“Encouragement and Forgiveness”
April 24, 2016
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
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
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
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.’
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
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.”
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.”
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
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.
not an appeal for more money. This story reminds us that there’s something more
at stake here than how much we’re giving
concern is about how we are living
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
If you lie to protect yourself, the truth will come out at the most
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.
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.
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.