Sunday, January 10, 2016

Share and share alike: a sermon on stewardship

Acts 4:32-5:5
32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). 37 He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

5 But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; 2 with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” 5 Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. 6 The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him.


The Bible is full of terrible, awful stories, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures.  There are stories of rape, torture, horrific murders, even the wholesale slaughter of innocents, all in the name of God and apparently even at the direction of God . . . really dreadful, ugly passages.  We do our best to avoid talking about then.  We prefer to think our God wouldn’t condone such behavior.   We like to read the New Testament, because that’s all about love and kindness and justice.   Well, except for Revelation.  But since that is clearly a dream, and since Martin Luther and John Calvin didn’t think it should even be included in the Bible, we sort of ignore that much of the time.  Remind me to tell you sometime about how the Book of Revelation kept me from coming back to church for an extra three or four years. . . 
But aside from that, the New Testament is filled with stories about our dear, loving Jesus, a forgiving God who only wants to be reconciled with us, and a series of letters telling us how to be church.  There are some bits where people treat each other terribly . . . Stephen is stoned to death for blasphemy, Saul runs around trying to have all the Jesus followers imprisoned, Christians are imprisoned and persecuted and executed, and of course, Jesus himself is tortured and crucified . . . but God is always good and loving and forgiving and  . . . strikes Ananias and his wife Sapphira dead for lying about their giving to the church.  

Wait, what?

Yes. Not just Ananias, but also his wife Sapphira, because when she showed up later in the day she also lied about the price of the land, and she also was struck down dead on the spot.  The story ends with this line, “ And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.”  

This is one of those terrible passages that no one ever talks about.  I mean, we hear stories all the time about how doing the right thing brings blessings.  It is not uncommon to hear an offering meditation on how someone really couldn’t afford to tithe but did anyway, and everything they needed was provided from some unexpected source.  The one thing we hardly ever hear is, “He lied about his giving and God struck him dead!”  If you ask me, this is probably one of the most poorly thought out stewardship campaigns in the history of the church!  I mean, consider the ramifications for a moment.  

Say you meet a friend in the street and you want him to know about Jesus and your church.  The conversation might go something like this:  “Hey, friend.  I belong to this awesome church.  We all love each other and we welcome everybody.  We go out into the community to help others, even people who aren’t part of our community of faith.  And we have these great worship services, with music and inspired preaching from people who actually knew Jesus himself when he walked the world with us, before he ascended into the heavens.  Would you like to come with me to worship next Sunday to learn about Jesus?”  Then the person listening, having heard about Ananias and Sapphire says to himself, “Yeah, right?  And if I don’t give the way their god thinks I ought to I get struck dead on the spot?  I don’t think so.” and makes some excuse or other not to come.

There is a person I know who has asked me repeatedly whether or not this actually happened.  And my answer was always the same.  “I don’t know.”  This book, the Acts of the Apostles, is the closest thing we have to a history of the early years of the church.  But it was, after all, written by one person who was relying on hearsay for much of his information.  Many scholars believe Luke was a well educated Gentile, possibly a physician, who had converted to Judaism, which explains the excellence of his writing and the particular world view from which he writes.  But he wouldn’t have been present at many of the events described in his book.  He would of necessity have relied on the testimony of others who had either been present or had spoken to someone who had been present.  One of the clues we have as to the occasional inaccuracy of these stories comes from Paul’s letters.  The letters were written much earlier than the Gospels and Acts, and they were written by the actual person involved in the events reported.  Yet in a number of cases, Paul’s account of events disagrees entirely with what Luke says Paul was doing at the time.  So we have to consider that some of the stories we find in the Acts of the Apostles may not be entirely accurate in the historical sense.  

That is not to say they do not contain Truth.  Merely that the data contained in them may not be entirely accurate, in much the same way that a household budget may contain some numbers that aren’t correct but the overall picture at the end remains the same.  In the case of a household budget that is running in the red, it doesn’t really matter whether the cable bill is $60 or $160 if either way, at the end of the month, there is more money going out than coming in.  

The full title of today’s message, the way I have it written down, is “Share and share alike: a sermon on stewardship.”  You all may not know this, but pastors tend to dislike preaching on stewardship.  We do it, but it feels a bit self-serving.  You know?  Because it feels like standing up here saying, “Give the church money so I can get paid.”  That’s not really conducive to impassioned preaching, especially if the congregation’s budget is running in the red.  But I chose this passage, even though it doesn’t appear anywhere in the lectionary, because I think it makes an important point about the way we consider giving.

Acts 5:11 says: “ And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.”   In some congregations, people listen closely to the doomsayers.  “If we lose members, if so and so stops giving, if we don’t cut expenses, we’re going to die!”  And everyone gets scared, because they don’t want anything bad to happen. They don’t want their church to dwindle and die.  In most cases the first budget items that get cut are outreach programs and staff.  The focus of the congregation turns inward, toward preserving the building, preserving the past, preserving the way things have always been.   The people we rarely listen to, however, are the children.  When you ask a child where they think the money goes that we collect on Sunday, they will almost always say, “To help people.” They almost never say, “To pay the electric bill.”    Children get why we give.  Sometimes we forget.

We know that the early church wasn’t worried about maintaining a building, but only about spreading the Good News of God’s love, and about helping people. . .

Back to the story.  I would like to believe that the Grim Story of Ananias and Sapphire is inaccurate.  I’d like to believe that maybe they wanted to die of embarrassment when they were caught lying about their giving, but not that God struck them dead where they stood.  I think that this is an allegorical story, that the death they suffered wasn’t so much actual physical death, but rather death of the soul that comes from sin.  I think it was more a case of “you’re dead to us so we’re removing you from our presence” than that they were actually taken out by the young men and buried in the ground.

What I’m pretty sure is true, however, because we see it all the time, is that someone named Barnabas gave a hefty gift and his generosity was trumpeted around the congregation.  “Hey everybody, lookie here!  Barnabas just gave a huge amount of money!  What a great guy!’  And others felt less than, because they couldn’t give as much.   

I’ve had people tell me they take tithing exactly 10% so seriously that if they find a dime on the ground, they give a penny to the church.  Others have told me they quit tithing 10% and just gave as their hearts moved them to, and forever after got in trouble with the IRS because their giving always exceeded 10%. (I may not believe that God would strike someone dead for misreporting their income, but the IRS? Oh yes.)  For others, giving 1% is a struggle.  

And great fear seized the whole church…”  When we are fearful, when giving becomes a matter for worry instead of something to be joyful about, then we are giving in to the kind of thinking that killed Ananias and Sapphira.  I need to confess that before I came here my giving - which was closer to 1% than 10% - was a matter of great concern and worry to me.  I was upset at how it must look that the pastor of the congregation wasn't able to give as I thought I should, not and also pay rent, buy food, keep my bills up to date, put gas in my car.  We’ve been told that God loves a joyful giver, but how joyful can we be if we are trying to decide between giving to the church and buying groceries? Giving, for me, was far from joyful.  Since coming here that has changed.  Being able to write a check for 10% of my paycheck is one of the great blessings I have received in coming here to serve you.  However, it would have been better for me to be joyful about giving the little bit I did have, before, and not worry so much about how it looked to others.  I believe that God only wants us to do the best we can do, not what someone else thinks we should do.  I’m just not very good at remembering that.

We’ll be asked later in the service for our tithes and offerings.  And after that, during our annual meeting, we’ll hear about the church budget and how much we need to give to keep doing God’s work in the world.  Listen closely, and consider if you yourself might be able to make changes in your giving.  Remember that all we have comes from God.  All we have belongs to God.  Everything we give to the doing of God’s work in the world is already His.   Whether our giving is in money or in the use of our time and talents . . . we give Him only what is already his.  May we give all that we have with great joy.

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