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!


I Am Not…But He Is!

Sermon ~ Sunday, December 17, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

I Am Not . . . But He Is!

John 1:6-8, 19-28

Going to church can be a risky thing!

I’m not thinking about the danger of persecution like some Christians face even today.

Nor am I thinking about bad preaching, which is a very real concern (especially for those of us who may be the purveyors of such poison!)

No, I’m thinking about the danger of religion itself.  By this I mean any of the systems invented and defended by human beings in our efforts to pigeonhole God. 

Would you believe that “religion” is not spoken of very often in the Bible?  In fact if you take a concordance and look up how many times the word religion occurs in the Bible you find it is only 3 times!  Once in the book of Acts when Paul is talking about his past as a Pharisee, and twice in the letter of James, where the author defines religion as caring for the orphans and widows in their distress. 

That’s all the religion there is in the Bible!  Jesus never uses the word, perhaps because he found organized religion of his day so unfriendly.  The first time he preached in his home synagogue, the entire congregation rose up in wrath and tried to throw him off a cliff.  The clergy in Jerusalem had a similar reaction.  Every time he showed up in the temple, they stood around in tight little circles trying to figure out how to rid themselves of him, and at least once he got so angry at what was happening in God’s house that he overturned the furniture!

As near as I can tell, Jesus was not big on religion.  He seemed to think it was something that people did instead of actually worshiping God.  Perhaps it kept them at a safe distance from the all-consuming love that was unwavering, undefinable, and ultimately unknowable.  They invented religion as a way to manage all those things for them and they worshiped that instead.  Then they spend their prayer time making up rules and definitions.  They used time that should have been devoted to orphans and widows making sure their records were up to date!

All this seem to frustrate Jesus because they didn’t seem to know when to stop.  It might have been okay if they had limited their organizational skills to themselves but they didn’t.  They tried to organize God.  But rather than making God more accessible it seems that their religion became blindfolds that kept them from seeing the God who came to them often time sideways, unexpected, a voice calling you and your family to a far-off land, a burning bush, a babe in a manger to a working-class couple.   

 

John draws a crowd in the wilderness, which is how he draws the attention of the leadership in Jerusalem, only they do not know what to make of him.  He certainly did not dress, act and sound like any of them, so they send a delegation of clergy (Call it an oversight committee!) down to the camp by the Jordan River.  Their job, according to their by-laws, is to find out where John has gotten his authority to do the things he is doing and say the things he is saying.

“Who are you?” they ask.  Can you see them with their tablets and smart phones doing their “fact checking”?  Is he Orthodox or reform, a fundamentalist, a charismatic, a liberal, a traditionalist, a Pentecostal? 

Is he high church or low church? 

Does he believe in predestination, transubstantiation, dispensationalism?

Where does he stand on believer’s baptism, the ordination of women, the use of incense, and same-sex unions?

They want details, only John does not cooperate. 

“I am not the Messiah” he says, which is interesting answer because it wasn’t what they asked!  But John seems to be up to something here, which gets lost on the committee for oversight. 

“I am not,” John starts out with them, and that is how the whole conversation goes, with one denial after another.

“What then?  Are you Elijah?”

“I am not.”

“Are you the prophet?”

“No.”  It is becoming a bit frustrating for the committee!  The have a religious box with a square hole, a round hole, and a triangular hole, but John does fit in any of them.  They have their religious check sheet with various categories and John isn’t fitting into any of them.  He matter-of-factly dismisses all their attempts to categorize and pigeon hole him. And it doesn’t take them long to catch on to his trick.  Whatever they suggest John will say “no,” so they ask him to categorize himself. 

“Who are you?” they try again, “Give us an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 

But John does not say anything about himself.  He is Mr. Not Not No, the man with no face, no name, no identity at all, except for the sound that he makes.

“I am the voice,” he says at last, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘make straight the way of the Lord.”  This is the only claim he will make for himself.  John is the crowing rooster, the ringing alarm clock, the announcing trumpet.  He is not the main attraction.  He is the wake-up call of the event they should be preparing for.  And as uncooperative as he may seem, he is saying something crucial about the one coming after him.  If they think John is hard to peg, just wait until they meet the Light!  The Light will not match any of their descriptions or fit into any of their boxes either.  The Light will not obey their rules or honor their systems, because if the Light did that then he would not be the Light.  He would be something smaller perhaps a little mini mag-lite, something people could turn off and on at will but not the Light that was coming into the world.

And thus, by refusing every religious title the authorities tried to pin on him John becomes a very good witness to the Light. Neither John nor the One coming after him will fit into anyone’s pocket to carry around and pull out at will.  John is the unclassifiable witness to the undefinable Lord, who will be as elusive as a moonbeam and as hot to handle as the sun.  No system will be big enough to contain him, John warns his visitors so they might as well give up trying.  

“Among you stands one whom you do not know” John tells those who are supposed to know everything there is to know about God, and it is a wonder they do not have him arrested on the spot!  They can’t excommunicate him though, because he doesn’t belong to any group they can throw him out of!  He lives in the wilderness, far from the temple.  He operates outside their boundaries. He is Mr. Not Not No, who has already emptied himself in order to make straight the way of the Lord.

What John does not tell his visitors is that he does not know whom he is waiting for either, but this is the point.  If John thinks he knows whom he is looking for, he might miss the one who comes to him from way outside the limits of expectations.  The point is to know that he does not know, and to do what he can to help others know that they do not know either.  It is enough to trust God to open their eyes when the time comes.  It is enough to trust the Light to be light enough to see.

We are given this passage on the third Sunday of Advent because we still need John’s testimony to the Light.  While we are waiting for the baby to show up in the manger, waiting for perhaps the chance that this time, this season have a better handle on the infinite nature of the Incarnation, we can use John’s reminder that none of us ever knows exactly whom we are waiting for either, and that we need not be ashamed of this. 

It is a good thing, not a bad thing, to surrender ourselves to a love that we cannot predict or control, especially during this season when we look forward to peering into the manger, and perhaps even for just a moment holding him in our arms.  He will allow us to do that, but only on the condition that we understand we can never possess him, not entirely.

In the end, it is He who puts his arms around us. 

No religion can contain Him.

No church can box Him in. 

But oh, can we worship Him!  We can worship Him until the light dawns upon all nations and we all see him in his full glory!

Listen to the original audio of the Sermon by Pastor Neil Wilson by clicking download and opening the downloaded link.  God Bless!


Council Agenda

Sermon ~ Sunday, December 10, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Council Agenda

Isaiah 40:1-11

 

Prophets do not speak and their words are never recorded in a vacuum.  There is always a political, historical social context.   So allow me to bore you with a brief history lesson.

In the seventh century BCE the Assyrians swept from the north and conquered the Northern kingdom of Israel.  We find prophecy relating to this in the first 39 chapters of Isaiah.  This portion of Isaiah is often referred to as First Isaiah.  Then, in the beginning of the sixth century BCE some 35 years or so later, the Babylonians invaded the southern kingdom of Judah, destroyed much of Jerusalem, disrupted the economy, and deported leading citizens to Babylon.  All told the Babylonian kingdom occupied the land for 50 years.  It is during the latter years of this Babylonian occupation and deportation that Isaiah 40 and the following chapters were recorded.

There is could be as many as 100 years between the events and people spoken of in chapters 39 and 40.  Thus many scholars refer to Isaiah 1-39 as “First Isaiah” and beginning with chapter 40 as “Second Isaiah.” This “second Isaiah “emerges with his exquisite poetry and a very different tone with today’s reading.  Isaiah chapter 40 contains poetry so beautiful that many included the likes of George Frideric Handel of the 18th century and Bono of  U 2 of the 21st century felt the urge to interpret it in their music. 

Isaiah seeks to bring back to life a people crushed under a shroud of death with this poetic image. While he writes among a people with little to hope for and perhaps even less to live for, yet he imagines a nation restored, a city rebuilt, and a people reunited in Zion.

Some scholars see in the words of Isaiah 40 the image of a great heavenly council. YHWH, the God of Israel has assembled a heavenly host.  This is no council of bickering gods competing for position and control but servants of the Sovereign of the Universe, whose compassion and regard for justice distinguish this God from all others.  I would like to play with this idea of a heavenly council a bit this morning.

The council has been assembled and we have gathered in the balcony.  Before the council is the matter of the situation and condition of God’s children, the descendants of Abraham, the tribes of Israel.  On the agenda are three items.

The first item: To find agreement among the council members that God’s people have indeed served their time, received enough punishment for all their sins and that the council needs to inform them of such decision. 

For a grieving, futureless people, few words could be more surprising than the ones found here. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God”  For a people whose God had seemed to have been silent for all these years Isaiah opens with the longed-for consoling words.  They have suffered “double for all their sins.” (v. 2 NRSV)  Their suffering is massively disproportionate to anything they may have done.  For second Isaiah, the people’s sin does not adequately explain the historical disaster of the Assyrian invasion and the Babylonian exile and actually could be seen as taking issue with other prophets at the time! 

Send them a word of consolation: “Enough is enough, says yours God!”

Second agenda item:  To determine the tone and the wording of the proclamation.   

A voice is lifted up in the council:

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the way and level the highway” . . . for the glory of the Lord is about to be revealed!”

The message is clear: be ready, prepare now, for the Sovereign is coming.  The Glory of the Lord could be translated as “the presence of the Lord shall appear.”  All they may have hoped for, all they may have given up hoping for, is about to be realized!  The God, this bruised and battered community, thought had abandoned them or perhaps had been defeated by stronger Babylonian gods, is announcing that God is coming, prepare the way, for you shall all see the presence of the Lord and you can count on it for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Then another voice in the council speaks up “Cry out!”

And another, “And I said, “What shall I cry?”

And there is a mini discussion which draws attention to more the content of the message 

 All people are grass . . . grass withers and flowers fade but the word of our God will stand forever.  

This word, message is as steady, durable, and reliable as the God who sends it. 

“You shall see your Lord!”

 

The third agenda item:  To see to the proper commissioning of the prophet and setting out of the itinerary.

“You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain.

“You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid.”

The prophet is to go up high to project their voice far and wide as the good news, the message of joy is proclaimed.  The charge is to cry out fearlessly. 

But what is fearful about this message of redemption and return?  Are the words too improbable to be believed among those to whom the prophet is to proclaim them?  Even though they are in exile, have they grown comfortable enough with their life in Babylon?

Or is it the message that this God comes with strength, with arms outstretched in triumph, a God who it seems was not able to stop the invasion and subsequent exile?   

But here God’s strength is paradoxical, because it is not the strength of a bloody avenger, a violent warrior, or a demanding judge.  No this God’s strength appears in the barely thinkable power of gentleness, in a tender and caring presence, in intimacy such as a shepherd expresses when gathering the wounded, scattered flock. 

 

Take a look at our own world, and consider how preposterous our message of the gospel sounds to many.  It does indeed seem that the God of Israel and of Jesus has very little power in relation to the “gods” that seem to reign supreme in our 21st century “empire.”

Consumerism demands more of our resources, and our lust for cheap energy and convenient mobility threaten our environment.  The conduct of war robs us of precious lives and international respect.  Even in our own society religious zealotry pits one image of God against another, leaving the human community fractured and cynical.

How dare we speak of a God who promises to become present in a way that “all people shall see it together.” (v.5)

Yet, this is precisely what the faithful people of God are being commissioned to do.  In the face of all the derision and indifference, we are to speak of this God whose fierce compassion and care for all of humanity trumps the power of the other “gods” who seem to enjoy sovereignty in our human relationships.

Advent is a time to hear these promises spoken or perhaps sung to the community of faith once again.  It is a time for us, the faith community, to find our voice, overcome our objections and fears and speak words of comfort and assurance to all who feel separated from or abandoned by God.  It is time to get passed the “Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas” debate!  Is this our only message to a hurting world? 

How will the world hear God’s real message of hope and deliverance, the message that God will arrive and will come in gentle power, when too all too many “we” seem to be more concerned about losing our faith because of how we greet each other during this season. 

Let’s just begin by really noticing each other, by greeting the stranger with the love of God we come to know through Jesus.   Is this not one way of speaking tenderly and preparing the way, leveling the paths, straightening out the highways to each other?

If we can do this then maybe, just maybe, the world might see that the glory of the Lord has been revealed. 

And the heavenly council’s agenda will have been fulfilled!

Listen to Pastor Neil’s original Sermon from Sunday morning worship service by downloading the file below:


Composers and Cleaning Women

Sermon ~ Sunday, November 19, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

“Composers and Cleaning Women”

Matthew 25:14-30

To me they are more than words, more than a nice little slogan many churches print in their worship programs.  I take very seriously what is stated in the “Staff listing” of our worship program: “Every member, Ministers to the Community.”   This is not something that I believe in some intellectual/theological sense but one that I try to live out in my daily life.  In fact it was this very understanding of my Christian life that ultimately led to my sense of calling to pastoral ministry. 

The Christian life is just this, a life.  It is not a choice as in I chose this hobby or that style of attire.  It is not even a career choice, as in, I think I will be an accountant or an engineer or a fireman.  When one chooses to follow the Christian way it is a choice to follow the one called Christ.  It is more than a lifestyle it is a way of living.  And it was out of this calling to a way of living that God spoke more explicitly calling me to pastoral ministry. 

But as our staff listing should remind us, we are all called, and everyone is called to play their part to the full.  Valuing one another, accepting that the smallest of gifts is important, and believing that, in our uniqueness, God has called each of us, the whole people of God, to serve.

But you might argue a pastor is different (can’t argue with that!  We are a little different!) But it is not so much a different kind of calling as it is a particular calling within the call Christ puts upon all of us.  I am your ‘pastor’, for such is my role and the title I am given for my calling … but you are ministers to one another … I  minister with you, not to you or even more important to understand  not for you. 

I have gifts, but so do each of you. 

I have uniqueness, but so do each of you.

I have been given certain talents, but so do each of you. 

Why am I not a choir director?  Because I can’t direct a choir!  Roger, who is good at this does it for us.  Is that not a ministry, someone’s gifts being used well to the glory of God? 

And the rest of you? 

You serve in many ways.  Writing letters, visiting people, taking a meal to a friend or neighbor or taking them out for a meal! 

In the Church, how much do we value the people who offer a welcome at the front door?  Greeters are the very first impression of our congregation visitors get.  Talk about an important ministry!  The stewardship of our facility …  serving during our worship, Communion, lay readers, a couple of weeks ago we recognized the importance of music.  The ministry of Coffee hour?  All these are forms of ministry. 

In the community, how much do we value our refuse collectors, our community officials, the school bus drivers, the street-sweepers, the shop-assistants, etc.?

One of the lessons we might derive from the parable read this morning is that God blesses people with differing gifts according to the grace given us (Romans 12.6).  It was C. S. Lewis who wrote in The Weight of Glory:

“The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a cleaning woman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly “as to the Lord.” This does not, of course, mean that it is for anyone a mere toss-up whether he should sweep rooms or compose symphonies.  A mole must dig to the glory of God and the rooster must crow.” 

It isn’t that one person’s gifts are better than another’s, it’s about a belief in the uniqueness of every child of God, and the acceptance that God has a role for them to play –be they Beethoven or a cleaning woman.   God does not value one over the other, we may do this, but God does not!  God values the work that each of you have to do.  After all, it was God who gave you the ability and the work in the first place.  It is a rare position, job, career indeed in which one cannot find a way if you look, to serve God and God’s people.  To be sure, there somethings that some do that are not in service to God and in fact just the opposite, but in many cases it is a perversion of their work.  Brother Lawrence, a former soldier, who joined a monastery and spent the rest of his life working in the monastery kitchen and repairing the sandals of other monks wrote, “We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

The parable of the three servants also indicates that the reward for work done well is more work to do.  No this is not to be confused with being over-worked and the false sense of importance that can accompany this. Nor is it about always being at the center of things.  It’s about development and growth, not ‘resting on our laurels’.  

It’s not about the old expression, “If you’re looking for someone to do something, ask someone who’s busy.”  We are to care for one another and not take people for granted.  It’s about a joy in our service, knowing, learning and developing our discipleship.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t wrestle with the last part of the parable, the third servant:

But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy servant! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.  So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.  For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  As for this worthless servant, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Last week we considered the value of prudence and this, the last servant it would seem was in one way prudent in his use of the master’s property.  Yet, he gets the brunt of his master’s anger. It could be said that he is punished for his action or better his inaction.

This whole idea of ‘punishment’ is a tricky one … But it would seem to me that Jesus in using this parable perhaps is saying that there are negative consequences for the people who don’t even try.

I think of it this way …   During my high school years, I was not what you would call a star pupil, if you can imagine that!  I remember sitting in Algebra II and Calculus classes with Mr. Hammond.  (For you math geeks Mr. Hammond told this joke every year!

“Did you hear about the Park Ranger who saved the snakes from extinction?”

“No Mr. Hammond.”  Moans from the older students.

“He built them a log table then they could multiply for they were adders you see!” 

And he would laugh, “Har! Har! Har!”  Every year. 

In Mr. Hammond’s classroom I always choose a seat by the windows.  His classroom was on the third floor of Fryeburg Academy’s south wing and it had a nice view of the mountains!  And when I would get lost in algorithms and hyperbolas, I would wander among the mountains, along the ridges and down their streams, to the fire tower on Keasarge North.  I had a glorious time!  Then when it came time for the math test I would suddenly become a person of  great faith and lean on the power of prayer!  I would pray first that the questions would be easy.  And secondly, that they would be over the few things I did grasp.  After all God is good, right.  Perhaps, but Mr. Hammond was just!  And while I never failed a class I would often fail the tests!

What right had I to rely on the goodness of God when I had not done any work?  What right had I to expect God to show me special favors when I didn’t even try?  And my punishment/consequence?  To accept that my failure was of my own making … to learn that you have to put some work in to make success possible … that I did not have God at my beck and call. 

Is God still good?  Of course. 

Was my failure God’s fault?  Not at all. 

Did God remind me that trying my best is important?  You bet!

And lastly, if someone has a talent and uses it well, then this parable seems to say that he or she will be able to do progressively more with it.  And, vice versa, if a talent isn’t used well or at all, it will inevitably be lost to us.  Any of you who are musicians know this all too well!  But it is the same for all our talents, skills, our spiritual gifts.   Use it or lose it.  Not that God will take it away but without use it will atrophy.

But not only will your witness be weakened but the body of Christ will suffer as well!

Ephesians 4:11-13  So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:7     Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

Whether composer or cleaning person, preacher or pipefitter, deacon or diaper changer, physician or firefighter, young/old, male/female, God has given you an ability, a gift, and has asked you to use it to God’s glory in service to others.

1 Peter 4:10 – 11    Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.  If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Listen to the Audio Version below:


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!


Give Us This Day

“Give Us This Day”

Exodus 16:2-15   Matthew 20: 1-16

 

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

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

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

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

The leaders and the servants receive the same amount. 

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

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

    and it is all a gift!  

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

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

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

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

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

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

A parable about grace (human to human grace.)

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

A parable about knowing how much is enough.

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

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

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

     “Give us this day our daily bread.”  

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so starting with us.

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


There Goes the Neighborhood

“There Goes the Neighborhood”

Romans 13:8-14     Matthew 18: 15-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He held out the handmade card.

A hand quickly snatched the card and shut the door. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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