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United Church of Christ

533 Route 28, Harwich Port, MA 02646 | Phone: 508-432-1668

Something Dies in You

Acts 5: 1-11

Something Dies in You

Sunday October 23, 2016

Rev. Dr. Susan Cartmell

Pilgrim Congregational Church


<Scripture Drama>


Today’s scripture drama depicts one of the Bible stories most of us try to avoid. Why?  Because it raises many more questions than it answers.  This story leaves you wondering. Did the people in the early church really share everything? Did those early believers actually expect the members of those churches to give all their money to the church? 

How did Peter know who had given everything and who was holding back? If someone decided to hold back on their pledge or contribution were they punished?  What was the punishment?  Did God actually reach down and strike them with a bolt of lightening? Could Peter just remove them from a committee, or send them back to a remedial membership class? Was it really that drastic? Why did they both have to die? Why did God kill Saphira along with Ananias? All she did was stand by her man.

Were they actually being punished for failing to tell the truth? What is this story supposed to mean to us all these years later? What does God expect of us in this stewardship season?  What are the stakes for our lives?

I will begin by saying that in Protestant churches like ours we don’t take the Bible literally. If we did I imagine the stewardship campaign would run pretty smoothly. If we all thought that God would strike us dead for failing to give all that we could then we could run the stewardship campaign in a couple of days.

The fact that we don’t take the Bible literally does not mean that we don’t believe there is truth in it. The Bible is full of wisdom, but the stories often bring us a message in the form of allegory. The Bible stories – especially the one we read today – has a message for us. It does not need to be literally true to have an impact. Shakespeare and Ulysses wrote stories that people don’t take literally; yet they describe some of the most profound truth about the human journey and experience. So let’s take a closer look at Ananias and Saphira to discover what the Bible is saying to us today.

In the first place the story says that life is a gift.  When Ananias went to sell his land he hoped to make some money but instead he made a lot more than he expected. The extra cash was unexpected. He did not work harder for it. He did nothing to earn it. He fell on good fortune. It was a windfall. But Ananias forgot that his bonus was a gift. The Bible reminds us here that so many of the things we have in life have just fallen into our laps. So much of what we consider to be ours are windfalls.

Many of us were born with relatively good health. That was a gift. We were born with sound minds and reasonable levels of intelligence. That was a gift. We were born into a country at a time in history when we could enjoy an unprecedented level of prosperity; that is a gift. We live in a society where modern medicine has eliminated so many of the illnesses that most of us expect to live to a good age. That is a gift. Most of us have found jobs or ways to support ourselves so that we can have predictable patterns in life and relative stability. We can also enjoy some extra bonuses from time to time in the game of life. All these are windfalls.

When you really pause to think about it most of our lives have been blest beyond the expectations of most of humanity simply by virtue of being born into this country and not into any number of other places. On top of that many of us have found relationships where we felt needed and affirmed. We have shared bonds of friendship and intimacy that were precious, mysterious and familiar all at once. We have benefited from thoughtfulness we did not expect, forgiveness we didn’t deserve, opportunities no one could earn.

It would be easy to assume that we deserved all that we’d been given. But that was the mistake that Ananias made. He got a bonus and then decided to keep it, because he forgot where it all came from. He forgot that everything comes from God. He forgot that his ability to own land in the first place was a gift. If he had been a slave or a woman or a foreigner he’d have no property. He forgot that windfall profits are always a gift. He forgot about the goof and generous hands from whence it all came.

In the second place, the story reminds us that there will be enough. We are fascinated by the early Christian churches because they held everything in common. When you joined the church you were expected to give all you had. We think about that as a stretch financially. But really the finances worked themselves out once people took the leap of faith. That was where the stretch came. Those early churches were places built on trust, radical trust. People really trusted each other and they trusted God. When you live in communities with that kind of faith and trust things work out.

But Ananias got nervous. He lost his faith. He wanted to squirrel some money away, because he got nervous. He decided to hedge his bets and that was his downfall. It is tempting to think about scarcity instead of abundance. The sad thing is that worry will undo you. When you begin to worry about whether there is enough, you want more and more.

Chinese philosopher, Lau Tzu said, “The wise man does not lay up his own treasures. The more he gives to others, them ore he has of his own. It is strangely counter-intuitive, but people who are generous often discover that they gain more than they give. Jesus says, Don’t lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where they can rust or mold. But be generous toward God and lay up treasure in heaven, so that you may enjoy the richest experiences of life. The Bible tells us that when people share the myth of scarcity is just that – a myth.

Finally this story has a metaphor that comes to us as a warning. It is intended to scare us a little. What the story says is that when we fail to be generous, something dies in us. When we lose our faith in God’s providence, and hold back, then something dries us in our souls. We laughed this morning because the story is campy and preposterous. But we laugh because it makes us nervous to think about what this story might really be saying here.

There was a little girl in my last church whose parents moved from Maine for a job. When they joined the church their daughter was in the second grade. She decided to take all of her allowance that day and give it all to the church. Her parents told her she didn’t have to do it, but she insisted and they were both proud and humbled to see her faith. What really impressed me that day was her openness and willingness to share. That impulse to live with open hands and hearts  comes from God. When we see it in a child we are reminded of the Source of it. Wise people know that and children get that. But when we hedge our bets something goes sour in us, and we shrivel up inside.

I want to end today with a story about great generosity that I found on the internet. It is about a boy named Cameron who lives in Sumter South Carolina. Cameron called the police station because he was so unhappy at home he was thinking about running away. He spoke to Officer Acero who made a visit to Cameron’s home. There he discovered a family too poor to afford furniture, a broken air mattress that Cameron tried to sleep on, and a boy at the end of hope. So the officer started to raise funds and find furniture- a bed and desk a television and WII game for Cameron and his brother. When the officer delivered the stuff a week later Cameron and his mom broke down because they could not believe the police officer had brought so many thoughtful gifts. This story has been shared all over on Facebook because we all resonate with stories of real generosity. Winston Churchill is famous for saying, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” 

Posted: Sunday October 23, 2016