Sunday, June 12, 2016

Before the Church was a Building, 3: Sharing as Investing, Acts 4:32-37

Sharing as Investing
Commerce Presbyterian Church
By Rev. C. Craig Topple
June 12, 2016

In anticipation of a new pastor coming, as a way to get our bearings a bit, we are looking at marks of the early church.  We see the early church, as people,
- publicly caring, healing of man in front of the temple.
- People living with Conviction - willing to do what they believe God is calling them to do even at great risk
And today, we find a sharing community of believers.  

Sharing. Ruby Gene taught me a lot about sharing when she was smaller.
Once in the winter, just shy of her second birthday, we were outside and it was freezing cold.  Trasie had on a thick coat and gloves, I had a coat but no gloves. Ruby Gene initially felt she didn’t need either one.  But, her mother insisted and her mother won.  
After Ruby had them on, something wasn't right.  She saw I didn't have any gloves. "Papa, manos, guantes" she shouted in spanish--her first language.  "Daddy, hands, gloves!”
I told her I didn’t have any. “No tengo guantes.”  She did not like it that my hands were exposed to the elements.  So what does she do?  She takes off her gloves, and insists I take hers and put them on, which I attempted to do--they nearly ripped.  21 months old, such a sharing spirit!

A few months before this, we were sitting in a restaurant, Ruby was in a high chair already eating when a little boy about her age was seated with his family in a high chair a few booths down.  She noticed the child, and looked over there several times. Again, something wasn’t right. She asked to get down from her highchair, and once down, she squeezed a chunk of bread in her fist and walked over to her little neighbor holding out her hand, like some kind of love offering.  She had seen the boy didn’t have any food yet.  The boy took it.  All of us parents were just laughing and admiring this sharing spirit.  

Well, that was before she was two.  By contrast, after she turned two, we were eating dinner and a piece of bread was on a plate in front of her.  I slowly reached for it; she saw my move toward the bread and she reached out and snagged it and said, “My pan,” Spanglish for, “My bread.”  “Will you give me a little?” I pleaded.
“No.  It’s mine.”
“Please, por favor?” I persisted.
After going on like this for a while, she pinched a microscopic crumb from the bread and enthusiastically handed that crumb to me, “AquĆ­ papa.” “Here you go dad.”  
That was my share of the bread.

Sharing. Sharing often times comes quite natural and easy.  There are times when I see someone in need or someone asks me for something I am perfectly willing and happy to share.  
Yet, sharing often times is quite difficult, seemingly impossible.
There are times when I see someone in need, or someone asks me for something, and I say no for any number of justifiable reasons.

There are two narratives on display when it comes to sharing.  One is what has been called the narrative of abundance--which says there is plenty to go around, so there is no problem sharing because we can trust that we and everyone will have enough--more than enough, there is an abundance.  God can be understood through a narrative of abundance: We say things like, God provides out of abundant love, abundant grace, and abundant mercy. We say God is a generous God.  This understanding of God might lead to more of a willingness to share.  

There is a competing narrative about sharing which would suggest that there is scarcity--there is not enough to go around. What happens when we feel there is not enough to go around?
And again when thinking about God, What if we believe God’s love, God’s grace, God’s provision is scarce--limited?  How might that affect a willingness to share?    

We can see how these narratives play out in a variety of scenarios.
There are times when crops are abundant, and everyone is buried in yellow corn!
There are times when the water is low, there doesn’t seem to be enough--California has been in a drought for many years now, and there are serious worries and significant litigation over water there.

Water and sharing reminds me of a scene from the movie The Three Amigos, with Steve Martin, Martin Short and Chevy Chase.  These wanna be cowboys dressed in black suits lined with sequins and big sombreros are on an odyssey like quest, They are riding horseback through a long stretch of desert.  The high scorching sun is bearing down on them.  
They’re leaned over in exhaustion. They stop for water, facing one utters a word. First, Steve Martin opens his canteen, turns it up, and out comes a desperate trickle of water which barely wets his tongue.  
Then in the same way, Martin Short opens his, turns it up, and an outpouring of dust goes into his mouth and all over his face.  Finally, oblivious Chevy Chase, opens up his canteen, turns it up, and there is an outpouring of cold abundant water.
He gulps, he gargles and spits, it drips down his body.
The others are shocked and speechless. Once finished, he throws it aside and the remainder pours into the cracked desert sand.  He then pulls out lip balm, of all things, and after ensuring his lips are fully “balmed”, he turns to his companions, sees their looks of desperation, and makes an offer to address their need, “Lip Balm.”

Our world is one in which for any number of reasons there is a disparity in distribution of resources.
Some have more than they need, an abundance,
while others have a trickle to get by on, or are desperately needy.
The early christian community faced this reality and it is truly fascinating to see the practice they implemented as a result of this disparity:
“No one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

What does this sound like?

This approach of the early church attempts to merge a narrative of abundance with a narrative of scarcity. An ancient simple community of faith practices a form of wealth distribution--an economic theory--which has been studied and applied in various ways--from small communities to governments over centuries.   
Aspects of this early christian practice seem noble, aspects seem fanciful and impractical.

When it comes to abundance, perhaps we can see in this early practice the importance of sharing; Of our possessions it has been said, if we cannot give our possessions away, we do not own them, they own us.

Regarding needs--it may be important to better understand what needs are--
wants and needs can easily be confused. When we have need we can see the importance of calling upon others to help, the apostles saw the importance of this, better than to turn to more extreme and harmful measures, or harbor resentment when life is not going the way one might hope.

While this passage clearly is about material possessions sold and material needs met,  
we can see how abundance and scarcity play out in our spiritual lives as well.
Sometimes we have abundance of joy that we can share, especially with those who are struggling and experiencing difficulty.

When it comes to this practice of sharing in the early church, we actually practice a form of this wealth distribution by accepting monetary tithes and offerings, and allowing the elders to set the budget based on those gifts.

But, undoubtedly this practice of sharing by the early church is complicated for us on a number of levels.  One is simply the notion of sharing.  The way our society is structured, sharing, comes with significant baggage. Sharing can lead to obligations, paternalism, unhealthy dependency, burdensome and awkward types of encounters…especially when there remains a disparity in wealth. Offering: I will share this portion of what I have with you.
Response: Thank you for your mercy and compassion and pity.

What if we change the understanding a bit. What if, where abundance and scarcity merge together in community--as it always will--instead of a sharing type of relationship, we switch the dynamic to one of investing.  Instead of sharing with one another, we see ourselves as investing in one another. After all, what is investment? Something we hope will mature into something beneficial for ourselves and others. We invest time, energy, and yes, money into businesses, children, institutions we believe in.  Investment for the future. Investments can go sour, but they can also turn into some amazing and unexpected results.

David Gardner, co-founder of a financial service called the Motley Fool tells a story about the importance of investing--investing in people. He tells about Randy Nelson, the one time head of movie studio Pixar’s university--Pixar U.  Today, Nelson is the director of Apple University.  
Nelson started an internal university at pixar, which was seen as a crazy thing--a portion of your time at work in a given week might be to attend a class, and that class might not have anything to do with your job. Getting paid to attend a how to throw a frisbee class!?
Randy Nelson tells the story about how Pixar thought about movies compared to how Disney at the time thought about movies.  A Pixar executive and a Disney executive were at a bar--sounds like the beginning of a joke--Two big execs talking about their respective views of making a movie. The disney guy said, “you know for us, making a movie is all about the big idea.” At the time disney was coming off the success of movies like Lion King, but that had been some years before and Disney animation wasn’t doing so well.  Pixar on the other hand was producing Toy Story and Monsters Inc, they were doing great.  The Disney guy says, “admittedly we’re a little starved for ideas right now.”  The Pixar guys says, “our approach is different. It’s not at all about the big idea, at pixar it’s about the people. Because after all what is a movie. A movie is 10000 different ideas, every single line of dialogue, every character, every camera angle is an individual idea a decision that’s being made. That’s why we invest so much in our people, because if you get your people right, they will come up with the ideas all of which conspire to come together into being a successful movie...?”
If people are the number one asset of your business, you darn well better be supporting them, challenging them, and helping them grow.  (As told on Rule Breakers Investing Podcast, Campfire Stories Vol. 1, What is Better than the Big Idea? June 1, 2016)

Our theme song for this series reminds us, our churches are our people! People are our number one asset. The early church certainly was attracting many people--and was supporting them, challenging them, and helping them grow, offering the message of grace and salvation in Jesus--Those who had different gifts, monetary or otherwise, were sharing with one another, or said differently investing in one another.  

“I am investing in you because I believe in you, I believe God wants to do great things in and through your life and my life together!”
And the response: “wow, thanks for seeing the potential that is within me, and yes, let’s be the church together.”

When we invest in the ministry of this church--a local church, a connectional church--we are investing in people, we affirm that we see the potential within each and everyone of us to become the people God calls us to be. We are empowered by the holy spirit to do the life giving work we are called to do.  When we invest in one another in love as there are needs and opportunities, I can guarantee there will be many amazing and surprising returns on that investment!

Because, yes, we are the church together.