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

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


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Seven Essential Questions: What Matters Most?

Sermon ~ Sunday, February 25th, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Seven Essential Questions: What Matters Most?

Mark 12:28-34

 

Continuing with our “Seven Essential Questions” based on Pastor Martin Thielen’s “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian”, today’s question is simply, “What Matters Most?”  Of all the things we discuss and do as people of faith what is it that is of first importance?

In our Gospel reading this morning, a teacher of the law or “scribe” comes up to Jesus with a pretty straightforward question, “Which commandment is the first of all?”  In a way similar to the question we are asking today, “What matters most?”

First, a bit of back ground and context: just prior to this particular scribe approaching Jesus, Jesus had been confronted by three rounds of questioners that were not, let’s just say, as genuine in their motives!   

First came the “chief priests, teachers of the law, and elders” we find this back in chapter 11 verse 27.  They want to challenge Jesus’ authority.  So they ask, “By what authority do you do these things? (Healings, forgiving of sins, overturning of the money-changer’s tables in the temple) And who gave you such authority?”  Jesus in turn asks them a question about John’s baptism and this has them arguing with each other.

Then came the Pharisees and the Herodians (Herodians were a sect of Greek speaking Jews who were supporters of the Herod family/dynasty.)  They came with the question of whether Jews should pay taxes to Caesar or not.  All this in an attempt to put Jesus in a difficult position and either have the people turn on him or find a good reason to have him arrested.

And thirdly, we have the Sadducees, a more conservative group within Judaism.  So conservative, because there is no mention of it in the Torah, they didn’t believe in the resurrection.  The Sadducees come to Jesus with this fictitious scenario about a woman who marries, and her husband dies.  She remarries her husband’s brother according to the Levirate law who also dies. In turn each of the brothers marry her and they all die, seven of them.  And so, Sadducees ask, “Who will she be married to in the resurrection?”  Can you hear the absurdity of this farce?  First, they don’t even believe in the resurrection, so what is the big deal?  Secondly, what are the chances of seven husbands dying?  Again, it was all done as a means to try to trick Jesus into saying something that would have the crowd turn on him.

So, after these confrontations comes a teacher of the law who seems to be genuinely interested in what Jesus thinks.  He had heard Jesus answering all these others and thought he had handled himself quite well. 

I also can imagine Jesus being rather grateful for this person.  At last here is someone who seems to be sincere, really seeking truth.

“So, Jesus,” he enquires, “Of all the commandments, what do you think is the most important?”

Without hesitation, Jesus responds with the Shema, Deuteronomy 6: 4-5. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and all your strength.”

But he doesn’t end there, he goes on to say, “And there is another, love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”

Some think that here we have another example of Jesus taking his teaching beyond the law, beyond the ways of Judaism. Such as when Jesus taught, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you . . .”  But this isn’t the case.  Right there in the middle of the Mosaic Law, Leviticus 19:18, God instructs Moses to tell the people “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

Jesus seeks to remind this earnest fellow that the love of God and love of neighbor together capture the essence and express the greatest concern of God’s commandments.  Taken together, these teachings from Deuteronomy and Leviticus underscore the interconnected relationships between one’s self, God and neighbor that permeate the Biblical tradition and that will serve in turn as the foundation of Jesus’ vision for the kingdom of God.

In short: what matters most is relationships! 

Our relationship with God and with neighbor. 

Some may not be comfortable with the language of relationship, as in, perhaps our uncomfortableness with the person who talks about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the difference it has made in her/his life.  And while this may not be language we use, to be in relationship is what God seeks from us.  It is what we really need the most in life, whether we are fully aware of it or not.  All other relationships outside of love of God and neighbor will never completely satisfy.  Or perhaps better said, all other things we seek to have a relationship with cannot fill the void that only God can.  We talked some about this at our Lenten study on the Red-Letter words of Jesus, especially on materialism.  No other relationship will in the end truly satisfy.

As the famous passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions claims, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

“Okay Pastor.” you’re probably thinking, “How do I love God with heart, soul, mind and strength?  I can see loving neighbor, having a relationship with another physical human being or even a pet, but God is a bit more abstract!” 

Good question and I think some of the answer lies in what Jesus said after he had washed his disciples’ feet.  He said this to them, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”   (John 13: 34-35)

And also what the author of 1 John echoes in his letter:  (1 John 4: 20-21)

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.  And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

To be in a relationship with God means being in relationship with neighbor. 

This is the what of our question, as in “What matters most?”  Relationships. 

It the “where” question that may be just as important, that really brings it home.

Where do we see this love of God in love of neighbor being lived out in our midst?

We see it every time, I see it every time, I hear of you going to Boulder Park, Georgia House, Grand View, American House.  Sure, sometimes you are going there to visit a loved one, but you don’t limit yourself to kin alone.  That simple “Hello” to the woman in the wheel chair, taking the moment to sit with the man left by himself after all the other diners have returned to their apartments or rooms.

Greeting someone with a “How is your day going?”  and pausing enough to really listen

The touch of an arm, touching is so important.  Like the rest of us these folks want to be acknowledged and a person of worth.

The time you spend assisting people shop at the Food Pantry, but more than this, it is the conversations you have with them.  Again, the listening.  We all want to be heard, acknowledged.

The extra effort it takes to get up early to prepare for the Community breakfast.   And the visiting around the tables.  I’ve personally seen how people are greeted when they walk into the breakfast.  I’ve seen their faces light up when their name is called out and “It’s good to see you.”  Or “We missed you last week.”  And by the way, the breakfast may be held at the Community Reformed Church, but it is a community effort with many different churches involved.

The hours you spend at the Rainbow Shoppe, the lives you touch, not just through the funds raised and the countless ways this makes a difference in our community but also through the relationships you build with shoppers and other volunteers. 

In all of these and countless more Jesus could just as well be saying to you as he did to this scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  Because the kingdom is about relationships: with God, with neighbor, with the God we see and love in neighbor.     

Audio Version is below, please note that the Audio and Video vary from the written sermon as it was an interactive service on this day.  Enjoy and God Bless!

Select “Download File” and open on your PC to enjoy the audio version of the Sermon.

Video will be added at a later date.


Seven Essential Questions: Who Is Jesus?

Sermon ~ Sunday, February 18, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Seven Essential Questions: Who Is Jesus?

Matthew 16:13-16

During this season of Lent, I am going to be considering a series of seven questions are essential questions to our faith regardless of where you believe you fall on the religious spectrum.  My idea for this came from a blog by Pastor Martin Thielen, who wrote What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?: A Guide to What Matters Most.  Both lifelong Christians and people on the edges of the church have some of the same basic questions about life and faith. Lent is the great time to explore these questions, leading up to the big question that is answered with Easter: is there hope for life and life beyond death?

First, I have a preliminary question for you. 

What do you claim as your basic faith perspective?  

Hindu?  Jewish?  Zoroastrian?  Christian?  Muslim? A “none” as in no specific faith perspective?

I would hazard a guess here and say “Christian.”  And if I am correct then there is a follow up question that you and I face every day as Christians:  “Who will we (you/me) say that Jesus is?”

In other words, in our own minds and hearts what/who do we truly believe he is?  And beyond this what sort of testimony do we offer about him through our words, through our deeds, by our lives?  What will our loved ones, our congregations, our neighbors, our communities know about him because of us?  This may be even more difficult to get right than saying the right words and believing the proper theological principles!

Jesus presented the question to Peter and he came up with what seemed to satisfy his teacher in v. 16, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  And yet finds himself rebuked in v. 23 for completely misunderstanding what that answer might mean.  

This should serve as a warning to us.  We, faithful followers that we are, may know that Jesus is the one who was sent, the one who took flesh, the one who dwelt with us, the one who suffered and died and was buried, the one who rose on the third day. 

We declare with our pious lips and confident hearts that Jesus is the Messiah (the Christ), the beloved child of the most High.  We know the right words.

We would be wise, however, to proceed with caution, because there is apparently no guarantee, despite the precision and sincerity of our Christological convictions, that we have a clue about what our confession, “Jesus is Lord,” actually means.  I mean after all, if Peter gets it wrong?  And not only did Peter get it wrong, he was rebuked in the strongest terms, being called “Satan” and a stumbling block to Jesus himself.

Peter, praised for saying the right thing,

 and for his faithful testimony named the very foundation of Jesus’ church,

 the rock against which not even the forces of death can prevail. 

Peter, given the keys to free or to bind any and all on earth. 

If this Peter gets it wrong, who are we cavalierly to assume that we have it right?

To put it another way, why, like Peter, do we find it so hard to believe that the beloved of God must go to Jerusalem, undergo great suffering, die, and only then be raised by God to new, everlasting, and glorified life? 

Surely the one known as Son of God will reign without threat,

 will be honored rather than subjected to suffering,

  will live, not die,

  will establish a commonwealth of peace and justice,

   rather than be executed as a rebel and heretic. 

However, this is simply not the case.  But it is also the basis for some consistent and destructive false testimony from some of the best regarded followers of Jesus to this day!

We, of course, live in a post-resurrection world.   We know that what Peter could not accept was true. 

We know that Jesus went to Jerusalem and confronted both religious and secular authorities with their arrogance, exploitive policies, and violence. 

We know that he was arrested and subjected to both torture and capital punishment. 

We know he was raised and ascended to the heavenly banquet table and sits at the right hand of God and will welcome us to the feast. 

Still, we preach, more often than we ought, that the faithful will not suffer but prosper, will triumph over every adversity, will win rather than lose. 

Yes, we believe that Jesus won the final victory, and death’s sting has been swallowed up.  That our salvation has been wrought and cannot again be lost.  Jesus’ work may have been once for all; yet we must avoid Peter’s mistake.  We must not make what Mary Poppins called “pie crust promises: easily made, easily broken.”

We must not say “God forbid” that the righteous suffer, that saints are killed.  Faithful discipleship cannot avoid walking our own roads to Jerusalem and there have our own confrontation with the principalities and powers.  Jesus leads us in the way we must go, rather than letting us off the hook.  That he is Messiah, beloved of God, makes of us members of his body, adopted children of the Most High ourselves – we are participators not bystanders in the fulfillment of the promise of his messianic life.

Unfortunately, this means we do not stroll along easy street but must march down the streets of economic exploitation to seek new means of exchange through which all may prosper.  

We are to enter the halls of power where unjust policies are written and voice the concerns of the voiceless. 

We are to visit those in prison while working to dismantle judicial systems that locks away so many, especially an unproportionable people of color.

We are to welcome strangers, even those we may consider scandalous to our reputation and who by their presence make us a scandal!  (Look at what others said about Jesus. He hangs out with sinners; dines with tax collectors and prostitutes!)

Such was his way.

This way of this Jesus seems to say that we are wrong about something else.  Jesus’ final rebuke of Peter is that he has set his mind not on divine things but on human things.  And we nod approvingly.   “Yes, that’s right Jesus, we’re about the spiritual, not earthly things,” we like to think.   “That is what Jesus points us toward, the spiritual.” 

In this too we risk further rebuke.  If we trust the whole of Jesus’ rebuke of Peter, is it not precisely the avoidance of tangible and material action – with its potential for suffering and threat of death – that Peter’s mistaken interpretation entails, and does not this demonstrate his all too human mind-set? 

Divine things are not always ethereal, floating above the mundane, but those things that involve a vision of justice and liberation, compassion and mercy – and the ones who really seem to know who Jesus is are those who, like him, are willing to bear the burden of his suffering and death to make his vision real.

 

By now you may have noticed that I haven’t really answered today’s question for you, “Who is Jesus?”  While this question, for anyone claiming to be Christian, cannot be avoided, I cannot give the answer as if it were a quiz and I am a teacher with the answer book.  It must be answered by each of us in our own way.    

How we answer though, cannot be avoided.  Who will we say Jesus is?

And, truth be told, our answers may rest more with those who are watching and witnessing with our lives.  As has been said many times, we may be the only evidence of Jesus some people will ever see.  This being the case, what will we be saying with our lives, about who Jesus is to us? 

Whatever it is, it will probably be truer to what we believe, than any pious profession we might utter with our lips.   Peter found that out let us take a lesson from him.

 

Audio and video available below:  

Select “Download File” to listen to the audio version of Pastor Neil’s Sermon.  Also now we have the Video from Sunday’s Sermon.  Enjoy!

Click on the video below… it’s almost like you are here 🙂


The One that Didn’t Get Away

Sermon ~ Sunday, January 28, 2018

The One That Didn’t Get Away

1 Cor. 8:1-33

 

Last Saturday dawned seasonably cold in Rockhaven.  I believe I heard that out at the University Extension Field office on the blueberry farm (one of the coldest spots around) it was about -5.  Here in town it was about zero.   But the sun was shining and there was very little wind.  A great day for the 25th Annual Josiah W. MacPherson Ice Fishing Derby held out on Hobbs Pond.    

Josiah was an old bachelor woodsman and in the 1940s built a camp on Timber Point along the western shore of Hobbs Pond.  In his later years he would invite all the kids out to his place to do some ice fishing.  That was back when you had to carry all your gear or pull it on a sled from the landing by the outlet.  Josiah’ camp was about a 2 mile walk across either ice or ice covered with foot of snow depending upon the year.  Josiah would drill the holes, supply the tip ups and bait, have a roaring fire and all the hot dogs you could eat.  Roasted of course, on a stick you cut from a bush along the shore.  Many a son (and daughter) was given their very first jack knife for the occasion. 

Josiah has been gone now for, gosh, I guess 30 years.  Our community was rather surprised to learn that he had a rather sizable estate and a significant amount of it he designated to be used to establish a college scholarship fund for the youth of our community. 

A couple of years after Josiah’s death some of the folks in Rockhaven got together and organized an ice fishing derby in his memory.  It was so popular that they did it the next year and eventually the Rockhaven Youth Recreation Club took it on as an annual event, this year’s being as I said the 25th .   

There have been some changes in the derby over the years.  Today you’ll see more kids (and parents) with cross country skis than snow mobiles.  Instead of a huge bonfire in front of Josiah’s old camp (now owned by Randal Stearns, Bea and Melvin’s son), gas grills are used to prepare lunch.  And while red hotdogs are still on the menu, they’re turned with tongs, not cooked on whittled sticks.  An occasional a steak will find its way onto a grill along with those vegetables wrapped in aluminum foil.  Then there was the year they tried beer can chicken.  But it being a youth event, the powers to be decided it would be more appropriate to use soda so it was a “cola can chicken!” 

We’re seeing more people using these little sawed off fishing poles.  People leaning over their fishing holes like monks in prayer. 

Even the tip ups are “new & improved!”  No longer the old home made single stick that is stuck into the ice beside the hole but these 3 dimensional things with the reel underwater.  Some have even tried attaching a waterproof game camera and proposed using a radio controlled artificial bait that the “fisherperson”  could control from inside their nice warm ice shack.  But that was quickly  ruled out of the derby along with the use of ice fishing shacks.  No-sir-ree, we’re roughing it with our gas grills and our L.L. Bean poly-filled, thermo-lined, power-dry-stretch base layer, and Gore-Tex covered, weather challenger outerwear!

 But the most notable change over the years has been indeed for the better.  We are seeing more and more young girls and their Dads and even Moms with their sons.

This year some of the adults who were there as the local “fishing experts” were Danny Killington, Jed Carlisle, Joe closed the barber shop, Leslie and Jerome Jordan co-chairs of the Recreation Club, and Peter Warren, teacher at the alternative high school and Jake Bradley’s right hand for the church suppers.  New this year was Sergeant Sally MacFague, the local game warden.  She was there handing out junior game warden badges to any child that could show how to assemble and bait a tip up.  Later she had gave rides in her Warden’s ATV equipped with lights and a siren!  It was more of a hit than the little badges!  

There were about 30-40 people, kids and adults, signed up for the derby this year.  And as usual, the local merchants donated several items for prizes: a dozen bakery items of the winner’s choice from Holgrum’s Bakery; Harbor Hardware gave a tackle box with assorted hooks, sinkers and lures; Mason’s Pharmacy donated a set of six Ty Beanie Baby stuffed animals.  But the grand prize was a dozen minnows a week for the entire ice fishing season from Wally’s Fish Market and Bait Shop!  What 8-9 year-old wouldn’t by-pass the Beanie babies and go right straight for the bait! 

Oh yes, and every participant got a small bag filled with pencils, pens and little note pads all imprinted with “Coleridge Digging & Construction, ‘Your Hole is Our goal!’ Sam Coleridge P.O. Box 235 Rockhaven.”  

Anyway . . . amongst the families last Saturday was Perry Packard and his granddaughter, Jessie’s girl, Samantha.  You remember Perry, owner/operator of Packard’s Garage and Towing on the way out south of town.  

Samantha or “Sammy” as her grandad calls her, is an articulate, thoughtful 9 year old.  She appreciates beauty and her interests span beyond Beanie Babies and Barbies!  Her grandad on the other hand is an avid, old-school fisherman.  He has the bass boat with the 200 hp Merc cruiser, a collection of fishing tackle that rivals the museum collection of Bass Pro Shop, he has his own Ice shack but he keeps his not on Hobbs Pond but on Franklin Lake where there are land-locked salmon and lake trout to be caught.  Hobbs Pond is great for kids but serious fishermen like Perry don’t waste their time there, unless of course, you have a cute, dark-eyed, pony-tailed granddaughter pleading with you to take her to the Ice Fishing Derby!

So there they found themselves just off Timber Point where the bottom drops off into the deeper part of the pond, tending 3 or 4 tip-ups. (Perry insisted that at least they use his high tech ones!) 

It was quiet throughout the morning. They had a couple of “flags” pulled up one little perch and lost the bait on the other. 
They had just finished their lunch, Sammy had some of those potatoes, onions, and peppers cooked in the foil.  Grandad Perry is more of a traditionalist.  He scarfed down three of those red hotdogs, the ones long enough to hang out over both ends of the bun!  He noticed the sun was disappearing behind a high layer of clouds which were lowering as the afternoon went on. 

“A storm is coming.” Perry announced to Sammy.  “Fish bite best right before the storm.  Better make sure our bait is fresh and active.” 

Sammy squirmed at the idea of checking the bait.  It was bad enough that they had to use minnows that were still alive, to think that they were down there trying to swim around with a hook through their back was not something she had expected to be part of fishing.

All was good at the first tip ups they checked.  Minnows still lively, depth about right.

As they were making their way out to the farthest one, suddenly the flag sprung up and the tip up slid over in the hole!  When they got up to it they could see the line zipping off the reel and out towards the deeper water.  Perry cautioned Sammy to be patient, let the line run.  It stopped for a moment and just as Perry was reaching for the tip up, zing, off it went again!

When just about all of the 100 feet of line was out, it stopped.  Perry carefully pulled the reel up out of the water, he took the line in hand and gave it a quick jerk to set the hook.  He then passed the line to Sammy.  The game was on! 

 What seemed like 30 minutes was more like five when Sammy and her grandad caught the first glimpse of what was on the end of their line.  It was enormous!  Perry caught just enough of it as it flipped it’s side under the hole.  It was a pike, one that Captain Ahab could have told stories about.  Suddenly Perry found himself thinking about that grand prize, a dozen minnows a week.  But more than this, what this beauty would look like mounted and hanging over his desk in the little office at his garage!

Back and forth it went just under the ice.  Perry had everything he could do not to take the line from Sammy but he knew that for the fish to count a youth had to pull it through the ice.  Finally, the pike took a flip just as it came to the hole Sammy seeing her opportunity lifted her arms way above her head and up through the ice came the most massive and beautiful fish she had ever seen!  Perry let slip a couple of colorful adjectives to which Samantha said “Grandad!”

Perry helped her lay the pike out on the ice to get a good look at it.   It truly was a beauty.  Sammy marveled at its magnificence.  Perry let out a low whistle. 

“Look Grandad!  Look at those colors!  So bright out here in the light.  Imagine this is the first time this fish has seen light like this.” 

“Look at those eyes Grandad.  Imagine the knowledge of deep places of the lake in those eyes!” 

Like I said, Samantha was an articulate and thoughtful girl for her age. 

Then they came.  The words Perry half expected but dreaded, the words he feared at that moment more than any others . . . “Grandad, we need to set it free!”

She looked at this beautiful creature struggling to breathe; it’s first thrashing around now only a wiggle. 

“No! No!” Perry wanted to cry out.  “It’s the grand prize winner!  Maybe even the biggest fish in the 25 years of the Josiah W. MacPherson Ice Fishing Derby.  No! we can’t” 

But he didn’t. 

The vision of the monster mounted and hanging in his garage office was fading like the afternoon sun.  To him, it was a trophy and a story waiting to be told and embellished upon in years to come.

 To Sammy it was one of God’s special creatures, of so much more value than a dozen minnows a week for fishing season. 

Perry knew that it would be okay to keep the fish.  If he really wanted to push the matter.  After all, no laws were broken; it was a legally caught fish, certainly over the minimum size limit.  And the God Perry prayed to often when fishing, would certainly understand! 

But it was love that reached down and gently removed the hook from the toothy jaw. 

It was love that reached under the massive fish, with the brilliant marking and dark eyes and with his granddaughter slide the prize winning pike through the hole to return to the deep haunts of Hobbs Pond. 

Love won out over knowledge and legality, as it should.           

St. Paul, who wasn’t a fisherman, like Peter and Andrew, wrote, “ . . . we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

Perry and Samantha went home that afternoon with something that would remain with their relationship much longer than a dusty old pike hanging on a wall.  The memory of a day fishing with a grandad and granddaughter that will be fixed in their memories forever.

For the special relationship, respect and love between them ran as deep as the pike’s home in the dark places of Hobbs Pond. 

Sure there will be days Perry will still wonder “How he let the big one get away.”   But he also knew that for today something much bigger and more important didn’t get away.

Listen to the Audio version by double clicking “Download File” below and open it on your PC.  Enjoy.

We are also trying something new… let us know what you think of this!  Remember this is a Work in Progress!