March 4, 2018

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC



Psalm 38:18   Acts 5:1-11

The third in a series of seven.


We are getting closer each week to Easter.  Just four weeks from today.  Each Sunday in this season called Lent we are looking at one single word from God’s Word.  We started with “no”.  You have to say “no” to some things before you can say “yes” to other things.  Last week the word was “yes”.  Having said “no” to that which is not of God, we were ready to say “yes” to God.  And also, to realize that God has first spoken a giant “yes” to us.

So far so good.  In a way, I wish we could stop here.   We’re in a good place.  We’ve said “no” so we can say “yes”.  We’ve run out of Sesame Street intros.   Now that we’ve said “yes” to God we can live happily ever after.  What more do we need?

We need today’s word.  It’s an awful word.  I wish we didn’t need it.  But the Bible says we do and, if we are honest with ourselves, we know we do.  Today’s word is “sorry”.  Psalm 38:18 says, “I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin.”

We have a way of making hard concepts more palatable, and that is certainly true of today’s word.  We don’t like it, so we’ve watered it down.  We’ve turned it into something tame and harmless.  Sorry means “excuse me”.  It means “oops”.  It means “my bad”.  It’s just a quick, easy, painless, socially acceptable way to acknowledge that sometimes we make mistakes.  We’re human after all.  We say “sorry” without thinking, without caring, without feeling bad, without wanting to change.

But the Bible takes this word seriously.  Because the Bible takes sin seriously.  And if we don’t, the “yes” we say we’ve said to God is a lie.  We’re fooling ourselves.   We’re not fooling God.

I usually make sure we’ve had at least one good belly laugh by this point in the sermon, but if you laugh at all today it’s probably going to be nervous laughter.  Because this is the hardest word in the whole series.  It’s the one we would most like to avoid.

We bought a used car a few years ago.  It was in excellent condition, but it still had its original tires.  They weren’t completely bald.  You could see the top of Lincoln’s head when you did that penny test.  I knew the tire salesmen say that means it’s time for new tires, but new tires cost a lot of money, and we had just spent a lot of money on that car.  Besides, it was Helen’s car.

One day Helen came home from work and told me that one of her co-workers had told her it was time for new tires.  I said, “I know.  I’ve been keeping an eye on them.  I think we’re still good for a few more miles.”

Then one day, I think it was the coldest, snowiest day of the year, Helen called me on her cell phone.  She said she had a flat tire.  I drove out to change it.  We had a spare.  It would be a hassle, but it was my fault for letting the tires go that long.  I got there and discovered that we didn’t have a flat tire after all.  We had two flat tires.  We didn’t have two spare tires.  So I called a tow truck.  And I learned my lesson.

What I did with my tires – Helen’s tires, actually – is what a lot of us do with our lives.  I didn’t want to bother with taking care of the problem before I had no choice.  I didn’t even want to admit there was a problem.  Those tires were still drivable.  They were “manageable”.  They were holding air.  I didn’t appreciate other people pointing out the obvious.  It made me feel bad.  I didn’t need their help.  I didn’t need their advice.  Everything was just fine  . . .  until it wasn’t.

Our tires matter.  I am embarrassed to tell you this story because we were very lucky Helen was parked in a parking lot when those tires went flat.  Bad tires can cost lives.  Our friends next door at Les Schwab would appreciate me telling you that.  It’s true.  Our tires matter.  But our souls matter more.

And how often do we pretend everything is just fine with our souls when so obviously everything is not fine?  God sees it.  Everyone else sees it.  If we don’t see it, it is only because we are up to our eyeballs in denial.

I have a problem with my temper.  I say things without thinking.  I am filled with lust.  I love gossip.  I am selfish.  I am narcissistic.  I am greedy.  I am thin-skinned.  I am petty.  I am conceited.

People who know me best can see all this.  They can see it as clearly as Helen’s co-worker could see that she was driving on bad tires.  But the people around me know they don’t dare bring any of this up with me.  It would not be welcome.  It would not be appreciated.  And it would not be necessary – because my life is perfectly manageable without having to deal with any of this.  So I pretend it isn’t there.  I pretend I can’t see it and if you say you can, you are just being mean.  You just want to make me feel bad.

So I never really say I’m sorry.  Or I never say I’m really sorry.  Sorry for me is just a throwaway word to smooth over the rough spots in my relationships with others. I never face the ugly truth about my soul.  I never seek God’s help to save me from myself.

Am I the only one?  I don’t think so.  I think the silence in this room tells us that.  You’re ready for a good joke, but I’m sorry, I don’t have one.   This is too serious.  I just need to tell you as plainly and as lovingly as I can that you too are driving on bad tires.  God can see it.  People around you can see it.   You can probably see it, too.  But will you face it?  Or will you pretend it’s not there and hope it will go away by itself because you don’t want to deal with the hassle?  You don’t want to deal with the pain.

Our scripture from Acts is strange and scary.  Why is it there?  I think God wants us to know how high the stakes are.  It’s the story of Ananias and Sapphira.

We know nothing about them except what we are told in this one story.  They were a married couple who had been drawn to Jesus.  They were part of the Jerusalem church – the only church that really has a right to call itself “First Church”.

One of the unique characteristics of this very first church was their generosity.  Most of them were poor but since everyone shared what they had with each other, everyone had enough.  Next week’s word, by the way.  Enough.

A man named Joseph had some property.  He sold it.  He brought the money to the apostles and, as the Bible puts it, he laid it at their feet.  After that they started calling him Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement”.

Well, Ananias and Sapphira also sold some property.  In their case, here’s what happened:

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet (Acts 5:1-2).

They gave some.  They kept some.  Maybe their thought process went something like this:  We want to be generous, but we also want to be rich.  We want to be loved and appreciated as Barnabas was when he gave his gift, but we also want to be in a position to do what we want to do with our own money.  We want to do the right thing, but we also want to deceive.

So they have divided hearts.  As I think most of us do.  Here is Ananias’ bright idea:  We sell this property and give some of it to the church.  We never say we are giving it all to the church, so it isn’t exactly a lie.  Other people will just think we are giving all of it.  We’ll let them think that.  That way they will think we are generous, they will think well of us, and we will still have plenty of money to do our own thing.  It will be great!

He shares his plan with his wife, Sapphira.  This is the key moment in the story.  Because she could have said, “I don’t think so.  Can’t you see?  You are driving on bad tires.  You are making a bad choice.  You will regret it and, since I’m married to you, I will regret it, too.”  She could have said that.  Instead she said, “Sounds good, honey!”

Somehow Peter learns about this.  He confronts Ananias.  The problem is the deceit.  Ananias had every right to sell his property and keep all the money.  Or he had every right to so what he did –give some to the church and keep some for himself.  But as long as he was part of this community of faith, he did not have the right to say one thing and do something else.  Deceit and duplicity could not be tolerated.  It would kill the church.

Having been confronted and reprimanded by Peter, Ananias falls over dead.  Three hours later, Sapphira shows up.  She has the same conversation with Peter, and she too falls over dead.

. . . they carried her out and buried her beside her husband.  And great fear came upon the church, and upon all who heard of these things (Acts 5:10-11).

Why did this story get into the Bible?  I think I might have left it out.  It’s strange, it’s scary, it’s offensive.  It sounds like a death threat to people who don’t hand all their money over to the church.  Not the best PR for a fledgling new church.

Here’s what I think.  God’s power had been unleashed in an unprecedented way on the day of Pentecost.  That’s when the church was born.  This spiritual power is the reason the church grew like wildfire in those early years.  The more they were persecuted, the more they grew.  But God’s power can flow freely only to the extent that God’s people are honest about how much they need God.  As soon as we start acting like we are good enough without God, as soon as we start living hidden lives of deception, as soon as we insist on looking better than we really are, God’s power can no longer flow freely.  It’s like we have added a giant resistor to an electrical circuit.            That’s what Ananias and Sapphira had done.  That’s why their sin was so serious.  That’s why their story had to be told.

It’s actually a retelling of the first story in the Bible.  The story of Adam and Eve is the original story of hiding and deception.  It didn’t end well for them either.  Whenever we rebel against God and then lie and deceive and hide to cover it up, it does not end well.  We shrivel up spiritually.  Our churches suffer.  God’s power gets unplugged.

That’s why “sorry” is such an important word.  We need to see ourselves as we truly are, stop pretending we are what we are not, and repent.  That’s the word the Bible uses a lot more than the word “sorry”.  We repent of our sins, we accept God’s forgiveness, and God’s power starts flowing again.

That’s what it looks like in our individual lives.  Repentance, forgiveness, and new life.  But the power really gets turned on and exciting things start happening when we come together as a church the way God intends for the church to be.  No more hiding.  No more deception.  No more pretending.  We get honest with each other.  We share our real stories, our real struggles, our real sins.  Sins get named, people get known, people get loved, people get healed.  That’s what happens when are “sorry” and mean it and do something with it.

I’m going to close with two obstacles to this and two ways Jesus helps us meet these obstacles.

First, you’re probably going to say, “I don’t need this.” You will tell yourself that this sermon is really meant for someone else, not for you.  There are a lot of sorry people out there who aren’t sorry and should be sorry and who need God way more than I do.  There are all those murderers and thieves and adulterers and addicts.  Their lives are going down the tubes.  Compared to them, my life looks pretty good.  My life is “manageable”.  I’m good.  Not great maybe, but not horrible.  I’m as good as next guy.  Maybe better.

People like us who say we don’t need to be “sorry” are probably not going to be guilty of the more sensational sins.  Our sins are more garden variety.  Like pride, resentment, judgmentalism, lovelessness.  Which, interestingly enough, were the very sins Jesus confronted most in those who opposed him.  These are the sins, incidentally, that are the hardest to see in ourselves and the easiest for others to see in us.

We need their help, we need God’s help, even though our natural inclination might be to say, “I don’t need this.”

Second, you’re probably going to say, “I don’t want this.”  This is going to be too hard.  This is going to be too painful.  This is going to be too embarrassing.

Because what we are really talking about here is telling people things about ourselves that we’ve kept hidden for years and years.  These are things you figured you would take to the grave.  Nobody needs to know.  That’s nobody’s business but mine.  And yet, it’s this very hiddenness and deception that has taken a toll on your soul.  You have not dropped dead like Ananias and Sapphira, but you are dying inside.  “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  Not just in the next life, but in this life, too.

We don’t want to, but so what.  Nobody wants to do hard things.  God never says, “Thou shalt do whatever thou wantest to do.”  You say you don’t need it.  You say you don’t want it.  You can say what you will.  The fact remains, you are driving on bad tires and unless do something to take care of the problem, you are going to regret it.

Jesus knew this is hard and that we would need help.  So he gave us two wonderful sources of help.  They are baptism and communion.

We’ve had some adult baptisms lately.  That’s always a very good sign when we have people saying, “I want to be baptized.”  Baptism does not mean that you are saying that you are good enough.  Just the opposite.  Baptism is saying that on my own I am not good enough.  Not even close.  I need God in my life.

So Jesus was baptized as his ministry began.  Even the Son of God needed God in his life!  And Jesus tells us in the Great Commission:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).

Baptism is a one-time thing.  If you have already been baptized but you feel God’s tug on your heart to publicly say “no”, “yes”, and “sorry” in the way we’ve been talking about these words, a renewal of your baptismal vows is what would be most appropriate.  Talk to me about that.   Or talk to me if you are ready to be baptized for the first time.  Baptism is one important way God’s power is unleashed in our lives.

The other is communion.  Communion also unleashes God’s power in our lives.  One difference between baptism and communion is that communion is something to be received regularly throughout your life.   Communion also is a way to say “no”, “yes”, and “sorry”, and to accept the new life God wants you to have.

Here’s the great thing about communion.  We all receive it together.  We’re all on the same level as far as God is concerned.  No one gets special treatment because you are so close to God.  No one gets excluded because you are so far from God.  We are all the same:  sinners in need of God’s grace.

So as you respond to the invitation today, come as people who have no pride, no reputation, no complacency, no entitlement. Come ready to acknowledge that you have been driving on bad tires, you have been living with a stain on your soul, you have been hiding from God, you have been hiding from others.  But you are done with all that.  You are ready to come out of hiding and to receive God’s new life.

And as we gather around this table together, we will be saying that we as a church are ready to get plugged into God’s power source and to let that power flow freely through us.  For we want to be God’s church.  We want to be the kind of church God wants us to be – where everybody is welcome, nobody is perfect, and anything is possible.

God of grace, who knows us best and loves us most, you have set the communion table for us today.  And you are the one who extends the invitation.  Come, all who love Jesus.  Come, all who are sorry for their sins.  Come, all who intend to live a new life, a better life.  A life possible only in you.  A life we will live for you, and not for ourselves.  Thank you in advance for the blessing we will receive, as individuals and as a church.  All to your glory, through Christ Jesus, our Lord, Amen.