May 3, 2020/Fourth Sunday of Easter

Gathering Words

It is important for us to remember that Easter is not just one day, but rather a season.  The church has traditionally celebrated Easter as a fifty-day season, even going so far as referring to it as The Great Fifty Days, beginning on Easter Eve and culminating on the Day of Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit and the sending forth of the apostles into the world. 

During the Easter season, we typically encounter the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.  In the upper room behind locked doors, along the lonely Emmaus road, on the beach beside the Sea of Tiberias, Jesus comes to reveal himself risen indeed to the fearful disciples.  The power of God is active in the world, overcoming anxiety and the grief, breathing new life into those who would be the carriers of the Good News to the four corners of the globe.  It is through God’s transforming Spirit that locked doors are opened.  Fear is replaced by courage.  Doubt is supplanted by faith.  The breath of peace is offered and shared.  New understandings are birthed, bread is broken, and hearts are warmed.

It is this same Spirit that comes to us and empowers the ways we live out our faith.

In a world of racism and xenophobia and fear of immigrants, the Spirit speaks to people of every nation under heaven.

In a world of fear, doubt, and confusion, the Spirit inspires people to open the doors and speak out, especially about issues of justice and peace.

In a world of selfishness, competition, and control, the Spirit gives out gifts that are shared for the benefit of all, especially those who are poor or in need.

In a world filled with war, violence and terrorism, the Spirit proclaims a message of peace and reconciliation to all.

In a world of plenty, the Spirit reminds us that the things of the world are meant to be shared by all and are to be used for the common good.

In a world where the environment is abused and overused, the Spirit calls to reform how we live and to use the earth with care, respect, and love.

In a world of ideology and prejudice, the Spirit calls us to think about things in a new way.

Opening Prayer

Mysterious God, you reveal yourself in Jesus, your Beloved Child, who gives us a glimpse your glory, and who invites us to share in the unity of all that is Holy: the holiness that is you, your creation, your people, united in the Spirit that breaks through all boundaries of fear and injustice.

Meet us wherever we are gathering from this day and teach us to be one-one in love for each one another; one in understanding with all who find in Jesus the way to you; and one in peace with all the world.

We ask all this in the name of Jesus, whose fervent prayer was ever: “May they all be one.”  Amen.

Scripture Lesson/Acts 2:42-47 (NRSV)

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.  44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  46Day 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, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.  And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Message/The Greatest Miracle

As a kid, Sunday school often featured vanilla wafers and Kool-Aid.  I can remember scenes of an acrobatic Jesus who would flip and fly and refuse to participate in felt board presentations.  But I also remember those wonderful watercolor drawings that would tell a story.  There would be pharaoh up to his neck in frogs.  There was that pillar of fire reflecting light on the faces of those former slaves fleeing Egypt.  I can remember the dust and demolition of Jericho’s walls tumbling and crumbling down!

Such scenes put into my childhood mind a question, perhaps one of my first ever theological questions.  What miracle in the Bible was the most difficult for God to do?  Surely miracles must come with degrees of difficulty.  Like many tasks, some are easier for us to do than others.  For example, it’s easier to vacuum the living room than it is to mow the yard.  Again, in my limited, juvenile world of cause-and-effect, entertaining such thoughts seemed pretty rational.

I began to wonder about whether it was it harder for God to tear down the walls of Jericho or to split the Red Sea.  Certainly, the Red Sea would take more concentration and muscle, don’t you think?  But, then, is it harder to split the Red Sea or to walk on water?  I’m still guessing that God must have had God’s hands full with the Red Sea.  But dividing the Red Sea had to be a whole lot easier than creating the heavens and the earth as we read in Genesis chapter one.  What was the most challenging miracle of them all?

Now, as an adult and after seminary and almost twenty-three years in ministry in the church, I think I have discovered the answer to one of my earliest questions about God.  The most difficult miracle that ever took place in scripture can be found…drum roll please…Acts chapter 2!  “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.”

That’s got to be it!  Don’t you think God would have an easier time of making the walls tumble down or walking on water than getting any human being to sell their “possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need”?  Don’t you think that if God were to take another whack at it today, God would have an easier time parting the Red Sea than getting any of us to part with our money or our worldly possessions?

Can you imagine any pastor getting up before the congregation and saying, “I sense the Spirit is leading all of us toward a communal ethic of sharing and caring, so if you would, please cash out your savings and trade in your cars and next week we’ll pool our resources to help those in the community who may have need”?

What would be the response?  My guess—“The Pastor-Parish Relations Committee will be holding an emergency meeting tomorrow evening to discuss whether or not our current pastor should be reappointed.  I just think we all have limits to what we’ll give to the church.  I know I do.  I have to think about paying bills, getting Melanie through college and then seminary, contributing to Matt and Kara’s wedding.  I just can’t imagine giving it all away.

God would have to make that happen, and I think it would take all of God’s power and muscle and might to get people like me to part with my hard-earned standard of living.  It would be some miracle.  But it is exactly that kind of miracle that Luke writes about over and over and over.  The coming of Jesus brings about an economic change!

We hear it when the pregnant Mary sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord, the Mighty One has done great things for me…He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  Did you hear that?  The rich are brought down; the poor are lifted up!

You hear it again, when Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  …to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  That’s the year of Jubilee, mentioned in Leviticus 25 where there is amnesty for all debts and the redistribution of wealth.  The rich come down and the poor rise up.

You hear it in Luke’s version of the beatitudes, “Woe to the rich!  Blessed are the poor.  Woe to those who are full…Blessed are those who are hungry.”

You hear it in the parables.  There was a rich man who was so rich he didn’t know what to do with his surplus. “I know what I’ll do, I’ll tear down my barns and build larger ones. I will eat, drink and be merry!”  “You fool” is the response from God!  “This very night your soul is required of you.”

And then there’s poor Lazarus covered with sores sitting outside the rich man’s gate, longing for what fell from the rich man’s table.  But then what happens…the death of the rich man, the death of Lazarus—a reversal of fortunes. Lazarus is raised…up, up, up…into the caring arms of Father Abraham.  The rich man…down, down, down….

And, again, it is only Luke who tells the story of the chief tax collector Zacchaeus, high up in a tree; and then at the Lord’s command, Zacchaeus comes down.  Reaching bottom, what does Zacchaeus do?  Why, he does the miraculous.  He sells off half his wealth, gives back four times what he owes.  A move that causes Jesus to exclaim, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”

For those who are willing to hear it, Luke is attempting to make a distinct point across the span of his gospel. Followers of Jesus are called to be involved in an economic miracle of sorts, selling possessions and distributing the proceeds, as any have need.  That is one tough miracle.  Given the human propensity to work from a place of scarcity and not abundance, I can’t imagine this sharing lasting very long, and maybe it didn’t.  Only a little later in Acts do we hear about Ananias and Sapphira holding and hiding some of their property from the rest of the community.

It seems that it didn’t take long for the church to go from “glad and generous hearts” to what Paul wrote about to the Corinthians: “Now I appeal to you brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you.  It has been reported to me…that there are quarrels among you.”  Quarrels and in-fighting…now that sounds more like church!

It must have been some miracle, even if it occurred for a moment in time.  How did God get all those people of that fledgling church in Jerusalem to loosen up their grips on their wallets and sell off all their stuff?  I’m sure it was difficult back then, but I think it would be next to impossible today.  We’re so entrenched in getting and having and owning.

Our Sunday mornings are not filled with water color Sunday school paintings of people sharing and caring as much as they’re filled with glossy, full color circulars that spill out of our Sunday newspapers, or pop-up ads on the websites we visit or apps we use that say to us, “You really must have this!”  “Come on, indulge yourself!”  “Don’t be the last on your block to own one of these!”  By the standards set forth in our culture of consumption, we never seem to be satisfied with what we have.

Sadly, I’ve seen families leave the funeral crying and weeping and saying something to the extent: “Grandma was the sweetest person in the world; I’m so going to miss her!”  But soon after grandma’s will is read, dear old angelic grandma has grown horns and a tail.  “What was grandma thinking giving her money to the orphanage and leaving us out?  How could she be so cold!  I hope we can get that down payment back on the motor home.  Thanks a lot, Grandma!”  It’s sad but sometimes true!

Having and getting and wanting is a big part of who we are and what we value is often revealed in our prayers.  We pray for persons who are sick to be healed, lives ruined by addictive behaviors to be turned around, for unemployed persons to find work.  But do we ever take the time to pray for the miracle of the upside-down kingdom that Luke writes about—where the poor and lowly are lifted up?  We might dare go that far with our prayers, but are we willing to even go further, asking Jesus to teach us how to give sacrificially, asking Jesus to help us exhibit the humility of Christ who gave up everything, even his life, for the sake of the poor, the marginalized, and all of whom suffer injustice from the power systems our world imposes upon them?  Would it take a miracle, some Spirit-empowered revelation for us to pray for the kind of community Luke writes about in Acts to be glimpsed even here in Newport?  “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.”  Come on Luke, we live in the real world!  Surely, you’re old enough to know that this isn’t how things work?  Surely, you aren’t that naïve?

I remember when I was a youth minister back at Skipwith UMC in Richmond.  One of the parents had the desire to teach them what the real world was like.  It was a lesson in world economics.  The idea was simple.  We would gather the thirty-plus youth in the fellowship hall and present to them a feast. But before the kids were allowed to eat, they would be divided into groups representing the size and wealth of the people in the world.  Two kids were selected to represent the economically wealthy nations of the world, and those two received one hundred dollars in play money to share between them.  It was more than enough money to fill their plates up with anything on the menu: steak and potatoes; hamburgers; fries; dessert; soda.  Ten more of the youth were selected to represent the middle class, and they were given forty dollars of play money to share amongst themselves.  Well, that could still buy some food, but they would have to share and agree what they wanted and then receive smaller portions.  The twenty or so who were left, they would receive only a few dollars and really the only thing that would be affordable and easy for them to buy and divide would be the rice!

The parents worked hard setting it all up and presenting the program.  They set up all the food; one of the parents sat at the end of the food line as a cashier at the World Bank.  It would show them what the real world is often like.

And so the program got underway.  The two from the rich nations got up.  “See those two rich people.  See how much food they’re getting.”  The next group went up.  “Look kids, they’re not getting nearly as much.  They are going to have to share!  Okay now, you who represent the rest of the world.  What are you going to do?  How are you going to feed yourselves?”

Well, they went through the food line filling up their plates. “Look guys, you can’t fill up your plates, and you don’t have money for it.  Now, don’t make us make you put back your food!  You don’t have the money!”  And with plates full one by one they came to the cashier handing her a huge wad of bills.  What?

Apparently one of our cleverer youths had been tipped off to our experiment and had found the play money we would be using for this event on my desk.  He photocopied it and shared it with all who represented the poor in the fellowship hall.  Those who were supposed to receive rice were filling their plates, picking up hamburgers and hotdogs, slaw and baked beans. They even bought the white tablecloth and the candelabra from those who were sitting at the table set for the rich.  It was so frustrating.  It was supposed to be a lesson on the real world!

One of the parents shook his head and said, “Just look at this hall.”  And I did, and there were all those youth, laughing and smiling and throwing the money in the air, giving and receiving, shaking their fists at the world order.  I had to shake my head, too, and smile and laugh.

I don’t know if that fellowship hall fiasco proves my point or disproves it.  But I will say that scene has been indelibly etched forever in my memory.  I’ve never seen a watercolor painting of the scene portrayed in Acts chapter two in any of the Sunday school materials that I’ve ever used, but I can’t help to think that it must have looked a whole lot like that scene in that fellowship hall.

Now the longer I’ve been in the church, the more I see that scene repeated….

But, now that I think about it, I could be wrong about that most difficult miracle.  Maybe it really is a breeze.  A breeze we need to catch over and over again, making the real world see the power of Jesus’ resurrection at work in us!   The wind of the Holy Spirit, rushing into our hearts like a mighty wind such as on the Day of Pentecost, giving birth to the Church and driving the movement forward.  Sharing and caring, celebrating and laughing, praising God with glad and generous hearts!

Response to the Word/Kyrie Eleison [Lord, Have Mercy]

Seeking peace in a broken world, but also knowing God’s peace through God’s presence, we pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.

Seeking peace in suffering, illness, and pain, but also feeling God’s peace through healing, prayer, and those who help, we pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.

Seeking peace through our distress, depression, isolation, and fear, but also feeling God’s peace through the words of loved ones and the hope we see in the world, we pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.

Seeking peace through the pain of worshiping separately, longing for our holy community to be gathering, but also feeling peace through God’s presence with each of us as we worship together distantly, we pray to the Lord. Lord have mercy.

Help, save, comfort, and defend us, loving Lord. We need you now, as we have needed you every day. We cannot live without you.  Lord, have mercy.  Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer                                                                          

And now with the confidence of the children of God, let us pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

Closing Thought/Commission & Benediction

Mother Teresa—”If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

Go now, listening for the voice of Christ, and follow the example he left us.

Devote yourself to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers of God’s people.

And may God lead you to places of rest and renewal;
May Christ Jesus give you life in abundance;
And may the Holy Spirit fill your hearts with gladness and generosity.

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.  Amen.