A sermon based on Psalm 133 and Acts 4:32-5:11 preached on April 19th, 2015
Let me confess to you right off the bat that the Book of Acts is not my favorite. It’s a very important book that describes the goings on of the early church and how after the death and resurrection of Jesus the apostles proclaimed the Gospel to others. But the Book of Acts, I feel, is full of exaggerations: a thousand of people here and 5,000 people there come to faith in Jesus all at once. The book of Acts says things like this over and over again. I wonder if that really happened. I read the miracle stories that Peter and Andrew perform throughout Acts, and I wonder why we the people of the Church 2,000 years later can’t perform the same miracles.
There are also 19 sermons throughout the book of Acts, so I hope you might forgive me if I say it comes off a little preachy—okay, very preachy. And then we come to a story like this. This is a story about one of the first Christian communities, and if it’s indeed true, it’s enough to break your heart about the Church today.
But, this story makes me ask skeptical questions:
Did this really happen or is this more of their dream about what could have been?Did everyone really think this was a good idea?
If you ask an economist, she or he would tell you that this sort of community would be unsustainable. There’s no way it would’ve worked. An idea like this can only end in disaster.
This story, the way it’s always been told to me, makes me think of Kool-Aid, and matching tennis shoes, and comets stopping by to lend us all a ride. But, what does this story of one of the earliest Christian communities have to say to us today, if anything?
Let’s fight with this text and see if it yields anything for us to carry out of here, to inform our faith, and use in our lives.
I was never good at doing homework. I really wasn’t all that of an engaged student until I went off to college. Out of all the reading assignments given to me from 1st grade through 12th, I might have actually completed 20. Maybe.
One of the few that read, probably because it was one of the shorter reading assignments I got, was a short story entitled The Ones Who Walked Away From Omellas by an author named Ursala LeGuin. From the moment I read it, this story stuck to me.
It’s a story of a town full of boisterous and joyful people who live charmed lives. In their town of Omellas there’s no bad news, no sickness, no lack of food. Everyone is happy and has everything they need. There was no need for politicians or kings or laws or people to enforce them. The people of Omellas knew what sadness or lawlessness of injustice was, but they never lived it. All they lived was kindness and perfect communion and boundless and generous contentment.
Omellas seemed like utopia. But it wasn’t. There was one thing. One unmentionable thing. One huge secret that everyone there knew but dared not speak a word about.
There was a basement underneath one of the many beautiful public buildings in Omellas, and in that basement was a closet—a mop closet with one locked door and no windows. It was dirty and wet, moldy and foul-smelling. And there resided the town’s one secret.
In that closet sat a child. Naked and voiceless.
Nobody knew the child’s gender, so whenever they thought or spoke of the child, they referred to the child as an “it.”
It was fed a half a bowl of cornmeal and grease once a day. Sometimes the people of Omelas would visit it, but they were mostly children who just stared into the closet, speechless, frightened out of their minds at the sight of this nameless child.
Everyone in Omelas knew this child was there, but there was nothing they could do about it, because if the child was brought up into the sunlight, and cleaned, and comforted—on that day, that very hour, all the prosperity and beauty and delight that filled the lives of every other resident of that town would be no more. There would be no darkness to compare their light to. There would be no suffering for them to compare their joy to. And who would throw away their happiness and the happiness of a thousand other neighbors just so this one nameless child might live?
Every resident of Omelas carried around a guilt that was unbearable, but it had to be bared so that they might live their lives comfortably. Some who had seen the child could not stand to live in that town any longer. Those people were the ones who walked away from Omelas.
This story has haunted me for most of my life, ever since the time I read it back in middle school. I read it for the second time in my life just yesterday. And for some reason, whenever I read this passage from Acts, this short story, The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas, pops into my head.
Our passage for the day starts out by saying that the community of believers was of one heart and mind. Not a thing was withheld from anyone. They shared it all so that there wasn’t a needy person among them. Nobody turned away from anyone, but gave of what they had in response to the great grace that was given to them.
This story from Acts and the short story about the people of Omelas bring a couple questions to the forefront of my mind:
Who do we turn away from in order to pretend that the life we lead and the community that we live in are wonderful? Who lives in the basements of our public buildings—all locked up? Who in our community would we much rather not think about so that we can continue living our lives without sadness or suffering or guilt or shame?
What’s are those things inside of us that we need to bring out into the light so that we might live more authentically—that we might live our lives together in the great grace of Jesus, so that our lives may bear a powerful witness to the resurrection of the Christ?
Martin Luther King, Jr once wrote:
None of us will be free until all of us are free.
Free from the dark and moldy mop closets of hunger. Free from foul-smelling confines of homelessness. Until we all are freed from the windowless rooms of our own apathy—the apathy that makes it all right to live our comfortable lives when there are those not so far from us who suffer.
Some might look at this story from Acts and label it 1st Century communism. I’m not sure it is. Not in the way we understand communism at least. This isn’t about everyone involved taking a vow of poverty. I think the Christians of this early community would say that they practiced radical generosity. A daring kind of sharing. That’s what’s happening here in this story.
This early Church was practicing Easter. These are Christians taking the message and hope of resurrection and practicing it out loud—taking the Good News of the resurrection and living it out over and over again, not only in their words and their worship but in how they lived together, how they made decisions together. This is what it looks like when Christ-followers choose community over self and keep choosing it, again and again, trusting not in their own efforts but in the provision of the community of Christ for their everyday needs. The text says:
An abundance of grace was among them all.
This was a community of Christians who lived among each other and practiced grace.
Real grace. Visible generosity. No one turning away from anyone else, but living for and with each other in beloved community.
Is it economically viable? Maybe not. Are the ideas behind it something we should strive for anyway? You bet they are! This is what Easter living looks like!
We live in a world that is nothing like this, though.
In January, Oxfam came out with numbers that floored me: they said that by next year the world’s richest 1% would own more than half of the world’s wealth. And a few years from now, the richest 11 Americans—11 individual people—will own more than 40% of our country’s money. Currently, it’s estimated that 15.7 million children live in poverty.
What is the response of the people of God who believe in the power of the resurrection? Does our Easter faith have anything to proclaim in the face of such evil? I think it does.
I’ve been listening to Pink Floyd since high school. I know it’s hard for you to believe just looking at me, but I grew up listening to some pretty heavy music, Pink Floyd being the most presentable of it all.
They have a song on their album A Momentary Lapse of Reason called On the Turning Away. I love the words in this song because I think they tell us about how we should respond to the Good News of Good Friday and Easter.
Here’s the video:
Here are some of the lyrics:
No more turning away
From the pained and troubled.
No more turning away
From the weak and the weary
No more turning away
From the coldness inside.
Just a world that we all must share
It’s not enough just to stand and stare.
Is it only a dream that there’ll be
No more turning away?
Don’t accept that what’s happening
Is just a case of others’ suffering
Or you’ll find that you’re joining in
The turning away.
I think that captures the attitude of the cross and of the resurrection.
Jesus didn’t turn away from the cross. He faced it. Head on. And in His resurrection He conquered the very darkness and evil that sent Him to the cross.
So we, we who are Easter people, are asked to practice the same thing. We who follow the One who didn’t turn away from the world’s suffering must not turn away from the suffering of those who stand right in front of us—in this town—in any of our communities. Just like Martin Luther King, Jr. said,
None of us will be free until all are free.
That is the cross we bear as the people of Christ.
Let there be no more turning away.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!