“What Will You Do with Your One Wild and Precious Life?” – a Stewardship Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (Year C).

I had the privilege to be with the good people of Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Broken Bow, Nebraska on Sunday January 20, 2019, thanks to the invitation from Parish Ministry Associate Kathy Salts. It was a fun morning gathered with a vibrant congregation in worship, conversation, and then a great potluck lunch after worship too. It was a joy to be with the congregation, to share a word about stewardship and preach on the day’s readings, especially the Gospel of John 2:1-11 and 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, and to include some inspiration from poet Mary Oliver as well. What follows is the majority of the manuscript that I preached from. 

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

Our Saviour Lutheran from the outside. A welcome sign to see after a beautiful but early morning 3-hour drive west across Nebraska to the southeastern edge of the Sandhills.

Good Morning Our Saviour! It’s great to be with you on this very cold winter morning. Thank you so much Minister Kathy 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 Steve Meysing, 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 dig into a couple of our stories today and wonder what God might be up to, and to think some about stewardship too. I’m also grateful for the opportunity to be with you as your partner in ministry, to tell you of some of the many ministries that you are a part of, and to invite you to wonder what God might be calling you to be a part of this year.

Your One Wild and Precious Life
As I begin today, I’m thinking about one of my favorite poets Mary Oliver, who passed away this week at the age of 83.[1] She was a poet famous for her works especially around nature and its relationship with the spiritual and God’s activity in the world. But another side of her poetry involves the concept of vocation, and raising questions about life, meaning, purpose, and calling. One of her famous questions that I often ponder in checking in about my own life is this: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”[2] Or put another way, what will you do with your one wild and precious life? And perhaps just as pointedly, what have you done and continue to do with your one wild and precious life?

I start with this question today, because it’s on my mind as I think about these stories we just read, especially two of my favorites which come up this week in the lectionary. The gospel story about God in Christ turning water into wine, and Paul’s words to the Corinthians about the gifts of the Spirit. They are stories about God active and up to something in the world that God is calling us to see, and be a part of. And in seeing, we’re invited to respond, and live abundant and changed lives in God in Christ. So, in the words of Mary Oliver, what will you do with your one wild and precious life? Will you live it fully and abundantly turned outward to our neighbors and the beautiful world around us in God in Christ? Or will you perhaps live it more cautiously, afraid to venture out at times, or less likely or willing to notice the world around you? Please keep in mind these questions as we dig into these stories today.

Water into Wine- The Ordinary becomes Extraordinary
In that famous scene at that wedding banquet about 2,000 years ago we heard about again today, God in Christ does something you might describe as a miracle. In whatever way you might describe it, here is what the story tells us, that what was water has been turned into wine. What was an ordinary and simple supply of life’s essential compound H20, is suddenly no longer so ordinary and simple. In this story, God does what can only be described as doing the extraordinary through the ordinary.

Now imagine yourself in this story. Close your eyes if that helps. “When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’”[3] “Do whatever he tells you.” How would you feel if you were Jesus in this story? It doesn’t sound like Jesus is quite ready to be out in the public doing his thing. But whether that’s true or not, he will be after today’s story. It’s an Epiphany story to be sure, as God is being revealed and our eyes are being opened and we’re being invited to come and see that the Lord is good, but also to wonder about what God might be up to.

Now Mary convinced, or perhaps more likely, forced her adult son into doing something because, well, his “mom said so,” Jesus relented. “Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it.”[4] What do you think these servants were thinking? I am not sure what would have been going through my mind, but I am sure I probably would have been skeptical and feeling kind of odd doing this. I mean, imagine you are the servant bringing this jar of what you think was water to the steward. If it is water, what’s going to happen to you when the steward tastes it?

But that question doesn’t really matter, now does it. Because as the rest of the story goes, “When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first…but you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee…”[5] This was definitely God’s work and the first of Christ’s signs. And the servants then in this story were the first to knowingly witness God active and up to something in the Son to such an extent as this.

I love this story. Not just because it’s an example of God doing something amazing with the ordinary parts of life, like water. But I love it, because it shows that God is active and up to something in our world all around us, capable of just about anything, whether our minds, ideas, or imaginations can make room for the experiences or not. There’s some stewardship wisdom here too. But before I get to that, I should probably explain briefly about what stewardship is.

What is Stewardship?
Judging by a few of you, you are starting to get a little less comfortable in your pews, or maybe you’re just freezing from the cold? Either way I’m seeing a few of you cross your arms. Haha…I see you, and this is not my first time in a congregation. You’re probably thinking, “oh great, here comes this guy talking about money…” But here’s some good news. Stewardship involves way more than just money.

Inside the congregation’s beautiful sanctuary before worship.

It starts with an understanding that all that we have and all that we are is God’s.[6] And God entrusts us then with anything and everything that makes us who we are. This includes: our lives, health, bodies, souls, hearts, minds, and relationships; our time, talents, gifts, strengths, passions, vocations, ideas, questions, and stories; our assets, finances, money, and treasures of all kinds; and even all of creation that surrounds us and we are a part of.

God entrusts us with all of this so that we might live full, abundant, and as Mary Oliver might say “wild and precious” lives. In entrusting us with all of this, God makes us stewards of God’s love, entrusting us with the responsibility to use, manage, or steward God’s things- through calling us together as God’s children and choosing to not only be in relationship with us, but doing some of God’s work in the world through us in our vocations. So, what we’re entrusted with is both so that we have meaningful lives, but also that we love and serve our neighbors near and far whom God calls us into relationship with.

Now in thinking a little more about this story from the gospel, one of the characters in today’s story is a steward. Someone who is entrusted with the responsibility to manage the estate and event, in this case, imagine someone who oversees all the behind the scenes and festivities of this great wedding feast. We’re not so dissimilar to this steward, as God calls us and uses us with our unique gifts, strengths, passions, and talents, are we?

Varieties of Gifts- Paul’s Wisdom on Vocation
The Apostle Paul writes, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”[7] With all of our beautiful uniqueness that makes us each the beautiful and beloved child of God that we are, it is the one Spirit of God who brings us together as this community and congregation.

And it’s the same Spirit who sends us out too, sent out as stewards and disciples of God’s love, bearing hope and peace in a beloved but broken world for as Paul says, “for the sake of the common good,” and through us as God’s stewards with unique gifts and vocations, some of God’s work in the world is done.

Our gifts are all different. Some of us have been entrusted with special wisdom or knowledge, some a deeper faith, some gifts of healing, some the work of miracles, some the ability and call to prophecy, some the ability to speak in different languages and with different understandings, some hospitality like hosting and serving funeral dinners and welcoming community groups like AA, and so much more. These are all great gifts, and they are entrusted by God so that together some of God’s work might be done.[8]  By themselves these gifts are good things, but together, they are comprehensive in doing the work of God as led by the Spirit.

This is an important reminder for stewardship. We need each other. We are called into relationship and communities together by God for each other’s sake, but also for the collective well-being of the world. We’re far more effective gathered as the church and God’s people together than we are alone, and we can do so much more good in the world together than what we can do alone as one person or one congregation.

Our Joyful Response is our stewardship
These words from Paul and today’s gospel story offer a lesson that our lives and passions are not just about ourselves, but each other. Through Christ’s hands and arms outstretched and open to all on the cross, we ourselves are turned outward and opened to the whole world as the Spirit leads. Through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, God gives us the hope and promise of abundant, meaningful, and eternal life. God does this through pure gift and grace for us. We could never earn it. But because of this, and all of God’s work and promises for us, we can’t help but be so overjoyed that we want to say thank you to God and give our thanks and praise. So, the Spirit moves us, just as Christ moved over the waters turning them into wine. And like Christ’s arms on the cross which are open outward, we’re turned outward with great opportunities and responsibilities and with big questions like Mary Oliver’s “what will you do with your one wild and precious life?”

A timely display board ahead of Valentine’s Day, but also fitting for stewardship. As we bear and share our love through our stewardship and discipleship.

I am excited to hear some stories, questions, and ideas of how you live this out here in Broken Bow over lunch today after worship. But rest assured, I know that you already do. I know this is true, and I know that you are faithful disciples and generous stewards because of your involvement in your local food pantry, quilting, noisy offerings, community partnerships and your congregation’s continued participation in mission share.

Mission share is the undesignated offering that you share with the larger church- the Nebraska Synod and larger ELCA, through which you do ministry that spans the globe changing lives as part of the whole church together. Through it you help raise up new leaders, pastors, deacons, and parish ministry associates of our church. Through it, you help share the wisdom and good news of the Gospel through sending missionaries around the globe, and supporting new and renewing ministries right here across the Big Red State. Through it, you share the Good News with youth and young adults and help them grow in discern their vocations, by supporting Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry and Lutheran Campus Ministry. And through it, you respond to the needs of our neighbors near and far through supporting our serving arm ministry partners like Lutheran World Relief, Mosaic, Lutheran Family Services, Lutheran Disaster Response, and so many more.

Thank you! On behalf of your sisters and brothers in Christ here in Nebraska and across the globe, thank you for being a part of the church together, and thank you for continuing to grow as the generous stewards and faithful disciples that you are.

God is up to something here in Broken Bow around, through, and in all of you; just as God is up to something new and amazing in today’s gospel story in turning the water into wine. God is continually active doing new things, and inviting us to come and see around this table and feast that the Lord is good. Today and everyday God invites us to come and be a part of it, open to the movement and mystery of the Spirit, and entrusted and emboldened with all that we have and all that we are from God for God’s work. I’m excited to see where the Spirit might be leading next in each of your lives, and in the life of this congregation.

For the many stories that could be written about what you have done with your one wild and precious life together I give thanks, and I even more so give thanks with joy and anticipation for the stories that could be written to come of what you will do with your one wild and precious life together as God’s people here in Broken Bow. Thanks be to God who calls you together, loves you, is with you, and is for you. And thanks be to God for all of you- equipped, empowered, called, and invited to be a part of God’s work in the world. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] Lynn Neary, “Beloved Poet Mary Oliver, Who Believed Poetry ‘Mustn’t Be Fancy,’ dies at 83,” (17 January 2019), National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/2019/01/17/577380646/beloved-poet-mary-oliver-who-believed-poetry-mustn-t-be-fancy-dies-at-83?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20190117&fbclid=IwAR13luzpbMC9nac1_sN3cmgOOUh5XrTBEs90xFfXdMZGE0Pyh60C92eb3a0.
[2] Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day” in New and Selected Poems, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992). https://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/133.html
[3] John 2:3-5, NRSV.
[4] John 2:7-8, NRSV.
[5] John 2:9-11, NRSV.
[6] Based on Psalm 24.
[7] 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, NRSV.
[8] Based on 1 Corinthians 12:8-11, NRSV.

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