Sunday, September 3, 2017

Conduits of God's Overflowing Goodness

Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion
September 3, 2017/Rollag, Minnesota

Our gospel text is Luke 6:38:   [Jesus said] “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

The other day I received an email from a friend that started out like this:

“It is hardly an exaggeration to say that while Texas is underwater, Montana has gone up in flames.  While 50 inches of rain fall in Texas, Montana is experiencing record drought, heat and high winds, all of which combine to make it a record fire season….Thousands of people are being evacuated in the west, as fires sweep through the mountains.  And in the east, range fires have consumed anything the cattle might eat….Fire danger in [Montana] ranges from Severe to Exceptional.  Last night lightning started 40 new fires….Smoke is everywhere, even hundreds of miles from active fire.  There are severe health warnings about any kind of exertion outside, even for healthy people.”  (email from Bishop Jessica Crist, Montana Synod ELCA) 


What a powerful reminder that, as Houston and Hurricane Harvey have captured almost all of our attention…other disasters in far-flung corners of the world also are playing out…whether we’re talking drought and wildfires in the western United States…or the devastating flooding in the Bihar state of India, half a world away!

At any moment somewhere persons are suffering in this world…somewhere, someone is beset by forces that diminish life and stifle hope….somewhere people are hurting right now…eking out a hand-to-mouth existence, famished by scarcity.

And it’s always been that way.  

The pages of the Bible make that clear.  One of the reasons why the Bible “rings true” is that it consistently portrays all the hard edges of life as we know it.   The Bible sugar-coats nothing.  The Bible supports the notion that life is “nasty, brutish and short”—anything but a bed of roses.

So the children of Israel in the Old Testament endure harsh slavery in Egypt for generations…

…And the Jews whom we meet in the four gospels labor under the harsh thumb of Roman occupation troops….

…And the earliest generation of Christians, the first century church draws into its orbit some of the poorest of the poor.

Our Bible does nothing to hide those sobering facts.

And why is that?   Why is this framework of scarcity so evident  in our Holy Book?

It’s about more than being “real” or “true to life.”  

The Bible puts on full display all the things persons hope for and wish they had….so that we can see how God deals with this predicament, how God reverses the fortunes of folks “living on the edge.”

Did you hear that red thread, coming through loud and clear in the scripture lessons that were just read?

There is a lushness, a richness, a lavishness, to the way God bestows his gifts.  God doesn’t dole out anything sparingly.  One adjective that’s never used to describe God is “stingy.” 
Instead God is always getting carried away—continually giving gifts with a full heart and an open hand and an abundance that leaves us breathless.

So, in the 8th chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses really overdoes it as he describes the future God has in store for the wandering Israelites after their escape from Egyptian slavery. 

Standing on the border into the Promised Land, Moses rhapsodizes about a landscape 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 singer of Psalm 103 quickly jumps in, babbling on about the Lord whose mercy and grace spills over, “abounding in steadfast love” with generous doses of forgiveness that drives sin away, “as far as the east is from the west….”

And then St. Paul has to chime in, shining his apostolic spotlight on the amazing 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 newly-harvested grain is poured out generously, “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, [and plopped down, right] into your lap.”

When it comes to our God, the God of Good Friday and Easter, the Lord of the Cross and the Empty Tomb, the Creator of all our yesterdays and tomorrows….the scarcity that pinches us is always being overcome by bountiful generosity.

It’s a holy mess when God gets into the act, giving us all good gifts.   Watch out!   Have your scoop shovel, broom and dustpan handy--for when God gives gifts, there’s a lot of “spillage” needing to be cleaned up!

That’s because God knows only one way to give gifts:  abundantly, lavishly, overflowingly…

So, my friends, when you take your seat, with your morning coffeeshop crew and effortlessly join in their “ain’t it awful” chorus…

When you find yourself sighing and shrugging your shoulders, because of headlines that seem so bereft of good news… 

When signs of danger, wickedness or scarcity capture your attention, focusing your gaze on storms like Hurricane Harvey, or political turmoil in Washington, or declining rural populations,  or stagnant wages, or low commodity prices, scarce dollars, receding hope….

Remember then that scarcity isn’t an illusion—not one bit.    

Deprivation, abject poverty, utter emptiness—that’s our lot in life, apart from God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ.

Scarcity is real.  

But it is never 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 occasionally—just so God can fill it up again with life overflowing….only so that God can draw us ever deeper into the rhythm of living in anticipation of the new creation God is already bring forth, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When the bad news of this world becomes overwhelming...let us see it for what it really is:  the fading echo of a creaky, dying 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.

The biblical story points us toward anything but a life of pinched, stingy scarcity.   The biblical writers go nuts trying to describe the only way God knows how to give. 

And then things always get out of hand…because God’s way of giving is like a river overflowing its banks, gifts piled upon gifts, life abundant.

And what’s even better:  God’s life overflowing doesn’t stop with us.  

No:  God’s abundance is intended to flow not just to us, but through us to others.  We’re more like conduits than holding tanks when it comes to receiving God’s goodness—which is wonderful news to folks in Houston and Montana and India…and a whole lot closer to home as well!

Which makes a guy wonder what it might look like if people like us started to resist all the ways we’re tempted to fixate on the dark side of life?

What would happen if you and I imagined ourselves infiltrating our homes and faith-communities townships and neighborhoods with another word:  the great good news about God’s astounding and utterly gratuitous abundance in Jesus Christ?

What would result if we routinely obsessed over how God always gets a kick out of giving gifts--with a full heart, an open hand and a generosity that sweeps us up in its tide?

What if…we dreamed and deliberated and decided and lived as though wherever we are, whoever we are, we have all that we need in order to do God’s work?  

What if we were to bet the whole farm on the fact that all of God’s gifts to us come “super-sized,” like that bushel basket of grain Jesus described for us: “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, [right] in your lap?”

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

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