“Faith is Active, Not Passive”- a stewardship sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 29- Year C)

Outside of Immanuel Lutheran on a beautiful sunny Sunday.

It was good to be with God’s people gathered as Immanuel Lutheran Church in the Benson neighborhood of Omaha on Sunday October 16, 2022. Thank you Pastor Kathy Montira for the invitation and to the whole congregation for the warm welcome. I was grateful to be with the congregation and be invited to share the Word. The manuscript I preached from can be found below, based especially off of Luke 18:1-8, and the other lectionary appointed readings for the day including: Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 121, and 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5. Between worship services I enjoyed good conversation with members of the congregation’s stewardship committee, and I also joined part of a worship and music committee meeting.

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

Good Morning Immanuel! It’s so good to be with you today. Thank you, Pastor Kathy, 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. In being with you, I’d like to ponder a bit about what God might be inviting us to see and hear in the Word, to think some about stewardship, and to say thank you for all that you do and help make possible as part of God’s on-going work in the world.

Digging into the Word
Jesus is still on the road in today’s story with the disciples. He’s been out healing like he did the ten lepers in last week’s story,[1] responding to questions like that of the Pharisees about the kingdom of God,[2] and teaching and preaching about God’s love and the Kingdom of God. He’s all-in at this point. Jesus is doing all he can so that all of God’s children might know that God’s life-changing and life-saving love is real. He’s proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is near, and it’s time to repent and turn towards God and to follow as disciples. He knows what lies ahead. The road he is on, is leading to Jerusalem. We’re just a little over one chapter away now in the Gospel of Luke from Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a colt or donkey. The events that we know of as Holy Week are near.

A video of the sermon and worship service can be viewed or listened to here: https://www.facebook.com/ImmanuelLutheranChurchOmaha/videos/1416870498835478/

This means that time is short for Jesus with the disciples, and he is going to do all he can to make each moment count. So, he tells them this parable we hear today “about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”[3] Knowing what is to come, he knew how easy it would be with the events of his being handed over, the sham trial and death on a cross, for his disciples and all believers to lose heart. So perhaps today’s story is a reminder that God is in relationship with all of God’s people, always. Through conversation and prayer. Through presence, and even in the sacrament as we’ll hear in a few moments that Christ’s body and blood is “given for you,” and shed “for you.” Through showing up and meeting people where they are at, whether behind locked doors, walking alongside on the road, by a woman at a well looking for water and purpose in life, down by the lakeshore or anywhere else.
But there is something we need to keep in mind about these parables. Jesus tells parables or stories so that we might start to understand what God invites and means. But as they are stories, they also might well have multiple possible meanings- which may or may not directly answer the request or the question he has been confronted with. 

The congregation of Immanuel Lutheran gathered for worship during the first service, which included a great special music anthem from the congregation’s bell choir pictured here.

In today’s case, he seemingly tells this story without being prompted. It follows some teaching about the coming of the Son of Man and the end times. Perhaps he’s trying to help the disciples know that hope is not lost. In talking about a woman seeking justice, and a judge who doesn’t care or is indifferent at best to the needs of the people he is entrusted with responsibility for, he seemingly paints a picture about the persistence of prayer as a mark of discipleship, but also the response of God to God’s people. God will be and is far more responsive than the judge that Jesus describes

A Reminder of Who God Is
In unpacking this little story, Jesus says to the disciples, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to God’s chosen ones who cry to God day and night? Will God delay long in helping them?”[4] This isn’t Jesus saying just pray harder and God will provide. This isn’t Jesus saying God acts like a Genie with a lamp. But it seemingly is Jesus saying that God is as God is described throughout the whole of scripture. Like what we hear from the psalmist today, “I lift up my eyes to the hills- from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”[5] And, “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”[6] God is present. God is for you. God is with you. God loves you. God hears the cries of God’s people in need, and is moved and responds, particularly for those often marginalized or pushed aside, ignored by the larger whole of society.

This is what Jesus is describing as justice. Where the systems and barriers that humanity has created are turned on their heads. When those who are hungry, are fed. When God’s abundance is shared as intended and not hoarded by a few, creating scarcity for others. When the widows and orphans are welcomed and cared for. When the last will be first, and the first will be last. Sound familiar? Jesus has been consistent on this theme. So, he probably doesn’t need to say much more to the disciples here. They certainly don’t grasp everything, as we’ll find out again in a few chapters in their living through the events of Holy Week. But the need to care for one’s neighbors, I think they grasp quite well.

But Jesus isn’t done with this story today. He concludes by answering his own question, “Will God delay long in helping them? I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”[7] So we end with a question about faith, and the repetition of the Son of Man which immediately precedes our story today in the end of chapter 17, where Jesus talks about the end times and the coming of the Son of Man. But it’s a question for all of us. We know what God will do. God will grant justice. God will heal. God will reconcile, redeem, and save. God will go to and through the point of death on a cross, being buried in a tomb, and then risen again in three days. God will do this and more for you and for me and all of God’s beloved as pure grace and gift that we could never earn or deserve.

Our Response in our lives as stewards and disciples
But what does that mean for us in response? Perhaps that’s Jesus’ question in asking will the Son of Man, “find faith on earth?”[8] And that is a discipleship and stewardship question to be sure. So, let’s unpack what I mean by those words. By discipleship, I mean following Jesus’ call and invitation to follow, learn and grow, and to live into and out of one’s baptismal identity and promises. Those baptismal promises all Children of God make include: “to live among God’s faithful people; to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper; to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; to serve all people, following the example of Jesus; and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”[9]

The beautiful altar/chancel area of Immanuel Lutheran with the unforgettable blue stained glass cross, front and center in the sanctuary.

There’s that justice idea again that we hear in our gospel story today. But so too, the sacraments, the being together as God’s people, the leaning in and sharing the good news, and even engaging in prayer for all of God’s beloved. Our baptisms, just like this gospel story today, remind that prayer is not a stagnant thing. It’s at the heart of our lives as stewards and disciples. It moves us from recognizing needs, hurts, and pains, to sharing those with God and one another, but also being moved by the Holy Spirit to be changed through prayer and to act. It’s not some sort of response to the latest tragedy in the world like you might hear one say, “thoughts and prayers.” No. It’s rather a “I see you. I hear you. My heart aches with you.” And together, let us work through our prayers, griefs, hopes, and hurts for the sake of all. Let’s do the hard work and lean into the good news of God’s word and promises as disciples, working for justice and peace and living out our vocations. Embodying the truth that true faith is active, and never passive.

And as we do this, we then also lean into our identity as stewards of God’s love. For me stewardship starts with an understanding best articulated by the psalmist in Psalm 24 where the psalmist proclaims, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it; the world, and those who live in it.”[10] That means really that you are God’s. I am God’s. All Children of God are God’s. And all that makes us each who we are, as the unique, beautiful, known, claimed, and loved Child of God that we are, are God’s too. So really all that we have and all that we are, are God’s. And God entrusts us with all that makes us who we are, so that we might live full, meaningful and abundant lives, but also so that our neighbors might too. God entrusts us with all that we have, and all that we are: our finances, money, stuff, assets and possessions; also our health, minds, bodies, and souls; and our strengths, passions, vocations, opportunities, and relationships; our dreams, questions, and ideas; and all of creation that is entrusted into our care back at the beginning of Genesis. All of this and more is who we are, and is also, God’s.

Stewardship involves recognizing this, and then leaning in and responding to and for God’s love. It involves giving thanks and praise joyfully for all that God has done just like the Samaritan leper who was healed by Jesus did in last week’s story.[11]

It involves being so swept up in joy and gratitude for what God has done, that we can’t help but share in that life for the sake of others and join in with God in some of God’s on-going work in the world now today. It involves living out our baptismal promises in hope and faith. And we do all of this as we respond to all that God has done: As we proclaim the Good News of God and lean into and grow as disciples. As we share what God entrusts with all those that might be in need. As we meet our neighbors where they are at, as signs of Christ’s love. And we do all of this, with the deep and earnest hope that all might know what we know as we gather together as God’s people to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” and that God’s life-changing and life-saving love is real.

How We Do This?
Immanuel, I know you understand this. I know you recognize too that faith is more than idle talk. It’s a life of being in relationship- with God, with one another here, and with all of God’s children across the world. It’s a life as the writer of 2nd Timothy reminds us today that we are called to enter into and carry out “fully.”[12] You embody this by being present and showing up for your community. Through welcoming your neighbors and participating in Benson Days and collecting and sharing coats for this coming winter with all in need. Perhaps too by being a good neighbor through stewarding your church’s facility, parking lot, and other spaces in ways that your neighbors can enjoy- where you don’t hoard what God has provided but share it as signs of Christ’s love each day. Through opening yourselves up to wonder and ponder what God might be inviting for you and your faith community next? To wrestle with God from time to time as you discern this, remembering that it is good to wrestle with God from time to time as Jacob did in our first lesson, ultimately gaining the new name of Israel.[13] In doing all of this, you live out the story of today’s gospel- through prayer, presence, and leaning in as stewards and disciples. Showing up for and with all of God’s people, for that is exactly the life of the crucified and resurrected one that we are called to follow.

Thank you for leaning into this life together, and as you do so, I also want to thank you and invite you again to commit yourselves to the shared work of ministry of the whole church. I personally know this to be most true through your congregation’s participation in 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.

The second service featured the congregation’s vocal choir singing an old favorite choir anthem of mine, “The River of Judea.”

Through your congregation’s mission share you help raise up new leaders of the faith- new pastors, deacons, parish ministry associates, and others who are trained to walk alongside all of God’s people and proclaim God’s promises. Through it you help youth and young adults know of God’s deep love for them in part through supporting Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry including Camp Carol Joy Holling and Nebraska Lutheran Campus Ministry. Through your mission share you proclaim 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 it, you not only see your neighbors in need, you show up, and accompany them, just like we are all called to do for the widow, in today’s parable. You do this through your mission share by supporting the many serving arm partners of the church like Lutheran Family Services, Lutheran Disaster Response, ELCA World Hunger, and many more.

There is so much that you do as part of this church together. On behalf of your siblings in Christ across the synod and around the world, thank you. Thank you for your faithful discipleship- answering Jesus’ question in the affirmative, that yes, the Son of Man will find faith on earth with the help of God’s on-going presence. Thank you for your generous stewardship- following Jesus’ example to not only see your neighbors in need, but to step up and do what you can with all that God entrusts. And thank you for all that you do as God’s people here in the Benson neighborhood of Omaha.

Putting It Altogether
Jesus tells this parable today as part of his continued lessons to the disciples to have hope, and to not lose heart. To pray, and to hold fast to the faith. He knows what lies ahead very soon in his journey. And so he invites us all as disciples and stewards of God’s love to lean in. To commit. To follow. To serve. To show up. To pray. To give thanks and praise. And to do all that we can to point to the Kingdom of God and the truth of God’s promises that Jesus makes abundantly clear. That God is for you. That God is with you. And that God loves you. Always. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] Luke 17:11-19.
[2] As in Luke 17:20-21.
[3] Luke 18:1, NRSV.
[4] Luke 18:6-7, NRSV.
[5] Psalm 121:1-2, NRSV.
[6] Psalm 121:8, NRSV.
[7] Luke 18:7-8, NRSV.
[8] Luke 18:8, NRSV.
[9] As included in the affirmation of baptism liturgy found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 236 (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006).
[10] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.
[11] As in Luke 17:11-19.
[12] 2 Timothy 4:5, as part of the larger story from 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5.
[13] As told in Genesis 32:22-31.

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