“Take Hold of the Life that Really is Life”- a stewardship sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 26) Year C

Outside Family of Christ Lutheran on a beautiful sunny Sunday morning.

It was a joy to be with God’s people gathered as Family of Christ Lutheran Church in Kearney, Nebraska on Sunday September 25, 2022. Thank you to Pastor Carl Sirotzki and the congregation’s council for the invitation and to the whole congregation for the warm welcome. I was invited to preach on stewardship, lead the Children’s Sermon, meet with the council before worship and join more conversation afterwards. It was a great day of pondering possibilities, imagining what God might be inviting, and giving thanks for all that God’s people of this congregation help make happen as God’s generous stewards and disciples. What follows is the majority of the manuscript that I preached from based on the appointed lectionary passages from the day, especially: Luke 16:19-31, Amos 6:1a, 4-7; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; and Psalm 146.

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

Good Morning Family of Christ! It is so great to be with you today. Thank you Pastor Carl for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring you greetings today from Bishop Scott Johnson, freshly installed yesterday here in Kearney as Bishop of the Nebraska Synod. As well as from your Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Jon Mapa, and from your 90,000+ siblings in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod.

In being with you today, I’d like to dig into God’s Word for us today, think some with you more about stewardship and discipleship, give thanks for all the ministry that you do and make possible, and to wonder with you about what God might be inviting now. And as I do this, I can’t shake the words from our second lesson. The epistle writer concludes regarding disciples and Children of God that, “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”[1] What is the life that really is life? What does it mean to take hold of the life that really is life?

As can be viewed at: https://www.facebook.com/FamilyofChristKearney/videos/461391722612888/
A recording of worship as shared by the congregation’s Facebook Live broadcast. If you would rather watch or listen to the sermon, here you go.

What is Stewardship
Before we get there, perhaps I should define a little further what I mean by stewardship. For me, a biblical understanding of stewardship begins with the opening words from Psalm 24. The psalmist there proclaims, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”[2] This means that we are the Lord’s. You are God’s. I am God’s. All Children of God, are God’s own. Further, it really means that 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, time, relationships, vocations, stories, passions, opportunities, talents, strengths, ideas, dreams, questions, and all of creation that is entrusted to our care back at the beginning of Genesis. This is all stewardship. Conventional practice in the church in the past always seemingly equated stewardship with money but stewardship is so much more.

The congregation sharing joy as it gives and receives the offering.

The younger saints who came up a minute ago helped unpack that. So in my being with you today, I hope you are hearing an invitation to at the very least see stewardship as an invitation to reflect more holistically about our lives together and how God may be inviting us to respond, to serve, and to lean in with our full selves to meet our neighbors where they are at and share God’s love.

Taking Hold of the Life that Really is Life- a lesson from the gospel of Luke
Now there’s a number of themes throughout these scriptures we just heard read. Themes like abundance and scarcity, about wealth and poverty, and having enough or not. But there’s also a theme about leaning into life together as disciples and stewards. Of witnessing our neighbors- those at the doors, at the gate, next door, right in front of our eyes, in our church buildings, showing up online on our Facebook page or website… of being not only aware of all of God’s children around us, but to not only see them, but to move from noticing to being in  relationship with them. And when that happens beautiful things emerge. Life that matters is lived. When it doesn’t happen, well, all we need to do is look at today’s gospel story for that.

In this gospel story today we are confronted by what happens and doesn’t happen when one sees and knows, but doesn’t really know their neighbor. This rich man who was wearing purple and who enjoyed feasts every day knew of Lazarus.[3] I mean, he knows his name in the afterlife, so he knows of Lazarus’ existence. But how come then did he do nothing to show any mercy and care for the man in need? Seeing his existence is one thing. But he didn’t really know him, for he wasn’t in relationship with Lazarus. It’s telling as Jesus tells us this parable this week, that the poor man Lazarus has a name, while the rich man is nameless. Whose story do we know today? Lazarus’. We don’t know much about the rich man. And in that sense, this really could be a story too making clear what Jesus’ values are.

Inside the sanctuary before worship. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, and ability to gather with the cross at the center. A sign and invitation to literally, “take hold of the life that really is life.”

Life and death are real in this story. But so too, just as we heard last week, Jesus is making the case that “you cannot serve God and wealth.”[4] Jesus is not saying that money, wealth and possessions are inherently bad, but they do tend to get in the way of our relationships with God and with each other- especially when they’re given power or treated as the most important thing in life, rather than as a tool or means to helping or serving others. This certainly seems to be the case in this story, as the rich man for whatever reason doesn’t act for the sake of his neighbor Lazarus during his life. And there’s an important reminder here too. This really matters to Jesus. Jesus preaches and teaches in the gospels about money, wealth, and possessions so much, its actually the second most common thing he talks and preaches about, behind only the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven. He focuses on this, because he knows how much it matters for our life together as God’s people. For our life as disciples and stewards. And for our sake, so that we might really grab hold of the life that really is life- to be in relationship with God’s people.

This is a warning and a reminder. The rich man had the opportunity. A poor man was in need, and was there ready to be met at the gate. But he didn’t act. He didn’t show compassion. The man in need could have well been Jesus himself, but he was not welcomed. And we know the rest of the story. We know the story about Lazarus, the man who was poor in life but had a name. The man who was covered with sores in life and who longed for the scraps and crumbs from the rich man’s table.[5] Lazarus longed to live. He longed not to be full, but to be satisfied. To be seen. To be known. To have enough to get by. And the rich man, we would have to think, would have had every opportunity to do something about this. He had the means. He had the resources. He was right there, inside the gate. But for whatever reason he didn’t act.
And so we know the rest of the story. We know of Lazarus, who was cared for after his death, and have long forgot much about this rich man for he was nameless after all.   

A Lesson from the Prophets
So, returning to our opening questions, what might it mean to take hold of the life that really is life? Father Abraham in the gospel story reminds the rich man that his own brothers had the wisdom of Moses and the law which mandated caring for one’s neighbors, but also that of the prophets’ words to cling to, and to inform their life in relationship with one another. And we do too. Amos is quite clear in our first lesson.[6] He says for those who “lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches… who drink from bowls and anoint themselves with finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!”[7] The prophet may as well be asking, “do you hoard what God has entrusted to your care? Or do you share it with others in need, and use it to live a full life?” Recognizing that the life that really is life is the life given and shared for us and all. It’s about being in relationships, and it matters for how life goes for one’s neighbors. Amos is calling us to repent, to see, to know, to be with, to care, and to love.

This time of year in Nebraska, I hear these words and I always think about the stories of farmers who show up to help neighbor farmers in need who are struggling with health or other family challenges. So they show up for their neighbor with their combines and tractors and trucks, and help bring in the harvest before winter comes. That’s an example of showing up for one’s neighbor and doing what one can with what one has to help make life go just a little better for their neighbor, another beloved child of God.

Pastor Carl and Kate Reynolds, gathering for conversation at the fount after worship. Kate has served in various leadership roles across the synod and served as lector at the installation service of Bishop Scott Johnson on Saturday September 24, 2022. Kate also currently serves on the congregation’s council, and is a very strong lay leader who is also discerning a potential call to ministry. A sign of life and discipleship of the congregation as it raises up leaders in the faith, and a sign of taking hold of the life that really is life.

From Amos and the writer of First Timothy, I am struck that these are lessons for us today about how we live together, grow and learn as disciples, and serve and share God’s love as stewards. To show love and compassion. To point to the good news of God in Christ. To truly share the Good News and believe that it is true- for we know the rest of the story about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Something Jesus even foreshadows in this story today.[8]

What Might God Be Up to In This?
Yet, in the hardness of these stories, there is good news. Lots of good news. News that, with the context of the larger story, we know. As alluded to in the gospel story, someone will rise from the dead.[9] Jesus Christ himself. We know this is good news. And we know that God will do this and does this because God promises to do so out of deep, abiding, and abundant love. Pure grace and gift. Something we could never do for ourselves. Something we never could never earn for ourselves or deserve. But God does this and so much more, out of God’s deep love.

We are reminded of this from the psalmist. Listen to this familiar psalm again. “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them…”[10] God has created all of creation. God has walked with all of God’s beloved, and is the help of all of God’s beloved too. And there’s more. We are reminded that God has done this, but God also, “executes justice for the oppressed; gives food to the hungry; sets the prisoners free; opens the eyes of the blind; lifts up those who are bowed down; loves the righteous; watches over the strangers; and upholds the orphan and the widow.”[11]

Another sign of life in Family of Christ, a prayground right up in the front of the sanctuary off to the north side of the altar area. It was a joy to preach and lead worship with kids present and engaged in the worship space.

All of this and more God has done, because this is who God is as the one who is with us, for us, and who loves us. Because God has promised over and again, that God is with God’s beloved. From the promise and purpose of the law of Moses, given to God’s people so that life might go well for them, to the promise that God walks with God’s people and is with us, as we know in the one and true Immanuel. That God is for God’s own, like we hear in the words of the sacrament, “given for you,” and “shed for you.” And that God loves God’s own. Jesus tells this hard story in this parable today not to scare, frighten, or guilt anyone, but out of deep love. So that we might all know, taste, and see that the Lord is good- and lean in deeply into life together as God’s beloved here and now for the sake of all of God’s beloved.

All we can do for this and all God provides, is to respond with joy and gratitude. With praise like the psalmist begins, “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.”[12] And so with deep joy and gratitude, we can’t help but give thanks and praise, and then be so swept up in that joy and gratitude, that we join in with God in some of God’s on-going work in the world here and now.

Taking Hold of the Life that Really is Life = Living Life as a Steward
In being swept up in joy and gratitude, and joining in with God’s on-going work in the world, we take hold of the life that really is life. I know I’m preaching to the choir here, Family of Christ. I know you understand this! And that you live it out through all the ways you partner and meet your neighbors needs here in Kearney. Through the ways that you give of your time, talents, strengths, and passions. Through so much community outreach, and how you faithfully wrestle and wonder about what God might be up to and inviting you into next.

Years ago you pondered about what God might be calling forth for your congregation to do next, so you faithfully responded by acquiring land with a sense of vision and purpose with the possibility of building a new church building. Time has passed and needs may have changed. But you do not despair. You trust that God is with you, for you, and loves you. And as you do that, you continue to faithfully lean in and wonder about what God might be inviting now. Perhaps that land may no longer be needed to build a new building in quite the way previously imagined. But what might that resource help make possible for your congregation to serve its neighbors in need now and in the future? What might God be calling Family of Christ to now, to meet its neighbors- and not only to meet your neighbors, but to be in relationship with, to welcome, and to share God’s love? What might God be calling you all to know more about each other’s passions, hopes, and dreams?

A visible sign of the life that is really life, as displayed in a beautiful banner with hands from across the congregation.

These kind of questions are in the vein of Luther’s famous question, “What does this mean?” and are really then in your DNA as a congregation. I know your story. From being a former Airforce Chapel to a thriving outpost of God’s mission and ministry here in Kearney at the corner of 5th and 14th– a community of disciples and stewards who are bearers of God’s love for their neighbors here locally and globally.

Being Church Together
I also know that you understand and live this out through your congregation’s 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 which 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 like here in town at UNK 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 Mosaic. There is so much that you do and help make possible by being part of this church. Thank you!

“Small change can make big changes.” These help the congregation receive noisy offering with the younger saints’ help. There was quite a bit of joy experienced while this was happening in worship. A sign that God’s people know the life changing love made known in Christ, and the good news that is shared by being part of Christ’s church together.

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 Kearney as Jesus’ faithful disciples and generous stewards of God’s love.

Putting it Altogether
People of God, you have taken hold of the life that really is life. I know. I see it. I feel it. 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 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 Kearney as Christ’s hands and feet meeting your neighbors where they are at. Proclaiming through all that you do about Jesus’ life changing and lifesaving love- for you, me, and all God’s beloved. Thank you! Keep digging in and wrestling with what God might be inviting next. And as you do so, trust and know that God in Christ is with you, for you, and loves you. Always. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] 1 Timothy 6:18-19, NRSV.
[2] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.
[3] Luke 16:19, NRSV.
[4] Luke 16:13, NRSV.
[5] Not unlike the woman who shows up in another story to Jesus saying “even the dogs eat the crumbs from the table,” as in Matthew 15:27.
[6] Without saying it, he is saying “woe” to those of us who have more than enough and choose to turn inward rather than outward.
[7] From Amos 6:4-6, NRSV.
[8] He tells in this parable about Father Abraham’s response to the rich man’s request to go and tell his brothers so that they might repent and change. Abraham says in the story, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:31, NRSV.)
[9] Not just another man also named Lazarus in the Gospel of John.
[10] Psalm 146:5-6, NRSV.
[11] From Psalm 146:7-9, NRSV.
[12] Psalm 146:1-2, NRSV.

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