Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sermon for November 13, 2011

Worship and Mission: Meeting Needs

As the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent. The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve called a meeting of all the believers. They said, “We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program. And so, brothers, select seven men who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will give them this responsibility. Then we apostles can spend our time in prayer and teaching the word.” [Everyone liked this idea, and they chose seven men, including Stephen (a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit).] These seven were presented to the apostles, who prayed for them as they laid their hands on them. So God’s message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too. Acts 6:1-7

I recently read the following story from a sales clerk: At the clothing store where I work, I make it a point of pride to give customers my unvarnished opinion. One day, when a man emerged from the fitting room, I took one look at him and shook my head. "No, no," I said. "Those jeans look terrible on you. I'll go get you another pair." As I walked away, I heard him mumble, "I was trying on the shirt."

A shopper tells her customer service story: During a shopping trip to a department store, I was looking around for a salesperson so I could pay for my purchase. Finally I ran into a woman wearing the store's ID tag. "Excuse me," I said. "I'm trying to locate a cashier." "I can't help you," she briskly replied, barely slowing down. "I work in customer service." And she walked away.

Listen to this experience from another shopper: Late one night I stopped at one of those 24-hour gas station mini-marts to get myself a fresh-brewed cup of coffee. When I picked up the pot, I could not help noticing that the brew was as black as tar and just about as thick. "How old is the coffee you have here?" I asked the woman who was standing behind the store counter. She shrugged. "I don't know. I've only been working here two weeks."

We know when we’ve had great customer service and when we’ve been treated poorly by a company. Service is as important in the church as it is in the business world. Healthy churches are committed to meeting needs: serving people within our church as well as the meeting the needs of the broader community.

In our reading from the book of Acts, the apostles actively serve others. In fact, they’re so backlogged, they can’t perform their other duties. Like good church people, they form a committee to help out. Seven people are set apart to serve the physical and spiritual needs of the community. This is the first Board of Deacons. The word Deacon comes from the Greek word used to describe what these seven people do. The word is diakonia. It means “service.”

I don’t want us to think that the deacons are the only ones who are supposed to serve. In healthy congregations, it takes everyone working together to do the work of the church. When I think of people working together, I remember some of the great concerts I’ve been to in my life. Imagine the best concert you’ve attended. There is usually an energy that takes over the venue. At the end of the night, the artist performs his or her signature piece. The audience becomes unified in their thoughts, words, and actions. The audience sings and moves together with energy and power that is greater than any one person. Imagine the potential that humanity has if we could unify like that for longer, on a bigger scale. What would we be capable of? What can we do together as a church – what heights could we achieve if we stop thinking of ourselves as small little individuals in a hostile world and take charge of meeting needs in our church and in the community? What can we BE if each of us joins together to work for good, fully awakened to God’s power working through us.

When we closely examine Acts 6 we see that there’s a two-fold service problem. In the early church there were two distinct Jewish groups, each with their own language and culture. Some members of the church were Jews who were born and raised locally. Their mother-tongue was Hebrew or Aramaic. Other members of the church were Jews who were born and raised abroad. Their mother-tongue was Greek. Each tended to stay within their own group. The first problem is when it comes time to hand out food, someone is ignoring the Greek-speaking widows in favor of the Hebrew widows. Now there are insiders and outsiders, haves and have-nots within the church. Jealousy and envy erupt between the two groups. There is also a second problem -- a management problem. The 12 apostles are in charge of the daily distribution or food. The job takes up so much time and effort that the apostles neglect their main jobs of prayer and preaching. The apostles find themselves spending so much time looking after the widows that they don’t have time for their first responsibility.

The apostles propose a division of labor: seven people to do the meet the needs of daily food distribution, while the apostles meet the needs of prayer and preaching. They choose helpers, seven deacons whose task is to wait on tables and make sure that everyone gets food. There are no social welfare programs, no food stamps, no Aid for Dependent Children (ADC), no WIC (Women, Infant, Children) program. The early church has a soup line. The hungry show up at meal time and the deacons serve them.

As the church grows, different kinds of service develop. As more people help, the church realizes there are varieties of ways to meet needs. The apostle Paul will say, "There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord" (1 Cor 12:5). There’s the service of the seven – to wait on tables. There’s the service of the apostles and pastors – to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. There’s the service of the elders – to keep watch over the flock. There’s the service of the members – to serve one another. Within the church must be different ways to meet needs so no vital area of ministry is neglected.

The idea here is that diverse people with individual talents come together to serve the greater needs of community. Since no further mention is made of the problem, we can assume that the early church does a better job of looking after the Greek widows and the poorer members. We can also assume that the apostles are better able to concentrate on their prayer and preaching, on spreading the Good News of the Kingdom. And because everyone helps out and does his or her job, something amazing happens. Luke says, “God’s message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too”

At Christ Congregational Church, we often talk about how we want to grow. We want people to grow in maturity. We want the church to grow in members. We want families to grow in their stewardship and their active support of our ministries. The experience of the early church suggests that one way to keep growing is for everyone to do his or her part to serve. Each of us finds a way to use our time, our talents, and our financial gifts to meet needs.

From the beginning, the church feeds people. We feed hungry bodies. We share our food with others. We nourish hungry souls. My question is, are we wasting our resources. Are we using our resources to spread God’s message and meet needs?

I ask this because I know that Americans tend to be wasteful. We don’t always use our resources wisely. Especially when it comes to food. Hunger and malnutrition are the number one worldwide risks, greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Over 9 million people die world wide each year because of hunger and malnutrition. 5 million are children. Rich countries waste around half of the food supplies annually. America throws away 40 % of the food while UK throws away from 40 to 50 %. A number of months ago, I watched the movie The Book of Eli, in which Denzel Washington travels through a post-apocalyptic wasteland in order to follow a mission from God. In the movie, people fight for water, food and survival. Denzel’s character remembers what it was like before civilization crumbled. In one scene, remembering the old ways, he says, “People had more than they needed, people didn't know what was precious and what wasn't, people threw away things they kill each other for now.” How true. 38 billion US dollars worth of food is thrown away every year.

The model of the book of Acts is for people to make voluntary contributions so that needs are met, pains are shared, and joys are amplified. Sometimes we get off track. We start thinking that the end goal of the church is to survive. We mean well. but sometimes we get caught up in the very patterns that repel us. The job of the church is to meet needs. The job of the church is to serve. The job of the church is to give, even if it means risking its own security. The church that meets needs will share with compassion so that no one shall be pushed to the margins of our compassion.

Meeting needs does not come cheap. The church that meets the needs of others practices a basic principle of Jesus’ teachings. If you want to gain life, you have to lose it. Put another way, if we want to gain, we must be willing to lose. If we want to get, we must give. Giving helps us grow. It leads to resurrection. Meeting needs helps people heal. Communities that practice resurrection are communities of healing and hope, places where individuals torn and tattered by the pain of this world can come and have a soothing balm of love and care applied to their hurt.

Let’s keep working to be a gathering of people who are so intent on meeting needs, we live and work and pray together until the lives around become richer, until individuals who feel excluded are healed, until we model together the possibility of healing hope for the world.

God help us to live with the grace, enthusiasm, and serenity. Help us to know that living and dying are one that life is precious, and beautiful, and limited. That nothing good is ever lost. Help us become the church you envision for the world. Amen.


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