This week’s stewardship and discipleship nuggets based on the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary for the Fourth Sunday in Lent are as follows:
It feels like it might be the “greatest hits week” on the radio, or at least in the lectionary. When you get John 3:16-17 etc. in the gospel, the Ephesians text that that along with Romans helped change the church with the Reformation and Martin Luther, the serpent on a stick as a gift for whining in in the wilderness in the first lesson, and “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good” as the start of Psalm 107, it really does feel like the greatest hits week. Oh what a week to preach. Unless you feel like all has been said about these texts, what new things could be discerned? I digress. But oh… where we find ourselves in this pandemic and over half way through Lent, these stories are as timely as ever.
Let’s take them in order like we usually do, beginning with our first lesson appointed for this week from Numbers 21, picking up the story of God’s people Israel wandering in the wilderness after having crossed the sea yet not yet arrived at the promised land. “From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live” (Numbers 21:4-9, NRSV).
I think we all might relate to this story in a new way now, especially as we remember that, “the people became impatient on the way” (Numbers 21:4, NRSV). Doesn’t that describe all of us during this on-going pandemic? Surely we are making strides as more and more are vaccinated to coming out of it, but we aren’t quite there yet, just as God’s people Israel wasn’t quite to the promised land. It’s this point in any journey that bad things happen. You take it for granted. You think you’re past the point where bad things might happen… but wait. In this case, the people go and complain saying “there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food” (Numbers 21:5, NRSV). Well is it really “no food,” or you just “don’t like the cooking”? Because if its scracity of resources, that’s one thing. But if its because the food is different and the way things are is different than you might like, well, that’s another thing entirely, isn’t it? Much like the way we worship right now is a bit different than we might all prefer.
God doesn’t like complaining apparently as much as anyone else. Except for God, the response is to send poisonous serpents or snakes. To quote Indiana Jones, “Snakes? Why does it have to be snakes?” What’s worse, the way to survive the snakes after repentance and turning back toward God, is to look at a bronze sculpture of a poisonous serpent on a pole. I guess it’s a matter of opinion if that might look any better than a golden calf or a golden statue of an idol or political figure. But in terms of stewardship, I think this is a story that calls us to reflect on where we are, why we’re here, and what we’re doing. But more so, it’s a story that reminds us also whose we are, God’s. So for as much as we might “become impatient on the way” wishing the pandemic would cease and life would go back to the way things were, we’re not there yet. To think otherwise is foolishness and shows a complete lack of reality and displays a lack of empathy towards our neighbors’ needs.
I get it though. I am just as guilty. I so badly want things to go back to “normal.” But that want is just that, a want. If we lose sight of that and turn it into our focal point, we’ll lose the bigger vision and perspective. Perhaps that’s why according to most insurance companies, the most common traffic accidents happen to people within a mile within their home, often on their way home, because people have let their guard down. Let’s not do that with this pandemic. To quote the Nebraska commercials airing, “Finish strong.” And to use a couple sports analogies- run all the way through first base, or don’t drop the football at the one yard line celebrating before you actually crossed into the end zone.
It might sound counterintuitive, but because God chooses to relent and here the confession and repentance of God’s own, God turns yet again from God’s ways of death and allows for life to carryon through the creation of a bronze sculpture. This is yet another saving act- saving the people from the poisonous snakes if you will. It’s not totally dismissal to every other saving act of God for God’s people- acts that point to the truth and promises of God’s “steadfast love” that “endures forever” as we remember with the psalmist this week. As the psalmist proclaims, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures for ever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Psalm 107:1-3, NRSV).
At the same time, we remember with the psalmist that the people turn away, and then turn back to God. Upon returning to God or repenting, thankfulness, gratitude, generosity, and joy are experienced yet again in more abundance. The psalmist continues, “Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction; they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction. Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy” (Psalm 107:17-22, NRSV).
This saving work of God is made abundantly clear in the second lesson and gospel lesson appointed for this week. This saving work is why we do what we do. We respond with joy and gratitude. We are so filled and moved, we can’t help but want to give thanks and be part of God’s work in the world in some way. It’s not our work, but God’s. And we don’t do the work to save ourselves, for God alone can save. But we do what we do in response to who God is and all that God does and promises to do, for us.
The second lesson from Ephesians 2 is very much language we know by heart, because our confession and forgiveness in our own liturgy borrows heavily from these verses. As a confessional people of the cross, we likely know the meaning of these words well. Paul writes, “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else” (Ephesians 2:1-3, NRSV). We were dead. Full stop. Death had had the final word. But it doesn’t anymore. Why? Because God offered another way. Hence where stewardship comes in as our response to the promises and gifts of God.
Paul continues, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:4-10, NRSV). Indeed, “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” A central tenant of the Reformation and of Martin Luther’s rediscovery that set him on the path that led to the rise of Protestantism and more broadly the on-going work of the Holy Spirit in new ways in all of the church.
Sometimes we really need to remember this. Whether our church and congregation is five years old, or five hundred. The church’s existence and life is not because of the work, resiliency, generosity, and dedication of some people. That has mattered, certainly. But it is not their work that has made it so. It’s God’s on-going work and promise. The moment we turn inward and think about ourselves without remembering whose work we are a part of- God in Christ’s- is the moment we boast in ourselves and miss the point altogether. Church anniversaries, for example, are a great opportunity to think about the past and the future which God calls forth and creates. So often though they are focused on the past and what people have done with little to no deep theological reflection about God’s on-going work in, through, among, and for God’s people. When we lose sight of the bigger picture whether in this, or amid the pandemic because of a desire to get back to normal, we lose sight of God’s on-going work and promises that continue even if the way we gather looks and feels different than we might otherwise like.
The gospel lesson that includes a couple verses we might know by heart, starts this week though with a recollection of the first lesson. We read, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:14-21, NRSV).
There’s so much good stuff in this well known passage from John. But as I have said elsewhere, though John 3:16 is rightfully great, John 3:17, honestly is even better. By itself John 3:16 seems to imply faith is a work necessary for eternal life. Whereas the next verse reminds it’s not our work that is being done, challenging that first assumption. And it’s not a limited work, but an inclusive one, one for the whole world. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Who does the saving? God in Christ. How do we know this, through the very light that has come into the world that John begins his gospel with and reiterates here.
God’s saving work is a gift. It’s offered abundantly for me and for you, for all of God’s beloved children and creation. How we miss this so often is disappointing to say the least. This matters. This story is central to our faith, and the promises within supercede every other concern. It’s a gift that makes life possible. It’s not something we could ever do for ourselves or ever earn.
Like I said, this is kind of like the greatest hits week with these four stories. Forgive me if this comes off weird, but in hearing these stories today I wonder if God might not just be laughing at all of us trying to justify ourselves and explain away our rationale for not doing more to make sure the pandemic is done before it is. I wonder if God might not just be laughing at us too, that we still haven’t quite figured it out what it means to be God’s people in community with one another near and far? I wonder, if God might be going- this is what it means to be my people and to tell my story- both in old and familiar ways, and in new exciting and emerging ways like congregations are finding their being more evangelical than ever through live-streaming and sharing the stories of God online for people who may not otherwise find themselves nearby or ever see themselves willing to be in a physical church building? If so, what a gift that we have found ways to reach and share the on-going story of God’s love and promises in such ways.
In putting these stories together, I kind of picture God in a rocking chair, rocking, grinning with joy, and laughing. Not at grief and loss, but with us. As we hopefully yet again figure out what God has been trying to say for so long. That God loves us. That God is with us. That God is for us. These reminders though simplistic, put me in my place and I suspect they might put you back in a proper place as one of God’s beloved too. This week at least I seem to be hearing these stories in a slightly new way giving credence to the old adage that the “Bible is both historical and a living Word.” How about you?
Sunday March 14, 2021: The Narrative Lectionary- The Fourth Sunday in Lent (Narrative Year 3, Week 27)
Narrative Theme: Rich Man and Lazarus
Focus Passage: Luke 16:19-31
Psalm Accompaniment: Psalm 41:1-3
Another week, and another great story from the gospel of Luke. Especially for thinking about stewardship and discipleship. This week we hear the famous parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus. A parable that St. John Chrysostom wrote at least sevens sermons on which we now have preserved in the great theological stewardship book, On Wealth and Poverty (trans. Catherine P. Roth, Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984). Whenever I read this story, I always recall this little book because in college it was one that stood out for me as putting the relationship of economics and religion, and of faith and finances in a new way.
The story goes like this. “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.‘ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead’” (Luke 16:19-31, NRSV).
Who has a name in this story? Lazarus, the poor man who laid by the gate. Who goes nameless? The rich man. That point matters. The poor man Lazarus has a relationship with God. The rich man, perhaps because he didn’t need one because he had such abundance and hoarded it, didn’t have much or any relationship with God. Even in death, he doesn’t get it. He wants Lazarus to wait on him, which is very ironic given that the rich man never shared the same level of care and concern for Lazarus in life.
Obviously, in Lent this story speaks well to life and death. It is a good illustration of the events of the cross, death, and resurrection to come. But that’s not all that it is. It’s a warning and acknowledgment too from Jesus that he knows even with proof, people will still not be convinced and believe. In wanting to warn his brothers, the man misses the point that they too likely wouldn’t believe the message and promise of God which has been sitting there, their entire lives. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31, NRSV). This may not be a direct passion prediction, but it pretty much nails what will happen during and after the resurrection. It’s a reminder though in the best light of God’s abundance and promises, and the fact that even when life might be going terribly, as it did for Lazarus, you are never alone. God is with you.
Which begs the question, are you more like Lazarus or the rich man? My fear is that we are often more like the rich man. Which is particularly concerning for those of us who are called to be ministers of Word and Service or Word and Sacrament. A warning, as this parable seems to be one. Be careful, dear pastors and deacons (like me), who wear purple vestments especially in this Lenten season. Be careful that we don’t become more like the rich man who ignores the needs visible and less visible in and around us in our communities and world. Be careful that we don’t start to think we have figured it all out, and in so doing miss God’s invitation, call, and activity to something important and perhaps even new and different right in front of our own eyes. Most of all, don’t ignore the signs of one in need, and make sure those in your faith community are also so attuned to witness the needs and feel equipped and empowered to respond to them through their vocations and baptized lives as disciples and stewards.
In a word of comfort that is suggested to pair with this famous gospel story, the Narrative Lectionary offers Psalm 41:1-3. The psalmist proclaims, “Happy are those who consider the poor; the Lord delivers them in the day of trouble. The Lord protects them and keeps them alive; they are called happy in the land. You do not give them up to the will of their enemies. The Lord sustains them on their sickbed; in their illness you heal all their infirmities” (Psalm 41:1-3, NRSV). Who does the work of providing, sustaining and giving life? God. Who does the work of saving life? God. Not us. We need God. The rich man needed God and lost sight of that. Lazarus needed God and knew that so fully based on the challenges of life. May we always all remember we need God, and by doing so, remember we need each other as God’s hands and feet, called into relationship with one another as bearers and stewards of God’s love in the world here and now.
There are so many rich stories in the revised common and narrative lectionaries this week. No matter where the Spirit moves you this week, may the promises, grace, and love of God be proclaimed through you and made real to you this week. Thank you for being part of God’s work here and now through all that you are and all that you do. And most of all, thanks be to God who makes it all possible.