Proper 26C Sermon (2004)

Proper 26 (Commitment Sunday)
Texts: Luke 19:1-10;
Gen. 12:1-3; 2 Cor. 9


Have you ever thought of our First Lesson this morning as the first three verses in the Bible? That’s how important they are. The previous eleven chapters in Genesis can be considered the prologue, a summary of pre-history that sets up the beginning of God’s salvation history. In Genesis 1-11 we read about how God created all that is, and it was good. God gave a special place to humankind, making us in the divine image in order for us to help care for the creation — in other words, creating us for stewardship.

But something went wrong in God’s good Creation. We didn’t do our jobs. Instead of learning to desire what God desires, a love for the whole creation, we started listening to each other’s desires and working for ourselves, instead of working for God. The result was a clash of desires and a descension into violence: the first son murders the second son; the world is so full of violence that God resorts to trying to clean it up with a flood; and humankind becomes so arrogant that they try building a tower to the heavens, before God scatters them over the face of the earth. This is what the first eleven chapters of Genesis show us: namely, that we were created for stewardship with God of this good earth, created for a purpose, but we blew it, choosing to follow our own desires and so finding ourselves in endless conflict with one another.

What was God to do? God had already tried the flood, and the upshot of that was to promise never to try such a violent answer to violence again. God put a rainbow in the heavens as a sign that God was going to try another way. That other way was to basically start over, to start at the real beginning of the Bible, the beginning of the story of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. …In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3, edited)

“I will bless you, so that you will be a blessing.” This is the essentially the call to stewardship once again, isn’t it? God doesn’t bless us as an end in itself. We aren’t blessed because we’re better or more deserving. We aren’t blessed because we work harder. No, we are blessed for one reason and for one reason alone: so that we may be a blessing to others — a blessing to all the families of the earth, no less. And I dare say that means more than just human families. It means the families of all God’s creatures. In today’s language of science, I dare say that it means all the ecosystems of this earth. We are made for stewardship with God of this good earth. We are called to be stewards.

Today we are here to celebrate that calling and to respond to it. Where do we begin? Or, since our lives are a calling from God our maker, we learn to ask, Where does God begin? The lesson of Abraham and Sarah is that God always begins with someone. The way of stewardship is a calling in life, and so can’t begin without someone who is called. Do you feel called today? Do you come here on Sunday mornings each week because you are called? Do you come here each week for your marching orders, to hear once again that you are blessed so that you will be a blessing to others?

The temptation is to come here simply to be blessed, as an end in itself. Perhaps we don’t even feel blessed, and so we come here to be blessed somehow, in some way. But don’t you see the problem with that to begin with? What kind of blessing are we looking for in life if it isn’t to have a purpose in life, to have a higher calling? In other words, being blessed to be a blessing to others is precisely the blessing we seek! Being blessed to be a blessing to others is that calling in life. It is the blessing of being called to stewardship with God. When we come here on Sunday mornings not feeling blessed and seeking a blessing, we are given exactly that. We are reminded of our baptisms, as anointed with God’s Spirit to have a purpose in this life. We are fed and nurtured in word and sacrament. And we are commissioned once again and sent on our way with the blessing of purpose, of stewardship, “Go in peace to serve the Lord! Thanks be to God!” Right?

But, again, where do we begin? Let’s say it’s now Sunday afternoon — after the Packer game, of course. Or worse yet, it’s Monday morning, with another work week ahead. Where do we begin? Where do we begin to be stewards? Where do we begin to be disciples of this Son of Abraham and Sarah, this Son of God, Jesus Christ, who came to show us how to live out this calling of serving God by serving God’s creation, by serving one another?

Or maybe we need to turn this question around again just a bit. We’ve already gone from “Where do we begin?” to the question “Where does God begin?” Now, instead of going right to the question “Where do we begin?” let’s extend that other question: “Where does God begin with us?” And the answer is: anywhere! God can and does meet us anywhere. God met Abraham and Sarah in their homeland and called them to go to a new place. Jesus, for heaven’s sake, met Zacchaeus up in a tree! And he met him as a tax collector, one of the lowest of the low in his day. Zacchaeus was a scoundrel and a thief, forced to climb a tree because he could never count on anyone doing anything nice for him, like letting him in front because he was short. And Jesus met him right then and there and gave him the blessing of a call to serve others, the blessing of being a blessing to others. “Zacchaeus,” Jesus called, “come out of that tree, take me home and serve me dinner.”

So we can also see that God can and will meet each of us wherever and whenever in our lives that we are willing to hear the call and accept it. Where are you in your life this morning? I hope it isn’t as bad as being a scoundrel caught up in a tree like Zacchaeus. But the Good News this morning is that, even if it is, God is willing to meet us whenever and wherever we are willing to listen and respond. God is willing, through the unconditional love and mercy we see in Jesus Christ, to meet us today, and to call us again this morning: “Pastor Paul, come down out of that pulpit and serve me!”

Now, I think we are finally ready to answer the question, “Where do we begin?” We’ve answered the question, “Where does God begin?” God begins with you and me and the call to serve. And we’ve answered the question, “Where does God begin with us?” God begins anywhere and anytime, and circumstances and situations in our lives that we are finally willing to listen to the call. And now we can see in that scoundrel-up-a-tree, Zacchaeus, how to answer that question, “Where do we begin?” We begin exactly where we are when we finally are ready to hear that call. Zacchaeus was up a tree, but he came down to serve dinner to Jesus. Zacchaeus was a scoundrel, but even he could see at that point that he needed to begin exactly where he was. He needed to do his job honestly and compassionately as a way to be a blessing to others and not a curse.

Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:8-9)

Where are you in your life? Jesus is willing to meet you and I right there and call us again. Are we ready to listen and respond with whatever it takes to make sure our lives are blessed with the calling to be a blessing to others? When we wake up tomorrow to do our jobs, to be business people, teachers, students, nurses, lawyers, bank tellers, whatever. When we go home today as husbands or wives, as parents and children, as neighbors, as citizens, as friends, are we ready to listen and respond with whatever it takes to make sure our lives are blessed with the calling to be a blessing to others? Are we ready to be changed, as Zacchaeus knew he must be, in order to turn his life into that blessing of being a blessing to others and not a curse? Are we ready to be forgiven for our failures and trusted with a call, a purpose? Are we ready to hear Jesus say to us, “Today salvation has come to this house, because you too are a son, a daughter, of Abraham and Sarah.”

There’s only one thing left to notice about this story of Zacchaeus. The call of Jesus met him not just in his fallen sense of vocation as a cheating tax collector, it also met him as a person blessed with possessions, and, yes, money. You knew I had to get to that on Stewardship Sunday, on Commitment Sunday, didn’t you? But the truth is that someone else has already beat me to it. Luke for one; Jesus for another. In Luke’s Gospel more than any other, Jesus’ call to discipleship, Jesus’ call to follow him in being good stewards of the earth, is a call that definitely involves our money and possessions and how we use them. Just think quickly about several of the stories we’ve heard just this summer from this middle section of Luke’s Gospel:

  • the parable of the Rich Fool
  • the parables of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin, leading into the parable of the Lost Son
  • followed immediately by the parable of the Unjust Steward.

This story of Zacchaeus ties all those together as not just a parable anymore, but as real life. We may be Rich Fools who have squandered our blessings on ourselves; we may be unjust stewards with the ways in which we’ve answered God’s call to be Good and Just Stewards; but God is willing to meet us here again this morning with an unconditional love and mercy that calls us once again, wherever we are in our lives to give generously of ourselves and all that we are, including our money and our possessions, some of the blessings by which we might be a blessing to others.

So I’m not going to bashful in asking you to be generous this morning in making a commitment with your money and possessions, too. Zacchaeus immediately saw that this calling involved his money. He would need to give back what he got unjustly; he would need to give to the poor — half of what he had, no less! Brothers and Sisters and Christ, as you fill out your pledges this morning, I invite you to see it as a blessing, namely, the blessing of being called to be a blessing to others. We often times approach such a pledge as dividing up our resources: some for our bills, some for us, some for God — with God often getting the leftovers. If we see this pledge in the context of stewardship, however, it all becomes God’s resources with which God has blessed us so that we will be a blessing to others. There is the portion that goes to supporting our own families; we are blessings to our husband or wife, and to our children.

But there is also the portion that expresses that same calling that went out to Abraham and Sarah. The blessings of being a family is never an end in itself. Each of our families here this morning is blessed so that we will be a blessing to others. What portion of our resources, of our material and financial blessings from God, should go to that expression of being blessed to be a blessing? Ellen and I have found the traditional tithe to truly become a blessing in our life. When we started out as husband and wife nineteen years ago, we may have begun with seven percent and then built up to ten percent and even beyond. It’s been a big enough percentage, cutting into and challenging our overall bill-paying, to have us constantly evaluating our priorities, often times having us choose to do with less than others in our consumerist culture. But such choices are a blessing in terms of trying to live in meaningful ways God’s calling to us to be good stewards — stewards in a way that blesses others. We give beyond the boundaries of our own family to our church family, knowing that our church family chooses to give beyond itself to ministries that reach out to all the families of the earth.

And how important is this ministry that we share together? It is the place that we can gather each week, knowing that we also fail in various ways in our calling to be good stewards. We come to be forgiven. We come to have God meet us wherever we are in our lives, even if it’s up a tree, and to call us once again for that supreme purpose of helping God to care for one another and for the earth. We come to praise the loving Creator and to be fed and nourished for loving the Creation. We come to receive once again that commissioning that sends us on our way, “Go in peace to serve the Lord!” And the people say, “Thanks be to God!” Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Atonement Lutheran,
Muskego, WI, October 24, 2004

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