Responding to a God who sees us and helps us see- A sermon on Luke 18:31-19:10

On Sunday April 2, 2017, I was invited to visit, preach, and meet with the council at First Lutheran Church in Wilber, Nebraska by Pastor Travis Panning. I had a wonderful morning with the congregation. Worship included parts of Marty Haugen’s “Now the Feast and Celebration” liturgy originally dedicated for the University Congregation at my alma mater, Pacific Lutheran University, which on a slightly drizzly Sunday morning made me remember the Pacific Northwest.

What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from, based on the Narrative Lectionary’s appointed text for the day this year for the fifth Sunday of Lent, Luke 18:31-19:10

Grace and peace from our God who sees us, opens our eyes, is with us, and is for us, Amen.

firstwilber
The welcome sign at First Lutheran in Wilber.

It is a great joy to be with you today. Thank you to Pastor Travis for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome here in Wilber. I bring greetings from your 100,000 sisters and brothers that together with you, are the Nebraska Synod. I also bring greetings on behalf of Bishop Maas, Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Megan Morrow, and the entire synod staff. I am excited to be with you and share some thoughts about our shared ministry together in the church, some ideas about stewardship, and to wonder with you about what God might be up to here.

Where We Are in the Narrative
I have to say I am a bit jealous. It’s not every week that I am in a congregation following the narrative lectionary, but I love this year in the Narrative. The last two weeks alone you have heard two of my favorite stewardship gospel stories. Luke 15, the three lost parables, all with good points of imagination about stewardship. And then last week, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, woah, you don’t get much more direct about life, death, salvation, and the call to be a steward than that. Fun texts. Tough texts, but central ones to Luke’s understanding of who God is, and the great reversal that comes with God and the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.

Through these stories you have heard the past few weeks, and as we enter into today’s gospel, Jesus is inching closer and closer to Jerusalem.[1] In fact, Jesus couldn’t be more direct about what’s going to happen. He explains it again,

“we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished… he will be handed over… mocked and insulted and spat upon…” he will be flogged, killed, “and on the third day he will rise again.”[2]

But before Jesus can get to the gates of the city; before a donkey can be found, and the passion story commenced with shouts of Hosannas and then choruses of ‘Crucify Him,’ Jesus gets interrupted at least twice more on his way.[3] And that’s where we find ourselves today.

Jesus and the Blind Beggar
First, Jesus passes by a blind beggar. At the sound of the commotion, the man shouts twice, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”[4] This gets Jesus’ attention. Here’s a man who couldn’t see, but had faith, and provides God in Christ another opportunity to act. God has entrusted Jesus with the ability to give sight to a blind person, and Jesus does just that. Jesus sees the man, and talks with him, something that most people in that context would have not done. Much like we might avoid the person holding a cardboard sign at the street corner and drive past putting our head down or looking the other way. Jesus doesn’t do this. Jesus takes note, and Jesus acts.

Jesus says, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.”[5]

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One of the beautiful pieces I saw on the walls inside the church building. It makes me think about how God often times shows up in community and relationships. 

In this instance, God has again shown up. Jesus sees the man, and God in Christ acts and brings new life. What’s the man’s response? He joyfully follows Jesus as a new disciple. He glorifies God, and all those who witnessed God’s action, praised God. That’s the joyful response to the Good News and Promises of God. That’s how I hope we all act when God has come near, and we celebrate and remember all that God has done and continues to do for us.

Jesus and Zacchaeus
Jesus then continues on his way, ever so briefly through Jericho, and then there comes a wee little man. I can relate, I have never been that tall, and to see over a crowd, climbing a tree like we might have sung about in Sunday School doesn’t seem that farfetched. The interesting thing here is, unlike the blind beggar who calls out to Jesus for Jesus to see him, Zacchaeus climbs a tree just to see, and Jesus saw him and called him by name.

bishop-consecration
Proof that my boss, Bishop Maas, is much taller than me.

I love this story, but perhaps not quite as much as my wife does. My wife Allison, is now a first call pastor at Salem Lutheran in Fontanelle. For her ordination last fall back home where we grew up in the Seattle area, Allison selected this story to have read as the gospel and the preaching text.[6] It’s one we have likely all heard many times. It’s one I always resonated with, because unlike my boss, the bishop, I have never been a tall guy, and in those class pictures growing up from kindergarten on through high school, I was always one of the kids in the front row. But this story, gives me hope, not just because of my short stature, but, because, each time we come to this story, I think there’s more depth to be found.

Zacchaeus is a rich or well-off person, but he has the opposite response to the rich man from the story you heard last week, about the rich man and Lazarus.[7] Maybe that’s why Zacchaeus is given a name in this story and the rich man was not? In fact, literally translated, Zacchaeus’ name means, “pure, clean, innocent.”[8]

Without being prompted, at least according to Luke’s version of the story, Zacchaeus declares to Jesus, to God who has come near to him and into his own home, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”[9] This is Zacchaeus’ response. He has been changed simply by the presence of God. He has been changed because God has come near, and seen him.

And for this Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.”[10]

Salvation has come. God has come near. And Zacchaeus knows it.

Zacchaeus, “an agent of the state, a Jew turned oppressor of his own people,” longed for something more.[11] And God shows up. Whether or not Zacchaeus changes his profession and vocation or not after this experience, he is certainly changed forever. Even if he remains a tax collector, he will not be operating the same way he has before. This is Zacchaeus’ joyful response to the good news, promises, and presence of God.

What is Our Joyful Response?
Which begs the question, what is your response? What is our response to the good news of a God who has come near for us?

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Easter eggs as a sign of changed lives, or grace in action, at First Lutheran in Wilber, a sign of a joyful response.

In today’s story God shows up and sees- first a blind man begging on the side of the street, then a short tax collector high up in the tree just trying to get a glimpse of who this guy is, who is said to be a friend of sinners and tax collectors like himself. God comes offering salvation for these two, just as God offers salvation for each of us, and all of God’s children.

These are gifts of God for the people of God.

As the Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod, and as a Deacon in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I have the joy of getting to share stories like this. I have been on the ground since early last fall here in Nebraska, and I have heard many stories of congregations and individuals who have responded to the good news of God in creative, faithful, and unique ways like starting care closets that have over taken entire church basements, or even turning unused space at church into a woodshop for a carpentry ministry for the local community. The responses I have seen and heard have everything to do with stewardship.

Stewardship as Joyful Response
Stewardship really is the joyful response to all that God has done and continues to do. The blind man and Zacchaeus were impacted so greatly, they couldn’t help but be changed and want to share about this God with others. When God shows up in our lives, what is our response? How do we live out our lives as stewards of God’s love and mysteries?

One of the ways is through stepping up like Zacchaeus, sharing a portion of what God has financially entrusted to our care, so that God’s work can be done through us. The poor can be cared for. When congregations give mission share, for example, they help the larger church care for the poor by supporting the work of the many serving arms of the church like Mosaic and Lutheran Family Services here in Nebraska among others, but also Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service internationally.

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Signs of faith in action in the fellowship hall at First Lutheran in Wilber.

Through offering and mission share, the church is able to prepare and raise up new leaders and pastors, as well as to support new, transforming, and renewing ministries and congregations exploring what God is up to, and being open to the calling and leading of the Holy Spirit’s presence and change.

But stewardship is more than just money. Money is a part of it. But stewardship has to do with everything that we have been entrusted with- our lives, relationships, hopes, and dreams; our ideas, our questions, our vocations; our treasure, finances and money; our passions, our talents, and time; our stories, and the beautiful creation that surrounds us which we are called and created to tend, nurture, and steward.

Our joyful response is how we live our life, impacted (or not) by all that God has done and continues to do. The way we live our life, the choices we make, the things we do or don’t do, are part of our response to God’s gift of life for each of us. They are our response to the call to come and see- that the blind man and Zacchaeus both followed.

So, again I ask, what is your joyful response? How has God shown up in your life, and what impact has that made on who you are?

God Shows Up Bringing Salvation to Us and Through us
Whether we are aware of it or not, God shows up sometimes not just to us, but through us. God uses us, all that we have and all that we are, to do God’s work to build up the kingdom, to seek out the marginalized and overlooked. God uses us to bring people together, to create community, and to bring life, hope, and sometimes even salvation.[12] God does this for us, and sometimes even through us.

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A view of the cross and beautiful sanctuary at First Lutheran in Wilber.

The whole point of Luke’s gospel is made clear today in the last verse, a fitting verse to hear the Sunday before Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Jesus proclaims,

“For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”[13]

The blind man and Zacchaeus were two of them, and so are we.

God seeks us out, finds us, comes alongside, calls us, and saves us because God loves us. And this is a pure gift we can’t do anything about but be grateful for, be changed by, and be called to follow and do likewise to share the good news of God, and to steward that which God has entrusted to us to help bring abundant life, sight, food, love, peace, and mercy as our God provides for all people.

In whatever ways you have been changed, and however you respond to God’s gifts, thank you for being you- a beautiful and beloved Child of God, who God sees and knows, and who helps others know that God sees, knows, and loves them too. And thanks be to God, for our God who sees us, knows us, finds us, is with us, and loves us. Amen.

_________________________________________________

Citations, References, Footnotes, and Sources:

[1] Luke 18:31-18:34, NRSV.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Barbara Lundblad, “Commentary on Luke 18:31-19:10,” Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3013.

[4] Luke 18:38-39, NRSV.

[5] Luke 18:42, NRSV.

[6] Allison’s ordination sermon was preached by friend and professor Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis.

[7] Luke 16:19-31.

[8] Richard W. Swanson, Lutheran Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), page 1737.

[9] Luke 19:8, NRSV.

[10] Luke 19:9, NRSV.

[11] Barbara Lundblad, “Commentary on Luke 18:31-19:10,” Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3013.

[12] Karoline Lewis, “Salvation Today,” 23 October 2016, Craft of Preaching, https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4745.

[13] Luke 19:10, NRSV.

Faith Like Abraham- Stewarding God’s Promises, Seen and Not Seen

On Wednesday March 15th, I was invited to lead worship and preach at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Valley, Nebraska. For their mid-week Lenten series, they are reflecting about people of faith, and the focus for the evening was on Abraham. I was invited to preach on Hebrews 11:1, 8-22, and to share thoughts about stewardship. What follows is the majority of the manuscript that I preached from. 

Grace and peace from our God, the God of Abraham, who knows you, claims you, and loves you, Amen.

It is a great privilege to be with you this evening, and I bring greetings from your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ across the Nebraska Synod, from Bishop Maas and Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Juliet Hampton, and from the whole synod staff. Thank you to Pastor Barbara for the invitation, and to all of you for your warm welcome. I am excited to be with you this evening, and to think together a little bit about having faith like Abraham, stewardship, and what God might be up to here.

Father Abraham- a man of faith
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…”

If there was ever a person of faith who rested in the hope and convictions of God’s promises without necessarily seeing them to their fulfillment, it was Abraham. Abraham, the great father of Israel, the man of faith from whom three different faiths trace their lineage, is a man of faith who sometimes doubted and sinned, just like us, but who trusted in God.

Abraham received the land as an inheritance. Abraham journeyed not knowing where he was going, but trusted that God was present and leading him. He believed that he and his future descendants, as hilarious of a thought as that was at his and Sarah’s age, were heirs of the promise. When Sarah gave birth to Isaac, much of Abraham’s doubt about who this God is was washed away. All human understanding of how things are supposed to work went out the window with that experience.

sanctuary
The beautiful sanctuary at St. Mark’s, before worship with “Holden Evening Prayer.”

God invited Abraham to look to the stars, and pointing to the vast infinity of them said, “so shall your descendants be.” Infinite. Beautiful. Unique. Scattered. Signs of hope. The same stars that are made of star dust, the dust and ash much like we are all born of, and will return to someday as we remember on our Lenten journeys this season.

But we also know, and trust with Abraham, that God is our God. God has prepared a place for us at the heavenly banquet. And God has raised his own son from the dead, and promises us the hope of such resurrection, and abundant life.

To be honest though, I have always thought Abraham must have been a bit crazy. But since you heard about Noah last week, I imagine everybody thought Noah was crazy too for thinking it would rain and to build such an ark. But Abraham, trusted God even to the point of nearly sacrificing Isaac? I honestly don’t think I could do that. And thankfully, God did not allow that to happen, nor ever asked again for such ridiculous sacrifice except perhaps from God’s own self.

What’s this got to do with Stewardship?
What I love about Abraham most though is his stewardship. Before I say more, I need to probably define stewardship. Stewardship is an idea that some people think has to do only with money, well, friends as the Director for Stewardship, I have the opportunity to set the record straight. Yes, stewardship has to do with money, but it also has to do with so much more.

giving tree
One of the ways that St. Mark’s practices stewardship is through a giving tree like this, meeting community needs that have been identified, year round.

If we believe as Children of God, that all that we have and all that we are, are gifts from God, then stewardship is really about how we use all that we have, and all that we are in response to God’s good gifts, and promises. Put another way- our health, our bodies, our ideas, our dreams, our hopes, our stories, our questions, our money, our time, our passions, our talents, our treasures, our vocations, the beautiful creation that is all around us, and our relationships are all part of our stewardship- as we steward all that we are and all that we have; and recognize that these things have all been entrusted to our care to manage or steward by God. Stewardship then is about our response to all that God has done and continues to do for us.

In Abraham’s case, how did Abraham respond to God’s promises and covenant? How did Abraham respond to the gift of the birth of a son, Isaac?

Legacy
Abraham, like many people, was concerned about legacy. Legacy is a stewardship thing. How do you want to be remembered? What do you want to be remembered for? What impact or story do you hope inspires those who come after you?

Although at his age, Abraham probably had come mostly to terms with the fact that he wouldn’t have any descendants, he still likely pondered what kind of legacy he would leave. However, when given a promise of descendants, he would misunderstand or take it upon himself to do something about this, and hence, he would go to Hagar, and Ishmael would be born. Even with this, God still loved Abraham and fulfilled the promise of descendants. Through Isaac and Ishmael both God would make Abraham’s descendants like the stars, beautiful, unique, and scattered. This is quite the legacy, to have so many descendants, who are signs and part of the promise God made with Abraham in the covenant.

Promises- Stories, Sharing, and Faith
The way Abraham lived his life… through his faith in action, also said something about his stewardship. He wasn’t afraid to share of his faith in God with those he met. He did so, because he trusted the promises God made with him, so this was another way that Abraham lived out his faith, and stewarded it. I wonder, how does the way you live your life show how the good news and promises of God have impacted you?

Thanks
Though it’s never directly mentioned in Genesis, I believe that Abraham was grateful for all that God has done. I imagine he was a man filled with great thanksgiving to God for living 175 years of abundant life, full of mystery, unexpected adventures, and faithful journeying, I believe Abraham died a man thankful for the covenant and relationship he knew with God. And as much as asking and telling the story are crucial parts of a life of stewardship, obviously thanking and living a life of gratitude is equally a part of it.

Invitation to God’s Promises- What does this mean for us?
So, like a good Lutheran, I have a question. What does this mean? What does this mean for us today, here at St. Mark’s? What does this mean in this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation?

pizza prep
There were about 10-12 pizza spinners going, cooking pizza for dinner. Add in the amazing salads, desserts, and even the non-alcoholic strawberry daiquiris… I was impressed! (First ever church I have been to where they served daiquiris, let alone with a Lenten dinner. Fantastic!)

Not only do I think Abraham in this case is an example for us, of what faith in action and depth looks like. I think he is an example of one of God’s stewards, a steward of the mysteries, love, and promises of God.

Since moving to Nebraska last fall, and in my first year in this call as a deacon in the church, serving as the synod’s Director for Stewardship I have seen and heard stories of congregations filled with great generosity, of stewards who know that they have unique callings and passions to respond to the needs of the world. They do so, out of joy and gratitude for all that God has done and continues to do- like for Abraham, providing life, hope, and purpose. And as we know through Christ, in our Lenten journey, providing hope, resurrection, and life eternal and abundant.

I have been struck by the way congregations support the work of the larger church through their Mission Share contributions which go to support building up new leaders and pastors, like your own wonderful pastor, Pastor Barb Oshlo. These contributions also make other work of the church possible, such as the work of the church’s many serving arms like Mosaic, Lutheran Family Services, and Lutheran World Relief; as well as the creation of new, transforming, and redeveloping ministries, sensing that God is up to something and feeling called to be a part of God’s on-going work in the world.

Summing it all Up
Abraham was impacted in ways that even he could not have imagined by God’s promises. We too are impacted by the promises of God, of a God who has come near to us, and meets us where we are, out of love for us. This love leads us out from here into the way we live our lives, and meet our neighbors. This love guides us forward, like it did Abraham in faith, not knowing where we might always be going but trusting, that in our journey, God is with us, leading us, and supporting us, as stewards God has called and entrusted with this work.

dinner time
Some of the many faithful gathered at St. Mark’s. Thank you all for the invitation, conversation, fellowship, service, and hospitality.

Thank you for being a part of this work, and for journeying faithfully hand-in-hand with your sisters and brothers across this synod, the larger church, and all around the world. To close, let us pray.

Journey prayer
O God, you have called your servants like Abraham to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils and joys unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

pig tree
One more picture, which I have to include. This spring’s noisy offerings at St. Mark’s are going to “buy pigs” through ELCA Good Gifts. So of course, there would have to be a “Pig Tree,” in the narthex. Awesome stewardship!

Let’s be a John 3:17 People! – A stewardship sermon

This weekend (March 11th & 12th), I had the joy of visiting First Lutheran Church in Kearney, Nebraska. Pastor Sylvia Karlsson invited me to come, preach, and visit, as part of the congregation’s stewardship season of focus during Lent. Over the course of the weekend, I preached the following sermon, visited with many different people, and also had a fun evening of a barbecue stewardship dinner filled with conversation and questions and answers with me. What follows is the manuscript that I mainly preached from. The sermon was based on the congregation’s stewardship focus from Ephesians 4:1-16, and the appointed gospel passage from the revised common lectionary for the second weekend of Lent, John 3:1-17. If you would like to listen or watch this sermon, the 11:00am service was recorded and can be viewed including the sermon here

Grace and peace from our God who created you, calls you, claims you, loves you, and is with you. Amen.

It is a great joy to be with you today here in Kearney. Thank you Pastor Sylvia for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring greetings on behalf of your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ from across the Nebraska Synod, from Bishop Maas, and the whole synod staff, and even from my friend and colleague Deacon Connie Stover, a member of this great community here. I am excited to be with you and to help think about what God might be up to here, and how we’re stewards of all that God entrusts to us- all that we have and all that we are.[1]

Stewardship Theme: Ephesians 4:4-6
The stewardship theme that you have chosen from Ephesians 4 is one that is all about unity. We each have unique gifts, passions, ideas, identities, stories, and vocations. But we are brought together in the one Body. Paul writes, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”[2]

kids bells
The Youth Handbell Choir sharing their gifts of music as part of the prelude.

The word “all” shows up four times, just in this verse alone. This is something that the apostle Paul is trying to get through to the people of Ephesus. The church, the Body of Christ, is dependent upon all- all of us, all our neighbors, everyone. We all have a role to play. We all have purpose, and we all matter. Looking around the world, that’s a message and story that needs to be told today, perhaps more than ever.

So, what are we to do about this? How can we tell this story, one that Jesus starts to paint a picture of, for Nicodemus today? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life. Indeed, God, did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”[3]

This is a pure gift! The question then is, what is our joyful response to this gift of life? How do we live? The answer has everything to do with stewardship.

What It Means to be a Steward
Stewardship is not just about money, though that’s certainly a part of it. It’s about asking for people to give, and to contribute out of response to the good news and promises of all that God has done for you and continues to do.

40 days
One of the ways that First Lutheran is practicing stewardship during Lent is by engaging with curriculum developed by ELCA World Hunger, and supporting this ministry through weekly noisy offerings among other ways.

Stewardship is about thanking God and thanking people, living a life of gratitude and joy. On that note, thank you for the invitation, and for all the many ways you each serve in your vocations, daily lives, and as partners in ministry in this place, in this community of Kearney, as part of the Nebraska Synod, the ELCA and the larger church. Your partnership in this, as part of the synod, and through your mission share contributions makes the work of the church possible: through sharing resources to prepare and raise up new leaders; through helping those in need by responding to disasters and world hunger, and supporting the work of the many serving arms of the church like Lutheran Family Services, Mosaic, and Lutheran World Relief to name a few; and in spreading the good news of a God who has come near, through supporting new and transforming ministries.

Stewardship is also about telling the stories of how God is at work, and how, whether we recognize it or not, we are part of that work, and it’s beautiful and important work, that I have the joy in my role as Director for Stewardship of getting to remind you all about.

God uses us- all that we have and all that we are, to bring about God’s kingdom and do God’s work in the world. How we respond to the good news- by the way we live our lives joyfully, abundantly or in scarcity, help shows how we have been impacted by the good news. The choices we make, the things we do or don’t do, they are all reflections of how we steward ourselves- all of what makes each of us who we are- our time, our bodies, our health, our dreams, our questions, our ideas, our vocations, our hopes, our stories, our relationships. That’s what stewardship is about.

It’s a deep thing. It’s a big part of our identity as Children of God, and as some have said, it might well include everything we do after hearing the Good News of God, good news we heard again today, and good news and reminders of God’s promises we will celebrate again through a simple meal in a few moments.

stewardship dinner
Some of the many wonderful people who came and enjoyed the stewardship dinner at First Lutheran, served and sponsored by the congregation’s stewardship team.

In this time of change, worry, and fear for many, we must be stewards of God’s love to all of God’s people. We must be a John 3:17 people. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”[4]

This is the gospel to the core- the gift of God for all the children and people of God, all of whom God has created, all of whom God calls, claims, and loves. God wants to be in relationship with God’s people. And God in Christ comes as one of us, to be with us, and through Him, to save us so that we may all live, and live life abundantly.

That’s what we remember during this season of Lent in our journey to and through the cross. That’s also the good news my friends. But it’s news we need to be sharing and we are called to share. But how?

Vocations & Our Response
What we do matters. What we do isn’t about saving ourselves or anyone, that’s God’s good gift and promise. But what we do matters in the sense that it is our joyful response to the good news, gifts, and promises of God. How do we live our lives? How do we love those around us, living out our unique and diverse callings?

Let me put this another way.

The Blowing Winds of Nebraska & the Movement of the Spirit
In talking to Nicodemus, Jesus paints a beautiful picture of the Holy Spirit. It’s one that takes on extra meaning here in Nebraska when we think of the way the wind blows. I mean just this last week, living in the parsonage in rural Fontanelle northeast of Fremont where my wife serves as pastor at Salem Lutheran there, our house lost power a couple times because of the wind whipping out of the south and then the west and north.

Jesus says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”[5]

We believe in a God who is on the loose, present everywhere, and up to something. What God is up to, can sometimes be a great mystery to us. It usually involves lifting people up, spreading love, purpose, hope, joy, and sharing the good news of God’s promises through love and action. God the Holy Spirit moves like the wind, in ways that are uncontrollable. We can’t make God do what we want. We can’t put God in a box, or treat our prayers like that of someone with wishes for a Genie in a bottle. That’s not a real relationship. God wants to be with us, in the good, bad, and ugly of life. And when we are open to it, just as the Holy Spirit moves and blows like the wind, we too can be moved in ways we might never expect and to lands we might never have imagined. I think all of our stories might be good examples of this.

A Bit of My Story of the Spirit’s Movement
For example, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. I met my wife in college, and we fell in love. After I did a master’s program in California, we got married and a week later moved to seminary in Minnesota. No rational person goes about life like this. I mean, I had had planned my whole life ahead, I would keep going to school, get a PhD and then maybe after that start dating at that point. God had other ideas, much better than my own, I might add. After five years in Minnesota, we went back to Washington for Allison to do her internship, the last part of her preparation before ordination. We figured, hey, we’re going home to the northwest…

Then a funny thing happened. God nudged me in the form of an email from a person I had never heard of to have a phone conversation with a bishop I had never met. A month later I was on a quick trip to Nebraska to see this state I didn’t know much about in person with my own eyes. Tears were shed on that trip, tears of knowing that we would be leaving our extended families again, but we also knew, through our hearts, minds, and souls, that God was up to something and we were being led here to this beautiful and wonderful state and this awesome synod which we are all a part of in this church.

God in the Holy Spirit moves in ways which we often can’t explain, and in ways that defy our human logic or best planning. But that’s a part of what it means to be a Follower of Christ, and honestly, to be a steward.

Called Together for the Sake of Our Neighbor
God calls us together. God gifts us with purpose, and entrusts us with unique callings and responsibilities. But each of these, is not just for ourselves, or for God alone. They are for each other, for our neighbors both locally and far away. We have a God who calls us into relationships. That means at times we will disagree, perhaps fight or mess-up, because we’re in community and relationships. We’re human after all. But through God, there is hope of reconciliation through God’s love, and the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”[6]

heavenlytreblemakers
Best choir name ever, “Heavenly Treble Makers.” Beautiful singers. Thank you for all sharing and stewarding your musical gifts.

In times like this, we are called more than ever to truly be this one body for the sake of the world- to share, to love, to do, to tell, and to serve. God’s done the hard work already of overcoming death through Christ. Now it’s our turn to go about the work of being a steward of God’s love, responding to the good news, promises, and gifts of God’s saving acts for us. It’s our turn, our calling, our duty, and our joy to be a part of the beautiful, unique, and diverse Body of Christ, which together can provide community, hope, healing, and reconciliation to a hurting and broken, yet very beautiful and wonderfully made world.

This is not easy work. But it’s the most important work. And together, we go about it, each serving in our various ways, called to it by our God who loves us, is with us, and is for us. Amen.

____________________________________

Notes, Resources, and References

[1] I’m especially excited to be here because Pr. Sylvia was one of the first people I met last year shortly after accepting this call to serve in Nebraska. In addition to serving as your transition pastor, Pr. Sylvia is the chair for the Nebraska Synod Stewardship Table. I met that group virtually for the first time through the wonders of the internet last April, even before I began working for the synod, and I knew then and there what a great team I was going to be a part of. I am grateful for their leadership, especially as they have welcomed me to this exciting role as the Nebraska Synod Director for Stewardship.

[2] Ephesians 4:4-6, NRSV.

[3] John 3:16-17, NRSV.

[4] Inspired by Karoline Lewis, “John 3:16,” “Dear Working Preacher,” 5 March 2017. Within this, Karoline writes, “the sweeping claim of John 3:16 without 3:17 has in our general parlance become that which justifies damnation for unbelievers, perpetuates our myopic musings about God, and validates our hubris. Rather than signal God’s desire to be in relationship with all people, this verse has become a weapon…”

[5] John 3:8, NRSV.

[6] Ephesians 4:3, NRSV.

Honest Reflections of the Heart

It’s already late February. My birthday has come and gone, a big one actually this year in terms of milestones. (Yay for a new decade… I think.) Where has the year gone? I haven’t blogged as often as I like. I have been still figuring out what life is like in a new place, Nebraska, and in a new capacity, as the Nebraska Synod Director for Stewardship.

My heart is full of joy, love, and purpose. 

immanuel-2
The staff of the Nebraska Synod gathered together before Christmas in December 2016.

This I do know- I love my job, ministry, and call. I love my team of colleagues, friends, and peers, who serve alongside me and whom partner together to serve in their various vocations and callings- for the sake of their neighbor, God’s work and mission in the world, and the spreading of the Good News of the promises of God. I love the community and congregation my wife and I are a part of. And I am excited for the year ahead.

At the same time, my heart hurts. 

I hurt as I see the continued rise in hatred and bigotry. I hurt as I see ill-conceived policies and decisions being enacted without apparent concern for compassion and humanity.

I could respond to a long list of decisions through news stories and commentaries, but I trust you see enough of those where you get your news and in your social media feeds. I could get on my soapbox and explain why theologically I feel so unnerved by many of these decisions. But today, I want to stick to a societal argument, if possible.

Policies and decisions enacted by leaders are not just for themselves. In a business world, there is truth that those decisions are for shareholders and customers. But in a civil society, those decisions are for the elusive and hard to define, “common good.”

for-the-common-good
How do you define the “common good?”

Everyone defines the concept differently, but it’s one that we must hold at the center of our decision making to be able to collaborate and live together in community. If we do not, then we really do not have much holding us together at all, except for some malleable laws and rights, which hopefully have universal meaning.

It’s my opinion (and my opinion alone), that many of the decisions and policies currently being enacted do not have the common good in mind. And I wonder, if the reason for this is because there is a misunderstanding of the role of government and civil society? I was taught and modeled in school and previous career opportunities, that leadership in such environments is a privilege and a gift. But most importantly, leadership in such capacity is service!

Leadership is service. Government is service. 

It’s not about popularity. It’s not about power. It’s not about partisanship on any side. It’s about service, and particularly serving for the common good of our shared ideals- those grounded in the Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. And also adapting as those ideals must evolve as our understanding of science, people, technology, and the world change over time. But through such change, we must hold on to the importance of service for the sake of the common good.

Why does my heart hurt?

  • Because those currently enacting policies and decisions don’t seem to understand this- the very notion of service and common good.
  • Because instead of moving to unite across party politics, campaign rallies are still being held by those elected.
  • Because the fourth estate, the press, is being singled out as the enemy, and those who offer differing opinions and protest or resist are being dismissed as the enemy or a few “paid” people.

Until these concerns are addressed, my heart will likely continue to hurt. And at the same time, protests and resistance will grow stronger and louder.

here-i-am
Here I am, grateful. Happy and willing to talk with you, because we are in relationship with each other.

So here I am. A person who is grateful for the role I am in, my vocation, and calling. At the same time, a person who is convicted by my understandings of leadership and theology by what I am seeing in my country that I love, and in God’s beautiful yet hurting and broken world that is thirsting and in need for reconciliation.

Wherever you are, know that I am here. A fellow Child of God, happy and willing to talk with you, because whether we agree or not, we are in relationship with each other as citizens of society, and people created in the Image of God. As you wrestle with your daily life, call, questions, ideas, dreams, worries, and wonderings, know that I too do so. We’re in this together. And God is here with us too.

On one other note, it is my plan to return to daily blogging on Ash Wednesday, blogging a short reflection each day during Lent. I hope to be able to follow through on that plan. We’ll see starting next week. Until then, blessings and peace friends, and thank you for reading, serving in your vocations, and being part of the conversation and work together.  -Timothy

Image Credit: For the Common Good

Choosing Life and Living Abundantly

The following is the majority of the sermon I preached at American Lutheran Church in Filley, Nebraska on Sunday February 12, 2017. The passages appointed for the day by the revised common lectionary (Epiphany 6A) included Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, and Matthew 5:21-37

american-filley-1
American Lutheran Church in Filley, Nebraska on a beautifully sunny February morning.

Grace and peace to you this day, and greetings from your 100,000 sisters and brothers across the Nebraska Synod. I know that Bishop Maas was with you a couple of months ago, and he again sends his greetings and gratitude. On his, and the whole synod’s behalf, I want to say thank you again for your generosity and the many ways you have stepped up to answer God’s call to serve your neighbor in your many ministries and special gifts in honor of American Lutheran’s 85 plus years of ministry now. So, with all my heart, please here my sincerest thanks and gratitude.

Thank you also to Pastor LuRae for the invitation to be with you today. I am excited to be here, to be present with you and hear some of your stories.

Again, my name is Timothy Siburg and I am the Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod, and a deacon in the ELCA. Of all of my many tasks with my role and ministry, one of my great joys is getting to be out in congregations seeing God’s work lived out in creative and new ways, and hearing and sharing the many stories of God at work through the love shown for and through God’s people.

Stories of Abundance and Stewardship
Since moving to Nebraska this past fall from Washington state, I have had the chance to see the abundance of God in action all across this state. I have heard about congregations who have given up some of our their church building space, for example, to house a wood shop to create prayer chests and furniture for those in need in their community.

I have witnessed a congregation which has turned its entire basement into not just a “care closet,” full of donated clothes, shoes, and food, but it’s organized like a store, and people in need in the community can come and take what they need.

I have felt God’s abundance through the gratitude and graciousness of warm welcomes like I have received here in congregations like yours in Scottsbluff, North Platte, Wayne, Aurora, Tekamah, and many more. I’ve seen people show up and fill an auditorium for a benefit, like last night in Fremont for a friend in their community, a sister in Christ battling cancer. And I have seen partnerships with serving arms to do the good work of ministry through groups like Mosaic, Lutheran Family Services, and many others.

I have seen how God’s abundance is being lived out in the way people live their lives, and steward all that they are, and all that they have- their time, their gifts, their possessions, their passions, vocations, questions, ideas, dreams, and stories. And in this, I have seen God’s story to continue to unfold, and to be able to help point to it.

Stories of God at Work
The beauty of God’s story is that it is on-going. Just as God is with us, Emmanuel, God will continue to be present with us.

In the Old Testament reading today from Deuteronomy, we hear some of the story of Moses preaching and laying out what’s at stake once again for God’s people, Israel. It’s a message that’s all about life, and abundant life that is only possible through the living God.

Moses proclaims, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.”[1]

There’s no dancing around this for Moses. This is life and death sort of stuff, and has taken on tangible form in the midst of Israel’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness, hoping to soon cross the Jordan to the land that God has promised to give to God’s people. Moses reminds the people again of the stories of God’s love and promises. The stories of the God of Abraham, and the promise God made with Abraham, the covenant of the Shema.

filley-2
Some of the baptismal banners that have been made at American in Filley for the recently baptized. These are reminders of the promises of God.

Moses so deeply wants the people to hear him and understand. He wants them to “Choose life so that they and their descendants may live.”[2] That’s God’s hope too. God wants us to choose life, abundant life, a life we can only find in God.

That really is also the point of the “law.” Lutherans like to talk about this thing called “law and gospel.” You might hear about how the “law brings you to your knees,” and the good news of the gospel frees you. This might well be true.

But there is another way to think about this law. One of my favorite seminary professors, Dr. Terence Fretheim, argued in class often that the purpose of the law is the hope that “life may go well for you.”

That really seems to be what Moses is getting at. He wants the people to remember their identity, and their relationship with their God. He wants them to enjoy and live the abundant life only possible through God.

Now putting on my stewardship hat for a minute, at the heart of stewardship is this hope and message of the abundance we know in God in Christ. It’s like what the writer of the letter of 1st Timothy compels, in order to “take hold of the life that really is life,”[3] the life, death, and resurrection of the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Life in Relationship
This abundant life though is not one in isolation. It’s also not just one in sole individual relationship with God. It’s one in relationship with each other, all of our fellow Children of God. And that seems to be what’s on Jesus’ mind in this portion we heard today of his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is offering thoughts, questions, and rhetorical responses to how to be in relationship with each other.

Jesus preaches, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”[4]

Now obviously as a Director for Stewardship, this passage catches my eye because it talks about the importance of giving and offering up of oneself, that which God has first entrusted to us. But that act of giving, is a deeply spiritual and relational one.

When we give, it’s not all about us. It’s about showing our gratitude for God by returning just a portion of all that God has given for us, and entrusted to us. It’s like the hymn we’ll sing in a few minutes, “We Give Thee But Thine Own,” using that which God has given to our care, to serve our neighbor.

filley-4
A beautiful bulletin board at American Lutheran in Filley. How might we be God’s little love bugs?

It’s about reaching out to those in need, those around us, to steward that which God has given for the sake of God’s world. A world that is called, created, and loved into being, to be in relationship with God.

Life is not abundant without relationships and community. And because of this, it also means life is not one absent of conflict. Why do we confess together just about every time we worship? Because we need to be reminded of the forgiveness that is given pure and simply through the gifts of God. Through God in Christ’s love, we are reconciled to God, and likewise, we are called to be reconciled to one another.

That’s why it’s such a beautiful thing for Jesus to frame our giving and offering around our relationships with each other. If there’s some area of hurt or forgiveness that’s needed, seek it and be reconciled. Through the reconciliation comes peace; forgiveness; freedom from pain, sorrow and guilt; and abundant life. It’s for this reason that in worship we often have a time of passing of the peace before offering, so that, perhaps, if you need to seek out another, you have the chance so that all may give back to God with joyful hearts.

Valentine’s and Vocation
This is all nice, well and good, I know. But what does it mean for us today?

Maybe an answer lies in Paul’s words to the Corinthians? Paul writes about how we are all called into vocations, lives of service to our neighbors in our relationships, roles, and duties. He writes that, “we are God’s servants, working together; we are God’s field, God’s building.”[5]

This recognition of our call to be for our neighbor is part of our joyful response to the goodness, gifts, and promises of God. Or put another way, how might you answer the question, “What is your joyful response to what God has done, continues to do, and promises to do for you?” “What will you do, because you are so moved by God’s love and gifts, that you will do for the sake of your neighbor?”

How will you steward your time? How will you share your talents, treasures, passions, stories, and gifts?

All of these and so much more, are who you are. Put another way, how will you live as a Child of God, freed and loved by God, but in that freedom and love, called to love and serve your neighbor?

This isn’t about earning brownie points to heaven. Salvation is a free gift of God, one that we can’t earn even by following all the laws laid down for us, which is impossible anyway. Rather the question about our response, is one about life. How will we live our lives? How will we live through the love and promises of God?

Will we live in scarcity and fear? Will we put up barriers between ourselves, and cut off relationships?

Or will we live in abundance and promise? Will we seek out relationships with our neighbors- those we know and those we don’t’ really know yet? Will we show up for our neighbors going through the hardest parts of life, joining them in our deep love we know through Christ?

filley-3
Speaking of Valentine’s Day, I saw this on a bulletin board downstairs at American in Filley near the Sunday School classrooms and fellowship hall.

As Valentine’s Day is this week, what is a way that you feel the love of God at work in your life? How about the love of God at work through the life of someone you know- a neighbor, family member, partner in ministry? How about how you see the love of God at work through those around you- your neighbors and strangers? Around your community? Around the world?

Today’s a good a day to remember all that God has done, and to open our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds, to see what God might be up to in God’s abundance in our midst. God is active. God is present. And God’s gift and promise of love is for you, and is shown to others through you.

Maybe that doesn’t make a great Valentine’s Card that Hallmark can market and sell- but the depth of it, makes it possible to show God’s love to all those you meet, through your words, actions, and the way you live your life in relationship with one another.

No matter how you answer the question of what will your joyful response to the gifts of God be; know that you are called, created, and loved to be uniquely who you are. And thank you for being the beautiful Child of God you are- sharing love, hope, light, and peace with the world. Amen.

References and Works Cited:

[1] Deuteronomy 30:15-16, NRSV.

[2] Paraphrased from Deuteronomy 30:19, NRSV.

[3] 1 Timothy 6:19, NRSV.

[4] Matthew 5:23-24, NRSV.

[5] 1 Corinthians 3:9, NRSV, paraphrased.

Child of God, Kingdom of Heaven, & the Love of the Refugee- our Neighbor

I was invited to preach this past weekend by my wife, Pastor Allison Siburg, at our congregation, Salem Lutheran Church in Fontanelle, Nebraska. When I was invited weeks ago, I was excited because the lectionary readings (Epiphany 4A) included a few of my favorites. That invitation, however, came before the refugee ban. In the midst of this, I shared what was on my heart. I have to admit, I was more nervous to preach this past weekend than I often am. But here is what I came up with and preached on Sunday January 29, 2017. 

The following sermon was based on the readings of Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, and Matthew 5:1-12. Included at the beginning of the manuscript is a poem that I found on Sunday January 29th. When I preached I did not include it in its entirety, just the final stanza. For the purpose of the blog, however, I have included it in full. 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.[1] Grace and peace from the one who knows you, claims you, and loves you. Amen.

I would like to start with a poem I read on Facebook this morning that has been with me ever since. It’s called, “Heaven Has No Borders,” and was written by Minnesota pastor Luke Stevens-Royer.

Where was it, where we first fell
into the delusion of our separateness.
Of our “other-ness”?

Was it somewhere between the Tigris and the Euphrates,
or at the Rio Grande –
or near the Mississippi.
Somewhere down from the tower of babel,
we fell into the first sin –
of fearing difference.
And we began to build walls.

And the walls that we place
to seemingly protect ourselves
we soon realize are prison walls
isolating us from the fabric of life
from our kindred –
which is all people.


We’ve built walls of prejudice, fear,
and a delusional false sense
of rightful ownership –
as if we all aren’t guests
on any land we inhabit.

Heaven has no borders.
When we forget this,
we set up the gates of hell.

But something happens.
When the hard heart
is watered with empathy
and the closed soul
soaked in compassion
the rigid borders dissolve.

Something happens
when the people remember they are family
and we have the tools we need
like Joshua at Jericho
to dance down the wall –
the walls come tumbling down
crumble to dust from the dancing rhythm
of the songs, the poems, the common work
of love made flesh – enough love to save us all.

And again,
the question from ancient scripture
echoes in our moral conscience –
behold, says the stranger,
the immigrant, the refugee,
behold,
I stand at the door and knock –

will you lift up your gates?[2] – Luke Stevens-Royer

Most of you know that, though I’m most importantly your pastor’s spouse, I am also a deacon in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America- one called to preach, teach, and serve. In this, I’m the Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod. As the days grow longer, there’ll be about two weekends a month that you won’t see me, as I’ll be preaching in Kearney, Holdrege, Filley, Wahoo, and many other places in between.

Since coming to Nebraska, I have been to Scottsbluff, North Platte, Aurora, Wakefield, Nebraska City, and so many other places. I have heard stories of ministry in action, of communities loving their neighbors in unique ways. From supporting the work of Mosaic, to starting a care closet that has taken over an entire church basement, to congregations who have partnered with Lutheran Family Services to sponsor refugee families. And congregations, like this, who understand Jesus’ welcome and love at a deep, deep level- the welcome Jesus talks about when he says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,”[3] like in the poem I opened with.

Looking at Today’s Words of God
That’s partly why it took me all week to be able to sit down and write a sermon. Today’s lectionary passages are some of the most well known in our faith- at least for describing who we are and what our character is called to be in our identity as Children of God, and the many vocations we serve as Children of God.

Psalm 15 asks, “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?”[4] These are questions which lead to a list of some of the marks of character- of what it means and looks like to be a Child of God.

In this tumultuous time, a time of change, fake news, irrational fears, and fear driven decision making, Paul reminds us in his letter to the Corinthians, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”[5]

The prophet Micah asks and declares in one of my absolute favorite Bible verses, “O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you God?”[6]

And then of course, there is today’s gospel- commonly called the “Beatitudes,” or blessings, the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus paints a vast picture of the changes and reversal only possible through God, a glimpse of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, and a description of just what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like and might be.

This is Good News. But it can also drive us all to our knees, when we see just how far we have yet to go as people, society, and Children of God. It can drive us to prayer, confession, repentance, and Kyrie’s or songs of “Lord have mercy.”

God’s vision is big. God’s children are many, if not all. Because, think about it, if God creates all people, then aren’t we all, God’s children?

The Relationship of being a Child of God and our Neighbors
Martin Luther famously wrote about this in his work, The Freedom of a Christian.[7] Luther wrote basically that, “We are all perfectly free people, bound to none.”

We are freed through the gifts and promises of God. Yet at the same time, “We are all servants, bound to our neighbors.” We exist, for the sake of our neighbor.

vigil-refugees
Some of the turnout for a vigil for Refugees that was held in Omaha, Nebraska on January 31, 2017. I was there along with Allison, a number of colleagues from across the Nebraska Synod, and people from all faith backgrounds.

But, just who is our neighbor? Fred Rogers, or Mister Rogers as you probably know him, made a career out of this question. As a Presbyterian pastor, he knew the depth and complexity of it. We like to narrow our answer to who is our neighbor, to just a few people we like and can see, and certain groups of people we identify or agree with. The problem is, we can’t do this. We can’t narrow the definition of neighbor. If God creates all, if we’re all God’s children, we are then all neighbors to one another.

Think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.[8] If the Samaritan man had given into societal norms, there would have been no “good Samaritan.” But the Samaritan saw across boundaries, walls, societal norms, and our human nature to group and judge people. He showed mercy to his neighbor in need. He did as Jesus preached on the mount, “Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.”

Think of the Holy Family in the gospel story we heard earlier this month on New Year’s Day.[9] Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt to escape the power thirsty murderer, Herod, who felt threatened by the prospect of a possible king in the form of an infant. The Holy Family fled as refugees to the land, generations earlier, which had enslaved their ancestors.

This story convicts me as I think of the world around me, and remember the work of our Lutheran brothers and sisters in Christ who responded to the refugee crisis of World War II by creating the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Today, it is the second largest refugee resettlement organization in the country. It is a serving arm of the church responding to the largest refugee crisis now since World War II, with the help of organizations like Lutheran Family Services here in Nebraska.

A Nebraska Immigrant’s Story[10]


This past week I heard the story of Afghan refugee Feroz Mohmand here in the local news.[11] Now a permanent resident in Omaha with his wife, for Mohmand, being a refugee and fleeing Afghanistan in 2012 was a matter of life or death. “The reason I became a refugee was not my choice,” he said. He said that he received a phone call saying that he would have less than 24 hours to leave his country if he wanted to stay alive.

Mohmand and his wife worked alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai to protect education and abolish terrorist groups like the Taliban. Because of their work, extremist groups made them targets for attack. One day, kidnappers almost took his son. He said that, every morning when he left home he would hug his family, and think this might be the last hug.

His family was relocated to the United States in 2013, but Mohmand says the process typically takes much longer– even years. It’s not uncommon, especially in the case of Syrian refugees now, to be in refugee camps for upwards of 3-4 years. Can you imagine not knowing where you’ll live for 3, 4, or more years?[12]

Modern Beatitudes
Lutheran Bishop Michael Rinehart from Houston, put it this way in light of the Beatitudes,

“Blessed are the refugees. Blessed are all 65 million people, those who are victims of war and poverty; those who have been evicted; those who cannot return home; those who seek a safe place for their children; those who are feared and despised; those hated by both sides of the conflict; those for whom nobody seems to care. You are children of God. And the people of God care about you.”[13]

We could add any numbers of needs here. For example,

“Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are the 48 million hungry Americans, those who are ridiculed; those who work multiple jobs, just to give their kids a chance; those who rely on food stamps and credits to provide a safe home for orphans and foster children; those with homes, and those without; those for whom nobody seems to care. You are children of God. And the people of God care about you.”

Or, another,

“Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who serve and have served, to bring freedom, hope, and a new day; those who resist the sinful ways to meet violence with violence; those who resist the sinful feelings of supremacy and power; those who some people fear are too soft, and others who think they don’t do enough; those who do not receive the care and support that they so greatly deserve. You servants are children of God. And the people of God care about you.”

I could keep going, but I don’t think I need to, because I deeply believe you feel this call too- this call to respond to God’s promises and blessings.

bishop-maas-refugees
Bishop Brian Maas sharing, praying, and responding at the vigil in Omaha on January 31, 2017. He said that he was there because “his boss called him to be there.”

I have seen it- in the warm welcome you give and have given. I have seen it in the way that this congregation serves, listens, and dreams about what God might be calling us to be. In the great capacity to grow, teach, and serve; and how I have heard from many of you wondering about, what are some new ways we might be being called to serve today? What are some new projects that we might be being called to be part of?

God’s Promises Today
Today may seem uncertain. The news may excite or terrify us. But in-spite of this, and through this, we are called, created, and loved by a God who came into this world as one of us.

A God who walked alongside us, and taught us, like in his Sermon on the Mount; who challenged the powers that be, overturned the money tables in the Temple, and who always showed up with the people that common sense and society had seemingly marginalized and pushed aside; who, for us, faced death and the grave… And not only faced them, Jesus beat them at their own game, once and for all.

God in Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, is a gift- a free gift we can do nothing to earn. A gift of the promise of salvation- abundant life eternal, and thanks be to God for that.

But that begs the question. What will you do in response to this pure gift? Or, as I like to say when preaching on stewardship, what will your joyful response be?

For all that God has done for you, and promises to do, what will you be so caught up in joy for the goodness of God that you will do in love and gratitude for your neighbor? How will you serve your neighbor? Meet them, and join them? How will you welcome your neighbor, the refugee? How will your life and story show God’s love in the world around you?

In worship this year, we’ll continue to journey through the Gospel of Matthew. And not to steal any of my wife’s thunder, or to flip to the last page of the book, but the Gospel of Matthew ends with the Great Commission- a call to baptize and teach.[14] A call to share the Good News of a God who has come near, and who is for all.

There are stories to tell- stories of God at work in and through all our lives. Stories of blessings and woes, joys and sorrows. Stories of how God has shown up and continues to show up. Stories of how God calls us each into our various roles, daily lives, and vocations to serve our neighbors.

Tell your stories. Live your stories. And please, go about the work of what it means and looks like to be a Child of God. For all of this- all of you- are part of God’s on-going story of promise and redemption. A story of the Kingdom of Heaven in our world- yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Amen.

————————–

Citations and References: 

[1] Based on Psalm 19:14.

[2] “Heaven Has No Borders,” Luke Stevens-Royer, shared on Facebook, 28 January, 2017.

[3] Matthew 25:35, NRSV.

[4] Psalm 15:1, NRSV.

[5] 1 Corinthians 1:31, NRSV.

[6] Micah 6:8, NRSV.

[7] Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, (1520), trans. Mark D. Tranvik, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008).

[8] Luke 10:25-37, NRSV.

[9] Matthew 2:13-23, NRSV.

[10] http://www.ketv.com/article/local-refugees-immigration-attorneys-react-to-president-trumps-executive-orders/8640197

[11] Ibid.

[12] If we turn our back on refugees, and all our neighbors in need, it’s not hard to imagine Jesus saying as Nebraska Bishop Brian Maas pointedly pondered this past week, “Depart from me… because I was a stranger, and you did not welcome me.” From Bishop Brian Maas, Facebook post, 27 January, 2017, quoting and reminding of Matthew 25:43, NRSV.

[13] Bishop Michael Rinehart, Facebook post, 26 January, 2017.

[14] Matthew 28:18-20, NRSV.

Consecration and Ordination

It’s New Year’s Eve, the last day of 2016. For many it’s been a year that couldn’t end soon enough. Even so, there has been a lot of great things that have happened this past year. My brother got married to the love of his life in September. My wife Allison was ordained in early November and is now serving as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Nebraska. I was also consecrated as a deacon in early November, and am serving as the Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod.

consecration
The rostered ministers and leaders gathered at my consecration service on All Saints Sunday at First Lutheran (Poulsbo, WA).

I had originally planned to write and share some thoughts on our ordination and consecration back in November, but given events and news around the time, I just didn’t have the heart to. Well, with some space and the joy of being in the midst of the Twelve Days of Christmas, here’s what I know now.

  • Allison and I had a wonderful weekend. It was such a joy to be able to share a few days with our family, friends, and a number of fellow leaders of faith and the church gathered together in person and through the wonders of cyberspace. To all who were a part of it, near or far, thank you.
  • Having not one, but two, great professors from Luther Seminary be able to make the trip out to Washington to preach at our services was a gift, thank you Dr. Terri Elton and Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis.
allison-ordination-funny
It wouldn’t have been Allison’s ordination without a funny picture of the clergy and rostered ministers/leaders afterward.
  • Allison and I are both greatly blessed by two terrific home congregations, St. Andrew’s Lutheran (Bellevue, WA) and First Lutheran (Poulsbo, WA) whose pastors and congregations celebrated the work of the Holy Spirit with us. Thank you for the hospitality, support, and being the Body of Christ together.
  • Ministry, like most things in life, is not an individual thing. It’s something that is built on and through relationships and community. That was evident throughout the weekend- through our families, through our pastor friends and fellow rostered ministers/leaders of the church, through our long time friends who have been a part of our journeys from birth to high school to college to grad school to seminary, to life post-seminary and everything else in between.

    allison-family-photo
    Allison’s family photo after the ordination service.
  • God is clearly up to something. Allison and I have been called into our unique vocations, just as I believe all people are called into their unique vocations.
  • When the Holy Spirit moves, it calls us to pay attention. Hence, now we’re in Nebraska, and we are both grateful for the warm welcome here, as well as for all of the love and support in Washington.
  • There are some fantastic bishops in the church. I am excited to serve alongside (and under) Bishop Brian Maas in Nebraska and that he was able to preside at Allison’s ordination and my consecration. I am also grateful for Bishop Rick Jaech from the Southwestern Washington Synod, my home synod, who was able to assist, and who gave me great opportunities to serve over the previous year in the Northwest.
  • Some of the best advice I have ever received about ministry was repeated over this fantastic weekend: “Love the people,” “be good,” and “always say thank you.”
  • No matter what lies ahead in our ministry together, Allison and I believe that we are doing and called to be a part of God’s work in the world, together. That matters. That makes the good days great. It makes the challenging days bearable. It makes the darker days a little brighter. And it makes the bright days overflow.
family-photo
Family photo after my consecration service.

Thank you all for being a part of this network.

Thank you for serving faithfully in your vocations.

Thank you for helping me find hope and be positive in the midst of moments of doubt.

And most importantly, thank you for being a part of this work and life together.

God’s peace and blessings to you, and Happy New Year!