‘Turn, then, and live’ – an invitation to abundant life & our response to God’s Work & Word

I had the great privilege of being home at Salem Lutheran in Fontanelle, Nebraska today (October 1, 2017), and was invited to preach on stewardship by my wife, and the congregation’s pastor Allison. What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from, which was based on the revised common lectionary readings for the day (Lectionary 26, Pentecost 17A): Matthew 21:23-32, Philippians 2:1-13, and Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

Grace and peace from our God who invites us, calls us, and loves us, Amen.

A stewardship theme of sorts, seen on the wall at Salem Lutheran in Fontanelle.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, good morning. It’s great to be with you. I know I have preached before, but today is going to be a little different. Most of you know me as the pastor’s spouse. But I am also the Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod. And it’s in that vocation, that I was asked to preach on stewardship today, and to imagine that I am preaching like I would be when out visiting one of the other 245 congregations in the Nebraska Synod. So, for all of you who have wondered what I am doing when I am not here two Sunday mornings a month, here you go…

Today I bring greetings to all of you here at Salem from your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod. I also bring greetings from Bishop Brian Maas and your assistant to the bishop, Pastor Juliet Hampton. Today I’m excited to think about Jesus’ story about two sons, what stewardship might be, and God’s call and invitation to us to respond.

Today’s Story
Today’s story starts with Jesus being questioned, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”[1] It’s the kind of question that anyone who might be seen as threatening, or proposing to change the way things are, or is thinking about changing things that have “always been the way they are,” might face.

baptism of Stetson
Stetson being baptized in worship.

It’s a question that Jesus, naturally because he is Jesus, responds to with his own question. Jesus asked them, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”[2] Perhaps a fitting question, given that in a few minutes Stetson will be baptized and formally marked and claimed as a Child of God, sealed with the cross of Christ forever, just like Boston last week too. But it’s a question which gets to what is God’s work, and what might it look like?

The chief priests and elders decided to say, “We do not know,” so Jesus in turn refused to answer their question.[3]

Instead, he continues on into a story, as Jesus seems to always do, this time about two sons. The first when asked by his dad to go and do some work outside, said “no,” but later changed his mind and did the work, even after perhaps throwing a bit of tantrum about it. The second when asked by his dad, gave his dad the answer he wanted to hear, “yes,” but ended up letting his dad down, because he never got off the couch.

mentors and confirmands
A mentor and confirmand, part of a new plan at Salem this year, where each young adult in confirmation is partnered with a mentor from the congregation as they walk together in faith.

It’s pretty easy for me to think about being either one of these sons. In the first case, it would be me saying, “No, Dad, not today. I’m too tired, and there’s a game on…” and then after thinking about it for a bit, deciding I didn’t want to let my dad down. In the second case, it would be like saying while watching a favorite show on TV to my dad whose trying to get my attention, “Sure Dad, I’ll do it,” and saying that without really acknowledging the question, and saying it while distracted. I’m sure all of you are never distracted when your parents (kids, spouses… fill in the relationship blank here) are trying to talk to you, right? Right? Right pastor?

Jesus’ point seems to be that God changes us. It’s like God’s invitation to us that we hear today in Ezekiel, to “Turn, then, and live.”[4] This is an invitation to repent and change, but also to live an abundant life, life we know in Christ Jesus- a life of deep meaning and purpose, but also one with challenges. It’s also an acknowledgement, that God’s work and Word, has an effect on us, and is for us.

In baptism, it’s God’s word which gives the ordinary water power. In communion, it’s God’s word which turns the ordinary elements of bread and wine, into Christ’s body and blood given and shed for you. These things are God’s work. They are not things that are ours. And, that is where stewardship comes in.

What Stewardship Might Be
How do we respond to God’s work and Word in the world? Well, our response, whatever it is, is our stewardship. Stewardship is one of those “church-y” words that over time has perhaps lost some of its meaning.

When you hear the word, I suspect some of you cross your arms, because you are thinking, oh great, the stewardship guy (who in this case is the pastor’s husband) is about to talk to us about money… Yeah, I have been in this role long enough, I know that’s what you are thinking, but that’s not what I’m going to say. The problem with the way the church has done stewardship for 50 years, is that it’s almost always only been tied to money, which is really, just one part of our stewardship.

baptism prep
Signs and symbols of baptism.

Stewardship, starts with an understanding that all that we have, and all that we are, is God’s! We heard this today in the reading from Ezekiel, “Know that all lives are mine…”[5] All of us, baptized, created, and loved, are children of God. God has been there from the start, and is still there with us, as God has promised, as we’ll sing about in a few minutes, “I was there to hear your borning cry, I’ll be there when you are old. I rejoiced the day you were baptized to see your life unfold.”[6]

Just as we are God’s, in Psalm 24, we hear that, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it, for the Lord has founded it on the seas and established it on the rivers.”[7] Not only are we God’s, but everything that we have and everything that we are, is God’s too. This is a bit counter cultural, isn’t it? But hear me out. What we have, has been entrusted to us to care for, use, manage, and steward by God, to serve God and our neighbor, but also to live life abundantly.

What we have includes: our lives, health, bodies, souls, minds, hearts, and relationships; our time, ideas, dreams, questions, and stories; our talents, gifts, strengths, passions, and vocations; our treasures, possessions, money, finances, assets of all kinds; and even creation and all that it consists of- the flowing water of the Elkhorn, the cornfields and soybeans, and even the beautiful glaciers on Mount Rainier near where Allison and I grew up in the Seattle area. All of these things, that are a part of each of us, are things which God has entrusted to us to use and care for.

Stewardship is part of what it means to live a life of faith and growth as a disciple. We grow in our faith when we tell stories of faith, pointing to where we think we have seen or felt God up to something in the world, and sharing about all that God has done and continues to do, for us.

We know this through the work of the cross and the resurrection, free gifts of God that we could never earn. Rather, what we can do is give thanks and praise to God. We are so moved by what God has promised and done for us, that we are overjoyed and want to be a part of this good work. So, in reality, stewardship is all about our response to God’s gifts and promises.

A Call to Respond Joyfully
When I think about today’s story that Jesus tells, about how a father has two sons, and collectively one of them changes their mind because of the relationship with their dad, I keep coming back to the question, how do we respond to God’s work and Word in the world? God has done all the hard work for us.

When we respond to God’s gifts for us, one of those is our belief about Jesus, who as Paul writes about to the Philippians, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death- even death on a cross…”[8] How we live and give is a response to this gift, and it’s also a recognition that as Paul says, “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”[9]

The gifts of God for the people of God- salvation, hope, peace, unconditional love, grace, faith, community… these are gifts given for us, which we know most clearly through Christ Jesus. But they are also gifts, which we each respond to in our own way. We do so, in gratitude for all that God has done, and in love for our neighbor whom God calls us to be in relationship with, and entrusts us with all that we need to serve them, just as Paul says, “Let each of you look not on your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…”[10]

Here at Salem, I’ve seen this through the work of the Health cabinet, through the many hours of work yesterday I saw you steward of your time to help around the church and property. I’ve seen this through the way that many of you have answered the call to steward a little bit of your time to serve as confirmation mentors, walking alongside confirmands in this congregation as they grow in their faith. Another way will be after worship and Stetson’s baptism, going out into the world into your daily lives fed and changed, sharing God’s story through the way you live and serve.

crusin fontanelle
There were about 112 people in worship this morning at Salem. Almost exactly half of them (55 to be exact) participated in Crusin’, and shared lunch and fellowship together at The Way North in Tekamah. Wow!

For some of you, including me, this afternoon you’ll get to go out and share in this love through Cruisin’ to the Way North. Of course, there are countless other examples I could point to. Thank you for responding to God’s gifts, and invitation to be a part of God’s work in the world in all the various and unique ways that you do.

As the Director for Stewardship, I have seen many unique ways that congregations live out their stewardship and service to others. In one nearby congregation, they have turned an unused part of their basement into a wood-shop to make furniture and prayer boxes for those in need in their community. In another congregation, they have created a department store like care closet, which has filled nearly their entire basement allowing anyone in the community in need to find what they need, whether it be shoes, clothes, or food, just like they would be doing if shopping at a store.

Working on the property across the street at the congregational work day on Saturday.

As I wonder about stewardship at Salem, I wonder about the possibilities that the property across the street might pose. How might we serve our neighbors through our use or stewardship of it? What ministry might God be calling us to be a part of, through entrusting us with this opportunity? What dreams might God have for it, through us? What dreams might you have? The continued dreaming, listening, and discernment is holy work, which I am excited to see where it might lead.

Mission Share
Another way, that you are part of God’s work in the world, is through the way Salem participates in Mission Share. Mission Share supports the ministry of the larger church through undesignated offerings, which helps congregations do ministry that literally spans the globe.

Through it, each of you: help and support missionaries; you provide for new and renewing ministries; you support the training, education, and development of new leaders, pastors, and deacons (like Allison and me) in our church; you even help support the work of countless serving arms of the church- a few of whom include: Lutheran Family Services, Mosaic, Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry including Camp Carol Joy Holling; Lutheran World Relief, and Lutheran Disaster Response, which is on the ground and will be for years to come in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico helping people recover and rebuild.

There’s a lot more that you are a part of through mission share, but please hear my deepest sense of gratitude for being a part of this ministry. Thank you!

Summing Up in Gratitude
A friend and mentor of mine tried to summarize the work of stewardship as “ask, thank, tell.”[11] I like to think of it this way. It’s about telling God’s on-going story and pointing to how we are all a part of it. It’s about inviting and asking people to be a part of this work, and to return to God a portion of what God has first entrusted to us. And it’s about saying thank you- thank you to God and to each and everyone of you.

Along with Crusin’ today, was a scavenger hunt. These were the winners.

So, in that spirit, Thank You! Thank you for being the beautiful Children of God that you are- who respond to God’s work and calls in unique ways each day- through the various vocations you serve as students, teachers, farmers, truck drivers, legislators, parents, grandparents.

Thank you for serving alongside one another as the People of God, gathered here at Salem and sent near and far in Fontanelle, Nickerson, Fremont, Blair, Hooper, Omaha, Lincoln, and everywhere in between. Thank you for continuing to share your stories with one another, and for welcoming us as your fellow servants- Allison as pastor, me as the spouse and deacon, to serve and grow alongside you, and figure out in the months and years ahead how to be a parent. But most importantly, thanks be to God for loving us, inviting each of us, and calling us together, to serve and respond to God’s love in many and various ways as stewards. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] Matthew 21:23, NRSV.
[2] Matthew 21:25, NRSV.
[3] Matthew 21:27, NRSV.
[4] Ezekiel 18:32, NRSV.
[5] Ezekiel 18:4, NRSV.
[6] “Borning Cry,” by John Ylvisaker, found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 732.
[7] Psalm 24:1-2, NRSV.
[8] Philippians 2:7-8, NRSV.
[9] Philippians 2:13, NRSV.
[10] Philippians 2:4-5, NRSV.
[11] Charles R. Lane, Ask, Thank, Tell: Improving Stewardship Ministry in Your Congregation, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006).

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