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 August 5, 2018: Revised Common Lectionary- The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Time after Pentecost- Lectionary 18)
First Lesson: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Second Lesson: Ephesians 4:1-16
Gospel of John 6:24-35
August in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary is all about bread. If you aren’t doing a sermon series this month, then I might suggest, like last week’s story of the feeding of the 5,000, thinking about the abundance that we have in and through God. That’s a stewardship lesson and sermon which seems itching to get out given at least three of this week’s readings.
Starting with the first lesson this week, we remember the journey of the people Israel in the wilderness. They were grumbling for lack of food, and about their hunger. They said, in a short-sighted perspective forgetting the horrors they left in Egypt, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3, NRSV). Perhaps their experience was understandable, but perhaps it was also their human notion of scarcity setting in. Either way, God was listening.
To the complaints of hunger, God responded. God said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not” (Exodus 16:4, NRSV). God has declared that God will once again provide.
Further, God says, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God'” (Exodus 16:12, NRSV). This manna and provision is an example once again of God seeing God’s people, noticing them, and showing compassion. It’s also an example of God providing for their needs. When asked later about this, Moses explains to the people that, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat” (Exodus 16:15, NRSV). Thus, very clearly, this is an act of God for God’s people.
The psalmist recalls this story in Psalm 78. “Yet he commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven; he rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven. Mortals ate of the bread of angels; he sent them food in abundance” (Psalm 78:23-25, NRSV). The psalmist, perhaps even more clearly than Moses, is linking this act with God’s abundance. An abundance of provision, out of a deep, abiding, and abundant love for God’s people. This act of provision, would be recalled throughout the people of God’s history, especially in moments of doubt about God’s presence and promises.
This story is also recalled in a conversation between a crowd and Jesus in the gospel story this week. The crowd explains, “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’” (John 6:31-33, NRSV). Jesus reminds the crowd here that it wasn’t Moses who fed the people, but God. Sometimes we start thinking it’s up to us alone. We forget, however, that it is God’s work being done, which God sometimes chooses to use us, to help do it.
There’s some great stewardship wisdom in that, if wanting to stay in the gospel this week. And of course, there is one of the famous “I Am” statements in the story as well, as it culminates with Jesus explaining more about who he is. He says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35, NRSV). This is a promise, as well as a clear articulation of who God is for us.
However, it doesn’t get us off the hook for doing God’s work. (See last week’s commentary for a reminder that there are hungry and thirsty people in the world, who need us to share God’s love. The resources God has entrusted to us, is in part to meet our neighbor’s needs.) It also doesn’t justify the idea that “if you believe enough” or “if you just pray enough” it will all be well. Rather this statement, is a reminder that God in Christ, is offering gifts we could never earn. They are free gifts for us, and for the whole world. With them, we might live abundant lives.
If looking for an alternative to the food, hunger, and bread of life imagery, there’s a rich one in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Within this familiar text is an important passage used to underscore the importance of calling and vocation, and the fact that we all have different vocations and gifts which God calls us to. This is part of our uniqueness as an individual Child of God, who is part of the larger people of God together.
We read that, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Exodus 4:11-13, NRSV). This is a perfect opportunity this week to think about vocation, and perhaps preach about our various vocations, giving members of the community the chance to think more deeply about how what they do in daily life might be part of their calling from God to meet the needs of their neighbor in some way as stewards and disciples.
Wherever you turn this week, there is a good opportunity to dwell deeply on the idea of stewardship. May God be with you this week, as you think, work, listen, show up, and wrestle, and may God’s love, peace, and promise be made known to you and through you.
In our third week in Ruth, we read all about Ruth and Boaz together at the threshing floor. At first glance, this is a nice story but it may not be obvious what this says (if anything) about stewardship. If I were to preach on this text this week, I think I would aim to do a couple things: tell the story and let it speak for itself; and perhaps counter a few of the potentially problematic theological ideas that might come to mind related to stewardship from this passage.
Today’s part of the story starts off with Naomi’s hope that things will go well with Ruth. To this end, she says, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do” (Ruth 3:1-4, NRSV).
If your mind goes to places that this might be a biblical story that should be rated a bit more than PG, you might be right. But in terms of stewardship, there is a sense here that Naomi is trying to look out for her daughter-in-law, in the only way that she can imagine it working at this point. Naomi is trying to make the best of a society, where without a male partner, they would be largely destitute and without hope. To read anything else into this story though, as a sort of justification for behavior today or things like that, would be a poor and unjustified move.
Ultimately, Boaz receives Ruth well, and the story continues on in a happy fashion. In the short term, Naomi and Ruth are cared for by Boaz’s provision, or perhaps God in Boaz’s provision? Either way, Ruth and Naomi share a conversation, where Ruth explains to her that Boaz “gave me these six measures of barley, for he said, ‘Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’ Naomi replied, ‘Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest, but will settle the matter today'” (Ruth 3:17-18, NRSV). Perhaps focusing on compassion, hospitality, and stewarding like Boaz might be a good way to go for thinking about stewardship in your midst.
Now, in terms of some potential trouble one might get into with this passage. Some people may think that a story like this, where Ruth goes to be with Boaz might be proof of the unbiblical notion that, “God helps those who help themselves.” Such an idea would forget the larger narrative at work in the Book of Ruth, and how Ruth’s main concern here is the welfare of her mother-in-law Naomi. Besides, Ruth is not helping herself. She is looking for compassion on behalf of her mother-in-law.
Another problematic reading for this story could have to do with the prosperity gospel. One might take the idea of “God helping those who help themselves,” and then feel justified with the idea that if you just “pray enough,” or “ask enough,” God will provide whatever you ask. It’s probably not helped this week by the fact that the short gospel passage included comes from Matthew 7:7-8: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8, NRSV).
This gospel verse is a beautiful one. But it can be taken out of context to think more about the individual’s effort, rather than God’s work, gifts, and promises. Overall, in terms of stewardship, this continued story of Ruth’s life and adventures is an important one to tell. Perhaps it could be framed well within the larger question, what might God be up to with and for Ruth? The answers to this question will become clearer next week.
Wherever you feel called to preach and dwell, may God’s love, compassion, and hospitality be made known to you and through you, just as it was to and through Ruth.