Preaching Thoughts- July 25, 2021

Here are some stewardship, discipleship, mission, and innovation thoughts about the appointed readings for the Revised Common and Narrative Lectionaries for Sunday July 25, 2021.

Sunday July 25, 2021: Revised Common Lectionary- The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)– Lectionary 17
First Lesson: 2 Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145:10-18
Second Lesson: Ephesians 3:14-21
Gospel of John 6:1-21

If there were ever a made for preaching Sunday about stewardship in the summer, this would have to be considered one of the top (if not THE top) candidates. Stories of abundance abound. Especially the stories of abundance about the man who had had twenty loaves and fresh ears of grain who Elisha said to give to the people, and the story from the Gospel of John about the feeding of the 5,000. Good stuff. For stewardship, discipleship, and reminders of God’s mission and work to lift up the lowly and meet the needs of God’s beloved. Providing enough and providing abundance. Let’s take this week’s stories in the order that they come.

We read from 2 Kings that, “A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, ‘Give it to the people and let them eat.’ But his servant said, ‘How can I set this before a hundred people?’ So he repeated, ‘Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, “They shall eat and have some left.” ’ He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord” (2 Kings 4:42-44, NRSV).

Abundance and faith. They go hand-in-hand. When someone says there is not enough, like the servant in this story when seeing only 20 loaves and some fresh ears of grain, God says, oh really? The prophet has proclaimed that there will be enough, and so much so, there will be some left over. Does that sound familiar? This theme will be repeated in Jesus’ ministry in our gospel text this week. What is also interesting is that this bread and grain is offered to a person of God as their “first fruits” offering. By offering up the bread to be used as needed, the one offering it is returning a portion of what is God’s, back to God. With this in mind, it’s even easier to understand just how abundance is at work. God can take us, and do amazing things with you and me. God can take a few loaves of bread, and feed thousands. God can turn water into wine. The ordinary can and is extraordinary with and through God, for you and for me.

But what is the proper response to this? Of course it is one of deep gratitude and joy. And the psalmist suggests as much. The psalmist proclaims, “All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your faithful shall bless you. They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom, and tell of your power, to make known to all people your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom. Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations. The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds.The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing. The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings. The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Psalm 145:10-18, NRSV).

We shall give thanks and praise to God because of all that God has done, continues to do, and will do, for God’s beloved. Our praise and thanks will lead us to sharing the promises of God, and God’s story with our friends, loved ones, and the whole world. Telling all what we know that God has done for you and for me. As news of this spreads, the good news of the Gospel will spread, and God’s mission to lift up the lowly and bind up the brokenhearted will continue. God’s work of building up the kingdom will break-in more and more in our world here and now. The poor will be provided for. Those who fear they have not enough, will receive what they need. And we all, as God’s own, will see and understand God’s abundance and generosity at a deeper level. Sharing and holding in common, but more so, not hoarding what God provides but stewarding it well knowing that we have has been entrusted to our care by God so that we might live abundantly, and that through us, some of God’s work in the world might be done in response and in embodiment of God’s love.

The second lesson comes from Ephesians 3, continuing our current journey through this letter from the Apostle Paul. Paul writes, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:14-21, NRSV).

Paul reminds us again, who we are and whose we are. He reminds us too, of whose work we are called to be a part of. It is God, through God’s own “riches” that strengthens us and through whom Christ dwells in our hearts through faith. This isn’t a work. This isn’t something we do, or deserve. But it is God who is at work in us. It is the love Christ that surpasses all of our very being which makes this all possible. For it is God who “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” When things seem impossible, God finds a way. When it seems like we’re trapped in a certain pattern, or there is a need too great, God finds a way. Some time the only thing required to be part of or to witness to God’s activity around us, is to get out of our own way and make room for God to act in, around, with, through, and for us.

It’s a truth about stewardship and discipleship. It’s also a truth about mission and innovation and the church at large. God is up to something. God is always up to something. God might even be doing a new thing for God’s beloved right now. The question I would wonder would be, are we looking for it? Are we witnessing to it? Are we making space for God’s creative and redeeming work to take hold? Or are we inadvertently creating barriers to it? No matter. Our barriers won’t contain God very long, but if there is any way that we can help hasten God’s work and get out of our own way so that God’s radical love can grow and God’s good news can spread through word and deed, we must do it. If this means changing our worship times or experiences, so be it. If it changes the way we gather, like the pandemic did for so long, so be it. If it means, learning to sing or do church differently, so be it.

Because the church isn’t called to be stagnant. It’s called and created to be the very living Body of Christ. Fed around the table of reconciliation. Washed and claimed in the fount of new life. Called, gathered, and sent in our various vocations to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world. Through you, for you, and with you, God is up to something and most likely God is up to something of great abundance. Take some time to listen, to wonder, and sense what God might be up to around you. Perhaps that is what Paul is trying to make clear to the people of Ephesus in writing as he does in this section.

Now turning to the Gospel story, let’s take it in two parts. Beginning with the story of the feeding of the 5,000. We read, “After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:1-14, NRSV).

John’s version of this story is interesting. Because within this version of the story, we hear that the feeding of the 5,000 starts as a test of sorts. Jesus knew what he was going to do. He just wanted to see if the disciples like Philip had been paying attention. But of course, who could blame Philip for thinking that feeding thousands would be impossible. Andrew Simon at least paid attention to the possibility of what assets and resources they might have to work with. Though he certainly viewed the five loaves and two fish with an eye of scarcity. That’s a very normal human thing to do. Who in their right mind would think five loaves and two fish would feed thousands? (Let alone 5,000 people, and have some for left-overs afterwards?) But of course, there was enough. There was more than enough. Twelve baskets or doggy-bags extra of enough. And it’s not like anyone went hungry with a small portion. Because we read that the food that was left over was only collected after all had ate, had “as much as they wanted,” and “were satisfied.”

The cross with the five loaves and two fish as it appears on my green deacon stole. A fitting reminder and depiction of this week’s story about God’s abundance which God provides.

The disciples were right to be amazed. The crowd was too. But as Jesus has been preaching and was teaching to the crowd that had gathered, this was just another way of Jesus showing and teaching about who God is. A God of love. A God of abundance. A God who is enough for you and for me, and because of whom, you and me are enough for we are God’s beloved, created in God’s own image. The disciples were amazed. The crowd was too. They began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who has come into the world.” The crowd’s response to what they had witnessed, at least in John’s version of the story, is that they wanted to make Jesus king. And well, as we know from the rest of the story, that isn’t part of God’s plan- at least in our earthly conception of what being a king might mean. So Jesus withdrew.

Our story continues. “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going” (John 6:15-21, NRSV).

From feeding thousands, Jesus needs a chance to catch his breath. To take some time in prayer and contemplation. To recharge. To be present. Because life and ministry is hard enough. To be the Son of God, well, thankfully none of us could imagine that kind of weight and vocation. God is God, and we are not. Thanks be to God. But after some time to recharge, the disciples were out on the water without him. Storms came. But so did Jesus. Walking on water, saying, “It is I; do not be afraid.” And with that, in just a few verses they reached where they were going. It seems kind of like a passing thought that Jesus walked on water here. I mean, isn’t that kind of extraordinary? The disciples thought he was a ghost, but that’s all that was mentioned. Given the verboseness of John, you would think this might get more narrative. But it’s interesting. It’s right after Jesus feeds thousands and then takes a moment to breathe.

In terms of discipleship, this gospel lesson in its two parts- reminds us that God is enough and because God is enough, we are enough. It reminds us and shows us just what it means that God loves abundantly and provides abundantly. It also shows us that God walks with us, even on the water. God shows up on the nice days on the grass, and in the hard nights that come with storms. We do not live alone. We live with God. We are not called to our own work alone, but are called, gathered and sent with God. And for whatever we might be called to be a part of, because God is with us in it, we are and we have enough to meet the challenges of the task. Sometimes that might mean though, that we have to put our human notions of what is possible aside, and allow space for the extraordinary or seemingly impossible to emerge. When we do that, we might just witness some pretty amazing things.

Sunday July 25, 2021: The Narrative Lectionary- The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Narrative Year 3- Summer Series…)
Narrative Theme: Ephesians- Week 3 of 4
Focus Passage: Ephesians 4:1-16
Gospel Verse: John 15:1-4

The narrative continues it’s four week journey through Ephesians this week, skipping from chapter 2 to chapter 4. That’s where we pick up Paul’s letter. Let’s take it in a couple parts.

Paul writes, “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)” (Ephesians 4:1-10, NRSV). 

Paul is really off and running with his “We are one” theme now. Grounded in the one body and the one Spirit, one faith, one God and Father of all. Paul is rightfully placing us in our relationship with God, and placing God as the one who is “above all and through all and in all.” When we remember this, God’s move to be in relationship with us seems even more one of grace. As Paul writes, “But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” The gift of life and life abundant. The gift above all gifts, but also that reminds us that all that we have and all that we are- gifts, callings, talents, strengths, etc., are all entrusted to us by God. They are entrusted so that we might have abundant and meaningful life, but also so that we might be part of God’s work in the world in some way(s) no matter how small or big.

Paul continues in this line of thinking, writing that, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:11-16, NRSV).

The various gifts and vocations that Paul elaborates are all ones that work together. Together through all of the Body of Christ, we are “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…” We recognize that we don’t do this work alone, but that God is doing the work and inviting us to be a part of God’s work as a co-worker and co-creator with God. And by doing so, we do so by “speaking the truth in love,” and “growing up” as disciples, stewards, and Children of God together. When this is working as it should as a community of the One Body, then really each part “promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

As a synod staff person, Ephesians 4:1-16 is really my favorite passage for reading with church councils. Because this isn’t a work that is about just a pastoral leader, but about the whole congregation. There is purpose. There is accountability. But there is also relationship, with the mutual goal being growth in Christ and being built up in love. It’s not about more members, more kids, more more, more numbers… etc. It’s about love. When that is at the center of our understanding of the work God calls us together to be part of, the rest of the life of the church falls into right order. We begin to understand more fully the hard but important work of reconciling and neighbor love. We create space for the big questions of life and faith and by pondering them, invite each other to grow as disciples. We name the challenges and the joys, the highs and the lows together as the people of God. We respond to God’s gifts and abundance as we are able with joy and gratitude. And we begin to truly embody this passage as we all continue to grow as the Body of Christ together.

This passage from Ephesians 4 is helped by being paired with John 15:1-4. Where we read from the gospel, “‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me” (John 15:1-4, NRSV).

All that we do, and all that we are, is possible only because of God. All that we are and all that we have, is God’s. When we remember this, growth and mutual upbuilding of the one body are truly possible. Just as it is possible then for the for the branch to bear fruit. If we abide with God, God abides with us. And love is shared. Seems like a simple lesson from Sunday School. But perhaps its one that needs to be said over and over and over again. Summertime might just be the perfect time to repeat it, especially in contexts like mine where plants are growing high in gardens, and the corn and soybean crops are well underway in the fields.

Whatever story or stories catch your imagination this week, may God’s love and presence be with you, and may you share them and point to them through your work, ministry, and messages. -TS

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