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

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


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Would You Like to Supersize That?

Sunday ~ July 31, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson ~

Luke 12:13-21

A few years ago a new series aired on BBC which was called, The Men Who made us Fat.  In the opening scene of one episode the journalist who narrates the series goes into a diner for breakfast.  He orders a breakfast with the innocuous sounding name: The Kid’s Breakfast.  Now, that sounds like a prudent caloric­ saving choice for a grown person, doesn’t it?  But, there is a hidden catch with this menu choice.  This kid’s breakfast consists of an eight egg omelet; a dozen pieces of bacon; a dozen sausage links; two kinds of potatoes (hash browns and potatoes sauteed with mushrooms); and four pieces of French Toast, sliced bread, and toast (all buttered).  The restaurant calls it the Kid’s Breakfast because “it weighs the same as a small child.”

Now most of us couldn’t begin to even put a dent into this breakfast, even if we sat there all day.  But, believe it or not, there are people who actually try.  There are probably even a few that get their money back (as promised) if you eat it all.

“Supersizing” is what most of us call it. Legend has it that the phenomenon got started when Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s, was finally persuaded to add a “size large” to all the menu items. Kroc was sure that people would just buy another order of fries if they were still hungry. His executives argued otherwise. They knew that people would not want to go to the counter a second time because that would make them look like gluttons. But eating a double portion that was sold as a single serving? I don’t have to tell you how successful that marketing idea became!

It wasn’t long before fast food chains figured out they could increase profits even more if they bundled food items together and knocked a dime or a quarter off the price. And voila, the value meal was born. Today so many people have been persuaded that up-sizing and item bundling is the smart thing to do that 35% or more of adults over the age of 20 in America are overweight to the point it endangers our health. It seems that corporations with an insatiable hunger for profits hit on something big: We humans often have no idea when to quit. And eating isn’t the only area we have this problem. We can see that clearly in the parable of the rich fool.

The farmer, the fool, in the Gospel story, doesn’t have a problem with pushing himself away from the table.  He has a problem with putting the brakes on expanding his agricultural operation.  Usually this parable is held up as a warning against the accumulation of wealth, but perhaps there is more to it than this.  Greed is only one of several possible reasons that could have caused the farmer to

become obsessed with filling up grain bins and building new ones.

Maybe he wasn’t so much greedy as fearful and insecure -not trusting God to provide his daily bread.

Maybe he did it for the sheer love of the game, the challenge and the achievement.

Or maybe he really liked to win and he enjoyed besting his fellow farmers in the Biggest Crop of the Year competition.  Whichever of these scenarios may be the case, Jesus makes it clear that this farmer’s life is at odds with what God regards as a meaningful and substantial life.

The Message version of the Bible often has a way of getting to the heart of the matter it translates verse 20: “Just then God showed up and said, ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods-who gets it?

 

This is arguably the strongest condemnation that Jesus renders in all the Gospels.  It comes out of a tradition that long predates Jesus. That tradition, known as the Wisdom tradition in biblical studies, intends to teach about nature, reality, virtue, and the divine. In this tradition to be a fool wasn’t really about being dim­-witted, thoughtless, or unwise. To be a fool was to be one who failed to comprehend the power and purpose of God in all things.

The farmer is a fool because he seems little concerned or aware of the fact that he is not in full control of his own destiny and welfare. As he goes about his business, he doesn’t give a thought about the fact that his days are numbered.  He acts .as if he has all the time in the world, when in truth only God knows the number of any of our days.

Well, the weather produced a fine harvest and he benefits from it.  Good for him.  He seems to be a capable farmer.  Yet, he fails to acknowledge that God’s abundance has been poured out for anyone other than himself.

His life is all about whatever he can create, what he can consume, what he can accomplish.  His days are like golden fat-saturated French fries consumed one after another.  He has no awareness of how sluggish, flabby, and poorly fed h;s soul has become.  If he thinks of the spiritual aspect of his life all, there is no indication.

No need to worry about things of God.  There will always be tomorrow, right?

There are retirement days ahead that can be devoted to such matters of God and his church. Right now, though, personal business affairs, practical matters of home and family, and life’s pleasures take priority.  The things of My ” world need

attention.  God’s business can wait.  All the while a slow spiritual heart disease sets in, his life connection to God filling with plaque and slowly clogging up.

I heard a TV preacher once say that far too many Christian today live on a spiritual diet equivalent to little more than Fritos and Coke.  One good burp and it’s all gone!

 

God in Christ offers us a different menu than the world offers.  Compared to the world’s menu it is simple and yet nourishing.  There is only one thing: It is not fast-food picked up at a convenient drive-through and consumed as we speed through life oblivious to God and others around us.

We share this heavenly food whenever we gather around the table for Holy Communion.

But we also share it whenever we are aware of our place within God’s wider plan for all of humanity and all creation.

There is nothing wrong with the idea of supersizing life, God is all about that!

But it is never about just me or you.  God when God acted in creation created us in community, first a family in the garden.  Then even after sin tainted the creation God acted to save creation through a people.  And when Jesus came he acted through a group of disciples which became a new community, the church.

We, you or I are not God’s plan but we are all an important part of God’s plan.

So when God offers you physical sustenance of any sort it’s okay to say “Will you supersize that, God?”  And then tum to your neighbor in need and say to him/her “Here, I’ve got more than I need.”

But most importantly we will find that everyone’s spiritual sustenance will have been supersized as well!


Amos: The End

Sunday ~ July 17th ~ Pastor Neil Wilson 

This is what the Lord GOD showed me – -a basket of summer fruit.

He said “Amos, what do you see?”

I said, “A basket of summer fruit.”

 Then the LORD said to me, “The end has come upon my people Israel;

  I will never again pass them by.    Amos 8:1-2

 

This passage from Amos has within it one of those turns of phrase that is completely lost in translation. 

The LORD asks Amos what he sees.  Before Amos is this image of a bowl full of ripe seasonal fruit.  Imagine a large bowl of sweet cherries on the altar.  It conveys an image of plenty, abundance and God’s providence.  All is well, it would seem.  There has been a good harvest, healthy crops, good market prices.  

 Amos replies that he sees “qayitz” (ka’yitz) summer fruit.  We’ve heard the word twice already.  First in saying God shows it to Amos and then when Amos answers.  Summer fruit.  Summer fruit.  qayitz, qayitz. What gets lost is what God says next.

Rather than continuing the image of summer fruit, qayitz, God’s very next word rhymes with it – “qets” (kaits) which means “end.”   In the original language this is a powerfully unsettling image, but impossible to capture in English.   

Something similar in English might sound like this:  

It was morning. The Lord asked me, “What time of day is it, Amos?”

Morning” I said. 

Then the Lord said to me, “Mourning shall replace songs of praise, loud lamentations the thanksgiving of the people, and the streets of your cities shall be open graves.” 

Qayitz shall be qets the fullness, the ripeness of the land shall be no more, for the end is upon them. 

As I said last week Amos is a harsh prophet, unrelenting in his “word from the Lord.” 

Now it might be easy to consider Amos one of those street corner doomsday prophets with the large placard or sandwich board in large letters proclaiming “THE END IS NEAR!”  Except that Amos would not be on a street corner.  He would  be walking the halls of the capital in Lansing and Washington D.C.; he is standing on the steps of the National Cathedral on Sunday morning; in St. Peter’s Square just as the Pope is about to give an address; and places like Bentonville, Arkansas (Walmart) and Seattle, Washington (Amazon.)  

Amos’ was a message to the people in these places of power about how the people on the street corners were being treated.

What all this comes down to is an understanding that for Amos part of Israel’s greatness was that the people at one time has seen themselves as accountable to something higher and more substantive than their own opinions.  Amos was called to remind Israel especially the religious and civil leaders that to be a people (a nation) of faith is to be dependent on and tethered to the righteousness of God.  And according to the word of the Lord that Amos received God’s is especially concerned for the way the poor were being treated in Israel.   

 

What according to Amos was supposed to happen?  Everyone’s labor was to be fairly rewarded. The Sabbath was to be observed in its entirety by all, Israelite and alien in the land, for the rest and restoration of all. Weights and scales were to be accurate to ensure a fair price for all, especially the poor.  Slavery and indentured servitude were forbidden by this point in Israel’s history.  And parts of everyone’s fields were to be left unharvested for the poor to gather from if they could not afford to buy it.  (Remember the story of Naomi and Ruth?)  And the “sweeping” or the chaff would not be sold as grain. 

This is what the people did for one another because they were all God’s people!  And God required and cared for justice for all.  This is the God who rescued them from slavery in Egypt and had provided for them a land that was more than able to support everyone who lived there. The economy that they had created which oppressed the poor and the alien and harmed everyone by reducing the time for rest was an affront to the character of God. 

Well, that was then, in the 8th century b.c.e.

Everything we see in Jesus tells us God still rejects the sort of practices identified by Amos in today’s reading.

What about our society today?   Where might we find or need an Amos with his message?  In some of those places I mentioned earlier?   Do we know any modern day Amos’s speaking a difficult word of correction and resistance to ways of the world? 

You know there are different roles one can take as a disciple of Jesus.  There is the role of pastor/priest, these are the people who are called to feed to souls/spirits of their faith community.  There are the deacons (male/female) who are called to serve, originally it was to literally feed the people.  Then there are those who are called to be prophets. 

Another way to think about these roles is that pastors feed and nurture congregations and individuals.  Out of this spiritual nurturing there are those who feel called to serve in a diaconal role (now understand, I am not talking about church committees and boards here.  Not at all!)  The deacon types of people feel called to work in places like food pantries, second hand clothing and furniture shops and the like.

Then there are the few that are called to the prophetic role.  Pastors feed the soul, deacons feed people, and prophets ask the difficult question “Why are there hungry people?”    We need all three but are not particularly comfortable around prophets! 

I am reminded of Helder Camara, a former Brazilian Archbishop, once said: “When I feed the hungry they call me a saint.  When I ask why they have no food, they call me a communist.”

Back in November of 1965, a few days before the Second Vatican Council ended, 40 bishops led by bishop Hélder Câmara met at night in the Catacombs of Domitilla outside Rome. They celebrated the Eucharist and signed a document under the title of the Pact of the Catacombs. In 13 points, they challenged their brother bishops to live lives of evangelical poverty: without honorific titles, without privileges, and without worldly ostentation. They taught that “the collegiality of the bishops finds its supreme evangelical realization in jointly serving the two-thirds of humanity who live in physical, cultural, and moral misery”. They called for openness “to all, no matter what their beliefs”

Here we are some 50 years, later does this sound like someone we are familiar with in the larger Christian Church Universal?  (Another South American Bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio aka Pope Francis.)

With Amos as with Jesus Christ there is no straddling the fence.  From the lowliest to the highest in society and in the church we all fall under the righteousness of God.  And there with Amos and some of the ideas of the current Pope I leave us to ponder:

How we are doing in our society today? 

Or more importantly how are those who end up on the short side of unfair scales,

Those who are burdened with the impossible demands of the modern day high pressure workplace,

And the children who are being sold for a pair of shoes or clothing or iPads, and they themselves never being able to afford the opportunity of such things. 

 What do you see Amos?   Summer Fruit?

I’m not Amos so I can say it is not too late!

 May the fruit of our land and our faith never go bad.

As Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

May we so order our lives, personal, corporate and civic so that this may be said for all! 

Amen!


Harsh Words from a Herdsman

Sunday ~ July 10, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Amos 7:7-17

Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’

Amos 7:14-15

Early in my years of ministry I identified rather closely with Amos’ self- assessment.  I still do, even some 35 years after I sensed that initial call to ministry.             

“Who am I, Lord?  I’m just a harvester of trees, a caretaker of the forest.  You know I get along much easier with swamps and hills and trees than I do people.  Trees are much more predictable.  And they don’t talk back!  What would I have to say?”    And the Lord kept on saying to me, “But, I am calling you. Go!”

Because I identified with Amos and this passage, I have spent some time wrestling with it over the years.  And as I have come to understand this prophet, his message and his historical context, I have discovered that Amos is not an easy book of prophecy to draw on for sermons!  And I do not believe I would have wanted Amos as a mentor on my journey toward ordained ministry!  Unlike Isaiah and Jeremiah, Elijah and Elisha, Amos by-in-large is pretty heavy on judgement and light on any hope for reconciliation and restoration!

And apparently it wasn’t easy for Amos either.  The opening words of this section “This is what he (the Lord) showed me. . .” is literally “this is what God mademe see.”  As if to say, Amos didn’t really want to see or hear it either.   

What Amos saw was an image of the Lord holding a plumb line up in the midst of the people, Israel. And as you know with a plumb line it is obvious when you are not in line and apparently they were quite a bit “off plumb”!

Now Amos lived and prophesied at a time of relative peace and prosperity in the northern kingdom of Israel.  To quote the logo of a popular clothing line, “Life is good.”  Or, that is, for a few anyway!  And this is what the Lord made Amos to see

The kingdom of Jeroboam in its prosperity had become corrupt and this corruption was felt, as in most cases, most severely by the poor and needy of the kingdom.  More critically, the court priests like Amaziah, who should be advocating for the needy and poor, had bought into the political scene of the day and were just as corrupt. 

Speaking to both political and religious leaders Amos says:  

“Here this, you who trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land, saying,” When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”

(Amos 8:4-6)

This is the way The Message translates this passage:

Listen to this, you who walk all over the weak,

    you who treat poor people as less than nothing,

Who say, “When’s my next paycheck coming so I can go out and live it up?

How long till the weekend when I can go out and have a good time?”

Who give little and take much, and never do an honest day’s work.

You exploit the poor, using them—

    and then, when they’re used up, you discard them. 

 

With the metaphor of the plumb line Amos points out a fatal flaw in the community’s structure, it has come out of “true” with God’s will for it.  The plumb line shows that the ways of God and the harmony of social relations should be aligned.  Things are not lining up in Jeroboam’s kingdom and Amaziah’s religious realm!

Because of this, Amos proclaims, there will be no escaping God’s judgement!

Then the Lord said, “The high places of Isaac will be destroyed and the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined; with my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.”  (v. 9)

Therefore this is what the Lord says:

“‘Your wife will become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and daughters will fall by the sword. Your land will be measured and divided up, and you yourself will die in a pagan country. And Israel will surely go into exile, away from their native land.’”  (v. 17) 

All this is proclaimed without one word of hope.

Amos makes religious audiences uneasy still today, for his message seems to shake the certainty that God’s “loving kindness” will always overcome even the worse judgements we deserve.  Even Isaiah and Jeremiah who were quick to condemn the sins of the priests, kings and people always held out a word of comfort that God would always welcome back the repentant.  Amos however, is uncompromising.  God has finally turned away from his people.   End of story! 

The chilling part of all this is that history proves Amos right.  Approximately 40 years later Israel was overrun by the Assyrians and taken away into exile and the images of destruction that Amos saw and proclaimed were very real to the people of Israel.

Okay!  So now preacher, what do you do with this depressing word?

Well, I’m not sure!  There are at least a couple of ways to think about this:

First a point I would like to make: The word of judgment in question here is God’s.  It isn’t Amos’ and in fact we can sense that Amos was a bit uncomfortable with sharing it!   It isn’t the pastor’s or the church council’s or the church hierarchy, it’s a word from the LORD! 

So having said this one approach to this  is to say that sometimes God’s only word to us can be one of judgement! 

Sometimes regardless of our attempts at justifying, rationalizing, compromising, God says NO MORE!  Because there can be no compromising, there is no rationalizing. 

 No means no!  Like parents with young children who do not yet understand for their own safety and their ultimate wellbeing, certain behaviors are not acceptable, period!   This is one way to hear the words of Amos. 

Then as Christians (remembering our faith ancestors were the Jews who first followed in the way of Jesus!) we can hear this word of judgement as no less the word of the God who intends, ultimately to save us in Jesus Christ, which is, who is, the ultimate blessing. 

But much of contemporary Christian theology in North America, while it attempts to be gracious, sentimentally portrays us as hapless victims. Thus we “would be” victims are offered therapy. 

On the other hand, orthodox Christian theology, especially in the Protestant Reformed tradition (of which we hail), depicts humanity, despite any injustices we may have suffered along life’s way, not just victims but also as perpetrators who, while deserving God’s wrath, in the end will receive God’s mercy.

And like the children who don’t understand why Mom or Dad simply said “No”, sometimes God’s mercy has a way of feeling like God’s judgement!

So as parent might say “I’m doing this for your own good.” when God says it we probably better believe it.  For God sees what we cannot!   

Old Testament prophets “word from the Lord” have ways of transcending history and cultures and peoples to speak to every new generation.  It can require (or demand) us to consider the current way of ordering ourselves as church, whether as congregations or individuals, and see how we might stand under such a word from the Lord.   

One of the questions Amos requires us to consider is: Are there ways we being complicit either in our commission or omission of words and actions that trample the poor and needy?   

How far has the religious scene of our day, bought into the ways of the world, and therefore unable to stand above the corruption and politics of business as usual and speak a word of correction to places of power?

These are just a couple of thoughts for us to consider.  Amos’ message is things have gone too far. Next week perhaps we’ll take another look at Amos as he says more about why.  

I started out by saying that I could identify with Amos, being a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees. 

Also, on occasion, I can identify with Amos when it comes to sharing a difficult word with a congregation. 

And so like Amos I can say, “Don’t shoot me!  I’m only the messenger. 

God is the one who sent the text.  And believe me, sometimes I wished I was out of range!”