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

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


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In Spite of Ourselves

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, January 14, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

In Spite of Ourselves.

1 Samuel 3:1-20

 

“And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not wide spread.” 

We live in confusing, some would say uncertain times.  Many refer to it as a post-Christian era, and to be sure the church is not as influential and dominate as it once was in our nation.  Now I don’t believe that the Christian worldview was ever as all-embracing as some do, but I think we can agree that it certainly is not a strong a moral guide for people today as it once was.  So a very compelling argument could be made that the story of Samuel is set in our day as well as three millennia ago! “. . . the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not wide spread.”  Will this be the be the headline of a religious quarterly review a hundred years from now? 

The call of Samuel comes at a time of spiritual famine in Israel.  With no leadership, the people have grown away from God.  The only figure of authority in our story is the priest Eli, but he makes a mockery of his position by ignoring the wickedness of his sons, who have rebelled against the Lord.  (Little side note here. We cannot blame religious leaders for all the behaviors of other members of their families.  We all know the stories and jokes about PKs.  And how some relish the scuttlebutt of some high-profile pastor’s brother or brother-in-law falling into some immoral lifestyle.)  But the biblical account seems to hold Eli somewhat responsible for the sins of his sons.  Even though he tried to set them straight as we can read in 1 Samuel 2:22ff, Eli called them out on their immorality and warned them of God’s judgement, but they did not heed their father’s advice.  Sadly, this would eventually impact the effectiveness of his own ministry. 

We are also told that Eli’s sight was “dim.”  On first glance one would think, “Okay, so Eli is older and his physical eyesight is beginning to fail him.”  But there is in the background of the story the suggestion that Eli’s spiritual awareness or spiritual vision was also “dim.”  

Then we have Samuel: young, dedicated to the Lord by his mother, Hannah, energetic, no family baggage or skeleton’s in his closet.  It is easy to compare the two with Samuel coming out the better.  But when we look at the entire life and work of Samuel, he too has some all too human imperfections.  Like Eli, Samuel’s sons, who he appointed as judges in Israel, (1 Sam. 8) did not follow in the ways of their father, but rather were corrupt, known for taking bribes and perverts justice. (Umm, again sounds all too contemporary!) 

And even though he did not like the idea, when the people pressured Samuel to anoint a king over them (something God had warned them about), in his role as prophet and judge, he anointed Saul as king and in so doing he broadened the people’s independence from God.       

A common way to “get into the scriptures” is to imagine ourselves as one of the characters in a biblical story.  The obvious question here is who do you identify with: with the young Samuel sleeping away as God is attempting to get his attention; or the elder Eli, who seems to lack spiritual awareness, and yet recognizes that it just may be the Lord who is calling to the boy before Samuel does?

There are times when I am like Samuel.  I’m asleep, not fully aware of any divine movement around me.  Sometimes it exhaustion.  I’m tired, physically, emotionally, mentally, often because of the confusion of today’s world.  How does one sort through all the claims, the images, the demands for our allegiance that bombard us?  What is real and what is fake?  What is the truth in the “half-truths” we are being told all the time.  I feel this way and I don’t use Twitter.  I’m on Facebook once every couple of days, if that.

You know I used to get this slight panicky feeling when I would go out the door and realize my cell phone was not in my pocket and return promptly to retrieve it.  More and more I’m finding I’m off somewhere and notice that my cell phone is not in my pocket and actually feeling rather okay about it.  (Or should I worry that this is the onset of age-related forgetfulness?!) 

So sometimes it exhaustion, other times is pre-occupation or distraction.  Which as we know life is full of distractions.  Either way I find myself asleep, unaware of the movement of God right around me like Samuel. 

What is more troubling is that like Samuel, I am in the “temple” day in and day out!  Of all places isn’t it here we would expect God to speak, for visions to occur?  Yet how often do I (we, you) actually come to this place expecting to hear a real “word from the Lord”?

The word of the Lord is indeed rare and visions, real visions (not fake ones) are scarce!

Or are they?

So, we have in the temple a young fellow asleep whose youth and lack of experience, maturity leaves him unable to discern God’s voice and an elderly man whose spiritual sight has grown dim and whose leadership ability is questionable.  Eli, the high priest at Shiloh, who did nothing, really, to restrain his sons, Hophni and Phinehas, and the way they abused the priestly positions and authority they had simply because of their birthright as a priest’s sons.    

The word of the Lord is indeed rare and visions, real visions (not fake ones) are scarce!

Or are they?

The story of Samuel and Eli tells us that “. . . the lamp of God had not yet gone out.”    While visions may be rare in the modern world, they still happen, God only seems to be sleeping, and like with Samuel, while Samuel sleeps, God is wonderfully awake! 

And again, in the end it was the elderly, physically and spiritually blind Eli that seems to have figured it out first.

God calls Samuel in his youth and immaturity and God uses Eli even with his blindness and moral weakness. 

So, I guess my point is rather simple, whether we identify with Eli or Samuel, or both depending on the day and the circumstances, both had their weaknesses, and God used both in spite of themselves.   

And as the title of my message says God can use us in spite of ourselves! 

If we are listening, if we have the inner sight, if we are willing to listen and look for God in unexpected ways and speaking through someone other than the usual suspects, God can and just might use us, speak to us, and perhaps even speak through us in spite of ourselves!   

I know!  God has used me in spite of myself.  

To listen to the original audio version, please double click on the “download file” link below, open it on your device and enjoy.


Okay, Let’s Try This Again. Only This Time…

Sermon ~ Sunday, January 7, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

 

Okay, Let’s Try This Again.  Only This Time . . .

Genesis 1:1-5   Mark 1:4-11

Yesterday was Epiphany!  Yea!  

I bet you’re tired from all the Epiphany parties last night!

Most people outside church circles and many times within them are not familiar with Epiphany.  We have Christmas, it lasts one day.  Then there is a week to recover before New Year’s Eve.  And then, we if are so inclined, we enter the season of resolutions which lasts usually about as long as our season of Christmas (one day!)

Epiphany is about the “revealing” of Jesus and who he is, or will become. It is marked with the reading from Matthew’s gospel about the visit of the Magi or wise men. In this revealing of Jesus there was in a sense a new beginning, now that Jesus was among them.  And it continues today with the reminder that Jesus is still among us through our baptisms and the presence of the Holy Spirit. 

So I guess in some ways Epiphany and New Year’s resolutions go hand in hand. Epiphany reminds us of new things made possible by Christ’s coming into the world and January marks the new year’s genesis which we often mark by resolving to live new or better lives according to new and improved habits. 

There is a sort of spirit of confession that begins the new year because resolutions are a way of admitting that we have not been the kind of people we want to be.  We confess that we are not as slender, cheerful, thankful, or productive as we would like to be. We admit to our humanness and commit to doing better.  These are ordinary mortal confessions: usually not all that spiritually motivated or spiritually empowered.  They are signs that we would like to do better in turning our lives around.  But when the days speed by and ordinary life is resumed, old habits tend to reassert themselves.  And come next January, the same resolutions are often made anew with plenty of hope, but no better chance for success! 

The baptism of John was similar to our attempts at making resolutions, though it was certainly a more spiritually oriented.  As one who has preached a fair number of times with mixed success, it amazes me is that John preached a message on repentance and was rather successful!  People were drawn to his river side chapel in the wilderness from countryside and city.  At the river he dunked them as a sign of their resolution to turn from their sins and back to the worship and service of God.  But, John knew that there was a tentative quality to his work.  He proclaimed that the One who would come after him would baptize with something greater than water.  The coming One would baptize people with (or in) the Spirit of God.

The Spirit of God represented something far more powerful, more efficacious than any human resolve.  It is the same Spirit that first moved over the waters at creation and brought form to the chaos and gave birth to the universe.  When Jesus rose from the river, this same Spirit descended upon him like a dove.  And in this Spirit, Jesus did the powerful deeds that marked his remarkable ministry. 

For us today, both John’s message of repentance and the empowering work of the Spirit are needed.  Sin is a powerful magnet that draws us ever closer.  Human resolve alone is weak, even with our annual booster shots in January.  Truthfully, repentance is more likely a daily need.

But our resolve to turn around will not do it alone, not very often at least.  Even Paul, the great Apostle, famously struggled with the inability of his humanness to help him do what is good (Rom. 7:15-20.)  Something greater is needed: this something is the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.  When Paul encountered the followers of John the Baptizer in Ephesus, he told them something similar to what John had taught.  Though baptized by John with water, they were in need of the kind of empowerment that came through Jesus himself, baptism in or presence of the Holy Spirit.  This is the gift of God that makes spiritual repentance something more than a mere resolution. 

As God asks us to turn from our sin, God also provides the means to become new creatures of spiritual resolve. Baptism with water and spirit is the mark of this gift. 

In Jesus’ baptism, he was fully identified with us as human creatures. In our baptism, we become fully identified with him.

His life in God is our new life. 

His capacity to bend to God’s will is our strength to live a godly life. 

His love of all is our charity towards others.  

Note, I am not making a case for a certain mode of baptism.  This is not a sermon on infant vs. adult or which method is better, dunking or “a little dab’l do ya!”  (This will have to wait for another time!)  

As Christians, we understand baptism differently, depending on denominational or theological tradition.  Accordingly there will be ways this message will be preached and heard within various congregations.  Those of the Anabaptist tradition may argue for God’s capacity to inspire people to godly living as they move toward baptism usually as a believer or adult.  More mainline churches like ours emphasize the action of God in baptism more than the human, thus we baptize infants believing that we are symbolizing God’s acceptance of them into the body of Christ the church universal and our acceptance of them into the care of a congregation.  Pentecostals may argue for the separation of the water baptism and the baptism in the Holy Spirit.  Indeed there are passages in Acts that lend biblical credence to such an idea. 

What is clear, regardless of tradition, is that God will do in baptism what God chooses to do.  God is not bound by human interpretation of the means of grace. 

John had it right. 

One who is mightier than any other human person has come to bring forgiveness of sins and new life in the Spirit.  Baptized into this new life, let us daily undertake to live as God’s people.   So okay, let us try this again.  Only this time let us seek the presence of the Holy Spirit and let God determine where we need the resolve to make things anew in our lives!  And God might even surprise us as we shed a few things along with those pounds!

Enjoy the Audio version of Pastor Neil’s Sermon, click the Download File link below and open it on your computer.   HAPPY NEW YEAR!


How Can This Be?

Sermon ~ Sunday ~ December 24th 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

How Can This Be?

Luke 1:26-38

 

Our little town sorely needed a bit of Christmas cheer this year. 

Maybe even a little miracle if its not too much to ask?

It’s been a rough one with the recent storm that took the power out and left us isolated for days, say nothing of this year’s lobster season starting late and slow, then ending abruptly about a month earlier that usual.  Seems the bugs aren’t coming into the bays like they used to.  And this year there seemed to be a preponderance of hens.  “Brooders or “tossers” they’re called.  The fisheries folks up at the university have their suspicions but aren’t saying much except that this might be something we better prepare for with forecasted ocean levels and temps.

So families are struggling this winter.

Buddy Watson and his gang is one of these families.  Buddy runs his traps off Walkers Head just down east o’ Broad Flats, which is another thing.  The red tide came in a couple times this summer and closed down the flats to the clamming, which didn’t help those families out there either.  But I want to tell you about Buddy and the star.  You see, Buddy is the “keeper of the Christmas star.”

The Christmas star has been illuminating the steeple of Old First Church on the Common since 1973 that’s when Buddy first built it and every November since before they called the fourth Friday “Black”, Buddy crawls up into the steeple with his cross. 

 

It is a traditional five-point, five armed star with 60 100 watt incandescent light bulbs shining its Christmas proclamation out over Rockhaven’s common and village, all these years drawing in the wise and the foolish with its 6000 watts of heavenly lumens.   When Buddy heard that incandescent bulbs were on the way out he ran right over to Howard Williams, when Howard was the proprietor of Harborview Hardware, and bought 25 cases with 24 four packs to a case of 100 watts of the Christmas cheer. 

It was always a bit of a task to keep all those hot light bulbs glowing each year.  About every 2-3 days Buddy would have to crawl up there and replace burnt out bulbs.  One year a storm hit followed by a vicious cold snap, Buddy didn’t get up there for a week and a half and by Christmas Eve the patrons of Helen’s Dinner claimed what they saw looked more like a stick figure doing the “M” of the YMCA song!

And to think, that all this holiday devotion comes from a fellow who never once attended a worship service in our church.  He and Emma were married in the church.  Both his parent’s funerals were held in the church, but Buddy nor Emma ever went to church nor did his name even show up on the cradle roll.  Although Rev. Williams did hear that when some members of the Blessed Day of Redemption in Christ Community stopped by the Watson place with some of their evangelistic tracts and pamphlets, Buddy thanked them kindly but informed them that he had a church and asked if they had ever seen the Christmas star shining over the Common.   

 

This year, on top of the poor fishing season, Buddy and Emma’s daughter Sybil, who married Wally Poindexter’s son Jerry, (Jerry is also a lobsterman, a stern man on one of the bigger lobster boats.) Well, they had a fire in their home and Sybil was taken to the hospital because of smoke inhalation.   If that wasn’t scary enough the x-rays of her lungs indicated something else was going on.  Further tests were run up at Eastern Regional Medical Center and they found lung cancer.  Buddy took it pretty hard.  When he first saw his 34-year daughter in the hospital room with all that tubing and such, fighting back the tears his eyes said “How can this be?”  

As I said our little town could use a Christmas miracle this year! 

 

Well, it was about this time that Miss Susie from up on Slabtown Road was over to the VFW in Uniondale.  She was Jed Carlisle’s guest for their annual Christmas dinner.  Jed a veteran, served in the first Iraq war is a member of the post over there.  Well, wouldn’t you know but Miss Susie won the door prize which happened to be 25 of those five-dollar Holiday Gold lottery tickets! 

Now, Miss Susie had no idea want to do with them.  She had never purchased a lottery ticket had had no plans to.  Jed even had to show her how to do the whole “scratch off” thing to see if she had won anything! 

Well, let me tell you, win she did, and Miss Susie won big!  The top prize in the five-dollar Holiday Gold tickets is $100,000.00 and Miss Susie had a “golden ticket” right there in her hand!!

 

 It was big news in our town and perhaps just the bit of good news we needed with the difficult year and now Sybil’s diagnosis.  And there is no one more humble and deserving than Miss Susie of Slabtown Road!  Of course, everyone was weighing in on how she should spend all her $100,000.00!  Sam Coleridge was quick to point out that the Feds would want their 25% right off the top and then the governor would grab his 5% so Miss Susie shouldn’t be spending it all before she has the check in hand!  Which, if you know Miss Susie, the only chickens she is counting are the ones already in her coup! 

The most anyone got out of her was, “My, oh my!  How can this be?”  This and that she might need a new wood stove and she always fancied having one of those little greenhouses.  She asked the Rev. if he would “gaggle” or “goggle” whatever the young people called it about these things for her.

Miss Susie’s good fortune has brightened things up a bit in Rockhaven, but not for everybody.                

Buddy and Emma have been caring for Sybil’s 4 children while she and Jerry have been making the daily trips to Eastern Regional Medical Center and Buddy’s focus being elsewhere hadn’t paid any attention to the Christmas Star.

Well, a couple of weeks ago some of the Priscilla Circle women got to talking after church and agreed that there just ought to be some way to help Sybil and her family.  Everybody knowing everyone’s circumstances in our town knew that as a stern man Jerry would have very little if any insurance, and knew all too well some from personal experience how the medical bills must be stacking up!

 

It was Bea Stearns who asked, “Why couldn’t we have a dinner in the church fellowship hall and raise a little bit of money to help out the family?”    And Leslie Jordan added that it should be an event that the whole community could get involved in.

Word got out and before long calls were coming into the church with donations of food.  

Wally’s Fish Market and Bait shop donated enough Pollock to make 15 gallons of fish chowder.  

Helen’s Diner baked over 40 apple and blueberry pies.  

Holgrum’s bakery promised enough of their famous split top dinner rolls so that everyone in Rockhaven could have two.  

Harry’s IGA sent over coffee and tea, sugar and creamers along with enough Chinet plates, bowls, cups and prepackaged utensils to serve several hundred.   

Even the Daughters of Scotia Society said they would bake 25 casseroles. 

“Danny” Killington donated enough potatoes from her root cellar not only for the chowder but to make several roasting pans of cheesy potatoes. 

People were calling in with milk and butter for the chowder, vegetables, and the ingredients for punch.  There were offers to help set up, serve, and clean up.  Let’s just say it was quite a spread!

 It was last Saturday and the whole town turned out or at least it seemed as though they did.   The fellowship hall is cozy at 125 but was set up for 145 and there were at least 4 settings.  A light snow turned to rain the day before left walkways a bit icy in places, so the Rockhaven Fire Dept. was there to help with parking and getting people in and out of the fellowship hall. 

No tickets were sold.  No one was at the door watching over a donation box.  That’s not how we do it in our town.  Fish bowl like containers were put out on the tables for donations.  To be sure there were certain people not wanting to be seen as uncharitable, would watch to see what their neighbor would put in and make sure that they at least matched if not out donated them!  A little peer pressure is okay for a good cause!  

After it was all over Rev. Williams along with Jerry Charles, Rockhaven’s first selectman and Bob Blaisdell, manager of the local branch of the Down East Banking & Trust, emptied out the bowls and tallied the donations.  There were dollar bills, and fives and tens, twenties and a considerable number of personal checks, even a few zip lock baggies heavy with change. 

And in one of the bowls they found a cashier’s check from the Down East Banking & Trust.  Bob had no knowledge of the check but recognized the signature of the teller who authorized it. 

The check was made out in the font of the bank’s old Remington typewriter to the “Jerry & Sybil Poindexter Family” to the order of $65,432.17!  The memo line blank. 

“How can this be?  This can’t be, can it?”  Jerry and Bob looked at each other.  Rev. Williams didn’t say anything, but he what he found online when he “goggled” wood stoves and greenhouses.   

 

The following day in the scripture for that Sunday the angel had just told Mary a bit of fairly farfetched news about her future.  And Mary said, “How can this be?” 

Maybe she wasn’t asking so much about the biological plausibility of a virgin birth but the more honest human response to such news, “How can this be happening to me?” 

How can this be? 

We may not always have a satisfactory answer for so often the mysteries of God are hidden from us.  But we always have the promise of God’s nearness.

Then and still today the angel’s response is: “Nothing will be impossible with God.”   Not for Miss Susie . . . not for Sybil and Jerry, Buddy and Emma, not for our little town.  

And perhaps this is the ultimate message of the mystery of God’s coming to us in an infant.  God’s nearness comes in unexpected ways, through unexpected people!    

We’ve seen God holiness breaking into our community’s life.  And while it may not have been through the innocence of a baby born to a common young couple, it came through to us through common everyday people just the same! 

 

And you know something else!  Just yesterday I was enjoying a cup of coffee in Helen’s Diner and I looked up at the Christmas star in our church steeple, and lo, all the bulbs are shining brightly.  And I thought, now I knew; we have indeed been visited upon by a number of angels.   And perhaps we have found our Christmas miracle after all! 

Click the link below and you will find the original audio recording from December 24th’s morning service.  Pastor Wilson is a talented speaker. 😉