Unity – A Matter of Life & Death

Preaching SJTG 4.12.15

I preached two sermons for the 2nd Sunday of Easter at St. John’s, Tower Grove ([LINK] http://www.towergrovechurch.org/).

Scriptures referenced: Psalm 133, Acts 4:32-37, Acts 5:1-11, John 20:19-31 ([LINK] http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=87).

Check out Fight for $15: [LINK] http://fightfor15.org/

10:30am Service Video – more performative, more jokes:

5pm Service Podcast – more interactive, more contemplative:

[LINK] http://towergrovechurch.podbean.com/e/sermon-april-12-2015-at-500-pm/

Manuscript (not transcript, closer to the 10:30am sermon than the 5pm):

“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”

What a wonderful Psalm for the 2nd Sunday of Easter! And since we’re finally allowed to say it after a long and serious season of Lent, “Alleluia! Praise be to God!”

If I were the Psalmist, I would have written something like this:

How very good and pleasant it is that on Easter, we who are family share in the grand tradition that is The Church Potluck!

Unity is like the

            Strings of melty goodness falling from Keith’s famous cheesy grits,

            Like the mosaic of recipes that weigh down our paper plates,

            Like the discordant screams of little children as they forget to use their indoor voices. Bless their hearts.

For there the Lord ordained God’s blessing, life forevermore.

The Psalmist said that unity is like a precious, expensive oil often used to anoint the heads of priests and important guests. Instead of being lightly dabbed, the oil is lavishly poured out on a priest, drenching the priest’s face and robes. Unity drenches us all as honored guests who are close to God.

The Psalmist also said that unity is like a dew that normally falls on a high mountain, making it rich and fertile. Instead of falling only on the high mountain, the dew also falls on a lower mountain, a mountain where religious people imagine that they might one day gather to eat, drink, and celebrate, even though the lower mountain is usually dry and dusty. Unity drenches our religious spaces, giving life to places where people gather to eat, drink, and celebrate.

Our Easter potluck fed us all as honored guests who are close to God, filling our religious space, giving life to a place where people gather to eat, drink, and celebrate.

If only unity was as simple as sharing an Easter potluck! Today, we heard a passage from Acts, where those who shared their beliefs “were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” Later, the passage says that those who owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold, giving it to the leaders of their community, who distributed it to those in need. I’m not sure that I would do that. Right now, I am a student, but one day, if I saved enough money to buy a house, I would want to keep it. If I lived on the land, I wouldn’t want to sell it. If Rev. Teresa asked me sell my house or land and give the proceeds to the vestry, I would probably ask if I could maybe invest the proceeds and give the interest to the vestry instead.

In short, my question would be, “How much can I keep for myself and still be okay with the Church?”

To answer that question, it might help if we turn to a passage that’s not often in the lectionary: Acts 5:1-11.

But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him.

After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.

Okay… I think we just found out why this passage is not often in the lectionary. Ananias and Sapphira just died on the spot for doing something perfectly understandable. Wasn’t Peter a little too harsh? What kind of God kills people for making a mistake? Acts 4:33 says, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” Where is that great grace?

Psalm 133 opens with “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred LIVE together in unity!” and closes by saying that God’s blessing is “LIFE forevermore.” In short, the great and gracious gift of unity is LIFE for people who live together as family. In contrast, Luke’s story about Ananias and Sapphira suggests that the greatest curse of division is DEATH for people who are disconnected from communal life. Ananias and Sapphira disconnected themselves from communal life when they broke the norm of selling their property and giving the proceeds to the leaders of the church to be distributed to those in need. We are shocked by the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, especially because we know their names. Ananias and Sapphira’s church was seized by great fear because they knew Ananias and Sapphira by name, and probably recognized them as some of the more frequent and generous pledgers to the church.

At the same time, we must remind ourselves that the greatest curse of division is death not just for those like Ananias and Sapphira who are named and recognized by their church, but also for those in greater need, who remain nameless and unrecognized by churches. Unity is a matter of life and death for those who do not know where their next meal comes from and depend upon the Peace Meal. Unity is a matter of life and death for black and brown communities most impacted by Sacred Conversations on Race and Action. Unity is a matter of life and death for those served by Winter Outreach, an effort to reach out to those experiencing homelessness during cold nights. Unity is a matter of life and death for low wage workers who are uniting for a $15 wage to support themselves and their families.

The Psalmist’s image of a priest drenched in precious, expensive oil shows that unity is less about its financial cost and more about who it touches, and how. Unity doesn’t just touch the heads of society or those who stand at highest heights of society. It flows down to the beard, down the collar, and drenching the robes. It covers the lower mountain, a sacred space where all people can eat, drink, and celebrate. Unity transforms us into honored guests who share a common table that is close to God.

Luke, the storyteller of the early Church, writes that after what happened to Ananias and Sapphira, “great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.” This is the first time that the word “church” appears in the books of Luke and Acts. It is scary when we learn that being Church means knowing that unity is a matter of life and death. On one hand, we hold the great and gracious power of life when we live in unity. On the other hand, we hold the terrible and killing power of death when we live with division.

Teresa reminded us last week that fear and death are not the final answer. She said that “Love and life are stronger than fear and death. We can expect to see those we’ve loved and lost again. God has a future in store for each and all of us. Anything is possible with God.” We are an Easter people invited to share a resurrecting, reconciling love. Not a ledger love that is about keeping track of who owes how much to whom. But a love that brings people close to each other and to God as honored guests at a shared table. A love that brings those who have been killed by division back to life in kinship community. Alleluia! Praise be to God!

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