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1 Qumran Scroll 1

Acts 2.43-47

Christian Communitarianism

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

The Plantation Covenant of Guilford, Connecticut, sometimes called the Guilford Covenant, was a covenant signed by the English colonists as the founding document of the settlement of Quinpisac, or Quinnipiac, now known as the city of New Haven, on June 1, 1639.   Like the Mayflower Compact, the Plantation Covenant was signed while the settlers were still aboard ship; there were twenty-five in all, they hailed from Surrey and Kent, in England, and settled as farmers.  Here is the text of the covenant, and see if you can hear in this echoes of both the Community Rule from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the passage from Acts Barbara Jan read earlier:

We whose names are herein written, intending by God’s gracious permission, to plant ourselves in New England, and if it may be in the southerly part, about Quinipisac, we do faithfully promise each for ourselves and families and those that belong to us, that we will, the Lord assisting us, sit down and join ourselves together in one entire plantation and to be helpful to the other in any common work, according to every man’s ability and as need shall require, and we promise not to desert or leave each other on the plantation, but with the consent of the rest, or the greater part of the company, who have entered into this engagement.  As for our gathering together into a church way and the choice officers and members to be joined together in that way, we do refer ourselves until such a time as it shall please God to settle us in our plantation.  In witness whereof we subscribe our hands, this first day of June 1639.

According to every person’s ability, and as need shall require, according to the Plantation Covenant.  All who declare their willingness to serve God’s truth must bring all of their mind, all of their strength, and all of their wealth into the community of God… and their wealth disposed in accordance with God’s just design, according to the first Qumran scroll, The Community Rule.  And according to second chapter of Acts, All who believed were together and had all things in common, they would sell their possessions and good and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  The political scientists in the room this morning will recognize there is one more iteration of this idea by a writer who is seldom quoted from the pulpit, probably the most familiar way of stating the same idea, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”  The words belong to Karl Marx, who wrote them in 1875.

Now I recognize that quoting the father of communism is probably not the best strategy during stewardship season.  The last time I checked, the Trustees were not planning to send us all into a collective.  But it is true that Marx’s economic theory looks an awful lot like the way the earliest Christians lived together.  And I wanted us to hear from the Dead Sea Scrolls this morning because this was not a new idea in the middle east – it wasn’t the church’s invention, they simply repurposed an old Jewish way of living together for their own community.  And the Plantation Covenant of 1639 shows our Puritan forbears valued this method of economic sharing, of taking care of one another, of asking church members with means to share part of what they have with those without.

There is considerable difference though, between communitarianism, which is what we are talking about this morning, and communism.  The latter is a compulsory state-sponsored program for the redistribution of wealth, while the former is the result of a covenant, a mutual agreement among partners to look out for, and share with, one another.  And it is in this spirit that I want to think about stewardship this morning.  Most often when we think about stewardship we think about giving to the church.  But our readings this morning invite us to think of it as giving to, and supporting each other.  My gift to the church makes it possible for you to enjoy worship and fellowship and service to our community, and your gift to the church allows the same for those around you.  And it’s not just the church, keeping the lights and heat on, it’s about providing light and heat and food and housing and comfort for our community.  I’ve written and spoken quite a lot about providing for others in the past couple weeks, and probably don’t need to say much more than I already have.  But it remains an important part of the stewardship equation.

Still, there is also a sense that we can turn that equation around in a different direction.  “From each according to their ability to each according to their need” generally puts us in the ability seat rather than the need spot.  David Cleaver-Bartholomew is Minister for Stewardship in the UCC’s Southern New England Conference, and he recently wrote something I have felt for a long time.  We often talk about stewardship in  terms of the church’s needs, he writes.  The church needs to pay its bills.  The church needs a new roof or a new elevator.  The church needs to plow the snow and seal the driveway.  We are also very good at putting the ask in philanthropic terms:  the church needs to be able to provide for the needs of the community.  And all of this is true.  But there is also an equal and opposite need.  You and I do sit on the ability seat, and there is also a place for us in the need spot:  simply put, you and I need to give.  There is a human need in each of us to give part of who we are to another.  We don’t live in isolation, we live in relationship, or in churchy terms, we live in covenant.  You all know what I mean.  Everyone in this room has given from both your treasure and your time to make our community a better place to live.  I’ve said this before in small groups, but I don’t think I’ve said it from the pulpit:  if we were to subtract all the things the members of this congregation contribute to Chester and the Tri-Town region in terms of our time and our energy and our gifts and skills, it would leave a tremendous hole in the community.  The Historical Society.  The Garden Club.  The Hose Company.  The Library.  The town boards and commissions, both elected and volunteer.  The Soup Kitchen.  Scouts.  Rotary.  The Land Trust.  Youth Services.  You can certainly come up with more than I’m remembering right now.  And we do this, we do all of it, not because our minister is standing in the pulpit telling us we should, but because that’s who we are, we are communitarian, we are human beings with a need to give something of ourselves to others and to our community and, yes, to our church which is part of our community.  From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.  Stewardship is our reminder that we need to give. 

So if I give, it is not only to your benefit, it is to my own as well; likewise, if I withhold, it is not only to your detriment, but also to mine, because I need to be a giving person in order to fulfill my humanity, and to be the abundant and generous person who builds God’s church and God’s community.

One of my earliest Thanksgiving sermons was titled, “Grateful People Give,” and even though the sermon itself was so obviously and painfully the effort of a rookie preacher that the sermon itself will never again breach the light of day, I will at least stand by the title, because we are grateful people, and gratitude compels us to be giving.  While it may be an accident of the calendar that we make our annual pledge to the church and present our annual budget around Thanksgiving time every year, there is a connection between our gratitude and our need to be generous givers.

The people of the ancient Qumran community knew this and lived it out.  The members of the earliest church who met in each other’s homes for worship, knew this and lived this out.  The English who settled the region of Quinpisac recognized this need and covenanted to live by it.  Let their covenant be our compact as well.

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