I hope you 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.
Our journey through Lent brings us more familiar stories with rich passages related to stewardship, discipleship and mission in particular. As we usually do, we’ll take the stories in order and note what we see, sense, and wonder about. Let’s start with our first lesson from the prophet Isaiah 55.
Isaiah shares an invitation to abundant life. The prophet exclaims, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you. Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:1-9, NRSV).
The lectionary provides one of the richest stewardship lessons from the prophets this week. Isaiah points to who our God is, and what God does. Our God whose abundant love is abundant and then some, offering and providing all that is needed for abundant life out of deep and abiding love. The text is so rich. Phrases like, “everyone who thirsts come to the waters…” “You that have no money, come, buy and eat!” It’s clear that it is God who provides here. And then comes the turn as a question. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” Fair question. It’s a discipleship point. Whatever one spends their time and energy on, that is most important in their life. If one puts energy and intention into growing in their relationship with God and neighbor, then that matters. But if one, puts energy into making more money instead, well that’s what matters to them. Isaiah giving voice to God here, explains that the importance in what God is saying is out of a deep hope that the people will choose life. We hear, “listen, so that you might live.” That’s the whole point of the law, so that one might live and life might go well for them.
Finally, there is a Lenten theme here too. “Return to the Lord…” a common refrain for the Lenten gospel acclamation is quoted. We are all God’s beloved, whom God wants to be in relationship with. This Lenten season we are invited to turn, repent, and be more intentional in our walk and growth as disciples and stewards, following the one whose abundant love makes it all possible and who offers life and life abundant. We are also invited to respond as stewards, with gratitude and joy for all that God has done, will do, and promises to do for us.
The psalm appointed for this week comes from Psalm 63. The psalmist sings, “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name. My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me” (Psalm 63:1-8, NRSV).
The theme of abundance and God’s steadfast and abiding love that we hear in Isaiah continues in this thread through Psalm 63. “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you…” The psalmist is giving us words again for our response to God for all that God has done. “My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips…” “I sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hands upholds me.” Even amid this Lenten season and all the brokenness that surrounds us, we still respond with joy. Because we know the rest of the story. We know that God’s love is real. That God is present in the midst. That God provides and is with us, for us, and loves us. Always. For this, we can’t help but give our thanks and praise.
The second lesson appointed for this week comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The Apostle writes, “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:1-13, NRSV).
To be perfectly honest, this is the passage I would avoid in preaching this week. There are things to draw from related to discipleship and theme of testing that seems to come through this. But there is so much poor and bad interpretation that has led to questionable or problematic theology grounded in this passage, that I would just assume skip it. For if you do preach on this, there is a lot of unpacking that might need to happen to dispel some of those cultural sayings that have become favorites of memes over the years which aren’t all that Biblically accurate to begin with. Things like, “God helps those who help themselves,” or “God never gives you more than you can handle.” I don’t think that is what Paul is writing about here at all, but rather offering reminders of Christ’s presence with disciples throughout the ups and downs of life.
The gospel lesson for this Third Sunday in Lent comes from Luke 13. We read, “At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down”’ (Luke 13:1-9, NRSV).
Jesus’ call to turn and repent grows stronger in these stories. He’s basically sort of answering the “why do bad things happen to good people” dilemma question, by acknowledging that one’s sin didn’t lead to the horrible outcomes and tragedies referenced. But even so, Jesus does point to the need and call to be in right relationship with God.
What really catches my eye with this story though, is the parable Jesus tells in the second half about the fig tree and the gardener. “Sir, let alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” For me, this is a story about faith and discipleship. As I think about it, faith is something that grows over time. It’s not something that can be done or grown to check a box on a list. Rather, the reality about discipleship, faith, and ministry in general, is that one might not see the fruits of these labors in any sort of human timeline. But what we might witness are seeds being planted. Seeds like that of a fig tree, which one day might bear fruit. Seeds like that might be planted in an experience by a child or young adult enjoying outdoor ministry. Seeds like might be planted by another person in a community or congregation who sees gifts in another person, and encourages them.
Every disciple is a seed planter. Though we might all be seed planters, we’re not the gardener. That’s God’s work, which we’re a part of. But because it’s God’s work, the seeds that are planted one day or in a week’s time, might not grow into a fig tree over night. The potential growth of any seeds might take decades or lifetimes. But the impact of those seeds will be seen. Like when someone of deep faith grows active in their congregation, or when a perfect stranger encourages someone that they see might have gifts, that lead one day to answering a call to ministry as a future pastor or deacon. That possibility is sitting with me today in particular, because I had the joy to be a very small part of the ordination of word and sacrament ministry yesterday of Pastor David Yak Mayen, called to be pastor of Messiah Sudanese Worshiping Community in Ralston, Nebraska. Pastor David’s story is one of journey, trust, and faith and a long time coming. And all those who have walked with him, have been present and great companions and supporters along the way, especially the Berger family and congregations of Messiah Lutheran and St. Michael Lutheran. To witness the great day of the Spirit at work yesterday was one of those great “Yay God!” days. The seeds that have been planted, continue to grow into amazing awesomeness which far surpass our wildest understandings and imaginations.
Jesus calls us to be like gardener, planting seeds and caring for them, trusting that the one who brings the nourishing rains and abundant sunshine is also the one who is equipping, empowering, inviting, and calling all of God’s children. If I were preaching this week on these stories, I think I would be tugged toward the gospel and an invitation and call to “Be a seed planter.” Then I might ponder about the abundance God that makes such calls and work possible, work like we hear from the prophet about. And might also then give thanks and praise for all that God has done and will do with the psalmist. For we are all seed planters as disciples and stewards. Responding to what God has done, and joining in with God in some ways which God invites, equips, and empowers us with.
Whatever story or stories catch your minds this week, may God’s love and promises be reminded to you, and may you boldly share them through all that you say and do.
The Narrative Lectionary continues its Lenten trek through the passion story according to the Gospel of John. This week we find ourselves at the point of Jesus being handed over with his arrest and initial trial with Annas, and Peter’s denials. It’s a very familiar story we’re used to hearing in the time of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Let’s see if we notice anything new.
We read beginning with John 18, verse 12, “So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people. Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in” (John 18:12-16, NRSV).
The stage has been set. The passion is on. There’s no changing course now. The events of Good Friday are well underway. If we were present in such a situation, what might we see? What might we wonder about? What might we sense? What might we say or not say, like Peter?
Peter’s turn has come. The story continues, “The woman said to Peter, ‘You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?‘ He said, ‘I am not.’ Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself. Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered, ‘I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said‘” (John 18:17-21, NRSV).
There’s a tension here. Peter’s first response is one of “I am not.” It’s a human response. Who among us, if we are being honest, would boldly admit to something that might immediately lead us to trial, prison, or worse? But at the same time, Jesus asks, “Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” Jesus invites us as disciples to share the story. Jesus invites us to tell the world all that God is, all that God has done, and all that God will do and promises to do for all of God’s beloved. This is a call to discipleship. This is a call to be bearers of the gospel. It’s a meaningful life to be sure. But as Peter knows, it’s not easy. And it could be quite dangerous (or worse), knowing the events of the passion story to come. So assuming, we’d all act like Peter, how might we adapt and pivot to a point of faith, where we take a stand and share our story as we see it, which is part of God’s on-going story? How might we follow Jesus’ invitation and proclaim the good news of God in Christ for one and for all?
Poor Peter gets a bad rap. But if we’re being honest, he’s just filling in for all the people who stayed quiet when out of fear they didn’t speak up. The story continues. “When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, ‘Is that how you answer the high priest?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?‘ Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, ‘You are not also one of his disciples, are you?‘ He denied it and said, ‘I am not.’ One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, ‘Did I not see you in the garden with him?’ Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed” (John 18:22-27, NRSV).
The gospel of John is full of themes about light and truth. Jesus repeats this theme saying, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” It’s clear that the truth is in Jesus, and the truth is God in Christ. But the people and disciples weren’t prepared yet, to take the step of proclamation. When confronted with the most obvious question, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you,” they deny it. My hope is that we would be more courageous than Peter. But I don’t know.
I am a husband and a dad. I will proclaim the good news of God till the day I die. But I also will do whatever I can possibly do to protect and care for my loved ones. So maybe Peter was confronted with this reality and tension? What could have possibly happened that would have been good for Peter or Jesus, had Peter answered the questions differently? We’ll never know. But the depth of this scenario surely gives us pause before we just blame and scorn Peter.
I’m confronted by this today in part, because a loved one of mine was threatened in a totally unjust and wrong way today. I am not going to share the story or its details, but say simply, that such words and threats are not received well by me. I’m a first born. I’m a husband. I’m a dad. I’m also a Child of God, disciple, steward, and deacon, a minister of Word and Service. I know that the brokenness of the world is real. But I also know that God’s love and promises are true, and that abundance is real and God’s abundance will always win out over the human lies of scarcity of our world in the end. So I sit in this place of wrestling. I want to best be present and support those I love. I want to make sure they are safe and have what they need. I also thirst for justice, and righteousness. But I am also called to be a bearer of forgiveness and mercy. This is true for all of us. It’s a complicated thing to live and lean fully into this life of being a disciple and follower of the way, isn’t it?
Peter knew that much. Jesus had been trying to make that abundantly clear to the disciples. They still haven’t quite got to the part where they are fully ready though to lean in and proclaim, no matter the risk. But they’ll get there, better late than never perhaps. So in that sense, and in every other deep sense of the gospel truth, there is hope for you and for me yet because of who our God is and who are we, because we are God’s beloved.
It is suggested that this story be paired with Psalm 17:1-7 this week, wherein the psalmist proclaims, “Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend to my cry; give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit. From you let my vindication come; let your eyes see the right. If you try my heart, if you visit me by night, if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me; my mouth does not transgress. As for what others do, by the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent. My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped. I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God; incline your ear to me, hear my words. Wondrously show your steadfast love, O savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at your right hand” (Psalm 17:1-7, NRSV).
God’s steadfast love is real. God’s saving work is real. The refuge God provides is real. That was real for Peter, and it’s real for you and for me and for all of God’s beloved. That’s a message that I am sure will preach, especially where we find ourselves at this moment in the life of the world in this particular Lenten season.
May God’s love be with you, and may God’s love be revealed and shared through all that you say and do this week and always! -TS