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 September 9, 2018: Revised Common Lectionary- The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Time after Pentecost- Lectionary 23- Year B)
First Lesson: Isaiah 35:4-7a
Second Lesson: James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17
Gospel of Mark 7:24-37
What a wonderful set of readings to start most congregation’s program years off with this week. Many faith communities might even be celebrating a sort of “Rally Sunday” this week. In doing so, starting with the gospel passage for this week might be just right.
Now before digging into stewardship, a caution. This week’s gospel lesson includes some derogatory remarks and conversation which Jesus engages in. He basically refers to outsiders like the Syrophoenician people as “dogs” (Mark 7:27, NRSV). Such a term in the biblical period was an insult, just as it is today when certain leaders, politicians, and presidents refer to those they don’t agree with in this way. I implore you to approach this text honestly, and if it makes sense, admit that just because Jesus engaged in this, it doesn’t justify us as God’s people to engage in such derogatory conversation. In fact, it’s fair to say, that Jesus doing so, was trying to make the point, that where we as people have separated (and continue to separate) people, God’s love doesn’t work like this. There is another way, which is why Jesus heals even those who aren’t like “us,” or who some might call “them.” Pure and simply, in God’s kingdom, there is no othering between people of different origins, backgrounds, orientations, perspectives, etc. And this is how we are called to live our lives, and be in relationships with all of God’s children too.
In terms of stewardship, the gospel story is one where Jesus casts out a demon after engaging in a conversation and learning of a Syrophoenician Woman’s faith, and also where Jesus helped a deaf man to be able to hear again. Despite the hard verse with the derogatory use of “dogs,” these are stories of God’s work. These are stories of God’s saving actions for us. And as you might guess, the disciples, “were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak'” (Mark 7:37, NRSV). This is God’s story. This is who God in Christ is, for us. In terms of stewardship, these are things we could never do or earn, but that we tell the story of, and respond to in the way we live our lives. As most congregations start a new program year this year, how might this story serve as a grounding place for remembering God’s promises for us? (If looking for more on this gospel, check out this commentary by friend and professor Rev. Dr. Matt Skinner.)
Speaking of God’s saving actions for us, the passage from Isaiah reiterates this theme. “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you'” (Isaiah 35:4, NRSV). This story of God’s saving work for us, is the story of God’s promises, and it’s the story that grounds and guides us, and the story that continues even today that we are a part of, as God’s people, and stewards and bearers of God’s love.
Perhaps my favorite passage this week for thinking about stewardship, might be Psalm 146. The psalm begins, “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long” (Psalm 146:1-2, NRSV). These praises, are our praises. They are our joyful response and gratitude for what God has done, and continues to do for us. We could never earn these saving acts, but in receiving them, we are so caught up in joy and gratitude, that we want to share in this good work, and to share this Good News for us and all of creation.
How we live our lives in response to God’s gifts and saving acts for us, is really our stewardship. The psalmist this week lays out what this might look like:
“Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith for ever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Psalm 146:5-9, NRSV).
These acts are acts done by God. But they are also things that we ourselves can be a part of. In that, we can work and strive for justice for the oppressed and for all creation. We have all that we need, entrusted to us by God, to feed the hungry.
As God’s people we are called to help those in need, to comfort the grieving, and to welcome the stranger, for example. In starting your faith community’s program year, many ELCA congregations will also be participating in “God’s Work, Our Hands” Sunday. How might these be things we a part of? How might the work of God like this, be something we are a part of with our hands, minds, souls, and hearts? How might your congregation be stewards of God’s love in these (or other) ways? Making this connection in your preaching would make for a timely and powerful stewardship sermon in your context, and would help the average member of your community perhaps see a bit deeper how they are a steward of God’s love.
Now, there is one more passage this week, obviously. I believe its a great and important one for us as disciples and stewards of God’s love. However, I am also a Lutheran, and know how dangerous this verse can be, if not framed well. It can easily slip into “works righteousness,” and then be all about the work we do, rather than the work God does for us. In fact, it might be the ultimate proof text for works righteousness. That being said, as James writes,
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:14-17, NRSV).
I think it is worth considering, does our faith and response to God’s gifts for us, lead to a change within us? Do they lead us out into relationship and love with and for all God’s people? Or, do we go to worship, hear some “good news,” and then go about the rest of our week without any impact on us and our daily lives? Sometimes I fear looking at the world, that we have a ton of fellow Christians like this, who hear the Good News, but then forget that it does matter for how we love and serve our neighbors whom God has called us into relationship with. Sometimes, I fear, I myself might be one of these people too.
Doing this work doesn’t matter for our salvation, nor for another’s salvation. But it does matter, in that God entrusts us with all that are and all that we have, in order to do God’s work of caring for those in need, near and far. If we don’t do this, and hoard that which is entrusted by God, then are we perhaps becoming a barrier to God’s work being done in some way? Thankfully, I deeply believe God works in this world, even in spite of us (and our best or worst intentions). But what a missed opportunity to be a part of God’s work, and to see God’s kingdom break in the world, bit-by-bit, when we don’t respond to God’s gifts and promises by being a steward of God’s love. (And what a missed understanding of Jesus’ summation of the law as “love your God with all your heart and all your mind, and all your soul; and love your neighbor as yourself.)
Wherever you feel led this week, may God’s love and promises guide you, challenge you, and comfort you, and may you share that love and promise in challenge and comfort with those whom you meet.
Sunday September 9, 2018: Narrative Lectionary- The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Year 1)
Narrative Theme for the Day: Flood and Promise
Focus Passage: Genesis 6:5-22, 8:6-12, 9:8-17
Gospel Verse: Matthew 8:24-27
With the start of a new program year, it also means it is a start of a new year in the Narrative Lectionary. In the four-year cycle of the lectionary, we begin again Year One, with a special focus on the gospel of Matthew. But as we do with the narrative, we begin again at or near the beginning in Genesis, moving to the gospel by the end of Advent.
This week’s story from three different chapters in Genesis, covers the story of the flood and God’s promise and covenant with Noah, with us, and with all of God’s people. In terms of stewardship, it’s a great week to begin and dwell deeply in God’s story, telling it, and then perhaps thinking about how we live as stewards of God’s promise for us.
The story begins with God saying, “For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female” (Genesis 6:17-19, NRSV).
While on the ark, Noah sent out the dove. When out on the top of the ark, “and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth” (Genesis 8:11, NRSV). This was a sign of God’s covenant and promise coming to fruition.
Speaking of covenant, in God’s own words to Noah:
“As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:8-11, NRSV).
God, knowing that this proclamation was important, also knew that God’s people would need a sign (or signs) to remember God’s covenant with them, and promises for them. The rainbow, a sign of hope in the midst of storms and uncertainty. As God said,
“This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9:12-15, NRSV).
Not only is it a sign and reminder for us, it’s also one for God too. “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth’” (Genesis 9:16-17, NRSV).
It’s a rather long story, but an important one to be told and to remind us. It’s a part of who we are, and why we are God’s people, and why God is our God. If we are going to be stewards, we need to understand this story, so that we can tell God’s story, because we are certainly a part of it.
This week’s focus, is also paired with the short gospel story of Jesus calming the storm in Matthew. The disciples, “went and woke him up, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing!’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’” (Matthew 8:25-27, NRSV). This story pairs well with the story of Noah and the flood, because both are stories of God’s saving work and promises.
These actions and promises are God’s work and gifts, for us. They are things we could never do, ourselves. They are things we could never earn, for ourselves. And because of them, all we can do is say thank you to God, and give God praise. And then be so caught up in that gratitude and joy, that we want to be a part of God’s work in the world in some way. That’s our stewardship.
I wonder, how did Noah live in response to God’s saving work for him as a steward of creation? How did the disciples live in response to God’s saving work of calming the storm, for them? How do we live in response to God’s saving work and promises for us? Perhaps this might be a good starting nugget to ponder about stewardship in your midst as we begin a new year in the Narrative Lectionary.
Wherever you feel called or led this week, may God’s promises and covenant for you be made more real to you, and shared through you this week.
Image Credit: God’s Work, Our Hands Sunday