Preaching on Stewardship- March 15, 2020- The Third Sunday in Lent

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This week’s stewardship nuggets based on the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary for the Third Sunday in Lent are as follows:

Sunday March 15, 2020: Revised Common Lectionary- The Third Sunday in Lent (Year A)
First Lesson: Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Second Lesson: Romans 5:1-11
Gospel of John 4:5-42

Normally, I present a look at all of the lectionary texts for stewardship themes. But this week I have decided to do something a little different. I am sharing this space with my wife, Pastor Allison Siburg. Frankly, it’s long overdue. I am not even half the preacher that Allison is. In thinking about this week’s stories, particularly the gospel story of the Woman at the Well, I think the last thing the world needs to hear is yet another white male like myself talking about this story. Rather, we need to hear the proclamation from a female perspective, much like the woman in the story who goes and tells the world about this Jesus. So, I steward my space this week, at least as far as the Revised Common Lectionary concerned, by sharing it with Allison, and more so, sharing Allison’s wisdom with all of you. 

Hello from a Pastor’s desk in Eastern Nebraska – a side table at a coffee shop, half-people watching, half-dwelling in the Word; or does that mean I’m 100% dwelling in the Word? That’s a question for another day. I’m happy to offer a commentary for this Sundays’ RCL Gospel as a guest writer on my spouse’s blog.

I’m afraid I step into the trap that many Pastors do and focus too heavily on the Gospel, but that’s what is happening this week as we continue in a seasonal theme at my congregation. After looking at the RCL Gospel texts for Lent, I realized a theme was surfacing, and now we are accompanied by this idea for the rest of March that we are “Changed by God for the Sake of the World.” Perhaps our discomfort with change (or is it just me? 😊) is a prime opportunity to dive deeper into the transformation that the Word invites us into more often that we think, or would like to admit.

Jesus’ encounter with us changes us from “looking out for #1” individuals to agents of love for the sake of the community, changes us from sinners to saints, changes our “have to’s” to “get to’s” and changes us from running out the clock to wishing that this day of the Lord never ends.

Specifically this Sunday, our theme is possibility. It’s through this lens that I read the Gospel, John 4: 5-42 (NRSV), and will offer some ideas and questions. In seminary Reverend Doctor Karoline Lewis really brought this Gospel story to life for me, and although it’s a little thick I highly encourage you to check out her book and comprehensive commentary, John.

Year by year the power of the Gospel streams in and through this Bible story. My prayer is that grace upon grace comes to you and through you as you preach, teach, and live out this story of testimony and transformation.

Some key background pieces of this Gospel story that I am mindful of:

The timing of this story is something to consider. Nicodemus the Pharisee encounters Jesus in chapter 3, immediately before Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well here in chapter 4. In both cases, the writer of the Gospel of John, some might say, goes out of his way, to specify the time of day these conversations take place. Nicodemus talks to Jesus at night (“He came to Jesus by night,” 3:2) and the woman at the well talks with Jesus speaks to Jesus at the heat of the day at 12 Noon.

This dynamic sets up these stories as kind of paired stories – a trusted male religious leader in the community, and woman who is divorced and is treated more as a pawn in society than a person with individuals needs and dreams—and at that, a woman who doesn’t even feel affinity with the other woman in her community, because who would draw water from the well in a desert climate at 12 Noon when most women would draw water in the cooler parts of a 24-hour period? These Gospel stories back-to-back provoke in me questions of power and disparity, belonging and outcast, seen and unseen.

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The beautiful fount in the awesome sanctuary of Grace Lutheran Church in Lexington, Nebraska, with a beautiful stained glass window as a sign of baptism and the promises of God, behind it. It’s also a beautiful image of a well, which Jesus might have had a conversation with the woman in today’s story.

You might have heard this story as the divorced woman at the well, or the promiscuous woman at the well, but I’m afraid this interpretation has swayed us into feelings about this story that are not substantiated. In the time and culture of this Gospel story, the only people that could file for divorce were men. The likelihood that this woman chose a life of multiple husbands is very, very, very low, as women did not have the social capital or agency to make these kind of decisions about their own life. If her husband died, she would have been married to her widow’s brother or other relative.

Perhaps she carried deep grief of missing her deceased husband, and was not allowed time or space to mourn? I don’t want to assume tragedy, but the historical context of this Gospel is crucial to understanding the identity of the woman at the well. In some ways you could say she has nothing to lose, as opposed to Nicodemus, who had power, leadership, and trust (and potentially more) to lose, when looking at their respective social locations in the first century.

No matter what this woman has seen and experienced in her life thus far, Jesus’ encounter with her changes her, and brings a possibility of a different life. The living water of Jesus doesn’t run dry, but quenches her thirst for a life of meaning, purpose, and faith. Not only does she walk away from this encounter changed, she is so excited she leaves her water pale, and goes back to the city telling the story of what Jesus has done for her (4:28). Her sharing and testifying leads people to leave the city and find Jesus so they can experience the living water for themselves.

Sitting in the Noon-time sun, she is transformed by this encounter with Jesus, which inspires her to share about how Jesus has changed her life, which inspires action in others to seek out the living water of Christ in their midst.

Transformation leads to proclamation, which provokes a thirst in others for an encounter for the Word. A woman who had little to no agency in her own life becomes an agent of the Word of God. Change upon change… grace upon grace.

My prayers and good vibes go with you as this Gospel story takes root in your own life, helping you and perhaps others to see the transformation of love and belonging that God so longs to make in our hearts and in the world!

Pastor Allison Siburg serves as the pastor at Salem Lutheran Church in Fontanelle, Nebraska. You can find her online at her blog, on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Sunday March 15, 2020: Narrative Lectionary- The Third Sunday in Lent (Year 2)
Narrative Theme for the Day: Parable of the Tenants [Taxes to Caesar]
Focus Passages: Mark 12:1-12 [13-17]
Accompanying Psalm: Psalm 86:8-13

In looking at these stories from Mark 12, let’s take them in the text in the order they appear, with key nuggets I notice in the story being highlighted for further discussion below.

Then he began to speak to them in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watch-tower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others” (Mark 12:1-9, NRSV).

The parable of the tenants is one we have heard many times. It’s a hard text. It’s a violent text. It speaks to our sinfulness. It speaks to greed. It speaks to our misunderstanding of stewardship, when we start to think that our money is “our money.” When we start to think that “our stuff” is “our stuff.” When in reality, we remember with the psalmist, that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it…” (Psalm 24:1, NRSV). When we forget whose stuff it is, when we forget whose we are, it’s so easy to fall for the lies of scarcity, the lies of control, and the sinfulness of being turned inward toward ourselves and our own self-interest.

This story, in this sense might well be a warning. We all fall victim to sin. We all sin. But how do we confess? How do we respond? And how are we changed through God’s work, promises, presence, forgiveness, grace, and love? That is the question that I think Jesus poses with such a story as this. Especially when we think about its potential implications for stewardship and discipleship.

Of course Jesus isn’t done. Nor is this story. He continues, “Have you not read this scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?’ When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away” (Mark 12:10-12, NRSV). 

Jesus’ words are in fact a warning. Though they might have been just directed to these people in conversation today, they might well be directed at us. They might also well be directed at us in our own fears, today. How might the current uncertainty and anxiety of a political election season be shaping your daily life?

More so, how might the on-going uncertainty and the new developments of a possible pandemic COVID-19 be causing you a sense of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety? When one is overcome by the stress and anxiety of fear, turning inward is always the first human response.

Jesus acknowledges this in this story, and maybe by doing so, he invites us to remember that the turning inward towards one’s self is not what God has in mind for God’s children and creation. Rather, God has in mind relationships and reconciliation. How do we grow and do both, in times of uncertainty like these? How do we steward the resources and privileges which God has entrusted to us, that we have in our roles and daily lives, for the sake of our vulnerable neighbors in times like this? 

Now the natural response to this by some, especially who like to avoid the temptation and challenge of thinking about the relationship of church and state, is to latch on to the next five verses in the story. But I would argue, as many a friend, colleague, and mentor has taught me over the years, though there is a separation of church and state by law, there’s clearly no separation of religion and politics. The church and our faith compel us into the public square and public sphere. We are called to work for justice and peace, and so that call will lead us at times into uncomfortable places of potential conflict. It will lead us into discussions that matter about the sake of our neighbor, and it will cause us to reflect deeply on what we truly value and proclaim in our faith, and how we live that out as citizens and in our vocations and daily life.

Let’s look at these familiar words again:

Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him” (Mark 12:13-17, NRSV).

Jesus here is acknowledging the existence of the earthly and the heavenly. He is pointing to a both/and approach. There are two kingdoms- both of which exist, and through both perhaps, some of God’s work is done. To think that God’s work only happens in one place or in one way is to limit God’s ability to show up. In terms of stewardship Jesus sees the trick and trap for what it is, and calls it out. And by doing so, he acknowledges the importance of both having one turned toward God, but also being present and engaged in the world that they live in. This is a stewardship principle.

What we do in this life and world matters, not for our sake necessarily, but for our neighbor. For through us, some of God’s work is done. Through good governance and administration, just laws are enacted for the sake of life of all people. Through both, the poor and vulnerable are cared for. Now, when this does not happen, it rightly obligates both citizen and Child of God to act, so that God’s work of reconciliation and lifting up the lowly may happen. When the government and citizen forget the marginalized, that is precisely when the human created systems and structures have fallen to the human and finite sins and reality of scarcity.

So in preaching this week on stewardship, I might focus on this story and wonder what might Jesus be saying both for the sake of the listener, and for the sake of our neighbor, the ones whom God calls us to see and be in relationship with? The answer to this question might well shape a powerful and timely stewardship sermon.

With the included psalm being Psalm 86 this week, I think I would like to close with verses 12-13, “I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name for ever. For great is your steadfast love towards me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol” (Psalm 86:12-13, NRSV). We respond to God’s work for us with joy and gratitude. We do so, and we turn outward following God’s call to care for our neighbor, not hoard for ourselves giving into the earthly lies of scarcity, but to share in God’s abundance together. 

May God’s abundant love be shown to you, and proclaimed through you this week.

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