God’s math: Giving more leads to more blessings, says Easterling

Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling preaches during the first morning worship service of the week Sunday in the Amphitheater. HG Biggs/Staff Photographer

Column by Mary Lee Talbot

Possession is the act of taking control, and it is an action between humans and things that excludes other people from enjoying them. “We say ‘possession is nine-tenths of the law.’ Why is it a stronger claim to say I have this thing even if you claim to own it?” asked Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling.

She preached at the 9:15 a.m. Thursday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title was “I Am a Friend of God: Practicing Resurrection,” and the scripture reading was Acts 4:32-35, the image of the new Christian community sharing everything. 

In Eden, she said, there was no death, pain or privation, but the Apostles were a long way from the garden. There was a chasm between the haves and the have-nots in the Roman Empire and “the garden of empire was impoverished, but resurrection says that neither death nor empire have the last word.”

In the new Christian community, the divine design was restored. “Imagine a community with no needy person. People laid everything at the Apostle’s feet,” Easterling said. “Imagine the heads of our judicatories or our churches. Are we as trustworthy? Can we be trusted to distribute resources equitably?”

The Apostles received the resources to serve the community, not themselves. That community had embraced the mind of Christ over the mind of the world. 

Ananias and Sapphira, by contrast, sold a piece of property but kept back a portion for themselves. Peter asked Ananias why Satan had told him to lie to the Holy Spirit. Ananais was not lying to the apostles but to God, Peter said. Ananias fell down and died. 

“This is what it means to love one’s neighbor — that no one has need. All we have belongs to God,” said Easterling. “God’s math is that the more we give, the more we are blessed. Hoarding wealth is not of God.”

God’s desire, she said, is that all persons will have life to the fullest. The power of the testimony of the apostles did not come from their academic degrees or any secret prayer or incantation. By ensuring that no one had need, they lived the resurrection and did not curry favor with the world. She contrasted the apostles with the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes who desired to be in control more than to follow God.

Easterling cited the Doctrine of Discovery promulgated by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, whereby Christians could “discover” a land peopled by “barbarous” communities and take that land in the name of God and the Roman Catholic Church. It became a principle in international law and was used by people of all faiths as a reason to remove, slaughter and try to “re-educate” Indigenous people, especially Native Americans, around the world. 

“We all have blood on our hands and this doctrine still influences our laws today,” Easterling said. “Practicing resurrection brings us back to God’s design.”

As an illustration, she told a story of an anthropologist who put a basket of fruit near a tree and told the children of the village that the first one who got to the basket could have all of the fruit. The children joined hands, walked together to the basket and shared the fruit with everyone. When the anthropologist asked why they did that, they replied, “How can anyone be happy when the rest are miserable?”

Easterling continued, “When we practice resurrection, all are fed. No one dominates; the lie of scarcity is destroyed and everybody gets their daily bread.”

One day, Easterling’s husband Marion left his class at Harvard, and as he was going to cross the street, he saw a man with a sign. Marion decided to give the man some of the quarters in his pocket. The man, in response, said, “Can you see this?” Marion asked, “Can I see what?” The man said, “You have to want to see the sign.”

Many people had walked by and acted as if the man was not present. Her husband had seen the sign and the person behind it. “We hide the poor and kill the prophets,” Easterling said. 

People often question what the person with the sign will do with the money. Will they get a job? Will they buy drugs? “Who asks what we do with God’s money?” Easterling asked. “Do we ask how it was gotten? Sometimes it was gotten illegitimately then cleansed, and it is now clean.” 

The Apostles were dealing with real people who needed access to money so that they would have options in life, access to power and freedom. Lack of money makes people powerless. Easterling told the congregation, “We have to address people’s needs and the systems that create scarcity and lack of access.”

The Rev. Michael Mather, who spoke at the 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture on Tuesday, told a story about putting a banner outside the church he served. The sign said, “Ending Poverty. 8:30 and 10:30” — the times for worship at the church. A neighbor called and said, “That’s great, but what about the rest of the time?”

“Dismantling poverty is consistent work; it demands consistency,” Easterling said. “The Bible calls for God’s justice, God’s shalom, which is distinctly different from charity. It is a radical reorientation to a partnership with the poor, to proximity with the poor, in solidarity with them.”

Practicing resurrection demands a reconciliation of faith with finances. She said there was nothing evil in possessing wealth or being wealthy. The problem becomes when wealth is possessed to the exclusion of others. 

Theologian Miroslav Volf has said that Christ-shaped action is much more than “thoughts and prayers.”  “ ‘There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you are unwilling to resolve;’ but resolving our serious problems is the only chance we have,” he said.

Easterling shared a story about a church that was encouraging members to share their experience of tithing, giving at least 10% of their earnings to the church, and how it had changed their lives. A young man, from a very wealthy family, asked to speak one Sunday.

He said, “I have been acting like this wealth all belonged to me. What I was tithing was a pittance. I am pledging to make a real tithe to meet the needs of others.”

Easterling said that “the good news of Jesus is bad news for those who love money, not those who have money. In Jesus, the first are made last and the last first. The dead are raised, the poor blessed and the suffering made whole. In Jesus, we see through the lens of the poor.”

She ended her sermon with a poem she wrote, “What of the Resurrection? (if we are only willing to live in a Good Friday world).”  What of the resurrection if we are not willing to change the world? She challenged the congregation, “Are we living the resurrection? Chautauqua, may we be willing to live the resurrection.”

The Rev. George Wirth, a retired Presbyterian minister from Atlanta, presided. Craig McKee, an attorney and U.S. magistrate judge, read the scripture. Motet Consort members, Rebecca Scarnati, oboe; Debbir Grohman, clarinet; and Willie La Favor, piano; performed the prelude, “Andante” from Trio for Oboe, Clarinet and Piano by Paul Gilson. The anthem, sung by the Motet Choir, under the direction of Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist and accompanied by Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar, sang “I will sing with the spirit,” by John Rutter. Stafford played “Fughetta and Finale” on “Hymn to Joy” by John G. Barr. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching is provided by the J. Everett Hall Memorial Chaplaincy and the Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree, Jr. Chaplaincy Fund.


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