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

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


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Gospel Transparency

~ Sermon ~ June 25th, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Gospel Transparency
Matthew 10:1, 5-7, 24-33

I have a task for each of you today. The instructions are simple.

Following this morning’s service and the coffee hour I am sending you out to your neighborhoods. I want you to start with those who are struggling, confused the lost if you will, amongst those of our community, your neighbors and friends.
Those of you in the balcony, I will have you to concentrate on downtown, shopkeepers, their employees, and any of the local people you know. The tourists, well, they’ll have to wait.
Those of you who sit on the north side of the sanctuary, I want you to focus on this message: “The kingdom of heaven is here, very near to everyone”
South side of the sanctuary, you are to be the healers, the counselors, the resuscitators. Offer freely. Expect no payment.
You will not need your cell phones, or your tablets, no fancy suits or special uniforms, nor will you need to have a fund raising campaign before you begin. You will be taken care of. Just go!
If you should find there are those who refuse what you are freely offering, do not make a scene and argue with them, just move on. Their stubbornness will catch up with them in good time. And that will be very difficult time indeed! And after all it is not your mission you are but the messengers.
What do you think? Would you be willing to take on such a calling? How many of you would be ready to hit the streets after coffee hour? How many of you would not want to leave the coffee hour and safety of the church building?
Yet this is what Jesus called the Twelve to do: Share the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven with the lost sheep of Israel, their neighbors; to heal, cast out demons, raise the dead!
How comfortable did you feel about the instructions I gave you?
I can answer for myself, “Not very!”
I would imagine for the twelve is was also a difficult, risky “assignment.” It is quite possible they might have asked, “Jesus, do you think we are ready for this? We’ve only been with you for a few weeks (months) and to be honest we’ve seen the mixed reactions people have had towards you!”
And so Jesus says to them “ . . . have no fear of them.”
The same providence of God that he shared in the Sermon on the Mount, he reminds them of here. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs on your head are all counted So do not be afraid you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Jesus then says something interesting, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered . . .”
There is complete openness to the work of Jesus. Jesus has no intention of starting a cult, an exclusive spiritual club with a secret wisdom and rituals in which an hierarchy of a select few will be in control and ultimately reap any spiritual benefits.
Now, we hear this today and are apt to smugly think, “Well, our church is nothing like that.” Experience, though, teaches that some churches are very much like that: an exclusive religious club with secret wisdom and rituals which only an elite group understand and thus are granted “salvation.”
In many cases church leaders hold onto their power (whether officially through board positions or not) by refusing to be “up front” about things, from agendas to relationships to intrachurch dynamics. Only those deemed worthy are allowed full participation, and usually only by conforming to unspoken (thus hidden) rules and expectations. Talk with Conference staff about the church conflicts they are often called in to mediate and one will hear the same refrain, “Communication, communication, communication.”
Full participation should never be determined by the supposed charity of so-called “gatekeepers”, but by the absolute grace of Jesus’ unconditional love. Further-more, it is not only “secret wisdom” that interferes with full participation, it is often just the plain old “secrets” kept from newcomers that are at the root of dysfunctional behavior within a church.
Jesus then warns any would be disciples: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
“Hell” is Gehenna, the valley outside the walls of Jerusalem, where it is said the city’s trash was continually burned; thus it is more a metaphor than a doctrine of a place in eternity. One way to think of this metaphorically is to recognize that the only one we have to fear is ourselves, because only we can destroy both soul and body in the fires of our own making. If this is so then when we prayer the Lord’s prayer “deliver us from evil,” we pray to be delivered from our own evil, which we experience as more toxic to our spiritual well-being than anything anyone else could do to us.
Jesus then says, “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” As harsh as this may sound to us, this seems to be the “bottom line” of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in Matthew 10. Those of us reading it today contemporary and privileged readers, may think that the first disciples and early Christians needed to hear this more than we do, as do those Christians living as religious minorities and often the brunt of sectarian oppression and violence.
The truth is that persecution exists today even in our nation’s privileged world of religious freedom. It’s just more subtle, more often expressed in apathy than antipathy. For the vast majority religion has become a private matter, often banned, along with politics from “polite discussion.” We are of the mind whether through a misunderstanding of the “separation of church and state” or just a simple aversion to politics that our religious values have no place in the public political discourse.
Because of this, unfortunately, the church’s shaping of public policy is to frequently left to those Christians with a politically confining agenda.
No Christian should check Jesus’ values at the door when exiting the church and entering the public sphere: Jesus’ compassion for the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the vulnerable and the demonized may (and should) shape public policy just as much as the Enlightenment values of equality, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is in this way as well, we “proclaim the good news that the ‘Kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
In the history of our nation the revivals of the two Great Spiritual Awakenings led the way to the significant social reforms that followed.
There is one more way I feel this may speak to our contemporary views of “sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Some Christians place conditions on God’s unconditional and extravagant love in Jesus Christ, resisting the gospel of grace. And on the other hand there are those Christians , in deference to our multicultural and multi-faith world, avoid talking about Jesus at all and resist a gospel of particularity. We worry about being offensive. Some would say politically correct.
In reality, each is a way of denying both Jesus and his gospel message that the realm of God is at hand.
For the gospel is not something to be hidden away. But to be shared and to be observed in the lives of Jesus’ disciples. Our lives should be transparent enough so that to anyone who cares to observe, the gospel, the way of Jesus, should be obvious.
Years ago when I started on my path toward ordained ministry I kept a little notebook of quotes. I haven’t been as faithful in collecting quotes as I was back at the beginning. One of the very first quotes I wrote in my book I heard from Roger Cobb, an elderly man from my home church when I was a young adult.
He would say to me sort of as a reminder:
“You are writing a Gospel,
A chapter each day,
By deeds that you do,
By words that you say.

Others read what you write,
Whether faithless or true;
Say, what is the Gospel
According to you?”

Listen to the audio version of Pastor Neil’s Sermon.  Select the “Download File”, and at the lower left of your screen you can select it and enjoy.


Family Values?

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, June 18, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson ~

Family Values?

Matthew 10:24-39

Jerome Jordan stepped to the lectern of the Old First Church on the Common and thumbed through the heavy pages of the massive pulpit Bible. The Bible overhangs the sides of the lectern by a good 3-4 inches on each side.  Interestingly, while Jerome is the youngest of the regular lay readers he is also the only one that chooses to use the lectern Bible.  Maybe it’s a simple matter of eyesight!  Most others bring the readings printed out in large font on pieces of paper. 

The leather-bound gilded Bible was presented to the congregation in 1879 at the dedication of the new church building after the fire of 1877 (or was it 78?)  The little bronze plaque reads “Given to the Glory of God and in memory of Deacon Ephraim Buckner.”  Old Eph was Bob and Jake Bradley’s great-great grandfather on their mother’s side.  A stern looking fellow in all the old tin-types.  The Bible, dating from the 19th century, of course is the King James Version. 

The text for the day was from Gospel according to Saint Matthew.  Jerome cleared his throat:  Think not that I am come to send peace on earth:

   I came not to send peace, but a sword.

 For I am come to set a man at variance against his father,

  and the daughter against her mother,

   and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

 And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.

 He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me:

  and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

Jerome ceremoniously closed the stiff ornate covers of the Bible

“The Word of the Lord. . .  Thanks be to God.” and stepped down from the lectern.

 As I said for the youngest of our lay readers he is the most solemn and traditional.

 Imogene Reynolds, third row back next to the center aisle, let out a sigh and not quite under her breathe muttered, “Well, I not so sure what I think of that!”   

Imogene is of the opinion that at times even Jesus took things a bit too far and this is a prime example of just one of those times!  Imogene knows that following Jesus is not supposed to be easy but never, never should it divide families. 

“What sort of family values is that?” she inquired of Rev. Williams as she shook his hand after worship.

She admonished the pastor for preaching such an “anti-Christian” thing.

“Why just this morning the Pastor Eugene B. Salsbury of the Salsbury Power Hour of Salvation preached on ‘biblical family values’ and it didn’t sound anything like your sermon, Pastor.” Imogene informed the pastor.  

She went on to add, “And Pastor Eugene knows his Bible.  After all, he is on television!”   

Rev. Williams had a mind to remind Imogene that it wasn’t his sermon she took issue with but Jesus’ words, but held his tongue.  Beth, Imogene’s sister was next in line and she had been a little under the weather the past week and he was a bit more concerned about her well-being that taking on a theological debate with a disciple of Pastor Salsbury’s Power Hour of Salvation.

One has to understand that Imogene and her sister Beth grew up in a very loving and supportive family.  When Imogene and Beth were young there were three generations living together in the old farm out on Ricker’s Bluff Road.  Ricker is Imogene’s maiden name.  The Rickers were a very devoted family.  Devoted to the church and more importantly to each other.  Gram Ricker lived with Carl, Betsy and their two girls, Imogene and her little sister Beth.  Rickers have been prominent in Old First Church leadership for the past 100 years.  Good people, good family. 

Anyway, Jesus’ words about a son set at variance against father, and daughter against mother was not Imogene’s experience.  And there was just no way she could see that Jesus would be part of anything other than the way she had experienced it.  And in her view this passage didn’t in any way act for the betterment of society.

Imogene is the unofficial chair of the Women’s Material Aid Society of the Priscilla Circle of the Women’s Fellowship.  They’ve been around since WWII when they began putting together old pieces of cloth to be used as bandages and such for the war effort.  Nowadays they knit lap blankets for the residents over in Maple Grove Care Center run by the Adventists. They also collect old pieces of clothe and make hooked rugs which they sell and give the proceeds to the Outer Island Relief Fund.  Even Rev. Williams chuckles to himself when Sam Coleridge refers to them as the Holy Hookers, which always sets Imogene off in a fit of temper.  Beth just smiles! 

For the past two meetings of the Women’s Material Aid Society of the Priscilla Circle of the Women’s Fellowship, there’s been a young girl showing up.  Actually Gina is 19, but to most of the Society she seems but a mere child. 

Gina has been coming to Old First now for a little over a year.  One day she just sort of walked into a meeting of the Material Aid Society all of her own doing.  She told them that she likes to knit and that she clerks and stocks shelves at Emerson’s Five and Dime in Stoneville, so she has access to all the remnant scraps of material from the store’s fabric department.  So of course she was welcomed with open arms.  It also provided Gina a place to serve when she decided she wanted to be more than just a Sunday pew warmer.

At a recent meeting the ladies were talking about growing up and how things have changed (common topic for this group!)They got onto the subject of how families aren’t sticking together like they used to and the younger generation not respecting the older. 

Gina was very quiet. 

“So dear,” Bea Stearns asked Gina, “tell us about your family. Are you living at home?”

Gina looked up from the cloth she was ripping into strips, stared out the window to the Minute Man statue on the common.  A couple of seagulls were attempting to land on his tricorn hat.  They kept sliding off and circling around.   

She looked back at the cloth in her hands, a white and green checked gingham.  She recalled a summer dress she had as a child, a little jumper.  It was one of her few pleasant memories of childhood.

“No ma’am.   I’m renting a couple of rooms outta Bobby & Rachael Parmenters.” 

The ladies knew the place.  It wasn’t much.  The Parmenter’s are good enough folks, just that life had been hard. Bobby fishing and some factory work for Rachael until the shoe shops all closed back in the 80s. 

“So what about your parents, dear,” asked Ruth Williams.  “Do they live in Stoneville?

Gina stopped what she was doing looked back out the window.  One of the gulls had quit trying to land on the Minute Man’s head piece, the other still flailing away attempting to find a secure perch. 

She sensed no malice or meddling in Ruth’s question.  Nor did Beas’ question seem mere chatter for sake of conversation.  There was a bit of genuineness in their inquiries.  Perhaps this is why she told them as much of her story as she did.  

She was the second child, oldest daughter in a family of four children.  Her older brother had left home when he was 16 and enlisted in the Army when he turned 18.  You see her father, while he always had steady work and provided for the family financially, had a tendency to “tip the bottle” a bit too much when he was home but more often than not, he would be out, who knows where, for who knew how long.  Her mother was the text book enabler, always trying to keep things quiet, focusing on appeasing her husband when he would go into one of his tirades.  Her brother’s departure left Gina at 13 to care for her younger sisters at that time 7 & 9.  More often than not this meant taking the brunt of their father’s anger and making up for her mother’s emotional distance.  

As Gina grew older she would try to get her mother to find help for herself.  But there was no convincing her.  She was locked in the cycle of addiction and abuse.

Gina struggled her last two years of high school but managed to graduate and that summer get a the job at Emerson’s. 

It was that summer after graduation, she had a Sunday off and not particularly wanting to be home, Gina found herself wandering around Rockhaven’s Common.  It’s early on a fine summer morning and through the open windows of the church she could hear Clara French going over some of her organ music for worship.

Gina timidly meandered over to the doors of the church and listens.  She not much for organ music but she can identify one of the songs. She doesn’t know the title but it takes her back to the few times she was around a church.  It was Vacation Bible School and she was about 6 or 7 before her father’s drinking had become a noticeable problem for their family. 

Clara saw her through the open doors standing on the bottom step.  She smiled motioned to Gina that it was fine for her to come in.  She slipped into a back pew as Clara worked on her Postlude.  Clara seemed to be struggling the song Gina watched her pushing and pulling all these little knobs on the organ!

Before she knew it others were coming in and began sitting around her.  Bea Stearns and Jeannette Holman, Mabel Bradley and Sarah McIntyre.  In the vestibule Bertie Dickson and Sam French were comparing their early garden production, apparently carrots, lettuce are doing fine, peas not so well. 

Little did Gina know at the time but if you wanted some space and a bit of quiet in our church you do not sit in the back!

Undeterred, she began coming when her schedule allowed and when a new clerk was hired Gina was able to have most Sundays off.

She absorbed everything she heard from the pulpit and soaked in all the attention and love that she felt surrounded by.

She would go home and share some of her experiences with her mother.  The love and care she felt from the church members.  She would also tell her mother some of the things she would hear Rev Williams would share in his sermons.  The pastor said such and such today . . . and she would tell of this Jesus who traveled around healing people and reaching out to the oppressed and victimized, even women!   

But unfortunately, whether it was jealousy of Gina’s new found friendships or the zealousness of her convictions, her mother would have nothing to do with Gina’s new found faith.  Sadly, Gina and her mother grew even farther apart

Not able to find herself fitting in or comfortable at home, she heard of the Parmenter’s rental and by fall she had earned enough for the deposit and moved in with the little she had. 

Gina paused. . .  Looked back out the window and there was the seagull.  She had finally found a perch on the Minute Man’s hat.   

Bea Stearns reached out and put her hand on Gina’s arm. 

No words were spoken.  Tears trickled down both women’s faces.   

 

 

When the gospel of Matthew was read by Jerome Jordan and Jesus said that he came not to bring peace but a sword, what Imogene found so scandalous, rang all too true for Gina.  Life was not easy for Gina and her new found faith and friendship in the church didn’t necessarily make it any easier. 

As Gina sat there surrounded by the friendship of women, most of them four times her age, a small smile broke out and the corners of her mouth caught her tears. 

She remembered something else Rev. Williams said this Jesus had mentioned.  She couldn’t remember it exactly but something to the effect:

What you should want most is God’s kingdom and doing what he wants you to do. Then God will give you all these other things you need.

Or as the lectern Bible reads:  But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Rumor has it that Gina’s mother has temporarily left the house and is in counseling.  This seems to have brought her father to the point of seriously seeking help and is now six months into recovery.

Indeed all these things. . .

Seems God’s kingdom is creeping into our little church and its community.

May it be so in yours as well.   Amen.

 

Enjoy the Audio version of Pastor Neil’s Sermon by selecting the “Download File” link below, open and enjoy!


The Challenge of the Trinity

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, June 11th, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

The Challenge of the Trinity

Matthew 28:16-20

Trinity Sunday, along with Transfiguration Sunday, is one of the trickier dates on which to preach.  It may require as much spiritual and intellectual bending and contortions as Hugh Hansen’s Tai Chi from last Sunday. (Thanks you Hugh!)  While there has been much ink spilled over the doctrine of the Trinity, much of what has been written is beyond comprehension and therefore doesn’t lend itself well to preaching! 

Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century) would say of the Trinity, “No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Three than I am carried back into the One. When I think of any of the Three, I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.”

Yet this magnificent and mystical relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that cohesive yet distinct community of faith, has much to say about the way in which the different “persons” (to employ the traditional anthropomorphic terms) of the Godhead relate to each other and to the created order. 

What are the purposes and point of the Creator,  of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit? 

How are we to understand them and learn from them?

To say nothing of the challenges of thinking of God as in human terms Parent (the Father/Mother discussion),

– the nature of Jesus (fully human and fully divine),

 – and the role and place of the Holy Spirit (the most mystical and the one often approached with great suspicion of the Trinitarian  trifecta). 

With a topic where mystery abounds, the challenge is to say something that speaks to the people today about Who God is, and what God is for, as much as to say anything about the ‘Why’ of God.  Mystery and majesty, attempting to know the unknowable, leading worship on Trinity Sunday deals with doubt and question, as much as it deals with any certainty and answers.

First, and this may negate the rest of what I have to say for some of you, the “doctrine” of the Trinity is a theological formula the church took several decades to develop. It may be hinted at in scripture but it is nowhere is a Trinitarian relationship spelled out with any clarity, nor is the term Trinity found in the Bible. 

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is about synergy.  We are meant to think of how things interact with each other, and what that interaction propels us to do.  The end of Matthew’s gospel is fraught with significance for the Church and Christians everywhere. Matthew’s gospel, from the beginning, has told the story of Jesus and His life and ministry, now the Church and the Christians who incarnate the Church are called to make their response to Jesus. We are to reflect inwardly and look at the transformation our faith continues to make upon our lives.  We act outwardly and move in ways that demonstrate our faith put into action.  Faith’s inward reflection is evidenced in an outward response.

Note, however, the context of these verses.  After the resurrection events and the fear and wonder surrounding them, we are told the surviving eleven disciples went to the mountain in Galilee (where they had been told to go by Jesus.) There they worshiped Jesus, though “some doubted.”  Faith is rarely one steadily progressive sunny upwards path of assurance, belief and commitment.  We would not be human if we did not admit to some doubt and darkness and falling away.  As one commentator notes, disciples waver between adoration and indecision, between prayer and puzzlement.

What we might also note from this passage is that in some ways the conclusion mirrors the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. The promise of Jesus, embodied in His name Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23-24) is God with us.  Here in the closing verses of the gospel, God in Jesus promises to be with us always.  The underlying purpose of the Trinity is unity and community, and it is underlined again.

This triune community in which we are engaged is one that compels us to reach out.  First with the gift of baptism: where we are named in the community of God’s presence. The gift of baptism in the name of the Trinity marks our formal entry into the community of faith, and confirms publicly the loving approval in which God already holds us.  With Matthew’s invocation of the Trinity it would not be helpful to assume that he is referencing the complex doctrines worked out in the controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries C. E..  His inspiration is to link together the three names of Godhead and the community of love from which all life emanates.

It is known that ‘naming’ was of great significance in the Hebrew world: it denoted both power and presence.  Baptism is therefore no empty ritual – it is an emblem of entrance into the lively gathering of worshipers who commit to the love of God.

After baptism, the Trinitarian community that is the Church is to teach and follow.  We discover and share what we believe, and remain open to the further promptings of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as the practice of faith evolves.  We are commanded to go out ‘to all nations’.  The community of the Trinity is not exclusive: it is inclusive.  Our authority is not our own but God’s, we achieve nothing on our own, but all becomes possible when God is involved.

The Parent, Creator is still creating, still imagining, still calling life into existence.

The Son, Emmanuel is still with us redeeming and saving.

The Sustainer is still moving and emboldening.

The Church, scarred but healing, broken but repairing, shattered but gathering,

 continues with faith in God.  A Godhead known to us, experienced by us, in a triad of ways accessing presence and power that does not coerce but serves and persuades and welcomes.

To follow, to serve and to welcome a Trinity of action!

This more than anything else, more than trying to comprehend it’s mystery, the challenge of the Trinity is to live into this way of community and communion with one another!

****   ****   ****

PRAYERS OF THANKSGIVING AND INTERCESSION

Holy God, Father/Mother, Son and Holy Spirit,

Creator, Redeemer and Comforter,

Here in this place and at this time, we offer our thanks.

The words of our mouths, the thoughts in our minds,

   the feelings of our hearts.

In awe we thank You for all that You have given to us,

And all that you accomplish through us and even despite us.

For the blessing of gathering and community we thank You.

Hear our prayers for those still on the outside and living in isolation.

 

For the blessing of imagination and inspiration we thank You.

Hear our prayers for those whose minds are closed down

 and whose lives are listless.

 

For the blessing of joy and good health we thank You.

Hear our prayers for those living with sadness,

  and struggling with pain and frailty.

 

Threefold God, we pray that You will continue to bless

Our world,

Our nation,

And our Church.

Distinct yet united;  . . . Diverse yet interwoven;

Call Your people, all Your people into the communion of Your love,

Where each is named and known,

And this we pray

In the love of the Father,

The healing of the Son,

And the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Listen to the Audio Version by selecting the “Download File” link below:


Stay Bendy, My Friends

~ Guest Sermon ~ Sunday, June 4th, 2017 ~ Hugh Hansen

Oh, to be bendy again!

Well, they say time passes more quickly as we get older, so I must have aged plenty because there were 18 months between my first two talks and seems like only 6 since the last one.

I want to talk about another couple of related traits that seem to change with age. [Walk to center.] This is called “Phoenix Eating Its Ashes.” [Demonstrate] This is called “Single Whip, Down.” [Demonstrate] They’re part of the tai chi exercises I learned from a fellow named Ray Sol. Most of my fellow students were my age or older, none of us were seeking it as a form of self-defense (which is good, because it wouldn’t help much), none of us were particularly devotees of Eastern philosophy. So, what benefits were we seeking? Primarily, flexibility and balance, two qualities that can be difficult to hold onto through the tale of the years.

Little children fall asleep in absurd positions, young people still enjoy Twister,but why do we value balance and flexibility? If we’ve learned certain postures are best for us [demonstrate] why seek out the ability to get into others? Because, we all learn, life will require different positions of us, as unavoidable negatives like a stumble or a fender-bender, or with “an offer we can’t refuse” for its goodness, like playing horsey with a grandchild. And why don’t we all pursue them regularly? Why don’t we all practice activities of flexibility and balance every day? Because we are busy and they are a pain to start! They basically involve hurting ourselves a little bit over and over so we won’t hurt ourselves a lot later on.

Now consider our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual selves. These qualities are just as necessary, just as beneficial, and just as hard to maintain. We have evolved as categorizing machines of uncanny ability, which has been of great value in the survival of the species. This shape or color of fruit is good, that one is poisonous. These clouds mean rain for crops, those mean tornado approaching. We will always want to do that categorizing, AND, we must acknowledge it can limit us, it can leave us rigid and off-balance. Setting aside Spirit for the moment, we know we put ideas and things in categories and stop thinking as hard about them. This may lead to practical problems, like “heavy objects fall faster” or “ulcers are caused by stomach acid” did when those turned out to be, ummm, incomplete statements. It may lead to injustice and a waste of people’s gifts, like “a woman’s place is…” and “children should be…” (didn’t some people sprain their attitude when women entered factories during WWII? Despite the clear need?) The phrase “think outside the box” is an exhortation to be bendy this way, and it could go further. Think inside AND outside the box! There are likely some good things in the box, it must have helped some people sometime!

We find this plurality in the Bible many times. (Now, what we have as “the Bible” is of course the product of thousands of people over thousands of years speaking and writing and translating in scores of languages under known and unknown contemporary pressures, circumstances, and outlooks, so it isn’t easy to know whether all its intentions are coming across. We won’t try to unpack that.)

What does it take to go to Heaven? Matthew has the sheep and the goats, in which the sheep are welcomed to Heaven because when the least of their brethren was hungry they fed him, naked they clothed him, and so on. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians insists we are saved by faith, not works.

John tells us God is love. Paul tells us that love is not jealous. When delivering the Ten Commandments, God tells us the Lord our God is a jealous god.

Jesus is our great Teacher, and we are pulled into plurality of thought as we learn from his life and teachings. He the Prince of Peace, at whose birth the heavenly host bid there be peace on Earth; Jesus specifically blesses the peacemakers in the Sermon on the Mount. He is later quoted as saying he comes not to bring peace but a sword, and blasts a fig tree for not having fruit (out of season). He is human, Son of man; he and God his Father are One. The Law says people (who have all sinned) shall stone adulterers, Jesus says sinners shall not cast the first stone, and also says he has not come to abolish the Law and that not one jot or tittle of it will be erased before the world ends. Last shall be first, who would be master must be servant, we must die to live…in today’s Gospel reading I hear how hard it was for those he taught to let in ambiguity and uncertainty. The whole generation wants a sign, wants “the answers” to be clear and visible. The Twelve fixate on not having enough bread while they cruise around with their friend who just fed thousands. Are there any parents or teachers among us who can’t identify with Jesus’ “sigh deep in his spirit” and his “don’t you get it yet?”

There have been millions of words devoted to rationalizing these and other views, to harmonizing, to assessing one as having priority over another. Those efforts have helped people clarify their choices and purposes in life, AND they have led to intolerance, murder, and war. Was Jesus man-then-God, completely man and completely God, or completely man-and-God? There were at least seven organized “heresies” around this question in the first seven centuries, winners killing losers. (This version of “heresy” reminds me of “treason”—“Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason? For if it prospers, none dare call it treason.”) Faith vs. works was the first and foremost cause of the split between what’s now Protestantism and Catholicism, which fed centuries of war in Europe, along with hangings and burnings.

Because we of this congregation believe ourselves to be both human AND spiritual beings, working for flexibility and balance is all the more important, in theological matters AND everyday worldly matters. Words, languages, have come about from our humans-as-animals experience; if we are more than human animals, if we are more than we seem, then no set of words, or the thoughts behind them, can hold all of the truth! We are required to hold what seem like contradictory opinions, simultaneously. Tolerating and indeed valuing others’ differing opinions and viewpoints, yes, that is good and necessary, AND I must accept that both “sides” participate in truth. Addiction involves both disease and personal responsibility. Both abortion and unwanted pregnancy hold great sorrow. Even if I think one side has more ‘“truthiness” than the other, as Stephen Colbert would say, when I get all categorical and rigid about some words and ideas being right, good, or true, I am going to end up pulling a mental ligament by deciding other ideas must be wrong, bad, or false.

No talk of mine would be complete without some input from music and the movies. It is no coincidence that a most wonderful example of this practice of holding conflicting ideas simultaneously is Tevye, the Jewish milkman from “Fiddler on the Roof.” (I say “no coincidence” because, as a friend pointed out, a formative practice of rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the Temple was for rabbis to hold conflicting elements of the Law together in group discussion and contemplation, leading to the creation of the Talmud.) What do we know of Tevye? He is a man of “Tradition!” and a deep, sweet love of his faith. AND he is the loving father of daughters. In the story, life brings these two beautiful qualities into increasing conflict as his daughters find their life paths. Each time Tevye is confronted with a new level of conflict we follow him into reverie, where he uses “on the other hand” to think and pray his way through—in one case, he ends up with five hands. All of those hands are his, all equally deserving of honest consideration. He follows them to what we agree is the most loving choice with his eldest daughter Tzeitel, and then with his second, Hodel. The hardest comes with Chava, who is in love with a Gentile. Tevye says, to himself, us, and God:

How can I accept them? Can I deny everything I believe in? On the other hand, can I deny my own daughter? On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith, my people? If I try and bend that far, I’ll break.

In agony, he rejects Chava and her husband. No mere sprain, a compound fracture of his family. AND, because he holds these ideas, these pieces of love, within himself rather than casting them away or denying their reality, even this fracture begins to experience love’s healing power by the end of the story.

So, then, are there tai chi/yoga-like exercises for our minds and spirits? How can we avoid straining our emotional joints, and straining relationships as a result? Let me suggest one practice I think has helped me. Unlike Sir Mix-a-Lot, I don’t like big “buts” (and I admit I can lie). Too often, I use “but” to set things in opposition. “But” denotes conflict, “but” implies falseness or less-ness, and demotes or even denigrates whatever statement preceded it. For instance, what is the effect of “Jesse Owens was a great sprinter, BUT/(AND) Usain Bolt is faster”? How about, “This man committed a horrible crime, BUT he has been a model prisoner,” compared to “This man has been a model prisoner, BUT he committed a horrible crime”? Doesn’t each case mean ‘the first phrase matters less than or even not at all compared to the second?’ When I use “but” I am more prone to putting the other idea away from myself—and in so doing, I risk putting the person or people who hold the other idea away, too, distancing or dismissing them in a way that’s not loving my neighbor. When instead I use AND, as I have tried to do in this talk, I am recognizing more truth and respecting those who think and speak it.

So, with The Most Interesting Man in the World, who parallel parked a train and who speaks fluent French in Russian, I say:
I don’t always have an idea in my head.
When I do, I prefer Dos Ideas.

Stay bendy, my friends.

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Don’t Look Up, Look Out!

Sermon ~ Sunday, May 28th, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Don’t Look Up, Look Out!

Acts 1:6-14

There are many themes running through the readings: there is a reference to spiritual unity in the Acts passage and Christ’s prayer that his followers be one or look at Peter’s letter and explore questions such as: Does Christian persecution happen in our country today? What does it look like? Do we really suffer? And how should we handle it?

I would like for us to focus, however, upon the way these passages in Acts, in John’s Gospel, and in Peter’s letter assure that almghty God out of his grace equips all God calls to undertake his work. It is on this point where one could make a connection to this weekend’s significance as a time of remembering and memorializing. Think for a moment about all those who served our nation over the years in the many, far too many wars. How many of them when called to serve really felt prepared for what they were being asked to do? For those of you who were the one called how prepared did you feel to face the danger that was possible?

But then it isn’t always about the bravest or the best prepared is it. It is about a willingness to respond to the call; whether it is the call of your country of the call of Almighty God, as we will see in our reflection on this morning’s scriptures.
I would like to think about the Ascension. So, when was the last time you attended a worship service on Ascension Day?
For me it was sometime in the early 1990’s. The U.C.C. churches in the southeastern corner of Indiana gathered for a mid-day service on Ascension day. I recall going to at least one but not many. By the time I arrived to the Southeast Association of the Indiana/Kentucky conference it was a tradition that was on its way out.

Christ’s ascension is a tricky subject for our post-enlightenment minds and post-Christian age. Most can make the leap of faith in the resurrection because as Paul says, “. . . if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15:17-19)
So okay we step into that realm of faith when it comes to the resurrection, but the idea of Jesus being spirited up heavenward in front of the disciples’ eyes seems more the stuff of magic and myth! Perhaps this is because we have become, today, rather fixated with the notion that ‘facts’ equal ‘truth’ This is to say that for something to be true it must be factually correct and if we cannot establish the literal facts then the matter in question must not be true. Please do not confuse this with some of the recent talk about “alternative facts.” What I’m referring to is to say that there are things in the Bible that might not be factual in a literal way, but they can most assuredly convey truth, truth about humankind, truth about the nature of God and the way of Jesus and our experience of the Holy Spirit.
This narrow ‘facts equal truth’ outlook blinds us: it has turned truth into a fundamentalist subject which limits us rather than liberates us. The Bible is not concerned with the question about ‘how’ something happened but rather its focus is upon ‘why’ something has happened. We do not need to become bogged down with how Jesus ascended to heaven but rather we need to concentrate upon the question of why was it vital to Luke to record that Jesus’ risen earthly life came to an end.

Jesus’ ascension transforms the particular story about Jesus of Nazareth into a universal one – it ensures that Jesus is not left to a particular time or place in human history; it affirms God’s glorious work of the resurrection and means that we, in this time and in this place, can know the Risen Jesus and profess him as Christ/Messiah.

Luke does not linger on the ascension itself but instead swiftly calls the disciples to return their focus to earth for it was there that their work was to be done.
Mission is at the heart of Luke’s account of the ascension – Christ’s mission to his disciples to spread the Good News to all corners of the earth, the Good News that through Christ people are blessed with the fullness of earthly life and ultimately eternal life.
This task is an arduous one and thus Jesus prays to God for their protection in John’s Gospel. But as we recall from last week Jesus also promises his disciples that they will be strengthened, equipped and supported for their calling by the Advocate, the Helper, the Holy Spirit.
Peter takes up this theme in his letter – that followers of Christ can expect to suffer but God in the Spirit is present with them to grant them ‘firmness, strength and a sure foundation’.

This is the grace of God, El Shaddai: the Almighty God, Jehovah-jireh: the provider God, Elohim, the God who was there at creation and is the Creator of all that is seen and unseen, the master of light and darkness whose hesed – loving-kindness blesses and equips all God calls to undertake their God-given task.
We as the Church are Christ’s agent in this world – we, like those first motley crew of disciples have a calling to fulfil – we are not to look heavenward but straight ahead into the reality of this earth, to bring the Good News of Christ to all people – especially, as Jesus reminds us, the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the least of these.

And we are to do this together, as brothers and sisters in Christ, – as Christ prayed:

‘And now I am coming to you; I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. Holy Father! Keep them safe by the power of your name, the name you gave me so that they may be one just as you and I are one.’ (John 17: 11)

Are we one in Christ in the Church today?

It is my prayer that heavenly messengers do not come upon us standing around staring wistfully up into the clouds.

Yes, the messengers said he would return but in the meantime their is work to be done.

Let us not be looking for Christ in the heavens above . . . but in the world out there.

For that is the world Christ gave his all for!

Shouldn’t we give some as well?

 

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