Returning to God, what is God’s – a stewardship sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

Outside Zion Lutheran early on a crisp but beautiful March Sunday morning.

It was a joy to be with the good people of Zion Lutheran in Gothenburg, Nebraska today (March 10, 2019) thanks to the invitation from Pastor Carol Mapa. I was invited to visit, preach on stewardship, and meet with the congregation’s council. What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from based on the texts appointed for the First Sunday of Lent (Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary), especially Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13.

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

I noticed a few familiar names as part of the community on the cross in front of me as I worshiped this morning. Do you see a certain Bishop and Assistant to the Bishop?

Good morning Zion Lutheran. It’s great to be with you as together we begin and continue our Lenten journey. Thank you so much Pastor Carol for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring greetings on behalf of 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 am excited to be with you today to dig one of the stories we just read, to ponder a bit about stewardship, and to wonder and imagine with you what God might be up to, and how God might be calling us to respond and live as God’s stewards and disciples.

Today’s Stories
I love today’s story from Deuteronomy, and it’s the story I really want to dig into today with you. It’s not that I want to avoid today’s gospel story about Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. That’s an important story, one that comes right after Jesus is baptized and right before Jesus leaves the desert and begins his formal ministry. It’s one where Jesus lays out clearly what matters in life, and God in Christ makes clear what should be priorities and what should not be. It’s a time of discernment, discovery, and fasting. It’s a great starting place for the season of Lent. But I am here to preach on stewardship, and in terms of stewardship, there might not be that many stories in the Bible that are better than today’s first lesson.

What is Stewardship?
Before I dig into this story today though, it might be helpful to explain what I mean by stewardship. Looking out at all of you, seeing some of you cross your arms I take it you know what the cultural answer is. You’re probably thinking, “oh great, here’s this guy from someplace else whose about to talk about money…” Hahahaha… It’s the same reaction I get everywhere I go. But no, rest assured. I am not here just to talk about money. Because stewardship involves way more than just money.

The psalmist says that, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.”[1] It follows then, that all that we have, and all that we are, is God’s. And if we start here, stewardship starts to make a bit more sense. It’s about what God entrusts to us- to care for, use, manage, and well, steward. Most of this is so that we might live full and abundant lives, but a part of this too, is to use what God has entrusted to our care, to care for our neighbors. God’s beloved children, like us, near and far all over the world. And as the story in Deuteronomy says today, a portion of what we have is to be returned to God.

Some of the fields and creation surrounding Zion, on a beautiful late winter morning.

In thinking about stewardship then, it’s a big thing. And knowing that all that we have, and all that we are, is God’s, that means that we are to steward everything. We steward: our lives, health, bodies, souls, hearts, minds, and relationships; our vocations, ideas, questions, dreams, and stories; our time, talents, gifts, strengths, and passions; our treasure, money, finances, and assets of all kinds; and all of creation that surrounds us and we are a part of.

All of this God entrusts to our care, as God’s stewards and disciples. We are to live fully and abundantly in the land of “milk and honey,” so to speak, but also to join God in God’s work and mission. Right here in and around Gothenburg, but also all across the Big Red State, the United States, and the entire world really. How and why we do this might be a bit clearer if we dig into today’s first lesson.

We’re to Return a Portion of God’s back to God
It’s a famous story from Moses about what Israel, the people of God, are to do once they come into the land that God has promised them. It’s a story rich with imagery, and reminders of God’s work. It’s also a story that is part of God’s longer story and part of our story, which is part of God’s on-going story in the world that continues today that we are all each a part of.

Moses declares, “When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first fruit of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.”[2]

Pastor Carol Mapa bringing the offering that has been gathered forward toward the altar.

Think about this worship service this morning that we’re in the middle of right now. Does this declaration from Moses describe anything you think about why we do what we do in worship? About why we pass the plate perhaps? Or return back to a God of portion of what is God’s? A portion of the harvest of the seeds that were sown? The first fruits of our labors which God calls us to, meaningful and important work for the sake of the world that God loves so dearly. And for this love that we embody and are surrounded with, we can’t help but be swept up in it, grateful, thankful, and joyful. And when this happens, that is precisely when our heart is ready to “take some of the first fruit,” and return them to God.

A Wandering Aramean
This story more broadly is one from Moses to Israel, the people of God who are still wandering in the wilderness. It is a story that relives some of the experiences of their lives and journey together as God’s people, but also and more importantly, God’s presence and promise throughout that journey together. It is also a story about what is to come, and how God’s people are to respond to God’s deliverance, gifts, life, and provision and inheritance of the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

When the people come into the land, they are to return a portion of what God has first entrusted to them back to God. And in this offering of what is yielded from the harvest, Moses says that the people are to make this response before the Lord their God. I know we just read this story, but close your eyes and listen to it again for moment:

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien; few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”[3]

This is the story of God’s people, our story. The story of Jacob, the “wandering Aramean.” The story of Joseph, thrown in a pit and sold into slavery by his brothers, only to years later show them welcome, reconciling with them, and welcoming Israel to Egypt and providing for them in the time of famine. The story of slavery at the hands of Pharaoh and the prayers of God’s people to God for their deliverance. The story of a burning bush and a call that Moses received to help lead the people out of Egypt through the waters of the sea. The story of wilderness wanderings and the promised land to come of milk and honey.

The beautiful sanctuary of Zion Lutheran all decked out for Lent early on a Sunday morning.

For this presence and promise, Moses knows that the people must give thanks and praise. How could they not? But this isn’t just it. All of this God has done as God has been with them and continues to be with them and us today, and there is so much more that God will do. Like being born and coming into the world as one of us. Like walking along side us, living with us, showing us and teaching us. Like loving us so deeply and caring so much for us, that God is willing to be handed over, crucified, and die for us. And like beating death and the devil, the same devil who tempted God in Christ in the wilderness trying to prevent all of this from taking place, and beating the grave, once and for all through the resurrection.

We know all of this, the promises of life, hope, and the resurrection. And all of this God has done, will do, and promises to do, for us, as pure gift and grace we could never earn or deserve.

What can we do then, but be so grateful and moved that we want and must give thanks and praise? What can we do, but be so caught up in joy and gratitude, that we want to be a part of God’s work in the world in some way?

Moses knew all of this. Because of this he tells this story today. For all of this and so much more that God has done, continues to do, and promises to do, we can’t help but be so grateful and overjoyed that we want to and need to respond to God’s deep and abiding love and presence in some way. Not for our sakes, but for our neighbor’s. And that comes through our stewardship.

Moses counsels the people to say, “‘So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’ You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down…then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.”[4]

This is what we are to do. This is, at least in part, why we give. And this my friends, is really why we have this thing called stewardship as part of our life as disciples and people of faith.

Two Big Questions- What does this mean for us? What might God be up to?
But what does this mean for us today? What might God be up to in us? Around us? Through us? And for us?

Some of the faithful gathered for brunch and fellowship before worship.

In the midst of calving, agricultural and economic change and challenges, the loss of an hour of sleep overnight, and perhaps the fact that we are all going a bit crazy from this seemingly never ending winter, you all continue to show up here as the People of God. You continue to step up and show up as God’s stewards and disciples each day in the vocations to which you are called- doing the holy work you are called and created to do- serving your community, your neighbors, in the world.

In the midst of uncertainty and fears and anxieties in the world all around us, you remain faithful as disciples and stewards, and you teach the youngest disciples and stewards what it means to be part of God’s work in the world. I have heard about your noisy offerings, and the faithful good little givers that are part of your Sunday School class, Zion.

The Sunday School singers practicing before sharing their gifts of music in worship.

I have also seen you lean into this life of faith together. You might remember I was with you for your Epiphany celebrations with American Lutheran a year ago. It was so much fun to be with both congregations that day, and to end the evening here making stars together in the Fellowship Hall, drinking hot chocolate, and burning the greens out on the snow on a cold winter’s night. God was present then in the faces and conversations, in the way all of you were so open and supportive of one another. Sharing God’s story, laughing and telling stories. Bearing God’s love together. That’s what it means to be God’s people.

How do we respond? And how are we to respond as stewards and disciples?
You do this, because you are called to it. You do this too, like in today’s story from Moses to Israel, in responding to God’s love and promises to you through your service, giving, and offering up what is first God’s back to God. You also do this I know through your congregation’s continued participation in 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, pastors, deacons, and parish ministry associates 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.

The people of God returning a portion of God’s back to God during offering, and supporting the work of the whole church, as well as with their names on the cross signifying the Body of Christ together.

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 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. In this way, not only are you returning a portion of God’s to God, you are really part of God’s work in the world for the whole world which God loves so dearly.

For your participation, and on behalf of your sisters and brothers around the globe, thank you! Thank you for stepping up and showing up. And thank you for stepping up and showing up as the disciples and stewards I know that you are here in rural Gothenburg, caring for your neighbors here, there, and everywhere.

Putting it Altogether
At the end of today’s story, Moses says that in our giving, “you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.”[5] And likewise, I celebrate you. I am grateful for you- for being the disciples and stewards you are here in Gothenburg. I am grateful that you continue to heed Moses’ call in today’s story. I am grateful for God who I know is with you this day and every day, walking alongside you as we journey together this Lenten season, and for God in Christ who is given for you, and who loves you. Thanks be to God for all of this. And thanks be to God for all of you, God’s beloved children; disciples and stewards. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.
[2] Deuteronomy 26:1-2, NRSV.
[3] Deuteronomy 26:4-9, NRSV.
[4] Deuteronomy 26:10-11, NRSV.
[5] Deuteronomy 26:11, NRSV.

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