By Whose Bounty All Are Blessed, Part Two

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
November 18, 2012 Psalm 23, Mark 6:30-44


Stewardship Sunday

The word “spam” means different things to different people these days. This spam came to my inbox a few weeks ago. “I am a foreigner with a viable and lucrative BUSINESS IDEA, but I do not know any investor in your country who I may trust to partner with. For details, contact me only on this email:” I wondered what this person knew about me, that of the several hundred million potential American investors, she or he had picked me out for my business savvy and deep pockets. Had the email only mentioned a viable business plan, or a lucrative business plan, I might not have been interested. But this was both viable AND lucrative, and given my keen fiscal insight, what could go wrong? I am kidding of course, but is there something to it, I wonder, to the lure, the attraction. Some of us attended a stewardship workshop yesterday, where we were reminded that John D. Rockefeller once said that all anyone really wants is one more dollar than they have. I don’t know that that’s true, but there is something to it, is there not?

Today is Stewardship Sunday. You have heard these past few weeks from fellow church members who have testified to the ways they have experienced the abundant bounty of blessings through the ministries of this church. You have received mailings and e-mail and Facebook posts. Last week I hope I made our needs clear as I invited us to give, to stretch our capacity, to re-calibrate if possible, to get in the game. Now comes the response. At the conclusion of the sermon we will sing “We Give Thee but Thine Own.” Notice the words. Then we will sing “Come and Fill Our Hearts” and while we are doing so you are invited to bring your pledge cards forward and place them in a basket.

First of all, to echo Tim Broshears’ words, let me say thank you. On behalf of the Stewardship Committee, the Session and Deacons and Trustees – all of us in this together – thank you. Thank you for your response.

I have been to several long presbytery meetings this week – and a long meeting by presbytery standards is really long. One dealt with structure; one dealt with vision; one dealt with financial health. All were good, and all reminded me – and not in a smug or complacent way – that this congregation, this Third Presbyterian Church of Rochester, has been blessed, and is blessed, by bounty. Vision. People. History and legacy. Energy. And finances. And what I have also been reminded of this week is that we have been blessed with the gift of community, of connecting and caring in the face of difficult moments.

“By Whose Bounty All Are Blessed,” which we sing each week, which we have printed on our pledge cards, which we are given visible reminder of this morning via the cornucopia on the communion table, becomes more than a slogan. It becomes a promise, and a vision. But it is also an invitation, and something of a challenge.

Time after time after time in the biblical witness, we are reminded that God provides for us. God provides in the face of perceived scarcity. God provides when we look around and feel like we have nothing. God provides. And God provides in abundance.

Let’s look quickly at three biblical snapshots.

The Israelites, wandering in the wilderness. Hungry. They begin to complain, and worse than complain. They blame God for their plight, the same God who had led them out of slavery. One morning they wake up and there is a flaky substance on the ground. Manna, it is called. Food. They are saved. Morning by morning it comes, in abundance. But what they also learn is that when they try to save it, to hoard it, it goes bad. How about that? God provides, but God does not want us to hoard.
And the Twenty-Third psalm. “My cup runneth over.”God, the good shepherd, the one who will not allow for any want, provides and protects, even as the psalmist walks in the valley of the shadow of death and sits at table with enemies. In hardship, in difficulty, in crisis, God protects and provides, so much so that our cups run over, they overflow, with goodness and mercy, overflow in bountiful abundance.
And perhaps my favorite gospel story. A huge crowd follows Jesus. They are hungry, at the end of the day. No food. Like a massive coffee hour and someone forgot to bake the cookies and even Dunkin’ Donuts has run out. The disciples, the prudent administrators, suggest sending the people home. Imagine the look Jesus gave them. They scrounge up a handful of fish and bread. And people are filled with good food, and more so, they are filled by love and grace and mercy. And in a comic footnote, we are told that there are leftovers.

By whose bounty all are blessed. It is more that a stewardship slogan. It is a promise of our faith. When there is need – physical need, communal need, spiritual need, God provides. In abundance. And calls us to do the same.

Allow me a sidebar. I don’t know about you, but I wanted the campaign to go on forever. More robo-calls. More TV ads with scary voices. My parents, who live in Columbus, Ohio, wanted more and more politicians to come every day to disrupt their lives.

But the election is over and it is time to move on and sort out. As long as it was, the campaign focused on some things a great deal, some important and some silly, and neglected other things, things that matter to our faith. So little talk of gun violence.

And so little talk of poverty. This is not to be partisan – both parties neglected this, it seems to me, and there are proposals from both sides of the aisle. But Jesus said “Blessed are the poor” and not “blessed are the middle class.” Blessed are the ones who come to dining room ministry and the food cupboard and who sleep in our church and go to schools 3 and 35 and live in the houses in New Orleans we are restoring. They are blessed, and our calling is to live that vision out.

One fallacy in all of this is that churches, or other faith institutions, can do it alone. We simply cannot. What we provide is a band-aid at best, and a little spiritual companionship. Blessed are the poor, Jesus says. He also tells a rich young man how tough it will be for him to get into the kingdom of heaven.

It is called the “prosperity gospel,” and it is prevalent in both white and black churches. It is the false belief that God wants you to be rich, that material wealth is a sign of God’s blessings. Blessed are the poor? The Bible does not say that money is the root of all evil, but love of money.

The theological question is not how much can I get, but how much is enough, and what do I do with what I have. Like manna, we do not hoard. We receive. And we share. By whose bounty all are blessed. Not some…all.

We are not a prosperity gospel tradition. But the mainline Protestant tradition of which we are a part has another problem, perhaps the opposite problem. Walter Brueggemann calls it the “myth of scarcity.” We believe that there is not enough. We believe that the cupboard is bare. We read about manna coming from the skies, cups overflowing and running over, baskets of leftover bread and fish and countless other tales of bountiful abundance, but we do not quite want to trust.

Brueggemann writes that “The great contradiction is that we have more and more money and less and less generosity…Though many of us are well intentioned, we have invested our lives in consumerism. We have a love affair with ‘more’ -- and we will never have enough…We who are now the richest nation are today's main coveters. We never feel that we have enough; we have to have more and more, and this insatiable desire destroys us. Whether we are liberal or conservative Christians, we must confess that the central problem of our lives is that we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God's abundance and the power of our belief in.”

But the Bible is a record of abundance, Brueggemann declares, a story of abundance, overflowing goodness that pours from God's creator spirit.

I could quote Brueggemann all morning. One more: “Wouldn't it be wonderful if liberal and conservative church people, who love to quarrel with each other, came to a common realization that the real issue confronting us is whether the news of God's abundance can be trusted in the face of the story of scarcity? What we know in the secret recesses of our hearts is that the story of scarcity is a tale of death. And the people of God counter this tale by witnessing to the manna.” (“The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity,” Christian Century, March 24-31, l999)

So thank you for your pledges this morning. Thank you for your testimony, that you – and we – have been blessed by God’s gracious, generous, abundant love, and that this church is a place – not the only place but a pretty good one – to live out the promise and the vision of that abundance. Thank you for this simple act of faith, an affirmation of the good news of abundance. Thank you for believing in grace, in generosity, in bounty, in abundance.

“By Whose Bounty All Are Blessed” becomes more than a stewardship slogan, though it is a pretty good one. It becomes a creed, and a spiritual practice, and a calling, and a gift. Amen.

 

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