Today's lessons celebrate one of the most overwhelming aspects of God's nature -- abundance. The very existence and creation of everything, us included, demonstrates God as the ultimate giver. So awesome is God's ability to do this, that even in the midst of broken lives and broken dreams, we humans can experience this abundance. So even in the midst of exile and violence, Isaiah's descriptions of God's generosity yield such words as: giving, bringing forth, buying without price or labor.
Food, clothing, shelter, work and leisure time are the very foundation of existence. They are the basic necessities. However, if we are honest, how often do we think of these things in the context of abundance? How often are the "an excess of extras in life" our functioning definition of abundance? Money, mansions, Lexus cars, sailboats, piles of clothes and mountains of shoes, and skyscraper-tall piles of video games seem to embody the modern idea of abundance. Or in both Old and New Testament times, gold, palaces, chariots, galleys, purple tunics, and one's own coliseum equipped with gladiators might have represented this kind of abundance to some people of those times.
But today's readings suggest that the abundance that God gives takes a form completely different from the "extras," both ancient and modern. Rather God's abundance is the very stuff required to sustain our lives-the basics: air, water, and plants for food; physical realities that satisfy our most basic bodily needs. But Isaiah also reminds us of the less tangible realities that also come from God. He specifically reminds us of two of them:
1) God's covenant with us: A relationship filled with an openness to and willingness to commit to a long-term, mutually sustaining and respectful dedication between those in the relationship, in this case between ourselves and God.
2) God's word for us: God's openness and willingness to be in communication with us all the time in all circumstances. This communication is endowed with a power that guarantees accomplishment of, and success of, God's intention in the moment and through all time.
In today's Gospel, Matthew reminds us that these tangible and intangible foundational gifts that God provides every day are the unsung miracles of living in this world of ours, especially God's communication with us. "How can any human being forget or become unaware of the products of God's self-giving nature in our lives?" One answer is that we may not have been able to either receive or hold onto these gifts. We may not recognize them, or how easily they can be lost; we may recognize their matchless value, but we may let them go if it means we have to suffer for them. Or the value we place on things other than these basics may take precedence-to the point that the basics are neglected; the extras smother them so badly they cannot grow.
Enslavement to the extras in life is what Paul was thinking of when he was composing his letter to the Romans. Paul used the word "flesh" to describe this way of living life. Speaking from the context of his own personal spiritual journey, Paul shared with the Romans then, and with us now, his own experience of enslavement, especially before his encounter with Christ. The impact of being a rather a privileged person in his Jewish community and in the Roman Empire (he had Roman citizenship), brought to Paul all manner of opportunities to abuse and misuse himself, others, and his relationship with God. He was guilty of persecuting people in the name of God; of fostering slavery as a way of life; of an overweening sense of self-righteousness and pride. And he often took advantage of these opportunities. It is no surprise to read how Paul was so glad that Christ literally bought him, with all his faults and debts, and made him His. Paul rejoiced in being in debt to the Spirit of Christ so that he was empowered to shake off the spirit of slavery, resulting in gaining the spirit of adoption so that he might "inherit" the benefits of being a child of God. Paul's describes that inheritance as life and righteousness -- that is, right living with right intention.
But where can we find out what right living and right intention look like? This is not an unimportant question. Today, furious, sometimes violent, discussion is taking place as to whether all or some of this image of a way of living can be found solely in the Bible, or in personal experience, or in a supernatural event, or something else that we cannot think of at the moment. We may not have a clear and definitive answer right now, but maybe an example from history might give us some food for thought and prayer.
Perhaps you have heard some discussion lately regarding African Americans and a movement for the United States to give reparations for the nation's complicity and support of chattel slavery and slave trade. Chattel slavery and the slave trade were initially created and promoted so that a few people might have "extras" -- more land, more money, more political and social power. Such a system killed millions of people and fostered an atmosphere of political and social cruelty for all involved. Its effects are to this day alive and well, taking the form of everything from institutional racism to self-destructive behavior.
Surely this man-made creation was a moment when human beings chose to value the excess of extras over the foundational basics of life, the ones described by Isaiah and Matthew of sustainable living and right relationship with God, self and neighbor, that is the harvest that produces the thirty, sixty, or hundredfold; the harvest that reproduces itself automatically with no fertilizers, extra bags of seed, or pesticides necessary. It is self-sustaining, self-maintaining.
However, whether one gains an understanding of God's abundance and God's priorities from a book, from Scripture, from the writing of the great philosophers of the world, or gets a word from the Spirit; whether one reads about it, hears about it, eats it, drinks it, sleeps on it, dreams about it, either alone or in groups; in whatever way we receive God's message-if we do not hold its meaning in our hearts and live it out in our lives, the yield is nothing.
Think of the stereotypes from our country's early days: Sunday church-going slave owners on plantations; hard-drinking, ungodly captains of slave ships; the Enlightenment philosophy, often agnostic, embraced by the founders of the new United States; and everyone in between all of these stereotypes. Enough of ancestors who could not or would not understand, withstand persecution, or walk away from the wealth in order to prevent a fearful cycle of merciless greed for which we, their descendants, are now paying the price.
God does not want us to go on carrying the past burdens of fear and slavery that can not only make our lives unbearable, but will also create a miserable legacy for our descendants. God wants us to experience the true treasure from heaven that not only comes from God but is what God is: the self-sustaining, self-maintaining abundance of the basics of life. He wants to give unconditionally what we need materially, emotionally, and spiritually for our physical bodies, and for our souls. The truly hard question we need to have a debate about in the church and in the world is not about what the Word of God is. Rather it is about whether we truly have the intention and the commitment to use and share the abundance that God has given us, including God's Word. If we are truly open to wrestling with this issue, we will be very near the realm of heaven on earth for which Christ lived, died, and was resurrected.
Let us grasp hold of this vision, be rooted in it, and nurture it, so that the hopes of our ancestors and the dreams of our descendants, in Christ, with Christ, and through Christ, will rejoice with us all.