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

101 State Street
Charlevoix, MI 49720
231-547-9122


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Just Jesus (Nothing Else needed)

Galatians 2:15-21

Sunday ~ June 12, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.”

Would someone like to explain this for me . . .  justification . . . any ideas?

Okay then . . . how about some other religious terms like:

Redemption . . . Sanctification . . .  Salvation . . . Atonement?

There are Christians who like to use these terms and use them in such a manner that they make the rest of us think they know what they are talking about.  (Now I can honestly say I’ve not found many of this sort of Christian here!)

Rather, I would hazard to guess that most of us here, if we were honest, would have to admit we struggle with understanding many such theological terms.  In today’s reading of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, terms like “justification” and “the presence of Christ in us” fly right over the heads of most of us and may require some thoughtful consideration.

So I thought I would talk about justification this morning.  (I can see some of you checking your watches already!!)  Paul mentions several times in our reading that a person is justified not by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ (And if you would like more, I encourage you to read Paul’s letter to Romans.  No, I challenge you!)  For Paul, this “justification by faith” is at the very heart of the gospel.  But what does he mean by this?

 

With the advent of modern word processing and home computers we know that with a click of the mouse we can “justify” our document.  “Justification” is what the program will do when you want full alignment between either the indents or the margins.  It will create a fuller or some might say boxier look to the page with even alignment along both edges.

Or you could say that justification straightens up the words so that they are in right relationship to the page.  This might be helpful in understanding Paul’s theological use of justification.  Justification is what God does for sinners who are out of line.  Messy human lives get straightened out, put in right relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  The grace of Jesus Christ makes it happen for all.  (Although there is another word that may need some fleshing out grace.)

Jews are justified by grace.  Gentiles are justified by grace.  Baptists are justified by faith, and so are Catholics, as well as Congregationalists. Americans and Europeans; Hispanic and Australian, Asian, Russian, all are justified by grace.

Christ alone has done what obedience to the law in general and circumcision in particular (in the case of Paul’s writing) could never do: he has realigned human beings with God and one another, resulting in harmony, in a new community.

As Paul would write to the Ephesians, For[Christ] himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, (2:14)

Paul is adamant; people are not justified by Jesus and the works of the law.  While the underlying concern over circumcision in Galatians may not be much of a theological issue for us today, it is important to fully grasp the concept that salvation (Again another word we may need to unpack sometime!) salvation is never a matter of Jesus and something else!

 

Not Jesus and certain cultural practices;

Not Jesus and a certain spiritual practice or theological perspective;

Not Jesus and a particular income level;

Not Jesus and a specific denomination;

Not Jesus and a political party;

Not Jesus and being good enough;

JUST JESUS!

If anyone or anything else can be said to justify the sinner, the gospel is derailed, and, in the words of Paul’s devastatingly abrupt conclusion, “Christ died fornothing!

Now on the other side of this there are those who believe that their deeply personal failures, some seemingly unforgiveable sins in their past are just that, unforgiveable.  And so they might doubt such “good news” asking “But did Christ die for this too?”  “This” being that part of them or their past that they deem beyond the reach of God’s grace.  The church’s answer to any such doubt has to be an unequivocal, “No, not for this, too.  Christ died for this period!”

No sin is an addendum to the cross.  No amendments needed.  It was all covered the first time!

Stubbornness or stupidity:  covered.  Addiction or depression: covered.  Guilt or greed: covered.   Every “pre-existing” condition is covered.

God’s grace is unconditional.  That is why it is called good news not Insurance for Heaven with all sorts of additional riders and exclusionary clauses!

Unfortunately, what is often lost in the church is this very good news.  It is as though the gospel is a very valuable diamond on display, but the church focuses too much on the dark velvet background of sin, the bad news.  The sparkling gem of grace is diminished or missed altogether.

Maybe this is why for many persons, churches are seen a places of judgement and bad news, to be avoided by those who are troubled and struggling – the addict, the divorced person, the homeless single mom, the parolee.  Why would I want to go there?  They will only make me feel worse.

A common perception out there is that we have it all together and will be quick to point out where they do not!   (Which of course we do, don’t we.  We have it altogether! J   Perhaps this is our biggest sin!)

Of course in our multicultural, pluralistic world there are other options available to seekers, on line or on the corner: there’s the Hindu conception of karma; the Buddhist eightfold path; Islam’s five pillars; the Jewish covenant and Torah; but none of these (In my humble opinion, that is!) are quite so unconditional as the gospel of Jesus.

For the gospel news is Just Jesus not Jesus and  . . .

The message of forgiveness is Jesus died for the forgiveness of sin and to show us the way . . . period.

Maybe what the church needs is to become better at living out the evidence of justification. This even more than we need to be able to explain it to one another! Perhaps the seekers and sinners of the world might better understand the meaning of “grace alone” the more we are able to live it out, even amongst ourselves!

And this is where that continuing presence of Christ Paul speaks about it is so important.

Paul says, “. . . it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

What the church is or ought to be more than anything else is the continuing presence of Christ in the world.  The world does not need another social organization for our entertainment.

The world doesn’t need another club with membership rights and privileges.

The world surely does not need another religious business or spiritual marketing scheme;

What it needs is to see the continuing presence of Christ.

Perhaps the real challenge facing us today is learning how to pay attention to what the living Christ is up to, right here in our midst!  For when we do, when the world can see living Christ moving in us, the church, the work of spiritual renewal will begin. 

Just Jesus.  It is that simple and yet that challenging.


On the Outskirts of Town

1 Kings 17:8-16

Sunday, June 5th 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

It was supposed to have been a big day for the congregation of Rockhaven’s Old First Church on the Common.  Supposed to have been.  About a month ago Rev. Williams received word that the Rev. Sylvia Buckholt, Minister for Small Town and Rural Congregational Life from the national office, was going to be in the area and the local Judicatory officials thought it would be good for them to call on Old First Church.  How about the last Sunday in May?   

Now having high church officials around is a good thing, thought Rev. Williams, when they have been invited.  But to have them invite themselves?  Something has to be up and of course it cannot be good!

Rev. Williams informed the Church Cabinet of the impending visit and that was all it took.  An unexpected and uninvited “inspection” visit (This is what it came to be called.) needed all hands on deck.  And while Rev. Williams tried to reassure the congregation this was just a courtesy call, you know they never are.  They just knew they were under review! 

So the platoons and detachments sprang into action and preparations began for the big visit.  They wanted to look their best.  While the congregation was preparing the facility for the “inspection” (I mean visit!) Rev. Williams, on the other hand, was trying to figure out how he could go about preparing the congregation for the Denominational officials or vice versa!  You know, which parishioners he wanted to keep busy and away from the church leaders and which ones he could discretely (of course) direct their way.  Those to showcase, you might say, and those to misplace!

 

Well, of course, who should be the first one in the Church office the next day but Sam Coleridge.  Yep, good old Sam, always looking out for the welfare of his beloved church.  And usually in there somewhere, somehow is calculated a little benefit to Sam Coleridge as well.

“Rev. this is a big deal and we need to look our best.  And if you don’t mind I would like to have the honor of giving our distinguished guests a tour of our church and community.  And I was thinking that we would start by taking them up into the bell tower where they can see the Common and the vista from the hills to the northwest all the way down Rockhaven Bay and the waterfront.” 

Sam was just one of those he hoped to keep busy elsewhere, like in the kitchen or the parking lot even!   For the past several months Sam had been bringing up before the Church Cabinet the idea of lighting the church steeple.  Now on the surface, not such a bad idea except that with Sam it was never simple.  His plan was for a massive array of LED lights wired through a computer program that would enable them to flash in time to music.  Sam suggested some of the classic Christmas carols like “Silent Night” and “Frosty the Snowman” and other such spiritual favorites. 

And of course, some music for Lent like “Go to Dark Gethsemane” “I Got Friends in Low Places” and other such hits of the season.  Then of course on those nights when the fog rolls in off the cold north Atlantic, the lights could project all sorts of religious images in the fog over the church for the whole of Rockhaven to enjoy.   

“And then . . . we could also sell some advertising time to some of the local merchants!”  

“Can’t you picture it, Pastor? ”” 

He was trying hard not to but the images of Jesus along with Wally’s Fish Market & Bait Shop floating in the fog over Old First Church was burning into his imagination!

Sam had seen it done by a church in Atlantic City and it was just inspiring!  And he just happened to have some information about a company called Holy Holographics that could come in and give them an estimate.  

“What do you say Rev.?”

The Rev. knew what was up.  Sam wanted to approach the church officials with his idea and see about securing a loan for his inspirational project. 

Imogene Reynolds stopped by.  She was very concerned about the coffee hour after worship.  It just wouldn’t do to have the usual fare.  She read on the signup sheet that Leslie and Jerome Jordan were scheduled for that Sunday and with all those kids wouldn’t it be a bit too much for them to prepare a coffee hour when we are having extra guests.  Rev. Williams reminded Imogene that it would be only 2 more people. 

“Oh it’s no bother pastor.  Betsy Holgrum and I will get together and plan something ‘real nice!’  Now don’t you worry.  I call Leslie this week.”  

Clara French, church organist, was pushing the Pastor about his sermon topic for she wanted to make sure the choir was well prepared and the service music something special.  The ordinary fare just would not do.

The more he heard from his parishioners the more he wondered if he would even recognize his church and congregation on the morning of the “inspection” excuse me, I mean visit. 

He kept reminding himself “They mean well.  They mean well.”

 

Well, on the morning of the anticipated visitation, the church was sparkling clean.  Cobwebs brushed out, old bulletins removed from all the hymnals one Abby found dated back to 2007!  The morning little Bobbie Flanagan was baptized.  The altar clothes had been dry cleaned.  Some of the congregation that morning wondered if the church had bought new ones the colors were so much brighter.  Why someone had even taken it upon themselves to clean up that accumulation of stuff that cluttered the shelf in the pulpit! 

The church’s good silverware and real coffee cups and plates were stacked up on the coffee hour buffet.  And the table filled with all sorts of cakes and fancies, all from Holgrum’s bakery.

Rev. Williams had even gotten a haircut.  Joe the Barber insisted to the point where he offered to cut it for free.  And the Rev. never one to keep a parishioner from doing good works took Joe up on it!

 

Reverends Buckholt and Pearson left early that morning from Augusta to take a more scenic route to Rockhaven.  They decided to take the more northerly route which would bring them into town across the Barrens and through those very hills Sam wanted to point out.  It would add an hour to their drive but they had time and it was such a beautiful spring morning, one of those precious days between ice out and black fly season. 

The blueberries on the Barrens were in full bloom which meant the bees were busy and the bears even busier trying to get into the hives.

Their route took them through all those kettle ponds let behind by the last glacier that visited that area.  On past the Pine Plains Baptist Church where Rev. Buckholt said a little prayer for them, a habit of hers.  On through Clancy’s Corner and they begin the climb up and over Carter’s Hill.  And this is where God seems to have intervened in everyone’s plans. 

You see, Rev. Pearson’s 2002 Subaru Forester had over 250,000 miles on it.  The one thing you don’t do is go into denominational leadership for the big pay raise! (And Old First Church is part of a very spread out conference!)  Well, the old Subaru began to rebel a bit against the slope of the hill and then it began to sputter about it and by the time they reached the height of the land the 250,000 miles had caught up them and the Subaru gave one last gasp and quit!  So coasting into a turnout they pondered their predicament. The last sign they saw said it was how far to Rockhaven?  That’s right they hadn’t seen any sign!

Well, what’s the first thing you do in such a situation?  Yep.  And nope. . . there was no cell coverage!

From where they stopped the view was breath-taking.  They could see for miles nothing but forest and hills, but they did see a driveway just a few hundred feet down the hill.  So they began to walk that direction hoping to find someone home and a phone.  As it would turnout God would grant part of their prayer, they would find one but not the other. 

At second look the drive seemed more like a washed out two track that lead back into the brush but there was a mailbox with the name Holman so someone must live up there.  Sure enough up around the corner was an old mobile home clinging to the hillside. One downhill corner was held up by at least 8 cement blocks to keep it somewhere near level.  It had one of the shelter roofs built over it to protect the thin metal roof from the harsh winter snows and spring rains. 

They climbed up the rickety steps to the makeshift plywood shelter that acted as a wind break from the constant winds that blew across the barrens and over the height of the land on Carter’s Hill.  

Before they could knock on the door a tall thin woman, her hair pulled back in a tight bun met them.  After brief first name introductions and explanations of their predicament the woman welcomed them in and introduced herself as Jeanette Holman.  And that she was sorry but they didn’t have a phone and her husband, known to all as “Pappy,” had taken their automobile over to Uniondale just a while ago to buy some more paraffin wax for the preserves she was making. 

“Perhaps they had met him along the way.”   The only vehicle they recalled meeting was this old, very old Dodge, they recalled how odd the fellow driving it looked with his baseball cap on sideways.  

Jeanette returned to the little kitchen of the mobile home where there was an old blue Formica topped table covered with jars, cooling the wax she had just sealed them with.

Jeanette and Pappy don’t entertain very often so she was quite chatty.  She explained that while it was Sunday and that she usually goes to church in town she hadn’t today.

They, being pastors, but not revealing so, were curious about why she had not gone to church this day and which church in town did she belong to.

“Oh Bea Stearns usually picks me up and we go to Old First Church on the Common.  Were they from around here and did they happen to know Rev. Williams?”

Wanting for the time being to keep some of their anonymity they simply said they were not from around there.  

Jeanette went on to say that she didn’t go to church that day for she felt like with the special guests coming in she would feel out of place.  Everybody had been working so hard to get things ready for these special guests and she lived so far out (It is a good 15 miles into town.) that she hadn’t been included in all the preparations.  And after all it was one thing to go to church dressed the way she does with her friends but quite another when you have special visitors. 

She would have liked to have presented these out of town visitors with some of her blueberry preserves but she wasn’t sure she would have enough.  This was the last of the berries she was able to winter over and she sells her jams to the local markets as a way of trying to keep their utility bills paid up during the winter.  It had been a long cold winter and they had fallen behind. 

They offer to buy some jam but she would have no part of it.  They were her guests and they would have some of her blueberry preserves on some of her homemade oatmeal bread and that’s that. 

“Pappy” will be back in a bit and he would drive them into Rockhaven where they would get some reception for their cell phones.

They enjoyed a cup of tea along with several slices of toasted homemade oatmeal bread, slathered with the most wonderfully sweet and delightful blueberry preserves.   And they spent a rather enjoyable morning. Every once and awhile Jeanette would say, “I don’t know what keeping that man. He knows I need that wax.  I bet he stopped by the Paris Farmers Union Store just to gab.”

Some time passes before they hear tires on the gravel drive and sure enough out of this ancient Dodge pops this wiry elderly fellow with his hat all a skew.  “Here’s your wax, Mother and a packet of pumpkin seeds form Billy at the Farmers Union.”  Jeanette looks her guests way and smiles.

“Who do we have here?  You wouldn’t belong to that car parked up the hill would you? That’s nearly as old as my Dodge out there!”

“They do and they need a ride into town Pappy.”  Jeanette informed her husband of over 50 years.

She hands them each and little bag.  “Here take this with you for later.”   

The visitors thank Jeanette for her wonderful hospitality and the brunch she provided and load into Pappy’s Dodge for the harrowing ride into Rockhaven.  

Being that by now it was well passed 1:00 in the afternoon long past their appointed hour at the church, Pappy drops them off at Perry Packard’s General repair shop. Perry happened to be in that afternoon helping Danny Killington with a little project of hers, an old Farmall tractor she is restoring. 

Perry drives Rev. Pearson back to his car while Danny shows Rev. Buckholt over to the church, where she walks in to find Mabel Bailey and Sarah McIntyre folding the last of the fancy tablecloths.  She introduces herself and apologizes for being late and before she could explain any further Mabel runs to find Rev. Williams. “They’re here! They’re here!  Or at least one of them.” 

The Reverend’s in the church kitchen helping Imogene and Ruth Williams putting away the last of the fancy silverware most of which had not been used.  (Why use the good stuff if your special guests aren’t there to see you use it!)

Rev. Buckholt tells them all about how their car had quit up on Carter’s Hill and they walked to Jeanette and Pappy Holman’s and all about Jeanette’s wonderful hospitality.  And what a character her husband was and even though he drove them all the way onto Rockhaven and they knew he could use it Pappy would not accept anything for gas.  Indeed God had richly blessed their morning with the very fortuitous opportunity to meet the Holmans.

Well, let me tell you, the church people, they were aghast!  Of all the people, Pappy and Jeanette Holman, and they rode into town with Pappy behind the wheel.  Why, Jeanette rarely did that!

Even Rev. Williams thought to himself, “Of all the people he would have wanted the denominational people to meet the Holman’s would have been down on the list.  Above Sam Coleridge, mind you, but down there.” 

But why shouldn’t they be?  Why shouldn’t God step into the midst of all their plans and preparations and do something completely unexpected? 

And really what is so odd about God using someone “outside” the mainstream to show us God’s way?

Meanwhile on their way back to Augusta in an old Subaru with a new Mass Air Flow Sensor, two visiting denominational folks are feeling blessed and Rev. Buckholt reflects that while what she experienced was not what she expected, it was just exactly what she needed and may have been looking for but just didn’t know it.  The reminder that goodness of God is often found in out of the way places and people, people who live on the edge of towns, on the edge of life.

As she finishes a text message back to the national office and puts down her cell phone, she sees the bag that Jeanette gave her.  As she opens it, the abundant blessings of that day continue, in the appearance of a small jar of blueberry jam and a few slices of oatmeal bread.  And in there a note:

 May the Lord bless you as you return home.

May light of Jesus shine on the roads you take. 

May the wonders of the Holy Spirit always surprise you.

And she wondered . . . who had blessed who. . . and who was the prophet?  

And as was her habit she said a little prayer: May her pantry always have some oatmeal and her blueberries always be bountiful.