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

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


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Give Us This Day

“Give Us This Day”

Exodus 16:2-15   Matthew 20: 1-16

 

“Why didn’t God let us die in comfort in Egypt where we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat? Moses, you and your brother Aaron brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death . . .” whined the newly freed Hebrew people. They had hardly set their feet on the other side of the Red Sea.

God seems to say pretty much, “Okay, Moses, I tell you what, you go and tell those people, I’m going to rain bread down from the skies for you. They can go out and gather each day’s ration. But it will be a test to see if they’ll live according to my teaching or not.  And make sure they understand that on the sixth day, when they prepare what they have gathered, it will turn out to be twice as much as their daily ration.”    

The expression “manna from heaven” has come to mean anything that may come to us unexpected and is beneficial to us.  But in the original case “manna” was nothing fancy or luxurious; it was basic sustenance, “daily bread.”  But most importantly, manna was a gift that was not to be hoarded; in fact it could not be hoarded.  When the people try to gather more than their share, or hold onto it longer than they needed to the manna becomes worm ridden and a foul-smelling mess as one will find if you read on in chapter 16 v. 20.

With manna everyone has plenty, but no one has too much.

The leaders and the servants receive the same amount. 

The people who work all day and the people who have little to do, receive the same amount.

The able and the disabled, receive the same amount: plenty, but not too much,

    and it is all a gift!  

Jesus encapsulated this gifting grace in the prayer he taught his disciples: “Give us this day our daily bread.”  He reenacts it when in the wilderness he feeds thousands with just a few loaves and a couple of fish, and everyone has plenty and no one has too much.

And then Jesus teaches his disciples through parable that the reign of God is like “laborers in the vineyard.”  Now many people read this parable as a story of “salvation” that whether you are a lifelong Christian and disciple of Jesus or a death bed confession believer you will be welcomed in “heaven.”  Nothing wrong with such an interpretation I just feel it is incomplete.  Whenever Jesus spoke of the reign or kingdom of God he always represented it as a present and coming reality.  He taught that, “The Reign of God is among you, . . . within you, . . .  in your midst.”

In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, Jesus is saying that the reign of God is not going to be based on old catagories of the current world order: rich and poor, superior and inferior, clean and unclean, acceptable and unacceptable.  It is not necessarily a “first come first served” ethic, but “the last shall be first and first shall be last” ethic. 

Through this parable Jesus attempts to help his disciples break through the old presumptions and create the possibility of something new.  Through this odd and unsettling story, Jesus both envisions the new order of God and unmasks the deadly spirits of the old order.

Jesus presents the reign of God in the church as the heart of this new reality.  In the church, the world is to see an “alternative household of God’s kingdom.”  In this vineyard, this wilderness, everyone receives the necessary “daily bread.”  Not trying to be too obvious but this is where there is a tie in to Stewardship.

So it is a parable about grace (God’s grace toward us.)

A parable about grace (human to human grace.)

A parable about generosity (God’s toward us.)

A parable about knowing how much is enough.

A parable about TRUST . . . trusting God to provide for our needs not our wants.

Manna for the wandering Israelites . . . wages for the vineyard laborers.

And to this Jesus teaches in the prayer we will say in a bit,

     “Give us this day our daily bread.”  

It is not as the world might teach us to pray:  “Give me this day my daily bread.”

 

There is an underside to this parable that I believe speaks to us, (at least it speaks to me) as one of the privileged in our society, as one of those has had the opportunity to work, if not from the beginning of the day, at least starting in the second or even third shift.  I’m referring to the comment made by those who began laboring first in the vineyard when they found they weren’t getting more than what the last hired were given, “These last have only worked one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”    

I’m reminded of the grumbling of Israel in the wilderness.  The laborers complaint does not simply concern money or fair wages even; it goes much deeper, to what money, wages represents.  The real issue is superiority: “you have made them equal to us.” 

Work becomes not simply the means for earning daily bread, but a source of division and competition, a means of reinforcing the categories of winners and losers, superior and inferior, those of value and those of lesser value to society. 

Work often plays this role in contemporary society.  When people are out of work, they often feel inferior, even worthless, like the workers in the parable who waited all day in the marketplace: “. . . no one has hired us,” they poignantly tell the landowner. 

Also in today’s overstressed workforce many people including pastors will often brag about their long hours of work, as a way of feeling self-important and superior to those with less demanding work.

Of course, the money earned from work is itself closely connected to status, often functioning as much to achieve superiority over others as it is to secure the necessities of daily life.

The complaint of the daylong workers – “you have made them equal to us” – takes some of us including modern day preachers to some deep places.  It takes us beneath mere economics to the spirit that underlies so much economic competition – a spirit that is shaped by the metaphors of winners and losers, superior and inferior, of important and less important.   

Now this is not to say that competition in business is not a good thing, it is and can be very good for the consumer.  But it is to say that when society uses the results of such competition to divide us and separate us and to put others in a place of less value as children of God, that is wrong!

As some of you know, I am a fan of certain professional sports teams, but when I consider the ridiculous salaries they command and I consider their real value to our society say as compared to a school teacher or a first responder.  I am troubled by the values this conveys to our young people and what it says about our society as a whole!   The same for many CEOs.  

Jesus clearly says speaking through the words of the parable’s landowner (God),

“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?  So the last will be first and the first will be last.”

The Greek there says “is your eye evil because I am good?”  

The message of this parable seems to me is comes to us on two fronts. 

First, the lesson of God’s grace and generosity.  And our response to such grace and generosity is to extend the same to all others.  

The second message perhaps is the more difficult for us to swallow and that is how in the reign of God, God’s generosity to us is not based on any supposed superiority we may feel we have and others do not have.  But is bestowed upon us all, equally, without any thought to humanly contrived merit.  We are all equally children of God in the Reign of God. 

And as the body of Christ, the church’s mission assisted by the Holy Spirit is to usher in more and more evidence of this reign which while in our midst is not yet fully realized.

May it be so starting with us.

Listen to Pastor Neil Wilson share this Sermon by double clicking on  “Download File” below.  Enjoy.


Special Guest – The Reverend Cheryl Burke

We had a special guest speaker; the Reverend Cheryl Burke, the Associate Conference Minister of the Michigan Conference of United Church of Christ.

We do not have a written transcript of this week’s Sermon, but we do have the Audio Link available.  Enjoy.

Click on the “Download File” link below and it should open on your desktop.

 


There Goes the Neighborhood

“There Goes the Neighborhood”

Romans 13:8-14     Matthew 18: 15-20

If it hadn’t been for the all rain there wouldn’t have been much to talk about this summer at Old First Church on the Common.

But in fact it has been so rainy that when the Church Council found it necessary to expand the Clarice Mae Bradley-Stemple Memorial Garden (Earlier plans did not take into account the number of pets who have memorialized there.) it was determined that the only direction they could develop was sitting under 2 inches of water.  And it wasn’t nice clean rain water but looked more like what Jed Clampet found bubbling up from the ground when shootin’ at some food.  Except it wasn’t Texas Tea!

You see the end of the church’s leach field runs along that side of the Memorial Garden, the side where the grass is always nice and green.

As you can imagine, since this discovery, it hasn’t been as quiet around Old First Church, especially seeing as Sam Coleridge got involved.  It gave him a chance to use his new Hitachi ZAXIS 8 mini excavator.  So he began one day digging away with no apparent plan in mind. (Typical of Sam!)  By the next Sunday the backyard of the church looked like a colony of 500 lb. gophers had moved in.

Beth Granger from the county Dept. of Septic and Sewers, did the perk test and had to share with the Council the bad news that it didn’t pass which meant that the church would need to enlarge the leach field. 

As Beth was concluding her remarks to the Church Council, the first words out of Sam Coleridge were “Well, that’s just a bunch of crap.” To which Beth countered, “Yep, that’s your problem!” 

The bigger problem, as it turned out, is that the only suitable direction to go is onto land owned by Mrs. Violet Small. 

Mrs. Violet Small is a widow.  Mr. Small (as she always referred to her late husband) died 20 years ago. The back of her 5 acres abuts the Clarice Mae Bradley-Stemple Memorial Garden.  On this section there is the remnant of an old apple orchard that Mr. Small started when he and Mrs. Violet Small were first married.  Without his attention for the past 20 years it has become a tangle of brush and overgrown apples trees, looking like a scene right out of a 19th century gothic novel. 

It has become a favorite “haunt” of the neighborhood kids who like to go in there and help themselves to some of the better apples, and the wormy ones, well, they make great projectiles when flung from the end of a long limber maple whip stick! 

And, as Mrs. Violet Small has pointed out to Rev. Williams, on more than one occasion, some of the rapscallions she has chased out of Mr. Small’s orchard were children from the church Sunday School!  And just what was he going to do about it?  Some Christian values they were teaching there at that church!

So when she showed up at the pastor’s office, her eyes aflame, and without even a “good morning”, she got right in his face and demanded, “That Sam Coleridge better not let the tiniest little bit of his digger thing cross over onto her property or there would be a lawsuit forth coming.” 

She spun on the heels of her little black shoes and marched right back out past wide-eyed Abby Reynolds at her desk in the church office.  

Well, that pretty much took care of the option to negotiate the purchase of even a narrow strip of her land for church’s environmental conundrum.

Council members discussed it at their next meeting.  Some wanted to see if there wasn’t some alternative solution such as building a big mound system. 

“The kids could always use it as a sliding hill in the winter.” Leslie Jordan offered. 

The mound system wasn’t really a viable option because of the soil types in town, the report was quite clear on this, Howard Williams pointed out.

Some wanted to settle this ongoing dispute with Mrs. Violet Small once and for all, “But we will do it in a ‘Christian manner’ and follow the example laid out by Jesus in Matthew 18.” Bertie Dickson suggested. Then added, “And Pastor, we think you should be the one to approach, Mrs. Violet Small, you know, as Jesus said, ‘when the two of you are alone.’” 

“You cowards” Rev. Williams thought to himself.  Of all the times they would want to consider doing something in a “biblical manner” it would be now!

Yet, this is what they tried, to no avail.  At least Mrs. Violet Small had the courtesy not to slam the door in the Reverend’s face like she did when Sam Coleridge and Howard Williams stopped by as when you are to “. . . take one or two others along with you . . .”

And of course the next step is to take it to the church, which was a mote point, by then everyone not only in the church but in all of Rockhaven knew about the squabble between the church and Mrs. Violet Small.  In fact over at Joe’s Barber shop the whole affair had become known as the “The Church’s case of the Holythe (or unholy) Crap” and Sam Coleridge had been nicknamed “Cesspool Sam!”

Mrs. Violet Small, for a woman of short stature and little means was becoming an immovable stumbling block to any forward progress.

It was about this time, one Sunday morning, Jessie Packard, the nursery caregiver, was talking with the children about Jesus and his two commandments, you know, to love God and love one’s neighbor.  And the children made cards that they were to take to the people who lived near them, their neighbors.  Little Brucey Walton informed Jessie that he didn’t have any neighbors out where he lived on the Ricker Bluffs Road.  So Jessie suggested that he think about who he might give his card to. 

On his way out the back door of the of the church to play on the old swings, he looked up and saw an older person across the way in the old apple orchard, bent over picking up some branches that had fallen from one of the aged trees.  To Brucey she looked sad and forgotten.  He knew right then who he was going to give his card to, I mean after all wasn’t she the church’s neighbor.

On his way home Brucey went down the side street to a little house hidden back in the overgrown lilacs and arborvitae.  He timidly stepped onto the porch and made his way by pots of dying geraniums and dried out chrysanthemums and knocked on the door. The door opened just a crack and Brucey saw the sad little woman standing behind it.

“We were, we were talking about loving our neighbors today in nursery and made these cards.” Brucey stammered. 

“I don’t have any neighbors where, where I live out on Ricker Bluffs and I saw you and, and thought, well, you’re, you’re my neighbor at least while, while I’m at church.”  

He held out the handmade card.

A hand quickly snatched the card and shut the door. 

On the other side of the door Mrs. Violet Small muttered, “This is a new low for even you, Sam Coleridge, using children to get your way.”  Yet she did take the time to open the card and read the simple note, “Jesus said ‘Love your neighbor.’”

That next Sunday during the Children’s time, a very pensive Brucey Walton questioned Rev. Williams, “Aren’t we supposed to love everyone, Pastor?  Even those who may not be nice to us?” 

“Well, yes, yes we are Brucey.” the Rev. answered.

“And didn’t you say once, that to love like Jesus isn’t about feeling all warm and mushy inside but about doing things that are like love?”

The Rev. had to think for a moment about that one.  It had been at least a year ago he had spoken about that.  If only half the congregation would have such a memory! 

Well, undeterred in his faith, Brucey shows up again the next Sunday at Mrs. Violet Small’s house. This time he brought along two of his friends, Betsy Masters and Jimmy Buffington, and they all have handmade cards for their church neighbor. 

 This time the door opened a little bit more and Mrs. Violet Small took the cards as each of the children presented them to her. 

This has been going on now for 3 or 4 weeks.  At last count, I think four children were stopping by Mrs. Violet Small’s house every Sunday after church with a handmade card or sometimes a little something they foraged from the coffee hour.  The parents had been noticing that their stays were growing a bit longer each week. 

This last Sunday the morning scripture included the verse, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”   Rev. spoke once again about love as more than a feeling for there are times when we may not feel love for some, in fact we may actually have bad feelings toward them, yet we can still show them love.

And it was earlier that same Sunday morning one of the children, actually it was Betsy Masters, came walking out of the orchard and across the backyard of the church with a few nice Macintosh apples in a little basket.  And I overheard little Betsy say to Jessie Packard, “Oh Miss. Violet says it’s okay, so long as we come to her front door and ask.  Here, Miss. Violet said these were for the coffee hour.”

The next day the Rev. as he walked up to the church saw Mrs. Violet Small out in the orchard and she appeared to be doing something with a hammer and stakes.  When he got into his office Abby called out from her desk that Mrs. Violet Small called and wants to have a word with him. Rev. Williams took a deep breath and called Mrs. Violet Small.  She asked if the Reverend would stop by later that day. 

 

That afternoon Pastor Williams knocked on Mrs. Violet Small’s front door, which swung all the way open and she invited him in to her parlor. And he’s not sure, but as he passed by the kitchen door he thought he saw on her refrigerator a whole row of handmade cards with little stick figures, rainbows and hearts.

Go ahead, listen to the Audio version…Pastor Neil Wilson is quite the story teller and a faithful servant.                                                             Just select the link “download file” below and enjoy!