April 15, first Sunday in Easter
I should probably begin with an apology to those of you who were hoping to hear Libby this morning. You may have noticed that she is not here. On Thursday she was diagnosed with labyrinthitis. I know it sounds like one of those diseases that only spiritual giants get—something like tripping in a moment of spiritual ecstasy while navigating a labyrinth—but really it is a swelling in the labyrinth of small channels in your inner ear. It wrecks havoc with someone’s equilibrium.
Anyway, I agreed to read her homily, although there are a couple of places where I have interjected some of my own thoughts. For those of you who do the homily, this is really as good as it gets. If there is something that doesn’t go well, I can say that the bad part was Libby’s doing. And then if there is something that is particularly astute—I can just claim that the really good parts are mine.
During the Easter season our task is to explore the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus for ourselves, our community and our world. It is a journey of spiritual transformation.
During the season of Easter there are no Old Testament readings. Instead, we hear vignettes from the Acts of the Apostles.
Our first reading for the Easter season is Acts 4—no private ownership, everything held in common, no one in need.
I suspect that we have a two-fold response when we hear this.
The first response is that we cringe because we don’t want to give up what we have worked so hard to get
The second is that it seems so idealistic, kind of like socialism—one of those political buzz words for anything that is bad.
If you are familiar with the book of Acts, this is the second time Luke has noted the economic implications of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus:
Two chapters before this we read, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods, and distribute their proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:45)
This small body of believers is being transformed into a community that cares for each other. If I remember my Church history correctly—it was Tertullian who in the 3rd century said that the mark of the Christian community is the way that the believers cared for one another.
In this passage we see a transformation of how the believers think of their possessions.
Luke’s passion for the implications of wealth and possessions is very evident in his gospel. The culture and context of 1st century Israel is very different from our own. But even though it is 2,000 years later, he is speaking to the same human heart…
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)
A man came to Jesus asking him to tell his brother to divide the family inheritance. Jesus replies, “be on your guard against all kinds of greed. One’s life does not consist of the abundance of possessions”. (Luke 18: 13)
Jesus tells the parable of the person who wants to build bigger barns for his grain…Jesus calls him a fool. If you store up treasures for yourself you are not rich in God’s sight (Luke 18:13ff)
The good Samaritan takes care of the injured person on the side of the road and will pay whatever it takes to restore him. (Luke 10: 25ff)
None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions (Luke 14:33).
But, let’s face it—we hold our possessions and our assets very close.
Jobs, salaries, retirement. Investments.
One of the things we fear most is that our assets will be wiped out by unemployment, underemployment and the recession.
Every culture has its rules about money:
A sign of the times is pre-nuptial agreements. What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours. I give my heart and soul to you in marriage–but not my assets…
We don’t talk about money. Our money is our own private business, thank you very much. But, Scriptures are full of references to money—but when was the last time you heard a homily on money?
I grew up in church and the only time I heard about money was when it came time to do the church budget. And then there was the annual sermon on tithing. I was visiting one church where everyone was supposed to fill out a pledge card. The cards were collected, and then they were counted. There wasn’t enough to cover the church budget, so pastor announced that we weren’t going anywhere until he got $12,000 more.
After Libby and I were married, we lived down the street from an intentional community in Chicago. The members of the community pooled their economic resources and owned housing collectively. We thought, “Wow”…these folks are living out the New Testament vision. We decided to check it out and attend their Sunday services. But, we soon learned that things were not so idyllic; two men who were the leaders of the community were not on speaking terms. Not everyone was treated equally or fairly. There was favoritism and what seemed to be economic abuse. So much for that ideal. We moved to Philadelphia and about four months later the whole thing exploded.
When we lived in Philadelphia, we joined a small Mennonite congregation. We were attracted by the peace witness and the emphasis on simple living. After we joined, we learned that the Mennonite church had their own health insurance system–and it cost about 40 percent less than anything on the commercial market. Instead of premiums, we had a quarterly assessment that went into a pool. If you had a medical bill, it was paid out of the pool. If the pool ran out before the next quarter, we got an extra assessment. And if there was money left in the pool, the next quarter’s assessment went down.
The same with car insurance… we were all in it together, except there was a rule that no vehicle could be insured for more than $35,000—and that included trucks and tractors, too. But what happened is that those of us who lived in Philadelphia tended to have higher claims than folks who lived in rural communities. Some people got resentful, particularly since there tends to be an anti-urban bias in the Mennonite church, and next thing you know, it all fell apart.
So much for idealism about radical Christian living…
So what does today’s text say to us?
Relationships are valued over personal possessions and personal gain—the text says that they were of one heart and soul. They made sure that no one was in need.
There is continuity in the faith of Israel and the faith of followers of Jesus:
Both in the Old and New Testaments the quality of liturgy, faith and life in the community is revealed in the way the poor, the widow, the orphan and the undocumented worker, and stranger are treated by the community.
In the Old Testament, this is what the jubilee is all about—although I don’t think that there is any evidence that it actually happened!
This is not just about writing a check when we are feeling charitable or guilty. This is about a transformation that comes from within–and it spills out into our lives.
How might this transformation be nurtured?
First of all, it happens in community.
Twice in small groups at our small Mennonite church we discussed our household budgets.
Each family or single person prepared a simple sheet listing income, expenses, savings, giving and debts.
We discussed our assumptions, values and the tapes that we had grown up with.
We listened to one another’s stories, struggles and joys.
A single woman who was a school teacher realized she didn’t have to live so frugally. It was ok to spend money on her self-care.
A single man, an engineer, talked about his feelings of quilt with his large paycheck.
A couple in their ’60s, conservative Mennonites (she wore a beanie!) talked about the decisions they had made and unexpected outcomes of some of their decisions.
There was a family that was struggling financially.
These small groups had been meeting quite a while, so there was already trust established among the members. It was done with confidentiality and compassion. And I know that for at least some of us, there was a sense of relief that we could finally talk about money with others who were a part of our faith journey.
Those conversations started a transformation for Libby and me in how we look at our money. It was freeing. One of the things that we have done is set up a separate checking account for money that we give away. The account is called “God’s Account” and with the wonders of on-line banking, every month money is transferred into God’s account. This is God’s money, not ours. The money is sitting there, we just have to figure out where it should go. We don’t worry so much about giving money away—it isn’t our money—so if something happens to it, it is God’s problem. Of course, when we went into the bank to set up God’s account, the banker looked at us kind of strange.
Where it got real interesting is when the checkbook was stolen by a contractor who was working on our house. He got caught writing checks against God’s account, so I had to go to court. So the prosecutor was asking me some questions and then he said, “Mr. Caes, I notice that there is a rather unusual name on this account—God’s account. Could you please tell us about that.” So in this full courtroom I explained how God had wonderfully gifted us and what God’s account was, and as I was talking I could see that defendant sinking further and further down in his chair. And then the prosecutor concluded, “So, the defendant was stealing from God.” That was the end of the trial–the defendant changed his plea to guilty.
What caught my attention this year in the Acts passage, is that the whole group was of one heart and mind. There was great grace among them.
This is the work of the Spirit. The sharing of the early Christian community is not legalistic, it is not something that was imposed, but came from a spiritual maturity.
And, what if?? What if this truly caught hold! What if others caught the vision. What if this became the way our elected officials went about business…seeking the common good rather than the political gain of a particular ideology.
Libby wanted me to close with a story and a proverb. The story is from Megan MeKenna’s Blessings and Woes: The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke. It is a Buddhist story of the Indian saint Nagurjuna:
Once upon a time Nagurjuna was traveling. As was his custom he traveled only with a loincloth, and oddly enough, an exquisite golden begging bowl, etched and inlaid with detail and design. It had been a gift to him from a king who was one of his favorite disciples, and he treasured it because of the relationship and memories they had shared together.
One night he was about to settle down to sleep. Having sought out a suitable place so that he could pray and meditate when he awoke, he had found the ruins of an old monastery that had obviously been glorious in its day and now was empty and in disrepair. But as soon as he wrapped himself in some leaves, he noticed a figure lurking in the shadows. A thief, obviously. He sat up and beckoned the man over to him. “Here”, he said, “take this”, and he held out his begging bowl, the king’s gift! “I need to sleep and then to pray and this way you won’t disturb me later.” The man couldn’t believe his good fortune. The thief snatched it from Nagurjuna’s hands and set off running before he might change his mind.
Nagurjuna slept and was refreshed, awoke to pray and meditate. He was just finishing in the morning when he saw the figure again, hiding in the shadows of the great trees. He gestured him forward and again the thief approached him. The thief stood beside him and handed him his begging bowl. It was a while before he found the words he wanted to say and spoke, “when you gave me your begging bowl so freely last night, you made me feel suddenly so very poor. Will you, can you teach me this this kind of light-hearted detachment that makes you feel so free? I want to be that free and I won’t care if I am poor or rich.”
And finally French proverb:
“When you die, you carry in your clutched hands only that which you have given away.”