Preaching Thoughts- October 17, 2021

Enjoy these reflections about this week’s appointed stories from the revised common and narrative lectionaries, with potential insights about discipleship, mission, innovation, and stewardship.

Sunday October 17, 2021: Revised Common Lectionary- The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) Lectionary 29
First Lesson: Isaiah 53:4-12
Psalm 91:9-16
Second Lesson: Hebrews 5:1-10
Gospel of Mark 10:35-45

This week’s stories are rich with lessons about service, servant leadership, and by extension then discipleship and stewardship. They are also rich in pointing to the mission of God at work for God’s beloved. So in this sense, they may be a homerun. On the other hand, these could be stories that are well known but tough texts too. At their core they are stories about what God has done and will do for God’s people. In a stewardship sense then, they may also create an opportunity to remind what is God’s to do, and what is not ours, but also, what it is that God does which then invites our joyful and grateful response through lives of service and discipleship. Let’s take the stories in order and see what we sense.

This week’s first lesson comes from Isaiah 53. The prophet here is using that words that have been drawn on for quite a few Lenten and Holy Week choral anthems. Think songs like “Surely he has borne our griefs.” At least a choral arrangement of that rings through my ears at first reading of this text today.

The prophet expands, “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:4-12, NRSV).

These prophetic words from Isaiah are about the one to come. They are about the suffering servant and messiah or savior. Obviously, for us in our Christian theological views we interpret this to be a prediction about Jesus. And as such, we can see the imagery as it connects to Christ’s passion and saving work through his life, death, and resurrection. That is something God does for God’s beloved. I am particularly drawn today to the question, “Who could have imagined his future?” Who could have known and imagined what it would be that Jesus would do? God’s work will be done and is done. For as the prophet prophesies, “through him the will of the Lord shall proposer. Out of his anguish he shall see light.” God’s saving work for all of God’s beloved. As depressing as this text might be, or as moving, it’s also Good News. God will go to the point of being poured out to death to bare the sins of many. This isn’t our work, it’s God’s. From a stewardship perspective then follows our response which begins first and foremost with words of thanks, praise, and gratitude. And are followed by our actions as disciples who proclaim, “I believe,” and then are so moved that we follow, and even join in with God today in some of God’s on-going work in the world here and now.

This week’s appointed psalm comes from Psalm 91. In the spirit of hymns or songs that come to mind (since I started my thoughts on Isaiah above with a hymn) upon first reading of this week’s psalm for me clearly calls to mind, “On Eagle’s Wings.” The psalmist sings, “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling-place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot. Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation” (Psalm 91:9-16, NRSV).

God walks with God’s people and is present with them. God is in relationship with God’s people too, and wants to be. Thus as the psalmist says, “When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them.” This, like the words of the prophet above, are words about God’s work. This is more description of God’s saving and life-giving work for God’s beloved. Again, as stewards we can’t do this work, but we do have the opportunity and the joy to respond with gratitude and joy. To give thanks and praise to God. To remember God’s promises and saving work for us. And to share that good news through our lives as disciples and stewards- sharing God’s story and inviting any and all to hear and know it too, and to come, taste, and see that the Lord is good.

The second lesson from Hebrews 5 expands upon this, placing Jesus in the role of “high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” We read, “Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you‘; as he says also in another place, ‘You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.’ In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:1-10, NRSV).

The writer is clearly writing about what God in Christ has done for God’s beloved. It’s more good news here about God’s saving work, words and story about the depth and length to which God goes for God’s own out of deep love, grace, and compassion. The reflection in chapter 5 begins though with putting this all in the perspective of “every high priest.” We might interpret this today to mean leaders, rostered ministers, pastors, deacons, etc. We might also interpret this to be every disciple, steward, and Child of God who leans into their various vocations. No matter how narrow or wide you interpret this, the writer is pointing to a life of sacrificial service- which is part of our life as disciples and stewards, and reflects the ultimate servant- our savior, Jesus, whose very incarnation, birth, life, death, and resurrection embodied this life of service and servanthood for all of God’s beloved of all times and places.

That perhaps begs the question though, what does serving look like? What is faithful service and servanthood? Those questions are really highlighted and at least hinted at in this week’s gospel story which picks up from last week’s discussion about faith, stewardship, money, wealth, possessions, the Kingdom of God and camels and the eye of the needle. It would appear from how this week’s story begins, that the disciples still haven’t figured out what Jesus is talking about.

The gospel story begins with Mark 10:35 where we read that, “James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared’” (Mark 10:35-40, NRSV).

James and John don’t really know what they are asking, obviously. Jesus even says this bluntly. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Yes, of course they can and are and will be. But the whole power thirst and thirst for authority is not something that a servant heart would lead to. Jesus is calling it out perhaps a little gently so far by saying that the granting of positions at left and right is not up to him.

But more importantly I think is the very question itself. Why would they be asking for this? On the one hand as a disciple, I get it. I would want to sit as close to Jesus as possible to hear his wisdom and soak in his presence. Kind of like Mary does while her sister Martha is busy at work. But on the other hand, if we think about stories like the banquet table at a wedding feast, you don’t want to take the high seat, and hope instead that you might be invited to move closer (instead of being asked to move down to make room for another). The added complexity to that analogy is our theological belief that around the banquet table with God- the table that we are a part of too with all the saints in communion, is the belief that there is always room for one more with God. There is always another chair. There is always another place setting. There is always enough to go around. By asking the question about sitting at Jesus’ left and right, James and John have missed the whole point about what being in relationship with God is about. It’s about connection, inclusion, welcome, hospitality, service, compassion, grace, and love. It’s about abundance, provision, and the very fact that in God all things are possible (as we were reminded of last week) and there is enough for all. That doesn’t necessarily mean one will always be at the same seat, but it does mean that there is a place at the table for all of God’s people.

Understandably the rest of the disciples don’t take too kindly to James and John. The story continues that, “When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servantand whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’” (Mark 10:41-45, NRSV).

A beautiful sunset after another beautiful and warm fall day in Eastern Nebraska. Scenes like this remind me almost daily that God is present and up to God’s beautiful, redeeming, and reconciling work for all of God’s beloved creation.

For the second week in a row, the gospel writer shows Jesus teaching about the great reversal. The paradox and reversal that the last will be first, and first will be last. The paradox that greatness really rests in servanthood, not in being served. Granted, we are all served through Christ and by Christ’s very life, death, and resurrection. We are all recipients of Christ’s gift and provision through the sacraments- and especially through the sacrament of the meal of communion. But as embodiments of Christ’s ultimate example, we are called to serve too. A call we live out through lives as generous stewards of God’s love and of sharing all that God entrusts to our care. A call we live out through lives as growing disciples digging into God’s Word and promises for us, and sharing that love and Good News with our neighbors near and far through all that we say and do. A call we live out through our lives as servants- to share God’s love through word and deed- through prayer, compassion, and active work to help out our neighbors through our vocations, and in meeting our neighbors’ needs in anyway that we can.

I am also struck as I think about this text and what it means to serve by how this point is picked up by Martin Luther in his famous treatise The Freedom of a Christian. In that work Luther famously describes the paradoxical premise that “One is perfectly free, and beholden to none.” While it is simultaneously true that, “One is perfectly bound, beholden to all.” Now the language might vary based on translation, but the premise holds. We are both freed in Christ, but also bound to our neighbors in Christ. For our very lives in relationship with God in Christ are lives found in relationship with others- in being disciples, servants, and stewards of God’s love. Of meeting and gathering with our neighbors- in worship, prayer, study, fellowship, and service. Yes, we are each perfectly free. But we are also bound to one another as the Body of Christ.

It makes me wonder too about how we continue as God’s people to live in this pandemic time. It’s still with us, though I think and pray its days are waning. Are we willing to admit that we are free to live our lives as we like, but that we are also called to and then willing choose to put a mask on and be vaccinated out of care, concern, and neighborly love for our neighbor? If so, I think we’re living faithfully in Luther’s dialectic. If not, we might be missing the point Luther was making, and surely missing the point about service that Christ is making in this week’s gospel story.

There’s so much in this week’s lectionary that you could grab a hold of. Whatever story sits with you, may God’s love and promises be seen and sensed through it, and may you share God’s love and promises through the way you share God’s story in word, deed, preaching, teaching, and presence this week.

Sunday October 17, 2021: The Narrative Lectionary- The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (Narrative Year 4: Week 6)
Narrative Theme: God Calls Samuel
Focus Passage: 1 Samuel 3:1-21
Gospel Verse: John 20:21-23

The narrative moves this week from manna in the wilderness with Moses and the people Israel in Exodus, to the historical book of 1 Samuel. We find ourselves in a call story, where God calls Samuel. It’s a familiar story with three words often repeated, “Here I am.” Let’s take the story in parts, and see what we sense as it relates potentially to discipleship, stewardship, and God’s mission.

From 1 Samuel chapter 3 we read, “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!‘ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening‘” (1 Samuel 3:1-10, NRSV).

Few call stories are as dramatic and obvious as this. God does speak like this to some people, I have no doubts. But I can’t say in all honesty that I have experienced call as directly as this. Some days I kind of wish I did, it would make discernment a bit more straight forward, wouldn’t it? That said, I do believe God does call us, just as God calls Samuel. And the faithful response as a disciple and steward is probably to take the wise approach offered by Eli to Samuel to respond, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” So we listen with our whole selves for God’s call, movement, and invitation. We lean into God’s story in the scriptures and God’s on-going story enfolding all around us and with us. We listen for God’s activity here and now- through prayer, conversation, wondering, scripture dwelling, and witnessing to God’s creative work. Through all of this the life of discipleship becomes more and more real.

Now I could keep going here, but our story is not even quite half way through. It continues with verse 11 as we read, “Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.‘ Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’ He said, ‘Here I am.’ Eli said, ‘What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.’ So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him‘” (1 Samuel 3:11-18, NRSV).

If God ever shows up in my life or your life and says, “See, I am about to do something…” I sure hope we would pay attention to that. Samuel does, but he’s afraid. There’s no “Do not be afraid” that we hear said so many times in the gospels that shows up in this story, so it’s even more understandable why he’d be afraid. First, there is this heavenly voice of God talking directly with him. Second, God has just said that God will punish Eli’s house, Samuel’s mentor. God is calling out the people’s sin, and there will be consequences for it. The acknowledgment of sin and the call to confront it is never an easy thing to do. Especially when it comes for/to friends and family and those you love. Could Samuel have heart to communicate this message? Thankfully, Eli as a differentiated and faithful mentor and leader confronts and comforts Samuel to share the news from God. He takes the news, and says as someone of faith would hopefully say, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” There’s some wisdom here to admit some things are God’s, and not ours. Somethings are up to God, and not us, because well, we aren’t God. Thanks be to God for that. That’s also a truth for us as disciples and stewards. We remember whose work it is- God’s, and whose we are, also, God’s. When we have these in right order our lives as stewards and disciples are possible. And more so, we are open to witnessing and perhaps even being part of God’s on-going mission and work in the world. A mission and work that will continue through Abraham’s line, and through the life and leadership of Samuel.

God’s voice and presence with Samuel would not be a one-time experience either. This call in this story was just the beginning of a life with God and a life of walking with God. The narrative, at least for this week, concludes as we read this observation that, “As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord” (1 Samuel 3:19-21, NRSV).

God calls, God speaks, God is present and God is in relationship. This was true with Samuel and it is true with you and me. God wants to be in relationship with God’s beloved, out of God’s deep love. And that presence and relationship continues this day also through the presence of the Holy Spirit. The gospel accompaniment verses for this week, John 20:21-23 underscores this. Through this passage we remember Jesus’ words to the disciples upon his appearance post resurrection where, “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained‘” (John 20:21-23, NRSV).

In this story, and in the gospel passage with it, we are reminded of God’s work, voice, and presence with us and for us. Perhaps this week is a good opportunity to reflect on how this is central to our life with God, and to our life as those who follow God in Christ through listening, praying, doing, learning, growing, serving and acting as disciples and stewards of God’s love. May Samuel’s story be an example of how God does act, and may it also be a reminder that God continues to walk with God’s people, to speak sometimes indirectly and directly with God’s on, and that God takes notice of each us out of a deep love and claim that we know especially through our lives and vocations as baptized Children of God.

Whatever story or stories claim your imagination and attention this week, may God’s presence and love be with you and be made real for you and proclaimed through all that you do and say. -TS

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