Sunday, May 15, 2011

Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

And the Lord added to them day by day those that were saved.

When Hurricane Katrina hit a few years ago, we all asked the question, ďWhat can I do?Ē The same question is being asked around the south this spring as storms and floods are destroying homes, businesses and even whole towns. Giving opportunities were abundant then, and they are today for those who feel the call to help. In New Orleans, groups responded not only with money and food, but also with hands to help clean up and rebuild. The usual organizations have requested financial help, but there are always other individual groups that need our support.

For our part, and since Zack at one time showed an interest in attending the University of Alabama, I discovered a fund that has been put together to help those students, teachers and staff who were affected by the tornado that hit Tuscaloosa a few weeks ago. Six students died and many others lost their homes. The campus was shut down early, finals canceled and students sent home for the summer. The disaster will have a lasting impact on their lives in ways we may never truly understand.

Another group affected by the storms is the Heifer ranch in Perryville, Arkansas. Heifer International is one of my favorite charities for the work they do and how they accomplish it. The Ranch in Arkansas is an educational center where guests can visit for a day or overnight trips to learn about their work and help care for the animals. They have a hike that takes you through displays of homes around the world, huts built of cardboard, old metal sheeting and other materials, shelters that donít give much shelter. The storage shed in my backyard is sturdier than those dwellings.

Heifer keeps a number of animals on the Ranch so that visitors can see what it is like to take care of the animals. Though they no longer send animals overseas from this site, the Ranch does offer the opportunity to learn what they can do and how they can help families overcome poverty. A barn shows how every part of an animal gets used, from the manure for fertilizer, the milk for drinking, the meat for eating.

Unfortunately, even the strongest buildings rarely stand up against the power of a tornado, and a tornado hit the Ranch a few weeks ago. Thankfully they did not lose any people or animals, but the damage to the ranch is substantial. Some of the damage will be replaced by insurance money, but the deductible is significant, money which might have to be taken out of other fundraising and away from the work they do.

It is very easy to text a ten dollar donation to the Red Cross or some other organization that is doing work on the ground in these cities that have suffered so much at the hands of nature, and many of them are excellent organizations and should be supported. But if you feel led to do something, but arenít sure what to do, there are lots of ways to help. I know of at least one church (Iím sure there are many) in Alabama whose building was completely destroyed by the storms. While they surely have insurance, they donít have anywhere to meet while they are rebuilding. They may need to pay rent, or even find a place to use. Theyíve lost everything. Perhaps they could use some bibles or hymnals or wine for communion. Other organizations have lost offices and office equipment. The organizations that are traveling to those areas have people that need places to stay and food to eat. While it is best to give cash rather than send our old used items to give to others, there may be ways to share what you have with the groups and people who are helping those who are suffering.

We donít often realize how disasters in other places can affect the people in our very own neighborhoods. When Hurricane Katrina hit a few years ago many families left New Orleans when the storm threatened and traveled to family or friends away from the danger zone. We have several neighbors with family that live in New Orleans, and they all made the pilgrimage to our street to wait out the storm. One neighbor welcomed several families, making their home crowded and their burden great. At first they expected the visit to last for a few days, but the damage after the storm was so excessive that they ended up staying for weeks and months.

Though they were happy to have their family and grateful that they were safe, it became very stressful to have so many living together. It was like a vacation at first, but financially it became a strain on budgets. Though the family was able to help out at first, the concerns for what they would find at their home when they finally returned made them more careful with their money. It took time for them to get the emergency money provided by the government for the victims of the storm, and my friend was worried about how they would feed so many people. It wasnít much, but I was able to give them a gift card for the local grocery store and it helped them get through those first few days.

It is amazing how quickly we respond to these disasters with generosity and strength. If the need is for water, truck loads of water are on the road within hours. We are generous with our money when there are calls for donations. After Katrina, cities took in refuges, provided for their needs and welcomed them as if they belonged there. Some of the visitors became permanent residents of the new towns. We respond naturally when the call is issued. This is true of all people, despite religious point of view, but I like to think that Christians are particularly good at hearing the voice and responding to it in gracious and merciful ways.

I think thatís what Luke means when he talks about the early Christians sharing everything they had. While that Christian community in Jerusalem might have been a model of literal equality, other stories in Acts show us that the Christians continued to have control over their own personal property. The story of Ananias and Sapphira show us that it isnít about giving everything, but about being honest about how much we give. Peter did not expect them to share the whole profit of their sale, but expected them to give everything they promised to God.

So, when we are thinking about how this scripture manifests in our own lives and communities, we have to consider what we mean by our own Jerusalem community and what it means to share everything we have. We donít live together under one roof, and therefore we have individual needs to fulfill, but we gather together with other Christians in our churches. We share what we have with that community, giving as we are able. Admittedly, as we can see by the financial stresses suffered in many of todayís congregations, we arenít always good about this kind of giving. I suppose it has to do with the financial realities in todayís world. Churches have bills that many do not see as important or vital to Godís work in the world. People withhold their giving from the church because they are unhappy with programs or policies. People arenít willing to give to an organization that is wasting their resources. When the stewardship call is voiced, they donít respond because they simply donít see it as a real need. This is a problem, and I donít have the answer, but thatís not what we are talking about today.

Many of the same people that throw a five dollar bill in the offering are extremely generous when a neighbor is in trouble. They respond with food for funerals, buy baked goods from the youth to help them go on a mission trip, volunteer at their childrenís schools and text a donation to the Red Cross every time there is an emergency. They hear the voice and respond in their own way according to their own ability. I donít know many people who I would say are without mercy, rich or poor, when someone is in trouble.

Thatís what the outsiders saw in the Christian community: a willingness to give to share with one another. It wasnít forced or even expected: it just happened. When someone was hungry, someone else fed them. When someone needed a new robe, someone helped them get one. When each was comfortable, they ensured the others were comfortable, too. Who wouldnít want to be part of a community that doesnít worry about money and resources?

If you ask many people why they arenít part of a church, I expect you will hear two answers the most. First, theyíll talk about the apparent hypocrisy, unwilling to commune with people they think say one thing but do another. Inside the community we understand that we are all sinners and imperfect, it is understandable that those outside the community might see us as two-faced, especially if we are particularly passionate about an issue. There is no excuse for this apparent hypocrisy, but if they saw some value to enter into the community they would experience the reality of Godís grace.

The other reason people most likely give for why they refuse to be involved in Ďchurchí is money. They will tell you that all they hear in church is ďgive, give, give.Ē Stewardship programs last months, every newsletter has an article begging for money, someone is always standing with their hand out. Over and over again we hear are guilted into giving so that Godís work might be done. And when money is not forthcoming as expected, then the people are blamed for not hearing Godís voice. This does not appear to be a very gracious community to the stranger.

Something was different about the Christian community in Jerusalem that made strangers want to be a part of it. Luke tells us that day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. With congregations failing and churches dying, we have to ask ourselves what we are doing that is different than what they were doing. I donít think the answer is in holding all things in common, but instead trusting in God, hearing His voice and responding accordingly. Instead of forcing, manipulating or coercing one another, we will look like that early church if we support each other by responding to Godís voice.

That early church devoted themselves to the work of God. They studied the scriptures and the teachings of the apostles, they gathered together for worship and praise, and they prayed. Do we do this? Yes we do, for an hour or two a week. Many of our members are faithful about bible study and prayer, but do they gather on a daily basis for worship with others? Do we even talk to other members of our congregations throughout the week, encouraging each other every day with words of grace to help each other live as God calls us to live? No wonder outsiders see us as hypocrites! It is not enough to be good Christians on our own, praying, studying and working on our own. Many people, even non-Christians, are gracious and merciful, giving and responsive to the needs of the world. People from every religion worship and pray in some way. Even the atheists, though they may not realize it, live Ďfaithfullyí to a set of principals, follow their own rituals and belief in their own moral standards.

What makes the Church unique is that it is one body, Christís body, working together to accomplish Godís Work in the world. And we donít do it according to our will and purpose, but according to Godís. We trust in Him. We listen for His voice and we respond by faith with strength and everything we have. We might fail. No, we will fail at times. But if we continue to work like those first disciples, devoting our time to the teachings of the apostles, worship and prayer, then we will learn to recognize Godís voice above all the others.

See, it is easy for someone to claim they are speaking for God. Judas kept the money bag and in doing so apparently had a dominant say in what they would do with the funds. When Mary poured expensive perfume over Jesusí feet and wiped it with her hair, Judas was offended. He wanted the perfume sold and the money given to the poor, but the scriptures give us a different motive. He stole money from the money bag whenever he had a need. Thankfully we do not hear many stories, although there are some, of people stealing from the church. What we do hear, however, is how many insist on the church running as they wish. They will fight for every penny of the budget, refusing to allow any ministry if their favorite is not supported. We hear of those who refuse to give if the church stands for something they reject. We hear of fights over buildings, salaries, even which wine to serve. In all these battles, each side claims that they are doing what God wants, as if God cares about whether the carpet is red or blue.

So, to keep things going, we demand more and more from one another, expecting others to meet our needs instead of listening for Godís voice in the circumstances. Sometimes we are meant to suffer, but we do so knowing that God is with us and that He will help us through. Peter writes, ďFor hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that ye should follow his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: who his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree, that we, having died unto sins, might live unto righteousness; by whose stripes ye were healed.Ē Instead of fighting with one another and forcing others to give according to the voices we hear, we are called to obey God with our own lives and resources.

Godís work will get done if His people truly listen and obey. The trouble with us is that we rarely listen or obey. We do what we want to do and even convince ourselves that we are doing what we are supposed to do. But if something is not working in the community, I think we must ask ourselves if we are really listening, and if we are trusting in God.

Have we lost touch with His voice? Do we hear Him when He calls? Are we ready to respond with mercy and grace to meet the needs of those who are suffering in the world? Or are we following the voices of strangers? Have we allowed the thief to come into our community to steal the gifts God has given? Are we willing to trust God even when we are suffering? Is Jesus our focus, or are we chase after our own agendas, theories, expectations? As we follow Jesus, listening to His voice, going only where He leads, we will find that Godís grace will multiply in ways that are beyond our ability to imagine. Even if we donít think we have enough, weíll be able to find more than we need to help our neighbors just as they will help us. This is the kind of community that others long to join.

So, letís devote our time to the work of God, learning how to hear His voice through study, worship and prayer. Then when God calls, weíll hear and respond with mercy and grace, just like Jesus, and our community will look a lot like that one in Jerusalem so long ago. The work we do might not be what we expect. It might be giving a grocery store gift card to a neighbor or helping rebuild a barn. It might be giving a little bit of hope to a stranger that lost everything in a tornado or providing the resources a church needs to continue their work. The work God calls me to do will be different than the work God calls you to do, but together weíll accomplish incredible things. And the Lord will add to the numbers daily those who are being saved.

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