It has been a hard week in Nebraska. With blizzards to the west, and 100-year floods in the east, it has been a hard week to be sure. There will be more posts about this in the coming days, and if you follow me on Facebook you have likely seen plenty of pictures of the flooding. This will continue, as will the need for help.
Its with this in mind that I come to this weekly practice this week- the one where every Monday I share a few tidbits, nuggets, or ideas for incorporating some stewardship themes in your preaching. I do so today with a distracted mind, but also in the hopes that this offering might be helpful for pointing to God’s promises, challenging us to grow as stewards, and wondering about what God might be up to and how God might be calling us to serve our neighbors in need all around us, especially here now in Nebraska. This week’s nuggets based on the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary for the Third Sunday in Lent are as follows:
A few things stand out to me in the revised common lectionary readings this week. First, there is a potential stewardship theme related to God’s promises and God’s hope for God’s people to live abundant life. In the first lesson we read from the prophet Isaiah a call to “come to me me; listen, so that you may live.” It rings reminders of God in Christ’s call to follow and to listen.
This hope and promise of life is framed within questions about life and economic choices one might make. We read, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David” (Isaiah 55:1-3, NRSV).
In hearing this story, I hear basically the call to “choose life.” I hear a call to “come to me,” which are words that Jesus himself will say. “Listen,” is a word, call, and theme present throughout scripture and the gospel narrative as well. In terms of stewardship, these are all important parts of life as a disciple and steward, and are part of truly living an abundant life. It’s not about eating certain things, or having riches and tons of money. Nor is it about having a super wealthy high paying job. But rather it’s about having a life that satisfies, and for the prophet this starts and flows out of a life in relationship with God– A relationship as a steward which is grounded in the truth that all that we have and all that we are, are in fact God’s.
In choosing life and hope, a natural response that follows may involve gratitude, joy, and purpose. This is probably the second thing that stands out to me in the RCL this week as it relates to stewardship. This response with gratitude, joy, and purpose, is at the heart of stewardship, as we respond to what God has done and promises to do for us. As much as my heart might ache at the devastation and the challenges posed by the flooding here in Nebraska, I am grateful at the way people have stepped up for each other as neighbors. I am grateful that so far only two people have died, as with this much water and destruction, it could easily have been so much worse. Granted there is a long road to recovery, but I have seen God at work and present in the community, and for this I am grateful.
And for this, I believe we can echo the grateful and joyful response of the psalmist this week: “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name. My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me” (Psalm 63:3-8, NRSV).
The third piece that I notice in this week’s readings is a sense of trust and patience, but one that is not totally unlimited. Eventually there is a hope, if not a requirement altogether, that the seeds that are planted will not just be sown, they will have borne fruit. This might well be a parable for us as disciples and stewards, recognizing that God provides grace beyond measure, and that we are not measured by what we do but by whose we are, God’s. All of that said, what we do (or don’t do) does matter for the sake of our neighbors whom God calls us into relationship with.
Bearing this in mind, read again this familiar parable that is the second half of the gospel reading this week. “Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down'” (Luke 13:6-9, NRSV).
“If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” If this is a verse about us, oh dear. But at the same time, it’s also a balm, because we have a God who will go to bat for us, and be there granting us forgiveness, and another opportunity to learn and grow. The question is, do we learn and grow? Do we forgive as God does? Do we serve and care for our neighbors as God in Christ does and calls us to do likewise? Any of these questions might be worth pondering about stewardship, especially during this Lenten journey together, and particularly as we journey together in responding to disasters and challenges in our own communities like floods and blizzards, and the long-term aftermath, rebuilding, and recovery to come.
In whatever direction you might feel led, may God’s comfort and assurance of the promises be with you and for you this week.
Our journey through Matthew brings us to another famous parable. This week it’s the one about a wedding banquet. A king is trying to throw a great wedding banquet for his son, and the people are apparently nowhere to be found. On the front end, it may not be the most obvious story to offer some stewardship wisdom, but maybe if we dig a little deeper? Let’s dig in and take this story in order in three parts.
The passage begins, “Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them” (Matthew 22:1-6, NRSV).
One might interpret this parable in any number of ways. Perhaps it’s a passion prediction of what is going to happen with the death of Christ, and a warning to the people to recognize God in Christ’s presence with them. It might also be a story about the invitation of God to all of God’s people to come and see that the Lord is good, to worship and bow down, and to love and serve God and only God; but also a recognition of how that invitation might be received and/or responded to.
In terms of stewardship, I wonder what this might say to us about how we respond to God’s gifts and presence with us? Do we make light of them and go our own way? Do we do worse by not just ignoring it, but mistreating those who shed light in the world, the light that is a sign of God’s kingdom breaking into the world bit by bit? That would track with Jesus’ framing of this parable as yet another depiction of what the kingdom of heaven is like.
The story continues as it describes the king’s response to how the people have received and not accepted the invitation to the banquet. We read, “The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests” (Matthew 22:7-10, NRSV).
On the one hand, the welcome and gathering of “good and bad” sounds kind of Lutheran in the sense that we are all saints and sinners gathered around God’s banquet table. On the other hand, boy is this a hard story to stomach. Because if we are part of the people or stewards and disciples who scoff at God (or worse) than if God is the king in this story, well, the king certainly would seem vengeful (perhaps understandably). It would be a rather human response, and perhaps a bit unusual for the understanding of grace that we might hold. At the same time, it might also call us to recognize that it does matter that we are in relationship with God.
Perhaps the most troubling part of this story though is the final part actually. We read, “‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen’” (Matthew 22:11-14, NRSV).
“Throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth…” If you are in a liturgical congregation, this might be one of those gospel stories that is hard to fully say, “Praise to you O Christ,” after the reading of it. It’s not a happy story. Nor is the admission that “many are called, but few are chosen.”
It might be a challenge to find a joyful or grateful response in this story. It might, as acknowledged at the beginning, be a challenge to think or sense some stewardship wisdom in this. But I think there’s some wisdom here too. Wisdom to pause and reflect. Wisdom to discern. Wisdom to be open to God’s invitation to us, and a willingness to not only be courageous to accept it and “come and see that the Lord is good,” but to accept it and wonder a bit about what God might be up to? To accept this invitation as a call to follow. To accept this invitation to as a call to invite others to the wedding banquet.
To be a disciple and steward is something we are all called to be as Children of God. But to live and truly be disciples and stewards is not always an easy thing. Its not something that everyone does. Its not something that is always welcomed or appreciated. But we are invited to it, and when we have the courage to accept it, life becomes something deeper, fuller, more meaningful. It becomes abundant.
Abundant life does not mean free of challenges or rich and perfect. It means a life of being in relationship with God and one another. It means living and growing deeper in that relationship, and by being in it, allowing God to use us and work through us for the sake of our neighbors and the world that God so loves. It means accepting the invite to come and see the challenges that lie ahead in the muddy floors and mildewed homes, but in that challenge to show up and help with cleanup, and also be there to support our neighbors near and far as they walk through this valley in life. May we be God’s hands, feet, and shoulders to bear each other and to hug and cry on when needed.
When you unpack this story this way, and the questions that might come through such unpacking, perhaps there is some great stewardship wisdom here after all. Wherever this story might take you, and whatever God’s challenges might sound like to you, may God’s promise and love be made known to you and through you this week.