Everything We Need

I have been told that you can’t pick and choose what parts of the Bible you believe. It’s all or nothing. And that if I want to be a real Christian—a real follower of Jesus—I have to believe every chapter and every verse: the easy parts about love and grace; and the hard parts about sin and damnation.

Just like those early believers did, the ones who had heard the good news of Jesus Christ straight from Jesus Christ.

Today is the third and final Sunday in a short summer sermon series on generosity. Next week, summer comes to an end, we’ll have outdoor worship, and we’ll return to the narrative lectionary. Over the course of the year we’ll work through the Old Testament, and the nativity story, and the Gospel According to Mark, and an epistle or two.

But this morning, our reading is from the book of Acts. It’s one of the two places where Luke, the author of Acts, describes life among the members of the early church.

“The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and one soul,” he writes, “and 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 money from the sale and laid it at the apostles’ feet. And it was distributed to each as any had need.”

They took all that they had, and held it in common, and gave to each as any had need, these early believers, these people who had heard the good news of Jesus Christ straight from Jesus Christ.

And you can’t pick and choose which parts of the Bible you believe. You have to believe every chapter and every verse. The easy parts and the hard parts.

And I’m pretty convinced that for us, this is the hardest part. Because it’s about stuff, and we all have stuff, and we all believe in stuff. 

And I’m pretty convinced that for us, this is the hardest part, because it’s about so much more than stuff.

One of my favorite stories in the United Church of Christ is about a guy names Louis Edward Nollau. A long time ago, in the 1850s, he was sent from Prussia—from the Evangelical Church of the Prussian Union—to America. As an evangelist.

He was supposed to land on the East Coast, and travel across the continent, and go to the Pacific Northwest, and preach the gospel to the First Nations peoples there. They would hear the good news of Jesus Christ straight from Louis Edward Nollau.

But he got stuck in St. Louis. And he ended up staying there. And he became the pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Church.

Not too long after that, St. Louis suffered from three cholera epidemics and two major fires, which killed about twenty percent of the population and left a lot of kids without parents. So Nollau went to his church and said, “I think we should start an orphanage.”

And his church said, “Pastor, we don’t have what we need to start an orphanage.”

And I get that. “We don’t have what we need,” is a rallying cry. “We don’t have enough,” is a platform.

We’d love to feed all those hungry people, but where’s the food gonna come from? We’d love to house everyone who is homeless, but there’s not enough housing. We’d love to get everyone who is sick the help they need, but the money’s not there. We’d love to invite all of those immigrants in, but there isn’t enough anything to help everyone.

We’d love to give that mouse a cookie, but we all know where that leads.

We don’t have what we need. We don’t have enough.

And maybe that’s true. I don’t think it is. I have faith that God creates and sustains a world where there is enough and more than enough. But I could be wrong. Maybe we don’t have what we need to help everyone. Maybe there isn’t enough to help everyone.

But when Nollau said, “I think we should start an orphanage.” And when his church said, “We don’t have what we need to start an orphanage.” Nollau replied, “We have exactly what we need to start an orphanage. We have an orphan.”

And, in 1858, a boy named Henry Sam moved into the parsonage. And they had an orphanage.

Maybe it’s true that there isn’t enough to help everyone. I don’t think it is, but I could be wrong.

But I know for sure that we always have enough to offer something to the person in front of us who needs our help.

And sometimes that’s money and stuff. And sometimes that’s heart and soul.

Sometimes, that’s a hot meal. Sometimes, that’s someone to talk to.

Sometimes, that’s permission to sleep in their truck on our street. Sometimes, that’s a shoulder to cry on.

Sometimes, that’s a coat for the winter. Sometimes, that’s saying, “You are loved and worthy of love.”

Sometimes that’s money and stuff. Sometimes that’s heart and soul. Sometimes that’s patience or kindness or hospitality.

And it’s always love.

I have been told that you can’t pick and choose what parts of the Bible you believe. It’s all or nothing.

And I believe that things are a little more complicated than that. I believe that reading the Bible means listening to scholars and paying attention to context and praying for wisdom and asking hard questions. And I believe that the most important criterion we have for any passage—whether it’s an easy one or a hard one—is love.

And this morning’s reading is a hard passage.

Because it tells us that these early believers took all that they had, and held it in common, and gave to each as any had need. These early believers, who had heard the good news of Jesus Christ straight from Jesus Christ.

And in a world where “we don’t have what we need,” is a rallying cry and where “we don’t have enough,” is a platform, it is hard to imagine a community where people shared their money and their stuff so freely that there was no one in need.

And because that’s hard, it can be easy to dismiss. I know.

But it’s even harder than that. Because it’s not just about money and it’s not just about stuff.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely about money and stuff. But it’s not just about money and stuff. Generosity includes money and stuff, and it is bigger than money and stuff. It’s about love.

And the Biblical command to love—the divine commandment to love—can be overwhelming. It can seem like too much. It can make us defensive. It can make us say, “I don’t have what I need… I don’t have enough… to love everyone!”

And that’s true. I do not have enough in me to love everyone. I cannot hold the whole world in my hands: the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, the gamblers and the sinners, the little bitsy baby, and everyone else besides.

But here’s the thing. I don’t have to love everyone. I don’t have to do it all the time. I don’t have to hold the whole world in my hands. That big huge overwhelming job is covered. God has already got that.

All I have to do is love the person in front of me the best I can. All you have to do is love the person in front of you the best you can. All we have to do is love the people in front of us the best we can.

Because when we do that, it multiplies. It spreads. It gets out into the world.

And I know that because when Nollau’s church opened an orphanage, it did that by opening its parsonage to one orphan. And that orphanage became the German Protestant’s Children Home, and then Evangelical Children’s Home, and now Every Child’s Hope. And it serves hundreds of children and families every year.

We start by loving one. I have everything I need to love one. I have more than enough to love one. Anyone can love one.

And then I can love another… and another… and another. And if I do that enough, then a whole lot of people will know love. And if we all do that, then a whole lot more people will know love. 

And loved people love people. And if everyone we love goes out and loves someone…

Then it will be like we all have one heart and one soul, and we will all share freely and readily, and there will be no one in need.

And what a wonderful world that will be. 

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Now available from Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

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