God’s Deep and Abiding Love is a Gift and Promise- a stewardship sermon for Epiphany 4C

I am grateful to have been invited by Pastor Carm Aderman to be with the good people of Luther Memorial Lutheran Church in Omaha this past Sunday (February 3, 2019) and preach on stewardship. Unfortunately, a stomach bug that rampaged through our family and house over the weekend kept me from making it there on Sunday morning, and I am looking forward to being with the congregation again soon to make it up to them. What follows is the manuscript that I was planning to preach from, if it weren’t for my stomach, based on Luke 4:21-30 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, two of the appointed readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany in Year C of the revised common lectionary. 

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

Good morning Luther Memorial! It’s great to be with you today on this spring like morning. Thank you so much Pastor Carm for the invitation and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring greetings today from Bishop Brian Maas, your Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Juliet Hampton, and from your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod. I’m grateful to be with you today as your partner in ministry, excited to dig into today’s stories a bit and sense what God might be saying to us today, and to spend some time thinking about stewardship, and how we are all bearers of God’s love through doing God’s work together.

God’s Love is the Starting Place
A moment ago, we heard the famous words from Paul to the Corinthians, words that I suspect many of you might have heard spoken or read to you on your wedding days. Let’s get beyond this though, because there is a depth to this story in Paul’s praise of love. It connects with the words from Paul we heard last week, the call to “strive for the greater gifts” and to do so together with our unique gifts and what makes us who we are, and perhaps even whose we are.[1] What brings us together as God’s people, gathered here today and gathered all around the globe across time and space, is God’s deep and abiding love. Without love, and especially without dwelling and living in this love of God, we are nothing.[2]

Let’s stop there for a minute. Without God’s deep and abiding love, we are nothing. No matter what we might do, if the deeper why behind it isn’t love, does it really matter?

God Shows Up- Love and Faith are Public Things
If we have the deepest of faith but no love, what kind of faith is that? If it’s not one that has led us into relationship with each other, or called us to care for our neighbors and strangers near and far that God calls us into relationship with, what is it really? If this is what our faith looks like, then faith just becomes a private thing, but we have a God who is very much public. We have a God who goes to his hometown and shows up today and says, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”[3]

Woah. Slow down Jesus. Come on, that’s kind of big deal, don’t you think?

But what’s amazing is the people don’t seem to notice these big words and this big claim. It seems pretty obvious that God is up to something here. Yes, the people are amazed and they spoke well of Jesus.[4] That’s their response, and it’s a good and normal human response to something amazing like this. But they are blinded to asking the bigger questions like, “what are you up to here God?” “What might you be doing in our midst?”

No. Instead, they turn to what they know. “Isn’t that Joseph’s son?”[5] Jesus like many prophets before him, and every pastor since him, doesn’t like preaching in his hometown. I suspect Pastor Carm doesn’t like preaching in her hometown where she grew up, and to be honest, I’m always a bit uncomfortable preaching in my hometown west of Seattle too. Because I’ll always be that little person who looked like my uncle growing up, and who to others is Pastor Pete’s grandson, just like here Jesus will always be Joseph’s son. It’s not the fault of anyone, but our relationships and experiences can sometimes get in the way of our openness to new things that God might be doing right in front of us. We might be unable perhaps to see God working right in front of our very eyes, and to hear God in what we think we already know.

God’s Love is not Exclusive but Inclusive
God is very much public, and for you. But God is most certainly not just for you, you alone. God is for all of God’s children- near and far, no matter where they reside, look like, believe… Because we believe in God whose love is so deep that it abides, whether we recognize it or not. And that’s a gift and a promise. It’s good news.

Jesus tried to share this good news with his hometown. But it fell flat and didn’t sound like good news at all. To be fair, Jesus perhaps wasn’t the gentlest in sharing this news, and he might have been unnecessarily snarky in the way he responded to his hometown’s questions of “isn’t this Joseph’s son?”[6] But what Jesus says that ultimately chases him out, is that God’s love isn’t exclusive to one group or people.

Often God’s love is directed to what we ourselves might see as “the other,” or “the foreigner,” as Jesus is describing Elijah’s ministry and his own ministry to the Gentiles.[7] People often ostracized as unclean, or people who are “over there,” on the other side of the lake, the tracks, the gate, the wall, dare I say even the Patriots and Rams fans who will be rooting hard for their teams in the Super Bowl later today, both teams I myself struggle mightily to appreciate as a hardcore Seattle Seahawks fan…

Even so, this is Good News that Jesus is sharing, but because it’s not exclusive to just his hometown community, and it’s not just about them as one small congregation of God’s people, it’s not received as the best of news. So, the crowd turns on him. It chases Jesus out and wants to hurl him off a cliff.[8]

It’s not too much of a leap from this crowd to the one in Jerusalem shouting, “Crucify Him. Crucify Him.” But thankfully we’re too early in the story for that to happen.

God’s Love Abides as a Gift and Promise
Despite this setback, Jesus continues on his way doing his ministry. And that’s a testament to the promise that God’s love abides. It bears out the truth that Paul writes today that love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things…”[9] It doesn’t end, love never ends. It abides. Even when we turn away from God and sin, and focus on ourselves losing sight of all that God calls us to be, and whom to be with; God’s love is with us and for us.

The One who created us and knew us before we were even a speck in our mother’s wombs, is the One who knows us more deeply than we will ever know ourselves, and who loves us more deeply than anyone else could ever love us. This love of God is not earned, rather it is. And that’s a gift and promise. It’s a presence that is with us, always.

God is with us no matter what we might be facing- the good, bad, ugly of life God is there. In seeing the beauty of the sunrise across the metro and Missouri valley. In the birth of a child. In the sleepless nights with a baby who is teething, or the morning rush of needing to be in three places at once and having your child throwing up all over you. Or in waiting for some hard news at the doctor’s office, or the stress of a big test at school. In the discernment of what’s next at work or in your career, or in the longing for someone to listen and to spend some time with. In all of this, God is there with you and for you. This is good news.

Where Stewardship Fits in
This is also where I believe stewardship fits in. Now before you do what people in every congregation I visit do, know that I see you. So, as a couple of you cross your arms, hahaha.. I see you and I think I know what you might be thinking. “Oh great. Here it comes. This guy is finally going to talk about money…” Hahaha…

Sometimes you just have to name it. But here’s the truth. Yes, stewardship involves money, but it involves so much more than just money. It’s really about all of us, all that we have and all that we are. And as much as I believe what Jesus said today to his hometown was good news, I think stewardship is just as good news. I think it’s grounded well in what the psalmist declares in Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it…”[10] The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it. Put another way, all of us, all that we have and all that we are, is God’s. You are God’s. That deep and abiding love is God holding you as God’s own. Loving you, for you, because you are enough as a beloved Child of God.

This love leads God to entrusting us with all that we have and all that we are- all of which God calls us to use, manage, or steward. So, when we think about stewardship, think about it like this. Think about God entrusting you with all that makes you, your: lives, health, bodies, souls, hearts, minds, and relationships; your time, talents, gifts, strengths, passions, vocations, ideas, questions, and stories; your assets, finances, money, and treasures of all kinds; and even all of creation that surrounds you and you are a part of.

In that deep and abiding love, God chooses to be in relationship with us, and to use us to do some of God’s work in the world. And to that end, God entrusts us with what make us who we are, so that we might have life and have it abundantly.[11] God equips us and calls us together like in this congregation today, and entrusts us with unique gifts, passions, and strengths that alone are cool and give our lives meaning, but when brought together as God’s people together, it’s through these that God uses us and works with us to do some of God’s kingdom building work together.

Responding to God’s Love through Our Stewardship
Now as a good Lutheran, we might then ask as Martin Luther models for us in the catechism, “What does this mean?” And here is my best answer as of today. God does what God can only do. God comes to us as one of us, lives and walks alongside us, is handed over, crucified, died and was buried for us. And is resurrected and ascended for us. God beats sin and death at its own game, and does all of this for us. It’s Good News, it’s meant to be shared. It’s inclusive and not exclusive. It’s not limited or scarce. It’s abundant and meant for all of God’s children. It’s pure gift and grace, something we could never earn or deserve.

What we do in response to this gift and news is our stewardship. We are so caught up in joy and gratitude for God’s love for us, that that love wraps us up like in a warm blanket on a cold winter’s day and fills us. And when filled with God’s love, we can’t help but want to share it, and be a part of God’s work in the world in some way. And that’s where each of us comes in. God uses that energy and love and extends it for us and through us. That love that says, “these are the gifts of God for the people of God,” that love that says, “I am for you- this is my body given for you,” and that love that says in these waters, “you are mine.” That’s the deep and abiding love of God, that calls us and gathers us together here, equips us, and sends us out opening our arms and hands outward to our neighbors and strangers, opening our ears to listen, our eyes to see, and our minds to wonder what God might be up to here.

I know that you understand this Luther Memorial. I see it in the way many of you have answered the call to serve and are being installed today. I also know that you understand how exciting this life of stewardship is, but also how much courage might be involved in living it and in growing as disciples and stewards. You just voted to hire Korey Lindley, and to start the call process for her to serve as a Deacon here alongside all of you. Take it from this deacon, thank you, and you won’t be disappointed. Yes, it’s a financial commitment anytime that a congregation steps up and invests in calling a rostered minister, but in doing that, you as a congregation are saying a few things.

You are saying “yes” to God! You are declaring that God is calling you to step up. You are acknowledging that God is up to something, and that as you are feeling called to grow as disciples and in faith together, that God has led you to see gifts for this work in Korey who will not just work alongside you, but will help empower and equip each and every one of you as disciples. So, thank you Luther Memorial for responding to God’s love in such a big way and living into God’s abundance so fully.

And thank you also Luther Memorial for the way that I know that you know you are stewards of God’s love in the world. As the synod’s Director for Stewardship part of my call is to continue to remind congregations about the work and ministry that they do together as God’s people. One of the formal ways this happens is through mission share.

Mission share is the undesignated offering that your congregation shares with the Nebraska Synod and the larger ELCA through which you do ministry that spans the globe, changing lives. Through it you help raise up new leaders, parish ministry associates, pastors, and deacons like Korey in our church. Through participating in mission share, you spread the good news of the Gospel through sending missionaries around the globe and supporting new and renewing ministries across this state.

Through it, you share the Good News with youth and young adults and help them grow and discern their vocations and hear God’s deep love for them in part through supporting Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry (including Camp Carol Joy Holling) and Lutheran Campus Ministry. And through mission share, you also step up and not only see your neighbors near and far you respond to their needs through supporting the many serving arms of our church like Lutheran World Relief, Mosaic, Lutheran Family Services, Lutheran Disaster Response, and so many more.

On behalf of your sisters and brothers across this church and globe, thank you. Thank you for continuing to be a part of it, and for responding to God’s love for you through showing and sharing your love in this way as God’s stewards and disciples gathered here in Omaha.

Back to God’s Love, which isn’t just the starting place but constant
God claims us, once and for all in God’s deep and abiding love. That love grounds us and holds us together as God’s people. And through that love, nothing is ever the same. Our lives are changed, and the world is changed. That’s good news indeed. So as hard as it might be today to watch the Super Bowl and root on the Patriots or Rams, or as hard as it might to face whatever you might be facing in your daily life, or the fears and worries that abound, God’s love abides. And that love is for you and with you, always. Thanks be to God for that, and thanks be to God for each and every one of you. Amen.

[1] From 1 Corinthians 12:31, NRSV.
[2] Based on 1 Corinthians 13:2-3, NRSV.
[3] Luke 4:21, NRSV.
[4] Luke 4:22, NRSV.
[5] Luke 4:22.
[6] Luke 4:22.
[7] Luke 4:24-27.
[8] Luke 4:29.
[9] 1 Corinthians 13:7, NRSV.
[10] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.
[11] Like Jesus declares in John 10:10, NRSV.

Image Credit: Luther Memorial 

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