Looking Forward: Living & Serving as Disciples of Jesus and Stewards of God’s Love – a sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

Outside of St. Paul Lutheran in Auburn, Nebraska before worship on a beautiful summer Sunday morning.

I had the privilege of being with the good people of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Auburn, Nebraska on Sunday June 26, 2022. Thank you to Pastor Ken Miller for the invitation and to the whole congregation for the warm welcome. What follows are some pictures from my visit, and the manuscript that I largely preached from based on the appointed readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for the Third Sunday after Pentecost (Year C), especially: Luke 9:51-62 and Galatians 5:1, 13-25. A special word of thanks goes to the congregation too for St. Paul’s generous and unexpected gift of a new deacon stole for me reminding of God’s promises and the Noah’s Ark story. It’s beautiful and a very unexpected gift! Thank you for this most amazing generous gesture. This is the second time in my six years on synod staff that a congregation has given me such a gift, and I am grateful. It means so much, especially as when I was consecrated (now ordained) the church had not yet settled on the practice of laying on and presenting Deacon stoles. So thank you so much people of God for our shared ministry together and for your kindness in this most unexpected gift.

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

The front of the beautiful sanctuary of St. Paul Lutheran, with comfortable pillows, Spark Bibles, and noisy offering pales. It was a blessing to be there, and spend some time with a Children’s Message based on the Fruits of the Spirit with the younger saints.

In our story today Jesus has his face set towards Jerusalem.[1] He knows what lies ahead, and sensing the urgency of it, is even clearer eyed and focused on making sure that those who have eyes might see and those who have ears might hear. He is urgent in his teaching now about discipleship, and its challenges and beauty. The people can’t comprehend it yet. But Jesus is painting a picture of the challenging life of discipleship, but also about why it matters. For it has everything to do with the kingdom of God.

Discipleship and the Kingdom of God
The Kingdom of God that is now and not yet, and is also breaking-in to our world today, bit by bit. The Kingdom which Jesus talks about more than anything else in his ministry as recorded in the gospels. The Kingdom in which Jesus calls and invites us all to see, witness, participate in, and live as part of. But he also knows that this invitation to discipleship, and the way of the cross is not always an easy walk, or an invitation to the kingdom that is not always fully welcomed by those who are invited.

All of this is packed into this story today. For as Jesus goes on the road, he gives examples of responses he has heard from people when meeting them and calling them to follow. Like, “I will follow you wherever you go.”[2] You would think Jesus would be happy to hear such a response. But instead he pushes back, and doubts it. Saying, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”[3] Jesus is describing just how hard and challenging it is to leave one’s stuff and self behind, to pick up the cross, and follow Jesus. To live and lean into, and walk towards the kingdom of God.

If that wasn’t clear, it becomes very clear when Jesus responds to the person he meets who says, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”[4] That seems perfectly reasonable. But Jesus doesn’t seem to think so in this case. His response is about the opposite to what they teach you in seminary for the best practices of pastoral care, saying “let the dead bury their own dead.”[5] At least he doesn’t leave it there. He continues saying, “go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”[6] And that is the discipleship move. No matter the good or bad, the hard or easy, the ups or downs, all disciples are called and entrusted with the gift and responsibility of proclaiming what God has done and pointing to the kingdom of God.

Jesus leaves no room for excuses- even the most noble, or understandable. He hearkens back to the stories of the faith, like that of Elijah and Elisha which we heard in our first lesson.[7] Jesus says that “No one who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”[8] I think that image works here in agricultural Nebraska. But it’s harsh, isn’t it? It’s hard to hear our Lord and Savior be so blunt and direct. But to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt, he knows he doesn’t have time to sugar coat anything. So he plays his cards at their face value. The lives of God’s beloved are at stake. The work of the kingdom of God is real. And the time has come. Jesus is calling all who might hear to look ahead, to move forward, and not back.

My view from behind before worship, as many (but not all) of the people of God had claimed their pew locations for worship. Before and after worship I had good conversation with many people, including a visiting couple from Iowa who are now full-time “RVers.” It just so happened that they were a retired pastor and deacon couple. So that was an added blessing to meet them and hear a little of their story, as Allison and I live into our shared ministries as a pastor and deacon couple who can be thankful for ministry couples and teams like them who have gone before us, and have worked for equality and the importance of both rosters.

The Temptation to Look Back
He knows that we have a tendency to look back, over our shoulder or to another time in the past. It’s basic human nature and relationship etiquette to say good bye to friends and loved ones. I don’t think Jesus is arguing against that practice. But he is making the point that this work is so important as disciples, that it supersedes anything else. One must be all in, because the kingdom of God is a life and death thing.

It’s hard. We’re all going to come up short at times and fail. We’re all going to want to look back, linger and wonder from time to time. And Jesus knows this. But he also knows how tempting that can be, and he doesn’t want us to fall victim to it. To fall for the lies of nostalgia and the glory days of the past, and the way things were when. You know, the memories we might have of 60-70 years ago when churches were full of people on Sunday mornings, and there were more kids in Sunday School than room for Sunday School classes. Though the data about whether that is an accurate memory or not might surprise you. But that power of nostalgia and looking back is real. Consider this, what are the most popular type of television shows being made right now? Remakes of the past. Law and Order has returned. Hawaii Five-O, Magnum P.I., MacGyver, Night Court, the Wonder Years, Quantum Leap, the A-Team, Full House, and more have all been remade or are in the process of being rebooted. It’s nostalgia on full display. It’s a powerful thing.

Jesus knows the power of this. He knows the temptation to look back is real. But he wants us to focus on what matters in the here and now. He is calling us to be laser focused on the present and future. For God’s work is not done. God’s people are in need. God has called us each to use what God has entrusted to our care, to join in and do some of God’s work. And as disciples, God has called us all to proclaim the good, and admittedly sometimes challenging, news that the kingdom of God has come near for one and for all.

Discipleship in Action as signs of freedom and the Fruits of the Spirit
We proclaim this good news, because we know its true. We know the rest of the story of God in Christ’s life-giving work from his incarnation, birth, and life among us, to his trial and death on a cross, to his resurrection and ascension. All of this and so much more, God has done, for you and for me and for all of God’s beloved. We proclaim this, because we know God’s promises are true. Promises like as Paul writes about, “For freedom Christ has set us free.”[9]

Paul is connecting the mission and work of God in Christ as it relates to us and all of God’s people. And then unpacking the law and commandments, he shows how they are surmised as “love your neighbor as yourself.”[10] Which orients us as God’s people toward one another in our lives as disciples and stewards. He warns about the things that distract us from being in relationship with each other, and from inheriting the kingdom of God, and provides another way. Highlighting the fruits of the Spirit which are, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”[11] Jesus and Paul after him, are pointing to discipleship in action as signs of our freedom in Christ, and as the fruit and work of the Spirit which guides us and makes our life together possible.

Outside of the sanctuary in the narthex are wonderful signs of discipleship in action. There are boxes of crayons with pictures and stories that correspond to the ones in worship this week, to engage in faith that way; as we well as opportunities to support a local mission focus and other needs locally and globally as part of the Body of Christ together.
Look at this beautiful example of cross+generational ministry happening during worship, as multiple generations were working in tandem to receive the gifts of God’s people during the offering time. It featured joyful running around and sharing of noisy offering buckets, and grateful sharing of gifts with more traditional offering plates too. What a blessing and joy to witness this!

As Paul writes, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”[12] This may mean following the Spirit to places we might not always want to go, or at the very least, to be part of something we might not expect or imagine. Such is the way God works in the world. Such is the way vocation emerges too. But all of this is a part of freedom. As Martin Luther writes in The Freedom of a Christian, “A Christian is perfectly free, subject to none. A Christian is dutiful servant, subject to all.”[13] We are freed in Christ. But we are also bound to each other in Christ. It’s a paradox, that embodies the commandments to love God, and our neighbors as ourselves. And God invites us into some of God’s work and relationship together as part of it.

Stewardship in Action- through you, for you, and with you
So we join this life as disciples and stewards, and as we do, we are swept up in the fruits of the spirit including, “love, joy, peace… and generosity.” This is all about stewardship. But what do I mean by stewardship? When I think about stewardship, I am drawn 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.”[14] The psalmist is saying that we are God’s own. 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, our bodies, 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 all that is, is God’s which God entrusts to us and our care. Yes, you are God’s own. I am God’s own. All Children of God, are God’s own. God does all of this entrusting out of God’s deep, abundant, and abiding love; and because God wants to be in relationship with God’s people.

So that all of God’s beloved might live abundant lives. This is a truth Jesus is talking about as he proclaims the Kingdom of God. This is the truth that Jesus is preaching and teaching about, wanting all who might listen to learn and hear and believe about God’s life-changing and life-saving love. And so, like in our story today, God-in-Christ entrusts us with the story too, to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God, and to respond to the good news and promises of God.

And so we do. We respond as stewards of God’s love. We respond for all that God has done, will do, and continues to do, for us. For all that we could never earn or do ourselves, but that we are entrusted with and provided for. We can’t help but be so moved, that we can say the words the psalmist says today, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you…Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices … For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy.”[15] For this and for all that God has done, we respond with joy and gratitude, 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 looking ahead while pushing the plow, and not backward over our shoulder. The work of sharing the good news of God in Christ. The work of caring for our neighbors, and pointing to the kingdom of God by inviting all to know, to taste, and to see that the Lord is good.

You are part of the Kingdom’s Work
You embody this. I know this about you St. Paul Lutheran. I know, that even though its so tempting to look to the past and the way things might have been, that you are a forward looking people because you are faithful and you know that God is with you right now and calling you forward. Yes, you are part of God’s kingdom building work! 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 Pastor Ken, 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. 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 all those in need through sharing mercy and love through the many serving arm partners of the church 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!

On behalf of your siblings in Christ across our synod, and from around the world, thank you! Thank you for your faithful discipleship as you look forward as Jesus calls, and as you follow Jesus’ call to love your neighbor and join in with God’s mission in the world. Thank you for embodying all of the Fruits of the Spirit, as through your generous stewardship you help meet your neighbor’s needs and proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God and all God has done for you. And thank you for all that you do here in Auburn as Jesus’ faithful disciples and generous stewards of God’s abundance and deep love. Thank you!

We’re Called to Look Forward, Not Back
Jesus calls us to look forward, and not to look back. It’s important, but sometimes this can be a hard word to hear. But it’s a good word. And it’s an honest one about the challenges of discipleship. It also reminds us though that discipleship isn’t all hard, there is a lot of joy and beauty that comes with it, by being a follower of Jesus and part of the Body of Christ together. Because when you see and witness the kingdom of God breaking in, you can’t help but be changed and want to join in.

To see God at work. To see God’s life changing work happening. To see the Kingdom of God breaking in all around us, for us, in us, and through us, in real time. No one ever said life as a disciple would ever be easy, especially not Jesus. It’s the life of one who follows the cross after all. But we know what that leads to too. Freedom. Hope. Joy. New life out of death. This is God’s lifesaving work, that God does for you and for me. We have the duty and the joy to respond to it in our lives as disciples and stewards and Jesus calls us to it. Let us go, and follow in hope and faith. Thanks be to God. Amen.

A close look at the beautiful stole that St. Paul Lutheran gifted me with. Thank you so much for this most generous and beautiful gift! It is a great reminder of God’s promises and love for all of creation.

Citations and References:
[1] Luke 9:51, NRSV.
[2] Luke 9:57, NRSV.
[3] Luke 9:58, NRSV. This seems like it could also be a jab at the emperor. Jesus uses the language of fox to describe the emperor elsewhere in his teaching, so maybe he is making a point about the challenge of being a faithful disciple as part of the earthly world (as in Luke 13:32). I am not sure though that’s his main point.
[4] Luke 9:59, NRSV.
[5] Luke 9:60, NRSV.
[6] Luke 9:60, NRSV.
[7] Kings 19:15-16, 19-21.
[8] Luke 9:62, NRSV.
[9] Galatians 5:1, NRSV.
[10] Galatians 5:14, NRSV.
[11] Galatians 5:22-23, NRSV.
[12] Galatians 5:25, NRSV.
[13] As translated from Martin Luther’s On the Freedom of a Christian, November 1520.
[14] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.
[15] Psalm 16:2, 16:9-11, NRSV.

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