Preaching on Stewardship- May 24, 2020- Ascension Sunday and/or The Seventh Sunday of Easter

In this odd time of worshipping online, I wonder how many congregations might move Ascension to Sunday, or who might use this opportunity with online worship to worship both on Thursday online for Ascension and Sunday for the Seventh Sunday of Easter? Either way, I am going to offer a few thoughts and questions to consider from all of the appointed readings. To this end, this week’s stewardship nuggets based on the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary for the Ascension of Our Lord and the Seventh Sunday of Easter are as follows:

Thursday May 21, 2020: Revised Common Lectionary- The Ascension of Our Lord
First Lesson: Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 47
Second Lesson: Ephesians 1:15-23
Gospel of Luke 24:44-53

In the spirit of nuggets, I am going to keep my observations this week short. Not because I am tired, though that might be true. But more so, because I think this week of Ascension, like Easter Sunday and Holy Week preceding it, and Pentecost next week, are important times even amid this Pandemic to tell the story of God. To dig into God’s on-going story and live in the tension of them.

So with that in mind, what are some of the nuggets in the Ascension story we might highlight? 

In our first lesson from Acts 1, we read that, “While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’” (Acts 1:4-5, NRSV). Even amid this transition of Christ’s presence with us, Jesus is affirming that God will be and is present in the midst. Though Christ ascends, the Spirit will come. And God will continue to be with God’s people.

Sometime we miss this. Sometime, perhaps especially now during this pandemic time, we put our eyes on the way we have understood or known things, and miss the fact that God might be present and showing up in new ways.

I wonder this especially, given the end of this lesson from Acts. We read a little later that, “While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’” (Acts 1:10-11, NRSV).

Perhaps we’re so focused on being in-person for worship, that we are missing the opportunity that God is calling us to see and be part of- of worship and life together- in new digital and physically distanced ways? Aren’t there ways that we have experimented with these past couple of months that have created new opportunities for learning, faith formation, community, life together, and service? If so, why on earth would we suddenly give these new ways up in order to return to in-person worship where out of the order of health and safety, it won’t be like in-person worship we have experienced in the past?

It’s pretty clear by the science and data, that it is not safe to sing with a crowded assembly right now, nor will it be until this virus is at bay. So what might praise look like in the meantime? We can sing safely through the wonders of technology, and worshiping online. But we can also share our praise in new ways like the psalmist says, “clap your hands.” We can do that. We must rejoice like the psalmist says this week, we can’t help it when we remember what God has done and will do for us. We can’t help but, “Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy.  For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth” (Psalm 47:1-2, NRSV).

Psalm 47 is the perfect psalm for Ascension because it’s full of rejoicing and praise. It highlights the notion of God going up. And it reiterates God’s presence with and for God’s people. During this time, it is so important to keep providing meaning for people- which our meaning rests with God’s work and presence with and for us. Because of this, we can hear these words even now, and have hope and maybe even find some joy amid such a strange, anxious, and challenging time as this.

The psalmist remarks, “God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet. Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. For God is the king of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm. God is king over the nations; God sits on his holy throne. The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted” (Psalm 47:5-9, NRSV).

The second lesson offers good food for thought, in terms of stewardship both with words of gratitude and thanks for God’s people. Paul writes, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers” (Ephesians 1:15-16, NRSV). In this time of being physically apart, it’s critical that we continue to communicate with all disciples of our faith community, that we are with them, and we give thanks for them. Take some time this week and say thank you in a way that might give life to you, not in a way that will just become another thing to do on your long to-do list or among a host of other busy projects. 

Further, Paul writes in a way that is a good reminder about how we are God’s people- the Body of Christ, in the world. Paul continues, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:15-23, NRSV).

Finally, in the Ascension story according to the end of the Gospel of Luke that is reiterated and expanded in our first lesson in the beginning of Acts, Jesus makes clear once more that we are called “as witnesses.” In this, we are stewards and disciples of God’s work and promises. He begins again by recalling the fulfillment of scripture such as by saying, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem,” connecting the scriptures with the act of repentance and forgiveness that the disciples are to proclaim, and further, “You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high’” (Luke 24:46-49, NRSV).

Then the story concludes, at least within the Gospel of Luke before continuing in Acts. We read, “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:50-53, NRSV). What I love about this conclusion is that it says, they “returned with great joy.” How can we do likewise in our lives and service as disciples and stewards? 

Sunday May 24, 2020: Revised Common Lectionary- The Seventh Sunday of Easter (Year A)
First Lesson: Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
Second Lesson: 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
Gospel of John 17:1-11

The Seventh Sunday of Easter serves as the bridge, an in-between time if you will between Jesus’ ascension into heaven, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Thus, we read Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit will come in our first lesson (Acts 1:8), but also a reminder of the question posed in the Ascension reflections above. (See above commentary for how to approach this, or at least some of the other stewardship questions that come to my mind during this time.)  Do ponder this question in Acts 1:11, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11, NRSV). I wonder, where are we standing and just watching, and perhaps missing the point or God’s activity and presence all around us right now?

The psalmist calls us to be joyful, and how can we not when we remember all that God does, has done, and will do? To that end, the psalm this week offers a reminder too of God’s work for God’s people. The psalmist proclaims, “But let the righteous be joyful; let them exult before God; let them be jubilant with joy.  Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds his name is the Lord— be exultant before him. Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God gives the desolate a home to live in; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity, but the rebellious live in a parched land” (Psalm 68:3-6, NRSV).

The psalmist even adds more stewardship language by highlighting God’s abundance, especially in the sense of providing abundance to all those in need. “Rain in abundance, O God, you showered abroad; you restored your heritage when it languished; your flock found a dwelling in it; in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy” (Psalm 68:9-10, NRSV). And for this, again, we are invited to give praise. As the psalmist once again invites, “Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth; sing praises to the Lord” (Psalm 68:32, NRSV).

The second lesson offers some words for discipleship, reminding us that God is with us, and we do not go through the challenges and trials of life alone. It seems perhaps that these words might be comforting during this time of Covid-19. We read, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves; keep alert” (1 Peter 5:6-8a, NRSV).

Jesus is concluding the Farewell Discourse here in the gospel from John 17. He is handing over the people to the Father, as he prepares himself to be handed over. He reasons, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them” (John 17:6-10, NRSV). There’s a beauty in these words. We are God’s. It’s as simple and profound as that.

Recognizing this, that we are God’s own, God’s children, Jesus asks that God be with us and God to protect us. He concludes, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11, NRSV). This is Good News, and these are words that we need to hear right now, as we go through these strange and trying days of this pandemic.

Sunday May 24, 2020: Narrative Lectionary- The Seventh Sunday of Easter (Year 2)
Narrative Theme for the Day: Death Swallowed in Life
Focus Passage: 1 Corinthians 15:1-26, 51-57
Gospel Verse: Mark 12:26-27a

In the penultimate week of the second year of the Narrative cycle, we find ourselves in 1 Corinthians 15, with Paul’s words on death and resurrection. There’s plenty of good news in here as death does not have the last word because of God’s work and promises. 

Chapter 15 begins, “Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:1-2, NRSV). It sets the stage for Paul’s words, a reminder about God’s work for the Corinthians, and all believers.

“Grace Upon Grace” – a beautiful sign of God’s work and presence on display at Luther Memorial Lutheran Church this past weekend for the ordination of Deacon Koren Lindley. A fitting reminder this week too.

Paul might well be writing the words of the creed here. Recounting God in Christ’s work in particular. He writes, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:3-5, NRSV). Paul is recounting this work perhaps to legitimize his message, but also to connect the work he is doing with the bigger why behind- the why of God’s presence and promise through Christ. So he keeps going in recounting Christ’s appearances. Explaining that, “Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Corinthians 15:6-8, NRSV).

There might be an element of over modesty or false humility in this. But Paul continues, and then rightfully turns this work back on God. For it is God who is doing it, and in whose name we proclaim, serve, live, and do all that we do as stewards and disciples. Paul explains, “For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe” (1 Corinthians 15:3-11, NRSV).

Paul then moves on to thinking about the resurrection of the dead, the ultimate exhibit of God’s saving work. Writing, “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:16-19, NRSV).  This good news is what provides hope, and it is what brings us altogether in life together. If it’s not true, then the faith, as Paul sees it, is futile and falls apart. Which he reasons perhaps is exactly why it has to be true. And ultimately the good news is this. That through Christ’s saving action, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26, NRSV).

This is all God’s work. Work which cannot be done by anyone but God. As Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 15, he moves to the good news that is a mystery. The good news of Easter, that death does not have the final word, nor does it have the final victory. He closes, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:51-57, NRSV).

Paul closes so strongly, “But thanks be to God…” (1 Corinthians 15:57), thanks be to God indeed! As stewards we have the privilege to respond to God’s work in gratitude and joy. And to do so by leaning into our lives as disciples and stewards with our whole selves. And we do this, because we know that the promises of God are true. Promises that God comes and brings life- abundant and eternal. As we read in the gospel, “And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living” (Mark 12:26-27a, NRSV).

Friends, whichever lectionary you are on, may you hear God’s work and promises in a new way, and with fresh eyes this week. May the promises be true, and may they comfort and challenge in this odd time. Rest in them, and share them widely. And may God not only be with you, but through you, may God’s love and mission be proclaimed boldly this week.

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