First Baptist Church of La Crosse, Wisconsin
First Baptist Church of
La Crosse, Wisconsin
1209 Main Street
La Crosse, WI
(608) 782-6553

Abundance at Heart (Psalm 36:1-12; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11)

We have arrived at the Third Sunday after Epiphany. To remind us, once again, Epiphany is the season when we remember and celebrate the “manifestation” or “showing forth,” of that baby born in the corner of a stable to our diverse, religiously plural world. It is the period after the expectation of Advent and celebration of Christmas are over. Epiphany is when we have the time to begin to appreciate the gifts that we unwrapped at Christmas, so to speak. To be more exact, it’s as if we waited to unwrap some of the gifts, and did so over time, bit by bit. Epiphany is the time that we unwrap the gifts that flow from the Gift of Jesus to the Church. If you find Advent long and the actuality of Christmas short, kind of like waiting for Christmas as a kid, only to have it over in a day, then learning to unwrap, use, savour, and appreciate God’s gifts during Epiphany may be of some appeal to you

I admit that today’s sermon topic sounds odd: “Abundance at Heart.” Whose or what abundance am I talking about, and what do I mean by “at heart”? I dickered with the word “generosity” rather than “abundance,” and I guess I think of generosity as the fitting use of abundance. The abundance belongs, in the first instance, to God. As Jesus tells the story, when God is in charge, there is abundance in the world, which means God’s people can be and ought to be generous. This is very different from the common view that says that there’s never enough, so I must get most of it for myself and those who are my friends. The message “out there” in the world is one of scarcity. There’s never enough. That leads to greed, stealing, murder, and all kinds of other misuse of humans and things. Jesus said that God has abundance at heart, at the core of everything, and our response is, therefore generosity. Abundance and generosity don’t meant that we have lots, it means that we treat the little as lots and are willing and anxious to share what we have.

Our Old Testament Lesson this morning is the 36th Psalm, the core of which (verses 5-9) is a hymn that praises God as the one who lavishes wonderful things on people. God’s steadfast covenant love reaches to the heavens, God’s faithfulness to the clouds. God righteousness is as high as the tallest mountains, God’s justice is as deep as the ocean. God acts to sustain and save humans and animals alike. Or to put it more simply God is love, and gives abundant love to the world God creates and nurtures. That’s who God is. That’s what God does. And, as I say, that’s at the core of Psalm 36.

If we look at the edges of the Psalm (verses 1-4 and 10-12), however, we find something else. In the opening part of the Psalm we find a description of those for whom the generosity of God is offensive. They don’t want people to have abundant life. They do not recognize that God has any relevance in the world. For one reason or another they have decided that life can be lived without even so much as a tip of the hat to the abundant goodness God showers on the world. They don’t see any of that as relevant, it’s not on their radar. The voices of those who say “You’re great,” “You deserve it,” “Go for everything you can get,” is the voice they hear. They see no benefit whatsoever in being generous to anyone, but lay awake at night trying to figure out how to do what is best for them and their friends, and don’t worry much about the trouble it may cause for others. They owe no one anything, or so they think, because they have earned everything they have by their own ingenuity. It is theirs and they have a right to it. These ideas are commonplace, not only in the ancient world of the psalmists, but in our contemporary world. There’s only a little, so I’ve got to get all I can and I have no reason to share any of what is mine.

At the end of the Psalm we have the psalmist’s prayer that the God who has abundance at heart will overwhelm the deeds of those whose works threaten good, if poor, people by their greed and stinginess. This psalm encourages us to know that, even in a world beholden to the abundance God gives, there are those who will not recognize it, and consider admitting they owe anything to be offensive to their own autonomy, authority, and skill. The psalmist encourages us to know that such “un-generous” types are often victorious in this world., and it is necessary that we maintain a dependence on the God of abundance in our world to see us through. To do otherwise would be to become like those who, in verses 1-4, found God irrelevant and God’s abundance offensive.

Today’s Gospel lesson piggy-backs on the reality of God’s generosity and God’s world being a world of abundance. It’s the story of what John called Jesus’ first sign. This word “sign” is the word John’s Gospel uses to talk about Jesus’ miracles. Signs point to something, and Jesus’ signs point to God and what concerns God. This story is a little disconcerting because in it, Jesus miraculously provides an overwhelming amount of wine for a party (120-180 gallons). What is that a sign of? Many who have insisted on interpreting the Bible in a so-called literal and sober manner (pun intended) have had to resort to symbolic interpretations here because it’s scandalous to them to think of God as the Cosmic wine maker. But, taken in its simplest sense, that’s just what it says. Furthermore, this miracle wasn’t worked in order to open the eyes of the blind or the ears of the deaf, or to bring justice to the downtrodden. This miracle simply brought the gift of abundance to a party of peasants in a backwater of Galilee. Again, it’s not very sober and not very serious.

Many people don’t think that this is enough of a “lesson,” for a story about Jesus, and attempt to find more there, but maybe, we should just let the story tell itself, and shouldn’t be quite so concerned to answer all the questions, but simply to see this sign at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as saying much the same as Psalm 36 does in a different way. God gives abundantly good gifts. We don’t always know why God does what God does (that’s why God is God and we’re not). God has abundance at heart rather than scarcity. And the proper response is joy and generosity rather than stinginess. Why, in the end, is mysterious, this world is mysterious, and we’ll never work the mystery of it out. The message of this story is not in working out the details, but in affirming that God cares about more than life and health and daily food. And piety and doctrinal purity. God actually cares for the occasional overwhelming abundant joy of life. And Jesus comes to bring that kind of joyful abundance. We don’t have life figured out, and sometimes we just have to rejoice in the mystery that God is, somehow, alive, active, and generous. And God brings joy within the chaos of life. As Jesus reveals God here, it is as one with astonishingly, overwhelmingly, abundant generosity.

So why didn’t I title this sermon “God has abundance at heart”? Well, here’s where we get to the Epistle Lesson from 1 Corinthians 12. Paul wrote this Epistle to a very interesting church in Greece in the middle 50’s of the Common Era. To be the minister of what Paul calls The Church of God in Corinth would be a little like be the minister at a community church in Las Vegas, or Reno, or even Deadwood, South Dakota (which, was our first pastoral charge), gambling meccas with organized crime and all the rest of the problems that casinos bring – and the money. Corinth was at the centre of all kinds of strange and wonderful theologies and philosophies from both East and West. It was a city known for its immorality and its license – a fun town, a party place. What happened in Corinth stayed in Corinth. Most church members had been followers of one of the many philosophies that were circulating in the Corinthian whirlpool of opinion.

Religious expression in Corinth (of the non or pre Christian variety) tended to centre in highly emotional, ecstatic utterances and behaviours. The Corinthian church people, who had become familiar with this kind of religious expression in their former lives, simply wanted to baptise it, and make it the core of what their Christian spirituality was about. They thought that more spiritual one was, the less rational. That sounds peculiarly contemporary. The congregation also couldn’t agree on much of anything, and had a reputation for liking a good fight. Today such a church would have trouble getting or keeping a minister. Although Paul talked pretty straight to these Corinthians, he still called them the Church of God in Corinth. And one of the things that Paul made clear is that the God who had given an abundance of spiritual gifts into this congregation (even though it was not exactly a “normal” church), expected that these abundant gifts be shared in a generous way with one another and the world.

This really is a common message in the Bible. The expectation is that God’s people will imitate what God is and what God does in the world. If God is loving, God’s people are to love others. If God is caring, so God’s people are to care. If God is generous, God’s people are, likewise, to be generous. I insert the comment here that all these words, “be loving,” “ be caring,” “be generous” are words that describe actions not feelings. Show love in actions of embracing and helping, care by wrapping arms around people, share by, well, sharing what we have.

You have Annual Reports Books for 2017 to pick up today. One thing that it seems to me is important for us to do is to recognize the overwhelming abundance of God to us as a congregation in 2017. I am proud to say we have been privileged to respond in many ways, in many ministries that make a difference in the real world out there. God has graced this congregation with good, talented, gifted people who can do many things well, even if there aren’t very many of us, and we get tired sometimes. And we have responded, again in 2017, generously. It is my conclusion that God has blessed us generously for about 165 years in this city.

It is certainly my observation that in 2017 God has blessed our little flock with abundance in both spiritual and material ways. We must be as wise as the psalmist counsels us to be and recognize that we are fragile as a community and live in an ambiguous world where it is sometimes true that harmful, destructive behaviour seems to triumph. So to fail to recognize that we both exist and minister through God’s abundance and generosity would a dangerous course to follow.

I believe that it is incumbent upon us, as those blessed by God’s abundance, to imitate God in Christ and be known by and for our generosity, as we have in the past. I get letters from time to time thanking us for that generosity. Look at Nancy Boehm’s report in the Annual Reports to see part of it in black and white. And Mark Stahlhut’s and the Financial Reports. In 2017, let us continue to be generous in praise of God through Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. Let us be generous in praise, support, and nurture of one another in love as we seek to honour our diversity and celebrate our unity through God in Christ. Let us be generous in ministry, as we seek to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our communities. Let us be generous in giving our love, support, and respect to those in our community who are poor, homeless, needy, outcast and downtrodden. In these ways let us show ourselves both to be at one with the generous, loving, loyal God of the psalmist, and also disciples in the school of Jesus who comes to bring abundant joy and abundant life to the place in which God has put us.

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.