New Life in Christ & Our Response as Stewards

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It was a snowy morning at Lord of Love Lutheran in Omaha.

On Sunday January 14, 2018, I was honored to be with the good people of Lord of Love Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska. As part of my visit, Pastor Becky Sells and the congregation’s stewardship team invited me to preach on stewardship at both services and also present during the Adult Forum time. The congregation observed Baptism of Our Lord Sunday on this date, as part of the congregation’s focus on stewardship during the Epiphany season. Thus, the majority of my sermon was based on the appointed gospel lesson from Mark 1:4-11. What follows is the manuscript I more or less preached from. 

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 Becky and to the whole Stewardship Team for the invitation to be with you today, 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; from Bishop Brian Maas; and from your Assistant to the Bishop, Pastor Juliet Hampton. I’m grateful to be with you as part of your stewardship focus this month; to be able to wonder with you a bit about what God might be up to; and to ponder how we might be called in our own baptisms to be a part of God’s work in the world as stewards.

Today’s Story of Jesus’ Baptism
Today we hear again the story of the baptism of the Savior in whom we are all baptized. But before we can be baptized with the Holy Spirit, God in Christ himself was baptized by John in the Jordan. It’s kind of surreal to think about. And Mark’s version of the story, as short and to the point as Mark usually gets, isn’t lacking in drama. John the Baptist has been preparing the people and the world for this day. We heard this message again during Advent. John declares, “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”[1]

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Getting ready for worship in the sanctuary, including moving the baptismal water from the back to the front of the sanctuary as part of the observance of Baptism of Our Lord Sunday.

Jesus’ baptism might have seemed ordinary, for a second. At least based on Mark’s telling, but any chance of that being the case went away as soon as Jesus was coming out of the river. For “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.’”[2]

That’s dramatic! It’s not some afterthought. Imagine if you were in the wilderness or along the river that day and heard that voice? What would you have thought?

I would think that when a voice from heaven speaks, or, when God’s own voice speaks, we should listen. 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 today. Things are changing.

As the psalmist said, “The voice of the Lord is” literally “over the waters.”[3] 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.[4] It’s the same voice, the very Word of God, that gives the water and the meal in the sacraments their power.

New Life in Christ- the Work of the Holy Spirit
This story, the baptism of Jesus, 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 from the heavens, 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 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.

Today in Christ’s baptism, with the start of Jesus’ formal ministry, we see a glimpse of God breaking into the world. We also see the beginning of that which we are all called toward and promised, new life in Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. In baptism, through the Water and the Word, we are sealed with the cross of Christ and received into God’s family as children- heirs of the promise of new life.

From our baptisms, and from Christ’s baptism, flows life and the promise of abundant life. All the hard work God has done for us, life, death, and resurrection, are a gift which we could never earn. This is freeing. But it’s such an overwhelming gift that we can’t help but want to share this deep love and grace with others. And this feeling and call to share, flows right from our baptisms.

As we are in the early days of a new year, I wonder, as you look back at 2017 and look with hope at 2018, how might God be calling you to new life today? What are the things that you wished you had done last year, or which have taken too much time from you, that you wish to give up so that you can live more fully and abundantly?[5]

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Pastor Becky inviting the children to play in the baptismal waters as part of the Children’s Sermon at Lord of Love.

In these waters, not only do we have the promise of new life, we can be reminded of these promises each and every day when we shower, wash our hands, wash the dishes… Take some time to play in the water, like we just did in the Children’s Sermon. Take some time to pray. To wonder. And to imagine and listen to what God might be calling you to be a part of, to change, or give up today.

Our Joyful Response to this New Life & Renewal = Our Stewardship
God’s hope and gift in baptism is that we each might be renewed, and given new and abundant life in Christ. This is a central point of stewardship, and specifically our response to it. Our stewardship is our joyful response to the gifts and promises of God, for us. Specifically, when thinking about our baptisms, it’s our joyful response to the promise and gift of new life and renewal that we receive in Christ Jesus.

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.[6] 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.

That’s what our joyful response looks like. It’s when we are so filled with gratitude for God, that we can’t help but want to give our thanks and praise. We can’t help but want to be a part of God’s work in the world. We can’t help but have our senses opened to the needs of our neighbors near and far. But this joyful response, is not always easy, and it certainly looks different for everyone.

When we are baptized, when we gather in community for worship and the sacraments, and are sent out to share and serve, we are reminded, empowered, and equipped as Children of God, and part of the community of God’s people. This thought is on my mind this weekend as we remember Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who noted that, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.[7] This change is only possible with God. This change is only possible because of the waters of baptism which we are washed in, giving us new life, calling and drawing us together as God’s people.

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Speaking of stewardship, I was delighted to see the water bottle water fountain refill station.

What we have, has been entrusted to our care by God to use, manage, or steward. Having read some of your great congregational newsletter articles on stewardship from the past few months, I know that you already know this, but to reiterate, stewardship means and includes a lot more than we might typically think it does. It encompasses: our lives, health, bodies, souls, minds, and hearts; it includes our time, 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.[8]

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 here at church, or volunteering in the local schools. Whether it be through being a listening ear, and sharing stories; or being present in our daily lives to offer a hug, smile, or shoulder to cry on when someone needs that. Whether it be plowing and salting the roads on a morning like this so we could all get to church safely. Whether it be feeding the hungry; welcoming the stranger; and caring for all those in need, as fellow children of God. All of this and more 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.

Thank You!
Growing up in the suburban Seattle area, and now living in a bustling rural village of 63 people in Fontanelle, Nebraska, can be daunting at times. There can certainly be moments of culture shock. Even so, I am continually amazed at what God’s people here in the Big Red State are up to, and for their generosity.

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It was a gift to enjoy the music from the Lord of Love brass in worship.

One of my joys is being entrusted with the stories of congregations like you, 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 possible that spans the globe. 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 that 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.

Summing Up
In these baptismal waters, Christ was baptized, and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove. When we are baptized, we are washed clean and made new. We are also called and make promises about our faith life which we hopefully affirm, often later in life. The life after the washing of the waters, is our life as a steward in all that we are and as all that we do.

My hope for you, is that in this new year, and as you think about stewardship in the weeks to come, that you spend some time with God discerning how you might be feeling called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to steward your time, talent, and treasure as a part of God’s work, and in response to what God has done for you. I also hope that you know how grateful I am, as your partner in ministry for you and for your stewardship as a Child of God. And most importantly, I hope that you know that God loves you, is with, and is for you, offering new life, just as God promises in these baptismal waters, this day and every day. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] Mark 1:8, NRSV.
[2] Mark 1:10-11, NRSV.
[3] Psalm 29:3, NRSV.
[4] As in Genesis 1:1-5, the First Reading for today.
[5] Inspired by Pastor Becky Sells, Lord of Love Lutheran Church, in a sermon for the Nebraska Synod staff, 10 January 2018.
[6] Psalm 24:1-3, NRSV.
[7] Martin Luther King Jr., “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom,” (1966); as quoted by Jim Wallis, On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2013), 109.
[8] Genesis 1:1-5, NRSV.

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