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

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


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The Photo Op

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Sermon ~ Sunday, September 18, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

THE PHOTO OP

Luke 16:1-13

(Told in Maine accent) Business has been slowing down at Joe’s Barber Shoppe now that Labor Day has passed.  The summah complaints have left but the locals haven’t made their way back to Joe’s.  They like to give it a few days maybe a week or two to make sure they’re all gone.   That way when they hang out a Joe’s they have something to talk about!  

So when Rev. Williams stopped by earlier this week he was the only one in the shop the entire time he got his haircut and then for the hour following.  He has found that it is often during these unexpected moments that real ministry can take place or as in the instance of this opportune moment his knowledge of our local history helped to enhance his ministry.

It all began rather matter-of-factly when Joe was sharing all the news he had heard that morning over coffee at Helens’ Diner.  The McConnolly boys were hauling docks out of Hobbs Pond. Somehow they didn’t set something right and their brand new Dodge pickup ended up in 4 feet of water and 2 feet of mud!  Perry Packard broke his tow cable twice trying to break the truck loose from the Hobbs Pond muck!

Then there was the account of the red lobster that the Parker boy caught off of Christian Pt.  He’d already caught a blue lobstah in one of his traps last summah.  But a red one (red right out of the trap not the cooking pot!) is rare.  Folks up to Orono at the university say 1 in 10 million!   And oh yeah, Sam Coleridge was thinking about getting back into the used vehicle business. 

In spite of the images of the McConnelly boys hopping and tearing around as their pick up slid into the pond and the rarity of a red lobster, what caught the Reverend’s ear was that one of his church council members “getting back into the used car sales.”  Sam Coleridge was known for many things but he had never heard of him ever being in the used car business. 

Rev. Williams only knew of one used car dealer in the area and that was Ernie DesChambeau’s Used Car Emporium over in Pembleton, where he had purchased his current 2012 Ford Escape Hybrid which wasn’t at all what he planned on buying the day he stopped by Ernie’s.  But you know it was his “lucky Day!”

Now Sam has the reputation about town as one who has his hand into just about everything, and both hands, if there is a dollar to be made.  Mostly it is the construction business with various side enterprises that might be loosely affiliated with the business of building, digging, moving dirt and such.  A few years ago he purchased an old worn out City of Portland vacuum truck that he refitted to serve as a septic tank pumper.  On the side of the huge tank Sam had the words painted “It sucks but somebody’s gotta do it.  Coleridge Septic Services Rockhaven, Maine.”  On the back there’s a picture of Pepe Le’ Pew pinching his nose with his fingers.  Across the bug deflector on the hood is written in large magic marker lettering, “Sam’s Kucka Sucka.” 

Old Jim always claimed that with Sam’s luck at business he could fall into one of those septic tanks and come out with someone’s lost wedding ring and be the town hero.

 “Oh yeah,” Joe replied as he brushed the last of the Reverend’s now more than occasional gray hairs from his electric clippers. “It was back in the 70s ‘bout the time of the Oil Embargo.”  

“You’ve heard of Northland Auto Group, well, they were big even back then.  They had a franchise with every major manufacturer from Cadillac to Chrysler.  You could by a Cadillac Fleetwood or a Ford Fiesta, even a Fiat from a Northland dealership.” 

No patrons were waiting so Joe went over the old pop machine reached around the back grabbed the key and unlocked the machine, reached in a got himself a Fanta Root beer and offered the pastor an Orange which the he politely first refused then accepted at Joe’s second offer.

 

“Ayuh, the CEO, Peter Pierson, came up himself to make the sales pitch to Sam.  Oh it was all very impressive.  Peter, you know, was and is the face of Northland Auto group on all the TV commercials and his smiling face features prominently in all those full page ads in the big city newspapers.”

“The rumor got around after a fashion that Northland Auto Group approached Sam thinking this area would be an opportune place to unload some of their older, less desirable, used vehicles. Especially those big old gas guzzlers!  What do we know up here about cahs anyway, right?”  Joe slid into the vacant barber’s chair and took a big swig of his root beer.      

  Yes, the Reverend had heard of them and their very slick television commercials.  Their tagline: “We have the most beautiful cars in our dealership show rooms. So, come on in. They’re bigger than ever and they last a lifetime!”

So the Reverend did just that, . . . once.  He stopped found that indeed they were bigger and last longer . . .  the loan payments that is!

“O yeah,” Joe continued with his little bit of Rockhaven history for the parson.  “Sam ran Northland Auto Group’s used car lot for a number of years until all of a sudden word got out that Northland was threatening to take the dealership away from Sam.  Whether it was some shady dealing on Sam’s part or just poor accounting practices seems Sam got into trouble with cooperate headquarters.”  

“Sam, always with his ear to wind for the next great opportunity, got word of what may be coming down from corporate in Portland.  Threatened with the loss of his dealership and feeling like he was about to slip into a septic tank, Sam devised a little plan of his own.” Joe paused in thought chuckled to himself.

“Suddenly, pastor,  there were deals galore!  Signs went up under hoods: no reasonable offer refused, double money on your trade-in, every vehicle $500.00 dollars under Kelly Blue Book.  And Sam was good to his word.  Cars started leaving the lot and tow trucks were hauling off the clunkers that Sam took in on trade.” 

“But he didn’t stop there.  Oh no, Sam was on a roll.”  Joe leaned forward in the barber chair and looked out the window onto the common and back in history.  “Why Sam, even donated a few cars to some needy families.  One family with 6 youn’ uns, two of ‘em with autism.  You know, he donated a 1972 Ford passenger van to that family.  I remember it was blue and white.”  Joe paused swirled the root beer around in the bottle.

“Well, let me tell you, Rev., the word got out about our old Sam’s generosity and good will!  First it was a local reporter with the Down East Gazette. She came over and took a picture of Sam handing the keys to this family of 6 kids and their two parents.” 

“It wasn’t long before that picture was seen by the Press Herald out of Portland and they got right on the phone to Northland Auto Group corporate office and asked to speak to Mr. Peter Pierson about this wonderful human interest story taking place at one of his dealerships!”

“Well, the Press Herald people praised Mr. Pierson right up and down and insisted on meeting him at this dealership and getting a photo with him and the local manager.  What a great story this would make.  People just love warm and fuzzy human interest stories!”

“Now let me tell you, what was old Peter Pierson to do?  He was caught between a stump and a mud hole!”

“I guess you could say if Mr. Pierson wasn’t careful he might be the one to fall into some of Sam’s kucka!”

Joe stopped there. . . .  Paused. . . .   Finished off his Fanta root beer and chuckled to himself. 

“Well?” the Reverend a pushing Joe to finish. 

Joe gets up and strolls over to the crate where he keeps the returnables, tosses in his empty.  “Another Orange, Pastor?”

“What happened Joe?” prodded the Reverend impatiently.

“Well, Sam doesn’t have the dealership anymore.” stating the obvious. 

“Sam claimed he got out of the business because, to quote Sam,

        ‘There’s no money in used cars anyway.’” 

“And Peter Pierson, what could he say or do?”  That little photo op was probably worth more to Northland Auto Group in potential sales than all their previous advertising!  Certainly more than the few old beaters that Sam sold for little or nothing or just plain gave away.”

“Ayuh, guess you could say that photo op saved Sam Coleridge’s neck and his future career here in Rockhaven.  For good bad or otherwise we may not have gotten to know our Sam Coleridge if it wasn’t for that Press Herald photo of him alongside Mr. Peter Pierson of Northland Auto Group!  In fact it is right over there on the wall.”

About that time the little bell on the door jingled, Howard Williams stepped in.    

The Reverend got up and walked over to the side wall of Joe’s shop.  He’s seen the framed photos there.  Mostly they’re of young men and women from Rockhaven in their military uniforms.  A few photos of some of the more memorable sporting highlights from Rockhaven High (Go Quarriers!)

But there in one old frame was a faded newspaper article with a grainy photo.    Headline read: “Neighbor helping Neighbors.”  Highlighted was a quote by a much younger Sam Coleridge, “In keeping with the Northland Auto Group’s tradition of being a good neighbor, we started this program to assist those with the need of reliable transportation.” 

And there is Peter Pierson handing the keys of a 1973 Chevy Impala to a young couple, a skinny looking young fellow, and his wife with two grubby looking kids hanging off her.  On the second page of the article the headline read “Down East Branch of Northland Auto Reaches Out in Caring Gestures.” 

The Gospel for that Sunday was all about the unscrupulous manager, of whom the good book said, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly . . .”  

To which Jesus oddly commented, “. . . for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

And then even more perplexingly He said, And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

 He looked up after reading the Gospel lesson and there was Sam Coleridge whispering something to Bob Barstow! 

And he wondered what would be on the agenda at the next Church Council meeting!

He could hear it now. “Say Pastor, I’ve been thinking about a way to increase church membership.  What do you say we offer to anyone who joins before the end of 2016t a year free like they won’t have to pledge?”

 

 

 

 


Reclaiming Lost Possessions

 

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Reclaiming Lost Possessions

Luke 15:1-10

Sermon ~ Sunday, September 11, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

 

Last week, if you recall we had that rather difficult passage and subsequent message about the cost of discipleship. We read and wrestled with Jesus’ use of cutting language in an attempt to get across his expectations for whoever would choose to be his disciples.

Hate family. . . Carry the cross. . . and one particularly awkward demand: Give up all your possessions. . .

And now this week we have two stories from the lips of this same Jesus all about finding and reclaiming and rejoicing over lost possessions found.

One might want to say, “Jesus, would you make up your mind! Do we let go of our possessions and then seek them again, at all cost?”

Well, no, of course not. In these two stories (parables) of Jesus we know that the lost possessions are stand-ins for “lost people.” The broader context surrounding the telling of these stories makes this plain. And the story Jesus tells following (which was not part of today’s reading) is actually about a lost person, in the character of the prodigal son.

“Lost” What do you think of when you hear someone use this adjective with an individual, not in the context of driving or walking in the woods but in a religious context such as, “She is such a lost soul.”? Do you have this image of the street evangelist who is out there preaching repentance “and reaching out to those who are lost and have gone astray”? If this is the case, then you probably do not readily identify with the lost in this passage. You probably identify more with the shepherd looking for the one sheep or woman turning her house upside down in order to find the lost coin.

I never particularly fond of word lost in this manner. I am more akin to the phrase JRR Tolkien’s “not all who wander are not lost” whether they are physically wandering or spiritually exploring.

I guess one challenge for me this morning is to have you (to have me) consider ourselves as not only as the ones looking but also as ones that God desires so deeply to seek us out no matter the cost! Each of us, you, me, every person gathered here this morning…is God’s beloved possession.

And from time to time we get lost, we stray, we walk around with a befuddled look! Indeed, we live in an increasingly confusing world; we can be prone to doubt, ridden with anxiety/fear. And if it isn’t enough any number of political candidates want to make sure we know just how scary this world is and how much scarier it will be if their opponent is elected!

Okay, off my soapbox! Back to the scriptures, some religious leaders were criticizing Jesus for the time he was spending with tax collectors and “sinners” and daring to eat with them, even welcoming them to eat with him! Eugene Peterson in The Message translates verses 1 & 2 this way: “By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, ‘He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.’ Their grumbling triggered this story: ‘Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep…'”

Now, these leaders knew the rules and genuinely worked hard to live by them. Jesus does not critique that here. What he is critical of is their attitude toward those who did not “live by the rules” indeed, those who might be called lost. In the view of the religious officials, such persons were either lazy or weak or rebellious. In other words, it was the fault of the lost that they were lost.

The question was what should be done about this. For the leaders, it was clear. Stay away from them. If they’re going to “return,” that’s up to them. “Hanging with the wrong crowd” is only likely to get you moving with them in the wrong direction, as well.

Now to be sure these religious “experts” had solid biblical backing for their solution. And it’s present in both testaments so Christians have often offered the same advice.

“Be holy, for I am holy.’ Wrote the author of 1 Peter (1:15-16.)

And Paul wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? … Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever?… Therefore come out from them…” (2 Co. 6:14-16)

“True religion… is to care for widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” penned James. (1:27)

This has been the reason given over the years why some chose not to associate with the rest of us some of the clergy circles I’ve been part of.

On the other hand this is wise counsel we give our children. For we know from experience that we tend to become like the people we hang around. So if we’re working to start a new habit or stop an old one, it helps to surround ourselves with others who already have the new habit, rather than “fall in” with folks who are continuing in habits we’re trying to break or change.

Jesus nowhere disagrees with the potentially toxic effect of “bad company.” But he also doesn’t see that as an excuse to leave the “lost” to fend for themselves and find their own way back. That only insures that they will probably remain “lost.” Lost sheep and coins cannot restore themselves. For the most part, Jesus implies in his telling of these two stories, nether can lost people. Even in the story of the Prodigal son, the son may see the error of his ways and begins his return home but he is not completely home and restored until his father receives and welcomes him with that great banquet! So to Jesus, when people get lost, it’s up to the community, not simply the one(s) lost, to go and help them find their way home.

Now we are not going to be very successful if we go with this “holier than thou” attitude that we are going to “save” them no matter what, even against their will. That “by God” we will bring them back into the fold, kicking a screaming, if we have to. We know how that approach would work on us! Many have tried but it hasn’t worked on me! Yet too many well-meaning Christians seem to take this approach to evangelism.

Again we see this in the next story Jesus tells. (The Lectionary should have included the Story of the Prodigal Son!) The father sees the son while the son is a long way off and goes running to greet him. It is the father’s action not the son’s request, which fully restores the son to his family. The father in the story is a “stand in” for God. This is how much God desires us.

So, yes, we let go of possessions. But when people are struggling, wandering aimlessly, riddled with anxiety, lost if you will, we are to seek them not to browbeat them into submission but to walk with them as they find their way to a better state, whether that be a better emotional, mental, physical state, or spiritual place. We seek to see them restored to God. We even eat with them. For, as Jesus reminds, twice, there is supreme joy in heaven over even one sinner who repents.

That’s why Jesus eats with sinners. That’s why we give thanks “he ate with sinners” when we gather at the Lord’s table.

 

I don’t know about you but over the years I’ve found myself on both sides of Jesus stories.

We are those searching and restoring and from time to time we are the one that God is seeking. And I for one am glad God has not given up on us!!

Jesus, you and your traveling companions are welcome at my table anytime.


What Did He Just Say?

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Sermon ~ Sunday, September 4, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson 

Luke 14:25-33

 

Just about every preacher understands that if she or he wishes to have a peaceful and lengthy tenure with a congregation you must be careful around certain subjects.  Perhaps the most controversial and potential career ending subject for a pastor is money.  Stewardship and one’s use of money, if not addressed with care and caution are like hidden landmines for pastors!  These can be difficult subjects to approach for they can be difficult topics for church members to talk about.

Well, that may be so, but consider the controversy Jesus is stirring through his teaching in the reading from Luke’s gospel in today’s reading.  He seems to be taking dangerous preaching topics to a new level.

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father or mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple. . . (How is that for “traditional family values!)

Hate is such a strong term, such an extreme emotion.  We have immediate negative reactions to it. We live in a world where there are “hate groups” and in which “hate crimes” are committed.    

Still Jesus goes on:

Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. . .

And if that isn’t enough he adds:  None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up ALL your possessions.”  

Tough, hard teaching, even offensive!  Hate your family?  Take up a crucifix and follow him?  Give up all your possessions?  And if you don’t, then just forget it, don’t even bother trying!  Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.  What kind of a cult leader is this Jesus guy? A first century Jim Jones, David Koresh or a Reverend Sun Myung Moon?

There are a couple ways to respond, maybe three. 

  1. To out and out reject the offensiveness of it. To simply say, no I don’t buy it.  But this means we don’t buy into the one who said it either.  In rejecting the offense, we reject the offender, which in this case is Jesus.  Are you ready to do that?   
  2. So if you are concerned about totally writing off Jesus then another approach might be to reinterpret it. “What Jesus really meant was . . .” (usually something other than what he obviously seems to have said!)”   “What He meant was something more like “love me more than anything” and “try your very best” and “don’t focus on things as much.”

This response, and it is very common in preaching and commentaries, might evade the offense.  But it still is a way is evading the one who said it.  How many of us like to have something we said reinterpreted and in the process “watered down?”

  1. Okay, so you still have some apprehension about rejecting or reinterpreting Jesus’ teachings, I guess a third option would be to reframe it. This approach imposes an outside ethic on Jesus’ teaching, often an ethic that is far more 21st century than 1st century. In this case we might impose for instance the ethic of balance or tension. 

We have to balance our love for Jesus with our love for family.  We have to live with the tension of faithfulness to God on the one hand and duty to others on the other, being sure not to go too far in either direction, lest we become completely faithless (duty to others alone) or cause ourselves foolish harm (carrying the cross to our detriment). 

We need to be prudent with our possessions, giving out of our overflow, perhaps, but certainly not giving it all.  After all, where would that leave us?  

This is a way of completely ignoring both the offense and the offender.  And we may be drawn to this sort of reframing Jesus’ teaching.  Only one problem, Jesus never once, anywhere in scripture, calls us to live in such balance or tension.

Greek philosophers encouraged it.  Reinhold Niebuhr (UCC theologian thought to be the author of the “Serenity Prayer”) wrote about it.  Jesus never did.  And while modern psychologists seek to help us find balance and the release of tension; Jesus says plainly, clearly, “Follow me.”

The qualifications Jesus puts forth for being his disciples were and are offensive and radical.  But they are His conditions as He considers whom he will trust as disciples.  They are not ours as we choose whether we want to follow such a demanding master.  Ours calling as disciples is not to “dumb down” his demands, but to accept the radical nature of his challenge, and to live into them, if we want him to choose us as part of his construction crew or army (using the illustrations Jesus uses in verses 28-32).    

And this is where we begin and perhaps spend all of our life of discipleship: in the process of living into the call Jesus has put forth. 

At this stage of Jesus’ ministry, we see large crowds of people, groupies if you will, who are now joining the growing entourage around this wonder-working rabbi from Nazareth.  Some of them probably think that simply joining the crowd constitutes being one of his disciples. 

Notice it is to the crowd that Jesus turns and speaks in this passage.  He wants them to be very clear what His expectations are.  It’s will be far more than admiring him, or even traveling with him.  If he is going to be building a new movement and fighting against the spiritual strongholds at the same time (which he is!), He needs people He can count on, without any wavering. Their allegiance must be to Him and him alone.  Not family.  Not self-preservation.  Not to comfort.  And not to possessions.  Only to Jesus!  

Now, is so doing, he was not telling his admirers to go away.  He was telling them not to confuse being part of a crowd with being disciples, because he didn’t.  On the other hand, if some of them were willing to be that committed to him, Jesus was offering a call to discipleship.  It would appear, based on Luke’s testimony in Acts 1&2 (there were 120 disciples praying together for ten days in Jerusalem and preaching at Pentecost), that perhaps some of them did.

Now There are those (like the Jim Jones and David Koresh types) who would use such a passage as this to browbeat their followers into submission.  Nowhere in this passage or in all of the gospels does Jesus browbeat anyone!  He simply puts forth what his standards for disciples are, and explains those standards are as high as they are because the stakes of his mission and ministry are that high. 

They still are.  

Again, Jesus did not turn anyone away.  If they left, it was a decision they made as a result of Jesus’ teaching.  Now, did those who chose to follow him begin their journey as perfect disciples? 

Hardly!  Look at what happened at his crucifixion.  Just about everyone abandoned him.  But then, look at who was there at Pentecost and look what Jesus did for Peter after completely denying his Master three times. (I’m referring to that beautiful moment of restoration in John’s Gospel (21:15-19) which concludes with Jesus saying to Peter one again, “Follow me.”

Living into discipleship. That’s what is all about. 

Are the standards high?  Yes, to be sure!  

Yet, as tough as Jesus’ words are in this passage the call is to follow him, not, that we are perfect disciples from the get go, hardly, but this is the direction we are to grow.  Do we think that James and John, Peter and Andrew completely understood what they were getting into and thought they had it all together that day on the seashore when Jesus approached them? 

The life of discipleship is never a linear journey, that is we start in one place and steadily progress to another, there are bumps and setbacks, wrong turns and loops, and plenty of times when we get stuck in one place. 

Can it be done?  I believe we can all think of those who have responded to the call and demands of discipleship. 

In the first congregation Donna and I served Lee & Joyce Oliver would attend on occasion.  Joyce’s sister Wilma was a regular attender.  One Sunday Lee & Joyce announced that they were going to be leaving their lovely 19th century brick home on Weld St., family that lived nearby, friends, and a comfortable early retirement and go to a place called His Mansion. No salary, no sure housing, nothing familiar, no background in ministry (Lee was a retired Coast Guard boiler engineer) they had nothing to commend or qualify them except that when they heard the director of His Mansion speak at a conference or retreat, they heard a call from Jesus saying follow me to “His Mansion.” 

There the Oliver’s worked with young men and women in a Christ Centered healing community. Drug abusers and those who were abused, Lee worked with them as they worked alongside him taking care of the plumbing and electrical matters of the Mansion.  They worked up 30+ cords of firewood every year.   Joyce was asked to mentor and disciple the young pregnant moms that had found their way to His Mansion. 

Take up the cross and, come follow me.

Can we, will we, ever meet the expectations Jesus has for discipleship? 

I don’t know.  I know I haven’t reached it yet. Still I’ve heard the call and desire to be as faithful a disciple as I can be with God’s help

And this I can testify to:  As long as I keep on trying, God will keep on giving me opportunities to grow into the disciple Jesus has called me to be.

I believe God will do the same for each of you. 

So what do you say?