Tuesday, May 9, 2017

All Things in Common -- Fourth Sunday in Easter

Acts 2:42-47
May 7, 2017

            We believe that we are all one, that the material and spiritual are one,
and the spirit is identical and one in all of creation.
            We believe that marriage, childbirth and death are sacraments of our church.
We agree that child rearing and care of the elderly is a holy responsibility.
We believe that being truthful and compassionate is instrumental to living together in peace and as a community.
We agree to be honest and compassionate in our relationships with each other.
We agree to resolve any conflicts or disagreements in a nonviolent manner.
We believe that humanity must change to survive.
We agree to participate in that change by accepting feedback about ourselves.
We agree to accept personal responsibility for our actions.
We believe that inner peace is the foundation for world peace.”[1]
These statements are from The Farm’s website. They are some of the principles that members of The Farm agree to as part of their life together. The Farm is an intentional living community in Summertown, Tennessee, south of Nashville. According to the website, The Farm began in 1971 when 80 school busses filled with hippie type folks rolled onto a cattle farm they had purchased in Tennessee with a banner that proclaimed their intention to change the world.
The Farm is a commune, started by a bunch of idealistic hippies that caravanned their way from San Francisco to Tennessee. They have been in existence for 45 years, for as long as I can remember. In fact I do remember watching an interview with the two main founders of The Farm, Steve and Ina Mae Gaskin, on one of the local news programs. They were hippies, no doubt about it. I imagine that there was controversy surrounding The Farm and its practices over the years, but it is still there. It is still there and thriving. They have outreach programs such as Plenty International. They have a renowned Midwifery Service. When a longtime friend’s stepdaughter was expecting her first child, she delivered at The Farm. They have retreats for adults and bring inner city kids into the country to experience nature. They teach and model sustainable living. Obviously, with the existence of a website and a Facebook page, they have moved with the times. And while I was perusing their website for this sermon, I discovered I could sign-up for an e-newsletter for green gardening tips and information about programs. So I did. The Farm may have its place in the cyber world of the 21st century, but that does not take away from the fact that they are a commune started by hippies 45 years ago; an intentional community dedicated to life together.
 Although the conversations that led Stephen Gaskin to begin The Farm happened when he was invited to speak by a group of ministers, I am not trying to imply that the Church would be better off if it were a commune. But I use The Farm as an illustration because it is a long time example of intentional living. Intentional is the critical word here. The whole book of Acts is essentially a description of the earliest believers and their life in the early church. The passage before us today tells of the community that formed after Peter’s Spirit-filled sermon on Pentecost. The “they” our passage begins with are the newly baptized believers who welcomed Peter’s message.
            “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”
            This sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? It sounds so easy, so effortless. They were filled with the power and zeal of the Spirit. They were filled with the heady rush that comes with a new belief and understanding. They were in constant awe and amazement because signs and wonders were being done in their midst. The NRSV does not do a great job of translating that particular verse. According to Biblical scholars, it should read “wonders and signs were being done through the apostles” rather than “by the apostles.” By implies that the apostles were performing these wonders by their own power, except they weren’t. It was through the power of God’s Holy Spirit. Even so, the people, these new believers, were witness to amazing miracles.
            What made it even better is that they were all together. They were not scattered hither and yon. They were not isolated from one another, believers alone in hostile communities. Together they were living in a community of support and understanding. They shared this new belief and understanding in common with each other. Not only were they together praising and worshipping in the temple, they were in each other’s homes as well; breaking bread and sharing fellowship with one another.
            They were taking care of one another. They were willing to sell their possessions so every person’s needs would be met. It would be like me selling my mandolin so Alice could go to the doctor or vice versa. It was a lovely, loving, idyllic life together. Certainly, it should be a model to us on how to be the Church with a capital C.
            But the idyllic never seems to last, and that is true for the early church as well. This idyllic fellowship did not last either. In just a few chapters we will read about trouble and dissension. There will be problems and disputes, conflicts and contentions. The church will struggle and grow, struggle and grow. The gentiles will enter the picture, and there will be a division between the Hellenists and the believers in Jerusalem. The church will become institutionalized and bureaucratic, and so on and so on and so on.
            To be fair to this early community, they thought that Jesus was going to come back any minute. It was probably relatively easy to live peaceably with one another when you thought your Messiah was just around the corner. But as the days dragged on, and Jesus did not come, things changed. As I understand my church history, part of institutionalizing the church was out of necessity; it was to keep the church going in what scholars call “the time between times;” the time between when Jesus came into the world and when Jesus will come again.
            The question is what does this mean for us? What does it mean for us today and next Tuesday? We are not privy to the miracles and wonders done by God through the apostles’ on a regular basis. We do not doubt that the Holy Spirit moves in our midst, but we cannot predict where and when it does move. We don’t always feel it or are aware of its presence. As wonderful as it would be to live in this ongoing state of anticipation – the state it seems the early believers were living in – we don’t live like that. We live in the day-to-day, the ordinary.
            What can this example of the early church teach us today? For that matter, what can The Farm teach us today? I know that we are not going to sell all of our possessions and go set up on a cattle farm –although the selling of the old church does feel a little like that. But I think that both examples share one thing in common: intention. The Farm is still around because it is intentional. Its members seek to be together. That early church, those early believers were intentional in how they lived with one another. They sought to live together, to be in fellowship together. Today, more than ever before, I think the church is called to be intentional in our fellowship – not just with one another but with the world. Fellowship isn’t just sharing cookies and punch after worship. Fellowship is being in community with each other, being in relationship with each other. Fellowship is really looking at one another and looking honestly at ourselves. Fellowship is listening to one another, loving one another, even when that love is hard – and it can be very, very hard. Fellowship is about creating community, not because it is a nice thing to do, but because it is a Christ like thing to do.
            That is the heart of the matter. That is what sets us apart from The Farm and any other intentional communities. That is what makes the Church the Church: Christ. We are to be Christ’s body in the world. We are to be Christ to others. People are to see Christ in us. I don’t believe we are called just to speak the gospel; we are called to embody the gospel. We are called to live as Jesus lived and to love as Jesus loved. And it seems to me that if the church is failing in the world, if the church is lacking in relevancy, then it is because we are not doing that. We are not living as Jesus lived, and we are definitely not loving as Jesus loved. Are you willing to sell your possessions to cover another person’s need? Are you willing to sell your possessions to cover another person’s need? Am I? Are we living as Jesus lived? Are we loving as Jesus loved?
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

[1] thefarm.org

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