Happy Epiphany! With the second half of Advent and the Christmas season being a time to focus on the story of God with us, I figured you didn’t need much more help with stewardship preaching that that. So this is the first weekly post in about month. Here we are, in a new year, and off to the races with Baptism of Our Lord Sunday! As is customary on the blog I’m sharing 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 Baptism of Our Lord are as follows:
Sunday January 12, 2020: Revised Common Lectionary- Baptism of Our Lord (Year A)- First Sunday after Epiphany, Lectionary 1
First Lesson: Isaiah 42:1-9
Second Lesson: Acts 10:34-43
Gospel of Matthew 3:13-17
“We’re all witnesses. But we’re not just witnesses.” That might be my starting place this week when thinking about these stories, especially as they might offer insights into stewardship. I’ll get to that in a minute. But taking a step back, as we are in a new year, and this is Baptism of Our Lord Sunday in the season after Epiphany, perhaps it might be a good time in terms of stewardship to enlighten some of the many things that God is up to- through you, for you, and around you through the ministry and mission in your community and context. The stories in this season are ripe with opportunities for this, as they point to who God in Christ is, and offer example after example of Christ’s life-giving work and purpose. Maybe making this a priority of this season may be of benefit for you.
Now in turning to the texts, let’s take them in order. The prophet Isaiah offers a reminder of who God is, and what God does and will do. I am particularly drawn this week to this, “Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it” (Isaiah 42:5, NRSV). Our God who is creator and life-giver, and from whom all comes into being. Our God who “spreads out the earth and what comes from it,” and entrusts all within and upon it. This is powerful stuff. It’s great imagery, and articulates so much about God in just one verse. In thinking about stewardship, it’s a great starting place for thinking about who God is, whose we are, and whose stuff all that we have and all that we are is and belongs to.
The prophet goes from here to articulate in God’s voice some of what God has done, will do, and promises to do. “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them” (Isaiah 42:6-9, NRSV). God is doing a new thing, as God declares it. And God calls us each to be a part of it. To be a part of the light. To be a part of the work of discipleship and stewardship- the work of opening eyes, freeing the imprisoned, and doing God’s work of justice and peace for all creation. And God not only calls us to this, God walks with us in it, holding our hand and keeping us, as God is present with us.
From that rich text, we move to another on this day that we celebrate and remember our Lord’s baptism. A day where we remember that God’s voice speaks over the waters as the psalmist declares, “The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty” (Psalm 29:3-4, NRSV).
God isn’t a far off being. God is present, active, and up to something. And from time to time, God’s self speaks to make the world see and take notice. It happens a lot in the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. It’s more rare in the gospels, but when it happens it calls us to see that something new is happening, at such a time as this. In Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan, the beginning of Jesus’ formal ministry, God calls people to see and be ready. Things are about to change. This is God’s beloved. Naturally, we might want to listen and see what God’s beloved might have to say and do. (And God’s voice does a lot more too, as the psalmist continues to proclaim in Psalm 29:5-11.)
Now returning to the statement I began with above, “We’re all witnesses. But we’re not just witnesses.” That is sitting with me especially because of the second lesson this week from Acts 10. We hear from Peter who is explaining about God’s message, to Cornelius and some of the disciples and people gathered in Caesarea. Peter recounts, “You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem” (Acts 10:36-39, NRSV).
As witnesses, we’re called to share and proclaim God’s story. But we’re also called to join in this life of “doing good and healing,” doing God’s work of justice and peace for all of creation. We’re called into this life really not just as witnesses, but as Children of God claimed in the baptismal waters and with the Word that Christ himself was washed in by John with the Holy Spirit. We’re called and sent from those waters wet, marked and sealed, and called, equipped, and empowered as disciples and stewards of God’s love.
And Peter continues on to explain what this might look like. Peter says, “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:42-43, NRSV). The grace of the forgiveness of sins, makes us right with God. It restores us in relationship with God. And it calls us to turn toward God, to live more fully and intentionally as a Child of God, growing as disciples, and living abundantly as stewards.
Now all of these readings really are leading up to the gospel story this week, Matthew’s recounting of Jesus’ baptism. It’s rather short and to the point. Only five verses. But in these verses, God shows up and God speaks up, we assume as the voice from heaven. We read, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:13-17, NRSV).
There is no mistaking this. Something big is happening. The people in the wilderness around the river that day were called to take notice. God spoke and declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The rest of the gospel story from here will explain what all this means and why this Son, is so beloved. It’s a starting place really, just as baptism is for all of us. But from these waters flows life, meaning, and purpose. From them flows the promise of God’s presence with us and claim upon us, once and for all. From them, also flows a sense of deep call to a life as a Child of God, disciple, and steward.
Baptism is public for a reason, so that the community makes promises just as the one being baptized. But these promises are also an act of witness. Together we witness to God’s claim and call, and God’s work in our midst. Together we witness God showing up. And this witness is not a stagnant thing. But it moves us, and propels us together, to continue to yearn, to grow, to gather and worship, to learn as disciples, and live and share as stewards of God’s love.
When Peter says that we are witnesses to these things, he might have had this all in mind. Just as he certainly was pointing to how we are witnesses to the very acts of God’s saving love for us- the incarnation and birth of Christ as one of us, the life of teaching and walking along the roads of life with us, the life of healing and showing us how to heal and help each other showing compassion and mercy for the lost and the least, the passover meal in the upper room, the handing over and betrayal, the sham of a trial and the humiliation of a cross, the cold darkness of a tomb, the stone being rolled away with the resurrection, and Jesus’ Great Commissioning and ascension.
We are witnesses to these things. But we aren’t just witnesses. We are, even though small as we might seem, part of God’s on-going work and ministry in the world. We’re witnesses. We’re disciples. We’re stewards. And most of all, we’re Children of God.
Sunday January 12, 2020: Narrative Lectionary- Baptism of Our Lord and the First Sunday after Epiphany– Week Nineteen (Year 2)
Narrative Theme for the Day: Jesus Heals and Teaches
Focus Passages: Mark 2:1-22
Accompanying Psalm: Psalm 103:6-14
The narrative lands in Mark 2 this week, and Jesus’ ministry is off to the races. There’s healing, there’s eating. And there’s lots of questions and consternation from the teachers, scribes, and powers that be. It’s a rich text for digging into thinking about who this Jesus is. For stewardship, perhaps it’s a chance to ponder a bit about what God has done, and what God might be up to and calling us to be a part of now, and next.
The story begins, “When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’” (Mark 2:1-5, NRSV). Jesus sees faith in action here, and in response, proclaims the forgiveness of sins. This isn’t a works righteousness thing. But it is an act of God literally showing up, bringing life, restoration, and salvation.
Of course, such an act of healing and declaration was bound to cause questions. And the questions and condemnation came. “Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’” (Mark 2:6-12, NRSV)
It’s easy in life to get jaded. To think that the way things are, is the way things are. But when we do this, we forget that God is God, and we are not. God can act, and God can change understanding. God equips us with brains and all that we are, for a reason. For us to use what God entrusts, for the sake of God’s world. If we have the means to make life better for another, shouldn’t we do that? That might be one of Jesus’ points here. If we have the capacity to make our world a better place, don’t we then also have a responsibility to do so? Especially when we remember whose world and place it is, God’s, not ours alone. (And further who created it too.)
This story just keeps going. Jesus is teaching, especially about forgiveness, community, relationships, and reconciliation. “Jesus went out again beside the lake; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners’” (Mark 2:13-17, NRSV).
How are we doing at living out life like this? Do we sit and visit with just those who we agree with and who we like? Or, do we embody Christ’s example and show up, and are in relationship with everyone because, we are after all, all God’s created and beloved children. Whether we’re employed, underemployed, or unemployed. Whether we’re a Republican, Democrat, or something else altogether politically. Whether we’re healthy or not, whether we have tons of degrees or not, it doesn’t matter. And Jesus goes so far as to say that he comes to call “sinners.” We might like to think that doesn’t apply to us, but we’d be wrong. We’re all saints and sinners, simultaneously. (Simul justus et peccator, thanks Martin Luther.)
The selection for this week ends with this inclusion about fasting. “Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day. ‘No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins’” (Mark 2:18-22, NRSV).
It’s a rich text. If paired with the suggested inclusion of Psalm 103, it might be even richer in thinking about God’s work and promises of forgiveness and reconciliation. In thinking about stewardship there are many nuggets you could draw out and find in this story. For me, I might think big picture. These are some examples of God’s work for us. How do we join in this work? How do we gratefully and joyfully respond to God for it? And what might God be calling us to see, do, be a part of, and wonder about now? Good questions especially for this time after Epiphany.
In whatever direction these stories point you, may God’s presence be with you, guide you, and enlighten you. And may the promises we know through baptism shape you and your work this week, and be shared and made known through you.