Sunday, April 19, 2009
"Alleluia! So What?" Adventures in Sermonizing on Acts 4:32-35
So... it was a typical Sunday morning. Got up, showered, had breakfast, coffee, looked at the sermon below and tweaked it. Emailed it to myself so that I could print it out at the office-- that's what I do every Sunday.
Petra was on a mission trip with the Youth Group, so I drove to church alone. Chatted with a few members of the congregation, and then went to print out the sermon. No go. Tried again. Still no luck. By now the liturgist had stopped in. She suggested emailing it to myself again, but going on another office computer to open it and try to print it from there. Another person stopped in, looking for information, and I helped him with that.
By now it was 10:25. The service begins at 10:30. Those of us leading worship looked at one another, and I said, "Well, I guess I'll wing it!"
And so I preached for the first time in my life without so much as an outline, not a word of notes.
You know, it went ok. It was actually pretty good. I notice, as I paste it here, that what went by the wayside were some very nice quotes, including the one by Moltmann. Too bad. But... it was ok. The Holy Spirit had my back, yo? No one noticed that I had no manuscript, per se, but someone did say, as they greeted me after church, "You were so animated this morning!"
That, my friends, was the adrenaline.
So, here's something like what I preached.
32Now 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. 33With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34There 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. 35They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. ~ Acts 4:32-35
A man was being tailgated by a stressed out woman on a busy boulevard, when suddenly, the light turned yellow, just in front of him. He did the right thing, slowing down and then stopping at the crosswalk, even though he could have beaten the red light by flooring it and accelerating through the intersection.
The tailgating woman hit the roof, and the horn, screaming in frustration as she missed her chance to get through the intersection. As she was still in mid-rant, she heard a tap on her window and looked up into the face of a very concerned police officer. The officer ordered her to exit the car with her hands up. He took her to the police station where she was searched, finger printed, photographed, and placed in a holding cell.
A couple of hours later, another policeman approached the cell and opened the door. The woman was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with her personal effects. He said, “Ma’am, I'm very sorry for this mistake. Here’s what happened: I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, making obscene gestures at the guy in front of you, and cursing a blue streak at him. I noticed the “What Would Jesus Do?” bumper sticker, the “Follow Me to Sunday-School” license plate, and the chrome-plated fish emblem on the trunk. Naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car.” (1)
Now, the point of this silly story is, obviously, the disconnect between identity and action. The woman’s car was covered with Christian paraphernalia. To the arresting officer, her behavior was anything but “Christian.” Why tell this story today? I think it helps us to frame an important question I’d like us to ask ourselves: What does the resurrection of Jesus have to do with us, anyway? That’s what we celebrated last week, with much hoopla: the resurrection of Jesus Christ—the fact that he had been dead, but God raised him from the dead and defeated the power of death in a lasting way. Here at church we celebrated with flowers and music, with song and scripture. At home we celebrated with more flowers, and candy, and perhaps with fancy dinners. We celebrated by singing “Alleluia’s” in church for the first time since Ash Wednesday! We celebrated by spending time with those we love. But… why did we celebrate? Alleluia! Christ is risen! To which much of the world answers a resounding, “So what?” And it would be great if we had an answer for that. So what? What’s the big deal? What does the resurrection have to do with us, anyway? Does it change us? Does it change anything, besides, maybe, the bumper stickers we put on our cars?
It is, after all, still Easter—the Easter season, anyway. And throughout the Easter season the lectionary offers us readings from the Acts of the Apostles, little snapshots of the life of the early church. The first few chapters of this book are filled with sermons, and the passage we’ve read today speaks of a community that, in response, begins to assemble itself: “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33). Great grace... The friends and followers of Jesus, saturated with grace, preached about the resurrection, and a community said a resounding “Yes” to that, and gathered together. And what was the chief characteristic of this community, gathered around the resurrection? “There was not a needy person among them.” The defining characteristic of the resurrection community was that no one’s basic needs—for food, for clothing, for shelter, for community—went unmet. “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” (Acts 4:32).
This is a challenging passage for us. One might as well go all the way and call this passage downright un-American, with its focus not on self-sufficiency, or achieving the American dream through hard work, or carrying one’s own weight, but rather, on the assumption that we are all responsible for one another, that a community will come together to assure that everyone’s needs are met. This idea makes us nervous, and I’m reminded of that loaded word that got thrown around a lot during the presidential campaign: Socialism. And in my reading different scripture scholars this week, I noticed that some of them attempt to soft-pedal (if not back-pedal) this passage. For instance, this:
“The language of this passage suggests that Luke is nostalgically reflecting on the golden age of the early church in which ‘there was not a needy person among them.’” (2) Well, as soon as we call this particular snapshot of the early church “nostalgia,” we pretty much relegate it to the unattainable, the dreamy, the impossible to recover or validate. We can say, “Yeah, but…” and then we’re off the hook.
I’d like to see if we could hang on the hook just a little while longer.
The response of the early community to the gospel of resurrection was to ask themselves, “What does a resurrection community look like?” And they looked around and concluded that, if they really took that gospel seriously, they would care for one another’s needs. They concluded that no one should be in poverty. They concluded that no one should go hungry. They concluded that no one should face the harshness of life alone.
We are in a significant moment as citizens, not just of the US, but of the world today, in 2009. Many, many people, including those in our own community, are facing economic hardship for the first time in their lives. People with jobs that seemed rock-solid a year ago are being laid off in numbers not seen for a long time. And many of these people who are suffering are folks who have done everything “right.” They have educations, they have been paying their mortgages, they contribute positively to the fabric of life in their communities—they volunteer with the Girl Scouts and Little League and in their churches. And these folks are falling through the cracks.
Once they have fallen through the cracks they find themselves in the company of many whom we have assumed have not “done everything right.” People that we can look at from a distance, and say, “Well, if they hadn’t dropped out of high school, if they hadn’t gotten into drugs, if they hadn’t…” done this or that, then, what? They’d be fine? Well, not necessarily. Look around. The harsh economic realities of today do not discriminate between the so-called “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Neither, by the way, did Jesus. I have combed the New Testament, and I cannot find a single place in which Jesus places conditions on healing or feeding or helping anyone, or in which he instructs us to do that. Jesus does not make distinctions between “deserving” or “undeserving” humanity. In fact, all our understanding of the significance of the resurrection rises on the notion that we are, by nature, undeserving: great grace is upon us all.
We might wonder why the resurrection community thought of poverty and hunger as the place where they would focus their energy. We might wonder, until we open the pages of the gospels and see the unrelenting witness of Jesus, who, as one of our creeds says,
… proclaimed the reign of God: preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives, teaching by word and deed and blessing the children, healing the sick and binding up the brokenhearted, eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners, and calling all to repent and believe the gospel. (A Brief Statement of Faith, 9-18)
The resurrection community did what they thought Jesus would do… I guess we’re back to that bumper sticker after all… and when they reflected on Jesus’ ministry of reaching out, teaching, healing, binding up, eating and forgiving, they must have decided: that’s what we’ll do. This is what we can do. They felt that, in face of the resurrection, it was time for them to demonstrate a new quality of life, as our Book of Order says church members will do. And that quality of life would be that they help one another through difficult times. A German theologian has said, “The opposite of poverty is not property. The opposite of poor is not rich. The opposite of both poverty and wealth is community, joining together in word and deed.” The opposite of both poverty and wealth is community. (3)
Clarence Jordan sought to bring word and deed together, and changed the face of community forever by his work. Raised in the deep South during a time before the Civil Rights Era, he was deeply troubled by the racial and social inequalities he witnessed. He took a degree in agriculture, hoping, initially, to improve the lot of sharecroppers by making scientific farming techniques available to them. Eventually he found himself in seminary, becoming a New Testament Greek scholar. In 1948 his hopes to improve the lot of the poor and to bridge the racial divide came together with his faith, and he founded Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia. (Koinonia is Greek for “community”). It was an interracial Christian farming community, whose influence has been widespread. In 1965 a married couple, the Fullers, visited Koinonia, just for a few hours, they thought. Those hours changed their lives, as they, first, decided to settle at Koinonia, and later, to apply the principles they learned there—a community of one heart and soul, caring for all as they had need—by founding Habitat for Humanity.
Jesus is risen. So what? Koinonia Farm and Habitat for Humanity are examples of contemporary attempts to faithfully answer that question. Jesus is risen! So what? “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.” That was the early church’s answer to that question. Jesus is risen! So what? What about us, St. Sociable Church? What is our answer to that question? One person has suggested planting a vegetable garden on our strip of lawn next to the garage, to be tended by members and friends, perhaps on behalf of the “Plant a Row for CHOW” program. Another member has wondered whether we might serve a meal for the community on Sundays. There are meals in Endicott every other day in the week, but none on Sunday. These are just a couple of the ideas I’ve heard from our members. They sound to me like wonderful answers to that question, So what? How are we living out the reality of the resurrection community? So, how about it St. Sociable? Jesus is risen! What are we going to do about it? Thanks be to God. Amen.
(1) Christian Jokes for Adults, Christians Online Australia, http://www.christiansonline.com.au.
(2) Paul W. Walaskay, Acts: Westminster Bible Companion Series (Louisville, KY: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1998), 61.
(3) Jurgen Moltmann