Grief, Mourning, Gratitude, Joy, and Hope- an All Saints Sunday Stewardship Sermon

Outside beautiful St. John’s, on a beautiful All Saints Sunday.

I had the joy to be with the good people of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Norfolk, Nebraska for All Saints Sunday on Sunday November 7, 2021. Thank you to Pastor Randy Rasmussen for the invitation and to the whole congregation for the warm welcome. I was invited to preach on stewardship as well as the assigned texts from the lectionary for Year B. Thus, the sermon was based largely on John 11:32-44 with references to Isaiah 25:6-9, Revelation 21:1-6a; and Psalm 24. What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from at both worship services. The 8:30am Festival Service was recorded and broadcasted via Facebook Live, and that video can be seen or listened to below, especially as an alternative to reading this manuscript.

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

Good Morning St. John’s. It’s so great to be with you on this Feast Day where we remember All Saints. Thank you Pastor Randy for the invitation and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring greetings today from Bishop Brian Maas, from your Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Juliet Focken, and from your 90,000+ siblings in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod.

I’m grateful and excited to be with you today. To dig into God’s word for us today, and to sense what Jesus might be inviting us to see. To join you in giving thanks for the saints who have gone before us and whose legacy and story of discipleship and stewardship we are a part of. And to share a word of deep gratitude for all that you do, make possible, and are a part of as God’s stewards and disciples here in Norfolk. Let’s dig in.

The Video of the 8:30am “Festival Service” as broadcasted by the congregation via Facebook Live.

Our Story This Week
Our gospel story this week confronts us about the power of grief. Just before the events of Jesus’ passion kick off, Jesus gets word that his friend Lazarus is not doing well. Ultimately, he heads to visit him and his sisters Mary and Martha. Setting the stage for even Jesus to feel with full empathy and emotion the loss of a loved one. Yes, even Jesus, our Lord and Savior wept at the loss of a loved one. So if this All Saints Sunday is hitting you particularly hard, take heart. Jesus is with you in it. Christ has been where you are, felt what you feel, and he does so even now with you.

In receiving news of death, who among us has not heard weird statements or had deep guilty thoughts about, “if only this or that…” That’s kind of how our story begins. Mary, so beside herself in her grief says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”[1] Hearing these words, seeing and feeling the sadness gets to Jesus as it would any human being with a heart. Jesus goes to see. In coming near to Lazarus’ body and the reality of death, Jesus weeps.[2] Just like any normal person would at the loss of a loved one or friend.

A beautiful flowing fountain, a perfect compliment for discernment and prayer in the church’s prayer room.

Some might say this is a story that is about signs or miracles. Though it is one more sign of Jesus’ love and God’s saving work at work through Christ, more so for us this day, as we remember and give thanks for all those who have gone before us as part of the Body of Christ- I believe this is a story that tells us it is okay and good to grieve. It is okay and good to cry. It is okay and good to admit that we each need help to get through the hard times and moments of life. And in those moments, most of all, Jesus is there with us. He knows the feelings and experiences. He has lived them himself, as he does when his friend dies for the first time. He accompanies and walks with us, because he has walked through the pain and darkness of the valley of the shadow of death and come out the other side.

Jesus put up with the guilt he might have felt from his friends about not being there earlier for Lazarus. He puts up with the guilt from others who make fun of him or question him and how he could help others gain their sight, but could not prevent a friend from dying.[3] But of course, that is only half the story.

The other half of our story is that which gives us a foretaste of the events of the passion to come. The half that even more powerfully proclaims and shows that the story of the resurrection is true and what God’s saving work can and will do. God, in this story today, acts. God declares, “Lazarus, come out!”[4] And he does. And Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.”[5]

Perhaps you have wondered why this was true for Lazarus and not for your loved one? I wouldn’t have an answer for you. I might wonder the same thing about my grandma or grandpa, two saints I’m thinking about today. But, we might miss the rest of the story if we do. Lazarus would still have to die again later in life. So I can’t imagine he was all that excited about this experience. But as Jesus’ friend, he likely trusted that God was active and up to something.

Jesus is inviting us in this experience to dig into the realities of our grief. Amid a global pandemic, the loss of loved ones for any reason, a period of upheaval and major social change, coming to terms with how things aren’t as they once were… for this and so much more we all might have good reason to grieve. Jesus knows this, and he shows up in our story today showing us that God in Christ feels with us. Our emotions, our experiences, our hurts and heartbreaks… none of these are foreign from God. No. They’re all understood deeply and intimately by our Savior, Sustainer, Reconciler, and Creator.

Some of the congregation gathered in worship toward the end of the 11am Celebration Service, including Pastor Randy (far left).

Society and the world around us try so hard to have us ignore or wipe away the experiences of grief and death as quickly as possible, or even ignore them altogether. But we cannot. It’s not a faithful thing. It’s not what we as disciples and stewards are called to do. We’re called to be present in the midst. In our faith journeys, and in our church years, there’s a reason we have the experience of Holy Saturday and Easter Vigil between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We need to walk through this space of time. This time of wrestling and waiting. A time of lament, grief, anxiety and uncertainty. God knows these emotions well, and Jesus models them in this story today by reacting to and experiencing the loss and then resurrection of Lazarus.

This story offers another example of what God has done, will do, and continues to do for us.
It’s an example of the depth and breadth of God’s gift and provision of life-giving and life-freeing love. Think about that. Think about that, as we hear Jesus shout, “Lazarus, come out!” And, “Unbind him, and let him go.” What do you need to step out of, so that you can more freely walk with Jesus? What do you need to be freed and unbound from, so that you can be let go to live fully in Christ?

What is Stewardship?
I’m going to let those questions sit, and take a step back. I know you have been thinking a bit about stewardship these past few weeks. But let me offer my quick thoughts on what stewardship is. For me, stewardship starts with an understanding that comes from the beginning of Psalm 24. We read from the psalmist that, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and all those who live in it.”[6] This means that all that the earth is, is God’s. That all who live in and on the earth, including you and me, are God’s. And by extension, all that we have and all that we are, are God’s too. What we have, has been entrusted into our care by God. So that we might have life and have it abundantly, but also that through us, some of God’s work might be done as we use what God entrusts for our neighbors’ sake.

Some congregations have a “Noisy Offering” or a “Joyful Offering.” St. John’s currently also receives “Change for Change,” to support local efforts of need in their community. What another beautiful sign of stewardship in action.

We’re reminded of what God’s abundant love entails in our first lesson this week. Where we hear from the prophet Isaiah that, “The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food…”[7] This provision isn’t limited to a few people, but the prophet says, “for all peoples.” God provides, and God provides abundantly. More so, God will do what only God can do. God “will swallow up death for ever.”[8] Hope. Life. Resurrection. Salvation. These are the works of God. In so doing, “God will wipe away the tears from all faces…”[9]

God does and will do the work of salvation. That’s not ours to do. It’s work that only God can do and God does as pure gift and grace.Our work comes in our response. It comes as Isaiah also calls us to do this week, to “be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”[10] Indeed. Let us be glad and rejoice. For death is not the final word. For scarcity is not true in God’s eyes and in God’s kingdom. For God has not abandoned God’s own, but is with God’s beloved, always, out of deep, abundant, and abiding love. We have the opportunity to respond. By joyfully growing in our learning and faith as disciples, and to share God’s abundant and generous love and all that God entrusts as the generous stewards God has invited and created us each to be. That’s not to say that life will always be easy. No. Quite the contrary. The life of discipleship and stewardship is one of great meaning and purpose, but also challenge too.

In thinking about our stories this week, there is a sense that as stewards and disciples we can lean fully into this life and work, and we can lift up our heads with hope because God is present in the midst. We lift up our heads in hope, praise, and joy because God has done what only God can do- to bring life out of death. For this, we can and do celebrate and respond with joy and gratitude, because what else can we do for all that God does, has done, and will do?

Even amid the hard times, where words like this might be heard without joy, but anger, frustration, and sadness- we acknowledge that even in the midst of the darkest valleys, God walks with us and death does not overcome. God will not abandon God’s own beloved. And this is most certainly good news.

The beautiful scene as part of the worshiping community’s observance of All Saints, where candles were lit for the dearly departed in the past year of the congregation on the table, and the congregation as a whole was able to light candles remembering others in their life too as people came forward for community. I lit a candle for my Grandma Melba after assisting with communion. (That candle is the tall one on the upper left corner of the sand basin at the bottom of the picture.)

Our Invitation to Respond with Joy and Gratitude
On this All Saints Sunday, I am drawn to memories of my grandparents. My grandpa would have turned 100 years old last week, and my grandma, his wife of nearly 60 years just passed away this past spring from dementia amid the on-going challenges and isolation brought by the pandemic. For a moment, I might be sad, but after catching my breath, I see images like described in today’s stories. I am reminded of the truth of the gospel you and I are entrusted with. Good News to share and steward widely and abundantly. And I give thanks. For the faith and witness, love, discipleship and generosity of my grandparents. For the faith, witness, love, discipleship, and generosity of so many saints, including one of your own former pastors, Pr. Jack Nitz whose funeral was this past Wednesday. And of course I give thanks for our God who is present in the midst, and who even wept when Lazarus died too.

This story about Lazarus, and the reactions even Jesus had of grief and the good news that comes through it or despite it is so fitting for All Saints. I wonder, if we take a deeper look at this story, if it might also call us to reflect on the saints who have gone before us in some way? To reflect on the legacy of those who have gone before us- and made this congregation possible or who it is today? Who shaped you in your own faith, at a young or old age, who had the love to share the Good News of Jesus with you? The saints that pointed to stories like this and promises of God’s life-giving love, who even when times were hard, found reason to persevere. The saints that when resources seemed scarce, found reason to know, believe, and embody abundance.

More of the congregation gathered for worship, including the congregation’s worship band leading “Oh When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Lazarus’ sister Mary at first thinks that Jesus could have prevented this if only he had been there. She sounds like a normal human being, who in the midst of grief seems confronted by the scarcity of life. But she quickly will discover, that Jesus can and will change the story.That as our second lesson from Revelation tells us, God can and will “make all things new.”[11] God will indeed “wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more…”[12] And that is a lesson for us this day. That God’s promises are true. That God’s presence is real. And that God is most certainly for you, with you, and loves you. Always.

Thank You for being the Stewards and Disciples You Are
It’s this presence, promise and truth that makes our work as stewards and disciples possible. It’s the work that made the lives of all the saints possible- who have taught us, led us to the table here, and showed us the peace, joy, hope, and love of God in Christ. This work of discipleship and stewardship, I know needs no introduction.

St. John’s, you are a congregation with a long story of being faithful disciples and generous stewards. Whether it be through the sewing of quilts, and serving as a gathering point for the in-gathering. Through your support and partnership of campus ministry. Through creating space here as a place of welcome in Norfolk and northeast Nebraska for all of God’s beloved- no questions asked. Through raising up new leaders- PMAs and pastors, here in your congregation for the sake of God’s work in the world today. And through stepping up in joy and gratitude in responding with your mission and giving plans and pledges for the year ahead.

Some of the signs and pictures of St. John’s ministry in action.

All of this, your beautiful story of ministry and lives changed, I know most to be true though 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 help raise up new leaders of the church who walk with God’s people- like pastors, 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 Camp Carol Joy Holling. Through your mission share you spread the good news of the Gospel by sending missionaries around the globe, and supporting new and renewing ministries right here at home all across the Big Red State. And through it, you see your neighbors needs and meet them where they are at through the work of the church’s many serving arm partners- including Lutheran Family Services, Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Disaster Response, and Mosaic, just to name a few.

More signs of ministry in action, including pictures of their congregation’s expressions and service as part of “God’s Work Our Hands” Sunday.

There is so much that you do and that you make possible by being part of this church and through your discipleship and stewardship. On behalf of your siblings in Christ here in Nebraska and around the globe, it is my great honor and privilege to say to you all today, thank you! Thank you for your faithful discipleship. Thank you for your stewardship and generosity. And thank you for all that you do as part of the Body of Christ, and God’s on-going work here in Norfolk.

Putting it Altogether
Earlier I asked you two questions out of our gospel story this week. What do you need to step out of, so that you can more freely walk with Jesus? What do you need to be freed and unbound from, so that you can be let go to live fully in Christ? They are questions I think that we all are called to ponder, just as the saints who have gone before us did. Rest assured, no matter our answers to those questions and no matter what life brings, we know the rest of the story.

Our stories today point to the truth of our Lord and Savior who will go to and through the point of death on a cross so that we might all have life and have it abundantly. They point to a love and presence of God who is with us always, and who wants to be with us in deep relationship. They challenge us, but they also comfort us. Whether today is a day of joy or mourning, or both, we know that we are God’s, and we are called into relationship with God and with one another.

Preaching during the 8:30am Festival Service, as seen on Facebook Live.

May God’s love and promises of life abundant hold you and sustain you, and may you continue to share them richly with all your neighbors near and far. And may we each remember those who have gone before us, the saints and beloved who have claimed their baptismal promises, may we give thanks for them, and may we give thanks for our God who welcomes them, us, and all, to the abundant banquet feast. Thank you all, and thanks be to God. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] John 11:32, NRSV.
[2] John 11:35.
[3] As in John 11:37.
[4] John 11:43, NRSV.
[5] John 11:44, NRSV.
[6] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.
[7] Isaiah 25:6, NRSV.
[8] Isaiah 25:8, NRSV.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Isaiah 25:9, NRSV.
[11] Revelation 21:5, NRSV.
[12] Revelation 21:4, NRSV.

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