Ananais and Sapphira
Scripture: Acts 5:1-11
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And who said the Old Testament was the scary one? Perhaps there’s a reason this passage isn’t in the lectionary- it’s a doozy, for sure. Pastors are not lining up to preach this text, and it’s easy to see why. We heard last week about how the members of the early church held all things in common, selling all their property and contributing to the common pool so that there was no need among them. Well if that sounded a little extreme to you, you’re not alone. It sounded extreme to Ananais and Sapphira, too. So they kept some of their profit..not all of it, just enough to help them out if the communal coffers were depleted. They were found out, however, and…dropped dead. So much for the balance between Justice and Mercy, eh?
It’s interesting to me, however, that the story doesn’t say that God struck them dead, rather that they simply fell down and died. Much of the book of Acts lays out the blueprint for life in the beloved community- where does this text fit in?
When we live together in a mutually dependent community (and truly what community isnt mutually dependent), we have responsibilities to one another. The secular world may call it the social contract- we call it covenant.
Covenants lay out the mutually agreed up on terms of a relationship, and call upon God to be party to the relationship. Clergy negotiate covenants when they are called to serve a church, couples recite covenantal promises as their wedding vows, communities decide what individual responsibilities will be required for group membership, the list goes on. There are always consequences for breaking a covenant, too. Sometimes these are punitive penalties, like restitution payments, alimony, or…stoning. Sometimes breaking the covenant simply nullifies the contract, releasing the other party from their obligations. Sometimes breaking a covenant results in a loss of trust. Sometimes it results in emotional cut-off or ostracism. Sometimes it results in death. I don’t mean death as a punishment, though as one of the few countries in the world with the death penalty, our culture would indeed offer death as an example of a punishment for breaking the covenant to not murder.
But no, since this story doesn’t say that Ananais and Sapphira were killed because they broke the covenant- it just says they broke the covenant and then died- I’m thinking about how when a covenant is in place to uphold the life of the community and its members, sometimes breaking that covenant can result in death; death of the community or death of the individual.
You may have seen news stories about people in some states turning out en masse, unmasked, to protest this new covenant of social distancing. Admittedly, my first thought when I saw this was ‘man, how many of these protesters are going to be on ventilators in a couple week’s time? How many of their family members might me?” It feels like a chilling parallel to this scripture story- the dangers of what could happen if you dont take community interdependence seriously.
Covenants are a little counter-cultural in a nation built on the values of individualism. Ananais and Sapphira were caught in that tug of war- and it’s no surprise that many of the signs seen at recent protests say things like “freedom is essential” or “give me liberty or give me covid-19”. Distasteful as it is, it illustrates the point. In times of fear or uncertainty, do we lean into covenant, toward our communal life and responsibilities, or do we run away from it, prioritizing our own livelihood, trying as best we can to preserve the status quo we were used to, the sense of normalcy before fear had set in?
When I look at United Parish, I see a congregation that embraces covenant, structures our lives and giving and hearts around it. When this pandemic first crept into our lives, and in the weeks since, the majority of questions I’ve fielded from the congregation have been things like “how can I help? Who can I help? Where can I give?” This congregation has mobilized in a way that Peter would be proud of- volunteers have organized grocery and pharmacy trips, tech support, pen pals, virtual church school, check-in campaigns, mask-making efforts, childrens book read-alouds, financial relief efforts, and so much more.
Times of fear and uncertainty- that’s what covenants were made for. That’s when our communal responsibility is called upon…and, in many cases, that’s when it’s hardest to put community first. It isn’t in the richer times that we are tested, but the poorer. Not the better, but the worse. Not the health…but the sickness.
I ‘look’ in my minds eye at this congregation and not a single one of us has had a life without hardship, be it physical, material, emotional, or spiritual- and yet here we all are as a community that leans into covenant, that takes care of one another.
We don’t know what fear motivated Ananais and Sapphira to hold some of their money back, and we dont know what temptations seduced them to lie about it, but we do know that i lying, they broke their covenant with the community and with God, and that that fracture was deadly. In times of prosperity, let alone fear, there are systems at work int eh world telling us to fend for ourselves- telling us that status is more important than substance, telling us that what matters most is the appearance, the illusion of the ideal life. Whether that ideal life is one that is fully and completely invested in the common weal, in the case of Ananais and Sapphira, or whether it’s being able to run errands and visit hair salons and see family, in the case of the protesters.
But these systems are deadly. these systems are indifferent to the breakdown of community or the loss of human life .
The story of Ananais and Sapphira illustrates for its audience, and us, in the starkest of terms, what the most dire consequences of acquiescing to these systems can be.
This week was the seventh week of the pandemic as we’ve known it in the US. IT’s taken a toll on all of us. It took me several minutes to remember what the biblical significance of the number seven was…plagues? nope, that’s 10. Tribes of Israel? no, that’s 12…Trinity? No, Amy, that’s 3, thats what the word trinity means…That’s the level of brain fog that week seven has brought me. Finally, I remembered….SABBATH!
I’m ready for a sabbath from the pandemic, aren’t you? On the seventh day, God rested, on the seventh week, I want to go to a restaurant and hug my friends and dare I say it, ride the T. And, i won’t. Because…covenant. But what I want to say is that it’s OK to be done with this. IT’s ok ay to be so, so done with this that you think you might implode if one more porson makes a ‘quarantini’ joke or talks about how many new skills they’re learning with all this new time on their hands.
Truthfully I think it would’ve been ok for Ananais and Sapphira to keep some of the profits to themselves if they had just been open about it from the get-go. Peter says to them, that it was theirs to do with what they wanted…If they had taken the covenant of community seriously, and were open about whatever fear or need was motivating them to hold back some of their wealth, then the community could have gathered to help meet that need, to demonstrate the sacred security of community interdependence. When we covenant to be a community, we covenant to be honest about where we are, so that God can meet us there. So that we can meet each other there.
Since today is a communion Sunday, we’re reminded of another covenant- one in which Christ promises us the bread of life, the cup of salvation. It’s a covenant cut by the breaking of bread, the gathering of community in a time of fear, the knowledge that deceit and greed can be deadly, but that love gets the final word.
This is what keeps us going. Leaning into that covenant, leaning into the community it encircled and upholds to this day. Whenever we break bread or take a drink, these mundane tasks of nourishment, perhaps the only rhythm or routine in many of our lives right now, we are reminded of this covenant. Just as the small moments of ‘normalcy’ become precious in an isolation-weary world, our covenant is all the more precious when it is the stuff that keeps us alive. So I invite you, as we partake in holy communion this morning, to be honest about where you are right now- even if it’s not pretty. To be honest about your needs in your conversations with one another, and in your prayers with God. There’s a sweet spot, a sacred spot in between sucking it up and wallowing, it’s the spot that birthed psalms, setting our fears to song and wrapping them tightly in our faith in God. It’s the spot that birthed the merger of three local churches fifty years ago, as they found a new way to prosper and grow. It’s the spot where bread is broken, sins are forgiven, and community is knit together. Amen.