Monthly Archives: April, 2013

  1. Sermons : Embracing Change

    Psalm 148
    Acts 11:1-18

    Peter had some explaining to do. The church in Judea heard that he had been baptizing and worshiping with Gentiles, or non-Jews. The early church was made up of Jewish converts. In fact, the church was not called "Christian," according to Acts, until just after our passage, where we learn that it was at Antioch, where many new converts were baptized, that the disciples were first called "Christians" (Acts 11:26).

    Peter had some explaining to do, and he told them about the vision he had before meeting with the Gentiles. He said he saw a sheet with animals on it come down from heaven, and heard a voice telling him to kill and eat the meat of those animals. But Peter was a good practicing Jew, and ate kosher. He knew those animals were considered unclean. He told the Lord he could not eat them. Yet God persisted, saying that these animals had been cleansed. This happened a holy number of 3 times before the vision ended. Then, said Peter, 3 men appeared. In the original version of the story, there were 2 men, but perhaps there was a soldier with these men sent from the Roman centurion, so there may have been 3. Or the writer might have liked the use of the number of the Trinity to give the story more religious power. At any rate, Peter went with these men to the centurion’s house, and heard about the vision which told the man to look for Peter. Peter then preached a short sermon, telling these unchurched people about Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. Then Peter participated as many at Caesarea were baptized. Peter told the church at Judea that "the Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us."

    This was a big change for the church. Even though they were worshiping Jesus Christ, the early church still saw themselves as Jews, and the Jews were, from the beginning of the biblical message, the chosen people of God. Outsiders were just that – outsiders. They were not readily or easily accepted. Yet, the text tells us that these faithful people, who confronted Peter upon his return from baptizing Gentiles, were silenced. They took a holy moment before responding. And then they praised God, rejoicing that God had gifted the strangers with repentance and salvation.

    This part of the Book of Acts is all about the church changing. Here, in reality, though Jesus had already preached it and lived it out, the church changed from being exclusive to being inclusive. Just a bit earlier, even Peter had said it was "unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile." Yet, with this vision, God had shown him a new way of looking at what the church once considered "unclean," or not allowed

    The people of Peter’s church who gathered to question him could have responded in many ways. They could have protested and argued with Peter, citing Scripture that disagreed with his position. They could have walked away and withheld their pledges in protest. They could have left to go join another church that more suited their way of thinking. These are ways many people react when they are not happy with what a church is doing or a preacher is preaching. Yet these new Christians did not react in any of these ways. Instead, they sat in holy silence, and then they accepted this radical new way of life that Peter had offered them with praise to God.

    In our Seekers’ women’s study group, we looked at a similar Old Testament passage this month. We are studying Professor Frances Taylor Gench’s book called Faithful Disagreement. Our chapter for April looked at Jeremiah 28, where Jeremiah and another prophet were trying to comfort the exiled Israelites. The other prophet told the people they would soon be freed and restored to Jerusalem and their former life. Jeremiah interpreted the Word of God differently. He knew that the people of God were in for the long haul in exile. Yet Jeremiah did not immediately refute the other prophet.

    Jeremiah was a dramatic prophet, and he was wearing a yoke around his neck as a symbol of the yoke the people of God were enduring in exile. The other prophet, by the name of Hannaniah, dramatically went over and broke the yoke off of Jeremiah’s shoulders to show that God would soon free the people. Jeremiah, says the text, "went his way." He was silent. He said nothing. Some time later, Jeremiah went to talk with Hannaniah. But at this very crucial moment, with many faithful Israelites watching, rather than risk reacting inappropriately, the prophet silently walked away.

    This is a very good practice, says Professor Gench, when we are confronted with something with which we disagree. Instead of immediately launching into what we think, perhaps with the heat of anger fueling us, she suggests that in times of such conflict or startling news, we bide our time a bit. She says to think and pray about before we speak (a task often easier for introverts than for extroverts).

    The church today is changing. So many people are saying this these days. At least in the circles we pastors tread, there is much talk of such things as the Emerging Church, or the NextChurch, all proposing new and radical ways of being the church, in worship and in space, in program and practice. We, as Presbyterian pastors, are being urged to listen to these new voices, and to consider new visions for the church ahead.

    A recent article in the "Presbyterian Outlook" magazine was written by a 2nd year seminary student at Princeton. Nick Ison said he was unchurched as a child and got interested when he went with friends on a high school mission trip to Mexico. When he went to seminary, he was startled by what he found there. He had been brought to church by the practice of mission, with active service for and with others. Yet nowhere in the curriculum of the seminary did he find this service even mentioned, much less practiced. He says the church needs to change because "the need is real: the need for engagement, the need for conviction, and the need for a more unified vision of what Christianity looks like in a country where fewer and fewer young people care about religion but increasingly care deeply about service." (Outlook, April 1, 2013)

    Brian McLaren, in the preface to his highly popular book, A New Kind of Christianity, says: "Some see the Christian faith [in reference to biblical figures like Sarah and Elizabeth] an old woman past her prime, closer to a nursing home than to nursing new life. But I see it differently," he says. "I believe that in every new generation the Christian faith, like every faith, must in a sense be reborn again. That means the Christian faith has the possibility of being forever young." (McLaren, p. xi)

    Despite what we see here at Westminster, as we take in new members (as we will do today, and do several times a year), the mainline denominations are shrinking in membership, and have been for a number of years. Many non-denominational churches are seeing great numbers in attendance, yet research shows that their membership is very fluid, and that when folks become dissatisfied with them, they simply leave church all together. It is much easier to be unchurched these days than it was when many of us were growing up. There are many alternative ways to be spiritual without going to church. And there are so many other exciting and interesting activities for folks on Sunday mornings than there ever used to be. So the question is asked often among clergy circles – Does the church need to change in order to stay viable, alive and well? Brian McLaren says "Something isn’t working in the way we’re doing Christianity anymore." (McLaren, p.9)

    In Will Willimon’s commentary on this Acts passage, he says that stories like this are "stories about beginnings – the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the church, the initiation of a new mission, as well as the beginning of a new life for the individual person." Such stories are conversion stories, and "Conversion is the beginning of the Christian journey," he says, "not its final destination." Willimon quotes Hans Kung, the Swiss Catholic priest, theologian and author. Hans Kung says in his book, The Church:

    "We must entice people from the world to God. We are not to shut ourselves off from the world in a spirit of asceticism, but to live in the everyday world inspired by the radical obedience that is demanded by the love of God. The church must be reformed again and again, converted again and again each day, in order to fulfill its task." (Willimon, p. 104)

    The church is changing, the world is changing, rapidly. It seems like we are always on a fast moving train, and we have to jump on and off, running to get where we need to go. When life is so hectic, we often react first to whatever shocks us with our emotions – happy and supportive, or angry and disagreeing. If we can take away one lesson from our passage today, maybe we will remember to first be silent and meditative, to not react immediately, but to take some time in prayer before we respond to those things that startle us, or anger us, or scare us.

    As to the future of the church, Willimon wisely reminds us that church is not all about "winning souls," or bringing in people. Bringing in people may be the by-product of the church at work. Stories like the one we read today are about what God is doing, not what church programs might be successful or draw more attendance. If God is at work in the church, and in us, then we will be able to change as we are needed to change. We need but be silent and listen for a while. Then, maybe we too can "make no distinction between them and us," and we can break out in praise to God every day of our lives.

    Glory be to God. Amen.



    Acts, by Paul W. Walaskay (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 1998)

    Acts, by William H. Willimon (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 1988)

    A New Kind of Christianity, by Brian D. McLaren (Harper Collins Pub., NY, 2010)

    "Vision of a Generation" by Nick Ison, in The Presbyterian Outlook (Volume.195, No. 07, April 1, 2013)

  2. News : 50th Anniversary Tote Bags

    50th Anniversary Tote BagsCanvas tote bags featuring our 50th anniversary logo have been made to mark this special occasion. The Youth will be selling them in the Courtyard between and after worship services on May 5 for $5 each. Proceeds from the sales will go toward our gift to the community, which will be revealed by our pastors during worship on May 5.  

    Click to see larger image

  3. Bulletins & Sunday Announcements : April 28, 2013

    April 28, 2013 Bulletin

  4. Newsletters : April 24, 2013

    April 24, 2013 Newsletter

    In this Issue:
    Concerns & Celebrations, Volunteer Opportunities & More (Hyde County Mission Trip, CROP Walk Follow-Up, Volunteers for May 5 Reception, Kitchen Notes), 50th Anniversary Celebration (RSVP Reminder, Schedule of Events, Parking Notice, Commemorative Tote Bags), A Thank You, Stephen Ministry Guest Speaker, VCS Concert Fundraiser, Library Alert, Westminster School For Children, There’s Still Time…, Glimpses of Hyde County, Meeting Christ on the Border, Welcome, New Members!, Community Opportunities, Preaching Schedule, Congregational Responsibilities 

  5. Sermons : Hearing the Shepherd’s Voice

    Psalm 23
    John 10:22-27

    Let us observe a moment of silence.


    I tried writing this sermon mid-week, mid-chaos, mid-grieving. But it seemed to keep coming. The news didn’t stop. I woke up early on Friday to finally dig into these all-too familiar words from Scripture – The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want – and instead, I dug myself into a day-long struggle with the words of Boston reporters. My former city was on lockdown, my friends and colleagues shut in their homes and dorms and buildings until he was caught. So I got out of bed and sat in my living room and listened to the radio and listened and listened. One brother killed, the other loose, hunted like a wild beast. I called my Boston friends but only one answered. She sounded weary, scared. I told her I loved her and to be safe. What else was I to say? Fear no evil for thy rod and thy staff will comfort thee? Even though you walk through the valley of darkness? Maybe, but the news seemed to keep coming.

    The day went on, punctuated by updates and more questions. I couldn’t write this sermon without knowing – without an answer. And then it came…the final scene. A boat, a boy – a teenage boy – and a city erupting in freedom yet again. Was this what it felt like to be led by still waters? To have our souls restored?

    News like what happened in Boston hasn’t hit me this hard in a really, really long time. I don’t know if its overexposure but whatever it is, so much of what goes on in the world seems to go in one ear, sit for a minute, and then fall out with the rest of the painful truth. But when I saw the news ticker flash across my phone on Monday afternoon – explosions at Boston Marathon – my heart raced. Those are my people, my town. When I saw the map of where the bombs went off, my heart raced even faster. I’d been there last summer, with 30 of you on our mission trip. We stayed at Church of the Covenant, a church located three blocks from Monday’s explosion. I had been so worried about us that week, worried that someone would get lost or hurt or separated. But never this. Never lost or hurt or separated like these people on Monday. My fears that week loomed larger than life but never like those people this week. Did they recite it? Did they say, I fear no evil for thou art with me…?

    The Gospel reading this morning offers these words of Christ: "I have told you…My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me." When the world questions what is right and what is real and what is good and true, these words of Jesus’ are meant to be solace. But these words echoed hollow in my heart this week. My sheep hear my voice. But, I asked my Lord out of sadness, did everyone hear it? What did it sound like? What about those people who are terrified, who are angry, who are fed up with all this relentless bad news? Do they hear your voice, Jesus?

    When bad things happen to good people or when bad things happen at all, it can feel like Christ has abandoned his flock. Even in our modern-day sensibilities, we inherently understand the Christ as Shepherd metaphor. It is sewn within the very fabric of our faith. We are protected, guarded, guided by a gentle yet purposeful Lord who knows us, who knows our whole selves. We, as Christ’s flock, are one in a herd but known individually by Jesus who watches over us with intent and honor. But this week – this year – this century for that matter – can leave us wondering: has Christ hung up his shepherd’s cloak and left us in the field to fend for ourselves?

    Hear again. Christ answered those who questioned him with this, "My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me." The shepherd can do his job when the sheep do theirs.

    As news and photos of the bombings were released, it seemed that people were indeed hearing Jesus’ voice and were following him closely. As blasts bellowed into the skies, those who feared no evil ran to those who needed to be led by still waters. The first responders picked up the fallen and carried them with honor and intent. People sought out the hurting and tore the clothes off their backs to make tourniquets until they could be treated. Runners at the marathon, rerouted after the explosion, kept running until they reached Massachusetts General Hospital so they could give blood when the time came. Those separated from loved ones were given cell phones to reconnect and coats to wear and food to eat and bathrooms to use. In hours after the bombings in Boston, a Google document was set up online by the Boston Globe where locals could offer a room, a place to stay, a shower to those displaced and forced into diaspora. Hundreds offered shelter – dorm rooms, futons, whole apartments – to strangers-turned-fellow herd of the hurting and hopeful.

    And these sheep, hearing Jesus’ voice, continue to spread out all over the city of Boston. And it hasn’t stopped. There were first responders and now there are second, third, fourth responders, responding to the fallout of such tragedy. Responding in ways that will take weeks and months to be fully realized. The church where we stayed last summer is offering daily worship services. They’ve opened their doors to the lost and to the found, to those who attend other churches in Copley Square that are closed for the time being. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has swooped in to help, too. There are networks for support being built all around Boston. People have started funds and are sending financial assistance to the injured, sending messages of peace to the families of those that died, and offering gestures of thanksgiving to law enforcement and emergency workers. Hospital staffs are being prayed for and moments of silence are being kept in even the noisiest of places. People are hearing and people are serving one another. And I don’t think its going to stop.

    When tragedy – great or small – befalls a community, we as the church are called to be the first responders. And the second, and third, and fourth responders. We’re the ones called to this terrifying work of being in the chaos and being in the chaos until it turns to hope yet again. We’re called to be Christ’s sheep out in the world, shepherding the flock back together through the grace of the One we follow. We’re called to respond, to go out, to get in the nuanced, tangled mess, to gather everyone – and I mean everyone – back, and begin again.

    We know this to be the fabric of our faith. Maybe you’re like me though and this week, you’ve felt the threads unravel a bit. I pray that we can start to patch it back together, to mend what has been torn by the fear and grief of this week and all the moments in our lives. We know this mending happens when we respond. When a friend is sick, let us go and visit. When someone has died, let us be there and witness to the Resurrection. When someone weeps through the night, let us sit with them until joy comes in the morning. When we hear that local agencies are out of resources yet again, let us give and give and give yet again. When we hear that children in our schools are homeless, let us find justice. When the poverty level keeps rising, let us find new ways to share our resources. When we hear that people are still marginalized for who God created them beautifully to be, let us welcome them with arms wide open. And when it gets scary and tragic and hopeless, Lord, let us listen. Let us hear the voice of truth that has sang its way through the world’s worst days. Will you recite it with me if you know it?

    The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want;
    he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters;
    he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
    Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
    Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows.
    Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

    May we hear Christ’s voice calling us to be his sheep – to walk in to the valley, to respond to whatever may come, and to follow the Good Shepherd. And by God, may we gather everyone back into the fold yet again. Amen.