God’s Promises- Forming & Reforming Us Always as God’s People- a Stewardship Sermon for Reformation Sunday

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Outside of Salem Lutheran Church in Fontanelle, Nebraska.

It was a joy to be home with my family at Salem Lutheran Church in Fontanelle, Nebraska. Thank you to my wife, and the congregation’s Pastor Allison Siburg for sharing the pulpit and inviting me to preach on Reformation Sunday as part of the congregation’s stewardship emphasis. What follows is the manuscript I largely preached from based on the Reformation texts: John 8:31-36; Romans 3:19-28; Psalm 46; and Jeremiah 31:31-34.

Grace and peace from God in Christ, who is for us, frees us, loves us, and is with us, always. Amen.

Here we are again, Reformation Sunday. A high holy day for us Lutherans, not so much because it’s about us, but precisely the opposite, it’s about God and what God has done, is doing, and continues to do, for us. It’s a great day, and our stories which we’ll dwell in for a bit are wonderful indeed. And I’m grateful to be home and with you all, thanks Allison for sharing the pulpit today. I’m excited to share as part of our stewardship theme for the fall, to wonder about how the church continues to form and reform on this Reformation Day, and about what God might be calling us to all see and be a part of next- as God’s mission moves and calls us, and leads the church in doing God’s work in new and exciting ways.

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Allison and I, in our matching Reformation stoles. Maybe sometime in the future we’ll have more stoles that match, but at least on this one day of the liturgical year, we match pretty well.

It seems like it’s been awhile friends since I have been home with you all. Since I was last here on a Sunday morning, I have been to Pierce, Wayne, Alliance, Lincoln, Kearney, Ponca, New Orleans, Alliance again, and Chadron. The song, “I’ve been everywhere man, I’ve been everywhere,” might be appropriate. But there is something wonderful about not being on the road today. I love my call to walk alongside all your 100,000 sisters in brothers in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod, but to not be driving seven hours after preaching today like last week, has its upside.

God’s Stories for Us
Okay. Let’s dig into our Bible stories today of God’s promises for us. Our gospel story might seem a little out of order, because well, it is. We’re not in Luke this week as we have been most of this year. We’re in John 8, with the gospel lesson we hear just about every year on this Sunday. Jesus tells us here that, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”[1]

The “truth will make you free.” This is Good News. The truth of God’s Word will make you free. The truth that freedom comes to us as a gift through Christ, as Jesus says, “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”[2] When these truths are central, they lead us to dwell in God’s word, which grows discipleship. But our discipleship is not a stagnant thing, it is a full and holistic life thing. It’s one that leads us into worship with each other, grounded in Word and sacrament each week, and sent out to serve in and share of God’s deep love for the whole world. A love that we can’t help but share, because through that love we are freed. And that freeing is so wonderful, it moves us to act and continue to grow as disciples and stewards.

Admittedly, we aren’t perfect. There is sin. We confess it, and acknowledge that we are enslaved or captive to it. But we believe that God in Christ hears our confession and grants forgiveness. And through that forgiveness, the Son makes us free indeed. Thanks be to God.

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The ELCA shared this fitting picture for today on its Facebook page, of the Tower at Wittenburg with a reference to Luther’s famous “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

But wait, there’s more. There’s so much good news in these stories this week. Jeremiah reminds us what the Lord says, that “I will be their God, and they shall be my people,”[3] and as Jesus says about the Son offering forgiveness, the Lord says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”[4] These are two promises that God makes about what God will do. God will be with us, and we will be God’s people. God will forgive us, no longer holding our sin against us. This is yet more good news.

The psalmist accents this, and adds a crescendo and forte for all you music nerds if you will. Psalm 46 really needs no introduction. It was a favorite of Martin Luther, and it largely shaped his famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” that we will sing in a little bit. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”[5] Who is our God? God is our refuge and strength. And from here the psalmist reminds of who God is, and whose we are as God’s people.

We are reminded that “The Lord of hosts is with us” and “the God of Jacob is our refuge.”[6] God is with us. And the psalmist reminds us to ‘Be still, and know” that God is God, and we are not.[7] Though the world might feel out of control, though it might seem as if its full of anxiety and fear, our God “makes wars cease,” “breaks the bow, and shatters the spear,”[8] and is “exalted among the nations,” and “exalted in the earth.”[9] This is good news. God does what God can only do. And God is most certainly with us, for us, and loves us. How do we respond, as the psalmist says, we “exalt” God. And we joyfully respond to all that God does, continues to do, and promises to do.

The Apostle Paul brings it home though. Our words from Romans 3 might well be our response to Martin Luther’s favorite question, ‘What does this mean?’ In this lesson, Paul points to who God is, who we are, and how and why we’re in relationship with each other. He writers, “there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…”[10] Grace is a gift. One we all could never earn or deserve. But through God in Christ, it is given to us. That’s God’s work. And that frees us to live as the beloved Children of God we are called and created to be.

Paul goes even further. He writes, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”[11] Faith alone justifies us. Faith that is a gift of God; faith that holds God’s promises at the center; faith that makes it possible for us to open ourselves up to see and sense and wonder about what God might be up to? And one which calls us to come and see. One that calls us to follow, and to join in where we can with what God entrusts for the sake of our neighbor. A faith that fills us with gratitude and joy for what God has done, continues to do, and promises to do, for us.

Where Stewardship Fits In
How could we not be joyful and grateful remembering this good news for us? How could we not want to share this Good News with others? This good news frees us up to live, serve, share, and love, in God’s abundance. This good news is what calls us into lives of discipleship. And invites us to live fully, abundant, and deeply meaningful lives of stewardship.

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Some of the ministry Salem has been a part of this past year. Including a beautiful baptism at the congregation’s historic and beautiful baptismal fount.

When we’re baptized, God makes promises to us. Promises like we hear in these stories this week. Promises like were made about a year ago at this fount for Caroline, and have been made for so many Children of God since this beautiful fount was hand carved out of marble. And through the stewardship of many of your ancestors, was placed here, front and center, as a sign of God’s presence and promise. Even at the extreme cost that it came with during the heart of the Great Depression. This is a visible sign of what matters, and a reminder of the stewardship and legacy that we all here today are a part of, as the people of Salem Lutheran in Fontanelle.

Through the Water and the Word, we are reminded of God’s promises that we are God’s beloved child. Marked, sealed, and claimed, forever. That God in Christ is for us. That God is with us. And that God loves us. In baptism promises are made for us and we affirm those promises too. Promises like that we will “live among God’s faithful people,” that we will “hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,” we will “proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,” that we will “serve all people, following the example of Jesus,” and “strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”[12] These promises are marks of discipleship, but they are also principles for what a life of stewardship looks like.

One where we remember what the psalmist says, that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.”[13] One which means that all that we have, and all that we are, is God’s. All that we have, and all that we are. Think about it? We have a lot that God entrusts to us- our lives, health, bodies, souls, hearts, minds, and relationships; our time, talents, passions, strengths, gifts, vocations, ideas, dreams, stories, and even questions like Luther asked repeatedly, “what does this mean?”; our money, finances, assets, and treasure of all kinds; and all of creation that surrounds us and that we are a part of.

All of this and so much more has been entrusted to us by God, so that we might live our lives fully and abundantly, and that we might use what God entrusts to us to do some of God’s work in the world in living out those promises we make and were made for us in baptism. Promises that respond to what God has done for us, like the gift of life and grace we could never do ourselves, or ever earn or deserve. That’s what’s at the heart of our stories this week. Reminders of the beauty of God’s story, and our deeply wonderful understanding we have of that story as Lutherans, entrusted with it to share it with the world. It’s the best story to tell.

How are we doing at stewarding it? At sharing it with our neighbors and the whole world that we’re a part of?

Stewardship is Fun- How? – Our part and response
Many of you have heard me on my soapbox before. I love stewardship. But do you know why? And no, it’s not just because it gives me a call, and helps put bread on my family’s table. But that’s nice too. No, it’s because when we think as stewards we remember the promises that God makes for us, and all that God offers and provides, and we can’t help but be overjoyed and grateful. When we remember this, stewardship is a fun thing to be sure.

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Discipleship and learning about God’s love happens for all ages at Salem. Here’s one recent hour of faith formation at Salem.

Take Caroline for example. Lately, she has had a favorite word that she seems to say every day. Maybe you have heard it one of these Sundays while I have been elsewhere across our Big Red State? If you know it, say it with me, if not, I’ll give you a clue. It starts with a “W.” Her favorite word right now really seems to be “Wow!” “Wow!” What a perfect word for our awe and gratitude at all that God provides. What a perfect way to sum up our joy for God’s love for us- for the promises of God we know through Jesus, and for how we are all freed through Christ’s saving work for us. And what a perfect word to say thank you to all of you, our Salem family. For all that you do as the People of God here in Fontanelle. For all that your forefathers and mothers of the faith have done to raise up the faith in this church for 159 going on 160 years. And for all of the ways that you all share God’s love with the world. “Wow” indeed. And wow, when you think like this, how much fun is stewardship really?

Forming and Reforming- 160 years in the making
There’s a story here that I’m sure we’ll be digging into in the year ahead. How our church has been forming and reforming since God broke into the world in creation, and then created and restored it through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. How our church was borne of the disciples sent out with the Great Commission, endured times of oppression and fear, only to come out stronger and spreading like wildfire. How our church lost its way, falling into the traps of human power, only to be reformed, not perfectly, but reformed to focus on what holds us fast in the Reformation. And how this church, about 160 years ago was founded by German immigrants to celebrate as the psalmist and prophet knew that God is with us, and we are God’s people. This church, Salem Lutheran has been forming and reforming ever since. And it will continue to do so.

The life of the church is not stagnant. If it is, then we’ve lost our way. The life of the church is not about just those gathered here today, or providing for our needs. If it is, then we might as well close the doors and all go home. No. The life of the church comes with that Spirit, that as the Gospel writer reminds, grants us freedom. The Spirit of God that moved over the waters at the beginning of time, and has been up to creative and new things ever since.

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Some of the ladies at Salem, fast at work preparing quilts to send across the world in the care of Lutheran World Relief.

I give thanks for what the stewardship of this congregation has done these past 159 years. Think about it. How many lives have been changed because the Gospel has been proclaimed from this pulpit and this sanctuary?

How many people around this globe, have experienced God’s love in deed through all of the quilts that have been sewn together in love for decades providing warmth and shelter? How many people have come to know of God’s deep love of them, because of raising the younger and older saints in dwelling in the Word together- in Bible Study, Sunday School, Confirmation, going to camp, the National Youth Gathering, Luther League decades ago, cross+generational conversations and so much more?

Or, because I also have this vocation as a Deacon, a called and now ordained Minister of Word and Service, through which I serve as the Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod. Think about all that you have done through your mission share participation! Mission share is the undesignated offering that you share with the Nebraska Synod and larger ELCA, through which you do ministry that spans the globe, changing lives. Through it, you help raise up new pastors, deacons, and leaders of our church. Through it you remind youth and young adults of God’s deep love for them, through supporting Lutheran Campus Ministry and Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry. Through it, you have sent missionaries around the globe, and supported new and renewing ministries all across this state and synod. And through it, you have shared God’s love with your neighbors near and far, seeing them and responding to their needs through our church serving arm partners like Mosaic, Lutheran Family Services, Lutheran World Relief, and Lutheran Disaster Response. There’s so much you do, and the best part of my call, is being able to say a big and hearty thank you to all of you! So, thank you!

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One of the congregational lunches (and potlucks) from the past year.

What might God be up to and calling us to be a part of next?
Like I said, stewardship is fun. Because we remember it’s not just about us. It’s about God. And it’s about what God does for us, and how we can’t help but respond gratefully and joyfully. Whether that be through the fun of sending a flock of flamingos to your pew partner, or sharing your favorite potluck recipe? I still tell the story when out in congregations of our first potluck here three years ago. It seemed that every thing on the table had to have included corn in someway. That told me a lot about all of you. Not just as your pastor and my wife’s humor might say you’re all a bit ‘corny.’ Haha, no! But that you’re creative, and God is most certainly present with you and up to something.

But I wonder today, in thinking about this anniversary year to come, what might be next? What might God be up to here in Fontanelle for you?

What might God be up to here in Fontanelle, Nickerson, Arlington, Hooper, Blair, and Fremont through you, and in you? And what might God be calling us to see and to be a part of next?

I have a funny feeling that property across the street might be a part of the answer. I’m not sure what it might be. Maybe through it, we’ll plant a garden or field to provide food for the hungry at the Immanuel Food Bank? Maybe we’ll create some space to build community with our neighbors here on the hill? Or maybe through it, we’ll find a space to remember God’s presence in the world, and see it as holy ground like this space is. A space where we remember that God is with us, for us, and loves us. Or maybe even we’ll discern a call to install a few shower stalls here, in this church, to be a sign of God’s refuge and shelter, the next time the flood waters rise.

Whatever the case may be, on this Reformation Sunday, let us hold deeply to the promises and love of God. God is with us, for us, and loves us.

And let us, as God’s stewards and disciples embody these promises and renew our baptismal covenants to live them out for the sake of our neighbors and the whole world which God loves so much. And let us remember, since God is on the loose as the Spirit, free and up to something, that God may well be doing something new. Let’s not be afraid of that, but excited to wonder, imagine, and share in the fun. We won’t always get it right. But as God is with us, we have all that we need to do this work, to share God’s Word and love as the stewards and disciples we are. Thanks be to God, and thanks be to God for all of you. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] John 8:31-32, NRSV.
[2] John 8:36, NRSV.
[3] Jeremiah 31:33, NRSV.
[4] Jeremiah 31:34, NRSV.
[5] Psalm 46:1-3, NRSV.
[6] Psalm 46:7 NRSV.
[7] Psalm 46:10, NRSV.
[8] Psalm 46:9, NRSV.
[9] Psalm 46:10, NRSV.
[10] Romans 3:22-24, NRSV.
[11] Romans 3:28, NRSV.
[12] As found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), page 236.
[13] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.

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