Do Not Lose Heart- a Stewardship Sermon for Lectionary 29C

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Joyce Palmer and me, outside of Immanuel Lutheran on a beautiful morning. (Photo courtesy of Bishop Brian Maas, who was with us on his way to preach at and visit St. Peter’s Lutheran Church south of Hay Springs, Nebraska).

It was a joy to be with the good people of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Chadron, Nebraska on Sunday October 20, 2019 as part of the Nebraska Synod Road Show- Panhandle Edition. Thank you so much Pastor Ann Sundberg for the invitation and to the whole congregation for the warm welcome as Joyce Palmer and myself joined the congregation. I preached on stewardship largely on the gospel lesson from Luke 18:1-8 from the manuscript below, and Joyce and I together shared some news about what is happening across the synod over a forum and fellowship conversation after worship. It was a fantastic day to be the church together.

Grace and peace from God our creator and Christ Jesus our Lord, who hears your prayers and grants justice to the oppressed, and who is with you, for you, and loves you. Amen.

Good morning Immanuel! It’s so wonderful to be with you today as part of the Nebraska Synod Road Show. Thank you Pr. Ann for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. Joyce Palmer and I are grateful to be with you. We bring greetings today from Bishop Brian Maas, from your Assistant to the Bishop, Pastor Steve Meysing, from the entire Nebraska Synod staff (most of whom are with your sisters and brothers in the Panhandle Cluster today), and from all of 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 into God’s Word for us and see what God might be calling us to, to think some about how stewardship might fit into this call, and to share some gratitude and stories about the ministry that you do and make possible as the stewards and disciples you are here in Chadron, and as part of the whole church, together.

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Some of the early arriving faithful gathered for worship, before worship began on Sunday morning in the beautiful sanctuary at Immanuel.

Do Not Lose Heart
In thinking about our story today, I wonder if Jesus was thinking about us? I wonder if he was thinking about the times in life where we might feel disconnected, where things might not be going as we might hope, where we pray without ceasing and wonder if God is there? I wonder if in telling this story today, Jesus with his eyes squarely set on the events to come soon in Jerusalem, was trying to reassure himself and his disciples that all of what God was doing and would be doing was worth it? But I also wonder, if in telling this story, Jesus is doing so because he knows how amazing, how wonderful, and yet how difficult, challenging, and horribly hard a life of faith is and would be? Looking at the ones he cared so deeply for, he told this story about faith and a widow’s persistence. The persistence that we could imagine a different widow from another gospel story had, as she put in her two coins, entrusting back to the Temple and to God what God had first entrusted to her?[1]

A lot of questions to be sure. I don’t always start with the questions when preaching. But this week it seems fitting given this story. And how it begins. We hear that “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”[2] “…Not to lose heart.” To keep going. To hold fast to the faith that grounds us. To rest in the promises that hold us. And to remember who makes those promises for us, and in being recipients of those promises, whose we are. The Apostle Paul echoes these words in his second letter to the Corinthians when writing about this “treasure that we have in clay jars,”[3] that “since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”[4]

Perhaps all of this, is why Jesus tells this story today. Knowing that with what is to come, it would be an understatement to say that one’s faith might be challenged. Take the widow in this parable for example. Jesus begins, “In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’”[5] What might it mean to grant one justice? I think it’s safe to say it doesn’t mean just one thing. But I suspect it means to not only see this woman, a widow who in this culture and society would most likely be destitute and depend on the care and generosity of others to survive. It would mean to move from seeing her, to being in relationship with her. To showing compassion and mercy. To accompany her as a sister, and equal Child of God.

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A beautiful poster on the wall at Immanuel Lutheran which I found fitting for this week’s story about Jesus, prayer, and God with us.

It would be easy for this woman to lose heart. Her husband is gone, and with him likely her income, wealth, security, and perhaps even her place or standing in society and the culture of her world. But she will not go away quietly. She persists. The unjust judge in this story that Jesus tells reasons away why he ultimately gives in to her persistence. The judge reasons, “because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”[6] This widow keeps showing up. This widow keeps praying. Prayer matters. Persistence matters. We may not, and will not, always get what we pray for, but God will be and is most certainly with us always. God is with the widow. And that presence is related to justice. God sees her, knows her, loves her, and is with her. Just as God sees us, knows us, loves us, and is with us all.

Justice, Baptism, and the Kingdom of God
Jesus goes on in his story today to talk about how God grants justice and will grant justice.[7] God does this work of justice, but we’re called to engage in that work too. When we are baptized, promises are made for us by God, and those who are with us. And when we affirm our baptisms, we too make promises, including a promise to “work for justice and peace.” What might this promise mean today here in Chadron? What might God be calling you to consider and be a part of?

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A visible sign of welcome on the south side of the church, which is a mere block or two from the campus of Chadron State.

Jesus is pointing yet again to the Kingdom of God with this story. He’s pointing to what faith might look like, still unpacking his teaching about how faith like a mustard seed might change the world. Jesus is still teaching about what it means to see the Lazarus’ among us and to care for them. Still teaching us to open our eyes, and full selves to be in relationship with God and to be aware of all that might get in the way of that relationship.

In granting justice, God’s kingdom breaks in. When we join in this work, some of God’s kingdom building work is done through us. And in telling this story today, Jesus affirms the long-held truth from the beginning of the scriptures and especially as recalled by the psalmist and the prophets, that God will always work for justice for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. And truth be told, sometimes when we knowingly or unknowingly benefit at the expense of the poor, God’s justice may well make us uncomfortable.

But this discomfort is the tension we hold in this faith. It’s the tension we experience of knowing that God’s kingdom is now and not yet. And it’s a reminder to not only see our neighbors, but to open ourselves up to them and be in relationship with one another as God calls us to be. These moments where we realize what we have taken for granted; where we may have knowingly or unknowingly benefited at the expense of another; and where we have sinned; these are opportunities for us as God’s people to confess and repent, but also to fully rejoin the work that God calls us to in God’s work towards justice.

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Some of the congregation gathered for the forum fellowship time sharing about how we are church together as the Nebraska Synod. Nebraska Synod Interim Director of Development, Joyce Palmer is in the foreground, and Pastor Ann Sundberg is on the right hand side of the picture.

This might mean listening to others instead of talking sometimes. It might mean putting aside your to-do list, like I need to remember to do sometimes, to truly be present to wonder, play, and laugh with my darling 18-month old daughter Caroline. Her favorite word for everything in the world right now, is simply “Wow.” What a great word. It especially warms my heart, not just as a dad, but as a person in stewardship ministry too. And I wonder if that word, might have been what the widow would have said upon finally receiving the justice that she sought?

Regardless, God’s work towards justice is a “wow,” thing but it also means showing up for the sake of our neighbor, no questions asked. And at times it might mean using our positions, our privilege, our authority, and all that God entrusts to us, for the sake of our neighbors. And this is where this story Jesus tells today is one not just about discipleship and faith, but one really about stewardship.

Stewardship of all that God entrusts
When the widow seeks justice, she is echoing the psalmist who asks and declares, “I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”[8] “My help comes from the Lord…” This resonates with what the psalmist says earlier in Psalm 24 that, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,” and the Lord is with all, present with all that is in it.[9] The one “who made heaven and earth,” has not abandoned creation, but is very much with it, present with it, with us. 

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Some of the beautiful creation surrounding Chadron to the south in the Pine Ridge Forest that we drove through on our way north to Chadron from Alliance on Sunday morning.

And this presence with us, entrusts to us. If “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,” that means that all that we have and all that we are, is God’s, entrusted to us by God. God entrusts us with: our lives, health, bodies, souls, hearts, minds, and relationships; our time, talents, presence, gifts, strengths, vocations, passions, ideas, dreams, questions, and stories; our finances, assets, treasure, and money of all kinds; and all of creation that surrounds us and that we are part of. God entrusts all of this and so much more, to us. So that we might live abundantly, full and meaningful lives, and that through us, some of God’s work might be done.

We can’t help but want to join in God’s work, when we remember all that God does has done for us- the life-giving work of God in Christ through being born, living as one of us, teaching us, being handed over, dying, and then being resurrected and ascended for us.

We can’t help but be so swept up in gratitude and joy for all that God does that we could never earn or deserve, that we give God our thanks and praise and respond joyfully and gratefully through caring for our neighbors and all the world that God calls us to. This fulfills what the writer of 2nd Timothy writes, “so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient equipped for every good work.”[10] What we do matters. Not for our salvation, but for our neighbors’ sake, so that they too might live fully and have abundant life. God entrusts us with all that we need to do this work which God calls us to. We’re equipped and empowered for it, and God is with us in it.

Stewardship in Action
When we remember this, we do not lose heart. We show up and care. We share what God entrusts and use it for God’s work in our world. We do what needs to be done. Immanuel, I know you get this. Your congregation’s name literally means, “God with us.” With God’s presence with you, you feed people. You operate a food pantry, and participate at least once a month in providing a community soup kitchen lunch.

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Some of the great impact that Immanuel Lutheran and many other congregations make every year through sharing quilts with their neighbors all around the world.

I’ve heard that you are the church that gives cookies to visitors, a sign of God’s love, welcome, and hospitality for all God’s children. You provide a place of refuge and welcome. Chadron State is practically next door, and you give a taste of home for college students monthly with a wonderful home cooked meal, something I imagine is quite appreciated when the food in the dining hall inevitably starts tasting the same day after day. Immanuel, you welcome the community in for a Fall Feast, and you’re on the cusp of yet again sharing God’s love and warmth with the world by preparing to send more than a hundred new quilts to Lutheran World Relief.

You do all of this, because you are called to it. And because in your baptisms, when God claims you, you are named and claimed, once and for all. And in those baptisms, you make promises like the one to “work for justice and peace,” promises which at their heart are to be God’s people in and for the world. Promises that lead you to this table, to receive as Christ feeds you, and to share that food and promise with all the world. And promises that lead you forth from here, out into Chadron, across the Panhandle, Nebraska, and everywhere else you might go.

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More of the faithful gathered for conversation about how we are the church together, including Immanuel’s own Nebraska Synod Stewardship Table member, Jeanine Mohr picture on the left towards the back.

Promises that I can’t help but feel a strong call to say thank you to you, for making and responding to. Thank you for all of this and so much more that you do. And thank you especially too for your congregation’s continued participation in mission share. Mission share is the undesignated offering that you share with the Nebraska Synod and the larger ELCA. One of my great joys as the Nebraska Synod Director for Stewardship is being able to remind congregations of all that they do as part of the church together. Joyce and I will share more about this in the forum time after worship, but trust me as I say this, through your mission share, you do God’s work in the world, and you do ministry that spans the globe, and changes lives.

Through mission share, you do the work of justice that the widow cries for. Through it, you respond to the God who names you in baptism, like God did Jacob “Israel” when wrestling with him. Through it, you embody God’s presence in the world, a presence that the psalmist reminds us of today. And through it, you do the good works that the writer of 2nd Timothy alludes to.

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A beautiful sign of God’s work being done with our hands, and how we are all God’s family, as reminded to us by the younger saints from Vacation Bible School at Immanuel Lutheran in 2019 and on the wall of the fellowship hall.

Through mission share, you raise up and support new leaders, pastors, deacons, and parish ministry associates of our church. Through it you share the Good News of all that God has done through supporting missionaries across the globe, and new and renewing ministries across Nebraska. Through it, you share God’s deep love with youth and young adults, in part through supporting Lutheran Campus Ministry and Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry including Sullivan Hills. And through mission share, you see and show up for your neighbor through supporting the work of our church serving arms like Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Family Services, Mosaic, and Lutheran Disaster Response as we continue to walk together with our neighbors, months after the blizzards and as the floods continue in the aftermath of the Bomb Cyclone from last March.

There’s so much that you do. Please, if you hear nothing else from me today, please hear this. Thank you! Thank you for being part of the church together, as we are all the Nebraska Synod- walking together, growing disciples, and sharing God’s love with the world. Thank you for being the stewards and disciples that I know that you are here in Chadron, and for seeing the widows among and around you, and for doing what you can to work for justice for them.

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Take a look closer at the altar and front of the sanctuary. Those banners and paraments were made by the quilters of the congregation, and are so beautiful. What a wonderful sign of God’s love and activity in, around, through us, and especially for us.

God Shows Up and Is Up to Something Always
God shows up in this story today through an unjust judge giving in to a widow. God shows up through God in Christ in calling us to remember that the promises God makes are true, and to hold fast to them so that we do not lose heart. To continue to respond to God’s call, and to be humble enough to continue to listen and wonder about what God might be up to now and calling us to be a part of next?

God is showing up to you and through you in all the ways that you serve and care for your community; and in the way, that you share of God’s deep love through sharing the faith and story of God with all you meet. God is showing up for you in this meal to come, and in these waters which we all are washed in. And God is most certainly with you, present in the midst so that we might not lose heart. Thanks be to God! And thanks be to God for all of you, God’s stewards and disciples doing God’s work here in Chadron. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] Luke 21:1-4, NRSV, for example.
[2] Luke 18:1, NRSV.
[3] 2 Corinthians 4:7.
[4] 2 Corinthians 4:1, NRSV.
[5] Luke 18:3, NRSV.
[6] Luke 18:5, NRSV.
[7] Luke 18:6-8.
[8] Psalm 121:1-2, NRSV.
[9] From Psalm 24:1, NRSV.
[10] 2 Timothy 3:17, NRSV.

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