May 29, 2016 / GENEROUS LIVES - PART 1 / Sara Wolbrecht / Acts 2:42-47
Friends, it’s true – we live in a cultural story of scarcity. And I am thrilled that for the next four weeks – we’re calling that out, and exploring how to change the story we’re living. Ultimately, to discover what life could look like if we live beyond ourselves. A generous life. I think that is the kind of life Jesus is calling us into. A life where we learn to see what we have and who we are as enough (even more than enough), and that we’re wrapped up in something that benefits much much more than just ourselves, as we become an unlimited resource for the world.
This is how we’re going to do it. For four weeks, we’ll look at four different paradigms, mindsets really for how we look at the stuff that we have. One paradigm will be the theme for each week. And those themes over the next four weeks will help to create – I guarantee – a much larger life than we can live without them. And every week we’ll look at three resources that every single one of us has through these four paradigms. Sorry – this is a lot of math.
So three resources that we each have are: our time, our talent, and our treasure - you may have heard that list before. Another way to name it is our calendar, our capacity, and our cash. You like that? They teach you that at pastor training day one – make sure that whatever you teach it is phonetically connected because that will change lives. So we’ll look at these three resources, that every single one of us has, maybe you feel like you have a lot of those things, or not very much – but those three resources, through one of four paradigms each week.
So let’s be crystal clear that in order to address our cultural story of scarcity, yes, yes, we must talk about money, our stuff, our time. The way we change the scarcity story is only through dealing directly with this stuff. And I will be first to name how talking about this stuff can make me squirm.
So I want to make a few commitments to you. Because I know how some of these messages around generosity may have been portrayed in our past experiences. How we may have been depleted by churches in the past or by another NGO. We love the idea of generosity, and yet when you actually start talking about MY stuff, MY money, MY time… Again, I know this can get squirmy and we can feel depleted, uncomfortable.
So I want to make some commitments to you.
1. First, I’ll talk straight. Treat us like grownups. I’m not going to spin, manipulate – I’ll just talk real.
2. Talk from grace. Because I understand that sometimes we have served and given out of a sense of shame and guilt and I refuse to recreate that environment. I do not think that is God’s desire for us.
3. Third, I am not going to ask us to do something that I have not already begun to do myself.
4. Last thing – in each of these four weeks I will be calling us not to a more restricted life or a more piecemeal life, but into a larger life. I want to invite all of us to move beyond the comfortable into the powerful. I want to call all of us into a life that is much much more than just lived in a story of scarcity. I want to call us to a life beyond ourselves, I think that’s what God has for us.
And we remember, as we do this: this isn’t about God needing something from us. God does not need anything from us, God just wants something FOR us. This is not about giving and serving to try and please God or anyone else. Instead, I want to ask us to give until we find JOY. Because that’s the gift that God has for us. We cultivate joy as we live generously.
Alright? For today, we’ll explore our first paradigm, which I consider a preface to the other three paradigms. Something so crucial to living a generous life, that we must tend to it today. And to explore the first paradigm of how we experience the larger, generous life that God has called all of us to – I want to go to a moment in Acts chapter 2.
Let me set it up. You’ll remember that two weeks ago we celebrated Pentecost Sunday. On Pentecost, the disciples had just said goodbye to Jesus. People from all over the known world are hanging out in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost, the annual festival of the first harvest of the spring – but it turns out to be unlike any Pentecost they’ve ever known. …As the Spirit of God shows up. The definitive moment when God’s Spirit, God’s presence was breathed into the world, into us, it felt like wind, it looked like fire, and it sounded like people of all kinds speaking various languages - yet hearing and understanding.
If we keep reading through Acts 2, Peter stands up with the other disciples to address the crowd, and with the best opener to any speech ever: These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! Thank you, Peter. And Peter goes on walking through what the Scriptures said about the Messiah, about what Jesus has actually done, and then finally to say – Jesus is this Messiah. And three thousand people are baptized and receive that same Spirit of God that day.
Now reading on to the next and final section of Acts 2 – this is the text we’re looking at today to glimpse that generous life of God. What life together for those first Jesus-followers looked like.
As we listen, envision this. This is a few thousand folks who have come to believe in Jesus. Notice where they go, notice what they do, notice how it affects those who see it happening.
Acts 2:42-47 (The Message) Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.
They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.
How does that description hit you? What kind of response do you have? What are some words/phrases you would use to describe this? (Shout them out) I was with some of our 20-somethings this week and we talked about this text and a few of them said (apologetically) um, it sounds a bit like communism. And it does! And we also talked about how it sounds too good to be true. We felt very aware of our inner cynic as we read this.
But then we also talked about – first, how of course they must have gotten cranky and had issues, too, but also – how there is something deeply compelling about this. The way this life looked – connected, through food and worship, connected to sharing the load of one another’s needs (in every sense). Connected, through prayer and continuing to learn from the apostles. Connected, belonging to each other as a community of people.
Connected to a generous life. This is absolutely an example of a generous life. Right? A group of people living beyond themselves, who see what they have as unlimited resources; I don’t see a culture of scarcity in the life of that community.
So: how is it possible for them to live a life like this? Have you ever read this part of Acts 2 and wondered how that was possible? Wondered why it seems so unbelievable?
Well, there are other moments like this throughout the New Testament, where we see generous lives. But I intentionally chose this one, because: what has just happened before this moment? I already said it – it was just Pentecost. The gift of the Holy Spirit has just been given. And I chose this moment to show the connection between the gift of the Holy Spirit and the kind of generous life that is possible – that this life is possible BECAUSE of the Holy Spirit at work in those folks. This generous life is possible because they have just said yes to the Spirit of God. Their story had shifted to a new story.
I want to try something to demonstrate the shift that happens, how their story changes here. Indulge me for a moment, if you would, and open your hands, palms up on your lap. Close your eyes and pay attention to your open hands.
Imagine that in your hands you hold the three resources we talked about earlier: you’re holding your time (as in the number of hours there are in the day and how it is you use them, what you make time for, what you don’t), your treasure (all the physical stuff of value that you have. Your money, your phone, your car, where you live (house, apartment), your comic book collection, your books, your toys), and your talent (the education you’ve received, the skills you’ve developed, the passions you have, the stuff you are pretty good at, even the quirky things too). Your time, treasure and talent. Your calendar, your capacity, and your cash. The resources that make you, you. You hold it all in your hands.
Now I want you to close up your hands into fists – around all of those things. After all, these are very precious things, right? We only have so many hours in the day, be careful about how you spend your time, hold tight to that. And our money – oh, we know how limited our money is – so many bills to pay, debt to pay off, and what about having fun money? And what if there are some financial surprises? And using the gifts and skills we have – we want to be sure we save that for just the right thing, right? We should hold tight to our resources, because they are precious, limited, and what if there is not enough?
This is our cultural story of scarcity, right?
Now for some of us we are in a place where we really do need to hold tightly because we are depleted and our resources are actually low – but most of the time, this story of scarcity is the story we are living.
And yet, what happens when the Spirit of God gets into those fists? The Spirit opens up those hands – and I invite you to do that now. To see the resources we have in light of a different story. The Spirit of God causes us to see who we are and what we have in a completely different way. The Spirit of God opens up our hands, turns what we have into something to be given, used, made into more than it can be if we hold on to it tightly. The Spirit is the very thing that makes generosity possible. The Spirit of God says – there is a different story going on here.
And this is the first piece of our paradigm for today:
Generous living flows from the Spirit of God
Our paradigm is… That’s what’s happening in Acts 2. Chew on that. Do you agree? Do you see it in your life, your world, too? That: generous living flows from the Spirit of God.
Jason and I have some great neighbors who live on our street, and it’s been fun to get to know them. And I had the privilege of having a conversation last week with one couple as they consider whether to baptize their two-year-old daughter. They consider themselves agnostic, but they are sensitive to how the grandparents think that baptism would be a meaningful thing for their daughter. And we had a great conversation, good questions, referencing South Park episodes.
During the conversation they said, “You know I don’t really see the need to attend a church because it seems like most of what is said boils down to: be a good person. And we can figure out how to do that on our own.”
Which is absolutely true. You can absolutely live a good, even a generous life on your own. This raises the question of – does generous living really flow from the Spirit of God? Can’t we do it on our own? Yes. But. To do so is to miss something. We miss the life that is possible with the Spirit of God lived in community. There is a living beyond ourselves that is simply not possible without the Spirit.
And let’s take a moment to name that it’s hard to talk about the Spirit – we named this two weeks ago – because the Spirit is nonmaterial. There are material realities that we can experience with our five senses – dirt, skin, hair, wine, dog, grass – and there are nonmaterial realities. They cannot be accessed through our senses, and yet nonmaterial realities are just as real as the ones we can see and touch and taste. Maybe even more real, actually. The greatest example of this is love. Our feelings of love and commitment to someone are just as real as how they feel when we hug them.
The Spirit of God is a nonmaterial reality. And two weeks ago we named many, many ways of understanding the Spirit – we posted a video on FB about it – take a look if you missed it. But let’s explore a little bit more about the Spirit and this flow of generosity we can live in…
Jesus said a lot about the Holy Spirit and for Jesus there was a deeply held belief that God is infinitely generous. No limit. That God gives the spirit without measure, without holding back, with that sense of overflowing abundance. And we can live with a view of a God who is generous, and when we find our own spirit lacking, depleted, tired, exhausted, confused, scarce—there is an animating energy, a spirit beyond us. Past that point where you end. We can live in such a relationship with God that we have the same sort of connection with God that Jesus has that we can ask and receive essentially a spirit from outside ourselves. Who will guide, add to, embrace, fuel, our own spirit. Jesus’ insistence is that God is infinitely generous and just waiting like a loving parent for us to ask. (Luke 11).
Notice, for Jesus this is not a transactional thing—that God has this many units of spirit and if we are lacking we can borrow from God, and we have to pay them back in some way or that at some point God might say I’m out—come back next week. No. Not a transaction. For Jesus this is an endless relational reality. In John chapter 3: Jesus: “For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the spirit without limit.” Without limit.
So my friends, is this who you know God to be? A generous parent who gives the spirit – the animating energy that’s there beyond ourselves – without limit. Is this the God you have known recently?
Our response today – to all of this – is to take some time and check in with ourselves by asking a question that comes out of our Acts 2 text. Remember, this is a community of folks who have just said their yes to the Jesus story and received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Some were just baptized, probably still wet (just kidding), but certainly fresh and excited in this new life, living a new story. And the question for us in this is: Is there a fresh yes we can say to the Jesus story?
And here are a few other ways to trigger a response to this question is to ask:
Where, how do I feel depleted today?
Where in my life (self, time, treasure, talent) am I experiencing scarcity?
What came up for you as you clenched your fists around your resources? Now, the fresh yes is important. Because: even when we identify as someone who is Christian, we still live every day in a cultural story of scarcity. And it takes the intentional swimming against the current, choosing a different story, in order to stay in that story. It takes awareness, intention – and as Jesus said, all we need to do is ask to get what we need to live that story. Do we need to ask again today?
Because, to complete our paradigm for today, the rest of the sentence is this:
Generous living flows from the Spirit of God as we (keep) say(ing) yes to the Jesus story – together.
Notice how I squeezed in that parenthetical (keep). It is ongoing. It is a story we keep choosing to say yes to. The Spirit of God is available to us, to fuel that lived beyond ourselves life. So friends, as the band comes back up to lead us, let’s sit with these questions. Let’s pay attention, to where we find ourselves and immerse ourselves in the abundant reality of our generous God.
God we ask you to meet us with your Spirit in all the ways we feel depleted, tired, scarce. Speak to us now about who we are as your Beloved, and about where in our lives we might let your abundance flow over our own places of scarcity. For you are our Good, Good Father -
Is there a fresh yes we can say to the Jesus story?
Where, how do I feel depleted today?
Where in my life (self, time, treasure, talent) am I experiencing scarcity?