Our Shared Life
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It’s good to be with you all today as we continue our series on what it means to be a part of Grace – where we are a people and a church that seek to live with uncommon hospitality.
In your bulletin there is a guide to prayer and study with daily readings, thoughts and prayers that all tie back in with our message this morning. If you don’t have a regular devotional practice, this is a great way to get started so I hope you take the bulletin home with you.
Our reading this morning comes from the book of Acts and the story of the early church. It’s written, “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, to the community, to their shared meals and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possession and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.” (CEB)
This passage has informed how churches organize themselves for centuries. It’s a passage about learning, it’s a passage about devotion, it’s a passage about miracles, and awe, and wonder, it’s a passage about sharing, it’s a passage about eating together, it’s a passage about joy and gladness. What I’d like to do this morning is talk about how this way of being church witnesses to a shared blessing. It’s in this sharing, in this connection, that we find our welcome and uncommon hospitality.
Now, what’s fascinating is that all these early believers confessed that Jesus is Lord. That was the apostles teaching, that is the first creed of Christianity, it’s our initial statement of faith, Jesus is Lord.
Jesus is Lord has clear implications for how these first followers lived their lives. Their ethics, their interactions with one another, and even the meaning of ownership shifted with the hope and promise they found in Christ. These people, believing Jesus is Lord, would sell their possessions to make sure that everyone’s needs were taken care of.
I want to spend a bit of time exploring the meaning and the nature of ownership so we are going to play a clip for you from the comedian Eddie Izzard. He is one of my favorite comedians and if I were planning a fantasy dinner party, Eddie Izzard would be near the top of the guest list. Listen to what he says about the Pilgrims meeting the indigenous Americans for the first Thanksgiving.
My hunch is that, some of you are now Eddie Izzard fans and others of you are thinking, “Now I understand why Nate’s not funny.”
What’s genius about what Eddie Izzard points out, is that these settlers come, meet the indigenous peoples of this land, say we didn’t know you owned the place, only to quickly say, oh, you don’t have a system of ownership, that might come in handy later.
The musician Taylor Swift tried to trademark or own her cat’s names. She has three cats, Meredith, Olivia, and Benjamin”. Swift tried to trademark those names, even though her cat Benjamin has the full name, “Benjamin Button” which is the name of a movie character. I don’t know what I should expect from pop stars, but being able to know that you can’t trademark someone else’s trademark is up there.
Then again, the musician Drake tried to trademark the phrase “God’s plan” because only a rapper from Toronto can say that for a living. It turns out it wasn’t God’s plan for Drake, or anyone else, to own that phrase.
It’s easy to shake our heads at the antics of celebrities, so let’s remember that last year Ohio State University tried to trademark their favorite word, ‘The’. Unfortunately for Ohio State, designer Marc Jacobs filed an application for ‘The’ before they did. Both applications have been rejected.
How many of you have ever been to Subway and order a footlong sub?
Now, their subs are really only 11 inches, so they have a bit of a marketing problem, but, did you know that in 2013 Subway tried to trademark and become owners of the word footlong?
Subway wanted to own the phrase footlong because they thought that something being a footlong uniquely applied to their sandwiches and nothing else.
400 years ago, for indigenous peoples of the Americas, owning land was like Subway trying to own a measurement.
Eddie Izzard makes an interesting and funny observation about landownership from 400 years ago, and today, we have people and companies argue that they can own measurements, and phrases. There is a whole realm of intellectual property law that says a company or a person can own an idea or a sound, even a color.
We went from you can’t own land to you can own land, you can own the sky above land, to you can own an idea, and you can try to own a measurement.
Our culture has gone on an interesting journey with ownership because if you can own this, what’s to say that you can’t own that?
Now, let’s look at Psalm 24, because this will help us understand what’s going on in Acts 2.
The psalmist writes, “The earth is Subways and they can own any measurement they want…”
It’s written, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants too. Because God is the one who established it on the seas; God set it firmly on the waters…” (CEB)
The word ‘Lord’ here goes back to the name YHWH, the name that God gives Moses, the name of God that speaks to the saving, liberating, love that God is. The earth is YWHWs, and the world, all who live in it, everything belongs to God.
In the Hebrew consciousness, there was the stuff that you owned, but you only own it in light of the God that owns everything. It’s as if there is ownership, but then there is OWNERSHIP.
The things you own, all that you have received, care for it, share it, use it well, remembering that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.
In Deuteronomy chapter 8 we see this idea get taken even further. It’s not simply what you have, it’s not the idea that you own what you own for a certain period of time because really God owns everything, it not even there’s ownership but then there’s ownership. In Deuteronomy, we find out that we have a responsibly, and we have a debt, in our ownership.
Deuteronomy 8:17 says, “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is [God] who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms [God’s] covenant, which [God] swore to your ancestors, as it is today.” (NIV)
In Deuteronomy ownership comes with remembrance because even your ability to have ownership of anything is, first and foremost, a gift. Everything that we have comes with a debt of gratitude.
Ownership, in the Biblical context, is never as simple as you and your stuff. What you own, you have in light of the God that owns everything because the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. Ownership, possession, wealth, all of our stuff, begins with our gratitude for God’s generosity, and you have a responsibility to use what you have well.
This should make us hold on to our things in a certain way. Kind of like how you hold an egg.
If you are cooking with a child, and you hand them an egg, before you teach them how to break it, whisk it, separate it, before you do anything with an egg, if you are cooking with a child you teach them how to hold an egg.
You have to hold an egg with some firmness, because if you aren’t really holding on to an egg you’ll drop it, and yet, you don’t want to hold on to an egg too tightly because if you do, you’ll break it.
Imagine the first time you got your first paycheck from your first job and someone said to you, hold this firmly, yet loosely, because here’s the deal with money – sometimes your tax refund will surprise you in ways that you like, other times it will surprise you in ways that you don’t like. Sometime you might open a credit card statement and think to yourself, wow, I’ve finally paid this off. Other times, you might open a hospital bill and think to yourself I didn’t know that many zeros and commas existed.
Our possessions and money have to be held in a certain way, because has anyone here ever owned something that took so much, time, and energy, and anxiety and worry, and effort that eventually you realized that this thing you owned took ownership of you – and when you finally got rid of it, you felt free.
When I was a kid, I read comic books. I’ve always loved superhero stories, but when I got into middle school and high school my circle of friends shifted so I stopped reading comics. But when I was in seminary, in New Jersey, one day I was waiting for the train and a newsstand nearby was selling comics, so I bought one, and that turned into another, and another, and another.
Eventually I had to buy a bookcase for my comics, and then I needed another bookcase, and then I needed storage boxes. Eventually I was buying so many comics each week that I couldn’t keep up on reading them every week. Overtime, I found myself with a bookcase filled with comics that I hadn’t read yet. I had shifted from being a comic book reader to a comic book collector.
I wanted to tell myself that comics would be an investment. I bought each comic for $3 to $5 and last year I sold the 4000 or so comics that I had for less than $500.
You can do the math, but I try not to think about it.
The things we own, if we are not careful, will take ownership of us. Our possessions and our money demands to be held a certain way, not too tight, but not too loose either.
What we find in Acts is that there is something that happens through the Gospel. The hope of God putting all things back together through Christ, the empty tomb, the promise that Jesus is Lord changed people and shaped the early church in such a way that they thought about money and possession differently.
Of all the things that could be written about the early church, Acts almost goes out of its way to say, people sold their stuff for the sake of others to make sure that everyone was taken care of.
Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, speaks to this. There was a saying, an idea, in the ancient world that when it came to generosity, people either had a good eye or an evil eye. They either saw abundance, or they saw stinginess. When we think about generosity, we often think about money. Maybe we think that someone is generous with their time, or their words. But in the ancient world, generosity wasn’t about one area of your life – in the ancient world if someone wasn’t generous in every part of their life, they weren’t generous. Good eyes were generous, bad eyes were not.
In Matthew, chapter 6, Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. Therefore, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how terrible that darkness will be.” (22-23, CEB)
Jesus is speaking about our lives in a holistic way and unless you have the background of a good eye and a bad eye, you’re not going to understand what Jesus is saying.
Jesus is telling us that there are two ways of being in the world – with a good eye or an evil eye, an eye full of light or an eye of darkness, you can live with abundance or you can live with emptiness.
Generosity is an overarching way of orienting our lives to everyone and everything. Hoarding is an overarching way of life too.
Jesus brings this up again and again throughout the Gospels in different ways because like the genius teacher he is, Jesus brings this up in all kinds of ways, so we can’t miss the point.
If we have a sense of entitlement, if we believe that God has given someone a break and ignored us, if we believe that God has been generous to everyone, it will affect how we see everything.
In Matthew 20 Jesus tells a parable about God’s generosity, and in this story the main character says, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Essentially, what Jesus is saying, is that if you cannot celebrate the abundance, the grace, and the generosity of God in other people’s lives, you will never be able to celebrate it in your own life either.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a parable about a son that takes money from his father only to squander it, this son loses everything, the father thinks the son is dead. Eventually the son that wasted everything comes home and is welcomed with a party, but the other son can’t celebrate, he’s angry and upset. This brother can’t understand forgiveness or grace because he can’t celebrate it in his brother’s life. And let’s be fair to this other brother, while one son was wasting everything the father gave him, the other son was there, working the farm, waking up early, going to bed late. While the party is going on, the father goes to this son, watching from the distance, and of all the things that Jesus could have God say, Jesus has God say to this angry, unforgiving brother, “You are always with me, and everything that I have is yours.”
Jesus keeps pushing, keeps asking, how’s your eye? Is it full of light – can you celebrate with them, can you dance with them, can you be happy for them, or will you stand off in the distance, angry and upset? Do you see abundance, do you see fullness, do you see potential and possibility, or do you see emptiness?
Over and over and over again, throughout the teachings of Christ and everywhere else in the Bible, generosity is something that affects every area of our lives.
I have met wealthy people that were stingy, and I have met wealthy people that were generous, just like I have met poor people that were stingy and poor people that were generous.
Wealth and generosity are not the same thing. Just like poverty and stinginess are not the same thing. Generosity is a posture, an orientation of our lives where we see who we are, and who God is, that is independent of how much stuff we have.
Our reading says, “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, to the community, to their shared meals and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possession and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.”
What the writer does here is tells us a story about the first followers of Jesus – and we’re told that they believed in forgiveness and grace, they confessed that Jesus is Lord, they learned, they shared meals, they sought a right relationship with God and all this had a direct implication on how they lived with one another because God wants to save the world and everyone in it.
The thing about that word everyone is that it means everyone.
In their book, “The Spirit Level” the epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show that there is a strong correlation, if not a direct link and causation, between income inequality and quality of life, for everyone. They write, “The big idea is that what matters in determining mortality and health in a society is less the overall wealth of that society and more how evenly wealth is distributed. The more equally wealth is distributed the better the health of that society.”
Wilkinson and Pickett point out the life-diminishing results of valuing economic growth for some above equality. Inequality causes shorter, unhealthier and unhappier lives for everyone. Economic inequality increases the rates of violence, obesity, imprisonment and addiction.
In the book, they take statistics from the United Nations, the World Bank, World Health Organization, US Census, and the results are hard to deny. At first, some of their charts look like a scattering of plot points, but they tell an important and tragic story.
In Japan, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, the richest 20% of the population is about four times richer than the poorest 20%. In the United States, the richest 20% is nearly nine times richer than the poorest 20%.
With that in mind, Wilkinson and Pickett indexed various social problems and then plotted them against income inequality. They looked at issues like life expectancy, as well as rates of illiteracy, infant mortality, imprisonment, obesity, trust, addiction, and social mobility.
If you compare the countries that have the lowest inequality to those that have the most, this is what you see.
You can see more graphs and information from The Spirit Level here – https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/sites/default/files/SpiritLevel-jpg_0.pdf
This is one of those times when you don’t want to be number one, but there we are. They went on to compare inequality within states, and the same results were found.
Perhaps the most shocking result in this study was that life expectancy is lower, for everyone, in countries that have more inequality.
America is one of the world’s richest nations, with some of the highest rates of income per person, but we have the lowest longevity of developed nations. In wealthy nations, especially wealthy nations that are economically unequal, we have a whole host of diseases of affluence that diminish our lives, regardless of stock market growth.
Wilkinson and Pickett argue, and show, that a society in which all citizens feel free to look each other in the eye can only come into being once those in the lower echelons feel more valued, cared for, and welcome. The authors argue that removal of economic impediments to feeling valued – such as low wages, low benefits and low public spending on education, for instance – will allow a flourishing of human potential.
Wilkinson and Pickett write, “Once we have enough of the basic necessities for comfort, possessions matter less and less in themselves, and are used more and more for what they say about their owners. Ideally, our impressions of each other would depend on face‐to‐face interactions in the course of community life, rather than on outward appearances in the absence of real knowledge of each other.”
I hope I don’t have to spell out what that means for our reading this morning where we are reminded that in the early church, “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, to the community, to their shared meals and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possession and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.”
That word ‘saved’ is important.
Yes, God wants to save us from our sins, God wants to save us from the hardness of our hearts, God wants to save us from all the ways that we make a mess of things and miss the mark. Which means God wants to save the rich, God wants to save the poor, God wants to save those that have so much money that their obesity rates go up just like God wants to save everyone that has a rumble in their stomach.
When this passage says that people are being saved, it’s a bigger, wider, greater idea of being salvation. People are being saved by faith in Christ, and people are saved from their hunger, people are saved from their loneliness, people are saved from their not having a roof over their head.
We need a really big understanding of what it means to be saved because the early church had a really big understanding of what it means to be saved.
In my last two appointments, in addition to being the pastor, I ran the youth programs too. It’s amazing how much more sleep I am getting these days, thanks to Coreen, Nathan, and Patty.
Working with students is a lot of fun, and when I lead the youth group and taught confirmation, at least once a month we would have a night that was simply fun for the sake of fun – we’d call it our sabbath. It was the night when all of our work was done even if it wasn’t. We wouldn’t have a lesson, we wouldn’t talk about school, we would just play games and share a meal.
One of my favorite church games is called sardines. One student would get a head start from everyone else and try to find a place to hide in the church. After a couple minutes, everyone searches for them with the goal of not being the last person to find everyone else.
If you have never had the privilege of hiding in a small space with middle and high school students after they have run all over the church, you don’t know what your nose is missing.
We would play the game and then I’d ask the students, “What do you want to eat tonight?” As you can guess, they would say, “A beef tartar and caviar would be great.”
Every time we would order pizza.
On our pizza nights, it was my intention, my hope, to make sure that everyone has enough pizza. When we started to eat, if there is a kid that’s trying to sneak an extra slice, I would remind them that now is not the time for hoarding. We’re going to make sure that everyone had something to eat. If we ever started to run a little low on pizza, we could always order more. One night I called for pizza reinforcements three times. The pizza place called me back after the last order to make sure it wasn’t a prank.
That’s how I ran youth group, and that’s how things are run here too. Our students are not going to miss out, if you’re hungry, we’re going to feed you.
In the Bible, the earth is God’s house and God seems to have particular intentions for God’s house. One of those intentions is that everyone has some pizza.
God intends for the world to be just, to be saved, and if a youth group can get this right, the rest of us can too.
That’s how things are supposed to work in this house.
Uncommon hospitality awakens us to caring for one another just like this. We recognize in the life of Christ and in the movement of scripture how God needs us to treat and care for one another, how to order our lives to make sure that each day more and more persons can be saved into the fullness of their life and God’s dream for us all.
We have the right to do whatever we want with our stuff – but in the end, we’re responsible to God. God has shown us how God wants us to order our life together, but we have the ability, we have the right, to go other ways, to do other things, but the latest research continues to show that the people that have, when the gap gets too big, they suffer, just like everyone else, and if the statistics are right, the only way to make life better for everyone is to make sure that life is better, first and foremost, for those at the bottom. If you want to live longer, if you want to have a better life, make sure the people with the most needs are taken care of. You might have other ideas, but the facts and the statistics say this is the first thing we have to get right before we try anything else.
In our reading today, these Christians, in their relationship with God and one another, their life with Jesus awakened them to the reality that God has blessed us with this responsibility to be a blessing for others. God wants to partner with us to make sure things are as God wants them to be. It was Martin Luther who put it like this, “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.”
There are two final thoughts – the first is this. The Gospels are about generosity, salvation is about generosity, because God is generous.
In all of our stumbling, fumbling, frail, faulty and broken parts of our lives, God sends Christ to care, comfort, and save, to put things back into their proper place, to give us a new life.
God is generous. God has given us everything we need, and we can enter into this generosity with one another.
Which leads us to the second thought – in response to God’s generosity, we must become a generous force in the world.
Here’s what uncommon hospitality could look like this week. Is there anyone here today that needs to give something extravagant away? Is there anyone here that needs to be generous in a way that will really cost you, because you need to be free, you need to let go of something you own that has started to own you?
Sometimes it takes a radical act to free us. Sometimes, money and possessions can have such a hold over us that we can become so worried about having enough that the only way to free ourselves isn’t by scrimping and saving even more, it’s by giving even more away because we know that God is generous, so we can be too.
May you be a blessing for others this week, because God has richly and abundantly, generously, blessed you. May you look at this week and your life with an eye full of light. And may you be a generous force of God’s abounding, joyful, and saving love. Amen.
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February 17 – 22, 2020
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Read – Matthew 5:13-16
Notice – This was the keynote of Jesus’ call to citizens of “the kingdom of God.” He didn’t specify that those who follow him should “go” to a certain place. He called them to live in a certain way for God. In Jesus’ day, with no refrigerators, people used salt to preserve food as well as to flavor it. Jesus called his followers to be “the salt of the earth,” living in ways that add flavor to our world and “preserve” life’s God-intended goodness. As one teacher put it, Jesus did not say, “You are the vinegar of the earth”! In what ways are you living out your faith in ways that flavor life positively, and preserve its goodness?
Pray – God, if I forget, remind me that “we the people” ARE the church. By your Spirit, help me to live as your salt and light, your physical presence, right here in my hometown. Amen.
Read – 1 Peter 2:5-10
Notice – Peter’s description of what it means to belong to God’s people, the church, showed how New Testament Christians found Jesus’ work and its effects all through the Old Testament. Verse 6 quoted Isaiah 28:16; verse 7 drew on Psalm 118:22; verse 8 used Isaiah 8:14. Verse 9 took language that first applied to Israel in Exodus 19:6, and verse 10 played off the sadly symbolic names of Hosea’s children in Hosea 1. Peter’s point was that God’s mercy draws and shapes us all into a community in order to bear witness to God’s marvelous light. How can we as a faith community show God’s grace and light in ways we can’t do alone? How can a sense that together we are God’s hands in the world help us better understand the meaning of “church”?
Pray – God, I often fail you, yet you call me chosen, holy, a part of a royal priesthood. Help me each day as I seek to live into the amazing titles with which you honor me. Amen.
Read – 1 Corinthians 12:4-11
Notice – The apostle Paul explained to the Corinthian Christians that God gives each Christian gifts and talents that empower us to join in the divine mission of changing the world for the better. But no one person receives all the gifts and talents needed for the job. There aren’t “good” and “bad,” or even “important” and “unimportant,” sets of abilities and gifts. God wants each believer to fill a place that makes the overall body stronger. In what ways are you already using your particular gifts and talents to bless others and bring glory to God? Have you ever seen your gifts become more effective when they work together with other people’s various gifts?
Pray – Generous God, you’ve given me a portion of your divine power. You’ve called me to use that power in carrying out your mission in the world. I offer you the gifts you’ve given me to be used for your purposes. Amen.
Read – John 4:19-29
Notice – Jesus met a person with three strikes against her in the eyes of the religious leaders of his day: a) she was a Samaritan, b) she was a woman, c) she’d had multiple husbands. To his disciples’ surprise, he treated her as valuable. The woman expected Jesus, a Jewish man, to despise and avoid her. But he spoke to her seriously, asked her help and treated her with dignity. He refused to argue about whether Jerusalem or Gerizim was the true holy mountain. He said the key was that people worship “in spirit and truth” (verse 24). What makes it necessary to honestly open your whole inner life to God’s love and grace in order to worship in spirit and truth?
Pray – God, open my heart and mind to your word. Bless me with your vision and let me enter into a state of harmony with your divine will. Amen.
Read – Luke 19:1-10
Notice – Zacchaeus was so eager to see Jesus that even as a wealthy public citizen he climbed a tree to offset his shortness. Jesus was so eager to reach Zacchaeus that he very publicly invited himself to a meal at the house of one of the town’s most despised “sinners.” Are you willing to set aside worries about your social dignity and status to “see” Jesus more fully, and to reach others with Jesus’ love? How might that spirit shape our congregation’s choices?
Pray – Jesus, you didn’t reach out to Zacchaeus grudgingly. You cared deeply about the good, generous person he’d nearly forgotten to be. Give me, and our congregation, your eye for the good possibilities in everyone. Amen.
Read – John 13:34-35, 15:9-12
Notice – The night before his crucifixion, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment that glowed with heaven’s light: “As I have loved you, so you must love each other. This is how everyone will know you are my disciples.” The command to love one another was not new, but “as I have loved you” took “love” to a whole new level. Jesus’ followers learned that they couldn’t love that way on their own, and identified love as a fruit of the Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:22). Spend time with Jesus, allowing his love to shape your view of yourself, so that by God’s grace your life of love certifies you as one of Jesus’ followers. Imagine you invite a non-religious friend to church. They ask, “Why should I go to your church?” Do you cite our big building, beautiful windows, volunteers, sermons, or music? How long would it take you to reach Jesus’ way of answering that question: “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other”?
Pray – Jesus, I love because you, my creator, first loved me. Keep reshaping my attitudes and actions to more fully reflect your eternal, faithful love. Amen.