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.
On this Fifth Sunday in Lent, familiar stories abound in the lectionary- setting the stage for the move that begins Holy Week in just another week with Palm Sunday. As we always do, we’ll take the stories in order and note any thing that draws our attention sparking curiosity or reflection. Based on this week’s revised common lectionary texts, I commend to you the sermon that Bishop Brian Maas preached this week as part of the Nebraska Synod’s Chrism Mass for ministry leaders as they recommit themselves to the work and call that they serve. As a help for them, he preached on this week’s texts. Perhaps there is a nugget in Bishop Maas’ sermon that sparks some ideas for you?
Now as for my thoughts and reactions, our first story comes from the prophet Isaiah. We read, “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise” (Isaiah 43:16-21, NRSV).
I think it should surprise no one that I love Isaiah 43. My favorite part of that chapter is where we hear the words of promise that God will walk with God’s people in the waters and the fires, and God’s people will not be consumed. This week’s section doesn’t include that imagery, but it’s equally as powerful and timely. God through Isaiah says, “I am about to do a new thing.” What might God be bringing about that is new in our lives and world? It builds off of the theme from the second lesson last week about a new creation and all things are being made new in Christ Jesus. There’s some commonality here then in the lectionary from week to week. The imagery though is largely about water in this portion of the story. God will make a way. Water will flow, especially the water of life to a parched and weary world. In Nebraska right now I hear these words as words of hope and promise amid a time of severe drought. Here’s hoping the spring rains come soon. Otherwise, the grass will likely never turn green this year. Anyway, God is saying that something new is coming, God will provide. That provision will include the water of life that God alone can provide. From a stewardship perspective, as the reading closes, it’s clear that the people’s response for this will (and can only be) one of praise and gratitude.
The themes and imagery of Isaiah 43, seem to be connected and expanded upon in this week’s appointed Psalm, Psalm 126. The psalmist proclaims, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.‘ The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (Psalm 126:1-6, NRSV).
“The Lord has done great things for them… for us.” Indeed. With the psalmist, we rejoice. That’s the stewardship response. Joy. Gratitude. Thanks. Praise. Or as I like to often put it in this blog, it’s our joyful response for all that God has done, continues to do, and will do for all of God’s beloved. As disciples and stewards we’re entrusted with the stories of God’s life giving and life saving work. The work of turning sadness and mourning into dancing and joy. The work of sowing seeds, and caring for them as God is the gardener, waterer, and provider growing the seeds into God’s good and beloved creation. For all of this and so much more, we can’t help but share the Good News about what God has done. And then often feel so moved, that we come and see, then follow, and then even join in as part of God’s on-going work in the world here and now today.
The second lesson for this week comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul writes, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:4b-14, NRSV).
Paul is writing and sharing classic Pauline theology here. “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” Paul is embodying the discipleship move here, where we turn outward from ourselves to the God and the neighbor. Instead of being focused on our own gifts, doings, abilities, and accomplishments, we turn toward the one who makes all of them (and so much more) possible. Paul exemplifies this so well, of course, because he wasn’t born a follower of Jesus but became one in the most dramatic of circumstances. We need not recount the conversion of Saul story here, but I suspect that experience is especially shaping his writing in this passage. That and his move to remember and articulate that righteousness no longer comes just from the law or one’s own ability or faith or duty, but through faith in Christ.
If you’re a Lutheran, this seems like an obvious point of connection with concept of “Justification by Faith alone.” If that holds, faith and life are really pure gifts which God provides out of deep grace and love. For them, Paul gives praise, but he also commits to continue in his work, as he writes “I press on toward the goal…” Paul has made the discipleship move, knowing he follows Jesus, but also the stewardship one. He has given thanks and praise, and then can’t help but join in with some of God’s work in the world in his own time. Thus, he cares for the people in Philippi and writes them this letter all about his understanding of God’s love and desire to be in relationship with God’s people.
That brings us to the gospel lesson for this week, from John 12. As Bishop Maas put it, within this familiar story, Jesus concludes with some of his most unfortunate words (that are likely always taken out of context). We read, “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me’” (John 12:1-8, NRSV).
As I said above, these are familiar stories this week, and this one in particular. Jesus is back with his friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It’s still not clear how Lazarus is feeling about having been brought back to life. I kind of would love to get his side of the story. Oh well. All that aside, it’s obvious why this story is set in the lectionary for the Fifth and final Sunday in Lent. It sets the stage for the events of the passion which begin in just one week’s time. The perfume which will be used for Jesus’ burial, will be used not too long from now, and Jesus knows that well. I wonder if all those with him knew how quick the cross was coming at this point? It seems the writer of John, knows Judas knows something about this. He’s the one in this story today too who raises the question about the perfume and the poor. The writer of this gospel gives him no credit for that though saying, “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief…” Well then. John certainly has no love loss for Judas.
To this exchange though, Jesus says the words that I think most of us in ministry wish he would have rephrased or never uttered. “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” There’s nothing factually wrong with this. But the sad piece is, that these words have been misused, taken out a context, and used as a cop out by churches, people of faith, and leaders in government to justify for years, decades, and centuries decisions which ultimately end up perpetuating poverty and cycles of poverty. I don’t think at all that Jesus was trying to justify the existence of people continually being stuck in poverty, or minimizing the needs to take care of them.
Jesus, himself, was always concerned about the poor. But in this terse reply, I think he is probably staring down at Judas knowing full well what Judas is about to do, and sees through Judas’ insincere question and calls it out for what it is. He’s also trying to make the point that God in Christ’s presence won’t always be as it has been with the disciples. He knows that the events of the cross lie shortly ahead. But it’s a real shame that these words that Jesus utters have been misused ever since. Perhaps that’s also a warning to all of us in leadership and ministry, and on social media. Whatever we say and do will or may be quoted (and misquoted).
If I were preaching this week, I think I’d have to deal with this reality of the text. And to affirm our call and commitment to counter poverty, to care for the poor and the oppressed, and to share God’s love and abundance with all those in need. And we do this, precisely because we are Jesus’ hands and feet in the world now today as the Body of Christ.
Whatever story or stories grab your attention and imagination this week, may you point to God’s love and promises for all of God’s beloved, and may you too experience and know them to be true for yourself.
The Narrative continues its journey through the passion according to John this week, picking up where we left off last week with Jesus before Pilate and Pilate looking for a way to release Jesus. It’s a very familiar story which may not provide much in the way of new reflection and reaction to it, but let’s take it in a couple of parts.
We read at the beginning of John 19, “Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, ‘Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.’ So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!’ When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.’ The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God’” (John 19:1-7, NRSV).
The drama at this point is real. And it’s clear with the shouts of “Crucify him” that Pilate has lost control of the crowd. It’s just a matter of how long he can hold off on giving in, it would seem at this point. What’s interesting to me, is Jesus doesn’t say a word here in these first seven verses. He’s just on parade. Passive almost perhaps. I wonder what he might have been thinking or expressing (if anything) on his face? If it were me, there would likely have been some eye rolls and rage. But then again, that’s further proof that Jesus is God, and I (and we) are not, thanks be to God for that.
The story continues with Pilate’s response to the shout, “he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God. Jesus’ identity has returned to the forefront of the story. Who is this Jesus? We know the answer because we know the rest of the story. For a person like Pilate and in his position, this had to absolutely terrify him. We read, “Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.’ From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor’” (John 19:8-12, NRSV).
Verse 11 marks the first time that Jesus talks in John 19. It took a whole 11 verses for him to actually say something. Again, I wonder what that is all about? Pilate is trying to release him. The text says so itself. But Pilate gets frustrated because Jesus won’t engage him. To which Jesus finally says, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above…” Jesus is making a claim and move here about leadership and authority, and how both are entrusted to people. In a stewardship sense then, whatever role or roles or vocations you and I might serve, it’s important to remember that we believe that God is at work in calling and leading us to them, and in entrusting those roles and responsibilities to our care. Pilate is stuck now though. I think he is even more sure of Jesus’ innocence than he was before. But now the crowd is out for Pilate’s authority saying, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” Pilate can’t take that one sitting down quietly. And he doesn’t.
The story concludes for this week. “When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, ‘Here is your King!’ They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’ Then he handed him over to them to be crucified” (John 19:13-16a, NRSV).
The crowd, stirred up by a few people who felt challenged by Jesus (read into this- those in power and authority of the temple and other forms of governance), ultimately condemned Jesus under the guise of their support and pledge of allegiance and devotion to Caesar. I would love to blame Pilate for his role in this, but perhaps the only thing one can blame Pilate for, is that he was human. And one person against a mob, is a hard (if not impossible) position to be in. Jesus managed it okay. But we know Pilate is not Jesus. So here we are. Jesus’ sham of a trial and cross-examination is over. The cross is to come.
It’s interesting that the suggested pairing for this story in the narrative this week is Psalm 146. It seems like a rather joyful and cheery psalm in relation to the events in this gospel story, all things considered. But here with the psalmist we proclaim, “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long. Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish. Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith for ever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The Lord will reign for ever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 146:1-10, NRSV).
Psalm 146 reminds us of so much what God has done, is doing, and will do for God’s beloved. For this, we praise the Lord. The psalmist reminds that God gives food to the hungry, provides justice for the oppressed, sets prisoners free, opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up the lowly, etc. Why does God do this? Because this is what our life-giving and life-saving God does and will do. So in that sense, pairing it with the gospel this week makes sense. But also the psalmist remarks, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” That inclusion really connects with the story. When corruption and injustice happen in societal systems, that’s the obvious result of our humanity at work. These are human created structures and systems, and inherently then, they are fallible. Hence, there is a reminder here to not put total trust in such things and people, but in the one who is also trustworthy, God. Perhaps that too explains why Jesus didn’t talk all that much in this week’s part of the gospel narrative we read? Hmm… Good questions which will no doubt continue into next week.
As you wrestle with these stories, and follow where God might be inviting you to go and share and preach, may God’s love and promises fill you and sustain you, may they give you hope and peace, and strengthen and assure you this day and all days! And may you share all of that love, promise, hope, and peace with all of God’s people who are entrusted to your care in some way. -TS
p.s.- Please know that I am holding you in prayer as you embark upon your Holy Week journeys to come. As the stories of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday are very well known, I will likely not write a commentary for any of Holy Week through Easter Sunday and let the stories stand on their own. In which case, I hope that you have a blessed journey through Holy Week and will look forward to the return of my preaching thoughts following Easter Sunday.