Preaching on Stewardship- September 8, 2019- The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Friends, summer has unofficially come and gone in the United States. I suppose technically, we have summer for a couple more weeks, but for all intensive purposes most people are back in school, and the life and ministry of congregations will be reverting back or ramping up for the program year this week most likely (if it hasn’t already in your context). With that in mind, congratulations! You have made it. If this week is Rally Sunday in your congregation, may it be a great kick-off to a good year of walking with God, growing disciples and loving and serving God’s world together. If your congregation is observing the ELCA’s “God’s Work, Our Hands” Sunday this week too, may it be a rich day of growth, service, doing, hearing, and responding to God’s Word, work, and promises for you.

Now onto the regular reflections, as each week on the blog 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 Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost are as follows:

Sunday September 8, 2019: Revised Common Lectionary- The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Lectionary 23 (Year C)
First Lesson: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Second Lesson: Philemon 1:1-21
Gospel of Luke 14:25-33

In terms of the lessons this week, there is some stewardship wisdom to be sure.  From Deuteronomy 30 we hear repeated God’s purpose for the law and commandments, so that we might have life and that it might go well for us. I can’t help but recall the many times Rev. Dr. Terence Fretheim would repeat this idea in class, especially when I was in his Pentateuch class. At it’s heart, the point of the law, and the heart of this lesson, is all about life, faith, and stewardship. “Choose life.” Rev. Dr. Kathryn Schifferdecker runs with this theme in her column this week, and I highly encourage you to spend some time with it.

Moses is abundantly clear on what he means by this. He explains, “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess” (Deuteronomy 30:16-18, NRSV).

Now facing the choice, Moses connects the need and call for us to “choose life” with the ramifications of what that choice might entail for generations. Moses speaks prophetically now. He declares, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deuteronomy 30:18-20, NRSV).

“Choose life.” To choose life here as Moses calls and pleads for us to do, is a stewardship decision. Not a prosperity decision, but a stewardship one. Because yes, legacy and descendants may be tied to the answer of the way one lives life. But more so, our very lives as a response to God’s call, love, and work for us are at question here. If we choose not to live in light of God’s presence, call, and activity, imagine what that might mean- not so much for us (though there would surely be a spiritual impact there), imagine what the impact might mean for our neighbor who might not be cared for, seen, or shown love as we are called to do because of who we are, as God’s people? In this sense then, yes, this is a matter of being in right relationship with God, but also with neighbor. Understanding this, might make for a rich illustration in preaching on stewardship and especially on “God’s Work, Our Hands” Sunday.

The inclusion of Philemon in this week’s pericope is timely too. It’s the shortest letter, all of one chapter. But it’s rich, and a great synthesis for teaching and discipleship which might fit well both within themes related to “God’s Work, Our Hands,” but also “Rally Sunday,” if that is observed in your context.

In writing this letter, Paul is calling the community to welcome back Onesimus. But in doing this, he is offering a couple great pieces of stewardship wisdom. First, he gives thanks and connects that thanks and gratitude, with joy and really a joyful response for what God in Christ has done. Paul writes, “When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother” (Philemon 4-7, NRSV).

“God’s Work, Our Hands.” God uses us, whether we have hands or not, to do some of God’s work in the world. And I give thanks to all of you, for serving and growing with all that God entrusts, to be a part of God’s work in whatever way(s) God calls and leads you to do so. (As seen in this great quilt of hands and other signs of God’s love at work in the world, found on the walls in the fellowship hall at First Evangelical Lutheran Church in York, Nebraska last fall.)

He says again, “I always thank my God because I hear of your love…” That is the highest of praise. How often do we give thanks for each other’s love? How often do we name that love we see, sense, and experience from our community, and then openly and publicly say thank you for it? If the answer isn’t very often, then this week, as a week of rallying and doing God’s work, might be the best week to start making this a regular practice in your context and preaching.

Paul isn’t quite done though. He goes further saying, “For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (Philemon 8-9, NRSV). He calls on the community to do it’s duty, and to do it in love. For Paul, this might well mean taking what he has written about in other letters to heart, and to live it out as the faithful disciples and stewards of God’s love that we are called to be. For example, like he writes to the people of Galatia, “Bear  one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2, NRSV). That echoes well when put together with this week’s first lesson from Deuteronomy 30.

Turning to the gospel, I’ll admit, this may not be the easiest gospel lesson to preach from ever appointed by the lectionary. But it’s still a rich one, as it points to the challenges of being a disciple and steward. Jesus says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27, NRSV). Jesus isn’t lying, and he certainly isn’t sugar coating what it means to be a follower of the way. Being a disciple is not easy. Being a steward of God’s love, isn’t always easy. We have to give up things, to say no to things we might rather do. We have to even prioritize our relationship with God, over our relationship with others. And Jesus knows this is hard. Our life of faith together, isn’t easy- there’s a cross, a symbol and tool of death after all, at it’s center. But we are called to this life, knowing we aren’t called to it alone, and knowing that God is with us, walking there beside us, in front of us, and behind us, supporting us always.

But again, this isn’t easy. The inclusion of this last verse, guarantees that this story is not an easy one to hear.  Jesus says this because he knows it matters, and knows how hard it is to be in relationship with God, when our stuff, things, ideas, and priorities might get in the way. He likely has all of this and more in mind, when he concludes, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33, NRSV).

I dare you to preach on this verse this week. It may not go so well for you. But it’s a verse that is in the story because it points to the challenges of our call as disciples and our identity as stewards of all that God entrusts. Put in conversation with our stories from Deuteronomy and Philemon, it might make for a rich and timely stewardship message. And most importantly, Jesus says this because he is concerned about each and every one of us. He deeply wants us to choose life and live it abundantly. It’s all that much harder to do so, when we have things holding us back or weighing us down from such a life.

Sunday September 8, 2019: Narrative Lectionary- The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Week One (Year 2)
Narrative Theme for the Day: Garden of Eden
Focus Passages: Genesis 2:4b-25
Gospel Verse: Mark 1:16-20 or Mark 10:6-8

You have made it! Welcome to the start of a new year, the second year of the four year cycle of the Narrative Lectionary. We begin our journey dwelling in God’s story, back towards the very beginning, in Genesis 2, with the creation story that includes the first people, Adam and Eve. These two human beings are entrusted with the task of caring for God’s garden, and entrusted with the relationship between each other, and between them and God, their creator.

Let’s be honest. We all know this story. But perhaps focusing on it this week, is a great way to kick off the year as a sort of Rally Day, but also as a potential focus on stewardship. In this story, God’s identity as Creator couldn’t be clearer, nor could God’s work of imaginative creation. We read, “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food…” (Genesis 2:7-9, NRSV). In terms of the story and stewardship, it’s clear here that everything in this story, all good that is present in the garden, comes from God.

This includes the human being, Adam. God calls and and entrusts him with certain responsibilities and vocations. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15, NRSV). The man is entrusted with the responsibility of tilling and keeping the garden and soil. He is entrusted with the vocation really of farming.

Of course, this isn’t everything, it’s just the beginning. The human will be entrusted with a relationship. And together, they will be entrusted with more responsibility, and invited to participate in some of God’s creative work, especially in the naming of creation. “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the LordGod formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field…” (Genesis 2:18-20, NRSV).

Again, it’s a very familiar story which is a great way to start the year. In terms of stewardship, it’s full of possibilities:

  • Whether thinking about how we care for creation, and steward it?
  • Whether thinking about how we are entrusted with all things from God, and what does it mean to be entrusted with the responsibility to care for things?
  • Or, in thinking about how we are called into relationships with each other, what does it mean to nurture, care for, and steward those relationships as Children of God?

In connecting this story, two Gospel stories are offered as possibilities. I would encourage using Mark 1, if thinking about call and stewardship. It’s the famous story of Jesus calling the disciples to follow him, and become fishers for people. “As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him” (Mark 1:16-20, NRSV).

In terms of stewardship, it’s a great opportunity for thinking about how God calls us all by name, God sees us, knows us, and loves us. And God calls us to follow, and in so doing, to join in God’s creative work  (like God does for Adam and Eve) in some ways in the world through our vocations.

Whatever direction(s) the Holy Spirit moves you this week, may God’s love and promises be reminded to you, and be shown and shared through you.

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