I don’t know about you, but I’m having some difficulty staying focused. There’s the Sunday School plans, the stewardship campaign, the funeral services, the special worship services, the Bible studies, and don’t forget Advent will soon be upon us. And have you completed your review of the draft budget? Oh, and what about sabbatical planning for next summer, do you know what you’re going to do and who’s going to cover while you’re away? And the days are just rolling by. I’ve just barely finished with last week’s texts and this week’s are clamoring for my attention. These texts are not fun. They don’t tell a story which makes preaching so much easier. These have lessons embedded in them that most congregations aren’t particularly wanting to hear.
The passage from Jeremiah sets the tone for the texts that follow. All that we have and all that we are, are on loan from God. In fact, everything has been bought and paid for and sealed for future generations. Exile won’t change the promise. Neither will hostile people inhabiting the land diminish what God has given. War and destruction. Despair and devastation. None of these things can take away what God has given to the ancient Israelites or today’s people of God. We are simply stewards of what God offers. We are stewards of the planet, of the ground and everything that grows or flows upon it. We are stewards of human existence, of our bodies and the care of all our neighbors. Invading forces do not negate our responsibility to tend to the sacred gifts God has loaned us. This simple message is quite challenging if we try to live into it. How would our lives change or the lives of our congregations change if we began to look at everything we are and everything we have as belonging first to God?
Psalm 91 points toward an answer. The familiar, lyrical words remind us that God is present with us through all things. Perhaps if we truly trusted this and believed that we belong to God, maybe we could hold more firmly to the promises eloquently expressed by the psalmist. What does it mean for us to “live in the shelter of the Most High” today? Would anything change in us or in our churches if we trusted that God really is “our refuge and our fortress”? So much of the beauty and simplicity of faith has been squeezed out by reason and technology, is there room in our progressive worldview for accepting that God begins and ends in love and we are called to do the same?
The reading from Amos shifts to the consequences of when we fail to live in the reality of God’s promises. When our own lives and comfort take precedence over the welfare of our neighbors, we will be the first to find ourselves in exile. We will have wondered far from God’s ways and forgotten that we are stewards of God’s gifts. Amos, of course, spoke to people who were unconcerned by the enemies at the gates and the destruction around them. These people mistakenly thought that their wealth would protect them. It wasn’t true then and it is not true now. Can we pay more attention to Amos’ prophecy now than the original hearers did? Wealth is fine until we believe it makes us better than those around us. As so many of us are preparing for stewardship campaigns, do Amos’ words shift anything for us?
Psalm 146 provides the antidote to living as Amos described. Happiness does not come from money or mortals or leaders of any kind; happiness comes from God in whom we have help and hope. It seems too simple to believe. We, too often, believe that we have to achieve a fair amount of success, wealth, or power to be happy. The psalmist reminds that trusting in God’s presence and promises leads to happiness, perhaps to joy. How can we remind ourselves that the pretty shiny things of this world will not calm our spirits or free us in any way?
I Timothy continues the theme of how to honor God and be good stewards of all that God has given. If one has wealth, one ought not to be “haughty” but, rather, put their hopes in God. Trusting in wealth or other worldly things will not get a person very far. However, God asks us to do what is good and to be “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share” so as to recognize that all are equal before God. This is such a challenging message who struggle to balance the budget and pay clergy fair wages. Have we focused so much on numbers that we have forgotten to trust God’s plans for us?
Of course, the Gospel reading gets to the heart of the matter in the story about the rich man and Lazarus. We do not honor God when we fail to recognize the humanity of all those around us. We are not being faithful stewards of all that God has loaned us if we treat any of our neighbors with disgust or distain. I wonder what our congregations might be challenged to do differently after reading this story more closely. Who have we ignored as they sat hungry and thirsty in our midst? Who do we secretly think that we are more blessed than they are? What would change if we considered that wealth doesn’t distinguish one in God’s eyes?
These texts are challenging yet full of images and reminders of God’s promises to us and our responsibility to be good stewards. Where is the Spirit leading you this week?
Rev. Dr. Rachael Keefe is an author and the pastor of Living Table United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, MN. You can find links to her blog, video series, and books at Beachtheology.com.
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