Every Monday I share a few tidbits, nuggets, or ideas for incorporating some stewardship themes in your preaching. This week’s stewardship nuggets based on the appointed readings by the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary are as follows:
This week’s gospel story (Matthew 20:1-16) is a great story of stewardship, and how God’s economy is different from our human created one. In this story, Jesus describes a landowner who pays laborers to work in his vineyard.
Skipping ahead towards the end of the day, after the work is done is where the heart of the story and its key question come. “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first'” (Matt 20:8, NRSV).
Surely the landowner could have foreseen the conflict that this might lead to, and perhaps this could have all been avoided if simply by paying those who began their work first, first. Then, perhaps they would not have known that they would have been paid the same wage. But alas, that’s not the point of the story.
The whole story builds to the climatic question, which I believe says a lot about God. The landowner asks the laborers who are complaining about the same wage, “are you envious because I am generous?” (Matt 20:15, NRSV).
This question might well describe the whole way God works. It’s a way that is different than us. It’s an understanding of what is fair and right, which is different than most of our societal held views. It’s also a reminder that God is God, and we are all equal as heirs to the promise. There’s nothing we can do to earn a bigger share, or to earn a better seat at the table.
This flies in the face of our culture of achievement, and the hopes of climbing the corporate ladder. This confronts our notion of looking out for ourselves. It’s a reminder that our neighbor, is just like us, and is owed just as much love, welcome, and concern as each of us.
Taking a step back in the context of the story, the landowner makes his argument with rhetorical questions. The landowner replies, “‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matt 20:13-15, NRSV).
When God gives abundantly, God does so because God can. God does not withhold God’s love for someone, but rather gives freely. This is counter-cultural obviously, but it also fits with the the great reversal that Jesus reminds of in concluding this story, much the same way the laborers were paid, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt 20:16, NRSV).
A good stewardship sermon would probably focus on this story which is full of stewardship imagery of what God’s abundance means and might look like. It offers an opportunity to reflect on our society and what we hold up as values, and compare that to God. It is also an opportunity to compare God’s abundance with our self-created sense of scarcity. With God there is enough that all receive. With us, it seems there are often winners and losers- those who make it, and those who struggle to pay bills and who go hungry. Does it have to always be this way?
Our human tendencies of fairness though are nothing new, and that’s why I appreciate the inclusion of the Jonah passage in this week’s readings. You all know the story, but just as the laborers who worked all day were upset with the landowner, Jonah becomes angry with God because God has decided to change God’s mind and show mercy (Jonah 3:10-4:1).
In this story, God speaks for God’s self, and puts Jonah in his place. God says, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:9-11, NRSV).
I imagine that this could be a rebuke to all of us, when we forget that our stewardship is about caring for things which are God’s, and which God entrusted to us to care for. We’re to manage and care for them, but that certainly does not mean we own them.
When we remember this, our understanding of ourselves and our relationship with each other as Children of God is healthier. When we remember this, we too can celebrate with the Psalmist who proclaims, “They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness, and shall sing aloud of your righteousness. The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 145:7-8, NRSV).
[Note to all worship planners for this week, I would encourage adding on verse 9 to the reading or chanting of Psalm 145, as it ties the readings of today together well: “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.”]
This week, we continue moving through the many rich stories of Genesis and come to Jacob and his dream. The appointed reading is kind of chopped up, mainly because of its length and complexity, but I think it does a good job of offering some of the context for where we are in the narrative this week.
From a stewardship perspective, I am drawn primarily to to the last segment of this week’s focus passage, in Genesis 28. Primarily, I am drawn to the description of God, and especially what God apparently reveals to Jacob in his dream.
While Jacob dreams, he hears:
“I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” ~ Genesis 28:13-15, NRSV
I am drawn to this passage because I think it offers an opportunity to preach on God’s promises, which ground us and guide us in our stewardship. There is a reminder of the covenant made with Abraham, whose descendants would be as numerous as the stars, or in this case, as much as the “dust of the earth.” There is a reminder that God is present, and that God will not forget the promises made but rather make sure that they are realized.
These are promises for Jacob, but also promises for us. How do we live in the knowledge of such promises? How do we respond to them?
It might be a good teaching sermon to offer up a response to these questions, especially with focus on how Jacob responded to them. This would require some more re-reading of Jacob’s story, but could be worth it for your preaching this week.
Wherever you feel led to preach, may God be with you, and may God’s promises of hope and abundance be heard through you. Amen.