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      <page pageid="273" ns="0" title="Sermon for April 10th, 2016">
          <rev contentformat="text/x-wiki" contentmodel="wikitext" xml:space="preserve">==Acts 2:37-47==
37Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 

41So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

==First Church: What Should We Do?==
In today's scripture reading, the Apostle Peter preaches a three minute sermon, and the church--the real &quot;First Church&quot; which is the subject of our sermon series this month--goes from 120 members to 3,000 all in one day.  If that's not an argument for shorter sermons, I don't know what is!

I'm also reminded of the story about the three local churches--Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian--who worked together to sponsor a community- wide revival. After the revival had concluded, the three pastors were discussing the results with one another. The Methodist minister said, &quot;The revival worked out great for us. We gained 4 new members, Hallelujah!&quot; The Baptist preacher said, &quot;Amen, brother, but we did better than that. We gained 6 new members, Praise the Lord!&quot; The Presbyterian pastor said, &quot;Well, we did even better than that! Thanks be to God, we finally got rid of our 10 biggest troublemakers!&quot;

It's a fun joke, but there's also a bit of sad truth to it--in many churches, evangelism and &quot;church growth&quot; are all about shuffling around members from one church to another...meanwhile, the total number of church members in our country and in our city continues to decline. 

And so we read scripture passages like today's, we see a growing, thriving church back in the first century, and we say, &quot;Wow, that's amazing!&quot; We read how they all took care of each other, financially and materially.  We read how glad and generous they were, and how everyone loved them--they had the goodwill of all people.  And we ask ourselves how can we be *that* kind of church?  How can we be that kind of people?

Well.  I'm so glad you asked.

I think it's easy with passages like this one to see the big things, like 3,000 people, amazing wonders and signs, and radical acts of generosity.  But it's also easy to miss the little, but important things that created that kind of environment.  That's what I want to focus on today.

Right before today's scripture passage, Peter preaches a sermon. It's tempting (especially for a preacher) to think that the sermon was what did the trick.  But as I said earlier, it was just three minutes long.  Peter quotes a few passages from the Old Testament, tells them about the death and resurrection of Jesus, and... that's pretty much it.  It's a message you've heard many times, and one I imagine most people in our community (believers and non-believers alike) are pretty well acquainted with.  No, I don't think it was the sermon, and in any case, that's not today's focus.  

Our passage begins with the response of the crowd, which, for whatever reason (let's just call it the movement of the Spirit) is &quot;cut to the heart.&quot;  Listen to their response, the first words out of their mouths: They &quot;said to Peter and to the other apostles, 'Brothers, what should we do?'&quot;  

What should we DO?  Interestingly, they don't ask, &quot;what should we BELIEVE?&quot;  Somehow, 2,000 years later, we have made belief, and not action, the primary criteria for acceptance into the church community.  You want to be a Christian?  Ok, first you have to believe what we believe, affirm our doctrines and creeds, accept our own distinctive explanation of what the Bible *really* means, and can belong to our community.

Peter and the apostles don't seem to be too worried about uniformity of belief.  Most of the doctrines and creeds of the church won't even be formulated for another few hundred years, and as we'll see later in Acts, even Jesus' earliest followers didn't always agree on who he was and what they were all supposed to believe about him. 

Instead, the crowd asks what they should DO, and Peter simply tells them, &quot;Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven.&quot;  

Repenting is something inward, something invisible between just you and God.  Baptism is something outward, visible, something the community can see and remember.  Sometimes, as was likely the case with all the adults that day, the repentance or inward change comes before the outward sign of baptism.  But later, Peter says that this &quot;promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away.&quot;  Sometimes the outward sign of baptism comes first, when we are only infants and before we have the ability to even understand it, while the inward change, the repentance comes years afterwards when we are older.  In any case, both pieces are essential to forming a cohesive community, but they are also only the beginning.  I know plenty of people who have  been baptized, and had profound spiritual experiences later in life...but then slip back into the mundane routines of a meaningless life.

That's why I think verse 42 is the pivotal moment, and perhaps the most important verse in the entire book of Acts.  After 3,000 people repent and are baptized, we read that &quot;they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.&quot;  Everything that happens in the next paragraph, all the signs and wonders and miracles, all the giving, sharing, serving and generosity, and all the continued growth, hinge on this one verse.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

This is what I call the three-legged stool upon which a faith community is built. Think of a three-legged stool.  If you take away any one of the legs, even with the other two intact, the stool cannot stand.  Without all three things, the church is not the church.  And unless we, as individuals, are engaged in all three things, we're depriving ourselves of the fullness of Christian community.

The first leg of the stool is education.  They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching.  Now, I've spent a lot of time (most of my life) thinking about education.  I have a Master's degree in education.  Before I was a Pastor, I was a high school teacher.  And now that I'm a Pastor, I still consider myself first and foremost, a teacher.  All this is to say that I know the value of education, of good teaching.  A good teacher does NOT tell you what to believe, what to think, or what is true.  A good teacher helps you to explore and discover these things for yourself, giving guidance and direction where needed.  And a good student pursues all of these things, not just for a season, but for a lifetime.   

If in your spiritual life, you are not actively studying the great sacred texts that are part of our heritage (namely the Bible, but there are others as well), if you are not actively studying the world God created and the people who inhabit it, and if you are not connecting these things together...then in your individual spiritual life, you probably aren't growing much.  Likewise, if we as a church are not studying these things together, exploring together, and learning together, then we as a church probably aren't growing together much, either.  And while I hope my sermons are helpful and educational, a twenty minute sermon once a week isn't enough.

If you have children, and you want them to be lifelong learners, especially lifelong spiritual learners, the best way to teach them that habit is by your own example. That's why we have Sunday school classes for children AND adults, and seasonal Bible studies, and Wednesday night study groups.  And I'd love to see even more opportunities like that spring if you have something to teach us, then teach.  All of us still have a lot to learn.

The second leg of the stool is fellowship.  They devoted themselves to fellowship. The Greek word here is κοινωνία, which is a powerful concept in Greek and Roman culture: A community of equals, built on personal relationships.  κοινωνία also means common, and in Jewish culture was the word that meant the opposite of sacred.  In other words, we need to get to know each other outside of our sacred spaces.  When's the last time you invited someone from church to your home?  We read in verse 46 that the early church broke bread from &quot;home to home&quot; and &quot;ate their food with glad and generous hearts.&quot;  Incidentally, if you have your calendars handy, you are all invited to the Locke family home next month on Sunday afternoon, May 22nd.

Sometimes, as a church, we do things together just for fun, like go to baseball games, or to the movies, or UTEP operas.  Our primary fellowship time is Wednesday nights, when (weather permitting) we grill outdoors, while the kids play, and basically just enjoy each others' company.  So if you come to Worship and Sunday School faithfully every Sunday morning, but leave right after the benediction, without taking the time to get to know the community... be careful, you might be sitting on a two-legged stool.  And if we, as a church, don't make space for fun, for fellowship, for non-sacred time building relationships with each other, then we aren't being the church.

The third and last leg of the stool is worship.  They devoted themselves to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  This is not just any bread-breaking, but &quot;the&quot; breaking of bread, or observance of the Lord's supper, the earliest ritual in the church.  And these are not just any prayers, but &quot;the prayers,&quot;  most likely a set of liturgical, communal prayers, like the Lord's prayer.  In other words, this is worship.  We do this every Sunday morning, but notice that in the &quot;first church,&quot; they did it every day.  Verse 46: &quot;Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple.&quot;  It's no accident that one verse later we see the same wording, &quot;And day by day the Lord added to their number...&quot;  If we want to grow more (as a church or as individuals), we need to worship more.  

Worship puts us in a different frame of mind--it's where heaven and earth touch on another, where human and divine meet for just a little while, and where we allow the sacred to come into our lives.  Why wouldn't we want just a little bit more of that?  I suspect the answer is, &quot;Because I'm too busy.&quot;  I've seen what &quot;too busy&quot; does to a person over the course of a lifetime.  But the solution to &quot;too busy&quot; isn't getting more things done, more quickly.  The  solution is letting things go, making room in your life for what's truly important.  Making space in your life for peace, for contemplation, for prayer, for music, for worship, for God.

One more thing, and I'll close:  It's not another leg of the stool, since we already have three, but you might think of it as the round seat at the top that holds the three legs together. They *devoted* themselves to all three things:  To the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, and to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  Devoted. In Greek, it's προσκαρτερέω (proskartereo).  Strong's dictionary defines it as &quot;to continue to do something with intense effort, despite difficulty, to keep on, to persist in.  Devotion is discipline.  Devotion is consistency.  Not something we do just when we can squeeze it in, or just when we feel like it.

Imagine if you only exercised twice a year.  Would it do any good?  Imagine if you only ate food once a week.  Imagine if you were going to school but only showed up to class when something interesting happened.  Imagine painting a picture, or writing a novel, or composing a piece of music, but just giving up when you get stuck, or when things don't work out the way you planned.  Imagine getting married, and hearing your beloved say, &quot;I mostly take you, to have and to hold sometimes, for better, but not for worse, for richer, but not for poorer, in health but not sickness, until I get bored.&quot;

The best things we can accomplish in life, the very best things we can do and be, for ourselves and for each other, all require devotion. The people of the &quot;First Church&quot; knew this, and so what did they do?  They devoted themselves to all the right things.  May the people of the First Presbyterian Church do likewise, &quot;with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.&quot;</rev>
      <page pageid="221" ns="0" title="Sermon for April 12th, 2015">
          <rev contentformat="text/x-wiki" contentmodel="wikitext" xml:space="preserve">==Matthew 5:1-12==
1When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

==Luke 6:20-26==
20Then he looked up at his disciples and said:  “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

==Beautiful Attitudes: The Poor and the Hungry==
It was my very first week as a pastor. I was fresh out of seminary, self-confident and full of grand ideals. I was ready to change the world--to preach good news to the poor, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to heal the brokenhearted, to walk on water and raise the dead back to life.  Did I mention I was idealistic and self-confident?  

So, of course, God (in his infinite wisdom and slightly twisted sense of humor) decided to give me an opportunity.  

In my first week as a pastor, Mr. and Mrs. Heath Andrews walked into the church offices asking for help. They were passing through El Paso, on their way from somewhere to somewhere, and had fallen on difficult times.  They shared with me the story of their hardships--financial, medical, spiritual--and asked if the church might be able to help with the cost of diabetes medication for Heath's wife: Her prescription had expired... they could not afford to renew it... all the other churches and social service agencies in town had turned them away... time was running out... we were (I was) their &quot;only hope.&quot;

So we had a check drawn up from the church's benevolence fund (that's what it's for, after all) in the amount of $48--according to Mr. Andrews, that was the cost of the medication. They left, and somewhere in the back of my head I thought &quot;help the poor and needy...check!&quot;

A few hours later a call came through to the church.  It was the pharmacist.  We had made the check out to the pharmacy, not directly to Mr. and Mrs. Andrews.  The pharmacist informed me that the diabetes medication was only $3.98, and Mr. and Mr. Andrews were asking for the remaining $44 dollars to be given to them in cash, and, would that be ok with us?
And somewhere in the back of my head I thought, &quot;duped by the poor and needy...check!&quot;

Now, in the grand scheme of life and church budgets, $44 isn't a huge amount of money. It's enough to feed a four-person family a nice meal, or a two-person family a couple of meals.  Perhaps that was their intent, and that would have been okay, but what really upset me was that they hadn't been honest with me.  So I asked the pharmacist to have them return to the church with the check, and we would make one out in the correct amount. 

Not surprisingly, they did not return to the church, and we never saw them again. But then one day, several weeks later, there was a message on my answering machine:  &quot;Pastor Neal, this is Heath Andrews.  I just wanted to let you know that we finally found a pharmacy that would cash your check and give us back the change.  Have a wonderful day!&quot;  And somewhere in the back of my head I thought, &quot;duped AND insulted by the poor and needy...check!&quot;

I try not to let this incident color my opinion of everyone who comes to the church asking for help. Many (perhaps even most) are genuine in their need, and truly grateful for any help we are able to give, whether its money from the benevolence fund, food from our food pantry, or even just prayer, encouragement and a listening ear. These days, I probably ask a few more questions, and I'm more likely to make a referral to the appropriate social service agency than reach for the checkbook.  But striking the right balance between wanting to help the poor, and wanting to be responsible in the way that we help, is still a difficult thing. 

It doesn't help that terms like &quot;poor&quot; and &quot;hungry&quot; are relative, moving targets. Between 3:00pm and dinnertime, my three children are absolutely convinced that they are starving to the point of near-death, though this is clearly not the case.  According to a [ 2013 study by the Economist magazine], the poorest 10% of Americans still enjoy a higher quality of living than the wealthiest 10% of those living in Italy, Israel, Russia, Portugal, Brazil, Turkey, and Mexico.  And that study only took into consideration developed countries.

I don't mean to say that being poor in any country (including America) is a bed of roses.  It isn't.  But poverty is relative.  On the opposite end of that spectrum, I suspect there are plenty of people right here in this sanctuary who, even though we may live in nice houses and drive nice cars and eat three meals a day, are just one economic recession, one government shut-down, one lost job, or one family crisis away from financial disaster and radical change in socio-economic status.  Poverty is relative, but at every level, it is devastating, frightening, and disheartening. 

And so Jesus, at the beginning of his greatest sermon says, &quot;Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.&quot;  I have lumped these two together because they so often go hand in hand. I don't have any fancy Greek etymologies to give you today--poor means poor, and hungry means hungry, in Greek just the same as in modern English.  Matthew's version says blessed are the poor &quot;in spirit&quot; and blessed are those who hunger and thirst &quot;for righteousness&quot; but Luke's version just says simply, &quot;blessed are you who are poor&quot; and &quot;blessed are you who are hungry.&quot;  The rule of thumb in biblical criticism is that the shorter, simpler version is usually the original.  In any case, the gospel of Matthew tends to take an abstract, spiritual approach to things, while the gospel of Luke tends to prefer the concrete, and a more direct approach. 

Last week, I said that the beatitudes are not attitudes or practices that we must adopt in order to be blessed by God -- they aren't a magical formula we can apply in order to make our lives better. If that conventional interpretation were actually true, then in this case it would mean Jesus is telling people, &quot;You need to be poor.  You need to be hungry.&quot;  

It's true that many of us (especially in America) could benefit from owning a lot less, and eating a lot less.  
It is also true that sometimes Jesus calls his followers to do exactly that.  He tells a rich young man to sell everything he has, give it to the poor, and to follow him.  Occasionally Jesus would go into a time of fasting and prayer, and call his disciples to do the same. 

But that's not the same as saying &quot;Be poor. Be Hungry.&quot; I don't think Jesus is saying that. I don't think anyone who has ever been truly hungry or poor would actually advocate living that way for any great length of time.  Even members of traditional religious orders (monks and nuns) who take a &quot;vow of poverty&quot; are not promising to go hungry or be poor. The vow of poverty is a promise to share everything one has with others, particularly the poor.

So if the beatitudes are not a magic blessing formula, not attitudes for us to embrace, or practices to adopt, then what are they? 

As I said last week, they are a reflection of God's beautiful attitude toward all of his children, especially those described by Jesus whom we tend to see as un-blessed or un-blessable.  In this case, the poor and the hungry.  And these beatitudes (like all of them) come with a promise.  To the poor--those who were excluded from the blessings and promises of the mighty Roman Empire--Jesus promises a different kind of kingdom.  Not a kingdom that belongs to the Emperor in Rome, or to his petty regional kings, but one that belongs to all of you.  To the hungry, Jesus promises the one thing they want most--to be full.  Not hungry anymore.  

And therein lies the problem.  Jesus tells all those hungry people that they'll be filled...and then he keeps preaching... and preaching... and preaching.  In fact, at this point in his sermon, Jesus still has 2,461 more words to go before he's finished.  By contrast, there are about 739 words remaining in my sermon today (anyone hungry yet?). 

At the end of his sermon, what does Jesus do with all those hungry people?  He sends them home. Hungry.  Some of you might be saying, wait a minute--what about the time when Jesus feeds the 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish?  That's not here. That's not for another ten chapters. No, this time, the hungry leave with nothing more than the promise that someday they'll be full.  The poor leave with nothing more than the promise that someday they'll have a kingdom of their own.  Why doesn't he feed them, when it's obvious to us that he can? For that matter, why doesn't Jesus magically poof a thousand winning lottery tickets into their 1st century pockets (or ours, for that matter!) so that they don't have to be poor anymore, or at least poof this kingdom he's been talking about into existence?

Mohandas Ghandi is famous for saying &quot;If you give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day.  If you teach a man to fish, he'll eat for a lifetime.&quot;  It's not exactly true that the crowd leaves Jesus that day with nothing more than a few promises.  In the rest of his sermon, he actually lays out a plan for them. It's a plan for how to love your enemies, how to share what you have with others, how to treat each other, and how to live with each other, how to pray.  In short, it's a plan for how to bring about that Kingdom he was talking about, the one that belongs to everyone, the one where no one goes hungry.

That's the thing about God's plans.  They are beautiful plans, and they reflect God's beautiful attitude toward us.  In God's eyes, we are all important, we are all worthy of being fed, no matter how great or how small. But we are also the ones reponsible for bringing that kingdom to pass.  The Kingdom of God is not some beautiful, magical place we go after we die in order to escape from the misery and suffering of this world.  The Kingdom of God is a beautiful, real place we create right here in this world, in this life by loving each other, and by taking care of each other.  And like all of God's beautiful plans, it requires work.  It requires commitment.

I'm reminded of the story about the chicken and the pig. One day, the chicken and the pig were walking past the church, and discussing the problems of world hunger. The chicken suggested that between her species and the pig's they could provide everyone in the world with a good breakfast of bacon and eggs every morning. The pig thought long and hard before replying, 'That's OK for you to say, because from you that's only a contribution - from me that's total commitment!'

The people in that first century crowd who listened to Jesus preach went away just as poor and hungry as they came.  Today you will leave this sanctuary just as poor and hungry as you came (maybe a little poorer, if you put something in the offering plate later in the service, and little hungrier if I keep preaching for much longer!).  But some of those people--not all of them, but a few--made a total commitment to living the way Jesus taught them to live, to loving each other, and taking care of each other.  

Eventually, they came to be called Christians, and they spread out over all the world, sharing those teachings and trying to live by them.  They--and we--have not always been successful in that, but I like to think that on balance, we have done more good than harm in the world. 

In any case, there has been a steady decrease (over 60%) in the number of people in the world who live in poverty since 1820, when such statistics began to be kept.  Hunger has followed a similar pattern of decline.  There is still so much more to be done, of course, but that's pretty significant progress.  This is impossible to prove, but I believe that the teachings of Jesus have played a role in that decline.  

I believe that the kingdom Jesus spoke of is here...and is still coming.  

And I believe that each one of or poor, hungry or full, or somewhere in between, are an important part of making that happen, each and every day.</rev>