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

101 State Street
Charlevoix, MI 49720


Two Evenings

Sermon ~ April 23, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Two Evenings

John 20:19-31

It was perhaps the worst of times not the best of times for the disciples. John in his gospel gives us not the tale of two cities but of two evenings. In each of them there is an appearance of the risen Jesus. They are separate, yet they belong together. The second being the consequence of the events and characters of the first.

John’s account of the empty tomb ends with, “Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news ‘I have seen the Lord!’ And she told them that he had said these things to her.”

John then moves us to a scene later on the same day, “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together . . .”

The risen Jesus appeared to Mary in the garden where she presumed him to be the gardener. He now also appears to the disciples on the evening of Easter Day. He comes to them, offers them His Peace, sends them out to continue His ministry, and then enables them for the task by the giving of His Spirit. The disciples are in the process of becoming apostles. They had followed Jesus as disciples, however it was always Jesus’ purpose to send them out to preach the good news, to send them out as apostles, emissaries (Mk. 3:13-15). Jesus appeared to the disciples for their sake as a group.

A week later Jesus appeared again, only this time it was for the sake of one disciple, Thomas. Thomas is not forgotten by the Lord. He has not been left out.

Thomas it seems is struggling, he is a bit lost. Or is he? We call him “doubting” Thomas but I believe that is a misnomer. Why has Thomas alone been labeled like this? Why don’t we refer to some of the others as “Denying Peter” for instance, or those power seekers James and John.

Personally, I believe Thomas has gotten a bad rap. Consider that a week earlier all the others were in this house, behind locked doors, fearful of what the religious leaders might accuse them of or do to them. Did you ever wonder, where was Thomas? If he wasn’t with them behind the safety of those locked doors, where was he? Was he out about town, out in the streets of Jerusalem, walking among the post-Passover crowds? Had he stepped out for coffee and donuts? Seriously though, wasn’t he afraid?

Ah, but remember another time, after he heard of Lazarus’ death, Jesus wanted to go to his friend and his sisters, the others disciples cautioned against it because of their fear. They said “But Rabbi, a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?” Remember it was Thomas who said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” No, I don’t think Thomas was easily frightened.

So what was Thomas doing while the others were locked in by their fears? One Presbyterian preacher, MaryAnn McKibben Dana, suggests that he may have been out looking for Jesus. After all he had heard what Mary Magdalene reported, that she “had seen the Lord!” So, was Thomas the only one brave enough to be on the outside, looking for Jesus on the streets of Jerusalem and not fearfully locked away in some building?

In the tradition of the church, Thomas is the only one to establish Christianity beyond the Roman empire, early church tradition tells of Thomas taking the gospel all the way to southern India.

Just a little something for you to ponder.

When Thomas heard that Jesus appeared to them he makes sure he is in the place where Jesus was last seen. This does not sound like someone who is a doubter or a person lacking faith.

So even though absent the first time, the risen Lord appears for Thomas’ sake too! As the Good Shepherd cares for the one lost sheep, Jesus cares for him as well. Thomas is just as important to the risen Lord as the rest of his team! How encouraging it is to read this, that the Lord does not forget about the individual in the midst of the congregation! While He has words for the whole group, He also has words for the individual member! He does not forget about the individual, or neglect any of us when we struggle, or are feeling lost alone in the pew, or at home!

As Jesus came after Thomas to offer him His Peace and Word of encouragement, He comes after us to grant us His Peace and renew our faith. The risen Lord comes to the disciples in His risen power and risen body. He is not weak, or defeated, but full of resurrectio power! Jesus has come to send them out, to commission them to continue with His ministry! The risen Lord offers all that they and we will need to carry on Jesus’ mission.
He offers them his Peace. Jesus greets them in the usual manner: Peace be with you! He says this a second time, but this time it is not just a greeting, this time it is His gift to them. Jesus called us not for a quiet, leisurely life, but for an active mission that will have its challenges, problems, and various trials. So He gives us first of all His Peace to carry out the mission. A true peace over and against fear and doubt.

He passes on to them His Purpose. The Lord gathered us to Himself that we will be witnesses for Him, going out to preach the coming of God’s realm, to share His Good News, foremost of which is the grace and mercy of forgiveness. He never meant us to be armchair theologians, locked up in an upper room, glued to our pews, but apostles, people sent out, moving among people, taking the Good News to them in word and deed. As He was sent by God to save the world (John 3:17) we are sent with the same message of salvation. Let me share with you my definition of salvation as I understand God was offering it through Jesus.
In the Bible, salvation is mostly concerned with something that happens in this life. Even in the New Testament, the primary meaning of the word “salvation” is transformation in this life. The roots of the English word salvation comes from “salve,” which is a healing ointment. Salvation is about healing. We all grow up wounded, life brings difficulties to us all, and salvation is about the healing of our lives and not only for eternity.

The Bible has specific images of salvation. It is about light in the darkness, liberation from bondage, return from exile, or reconnection with God. It’s about our hunger being satisfied, our thirst being quenched, and so forth. The identification of salvation solely with “going to heaven” I believe not only impoverishes the meaning of salvation but I also think distorts what being a Christian is all about and the message of salvation that Jesus sends us out to share.

So Jesus gives us Peace and sends us out with his purpose.

And lastly Jesus provides us with the Power to accomplish it. Jesus does not expect us to do His mission just on our own, relying on our own abilities and strength. He gives us His strength, His power: the Holy Spirit. The mission can be accomplished only through His Spirit. Jesus knew very well Thomas and the others will not be able to fulfil the calling on their own, so He came back for him, to empower him as He empowered the other disciples.

We are people of the Resurrection, and the Resurrected One calls us just as the very first were called to move in this world

With His Peace,

To fulfil His Purpose,

Enabled by His Power through the Holy Spirit.

Truly, blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed! Those who serve without fear, for you have life in his name.


Want to listen to the Audio version?  Click on the “Download File” link below and enjoy!   



Sermon ~ Sunday, April 16th, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson


Do Not Be Afraid!
Matthew 28:1-10

Have you ever been afraid? Really afraid.
Not the adolescent in the carnival funhouse or Halloween haunted house frightened or spooked. Not even the staying up late, all by yourself in a room with only one dim light on, watching the Exorcist movie for the first time or reading a Stephen King novel when the power is off and a storm raging outside.
Those of you who have been in war or battle know fear. As do any who have had a close encounter with death, either your own or a loved one’s.

Have you ever tried to comfort a child who came screaming into your bedroom terrified beyond words because of a frightening dream that awoke them? What words can sooth their fears? What actions might help calm their distraught emotions?

Mary Magdalene and the “other” Mary leave for the tomb of Jesus just as there is light enough for them to see. And just as they arrive, their world is shaken, literally according to Matthew! The ground begins to shake as if there was an earthquake. As the earth is trembling an angel descends and rolls back the stone from the tomb’s entrance and then apparently takes a seat there on the stone! The angel’s countenance is like lightening and its clothing as brilliant as blinding snow, as I imagine this scene, as the brilliancy fades, there’s the angel wiping the rock dust and dirt off his/her hands and taking a seat on the edge of the stone. Job done.

On the other hand imagine the women’s fear. This is not what they expected: earth shaking, angel appearing, stone moved away! The guards who were there, Matthew tells us, trembled in fear and then became like dead men. In the midst of this the angel speaks to the women, “Do not be afraid.”
Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth and Matthew’s account of Jesus resurrection share identical words of reassurance which when taken together provide bookends, if you will, for the entire gospel story “Do not be afraid.” According to Luke these are among the first words uttered to Mary by the angel Gabriel. And later after the birth of Mary’s son, they are the first words offered to the shepherds in the field, “Do not be afraid.”

The angel has them look into the empty tomb and then instructs them to go quickly and tell the others. When the women leave to tell the others what they had found, Jesus himself appears to them along their way and after a brief greeting his next words are: “Do not be afraid.”

As children whether it is a nightmare or the monsters under the bed or wolfaboomasses outside the door (wolfaboomasses and woogaboogahs frequent the haunts of our family’s stories) as parents, grandparents we can often eased their fears with a hug and reassuring words.

For adults, our fears can be more complex and words of reassurance harder to come by. As we get older we cannot escape the realization that in the words of Ernst Hemingway “life breaks everyone” at some point or another. Or at the very least life relentlessly wears us down. As adults we live with the increasing sense of death as greedy, eventually claiming everyone we love. When our grown-up fears are stirred up by the adult realities of life, it can seem as if words of comfort are scarce indeed.

In fact, we know enough about the way life works that, if someone tells us “not to worry” we suddenly become suspicious.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you will have noticed that we are experiencing an unusual amount of turbulence in our flight today, but let us assure you that there is no reason for concern.”

Your first reaction might be to think, “Hmmm, I was not particularly worried before. I wonder why the pilot felt the need to tell us that? What’s going on?”

As pastors we spend a fair portion of our time in close proximity to illness and death. In such places, shadowed by fear and loss, I want so much to find and share words that are reassuring. In the end I do not really have such words to offer, at least none of my own. Pastors are not alone in this, of course. Neither do the doctors. In the end, ultimately doctors do not have the authority to say, “Do not be afraid.” Doctors do not know the future. They do not have the antidote to uncertainty. They cannot accompany a patient down every road. None of us can.

Nevertheless, this is what the angels come to say – in scripture and occasionally, in our lives: “Do not be afraid.” It is an angel’s calling card. It is how you know you are being visited by an angel. For who else can say, “Do not be afraid,” and do so with authority?

Well, I guess Jesus could, and does. On a number of occasions in the gospels Jesus does say “Fear not.” It is another visitation.

Now, when an angel says, “Do not be afraid,” or Jesus says, “Fear not,” it is not the assurance that nothing will go wrong, because often things do go wrong.

It is not assurance that everything will turn out alright, because, if we are honest, frequently it does not.

Rather, it is the assurance that, whatever may happen to us, whatever a day may hold,
-God has the power to strengthen and uphold us;
-that whatever we must face, we do not face it alone;
-that nothing we encounter is stronger than God’s love;
-that ultimately God gets the last word;
-that in the end – and sometimes along the way – God’s love is triumphant.

Only God can offer such assurance, and this is why in the end, only God, or one of God’s messengers, can say, “Do not be afraid,” and say it with authority.
It is not the words that are said that matters, it is the source of the words. Soren Kierkgaard illustrates the difference by observing that when a theological student says, “There is eternal life,” and God’s own son says, “There is eternal life,” the words may be the same and equally true, but there is a critical difference only one assurance is said with the authority that can back it up.

The words “Do not be afraid,” take strong root in the hearts and lives of the characters of the Gospel stories, because they accept that these words come from the only One who has the ability to utter such words. There is only One who can offer such assurance in the face of life’s uncertainties and before the certainty of death, and do so with authority. So, if we as pastors are to offer words of strength, of comfort, of surety, we must offer them as messengers from a Source other than ourselves.

It is striking, however, that in this old story, that those who let such words of assurance steep in the hearts and minds end up singing praises and offering blessings. In such lives there are deep resonant echoes of the ancient benediction, as a promise fulfilled:  

“May you fear God so much, that you fear nothing else at all.”

The message of this and every Easter may come through a pastor and through the church but its source is the One who is Eternal and is the same every Easter:  It’s okay. Do not be afraid. Death has been conquered. There is nothing more to fear. And you can go tell the others!

Want to listen to the audio version? Select the “Download file” below and enjoy!

Procession to Passion and Beyond: Are You In?

Sermon ~ Sunday, April 9th, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Procession to Passion and Beyond: Are You In?

Matthew 21:1-11   Philippians 2: 5-11


Palm Sunday shares the worship stage and calendar with Passion Sunday, which in my personal opinion is a shame.  My sense is that we (the Church) has done this because if we had not the vast majority of church goers would hear of Palms and the joyful procession one Sunday and then the next time in worship they would hear the story of the amazing discovery of an empty tomb and the sightings of the resurrected Jesus.  What’s missing in this scenario is all that took place in between!  And again, in my opinion, without what took place in between Easter loses much, if not most, its significance!  So in order to remind the church of the painful account of how people treat one Isaiah prophesied as the “Wonderful counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” has been more and more included in the readings for Palm Sunday. 

But I know all of you will be here for our Maundy Thursday service and the community Good Friday service so I only included the Palm Sunday gospel and the reading from Philippians! (Okay I’ll get off my soapbox!)

Being true to our legitimate human condition is one of the most difficult tasks.  On Palm Sunday Jesus rides into Jerusalem as a sovereign.  By the end of the week, however, Jesus is crucified as if he were nothing but an ordinary common criminal.  The Romans, the religious authorities, the disciples, and the crowds each participate either actively of passively in Jesus’ death.  Throughout the story, however, Jesus remains the person God destined, chose him to be.  Our reading from Philippians reflects Paul’s understanding of who Jesus Christ is, and was, and will be.

Part of being true to the human condition is to be able to see and deal with life honestly and openly, to be willing to see life as it really is, warts and all.  There is a great story from history that illustrates to what extents we will go to in order to hide reality from us.

In 1787 Russian Czarina Catherine the Great left the Winter Palace with her elegant and colorful entourage for the Summer Palace, which was a 1000 mile journey.  As much as the monarch knew the poverty, suffering, and hardship of her people, she knew far less than she could or should have known.  Her then favorite statesman, General Potemkin, took great pains to see that Catherine never saw on her journey her country as it really was.  It is said that beautiful fake towns and villages were thrown up along the route which she traveled.  Brightly dressed and well-fed peasants were moved down the route from one fake village to the next to make her beloved Russia appear, happy, content, and well-fed.  But behind these “Potemkin villages” constructed for her benefit was untold misery, deprivation, and distress. Surely she was not completely deceived by Potemkin’s efforts, but it was much more comfortable (and comforting) to think of her country as it appeared, than it really was behind what we might describe as a Hollywood movie set. 

And don’t think we are any better.  Back in the winter of 2012 I was doing a ride along with our son-in-law Dennis, the Indianapolis police officer.  He worked in a part of the city known as “the swamp.”  A great deal of poverty and the unfortunately the crime that often accompanies poverty plagued the area.  The area was just to the east of down town Indianapolis.  I noticed several places where there was some exterior improvement work being done in the “housing projects” especially on the downtown side of his beat.  Facades and entries were being replaced, upgraded etc.  Dennis explained that a certain organization had given quite a substantial amount of money to the city in order to make more presentable some the areas around the downtown because they were bringing a big event to town.  The event planners wanted it to look nice for all the visitors they were bringing in.  Apparently this is something they do wherever they hold this event.  Indianapolis was not special.

Sadly, by-in-large it was all pretty much a cover-up.  Nothing was really improved  behind the facades, new entries, the parking lot landscaping.  And after the organization and event left town all the interest in the improvements left with as well. 

The event:  Superbowl XLVI       The organization: NFL 

We have these kind of choices in life: Do we want to see things as they really are, or do we want to avert our eyes from the truth that surrounds us?  These are the questions a Lenten faith asks of us, especially the during the events of Holy Week.

One of the fundamental of all human and Christian questions is:

How do we, how do I, how do you, see yourself as a child of God? 

Jesus summed up his philosophy toward material things in his Sermon on the Mount; where he teaches, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither rust nor moth consume and where thieves do not break in and steal.”  (Mt. 6:19-20)  

Let’s be honest, many of us, myself chief among you, rely on things that do not last.  Whether or not it be our health, wealth, position, influence, possessions, titles, or anything else, these can all disappear.  Not to lay a big bummer on you but there is nothing created by us or for us that we cannot lose at some point in our lives. 

The ALICE (Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed) Report for Charlevoix and Emmet counties points out something we hear about all too often; too many of our neighbors live only one or two paychecks away from poverty and homelessness.  While most of us may not be that close to financial disaster how about our health, any one of us could get a dreaded diagnosis and then as God said to the man who built all the barns “Then who will get all you’ve prepared for yourself?”

Perhaps this is why Jesus suggested that when the people of God build a life, they should built it on a solid foundation.  For Jesus this foundation was a relationship with God.

Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, shows what Jesus’ relationship with God looked like, so that we might model our relationship to Christ upon Jesus’ with God.  Listen again as Paul illustrates the incarnation of God in human form and why the incarnation makes Jesus a model to emulate, “ In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

It has been said that appearance follows substance; the message subordinates the medium.  A believer gets good results by discipleship, not by only appearing to be a disciple.

What does all this have to do with procession to passion and beyond?  If we are to be followers of Christ we cannot pick and choose when we are going to follow!  We cannot jump up and down in a Mardi Gras like hype on Palm Sunday and leave our comfortable pews for the week and return to the lily scented safety of our sanctuaries a week later.

For those of us who want to be more Christ-like, our best and most viable option to be a Christian is to actually be a follower of the example of Christ.  And sometimes this will lead us into what is for some uncomfortableness of a Maundy Thursday-like intimacy and at other times a Good Friday like place of vulnerability, ridicule, persecution and even pain.   For this is where Jesus went and it very well could be where Jesus just might lead you and me.

The week began with palms and a joyous procession.  It led to a mockery of a trial, ridicule and crucifixion.  Not to get too far ahead in the story, for we know what was instore for Jesus, but there was no other route for him to Easter morning other than through the gauntlet of Holy Week. 

The question we have to ask ourselves for Jesus is asking it of all his disciples:

For Jesus’ sake and ours . . . Are we in?  

Want to listen to the Audio version?… click “download file” below…enjoy.


Sermon ~ Sunday, April 2nd, 2017 ~  Pastor Neil Wilson


Ezekiel 37:1-14

Osteology . . .not really word that you might come across this week. And, no, it is not a subject that one studies in theological seminary. Those are topics like soteriology (salvation), eschatology (death, judgment, end times), and Christology. But I imagine that you might be able to decipher the definition of osteology through the etymology of the word and referencing one this morning’s scripture passages.  Osteology is the scientific study of bones. A sub-discipline of anatomy, anthropology, and archaeology, osteology is a detailed study of the structure of bones, skeletal elements, teeth, disease, pathology, the process of ossification, the resistance and hardness of bones, etc. often used by scientists in the identification of vertebrate remains with regard to age, death, sex, growth, and development and can be used in a biocultural context. (Thanks to Wikipedia!)

For example, using the field of osteology, osteologists have informed our understanding of history. In 2013 the city of London while expanding their railway system unintentionally uncovered 25 human skeletons at Charterhouse Square. Archaeological excavation of the skeletons temporarily halted the further development of the railway but gave way to new, possibly revolutionary discoveries in the field of osteology, as well as a chance to better understand history.
These 25 skeletal remains, along with many more that were found in further searches, are said to be among the mass graves dug to bury the millions of victims of the Black Death in the 14th century. Archaeologists and forensic scientists used osteology to examine the condition of the skeletal remains, to help piece together the reason why the Black Death had such a detrimental effect on the European population. What was discovered is that most of the population was in generally poor health to begin with. Through extensive analysis of the bones, they found that many of the inhabitants of Great Britain were plagued with rickets, anemia, and malnutrition. There was frequent evidence that much of the population had traces of broken bones from recurring fighting and hard labor.

This got my mind to wandering as it sometimes does during sermon preparation! What if, some hundreds of years from now, some archeologist or anthropologist were to find my bones. What would my bones tell some young osteologist about my life, my diet, my activity or lack thereof! Then I thought about the bones in Ezekiel and how we are told they are very dry. This was not because they were in an arid climate. This is to indicate the spiritual condition of the bones. There was no life in them, they were dry physically and spiritually.

I wondered, what would an analysis of our spiritual bones tell some future osteologist about our spiritual diet and life?

If they could tell us what would we find out about our spiritual health and well-being if our spiritual bones were to be examined? Imagine being run through a special MRI imager that could reveal our spiritual condition. Would the results indicate a deficiency of study, reflection, prayer and a meaningful relationship with God?

What would such an examination tell us about the richness of our spiritual gifts of the Spirit? You know things like, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

But I’m also afraid that some future osteologist doing a spiritual study of our “bones” would find signs in far too many of a history of broken hearts and defeated spirits. And unfortunately, like the bones uncovered in London, we will find too many cases of deep brokenness, often the result of too many church “quarrels and fights” people have been involved in.

The Lord asked Ezekiel if he thought “these bones can live?” What if the Lord were to ask us the same question? What would be our answer? Could we honestly give the humble Ezekiel’s response, “O Lord God, you know”, to God’s great offer of love and mercy?

Who might God be telling to preach to our bones, church?

What words do we need to hear for our life today?

How do we open ourselves up to that living breath of the Spirit?

God is so willing to breathe into us and fill us once more with the transformation that allows us to be part of the realm of God. Can we envision our spiritual bones with new flesh and blood? Can we work with the Spirit to prepare ourselves for the resurrection of Jesus and our own resurrection, in this life as well as any future realm?

When Ezekiel first had this vision and then shared it with the people, these words came as a great source of hope and reassurance to the exiles. I don’t know about you but I have times in my life, while I’m not being held captive in a foreign land, I do feel held captive by some of my old worn out ways and thought patterns. I have seasons when my usual spiritual diet has only served to make me overweight and lethargic. Other times I feel as though I am living in a place of spiritual exile away from the realm of God that I so desire. In all these my relationship with God suffers.

But it is never too late to improve our diet. It’s never too late to find our way home, our true home. The lesson of Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones, is that no matter how dry and lifeless your bones may be, God can still bring life back into them!

No matter how far from the presence of God you may feel you have wandered, God provides a path home and the sustenance to make the journey.

The Lord told Ezekiel to tell the people,

I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, . . . (Ex. 37:14)

God will put God’s spirit (breathe) in us, in me, in you. No matter how dry you think your spiritual life has become, or how empty your faith life feels right now, or how dried up your prayer life may seem . . . God can breathe God’s spirit into us. And these old dry bones can live again!
And what is possible in our personal lives and relationships with God, God is also able to work in our congregational life and relationship with God.

So when asked, “Mortal can these bones live?” our answer can be a resounding “Yes, Lord, most definitely yes!”

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