Jesus’ Summer Reading List: The Story of the Sower



A sermon preached by Joseph Welker, Jr.

Jesus’ Summer Reading List: The Story of the Sower

Mark 4:1-20

June 3, 2018

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.


When the staff was discussing our summer themes for preaching, somehow our thoughts turned to what many of you do in the summer… you like to read a good story. You take a good book to the beach or the mountains. Everyone loves a good story.


Apparently, Jesus did as well. He told many stories… short stories, called parables. According to one count, 37 different short stories.


Some famous—the prodigal son… the good Samaritan… others obscure…the parable of the two debtors. Jesus used stories to convey the truth of the gospel. He created his stories from the experiences of everyday people… story of a woman looking for a lost coin… people on the road traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho… or even the story today… story of a someone sowing seed… like people did all the time. Like many of you have done this spring.


He was a great story teller… and you might think he told stories that were simply entertaining… that the reason crowds gathered around him is the same reason many of us gathered for years to hear Garrison Keillor tell the stories from a fictitious community Lake Wobegon


You know, “Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and (let the congregation complete) all the children are above average.”


Who doesn’t like a good story?  Jesus loved them… and used them to convey a truth that was funny, provocative and sometimes hard to understand. I trust you know that many of his stories were funny, don’t you? I mean, you know Jesus had a sense of humor.


Take our story today for example. I can hear his crowd chuckle when he tells them that a sower went out to spread the seed… and he just spread it everywhere… everywhere… on the road (where the birds would eat it up)… on the rocky ground…everyone knows  not much will grow there… among the thorns where the weeds choke out the seed… then the rest on good soil.


Imagine me seeing you sow seed on the driveway or telling you to sow seed on the pinestraw in your yard.  What a stupid thing to do! You might laugh! I mean, 75% of the seed that you paid good money for is wasted… only 25% produced anything.


You have to laugh at the foolishness of the sower… which is how we know God’s ways are not our ways. God just throws seeds everywhere in this world knowing some will take root and others will not.


His stories made people laugh.


They also made some people mad. Angry… angry enough to have him killed. Not everyone laughed or got the joke..


In the story today, I think Jesus has in mind how his message has been received or not! Jesus has been spreading the word of God… he says the word is sown and not everyone responds. About 25% of the population receive it with joy, but the others are not willing or able to hear what Jesus has to say. (Sort of confirms the old 20-80 rule doesn’t it… 20 percent of the people produce 80 percent of the work)


There are the Pharisees and religious leaders who are like hardened ground… they have life and faith all figured out… they are clear about the law of God… they are not open to hearing Jesus out. They are angered by what Jesus says. Closed minded ideologues we would call them today. Fundamentalists who are both conservatives and liberals. They are not open to hearing anything that changes their worldviews.


Then there are the crowds who followed Jesus… oh, how they loved hearing Jesus preached about love and grace… they loved his word on forgiveness and loving the sinner… they love him when he fed and healed them… but when he starts talking about what it costs to really follow him and become his disciple… then the crowds fall away… The excitement dies when cost is involved. Jesus saw that happen.


Then there are those who are trying their best to listen and follow… but their lives are so full and busy and full of worry and anxiety… their dreams of being healthy, wealthy and wise  and  all of that activity and worry sort of crowds out the message of Jesus like weeds choking a garden if left unattended.


Jesus saw people who wanted to follow him… but life got in the way. As Peterson says, “the stress strangles what they heard, and nothing comes of it”


Then there were the 25% who actually listened and followed…it is the seed planted in the good earth that represents those “who hear the Word, embrace it and produce a harvest beyond their wildest dreams” (Peterson)


Depending on where you put yourself in that story… it can be a story that sort of makes you feel guilty.  I mean, and please tell me I am not alone… but I can think of times in my life when I have not been open to listening to the word or wisdom of Jesus… I mean all of that talk about loving your enemies… all of those beatitudes… I like nursing my grudges, thank you very much!


I know of times when I have tuned Jesus out because I didn’t like what Jesus had to say…  his message did not fit nicely into my theology, politics or ideology. Sometimes the words I hear from MSNBC, Fox and talk radio sort of drown Jesus out. Please tell me I’m not the only one here.


And yes, I remember growing up and wanting to follow Jesus because I thought following Jesus would make me healthy, wealthy and wise… maybe Jesus would help my team win if I prayed to him (not thinking that there were Christians on the other team also praying…) I thought following Jesus would be a way to help me get ahead in this world. Some people still think that. They call it the prosperity gospel. Joel Osteen for example.


The preachers of that prosperity gospel tell you, “follow Jesus and you will prosper. You will become healthy, wealthy and wise!”But when it turns out not to be that simple- cancer comes to you or someone you love… or you lose your job… then it becomes a crisis of faith. Many give up on Jesus and the church. They become disillusioned with the church and with God. I mean, if God can’t deliver on my dreams, what is the point?


Fortunately I had mentors in the church who helped me grow up and learn there was more to faith than that. I wonder I you went through that stage in your faith development…


Then there are times… far too many times when the stresses, strains and worries of life sort of choke at the word. It’s not that we do not try… we read the Bible and pray when we can make the time… worship and faith development are important to us… but it is so hard to fit into the soccer or music or work or school schedule.

Our worship and faith sort of get crowded out in the calendar.


Time for prayer, study of the Word, and devotional life take a back seat… and then when the crisis hits, we are surprised when our relationship with God is not as strong as we thought. Oh, this story can make you feel guilty if depending on where you put yourself in the story…


But, here is the thing.  I don’t think Jesus was telling the story to pile on a load of guilt on us… that is not his way.  I think he was trying to teach some basic lessons to the disciples and to encourage them.


Lesson one: the church is not to be like a careful farmer who only plants seed in the place you think it will grow. Those who follow Jesus are to take the seed in their hands and toss it anywhere and everywhere it will grow. The truth is you and I don’t know where the good soil is or the bad soil. Only God knows. In fact, I’ve seen grass sprout in the middle of my driveway. How does that happen?!


Fred Craddock interpreted the parable and says that we learn never to give up on anybody. Why? Because we never know- we just never know- where or when that tiny little seed will begin to grow in someone’s heart and soul. He also says we need to give up on the notion that the harvest of the seed is up to us. “I get a little weary” he admits, “of people, good-hearted, good-spirit people , who,  on behalf of their churches worry you to death. Just plant the seed. It is God’s seed, and the seed carries its future within it. It is the seed, and it will grow. Just plant it. Be prodigal in planting; cast it anywhere and everywhere, no fences. Trust the seed, the gracious God (who spreads it)


One of the great things I love about the Kirk is how willing we are to cast the seed wide around here. Most of the things we love are because someone cast the seed wide. Sometimes take root. Sometimes not.


I’ve watched Jordan work with developing ministries with young adults. It’s kind of interesting. She’s been casting some seeds out there. I wonder which ones will fall on good soil and grow. So is she!


When I first came here, I would park my car up in the upper parking lot. People had told me that Cary is full of middle class and wealthy people. And we are. No one told me we had Latino neighbors within a mile of the church. But no one had to tell me… I said hello to them as they were dressed in their McDonald’s and Wendy’s uniforms on the way to work. Our neighbors were walking through our church. Little did I know this would blossom years later into a vibrant neighborhood ministry – Food, Fun and Fellowship. Oh how that has grown.


But it did because there was Stephanie… but not Stephanie alone… but many of you casting the seeds. Not knowing what would happen… but by God’s grace we have seen a harvest beyond our dreams. The Kirk is that kind of place.


The reason we are that kind of place is that there are people in this church who are like the good soil… they have been listening to Jesus… the stories of Jesus… they have been paying attention to the world around us… and they have decided to follow Jesus and trust in his word… every ministry we love started with seed being sown.

I know the reason we are that kind of place, it is because so many of you are people of prayer, of devotion and a growing faith whose deepest desire is not to ask God what God can do for me, but to wake up every day and pray to God, “God, what do you need me to do for you today? How can I help bring your kingdom a little closer to earth?”  If you want to know what good soil looks like, it looks like that. People who hear the word, embrace it and allow it to transform them.


To our graduates, I say this: the story Jesus tells is a story that is not only good advice… I think it reveals a truth about life. It is a law like the law of gravity… it is true whether you believe it or not.


And this is the truth Jesus wants us all to know… if we want to enjoy an amazing life that is exciting beyond our wildest dreams… if you want to live a life that can make a real difference in the lives of others… then listen to Jesus… listen to his stories… they can change your life.


My prayer for you and for all of us is that we can offer God the good soil that produces abundantly. This prayer is expressed well in a song we will sing… and I leave it with you as my prayer for today:


Lord, let my heart be good soil,
open to the seed of your Word.
Lord, let my heart be good soil,
where love can grow and peace is understood.
When my heart is hard,
break the stone away.
When my heart is cold,
warm it with the day.
When my heart is lost,
lead me on your way.
Lord, let my heart,
Lord, let my heart,
Lord, let my heart be good soil.



Two Words that Changed the World

A sermon preached by Joseph Welker, Jr.
Two Words that Changed the World
Mark 1:14-20
January 21, 2018

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.


When it snows like it did last week, I love going on facebook to see people post about deploying what I have dubbed the Welker Snow Removal System—built on tarps. My Dad was always using tarps for everything in Florida and a few years ago, it occurred to me that placing tarps on the driveway before a snow would save a lot of shoveling. And they do! You lay down tarps, after the snow, you remove the tarps and you have a clear driveway or sidewalk. It saves a lot of time and energy. Over the years I have modified the system based on experience. I posted it on facebook. But I am glad to share it with any of you if you ask!

Over the years I have enjoyed seeing the pictures people have posted as they have deployed the Welker Snow Removal system… and seeing the results. Makes me happy. This year, Jim Leonard took the post to a new step… he posted a video of how you deploy them and the result. I replied, “Excellent” – To which he said, “I am a student of the master”. Needless to say, I loved it.

As I think about the life of the disciples… and all they accomplished by the time their lives were over… and how we remember all that was done by Peter, Andrew, James and John—simple fishermen who accomplished so much with their lives… If we were to praise them, I think they would say, “We are but students of the master”. Because that’s what they were: students, disciples.

Then, if we asked, they might tell us how it all began… one day on the shore of the Sea of Galilee… The day they were simply going about their business, feeding their families, running the business… doing what they had done every day for years… and Jesus who was a wise rabbi and teacher, came by and said two words to them:
“Follow me”. And it turns out those were two words that would change the world.
Follow me… learn from me… become my disciple… my student… And they did. And the world has never been the same.
That they dropped everything to follow him is part of the miracle of this story to me. Mark makes it sound so simple, but we know it was not. These are not simple decisions for most of us. Following a call like this always feels more complicated to me. When I was considering a call to be a minister… I weighed all sorts of things before jumping in. People told me to think and pray about it. I met with my minister. No immediate following here! In fact we encourage people to think before answering calls: : If you are asked by the nominating committee, we ask you to think about it, pray about it, and then answer. No immediate answer required. If you are feeling called to be a Minister of Word and Sacrament… we will put you through at least 2 years of a process to make sure …

But here… Jesus calls, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people”… and immediately they say “yes”… Immediately.

Of course, for the first three years, they weren’t really asked to DO much. All they were asked to do was to become his students. All they were asked to do was to follow Jesus and to watch Jesus, listen to Jesus, learn from Jesus… let Jesus teach them about the ways of this thing he called the kingdom or reign of God.

They would hear stories that we read in the gospels… they would watch him demonstrate by example who God is: a God of love… a God whose deepest desire is to heal people, forgive people, bring them life and joy. God desires to help the poorest of the poor… to feed people. God desires to help those who seem to have it all (like a certain rich young ruler) but whose life still seems to miss something… this God wants to offer them what they missing in order to find peace in their lives. This God will have little patience with hypocrisy and self-righteousness – especially when it hurts others. God is hardest on those who are hard hearted and simply follow rules for the sake of following rules. Jesus will stand up for those who are the least, the last, the lonely, the left out and the lost. Don’t believe me? Read the gospels!

Perhaps the first thing a person should do when becoming a disciple is to make it a priority to learn from Jesus. That is why Christian education and nurture are so important in the life of the disciple and it shouldn’t stop when you graduate from High School. The reason we are urged to read the gospels is that they are the primary place where we learn what Jesus tries to teach us about his gospel and the kingdom he proclaims. How are we to follow and do if we do not know what it is the master wants us to be and do?

So if you are a Christian, I would urge you to read the gospels and learn as much as possible about Jesus… learn as much a possible about the lessons he teaches…?
How about setting this out as a goal? Read a Gospel, or even better- all the gospels once a year. They really aren’t that long. Perhaps pick one gospel and try to master it. And if you tell me they are too confusing, I won’t buy it. If you can read the Harry Potter series or Lord of the Rings or other books, you can do this. If your version doesn’t work for you, find another like “The Message”.

Faithful following of Jesus begins with listening and learning. This should come as no surprise to anyone here. This is so true in all other areas of life, why should it not be true in the life of faith. If you want to be a player on a state or national championship team of any sport… it all begins months earlier with listening to the coach teach you what it takes to get there. If you want to be faithful, good or great at anything: business, school, music… the first work is to listen and learn from those who know more than you do.

So why should it be different in the life of a disciple? The first thing Jesus wants us to do is to listen and learn… Then we are called to go and do based on what we have learned

It was after Jesus was gone and the spirit came, they would go and do.
With the help of the Spirit, they would take what they learned and share it one person, one village, one church at a time. And people learned from them… and taught others… and here we are today. All because Jesus said, “Follow me” and they did.

This is what the church is still doing you know. And if you don’t think it makes a difference when you say yes, you are wrong. I see lives transformed and changed all the time… I see it here at the Kirk among those who teach and lead our youth, children and adults… I see it in all of the missions and ministries that take place here… and the reason there are so many, is that so many of you say “yes” when you are asked to “follow”…

The impact disciples make was so very clear to me last week in Guatemala. We’ve been there for more than a decade now and as one person said, “the harvest is coming in”… Their lives are so different, filled with hope, just because people keep answering a call to follow Jesus to that little, remote, mountain top village.
So much progress. I see things I could never have imagined a dozen years ago… Almost like a mustard seek growing into a big tree—and if you don’t get that reference, I refer you to the gospels.

I see small businesses popping up: a family setting up a French fries and fried chicken stand… you can get French fries for 2 quetzals… about a quarter. Much better than McDonald’s or Wendy’s French fries. For about 10 qs or $1.25 you can have a drumstick. Far better than Bojangle’s.
I see the youth fundraising for their projects by selling fruit cups.

I watch all of those students you are sponsoring… from middle school to university… education changes lives… I doubt those of you who sponsor students really know how you have lifted people out of poverty and hopelessness to a much better future.

Sharon, Felicity Klintworth and I have a new middle school youth we are sponsoring: Rosa. Rosa comes from a village that is 30 minutes away by pick up. When I asked to meet with Rosa, she came along with her mother Katarina (who speaks no Spanish or English)… and her younger brother Ricardo, whose clothes reveal they are literally dirt poor. Her father Lorenzo couldn’t come because he was too busy trying to feed his family: working the fields for someone else. They live in an Adobe home made of mud. Like another student, I’m guessing Rosa and her family do not have much to eat. There is one student being sponsored who said that for breakfast she has herbs, for lunch and piece of bread and for supper beans. No meat. Just beans. Rosa was born into that kind of home.

So I meet with Rosa, her mother and her brother and say… I look forward to the day she graduates from High School… in four years. That is she keeps up her grades this last year of middle school, and the committee approves, we will sponsor her in High School. I told Rosa to work hard because I want to stand by her on the day of her graduation… Her Mom speaks to me in K’che’ and says, “don’t worry”, I’ll make her study… she will make good grades. And I look at the Mom and realize, this woman means business. She and her husband are going to make sure Rosa has a better future. And then the Mother and Rosa thank me again and again and again.
I tell you this story because it is a story that is repeated with different variations again and again. And years later, I can hold out hope to Rosa because I look at the lives of the other kids you have sponsored… their lives are transformed by your support. Sometimes it takes more than a village… it takes a world to raise a child from such desperation.

Ask Barney and he will tell you about one of his former students Samuel, who has returned to Pala to contribute to the community.

When you follow Jesus, learn from Jesus and then follow his teachings, lives are changed. There are more stories of transformed lives than I can share in one sermon… Women are being empowered. The Pastor and the Session are almost begging women to accept leadership on the Session. Friendships are deepened reminding us how relationships are treasured above all else. They love having us come… they love seeing us… and we love seeing them because they are friends. A dozen years ago there was suspicion and fear when we arrived… today there is love and grace. Following Jesus got us there. Following his way of love and grace got us there. Commitment got us there.

One of the most touching moments of the trip came when Virginia and I had a final meeting with the elders. It can be a little stiff sometimes. But they have a new group of young elders who represent the future. Three of them were scholarship students. But the most moving moment came from Pastor Francisco. You have to understand that Pastor Francisco is a complicated character and has not always been exactly “warm and fuzzy”… But at this meeting, he wanted to close with prayer… but before he prayed, he had us mix it up… Instead of the Consistory on one side and Virginia, me and our translator on the other… He told the consistory to stand between us… then he had us hold hands and pray. That has never happened. It is was an intimacy that was different.

I could tell you more… of Ingrid from another community who sees a sign about the Brenda Armstrong library… and Ingrid contacts the facebook page and before you know it, she is helping find scholarship students in her community! I could tell you about how excited the students were to talk with their sponsors as they lined the hallway of the library… some had wait for hours to talk with you. I could tell you more, but instead, ask the participant on this trip about their stories…
I say all of this just to make sure you know that because you are here… because you follow Jesus, you are changing lives… lives of individuals, lives of a church, lives in Pala, and lives in many other communities in the region.

And for those of you who are active in so ministries here, know you are also changing lives.

All because there are people here who heard Jesus say, “Follow me” and they have. They, listen, they learn and then they take those lessons of God’s love and grace to the world. They are following in the footsteps of Andrew, Peter, James and John… whose lives were transformed when they dropped everything to follow Jesus.

Because Peter, Andrew, James and John said yes, they ended up doing more than making a living which is all they would have done had they said no… If they had said no… they would have gone on fishing… made a living… fed their families and died. Perhaps passed down the business to their kids. And that would have been a good enough life. But Jesus invited them to more… so much more… Jesus invited them to fish for people. To be a part of something bigger.

I’m so glad they followed… and I’m so glad others followed them… my life is different because they said yes… my life is different because of so many others who said “yes”… I think of those who were my teachers and leaders and pastors who taught me the ways of Jesus… and I’m so glad there are so many here who are saying “yes” when Christ asks you to follow. For with the Spirits help and guidance, the rule, the reign, the kingdom of God draws just a little bit closer to earth when people say yes. And the kingdom grows just a little more… one follower at a time. Amen.

Rebuilding Ruins

A sermon preached by Joseph Welker, Jr.
Christmas Under Construction: Rebuilding Ruins
Isaiah 61:1-4;8-11
December 17, 2017

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

When I heard Isaiah speaking to people whose lives had been shattered, he used an image that is powerful to me,
“They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities…”

It is a vision to people whose lives had been ruined by political and personal events. They had lost their independence as a nation… and had been one of many victims to Babylon who years earlier had sieged, starved out, slaughtered and deported those who lived in Jerusalem. The city devastated, burned to the ground… Imagine Washington, DC burned to the ground. Then there was THE Temple, the architectural masterpiece that could be seen for miles, built by King Solomon in the good old days… When Israel was great! The temple, where God was said to live… now, reduced to rubble. Imagine the Vatican… no more.

People’s lives were shattered: The best and brightest were deported… families torn apart… all those things that happen when you live in a war zone. Lives ruined.

But in our text today, something has shifted… Cyrus the Great has come to power and has allowed the Jews to return home. Which sounds really good until you actually see what home looks like now: rubble and remains. All you can do now is go home and comb through the ruins like a family looking through the ashes of a burnt home… looking for something of their memories… And you wonder, how will you recover from such devastation. Their lives in ruins.

History you know is full of the ruins of once great and ancient civilizations…

For the last 7 years or so, I’ve been grateful to have traveled to Turkey and to Israel… where part of the visit is to go from ruin to ruin… There are LOTS of ruins!

I’ve been to Ephesus twice… once a great city…with a thriving economy… a great library… a great amphitheater… advanced water and sewer systems… It once was a cosmopolitan and educated town … that today, lay in ruins…

Throughout Israel you visit lots of ancient ruins… there is Caesarea Maritima, the home of Pontius Pilate on the coast of the Mediterranean… a hippodrome (sort of like one of our stadiums)… another amphitheater where you could enjoy great plays… a great port… It must have been something. I doubt they ever imagined that the great cities they lived in would ever be no more than archaeological site…

I could go on… I’ve seen ruins in Samaria… Masada… Jericho… many of the places we read about in Scripture, now are basically ruins… Time, international politics… wars… a combination has left them in ruins.

So it is a powerful image to me when I hear the Lord talk about rebuilding the ancient ruins… and of course my mind thinks God is talking not only about sticks and stones… but whatever you may perceive what lay in ruins in your own life.

For some it could be a marriage that has fallen apart… for others… it could be families where the tension is so high, you wonder when it will all break apart… you may not even be speaking to some family members… and all the talk of family for the holidays… all the Hallmark movies make it worse. It could be an illness like that dreaded word, “Cancer” that ruins your day and years… For some, it is not so dramatic, but life did not turn out as you expected… with your job, your dreams for family or career or friendship… and if feels like you are mainly walking among rubble.

And let’s acknowledge that for some, faith itself is in ruins… a spiritual crisis… you are disillusioned with God, with the Church… or the people who represent the church… personally or publically… the hypocrisy is enough to leave your faith in ruins… It’s easier to become one of the “Nones”

It’s a powerful image, “ruins”… but equally powerful for me is the image of the God who sends a servant to speak to any and all who find their lives in the ruins.

To them God says he is sending a servant…
to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor… to comfort all who mourn…to give them a garland instead of ashes… “

Isaiah hears God anointing him to tell anyone whose lives are in ruins… that this is not the end of the story. How did the Hotel manager in the Marigold movie say it?
Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end”…

That’s the message of Isaiah. It was also the message of Jesus.

I find it interesting that in Luke’s gospel that when Jesus is asked to preach in the synagogue, of all the texts he could have chosen for his first sermon, he chose this text from Isaiah… of how God had anointed him to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives.”

This message of Isaiah was front and center in the message of Jesus. Jesus came to rebuild ruin lives.

Which then becomes our message as well, does it not? Are we not now the ones who are God’s servants, anointed with the same message of Isaiah that was literally fleshed out in the person and life and message and ministry of Jesus Christ?
What is the church for but to be a part of God’s great rebuilding project among those whose lives are in ruins…

Some of you have been doing this through family ties and a number of other ways you volunteer and give to help people who are struggling to pick up the pieces of their lives.

One of the great symbols of God’s rebuilding project stands today in Coventry, England. There lies one set of ruins I’d like to visit one day. It is the place where in November of 1940, this industrial city was bombed endlessly by the Germans… 30,000 bombs turned the city into a blazing inferno.

The staff and members of Coventry Cathedral tried to prepare themselves for this. They removed and put into storage 15th century stained glass windows and tried to fireproof the cathedral. But the bombing was too much. On November 14, 1940, the cathedral roof caught fire and spread through the building.

When the bombing was over, somehow the 300 foot Gothic tower built in the 1400s survived, as did the outer walls of the cathedral. Everything else was rubble.

The next day, standing in the ruins of the cathedral, Richard Howard, the Cathedrals’ provost, wrote on one of the remaining walls these two words.. he wrote them on the blackened wall of the sanctuary: “Father Forgive”.

In the days following the bombing, a member of the firefighting team pulled from the ruins tow of the charred great oak beams which had supported the roof and put them together in the form of a cross. Within weeks, they set the cross and also created a stone altar from the rubble to form an altar. It was their way of saying, “God can and will redeem this disaster!”

Today services continue to be held in the ruins. I’m told that if you visit today, you will see a new modern cathedral built next to the old one.

It is hallowed ground. You can still see the charred cross… and the words, “Father forgive” inscribed on the wall… maybe speaking to those who listen a message that says if they can forgive such death and destruction, how can we not forgive?”

There is a chapel on the grounds where Christians from all denominations are invited to come together to pray for reconciliation… for justice, for peace… in other words, for God to build up the ancient ruins and repair the devastations… That’s the call isn’t it? For you and me as followers of Jesus: To be the ones in our time and place who God will use to bring comfort and good news, and healing and freedom to any and all whose lives are in ruins? To be the servant of the Lord, seeking to bring peace to a broken and busted world?

Six weeks after the bombing, on Christmas Day, 1940, Provost Howard spoke to the nation on the radio, and declared that when the war was over, he would work with those who had been enemies to build a kinder, more Christ-child-like world.”

Let us offer our lives to God, commit ourselves to be God’s servants … that the Lord might work with us and through us “to build a kinder, more Christ-child-like world”

I like the way one quote ( Steve Maraboli), says it that has been going around facebook:

“Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done unto you.”

In other words, “Want to keep Christ in Christmas?” then join Christ, in his work of rebuilding and redemption. May we commit ourselves to building a more “kinder, more Christ-like” world.

Let us Build a House

A sermon preached by Joseph Welker, Jr.
Let us Build a House
Psalm 122
November 5, 2017

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

When the confirmands went to Washington, Jordan was telling me about their going to worship… one of the leaders wanted to make sure they were ready for a very important part of the worship service… so they were each given a $1.00 to put in the offering plate.

It brought back to mind when I was growing up in the church. Did your parents give you money to put in the offering plate? Mine did. Before church or before the offering, my parents would give me a quarter (believe me, it was worth more back then… a quarter is what I paid for a school lunch)… and they would say, “you should put this in the offering plate”.

One of the things my parents wanted to teach me is how giving was a part of worship… that when you come to the house of God, with God, among the people of God… you shouldn’t come empty handed… without an offering. That’s how I first learned how giving was part of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. And in thinking about this text and this sermon, I came to realize, God’s people never came before the Lord, empty handed.

In our text today, this pilgrim, who has been on the road for days is delighted- rejoices at the thought of coming to the house of the Lord. If he lived in a place like Galilee he would have been traveling for a week to make this trip… If it was a festival, he would have planned a week of travel there… a week to spend in Jerusalem… and a week to head home. Three weeks without income from work. I doubt they had vacation days back then. It would already have been a personal sacrifice.

But he would have also expected to bring a tangible offering to the Lord. When God’s people went to the temple, they would never have thought about coming before the Lord empty handed…

Depending on the occasion, they might be bringing a guilt offering or sin offering or some kind of offering as they asked God to forgive their sins. They might have brought a thanksgiving offering as a way of giving thanks to God for being God… or for something God had done for them (like safe travel through the desert on their way to Jerusalem, saving them from a storm, or recovery from an illness) those who lived close enough to go to the temple daily would have brought a daily burnt offering… they might have brought a peace offering… There were lots of offerings. Almost as many as we have at the Kirk!

And this was on top of the tithe… Not in place of the tithe, but on top! The tithe was a gift of either 10% of your property or your produce for the purpose of supporting the priests and the institution of the temple. You know, the temple didn’t run itself! The tithe was their annual gift to support the work of the priest… to pay for the maintenance of the temple… and those who worked in the temple. Sound familiar?

So when this pilgrim is coming, we don’t know what he is bringing, but we can be pretty sure he was bringing something because he could not have imagined going before the Lord empty handed…

Especially when he thought about what the Lord had done for him.

The reason he rejoices in going to the house of the Lord is because it is there he will find a place of refuge… safety and security in a brutal world… It is there he will find out he is not alone, but can join others in offering praise to God… and as we all know, there is nothing quite like a group of people offering praise with heart and voice (I love it when I hear good congregational singing… nothing is quite as uplifting) ….He rejoices at the sight of Jerusalem and the temple because he will find God’s justice … and finally, he rejoices because it is there at the temple he will meet God because this is where God has chosen to live… Though the whole earth belongs to God, so that God is everywhere (at the beach and mountains)… there is something different about the house of God… where God lives in a special way, unlike other places. It was, his “thin place”.

This afternoon we are holding a memorial service for a man who died an early death at 43 years old. A little over a week ago, his wife called to ask if we could hold the service here. Of course. For what she was asking is what many others have asked… to come to the house of the Lord for comfort, of peace, of refuge of hope… They could have held the service anywhere, but they wanted to come here… So, could they hold his service here? Of course! Of course they should come… just as many others have come… that’s why we are here! If you want to know what you are supporting when you pledge… you are supporting that!

It’s like the hymn says:

Let us build a house where all are named,
their songs and visions heard
and loved and treasured, taught and claimed
as words within the Word.
Built of tears and cries and laughter,
prayers of faith and songs of grace,
let this house proclaim from floor to rafter.
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.

Especially when you need God’s grace.

When, with God’s help, your tithes, offerings and pledges, we build this kind of house, it becomes the House of the Lord. A place of refuge, of strength and a reason to rejoice, “I rejoiced when they said to me “let us go to the house of the Lord!”

I know I rejoice when I think about this house of God. I rejoice at the children who know me because their parents bring them to worship… and in the parking lot or in the store they come up to me and say, “Hi Pastor Jody”… I rejoice because God’s house has brought us together.

I rejoice when I see people dream of a new satellite congregation in Holly Springs – knowing that they will be able to reach new people in that growing community, offering a place for worship.

I rejoice that our parking lot is seldom empty… because people have come here to tutor, feed the hungry, seek help, for prayer, for counseling…to develop relationships with our neighbors… So many reasons people come here! All the time! And I think about all the people we will be serving when the new building is done… I rejoice at that!

I rejoice when I come here on Sundays and see people talking with strangers and welcoming new people… offering a home of safety and refuge and friendship to those who are alone in a new community…

Oh, the more I think about what happens here, the more I rejoice when they said to me, “I am going to the house of the Lord…”

I rejoice when I see Stephen ministers meet to equip themselves to care for those who are hurting and need someone to fulfill the law of Christ which is to bear one another’s burdens…

I rejoice in worship… when I hear beautiful music—I still rejoice especially of the music we heard on Reformation Sunday…

I rejoice when hear the names of those being offered up in prayer… when I hear the word of Scripture and am given an opportunity to reflect with you about the meaning of Scripture.

What a privilege it is you give me and the other pastors to take time to study Scripture and share what we learn through preaching and teaching and counseling.

I rejoice in great colleagues and staff members who serve you and even more seek to serve the Lord… Your giving makes that possible…

So today, I rejoice in the lives of members and friends who dedicate their pledges…who support this work of the Lord… some of you even tithing… it gives you joy to follow the Biblical model for giving… many of you making sacrifices in order to make your pledge…

What a witness to faith when you sacrifice. I rejoice that you do not come to worship the Lord empty handed, but with offerings and full hearts for the opportunity to give to God so with God’s help, we can build a house where God’s love can dwell among us and in the community.

It’s why I have come to enjoy this Sunday as something special. It is the one Sunday a year we ask you to come forward with your pledges to dedicate them in worship. No one else will do that… NPR doesn’t ask me to dedicate my pledge in worship… The Red Cross doesn’t… The Cancer society does not ask me to bring forward my gift as an act of worship. But the church does… because this gift is different. It is more than a charitable donation… and giving to God is more than a tax deduction… what you bring is an offering of faith. An act of worship. That makes this special.

What makes it even more special is when I realize that it is the only time in the year when we ask you to physically come forward to make an offering to God. The rest of the year we ask you to come forward to receive something from God… we ask you to come forward to receive the grace that comes to us in the Lord’s supper… we ask you on Ash Wednesday to come forward to receive the ashes that remind us of our need for God and how God’s grace is offered to meet that need… we sometimes invite you forward in a service of healing… where you share your concerns and we ask God to provide healing… But today we ask you to come forward not only to receive something from God… but to give something to God.

We invite you to come forward and say to God… thank you… thank you for being there for me… thank you for being my refuge and strength and a very present help in time of trouble… thank you Lord… And as a way of saying thanks, I come to gladly offer you a gift that cost me something… not just money, but a gift of love. The gift of my heart. The gift of myself. Thank you. Here is my gift. Thank you. Amen.

The Gift of our Reformed and Reforming Faith



A sermon preached by Joseph Welker, Jr.

The Gift of our Reformed and Reforming Faith

2 Kings 23:1-3;21-23

Revelation 3:14-22

October 29, 2017

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

Years ago, I learned a bit of proverbial wisdom that has proved to stand the test of time. It goes like this:

Change is a given. Growth is a choice.

Change is a given. Growth is a choice.

One of the things you can count on in life is change. As much as we may worry about change… as much as we might want to resist change… and even for those who welcome change… it really doesn’t matter how we feel about it because change is a given in our world… has been since the beginning of time…but growth is a choice.

Change is a given, growth is a choice…

I can’t help but think the Reformers would agree… especially with the change part… for the world they lived in was in many ways, a world like our own. It was a world of change!

Brian McLaren  described these changes taking place 500 years ago:[i]

“New transportation technology- multi-masted sailing vessel.  (built for speed!)

1517 not far removed from 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, got lost, and was discovered by the Native Americans.

New communications technology- printing press.

New weapons technology- swords and catapults giving way to guns and canons.

New scientific worldview- Copernicus and later Galileo propose a slight revision to the standing model of the universe.”

That is the world Luther lived in… a world in which a Reformation was born. A world of change. No wonder people were feeling their world was in chaos!

Now, fast forward to our times. The changes keep coming at a faster speed, don’t they? As McLaren pointed out:

Transportation: from horses and carts to planes, trains and automobiles… and space shuttles and space stations.

Communications: from printing press to radio to TV, to cable TV, to the internet, and youtube, and social media… (from email to text to tweets) to these devices turning us all into cyborgs, electronically connected… leaving you to wonder about real connections.

Weapons: from guns and cannons to bomb, to chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, to suicide bombers…

Science- from Copernicus and Galileo to Einstien to Hubble and Darwin and Freud and a transformed universe, in both inner and outer space, from the genome to cosmology.”

Change is a given.

All these changes are hard—sometimes it is hard to keep pace. As Carrie Newcomer says, “we are going faster than our soul can go.” There is truth in that. No wonder we are stressed out… no wonder we resist!

But if change is a given and growth is a choice… then we will have to learn how to deal with it.

The Reformers seemed to know how. One gift of the Reformed faith is teaching us how to live in a world of changes.

The Reformers grabbed the new communications technology called the printing press and ran with it. They used it to put the Bible in the hands of the people… I’m sure many in the church leaders were worried by this development. But Reformers embraced it and used it to share their message. I wonder what they would have done with our technology today!

Change is a given. Growth is a choice.

There is a working theory out there that says a new reformation takes place every 500 years or so. [ii] An Anglican bishop famously said, that about every 500 years the church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.

2000 years ago, Jesus comes, and shakes up the religious status quo of his day with his message of how God was doing a new thing.  He brings a world of change to the religion of his day. How do they respond?  He is crucified for it. So were many of his followers. Talk about resisting change!

500 years later the Roman Empire collapses and the dark ages begin… and a monastic tradition is born as the church hunkers down.

In 1054 there was a great schism when the Christian church splits between east and west… a split lasting to this day between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic church.

Then 500 years ago… the reformation. We have endured many a change in the religious world over the centuries.

And today, 2017? That’s what people are wondering about… people are wondering if we are in the midst of a new reformation… transformation of the church.

It’s hard to say when you are living through it… I mean, I doubt many knew the impact of what was happening in the church 500 years ago.

Because on October 31, 1517—who was Luther? A young monk of whom very few people had heard, living in a part of the world far away from the center of religious power: Rome. Who cared what happened in the small college town of Wittenberg?

At the time, when he nailed those concerns on the door of the church… all he was asking for was a debate over church practices like penance… indulgences… how someone is saved. He didn’t have a desire or an idea that a movement would be sparked that would lead to the division of the church.

At first the church ignored him… no one wanted to debate him.

Then when his ideas got out through the printing press and he challenged the authority of the pope and the selling of indulgences… people began to notice. The Pope began to notice. They tried to shut him up… excommunicated him.

Luther didn’t want to leave the church… the church kicked him out. Back then, I bet the church thought they had managed this little monk from Wittenberg. Little did they know that God was doing a new thing…

And your life and mine is different because of what he did that day. That day changed everything!

Without Luther, you might still be paying indulgences to get your loved ones out of purgatory. Yes, through that system we would have paid off our building by now.. but still… Without Luther, you might still believe that you have to work your way into heaven… No “Amazing Grace”—at least not without a price. You certainly would not have received forgiveness without going through me. You’d be coming to me to share your deepest and darkest secrets. While I might find it interesting, I don’t think you would like it. Even then, some of you would still be burdened by wondering if you had ever done enough to please God and get into paradise. You might be wondering if God would really forgive you of some sin that seemed unforgivable to you.

You might not be able to read the Bible because it was Luther and the Reformers who made sure it was translated into the language of the people. Your life and mine would be different.

John Calvin and John Knox may not have happened. And Presbyterians would have not had such an influence on the founding of America. You remember, don’t you, that the American Revolution was also called the Presbyterian Rebellion… because so many Presbyterians were so involved. Who knows what this nation would be or if it would be without Luther’s actions.

The changes that took place 500 years ago have changed our lives forever. All because a monk from Wittenberg was reading his Bible and praying… trying to be faithful to his God.

Who could have seen it coming?Well, maybe those who read the Bible would not be surprised. Reformation was taking place long before 1517.

We see a great example in today’s Scripture from about 600 BC. We don’t know the exact day, but the day that Josiah’s workmen found the book of the Covenant (Deuteronomy) in their renovation of the temple was a day that changed Israel.

Josiah ordered everyone together to hear the words of Scripture… leading to reinstitute Passover observance which had been ignored. Call this a first reformation… the day that Book of the Covenant was discovered. And people listened to the Word of God and repented.

In that text are the clues to one of the great sayings born of the reformation… it likely comes to us from Dutch reformers who said,

“The Church Reformed is always reforming according to the word of God”

That saying for us is a confession that we know we are not perfect, we know we get it wrong sometimes…but God gives us his word to help us in such times.

I think about those years when Southern churches were supporting slavery and quoting the Bible… Not every moment in history is our best moment.

But faithful people kept on reading and thinking and praying.. and reform came to the church.  The gift of the Reformed faith that we seek to be a faith that continues to seek reformation according to the Word of God. We continue to listen for what God is saying to us in our time, place and circumstances.

I love the letters to the churches in the book of Revelation as examples of God seeking to reform the church… they comfort me in knowing that even the early churches struggled to be faithful to the vision of Jesus. John is writing to them to encourage them to repent and reform.

One of the churches had forgotten their first love, Jesus Christ.

Another is living in fear because of the suffering about to come their way. Not faith, but fear.

Another is tempted to compromise their faith… giving into the culture and letting faith take a back seat.

Another church tolerated Jezebel… they were a growing church… active church… but again, some were asking them to compromise their faith for the sake of many things. Christians simply let the culture be their guide to faith and practice… not Christ.

Another church had a great reputation… but they were living on their name and off of their past… they needed spiritual renewal.

Then there is the church in Laodecia (today’s text) … that hits too close to home… They are a wealthy church… comfortable… complacent… they are neither “hot nor cold” … they can manage on their own… self-sufficient… but they have locked Christ out of their church. They have begun to rely on themselves and not the grace of God in Christ.”  He could have been describing the church of the reformation… He could have been describing many American churches.

I find great comfort in knowing that the church was not perfect and in need of reform. Maybe there is hope for us as well! Because the good news is that God is always working to reform us. God has not left us on our own.

With Luther we trust the Holy Spirit continues to work with the church… to reform it… especially as we turn to the Scriptures to inform us  once again… and even more as we turn to the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ… whose life and teachings set the direction for reform… we are reformed when we listen for the voice of  the Spirit moving in our time and place… to see what new things the Spirit may be doing. Just as the Spirit was doing a new thing 500 years ago.

Way back when, when I was in seminary, I had a wonderful pastoral care professor, Dr. Oglesby. A wonderful teacher and pastor.  Sometimes a student would ask a question like, “Dr. Oglesby, what do you think will happen in the future when…”

And his reply was the same… “Lord knows but he ain’t telling”… and he said it with such calm. It was enough, it seems, that the Lord knew… it was enough to let go and trust in the good Lord to work with us, reform us and lead us into the future.

As they say, “we may not know what the future holds, but we do know who holds the future”  Our job is to listen, to pay attention, to repent where needed and to follow where the Lord leads.

And to trust, as the Reformers taught us, to always trust that the Lord who has been our help in ages past, will be our hope for years to come. That is something that will never change. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[i] Sermon at Davidson College Presbyterian Church, September 2017

[ii] Phyllis Ticklee, The Great Emergence


Learning from the Reformation: Everyone is a Minister!



A sermon preached by Joseph Welker, Jr.

Learning from the Reformation: Everyone is a Minister!

I Peter 2:9-10; Exodus 19:1-6

October 22, 2017

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

I assume most of you know of my brief flash with fame as I was chosen to be a contestant on the Price is Right. Our son, Joe, ordered the tickets for us and wanted us to go. It was an interesting experience.

How was I chosen? Not by chance, but by interview. While you wait in a line with 300 people a producer interviews about 20 or so people at a time. When he came to me, he asked the same questions… What is your name… Where are you from… and What do you do?  May I say, when a secular west coast person asks, “What do you do?” to a pastor, the answer comes with a little anxiety.

But I answer truthfully: “I am a Presbyterian minister.” And you see on his face the look of curiosity as if he has just seen a strange animal in the zoo. He asks me,

Well what does that mean? What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to kiss your ring? 

No, I say, we don’t do that?

Am I supposed to kneel? 

No, we don’t do that either.  I’m a Presbyterian.

Clearly he did not know much about Protestant clergy and certainly had not heard the breakthrough that came at the time of the reformation when Martin Luther declared that everyone is a minister… called, “the Priesthood of all believers.”

My friend Bill DePrater described this change well:

“In contrast to the Catholic understanding, the Reformation leaders rejected the popular view that clergy were a special caste apart from the laity. The Reformers insisted that clergy only differed from laity in the special functions of ministry. Expressive of this new role, the Reformed pastor wore, not a liturgical garment, but rather the black Genevan gown, the same worn in the universities.

This emphasis (with the gown)  stressed that the clergy were educated in theological and biblical studies…”[i]

So here I and the other pastors stand before you in our academic robes… not because I am better than you or are your professional Christians… but because I’ve received a particular calling… and been educated to fulfill that calling (just as a person called to be a teacher is trained to be a teacher… or a doctor goes to medical school… or even a plumber has learned the art of plumbing)… I have been educated in Bible and theology for the purpose of helping you fulfill your own callings as ministers and priests …  I’m here to help you live your life as guided by the Word of God in Scripture and in the Word made flesh Jesus Christ. That is my calling.

And because I am a Protestant, I also believe you also have a calling…. Because each and every one of you is also a minister… a priest…

I remember the way my friend Art Ross once shared this with his congregation years ago. It used to be pastors had reserved parking spots at Hospitals (I miss those days!) He said, when you go to the hospital you will often find signs that say “clergy parking”… You cannot park there. But if the sign says, “Ministers parking” you can park there!  The only other thing I wold add is if you ever see a sign that says, “Priest Parking”—you can park there too!

Because you are all priests according to Luther. And he didn’t make it up. As would be true for Luther, he found the basis for this in the Scripture. Scriptures like the one we read today. In Exodus, the people of Israel have been chosen by God… not just to be saved… but to be priests:

The RSV put it this way:

And Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.”

The letter in 1 Peter echoes this understanding as Christians are told, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

In other words, everyone is a priest… not just the people who went to seminary, passed ordination exams and now dress up in robes on Sunday morning.

So, if you are a priest, what does this mean for you and me? [ii]

First it means that each of us first and foremost is personally accountable to God… as Sara Groves sang,

“When I stand before the Lord, I’ll be standing alone, this journey is my own… (Not trying to please other people, but only trying to please God)… And now I live and breathe for an audience of one… only the Lord can say, “Well done… this journey is my own”.  

Faith starts with your personal relationship with God… no mediator needed because you are a priest too.

When you are a priest, faith starts with your personal relationship with God… But it doesn’t end there. Because priests care for others.

So  it extends to others… less we become narcissistic, selfish and self-centered.

Luther said that as God in Christ has loved us, so we must love our neighbors. Priests care for others.

He said,

“There is really no (spiritual) difference between laymen and priests, princes, except that of office and work…and everyone by means of his own work… must benefit and serve every other, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, even as all the members of the body serve one another.”

For Luther, this included forgiving one another as we inevitably sin… inevitably we let each other down,  and hurt each other. So, as Christ bore our sins, so we must bear one another’s sins… That is part of what it means to be a priest… to offer forgiveness. By the way, can I tell you what tears at the fabric of most human relationships—at home, at work, or at church… is lack of forgiveness… failure to share the forgiveness we have received with others. If you are holding a grudge, you are not bearing the sins of another… which is what priests are called do.

Being a priest also means that while not everyone is called to be a minister of the word and sacrament… everyone is called to be the minister of something.

Everyone has a vocation—which is not a job… but a calling. God has work for each of you to be about in the world… and if you need a hint, it will likely have to do with a way in which you will love your neighbor.

So part of your work as a Christian is to discern what God is calling you to be and do.

You may be paid or unpaid for your calling. Being a parent is a vocation and a calling. You’ll never get paid enough for that!  You may be a teacher who helps develop the mind God has given us… you may be a doctor or nurse or health care professional who helps heal the body or soul… you may be a lawyer or judge whose goal is to work for justice in an unjust world… you may be a computer technician that gives us the means to communicate God’s grace… you may be a plumber that provides clean water or running toilets so that we don’t have health issues in our communities… you may work for a town or the state in government … knowing that we need good government to provide order to society and help to the vulnerable. Politics can be a high calling. Calvin saw that as a important calling. In his own way, he was not only a preacher but a town manager.

Every person has a calling.

My favorite story that comes to mind (and I may have shared it already) is from my class with the School of Government with the town of Cary. I’ve told many of you this story.  I’ll never forget going to the sewage treatment plant and the man who worked there talking to us. He holds up a big sign that says, GPOE… he asks if we know what that means? He says, it means, “Greatest Place on Earth” … he wanted us to know that he worked at the Greatest place on earth… at the sewage plant! He had a calling… a ministry to perform. At the sewage plant!

I love the quote from the other Martin Luther… Martin Luther King Jr:

“If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music … Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”

The first Martin Luther said,

“If you ask an insignificant maid-servant why she scours a dish or milks the cow, she can say: I know that the thing I do pleases God, for I have God’s Word and commandment…God does not look at the insignificance of the acts but at the heart that serves Him in such little thing”

When you are a priest, and everyone is a priest, you do the most mundane things for the glory of God.. you do it not to simply make money or earn a living but because you want to please God….

I hope that is true for you not only in your vocation out in the world but also your calling as a member of the church. You know, don’t you… that the vitality of the church depends on the priesthood of ALL believers…

I’m reminded of advice my professor John Leith gave to us young pastors. He told us to remember that our prime calling was to preach, teach and do pastoral care. He said you will be tempted to center your ministry around church administration… long term planning… budgets… buildings, social work, those kinds of things…

But he said,

“Remember there are people in your congregation that are better administrators than you… remember there are people who are better accountants than you… there are people who are better at caring for the buildings than you… there are people better at planning than you…”

In other words there are other ministers besides you with gifts and skills that can do a better job than you in many areas of church life. Let them answer their callings to be priests! At the Kirk we should have over 1100 ministers ready to answer your callings.

Leith was right. Show me a vital and healthy church, and I’ll show you a church of involved people who are using their gifts for the work of ministry. Show me a vital and healthy church, I’ll show you a church of people where members want to be involved as they bring the same energy and interest to their faith they do to other aspects of their lives.

I’ve served several churches now and looking back, I realize that there is one thing that you find in common with ministries that make a difference. It is the laypeople who are involved.  Every vital ministry has laypeople who are participating and leading and caring for a ministry. If laypeople are not interested… if laypeople fail to participate… that ministry will flounder and will likely come to an end.

On the other hand, when laypeople get involved… watch out… God will be doing some amazing things through the life of the church. That has been true at the Kirk. The church was founded on the energy, love, sacrifice and involvement first of laypeople who had a dream to start a church here. Laypeople were the key.

To which Luther would say to me, “No kidding!”

Because that’s the way God designed the church to operate… each answering a call to be priests … inside and outside the church… each of us being a means by which God seeks to bless God’s world, a world that could use a lot of blessing… May we all discern God’s call in our lives… and may we all have the courage to say yes… when we do, we will be a blessing… and we will have honored God.


[i] Presbyterian Outlook, Why Study the Reformation? October 2017

[ii] Insights include those from Dr. John Leith in a sermon

Learning from the Reformation: Saved by Faith Through Grace



A sermon preached by Joseph Welker, Jr.

Learning from the Reformation: Saved by Faith Through Grace

Romans 1:16-17; 3:21-27


October 15, 2017

If you had been hanging around the church in Luther’s time, and it was Stewardship Season or if the church was raising money for a building, you would have heard a different approach to stewardship in 1517 than the one you are hearing in 2017. And in fact, the church was raising money for a church building: Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Maybe you’ve heard of them.

Raising money was a little easier in my mind because of the system of salvation that was taught by the church. Even good church people feared that they may not make it through the Pearly gates because of personal sin that prevented entry. Your sins followed you after death and a price had to be paid before given the entry to heaven. You had to be purged of your sins (hence purgatory) Many worried about their loved ones who died … that they may be stuck in purgatory.

But good news! For a price you could make a payment, called an indulgence, to “get out of purgatory” and head straight to heaven. For a price you could buy forgiveness of sins for yourself or a loved one stuck in purgatory. How is that for a fundraiser! It did pretty well.

John Tetzel was the one selling those indulgences at the time of Luther… He liked to brag that he had saved more souls by indulgences than the Apostle Peter by his preaching.  And here was his sales pitch to the common person…

“The dead cry, Pity us! Pity us! We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance…Will you leave us here in flames? Will you delay our promised glory?”

As soon as the coin in the coffer rings

The soul from purgatory springs

Will you not then for a mere quarter of a florin receive these letters of indulgence through which you are able to lead a divine and immortal soul into the fatherland of paradise?”

This was effective. That approach to fundraising helped raise funds for St Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel… along with many other cathedrals.

Maybe it is something to consider when we have our next campaign to pay off the debt???   Forgiveness for sale for you… or your loved ones! Your Mom or Dad stuck in purgatory… you can help them out… literally… you can help them out of purgatory and get them a fast pass through the pearly gates.

If that didn’t work, they also had one other means of pressuring you for your money back then. If you didn’t pay your dues to the church, you were banned from the church without mercy. If you failed a second time, your whole family was banned and barred from fellowship of the church. That meant no baptizing your babies, no taking of communion and don’t come asking us to bury you if you have not paid your tithes. If you died without paying the church, you were simply thrown into the ground like a dead cat. No funeral for you!

Back then, very effective stewardship and fundraising. If we had that system, we wouldn’t have to worry at all about the budget! Fear of hell was a great motivator!

And if that sounds offensive to you, Luther would be proud and you are a great Protestant.  Luther protested because of the devastating effect this system and theology had in the lives of ordinary people. Instead of having to pay for forgiveness which made your relationship to God little more than a financial transaction like dealing with an institution… Luther said repentance is more about turning from sin to God… and that when a person turns from sin, places his or her trust in God, their sins are immediately and entirely forgiven without the absolution of the priest or the indulgence from a pope.Faith for Luther was not a divine legal transaction or a divine payoff for protection…  it was all about a relationship with the living God.

Luther believed in a personal God whose  relationship was more of Parent-Child… rather than CEO to client.  Out of love God’s desire was to save his children… whose grace was the source of salvation.

The breakthrough for Luther came when he read Romans. Paul makes it clear that “it is not any works of the law but only the grace of God in Christ that saves us.

 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement[e] by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

Luther wanted people to know that the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ is a gracious God… eager and ready to forgive.

This is the God of the prodigal… who is eager for the sinful and wondering child to come home and receive the party of forgiveness. Remember the story… the sinful son comes home… but the Father does not require him to pay him back what he took… the father does not even wait for the speech of repentance… the father forgives… throws a welcome home party to beat all welcome home parties… eager to restore the relationship. He loves his wayward son that much. (Get the point?!)

This is the God we sing of in that hymn Amazing grace, written by that old slave trader sinner, John Newton whose conversion was a result of his new understanding of God’s grace… So powerful is this grace… people who are both church people and non-church people love it… I’m fascinated that the secular world embraces this hymn… Mahalia Jackson, Judy Collins, Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, The Byrds, Willie Nelson and others have sung it in concerts from small town theaters  to Carnegie Hall.

What is it that draws people to this song of faith? Could it be that  the world hungers for this message of grace…  that the world is tired of the message that God’s love has to be earned… and the world longs to know of an Amazing grace… that sounds like this:

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me,

  I once was lost, but now I am found, was blind but now I see”


Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved. How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.”

What is that song about? It is about Salvation through faith by grace… It is about finding peace of heart and mind and spirit as a gift of God. Peace with God is not something  you earn… or deserve… it is a gift. What a powerful message people long to hear…

Luther learned it from Paul… who came to realize we are saved, find peace of heart and mind, not through the law, not by our efforts, not by being good enough, not by being right about certain doctrines, not by ceremonies or church traditions, not even by being active in very good things like mission or being a good church person…

No, we are saved… find peace of heart and mind and spirit, by the grace of God, received through faith.

This was the discovery that saved Luther. Luther had feared God. He did everything he knew and everything the church told him to do to earn God’s love. It is said, that he wore himself out with prayer and fasting. He even wore out his mentors with endless and excessive confessions. Looking back on those days he said,

“I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, readings and other work.”

 But even these superhuman efforts did not bring peace to his tormented soul. When he said his first mass, he was “utterly stupefied and terror-stricken” at the thought of standing before the Almighty God.

 What did bring peace was learning that salvation was a gift of God… That what God desires in the words of Hosea (6:6)  is “mercy and not sacrifice,  the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”

Luther believed it was out of that merciful, loving relationship good works would flow. He said, “Good works do not make a good person, but a good person does good works”

Another way of putting it is that Luther flipped the system of salvation. John Tetzel went around saying, “Do this, buy this, and you and your loved ones will be forgiven”

Luther listened to Paul and said, “In Christ, you are already forgiven… you are already loved beyond your knowing… now… do this…”

Which is why I think Luther would be pleased with our Stewardship theme this year… “Let us Build a House”… based on this verse of a hymn:

“Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live, a place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive. Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of faith, here the love of Christ shall end divisions, all are welcome in this place.

 Let us build a house where love is found in water, wine and wheat; a banquet hall on holy ground where peace and justice meet. Here the love of God, through Jesus, is revealed in time and space; as we share in Christ the feast that frees us: all are welcome in this place.”

Our stewardship is grace-based. Aren’t you glad you live in 2017 and not 1517?!

So when we ask you to pledge to this Church in 2017 we are asking you to help us build a house where God’s love and grace may dwell …  In this Lord’s house we will feed people with the Word of God, we will teach people about a gracious God who loves us more than any of us ever know (John 3:16)…  we will raise our children and youth and teach them about the loving ways of our Lord,  we will serve those who are suffering, we will help those who are hurting, we will provide a place where those who serve others in our community are welcome. With your support for this house, we will marry, bury and baptize people in the Lord’s name… offering the grace of God in each and every moment.

When we ask you to pledge and give to the church, we will not be asking you to pay off God out of fear… or secure a better reservation in heaven… we are asking you to give because God loves you and you love God… and we want others to know about this loving God and that giving to God’s house is one of the ways you can support this place whose finest hopes and dreams are to share God’s incredible love and amazing gift of grace and peace with the world. May we together build a house where God’s love may dwell indeed.  Amen.

Learning from the Reformation: Finding Unity in our Diversity



A sermon preached by Joseph Welker, Jr.

Learning from the Reformation: Finding Unity in our Diversity

1 Corinthians 3:1-11

World Communion Sunday, Oct 1, 2017

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

One of my favorite stories Mark Twain tells is the one where he shares his experience with diversity… He said,

“I built a cage and in it I put a dog and a cat. After a little training I got the dog and the cat to the point where they lived peaceably together. Then I introduced a pig, a goat, a kangaroo, some birds, and a monkey. And after a few adjustments, they learned to live in harmony together. So encouraged was I by such successes that I added an Irish Catholic, a Presbyterian, a Jew, a Muslim from Turkestan, and a Buddhist from China, along with a Baptist missionary that I captured on the same trip. And in a very short time, there wasn’t a single living thing left in the cage.”

I thought about that story when I headed off for my month to the Tantur Ecumenenical Institute in Jerusalem for June… formed after a conversation among, Catholic, Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox leaders.  Pope Paul VI supported these efforts toward understanding and the institute was born…   built on land donated by the Vatican and run by the University of Notre Dame.

Before going I learned that my companions for the month would be quite a diverse group of Christians—living, eating, praying, touring, studying—spending a  lot of time together. In addition to the run of the mill mainliners like Presbyterians and Evangelical Lutherans… we had conservative Baptists from Great Britain… we had evangelical Mennonites from Pennsylvania, there would be a Catholic woman whose work had been in natural family planning and a woman-priest in the Roman Catholic church. She was not officially sanctioned of course, but she had been ordained. Then there was a gay pastor from Colorado… there were Catholic nuns from Singapore and Taiwan…as well as a Catholic OT professor from the Philippines.

Before going, I wondered how we would all live together for a month… would there be a living thing left?! Would it be a month of fighting? Theological arguments?

Truth is, though the theological differences did come through from time to time in our conversation… the grace of Christ shone even more as we shared this experience. We lived peaceably together. I value my new friendships.

When I think about how we are to live together wish such diversity, I take some comfort to know Paul was struggling with the same thing.

Isn’t it interesting that only 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, we see the strains of diversity at work in the lives of the early Christians. I see Paul a bit frustrated with his friends in Corinth… they have begun to fight and quarrel over who is right and who is wrong… He says there is jealousy among you and it is causing a tear in the fabric of the Christian community. He says, you are acting just like everyone else in the world. “Stop it! Christians are better than this!”

Worst of all, they have broken into their little subgroups: One group says they are right because “I follow Paul”… the other group says, no, we are right because “I follow Apollos”… and as I read it, I hear Paul having it up to here (point to top of head) with all of this…  He says when you say that, are you not merely human and you are missing the point… Christian faith is not about following Paul… or Apollos… we are just servants who have roles to play… Put your faith in Christ… who is the foundation…

Would that we had learned that lesson. But have we? Some estimate over 30,000 denominations exist in the world today.

It all began 500 years ago when Martin Luther was just trying to get a conversation going in the church about what he say as practices needing changes. Apparently change was not welcome back then. (Glad we are over that!) He posted those famous 95 Theses on the door at Wittenberg… hoping for a discussion and debate over where he thought the church needed correcting… But no one wanted to debate him. But thanks to the new social media technology called the printing press, his questions and ideas spread… and long story short… as Luther was rejected by the church, a group of people following Luther formed their own church. Lutherans.

A generation later a group following John Calvin, a group who wanted even more changes to the church than Luther… they formed their own church… the Reformed Church of which Presbyterians belong. They wanted more change than Luther.

Every time there was a theological difference, a new church was formed. Now 30,000 denominations or more claim to have it right. You have to wonder what old Paul would have thought about that. “I follow Luther. I follow Calvin. I follow Wesley. I follow the Pope. I follow John Smyth (Baptist)!

I know that Luther and Calvin both did not like the idea. Both simply wanted to reform the church… renew the ancient form of the church which had been distorted over time. They didn’t want a division, but renewal. One of Calvin’s greatest concerns was to heal the serious breaches among the churches of the Reformation.

Calvin would likely be happy to know we have have come a long way towards healing those breaches.

In 1992 the Evangelical Lutherans, Presbyterians and other Reformed churches adopted something called “A Common Calling” which is full acceptance and recognition of each other’s ministries. What this means is that I could serve a Lutheran church and a Lutheran could serve and be recognized in a Presbyterian church. We accept and affirm one another… focusing not on what divides us but what unites us.

Calvin and Luther, former Catholics, would likely have been pleased by the Joint Declaration of Justification between the Catholics and Lutherans in 1999. They have come to a common understanding about what that means… which is no small thing since it was the doctrine of justification that pretty much set off the whole reformation.

I find encouragement in such signs of unity. I find encouragement that they are present among you. We have Catholics and Presbyterians married to each other. 50 years ago neither Pope nor many  Protestant would have approved of the mixed marriages. Congregations now consist of people whose backgrounds include a great diversity of denominations. My mother the southern Baptist married a Lutheran from Pittsburgh. What happens to them? They become Presbyterians! Who knew? At the time of the reformation no one could have imagined such a thing.

When people visit the Kirk they often come from a variety of denominations. I often quote my very Reformed theology professor to them… John Leith once told us that denominations are different ways of being a Christian…

Perhaps the Holy Spirit is working among us to remind us that what binds us together is not being right… or following this or that teacher… at the heart of what brings us together is Jesus Christ… Paul, when using the metaphor of a building reminds his fighting friends that it is Jesus Christ who is the foundation…

One of the churches I really enjoyed in Jerusalem was Redeemer Lutheran whose congregants represent quite a diverse group of people from around the world. They live in the midst of Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic Christians of many varieties.

In the midst of that, I really like what Pastor Carrie told her church:

“Because we  are so different, because we have so many cultural, linguistic, and denominational backgrounds, we must always seek what unites us, not what divides us.

And what we share is this: Together, we proclaim Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Everything else is what the Reformers called, “adiaphora”. Everything else is gravy. Everything else can be overlooked or overcome, discussed or dismissed, renegotiated or reformed. But the confession that Jesus is Lord, not only of the church but of our lives and of the world, is the one foundation we share.

Here we stand. Here we find solid footing. Here we can weather any storm- and even the gates of Hades will not prevail against us… the real foundation of the church and any community is who we say Jesus is—and how that confession shapes what we do. We must be clear about this because there is so work to do in the world.: [i]

The hard truth is that Christ’s ministry in the world is diminished when Christians spend lots of time and energy on what I call “intramurals”—fighting among ourselves over nonessential matters. You know how the game is played. We choose our positions. Then we pick and choose Bible passages and follow people to support our positions and we ignore the rest. This is clearly not how Christ imagined his followers living, do you think?

Rather, I think Jesus imagined us living a bit more like our cohort in Tantur… we were so different… so very different. And yet, there was something more important than our differences… there was Christ who held us together.

The Bishop of Jerusalem modeled that for us. I assume you know that it is not the normal practice for Protestants to be able to take communion in a Roman Catholic congregation. We call it closed communion. And there are a few Protestant churches that do the same thing. Only those who belong to the church can take communion.

This is why you sometimes hear someone like me say during communion, “This is not a Presbyterian table… it is the Lord’s table…  We want to make it clear, especially to those who come from “closed communion” congregations, that all are welcome because it is not our table, but Christ’s.

So at Tantur, I was surprised on the first night of evening devotions, that the priest said to us that we would be welcome to take communion. That the Bishop of Jerusalem had granted permission for participants at Tantur to participate in communion – even Protestants. And we did… and Protestants like me were even permitted to lead communion in this Catholic chapel.

On this World Communion Sunday, I want to give thanks for the Bishop of Jerusalem… I think Paul would be so glad that we, amidst all of our differences, came together… again and again… to remember that the real foundation of our faith is found in Jesus Christ and nothing else. If we can remember that, then we will bring honor and glory to our Lord.  Amen.


[i] Rev Carrie Ballenger Smith, Redeemer Lutheran Church in Jerusalem.

Sermons from the Sabbatical: Someone’s (Always) Praying Lord



A sermon preached by Joseph Welker, Jr.

Sermons from the Sabbatical: Someone’s (Always) Praying Lord

1 Thessalonians 5:12-28

Psalm 34:1-6

Mark 1:35-39

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

When someone asks, “Who is Jesus Christ?” , my mind quickly goes to the answer we give in our profession of faith… “Jesus is my Lord and Savior”…  We were discussing this in our K- group,  our  small  group, recently and other answers sounded good:

“Jesus is my friend… my example and teacher (picks up on what the disciples called him- Rabbi)…

But as I was thinking about this sermon, I realized that I cannot recall a time when someone answered: “Jesus, is a person of prayer…”  Which, after doing some research for this sermon, is kind of odd… If the gospel writers knew Jesus for anything, it was that he was a person of prayer.

In Mark’s text today… before sunrise and meeting the demands of the day, the disciples find him in prayer… Luke says he would often skip away to the wilderness and pray… after a hard day of work and ministry… like feeding the five thousand, we are told that Jesus sent the crowds away… and he went up to a mountain to pray. Think about that, he would leave crowds of people… many needy people… to go to pray.

Perhaps his most famous prayers (next to the Lord’s prayer) are those he prayed on the night before he died… heart wrenching prayers… asking God to deliver him from his fate—if it was God’s will.  This afternoon, just “google” , “Jesus and prayer” and you can see how often he prayed.

So, how is it we have forgotten how central prayer was to the life of Jesus? And if Jesus is our teacher and example, why is it not a priority for all Christians?  Why are people so uncomfortable when asked to pray? Is it because we are out of practice?

I confess I have to work at prayer… that I tend to be a person of action and activity… and my calendar is fairly full… so it is easy to let prayer drop off the day’s activities. I like to get up and get going. Then I hear Martin Luther sharing this personal witness about prayer:  “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”

Of the many things that remain with me from my month in Israel are images and memories of people in prayer…  You go into the Holy Sepulcher—the church marking the place where Jesus was crucified and buried… and you will always find a group praying… At every holy site and in every chapel throughout Israrel you will find people praying… sometimes lighting a candle and saying a prayer.

I visited a Franciscan chapel in Bethlehem where 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all year long… you will find a Nun praying for the world. They pray without ceasing. I find it comforting that someone is always praying for the world.

When I visited Nazareth we stayed at a convent. Across the street I saw a simple, log cabin chapel belonging to Mother Teresa’s order. I walked inside only to realize that sitting on the back row was someone praying. When he paused, he introduced himself and said his name was Gabriel (like the Angel Gabriel).  I found out that Gabriel is one of many who take turns in that little chapel praying… so that someone is praying 24/7. They pray without ceasing.

Then there was the day our group went to St. George’s Monastery in the desert near Jerusalem… It was founded by Monks in the 4th century at the place where they believe the prophet Elijah lived in a cave and was fed by the ravens.  But here is the thing I learned about the monks of St. George’s monastery… they are given one job and one job alone in this world… to pray. They welcome pilgrims to visit… but their only job is to pray.  When they are ordained to their call, they are told they are not called to be social workers, not called to run a church… their only job is to pray… to pray at midnight, early in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening. Prayer is their life. Their calling. Likely if I were to ask them the question, “Who is jesus”… they are the ones who would answer, “A person of prayer.”

So I don’t know how many Christians have come to see prayer as what often seems an extracurricular curricular activity for people of faith, something you do when you can make the time to be with God.

Since returning from Sabbatical, I have been thinking a lot about the role of prayer in the life of the Christian… leading me to wonder, how might my life be better shaped by prayer… leading me to come home and realize that I need to get my priorities straight when it comes to being a pastor to you. And to be a more faithful Christian.

I have always prayed but I cannot always say that I’ve thought of it as the first thing I should be doing… or been as disciplined as I could or should have been.

But I’ve been convicted and converted… I’m convicted and converted by the example of Jesus who was constantly at prayer… and by his disciples who asked him, “Lord, teach US to pray”… because they somehow knew this was one of the most important things they could learn.

I’m convicted and converted by the many examples of prayer I saw this summer…

I’m convicted and converted by something a dear pastor friend said in our text study group a few years ago… he said that he believes that his congregation would like it if they knew that he went into the sanctuary every day to pray for them and that this is the most important thing he could do for them as a pastor.

I’ve often wondered… do you think that of all the things I’m called to do… the meetings… the preaching… the visiting… the mission work…answering emails… I’ve wondered if you would think that prayer is more important than these?… that if you called and wanted to speak to me and Cyndi said, “He is too busy praying in the Sanctuary to come to the phone”… Would you think that was a good thing?

Or if I were to say to you, “I’m sorry, I couldn’t get to your email today…I was too busy praying”… I wonder if you would say… that’s great… it’s exactly where I want you to be? Would you say that?

I returned from sabbatical convicted that I need to be clear with myself about my priorities as a Christian and pastor… and they come in three “Ps”…




Prayer first… make that central. People second. And never let a program get in the way of people… Programs are not ends in and of themselves. We have a name for that when it happens: Idolatry. Healthy programs and ministries are a means to an end… the opportunity to be in relationship with people and to serve people. If you start serving a program and ignoring people or treating people poorly… scrap the program. If what we are doing does not increase love of God or neighbor… what’s the point?

Prayer…people… programs…

On the last Sunday of Sabbatical that message was modeled to me by my friend Bob at FPC Goldsboro. Sharon and I went to worship there… he was preaching on the passage about being a good shepherd… with the prayer that he wanted to be a good shepherd to them. He said that one of the best things he could do was to pray for them and that he had a system for prayer… I listened hard because I like systems!

He uses a Catholic rosary to guide his prayers… Well, I don’t have a Catholic rosary but I do have beads that look like a rosary… they are beads representing the 99 names for God in the muslim faith… they were given to me by a Catholic at Tantur in Israel… so I now use these beads in the same way as Bob uses the rosary.

Here is my morning routine and the system I use. When I go to my sunroom in the morning to listen to a podcast called “pray as you go” for my contemplative prayer… That centers me to be in God’s presence.   I finish that and then I read a prayer from a book of prayers… allowing the prayers of others to become my prayers. Then I turn to the beads…

The short string of beads I use like this:

  • Prayer of praise to God for the day
  • Prayer for Sharon

3 and 4- Prayer for Joe and Anna

Other short beads for family members – especially in need of grace…

Then I get to the longer row of beads and I pray for you… people on the prayer list… people I’ve had conversations with… people who have asked me to pray for them…I pray for the Kirk and ministries… situations in the world that have come to my attention…

The beads make me more disciplined in prayer,  the practice  connects me with God,  which really is the point of prayer…

After Dad died we were cleaning out his house and I found a book my Mom gave Dad on Easter, 1955. She wrote, “To Joe, with all my love, Martha.”  It was a book of prayers by Peter Marshall that I am now using as part of my time of prayer.

What I learned in the preface is how important prayer was to Marshall… In worship, prayer was not just another part of the worship service… it was approached with anticipation that something special was about to take place. Before he would pray he would often say this to his congregation:

“The most precious moments of our morning worship are the moments we spend with the Risen Lord. We cannot see His form, but we can feel His presence.  The Lord knows all about you—your hidden perplexity, your secret shame. He waits by appointment, anxious to speak to you reassuringly, comfortingly, forgivingly. You may tell the Lord your needs now in your own way.”  Then a period of silence would follow.

I bet if I asked Peter Marshall… “who is Jesus” – one of his answers would be, “a person of prayer”. May the Lord who is anxious to speak to us find us to be people of prayer… his children- ready to listen and speak to the one who loves us more than anyone… and I mean anyone (your father, mother, spouse, children)  in the whole world.  Nothing would please the Lord more. Amen.


Today I will close with one of Marshall’s prayers: (adapted)

O Lord, sometimes you seem so far away, as if you are a God in hiding, as if you are determined to elude all who seek you.

Yet we know that you are far more willing to be found than we are to seek. You have promised, “If with all your heart you truly seek me, you shall ever surely find me.” And have you not assured us that you are with us always?

Help us now to be as aware of your nearness as we are of the material things of every day. Help us to recognize your voice with as much assurance as we recognize the sounds of the world around us.

We would find you now in the privacy of our heart, in the quiet of this moment. We would know, O Lord, that you are nearer and beside us; that you love us and are interested in all that we do, and are concerned about all of our lives.

May we become aware of your companionship, of him who walks beside us.

At times when we feel forsaken, may we know the presence of the Holy Spirit who brings comfort to all human hearts when we are willing to surrender ourselves.

May we be convinced that even before we reach out to you, you are reaching out to us. These blessings, together with the unexpressed longing in our hearts, we ask in the strong name of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.


Sermons from the Sabbatical: Being a Christian in a Pluralistic World

A sermon preached by Joseph Welker, Jr.
Sermons from the Sabbatical: Being a Christian in a Pluralistic World
John 4:3-30;39-42
September 17, 2017

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.


I still remember visiting Cary before we were called to the Kirk and called to live in Cary and Wake County. We were living in Catawba County where diversity meant there were Democrats and Republicans… or people who lived in the city and those who lived in the county. Religious diversity meant that there were those who belonged to Tri-City Baptist… there were Missouri Synod Lutherans and ELCA… Catholics… Presbyterians of different stripes… Fundamentalists and Progressives… all of those groups Christian. The only Jewish person I met was a doctor in a family practice. I never met a Muslim.

Well, we came to Cary to check it out…We were visiting one of the High Schools for Joe to evaluate… and I saw a teenage girl wearing a Hijab… a sign that there were Muslims living in the area. I went to the bank and the teller was wearing a Hijab… And I turned to Sharon and Joe and said, “We are not in Catawba County anymore!”

The word used to describe what we experienced is “pluralistic”… a place of racial, ethnic, religious and social diversity…

No one on the call committee told us we were moving to a pluralistic community.Soon, after the move, we met our Jewish neighbors who are great neighbors… My friend Art introduced me to Volkan who was a friend from the Muslim-Turkish community. This has led to some wonderful friendships. When you called me to the Kirk, I didn’t understand that part of my call was trying to understand how one lives out Christian faith in a pluralistic world. One member of the Kirk was married to a Hindu.
When we moved here, I did not know this call would lead me to enter a mosque, share meals with Muslims, share a sermon on thanksgiving in a Synagogue, and even develop wonderful relationships with people of little or no faith.

I do take great comfort that Jesus and his disciples lived in a world very much like ours today. You know, don’t you? – That they were not living in a Christian nation or society… that they were very much the minority. I trust you know that. Jews and Gentiles (many of whom worshiped Roman gods) were in control. In fact, I trust you know that Jesus was a Jew. I read the Bible and so many stories are stories of Jesus speaking of people of other faiths or pagan faith.

I thought about this during the sabbatical when I visited Caesarea Philippi in the northern part of Israel. It’s a beautiful mountain setting that reminds me of Montreat. You see the streams that feed the River Jordan. They look so refreshing. You want to do some rock hopping! It is the site of the famous question of Jesus to Peter. “Who do people say that I am… who do you say that I am”… And Peter says “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”

What I didn’t know is that he was making that declaration in a place also known as Banias and it is the place where a Greek god Pan was worshiped.  Pan was a goat footed God: a God of isolated rural areas, music, goat herds, hunting, herding, of sexual and spiritual passions , and of victory in battle… he was an intimidating God… a frightful God… The source of the word “pan-ic” comes from his name. The affirmation from Peter about Jesus takes place there where another god had been worship by many in their culture.

Even more specifically, in our Scriptures, we see Jesus directly encountering people of another faith when he meets Samaritans like this woman at the well. He would even tell a story where a Samaritan is the hero of the story… not a Jew. That would be a surprise to his Jewish friends.

In the story today, we overhear the tension of how Jews and Samaritans live together… causing conflict. Samaritans were from the Northern part of Israel… after the Assyrians conquered Israel they intermarried with people still left in the land… people considered unclean by the faithful Jew.

Samaritans had their own version of what we know as Jewish Scriptures… in fact, only the first five books have authority for them. They celebrated sacrifices in a different way… they even have their own temple in Samaria.

Things got so bad between Jews and Samaritans, a Jewish priest from Jerusalem destroyed their temple in Samaria. Religious hate leading to violence is nothing new.

Which makes it interesting that Jesus lifts up Samaritans as examples to the Jews. A “good Samaritan” to the Jew was an oxymoron. When Jesus tells another story of the healing of the lepers, it is a Samaritan that returns to give thanks. A Samaritan is praised, not a Jew.

In our story today, it is a Samaritan woman that engages Jesus in conversation and that conversation leads to conversion for many a Samaritan… converted to a new way of thinking and being and faith.

I find great comfort in knowing Jesus lived in a world like ours. You may not meet many Samaritans… because there are not many to meet. But I have. One of the highlights of my trip was to actually meet a Samaritan priest who told us about the practices of their faith… he showed us a big ancestral chart starting with Adam explaining how they were the true people of God… (and not the Jews… some things never change). I had my picture taken with him as proof that Samaritans still exist… but not many… only 800 are left and they still intermarry to keep their faith alive.

Unless you go to Samaria today, you are not likely to meet a Samaritan. But you will meet people of other faith traditions in our pluralistic world around here: Muslims and Jews… you will meet Mormons who share some understanding of Christ, but not the same one as ours… they have the Book of Mormon as their holy book. We do not share the same Bible or believe the same thing when it comes to Jesus. Still, we encounter Mormons … as we encounter people of other faiths…

This pluralistic diversity elicits many responses from people of faith… of all of these faiths.

For some, it ends up in a fight… trying to make sure “my faith”—“My true faith” wins and it doesn’t matter who gets hurt… who we harm or in extreme cases—even terrorize because we are fighting for the true God. We seek to destroy people who believe in a different way. We Christians can remember when we did the same thing at the time of the Crusades.

That is one response to pluralism. You engage others but it ends up in arguments and fights with everyone on the defensive and few minds or hearts are changed.

Others respond to the pluralism by retreating –you will simply have nothing to do with people of other faith. This was the Jewish approach to Samaritans at the time of Jesus. People of other faiths are heathens to be avoided. That’s another way to deal with it.

But as I read the Gospels, it was not Jesus’ way. Jesus shows me another way to live faithfully with others in this world. He doesn’t fight the Samaritans or take up arms against Gentiles who still follow their Roman gods… Neither does he follow the prevailing practice of his people to stay separate from people of another faith and culture.

No, as usual, he enters into conversation with them. Our story of the woman at the well today is an example. Jesus is in Samaria… sits down by the well because he was tired… where he must know he will meet Samaritans… because the well is like the water cooler…a gathering place for conversation. When the Samaritan woman comes to draw water, he initiates the conversation: “Will you give me a drink of water?”
The question surprises her because everyone knows that Jews and Samaritans don’t even talk to one another… everyone knows this is especially true of a Jewish man who meets a Samaritan woman.

This story has scandal and controversy all over it. But that first question leads to other questions… and a deep conversation about faith and theology and what really matters… Before you know it they are not talking about the kind of life giving water that comes from a well… but the life giving water that comes from Jesus… He is offering her water… which leads to her to a new understanding of faith… a faith which she shares with friends… and many come to believe that Jesus is the savior they have been looking for in all of their lives.

But note it all begins with Jesus being willing to cross boundaries of race and religion and culture… it begins with a conversation… with Jesus talking and listening… He does not push or force or coerce, rather he invites… He doesn’t avoid her because his Jewish friends and the disciples might criticize him for sharing a drink with a Samaritan of all people. No… he knows that she is also a child of God… he won’t let certain religious or cultural norms get in the way of talking with her.

In other words, the way Jesus lived in his pluralistic society – a society so divided by religion, race and culture… the way Jesus lived was to reach out and share in a conversation that led to a transforming relationship with him…

So as I seek to live in this pluralistic world, I take my cue from Jesus.

After meeting my friend Volkan… I was invited by our Muslim friends to go to Turkey where I would share meals and conversations with Muslim families… I think about what Jesus would do and it is clear… Jesus would go!

In Israel, I was invited to share a meal with a Palestinian Muslim family during Ramadan. They lived in a refugee camp. Like many of you, I have shared meals with Muslim friends during Ramadan as they invited us to come join them. I accept because Jesus would have accepted.

I have come to realize all Jesus asks of me is to accept invitations… to love as he loved people… to be prepared to engage in conversations about my faith as they share conversations about their faith.

In fact, what I find interesting is this: no Muslim has ever tried to convert me… all they have done is ask me about my faith in Jesus… and what we believe about Jesus… all they have done is ask me “what I believe and why I believe it”… and I’ve asked the same of them.

By the way, if you are ever asked and not sure what to say, you could start with what you know from the Apostle’s Creed. That’s a good place to start.

My conversations with others have been rich conversations. In fact, I’ve learned more about my own Christian faith because I’ve been in conversation with Muslim and Jewish friends. Being in conversation with people of other faith forces you to take a deep look at your own faith. That’s not a bad thing! My faith in Jesus has only been strengthened by encountering people of other faiths.

And I pray that I have, in my offering and accepting of hospitality, been a witness to the grace and love of Jesus Christ for all of God’s children regardless of race, nation and religion. And I pray the Kirk will be that place for others in this world.

I know this is happening among Christians in Israel. One of my favorite places I visited this summer was a place called “Neve Shalom… Wa Hat Al Salam” – Oasis of Peace community. A man named David told the story.

David has lived there for 20 years. The community was started by a Monk named Bruno Hussar who had been born Jewish… but converted to Christianity. He went to Israel in the 1970s to study… He was led to start an interfaith dialogue group which was hard because at the time there was a law against a Jew or Christian even meeting a Palestinian. But they met and they talked about scriptures and holy books and it attracted many people. The gathering moved from an apartment… to land owned by the monastery.

As they continued to talk and develop relationships, someone wondered what it would be like to live together in one village. The monastery liked the idea and leased them land… and people pulled up buses and converted them to live in. Jewish and Arab families moved into this community. Today there are equal numbers of Jewish and Arab families… There are 70 families with 30 more completing applications… they each own their own homes (as we do)… They share everything else: In 1984 they started an elementary school. The school today has 230 students but they have inspired other communities to start schools like this one. This little village does not have a place of worship—they go outside for worship…but they do have a center for religious dialogue where people can gather not to fight about their faith but to share their faith. It really is an oasis of Peace in Israel… an oasis of peace in a very conflicted and pluralistic world.

Jesus must have seemed like an oasis of peace for many people in his world of religious conflict and cultural tension. He provided living water – and all who followed him would continue to share that living water with everyone they met. In Acts we see how they shared the living water in the city of Samaria and people were glad.

May people be glad as we share the living water in our world… May Christ be our guide and lead us to be faithful witnesses to his grace and love in our lives… may we live up to our name: The Body of Christ… in and for the world. When we do, others will be blessed. And we will too! Amen.