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Monthly Archives: August, 2014

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  1. Sermons : On Losing and Gaining and Possibilities

    Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
    Matthew 16:21-28

    For a moment Peter was on top of the world. After all of the time the disciples had to watch Jesus, to wonder what was going on in this man filled with grace, with power, in a way none of them had ever seen, Peter got it. As they moved into Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" He was getting the pulse of the crowd. "Hmmm…," they said, "John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets?" But Jesus was less concerned with everyone else. He leans in. But who do YOU say that I am? And he stood there for a moment, waiting…. 

    And Peter is granted this glimpse of insight, and he gets it: You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. And Jesus says, "Yes, Peter! Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!" Jesus tells Peter he will be the rock upon which he will build His church, and that Jesus will give to him and to the church great power to bear that hope to the world. For an instant, it all fell into place.

    Until it didn’t. "From that time on," Matthew says, "Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised." The language at the beginning – "from that time on Jesus began" is the exact language Matthew uses in chapter 4, after Jesus is tempted in the wilderness. In chapter 4 Jesus began to proclaim the kingdom of God. Here in chapter 16 Jesus wants them to know this is going to be hard. Not hard like a really long week at work, not hard like not feeling well and getting caught in traffic, not hard like coworkers are frustrating or a friend is being petty, or any of the other silly things we tend to complain about. But that Jesus the Christ, the one who they had JUST really began to understand, who they had JUST named as Messiah and who had JUST commissioned them with power, was now saying that his essential mission was to die.

    It is hard to step back and think about how shocking that would be, because we know the end of the story. We sing the pretty hymns of Advent, celebrate the baby’s birth. Soon enough Jesus is grown, baptized by John in the Jordan. Each year we move into Lent, we sing in a minor key as we walk with him into Jerusalem. Palms are waved, and then the conspiring begins that leads to his death. Even if you didn’t grow up in Sunday School, you still have some sense of the outlines – that Jesus comes, that Jesus dies. But Peter wasn’t having any of it. Peter reacts like any of us react when we fear for someone we love, when a friend gets sick, when a child is hurt and we feel it in our guts, too: NO. God forbid it, Lord, Peter says. And I can’t say I blame him.

    But Jesus looks poor Peter in the eye and crushes him, tells him to get behind him Satan, the tempter, the adversary. You, Peter, he says, are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things. Then Jesus turns out to them all: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." This is some of the more difficult stuff Jesus says, as far as I am concerned. Jesus is, I think, trying to get us to think as hard as we can about the difference between these ‘divine things’ as he names them, and ‘human things.’ That doesn’t mean that this entire world is bad – God creates it GOOD, in fact, but there are so many things, possessions, temptations that grab a hold of us and distract us from following as we must.

    I wonder what some of those distractions are for you. Every year at this time, as the kids start school, Carrie and I can feel within us the temptation to see how our kids measure up, who is doing what, who is faster or smarter or being nice. We do slightly more subtle versions of this as adults, as we can’t help but compare to our neighbors – what they do, how they act, what they have that we don’t. Or what we have that they don’t. The world tells us, almost everywhere you look, that our job is to be the best, to work hard, be driven, knock others over if you have to. Don’t suffer, God forbid, Jesus, topple those Roman occupiers as conquering hero. Come with strength, with might. That’s how the world defines power, anyway, if you can beat someone else down. And the Middle East burns with anger and Ferguson riots and politicians posture. And people are hungry and marriages fall apart and someone we love gets cancer. And there is so much of the world that hurts, and our instinct is to rage – to push and fight, to bowl others down to get what we need. Because having enough – enough money enough connections enough stuff enough power- is the only way, we are convinced, to protect ourselves and those we love from the pain of the world. We hunker down, ready to fight.

    But Jesus says that His followers are to engage the world – and its pain – differently. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world – if they achieve everything, but forfeit their life? Is there, Jesus is asking, a different way entirely? One in which we open up our clenched fists, and understand that the way to live, the real and true way to live, is about listening more than speaking, about making space for others, particularly those whose voices we too seldom hear. That life is found in taking the hard road -not for yourself but for someone else. That life comes not when you get, not when you take, but when you give, when you open yourself up to someone else, or to whatever good or awful things may come, seeking the grace of God.

    Steve Hayner is the President of Columbia Seminary in Atlanta, where I attended and where our own Sarah Wolf is a student now. Just after Easter Steve was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It got serious quickly, as they began a series of aggressive treatments at Emory. He was spending his days either receiving infusions or at home in bed, nauseous and exhausted. In mid-July the scans showed little progress and they decided to change the nature of their care. It seems, he wrote on an amazing Caringbridge page where he has reflected with such wisdom and tenderness, that "in all probability the remainder of my life on this earth is now to be counted in weeks and months." They gathered with their children and grandchildren, and talked and prayed and cried. In the weeks since, he met with Columbia’s board and they talked about a plan, and, with his blessing, approved an interim Presidential Search committee, knowing it won’t be long.

    This past week, for the first time, his hair started falling out. Some of you have had this experience. First he was angry. Then, he wrote:

    Every time that I find myself saying, "This is not the way that it’s supposed to be!" I have to respond by asking, "And why do I assume that it’s supposed to be this way?" Unmet or unfulfilled expectations can demand higher energy depletion than they are worth. The fact is, that our expectations are generally built on what is simply familiar to us or on our anticipations around our heart’s desires, and there are no guarantees in life that we can be assured about either. Circumstances change. Relationships change….

     

    Times of both acute and chronic disease are times when lots of adjustments have to be made daily. We can either resist or we can surrender. The act of surrender doesn’t mean that we give up looking for the best, but rather that we let go of expending energy on trying to maintain that which is slipping or being ripped away. Instead, we "pray our good-byes" to what has been, we open our hearts to what is new, and we walk again toward the place of gratitude, attentiveness, and learning that…finally results in joy.

     

    So, I’m losing my hair. It’s annoying. It’s messy. Maybe I’ll give myself the buzz cut of my childhood. But this time I’ll also remind myself that it’s just another broken expectation and that I have a choice about how I respond. Expectations only hurt us when they hold us captive. When we can let go, a whole world of possibilities can emerge.1

    At the end of today’s text Jesus points the disciples to the kingdom, to God’s kin-dom of justice and peace. Live for THAT, he says. If it’s about here, only about us, sure, gather up all you can. But if the end goal is different, that reshapes our perspective in profound ways, as we discern carefully what we are to deny from ourselves, and what we are to grab a hold of for the world. That graces comes and, as we look and listen, a whole range of possibilities can emerge. More that we can possibly imagine.

    All praise be to God. Amen.

    1. From Steve’s amazing Caringbridge site.


  2. News : Stop Hunger Now Benefit Concert

    Photo by Old North State BrassStop Hunger Now Benefit Concert
    Featuring Old North State Brass
    Sunday, September 21, at 5pm
    Westminster Sanctuary

    Stop Hunger Now, a global humanitarian aid organization, helps alleviate hunger around the world with meal packing events that give you a hands-on role in providing food to populations in need. Westminster’s next meal packing event will be on Sunday, October 5.

    To purchase the 10,000 meals we’ll pack on October 5, we’ll need to raise $2,500. We’ll have a fun opportunity to reach that goal on Sunday, September 21, with a benefit concert featuring Old North State Brass. This ensemble of accomplished volunteer musicians from the Triangle area is dedicated to exploring brass repertory, providing enriching, educational and entertaining musical experiences for diverse audiences.

    The concert is free and open to everyone, and donations supporting Stop Hunger Now will be collected. Childcare will be available for children 5 and under by reservation only. Email taylor@wpcdurham.org by Wednesday, September 17, with the age(s) of your child(ren) to reserve childcare.


  3. Bulletins & Sunday Announcements : August 31, 2014

    August 31, 2014 Bulletin


  4. Sermons : Truth-Telling, God’s Way

    Exodus 1:8-22
    Matthew 16:13-20

    “I will give you the keys of the kingdom,” Jesus said to the founders of the Christian church, “and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)

    On this Sunday, as we ordain and install new officers of the church, who work along with the pastors and staff of the church to determine and do God’s will for Westminster Presbyterian Church, it is fitting to remember the big responsibility that has been laid in our laps. Jesus gives us the keys, but we still have much responsibility to do what is right.

    The Israelites in the Exodus story seemed to have less responsibility, as they were enslaved by the Egyptians. Yet they were strong in number and in spirit, vigorous enough to seem a threat to the new Egyptian king. So this king (never given a name in these stories) determined to oppress them further, making their work hard and their hours long – making their lives "bitter," the text tells us. Yet no matter what was done to them, the Israelites continued to thrive.

    Desperate to do something, the king called in two unlikely helpers, two Hebrew midwives. These inconsequential women, named "Beautiful" and "Splendid," listened to the king’s orders to kill the baby boys of their own people. But these women, dedicated to bringing lives into the world rather than destroying them, and faithful to the God of their people, disobeyed the highest official in the land. They did not do what he commanded them to do. When Pharaoh learned this, he called them back and asked them why they disobeyed him. The midwives looked him squarely in the eyes and lied to him. They, in fact, insulted Egyptian women with their reply, saying that Hebrew women were stronger and did not need midwives. Gasps must have gone through the audiences hearing this story, gasps of fear for these women.

    Yet the pharaoh must have believed them, because there was no punishment. The king went on to devise an alternate plan, telling his own people to throw Hebrew baby boys into the Nile river. This, of course, set up the story to come in chapter 2, of Moses being born and put in a basket in the Nile, only to be discovered and adopted by the daughter of the Pharaoh.

    But back to our lying midwives, the text tells us that God dealt with them, and if we stopped there, we might suppose that God was unhappy with them because they lied. Yet we find that they were rewarded instead, as were the Israelite people as a whole. They were rewarded for lying.

    This seems a good topic to discuss this Sunday morning as we look at our officers. We tend to expect church officers to live up to certain standards. The scriptures they read in training about being officers scared some of them, as they saw things that said they should be "above reproach, temperate, respectable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money…well thought of by outsiders….serious, not slanderers…tested…faithful in all things." (from I Timothy 3). These seem big shoes to fill. How do we respond when life tempts us to do something that goes against such demands?

    Though we are not in quite the same circumstances as the Hebrew people in our text, we are again in the midst of a "bitter" time in history. Wars rage around the planet, and terrorists wreak havoc with despicable acts; ebola and other diseases cripple and kill; disagreements between political parties render our governing bodies incapable of doing anything meaningful or helpful; racial and gender issues still divide people and spark riots and tension; desperate people kill innocent people far away and right in our neighborhoods. It is a bitter time, and it is made worse when we cannot trust the news sources or the politicians to tell us the truth. "What is truth?" Pilate asked Jesus at his trial. And we wonder the same thing.

    For most modern people, truth is the agreement between what is written or stated and what is factual. But the biblical meaning goes much deeper. The most common Hebrew word for truth comes from a verb meaning "to sustain, to support." The root can mean: firm, solid, reliable, faithful, tested, lasting, true. It indicates something that is unchangeable, sound, faithful, steady, constant, loyal, just. In this sense, God is, of course, seen as true, constant and unchangeable like a fortress, a rock, a refuge. God can be trusted, and God’s commandments have truth in them. Truth of God implies a way of living, a whole religious and moral life in agreement with God’s will.

    The New Testament usage of "truth" is a bit more intellectual because of the Hellenistic influence, but truth is still important, especially in the Gospel of John and Paul’s writings. Truth comes from a relationship between the Creator and the created world. God’s ways, judgments, words, are true, as are those of Jesus, who is one with the Creator. God’s truth may be in opposition to the world at times, because the world lacks truth, according to the Gospel of John. Jesus is the "true vine," the "true bread from heaven." Jesus shows us and tells us of God’s intention for the world to be true and good and faithful, just as Jesus was true and good and faithful.

    And the Bible has a bit to say about deceit, which is what the midwives used in today’s passage. The Bible says, "Bread gained by deceit is sweet, but afterward the mouth will be full of gravel" (Proverbs 20:17); "Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue" (Psalm 120:2); "No one who practices deceit will dwell in my house; no one who utters lies shall continue before my eyes" (Psalm 101:7), or "Whoever desires to love life and to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit" (I Peter 3:10).
    Lying and deceit are so closely linked. Lying has been defined as "giving false information with the intention of deceiving." To deceive is "to cause to believe what is not true; to mislead."

    So the question has to be asked, biblically, morally, faithfully: Is it ever okay to lie? As I pondered this question, I turned to a book that has been on my shelf for a long time, called Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. It was written by Sissela Bok, a Swedish-born American philosopher who is the daughter of 2 Nobel Prize winners, and married to a former president of Harvard. She says that in philosophy or professional ethics, it may not seem to matter whether or not one lies, when there seems to be good reason to do so, because it is so hard to know the truth or falsity of so many things. She points out that some use this philosophy to lie when dealing with clients in business, justifying to themselves that they are not lying. But she also points out that these are arguments made by the liars, never by those being lied to. (Bok, p.13) She defines a lie as any deceptive message that is stated (p.14). She says a lie means "having one thing in the heart, yet uttering another" (p.37). She points out that two kinds of harm are done with lying: harm is done to the liar, and harm is done to the general level of trust and social cooperation with others. Lying begets lying. Even little white lies, which we think avoid harm ("Yes, I do like that dress on you. No, those pants do not make you look fat.") can lead to bigger lies, she says. She compares it to a wedge. Once we start lying, we have to lie more to cover up the lie, and more and more to cover up those lies.

    Yet, she does ask the question of lying for good, for the sake, perhaps, of a greater truth. Should the German family hiding a Jew in their basement in Nazi Germany, for instance, have confessed when the Gestapo stood at their door and asked them if they are hiding anyone? Bok says that "concealment, evasion, withholding of information may at times be necessary," but that, in such instances, the correct information must be told to someone. She says that institutions, governments, and educational systems should never lie or deceive, and yet we all know that they all do.

    So, officers and others, we have danced around the issue of truth-telling and lying without coming to a real conclusion. Is lying sometimes justified, if it protects a greater truth? Bok seems to say no.

    And yet some biblical stories seem to suggest that there are times when truth-telling in the world may not agree with God’s truth. More than once, Abraham presented Sarah as his sister rather than his wife in order to protect his own life and hers. Jacob tricked his twin brother Esau out of his firstborn birthright, yet God worked through Jacob to do great things, most importantly to bear Joseph. Joseph deceived his brothers before revealing who he was, in order to test them. These are stories we love, perhaps because we are more like the biblical characters who are imperfect than the images we have painted of many of them, in which they seem so perfect.

    The truth, then, would seem to lie in our hearts, as we seek to follow God and Jesus, and in our words and deeds, as we act on behalf of our Savior in our world. If telling the truth would endanger someone else, or would damage someone, we need to think deeply about how we handle what we say or do. And we need to remember that God can work through us in our imperfections and weaknesses. These two Hebrew midwives were young women in a society that did not value women for anything other than bearing children. And they were members of an enslaved people. They had no power – except for their trust in God. God, who is truth, protected the people of God through these helpless women. Jesus, when Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" answered, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:5-6). Jesus is the truth, and shows us the true way to live.

    I hope that none of us, as pastors, as officers, as Christians, are confronted with times, as were the Hebrew midwives, when we have to choose between God’s truth and the truth of the world because such times are usually very serious, dire times. But if we are, I hope we have the wisdom and the courage to choose God’s truth. And that we will be guided, as these women were, by their "fear of God," as the passage says. Fear in the biblical sense means more than what we feel when watching horror movies. It means "awe, respect, trust." The midwives acted as they did because they knew the greater truth lies in God, who is Truth.
    May God bless our new officers, and all of us, as we continue to seek to do God’s will in our world, which so desperately needs for God’s truth and love to reign supreme. Glory be to God. Amen.

     

    Bibliography

    Bok, Sissera, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (Vintage Books, NY, 1978)

    Fretheim, Terence E., Exodus (Interpretation Commentary) (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 1991)

    Noth, Martin, Exodus: A Commentary (Westminster Press, PA, 1962)


  5. News : Rally Day 2014

    Sunday, September 7
    Fellowship Hall & Parlor
    9:45am

    Children and youth will be able to meet and greet their Church School teachers and parents can confirm their kids’ information on the class rosters. At 10:10am, children and youth will head to their classrooms with teachers.

    Adults will migrate to the Parlor around 10:15am to hear about the adult Christian Education opportunities for this year. If you have never been involved in adult Christian Education at Westminster, come and learn more about our new and exciting offerings.

    Light breakfast and beverages will be provided. 


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