This week’s stewardship nuggets based on the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary for the Fifth Sunday in Lent are as follows:
If I were preaching this week, I think I would highlight the fact that our forebears were a people in exile too, much like we are now. Exiled from our ‘normal’ way of doing things. Exiled from the buildings that might be our comfort spaces for worship. Exiled from the way things were. Whose to say they’ll ever be that way again? But at least we know from God’s story, an on-going story that we are a part, that God’s people have always been on the move. They have been in exile before, and the one constant along the way has been God’s presence with them. And this is a reminder we need today. Whether worshiping and fellowshipping digitally or trying to hold on to hope in the midst of a virus that can make us all feel helpless. God is with us.
Our First Lesson reminds us of this. God’s people were in exile, just as they had been in the wilderness for forty years before that. We read from Exile about God bringing life to dry bones. God brings forth life out of death. God turns the world on its head, and brings hope where they might not have been any. We read for example, “Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord” (Ezekiel 37:12-14, NRSV).
“I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live…” That’s a promise of relationship. That’s a promise of abundance. That’s a promise of presence. And that is most certainly a promise of life. These are promises we need to hear right now. They are promises that give us hope, and keep us grounded. They are promises that connect us with one another, and with our sisters and brothers in Christ across all time and space.
The psalmist offers words for our cries and prayers this week. Lamenting and proclaiming, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities” (Psalm 37:1-8, NRSV).
“For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem…” That is a reminder and promise we need to hear right now. God is present, with abundant, steadfast love. God redeems and reconciles. God is with us, for us, and loves us. This is who God is, and what God promises. These promises we sometimes don’t hold as tightly or cling to, or proclaim as loudly as we should. But in times like these, where a global pandemic faces us, calling forth for us to put our best foots forward, to help our neighbor. To support the scientists and doctors who are working to find a cure, to care for the sick, and heal. To support those in our families and communities who may be facing uncertain incomes or unemployment. To support those in our faith communities worried about being isolated and alone or worse…
We need to be reminded of God’s presence with us, more than ever. So friends, if preaching this week, please, no matter where the stories take you, point to God’s promises and presence in the midst. That’s more than enough for stewardship and preaching this week.
The Second Lesson and Gospel Lesson are packed with reminders of this too. Paul writes in Romans 8, “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 8:9-11, NRSV). The theme from the first lesson is repeated. God will bring life out of death, and God does. Thanks be to God.
God does this especially in our gospel story this week, of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. We know this story well, it needs little introduction. But in this story in John 11, we come to know clearly that Jesus is the “resurrection and the life.” As Jesus says to Martha, “’Your brother will rise again.’ And she says, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day’” (John 11:23-24, NRSV). To this, “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die'” (John 11:25-26, NRSV).
Jesus comes and offers life, salvation, resurrection. It’s a foretaste of the abundant and eternal life that God promises, and in which we hope. And so the story ends with the good news resolution, a foretaste of the good news of another stone being rolled away that quiet and unassuming Easter morning. The story concludes, “Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him” (John 11:39-45, NRSV).
This is Good News. May we proclaim it and trust in it, in these days. And may it move us to care for our neighbors. To be bearers of justice and reconciliation in the world. To work for the concern of all, and not just a few. To promote life and not just our own creature comforts and financial concerns. And to overcome the hatred and bigotry that leads us as people to divide, to exclude, to build literal walls instead of bridges and that even has led us as a country to put children in cages. These cages were built to hold people looking for a better life, who were following the call of the symbolism of liberty and the Statue of Liberty. We have our work cut out for us right now with this virus, but if anything, may it be a reminder that we are all connected. Despite what some might say and try to ‘other’ people, we are all Children of God, created in the Image of God. We are all humans. Equal in God’s sight. It’s time to start acting like it.
This is what Jesus comes today to bring- life out of death. We all have the ability to bring life and provide life for our neighbors. I pray we do it. I pray we see our neighbors in need, and do what we’re called to do. Right now, it’s to stay home and keep our vulnerable people safe by not spreading a virus we may all be carriers of and not know it. But soon, it will be to work to break down the walls that divide us, yet again. And by doing so, to bring life out of death just as the one who calls us altogether does, for us.
My sentiment about pointing to God’s promises and presence, written about above, holds here too. In terms of the story in the Narrative this week, on the surface it may not be the most timely or comforting words. But that doesn’t mean avoid it, either. Let’s take the story in its entirety.
The story begins, “As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’ When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs'” (Mark 13:1-8, NRSV).
Days like we are in today, can lead to all sorts of wondering. Conspiracy theories. People proclaiming the end times and apocalyptic visions. People cheering such pain. I for one, trust in the goodness of God. And as Jesus says these people proclaiming this, proclaim that they are “he.” Well, how does that track with the message of abundant and steadfast love that God provides? No, and as Jesus also says, “for you do not know when the time will come.”
Jesus continues, “‘But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake’” (Mark 13:24-37, NRSV).
This message of “Keep awake,” is one we often hear at the beginning of Advent. In that light, it’s a message of hope and change. God is present, and yet God will also come again. Breaking into the world, bringing light, hope, and reconciliation. This is a promise. It might sound frightening at times, but it’s also reassuring. The Kingdom of God is now and not yet, breaking into the world bit by bit through God’s deep and abiding love. It breaks in through acts of love towards our neighbors, through our lives as stewards and disciples, following and answering God’s call and invitation to come and see that the Lord is good. And to respond to that call and work for us, through our joyful and grateful response, for the sake of our neighbors and all of creation.
The accompanying psalm this week is from Psalm 102, and perhaps verse 17 at the end of its inclusion are words particularly timely for us, facing this virus? We read and proclaim with the psalmist, “But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever; your name endures to all generations. You will rise up and have compassion on Zion, for it is time to favor it; the appointed time has come. For your servants hold its stones dear, and have pity on its dust. The nations will fear the name of the Lord, and all the kings of the earth your glory. For the Lord will build up Zion; he will appear in his glory. He will regard the prayer of the destitute, and will not despise their prayer” (Psalm 102:12-17, NRSV).
It’s certainly not an easy time to be church. It’s not an easy time to preach either. But there’s never been a more important time to be the church in the world, and to proclaim the promises of Christ crucified and resurrection. The promises of our God who is with us, for us, and loves us. Always. There are things that are outside of our control. But there is also that which is within our control- how we respond, how we live, and how we serve and share God’s love with our neighbors near and far in need, just like us.
May we be so bold to do just this. To not give into the fears and worries that more easily distract and divide us, but respond to them with love and hope. To listen to the experts- those equipped with training and intellect and entrusted with those gifts of medicine and science by God. And may we respect those gifts, and follow that wisdom as it calls us forth into this day. And may we use all that God entrusts for the sake of our neighbors. We’re in this together. And in this, we know that God is surely present as God is the one who has created us all and calls us into relationship, together.
Wherever these stories might take you this week, may God’s promises hold and ground you, and may you proclaim boldly with confidence, comfort, and challenge for all of God’s people.