Sermon: Say “Ah!”
Text: Acts 4:32-35
Date: November 24, 2019
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
The Acts passage we just heard paints such a beautiful picture of the early church in Jerusalem, doesn’t it? “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…and great grace was upon them all.” [Acts 4:32 NRSV] The text continues after what we heard this morning by telling a short story of generosity in which one of the members of the community sold a field he owned and brought the proceeds to the apostles for the community. The man’s name was Joseph, but the apostles gave him a new name, Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement.” His act of generosity surely encouraged the Jerusalem church.
The EHCC Mission Council met Thursday evening. We’re still celebrating the great generosity of the church in supporting our Rain and Shine Capital Campaign so splendidly—there are so many “sons and daughters of encouragement” among us! And since it seems like we’re on a roll, the Council has decided that we should become an “Acts 4:32 Congregation.” That is, we want to try giving up our private ownership of land and possessions, and begin holding everything in common so that there will not be any needy people among us, and so that we can enjoy the great, abundant grace that the early Jerusalem church enjoyed.
Just kidding. Did I scare you? Were any of you surreptitiously locating the nearest exit? Don’t be alarmed; your Mission Council is not given to sudden radical moves. With regard to the Jerusalem church, there are differences of opinion in the scholarly community about whether these few verses in Acts represent reality, or whether they are a nostalgic look back through rose-colored glasses, or a kind of Garden of Eden myth that reminded people of an ideal that might never have existed in real time. I have leaned toward the mythic interpretation based on various commentaries, but I did go to my go-to scholar John Dominic Crossan to see what he thought. He quotes another scholar who argues for the basic historicity of the Acts account. The description might be somewhat idealized, but it’s very likely, based on the way Jesus carried out his egalitarian ministry, that the Christ community “made a serious attempt to establish what we could call share-community to which one gave, at maximum, all one had, or at minimum, all one could.” Such a share-community would be a radical criticism of commercialized community; communal sharing is an act of resistance.
What I love about the portrait of the early Jerusalem church as a radical share-community out of step with the commercialized, stratified society of haves and have-nots is the suggestion that there was, for a time at least, a little pocket of grace-inebriated people who believed that there was enough for everyone. There was enough. The enough-ness was manifested in sharing. “And a great grace was upon them all.” It’s lovely, and stirring.
I mentioned last week how much I have gotten out of a book Mary Brown loaned to me a few weeks ago, The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist. Early in the book Lynne critiques what she calls the Great Lie: Scarcity. The epigraph on her chapter on the great lie of scarcity is a quote by Paul Zaither: “There is a natural law of abundance which pervades the entire universe, but it will not flow through a doorway of belief in lack and limitation.” Lynne goes on to talk about how much our world swims in conversations about what there isn’t enough of. She notices in herself that often her very first thought of the day is about scarcity, not-enoughness: “I didn’t get enough sleep.” Next up: “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, she points out, that thought of “not enough” occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. “We spend most of the hours of lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of…:” time, rest, exercise, work, profits, power, wilderness, weekends…And of course we don’t have enough money. We’re not thin enough, we’re not smart enough, we’re not pretty enough or fit enough or educated or successful enough, or rich enough—ever! Before we even get out of bed in this world-wide scarcity culture we’re already inadequate and behind. By the end of the day we’re often reviewing what we didn’t get done that day. A constant reverie of lack; Lynne calls the mantra of “not enough” a kind of default setting for our thinking about everything.
Lynne Twist’s pointing that default scarcity mind-set out hit a nerve. I think she’s right. She goes on to spell out two other toxic myths of scarcity besides (#1 “There’s Not Enough.”) #2 is “More is Better.” More of anything is better than what we have. #3 is “That’s Just the Way It Is.” Essentially, #3 says that it’s a hopeless, helpless, unfair world where you can never get out of this trap. “That’s Just the Way It Is” keeps everyone in a trance, resigned to scarcity, declaring ourselves helpless over global inequities. These three toxic myths keep competitive economies humming—but they also limit human potential and possibility. Listen again to what Paul Zaither observed: “There is a natural law of abundance which pervades the entire universe, but it will not flow through a doorway of belief in lack and limitation.”
Lynne goes on to speak about how much she was influenced by Buckminster Fuller, whom she encountered and heard in such a way that it became a turning point in her life. Fuller, a renowned designer and futurist, spoke about the common belief that there’s not enough to go around, that we have to fight to garner scarce resources for ourselves. That may have been a valid perception at some point in history, he said, but it was no longer true. There’s enough for everyone to meet or even surpass their needs to live a reasonably healthy, productive life. We could be poised for a significant evolution in thought: we could move from a you-or-me world—a world where either you or me make it—to a you-and-me world—where all of us have enough water, enough land, enough food, enough housing, enough of all the fundamental things we need to live a fulfilling and productive life. Buckminster Fuller was saying these things in the 1970’s, predicting that it would take fifty years for the world to make a paradigm shift and for the money systems to adjust to reflect that new understanding of reality. He was hopeful that seeing the Earth photographed from space—seeing it for the first time in that iconic 1969 photo in its beauty, completeness, integrity and wholeness—might be the beginning of a new global consciousness.
Here we are, fifty years later, and it seems apparent that we’re still, broadly speaking, in the “you-or-me” paradigm; we haven’t (yet) shifted, as a global family, to the “you-and-me” paradigm. Some days it seems like we’re more dug in than ever to the scarcity-obsessed you-or-me way of thinking. On the other hand, there has been some new understanding about how we humans are part of the web of life, not somehow hovering above it, and some new understanding that having eternal economic growth based on exploitation of earth’s resources and downtrodden people is a destructive fairy tale. We’re beginning to understand—at least in some quarters—the limits of greed for growth, and the beauty of sufficiency.
My Grandma loved quoting a friend of hers when she was offered seconds after an ample meal. She would say (putting on a bit of an air) “I have had an elegant sufficiency. Anything more would be superfluous.” I remembered again how much she enjoyed saying that while I was reading The Soul of Money because of the way Lynne Twist writes about discovering the surprising truth of sufficiency when we let go of the mind-set of scarcity and reclaim the power of what is there. She speaks of the idea of sufficiency not as a set amount of anything but “an experience, a context we generate, a declaration that there is enough, and that we are enough.” Sufficiency applies to our use of money when we use it in a way that expresses value rather than determining value.
That’s what the radical share-community was doing in the Jerusalem church, for whatever time that community bucked the society’s you-or-me trend and lived out a you-and-me experiment. They were using the property and money they had accumulated to express their values rather than letting the surrounding culture dictate how they should value one another based on the economic hand they had each been dealt. They tried out a community of elegant sufficiency. And “great grace was upon them all.” I believe it—I believe they really enjoyed the great grace of having no needy person among them, for however long it lasted. It must have been like the joyful ending of “It’s a Wonderful Life” multiplied many times over—the richest church in town!
That state of thoroughly communal grace did not become the ruling ethic of all Christian communities from that time forward, though it has been tried in a variety of Christian communities here and there since. However, the partial sharing of resources did become a practice of Christian communities on a more limited basis, as evidenced by the regular practice of having an offering, and inviting people to pledge substantial financial support, as we are today. Offering money is a practical necessity for churches like ours that own property and pay staff to work here and support the cost of mission. More importantly, it is a spiritual practice that helps us stay grounded in the mindset of gratitude, sufficiency, and you-and-me-ness. It is still an act of resistance in a greed-possessed culture to give generously to a covenantal you-and-me-and-God-makes-three community.
Of course God is in the mix, even though it’s not within our power to give anything but praise directly to God. Giving is, in its purest form, an act that proceeds out of gratitude for a generous Creator and a beautiful creation. I stumbled on a little poem written by theologian Dorothee Solle that speaks to a range of responses that are available to us as we gaze upon the God-given world. It’s titled “Five Responses on Seeing a Flower”:
· Oh, beautiful—I want it, but I will let it be!
· Oh, beautiful—I want it, I will take it!
· Oh, beautiful—I can sell it!
Without taking it literally, I certainly recognize myself in every one of these simplified responses to creation’s gifts on various occasions. Perhaps you can, too. That’s just who we are and where we’re at as humans. Like Clarence Odbody in “It’s a Wonderful Life” we’re second class angels who haven’t got our wings yet. But please don’t hear in that recognition the third of the toxic myths of scarcity, “That’s just the way it is.” I see in Solle’s little poem a step ladder we might climb through intention and practice toward attitudes more firmly grounded in gratitude and sufficiency. The deadest response to a thing of beauty is “So?” The response with the liveliest potential for grace and joy is “Ah!” Do you feel that? The grace of “Ah!”—closely akin to (A-W-E) Awe. It’s a great grace that frees us from wanting, wanting, wanting, a grace that tastes of an elegant sufficiency. Paul reports one answer to prayer in 2 Corinthians as he struggled with his own weakness–God’s voice telling him, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Grace is sufficient, and sufficiency is a rich kind of grace.
Today I invite you again to say “Ah!” Bring into your mind one of the most beautiful things you have seen or experienced and say/pray “Ah!” I really like poet Maya Angelou’s line “Let gratitude be the pillow on which you kneel to say your nightly prayer.” To that I add, “Let gratitude be the ink with which you sign a pledge card”—gratitude for a magnanimous God whose grace is sufficient, and gratitude for a God-loving, Christ-centered, Spirit-led you-and-me faith community. You know how a pediatrician says to the child whose throat she wants to examine, “Open wide and say Ah”? Beloved, open your hearts wide this day and say “Ah!” It really is a wonder-full life. God is good. Life is beautiful, you are beautiful, in our gathering together we are beautiful, and it is enough.
 Crossan, John Dominic The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998, p. 472
 Zither, Paul, quoted in Twist, Lynne The Soul of Money: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Life New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003, p. 43
 Ibid. p. 74
 Solle, Dorothee Christianity and Crisis, June 7, 1976 (Vol. 36, #10)