Preaching on Stewardship- Sunday July 26, 2020- The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

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This week’s stewardship and discipleship nuggets based on the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary for The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost are as follows:

Sunday July 26, 2020: Revised Common Lectionary- The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 17- Year A)
First Lesson: 1 Kings 3:5-12
Psalm 119:129-136
Second Lesson: Romans 8:26-39
Gospel of Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

This week we hear more parables from Jesus. We hear about wisdom and discernment with Solomon. We hear about God’s promises from the apostle Paul, and specifically in his letter to the Romans, that nothing will separate us from the love of God. There’s good stuff here for sure. Let’s see what catches our imagination as it relates to discipleship and stewardship.

The first lesson comes from 1 Kings 3, and in this famous story we hear about Solomon and God’s appearance to him in a dream. We read, “At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.’ And Solomon said, ‘You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or countedGive your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?‘ It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, ‘Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you” (1 Kings 3:5-12, NRSV).

Solomon asks, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” Such a question might seem timely today given the challenges that leaders are facing in the world. Questions about pandemic and virus, and how to best steward and care for all the people entrusted to their care. Questions about equality, justice, and reconciliation, so that all might feel and be included and equal in their society with equal rights and protections and equal value as citizens. Questions about safety and health, and economic concerns too.

A part of discipleship and stewardship is leadership. They go hand-in-hand. A wise leader and a good leader is one who is a learner and who brings experts and wisdom around them, not to be the loudest person in the room but a listener. One who discerns from the wisdom from others and acts for the good for the whole. How do we act and lead this way as disciples and stewards? How might God be inviting us to lead like Solomon today in our own contexts and faith communities? Perhaps the easiest example that comes to mind of late is in the example of pastors and deacons who lead faith communities and wrestle with whether it is safe to worship in person or not. To all those wrestling with this question, may God’s wisdom be with you. It’s not easy, and there is no perfect or right answer.

Our psalm appointed this week is a portion of Psalm 119. Within this the psalmist proclaims, “Your decrees are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them. The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple. With open mouth I pant, because I long for your commandments. Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is your custom towards those who love your name. Keep my steps steady according to your promise, and never let iniquity have dominion over me. Redeem me from human oppression, that I may keep your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant, and teach me your statutes. My eyes shed streams of tears because your law is not kept” (Psalm 119:129-136, NRSV).

God’s Word and the unpacking of it provide light as the psalmist reminds. This is a central truth of discipleship. We’re grounded in the Word. It’s God’s good and gracious spirit which has mercy and love for us and makes life possible. We ask that God be with us, and God is as God promises to be, and as disciples and stewards we grow in our understanding by growing in our relationship with God. Joining in God’s work as God calls us and invites us to it, and learning from God and with God- how to love God and our neighbors as ourselves.

The second lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans picks up where we have heard from Paul in this letter this past few weeks in Romans 8. Paul writes, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified (Romans 8:26-30, NRSV).

Overall, I have also loved Romans 8. But as a Lutheran, I also I always get uncomfortable with 8:26-30 because of the discussion about predestination. I am not sure why exactly, maybe it’s because I appreciate Luther more than Calvin, but predestination has never been a theological idea that I appreciate, unless it is a concept of out of God’s goodness we’re all predestined to be with God. That might reconcile for me more with where Paul writes, ‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” Regardless on this and other questions, I am grateful that the “Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” for us. This presence and promise is with us always, and makes our lives as disciples and stewards possible.

Paul continues, “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31-39, NRSV).

Within this passage Paul brilliantly explains and reminds whose work is who. God is God, and God is for us. Just as we hear in the sacrament, “for you.” God in Christ justifies, and God in Christ’s love will go to the very ends of the earth and then some for God’s beloved. This is a truth that guides our work as disciples and stewards. If it weren’t true, our lives wouldn’t have the meaning they have. And if they weren’t true, why would we be doing all that we do as God’s people?

Romans 8:38-39 answers this rhetorical question beautifully. If I were preaching this week, given all that has gone on in this year 2020 so far, I think I might just focus on these two verses and preach on God’s promises and prophetic work and nature. As Paul writes, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). If you’re looking for a hymn or melody to listen to this week, look for Marty Haugen’s “Neither Death, Nor Life.” In the darkest of dark times, in these uncertain times, I find hope and promise here. Perhaps these are words you need to hear, and your community needs to hear proclaimed too?

Turning to the gospel lesson this week, we hear a bunch of small parables from Jesus. He’s been telling these parables to explain what the kingdom of heaven is like. We have heard about seed scattered and sown, and this last week about wheat and weeds. And this week we hear about the mustard seed and more.

Jesus begins by telling the parable of the mustard seed. We read that Jesus, “put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32, NRSV). With God all things are possible, including the mustard seed becoming a tree. Including of course life out of death. Including perhaps too, as we’ll read about next week, the ability to feed thousands with but a few fish and loaves of bread.

Speaking of bread, Jesus also tells the parable of the yeast. “He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (Matthew 13:33, NRSV). These parables this week are about God doing God’s thing. Bringing growth and abundance where neither would be thought possible. Showing that with God, love will spread abundantly. God’s love is not something in short supply or scarce, rather it is something that is to be shared and shared widely. For that is what the kingdom of heaven is like. It grows, it grows, and it grows some more.

In this growth there is joy. So after explaining the parable of the weeds of the field (which we read about last week), Jesus tells yet three more parables. Which we also hear this week. Jesus explains, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:44-50, NRSV).

There will be joy in the kingdom. The joy of finding that or whom was lost. The joy like the father when the prodigal returns. The joy we all might feel as we respond in gratitude and overwhelming joy for all that God has done, continues to do, and promises to do, for us- our joyful response, if you will, that guides and shapes our lives as stewards. Granted, these parables aren’t all joy filled. As we have heard the past few weeks from other parables and from this one, there will be also be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For those who might horde God’s goodness. For those who might horde God’s love and not share it as we ought. For those who might keep others from seeing God. Woe indeed. And that is a warning to all of us as God’s own heirs, and stewards and disciples. We do this work not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors.

This week’s compilation of parables ends with Jesus’ comment about treasure that is new and old. Jesus asks the disciples, “‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old’” (Matthew 13:51-52, NRSV).

As disciples and stewards, we are called to learn, listen, and grow. We’re also called to share- to share God’s Word and God’s Good News with all the world through Word and action. There is joy in this. In this work the kingdom breaks into the world, bit by bit. In God’s presence with us and for us, this is possible.

It’s not always easy. There’s plenty of challenge- one only needs to look at the world around us right now- a world with pandemic (and yet with some in the world who fail to understand that they ought to wear a mask or face covering for their neighbor’s sake), a world with fear and uncertainty, a world where there is pain and unjust violence and fear and aggression (especially as we might see from my friends and nearby family in the northwest in Portland, Oregon), a challenge to be the church today and do all that we are called to do in what seems like hard times and challenging and new ways. Yet even so, Paul’s words ring true, that “neither this nor that,” God is with us, God is for us, and God loves us. This is Good News. This makes our work and lives as disciples and stewards richer and possible. May it be so especially for you this week.

Sunday July 26, 2020: Narrative Lectionary- The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Narrative Theme for the Day: 2 Corinthians (Week 3 of 5)
Focus Passage: 2 Corinthians 4:1-18
Gospel Verse: Matthew 5:13

Our five week journey through 2 Corinthians continues this week as we jump ahead, skipping chapter 3 and moving into chapter 4. As we do so, we come to a chapter which when I was in seminary it seemed to be one that I read often. In fact I remember that we dwelled in this chapter all semester in a couple of classes. It’s that rich and even in reading it as many times as that, new things were sensed, heard, and wondered about. I wonder what we might hear and sense this week in this famous and rich chapter, especially as we wonder about what it might say regarding discipleship and stewardship?

Paul writes, “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:1-6, NRSV).

“We do not lose heart.” One of the reasons I refuse to lose heart is right here. Our daughter, diligently trying to read like her parents and grandparents. Loving to learn. Laughing and spreading joy and love. We all plant seeds. Though we may not know what seeds might take root, by doing so, we’re part of this work and ministry that God calls us to. And for this, I especially give thanks!

What rich good news! For all of those of you in ministry, please hear verse 1. “Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” We do not lose heart! Though it may be oh so easy to do this year especially, we do not lose heart. Please, if you are feeling tired or burned out, take some time off and away. Take your sabbath. Take your vacation or staycation. Socially or physically distance yourself, but give yourself some time away so you can recharge. After all, we’re not doing this all for us. We’re doing this because God calls and instructs us to it. We’re doing this for the sake of the people that God has called us together with. We’re doing this, so that we can continue to point to God’s goodness and activity all around us, work that lets “light shine out of darkness.” Work that points to the promise and presence of Jesus Christ.

Paul continues with the image of clay jars. He writes and reasons, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Corinthians 4:7-12, NRSV).

God in Christ does the work of bringing life out of death. We don’t do this. We could never do or earn this. But God in Christ does it, out of deep and abundant and abiding love. This treasure has been entrusted to us. These clay jars we have been given, not to hoard this truth, but to break them open and share the goodness that God provides. For in times such as this- times of uncertainty, stress, death, concern, anxiety, turmoil, etc., “we are afflicted but not crushed,” we are “perplexed but not driven to despair,” “persecuted, but not forsaken,” and “struck down, but not destroyed.” God is with us in the muck and mire. God is with us in the good, bad, and ugly of life. I find hope and assurance in this reminder today especially.

Paul continues, “But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—‘I believed, and so I spoke’—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:13-15, NRSV).

God will do God’s thing. God will bring us into life. Grace will be extended, which is a gift again that we cannot earn nor deserve. God provides this, and so much more. And what is our response as stewards? One of joy and thanksgiving, giving glory to God. Joining in God’s work in some way as stewards and disciples, as we respond to God’s good and saving work for us.

Paul concludes, “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, NRSV). We do not lose heart because God is with us. We do not lose heart because God is for us. And we do not lose heart, because God’s love is deeper and more abiding and abundant than any other.

In thinking about Paul’s words this week for the Corinthians and how they inform our discipleship and stewardship it might be helpful to tie-in the suggested gospel accompanying verse, Matthew 5:13. Within this famous verse, Jesus exclaims, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot” (Matthew 5:13, NRSV).

We are salt of the earth. This does not mean that we are one and done. No. We are called to grow and serve. To do the work of discipleship and stewardship that God calls us to. To bear God’s love for our neighbors near and far. To share the story and on-going story of God’s love. If we do not do this, then how are we any different than salt that has lots its saltiness? Fair question. But it’s a good reminder to remember whose work this is- God’s, and whose we are, God’s. As God’s children, we know that God is with us. And because of this, we know that all of this work is possible and we join with it because we know the story of the One who gave himself or us, and the extent to which God will go for God’s own.

There’s a lot in this week’s stories. Whatever captivates your imagination and attention, may it fill you with hope and purpose. And may God’s presence and promise hold you, challenge you, and guide you to share God’s abundant love this week.

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