United Church of Christ

Living in Abundance

Sunday, May 3, 2020
Fourth Sunday of Easter Year A

Focus Theme:
Living in Abundance

Focus Prayer:
Shepherd of all, by laying down your life for your flock you reveal your love for all. Lead us from the place of death to the place of abundant life, that guided by your care for us, we may rightly offer our lives in love for you and our neighbors. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Acts 2:42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

All readings for the week:
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

Focus Questions:

1. What unexpected lessons are we learning during this pandemic?

2. How might we cast off the title "consumer" after the lessons of this time of economic hardship?

3. How does this reading sound to our 21st century, capitalist, private-property ears?

4. Would a close reading of the text and a challenge to live in the same way as our ancestors in faith be simply "too much" for us?

5. How might we imagine our lives re-shaped and re-directed, even significantly, so that we might experience "glad and generous hearts"?

Reflection:
by Kate Matthews

Toward the end of the first century of this common era, what we usually call the first century "A.D.," the author of the Gospel of Luke wrote the book of the Acts of the Apostles. It is the second half, or Book Two, of his proclamation of the remarkable "things that had happened"--the good news of God's saving acts in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the continuation of Jesus' ministry through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the life of the early church.

We see this connection in the very first verse of the very first chapter of Acts, which says: "In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven..." and then Luke recounts the events that followed: the apostles getting themselves together and setting out on their mission to preach the good news that they had encountered in the person of Jesus Christ.

The "adventures" of the apostles

The Book of Acts tells us about Peter's early preaching, Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit (just as Jesus had promised), the conversion of thousands of people, healings and wonders, more preaching, meetings with the religious authorities, persecutions, the first deacons, more preaching, the stoning of Stephen, the conversion of Paul and his subsequent preaching, the growth of the church throughout the Mediterranean, more meetings and more preaching, escapes from prison, Paul's travels and adventures at sea, the council at Jerusalem, controversies, riots, trials, journeys, and, of course, more preaching.

This very brief description of the Book of Acts does not do it justice, so it would be helpful to sit down one quiet afternoon and read it from beginning to end. In between those stories and sermons are linking passages very much like this week's text, little summaries that come up from time to time along the way, and sound very much the same: in the midst of all these deeds--better, in the midst of the Holy Spirit working through the apostles--the church flourished, counting more and more people as members, people who prayed together, shared their possessions, broke bread together, and devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles.

The church then, the church today

The commentators do not agree about this passage from Acts and whether its description of the early Christian community is idealized or not. But does that matter? Long ago, in a far-off land, our ancestors in faith did the same things we do today: they bore witness by doing the things that followers of Jesus are called to do. These marks identify us as distinctively Christian communities: devoting ourselves to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.

It would not be difficult to draw parallels between that first-century church and the church of the twenty-first century, to pull out our monthly church newsletters and find, here and there, the activities and programs by which we too strive to devote ourselves to study, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. This is how most of us have traditionally experienced church: through various gatherings of people, in person, engaged together in these pursuits.

This Bible study or adult education class or confirmation class or church school curriculum, that coffee hour or women's gathering or youth group outing or film series, this weekly communion service or that opening prayer, this Sunday morning service of worship, this Taizé service, this prayer at the side of one who is dying...these are the embodiments and expressions of our own, perhaps idealized but definitely shared life in faith. That is, until now, until the dramatic interruption, the sudden stilling of our life together, in community.

How are we a people when we cannot gather?

At the center of the present global pandemic, of course, is the suffering of those who are most severely ill, of those who are dying (separated from the comfort of their families) and of those who care for them (often without adequate protection, rest, compensation or support--all pressing justice issues).

And then there are those who are grievously affected by the economic toll: those who have lost their income, their security, their childcare; those who are suffering from other illnesses, including mental illness exacerbated by loneliness and anxiety; those who cannot even hold funerals for their loved ones, let alone be with them at the end; in one way or another, we are sharing in an extraordinarily painful and challenging experience.

One of the concentric circles around that core of suffering is the harm done to our ability to gather, to be together, literally, to congregate as one would expect congregations to do. The need to quarantine and self-isolate and social-distance (a new verb?) by life-saving necessity over-rides our desire to come together, even though we are social beings by nature.

The ties that bind, even when we are apart

Our faith life expresses and embodies that deeply human need and aspiration, but these times call for flexibility, creativity and commitment from church leaders, pastors and lay leaders alike, including the people who are not (at this moment) in the pews but are still, in very real ways, a people, a church, a "gathered community" that simply has to find new, alternative ways to experience "the ties that bind" us as one.

Rather than insisting on gathering in person and endangering those who are most vulnerable in our society (isn't protecting the vulnerable at the core of the gospel?), pastors and church leaders (with particular contributions by technically gifted members) are indeed finding ways even in the midst of the pandemic to "devote themselves to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, to the breaking of prayer, and to prayer."

Those who are in need are receiving funds, food, assistance, compassion. During online worship, we experience the words "they broke bread at home" in a new light, as we each bring our own bread and juice and place it next to our laptop and wait for that moment when all of us on-screen share in the meal together.

The feeling of community from a distance

Granted, there are too many people who are not able, for myriad reasons, to share in that meal right now, including a lack of access to laptops, WiFi, etc. There are poignant images of residents in nursing homes with their hands on the glass of windows, and their families touching the glass on the other side; the question, "When will I hug my grandchildren again?" is never far from the minds of many of us.

So, for some of us, communion may have to be experienced in other ways, like meals delivered by caring neighbors, food banks distributing much needed supplies, or volunteers providing children the food they're missing because there's no school. Those are very real ways to experience "church" under these trying circumstances.

Reports from our churches

One of my two best friends, Mark Suriano, is the pastor of First Congregational UCC in Park Ridge, New Jersey, in an area that has a high number of Covid-19 cases and, sadly, many deaths. Each morning, he posts a reflection on his Facebook page that reaches out not only to his congregation but to the world beyond, and many of us listen faithfully for the spiritual nourishment it provides, day by day by day.

Mark's words are an antidote to the fearful, angry protests that loom too large in our news coverage, as he lifts up "the best of ourselves," those reliable, giving parts of ourselves that, for example, remember those who live in care facilities and are especially vulnerable to this illness. Yes, with great care he remembers those who have died, but he also urges his congregation to dig deep and find that "best" in themselves, for the sake of the living, for "when we are caught up in the truth and we are caught up in compassion not to hide from the suffering" we will "create space and openness in our hearts and lives" for people around us (maybe not so nearby, but still, there).

Poetry from a locked closet

He recalls the inspiring example of Saint John of the Cross, who was locked away by his brothers in a tiny closet with no light for a year--can we imagine that?--and what did he do? He wrote beautiful poetry that we enjoy today. Mark speaks, then, of "the flowering of one's own humanity," and "an expansion of holding all things in loving gaze," remembering as people of faith that we trust that "God holds all of this in compassion," that "we ourselves can find our hearts expanding to begin to hold the world if not literally at least figuratively and graciously in love and to pray for and work for the best within us because in the end compassion is the hallmark of every person of faith..."

To me, this sounds like church, like community, like a people called by God to be a sign of God's love and compassion and faithfulness no matter what we are experiencing around us. An illustration: On his way to his church office today, he stopped by the food pantry. Rather than constricting into anxious hoarding, the people are coming together and sharing: with many more contributions, volunteers are able to help twice as many people as normal, a sign that we know what needs to be done--we might say, we know what it means to be the church, like those early Christians, sharing God's abundance generously.

An abundance of sharing

Mark isn't alone, of course. My other best friend, Laurie Hafner, is a pastor in Florida, and she posts a daily meditation that consoles and inspires and provides the kind of pastoral care especially needed right now. Another friend in an online gathering expresses joy and amazement that her church's giving has actually gone up, as the people remember that the work and ministry of the church not only goes on but is especially needed right now, even if it's done in different ways.

Still another pastor in Pennsylvania takes his Facebook friends on a walk to ring the church bells on Easter morning: there may not be a gathered community in the sanctuary, but the whole town hears the proclamation that "Christ is risen!" And there is joy in his face as the bell resounds. "Are you in the area?" he asks. "You are hearing our bells among all the rest, telling the good news."

A different kind of wonder

Luke's text tells of those "ordinary activities" of being church--the worship, teaching and learning, the fellowship, communion and prayer--but it also speaks of something deeper, underneath it all. And that something deeper is underneath the different life of the church just as much today: awe. We might not think of it that way, but our challenge is to turn our attention, our focus, so that we might stop in the midst of everything that is coming at us (including bad news and scary predictions), and take notice of the wonders and signs before us.

Every church, in its own way, experiences wonders both large and small that merit our time and attention. But so often, in times both ordinary and extraordinary, the many activities of our life as a congregation get added to our busy calendars as more and more stress, rather than as something different, something qualitatively different from "ordinary daily activities": ministries. Do they feed us, or do they drain us? These early Christians, clearly, were fed by the things they did and the way they lived.

Time for sustenance and rest

More than one observer has asked whether this time of "enclosure," as I call it, might be experienced by many of us as a time to stop, take stock, and begin afresh (one day, we hope in the not too distant future) in our shared life so that those "things" we are about actually nourish rather than consume us. Years ago, our church "took a nap" in January, which is easy to do in cold and snowy Cleveland; the only things on our schedule were gatherings for prayer, learning and worship, but no regular meetings were held.

In the same way, many people are taking this time to consider ways we might make major changes, not small ones, in the way we live, both individually and communally. When we see that the air over New York and China is clearer, the waters in Italy are cleaner, the animals are ambling through formerly congested areas...don't we feel a pang of both guilt and longing for the world to be more at rest, for the earth to be less taxed, by the way we humans live? If we followed the example of our ancestors in faith, sharing more and using less, significantly so, how might this terrible time yield unexpected wisdom and blessing?

Lives will be changed

Our reading from Acts is short and yet, if we pay close attention, if we sit with it for a while, and if we're brave enough to share it with others, we may find that many of us "good Christians" would feel uncomfortable with what it's implying. (How ironic that this discomfiting text is read on Good Shepherd Sunday, when we hear the beloved and most comforting Psalm 23.)

Do you think we even begin to share our possessions with those around us so that everyone has enough? And is such sharing seen as justice-based, rooted in the gospel, not simply as something that warms our hearts?

Life "beyond" church?

Indeed, there are implications for the life we share beyond the walls of the church building, for our hope is that lives are affected by our ministries, changed in ways that may be almost imperceptibly small and yet quite powerful. Maybe, for some, transformation is sudden and dramatic and even long-lasting, but for others, it's incremental, born of everyday faithfulness and grace.

And yet, the experience of church, of being church in whatever way is possible right now, right here, can resound through our lives, after we return to the wider community, if we are filled with the Spirit and sent to share God's love and forgiveness with a world in need of both.

How does this sound to modern ears?

It isn't just individual lives that need to be transformed, we hear in this text, but the life of the community, the way we share the goods that God has given us all (because we are all God's children!). How does this reading sound to our 21st-century, capitalist, private-property ears, especially in a nation that (however correctly or incorrectly) claims to be Christian?

Perhaps the better question is how well the Christian majority has contributed to shaping a nation that shares God's abundance with "glad and generous hearts." It seems that our shared fears and vulnerability during this pandemic has in fact softened the hearts of many toward those in need. Maybe, just maybe, we will remember these lessons and keep our hearts and minds open to generosity and justice and the joy that they bring.

Frustration and thoughtfulness

The lessons we learn in church, in sermons and Bible study and the life we share, can be a lens, a filter through which we experience the news that comes at us 24/7 from multiple sources, about the accumulation of property to excess, the movement of wealth upward in disproportionate and disgraceful ways that have profoundly threatened the middle class and endangered the poor. We feel frustrated when attempts by many in government to help those most affected by the pandemic are thwarted or unfairly redirected toward those who need that help less.

I always hear the voice of one church leader who said that we should ask, before each decision, "How will this affect the poor?" What would it look like, as we consider our shared national resources, if our leaders asked that question, and then re-shaped policies to protect those most in need, those most vulnerable to the actions of the wealthy and the powerful?

This includes not only "the poor," but our children, for example, and people with disabilities, veterans, and people who are older. It includes health care workers who are working in ICUs without enough personal protective equipment. It also includes God's beautiful creation and the animals and plants that inhabit it and have no voice in its mis-use and destruction.

Is there some way out?

What is your sense of how your own church would respond to a close reading of this text? We're probably tempted to side with those scholars who call this an idealized description of the life of those earliest Christians, a way of living that even they weren't really able to achieve. That certainly makes it easier to let ourselves off the hook.

And even if they were somehow able to live that way, we of course live in a very different world, with different economic systems, larger populations, different problems and challenges, and so on, and so on. Would a close reading of the text and a challenge to live in the same way as our ancestors in faith be simply "too much" for us?

Of course, today we also have different methods of sharing that those early believers didn't enjoy. I'm thinking of the multitude of charities around us, with more popping up on the Internet each day. Rather than sharing only within one faith community and perhaps with those "at our door," we can respond with generous (and sometimes broken) hearts to the needs of refugees far away, to those who are hungry around the world, and even farther away, to generations we will never see but who will be affected by our actions and decisions concerning the care of the earth.

Remaining true to the ideal

In a very different time and place, where the right to private property is actually called "sacred," the challenge is to imagine how we can remain true to the heart of this ideal. Indeed, it will require the power of the Spirit to transform the way we live together, to make us more and more generous and less and less focused on our own security. Courage will be required of us, and creativity and a lively religious imagination just as much as a passionate commitment to justice.

Of course, the sharing of our possessions, including the generous support of God's mission through the church, isn't limited to the church: we can hold up the ideal of this passage from Scripture each time we vote or consider school levies, poverty programs, and issues of economic justice. Our lives reach and impact others, even beyond our sight, in ways never imagined when this account was written down.

Are our hearts glad and generous today?

Just as awe seems to be in short supply (no matter how much we over-use the word "awesome" in conversation), so are "glad and generous hearts" rare in our time. The rise in the number of people diagnosed with anxiety and depression, for example, and the number of medications brought onto the market to treat it, are puzzling in a time when the standard of living, and the possibilities for "happiness" (depending on how you define it) are so much higher than ancient times.

What has our society done or become that presses down our hearts and minds even in the midst of incredible affluence, for depression does not care about income or class? How might we imagine our lives re-shaped and re-directed, even significantly, so that we might experience "glad and generous hearts"?

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Mother Teresa, 20th century
"If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other."

Ruth Reichl, 21st century
"Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious."

Brian Tracy, 21st century"

Love only grows by sharing. You can only have more for yourself by giving it away to others."
John Wesley, 18th century
"Do you not know that God entrusted you with that money (all above what buys necessities for your families) to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the stranger, the widow, the fatherless; and, indeed, as far as it will go, to relieve the wants of all mankind? How can you, how dare you, defraud the Lord, by applying it to any other purpose?"

Pythagoras, 6th century B.C.E.
"Friends share all things."

Tom Stoppard, playwright, 20th century
"To me, the trick in life is to take that sense of generosity between kin, make it apply to the extended family and to your neighbor, your village and beyond."

John Philip Newell, 21st century
"[W]e need to find ways of sharing our intimate experiences of the Mystery, for we are one. It is through one another that we will know more of the Life that flows within us all. It is through sharing our fragments of insight that we will come to a fuller picture of the One who is at the heart of each life."

Wendell Berry, 20th century
"The freedom of affluence opposes and contradicts the freedom of community life."

Stanley Hauerwas, 20th century
"Saints cannot exist without a community, as they require, like all of us, nurturance by a people who, while often unfaithful, preserve the habits necessary to learn the story of God."

William Shakespeare, 17th century, "King Lear"
"...and we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies,...
And take upon 's the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies..."

Sr Joan Chittister, 21st century
"In community we work out our connectedness to God, to one another, and to ourselves. It is in community where we find out who we really are. It is life with another that shows my impatience and life with another that demonstrates my possessiveness and life with another that gives notice to my nagging devotion to the self. Life with someone else, in other words, doesn’t show me nearly as much about his or her shortcomings as it does about my own…. In human relationships I learn that theory is no substitute for love. It is easy to talk about the love of God; it is another thing to practice it."

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 20th century
"If you want to build a ship, don't herd people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
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