Stewardship, Forgiveness, and a way forward in times of Anxiety

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I had the pleasure of being with the good people of Grace Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Nebraska this weekend preaching both on Saturday September 16th and Sunday September 17th, 2017. I am grateful for Pastor Eric Lesher and the stewardship team’s invitation to preach. What follows is the majority of the manuscript that I preached from, which included some reflections about stewardship and anxiety, but was also based on the revised common lectionary readings appointed for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, especially Psalm 103, Romans 14:7-12, and Matthew 18:21-35

Grace and peace from our God who loves us, is with us, and forgives us, Amen.

Good morning. Again, I am Deacon Timothy Siburg, the Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod. I bring greetings on behalf of Bishop Maas, just recently back from sabbatical; from your own member, and my colleague Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Megan Morrow; and from your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod.

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Pastor Eric Lesher presiding over communion.

It’s great to be with you here at Grace. Thank you to Pastor Eric, David, and the entire stewardship team for the invitation to be with you today. I am excited to be with you, to wonder a bit about stewardship, forgiveness, and what God might be up to through each of us. I am also grateful for your patience, as you invited me to be with you last year, and schedules with my moving to Nebraska didn’t quite line up. So, thank you for your patience.

My wife Allison and I are non-native Nebraskans, now calling Fontanelle, Nebraska home, where Allison serves as pastor at Salem Lutheran there. It’s a beautiful congregation in a lovely little community of 63 people which swells to upwards of 300 on a Sunday morning, a very different feeling than that of the Seattle area where we grew up.

God’s Story and Our Story- a reminder of who we are
I start with all of this, to share just a glimpse of my story, because I believe that stewardship has everything to do with our story, and especially as it relates to God’s on-going story in each of our lives. The Apostle Paul writes that

“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”[1]

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The outstretched arms of the Lord, makes the focal point of the Naive (or main sanctuary) at Grace Lutheran. Looking forward over the altar, I see a reminder, with Christ’s outstretched arms, that we are the Lord’s.

In today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans we are reminded of our identity as Children of God, heirs of the promise, and I would argue also our identity as stewards, and specifically stewards of God’s love and promise.

We are reminded that, “we are the Lord’s.” This is a central tenant of stewardship, where we believe that all that we have, and all that we are, is God’s. God entrusts us with all that we have, and all that we are, so that we might have an abundant life of deep meaning and purpose in Christ Jesus. But this life as a steward and disciple is one that also comes with challenges, and responsibilities, not the least of which is to be bearers of love and forgiveness, just as God has shown to us through God’s work in Christ Jesus.

This begs the question though, what is stewardship?

Stewardship is…
It’s a part of life as a disciple and part of our identity as Children of God who have been called, created, and are loved by God. It’s also a recognition that what we have, has been entrusted to us to care for by God, to use and manage. There’s no shortage of what this entails. God entrusts to us: our lives, bodies, hearts, minds, and souls; our stories, hopes, dreams, ideas, and questions; our time, talents, gifts, strengths, passions, and vocations; our treasurers, and assets of all kinds, and even creation that surrounds us to care for and steward.

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Our stewardship includes sharing our gifts, just as the youth in the youth choir did beautifully in worship.

Stewardship is part of what it means to live a life of faith and growth as a disciple. I mentioned my story a minute ago, because we grow in our faith by telling stories of faith, and sharing all that God has done and continues to do, for us. We are so moved by all that God has done, that we can’t help but be overjoyed and want to share in that good work; work like I know you all participated in last week with “God’s Work, Our Hands” Sunday- through picking up trash in your neighborhood, and writing notes to friends and your sisters and brothers in need of a smile.

This work and service, is part of your response to God’s gifts and promises. Your invitation to respond to God’s work through the spiritual discernment of your commitment pledge, to promise and contribute financially to God’s work here at Grace and in the larger world is also part of your response. And in total, your work, service, and pledge, and the very way you live your life, the things you do or don’t do, is your stewardship.

Today’s Story about Forgiveness and Us
Today we heard another story from Jesus, who receives a seemingly innocent and straight-forward question from Peter about how often we should forgive. Instead of a quick and short answer, Jesus offers, like he often does, a parable. Today he describes a king, servant, and forgiveness.[2] God, of course, is like the King who shows mercy and forgives the one with debts.[3] When the slave comes for pardon of his debts, the king shows mercy. Do we do likewise?

Too often I fear, we as human beings respond the way the slave does, by not showing the same mercy and forgiveness to his neighbor and fellow slave, the forgiveness we were shown by the king, God.[4]

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A sign of welcome that greeted me upon my arrival at Grace. This is a welcome sign of love and hospitality to our neighbors, whoever they are.

In this story today, Jesus is showing us and calling us to be bearers of God’s love, hope, and forgiveness. God is calling us to be stewards of reconciliation and peace. Sometimes this message can be a hard one to share, because we ourselves might not feel comfortable sharing this message amid a world that is full of conflict, differing viewpoints, violence, pain, and even painful Husker losses (which we hope aren’t signs of a long season to come). Sometimes we might find it hard to forgive each other or ourselves.

But here’s the thing, we are not only called to do this work, but we absolutely must do this work. We don’t have to do this for salvation, because that’s a gift God has given and we cannot earn. But God gives this gift, so that we can love and serve our neighbor, and this starts with being in relationship with them.

Jesus concludes today’s story saying, “And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”[5]

I’m sure I know what you are probably thinking. “Oh great, the stewardship guy just quoted Jesus saying we would be tortured until we paid, or gave our offering.”  No, no, no! Of course not. But what I mean is, what we do matters.[6] If we forgive, or don’t forgive our sister or brother in Christ, there will be consequences.

The Hope and Promise of the Good News Shines Through
This might sound like law, but let me shine a little bit of gospel here. With the psalmist we proclaim, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all God’s benefits- who forgives all your sins, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life and crowns you with steadfast love and mercy…The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed…The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”[7] God forgives you all your sins. God saves you from death. God loves you, and is with you.

How we live our lives, is our response, and I would argue our joyful response to all that God has done, continues to do, and promises to do for us.

The Reality and Anxiety of Scarcity
This can be easier said than done though when we admit all that gives us fear and creates anxiety. Just preaching about stewardship might raise your blood pressure.[8] What if I mentioned money? I suspect that might get some of you to cross your arms, especially if I reminded you that money, wealth, and possessions are what Jesus talks about in the gospels second most, second only to the kingdom of Heaven. Jesus knew how important it is to talk about this stuff, because it matters.

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The chapel at Grace offers a beautiful reminder of God’s presence and peace.

What we have- our finances, money, and stuff; can get in the way of our relationship with God. It can create anxiety and fear. It can lead us to feelings of not having enough, or of not being enough.

Money especially can lead to conflict, and is the number one cause of divorce among married people. I am not sharing these facts to bring you down, but to name these realities. Because when we avoid doing this, just like when we avoid confronting conflict and giving or seeking forgiveness, we give these fears and conflict, power.

Think about when you go to the grocery store. Do you ever feel like there are just too many choices for cereals, bread, peanut butter, and jelly?[9] Do these choices make you nervous and anxious? You start to worry about making the wrong choice.

Or, perhaps you are like me. You have just recently received the exciting and terrifying news that your wife is pregnant, and is expecting during Holy Week. My first thoughts, other than being excited and in love, were the strategic, oh no, do we have enough money? Who will preach and cover Holy Week? Or how on earth can we raise a family?…

These questions, whether about groceries or family changes, are ones that are natural, but ones that come up when we focus on ourselves. When we do this, we are trusting in our self, and focused on our own decision making, and not God. And that’s really where our fears of scarcity come in. It’s a point at which we lose sight of God’s presence, of God working in the world, and we are totally just focused on our own selves and not each other.

Stewardship as Recognition is a Way to Combat Anxiety
When we recognize that we can do this, I believe stewardship becomes a way to combat this anxiety. It helps us remember why we give. When we share, and return to God a portion of what God has entrusted to us, we are doing as God calls us to do. But we are also participating in the building of God’s work in and through us. We’re responding in faith, and joy for all that God has done, and we’re doing so together.

Another pastor recently wrote that, “The more we give, the more free space opens up in us giving God more room to live in us. And who doesn’t want that?”[10] This idea of giving, is one of a joyful response, but also of making room for God in our lives, and for God to be God. And that’s what God hopes for when God calls us to an abundant life as a disciple and steward- a life of great meaning and purpose, but also one of challenge.

Grateful for You- for You are the Lord’s
Having heard about you Grace Lutheran, I deeply believe that you understand this already. And on that note, I want to say thank you again for your invitation, but also, as is my joy when I am out in congregations and hearing moving and unique stories of ministry in action, to thank you for your partnership in the work of the synod, and the larger church through your mission share participation.

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“Growing in Grace,” what a great way to summarize grace and faith in action. Thanks for the welcome and hospitality. It was a joy to be with all of you stewards this week.

Through it, you along with the other 245 congregations of the Nebraska Synod can support new and renewing ministries; help raise up new leaders, deacons, and pastors in this church; support the many serving arms of ministry in action of the church including: Mosaic, Lutheran Family Services, Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry, Nebraska Lutheran Campus Ministry, Lutheran Disaster Response, and many more. Together, all of you at Grace and all the congregations of this synod make ministry possible that spans the globe, so thank you for being a part of it!

When we remember who we are, Children of God, as stewards and disciples, we remember that “we (in fact) are the Lord’s,” and that’s not just a claim that Paul makes to the Romans, it’s a promise God makes to each and everyone of us- one we’re washed in the waters of baptism with, one we celebrate through a simple meal around the table, and one which leads us forth from here, to our homes, schools, and workplaces, no matter what our life story might bring. Thanks be to God for that, and thanks be to God for you. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] Romans 14:7-8, NRSV.
[2] Matthew 18:21-35.
[3] Matthew 18:27.
[4] Matthew 18:28-34.
[5] Matthew 18:34-35, NRSV.
[6] Matthew 18:35.
[7] Psalm 103:2-4, 6, 8.
[8] See Luther Seminary Center for Stewardship Leaders blogpost curated by Adam Copeland, on “Anxious Stewardship,” by Heather Wood Davis. https://www.luthersem.edu/stewardship/default.aspx?m=6667&post=4956
[9] This is why Trader Joes actually has fewer options for grocery items, as explained in “Anxious Stewardship.” (https://www.luthersem.edu/stewardship/default.aspx?m=6667&post=4956)
[10] Ibid. Heather Wood Davis, in “Anxious Stewardship.”

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