The Art of Abundant Living:
Finding Freedom

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Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost •
September 17, 2017
Galatians 5:13-16, 22-26
Pastor Jeff Wells

     As most of you know, Diane had major surgery at the beginning of August and had to take a whole month off to recover and needed a lot of attention and care. As a result, I have not preached for eight Sundays. I have not gone that long without preaching in 12 years. In the meantime, we have been blessed to hear the voices and the wisdom and powerful preaching of Harriet Olson, Rev. Alisha Gordon, Katie Reimer, Jorge Lockward, Rev. Andie Raynor, and twice, Pastor Elyse Ambrose. I am so grateful to all of them for sharing their gifts. Also, I want to thank to the whole congregation for being a community that values hearing from a variety of preachers and that offers abundant love and grace to its pastors and staff, allowing me to work remotely when needed and take an extended leave from preaching without anyone saying, “Hey, what are we paying him for, anyway?” I am so very grateful for this community.

     So this is my first opportunity to preach in our new worship and sermon series on “The Art of Abundant Living.” The series intends to reflect on a number of important elements of living abundantly. In light of some recent events, I want to begin with a few words about something thing that the art of abundant living does not include. It does not include abundant accumulation of wealth and material stuff. That is not to say that you cannot have some significant financial and material means and still experience abundant living. But I think we all know and there are many people with a lot of financial means who are miserable and not experiencing the kind of abundance that really matters. It may sound paradoxical, but I have to say that abundant living is actually most promoted by abundant giving – not acquisitiveness. You may have heard that during the devastation of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and other Gulf Coast states, the huge stadium church of televangelist Joel Osteen refused for several days to open its door to those seeking shelter from the storm and even tried to make excuses for why it could not. It finally did so, but only after intense public pressure. The reason they hesitated so long is fundamentally due to their flawed theology. Osteen is a proponent of prosperity theology, which teaches that if you are faithful, pray hard enough, and give lots of money to your church, God will reward you with material prosperity. The negative by-product of this is the idea that all of those people who were flooded out of their homes must not be faithful and it’s not the church’s responsibility to help them. It’s a modern twist on the tired, old, bad theology that says, if something bad happens to you, you must deserve it – you must have seriously angered God. Osteen and his family live ostentatiously with a $10 million dollar mansion and a private jet, while surrounded by much poverty in the Houston area. Prosperity theology is antithetical to the art of abundant living and to the Gospel message of Jesus.

     What is an essential element of the art of abundant living, and to which I want to devote the rest of my message, is finding freedom. I feel the need to define what I am talking about, especially given that the idea of “freedom” has been so perverted in the service of American patriotism, white supremacy, and anti-immigrant vitriol. We are taught that the U.S. is the land of the free and the home of the brave. We are told that U.S. soldiers and sailors fight to defend “our freedoms” so that we all get to enjoy them. The mythology of U.S. history tells us that the so-called “Founding Fathers” were revolutionary advocates of “freedom” and that the war for independence was fought to gain freedom from tyranny – all of this in the face of the truth that nearly all of them promoted slavery, white supremacy, and genocidal policies toward Native American populations.

     Also, we know that these much trumpeted “freedoms” are not enjoyed equally. We live under a social and economic system that continues to oppress people of color, especially African Americans, and undermine their ability to advance economically and other ways. These vaunted “American freedoms” do not bring relief to the tens of millions of people of all colors and cultures who living in poverty in the United States. A small number of people have the “freedom” to amass vast fortunes and power and influence at the expense of the vast majority. As nineteenth novelist, Anatole France, wrote sarcastically, “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.”

     Even the freedom of speech in the United States is not equally free. Free speech wasn’t free for the American Indian Movement or the Black Panthers or the labor movement or the left in this country, just to name a few. Moreover, those with power, privilege, and money have more ability to speak and be heard. And on top of that, the idea of “freedom of speech” has been distorted to take on the meaning that anything anyone says ought to be protected. Yet, it was intended to protect citizens against attempts of the government to suppress freedom of expression. So, or example, I am adamant that the speech of the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi does not deserve to be protected. When they speak it is not “to express” their viewpoints, but to recruit to a program of racism, hatred, and violence. And since we are talking about freedom, it is also important to remember that those who advance such a program have relinquished their true freedom and are in bondage to an ideology that diminishes their humanity and impoverishes their spirits, relationships, and communities.

     What does it mean, then, to say that we have free will and, for people of faith, that this freedom is offered to us by our Divine Creator? It is not an absolute, but a potentiality in us. We have the ability to choose, but it is not unlimited. We have a lot of freedom, but we cannot decide in any given moment to do whatever comes into our heads. We are restricted by our past decisions, by our physical and mental abilities, by ways that we have harmed ourselves or been harmed or traumatized by others, by oppressive social systems, our social and economic status, and by the material resources we have available to us.

     With all that I have just said, you might be feeling like we don’t have much freedom after all. Yet, in spite of all the distortions and the limitation, you feel free, don’t you? You experience making choices every day. And when freedom of choice is restricted, most people long for it. That beautiful phrase from the scripture lesson puts it well, “My sisters and brothers, you were called to freedom” – yes, called by God and empowered by Jesus himself. And yet, we have to ask, “Freedom from what?” and “Freedom for what?”

     In a part of the Letter to the Galatians that we did not read, the apostle Paul provides a long list of vices to which we can become enslaved if we do not live in the Spirit of God, who calls us to freedom. Among them, he names lewd conduct, impurity, idolatry, hostility, arguments, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, and envy. But Paul’s list is very incomplete. We can also be enslaved to greed, hatred, prejudice, power and privilege, money, work, fear, addictions, and so on. So in addition to the ways our freedom to choose is often restricted or taken from us, there are so many ways we willingly hand over our freedom – we choose that which does not move us toward toward abundant living, but rather in the opposite direction. 

     If God calls us to freedom, then what is this freedom for and what does it have to do with the art of abundant living? Paul’s letter states it without equivocation or hesitation: “serve one another in works of love, since the whole of the Law is summarized in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’.” That is what God calls us to. It is what we are free to choose, if we live in the Spirit. And choosing love is also the foundation of abundant living. This definition of freedom runs very counter to American cultural norms and practices.

     Jesus turned Judaism on its head when he taught that human beings were not created for the law, but rather the law was made for the benefit of human beings and he emphasized repeatedly the whole law and the teaching of the prophets are captured in the imperative to love. Paul took this in an even more revolutionary direction and argued that the law had failed and people had become enslaved to it without being able to actually abide by it. The law did not move them toward abundant living. But, said Paul, if we live in the Spirit, we are freed from the law and empowered to mutual love and compassion, which can lead us to profound community, to caring for and working for abundance for all, and therefore to joy in living.

     The most important freedom we have is the freedom to love. We can choose to love no matter what is happening around us, no matter the ways our lives are limited or restricted by our past or by social systems. We can always choose love. Nothing can stop us from loving, except falling into the traps of selfishness, greed, hatred, fear of the other, and so on.

     Abundant living demands abundant loving and abundant giving. We all have so much to give. Look around you – this is an abundantly gifted, talented, and able community of persons with a huge capacity to love one another here and those around us in our lives. God call you to live into that truth – to live as abundantly and expansively as you can imagine. Answer the call to love and to serve and you will find freedom and experience life as being amazingly abundant.

     And listen to this: living in the Spirit in order to find the freedom to love is not an individual act. It is a daring and radical summons to liberating, beloved community. Human groupings, including religious communities, persistently fall into bondage to institutional laws, rules, and doctrines, out of fear of chaos, but God calls us to trust the Spirit to guide and shape us as a community of love. And when we do, writes Paul, we will produce and experience the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And we must add to Paul’s list: compassion, radical welcome and inclusion, an active and deep seeking for justice, healing, profound relationships, and deep rootedness. So let us respond to God’s call to freedom – the freedom to love – living and growing together with openness to the constantly surprising and unpredictable liberating movement of God’s Spirit.