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.
The Fourth Sunday in Lent’s stories this year are rich and familiar ones, but perhaps no more so than the gospel story. The familiar story about a prodigal son, a generous father, and a jealous brother. Add in Paul’s words about a “new creation,” and the stories this week are sure to capture one’s heart, mind, and imagination. Let’s take the stories in order.
The first lesson comes from Joshua 5. We read, “The Lord said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.’ And so that place is called Gilgal to this day. While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year” (Joshua 5:9-12, NRSV).
This relatively short story from Joshua reminds us of how God has showed up and provides for God’s people. We’re reminded of the struggles and challenges God’s people faced in Egypt, and the passover that marked their ultimate escape. While in the wilderness journeying out of Egypt towards the promised land, God’s people were hungry, so God provided manna. But we hear in this story that the manna that God had produced in abundance to feed God’s people in hunger, “ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land.” Context matters here though. This isn’t a story about God not providing anymore, but rather God providing what is needed and when it is needed. Once the land produced in abundance as promised, the manna was no longer needed. So in that sense this is a story of abundance, which makes it a story of God’s provision and really one with wisdom about stewardship.
This week’s appointed psalm comes from Psalm 32. The psalmist proclaims, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’, and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. You are a hiding-place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you. Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord. Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart” (Psalm 32:1-11, NRSV).
Themes of confession and forgiveness come through this psalm. Reminders of God’s steadfast love, and even the fact that God can be a “hiding place” amid the challenges and turmoils of life. In reading this familiar psalm again today, I’m drawn to the conclusion. “But steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord. Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.” God’s deep and abiding and abundant love is the reason we can live in hope, trust, and with joy. And so we respond joyfully and gratefully in our lives as disciples and stewards. Good reminders as always from the psalmist.
Our second lesson comes from the Apostle Paul’s second letter to the people of Corinth. Paul writes, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21, NRSV).
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” This verse alone has been many a church statement and slogan over the years, especially recently. Putting that aside, it’s easy to see why. I love this! Through God in Christ, everything is made new! Not through ourselves, not through our own efforts or because we deserve this or that. No. Because of God, everything is made new. This is God’s work. All of this is from God.
We are reconciled by God in Christ as pure gift and grace, and are called and entrusted with the work and message of reconciliation too. This is part of our identity as Child of God. It’s part of life as a disciple and steward. As such, we too are “ambassadors for Christ,” as Paul writes. Because God is present and makes it possible, it is. “Everything old has passed away.” Church structures, systems, ways of thinking may come and go, but God’s love and promises and truth remain. In these days in particular, this gives me great hope and inspires I think all of God’s people to be innovative, creative, and willing to risk courageously for the sake of our neighbors, and as part of God’s on-going work in the world now today.
Speaking of courage and risk, that brings us to a most familiar gospel story that we read again this week. Perhaps we might somehow hear it with new ears, eyes, or at least a new sense of imaginative wonder. We read, “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable:” (Luke 15:1-3, NRSV).
This introduction to the familiar story often gets lost, but I’m drawn to it because it explains why he tells the story when and how he does. Pharisees and scribes were grumbling. That seems to happen a lot. But how dare he “welcomes sinners and eats with them…” Oh wait, you mean we’re called to be bearers of inclusion and radical welcome? Sarcasm aside, I think this makes this familiar story even more poignant for what it might mean for you and me today.
The story picks up then in earnest in Luke 15:11. We read, “Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate” (Luke 15:11-24, NRSV).
There are stories like these that are often hard to find something new to focus on. Because the story is so well known. That said, because it is so well known, it needs to be preached on. In terms of discipleship and stewardship, this story is one that confronts us with the reality- that by ourselves, we are going to end up in the pit with the pigs. By ourselves, we’re not going to find abundance. By ourselves, we will inevitably mess up somewhere. The truth of the matter, is that we are a new creation because of God in Christ. We are created too, to be in relationship. Relationship with God, neighbors, and loved ones. The youngest son thought he could go and live his life as he pleased, but by doing so, he completely put his trust in earthly things, and decided his relationships weren’t all that important. By the time, he figured out the error of his ways, he remembered that he could probably go back to his dad and go to work. What he didn’t anticipate was his dad’s response.
Whether it’s the intended meaning or not, I have always thought that this is a story in part about what it looks like when we turn back, or repent, or turn toward God. God is the parent who lavishes God’s beloved in all that God has, and welcomes them home with open arms and celebration. Whether that being as simple as the beautiful feast we all celebrate of holy communion around one table together, or as elaborate as a great feast with the fatted calf. The youngest son learned the hard way about abundance. He had it always had it good, in relationship and life with his father and brother. Together, they had supported one another. Going out on his own, he learned, he couldn’t do it all by himself. This isn’t to say that a young adult shouldn’t go out in the world and move away from their parents. But in doing so, one is better off not cutting ties with their support network, and certainly better off using that time to grow deeper with God who is with them always.
For me, this story always makes me think of my time in my first graduate program. I moved to Southern California, and loved my masters in management program. I loved the friendships and mentorships and colleagues that I made. It was fantastic! But it was hard too! I was away from home, and no longer an hour drive away from home, but a couple hour flight away from home. In an area I knew some about, but without a car of my own. I could have really turned inward. But something inside me said, no. So, I looked up the congregations in the area and found the one ELCA congregation in town, about 1.5 miles from my apartment and I started walking. This is what I did for most Sundays during that year. I walked everywhere, and was the healthiest I had ever been. And after that year, I would say I probably also now had the deepest relationship with God I had ever had before. Because I figured out, how much that mattered to me. Perhaps that’s what the prodigal son figured out too in his adventures, challenges, and pitfalls with the pigs?
Of course the story isn’t done. There’s one more side of the story to tell. That of the older and probably more responsible brother. We read, “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!‘ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found‘” (Luke 15:25-32, NRSV).
The older brother sounds perfectly rational. He’s mad. He doesn’t think any of this is fair. Yet, he never once stopped to think about things from his father’s perspective. He never asked to celebrate. He never took a chance, and asked to have some fun. He was so obedient and responsible, that he never took a step back to consider the why’s behind his actions. Perhaps he too was a “1” on the Enneagram, so responsible to a fault, that anything that doesn’t go to proper order doesn’t compute? Whatever the case may be, he struggles and then some to acknowledge and celebrate his brother’s return. His father tries to reason with him, but like many in the world, the elder son doesn’t quite follow. The father in this story, is changing the human perception of joy and abundance on its head. For the father, what matters is relationship and being in relationship and present with one another. Whereas, for the sons, apparently its the property, wealth, possessions, and idea of inheritance that matters. But why? What good are all of those things by themselves? In that sense, then, this is a stewardship story and then some. For things that shouldn’t matter all that much do and are given power, and that which should, being in relationship with God and one another has fallen by the wayside. The father has things in the proper order. There’s work, teaching, and changes of perspective to be done for the sons. Which is probably true for all of us as disciples to this day.
Okay, I wasn’t sure there was much that would be said new here. Maybe there isn’t. But there is plenty that can be said about these rich texts and stories. Whatever catches your imagination, whatever God’s people need to hear in your context, may you hear and experience God’s love, grace, and welcome, and may all those around you experience, hear, and witness it too.
Our Lenten journey through the Narrative in John continues, as Jesus this week finds himself before Pilate. Famous lines from the passion narrative are abundant in the text appointed for this week, and it’s honestly kind of refreshing to take the passion of John in this flow, because it allows for more reflection piece by piece, which just isn’t practical usually when taken in the whole on just Good Friday over the course of the move from Passion Sunday through Maundy Thursday through Good Friday.
We pick up the story with Jesus’ move from Capiaphas to Pilate’s presence. “Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, ‘What accusation do you bring against this man?‘ They answered, ‘If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.‘ Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.’ The Jews replied, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death.’ (This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.) Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?‘ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?‘ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’ After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, ‘I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?‘ They shouted in reply, ‘Not this man, but Barabbas!‘ Now Barabbas was a bandit” (John 18:28-40, NRSV).
This story is so familiar and so rich. There’s a question of accusation on the front end, with some kind of ridiculous logic given as an answer, without actually ever answering the question. The fix is in. It’s obvious, that this is some kind of kangaroo court where facts don’t matter. To Pilate’s credit, he admits he doesn’t see any issue with Jesus here. He tries to find issue. And I honestly think, he tries to find reason to release him. Pilate gets a bad rap, but the fix is in well before Pilate feels the weight of a mob and unjust crowd, out for blood because of fear and power.
Pilate, engages in questions about king, kingdom. Jesus says famously, “my kingdom is not from here.” He’s been pretty adamant through out his journey and ministry about the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven). Pilate would not have such context for what Jesus is talking about, but a reader of the gospel would know exactly what Jesus is implying. For Jesus’ mission and ministry is “to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” he says. To which Pilate asks a very logical, and I would even admit fair question. “What is truth?”
What is truth? If I were preaching this text this week, these three questions might well be my sermon title and focus. In our world right now, with fake news, alternative facts, and the downright denial of science and facts, “what is truth?” couldn’t be a more poignant question. Throw in any topic. Climate Change. Propaganda. Russia’s unprovoked invasion and war in Ukraine that Ukraine didn’t do anything to deserve. The list of things in our world right now that could fit here, is endless. So, what is truth? The truth of the gospel. The truth of God’s abundant and abiding love. The truth, that will go to and through the point of a sham trial and death on a cross for the sake of God’s beloved. The truth is that promise behind that action. The truth is that presence in the midst of the muck and mire, and the lies, alternative facts; peace and love amid wars and rumors of wars; welcome and hospitality that God’s people are called to embody and share with one another.
Pilate, can find no case against Jesus, because there is none. Just people who feel confronted by the truth and the light of truth, that they don’t want to face it. Instead they choose death and destruction. People confronted with their own mortality, and instead of trying to discern what God might be up to, choose to blame the one who comes in God’s name. Pilate ultimately, though not in this portion of the story, will literally wash his hands of this and relent. But for this week, we sit, in the space of questions like “What is truth?” And the crowd shouting “Barabbas.”
The appointed psalm verse for accompaniment this week comes from Psalm 145:10-13. 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” (Psalm 145:10-13, NRSV).
It’s easy to see some stewardship nuggets in this pairing. “All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord…” How do we respond for all that God has done and will do? How do we respond for God’s saving and life-giving work for us? One way is by speaking of the glory of God’s kingdom. The Kingdom which Jesus alludes to as “not of this world.” A kingdom that is “an everlasting kingdom.” And reminds us too of the discipleship truth that “The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds.” This is who God is. And this is who God is for God’s beloved- all of God’s people. That’s good news. And it helps illustrate the good news of a familiar but hard passion story text, especially as we think about Jesus being before Pilate as we do this week.
Whatever parts of this familiar story grabs your attention, may God’s love enfold you, envelop you, and inspire you. And may you share God’s love through all you do and say.
As we continue our Lenten journeys, may God’s love, peace, and presence be with you. And may they sustain you, and be shared with, through, and for all of God’s people through, with, and in you. -TS