“The Time is Fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has Come Near.”

Outside Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Plainview, Nebraska.

I was privileged to be invited by friend and pastor Donna Fonner to be with the good people of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Plainview, Nebraska today. It was a joy to visit with the congregation, and I was honored to preach on stewardship and share some words of gratitude for the congregation’s partnership and stewardship. What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from, based on two of the readings for the First Sunday in Lent: Genesis 9:8-17, and Mark 1:9-15. 

Grace and peace from God in Christ who loves you, is with you, and as we see and remember all the more clearly this Lenten season, is for you. Amen.

Good morning again. Thank you Pastor Donna 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. I also bring greetings from Bishop Brian Maas, and from your Assistant to the Bishop, Pastor Kristen Van Stee. I am grateful to be with you today, and to wonder a bit about what God might be up to here in Plainview, as well as in these stories today. I am also excited to be with you, and think about stewardship and how we are all stewards of God’s love and promises for us.

An Invitation to Lent, Discipleship, and Stewardship
Jesus says today that, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”[1] This might as well be our invitation to Lent this year, but it also could be our invitation to discipleship and stewardship. Today we recall Jesus’ baptism, and how immediately after being in the river with John, he is out in the wilderness being tempted by the evil one, and then, upon hearing the news of John the Baptist’s arrest, he makes this formal claim to begin his ministry, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”[2]

The coming near of the Kingdom of God, that’s all God’s work. It’s not our work. Our work is our response to it, and through which God uses us even to help build the kingdom, little by little. Our work is what happens as Jesus calls us to follow and join him in the ministry of believing and sharing the good news, and of seeing, meeting, and serving our neighbors near and far. As we start this Lenten season, maybe we’re being invited into this a little bit more fully and intentionally?

Our Neighbors in the News
We began Lent this past week on Ash Wednesday, and as I suspect you are all aware, the somberness of that day and the love of Valentine’s Day were met by the stark reality, pain, and grief, of yet another act of senseless violence and school shooting in our country. I have been struck ever since Wednesday by the images and stories I have seen and heard. I guess this has hit me especially hard this week, since my wife Allison and I are excited to meet and welcome our first child in a little over a month. So this new chapter, seems to really be on my heart and mind, and news like this past week catches my emotions.

The picture I am alluding to (from ABC).

There is one image from the past week that stands out so vividly. It’s the image of whom I presume to be a mother of a student or students. She is wearing a heart necklace, presumably for Valentine’s, but also has an ashen cross upon her forehead. She had received that as part of her Ash Wednesday observance. As she held someone next to her, she was sobbing, just like I imagine we all would be.

The act of love and embrace there, is a sign of the Kingdom of God coming near- meeting the hurts and brokenness of our world, of our selves, and of our neighbors. In so doing, drawing us into relationship with one another.

Sadly though, this is a scene that if we let it, we could become numb to. But it’s a scene that we are supposed to take notice of, and I believe it’s a scene that we as Christians are called to respond to. It’s becoming all too normal. When will this change? When will enough be enough and we’ll hear, know, and see that we must change? It reminds me of a parable.

There was a man who lived by the river. He heard a report on the news that the river was going to rise and flood his town, and that all of the residents in town should evacuate their homes. But this man said, “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.” The waters rose up higher. A guy in a rowboat came along and shouted, “Hey you, you in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.” But the man shouted back, “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.” So the row boat continued on with the rower shaking his head. Then, a helicopter started hovering overhead and a guy with a megaphone shouted, “Hey you, down there. The town is flooding. You have got to get out. Let me drop this ladder, and I’ll take you to safety.” Well… the man drowned. When he stood by the gates of heaven, he demanded an audience with God. He said, “Lord, I’m a religious man, I pray, I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?” God said, “I sent you a news report, a guy in a rowboat, and a helicopter. Why in heaven are you here?”[3]  

Might we be the man in the home by the river?

The Covenant and Sign of the Rainbow
Today we also heard about God, Noah, the covenant, and a sign of that covenant- the rainbow. We picked up the story shortly after Noah, his family, and the many creatures on the ark have disembarked onto the now dry and solid land that had been flooded. God says, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you… as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you…never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”[4]

I saw this banner in Pastor Donna’s office, and thought it was a fitting reminder of call, vocation, and promise, like we know in God’s covenant.

This covenant is a promise of life. It’s also a promise of relationship, as God comes near and wants to be in relationship with Noah and creation. This promise will become more real with Abraham, and of course, we know it most fully through God in Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension for us, which we walk with this Lenten season.

In making this covenant with Noah, God describes that God is making a sign by which the covenant will be remembered, and the floods will not overwhelm.

God says, “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature… When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature on the earth.”[5] This rainbow is a sign of God’s promise. It’s a reminder to God, and to us of God’s love and covenant.

When God makes a promise, God keeps it. It’s this promising God of ours, which even when we turn our back on God’s own self, keeps showing up. God keeps loving us to and through the point of death, in-spite of ourselves and our sometimes lack of willingness to relent and change, because that is who God is. Our God is a God of life, who hopes and dreams for all creation to live abundantly.

Where Stewardship Comes In
This is where stewardship comes in. Based on the look on some of your faces, I am guessing I know what you are thinking. Stewardship? What does stewardship have to do with this? Or, by those of you who are crossing your arms, perhaps you think I’m here to talk about money. Yeah, I know, people do this in every congregation I visit. But rest assured, I am not here to talk solely about money. Stewardship is way bigger than just money.

Stewardship is our broad and holistic response to God’s work, and how we share in it. And it starts with an understanding that all that we have and all that we are is God’s.[6] What we have, has been entrusted to our care by God to use, manage, and steward. And this means all of us- all that makes us who we are. We are to steward: our lives, health, bodies, souls, minds, and hearts; our stories, ideas, dreams, questions, vocations, and relationships; our time, talents, gifts, strengths, passions; our treasures, money, finances, and assets; and even all of creation. All of this we steward, as part of our identity as a Child of God who has been called, created, and is loved by God.

Our Joyful Response and the Work of Building the Kingdom
Stewardship is part of what it means to live a life of faith and growth as a disciple. When Jesus says that, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news,” we are called to wake up, pay attention, and follow.[7] We are called to listen to what God might be up to, but also to share and steward God’s words of hope, promise, love, and redemption with all those we meet.

The beautiful sanctuary of Our Savior’s, with Lenten purple. I was told that the main cross behind the altar is the tallest sanctuary cross in the Nebraska Synod (40+ feet), and was repurposed from an old power/telephone pole.

We are so moved by all that God has done, continues to do and promises to do for us, that we can’t help but be overjoyed. God in Christ goes to the point of being tempted in the wilderness, lives through the rebuke and scorn of the masses, to the humiliation of a cross and burial in a tomb, for us.

God does all of this for us, as a gift. A gift of life- and a call to life as a steward. It’s not always an easy life. It’s certainly meaningful, but it has its challenges. It’s a life of following, and participating in the work of building God’s kingdom- which some days can be joyful, and others immensely painful. Like today, sharing the news of God’s love in a broken and hurting world, especially when tragedy hits like on this past Wednesday.

This gift of life and stewardship is one that is active in faith, prayer, and service. Not for our sakes, nor for our salvation. That’s God’s work for us, and it’s already been done. God’s work of salvation from death, flood, and destruction, that’s a promise that God keeps and makes out of deep love.

What we do or don’t do in response to God’s love, and the needs of our neighbors, is our work and stewardship. Our stewardship helps God’s work be done in the world, and is for the sake of our neighbor whom God calls us all into relationship with- whether we always like our neighbors or not, and whether we know them or not. God calls us into relationship near and far with all of God’s children. Thinking back to the parable of the man by the river, how do we heed these signs of needs for change for the sake of our neighbor? Do we step up and do the hard work of discerning together, even if there aren’t easy or obvious answers? Or do we throw our hands in the air and say it’s too hard?

Good News and Gratitude
The good news is that it isn’t totally up to us. Salvation, hope, love, transformation… these are God’s work. But God invites us into it as stewards. And this invitation to this life has a profound meaning for each of us. Thank you for being a part of it, for serving in your various vocations as the beloved Children of God that you are. And for being the grateful and generous stewards that I know you are.

I couldn’t help but note that in the spirit of partnership, Our Savior’s is the product of a partnership between two former congregations, Immanuel and Bethany. What a beautiful story to tell and share of God’s people coming together.

A big part of stewardship is saying thank you. So, in addition to that set of thanks, I also want to express my deep gratitude to all of you for your congregation’s continued participation in mission share. Mission share is undesignated offering that you share with the Nebraska Synod and the larger ELCA, through which you do ministry that literally spans the globe, changing lives. Through it, the church supports and helps develop new leaders, pastors, and deacons. Through it, the gospel is spread near and far, through supporting missionaries locally and globally, and providing for new and renewing ministries.

As we are the church together, walking alongside and with one another, mission share helps share new ideas through providing new resources for ministry. And by participating in it, all of you help support the work of meeting and serving our neighbors’ needs locally and globally through supporting many of the serving arms of the church, including: Mosaic, Lutheran Family Services, Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry, and Lutheran World Relief, just to name a few. These are just a few things of which you are a part. Thank you for being a part of it, and for responding to all that God has done for you and continues to do.

Please hear my gratitude for each of you. And as we journey through this Lenten season, moving towards the cross, I hope that you hear Christ’s call to follow a little bit more deeply and fully. I hope that you remember and see signs of God’s covenant, like in the Rainbow, and remember that God loves you, is with you, and is for you.

As you go about your ministry this year, I hope that you might feel called to continue to grow in your stewardship both here as a part of this community in Plainview and in this faith community of Our Savior’s through pledging or committing as part of your life as a disciple to be a part of this work, while wondering more about what ways God might be calling and inviting you to respond to and meet the needs of your neighbors near and far.

As Jesus declares and invites, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news,” may it be so, and may our God of hope, love, challenge and comfort be with you as you grow, serve, and journey this Lenten season. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] Mark 1:15, NRSV.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Based on a story that was featured in the television show West Wing, in the episode, “Take This Sabbath Day,” (9 February 2000). http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0745683/quotes
[4] Genesis 9:9-11, NRSV.
[5] Genesis 9:13-17, NRSV.
[6] As based on Psalm 24:1-3.
[7] Mark 1:15, NRSV.

Image Credit: Sobbing woman

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