Tag Archives: Stewardship

First Last and Last First – February 14, 2016 (First Sunday in Lent)

Sunday’s Reading:
Mark 10:17-31

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +


For all the time and energy that is often spent talk about eternal life among Christians, it’s telling that the story before us is the only one in Mark’s gospel in which this phrase actually appears. Since this will likely be the only time we’ll have a chance to reflect on this topic during our journey through Mark, it makes sense for us to take the opportunity to talk about it. What do we mean when we talk about eternal life? Well, it seems to me that most of the time we’re talking about something along these lines:

Some bright morning when this life is o’er I’ll fly away!
            To that home on God’s celestial shore I’ll fly away!
            I’ll fly away, O glory! I’ll fly away!
            When I die, Hallelujah by-and-by! I’ll fly away!

In other words, the idea of eternal life is wrapped up with our fate after death – that is, when we speak of eternal life, we’re talking about the promise of life that transcends the reality of death. This is undoubtedly an important part of what the Bible teaches about eternal life, but it is by no means the sum total of Biblical teaching. We need look no farther than this morning’s passage to see that eternal life isn’t just about some time in the future, but about the life we’re living now. That’s not always an obvious point to us as Lutheran Christians because we are raised to understand that salvation – often interpreted as “eternal life” – is a free gift of God, given to us through no merit of our own as a result of Christ’s obedient suffering, death, and resurrection. I’m certainly not denying the truth of that belief. After all, when the disciples respond to Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God, Jesus does say that human effort is incapable of securing salvation! Even so, it’s telling that Jesus doesn’t respond to the young man’s question in today’s text by saying, “Don’t worry about it, I’ve got it covered!” Instead, he tells the man to sell off his possessions, give the money to the poor to store up “treasure in heaven”, and then to follow him “on the way”. What’s going on here?

The key, I think, has to do with how we understand the word “eternal”. We generally regard it as being synonymous with “everlasting”, and that’s partially right, but there’s more there if we dig deeper. The Biblical idea of eternity has to do with permanence, and it is tied up with the being and character of God. God was, God is, and God will continue to be as the ages roll on and on. In fact, the word we translate as “eternal” from the Greek has to do with the concept of “ages” of existence, and “eternity” is characteristic of something that lasts into the age that is yet to come. What does all this have to do with us? Isn’t this just theological gobbledygook? Well, if as Christians we believe that Christ’s coming represents the start of that new age – the advent of the Reign of God – then what does eternal life mean other than life that will last into that new age that has begun and will be brought to fulfillment when Christ comes again? And if that age has already begun, then doesn’t what we do now have something to do with the “eternal life” that the rich young man in today’s story asked about?

I think it does. We are introduced into that life by means of God’s grace – the invitation to follow, the gift of Holy Baptism that joins us to the family of God, the declaration of forgiveness and renewal, the meal of Holy Communion that sustains us on the way, the conversation and consolation of our brothers and sisters who are united with us in a bond that is stronger than anything that this world can bring against us – and in response to that grace, we follow Jesus in living lives of significance, lives in which we strive to pour ourselves out in service to God and our neighbors for the sake of the world that God made and loves. The rich young man in today’s reading wasn’t enjoined to give up everything he had simply so that he could be “right with God”, but so that by selling his possessions he could support those in need as a sign of God’s will for justice. In the same way, we live in obedience to God and in response to Christ’s call to follow not so that we can enjoy God’s favor, but so that we might be a blessing to others. To put it another way, we obey the call to follow Jesus so that the life that we live now – a life characterized by grace and love and peace with God – can resonate in the lives of others, and thereby last into the age that is coming.* Again, this is not something that we do for ourselves or that comes from within us – it is a gift of God, as the apostle Paul says, so that no one can boast. Yet it something that we can “work out” in our own lives once we’ve received it – through prayer and study, through turning our focus outward and seeking opportunities to give and share and extend kindness to others, perhaps through fasting from things that distract us from following the way that Jesus lays out before us.

This, in the end, is the problem that faces the rich young man. He has apparently been very successful economically, and – if his account of his obedience to the commandments is to be believed – very pious. Yet he has neglected the weightier matters of righteousness and justice, with the result that all his wealth and status, though they elevate him in the eyes of the world, have no lasting significance, nothing of the “eternal life” that he asks about to begin with. By contrast, the disciples, who leave everything behind to follow Jesus, have given up their claims on the things of this world and their desire to be first – although that desire sometimes rears its head, as we heard on Wednesday night – and so God has given them lives that resonate with the “eternal life” that Jesus offers to all.

Back to that question: What must I (or you or we) do to inherit eternal life? First, to return to our particular Lutheran Christian emphasis on grace, we recognize it as a gift, an “inheritance” that we cannot earn. But once we recognize that fact, we also recognize that we are invited to respond to that gift with lives that echo into “eternity”, touching others with the grace and love and peace of God that is ours in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. The old song isn’t wrong – some bright morning when this life is over, we’ll fly away. Until then, let us plant our feet firmly in this world and follow Jesus on the way, confident that eternity is now, and that Christ will continue to lead us through the pain of sacrifice and death into the beauty and power of resurrection life this day and always. Thanks be to God! Amen.

*This idea of “resonance” is inspired by Rob Bell’s fantastic book “What We Talk about When We Talk about God” (HarperCollins, New York: 2013), particularly the first chapter, “Hum”. It’s a fascinating, challenging, and worthwhile read that I don’t think you will regret. Check it out!

Preaching Good News to the Poor – February 12, 2016

The following sermon was preached by Pastor Andrew at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church as part of the Falls City Area Ministerial Association’s “Sermons a la Carte” Lenten series. No audio is available, but the prepared text is below.

Friday’s Reading:
Luke 16:19-31

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21, NRSV)

This Lent, our Sermons a la Carte series will explore Jesus’ sermon on Isaiah 61 preached at the beginning of his ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth, a text that reveals Jesus’ mission as God’s anointed and gives us pause as we consider our identity as those who bear the name of Christ and who seek to be his body in the world.

Today, we begin with the first item on God’s agenda: bringing good news to the poor. To understand what Jesus means when he talks about bringing good news to the poor, we need to know both who the poor are and what good news looks like for those who are poor. First things first: Who are the poor? In Luke’s gospel, defining the poor requires us to walk a narrow road. On one side of that road is the ditch of excessive spiritualizing, the idea that Jesus is referring simply to those who are poor in some symbolic way. (Think, for example, of Matthew’s “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”) On the other side of that road is the ditch of excessive literalism, the idea that Jesus is referring only to those who are poor economically. The truth, as is usually the case in Scripture, is somewhere in the middle. Jesus undoubtedly has concern for those who are destitute in material terms – in this, he is firmly in the tradition of the prophets, who railed against the excesses of the ruling class and the disregard among the elite in society for those who are in need of sustenance. Similarly, he warns those who exhibit poverty of spirit, and who fail to understand that the core of the Biblical narrative is the responsibility to promote justice, righteousness, and peace among God’s people. In Luke’s gospel, then, the poor are those who do not enjoy full standing within the community of faith, those who – for whatever reason – find themselves on the outside looking in.

With that in mind, the good news that Jesus comes to bring is this: that his ministry makes a way for all to be welcomed into community. Whether their “poverty” stems from some spiritual or religious concern or from their inability to make a living, Jesus’ presence and proclamation promise that those who are numbered among the poor will have a share in the goodness and mercy of God. Perhaps no story illustrates this more viscerally than the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, which is both a comforting and a terrifying passage of Scripture.

A lot of interpreters seek to soften this parable, to undergo all kinds of mental gymnastics to avoid what it says on its face, which is that the rich man is condemned because he fails to care for the poor man who sets outside his gate for… well, God only knows, but long enough for the rich man to know him by name. He is unmoved by the law and prophets, which speak repeatedly of the duty to uphold the poor and vulnerable, especially the orphan, the widow, and the sojourner. He does not recognize that he is enjoined to care for the neighbor, to ensure that no one is left outside or without the basic necessities of life, and Jesus’ parable makes clear that there are real consequences for him – and, by extension, for those who fail to uphold this mandate.

So where is the good news? It’s in the parable’s promise that the poor will, indeed, receive good things. God’s will, of course, is that they receive them in this life – that those with means will give out of their abundance so that others can be fed, and that those who enjoy the blessing of community will extend welcome and hospitality to those who sit outside the gates. Even if that doesn’t happen, though, the poor are assured that they will enjoy blessing, a place of intimacy with God born out of God’s special concern for them.

As with much of Scripture, this passage represents both a challenge and word of comfort. It is a challenge, of course, because it presents us with a vision of accountability for how we care for those who are poor in any way. Comfort can be found in remembering Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, which declares that those who seek to be faithful to the Son of Man and his mission, though they may be reviled or ridiculed by the world (and though they may sometimes fall short) will receive a reward. (Luke 6:22-23, NRSV) In Christ, God’s grace and mercy come to us and enable us to bear the good news of God’s abundant blessing to the poor, strengthening us to face whatever might come our way as a result of our obedience to the challenge laid before us.

Brothers and sisters, in his life and ministry Jesus proclaimed welcome and abundant grace to all who, like Lazarus, were neglected or left behind. As we journey through this Lenten season, may we seek to be Christ for others, and, by our acts of prayer and kindness and generosity, extend welcome and grace to those in need in our community, so that Jesus’ sermon might once again be fulfilled in our hearing. Join us next week as we consider how Jesus’ life and ministry were brought to bear on the brokenhearted. Until then, may we be blessed with God’s grace and strength as we continue our journey through Lent. Amen.

Garden of Eden – September 13, 2015 (NL Week 1)

Sunday’s Reading:
Genesis 2:4b-25

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

In the beginning, God got to work. The first two chapters of the Bible tell the story of that beginning, and that story makes abundantly clear that creation exists because of the activity of God – the one who hovered over the waters, who spoke the heavens and earth and all life into existence. It also reminds of something that we too often forget when we look around at the world today: that this creation – the incredible diversity of life, the rock and soil and water and sky and space – all of it is good. In fact, when we regard the whole creation in its fullness, it’s not just good; it’s very good (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31, NRSV)

So that’s where we start: with God’s work. God looks upon nothingness and makes a world of stunning beauty and unfathomable vitality and awesome power, and calls it very good. We also start with the recognition that there’s something particularly important about us, about humanity. In the first chapter of Genesis, we hear God speaking about the creation of humankind in a way that we’re still trying to wrap our heads around: Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27, NRSV) Then, in today’s passage, we read more about the special care with which God regards us as those created in God’s image: then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being… (Genesis 2:7, NRSV) These two passages are remarkable! How incredible a privilege it is to bear the image and likeness of the Creator! How wonderful it is to contemplate this amazing image of God kneeling down in the dust and dirt to mold humanity, and then to stoop even lower to fill that lifeless lump with God’s own breath, the same Spirit that rushed over the formless void before God spoke light into existence!

The witness of Holy Scripture about humankind is amazing, but it should also be humbling. After all, we not only bear God’s image, we also bear responsibility for the rest of this creation. We’ve already read from chapter one the language of “dominion” – lordship or rule – over the birds and fish and animals and other life, and we have certainly exercised that dominion throughout our history, both in ways that are profoundly beautiful and in ways that are profoundly destructive. Chapter two provides with a corrective that should resonate with us: The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Genesis 2:15, NRSV) Another translation of this passage reads that humankind was placed in the garden “to watch it and work it.” (Gen 2:15, Alter) God did not create this world of beauty and life and wonder so that humanity could suck it dry and leave it desolate, but so that the whole community of life might be preserved. This is nothing less than the work of God, and it is work that we are called to do with our own lives, using our own heads and hearts and hands each and every day. Before anything else, before any talk of creating societies or building kingdoms or establishing laws or even determining what constitutes proper worship, this is the work that we are given to do: God’s work, the work of stewarding this creation so that it might continue to reflect the goodness of the one who brought it into being.

That’s an incredible responsibility, brothers and sisters, and it only grows. As life continues to break out all over this planet – we are called to nourish it, to create the conditions that allow it to flourish. We know, of course, that this is easier said than done. It’s not long after God calls everything very good that brokenness enters our world, that our thirst to take the place of God leads us to substitute our own wants and desires for the will of our Creator. In recognizing our calling to do God’s work, we are also all too aware of our shortcomings, of the effects of sin and death that wrack this weary world and prevent us from being fully devoted to this calling. As Christians, we draw strength from the knowledge that God stooped low again in the person of Jesus, that God made not only the image of the Divine, but the fullness of divinity, present in Christ. Though our own sinful work led us to nail God’s hands to rough wood and stretch them out toward the heavens, God’s life and power were too great to be overcome by humanity’s sinful pride, and by his rising, we were redeemed to once again devote our hands to God’s work. It’s still not easy work. It is work that requires us to lay aside our own convenience, our own wants and desires, our attitude of superiority, so that we might serve others and the world that God has made. In the end, this is our great calling: to watch and work in this broken and beautiful garden, to see in our brothers and sisters around the globe the image and likeness of God that we all bear, to seek always to do God’s work rather than our own, so that God’s will might be done on earth as it is in the heavens.

As our journey through the Scriptures continues, we’ll learn more about how that will unfolded in the lives of our fathers and mothers in the faith, and we’ll read about how they opened themselves to doing God’s work with their own hands – or, more often than not, how God’s work happened in spite of them. For now, let us give thanks for God’s care and concern for us, for the wondrous creation that we call home, and for the joy and challenge of being partners with our Creator as we seek to use our hands in service of God’s unfolding work. Amen.