[Jesus said] “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” John 10:10
So in a single sentence we have the entirety of God’s purpose in the Incarnation. It turns out that it isn’t so very mysterious after all. God became human in Jesus Christ that we, the beloved of God, might have life…and have it abundantly.
But what is the nature of an abundant life? Even here in our resource rich country we tend to have a worldview based in scarcity. We focus on what we do not have rather than what we do and spend our days in various efforts to accumulate. When did we lose the ability to discern when we have “enough”?….enough food, enough money….enough stuff…enough attention…. enough time?
All around us is evidence that we as a people have become so spiritually gluttonous that we have lost the desire, perhaps for some even lost the ability to see a need to share. The disdain for the poor and the vulnerable that is evident in the opinions and decisions of the leaders we have chosen to represent us in government. Judgment of those who struggle at the socioeconomic margins permeates the media feeds, the Facebook posts and the comments sections of news articles. The abomination of “prosperity Gospel” that considers financial success and an extravagant lifestyle as the just rewards given by God for a godly life encourages even Christians to cling to the temporary treasure of wealth and shun the eternal treasure of compassion. “I’ve got mine so you go get your own.”
This endless pursuit of “more” has even altered the way we view and value labor and employment. When I was a child back in rural Kentucky, the desire for most folks was to finish school and get a “good job”…..a “good job” was a steady job…one that had the potential to last…hopefully for the better part of one’s working life. One of my brothers has worked at the same factory for almost 40 years. The company that makes forklifts has been through three different owners but Donnie stayed on…for many years as a welder and later as an inspector. He is not wealthy and never will be…but he is comfortable…and he has cared for his family and been generous with his neighbors…and he has lived within 5 minutes of where he was born for his entire life. He is in many ways very fortunate.
Contrast that with someone who finds a regular minimum wage job and works hard and steady at it for a similar amount of time. Several months ago when the discussion about raising the minimum wage in Birmingham was getting heated a woman wrote a letter to the Birmingham news talking about her life working in a fast food restaurant for something like 30 years. She was very articulate in her description of how difficult it was to make ends meet at her current rate of pay and even though she was a good employee there was no chance of making more money. When I read her story I realized that she had done what I had been taught as a child was the right thing to do…find a steady job and be faithful to it. But the people who responded to her letter were harsh and judgmental insisting that she was obviously lazy or she wouldn’t have stayed with a job that teenagers take in the summers. They equated her job loyalty as lack of ambition. It is no longer good enough to have a steady job…one must be “ambitious”….”upwardly mobile”. My father taught us that all work was honorable if it did not harm others, but apparently that is no longer the standard. We have lost our respect for those who want only to have a regular job but do not feel a need for advancement. Everyone wants to be management….no one wants to be labor. Who then will do the work and whom will there be to manage?
What constitutes an abundant life? Jesus, in his life and lessons tried to teach his disciples how to discern what was important and what was not….what was of lasting value and what was of temporary concern. Over and over Jesus told us to hold to the treasure that is not material…over and over we are told that we must love others more than we love our stuff….that to give….of our means…and of ourselves….even to the point of sacrifice is the call of those who would follow Jesus.
In the early days of the Christian faith the faithful tried to live according to the example Jesus had set. We have in the little snippet from the Acts of the Apostles the description of that first Christian community, where everyone shared what he or she had with the community and it was dispensed according to need. We read that they “had all things in common”. This is the truest form of community and it is an incredibly difficult model to maintain because eventually greed slips in and someone always wants more for his or herself. But at that time the disciples were still fired up with the Holy Spirit of Pentecost and they were expecting Jesus to come back at any moment. They were full of joy and expectation and in this spiritual momentum they were their best selves…generous and compassionate…wanting for everyone what they enjoyed for themselves.
This is the nature of the abundant life…..when I want for you ….for everyone …what I want for myself….the same necessities of physical existence….the same measure of physical comfort and spiritual joy….and not only do I want that for you as well as myself but I feel driven by the Spirit to see to it that you have what I have….physical comfort and spiritual joy in abundance.
The life Jesus advocated for his followers was never about scarcity…but rather about seeing what we have been given and sharing it according to need. Each of us has been given talents, intelligence, inspiration and creativity in the measure that God has seen fit….some have more of one or the other….or some have different gifts than another….but together, as a people….as a community we have been given all that we need to create the abundant life….but none of us has been given all of it. We were never intended to be self-sustaining, wholly self-sufficient, independent creatures. We are made for life in community and each of us is to be made better by the sharing of all of us.
This was what was intended for us and this is what those early Christians modeled in those first communities. We read that “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people”. They worshiped together and that feeling of joyful communion went with them into their homes and they were glad and generous. Their faith and their joy was evident to the wider community.
Is our faith and our joy evident to the wider community? Do we eat our bread in our homes with gladness?….are our hearts generous?
In the broader sense Brothers and Sisters, Christians have failed miserably to live out our call to an abundant life. The Christian mission is to work towards an abundant life for everyone…not just for ourselves and our own. But somewhere along the way we wandered from the path….we bought into the lie that personal success is more important that community health…..that survival of the fittest applies to humanity and fittest means wealthiest…or strongest….or most powerful. We forgot the call of the Good Shepherd to follow where he leads and we took off after the American Dream. Abundant became extravagant and we found that we couldn’t get enough. As good citizens…as good capitalists we were required to buy more…always more…whether we needed it or not…whether it destroyed the planet or not…whether it starved our neighbors or not….always we need to make and buy more….It became necessary that our stuff be cheap to make but expensive to sell so even the honor of creating and building became tainted.
Jesus didn’t come that we might have an extravagant life…. An excessive life…. A luxurious life….but rather an abundant life. An existence abundant in life…and in the things and experiences that make life worth living.
So how do we make our way back? How do we find the gate to the sheep fold….the gate that leads to the abundant life in Christ….to peace…to joy….to filling that empty hole in the soul until we have enough….enough love to share with a world that is still grasping and striving without any real understanding of why.
We do it a little at a time…weaning ourselves away from the need for excess. A good first step is to remind ourselves that everything we have and everything we are is gift, given by God to be shared with the world. If we lose our sense of ownership it becomes easier to see the temporary nature of things and to focus on the abundance of eternity. What will we take with us into eternity….love…and the memory of those we loved and who loved us….moments of joy and communion….experiences of transcendence and beauty…the things that cannot be quantified …or purchased…or lost.
We can also find our way back by being practically generous, sharing our excess with those who have little. If we begin by sharing the excess, we will find it easier to share when we have only abundance. Also, when we share from excess, we may find ourselves wanting to share from the things we love. If any of you have ever been gifted with something that the giver personally loved…you know what how special and life changing that can be.
I am always hesitant to preach this sort of sermon here at Grace Church because so many of you are so generous already. I suppose my admonition to you…to those of you who already share from your abundance with those who come to this place seeking compassion and help…is to look outward from Grace to the world. Pray for the poor and the vulnerable everywhere not just here in Woodlawn. Share the message of Christ’s love in your life outside of these walls. Let the broken and hurting people you meet every day know that God loves and cares for them and so do you. If you have found a moment of peace here…a moment of joy here….in worship or in community….carry it into your homes. Remember to pray…remember to make time to be with God in your personal time so that all of your life may be filled with the abundant love of Christ. Above all recognize your own belovedness….Our Lord has chosen you to carry his message of hope and peace into the world….into the whole world.
What we do here within these walls is just the beginning. Jesus came that we might have life abundant….all of us ….life abundant in peace….life abundant in joy…life abundant in love.