July 17th, 2016
‘Liberal’ has become a controversial word, mostly because of a concerted effort by a political class to demonize another political class. I happen to like the word and what it stands for. I am proud to have gotten a liberal education, which means that I was required to read many of the most important books of the Western Canon, and take physics and biology and art and calculus—liberal education, of course, meaning a wide compass of interest. Liberality is still used to describe an act or disposition of open-handed generosity: a liberal scoop of ice cream means a big scoop, maybe more than you were expecting, given freely and with joy. I like this meaning of liberal, in which it is a synonym of generous, because the Bible can never stress strongly enough that virtue of generosity, or liberality. In the beginning God fills, or even overfills, all creation with light and life. Abraham, who upon meeting strangers at his tent, welcomes them with the finest things he has. When Jesus pours out his life on the cross, he gives all himself, the divine self as much as the human self. The goodness of his risen life that touches billions across the globe today: if you want to talk about Biblical values, you need to make sure you talk about liberality and generosity as much as you talk about fidelity and charity. You can’t be loving miser in God’s kingdom—remember James admonishing his church, saying, if you bless a hungry man but don’t feed him, what good is that? Generosity is much better than wealth, and if you have money, you had better be liberal with it.
Abraham doesn’t know that the LORD has appeared to him in the presence of his angel commandos. He doesn’t know these people at all. But one of reasons we revere Abraham, and one of the reasons we hold him dear, is that he welcomes these people he does not know, freely, simply seeing to their needs. John Calvin, as he so often does, nails it:
...men in general are wont, when they do favors to others, to look for a return; but he who is kind to unknown guests and persons, proves himself to be disinterestedly liberal…What, therefore, was Abraham’s object? Truly, that he might relieve the necessity of his guests. He sees them wearied with their journey, and has no doubt that they are overcome by heat; he considers that the time of day was becoming dangerous to travelers; and therefore he wishes both to comfort, and to relieve persons thus oppressed….And therefore the right of hospitality has been held most sacred among all people, and no disgrace was ever more detestable than to be called inhospitable. For it is a brutal cruelty, proudly to despise those who, being destitute of ordinary, have recourse to our assistance.
I love John Calvin so much. He gets such a bad rap, and it’s true that he was a sinner, as he himself would admit, but this is brilliant, and I think, true. I know this passage is long, but I’m going to lift some ideas from it, so I hope you forgive me for reading it.
Generosity, hospitality, liberality: these all have a note of sacrifice, of giving over something freely without expecting something in exchange—the note of a gift, just like you give your offering freely here, to God, out of gratitude instead of hope of gain. Because the cross of Christ is the free gift of God’s own life for the sake of the world’s reconciliation, God gives grace out of God’s own bottomless generosity and liberality, and welcomes home without charge all those who are lost and homeless. Paul writes, “For in Christ the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, through the blood of his cross.” It does cost to be generous—it costs what you freely give. But it pleased God to be so generous that God gave us his fullness in the gift of Jesus Christ, who gives his life for our death, so we be free from death by that glorious exchange. God never withholds any portion of generosity to those who seek him; rather, God overfills us with grace. In fact, Paul thinks God’s generosity is the source and the goal of all creation—all things were made through Christ, reconciled by Christ, and will find their end in Christ.
I’d like to go back to something John Calvin said, about the “blind self love” that “impels us to mercenary services.” Today is a really important day in the church calendar, the commemoration of Bartolome de las Casas, a Dominican friar and missionary to South America. We remember him because he was the first person to articulate the idea of human rights in a debate with another friar named Sepulveda, who argued, according to Aristotelian philosophy, that Indians were subject to Europeans like women to men, children to adults, or even apes to men. His words, not mine. De las Casas argued instead that the native peoples were images of God, fully human, and should not be subject to any one. Like lots of God’s saints, he lost the debate about human rights. Blind self love and mercenary interest carried the day: a whole continent was there for the taking, it got took. All that taking is why you and I are here today.
De las Casas had an extraordinary ability to look beyond the prevailing directions of his culture. I think it is hard for us to really understand just how amazing, literally stupefying, the new continent was to Europe. There were flora and fauna that were not only unimaginable, there were unimaginable amounts of them everywhere. The continent didn’t just teem with life, it was filled like paradise. It boggled the mind—and the folks that flocked to it wished to exploit not only the natural minerals and resources, but the people as well. Everything was to be commodified, from the land to human life. It was easy money—all you had to do was land on the coast and start taking. But de las Casas saw, 500 years before Pope Francis codified it in Laudato Si, that human life and the environment rise and fall together. To exploit one is to exploit the other—to ruin one is to ruin the other. The history of North American slavery is also the history of environmental degradation and the history of cotton plantations ruining entire states’ worth of soil in a couple decades. Long before the financial crisis of the 2007, there was a financial crisis built on mortgaged slaves in the south—and crash when the rapacious farming practices of plantation owners, in debt up to their very elaborate chin whiskers, fled to Texas as their crops failed.
De las Casas argued instead for the integrity of the native person and his environment. He argued for their rationality and their spirit. He died at 92 years old, an incredibly old man by any standard, and all he did was lose the battle for the dignity and welfare of the people of the Americas. I think he is especially important for us to remember today, in these times. His mind was open; his impulse was to liberality and generosity. He was a missionary, and was the first Bishop of Chiapas, and he worked hard to proclaim the gospel to the native people. He wanted to give the gift of the good news, but he wanted to defend the culture and ways of the people he loved. He was a defender as much as a missionary, believing that they were his brothers and sisters, despite the difference in their customs, their histories, their skin, their traditions.
This passage of Colossians is about the generosity of God giving his life to the world, not merely visiting us at the thresholds of our lives, but dwelling with us in the flesh, overcoming the chasm between the Creator and the created. This is a wonderful mystery that God shows to us, that we in our physicality are precious to God, that we even in sin, are reconciled to God, that any evil we may have done is overcome by the sacrifice of Christ’s life, and the gift of that grace.
All of this comes from God--all this Earth, all these people on it. And so, when we tire of generosity, God then comes to us in our weariness to rekindle the fire of our love for this world. Martha is so busy with good things: she is generous and hospitable. But she is too busy to know why she is so busy: to welcome the Lord when he comes. At the Lord's coming, all things can stop, because we don't have to do anything anymore--God is enough, indeed, God overfills all our needs. The word of Jesus, Jesus' own presence is more than enough for us. Such is the nature of God's liberality that it fills our needs more than we knew we needed. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack