Awe and obligation | 11 May 2014

Text: Acts 2:42-47

At the risk of sabotaging my own sermon by drawing your attention completely away from it, I want to draw your attention completely away from the sermon for a bit and invite you to take out the insert in your bulletins for the 12 and 6 scriptures project.  We figured one way to get high participation was to get it to you while you’re a captive audience and have you at least start to fill it out and maybe even complete it and hand it in before you leave the church today.  Hopefully you’ve caught some drift of this project and know that we are asking each person, young and old, to submit up to 12 of your personal most important and meaningful scriptures and six most personally troubling and difficult scriptures.  From these submissions an adult Sunday school class will discern our congregational 12 and 6 scriptures and we will use these to focus some of our worship themes for the next year as well as help further name our gifts and mission.  At least a couple of you have asked if you can flip the lists so you can name your 12 most troubling scriptures.  So if that’s what you must do, who am I to say to no.  Please proceed.  So, there are pencils in the pews in front of you and I invite each of you, right now, to write at least one scripture reference – a verse, a chapter, the name of a story, on your sheet.  That way you’re already on your way.

One of my favorite quotes about church services comes from the not so religious author Kurt Vonnegut who said that church is a place where we day dream about God.  So, you have full permission to day dream about God for the rest of the morning.  And if you happen to get this filled out before you leave the building, you can place it in the basket at the back of the sanctuary.  You don’t even have to fill out all the blanks.  We would like to have these before next Sunday by paper or email.

Now for the sermon, a sermonette really:

Last week Abbie and I, and Eve and Lily, watched the documentary film Chasing Ice.  This is a 2012 film and has received a number of awards.  The director and crew were up at Methodist Theological School in Delaware and Yvonne Z was kind enough to pick up a free copy for us.  The ice being chased in the film are the glaciers of Iceland, Greenland, and Alaska.  The film tracks photographer James Balog and his team as they set up various time lapse photography stations around the artic to capture a multi-year record of the rapid shrinking of these ancient glaciers.  The pictures of the ice they are able to gather are stunning both in their massive scale and beauty, and in their fragility.  One of the comments James Balog makes early in the film is that numbers and graphs and computer projections of climate change are highly limited in their ability to communicate to the human spirit.  We are rarely changed by statistics.  What we need in this case is something that causes us to be in awe.  Images of beauty, vanishing in front of our eyes.  To quote him directly: “Something that grabs them in the gut.”  The images and the film are indeed all that.  We’re glad to circulate the DVD with whoever wants to view it.  As long as you’ve completed your 12 and 6 scriptures papers!  Just kidding.

Awe cuts to the heart of our consciousness and alters our priorities.

Having this film fresh in my mind may be why, when I read this lectionary passage from Acts about the early believers sharing their possessions, selling pieces of property and distributing the proceeds to those who were in need, and gathering for common meals and prayer, what most stood out to me was the beginning of verse 43 which says, “A sense of awe came over everyone.”  This is all rather remarkable behavior, especially for a bunch of people who don’t necessarily even know each other.  What’s the motivating energy behind it?  “A sense of awe came over everyone.”

This is all happening at the end of Acts chapter 2 and we might remember that this follows on the heels of that first Pentecost after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  A group of believers were gathered in one room, and suddenly there came a sound like rushing wind and it filled the entire house, and all of those gathered were filled with Holy Spirit. One of the key founding moments of the church was an experience of this additional presence among them that we refer to as Holy Spirit.

The presence of the Holy Spirit isn’t like the presence of one more person in the room, like there were 120 people and now there’s 121.  If we say that Holy Spirit is among us this morning it’s not like we put an extra tally on the attendance sheet.  The Spirit doesn’t change the number of people, it changes the betweenness of the people.  “The space between” sang the Dave Matthews Band in a slightly different context.  The Spirit changes the relationships between people, it changes the relationship people have with themselves, it changes perception, changes everything.

The fourth century North African bishop Augustine, one of the most influential thinkers in the history of the church, was pondering all this and suggested that the Holy Spirit is the betweenness of the Father and the Son, of God’s Trinitarian reality.  Augustine said the Father is the eternal Lover, only a Lover by definition cannot exist in isolation and so begets the Beloved, the Son, and the Love flowing back and forth between them is the Holy Spirit.  The strictly male imagery for God doesn’t quite do it for us anymore, but we can imagine the Divine as Lover, Beloved, and Love, and the Holy Spirit is that betweeness, Love itself, which then overflows from the life of God and is poured out on us.  And if you understand that completely, please come up to me after church and explain it to me.

“A sense of awe came over everyone,” and love is put into practice among them.

The Spirit is the energy behind the awe, Love itself, the charged space between people, and it’s certainly not limited to the four walls of a church building.

This reflection is titled “Awe and obligation,” partly because preachers tend to like catchy titles, but mostly because I’m suggesting that there’s a direct relationship between the two.  Awe leads to obligation.  And obligation can lead to awe.

Obligation is not a hip term these days.  Obligations are those things we do before we can do the things that we really want to do.  Obligations cramp our style.  We are not a communitarian oriented culture overall, and so whatever impinges on our individual will is mostly seen as something to be avoided.  But we are not so far gone that we don’t feel obligation toward each other.  Somewhere within us we know that our own well-being is connected to the well-being of others, and that obligations can actually be freeing, because when we build others up we all become a fuller version of ourselves.  In Acts 2 it was this awe, this new sense of the life and connectedness that existed between these people, that brought about this immediate sense of obligation they felt to one another, effecting how they went about their lives.  The meaning of Jesus’ life starting to finally take shape among them.  They start doing things like having meals in each other’s homes, praying for one another, sharing their food “in gladness and simplicity,” as the Common English Bible puts it.  And not only that, but cashing in some of their assets and distributing the funds to everyone who needed them.  Sharing everything.

This practice in Acts 2, named again in Acts 4, has been called the community of goods.

Protestant theologian Ernst Troeltsch referred to this practice as a “communism of love”

Because the early Anabaptists sought to revive the practices of the primitive church they were sometimes in the position of needing to defend themselves against teaching a forceful kind of communism.  Menno Simons wrote a book called A humble and Christian justification and replication – They don’t quite make book titles like they used to.  In that book he wrote:  “This accusation is false and without all truth.  We do not teach and practice community of goods but we teach and testify the Word of the Lord, that all true believers in Christ are of one body.  Seeing then that they are one, as said, it is Christian and reasonable that they also have divine love among them and that one member cares for another, for both Scriptures and nature teach this…They show mercy and love, as much as is in them.”  (Then he goes on to describe many different ways that they do this, and then says,) “This is the kind of brotherhood we teach, and not that some should take over and possess the land, soil, and properties of others, as we are falsely maligned, accused, and lied about by many…”

We can throw others for a loop when we live outside of the norm of what’s mine is mine and what’s yours will hopefully be mine someday.

If you keep reading in Acts, it becomes clear pretty quickly that the early church was a lot more complex and conflicted than just the portrait of Acts 2.  In Acts 6 there is conflict about the Aramaic speaking Jewish widows getting a bigger slice of the goods being distributed than the Greek speaking Jewish widows.  In Acts 15 there’s a massive dispute about whether you even had to become a Jew to be a follower of Jesus the Jew.  The final consensus: No, you don’t, although plenty of people disagreed.  The practices have evolved and adapted to different cultural settings, but this dynamic play between awe and obligation has continued to be with us up to this day.  And conflict continues to be an opportunity for growth and learning.

We continue to live with these questions.

Last week Phil Hart highlighted the R part of BREAD.  Building Responsibility, Equality, And Dignity.  So what is it that causes us to feel responsible to one another?  How do we develop this sense of obligation to help ensure the well-being of our fellow humans, and, in light of Chasing Ice, we might add, the wellbeing of our planet?  How do we cultivate awe?

With this being Mother’s Day and dedicating these two daughters, we ponder the sense of awe and obligation that children bring into our lives.  Sometimes we’re in awe, sometimes it’s purely a matter of carrying out our obligations to parent these lives we’ve been entrustred with.  Parenthood is the constant reminder that this is always grounded in the most routine aspects of every day, like sharing a common space together in the home, laundry, running children to the doctor, changing diapers, putting the dirty one on the floor while you wrestle on the new one, it taking long enough that you forget the dirty one is on the floor, until you step in it.  Not that I know anything about that.  It can be hard.  Sometimes overwhelmingly so.  If it were just obligation without the awe, it wouldn’t work.  Anne Fisher recently interviewed the author of a book about parenting young children titled “All joy and no fun.”  Awe and obligation.

I’m grateful for the sense of awe for the natural world that my mother passed on to me and continues to pass on to me, and am in awe when I consider how she managed to raise us four kids.  Are we raised yet?  Maybe still raising.

I invite us, Columbus Mennonite Church, mothers, and those of us who are not mothers, to think of ourselves as a community of awe and obligation.  The Spirit, Love itself, dances between us, we are filled with a sense of awe, and we live out the liberating obligation to share of ourselves, our homes and possessions, our very lives, with one another and the wider community.