All Things Made New: What Might God be up to Next? – a stewardship sermon for Lent 4C

Outside American Lutheran in Cozad, Nebraska on a beautiful sunny Sunday morning.

I had the privilege to be with the good people of American Lutheran Church in Cozad, Nebraska which is a part of the Sonrise Parish on Sunday March 27, 2022. I was invited by Pastors Kathy Gundell and Steve Berke and Vicar Angela to come and preach on stewardship and lead a forum on matters related to stewardship and finances and questions of all kinds before worship. It was a joy to be with them, and then to have lunch with their ministry leaders after worship. What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from, based largely on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, readings appointed for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year C).

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

Good Morning American Lutheran! It’s so great to be with you today! Again I am Deacon Timothy Siburg, the Nebraska Synod’s Director for Mission, Innovation and Stewardship. Thank you so much Pastor Kathy, Pastor Steve, and Vicar Angela for the invitation and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring greetings today from Bishop Brian Maas and your Assistant to the Bishop, Pastor Jon Mapa. As well as from your 90,000+ siblings in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod.

Inside the sanctuary before worship.

On this beautiful Sunday morning the majority of your synod staff partners are out visiting area congregations in your cluster and neighboring clusters celebrating our shared mission and the 150th anniversary of the Nebraska Synod as our church together. So I am grateful and excited to be with you today to dig into rich and familiar stories of our faith- stories like that about a prodigal son, a jealous older brother, and an abundantly loving and forgiving father, and a reminder that truly all things are made new in Christ Jesus. To think some about stewardship and the mission and ministry we share and do together as the whole church. And to wonder too about what God might be inviting us to see, to be a part of, and sense now here in Cozad.

Digging into the Gospel Story
Our gospel story begins this week with Jesus responding to grumbling from Pharisees and scribes who were saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”[1] Yes. Guilty as charged. Our Lord and Savior welcomes one and welcomes all. He sees, knows, and loves all of God’s beloved. That’s one of the great truths of the gospels- it’s radical and abundant sense of welcome, love, forgiveness and inclusion. So the people were starting to figure that out. Though in doing so, they were surely missing the point. Which is precisely why Jesus tells this familiar story.

A younger son goes to his dad and says, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.”[2] He does. And then the son goes his own way. To what end?We know what happens next. The son squanders all he was entrusted with. He ends up wishing he could eat the pods that the pigs eat.[3] This story is one that confronts us with the reality that by ourselves, we are going to end up in the pit with the pigs. By ourselves, we’re not going to find abundance. By ourselves, we will inevitably mess up somewhere. The truth of the matter, is that we are a new creation because of God in Christ.[4] We are a new creation and recipients of abundant love and abundant life, because of a generous and gracious, steadfast and merciful God. In whose image we each are created.

Sneaking a quick picture of the congregation in worship as we began to play and lead the first hymn. Yes, I had the privilege of also being invited to join the worship band on keyboard/piano. It was tons of fun.

We are created too, to be in relationship. That’s a truth that we’re confronted with here too. We’re created and called to be in relationship with God, our neighbors, and loved ones. The youngest son thought he could go and live his life as he pleased, but by doing so, he completely put his trust in earthly things, and decided his relationships weren’t all that important. By the time he figured out the error of his ways, he remembered that he could probably go back to his dad and go to work. What he didn’t anticipate was his dad’s response.

Perhaps Jesus in telling this parable is telling us about what it might look like when we turn back, repent, and turn toward God. If so, God is the parent who lavishes God’s beloved in all that God has, forgives fully, and welcomes them home with open arms and celebration. Whether that is as simple as the beautiful feast we all celebrate of holy communion around one table together, or as elaborate as a great feast with the fatted calf. The youngest son learned the hard way about abundance. He had always had it, in relationship and life with his father and brother. Together, they had supported one another. It wasn’t until he went out on his own, that he realized that he couldn’t do it all by himself. This isn’t to say that a young adult shouldn’t go out in the world and move away from their parents, or go to college or take a job somewhere else. But in going away, whatever that might mean, one is better off not cutting ties with their support network, and certainly better off using that time to grow deeper with God who is with them always. The youngest son figured out what mattered and returned to his father. And the welcome couldn’t have been much better, except if his brother also showed up perhaps.

Signs of the faith, God’s promises, the sacraments and the pure gift and grace that we believe God provides as depicted by one of the stained glass windows that line the sanctuary.

The prodigal’s brother sounds perfectly rational. He’s mad. He doesn’t think any of this is fair.[5] Yet, he never once stopped to think about things from his father’s perspective. He never asked to celebrate. He never took a chance, and asked to have some fun himself. He was so obedient and responsible, that he never took a step back to consider the why’s behind his actions. He struggles to acknowledge and celebrate his brother’s return. Their father tries to reason with him, but like many in the world, the elder son doesn’t quite get it.

In telling this story like this, Jesus paints a picture of a Father who changes and challenges human perceptions of joy and abundance. For the father, what matters is relationship and being in relationship and present with those he loves. Whereas, for the sons, apparently what’s important is their property, wealth, possessions, and idea of inheritance. But why? What good are all of those things by themselves?

This is a Stewardship Story
It may not surprise you then, since I am your partner in ministry for mission, innovation and stewardship, that I think this gospel story today from Jesus is in fact a stewardship story. The father, knows what matters. He has things in right order. His sons, well, the prodigal didn’t but ultimately through his life experience he figured it out. The older son? It’s not so clear in this portion of the story at least if he does figure it out. Jesus in part tells this story because he has been challenged about the way he engages others and who he engages, welcomes, and forgives. So, he tells a story about relationships. So often in our world, we let things, wealth, possessions matter and give them power. By doing so, over time, that power leads to something that can and does, get in the way of our relationship with God and of one another. Again, the youngest son, seems to have figured this out, but it’s a challenge, and one that I’m sure we all face from time to time.

If this is indeed a stewardship story, it might help to think a bit about what stewardship is. When I think about stewardship, I am always drawn back to what the psalmist says at the beginning of Psalm 24. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”[6] This implies then, that we are the Lord’s. And by extension, all that we have and all that we are, are God’s too. Our full selves and all that makes us who we are- our lives, wealth, possessions, finances, stuff, but also our health, relationships, vocations, stories, passions, ideas, dreams, questions, and all of creation that is entrusted to our care back at the beginning of Genesis. All of this and more is who we are, and really then what and who is God’s, and which God entrusts to us and our care. You, are God’s own. I am God’s own. All of our fellow Children of God, are God’s own.

Speaking of creation, this was the sunrise I saw early Sunday morning in Cozad. Yes, God is surely up to something and calling us to see and share.

This is a beautiful truth. And it matters for understanding what God is up to, and what God might be inviting. It also helps explain why this seems so important for Jesus to explain through his stories and parables. He knows that his days before entering Jerusalem are few. So what does he do? He takes every opportunity he can to point to the Kingdom of God, to try and bring God’s own into God’s fold, and to help all who might listen to learn and hear and believe about God’s life-changing and life-saving love. This is the story we’re all entrusted with, and are invited to respond to. The story that begins at creation, and continues to move through the scriptures and the journeys of God’s people, to the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and everything that has come since. God’s story continues, God’s work and promises continue.

For all of this, we respond as stewards. We respond for all that God has done, will do, and continues to do for us. For what we could never earn or do ourselves, but that we are entrusted with, and provided for. We can’t help but be so moved like we proclaim with the psalmist today, “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice…and shout for joy.[7] As the psalmist suggests, we respond joyfully and gratefully, by giving God our thanks and praise, and then by joining in with God in some of God’s on-going work here and now. The work of sharing the good news of God in Christ. The work of caring for our neighbors, and inviting all to know, to taste, and to see that the Lord is good.

Signs of the baptized Children of God and disciples of the faith who are part of American Lutheran’s story of God’s on-going work here as part of this faith community.

Some Thoughts from Paul
The Apostle Paul writes so powerfully in our second lesson. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”[8] It’s God’s work. It’s not ours, alone to do or earn. But rather it is through God in Christ, that everything is made new! Not through ourselves, not through our own efforts or because we deserve this or that. But because of God, everything is made new.

We are reconciled by God in Christ as pure gift and grace, and are called and entrusted with the work and message of reconciliation too. This is part of our identity as Child of God. It’s part of life as a disciple and steward. Because God is present and makes it possible, it is. The Prodigal Son started to figure this out. I think the Father always knew this to be true. The oldest son, hadn’t quite grasped it yet. That’s not entirely dissimilar to any one of us, and our stories. We all find ourselves in different places in our journeys of faith and life. Yet we are all welcomed and met by the same God in Christ who loves and forgives us all, no matter what.

American Lutheran greets people as they come in the main doors to the church with a beautiful depiction of the Nativity, God in Christ’s birth for God’s people.

I’m thinking about this truth today as a young parent of two little girls- a just about four year old Caroline, and a one and a half-year old Cora. Caroline’s embraced life as oldest child, and Cora’s discovered that she can climb on everything and run faster than any adult can seemingly keep up with. I wish I could say I am always the loving and patient father like in today’s story, but at times I feel like I waffle between the father, and the expressions of the two sons. That’s one of the challenges of life and relationships. We all come up short at times. But then we might remember today’s story and the promises that God makes like all things are being made new. So even though the day might not go as planned, or others might not act as we would want them to do so, daughters or sons included, God is up to something, calling us to life together, inviting me and all of us to see something new or unexpected.

What might God be inviting (innovation through Father’s abundance & Paul)
In these days this gives me great hope and I believe inspires God’s people to be innovative, creative, and willing to risk courageously for our neighbor’s sake; as part of God’s on-going work in the world. I wonder what God might be inviting you all into as a part of this time and space? I wonder, in what ways God’s kingdom is breaking in bit, by bit, through you? In whatever ways it is, it’s surely signs of God’s new creation and creativity at work.

I’ve seen this creativity at work in the congregations of the synod. I have witnessed it this past year through the work of eight of your partner congregations from Sidney out west to Bellevue in the east and everywhere in between who are part of the inaugural cohort of the Nebraska Synod’s Vitality Initiative for Congregations. In this two-year journey, these congregations are asking big questions about who they are, who their neighbor is, and what God might be inviting. Together, they are taking risks for the sake of the gospel and their neighbor, following God’s invitation to experiment and try some new things or old things in new ways.

Some of the disciples gathered for conversation and enjoying the wonderful treats shared by all.

Things like you have lived and grown through in this time of experimentation- from outdoor worship and online worship; providing multiple ways to give and respond through our stewardship; and so many other adaptations, that have been made to keep your community safe while all the more telling and sharing the on-going story of God’s life changing and life giving love with your neighbors near and far. You do this through growing the way you show up in the world- with a physical front door, and an online presence. Through walking with your partners in the Sonrise Parish, serving the communities of Cozad and Eustis as faithful and active signs of God’s presence and love for all of God’s people. And through holding space for learning, faith formation, and discipleship growth through forum times before worship like I had the pleasure of being with you all for today. Yes! God is active and up to something in, among, through, with, and for you. I am sure of it.

Gratitude for being part of the Church Together (especially Mission Share)
I know too, that you are signs of the living Christ through the way you welcome, see, accompany, and care for your neighbor’s near and far. I know this to be most true 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 support and raise up new leaders of the faith- pastors like your Pastors Kathy and Steve and Vicar Angela, as well as deacons like myself, and parish ministry associates, who are trained to walk with all of God’s people and serve alongside one another. Through your mission share 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 and Sullivan Hills. Through it you spread the good news of the Gospel by sending missionaries around the world, and supporting new and renewing ministries right here all across the Big Red State. And through your mission share, you literally are the hands and feet of Christ, welcoming the Prodigal Son and all those in need through sharing mercy and love through the many serving arm partners of the church who meet our neighbors where they are at, like Lutheran Family Services, Lutheran Disaster Response, Mosaic, and many more. There is so much that you do and help make possible by being part of this church. Thank you!

It always warms my heart to see a congregation publicly acknowledge their participation in the larger church through their mission share certificate. What a great way to help tell the story of the larger church that they are a part of.

It’s one of the greatest privileges of my role on synod staff to say thank you on behalf of your siblings in Christ across the synod, and around the world. Thank you! Thank you for your faithful discipleship as you follow Jesus’ call to love and serve your neighbor and join in with God’s mission in the world. Thank you for your generous stewardship to help meet your neighbor’s needs and spread the good news of what God has done for you. And thank you for all that you do here in Cozad as Jesus’ faithful disciples and generous stewards of God’s abundance and signs of God’s deep welcoming embrace.

What’s Next?- Putting it altogether
The Prodigal Son didn’t know what to expect when he returned to his Father. But he was welcomed with open arms. Because that is precisely what God does and will do for all of God’s beloved. That’s the truth of the good news. It is for you, for me, and for all. And it’s because of that truth, and the truth that in Christ all things are made new, that we lean in and continue to grow as disciples and serve as stewards of God’s abundant love.

God is surely up to something here. Let’s have the courage to look for it with hope, to join in where we can with all that we have and all that we are, and to follow boldly wherever God might be inviting us to go. I’m excited to see what God might be up to next with all of you as God’s people here in Cozad. Thank you for being you and for following God’s invitation. And thanks be to God for God’s deep, abundant and abiding love which calls us altogether, and is with us and for us. Always. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] Luke 15:2, NRSV.
[2] Luke 15:12, NRSV.
[3] Luke 15:16.
[4] As expanded on in 2 Corinthians 5:17.
[5] Luke 15:28-30, NRSV.
[6] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.
[7] Psalm 32:11, NRSV.
[8] 2 Corinthians 5:17, NRSV.

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