Preaching Thoughts- Sunday November 14, 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 November 14, 2021: Revised Common Lectionary- The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 33- Year B)
First Lesson: Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Second Lesson: Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25
Gospel of Mark 13:1-8

The last “green” Sunday of the year has come. This year because of how Christ the King falls and Advent begins, this is the last non-festival Sunday and the second to last Sunday of the church year. So as is always the case, our stories in the lectionary are those related to end times and apocalyptic in nature. With that in mind, at first glance these might not be the richest stories for stewardship preaching. For discipleship and mission and innovation they might offer a bit more without as much unpacking. At least they might, as they all point to the reality of change and how change comes with the Kingdom of God, and the in-breaking of what is being and will be made new. Let’s take them in order as we usually do and point out what we sense.

Our first lesson comes from the prophet Daniel. We read, “‘At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12:1-3, NRSV).

In what might seem like a rather dark text, we hear words of hope. We read, “But at that time your people shall be delivered…” We are reminded again of God’s saving work, how it continues to happen and will happen for God’s beloved. In these short three verses we don’t get a sense of who is who necessarily. But there may be reason for hope, even amid such dark texts. I’m not sure I would be considered wise, but I sure hope and trust that you and I would count as wise in the eyes of this text, as we read later, “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” The star imagery here seems like it could be an homage to the promise made to Abraham about abundant descendants as numerous as the stars. Either way, there are words of hope and promise here which explain the why behind discipleship at least in terms of why it might be important, as well as reasons to give thanks and praise as stewards.

This week’s appointed psalm is Psalm 16. The psalmist sings, “Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.’ As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight. Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink-offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips. The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage. I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures for evermore” (Psalm 16, NRSV).

This psalm is one of warning and comfort it seems. If one doesn’t worship God alone, it seems sorrows and problems will come. But if one keeps the Lord central, one “shall not be moved.” And their heart shall be glad and their soul rejoice. In thinking about the stories this week, perhaps this is the strongest place to draw from for stewardship. When we are in relationship with God, there is joy. God’s presence is real. God’s work and activity happen, irregardless of us, but when we allow ourselves to witness to God’s on-going and creative work, and be open to God’s invitation and loving presence, there is a richness of life and assurance of the truth and promises of God’s abiding abundance. Perhaps this is as important as anything to point out amid the trials and challenges of stories like that of end times and apocalyptic scenes, as well as the busyness that is only just beginning to ramp up for Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas. If we still give ourselves space to breathe, reset, and “keep the main thing, the main thing,” we’ll be just fine. But should we get lost in the busyness and lose sight of the bigger why that calls us and leads us and sustains us in our lives as disciples and stewards, we will likely run into trouble and then need to reorient again.

The second lesson this week comes from Hebrews 10. In part it picks up on the theme of offerings, like the drink offerings in Psalm 16, and turns them on their head. Because we give, because of the one who first gave us life through a “single offering.” We read, “And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God,’ and since then has been waiting ‘until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.’ For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:11-14, NRSV).

If you include the optional inclusion of 10:15-18, there is also the helpful language about God’s promises of forgiveness and being made right with God. As the writer continues in verse 15, “And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,’ he also adds, ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin” (Hebrews 10:15-18, NRSV).

This is such rich language which you might often hear in the very words of the liturgy, particular around the time of confession and forgiveness and absolution. These are words of promise and relationship. Words that make our lives as disciples and stewards possible, and provide hope, peace, and assurance of God’s on-going presence, promise, and love. We’re called into relationship with God through this, but also into relationship with one another. When the inevitable missteps occur within the relationship, God gives us the hope of reconciliation and reconciling relationships through forgiveness and the assurance that sin like death is not the final word or answer.

The selection from Hebrews this week concludes then with a call to be faithful disciples and stewards as we read 10:19-25. “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:19-25, NRSV).

I just love that language. “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds…encouraging one another.” Together we are disciples and stewards. Together we have the privilege and opportunity to join with God in some of God’s on-going work today, caring for creation and our neighbors; sharing the good news through Word and deed; and pointing to God’s on-going presence and activity in, around, through, for, and with you and me. This is a beautiful thing, and a nice bridge honestly between All Saints and Christ the King. To think about what is our work to do now in this time and space- between the resurrection and ascension and whenever Jesus’ next return might be. Whatever we do, we are called to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.” This isn’t a works righteousness thing, but rather a response. A response to the one who gave the one full offering (Jesus), and a response for all that God has done, will do, and continues to do for you and for me.

The gospel lesson for this week kind of has two different observations from Jesus about the times that lie ahead with apocalpytic images to be sure from Mark 13. We read first, “As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down‘ (Mark 13:1-2, NRSV).

On the one hand this image always makes me uncomfortable. But that’s kind of the point. Jesus is calling forth our attention to see what is God’s, and to also know what it is that God can and will do. To remember that what we do is finite and fallible, but not so with God. On the other hand I read these verses and can’t help but hum or sing the great hymn, “Canticle of the Turning.” Especially verse 3 by Rory Cooney based on the Magnificat which begins, “From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your justice tears every tyrant from his throne. The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn; there are tables spread, every mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn. My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.” (If you aren’t singing that hymn in worship this week, I hope I have made you reconsider that.) As we heard last week from Revelation, all things will be made new in God in Christ. That in and of itself means change is going to happen and happens. People like to say they like change, up until the point it means they have to change or the world around them changes beyond their comfort. Then we get moments and reactions like might be natural to hearing about how “no stone will be left here upon another.” [Source of hymn: “Canticle of the Turning,” by Rory Cooney, Irish Traditional. Copyright under GIA Publications, Inc., and OneLicense. As found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (Augsburg Fortress: Minneapolis, MN, 2006), 723.]

The gospel story from Mark continues with verse 3, where we read, “When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astrayWhen you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs” (Mark 13:3-8, NRSV).

On a dark and stormy night, kind of like on one might imagine in stories like these, a young tree stands as a sign of hope and creation.

I’m sure Jesus is trying to offer some comfort by saying, “do not be alarmed,” but I take less solace with that phrase than I do when an angel or Jesus himself says upon appearing to people, “do not be afraid.” Because how are we to not be alarmed by wars and rumors of wars? There is warning in this too about discipleship and leadership. What we do matters, but woe to those who lead God’s people away from God’s truth, presence, and promises. Woe to those who claim they speak for God, but really do not. (You might interpret this too as a nice repetition of the blessings and woes that appear in the gospels elsewhere.) For me I think this is more of a critical reminder to us about leadership, and about how what we do as disciples and leaders of the faith, matters. It matters. Not for our own sake, but for the sake of those we walk alongside, accompany, and serve with.

In hearing all of these texts, and the similar themes that we will hear again in the First Sunday of Advent in two weeks’ time, I find myself drawn back to my favorite image that accompanies stories like these. The legend that Martin Luther is credited with saying when asked about what he would do if he knew the world would end the next day. He is said to have responded with, “I will plant a tree.” I love that. We can’t know the time or the hour, but we can and are called to be present and active now. To worship and study. To be disciples. To serve and help. To be stewards. To care for creation and our neighbors, and to join with God in some of God’s on-going work here and now. For as we do this, the truth and promise of God are shared through our words and deeds. Signs of love are shared, and the Body of Christ is strengthened.

Amid the uncertainty and anxiety and hope that we are moving out of the pandemic, even amid news that cases are back up again across much of the country and world, we might well despair. But stories like these today, I think by and large encourage us to be wise and good disciples and stewards. To do all that we can to care for one another. (Get vaccinated obviously!) And to trust that God is present and active in the midst. For this I give thanks. And for this, I give thanks too for you- your ministry, your leadership, your accompanying presence, and all that you do in your various vocations.

Whether you are preaching, teaching, or just being present this week, may God’s love and promises be made known and real for you and through you this week! -TS

Sunday November 7, 2021: The Narrative Lectionary- The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Narrative Year 4: Week 10)
Narrative Theme: Amos: Justice Rolls Down
Focus Passage: Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24
Gospel Verse: John 7:37-38

The narrative moves ahead as we inch closer to the season of Advent, leading us now to the prophet Amos. In the narrative we hear familiar words about justice, and Amos’ beautiful imagery of “let justice roll down like waters…” The selected readings come in three sections, Amos 1:1-2, 5:14-15, and 5:21-24. Thus, we’ll take them in three parts.

Amos begins, “The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel, two years before the earthquake. And he said: The Lord roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem; the pastures of the shepherds wither, and the top of Carmel dries up. Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 1:1-2, NRSV).

For someone who grew up on the west coast, the fact that the context begins with an acknowledgment that this is “two years before the earthquake” seems understandable. For many others, it may seem strange. (Of course, it may seem strange too to people on the west coast when earthquakes happen all the time, but mostly are not felt or noticed unless they are very strong.) I would assume that this earthquake must have been a strong one which had a major impact on the community and nation(s). From this context then, comes the famous prophet’s call, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Such a call inherently means change is coming. Those downtrodden will appreciate it. Those in power, not so much. And this is the sort of reality that Amos and all prophets find (and really- all faith leaders of all times and places if we’re honest, including those currently serving today amid anxious, uncertain, pandemic, and polarized times, etc.)

To articulate more clearly what this change might mean, the narrative then moves to chapter 5, where we read from verses 14-15, “Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph” (Amos 5:14-15, NRSV).

In hearing this verse again, I can’t help but recall the words yet again of my seminary Pentateuch and Prophets classes professor, Terry Fretheim. Who would often say, “the purpose of the law is so that you may live, and that life will go well for you.” If that’s the case, it makes all the sense in the world to hear Amos say, “Seek good and not evil, that you may live…” One’s very life and situation of life may depend on it. More so, by doing so, the likelihood is there that one will still actively then be in relationship with God who wants to be in relationship with God’s people, and literally be with them. The work of discipleship and stewardship then follows as work that includes the basic whys such as, “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate…” Why? So that life may go well but that it may also go well, especially for one’s neighbors. Which is of utmost concern for the prophets- the care of those who are often marginalized, oppressed, or ignored altogether by the majority of society.

Finally, we turn to 5:21-24, where we read, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24, NRSV).

Festivals, offerings, parades, events… all of these are well and good. But if they are not done for the right reason, and if they ignore the needs of the people in one’s community, what good are they? Hence, it’s no surprise that Amos objects so strongly to them. It’s not hard to imagine the story of the poor man Lazarus at the gate of the unnamed rich man in the gospel of Luke and this passage. What good is the rich man’s wealth and resources, if he so blatantly ignores the needs of a neighbor right outside his gate? Indeed, “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing-stream.”

In terms of stewardship, this is a reminder, challenge, and perhaps even condemnation to us all who are well off and wealthy in many ways. Are we stewarding that which God entrusts into our care for the sake of our neighbors, or are we hoarding some or most or all of what God provides? Amos is calling us out. With Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas quick to come on the calendars, this may be an important and timely reminder. May we ponder it openly and honestly, and may we confess where we need to, and do better as God’s people as God invites us to be part of God’s work here and now and to care for those with us, around us, and for each other (including ourselves too).

Whatever story or stories are captivating you this week, may God’s love and presence be with you and made real through for and through you. -TS

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