“Encouragement and Forgiveness”

April 24, 2016


Acts 4:32-5:11

Luke 16:1-9


Today we heard stories about property and proceeds, about generosity and greed, about love and lies. This is to say, we heard stories about matters that we know about very well. As is usually the case, however, when we hear about such matters in scripture, what we know is challenged so that we might see in new ways and find new life.

I’ve been exploring some of the book of Acts on these Sundays after Easter. And this morning’s lesson was both so inspiring and so disturbing that I thought it would be good to pair it with that confusing parable of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke. As you know, the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles come from a common author and throughout both books we encounter some common concerns: the use of money, the importance of honesty, the necessity of forgiveness.

Let’s start with the Gospel—the good news—and let’s start at the end: “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly, for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the children of light.”

We know where we’d like to be in that equation—or at least we know where we’re supposed to be: the children of light.

It’s the “children of this age,” as Jesus called them—that is, everyday people in the world—who seem to know the score, however. They’re people who look out for Number One, who know the angles and how to work the system. They’re people, like the manager in the parable, who are in respectable positions and know how to use those positions to their own advantage. They are also the people who take “shortcuts”: the student who buys term papers online instead of putting in the hours of research and thought and writing or the person billing the government for work never done.

It seems that if Jesus doesn’t exactly approve of how the children of this age act, he at least suggests that we can learn from them.

I don’t know. Maybe a dishonest manager can be a role model for us because—in some way—well, that’s each of us.

In one of his books on the lives of children, Robert Coles wrote about an eight-year-old boy who was trying to do a good job in school. This child concisely assessed the human situation when he said: “We all behave sometimes, but sometimes we don’t. When we don’t, it is too bad.”

We want to be children of light—but Jesus reminds even his followers that we have much in common with the children of this age. We all behave sometimes, but sometimes we don’t. We might want to look at and follow the example of this manager, Jesus is saying, because in some ways, we’re just like him.

And sooner or later—along with the dishonest manager and everyone else—each of us gets caught.

Which brings us to that chilling account of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts.

Remember the result of their actions? “And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.” Maybe you felt that way as the lesson was being read.

Was this the first time you’d heard this story? It’s certainly one that doesn’t get read too often in worship.  In over thirty years of ordained ministry, I’ve only read and preached from this passage one other time. When the Revised Common Lectionary was developed twenty-five years ago, the committee putting it together included the inspiring story of generous Barnabas and of the early church being of one heart and soul. But they left out the chilling sequel about Ananias and Sapphira. 

And can you blame them? It’s a troubling story, lacking any sense of the redemption that we desire, even expect. It is a story that led one commentator to say: “We hope that they were only legendary.”  And we also worry what might happen if a stewardship committee got their hands on this text?

So it takes someone who is either very brave or very foolish—or maybe both—to choose this text for a pleasant spring morning.

What’s going on here?

The novelist and minister Frederick Buechner says: “It wasn’t because Ananias held back from the poor box some of the proceeds of his real estate deal that Peter came down on him so hard. The poor would get by somehow. They always had. What got old Peter’s goat was that Ananias let on that he was handing over his whole pile instead of only as much as he thought he wouldn’t be needing himself. ‘You did not lie to us, but to God.’

Money is not the problem. Possessions are not the problem. As Peter reminds the soon-to-be-late Ananias about his land: ‘While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal?’”

It’s not about the money, really. It’s the lies that threaten relationships and the life of the congregation. As one person put it: “There’s something quite natural about the lies of Ananias and Sapphira, for we all know the way we rationalize and excuse our own covetousness, acquisitiveness, and greed.”

What are the lies we tell because of money?

“I'm not really that well off.”

“I have all I can do just to make ends meet.”

“I worked hard for this and deserve it.”

Sometimes statements like these are best called into question, not by a minister, but by a member of the congregation. Still,  I was startled while serving another congregation when a member stood up on a Sunday morning and asked those assembled: “If you increased your giving last fall, are you really financially worse off than you were before? Did you not have anything or not do anything that you would have done if you had not increased your giving?”

It was a call to honesty. We are called to be generous givers, yes—but also honest givers.

But again, it’s not about the money. Let me be clear so that you can relax and listen: This sermon is not an appeal for more money. The Trustees met last week and learned—as they do a most of their meetings—that because of your generosity and your honesty, we are in very good financial shape. Along with the Trustees, I thank you for that.

This is not an appeal for more money. This story reminds us that there’s something more at stake here than how much we’re giving each week.

The concern is about how we are living each day.

The Christian tradition speaks of the “last judgment”—a time of reckoning after death. We know from experience, however, that there are plenty of intermediate judgments in life as well.

If you take it easy at school and do as little work as possible, when the test comes there’s a good chance that you will fail.

If you do shoddy work, when the storm comes there’s a good chance of destruction.

If you lie to protect yourself, the truth will come out at the most inopportune time.

The newspapers and our own lives are filled with such occasions.

Waste the gifts that are yours.

Sidestep opportunities to love your neighbor as yourself.

Misuse those things entrusted to your care.

Your story will eventually sound like the ones that we heard this morning. There is some health in a religious sense that our lives are called into account. Life is not without meaning. What we do matters.

It matters how we use our time.

It matters how we use our gifts.

It matters how we use our money.

A voice asks: “What is this I hear about you?” It might be our own conscience that raises the question. It might be the very voice of God.

In faith we affirm that the source of all that we have is God, who created us and gave us life. For a limited number of years, we have the responsibility for various gifts—our time, our financial resources, our abilities. We are called to make wise and honest use of all that we have.

And often enough we need support in making such choices.

So it is good and encouraging to hear that story of a certain Joseph selling one of his fields and bringing the money to the apostles. They in turn distribute the proceeds among the members of the community so that there will be no need among them.

The apostles start to call this generous Joseph by the name “Barnabas,” which means “son of encouragement.” Perhaps he was one spurred on by the giving of others who sold their homes, their land.

There’s something about the generosity of others that calls out our own generous impulses. Through this memory from the early church, we are invited to be open handed people—receiving with one hand and giving with the other.

In caring for one another we create in our common life a picture of the sort of world God intends for all people. Our life together then becomes our vision for ministry and mission in the wider community and around the world.

In this way we begin to take God’s love far beyond our church to people most of us will never know. When a congregation is at its best—when we are at our best—the words of the Psalmist describe the experience: “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when the community lives together in unity!...For there the Lord has ordained the blessing: life forevermore.”

Yes, the Book of Acts gives us an idealized picture of the church. These are Easter stories. The events occur in the context of “great grace” being poured out upon the whole community as they testify to the resurrection. If the church did have such unity in those early post-resurrection days, differences, disagreement, and dissention all arose soon enough. And congregations have had to deal with such stresses ever since.

And here, I think, is a key to understanding and using all that we’ve heard this morning. We are a community.

And in this community, we tell not only the good stories but also the troubling ones—especially the troubling ones.

In this community we tell not only the stories that are easy but also the difficult ones—especially the difficult ones.

And what do we hear?

The gospel message is “Keep going. There’s still a chance to try again.” When your back is against the wall, there is still the hope that with resources God provides you will find a way through.

This is the good news—and it’s nothing that you haven’t heard before, but we need to be reminded about it again and again. We keep coming to this place week after week to hear it. This is the good news: grace abounds and we can begin again. We need to hear this week after week because it’s so hard to hold onto such a strange and healing message.

Take encouragement where you find it.

Certainly from the generosity of Barnabas—and others today.

Remember the manager who was commended for his shrewdness. In a difficult situation he made wise use of what he had.

And even poor Ananias and Sapphira remind us that what we do matters.

Keep going. We are all given the surprising chance to try again.

All along we struggle with what one person called the “problem of good.” Astonishing as it seems, good keeps happening. Hope and grace are given, letting us pick up and carry on.

It wouldn’t have to be this way. But since it is, why not rejoice in the wonderful new opportunities we are given each day?

This at least is where I’m at in trying to understand these strange and troubling stories. And I know that there are holes in my understanding and my explanation that are large enough to drive a Mac Truck through.

And so it is—you know this—so it is with most of scripture. When we think we understand it, there’s a good chance that we’re missing something. And yet we keep listening because they are the words of life.

Life in Christ isn’t always straightforward. We follow. But we understand only in part. We keep trying to be good people; we all behave sometimes—and I will keep encouraging you to be your best. When that fails, with the resources of forgiveness and grace entrusted to us, let us keep moving ahead. In generosity and in honesty let us continue with the work to which the risen Christ calls us.