Preaching Thoughts- Third Sunday after Pentecost

After a long hiatus through the Easter season, the preaching thoughts return this week as we continue the long green growing season of the church in the time after Pentecost. Without further ado, 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.

Sunday June 26, 2022: Revised Common Lectionary- The Third Sunday after Pentecost (Year C)Lectionary 13
First Lesson: 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
Psalm 16
Second Lesson: Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Gospel of Luke 9:51-62

This week’s stories are rich, especially in describing life in its beauty and challenge as a disciple. There is great wisdom in these four stories about discipleship, and being a follower of Jesus. We hear the familiar words from Paul about the fruits of the Spirit, like generosity, which may lend to some stewardship preaching and thinking too. Put together with the gospel lesson and particularly Psalm 16 this week, we remember the bigger why behind all of this. We do what we do, and we follow as disciples because we know that we follow the one who gave himself for us, and the God who is our God, who brings life out of death. Let’s dig into this week’s appointed stories.

The first lesson for this week comes from 1 Kings 19. We read, Then the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. So he set out from there, and found Elisha son of Shaphat, who was ploughing. There were twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him. He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, ‘Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.’ Then Elijah said to him, ‘Go back again; for what have I done to you?’ He returned from following him, took the yoke of oxen, and slaughtered them; using the equipment from the oxen, he boiled their flesh, and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant” (1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21, NRSV).

There is an obvious parallel between this lesson and the gospel lesson this week. It comes in the form of the idea of “going back” or “looking back.” Elijah relents for Elisha. But Jesus won’t be so relenting as we’ll see a little later. But the difference here perhaps is that Elisha goes and kills the oxen to provide food for the people. He did this to provide, one last time, before following Elijah and becoming his servant. He was getting his affairs in order. Taking care of those close to him, before following his calling and vocation which he suspected likely would change everything. That’s part of discipleship and call, being open to being changed and going where the Spirit leads. It doesn’t often go as one might imagine or expect.

This week’s appointed psalm comes from Psalm 16. The psalmist proclaims, “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 16:1-11, NRSV).

The psalmist gives us words for our response of gratitude and joy for all that God has done and does for us. We all can say with the psalmist assuredly, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” For we know what it means to have relationship with God and with each other. As the psalmist says, “my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices.” God provides life, not giving up God’s own beloved, but ensuring that they are delivered and redeemed. This is Christ’s work, that the gospel this week points clearly too, as Jesus knows what lies ahead in Jerusalem. The psalmist then gives us our response for this good news. “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.” This is good news for the people of God indeed. And it is because of this, that we lean in and answer the call and invitation as Children of God to be disciples and stewards of God’s love.

The second lesson comes from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the people of Galatia. Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:1, 13-25, NRSV).

“For freedom Christ has set us free.” Paul is connecting the mission and work of God in Christ as it relates to us and all of God’s people. And then he connects it too, to the summation of the law, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This orients us as God’s people toward one another, and in our lives as disciples and stewards. And then Paul moves on to describing the movement and activity of the Spirit and those who live by it, and exemplify its fruit. We know this verse well, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” This describes discipleship, but the inclusion of generosity also describes stewardship. These are signs of God’s activity at work here and now.

As Paul writes, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” This may mean following the Spirit to places and things we might not always want to go, or at the very least, to be part of something we might not expect or imagine. Such is the way God works in the world. Such is the way vocation emerges too. But all of this is a part of freedom. As Martin Luther writes in The Freedom of a Christian, “A Christian is a perfectly free, subject to none. A Christian is dutiful servant, subject to all.” (Translations may vary, but the sentiment holds.) We are freed in Christ. But we are also bound to each other in Christ. It’s a paradox, that embodies the commandments to love God, and our neighbors as ourselves. And God invites us into some of God’s work and relationship together as a part of it.

The gospel lesson appointed for this week comes from Luke 9. We read, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village. As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.‘ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.‘ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God‘” (Luke 9:51-62, NRSV).

This week’s gospel story is situated well on the road to Jerusalem. We are given the context of Jesus knowing what lies ahead, and sensing the urgency of it, is even clearer eyed and focused on making sure that those who have eyes might see and those who have ears might hear, what he is trying to teach about discipleship and the beauty and challenge of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus highlights examples of responses he has heard from people like, “I will follow you where you go.” You would think he would be happy to hear such a response. But instead he pushes, and doubts it. Saying, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” This seems like it could also be a jab at the emperor. Jesus uses the language of fox to describe the emperor elsewhere in his teaching, so maybe he is making a point about the challenge of being a faithful disciple as part of the earthly world. I am not sure though that’s his main intent. I think the larger point is to highlight just how hard and challenging it is to leave one’s stuff and self behind, to pick up the cross, and follow Jesus.

Perhaps this picture helps illustrate the challenge and reluctance we all might feel from time to time about discipleship? One daughter raises their hand to signify willingness, but they don’t make eye contact suggesting they are not 100% on board. The other, makes eye contact, but with some sense of fear, trepidation, and concern. These are honest reactions to discipleship if you ask me. (And no pun intended, but it’s kind of perfect that they are both wearing Mariners shirts, signifying that our family are fans of the baseball team in Seattle obviously, and that, well, its hard to root for a team, that even when they’re supposed to be good like this year, they so are not a good team. Such is discipleship. You keep hoping. You keep going. Even when it’s hard. Right?)

If that wasn’t clear, it becomes very clear when he responds to the one who says, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” That seems perfectly reasonable. But Jesus doesn’t seem to think so in this case. His response is not what they teach you in seminary for the best practices of pastoral care, saying let the dead bury their own dead. At least he doesn’t leave it there, and continues to say, “go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” And that is the discipleship move. No matter the good or bad, the hard or easy, the ups or downs, all disciples are called and entrusted with the gift and responsibility of proclaiming what God has done and pointing to the kingdom of God.

In the reference to the Elijah and Elisha story that is included as the first lesson this week, Jesus says that “No one who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” That’s harsh Jesus. But to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt here, he knows he doesn’t have time to sugar coat anything. So he plays his cards at their face value.

It’s basic human nature and relationship practice to say good bye to friends and loved ones. I don’t think Jesus is arguing against that practice. But is making the point that this work is so important as disciples, that it supercedes anything else. One must be all in, because the kingdom of God is a life and death thing. It’s hard. We’re all going to come up short at times and fail. We’re all going to want to look back, linger and wonder at time to time. And Jesus knows this. But he also knows how tempting that can be, and he doesn’t want us to fall victim to it. To fall for the lies of nostalgia and the glory days of the past and the way things were when… Case and point, what are the most popular TV shows being made right now, remakes of the past, nostalgia on full display. Jesus knows the power of this. But he wants us to focus on what matters in the here and now. He is calling us to be laser focused on the present and future. God’s work is not done. God’s people are in need. God has called us each to do God’s work, and to proclaim the good (and sometimes challenging) news of the kingdom of God that has come near for one and for all.

It’s a hard word this week. But it’s a good word. And it’s an honest one about the challenges of discipleship. But it also provides the opportunity to help us all reflect on the beauty and joy of discipleship too. To see God at work. To see God’s life changing work happening. To see the Kingdom of God breaking in all around us, for us, in us, and through us, in real time. No one ever said life as a disciple would ever be easy, especially not Jesus. It’s the life of one who follows the cross after all. But we know what that leads to too. Freedom. Hope. Joy. New life out of death. This is God’s life saving work, that God does for you and for me. We have the duty and the joy to respond to it in our lives as disciples and stewards. Jesus calls us each to this. Let us follow in hope and faith.

Sunday June 26, 2022: The Narrative Lectionary- The Third Sunday after Pentecost
Narrative Theme: Ten Commandments (Week 3 of 4)
Focus Passage: Exodus 20:12-16
Gospel Verse: Matthew 22:34-40

The Narrative Lectionary cycle continues its summer series this week, the first of which is a four part series digging into the Ten Commandments. This week we hear and ponder the following, “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:12-16, NRSV).

We are reminded of the content of the commandments this week, but as disciples we are also, perhaps more importantly, reminded of the why and the importance behind them. They are given, “so that your days may be long in the life that the Lord your God is giving you.” Or as my favorite Old Testament seminary professor used to say, Dr. Terence Fretheim, “that life might go well for you.” So these commandments, rules, or covenants are given so that we might live life well and abundantly, and be in good and right relationship with God and neighbor.

There are times obviously when we fall short. And we need to be reminded of this again, and again. But in so doing, we remember and then confess and seek forgiveness so that we can be reconciled, and then continue to grow in relationship as God calls and invites us into. All of this God does because of God’s deep and abundant and abiding love for all of God’s beloved, and the hope that God has that all might live wrapped in that love.

This theme is also reiterated in the gospels. In Matthew 22, Jesus teaches about this and these very points. We read, “When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets‘” (Matthew 22:34-40, NRSV).

Whatever story or stories, or lectionary you might find yourself in this week, may you hear God’s call and invitation to discipleship and may share that with all those you see through word and deed. And may God’s love and peace be made known to you, and made real through you, as you share the good news of the Kingdom of God. -TS

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