Preaching on Stewardship- January 19, 2020- The Second Sunday after Epiphany

This week’s nuggets based on the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary for The Second Sunday after Epiphany are as follows:

Sunday January 19, 2020: Revised Common Lectionary- The Second Sunday after Epiphany (Year A), Lectionary 2
First Lesson: Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-11
Second Lesson: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Gospel of John 1:29-42

This Second Sunday after Epiphany continues the theme of the season of pointing to and revealing God in the world. In terms of stewardship, there are plenty of reminders in this week’s story of God’s work for us, and God’s promises of what God has done and will do for God’s beloved. We’ll take the four stories in order to discern some nuggets and potential stewardship themes for preaching this week.

Among the points of wisdom from Isaiah this week, is this, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6, NRSV). There is a claim and act of entrusting in this, but also an act of God giving God’s own for the sake of creation. “I will give you as a light to the nations…” And this act of giving is with the intent that God’s “salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” This is a reminder of God’s work, but also shows that we are a part of that work as God’s stewards and disciples. We’re part of the work of sharing and telling the story of God’s love and promises.

The psalmist offers tons of praise this week and reminders of God’s work for us. The psalmist proclaims, “You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts towards us; none can compare with you. Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted” (Psalm 40:5, NRSV). God’s wondrous deeds are more than can be counted. That’s quite the statement about the depth of God’s love and the extent to which God goes for God’s people and beloved creation.

What is the proper response for this? The psalmist ponders, “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt-offering and sin-offering you have not required. Then I said, ‘Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do your will, O my God, your law is within my heart’” (Psalm 40:6-8, NRSV). This is not to say that offering is not important. But they aren’t necessary to earn or receive God’s love. God’s love is pure gift and grace. Offering, when done properly, is a free response to it. An act of returning to God a portion of what God entrusts. More so even, offering and sacrifice are a means by which we help do God’s work in the world. We give, we serve, we grow, and we learn because we “delight to do your will,” and God is within our hearts. 

Paul offers another response, one of gratitude and joy. In writing to the Corinthians he begins, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:4-9, NRSV).

Perhaps a timely stewardship sermon for this time after Epiphany might begin simply and boldly with these words, “I give thanks to God always for you because…” How often do we say thank you? I would argue that we certainly don’t say it and model it enough. Gratitude brings joy. It affirms belonging and relationship, and it acknowledges a deeper appreciation. It’s the only possible response that we could offer to God, our grateful and joyful thanks and praise. And this gratitude and joy leads us on, deeper and outward into our lives as disciples and stewards.

Turning to the gospel, this week we find ourselves towards the beginning of the Gospel of John. After the portion often read on Christmas Day, but not too long after. Our portion this week comes after Jesus has been baptized by John in the Jordan, but just shortly thereafter. The day after his baptism, John, “saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’ The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (John 1:29-36, NRSV).

Jesus is the Lamb of God. John recognizes this in the Gospel of John, and this becomes a central theme and identity, especially as it is being repeated already in the first chapter. In terms of stewardship, John is providing witness. He is pointing to God active in the midst of the world, calling the world to come and see.

A beautiful stained glass window at Messiah Lutheran in North Platte, Nebraska, depicting the Spirit descending like a dove. Perhaps it is also an invitation to “come and see” that the Lord is good?

Of course the story isn’t done. It continues, “The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?‘ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah‘ (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter)” (John 1:37-42, NRSV).

This story sets in motion the rest of the events of the Gospel of John. The themes of “Come and see,” the identity of “Messiah,” and the call of disciples. In terms of stewardship, it’s a beginning place. It’s an invitation. We too come and see. We too are invited to follow, to learn, to grow, to be. How do we answer that invitation to come and see? How do we answer the invitation to follow? And when we do see, what is our response? These sure seem like timely and powerful stewardship questions to ponder for this Second Sunday after Epiphany.

Sunday January 19, 2020: Narrative Lectionary- The Second Sunday after Epiphany– Week Twenty (Year 2)
Narrative Theme for the Day: Parables in Mark
Focus Passages: Mark 4:1-34
Accompanying Psalm: Psalm 126

The narrative moves on this week to a handful of Mark’s parables in chapter 4. They are rather famous, so they need little introduction. I’ll quote them, and then offer a couple stewardship observations and ideas that come to mind.

Jesus is teaching, “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’” (Mark 4:3-9, NRSV)

Jesus will repeat this ending often in Mark, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” It’s a call to pay attention. It’s a hope that the people are present and trying to learn and be with God with us, who is present with us. In terms of the parable of the sower, perhaps think about it this way. If the sower is God, then this sowing is perhaps an example of abundance. God provides all, no questions asked and no situations or barriers. But that provision may not be grabbed hold of. Similar to the invitation elsewhere for us to “take hold of the life that really is life.” It’s there, but will we grab ahold of the abundance of God? Or will we cling to our lies of scarcity?

Beyond the typical stewardship language, perhaps this is also a parable about our relationships with one another. I wonder, if we fall victim to thinking we are the good soil and others aren’t, are we perhaps missing Jesus’ point altogether? And if so, will we cling to our black and white thinking, and walls and boundaries we create for ourselves to perpetuate the illusion of safety and of keeping ‘us’ here, and ‘them’ there? Perhaps this parable is an invitation this week to call out our assumptions and the other-ing we do, so that we might more fully return to God’s call and abundance to show neighbor love to all of our neighbors? If so, perhaps its an invitation to be a part of the hard but deeply meaningful work of pointing to the Kingdom of God, and helping in whatever small way possible, to make way for the kingdom that is both now and not yet? To help it break into our world, bit by bit. 

But not to worry, Jesus offers some more insights on this parable. We read, “When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven'” (Mark 4:10-12, NRSV). Just when we think Jesus might be explaining the meaning of the story, he makes it seem even more confusing perhaps by saying it s a “secret,” and that some “may indeed listen, but not understand.”

He’s not done. Jesus asks the disciples, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold’” (Mark 4:13-20, NRSV).

I fear in terms of stewardship that we are the ones among the thorns. Beholden to the things of this world. Weighed down by our stuff, our extra things that fill garages, closets, and storage units. It’s amazing to me how many new storage facilities are built in our country every week. Around me, I have seen a handful of new storage facilities going up in the last couple of months. What does it say that we have so much stuff that we need more places to store it? It’s like another one of Jesus’ parables about storing grain perhaps? Maybe we are so captive to our stuff, that though we think it’s a blessing, we can’t find a way out, and thus miss God’s love and presence right in front of us? If so, perhaps this parable is both warning and invitation to change, to share, to give away, and to more fully lean into our lives as stewards and disciples.

To shed light on these things, Jesus mentions a lamp and I guarantee you you can’t read these next few verses without singing, “This Little Light of Mine.” Jesus says, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ And he said to them, ‘Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away’” (Mark 4:21-25, NRSV).

These verses can be hard to interpret, and often misinterpreted in terms of their stewardship implications. I don’t think Jesus is saying that the rich will be richer, and the poor will be poorer here. Rather, perhaps it might mean, those who lean into their relationship with God and grow as disciples and stewards, they will continue to grow deeper and richer in their relationship. Those who do not, will fall even further away. That would seem to connect with the meaning of the first parable about the seeds in this chapter. But again, it’s a parable which means its a story that could have multiple meanings. It’s meant to be pondered, dwelled in, and wrestled with.

Jesus goes on to talk briefly about the Kingdom of God. “He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come’” (Mark 4:26-29, NRSV). What might harvest look like in this scenario? Since harvest is often a season connected within the life of the church with stewardship (though not the only one, and stewardship is a year-long thing), what might the fruit of the harvest be?

And for good measure, Jesus even brings in a mustard seed. “He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade’” (Mark 4:30-32, NRSV). God can do amazing things. That would be a simple but perhaps accurate understanding of this final parable. But perhaps also we might wonder if Jesus is inviting us to see that with God, the impossible might seem possible. With God, the ordinary might become extraordinary. The water turns to wine. A few loaves and fish can feed 5,000 or more people. With a few small acts, an infinite amount of love and goodness can be shared with the world.

In responding to these stories and God’s work for us, perhaps we might use the words of the psalmist to embody our joyful and grateful response? The psalmist adds, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced” (Psalm 126:1-3, NRSV).

This rejoicing does not dismiss the pain, sadness and grief of life. But it recognizes that they are real parts of life, but they do not have the final word with God. The psalmist continues, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. 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 126:4-6, NRSV). 

These stories in both lectionaries this week are rich, and full of possibilities for stewardship. In whatever way they might draw your imagination, may the Spirit of God be with you and guide you to see God’s abundant love in new and deeper ways, and may you share that and point to that in all that you do this week.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s