“Yes, Care for the Poor, and Anoint Too” – a Stewardship sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Outside of American Lutheran Church in Filley, Nebraska.

It was a joy to be with the good people of American Lutheran in Filley, Nebraska today (Sunday April 7, 2019). Thank you to Pastor LuRae Hallstrom for the invitation to be with the congregation again, having last visited in February 2017. I was invited to preach on stewardship and provide a children’s sermon, as well as to meet with the congregation’s Long Range Planning Team after worship to share some ideas about stewardship going forward with the congregation. What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from, based on the readings from the revised common lectionary for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year C), especially John 12:1-8, and Isaiah 43:16-21. 

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

Good Morning American Lutheran. It’s great to be with you again today. Thank you so much Pastor LuRae for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. I’m grateful to be with you again, having last been with you a little over two years ago. I bring greetings from Bishop Brian Maas, your Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Megan Morrow, and from your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ who with you, are the Nebraska Synod. I want to spend some time digging into this week’s stories, to ponder about our stewardship as part of it, and to wonder a bit about what God might be telling us or calling us to be a part of today.

Setting the Stage
This week’s gospel story comes merely a few days before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the start of his passion. Jesus does what anyone might do facing a major life change or challenge to come, he goes to spend some time with people closest to him- his dear friends who are probably more like family at this point. There’s Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. There’s his sisters Mary and Martha. And it seems even the disciples have joined for this time of food and fellowship, all breaking bread together. This is a different dinner gathering though.

Imagining the setting, I can picture quite a mix of emotions. I doubt the disciples had much real awareness of how soon the story would turn. Mary at least, it seems can sense it. She may not exactly know what is to come, but she knows something is about to happen. And at this point, you would have to figure after watching their brother be raised from the dead, Martha and Mary are ready to witness just about anything.

Among the disciples, perhaps Judas might have known what would come. As John tells the story, he certainly does not come off well here in this gospel story, does he? “But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)”[1]

If there wasn’t a backstory here to Judas, it would seem like a legitimate stewardship question. It might be like that one person in your family who questions every purchase you make. They might say, “think of all we could have done with that,” or “think of all the good that could be done with that…” instead of spending on something to them that might seem to be just some extra luxury or expense? Of course, this line of reasoning proves faulty with the final sentence that John writes here. The motivation behind the question was false, Judas apparently didn’t care about the poor in saying this, and the gospel writer clearly has an opinion of the one named Judas.

An artist’s depiction of this story entitled, “Mary’s Gift” by Daniel Bonnell, as seen on the front of the bulletin this weekend.

Dealing with a Problematic Verse for Stewardship, to say the least
The question Judas poses though leads to perhaps the most problematic words for stewardship in the whole Bible. To Judas’ question, “Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’”[2] Ever since Jesus said this, this verse has been taken out of context as a justification for inequity, inequality, the existence and dichotomy of the “haves and have nots.” I might have made my job easier today by preaching on one of the other lessons, but this is precisely the sort of complex and hard stuff that we as Children of God, disciples and stewards are called to face and wrestle with.

The worst interpretation I have ever seen or heard about this story is one I can’t imagine any of you saying. But I have seen it in the world. Someone who takes these words at face value out of their context in the conversation that Jesus is having with Judas, and thus assuming that Jesus is saying that we don’t need to care for the poor because they will always be here with us. To put it in my ancestral Scandinavian-American lingo, Uff-dah! Uff-dah indeed.

The challenge with this sentence and passage is that the point of this story today isn’t about the poor, those in need, or how we are to treat them, at all. Rather it’s about God’s work, and what God will do. It’s about the last few days of God in Christ walking alongside us with his eyes clearly set on what is to come; the events of a triumphant entry into the Holy City, of a dinner among friends, prayer in the garden, being handed over, crucified, died, and then after three days, being resurrected.

Those gathered with Jesus face a question, whether they know it or not. Are they going to make the most of the time they have left with God in Christ on earth, like Mary does in this story by sitting at Jesus’ feet yet again and anointing him and wiping his feet with her hair?

Would we be so bold to find a spot on the ground at Jesus’ feet and soak up his wisdom and love? Or, would we like some gathered with Jesus with this dinner with close friends treat this as just another meal? Ponder those questions for a minute. Because I think our answers to these questions might say something about how we are doing as living as stewards and disciples.

What is Stewardship anyway?
This likely begs the question what is stewardship anyway? Judging by some of you crossing your arms, I suspect I know what you are thinking. You’re probably thinking, “oh great, here it comes. This guy is finally going to start talking about money…” Hahaha… It’s the same reaction I get everywhere I go. And to put you at ease, no I am not going to ask for money. Money is merely one part of our response and lives as stewards.

Some of the children gathered in worship with Pr. LuRae, helping mark the fifth week in Lent with candles.

Stewardship starts with an understanding like what the psalmist says in Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it…”[3] All means all, here. You are God’s. I am God’s. All that makes us each who we are, is in fact God’s, and is what God has entrusted to our care, to use, manage, and steward. Think holistically, because stewardship is really a big thing. God entrusts us with: our lives, health, bodies, souls, hearts, minds, and relationships; our time, ideas, dreams, questions, and stories; our talents, strengths, passions, gifts, and vocations; our treasure, money, finances, and assets of all kinds; and all of creation that surrounds us and we are a part of.

God does this, entrusting us with all of this, because God chooses to be in relationship with us, and wants us to live full, meaningful, and abundant lives. God also does this so that we might be bearers of God’s love in the world, doing some of God’s work, believing that God uses us and may even work through us.

What we do, we don’t do for our own sakes or our salvation. God has taken care of that already through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; and that’s a pure gift we could never earn. But what we do, we do out of a grateful and joyful response for all that God has done, continues to do, and promises to do, for us. And we do it, because we believe that God not only entrusts, but calls us with particular gifts to see those in need in the world around us, and to show up, step up, and act- doing what we can.

Stewardship in Action Around the Synod
I have seen so much of this lately around this state, and I am sure you have heard these stories too. Nebraskans are resilient to be sure, but it’s going to take months and years to recover from these epic floods and blizzards that have affected just about the entirety of Nebraska in some way shape or form.

I am grateful to report that my family’s home, Salem Lutheran’s parsonage in Fontanelle, just north east of Fremont is fine. A few families in our congregation are facing a long road to recovery, but no one has lost their home in our congregation. We’re grateful for that.

We grieve the lives lost, and we see the pain many people all around the state are bearing- facing questions about what’s next, or perhaps even, what to do in seeing their fields covered in sand, tree stumps, debris. Or, like our whole community, wondering how long we might be without our normal highways and bridges. What used to be a 10 to 15-minute drive from Fremont to Fontanelle for example, is now 45 minutes one way. This is a new normal, and it’s the same story across the state.

I say this, to name just a few of the things that we are facing. But also, knowing that you, and your sisters and brothers across this church want to and will step up to help your neighbors in need as the calls for help come, and the recovery process continues. Lutherans are good at being there for the long haul, and we will be helping, long after these stories fade from the news cycles. And it is when that happens, that more help will be needed. Stay tuned for opportunities to serve, as they will continue to be shared across the synod. And thank you for helping in all the ways you are, especially through holding your sisters and brothers in prayer; and doing what you can to support the Nebraska Synod Disaster Fund and Lutheran Disaster Response.

Stealing a quick photo of some of the gathered congregation before worship from the back of the sanctuary.

I know this is all true too, because I know you American Lutheran. I have heard about your great ministry and outreach through Beloved. And as I have been here with you before, I also know that you are generous stewards and disciples. One of the ways this is true 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 mission share you help raise up 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; 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 state and the whole 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 Filley. And knowing this about you, I suspect I know how you might answer the question I posed a few minutes ago out of today’s gospel story.

Now Back to the Gospel Story
If we were at that meal together in today’s story, I wonder, would we be like Mary at Jesus’ feet? Would we be like one of the present non-speaking characters going along with the story? Or might we be like Judas, offering our thoughts and asking questions we don’t really care to hear the answers to? These questions aren’t that far off from what we call in stewardship terms, abundance and scarcity. Mary seems to choose abundance with the oil, and Judas suggests an example of either scarcity, or based on John’s opinion, full out thievery and malice.

A great banner hanging in American Lutheran’s sanctuary, with many symbols of the different stories of the Passion and Holy Week.

I wonder, would we choose to live abundantly and gather with a feast of a dinner and expensive oils appropriate for the occasion? Or would we give into our human fears and constraints of scarcity and think we don’t have enough? Perhaps that is what Jesus is asking us to consider today, when he replies to Judas in this way about the poor, which Jesus only refers to here because Judas brings up the subject first? Judas seems to forget or ignore the fact that all that we have and all that we are, is God’s, and thus, with God we are enough. We are enough to do the work to which God calls us, because God is right there with us, loving us, and supporting us; entrusting to us what we need; and working through, around, and alongside us.

Now, for the record, in responding to Jesus’ retort to Judas, Jesus is not saying don’t care for the poor. God will care for the poor, and God does. The scriptures are very consistent on this, and about our call in our baptisms from God to care for the poor too, because God uses us to do some of God’s work in the world. And that is where our response to God’s promises comes in, and it’s where our lives as stewards are lived out in the way we do things, show up, and offer up ourselves; pointing to the one who gave himself for us, with hands and arms outstretched for us and for all on the cross.

The Good News and the Joyful Response
The outstretched arms that Christ will offer on the cross, once and for all, are for you and for me. And that is good news. It’s good news that the prophet Isaiah very well proclaims about today, “I am about to do a new thing… I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”[4]

God does all of this as God promises to, for all of God’s people and creation. Like this story today, it’s God’s work. God does this, we don’t. But we do get the opportunity to give thanks and live abundantly and joyfully, bearing God’s love and sharing the Good News in response to this work. And that my friends is what it means to joyfully respond to God, and to live the deep and meaningful, but sometimes challenging cross-centered life as a disciple and steward.

Thanks be to God for all of this, and thanks be to God for each and every one of you, God’s disciples and stewards gathered in Filley. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] John 12:4-6, NRSV.
[2] John 12:7-8, NRSV.
[3] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.
[4] Isaiah 43:18-21, NRSV.

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