Acts of the Apostles 2.42-47
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Here is a big question: How are human beings supposed to live together? We have been trying to figure that out since the beginning of civilization. Even in Genesis, the story of the Tower of Babel gives a mythic answer to the reason we are separated by various languages. But we need to go deeper than just linguistic differences. How are we supposed to live together? That is one of the questions that this story from the Acts of the Apostles tries to answer.
On a macro level, humanity has attempted different systems and responses over the last few hundred years that we in the 21st century assume is the way it always has been. And that’s not so.
At the end of the 19th century, after evidence for biological evolution had been presented, some began to say that we live in a dog-eat-dog world where the fittest survive, that is and ought to be true for humanity as well, and it birthed SOCIAL Darwinism. The poor in industrial England, the Irish, and child laborers who worked in dangerous conditions were thought to be where they ought to be: at the bottom of the food chain. A 19th c. English clergyman, Thomas Malthus, even proposed that “excess” human beings would die off so that others could survive. And haven’t we seen a bit of that Malthusian catastrophe proposed by some political leaders (who ironically also claim to be “pro-life”) that it would be okay for some of the elderly and infirm to be taken by Covid-19 and to make a place for the fittest to survive? How do you think God sees our society?
Economics is a relatively new field, and the Scotsman Adam Smith is known as the father of economics for his seminal book, The Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776. And we he developed the ideas of capitalism and self-interest, and of course they grow into unfettered capitalism in the 19th and 20th centuries. You and I probably take it for granted that we are “consumers.” Stop and think about that…“consumer.” It’s one role in a mechanistic equation…and isn’t life more than that? Aren’t you also a “lover” or a “teacher” or an “advocate” or a “Christian” or a “parent” or a “sibling” or a “citizen”? Let’s pause for just a moment and reconsider the initial question: How are we supposed to live together? Are we supposed to consume materials and goods? Are we just cogs in the system of interconnected wheels in a stupendously large economic machine? How do you think God sees us?
Another vision is that we are meant to live simply as “free agents,” doing whatever we like in a “do your own thing” kind of way to nurture our self-satisfaction? Are we just out for ourselves (and maybe our nuclear families on a good day), or are we really a part of something bigger?
Throughout most of human history, the nature of living together in clans, communities, tribes, and nations has been survival…enough of the basic things like food, clothing, and shelter so that we could survive. And as civilizations and nations developed, the question of how we are meant to live together dogged us every step of the way. In Genesis when Cain kills his brother Abel, God asks where Abel is, and Cain famously replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And that is the big question: to what extent are we responsible for the well-being of the people who form our social grouping: towns, states, nations, regions. I think about that picture of the earth from space taken by the Apollo astronauts from the moon, and it is abundantly clear that our fate is inextricably bound together as residents of the same “big blue marble.” How do you think God sees us?
The Acts of the Apostles gives us insight into the way the first Christians answer the question of what life together ought to look like, and it may be a fairly idealized vision. “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 (in good social distance) and ate their food with glad and generous hearts (after washing their hands for a full 20 seconds), praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” This is a description of DISTRIBUTIVE justice, where people recognize that there really is enough to go around if we share what we have. It is a statement about profound abundance.
Have you ever noticed how many economic systems are based on fear and scarcity, rather than on generosity and abundance? We have so many refrains of abundance in the biblical record that we stop noticing them as such: manna from heaven, my cup overflows, the loaves and fishes…it’s all about God’s abundance.
Here is a question for you: when have you operated out of a sense of fear and scarcity, and when have you made decisions based on generosity and abundance?
The Acts of the Apostles describes a radically different vision that most of us Christians — even progressive Protestants — have of how things work today.
As the Second World War began and many German Christians accommodated, if not encouraged, the rise of the Nazi regime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book called Life Together about what Christian community could and should mean. “In a Christian community,” he writes, “everything depends upon whether each individual is an indispensable link in a chain. Only when even the smallest link is securely interlocked is the chain unbreakable… Every Christian community must realize not only do the weak need the strong, but also that the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of the fellowship.”
I wonder how that plays out at Plymouth. Each of us is weak in some ways and strong in others. We are utterly reliant on God and on one another, and the sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we will be able to live together in harmony.
What if we expanded that idea to the wider community? Six months ago, I rather doubt that some people would have counted grocery checkers and truck drivers and the UPS delivery guy as “essential workers.” And in some medical institutions, nurses are seen to exist in a stratum under physicians, but if you’ve ever been in the hospital, you know how critical they are in terms of your care, but they are unsung heroes. But then again, I haven’t seen military jets doing fly-overs to recognize hedge-fund managers and advertising executives lately.
How are human beings supposed to live together? I think we’ve been doing a pretty poor job in this country, but I have certainly seen glimmers of hope in the way neighbors support one another, younger members of Plymouth doing grocery shopping for elders, people wanting to reach out and contact other members with a call or a card or a text message. Please, let’s not let go of any of that pulling together when the pandemic is over. Let us continue to grow into what Dr. King called the Beloved Community and what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. These visions are far richer than anything Milton Friedman or Ayn Rand could have dreamed up, and they are infinitely better for the human soul.
Christian community at Plymouth is going to look different in the future in ways that we cannot fully imagine. We are likely to continue livestream worship, even after we can worship in person. For a long while, we may need have social distance in worship, adjust the way we greet each other and celebrate communion and have coffee hour. I have no idea when that will be, but I know that our sense of connection and love for one another has not been diminished by our physical distance.
Life together at Plymouth is going to be different, in ways that none of us can yet anticipate, but I do know it’s going to be rich. I have faith in God to show us how to be community, and I have faith in you to come together in faith.
We’ll do this together. May it be so. Amen.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
It’s interesting that today’s story from Luke’s gospel involves Zacchaeus climbing up a tree. (When exactly was the last time you saw a grownup climb high up a tree? That may be the first sign that there is something extraordinary going on here!)
Part of the reason I find this interesting is that this year at Plymouth, we’ve invited you not to go higher…but rather to Go Deeper. We don’t ask you to perch yourself at the top of a tree or even at the top of the cross in our chancel…instead, one of our members created roots that visually symbolize going DEEPER, not higher. And the Stewardship Board invited you to Go Deeper and give thanks for the gifts of Faith, Hope, Community, Life, Treasure, Love, and for Plymouth. You’ve been invited by our preachers this month – Charles Buck, Sue Artt, and me – to be part of a minor miracle in the making, to imagine God’s heavenly economy, rather than the dismal science of human economy, to imagine what it would be like if we spent our money on things that changed the lives of our fellow humans, instead of buying a new couch. And how mission changes lives. Holy Cow, we even had a surprise visit from Jesus during the sermon three weeks ago!
Luke tells us that Zacchaeus is a tax collector. Now, I don’t want you to think of him as a respectable IRS employee, because that isn’t what the role entailed in ancient Judea. Instead, think of someone collaborating with the occupying Roman army and extorting money from the subject people in order to line his own pockets. (Even if you consider your taxes to be extortionate, this is a totally different situation!) So, what we witness as Zacchaeus brings Jesus into his home is a radical personal epiphany and a counter-cultural transformation away from human economy into heavenly economy. Zacchaeus says I will give half my possessions to the poor, and I will pay back four times as much to anyone I’ve defrauded.
Isn’t it interesting that Jesus doesn’t even ask Zacchaeus to do this? It isn’t like the story of the Rich Young Ruler, as Jesus responds to the man’s question about what he must do to inherit eternal life – give away all your possessions. (And you remember how it ends…the Rich Young Ruler ends up going away grieving.)
What is the one thing Jesus asks of Zacchaeus? There is only one sentence in this text that encapsulates what Jesus demands: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down!” Because of his stature, Zacchaeus was just trying to see Jesus from afar, but Jesus notices him and says, “Come down.”
You all know that beautiful Shaker hymn that Aaron Copeland used in “Appalachian Spring,” “’Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free, ’tis the gift to come down where we ought to be, and when we find ourselves in the place just right, ’twill be in the valley of love and delight.”
I wonder if that is what Jesus has been calling us at Plymouth to do this year… “Plymouth, come down! Come down from that treetop and Go Deeper. Dig into your faith. Remember that you are rooted in God’s love and in the faith of this community. Understand what holds you in place. Go Deeper!”
I don’t know whether you read about this or not, but the UCC together with several local churches in Chicago last week invested $38,000 to buy $5.3 million in destructive medical debt for over 5,000 anonymous residents of Cook County, Illinois – and then they forgave all of the debt. That is God’s heavenly economy at work. Whether it is immigration justice or ending gun violence or educating our children or ending loneliness for seniors or deepening the faith of the person next to you, or giving you a song to sing, you are changing lives through Plymouth.
We come today to celebrate and give thanks for the bounty God has entrusted to us, to stand in the light of God’s heavenly economy. We are here to celebrate a community that not only provides a shelter from the storm of our rancorous politics, but gives us a way to make a difference as an outpost of God’s realm. We are here to consecrate and ask for God’s blessing on our commitments for 2020. We are here to keep on Going Deeper and reach the wellsprings of our faith that nurture not only own lives, but all the lives this congregation touches.
May our journey continue.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.