Preaching on Stewardship- September 20, 2020- The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Yesterday at Salem Lutheran Church in Fontanelle, the congregation participated in a COVID safe activity for “God’s Work, Our Hands” Sunday. Together the congregation crammed the van full of food and toiletries to support our local community food pantry and meet our larger community’s needs around hunger and sustenance that have only increased since the onset of the COVID pandemic. What a beautiful day and sign of God’s generous abundance in action.

After about a month away with time spent planning the year ahead, working out some bugs, and taking some time away for vacation and Sabbath, the stewardship preaching ideas and nuggets are back. Without further ado, this week’s stewardship and discipleship nuggets based on the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost are as follows:

Sunday September 20, 2020: Revised Common Lectionary- The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 25- Year A)
First Lesson:  Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Second Lesson: Philippians 1:21-30
Gospel of Matthew 20:1-16

This week’s stories are rich with God’s generous abundance. They point to the depth and breadth of God’s love, and how God will go above and beyond all conceptions of fairness and worthiness to share God’s love with all of God’s beloved children and creation. For God’s love and gracious mercy knows no bounds. It far supersedes what we might consider right. This week’s stories point to this and more.

Our first lesson comes from Jonah. Jonah attests to knowing what God would do- God’s gracious and merciful moves, far exceeding what Jonah thought right. And because of God’s gracious mercy, Jonah is angry. We read, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast
love, and ready to relent from punishing. 
And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’” (Jonah 3:10-4:4, NRSV).

Let’s get this straight. Jonah is mad that God is love- and abundant love at that. It’s like when we get a little upset that another person is shown compassion, or gets a lucky break in life. Why do we get upset about this? Are we that jealous? Do we enjoy seeing others suffer? (How terrible a sinner must we be, if that’s the case?) Or in a stewardship sense, are we so lost in our own minds that we forget that God’s love is abundant and not scarce. It’s not a limited resource, but one that grows and is available and to be offered and shared for all as Jesus did with outstretched arms on the cross. That’s a stewardship truth right there. It’s a test in a way for our minds and spirits. Perhaps a hard word of law and gospel simultaneously especially in such polarized and seemingly partisan a time as this in our society.  

The first lesson has some more stewardship wisdom to offer in it. We read, “Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’ But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’” (Jonah 4:5-11, NRSV).

Sometimes we think we know what’s best. Sometimes we want to throw in the towel when things don’t go the way we think they should. That seems to be a lesson from this story with Jonah. But God is there and doesn’t abandon Jonah. Nor does God abandon the people and animals of Nineveh. This is good news for us. Especially in times like this- when our brokenness and sin is laid bare. The trials and challenges of wild fires at least partly to blame because of climate change and unencumbered building and growth in God’s creation. The growing gap between those who have and those who lack the basics for life and can afford to put a meal on the table for their family, while others who have more than enough money than they would ever be able to spend in multiple lifetimes. The disparity where some have access to good health care, and others could never hope to be able to afford it- and one trip to the Emergency Room might mean a family’s bankruptcy.

The People of God are called to be better. To care for creation. To work for justice and peace. To make sure that all of our neighbor’s needs are met so that together the abundance of God can be shared. Jonah doesn’t want to see God’s mercy in action. I wonder, if there are some in this world (and dare I say even some of us in the faith) who at times might have moments of wishing that God’s love weren’t so abundant and meant for all? Thankfully God’s love and stewardship doesn’t work that way. God provides shelter and share for Jonah, but does send the worm to remind him that we are indeed dependent on God’s love for all that we have, and all that we are, is God’s.

The psalmist this week reminds us of God’s “wondrous works” and “awesome deeds,”
and how we as stewards and disciples of God’s love are called to tell this story, to point to the goodness of God, and to share God’s love with our neighbors near and far. The psalmist proclaims, “I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name for ever and ever. Every day I will bless you, and praise your name for ever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable. One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts. On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate. The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed, and I will declare your greatness. They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness, and shall sing aloud of your righteousness. The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 145:1-8, NRSV).

The psalmist does a nice job of articulating the work of a faithful response to God’s work and promises. Put another way, the psalmist points to some of the different work we might do and are to do in our faithful responses as lives lived as stewards and disciples. For we remember that it is not us celebrate ourselves, but we celebrate God’s abundant love. God’s “abundant goodness.” The very fact and repeated promise from throughout the psalms that, “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

Our second lesson this week comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul writes, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again” (Philippians 1:21-26, NRSV).

Paul has the desirable role here of telling the story of God’s work in the world. He gets the joy of sharing how he has seen, witnessed, and experienced God’s activity through the communities of God’s people such as in Philippi. It’s work that I enjoy in my role on synod staff- being able to share how God is active among all of God’s people across the wider territory of the Nebraska Synod. It’s a joy to share this good news, and we need to hear often the reminders of how God is very much present, active, and working in, through, for, and around God’s people in amazing ways. This work is a big part of stewardship, that is, telling the story of God’s work and inviting all to witness, support, and join in it. 

Paul continues, “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (Philippians 1:27-30, NRSV).

This is indeed God’s doing. Paul reminds us a central part of stewardship- that it is God’s work, that all that we have and all that we are is God’s, which God entrusts to us, through which God wants us to live abundantly and to care for our neighbors, doing some of God’s work in the world. 

When God’s work is done, the kingdom of heaven breaks into the world, bit by bit. I
recently shared some thoughts about how I have seen some glimpses of the kingdom breaking in lately. And this has me thinking too about this week’s gospel story from Jesus.

Jesus explains, For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock,
he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 
They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:1-16, NRSV).

I love this story. It’s so rich. It challenges all of us, and our rules oriented tendency to be “fair and just” in a human way, and not in God’s way. God offers another way. God offers a kingdom where all are cared for. Where all are provided for- and where all have what they need. This is God’s abundant generosity in spades. When the landowner ultimately asks those who might want more, “Or are you envious because I am generous?,” the landowner might honestly be asking all of us that question. Are we envious because of God’s generosity not being limited? Instead of grateful for God’s abundant love, are
we sometimes resentful or worse? It’s no wonder this story is paired with the portion of Jonah. It’s a similar wake up call to us about God’s generous abundance and how sometimes we might be uncomfortable (or angry) because of it.

This is the gospel truth though. As Jesus concludes, “so the last will be first, and the first will be last.” With Christ there is a new creation. With God in Christ, there is also a great reversal. For as the kingdom breaks in, the world as we know it is changed and transformed. This is Good News. But it is also change. No more do a few have too much and many lack. No. With God’s love, all will have what they need. There has long been enough food and wealth produced in the world so that world hunger would have been
vanquished years ago. Yet, hunger and famine persists because we haven’t made a
priority of sharing our collective wealth.

We are interconnected as God’s people. This is a story about God’s love today in the gospel of Matthew. But it’s also a story to wake us up from our lethargy and think that God’s abundance is limited to one community, nation, or type of people. I have been thinking about this too as it relates to the current work worldwide to discern vaccines that might protect all of God’s people from the COVID-19 virus and pandemic. Will we have the wisdom to know that the whole world must be vaccinated so that all might be well? Or, will we hoard a vaccine (if one is ever discovered to be safe and effective)? If so, will we realize our grave mistake, as for a vaccine to be effective, people near and far need to be vaccinated. Otherwise, the virus will persist. And so will the challenges towards health and life that it poses.

My hope is that we will heed Jesus’ words for us this week and realize that we have a choice in responding to God’s abundance. We can be like the landowner who provides abundantly and puts those in need of meaningful work to work and then compensates them generously. Or we can be like the first wage earners who complain that others were paid the same rate for less work, even though they all agreed to the wages at the start of their labor. My hope is we will lean into God’s abundance and generous gratefully and thankfully. Because when we do this, not only does life go well for us, it goes well for all of God’s creation.

Sunday September 20, 2020: The Narrative Lectionary- The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Narrative Year 3, Week 2)
Narrative Theme: God’s Promise to Abraham
Focus Passage: Genesis 15:1-6
Gospel Verse: Luke 3:8

Year three through the narrative journey began last week with a story about creation, and this week we find ourselves a bit further into Genesis with a story about God’s promises, specifically God’s promises of abundance to Abraham.

We read, “After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:1-6, NRSV).

I love how this interaction between Abram and God begins with the words we so often hear in scripture from God to God’s people, “Do not be afraid.” God is present as God promises to be. God provides as God promises to do so. And how beautiful in this short but deep and memorable passage that it includes this from God to Abram, “Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” What a beautiful and profound explanation of abundance in God. God provides and will provide. And not just a little bit, but abundantly so.

This relatively short narrative story is paired with an equally short but profound verse from Luke 3:8. We read there the call and proclamation to, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Luke 3:8, NRSV).

As we are all children of father Abraham, we are also all God’s children. As such, we are called and invited into lives of deep meaning as stewards and disciples. Lives where we are called, empowered, equipped, and sent to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” That’s part of our life and response to all that God does, will do, and promises to do for us. 

In whatever way these stories attract your imagination this week, may God’s abundant generosity and God’s generous and abundant love be made real for you and through you for all of God’s people in your context.


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