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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Divine Investments - Acts 4:32-35

Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of land or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and the distribution was made to each as any had need.

I would like to welcome you to worship on this National Associate Pastor Appreciation Sunday, also known as the Sunday after Easter. See also Sunday after Thanksgiving, Memorial Day weekend, Fourth of July weekend, Labor Day weekend and Sunday after Christmas. All over the country, associate pastors are in the pulpit today, with the grueling schedule of Holy Week and Easter now behind us, breathing a bit easier, relaxing a bit.

But friends, today is still Easter. Easter is not a day or a season on the calendar that shows up only once and then disappears back into oblivion. Easter is a way of life in which we remember that the cemetery is empty and Christ is alive; this proclamation is the source of our hope. On this first Sunday after Easter, we are not here to coast for a week. We are here to celebrate the resurrection, and from the book of Acts, we learn of an instance in the early church in which they proclaimed the power of the resurrection, and their lives were changed because of it. May we pray.

Not long ago, I was talking with a waitress at a restaurant here in Boone. She knows what I do for a living, and one day we were talking about our jobs and what work is like for us. She said, “Can I tell you something? I hate working Sunday afternoons.” “Why’s that?” I asked. “Well, that’s when all the church people come in. As a whole, church people are notoriously bad tippers. The better dressed they are and the louder they talk about how great church was, the worse tipper they tend to be. A nice suit and a loud, long prayer usually translates into a dollar and a pamphlet.”

In the 4th Chapter of the book of Acts, Luke presents a picture of a church whose attitude about wealth, money, and property is quite different than the one portrayed by my waitress friend. The history of interpretation on this text is disappointing at best and disturbing at worst. Some have said that Luke was describing a brief and failed experiment of First Church Jerusalem. Others have said he described a sort of utopian ideal that might only happen in the New Jerusalem or a few select monastic communities. Still others have advocated following these prescriptions about property and wealth exactly as they are written; yet even the most enthusiastic supporters of interpreting all Scripture literally fudge this particular text. I find all these approaches sorely lacking; either they are so impractical as not to be followed, or they don’t do justice to the Biblical text.

A popular axiom of our day is often quoted, and many people swear it comes out of Scripture. You all know this one – finish it for me. God helps those . . . . who help themselves. It’s a cynical expression of our get-ahead society. But in today’s text, we have a witness against this. In the young church and among new Christians there was no one who owned something and kept it to him or herself. Things were distributed to anyone who had need, and no one was ashamed to accept something. Their slogan was not, “God helps those who help themselves.” Rather, because God helps everyone, they were there to help each other.

Of one heart and soul

There are a couple of things we need to point out in this text about how this community is described. The first is that they were of one heart and soul. This unity is expressed elsewhere throughout Scripture. In John 17, Jesus prays that his followers will be one. In 1 Corinthians and elsewhere, Paul describes the Church as one body with many members. We recognize our connection with one another, and realize that when one member of the body suffers, we all suffer. When one rejoices, we all rejoice.

In the church I grew up in, there was a lady in the congregation who had lived by meager means since her husband died. She was raising five daughters by herself working as a schoolbus driver when her health was good enough for her to work. There was never much money. One Christmas, one of the adult Sunday School classes took it upon themselves to give this woman a monetary gift so that her family’s Christmas would be a little merrier. It seemed a proper and Christian thing to do. To their surprise, she refused their gift.

When I heard my parents discuss this incident as an 8-year-old, I didn’t pay too much attention to it. But as I’ve thought about it in the years since, I’ve realized there is a huge gulf between two different worlds – the world of the woman on one side, and the world of the members of that Sunday School class on the other. For years, I read that story out of my own middle class worldview, the same worldview as most of the members of the Sunday School class. From that perspective, they were only trying to help. They were only trying to do the right thing – a little extra gift of charity. They recognized a need, they recognized they had some means that could address that need, and they came up with a practical solution to get the resources where they needed to be.

But from the lady’s perspective, she saw herself as the object of the class’s charity, and feared that they looked upon her in the same way. An inequality between their places was already present, but that Christmas gift made it official. She didn’t want to be beholden to anyone; she didn’t want to feel like she owed anyone anything.

Today’s text tells us that the members of the early church were of one heart and soul. I think the class Christmas gift failed because of class – not a Sunday School class, but social class. In other words, they were not of one heart and soul. At the end of the day, there would still be a group of haves and a group of have-nots. One would be the giver of charity, the other its recipient. Their worlds would remain largely separate, and the place of intersection would be marked by an incident highlighting the separation. It was a well-intentioned effort, but hardly an expression of unity of heart and soul.

But, we are meant for that unity. John Wesley described the character of a Methodist as “one in whom the love of God and neighbor is shed abroad in his [or her] heart.” We are designed for relationship with God and each other, and the goal of Christian living should be an increasingly richer relationship along both dimensions as is possible.

Christianity is not a faith that can be practiced in isolation or apart from other people. It is a community religion, the goal of which is to stretch and grow us in our relationships with God and with one another. A solitary Christian, a Christian standing outside community is an oxymoron; you can’t live and grow as a Christian apart from others. Our relationships with God and others are mutually interdependent. Recognizing ourselves as children of God will necessarily concern us with the other children in the family. We are part of one body of Christ, each bringing our own unique gifts and abilities for the betterment and upbuilding of the body.

Everything in common

In addition to being of one heart and soul, the text describes the early church as holding everything in common. This is that point in the sermon where someone just had that “Ah-hah” moment and said, “I knew it! He’s trying to get us to become communists!” But, I’m not. This is really much larger and broader than a particular economic or political system.

I’m also aware that when we talk about religious communities who hold everything in common, many of our minds make associations with some awful examples – communities at Jonestown and Waco, communities who followed Rev. Jim Jones or David Koresh and a whole host of other cults. Even at best, we may think of communities of nuns and monks, and while we might admire their discipline, I doubt any of us are ready or interested in joining that type of community.

Even so, the text says they held all things in common. We are likely thinking solely of material possessions in common, but I’d like for us to think about it in broader terms than that. I’d also like for us to think about the sort of community and relationships that must be in place before we can even think about holding things in common.

Who here has ever been set up on a blind date? My goodness, if I had a dollar for every blind date I’ve been set up on, let’s just say I wouldn’t still be working my day job. If you’re anything like me, perhaps you remember blind dates by a certain descriptor – there’s the Cracker Barrel incident (needless to say, if you ask a potential suitor where they’d like to meet and they immediately respond “Cracker Barrel,” it’s just going downhill from there), and I have more entries in the “Cougar file” than I can sufficiently remember or articulate.

But every time two innocent and unsuspecting people are set up by the perpetrator who claims to be a friend to both, the friend is hoping the two people will have something in common.

When new neighbors move in, we and they are both hoping we’ll find things in common. When we join a civic organization or social club, a tennis league, volleyball team, club softball, or sign our kids up for dance or soccer, we’re doing it with the hope of finding people with whom we have things in common. And when people come to a church, they are just hoping and praying to find things in common with the people here.

Relationships are what hold a church together. Statistics show that after visiting, people choose to remain part of a church because of the relationships they have with people there. My guess is that this is true for us. If you’re new, you’re likely looking for some common ground with the people here. If you’ve been here awhile, there are always new people coming in looking for those bonds, and we have an incredible opportunity to extend those bridges of connection, friendship, and community.

Common ground is the heart of community. Common ground is the heart of all relationships. The text describes the early church as holding all things in common. In other words, there were strong and tight relationships – bonds of commonality, if you will – holding the church together. The church is and should be a network of relationships. The healthier those relationships, the healthier the church. The more dysfunctional those relationships, the more dysfunctional the church.

The picture of the early church painted in this text from Acts is one of such strong and healthy relationships that they were said to be of one heart and soul and to hold all things in common. The goal of their community was not shared property or a unified budget. They simply wanted to share life together around the central and common source of their hope – the resurrection of Christ. They built a network of relationships centered on and grounded in the exclamation point of Easter that God inserts hope into what seems hopeless. They weren’t trying to create a shared economy or an intentional community. Rather, because their relationships were so healthy, because of the strong bond they shared with Christ and as brothers and sisters in Christ, because their community was so strong, the natural and inevitable result was the desire to hold all things in common. Their goal was a strong and healthy network of relationships rooted in their unity in Christ, and when that was achieved, they found there were other things they wanted to hold in common.

Think of it like family. The definition of family has changed and broadened in recent years, and I’m using it in that broader sense. I’m referring to that person or group of people to whom you feel closest, whom you identify as your closest allies whether you’re related by blood or not. They’re the people who are always there for you, who may know you better than you know yourself, with whom you would stick through thick and thin. If one of them needed something, you’d help them get it.

When my little brother was in college, he had a few semesters where he came up short. I was in a position to help him out, and I did. He has since graduated and is already doing quite well as a software designer, and recently offered to pay me back. I told him he didn’t need to, but I did want him to remember his big brother’s generosity in coming years when I will be asking to borrow his boat, or his house in the Caymans, or when my church needs a few large gifts in a new building campaign. I’ve reminded him that those payments during his college years weren’t a loan, but an investment in my future.

But in the early church, they weren’t giving with an eye toward one’s own interests. There was no giving now in hopes of a greater return later, or giving to receive a tax benefit, or giving as a vehicle toward publicity. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with receiving a tax break or some good PR because of a gift we’ve made, our text doesn’t describe those things as the primary motivation for generosity.

A lifestyle of sharing

In fact, the culture described moves beyond charity and giving and embraces a lifestyle of sharing. We all learned back in Kindergarten that sharing is a good thing. Here, we are presented with a community in which sharing is a way of life, and so it should be for us. The early church recognized itself to be deeply connected to Christ, and therefore, deeply connected to each other. Because they already shared so much – identity in Christ, deep relationships with one another, sharing material and monetary resources was part of their shared life together. A culture of sharing was their norm, giving was not just charity or a handout. Because life itself was shared, everything in life, including money, was fully shared.

Friends, today I encourage each of us to think less about giving and more about sharing. The difference is that giving can remain largely impersonal and detached, whereas sharing begs for relationship. This afternoon, when you go to lunch, yes, tip generously, but even more than that, remember that the person serving your food is a person with real needs and real emotions. Know that whatever you have – whether that is time, money, some particular skill on so on – that is a gift and blessing from God. Those gifts have been given to us that we bless others through them. Challenge yourself to move beyond giving toward truly sharing, take time to build relationships, find things in common.

I want this congregation to be place of strong and authentic relationships. I want each of us to be intentional about reaching out and connecting, every day of the week as we live our lives, and every Sunday morning as we gather as a community. Every day, we encounter numerous relationships just waiting to be formed, if we only stop and see each other face to face, and recognize the person behind the eyes of the stranger.

As a church, we can and should be a place where those relationships happen. We can be a place to which disconnected people throughout our community can come and be connected to God and to other people. Our motto as Christians is not that God helps those who help themselves. Rather, because God helps everyone, we can help each other.

Last week, we celebrated Easter Sunday, and today we are still celebrating Easter. For us, Easter is a lifestyle that celebrates the insertion of hope into a hopeless world, and the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God brings with it a whole new set of values and assumptions that completely turn the world on its head. The kingdom of God reminds me that my time, money and energy are best invested in the things of God and not of this world.

When I think of where my time and money can best be spent, I can think of no better investment than in relationships with people who are created in God’s image, regardless of their color, social status, or any other thing; people who are of sacred and inestimable worth.

The early church was such an integrated network of relationships that they were said to hold all things in common, to be of one heart and mind, and to have no need among them. May it be so for us.

5 comments:

  1. So how, practically, can I create a relationship with someone like the Bus Driver Lady that does not end up being unbalanced? (I think this is missing from the sermon. ;-) )

    It seems to me that reciprocity, viewing people as equal and allowing them to help us, asking for their expertise and input when they have something we can ask them for, is key to creating a strong relationship with people. Yeah, I´m well educated, smart, from an upper-middle-class family, with a good job. But the single mother of a child with disabilities whom I am tutoring in math is also able to give me things. Like an offer to drive me to the doctor when I can´t use my arm. Or teaching me how to make her famous fried chicken. And unless I am willing to be in some way lacking to her, vulnerable (to use an overused and strangely associated word), I cannot ask her to receive from me. I think this is what is missing from the Sunday School/Bus Driver type relationships.

    What do you think?

    -Annie Laurie

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  2. It's always interesting what ends up in the sermon and what ends up on the cutting room floor . . .

    Part of the difficulty in giving solid advice on how to improve our relationship with bus driver lady is the fact that we all know a bus driver lady, but her/his circumstances are each unique. This lady loved to cook, and always brought more food to church dinners than you could imagine, would help people prepare for parties, etc. That's what she enjoyed giving.

    But you're right, it's about reciprocity. I was hoping to frame the concept of gifts and blessings not only in terms of monetary means, but in others as well. That may not have come across clearly. I'd hoped we all recognize the giftedness within ourselves and within others. The call toward relationship was a call to recognize that mutuality - I wonder if that came up short?

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  3. I definitely got the message that we were to seek to give to others: time, expertise, smiles, money. And I heard the call to relationship and the call to recognize mutuality, but I could hear (or read) this sermon and still walk away not understanding that key of choosing to RECEIVE from others. Without that, the sermon encourages me to give, yes, but doesn´t give me a concrete way to break that problem of not knowing how to relate to the Bus Driver Lady. (Does that make sense?)

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  4. Good observation. The only time I really mention receiving in this sermon is when I'm describing the early church's community, and there I simply say, "no one was ashamed to accept something."

    I think it would be good for us to recognize ourselves as givers AND receivers. My congregation is mostly white, well-educated, middle- and upper-class sorta folks. They're people a lot like me, in other words. I know I feel a tremendous burden as one of the "haves" in our society, and my understanding of the Gospel compels me to be concerned with the least and last of society. To whom much is given shall much be required. As privileged people, I think we have a greater burden to be givers than receivers; in a sense we've already received so much that we ought deliberately seek to be givers.

    However, I also need to be able to see myself as a receiver in the grand sense of the word. This is where I was hoping the context of relationship would be helpful. Relationships are mutual; I assumed (perhaps erroneously) that reciprocity and mutuality was conveyed in the very use of the term "relationship." The bus driver ladies in all of our lives have a great deal to teach and show and give us if we are willing to be in relationship.

    In my first response, I mentioned the things that get cut out of the sermon. Initially, I was thinking of including a fairly lengthy discussion about the cultural assumptions of people in the different classes. It ended up being cut for the sake of clarity and brevity (I really try to say only one thing in every sermon.) But as far as class, I operate out a middle class worldview whether I recognize it or not, and there are certain assumptions that come with that.

    In middle class, your achievements are important. I frequently introduce myself to people, and the very first questions that come up in conversation include things like occupation, schools attended, activities, honors, social contacts, etc. In a manner of speaking, both middle class parties are sorta checking out the achievement list of the other.

    But in lower class, relationships are more important than achievements. So, for me to begin a conversation with such a person by asking about what they do for a living, where they went to school, etc. is insulting and embarrassing for that lower-class person. I am placing those things as high in the social interaction, but in their worldview, those aren't the most important things about who they are. However, if I ask about their origins - who their family and people are, where they come from, etc., I am stepping into their worldview and not judging them according to mine.

    So, relationships are the bedrock. But, there are different ways relationships are formed among people of various social classes. If you want to engage bus driver lady in a relationship, you need to understand something of the worldview of bus driver lady before you can start. That takes work and commitment, and it's really messy and you'll step into the brown stuff more times than you can count. It also feels awkward, because two worldviews that are really designed by our society to remain separate converge. But as followers of the Christ, that's the life to which we're called.

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  5. I agree with you about relationships needing to be mutual. Maybe it´s just me with my white upper-middle-class homeschooler background, but I used to find it difficult to establish Bus Driver relationships not because I wasn´t willing to be generous, but because I wasn´t willing to be needy. It is easy to be the comfortable bestower of gifts. And I used to approach Bus Driver type relationships that way: what can I give? Which is good, except that it creates a huge power imbalance in the relationship, and the other person often ends up either using me or just feeling bad about the whole thing. Neither of which makes it onto my list of ¨Qualities of a Healthy Relationship.¨

    You are right about the differences in priority in class. Which I think is key to realizing what we, in our middle-class suburban worlds, are lacking. We know how to live the American Dream, but like the Casting Crowns song, we don´t really get how to engage in great relationship a lot of the time. Or how to relax and just BE.

    Maybe this is another sermon altogether? When is the next Associate Pastor Appreciation Sunday scheduled? ;-)

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