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

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


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Nothing Stays the Same . . . Except . . .

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Sermon ~ Sunday ~ August 28th, 2016  ~  Pastor Neil Wilson     

Hebrews 13: 8

 

 Ever since the Age of Enlightenment with its scientific revolution had it impact on the field of Biblical studies readers and scholars alike have pondered over just what kind of “book” Hebrews should be considered. 

One seminary professor joked that the funny thing about “The Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews” is, that is a perfect name for this piece of literature except, that it was not written by Paul, it was not written to the Hebrews, and it is not an epistle!

As early as the end of the first century there was no consensus as to the author with more than three persons considered authors of this “word of encouragement” which the anonymous author calls this piece.  In the writing we call Acts this same term is used to describe what we now refer to as a sermon.

Whatever it is and whoever wrote it, Hebrews offers wisdom to those in the church who want to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ.  The writing, among other things, has to do with living faithfully in the midst of the wider society as people who are obedient to the Messiah while not being all that impressed with how the world does business.  In other words, we might title this writing “Adaptation: Can We Roll with the Punches?”  Most of us would say that being able to adapt is a sign of not only a healthy person but also a healthy church.

I love the old story John Chandler would tell me about old Bert Hawser, who lived up there in Batchelder’s Grant, an unorganized township a little north of where I grew up.  Seems he had the occasion to make a trip down to Boston.  His kids wanted him to see Fenway Park before he expired.  First time he’d ever been outside the shadow of Caribou Mountain. 

He took the Pine Tree Bus line out of Fryeburg to Portland where he and Mildred and a couple of the younger children boarded the Downeaster train.  In a little over 5 hours he found himself on the ground floor of the John Hancock Center down there on Trinity Plaza.  Right there, inside the lobby, he stood transfixed with the elevator.  He watched as this older, rather haggard, looking woman hobbled into the elevator.  In a few minutes the doors opened and out smartly stepped a young attractive woman! To which Burt hollers out to his youngest son, “Efie!  Quick, go get your mother!”

This little story told many ways would not be understandable or as humorous unless we recognize that someone who was not technologically advanced was part of the story.  Yet all of us, to one extent or another, are victims of technology that seems to continually outrun us.  In times gone by, people knew how to fix their own cars and use a telephone.  Just this week, talking with the fellow who works on our vehicles, I was told that it is getting to the point where car manufactures are designing the technology so that one is just about forced to take it to a dealership for repairs especially if it involves some computer technology.   Seem even independent mechanics are losing the race against technology!  (Unfortunately it maybe an unfair track they are forced to compete on!)

In a very real sense we are stuck with change – for better and for worse.  It is almost every human being’s destiny to either change or face the alternative of getting run over by everything and everyone in society.  As an interesting quotation puts it: “Some people will change when they see the light.  Others change only when they feel the heat.”  

In our scripture today (at least in part of it), we are reminded of one truth that seems to never change.  The writer of Hebrews puts it this way, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and forever.”  (13:8)   Hold on to that!

Who is the congregation to whom Hebrews is addressed?  Thomas Long professor of preaching at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, speaks of the “tiredness” of the community addressed in Hebrews, tiredness that comes with the territory of living distinctive and faithful in the midst of wearying circumstances. 

 

I see so much of us, and I see so much of myself, in this description that it is frightening.  I am tired and I know many of you are tired. We think we know what we need to do as a church and as a people following in the manner of Jesus Christ, but we grow weary.   We volunteer in the Food Pantry, hospice programs, hospital guild, library, fine art councils and music councils and drug councils and school councils and community government councils and church councils . . .  and you get the picture!  

And I think I know what it is that is making us tired.  It is not that we do not believe anymore.  We have faith in our church, in our community and in God.  But we are weary of trying to keep up with all the change that keeps coming at us faster and faster.  Every time we seem to have something down pat, then things change.  We have to adjust and adapt to things we thought we had a firm grip on.  We have to accommodate things that we thought were under control.  We thought we had command of these things and then a new cell phone comes out or a new remote control enters the house! And we don’t have any children in the house to teach us how to use them!

Unfortunately, none of us has the luxury to fail to change or even to simply ignore it.  Change is too powerful.  A healthy church can adapt to the changes that take place in its surroundings.  In our context the downward population trend of young families and retirees. We can see how this has impacted our church’s education programs!  Our trend toward becoming more and more of a seasonal community and therefore a seasonal church!  We have committees that either do not meet or struggle to meet in the months of January through April say nothing about the summer when so many are so busy.  We have folks understandably that move away to be closer to family.  And then there is the increasing population of religious “nones” and “dones” in our society as a whole.

We need to adapt the things that used to work and try new things that might work better.  By the way, there are no guarantees, no sure fired “Three easy steps to improve the life of your church.”  I’m sorry.  It will be trial and error!  Mistakes will be made and this will be okay.  It will have to be.

We need to find new ways to connect with people with God and with one another. 

Our pursuit to adapt never ends.  We have to constantly change the ways in which we share the message of the gospel.  It is part of what it means to be a disciple.  At the same time we have an eternal message: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

A healthy congregation as a living organism must also adapt to its circumstances in order to retain its significance.  All the sympathy in the world little benefits the body of Christ without the ability to adapt and change. 

While the truth of gospel never changes, our world radically changes and with increasing speed.  This fact requires a healthy congregation to adapt to new methods and models for ministry.  The challenges posed by contemporary culture will never slow down nor will they wait for the church the “catch up!”

How will this congregation adapt?  Which is a less obtrusive way of saying how will you/we adapt?  This is not something we can put off on the next generation. 

Leo Tolstoy once said, “Everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.”

So my challenge for us this morning is this: 

When you leave worship today, ask yourself or pray,

“Jesus, with your help, how can I change the world for the better and for the sake of the gospel? 

And most importantly, “Jesus, where will this all start with me?”

 


Who’s In Charge Here?

Sunday ~ August 21, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson                                                   

                                       Luke 13:10-17

 

Can you imagine walking bent over for 18 years?  18 years this woman had borne this affliction.  Horrible!  Helen Eshleman, the wife of the associate pastor who ministered with me walks bent over at the waist with osteoarthritis all the years I’ve known her which has been 18 years now.  When I was with Helen I was reminded this woman from Luke’s gospel. 

But, this woman had lived with it for 18 years, right?  She wasn’t really in any mortal danger.  Neither was Helen. She still got around (albeit with a cane), still had a cheery outlook on life.  So what is it, really in the scope of everything, for this woman to wait just one more day or two?  Then on a day that wasn’t the Sabbath no one would have anything to complain about, right, seems reasonable to me.  Jesus might have just waited one day or maybe even until that evening after sunset, when the Sabbath was over, and healed her then.  Then he wouldn’t have upset the leader of the synagogue and perhaps maybe even had won him over.  

After 18 years of this crippling posture and she finds herself in the presence of one who might be able to heal her I don’t think she would say to Jesus after he called her forward, “Yeah, I think he’s got a point.  This might not be such a good idea, rabbi, why don’t we wait until tomorrow.”  

No, of course she finds herself in quite a different place from the synagogue leader. 

You know, it is easy to counsel someone else to be patient.  And rules and policies are more likely to be considered reasonable when they do not affect the one enforcing them. 

Jesus, as we have come to expect, takes the side of the crippled woman over the religious leaders, as though her disfigurement were his own, or perhaps his mother’s.

We have become used to hearing Jesus criticize the religious establishment for their perverse priorities and hypocrisy.  Why were they fussing about Sabbath minutiae when a woman was set free from a long infirmity?  After all, he reminds them, that would they not set their herd or pack animals free or led them to water on the Sabbath without giving it a second thought.

But the message here is so much more than simply “people are at least as important as animals.”

In the deformed condition in which this woman had found herself for so long, she had also become religiously marginalized.  People with such conditions were not allowed in the temple in Jerusalem, period.  It’s a bit surprising she was even allowed in the synagogue, and perhaps she would not have been there except for the fact that Jesus was teaching that day.  In the synagogue, she would have been seated near or at the very back of the room, with the other women, who were not permitted to actively participate in the teaching and worship, offered up front by the men.  Indeed, women were not even supposed to speak.

Jesus, as teacher/rabbi, would have been seated front and center.

So when Jesus sees this woman and calls out to her while he is teaching, every eye in the place is transferred from him to her, from the very front and center to the very rear, from the one most valued to the one least valued.  Jesus reinforced this shift by calling her over.  This meant this woman was now being empowered by Jesus to move into the place of the men.  

There he laid hands on her.  

Immediately, she stood up straight and began praising God; that is, worshiping—out loud!   A woman who had been crippled for eighteen years was now standing (like the men) and praising God (as only men were to do) in the area where the men offered their worship, all at the instigation of the guest rabbi that day, this Jesus from over in Nazareth.

 

Luke doesn’t say it, but any Jewish reader or anyone familiar with Jewish synagogue practices would have known it.  The synagogue leader wasn’t just mad about breaking the “not working on the Sabbath rule.”  That was a convenient law to pull out, because everyone knew it and he would seem to have some ground to stand on when interpreting it this way.  But this was barely about Sabbath at all.

It was about control.

Not just about control in this service.

This was about the control of the culture as he knew it.

The synagogue leader was indignant because Jesus had just shown up and disrupted the caste system of the entire religious culture, a caste system the synagogue leader and all the men in the synagogue benefited from at the expense of the women and any others who had been suffering for years without any possibility even to ask for relief.

The function of Torah (the Law) was never intended to be about keeping people in “their” places—which really means keeping “lesser” people in the places the more powerful want them to stay!

Instead, as the central story of Exodus declares, Torah is all about setting people free to praise and service to God and neighbor. 

One version of the Ten Commandments puts the Sabbath commandment this way:  Deut. 6: 12-15  (Yes, there are two versions!)

Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the LORD your God has commanded you.  Six days you shall labour, and do all your work:  But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD your God: in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates; that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you.  And remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD your God brought you out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Which brings us to the point of this text in Luke.

This is not a story about Jesus bashing Judaism.  After all, remember, Jesus was born a Jew, lived as a Jew and died a Jewish man!  And here he was teaching in a Jewish synagogue!  We do not know what his “text” was that day.  But we do know he had been invited to be the teacher on that Sabbath.  So, in a sense, he was in welcome territory.

Until he applied the heart of his teaching and preaching:

“The kingdom of God is drawing near.”  (Luke 17:21)

When the kingdom of God draws near, things like this happen.  The marginalized are brought to the center.  The “impure” are touched and healed.  Women worship among men.  And from time to time even the “faithful religious social order” is broken.  Sometimes, it would seem to the rule breakers, outrageously.

And how do we react when we lose our grip on the levers of control because God’s kingdom does what it does?

Perhaps not much differently than the synagogue leader did.

As we keep seeking to adjust our lives to the presence and work of God’s kingdom in our midst, we don’t just have to ready ourselves and our finances.  And it’s not enough to get ready for opposition “out there” in the world.  Both of those are hard enough.

We’d better be ready for some in the leadership within the church to try to squelch what God’s kingdom is up to.  And if we’re those leaders, we’d better be ready to know this about ourselves, and work at being open to letting the Spirit speak and act through whom it may speak and act!     

Some questions for us to consider. 

There are probably still some “caste systems” at work in our wider community, and even in our worshiping community.  What are they?  Can we name them?  And in naming them, call them forth to disrupt them in the name of Jesus?

Who sits on the edges of our worship, not in the back by choice, but relegated to the margins for reason we not even be fully aware of?

In what ways are we (church and wider community) creating a culture that contributes to setting people free to praise and serve God and neighbor as the Spirit leads them and not as we with our traditions hold to be “proper”?

Now we must be clear about a vital distinction between castes and functional roles.  In the life of churches and communities, we have varieties of leaders and followers not because followers are “less” in any way than leaders, but because the leaders are trusted to lead in these ways.  

In castes, people are prevented from sharing their giftedness with the larger community because of some trait outside their control—gender, class, social status, physical or mental ability or challenge, or others you might name.  

Jesus calls us out of the crowd to step forward.  We are called to follow Jesus with our abilities and inabilities, in our giftedness and commonness, with our strengths and frailties, to each in our own way break all such castes and divisions among us, so that the church “may be one” as Jesus prayed and that it also might be as we pray it will be  “Thy Kingdom come thy will be done on earth s it is in heaven.”  

Then we will all known who is in charge here!


Guest Patti Ulrich

~ Sunday ~ August 7th, 2016 ~ Guest Patti Ulrich 

Christians have always believed in a God who is concerned with the natural world. We have prayed to God from the depths of coal mines to the heights of Everest and from outer space. We have blessed ships and planes in God’s name, built soaring cathedrals to the honor and glory of the Almighty, and even equated scientific achievements to God’s guidance and blessing. These are all material things, because we believe in a material God.

 

Today’s readings cause us to step back for a moment and consider God in another light, as one who is beyond the material. In the passage from Isaiah, God castigates the people of Sodom because they have allowed material things such as incense and sacrifices of animals to become more important than their relationship with God. God defines the relationship as being centered on justice and care for orphans, not expensive feasts and liturgies, as God commands the people to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

 

The quality here is not material, but a spirituality that deeply honors a God who cares passionately for the whole of creation and doesn’t need to be appeased with sacrifice when things are going badly. It’s not about God; it’s about us. And God expects us to address the things that are amiss, not fix them through incantations.

 

However, we continue to write a check for the hungry without learning why there is hunger in the world. We pass legislation that addresses immigration reform without wanting to know why people want so badly to come to America that they are willing to risk imprisonment and deportation to do it, leaving their families behind while they work to send money home. Our minds whirl around whether Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter. But I tell you today that for God ALL lives matter! The truth of the causes for these issues is something that we may not think deeply about as we go about our busy, privileged lives. We cannot appease God with our prayers while we ignore the things that make us uncomfortable.

 

In our gospel reading today, Jesus addresses this issue of how we are to live with God:

 

He says “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

 

Recently a conversation took place in a coffee shop. A woman with a loud voice revealed how frustrated she had been because she couldn’t find a parking spot. She then related how she had loudly prayed, “OK, God, I give up. You find me a parking place or I’m going home.” As she drove around the block for the fourth time a place opened up right in front of the coffee shop. Her friend, a rather quiet woman, smiled and then shared how she had been praying for weeks for her friend who had received a bad prognosis for her recurring cancer. She had just spoken to her friend that morning and learned that the doctors were now confident she would recover. Both of these women were sincere, but the one who asked for healing for her friend knows what God’s power is for – it’s not for finding parking places! But you know friends go ahead and pray for parking spaces and lost keys and all such things. Keep talking to God about all the big and little things! God is listening to us!

Anne Lamott wrote a book about the three essential prayers: Help, Thanks, Wow!! If you are like me, those three words spoken to God speak volumes! See if you agree with what C. S. Lewis wrote: “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”

It’s true that we may not get very far with God as long as we understand the Kingdom as material rather than spiritual. We are not going to have as deep a relationship with God when we pray for material wealth or our weekends are spent spending the money we have earned on more material things. Sabbath is not shopping; it is rest. It is time set aside for us to enjoy quiet, rest and refreshment. Have we forgotten about keeping the Sabbath? I know I have!

Sabbath is the rest that helps us to prepare for the full lives that God would have us lead as Disciples of Christ. We are given the commandment to observe the Sabbath for our better selves. We are given the space to rest, restore our spiritual lives, and avoid being completely swamped by the world’s material goods. Nothing that rusts or wears out will enter the kingdom of heaven. We need to be able to leave it all behind. And by the way, Sabbath doesn’t necessarily have to occur on Sunday.

Outside of these readings but deeply inside their message, is the great voice of the Creator reminding us how much we are loved, not for what we have, but for who we are. We are treasures, servants who are blessed by the Holy One. Our economic standing, our homes and wealth are of no account to God. What matters is our lives. How we live, how we approach justice, care for the poor among us, and how we treat one another is the bottom line for judgment. Our success in worldly things will ultimately mean nothing.

Summer is a good time to take another look at all that we possess and inventory in our hearts and minds the spiritual treasures we have, the friends who love us without condition, the church that keeps us in communion with each other and God, the beauty of the material world that belongs to every human being. It is a good time to look up at the stars in awe, and remember that the God who made us also made them, but they are nothing compared with the treasure we have of being loved by that same God who asks us to show that love and care to every person we meet.