Monthly Archives: September, 2015

  1. Newsletters : September 30, 2015

    September 30, 2015 Newsletter

    In this Issue:
    Concerns & Celebrations, Dinner for Duke PCM+, Help the Haiti Medical Team, Facilities Review Task Force, In the Home Stretch!, Wednesdays at Westminster, October 7 WOW: Stop Hunger Now, Stewardship Kick-Off Sunday, we•form kids, Westminster School for Children, A Thank You, Logo Development Update, Father Michael Lapsley’s Visit, Church Finance Overview, Community Opportunities, Preaching Schedule, Worship Volunteers


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    Snack donations will not be needed for the All Church Retreat, as it has been cancelled due to weather.  

  2. Sermons : Does God Answer Prayers?

    Psalm 124
    James 5:13-20

    In this little wisdom book in the guise of a New Testament letter, the author of James gives advice on taming the tongue, and on faith being dead if our actions do not live out our words, or more to the point, God’s words. James also warns us against "speaking evil or judging" others (4:11-12). And in this final section, James turns to prayer. If any are suffering, they should pray, he says. Those for whom life is going well should sing songs of praise. And, as for the sick, they should call for the elders of the church to anoint and pray for them, because "the prayer of faith will save the sick," he says (v.15). Prayer can do wonders, he tells us, with an example of Elijah praying for no rain and for rain. James refers to Elijah as "a human being like us," which he was. But Elijah was also a prophet, and the story to which James refers is a miracle story in I Kings 17 & 18, where the text tells us that God stopped the rain, and Elijah performed miracles in order to prove that God was mightier than the gods of Baal. So as an example of praying "just like us," the example is a bit of a stretch.

    In the last two verses of James, the author turns to the subject of what we in church circles refer to as "backsliders." Backslider are those who have professed a faith in Christ and have joined the church, but who slack up in attending or in even living out the faith in their everyday lives. These are the ones who have "wandered from the truth" of the gospel, according to James. And the one who brings back a "backslider" is doubly blessed, he says.

    And then the letter of James ends, abruptly. All of the other NT letters include a benediction of sorts, a closing blessing. But James just ends, leaving us wondering, and perhaps wanting a little bit more, or even a little less.

    But in this passage, we see that, for James, prayer is very important. But more important than just prayer is the power of the prayers of the congregation. There is power in the prayers of people on behalf of another. And notice that he does not tell the elders to go pray for the sick, but empowers the sick to ask the elders to come and pray over them. And, "The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective," he says (v. 16).

    The text seems to tie forgiveness with healing. Jesus seemed to do that at times as well, as when four friends brought a paralytic to Jesus to be healed. They were so sure that Jesus could heal their friend that, when they found the crowd so big they could not get him near Jesus, the four climbed up on the roof with the paralytic and lowered him down for Jesus to touch. The text in Matthew says, "When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’" (Matthew 9:2) It was the faith of the friends that impressed Jesus. But it is curious that, rather than tell the man he was healed, he told him he was forgiven. Those nearby did not like this, but Jesus, said "Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’?" (Mt. 9:5). Jesus recognized, perhaps, the effect sins can have on us. But Jesus did not link the cause of illness or hardship to God, as punishment (which we faithful sometimes do). For instance, in John, the disciples, upon seeing a blind man, asked Jesus, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" But Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him." (John 9:2 & 3). Jesus healed to show the glory of God.

    So, James told the sick to request the elders to come pray over them. Maybe the community to which James talked was isolating the sick, as so often happens. There were leper colonies in Jesus’ time, as those with leprosy were seen as unclean and could not participate with the rest of society. Women were also isolated during certain times in their cycles. This was a pre-scientific and pre-medical age, and illnesses were seen as caused by demons. Yet we still isolate those who are sick at times. When AIDS was first discovered, or highlighted, AIDS patients, though very sick and in need of care, were often ostracized because of fear of the disease as well as the alleged cause of it. Cancer can still strike fear in us, and some people do not like to visit those suffering with cancer. So we still can isolate the sick.

    But James thinks that the prayers of the community have great power in the healing process. It is part of our call as community to gather around the sick and suffering and to pray for them, he says.

    Yet many people have trouble praying, sometimes in their private lives, but more often they do not want to pray out loud in front of others. Such prayer is the business of pastors, some say. But James would tell us that prayer is the business of the whole church.

    There can be many reasons why people do not pray. In a hectic world, they just do not make the time for it. Or they think they do not know how to pray. Or they may think God doesn’t answers prayer, or at least not their prayers. Maybe it helps to know more what prayer is.

    Joyce Rupp, a nun, author, and retreat leader, and one referred to as a "spiritual midwife," says:

    "Prayer is ethereal, baffling, uncertain, and impossible to explain. On the other hand, methods of prayer are specific, practical, definable, understandable, and evident. Prayer can mean many things to many people. The framework is either personal (alone) or communal (joining with others). In Christian prayer, we pray anytime we deliberately choose to relate to God." (Rupp, p.13)

    We can pray with or without words, with music, with images, and with or without thoughts. We can pray out of gratitude or out of despair. We can pray when we are grieving or angry, and when we are ecstatic and celebrating. But the more we pray, the more it becomes a part of our lives.

    The greatest struggle with prayer may be the answers we get or do not get. When we pray specifically for something, whether it is to get an interview for a job we really want, or for someone to get well, we truly want the prayer to come true. And when it does not come true just as we prayed, we blame God. And sometimes we just quit praying.

    Many years ago, my husband Steve, also a pastor, was diagnosed with cancer soon after we began serving a church. The church prayed for him, as they did for anyone who was sick. But the cancer kept coming back. One family came to him in the midst of the third round of treatment to tell him they were leaving the church, but it was not because of him. "We cannot stay in a church that cannot pray you well," they told him. In their eyes, the community’s prayers for Steve were never answered. But from our perspective, we saw the times when Steve got better, for a while, despite what the doctors said. We saw many, little miracles, and we felt the support of the community as they prayed for us. In the end, the cancer claimed his life. But that does not mean that God did not hear our prayers.

    So maybe we quit praying because we do not get what we asked for, or we think we are praying wrong. But maybe the real issues is that we really are not listening.

    The Seekers study group is reading a book on prayer this year by Kate Braestrup, who is a widow, a mother, a chaplain for the Maine Park Service. In the book, Beginning Grace: Bringing Prayer Into Your Life, she says:

    "I won’t claim that prayer can get you a new car or find the lover of your dreams. It won’t help you gain status, assert your dominance, or otherwise please your ego. It won’t even make life easier. What it can do – what prayer, at its best and at our best has always done – is to help us love consciously, honorably, and compassionately. Because I am not stronger, more self-sufficient, smarter, braver, or any less mortal than my forebears or my neighbors, I need this help. As long as prayer helps me to be more loving, then I need prayer. As long as prayer serves as a potent means of sharing my love with others, I need prayer." (Braestrup, p. 8-9)

    I believe that God wants us to pray for one another, as well as for ourselves, in good and bad times. After all, there are many, many prayers in the Bible, and Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer as a guide to prayer. And I believe that God does answer prayers, but that we need to learn how to listen. God’s answers may not come just as we ask, perhaps because God knows more than we do. Continuing to pray and to listen will teach us to trust God.

    I can give you another real example of how prayer may work from the experience of a family in this church as a family member was dying of cancer. With permission from the family, I share their story. The husband and wife were separated, and had been for several years. But he got cancer, and eventually came to Duke for what might be the last possible treatment. The family, children and grandchildren, had been estranged from him. But when he came, the wife took him into her home, drove him to treatment until there was no more treatment that would help, and then cared for him in her home until he died. And the whole family surrounded around him with love. This congregation, the church from where he came, his patients and many more prayed fervently for healing. Yet he died of the cancer. But his family was healed, as they all gathered around him with deep love and care. The prayers of the people were indeed answered, but perhaps not in the way that they were envisioned.

    So, it seems, we need to listen, and to be open, to God’s active presence in our lives. When we look, we see God present in the deepest tragedies. Fred Rogers said to look for the helpers in tragedies, and that is where we often see God, in the helpers. And they are always there -after 9/11, after Katrina, as refugees flee Syria to other countries, as people pick up their lives again after tornadoes, fires, floods, and other natural disasters. God is present, always. Our task is to pray, and to listen, and, also according to James, to do good works on behalf of God.

    So, friends, maybe, as we reflect on wisdom writings in the Bible, like James, we should no longer ask "Does God answer prayers?" James would tell us to first ask, "Are we praying for one another?" But we also need to consider this question: "Are we listening for the many ways in which God answers us when we pray?" Are we open? Are we truly listening?

    All praise be to God. Amen.

  3. Bulletins & Sunday Announcements : September 27, 2015

    September 27, 2015 Bulletin 

  4. Sermons : The Call to Humility

    Psalm 1
    James 4:1-10

    New York Times columnist David Brooks begins his new book, "The Road to Character," – that our men’s breakfast group just started reading- writing about driving home one Sunday evening listening to an NPR replay a radio program called Command Performance, a variety show that went out to the troops during World War II. The episode he happened to hear was broadcast the day after V-J Day on August 15, 1945.

    The episode featured some of the era’s biggest celebrities, Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Bette Davis and many others. But the most striking feature of the show was its tone of self-effacement and humility. The Allies had just completed one of the noblest military victories in human history, Brooks writes, and yet there was no chest beating…."Well, it looks like this is it," the host, Bing Crosby, opened. "What can you say at a time like this? You can’t throw your skimmer in the air. That’s for run-of-the-mill holidays. I guess all anybody can do is thank God it’s over." The mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens came on and sang a solemn version of "Ave Maria," and then Crosby came back on to summarize the mood: "Today, though, our deep-down feeling is one of humility."1

    "Humble yourselves before the Lord," James says, "and [the Lord] will exalt you." James has become pretty relentless over the past few weeks. Chapter 1, 3 weeks ago, James reminds us that "Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above…" . BUT, when James starts talking to us about US, as Betty reminded us in her sermon that week, things get hard. "You must understand this," James says: "let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. … But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves."

    James digs in in chapter 2: "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?…So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." It is not a faith you need to improve, James says, but is DEAD if you aren’t about living that faith in the world. James presses us, over and over, to think about who we are and why we do what we do. Taylor last week spent time with a splendid portion of chapter 3 on the taming of the tongue: "How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell." Whew. What we say matters. How we say it matters, and is not something separate from our faith but an essential component of it. As Heather reminded us during the Children’s Message, we know the phrase, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me," and we know it isn’t true.

    After these chapters that challenge us to think deeply about the relationship between faith and action, James pushes us deeper still. He begins chapter 4 asking questions, rhetorically pulling us in. Where do these conflicts among us come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war with you? He gives examples – you want something that you don’t have and so you go get it. Sometimes people kill to get what they don’t have. Even more so, I think, we step on people, don’t care who is in the way, are more concerned with the end goal that we are convinced is righteous than who gets hurt. Collateral damage. You covet something, James says, and are draw into conflict by desires. We desire something and we go get it, seeking our pleasure first. James specifically mentions adultery, another way of destroying relationships with others to feed our desires. Therefore, James says, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. If you want too much of this world, all of this world, desires fed, then you might as well give up on friendship with God.

    This stings. But James keeps moving us, quoting in verse six Proverbs 3:34: ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ We then get a rapid fire set of commands – submit to God, resist the devil, draw near to God, cleanse, purify, lament and weep, all moving us towards a certain posture before God. Then the stirring verse ten: "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you."

    I think James is trying to challenge us to do two things here. One is to, perhaps said a bit crassly, be aware of our own stuff. We are called to take the time to think about our own motivations, to consider why we do what we do. Therapy is good for that. So is prayer. God, why do I feel called to do this work? Why do I desire this thing, this relationship, this project? What in this – and I think this is a crucial, crucial discernment question we should be asking ourselves EVERY DAY: what in this is FOR ME, O God, and what is for YOU? Being prayerful about our, as James calls them, cravings. The Greek is hedone, your pleasures, the source of our word hedonism. I wonder where those kinds of struggles might be in play for you. What do you want in your life, and why do you want it?

    This kind of discernment, at its best, James argues, leads us to a certain posture before God. One of deep humility. Humble yourselves before the Lord. The word here has a physical aspect of making low, lowering oneself, maybe not necessarily of bowing down but of making one’s self small before God. The way that happens is through regular prayer, through slowing down a little bit, through taking time to remember that WE did not create all of this, God did. And the God who created it all and sustains it and in some mysterious ways also made us. We are not creator we are creation. Therefore, we’re not in charge, which is hard, especially for a bunch of privileged in the eyes of the world, well educated, type A’s who are used to running things. We are not in charge. God is.

    And this God calls us to a practice of humility before God, of understanding that God is in charge and we are not, of the appropriate posture before our creator, which leads right into humility before others. I think that means much more listening than speaking. Much more. It means working to understand another’s viewpoint, especially people with whom we disagree. It means – and I am guilty of this a lot which is why I mention it – NOT coming in with what you are confident is a better idea every time someone else is speaking. Humility means being kind. A posture of humility before God, if we can cultivate that, flows right into humility with and for others, of putting others before yourselves. Other’s ideas. Other’s work.

    Later on in the introduction of "The Road to Character," Brooks writes: As years went by…my thoughts returned to [that] episode of Command Performance. I was haunted by the quality of humility I heard in those voices. There was something aesthetically beautiful about the self-effacement the people on that program displayed. The self-effacing person is soothing and gracious, while the self-promoting person is fragile and jarring. Humility is freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time, but egotism is a ravenous hunger in a small space – self-concerned, competitive, and distinction-hungry. Humility is infused with lovely emotions like admiration, companionship, and gratitude. "Thankfulness," the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, said, "is a soil in which pride does not easily grow."

    Humility is rooted in gratitude to God – the God who created us all, who loves the world, who pours our grace upon us day after day. Starting with the love and promises of God, as we baptize babies, as we ordain and install leaders God has called, as we go about our work and our lives. That gratitude and humility are bound up together, calling us to submit ourselves to God, and our deeply discerned wisdom for who God would have us be – lowering ourselves, but also leaning into that love.

    All praise be to God. Amen.

    1. David Brooks, The Road to Character, (New York: Random House, 2015), pages 3-4.

  5. Bulletins & Sunday Announcements : September 20, 2015

    September 20, 2015 Bulletin