“Keeping the Main the Thing, the Main Thing”- a stewardship sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost

Outside Grace Lutheran on a beautiful sunny summer morning.

I had the privilege to be with the good people of Grace Lutheran Church in Lincoln, Nebraska this morning (August 21, 2022). Thank you Pastor Glatha Rathjen for the invitation and to the whole congregation for the warm welcome. What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from, based especially on Luke 13:10-17, and the other appointed readings for Lectionary 21 (C), the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C). If desired the service can be viewed and/or listened to (and the sermon too) by following the Facebook Live link here: https://www.facebook.com/113278686716424/videos/599828964927550.

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

Good morning Grace Lutheran! It’s so good to be with you today. Thank you Pastor Glatha for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring you greetings today from Bishop Brian Maas and Bishop-elect Pastor Scott Johnson, from your Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Megan Morrow, and from your 90,000+ siblings in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod. It’s so great to be a part of this church together, and please know Grace how grateful this whole church is for the ministry that you do, make possible, and are a part of.

You may not know that I was part of the group of voting members of the Nebraska Synod who participated in the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Columbus, Ohio a little over a week ago, and I am grateful for you too, for raising up and supporting one of your own, Elizabeth Krueger who was also a voting member on behalf of the whole synod. Thank you Elizabeth for being willing to serve in such a way and for your time in doing the important work on behalf of the whole church.

The beautiful altar area of the sanctuary prior to worship.

Digging into God’s Story for Us
Now speaking about work and ministry, Jesus seems to have a lot to say about that in this week’s story, doesn’t he? We find Jesus teaching again, just as we have heard about the last few weeks too. He’s teaching this time in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. Nothing strange about that. Seems straight forward. Faith formation and discipleship building are happening as planned and expected. But with Jesus, we should know better. For he sees another Child of God in need, and in witnessing the woman, he acts. “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”[1] Praise God. God’s saving and healing work has been witnessed and made real in front of the whole assembly of God’s people. Except, that’s not at all what happens. Is it?

The woman is healed and freed, and does what we all ought to do in response. She praises God. She gives thanks and praise for what God alone can do. For providing life, healing, hope and really salvation. You’d think all of God’s people would be giving thanks and praise for such a perfect example of God’s saving work made real on the sabbath in the house of worship.

But no. That’s not the reaction at all of the crowd. We hear that the priest, the leader of the synagogue is “indignant.” He’s irate. He’s fuming mad because Jesus has cured on the sabbath. How dare he do such a horrible thing, like help a neighbor in need? Where does he come from? That’s not okay! He says, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”[2] Ah, now it’s becoming more clear what is going on here.

What a blessing and joy it was to be at Grace on the third Sunday of the month when they observe “Jazz Sunday” in worship. Anne Melang-Thoren brings the whole group together so wonderfully in addition to leading everything on piano. Thank you Anne, Aleisha, Damian, Jonah, Erik, Madeleine, and Miles for the beautiful music. It was a gift to gather in worship with all of you today.

The Tension of the Law and Gospel
The leader of the synagogue is mad, because he believes that the law is being violated. He no doubt understands the law like the prophet Isaiah describes in our first lesson today proclaiming, If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord.”[3] But what could be more honorable to the Lord and to the Lord’s day, then healing the sick and hurt, and welcoming those often cast aside in deep and abundant and abiding love?

The leader of the synagogue and perhaps other leaders of the faith had somehow lost sight of the main thing amid all of this. The main thing about proclaiming the good news of God, and of loving God and one’s neighbor. This all had somehow taken a step back in importance to the law of doing what is good. And here in Nebraska, what about farmers and ranchers? They can’t take a day off from caring for their livestock. Jesus is quick to call out the hypocrisy of it all. He goes so far as to say, “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”[4]

Somewhere along the line the law had become more important to these leaders than the purpose of the law. The purpose of the law that God gives, is so that life might go well for God’s own. Not to hold God’s people bound, but to provide life in community and relationship filled with meaning, purpose, and abundance. If that means healing on the sabbath, so be it. For the spirit of the law would supersede the wording of the law. Jesus is quite right and clear about this. And he provides some much needed gospel to go with the law and our understanding of it.

The faithful congregation gathered in song during worship in the beautiful sanctuary.

The crowd who witnesses this sees and responds accordingly. Jesus’ opponents, those who question his ministry and mission or who feel threatened by his mere presence and proclamation are put to shame. They’ll get their revenge soon enough with his being handed over, with the sham trial to come in Jerusalem, and death on a cross. But for today, we hear that “the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that” Jesus was doing.[5]

The Tension of “Good” and the “Real”
There’s a stewardship lesson here, and we’ll get to that in a moment. But one other thing strikes me in this story today. There’s a tension in this story in how we approach the law and the gospel and even our understanding of the law and sabbath. It’s a tension that might be described as the pull of “Good and Right.” Of doing what is good or doing what is right? Sometimes they aren’t the same thing. This was part of our discernment and discussion as a whole church a week ago in Columbus, and we even confessed as much together as God’s people in the closing worship of Churchwide Assembly. We confessed for the temptation and times we choose to “be good,” instead of leaning in and being present in “the real.”

Jesus acts today in this story to heal. He also acts to call out injustice. For the structures and powers and systems that be, would seemingly want the woman to stay in need of healing at least for another day. And why? Because that’s the way it’s always been? Because they say so? Well, if that’s the case, I don’t care who you are- if you’re a disciple and follower of the way, a deacon like me, a pastor, a bishop, anyone… you’re missing the main thing.

Some of the congregation gathered in deep conversation and fellowship after worship. I greatly enjoyed the conversations I was a part of too.

You’re choosing the good at the expense of doing what is right. Instead of seeing one’s neighbor in need, and showing up. Of trying to avoid potential conflict instead of advocating for and walking alongside one’s neighbors. Neighbors who for whatever reason- perhaps their race or skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, differing perspectives, experiences, education; anyone who might have a different experience than you and me. Neighbors whom God is calling for us as their neighbor to see and to show up alongside, proclaiming through word and deed that God’s love is real, that God sees you and knows you, and is with you. And we are too. Because we are all created in the very image of God, and beloved Children of God together.

The woman is healed in this story. Thanks be to God for that. It’s sad that the priest or leader of the synagogue has to be put to shame in the process, but sometimes, that’s what it takes for all to see, that maybe, just maybe, we’re missing the point about what it means to be a disciple and Child of God?

Stewardship as Joyful Response
Now as disciples, we’re also stewards of God’s love. 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 Children of God, are God’s own. 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 through word and deed. To heal the afflicted. To bind up the brokenhearted. To try and bring God’s own into God’s fold.

To help all who might listen to learn and hear and believe about God’s life-changing and life-saving love. To see those in need like a woman in the synagogue, and to do what he can to bring life, hope, and salvation. 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.

Pastor Glatha diligently preparing for the meal, in which we too will be reminded of all that God does “for you.”

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. When we remember this, and all that God does, has done, and will do for God’s beloved, we can’t help but be so moved like we proclaim with the psalmist today, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name… The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed…The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”[7]

For all that God does there is only one response. One of joy and gratitude. One like the woman who is healed in the gospel story, and deeply and gratefully praises God. So as the writer of Hebrews says in our second lesson today, “Let us give thanks.”[8] For we can’t help but share our thanks and praise in deep gratitude and great joy for all that God has done, continues to do, and promises to do for us. And then we can’t help, but be so swept up in that joy and gratitude that we join 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.

Gratitude for being part of the Church Together (especially Mission Share)
Grace, I know that you understand this. You live this out through your presence here in Lincoln and through the many ways you meet your neighbors where they are at. And 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.

A beautiful sign of welcome upon entering the church building and preparing early before worship, which also uplifts many of the ministries that Grace is a part of and helps make possible.

Through it you support and raise up new leaders of the faith- pastors, deacons, 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. Through it you spread the good news of the Gospel by sending missionaries around the world, and by 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, 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 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 Lincoln as Jesus’ faithful disciples and generous stewards of God’s love.

Putting it Altogether
Through your stewardship and embodiment of God’s love, you live out the calling of what it means to be a disciple who not only sees your neighbors, but you work and grow to truly be in relationship with them. You keep the main thing, the main thing. Keep doing that. Don’t get stuck in the minutia of rules, law, and the way things are or have been. Focus, as Jesus reminds us today in healing even on the sabbath day, focus on always being bearers of God’s good news of life, love, grace, mercy, and peace. In doing that, everything else will fall into place. For we know that this isn’t about you or me, or our work.

Visible signs throughout the church building in multiple languages, expressing appreciation for the community’s neighbors and a sign of welcome.

This is God’s work, that we are all grateful and blessed to be a part of. It may not be as dramatic as healing someone but it might mean seeing someone who the world around them has ignored, and saying, “Hi. Can I help you?” Or even, “Hi. Would you like to join me?” Or better yet, “Hi. You’re loved. May I join you?” For that effectively is what Jesus does for the woman in today’s story. And that is also what he does daily for you, me, and all Children of God. Thanks for being a part of this life together and for all that you do, and thanks be to God who makes it all possible. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] Luke 13:12, NRSV.
[2] Luke 13:14, NRSV.
[3] Isaiah 58:13-14, NRSV.
[4] Luke 13:16, NRSV.
[5] Luke 13:17, NRSV.
[6] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.
[7] From Psalm 103:1-8, NRSV.
[8] Hebrews 12:28, NRSV.

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