Abundance for the Fearful (Psalm 36; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11; John 2:1-11)
This morning’s readings are very rich, and so I cannot begin to talk about all that’s in them, or even a few things. I will stick to one or two. I will start with our Old Testament Lesson from Psalm 36. First, a word on how the Psalms are best read and appreciated. Sometimes I’d begin a course of lectures on the Psalms by saying that the Psalms are “the Hebrew Hymn Book,” and generally, that’s right, but there are other worship materials also in the Psalms. What’s crucial to grasp here is that the Psalms are, like our hymn books, not primarily designed to be read privately (although we sometimes do that). Their primary design was to provide vocal music for worship. And the Psalms are not solos. They were intended to be sung by people together. That’s very important.
It may also be helpful say what else a psalms are not. Though psalms have been preached by some very good pastors and preachers, a psalm is not designed to be preachy, telling people exactly what to do and/or believe. They are not designed to be read as treasuries of doctrine or theology. They were not written to be read “historically,” so to speak, as if, knowing the specific historical situation out of which or to which they were written would make a big difference. In modern hymns, though that occasionally helps, it doesn’t change the way we sing hymns very often, or the feelings and experiences they evoke.
Indeed, psalms were designed to distill a reflection on the experience of a poet into a more general “feeling” into which readers/singers/worshipers could plug their own names and either sign along with the poet or, at the least sing the song with the poet and for others who share such experiences. Does the poet write with his/her heart and imagination in a place of comfortable orientation in the world, or painful disorientation in life, or even surprising new orientation, when life suddenly and unexpectedly turns around? The psalms invite us to share their standpoints of feeling and write our names in place of the psalmist – or, in other words, to sing along.
With all that as an introduction, Psalm 36 begins with four verses in which the psalmist confesses that there are people in the world for whom God and good are not relevant, but only care for themselves, and that makes this poet fearful. It’s the wrong question to ask “who they were”? It’s better for us to ask what kinds of things (be they persons or situations, whatever) make us fearful of harm? Just because we are in a religious community, we do not always have to choose the “world, the flesh, and the devil” to make us fearful. Other things, people and situations do that. What are yours? What makes you painfully disoriented even today as you sit there?
The last few verses of Psalm 36, are a petition that God not allow the persons, things, situations, to get the upper hand and be the destroyer of his/her life. May those who cause trouble from their own arrogant insistence that God and especially good can be bypassed and controlled for personal gain be defeated. The Psalmist imagines this happening in several ways, and we might add our own as we sing our parallel Psalm.
In between the diagnosis of the cause of fearfulness and the petition for God to fix it, comes a wonderful confession that contrasts the selfishness of those people and things that make for fearfulness with the character of God, described in a whole range of key words. One important one is translated “steadfast love” and means the faithfulness, and loyalty that one partner in a covenant shows to another. In a cascading series that begins at the top and goes down from there the poet says: God’s covenant loyalty reaches to the heavens, God’ faithfulness to the clouds (lower than the heavens, but higher than the mountains), God’s right actions are like mountains that are almost godlike in their majesty. God’s acts of justice are as deep as the greatest deep. The poet goes on in a number of ways to say that God takes all this “glory-stuff” and uses it to bring abundance to those who are in tune and sing the song. God brings abundance to soothe the many things that make us fearful. One last thing about this fearfulness, there is no sense in which the Psalmist imagines God as simply saying, “Buck up, you’re fearful for no good reason.” No, God understands that fearfulness comes and can be debilitating. God offers abundance to meet it.
I want to look at both the Gospel and the Epistle as examples of specific ways in which God brings that abundance to those who are fearful. Many of us know this gospel story. It is Jesus’ first miracle, or at least first one of which John’s Gospel tells. I’m not interested so much in the details today as in how this story illustrates how God offers abundance to the fearful.
The scene is a simple peasant wedding in a little town named Cana in Galilee. Peasant life was hard, and true joy was hard to come by. Scarcity was a way of life, not the least of which because those who controlled money and things made sure the peasants had little or nothing. Weddings were one of the few times when the whole village turned out and did the very best they could to experience abundance. Jesus was there (later on in John’s Gospel Jesus would say, “I have come that they may have life and have it in abundance,” 10:10). The host and family were fearful because they ran out of wine. That would bring shame on the family, saying they couldn’t even throw a decent party. It was a big deal. We are not called on to make a judgment about the legitimacy of their fearfulness here, that’s not our call. They were fearful of what would happen next. All they saw around them were water jars (six of them, John wrote), used for purification rites, each one of them holding twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus had the servants fill the jars with water. Can you imagine the host or even the servants thinking, “Great what are we going to do with gallons and gallons of water from God knows where”? But Jesus was there. And, next they had gallons and gallons of the very best wine. No more fearfulness.
God in Jesus brings abundance to fearfulness.
What in your life has interrupted the party? And, it seems like the best it can be is gallons and gallons (abundance of a kind) of water from God knows where. But the story says that God in Jesus is there (or, maybe “here” is the better word) and can turn our fearfulness of nothing but thirst or even just plain old water into the very best wine. I love the illustration in your bulletin, an artist’s rendering of water changing into an abundance of the best wine. And fearfulness melts away and allows us to face life anew, refreshed by God’s abundance in Christ. This is not just a possibility to meet whatever makes us fearful, I think it’s a pretty good metaphor for life in Christ. But how does it all happen? This sounds kind of theoretical and we need some practical help here, because we may just be fearful, no really!
What if we took this reading of the Wedding in Cana as a metaphor for our life in Christ, and applied it to our Epistle Lesson from 1st Corinthians 12? This passage concerns Christian spirituality in a local congregation. Such spirituality doesn’t work out of doctrinal uniformity, but out of an abundance of gifts that the one God gives to congregations (even imperfect ones, like the Church of God in Corinth). It has always been true that some churches are afraid of diversity, and the reason is because diversity makes for a little chaos from time to time. If we think diversity is a strength (and our adopted “church values” at FBC say we do), then we will honour that chaos as the outworking of our giftedness in Christ. Paul wrote to these diverse Corinthian Christians that this abundance of gifts are given “to each one” (that is, nobody is without at least one).
Furthermore, the abundance and diversity of gifts are given for the common good, not for the aggrandizement of any single member as over against any other, certainly not the minister I would hasten to add. When we think of gifts, we may naturally enough think of material things, like money, but that’s not what Paul means here. What Paul is saying is that we are each gifts to and for one another – that when you have a gift, I have it because, in Christ, we belong to one another. The gifts come from God to us, not from us to us. Since this is so, we don’t get to choose the giftedness of others. Sometimes I might have preferred some other gifts than the ones that we have, but that’s not my call, it’s God’s. We’re God’s gifts to us. We’re how God’s abundance comes.
Another thing that this text points out to us is, that, if we will be alert and prayerfully intelligent, that God has put enough gifted people within our midst to do what we need to do to accomplish our mission as congregation. Of course, we need to do what we can to uncover, nurture, honour, and respect not only our gifts but those of our sisters and brothers as well. Will the abundance of God in Christ always make things come out happily for us, or just as we want. No. But it will get us through somehow.
To get back to where we began, God meets our fearfulness as a small congregation with the giftedness of one another in abundance. As I said, we have an abundance of gifts, not just to “do jobs,” so to speak, but to minister to one another “in here” so that we might be strengthened to go “out there” where the mission and the ministry are. We’ll go tomorrow, and I hope as many of you who can will come with us to Trinity Lutheran to feed some hungry people. Are they all nice? Or grateful? Or just like us? Of course not. That’s not why we do it. We do it because our gifts are for others.
One of the most gratifying and, at the same time, humbling things to me, has been to the way in which this very text has worked out in this congregation over the years. Through the years, we have managed to pay our bills very well by sharing what we have abundantly. This is a concrete example of the work of the God who gives abundant gifts to meet our fearfulness with confidence, sharing the abundance God has given.. In my view this congregation is a concrete example that God is not locked in the past or in the Bible. Jesus still reveals God, who is abundant in steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, justice, and the ability to save. He still reveals the God who, in Christ, invites us to the wedding banquet, where the wine doesn’t run out and God saves the best until last. He still reveals God’s abundant gifting of persons in Christ, who, with all their diversity, are one in him. It still reveals our story. And I am grateful to God for each one of you. However you came today, “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”
In the name of the God of Abundance: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.