Joseph, called by the apostles “Barnabas” sold a field that he owned and gave all the money to the apostles.
But a man named Ananias—his wife, Sapphira, conniving in this with him—sold a piece of land, secretly kept part of the price for himself, and then brought the rest to the apostles.
Peter said, “Ananias, how did Satan get you to lie to the Holy Spirit and secretly keep back part of the price of the field? Before you sold it, it was all yours, and after you sold it, the money was yours to do with as you wished. So what got into you to pull a trick like this? You didn’t lie to us but to God.”
Ananias, when he heard those words, fell down dead. That put the fear of God into everyone who heard of it.
Not more than three hours later, his wife, knowing nothing of what had happened, came in. Peter said, “Tell me, were you given this price for your field?”
“Yes,” she said, “that price.”
Then she also fell down, dead.
Last year, when it came time for the stewardship sermon, I reverted back to my notes from seminary and realized all I wrote was “delegate to the associate pastor.” And so I called a friend from seminary, she is Methodist, and pastors a church in downtown DC. I asked Donna, “Remember that class where we spent an hour talking about stewardship sermons…did you take notes?” A few days later she called back, “OK. I can’t read my writing, but it either says ‘Don’t ever start with a joke and Acts CH 5,’ or it says ‘Definitely start with a joke and Acts 5.’” So, I was thinking we could try each one and see which one is correct.
Putting together a church budget can be a very mysterious process. I will tell a story about what happened to a pastor with eight children who went to the Church Council to discuss his compensation package for the coming year. After the meeting, the Chair of Council told the pastor: “We are very sorry, Pastor, but we decided that we cannot give you a raise next year.”
“But you must give me a raise,” said the pastor. “I am but a poor preacher!”
“l know,” the Council Chair said. “We hear you every Sunday.”
Speaking of the mysterious process, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson decide to go on a camping trip. After dinner and liquid refreshments, they pitch their ten, enjoy more liquid refreshments, they lay down for the night, and go to sleep.
Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend.
“Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”
Watson replied, “I see millions of stars.”
“What does that tell you?”
Watson pondered for a minute.
“Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets.”
“Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in the Leo constellation.”
“Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three.”
“Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant.”
“Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow.”
“Why…what does it tell you, Holmes?”
Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke “Watson, you idiot. Someone has stolen our tent!”
I think it is important to be aware of our surroundings, to wonder what the connection is between our spiritual journey and the world around us. I think laughter is very important to our soul. A few months ago, I had the incredible opportunity to hear the Dalai Lama in person. Who knew the Dalai Lama was quite the comedian (check out on You Tube his response to Piers Morgan when asked about our election). After telling a funny story, he said “Laughter is as healing to our spiritual journey as giving.” Imagine, permanently exiled from the Holy City of Llhasa in 1959 when the Chinese invaded, living as a refugee in India and still he has a tremendous sense of humor. To overcome adversity, the Dalai Lama relies heavily on laughter and generosity. He talks about inner peace being the root of happiness, and how money and happiness are diametrically opposed, saying, “Generosity is the most natural outward expression of an inner attitude of compassion and loving-kindness.”
What if there is a connection between laughter and generosity, and if we re-read Scripture through that lens?
Our Scripture comes from the book of Acts, which tells the early history of the Christian church. This past week, a group of us discussed the book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, and realize that history as it happened is why we are where we are today. However, what if stories of our history are not true? Like historians, theologians disagree about how to interpret Biblical stories of the past. A theme in Lies My Teacher Told Me is that history textbooks perpetuate myths so students feel good about being American. What if the way we read the Bible is to help us feel good about being Christian?
Overall, I think we take the stories in the Bible way too seriously. Talking snakes and a donkey with an attitude, women getting pregnant at age 90, don’t get me started about King Eglon, a prophet named Jonah causing a large fish to have awful hurling episodes, death by falling out of a window because of a boring sermon, a well-known prophet saying those who are self-righteous are like tampons (Isaiah 64:6). The Gospels record Jesus speaking about money more than any other topic, and quite a bit of it is humorous. Strain out a gnat while eating a camel, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, it is easier for a camel go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God, and as we heard last week, if you need money, start looking in the mouths of fish.
Then we come across the story you heard today. About Barnabas, who stewardship books categorize the cheerful giver as he gives all the money from the sale to the apostles. He gets one little verse, but eleven verses tell the depressing tale of Ananias and Sapphira. Like Barnabas, the married couple sells a piece of land but do not give all the money to the apostles. Peter individually asks Ananias if that was the full price of the land and plop, he drops down dead. Then Peter also interrogates Sapphira, who has no idea what happened to her husband, and she plunks down dead, too. Isn’t this a bit harsh? After all, they did give a generous donation and just did not disclose all of their assets. Maybe they had a legit church tax loophole?
Imagine church stewardship campaigns re-enacting this story to exhibit that if you don’t give, you will DIE!
But… what if this story follows the Jesus monetary humor theme?
Most theologians agree that the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira result not because of lack of giving, but because they lied, appearing more generous than they were. A major theme in Acts is the aspect of community for the church as people rely on one another. Remember Pentecost a few chapters earlier? How everyone was so excited that they seemed drunk? But here when two members of the community get confronted and die the response of the church was fear.
If we think about all the world religions (Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Confucianism), what they have in common is the aspect of generosity. Cultivating happiness, the Dalai Lama maintains, happens when we cultivate generosity. Ancient wisdom from world religions and philosophers echo the same message, until you hit modern day America where we are inundated with the opposite message, that money can buy happiness. In a Gallup World Poll of 136 countries, it was found that not only did donating to charities increase happiness, but also increased one’s physical health.
Darwinian evolution espouses the concept of “survival of the fittest.” Tomorrow our nation (except Hawaii, Alaska, South Dakota, Oregon, and half of Colorado) celebrates Columbus Day. If there were an example to show how generosity kills, it would be the story of the native people of our land. Much of the American history we learned in school glorified Columbus, but the real heroes of our history are the generous and grateful people who lived here centuries before Columbus was even born!
In our group book discussion Wednesday, we named people we admired. Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Florence Nightingale, Gandhi, and a name I was familiar with, but did not know his full story, Albert Schweitzer. When a young boy, he realized that his family was better off than many of the other families in the German village. At age six, against his parent’s wishes, he wore tattered clothes just like his poorer schoolmates. So began a lifetime of concern for others. He lived an amazing life of generosity, fifty years with little or no pay, as a doctor in remote parts of Africa until the day he died at age 90. Compassion.
In the grim tale of Ananias and Sapphira, we forget Peter, representing the role of the pastor, who lacks compassion. Through his method of pastoral care, one could argue, the church lost two of its major contributors. Don’t worry, I don’t think pastors are called to induce coronary heart failure in the faith community. However, we are called to shepherd the faith community, and that requires addressing tough topics like racism, materialism, and pledge cards. Maybe that’s why there was so much wine in the Bible—people seem to give more with liquid refreshments.
There is no exercise better for the heart than laughing and generosity. May we reveal the love we have for one another by the outward expression of generosity.