What Does This Mean? – a Stewardship Sermon for Pentecost

St. Paul Lutheran Church outside of Hooper, Nebraska

I had the privilege of being with the good people of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Hooper, Nebraska this morning (June 9, 2019), thanks to the invitation of Pastor Judy Johnson. It was a joy to be with the congregation celebrating Pentecost Sunday, as well as the congregation’s confirmation jubilee gathering. I preached on the appointed readings for Pentecost from the Narrative Lectionary (Year 1), with the addition of a couple verses to the reading from Acts 2. What follows is the majority of the manuscript that I preached from, based especially on: Acts 2:1-4, 12-13; Romans 8:14-39, and Matthew 28:16-20

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

Good morning St. Paul’s, it’s great to be with you on this festive day of Pentecost, and your congregation’s confirmation jubilee. Thank you, Pastor Judy, for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome.  I bring greetings 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 also bring greetings today from my wife, Pastor Allison, our daughter Caroline, and from all your Logan Creek cluster friends at Salem Lutheran in Fontanelle. It’s great to be with you, and I’m excited to be here on this day we celebrate the birth of the church, we ponder big questions about what the Holy Spirit might be leading us to and what God might be up to, and even to think just a little bit about how we are stewards and disciples living out this life as the church today, together.

Those celebrating confirmation jubilees and re-affirming their baptisms this year at St. Paul’s, as printed in the congregation’s bulletin this year.

Pop Quiz
Okay friends. Since you are gathering today for many of you, remembering your confirmations, affirming your baptisms again, and celebrating God’s work in you, I think it’s only fair that we start with a pop quiz. How many of you remember learning and reading parts of The Small Catechism? Maybe you even had to memorize it, depending on who your confirmation pastor was. But here’s the question. What is the most repeated thing in it? (Haha… no, it’s not “This is most certainly true.”) It’s actually the question that comes toward the close of each section. “What does this mean?” Good job. It’s a great question, and it’s one we are always better off when we ask.

Leaning into the Pentecost Story
Pentecost is, in some ways, the day the church was born. It’s also a day which perhaps better than most, reminds us that this is God’s work, and not ours. For we could never do the sort of things that the Triune God does in this familiar story. Think about it. “There came a sound like the rush of a violent wind… divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages…”[1] Only God could do this. And even to those it was happening to, it would seem crazy and unbelievable. But here we are.

God has already done the crazy and unbelievable.

The beautiful sanctuary of St. Paul Lutheran quiet before worship, as seen from the church’s balcony.

The breath of God moved over the waters as God created all that exists, and humanity in God’s very own image. God parted the sea to save God’s people from slavery. God changed God’s mind in conversation with Moses on the mountain. God heard and saw how God’s people acted, and showed compassion time and time again. God-in Christ was born as one of us, walked alongside us, taught us, was handed over and crucified for us, and yet the cross and death didn’t have the last word nor the darkness of a stone closed tomb. All of you have come to know about God’s love and promises in some way through others who brought you into or raised you in the faith, some nearly 2,000 years or more after all of this happened.

The crazy and unbelievable, the transformative and imaginative, is kind of God’s thing, isn’t it? So, when all of this seeming crazy chaos of Pentecost happened after the disciples had seen Jesus resurrected, witnessed him time and time again in the days after the resurrection, and then saw him ascend into heaven, maybe it shouldn’t seem so crazy that the Holy Spirit would come just as Jesus had told the disciples that the Spirit would.

The classic pulpit which I shared this message from, behind the baptismal font. Places where we know, trust, pray, and hope that the Holy Spirit shows up and is on fire.

All those disciples that day and those gathered with them, “were filled with the Holy Spirit,” and they spoke, served, traveled, lived and did “as the Spirit gave them ability.”[2] God is making this happen, just as God entrusts us with all that makes us each the beautiful and unique child of God that we each are. In terms of stewardship what a beautiful reminder this is that God entrusts to us all that makes us who we are– our gifts, talents, strengths, passions, stories, questions, ideas, relationships with one another, finances, tools, and resources. All of this and so much more is entrusted to our care to use, manage, and care for, as God calls to by God the Spirit who as this story says today, gives the ability.

For this, we can’t help but be amazed, joyful, and grateful. And I love this story especially today because the question that is at the center of the catechism is asked so boldly right here within it, “What does this mean?” The people seeing, hearing, and witnessing the unbelievable and crazy day that was that first Pentecost, “were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’”[3] To those thinking that people were just drunk with wine, Peter responds that it’s “only nine o’clock in the morning,”[4] and goes on to explain what has happened by quoting the prophet Joel.[5]

But Really, “What does this mean?”
The question from the crowd of witnesses that Pentecost day though is a good one. It’s so good, Martin Luther used it all the time. Whether you translate the German, “What is this?” or “What does this mean?” these are questions of wonder, discovery, imagination, and teaching. They are questions I am preparing myself to hear and need to answer for years to come as our daughter Caroline starts to talk. So really, what does this all mean?

In thinking about our other stories today, Romans and the Gospel of Matthew might provide some helpful answers. The Holy Spirit coming into the world might mean, that with and through God, nothing can separate us from God. And with God and the Holy Spirit, as Jesus proclaims at the close of the gospel of Matthew which you have been reading all year in the Narrative Lectionary, we are sent to baptize and teach, sharing God’s love here, there, and everywhere, knowing that Jesus is with us always, to the end of the age.[6]

The gathered faithful at St. Paul’s for Pentecost, as seen from the pulpit. Those with flowers on in the foreground, are celebrating anniversaries of their confirmations this year.

“What does this mean?” It’s a question that stands alone. And by extension on this day that we celebrate the church’s birth, and the coming of the Holy Spirit, it’s a question which we again face. What does this mean? What are you up to now God? What now, Holy Spirit? Why?

These questions might be the beginning of answers to those who doubt or sneer, who think those who might believe these things and proclaim like the disciples in all languages are drunk and filled with wine. These questions might lead to our responding to those around us and society and culture which try to tell us it’s all about “me, me, me” and, that we should “buy, buy, buy,” instead of the Kingdom of God which calls us to be “with” and about one another, and to live into God’s abundance and not give into the sins and lies of scarcity that the world would have us believe.

Nothing Can Separate Us- God’s promises for us
No. The truth of the matter is, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, God is once again saying “I am with you,” “I am for you,” and “I love you.” As Paul writes, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”[7] You see in our baptisms and affirmations or confirmations of them that we celebrate today, we remember who holds us, who has claimed us as God’s own, once and for all.

One of the Pentecost banners celebrating the day on the side of the sanctuary.

We find hope in these promises like Paul writes about.[8] It’s this hope which propels our stewardship and discipleship. Without hope, why would we live as the stewards we are called and created to be? Without hope, why would we go out in to the world to serve, and come back to worship together like we do today, as God’s people? Without hope, why would we really do any of what we do as God’s people?

Now of course there are times when hope seems fleeting or absent. And it is in these times even more so, where the Spirit is there. Holding us and supporting us. Reminding us by the Spirit’s very presence, that God is with us, loves us, and is for us, and when words fail, the Spirit is there interceding “with sighs too deep for words.”[9] All this God does, because God has promised to do so, and because God loves us.

But the Apostle Paul doesn’t stop there. Paul boldly asks after this treaties on the Spirit, “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?”[10] This God who has done the crazy and unbelievable time and time again, will do so again. Because God will go to any and all depths with us and for us. There is literally nothing that can separate us from God’s love for us. Though there is plenty that can get in the way between us and God if we let them, causing us to turn away from God who is always there, with us, whether we know it or not.

Another banner in the sanctuary on what faith is.

The promise at the heart of this famous passage is that “nothing can separate us” from God. Maybe the bold among you, if you recall your confirmations, may not have picked the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept” from John 11:35 as your confirmation verse to memorize, but perhaps you picked Romans 8:38-39 as your confirmation verses?

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[11] That’s another part of the answer to “what does this mean?” when we think about Pentecost. Another, is as Martin Luther writes himself, “I cannot by my own understanding or effort come to God…” No, it’s not us alone. We don’t choose to believe. That would make faith a work. It’s a gift, and it’s an action of the Holy Spirit being with us.

God’s call and commissioning to us
And the Holy Spirit’s presence with us, equips us and empowers us to live out Jesus’ declaration to each and every one of us as stewards and disciples, part of the now and not yet Kingdom of God, and the Body of Christ in the world, the church. With the Holy Spirit we can, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything” and we can remember Jesus’ words and promise, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[12]

Pastor Judy and the choir, as seen from the pulpit.

You are all witnesses to these things, having been raised and confirmed in the faith here at St. Paul’s. You are all stewards and disciples of God’s love. Doing God’s work in the world with your hands, hearts, bodies, souls, and minds. I know this to be true. Because I see you here today in jubilee for God’s presence and promises, and in gratitude for all those who have lived out their Matthew 28 commissioning with you.

I know this to be true because of the response I have witnessed around here and all of Nebraska to the flooding and blizzards that we have faced this year. The way people have been there for neighbors near and far to help. The way they continue to hold each other in prayer, share their generosity, and at the very least offer a shoulder to cry on
as people face questions about what to do next in the face of lives and livelihoods turned upside down and the long road to recovery that still lies ahead.

The choir of St. Paul’s sharing their gift of music during worship.

And I know this is true too, because I know the way your congregation participates in mission share. Mission share is the undesignated offering 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 baptize and teach through supporting and raising up new pastors, deacons, and leaders in our church; and you also support missionaries around the globe and new and renewing ministries right here across the Big Red State.

Through mission share you invite the little ones among you to come and see that the Lord is good, in part through supporting campus ministry and Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry including Camp Carol Joy Holling. Through it, you see your neighbors near and far, and respond to needs of all kinds showing God’s love as Christ commands us to, in part through supporting our church serving arm partners like Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Family Services, Mosaic, and Lutheran Disaster Response.

If you hear nothing else from me today, please hear this. Thank you! Thank you for living as the disciples and stewards that you are. Thank you for affirming your faith again today, and celebrating in this jubilee of God’s promises for you and work in your lives. And thank you, for being open to the Holy Spirit’s call, invitation, and movement in, around, and through you that we celebrate especially this Pentecost morning.

May the transforming and imaginative work of the Holy Spirit continue here through all of you, and through the ministry of St. Paul’s in Hooper. And may we continue to be so bold as to wonder what might God be up to, and to ask of each other, “What does this mean?” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] From Acts 2:1-4, NRSV.
[2] Acts 2:4, NRSV.
[3] Acts 2:12-13, NRSV.
[4] Acts 2:15, NRSV.
[5] Acts 2:16-21, NRSV; quoting from Joel 2:28-32.
[6] Matthew 28:20, NRSV
[7] Romans 8:14, NRSV.
[8] Especially in Romans 8:22-25.
[9] Romans 8:26, NRSV.
[10] Romans 8:31-32, NRSV.
[11] Romans 8:38-39, NRSV.
[12] Matthew 28:19-20, NRSV.

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