Rev. Danielle K Bartz February 28, 2021
“Economy of Abundance”
When I was an adolescent I went to Arizona for the first time, the first of what would turn out to be frequent trips to visit family. But that first trip was memorable, because as a girl from Minnesota, the desert was something so new and so foreign. The family I was visiting lived in the foothills of Tucson, so right outside off their back patio was a wash – a wild desert area that was filled with cacti and desert creatures that I had never seen before. Lizards, scorpions, tarantulas, and javelinas were frequent visitors to my family’s back patio. They all amazed me. But, what I loved the most was the saguaro cactus outside their front door.
For those of you unfamiliar with saguaro cacti – they are the large, green cactus with protruding arms that everyone thinks of when they think of cacti. We all think of them, but they are in fact quite rare. They only exist in a small corner of the world. I was intrigued by them, so my Arizona family took me further from the city to visit the Desert Museum – a place that is exactly like it sounds. A museum that teaches people about the desert – all of the flora and fauna that make up that eco-system. I was amazed to see the vibrant life that exists in the desert, I was amazed by the colors, and the fragrances. The desert became less of a scary, desolate place and became more and more a place of wonder. And the saguaro cactus is, for me, the most wonderous of all.
The seedlings of the saguaro cactus that survive are the ones that take root at the base of the paloverde tree – what is otherwise known as a nurse tree. The tiny, young saguaro can survive the harshness of the desert under the protection of that tree. Most saguaro cacti only grow to full maturity if they start their life in relationship with another desert plant. But the saguaro doesn’t just take from the desert, it in fact becomes a crucial element to so much of the life that thrives there. As it grows, desert birds often create nests in holes they bore into its side – safe off the ground inside a plant with spines to protect it from predators. But this relationship protects the cactus as well, because those birds eat the insects that can infect and kill the cactus too soon.
Animals eat the fruit from the cactus, take shelter in its shade, and when the cactus eventually dies after hundreds of years of life, its skeleton provides shelter for snakes and spiders. The saguaro cactus is an integral part of the vibrant eco-system of the desert of Arizona – proof that what may look like a desolate region is actually thriving with life, but that life only exists because the plants and animals co-exist in self-giving ways to produce more life – leading to an economy of abundance, not scarcity. It is an extraordinary, miraculous thing – a gift from God and an example for humanity to study and emulate.
It is this economy of abundance that I believe was at the core of Jesus’ message from today’s Gospel lesson. Though, I admit, at first read it may not seem like it. In fact, just like the desert, when it is not studied and considered, this message looks like nothing but death. But, as I studied this scripture, and discussed it with our Bible study group and my fellow clergy, I began to see that this lesson is not about death and ultimate sacrifice at all. In fact, it is about the promise of abundance, if we could only all listen and make the lesson real.
Today’s lesson doesn’t start well – Jesus is warning his followers that he will eventually be killed. In fact, he references crucifixion for the first time. This was not an unfamiliar form of capital punishment, and Jesus was certainly not the only person to be killed on a cross. It was a frequent, in fact common, form of state-sponsored terror of the Roman Empire. Crosses with Israelites hanging from them were a common sight. The roads that connected the various cities that Jesus’ frequented were likely lined with crosses and death. It was a uniquely torturous way for the Roman Empire to keep people under control – you see it was illegal for Roman citizens to be executed in that way.
So, Jesus telling the people that not only would he be rejected and killed, but that in order to follow him they must take up their own cross, well, that was just too much. He goes on to say that people must give up their lives in order to truly live, and on and on he goes – outlining a path of discipleship that, on the surface, looks like nothing but pain, torment, and death. It is no wonder that Peter tried to hush him up. This is not the message the people wanted to hear. This is not the message that Peter wanted to hear – Peter, remember, had already given up so much in order to follow Jesus, and now he was being told it was not enough – that he was required to sacrifice even more. If we were in Peter’s shoes we may be tempted to rebuke Jesus and his harsh words too.
Jesus goes on to teach that those who follow him must give up everything, their very lives, in order to truly be one of his disciples. My colleague this week, a single parent working a full-time job while raising two school-age children – all of them living, working, and schooling under the same roof, all day long – my colleague said, “it feels like I am being asked to give up even more. What more can I possibly give?” she asked us, her friends. This honest, heart-wrenching question is one that I hear echoed over and over again. A year into this pandemic, we have all sacrificed so much. We have given up the rituals that mark our lives, the social events that usually fill our calendars and lives with joy, the routines that help us move from one day to the next. We have given it all up in order to follow the commandments of God: to love our neighbors. We have given up so much because we know we must sacrifice in order to the protect not only our own health, but the health of those around us. And, now, we hear Jesus saying it is not enough. That we need to sacrifice even more, that we need to give to God and one another even more. My colleague’s question, “what more can I give?” is one that I imagine Jesus was asked.
But, here’s the thing about his lesson: Jesus wasn’t just talking to the disciples. Jesus was not just telling those who had already committed their lives to him that they need to practice complete and total self-giving love. He told this to the crowd, to everyone around him. Jesus, at this point in this ministry, was followed by a huge group of people. Some were followers, some were curious, some were skeptics – but this lesson was meant for them all. Everyone, everyone, has to give of themselves – not just a few. Everyone must let go of what is holding them back, everyone must sacrifice. And that is where the good news is.
You see, if just a few people give and give and give, then they eventually are depleted. They have nothing more to give. They feel burned out, suffering from spiritual and physical exhaustion. They empty themselves out and have nothing to fill themselves back up with. But, that is not what Jesus is teaching. He is saying that everyone must give and give abundantly, and when that happens, no one can be depleted – because if I give to you, and you give to me – then we are filling ourselves and our spirits up. The economy is abundant, over-flowing with self-giving love. In that economy we have so much to give and so much to receive. That, I believe, is the Kingdom of God.
I know that we are not there yet. I know there are so many of us who give and give and are surrounded by people who only take. But, this lesson of Jesus is asking us to imagine something different. Jesus is pointing to a different possibility – Jesus is saying that we don’t have to live in economies of sacrifice, because abundance is possible. But, it will take all of us. We aren’t there yet, but we can practice. We can help the person next to us who is feeling depleted. We can be unafraid to ask for help for ourselves. We can hope for something greater.
On the surface, the desert looks lifeless, but it is in fact teeming with vibrant life. The life-cycle of the saguaro cactus is a beautiful example of what life lived in the economy of abundance looks like. It takes safety from the paloverde tree while it is young, and gives shelter and food throughout it’s life, even after its death. It exists in an eco-system that gives life in harsh conditions, with the plants and animals giving and taking abundantly. If the lesson of Jesus from today’s scripture feels too harsh or too difficult for you – then perhaps spend some time considering the desert. Both have so much to teach us about life and life abundant. Amen.
God of all compassion and consolation,
your breath alone brings life to dry bones and weary souls.
Pour out your Spirit upon us,
that we may face despair and death with the hope of resurrection
and faith through Christ, our Lord.
Help us to dance with the spirit,
the breath of life, which calls us out of the valley of dry bones
and into the Kingdom of God,
both a present reality and the grounding of our future hope.
Gracious God, we ask that you
inscribe your law on our hearts that in this life,
we may be the body of Christ.
Help our hands to hold the sick and suffering.
Help our feet to walk with the poor.
Help our ears to listen to those who live in despair.
May our eyes be affixed upon the suffering of the cross
and the hope of the empty tomb
so that we may live as resurrection people.
You know our faults and yet you promise to forgive.
Keep us in your presence and give us your wisdom.
Open our hearts to gladness,
call dry bones to dance,
and restore to us the joy of your salvation.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever, as we continue to pray saying,
Our Father, who art in heaven….