“You Don’t Own Me” – Earth
Listen to the sermon here.
A friend of mine worked in a village in the Congo as a missionary for several years. She told me a story of working with some kids in the village. She had a bouncy ball or a tennis ball or something… and was playing with one of the boys, who was about nine or ten years old. As she was getting ready head back inside for the day she decided to give the ball as a gift to her new friend. So she got out her marker and wrote his name on the ball and then presenting it to him to keep. The next day she was outside again and her friend comes running up to her with the ball, holding the hand of one of the other boys in the village. And had her write his name on the ball too… and this continued until she ended up writing the name of all of his friends on the ball.
We think about ownership very differently.
Acts tells us that for the early Christians, “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common..” In this, our concepts of ownership are tested. And we question: was it a cultural thing? Or a historical survival thing that was necessary for the early church? Is there something deeper that we might learn from these ideas about ownership? And on this Sunday in particular, can this scripture teach us something about the earth and our shared responsibility for it?
Let us pray: Open our hearts to listen to you O God, may the power of the Holy Spirit may dwell within our hearts towards all your creation. May the words of my mouth and meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight oh lord in whom we live and move and have our being. Amen.
The book of Acts is sort of a part two to the gospels, and actually is written by the same author as Luke. It follows the stories of the disciples as they spread the news of Jesus’ resurrection, from temple to temple, and community to community, and reaching more and more people. The believing community begins to form as it spreads throughout the ancient world.
Throughout this process, we are given glimpses into the everyday practices of the early church. Acts 4:32 begins, “all of the believing community shared one heart and one mind…” they had a unified vision that stemmed from their shared experience of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. They were committed to sharing that story over and over again as they moved forward in their lives. In an earlier chapter, we learn that they went from home to home breaking bread together. They ate their food with glad and generous hearts, all the while praising God (2:46).
Letters in the New Testament and other chapters in the book of acts refer to home ownership, homes were the sites for early house churches, they “often doubled as meetinghouses for community fellowship and prayer.”[i] Yet verse 34 tells us “for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.” This might cause us to pause and examine further. Some translations add in the phrase, “from time to time” or “made a habit of” into this paragraph, alluding that this was an occasional practice, when a need arose.
For example, the same chapter tells us that Joseph, also called Barnabas, did in fact sell his field and lay the money at the Apostles’ feet.
Scholars are quick to point out that this practice of the early church “was not communism… in which everybody turns in “all their assets to the church and then those assets being equally doled out to everyone.” The point was rather that, No one claimed owner’s rights to the property”[ii]
They shared it, and shared its resources. The sharing of resources didn’t come from a law or mandate; it came for a deep sense of responsibility for each other that sparked a desire to share all they had.
At its core, this community “is rooted in and grows out of the fundamental imperative to care for one another.”[iii] So, while they may have still owned their properties, the early church practiced generous sharing of resources, rather than communal ownership of property. It’s like the boy with the ball, he wanted all of his friends names written on the ball, not just his own, but he ended up taking it with him at the end of the day.
The wide community envisioned by biblical writers offers a counter to an every man for himself kind of attitude which breeds the sense of isolation often found in our culture. Scripture reminds us that we thrive not as individuals alone, just me and my God, we’re all in this earth together. The resurrection story thrives in sharing with others—with other God created beings, so that all are strengthened, both materially and spiritually with each our unique gifts and offerings.[iv]
Their distinctive attitude towards ownership of property envisioned in Acts 4, shows a tangible example that their lives were indeed transformed.[v] Not just a new outlook on life and way of thinking about things. But their testimony to the resurrection change the way they interacted with the world. What if that broader picture of community went even wider? Extending beyond our immediate neighbors, and church home, beyond our common humanity, What if we shifted our thinking about the earth in such a way that ownership and possession of it was not possible?
Yesterday I was walking along the tidal basin looking at the blooming cherry blossom trees. They are such a beautiful gift that can be enjoyed year after year. As hordes of people were taking pictures and enjoying the scene, I saw a couple of young teenagers with their parents who had taken off some of the bows of the trees and fashioned crowns of the blossoms for their hair. It annoyed me that they would damage the trees like that, it was even beyond the people who plucked a blossom or two off of the end, as they selfishly ruin it for their own personal temporary enjoyment.
As I was watching this, I thought of the song from Disney’s Pocahontas, “Colors of the wind” Where she asked John smith,
“How high will the sycamore grow?
If you cut it down, then you’ll never know”
The earth is God’s creation. None of us own it, but that doesn’t mean we have no responsibility to care for it.
There’s a drought going on in California. It’s the most severe drought in centuries. On Friday, Governor Brown of California admitted that “There’s been inadequate conservation [of water] so far, and that it might take a while for the enormity of the drought to really sink in for many of his California’s 38 million residents.”[vi] Brown has ordered mandatory water restrictions for the state, and expects Californians to do what’s required to deal with the drought. He is urging a collective sense of responsibility for this problem, and hopes the drought will end up bringing Californians together, enabling them to understand how to use less water. They need to come together and own these cutbacks as a new way of life, and a new way of interacting with the world. But for just Californians to do this, it’s not enough.[vii] Because, the issues affect everyone.
We friends, cannot own the earth, the earth has life, and we can’t simply control it for our purposes. Perhaps by broadening our sense of community to the whole eco system, we can be of one heart and one mind with it.
As Pocahontas tells John, “The earth is not just a dead thing we can claim, I know every rock and tree and creature Has a life, has a spirit, has a name” This song has truth in it, so many of us find that we connect with God more fully and more deeply in nature.
So, this week I encourage you to take some time, go out into nature, and experience creation. Knowing all the while that you can’t own it, so just breathe deeply in it. Be still and know that God is God.
Let everything that has breath praise the lord. Alleluia, Amen.
[i] (Balentine, 2008), 385.
[ii] (Witherington, pp. 16-17). http://www.lutheransrestoringcreation.org/the-second-sunday-of-easter-in-year-b-2015
[iii] (Balentine, 2008), 385.
[v] (Witherington, pp. 16-17). http://www.lutheransrestoringcreation.org/the-second-sunday-of-easter-in-year-b-2015