Acts 4:32-35 J.B. Phillips
Among the large number who had become believers there was complete agreement of heart and soul. Not one of them claimed any of their possessions as their own but everything was common property. The apostles continued to give their witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great force, and a wonderful spirit of generosity pervaded the whole fellowship. Indeed, there was not a single person in need among them. For those who owned land or property would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and place them at the apostles’ feet. They would distribute to each one according to their need.
This is a Word of God for the people of God.
Everyone: Thanks be to God
Today is the last sermon in a series called “A Wonder-Full Life,” and this sermon is really a series of paragraphs written under the influence of “Theraflu” and “Emergen-C.” All month long we’ve been looking at clips from the 1946 classic movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and hearing wisdom from a book called Money and Meaning: Practices for a Heart-Centered Life. I realize that not everyone has been here for all four weeks, and even if we have been here, how do we change a lifetime of spending habits, and of anxiety about making, spending, saving, and sharing money in a few short weeks? I take heart in the encouragement given by Maggie Kulyk, author of Integrating Money and Meaning. She writes, “The predominant assumption today in the United States is that the country should be run like a for-profit corporation. That’s part of the reason a billionaire TV-show-host is the current president and social programs that don’t ‘make money’ are being slashed. We can’t pretend that this mind-set isn’t running roughshod over all of us here and many other parts of the world. It’s easy to believe that there’s no way to reverse such an entrenched system – a system seemingly without a heart or any interest in long-term communal health. But that is the beauty and mystery of spiritual practice. We do not have to see the whole road toward a changed system, and in fact, we never will. Our focus is on our own practice. When it comes to money, we can learn to address our history, practices, and dysfunction, and to search for meaning in our money activities and their connection to the broader world. We can learn to be more honest with ourselves about our choices and how they shape others and the planet.”
Today we will dedicate our pledged giving for the coming year – dedicate it to God for the building and revealing of God’s Kingdom here and in the world – that will allow us to plan what ministries we will support and which we won’t. That is a difficult process, kind of like choosing which of your children you like best, and it’s always laden with equal parts of hope and fear. But as Maggie Kulyk writes, “What we’re working towards is a wholistic spiritual practice; nothing can be segmented or left behind. Not even money. Adding money to our spiritual path will help us more easily inhabit the money system skillfully, even sacredly, without being undone by it. We will start to live with less need to protect our power or to live in the house of scarcity and fear. Our path is the journey to the heart – a place of joy and meaning, which is true wealth.” This sermon series has challenged me to be more mindful about how I spend money and whether or not it reflects some of what I value most: church, community, and children.
Last weekend four of us drove to Sacramento (two in the car had really bad colds but I won’t mention their names) to a conference called “Growing Young” which is about creating a congregation that welcomes, and includes, and values what young people bring to the church. I think everyone of us would say that we already do those things, but it’s more likely that we don’t really know how to. Most of us would like young people to be not like puppies who roll in mud and then jump on the couch and who aren’t housebroken and who eat plants and bedroom slippers. We’d like young people who have gone through puppy training and know when to sit and stay and to scratch at the door when they need to go out. But young people have puppy-like passion and energy and enthusiasm and we need them to be part of the church, to share the “load bearing walls,” and to inspire us with their faith. And they need us. They need our faith, and our maturity, and our experiences. When young people were brought to Jesus the disciples tried to shoo them away. But Jesus said, “Don’t push these children away. Don’t ever get between them and Me.” It’s tempting to think that enticing, attracting, and engaging young people will – to quote Whoopie Goldberg in the movie Sister Act – “to put some butts in the pews.” And it would be great to have more people in the pews, but greater still to have an intergenerational church where all people of all ages and genders and races and abilities are equally invested in building Christian community, or Koinonia, or the Kingdom of God.
“Growing Young” is a year-long experience and most of the cost of it is paid for though the tithe, the ten percent, congregations in our Conference pay to support our mutual ministries. It will also take investment from you and me, both financially and in the currency of time and energy. “Growing Young” will need all of us who are not young to reenter childhood in a manner of speaking… to be playful, inquisitive, and to be okay not having all the answers. I’ve mentioned that there are almost 50 young people attached to our congregation, from birth through college, and that we’d like to have a prayer partner for each of them. A prayer partner is simply one of us who signs up to pray for one young person. Nothing else is required: just an agreement to pray, in whatever way that is like for you, for a young person. On the back of the bulletin is a piece to tear off and put in the offering plate to sign up to be a prayer partner. I’m so grateful to be part of a congregation invested in young people, and for parents and adults who support our ministries with young people, and for the opportunity, almost every Sunday, to share my faith with some of them. Young people in our congregation are part of what makes a Wonder-Full Life.
I attended San Francisco Theological Seminary, the castles on the hill in San Anselmo, and in our library was a sign that said, “Jesus is coming, look busy.” Today as we look at a slice of early Christian life, we see another sign telling us, “Jesus is coming, live gratefully and generously.” The early Christian community anticipated Jesus’ return momentarily, and they lived in anticipation, and in community, waiting for Him to come. Time has shown communal living and sharing all resources to be an unpopular and perhaps unsustainable lifestyle, but we can see in this record of the early church that their grateful and trusting faith inspired a community where no one was left out, or feared for their wellbeing. Nurturing relationships, in spite of all that would divide us and generously sharing our resources – as the early church did – are riches of a Wonder-Full life. To see, and to trust that we are always loved and supported and that we have the opportunity to love and support others, are treasures of this Wonder-Full life. Our investment in the beloved community that is our church, and those we help beyond these walls, identifies us as Christ-followers, as Kingdom-builders, as grateful people.
In preparation for today’s sermon of “Looking with Gratitude,” I’ve been reading Diana Butler Bass’ book, Grateful: The Subversive Practice of Giving Thanks. Butler Bass is a theologian, author, and professor, whose books include Christianity After Religion and Christianity for the Rest of Us. During the Time for the Offering we’re invited to bring our offering and our pledge cards to the altar, and to take a bookmark as we return. The bookmark has a quote from the book, Grateful, as well as a quote from Zen master, Winnie the Pooh.
Butler Bass writes, “Gratefulness is not a magic fix, but it just might be the bright star leading us to a new and better place… Seeing more clearly what is at stake, we might together nurture, encourage, and practice the sort of gratefulness that can change our hearts and our communities.”
During this month of sermons on stewardship, I’ve been trying to focus on gratitude for all we have, rather than on all that we need or would like to have. Butler Bass’s book has helped me greatly. “I particularly like the image of God tossing gifts around,” she writes, “A sort of indiscriminate giver of sustenance, joy, love, and pleasure. Grace, [God’s] gifts given without being earned and with no expectation of return is, as the song says, amazing. Because you can neither earn nor pay back the gifts, your heart fills with gratitude. And the power of that emotion transforms the way you see the world and experience life. Gratitude widens our hearts toward greater goodness and love.”
Something we have in common with the early church is our dependence on each other. We depend on each other to show up, to sing, to ring bells, to sit in the pews with us, serve on ministry teams, to pray for us, to love us, to accept love from us, and to share the stories of our faith. We depend on each other to invite, welcome, and include new people to our congregation. We depend on each other to share and support our common life. Our budget for the coming year is $466,000, and while that’s not doable for anyone of us, I believe it’s doable for us together as a community.
Luke wrote in the Acts of the Apostles, “Among the large number who had become believers there was complete agreement of heart and soul. Not one of them claimed any of their possessions as their own but everything was common property.” My friends, if gratitude is a subversive act… so is generosity. At the end of the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a joyous celebration of community and generosity and George Bailey’s thankfulness is infectious. At the heart of our relationship to money is living and giving with gratitude – whether the assets we have to give are monetary, or our own capital of time and energy. Aligning our money practices with the courageous vision we see for ourselves and our congregation, and our impact on the world, let’s continue in the spiritual practice of transforming fear to gratitude in the act of sharing.
And now… A Moment of Creative Silence
This moment of silence invites us to “wonder” in awe at the abundance of our lives by noticing the “rich” beauty around us, the presence of “treasured” people, and new and unexpected “gems” that cross our paths. Let’s commit to engage our creativity to multiply good in the world!