Preaching on Stewardship- September 27, 2020- The Seventeenth 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 Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost are as follows:

Sunday September 27, 2020: Revised Common Lectionary- The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 26- Year A)
First Lesson: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-9
Second Lesson: Philippians 2:1-13
Gospel of Matthew 21:23-32

We are reminded in this week’s stories about who God is, and whose we are. Through this, we’re also reminded of what God does and will do, and invited to consider how we might respond to God’s call, invitation, and action in and around our lives. Let’s take this week’s stories in order and see what comes to mind.

The first lesson from Ezekiel begins, “The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die” (Ezekiel 18:1-4, NRSV).

All lives are God’s. We are all God’s. All that we have and all that we are, is God’s. We are all God’s beloved children, and God holds us, loves us, provides abundantly for us, and cares for us. Sometimes we think this is exclusive and not inclusive. But again, as it is made clear many places elsewhere, we are reminded that “all lives” are God’s. Not just some. And by extension, all that makes up each person’s life is God’s too.

The lesson continues especially in verses 25-29 with a discussion about fairness, and our call to change, turn, and/or repent. Let’s pick it up in verse 30. “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live” (Ezekiel 18:30-32, NRSV).

“Repent and turn,” and “turn, then, and live.” That could be a stewardship theme. “Turn, then, and live!” God has “no pleasure in the death of anyone” we hear here. God wants life to go well for all God’s children. God provides and God does so abundantly, in the hope that all will grow as Children of God. All will grow deeper in their faith as disciples and stewards of God’s love. God wants to be in relationship with us, and God calls us and sends us into relationship with each other in the world. Through these relationships, through this presence, God’s work is done. But when we choose to turn inward and not turn, change, and repent, we inevitably hoard what God provides, sin, and focus on ourselves instead of God and all of our neighbors whom God calls and sends us out to and with.

Psalm 25 picks up on the theme of relationships this week, offering famous and familiar words about God and our relationship with and response to God. The psalmist proclaims, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way”(Psalm 25:1-9, NRSV).

God provides. God promises. God saves. For this and more, we lift up our souls and trust God. For this and more, we respond in the only way we can- with gratitude and joy. This gratitude and joy changes us. We are turned outward toward God and one another. We are filled by God’s presence, and are opened to God’s ways and work- learning and growing as disciples. This response is a change and turn from our old ways. It is into one of a new life with God- a life of deep meaning and purpose as stewards and disciples.

The second lesson picks up on theme of God’s work, but moves us more directly to the events of the death and resurrection of Christ. Within this famous passage from Philippians 2 is included what is commonly called the “Christ Hymn.” Or, as I learned in seminary a passage you can spend a whole semester in, in Greek, and still feel like you have barely begun to scratch the surface of the depth and nuance of what is going on here. (Thankfully I don’t have time to go into that kind of detail now.)

Paul writes, “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:1-5, NRSV).

Paul is calling us to open ourselves to God’s work and presence and for us. And Paul is also calling us to look and turn outward to the “interests of others.” Through this we might make his “joy complete,” and “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” As I re-read these famous words, I can’t help but wonder if Paul might have had in mind the polarization and feelings of disunity many might feel right now in our own society? Of course Paul was writing to the particular community of Philippi, but there are parallels and there is poignancy to this passage to today especially I believe.

Nevertheless, Paul is reminding us of a central part of stewardship and discipleship. It’s not all about us. We are not alone. We matter. We are loved. But we are also called, equipped, and entrusted with strengths, gifts, passions, and more to meet the needs of our neighbors here and now and by doing so, to be bearers of God’s love, to be part of the Body of Christ and even to be, at least for a moment, to be of the same servant mind as our savior and Lord.

I’m sure it seems silly, but sometimes a good reminder of this love can come in strange but simple ways like a heart-shaped pizza for dinner to be shared with your loved ones, like we shared in our family last week.

Paul continues in quoting the hymn, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:1-13, NRSV).

The close of this passage is a repetition on a theme if you will. We are yet again, just as we were in the first lesson and psalm, reminded here too of whose work it is and of who is doing the work, God. As we read, “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Why do we do what we do? Because God provides. Because God entrusts. Because God calls. But even more so, because God creates and loves. God is active and up to something, and God chooses to not only be in relationship with us, but to do some of God’s work through us as co-creators with God, and in us, around us, and for us here and now. Perhaps I am repeating myself again, but this cannot be overstated. This is a central tenant of a deep theology of stewardship and must be repeated often, lest we all think it’s all about us.

This week, we skip nearly a chapter ahead in the gospel of Matthew from where we left off last week. After telling the story about the laborers in the vineyard, Jesus again predicts his death and resurrection (20:17-19), deals with James and John and their foolishness for wanting to be on Jesus’ left and right (20:20-28), and then heals two blind men (20:29-34).

Chapter 21 where we find ourselves this week begins with the events of Palm Sunday and Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (21:1-11). At this point the whole city knows Jesus is there. He’s public, and there’s no hiding anymore. What’s more, what does Jesus do upon entering the city? He cleanses the temple and turns over the tables. He upends social norms and rules and orders, so that in his mind at least, God’s work can be done of healing and curing and praising (21:12-17). He’s then hungry for breakfast in the morning, and causes an unproductive tree to shrivel and uses that experience as one about a lesson of prayer and God’s provision (21:18-22). All of this has happened before this week’s story. That’s quite a bit actually, but it catches us up, especially to the tone of the questions that Jesus faces now.

Jesus goes back into the temple, the same one the day before that he accused of being a “den of robbers” (21:13, NRSV), and turned over the tables in. And when he shows up, those in authority have some questions filled with anger, frustration, and perhaps even a hope to trap him in his words and actions. We read that, “When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?‘ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.‘ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things‘” (Matthew 21:23-27, NRSV).

Jesus knows that his hour has almost come. He’s no longer set with his eyes on Jerusalem. He’s here. And he’s going to make the most of it. But that also means he’s done engaging in silly trap-like questions. If those with questions refuse to be honest with their answers and intentions, Jesus will not give them the time of day. Besides, if it’s not clear by now by whose authority he cleanses, heals, and saves, then will it ever be- even with his own resurrection? (That’s a rhetorical question obviously.) You have to feel for Jesus in his frustration here.

Perhaps we might relate, when we get to the point of exasperation when those around us still don’t seem to get that God’s love and grace is what it is. That God’s love and grace- is boundless, abounding, abundant, and steadfast. It is unlimited. It is not exclusive. But it is very much inclusive, often to the point of making people mad, which Jesus has clearly done to those in power and authority here both through the events of the past few years, and especially the day before in turning over the profiteering tables in the temple, as well as not honoring or responding to their question as they wanted him to.

After having his authority questioned again, Jesus goes back to doing what he does so often. Teaching and preaching through parables and stories. This one about to sons. Jesus asks the crowd, “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.‘ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him” (Matthew 21:28-32, NRSV).

We are all witnesses to God’s saving, redeeming, healing, and reconciling work, call, and activity. The question is, how do we respond? Do we believe and then repent and change and follow and grow as disciples and serve as stewards? If so, we follow the example of tax collectors and prostitutes. Or do we continue on our way, not sharing what we have learned, or worse yet, choosing to ignore it altogether? That seems to be the point about the two sons. Are we honest and do as we are asked? Or do we deceive ourselves and others, and do not follow the call?

That’s kind of a hard text for the gospel lesson in some ways. It’s not all good news. It’s very law heavy. But there is good news here- in that- if even those who were shunned in society and seen as the worst of sinners (tax collectors and prostitutes for example) can turn and be lifted up as those whom God loves- there is hope for us too. God is at work through us, in us, and with us. Will we choose to be turned around, and turned outward to God’s beautiful but hurting world to grow and follow as disciples, and respond in gratitude and joy as stewards? To see our neighbors and care for them in their needs? Or will we choose to go our own way and think it’s all up to us? To think that all that we do, is just about us?

Perhaps these are the deep and important questions that Jesus is trying to bring to the forefront in his literally last few days on earth before the events of the cross and resurrection. If so, they are not just important- but they are questions that have at the heart of them- are very lives. God in Christ wants us to “turn, then, and live.” God in Christ wants us to choose the abundant life that he offers. The question is, will we? Especially in such a day as this, when we all know even more clearly during a pandemic how little we all are in control of and how much we need each other and especially need God. May this time be not just a wake up call to God’s call and presence with us, but a chance to reaffirm and recommit ourselves to the hard and important work of discipleship and stewardship for the sake of all of God’s beloved.

Sunday September 27, 2020: The Narrative Lectionary- The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Narrative Year 3, Week 3)
Narrative Theme: God’s Work Through Joseph
Focus Passage: Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15-21
Gospel Verse: Luke 6:35

As the narrative lectionary does each year in the fall, we skip ahead from where we were last week. We move from God’s promise to Abraham to God’s work through Joseph. From Genesis chapter 15 to Genesis chapters 37 and 50. This week we dwell in a portion of this well known story that some perhaps know best because from an artistic rendition of it known as “Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat.”

Our portion of the story begins in Genesis 37:3 and following, “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, ‘Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.‘ His brothers said to him, ‘Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?’ So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words” (Genesis 37:3-8, NRSV).

I can’t say much to try and defend Joseph’s brothers. But I can say on behalf of all siblings everywhere, the feeling of jealousy is probably not unique to this family. Most parents try and not admit they have favorite, but not Jacob (or Israel). No. As we read, he “loved Joseph more than any other of his children.” This obviously wouldn’t sit well with any potential sibling. Nor would such dreams which would make it out to seem that the youngest would be in charge. (Of course, that’s exactly what happens.)

Out of their jealousy and spite, the brothers concoct a plan to remove Joseph from them and to end their frustration and anger of his words, presence, and presumed authority. Continuing in 37:17, “So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’ But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, ‘Let us not take his life.‘ Reuben said to them, ‘Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him’ —that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father” (Genesis 37:17-22, NRSV).

There’s not a lot yet in this story about stewardship or discipleship. But it’s a very human story, at least in the depths of human brokenness of relationship, jealousy of others, and perhaps falling victim to the lies and sins of scarcity instead of the abundance we know to be real through God.

The darkest part of the story continues. “Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt. When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. He returned to his brothers, and said, ‘The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?’ Then they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood. They had the long robe with sleeves taken to their father, and they said, ‘This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.’ He recognized it, and said, ‘It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.‘ Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days” (Genesis 37:26-34, NRSV).

Terrible. Horrible. No good. That’s about all you can say about this story up to this point. You might be able to understand the motivation for the brothers, but it surely does not justify the ends nor the means. Jacob will mourn, because of this selfishness. On a side note, it is interesting that his brothers sell Joseph for twenty pieces of silver. It sounds somewhat similar to what happens to Jesus during that night he was betrayed. At least for Joseph’s brothers there is hope for reconciliation still.

Joseph’s extended family finds themselves in great need. They have traveled to Egypt looking for food and sustenance and life. In doing so, not only will they find this, they will again find their brother. And through this hard work, be reconciled toward one another.

We read in Genesis 50:15 and following that, “Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?‘ So they approached Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.‘ Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, ‘We are here as your slaves.’ But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them” (Genesis 50:15-21, NRSV).

“Do not be afraid!” These four words we find all over the narrative of scripture. And here they are a sign from Joseph that he recognizes not only what God has done, but what God is doing. He acknowledges, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” And then Joseph provides for his own extended family. He shows love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation. This is the work we are all called into through God’s saving and reconciling work done once and for all for us through the cross and resurrection. This is the work we are all called to embody too with the entirety of the Body of Christ and our neighbors near and far.

It’s not always easy. That we know to be true, especially in challenging and polarizing times in society like now. But we must also remember what Jesus says. For example in Luke 6:35, “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6:35, NRSV).

We are called to be different. To be bearers of light and love, not ingratitude and indifference. To be bearers of God’s abundant generosity, not perpetrators of the lies and sins of scarcity. Joseph lived a life pointing to these distinctions. Jesus preached about them and the great reversal that can come only through God’s work and love for us. This week we are invited to recognize these truths in our life and world, and to turn toward God, and commit ourselves to being a part of this and following such examples of Joseph to offer another way in a world which often suggests that selfishness, idolatry, and power are the ways of doing things, when really God’s work is done through lives and acts of compassion, mercy, hospitality, and deep and abundant love.

Whatever story or stories ignite your imagination this week, may God’s abundant generosity and love be made known to you and through you!

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