“Lord, to Whom Can We Go?”

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Outside of beautiful Grace Lutheran Church before the congregation arrived, and during a bit of a rain shower. (With the tables all set up for this evening’s annual “Lawn Social.”)

I had the privilege of being with the good people of Grace Lutheran outside of Wahoo, Nebraska this morning (Sunday August 26, 2018). It was a wonderful morning, and it was an honor to be invited to preach by Pastor Glenda Ferguson. What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from, based on the appointed gospel lesson for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary), John 6:56-69.

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

Good Morning Grace Lutheran. It’s great to be with you today. Again, I’m Deacon Timothy Siburg, Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod. Thank you, Pastor Glenda, for the invitation and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring greetings this morning from Bishop Brian Maas, and your Assistant to the Bishop, Pastor Juliet Hampton, as well as from your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ who with you, are the Nebraska Synod.

I am excited to be with you today, sharing greetings on behalf of your partners in ministry and sisters and brothers in Christ. I am also excited to be with you to ponder a bit about today’s story with Jesus, and what God might be saying to us today, as well as to think a bit about our identity as stewards of God’s love.

Today’s Story
Today’s story doesn’t need much introduction. This is the fifth straight week that the gospel reading comes from John 6, where we have heard over and over, again and again how Jesus is the Bread of Life, a message that is unpacked more and responded to in today’s part of the story of Jesus’ teaching and conversation in the synagogue in Capernaum.

Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”[1]

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Inside the beautiful church building before worship, and before the lights were turned on. What amazing acoustics, and great singers there are in this congregation, as together we sang 4-part harmony on the hymns.

Yet again this week, our generous God offers us the Bread of Life, a deep, meaningful, and abundant life in God in Christ, given for you, given for us, given for all. I’ll admit though, as much as this is Good News, it is part of the mystery of faith that can be hard to wrap one’s head around, especially if we are stuck in our human nature wanting to understand more or thinking we’re in control, that life is up to us. That salvation is up to us. Thankfully of course, this is not the case.

But, if we are to give into our human desire for control, we may be just like the crowd that had been following Jesus. After Jesus seemingly finished his teaching in Capernaum, he got feedback which may not be all that uncommon.  Some from the crowd said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?[2] And after some back and forth, and perhaps hard words from Jesus, most of those who had been following, left Jesus, deciding to give up and go another way.

The Challenging Life of Being a Disciple and Steward
At the end of today’s story, all that are left with Jesus are the twelve disciples. Seeing this, and after dealing with the crowd’s complaints about his teaching and wisdom about God coming to us, and being with us as the Bread of Life, Jesus asks the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”[3] Maybe it’s not just a question to the twelve, but to all of us disciples and stewards? Sometimes life gets hard and the journey tough.

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One of the beautiful stained glass windows around the sanctuary.

The life of discipleship and stewardship is a deeply meaningful one, but it’s not an easy one, and it has its challenges in the face of a world full of grief, worries, fears, and the human created idea and lie of scarcity- that there is never enough, we don’t have enough, and that we are never enough.

It’s challenging today too, when facing uncertainty of crop prices, tariffs, wondering what the future might hold… And I’ll go ahead and name it, it’s challenging too being a new parent of a 4-month old, and still trying to wrap my head around why it feels like I’m always running a bit later than I used to. Don’t get me wrong I love my wife’s and my daughter Caroline, she smiles and makes every day special. But life is certainly different than it was 6-months or a year ago, that’s for sure. Just like life is different here in Nebraska, then it is where my wife and I grew up in the Seattle area.

My commute to the synod office in Omaha only slows down really if I get behind a combine, truck, or train, rather than the bumper to bumper cars back where we grew up. And my wife Allison serves as a pastor in a wonderful congregation in Fontanelle, which is a village of maybe 65 people now counting our daughter. We each had around 450 people in our graduating class alone for comparison. But all of this, is part of what the joys, challenges, and adventures of being a disciple and steward are like. It’s a full life, but it’s not always an easy one, and sometimes like this crowd that was talking with Jesus, it feels like it might just be too much to comprehend or be a part of.

Simon Peter responds for all of us to Jesus’ question, “Do you also wish to go away?”[4] After thinking for a second about a potential life away from Christ, and what could be a life without God. He answers Jesus with his own question, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”[5] That verse might be familiar, since its often used as our gospel acclamation in worship.

But no really, to whom can we go? For as Peter says, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”[6] This confession hits at the core of the story of who we are, who God is, and why we are God’s people.

The Holistic Nature of Stewardship
At the heart of stewardship, is the concept of story- and of telling the story of God’s promises, and God’s on-going work in the world, and how we might be a part of that work. But before I get into that, a quick word about stewardship and money.

In today’s story, the crowd complains that this is tough. It’s perhaps not all that dissimilar to when a pastor preaches on stewardship. Well, I’m here and always out in congregations, trying to change that perception. Because, as I preach about this, I see a few of you, crossing your arms. I know what you’re probably thinking, because this is not my first congregational visit. You’re crossing your arms, because you think I am here to ask for money and to ask you to give more, don’t you? Well, rest assured, that’s not the main reason why I am here. Because stewardship has to do with way more than just money.

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Speaking of creation surrounding us, not only are there corn and soy bean fields. These two Turkey Vultures were the first to “greet me” before anyone arrived. It was a bit surreal of an arrival. Maybe it puts, “Lord, to whom can we go?” in more perspective?

According to Psalm 24, “The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.”[7] Put another way, all that exists is God’s. And further, all that we are, and all that we have, is then God’s too. So, when thinking about stewardship, it’s really something more holistic. God entrusts us with all that we have and all that we are. And by that I mean- all that makes us who we are: 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. All of this and more, we are to manage, care for, or steward, because it’s what God has entrusted to us- in part to live an abundant life, but also to do God’s work of building up the kingdom through stewarding and sharing God’s love in the world through all that we do for the sake of our neighbors.

You do this, and are a part of this in so many ways, like in supporting your youth as we just heard about to go to the ELCA National Youth Gathering. Or, whether it be through the fun and fellowship of the lawn social later today, or perhaps living out your vocations by sharing your gifts and gathering at the State Fair in Grand Island. Through Bible Study, faith formation, and prayer, growing deeper as a disciple to ponder and sit with the promises and mysteries of God, even as hard as they might be to comprehend like the crowd struggled with in today’s story. You’re also a part of this as stewards in the way you serve your neighbors near here in the greater Wahoo area, and all across Nebraska, this country, and all around the globe really.

You’re a part of this work too through the larger church, the Nebraska Synod, and the larger ELCA through your congregation’s participation in mission share. Please, hear me say this clearly, THANK YOU for being the generous stewards that you are. Through your mission share offerings, all of you as Grace Lutheran, help do ministry that spans the globe, literally changing lives.

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Some of the depictions of how we are church together, visible around Grace Lutheran.

Your generosity and continued participation in mission share helps feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, outcast, and refugee, and uplift the lowly, by supporting the work of ELCA World Hunger, our companion synods, and serving arms of the church like Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Family Services, and Mosaic. Through it, you also help support the raising up and development of young adults, through supporting our serving arms like Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry including Camp Carol Joy Holling, and Lutheran Campus Ministries, as well as the development and learning of new leaders, pastors, and deacons of our church. And you even support missionaries spreading the Good News, as well as new ministries here in Nebraska and around the world.

These are just a few things you are a part of, by being part of the larger church. Thank you for being a part of this, and for living as the generous stewards that you are in so many ways.

The Why and Our Joyful Response
Now one more big question to ponder- Why do we live this life as disciples and stewards? It’s like Peter’s question, “Lord, to whom can we go?” God in Christ has done all of the hard stuff for us, just as God promises. All of this- Christ’s birth, life, death on a cross and burial in a tomb, and the resurrection, is God’s work, and it’s a pure gift and promise. It’s a gift, through which life is not only promised, but given once and for all. It’s a gift, as Jesus says today, “no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father,” because we can’t go to God.[8] Rather, God comes to us, all of us.

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A fitting banner in the narthex outside the sanctuary for preaching on stewardship.

God wants to be with us, and chooses to be in relationship with us, as God’s stewards whom God entrusts with all that we have and all that we are, to be a part, no matter how small or big, of God’s work in the world, as Children of God. It’s a gift, that God has overcome death, and all the fears and worries of this world, once and for all. And all we can say to that, is thank you! We could never earn any of this, and we certainly could never do it ourselves.

What we can do, is say thank you, and then be so caught up in joy and gratitude, that our abundant life is and continues to be, a joyful response for all that God has done, continues to, and promises to do, for us.  That’s really God’s on-going story, that we are all part of today.

Putting It All Together
When Peter says, “Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life,” he is professing the promise of the gospel.[9] He is also summarizing the promises of God, that ground us, guide us, call us and gather us together, are given to us in the sacraments, and that send us out from here to live, grow, and serve as stewards and disciples in our vocations and daily lives, no matter what they might look like.

These are promises that are true, no matter what might be facing us– whether it be a health challenge or diagnosis, farm or crop uncertainty, or even the awe-inspiring and at the same time terrifying and wonderful new life as a young parent. Our God offers us, with hands outstretched, abundant life- calling us to live, grow, and follow as disciples and stewards. May we continue to be bold enough to reach out and receive this gift from God, and may we be open, generous, and grateful as we grow deeper as stewards and disciples of our God who is with us, loves us, and is for us. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] John 6:56-58, NRSV.
[2] John 6:60, NRSV.
[3] John 6:67, NRSV.
[4] Ibid.
[5] John 6:68, NRSV.
[6] John 6:69, NRSV.
[7] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.
[8] John 6:65, NRSV.
[9] John 6:68, NRSV.

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