Take Hold of the Life that Really is Life! – a Stewardship Sermon for Lectionary 26C

Outside of St. John’s United Lutheran in Alliance. The clouds were beginning to burn off, and by the time I would leave church, the temperature would soar to near 88 degrees. What a beautiful morning and wonderful day to be with God’s people in Alliance!

It was a joy to be with the people of St. John’s United Lutheran Church in Alliance, Nebraska yesterday (Sunday September 29, 2019). Thank you so much to Pastor Tim Stadem for the invitation and to the whole congregation for the warm welcome. I was invited to come and preach on the gospel story from Luke 16:19-31 with some mention of the Second Lesson, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, lead the Children’s Sermon, as well as bring greetings and updates from across the synod in worship. After worship we enjoyed some time with a few games in part inspired by the work of the Generosity Project, and enjoyed a wonderful Baked Potato Bar for lunch. I look forward to being back in the Panhandle of Nebraska in a few weeks for the next Nebraska Synod Road Show. What follows is the majority of the manuscript of the sermon that I preached from. 

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

Some of the faithful gathering for worship in the sanctuary.

Good Morning St. John’s! It’s great to be with you. Thank you so much Pastor Tim for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome and especially for your patience and forgiveness as I didn’t make it out to be with you last November because of an early winter storm. I’m so glad to be here with you now. I bring greetings today from Bishop Brian Maas, from Assistant to the Bishop, Pastor Steve Meysing, and from your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ who with you, are the Nebraska Synod. I am grateful to be with you today. To dig into God’s story, we just read and wonder what God might be calling us to see. To think some about stewardship, and how we are all stewards of God’s love, called to take hold of the abundant life that really is life and to see the Lazarus’ around us and respond to their needs. And to share some stories from across the synod about how we are the church together, doing some of God’s work in the world.

Lazarus and the Rich Man
Our gospel story this week is all about Jesus’ parable about Lazarus and the Rich Man. Jesus has been telling story after story about our relationship with God and one another, our relationship with the earthy and money, and about how we are called as Children of God to live and serve with one another as disciples and stewards. Today’s story makes it even more clear. Building off the themes of the prophets and the Hebrew scriptures, Jesus in Luke is calling the people to see, to repent, and turn toward God.

I was greeted by this on the welcome sign outside of church. What a fitting statement for the stories this week.

Lazarus, the poor man who during life was lowly and covered with sores.[1] Life was not kind to him. The world was not kind to him. In fact, Father Abraham is quoted as saying Lazarus lived through and received “evil things” when alive.[2] Though Lazarus was seen by the Rich Man, he wasn’t really seen. The rich man took no pity. The rich man showed no concern for him. In a lot of ways, this is Jesus pointing out the dichotomy between the haves and have nots of the world. On display here in the disparity between a rich man and a poor suffering man. But that’s just the beginning of the story.

The roles are reversed in just a few verses. The Rich Man finds himself wanting aid, and Lazarus finds himself comforted. The Rich Man wants Lazarus to come to his aid, but as Abraham explains, that’s not possible because of the chasm. Oh, that poor rich man…
if only he would have truly seen Lazarus in life, and been moved to act. God was in need, right in front of the rich man’s gate, and yet, he who had much didn’t think to share any of it.[3] Not even the crumbs that fell from his luxurious table. That chasm of separation the Rich Man now finds himself behind, wasn’t created by God. No. “It was created and fixed by the rich man to keep people like Lazarus from disturbing him.”[4]

Inside the beautiful sanctuary at St. John’s United before worship, with an awesome baptismal font front and center to begin and center our worship and to remind ourselves of God’s and our promises in baptism. Promises that compel us to see our neighbor and to not only see them and love them, but to be with them, care for them, and meet their needs.

What was created in life to: keep those who might be an inconvenience away, so he wouldn’t have to see them; to avoid the stranger; the homeless man trying to stay warm; to ignore the down on her luck mother trying to make ends meet; and to avoid the refugee in search of safety from the ravages of war.

The rich man wanted to close himself off from the rest of the world. And guess what, in death, he may have just done that. In the matter of a few verses, our story has been completely reversed. The rich man still hasn’t figured it out though. He only sees Lazarus as a person who could serve him. He refuses to see him as an equal Child of God. He is unable to see him as a fellow brother.

Where Lazarus has been resurrected and is being comforted, the rich man sees Lazarus as a means to help him to put his affairs in order. He sees Lazarus, perhaps like many a football team with one second left on the clock to heave the ball seventy yards, as a potential “Hail Mary” of sorts, (though it wouldn’t have helped the Huskers yesterday), to try and warn his loved ones. The problem is, he, like his loved ones, have had the truth of the story of God in front of their face the whole time. And they either ignored it, or altogether scoffed at it– that story, the story of God with us, the story of God on the cross and then resurrected and ascended for us.

Pastor Tim leading some of the younger saints in learning the sign language signs and words of the Gospel Acclamation, which then they together led the congregation in singing a moment later.

Take Hold of the Real Abundant Resurrection Life
Jesus says as much, foreshadowing what is to come in this story with his own eyes squarely set on Jerusalem now. He concludes, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”[5] God is present, calling God’s people to see and turn toward God. The rich man didn’t, and instead turned toward his life of being well off, not having to worry about where his next meal might come from, or about where he might sleep at night.

The writer of 1st Timothy echoes this point, and pleads as much as the Apostle Paul does for the people to see God, to repent and turn toward God, and be changed. We heard read a few minutes ago these words directed to those, like us, who are rich in the present age, “do good…be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share… take hold of the life that really is life.”[6]

In the fellowship hall after worship, engaging in cross+generation conversations and activities about generosity and stewardship.

The rich man in the story today, put his trust in the earthly, his wealth. It’s like he missed the point of last week’s gospel lesson, that “You cannot serve God and wealth.”[7]  He missed the boat, thinking it was all about him, and probably didn’t even stop to wonder about whose wealth is it anyway? His or God’s?

The reason Jesus keeps harping on this in story after story, is because he knows what is at stake here. God’s story has been straight forward about caring for the neighbor. The prophets like Amos were abundantly clear. The psalmist has been clear, and the letter writer as we heard today is clear about the challenges and woes that come, when one’s relationship with God is out of order, because of their relationship with things, wealth, and money. These things aren’t bad or good, by themselves. But they can become barriers to our relationship with God, and with each other.

More conversations and activities after worship.

God pleads, invites, and calls us to “take hold of the life that really is life.”[8] God calls us to see each other, as all equally created, called, and beloved Children of God, something that the rich man in the story didn’t figure out in life, and perhaps didn’t really figure it out until Abraham had to be blunt while the formally rich man suffered after death. In calling us to see each other, God wants us to not only see each other, but to notice, to be in relationship with, and to be so moved when seeing suffering, injustice, hurt, and evil like we promise to do in our baptisms, to be the bearers and stewards of God’s love that we each are called and created to be. To move from noticing a need in the world, to doing something with what we have, for the sake of our neighbors, through whom and for whom, some of God’s work in the world might be done.

If we don’t, if we aren’t moved, and if we don’t take hold of the “life that really is life,” then who are we in these stories? Dare I say, the rich man who didn’t get it? Maybe that doesn’t sound like good Gospel news. It’s kind of harsh. But it is good news. There’s a reminder in this story of who our God is. And there is a clear call to see what really matters, and to use what God entrusts to us to do some of God’s work in the world.

St. John’s Choir sharing a beautiful message that fit the stories and stewardship themes beautifully by Ken Medema, “Come Build a Church.”

Where Stewardship Fits in
Friends, this is all about stewardship. The psalmist declares that, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it…”[9] That really means, that all that we have and all that we are, is God’s. It’s God’s wealth to begin with, and it continues to be, because God entrusts it to us for us to care for, use, and steward. It’s not our wealth, like the rich man in the story today might have thought. Rather, what we have, God has entrusted to us so that we might have that real life and live it abundantly; and so that through us, some of God’s work in the world might be done for our neighbors, sisters and brothers with us, and joint heirs of God’s promises.

Think about it. God entrusts us with all that we have and all that we are! That means we are to care for and stewards all that God entrusts us with: our health, bodies, souls, hearts, minds, presence, and relationships; our time, talents, resources, vocations, strengths, passions, stories, dreams, ideas, and even questions; our money, finances, treasure, and assets of all kinds; and all of creation that surrounds us and we’re a part of.  All of this and so much more God entrusts to us. God entrusts freely, just as God does all of God’s work for us- the costly work we know most clearly through God in Christ who was born, lived, died, and was resurrected from the dead, for us. All of this is God’s work, we could never do or earn. It’s a pure gift, and grace. But it’s one we can respond to, and that’s where our stewardship comes in.

Do we see God’s work, witness it, and are so overjoyed that we give our thanks and praise, and want to join God in it in some way? Or, do we like the rich man take it for granted, or worse yet, ignore God’s work, promises, and invitation altogether?

One of the many signs of God’s work being done through the community of St. John’s for all of God’s people.

Our Response- Stewardship in Action
St. John’s, I know you understand this. And I am so grateful to be with you today, to thank you for all that you do and make possible, in person. And to share some of the stories I have seen of what it means to be the church together, across the whole Big Red State and as part of the ELCA.

Over the last year, I have seen, as congregations like you have witnessed, lived through, and stepped up in the aftermath of the Bomb Cyclone- of the blizzards and floods which have changed life all across the region. There’s more flooding again this week along the Missouri, many farmers saw their fields turn to sand, and others have just had to watch as some of their fields have been and become lakes. But where there might be despair, I have seen an amazing amount of resilience. God’s people have stepped up for each other. Congregations have prayed for each other, and sent work teams to help rebuild and repair church buildings like in Dannebrog where their basement was overrun with flood waters.

One of he beautiful stained glass windows, reminding of the promises of baptism which flow through us, and call us, guide us, and lead us as the people of God, doing some of God’s work in the world.

Congregations and disciples across this state and, really all across the country, have continued to respond generously, as since the start of March the synod disaster fund has received more than $350,000 in gifts to help individuals, and families, and communities recover. And as we’re Lutherans, with our partners at Lutheran Disaster Response, we’ll continue to support those in need long after the obvious signs of flooding and blizzard damage have dissipated. The need continues to be real, and there will be need for project help for the next few years to be sure in places like Atkinson, Basset, Dannebrog, and Niobrara just to name a few.

At the same time, I have witnessed congregations ask the question, “What might God be up to here?” And, “what might God be calling us to be and do today?” As congregations have had to come to terms with new realities, of lower Sunday School attendance, worship attendance changes, giving changes, and more, any one of these numbers themselves might be room for despair. But instead of despair, I have witnessed an amazing thing. These congregations have come to know that they are not alone in facing these new challenges.

One of the activities we enjoyed after worship came from the Generosity Project, including sharing M&M’s and talking about what it is like to give and receive.

They’re real challenges, but they are also real opportunities to see God at work in the world in new ways, calling us to be a part of it. Some have started experimenting with cross-generation ministry, education, and faith formation (kind of like we will do right after worship today). Others have stopped Sunday School, and instead offer all-church learning and service and meal gatherings during the week on Wednesdays instead. And still others, have created new partnerships for ministry with neighboring congregations. Regardless of the approach, God is very much still present with us, walking with us. When we take the time to remember this, and to start wondering with God, it’s amazing to see and witness what creativity might break out.

I was glad to see this posted on the wall in the Fellowship Hall near the kitchen about the upcoming Road Show to the Panhandle.

Creativity like I know has spurred so much of your stewardship. You have seen your neighbors in need, and have stepped up as part of the Community Table here in Alliance, feeding 50 or more people a day a meal, each day of the week. You’re taking on poverty here in the Panhandle, faithfully and in a way that shows me that you see each other, and you see your neighbors. You haven’t closed your self off from the world, but rather have opened your doors to the world God called you into and sends you out as part of.

St. John’s, I am so grateful for you. For the way that you do ministry, and that you continue to respond to God’s invitation and call. Thank you also especially for hosting the Nebraska Synod Road Show here next month for the Panhandle. I’m excited to be coming back out here in about three weeks with ten of my synod staff colleagues to listen and share stories, to teach and share resources, and to visit more congregations in the area telling the stories of how we are the church together.

Gratitude for being the Church Together
Please hear my gratitude and thanks to all of you too, for your continued participation in mission share. Mission share is the undesignated offering that you share with the Nebraska Synod and the larger ELCA, through which you do ministry that spans the globe, changing lives.

It is also a welcome sight to see a congregation displaying it’s mission share participation publicly. Thank you St. John’s for your continued participation in mission share.

Through mission share, you support and help raise up new leaders, pastors, deacons, and PMAs of our church. Through it, you help tell youth and young adults that they are loved and that God is with them, in part through supporting our serving arm partners at Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry including Sullivan Hills and Camp Carol Joy Holling, as well as Lutheran Campus Ministry. Through mission share, you spread the Good News of our Resurrected Lord through supporting missionaries all around the globe, and new and renewing ministries all across this state. And through it, you not only see your neighbors, but you respond to them like Lazarus at the gate, by supporting and partnering with our serving arms of the church like Lutheran Family Services, Lutheran Disaster Response, Lutheran World Relief, and Mosaic.

There’s so much that you are a part of, and for all of this, I am so grateful for you and that together we are part of the Nebraska Synod- doing God’s work and responding to the needs of the world with all that God entrusts. Thank you for being a part of it, in all the ways that you are!

What kind of trip to Alliance would it have been without going out to Carhenge after worship? It just so happened it was a glorious sunny day, and a day of Kite flying too.

Putting it Altogether
The rich man may have seen Lazarus outside of his gate, but he didn’t really see him. For if he had, he might have seen God, asking him to help. This story may be a warning, but it’s also an invitation and reminder. To see our neighbors. To see that God is very much active and up to something calling us to “take hold of the life that really is life,” and to be so moved, that we might know and remember that we are empowered, equipped, and sent for work like this to love and serve our neighbor; with our God who is with us every step of the way, who is for us, and who loves us. Thanks be to God, and thanks be to God for all of you, God’s stewards and disciples gathered

Citations and References:
[1] Luke 16:19-21, especially.
[2] Luke 16:25.
[3] This reminds me of St. John Chrysostom’s book of his sermons on this story as presented in his On Wealth and Poverty that I read especially back at Pacific Lutheran University while taking a class from Dr. Brenda Ihssen, “Wealth and Poverty in the Ancient Church.” If I had the book handy, I would put the full citation here. But you can find it on Amazon at: https://www.amazon.com/Wealth-Poverty-Saint-John-Chrysostom/dp/088141039X/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Chrysostom+wealth+and+poverty&qid=1569860818&sr=8-1. That books still resonates with and challenges me some 10-12 years after I read it for the first time.
[4] Rev. Joelle Colville-Hanson, on Facebook, 26 September 2019.
[5] Luke 16:31, NRSV.
[6] 1 Timothy 6:18-19, NRSV.
[7] Luke 6:13, NRSV.
[8] 1 Timothy 6:19, NRSV.
[9] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.

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