The First Presbyterian Church of Watertown
Acts 5:1-11 (The Message)
But a man named Ananias – his wife, Sapphira, conniving in this with him – sold a piece of land, secretly kept a part of the price for himself, and then brought the rest to the apostles and made an offering of it. Peter said, “Ananias, how did Satan get you to lie to the Holy Spirit and secretly keep back part of the price of the field? Before you sold it, it was all yours, and after you sold it, the money was yours to do with as you wished. So what got into you to pull a trick like this? You didn’t lie to men, but to God.” Ananias, when we heard those words, fell down dead. That put the fear of God into everyone who heard it. The younger men went right to work and wrapped him up, then carried him out and buried him. Not more than three hours later, his wife, knowing nothing of what had happened came in. Peter said, “Tell me, were you given this price for your field?” “Yes,” she said, “that price.” Peter responded, “What’s going on here that you connived to conspire against the Spirit of the Master? The men who buried your husband are at the door, and you’re next.” No sooner were the words out of his mouth than she also fell down, dead. When the younger men returned they found her body. They carried her out and buried her alongside her husband. By this time the whole church, and in fact, everyone who heard of these things had a healthy respect for God. They knew God was not to be trifled with.
The passage this morning from the Book of Acts should have caught your attention… It’s not a passage that is commonly preached from in churches probably because of its graphic nature. If this passage doesn’t scare you then I don’t know what will, because what we will discover is that the story of Ananias and Sapphira is a tale that still lives on in our lives today. I could try and settle any fears about this passage by telling you that the writer was only trying to convey a message through the use of gallows humor, dark humor, or that the reading shares similarities with epics that could have been found in surrounding cultures. But let’s stick to what we are told this morning with the hope that we will gain a new perspective and a renewed sense of where the Spirit of God is calling us to go.
So what are the told this morning? What are the facts? We know that at this time there is a spirit of giving, a spirit of generosity that had worked its way into the early church… Previously in the Book of Acts we find that, “Everyone around was in awe – all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all believers lived in harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.” (Acts 2:43-45) Those initial believers came together to live in community with one another, a community that sought to utilize the collective good of all it’s members in order to care for those in the church and to even care for those who lived around them.
This spirit of pouring blessings upon one another had spread throughout, and apparently had made its way to Ananias and Sapphira who sold a piece of property with the intention of giving all of the proceeds to the apostles. But something happened and we find that as a result Ananias and Sapphira withheld a portion of the of the profits instead of fulfilling their word to give it to God. The writer of the Book of Acts said that Ananias and Sapphira were “conniving,” scheming, with one another. However, I think there was some editorial work done… I don’t think Ananias and Sapphira sat the money down on a table, looked at one another, and said, “Hey, I have a good idea… Why don’t we lie to God?” No… I think the conversation that occured was similar to ones that happen in our own lives and is a honest reflection of what we wrestle with, “You know we have taxes to pay to the Romans?… We still have other expenses that might come up… What if something were to happen?”
Like I said I don’t think that Ananias and Sapphira set out with the intention to sell property in order to lie to God, because no one sets out with that goal in mind. It might be anachronistic, but I imagine that if Ananias and Sapphira were alive today they might have added, “You know the costs of your last treatment were more expensive than what we were thinking… The kids have school supplies they need… And your parents are looking to retire and I don’t know if we can afford to give them the care that they need…” Ananias and Sapphira probably felt pressure to act in the same spirit of generosity that had swept the church, but like us they probably told themselves, “Let’s keep some to ourselves just in case… God wants me, wants us to take care of ourselves.”
The irony is that there is no passage of Scripture that talks about God helping those who help themselves, or God only caring about those who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps… These are sayings that have become so ingrained in our way of life, but the Gospel actually turns it on it’s head, for wasn’t it Jesus who said to the disciples and the multitude of others who were present, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29) We hear these words, the words that Jesus himself spoke, but we resist them because they challenge us to live into a way of life that takes us outside the universe we have tried to create for ourselves. In the moments that we hold back from others, we are really holding back from God.
What should have us worried this morning is that Ananias didn’t lose his life because he held back some of the money from the property that he sold, the disciples acknowledged that the money was Anania’s and that he had full control over how it was spent… Ananias lost his life because he lied to God. You can’t lie to a church, a community, that is filled with the Spirit of God, because you are lying to God. The discomfort that we feel from this passage stems from the fact that we too lie to God whenever we say that we are dedicated to following Jesus, but try keep some of the gifts for ourselves… How many times have we heard that we want the church to change, to be a place for all people and not just for us? How many times have we refused to share our time, talents, our faith, or abilities with those in need because they didn’t fit our mold for who was deserving of God’s grace, as if we have the right to pass such a judgement on others? But that is the kind of self-less outpouring of love that the Spirit demands, not requests, of us!
We as disciples of Christ, we as the body of Christ, the Church, cannot maintain an iron grasp on the gifts and talents that have been given to us by God… And I’m not just talking about money… Money is the obvious illustration that is used in this passage, and in my opinion an easy way out… I’m also talking about our time, our skills, our abilities to sing, speak, and act, in addition to the multiple ways in which we can be a community that supports one other. In what ways have we held onto certain aspects of our lives, of our church, in order to save it for that “what if” occasion? How many times have we missed opportunities to build relationships with those around us because we selfishly thought that the gifts God gave us were for us and us alone? What I’m essentially asking myself and all of you this morning, “Is when have we given to God with one hand open and the other hand clenched shut like an ironclad trap trying to preserve those things we think belong only to ourselves?”
Maybe it’s time that we shift gears and take a look at where the Spirit is calling us to go in the future with a model of giving that reflects two open hands; instead of one hand open and one hand closed. To look forward maybe all we have to do is look back to see how that spirit of generosity, that spirit of giving, that spirit of care, thrived within the the early days of the founding members of the First Presbyterian Church of Watertown. On June 3, 1803, thirteen men and women assembled in Mr. Burnham’s barn to found a church under the leadership of the Rev. Lazelle. It was determined that all those who were communicants of the church would offer six cents to help defray the cost of a communion table. Six cents may not seem like a lot, but we’re talking about a large percentage when we look at the inflation between 1803 and today.
Those who have come before us did not have much… They were pioneers of Northern New York, trailblazers who established a community of faith to serve those who were around them. Now I can’t say that I finished reading the book that chronicles the history of this church, but I imagine that there were times where things weren’t good… I imagine there were times when people were exclude, where money became more important than people, and times where going to church might have been more for gaining social capital than for actually worshipping God… Yet through all of those times I bet that there were those who still made an offering to God, the kind of offering that Ananias and Sapphira wanted to make… Those who never stopped living life with two hands open instead of one knowing that God would be there with them.
The passage this morning is tough… But sometimes we need a tough passage to shake things up, to break us from lives that are either complacent or stagnant. Now I’m not advocating that you go out and sell your land or other goods, because I think we might come close to being a borderline cult… However, the simple truth is that we cannot go about our lives saying that we offer what we have to God when we have one hand behind us clenched shut. So what are we going to do? It’s one thing to say that we will offer what we have to God and that we will be a community of faith for all people, but it’s another things to then follow up putting our words into actions. God knows all about the “what ifs” of life, and hurdles that are associated with them… That is why we have this thing called the church… So how will we let the Spirit of God use what we have to better those who are our neighbors and ourselves? Will we strain to preserve them for ourselves? Or will we trust that God will work for the greater good that purifies our selfish desires and turns them into oceans of unending love? Amen.