Generosity- a counter-cultural life as a disciple & steward in a world full of fear & worry

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St. John Lutheran in Beatrice, outside before worship and before the rain began to fall, making farmers everywhere in eastern Nebraska happy.

It was my privilege to be with the good people of St. John Lutheran in Beatrice, Nebraska this morning (August 19th, 2018). Pastor Greg Gabriel invited me to preach in worship on generosity and stewardship, share and facilitate an adult forum on stewardship and gratitude between worship services, and then meet with the congregation’s stewardship team afterward. It was a wonderful day- that included the “blessing of the backpacks” tied into the Children’s Sermon, and the start of the program year with “Rally Sunday.” What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from, focused primarily on the Narrative Lectionary text for the day, Matthew 6:19-34, and a portion of Psalm 51:6-9, that was also used in worship at St. John. 

Grace and peace from God in Christ who knows you, loves you, and is with you. Amen.

Good morning St. John. It’s great to be with you. Again, I’m Deacon Timothy Siburg, Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod. I bring greetings from Bishop Brian Maas, your Assistant to the Bishop, Pastor Megan Morrow, and from your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod. Thank you again for the invitation to be with you today, Pastor Greg and Pastor Leah. I’m excited to be with you all on this glorious Rally Sunday, and helping kick off this three-week series in the narrative lectionary looking at some themes around God’s generosity for us and our stewardship of all that God entrusts to us.

I want to thank you also for your patience. I was invited to be with you as part of your Lenten focus this past Lent on stewardship, but was unable to join you because of my wife’s and my soon to be born first child. Well, I’m happy to report that our daughter Caroline was born the week after Easter Sunday, and is growing strong with a wonderful laugh for a four-month old. So, thank you for your understanding, and again I’m glad to be with you today.

Today’s Stories- A different way than fears and worries
We find ourselves in today’s story in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus is about half way through his famous sermon on the mount, which in Matthew takes a whole three chapters. Jesus has gone up the mountain after seeing the crowds which had followed him, who had seen signs of wonder and healing, and expectation. As Jesus went and sat down, the disciples came around him and sat too. Seeing this, Jesus began to teach them, or perhaps even preach to them. He began with the Beatitudes- the blessings of God’s work, welcome, presence, promise, and love. He talked about salt and light, the law, love, and giving alms. And later in this sermon he’ll talk about our relationship with others and even the golden rule.

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A picture of St. John on the wall, made up of smaller pictures of each family and member of the faith community. What a way to capture all of the stories and Children of God that are part of this community, and part of the larger story of this congregation, which is part of God’s on-going story in the world.

In today’s portion of the story which we just heard, Jesus talks all about treasures and our relationship with God, and offers up wisdom and reminders of the promise.

Jesus is inviting us deeper as disciples and stewards, to grow in our sense of generosity, but to first understand just how generous our God is who deeply desires to be in relationship with us, offering abundant life. These reminders, lessons, and wisdom run counter to our human emotions of fear and worry. They also run counter to our human belief of scarcity. No, despite all of this, our generous God of abundant love offers another way.

We live in a culture where we are told we can never have enough or be enough, and that we always need more, more, more. We live in a day where many in this world tell us that we are not safe, and that we need to fear. We need more insurance because you never know what might go wrong. We need more fences, locks, alarms, and perhaps even walls to keep us safe, to keep thieves and others who might be different than us, out. We need more stuff, because you never know when the times might be lean and the going tough. To all of this, Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[1]

A family friend of mine passed away last week after a valiant fight with cancer. He was a brilliant doctor, and also a pastor’s son. But in his last few weeks, he visited with a young congregation member of his congregation who was just about to head off to seminary and start Greek. He wanted to see the hope in her eyes, but also wanted to share a small piece of the generosity and love he himself has known in his life. So, in his visit with this new seminarian, he gave a card that included a generous check. Among the nice words in the card he wrote, “You can’t take it with you. Go and do God’s work.” This family friend got it. He was certainly well off, but he had a deep sense of generosity.

The Point of Resources Entrusted to Us- to Live Generously for our Neighbors

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One of the stewardship resources around offering that St. John has created and shared with the congregation

What is the point of wealth and treasures in this world if they are hoarded? To what end are the resources- financial and otherwise, which God has entrusted to us? If we hoard all that God has entrusted to us, God’s work is not going to be done through these resources. The hungry won’t be fed. The thirsty won’t receive a cup of cool water. The homeless won’t receive shelter, warmth, and hospitality. The refugees, strangers, and orphans, won’t receive welcome. No, when these resources which God entrusts to us are hoarded, all that happens is that some of God’s work does not happen. Some of God’s people are not cared for as we are called to care for them. “And moth and rust consume.”[2]

Jesus’ Wisdom and Warnings about Wealth and Money
Jesus knew well what problems would come with money and wealth. He saw it in the people on Earth. He saw it even in the well-meaning people like the person who asked Jesus what it would take to inherit eternal life. The person said that he has kept all the commandments to love and serve one’s neighbor, but asked “what do I still lack?”[3] To this, Jesus said to him, “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor… then come, follow me.”[4]

Many a person over the years since the gospels were written down has taken offense at Jesus saying, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”[5] Many a prosperity gospel preacher has tried to water this down. Well, I’m sorry, but I’m confident Jesus means exactly what he said today.

In looking at the whole of the gospels, some scholars have added up all the different themes and topics which Jesus talked and preached about. In so doing, you might discover like they did, that Jesus talks more about wealth and money than anything else, except the Kingdom of God. Yes, Jesus talks more about money and wealth than even Heaven and Hell combined. Why? Because this matters! It matters for our relationship with God. When resources like money and wealth become ends in themselves, instead of resources meant to be stewarded generously doing God’s work for our neighbors, they become things with power, separating us from God who deeply wants to be with us.

God’s Work is Done Through Us
When God entrusts us with all that we have and all that we are- and I mean all: our very selves, hearts, minds, souls, and relationships; our time, talents, gifts, vocations, questions, ideas, dreams, and stories; our finances, assets, and treasures of all kinds; and all of creation that surrounds us and we are a part of- God entrusts us with all this and more so that God’s work can be done. The work of feeding the hungry. The work of giving cool and clean water to the thirsty. The work of welcoming the stranger, refugee, and oppressed. The work of clothing the naked, and housing the homeless and orphan. The work of consoling the downtrodden and grieving. God entrusts us with all of this so that the Kingdom of God might break into the world, bit by bit.

Jesus says today, “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”[6]

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Some of the kids and young adults gathered up front in the sanctuary for the Children’s Sermon and blessing of the backpacks in worship.

You are a part of this kingdom building work in the many ways that you serve here and all around Beatrice. You’re a part of this with helping with the food pantry, gathering as circles and Sunday School growing deeper as disciples. You’re a part of this by being open to the larger community- offering space for AA and Narcotics Anonymous, Girl Scouts and Cubs Scouts. You also serve through the sewing of blankets, crocheting, and so much more.

I suspect you even were generous and welcoming a year ago to visitors from near and far, showing God’s love, when the eclipse- a beautiful sign of God’s creative mystery, captivated the country, and moved right over head here in Beatrice. But wait, there’s more.

You’re also a part of this work through the larger church, the Nebraska Synod and the larger ELCA through participating in mission share. By being generous stewards in this way, you help do ministry that spans the globe, literally changing lives- helping feed the hungry, welcoming the stranger, outcast, and refugee, and raising up and supporting new leaders and ministries in your church. Thank you for being a part of this, and for living as the generous stewards that you are in so many ways.

Generous Living- the mark of gratitude and a Joyful Response
You live generously, whether you have thought deeply about this in a while or not, I believe because God has already done the hard work, for us. We no longer need to worry about our lives and what might happen to us in death.[7] We no longer need to worry about adding a single hour to our lives, because our worries certainly won’t do that anyway.[8] No. Instead the Good News is that through the birth, life, death, and resurrection, God in Christ has overcome these fears and worries, and done all of this and much more, for us.

Through this life, death, and resurrection God calls us to life abundant- a meaningful life of service and love, with the hope and promise of the resurrection, like my family friend who passed away from cancer recently held onto.

God has done it all. God does it because of a deep love and generosity that only God could be capable of offering. How we respond, that’s our stewardship. Do we respond joyfully and generously caught up in the movement of the Spirit and the hope of being part of God’s work in the world around us? Or do we hoard our stuff and money, thinking that it’s ours and if we don’t have it all, someone else might? Of course, the first problem with that logic is the assumption that it is “our stuff and money” to begin with, which the Psalmist makes quite clear in Psalm 24 it’s not. It’s God’s after all. And thanks be to God for that.

Instead with the psalmist, we sing, cry, and dance for “joy and gladness,” rejoicing in the hope and promise that God loves us, knows us, and is for us.[9] This is good news. These are the expressions of generosity. This is what life as a disciple and steward looks and feels like. It’s not always an easy one and certainly has its challenges, but it’s a meaningful and abundant life.

Putting it Altogether
Jesus says today, “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”[10]

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Some of the faithful gathered at St. John in the church’s beautiful sanctuary for the congregation’s contemporary worship service.

As a new parent who just dropped off his daughter for the first time at daycare this week, I’m leaning heavily into these words, “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”[11] And I think they are words for each of us- a call to live abundantly today. A call to focus on what really matters, prioritizing our relationships with God, and with one another. And they are also an invitation to rest in the promises of abundance that God makes and provides.

May doing so, fill you this day and every day, and give you the comfort and confidence to grow deeper as a generous steward and disciple, a beautifully claimed and loved Child of God, doing God’s work here in Beatrice. Thank you for being the generous stewards that you are here, serving in all the ways that you do. And thanks be to God who has taken on our worries once and for all, and for being with us, for us, and loving us, no matter what. What a great relief it is that we’re freed from all of that fear and worry! Now go, serve and steward. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] Matthew 6:21, NRSV.
[2] Matthew 6:19, NRSV.
[3] Matthew 19:20, NRSV.
[4] Matthew 19:21, NRSV.
[5] Matthew 6:24, NRSV.
[6] Matthew 6:33, NRSV.
[7] Based on Matthew 6:25-26.
[8] Based on Matthew 6:27-31.
[9] Based on Psalm 51:8-9.
[10] Matthew 6:34, NRSV.
[11] Ibid.

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