This week’s stewardship nuggets based on the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary for the Fifth Sunday of Easter are as follows:
Visions of what is to come with Jesus’ ascension are shared. Visions of the heavens opening up are proclaimed. God’s work and promises are reminded and recounted. The imagery of stones is prevalent. And the horrible story about the martyr of Stephen (quite possibly the first deacon of the church) are included in this week’s stories. As I think about stewardship and preaching in this time of COVID-19, and the questions many faith leaders and congregations may face as they ponder and discern what is a faithful way forward (to gather or not to gather in person, etc.), I want to take a bigger view.
We are not called to martyr ourselves or make martyrs of others. Because of this, I firmly argue that if it not safe or wise for your congregation to gather in person, than please don’t. Practically speaking, even if you can gather in person- if you cannot sing, cannot share in the meal together, cannot receive offering easily, nor exchange the peace, nor engage in conversation and fellowship, nor break bread together, I do wonder if it’s not better for one’s community to meet still through other means- drive in, online, over the phone or TV or radio? There are ways to creatively break bread together and engage in fellowship through technology that minimize risk of infection or worse, and that can help fight off the feelings of isolation which are real.
I write all of this putting my cards on the table: 1) As a deacon myself who is called to serve at the points of intersection of the church and the world- I am called to go both directions- to point to the needs of the world and lift them up for the faith community, but also to proclaim the promises of God to God’s people out in the world; 2) As a pastor’s spouse, who together have been leading worship digitally during this time, and experimenting with what that means; 3) As a spouse of my pregnant wife (who happens to be a pastor), and who does not want his family spreading undue risk to others by being asymptomatic nor, putting his wife, daughter, and future child at risk.
So perhaps it is fitting that our first lesson is about Stephen. He was martyred. But we do not need to be. On the one hand it’s a beautiful story of God’s promises of Stephen seeing heaven opened up and God receiving him. On the other hand, it’s a horrible story of the depth of which humanity will go to hurt and kill another person who may see something a bit different than one might expect or imagine. He was killed because of his faith. Now we have people who are trying to tell us we should go to church, and go back to work, and do this and do that… And yet, it’s also a time of uncertainty and fear, because this virus has not gone away. We still don’t understand it, and it’s very contagious.
As I think about stewardship this week, I offer this caveat for your preaching and leadership- you are enough- because God is with you and for you, and loves you. You do not need to move heaven and earth to try and ‘go back to normal’ right now. If it were up to me, as much as I love the church to be an innovator and a leader, on this idea of trying to get back to some sense of normality, I would recommend the church wait and be slow. The potential liability and regret is more than enough to cause me pause. I get it, I thirst for the sacrament too. I thirst for community. But the what if- of the potential of coming back together and then two weeks later having a handful of our community sick worries me. The what if- of having my wife and future child be exposed to it, worries me. The what if- of me being asymptomatic, but because of a lack of testing not knowing that, and then sharing it with someone who becomes deeply sick, worries me.
Friends, we’re not called to be martyrs. We’re called to be disciples and stewards of all that God entrusts- and that includes all disciples of our community and congregations. And because of this, I pray that you are having these hard and faithful conversations with your community and leaders. There’s no perfect answer, but I do believe that there are ways to continue to grow community in this time in the absence of being too fast to return to a sense of normalcy in your congregation.
I believe this in part because of the promises found elsewhere in our stories this week. Promises like God is our “strong rock” and “fortress” in Psalm 31, as we beg and proclaim with the psalmist, “Be my strong rock, a fortress to save me, for you are my rock and my stronghold; guide me, and lead me for your name’s sake” (Psalm 31:3, NRSV).
Promises like that God is with us, and God will work with us, in us, and through us, as we grow as a beloved Child of God. A promise like we read in our second lesson from 1 Peter 2, “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5, NRSV). This promise moves us to the point of response, a basic practice of stewardship- as we offer ourselves and all that we are and all that we have to God in gratitude and joy.
Promises like that we are a Child of God, and part of the faithful of all of God’s people- beloved Children whom Got not only knows but claims as God’s own and loves more deeply than anyone could ever understand. As w read a little further in the second lesson, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10, NRSV).
Moving to the gospel for this week in John 14, we read another one of Jesus’ “I am” statements, which grounds us and our identity of who we are, and why we are disciples. We read that, “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him'” (John 14:6-7, NRSV).
The one who is “the way, the truth, and the life,” calls us and gathers us, fills us and feeds us, sustains us and sends us out, and is with us and for us always. And Jesus goes further in this story this week, to talk about belief and the works of God. Works that God does for and through God in Christ, for us. We read, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14:11-14, NRSV).
It’s not us doing this work. Jesus makes this clear. It’s God who does the work. Period. We respond and join in this work, but it’s not our work. It’s God’s work. And because of this, we remember this week especially amid this time of pandemic and all the anxiety and uncertainty and conflict that can come with that, that we are each enough. God is with us. God is for us. And God loves us. We do not need to be martyrs. We’re not called to that. We are called to be disciples and stewards of God’s love. And right now, that means to care for our community, the most vulnerable among us, and to resist the temptation (and misnomer really) to “go back to normal too soon.”
May you find some encouragement in this, this week. And may you point to God’s love and promises in the midst of this time of trying and doing things a bit differently.
Sunday May 10, 2020: Narrative Lectionary- The Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year 2)
Narrative Theme for the Day: Church at Corinth
Focus Passages: Acts 18:1-4 and 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Gospel Verse: Mark 9:34-35
As we skip ahead in the narrative, we find ourselves with some stories about the church at Corinth. As the church spread, it did so no doubt, with innovation and experimentation. The things that worked some place wouldn’t necessarily automatically work and translate to a different context. This might be something to remember in this strange time of being the church in the world during a pandemic.
As we read Acts 18:1-4, about the founding of the church at Corinth, let’s ground ourselves in the context and experience. We read that, “After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together—by trade they were tentmakers. Every sabbath he would argue in the synagogue and would try to convince Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:1-4, NRSV).
Now, I highlighted above the fact that Paul “stayed with them,” not to offer a contradiction to our current stay at home and stay safe reality. But rather to point to within this beginning of the church, there is an act of hospitality. A hospitality to allow Paul to stay, but also an act on Paul’s behalf to see value in the community and want and need to stay with them. Stewardship is happening by the gift of time, sharing of resources, and sense of welcome extended. This is a generous move on both sides, and is something that indicates Spirit led life and movement happening, as the church moves and grows.
Of course as the church grows, division happens. Differing ideas. Differing perspectives. Different objectives. Even arguably different values. These differences emerge, and that begs the question what holds these differences in tension and creates community and unity with difference? Arguably this is the cross which is the center of our faith.
The second passage illustrates this in 1 Corinthians 1, where Paul writes:
“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:10-18, NRSV).
The cross is foolishness. But it’s also the sign of life out of death. What the world says is an end, is only a beginning. In this time of pandemic, it’s a message like this which we need to hear. It’s not manna or mammon which provides life. It’s not money or wealth or jobs which provide life. They all might provide resources needed and necessary, but it is God who provides life. We’re seeing this starkly now with the tensions of discernment about “needing to restart the economy” and to send people back to work. The ones who are still working or having to go back to work, don’t have a cushion. They don’t have a choice, and by going to work they may well be risking their health, their family’s health, and their life. It’s not an easy decision.
It begs the question for me, because like the Corinthians we all have different perspectives, especially about this. But how can we be church together in this time and support one another? How can we make sure those who are not being paid, are being fed and cared for? How can we make sure those who are most vulnerable are cared for, and no that they are not alone (even if they are rightfully home away from most other people right now)? How can we be present with one another, without being necessarily physically present?
To ask and answer these questions I believe is to be a faithful disciple and steward in this time. And it is also a sign that we take seriously Jesus’ words in Mark 9, where we read about the disciples’ and their quarrel, “But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all’” (Mark 9:34-35, NRSV).
The one who gave himself for us, is the ultimate servant. But he also is the one who calls us and leads us into our various lives of service and vocations.
May we answer the call, and may we be the church as gathered and sent right now. It may look different than our preference, or than our imagination or memory, but we are the church. May we answer the call, and may we be bearers of God’s love for one another, and for the whole world which God loves so dearly.