April 8, For the common good

There are a number of scriptures that have and continue to inform and inspire we Brethren.  The Sermon on the Mount for its practicality and vision of an ‘upside down kingdom.’  Micah 6:8 for its love of God and the pursuit of peace and justice in the spirit of humility.  The book of James and the call to good works and to surround one another with care when our souls are anxious.

The Gospel of John, chapter 13 in particular with the instruction to serve one another through feet washing by following the example of Jesus.

These and numerous others all have in common this sense of relationship on behalf of others; of striving after what is so fondly called the common good.

Today’s scripture is in the same spirit as these, even though it may not hold the same fondness for us.

When asked, “What are the guiding, formative scriptures for the Brethren?” Acts 4 may not make the top 10, but it holds up well alongside the others.

It contains the same DNA as those which so readily come to mind.

What was a key trademark of the early church?

It was tending to the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger.

Acts 4 identifies this practice as central to the early church, and benevolence toward those who have not by those who have was one central identifying mark.

Devout pilgrims practiced charity as they travelled.  That’s why it was no accident that the two blind beggars in Matthew and Mark and the one blind man in the Gospel of Luke were sitting right beside the pilgrim’s route.  The daily fellowship meal held by the early Church included a distribution of aid for the poorest of its members.  And, the wording of Acts 6 suggests Christian poor relief was paid out in kind and consisted of aid for 24 hour periods, in other words, two meals; and the distribution was centralized at one place.  A Fellowship of Churches Food Pantry if you will.

We have such practices, a heritage, of what it means to be the church in the world; a people who pay attention to its hurts and act in practical ways to alleviate suffering and conflict that fractures relationships.  We know, and have participated in real life stories that effectively address pressing needs, and they inspire us and motivate us to keep at it ourselves.

This is why we still connect closely to Heifer International at its core purpose, reserving a warm place in our hearts for an organization that outgrew us yet still receives our full support.  This is why we come out to hear what CPTers are up to in Palestine and other deeply conflicted places in the world, and support them with our resources.  This is why we believe so whole-heartedly in BVS.  If a young person in particular is struggling to discern her or his future, we encourage, and help finance, a year in BVS.  We trust it will provide a compass while doing meaningful service, usually in communities that serve the widow, the orphan, or the homeless.  This is why when our 4th-8th graders want to replenish cleanup buckets for CWS and invite you into the process we end up delivering about 70 buckets in the past year.  This is why when disaster strikes we care for the children to help right the shipwreck during times of deep stress.  This is why when the FoC’s right here in North Manchester needs new space to provide for basic needs for infants, for families for individuals in our very own zip code we say yes to a new building campaign to support the common good.

It’s in our DNA; it’s part of the fabric that makes up who we are.  We know this because of how we sit up in our seat when a pressing need is presented; how we open our hearts and freely give to keep something of value going.

It is what people of resurrection do.

What is a mark of the church?

What is a distinctive quality of those transformed by the good news, the life giving news of he is risen?  Look for evidence of unity and generosity.   Where death is expected and resurrection is experienced instead, what else is there to do but run and tell, and help remove barriers that keeps anyone from participating in the joy and blessing of what this good earth provides all the time;

And,

from participating in the joy of a true community.

It is what inspired the apostles to give of what they had for the daily needs of those right in front of them.  It is a testimony that the church for 2000 years has taken to heart and continues to proclaim and practice.

This is a remarkable testimony in the book of Acts to the experiment of community living.  The rationale for this experiment on the part of the early church was not political.  It wasa theological and humanitarian, and arose out of their conviction that in the spirit of the resurrected Christ they were one people.  Life as they knew it had been transformed.

The kingdom of God was at hand – right there, in their midst – and the resurrection of Jesus was one sure sign.

In response to this gift they committed themselves to live as if the kingdom of God was their present reality.  And since their lives were touched and transformed what return could they make but the gratitude of their hearts and the well-being of those around them.

It’s likely how Alexander Mack went from a wealthy miller to an economically-destitute leader of the Brethren movement, sharing his resources with those suffering economic persecution because of their beliefs.

It’s likely behind Menno Simons being quoted as saying, “offering sincere and unfeigned love of one’s neighbor” is one of the signs by which the true church is known.

It’s likely behind the quote of Michael Frantz, a leader among the colonial brethren, who highlighted the importance of hospitality and mutual aid based on Christian love, saying, “it is to be understood that he who has two portions, be it food or clothing, house, property, livestock, money or whatever his neighbor needs for his life’s necessity, then love should compel him to give to his brother, his sister, and to his neighbor and to do as he can for their need. 

Love has no aim or measure as to how much one should give.  Rather, it helps and gives gladly of its own volition as long as it has something and is able to help.”  (unquote)  (Texts in Transit, p.125)

And that’s it, isn’t it?

Gives gladly of its own volition.  Not obligation, not duty, but as a sign of gladness of heart in the spirit of the resurrected Christ.

We have this great heritage of sharing resources for the common good.  Like so many other denominations we’ve started schools, and hospitals, and relief organizations that have transformed lives around the world.  The service professions are comfortably at home in the Anabaptist faith.

And all those pioneers of the faith, are, well, no longer with us.

This is the gift and the task of proclaiming Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed.  And it is a gift.  It is a gift to discern what it means to be about the common good in our own community, for our own time.   Each generation, each community needs to ask itself – what are the signs of resurrection in our neighborhood?  What does it mean for us, here and now, to be part of a community that can say, ‘there was not a needy person among them?’  “What does it mean to be ‘fully alive’, right where we live?”

There’s a bit of an edge to this text, isn’t there?

Is this really the way the early Christians lived?

Was it their reality or simply their aspiration?

Did people really sell their property?  Their security?  Their status?

Did they put themselves at risk so that others at risk could be cared for?

Did a Jubilee year, which this text echoes, ever occur? 

It may have gotten some traction, but was it ever fully realized?

So what do we do with this text, and others that support it?

How can we lean into it, and set aside guilt and obligation and still find signs of resurrection, of transformation, right here in our own backyards?

How can we resist settling for the smallest, common denominator and be about the endeavor of becoming one heart and soul, compelling us to be about the work of sharing not just freely, but joyfully, gratefully, and wisely?

How do we even have the conversation together?

What does it look like, and where does it take place?

 

Possessions are an important symbol of power.  This passage more than hints at such a claim.  But I don’t think it’s the central focus of this text, and others like it.  Instead it gives us principles and examples that encourage the formation of a community of resources that exemplifies friendship and engagement by the manner in which we handle our wealth.

What does a community of resurrection look like?

A community transformed by resurrection is of one heart and soul.

They are friends; deep friends who share freely.

A community transformed by resurrection is concerned for the common good.

They reach beyond private interest and offer mutual aid.

A community transformed by resurrection has great grace upon them, and between them.

They open up space for others after the example of Jesus.

A community transformed by resurrection doesn’t have a needy person among them.  They know the neighborhood is healed, and strengthened by freely and gratefully sharing the abundance that is not to be hoarded.

 

What is this, stewardship Sunday?

Thanks a lot lectionary committee.

But here’s the thing.

Our ‘resources’ and those of the early church are not the focal point, but the vehicle.  OT scholar Walter Brueggemann opens his book, Journey to the Common Good like this:

The great crisis among us is the crisis of ‘the common good’, the sense of community solidarity that binds all in a common destiny – haves and have-nots, the rich and the poor. 

We face a crisis about the common good because there are powerful forces at work among us to resist the common good, to violate community solidarity, and to deny a common destiny.

Mature people, at their best, are people who are committed to the common good that reaches beyond private interest, transcends sectarian commitments, and offers human solidarity.

                           (Journey to the Common Good, p.1)

 

I have a niece who is a school teacher in Tulsa, OK.  Actually I have two nieces who teach in the greater Tulsa system.  Maybe you’ve seen the Oklahoma teachers in the news – it’s all over my Facebook feed.  They are some of the lowest paid teachers in the country, either the first, the second or the third lowest, depending on how you do the math.  And this is despite Tulsa having the second largest Community Foundation in the country with assets of over $4.5 billion; second only to Silicon Valley.  In fact Tulsa’s CF ranks in the top 20 of all Foundations in the US.

And yet teachers are not only taping together their textbooks, some are personally purchasing them because there isn’t money to buy textbooks.

Some schools are open just 4 days a week because there isn’t money to keep them open 5 days a week.

My nieces are posting on social media about engaging legislators at the state house, essentially about being ignored and taken for granted.  The legislator’s attempted to ‘buy their cooperation’ with a one-time $6,000 pay increase.  But like this text, the money is just a vehicle.

What is needed to accompany the gesture is a spirit of dignity and respect and a commitment to the common good for the education of the children of not just Tulsa but all of Oklahoma. 

The nieces know, the way our youth know, the way we all know, that the early years matter, they matter a great deal.  Curiosity and care and dignity and wellness and the joy of learning cannot be ignored or withheld if we are concerned about the common good.  The nieces know, in the midst of their crisis of ‘the common good’, what is in peril is this:   the sense of community solidarity that binds all in a common destiny.  And so they are advocating on behalf of their students, and the well-being of their community; they are doing what they can to strengthen their neighborhood, because they love teaching.

And what of us?

To modify slightly a well-known quote, ‘where does our neighborhood’s great need meet our deep joy?’

We know this intersection, don’t we…. Together, we can name it, because we have experiences when we have stepped up and occupied this intersection.

We know what it feels like to feel grateful and alive through freely giving of ourselves, and being open to receiving right back.

What does it mean, now, to bring that heart and soul and spirit to our neighborhood?  To bring a sense of wholeness, and dignity; a spirit of resurrection to our own neighborhood, in the spirit of the common good?

What if that was the standard by which we decided what we will keep and what we will give away - now?  What if…?

 

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.

With great power the apostles (the Manchester CoB) gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all, and there wasn’t a needy person among them.

 

Amen.

 

 

Benediction

 

OK – full disclosure:

We know that it is not always good and pleasant to dwell together,

And we are not always in unity;

But there is hope, there is healing.

 

We are inspired by those who have gone before us;

By those who have offered themselves for change, for transformation,

for the healing of the world; knowing they weren’t always in unity either.

May we remember, and in so doing, discern, together, how we will be good neighbors at the intersection of deep need and gladness of heart.

May new life, resurrected life, be our way in the world this week.

 

For the Common Good, Acts 4:32-35

April 8, 2018

Jim Chinworth