By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
St. Stephen Presbyterian Church
March 24, 2019
Isaiah 55: 1-9
Lots of good news at St. Stephen recently. Last year we got twenty-five new members and our church membership grew by almost twenty people. We exceeded our annual giving goal by $40,000 and also received twenty-two new pledgers. Our weekly fellowship night on Wednesdays is doing well, with eighty-two in attendance on one recent Wednesday.
All of this is good news. This is good news of abundance. It hasn’t been often in my thirty-four years of ministry that I’ve served a congregation dealing with abundance. We’re living in a time of massive cultural shifts that include radical declines in church attendance and overall decline of the church as a force in our society. There’s a lot of suspicion and distrust of the church, and frankly a lot of it is justified. I admit sometimes feeling discouraged that we are living in a time when the church is in decline, and worse, that the gospel itself might be in decline because the church has dropped the ball.
And then we can all look around and see a lot of churches in trouble. The local Episcopal diocese is split; the Methodists are reeling over disagreements about LGBTQ involvement in the church; local Presbyterian churches are closing or going through crises.
And so it seems all the more amazing that St. Stephen is doing as well as we are, and frankly it should humble us, as well. Lots of churches that are doing great things are struggling a lot more than ours is. Our abundance is a blessing from God. We should celebrate it and be grateful for it, but also a lot of humility is in order. And that humility before God should remind us that abundance is something that is given to us so that we can give out of our abundance to others.
Our reading from the prophet Isaiah today is one of the greatest passages of the Bible.
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
It is a proclamation of the abundance of the Kingdom of Heaven—of the abundance of God’s love, mercy, generosity, and grace—of the promise that awaits us at the end of time. But it is also a reminder that this abundance, this endless, free buffet of the delights of God’s mercy, is not only awaiting us at the end of time: we can partake of it here and now, it is in fact right in front of us if we only believe it. God has made an everlasting promise to us:
Seek the Lord while God may be found,
call upon the Lord while God is near;
7 let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that God may have mercy on them,
and to our God, who will abundantly pardon.
God is ALWAYS near, though we don’t often feel it or believe it; God abundantly pardons all who return to the Lord. God is full of mercy. This applies in this life as well as the next. The abundance of God’s grace is the very core of our hope as Christians. Out of God’s abundance we receive forgiveness, which frees us from the shame and guilt we have which can be debilitating; and not only that frees us from slavery to our own passions and desires, from anxiety about money, success, and material satisfaction; from self-centerness which makes us unable to see the image of God in neighbor, stranger, and enemy; and then out of God’s abundance we are given insight to see ourselves through God’s eyes, as one beloved, as one who is valued, as each of us a pearl of great price, as each of us a child of God who never lets go of that deep parental love for us no matter what we do. And then out of God’s abundance we are empowered to act in God’s name to serve our Lord Jesus Christ and the world. So if all that is true, then:
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
The prophet asks that, and it’s a good question. It’s a diagnosis of the human condition. We work and work and work in order to raise ourselves up in our own self–esteem and in the esteem of others, and all that happens is we become wearier and less secure and more dependent on our work for our self-esteem. The harder we work, the more we get, and the more we get, the less we are satisfied; or too often in our economy, the harder you work, nothing changes and nothing and improves: you’re still getting an income that can’t cover rent and people look down on you because you’re poor.
A recent book contends that work has become our new religion. People are advised to find work that is a calling—find work they love. But the reality is that most work isn’t like that at all, and to expect it is to expect too much and be set up for endless disappointment. We have come to believe that people can be self-actualized—fulfilled—through their work. We’ve come to seek the transcendent in the office. It’s a mistake. One author points out that: “This mismatch between expectations and reality is a recipe for severe disappointment, if not outright misery, and it might explain why rates of depression and anxiety in the U.S. are ‘substantially higher’ than they were in the 1980s, according to a 2014 study.”
The abundance of the Kingdom of God is of two kinds, and neither of them is material and measurable. On the one hand, the Kingdom’s abundance is transcendent. It is larger than all the good that we could possibly see or do; it is the reality of good itself. Because it is transcendent, it is a far better place to invest our hope and to seek our purpose than wealth, or our jobs, or health, or friendship or success or anything else we often pursue.
But the Kingdom’s abundance is also inside of us. It gives us the internal security and strength of character and deeply developed hope and sense of self that again, we cannot get from wealth or prestige or so many of the things which we pursue but which ultimately do not satisfy.
All this is from God. It comes out of God’s overwhelming, abundant grace, mercy and love. All our work will never earn that love. All our ideas of success or failure or what makes me a lovable person have nothing to do with that love, because we don’t need to work to earn that love and we don’t need to succeed to earn that love; and failure and disappointment do not inhibit that love.
It is important to understand—it is vitally important to understand—that God’s abundance is a gift. It can’t be earned. It can’t be seized or stolen. And most vitally it cannot be taken away. But it can be rejected. We can refuse to believe that we’ve been gifted in this way. I’ve found that for most of us, that’s our greatest temptation. At some level we just don’t believe it. And so we spend a lot of time and emotional and spiritual energy finding our worth or our purpose “spending our money on that which is not bread, and laboring for that which does not satisfy.” We just can’t believe that it’s that easy.
This is a manifestation of an attitude that is the opposite of abundance—it is an attitude of scarcity. I can’t do enough. I’m not good enough. There isn’t enough of God’s love to go around for me to have any of it. We come to believe there simply isn’t enough.
God’s abundance is a gift. It can’t be earned, seized, or stolen, and it can’t be taken away: but it can be squandered. And this too is an attitude of scarcity, but in this case its manifestation is very different. We know that we’ve received from abundance, and we’re glad we have it, but we’ve decided there’s simply not enough to go around, so I’ll keep it for myself. I’ll hoard it and I won’t share the abundance I’ve received with anybody else, or I’ll only share it with the people who’ve earned it. So too bad for everyone who is poor. Or too bad everyone who is not part of my family or little group of friends. Or too bad if you aren’t in my church. There’s just not enough to go around. After all, right now we’re in feast, but you never know when a famine will come around. So we can’t invite anyone else to the table. It’s just us.
Here’s the funny thing about the abundance of God. It only multiplies if it is shared. Remember the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand? He had five loaves of bread and two fish, and fed this gigantic crowd with it. That’s abundance. But we often forget the end of the story. When it was done, the disciples collected twelve baskets full of left-overs—enough, in other words, for all the disciples and their families! And the point is that to those who give, more will be given. This is because we aren’t giving from an abundance that we own, but we are actually giving out of God’s abundance, which is bottomless and never-ending.
I’ve seen it happen too often—it seems a uniquely and disturbingly “churchy” thing to do. Churches start to prosper and they become more selfish, not less. They decide to expand and tear down the neighborhood around them, disregarding their neighbors. They become so large that they are glad to exert their political and financial power in a way that benefits them to the detriment of the community. Or on the other hand they become fearful that they’ll lose what they have, and so they hoard it. I’ve seen churches close with millions of dollars sitting in their endowments, unspent. They lost faith; they were afraid to take a chance.
Or on the third hand, they simply forget Jesus’ teaching, that “To whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12: 48). They have received, but for whatever reason, they do not give. They don’t reach out to those in need. They don’t reach out to draw others into the fellowship of the church. As I said, these are ailments particularly common in churches, and therefore particularly disturbing.
There’s a fourth hand, of course—to have eyes bigger than our stomachs. We sit at the table of the Lord, and we think this is an endless feast, and therefore we come up with overlarge, expansive ideas and waste all our resources on a pipe dream. That happens, too, and it has to be avoided. Wisdom, discernment and lots of prayer are required to determine what are the best ways to share the abundance with which God has blessed us.
I want to share with you that right now the session of St. Stephen is looking exactly at these issues. How do we use the gifts that God has given us to serve the community and also to lay the groundwork for the St. Stephen of tomorrow? I’m sure many of you have heard rumors of a capital campaign to address certain goals. Most of these goals involve raising money to enhance resources to serve our congregation and the larger community and to get the word out about St. Stephen to draw even more folks to feast with us at the table of the Lord. We have a lot to do before we can pursue this campaign, but it is our prayerful, humble purpose that God be glorified, that our community be blessed, and that future generations will benefit, from the greatest resource that God has given this church at present: you, the congregation, the people in these pews, and your great hearts, your deep faith, and strong love for and commitment to Jesus Christ and the ministry of St. Stephen. That is the gift that is most abundant right now, the abundance of your joy, enthusiasm, commitment and good will. It’s the kind of abundance that any church is especially blessed to have. It’s the kind of abundance that by God’s grace not only benefits those within these walls but those outside of them; not just the few we know, but the many we do not know; not just this generation but generations to come.