“What Do You Think?”- a Stewardship Sermon for Sunday September 27, 2020

It was a joy to be with the good people of Messiah Lutheran Church in Aurora, Nebraska on Sunday September 27, 2020. I was invited to preach and share a stewardship message. The message was based on the appointed readings for the day from the revised common lectionary for Lectionary 26A, and the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost- especially Matthew 21:23-32, Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32, and Philippians 2:1-13. What follows is the majority of the manuscript that I preached from.

Outside Messiah Lutheran early on a slightly drizzly fall morning.

“What do you think?”[1] That’s a question that Jesus asks the crowd, the chief priests, elders, and disciples today, and I think it’s a good question for us to ponder today too. “What do you think?” We’ll dig into that in just a minute.

Now, Grace and peace from God in Christ who is with you, for you, and loves you. Amen. Good Morning Messiah. It’s so great to be with you. Thank you all for the warm welcome and Pastor Karen for the invitation. Today I bring greetings from Bishop Brian Maas, from your Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Steve Meysing, and from your 100,000 siblings in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod.

It’s kind of special for me, being with you. You may not remember this, but just about four years ago exactly I was here with you. It was my first Sunday on the road in a congregation in the Nebraska Synod as Director for Stewardship. My wife and I had just moved here from Washington state, and we were just starting to figure out what our calls here might look like. So thank you for welcoming us so warmly then. To be back with you today, is kind of a full-circle moment in a way, and I am grateful to be here with you all.

Caroline and my dad decided to tag along on this visit. We’re still working with Caroline on how to wear a mask. She had it on for about 10-15 minutes, so progress, I guess? She’ll figure it out.

As I think about Jesus’ question about “What do you think?” that he poses today, and if I add Martin Luther’s famous, “What does this mean?” into the mix, it calls for some reflection. As I look around and reflect on four years in Nebraska, and four years since being with you here last in worship, well admittedly, the world is a bit different now than it was then. My wife and I are not staying at camp while living in transition anymore, but have been in Fontanelle, north of Fremont for almost four years where Allison serves as Pastor at Salem Lutheran there. And we’re not just the two of us anymore. We have a 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter Caroline, and our second child on the way due late next month. Of course, we’re all also living and finding our way through a global pandemic which has changed some of our daily life experiences- from the way we worship and shop, to the way kids, parents, and teachers are doing school and how we all go about our days of work, but I do believe we’re all still doing the ministry God has called, gathered, and sent us to be part of. Even amid such a time as this, God is very much active and up to something, in, around, through, and for you. So again Messiah, know that I am grateful for that and for all that you do as the stewards of God’s love that you are here in Aurora, including putting together health and school kits today. And your discernment as part of and participation in your congregation’s Celebration Sunday next week.

The live video that was streamed via Messiah’s Facebook page for worship on Sunday September 27, 2020.

Setting the Stage for This Week’s Gospel Story
Turning to the gospel this week, we skip nearly a whole chapter ahead in the gospel of Matthew from where we left off last week. After telling the story about the laborers in the vineyard, Jesus does some more teaching and healing, and then heads for the Holy City.

At the beginning of chapter 21, where we find ourselves today, Jesus has entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.[2] At this point in the story today, the whole city knows Jesus is there. His presence is public. There’s no hiding anymore. Besides the ruckus of the Palm Sunday parade, he’s made a ruckus by making a mess of the temple, turning over tables and cleaning it from being as he put it a “den of robbers.” He has upended social norms, ignored societal rules and orders, and turned the temple on its head, so that God’s work of healing, curing and praising can be done.[3]

Getting ready for worship- physically distanced because of the pandemic. Video camera ready and on- for both in-person and online worship.

So, in our story today, Jesus goes back into the temple, the same one the day before that he accused of being a “den of robbers.”[4] and turned over the tables in. When he shows up, those in authority have some questions filled with anger, frustration, and perhaps even a hope to trap him in his words and actions. They have no doubt not forgotten the events of the day before and days and weeks before that. But ironically or comically, Jesus has some questions himself too.

Big Questions with Obvious or Not So Obvious Answers?
While teaching and preaching, the chief priests and elders come and question Jesus. They ask, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”[5] I guess we should understand this question. On the surface, it’s perfectly logical for this kind of question to come from someone whose very understanding and way of life is seemingly being changed and challenged. Though it’s also not too much of a stretch to be one that gets in the weeds to be like, “well which seminary did you go to” or “what school did you study at?” Can we trust this source? On the other hand- as those who know the larger story- the real response you might be having here is, really? Really? Do you people still not get it? Who makes it possible for the one who has come to be able to heal those afflicted with sores and leprosy? Who makes it possible for this one to help the hobbled walk, and the blind to see? Who makes it possible for this one to even raise the dead like Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus? From their training in the scriptures, they should know that these are acts and signs of God’s promise and presence. But for whatever reason, they can’t bear to witness it.

Jesus knows this. And he confronts them with his own question. He is willing to answer their question if they answer his. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”[6] Now they are in a bind. Theologically if they say from heaven, Jesus will be able to ask why they didn’t believe him. If they say from human origin, they’re afraid not of Jesus but of the crowd. So, they answer they “don’t know.”[7]
Jesus sees through their unwillingness to be honest and to grow, and so he refuses to engage them. At this point, Jesus’ actions should speak for themselves. The authority piece is clear. And those in power aren’t going to like it, because it means they are going to need to change and admit that they were wrong.

The beautiful altar and chancel area. With added signs of God’s abundance and the fall harvest.

Jesus no longer has time to waste playing such games. He knows that his hour has almost come. He’s no longer on the road some place out in the country with his eyes set on Jerusalem. He’s there now. And he’s going to make the most of it.
But that also means he’s done engaging in silly trap-like questions. If those with questions refuse to be honest with their answers and intentions, Jesus will not give them the time of day. Besides, if it’s not clear by now by whose authority he cleanses, heals, and saves, then will it ever be- even with his own resurrection?

You must feel for Jesus in his frustration here. What more can he possibly do to open their eyes, hearts, minds, and hands? What more? It should be clear as day now. Jesus has fed 5000+ with five loaves and two fish. He fed another crowd of 4000+ with just about as much to start with. He’s healed all over his journey. He’s proclaimed that the kingdom of God has come near. All this he has done- pointing to the fact that God’s love and grace is boundless, abounding, abundant and steadfast. It is unlimited. It is not exclusive but inclusive.

These facts and this truth though don’t always make people happy or comfortable. In fact, quite the contrary. It often makes people mad. Mad at the seemingly unfair way God’s love is poured out not just for me and you, but for all. Mad that the landowner’s generosity means that as we heard last week, he’ll provide the same wages to all those who labor, no matter when their work began. Mad that the way of the world is being challenged and turned upside down by God. Mad like in today’s story as the powers that be and authority figures of the temple are at Jesus for the events of the past few years, and especially of the day before when he turned over the profiteering tables in the temple. And mad I suspect too, because Jesus decides to not play along with their game and trap today by not responding to their question about authority as they might like.

Messiah has great protocols in place for the pandemic. Contact tracing with sanitized pencils. Masks. A table for offering of gifts and communion (when it’s being served), as well as plenty of hand sanitizer and masks required. Thank you Messiah for caring for your neighbors so visibly through the way you are intentionally making it welcoming but also safe to worship and gather in person.

“By whose authority?” Their question is not a fair question at this point. And there’s no time to waste on it now. Instead Jesus turns the question back on them and the disciples and those in the temple. He asks, before telling and teaching through yet another parable, “What do you think?”

What do you think? Yes, You!?
So, what do you think, people of God? In telling the story about two sons, Jesus makes the case for what the kingdom of heaven is like yet again, and for who it is open and welcome to. It’s open to all- including and especially for those society often casts aside- the marginalized, the oppressed, and even Jesus goes so far as to say the prostitute and tax collector-
because they see and believe the good news. While those trained in the very Word of God, seem to be missing the truth right in front of their eyes.

There’s power in this story just as there is power in the Word. God’s activity and work changes us. It is for us. When we witness it, feel it, and sense it, we are changed. We are renewed. We are reconciled. We are redeemed.

And we can’t help but be turned outward from ourselves to our neighbors whom God has called us into relationship with. In this question, Jesus is inviting us to lean in and be a co-worker and co-creator with God. He’s inviting us to grow as disciples, and to respond as stewards.

Seen on the walls in the hallway- signs of things that the congregation is grateful for.

As Jesus asks, ‘What do you think?’ I honestly am wondering, what do you think, people of God about how God is active and up to something even now amid, for, through, and around you? Right here and now in Aurora? In Nebraska? In our country? In our world?

Where Stewardship Fits In
This is really where stewardship begins to fit in. In our response to a question like this. In our response to God’s work and promises for us. Grounded in the words of the psalmist who says, “That the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,”[8] and from the prophet Ezekiel who we heard in our first lesson today through which God proclaims that “all lives are mine.”[9]  All means all here. All that we have, and all that we are, are God’s. All that exist in creation, are beautiful Children of God created in the very Image of God. God’s love is not limited, but leads us into relationship through a deep desire by God to be in relationship with us, and from God that we each will be in relationship with our neighbors near and far.

Dreams of the congregation- amid this pandemic and transition time it is going through.

Stewardship is the way we live our lives in response to all that God has done, promises to do, and continues to do for us. It’s how we respond to God’s call to join God in some of God’s work in the world. It’s how, for example, we take seriously the Apostle Paul’s words in his letter to the Philippians which we read today, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interest of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”[10] But lest we think it’s all about us, Paul goes further and makes it clear whose work it is and who is doing that work. He writes, “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”[11]

What we do, we don’t do for ourselves. What we do is not some kind of works righteousness thing. We could never earn God’s love. We could never earn or deserve God’s grace and salvation. Rather, God provides this out of God’s abundant love for each of us as a pure gift. That’s good news. And it’s our joy and gratitude for it, that leads us into the work we do as stewards and the lives we lead and grow in as disciples.
The work in this life we do, is in response to God’s work and gifts for us. The work we do then, is also part of God’s on-going work in the world today.

God’s Work and Our Response
We are all witnesses to God’s saving, redeeming, healing, and reconciling work, call, and activity. The question is, how do we respond? Do we believe and then repent and change and follow and grow as disciples and serve as stewards? If so, we follow the example of tax collectors and prostitutes that Jesus holds up today. Or, do we continue on our own way, not sharing what we have learned, or worse yet, choosing to ignore it altogether?

Some of the faithful assembling school and health kits after worship.

That seems to be the point about the two sons. Are we honest and do as we are asked and invited to do- sharing out of God’s abundant love so that all might be fed, and see and know that God loves them? Or do we deceive ourselves and others, and do not follow the call- instead hoarding what God provides and keeping the Good News solely to ourselves?

Our Joyful Response- What your stewardship makes possible
Messiah, I know you get this. I am preaching to the choir, so to speak, aren’t I? In watching the “Where Your Offering Goes” video before worship today, last week, and next week, you are seeing examples of how you are part of God’s work in the world. So, on behalf of your sisters and brothers across Nebraska and the whole world, please hear my profound thanks. Because through you and your stewardship, someone’s life has undoubtedly changed for the better.

It always gives me great joy to see such an example of partnership, generosity, and ministry in action as this- placed central in the building so that the whole congregation knows it is part of the larger church doing work that spans the globe. And that it can also hear and see this visible sign of gratitude from the whole church near and far. Thank you Messiah for your continued participation in mission share!

I know this to be true especially 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 literally changes lives. Through it you help raise up new pastors, deacons, parish ministry associates, and other leaders of our church. Through it, 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. Through mission share, you help share the good news through sending missionaries around the globe and supporting new and renewing ministries right here across the Big Red State. And through mission share, you not only see your neighbors in need, you come alongside and walk with them by supporting the ministry of our many serving arm partners of the church like Lutheran Family Services, Mosaic, Lutheran Disaster Response, and Lutheran World Relief- who sponsors and shares the kits you are making today after worship. There’s so much more that you do and that you are a part of as the Nebraska Synod and as the church together, and even right here in Aurora for your neighbors. For all of this, and so much more, thank you!

What do you think and what’s Next?
My gratitude for you is matched also by my excitement to continue to watch as God’s work among you and for you unfolds. You are in the midst of the holy work of transition time in the church, discerning who you are now, and who God might be calling you to be and who God might be calling to walk beside you next as your next pastor.
That’s part of our shared work as the church together too. It’s not easy, but it’s important. Thank you for being part of it, even amid an uncertain and anxious time such as this is.

Giving table where the congregation is invited to respond- and by the end of the service, the Faithful Giving plate had filled up with more disciples and stewards’ forms of ways that they are stepping up to volunteer and serve as part of God’s work in Aurora in the year ahead. These commitments will be celebrated as part of Messiah’s “Celebration Sunday” the following week.

Now, our stories we heard today aren’t the easiest to hear. But they shouldn’t be. In our gospel story Jesus is laying bare some of the deepest and important questions he can, because he knows his time is running short. He has a mere few days left on earth before the events of the cross and resurrection. They are questions that have at the heart of them- our very lives. God in Christ wants us to “turn, then, and live” like Ezekiel proclaims in the first lesson.[12] God in Christ wants us to take hold of the abundant life that he offers. The question he offers to us by asking, “what do we think?” is, will we?

My hope and prayer is that not only that “yes, we will,” but that we will humbly, gratefully, and joyfully come to see more fully God’s call and presence with us now, and that because of that we will reaffirm and recommit ourselves to the hard and important work of discipleship and stewardship for the sake of all of God’s beloved. May it be so. And thanks be to God for you, and all that God’s love makes possible. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] Matthew 21:28, NRSV.
[2] Matthew 21:1-11.
[3] Matthew 21:12-17.
[4] Matthew 21:13, NRSV.
[5] Matthew 21:23, NRSV.
[6] Matthew 21:25, NRSV.
[7] Matthew 21:27, NRSV.
[8] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.
[9] From Ezekiel 18:1-4, NRSV.
[10] Philippians 2:5, NRSV.
[11] Philippians 2:13, NRSV.
[12] Ezekiel 18:32, NRSV.

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