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

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


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Don’t Forget

Sermon ~ November 20, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

 

These days it is hard to imagine how we got along without computers and cell phones.  A generation has now entered adulthood that never knew a world without these tools of technology.  We live in a society where the wisdom of the past is easily outplayed by the latest bid for our loyalty.  Now, there is nothing wrong or intrinsically evil in technology.  Cellphones, iPads, Bluetooth this and that are merely tools.  We just have to make sure we are controlling the tools and do not become ensnared slaves of some cyber – overlord. 

In the days of Deuteronomy they worried about idols of gold now we have to be wary of idols made out of quartzite and a few rare earth metals.    

I honestly think there are those who would quicker forget and leave their kid behind than walk out without their cellphone!  A couple of times lately I walked out leaving my cellphone behind.  All was good until I realized I had left it behind then I felt my anxiety level rise!  I thought, “How ridiculous!  Who is controlling who?”  Don’t forget.  

Deuteronomy 26 offers some corrective to our modern quandary with fascination and fixation with technology or anything else that might lure us away from where our focus should be.  It tells of the ancient practice of giving the first fruit of the harvest and then the important recitation of the Hebrews’ story of deliverance. These are inseparable in the passage suggesting that the meaning of one (thanksgiving) frames the meaning of the other (the remembering of God’s acts of liberation).

What happens to a people’s sense of self and history when their priorities are organized around material possessions and shifting market values? Consider this from recent events:  On the night of the election stock futures plummeted.  People worried about the unknown.  I’ll be honest, when I heard this I wondered about what this might do to the value of my pension!

 

 

Then the following day after the NYSE opened, stocks rebounded and actually gained.  Many, if we’re honest, breathed a bit easier.  Maybe we even breathed a prayer of thanks?!  Again a part of me thought, “How ridiculous!  In what do I trust?”  Don’t forget.

Have we lost our identity as God’s people to the point that we no longer know why we give thanks or to whom to give it? This passage of scripture, recounting an ancient practice, is crucially relevant to an understanding of ourselves as human beings who are the subjects of God’s continual care and creative love.  This story may counter the illusion that we can deliver or save ourselves through our fixation with modern technologies and unwarranted trust in Wall Street idols.

Deuteronomy reminds us that when a people forget their past, they can also lose their present and future.  We aren’t to live in the past but we allow it to inform our present and future.  This means that all those creeds and biblical stories are part of the church’s collective memory.  Celebration and recitation are ways we fashion our identity by reenacting the events that mark the Hebrew/Christian salvation story.  As in when we remember “That it was on the night of his betrayal, Jesus was at table with his disciples and he took bread . . .”

The season of Thanksgiving is a good time of year to reflect, meditate and act upon the lessons of this passage in Deuteronomy 26.  And not just a quick three-day break before we enter the hectic shopping and party season formerly known as Advent.   

So what does Deuteronomy say to us this Thanksgiving?  One, take the time to experience and express gratitude.  Have you ever known people who rarely say “Thank you,” or express a sense of gratitude for the things done for or given to them?  Some live as if they are entitled to the good will of others.  And from my experience it is often those who have more expect or feel entitled to more. 

Thanksgiving gives us the opportunity to reverse such a way of being in the world.  It is a time to take stock of our life and that of the community, to remember the unmerited good that has come our way and to repent of the ways we have squandered it.  Seems to me that repentance ought to go along with our offerings of thanksgiving as we open our lives to examination; as we examine our relationship with God we will become more and more aware of those things that come our way completely unearned and undeserved: gifts of grace.

The season of Thanksgiving is also a time to remember our ancestors.  In our reading for this morning the ancestors are the particular individuals who stood out as exemplary figures for the Hebrew people.  Verse 5: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor . . .”  This is speaking of Jacob who later became Israel, but it also reaches back to Abraham. 

Thanksgiving offers us opportunities to recall those who have gone on before us.  These may be treasured friends, beloved relatives, or others who have left their imprints on our lives, the life of our families, and our community.  Our gratitude extends to them because through the legacy of their faith they still speak and encourage us to work for a better world. 

For many in our country their ancestors came from very difficult circumstances of oppression, hunger, and terror.  Many of our fellow country men and women are only a generation removed from those circumstances and may still be going on for some of their family.  We are challenged to remember global oppressions, famines and wars and the ancestors who struggled against them and for a better life for their families.  The work of our ancestors is furthered through our faithful efforts in our time.

This is also a time to remember the past in general.  Not to dwell in the past or get stuck there but the past represents the events that shaped us directly and indirectly, in recognized and unrecognized ways.  We must strive to remember the past so that we can learn from the lessons of history and move forward with a greater sense of wisdom and appreciation of past struggles.  And by this I do not mean telling and retelling our grandchildren how difficult life was for us growing up.  You know the whole “Walk to school, uphill both ways in the snow, year-round!”  But tell the stories, honestly if possible, warts and all.  (Uncle Wilkie, Trespasser Wilson)

I think about the past remembered by the Israelites in this passage: they were called to remember the time when they were wandering in the wilderness and living in tents without a land of their own.  You know, we live in a land of great wealth and opportunity and all too often we take our amazing physical and financial abundance for granted.  We have a promised land, and too often we take this as a sign of special blessing and privilege from God, rather than as a sign of special responsibility.  Ours is a rich inheritance, but daily in our forgetfulness we rob future generations of their inheritance.

Despite the fact that we live in one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the world, there has never been a time in history when more people have been consumed with a search for meaning.  Anxiety and fear abound – our souls are unsettled- and while spiritual fixes proliferate, the signs of our rudderlessness grow.   We seem to have forgotten something.  Do we need to go back to our beginning?  “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor. . .    

Too often it seems to me that we grabbed for the first fruits of everything and forgotten who is the “first cause or mover” and have not remembered and given thanks.  We tend to worship the “American dream” rather than the One who said “This is my body . . .

Deuteronomy 26 reminds us that the “thanks” given at Thanksgiving ought to be about more than just the delicious bounty of food on our feast tables.  But also a powerful gratitude for our ancestors and our past remembering these with an understanding and appreciation that informs our present actions and moves us forward bringing with us, and furthering, the best ideals of the past. 

 With this may we acquire a deep sense of repentance when we find we have strayed from the ways of the One who set this in motion in the first place.

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.  When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” 

 


Life of Faith: Are you a Trades-person or Merely a Tourist?

Sermon ~ Sunday ~ November 13, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
 
Life of Faith: Are you a Trades-person or Merely a Tourist?
 
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” (2 Thess. 3:10)
 
This is one of those passages that some people read and it reinforces their less than kind impression of the Apostle Paul; this and some of his words on the subservient nature of women to men, his wordy, almost obfuscated theology in Romans and a few others. If one gives this passage just a surface read (as many do), it sounds like the antithesis of the mission statements of any Christian feeding ministry. A casual, literal reading might just close the doors of countless soup kitchens and food pantries across the country. Its harsh sounding message seems to run counter to the generous invitation of Isaiah for everyone to “come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Is. 55:1) It even seems to contradict Jesus’ instructions to the disciples at the feeding of the 5000. When disciples wanted to send the hungry people away saying, “Send them off to the market to buy their own meals” Jesus gave them a clear mandate of hospitality and compassion saying, “You give them something to eat.” (Mk. 6:37) How are we to reconcile these messages of grace with the stern command from this third chapter of 2 Thessalonians that “anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (v. 10)? First we have to read it a bit more closely and once again seek to understand the context, both literary and historical/social. First the literary, what does the text actually say? “Paul” is responding to a “church” or community of believers. He is not writing about or to the Thessalonian society as a whole. “Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness…”, these “idlers” were not the beggars, moochers, the “lazy poor” of Thessalonica but persons within the fellowship of believers who were not carrying their share of the ministry responsibility! An understanding of the historical/social background can inform us, first, of how the code of hospitality to strangers is an essential aspect of both the Jewish and Christian faiths.
 
Hospitality in the biblical world concerns two categories of people: the resident alien and the traveler. In most cases the two were not distinguished. The word used to delineate these people means in essence, one who does not belong to a community or group, your tribe. Survival in ancient times required that travelers and strangers be offered food, water, and protection. These strict codes extend to even offering such hospitality to enemies. This life-affirming hospitality is referenced powerfully in a line in the much loved 23rd Psalm, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” While God is the host in this image the idea here is that even the enemy is invited to sit at the table of God’s hospitality with us. There was no fee expected for this service, and the one receiving such mercy incurred no debt. It was offered out of compassion and an understanding that all humanity is vulnerable. Later, in the Christian scriptures in the book of Hebrews, a reference to this code appears in the admonition, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Heb. 13:2) While the vulnerability of the resident alien and the stranger created the necessity for religious codes of hospitality, providing for this hospitality requires that anyone in the community who is able to work should do so.
The church at Thessalonica, it would seem, had this eschatological (end times) expectation that Christ was going to return very soon. And it would seem this expectation led some to assume there was no longer any need to tend the field or shop, since any day now, all were going to gathered up in the Lord’s second coming. Considering this, some in the community had fallen prey to the common response of being less motivated to serve and labor than others. Why bother right; especially if you believe this is all going to be gone soon anyway, and there are just those who never seem to pull their weight in any organization. So what does the church do about this?
 
Well, from the time the disciples first gathered into communities and began to discern how God might be calling them to live peaceably together, guidelines have been needed to help balance the workload. “Paul” was laying out some early ones in this passage but perhaps the most well-known is the Rule of St. Benedict. The Benedictine rule, which dates to the 6th century, can be summed up with the Latin motto: “ora et labora” “pray and labor.” In his Rule, Benedict acknowledges differences in ability and seeks to accommodate every person’s skill. All are to work as able. One contemporary translator of Benedict’s Rule writes this about the necessity of service: “No one is excused from rendering service to others. No one is exempted from performing the mundane tasks of daily life. Rendering service to others is necessary to our own fitness. Exempting someone from commonplace chores endangers them to vanity.” (John McQuiston II Always We Begin Again: the Benedictine Way of Living) Life in community requires that everyone be enabled and encouraged to do the work of ministry. This camaraderie is essential for the cultivation of both dignity and humility. Leaving someone out of the work life of the faith community can be demeaning. Just ask the long time active church member who finds herself in a healthcare center, or the widower who finds his connection to the church weaker without his spouse. “Who am I? What can I do? What good am I?” By the same token, allowing anyone who is able to work to be dismissed from ministry creates disparity and ill feelings in the faith community. Modern monastic communities know this as well. Pilgrims to the Iona Community in Scotland and the Taize Community in France are all given the opportunities to serve in the working life of the community.
 
The Carpenter’s Boat shop in Bristol, Maine operates under a rule similar to Benedict’s. Their purpose statement: Regardless of age, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, gender identity or sexual orientation, The Carpenter’s Boat Shop attracts those willing to work hard, live simply, and share in work and life with one’s community. . . In our daily life, we strive to use the Rule of St. Benedict as a way to organize activities of the day and to seek the balance contained in the seven principles of work, worship, study, service, recreation, hospitality, and prayer. We adopt work and living practices that foster sustainability, an appreciation of the natural environment, and an opportunity to explore one’s personal faith through reading, study, and discussion. I spent some time there several years ago (That’s where I learned the craft of making Shaker oval boxes.) While at the Carpenter’s Boat Shop everyone is expected to help with meals and the regular chores around the shop, farm, gardens and even the noble chore of cleaning the outhouse. Opportunities to work are invitations into the inner workings of the Christian body in these places, deepening relationships with others on the same journey as well. Not to work would make one just another tourist and diminish the experience of the Christian life. The depth of hospitality in a faith community’s life is shown as those, who are differently abled, are invited in and are presented with opportunities for service that match their abilities and skills. (So the deep spiritual question for me has always been: What does it say that I was assigned to clean the outhouse at the Carpenter’s Boat Shop?)
 
As you make this faith journey through life are you’re a person working at your God-given trade, using your abilities and skills for the increase of the reign of God? Or are you just another tourist stopping by just long enough to grab a quick photo with your selfie-stick and get right back on the bus? Paul warns those tourist types, idlers and busybodies: Do your work quietly and earn your own way. . . “ Are we all using our skills and resources and participating in the work God has called this church to be doing? And are we allowing others in our midst to find their place working alongside us as well? (And I’m talking about a whole lot more than just sticking someone on a committee!) One of the best things a feeding or food pantry ministry can do beyond providing meals is to invite those who are able and willing to serve alongside in the ministry. This goes for just about any ministry, really. Habitat for Humanity invites from the future home owners what they call “sweat equity.” When I was overseeing the Summer Housing Ministry at the Maine Seacoast Mission we encouraged the families who lived in the homes we were working on to help the work crews in whatever way they were able.
 
To those of us who are content to let others do all the work, Paul admonishes, “Brothers and Sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” To those of us who do the work of ministry need to move from the patron mindset and approach (We are the benefactors they are the merely the recipients.) to one that invites others in as co-workers in Christ. It is good to feed, clothe and help others but how much better to invite them as they are able into the work itself. To serve and invite, both attitudes will further the Kingdom of God here on earth as it is in heaven.

We Have Questions

Sermon ~ Sunday, November 6, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

We Have Questions

Luke 20:27-38

 

As preachers, at some point during the week (earlier the better at least for me!) we sit down to our desks, our laptop computers, and for many now their iPad/tablets. And there we seek through study and prayer, the use of commentaries and the more recent marvelous holy dispensation called Google to bring forth a new word from the ancient Word to our congregations.  In this formidable yet awe-filled task we find ourselves in the company of Jesus.  Not bad company I would say!

Similarly to when we engage with the scripture seeking to interpret it for our 21st century context we find that Jesus was doing the same thing, interpreting his Hebrew Scriptures, to an audience several centuries removed from the original writings. 

As he teaches in the Temple, a variety of challenges confront Jesus, questioning his authority and attempting to entrap him in a net of his own words.  (Not unlike the political action committees’ and spin masters’ political ads of today!)  Amazed by his unanticipated response to a question about paying taxes to the emperor (Lk. 20:20-16), the scribes and chief priests fall silent, so into this vacuum step the Sadducees.  Josephus, a first century Jewish historian who wrote several volumes of Jewish history, described the Sadducees as people from the elite upper crust who were “able to persuade none but the rich,” and received small confidence from ordinary folk.

Their question to Jesus expresses their scorn for the common folk.  With a bit of imagination one can hear the snickering in the background as their spokesperson recites Moses’ teaching about levirate marriage and then propose a rather absurd scenario of a woman consecutively marrying seven brothers before asking, “In the resurrection . . . whose wife will she be?”  It is all the more ridiculous when you consider that the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection anyway! 

In earlier days and a more rural society, levirate marriage may have provided a compassionate social arrangement to secure the posterity of deceased men and provision for their widows and children, but it is difficult to imagine that it shaped the wedding plans of the well-heeled Sadducees of an urban Jerusalem.  Still Moses said it, so what will this backwater, hick rabbi from no account Nazareth have to say about it?

Well, Jesus responds by teaching the Sadducees what Moses meant and interpreting their scriptures.  You see, for the Sadducees, “the scriptures” were limited to the first five books of our Bible the books of Moses known as Torah which means “law”. 

“Moses wrote for us,” they began their interrogation. 

Jesus honors their tradition by replying, “Moses himself showed and interprets Exodus 3:6, when the voice from the burning bush announces, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

Jesus’ interpretation here is fluid and imaginative.  He scores his points on the Sadducees’ home field using their ball and playing by their rules, and if his interpretation doesn’t exactly provide proof of the resurrection of the dead, it at least hints at mysteries of which the Sadducees dare not dream.

In Jesus’ visionary interpretation, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not denizens of a richly remembered heritage but citizens of a new age characterized by the resurrection of the dead.  God does not say to Moses, “Once upon a time long ago I used to be the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, but now they are dead and gone, though I remember them with great fondness.”

No.  God speaks in present tense to announce that God was, is and continues to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and Jesus concludes, “For to God all of them are alive.”

Jesus seems to be reading Moses with, as seminary professor and students like to say, a resurrection “hermeneutic.”  Which is to simply mean, he is reading and interpreting the Torah through an understanding and belief in the reality of resurrection. 

All this is to say that our names and identities are not limited to a particular family, tribe or race but infinitely expanded to where we can be called “children of God.”   Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob participate in this new age and new life, not because of their obedience or faithfulness, but as heirs of the promise of God – which also includes those of us who hear this story all these years later.    

This whole episode with the Sadducees gives us hope to live life fully and enough hope to face death confidently.  It does not answer many of our questions about the resurrection, nor does it provide a road map of the new way.  That to God all of them and all of us “are alive” offers a hope that hints at more than we can ever speak directly about.  We have questions – God knows we have questions – but we are invited to trust that in God all our questions come to rest. 

The Sadducees seem to make light of this with their trick question to Jesus.  But we have questions; we live with some of the dilemmas hinted at in their jest; even if we do not speak them out loud.  We live and we die, and we have questions about this, serious questions.  We joke about it too, and the good jokes, healthy jokes help us bear the weight of loss and the tears of sadness. And a chuckle can ease the load that we might be able to do what has to be done during times of loss. 

Every pastor deals with these questions.  A child comes shyly asking about the beloved old kitty who did not wake one morning, whom Daddy placed in a box and buried in the backyard.  Older members outlive their spouses and remarry and even remarry again – maybe not seven times, but enough to make them wonder and ponder.  One parishioner’s husband was killed in a horrific fiery car crash which left his remains unidentifiable.  Not only did she not have the closure of seeing his body, she had questions about the resurrection of the body without a body. 

The question to Sadducees posed had to do with ownership and marital rights, but we ponder the question in our own way, on our own terms.

Faith commands us to love one another.  We promise to love one another and in marriage we try our very hardest to love one another, whether or not we are very good at it.  The Apostle Paul reminds us that “love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:8). We are well aware of the poignancy of love that lives on after a loved one dies.

What does such love mean or matter in the grand scheme of living and dying?

Whatever else dies, Love does not die.

We recognize this as we read the story of our lives through Jesus’ resurrection hermeneutic.

No, Jesus does not answer all our questions, though one of our fondest illusions is that he should. 

What he does is point us to a God whose love and faithfulness is immeasurable and inexhaustible to those whom God has called.  And it is in this love and faithfulness we find enough to live with our questions and endure all that life and death will ask of us.