Preaching Thoughts- September 19, 2021

After some time away for vacation, an unexpected ankle injury, and retooling for the fall, the blog returns to its hopefully more normal rhythm today. Enjoy these brief reflections about this week’s appointed stories from the revised common and narrative lectionaries. Some insights might be offered with discipleship, mission, innovation, and stewardship themes in mind. We’ll see.

Sunday September 19, 2021: Revised Common Lectionary- The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)– Lectionary 25
First Lesson: Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm 54
Second Lesson: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Gospel of Mark 9:30-37

With a first quick read, the RCL might feel like a real mixed bag of stories this week. That said, it’s September, so starting the ministry and discipleship “program year” off last week or this week might make this a bit of an easier Sunday to preach and digging into basics of faith and discipleship. Or not? We’ll see. Let’s take our stories in order.

Our first lesson comes from Jeremiah 11. We read, “It was the Lord who made it known to me, and I knew; then you showed me their evil deeds. But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. And I did not know it was against me that they devised schemes, saying, ‘Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, so that his name will no longer be remembered!’ But you, O Lord of hosts, who judge righteously, who try the heart and the mind, let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause” (Jeremiah 11:18-20, NRSV).

Without context that passage could be a real, “ooh boy…” I mean its hard not to wonder if words like this have inspired religious zealots and violence in God’s name? Words like “let me see your retribution upon them…” Words like this from the prophets make me cringe. But that’s also part of the life and call of a prophet. To move us out of our comfortability. This does that and then some. Perhaps its inclusion in the lectionary this week is the passion prediction that will, as Christians we believe, be lived out in Jesus’ life, death, crucifixion, and resurrection. “But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter…” a verse that one can easily recall hearing sung in any number of Good Friday and Holy Week anthems. With the prophet we ask and trust that God will judge righteously. More so, we ask for and trust in God’s love and grace. Undeserved but given freely. Even when we come up short. Even when we fail to do as we ought and care for our neighbor. Even when we join the horrors of the mob, the state, the corrupt and the powers that be, to the point of putting our Lord and Savior to death.

Thankfully this all isn’t up to us. Because if it were, the way of the world seems pretty clear right now given how the vaccination rates have slowed, and given how children are starting to pay their unfair share of health issues and even deaths because of this continuously mutating virus. With hard words like this from the prophet, perhaps the most faithful discipleship thing we can do is first to pray, “Lord, help me, help, help me. Save me, save me, save me. Amen.” And then trust that God’s saving power and work, and the work of love and grace is real and will be made real- for you, for me, and for all of God’s beloved.

This week’s assigned psalm, Psalm 54, picks up on the “Save me” response to the prophet. The psalmist proclaims, “Save me, O God, by your name, and vindicate me by your might.
Hear my prayer, O God; give ear to the words of my mouth. For the insolent have risen against me, the ruthless seek my life; they do not set God before them. But surely, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life. He will repay my enemies for their evil. In your faithfulness, put an end to them. With a freewill-offering I will sacrifice to you; I will give thanks to your name, O Lord, for it is good.  For he has delivered me from every trouble, and my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies” (Psalm 54:1-7, NRSV).

This is one of my all time favorite offering pictures from worship. This was at First Lutheran Church in Blair, Nebraska in the fall of 2017. It’s a beautiful sight of stewardship and giving, even by one of the youngest members of the faith community who gives what she has for the sake of God’s work in the world, by putting her offering in the little church, while the band provides their offering of music through their gift of song.

If you are preaching on stewardship this week, the psalmist might likely be your best friend. Particularly verses 6-7. “With a freewill-offering I will sacrifice to you; I will give thanks to your name, O Lord, for it is good. For he has delivered me from every trouble…” Our stewardship in action is our grateful and joyful response to God. Our response for what God has done for you and for me- God’s life giving, saving, deliverance, etc. We can’t help but give thanks. And perhaps these verses in particular maybe the perfect starting point for thinking and preaching about stewardship. God’s work is the big stuff. The work of saving. That’s not ours. It’s God’s. Our work is our response to that free gift. Our work is caring for our neighbors through using what God entrusts into our care for our neighbors’ sake and sharing the promises and good news of God with all of God’s beloved. This psalm puts this relationship into good and approachable perspective I think.

This week’s second lesson comes from James chapters 3 and 4. From chapter 3 we read, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace” (James 3:13-18, NRSV). James is continuing his lessons and arguments about work and faith active in works. Yes, Martin Luther would roll his eyes or worse. But if we give James the benefit of the doubt, we remember that what we do matters for the sake of our neighbors.

James continues in chapter 4, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:1-3, NRSV). When our priorities are out of wack, as James puts a little more bluntly, things will not go well. We do need to remember who we are and whose we are. We need to be honest about our conflicts and issues, and be realistic and humble enough to know what roles we might have in causing such, and then also what responsibility we have as part of the One Body in Christ to reconcile with one another.

If you are really wanting to dig in deep, perhaps this is where the Spirit might be leading you now in your context? Amid on-going pandemic. Amid on-going polarization, conflict, pointing of fingers, and finding no room in the middle or general shared concern for the common good. We all have a part to play in this. We all have had a role in the issues and problems that surround us and involve us. We all have a responsibility too, to help create and bring about a better way. Knowing its not all of our work to do, but it is part of our work. God calls us to it. God walks with us in it. And because of that, we are enough for it, and it is indeed possible because it is God who has at work in, through, with, and for you and me in it.

So yes, as James writes, “we submit ourselves to God,” as he concludes, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:7-8, NRSV). We remember though that the cleansing comes through God, and not through us alone. We confess our sin. We seek forgiveness. We repent and turn toward God. And as we do, we are made clean, and we are called to do the same with our neighbors and siblings in Christ.

Turning to the gospel lesson appointed for this week, we find ourselves in Mark 9, having skipped about 30 verses from the end of Mark 8 where we left off last week. This week’s story includes another passion prediction. As the New Oxford Annotated Bible describes this passage of Mark 9:30-37, it says it is a “Second announcement and misunderstanding.” (75 New Testament, Michael D. Coogan, editor, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001).

The disciples still don’t get what’s happening here. Let’s pick up the story from Mark. “They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him” (Mark 9:30-32, NRSV).

I think we can all relate the disciples at least in the sense that they were afraid to ask for help. We’re all afraid at times to ask for help or ask questions. We have this human desire to be seen as smart, and are afraid that asking a question might make us look like we don’t know something we should. Ironically, of course if one has a question, many others likely have the same question. I suspect that would have been true for all of the twelve and whoever was in that group. Nonetheless, Jesus here is describing yet again what is to come. God in Christ’s work for you and for me. It will ultimately be good news. But it will be a hard journey, to be sure. And it’s one that no one seems to understand, at least yet.

The disciples clearly didn’t get it though because they were arguing about who the greatest is, instead of learning that its not about who is great, but about serving and loving and caring for the least of these. Even about caring and welcoming children- the smallest and lowest-status person in the society that Jesus taught, preached, and lived in. The story continues, “Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’” (Mark 9:33-37, NRSV).

For those of you in an ELCA context, it’s kind of a bummer that this gospel story didn’t come up on “God’s Work, Our Hands” Sunday last week. Because Jesus’ teaching here seems pretty straight forward. But just because it’s straight forward, it may not be easy. It’s a lesson about serving- but recognizing that serving isn’t an “us and them” thing but a “you and me” together thing. We serve by listening and seeing. We serve by doing, but not by presuming we have the right way or right answer for another. But that together, we might help, grow as disciples, and be bearers of God’s love today. And when we take this act of service as first and foremost our embodied lives in response to God’s work and love for us, we also open ourselves up to the last part of this wisdom from Jesus about the true depth of welcome.

How does your faith community show welcome? Do you really let people come as they are? Or are there stated or unstated expectations of what is appropriate and who is welcome? Are kids allowed to come as is? Or, do they need to be in a separate room? Perhaps I am hyper sensitive to this right now as the parent of two little ones. But Jesus is calling us out. He’s confronting us with the grace of the gospel, but also pointing us to the truth that it is for everyone- small and big, young and old, and everywhere in between. So if we really want to take Jesus’ lesson to heart, we need to get real about what welcome, inclusion, reconciliation, and accompaniment look like in our communities.

Like I said, this week’s stories are kind of a mixed bag. But at the same time, they are good stuff showing the depth and breadth of God’s work. The challenges and changes that they bring and create. And the truth of who God is and whose we are- as God’s beloved- called, gathered, and sent as signs of God’s love and co-workers of God in the here and now.

Sunday September 19, 2021: The Narrative Lectionary- The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Narrative Year 4: Week 2)
Narrative Theme: Binding of Isaac
Focus Passage: Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14
Gospel Verse: John 1:29

The narrative has already moved ahead almost 20 chapters in one week. We are flying through the book of Genesis, moving from creation to the binding of Isaac. Let’s take the story in two parts, first from chapter 21 and then in chapter 22.

We read from Genesis 21, “The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him” (Genesis 21:1-3, NRSV). These three verses offer a quick reminder of God’s promise that leads into this story. The promise of new life, and the promise of descendants as numerous as the stars. Of course, we also might remember Sarah’s response of laughter to God’s promise because of her age. But lo and behold, who gets the last laugh? Of course it’s God. But in this reminder, we are also reminded that God does make promises and God keeps those promises. Promises like that of life and the hope and promise of new life in Christ.

But before I get too far down any theological wandering, let’s stick with the narrative. In our story this week, we have to remember though that even in the fulfillment of the promise made to Sarah and Abraham and the birth of Isaac, it would not come without challenge. That’s where we pick up the story in chapter 22. The chapter begins, “After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you’” (Genesis 22:1-2, NRSV).

Whatever you do, if you are preaching on stewardship, please do not ever imply or say that we should give burnt offerings like what Abraham was called to do. No. Just don’t do it. Now that that terrible idea is out of your mind, let’s keep going with the story.

“So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown himOn the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’ Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?‘ Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son” (Genesis 22:3-10, NRSV).

If this is still a popular story in Sunday School classes, I might encourage you to rethink that. This, though it has a happy ending, is a story about potential murder, killing, abuse… It’s not okay. Abraham listens to God here and is willing to make the absolute sacrifice. Still, that doesn’t make it okay. Just like it’s not okay for God to give up God’s own son in a terrible violent sacrifice through the murder and execution of the cross. We know the rest of the story, but we are not called to do likewise. We are called to love, serve, and do what we can for our neighbors, yes. Yes, we are called to be God’s people and bearers of Christ’s love. But we are NOT called to sacrifice ourselves (by working ourselves to death) nor to do God’s saving work. That’s God’s work to do, not ours. Too often in the church, we forget that. I preached about this once, and a colleague pastor got mad that I said that texts like this had been misused in the church. I get it, he felt defensive. But part of being a theologian and minister in this church is to acknowledge our brokenness and where the church has gotten it wrong potentially in the past, and offer a way to think anew about God’s love and promises for you and for me. To name our brokenness, and hope and pray that together we might follow God in Christ’s love and life where everything is made new and find a new way forward.

Now for the more happy ending to the story. It continues in verse 11, “But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide‘; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided” (Genesis 22:11-14, NRSV).

The stewardship truth of this story though is this, “The Lord will provide.” Amen. That is good news. When we remember that all that we have and all that we are, is God’s, as the psalmist claims in Psalm 24:1, we remember whose we are and who we are. We remember that all that we have has been entrusted to our care- to live abundantly and do some of God’s work in the world.

It’s also helpful to remember that God’s saving work is pure gift and grace. Not the result of a vengeful and violent God that one might interpret from a story like this, but one of love. Like we are reminded of in the gospel of John. Where in John 1:29, we hear in the appointed Gospel accompaniment verse this week, “The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, NRSV). The ram that Abraham finds is provided for God. The lamb which later lays down his life for all of us, is the fulfillment of that love. Turning the sin and brokenness around, and providing the hope and promise of abundant and abiding love and life, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

There’s nuggets here about mission, innovation and stewardship. The question for me is what direction you might feel nudged? I’m preaching this week, and all I can say is, I’m probably glad to be preaching on the RCL and not the narrative lectionary. Though I am grateful the narrative calls us to preach on tough texts like this, because our scripture is full of tough texts. We can’t hide from them. We need to go through them, find the challenges, and name them. And then also find and uplift the good news that might be here to be heard too.

Whatever story or stories get a hold of your imagination, may God’s love and hope be with you as you learn, listen, and lean into these stories. And may the Spirit be with you as you proclaim the Good News of God this week and always through your words and actions. -TS

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