July 9, 2000
"No Strings Attached"
Sermon by Rev. Sherry Parker
Dundee United Methodist Church
4th Sunday after Pentecost
Please note: Because I do not use notes when I preach, the text in the written sermon may vary slightly from the spoken sermon. My prayer is that in both my writing and my speaking the Holy Spirit works to make this message worthy of God's purpose.
Scripture: Acts 4:34-5:11
This morning we will read one of the most troubling and, some would say, offensive passages from Acts. We've heard how the church was born on the day of Pentecost, and how the disciples through the power of the Holy Spirit were able to heal and to preach the Good News. We've also heard about persecution and the prayers that the faithful lifted for help. Today we hear about trouble in the church.
Read Acts 4:34-5:11
Luke, the author of Acts, has set up an obvious contrast between the generous "no-strings-attached" behavior of Barnabas and the deceitful claim of Ananias and Sapphira. Let us first get out of the way the notion that Ananias and Sapphira died because they did not give everything they owned for the welfare of the church and its people. Peter makes it clear that the property they owned was theirs and the money they received from it was theirs to do with as they wished. The problem came when they falsely claimed that they had given generously of what they had. In this account it was so great a problem that it resulted in their deaths. In lying to the church, Ananias and Sapphira lied to themselves and they lied to God.
You may say, "Well, death is a little harsh!" But consider their deaths as a metaphor for the death of the soul. When Ananias and Sapphira collaborated to keep back money and claim that they gave all to the church, they thought they could deceive God, evident in the Holy Spirit which filled the apostles. They thought they were in control. If they didn't watch out for their future, who would? Their death actually came before they toppled over in Peter's presence, because their attempt to preserve and find meaning in life through material goods meant they would receive death.
Why is this story so uncomfortable for us? Sure, the descriptions of their deaths are unsettling, but I think more than that, this story is uncomfortable because it hits at the heart of our attitude toward what we have and what we are prepared to give away. Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Luke 12:34) There is a story in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke of a young man who asked Jesus how he might have eternal life. Jesus told him that he should follow the commandments and the man confidently answered that he did that. Then Jesus told him that he must sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, then he would inherit the kingdom of God. The young man knew he couldn't bring himself to do it and walked away. (Matthew 19:16-22)
You may remember the news story that ran a few weeks ago about the man in southern Monroe County who woke in the early morning hours because he heard his van starting. He saw that it was being stolen and jumped in another vehicle and gave chase. The fast chase through the night ended when the man stealing the van crashed into a tree. I see that story as an image of our chase for things in this life. We may risk our lives, racing through the night to retrieve what is rightfully ours, but we race through our days, working 50 hours weeks because we need the overtime to make ends meet, we race to gather possessions and financial security because that's the purpose of life, and we race to care for what we have accumulated. It takes all our time, all our attention, all our energy.
And the majority of our present day heroes, those who have "made it", are measured by their wealth. We may not be able to name the top five persons involved in providing food and shelter for the homeless, but chances are that we can name some of the richest persons in this country. Consider sport commentators remarks on the phenomenal golfer Tiger Woods. Sure, they talk about his game, but they also talk about his winnings and how much money he has in promotional contracts. These are added to his measure as a hero who has really made it. The preacher William Willimon makes a good point when he writes that as the significance of money and possessions rises, the significance of God decreases in one's life (Willimon, p. 53). Wealth is important not only because it brings security here and now, but we perceive it as our "ticket" to enduring significance at our death. Our wealth becomes the thing that will make us immortal. We will leave our children comfortable and memorials will bear our name and we will be remembered.
Even the phrase "You can't take it with you" does not defeat our materialism. Instead, it just reveals the reason for it. We think that in some way we can be immortal through the possessions we accumulate. "Even if I must die, my name, my influence, will be immortally preserved in this world."
Jesus pointed out in Luke 18 the struggle with this type of thinking when he said to his disciples, "How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." He was telling them that for a person to accept the "reign" of money is to reject the reign of God. And the disciples ask, "Then who can be saved?" If not the rich, who have shown they are blessed through their profit, who will be saved and enter the kingdom? We accumulate wealth in an attempt to deal with human insecurity, the hard truth of mortality, on our own. And when we place our total faith in things of this world, including ourselves, we fail to live by faith in God. (Willimon, p. 54) And we die.
So if that's the problem, what clues does this morning's scripture, this story from the early church, give us for solution. The first clue comes in the example of Barnabas. He is given the name "Son of Encouragement" by the apostles and it is a good name. Barnabas is the one who will encourage the new convert Paul into ministry and convince fellow believers to accept Paul as a leader in the faith. Barnabas is the one who will talk church leaders into allowing missionary work with the Gentiles. And Barnabas is the one who encourages open generosity by example. He owned a field. He sold it and brought the money to the apostles for use in the church. There is no record of conditions set or strings attached. He gave what he had, and in the years to follow would give his time as well as his possessions to the cause of Christ.
While we cannot all be Barnabas, we can seek out in our own experiences persons who live generous lives and find in them encouragement and guidance. We can look to those who give freely of their time and resources and ask: How does one come to live with such an understanding of abundance, to share freely the possessions of time, friendship, and support? Does faith lie in what is seen and can be counted and accumulated or in God?
Like Barnabas we can find and/or strengthen our connection with the church, the Body of Christ. I'm not talking the building, but living as a member of the body. The church is to be an alternative community. Things are different here. Christianity is like a store window where someone came in and switched all the price tags around. What used to be expensive and precious can now be had for pennies and the things that seem to be of little worth to the world are bought at great price. (Williamson, p. 22) That's the attitude that freed Barnabas to give freely. For that reason, the generosity of Christians doesn't seem quite right in this material world. Even back in the 3rd century, a Roman writer met Christians and wrote about "their absurd generosity and their sacrificial concern for others whom they didn't even know by name." (Williamson, p. 24) Today politicians suggest that if the tax credit for charitable deductions were eliminated, people would stop giving to charitable institutions and to their churches. There is an assumption that charity will only happen if there is something to be gained by it.
All we have belongs to God. We believe that our paychecks are compensation for our labors. What we have and what we earn are actually compensation for God's gifts to us of life, intelligence, energy, skill, and creativity. The check belongs to God. We take our living from it and share the rest with those in need.
A second lesson we learn from the scripture today is to engage in honest self-examination. Peter, through the power of the Holy Spirit sensed the deception of Ananias and Sapphira and gave them both the chance to be honest with themselves and with God. Neither took it. It is fitting to do some serious thinking about where we place our priorities, whether on things, status or people. And how much of our time and resources we allocate for the giver of all things. I have one of those computer programs for personal finances and I faithfully type in the amount that I spend on everything. The program has a nifty pie chart that will show me the percentage that I spend in different categories. That pie chart tells me a lot about my personal spending priorities. I've heard it said that a person can look through his or her checkbook and credit card statements and discover priorities. In self-examination, what do we see when we chart out how we spend our time and our resources. How much is spent in giving compared to accumulating and keeping? Does what we see reflect our faith in God?
Now I've put some hard suggestions before you (and before me, for that matter!). So I offer a third lesson we can gain from the story of Barnabas, Ananias and Sapphira. Trust in the power of the Holy Spirit for discernment, guidance and the courage to make change. The leaders of the early church lived, saturated in the power of the Holy Spirit. It was the breath of life for them and it made their courageous declaration that the Messiah had come, and their generous living possible. "The power which broke the bonds of death at Easter, shattered the divisions of speech at Pentecost, and empowered one who was lame, [released] the tight grip of private property." (Willimon, p. 53)
The Holy Spirit, present in Jesus and promised by him for all who believe can do no less now. Do you struggle with what and who you will worship? I do. Do you wonder if you live a confidently generous life or one that simply reflects a sense of duty? Are you concerned that you might have something more to share in thanks for God's gift of life? Let God's Spirit be upon you. To convict and direct, comfort and strengthen. In the Holy Spirit's presence we do not have to uncomfortably twitch before the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Instead we can, with confidence, seek out ways to put God first and share our abundant life.
Newsom, Carol and Sharon Ringe. The Women's bible Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992. Sargent, James. Basic Bible Commentary: Acts. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988. Smith, Dennis and Michael Williams, eds. The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible, Vol. 12. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999. Walaskay, Paul. Westminster Bible Companion: Acts. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998. Williamson, Charles. Interpretation Bible Studies: Acts. Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2000. Willimon, William. Interpretation: Acts. Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1988.