Big Questions, Promises, Laws and Hopes- the life of being God’s people together- a sermon for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany (Year A)

It was a joy to be with the people of God gathered as Messiah Lutheran Church in Ralston, Nebraska on Sunday February 12, 2023. I was invited to come and preach and visit by Transition Pastor Pam Ciulla, Director of Congregational Life Erin Judy and the congregation’s entire Vitality Initiative Team. It was a great day to be with the congregation, as they participated in their second Sunday of the month “Ageless Faith” experience for all-ages between worship services. This month’s focus was on prayer and various prayer practices. To watch people of so many different generations experiencing prayer in new and different ways was amazing. Following both worship services I enjoyed a great conversation and meeting over lunch with members of the congregation’s vitality team and some other key leaders. The congregation has a number of experiments they are embarking on as they continue to lean into their discerned congregational vocation through and out of the Vitality Initiative.

Ageless Faith in action- look at the various ages and generations engaged in many of the different prayer stations.

In worship, I was invited to preach and tell the stories of vitality and how it might impact the congregation in its current transition and soon to be call process for its next pastoral leader. What follows is the manuscript that I preached from based on the appointed readings for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (Lectionary 6) in Year A, especially Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, and Matthew 5:21-37. If you would like to watch or listen to worship and/or the sermon, I have embedded the recorded live-streams of both services below.

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

Good Morning Messiah. It’s so good to be with you. Thank you especially to Erin, your congregation’s vitality team, and Pr. Pam for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring you greetings today from Bishop Scott Johnson, from all my colleagues on the Nebraska Synod staff, as well as from your 90,000+ siblings in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod. In being with you today, I’m grateful to be able to dive into the word today and see what God might be calling and inviting us to see and ponder, as well as to think some about your congregation’s journey through the Nebraska Synod Vitality Initiative for Congregations,[1] and the many experiments, discoveries, and big questions you might be pondering now.

The 8:30am Traditional worship service as recorded and streamed live by the congregation on YouTube on Sunday February 12, 2023.

The Vitality Initiative in a Nutshell
And you know what let’s start there. How many of you know that your congregation has been one of eight congregations of the 235 in the Nebraska Synod journeying through the inaugural cohort of the Vitality Initiative? That’s great! Your team has been doing amazing work, and has been a leader and encourager for the other congregations in the cohort as we have continued to learn together over this past year and a half. A year ago, your congregation’s team produced a video that still is fresh in my mind. Pondering about who you are as the people of God as Messiah Lutheran and the journey you are in, and doing so using an image like the game of Jenga. Where there are puzzle pieces and blocks that are changing and need to change. But it’s an on-going process of discernment, discovery, and experimentation.

It’s been my joy to walk with this cohort, as part of the initiative’s steering team and the main point person and to learn alongside your congregation’s team and all eight teams through this process. As your partner in ministry for Mission, Innovation, and Stewardship, I’ve really come to sense that part of my core work now is in being one to ask questions, leave space for questions, to help create an environment of imagination and wonder, and to give the unnecessary but sometimes helpful affirmation and permission to “go.” Go and try. Go and do. Go and learn. Go and be.

I am proud of your congregation, because you have embodied this, so much so, that being apart of this experience will undoubtedly help and shape your congregation as it moves through the transition process and towards the call process for your next pastor. Because together you have wrestled with the big questions of this journey- Who are we? Who are our neighbors? What might God be inviting us to be a part of next? Whether you know it or not, you have a head start.

Because you have done this work as a congregation, it will help you articulate not only who you are, but what kind of pastoral leader you might really feel called to invite to walk with you as part of who you are called to be. Not to be the one in charge of everything, but the one to accompany and join in with you in the good work that you are already doing as the disciples of Jesus here.

The 11:00am Contemporary worship service as streamed live on YouTube by the congregation on Sunday February 12, 2023.

In the Wilderness
Along this journey, the vitality cohort has dwelled particularly in three biblical stories. The story of the Woman at the Well about how Jesus meets the woman, who in turn is changed and becomes a great evangelist and together they show us what it looks like to grow in knowing one’s neighbor deeply.[2] That’s a story which you will hear in worship in just about a month during Lent. We also spent quite a bit of time in the story of the Road to Emmaus, a story we often hear in the Easter season, inviting God’s people to wonder, both what might God be up to, and what’s next?[3] What’s our response? What is our next most faithful step which God is inviting?

The third story we spent some time with was the journey through the wilderness by the people Israel. A story we heard part of today in our first lesson. The first lesson brings us close to the end of Moses’ life, and the soon to be moment that the people Israel finish their forty years of wandering in the wilderness and finally cross the Jordan into the promised land. But before they do that, Moses wants to be perfectly clear with the people about God’s promises, covenant, and love, and why God has done all that God has done. I’m reminded of one of my favorite seminary professors who repeatedly taught that at its heart, “the purpose of the law is so that life may go well for you.”[4] That’s what lies behind and beneath this story and all these stories we heard today. The hope that God’s people will be numerous.[5] That God’s blessings may abound.[6] And a recognition, that God’s people have agency in this. An invitation to join in with God in God’s work and relationships.

The choir sharing their gift of music during the first service.

We know this declaration. Moses declares on behalf of God, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.”[7] Blessings and woes like Jesus unpacks for us in his Sermon on the Mount that we’ll get to in a moment. But with this declaration, Moses pleads for God’s people by saying, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God… so that you may live in the land that the Lord” covenanted to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob.[8] This isn’t a “Choose Life” sort of phrase that we might see on a bumper sticker or hear in popular culture or society. This isn’t that at all. When Moses says choose life, he is bringing to fulfillment the law’s hoped for goal, so that life might go well with all of God’s people together. This is about choosing the life that really matters. One of relationship with God and one with neighbor. A life that will have its ups and downs. A life which will have its successes and failures.

Who are We?
Moses is really summing up the wilderness journey here of God’s people, of the greater reason behind the long journey- of formation, growing faith, trusting, and moving from just being a follower to a disciple. This raises the first question that your congregation’s vitality team had to wrestle with in their vitality journey. “Who are we?” Who are we? We are God’s people. Followers of Jesus. You are disciples who gather as Messiah Lutheran in Ralston. But what does this mean at a deeper level? Who are we?

Paul picks up on this theme in his first letter to the Corinthians that we hear from in the second lesson. He talks about planting, watering, and really sowing.[9] The garden or farming  imagery bears special meaning here in Nebraska, as we look with hope for longer and warmer days of spring to come soon. But Paul uses this imagery to talk about how we are to be and grow together as God’s people. Paul makes clear that God is the one doing the work of bringing the growth, not you or me.[10] But we are indeed invited into God’s kingdom building work. He writes, “The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”[11]

Erin Judy sharing about some of the experiments that the congregation will be undertaking as it continues to discern who it is and what God might be inviting next.

Working together. That implies relationship. It implies collaboration, cooperation, conversation, community. It’s beautiful. But it’s complicated and challenging. Because we’re all human, we’re going to mess up. We are going to need to reconcile toward God and one another when we do. To confess, to forgive, to gather, to share, to be sent and to serve. This being together as God’s people is about who we are, but it’s also an opportunity to reflect on who our neighbors are too which is the second major question your vitality team wrestled with, discerned and prayed about.

Who Are Our Neighbors?
I think Jesus had this in mind in our gospel story we heard today. In knowing that we are called together as God’s people and knowing that there will be times we need to reconcile together, and to be reminded of why we do what we do as God’s people, Jesus is trying to make clear that we are not alone, it’s not just our work, and it’s not all about us.

Jesus’ teaching today is another part of his Sermon on the Mount, which picks up right where we left off last week. It’s all part of his longer discourse about what it means to be a disciple. About what it means to love God and love neighbor, and what it means to be in relationship with one another. So, in that sense, though this week’s portion sounds heavy, it’s really Jesus continuing to show us how deep and wide God’s promises of being “for you,” really go- about how Jesus’ concern and promise of being with you holds, no matter what, and how all-encompassing Jesus’ love is.  

It’s the “for you,” which also sends us out in discernment and our daily lives pondering more deeply the question, “Who are our neighbors?” This isn’t just deciding that your congregation, for example, is next door to a school, in a neighborhood and nearby to a shopping center. This is about knowing who one’s neighbors are, what their needs are, and their hopes, dreams, and even fears. And meeting them where they are at as signs of God’s love and presence made real.

The praise team/worship band sharing their gifts of music during the contemporary service.

This is a core invitation and message that Jesus has been pointing to in his Sermon on the Mount. In the portion we hear today, Jesus says repeatedly, “But I say to you…”[12] He’s interpreting his own sermon and the commandments, and the law of Moses, and later the prophets, as he continues from talking about the beatitudes, the blessings, and the declarations that “You are the salt of the earth,”[13] that “You are the light of the world…”[14] But what does this mean? How far does this go? That, I think is the reason why Jesus goes where he goes today in this continued portion of his sermon. He’s unpacking yet further what it means to be neighbor. To be a disciple and steward of God’s love. To be a follower of the way and a child of God.

What Might God Be Inviting Next?
Jesus digs into the law today. Not out of punishment, fear, or judgment. But as a further sign of just how wide God’s grace and mercy extends. Because on our own, we’re going to fail. We are not going to measure up. There will be conflict, challenge, change, heart-ache and worse. But that is Jesus’ point in his sermon. It’s not all about us. It’s about God’s love being made real. It’s about being in relationship with God and neighbor. It’s grounded in Jesus’ promise that in the good times and bad times, he is with us. Calling us to be together. Calling us to reconcile with one another, and to bear each other as signs of God’s deep, abiding, and abundant love. Jesus through his preaching and teaching declares to all who might listen, that God in Christ is for you. That God in Christ is with you. And that God in Christ loves you. Always. And that is more than enough. With God, you are enough. You have what you need for what God might be inviting next.

As the Vitality Initiative moved towards its third question, I share it with you all again here, “What might God be inviting next for your congregation?” What might be your next most faithful step? I’d say to keep praying. To keeping doing the good and hard work of discipleship that you all do. To keep being the stewards of God’s love that you are. And to lean in, and experiment. To try somethings and see what the Spirit might be up to in, through, around, and for you. Experiences like the Ageless Faith Prayer Event today. And experiments like the potential for occasional blended services on the fifth Sunday of the month, to bring your two worship services together as one congregation from time to time. And your Parking Lot Ministry, providing hospitality for parents and students, being neighbor to those who are your neighbors, and building relationships and being in community together.

Trust me. This is good stuff and you have what you need to go about this work. I’m excited for you and to see what the Spirit might be up to. And I’m excited for you too, because this is the sort of vitality and life that will surely say to whomever God is calling to be your next pastor, “Come and see. Come and join my people in Ralston.” Regardless of God’s good-timing about that, people of God, thank you for being you. Keep asking the big questions of faith like some we pondered today. Keep dwelling in God’s big and wonderful promises, trusting that the law is a gift so that life might go well, and trusting and knowing that the good news of the Gospel is true that Jesus is for you, with you, and loves you. Thanks be to God. Amen.


References, Notes and Citations:

[1] To learn more about the Vitality Initiative, or to apply for your congregation to participate in the second cohort, please visit: https://nebraskasynod.org/faith-in-action/outreach/vitality-initiative-for-congregations/.
[2] The Woman at the Well story as found in John 4:1-42.
[3] The story about the disciples along the Road to Emmaus as found in Luke 24:13-35.
[4] Dr. Terence E. Fretheim repeatedly taught about this idea in the classes I took from him on the Pentateuch and the Prophets.
[5] As in Deuteronomy 30:16, NRSV.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Deuteronomy 30:15, NRSV. This is also translated as, “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.”
[8] Deuteronomy 30:19-20, NRSV.
[9] As in 1 Corinthians 3:7-8.
[10] 1 Corinthians 3:7.
[11] 1 Corinthians 3:8-9, NRSV.
[12] As in Matthew 5:22, 5:28, and 5:34. Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis writes about this quite powerfully and personally in her “Dear Working Preacher” article found here: https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/but-i-say-to-you.
[13] Matthew 5:13, NRSV.
[14] Matthew 5:14, NRSV.

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