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

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


Uncategorized

Confirmation Sunday August 5 2018

This was Confirmation Sunday… Enjoy a view from our youth.

 

 


Dining on The Living Bread

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, August 19th ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Dining on Living Bread

Luke 11:2-4         John 6:25-35

 

I love bread . . . honey wheat, honey oat, French bread, multi-grain bread, cinnamon bread, English muffin bread, brown bread (a New England Church bean suppah staple!) 

I love bread! 

Donna likes to bake bread. 

I’d say that’s a match made in bakery heaven!  My midsection says it’s a little closer to the ground!

So when it comes to placing myself in the scripture story I’m pretty sure I would have been among the crowd that followed Jesus across the Sea of Galilee looking for more bread.  And I just might have been the one who asked, “Jesus when did you get here?”  And then I would have added,  “And have you had time to whip up another batch of that bread?  That was umm, umm good!  Do have any butter and perhaps some strawberry jam?”

And I’m afraid I wouldn’t have fared any better than the crowd that day.  In his response Jesus cut straight to the fact of the matter, “The truth is you are looking for me not because you are really looking for me but you want something for your bellies!”

“Don’t work for food that perishes.  Fill yourselves with that which will truly satisfies.” 

“Feed on that which will really sustain you and bring you eternal life.”

Eternal Life . . .  Most of you by now have heard my understanding of “eternal life.”  I understand that when Jesus’ uses this term he is speaking as much about the “Here and now” as the “hereafter.”  As the old Nazarene pastor I knew said. “It’s  not just pie in the sky by and by but steak on your plate while you wait!”

 

Jesus said a little bit later in John’s Gospel that he came that we might “have life and have it abundantly.”  (Jn. 10:10) 

It’s not that Jesus is ignoring the physical needs of hungry people, after all he had just fed a large crowd of hungry people!  Rather he is saying is life is more that eating, and until they understand this they will not grasp what he is really is about.  We do not live by bread alone!

I say all this as a way of sharing with you any of the little parting wisdom I might have. 

If the church, this church, any church is going to flourish it must nourish itself on the Bread of Life.  Not the sermon of any pastor including me!  The sermon is not the Bread of Life!  Now to the extent that a sermon, anyone’s sermon, contains a bit of the Bread of Life then draw it out and feed on this.  The Bread of Life, however, is not dependent on any preacher or sermon. 

And I would add, it is not dependent on any particular theology.  The Bread of Life, like baked bread can come in a variety of flavors, and some people like one flavor or mixture better than another, the thing is they’re all versions of the bread of life and they are all good!  But only one source, one baker, Jesus. 

I pray that you will receive the interim and eventually your new called pastor and listen for the Bread of Life coming through her or his messages and nourish yourselves on this living bread.  Nourished by this the church will flourish. 

The second of our readings for this morning is from the Luke’s version of what is commonly referred to as “The Lord’s Prayer.”  You may have noticed that Luke is a bit more terse and shorter than Matthew’s version which is the version more commonly used in worship. 

Give us each day our daily bread.  There has been quite a bit written about just exactly what Jesus might have originally said and meant here.  The interpretive quandary Biblical scholars face is that what we have is from the Greek and Jesus spoke in Aramaic.    

What we do have at our disposal though, are some very early copies of the gospels in second century Syriac which is closely related to Aramaic.  But even here what we have is Syriac Christians taking the words of Jesus from the Greek and returning them to a language very close to Jesus’ native language.   

There are a couple of interesting things we can learn from the Syriac version of this verse.  

Lahmo (a Syriac word) means both bread and “understanding.”  Food for all forms of growth, physical, intellectual emotional, spiritual.  But it carries the sense of that which is basic for life in general. 

The Greek word epiousios which traditionally has been translated “daily.”  And here is another interpretive dilemma: this word appears nowhere else in the Greek language!  From the beginning and over the years there have been numerous ways of addressing this matter.  And it seems that again if we return to the early Syriac church’s view of this passage, they opted for an interpretation that focused less on frequency (“daily”) and more on the amount of bread necessary for life.  They translated it as “provide for us the bread that we need.”  Or as the very earliest Syriac version translated it: “Give us today the bread that doesn’t run out.”

One of the most basic of human fears is the dread of economic privation.  Will we have enough?  We’re managing now, but what about the future?  What if I lose my job?  What if the kids get sick? What if I’m unable to work?  What if my retirement doesn’t last? How will we survive? One of the deepest and most crippling fears of the human spirit is the fear of not having enough to eat.  Perhaps Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer is teaching his disciples to pray for release from this fear.

Fear of not having enough can destroy a sense of well-being in the present and erode hope for the future. 

I would offer this interpretation of what Jesus may be attempting to convey to us:  Give us bread for today and with it give us confidence that tomorrow we will have enough.  

One other thing, note that in the Lord’s Prayer we ask for bread, not cake! This is the meaning of lahmo, that which is basic for life.  Consumerism and the kingdom of mammon have no place among those who pray this prayer.  We ask for that which will sustain life, not all its extras.

So church, do not fear about tomorrow or next month or next year.  You are in God’s care.  You pray this every week!  Give us this day that which we need and as we use it help us trust that there will be enough tomorrow as well.

I am preaching to myself here as well.  I worry about you.  Not that I am concerned about any future leadership.  But if we love someone we worry about them, don’t we? 

When I told Rev. Cheryl Burk, our Associate Conference Minster, (who will be here next week) that I had accepted a new call.  She saw something in me which lead her to say, “Don’t worry we’ll take care of them.” 

So even as I tell you not to worry about the future, I am trying to myself.  You have been blessed.  In God’s “economy” there is always enough.  So live and serve boldly, welcome others extravagantly, God will refill you with all you give away!   

One last thing, note that throughout the Lord’s Prayer there are no singular pronouns!  They are all plural.  It is “Our Father”  . . .  Give us this day, our daily bread . . . lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil . . .

We ask for ours, not mine.  Church you are in this great adventure together.

Story told by Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

She  had an old gentleman come to their house and said that there was a family with eight children and they had nothing to eat.  Could the Sisters do something or them?

So she took some rice and went there.  The mother took the rice from Mother Teresa’s hands, then divided it into two and went out.  Mother Teresa could see the faces of the children shining with hunger.  When she came back Mother Teresa asked her where she had gone. Her answer was simple: “They are hungry also.” And “they” were the family next door and the woman knew that they were hungry.  Mother Teresa said she was not surprised that she gave, but was surprised that she knew . . .  And I quote Mother Teresa: “I had not the courage to ask her how long her family hadn’t eaten, but I am sure it must have been a long time, and yet she knew – in her suffering.  . . . In her terrible bodily suffering she knew that next door they were hungry also.”

 

There are hungry people out there, hungry for real bread, yes, so keep on doing this, but also hungry for an understanding of Jesus’ love that is not judgmental, that is welcoming of all, people that are searching for a place where there is a God who is compassionate and filled with grace, not condemning and wrathful. 

This is the bread of life you have to offer the hungry in this community. 

God has provided, it will not run out. 

Share it that others may have life and have it abundantly

 

Rejection    One of the things I’ve been reiterating with people individually but I think it is important that I share it with all of you.  Our decision to accept the call to serve another congregation is in no way a reflection of  how we feel about you, this church, this community.  We love this congregation, we love you as individuals, we love this town and the northern Michigan area.  And this is why Donna and I wrestled with it for so long.  It was a very personal decision based on what we were both feeling. As we get closer to retirement whatever that is going to mean now, we both felt it was time to go home.  This came long before Melanie and her family moved there.  That eventually we wanted to grow old together in the place that for us is “home.”  In a perfect world we would have taken all of you and this community with us.  But then you wouldn’t be where you want to be.  

 


Love Is Our Defense

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, September 2nd ~ Patti Ulrich ~ Guest Preacher

Love is Our Defense

Many years ago, our church here in Charlevoix took on a huge expansion project. My feelings about the project were mixed, at best. We took up temporary residence at the Christian Science Church across the parking lot which was kind enough to let us use their space, so we squeezed in there. We even held church in the barn at the llama farm on Boyne City Road! Do any of you remember that?   Sitting on the hay bales like barn swallows, we sang hymns of praise.

As we prepared for our temporary move out of the church and how it might look after we moved back in, I thought about the times I had felt close to God in that space: late at night alone in the sanctuary during a prayer vigil, at our children’s baptisms and their confirmation services, in the chaos of Christmas Eve children’s pageants, with angels and shepherds jumbled together in a procession of sorts, trying to keep their headgear (halos and such) straight while they sang carols as only children can. We used to crowd in the stairwell at the back of the church trying desperately to shoosh the excited children. Remember when Marti Trubilowicz made little sheep hats out of felt for the children? They were so cute! And the time one teenage Mary took a small camera out from under her robe to snap a photo of the baby Jesus! (That was before cell phones) Too funny! Wonderful memories!

At the time, it didn’t seem to me that we needed a magnificent new structure to feel close to God, to be “at home with God.” But I have found that even though I loved that simple space very much, I now love the new space just as much with all the new memories that are being created here each and every week and each and every day.

Psalm 84 is a joyful song praising God, not a building, although God’s presence is mysteriously and powerfully experienced there. The psalmist begins by calling the Temple   God’s “dwelling place,” but of course “dwelling” in a place doesn’t have to mean being contained by it.

Psalm 84 is one of the “Songs of Zion” which, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann explains, “serve to celebrate, Zion-Jerusalem as the epicenter of reality wherein YHWH dwells permanently in a way that guarantees the city,” thereby making the people feel safe–after all, God is in their city. Could there be any better source of security? I think when he’s talking about God being in our city, he’s talking about a place where we can imagine how things should and could be, rather than how they actually are. A place where we can dream the dream of God. If God is love, and we know that’s the truth, then that “source of life” is also our best home, our best defense, our best security and shelter. Love is our best defense, indeed.

That’s the key, isn’t it? Keeping God, and God’s love, at the heart of everything: I think of the concept of “sanctuary” as a safe haven for those fleeing other powers. Something that we see on the news almost every night these days as desperate people try to seek safety for their families from violence they face in their home lands. It is something that we might find hard to relate to here in our beautiful community.

And yet today in our country, we are still shaken and grieved by the horror of shootings in places of worship – our faith and other faiths. Nine people were killed in a mass shooting at the Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. It was at the end of a Bible study where they had offered warm hospitality and kindness to the man who then shot them, for being Black, he told the police. It’s jarring to realize that even church itself can’t offer safe space, sanctuary, when such a thing can happen on sacred ground. But the people of the church found a way to forgive that young man. Surely God is dwelling in their city!

And as we look to a new future for our church, we have faith that we will portray and yes BE a church community that is safe and is God’s home. Our very lives, then, and all of nature, are sacred ground, holy ground. Thus, we too can “go from strength to strength” (v. 7). For wherever we are, we are “at home with God.” So are the sparrow and the swallow, of course: the psalmist sings of their good fortune in finding a home in the sacred surroundings of the Temple.

We can’t help recalling Jesus’ own words about God’s eye being on the sparrow. One wonders at the repeated image of tiny sparrows in the Bible, one of the smallest of God’s creatures. Throughout the Bible, we hear that God cares for the ones we might easily overlook: the small ones, the humble ones, the ones on the margins.

The swallows and the sparrows, all of creation then, join with humans in a song of praise to God, according to the psalmist–just think of Psalm 104, for instance. “Praise the Lord, O my soul. Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty…. The birds of the sky nest by the waters; they sing among the branches.”  I hope you’ll read it when you get home this afternoon! Imagine the “continuous birdsongs” playing harmony to our pilgrims’ hymns like Amazing Grace! What a lovely image, for a Temple long ago and the sacred spaces of our lives today, too. The next time you are outside and hear them singing their sweet songs in the trees and bushes, be reminded of God’s love for the little ones and for you as well. I hope that will make you smile!

The swallow and the sparrow find a place to make a nest for their little ones in the temple. And we humans can also find a nest in a church whose worship experience encompasses “serenity, innocence, and trusting delight” in the presence of the God who loves [us].[i] Of course, the image of “nest” suggests a place of safety, nurture, and home. We may certainly find a “nest” in other places where we experience being at home with God, but we pray and have faith that our church community will continue to be a place for people to find a safe place, a home! AMEN!

Inspiration and quotes in this message come from Kathryn Matthews, UCC Worship Resources

[i] Walter Brueggemann, Texts for the Preaching Year

 

 

 

Benediction

 

Happy are those whose strength is in the Lord.

The Lord is our light and our protector giving us grace and glory.

No good thing will the Lord withhold from those who do what is right.

Blessed are those who trust in him. Go now in peace to love and serve.

Amen!

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Texts for the Preaching Year

Benediction

 

Happy are those whose strength is in the Lord.

The Lord is our light and our protector giving us grace and glory.

No good thing will the Lord withhold from those who do what is right.

Blessed are those who trust in him. Go now in peace to love and serve.

 

Amen!


CALLED TO COMFORT

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, August 5th, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson ~

Original Sermon date:    April 28, 1985 by Pastor Neil Wilson

CALLED TO COMFORT

GOD USES MANY PEOPLE IN MANY WAYS TO SEE THAT HIS WILL IS DONE.  QUOTE FROM A SALADA TEA BAG:  “LIVE AND LET LIVE IS FINE, BUT LIVE AND HELP LIVE IS BETTER”.

AS CHRISTIANS WE HAVE BEEN GIVEN A NEW LIFE TO LIVE THROUGH CHRIST’S SACRIFICE.  IT IS IMPORTANT FOR US TO GIVE THAT SAME NEW LIFE TO OTHERS AND THIS REQUIRES SHARING OUR LIVES WITH PEOPLE.  WE MUST BECOME INVOLVED.

BUT IT IS NOT EASY TO SHARE OUR LIVES WITH OTHERS.  IT TAKES COMMITMENT, TIME AND ENERGY.  IT IS AN INVESTMENT IN AN AREA THAT BAY BE SLOW TO SHOW A RETURN, IF WE SEE ONE AT ALL.  RELATIONSHIPS CAN BE JOYOUS, BUT THEY CAN ALSO BE VERY PAINFUL.

LIFE IS THAT WAY ISN’T IT?  IN OUR PERSONAL LIVES WE HAVE THOSE SPECIAL MOMENTS, WE ARE STANDING ON A MOUNTAIN PEAK AND ALL THE WORLD SEEMS TO BE OURS, “WE’RE ON TOP OF IT”  WE SAY, BUT THEN WE HAVE THOSE LONG, BROAD AND DUSTY VALLEYS TO CROSS BEFORE WE REACH THE NEXT SUMMIT.  IT’S DURING THOSE DUSTY TURBULENT TREKS ACROSS THE VALLEYS OF LIFE THAT WE FEEL WE COULD USE ALL THE HELP WE COULD GET FROM GOD, SAY NOTHING ABOUT BEING THE SHINING EXAMPLE OF A MODEL CHRISTIAN THAT WE ARE SUPPOSED TO BE TO THE WORLD!

TODAY I WOULD LIKE TO SHARE WITH YOU FOLKS A FEW WAYS IN WHICH I FEEL GOD REACHES OUT TO US DURING THOSE VALLEYS IN LIFE AND WHEN WE ARE LIFTED OUT OF THOSE DESERTS OF DEPRESSION WE ARE BETTER PREPARED TO DEAL WITH AND HELP A SUFFERING WORLD.

ONE OF MY FAVORITE VERSES HAS ALWAYS BEEN 1COR. 10:13 “NO TEMPTATION HAS OVERTAKEN YOU THAT IS NOT COMMON TO MAN.  GOD IS FAITHFUL, AND HE WILL NOT LET YOU BE TEMPTED BEYOND YOUR STRENGTH, BUT WITH THE TEMPTATION HE WILL ALSO PROVIDE THE WAY OF ESCAPE, THAT YOU MAY ENDURE IT.”

BUT LET ME SAY THIS FIRST, I AM A STRONG SPIRITUALIST THAT IS I BELIEVE STRONGLY IN THE SPIRITUAL STRENGTH OF CHRISTIANITY.  ALSO I AM AN INDIVIDUALIST IN THAT I BELIEVE WORKING WITH AND STRENGTHENING INDIVIDUALS CAN BE JUST AS VALUABLE AND PRODUCTIVE AS MINISTRY TO THE LARGER SOCIETY AS A WHOLE.  ALSO GOES FOR CHURCHES, TOWNS, ETC.  I BELIEVE WE MUST BE FAITHFUL OVER THE LITTLE THINGS.  I BELIEVE IN STARTING SMALL AND WORKING UP, LOCAL AND WORKING OUT.  BUT MORE THAN ANTYTHING ELSE I AM TRYING TO BE A REALIST, I WANT TO TAKE ALL THAT HAS BEEN REVEALED TO ME THROUGHT READING, STUDYING, PRAYING, HOLY SPIRIT (SPIRITUAL ASPECT OF OUR FAITH) AND PUT IT INTO SOMETHING REAL, CONCRETE, THAT WILL HELP AN INDIVIDUAL. 

SO, BEING THIS WAY, I ALWAYS HAD CERTAIN QUESTIONS WHEN I READ VERSES LIKE 1COR 10:13, I DID NOT DOUBT THAT A WAY OUT WILL BE PROVIDED BY GOD, BUT HOW DOES IT COME?  WHERE DO WE LOOK FOR IT AND WHAT ABOUT I BEING COMMON TO EVERYONE?  I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU BUT WHEN I HAVE A PROBLEM I FEEL LIKE I’M THE ONLY ONE.

BUT GOD DOES PROVIDE COMFORT DURING OUR TRIALS AND TEMPTATIONS.  GOD COMFORT CAN COME THROUGH A VARIETY OF METHODS:

  1. PRAYER

            BEING A SPRITUALIST I BELIEVE VERY STRONGLY IN PRAYER AND WHAT CAN BE DONE THROUGH PRAYER.  PRAYER NOT ONLY GIVES US THE OPPORTUNITY TO UNLOAD OUR PROBLEMS AND CONCERNS ONTO THE LORD’S BROAD SHOULDERS, BUT BY STOPPING EVERYTHING AND SPENDING A FEW MINUTES IN PRAYER IT GIVES US THE TIME TO STEP BACK FROM OUR PROBLEMS , PERHAPS START TO PUT THEM INTO PROPER PERSPECTIVE AND GO ABOUT THE TASK OF TACKLING THE MOST PRESSING, IMPORTANT FIRST.

I TOOK A COURSE CALLED CRITICAL THINKING WHICH TAUGHT ME TO SEE A LARGE PROBLEM AND SEVERAL SMALLER ONES WHICH IF TAKEN ONE AT A TIME MAKES THE PROBLEM SOLVING THAT MUCH EASIER.  YOU KNOW MANY OF LIVES PROBLEMS CAN BE APPROACHED IN THIS FASHION AND PRAYER GIVES US THE CHANCE TO SAY “GOD I CAN’T HANDLE THIS ANYMORE, HELP ME PUT THINGS BACK IN ORDER”.  THE LORD MAY NOT GIVE YOU THE WHOLE ANSWER RIGHT AWAY BUT I BET IF YOU ARE ATTENTIVE, AN ANSWER TO A STEP IN THAT PROBLEM WILL COME ALONG.

  1. READING

            THIS COULD BE SCRIPTURES OR THE STORY OF SOMEONE ELSE WHO WENT THROUGH A STRUGGLE SIMILARY TO YOURS.  MANY FIND COMFORT IN DAILY DEVOTIONS.  SO READING INSPIRATIONAL MATERIAL CAN BE COMFORTING.

  1. OTHER CHRISTIANS

            PROBABLY THE MOST TANGIBLE WAY THAT WE CAN FIND GOD’S COMFORT IS THROUGH FELLOWSHIP WITH OTHER CHRISTIANS.  WHY CAN OTHERS BE SO HELPFUL?  PAUL SAYS “NO TEMPTATION OR TRIAL HAS OVERTAKEN US THAT IS NOT COMMON TO MAN”.  SO YOU SEE NO MATTER HOW ALONE WE MAY FEEL THERE IS SOMEONE OUT THERE THAT HAS SUFFERED THROUGH THE SAME TRIALS THAT WE ARE.

WELL WE SAY THAT’S ALL GOOD BUT JUST BECAUSE SOMEONE ELSE FELT LIKE I DO, DOESN’T MAKE ME FEEL ANY BETTER, NO IT DOESN’T.  BUT GOD IS FAITHFUL AND WILL NOT LET US BE TEMPTED BEYOND OUR STRENGTH AND WILL PROVIDE A WAY OUT.  BUT WHERE, WHERE IS THAT WAY OUT?  AH!  MAYBE JUST MAYBE GOD WILL USE THAT OTHER CHRISTIAN TO DO HIS WORK IN THIS INSTANCE, IN YOUR LIFE.

YOU KNOW THE SAYING “DON’T JUDGE A PERSON UNTIL YOU HAVE WALKED A MILE IN THEIR SHOES”.  I THINK A TWIST ON THAT IS TRUE WHEN SEEKING COMFORT.  WE ARE MUCH QUICKER TO SEEK HELP FROM OR OPEN UP TO SOMEONE THAT WE FEEL HAS WALKED THE SAME ROUGH ROAD WE ARE TRAVELING, THEY UNDERSTAND WHAT WE MAY BE GOING THROUGH, THEY HAVE SAT WHERE WE ARE SITTING.  AND IF THEY ARE CHRISTIAN, WE SHARE A COMMON BOND WITH EACH OTHER AND OUR SAVIOR FROM WHICH WE CAN DRAW AN ENORMOUS AMOUNT OF STRENGTH AND COMFORT.

THERE ARE MANY WAYS WHICH WE CAN FIND GOD’S COMFORT.  THROUGH PRAYER, AND MEDITATION, READING, AND FELLOW CHRISTIANS.  AND PROBABLY MANY OTHER WAYS WHICH YOU HAVE EXPERIENCED THE STRENGTH AND COMFORT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT.  SOMEDAY YOU MAY BE ABLE TO SHARE WITH SOMEONE WHO MIGHT BENEFIT FROM YOUR PAST EXPERIENCES.

THIS LEADS ME TO THE MAIN POINT I WANT TO MAKE, IN TODAY’S READING PAUL WRITES “THE GOD OF ALL COMFORT WHO COMFORTS US IN ALL TROUBLES, SO THAT WE CAN COMFORT THOSE IN ANY TROUBLE WITH THE COMFORT WE OURSELVES RECEIVED FROM GOD”.   WHETHER WE RECEIVE OUR COMFORT THROUGH PRAYER, MEDITATION, DEVOTIONS, OR OTHER CHRISTIANS, THE COMFORT IS A GIFT FROM GOD.  PAUL FOUND GOD’S COMFORT THROUGH TITUS AND HIS MESSAGE FROM THE CORINTHIAN CHURCH.

I FEEL IT IS CRUCIAL TO OUR UNDERSTANDING OF THESE VERSES TO UNDERSTAND THE FULLER MEANING THAT COMFORT HAD IN PAUL’S DAY.  TO US COMFORT SUGGESTS A SOOTHING OF PAIN, BE IT PHYSICAL OR PSYCHOLOGICAL, CONSOLATION, SYMPATHY.  THE COMFORT OF GOD WHICH PAUL SPEAKS OF IS NOT A DRUG, TRANQUILIZER TO LOWER OUR ANXIETY USED TO NUMB OUR PAIN.  THE HOLY SPIRIT IS CALLED THE “COMFORTER” WHICH MEANS “STRENGTHENER”.  IT HAS THE SAME ROOT AS “FORTIFY”.  COMFORT IN THIS INSTANCE DOES NOT MEAN TO FEEL SORRY FOR, TO SYMPATHIZE, BUT RATHER TO SUPPORT, TO STRENGTHEN, TO ENCOURAGE, GOD’S COMFORT IS NOT PASSIVE BUT ACTIVE.  IT IS A GIFT THAT MUST BE PASSED ON.  I AM VERY MUCH CONVINCED OF THIS.  WE ARE TO SUPPORT AND NURTURE EACH OTHER IF WE ARE TO BUILD UP THE BODY OF CHRIST.  IF YOU HAVE EXPERIENCED GOD’S COMFORTING IN YOUR LIFE, SHARE IT.  USE THE STRENGTH YOU WERE GIVIEN DURING A TIME OF NEED TO HELP A FELLOW TRAVELER WHO HAS STUMBLED.  WE ARE ALL ON THIS JOURNEY TOGETHER AND THERE WON’T BE ANY JOY IN THE END WHEN WE REACH OUR DESTINATION IF THERE IS NO ONE THERE TO SHARE OUR TRIUMPH WITH.

IN TODAYS UNISON READING ISAIAH IS SPEAKING OF CHRIST WHEN HE SAYS “ME”.  THIS ALSO SPEAKS ABOUT CHRISTIANS IN THE 20TH CENTURY.  WE ARE TO CARRY OUT THE WORK THAT BEGAN WITH THE APOSTLES, THAT OF PREACHING THE GOOD NEWS TO THE AFFLICTED, COMFORT THOSE WHO MOURN, TO FREE THOSE THAT ARE BOUND BY THE CHAINS OF WORLDY CONCERNS.  CHRIST HAS PROMISED TO BE WITH US “UNTO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH”.  THE HOLY SPIRIT IS THERE TO STRENGTHEN US.  SO LET THE SPIRIT OF CHRIST, THAT DWELLS IN EACH OF YOU, REACH OUT TO THOSE WHO ARE IN NEED.

NOW YOU’RE SAYING “THIS SOUNDS ALL NICE AND PROPER, AS IT SHOULD BE, BUT LET’S BE MORE REALISTIC.  HOW CAN WE DO THIS?”  WELL, WHAT ARE SOME WAYS THAT WE CAN REACH OUT TO OTHERS AND SHARE IN GOD’S COMFORT.

FIRST OF ALL I DON’T BELIEVE WE ALL HAVE TO RUN TO THE NEAREST BOOKSTORE AND BUY A BOOK ON COUNCELING.  BUT WE COULD BEGIN BY USING THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT WHICH IS BESTOWED UPON US.  SUCH TRAITS AS LOVE, PATIENCE, KINDNESS, GOODNESS, GENTLENESS; SOMEONE IN NEED OF COMFORTING IS SURE TO RESPOND TO SUCH FEELINGS.  IN ANOTHER COURSE, “THE HELPING PROCESS” WE READ A BOOK “BECOMING NATURALLY THERAPEUTIC”, (WE CAN ALL BECOME HELPERS), WHICH IS ALL ABOUT DEVELOPING IN YOURSELF QUALITIES SUCH AS EMPATHY, GENUINESS, RESPECT, WARMTH, IMMEDIACY, CONCRETENESS.  DOESN’T THIS SOUND VERY SIMILAR TO THE FRUITS OF THE SPIRIT?  THE FRUITS OF THE SPIRIT ARE OURS ALREADY, TO PUT TO WORK BECAUSE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT, WHICH DWELLS IN EACH OF US. 

ONCE WE START TO DEVELOP OR USE THESE TRAITS OR QUALITIES, IT IS IMPORTANT FOR US TO BE READY TO CAPITALIZE ON EACH MOMENT.  IF YOU SHOW LOVE, EMPATHY, PATIENCE, RESPECT, GOODNESS AND GENUINESS, PEOPLE WILL OPEN UP TO YOU AND SHARE THEIR CONERNS AND WHEN PEOPLE HINT OF A PROBLEM, FOR INSTANCE, HOW MANY OF YOU HAVE GONE UP TO SOMEONE AND SAID “HOW ARE YOU TODAY?” THEN YOU GET THE UNEXPECTED RESPONSE, “WELL, NOT TOO GOOD, OR I’VE BEEN BETTER” AND YOU RESPOND WITHOUT THINKING “OH, THAT’S NICE” OR “ THAT’S TOO BAD” AND OFF YOU GO, OR IF YOU ARE REALLY ATTENTIVE THEY MAY SAY “I’M DOING OKAY” BUT THEIR BODY LANGUAGE OR THEIR AFFECT IS CRYING OUT IN PAIN OR LONELINESS.  WHEN PEOPLE HAVE DROPPED A SUBTLE HINT LIKE THIS, DON’T HESITATE, DON’T THINK I BETTER TELL THE PASTOR OR SOMEONE (YOU’LL PROBABLY WANT TO DO THAT ANYWAY) THAT PERSON HAS SHARED A LITTLE BIT OF THEIR HURT WITH YOU, THEY FEEL SAFE ENOUGH WITH YOU TO LOWER THEIR DEFENSES, EVEN IF JUST A LITTLE.  IT IS UP TO YOU TO CAPITALIZE ON THE PRECIOUS MOMENT TO REACH OUT TO THEM WHILE THEY ARE OPEN, SHARE WITH THEM IN THEIR SUFFERING, SHARE WITH THEM THE COMFORT THAT COMES FROM GOD. 

I AM SURE THAT MANY OF YOU HAVE IDEAS ON HOW YOU COULD BE USED BY GOD TO COMFORT OTHERS, IF YOU HAVE, SHARE THEM WITH ME, BUT ABOVE ALL , SHARE THEM WITH SOMEONE ELSE IN NEED.  SOMEONE COULD USE A COMFORTING WORD.

BEFORE WE END THIS MORING I WOULD LIKE EACH OF YOU TO DO SOMETHING FOR ME.  I WANT YOU TO LOOK AROUND, LOOK AT THE PERSON SITTING NEXT TO YOU, IN FRONT OF YOU, BEHIND YOU, IN THE NEXT AISLE.  DO YOU SEE SOMEONE WHO IS DEPRESSED, DOWN IN THE DUMPS; DO YOU SEE ANY SUFFERING AND PAIN?  MAYBE YOU SEE SOMEONE WHO HAS BEEN IN YOUR POSITION.   SEEK EACH OTHER OUT!  GET TOGETHER, TALK AND SHARE WITH EACH OTHER.  LET THE PEACE OF GOD START HERE WITH US AND SPREAD THROUGHOUT THE COMMUNITY.  IT WILL FEEL GOOD AND BRING HOPE; GOD’S COMFORT ALWAYS DOES.

Listen to the Audio Version of this Sermon by clicking on the button below:


July 28, 2018 Why Am I here? Why Are You Here?

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, July 28th, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Why Am I Here?  Why Are You Here?

John 6: 1-21

 

Believe it or not I spend a fair amount of time and effort selecting the hymns that we sing on Sunday morning.  First, I try to match the hymns to the scripture I will be speaking on, or the season of the church year.  But I also, (again believe it or not), take into account what you like for hymns.  I ask, “Do they know this hymn?  Do they like to sing this hymn ?  Can they sing it well?”  It makes a difference what sort of music you like.  I will be honest and tell you that this is probably one of the main reasons why some hymns are selected for singing: Does the congregation like this song?”

And sometimes I have to remind myself that it’s not what I like.  (I would go for more of a contemporary sound or the more contemplative mood of Taize songs.)

While this may be a fair question (What does the congregation like?), isn’t it interesting that we rarely ask an even more important question: Do we think God would like this hymn or music?  

Of course, this can be a tricky if not scary question; tricky because there are bound to be many different answers, and scary because many of them conflicting, but also because it is such a basic question.  And it is scary because the scriptures note that Jesus drove away about as many people as he attracted!  Jesus obviously based his ministry on more substantial questions.  You know, I just can’t picture Jesus sitting around with two or three of the disciples and asking “What do you think about using this song right before I teach today?  Do you think the people of Capernaum know it?”

   All this brings me to our reading from John’s gospel.  It’s a story about Jesus, but it is also a story about a crowd.  “A large crowd kept following him,” says John.  Can there be a surer sign of success than this?  Isn’t this one of the things we look at in churches?  Who can argue with numbers?  Look at the bottom line, a large crowd.  Jesus has become popular!

 

Then John tell us why they were following Jesus.  “They saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.”  Jesus has healed many hurting people.  Freed those possessed by their inner demons. If there is one certain, uncontested good that we all have, it is our health.  Large crowds were following Jesus because they see his signs.  He heals them, meeting their fundamental need for good health.   

Curiously, Jesus does not continue to meet these needs.  The next verse says: “Jesus went up the mountain and sat down with his disciples.”  Even a dedicated do-gooder, even the “Messiah” needs a break, a temporary respite from meeting people’s legitimate needs. 

Sitting there on the mountainside Jesus looks up and “saw a great crowd coming toward him.”  Jesus turns to Philip and a little tongue in cheek asks him, “Philip, Where do you think we might find a caterer, and  how much would it cost for a meal for such a crowd?”   

Philip replies “Well it would take well over what I make in half a year and that would probably cover just the appetizer!” 

Andrew finds this young fellow in the crowd and pulls him up to Jesus.  He happens to have his lunch with him, a few loaves of bread and a couple of broiled fish.  Jesus takes the boy’s food, give thanks, and all eat their fill.  Here we see Jesus, the compassionate one who feeds the hungry, as well as heals the hurting.

Okay, at this point you’re probably saying, “Heard this sermon before.  Yes, Jesus is the compassionate one who meets all our need for health and food.”  And after all isn’t this why we’re here?  We hoping that in some way to have our needs met by Jesus.

 

But our story does not end with Jesus feeding the crowd.  To be sure the people are impressed.  “This Jesus must be a prophet of God who has come into the world!” they’re saying.  Surely Jesus is gratified by their accolades.  At last, they appear to have gotten the point.  After so much rejection, at last the people see Jesus for who he is and proclaim him as Lord.  At last, the movement around Jesus is getting somewhere.

But no!  Jesus rejects their praises and compliments.  The next verse says: “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”   (Jn.1:15)

Right at the point when the people have at last accepted Jesus, have proclaimed him a prophet sent by God, he nervously withdraws, and this time completely alone.  The inner circle of disciples apparently were not invited this time!

Why did he withdraw right at the height of his popularity, when his coronation was being arranged? 

The people need bread.  Jesus has given them bread. They proclaim him king.  What else could he want from them?

Remember, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he was tempted in the wilderness” the Tempter met Jesus and offered him this world and heaven too.  “Just make stones into bread.” Satan said.  Jesus refused.

Isn’t bread good?  Isn’t feeding the hungry good?  Why then did Jesus refuse, and why , when he did feed people, was he so put off by their calling him king?

Something in Jesus recognized that he could not meet the needs of so many people seeking him without at the same time denying who he was called by God to be

In the wilderness, Satan tried to transform Jesus into a wonder worker, Jesus refused.  Now, Jesus has given bread and when the grateful crowd attempts to crown him king, Jesus withdraws. 

In the passage that follows what was read this morning, when the crowds find him the following day, Jesus chides them for caring only about their bellies!  They ask for a sign from Jesus, perhaps because they are hoping for another free happy meal.  Jesus doesn’t buy into this but rather launches into the famous “bread of life” teaching, where he identifies himself with what they truly need.  As a result many of his disciples say, “This teaching is difficult.”  Many of them actually leave after he stops giving them bread saying that he is their “Bread from heaven.” (v. 60)

Jesus refused to do for the crowds what they wanted, as if to do so would be forsaking his mission.  Then and now the question “Jesus, what will you do for us?” must be secondary to the more critical question, “Jesus, who are you and what is your mission?”

I confess that I think most of us show up in church to get help to make it through the week, to obtain a sense of inner peace, to receive guidance in making difficult decisions that are before us.  And there is nothing wrong with any of these reasons!  Yet, note that this story, which at first seems to be about the crowd, about us, before it is done is a story about Jesus.  We come to church thinking mostly about ourselves, but then we hear the scripture talk mostly about God. 

I believe this is one of the important lessons of this account of the fishes and loaves, even the walking on water.  When we will ever learn that Christianity, following Jesus, is not merely another useful means of helping us get what we want.  Rather, following Jesus is the means whereby God gets what God desires, people of faith!   

Jesus will not be co-opted into being just another therapeutic device to enable us to get what we want without actually meeting Jesus.  Now, can a relationship with Jesus help us in a therapeutic way?  For sure.  After all Jesus did promise the Holy Spirit as another Counselor!  But the Gospel implies that we often do not know what we really need, until we have an encounter with Jesus.

The great preacher William Sloane Coffin (Riverside Church NYC) once said that he did not know how you attract people to the gospel by appealing to their essentially selfish needs and then end up offering them the unselfish gospel of Jesus Christ!

 John says that Jesus performed a great “sign,” by feeding the hungry crowd, but notice John always uses the word “sign” not miracle.  This is important.  A sign is something that points beyond itself to something greater and more important than the sign.  The bread blessed and given for the people was a sign that God was among them, not so much among them as the fulfillment of their hearts’ desires, but present in Jesus as the heart of God. 

This God was even greater than their hunger.  Jesus coming to them across the water the sign that God is greater than any of their fears.

This God was there to be worshiped, to be obeyed, to be followed,

  even when the following did not appear to meet their needs.

May we listen and learn as well!

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A Song of Trust

~ Sermon ~ July 22nd, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

A Song of Trust

Psalm 23

 

“Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude . . . And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is . . .” (1 Cor. 13:4)  Where do these words take you?  Memories of young women dressed in white, young men in formal attire?

 There are some scripture texts that transport us to specific places and times. 

We hear the words: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus . . .”  and we are back at a Christmas Eve service the children have presented their pageant and we’re about to sing “Silent Night” while the light of the Christ candle is passed on from one person to the next. 

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”   For some of us we hear these words and we can remember the smell of flowers, perhaps fresh dirt, the quiet sounds of sadness, and the embrace of those who have come to comfort.  These words are most often recited when the heart is weighed down with grief and we are at a loss for other words we might say.   Throughout generations, when the faithful have walked through the valley of the shadow, the psalm listed as 23rd of the 150 in our Bibles has provided words of comfort.

Even a cursory reading of the Psalm the point is clear that God’s care is like that of a faithful shepherd.  If God is described through the metaphor of the shepherd then by default, we become sheep and one does not need to know much about sheep to understand what this image means.  This is evident in the popularity of Psalm 23.  Sunday School classes memorize it.  No fewer than  six arrangements of this Psalm are readily available in hymnals.  It is requested for services bearing witness to the resurrection.  And yet many who have uttered these words as faithful confession or prayed them in times of trouble, have known nothing about shepherds, or even seen a real sheep!  Those who have known such creatures will describe them in less than flattering terms. 

Sheep are herd animals.  They are defenseless. They are vulnerable.  Most commonly noted, sheep are not necessarily the brightest animal in the barnyard!

But these are not the characteristics the psalmist has in mind when speaking of the shepherd and sheep.  The psalmist speaks of the sheep’s reliance on the shepherd.  Sheep cannot survive making their own way.  Sheep are absolutely dependent on the shepherd for life.  Sheep can trust the shepherd.  Knowing this dependency between sheep and shepherd bring to focus the central testimony of the psalm: the shepherd Is faithful.   

When we bring our hearts to the edge of the grave, we become aware that we cannot make our own way through the grief.  When we face the end of our own days, our dependence upon the Shepherd stands before us with more clarity than perhaps at any other time.  We are not the Creator, we are the created, and the prevailing reality for the creature is our dependence upon God for life.  Perhaps this is why we find Psalm 23  so comforting at the time of death.    

But it is crucial to note that the witness of Psalm 23 is that the Shepherd is faithful throughout the whole of life.  What we confess in the presence of death remains true in every stage and season of life! 

Sheep-like dependence would be paralyzing, if not for the knowledge  that the One on whom we depend is the good shepherd.  This shepherd leads, restores, comforts, and prepares.  Under this shepherd’s care there is no want. 

Often in funeral and memorial services I will suggest that if Psalm 23 is to be used we  say it communally.  But this psalm is not presented in scripture as a “communal credo.”    Like the song “In the Garden” this psalm is filled with first person singular pronouns. 

“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”

This shepherd makes me and leads me and restores me and anoints my head, and  I shall dwell.

This is a “song of trust” by someone who knows in the midst of the vicissitudes of personal life and over the course of the years that they have been carried in the bosom of God, sheltered from harm, and given rest.  This is not so much a theological confession or statement of belief, as it is a personal testimony to the faithfulness of God.

 

In the middle of this psalm we find what some have referred to as the “gospel kernel of the Old Testament”  the good news that turns tears of anguish and fear into shouts of joy, that glad tidings given to by the angelic choir to the shepherds, which itself echoes a word first given to the patriarchs and repeated again to Israel in moments of distress and fear: “You don’t have to be afraid.”  This is the word of salvation in a nutshell in both the first(Old) and second (new) Testament! 

There is perhaps no more relevant message for our time than the invitation to set aside fear.  Consider how much fear there is in our world.

Governments trade in fear of terror or evil empires. 

The markets trade in fear of there not being enough.  (We give it this innocuous term “supply and demand” but at its root it is fear.)

The church often trades in fear of exclusion or judgement or our numbers dwindling to the point of irrelevance. 

And there are many things to fear.  Our culture is becoming increasingly prone to violence.  The environment is struggling to breathe under the growing effects of abuse.  Families are fragile.  Every minute of our schedule is filled to the point that the honoring of the Sabbath seems an unrealistic practice for many. 

And yet, in the midst of these struggles and more, this psalm offers the testimony  of a gracious God, a faithful shepherd with whom we will lack nothing and we need not fear.   This is indeed good news!  Here with the witness of author of Psalm 23.  I hear and I hope you do as well, echoes of other moments recorded in scripture when messengers have said, “Be not afraid.”  Such a declaration in our time should sound to us, as it has to others, like nothing less than the voice of angels.

When I read or pray the 23rd Psalm I always slow down and really hear the promise of the last verse:

And I shall dwell . . .

  Where? . . .  in the house of the Lord . . .  

    For how long?. . . forever!

For this I think we can all breathe an “AMEN!”

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“SEEDS”

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, June 17th, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

“Seeds”

Mark 4:26-34

 

I was driving down County Road 700 North in Ripley County, Indiana, when I saw this solitary form out in the middle of what appeared to be a recently planted field of about 100 acres.  I slowed down and could tell that it was our neighbor, Ron, a grain and hog farmer, who also happened to be the church’s organist.  It looked to me like he had lost something perhaps off a piece of farm equipment.  Not being in any particular hurry, I stopped to see if I could help.

As I walked across the field I could see that he was kneeling, but he wasn’t looking directly down at the ground rather he was looking down the length of the field.  As I approached he looked up at me and said, “I’ve been doing this for years and it never ceases to amaze me!” 

Then I saw what he saw, a hundred acres, row upon row of soybean seedlings most of them just breaking the surface of the blue clay soil of southeastern Indiana.

On the back page of our worship folder there is a photo I took of a tiny balsam fir seedling that had taken root in a crack in a ledge high in the White Mountains of northern New England.  If I were to give this photo a one word title it would be “Tenacity.”  As I was preparing for today’s message I thought of this photo and wondered if Jesus had come in our time in a little northern out of the way UP town, might he have used the image of the fragrant balsam fir or the tall white pine or perhaps more in keeping with Jesus’ imagery would it have been the Juneberry, a tree that doesn’t grow to much of a height, for such was the illustration of the mustard seed Jesus intended.  The kingdom of God is like unto a fir seedling, clinging to life in a crack of the rock . . .

Seeds.   In chapter 4 of Mark’s gospel we hear Jesus speaking a fair amount about seeds. The chapter begins with the “Parable of the Sower” and seeds scattered indiscriminately over all conditions of soils.  And in today’s reading we have two more parables involving seeds.  

Mark is right up front about his understanding of Jesus’ ministry, he informs his readers in the first chapter 14th verse:  “Jesus came to  Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.’” 

And here in chapter 4 Jesus, teaching in his preferred style, the story, says, “The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground. . .”

The mystery of growth.  Though the farmer would “sleep and rise night and day, and the seed sprout and grow, the farmer does not know how.”  Ron bent low in his field marveling at the miracle of life, the mystery of growth.  None of it our doing.  We can work with God but not without God!  Ron can prepare the soil, which in that blue clay took a great deal of careful timing and groundwork!   He can purchase good seed.  He can make sure his equipment plants the seed the proper depth but in the end he cannot bring about the sprouting and growth.  That lies with the mystery of God within each seed. 

We live in an age when the mystery and surprise of life including God’s power are being squeezed out of our consciousness.  This parable asks us not to close our imaginations too quickly, because there is a dynamic in life that is mysteriously beyond our comprehension and intellectual grasp.  Jesus is perhaps suggesting that history has been made ready, just as fields are made ready to be planted.  And now the reign of God has burst into history in the person of Jesus.  If this is the case, that the reign of God has come among us, why are we often so nonchalant about it?  Jesus uses the second parable to speak to this. 

“With what shall we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable (story) will we use for it?  It is like a mustard seed . . .”  

The mustard seed was a common metaphor in Palestine for “the smallest thing.”  The plant could grow as tall as a house, the birds seem to love its tiny black seeds.  Like the mustard seed, the followers of Jesus are a ragtag bunch, full of doubts, full of fears, unable to comprehend much of what Jesus is doing and teaching them.  And the coming Kingdom of God into human history rests with them? 

Jesus seems to emphasize, “Yes, you are this scruffy seed through which the kingdom of God will be proclaimed and given form in this world.”

Jesus lifts up the grace and power of God to accomplish this, if God can take the smallest seed and make of it a great plant that provides sustenance and shelter for others, imagine what God can do with the seed of the gospel residing within each believer!  It is at once a humbling and exhilarating parable for the followers of Jesus in any age. 

Our passage closes with a bit of mystery.  Earlier in chapter 4:11-12 “And [Jesus] said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables, in order ‘that they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand, so that they may not turn and be forgiven.’”” 

Jesus uses these words to add emphasis to the parable of the sower. He seems to be saying that he uses parables to guard against too many people comprehending what he is saying, which always struck me a bit odd.  Why wouldn’t he want as many as possible to “get it?” 

It has been suggested that Jesus is looking for hungry hearts, those really longing for the bread of life, those for whom the world’s answers are not adequate.  In all these parables in the fourth chapter of Mark, the seed is the foremost image.  Indeed, it is often important throughout the Biblical story. Ezekiel uses it, John uses it, Paul uses it.  It is an enduring symbol of life growing out of what seems not only small but dead.  Out of the most insignificant beginnings, God creates a mighty wind that will blow throughout the entire world.  Through these “seedy” parables, Jesus invites seekers in every place and age to consider joining in this kind of journey.  

What seed(s) of God’s goodness, mercy, grace, justice, peace are lying dormant in our hearts?

Isn’t it time to bring them forth into the light and nourish them with care?

It is amazing at the potential God has placed in each of us, in every church and fellowship of believers where ever we may gather together.

Are our hearts hungry enough to receive the word and to allow it to grow?

 


Guest Speaker ~ Patti Ulrich ~ June 3rd, 2018

~ Sermon June 3rd, 2018  ~ Guest Speaker Patti Ulrich ~

Unfortunately we do not have a written version.

Click below to listen to the audio version of Patti’s Sermon.

 


I’m Praying For You

Sunday ~ May 13, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

“I’m Praying for You”

John 17:6-19

 

Just a little bit of trivia before we begin: The historic motto of our denomination, the United Church of Christ, comes out of this chapter, verses 11 and 21 “that they may be one.”   It reflects our denomination’s striving to be a united and uniting church.  And as from the beginning when the four denominations came together united does not mean uniformity.  That is we are not striving for all our churches to be and look the same.  We are united in our belief in Jesus as the head of the church.  As one UCC pastor summed it up accurately:

What if we all were the same? No variety, no diversity – we would be stuck with what someone else said is the right way and the only way to understand and worship God.

Actually, that will always be true to some extent – even with the UCC, except as we convince one another that it’s OK to get out of the boat and dance around with Jesus on the water, every now and then.

“that they may be one.”  

 

The seventeenth chapter of John is actually a prayer and has been called the “high-priestly prayer” of Jesus.  It has been suggested by many biblical commentators that this prayer, in the same manner as the “Lord’s Prayer,”  is a model of prayer Jesus is teaching his disciples in this transitional period of leading from the culmination of his earthly teaching/healing ministry to the cross and resurrection.  As with what we call the  “Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus is being intentional is setting before them an example of how to pray to God and make intercession relevant.  

But this prayer in John 17 is more.  It is also a “farewell prayer.”  It conveys Jesus’ concern for his disciples and their mission in the world, a mission that is to be modeled after Jesus’ relationship with God and the world.

Jesus prays for many things for his disciples. In the section preceding our reading for today Jesus prays for his disciples to know abundant (eternal) life which seems to have more to do with a full knowledge of the one true God than it does some place called we call “heaven.”   “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”  (v. 3)  (The third person voice here is interesting!)

He prays that God protect them and provide for their needs and that they have a oneness with God.  “Holy Father,” he prays in v. 11b “protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” 

Jesus also asks that they be “sanctified in truth”, an interesting phrase.  This could be understood as to be made holy but this would be an incomplete understanding and one that could lead certain believers to adapt a “holier than thou” attitude!  The primary idea here of sanctified or made holy is one of being “set apart.”  So what Jesus seems to be praying is that while the world may not accept his message through them, they are not to be “of the world,” that is caught up in the world, but to be “set apart” so that they may bring the good news to the world.

 

In the same way the mystery and power of Scripture is that it can speak a new word to us in our day as well as those first hearers it can be said that  this prayer was not just for those of Jesus’ time but for his followers of every age.  Indeed Jesus says in the verse after our reading for today:  “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”

Imagine Jesus is praying this prayer for you, for me, for us as a congregation!

And of course, it is Jesus, so he means it! 

And this is where I make it personal! 

 

In light of the far too many mass shootings lately a movement began that employed the phrase “When thoughts and prayers aren’t enough.” 

A song that we sang for a couple of weeks spoke of this:

If We Just Talk of Thoughts and Prayers  O WALY WALY LM (“Though I May Speak”)

If we just talk of thoughts and prayers

And don’t live out a faith that dares,

And don’t take on the ways of death,

Our thoughts and prayers are fleeting breath.

I understand and sympathize with this reaction.  It is too easy to say the words “I’m praying for you” “I’m thinking of you.” and continue on with our lives with no real or lasting change.   

I know, I’m caught myself in this before.

How many times have I been in a conversation with someone and they sort of add at the end of their conversation, “Please say a prayer for me”? 

Have you ever been in such a conversation?  A friend shares with you how things are in her life and then just before you part, she says, “Say a prayer for me.” 

And did you?

Have you ever asked for prayer?  Do you think that person really did pray for you?  I hope so and I hope they did!

 

I am ashamed to say there have been far too many times in my past when I’ve had someone asked me to “to pray for them” and then proceed on with my day.

I know I’ve told you about the time many years ago when I met a woman in the hallway of the church Donna and I grew up in.  Maxine, was a quiet woman, actually rather shy and a bit backwards socially, life was not easy for her.  I was on my way somewhere, nowhere particularly important.  As I passed Maxine in the hall I rather nonchalantly as a polite greeting said “How are you Maxine?” And she did what I was not expecting. . . she actually told me how she was doing and it wasn’t very well! 

My point is that as with Jesus if I’m going to model his way of prayer for others, if I say “I will pray for you” then I better mean it and more, I better do it!  And then in that prayer listen for God’s response and let this guide me, us, to more than words, more than nice thoughts, but into actions.    

 

I can’t recall if Maxine asked me to pray for her that morning or if I said I would.  I hope I at least thought of her after our conversation in the hallway.  I must have, I still remember the life lesson God taught me through this simple humble woman’s honest response to my mostly offhand greeting that day. 

So that today ,if you ask me and I say,”I am praying for you.”  I am and I will be!

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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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