This week’s stewardship and discipleship nuggets based on the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost are as follows:
Sunday October 11, 2020: Revised Common Lectionary- The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 28- Year A)
First Lesson: Isaiah 25:1-9
Second Lesson: Philippians 4:1-9
Gospel of Matthew 22:1-14
This week’s stories have lots to offer in terms of food for thought about stewardship and discipleship. As we usually do, we’ll take them in order and note some initial observations that come to mind and ideas or questions they might raise.
The first lesson comes from the prophet Isaiah who proclaims, “O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure. For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt. Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you. For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat. When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm, the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place, you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; the song of the ruthless was stilled. On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death for ever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isaiah 25:1-9, NRSV).
The work of stewardship is first and foremost a response of joy and gratitude to God for all that God has done, continues to do, and will do. The prophet exemplifies this well. “I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things…” How could we do anything else? Some of what God does and has done, has been to care for the poor and oppressed by being a “refuge” and “shelter.” God has subdued the “blast of the ruthless.” God “will swallow up death forever.” And “will wipe away the tears from all faces.” Indeed, as the prophet concludes, “let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” That’s the starting place of stewardship. It’s a response. And namely it’s a response first and foremost to and for God, who loves so widely, generously, and abundantly.
We hear the balm that is Psalm 23 as well in worship this week. The psalmist sings the familiar song, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (Psalm 23:1-6, NRSV).
Just as we respond with joy and gratitude with the prophet, we also remember that with the psalmist, God provides and provides abundantly. We “shall not want.” Again, this doesn’t discount the fact that there are plenty of people in this world lacking basic needs and food, access to clean water, safety and shelter. There’s work to be done. God provides plenty. The question is, how do we steward all that God provides? Clearly not well enough, as there is way more than enough food to end world hunger. Yet somehow, our systems and will are broken and the sinfulness of hoarding and the lies of scarcity run rampant in our world. And through that, they prevent all of God’s beloved and our neighbors near and far of receiving what God provides for them. Because after all, with God there is enough. With God, our cup really does “overflow.”
Perhaps uniquely given this time in the world, I’m hearing these words particularly this week, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your road and your staff- they comfort me.” Amid this hard walk of this COVID pandemic which persists and it appears to only be getting worse, we are reminded with these words that God walks with us even still, and especially now amid the fear, worry, uncertainty, and anxiety; as well as the illness, loss, death, and despair. God’s love is real. God is present. God is with us, for us, and loves us. We need to be reminded of this truth always.
The Apostle Paul gives words like the prophet this week, offering words for us and our response to God’s gifts, provision, all that God’s entrusts and promises. Paul writes to the people of Philippi, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:1-9, NRSV).
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Why do we do what we do? Why do we sing praise in worship? Why do we give thanks? Because of all that God has done. We can’t help but rejoice. That’s why we serve fully and joyfully as stewards. That’s why we live, learn, and grow as disciples. Because how could we not, give thanks and praise? For God is with us, that is why we “let our requests be made known to God” in “prayer and supplication.” It might be hard to rejoice right now amid this pandemic time, but take a step back. God’s work is being done. The sick are being cared for. The people of God are responding to the needs of their neighbors as signs of God’s abundance and generosity made real, and as God calls us all to see our neighbors and to care for them. It may look a bit different than it did prior to the pandemic, but I firmly believe that God’s work is being done and that God is very much active and up to something. Are we able and willing to see it? And even amid the pain and reality of this pandemic, to take time to give thanks that God’s Word, God’s presence, and God’s promise and hope that we share is true and real? For when we do, I think we might just be able to rejoice again.
Perhaps the hardest words this week to hear come from the Gospel, as ironic as that might be. As has been the case the past couple of weeks, we’re in the last few days of Jesus’ time before the trial and crucifixion. He’s preaching and teaching in Jerusalem and making clear why all of this is so important. Lives are on the line.
We read from Matthew 22, “Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. ‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen’” (Matthew 22:1-14, NRSV).
Yet another parable. And yet another one which probably makes us feel a bit uncomfortable, to put it mildly. There’s invitation. There’s denial. There’s murder and death. There’s a wedding. There’s robes, and one without a robe. And there’s darkness and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” When Jesus includes that line in a parable, you know it’s serious. And then he concludes, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
What are we to make of this word for us now? In terms of stewardship and discipleship perhaps it’s a reminder that God invites us all. That God loves us all. That God will go to the extent of death and resurrection for us. We can’t earn that act. But we are invited and called to respond to it as stewards and disciples through the way we see our neighbors and care for them. We’re invited and called to respond through the way we take our baptismal promises seriously and strive to work for justice and peace in all the world, grow in our understanding of God’s Word and promises, and gather together (in person or online) with God’s people. We’re invited and called to respond to God’s invitation to come and see that the Lord is good, to share in the sacrament together.
My heart aches every time I read this parable. I’ll admit, I am not the biggest fan of attending weddings. They just seem like big ordeals, with lots of conversations (which may or may not be fun on a given day). But when put in perspective, this story isn’t really about a wedding necessarily, but it is about God’s Work for us and God’s call for us to witness it, and invite us to receive and share in it. Will we? That’s the big question. Jesus knows it’s not so simple, otherwise he wouldn’t be trying to drive this point home over and over again in his final days before the events of the cross and tomb. But he does this, because of God’s deep, abundant, and abiding love for God’s beloved. He does this for us. My hope and prayer, is that not only that we hear these words, but they again ground and motivate us to be the stewards and disciples God created, calls, invites, hopes and dreams that we will be.
Our journey through the narrative jumps ahead a few chapters this week from the Passover to the time out in the wilderness, a golden calf, and God changing God’s mind. It’s a very familiar story, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy one to hear, preach, or dwell in necessarily.
Exodus 32 begins, “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.‘ Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.’ They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel” (Exodus 32:1-6, NRSV).
What was Aaron thinking? That’s my honest question at this point in reading this story again today. How on earth did he think that this approach was a good idea? Or was he just that tired with the journey without an end in sight (sound familiar- think our current pandemic), that he just wanted to throw his hands up and say “enough.” I give up. I’m tired. (I’m tired of distancing. I’m tired of working remotely. I’m tired of wearing masks… The list could be long with this parallel I suspect). Perhaps Aaron was just so tired and afraid of the crowd and without Moses there to lead alongside, he just didn’t want to fight anymore or worried about what the crowd might do to him. Either way the people don’t look good. They make an idol and worship it. And Aaron looks terrible in this story too.
God and Moses meanwhile have been engaged in a deep conversation and time together, which the people below don’t really know about it’s outcome and Moses’ well-being. And because of that, they turn their backs on God and God’s call and promises to them by creating and worshiping an idol. The story continues.
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt! The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.‘ But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (Exodus 32:7-14, NRSV).
So much happens in these last 8 verses. God is ready to let loose and give up on these people. And if so, God would then turn to Moses and build a new line through him. Life wouldn’t be so bad for him, perhaps. Maybe even the story would end differently at the end of the wilderness wanderings, and God might even let Moses into the promised land then? We’ll never know. Because Moses wouldn’t have it. Moses reasoned with God and because of it, God, which God rarely does, changed God’s mind.
That’s not a small thing. Moses convinced God to remember God’s own work and promises of the past. To remember the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. To remember that God would multiply Abraham’s descendants like the stars in the heavens. Moses made his case, and God relented. The people in the valley surely deserved it, but God’s abundant love won out over God’s desire for vengeance and justice. Moses did the work then of justice here, but of course the people would again need to change course. They would need to confess and receive God’s forgiveness. And respond with gratitude, joy, and thanksgiving for their one and true God who provided life and hope out of slavery and who walked with them through the sea and along the wandering path through the wilderness. In that way, in that response, this is perhaps yet another invitation to respond and live as stewards.
This familiar story where Moses interceded for the people is connected with Jesus’ last words on the cross. Where in the gospel Luke we read, “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing” (Luke 23:34, NRSV). God in Christ’s ultimate work is for us. To provide life. To provide hope. To provide healing. To provide grace and forgiveness, and the hope and promise of eternal life. It is because of this that God in Christ goes through the sham of a trial, the terrible death on a cross, and burial in a tomb. All of this, is for us. Just as Moses acted for the people that day on the mountain with God.
When we remember that God is for us, with us, and loves us, we are turned toward God and outward toward our neighbors. When we remember this, we are more able to fully live and lean into our lives as stewards and disciples.
Wherever these stories lead, wherever the Spirit guides, may God’s love and promises be true for you, and proclaimed through you this week and always.