Preaching on Stewardship- Sunday August 2, 2020- The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

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

Sunday August 2, 2020: Revised Common Lectionary- The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 18- Year A)
First Lesson: Isaiah 55:1-5
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
Second Lesson: Romans 9:1-5
Gospel of Matthew 14:13-21

This week’s stories remind us of who God is and all that God does and provides. They are stories about God’s abundance, as opposed to our human conception or lie of scarcity. They are stories about God’s work being done, and our invitation to come and see, come and taste, come and listen, and come and know that our Lord is good. Let’s take the stories in order beginning with our appointed first lesson from the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah gives voice to God who proclaims, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you” (Isaiah 55:1-5, NRSV).

“Come.” What a word and invitation in our faith. Come to the water. Come to the table. Listen to God. Eat what is good. All of this does as God makes an “everlasting covenant.” There is a promise here with this invitation and call to come. God provides, but God doesn’t just provide, God wants us to be with God. There shall be no barriers to our relationship with God. God wants to break them all down. You don’t have money? No problem. Come and buy and receive. That sounds kind of radical in our current world, and probably makes some of us uncomfortable. But this is who God is. God wants to fill all. God wants to be with all of God’s children. And God calls us each as God’s own, to be bearers of this truth, to provide hope, healing, food, and resources for all- so that life ma go well for all. This is radical. This is countercultural. This is abundance, and the abundance that is truly at the heart of what Jesus means when he describes and imagines for us the kingdom of heaven or the Kingdom of God. This echoes the idea of jubilee found early in the scriptures, but it also broadens it. For with God, there will be jubilee in abundance.

We hear more about this provision in Psalm 145 from the psalmist. First we remember who God is and why God is that way. The psalmist reminds, “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (Psalm 145:8-9, NRSV). Because of this, God provides and does all that God will do. Because God “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” then “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” There’s a stewardship reminder that hearkens back again to Psalm 24. “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it…” Because of this, we are all God’s own. And further, all that we have and all that we are, are God’s too.

In living out this identity, God does way more than we could count. But the psalmist does a great job of describing just a few examples of God’s saving work for us. The psalmist explains, “The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing. The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings. The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desire of all who fear him; he also hears their cry, and saves them. The Lord watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy. My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever” (Psalm 145:14-21, NRSV).

The active words are largely bolded in this passage above to call out what God does, for us. God upholds. God raises up. God gives or provides food. God opens God’s hand and satisfies. God is just in all of God’s efforts and work. God is near. God fulfills and hears the cries and prayers of God’s people, and saves them. God watches over us. For all of this and so much more, the psalmist is right to say, “My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord…” That is our joyful response. We could never do any of this work that God does, nor earn it. But God provides it, and thus we can’t help but give thanks and praise and then feel so moved that we want to come and see it more, and do what we can to help others know and experience it too.

This week’s selection from Paul’s letter to the Romans is perhaps less obviously full of stewardship and discipleship language compared to the past couple of weeks’ passages. But there is still plenty to consider here. Paul writes, “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 9:1-5, NRSV).

As Christians we confess our sin, acknowledge our brokenness, and ask God to forgive and reorient us. To move us. To change us. Paul begins here explaining that he is “speaking the truth in Christ.” I hope that we can all be so bold, but in doing so, we must acknowledge all the times when we come up short in this regard. We’re not perfect after all. It’s the reality of simul justus et pecatar, or that we know of as our identity of being “simultaneously saint and sinner,” as Martin Luther put it.

In acknowledging this though, we also acknowledge that in our better moments and in the deeper why we do what we do as People of God, disciples, and stewards, we do it for the “sake of my own people.” That is what Paul seems to be getting at here. Why do we serve? Because God entrusts us with relationships and calls us to care for them, nurture them, and grow them. God entrusts us with all that we have and all that we are, so that all of God’s creation might live and enjoy abundant life. Paul does this too, in acknowledging whose work it is that is being done, and in whose name we are all called, and whom we are heirs of the promise with.

That brings us to the gospel and the timeless story of Jesus feeding the 5,000+. But a little context matters. For the past few weeks in our gospel stories, we have been hearing Jesus tell parable after parable. He’s telling stories and teaching the crowds, and then interpreting and teaching the stories to the disciples. In Matthew’s version of this, these stories are done on the road in Jesus’ travels, and while on the road after telling these stories, Jesus comes to his hometown of Nazareth (Matthew 13:54-58). Needless to say it did not go well for him there. We don’t hear that Jesus was nearly thrown off a cliff in this version of the story, but we do hear that the people “took offense at him” (Matthew 13:57, NRSV). Because of this, Jesus “did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.” After this, word spreads about Herod killing John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1-12), and this is the news that Jesus hears at the beginning of this week’s stories.

In hearing the news of John’s death, Jesus was understandably affected. He wanted some time to himself. He no doubt knew what this meant too for his own work and ministry. The cross was coming into view fast now. But even with the wonderful stories Jesus had told, now might just be the time for God to do God’s thing in a big and awesome way, yet using just the most simple and ordinary to meet the peoples’ needs.

So we begin here, with Jesus receiving news no one would ever want to receive. “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick” (Matthew 14:13-14, NRSV). Even when Jesus might need some alone time and pastoral care himself, he found a way to not run further from the crowds, but to notice the people and have compassion on them. He did what he was called to do. He showed up with them and for them, and cured the sick among them. No doubt he did this with a hurting and grieving heart, but perhaps he did this also in honor of John. Either way, Jesus was being Jesus here. (And remember we are not called to be Jesus. We can’t save ourselves, and God in Christ has already done this for us. This is not what this story is telling us to do, so please do not hear it that way.)

The story continues, as the crowds have been with him, the day has come and gone and evening has arrived. “When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowdsAnd all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children” (Matthew 14:15-21, NRSV).

The disciples are right to notice their neighbor’s needs. They might even be right to notice Jesus’ need, as one grieving, that he might need some permission to have space and rest. But Jesus doesn’t take the option of an out here. No. And he doesn’t give the disciples permission to dismiss the crowd either. This refusal then leads to some consternation, frustration, and concern.

The disciples claim, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” How many times have we said similar things in our lives? “We have nothing, but…” This is the language of scarcity. This is the language of a lack of resources, a lack of assets, a lack of provision, a lack of love, a lack of imagination, perhaps even a lack of faith. But Jesus says, “bring them here to me.” So the disciples bring the loaves and fish. And God acts.

Jesus sees the loaves and fish as assets and things that have been entrusted to the people’s care. They are resources. They are not limits, but things that can be stewarded and shared. How might our worldview turn, if instead of seeing a lack of something, we might see things and assets all around us as opportunities or gifts that we have to meet our neighbor’s needs? The disciples again were right to see their needs. But they didn’t ask the second question. They didn’t wonder, how might we meet those needs? They instead just thought, well that’s out of our control. Let’s dismiss the crowd for now. How many times are we quick to come to similar conclusions?

A closeup view of the cross with loaves and fishes on my green Deacon stole, which I wear for the majority of weeks after Pentecost, recalling this story and sign of God’s generous abundance.

This is a stewardship story and then some. It’s probably one of my absolute favorites, so it’s no surprise that it is the symbol on my green deacon’s stole which I wear when preaching in the long season after Pentecost. It’s for this story, which is a central lesson of this time of the church year. God provides. God does the extraordinary with the ordinary. In the breaking of the bread, blessing is shared. God is thanked and praised. And God acts, so that all might be fed. So how many were fed? Well, more than 5000, because in Matthew’s version that just accounts for the men. The women and children are “besides,” or “in addition to.” So maybe we’re thinking 10-15,000 people. And what’s more this all started with five loaves and two fish, and yet there are even left overs that fill twelve baskets more.

Jesus has been telling parables for weeks of journeying on the road. Today, instead of a parable Jesus teaches by action. He shows that God’s abundance is real. He invites us to pivot from our limited understanding of scarcity to seeing God’s abundance all around us, for us, through us, and in us. We are enough, because God is enough. In fact, as there are twelve baskets left over, God is more than enough. And God is with us.

In this time of pandemic I have seen this truth in spades. I have seen it in my own life. At first I thought, “woe is me. I can’t do anything about this, it’s all out of my control.” Though there is truth in that, just as the disciples acknowleding that it is evening and the people need to be fed, it’s a limited understanding of the truth of the situation. When I have given myself permission to step away, to breathe, and relax, I have then come to see this also as an opportunity for the church and God’s work to be done.

This is not to minimize the horrible reality of this pandemic. No. We should all wear masks and face coverings when out in public to help protect ourselves and especially our neighbors. But we should too do all we can to be physically (but not socially) distant right now out of deep neighborly love. But at the same time, we should still do all we can to be socially together and connected. Congregations have stepped up near and far by taking worship, faith formation, discipleship, Bible studies, and confirmation online. Things are being done in new ways, and more people are being fed than ever. When we see this, do we not acknowledge that this is a thing of abundance? God’s work is being done in new and wonderful ways.

How might this continue in the year ahead? How might this continue in the years to come? Some of this newness will be temporary, but some of it I trust and hope will be new realities for us for the better of the church and God’s work in the world for the long term. There seems to be more time at home potentially for family units. There seems to be a wililngness now for churches to offer Bible studies late at night online in a way that busy young parents can join from the comfort of their own home after putting their kids to bed. People are being fed in new ways.

The gift and call of healing has been extended to so many doctors, nurses, scientists, and medical professionals, they are doing all they can and as fast as humanly possible to care for all in need and to also discover a cure for this pandemic virus. We’re called to support them in this work- through prayer, and action that helps slow the spread of it. May we all continue this long game approach. To pray for their work. To pray for healing for all those in need. And to act- to physically distance still and wear face coverings when out in public to protect our neighbors; to protect our teachers and kids in schools and all those in essential work environments; to support those who might be financially struggling; and to bring the truth of God’s love and abundance and proclaim it openly and honestly in any way, shape, form, and action we can.

This week we are reminded of who God is and all that God will do. God provides, and God does so abundantly. May this truth be real for you this week, and may it be shared, proclaimed, and known through your life as a steward and disciple.

Sunday August 2, 2020: Narrative Lectionary- The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Narrative Theme for the Day: 2 Corinthians (Week 4 of 5)
Focus Passage: 2 Corinthians 5:1-21
Gospel Verse: Mark 8:22-26

The beginning of August marks the fourth of five weeks traveling through 2 Corinthians. This week we find ourselves in 2 Corinthians chapter 5. Let’s see what stands out perhaps, especially as it relates to stewardship and discipleship.

Paul writes, “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling— if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 5:1-5, NRSV).

Paul again is pointing to God at the center, and God whose work is done. Because God, we have been entrusted with the Spirit. This is God’s thing. Not a thing that we did. Not a thing that we could have earned. But God gifts the Spirit, just as God has promised God would be present with God’s people. This promise and presence with us, leads us into our daily lives as stewards and disciples.

Paul continues, “So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:6-10, NRSV).

Paul pens that famous phrase here, “for we walk by faith, not by sight.” Words that describe our life as disciples and stewards. Words that hearken back to that famous gospel story after the resurrection between Thomas and Jesus. Words that we can all relate to in our own walks of faith. In those walks together, we walk with the goal of following Jesus and doing as God calls and invites us to do. To serve our neighbors, and do God’s work in the world, gratefully and joyfully for our loving God who has done and continues to do so much for us.

That love calls us to be bearers of it, and bearers of reconciliation. It’s a ministry that we all share, and Paul goes into great detail here. Paul continues, “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them” (2 Corinthians 5:11-15, NRSV).

Paul seems to be reiterating his theological reasoning found elsewhere, namely in his letter to the Romans here. (Romans 8 particularly- “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life…”) Christ’s presence and promise are made real through his love. His life, death, and resurrection make our lives possible and meaningful. Hence, we follow and grow as disciples. Hence, we serve and share as stewards.

Paul concludes, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to usSo we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21, NRSV).

God is doing God’s thing. That means there’s a new creation- which we are all a part of. We have reconciliation, because God in Christ reconciles. And we are stewards, entrusted with this reconciliation and message to share. We do as stewards and disciples who are, as Paul says, “ambassadors for Christ.” How could we not? We know the gift, promise, hope, love, and abundance that is possible and real through God. How could we not share this truth and good news with our neighbors and the world through our own words and actions?

Perhaps in thinking about stewardship and discipleship, this week as Paul writes to the Corinthians, he’s also inviting us to take a deep look at our own motivations and work, and to pivot if we aren’t fully invested in doing all of this as God in Christ has called us? Perhaps Christ is calling us to reconcile with God and one another, as Paul writes, so that we might share the good news and acts of reconciliation with a grieving, anxious, fearful, and hurting pandemic world that is also paralyzed with polarization? Perhaps this week we might do some deep introspection and see how we might be better- as those who reconcile with one another locally and globally? It’s not always easy to confess and forgive, but for the sake of being God’s people in the world and the church- we do this and we must, because we know the pervasiveness of sin, hurt, and brokenness in and around us. But at the same time as God’s people, we know what love and healing looks like when reconciliation happens, and what a gift it truly is.

This week’s gospel pairing comes from Mark 8. Within this story we read about Jesus and the disciples on the road and Jesus providing sight to a man who had been blind. “They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Can you see anything?’ And the man looked up and said, ‘I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.’ Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, ‘Do not even go into the village’” (Mark 8:22-26, NRSV).

What might be getting in our eyes and senses, and blocking our view from God? Perhaps its a need to reconcile and be reconciled? So that in the act of confessing and forgiveness, we might again turn towards God and bear God’s creative and redeeming love to all the world through our discipleship and stewardship.

In whatever direction these stories take you this week, may God be with you, and may you share God’s abundant and generous love and promise with God’s people.

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