I had the great pleasure to be with the good people of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Sidney, Nebraska this past weekend. Thank you to Pastor Chad Rademacher for the invitation and to the whole congregation for the warm welcome. I was invited to preach and conclude their stewardship series which focused on 4 R’s: Remember, Release, Reimagine, and Restore. Mine was the fifth sermon in that series, putting it altogether together especially around service based on the appointed gospel lectionary text from Mark 10:35-45. Before worship I had the gift of a tour of the church building and Sunday School, which meets at 8:30am. I was so impressed by the junior high and high schoolers having breakfast and deep faith conversations even before 8:30am that I had to add that to my sermon some how. After worship, it was a joy to be in conversation and fellowship with the faithful, and then to enjoy a wonderful lunch and conversation with the congregation’s Mission and Vision Team. Following that it was time for the second session of the Nebraska Synod’s Vitality Initiative for Congregations of which Holy Trinity is part of the inaugural cohort. So to be with them for that too was a joy and a gift. It was a wonderful Sunday morning, and I am grateful to have been with them and look forward to visiting again.
What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from. You will also find below a video of the worship service, so if you would rather listen or watch the sermon you can do that there. (And I definitely encourage you to check out the children’s sermon too.)
Grace and peace from God in Christ who is with you, for you, and who loves you. Amen.
Good morning Holy Trinity! It’s so great to be with you on this beautiful Sunday morning. Thank you Pastor Chad for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring you greetings today from Bishop Brian Maas, from your Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Jon Mapa, and from your 90,000+ siblings in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod.
I’m grateful to be with you today. To dig into God’s story for us this day and wonder about what it might say to us in our lives as stewards, disciples, and the Body of Christ here in Sidney now. To reflect a bit concluding your 4-part stewardship theme on Remember, Release, Reimagine, and Restore. To share some words of gratitude about all that you do and you are a part of as the generous stewards and disciples that you are here and as part of the whole Nebraska Synod. And to imagine too about what God might be up to and inviting, as your congregation is part of the inaugural cohort of the Nebraska Synod Vitality Initiative for Congregations. That’s a lot. So obviously I’m excited and grateful to be with you. Let’s dig in.
God’s Story for Us
The gospel story we just read has me wondering, what does serving look like? How do we serve one another? And what is faithful service and servanthood anyway? They are questions which build off of last week’s gospel story too where we heard Jesus teaching about faith, stewardship, money, wealth, possessions, the Kingdom of God, camels and the eye of the needle. There’s this reversal or paradox even in Jesus, where the last will be first and the first will be last. Where the greatest is not, the all-powerful one in charge, but rather the one who gets down on their knees and washes their neighbor’s feet, taking the stance of service and meeting their neighbor whey they are at. Jesus has been pretty consistent here. But based on today’s story it would seem the disciples still haven’t figured out what Jesus is talking about.
James and John start by saying, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Do they think this teacher of theirs, this Lord and Savior of ours, is some kind of genie who grants wishes? Or some TV type person who says “I can get you whatever you want and whatever you need.” Because that’s surely what this sounds like, isn’t it? For a moment anyway, Jesus plays along, asking what they want. To which they say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” So, what they are asking for is power and privilege. That’s a pretty human thing to do, even if they totally miss out on the fact that they are already at Jesus’ right and left and specially called as two of twelve people to be Jesus’ first disciples. But they miss the point.
James and John don’t really know what they are asking. Jesus asks them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” In the sacraments- of course, they are welcome and called to the water, the Word, the bread and the wine. But the whole thirst for authority and power is not something that a servant heart would lead to.
Why would they be asking for this? Why might we even ask for this? On the one hand as a disciple, I get it and I suspect you do too. We want to sit as close to Jesus as possible, to hear his wisdom and soak in his presence, to receive his healing of mind, body, spirit, and soul. Kind of like Mary does while her sister Martha is busy at work and Mary just sits there at Jesus’ feet. But on the other hand, if we think about stories that Jesus tells like the one about the banquet table at a wedding feast, you don’t want to take the high seat and place of honor, and hope instead that you might be invited to move closer to the head of the table instead of being asked to move down to make room for another.
The challenge with all of this, especially for James and John and their request, is that they seem to misunderstand the whole notion of table with God. For we believe that around this table, we all gather with all the saints of all times and places in communion. Inherently in this we believe that there is always room for one more with God. There is always another chair. There is always another place setting. There is always enough to go around. That’s a stewardship truth. But by asking the question about sitting at Jesus’ left and right, James and John have missed the whole point about what being in relationship with God is about. It’s about connection, inclusion, welcome, hospitality, service, compassion, grace, and love. It’s about abundance, provision, and the very fact that in God all things are possible as we were reminded of last week and there is enough for all.
A Tale about Siblings?
I have to admit it, when I think of James and John and this story before us, I kind of see moments in my own life where I might well have been them and missed the bigger point around me. Or, maybe I might see too my three year old and one year old daughters, when, one or both of them may not quite get what sharing is. Perhaps if you are a parent or grandparent you can imagine the scene. The desire by one to have a toy, and the other wants to play with it. Or, the desire by one of them to have their spot on the couch, and they get frustrated or mad or worse when the other comes near. This is especially true when one of them is sitting by mom or dad, and the other gets a bit jealous and wants to even the score. The same maybe is true in our story today. James and John want Jesus’ full attention, just like a three year old wants their parents’ full undivided attention, at least until they don’t- like when as a teenager they try and ignore their parents’ words and presence.
Now as far as the rest of the gospel story today, understandably the other disciples don’t take too kindly to James and John. I mean, would you if you were one of them and just heard this? Of course, Jesus doesn’t really go there and instead makes the connection with the reversal theme. The connection to a paradox of our faith, a profound mystery, and our very identity as Children of God. One where the last will be first, and first will be last. One where greatness really rests in servanthood, and not in being served.
What this says to us as Disciples and Stewards
Now, we are all served through Christ and by Christ’s very life, death, and resurrection. We are all recipients of Christ’s gift and provision through the sacraments- and especially through the sacrament of the meal of communion. But as embodiments of Christ’s ultimate example, we are called to serve too. A call we live out through lives as generous stewards of God’s love and of sharing all that God entrusts to our care. A call we live out through lives as growing disciples digging into God’s Word and promises for us, and sharing that love and Good News with our neighbors near and far through all that we say and do. A call we live out through our lives as servants- to share God’s love through word and deed- through prayer, compassion, and active work to help out our neighbors through our vocations, and in meeting our neighbors’ needs in any way that we can.
The answer to this call, the answer that you or I might offer to what that all looks like for us, is the start of our answer to how we understand what servanthood is. So again, what does serving look like? Martin Luther might help. In his work The Freedom of a Christian, Luther writes that “The Christian individual is a completely free lord of all, subject to none.” While it is simultaneously true that, “The Christian individual is a completely dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” We are both freed in Christ, but also bound to our neighbors in Christ. For our very lives in relationship with God in Christ are lives found in relationship with others- in being disciples, servants, and stewards of God’s love. Of meeting and gathering with our neighbors- in worship, prayer, study, fellowship, and service. Yes, we are each perfectly free. But we are also bound to one another as the Body of Christ.
When we remember this- we remember truly what it is to be a disciple. To be someone who learns in community. To be someone who serves in relationship. To be someone who is a unique, individual, wonderfully made beloved Child of God, but who is also part of the whole Body of Christ. It’s why, as hard as it has been perhaps this past year or two amid pandemic time, that we have all adapted and made difficult choices- to try and be the best disciples we can be, the best servants we can be, the best stewards, and the best bearers of care, compassion and love for each of our neighbors- as vulnerable or not as they might be. That’s the faithful move. That’s what true service looks like.
What this says to us as Stewards- to remember, release, reimagine, and restore
When we remember this- we also remember truly what it is to be a steward. To be someone who knows what God has done, will do, continues to do, and promises to do for God’s beloved. To be so moved with joy and gratitude, that we can’t help but give God our thanks and praise, and then can’t help but want to share our joy and Jesus’ Good News with our neighbors near and far through our very lives.
To be someone too, who remembers with the psalmist that, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” We are God’s. All that we have, and all that we are, are God’s too. What God has entrusted to our care- God does so out of deep love for you and for me. Out of desire that we might live fully and abundantly, but also out of deep desire to be in relationship with us, and that we live deeply meaningful lives as stewards and disciples. So God entrusts us with our vocations, passions, strengths, ideas, questions, and very selves too so that we might actually be a part of God’s work in the world today. To be God’s hands and feet as the Body of Christ together.
You’ve been digging into this these past four weeks. As you remember who it is that you are, whose you are, and who God is. As you release those things that may have gotten in the way from time to time of your relationship with God and one another, as well as those ideas, guilts, or challenges which have weighed down your soul and kept you from fully being able to follow the one who gave his life for us. As you reimagine what it is to be part of God’s work in the world, and to open yourself up to wondering about what it is that God might be up here and inviting you to be a part of. And as you are filled with the life-giving Word, as you are moved by the life-giving bread and wine and cleansed with the water of baptism, you are restored.
Part of traveling through these 4 R’s is to reflect and recommit to life and relationship with God and one another in community here. But perhaps the most important thing is to remember and be restored in the truth of God’s promises for you- that God is for you- as we hear in the bread and wine. That God is with you- as Jesus proclaims time and time again. And that God knows you, sees you, and loves you. Always. If that’s true, then it just makes sense that we follow and grow as disciples, and serve generously as the stewards that God has called and created us to be.
Holy Trinity, I deeply believe that you get this. You continue to be a lively outpost of God’s mission and work here in Sidney and the southern part of the Panhandle. Even if the community has changed- if jobs have moved, if the way things are now is not what it once was- you all remain faithful, hopeful, and signs of God’s creative, reconciling, and redeeming work of love and service. I have seen that- with your congregation’s food pantry and especially this morning with your vibrant group of junior high and high school students having deep faith conversations and good breakfast well before 8:30am on a Sunday. Not many congregations can say that. God is at work in you here, and you are doing God’s work. Thank you for that!
Thank you also for being the generous stewards and disciples that I know that you are. I know that most clearly through 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 through which you do ministry that spans the globe and literally changes lives.
Through your mission share you raise up new leaders to walk with God’s people and point to God’s love and promises- like new pastors like your own Pastor Chad, and deacons and parish ministry associates. Through it you help youth and young adults know of God’s deep love for them, in part, through supporting Nebraska Lutheran Campus Ministry and Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry including Sullivan Hills. Through your mission share you spread the Good News of Jesus’ love through sending missionaries around the globe, and supporting new and renewing ministries right here all across the Big Red State including the synod’s brand new Vitality Initiative for Congregations. And through it, you see your neighbors, meet them where they are at, accompany them, and serve through the many serving arm partners of the church like Lutheran Family Services, Lutheran World Relief, Mosaic, and Lutheran Disaster Response, just to name a few.
There is so much that you do and make possible by being part of this church together. Perhaps the greatest part of my call is that I have the honor and privilege of being with you and being able to say thank you on behalf of all your siblings in Christ here in Nebraska and around the world. So, Thank you! Thank you for your discipleship. Thank you for your stewardship and generosity. And thank you for all that you do and that you are a part of here in Sidney.
What might be emerging- Vitality Initiative
Now I haven’t done a good job today of digging into all three of the stories we heard read. And don’t worry, I am not going to do that. There’s just not enough time for that today. But there is a question that you might have missed in our first lesson. Amid Isaiah’s words about the suffering servant, Messiah and Savior who we know the rest of the story about- the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection which is pure gift and grace for you and me- the prophet asks, “Who could have imagined his future?” As hard of a read as that Isaiah text might be, it’s Good News for us. All of this life giving and saving work isn’t our work, it’s God’s. From a stewardship perspective then follows our response which begins first and foremost with words of thanks, praise, and gratitude. And are followed by our actions as disciples who proclaim, “I believe,” and then are so moved that we follow, and even join in with God today in some of God’s on-going work in the world here and now.
One of the ways that you all are doing this- is by answering God’s invitation to be part of the inaugural cohort of the Nebraska Synod’s Vitality Initiative for Congregations. Through this two-year journey your vitality initiative team and your whole congregation will dig into big questions like, “Who are we?” “Who are our neighbors?” “What might God be up to and inviting us into?” And moving from listening, discerning, learning, and reflecting, to experimenting. All a part of God’s creative and on-going work.
It’s a holy thing. It’s a wonderful thing. And I am so happy to be able to walk with your congregation as part of this. Because surely wrapped up in all of this is a form of service that Jesus talks about in our story today, and also, is a call and space to imagine what it is that God might be inviting and what that will look like for your congregation. To borrow from Isaiah, “Who could have imagined his future?” And “who could have imagined God’s future here in Sidney, Nebraska?” I’m excited to see what might be emerging, and am grateful that your congregation is walking with God’s people here and Nebraska in this together.
God is at work in you, through you, with you, and for you. Thanks be to God! And thank you for responding to God’s call and invitation to you to be part of God’s work here and now. Amen.
Citations and References:
 Mark 10:35, NRSV.
 Mark 10:37, NRSV.
 Mark 10:38, NRSV.
 As in the story about Martha and Mary found in Luke 10:38-42.
 As in the parable Jesus tells found in Luke 14:7-11.
 Mark 10:27, NRSV.
 Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, 1520, as included in The Annotated Luther: The Roots of Reform, Volume 1, ed. Timothy J. Wengert, page 488, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015).
 Psalm 24:1, NRSV.
 Isaiah 53:8, NRSV.