Sermon by Rev. Deborah Sunoo
We began our spring series on spiritual practices a couple weeks ago with a focus on Simplicity, asking ourselves the question: where might less be more? For instance: less stuff, more space. Less rushing around, more peace. At the end of the sermon I asked: would simplifying some aspect of your life help you take a step toward greater faithfulness to God? What sort of clutter, physical or metaphorical, could you let go of in order to lighten your heart, revive your spirit, or help you better hear God’s voice?
I make no claims to having mastered the art of simplicity. I’m very much a work in progress, as we all are. But I’ve found it an important practice to keep on practicing, so I’d love to hear if others of you find it meaningful as well. If so, let’s start swapping stories and strategies!
As we shift to a new spiritual practice today, I thought about titling this sermon “more is more” as a counterpoint to “less is more,” but I didn’t want anyone to misunderstand. Because the “more” we’re talking about here isn’t a greedy “more;” it’s a generous “more.” It’s not the opposite of simplicity. The two go hand in hand. By spending less on ourselves and accumulating and hoarding less for ourselves, we open up so many more opportunities to show kindness toward others.
“The more the merrier” in today’s sermon title intends to invoke both the sense of openness and welcome (everyone’s invited), and the sense of abundance (there’s plenty for everyone) that I find in so many places as I read my way around the Bible. There are far too many texts to mention in a single sermon, but just by way of some examples, I think of Old Testament stories like Abraham and Sarah welcoming total strangers to their tent with a huge feast (Genesis 18). I think about the prophet Isaiah calling us to share our bread with the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted so that our light can rise in the darkness. (Isaiah 58:10) I think about gospel parables like the one about a father throwing an enormous party to welcome home a prodigal son (Luke 15), or the one about a king throwing open the doors of a great wedding banquet to those considered last and least (Luke 14). I think about Jesus dining with prostitutes and tax collectors and befriending lepers, and I think of Jesus taking a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish and using them to feed a crowd of thousands (Mark 6 & 8). I think about early Christians in the book of Acts sharing their possessions in common and distributing to anyone as they had need, breaking bread together with “glad and generous hearts.” (Acts 2:44-46) And I recall how often throughout both testaments, Old and New, God’s people are commanded to care for the poor and to show compassion to strangers and refugees and to all who are far from home.
Love generously. Share freely. And watch how “loaves abound,” as one of my favorite communion hymns puts it. Enough for everyone. “Loaves abound.” This is the kingdom of God to which Jesus calls us, and to which he calls us to invite others.
So it’s broken my heart to see a man walking around town this year with a sign that reads: “God is imaginary. Love unconditionally.” As if it’s belief in God, rather than human weakness and sin, that prevents people from showing unconditional love. I gather he’s only been exposed to religious communities that have made him feel unwelcome, unworthy, or in some way not fit to join the feast. Which only shows how flawed and broken the Church can be, how much need we have for regular repentance and reformation. Because those of us who look to the Bible for guidance should know better than to channel our energy into calling out the sins of others while ignoring our own mistakes. Those of us who look to Jesus as Lord should know better than to exclude anyone from the Table on the grounds that they aren’t pure enough, holy enough, good enough. Jesus was well known for spending time precisely with those others tried to exclude. And many of us find ourselves drawn to Jesus because of that unconditional love he demonstrated. Heaven knows all of us would be in trouble if perfection was required.
Today’s Scripture readings remind us it’s not a small matter to extend hospitality and generosity to others. In fact, there’s a great deal at stake. Our text from Hebrews reminds us that any stranger we encounter could be an angel in disguise (Hebrews 13:1-2). Shouldn’t we treat everyone, then, with respect and kindness and welcome them with whatever gifts we can offer? And our Matthew text reminds us that every time we share food with those who are hungry, or water with those who are thirsty, or extend a generous welcome to those who are strangers to us, it’s as if we have offered these things to Christ himself. (Matthew 25:35-36)
While I’m not really the street corner sign-carrying type, I sure wish we could get the word out somehow that God is real, and that’s why we want to show unconditional love.
At the very least we can do our part right where we are, so I’m encouraged by the ways this congregation has been living into an abundance mindset, a fuller understanding of “more is more” or “the more the merrier.” You don’t just offer a meal, you offer a feast for our homeless friends downtown when you serve meals with Operation Nightwatch. When we’re making our bag lunches together on Sandwich Sundays here, as we’ll do again after service today, and a first-time Sunday sandwich-builder asks how many slices of meat to add to their bread, it warms my heart to hear someone reply, “Go big!” or “Make Dagwood proud!” (after the cartoon character known for piling his sandwiches comically high). You want our friends down the hill in the tiny cabin community to know we have no interest in offering food in a grudging or stingy way. We intend to open our hearts as we open up those lunch bags and absolutely pour in the love. So too without hesitation several of you offered to help me put on a memorial service this winter for a Magnolia neighbor who had never attended a single service here. She longed for a church connection toward the end of her life, and her family needed support following her passing, and we were all in. After all, isn’t this how we want to be known as a church community? Give us a chance to extend hospitality, and we’ll take it! Offer us a simple way to shower others with love, and we’ll sign on! The more kindness and compassion and welcome the better.
It occurs to me that your church officers have also been finding ways to tie together the two spiritual practices we’ve considered during the season of Lent this year. In our own way you might say we’re tackling “less is more” meets “more is more.” For instance, fewer administrative costs around the church office frees us to direct more money to mission and outreach. (As do smaller water bills, as will eliminating loan payments related to our plumbing project.) In other ways, too, streamlining and minimizing non-essentials wherever we can allows more energy to be devoted to what really matters. And what really matters is being the church not only for ourselves but for others.
I’m confident the more we practicethe spiritual disciplines of hospitality and generosity the better able we’ll be to model the inclusivity and abundance of God’s kingdom. So you’ll see I’ve included a few questions for reflection again in your bulletin this morning:
What does a phrase like “more is more” or “the more the merrier” mean to you as a follower of Jesus? Where might you benefit from a sense of abundance rather than scarcity? What is one concrete way you could practice hospitality and generosity this year?
I’ll offer you a few minutes to begin your reflection now, after which I’ll close that time with a prayer, and then I hope you’ll bring the questions home to keep in front of you throughout the coming week as well.
Loving God, provider of abundant gifts, gracious welcomer of all, help us better understand what “more” can look like and with whom we might share it. Guide us as we practice the spiritual practices of hospitality and generosity.