I had the privilege of being with the good people of Immanuel “Stateline” and Our Savior’s Lutheran Church Parish in Wymore, Nebraska today (Sunday September 30, 2018) for their Fall Festival. I was invited to preach on stewardship by Pastor Suzanne How, and help celebrate the dedication of the congregations’ Global Farm Challenge Gifts to ELCA World Hunger. What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from, for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)/Lectionary 26B, based on the Gospel of Mark 9:38-50.
Grace and peace from God in Christ who loves you, is with you, and is for you. Amen.
Good Morning Immanuel and Our Savior’s congregations. It is great to be with you. Thank you, Pastor Suzanne, for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring greetings today from Bishop Brian Maas and your Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Megan Morrow, as well as from your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ who with you, are the Nebraska Synod. I’m excited to be with you today, to wonder a bit about what God and Jesus might be saying in today’s story and what work they might be calling us to be a part of, and to think some about what stewardship might have to do with it, both here in Wymore and on the State-line.
Today’s Story and what God might be saying to us in it
Jesus and the disciples find themselves today in Capernaum. They have been talking about Jesus’ passion to come, questions about who is the greatest, and the deep meaning of welcome and what it looks like. So, perhaps it’s got to be frustrating to Jesus when he hears that yet again, the disciples seem to be missing the point.
John comes to Jesus like an exasperated rule following child, who is tired of trying to correct their younger siblings who are doing things the “wrong way.” He says, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Well, Jesus didn’t waste a second, and immediately used this as a teaching moment. Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us…whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
“Whoever gives you a cup of water…” Jesus knows that the cross is coming soon. So, he is getting to the point in Mark’s gospel about what matters. Over and again, he is pointing to what life as a disciple looks like, and even what life as a steward looks like. He loves these disciples, but it’s got to be driving him crazy that they just haven’t gotten it yet. Such is the life of a disciple. It’s not always easy, and as obvious as it seems to us as we dwell in this story, we’re really no better at this then the original twelve were.
Jesus says to John, and perhaps to all of us, “Do not stop him…Whoever is not against us is for us.” Doing God’s work is not limited to a pastor, like your Pastor Suzanne or a deacon even, like myself. No. Doing God’s work is something that is entrusted to all of God’s people. It’s not something reserved for a select few. And that’s sometimes a hard thing to remember or understand about our lives as disciples and stewards.
We all have vocations, regardless of our titles or education or experiences, which call us into relationships with our neighbors and the world. We have all of this and more, and knowing this, we can’t kid ourselves and think that ministry is something only for professionals. We’re all called into lives of ministry, as we’re all called to come and see, to come and follow, and to grow and serve as disciples and stewards.
Power in Jesus’ Name & Kingdom Work
We share in these identities together, and share in this work together, as unique as we each might be, as diverse in our perspectives and experiences, as we might be. The one common denominator is Christ’s presence and God’s work in Christ, through us. Jesus says, “no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” The power of the Word, the work of God, can do amazing things beyond our comprehension. And it can be done everywhere. In these instances, whether they are big moments of meeting a neighbor’s needs seeking truth and justice countering the evils and –isms of the world, or as simple as offering a cup of water to someone who might be a little thirsty, the Kingdom of God breaks in, bit by bit, as God works through us and with us for all of God’s children, and for the sake of the whole creation that God loves.
This all sounds great. It’s a beautiful and wonderful. But like John, we can get in the way of this work sometimes, intentionally or unintentionally. We can stop someone from growing in their vocation, or in their service like even an usher or acolyte in worship, if we say “no, you’re doing it the wrong way.” Jesus calls us out and our human tendency for control today, saying “NO.” God uses us, all of us. And it may look different and be done a bit differently than we individually might like or be used to.
But if we stop someone from growing and serving, perhaps today’s lesson is a warning to us?
Jesus says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Jesus doesn’t stop there, going on to call out the sin and brokenness which we all have, and which surrounds us. He gets on his soap box, and says if part of you causes you to sin, cut it out or get rid of it.
If anyone really took the Bible literally, I don’t think there would be many people left without some deep outward bodily scars. Thankfully I don’t think Jesus is calling us to literally do this. But he’s making the point for us to be self-aware of ourselves, and what might get in the way of our relationship with God and with our neighbors. But also, how we all can give into the temptation of thinking we’re right, even to the point that we then get in the way of God’s work being done in our midst. Thankfully it’s not always up to us, and God will do God’s thing with or without us. But God so very much wants to and chooses to be in relationship with us.
That’s why we’re called to follow and live as disciples. Jesus recognizes this is hard though. And offers an illustration about salt. “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Have you ever heard the phrase she or he is really a “salt of the earth” person? Well, if so, it probably comes from here.
I wonder, what might it mean to have salt in ourselves? I suspect this is really where stewardship comes in.
What is Stewardship?
Taking a step back. I see a few of you crossing your arms. I know what you’re thinking. You think I am about to ask for money? Hahaha… no. Not entirely. Stewardship involves way more than just money. Stewardship starts with an understanding that all that we have, and all that we are is God’s! All that we have, has been entrusted to our care by God to use, manage, and steward. When I say all, I mean all. We’re entrusted with: our lives, health, bodies, souls, minds, hearts, and relationships; our time, ideas, dreams, questions, and stories; our talents, gifts, strengths, passions, and vocations; our treasures, money, finances, and assets of all kinds; and all of creation that surrounds us and we are a part of.
We’re entrusted with all of this by God so that we might live abundant lives, but also so that through us, God’s work might be done. The work, as Jesus says today, of offering “a cup of cool water” to the thirsty. Our stewardship is part of our identity as a Child of God who has been called, created, and is loved by God.
Stewardship is part of what it means to live a life of faith and growth as a disciple. We grow in our faith by telling stories of faith like the Good News we hear in today’s gospel, and sharing all that God has done and continues to do and promises to do, for us. We are so moved by all of this, that we’re overjoyed and can’t help but want to share in this good work- this work of sharing a cup of water, this work of having salt in ourselves, and this work of discerning where God might be calling and leading, and coming to see and be a part of it. More bluntly, our response to all that God has done, to all of God’s gifts and promises, is our stewardship.
And as we might understand in Jesus’ rebuke to John today, God chooses to use us to build up God’s kingdom and to do God’s work in and through us. And that goes for all of God’s children, as unique and different as each of us here are, and as each and every saint and Child of God is around the world and across time and space. That’s a lot of good work, and it’s a lot of work that might look a bit different than we might expect.
Together as Stewards
All of this work though is God’s work. It’s not done alone. And that’s why we are part of a congregation, and the greater church. We do far more good as a church and a people of God together, than we could ever do apart. Yet, sometimes we give into our human nature and think that “I’m better,” or “my congregation is better” than another person or another church. Perhaps Jesus is offering us a reminder to remove our blinders, and rather join and collaborate with our sisters and brothers. Together, with all that we have and all that we are, God’s work is abundantly done in the world.
One of the ways that you have been a part of this, and one of the ways I believe that you indeed have “salt in yourselves” is by answering the call to participate in the Global Farm Challenge, sharing your gifts in this way. Thank you for stepping up as stewards in this way! Thank you too for these beautiful quilts that you are sending to Lutheran World Relief, sharing Christ’s warmth and love with your neighbors near and far.
Another way that you serve together as stewards is through helping do God’s work through the larger church, the Nebraska Synod, and the whole ELCA, through your congregations’ participation in mission share. Your congregations’ participation is critical, and when you contribute you help do ministry that spans the globe, literally changing lives.
Through participating in mission share, you do far more as the church together than could ever be possible for one person or one congregation to do alone. Through mission share, you proclaim the Good News of God in Christ through helping raise up and develop young adults, through our church serving arms like Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry and Lutheran Campus Ministries, as well as develop and grow new leaders, pastors, and deacons of our church; and you support missionaries spreading the Good News as well as new ministries here in Nebraska and around the globe. Through mission share, you welcome the stranger, outcast, and refugee, by supporting the work of ELCA World Hunger, our companion synods, and church serving arms like Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Family Services, and Mosaic. There’s so much more that you are a part of.
Thank you for all that you do. And if you hear nothing else from me today, please hear this, thank you for being the generous stewards and bearers of God’s love that you are, as the people of God gathered here in Wymore, and as we are all doing God’s work as part of God’s church together. And thank you for continuing to grow as the generous stewards and disciples that you are called and created to be- both in your individual lives, together as two congregations, and through your support of the whole church through mission share.
Putting It Altogether
Jesus ends today’s teaching moment with the disciples by saying that, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” We grow as disciples and stewards by answering God’s call to follow. We have salt in ourselves when we’re gathered together, sharing the peace and love of Christ with one another. We have salt in ourselves when we live and grow as stewards and disciples, helping and not hindering others to grow in their relationship with God, and serving our neighbor and being a part of God’s work, even with acts as simple as sharing a smile or a cup of cool water.
I have come to have a new appreciation of this lately. As I serve on synod staff, I am overjoyed to see and hear stories of ministry and stewardship in action across the whole state. But, I sincerely believe one of the best acts of discipleship is taking the time to smile and encourage another.
Maybe I am coming to this belief in a new way, because my wife Allison and I are relatively new parents of our daughter Caroline who will turn 6-months old later this week. It’s safe to say our lives have changed forever because of Caroline’s presence. Some of the things that used to matter- like keeping the house clean at all times, and responding to emails as quick as possible just don’t seem to matter as much anymore. But instead, returning a smile to our daughter as she smiles, chats, and laughs with us and at us, is. And seeing her smile cause others to smile around her, I can’t help but think that that is an act of God’s love being shared with a hurting and anxious world. And it’s an act that we can all really easily share.
There will be times that we come up short as God’s children. We’re sinners after all, and we mess up. Jesus knows this, he saw it again and again with the disciples. But when we confess about our shortcomings, and open ourselves up to God’s transforming work for us and within us, and through us for the sake of our neighbors, it’s amazing what kind of work is done because of God’s deep and abiding love- a love so beyond our comprehension that caused God’s own son to come and be born as one of us, live with us, teach us, die and then be resurrected and ascended for us. All of this work is God’s, and only God could do it. We could never earn any of this. Thanks be to God for that pure gift and grace. And thanks be to God for the opportunity to be a small part of God’s on-going service and work for the sake of our neighbors- in our lives as stewards and disciples. Amen.