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

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


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“Though the Mountains Tremble”

Sermon ~ Sunday, October 30, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

 

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The “Old Man of the Mountains” Franconia Notch, New Hampshire

Though the Mountains Shake

Psalm 46

It was a sad day when I received the news that the “Old Man” was gone.  He had had a good long life. While I didn’t see him every day I had on many occasions visited him but I had not been by since moving away from our home in Maine.  And now he had been literally wiped off the face of this earth forever!  I didn’t actually weep but there was a deep sense of sadness that brought forth a renewed awareness of the impermanence of even this created world.  He was relatively young, most would say the Old Man was only around 12,000 years old.

Daniel Webster, a New Hampshire, native wrote this about the “The Old Man of the Mountain”:  “Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades; shoe makers hang out a gigantic shoe; jewelers a monster watch, and the dentist hangs out a gold tooth; but up in the Mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men.” 

Well, as you can see from the before and after photos, God took the sign down.

The next Sunday after hearing of the Old Man’s demise, I preached on the words of Psalm 46 which had come to mind:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

This Psalm also inspired Martin Luther, Mr. Protestant Reformation himself, to write our opening hymn.  This hymn became a great source of strength and inspiration to those striving to reform the church in the 16th century.  The first line of this hymn, known as the national hymn of Protestant Germany, was appropriately inscribed on Martin Luther’s tombstone.

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing. . .  

Today is Reformation Sunday.  499 years ago, tomorrow a professor and priest walked up to the doors of the of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, in what is now Germany and nailed a paper on which he had written 95 revolutionary opinions that would push the reformation of the church into new territory. 

Not all protestant churches will mark this day and we do not every year but it seemed fitting to do so this year; a year when for certain sections of our United States and parts of the world, Psalm 46 with all its roaring and foaming and shaking and trembling of the earth and seas is too close to their experience.  And also for so many others, verse 6 could be said to reflect the political scene: The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.  

   This Psalm reminds us of who is our refuge and why we shall not fear, though the earth should change.   Even when the sides of mountains crumble into the valley below, the Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge!

There is much we can take away from this Psalm for this morning, however, I would like to focus on verses 8-10:

Come, behold the works of the Lord;

   see what desolations he has brought on the earth.

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

   he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;

    he burns the shields with fire.

 “Be still, and know that I am God!

 I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”

Right there in the midst of all this trembling and tumult, shaking and roaring and foaming of the earth and sea, kingdoms tottering and nations in uproar, comes one of the most oft quoted verses of the Scriptures:

   Be still, and know that I am God!

Right into midst of all the turmoil of natural disasters and political unrest, the Word of the Lord is “Be still!  Be still!” 

And know that I am God!  And know that I am God!”

Is this not a word that we need today?  Do we not need to be reminded to take time to be still and in that stillness remember who is God and ultimately who is in charge here? 

Regardless of the storms of life in the outer world of nature or inner world of personal conflicts; regardless of the political turmoil of the nations and even, (dare I say it?) who will be elected the next president!  (I said it!  Didn’t I!)

We need to remember who is God and that for sure we are not nor is any other human creature or creation!

 I’m fascinated by verse 8.  The psalmist has listed all these earthly calamities and problems and what does the Lord bring to all this?   Desolation 

Desolation?  As if we need anymore! 

But look at the sort of “desolation” Lord brings:  Wars to cease, the breaking of the bow, the shattering of the spear, the burning of the shields.  

Given the prevalence of war throughout the earth, it is hard to imagine this happening now.  However, with the eyes of faith, we are enabled to see the various places on earth where God is indeed bringing an end to war.  Wherever this happens, we can with the psalmist, interpret this as a statement of God’s sovereignty – for it is in the destroying the weapons of war that God has called us to “be still and know that [God] is God.”

Fundamentally it is God who is the refuge, the safe and secure place, more than any earthly city or country can be.  The psalm reminds us not to place our trust in any earthly place, person, or thing for our ultimate security amid the storms of life. 

As Luther wrote in his hymn: “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing.”

God’s ultimate assertion of power occurs in God’s destruction of those tools by which we seek to impose our power over others.  The destruction of such weaponry shows God to be the true power, the true ruler of the universe.  We are to cease and desist from taking up weapons of violence and to acknowledge God’s sovereignty (which weapons are not always made of metal and gunpowder but also words and behaviors.) 

Luther argued in his 95 theses of the sovereignty of God over the Pope at the time a radical and inflammatory thought.  In his 6th thesis which says in part: 

“The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God . . .”    

In other words, the Pope cannot override God’s veto, if you will.  If God has said no or yes that this is how it stands.  Look not to any human or human city, nation, fortress power, not even the church for your ultimate salvation. 

Yes, Luther had an issue with the sale of indulgences but he and many others were critical of the way the church had overstepped its boundaries setting itself in the place of God.

In its original setting Psalm 46 was most likely sung as a liturgical piece, perhaps in an annual ritual that celebrated the enthronement of YHWH as lord of Zion.  Through this ritual and song the people of Jerusalem would affirm and remind themselves of God’s protection and sovereignty, which brought delight and peace even in the midst of chaos threatening them on all sides. 

It can have the same effect on us today.  In worship we reaffirm our faith in God’s unfailing protection.  Out of this liturgical reaffirmation we derive strength to live as people of faith.  This faith does not mean shutting our eyes to the tumult, wars, and suffering; but it does means knowing that in the midst of all that threatens us, God is also there, and God ultimately reigns.

The “Old Man” is no longer with us.  But God still is.

As Luther wrote, “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us; we will not fear, for God hath willed [God’s] truth to triumph through us . . .  [God’s] kingdom is forever.”

May it be so, even here among us!

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
      though its waters roar and foam,

       though the mountains tremble with its tumult.  

Psalm 46:1-3  NRSV

 

 


Well, At Least I’m Not . . . !

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Sunday, October 23rd, 2016 ~ Sermon ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

 

Well, At Least I’m Not . . . !

Luke 18:9-14

Two people stopped by a church to pray one day.  They came separately but stepped into the sanctuary at about the same time.

The first woman, dressed to the “nines” in her mid-forties, walked in through the front doors of the church.  She had an elegant, well-mannered look about her.  The other one much younger, slipped in through the side door that came in through a hallway from the parking lot on the back side of the church.  It would appear she had come in from work and if her garb was any indication she perhaps worked as a chambermaid or even a dishwasher at a local restaurant.  She wore a stained apron and had a tired, worn look about her.

They each took a seat in a pew.  They were the only ones in the sanctuary so even though they were several rows a part, they were certainly aware of each other.

The first one removed her lace gloves, carefully bowed her head and began praying out loud, “Holy Lord God, Divine author of life and death and all that is seen and unseen, I thank you for the manifold blessings I have been privileged to know and continue to experience. Oh source of all Divine love, I am undeserving of your lavish grace.  I have been blessed with a wonderful family, loving husband, three beautiful children. And Lord, for whatever reason, you have blessed me with a comfortable life, unlike some who have to toil at hard labor for long hours for a living.  I know that none of us are worthy of your goodness but I thank you that I have received much from you.  Perhaps it is because you think I can handle it better than others that I have been these blessings. So I’m here to thank you and tell you your trust in me was not misplaced.  Once again it has been my pleasure and privilege to speak with you in this holy and sacred moment of prayer.  Amen.”

With this she opens her eyes, lifts her head, reaches in her purse pulls out a little mirror looks herself over in it, touches up her makeup a bit, slowly stands while she slipped her fancy gloves back on and made then her way to the door and left.

  The other woman had sat quietly through this time half listening and half wondering what she would say.  She was feeling rather intimidated by what she had just over heard. 

So sitting there fidgeting with something or other in her little handbag, she looks up into the ceiling of the sanctuary and began, “Um, um, God?  Jesus?  Whatever, whoever?  I’m not sure what I’m supposed to call you but I am callin’ on you, right now!  If I remember you like it when we are humble, so Lord I’m a tryin’.   But right now it’s been pretty damn hard and it’s not fair.  My kid is sick and is missing school.  I’ve had to stay home with him because as you know whether you like it or not I’m not married and there no one else.  So I’m taking the night shift and I’m just plain worn out.  I’m lucky the neighbor is willing to watch him at night.  I think she is trustworthy.  I’m not so sure about her boyfriend though.  I hope so, but what else can I do?   I’m trying my best.  A little help would be greatly appreciated!”

“Well, that’s about it.  And I guess, I thank yah for listenin’. That is if you are?  I have no idea because I haven’t heard a word from you yet!”

She looks down from the ceiling, gathers her things together, looks at her cell phone, lets out a quiet gasp, apparently she is late for something.  She jumps up and starts toward the doors.  But just as she leaves the sanctuary she looks back to the pew where the other woman had been praying, the scent of her perfume still lingering in the air, and not quite under her breath she adds another little prayer: “Well, Lord, at least I’m not like her!”

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. 

Who are you Pharisee of tax collector?  It is hard to read this parable without putting ourselves the one role or the other and perhaps both at different times.  But in the end does it make any difference?

Regardless of our station, class, rank, location in life it can be all too easy to compare ourselves to others and to do so in a more favorable light.  No one is immune to a deficiency in humility.  And there is no vitamin supplement for this!

“I may be such and such but at least I’m not like so in so!”

 “I may not be the best whatever (dad, mom, friend) but I’m at least better than some others.”

And let us not think that we do not do this as Christians with each other!!

I’ll be the first to raise my hand as guilty.  How many times have I thought if not said out loud “Well at least I’m more theologically astute, biblically informed, morally enlightened, spiritually mature that those ????!”

I am not preaching to the choir this morning folks!

How seductive it is to trust in ourselves that we are the enlightened, and to regard others with contempt.  (We like that word better than “righteous”!)  We do our good duty, go to church whenever possible; we put our envelope in the plate or make that automatic payment online.  We serve the church and our community in many ways. 

Hooray for me!  Boo for those who do not follow the rules as we do – those whose work is detestable to us, who we would prefer not sit in the same pew with us.  Even if we do don’t take our judgement to this extreme, it can be difficult to avoid looking on some with a bit of contempt when they do not conform to our expected standards of behavior, especially when it comes to religious behavior. 

Well, at least I’m not like . . . !”  If we have not said it, we have thought it!!

Jesus challenges us to avoid trusting in our own efforts at righteousness and to humble ourselves before a merciful God.  Trust is called for, but not a trust in ourselves or our ability.  What is called for is a trust in God’s mercy.  In a culture that values individual; achievement so highly, this can be a tall order, but even as we are cautioned not to trust our ability to fulfill the law, nowhere else does Jesus say that we may ignore the law! 

Humility in discipleship is a balancing act.  Because as we all know the moment you realize just how humble you are . . . you’re not! 

“. . . for all who exalt themselves will be humbled,

               but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The question is: Can we humble ourselves?  Or does it take an act of God?   

For some of us it is only when we mess up in a big way or to use a phrase from the recovery community “hit rock bottom” that we gain the humility and in that humility a heart that has room for God. 

This past week I was called to visit an individual in the local jail.   I did not know this person before I met with them in the contact visitation room in the jail.  All I knew was that this person had had a difficult few days and wanted to talk with a pastor.

I listened as the events that led up to the arrest and imprisonment were shared.  I heard lots of things but what I did not hear were excuses, any rationalizations, or attempts at self-justification.  An act had been committed that resulted very tragic consequences for which this individual took full responsibility.  We talked about forgiveness, human and God’s.  We spoke about mistakes made and repentance.  We spoke about the love and support of a few that had stayed with this individual throughout the ongoing ordeal. 

This person had been leaning hard on the psalms especially the Psalms of  lament.  I encouraged him to read and reflect and pray on Romans 8: 35-39

 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . .   No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,  nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

 

Here was a person who had hit rock bottom and had messed up in such a big way that there was nothing left but a wounded heart that was wide open for the undeserved mercy of God.  In the end this person’s only request:  pray for fairness and justice for every one including the victims.

But the tax collector, standing far off  . . .  was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ 

I pray that it will not take such an act on my part understand the mercy of God and to open my heart up to such love and grace.

To which I guess my prayer would be simply:

Lord, help me be humble, but don’t ever let me know it!  Amen!


{Don’t} Be a Pest!

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Sermon ~ Sunday, October 16, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Don’t Be a Pest!

Luke 18:1-8

 

Jesus told them a parable . . .  In a certain city there was a judge.  Now this judge neither feared God nor had respect for people.  And in that same city was a widow . . . 

 Starts out like any number of teaching stories Jesus used but then it turns a bit awkward.  Actually this is one of the more difficult parables in all of the Gospels.  Interestingly Luke is the only one who records it, maybe because it is so odd or perhaps he found it fascinating and wanted to try to incorporate the unusual and challenging into his portrait of the teaching Jesus.

On the surface of the story the widow is being a pest.  And this is where the story becomes a bit problematic for me.  The widow is portrayed as continually harassing the judge for her right to be heard.  I grew up in a culture where it was considered poor form and impolite to bother or pester someone.  You might ask 2 or 3 times and then you would wait.  Now this may not have always been the case when I was a child!  Thus I was reprimanded many times, “Don’t be such a pest!”  Am I alone here?   

On the other hand she is going up against a crooked (unjust) judge.  At least this is how Jesus describes him.  Jesus imagines in his story a woman with a legal case to pursue and by implication her case has legitimacy.  Jesus describes the judge as neither, fearing God or respecting of people.  In other words he could not care less.  There was no one in a position to pressure, cajole or manipulate him.  He wasn’t elected and didn’t feel any accountability to God or human.  Yet the widow will not leave him alone.  She pesters him endlessly until he finally adjudicates her case in her favor.  And he does this not because it was the right thing to do, but simply because she is being such a nuisance.    

At first glance like in many parables of Jesus, we might assume a character like the judge to be analogous to God.  But here this certainly does not set well with us.  How could God ever be like this judge?

It helps to understand the classic rabbinic rhetoric at the time.  Jesus was using the reasoning that if something small and mundane were true how much more the parallel point would be true on a higher level with issues which were greater, say, even heavenly.  If an irritating widow can coax justice out of a crooked and uncaring judge, how much more will a compassionate God hear and respond to our cries? 

And the moral of the story?  Pray constantly – just like the widow. 

At least on one level that is the “moral of the story”!

But it is also a parable about the powerful and powerless; the power of a male judge against the power of a woman, a widow, in a society that stacked the cards in favor of men over women.  The fact that she is a woman and a widow matters.  In the world of Jesus, women were very vulnerable; widows were extremely vulnerable.  The premise of the parable would have on first take been rather ridiculous and difficult to accept in ways that we might find difficult to understand from our 21st century western perspective.

But the reality of it was that no woman in the in the ancient world would have been likely to intercede on her own behalf in the way that Jesus portrays this widow.  His listeners would have been either shocked by her brazen actions or laughing at her foolishness as she breaks every social convention.  She had no right to approach the judge whether in private or public.  Women did not do such a thing, and women had no access to legal recourse or recognition in a court before a judge.

The rules of Jewish society in Jesus’ time were harsh and discriminatory against women.  Unmarried women were not supposed to leave the home of their father unaccompanied.  Married women were not allowed to exit the home of their husband unaccompanied.  Women could not testify in court because their word was considered unreliable.  Remember how the women who went to the tomb in the Easter story were disbelieved as recounting “an idle tale.”

Women could not appear in public venues, they were discouraged, if not banned from talking to strangers, which is why the account of Jesus and the woman at the Samaritan well so scandalized the disciples.

This parable of Jesus was and is difficult to understand because it breaks so many of the moral and traditional rules of the time, which in some ways may actually be the point!  According to societal norms, this widow should have just accepted her fate; but by refusing to do so, she acts so out of character that the judge is astonished.  In this way, she becomes the model of faithfulness on earth that Jesus is looking for in verse 8.

The teaching point or “moral” here: To be faithful sometimes may require acting a bit out of character!  Being faithful may sometime look like pestering for justice.  Being faithful may put you outside the norm of the culture!

There is however, another level to the story, which is tough to swallow: this issue of persistence.  And I’m thinking back to the “don’t be a pest” that I was my indoctrination as a youngster.  

The parable is about persistence, about showing up consistently to press the case, the injustice.  An unrelenting widow makes a pest of herself to an unjust judge who does not care for or have the time for her, even though she presses him to give her a favorable judgement.  The Judge is called “unjust” – meaning perhaps that he takes bribes and milks the system and gets what he can to his personal benefit, and is only willing to listen to those who will or can pay for justice. 

As I mentioned earlier, the literary rhetorical technique used by Jesus seems to be the ‘lesser to greater’.  Jesus concludes that if the unjust judge can grant justice in response to badgering, how much more will a righteous God grant justice to those who cry out day and night.  It is important also to note that Jesus avoids the notion that God must be worn down before granting justice.  Luke presents Jesus categorically saying “God will quickly grant justice.”

This is where it gets hard to accept at least for me.  In our experience, it is not often the case that justice comes quickly, and the by appearance of things, prayer is not always answered in the way we pray and want.  Much as we might like it to be the case, persistence in reality is not an automatic formula which equates earnestness with the desired outcome.

When our prayers begin and end with what we want, as opposed to what God wants, we have a very narrow field of spiritual vision.  Prosperity, as attractive as it is, is not what God promises, and unlike some popular TV preachers, anyone who promotes the idea of prosperity as an outcome of faithful living needs to take a fresh look at the cross and the cost of faithful discipleship as exemplified in the life of Jesus Christ!

It is an odd parable with an odd set of characters, and odd dynamics.  If the parable is strange and disturbing, the last line is the oddest of all because it seems to come out of nowhere.  Having made the point that God is more than an unjust judge, and more readily responsive than any jurist who can be cajoled by a woman who pleads her cause incessantly, we are left with a question that does not seem to fit what has gone before.  Luke places this question on the lips of Jesus, “When the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

It is a particularly haunting question.  It transforms the story from one that is simple and easy to apply, into one that is much more expansive and important.   Why on earth did Jesus tell that parable and then ask this question?

In verse 1 Luke writes that the parable is meant to encourage us to pray always and not lose heart, to live expectantly and in anticipation of God’s work in and among us.   

The question Jesus leaves us with is: “Will we?” 

We will be as bold and brash as the widow in seeking justice not just for ourselves but all?

Will we dare to step outside the cultural norm because of our faith?     Risk even seeming foolish in the eyes of those who have bought into the way things are.

In sort when the day comes, will Jesus find faith in us? 


Living Between Gracious & Greedy

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Living Between Gracious & Greedy

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, October 9, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Luke 17:11-19

 

Diane Gottsman, a present-day manners and etiquette expert, (so of course her advice “column” is “online”) was asked these questions regarding the etiquette of expressing gratitude for a gift received.

  1. In your opinion, is the traditional thank you note outdated?

Her response: “Is gift giving outdated?”

  1. How do I know when I need to write a thank you note?

If you are ever in the position to wonder if you need to write a thank you note, the answer is most likely a resounding yes!

  1. Is it true that if you are “looking them in the eye when you say thank you”, you do not have to send a thank you note?

Generally speaking, if you live in the same house or share the same bathroom, you are likely immediate family so a verbal thank you is all that is warranted.  However, it all depends on the gift, gesture, and effort. Even your mother or husband would appreciate an unexpected and heartfelt thank you note for their gesture of kindness.

  1. How long do I have before a thank you note is no longer appropriate?

It’s always best to send out a thank you note within the first 48 hours but a tardy thank you note is better than no thank you note at all.  Even a year later, believe me, the giver still remembers and will be relieved to know you used the gift or appreciated a monetary gift.

And by the way the mass email thank you just does not cut it!!  

http://dianegottsman.com/2011/01/thank-you-note-etiquette/

 

The question for this morning is “How soon do we have to say thanks?” 

And the answer, informed by today’s well known biblical story, is: “The moment we feel grateful.”

But what does gratitude feel like?   How do we identify its presence in us? 

For some, gratitude may feel like a tightly budded rose slowly unfolding in the chambers of one’s heart, a deep seated, wordless sensation.  At other times, gratitude may feel more like fireworks exploding in the center of your being, the uncontainable seeking expression.

Whether gentle or intense, these moments of gratitude demand a response – a tear rolling down a cheek, a quick prayer, a promptly made phone call or a bear hug delivered to the one who has been for me the “bearer of God’s grace.”

Jesus was such a “bearer of God’s grace” to these ten lepers.  They in their longing for wholeness and healing called out to him as he walked the road to Jerusalem.  “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  They pleaded from a safe distance.  And Jesus, ever so compassionate, tells the ten to “show themselves to the priests.”  While they are on the way to the temple, their leprosy is healed.  The rest of the story is legendary – ten were healed, one return to thank Jesus and this one was a Samaritan, a despised foreigner.   

The truth is we are sometimes found among the ingrates and sometimes we might be like the one who came back.

One theologian calls this dual aspect of our nature the battle between the gracious and the greedy.  The greedy side of us overconsumes all the good things of life thinking that we are somehow deserving, entitled.  It’s rather like the old Scotsman who was said to have kept the Sabbath and anything else he could put his hands on!  (Being of Scottish ancestry I can say that!)

The gracious side, on the other hand, meets life with a sense of humility at the many blessings all around us.  It takes only what it needs and understands that such gifts are meant for all.

So let’s take a look at these two sides of ourselves

First, when we are among the nine, what is it that keeps us from coming back to God in gratitude? 

There are many answers. 

We’re too busy, too self-absorbed, too taken up in the whirl of each day. 

We are too wealthy; we are too poor,

   or too worried about the current state of our lives.

We care too much about ourselves and too little for others. 

We are striving too hard to get ahead. 

We are too bitter about past hurts, too demanding of other people,

   and our expectations for what we deserve in this life are entirely too high. 

To name a dozen!

What worries me most, though, regarding my own lack of gratefulness, is that too often it stems from my tendency to be more rational that faith-full.  How often have I, in my oh-so-modern wisdom, explained away God’s grace with a ton of rationalizations?

Charles L. Brown (Not the friend of Linus and Lucy!) suggested some time ago that the nine cured lepers who did not return with gratitude might have used these rationalizations.

One waited to see for sure if it was real.

One waited to see if it would last.

One said, “I’ll catch up with Jesus later.”

One decided that he probably never really had leprosy to begin with.  

One said that he would have gotten well anyway.

One gave all the glory to the priests.

One said, “O, well, Jesus really didn’t do anything.  He just spoke to us keeping his distance.”

One said, “Any rabbi could have done it.”

And the last said, “I was already much improved.”

I guess my point is that gratitude rarely grows from a rationalizing mind.  Gratitude grows from an open heart, a believing heart, a heart willing to believe that God can and does offer us grace-filled moments that cannot be, need not be explained away by rationalization.

“Gratitude is born in hearts that take the time to count up past mercies.” said Charles Jefferson (a congregational minister from the early 20th century.) As trite as it may be it is good to on occasion take the time to “count our blessings.”

Which leads us to the other side of usWhat makes us come back to God with grateful hearts? 

What makes us come back are powerful infusions of grace.  We are going about in our heady, preoccupied state and, wham, grace breaks through and rips the blinders from our eyes.  And then we can see:

That smile in a stranger’s eyes when she looks our way;

The puffed up sparrow in a winter tree disclosing perfectly the beauty of God creation;

The apology that is accepted without one judgmental word;

The snide remark withheld; the sarcastic word suspended;

The healing that comes from one kind word delivered to us on a bad day;

The utter miracle contained in each breath we take, each sunrise we witness, each day of this magical mystery tour we call the human life;

 

And oddly enough gratitude helps us to see the inequalities of our world such as absolute injustice of some feasting happily on God’s plenty, while others go hungry in the night, to recognize our modern day “lepers” who are forced to live on the edges of society.

But what happens when even just a few Christians cannot see this, when we choose to be indifferent or ignorant of the sufferings of people, strangers, those different from us.  Sometimes we do not “see” in order to protect our privileges, way of life and comfort.  What does this say to others about our faith and our Jesus?  The world is watching and sometimes wondering!      

In his book, The Christ of the Indian Road, E. Stanley Jones asked Gandhi how to best naturalize Christianity into India. Gandhi replied in part:

“I would suggest first of all that all of you Christians, missionaries and all begin to live more like Jesus Christ.”   

Remember the fellow who came back was a Samaritan, a foreigner.

It is only when grace has removed our blinders that we can begin to allow our graciousness to overcome our greed.  And that is the moment when our gratitude is perfected in God’s sight.

A while ago I was driving from home to the church on State Street, I came to one of the intersections and there was a group of three or four people just about to step into the crosswalk.  Now I don’t know about you but hardly anybody stops for pedestrians on State Street, especially after Labor Day!  But that time I did for some reason.  And as they started across the street I could then see that one of them was using a walker.  And it was soon evident that even with a walker this person needed some assistance.  So it took a little more time than usual, a little more time then I planned.

So I waited.  A vehicle came up behind me.  They had to wait.   

Another one coming in the other direction was forced to stop and wait because of what I had begun.  They had no more than got across the one side of the street when the driver of the oncoming vehicle impatiently pulled through right on their heels. 

When they reached the other side the person with the walker looked my way and simply smiled.  The companions with a tip of the head mouthed a “Thank you.”  And everyone was on their way. 

There we were on a cool autumn morning doing a little dance of gratitude, the strangers for making it across the street without as much worry, me for the little smile, a tip of the head acknowledgment that made my morning.

How soon should we say thanks? 

The moment we feel grateful. 

And what will it look like? 

A wave of the hand, a silent thank you, and smile that opened up the “eyes” of one’s heart that it might have a little more room that day for gratitude.

 


Increase Your Faith Three Easy Steps Call Today!

increaseourfaith

Increase Your Faith Three Easy Steps Call Today!

Sermon ~ Sunday, October 2, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Luke 17:5-10

 

This story has been around for a while in various forms.  One version is that of a husband and wife who regularly attended church together.  But it seems the husband would on occasion doze off during the sermon.  He was attentive to the announcements, sang along with the hymns and songs, wide awake and serious in prayer, chuckled along with the rest at the antics of the children during the children’s message. But when the preacher stepped into the pulpit it was like he suddenly developed sleep narcolepsy.  Bam!  He was out . . . much to his wife’s mortification he would occasionally snore! 

One Sunday on their way home she started to scold him but he insisted he had been awake.

“Very well,” she said triumphantly, knowing better.  “What did the minster preach about?”  She had him!

He paused.  “He preached about sin.”

“What did he say about it?”  She asked smugly.

“He was against it!”  He harrumphed.

Now I don’t know if this answer proved whether or not he was awake, but I do know that generally a preacher who has spent some time preparing a message for Sunday morning would, all things considered, prefer you stay awake and pay attention.

However, this week, some of you are getting a free pass.  Some of you, I know, need to let your minds wander.  And that is alright.  Sometimes something is said and you need to explore that thought and it is fine with me to let your mind wander as you process it chase it down if you will.

Today some of you are getting a free pass because this message is not about you.  If you are humble, if you are meek, if you are a confessing Christian who is already aware of your sins and have asked Jesus for forgiveness, have never struggled with doubt or questioned your faith, you have permission to close your eyes, lean back, and relax.  You’ll hear the organ began the Hymn of Reflection.

As for the rest of us, (and I do mean us because I include myself!) we might want to pay attention but don’t let on this is hitting us right in the heart.

The Bible speaks some uncomfortable truths.  Sometimes people don’t like the way the Bible speaks.  You may have heard about Thomas Jefferson’s Bible but sis you know that in 1833 Noah Webster, whose influential dictionary shaped the American lexicon, published his own version of the King James Bible because to his thinking the biblical writers insisted on using indelicate words to describe human things.  He found biblical language “offensive,” “distasteful,” and “unseemly.”

Now there is that place at the end of Revelation where we are warned not to change a single word. (Some forget though, that at best this applies only to Revelation!)  All the same, if we could, who wouldn’t do just a little pruning?  Especially in today’s passage where Jesus talks about slavery, acts as if slavery were normal, and then tells us we need to consider ourselves slaves in relationship to God.

Slavery is a real problem in the world today.  Any reference to slavery that might suggest approval can be painful, or at least distracting.  No one should suggest in any way that scripture approves of slavery.  Even in the ancient world, where slavery was an economic, not a racial, condition, and many slaves could earn money and buy their freedom, it was still an instrument of power and it was wrong, to use a biblical word an abomination!

So when we find a reference in Luke that sounds as if Jesus takes slavery for granted, we might consider what Jesus was actually saying in this text.  He is chastising his disciples, who were his closer followers and should have been stronger in their faith, for their lack of faith, their inability to match the faith of a mustard seed.  He calls them to stop acting as if they were entitled to a place in the kingdom, and to work a little harder to make it happen. 

In the same way we ought to consider how this passage might be directed toward us who are a little too fat and sassy in our faith.  Especially in our era, when our hymns and our testimonies and even some of our theologies lead us to talk about “my Jesus” and “my God” and “my Bible.”  We can get to feeling pretty tight with the big Guy, “Just you and me Lord, just you and me.”

God becomes someone, a force, an energy, we can call in to help us on our project, to reach our goals.

Now those of you who have been asleep, this is why this message isn’t for you.  You are the ones who sit at the last place, to whom Jesus says, come forward and take your place at the table of honor.  You identify too much with the preachers of our colonial Congregationalists who referred to us as worms and describe what it’s like to be sinners in the hand of an angry God, while you’re safe from God’s wrath!  You’re really the ones to whom Jesus says, “Come unto me all you who are heavy laden, and l will give you rest.”

The rest of us, however, have to ask if we are really all that heavy laden.  Are we pulling our fair share?  Or have we pretty much had a free ride until now?  We who are proud, too self-assured, lacking in humility, who put ourselves in the first place, and look down on others as unworthy of God’s grace and salvation, we’re the ones to whom Jesus says, “Whoa there!  Wait a minute.”

Yes come to the table, but for once come to serve the Master.  Come expecting nothing, but a full helping of discipleship.  Tend God’s sheep, then feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit those in prison.  Maybe we’ve had it just a little too easy. To be sure the grace of God is free.  Maybe because we’ve paid nothing for it we have no real notion of its value.

The disciples said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” as if it were something to be done with a magic wand, with no more effort than the wave of a hand.  Authors today promise, “Read my book it will explain it all out for you.”  The supermarket tabloids keep on assuring us that we don’t need to sweat, we can lose those 40 pounds without dieting and exercise, that we can build muscles without any effort, six-pack abs while sitting in our recliners.  

Mustard seed faith might just work a little better if we plant our prayers on our knees.  This is not a scripture for the poor in spirit. They are blessed already.  This is for the rest of us.

But take heart – because we are not alone in this and we have someone on our side.  Someone wise and good: Jesus our master, and not only Jesus but our sisters and brothers!  The ones who are sleeping through this service.  Who among you, Jesus asks, would seat yourself, a slave with the master, poor with the rich?

In the Roman Empire such boundaries were honored as a matter of course.  But we know from church history that as the early church acted on these teaching of Jesus they found that when they came to the table of fellowship, all were welcome, despite the restrictions of Roman society.  And there was transformation.  The rich became poor.  The poor were lifted up.  Slaves were freed.  Masters bent to wash the feet of slaves.  As they all sought to emulate the way of their Master, Jesus of Nazareth.

Would you be with me in prayer?

Holy One, we come before you, humbled by the sacrifice of Jesus.

 As we break the bread and drink the cup

 let us call to mind the cross of Jesus until his return. 

Let us serve each other as slaves, not bound by laws or chained by the powerful, but freely pouring out our lives in service to each other and to God’s kingdom, following your example.

May we renounce the sins of selfishness and pride.

One Christ, one cross, one table, one people, serving one God.  Slaves to each other, freed with each other.  In your great name we pray.  Amen.

Okay. The rest of you can wake up.  We’re through.  And if someone asks you later How was church, show them your bulletin and if they want to know what the message was about just say sin.  And if they need any more details just tell them that we’re against it.  Especially our own! 

And again . . .  Amen!