Rector, Casey Shobe Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
May 7, 2017
Fourth Sunday of Easter

Texts:

Christians make their most magnificent and outrageous claims during Easter.[1]

Of course, it begins with the resurrection, that most magnificent of hopeful and reality-defying claims that sits at the very heart of our faith. I read a great blog post this past week by Mark Clavier that talked about how crazy the story of Easter really is. “Frankly, I’ve never understood why we’re amazed that so many people find the story too silly to believe,” he writes. “That the Easter story doesn’t strike us as an idea crazier than my dogs on caffeine shows just what a bunch of bores we Christians are.”[2] Yes, it’s an amazing story, one that is so magnificent and outrageous that it’s hard to believe. But it’s not the only one like it that we hear in Easter.

This evening/morning we heard a story from Acts 2 about the fledgling church, fresh off the experience of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and how they created a life together as a community. It’s such a short little story that I’ll just reread it again for you:

“Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

Like I said, during Easter Christians tell some amazing stories and make some magnificent claims, and while this one isn’t about a dead man come to life again, it’s not so much less crazy to hear that a bunch of Christians sold everything they had and gave away the proceeds to ensure that everyone had enough – and what’s more, that they did it all “with glad and generous hearts.” I’m pretty sure I don’t remember being taught as a kid in Vacation Bible School that the early church was a socialist utopia, so if it seems tonight like you’re hearing this story as though for the first time, you’re in good company. Yes, Easter is the season where we talk about and believe unbelievable things… and today’s reading is right up there with the best.

And yet, much like with the resurrection, if we deconstruct this story and turn it into something tame and reasonable and rational – if we find ways to poke it and prod it and flip it on its head so that it makes complete sense to our suspicious ears and minds … you know, to make it sound less crazy – well, then we strip it of all its power. In studying it I’ve come to learn that there’s no shortage of efforts by scholars and preachers to make this into a story about an idealized vision of the early church, something that the writer of Acts really wishes had happened but was never actually close to reality. You know, like he wrote about what he hoped had been the case, but was more wishful thinking than historical description. But when we do that, when we explain it away, when we stuff this story way back deep on the shelf of crazy Bible stories we don’t have to down or read or take seriously … it moves us further away from being the sort of Christians we are called to be. Because the truth is that this vision of the early church isn’t just a dream; this isn’t escapist fantasy. It’s a vision for what life looks like when we are finally, truly living in the Kingdom of God – when we are experiencing the “abundant life” Jesus talks about in today’s gospel. Because in God’s outrageous and paradoxical economy, we experience divine abundance most when we start giving everything away.

A few years ago I read a book titled Kisses from Katie, which is the autobiography of Katie Davis. Katie was a girl from a wealthy family in Nashville who was high school senior class president and homecoming queen, with a loving, supportive family, a dedicated boyfriend, and admission to college in hand. But she had a deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ, and one day she found herself wondering if maybe Jesus really meant what he says in the gospels, about taking up your cross and following him, about giving up everything you have, about seeking and serving the least and the lost in his name. And so she decided to leave her comfortable home, her college life, her loving family and boyfriend, and she moved to Uganda. She chose to start small, and just try to love and serve one child at a time. She rented a small house without electricity or running water, and looked for ways to help people, especially children. Eventually she began adopting Ugandan orphans, including those special needs, and she wound up the mother of 14 children. She also started a school sponsorship program to send 400 children to school, pay their tuition, and provide them with clothing and school supplies. She orchestrated a school lunch program to feed lunch to 1,200 children every day, and also sends them home with a plate of food to share with their families. Today, nine years later, Katie is married and has her own baby, but she is still very much fulfilling this calling. She is still the mother of 13 orphans, and still giving away her life in order to love them. She’s founded an organization called Amazima Ministries that provides hundreds of children with healthcare and education and peace and safety.[3]

In her book, Katie says this about how she got here:

“Jesus wrecked my life. For as long as I could remember, I had everything this world says is important. In high school, I was class president, homecoming queen, top of my class. I dated cute boys and wore cute shoes and drove a cute sports car. I had wonderful, supportive parents who so desired my success that they would have paid for me to go to college anywhere my heart desired. But I loved Jesus. Slowly but surely I began to realize the truth: I had loved and admired and worshiped Jesus without doing what He said . . . I wanted to actually do what Jesus said to do. So I quit my life. I quit college; I quit cute designer clothes and my little yellow convertible; I quit my boyfriend. I no longer have all the things the world says are important. I do not have a retirement fund; I do not even have electricity some days. But I have everything I know is important. I have a joy and a peace that are unimaginable and can come only from a place better than this earth. I cannot fathom being happier. Jesus wrecked my life, shattered it to pieces, and put it back together more beautifully.”[4]

What happened to Katie is exactly what happened to the early church in Acts. Jesus wrecked their lives, shattered them to pieces, and then did the most amazing job of putting them back together more beautifully. They found the abundant life he talks about in today’s gospel, the abundant life he yearns for us all to know and live and experience, only when they were finally willing to start giving away everything about themselves for the sake of others, including their wealth. That’s why Acts describes the early church as having “glad and generous hearts” even when they gave all their possessions away, because that’s what happens when we actually do what Jesus tells us to. And it’s not just a thing that happened long ago and far away, in the time of the earliest apostles. It’s something that happens here and now, today. In lives like Katie’s. And it’s something that can happen in ours, as well.

I can virtually guarantee that sometime in the future you will read or hear things from me and other leaders talking about the expenses of operating our church. We’ll talk about the cost of maintaining our buildings, or the rising cost of benefits for our staff, or the way we’re struggling to keep up with increased expenses as our pledged revenue has stayed the same the last several years. The Vestry and I are trying to do an even better job communicating about how much it costs to operate our church, and how important every single pledge is to preserving our health. But the truth is that none of those should be the reasons we give our money away. And if they are, we probably won’t ever start giving like those early apostles who “had all things in common” and “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” When you’re giving toward your share of the power bill, you’re probably not giving outrageously or sacrificially.

When we decide that we want to be like Katie Davis and actually take Jesus at his word, when we decide we are ready for his kingdom to be the center of our lives and that we simply won’t tolerate having more than we need when some don’t have enough, when we decide we want the abundant life of Jesus, that’s when we’ll start giving and living differently. That’s when this vision from Acts will seem a little less outrageous and a little more possible. That’s when the decimal places of our pledge and all our other charitable giving will start shifting to the right.

I want you to know that I feel just as challenged and provoked by this passage as you do. I am not standing up here as someone who has nailed this generosity thing perfectly or completely. The truth is that in the last few years, my family has struggled to maintain our standard of giving 10% of our income away, because a lot of other things have crept into our family expenses. We don’t feel any less generous, but we have had to work a whole lot harder to make sure that we aren’t forsaking our deepest core values simply by not paying enough attention to our bank statement. And the funny thing is that this story from Acts reminds me that 10% is not even really the true standard for faithful Christian people. 10% isn’t the mountain top it sometimes seems. The true standard, the benchmark for me and you and everyone who wants to really taste that abundant life of Jesus is when we start giving everything away, and do it with glad and generous hearts.

It’s a miracle, if ever there was one. It’s something that is so difficult to believe that we’d like to dismiss it as impossible. But one of the outrageous claims of Easter, and one of the promises of God, is that it is possible to devote ourselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. It is possible to share what we have and give to everyone who has need. It is possible to be extravagantly, outrageously, sacrificially generous, and to do so with a glad heart. This world we hear about in Acts is not some pipe-dream, this is the call and challenge of God. Katie Davis lives in the world of Acts, and we can too. Today, tomorrow, and the day after that, can be the days that we step through the gate and into this crazy, beautiful, and abundant world of God.

 

_____________________________________

[1] Matt Skinner, Commentary on Acts 2:42-47, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=52

[2] http://livingchurch.org/covenant/2017/05/01/easter-is-bonkers/?platform=hootsuite

[3] https://amazima.org

[4] Clark, Beth; Davis, Katie J; Kisses from Katie (Simon and Schuster, Inc; Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 211-212).