Sunday, May 07, 2017

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 2
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe[d] came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Yes, I was a summertime trucker.

Just for a summer, I was living the dream of the open road. I worked for three summers making whirlpool bathtubs. A summer shining chrome nameplates for Buick. Roofer (for a day), gas bar attendant, and I spent a summer scraping concrete off dirty beams. All these jobs were interesting in their way, but nothing compared to delivering pizza.

It was in the era of “33 or free,” the clever marketing strategy that meant from the moment you hung up the phone, the pizza team had 33 minutes to get the pizza to your door. We frequently failed. And when we failed, the driver (me) was required to enter the house and phone the manager. Only with the manager’s blessing, could the pizza be given away.

On one of the more memorable evenings, I was late (again) and the customer met me at the door demanding a free pizza. No problem, I said, and I asked to use the phone. As I entered, two little kids, maybe three or four, ran by in what we might call “birthday suits,” obviously ready for an evening bath. It was then that I noticed that both mom and dad were wearing only bathrobes, which seemed a little odd.

As I lifted the receiver of the wallphone in the kitchen (ask me later if you don’t know what a wallphone is) as I lifted the receiver (ask me later if you don’t know what a receiver is) as I lifted the receiver I looked up at a very large poster with more birthday suit people and some inane phase about the beauty of the human body.

Now I can be a little slow sometimes, but I was starting to put two-and-two together. I begged my manager to give away this pizza, and sped away wondering if intense blushing could be fatal.

I share this story because this may be the ultimate example of “what we do at home, we don’t do other places.” You could add double-dipping in the salsa or talking in funny accents, but I expect my pizza story remains the best example.

Another example of something we do in the house but not out there was in the reading Jenny shared a moment ago:

44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.

We could call this the internal economy of the church, holding things in common, supporting one another through the sale of unnecessary possessions, things superfluous to the common life of believers. It’s a wonderful vision, and a vision we continue to uphold, albeit in a modified form.

So another story: I frequently meet new people when we sail, and I’m almost always the first minister (or even the first churchgoer) that these people have met. It’s a relaxed environment, and we’re trapped on a boat, so people frequently ask me questions. “Can you get married“ is a common one, or “is that a full-time job” or “who pays your salary” or even “does the government pay your salary?” I love that last one. “No,” I say, “the kindest and most generous collection of people I know pay my salary” and they smile and look pleased.

And when they honestly look like they want to know more, I describe what we do as a sort of co-op, pooling our resources to have a church home and staff and all the rest. People find this very interesting, and surprising, since they seem to assume that anything as large and complex as a church must certainly be paid for by the government. But it’s not. It is created in the very same manner as the early church—holding things in common and sharing what we have for the good of the whole.

That’s the internal economy. The external economy, our support for the people beyond these walls (or beneath this floor) is best summed up in the reading you heard last week, also apropos to learning about The Bridge. Beyond “I was sick or in prison and you visited me” there is also this: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me” and so on.

This is the external economy, where we use our excess to care for the most vulnerable, both here and abroad. We take these words literally to mean that we need to look for the vulnerable—seek them out—and find ways to share what we have. The church, in this sense, was the first charity, where people ponder their priorities and give for the sake of others. We now compete with a range of other charities, most doing work that we can’t do—still partners in seeking the common good.

Now, my resident Hebrew scholar would furrow her brow at this point and say “really, the first charity? What about gleaning laws found in Leviticus, just as one example?” As of course she’s right, since Jesus command to “love thy neighbour” came from a close reading of the same book, Leviticus. From God’s heart to Jesus lips and on to our collective mission.

So yes, perhaps the earliest charity was found in a farmer’s field, with the corners of the field unharvested and left for the needy. It was a reflection of the same charity God provided in the desert: manna and quail to eat, water from a rock to drink. God provided, and we in turn provide, always a grateful response to the great gifts we have received.

Yet some disagree. A remarkable exchange took place in the Congress of the neighbours to the south, when a representative of MAZON, a Jewish food charity, made reference to the gleaning laws in Leviticus. (Just as an aside, the drop-in receives funding from MAZON, and we are grateful for their support). Back to the story, Josh Protas from MAZON was making a case for increased funding to food programs for the hungry when a member of the House felt compelled to make this comment:

"I did hear Mr. Protas, your opening remarks, where you quoted Leviticus, I believe—and I think that’s a great reflection on the character of God and the compassion of God’s heart and how we ought to reflect that compassion in our lives," the congressman said. "But there’s also, you 2 Thessalonians chapter 3:10...‘for even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: if a man will not work, he shall not eat.’ And then he goes on to say ‘we hear that some among you are idle'...I think it’s a reasonable expectation that we have work requirements." [1]

In other words, if you can’t work you don’t eat. Somehow I think the congressman missed the part about charity, or is caught up in the troubling idea that there are deserving poor and undeserving poor. It turns out that the program under discussion, something called SNAP is used mostly by children and the disabled, but no matter, an improper reading of scripture says the idle should go hungry.

Again, we are back to the distinction between the internal and external economy of the church. The passage from 2 Thessalonians is about a conflict within the church—some members were showing up to the potluck and never bringing a dish, no chicken casserole, no jellied salad, no tiny crustless sandwiches, nothing. And the next verse is the real giveaway, saying these same people “were not busy, but busybodies.” Ouch. They weren’t invited to the next potluck. Harsh perhaps, but part of the internal life of the church, not something to effect government assistance to the poor twenty centuries later.

Even Matthew 25 has been misinterpreted by some, making the same internal-external mistake. One Bible professor wrote that Matthew 25 isn’t really about helping “the least of these” but about Christians who are persecuted while trying to do good—making the suggestion that the person who refuses to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple is, in fact, the “least of these.” This mind-boggling leap of logic is really just intentional ignorance regarding the need to care for neighbours—which we define as widely as possible.[2]

Internal or external, the economy of God is defined by generosity and openness, the desire to help others while looking past their obvious and not-so-obvious flaws. It’s about seeing a neighbour in the least likely people you meet, even people you would sooner avoid. The economy of God begins as we share with one another and continues far beyond these walls, to everyone in the world God made. Amen.



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