Surprising and Sustaining Stewardship Practices: October Lectionary preview
September 23, 2022 by Greg Allen-Pickett
The Revised Common Lectionary readings in the month of October provide a great opportunity to reflect on gratitude and generosity which could facilitate a stewardship campaign. As I was preparing this lectionary preview, I stumbled onto the lectionary reading for Canadian Thanksgiving Day, which falls on October 10, 2022. It provides one of my favorite expressions of our call to generosity in words attributed to Moses in Deuteronomy 26:1-12:
“Once you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance… take some of the early produce of the fertile ground that you have harvested from the land the Lord your God is giving you, and put it in a basket, then go to the priest. The priest will then take the basket from you and place it before the Lord your God’s altar. Then you should solemnly state before the Lord your God:
“My father was a starving Aramean. He went down to Egypt, living as an immigrant there with few family members, but that is where he became a great nation, mighty and numerous. The Egyptians treated us terribly, oppressing us and forcing hard labor on us. So we cried out for help to the Lord, our ancestors’ God. The Lord heard our call. God saw our misery, our trouble, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome power, and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land—a land full of milk and honey. So now I am bringing the early produce of the fertile ground that you, Lord, have given me.”
Set the produce before the Lord your God. Then celebrate all the good things the Lord your God has done for you and your family… When you have finished paying the entire tenth part of your produce… you will give it to the Levites, the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows so they can eat in your cities until they are full.”
This passage recounts the story of the Israelites suffering in Egypt and their wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, none of which has been easy, but God has always provided for their basic needs. Now they are on the cusp of arriving at the Promised Land, a land “full of milk and honey.” In chapters 12-26 of Deuteronomy, Moses preaches a sermon reminding God’s people about the covenant that God has made with them and then describes the blessings they will experience in the Promised Land. When we get to chapter 26, Moses instructs them in what they are called to do with the abundant summer harvest that they will soon experience, a chance for them to fulfill their side of the covenant that God has kept with them. God’s people are called to give back generously and take care of the oppressed and marginalized (immigrants, orphans, and widows). God promises that they will be blessed with abundance, but with this newfound abundance they will experience also comes responsibility to give back, meet the needs of others, and to celebrate with joy!
I think we can draw some parallels between the experience of the Israelites 3,000 years ago and our own lives today. The last few years have made us feel like we are wandering in the wilderness in many ways. But if we reflect back on our own wilderness wanderings, we can see the times that God continued to provide for us in big and small ways. And now, like the Israelites, God is inviting us to respond to God’s faithful provision with generosity and joy!
This passage from Deuteronomy 26 could provide the foundation of a stewardship sermon series in October that I am calling “Surprising and Sustaining Stewardship Practices.” The series could use this passage as the overall theme and then take one of the lectionary texts each week to model or demonstrate a different spiritual practice that leads to generosity.
The Old Testament lectionary reading is Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4. In chapter 1, this passage begins, “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?” The tone of the prophet shifts in chapter 2 as the prophet writes, “I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart… Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.” The spiritual practice modeled in this passage is intercessory prayer. We are invited to pray and ask for God’s help when we see the brokenness in the world or our lives. However, while we are doing that God may just turn around and inspire us to be God’s change makers in the world. Just like the prophet Habakkuk, we are called to cry out to God, but we shouldn’t be surprised when God calls back to us and invites us in to God’s holy work in the world.
The scripture calls us to bloom where we are planted in Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7. He writes, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce… But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Through the prophet Jeremiah, God is inviting us to make the best out of our current situation, and also reminding us that our welfare is tied to our community’s welfare. These are important spiritual disciplines that we are called to practice that can lead to both gratitude by recognizing the blessings even in the hard times, and generosity as we seek the welfare of our community and realize that our own wellbeing is inextricably linked to those around us.
We turn to the gospel passage and the parables of Jesus in Luke 18:1-8. Jesus uses a persistent widow confronting a judge to teach his followers that we are called to not give up, making persistence a spiritual practice. Unlike many of his parables where Jesus leaves it to the reader to interpret, in this parable Jesus provides the interpretation saying, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” We are reminded of the spiritual discipline of persistence; that we must persist in our prayers and our faith, and through our persistence, God will provide for us.
The passages for Oct. 23 invite us to “be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God” as we read the passage from Joel 2:23-32. The prophet paints a picture of abundance following a period of scarcity. The pastor can relate these contrasts to things happening in our present contexts and remind the listener of God’s provision, and our call to respond in gratitude and joy. “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.” This passage provides a chance to refocus on God’s abundant provision, and helps us to embrace the spiritual discipline of rejoicing and praising God for that provision.
The apostle Paul invites us into the spiritual practice of gratitude, particularly for the church in 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12, which would provide an excellent way to close a month-long focus on stewardship. Paul’s effusive gratitude and love for the church in Thessalonica is a powerful testament that should inspire us all. “We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.” What would it look like to write a letter about your church that includes such joy and praise for the good work that the church is doing? Perhaps the pastor could lead the Session or even the whole congregation in that activity, modeling a letter that expresses gratitude after Paul’s opening lines in Thessalonians.
There are lots of options available to the pastor in October to focus the congregation’s attention and energy on stewardship. The passage in Deuteronomy could ground the congregation in our call to give back faithfully out of the abundance that God has given us. The spiritual disciplines offered in each week’s lectionary readings could inspire a class or the whole church to take up these disciplines each week and report back on the impact they have. Ultimately, these passages remind us that it is in our spiritual DNA to be people of generosity and joy. This call dates all the way back to God’s people wandering in the wilderness and arriving in the Promised Land, persists through the prophets, endures in the words of Jesus, and Paul’s letters, and continues today.
Rev. Greg Allen-Pickett is Pastor and Head of Staff of First Presbyterian Church in Hastings, Nebraska. He is a native of Flagstaff, Arizona, where he was an active member of Federated Community Church. Greg is a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and he also holds a Master of Divinity degree from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Greg has worked in small, medium, and large churches and also worked at the PC(USA) denominational offices in Louisville as the general manager of Presbyterian World Mission.