‘What does this mean? And what might God be up to?’ – A stewardship sermon for Pentecost.

The beautiful steeple and exterior of Salem Lutheran in Dakota City.

It was a joy to be with the good people of Salem Lutheran Church in Dakota City, Nebraska today to celebrate Pentecost Sunday. As part of my visit, talking about stewardship and engaging in conversations about big questions and dreams, I had the honor of being invited to preach by friend Pastor Sandra Braasch. What follows is the majority of the prepared manuscript that I preached from, based largely on Acts 2:1-21

Grace and peace from our loving, liberating, and life giving God.[1] Amen.

It’s great to be with you Salem Lutheran on this Pentecost Sunday. Thank you, Pastor Sandra, for the invitation and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring greetings on behalf of Bishop Brian Maas, your Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Kristen Van Stee, and from your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod. I am excited to be with you and to think some about Pentecost, Stewardship, and what our joyful response to God’s promises might be with the Holy Spirit.

Today’s Story
Today’s story from the book of Acts doesn’t need much introduction. It’s the story of Pentecost. The story of the Holy Spirit coming into the world, and sending the disciples out to all places to spread the Good News of the gospel. A story that begins dramatically,

“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”[2]

The sanctuary of Salem before worship, all decked out in balloons and red, to signify the fire of the Spirit.

Imagine for a second that you were there on that day that the wind came through. Tongues of fire appeared, and suddenly you’re hearing a cacophony of languages around you, perhaps like you might hear when visiting some of the world’s largest cities or traveling through the airports of Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, London, Hong Kong, or Tokyo. It’s hard to imagine the scene, because it’s so surreal. But in that moment, if you take a step back, surely your fears, wonders, hopes, and imagination might take over. It would be natural to either run away in terror, or be curious and full of questions. I hope most of us would be in the questioning crowd, instead of being among those running away in fear for safety.

This story speaks to the mysteries of our Triune God. It grabs our imaginations, and begs question after question. As Martin Luther might ask, “What is this?” Or, “What does this mean?”

This isn’t a far-fetched question, when the people in the story today even asked it themselves, “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’”[3]

“What does this mean?” Maybe this should be our daily question for walking with God, sent and living in the world? As we ask this question we admit that God is up to something in the world- in us, around us, for us, but also for all of creation.

Speaking of “What does this mean,” some of the children came up and had a nice chat with me about what all the red meant (for Pentecost), as well as what a Deacon is.

God is up to something in the coming of the Holy Spirit. God is up to something in the blowing and moving of the Spirit, in the speaking of languages from around the globe. In the building up of communities. In the movement of God’s people to bear God’s love and words of grace, forgiveness, liberation, and life.

It’s a message and story that needs to be told. And perhaps it best begins with the question, “What does this mean?”

Maybe the question should be our first response to doubts and sneers. Like when in today’s story, “others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’”[4] Maybe the question of “what does this mean” should be our question when, like the people in today’s story, we wonder, “how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”[5]

God is most certainly up to something. And only God knows what that might mean. Where will the Holy Spirit lead?

The Holy Spirit’s entrance into the world is a game changer. It’s God with us, and for us every day. It’s the spirit of life, and the force which leads us to follow, and hopefully pause and wonder: what might God be up to, and how are we being called, equipped, and prepared to be a part of it?

Stewardship – what does this mean?
Our involvement in God’s work takes many forms. It can be summarized though in our living our lives as disciples and stewards- living out our lives and vocations faithfully and open to God’s movement in us, around us, and for us. It also can take the form of being vulnerable enough to ask, at least on occasion, “What does this mean?” And, “What might God be up to here?”

This sense of reflection is part of what it means to be a steward. But before I dig into that, it might help to say a bit about what stewardship is. For those of you who are crossing your arms in the back of the sanctuary for fear or anger that someone is here just to talk about money, I see you! Don’t worry. Every congregation I visit, I get the same reaction. So, I don’t take offense. But to put it simply, stewardship involves way more than just money.

Guess who joined me on the road this week? I’m not going to take it too personally that Caroline slept through most of worship and the sermon.

Our understanding of stewardship has everything to do with our understanding of our relationship with God. As the psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it…”[6] To translate, all that we have and all that we are is God’s. What we have has been entrusted by God to us, to use, manage, and steward as part of God’s work, and in living abundant lives that God wants for us, as Children of God.

To think about all that we have been entrusted with… that can create a rather long and wonderful list. Like how we are to steward our lives, health, bodies, souls, minds, and hearts; our stories, ideas, dreams, questions, and relationships; our time, talents, gifts, strengths, passions, and vocations; our treasures, money, finances, and assets of all kinds; and as we proclaimed with the psalmist today, all of God’s creatures and creation that surrounds us.[7]

All of this, and so much more is God’s, which God has chosen to entrust to us, just as God desires and chooses to be in relationship with all of God’s children, and just as God moves us and calls us to listen to the movement of the Holy Spirit this Pentecost day, and to follow and join in it.

More broadly, as a couple dear friends have reasoned, “Stewardship is a wonderful word that describes how a follower of Christ faithfully travels through this life.”[8] It covers the whole big picture of how we live out our life of faith, and vocations.

We had to get a selfie with our dear friends and stewardship leaders and experts, Rev. Chick Lane and Grace Duddy Pomroy. (With Allison, Caroline, and myself, after a wonderful day of thinking about stewardship.)

I was reminded of this, this past Friday, as friends and colleagues Rev. Chick Lane and Grace Duddy Pomroy were in Nebraska speaking and teaching about “Embracing Stewardship” to a standing room only crowd, which included your stewardship team chairperson and Pastor Sandra. I was inspired by the collective engagement of all in attendance, but also by the way people recognized the importance of understanding “the why” and telling the story of why we are the church, and why we are stewards of God’s love.

With that in mind, I want you to wonder with me for a bit, inspired by the creativity, imagination, and dreams of the Holy Spirit, who came at Pentecost and is very much blowing here today.

Dreaming and Wondering with the Spirit
Why are we here today? What dreams have made today, you, all of us, and this faith community of Salem Lutheran in Dakota City, possible? How do we steward these dreams? How do we make room for the imagination and creativity of the Spirit’s movement? What kind of visions or dreams might God be calling us to discern and follow? Dreams and visions like when “God declares… I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams…”[9]

We dug into a wonderful fried chicken stewardship meal provided by the stewardship committee and youth of Salem Lutheran. And while digging into the food, we also dug into some of these big questions and dreams about stewardship and what God might be up to.

I wonder what this might mean for you, in your own lives? For you, here as the gathered community of Salem Lutheran? And for all of us who together are the Nebraska Synod, and part of the larger Evangelical Lutheran Church in America? Maybe the Spirit is up to something new, or renewing us in another way?[10]

As I think about myself this Pentecost season, it’s easy to point to the Spirit’s creativity at work. I have been serving as the Director for Stewardship for exactly two years now this month. In that time, I have seen amazing ministries that could only be possible because of the Spirit’s movement.

Ministries like the ones I heard about that you are a part of, including a prison ministry, and the making of quilts and cleaning of yards here locally in the community as part of “God’s Work, Our Hands Sunday.” And others like a wood-shop ministry inside one church building to build prayer chests and furniture for those in need in their larger community; to another congregation who turned their whole basement into what feels like an organized department and grocery store, but is really a place for anyone in the community to come and look and gather what they might need for their families, no costs or questions attached. I have seen new ministries form, new relationships form between different congregations, and between congregations and communities. I have seen other congregations open themselves up for new ministries, and even some who discerned that they were being called to step back and allow their resources to be used differently.

Stewardship as Our Joyful and Grateful Response with the Spirit
What I have seen in Nebraska, as a non-native Nebraskan who grew up in the Seattle area, is a genuine sense of generosity. I have sensed the Spirit’s movement in you, and your sisters and brothers in Christ who understand that our giving and our stewardship is part of living a life of faith and growth as a disciple, and is our joyful response for the gifts of God.

I have come to not just know, but to also deeply believe that we give, because we are an Easter and Pentecost people- who want to be a part of God’s work in the world, responding joyfully and gratefully to God for all that God has done, continues to do, and promises to do you for you.

Sharing gratitude for the invitation and a tiny bit about the story of how we are church together, through many ways including the support of mission share. (Picture courtesy of Allison who joined me on the road on her last Sunday away while on maternity leave.)

To that end, I want to say a big thank 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 in the spirit of Pentecost and the Great Commission 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. Thank you for being a part of it, and for responding to all that God has done for you and continues to do.

Putting it All Together
The psalmist proclaimed about God today that, “all look to you to give them their food in due season; when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.”[11] All that we have and all that we are that fills us, is God’s. It’s all a pure gift we could never earn. And for that, all we can do is say thank you and praise God, and then be so caught up in joy and gratitude for God that we want to be a part of God’s work. And that’s the work of Pentecost. The work of being swept up by the Spirit and sent out into our daily lives and the world to serve and share the good news, that God loves you and is “for you.” It’s the work of being vulnerable enough and open to the questions of faith which we are entrusted with, like “What does this mean?” What might God be up to? And where might the Holy Spirit be leading today?

These might be big and daunting questions. But they are exciting ones! They are ones that are at the heart of the story of the fiery tongues and multiple languages. They are the ones that give life meaning and purpose, drawing us closer to God who calls us to come and see that the Lord is good; to follow, and to share in God’s work of love, service, building community, and gathering and reconciling all of creation.

That’s my prayer for all of you Salem Lutheran. May the Spirit of Pentecost be active and up to something among you, and may it enliven your walk with God and each other as disciples and stewards. Amen.

Citations, References, and Credits:
[1] Borrowed directly from the beginning of Episcopalian Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s Royal Wedding Sermon given on 19 May 2018, https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/read-bishop-currys-royal-wedding-sermon-imagine-world/story?id=55290732&cid=clicksource_4380645_6_heads_posts_card_related. If you haven’t read it, or seen it, you need to do that!
[2] Acts 2:2-4, NRSV.
[3] Acts 2:13, NRSV.
[4] Acts 2:13, NRSV.
[5] Acts 2:8, NRSV.
[6] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.
[7] Psalm 104:24, NRSV.
[8] Charles R. Lane & Grace Duddy Pomroy, Embracing Stewardship: How to put stewardship at the heart of your congregation’s life, (Embracing Stewardship, 2016), 5.
[9] Acts 2:17, NRSV.
[10] Based on Psalm 104:30-31, NRSV.
[11] Psalm 104:27-28, NRSV.

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