“We’re all Witnesses. But We’re Not Just Witnesses!” – a Stewardship Sermon for The Baptism of Our Lord

I forgot to take a picture outside of Messiah with the snow and cold this past weekend, but here’s a look at Messiah during the spring or summer from the church’s website.

I had the privilege to be with the good people of Messiah Lutheran Church in North Platte this past weekend. Joyce Palmer, the Interim Director for Development; Sarah Callahan, Director of Lutheran Giving of Nebraska; and myself co-presented a workshop on Saturday January 11, 2020, and Joyce and I visited with the congregation on Sunday January 12, 2020. As part of our visit, I was invited to preach on stewardship for Baptism of Our Lord Sunday by Pastor Rebecca Mangelsdorf. What follows is the majority of the manuscript that I preached from based on the appointed texts from the revised common lectionary for Baptism of Our Lord (Year A), as well after that a short reflection about where to start with stewardship ministry in the congregation. 

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

Looking into the sanctuary early in the morning long before worship and before the majority of the congregation arrived. A few disciples have gathered early for quiet centering prayer.

Good morning Messiah. It’s so great to be with you. Thank you, Pastor Rebecca, for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. On behalf of Joyce Palmer and myself, I bring greetings today from Bishop Brian Maas, from your Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Steve Meysing, and from all of your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod. I’m grateful to be with you today, as we gather and remember and celebrate on this Baptism of Our Lord Sunday. To think some about what God might be doing in these stories, and to ponder a bit about how we are all washed in these baptismal waters, called, equipped, empowered, and sent as Children of God, disciples, and stewards of God’s love.

The Baptism of Our Lord
In our gospel story from Matthew this week we jump ahead from where we have been the past few weeks. It’s kind of time travel through the scriptures, if you will. From the incarnation and birth of the baby Jesus, to the visit of the Magi, and the holy family fleeing to Egypt to later return and form their home in Nazareth, our story skips a few decades, perhaps as much as thirty years to where we find ourselves this week, out in the wilderness that one day, when everything would change and Jesus’ presence and formal ministry would begin.

A perfect banner for the day.

Jesus comes to John. Though John is hesitant thinking he needs to be baptized by Jesus, Jesus insists. And once this happens, well, let’s just say the world won’t be the same again. “When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened… and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”[1] This is special. God’s voice is breaking into the world. It’s an Epiphany moment. A revelation, an ah-ha, a moment to come and see, and wonder about what God is doing. It’s a moment that changes the story.

There is no mistaking this. Something big is happening. The people in the wilderness around the river that day were called to take notice. God spoke and declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”[2] God is doing a new thing! And the rest of the gospel story from here will try to explain what all this means and why this Son, is so beloved. It’s a starting place really, just as baptism is for all of us. But from these waters flow life, meaning, and purpose. From them flows the promise of God’s presence with us and claim upon us. From them, flows a sense of deep call to a life as a Child of God, disciple, and our response to all of God’s work, as a steward.

We Are Witnesses
It’s this life and call that leads the apostles and disciples to spread the Good News of the ministry of God with the world. Like Peter, who in our second lesson is teaching about God’s message to Cornelius and the disciples and people gathered in Caesarea. This message begins to spread with Christ’s baptism. As Peter explains, “You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread…beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did…”[3]

A beautiful stained glass window, depicting the Spirit descending like a dove.

Peter lived this witness. And so do you. As witnesses, we’re called to share and proclaim God’s story. But we’re also called to join in this life of “doing good and healing,” doing God’s work of justice and peace for all of creation. We’re called into this life not just as witnesses, but as Children of God claimed in the baptismal waters and with the Word, that Christ himself was washed in by John and alighted with the Holy Spirit.

The Role of the Sacrament 
In the Water and the Word, in the presence and promise of the Holy Spirit who fills us, we are cleaned and we are claimed. The grace of the forgiveness of sins, makes us right with God. It restores us in relationship, and it calls us to turn toward God. To live more fully and intentionally as a Child of God, growing as disciples and living abundantly as stewards. In baptism, we’re claimed, once and for all. We’re given a new name which cannot be taken away, Child of God. And in this, you too are beloved, and God takes delight in each of you, just as God takes delight in God’s own son.

Now this baptism in the river, was not private. It was not quiet and hidden away. It was public. If it was private, who would have heard the voice thundering over the water?[4] Who would have seen the Spirit descending like a dove? No, these are clear signs for the world to take notice. For the people to come and see that the Lord is good. Just as we do, as we come to these waters, and gather together in the meal around this table. This act, and this sacrament are public.

Baptism is public, because within and around it, the community makes promises to God and to one another, just as the one being baptized does. But these promises are also an act of witness. Together we witness to God’s claim and call, and God’s work in our midst. Together we witness God showing up. And this witness is not a stagnant thing. But it moves us, to continue to yearn, to grow, to gather and worship, to learn as disciples, and live and share as stewards.

The baptismal fount at Messiah Lutheran, front and center for all to remind themselves of their baptisms. In front of it, a wooden church where the faithful’s pledges for stewardship and discipleship can be placed and stored. A beautiful extra connection between the baptismal life, our promises and response.

Think about your experiences with this fount. Perhaps you yourself were baptized here? Or a child or grandchild of yours? Perhaps someone you know well, or a perfect stranger you just witnessed in the last year? When I look at this fount, I see a memory from a year and a half ago as my own daughter Caroline was baptized. Caroline is almost two now, and is running around, climbing, and speaking like it too. She’s testing boundaries, and as you might be able to relate or remember, child-proofing at this point is generally hopeless. But as I remember her baptism, I remember hearing and feeling the whole community make promises for her and with her. And that act of proclaiming and responding to God’s promises, is moving, powerful, and almost makes you feel like how it might have felt that day in our gospel story today with God’s voice coming out of the heavens over the waters. There’s joy in that. There’s awe in that. And this sense of joy and wonder is very much a stewardship thing.

What is Stewardship?
But what is stewardship? What do I mean by this old churchy word? And no, for those of you crossing your arms, I am not here to just talk about money. Yes, I see you, and yes, I know what you’re thinking. Hahaha… It’s the same reaction I see everywhere I go. Over the years stewardship has gotten a bad reputation. It’s not just about money, finances, or even worse about a church trying to make ends meet. No.

JP leading her workshop on Saturday morning for some of the leaders of Messiah’s congregation.

Stewardship really is a big, beautiful thing that is a central part of our baptized life. The psalmist writes that, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it.”[5] Stewardship starts with an understanding that all that we have and all that we are is God’s. It starts with a reminder that Isaiah provides for us today that God is the one “who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it.”[6] This creator God, gives life and breath. And provides all that we are and all that we have, entrusting it to our care.

The problems start when we allow ourselves to think that all that God entrusts to us, is ours, and we forget that it’s God’s. When we turn inward, and hoard what God provides, we are captive to sin and fall victim to the lies and sins of scarcity. When we do so, we forget the big picture and we fail to see God active and up to something in us, for us, and through us. God entrusts us with all that we have and all that we are. And that means that God entrusts us with: our very lives, health, bodies, souls, hearts, minds, and relationships; our time, talents, gifts, strengths, passions, vocations, dreams, ideas, questions, and stories; our treasure, money, finances, 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 our care.

Stewardship really is a big beautiful thing, for God is abundant. And as God entrusts us with all that we have, God does so for a couple reasons- that we might have life, and live abundantly. But also, that through us, some of God’s kingdom building work might be done. That’s work that takes us outside ourselves and gives us deep meaning and purpose, work we promise to be a part of in our baptisms, as we’re called and invited to turn outward.

Baptismal Promises and Our Joyful Response
In our baptisms God promises to be with us, and claims us. But God isn’t the only one making promises. As God shows up when Jesus enters the water, Jesus and John and the people there are making promises too. Jesus is promising to enter into this new chapter. John is fulfilling his calling, and living out his promise to follow and serve. The people are showing up as witnesses to the new things that God is doing and fulfilling as the prophets have long foretold.

Messiah’s disciples. The disciples who together make promises in baptism, and are witnesses, stewards, and disciples in North Platte.

In our own baptisms, we make promises. Either ourselves, or they are made for us by our godparents, families, loved ones, and congregations and we then affirm them in our Affirmation of Baptisms or confirmations years later. Promises including: “to live among God’s faithful people; to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper; to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; to serve all people, following the example of Jesus; and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”[7]

These promises are marks of discipleship, and signs of our baptized life and calling toward reconciliation with God and with one another. But they are also marks of stewardship, that lead us to tell God’s story, an on-going living story that we’re all a part of today. They are marks of living a life with God, walking with God. Living as witnesses, but letting that witness drive us to want to grow deeper as disciples, and live fully, abundantly, gratefully, and generously as stewards of God’s love. And these marks and promises are possible because God is with us in them, every step of the way.

We live out our baptized lives filled with joy. Because on this day, where we mark the beginning of Jesus’ formal ministry with his own baptism, we remember again all that God has done and all that God will do. For this, we can’t help but give our thanks and praise. We could never do this work. We could never earn this or save ourselves. God does all of this as a free gift, pure grace. For this, we praise God, and can’t help but be so swept up in joy and gratitude that we want to be a part of God’s work in the world in some way. And we respond as stewards by returning to God a portion of what God first entrusts to us.

Grateful for Your Stewardship in Action
Friends, you get it. I see it in you, through the way you live and serve here in North Platte. Through the work of your mission team, working to help after the floods in Fremont this past year, through your gifts of quilts and all the love and time you share together as the “Knotty Ladies”, and yes, my wife laughed when I told her that was the name of your quilting group. I see it in the way you respond to hunger here locally through supporting your local food pantries. And I see it in the generosity of the ways your Messiah Endowment partners with so many others to do good work and ministry.

Some of the ministries Messiah is a part of, including that made possible through mission share and the Nebraska Synod.

I also especially see it 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, and changes lives. Through it, you live out your baptismal callings to gather and spread the Good News by helping raise up new leaders- pastors, deacons, and parish ministry associates, of the church. Through it, you share God’s love around the world by supporting missionaries globally, and new and renewing ministries at home across our Big Red State. Through mission share, you help youth and young adults know of God’s deep love for them, in part, through supporting Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry and Nebraska Lutheran Campus Ministry. And through it, you do good and healing work like Peter proclaims through supporting our many church serving arm partners for ministry in accompanying our neighbors in need through the good work of ministries like Lutheran Disaster Response, Lutheran Family Services, Lutheran World Relief, and Mosaic. There’s so much that you are a part of and that you do.

If you hear nothing else from me today, please hear this. Thank you! Because of your stewardship, a sister or brother in Christ can rest assured tonight that God is with them. Because of you, your witness, and for answering your baptismal calling, so much good in the world happens and is certainly happening right here in North Platte. Thank you!

The faithful gathered for fellowship and conversation after worship.

Putting It Altogether- We’re Witnesses, and So Much More
All of us are witnesses, but we’re not just witnesses. We are claimed and beloved Children of God, who are called and sent to live, grow, learn, and serve as disciples and stewards. And how we live this out- shows our faith in action, but also points to God’s activity all around you, for you, in you, and through you.

When Peter says that we are witnesses to these things, he might have had this all in mind. Just as he certainly was pointing to how we are witnesses to the very acts of God’s saving love for us- from God in Christ’s incarnation and birth as one of us. To his baptism and his life of teaching and walking alongside, his life of healing and showing us how to heal and help each other showing compassion and mercy for the lost and the least. To the events of the passion, cross, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.

We are witnesses to these things. But we aren’t just witnesses. We’re part of God’s on-going work and ministry in the world. Grounded in the water, Word, bread, and wine. We’re witnesses. We’re disciples. We’re stewards. And most of all, we’re Children of God. An identity and claim that will never be taken away.

This baptismal life of discipleship and stewardship isn’t always easy, and it certainly has its challenges. Though life might have its ups and downs, though budgets might be tight, and the world might seem out of control at times, God is there with us. Walking alongside us, helping us back up on our feet when we lose our footing, and cheering us on. This is what Peter was talking about. We’re all witnesses, and so much more. Thanks be to God, and thanks be to God for all of you, living out your baptisms as God’s stewards and disciples doing some of God’s work here in North Platte. Amen.

Stewardship Ministry and Joy

Again, I’m so grateful to be with you this weekend. As I think about stewardship ministry, and look at the back of your bulletin and at this great Wordle about stewardship, there’s one word I would add and make big and bold. That word would be JOY.

Stewardship is all about joy. Of living into this life with God, grateful for all that God provides, and excited to share God’s love with the world so needing to hear, see, and feel that love. When thinking about stewardship ministry, think of it in terms of three acts- Ask, Thank, Tell. I would encourage you to build on your good start with “Just Desserts.” Form a stewardship team which will build on that, of ideally 5-7 people who might make a good cross-section of the different ages, teams, and perspectives that are your congregation.

As a team, help the congregation think about a strategy for saying thank you, and say it. Say it to God, say it to each other. Name the many ways that you see God active in your midst, and the ways you see God’s work being done for, through, in, and with you, each of you. It’s not too much of a change to your stop, drop, and pray process. But maybe an added tweak?

Together, tell the story of God’s love. Of what God has done and is doing, and of what you’re doing. Tell that story in worship, maybe during the offering time. Hear from your peers and fellow pew mates about why you are part of this congregation. Tell the story over Facebook and social media, tell it in your newsletter, and lift it up in and around your activities and events. Point to God’s presence. It’s God that makes this all happen, and if it’s not because of God’s love, why would we even be here?

Invite others to join you in this work. Ask them to join, support, and participate. And do so, because you deeply believe and know how wonderful it is. Embody that joy and gratitude. For stewardship is a joyful thing, it not a “have to” or a guilt thing, it’s a “get to.” Where we are freed up to live this way in God’s love, as we live out our baptized lives.

God is with you. You have the resources and assets to do what God is calling to you, today. Claim hold of it. Live it out. And let your light so shine.

Citations and References:
[1] Matthew 3:16-17, NRSV.
[2] Matthew 3:17, NRSV.
[3] Acts 10:36-39, NRSV.
[4] As described in Psalm 29:3.
[5] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.
[6] Isaiah 42:5, NRSV.
[7] As noted in the “Affirmation of Baptism” liturgy in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 236.

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