First Congregational Church
(United Church of Christ)
Neil H. Wilson, Pastor

101 State Street
Charlevoix, MI 49720


Faces in the Dirt

Easter Sunday ~ March 27, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Luke 24:1-12

There are places in the story of Jesus’ life where there are gaps. And the silence in these gaps can be at times intriguing and also frustrating. There are periods in his life about which it might be interesting if not helpful to know a bit more, like what was Jesus like as a young person (our teen years), Jesus with his brothers and sisters, and one I wondered about, why did he choose to go for a walk on the Sea of Galilee in the middle of a storm at night!

Perhaps the most intriguing silence in the Gospels in that time between the burial of Jesus’ body late Good Friday afternoon and the early morning visit of the women on the follow Sunday. A mere 36 hours, yet it changed the course of history for a significant portion of humanity.

This time of silence is marked in some congregations by the ancient celebration of the Easter Vigil. It is a time of waiting. We wait with the followers of Jesus, remembering how the women disciples planned to go to the tomb. In the silence they sit together to support one another in their grief, and to plan.

The Sabbath silence is broken as we begin to hear the early morning stirrings of the women. The muffled noise of the pottery pots filled with oils and spices as they gather them and make their way to the place where Jesus had been laid.

I can imagine their shadows flitting in and out of the shadows of the landscape of early morning. When they arrive to see the stone at the opening rolled back, we see them standing eyes wide with wonder and fear in front of the unexpected yawning emptiness of the tomb. It is no use pretending at this point we are surprised – we already know what they will find. We’ve been here many times before on this day.

The very familiarity of the scene hinders our attention to Luke’s unique details. For example, we might not notice that Luke talks of two men dressed in luminous clothing in the tomb, not the one figure that Mark and Matthew mention. Matthew even calls him an angel. Surely in Luke they are the same kind of otherworldly messengers. Even more significant, however, is the response of the women. In Mark’s gospel, the women are amazed; in Matthew’s account it is the guards who were fearful. In Luke the guards are long gone and we are told that the women are afraid and bow their faces low to the ground.

This is not an image of a mere curtsy, a polite bowing at the hip or even a genuflection. This was a complete full obeisance much like we see in the Muslim prayer posture. Literally, a position of bowing with their faces actually being “to the ground,” a face in the dirt!

Confronted with this totally unexpected mystery, this effacement seems wholly appropriate. The stone rolled away from the doorway, the body of their rabbi/teacher gone, the appearance of two strangely bright men – all these things cannot but fill them, not just with awe, but terror!

Yet we who are too accustomed to this story, who are used to thinking of Jesus as our “good buddy,” who have tried to make God as knowable and dependable as breakfast cereal, hardly linger at the dreadful silence of these women with their faces in the dirt. Our efforts to tame the holy dull us to their sense of fear and awe.

We miss Luke’s first preachable lesson here: God’s ways are not our ways. They are beyond our comprehension; they subvert what we expect; they demand the impossible. They are holy precisely because they are not of our own making. When we encounter God’s ways, our first response should always acknowledge this with more than just a nod.

A second lesson we might learn from Luke comes moments later. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angelic visitors say to the tops of the women’s heads. We are just as guilty of such a fruitless search. We too want to tend the corpses of long dead ideas and ideals.

We cling to former visions of ourselves and our churches, as if they might come back to life as long as we hold on to them.

We grasp our loved ones too tightly, refusing to allow them to change, to become bigger, or smarter, or stronger, or more independent.

We choose to stay with what we know in our hearts to be dead, because it is safe, malleable, and so we can with our selective memory process, improve things with age, (at least in our own minds!)

The words of these otherworldly messengers are a challenge to stop hanging on to the dead and move into new life. They are reminders that the Holy One dwells wherever new life burst forth. Jesus was not found in the emptiness of the tomb but in the garden and Galilee!

Still another point we can pick up on is also found in the mouths of the two angelic beings. “Remember how he told you,” they tell the women, “that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.

This memory, this remembering connects the empty tomb with the very human Jesus who ate and talked, suffered and died. In remembering these words of Jesus they also were taken back to the all the other things he had taught and done.

They remember the meals they shared in Jesus’ fellowship, the times they watched as he healed, they recalled the parables, the bent woman, the ten lepers, the man with the shriveled, the blind Bartimaeus.

If they (we) are to understand the meaning of the empty tomb, we need to remember the Jesus of Galilee. The mystery of the resurrection is best understood in the everyday world of human living.

This means that the boundless gift of the empty tomb cannot be separated from the words and deeds of Jesus. Resurrection is, after all, not some lofty ideal, unconnected to the real world. It is an invitation to receive the power to live as Jesus lived.

It is a doorway to a life in which meals are shared with enemies,

   Healing is offered to the hopeless,

      Prophetic challenges issued to the powerful.

Only now it is not Jesus who does these things – it is each of us who see at last the subversive power of the resurrection and believe it can empower our lives and our living as well.

On that first shadowy Easter morning, when the women cowered in the dust and angels picked them back up, pointing them back out the door of the tomb and gate of the garden into the full light of the morning, the power of God was no longer silent. The silence had been broken, and the women rushed back to tell the others what they had seen.

It did not matter whether they were believed or not. I mean, after all, under the circumstances who would believe their tale?

Did not matter that Peter had to test the veracity of their story by running to the tomb himself, finding there the linen grave clothes, and wondering all the way back about what he had seen and not seen.

It did not matter because the women knew.

   The women remembered.

      The women believed.

And the women responded by breaking their own silence to speak their own truth, truth as they had seen and experienced it.

Which is, after all, exactly what God asks of each of us.

Caught in the Crossfire (of Blessings)

Sermon ~ Sunday, March 26th ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Luke 19:28-42

If I were to say “The peace of Christ be with you.” As a congregation how would you respond? What would you say? (Without consulting your worship program!) . . . . “And also with you.”

This echo is created every Sunday in countless congregations across the world when Christians gather for worship. Somebody says it to us and we say it right back. According to Luke this practice dates back at least as far as the first Palm Sunday.

“The Peace of Christ be with you.”

Luke’s Palm Sunday account echoes his Christmas story. When Jesus was born, the gospel writer tells us that the angels appearing in the heavens and sang, “Peace on earth.” Now, as Jesus rides his colt into Jerusalem, the people look to the sky and sing, “Peace in heaven.” Heaven rings of peace on earth. Earth echoes back, “Peace in heaven.” And as the church gathers this day, we are caught in the crossfire of blessings!

For Luke this is not just some slick literary device, the repeat of an earlier theme. It is the announcement of what God makes possible in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We hear the story of Jesus approaching Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, from the direction where tradition says the Messiah would appear. A gathering of his followers surround him, praising God, waving their branches and laying down their cloaks. They sing Psalm 118 as their song of deliverance, affirming that God will rescue God’s chosen people.

Like so many peace songs, (remember the 60s!) the psalm provokes anxiety. Those in power are not comfortable with “peace songs” because they often carry an undertone of protest. Some Pharisees want the crowd to be quiet. It is hard to really know their reasons. Perhaps they think the moment is too politically charged. It has been pointed out by other biblical scholars that about the time Jesus rode in to Jerusalem, on the other side of the city, from the west, in rode Pilate, moving with the Roman army. He would come into the city at the beginning of Passover week to ensure that nothing got out of hand. So were the Pharisees saying, “Now’s not the time to attention to yourself Jesus!”

Or is it simply that the Pharisees disagree with the suggestion that Jesus is the Messiah. We cannot say for sure. Either way the Pharisees cannot contain the crowd. On a day like this it was be like telling church musicians that Faure’s “The Palms” is off limits.

As Jesus rounds a corner in the path, something changes. The whole city spreads out before him, his destination these past several weeks, months. He pauses, considered the ways and circumstances of the holy City and this brings him to tears. He cries out in prayer, “Oh Jerusalem! If only today you knew the things that make for peace, but you do not know them. They are hidden from your eyes.”

His words interrupt the echo. Peace on earth . . . peace in heaven – – – yet in between Jesus says, there is no peace. An eerie premonition of what will occur later in the week. In spite of all the “Hosannas,” Palm Sunday in a day of contrasts. We can sense it in the hymns, beginning as they do with the triumphal entry, yet always out there is the shadow of the crucifixion. We see it in Jesus, as ruler of the universe chooses to ride a borrowed colt. The contrast is clear in the destination, as the city that welcomes him will later call out for his blood. For now, at least, the greatest hopes of peace are hidden from those who wish for it.

We have our own contradictions, of course. We are easily convinced that the best way to create peace is by initiating a war. The strong are strengthened by holding off the weak. Parents confront fear by buying a handgun for the dresser draw. Schools encourage competition more than cooperation. Governments and businesses seek to win at all costs, even if it bankrupts them. Churches in the name of the Prince of Peace find themselves embroiled in conflict and splitting over non-eternal matters. And Jesus rides his lowly farm animal through all of it.

Here the question has to be asked: “What are the things that make for peace?” What are the things “hidden from our eyes?”

By asking, we recognize that we do not know the answer. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus indicts again from the cross saying, “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing.” And we stand right there with the Roman soldiers. There is here a kind of ignorance, not of intellect, but of the heart. It is possible to think through a problem without committing to a solution. We can reason our way through a conflict as if it is a game of chess, and totally miss the victims. If we think ourselves superior, we will even miss ourselves.

Jesus rides no high horse, just a lowly colt. He chooses to enter a deadly situation without force or protection. He gives himself freely and without reservation. This is a prophetic act, a sign of God’s vulnerable love, which risks everything and promises to gain all. This is the means by which God creates peace.

One of my favorites places on the Holy Land tour is a little chapel on the side of the Mount of Olives (back cover.) It is not an old chapel by Holy Land standards or any for that matter. Built in the mid 1950s by the Franciscans, it stands on the route pilgrims would have used as they entered Jerusalem from the east. The name of this chapel is Dominus Flevit, Latin for “the Lord weeps.” It is the traditional site where it is believed Jesus paused and wept over the city.

At the foot of the altar, a mosaic of a hen gathering her chicks under her wings recalls Christ’s words “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Lk. 13:34)

Behind the altar is a much-photographed picture window overlooking the city (worship program cover.) The cross and chalice in its arch-shaped design, focus not on the Dome of the Rock in the foreground but on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Pilgrims (and tourists) gather in the little chapel to share the Eucharist as they move to the city of Jerusalem. As they view a city still divided, with people from many faiths still squabbling over the same real estate, they pass the bread to the words, “This is my body, broken for you.” Then they pass the cup saying, “This is the new covenant in my blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins.”

It is a moment to recall the great cost of reconciliation, as God sent Jesus into the world to bring all back to God’s powerful love.

Sometime we are clueless when it comes to peace.

However, for those who continue to share the body and blood of Christ, it is common to say, “The peace of Christ be with you all.”

How does each of us respond? . . . . With the words, “And also with you.”

May it really be so, beginning in each of our hearts, families, neighborhood and nation, so that the Peace in Heaven will be the peace on earth! And we will once again be caught in the crossfire of blessings.

A Long (un)Expected Party

Sunday, March 6, 2016 ~ Sermon ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” The Hobbit J.R.R. Tolkien

Hobbits, in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, as well as being diminutive, hairy-footed people who along with comfort, enjoy gardening, good food, a casual smoke of pipe-weed, also above all else enjoyed a good party.

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” The Lord of the Rings

Hobbits also had, according to Tolkien, an unusual tradition surrounding birthday parties. On a hobbit’s birthday, he or she does not receive gifts from family and friends. Instead, the birthday-celebrating hobbit presents gifts – and perhaps throws a party – for all of his or her family and friends. At first glance, this may appear an unappealing custom. “What? It’s MY birthday and I have to go to the trouble and expense of gifts and a party for everyone else? This is supposed to be MY day to celebrate and be celebrated!”

But stop and think for a moment what this means in terms of the total number of birthday gifts and parties a hobbit participates in every year. Instead of celebrating a birthday – “my birthday” – only once a year, the Hobbit celebrates birthdays many times a year, in fact on each and every day that a loved one has a birthday. JRR Tolkien gave the first chapter of his The Lord of the Ring trilogy the title “The Long Expected Party.”

It is at this party that Bilbo gives his famous speech with that wonderful quote that I’ve considered using when I’ve left one church to move on to another. (Perhaps I’ll use it when I retire!)

“I am immensely fond of all of you, and eleventy-one years is too short a time to live among such excellent hobbits. . . I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like half of you half as well as you deserve . . .”

Their birthday custom suggests that the hobbits might understand very keenly the famous story we usually call the parable of the Prodigal Son. As Jesus tells it, a prosperous landowner has two sons. The younger cannot wait until Daddy dies before he gets his inheritance. Despite the insult, the father gives the younger son his share of the family property (which would have been 1/3). The youngest son then runs off to some first century Las Vegas, squanders it all, and ends up eating beans and mush alongside the hogs he is reduced to feeding. (There is a lot there that I will not bother to unpack today! Needless to say he had hit the very bottom.) Then he decides he might return home – even if his father will not take him back as a son and treats him like a hired hand, it will be better than this. So he rehearses his “Please take me back Father” speech.

So home he goes, he doesn’t have to pack his bags because he has nothing. All the way there he is preparing himself for humiliation. I cannot imagine what might have been going through this younger son’s thoughts as he approached the last rise in the road over which would be the family farm and whatever future awaited him. Just as he reaches the top of the hill and comes in sight of the homestead, the unheard of happens, he sees his father running up the road to meet him.

He hardly has time to launch into the speech had prepared and been rehearsing, “I deserve nothing Father and would willing serve as a hired-hand” -before the old man is wrapping him in the family’s finest robe and putting a ring on his finger, literally getting the “royal treatment!” Before he can grasp the full gravity of the moment, a fatted calf has been slaughtered and most of the town invited to celebrate in a spectacular party. A party, dare I say it, “of biblical proportions!”

Thinking again of Tolkien and his customs of Middle-Earth he titled the first chapter in the Hobbit where all the dwarfs show up at Bilbo’s: “An Unexpected Party.”

For us Plain Earth folks, the story would be perfectly satisfying if it ended right there. It would be like Jesus was trying to tell us the Kingdom of God is like a birthday party. You or I or he or she finds our way back to God and God celebrates. Not bad. Like the sound of that.

However, Jesus does not stop his story there. For next he brings in the elder son and big brother is not happy! This is putting it politely! He has never insulted his father. He has not blown his inheritance on prostitutes and wild living. His stayed on the farm, worked hard every day all these years. And what did he ever get for his faithfulness? NOTHING! Not a single “atta boy” good job party for him and his buddies.

His is mad. And he is not going to set one single foot in this overblown, over the top extravagant bash. He could hear the music from the upper field where he was working. His face is getting redder by the minute and the steam rolling out of his ears.

Now, I do not know about you but as a Plain-Earth person I can relate to the older brother. He had been responsible, behaved himself, didn’t bring any disrespect or shame to the family name. The spoiled brat on the other hand wasted it all and word had gotten out about his escapades and he can remember the shame he saw in his mother’s eyes. And now, for his punishment, he is getting the party of the year! Who was being punished here anyway? Doesn’t big brother have the right to feel at least a little resentful?

In the story, as Jesus tells it, the father does not berate and get all critical of the older brother. Neither does he defend the younger brother. Instead he shifts attention away from both of them. The father turns attention to his own love and bounty.

There is plenty to go around, he says in so many words. “No one’s going to run short ‘all that is mine is yours.’ This is not your younger brother’s party so much as it is my party, the party I throw for many. I am on the lookout for all my loved ones, near or far. I am working for them, and ready to celebrate with them before they even think of responding to me or giving anything back.”

Behind this well-known and loved parable of Jesus lies a profound and overwhelming truth about God and God’s kingdom. We humans, we are all lost, mired in the sins of our own doing, the sins of others, and the cultural/societal systems in which we live: greed, sensuality, self-referential resentment, we’re floundering hip-deep in the slop of envy. Before we knew it, God reached out in the people of Israel and then in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

God raised us up out of the pods and slop and called us home. It is not just about you or me, or my sin or your sin, or what I deserve or what you should have coming. It is about God and God’s life-giving love and mercy.

God reaches out and invites each and every one to forgiveness long before our hearts are softened to a place of repentance.

Every time God’s active, stretching, searching healing love finds someone and calls that person back home, it does not mean there is less for the rest of us.

It means there is more. More good feasting. More food and drink. More music. More dancing. It means another and now bigger party with gifts enough for all!

Maybe those hobbits are on to something!