This week’s stewardship nuggets based on the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary for the Sixth Sunday of Easter are as follows:
If you’re like me, at this point with this virus it may feel some days that it’s hard to tell what day it is from the next, let alone what week or even month. But here we are, in the last days of the Easter season. Can you believe it? I can’t. In terms of preaching, the stories are rich for thinking about how we are church together, to think some about our lives as disciples and stewards, and God’s work and promises which guide and undergird all of it.
Recognizing though too that you might be feeling a bit burned out and tired this week (or it may be just me?) I want to highlight a couple notes which might bring you and your faith community life during this time. Perhaps this might make your work a bit lighter and easier this week.
Our first lesson takes us to Athens with Paul in Acts. Paul declares, “‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:22-25, NRSV).
Paul is opening the Athenian’s eyes to God with them. And more so, for us, this is a reminder that God is with us, and makes life possible. We don’t serve in our lives as stewards and disciples because God needs us to for God’s sake, but for our neighbor’s, whom God calls us into relationship with. And we do so, because God entrusts us with all that we have and all that we are, so that we might meet those needs and also live an abundant life. Further when we serve, we aren’t doing so like a servant to a god requiring sacrifice, we do as a grateful and joyful response to God who offers and promises life.
Paul continues on, even pointing to some of the Greek poets and philosophers in trying to make his case. He reasons about God, “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead’” (Acts 17:28-31, NRSV).
Paul proclaims Christ crucified and resurrected. This is the Easter story being shared abroad. It’s Good News. It’s also news for us this day, a reminder that through God who entrusts us with all that we have, “we live and move and have our being,” just as God has entrusted us with. This is a stewardship truth to be sure. And further, Paul reminds that God lives and is not some far off thing encased in “gold, silver, or stone.” God lives and is present with us, and that is good news too.
The psalmist in Psalm 66 offers some reminders about who God is, and how we might respond for all that God is and does and will do. We respond with thanks and praise as the psalmist proclaims, “Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard” (Psalm 66:8, NRSV). We give thanks and praise, because God listens and is with us, as the psalmist reminds. We read, “But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me” (Psalm 66:19-20, NRSV).
Our second lesson continues our Easter journey through 1 Peter. Within this we read, “Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:13-17, NRSV).
This isn’t a justification for abuse or to go along with an unsafe or unhealthy situation or relationship. This is, however, a reminder to live life as a Child of God always putting the best face on another, and to all that you can for the sake of your neighbor. In these days of Covid-19, this means physically distancing, wearing a mask, staying connected with loved ones but at a safe distance. It also means, for many in ministry, the hard work of discerning what worship looks like and what gathering might look like safely. Right now, it may well not be wise to gather physically for worship. (Certainly it is not safe to sing as the gathered people together, and perhaps even to engage in a meal, the sacraments, and even to physically receive offering.) But there’s a tension in this text too, to not just give into fear. But to remember the One who gave himself for us, who is with us amid all of the complexities and challenges as well as joys and pains of life.
That brings us to this week’s gospel lesson from John 14. It takes us back to the passion story, and some of Jesus’ last words to his disciples before his being handed over. Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (John 14:15-17, NRSV).
These are words we hear often at Pentecost. But they are also words of a reminder to keep Jesus’ commandments, and particularly his new commandment, “to love one another just as he loved us.” It echoes the Shema too, “To love God” and “to love our neighbor as ourself.” At the heart of all of this work, of God’s promises, is love. A love for us and a love for all of God’s children. A love that God calls us to embody for all of the world. With the Advocate, the Spirit of truth, present with us, God in Christ is pointing to God’s presence which is with us opening our eyes and all of our senses to God’s work in, around, for, under, and through us. And that same Spirit invites us and calls us to see all those around us, and hopefully all those who might be in need.
The presence of the Spirit is part of God’s promise, to always be with us because of God’s deep love for us. Jesus says as much as he continues to teach the disciples. He says, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (John 14:18-21, NRSV). Though the disciples may not have understood it yet, Jesus isn’t just talking about his death and resurrection here, he is also talking about his ascension which we’ll remember in worship next week.
Good news abounds in these stories. The promises of God are reminded and proclaimed. And we are invited to remember that God is with us, for us, and loves us. And that through us, some of God’s work for our neighbors and the world God so dearly loves might be done. In this time of Covid-19, perhaps some thought about what this work and love looks like now might be helpful for your faith community. And amid the exhaustion you are no doubt feeling, remember that the Advocate is with you (as Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis reminds in her column this week about how this is “A Time for Accompaniment“). Lean on that promise and presence this week. Take some time to breathe deeply and to recharge. We’re in this work and ministry for the long haul, and it’s not our’s anyway. It’s God’s work and ministry. Rest in that assurance.
This year’s journey through the narrative is winding to a close as we hear some words from Paul to the people of Corinth. These are some of the most familiar words in scripture, because many of them are the go to text for weddings. But the text is so much richer than that, because it points to our feelings, emotions, and responses to what God offers and does for us. They point to the faith that we have that is a gift, made possible because of God’s work and promises. They point to the hope we hold, because of what God has done and will do for God’s people. And they point to love, because it is a love so deep that God can only have for all of God’s children which makes this life we all have possible.
Paul begins, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, NRSV). Without love, not just a surface human love, but a deep agape love, none of this makes sense. It is love that is at the heart of God’s gift and promise of abundant life. It’s love that calls us into relationship with one another. And it’s love, which gives our life as disciples, stewards, and Children of God richness and meaning.
But what is this love? Paul tries to unpack it, with words that you have certainly heard in a wedding or two or three or maybe even hundreds of times. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NRSV).
Love rejoices in truth. Truth is not just a passing thing, nor is it subjective as the world today might make it seem. Truth is grounded in the promise that is God with us. Truth is grounded in the embodiment of the One who gave himself for us, because of a love so deep it could never be earned. But it is given through a cross. It is proclaimed through water, Word, bread, and wine. And it’s that kind of love, which makes all others possible. Through which we have faith and hope.
Faith, hope, and love abide. Because all three are of God, who abides with us, and us with God. As Paul reasons, “Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:8-13, NRSV).
Let us rest in these words during these trying days. And let us do so with the promise and trust of the Shema. Where Jesus responds to a question and teaches about the commandments in the Gospel of Mark. We read in Mark 12 that, “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).
The love, hope, and faith which God provides propel us to grow deeper in relationship with God, and with one another. This is a truth that needs to be proclaimed even more in these days. We are neighbors to one another. We are in relationship with one another. Everything we do matters, not so much for our sake, but for each others. Let us again grab hold of God’s promises and trust in these days, and let that trust guide us as we are God’s people together- even if at a safe physical distance rightfully right now.