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 Fifth Sunday in Lent are as follows:
The final Sunday in Lent before we enter Jerusalem is upon us. And at first reaction, these might not be the most obvious stewardship wisdom filled passages. But maybe just below the surface there might be something to consider.
Immediately this week I am actually drawn to Isaiah. God is speaking through the prophet, and describing what God will do. It’s a fitting look ahead at what is to come, what God will do for God’s people. Fitting as it comes a week before the beginning of the passion, and two weeks prior to the resurrection. God says through Isaiah, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise” (Isaiah 43:18-21, NRSV).
I am preaching on stewardship this week, and I will be surprised if I don’t end up preaching about this passage in someway. It’s all about God’s promises and God’s work, for us. God does this. We don’t. But we do get the opportunity to respond to it.
Do we do so joyfully and gratefully? Do we shout for joy and rejoice like the psalmist who gives us words to that effect this week? Words like, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced” (Psalm 126:3, NRSV). Or words of promise that though we might fear or mourn now, that will not be the last word. With God our tears will turn to joy. “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (Psalm 126:5-6, NRSV). These are great passages for pointing to God’s work, and offering examples hopefully of our response for it and to it.
These responses are different than Judas’ in the gospel story this week. Let’s set the stage for the famous story as Jesus joins friends for a meal less than a week before the Passover and his Passion. “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:1-3, NRSV).
This is an important point in the story. Mary, at some level, knows what is to come. Jesus did what any good person would do, knowing a hard thing was to come. He broke bread with those he cared about and he was close to. Imagining the setting, I imagine there would be quite the mix of emotions. I doubt the disciples though had much real awareness of how soon the story would turn.
Perhaps Judas was aware, at least of his own part to come. “But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)” (John 12:4-6, NRSV). If there wasn’t a backstory here to Judas, it would seem like a legitimate stewardship question. Put another way, “think of all the good that could be done with that…” instead of a supposed luxury. Of course this line of reasoning proves illegitimate with the final sentence. The motivation behind the question was false, and the gospel writer has a clear opinion of the one named Judas.
To Judas’ question, Jesus responds with an important reply. “Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me’” (John 12:7-8, NRSV). Ever since Jesus said this, it has been taken out of context as a justification for inequity, inequality, “haves and have nots.” In thinking about stewardship, this is a sentence one has to respond to because it is one that the average Christian will probably listen to and wrestle with. Or worse yet, take at face value, and assume they don’t need to care for the poor, because Jesus said they will also be there.
The challenge with this sentence and passage is that the point of this passage isn’t about the poor, those in need, or really how we are to treat them. Rather it’s about God’s work, and what God will do. It’s about the last few days of God in Christ walking alongside us. Are we going to make the most of them while God in Christ is there like Mary does in this story? Or, are we going to treat it as normal? Or in terms of stewardship, are we going to live abundantly and gather with a feast of a dinner and expensive oils appropriate for the occasion, or will we give into our human fears and constraints of scarcity and think we don’t have enough? Perhaps that is what Jesus is asking us when he replies to Judas in this way.
For the record, God will care for the poor, and God does. But God also calls us to care for the poor, because God uses us to do some of God’s work in the world. And that is where our response to God’s promises comes in, and it’s where our lives as stewards are lived out in the way we do things, show up, and offer up ourselves in the model of the One who gave himself for us, with hands and arms outstretched for us and for all on the cross.
Wherever your second to last full week of your Lenten journey takes you, may God’s presence be with you, and God’s love made real for you and through you.
The last Sunday before the events of the passion bring us to yet another parable in the narrative. A parable about what is to come at the end. A parable often called, “Last Judgment.” A parable that follows up on the words and warnings of the Beatitudes, or blessings and woes, with their logical conclusion. In terms of stewardship, I would skip the sheep and goats imagery, and dig right into the king and his words and their response.
“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:34-36, NRSV).
To those who lived their lives as stewards and disciples, not perfect, simultaneously saints and sinners, the king offers welcome. These are people who knew that they weren’t God, but that they understood, at least to some extent, that God was with them, using them, and calling them to care for God’s children and creation. They themselves may not have even known they were serving God, but did what they thought or felt was right for those in need around them.
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:37-40, NRSV).
As stewards and disciples, we are called to do this work. We are called to feed the hungry, to give the thirsty something to drink. We are called to welcome the stranger and clothe the naked, to visit the sick and imprisoned. When we do this, we are doing some of God’s work in the world. When we don’t do this, some of God’s children aren’t being cared for as they ought to be. And it is precisely when this happens when something in our lives as stewards and disciples is amiss, out of balance, or worse.
“Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me’” (Matthew 25:41-43, NRSV).
To be sure this is a hard passage. But at the same time, it’s not a surprising one. This isn’t hard stuff. This isn’t rocket science. The only thing that would get in the way of us not doing this for our neighbors in need, would be the lie of scarcity or the sinfulness of idolatry and selfishness. Do we think we don’t have enough? Do we think we don’t have enough time to care for our neighbors? That we don’t have enough stuff or resources to do this? Of course the problem with this logic is that it all falls apart so quickly when we remember that what we have isn’t ours to begin with, but God’s. God entrusts us with all that we have and all that we are to live abundant life, and to care for God’s children, doing God’s work in some way. When we remember this, it’s not such a hard passage at all. But it surely is one that calls us all to repent, confess, and seek absolution.
“Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life’” (Matthew 25:44-46, NRSV).
If I were preaching on the narrative this week, I think I would dig in and take this story as an opportunity to reflect on the good and bad of how we are living as stewards and disciples. To remember that it is God who is God, and not us. And that is Good News too. This isn’t a works righteousness thing. We are not working to earn our salvation here. That’s a God thing, a pure gift and grace we could never earn. But we must remember that with that gift and grace, we are called to respond.
In the water, bread, wine, and Word, we are transformed. We are claimed, gathered, and sent. Not to just go about our own individual daily lives, but in community with all of God’s children and creation. Through this, God calls us to it in relationship. And God calls us to care for those and all that we are in relationship with. To do this we have all that we need through God who entrusts to us, what we need to care for our neighbors and to do some of God’s work in the world. There really is no excuse not to. And if we start making those excuses, well, based on this story, it might mean we’re on the left hand of the king. And friends that is not a good place to be.
As you dig into this parable, may God’s promise be true for you, and made known through you, and may God’s call and challenge to be bearers of God’s love be lived out through you.