Pastor Amy continues our series on Just Peace with a sermon that highlights the community-ist vision of the early church and challenges us to communal and individual discernment of how we share resources. We are particularly challenged to think about our heritage as settlers on indigenous lands and how relationship accompanied by reparations might be a way toward a Just Peace ‘that all might live in dignity.’
“To Each As Any Had Need”
There was not a needy person among them, for as many owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold…and it was distributed to each as any had need. Acts 4:37
Sharing such that each one has enough. This culture of generosity among the earliest Christians and the willing sharing if resources was a natural outgrowth of the Spirit which enlivened the early church. In the description of the people of the way following Pentecost, the community is described as dwelling in worship and fellowship, sharing what they have with each other and ensuring that no one was in need.
It is a beautiful image of community. And it’s an ideal that many think is unattainable. This is one of those biblical examples that we and many other Christians may feel is meant for monastic communities, perhaps, or an experimental communal household of idealistic 20-somethings right out of college (from personal experience) but not for ‘real’ life. Sure we can be generous. But that trusting and extravagant generosity is not realistic.
What strikes me about the description of the early community is that it is exactly that – trusting of the community. And what I read between the lines is that the giving is out of the joy of offering to those who need out of the abundance of those with enough to share. To me this sounds like a description of a community practiced in discernment. Both personal discernment: How much do I need? What can I let go of (the examples of lands and houses are given in the text.) What is too much? It is an honest and Spirit-filled assessment. And discernment in community: Who is in need? Where can we do the most good? Where is the excess?
Luke, the author of Acts, gives an example, following the text quoted above from Acts 4, of a man named Joseph, called Barnabas: ‘Son of Encouragement.’ His name suggests that his gifts arise out of concern for his fellow Christians. Ananias and Sapphira follow as example not of withholding generosity, but of deceit. They are dishonest in their discernment and dishonest in their practice of giving – pretending to the community that they have given all, while holding some back. If they truly had felt they needed those proceeds for themselves they could have been open about that in their community, where the intention and practice was to distribute as each had need.
We are now faced, in this Jubilee season, with discernment questions about how much we need and how we will both share it and care for each other through our programs, staffing and other resources. It is a season in which we will (hopefully) do honest discernment of the needs of the congregation and we will be challenged to do personal discernment about our individual needs and where we are called to lay our resources down in sharing. Even in this coming budget discernment, we will be called to realize that our wealth is not an endless and bottomless pool (particularly in our current spending pattern) but it is enough. SLT just looked at and affirmed Stewardship Council’s recommendation of a new investment policy which will increase our risk such that we can continue to withdraw from our endowment at the rate that we do to support our programs and ministries generously. And we will still be trusting the generosity of individuals and households to maintain our endowment.
The description of the early church community fit well with how Tink Tinker describes as “the American Indian worldview” in Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry. Western European social structure and the structure of the church tend very much toward a linear and hierarchical structure in the ordering of life and economies. Tinker describes a worldview which “to the contrary, generates a social construct that eschews up-down hierarchies in favor of lateral social constructs that are much more egalitarian and predicated on balance and harmony.” He goes on that such a worldview “does not imply neutralizing or a dismissal of the uniqueness of persons…within the greater whole.” [i] He clarifies that while some might look at this flatter take on sharing of resources as ‘communist’, what it really is, is “community-ist.” It is a worldview, then that values discernment of sharing which sees that resources go to each as any has need.
Melissa’s elementary aged Sunday school class was talking about fairness a couple weeks ago. And they used an image I’ve seen on the internet in various iterations. (One of them pictured below) It shows three people trying to see a baseball game from behind a fence. Each of the people is a different height. Each person has one box to stand on. As you might imagine, the tall person can see just fine. The middle person can see pretty well, but the one box is still not enough for shorty-pants. And that cell is captioned “Equality”. Fair’s fair, right? But a next cell, captioned ‘justice’ shows the shortest person standing on two of the boxes, the baseball game in full few (and if it’s the Cubs, that friend is pretty happy to have them). Middle bear has one box and also has a full view and the tall one, who never needed a box is standing on the ground. To each as any had need.
When I was a kid – one of 13 cousins across a span of about that many years – my grandma thought it was important that we all were treated fairly. At Christmas time, that meant that we all got exactly the same gift. Because that’s what’s fair. Invariably it meant that what we got was not something personal and meaningful but something generic and ‘useful’. Not that I can’t appreciate socks or pajamas, or (one year) a sleeping bag. I understand that there’s a big element of this making things easier for Grandma, but also that it had really nothing to do with what we needed. I already had a sleeping bag.
Perhaps some of you have heard the expression, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” But maybe it’s true too that when you’re used to equality, justice feels like oppression. Tall-y McStretcherson probably doesn’t like his view quite as well as with a box underfoot. What I hope is that we may come to a place where we may come to understand that our wellbeing is tied up together. That we can be community-ist in our approach and give to each as any has need.
I am not suggesting that this is simple. I’m not that much of a dummy. God’s purpose for creation is, as we hear in Isaiah, a world in which God’s people will build houses and live in them, shall plant and eat, shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity. But as the Ecumenical Call to Just Peace states,
“The journey is difficult. We recognize that we must face up to truth along the way. We come to realize how often we deceive ourselves and are complicit with violence. We learn to give up looking for justifications of what we have done, and train ourselves in the practice of justice. This means confessing our wrong-doings, giving and receiving forgiveness and learning to reconcile with each other.”
I would suggest we need also confess the wrong-doing of our ancestors, to admit our continued complicity and to repair the damage, both relational and economic. While I said earlier that the church and society have tended to view the early church as too idealistic to be a realistic way to live in the world, Anabaptists have tended to take the Acts community’s way of life more seriously than some other Christian groups. Just as we’ve taken the sermon on the mount and teachings about peace seriously. Hutterites, for sure have. Throughout history Mennonites too, which not holding everything in common, have lived in colonies supported mutual aid and sharing. And Mennonites have continued generosity through service and aid organizations.
Historically though, we have rarely thought about at what cost our shared wealth comes at the expense of those among whom, or on whose land we’ve settled. We have shared among ourselves, growing wealth, while communities around us grow in poverty – and in resentment. My ancestors in what is now the Ukraine settled indigenous land then became economically very wealthy compared to their neighbors – insular – a pattern repeated in colonies in Paraguay and central America. And, while farmers in Saskatchewan, the home of my ancestors, or here in Washington, my current home did not settle in colonies, they most certainly farmed and built on land on which indigenous people had lived and made their living. We worship on land that is home to the Duwamish.
How can we take a page out of both the Acts church – discerning the true needs of each and giving to any as each has need – and of the American Indian non-hierarchical community-ist vision? Among the suggestions of what to do with our collective wealth – our properties and endowment – has risen the idea of reparations. If you participated in one of the conversations about campus planning in the past months, you’ll have had an opportunity to hear this statement:
“If SMC sells property, decision will need to be made with regard to the use of fund realized from the sale. …SMC is embarking on a two-year Jubilee process starting this fall. The Campus Planning team recommends that decisions regarding the use of fund realized from the sale of property be considered as part of the larger Jubilee discernment process. The Campus Planning Team also recommends that as a part of the Jubilee process, consideration be given to reparations – returning money/land to the people to whom the land originally belonged.”
A sentiment that was expressed in my group went even further: ceding decision making about all of our resources, that would be truly jubilee.
Acts 2, the description of the Spirit-filled church, those are jubilee texts, written by the same author – Luke – who wrote Jesus’ standing in the synagogue and speaking those words of release and leveling. The Acts community and that way it discerns need and sharing is a natural extension of Jesus’ Jubilee message.
I watched a short film this week called Reserve 107. It’s the story of a landless band – the Young Chippewayan, who like the Duwamish are not official recognized. In 1887 the government of Canada signed a treaty with the Chippewayan creating Reserve 107 at Stony Knoll Saskatchewan. In the ten years that followed, the band, who had trouble subsisting as farmers, scattered around the province and their land was sold out from under them to Mennonite and Lutheran farmers. The Epp homestead is only a few miles southeast down gravel roads.
In the seventies, a few remaining Young Chippewayan tribe approached the municipality of Laird, the village that grew up there to state a claim. That was the first step that began 30 years of conversation between tribe members and landowners. MCC Sask got involved. Little by little relationships were formed. And in 2006 a memorandum of understanding was signed between Mennonites, Lutherans and the Young Chippewayan. It gives thanks to the Creator, states a respect for the Treaty 6 as a covenant document and pledges to work together to bring resolution to the issues that history left. Together, fundraising continues toward lineage research for those descended from the Young Chippewayan and to buy back land, while not letting the Canadian government off the hook for that financial responsibility.
These folk are still working out the discernment of how to distribute to each as has need. They’re doing it together. We are of course not in the same kind of situation. The population of the Seattle metro area is 3 times that the population of all of Saskatchewan and more people equals more complexity. But I find hope in relationship, in open hearts, in covenant and in a commitment to a just peace in which all will live in dignity.
May our discernment of being Just Peace people be, for ourselves and for our congregation, one in which we seek the dignity of all and in which we are open-hearted enough, generous enough, to share with each as any has need.
[i] Tink Tinker, “Why I do not believe in a creator,” Buffalo Shout Salmon Cry, ed. Steve Heinrichs, Harrisonburg VA: Herald Press, 2013, 170.