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

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


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What’s In a Name?

What’s In a Name?

Matthew 16:13-20

 

What’s in a name? 

Everyone bears a name, and some of us have several names, (even a few nicknames).

There are first names that we have, be it John, Rachel, Pamela, the name that we are known by, the name if used, indicates familiar relationship.  We call our closest acquaintances by their first name.  These names may carry some significance, perhaps because of their meaning in a language of origin.  How many of you know the meaning of your names?  Has it influenced how you think of yourself?

For instance, my name, Neil comes from the Gaelic Niall, which is of disputed origin, possibly meaning “champion” or even “cloud”.  So I guess this means I’m either a hero or an airhead!  This was the name of a semi-legendary 4th-century Irish king, Niall of the Nine Hostages.  In the early Middle Ages the name was adopted by Viking raiders and settlers in Ireland in the form Njal.  In popularity Neil ranks 629th in the U.S. so I guess I’m not all that popular! 

 Then there is the family name, surname, which we grew up with, the name our parents bestowed upon us, by the nature of our family of origin. In bearing this name, a responsibility of sorts is placed upon us. The reputation of that name is handed down to us. It Is not just a name, but a family history, and it carries its tradition with it.  Back in the little town where I grew up in if you were to go back there and mention the name “Wilson” there are those who would have certain preconceived notions about you just because you mentioned the Wilson name!

There are our middle names which some people find embarrassing.  Often middle names are given because they sound nice (I have sister Kathryn Ann, Sylvia Mae) and sometimes they are given to honor the memory of a family member.  For instance my middle name is Herbert.  I was named after a great uncle Herb McAlister whose funeral my father had been to the day I was born.

Where we live in a city or town or a village, bestows a name upon us. We should be aware that what people think of the city or town may well be derived from what they think of us as individuals.  When we share names, our family of origin is identified, or our place of birth, or our occupation, and we may be risking something of the reputation of any of those things, by what we say and do.  What was Nathanael’s comment when he heard where Jesus was from?  “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”  (Jn. 1:46)

We know how easy it is for us to use somebody’s name if we want to get through red tape. By using a person’s reputation, by speaking about the person as our friend, who happens to be the boss of a company, or someone important and influential in the organization, we get a lever, an angle, which gives us an advantage. When we quote somebody’s name in a reference, or in letter of recommendation, we are taking hold of something of their reputation.

So, what’s in a name and what’s going on here when Jesus bestowed the name ‘Peter’ on this disciple, Simon?

Peter, Petros ‘the rock’ (and not the movie star!)  To some he might better be known as ‘the rock that moved’, with his shaky faith and apparent inability to be consistent.  Peter, ‘the rockslide’, in his headlong headstrong rush to express convictions without thinking of the implications and then living to regret the consequences.  There are times when he was ‘rock headed,’ or unable to engage with the reality of being a true disciple and finding it tough to follow when it meant endangering his life.

Still, it was Simon, whom Jesus named Petros, to whom Jesus said using a bit of a play on words, “On this petra (rock), I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Now there has been various ways which Jesus’ renaming of Simon to Peter has been interpreted.  Traditionally it has been understood as Jesus saying that the church was built upon the person of Peter and his unique role in the ministry of the early church.  This has led to among other things the concept of apostolic succession, the idea that there can be an authority bestowed upon bishops though the laying on of hands that can be traced back to the first apostles. 

Another interpretation, (and a view that seems more plausible to me personally) is that “the rock” Jesus was pointing to was not Peter himself but Peter’s confession.  When Jesus asks the disciples “But who do you say that I am?”  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”  It is upon this confession as the foundation, the rock, that the church will be built. 

Still Jesus bestowed the name of Petros “rock” on the disciple known as Simon.  Naming is important.  Over and over in the Bible persons are given new names, places are given new names.  In each case there is a good reason for such renaming.  And often with the new name came new responsibilities and opportunities. 

Simon’s new name changed him and his role in the mission of Jesus forever.  

Imagine Jesus stepping into this sanctuary.  He calls you by the name, the name we all know you by but says, “XXX You are no longer XXX but you are ???”  For example if it were my spouse Donna Jesus might say “Donna, you are to be Madonna for you will be part of a new birth in the church.

What name might Jesus bestow upon you?  

There is one surname by which we all go and that is “Christian.”

In this regard my name is not Neil Wilson but “Neil the Christian.”  As I thought about this, some questions came to mind in light of Jesus’ renaming Simon to Petros “rock” and what this said about Simon and what it might have meant to the new Peter.

Is my reputation such that when my name is mentioned there is a positive reflection on the church of Jesus Christ?

How well am I doing at projecting the reputation of Jesus into the world?

Or, if I’m honest, there have been times when I’ve been embarrassed by my association with Jesus.  Am I more like Judas, than like my favorite Andrew?

Just how much am I responsible by my inaction and neglect, my self-absorbed actions and selfish ways of living, for the poor reputation of the Church and her Christ in these times?

Have I evaded my responsibilities and in effect lived in denial of the faith I claimed? The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans (10:9) that we are to profess Jesus with our lips.  True.  But unless you are living in times of persecution it is easy to say I believe in Jesus, it is quite another to live that proclamation out in real life!  But then Matthew (15:8) tells us that Jesus said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

What about you?

Are we living with the responsibilities bestowed up on us as people who confess Jesus as the Christ, Messiah?  

Or have we trimmed and tidied the faith to suit us?

Can the world see a bit of Jesus in us?

A class of children was being taken through a church one day.  The things they saw were patiently explained by their teacher, the pulpit, the altar, baptismal font, etc..  Then one little girl pointed to one of the stained glass windows. ‘Who are those people?’ she asked.  The teacher explained that they were saints, which precipitated a discussion about how those people became saints. 

After the tour, the teacher asked some questions to see what the children had learned. One of the questions was ‘Who are saints?’  The same little girl put up her hand and said, ‘Saints are the people the light shines through’. 

What better answer would there be to describe those whose faith in action casts the light of Christ upon the needs of a suffering world? 

By virtue of showing up here this morning, the name Christian will be attached to us not only by Jesus but also by the world.

What’s in a name?  Perhaps a whole lot more that we might think!

 

Listen to our Audio Version by clicking on “Download File” below and enjoy Pastor Neil Wilson’s timely message.


Mercy & Mystery

Sermon ~ August 20, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Mercy & Mystery

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32   Matthew 15: 21-28

“I ask then, has God rejected his people?  By no means!”

Those who study New Testament Greek (more that I have) will tell us that what is translated as I just read, Paul uses language that is much more emphatic.  They suggest it needs to be read with hand thumping the table and shouting “Absolutely not!”  

It is with such passion that Paul answers his own rhetorical question:  Has God rejected the people of Israel, the Jews?  Absolutely not!

In the some of the verses that follow, which the lectionary leaves out, Paul uses a rather confusing explanation that has to do with branches being grafted onto a vine as a way of explaining the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s overall plan.

Today’s reading picks up Paul’s words at verse 29, where the apostle emphasizes  that “the gifts and call of God are irrevocable.”  God is not in the business of rejection but inclusion.  Looking back on the 2000 years of Jewish/Christian relations, and in light of the silence of many white Christians over the violence in Charlottesville, and the church’s role historically and today in racism, the church would do well to remember this.  And we must do more than casually reflect on it, we must repent of our past sins of if not commission then silence and move beyond remembering to realistic actions.  “We” being not the “the church” in the generic but you and I.  

In a fuller reading of Romans, we can hear Paul in a perpetual struggle with the reality that not all his fellow Jews have accepted Jesus as the Messiah.  Paul simply cannot fathom anyone – Jew or Gentile – not wanting the wonderful life such as Paul himself experienced.  We need to note, however, that Paul’s desire that the Jews come to the same understanding as he does, does not mean that they must.  I may say “this is the best thing in the world, and you ought to try it” but my opinion, while valid, is nonetheless mine and therefore subjective.

It seems that Jesus has a similar frustration as Paul did.  Confronted by a Canaanite woman (a Gentile) seeking mercy, Jesus responds that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.  At a glance this is rather unsettling for most of us. Isn’t this the same Jesus who accepts all kinds of people: men, women, children, foreigners, tax collectors, the rich and poor, the saint and the sinner?   By all accounts, Jesus’ response implies that the woman is not deserving of God’s mercy. 

Yet she persists, and Jesus relents.

I wonder if Jesus is actually out and out rejecting her, or is he merely venting his frustration.  His own people, the very ones to whom Jesus has been sent, the ones he grew up amongst, have by-in-large not accepted him or his message.  Now here he is, wandering in foreign territory, and this “outsider” recognizes and by virtue of her question, accepts his power and authority.  

We can perhaps understand his frustration.  

It is a little reminiscent of Matthews’ account of Jesus’ birth. Unlike Luke, who tells of local shepherds hearing the good news and proclaiming it to all who would listen, Matthew tells a different story.  A story of foreign astrologers traveling a great distance to recognize the “king of the Jews.”  

Foreigners and outsiders clearly figure into God’s plan for humankind. This is not the same thing as predestination, however.  God does not have a specific plan for each individual, deciding long before our birth what our fate will be.  Rather, God appears to have a plan, a dream, a hope for all humankind.  How will we respond is pretty much left up to us!  

If we read on a bit more in Romans in v. 36, we read Paul coming to an acceptance of a simple reality that would solve his dilemma.  God’s ways are unsearchable and, ultimately, incomprehensible.  God has ways of doing things that are beyond our knowing.   We may not like the way things are going, but we can trust that God has things well in hand.  (I know for some and for me at times this seems like a copout.  But sometimes this is all we have and why we call it faith.)

Paul alluded to this earlier when suggesting that, just as the Gentiles were once nonbelievers, so now the Jews, and it’s all part of God’s planning.  Using  a rather circular argument, Paul suggests that God causes everyone’s disobedience so that, ultimately, everyone can receive God’s mercy. 

In the Tuesday Bible Discussion group we’ve been considering the story of Joseph’s family.  It is one of the longest stories in the Bible.  A series of amazing events come together so that the people of Israel settle in Egypt. Some suggest that while there are many “teachable points” in this story, the long-term purpose was to set the stage for God’s profound act of mercy, the exodus.  Without the people going into Egypt, they could not have been rescued out of Egypt.

The overarching lesson, we can trust God’s ways, even if we do not understand them or even like them. 

But this begs the question, “does God make things – especially unpleasant ones – happen in order to teach us a lesson?”

Yes and No.

Some situations certainly fall within that category.  Yet there is nothing to suggest that everything does.  Anxiously trying to understand something beyond him, Paul comes to the conclusion that this  – the Jews non acceptance of God’s new offer – is to teach people a lesson.  We may tend to do the same thing.  When we cannot understand what is going on around us, an easy explanation to which we can default is that God is teaching us something.  It may be true, but there is no guarantee.

However, we can learn from all that happens around us, whether that was God’s intention or not, if we are open to God.

So I believe we might take for this passage two important lessons.  The first is that God has not rejected the Jews or anyone else for that matter.  What God has done is to widen the door to include all who wish to come in.  All are welcome, all are included. 

The second is that in the end God’s ways are often beyond our understanding, and that’s okay.  Our faith in God can empower us to if not to accept then to work with what is going on in our lives – even when it’s not what we want, even when it makes no sense to us. 

If we were to ask the question, “has God abandoned any of God’s people, ever?” we can give a resounding “Absolutely not!

Listen to the Audio version by selecting “Download File” and open on your desktop!  Enjoy!


Did You Hear (See) That?

Sermon ~ Sunday, August 13th, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Did You Hear (See) That?

1 Kings 19:9-18

Have you ever had the experience of purchasing or leasing a new (or new to you) automobile and on your way home from the dealership you see four others identical to it? 

Back in the dealership’s lot when you first laid eyes on it, the color and design and classy lines jumped out at you and said. “I’m yours!  Just you and me baby! We’re going to be a stylish, unique pair, all eyes will be on us!” 

But then, again, on your way home and for the next few days, weeks even, you see vehicles just like yours. They are everywhere!      

A few years ago when we bought the green Honda CR-V we noticed two or three people apparently bought the same car at the same time we did.  We brought our Subaru Forester home, suddenly we see our twins going by all the time!   There can only be one explanation: We must be trend setters!

Actually there is another explanation: this experience is similar to what is called “frequency illusion”, or the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. This is a cognitive bias which describes a curious psychological fact: after learning some bit of new information we start noticing it everywhere else. 

Okay, interesting, but what does this have to do with Elijah and his experience of God on Mount Horeb? 

Elijah was a great prophet, through whom Yahweh had performed some pretty amazing things, like the poor widow of Zarephath and her jug of oil that never ran out and subsequent resuscitation of her dead son.  Then there was the challenge to the prophets of Baal and the fire from the sky to ignite the sacrificial fire which had been drenched in water.  And if this wasn’t enough, the deaths of all the prophets of Baal, after which a prolonged drought came to an end.   That last one might have been a bit too much.  In fact it was for Queen Jezebel.

The Jewish king Ahab had married Jezebel who was a worshipper of Baal, and when she heard about the death of Baal’s prophets, she threatened to take the Elijah’s life which sends the prophet running for his life into the wilderness.  Elijah travels about a day’s journey where he sits down under a tree and despairs for his life. Complainingly he prays:   “It is enough, now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” (v. 4)   

Yet, even on the run and with all his complaining, Elijah continues to experience God’s care and help.  That night under the tree, an angel comes to him as he sleeps and provides him with food and water which miraculously sustains him for 40 days and nights!   After these 40 days and nights Elijah makes his way to Mount Horeb and there he seeks the shelter of a cave.  Mount Horeb, another name for Mount Sinai, is where God had appeared to Moses, considered the birthplace of Israel’s religion.       

 This is where our reading picks up the story.  And it might be familiar one to some of you.  Inside the cave, Elijah hears the voice of the Lord saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  And Elijah begins whining again about the state of his affairs.  I paraphrase, “You know how faithful I’ve been Lord, so why is this happening to me?”

God tells Elijah to go out of the cave, stand on the edge of the mountain and wait, there Lord will pass by.  In other words, “Elijah you want reassurance, I show you reassurance!”

There’s a great wind, so powerful rocks were shattering, but no sign of the Lord. 

Next there came a shaking of the earth in a mighty earthquake, still, no Lord. 

After the shaking, a fire and after the fire “a sound of sheer silence.” 

Can one hear silence? 

Can silence, as we say, be deafening?

Mighty winds . . . witnesses frequently describe tornadoes as sounding like freight trains.

Earthquakes rumbling deep in the earth are amplified by the earth like a huge speaker.

Next a fire. . . I personally have heard the sound of a forest fire crowning through the tops of spruce trees and it is a frightening sound!

Elijah, like many of us, might have expected God to show up in fury and power, the awesome spectacle of any of these.  After all look at how he had experienced God up to this point.   Some pretty amazing, in your face sort of ways!

There is that great scene in the movie Forest Gump where Lt. Dan has joined Forest on his shrimp ingredients boat. After not catching any shrimp for days, Lt. Dan asks Forest, “Where to H is this God of yours?”  And in a voice over Forest says, “Its funny Lt. Dan said that, because right then, God showed up.”  And they are caught in the wrath of a hurricane.  

 God showing up . . . There is a term for such manifestations or experiences of the Holy, they’re called theophanies.  Elijah had had some fairly spectacular theophanies to be sure, but what Elijah seemed to need to learn was that God is not always found in the bright flashes of light or loud roaring of storms, spectacular events and portents in the heavens, but also in the quiet spaces in between.  Perhaps more often in the quiet spaces in between, for there are far more of these in life.  

Elijah like many of us needed to learn to create prayerful times and spaces filled with silence, set a part from the din and confusion of the storms and earthquakes in our lives. 

Related to this is the tremendous influence that past experiences have on our ability to discern and experience divine activity in the present. 

Elijah had experienced God in some pretty awe inspiring ways.  But here God comes to him in the quiet after the storm, after the awe.  Not maybe what he expected.

In our gospel reading, the disciples couldn’t believe what they were seeing in those early morning hours in the midst of a storm.  They thought it was some sort of ghostly apparition.  They had never experienced Jesus in that way.

 

We see what we have been “conditioned” to see.  The Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon speaks of something we recently learned or experienced.  Past experiences do have a way of shaping, coloring, the lenses though which we view our world. 

For instance even though it has been over 26 years since I in any way made my living in the logging trade, I notice trees.  And when I look at them I see white pine, red pine, eastern hemlock, red, white, black spruce, cedar, balsam fir where others see simply “pines” or “Christmas trees.”   While I’m getting better and can make myself see trees for their intrinsic beauty and value, I still see potential board feet of lumber and cords of pulpwood.  And when I look at a forest of trees I see the way the trees lean and the best location to fall them and the location of haul roads so as to do the least amount of damage to the residual stand. 

I see what years of experience have conditioned me to see.

My thought for us today is: How do our past experierences bias our expectations of how God will reveal God’s self in our lives? 

What have we done through prayer and study to shape and change those patterns of attention? 

Do we fail to see God at work in our lives, in our church because we believe that God’s presence is always and only made manifest in certain ways, places and persons?

Have we taken the time and energy to open our eyes and ears; to be receptive to new movements of the Holy Spirit in our midst; or do we miss them because past experience limits our vision and hearing? 

 

While God’s faithfulness and loving kindness never ends (Lamentations 3:22-23)and God is changeless. (Ps. 90:2 & 102:26-27) God is also about writing a new covenant on people’s hearts (Jere. 31:31-34) and doing new things  (Is. 43:19).

When we look upon the forest of humanity around us or out upon the raging seas of life, what do we see, what to we hear?  God is just as apt to be in the spaces between the trees and in the calm that follows the storm.

In the end God didn’t give up on Elijah even when Elijah prayed that God would.  Elijah  continues to prophesy to the rulers and people of Israel. 

With a renewed or even new vision, as we are able to see God moving in new ways and doing a new thing imagine what will the church be capable of!

May we be so attentive to the movement of the Spirit in our midst that we will be saying to one another, “Say, did you hear that?”

 

LISTEN TO THE AUDIO VERSION OF THIS SERMON recorded live and read by Pastor Neil Wilson:


The Kingdom is Like What!?

The Kingdom Is like What!?

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

 

Have you ever noticed Jesus doesn’t begin his parables, “In a land far away there lived a beautiful princess . . .”

Not even, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

But “In an ordinary field next door to you there was a farmer who planted some seed . . . A baker woman kneading some dough . . .”

 

I wonder if the crowds were a bit disappointed with Jesus.  Maybe even some of his disciples as well. Jesus tells them one more parable about seeds and plants, followed by stories of baking bread,  plowing a field, and fishing. Yes, he throws in one story about a wealthy merchant, but all the rest are as ordinary as a mustard bush. 

No kings, or even princesses, inhabit this kingdom Jesus speaks about being so near. 

No military generals or revolutionary leaders to please Simon the Zealot or his colleague Judas.  They must have felt let down.

And what about us? 

I wonder if our culture might be disappointed too with some of Jesus’ stories.  For instance, I doubt most people’s vision of heaven or the reign of God includes mustard bushes and housework!  God is more often seen as “Lord” or “King” than farmer or baker woman.  And whether it is traditional hymns or modern praise music we sing about “enthroning” Jesus, “raising him up” and “exalting him in the highest heaven.” 

Jesus though, tells stories of the kingdom and of heaven that are literally “down to earth.”  Common stories about ordinary people, a tenant farmer, a housewife, fishermen, doing everyday things.  This is hardly an exalted image of God’s realm!

And of course this is the whole point.  As Christians we are called to believe in the incarnation, the mystery of the meeting of divine and human in the very human person of Jesus.  Yet it is interesting that in his parables Jesus puts the focus not on himself but on the world around him.  “The kingdom of God is like” some of the most common things in life.  Like Jesus himself, this everyday world of ours embodies the sacred meeting of divine and human, sacred and secular, pious and profane.  That is if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. 

It is in this very mundane embodiment that Jesus’ parables differ from Greek or Roman myths or Aesop’s fables.  Jesus’ stories contain no gods in human disguise or talking animals, just real-life women and men going about their everyday work. 

According to Matthew, the first thing Jesus does when he comes out from his 40 days in the  wilderness is proclaim, “The kingdom of God has come near.”  He give examples of this every time he heals, reaches out to outcasts, respects women and other unrespectables, or cares for the poor.  He illustrates that nearness through these kingdom parables.

Jesus’ kingdom is not some esoteric realm in the sweet by and by, but as close and real as the mustard bush in the neighbor’s field or the loaf of bread on the baking stone.  This nearness, far more than any threat of eternal agony, is the basis for Jesus’ call to believe.  Of these five parables, only the last includes any idea of apocalyptic judgement and gnashing of teeth.  The rest envision God in every nook and cranny of daily life, from the kneading of dough to the plowing of fields.  Jesus seeks to transform human life not by scaring the hell out of people, but by helping them see the heaven close at hand!

With such images Jesus echoes his and our faith ancestor Moses who in his farewell address to the Israelites reminded them that “the word is very near” them, in their hearts and close at hand.  (Deut. 30) In his earthy kingdom parables Jesus affirms this.

Another thing Jesus does not do is use the seven wonders of the world to illustrate God’s kingdom.  He doesn’t even use the stately cedar of Lebanon, but the lowly mustard plant.  Its seed is a symbol of the tiniest thing, and the plant it produces is a trash tree!  Or more accurately a trash bush, no matter how tall it grew.  We might like Jesus to speak of the kingdom as like the mighty red oak or majestic white pine, but Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a farmer who planted scrub juniper or even Russian knapweed!  How is that for an image of God’s realm?  I imagine the disciples scratching their heads and asking themselves, “The Kingdom is like what?”

Then there is the leaven, the smallest amount enough to provide bread for a wedding feast.  In a tradition where leaven is a symbol for corruption and impurity Jesus uses this as an agent of the miraculous growth of God’s kingdom.  If God can use weeds and corruptible leaven to grow the kingdom, imagine what God can do with you and me! 

Abundance from the smallest things, miraculous transformations from trash bush to tree of life, from corrupt leaven to bread enough to feed the multitudes.  God’s kingdom is like that, according to Jesus. 

And then in the next two parables we are told of people who gladly give up everything for that treasure.  The extravagant response of the tenant farmer and the pearl merchant is matched only by the extravagant mustard bush and loaves of bread.

Of course the paradox is that the kingdom equal to the value of a great pearl or treasure is not made of silver or gold, but of bushes and bread.  What would you give up for a old pasture overrun with an abundance of juniper bushes? 

  These are not simple moral fables in that they demand such decisions.  Again like Moses’ last words, the parables stress our responsibility to choose God’s way even when it may not make sense!  Moses framed it as a choice between life or death, blessing or curse.  Jesus’ parables has the realm of God up against that of the evil one, good fish or bad fish.  Like Moses, Jesus does not let us off the “hook.”  The nearness of God’s realm challenges us daily to choose a way.  

Unfortunately we live in a world where mustard comes in a plastic squeezable bottles, bread in plastic bags, both of which can be found on grocery store shelves.  And pearls go for discount prices on the Home Shopping Network. 

Has the church cheapened the kingdom as well?

Like the farmer plowing the field and the merchant searching for the invaluable pearl, what would you, what would this congregation, give up everything to possess?  All the while remembering that the hidden treasure is not made of silver or gold or even an actual pearl!  Nor is it made of wood or brick or stone or endowments funds and memorial accounts.  And on the personal side it isn’t that lucrative job offer or business opportunity, it isn’t our retirement portfolios! 

Rather Jesus is asking, “What would we give all these things up to possess?”

 And then he offers images of things that in the end will not complete our personal estate or fully fund a church’s capital improvement fund but will bring us closer to the realm of God that is right there in our midst if we but have the eyes to see and the ears to hear!

So look around you today.  Where do you (will you) see and hear parables of the kingdom?

Want to hear the Audio Version?  Select the link below to listen to Pastor Neil Wilson sharing his Sermon on Sunday morning here at First Congregational UCC.