Towards a Whole-Hearted Faith, Part 3

Some 40,000 refugees, immigrants, and asylum-seekers have arrived in Denver over the past 15 months, most of them bused from the border under the order of Texas governor Greg Abbott.  City officials expect increased costs to provide essential services for these folks (the initial estimate of $180 million dollars has been reduced as the number of immigrants declines).

Because the bipartisan Federal aid bill did not pass, the City cannot count on the Feds to help fund them.  Mayor Johnston recently announced budget reallocations to meet the crisis, including cutting hours at rec centers, ending in-person vehicle registration renewals, and eliminating spring flower beds. He’s also asked city departments to review their budgets and find cost savings of around 15%.  And his office has robustly enlisted support from churches, non-profits, and individuals to assist with basic services and/or resettlement.

Yet tellingly he has said publicly I want to be clear to Denverites who is not responsible for this crisis we’re in:  The folks who have walked 3000 miles to get to this city.

…..because that’s what we do, isn’t it?  Whatever crisis hits, almost reflexively we blame the newcomers, the ones we imagine getting an unfair share of a finite pie.  A zero-sum calculation that says if we spend it to provide for these refugees, then we won’t have it for us.  And look, I’m not naïve.  Budget cuts –particularly when they involve work force reduction—are deeply consequential. But people of faith have a different lens through which to make important decisions about the use of resources, a lens which sees beyond spreadsheets and dire predictions of “running out,” to a God of abundance, a God from whom countless blessings flow.  A God who can be trusted to provide what is needed to do what God wants done.  A God who calls us to remember.

Remember how God provided water and food to the wandering Israelites in the desert when they were sure they were going to die of hunger and thirst.  Remember how God provided angels who ministered to Jesus during severe testing in the wilderness.  Remember how Jesus fed the multitudes who had come to hear him teach, everyone eating their fill and leaving a staggering amount of leftovers.  Remember how Jesus went “all in” —accepted suffering and   death—to demonstrate the magnitude of God’s love which forms our very identity.  Remember Jesus’ own mission statement:  I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.   [John 10:10]    

Today’s text is an expression of Jesus’ mission, popularly described as the time Jesus “turned water into wine.”  That is an accurate description but it’s much more than an endorsement of alcoholic beverage consumption. A little context might help us hear more.  Hospitality in the ancient middle East was of paramount importance.  Hosts were expected not merely to provide adequately for their guests but abundantly.  So running out of wine at an occasion like a wedding was unthinkable; not merely a social faux pas but a character flaw revealing greed and selfishness.

As we read the text, consider how Jesus acts when he is made aware of the lack of resources.   Pay particular attention to the detail around the number and size of the jars, the comments of the wine steward, and what is revealed about Jesus.  A reading from the good news according to John, in the second chapter, verses one through eleven.  Listen for God’s Word to us, thirsty yet prudent people who wonder whether there will be enough.   [John 2:1-11]

In his earthly ministry, Jesus continually met scarcity with abundance.  While others did the math and worried that needs couldn’t possibly be met, Jesus reacted calmly.  Faced with the hunger of the multitudes, he asks Well what resources do you have?  A small boy’s lunch of bread and fish.  Okay, that’ll work.   In this text, he responds to his mother’s nudge with a mild disclaimer (C’mon, I’m off the clock, at a wedding, for heaven’s sake). As the mother of a son, I completely resonate with Jesus’ mother ignoring the disclaimer and forcing….er I mean empowering him to do the right thing.  And without further ado, six jars of 20-30 gallons each are filled with water and become wine—choice wine, not the cheapo stuff.

The gospel writer chalks it up to a “sign” that “revealed Jesus’ glory” which should be enough evidence to resolve the questions of those who think Jesus cares only about human souls, and not the pleasures of their human bodies.  Or that faithfulness demands rationing, a careful balancing of give-and-take.  Think again about the quantity and quality of wine produced.  What revealed Jesus’ glory wasn’t simply his ability as a vintner but his Divine identity as the Source of abundant good gifts, more than we ask or even imagine.

Friends, we can trust God to satisfy any hunger or thirst inside us that diminishes our lives or community.  Abundance theology is not “the prosperity gospel” but something much better:  the realization that God’s intention for us and all people is human thriving, all we need, in fact, to live with purpose and joy.  We are freed from paralyzing fear.

We are freed from the terrible feeling that the wolves are at our door, ready to pull us down if we don’t stay on guard.  We can rest in the assurance that God delights in our delight; we belong to God soul and body.  A life with rich quality as well as plentitude.  The abundant life Jesus came to bring us?  That’s for here and now as well as always.

God’s generosity to us inspires us to be generous.

Even though the text says the disciples “believed in him” after witnessing this sign, we know they had to be shown again and again and again.  Just as we do, because fear is a powerful motivator.  Some of us alive today grew up in the Great Depression and know what scarcity feels like; some remember war rationing that called for saving and accumulation.  But we also know the economic chasms between rich and poor are widening.

Don’t be fooled, I heard The Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign caution. We’re not living in a time of insufficiency, but a golden age of plenty amid grotesque poverty, of abundance amid unbearable forms of abandonment.   We know this is not what God wants.   And I don’t believe it’s what any of us want either, which calls us to think differently about what constitutes abundance and scarcity and what is “enough.”   We can be generous in giving to the well-being of others because we trust in a generous God.

As a congregation, we have been blessed by the foresight and generous giving of those members who created an endowment to support Central’s ministries and mission . . . now and in years to come.  I am grateful to those pioneers and to the scores of folks who gave through bequests and by establishing funds for special purposes.  And I’m grateful for present members who serve on committees to manage and develop these funds.  But like Jesus’ own disciples, it’s good to be reminded regularly that these gifts are God’s and our use of them should ultimately reflect our gratitude and trust in God’s good purposes for this good church.

Central’s invested endowment lost more than five hundred thousand dollars in 2008 and its aftermath. It recovered as financial markets resumed their growth and additional bequests were received.   We’ve drawn heavily upon the endowment again to invest in the capital renovations designed for Central’s growth, investment that is beginning to grow, both in effective ministry and financial returns.

And what do you know?  Central member Bruce Heagsteadt who serves as Executive Director of Heartbeat Denver Working Men’s Program downstairs recently shared an example of return on investment.  In Bruce’s words:    Last summer four young Venezuelan men arrived at the [Program].  The next day they woke up early and went to Ready Man (a temporary employment agency) and got a work assignment at a building site.  They worked so hard that day, the manager told Ready Man he wanted these guys back. The job paid about $150/day per person.  These men worked 6 days/week, pooled their money and had about $10,000 in little over a month.  They got drivers’ licenses and bought a truck.  They drove other men to the job site as an additional income source.  After awhile the construction company hired them directly. By combining their money, the Venezuelans were able to rent a small apartment near the job site and moved out of the shelter program in less than four months.

Exceptional? Well, certainly they had youth and health and no substance use disorders on their side.  Not all residents of Heartbeat have those advantages. Not all 40,000 immigrants do either. But the God we worship and serve demonstrates that there will be enough and more than enough to receive and welcome them as the neighbors and siblings they are.  Friends, there is always enough.

We come again to a Table at Jesus’ invitation.  It’s ironic, really, that the abundance offered here is represented by a small bite of bread and wine.  So much, in so little.   It is enough for all of us, those who trust God’s love and those who want to trust more.  Trust that the One who changed water into wine can transform fear into wholehearted faith.

Thanks be to God!

Read last week’s sermon in this series, and the first one in the series.