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Edward F. Markquart

The Cattleprod and the Coverup, Ananias and Saphira

Stewardship      Acts 5:1-11

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 thank offerings. 

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 Nixon administration.

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 consequences.

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 today.

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 today. 

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.

Sometimes, the truth hurts.  Sometimes, we need to be shocked and stunned, and such are the stories for today.  Amen.

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