Monthly Archives: May, 2015

  1. Sermons : Listening for Call

    Psalm 29
    Isaiah 6:1-8

    It was a tough year, 742 BCE, the year King Uzziah died. Uzziah was crowned, following his father, at sixteen years old, ruling for 52 years in Jerusalem. In those 52 years, he consolidated territory, conquered neighboring tribes, engaged in massive building projects, it was quite a record. Later, though, God struck Uzziah with leprosy because he had been too proud, becomes too strong, forgotten where his strength and success came from. His final years were in a separate house, his son running things and, being leprous, he was excluded from worship in the temple. What had begun so powerfully, so well, ended with disappointment.1

    Yet it was into this season, after 52 years, with warring tribes gathering on the borders, that God showed up, speaking to Isaiah. We don’t know much about him or his family; what we know is that God showed up. In this amazing vision in chapter 6, God dominates the heavenly throne room to which Isaiah is given access.2 This massive complex, making Duke Chapel look pedestrian, can contain only the tiniest portion of the Lord’s clothing.

    The scene itself is even more striking: the wind against his face as the massive seraphs, fiery winged creatures that appear, along with their sibling cherubim, as God’s attendants and emissaries, starting with the guarding of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3.3 Two pairs of wings shield their faces from God’s glory, two cover their bodies from God’s holiness, and two keep them suspended in the air above the royal throne. As they see to God’s every need, they sing: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." The ground shakes, and the house fills with smoke. Isaiah, as he clings to the wall, first in terror, then filled with inadequacy, hears himself say, "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" This is Moses taking off his shoes at the burning bush, knowing he is on holy ground.

    The smoke clears. In the heart of the holy terror there is a moment when everything gets quiet. You hear people talk about it after the car accident, after the earthquake, there is the shaking or the crash and everything is thrown into turmoil and then, it is quiet. A seraph flies out from the fire, tongs pinching a glowing coal: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." It is a powerful, cleansing, liturgical act. The angel says to the prophet that the old life has gone, the new life has begun, whether things you have done or things you have left undone, know you are forgiven and be at peace. We say it each week: Hear and believe the good news of the gospel, in Jesus Christ you are forgiven. Isaiah is reminded of God’s mighty claim upon him, a love, that WILL NOT LET HIM GO.

    Then comes the call. In grateful response we rise, we get up, we lean forward, listening for the Spirit’s direction. Narratives like this pop up in the Hebrew Scriptures in a particular way, like with Moses and Gideon and Jeremiah, like Mary the mother of Jesus is called. There are a couple of things about this text that I think are worth paying attention to. One is that Isaiah’s call comes in chapter 6. Jeremiah’s and Ezekiel’s – other major prophets – come early, in chapter 1. Scholars aren’t clear why Isaiah’s is in chapter 6. Was it a later addition, something independent, or was it included here as a unique way of shaping the literature? I find it refreshing, though. Not everyone gets a clear, visionary call early on. It takes time.

    The second is that Isaiah is called to do something that is in keeping with who he is. We know very little about Isaiah or his family specifically, but it seems clear from other parts of the book that he is has grown up in Jerusalem’s elite social circles. He is someone of privilege, someone already with access, who can, in chapter 7, set up at least an informal audience with the king. Not everyone could do that. God could have pulled out someone from the wilderness to try and speak to the king, but I bet they wouldn’t have gotten in the door. God takes who Isaiah is, the gifts he has already, and blesses them for God’s purposes.4

    This got me thinking about the role our gifts and our experiences play in call. To be clear, I am not talking about only pastors or only church officers. All are called to follow Jesus, and all are called to do so in particular ways. Sometimes God turns us around, like the Apostle Paul on the Damascus road in the book of Acts, changing his direction entirely. But other times, in keeping with this text, God takes the gifts you have been given, the things you know how to do, and calls you to use those things for service in the world. It happens in tons of amazing, small, and less noticed ways among us. God calls someone who is used to spending time with children to teach. God takes people who are good listeners and calls them to be Stephen Ministers. God takes people who know how to sew, or knit, to make blankets for the homeless or for little newborn babies in the NICU. God takes people who know how to build things and asks them to do projects around the church or build a habitat house. God takes people who can organize tasks to pull off events or plan trips. God calls us to use what we have been given.

    But God uses our experiences, too – where we come from, what we know. God often, I think, calls us to use our brokenness, our pain. Carrie and I, Carrie particularly, spend a lot of time over at Duke Hospital working with the pediatric folks because we have walked those halls, slept in those awkward chairs, held a child attached to machines rocking late at night. I know God uses those of you who have been through cancer to walk with others, those who have experienced pain, even the death of a loved one, to offer solace to those who suffer those kinds of losses among us. Last week there was an amazing obituary that I will link to when this sermon is posted online that I really want you to read. Clay William Shepherd was 22. The obituary begins,

    "Our charismatic and beautiful son and brother died Sunday morning from a drug overdose." I was also taken aback because in circumstances like this families don’t like to name what happened. Then the family wrote about how it looked like he had it all, but how inside he was suffering. "We loved Clay with all of our hearts, but we now know that was not enough to shield him from the world. This note isn’t an attempt to assign blame for Clay’s death. It’s not to vent our anger and frustration at a world where drugs can be ordered and delivered through the internet. We write this obituary in hope that it may provide an insight to those that need to change their behavior one night at a time."

    This remarkable family then took time to tell his story – of his many gifts, of the times they tried and it seemed like things were working, and the times they failed. It is heartbreakingly honest. He completed rehab a couple of times, but still couldn’t quite get there. At the end they write:

    "To all children, this note is a simple reminder that there are people who love you, with everything they have and no matter what you do – don’t be too afraid/ashamed/scared, too anything, to ask for help. To all parents, pay attention to your children and the world that revolves around them – even when the surface is calm, the water may be turbulent just beneath. Clay’s struggles have ended. He is finally at peace. We will miss his keen sense of humor, impersonations, cooking, plant advice and rhythm on the dance floor.

    Goodbye Clay, we love you and miss you dearly.

    Mom & Dad, Cole, Wade & Jess, Jean & Lucas"5

    This family didn’t use religious language, but I would surely say that they felt called to speak of Clay’s addiction in a way that opened up space for others. We do this too seldom, especially when issues of addiction or mental illness are in play. I don’t believe God causes these things to happen, but I do believe that with Isaiah, and with us, God takes the gifts we have been given, the experiences we have had, even deep pain, and uses all of those things for God’s own purposes in the world.

    This summer, as we do our best to spend a little extra time relaxing, maybe stepping away as school winds down, be mindful of call. Know that God has something in store. And whether you end up with a grand vision of the temple or not, God has work for you to do. Listen carefully. Listen carefully.

    All praise be to God. Amen.

    1. I’m not a huge fan of internet research, but some of this information I found helpful: In the Year King Uzziah Died. Also see II Chronicles 26:1-15 and II Kings 15:2.
    2. Walter Brueggemann, WBC: Isaiah 1-39, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998), p 58.
    3. HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, Paul Achtemeier, ed. (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1985), pgs 167, 998.
    4. Robert Wilson, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1980), p. 271, in Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2003), 160. See also Isaiah 7:3, 8:2, 22:15-16 for the prophet having access to the king, the chief priest, and other important players in the city.
    5. Clay W. Shephard, Obituaries, The News & Observer, 2015-05-20.

  2. Bulletins & Sunday Announcements : May 31, 2015

    May 31, 2015 Bulletin 

  3. Newsletters : May 27, 2015

    May 27, 2015 Newsletter

    In this Issue:
    Concerns & Celebrations, Sign Up To Be a Worship Volunteer, Fight Hunger in Durham, Lemonade After Worship, Upcoming Congregational Meeting, Session Notes, Conversation on Mental Health, Congrats, Grads!, VCS Scholarships, Updates on the Men’s Groups, All Church Retreat, Godly Play Graduation, A Lot Has Changed Since 2010, Lost & Found, Westminster School for Children, Mental Health Minute, Faces of Haiti: Children, Youth Ministry News, Community Opportunities, Preaching Schedule, Worship Volunteers

  4. Sermons : Drunk or Irrelevant?

    Psalm 104:24-34
    Acts 2:1-21

    The whole world was there. Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem, Luke tells us, AND it was Pentecost. As Passover was to the exodus, Pentecost – the Greek name for the Festival of Weeks – became the celebration of the giving of the law to Moses on Sinai, and its annual observance pointed to the renewal of the covenant.1 And everyone was there: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia… fifteen nations listed, symbolic of the whole world.2

    What I don’t know is how many of them heard what had happened involving Jesus of Nazareth during Passover, fifty days earlier. I imagine some of them had heard about the pitiful parade his disciples had, waving palm branches, all the while columns of Roman military were coming through the gates on the opposite side of the city. Jesus had caused problems, knocking over tables in the Temple, preaching and teaching right in their faces. It wasn’t wise to stand in the Temple complex and look at the religious leaders and the civil leaders propping them up, and tell them that it all was going to come tumbling down – that the empire, ruled with brutal force, the greed and conspicuous consumption all around. He was either stupid or crazy, most people said, trying to tell them that life was about something different, that a new kingdom – this was borderline insurrectionist language – God’s kingdom, was breaking in.

    I don’t know how many had heard about his arrest later that week. Or the interrogation by Pontius Pilate, the beatings. Some heard he had been crucified, on a hill, with a couple of thieves. But by now I imagine most of them had forgotten. One scholar notes that by the year 70 the Romans were crucifying 500 people per day.3 What was there to remember about one guy that mattered?

    But a handful did remember. Because we are used to feeling, in some way at least, like the insiders, I think we often forget that the Jesus story was barely a blip on the radar screen for most of the world. But this small group was strong, filled with hope. Jesus, after he had been crucified so brutally, had been raised, they knew it, and had appeared to them on a handful of occasions – first to some faithful women, then to others, then others still. It wasn’t much, but this hearty band was convinced he was alive, convinced enough to keep sticking together. As the book of Acts begins 40 days has gone by since that first Easter morning. Luke, our author, begins by reaching back to the Ascension, adding a charge to the disciples as they watch him taken up. The rest of chapter 1, as we talked about last week, is a meeting of the nominating committee to fill Judas’ spot on the session. Matthias is added to the team. And then, they wait. Will Willimon writes: "The community, rather than taking matters into its own hands, getting organized and venturing forth with banners unfurled, has withdrawn to wait and pray. The next move is up to God."4

    Who knows, that Pentecost morning, whether they were slowly waking up and preparing breakfast, or if they were on their knees in prayer, but from heaven – Luke is clear from the beginning where this chaos is coming from – the sound, rushing, violent wind, filling the entire house where they were sitting. Layer in the echoes of fire and wind from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the winds blowing over the waters in creation to the people following a pillar of fire through the wilderness, and we have a dramatic scene. A tongue rested on each of them.

    Then they EXPLODE into the world. This moment, maybe more than any healing Jesus had done in some small village, maybe more than any of the events of Holy Week, was when people from all over the known world began to take notice. The Holy Spirit sent them rushing out of that room, and all of the sudden folks who spoke all sorts of different languages and didn’t understand each other all of the sudden could. They didn’t then speak the same language, their differences remained, but they heard the disciples speaking, and understood. What started as a small Jewish sect was becoming something big, and broad, for all. But even as they rush out some were quick to be cynical. Others sneered, Luke writes, mocked, jeered, and said, "They are filled with new wine." They must be drunk. This is ridiculous.

    It was this question, first asked of those disciples, which made me wonder if the church has gotten a bit too tame. I can’t remember the last time the church was accused of being drunk, completely unreasonable, filled with new wine? I want to be clear I am not trying to be flip, because alcohol and alcoholism is all over the place, and serious. I bet everyone in here has someone in their family who is fighting that battle. It is important that the church be a community that takes tending to our brothers and sisters seriously when the disease that is alcoholism rears its ugly head. It is not a laughing matter.

    I am talking about the church behaving in a way that makes the world wonder if our head is screwed on correctly. The thing is, I fear that instead of any of those things, the world simply doesn’t wonder about the church at all. The religious landscape in the US continues to change, according to a massive survey released week before last by the Pew Research Center. Pew found the number of Americans who describe themselves as Christian dropped almost 8 percentage points, from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent last year. During the same seven-year period, those who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or "nothing in particular" increased from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent. "These changes," they write, "are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among…all ages. The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men."

    Gary Hall, Dean of the National Cathedral, sees two trends. One of them is the increasing trend towards secularism in Western culture that really began after World War II in Europe, and it’s taken America awhile to catch up. The second has to do with the church itself and the church’s declining credibility as a place for people to pursue their spiritual questions. One of the things that the survey says pretty strongly is that the people who are religious continue to have very strong desires to pray, to do important social justice work and community work with people, but they don’t see the church as the place to do that.5

    Now I think the church needs to respond to the gospel more than it needs to respond to a survey, but it’s clear the church has lost much credibility in terms of being a place that people see that matters, that affects change that is good for the world. I think I’d rather them accuse us of being drunk than not accuse us of anything at all, assuming our irrelevance. Which begs a pretty good question: What kind of ridiculous things ought we be doing? It starts with small things, like a bunch of you giving up time on Thursday or Saturday to clear away brush on our new land, or giving your time to drive for Meals on Wheels, to volunteer at the shelter, tutor a kid. Those things are maybe a bit unreasonable when you have other things to do, but not really to the level to being accused of drunkenness. Volunteering all week out at Vacation Church School, which is always the hottest week of the year, is closer. Heading out on a summer trip, to sleep on a gym floor somewhere in Rutherford Country, to help fix up someone’s house you don’t even know, is closer. Planning a trip to Haiti is pretty solid grounds for an intervention. We are attempting to tackle some of these bigger questions in our strategic planning process, and are thinking really seriously of working with community partners to start an afternoon program for neighborhood kids out of either our present facility or one we build. That would be a little crazy, and terribly inconvenient, I mean, it would cause problems for parking and put wear on our building, and it wouldn’t likely be for OUR kids anyway, right, I mean, for neighbors we don’t even really know? Or maybe the height for drunkenness is realizing that the children of our neighborhood ARE our children, their families ARE our families, and that the Spirit of the Risen Christ binds us all together, whether we like it or not?

    I’d love for you to spend a little time this week, maybe even this long Memorial Day weekend, thinking about what kind of ridiculous thing God might be nudging you to do. But not because you’ve been drinking too much. Peter tells us why. That the God who made the heavens and the earth has broken into this world, and rushes into even the most locked of rooms, taking those who are most afraid, and sends them out, powerfully, in love.

    All praise be to God. Amen.

    1. Boring and Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), p 369. See Exodus 23:14-17; 34:18-24; Deut. 16:16, then Deut 16:9.
    2. This note comes from the Rev. Andrew Foster-Conner’s paper on this text at The Well, 2008, Kansas City.
    3. Crucifixion, Believe: Religious Information Source. 
    4. William H. Willimon, Interpretation: Acts, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1988 ), p 27.
    5. America’s Changing Religious Landscape, Pew Research Center. A couple of helpful NPR articles: Losing Faith: A Religious Leader On America’s Disillusionment With Church and Christians In U.S. On Decline As Number Of ‘Nones’ Grows, Survey Finds

  5. News : Summer Choir 2015

    Summer Choir will run from May 24 thorugh September 6 this year, rehearsing only on Sunday mornings at 9am. All are welcome to participate whenever they are in town or feel like singing. Children ages 6-12 are welcome also, and must be accompanied by an adult

    Summer Choir is an excellent way to sample choral singing and is a remarkably easy, yet rewarding way to have a meaningful impact on Westminster’s worship life during the summer months. Questions? Please contact Monica Rossman.