Sunday, May 1, 2016
One of the much-loved writers and preachers in Methodist life today is a minister by the name of William Willimon. Some of you might well know that name. After all, he is a South Carolina native. Willimon was raised in Greenville, went to college at Wofford and actually began his career right here in Laurens County with his first congregation after seminary being located in Clinton.
In his writings on the book of Acts and our passage in particular for today, Willimon remembers an occasion in church when he encountered a disgruntled member at a board meeting. The man asked, “Why are we always talking about money in the church? All we do is talk about money, giving and the budget. I wish we could get beyond this and talk about the spiritual things that are really important for the church.”
In the midst of sharing this memory, Willimon is clear that in spite of this individual’s feelings, Luke, in both the gospel which bears his name and in Acts which he also wrote, makes our possessions and how we deal with them a key topic of conversation. Luke is clear that where our possessions are, our heart will often also be. And, Luke is equally clear that possessions are not necessarily a sign of God’s approval but instead can be the one of the most dangerous aspects of our lives if we fail to constantly be aware of the power that they possess over us. (William Willimon, Interpretation: Acts, pg. 52, John Knox, 1988)
In the midst of Luke’s large collection of parables that deal with wealth and possessions in his gospel, there are also several stories in Acts that continue to probe this same issue. Perhaps one of the clearest and most straightforward is our text for today from the end of Acts chapter 4 and the beginning of Acts chapter 5 where Luke tells the story of two individuals – Barnabas and Annanias – and their decisions to make contributions to the early church.
In essence, both Barnabas and Annanias take almost identical steps. They both sell pieces of land that they owned and the give the proceeds to the church. But, despite similar actions, the two men were apparently motivated by very different thoughts and idea.
Barnabas, on the one hand, after selling his land, gave the full amount that the property had brought to the church as a donation. He apparently did so with little if any fanfare and simply out of a sense that this was what he was supposed to do.
Ananias on the other hand, after selling his land, only appeared to give the entire proceeds to the church. He claimed that he was sharing all of his proceeds but in truth he only gave a portion of the amount he had received in the sale. Like Barnabas, Ananias made a contribution alright, but again it seems to have been motivated by very different thinking.
In these two similar and yet contrasting stories, Luke highlights for all of us what I think are two very important and different ways that we often are motivated to approach the resources and possessions that God has entrusted to us.
On the one hand, Luke reminds us that we often approach what we have out of either generosity or selfishness. We are either motivated to think about what we have primarily out of an attitude that says that our resources are to be freely shared with others or out of an attitude that says that while I may occasionally exhibit generosity on the surface, in truth and in my heart, I am motivated by the belief that what is mine is mine and it may be shared in part but I will not share it in whole.
One of the striking aspects of this text is the fact that in verse 2 of chapter 5, when we read the phrase that says that Ananias “kept back” a portion of the proceeds from his land sale, the Greek verb being translated into English there as “kept back” literally means embezzled. The impression given is that Ananias, while very much in control of his own possessions, was literally stealing from God through his attitude.
This I think is a good but hard word for us to live with too. Yes, on the surface, our possessions are ours. On the surface, they belong to us and they are ours to do with, as we want. But, the truth is that at a much deeper level, everything we have belongs to God. We are truly only caretakers or stewards which aught to compel us to live generously. If we do not, we border on not only being selfish but on stealing not from each other but rather from God.
I like the story that is told about Alexander the Great who one day passed a beggar sitting on the side of the road. When the man asked for assistance, Alexander reached into his pocked and pulled out two gold coins, put them in the man’s hand and continued on his way. As he walked past the scene, one of Alexander’s aides said to him, “Sir, two bronze coins would have been more than sufficient for that man. Why did you give him two gold coins?” Alexander said in reply, “Well, two bronze coins may have been sufficient for him, but only two gold coins were sufficient for me.”
The point of course is that Alexander held himself to a higher and deeper standard. As people of faith, I feel certain that God feels the same about you and me. It might be fine from the perspective of society for us to share with others just enough or only a portion, but, God expects us to approach all that we have out of a spirit of generosity. Of course, I am not saying that we need to sell everything we have or give it all away. But, I am being clear, that the principle of faith is that we recognize that what is ours is actually Gods and as a result the only truly Christian response to this reality is to live more out of a spirit of generosity than stinginess.
On the other hand, Luke also reminds us that we often approach what we have out of either a deepening piety or out of a deepening pretense. This I think truly goes to the very heart of this story from Acts. Barnabas was compelled to give because he felt it was his responsibility as a follower of Christ. In becoming more of who Christ wanted him to be, Barnabas was learning that all that he had belonged to God and he was learning to respond accordingly. He was growing in generosity with this act symbolizing his growth.
At the same time, Annanias felt compelled to give because it made him look good and it suggested something about him to his fellow believers that would led to their admiring him. In so doing, his act illustrated his pretension. The term pretense describes our attempt to convey something on the surface that really isn’t in keeping with our true selves. It is our best effort to fool others into believing that we are something that we are not.
Let me be very clear – there is a lot of pretense afloat within Christianity today. And, truth be told, I suspect that all of us, have a degree of pretense in us if we are honest about it.
Yes, I know, there is a lot of pretense in the world. But, the world does not have the expectation of the high standard of Christ connected to it. You and I do. And yet, we are good at playing the game, we are going at acting one way and living another, we are good at talking a good game in an attempt to convince others and maybe out of a desire to even fool ourselves into believing that we are something that we are not.
Yes, our possessions offer us a huge, huge temptation to claim something about ourselves that is not true. We do this often when it comes to promoting our generosity and our charity which in reality is often razor thin not a mile deep. We also do this when we use our possessions to suggest we are important, significant and someone with clout.
But we are also equally good at suggesting our piety; our deep convictions, our strong dedication and our moral fiber are at a much deeper place than they truly are too. This too is a way that being pretentious takes over as the driving force in our lives.
After all, Annanias’ stinginess was only part of the issue. The bigger issue was the fact that he tried to suggest something else was afoot. In the end, Luke is clear with Annanias, and incidentally also with his wife, who as an accomplice was also guilty (which is a sermon for another day). What Luke wants them both to understand is that they may have been able to succeed in fooling their fellow churchgoers but they could not succeed in fooling God?
There is an interesting story about the comic legend Charlie Chaplin that comes from the days when the film superstar of the black and white era was at the height of fame. One day, Chaplin was walking down a San Francisco street and passed by an establishment that was hosting a “Charlie Chaplin Look Alike Contest”. Chaplin, assuming he had a distinct advantage over the competition signed up and walked right on in. The unexpected part of the story is not the fact that the real Charlie Chaplin showed up and won his own contest. But, rather, the unexpected part is that the real Charlie Chaplin showed up and didn’t make it past the preliminary round. The judges chose someone else as the person who most resembled Chaplin even though the real person was right in front of them. (listverse.com; 10 Famous People Who Could Not Impersonate Themselves, Karl Smallwood, August 27, 2013)
Here is the point. Others may not be very savvy when it comes to identifying our true selves. We may succeed in convincing them that we are a lot more spiritual than we really are, or, we may struggle to convince them that our faith has any authenticity to it whatsoever.
Yet in the end, what really matters is what we know deep down inside about what and ourselves our real motives truly are. We know our true nature and beyond that, God is never fooled.
Without question – if God saw us lined up against nine imposters – God would choose the real you or the real me each and every time. Amen.