This week’s stewardship nuggets based on the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary for the Third Sunday of Easter are as follows:
This unusual time is calling us all to take stock of life, of what matters, of where we get our information, and of what we value. I for one value staying safe, of protecting the lives of my grandparents, parents, spouse, child, family, friends, and loved ones. For me, this means I can stay home and stay connected. But for others, the economic impact is real.
This past weekend I couldn’t help but see some pictures of protestors, wanting to end the orders in place to protect the general population from the spread of the virus, but mostly to help our doctors, nurses, and vulnerable. According to most surveys nearly 80% of Americans approve of the orders to stay home and stay safe. And these protests weren’t large in number, but they caught attention because people were not observing safe distances from each other. Most were not wearing masks. And many had quite sinful, evil, white supremacy and even Nazi propaganda and insignia with them. Admittedly, it hasn’t helped that the President has been fanning these flames for the past few days. So recognizing this is what the world is like right now, despite the fact that in many areas like here in Nebraska we have not yet flattened the curve as cases continue to go up, it makes me a bit leery as I come to sit and listen to God’s Word for us this week.
Nevertheless our stories this week call us to remember why we do what we do, and invite us deeply to remember what matters. They call us to know that the Easter story is true, and that Christ is with us. And they affirm again that God’s promises are for you and for me. No matter our opinions. No matter what we do or don’t do. No matter our backgrounds or identities. No. God is for you, with you, and loves you. Period.
Our first lesson comes from Acts 2. And invites questions, like “what should we do?” It’s not an unfamiliar question to all of us. What should we do today? How can we care for our neighbor? How can we live faithfully in this new and challenging time?
We read that, “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’ And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added” (Acts 2:37-41, NRSV).
It’s hard to imagine 3,000 people being baptized in one day, but what a wonderful day that would be! (And a bigger crowd then most of the protests that our country saw the past few days too.) I suspect they weren’t practicing physical distancing, but I do imagine the joy of that day must have felt like many an Easter morning. In terms of stewardship, I appreciate the reminder that “the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far way…” This is how God works. This is who God is. And this is why we follow as disciples. Because we are called, created, and beloved. Because we can’t help but answer the call and share the joy and hope we know through God in Christ, for us.
We do what we do too, because we know the Easter story. The story of all that God has done for us, and will do for us. When we believe this to be true, the only possible response to this is one of gratitude and joy. One like the psalmist proclaims in Psalm 116 which we hear again this week. The psalmist asks, “What shall I return to the Lord
for all his bounty to me?” (Psalm 116:12, NRSV). What a stewardship question. It invites us to think about our joyful response. It invites us, even if only rhetorically, to remember why we do what we do; to remember whose we are; and to remember all that God has done and will do, for us.
For this, the psalmist proclaims, “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones. O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant, the child of your serving-maid. You have loosed my bonds. I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 116:13-19, NRSV).
The second lesson reminds of us of our call as Children of God to have genuine mutual love for each other, and that we are born anew through baptism. Remembering this, affirms our identity as stewards and disciples and why we do what we do. The epistle writer commends “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:22-23, NRSV).
These texts are all good this week, but the gospel lesson is one that is far and away one of the best stories in the lectionary. It’s the familiar story of the Road to Emmaus, where Jesus appears to the disciples after his resurrection basically on the afternoon or evening of the day of his resurrection. In terms of discipleship and stewardship, it is a story about accompaniment as Jesus shows up, and wonders “what now?” What is happening and how are you and me doing in the midst of this strange time?
At the same time it is a story that reminds us that God is with us, and it is one, that invites us to wonder about “what’s next?” Because of God being with us and all that God has done, how are we going to live our lives as stewards and disciples? In this time of pandemic, how are we going to lean in, and live in this new uncertain time? How are we going to care for our neighbors today and in the months ahead? How might this time of pause, where we don’t go travel much (unless we absolutely have to for work), be a time to dwell in God’s promises and discern anew what God might be inviting us into next?
Within this story there is a move from despair and grief, to hope and joy. And within it all, there is one constant. Christ is present. Friend and mentor Rev. Dr. Matt Skinner says it so well when he writes in his own column this week,
“I’m so glad that Jesus doesn’t reveal himself to Cleopas and his companion right away but waits. Why does he wait? Jesus is neither testing, scolding, nor humiliating the shell-shocked couple. He is, literally, journeying with them. There he is, present, as they narrate their disappointment and confusion. He does not cut them off. He knows that explanations will not cure their foolishness and slowness to believe.
The time will come to redirect his friends, but first he lets them proceed one heavy step after another. Lament takes time. And sometimes lament is the journey that leads us, preachers and congregations alike, to recognition and new life. That new life walks alongside us, patiently, whether we know it or not.”
Keep that perspective in mind as we hear and read these familiar words again. Jesus appears to Cleopas and his companion along the road to Emmaus. The story begins,
“Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:13-27, NRSV).
Perhaps as Matt Skinner says, it is easier to understand Cleopas and his companion’s grief this year, given this pandemic Easter season? It’s hard to find much in the way of humor. But there is humor in this story too. Amid the grief, we know the rest of the story. When Cleopas asks the stranger (who is Jesus), “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” And then Jesus responds, “What things?” We can’t help but laugh. Jesus isn’t making fun of them, but he is being present with them. And you can’t help but wonder if behind Jesus’ question is a slight smile ready to break out at any moment when he sees that the two on the road realize who they are with.
For me, perhaps that is the greatest part of this story. The reminder for all of us, when we get so distracted and caught up in either the joys and good of life, or even the bad and sorrow of life, that Christ is present with us. All the same. God is there. And when we are confronted by this reality, and reminded of God’s promised and real presence, an epiphany moment or an “ah-ha” moment occurs. A moment like for these two, when they realize that their hearts were burning within them.
The story continues to its climax.
“As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:28-35, NRSV).
Through the sharing of the Word, and the breaking of the bread, through the presence of a stranger on the way, God is revealed. Christ is Risen indeed! Alleluia! May our eyes be opened like Cleopas and his companion to God with us, today. This doesn’t change the reality of our world, but it does give hope. Amid the grief and despair, and the sacredness and importance of our lament; amid the fear and trembling of a virus that is present and shows few signs of departing; amid the economic uncertainty and challenges many are facing as ways of life are upended and income streams dry up; God is present with you! God is real! God is for you! And God loves you! I hope that will preach, because if it doesn’t, I don’t know what will.
Our journey in the narrative takes us this week to the early days of the church being built. The days of Peter doing God’s work in Jerusalem. There is stewardship and discipleship all over this story, and I’ll highlight that below as we go.
The story begins, “One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple” (Acts 3:1-2, NRSV). This hearkens back to many a story of Jesus’ healing within the gospels. By now, familiar with God’s work, it would seem that this would be a ripe opportunity for God to show up and do God’s thing. But without Jesus’ presence, perhaps its a chance to see what Jesus’ promise of the Spirit might enable through the life and ministry of the disciples.
Economically, the alms method is not one completely different for how the poor and homeless stand asking for help. Alms are a way we see each other and care for each other. In some faith traditions, it’s a basic expectation. Perhaps it’s not so in Christianity, though I would argue it is. We’re called to be in relationship with one another, and that means to care for one another. That means we are to do what we can, like the Good Samaritan on the road, to help a stranger in need. If that means a few dollars, good. If that means not only seeing a stranger, but being neighbor to them, even better. As God’s people, we’re called into relationship with one another. Perhaps in this time of pandemic, it’s even more important to remember this truth of who we are and whose we are?
Now Peter and John notice the man, and he notices them. The story continues, “When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’” (Acts 3:3-6, NRSV). “Stand up and walk!” How much do you want to bet that this man wasn’t ready or expecting that sort of response? But such is the way that God often shows up. Unexpectedly. In ways we probably can’t or don’t anticipate or imagine.
So Peter extends his arm and hand, and God’s work is done. As Peter, “took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him” (Acts 3:7-10, NRSV).
The one who is healed responds with joy and praise, gratitude and worship. His joyful response is genuine. This is a stewardship moment to be sure. It’s a moment even more of so of God’s healing work and promise being made real and manifest. And it’s a moment where God’s saving work is seen. In the previous chapter Peter is said to have helped baptize 3,000 new faithful. How many more do you imagine might have come to see and believe in God’s saving work through this miracle and act of healing on this day? The healing like perhaps we are seeing of so many through the tireless and relentless work of so many doctors, nurses, and health care professions; the tireless work of presence from hospital chaplains, and prayer around the world; the endless hours of research and devotion, scientists and epidemiologists are engaging in now to try and trace this virus, and determine how best to treat (and ultimately cure) it?
God’s healing work is being done in the world today, just as it was in this story. We give thanks. And we do what we can in our various vocations to care for our neighbors and to help the healers be able to keep healing.
Peter’s healing acts of this man, hearken back to Jesus’ which is why Mark 6:53-56 is a suggested Gospel pairing to this story this week in the narrative. As we read, “When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed” (Mark 6:53-56, NRSV).
God is up to something. God’s work is being done. And it’s not a secret. People are telling the story. The Good News of our God who has come near, is being spread. Thanks be to God.
May the Easter truth of God’s promises for you and for me, not only sustain us in these trying days, but may they lead us to live and serve faithfully as disciples and stewards.
May we be present with one another, though physically distant, as God is present with us. And may God’s love poured out for all, be made manifest like in this story through our work and ministry and preaching this week.
And for all of you, preparing to lead worship or preach this week, may the Good News fill you, and give you peace and hope, not to sugar coat the laments and challenges and griefs of this day, but to face them and name them honestly and openly. And know that though the pains of Good Friday are real, and so is the impatience and pain of waiting of Holy Saturday, the hope and joy of the Resurrection is real too, for you, and for me. God is with you. God is for you. And God loves you. And because of this, we do what we do, and it is enough, for God is with us, for us, in us, and works through us.