Every Monday I share a few tidbits, nuggets, or ideas for incorporating some stewardship themes in your preaching. This week’s nuggets based on the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary for the First Sunday in Lent are as follows:
And so it begins, the Lenten journey to the cross. As we often do on the First Sunday in Lent, we begin shortly after Jesus’ baptism with his being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. In terms of stewardship, it’s not the most ideal gospel story to preach on.
Perhaps one nugget might come at the end of the gospel story, however. “Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:12-13, NRSV). So often in our human decision making we think we can make deals with God. Like, “God if I do this, please do this…” Jesus reminds us, it doesn’t work that way. Nor does it work to test God or “put our faith to the test” as some people might proclaim. In terms of stewardship, this might be a good week to clearly and carefully point out the fallacy of such thinking which is often related in stewardship thought to a prosperity gospel.
While touching on the gospel is important as always this week, in terms of stewardship and preaching, I think I would dig deeply into the first lesson from Deuteronomy 26. This passage is all about our response to God and our reaction and response to all that God has done and entrusts to us. One reason for this is that the idea of “first fruits giving,” comes right out of this passage, the idea that we are to return to God the first fruits (or portion) of what God has entrusted to us.
The famous story begins from Moses, “When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name (Deuteronomy 26:1-2, NRSV).
Moses is describing the promises of God and provisions of God for God’s people Israel. He is also reminding them that God’s provision is part of the people’s inheritance. In that entrusting of land, it is only right that a portion of that which is produced is returned to God out of gratitude.
For all that God has done and continues to do, Moses describes what the people are to do and to say to their priest. In a lot of ways, this is a great description of what one’s joyful and grateful response to God might look like. Because God has done all of this out of love and pure gift for God’s people.
Moses summarizes well some of what God has done for God’s people that only God could do, and for which we are to respond. Moses declares, “When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God:
‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 26:4-9, NRSV).
This is the story of God’s people. This is our story. Moses is summarizing the people’s story. The story of Jacob, the “wandering Aramean.” The story of Joseph’s life and welcome, and Israel in Egypt prospering and living when famine had driven them there. The story of slavery and the prayers to God for deliverance. The story of a burning bush and a call to Moses to help lead the people out of Egypt through the waters of the sea. The story of wilderness wanderings and the promised land to come of milk and honey.
All of this God has done, and there is so much more that God will do. This we know in the narrative of the gospels. This we know through the promises of life, and hope and promise of the resurrection. And like Moses, for all of this we can’t help but be so grateful and overjoyed that we want and need to respond to God’s deep and abiding love and presence in some way. And that is through our stewardship.
Moses counsels, “So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’ You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house” (Deuteronomy 26:10-11, NRSV). This is what we are to do. When someone asks why stewardship, or why give, or why we have offering in worship, this is as good of a story to answer those questions with as any.
If needing more substance to answer those questions, Deuteronomy 26 continues in verses 12-15 with some more wisdom and teaching about the tithe which is a contribution to God’s work, but also perhaps even more so, a contribution to be shared with the outsiders, the underserved, the poor, oppressed and marginalized so that they are cared for and provided for. We do this because God calls us to do it, and Moses says as much. We also do this, because God entrusts us with all that we have and all that we are, and though a good amount of that is to live a meaningful life, at least a portion of it is to be returned to God and shared with all of God’s people near and far so that together all might be fed and provided for.
If still looking for some more stewardship nuggets, Psalm 91 offers reminders of God’s work and promises for God’s people. “Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation” (Psalm 91:14-16, NRSV). God will do this.
A caution again, as mentioned above about the gospel story’s conclusion for this week perhaps offering a possible rebuttal to the prosperity gospel, this psalm and the second lesson might have elements that could be interpreted as prosperity gospel justifications. “If you love God enough, etc. then God will do _______ for you.” That’s not exactly what is written in this psalm or by Paul in Romans 10, but one might interpret it that way. For instance Paul writes, For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him” (Romans 10:12, NRSV). Paul is making the case of unity in Christ with at the same time our unique diversity to whom God is generous to all. But again this could be interpreted as, “God will be generous to you, if you call on him….” Not only might this be prosperity gospel, it could make alarm bells ring about works righteousness.
In terms of stewardship though, it is helpful to remember that God is generous, far more than anyone could ever deserve. God gives gifts to us of life and promises and hope, and entrusts us with all that we have and all that we are. And all of this God does generously, abundantly, and most importantly out of deep love and grace. And for that, like Moses tells the people Israel, we respond through our lives as stewards and disciples and through offering a portion of that which God entrusts to our care.
There are lots of nuggets about stewardship to start the Lenten season. Some might take a bit more nuance than others, but whatever catches your imagination, may God’s love and promise be made known to you as you begin your Lenten journey, and may they be shared through you as those around you begin theirs as well.
Beginning Lent with a focus on forgiveness seems like a great idea as the narrative outlines. This story from Matthew 18 includes a parable that might offer some important wisdom, caution, and food for thought about stewardship and how we use what is entrusted to us, and forgive others as God has forgiven us.
In answering a question about how many times one should forgive Jesus said, Jesus said, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt” (Matthew 18:22-27, NRSV).
If only the story stopped here. It would be a happy ending. The Lord, who we assume is really God, has forgiven the man all of his debts. He is free. He is released and sent on his way. It would seem natural that he would be changed out of this grace, love, and awesome forgiving act. You would assume that he would live differently and respond to this generous act of forgiveness in kind, through serving, joy, and love to God and to others.
But as the story goes, “that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place” (Matthew 18:28-31, NRSV).
This man doesn’t get it. He was freed, and given the gift of freedom and life with perhaps the only stipulation being, “go and do likewise.” But he missed the point. Instead of embodying and sharing the grace and forgiveness he received, he gave into his selfish desires for wealth, and to his human desires for vengeance, what he though was justice and fairness. But justice has more to do here with uplifting the lowly, freeing the downtrodden, and forgiving the debtors. This is what God’s justice and reconciliation looks like. This is what the Kingdom of God looks like in action as Jesus is describing. But the man in this parable couldn’t or wouldn’t willingly follow such a radical departure from human greed and sin.
The story concludes. “Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:32-35, NRSV).
This might seem harsh. But it’s an important reminder. What we do matters. Not so much for our own salvation, as that is a pure gift from God. But it does matter for the sake of our neighbors, and for the sake of being in relationship with all those God calls us into relationship with. We’re all Children of God, created in God’s own image. We all will have times where we might fall short. We all will likely have times we might struggle, and need help from another. And we all need to be forgiven, but also to forgive.
If we don’t forgive one another, hate, pain, greed, etc., not only weighs on ourselves and our souls, it creates a barrier between us and God. It causes us to focus on our own selves and our desires, rather than to turn towards God. And all of this is a reminder then about how in stewardship we understand that all that we have and all that we are is God’s. When we lose sight of this, it’s so much easier to think we don’t have enough, and to think when someone might owe us to go after what we are owed. Thinking it’s all about us, instead of thinking about how this might be an opportunity which God has called us into, to show and do as God does for us towards another.
This might be a great week for thinking about stewardship in ways around relationships and we are in relationship with one another. It also might be a good week to ponder, especially as we begin Lent, about the depths to which God goes (which have no limit really) for us, and how through God’s action for us, through us, and around us, we are not only saved, we are changed once and for all. And through this, I wonder, how do we live as God’s children and bearers of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness to those around us and all those in the world?
Whatever direction the Holy Spirit might lead you this week, may God’s love, promise, and forgiveness be real for you, and felt and shared through and because of you.