Bearing Fruit as God’s Stewards, even among the floods of life- a stewardship sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

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Looking to the west side of the church building and the classic Swedish Lutheran architecture.

I had the privilege to be with the good people of Thabor Lutheran in Wausa, Nebraska yesterday (March 24, 2019) for the Third Sunday in Lent. I was invited by Pastor Carl Sirotzki to come and preach on stewardship, and visit the congregation, as well as meet with members of the church council and stewardship committee. It was a joy to be with the congregation, even though the route was a bit longer to get there because some road closures due to damages from the recent flooding. As I drove into town I saw a Swedish Viking ship which reminded me of growing up in the Norwegian town of Poulsbo, west of Seattle. What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from, based on the readings appointed for the Third Sunday in Lent (Year C), especially Luke 13:1-9 and Isaiah 55:1-9.

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

Good morning Thabor Lutheran! It’s great to be with you this morning. I’m sorry I wasn’t with you a month ago as originally scheduled. The weather has just been crazy of late- blizzards a month ago, epic flooding now over the last few weeks. With all of this, I am so glad to be here today. Thank you so much Pr. Carl 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 Kristen Van Stee, 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 few of today’s stories and see what God might be up to, to share a bit about what stewardship is, and to wonder about what God might be calling us to be a part of through our stewardship, as we continue this Lenten journey together.

A Word about the Floods
I’m grateful to be here with all of you today. But as a Deacon, I need to name something. Part of my call as a rostered minister of Word and Service is to connect the church with the world around it, and it would be quite an understatement to say that it has been a hard few weeks here in Nebraska. Amid dams giving out, bridges being swept downstream, roads being washed away, communities inundated, homes lost, and dreams and ways of life turned upside down or worse… There have been some unbelievable things that have happened, and we are only starting to grasp what this might mean for us now, tomorrow, and for the weeks, months, and even years ahead.

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A small sign of the journey that is a reality in the country this time of year, especially when driving on dirt roads. When I left with this synod car on Sunday morning, it was clean. Upon my return from driving on dirt roads to avoid closures from the flooding, it had a nice new layer of mud all around. Nothing like what I saw on my drive though, including fields of crops near Beemer and Wisner with tree stumps and debris scattered all over them, from where the water deposited them as they no doubt floated down stream and out of the Elkhorn River’s banks flooding the valleys.

There is a resiliency in Nebraska to be sure, one that I haven’t seen to the same extent elsewhere in the country where I have lived and grown up, but it’s important to name that this recovery process to come will be long, emotional, and hard. And each one of you, may have grief to bear as part of it, and that’s okay. When you feel those moments reach out to your pastor, your family, your friends, and know that your sisters and brothers in Christ across this synod are walking alongside you in all of this together with you. And when you see someone else having such a moment, be present with them. You are called for this as a disciple and created for this as a Child of God. You each may have a role to play to offer a shoulder to cry on, ears to listen, eyes to see, hands to help and do what you can… all of this is God’s work in the world. And all of this is fruit of the tree like in today’s gospel story, and fruit grounded in the promise we heard proclaimed today from Isaiah.

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Inside the beautiful sanctuary of Thabor Lutheran before the congregation gathered for worship.

Repentance and Bearing Fruit
In today’s gospel story, Jesus talks about repentance. He names the reality of pain and suffering of the Galileans and the fall of the tower of Siloam.[1] He says that the horrible nature of their death and suffering was not because of their sins. Countering the bad theology one might hear in times of trouble and disaster. No. God did not cause these people to die in these ways because they were bad. Just as God did not necessarily cause the waters of the flood to come because we were bad.

These are the results of a world that God created good but not perfect.[2] There is sin after all, but there is also a presence of God with us. The reason why Jesus brings up this pain is to use it as a call to repent. That doesn’t just mean confess, but rather, and more pointedly it means to turn back to God. To draw our attention and our gaze to God. To notice that God is present with us, loves us, and is here. In the good times, and the bad. In the certain and uncertain. God is there.

With this in mind, Jesus tells this famous parable today. Friends, I know we just heard this, but listen again. Close your eyes if you are willing and listen to these words. Pay attention to what you see, hear, feel, sense, and wonder. “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”[3]

In this story, I often wonder about who is who? Who is the gardener? Who is the man? Who might be the person who would carry the saw or axe to chop the tree down? What or who might be the fruit?

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The Children’s Choir at Thabor Lutheran shared their gifts of music in worship beautifully. A sign of good fruit, and continued growth in discipleship.

The gardener is the patient one, to be sure. She or he is bearing grace for this tree, offering it yet another chance to bear fruit. It’s kind of like the grace and gifts which God bestows on God’s people- offering hope, life, meaning, and purpose. But to grow, this tree needs attention, it needs to be dug around and needs manure to improve the soil. Just like we need to be in community with each other as God’s people, dwelling and breathing in God’s word deeply, grounding our lives in the promises of God that we know through the water, bread, and wine; and as we are nurtured and grow, feel called to share our gifts and talents which God has entrusted to us as part of God’s work in the world.

“If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”[4] If this is a verse about us, oh dear. But at the same time, it’s also a balm. We have a God who will go to bat for us, and be there granting us forgiveness, and another opportunity to learn and grow. Offering grace upon grace.

Promises of God
This grace is grounded in God’s promises for us, God’s beloved. Promises like we hear from God in Isaiah today, “everyone who thirsts, come to the waters… Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good… Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David…”[5] God says, “come to me and listen so that you may live.”

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This call has led Thabor over the years to see the need to care for young ones in the community of Wausa, and thus for it to create and house “Thabor Tots,” providing daycare in the community.

It’s a call that we each hear from our Savior who calls and invites us in baptism and communion, to know that God is with us and for us, and calling us to “come and see that the Lord is good.” These calls are part of God’s promises that God is with us and for us, offering hope and God’s hope for us, all of God’s people, to live abundant life.

In answering this call, we would be again repenting, turning toward God. We would be coming to the waters of life, not the waters of overwhelming floods like most of us witnessed in some way this month, but the waters of baptism- water of life that claims us, cleans us, and through it with the Word, God claims us and seals us as one of God’s own this day and every day.

And on the hard days like the ones we have been living through recently, it connects with what Isaiah sees and knows about God’s promises. A few chapters earlier the prophet quotes God’s promises, in which the Lord says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…Do not fear, for I am with you…”[6] This is who our God is. One who calls us to “come to the waters so that we may live.”

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This cross was made by a former confirmation class of the church, and offers a helpful reminder of the season of Lent as people enter the church through “the link.” Thabor Lutheran’s church building includes a gathering space called “the link,” that connects the sanctuary and the large fellowship hall on the main floor. The older fellowship hall below the sanctuary has been remodeled over the years and has served now for 21 years as a daycare providing a much needed resource in the community.

These Stories Today and Stewardship
In this story from Isaiah we are called to come and see, and to come and listen so that we might live. It’s a call to have a life that satisfies, and for the prophet Isaiah this flows out of a life in relationship with God. It’s a call to abundant life which God offers and promises. It’s a life of deep meaning and purpose, but not necessarily an easy life without challenges. After all there is a cross at its center.

This abundant and meaningful life is the life of a steward, which is grounded in the truth that all that we have and all that we are, is God’s.[7] Stewardship starts with an understanding from Psalm 24 for example that, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”[8] Put another way, all that we have and all that we are is God’s.

So what we have has been entrusted to our care by God for us to care for, use, mange, and steward. God does this so that we may live full, abundant, and meaningful lives; but also so that we might be part of God’s work in the world, caring for our neighbors in need near and far whom God loves too, just like us, and whom God calls us into relationship with as all of God’s beloved children.

Part of the challenge with stewardship is that our minds usually just focus on money. And while money is part of stewardship, it is only one part. Because God entrusts us with all that we have and all that we are, and so we really are to steward all of ourselves. That means that we are to steward: our lives, health, bodies, souls, hearts, minds, and relationships; our time, talents, gifts, strengths, passions, and vocations; our questions, ideas, dreams, and stories; 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 we are to steward and care for, just as the gardener in today’s story cares for the tree in the hope that it might bear fruit. All this God entrusts to us, I believe, in that same hope, that we too might bear fruit.

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A life of stewardship in action, means also being aware of the world around you and being a part of it. To see how much connection there is with the surrounding community was a welcome sight, and also reminded me of home, as the school’s mascot and sports teams are fittingly called the Vikings, just like my high school back in Washington too.

What a Life of Stewardship Looks Like
What this life of stewardship lived might look like varies for everyone. But you all are stewards. And you are all here, answering God’s call to gather and be present. A call that is grounded in God’s promises that we know most clearly through God in Christ- the one who was born and lived among us, who taught us through parables and stories like today’s and offered examples of love and the call to follow and grow as disciples and stewards, who was handed over, crucified, died and was buried for us, and who beat death and the grave once and for all through the resurrection and ascension. All of this, done for us. All of this done as pure gift and grace we could never earn. Grace like the gardener who gives the tree another year to bear fruit.

All of which we can’t help but be grateful for.  And this gratitude is one that often flows to joy, as we are grateful and overjoyed for God’s gifts and promises for us. Ones that leave us changed, and we can’t help but want to share with others. Because when we’re so caught up in the joy and love of God, we can’t help but bear it to others. We do this in how we live our life, through which we respond to all that God entrusts to us, and promises for us.

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I love when I see good news like this on a church’s walls, signs of mission share participation and participation in the work of the larger church.

One of the ways I know that you do this and live this Thabor Lutheran, is 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 us new leaders, pastors, and deacons in our church. Through participating in it, you spread the good news of the Gospel through sending missionaries around the globe and supporting new and renewing ministries across this state.

Through mission share, 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 Family Services, Mosaic, Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Disaster Response, and so many more. In this way, 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 as stewards of God’s love in this way as part of the whole church together, and for doing so as the disciples and stewards that I know that you are here in Wausa, caring for your neighbors here, there, and everywhere.

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The adult choir also shared their gifts of music, singing the fitting song for a stewardship Sunday, “God’s Work.” I was extra impressed with the choir director, because as she directed the choir with one hand, she held her six month old baby in her other hand.

Putting It Altogether
As much as our hearts might ache at the devastation and the challenges posed by the flooding here in Nebraska, I am grateful at the way people have stepped up for each other as neighbors. We mourn the three people who have died in these storms and waters, but at the same time we are grateful for God’s deliverance and protection amid the waters. There is a long road to recovery, but God is present with us- in the work of the first responders, in the work of this congregation offering hope and bearing each other, in the neighbor offering to help another muck up and clean up their home, through others who are providing shelter for those with no home to return to, and in the stranger who shows up to help, listen, and at the very least offers a cup or bottle of life giving cool water.

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The congregation’s beautiful and extra large fellowship hall and kitchen, which as you might imagine are used widely in the community for Wausa events and gatherings. Another sign of stewardship in action, and bearing fruit.

Friends, you are the tree but also the fruit of the tree. You are growing- through your life as stewards and disciples, cared for by each other, and held and gardened by the one who gave himself for us. Because of who our gardener is, our God who loves us, is with us, and for us, we are each enough, for the work to which God calls us to as a beloved child of God. May we continue to grow in that deep love, and plant and share it widely with the world in need. For these promises of God, and for you, God’s stewards and disciples gathered in Wausa, I say thanks be to God. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] As referenced in Luke 13:2 & Luke 13:4.
[2] An argument that Rev. Dr. Terence Fretheim has written about and taught about for decades. Some of which is explained in his book, Creation Untamed.
[3] Luke 13:6-9, NRSV.
[4] Luke 13:9, NRSV.
[5] From Isaiah 55:1-3, NRSV.
[6] From Isaiah 43:1-5, NRSV.
[7] Based on Psalm 24:1.
[8] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.

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