Preaching on Stewardship- February 16, 2020- The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

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

Sunday February 16, 2020: Revised Common Lectionary- The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (Year A), Lectionary 6
First Lesson: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
Second Lesson: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Gospel of Matthew 5:21-37

These are great stories and texts yet again this week. But perhaps unlike last week, they aren’t quite as easy to deal with or preach. They are very important, but because they so directly deal with some of the harder things of life, they call us to face and name the hurt, brokenness, and challenges of life. To give space for them in our preaching, ministry, and worship this week, and yet also know that God is with us in amid all of it. Life isn’t always easy. The way of the cross certainly isn’t. And Jesus seems to be saying that as he continues in his Sermon on the Mount. There is also a theme about relationships, challenges that come with them, and the need for the important work of reconciliation. 

In terms of stewardship, this theme seems to be what grabs my attention this week. How do we steward our relationships with each other, and when problems and challenges arise, when conflict inevitably comes, how do we respond to it? How do we work through it? And how do we point to the reconciliation that God in Christ provides for us, and then how do we in turn model and share in that reconciling work with one another? At the very least these are questions that are on my mind in reading these lectionary texts this week.

Now in taking them in order. Let’s start with Deuteronomy 30. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 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” (Deuteronomy 30:15-16, NRSV).

Our actions have consequences. For ourselves and for each other. This isn’t about works righteousness or earning salvation. And this isn’t about a prosperity like the prosperity gospel might have us believe. But this is about God’s work. The law is set before us by God, so that we “shall live and become numerous.” As mentioned on this blog last week, the purpose of the law is so that life might go well. And that seems to be part of this in this story. To turn toward God, is to turn into a life and death question and to choose life. To turn toward God, means to be in relationship with God and all of God’s people. This won’t always be easy, but God will walk with us in it.

The story continues. “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. 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 30:17-20, NRSV).

God says, “Choose life…” This is a choice about stewardship. Will we choose to grab hold of the life that really is life, the abundant life and love that God offers and provides? Or will we turn inward toward ourselves? God has made a promise to God’s people in the covenant. Will we recognize this covenant and do our best to strive to fulfill our end of it? By choosing to be in relationship with God, to listen to God, and to follow? Or will we ignore God’s presence and go our own way? Choosing life here might well be a perfect stewardship theme for the Lenten season to come, or even for much of the year to come if choosing to focus on this idea in your preaching and ministry.

The psalmist offers some words of praise and pleas toward God. From Psalm 119 we read, “I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous ordinances. I will observe your statutes; do not utterly forsake me” (Psalm 119:7-8, NRSV). The psalmist is declaring that they will follow God’s teachings and law, and hope that God will be with them in life. And with all of this in mind, the psalmist says, “I will praise you…” That’s the response, arguably joyful response to God for all that God has done, declared, promised, and will do. That’s a stewardship nugget to be sure to not miss in this week’s pericope.

Turning to the second lesson from 1 Corinthians, Paul picks up the theme about relationships, community, and belonging. Paul writes, “for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:3-9, NRSV).

On the one hand Paul might be hearkening back to the stewardship idea from Psalm 24 that is, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it…” We are God’s. All that we are, all that we have, is God’s. When we forget this, we turn inward on ourselves. When we forget this, we divide instead of multiply. When we forget this, we look for ways to separate rather than co-create.

But also within this story, Paul is calling out the people who are trying to divide themselves up. They are identifying with this or that, instead of seeing the commonality that unites them as they are all “Children of God.” I hate to seem political or overly worldly, but this text in particular seems so fitting for the time of the year and social season we find ourselves in- in our society, world, and country right now. Are we Children of God first? Or, are we more about where we come from first? Are we beloved of God first? Or, are we this or that type of student, citizen, politician, etc. Perhaps Paul is calling us to reflect and wonder if things in our life are in right order, or if we have rather fallen victim to the lies and sins of scarcity and fear, and even the sins and lies of nationalism or ethnocentrism, that divide us still today?

That brings us to the gospel. At first blush, this is a text that many a preacher runs away from, understandably. It’s the dreaded divorce text. But there’s so much more to it. And in Matthew in particular, it comes within a much longer narrative as part of the first chapters still of Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Mount.’ So within a lens of the beatitudes or blessings and the identity of salt and light, comes this lesson about relationships and reconciliation.

I would encourage you to not run away from this hard text, but to name it as that. And to admit that this is an invitation to face the hard stuff of life. If we had our way, we might be able to avoid death and all of these such challenges, but that wouldn’t be faithful. And arguably it wouldn’t be an act of choosing life. But rather living in fear. This week we have an opportunity as stewards and disciples to face the hard stuff, knowing that the hardest stuff of all Jesus has faced. And as we face our challenges as awful as they might be, God is there with us in it.

Jesus continues in his sermon, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny” (Matthew 5:21-26, NRSV).

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Whenever I am gone for a night or a couple days because of work, I always look forward to finding my daughter Caroline. This last weekend I was on the road and got home while she was napping. When she woke up, I went in to get her. That hug and moment of love makes it all worth it. It’s also a moment of reconciliation, in my mind at least. She is saying, “Daddy, I am glad you’re home. I forgive you for being gone. I love you!” May reconciliation be like this for all of us.

There’s a stewardship lesson in here to be sure. Think about it liturgically. Why do we pass the peace before receiving the offering and sharing in the meal of communion? Because, in order to do both- to be able to give gratefully and joyfully to God, and to be in communion with God and one another, we must be reconciled toward one another. If a relationship is out of wack, if there is a division among the Body, the giving and receiving won’t be as filling. And arguably, they might not really happen because that division and hurt is getting in the way of one’s ability to be with God.

But there’s more in this story too. Jesus continues, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:27-32, NRSV).

This is a tough text. This is a hard text. There’s not much more hard part of life than acknowledging our brokenness as people, and our brokenness as relationships. Whether or not you are divorced or have been divorced, you inevitably know someone who has gone through this, and/or most likely have someone in your family who has. It’s very hard to hear this text as anything but law. But perhaps the gospel comes through this when remembering that relationships and marriage was very different in the first century context than it is today. And perhaps further, Jesus tells us all of this, to remind us that we each are broken.

It’s grand hyperbole for us to think that we might “tear out our eye” or “cut off our hand” because of our sins. But it might be Jesus’ way of waking us up. “Hey you, before you go judging another, pull that stump out of your eye!” Sometimes we fall for the trip of gossip and see another’s problems and take glee in it. But to do that, misses the point of this sermon entirely. This lesson comes after Jesus begins about who the blessed are. It comes after Jesus reminding us of our call to be salt and share light with the world. What gets in the way of all of this? Our sinful selves. Our thinking we’re better than another. Of seeing another’s challenges, and failing to be aware of our own failings and problems. 

Of course, to be a disciple like this means we must confess. We all fall short. It also means we need to admit when we’re wrong, and seek an opportunity to do better. To turn again toward God and to learn and walk with God. We need to remember that God is God, and we are not. (Thanks be to God for that.) As Jesus says earlier in this sermon, he has come “not to abandon the law, but to fulfill it.”

The law is a gift so that life might go well. It recognizes that we are in relationship with God and one another. And inherently in relationship, will come challenges, ups and downs. Highs and lows. But in it all, God is there with us. When things are going well, God is there. When things aren’t, and reconciliation and forgiveness is needed, God is there too.

This week’s portion of the gospel concludes with Jesus preaching, “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:33-37, NRSV).

What we do matters. Perhaps not always for ourselves, but for others. When we mess up, God calls us to turn around. When we turn inward, God pushes us to turn back outward. When we lose sight of those near to us, God tells us to wake up and to see. In terms of stewardship, perhaps the greatest gift with these stories this week is to share them openly and honestly and point to the hard stuff of life. To name it aloud, and to seek healing and reconciliation. 

One other thought. It is said that the greatest reason for divorce or at least cause of martial strife is money. It’s not money’s fault, but it’s that money, wealth, and possessions are given power. When there is fear or worry, a relationship can get into serious trouble if money is not talked about openly and honestly in the relationship. Perhaps in preaching on stewardship this week, you invite the hard stuff, the taboos like money and conflict out into the open. You invite them to be talked about. And doing that, bringing them out into the open, might be the greatest gift and most freeing thing that a disciple could need to hear and experience this week. To know they are not alone. And that we are all in this together, by God’s grace and love.

Sunday February 16, 2020: Narrative Lectionary- The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany– Week Twenty Four (Year 2)
Narrative Theme for the Day: What Defiles?
Focus Passages: Mark 7:1-23
Accompanying Psalm: Psalm 51:1-3, 6-7

From the challenging texts of divorce and the importance of reconciliation in the revised common lectionary this week, we turn to the equally off-putting and challenging question in the narrative lectionary of “What defiles?” Much of my stewardship ideas above could be just as helpful in this text this week when thinking about stewardship. So this week, I would encourage you to read both sets of reflections and see if any idea or nugget grabs hold of you.

Within Mark 7, the story begins. “Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” (Mark 7:1-8, NRSV).

My mom is notorious for harping on traditions that were created by humans in the church. So I can’t help but picture her harping like Jesus does here. But in terms of stewardship, this story begins really with a call to pause and to think deeply about why do we do what we do? There’s good reason for cleaning and washing one’s hands and things. Jesus isn’t saying there isn’t here. Especially in the midst of winter and flu season, I don’t think Jesus is saying “don’t wash your hands.” But rather, he’s pushing the people and us to think about the deeper why behind the question. 

Why does this matter? Because it’s tradition and has always been done that way? That seems to be the justification that is given. But perhaps a better answer would be, so that life might go well for them. To promote health of the body of the individual and community. It’s the same problem I have with anti-vaxers becoming more and more common in our world. Vaccines are gifts of science that have been developed by God’s people with the tools and intellect that God entrusted to our care, to use, in order to promote life. To not engage with them is to deny God’s creative work. It’s to ignore the gifts of vocations and intellect which God entrusts. And it is to needless endanger the youth and elderly of our society.

As a parent of a young child, nothing makes me more made than people who can, who choose not to be vaccinated. What about the children who are too young yet to receive vaccines? What about those who have an allergy or medical condition who prevents them from being protected? They require herd mentality. But I digress. I am on my soap box here, but it gives you my frame of mind about this story. What defiles? It’s not so much that we must also do this, but to remember the why behind it. Of course, one might accuse me then of missing the point of this story too. And perhaps I have.

Jesus keeps going. “Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)—  then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this” (Mark 7:9-13, NRSV). Again, I wonder about the deeper why. Do we do what we do for ourselves in this world and in the church? Or for God?

The lessons on defilement continues. “Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:14-23, NRSV).

Jesus is turning the question back on the one asking the question. At this lesson’s heart is a call to look deep within. Are our motivations pure? Or is it our sinful self that is guiding us in what we do? For what defiles is not the outward germs or things of creation. But in this sense, the true defilement is what resides within that gets in the way of our living out our lives fully as stewards and disciples. It’s what gets in the way of our relationships with others, and creates division and brokenness between each other. It’s what drives us to focus on ourselves and our own net worths and wallets, instead of to extend a hand of grace to one in need. In this sense, this text again is very similar for thinking about relationships and stewardship as the ones we read in the RCL this week.

The paired psalm gives words for this introspection. It gives us language to seek healing and restoration. To be cleaned and forgiven. It also reminds us again that God is God, and we are not, but we are God’s beloved whom God has created, loves, and wants to be in relationship with. The psalmist says, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:1-3, NRSV). And further, “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:6-7, NRSV).

God’s work is to bring about healing, restoration, reconciliation, and life abundant. God offers us all of this. Will we take hold of it? I hope and pray we do. 

Whatever direction any of these stories lead you, may God be with you as you wrestle with them. And may God’s words of challenge, truth, love, and grace come to you and  through you, and be with your community this week.

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