Friends, colleagues, preachers, ministry leaders, and people of God, greetings in the name of our crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. A colleague of mine said these are weird new times, which they are indeed. But we are in this together. Worship will continue, but it will be different. Many (if not most of us) will be experiencing worship digitally, sharing together in God’s word through the wonders of technology. We’ll be in fellowship, Bible Study, and prayer and worship from our kitchen tables perhaps instead of from fellowship tables at church buildings. But that’s just it, the church is not a building.
So as restrictions are rightfully in place to slow and hopefully stop the spread of COVID-19, we in ministry together we’ll find out and experiment with how to worship and be church, in new ways. It might be a little weird. It might be a little frightening. But I’m hopeful and excited to learn and lean into this as an opportunity. God is present in the midst, and God is up to something new in, around, through, and for you.
To that end, there will be more resources coming this week on this blog for thinking about what possibilities might exist. I will walk with congregations whenever needed about questions about offering and giving in light of this new reality. But I also will provide my weekly preaching thoughts, though perhaps in more of an abridged format than usual. Hopefully they will be of some use for your own reflection, and preparation for worship in a new way.
This week’s stewardship nuggets based on the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary for the Fourth Sunday in Lent are as follows:
People of God, you are enough! You are called for this. You are wonderfully made in the Image of God. You are beautifully claimed and named. God is with you. In terms of preaching, in terms of stewardship, this is a week to proclaim these promises and truths amid the uncertainty, anxiety, and cautious hope and optimism of doing things a little differently than we are used to, for awhile.
This theme is present throughout the texts. Once again the lectionary seems to have an uncanny ability to speak to us in our time in such a way that is hard to fathom. For example, in our first lesson we hear how Samuel meets David and how David is anointed and called. We read that, “Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Are all your sons here?’ And he said, ‘There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.’ And Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.’ He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.’ Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah” (1 Samuel 16:11-13, NRSV).
Psalm 23 also appears, and needs little introduction. This week I wonder about letting the psalm speak for itself? The psalm that we all know is purely about God’s presence with us. With that presence, our wants cease. Not our needs, but our wants. God with us, means that we can walk through our days, no matter the challenges knowing that we are not alone. We can trust and feel that we are together as God’s people. That we hold each other, just as God holds us all as our good shepherd. So no matter the challenges or enemies like the COVID virus that we might be facing, God is with us, and God has us.
Hear these words again: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (Psalm 23:1-6, NRSV).
Now let’s turn to the gospel. For starters, I would encourage you to read my friend and mentor Rev. Dr. Matt Skinner’s take on this text, especially in light of preaching amid the Coronavirus. He covers our story from John 9 well, and offers reflection that I find quite helpful for myself. So I would encourage you to focus on his thoughts.
In terms of stewardship, a few other pieces:
- We’re called for this work and this time. Though it may look and feel a bit different, it’s God’s work of proclaiming life out of death, hope out of despair, peace out of fear. As Jesus says, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:4-5, NRSV).
- If we see someone in need, we’re still called to help. We’re still called to see our neighbors and care for them. This is precisely why congregations are temporarily suspending in person gatherings and worship. For the sake of our neighbors. We may all be carriers of this virus and have no clue that we are. To care for the most vulnerable among us, we take this step today as a sign of God’s love, and as a sign of solidarity with our neighbor. This is why stores are creating dedicated hours for the elderly to shop, without fear of being near larger crowds. This is why school districts and local communities are working to still get breakfasts and lunches to families in their communities reliant on free and reduced meals. This is why churches are trying to do new things. This is why some of us who have means, will be asked to give more in the meantime, to help out as those who are hourly workers in fields severely impacted by this, may not be able to contribute as they’d like. All of this is for the sake of our neighbor.
- The man who had his sight restored, proclaimed about God’s work, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25, NRSV). God is at work, and God sees us, knows us, loves us, and is with us.
- God’s Word and promises are proclaimed through many, not just a few. Sometimes we forget this. This story this week reminds us of this truth. As the man who was given sight reasons, “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” And yet his response was not received well by those in authority, as he was rebuffed, “’You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out” (John 9:33-34, NRSV).
The story concludes as “Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshiped him. Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains'” (John 9:35-41, NRSV).
In someways this is a hard story, especially for those of us who like to think we’re special in ministry. But in reality, this is Good News. God shows up in the midst of life. God heals. God restores. God sees us, no matter our shapes, no matter our unique gifts and challenges, no matter what makes us each our unique selves. We are, who we are. Created in the Image of God. Known. Loved. Claimed. A Child of God. This is Good News. It’s a stewardship message, and it’s a discipleship message. Like the man in the story, we too can proclaim, “I Believe.” And we too can respond by sharing our joy, telling God’s story, giving thanks and praise to God for what God has done, and leaning into our lives as the stewards and disciples God calls and creates us to be.
The thoughts above for the revised common lectionary texts apply here too. And in a similar way, what a fitting text for as challenging of a week as this. We find ourselves in the story of Mark’s description of “The Great Commandment.”
Let’s dig into the story, right where it begins:
“One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.; There is no other commandment greater than these.’” (Mark 12:28-31, NRSV)
Whatever we do this week and in the weeks ahead, we do so with this great commandment in mind. We live into the Shema, and to the call to ‘love our neighbor as ourself.” This is precisely why worship will be different for awhile as congregations gather online and in other means than through large in-person gatherings. It’s all about the love of neighbor. Pastoral care will still be administered. But the large gatherings we may be used to for worship will look a bit different, at least for awhile. Because, it’s not about us, it’s about the sake of our neighbor whom God calls us into relationship with.
The scribe who asked Jesus the question responded to Jesus, and Jesus then connected the conversation to the Kingdom of God. We read, “Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength’, and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself’,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question” (Mark 12:28-34, NRSV).
There is more teaching of Jesus included in this story. About David, and scribes, and perhaps a warning about any of us rostered ministers who wear albs. Basically, we’re all called to this ministry. It’s God’s work, not ours. If we ever forget that, and it becomes about us, and not God, then woe to us.
In terms of stewardship, this week’s story also includes Jesus’ observation about the widow and her two coins. The familiar story goes like this, “He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on’” (Mark 12:41-44, NRSV).
The widow is living in trust. She is returning to God what is God’s, and trusting that God will provide for her. That’s an amazing faith. Some might call it crazy. But it’s a deep act and life of stewardship and discipleship. Jesus is amazed by it, and takes notice of it. He gives thanks and praise for her, just as I hope we all give thanks and praise for all who make sacrifices and contribute to God’s work. Just as I hope we also say thank you to all parts of the Body of Christ who give what they can, returning to God a portion of what God has first entrusted to us. So that together, we might be part of God’s work in the world, and together God’s work might be done.
The psalmist gives us words for our joyful and grateful response to God. Together with the psalmist we might respond, “I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, for ever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations. I declare that your steadfast love is established for ever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens. You said, ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David: ‘I will establish your descendants for ever, and build your throne for all generations'” (Psalm 89:1-4, NRSV).
God does this all for us. And we respond to God’s work and God’s love through our love of our neighbor. So in these days, as we lean into being God’s people and doing God’s work in new ways, may we do so with hope, trust in God’s promises and presence, and for the sake of all God’s people- our neighbors, near and far.
Preachers, workers of the gospel, and all of you, may God’s presence and promise be with you, and may you be bearers of God’s love for you and your neighbors this week as you always are.