“Sustained by Sharing”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
November 9, 2014
University Baptist Church
Today’s scripture paints an idyllic picture of the early church. It says in Acts 4 that they held everything in common. They gave to each member as they had need. They had one heart and one soul. It’s almost too good to be true. It probably was. Have you ever found yourself telling a good story and embellishing one or more aspects, especially if it makes you look better than you actually were? I mean, I can understand the sharing everything in common and giving to one another as they had need. The early socialist experiment. But one heart, and one soul? As in total agreement? In church? It seems like a work of imagination, or faulty memory, or wishful thinking—I can imagine Luke saying, “maybe if we put it in the Bible, they will try it out.”
Imagine our elected officials ever saying they were of one heart, one soul and then living up to it. That’s almost as hard as imagining them holding everything in common and giving out as people need. Isn’t that what the tax system is supposed to accomplish?
One heart, one soul, everyone sharing. It’s seems so preposterous. And yet, the early church had the courage to try it out. It ultimately wasn’t sustainable, but it was a courageous thumb of the nose to the system. It is something to look forward to, or back on. Something to work on.
When I was on sabbatical several years ago, I visited the Navajo communities in what we call Arizona and New Mexico. I noticed that several buildings were in disrepair and falling down. While I initially wrote this off as poverty, I discovered something deeper. When someone dies in a Navajo home, no one enters the home again. No one picks up the belongings. No one sells the home to someone else. It is left to rot there and return to dust in the natural order of things. People don’t want to get caught by the magic of death. For us Belaganos, or non-Navajos this seems like a great waste of resources. I mean, couldn’t they at least have a garage sale? What about the stuff or the house that we want to pass down to the next generation? In their cosmology, property holds the same magic, good or bad as the person. And if a bad spirit is in the person, it’s in the property, too. So why would they want the stuff? And if someone else takes the items, they have disrupted the spirits. So it rots and they realize that stuff is just that. Stuff. Our spirits are so much more important.
What if we realized that all of our stuff was just something that we used in our lifetimes and not meant to be passed down? This is hard, because I have stuff that my grandparents owned that are dear to me. I wear my dad’s shirts and I even moved some of his furniture into my office down the hall. When I pull them out, rest my weary bones in the same chair, I think of him and I am mystically connected by memory to him. I like my stuff. But in the scheme of things, it’s just stuff.
Barnabas had a piece of land that he wasn’t using. Why not give it to the church? Imagine the tax breaks. They would use it well. Besides, as a Levite, it was a bit odd that he would have land and wealth, unless that wealth came because of the generosity of the people or the trickery of his clan. So maybe Barnabas gave back to make amends for all the ways that he had benefitted from the system. Maybe it was time for a new system. One where everyone was fed, clothed, cared for. It’s like how Jesus quoted Isaiah 61 in his inaugural sermon in Luke 4: “The spirit of God is upon me because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the captives and to proclaim the acceptable year of God’s favor.”
Was this [early church sharing] the long-awaited Jubilee where the slaves are set free, land is returned to its rightful owner, debts are forgiven and we get a societal do-over? Is that the acceptable year of God’s favor? Is that what we pray each week when we say “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors?” If there was not a needy one among them, then maybe resurrection is not just about praise but it’s about reorganizing the economic structure of the community.
‘Tis the season of sharing. The gales of November are coming right on time. We will share the road with snowplows and people who aren’t used to driving in these conditions. Think of snowblowers. Chain saws. Rakes, leaf blowers. Hearty backs. Neighborhoods are sustained by sharing. So is sanity.
When we served meals at Loaves and Fishes on Halloween night, we shared our time and resources so others could eat. We shared laughter so others might have a brighter evening. It seemed like a very good way to use our resources.
Sharing and giving are related, but not the same thing. Giving can be sterile. It can feel good and it is a good discipline. It also retains the power dynamic. There is the giver and the receiver. If we become the dependent receiver, we can do things that will make the giver more willing to give to us (or less). As the giver, we can be resentful if the receiver isn’t sufficiently thankful. Sharing is something that assumes a relationship.
The fundraising adage that we learn in non-profits is that people don’t give to organizations, they give to people. So we feel better connected to a cause for which we give when we know the recipient. One of the reasons we have been so increasingly generous with our sister church in Nicaragua is because we have seen them. We have played and prayed together. We have sung and worshipped together. We have laughed and cried together. We give, but it feels so much more like sharing.
Some people are literally sustained by sharing. There are movements that can’t continue if we didn’t share what we have. Like the church, for instance.
Barnabas gave a field that he wasn’t using to benefit the church. As far as we know, it wasn’t called the First Barnabas church because of the donation. In fact, everyone in the church shared everything, not just fields. Jesus once said, there is not one among you who has not left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come. (Mark 10:29-30)
And just to make it even more pesky, he said, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:26)
Now, I know what you are thinking. The sharing of goods works for a small community, but it gets messy when you extend it to the rest of society. A small community knows who is the neediest and who is the greediest. Yes, this is true and it’s probably why the experiment didn’t seem to last beyond the 4th chapter of Acts. But neither is its alternative, private ownership lifted up in the Bible. In fact, it is criticized. Sharing is more important than owning. And it’s more important than giving.
But maybe it’s not meant to be a once and forever thing. Maybe it’s the kind of thing that happens once every 50 years, like the jubilee year. When you remember who you are and whose you are.
And so we sing,
“May we learn the art of sharing, side by side and friend with friend.
Equal partners in our caring to fulfill God’s chosen end…”
Sharing is the evidence of a transformed community.
Sharing is a radical new economy. It’s the economy of shared goods instead of private property. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
It’s the closest thing we have to God’s economy.
We share the earth with other living creatures and we have a responsibility to share nicely.
We teach kindergarteners to share, but we lose that as we get older. We find sharing quaint and unrealistic.
With the new shift in the congress and senate, there is lip service to sharing power. But will there be a true sharing that will make the world better for everyone. “We all do better when we all do better,” Paul Wellstone was fond of saying.
We do better as a community when we share. As long as we don’t take.
The choir cannot sound so good unless we have 19 or 20 people sharing their time and talent.
We get great joy as a family from the communal experience of sharing that we celebrate each year. In less than four months, when the snow starts to melt (it will happen), we will tap our maple trees, collect sap, shovel out the fire pit and set the pots a-boilin’. Everyone who comes by gets a jar of syrup. If the weather cooperates and we don’t literally run out of steam, there is enough to share for the entire year. It’s the sweet reward of community. Someone said last year, you could sell this and make some serious cash. Kim’s quick response was, “but it’s so much more fun to share it.”
Think of the ways we share these days. I was having brunch with some friends yesterday who moved here from New York. Instead of schlepping all of their furniture here, they shared it with their neighbors. It’s so much easier than hauling it away. I furnished my apartments at Seminary through what people left on the street in New York. Every once in a while, when we find a desk or a chair we no longer need, we leave it on the curb to share with our neighbors.
Sometimes, sharing is not so welcome. There is such a thing as oversharing. Someone shared our garbage pile a few weeks ago by dumping a couple of mattresses and a box spring behind the church. How thoughtful of them. You’ve gotten into those conversations when people get too personal and it gets awkard. We put up our hands and say, “TMI, too much information”.
One of the reasons I like Sacred Harp singing so much is that the leadership is shared. Come on a Tuesday night and you’ll see lots of people taking turns leading a song, helping out new singers figure out the shapes and even giving pitches. It’s anarchic and egalitarian and it works. When we sing, we are like we are of one mind and one soul. And through the singing we receive the grace that sustains us.
We are sustained, then, by sharing. I mean we get things, but we are sustained by the community that pushes us to a new and deeper understanding. And it is good.
So take some time to consider sharing with your neighbor. Make sure it’s something your neighbor wants shared. But share as a way of building friendship, community and purpose.
Don’t share so you can get something back or even so you will be saved from the pits of hell or will get a star in your crown.
Share because it sustains you and your community.
Share because it’s the courageous thing to do.
Share because it’s counter-cultural, subversive and because we have too much already.
As (Music Director) Laura Potratz’s fine poem set to music said:
That which is shared becomes more,
This is the mystery inherent in sharing:
Five loaves feed a field full of people and the giver also.
To share is to encourage;
Sons and daughters and people of encouragement are we,
Gently into the future.
We can never have too much solidarity, too much community.
We can never have too much support.
So share as you can.
It might help someone else.
It might also help you, but more important, it sustains community.
And in community is how we best know God.