Preaching on Stewardship- The First Sunday in Lent

After a long hiatus between parental leave and the Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany seasons, the weekly preaching column ideas returns hopefully somewhat triumphantly with the first week in Lent. This week’s stewardship and discipleship nuggets based on the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary for the First Sunday in Lent are as follows:

Sunday February 21, 2021: Revised Common Lectionary- The First Sunday in Lent (Year B)
First Lesson: Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
Second Lesson: 1 Peter 3:18-22
Gospel of Mark 1:9-15

The first Sunday in Lent provides a fantastic opportunity to preach- particularly about discipleship and stewardship. The stories ground us in God’s promises. These stories in particular remind us who we are, and whose we are. They again point us to answers of questions like “why do we do what we do?” What a perfect time to ground us in such stories and promises, but also, how timely as we live in hope that this global pandemic might soon subside as more and more of humanity is vaccinated. It’s not lost on me either that it was Lent last year, when this pandemic began in earnest in this country to be the regular news headline, and it was also during Lent last year, where the way we did things like gather for worship would change indefinitely in order to keep our neighbors safe and to help flatten the curve. So with that in mind, we are called back into Lent this week with some stories in which, I at least, find a great deal of hope.

Our first lesson comes from Genesis and we pick up the story at the end of the flood with Noah and his family. God declares, “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after youand with every living creature that is with you” (Genesis 9:9-10, NRSV). This covenant and promise is one that will be revisited with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, and then throughout the on-going history of our faith. God will remember God’s people. God will care for God’s people. And God will be with God’s people. God says more, “I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11, NRSV).

It’s really sad for me to think that Terry Fretheim passed away late last fall. Because when I read this story in particular I read it and hear it in his voice, as if I’m back in that Pentateuch class I took of his at Luther Seminary. There’s such hope in these words. I know it’s rather ironic. This hope comes right after the greatest destruction of creation, the great washing of all the earth and wiping away of so much. It’s an origin story that can be found to some degree in all of the great faiths and peoples. But for us, it’s a story that reminds us ver much so who God is and to what extent God will go for the love and covenant that God has made out of love for God’s own. That was the point that Terry would drive home, time and time again in my classes of his. And that point, has become so central to my understanding of scripture and articulation of theology.

This love has the sign in our first lesson of a rainbow. As God explains, “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (Genesis 9:13, NRSV). When that bow appears God will remember. Think about that. God will remember and recall God’s own promises, just as we remember and recall God’s work and promises for us as we say such words in our own liturgy in worship. God says, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth…This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth’” (Genesis 9:16-17, NRSV).

Looking through my phone, this appears to be the most recent rainbow that I have a picture of. It’s from a quick COVID-safe getaway from late last summer that my family was able to do. A mere two months (or less) before Cora was born, and a reminder of God’s promises and presence with us. Good news that was needed and welcomed then as it is now.

This isn’t a short term thing. No this is a covenant that is permanent. It will last. It matters. And as we think about stewardship and discipleship it stems from this promise that we then return to God. We turn toward God when we remember what God has done and will do, for us. We turn toward God with joy and gratitude when we remember the lengths to which God will go for God’s beloved. We turn toward God and remember too with signs as solemn as the cross and as hopeful as the rainbow which appears in the sky after the storm. Signs that God is with us, now and always, just as God has always been. Signs and reminders we so need to hear daily, but especially now during this on-going pandemic time.

The response to this good news is phrased well by the psalmist. The psalmist gives voice for our desire to not just turn back to God and repent as is such a central tenant of Lenten practice, but to go and grow deeper with God. The psalmist says for example, “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths” (Psalm 25:4, NRSV). The theme of remembrance is picked up here too, as the psalmist recalls the covenant God made with Noah calling, “according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” (Psalm 25:7, NRSV). And the psalmist sums this relationship up by, to go back to Fretheim one more time, remind of the purpose of the law. It wasn’t to hold us down, but to enable God’s people to live- given so that “life may go well for you,” because God wants life to go well for God’s people. God wants people to grab hold of God’s hand and be in relationship with God and God’s people, and to cling to that gift of abundant life with God provides through God’s deep and steadfast love. As the psalmist concludes, “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees” (Psalm 25:10, NRSV). That’s the whole point of discipleship and stewardship. It’s about a life of response, but more so, it’s about a life of walking with and growing with God and God’s people, together.

This week’s second lesson comes from 1 Peter 3. In this lesson, the epistle writer connects God’s promises and work to Christ’s work. We read, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18, NRSV). This return to God is then connected to God’s work and accompaniment with Noah (3:20) and God’s saving acts through the water, which then of course is naturally tied to the sacrament of baptism. “And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21, NRSV). When we live out our baptisms, grounded in God’s promises, we do so as we grow and live as disciples and stewards. Responding to God’s love and work for us, through being in relationship with God and one another, and serving and joining in God’s work through our vocations and very lives lived.

The Gospel lesson for the First Sunday in Lent in the Revised Common Lectionary, as is the case every year, takes us back to immediately after Jesus’ baptism when he finds himself being tempted in the wilderness by the devil. The difference in Year B is that Mark’s version of the story, like Mark’s version of many stories, is a lot shorter without as much in the way of explanation or detail. But perhaps what I really appreciate about Year B and this story is that it better connects with baptism itself and as response to God’s presence, promises, and work.

The story begins, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1:9-11, NRSV). So we return to the story from Baptism of Our Lord Sunday which began the last season of the church year (the time after Epiphany), and begin Lent with the same story. But wait, there’s more. God is so pleased that immediately the Spirit shows up, and in Mark’s version of the story, it is the very Spirit which leads Christ and drives him out into the wilderness. Perhaps the blame doesn’t just rest with Satan in this story? Since it seems it would be the Spirit, one of three persons of the Triune God, which causes this to happen. That suggests this would be important. But interestingly, whereas other gospels spend many verses explaining about Jesus’ temptations from the devil, Mark spends basically one verse. And then suddenly forty days have passed and Jesus is in Galilee after John who had baptized him had been arrested.

As the story continues and for this week at least, concludes, “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’”(Mark 1:12-15, NRSV). From baptism to wilderness wanderings and temptation, to proclaiming the good news of the Gospel in three verses or less. That’s quite a lot to cover in such short amounts of words. Many a preacher would fail to do what Mark has just done.

But in terms of stewardship and discipleship, what Mark’s version of the very familiar story provides is a lens through which we all live as disciples of God in Christ. We are baptized. We are called beloved and claimed as a Child of God. We are sent out into the world- a beautiful and broken world. Sent into lives of service, joy, and challenge. But sent too, to bear witness to God’s love and to proclaim through word and deed, through our very lives, vocations, and all that we have and all that we are- to the truth and promises of God. As Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15, NRSV).

If there was ever an invitation to Lent, that would be it. An invitation to believe. An invitation to walk with God and grow in our relationship with God and one another. A call to repent or turn toward God. And a reminder, just as God reminds God’s self through the rainbow, that God has come near and is with us. Always. Period. No ifs and or buts. No qualifications or qualifiers. No. The kingdom of God has come near, and Jesus’ eyes already are squarely on the events to come in Jerusalem in a mere forty days’ time. But more so, Jesus’ eyes are open to all- just as his hands are. To embody, to teach, and to show through his own example what a life as a Child of God is to be- what life as a disciple and follower of the way is to be. One with joy. One with challenge. One most of all, where we are never alone. And this is most certainly good news.

Sunday February 21, 2021: The Narrative Lectionary- The First Sunday in Lent (Narrative Year 3, Week 24)
Narrative Theme: The Good Samaritan
Focus Passage: Luke 10:25-42
Psalm Accompaniment: Psalm 15

I’m preaching this week, and as a synod staff person in the midst of pandemic quite excited about it, because as you might imagine the visits to congregations have been a bit fewer and far between than usual. I’m excited to be preaching on the RCL texts above, but just a bit of me is a bit jealous of those of you on the narrative lectionary this week because, well, you can’t do much better in terms of stewardship and discipleship stories than Luke’s story about the Good Samaritan, can you?

The parable as is often the case comes as part of a longer answer to a question posed to Jesus. The question in this story is all about eternal life which Jesus responds to with the Shema and our collective understanding of loving God and neighbor. It’s the quintessential articulation of a theology neighbor love. As the story begins, “Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live’” (Luke 10:25-28, NRSV).

Of course, the lawyer, perhaps as a trait of a lawyer, is not satisfied with just one answer. He wants Jesus to explain more about who is his neighbor. To this, Jesus tells him the story which we all know is that of the Good Samaritan. “But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise’” (Luke 10:29-37, NRSV).

Go and do likewise.” That is Jesus’ call to the lawyer, but also to us. “Go and do likewise.” Go and live and serve faithfully in all the ways God invites us to. Go and grow as a disciple. Go and respond with joy and gratitude as a steward. Go and care for our neighbors in need with what you can, with all that you have been entrusted with by God, and invited through to be a part of God’s work in the world in whatever small or big ways we might find ourselves a part of.

Often times when we hear this story, that’s where it ends. But interestingly on this first Sunday in Lent in year 3 of the four-year Narrative Lectionary cycle, there’s still five more verses included. The Good Samaritan Story is paired with what immediately follows it, the story about Mary and Martha. A story about Jesus being on the way- moving on from village to village and perhaps then offering a daily living example of the very story he just told.

We read, “Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her’” (Luke 10:38-42, NRSV).

I always feel for Martha. I feel like she gets the short end of the stick. But when you pair it with the story that immediately precedes this, perhaps we begin to understand even more deeply why Jesus is so quick to retort to Martha’s consternation about her sister that “Mary has chosen the better part.” For the end of the Good Samaritan story is the call to “Go and do likewise.” Is Martha doing likewise? Is Mary? Perhaps they both are to some extent. But the deeper why they are doing what they are doing might lead to some wondering. Martha is doing what she is doing because of social expectations and societal norms. Sure, she is trying to be a good and proper host. But as such, she is actually not paying any attention to Jesus’ presence, teaching, and invitation. Mary, is trying to listen with her whole-self. That’s a key part of life as a disciple, to be present and to listen.

That’s not to say that Martha is wrong in her service. Service is a central part of discipleship and stewardship. But if you fail to listen to the very God with us who has literally shown up at your door step, perhaps your priorities are a little out of alignment? As someone who likes a clean house and to be a good host and offer hospitality, I have begun to reimagine this story a lot both during COVID and what this means now, but perhaps even more so as the parent of two little kids. Inevitably it is a lot harder right now to keep our house clean and proper for guests. Perhaps at times, it’s more important to just spend time when you can with them and others, to be present, and by doing so, embodying God’s call and invitation to live, learn, and love together?

For this week’s narrative story there is no shortage of possibilities for preaching with themes about discipleship and stewardship- especially as you pair the story about the Good Samaritan with the one about Mary and Martha and how they all follow a question about “what must you do to inherit eternal life.” Both stories then are perhaps examples of what it might look like, or not, to show love to God and love to one’s neighbors.

The narrative lesson is paired this week with Psalm 15. The psalmist asks and proclaims, “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt; who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved” (Psalm 15, NRSV). To some degree this feels like the theme also articulated in Micah 6:8. But together, these are great texts which also pick up the question about what does it mean to love God and love neighbor which is at the heart of this week’s stories.

In whatever direction or story or stories you feel called to follow this week, may God’s love and promise be with you. May you point to that love, promise, and presence through your teaching, preaching, and ministry. And may God’s grace and good news be proclaimed.

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