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As a kid, Sunday school often featured vanilla wafers and Kool-Aid. I can remember scenes of an acrobatic Jesus who would flip and fly and refuse to participate in felt board presentations. But I also remember those wonderful watercolor drawings that would tell a story. There would be pharaoh up to his neck in frogs. There was that pillar of fire reflecting light on the faces of those former slaves fleeing Egypt. I can remember the dust and demolition of Jericho's walls tumbling and crumbling down!
Such scenes put into my childhood mind a question, perhaps my first theological question. What miracle in the Bible was the most difficult for God to do? Surely miracles must come with degrees of difficulty. Like for a magician-I know that for a magician it has to be easier to pull a rabbit out of a hat than it is to saw a person in two. Isn't it? It has to be. Well, how about for God?
I began to think whether it was it harder for God to tear down the walls of Jericho or to split the Red Sea. Certainly the Red Sea would take more concentration and muscle, don't you think? But, then, is it harder to split the Red Sea or walk on water? I'm still guessing that God must have had his hands full with the Red Sea. But dividing the Red Sea has to be a whole lot easier than creating the heavens and the earth. But what was the most difficult miracle for God? As a kid, it was my first theological question.
Well, now, as an adult and after years of theological education and much research, I think I have the answer. The most difficult miracle that ever took place in scripture can be found...drum roll please...Acts chapter 2! "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."
That's got to be it! Don't you think God would have an easier time of making the walls tumble down or walking on water than getting any human being to sell their "possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need"? Don't you think that if God were to take another whack at it today, God would have an easier time parting the Red Sea than getting any of us to part with our money or our worldly possessions?
Can you imagine any pastor getting up before the congregation and saying, "I sense the Spirit is leading all of us toward a communal ethic of sharing and caring, so if you would, please cash out your savings and trade in your cars and next week we'll pool our resources to help those in the community who may have need"?
What would be the response? My guess..."the Pastor Nominating Committee will be gathering on Monday evening to begin the search for our next pastor." I just think we all have limits to what we'll give to the church. I know I do. I have to think about paying bills, the tough economy, getting my kids through college, and I really need to get one of those new flat screen TVs. I just can't imagine giving it all away. Bringing my net worth down, down, down, so that others can come up, up, up!
God would have to make that happen, and I think it would take all of God's power and muscle and might to get people like me to part with my hard earned standard of living. It would be some miracle.
But it is exactly that miracle that Luke writes about over and over and over. The coming of Jesus brings about an economic change!
We hear it when the pregnant Mary sings,
"My soul magnifies the Lord, the Mighty One has done great things for me...He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty." (Luke 1:46, 50-53)
Did you hear that? The rich are brought down; the poor are lifted up!
You hear it again, when Jesus preaches his first sermon,
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
...to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Well that's the year of Jubilee, mentioned in Leviticus 25 where there is amnesty and sharing, hope for the poor, distributing of wealth. The rich come down and the poor rise up.
You hear it in the beatitudes, "Woe to the rich! Blessed are the poor. Woe to those who are full...Blessed are those who are hungry."
You hear it in the parables. There was a rich man who was so rich he didn't know what to do with his surplus. "I know what I'll do, I'll tear down my barns and build larger ones. I will eat, drink and be merry!"
"You fool" is the response from God! "This very night your soul is required of you."
And then there's poor Lazarus covered with sores sitting outside the rich man's gate, longing for what fell from the rich man's table. But then what happens...The death of the rich man, the death of Lazarus-a reversal of fortunes. Lazarus is raised...up, up, up...into the caring arms of Father Abraham. The rich man...down, down, down....
And, again, it is only Luke who tells the story of the chief tax collector Zacchaeus, high up, up, up in a tree; and then at the Lord's command, Zacchaeus flips and flies down, down, down. Reaching bottom, what does Zacchaeus do? Why, he does the miraculous. He sells off half his wealth, gives back four times what he owes. A move that causes Jesus to exclaim, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham." (Luke 19:9)
I'm just saying that Luke is trying to make a point! It's the economy, stupid! Followers of Christ are to be involved in a miracle, selling possessions and goods and distributing the proceeds to all, as any have need. That is one tough miracle. I just can't imagine that lasting very long, and maybe it didn't.
After all, we hear only a little later in Acts about Ananias and Sapphira holding and hiding some of their property from the rest of the community.
It probably didn't take the church very long to go from "glad and generous hearts" and be more like what Paul had to write about...always appealing..."by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you. It has been reported to me...that there are quarrels among you." (I Corinthians 1: 10-11) Quarrels and fighting and selfishness...now that sounds more like church!
It must have been some miracle, even if it occurred for a moment in time. How did God get all those people to loosen up their grips on their wallets and sell off all their stuff? Difficult back then but I would darn near say it would be impossible today. We're so entrenched in getting and having and owning.
Our Sunday mornings are not filled with water color Sunday school paintings of people sharing and caring as much as they're filled with glossy, full color circulars that spill out of our Sunday paper and say to us, "You really must have this!" "Come on, indulge yourself!" "Don't be the last on your block to own one of these!" The American people are called consumers, and consumers are never full; always wanting more!
Sadly, I've seen families leave the funeral crying and weeping and saying, "Grandma was the sweetest person in the world; I'm so going to miss grandma!" But soon after grandma's will is read, dear old angelic grandma has grown horns and a tail. "What was grandma thinking giving her money to the orphanage and leaving us all to be orphans? How could she be so cold! I hope we can get that down payment back on the motor home. Thanks a lot, Grandma!" It's sad but true!
Having and getting and wanting is a big part of who we are. Now I've heard congregations pray for people to be healed of cancer. I've heard people pray to have their eyesight restored. I've heard people pray for a life to be turned around, to get better jobs. But I've never heard anyone pray for the miracle that Luke writes about again and again and again-that with the coming of Jesus the rich are brought down, down, down, the poor are lifted up, up, up! "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."
Come on Luke, we live in the real world!
I remember back when I was a youth minister. One of the parents of our youth had the desire to show the rest of the youth what the real world was like. It was a lesson in world economics. The idea was simple. We would gather the 30-plus youth in the fellowship hall and present to them a feast. But before the kids were allowed to eat, they would be divided into groups representing the size and wealth of the people in the world. Two kids were selected to represent the economically wealthy nations of the world, and those two received one hundred dollars in play money to share between them. It was more than enough money to fill their plates up with anything on the menu: steak and potatoes; hamburgers; fries; dessert; soda. Ten more of the youth were selected to represent the less wealthy of the world, and they were given forty dollars of play money to share amongst themselves. Well, that could still buy some food, but they would have to share and agree what they wanted and then receive smaller portions. The twenty or so who were left-well you guessed it-they would receive only a few dollars and really the only thing that would be affordable and easy for them to buy and divide would be rice!
The parents worked hard setting it all up and presenting the program. They set up all the food; one of the parents sat at the end of the chow line as a cashier at the World Bank. It would show the kids what the real world is like. Make them aware of their blessings.
And so the program got underway. The two from the rich nations got up. "See those two rich people. See how much food they're getting." The next group went up. "Look kids, they're not getting nearly as much. They are going to have to share! Okay now, you who represent the rest of the world. What are you going to do? How are you going to feed yourselves?"
Well, they went through the food line filling up their plates. "Look guys, you can't fill up your plates, and you don't have money for it. Now don't make us make you put back your food! You don't have the money!" And with plates full one by one they came to the cashier handing her a huge wad of bills. What?
What happened was that one of the youth had been tipped off in some way to this great world experiment and had found the play money we would be using for this event on my desk, and he photocopied it and shared it with all who represented the poor in the fellowship hall.
I could have killed him...
Those who were supposed to receive rice were filling their plates, picking up hamburgers and hotdogs, slaw and baked beans. They even bought the white table cloth and the candelabra from those who were sitting at the table set for the rich.
I could have killed him...It was suppose to be a lesson on the real world!
One of the parents shook his head and said, "Just look at this hall."
And I did, and there were all those youth, laughing and smiling and throwing the money in the air, giving and receiving, shaking their fists at the world order. I had to shake my head, too, and smile and laugh.
Well, I don't know if that fellowship hall fiasco proves my point or disproves it. I don't know, but that scene has never been erased from my memory. Now I've never seen a watercolor painting of Acts chapter two, but I can't help to think that it must have looked a whole lot like that scene in that fellowship hall.
Now the longer I've been in the church, the more I see that scene repeated. Repeated with different faces. There was that time at the close of the Bible study that one of the members reported about a woman who had her home destroyed by fire, and what happened was this: Within 24 hours that Bible study had for that woman gift certificates to buy new clothes, bags full of household items, food, furniture, linens, a TV, curtains. The joy on that woman's face when they arrived!
And then there was that time on the hottest day of the year where I watched as some folks from the church going up and down ladders lifting up plywood, rolling out tar paper, hammering down shingles on a Habitat Home. Up and down, up and down! The future homeowner working right alongside, shaking her head in disbelief of all the care and love she was receiving. I know that's not exactly Acts chapter 2...
But then I remember after Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast. The government bureaucracy couldn't get through the red tape. But so many congregations saw the need and knew immediately what to do. Vans full of bottled water and food, pickup trucks and chainsaws and crowbars and cleaning supplies, ready hearts and hands. Still needed...still needed...always needed...too many hungry, too many poor in this real world.
But, you know, I could be wrong about that most difficult miracle. Maybe it really is a breeze. A breeze we need to catch over and over again, making the real world see the power of the resurrection at work in us! Sharing and caring, celebrating and laughing, praising God with glad and generous hearts!
Let us pray.
Gracious and loving God, we pray that we may continue to have the power of the resurrection at work among us. May we be energized by your Holy Spirit to give you joy and praise, to see how much we have been given and how much we can give away. Help us to be miracle workers so that the hungry are fed, the poor are lifted up and everyone has Good News brought to them. In your Son's names we pray. Amen.
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