Monthly Archives: September, 2012

  1. Sermons : What Makes You Happy?

    Exodus 16:1-8
    Exodus 16:13-21, 35 

    "My house is good," he says. Minoj Singh gets up at 4:30 in the morning, rides a bike into the heart of Calcutta, and picks up his rickshaw. He spends the day pulling it around – not a bike but walking, gripping the wooden handles, a person or two sitting in the carriage behind. Through pouring rain or oppressive heat, or both, he carries people around the packed and dirty streets. "Happy," a fantastic documentary I watched this week – that I credit our colleague Barb Schmidt for telling me about – starts with Minoj.1 The producers synthesized a ton of research from around the world to try to better understand the question, "What makes you happy?" We meet folks from the Louisiana Bayou to the streets of New York, from groups of widows on Okinawa, back to Calcutta. It turns out that it is pretty simple what makes one happy – family and friends, social connections, being involved in something that matters. Minoj, it seems, is statistically about as happy with his life as the average American. He sits outside his house – about a third of the size of the choir loft for 6 of them – bamboo rods forming the frame, plastic tarps tied together forming the walls and roof. "My house is good," he says, matter-of-factly. "During the monsoon, we have some trouble with rain blowing in. Other than that we live well. When my son comes home and calls out to me, when I see my baby’s face," he says. "I feel happy." 

    The contrast today’s text sets up is powerful. After 430 brutal years of slavery, the people were free.2 In an extraordinary series of miracles God called Moses, confronts Pharaoh with plagues, parts the Red Sea. But it only takes them 45 days – a month and a half – after 430 years, to start complaining. If only we had died as slaves, they say. At least then we had something to eat. For YOU have brought us out to kill us with hunger. We are at the beginning of what scholars call ‘the sojourn tradition,’ the traveling before and after their time at Mount Sinai, the heart of the Exodus experience.3 Point 1 of this tradition reminds us of the faithlessness of the people. When things get the least bit unsure, folks gather in a corner and start grousing, then they decide who they can blame. The complainers churn and churn, content to stir people up, rarely desirous of any sort of solution. It seems as though most of our political class is in a perpetual state of complaint. But it trickles down, as we complain about our jobs or our kids’ teachers, that the television that doesn’t work, that people aren’t quite who we want them to be for us. The yard needs to be mowed, our house [what good news, we have a house to live in, with a roof, and electricity!] isn’t quite the way we want it to be. Whether 430 years of slavery, or 45 days of wandering, or 2 days of a plumbing problem. It is hard to be satisfied where we are.

    But God meets them with grace. Not even a well-deserved lecture on the fact that they were doing forced labor 2 months ago and now were FREE. God says, I am going to provide for you. And not just today, but each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. This is point 2 of this same sojourn tradition: they are reminded that God can be trusted. God provides anyway. In the wilderness, when times are uncertain, God calls us to trust.

    But simply trusting doesn’t compute. In the morning there was a layer of dew in the camp, and as it lifts, this flakey stuff is on the ground. And what do the people do? They ask each other, ‘What is it?" What is this? Why is this here? They can’t see. Moses reminds them that God made a promise. Here it is, guys. This interchange is likely how we get the word manna, what we call this bread. The question, ‘What is it?’ in Hebrew sounds awfully similar to ‘manna,’ and so most scholars assume that first question ended up providing the name for the bread.4 And we continue to question, because I tend to think that deep down folks like us still have a hard time believing that grace comes as a gift. No matter how privileged our upbringing or how many folks help us along the way, we tend to believe we earn what we have. And we work darn hard, don’t we, to scratch and gather and achieve? To take that next step up, to get the very best for us and our families. But this so easily – often without us even realizing it – becomes a relentless drive for more, and deep anxiety when it feels like there is not enough. And then you are stuck, because when you always want more, it also always feels like you don’t have enough. It eats you up. We end up restless, never content, with the idols we create of who we are and what people think of us and who we long to be taking over the simple love of God and neighbor among us. I think in communities like ours figuring out our relationship with money is THE spiritual disease of our time, that gets us off track, distracting us from those who matter.

    And so God carefully structures the deal with this manna. This is almost as important as the gift itself. They are commanded to gather as much of it as they need, defining ‘need’ – an omer, close to 3 quarts.5 But even when they didn’t follow directions, verses 17 and 18 tell us that they all ended up with around the same amount, ‘as much as each of them needed.’ This is the way the covenant community works. Not too much. Not too little. Enough for the day. If they sway from gathering enough, it rots. "The wondrous reality," Walter Brueggemann writes, "about the distribution of this bread is that their uncompetitive, non-hoarding practice really does work, and it works for all!"6 The second point of emphasis – in the section we didn’t read but will come back to next week – is on the Sabbath. Every other day there is enough for that day. Except for the day before the Sabbath, when enough for the next day is included.

    As you are by now aware, today is the beginning of stewardship season. While some may roll their eyes, I actually like this time of year, because it calls us to really dig into what each of us values. What matters? What do you care about? Or, asked a slightly different way, what makes you happy? Not ‘happy’ as a vague pleasant feeling, but something more akin to joy. This is the season to take a little more time to remind you what we do in some way or another every single week as we hear assurance of God’s forgiveness, and as we are called to the offering. God our God is a God of abundance, of boundless grace, and God gives that grace to us as a gift. Not as something you need to earn – goodness knows even the best of us aren’t capable of earning it. Grace is a gift. And that is the best news I will ever have to tell you. God loves you for exactly who you are. Really. For exactly who you are. But God also loves you enough to want you do respond in joy, to share with others, to love, to love, to love.

    It is also the time when the church will ask you to respond in a specific way, by asking you to make a pledge. This year we’ll ask you to take a brochure home, to read it – it is an exceptional document that a lot of people put a lot of work into – and to think and pray upon your gift to this place. I have probably been a bit too lax in the past few years in asking you all for a commitment. But I am here to tell you from my experience, in my life here, and in my life more broadly, that the church is the gift God gives us for this difficult journey. To surround us. To teach us. To drive us out way beyond ourselves to do campus ministry and feed homeless people and taking care of victims of domestic violence. None of it happens without you. We will be talking more in the coming weeks about the gifts God gave the people in the wilderness to shape their life together – of this manna, of the Sabbath, each of us giving as we have been blessed, and of the biblical standard of tithing. I am convinced that an investment in the ministry of this place is an essential act of faithfulness, one that binds us together, as we do so much remarkable ministry, that embraces each of us and – as the organizations we support tell us so well in the brochure – is critically important to Durham.

    After we meet Minoj, the filmmakers of "Happy," walk us through some research. They tell us that around 50% of our happiness is determined by our genes – that we are born with a kind of genetic set range. External circumstances – your job, your finances, your health, account for only 10%. Most researchers have concluded that the remaining 40% is intentional behavior. The things you choose. We get to choose what kind of perspective we will have about our lives. We get to choose how anxious we will be about the world. We get to choose how we will think about who God is, whether we believe God is, in fact, gracious. And we get to choose how we will respond, as we come to lunch, as we go to work, as we contemplate the ways we will return those gifts to God not only during stewardship season, but far beyond.

    The documentary closes back in Calcutta. Andy Wimmer is from Sweden, a financial manager who, 17 years ago, showed up to work in Mother Teresa’s home for the destitute and dying. He had all these fancy clothes, he said, and then he realized he was ridiculous. His first day, he said, they brought in a 15 year old who had been found in a dumpster. And he held to his mouth a small glass of water, and his eyes shot open, and they were connected. ‘And there it is’ Andy said. "I got this life, my parents, my friends, I was never really sick and I always had enough food to eat. I was the first generation in a long time to never experience a war. My life, he said, is a loan given from God. I will give this loan back, he said, but with interest. You love, you serve the brother or sister in front of you. That is how you have a happy life."

    All praise be to God. Amen.




    1. Learn more at It’s worth your time!
    2. We don’t really know how long, but Exodus 12:40 gives us the 430 number.
    3. Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2003), pages 58-59.
    4. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume I, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), page 813.
    5. The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, Henry Gehman, ed, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), p 685
    6. NIB, 814.


  2. Bulletins & Sunday Announcements : September 30, 2012

    September 30, 2012 Bulletin

  3. Newsletters : September 26, 2012

    September 26, 2012 Newsletter

    In this Issue:
    Concerns & Celebrations, Volunteer Opportunities & More (World Communion Sunday Night of Service, IHN Fundraiser, Habitat for Humanity Apostle Build 2012, Genesis Home Collection, IHN Annual Gala), Oldies But Goodies Lunch Bunch, Thank Yous, Lovefeast Choir Needs You!, Stewardship Kick-Off Luncheon, Sacraments Class, Young Adult Theology Series Guest Speaker, Westminster School For Children, Young Adult Women’s Bible Study, Women’s Spirituality Group Update, Fall Women’s Retreat, Session Notes, Youth Ministry, Memorial Service, Community Opportunities, Preaching Schedule, and Congregational Responsibilities   

  4. News : Sacraments Class

    Who: 1st-4th Graders
    When: October 7, 14, and 21, from 12:15-2:00pm
    Where: Fellowship Hall

    Learn about the Sacraments through group sharing, crafts, videos, music, bread breaking, bread baking, games and a tour of the Sanctuary. Parents are asked to participate. We will share a light lunch together.

    To register, call Nancy at 919-489-4974, ext. 104.

  5. Sermons : Remembering the Forgotten

    Psalm 1
    Mark 9:30-37 

    I can’t remember if I’ve told you before about my real ordination. It was January of my second year in seminary, and at that point in Columbia’s curriculum we took something called ‘Alternative Context.’ Groups of a dozen or so took off for 3 weeks to explore what the church was doing in places like Mexico, Central Europe, or Northern Ireland. There was also an urban Atlanta track, which I chose. The first chilly morning we visited the Atlanta Regional Commission. The Commission is responsible for allocating federal transportation dollars, and do land- and water-use planning for the 10 county Metro-region. We got an extraordinary briefing on demographics, and major transportation and economic issues, with full technology and some fantastic maps. Afterwards, downstairs, as we waited for the van to pick us up along Peachtree, a gentleman without a coat and carrying a couple of big bags came up and asked us what the people in the building we just came from did. I, kind of smugly, replied that we had just been in there for two hours, and I wasn’t sure. I told him that it seemed like they sat around and had a lot of nice ideas. He then asked me if I was aware that in the city of Atlanta there were no shelters for men and children together. He was a single father with a child, and had nowhere to stay. He offered numbers to call and confirm that, but I told him I believed him. Just then, the van pulled up and the rest of the group climbed in. I feebly wished him good luck. As he stepped back he looked at me, pointed, and said, "Remember this when YOU get to be the one with the ideas." Remember, he said. Do not forget. 

    The contrast couldn’t have been clearer. After the traveling, the healing and casting out of demons, Jesus begins to make his way from the north down towards Jerusalem. It is then he decides to tell them what is going to happen – that He must suffer, be rejected, die. Mark underlines this reality with the miracle of the Transfiguration, with Peter, James, John, then Moses and Elijah, on top of the mountain, shining. After another miracle Jesus, in today’s text, invites the disciples to lean in and he says – like he did in the chapter before, and will again in chapter 10, that the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands and will be killed. They will break Him, and 3 days later He will rise again. And they don’t understand. Before, in the text Taylor preached on last week, Peter jumped in with questions. Today they are afraid to ask.

    But Jesus keeps watching. Once in Capernaum He asks, What were you guys talking about back as we walked? Their shame leads to silence, Mark says, for they were arguing about who was the greatest. The disconnect here is astounding. He had just been talking about how he was to DIE and, immediately, they start arguing about who was the greatest. A critical reading leads us to certainty about the disciple’s narcissism. Must it really be all about them? We, surely, would not do that. A more sympathetic reading sees them as having a really hard time wrapping their head around all of this. They must be exhausted with these last few chapters, sprinting from healing to healing, four thousand fed, blind man’s vision restored. Up on a mountain for the transfiguration, then down for Jesus to cast out a spirit from a young boy. After the exorcism the crowd thinks the boy is dead, and Jesus helps him stand – a combined exorcism and resurrection! They are overwhelmed with the work of the Spirit around them, yet Jesus gathers them close. I need you all to know that I am going to die. I can sympathize with their confusion.

    That doesn’t excuse their petty arguing about status, which is still ridiculous. But even more important is what Jesus does. A deep breath. Come here, guys: "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Of all. Then He reaches for an object lesson. He points to a wonderful child, maybe a little girl from across the room. Come here for a moment, dear. He picks her up and sets her on his lap: "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."

    I have heard this passage used as a way to talk about the value of children. Not children as little adults, but as beautiful creations – each and every one -to be cherished and nurtured. As we work to keep the promises the church makes at baptism, in the nursery and SS and youth group, but even more to know their names, to know what they care about, to have enough relationship with them that when we sit them down and look them in the eye and tell them how much God loves them, that it means something. That we listen to children for the compassion they offer, for all they have to teach us adults about relationships.

    And that is great, but I think what Jesus is doing here is more radical. Pheme Perkins writes, "the child in antiquity was a non-person. Children should have been with the women, not hanging around the teacher and his students."1 This is not a soft, sweet, let’s love on our children, moment. "Holding a child before him," Gary Charles writes, "Jesus speaks about a category of existence. He speaks about those in society, no matter their age, who are always last in line and are valued the least by society."2 Those that are forgotten. Jesus is asking his disciples to set aside their egos and resumes, all of those goals we set, and instead to serve those at the bottom, live with those society discards. There, Christ says, He will be found.

    Elena Cleary, one of our elders, spent a few moments at last week’s session meeting on this text. If we assume ‘children’ to mean something more like ‘non-person,’ she said, who are those people today? Sometimes those forgotten are actual children, with behavioral or developmental problems, children that can be hard to love. Twenty-seven percent of children in Durham are poor, 5.8 million nationwide under age 6 in families with income below the poverty level.3 Maybe, next time we are at the grocery store, we could remember them. Maybe we could remember families in waiting rooms at Duke Hospital who will never be able to pay the bills to keep their daughter alive. Maybe we could remember teenagers who are gay who have been led to believe that the church won’t love them for who they are. Maybe we could remember folks in poverty across the globe, that we have the privilege of coming to pack meals for on October 7. Maybe we could remember adults slipping through the massive crevices in our mental health system, camping in the woods, sleeping in shelters, veterans back from war exhausted and alone. But it is there, with those folks, as those people, that Jesus stands. Whoever welcomes a schizophrenic adult at the bus stop or a drug addict downtown in my name, Jesus says, welcomes me. And he sits there, looking as His disciples, full of love, waiting to see who among us will remember.

    Sounding like a twenty-first century Mark, Will Campbell – a Baptist pastor and author best know for his work during the civil-rights movement – challenges the church to pay attention to this enacted parable of Jesus. About the homeless on our city streets, he writes:

    For the past few weeks, I’ve been our peddling books…In every city I visited I inquired as to the number of people living on the streets. Then I asked how many churches, synagogues, and mosques there were. I was not too surprised to learn that in most cities there are about the same number of homeless people as there are congregations.

    Quite often when I make a speech to a church group…someone will say, "You complain a lot about the faithlessness of the steeples, but you never tell us what we can do to make the world better."

    Well, how about this: Let every congregation adopt one person who lives on the streets. Ask no questions as to the worthiness of these people. Who among us is worthy? Just find them lodging, a job, friends – give them hope. "But how would you afford it?" The same way you afford your tall steeples, rich edifices, preachers’ salaries, and all the rest. With tithes and offerings.4

    I was taken with Campbell’s provocative idea, so I checked. In January of this year Durham recorded 698 total homeless individuals.5 The Visitor’s Bureau says that Durham County has 313 houses of worship.6 So it might be 2 people for us, instead of 1.

    "Whoever welcomes one such child – or in our case 2 – in my name welcomes me." Whoever welcomes a schizophrenic adult at the bus stop or a drug addict downtown in my name, Jesus says, welcomes me. And He sits there, looking as His disciples, full of love, waiting to see who among us will remember.

    All praise be to God. Amen.



    1. NIB, 637.
    2. Brian Blount and Gary Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2002), 182.
    3. Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2011
    4. Will Campbell, Soul among Lions, 1999, p 15-16. From Blount and Charles, 182-183.
    5. 2012 Point-in-Time Count of Homeless Persons, by Durham City, Durham County, Durham Continuum of Care.
    6. Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau