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

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


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Dr. Hend Azhary – Guest Speaker

Dr. Hend Azhary joined us on Sunday, October 29th, 2017 to share her experience of the medical and humanitarian relief trip to the Syrian refugees in Jordan through the Syrian American Medical Society.  In July, Dr. Azhary led a team of 65 medical providers, medical students, nurses and translators to provide primary and secondary health care to thousands of refugees in Zaatari camp and in clinics throughout Jordan.

Please keep humanitarians like Dr. Azhary in prayer and all who make a difference in the lives of others.  God Bless you as you listen.

Below is the audio version of her sharing this experience with us and the type of difference that is being made to those who don’t have any other options.

Click on “Download File” and enjoy.  


Two Pegs

Sermon ~ Sunday, October 29, 2017

Pastor Neil Wilson

Two Pegs

Matthew 22:34-46

In our house as in many homes, we have a small area that you step into when you enter the door from our driveway.   Some call it simply an entry way or foyer, in New England and perhaps here as well, we call it a mud room.

Mud rooms are necessary spaces when you live on farms or you have a driveway that is gravel.  It is a place to take off your muddy boots, jacket, rain gear, running shoes, gloves, mittens, scarfs, etc.  In most mudrooms there will be a bench of some sort, a boot jack, and and in every mud room, worth its name, there will be a line of Shaker pegs along one or more walls.  We have the pegs in our “mudroom” on two walls at different heights.  And we keep on these pegs depending of the season, different jackets, hats scarfs, so forth, which we will grab and take with us as we go out the door.

Okay, now with this image in mind, let’s turn to the Gospel passage from Matthew.  This reading covers two short accounts from Jesus’ ministry.  I would like to focus on the first selection.

Verses 34-40 comprise what for Jesus was his definition of true religion, his summary of the law and the prophets – the law spelling out what God requires in written form, the prophets speaking this law into particular situations.

First there is the command to love God with everything we have.  Now if this is considered simply as a human requirement, it can lead to frustration, because if we are honest we have times when we may not feel at all loving, even toward God!  But the heart of spirituality is mutuality, that is, love for God is like faith, a gift from God.  We find that God gives us the love we have for God, so that the Holy Spirit is bearing witness in our hearts that we belong to God, through Jesus Christ. 

For me this love for God is expressed not only in my devotion to God through the worship of God but also in the way I approach all of God’s creation. I express my love for God not only through the prayers and songs in a service of worship but also in my service to the created world around me. 

How can you say you love another person and then abuse that person’s property?  How can I say I love God and then exploit and abuse God’s creation?

And the second commandment is like the first Jesus says, “You shall love you neighbor as yourself.”  While it might be possible for a person to force themselves, almost as it were through gritted teeth, into loving their neighbor, by-in-large we claim that no one can command us to feel something we just don’t feel.  But Jesus here is talking about “biblical love,” a love that is not a matter of “warm feelings” but rather a stubborn, unwavering commitment to another regardless of how we may “feel” about them at the time.  I know that there are times when I’m not very likable!  But Donna amazingly still loves me! (Or at least so she tells me!)  

In our Tuesday Bible Study material the author spoke of this commitment to do love, to show love, as being a “setting of the heart.”  A decision to act that then affects how we feel, no matter our mood or inclination at the time.  Think of it as a setting on your dryer or washing machine.  This is how we will choose to treat others.

I’ve found that when I decide to set my heart in a certain direction and I do things that fulfill that commitment; my feelings will often follow the actions.  Many of the “laws” of God, like giving and Sabbath and loving, rather than being punitive or negative, I believe are God’s way of getting us to do what we need to do, what is good for us. 

Back to the mud room!

Sometimes Eugene Peterson’s  translation of the bible called The Message can create an inmage that brings scripture alive. This is how a portion of this our Matthew passage reads in The Message:

Jesus said, “’Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’  This is the most important, the first on any list.  But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’  These two commandments are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.

Love of God and Love of neighbor, two pegs on which hang spiritual attitudes that we are need to take with us when we go out into the world.  

Scarfs to keep our hearts warm. 

Hats to keep good thoughts in our minds. 

Sturdy boots that will take you wherever God may call you. 

Gloves, so that we can be the hands of God doing the work of love and an extra pair or two for it will require effort!

Perhaps even a strong vest or jacket that will protect your soul from all the stinging criticism, for even doing good, doing the right thing will bring criticism from some quarters. (Jesus warned us about this in his Sermon on the Mount.)

So rather than “what’s in your wallet? (another sermon?) What is hanging in your mud room?  What do you take with you every time you step out into the world?  What spiritual attributes, “gifts of the spirit” do you put on?

Now realizing that all metaphors are just this, metaphors, symbols and not the real thing, there is one especially important place where my peg metaphor breaks down, that is we should not take off these spiritual attitudes when we reenter our homes, for they are just as needed in our homes as they are in the world!

Listen to Pastor Neil’s audio recording of this sermon, spoken during 10:30 a.m. Worship services here at First Congregational… Enjoy! 

Click on “Download File” below.


It’s All About Image

It’s All About Image

Matthew 22:15-22

 

Image.

People worry about their image.  I used to more preoccupied with it than I am now!  Weren’t you?  As a teenager I was concerned about my image. For me, the image I wanted to portray was not the popular kid or the athlete but the quiet outdoorsy type, if you can believe that.  But, even now I like to be seen in a positive light, a certain image.  So to a certain extent I do want to fashion the image I wish to present to the world.  We all do.  And this doesn’t mean it is a false image but perhaps the image of who we believe we most truly are. 

In the business world it is crucial to have a recognizable image.  “Branding” they call it.  You need to have a “brand” whether you are selling cars, an overnight stay, or caring for the spiritual welfare of souls as in the work of the church.  We are told by the religious/spiritual marketing experts that churches need a “brand” and we need to promote or (to use the business terminology) market it!  Because, the truth of it is, if we don’t promote one, a brand will be attached to us by the community and its perception what we do and/or do not do. 

How do you suppose the world has branded First Congregational UCC?   Is this how we want to be seen by our wider community?  In other words, what is the first thought or image that comes into someone’s mind when they hear that you attend this church?

With this bit of introduction let’s look at the gospel reading for today.

This is the first of a series of three passages in Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus is being tested by Jewish religious leaders.  Here the Pharisees quiz him about the lawfulness of paying taxes. This account is immediately followed by the Sadducees’ question about the resurrection which is an important theological point for them for they did not believe in the resurrection. (Matthew 22:23-33). Then (in next Sunday’s reading) the Pharisees are back with a question about the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:34-40).  And finally, Jesus will respond with a question to the Pharisees about the Messiah in which Jesus pushes them on an interpretation of Psalm 110:1 (Matthew 22:41-46).

These four encounters follow Jesus’s teaching in the Jerusalem temple, during which he declines to say by what authority he is teaching, and then tells a series of parables which are highly critical of the religious authorities (Parable of the Two Sons, Parable of the Wicked Tenants, Parable of the Wedding Banquet).  Matthew’s account culminates in Jesus’s warning to his followers: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matthew 23:2-3).

Today’s reading is a story which is often used as a basis for a reflection on the relationship between church and state.  Which we know even today is far from settled!  At the end of this month, October 31, the church will be marking the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation.  This is the date that popular legend says a Roman Catholic monk and scholar, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church.  In actuality, he more likely just hung the document on the door of the church as an announcement of an upcoming academic discussion he was proposing.  But his propositions were radical enough to result in what we call the Protestant Reformation. 

It was Martin Luther’s reading of this passage in Matthew which helped him to develop his doctrine of the two kingdoms, which distinguished between God’s spiritual rule through the gospel and the church, and God’s political or secular rule, through law and the authorities of the state.  In light of Jesus’ words Luther’s view about rendering or giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s was that, the soul is not under the authority of Caesar (the state); “he” can neither teach it nor guide it, neither kill it nor give it life, neither bind it nor loose it, neither judge it nor condemn it, neither hold it fast nor release it. … But with respect to body, property, and honor …, such matters are under Caesar’s (state) authority.

I dare say there might be a few today that would take some issue with Luther’s view!  But Luther’s thinking impacted church and state relationships including the version of it which was established in the fledgling democracy of the thirteen colonies.

In place of Luther’s language of gospel and law, it seems more helpful to me to tie it into last week’s message about idols and explore the question of “ultimate belonging.”  And ask the questio, “Ultimately, whose are we?”

Jesus asked for a coin.  The coin … bears Caesar’s eikōn [image], and belongs to Caesar. Humans, on the other hand, bear the eikōn of God.

In the first account of creation Genesis 1:27 we read these familiar words:

So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.    

For Luther, people (back then only men) may pay the infamous poll tax among other taxes, but they do not belong to the emperor.  Humans bear God’s image and wherever they live and operate –whether in the social, economic, political, or religious realm– they belong to God. Their primary loyalties do not switch (for Luther) when they move out of church and into the polling booth.

Human beings, made in the image of God, are called to belong to God. 

As humankind, we are created to be in the image and likeness of God in our nature and in our thinking, in the way we behave and conduct ourselves, and in the words we speak.  We are to be a reflection of God. 

Now of course we are not created in the physical image of God for no one knows what God looks like!  The Hebrew words translated image and likeness in Genesis do not convey any sense of physicality but refers to the nature and essence of God.   We are like God in that we have the ability to understand, to reason, to create, to act and behave, to feel and see, to listen and speak, but most of all to show compassion, to love.

It was John who wrote in his letter, God is love.  (1 John 4:8)

When asked by the lawyer about inheriting eternal life, Jesus in turn asked him, “What is in the law?”  The lawyer, a man of reputation (perhaps worried about image) replied, “You shall love the God with all you heart, soul, strength, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”  

Do you recall how Jesus answered him?  The Parable of the Good Samaritan.

As Jesus taught in many of his parables but perhaps most poignantly in the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” it is not about our status in the church (the priest) or the culture (the Levite) it is about how we love our neighbor.

Whose image do we ultimately bear?

I believe this in large part if not the whole, will be determined by how well we love!

 

Listen to our Audio version (click link below) on here… then if you would like what you hear… consider coming in and joining us on Sunday mornings!