The Cattleprod and the Coverup,
Ananias and Saphira
The sermon that is
being preached today is a very difficult sermon.
I have never preached on the story in Acts about Ananias and
Sapphira, and this has to be one of the most difficult passages in
the Bible. The title of
the sermon for today is “The Cattleprod and the Coverup.”
For all of you
visitors who are here for the first time today, you may be thinking
that all Grace Lutheran Church does is talk about money.
That is not true. We
have one stewardship sermon a year, always on the third Sunday of
November, and we do not apologize for preaching about money. We do
it only once a year at Grace and that is not enough.
Jesus talks more about money than any other topic in the
Bible, so we need to talk more often about money, as Jesus so
clearly did. Today’s
sermon is what I call a “no-nonsense” sermon about our Christian
When I think of the
word, cover-up, I think of President Richard Milhouse Nixon.
Back during his campaign for the presidency, his campaigners
very foolishly broke into the Democratic headquarters and they
committed a crime by stealing papers.
Nixon heard about this break-in and then tried to cover it
up. So there were two
problems: one, the
break-in at Watergate and then two, the cover-up of the crime. Anytime that I think of the word, cover-up, I think of the
But that same
tendency and pattern is true of all of us.
We all make mistakes and then try to cover it up.
We all get into trouble, and then lie about it and get into
further trouble. When I
think of a cover-up, I think of myself as a kid and the first time I
smoked cigarettes. We
went to our neighborhood grocery story and bought cigarettes,
charging them, of all things, to my family account, telling the
grocer that I was buying them for my father, a non-smoker of all
things. This went on
for a few weeks, and we kids would gather in some tall bushes in a
gravel pit, and there would be a cloud of smoke rising from this
clump of tall bushes. This
went on for a couple of weeks before my father confronted me with
the bill and I quickly replied:
“I didn’t do it. Nielsey Nielsen did it.
He’s the guilty one and he charged them to our account.”
The story was factually true but totally false.
We kids were all in it together.
And so there were two sins:
stealing the cigarettes and then lying about it.
That is human nature; we do something wrong and we then try
to cover it up.
Well, that is the
story for today. I should say, stories for today because there are three
stories in the Bible that are cover-ups and all have to do with
thank offerings. These
three stories have to do with people cheating on their thank
offerings, covering it up and then facing the unpleasant
The first story is
about Achan who was a soldier.
Achan had gone off into battle and come back and was supposed
to give the booty to God as a thank offering but he kept some of the
loot for himself. He
kept two hundred pieces of silver, a bar of gold, and a beautiful
wood carving from Babylonia. These
pieces were really nice; the times were hard.
Achan liked these things and so he buried them in the floor
beneath his tent. He
would save them for a rainy day when he needed them.
Meanwhile, things started to go bad in the land of Israel.
The Israelites started to lose battle after battle, and
Joshua, the general, finally said:
“Lord, what is wrong?”
God said, “Someone has been cheating on me.”
So Joshua went throughout all the camp, asking, “Are you
cheating on God? Are
you cheating on God? Are
you cheating?” Finally, Joshua approached Achan, and Achan denied it:
“No, no, no, not me; I have not been cheating on God!”
Joshua was suspicious and so he searched Achan’s tent and sure
enough, they found the offerings buried beneath the tent.
Achan’s sins were two fold:
One was cheating on his offerings and the second was lying
about it. The
punishment for the crime was utterly awful.
Achan was killed, but not only Achan, but his wife, his
children, his cattle, and then they burned his land.
It is called The Ban. They
totally wiped him and his family out.
Now, I don’t like
that story. I don’t like the barbarism of that story, but underneath
the story and the barbarism of that day, this story is an example of
a person who had been cheating on his offerings, tried to cover it
up, and then was punished for his deeds.
The second story
comes from the book of Malachi.
The people in the days of Malachi tried to cheat on their
offerings. The people
of God have always done this. The
Bible clearly said, “Bring the full tithes to the Lord.
Bring the first and the best of your animals and crops
to the Lord, so that you will show God are giving the first and best
in your heart.” Well,
this man was supposed to bring his best sheep to God as a thank
offering. Every tenth
sheep was to be offered to God, and it so happened that the tenth
sheep was a big, fat one. I
mean, a really fat one. Rather
than giving the really fat one to God, he would exchange the fat
sheep for a skinny one and give the skinny one to God.
He would keep the fat sheep for himself.
God spoke to that person in his heart and that person lied to
himself and God about what he was doing.
The priest called the man, and he lied again, to the priest
this time. The priest said and I quote: “O, you offer me your offerings, but your offerings
are dung, and I am going to rub your face in the dung of your
offerings.” So during
the time of Malachi, there were two sins:
one, the people would cheat on their offerings by exchanging
a fat sheep for a skinny one and then secondly, they would try to
cover it up. It was and
is an old, old pattern among the people of God.
Well, the third
story is the story for today, the story about Ananias and Sapphira.
I will tell the story in a contemporary way, so you can get a
better feel for what was happening. The scene is from the first few
chapters of the Book of Acts where the Christians cared so much for
each other and the poor that they were willing to sell their
property in order to help one another and the poor. The prime
example in the early church was Barnabus who sold his piece of
property in order to care for a poor widow.
Following that story, we hear the story of Ananias and
Sapphira. Ananias and Sapphira, his wife, had seen what Barnabus had
done, how Barnabus had cared for this widow by selling his property.
This couple indicated they also were going to do this.
They were going to be really generous, sell their property,
help the poor widow, and the widow would be much better off.
The only problem was that Ananias and Sapphira were cheating
a little bit, or cheating a lot depending how you look at it.
Ananias told everyone he sold the property for $500 dollars
and he came to the church leaders and laid down $500 before them to
help the widow. Peter
asked Ananias: “Did
you sell your property to give the proceeds to support the widow,
just like you said?” Ananias said: “Yes.”
“How much did you sell it for?” “I sold it for $500.”
“How much did you get for the property?” “Like I said, $500.”
Peter replied, “Simon, I know that you sold the property
for a $1000. I happened
to know the person you sold the land to, and he told me that he paid
a $1000 for it. Ananias, you are cheating God, you are cheating the church.
You’re lying to God and you’re lying to us.
You promised to gift this thank offering to God, and you
didn’t do it.” Poor
Ananias. He was so
scared that he was being found out that he had a heart attack right
on the spot and fell over dead.
Well, the story continues.
Three hours later, Sapphira, his wife came in, and she had
been part of the original deal and knew in her heart what really
happened, but she didn’t know her husband had died suddenly of a
heart attack three hours before. Peter simply asked her,
“Sapphira, did you sell that land in order to help a poor
widow?” “Yes, of
course.” “Did you
sell it for $500?” “Yes,
of course.” “Are
you sure?” “Yes, but why are you asking me all these questions?”
Peter said: “Because
I spoke with the man who bought your property, and he said he bought
it for a $1000, twice as much as you said you got for it.”
She became so upset that she had a heart attack right on the
spot, and fell over dead.
Well, that is the
story of Ananias and Sapphira, not one of the jolly stories found in
the New Testament. It
is not one of those happy stories with a happy ending.
Rather, it is like those other stories in the Bible where
people had been cheating on their offerings to God and then they
attempted to cover it up. Like
so many others before, they were found guilty of two sins:
cheating on their offerings and then covering it up to appear
much more generous than they really were.
It’s an old story in the Bible and history of the church.
It is also an old, old story that happens frequently in the church
What are we going
to do with these stories? What
are we going to do with these stories about Achan, the people of
Malachi’s time, and Ananias and Sapphira? Usually
on Stewardship Sunday, we chose to preach on more positive stories
such as the widow who gave all she had when she put two pennies in
the offering. Or we
preach on Zacchaeus, that short little man up a tree, who repaid his
debts four-fold. Or we
preach a positive sermon about how God has been so generous to all
of us, and out of gratitude to God, we too want to be generous.
Or we preach a positive sermon about the Holy Spirit who
creates feelings in our heart such as generosity, charitable love,
and compassionately wanting to give of our resources to God and
those in need. That is
the usual Stewardship message.
Be positive. Get
everybody in a good mood. Americans
give more when they are in a good mood.
But the stories for
today don’t have this mood at all.
These are not happy stories. So what is the point of these
stories for your life and mine?
As I said at the
beginning, this is a “no-nonsense sermon.”
The first point of these Biblical texts is clear: stop
cheating on your offerings. Stop
giving so little and pretending your giving so good.
Stop pretending you are giving a fat sheep when you are
really giving God a skinny sheep?
Is this practice acceptable because so many other people are
dong the same? Giving
little and pretending it is OK?
An average Lutheran and mainline Christian gives about 2% of
our income to charity and we pretend that this is OK, that such
shallow giving is acceptable, that 2%giving is normative.
Get used to it: 2%
is just fine. The
average Lutheran gives the price of a Big Mac per year to World
Hunger. That’s OK.
Come to grips with it. Get
used to it. Lutherans
give almost nothing to combat world hunger.
So we avoid the truth about it.
We don’t want to talk about it.
We also don’t want to come to grips with the fact that poor
Third World Christians are generous in percentages and are often
found tithing, but the richer a Christian gets in a First World
country, the percentages almost always go down.
We just don’t want to be honest about the cheapness of our
2 % offerings. We
don’t want to call a spade a spade, because if we do, people will
get mad and give their offerings elsewhere, to someplace that will
be positive and appreciative of what is given
Why do so many
American Christians cheat on their offerings?
This is a real basic question.
For a whole bunch of reasons:
Because of the need to maintain our middle class lifestyles,
and it costs a lot of money to maintain our middle class standards
of housing, eating and recreation.
Because of spiritual immaturity and claiming that a dollar or
two or three or five a week is just fine.
Because of what I call “ala carte” Christianity where a
person chooses which parts of the voice of God that want to obey and
alive by, and I choose not to listen to those parts of Scriptures in
which God asks for generosity for the poor and needy.
Because we cannot afford it and we are often short of money
at the end of the month. We
have to pay for other expenses, and so at the end of the month, we
just don’t have money to generously give to needy causes.
Because this is not the way I interpret the Bible. You have
your philosophy and I have mine. You can give your tithe but I give three percent with a good
heart and my Bible says that is OK.
Or because of that little seven-letter word, selfish, where I
spend a lot of time fishing for myself and my family.
So you add up all these reasons and more, you discover that
richest Christians in the world give about 2% of our incomes to
charity and feel it is OK. You
had better not suggest that these American Christians are cheating
on their offerings.
Are you giving a
tithe to Christ? Why not? Why
not? My guess is that
90% of you are not. Why?
Can you tell me?
I was trying to
think of an image about stewardship.
I have used the following image often, with ten shiny apples
in a bowl in the altar table. We,
Christians, are to use the nine apples in the best way we can; but
we give the other apple back to God in thanksgiving. It is a good deal; you keep the nine shiny apples for
yourself. That is a
good positive image but doesn’t get at the mood of the stories for
Instead of the
apples, in my hand today I have an electric cattle prod that our
farmer Ingrid Bentzen let me use.
You take this cattle prod, put a good battery in it, stick it
into a cow, and it will shock the daylights out of the cow.
It will stun the cow; it will get a reaction out of the cow;
it will give the cow a jolt. That’s the way the Biblical stories
that we have told today: these
stories give you a jolt; they shock you; they stun you; they zap
you. And they do this
to get you and me moving in the right direction.
To be quite honest,
our congregation needs to be prodded, shocked and stunned.
O yes, we give lots of money. O yes, we can pay our bills.
O yes, we can meet our budget commitments. But when the truth is told, the average active
household in our parish gives about 4%.
Ouch. What would
we do if a high percentage of our active members tithed?
What if, almost all our active members, tithed?
It is unbelievable what we could do for the world.
truth hurts. Sometimes,
we need to be shocked and stunned, and such are the stories for