Preaching Thoughts- July 11, 2021

You’ll notice a change in the title of this blogpost series. My role on the Nebraska Synod Staff has changed. It still includes stewardship, but it now also includes mission and innovation. So as the Director for Mission, Innovation and Stewardship, I am going to pivot this weekly post synod (which is now resuming) to include themes around these areas as well as discipleship. You likely may not notice much of a difference, but we’ll see. Here goes a new experiment. Without further adieu, here are some thoughts about the appointed readings for the Revised Common and Narrative Lectionaries for Sunday July 11, 2021.

Sunday July 11, 2021: Revised Common Lectionary- The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)Lectionary 15
First Lesson: Amos 7:7-15
Psalm 85:8-13
Second Lesson: Ephesians 1:3-14
Gospel of Mark 6:14-29

This week’s stories are familiar on the one hand, but somewhat hard texts too. From a hard word from the prophet Amos to some more comforting words perhaps from the psalmist, a good reminder of God’s claim on us from the Apostle, and well… the Gospel lesson that reminds us that the way of the cross and the way of the prophetic life is not always easy as John the Baptist knew full well. Let’s take the story in order, though note I won’t refer to the lesson from Ephesians in the revised common lectionary portion this week because it is the focus text in the narrative. So I will invite you to scroll down to the narrative lectionary for some thoughts about that text there.

From Amos 7, we read, “This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb-line.’ Then the Lord said, ‘See, I am setting a plumb-line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’ Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, ‘Amos has conspired against you in the very centre of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, “Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.” ’ And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’ Then Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel” (Amos 7:7-15, NRSV).

In the vein of prophets who offer words of warning, consolation, or even woe. Amos seems to pick up the theme. We read in verse 9, “the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” If you are looking for some words about peace, you are going to be hard pressed to hear them this week. But justice, justice might be a theme within discipleship that could be timely with this and the gospel text. Another line that could be fruitful would be about vocation and call. Towards the end of this lesson we read in verses 14-15, “Then Amos answered Amaziah, ‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'” Though it’s a hard call and ministry that Amos endures, at least because of the nature of the work and prophecy, it’s a holy vocation that God has called Amos to. It’s a reminder for all of us as disciples that our lives as disciples aren’t always easy. But God is with us in them and through them, and it is God who calls and leads us in this life.

To that end the words of the psalmist may be of some comfort. From Psalm 85 we hear, “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps” (Psalm 85:8-13, NRSV).

Verse 12 is particularly helpful. “The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.” It is the Lord who provides. It is the Lord who abides through love and faithfulness. And righteousness will go before the Lord. Good reminders. In terms of stewardship, this verse is helpful too as it puts things in right order. Who is the provider? God. Not you or me. But God. We are co-creators and co-workers with God, but it is not our work or mission, but God’s, that we are a part of. When we remember this, our lives as disciples and stewards are better aligned, more meaningful, and more likely to be able to be endured especially in the harder challenges or “downs” of life that might come along.

That would normally bring us to the second reading. But as a reminder, for thoughts about the second reading from Ephesians 1, please see the Narrative Lectionary commentary below which includes this lesson this week.

The gospel lesson for this week comes then from Mark 6. We’ll take it in two parts, because it begins kind of clunky where the lectionary picks up the story. It picks up right where we left off the prior week from 6:1-13. But verse 14 is an odd place to start. Verses 1-13 tells the story of Jesus returning to his hometown only to be scoffed at (6:1-6), and then alludes to the formal beginning of his ministry and mission and the calling of the twelve disciples (6:7-13). Good stuff all around.

So good, that his name is getting around. And Herod has heard of it. And that’s where the story begins. From verses 14-16, “King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised” (Mark 6:14-16, NRSV).

You got to give Herod a little credit here, I suppose. He knows what he did in beheading John was wrong. He’s quite superstitious in fact, so he worries what all this might bring about and mean. But as he is a political and social leader, and someone in popular society, he worries about his worldly political capital, and social standing, and fulfills the request for John’s head on a platter. It’s a rather gruesome story which we’ve all heard many times. John’s version is interesting, because John gives this background commentary between Jesus’ ministry and Herod’s hearing of Jesus before telling how John was killed. But we ultimately hear all about it again, as this week’s gospel lesson continues with verse 17.

“For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb” (Mark 6:14-29, NRSV).

Herod “feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” (6:20). Again, we almost feel like we have to give Herod some credit here. He understands that John is important. He recognizes that there is something otherworldly or prophetic or even holy about him and with him. But apparently that is not enough to overcome the worldly powers, temptations, sin and death, and injustice and greed, that the world that surrounds Herod espouses and holds dear. It’s a warning to us too perhaps about the power and hold that sin has in our world, structures, and systems. It’s a power and grip that is all too hard to overcome. And, as the rest of the Gospel will explain, is a power that can only be overcome through the acts of Jesus and the cross.

The rest of the story, of John’s death and presentation of his head is just so gross. It’s been well documented in paintings from the historical periods of the last two millennium and doesn’t need much discussion here. But of note, is verse 29. “When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.” On the one hand, that would seem like basic customary practice. On the other hand, it’s also quite the bit of foreshadowing of what is to come for Jesus too. It’s not surprising then, that right after this news, and after the work of ministry that the disciples will have done, Jesus calls them to “come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” (John 6:30). Jesus knows that his mission is becoming clearer. The work and ministry that he has been called to do is going to be all the more important.

The death of John, his co-worker in God’s prophetic work, perhaps even a mentor, friend, and cousin to him, is bound to have an impact on Jesus. Just as anyone’s death does to each of us when we hear the news of someone close to us passing away. Jesus wanting to get away is a recognition that grief needs space and that we all need sabbath to recharge and regroup. But that is a story for next week in the lectionary. This week ends simply with John’s burial.

Where does that leave us? The work of the prophetic is never done. It’s certainly not always easy. It’s life and death. It’s a life pointing to the cross. It’s a life of pointing to the Spirit’s movement. It’s a life of looking inward and outward- calling out injustice and wrongs like John did in the infidelity or at least questionable marriage practices between Philip, Herod, and Philip’s wife (6:17-19). It’s a life of calling out the brokenness in our world, our communities, and our own selves and showing us that God hasn’t abandoned us but is with us, calling us to repent and change. Calling us to turn. And calling all of God’s own beloved back into the fold. It’s a message that will never be easily heard by the masses, especially those in power who profit off the way things are and the injustice that enables them to continue. John ultimately was caught and killed because of this brokenness. Jesus will be too.

We know the rest of the story. What comes after Good Friday. But a story like this one we hear this week is an important reminder, that Easter doesn’t exist without Good Friday. It’s a reminder that though salvation has come near in the form of Christ, God in Christ has not yet taken away all of our brokenness that is in the world and us. God shows us the way through Christ. God offers us the hope and promise of abundant and abiding life and love. The promise of grace, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration. But that promise isn’t one that comes with a complete transformation as of yet. There is still brokenness. There is still hurt, pain, and sin. We hope and trust that in Christ’s return these things will disappear. But in the meantime, they exist. And part of our call as co-workers with God, and perhaps even as prophets like John, is to call out the brokenness where we see it or experience it, or even are in power because of it. And then to move from recognizing the problem, to doing something about it. Calling it out is good. But then comes the next step of faithful discipleship. Following God’s call to address the sin, to change. And to point to a better way through our very words, lives, works, and all that we do and all that we are.

This is never easy work. Again, as John reminds, it’s life and death work. But it’s work we are each called to. Work we’re not alone in doing. Work of baptism- of death and new life. Work of brokenness being turned around. Work of communities being reconciled and growing closer together and closer with God. There will be great moments of joy in work like this. There will also be many moments of despair, sorrow, and worse. God is with us in all of it. As the psalmist reminds, “The Lord will give what is good.” We are not alone. When we face these challenges, we do so not alone but with God and all of God’s people. When we face these, we know that Christ walks with us and the Spirit is filling us with what we need to meet these challenges.

A rainbow appearing in the distant sky east of the Elkhorn River in Nebraska, a sign of God’s promise even after the literal storms such as the one that past by here in the hour prior to the bow in the sky; and storms of life such as that which often follow and confront the prophets and those in leadership and ministry like John the Baptist. God is with us. No matter if we walk through the high points, or the low points, through the joys, or the floods and fires… God’s presence is real, and God walks with us, always.

May we have eyes to see, ears to hear and listen first, mouths to eat and proclaim the good news of God, hands to lift up the lowly and help, and hearts which are moved to feel with compassion for those who are hurting or victims of injustice. This is the work of the cross today and every day. It’s the work John had no problem being a part of- from his work of calling out the powers that be down by the riverside, the work of baptizing our Lord and Savior, and the work of teaching and proclaiming the good news of God even to Herod from behind bars. Friends, you are not alone in this. May God be with you and fill you as you proclaim this truth this week.

Sunday July 11, 2021: The Narrative Lectionary- The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Narrative Year 3- Summer Series…)
Narrative Theme: Ephesians- Week 1 of 4
Focus Passage: Ephesians 1:1-14
Gospel Verse: John 14:25-27

Though the Narrative Lectionary is in the middle of its annual summer hiatus, it does offer recommended series to fill the weeks. For July, it lifts up a 4-part journey through Ephesians as an option, and this week’s text is the beginning of that letter and series, Ephesians 1:1-14. Coincidently, this week’s focus is also includes the epistle lesson in the revised common lectionary.

The epistle begins, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” (Ephesians 1:1-2, NRSV). It’s a typical greeting that we often expect of Paul, and one that many a preacher may well borrow from, at least verse 2 anyway, as a beginning to their preaching.

From the introduction, Paul digs into some meaty theology right away. To the people of Ephesus he writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:3-6, NRSV).

Paul reminds us of who we are and whose we are. We are blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing. God has destined us for adoption as God’s children through Christ. For this and through this we give God praise, thanks, and gratitude. The proper and really only response is a stewardship move here- of joy and thanksgiving to God for what God has done through Christ, continues to do, and will do for God’s beloved. In a discipleship and mission sense, Paul offers us grounding here pointing back to our identity and claim from God on each of us that we understand most clearly through baptism.

Paul continues in pointing to Christ and God in Christ’s saving work for us. He writes, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:7-12, NRSV).

Much of what we profess in the creeds might be explained in these familiar verses. But also Paul continues to unpack the adoption and inheritance metaphors, pointing to the deep relationship grounded in God’s abiding and abundant love for God’s own beloved children. God does this, and again the only response from a stewardship perspective is one of joy and gratitude and of “praise of God’s glory.”

Paul alludes to God’s plan in verse 10 by writing “as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” God will do God’s thing of reconciling, restoring, and bringing God’s beloved together. That is most definitely part of God’s on-going work and plan of redemption and reconciliation that God is at work on even now, through and with us and Christ’s on-going presence in the world. Though I caution about reading too much into the “God has a plan” logic, as popular Christian culture leans heavily here without great theological undergirding. Paul, as should be noted, doesn’t say “God has a plan for your life here…” No. Paul, is simply talking about God’s plan in the holistic and big picture view of all creation being restored and reconciled to God through Christ.

The passage concludes with verses 13 and 14. “In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14, NRSV).

We are marked with the seal of the Spirit in baptism. And that seal and Spirit’s work is towards the claim of God making on and for and with us. An act and promise of relationship, call, and presence. Just as the gospel writer reminds as God’s on-going presence of “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit” who is with us as Jesus said would be so. ”I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:25-27, NRSV).

There’s a lot of good stuff here in this Ephesians passage, and a four week journey through this letter will no doubt lead to great thought, preaching, and reflection.

No matter what you sense or hear in any of the stories this week, may God’s love and promise be made known to you and through you! Thank you for being part of this ministry and work together. -TS

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