A source of hope
September 18, 2020 by Cynthia Campbell
It’s fall. It’s time for stewardship. It’s unlike any other time any of us can remember.
Most preachers are going to be asking how we preach stewardship in the midst of a pandemic AND in the midst of continuing calls for racial equity and justice AND in the midst of widespread political and economic uncertainty.
And yet, what better time to focus on the goodness of God? Our stewardship is rooted in God’s generosity. We are stewards of the gifts of our lives, of the planet entrusted to our care, of the mysteries of God, and of each other. These things are always true, but they need repeating in times of crisis so that they become our source of hope.
The lectionary for the month of October offers a couple of approaches that may guide preaching at the intersection of gospel, church, and world. We begin by considering the gospel readings. At first glance, these are difficult and challenging texts that do not immediately lend themselves to the themes we often want to explore in this season. The parables of the wicked tenants (Matthew 21:33-46) and the guests at the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1-14) both feature strong themes of judgment and condemnation. Jesus’ confrontation with the authorities about paying taxes to Caesar (Matthew 22:15-22) appears to be about money but maybe isn’t. Finally, we have the question about what is the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:34-46). This last reading falls on what many observe as “Reformation Sunday,” which provides a number of interesting possibilities. But overall, this is a daunting set of readings.
As usual, however, context is crucial. As we move towards the close of the liturgical year, we find ourselves with Jesus in the last days of his life. It is Monday of Holy Week, and Jesus has come to the Temple and is immediately confronted by the religious authorities (21:23). Both parables are part of the intensifying conflict that marks these final days. Matthew places a great deal of teaching material in chapters 21-25. Themes such as authority and authenticity are explored. Emphasis is placed on being ready for anticipated coming of the reign of God in human time and the resulting judgment of human life and history, culminating in the great parable of the sheep and the goats (Mt. 25:31-46) which will be read on Christ the King Sunday.
The two parables are particularly problematic because they are all too easy to read in a supercessionist way: because of their disobedience and lack of faith, Christians have replaced Jews as God’s chosen people. Such readings have fueled horrific fires of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism through the centuries. Without muting the judgment present in both parables, Eugene Boring suggests that we might do better to ask towards whom these parables are addressed now? “Contemporary readers can … ask whether they have set up other phony sovereignties in place of the one God, and thus might be addressed in the ‘you’ from whom the kingdom is taken,” he writes. (M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 415.)
Read in this way, all four gospel texts this month can be seen as meditations on the theme of loyalty. Given that the world and our lives are entrusted to our care, how have we acted? When we are invited to sit down and feast on God’s abundant love, how have we responded? How do we discern what rightly belongs to God? And finally, on what do we fix all of our life’s energy and attention? Are we rooted and grounded in God or torn in a thousand directions, none of them particularly life-giving?
It is also possible to read the parables as cautionary tales, and then flip the question. What should faithful tenants do when the owner comes to collect the fruit of the harvest? What does it take to tend a vineyard and produce the fruit of the vine that becomes the wine of celebration?
The wedding banquet is one of Jesus’ favorite metaphors for the reign of God. An ordinary village wedding in Jesus’ day would have been a multi-day affair and everyone would have been invited and involved. It would have been a rare occasion on which poor people would actually have more than enough to eat and drink! It was a celebration of the future and hope and life. How much greater would be the feast put on by a king? So, how are those invited to a wedding feast supposed to respond? Wouldn’t the normal reaction be one of joy and anticipation? And I’m pretty sure my second thought would be: I have nothing to wear; let’s go shopping!
The first parable, then, invites us to see our lives as the opportunity to produce good and abundant fruit. Through the mystery of God’s grace our lives can become the wine that fills the cup of salvation. We can be mediators of God’s goodness and mercy to one another, if we able and willing to tend God’s vineyard. The second parable invites us to consider each day as an invitation to the banquet of life and to see the abundance that is all around us and deep within.
Another approach to this month is to concentrate on the texts that bookend the month. The Old Testament reading for the first Sunday of October is Exodus 20:1-20 (the Ten Commandments). The gospel for the last Sunday presents the discussion between Jesus and one of the Pharisees about which (off the 633 commandments in the Torah) might be the greatest. In other words, how do we sort through all that God has taught us? Is there a distillation, a core message?
The answer is love of God and neighbor. Both readings are answers to the question: how does God want us to live our lives? Both turn on the assertion that human beings are made for relationships: we are who we are because of our relationships with God and with one another.
How we choose to respond to God and how we choose to treat others becomes the shape of our lives. It is our stewardship.
Cynthia Campbell recently retired as pastor and head of staff at Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Ky. Cynthia began her ministry in Texas and served in three congregations before completing her Ph.D. She joined the faculty of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1981 where she taught theology and ministry and directed the Doctor of Ministry Program. In 1988, she was called to the First Presbyterian Church of Salina, Kansas, as Pastor/Head of Staff, one of the first women to serve a congregation of over 1,000 members as pastor. In 1995, she was named President of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. She is the author of A Multitude of Blessings: A Christian Approach to Religious Diversity (2007) and God’s Abundant Table (2011). Cynthia is married to Fred Holper, who is retired from teaching preaching and worship at McCormick Seminary. They have two adult children who live in Milwaukee.