“The Kingdom of God breaks into our world, in part through stewards like us”

St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran in Falls City, Nebraska, on a drizzly October Sunday morning.

I had the privilege of being with the good people of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Falls City, Nebraska today (October 7, 2018). Thank you so much to Pastor Andrew Chavanak for the invitation to come and preach, and for the warm welcome I received by the whole congregation in a time of conversation about the synod, ministry together, and stewardship before worship, and then during and after worship. What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from, based on the readings for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Pentecost 20B/Lectionary 27B), and especially Mark 10:2-16

Grace and peace from God in Christ who loves is, is with us, and is for us with hands and arms outstretched, calling us to come and see. Amen.

Good Morning St. Paul’s. It’s great to be with you today. Thank you so much Pastor Andrew for the invitation and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring greetings 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, and to dwell some in today’s stories and what God might be saying to us, and to think about how we respond to God’s work together as God’s children and stewards of God’s love for all of God’s creation.

This Week’s Story
Today’s story with Jesus is not an easy one. Jesus has now left Capernaum, where he explained again about the passion to come, he taught the disciples about welcome and doing God’s work together, and engaged in the somewhat ridiculous conversation of who is the greatest. We find Jesus today in Judea, beyond the Jordan, and the crowds have yet again converged. This time bringing the Pharisees with them, with the hope to test and perhaps even trap Jesus in his words and logic. And in so doing, they come to Jesus testing him with questions about divorce.

I was very tempted to ignore the gospel this week, since I have been invited here to preach on stewardship. But as the week went along, I decided that to ignore the lesson would be to ignore the pain and brokenness of life. Again, this is a hard text. I don’t think it is meant to be taken literally as words on divorce, because if it were, last week’s story about cutting off parts of the body when they cause you to be distracted from your relationship with God or cause you to sin, would have been just as literal. And I’m pretty sure that wasn’t God in Christ’s goal for us. Otherwise, we would all have body parts cut out from ourselves, and scars all over us. That being said, there are emotional scars that everyone carries.

Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you…”[1] Jesus knows the truth about us. We’re all beautiful and loved Children of God. But we are also all broken, simultaneously saints and sinners.

We live in a world where inequality continues to exist. Where those in leadership undervalue others who may not look or sound like themselves. Where even some people who are victims of broken relationships, publicly known in our communities and world, or quietly hidden in the corners of our families, homes, and even our congregations, cry, pray, cope as best they can, trusting that God is with them even as they have been and perhaps continue to be hurt, abused, harassed, or worse. Jesus answers the Pharisee’s question today, but I think at the heart of his answer, is a hope for the mending of relationships, towards the kingdom building work of reconciliation, justice, equality, and the belief in and  support of one’s neighbor.

God’s Promises- For Us
This is at the heart of our Gospel story. The story of God who comes near to us, as one of us. The story of God being with us, and for us. As the writer of Hebrews reminds, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things through whom he created the worlds.”[2]

The beautiful chancel area of the sanctuary of St. Paul’s early in the morning before worship.

In spite of the brokenness and sin that’s a part of this life, in spite of the darkness and fear that we may see and experience, the anxiety and uncertainty of how the crops might be harvested and if they’ll bring in a good price or not this year, God’s promise is true. God’s story is true. God is there with you, and God is here with us, and most certainly for us. Helping us again to see this truth. Helping us to know that deep and abiding love that only God could have, to do all that God has done through the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, for all of God’s people and creation. This is where we find our hope, trusting in God’s promises for us.

We’re a part of the Kingdom of God
This is the Good News of God for you. And it’s really where stewardship comes into the story. You see, God does what only God can do. But then God invites us to come and see. To be a part of this work. And when we answer that call, and respond to God’s gifts, and promises, we live our lives as stewards and disciples. We’re so overcome with gratitude and joy, that we want to share this Good News with others, and share in this life changing and fulfilling work together.

“Let the little children come…” The Children’s Message at St. Paul’s is done as “Children’s Sermon in a Box.” Each week one child is invited to surprise Pastor Andrew with an item in the box, which he then does an impromptu children’s sermon on. This week’s surprise in the box happened to be a small rolling pin.

This life changing work, is the work through which the Kingdom of God breaks into our world, bit by bit. Work that Jesus refers to in the last part of today’s story, where he tells the disciples to stop blocking the children. You would think at this point that the disciples would have figured it out, welcome everyone. And especially don’t block the little ones. All are welcome and invited “to come and see that the Lord is good.” But alas, they haven’t quite figured it out yet. So Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never receive it.”[3] And then he took the children in his arms and blessed them.

The Kingdom of God is one of welcome. It’s one of awe-inspiring wonder and mystery. And it’s one where everyone has a place around the table. Where each person is loved, claimed forever in the waters of baptism, and known by God by name. As I think about this story today, this image of Jesus holding the little ones, I can’t help but think of my own little one. My wife Allison and I welcomed our first child, our daughter Caroline into the world six months ago, and we’re so excited because she’ll be baptized in a couple weeks.

At the end of the children’s sermon time, they revealed a new piece of artwork that will be gracing the Sunday School classrooms. Look at the excitement of some of kids standing up and cheering. Signs of wonder and joy. Signs of the kingdom, and a recognition of God with us, just as is at the heart of the incarnation and nativity story.

I’ve learned a few things about life with Caroline. One, any illusion that I am in control of anything, is gone. Two, even when Caroline is sick, she is able to smile, laugh, and share love. She’s been fighting ear infections for the past month, but you would never know it, by the way she still is smiling, laughing, and chatting. And if you look at her, you can’t help but smile back. That’s a Kingdom of God thing, and I wonder, if perhaps that’s also a God thing. It’s a mystery, but one, in the face of what would be a perfectly good reason to be upset, grumpy, or crying, this little one is instead offering reminders of God’s love, peace, and joy seeing the world with fresh eyes of wonder. Maybe there is some deep wisdom about the Kingdom of God in watching a six-month old.

I also believe that the Kingdom of God is such a kingdom, where it’s not just infants who offer moments of joy and laughter, but one where we are called to be a part of God’s work; wondering what God might be up to, coming to see as we are called, equipped, entrusted, and empowered as co-creators or co-workers with God. We heard about this some in today’s story from Genesis. 

What does Stewardship have to do with it?
In the creation story from Genesis we read, “So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field…”[4] We are entrusted with God’s work, as a co-worker and co-creator with God. As in this story, God entrusts the work of naming the creatures to Adam, just as we are all entrusted to care for all of God’s creation and invited into the work and life of discipleship and stewardship.

Now in thinking about stewardship, it would probably help to name a few of the obvious things. For instance, I see a few of you towards the back crossing your arms. I know what you’re probably thinking. You think I am about to ask for money? Hahaha… no. Not entirely. Stewardship involves way more than just money.

Some of the stewards and disciples of St. Paul’s sharing their musical gifts in the choir, singing “Down to the River to Pray.” (If you look close enough you will see that two of the choir members are Pastor Andrew and Nebraska Synod Council member Elysia McGill.)

Stewardship starts with an understanding that all that we have, and all that we are is God’s![5] 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.

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 that of God’s promises for us and to us, and sharing all that God has done, 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.

Our response to all that God has done, to all of God’s gifts and promises, is our stewardship- borne out in the love God shows for us, that we then can’t help but share in our work as disciples and stewards, the work through which God’s kingdom breaks into our world offering hope, love, and reconciliation.

Work that we’re a part of and witness by standing up for the hurt and broken or working to mend relationships; through welcoming the children like Jesus does today; by offering a cup of water as Jesus talked about last week; or simply through offering a smile to a perfect stranger brightening one’s day like in the smile of a 6-month old.

Why We Give? Being part of the church and God’s work, bigger than ourselves
We’re a part of this work too through our giving back a portion of which God has entrusted to us, for the sake of our neighbors. As we heard in the story in Genesis, God chooses to use us to do some of God’s work, and to build up God’s kingdom in and through us. And we joyfully do this, live and serve and steward in every way out of gratitude for all that God has done, continues to do, and promises to do, for us.

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. Together, with all that we have and all that we are, God’s work is abundantly done in the world.

This morning I heard a few stories of how you are stewards in your community. Like how some of the young adults in your congregation have been providing health and toiletry items in your local schools, offering needed items but more importantly self-esteem and confidence boosts for their teenage peers.

It always warms my heart when I find a congregation proudly showing their mission share (or mission support) certificate publicly for all to see, as an example of the congregation’s ministry and stewardship.

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 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! Thank you for being the generous stewards and bearers of God’s love that you are, as the people of God here in Falls City, 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.

Putting It Altogether
Through you, the little children are welcomed. Through you, the hurt, broken relationships, divorce, pain, and worse of our lives, are borne together in community as the people of God. Through you, the kingdom of God breaks into our hurting, broken, anxious, and fearful world, bit by bit, through your service, discipleship, and stewardship. Through you, with you, and for you, God offers hands and arms outstretched, bearing us as we bear one another’s burdens, calling us and all of creation to come and see that the Lord is good.[6]

A beautiful tapestry of the cross found on the walls in a hallway at St. Paul’s, celebrating a dearly departed saint from the community.

This life as a steward and disciple won’t always be easy, it’s a life of the cross after all. But it is deeply meaningful, challenging, and abundant because it’s God’s abundant love that does the hard work for us, making all that we are, and all that we do possible. Thanks be to God for all of that, and thanks be to God for you, God’s stewards and disciples. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] Mark 10:5, NRSV.
[2] Hebrews 1:1-2, NRSV.
[3] Mark 10:14-15, NRSV.
[4] Genesis 2:19-20, NRSV.
[5] Psalm 24:1-3, NRSV.
[6] Based on Galatians 6:2.

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