claims you, loves you, and is with you. Amen.

It is a great joy to be with you today here in Kearney. Thank you Pastor Sylvia for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring greetings on behalf of your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ from across the Nebraska Synod, from Bishop Maas, and the whole synod staff, and even from my friend and colleague Deacon Connie Stover, a member of this great community here. I am excited to be with you and to help think about what God might be up to here, and how we’re stewards of all that God entrusts to us- all that we have and all that we are.[1]

Stewardship Theme: Ephesians 4:4-6
The stewardship theme that you have chosen from Ephesians 4 is one that is all about unity. We each have unique gifts, passions, ideas, identities, stories, and vocations. But we are brought together in the one Body. Paul writes, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”[2]

kids bells
The Youth Handbell Choir sharing their gifts of music as part of the prelude.

The word “all” shows up four times, just in this verse alone. This is something that the apostle Paul is trying to get through to the people of Ephesus. The church, the Body of Christ, is dependent upon all- all of us, all our neighbors, everyone. We all have a role to play. We all have purpose, and we all matter. Looking around the world, that’s a message and story that needs to be told today, perhaps more than ever.

So, what are we to do about this? How can we tell this story, one that Jesus starts to paint a picture of, for Nicodemus today? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life. Indeed, God, did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”[3]

This is a pure gift! The question then is, what is our joyful response to this gift of life? How do we live? The answer has everything to do with stewardship.

What It Means to be a Steward
Stewardship is not just about money, though that’s certainly a part of it. It’s about asking for people to give, and to contribute out of response to the good news and promises of all that God has done for you and continues to do.

40 days
One of the ways that First Lutheran is practicing stewardship during Lent is by engaging with curriculum developed by ELCA World Hunger, and supporting this ministry through weekly noisy offerings among other ways.

Stewardship is about thanking God and thanking people, living a life of gratitude and joy. On that note, thank you for the invitation, and for all the many ways you each serve in your vocations, daily lives, and as partners in ministry in this place, in this community of Kearney, as part of the Nebraska Synod, the ELCA and the larger church. Your partnership in this, as part of the synod, and through your mission share contributions makes the work of the church possible: through sharing resources to prepare and raise up new leaders; through helping those in need by responding to disasters and world hunger, and supporting the work of the many serving arms of the church like Lutheran Family Services, Mosaic, and Lutheran World Relief to name a few; and in spreading the good news of a God who has come near, through supporting new and transforming ministries.

Stewardship is also about telling the stories of how God is at work, and how, whether we recognize it or not, we are part of that work, and it’s beautiful and important work, that I have the joy in my role as Director for Stewardship of getting to remind you all about.

God uses us- all that we have and all that we are, to bring about God’s kingdom and do God’s work in the world. How we respond to the good news- by the way we live our lives joyfully, abundantly or in scarcity, help shows how we have been impacted by the good news. The choices we make, the things we do or don’t do, they are all reflections of how we steward ourselves- all of what makes each of us who we are- our time, our bodies, our health, our dreams, our questions, our ideas, our vocations, our hopes, our stories, our relationships. That’s what stewardship is about.

It’s a deep thing. It’s a big part of our identity as Children of God, and as some have said, it might well include everything we do after hearing the Good News of God, good news we heard again today, and good news and reminders of God’s promises we will celebrate again through a simple meal in a few moments.

stewardship dinner
Some of the many wonderful people who came and enjoyed the stewardship dinner at First Lutheran, served and sponsored by the congregation’s stewardship team.

In this time of change, worry, and fear for many, we must be stewards of God’s love to all of God’s people. We must be a John 3:17 people. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”[4]

This is the gospel to the core- the gift of God for all the children and people of God, all of whom God has created, all of whom God calls, claims, and loves. God wants to be in relationship with God’s people. And God in Christ comes as one of us, to be with us, and through Him, to save us so that we may all live, and live life abundantly.

That’s what we remember during this season of Lent in our journey to and through the cross. That’s also the good news my friends. But it’s news we need to be sharing and we are called to share. But how?

Vocations & Our Response
What we do matters. What we do isn’t about saving ourselves or anyone, that’s God’s good gift and promise. But what we do matters in the sense that it is our joyful response to the good news, gifts, and promises of God. How do we live our lives? How do we love those around us, living out our unique and diverse callings?

Let me put this another way.

The Blowing Winds of Nebraska & the Movement of the Spirit
In talking to Nicodemus, Jesus paints a beautiful picture of the Holy Spirit. It’s one that takes on extra meaning here in Nebraska when we think of the way the wind blows. I mean just this last week, living in the parsonage in rural Fontanelle northeast of Fremont where my wife serves as pastor at Salem Lutheran there, our house lost power a couple times because of the wind whipping out of the south and then the west and north.

Jesus says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”[5]

We believe in a God who is on the loose, present everywhere, and up to something. What God is up to, can sometimes be a great mystery to us. It usually involves lifting people up, spreading love, purpose, hope, joy, and sharing the good news of God’s promises through love and action. God the Holy Spirit moves like the wind, in ways that are uncontrollable. We can’t make God do what we want. We can’t put God in a box, or treat our prayers like that of someone with wishes for a Genie in a bottle. That’s not a real relationship. God wants to be with us, in the good, bad, and ugly of life. And when we are open to it, just as the Holy Spirit moves and blows like the wind, we too can be moved in ways we might never expect and to lands we might never have imagined. I think all of our stories might be good examples of this.

A Bit of My Story of the Spirit’s Movement
For example, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. I met my wife in college, and we fell in love. After I did a master’s program in California, we got married and a week later moved to seminary in Minnesota. No rational person goes about life like this. I mean, I had had planned my whole life ahead, I would keep going to school, get a PhD and then maybe after that start dating at that point. God had other ideas, much better than my own, I might add. After five years in Minnesota, we went back to Washington for Allison to do her internship, the last part of her preparation before ordination. We figured, hey, we’re going home to the northwest…

Then a funny thing happened. God nudged me in the form of an email from a person I had never heard of to have a phone conversation with a bishop I had never met. A month later I was on a quick trip to Nebraska to see this state I didn’t know much about in person with my own eyes. Tears were shed on that trip, tears of knowing that we would be leaving our extended families again, but we also knew, through our hearts, minds, and souls, that God was up to something and we were being led here to this beautiful and wonderful state and this awesome synod which we are all a part of in this church.

God in the Holy Spirit moves in ways which we often can’t explain, and in ways that defy our human logic or best planning. But that’s a part of what it means to be a Follower of Christ, and honestly, to be a steward.

Called Together for the Sake of Our Neighbor
God calls us together. God gifts us with purpose, and entrusts us with unique callings and responsibilities. But each of these, is not just for ourselves, or for God alone. They are for each other, for our neighbors both locally and far away. We have a God who calls us into relationships. That means at times we will disagree, perhaps fight or mess-up, because we’re in community and relationships. We’re human after all. But through God, there is hope of reconciliation through God’s love, and the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”[6]

heavenlytreblemakers
Best choir name ever, “Heavenly Treble Makers.” Beautiful singers. Thank you for all sharing and stewarding your musical gifts.

In times like this, we are called more than ever to truly be this one body for the sake of the world- to share, to love, to do, to tell, and to serve. God’s done the hard work already of overcoming death through Christ. Now it’s our turn to go about the work of being a steward of God’s love, responding to the good news, promises, and gifts of God’s saving acts for us. It’s our turn, our calling, our duty, and our joy to be a part of the beautiful, unique, and diverse Body of Christ, which together can provide community, hope, healing, and reconciliation to a hurting and broken, yet very beautiful and wonderfully made world.

This is not easy work. But it’s the most important work. And together, we go about it, each serving in our various ways, called to it by our God who loves us, is with us, and is for us. Amen.

____________________________________

Notes, Resources, and References

[1] I’m especially excited to be here because Pr. Sylvia was one of the first people I met last year shortly after accepting this call to serve in Nebraska. In addition to serving as your transition pastor, Pr. Sylvia is the chair for the Nebraska Synod Stewardship Table. I met that group virtually for the first time through the wonders of the internet last April, even before I began working for the synod, and I knew then and there what a great team I was going to be a part of. I am grateful for their leadership, especially as they have welcomed me to this exciting role as the Nebraska Synod Director for Stewardship.

[2] Ephesians 4:4-6, NRSV.

[3] John 3:16-17, NRSV.

[4] Inspired by Karoline Lewis, “John 3:16,” “Dear Working Preacher,” 5 March 2017. Within this, Karoline writes, “the sweeping claim of John 3:16 without 3:17 has in our general parlance become that which justifies damnation for unbelievers, perpetuates our myopic musings about God, and validates our hubris. Rather than signal God’s desire to be in relationship with all people, this verse has become a weapon…”

[5] John 3:8, NRSV.

[6] Ephesians 4:3, NRSV.

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