Paula Northwood May 27, 2018
Scripture Acts 5:1–11
I don’t know when I first learned to lie in order to save hurting someone’s feelings—what people in this state call “Minnesota nice.” But as a teenager, I knew it. I was at my grandmother’s house with my youngest brother. He was 5 or 6 years old. Grandma asked if we wanted a piece of pumpkin pie. “Yes!” we shouted. I love pumpkin pie. It’s my favorite. When she served it, the pale yellow color should have been a clue, but I bit into it heartily. It was awful. My grandmother asked, “How it is?” I answered, “Great.” My brother said, “I don’t like it.” I kicked him under the table. My grandmother said, “Oh, that’s okay. I’ll get you some ice cream instead.” To me she said, “I’m glad you are enjoying it. I left all the spices out of the pie because I think pumpkin pie is too spicy.” Have you ever had pumpkin pie without the cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg? It’s not pie . . . it’s squash. I choked it down along with a lesson: Her feelings were not hurt by my brother’s truth.
In the church calendar, last Sunday was Pentecost, the celebration of the beginning of the Christian church. Supposedly, Pentecost took place weeks after Jesus was executed and ascended into heaven. This nascent group of followers gathered to make sense of his death. We don’t know exactly what happened, but something did. Something so powerful it felt like a whirlwind, and they felt on fire, and it caused them to speak in a different language and filled them with God’s Spirit.
We may not fully understand this group’s euphoria, but this band of believers had been through a very challenging time. Their leader had been executed. They were in a period of discernment trying to figure out what was next. In the chapter before our text this morning, it says this group of followers were of one heart and soul (mind), and there were no needy among them because they had made a decision to share everything.
It’s truly extraordinary that during this period of time they decided to share their possessions. Although their motivation is not detailed for us, the context up to now makes clear that it was both out of gratitude for Jesus’ teachings and the outpouring of the Spirit. This resulted in both a conviction and a desire to give what they had to build up God’s own household. A household that understood that this life is temporary and held the conviction that one’s ultimate security is found not in one’s possessions but in God. It was nothing less than a radically new gospel, a worldview that resulted in providing for each other within the community.
Now the book of Acts does not give us a journalistic account of what we would call actual events, but rather how the Apostle Luke, some decades later, interpreted how a group of believers sought to follow Jesus’ teachings and live as the church, the “body of Christ.” Early in the recounting of what it means to be the church community, the body of Christ, we have the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Because I love a three-point sermon, I want to point out three lies this morning: Two lies are the ones that Ananias and Sapphira told themselves; the third lie, they told the community.
The first two lies are ones that I think that the early church was trying to confront culturally. This first one is the lie of scarcity. It’s the thinking that there isn’t enough to go around and we have to hang on to what is ours or we won’t have enough. Not to say we don’t have environmental concerns, but, if we share resources, there are more. The second lie was the importance of the individual over the interdependence of the community. It’s the thinking that we make it on our own and do not need the community to succeed. The final lie is the lie they told to others, in this case the true price of the property, and thereby brought destruction upon themselves.
We can get hung up on the particulars of the story. To be struck dead for holding back a little profit from a sale seems a little harsh. This community decided that, in order to take care of the widows and the marginalized in their midst, they would share everything they had so it could be equally distributed—so everyone had enough. It could be that during this time of persecution, their very survival depended upon pooling their resources. We don’t really know, but it was important enough to include this story in our scriptures.
But this couple held back. They told a lie. But it’s not just the lie they tell the community. It’s the lies they have told themselves. I can imagine the conversation: Let’s set a little aside in case this community thing goes belly-up. I mean, honey, we don’t want to be left without anything. And look at all the freeloaders we are supporting. It’s just not fair to us. We have worked so hard for what we have. Let’s just keep a little money back.
Let’s look more closely at the first lie of scarcity. I see in myself the tendency to make the same decision to hold a little back for me. Now I know we are not trying to live in community in quite the same way, but we have made a covenant with each other, and we are a community of faith discerning together how best to live out the teachings of Jesus. In the midst of abundance, we often think scarcity. We are afraid that we will not have enough. Theologian Sallie McFague writes in Blessed are the Consumers: “We have developed a culture of consumerism. It’s the air we breathe.” Consumerism is the cultural pattern that leads people to find meaning and fulfillment through the consumption of goods and services. We think we need more and more for ourselves. But in our text, we have the early church putting into practice what they understood of Jesus’ teaching. The paradoxical insights that Jesus proclaimed were that happiness is found in self-emptying, that satisfaction is found in relationships rather than in things and that simplicity can lead to a fuller life. The community was moving from being bound by scarcity thinking to abundant living.
The second lie that Ananias and Sapphira told themselves was that their individual rights were more important than some in the community. Jesus had invited his followers to change their perspective from seeing all others as objects for supporting one’s own ego to seeing all others as subjects in their own right who deserve the basic necessities for flourishing. The invitation was to see everything in the world as interdependent. The early church was experimenting with living in community by making a simple covenant based on Jesus’ wisdom and love. The early church was working against the royal Roman Empire Dream, whose motto was Roma invicta (Rome unconquered).
How similar is that to the contemporary American Dream, where it’s all about the self as the center of life? We have bought into the gospel of individualism. It’s all about realizing the limitless possibilities that lie within us and maximizing individual achievement and material success. Instead, the early church model is one of radical relationality. In this model, one cannot know oneself outside of the community. When one suffers, all suffer. Genuine humanity for the Christian is not one’s individual soul resting in the arms of God but the daily embodiment of the imitation of God in self-emptying love for others. It’s the embodiment of self-emptying love for others.
And then the final problem for Ananias and Sapphira is that they both tell a whopper, a big, bold lie. If we do not speak the truth in relationships, does it not eventually choke and kill the relationship?
There’s a scene in the old movie Something’s Gotta Give that simply and succinctly captures one reality about the truth. After catching the man she loves on a date with another woman, Diane Keaton is chased out of the restaurant by a guilty and distraught Jack Nicholson. When he finally stops her, he pleads, “I have never lied to you; I have always told you some version of the truth.” She replies, “The truth doesn’t have versions, okay?”
And that’s the truth. The truth may have many sides to it. It may be complicated or hard to understand, but it still exists. Yet, most of us have trouble with the truth. We may not be outright liars, but we certainly shade the truth to make it fit more comfortably into our lives—to keep it from disrupting anything from our careers, to our relationships, even to our life at church.
Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting, claims in her TED talk that we’re lied to from 10 to 200 times a day. How honest is the world we’ve created around ourselves? How often do we ourselves tell lies? It’s common for people to only say the parts of the truth that they feel are acceptable or that they think people want to hear, leaving the full truth hidden away. We may lie by omission or tell “little tiny lies” that paint a very different picture of reality. It’s no surprise that these lies don’t just hurt relationships, they can outright destroy them. Even lies told in the name of protecting others can leave you feeling pretty bad about yourself, because you don’t feel like an authentic, strong individual when you aren’t being honest.
In our church history, we take great pride in sharing that this church dismissed its first minister for not taking a bold enough stand against slavery—but we do not mention that this church’s leadership was virtually silent during the Civil Rights Movement. This incredible church has not been perfect. We have hurt each other, and, in order to heal the hurt, we must be honest and bring what needs to be healed to the light. In part, that is what we will be doing during this interim time. And Rev. Dan Wolpert, our Interim Minister, will be guiding us through that. We will also be discerning what direction to take on a lot of issues.
There are ways to approach discernment—to know the difference between a truth and a lie. The wisdom tradition from which Jesus preached called people to see with the eye of the heart. What does it mean to see with the eye of the heart? Beyond “the fantasies of our own mind and the brutalities of our own will,” as Thomas Merton once expressed it, the eye of the heart is where truth begins. One way Christians do this is to use the life of Jesus as standard by which we test the truth.
On this Memorial Day, when we remember and honor those who have sacrificed their lives for this country, we also remember the words of Jesus, who said, “Blessed are those who promote peace.” In this time of fake news and daily lies, we use the eye of the heart. The eye of the heart is about seeing the truth of our innate and unalterable connection to all others.
The early church believed that truth is morally central to our lives. In the gospel of John, Jesus says that the truth shall set you free. As members of this community, we must reject the lies that have invaded our personal lives, our church life and our political and civil life. The normalization of lying presents a profound moral danger to the fabric of this community and of our society. Our text this morning is a challenging one. Let us choose abundance over scarcity and community over individualism. Let us make a commitment to speak the truth with love, to see with the eye of the heart and make the life of Jesus the standard by which we measure our behavior. May it be so. Amen.