When you log into Facebook, and it reminds you that today is your Baptismal birthday, I have to admit, that’s kind of cool. It’s little strange, given that Facebook wasn’t around then, but still, it’s kind of cool.
This has me thinking today about the importance of names and the idea of being claimed. Those of you who know me well, know that I prefer going by my full first name, Timothy. Today, in celebration of my baptismal birthday, I would like to share a few reasons why this matters for me.
My baptized and given name On this day a few decades ago, I was baptized on Easter Sunday and officially marked and claimed as a Child of God. I was sealed with the cross of Christ forever. I was named Timothy when I was born, and a couple months later, I was baptized as Timothy.
I was named after the companion, disciple, assistant, and perhaps correspondent to the Apostle Paul. I also like the supposed meaning for the name of Timothy, which is “honoring God.”
I wanted to be different This name also matters to me because growing up, there were a number of Tim’s in my classes. Most of them were my friends.
The show “Home Improvement,” with Tim Allen playing “Tim the Tool Man Taylor,” was on TV every week when I was in elementary school, and the idea of being called “Tim,” like the sometimes odd and goofball “Tim the Tool Man,” was not quite what I wanted to be known for. And, to be perfectly honest, if you remember Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, you might also remember “Tiny Tim.” Being that I was always one of the shortest kids in my class, I didn’t want to be known as “Tiny Tim.” I wanted to be different.
I wanted to be different, so I did the best I could to claim that, by going by Timothy.
The realities of other names It really wasn’t until the fourth grade when this effort of mine was challenged, and one of my favorite teachers started always calling me “Tim.” Perhaps I was just too quiet to fight it publicly or correct it? But my silent form of protest was to always write my name on my homework as “Timothy,” and to always sign my name as “Timothy.”
People near and far have called me one thing or another, too many names to willingly list. When called these different names I may or may not verbally respond, but when asked about my name preference, I always say my name is Timothy (but I am used to being called other things).
There may be other titles I am called, such as “friend,” “deacon,” “Child of God,” “brother,” “son,” “husband,” etc., and these are all well and good. But when you get past the title, my name will always be Timothy.
Names and identities matter So why am I writing about this today on my baptismal birthday? I am not writing to make anyone feel bad who has called me something else. I get it, I have called plenty of people names they probably don’t want to be called too.
I am writing about this today because I believe names and identities matter. Timothy was the name I was given, and frankly, I am pretty fond of it. And it is for this reason, that I try whenever possible to ask someone what they prefer to be called. I have been on the other side, and have been called all sorts of odd names- some logical and some not.
If you have ever wondered, that’s what’s in a name for me.
What’s in your name that matters to you? Why is it important to you? How is it part of your identity and story?
The tomb has been opened. “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” has been sung. The lilies have bloomed, the Easter jokes have been told… all of this is good news. Now what?
Easter is a 50-day season of joy, but I am not talking about the liturgical “now what” question. I am wondering on a deeper level, God in Christ has done the work for us, for once and for all. But now what? How do we respond? What do we do? What are we going to do?
This has been the focus of my stewardship preaching lately throughout Lent, raising the question of response. What is our joyful response to the good news of God? What is our joyful response to the pure gifts of God, for us?
God has changed everything with Easter. But are we, ourselves changed? Are we so caught up in joy and gratitude for what God has done and continues to do, that we are changed and so moved by God, that we are unable to sit still and keep the story of God to ourselves? Are we so moved to share God’s love through words and actions- the very ways that we live our lives?
Before I get on my soap box again, here are at least three thoughts:
The ELCA has a rostered minister shortage- both pastors and deacons. This shortage is projected to continue to grow. We could let this be bad news, or we could view this joyfully as an opportunity to be more intentional about telling this story as part of our joyful response. We could use this an opportunity to do things differently, to innovate and experiment; because to do otherwise isn’t really an option anymore. We could use this an opportunity to wonder actively, what might God be up to here?
Despite what might be happening societally or politically, our call as baptized Christians remains the same. How do we affirm this, and lift up these stories of faith in action in our midst? [You will notice more of these types of stories in upcoming reports, articles, magazines, newsletters, and social media posts from me and the Nebraska Synod.]
We live in a beautiful yet broken world. We are all gifted and called with various vocations, roles, passions, stories, questions, ideas, and relationships. How can we more intentionally than ever lift up everyone’s unique stories as sacred and holy calls from God to various stations, vocations, and roles? When we can help people see that their daily lives are in fact very much where God shows up in and through them, there is a depth and intentionality that forms a deeper sense of faith, stewardship, and discipleship. I want to be a part of this work, don’t you?
Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed! Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed! Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!
On this week that we move from the shouts and songs of Hosannas, to an Upper Room and a garden, to a sham of a trial and shouts of “Crucify Him,” to the cross, the tomb, and then another garden around the tomb… Allison and I took a little time yesterday afternoon to revisit a beautiful place that is special to us.
With my mother-in-law in town, we wanted to take her to see one of the more beautiful sights we know of in the Cornhusker State. (Plus, we wanted to take her along to help Allison finally replace the same rain jacket she has had since I think middle school.) So, we took some time yesterday afternoon to visit the Holy Family Shrine near Gretna, Nebraska.
This shrine, a beautiful place for reflection, prayer, and worship, is designed with panoramic views of the valley between Omaha and Lincoln. It has trails to walk, but for me, the central part is the way the water flows.
The waters of the rain are caught and start the flow of the baptismal water, by flowing through an adjoining building, and then through an outdoor garden, and then through the floor of the sanctuary itself to a larger pool under and in front of the altar area. To hear the running water, makes you remember your baptism. To hear the flowing water, reminds you of the peace that is possible through God’s presence.
It was in this space a year ago, that Allison and I took a few hours to do some serious reflection, conversation, and soul searching. As we imagined and prayed, as we wondered and shared where we were at, it was here ultimately, where Allison said, “Timothy, you are being called here.”
The Holy Spirit was present that day, just as the Holy Spirit is every day. But it was good to be there in that space. A space, where the garden outside helps you wonder about the Garden of Gethsemane.
We were there last year the week following Easter, and on that afternoon the sun shined, it rained, it hailed, sort of snowed, and then a rainbow appeared all in the matter of three hours. So, it was good to be back there yesterday, on the Tuesday of Holy Week to remember, to listen, and to be, on a majestic sunny and blue sky late afternoon.
It was good to invite Allison’s mom into this sacred space and let her see and feel for just a moment, where Allison and I were last year thanks to our friend and colleague Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Juliet Hampton, who knew just where to take us to give us space to reflect, think, pray, and be.
There are spaces that have this effect and impact everywhere. Growing up it was often in the woods or around the creek in my backyard, or other times at the piano, or at my home church with views of the bay and the Olympic Mountains. I am sure I will have many more such spaces. But for now, this is one special place in our hearts.
As the sun shined yesterday, as we remembered last year, we also had the chance to remember why we are here and to also remember the affirmation and commitment to our callings and vows which we remembered a few weeks ago at a Chrism Mass led by Bishop Brian Maas and Pastor Juliet in Omaha.
As we journey through this week to the upper room and the garden; from the garden to the cross; as we move from the cross to the tomb; and then to the vigil and sunrise and the discovery of the tomb door’s opening, let us take the time to reflect, think, pray, and be.
This is the holiest of weeks. I hope and pray that you can give yourself the space to be fully present for the whole journey of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil or Easter Sunrise, and the festival and celebration of the resurrection with Easter.
I also hope that you have a space to go and remember why you are doing what you are doing, and to be able to take a moment to be still, and know that God is God, and God is with you.
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.
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. 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.”
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. 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!” 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.”
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.
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. 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. 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.”
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.” 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.”
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. 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?
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.
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. God does this for us, and sometimes even through us.
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.”
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.
On Sunday March 26, 2017, I had the privilege of being invited to preach and lead worship at Salem Lutheran Church in Superior, Nebraska. This congregation is part of the Heartland Shared Ministries, and in the afternoon I led a stewardship seminar for the combined partner congregations and the surrounding cluster. It was a joy to be with the congregation, and I look forward to their continued exploration about what it means to be a “shared” ministry.
The following is the manuscript I mainly preached from. It is based on the revised common lectionary readings appointed for the fourth Sunday in Lent, and is primarily based on John 9:1-41, and Psalm 23.
Grace, peace, and blessings from our God who opens eyes, hearts, and minds to see, to know, and to love, Amen.
It is a great joy to be with you today. Thank you to Pastor Kathryn for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. 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 for worship today and the workshop this afternoon. I am also excited to share some thoughts about our shared ministry together in the church, some ideas about stewardship, and to wonder with you a bit about what God might be up to.
Can You Believe What You Just Saw? In terms of wondering… have you ever had one of those days where you couldn’t possibly believe what you were experiencing? Or what you were seeing?
I suspect that is what was happening with the people in today’s gospel story. In today’s story, a man who was born blind, through following Jesus’ instructions, is given sight. The people in the community can hardly believe it. Those who see it and try to make sense of it, are mad. How could this be possible? What’s going on here? “Clearly this is wrong,” the Pharisees or those in authority think, because it is not how things are supposed to go.
But as the blind man, who Jesus extends the call to be a disciple and follower of the way to, responds about Jesus and his acts on his (and perhaps our behalf), “I do not know whether he (Jesus) is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
The man who is given literal sight in this story, provides “an opportunity for God to act,” or for God to do what God does. The gospel of John is filled with “I am” statements, describing who exactly this God in Christ is. Today we again hear Jesus proclaim, “I am.” “I am the light of the world.” And as soon as he proclaims this, Jesus spits and makes mud. Seems kind of opposite of what we might first envision the light of the world looking like. But then we remember who this God of ours is. Someone who has come near, become one of us, has lived, died, and was resurrected for us, so that we might have life.
Still, I have to ask again, have you ever had one of those days where you couldn’t possibly believe what you were experiencing? Or what you were seeing?
About a year ago, I had such a couple of days. No one literally gained sight, but my heart and mind were definitely moved in ways I might not have been ready for or had expected.
My wife Allison and I are natives of the Pacific Northwest, and after getting married about seven years ago we moved to Minnesota for seminary and work. After about five years, Allison was sent out on the last part of her preparation for ordination, internship. We thought, hey this is awesome, we’re going back home to the Northwest. Just about 7 months later after moving back across country from Minnesota to Washington state, my wife Allison and I flew out to Nebraska for a quick trip. You see, it was about at this time where after receiving an email from a person I had never heard of, inviting me to have a conversation with a bishop I had never met, I heard about what God is up to here in Nebraska.
I heard an invitation to follow a calling to come and see, and to share about this synod- a synod full of generosity, love, and partnership for the sake of the world; one you’re each a part of here in Superior with the Heartland Shared Ministries and your mission share contributions which make the work of training and raising up new leaders and pastor, of supporting transforming and renewing ministries, and the many serving arm organizations that we are all partners with possible. There’s much more to this story, and I’ll pick it up in a bit.
Abundant Life through God in Christ Today’s gospel story is part of a longer section which goes through all of John chapter 9, and much of chapter 10. The man who gains his sight through Christ’s action, becomes one of the sheep Jesus describes in the following chapter who knows the shepherd’s voice and is one of the many of God’s children whom Christ has come so that, “we might have eternal life, and have it abundantly.”
Abundance, that’s a stewardship thing. But what might it mean?
The man today is made new through God’s action, much like we are made new through the water and the word in baptism. God shows up and acts, time and time again, for us. We don’t deserve this action, and cannot earn it, but God shows up because God cares, loves, and promises to be with us.
The question then is, how do we live into this reality? How do we respond to this calling? How do we live joyfully because of all that God has done and continues to do for us?
God wants to be in relationship with us. God wants us to live fully and abundantly, which starts with recognizing we have a God who loves us, is with us, and wants to be with us. These are gifts- gifts of life, gifts of faith, and gifts of purpose.
Stewardship as Faith, Hope, and Grace in Action Stewardship then is how we live in light of these promises, gifts, good news, and saving acts for us. This living is an active thing. Which is why stewardship is something broad, on-going, and part of our very identity as Children of God, and each of our relationships with our neighbors, loved ones, strangers, and even God’s own self. Stewardship, put another way, is faith, hope, and grace in action.
Jesus today was entrusted with the ability to give sight to a blind man. Jesus didn’t hoard that opportunity, rather, Jesus used it, even on a Sabbath day, so that God’s work could be done through him. Faith, hope, and grace, in action.
That was Jesus’ work in this story, and even though we might not be able to give literal sight to a blind person every day, we are entrusted with passions, stories, resources, money, talents, ideas, questions, vocations, and relationships through which God works through us to build up God’s kingdom. Through us, all that we have and all that we are, that which God has entrusted to our care to manage or steward, God does God’s work.
When you think about it that way, it’s awe-inspiring and perhaps overwhelming. How we live our lives through our vocations, choices of things we do and don’t do, show how we have been impacted by all that God has done for us. If we are so caught up in joy for these gifts of God that we cannot earn, but are perfectly free gifts, it stands to reason, that we’ll be so moved that we will not be able to hoard these gifts and keep them to ourselves, but want to share them extravagantly and radically like God.
Jesus, the Light of the World At the same time, we recognize that life is not always easy. God wants to be with us, in the good, the bad, and the ugly of life. God wants to have the deepest of relationships, and we remember that with the psalmist today. “The Lord is my shepherd.” Amen. But what impact does that have on us? “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” “I” or “we,” “shall not want.” Our needs are met in God- a God who restores, who leads us, who is with us, comforting and anointing, and we shall dwell with this God. A God, who also showed up to give sight to a blind man, proclaiming, “I am the light of the world.”
This isn’t a light of the world that our worldly ways might anticipate. This isn’t some grandiose politician riding in on a chariot or a Boeing 747, this is a light of the world that spits and creates mud with God’s own hands. This is a light of the world who gets on his knees and washes other’s feet. This light of the world is a light that we all remember in baptism. As “Jesus said, I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will have the light of life.” Or, the command to live a life of faith, hope, and grace in action, to “let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
In today’s story, God bestows “grace upon grace.” God doesn’t act as we might expect. God doesn’t prioritize who God will use or call as we might assign tasks to the smartest, strongest, or loudest. No, God’s grace is not something that can be counted and assessed. God’s “grace upon grace,” is how God’s economy works, an economy and stewardship that is different than our human created ones. 
The man today who is given sight, listened to God and did as God called. The man confessed belief, and worshiped. The man did, what I hope we all do, he worshiped and gave thanks because God had shown up. God has again given life, life for us, a life so extravagant and abundant we could not even imagine.
This life is made possible of course through God’s saving acts of the cross, we remember on our Lenten journey.
Now What? The Rest of the Story But this life is not always an easy one. I promised you more of my story, so here you go.
When my wife and I came to Nebraska for that couple of days last year, from the Pacific Northwest, we sensed, we saw, and we were amazed. We sensed God at work. But we knew that also meant change. We cried some, knowing we would be moving once again from our extended families and loved ones in the Northwest. But, as we saw, heard and experienced with our own eyes, hearts, and minds in Nebraska, we knew we wanted to be a part of it. We were being called here. And so, here we are. I as a deacon, serving as Director for Stewardship for the Nebraska Synod, sharing all about stories of ministry in action from across this wonderful state; and Allison as a first call pastor at Salem Lutheran in Fontanelle. To be a part of the ministry of 245 congregations, 13 serving arms, and telling the story of God at work is a life of pure joy for me.
This life that we all lead as disciples, stewards of God’s love and mysteries, and followers of Christ, is a life of calling, purpose, and vocation. When we are found, like the man in today’s story, we would also then be wise to expect to be sent out. The disciples were all sent out, and so are we, each week at the end of worship to our various daily lives, to live out the Good News and share that through God, “all have life and all have it abundantly.” We do this through our words and actions. We do this by extending God’s invitation to all, to invite the world to come and see what God has done and God continues to do. 
All of this is a gift. It’s good news. Sometimes we just need to get out of our own way, to allow God to work through us, to use us, and for us to go about the work of living lives of faith, and stewarding all that God has given and continues to give. I wonder if that’s really what the problem was for the Pharisees? Jesus broke the rules of their expectations, so that couldn’t possibly be okay. It’s a good reminder, that God isn’t beholden to our human understanding, and self-created rules for good order. When we are, stubborn and hold to an “our way or the highway” mentality, perhaps we refuse to believe, and by doing so, we’re blind to our own sin?
Even so, God still shows up to do the work to open our eyes, hearts, and minds. God calls us to see all that God has done, to feel and share the Light of the World with our sisters and brothers, and to know so deeply that God loves us, is with us, and is for us. Amen.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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
 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.
 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…”