Edited transcript of sermon preached at South Wedge Mission
Rochester, New York
11 May 2014
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Day Text: Acts 2.42-47
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 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, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
We’re taking a slight detour on our journey through First Peter during the Season of Easter to look at one of the most remarkable texts in the New Testament. In times when the church is struggling, its fashionable to say, “if only we could be as radical as the ‘early church,’ before it got so institutionalized.” I agree it’s radical - and I’d love for us to look closely at the snippet today, to see what it has to teach us about our Easter exploration of “practicing resurrection.”
Generally, when I hear people talk about the early church, I’ve found they’re referring, somewhat romantically, to verses 44 and 45, how they basically started history’s first soviet commune, “holding all things in common,” and selling their possessions to meet each others’ needs. It’s the kind of hippie nirvana that, St. Francis aside, has seldom materialized in the sad history of God’s church. But it’s awe-inspiring to imagine: what if we too could simplify? What if we too could be that radical in our giving and our sharing?
What I’m also interested in, though, is not just that they gave, or what they gave, or whether it was “the first 10% of their income” or whether they were promised tenfold prosperity in return. What I found beautiful is the community in whose story this radical generosity is practiced. Such powerful gratitude is possible, Luke seems to say, because of who they understood themselves to be - whose they are, and who they were to one another.
Look at the text with me. We start off with some standard churchy stuff in verse 42, where they’re learning at the feet of Jesus’ original disciples, praying together, doing the communion thing - all that good “Word and Sacrament” Lutheran-y worship stuff that generally makes church church. We’re told in verse 43 that some of them were even doing miracles, which helped their PR. But what’s vital here is that their community is centered around a certain story of who they are together. Worshipping the God revealed in the Eucharist and in the story of Scripture - hearing stories from those who knew Jesus personally, and passing them on to newer members of the family. Communities rally around all sorts of stories; this community is practiced at reminding one another who God is, and who they are in God.
Then in verse 46, we are told they take this worship public. They are in the temple together, every single day, and that they are also starting to meet for meals in their homes. Maybe they stick around to watch Game of Thrones afterwards, or play Dominion or whatever. Point is, they don’t just keep it to themselves. What starts as worship becomes a way of life. It permeates and permutates who they are in all aspects of life. Public as well as private.
Which is no small thing at the time. Because about the only thing to be gained by worshipping a crucified revolutionary as Lord in the midst of an Empire whose leader proclaimed himself the only legit heir to that title…was to paint a bigger target on yourself. To gather publicly in the temple was basically telling the Romans, “here’s an extra-large bag of lion food for the area, gift wrapped and easy to find!” To worship in your house, and not in the secret safety of the catacombs, was to say, in effect, “we don’t care if you find us, because we believe our household, and our public lives, revolve around a different Lord - which means that Caesar is not.”
So it’s this community, centered on living out an alternative Gospel, in worship and in every day life - and living it out together, regardless of consequences or even of death - it’s this church that is able to share their possessions, and also, to sell what they have when need arises.
You have to be pretty committed to your Gospel - and to your fellow Gospel-ers - to give up so much. So much time. So much safety. So much capital. So much of everything.
See, that’s what I think is so radical about the early church, particularly against the backdrop of our commitment-phobic age. Maybe some of you have seen that ATT commerical, where various young adult-ish folks share with almost a prideful glee that “commitment is not for me,” before, strangely, committing to ATT’s no-commitment plan. We don’t know where we’re going to live, who we’re going to love, or what we’re going to believe even in a few weeks. So commitment is a pretty dirty, difficult word.
And here are a group of people, so willing to commit to each other - on the basis of God’s story of how beloved people are - that they are willing to sacrifice ownership of goods. Willing to worship publicly in life-or-death circumstances. Willing to give extravagantly - and as verse 46 tells us, “with glad and generous hearts.” They delight in each other. They have joy in one another. And that’s what people noticed.
People were willing to give generously of themselves, their time and their possessions, because they delighted in one another, committed to one another, and basically, went all-in on each other. And that makes it slightly easier for me to be able to talk about hard things like “money and church” and “where we spend our time” and “what kind of commitment do we make to each other” with you today. Because at the end of the day, its not promises of prosperity or moral arguments about what we should or should not do or whatever that compel us to give.
Giving, sharing, and supporting happen naturally - in fact, they are done willing, just natural overflowing of our relationships - when we are committed deeply to each other, and learn to delight and dwell richly in one another’s lives. We give freely to what we most care about, what we treasure, where our hearts are.
Take this (holds up bag): “Happy Hen Treats.” I was at Tractor Supply yesterday, and of course, my chickens really needed a special treat. And it’s not just bird seed. It’s corn and mealworms! No, really, there are actual meal worms in there! Because, you know, it says on the bag “PARTY MIX!” My chickens deserve a party mix.
Now, you laugh and nod, because if you’ve ever been a pet owner, then chances are, you have purchased something even more ridiculous and more expensive for your beloved creature! AND, if you are a mother, or a father, or an aunt or uncle or certainly a grandparent, then you’ve also probably spoiled the children in your life, “just because.” Right? We do extravagant, ridiculous things for those we love.
Because we want the best for them, right? I want my little chicken ladies to enjoy a little party mix in their lives. I want my kids to go to college if they like and graduate without as much debt. Because I love them dearly. I invest in them every day. I am committed to them. They delight me.
And I think its a similar dynamic when it comes to stewardship, and the practice of gratitude and generosity, in a radical Christian community. We want to give to those we love. And when we invest our time in deep relationships with one another, giving is not really even a question. Its not an option. Its a no-brainer.
But of course, our brains often get in the way. Along with our desires, and our addictions, our libidos and our egos. Because even though I love my wife, and my kids, and my dog, and my chickens, and my church more than anything else, I also love myself more than anything else. I’d love to give freely and generously to loved ones - but I also have lots of things I want for me too.
And giving means I have to become vulnerable. Not just that my money or my my time might be spent in ways that I can’t control. It also means that I might not get what I really want. If I sacrifice for my kids, I might never have the time to go out and find people with whom to start a band. If I spend more time at church, I might not get to see every single episode of Game of Thrones as it happens. If I share my heart with strangers, they might stomp on it, and betray it, and stomp it to shreds.
And see, that’s the rub. Investing our time, and our gifts, and practicing gratitude and generosity, its a risk. That’s why its called an “offering,” a “sacrifice.” Because we don’t get to control the outcome. We don’t really get to control the in-come either. Because in church, we don’t just get to be in community with the selected few that we would choose. We don’t get to set our weekly and monthly and yearly schedule to our own rhythms. We don’g get to pursue only our own interests and desires anymore. Because we don’t get to choose our own story anymore.
But. I wonder if that’s why the disciples of the early church seem so damn joyful. Because I can’t help but imagine that, if they spent that much time together, in circumstances of life and death, that in some ways, the returns they received, the blessings that came back to them, were precisely those deepened relationships which made life worth living and sacrificing.
I wonder if, in sharing each other’s vulnerabilities and failures, they also received the blessing of discovering how failure and betrayal are not the last words. How conflict could be a rich source of continued returns in terms of wisdom, and deeper friendships.
I wonder if, in refusing to worship Caesar or their own desires, and instead, clinging to the story of the Gospel of the New Creation, they found that the time and the status they clung to so fervently, evaporated, leaving behind so much free time and free energy and fresh imagination to spend in coming up with creative, life-giving, radical displays of love for one another.
I wonder if, hearing the story week in and week out of a God who sold all God’s possessions, leaving glory and power and eternity behind and giving the proceeds, his flesh and blood, to the poor and needy sinners desperate for love - I wonder if hearing this story, and realizing that they were the ones who were receiving God’s generosity and grace day in and day out - I wonder if knowing themselves as loved and worthy of love and capable of sharing love - I wonder if this is what gave them the patience, the joy, and the generosity, to commit to one another in this life, and to settle for nothing less than a beloved community where all needs were met.
See, that’s the thing. We don’t “invest” our valuables and possessions in order to collect interest on them later. We give them away because in doing so, we open up even more space for even more life. Not just life for ourselves. But life together. With the actual people we have actually been given. The ones who are here. The ones with whom we get to image and participate in the very life of our relational, Triune God.
We delight in each other because we realize that this kind of life together is truly LIFE together. It is to be alive. It is to be living in the pocket of reality’s rhythms.
It becomes a kind of party mix. Corn, mealworms, chickens and all. All of us. Our darkness and our light. Our possessions and our poverty. It becomes a mix of friends and foes, good and bad, life and death, pain and prosperity.
If we as a church - and if the church in general - would commit to just loving, and discovering, and delighting, and being faithful to the people who are already here - the people God is gathering - rather than worrying about who is not here, or how little money we have, or other aspects of an economy of scarcity - and if we as a church started letting funding follow faithfulness - started to live full of gratitude and delight because we are given a family, a fellowship, a story, and a song to commit to - than I imagine that the rest will follow of its own.
Just look at the passage from Acts. We are told “they had the favor of all the people.” Not because they were hip, or because they were rich, or because they had a compelling demographic marketing strategy. It was because of how they worshipped. And how they loved each other in a committed, generous, extravagant way.
When we give, and when we commit ourselves to joy, delight, and to one another, the rest will truly follow. And the returns will too. Our needs will be provided for. And the gifts we will receive…will be those who come to us, longing to join the dance, and with their own mealworms and corn kernels to add to the party mix.
So practice resurrection. Love someone who does not deserve it, as the Poet tells us. And give freely. Of your stuff. But also, of your self. Amen.
Postlude: Those who stayed to view Brother Sun, Sister Moon after service observed that, as striking as the Franciscans commitment to poverty and simplicity was, even more so was how much they sang together, and supported one another, and cared for those who were in need. Funding follows freedom and faithfulness.