Back in 2004, Beth’s parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary by taking the whole extended family on a week-long Caribbean Cruise. We boarded a Royal Caribbean cruise liner, and, true to its name, we were treated royally. There were chocolate mints on our pillows every night, and each day, our steward would make animal shapes out of our bath towels. At times we enrolled Thea and Wes in a kid’s camp, which left us free to do what we wanted. And there were lots of things to do: hanging out by the pools, playing shuffleboard, rock climbing, shopping, dancing, taking in shows, etc. They even had a casino – not that I would know anything about that. Even walking around the ship was a delight to the eye – there were fountains, chandeliers, libraries, lounges. The whole week was about luxury and indulgence.
But the highlight of the cruise for me was the food. Now, while so many people who go on cruises rave about just how exquisite the food is, Beth and I agreed that the food they served on our cruise was good, but it wasn’t “out-of-this-world” great. Perhaps we are jaded by our dining experiences in some very fine restaurants in Charlottesville. But from my perspective, what the food lacked in gourmet quality, it abounded in gourmand quantity. For those of you who don’t know French, “gourmand” is another word for “glutton.” And let me tell you, it was a glutton’s paradise! You should see the quantity of food they served in their all-you-can-eat breakfast and lunch buffets! Eggs of all kinds, sausage, biscuits, pancakes, waffles, donuts, pastries, fresh fruit, and then for lunch, smoked salmon, shrimp, roast beef, ham, all different kinds of salads, vegetables and desserts. I’m getting hungry just talking about it!
While a more sane person would have just enjoyed the spread, I saw each meal as a personal challenge, man vs. food, and the food was going down! One night our waiter heard me trying to decide between the sea bass and filet mignon and said, “Why don’t I just bring you both?” I replied, “No, no, no, I couldn’t . . . well, if you insist!” Who was I kidding? I ate them both. And then there were the midnight dessert buffets, with ice sculptures and chocolate fountains. At the buffet and dinner, the more people ate, the more food the staff would bring out. After a while, even I had to quit. When I got back home, I made the mistake of checking myself on the scale. Oh, yeah: I had gained more than 7 pounds in seven days! All that food was more than I needed. And the description of my big ole appetite was more than you needed to know!
Looking back, it just all seemed so extravagant, so excessive, so decadent. And that’s just how you could have described the city of Ephesus during the time of Jesus. Ephesus was a major metropolitan area. Ephesus had a population of nearly 250,000 people and was home to more than twenty pagan temples. Artistic beauty, cultural learning, pagan worship, world trade, criminal activity, and sorcery flourished amidst great wealth. As residents of one of the most sophisticated cities of the Roman Empire, the Ephesians enjoyed such luxuries as running water, indoor toilets, fountains, gardens surrounded by magnificent columns, colonnaded streets paved with marble, gymnasiums and baths, a library, and a theater that could seat an estimated 25,000 people. Compare that to John Paul Jones Arena, which can seat a little over 14,000 people!
At the heart of the city’s life and economy was the worship of Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting, nature and fertility. And the crown jewel of the city was the temple dedicated to Artemis. It was 450 feet long, 220 feet wide (much bigger than a football field), and it had more than 120 columns sixty feet high. It was designated as one of the seven wonders of the entire world. Because Artemis was considered to be so powerful and protective of her temple, people from all over the world deposited money there, which in turn was loaned out at a high rate of interest. Due to the glorious temple of Artemis, the Ephesians became very successful, very powerful, and very rich.
I can imagine that in the midst of all this excessive wealth, extravagant sophistication, and extreme power, the fledgling, little church at Ephesus felt small and insignificant. The writer of this letter, some think it was the apostle Paul, wanted to remind this church that despite their unimpressive, outward appearance, they were in fact, adopted sons and daughters of Jesus Christ, chosen before the creation of the world. Last Sunday, we learned that while they were once Gentiles, outsiders and strangers to God’s chosen people, they were now, through the saving work of Christ, members of God’s household, built together with Christ the cornerstone to become a holy temple. While the citizens of Ephesus had the famous, temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the citizens of God’s people were themselves a living temple of the living God. They themselves were the building where God’s own Spirit dwelt. They themselves were a wonderful testimony of the grace and love of God.
In this morning’s reading from Ephesians, a prayer is offered for the church members at Ephesus. In this prayer, the excessive wealth, extravagant sophistication, and extreme power of Ephesus are countered by the excessive extravagance and power of God’s love and blessing. Paul seemed to be saying, “Some might think that what you should be most known for is the temple of Artemis, but I say that what you should be most known for is being the temple of God, and having your identity as sons and daughters of God the Father.
Furthermore, while some might think that what’s most important are the outward riches and glory provided by the temple of Artemis, “I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, … you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” While some might think that the magnificent dimensions of the temple of Artemis—220 feet wide, 450 feet long, with columns sixty feet high—is what gives the city its power and prestige, “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth [of God’s love].” I pray that you will “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” For Christians, the excessive wealth, extravagant sophistication and extreme power that characterized the city of Ephesus and the temple of Artemis paled in comparison to the extravagant love, grace and power of God.
Some of you might remember the movie Crocodile Dundee, a story about Mick Dundee, an Australian who lived in the wild outback but who was now trying to make his way in New York City. In one scene, Mick was walking the streets of New York when he was approached by a mugger brandishing a small, sharp switchblade. Mick looked at the blade and remarked, “That’s not a knife, mate.” Drawing his own 9-inch bowie knife, he continued, “Now that’s a knife.” Similarly, Paul seemed to be saying about the culture in Ephesus, “That’s not riches, glory and power, mate,” and then pointed to the grace and love of God, and continued, “Now that’s riches, glory and power!”
I must confess, many times it is easier to hear that we have the riches, glory and power of Christ within us than it is to truly believe it and to live it out. Too many times I’m more awestruck by the outward trappings of wealth, power and influence of other people than I am cognizant of the riches, grace and love of Christ within me. How much of our identity is wrapped up in the outward trappings of what we have? In our own lives and in our community, what are the temples of Artemis that have power over our lives and make us feel small and insignificant? How many times do we play the comparison game, and find ourselves not measuring up?
As I look out in the world today, I also feel a sense of inadequacy in meeting the needs in our community, in my family, in the church. I feel like we’re already living on thin margins, and any little thing will push us over the edge. Many times, despite promises of the power and resources of God, I often feel like we don’t have the resources to meet our own needs, much less other people’s needs. Have you ever felt like that?
I wonder if that’s how the disciples felt in our Gospel lesson when they saw 5000 hungry people, and wondering how in the world they were going to buy enough bread to feed them as Jesus requested. Philip came right out and said that money was not budgeted for that expenditure. Andrew went a bit further and started looking for contributions but all he could come up with was one volunteer: a child, a boy, who had in his lunch basket five barley loaves and two fish. Even Andrew wasn’t impressed with what he found, for he said: “But what are they among so many people?” But what did Jesus do with the lunch? Jesus took what was offered to him in faith, he gave thanks, and he multiplied it so that at the end of the day, everyone had their fill. And the food that was left over would have brought a cruise liner buffet to shame.
Isn’t it amazing how over and over again, God takes whatever we have and does a great thing with it? The Bible is full of stories like that. Do you not remember Moses holding only a shepherd’s staff and God asking him, “Moses, what do you have?” “Only a stick, Lord,” replied Moses. But in the service of God, a mere stick did a mighty thing. Remember the little boy David with only a slingshot and five river stones? But in the service of God, that stone felled a mighty giant. The Bible is full of stories of people who offered what they had (whether that be, in the eyes of the world, a little or a lot), and God took it and multiplied it into much more than they needed in the service of God’s work and glory.
But here I must add a word of caution. In our overly consumerist world, it is easy to make God’s extravagant power, riches and blessings into a buffet to gorge our spiritual and materialistic appetites. It is tempting to think: “Oh great! God will give us more than we need! Bring it on! Give me more love! More power! More riches! More blessings!” But if we grasp the width, length, height and depth of the love of Christ in this consumerist way, then in the end, we just end up being full of ourselves. But that’s not what Paul is praying for. He’s praying that we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God so we can turn around and offer it back to God. Paul writes: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
The abundant power, riches, and blessings that God gives to us were not meant to stay in us. They are the resource that God gives so that we give glory to God for the sake of the church and all generations. There’s a special word that Christians use to describe this phenomenon. We call this: “Stewardship.” Stewardship is not just about giving a percentage of our income, or offering our time and our talents to the church. It is more about recognizing and appropriately responding to the abundant blessings that God has already given to us. As such, it is less about our finances and more about God’s faithfulness. It is less about our bank account and more about God’s riches. When we look at things this way, we start moving from an attitude of scarcity to a mindset of abundance. In the Kingdom of God, there are no “free-riders,” people who consume and benefit from others’ work and gifts without making a contribution of their own. Each child of God in God’s household is called to special tasks and chores. It does not mean that we say “yes” to everything, but it might mean that we go beyond what we think we could offer, trusting in God’s abundant riches to provide ultimately for more than we need.
Last Sunday, the Finance Committee met, noting that at the end of June, our church has collected $58,000 less than the ministry plan we voted on. As of the end of June, we’ve collected $16,000 less than what we collected at the same time last year. Understandably, there was some concern among committee members, and it is good for all of us to be mindful of this update. However, I want to remind us all that UBC has always stepped up in faith to meet needs and give witness to God’s abundance and grace. In our giving and in our whole lives, may God’s power at work within us, accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.
Because the truth is this: in Christ, we do have more than we need. As adopted children of God, we have God’s salvation. We have God’s love and grace. These are things that no money in the world, no work we can accomplish can earn. We have our church family, flawed though we may be. We also have God-given talents, gifts, and abilities to accomplish far more than we can imagine for the glory of Jesus Christ.
The question we’re confronted this morning is: “What’s in our basket? What’s in our hands? Will we offer them to God?” The good news is that when we offer all that we have to God, we find that in Christ, we have more than we need.
 “Ephesus,” https://www.thattheworldmayknow.com/ephesus.