Preaching on Stewardship- July 29, 2018

Happy Monday! 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:

Sunday July 29, 2018: Revised Common Lectionary- The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Time after Pentecost- Lectionary 17)
First Lesson: 2 Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145:10-18
Second Lesson: Ephesians 3:14-21
Gospel of John 6:1-21

What a great week to preach on stewardship! Yes, it’s true, I think every week is a great week to preach on stewardship. But this week is a better than average one, because we hear so many stories and examples of the abundance we have in God. These are stories that challenge the narrative of our culture that surrounds us, telling us we need more and that we don’t have enough. These are stories that cause us to realize that statistically, there has never been a better time to be alive– in terms of medicine, technology, infrastructure, etc. Of course these stories don’t sell as well in our world apparently.

First this week we read about how the food was multiplied by God, and about how Elisha was part of this work. We read, “But his servant said, ‘How can I set this before a hundred people?’ So he repeated, ‘Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’ He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord” (2 Kings 4:43-44, NRSV).

Doesn’t this sound like a precursor to Jesus feeding the 5,000? But more contextually, this is a story about Elisha and the theme of abundance brought about by a servant of God during a time of scarcity. “There was a famine in the land” as we read a bit earlier in verse 38. Yet, in spite of this famine, God provides enough food. In terms of stewardship, this is a story of God’s provision, and our hope and trust in God’s abundance. When faced with what appears to be a reality of lack or scarcity, God offers another way. 

This is not to say that there aren’t those who lack. There are millions who are hungry in our world today. There are millions who lack safe and free access to clean and safe drinking water, some of whom live in our own advanced country (see the on-going saga in Flint, Michigan for example). There are millions who lack safe shelter, and because of limited access to food, water, and safety are refugees without a home, caught in political and social debates in refugee camps and at borders without clear pathways to possibility. These are people in need of God’s abundance. These are people who would have every right to believe that these resources are scarce. But the reality is, they are not.

What is perhaps scarce is a willingness among those who have access to them, to be able to share it with those in need. There has long been enough food produced in this world to end world hunger. Admittedly, climate change is certainly affecting water supplies and water access. And as the James Bond series has already alluded to, the next world war may well be fought over water rights.

I am not trying to get on a soap box or bully pulpit here, but my point is, we have an abundance of resources which we have been entrusted with. Why have we been entrusted with them? As Jesus might suggest and Martin Luther argued often, for the sake of our neighbors. So thus, we need to acknowledge that there are legitimate communities who do lack, but it’s generally not their own fault. I would argue the fault might largely rest with us, and our inability or unwillingness to meet our neighbors needs and share out of our abundance which has been entrusted to us.

Yes, we are the ones whom God often chooses to use to do God’s work. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that, whether we are a part of it or not, this is most certainly God’s work. The psalmist proclaims (as we read this week), “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing. The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings. The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Psalm 145:15-18, NRSV).

The Lord is very much all of this. My hope and trust, is that when we as human beings create barriers to sharing resources and instead horde them for a few instead of those in need, God finds a way to care for all of God’s children anyway. (Maybe in the fullest sense of the Beatitudes, where there are blessings to those who show mercy, and woe to those who do not. Hopefully not though, because if this is the case, there is a whole lot of woe in store for all of us who have plenty.)

Last week we were visited by my sister Tamara. Tamara enjoyed getting to spend some quality time with her niece, before heading out to Wartburg Seminary to start Greek. Yes, my sister is starting her seminary studies this week, and I couldn’t be prouder. God is up to something, and it’s exciting to watch and be a part of it.

God uses us, even when we might not be aware of it. God works through us in amazing ways that we might not even see. Paul makes this clear in the second lesson for this week, as he writes in the form of a blessing, “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21, NRSV). What a powerful image for stewardship: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine…

This is God’s work. This is God’s work of building the kingdom, of feeding the hungry, sharing a cool cup of water with the thirsty, housing the homeless, welcoming the stranger, outcast, and refugee…. This is not a work of the fallacy of a prosperity gospel. This is a work of a God who cares about all of God’s children, and who is present with them offering hope, abundant life, and the promise of the resurrection. 

I told you that this was a great week to preach on stewardship. We haven’t even touched on the gospel story, yes the most epic gospel story about abundance, that of Jesus feeding the 5,000. In John’s telling of the story, it’s clear, Jesus is planning to use this as a major teaching moment. We read, “When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.'” (John 6:5-7, NRSV). Philip’s response is perfectly understandable, it’s the human response grounded in the supposed reality of scarcity. The sense that what we have is limited to our own abilities. A sense that is completely devoid and detached from the reality of God working in, around, and even through us.

Andrew at least took Jesus’ question on, and looked at the context to see what kind of resources and gifts they might have to work with. He looked around, as we read that, “One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?'” (John 6:8-9, NRSV). But of course Andrew asked the question that we would all ask, “what are they among so many?” An opportunity for God to act and to teach about God’s abundance, but also to serve one’s neighbors and meet their needs by offering hospitality and feeding them.

Just as you might hear or say in worship during communion, Jesus takes bread and gives thanks. And in that act, the ordinary becomes the extraordinary as all are fed, and there are even left overs. “Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.” (John 6:11-13, NRSV).

I have always wondered what these twelve extra baskets might have looked like? Do you think they were shared with the hungry nearby? Or perhaps sent home as ancient doggie bags with those who had come to see and learn from Jesus?

But wait there’s more. This week’s gospel story also includes what happens right after the meal. It includes the story of going out on a boat, and Jesus meeting the disciples later on the water by walking on water. “The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’” (John 6:18-20, NRSV). As Jesus says often, “do not be afraid.” Okay Jesus, you just walked on water, but then again, you also just fed 5,000 people with a few loaves of bread and a couple fish. Hmmm… God is up to something indeed. 

Friends, there are so many directions you could go just with this rich gospel story. Add in the other readings, and you have so many opportunities for thinking and preaching about stewardship and specifically about God’s promises and abundance this week. In whatever way you feel led, may God’s promises and abundance be made known through you, and may you too experience them yourselves this week.

Sunday July 29, 2018: Narrative Lectionary- The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Narrative Theme for the Day: Ruth (Week Two)
Focus Passages: Ruth 2:1-23
Gospel Verse: Luke 6:36-38

We pick up where we left off last week in Ruth, with the whole of chapter 2 this week. Ruth and Naomi have arrived in Bethlehem, and now Ruth is looking for a way to provide food for them both, and so she goes out to the fields at the beginning of the harvest season.

Out in the fields, Ruth ends up meeting Boaz. And this is where I think stewardship comes in most clearly in this story. We read, “Then Boaz said to Ruth, ‘Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn'” (Ruth 2:8-9, NRSV). Boaz shows concern, compassion, and mercy for Ruth. He also shows a sense of neighbor love, and stewardship, stewarding the resources he is entrusted with to help another, whose story he has heard.

As we have come to expect from Ruth, she responds to Boaz in gratitude and faith, but also with questions about this mercy. We read, “Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, ‘Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?'” (Ruth 2:10, NRSV) Perhaps this verse and it’s answer are timely for the world we live in, where refugees and immigrants are targeted, ostracized, and un-welcomed. Thankfully Boaz offers another way. “Boaz answered her, ‘All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!’” (Ruth 2:11-12, NRSV).

This is stewardship in action. This is ministry in action. And this is a person who understands what it means to care for one’s neighbors and strangers.

Boaz isn’t done though. Boaz informs those in his care and employ, “Let her glean even among the standing sheaves, and do not reproach her. You must also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles, and leave them for her to glean, and do not rebuke her” (Ruth 2:15-16, NRSV). Boaz is not only sharing with Ruth (and by association, Naomi), he is expecting, if not requiring others to do so as well. It’s not unlike the stories I have heard in Nebraska, of farmers and community members stepping up when they see one in need or hear of another in need- perhaps plowing a field for a neighbor who is too sick to bring in the harvest; or lining up their tractors in the middle of winter, so that if an organ transplant is going to be available, someone will be able to plow the road out in a hurry in case of snow and get the recipient to the hospital on time.

But how did Ruth respond to this generosity? How about Naomi? With words of gratitude, joy, and blessing. “Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, ‘Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!’ Naomi also said to her, ‘The man is a relative of ours, one of our nearest kin.’” (Ruth 2:20, NRSV). “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” If this is not a joyful response, I don’t know what is. I suspect, the same response could have been heard from the farmers’ families in either story in Nebraska too.

This story from Ruth is fittingly paired this week with a short story from Luke 6, where we are reminded, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36, NRSV). Boaz it seems has certainly received that message about life, stewardship, and discipleship, and is living it. We also read, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:37-38, NRSV). I wonder, how are we doing at this? If we’re struggling a bit, there is the example and story of Boaz and the way he treated Ruth and Naomi this week as a steward of God’s love. How might we go and do likewise as Boaz?

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