Sunday, August 10, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "The Writing on the Wall"

Acts 5:1 to 11

However, a man named Ananias, along with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property. 2 With his wife’s knowledge, he withheld some of the proceeds from the sale. He brought the rest and placed it in the care and under the authority of the apostles. 3 Peter asked, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has influenced you to lie to the Holy Spirit by withholding some of the proceeds from the sale of your land? 4 Wasn’t that property yours to keep? After you sold it, wasn’t the money yours to do with whatever you wanted? What made you think of such a thing? You haven’t lied to other people but to God!” 5 When Ananias heard these words, he dropped dead. Everyone who heard this conversation was terrified. 6 Some young men stood up, wrapped up his body, carried him out, and buried him. 7 About three hours later, his wife entered, but she didn’t know what had happened to her husband. 8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, did you and your husband receive this price for the field?” She responded, “Yes, that’s the amount.” 9 He replied, “How could you scheme with each other to challenge the Lord’s Spirit? Look! The feet of those who buried your husband are at the door. They will carry you out too.” 10 At that very moment, she dropped dead at his feet. When the young men entered and found her dead, they carried her out and buried her with her husband. 11 Trepidation and dread seized the whole church and all who heard what had happened. (Common English Bible)

“The Way: The Post Jesus, Pre Paul Church,” Week Eight

“They pedal.”

That was my dad’s repeated refrain to me every single morning that I got up at a ridiculously early hour every July to watch the Tour de France live on television (ridiculously early because of the time difference between Kansas City and France).  It didn’t matter what would be happening on the screen, the retort was always the same:

“They pedal.”

But then the race would move into the Alps or the Pyrenees, and the mountain climbs would separate the contenders from the pretenders:

“They pedal.”

Or the race could be only a few hundred yards from the finish line for the day, and the entire pack had broken into a mass breakneck sprint for first place:

“Oh, they’re pedaling faster.”  He was utterly nonplussed.  And this is a guy who is a big fan of soccer (wait…I’m a big fan of soccer too…)!

And I envy that utter lack of impression in a way, because I was completely and totally enthralled with the world of the sport: the team tactics that were difficult to see with an untrained eye, the drama of a mountain climb so difficult that it was classified as “beyond category,” and, of course, the myth and legend that surrounded the post cancer comeback of one Lance Armstrong, who in January of 2013 famously confessed on Oprah Winfrey’s television channel in an interview with her to using performance enhancing drugs to win his seven Tour de France titles, and to repeatedly bullying and slandering those who knew and threatened to expose his great secret.

And I remember just thinking, what this guy has withheld from the world is just staggering, solely because he ended up valuing his own myth and money more than the people who walked alongside him throughout the way.  And that is basically what happens here today, in the story of Ananias and Sapphira: two people who decide they value their things more than they value their relationships.

This is a sermon series that has been ongoing now for a while!  We began it several weeks ago for two reasons.  One is that the day of Pentecost (the day when the Holy Spirit comes down upon the remaining Apostles) fell on Sunday, June 8, this year, and oftentimes, when we preachers preach on Pentecost, we just do that one story about the Holy Spirit, but then we go on to something else, neglecting the many amazing stories that follow.  The other is that it’s summer, and summer is the season for action movies at the cinema, and (increasingly frequently) their sequels, which may or may not be as good as the original/worth attending at all/a blatant money grab by movie studios (depending on just how bad the sequel is!).  The Gospels have their own sequel in the New Testament: Acts of the Apostles, commonly referred to simply as Acts.  Acts is written by Luke (the writer of the Gospel which bears his name) precisely as a sequel in his two volume set of historical accountings of Christ’s ministry and the early church, and it is, to my way of thinking, far better than many of the sequels we are used to today!  So this is a sermon series meant to take us through a Biblical sequel to the Gospels in addition to picking up where the Pentecost story leaves off, and we began with the massive response to Peter’s first sermon: a conversion of 3,000 people, and today, we actually sort of rewind to the beginning of the series when Luke more or less restates an accounting that he also includes in Acts 2, after Peter’s sermon, about how the early church lived out the faith, which is how chapter 4 ended.  We begin the next chapter today with very much a contrasting tale to the wholehearted generosity of the church: the tale of Ananias and Sapphira.

By itself, this is a story that should cause each of us to recoil.  The punishment for giving to the church is death on the spot?  That’s one hell of a stewardship message if you’re bent on pasturing your church via fear, but that isn’t really what we’re about here.  A dollop of fear may be an inherent part of life, but part of Christianity is the great and sacred task of equipping all of us with boldness and courage in the face of fear.  In other words, it is okay, even inevitable, to be afraid, but we must always be able to respond to it.

So how do we respond to this story of summary execution for a husband and wife couple who withhold some of their assets from the New Testament church?  By taking the entire episode in its context.  If you remember last week’s passage that I preached on (and if not, you can just turn one chapter back in your Bibles!), the social contract was that members of the church, the ekklesia, would give all of their assets to the church so that it could be distributed out according to need.

Ananias and Sapphira, by withholding some of their cash, are saying, effectively, that they value their money more than they value their fellow people, their fellow Jesus followers.   The social contract they elected to follow meant little to them, and Peter consequently sees right through their charade.

And it is purely a charade, because in the end, all of this stuff we have belongs to God anyways.  Bible professor Paul Walaskay puts it perfectly:

The story should remind the reader that his or her “gift” to church, school, and charity already belongs to God.  God claims it all and God’s grace gives us an abundant allowance; even those who tithe keep 90 percent.  Yes, most of us work “by the sweat of our brow,” the hot sweat of physical labor or the cold sweat of anxiety keeping an enterprise viable.  And many of us mistakenly assume that the paycheck is compensation to us for our labors.  Rather, we are being compensated for God’s gracious gifts of life, energy, strength, intellect, creativity, and talent.  That paycheck is God’s.  We take out our living allowance, which is usually quite generous, and share (not “give”) the rest with those in need.  Lying about the source of our resources is self deceit and arrogance, and it puts “the Spirit of the Lord to the test” (verse 9)…the story of Ananias and Sapphira is a tale for our own time, and we dismiss it as an absurd curiosity to our individual and national peril.

It is especially to our peril that we ignore this tale because it is not the first time in Scripture that we will have heard this lesson, for there is a prelude to this entire episode in the Old Testament.  It comes from book of Daniel, the Israelite man who spent his prophetic career in exile, teaching in the court of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II and then Nebuchadnezzar’s heir, Belshazzar.  And one night, Belshazzar throws a banquet for one thousand of his nobles, and he calls for the gold and silver goblets stolen from the Jewish temple when Jerusalem was sacked by Babylon.  It is another example of someone putting things before relationships: in this case, any relationship Belshazzar might have had with the one true God.

And Belshazzar only realizes this when the writing literally appears on his wall, reading MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN.  He summons Daniel to translate the writing, and Daniel, after rebuking Belshazzar, begins his translation, and in so doing interprets the word “tekel” to mean, “You have been weighed on the scales and been found lacking.”  Belshazzar was found to be lacking on the scales of God’s justice, and just like Ananias and Sapphira, he was put to death that very day: that night, as Daniel conveys, Belshazzar was murdered.

These twin stories can teach us a couple of things: firstly, never assume that you can simply get away with something that you know in your heart of hearts is wrong.  You will be amazed at what God sees and what eventually comes to light even for us humans to see.  And secondly, there does still come a point in time where God looks at what someone has purportedly done either by their own power (in the case of Belshazzar) or by God’s own power and in God’s own name (in the case of Ananias and Sapphira) and God does indeed eventually and resoundingly say, “NOT IN MY NAME!”

And I want to, have to, need to believe that God can and does still respond with justice to the evils we claim to do in His name.  And there are a great many evils that we have done, and are doing, in God’s holy name.

The conflict between Palestine and Israel isn’t just about land, it’s about THE Holy Land.

The conflict turned ethnic cleansing in Iraq isn’t just between ethnic groups, but between ISIS and Iraqi Christians.

And closer to home, even the so called “culture wars” that we insist on fighting rather than focusing on spreading the Gospel of the Prince of Peace.

We should expect the God in our Scriptures to oppose us, and so we instead build up these elaborate illusions of what God wants based on twisted, horrific interpretations of Scripture by men of evil intent, and we end up worshiping not the God, but the interpretation.  We end up worshiping the ways we justify our wrong deeds instead of worshiping the God who forgives us for them.

I have no doubt that Ananias and Sapphira probably had come up with justifications to themselves for why they did what they did.  I have no doubt Belshazzar did as well, although his might well have been, “I’m the freaking king!”  But one of the best rules of thumb I have ever found to live by is this: the more you have to justify something to yourself, the more likely it is that doing it is wrong.

Ananias and Sapphira had to know what they were doing was wrong.  They did it anyways.

It’s what we do all the time to one another as well.  At least until we stop, and realize what it is we are doing, and remember that God has not, does not, and never will call us to do wrong like that to  one another or to Him.  He will say to us, in the powerful and profound way that only He can, “NOT IN MY NAME!”  And so we in turn can do the same, and say the same, to the evil done around us: Not in my name!  

And today, in this moment, that message may be exactly what we and our world need.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 10, 2014

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