I had the pleasure and privilege of being with the good people of American Lutheran Church in Gothenburg, Nebraska this weekend. As part of this, I participated in their joint Epiphany celebration with Zion Lutheran Church on Saturday January 6, 2018; and then I preached in worship for Baptism of Our Lord Sunday, helping kick off American Lutheran’s stewardship theme, “It’s All About that Grace,” as well as was present for conversation during the congregation’s stewardship brunch. What follows is the majority of the manuscript that I preached from. The sermon was based on the appointed gospel lesson, Mark 1:4-11, and incorporated the congregation’s stewardship theme verses Ephesians 2:4-10.
Grace and peace from the baptized and resurrected God in Christ Jesus, who loves you, is with you, and is for you, Amen.
Good morning. It’s great to be with you. Thank you, Pastor Jon for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring greetings from your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ, who with you are the Nebraska Synod. I bring greetings again from Bishop Brian Maas, and from your Assistant to the Bishop, Pastor Steve Meysing. I am grateful to be with you, and for your patience and planning in inviting me to come. You are the first congregation who scheduled me out almost a year ahead of time. Thank you for thinking so far in advance.
I’m excited to be with you, and to help kick off your stewardship theme, “It’s all about that Grace!” What a fantastic theme for stewardship and for our Lutheran understanding of God’s work, gifts, and promises for us! Today as we celebrate and observe Baptism of Our Lord Sunday, and move from Christmas to Epiphany, and to the time after Epiphany, I can’t think of a better day to kick off this stewardship theme.
Today’s Story about Jesus’ Baptism
Today we hear a story, where “just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”
As the psalmist said, “The voice of the Lord is” literally “over the waters.” Today, with those who were nearby when Jesus met John in the water and the wilderness, we too hear God’s voice breaking through. It’s the same voice of God, which calls forth and creates all that exists. It’s the same voice, the very Word of God, that gives the water and the meal in the sacraments their power.
Today as we might think about our own baptisms, we must first start with this baptism.
The baptism of the Savior in whom we are all baptized. The Baptism with which through the Water and the Word, we are sealed with the cross of Christ and received into God’s family as children. But before we can be baptized with the Holy Spirit, God in Christ himself was baptized by John in the Jordan.
In Mark’s telling of this story, much like throughout the whole Gospel of Mark, it’s rather short and to the point. Jesus’ baptism takes basically only one verse, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” It’s the two verses after this, which catch my eye where we hear as Jesus comes out of the water, “the heavens are torn apart,” the Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice comes from heaven. That’s pretty dramatic! It’s not some afterthought. I suspect those who might have heard this voice, might have been just as terrified as Mary and Joseph were to see Gabriel, or as frightened as the shepherds were in the fields, or even the kings, wise men or sages who we journeyed with together here in Gothenburg last night remembering the Epiphany.
When a voice from heaven speaks, or more pointedly, when God’s own voice speaks, we should listen. I mean in the Christmas and Epiphany story which we just heard over the past few weeks, it’s the angels who do the talking for God. It doesn’t happen very often that a voice from heaven whom we can only assume is God’s own voice, speaks directly for God’s self. This matters. Things are changing.
God’s Work, For Us
This is God’s work. And it’s also a sign of what is to come. With Jesus’ baptism, comes the start of his formal ministry. With this baptism, and God’s declaration, we are told to wake up and pay attention!
John the Baptist has been calling the people to repent and prepare. Well, what he has been preparing for, is about to begin. We know the stories of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for us. They flow out of God’s presence and promise. They flow in the baptismal waters that today Christ is washed in, and hence forth we too are washed in. They flow out of God’s love, and God in Christ’s own identity, as God with us and God for us.
It really is all about that grace! Through God’s grace, we are made heirs of the promise. As your stewardship verses remind, “by grace you have been saved,” and “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing: it is the gift of God- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
This is the life of the baptized. This is the life of being a disciple. And it’s also the life of being a steward. All of the hard work God has done for us, as a gift which we could never earn. This is freeing. But it also is such a deep thing, that we can’t help but want to share this deep love and grace with others. And this feeling, flows right from our baptisms.
In baptism, and in affirming our baptisms, we make promises. We don’t make these promises in order to earn baptism. We make these promises, because this is our joyful response to all that God has done, continues to do, and promises to do for us. We make these promises, so that we don’t hoard God’s gifts for ourselves, but that we share them widely, just as God in Christ opens wide his arms on the cross for us and for all.
In affirming our baptisms we promise:
- To live among God’s faithful people;
- To hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper;
- To proclaim the Good News of God in Christ through word and deed;
- To serve all people, following the example of Jesus;
- and To strive for justice and peace in all the earth.
This is what being a disciple looks like. It’s what being a steward and living a life of faith, looks like. These promises highlight our identity as Children of God, who have been marked, sealed, and claimed in baptism as God’s own.
These are promises which are fresh on my mind right now. You see, my wife Allison and I are expecting our first child, due at the end of March. It may not be the best timing ever to bring a child into the world during holy week, when your wife is a congregation’s pastor, and you are a deacon. But, God has a great sense of humor. These are promises though that my wife and I, and whomever we invite to serve as godparents, will be making for our child around the baptismal fount.
They are promises that some day our child I hope will affirm, like teenagers and young adults do and have done for years. They are promises I believe which as a father in waiting, are hopes I have for my child to live an abundant and meaningful life in God. A life that will not always be easy, and probably often have challenges. But one that has purpose, and meaning in the life as a disciple and steward.
Digging into “Stewardship”
Since you are kicking off this stewardship focus, I should probably say a few words about what stewardship is. And, before you continue crossing your arms in the back of the sanctuary, yes, I see you. This always happens, in every congregation I visit. Please know that I am not here to talk about money. We have done such a disservice in the church to make stewardship only about money. It’s so much more than that.
In baptism God claims us- all of us. But in some ways, it’s really a reclaiming of us. Because stewardship is grounded in an understanding that all that we have, and all that we are is God’s. God creates us, calls us, loves us, and is with us. Not so we just exist and go about our merry way, but that as God’s children whom God wants to be in relationship with, we might live abundant lives in God, and love and serve God and our neighbor.
What we have, has been entrusted to our care by God to use, manage, or steward. But what this means, is a lot more than you might think. This includes: our lives, health, bodies, souls, minds, and hearts; it includes our time, talents, ideas, dreams, questions, and stories; our talents, gifts, strengths, passions, vocations, and relationships; our treasures, money, finances and assets of all kinds; and of course, all of creation that surrounds us and which we are a part of. When we heard the opening of the Bible, and the first words of Genesis today, we heard a reminder of God’s creative power, but also that God’s love and imagination called us all into being.
Why? Because of a deep love and grace. It’s one we discover a bit more of each day as we live and grow as disciples. It’s one we see and ponder when we share stories of faith- or pointing to what God has done and continues to do, or wondering about what God might be up to. Here at American, I have heard about JAM, or “Jesus is Alive in Me,” a community after school program. That’s just one way that I believe you are sharing those stories of faith, and sharing and pointing to God’s love in the world.
When we think about God’s love, and remember all of these promises that God has made for us in baptism, we can’t help but be so overjoyed that we want to share in this good work. And that’s really where stewardship comes in. It’s grounded in our identity as baptized Children of God. And stewardship then is really how we live our life in response to God’s love, gifts, promises, and grace. What we do, or don’t do. The decisions we make. The things or relationships we are a part of. All of this is stewardship.
In baptism, God claims us once and for all. And everything that follows is us living out our lives as the baptized. Whether it be through serving in the food pantry here at American in Gothenburg, or through volunteering in the local schools. Whether it be helping out with Affirmation or Sunday School, being a listening ear, and sharing stories; or just being present to offer a hug, smile, or shoulder to cry on when someone needs that. All of this is life as a baptized Child of God, and life as one who stewards God’s love to others as God calls us to do so.
Gratitude and Thanks
As a non-native Nebraskan, I am continually amazed at what God’s people here in the Big Red State are up to, and their generosity. One of my joys is being entrusted with the stories of congregations like this, and being able to share them with other congregations that I visit and meet. The other great joy is being able to say thank you. So to that end, thank you for being the amazing stewards and Children of God that you are.
Today I want to especially say thank you for your on-going participation in mission share. Mission share is the undesignated offering that you share with the Nebraska Synod and larger ELCA, which helps make mission and ministry that spans the globe possible. Through it, you help support for the training and preparation of new leaders, pastors, and deacons of our church; you support missionaries locally and internationally; you help provide resources for new and renewing ministries; and you even support the work of the many serving arms of the church like Mosaic, Lutheran Family Services, Lutheran World Relief, and Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry and Camp Carol Joy Holling, just to name a few. There’s so much more you are a part of. So, thank you for being a part of it, and for continually discerning ways as the baptized children of God to join in God’s creative and redeeming work in all the world.
From Epiphany to the Stewardship Focus in the Weeks Ahead
On this day as we remember our Lord’s baptism, and perhaps our own, we also remember that God is for us- an Epiphany, a light in the world, a voice that speaks over the waters and calls us to pay attention. We remember that we each are called as a beloved Child of God, to come and see, to listen, to follow, and sent out to share. We remember the mark of the cross which we are sealed with, and the grace that makes that possible.
As you think about that grace and stewardship in the weeks ahead, know that I am grateful for each and every one of you. Please know that God loves you, and I hope you hear God’s invitation today to think just a little bit deeper about what it might mean to be a steward of God’s love, and how you might feel called to grow and live into that identity this day and this whole new year. Amen.
Resources and Citations:
 Mark 1:10-11, NRSV.
 Psalm 29:3, NRSV.
 As in Genesis 1:1-5, the First Reading for today.
 Mark 1:9, NRSV.
 Mark 1:10-11, NRSV.
 Ephesians 2:5, NRSV.
 Ephesians 2:8-10, NRSV.
 Found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 236.
 Psalm 24:1-3, NRSV.
 Genesis 1:1-5, NRSV.