Stewardship is all about relationships and being in community- a stewardship sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 25) Year C

It was a joy to be with God’s people gathered as Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska on Sunday September 18, 2022. I was invited by Pastor Diana Kuhl to preach on stewardship, and did so using the appointed lessons from the revised common lectionary for the day (based on Lectionary 25 for Year C), primarily Luke 16:1-13 with additional references to Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; and 1 Timothy 2:1-7. It was a beautiful morning with good conversations and a nice visit with the church’s council after worship too. Thank you all for a great morning and for all that you do as God’s people meeting your neighbor’s where they are at and sharing God’s love asWhat follows is the majority of the manuscript that I preached from.

Outside the beautiful building of Shepherd of the Hills on a gorgeous Sunday morning. Notice the Good Shepherd on the side of the sanctuary, and the tall bell tower and steeple cross that are visible sign’s of Christ’s presence, peace, and promise for the whole community to see and to hear the bells as they call God’s people to gather for worship.

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

Good morning Shepherd of the Hills! It’s good to be with you today. Thank you Pastor Di for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring you greetings today from Bishop Scott Johnson, from your Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Juliet Focken, and from your 90,000+ siblings in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod. As I bring you greetings, I also bring you a reminder that your siblings in Christ are holding you all in prayer and are here for you as you walk through this time of grief and mourning as you remember Dave and support your Pastor Di and each other. If nothing else today, I hope that you hear a sign of God’s peace, presence, and promise for each one of you.

These three things- peace, presence, and promise, are a part of our lives as disciples, and as stewards as we joyfully and gratefully respond to all that God has done for us, and join in with God’s on-going work here and now. And yes, stewardship is one of the things I have been invited to preach about today. But before we get there, lets ground ourselves in the story we just heard.

The Shrewd Steward
If you’re scratching your head, trying to make sense of this story, rest easy. You are not alone. This gospel story about a dishonest manager or a shrewd steward, is not the clearest of parables. It leaves the door open for countless interpretations. Even for Jesus, this parable is out there. But when I hear this story- about a dishonest manager who is in the process of being fired from his job, I notice that this outgoing steward decides to do what he can to make life just a little better for his soon to be neighbors and equals.[1] He reduces the debt of one who owes olive oil and cuts it in half to fifty jugs.[2] To another who owes a hundred containers of wheat, he cuts the bill to eighty containers.[3] There may be no rhyme or reason for the amounts and reductions, but this act of debt reduction, is an act of making life just a little bit better for another.

A quick glimpse well before worship in the sanctuary, with so many lay leaders serving well and preparing for worship.

Now the way the manager acts in this may sound selfish. It may sound deceitful. And it is all of these things. Yet, Jesus is here praising this person for how he acts. That really begs the question, how is Jesus commending this kind of behavior? We have to look a little deeper. If we dig in a bit more, perhaps this is a story about relationships. Jesus is continuing in his theme of preaching and teaching about what it means to be in relationship with one another. And he knows that one of the things that most gets in the way of our relationships at times with each other and with God, is how we engage, talk about, and give power to things like money, wealth, poverty, and possessions. It’s not a stretch to see how important this is for him.

For over the course of the four gospels, Jesus talks about money, wealth, and possessions as the second most common theme or subject in all of his parables and preaching, behind only the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. He talks about these things more even than sin, death, and the devil. I think that says something. He knows that really nothing gets in the way of one’s relationship with God and neighbor more than money, wealth, and possessions, and it’s for this reason that he concludes this story with the declaration that, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”[4] That’s not to say that wealth or money are bad. Jesus isn’t saying that at all. But the way we use or value these things matters, especially in regards to relationships and in our lives as stewards and disciples.

This manager is really pondering about relationships. He says as much, “I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.”[5] This may be a move out of self-interest which the master in the story praises actually as an act of being shrewd,[6] and Jesus praises too, by saying, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”[7] Perhaps we should be asking in hearing this from Jesus, how do we live with one another, and how do we best treat each other as neighbor- as signs of God’s love?

Much like today, the dangers of usury and predatory loans were not uncommon in the society of Jesus’ time. And Jesus in this story today is really trying to make a point about the burden that such things have on people’s lives. He doesn’t quite get as heated here as the prophet Amos is in our first lesson who goes so far as to say, “you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,”[8] or “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,”[9] but Jesus is equally concerned about this. Put another way, think of the Lord’s Prayer. One familiar older version of it, made famous in song, says, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”[10] That logic in a lot of ways comes from this gospel passage we’re wrestling with today. 

Upon entering the church building, I saw this visible sign of community and relationship. A great reminder of God’s love and presence, and our call to be in relationships with all of God’s beloved children.

There’s a connection in this story too to the more familiar story about the Good Samaritan. Jesus offers that story if you recall when faced with the question from a lawyer who is trying to justify himself by asking, “and who is my neighbor?”[11] This story today in a lot of ways might be a continuation of that theme, and may be even a response to a question like, “and who is my friend?”

Relationships, Relationships, Relationships
If we dig into the motivations then of this steward in this story, faced with the reality that he’s going to be out of a job, and he also recognizes the uncertainty of what his future employment situation might look like, he takes an opportunity to perhaps help make life go better- for himself, but also to help improve life, if only a little bit, for his neighbors. In forgiving the debts to particular people, and at the differing rates that he does, he may be choosing those amounts because they would equal his cut as the middle-man or manager or his commission if you will, for being responsible for their finances and debt situations. So, in cutting the olive oil bill in half, and the wheat bill by 20%, the steward may be giving up his own financial interest for the sake of building relationship with those he knew could possibly help him out when the time comes, as when he’s no longer employed he will be relying on the mercy of others.

This is a story about relationships but also perhaps a lesson about being in community, living life together. And that is a great reflection point for us as the people of God today. What does it mean to be in relationship? In community? What might it mean to give up our self-interest, for the sake of relationship as a benefit to others and ourselves? What is the interest we might give up, so that it would benefit the relationships we could build?

What is Stewardship?
I’m going to park those questions right here for a moment. In thinking about all of this, it would probably be helpful to name what I mean by that word, stewardship. So, what is 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.”[12] 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, opportunities, 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. 

The steward in our gospel story today may not have recognized this at first, but does seem to get it when his back is against the wall. He sees that he has been entrusted with responsibility and an opportunity, which he then chooses to use to help others. Much as we are entrusted with what we have, to live fully, but also to help others as part of God’s on-going work in the world. And we do this too because we know the truth of God’s peace, presence, and promise.

The congregation participates in a processional offering- offering gifts of all kinds and themselves in gratitude and joy for what God has done for them, and in joining with God in some of God’s on-going work here and now.

That is- that 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 talk about over and over again 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 free the burdened. 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 manager about to be fired and those burdened with heavy debts, 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

Stewardship as Joyful Response
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, and promises to do for God’s beloved, we can’t help but be so moved like we proclaim with the psalmist today, “Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the Lord!”[13] Praise the Lord, indeed! For if God has done this already, we can only begin to wonder what it is that God will do for you and for me, and for all of God’s beloved.

So for all that God does there is only one response. One of joy and gratitude. One like the writer of 1 Timothy urges in our second lesson, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone.”[14] So we give thanks. For we can’t help but share our thanks and praise in deep gratitude and great joy for all that God has done and promises to do for us. And then we can’t help it, 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.

What this might mean for us?
I know I’m preaching to the choir here Shepherd of the Hills! I know you understand this. You live it! I have seen it, I have heard it, and I have witnessed it, through you and about you. It helps that the synod office is only a hop, skip, and a jump from here. But I know about the magnitude of your amazing food, hunger, and clothing ministry that you provide through Project Hope and support through your facility here. I know, that for many of you, you embody what it means to be a steward because it’s more important to you that ministry to the community happens than even gathering in worship. You continued to feed the hungry and care for those in need amid pandemic as needs rose even more over the last two years.

Tangible offerings, gifts, and contributions for Project Hope, gifts that have been given by the faith community for the care and love of the larger community.

I know this too, because I heard and witnessed the depth of your passion for this by being with your congregation’s council and pastor late last fall during a council retreat as together we visioned and imagined and wondered about what God might be up to among, around, through and for your community, and what God might be inviting your congregation into next. Thank you for your faithfulness, your willingness to continue to grow in relationship with your larger community and build relationships, and your openness to wrestle and wonder about what God might be doing.

Being Church Together
I also know that you understand the depth of showing up for your neighbors, through your congregation’s continued participation in the larger church through your mission share. Mission Share is the undesignated offering that your congregation shares with the Nebraska Synod and the larger Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Through it, you do ministry that spans the globe and literally changes lives.

Through your mission share you support and raise up new leaders of the faith who are trained to walk with all of God’s people and serve alongside one another- including pastors, deacons, parish ministry associates, and other leaders. 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 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, and ELCA World Hunger. 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 Omaha as Jesus’ faithful disciples and generous stewards of God’s love.

One more sign of God’s peace, presence, and promise. A beautiful quiet chapel space outside the sanctuary with a view to the north of the green trees, grass, and rolling hill that Shepherd of the Hills stands upon.

Putting it Altogether
In our gospel story today, it takes losing his job for the shrewd steward to figure out that relationships and community matters. But you, people of God, live out this understanding every day. 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- meeting them where they are at by feeding the hungry and continuing to wonder about what God might be inviting you to be a part of next in your larger community. You recognize that relationships matter, so you continue to open your church’s doors and show up in and around the church as Christ’s hands and feet meeting your neighbors where they are at- bearing and offering Christ’s peace, presence, and promise knowing that Jesus is with you, for you, and loves you. Always

Thank you! Keep doing that, and keep digging in and wrestling with what God might be inviting next. And thanks be to God who makes our life together and everything else, possible. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] Luke 16:1-2 and following, NRSV.
[2] Luke 16:6, NRSV.
[3] Luke 16:7, NRSV.
[4] Luke 16:13, NRSV.
[5] Luke 16:4, NRSV.
[6] Luke 16:8, NRSV.
[7] Luke 16:9, NRSV.
[8] Amos 8:4, NRSV.
[9] Amos 8:6, NRSV.
[10] Famous especially in the Albert Hay Malotte version of the “Lord’s Prayer.”
[11] Luke 10:25-37.
[12] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.
[13] Psalm 113:5-9, NRSV.
[14] 1 Timothy 2:1, NRSV.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s