Friday, May 14, 2010

Life Overflowing

Opening Worship on May 14, 2010
Texts:   Deuteronomy 8:1-20, Psalm 103, II Corinthians 8:1-15, Luke 6:27-38

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Early in the process of getting ready for this synod assembly, the planning committee got stuck.

We knew we wanted to focus on the awesome abundance of God, and the spiritual gift of generosity that flows from that abundance, through our lives, and out into God’s world.

But how to say that in five words or less—wed to an image that might capture our imaginations?

As we brainstormed, someone recalled that old TV commercial that featured a clear glass with water in it…and an announcer posing the question: “What do you see? Is the glass half empty? Or is it half full?”

Isn’t that what this abundance-of-God stuff is all about, we wondered? It’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it? This wayward world says the glass is half empty, but resurrection faith declares that it’s half full.

So far so good….until it dawned on us this image of the half empty-half full glass would only take us so far. Why? Because the biblical witness takes us so much deeper!

For the biblical witness—taken as a whole--points us neither to a half-empty glass of water nor to a half-full glass of water….but to a perpetually overflowing glass of water.

The biblical story unfolds in anything but a pinched, stingy, life of scarcity. The biblical writers go sort of nuts when they describe the only way God knows how to give. Things quickly get out of hand, you see, when God opens his hand…because God’s way of giving suggests a river spilling over its banks, gifts piled upon gifts, life overflowing.

There is a lushness, a richness, a lavishness, to the way God bestows his gifts. God is no good at doling out anything sparingly. God gets carried away, you see, always giving with a full heart and an open hand and an abundance that takes our breath away.

So, in the 8th chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses really overdoes it in describing the future God has in store for the wandering Israelites. Standing on the verge of the Promised Land, Moses rhapsodizes about a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, 8a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9a land where [God’s people will] eat bread without scarcity, …[and] will lack nothing….

And then the psalmist quickly jumps in, babbling on about the Lord whose mercy and grace spills over, “abounding in steadfast love” and forgiveness as far-reaching as the east is from the west….

And then St. Paul has to chime in, shining his apostolic spotlight on the astounding Macedonian Christians--poor as church mice!--but recklessly giving way beyond their means for the relief of the beleaguered saints in Jerusalem…

And finally our Lord Jesus himself, in his Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, describes God’s life overflowing in terms of a trip to the local granary where your bushel-basket is “super-sized” to-the-max…where the grain is poured out generously, “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, [and plopped down, right] into your lap.

With the God of Good Friday and Easter, the God of all our yesterdays and all our tomorrows….the glass is never half-empty…and it’s never half-full, either.

The glass, rather is always overflowing…because that’s the only way God will have it.

That’s the only way God knows how to give. It’s a holy mess, you see, when God gives gifts. Watch out! Have your scoop shovel, broom and dustpan handy…..for when God gives gifts, there’s a lot of “spillage” that needs to be cleaned up!

So, is the glass half empty or half full?

Neither, really.

With God, the glass is always overflowing, pure and simple.

If that is true, though….if that’s the way things really are with this God of abundance….why—pray tell!--is it so doggone easy, so natural for us, to think and speak and live out of a scarcity mentality?

The glass, after all, doesn’t really seem to be always overflowing.

In fact, there are plenty of times…when the glass isn’t even close to half-empty or half-full, either.

The glass, all too often seems utterly empty.

And, in point of fact, “empty” is just exactly how everything is for us--apart from God’s love overflowing in Jesus Christ.

And finding evidence of such emptiness in our earth-bound lives is as easy as shooting carp in a barrel.

So we slip into the coffeeshop, and effortlessly join in the “ain’t it awful” conversation someone else has already started. We sigh and shrug our shoulders when the front-page of the newspaper is bereft of good news. Signs of scarcity surround us….declining rural population, persistent unemployment, scarce dollars, receding hope.

And even in the church these days—in some quarters at least—we encounter a dearth of goodwill among the people of God. The ancient church father Tertullian overheard the pagans—whispering to one another about the early Christians: “See how they love one another!”

But these days, love itself, let alone common decency and civility seems in short supply in our society and even in parts of our church.

So what else is new? Should it surprise anyone that you and I confront the same realities God’s people have always had to face?

Woven through all these eye-popping biblical texts about God’s abundance….is a red thread of scarcity that magnifies God’s abundance all the more.

So, the wandering Israelites are blown away by Moses’ promise of a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey….because wounds on their backs are still healing from the task-master’s whip, their dreams still haunted by the terrors of Pharaoh’s oppression, their memories still keen of the gnawing hunger and the desiccating thirst of the desert.

And the author of Psalm 103 can utter his “bless the Lord O my soul” only because he has already encountered the fierce power of sin, the decay of disease, the black hole of the Pit…

And St. Paul finds glimmers of God’s abundance seeping through, but only because the generosity of the Macedonians stands out so starkly against the deprivation that was their customary lot in life…

And Jesus paints for us this amazing image of the overflowing bushel-basket , only against the backdrop of all the hatred, curses and abuse he and his followers endured…the many-layered poverty that the first Christians would surely continue to face, in service to their Suffering Savior.

Scarcity isn’t an illusion—not one bit. Deprivation, poverty, utter emptiness—that’s our lot in life, apart from God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ.

Scarcity is real.

But it is not our destiny.

In God’s new creation—for which we ache with longing!—scarcity will be a thing of the past—forever.

God allows our cup to become empty on occasion—but only so that God can fill that emptiness with his life overflowing….only so that God can draw us ever deeper into the rhythm of a life that anticipates now the life overflowing of the new creation God is bringing our way in Jesus Christ.

In these days, as we gather in assembly, I invite us to put all our poor-talk in its place….as the fading echoes of a creaky, dying old world—a tired old age that is passing away. Scarcity, which can seem so real!--has no ultimate claim upon you. Deprivation is not your destiny.

I invite us, as servant-leaders of a the missional church here in northwestern Minnesota to ponder deeply how to take that message home with us….how to let it seep out of us, into all those coffee-shop conversations about how awful things are. I encourage us to imagine what it might be like to return to our homes, ready to infiltrate our congregations and communities with another word.

What would it be like, across these twenty-one counties of our state, if we ELCA folks, we Lutheran disciples of Jesus Christ, became known as people who fearlessly count on God to give gifts the only way God knows how to give gifts: with a full heart, an open hand and a generosity that sweeps us up in its tide?

What if, when our neighbors heard the word “Lutheran” they didn’t think of words like stuffy, stodgy or stingy? What if instead they associated us with the nearly $9 million our ELCA members have contributed toward earthquake relief in Haiti since January 12th?

What if people heard “Lutheran” and—like Pavlov’s famous dogs—they instantly reacted with words like “generous,” “gracious” and “overflowing with love?”

What if, as leaders of the passionate Jesus communities, we dreamed and imagined and deliberated and decided and lived as though wherever we are, whoever we are, we know that together, we have what we need to do God’s work….because God is the Giver, and God holds nothing back?

What if our congregations staked all that we are and all that we do on the confidence that all of God’s gifts to us come “super-sized,” like that bushel basket of grain “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, [and plopped down, right] into your lap?”

In the name of Jesus. Amen.