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

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


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Fearlessness of Love

Sermon ~ Sunday, April 29, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Fearlessness of Love

1 John 4:7-21

I took the commentary off the bookshelf and opened it to the page where todays Epistle reading is discussed and you might imagine my surprise when the first thing I read was: “Caution: Handle with Care!”  I thought, “Really?  Isn’t this about love? How difficult is love?”  (At least to talk about anyway!)

The warning went on to explain that it is not that the original Greek is difficult to translate.  It isn’t.  In fact it is some of the easiest to translate, often where first year New Testament Greek students begin. 

The danger lies with anyone who chooses to preach on this passage.  Preachers beware!  “Beware (and I quote) of the tendency to turn it’s soaring testimony to the primacy of God’s love and the resulting corollaries of human love into something saccharine and simplistic.” 

Even more than Paul’s exposition on the nature and character of God’s love in 1 Corinthians 12-14, 1 John 4 sets forth a powerful exploration of how the initiative of God’s love in Christ makes possible the reality of a deeper human love. 

Whenever one talks about love, God’s or human, the temptation is to turn it into a romantic sentiment, an individual feeling, or some kind, caring deed to add to our “to do” list.  It is all too easy to twist this reading around and turn it into the unstated assumption: “We love others; therefore God must love us.”  Throughout the author’s at times circuitous argument, he makes it clear “We love because God first loved us.”   It starts with God not us! 

 

Love, is a universal hunger in the human heart, and John knows this. (As does, it would seem, just about every song writer and musician.)  Yet, as universal as it may be many are terribly confused about love.  Why just yesterday on my way home from the united Northern Association Meeting In Onekama I heard these songs on the radio:  Love is a Battlefield Pat Benetar, Addicted to Love Robert Palmer, You Give Love a Bad Name  Bon Jovi You Make Lovin’ Fun Fleetwood Mac. (Can you tell what I listen to while driving?)

Someone once observed graffiti on a restroom wall (Which of course is the retainer of all wisdom!) “Love is all I want.”  Someone had come along later and scribbled underneath it “Sex is all you get.”  We are terribly confused when it comes to love. 

But even in “Christian“ circles we sometimes get this biblical love stuff a bit turned around.  Again, John doesn’t, notice today’s passage begins with, “Beloved, let us love one another, . ..”  not “Beloved, let us love God.” 

“. . . love one another. . .”

But let’s be honest, sometimes it is easier (and safer?) to talk about how much we love God or love Jesus than it is to express and actually love our family, friends and colleagues, or children especially when they don’t follow certain “acceptable  behaviors and or lifestyles. And, let’s just be honest, sometimes we are not all that likeable!  Yet, John clearly says that the love of God, born of God, insists that those who know and love God must love one another.  It is harder sometimes to love those close to us than to love a God who is far away, mysterious, and unseen.  Those close to us, we can see them warts and all!   

John reminds us that God’s love is given to humans in human form, in the person of Jesus.  God loves us and sent the Son, a person, as the word of love, the sign of love, the living love of God given in the flesh to humanity.  So if God loves us, in human form, his argument goes, we must love one another in the same way, in our and their humanness.

Another mistake we sometimes make about love is that it somehow has to be perfect.   And the author even says, “. . . if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected in us.”  But love is not an ideal; it is a relationship.

The Message  “But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!”

John speaks a fair amount about abiding in this passage.  The Message translates verses 13-16 this way: “This is how we know we’re living steadily and deeply in him, and he in us:

 He’s given us life from his life, from his very own Spirit.

 Also, we’ve seen for ourselves and continue to state openly that the Father sent his Son as Savior of the world.  Everyone who confesses that Jesus is God’s Son participates continuously in an intimate relationship with God.  We know it so well, we’ve embraced it heart and soul, this love that comes from God.

Am I perfect in my love for others?  By no means!  Are any of us?  Not that I know of.  But it is the Spirit dwelling in us that is guiding us toward a more mature relationship of love with God and with others.

And there is another important point the author makes in our reading for this morning.  It’s about the nature of God.  Some say God is to be feared which becomes God is fear followed closely or interchangeably with God is judgement.  Not as negatively, some think of God as light.  Some as mercy.   But the message of Jesus and the author of 1 John say it clearly,  God is love.  All God’s activity is loving activity.  If God creates, God does it in love.  If God rules, God does it in love.  If God judges, even here, God does it in love.  God cannot help it – God is love.

The gospel answer to the human problem of anxiety,(culturally based not brain chemical based) mortality, and meaninglessness is simple – God is love.  In this world of impersonal forces, ruthless power, and extremely complicated international issues, some may want another gospel, but to proclaim anything less than the heart of the universe as being a pulse of mercy with infinite passion is to betray the gospel. 

The gospel’s answer to our obsessive problems of anxiety and meaninglessness is simple: God is love and you are loved by this love.  We learn about God by what God does.  No love, no gospel.  This flies straight in the face of those who would define God only as a correct theology (theirs!), or an adherence to a strict moral code that consists of petty morality and organizational power.

John does talks about fear.  We know that fear is among the most powerful of motivators for good and evil. It is the parent of caution.  So it can warn us and protect us.  It is also an incentive to preventative action.  Healthy religion must have within it that sober and persistent “fear of the Lord” that can be the beginning of wisdom.  But our faith must have more than that.  If it makes fear its foundation, it will never be enjoyed; it will be paralyzing, and there will be little if any inspiration. 

Fear cannot generate love, sympathy, tenderness, or compassion.  We cannot frighten people into faith, scare people into tolerance, or terrify them onto kindliness.  The fruit of fear ends up being distrust, suspicion, and resentment.  A joyless religion is fruitless and loveless, and at its best is beneath the Christian ideal.

It is against the lovelessness of fear, John sets the fearlessness of love. 

No longer must we have the anxious tormenting endeavor to placate God, but rather ours can be the response of a loving, confident heart to a love already shown and shared. 

Love is strong medicine for the heart. Perfect love rejects fear from the heart.  Fear, John says, has to do with punishment, but in Christ we are to  think not as much of that as we do of love, of the forgiveness of God,.  Fear as seen by John, as well as Paul, is a sign of inadequate religion.  For sure, there can be no religion without awe in the presence of the Creator.  Reverence in awareness of God is a protection against sin, but when reverence turns to fear, religion becomes stunted and loses its grace and glory

New Testament religion asks us to love others as we are loved by God.  There is no place in the fellowship for those who nurse grudges, seek revenge, assume intellectual superiority, or are careless of the feelings of others.  We must remind each other that only the merciful will know and understand mercy, and only the forgiving will know the full extent of our own forgiveness. 

A loving heart lives in the love of God.

May each of you find your hearts and the heart of this congregation in such a state of fearless love.  


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The Incident at the Beautiful Gate

Sermon ~ Sunday, April 22, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

The Incident at the Beautiful Gate

Acts 3:1-19

 

It was in October of 1958, some segregationists slipped into the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple in Atlanta, Georgia carrying with them a considerable amount of dynamite.  Shortly after 3:30 in the morning an explosion ripped through the oldest Jewish synagogue in the city doing extensive damage.  In her book The Temple Bombing, Melissa Fay Greene describes the events surrounding this hate-crime.  It was on the next Friday evening, at the first Sabbath service after the bombing, the congregation gathered in their temple, its windows shattered and boarded up, doors hanging off their hinges.  The temple that evening was packed almost as if it were the high holy days.  The rabbi, a powerful preacher and civic leader, Jacob Rothschild, stood up to speak.  He looked out over the overflowing congregation, and after standing silently for a moment surveying the crowd with a penetrating gaze, he quipped, “So this is what it takes to get you to temple.”

A somewhat similar scene is taking place in our reading from Acts.  In this case, the “explosion,” the event that attracts the attention and draws the big crowd, is not a tragic hate-crime, but a piece of shocking news nonetheless: that crippled beggar, you the one, always hanging around over at the Beautiful Gate, well, word has it that he has been somehow unexpectedly healed, and in the name of this fellow, Jesus of Nazareth. 

As one can imagine, an astonished and puzzled crowd gathers in the area of the temple known as Solomon’s Portico, and they are pressing around these two Galileans, Peter and John, who seem to be the source of the miracle.

It has been my experience and I think yours, that after momentous events, both good and tragic, people are drawn to sacred places and to people who seem to have a connection to divine power.  At the end of World War II, when humans first walked on the moon, when the soaking rains fell after the drought of the 1930s, when President Kennedy was assassinated, when rumors spread that the Virgin Mary had appeared in a small southern town, and as I experienced personally, the full sanctuary for a week or two after the tragic events of 9/11/2001 – these and other events over the years have seen people flocking to places of worship out of fear and anxiety, as well as wonder, curiosity, and amazement. 

Similarly, when the word got around about this beggar’s healing at the Beautiful Gate, a throng gathered around Peter and John. 

What were they looking for?  Healing for themselves?  To be in the proximity of  spiritual power?

More miracles?  Perhaps an explanation of the one they had already seen or heard about? 

Who knows? 

Perhaps they did not even know themselves.  All they knew was that something startling and unexpected disrupted their normalcy and so they gathered at this holy place.

“So this is what it takes to get you to temple!”

Whatever drew the crowd to Solomon’s Portico and Peter and John, the chances are good that what they received when they got there was not exactly what they expected.  They came to the Solomon’s Portico wide-eyed and astonished, lured by the mystery of a healing, and what do they get in return?   A sermon!!

They came like moths drawn to the flickering light of the miracle and what they got was the clear, steady, penetrating light of a homily.  In fact, the way the author of Acts tells the story, the main event here is not the healing, but the preaching! (As pastors we love to hear this!)

Why is this?  Amazing as it was, the healing by itself was mute, ambiguous, and ultimately misleading.  It took the proclaimed word to tell the whole truth.  The healing was powerful to be sure, but its true meaning was hidden or misinterpreted until the Peter’s message was added.  Notice what went wrong in the people’s minds and hearts, before Peter’s message gave full meaning to the event. 

First, they misunderstood the source of the healing and assumed that it came from Peter and John.   We have this relentless human hunger to believe that there are people who have tapped into the healing powers of the universe and who can make these powers available for us, whether they are the faith healers of the backwoods revival tents or the slick self-help counselors on television talk shows.  We want to believe that these people have the right touch, can say the right prayer formula, have the right technique, have discovered the right wisdom to bring wholeness to our lives.  So we order their DVDs, go to their rallies and retreats, watch their programs, read their books, touch the hem of their garments, seeking for ourselves some of their power, knowledge, and success they purport to offer.

“You’ve got it all wrong,” Peter declares.  “Do you really think that it was our power, our spirituality, our piety, our clever wisdom that healed this man?  It is not about us.  This is about God.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the one true healer.” 

 Second, they misunderstood the nature of life with God, thinking that brokenness is the rule and healing and wholeness is the exception.  Currently there seems to be a kind of functional atheism for many.  Life is seen as barren of God, and if God ever should speak or act, it would be the incredible exception to the norm.  Indeed the crowd in our reading ran to Peter and John  because their ministry of healing seemed to be an amazing interruption to life as usual.

“Why do you wonder at his?” Peter asks them, and in his sermon he speaks of another world, an Easter world, where the healing and forgiving power of God is as pervasive and present as sunshine and rain.  One of the things I appreciate about Celtic spirituality is that it begins with the belief in the goodness of God’s creation and that each person is made in the image of God and that in the beginning God breathed God’s spirit into life and so it is good.  The bad, the evil, trials and trouble are the exceptions to God’s intent for creation. To be sure all this bad stuff can sometimes be so overwhelming as to seem to blot out the light of God within, but it can never completely extinguish it!  We live in an Easter world!

Third, they thought that the healing called only for astonishment; but it calls for more, it calls for (interestingly enough) repentance.  Whenever we see signs of God at work in our world – someone is healed of cancer, a broken relationship is restored, a hungry child is fed, communities come together and make real progress in race relations, nations put down their weapons and work toward peace, personal despair turns to hope, – as  people of goodwill we are filled with wonder and joy.

But Peter’s sermon lets us know that such events also call for an ever-deeper response of self-reflection. God’s healing and restorative work discloses another world, another reality, another realm shimmering amidst the wreckage of a decaying culture.  In the face of God’s deeds of mercy all around us, we are summoned not merely to say, “How wonderful, how amazing!  Isn’t God good!” but to turn around, to repent, to change our citizenship, and become a faithful part of God’s work in the this world. 

Healing should do more than touch the body, spirit, emotions of the one healed but should also cause those of us standing by to assess our relationship with the one true Source of the healing.  Not that we may be selfishly looking for something for ourselves, healing, wholeness etc. but that we recognize that the Healer also seeks us to be healers in our families, our communities and in this Easter world we now all live in.

May it be so beginning with us, beginning today!

Enjoy the audio version of this Sermon by Pastor Neil by selecting “Download File” below!


Do Not Doubt But Believe

~ Guest Sermon ~ April 8, 2018 ~ The Reverend Barbara Hoig

Scriptures: Psalm 133

                  Acts 4:32-35

                  John 20:19-35

KEY TEXT: John 20:27a: “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and           put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe.”

Sermon Title:  “Do Not Doubt But Believe”

Prayer:  O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you.  Amen.

We all have doubts.  Sometimes I think that doubt is the by-word for our times.  We doubt the weather predictors, we doubt the promise makers, we doubt the news, we doubt the world leaders, we doubt the IRS, we doubt the insurance companies, we doubt our government…

It’s all about being able to trust people.  Who do you trust in your life?  I have had that concept deeply shaken recently when a 44 year old woman whom I have known for nearly 30 years, and have kept in contact with, came crashing back into my life in a very real way.  Back before Christmas I heard from Kathy, not her real name, and she wanted to talk.  But before I tell you too much, you need some background.  Kathy was an abused child, abused by all the males in her life as a small child, and also in High School.  Kathy was adopted as an infant and a few years later her parents adopted a little boy.  Her Mother did not know that after her husband had abused her, left her unconscious on the floor, he was also abusing the children.  They, of course, were sworn to secrecy being told of horrible punishment if they said anything.  It wasn’t until the age of 25 when Kathy, with my hand in hers, was able to tell her Mom what had happened at the hands of her dad and brother.  Then we found out that her Mom had also been an abused child.

Kathy was brought up to believe that men were bad news.  They hurt you.  When Kathy was of an age that her friends were dating, her Mom didn’t let her date because men will just hurt you and leave you in the end.  You’re better off without them.  Kathy also has several severe and chronic diagnoses, the worst of which is epilepsy.  Her doctors believe that it was brought on by all the hits she took to her head as a child.

There is a beautiful new development to this story.  Kathy has a boyfriend.  He is a wonderful, Christian man that she has known for 10 years.   He was divorced when she met him, got married and divorced again, and has kept in contact with Kathy through his profession, all this time.  He has now declared his love for her, and Kathy was terrified, though she knows Tom is a good man, and does love her and won’t hurt her, it took a tremendous amount of courage for Kathy to go out to dinner with him for that first date.  In fact, she told him she would go to dinner if he didn’t call it a date.  It turns out that Kathy’s Mom, believing she is protecting her, does not approve of this relationship.  Kathy is now engaged to Tom, and planning a wedding.  She is so amazed that love can be unconditional, that a man can love a woman without hurting her, that all the things she has been told about male/female relationships over her 44 years have been proven slanted by an abused parent. 

Suddenly, in not quite 3 months, Kathy has taken a monumental leap of faith.  She has learned to trust a man on a personal level, even though she has many doubts, she is learning to talk to Tom about them and she has found that he does not lie to her when the questions are hard to answer.  

We all need to deal with our doubts.  Sometimes it is easy, sometimes hard.  But in order to live our lives, we must move past them, or know that we have doubts for a good reason.  I believe that is where Thomas was.  He was doubtful that this apparition standing in front of him, who had come through a closed door, was actually the man he had known before he saw him crucified.  Let’s examine some of the leaps of faith Thomas had to make to believe.

We live in an interesting time; long years past Jesus’ time.  So when we read these scriptures, and ponder their meaning, we look back, to what we think Jesus might have meant, then try to give that some relevance in 2018.

When Jesus was resurrected, he entered the same world he had left 3 days prior. 

Rome was still in charge, and the Christians were hiding out and looking over their shoulders.  His disciples, the eleven, (the twelve minus one), were hiding in an upper room in a house.  I saw a friend on Easter Sunday who just returned from a trip to Jerusalem.  She said they visited an ‘upper room’ in a house.  You had to climb a very rough ladder to get there, and it was a fairly large shelf of rock in the cave that the dwelling was made of.  There were no windows, only a small opening along the front side for air.  This is where the eleven were hiding out.  They were going out only in ones and twos and coming back to the room with the news of the day.  When Mary Magdalene found Jesus’ tomb empty, she ran to tell Peter and John.  When the news reached the group gathered in the upper room, they were amazed.  Then when the risen Christ visited them, they recognized their friend and teacher.  But Thomas was skeptical.  He had seen Jesus crucified and then placed in the tomb, after the body had been prepared for the grave.  How could Jesus now be alive?  Was this a ghost?  Was there some trick?  Why were Mary and Peter and John calling Jesus The Christ?

Christ sensed Thomas’ confusion about him and asked him to come close and examine the wound in His side.  “Put your hand in My side.”  He also asked Thomas to put his finger in the wounds in His hands.  The wounds in His hands that the nails had made.  In Jesus’ time, the Romans crucified a lot of people.  They did not use nails in the hands and feet.  The used leather bands to bind the people to the cross.  Jesus was nailed to the cross as per the prophesy.  Those wounds in his hands and feet were truly identifying wounds.  Christ was picking up his lessons where Jesus had left off before the crucifixion.  He was teaching the disciples to trust him.  Jesus IS the son of man.  He IS the son of God.  He IS the Christ.  Jesus was at one time both fully human and fully divine.  Now he is the risen Christ.  Still son of man and son of God, but more.

Christ was soon to ascent to heaven and be with the Father.  He would no longer be walking with the disciples on earth.  Instead they would be acting in his name.  They would be encountering people every day who would not believe them when they said that Jesus, now known as Christ, lives, He has risen.  He has ascended to heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father.  So this lesson to the disciples was extremely important. 

The Christians in those days were riddled with fears of demons and ghosts, as well as persecution by Romans.  There were all kinds of tricks and happenings that could not be explained.  They feared them all.  They ran and hid from them. 

The disciples needed to be able to convince the rest of the Christians that Jesus was indeed risen, and that He was ascended to the Father in heaven.  I believe that is why He visited with the disciples and continued to teach them during His short time left with them before His ascension.  The disciples were the first ones commissioned to go out and act in Christ’s name.  They were charged with baptizing and teaching all the people they met.

In the UCC, we believe in the priesthood of all believers.  That means that we believe all of us are able to perform priestly duties.  We hire some people who have been educated beyond the general congregant in the pews, so that they may teach us.  But we believe that we can petition God through Christ for anything we need.  Each one of us can pray for others, can teach others, can offer forgiveness to others we encounter in our daily lives. 

What we know about Jesus, the Christ, and His teachings, we have learned from the Bible.  We know that what is written in the Old Testament are words and concepts that were first passed down by word of mouth remembrances and then they were written down.  And in the New Testament, while there are probably some accounts that have a few of Jesus’ actual quotes, they are mostly what was remembered and written down after Christ ascended to the Father. 

Many of the Gospel writers never knew Jesus personally.  They knew him from the stories and teachings of the disciples and the leaders of the Christian movement. 

None of us ever knew Jesus personally, we never even knew the writers of the Biblical texts.  We cannot go to that upper room and ask Jesus to share communion with us.  We cannot stand with the eleven and watch the Christ walk into the room through a closed door.  We cannot put our finger in His nail holes or our hand in His side.  Our whole Christian Faith is entirely based on just that.  FAITH. 

Christ said to Thomas, “You believe because you have seen.  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  In what ways have your lived on blind faith in your life?  For myself, while I was in seminary, I had left my full-time nursing job, and I was working part time as a nurse, and my new part time job didn’t quite cover all the bases.  Every month there were checks in the mail, from my home church, from friends and family, they really paid the bills so I could accomplish my dream.  I was truly living on faith.

Today, I live on the faith that my car will last another few months, and I will stay healthy and find interesting things to do that keep me busy, (I could do with a few less of these today).  I live on the faith that every time I go out and drive, I will get back home safely.  I live on faith the when I am in a crowd, there will not be a shooter in the crowd with me.  I live in fear of travel to some parts of the world.  I live in fear that some parts of the world will invade my happy life here in the US.  I attended a conference in St Louis, MO last fall.  It was all UCC clergy and their families, and I learned that many of them were locking doors, stripping altars and placing all valuables in vaults, hiring security for their parking lots whenever there was an event at the church, and asking choir members not to bring their purses to church and to keep their car key in a pocket because people were walking into the building during services and events and taking car keys out of pockets and purses from choir rooms.  Choir members were coming out of church to find that their money and their cars were missing.  In Traverse City, churches with child care centers are hiring security to police any door that is unlocked during the daytime hours, and only unlocking 1-2 doors unless there is an event.  If there is an event, they hire security for each open door to watch people coming in and going out.

In 2018, we call it being careful; protecting out assets; our families; our patrons; our congregation.  It takes the same kind of faith to live in 2018 as it did to live in the year Jesus was crucified.   “DO NOT DOUBT but believe.”  Christ promised us eternal life with Him and the Father and the Holy Spirit.  “Do no doubt but believe.”

Life with eternity in it – is God’s gift to us.  We have heard it, but we are slow to believe.  We have received it, but we are slow to trust.  It is ours to enjoy, but we have not lived it.  Let us discuss the matter with our Creator.

Closing prayer:

Ever-present God, who by the power of the holy Spirit transforms us individually – and as a church to be your dwelling place, confront us here in the midst of our doubts, grant us your peace while we face our fears, and increase our trust that we may embrace life in all its fullness. Speak to us now the word that we need, empowering us to be a unifying presence in our broken world.  Amen

Pastoral Prayer
We have taken the name Christian, but few of us are known primarily by that name.  We have experienced Easter radiance, but we seldom reflect the light of our risen Savior.  We have heard the message of salvation, but it grows cold on our lips and is of little influence in our lives.  Sometimes we delude ourselves that, because we are basically good people, there is no sin in us.  We deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  Sin is separation from you, and we have allowed great chasms and built high walls to keep you out of our lives.  Forgive us, we pray.

The Bible tells us that If we walk in the light as Christ is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin.  If we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive us.  Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sin.  When we are one with God through Christ, we extend forgiveness to our sisters and brothers, that all may come to faith and have life in Jesus’ name.

Help us to forgive our brothers and sisters; Our neighbors and friends.  Bring us peace in our lives.  Help us to approach that person we shy away from at work, at school, in our neighborhood.  Help us to make a difference in the lives of others by offering friendship and fellowship with another Christian. 

Help us to put our faith in you asking for healing for our neighbors and friends, and for ourselves.  Help us to have faith that you will show us the way each day as we leave our beds and venture out into this world.  Then help us to have courage to step out on that faith we have, and follow your example, teaching and making disciples of all we meet.

Hear us, O Lord, as we pray the prayer you have taught us saying, Our Father…  debts

Amen.

Enjoy the Audio version of Guest Speaker Rev. Barbara Hoig’s Sermon by selecting “Download file” below.