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

101 State Street
Charlevoix, MI 49720


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!


What’s In a Name?

What’s In a Name?

Matthew 16:13-20


What’s in a name? 

Everyone bears a name, and some of us have several names, (even a few nicknames).

There are first names that we have, be it John, Rachel, Pamela, the name that we are known by, the name if used, indicates familiar relationship.  We call our closest acquaintances by their first name.  These names may carry some significance, perhaps because of their meaning in a language of origin.  How many of you know the meaning of your names?  Has it influenced how you think of yourself?

For instance, my name, Neil comes from the Gaelic Niall, which is of disputed origin, possibly meaning “champion” or even “cloud”.  So I guess this means I’m either a hero or an airhead!  This was the name of a semi-legendary 4th-century Irish king, Niall of the Nine Hostages.  In the early Middle Ages the name was adopted by Viking raiders and settlers in Ireland in the form Njal.  In popularity Neil ranks 629th in the U.S. so I guess I’m not all that popular! 

 Then there is the family name, surname, which we grew up with, the name our parents bestowed upon us, by the nature of our family of origin. In bearing this name, a responsibility of sorts is placed upon us. The reputation of that name is handed down to us. It Is not just a name, but a family history, and it carries its tradition with it.  Back in the little town where I grew up in if you were to go back there and mention the name “Wilson” there are those who would have certain preconceived notions about you just because you mentioned the Wilson name!

There are our middle names which some people find embarrassing.  Often middle names are given because they sound nice (I have sister Kathryn Ann, Sylvia Mae) and sometimes they are given to honor the memory of a family member.  For instance my middle name is Herbert.  I was named after a great uncle Herb McAlister whose funeral my father had been to the day I was born.

Where we live in a city or town or a village, bestows a name upon us. We should be aware that what people think of the city or town may well be derived from what they think of us as individuals.  When we share names, our family of origin is identified, or our place of birth, or our occupation, and we may be risking something of the reputation of any of those things, by what we say and do.  What was Nathanael’s comment when he heard where Jesus was from?  “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”  (Jn. 1:46)

We know how easy it is for us to use somebody’s name if we want to get through red tape. By using a person’s reputation, by speaking about the person as our friend, who happens to be the boss of a company, or someone important and influential in the organization, we get a lever, an angle, which gives us an advantage. When we quote somebody’s name in a reference, or in letter of recommendation, we are taking hold of something of their reputation.

So, what’s in a name and what’s going on here when Jesus bestowed the name ‘Peter’ on this disciple, Simon?

Peter, Petros ‘the rock’ (and not the movie star!)  To some he might better be known as ‘the rock that moved’, with his shaky faith and apparent inability to be consistent.  Peter, ‘the rockslide’, in his headlong headstrong rush to express convictions without thinking of the implications and then living to regret the consequences.  There are times when he was ‘rock headed,’ or unable to engage with the reality of being a true disciple and finding it tough to follow when it meant endangering his life.

Still, it was Simon, whom Jesus named Petros, to whom Jesus said using a bit of a play on words, “On this petra (rock), I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Now there has been various ways which Jesus’ renaming of Simon to Peter has been interpreted.  Traditionally it has been understood as Jesus saying that the church was built upon the person of Peter and his unique role in the ministry of the early church.  This has led to among other things the concept of apostolic succession, the idea that there can be an authority bestowed upon bishops though the laying on of hands that can be traced back to the first apostles. 

Another interpretation, (and a view that seems more plausible to me personally) is that “the rock” Jesus was pointing to was not Peter himself but Peter’s confession.  When Jesus asks the disciples “But who do you say that I am?”  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”  It is upon this confession as the foundation, the rock, that the church will be built. 

Still Jesus bestowed the name of Petros “rock” on the disciple known as Simon.  Naming is important.  Over and over in the Bible persons are given new names, places are given new names.  In each case there is a good reason for such renaming.  And often with the new name came new responsibilities and opportunities. 

Simon’s new name changed him and his role in the mission of Jesus forever.  

Imagine Jesus stepping into this sanctuary.  He calls you by the name, the name we all know you by but says, “XXX You are no longer XXX but you are ???”  For example if it were my spouse Donna Jesus might say “Donna, you are to be Madonna for you will be part of a new birth in the church.

What name might Jesus bestow upon you?  

There is one surname by which we all go and that is “Christian.”

In this regard my name is not Neil Wilson but “Neil the Christian.”  As I thought about this, some questions came to mind in light of Jesus’ renaming Simon to Petros “rock” and what this said about Simon and what it might have meant to the new Peter.

Is my reputation such that when my name is mentioned there is a positive reflection on the church of Jesus Christ?

How well am I doing at projecting the reputation of Jesus into the world?

Or, if I’m honest, there have been times when I’ve been embarrassed by my association with Jesus.  Am I more like Judas, than like my favorite Andrew?

Just how much am I responsible by my inaction and neglect, my self-absorbed actions and selfish ways of living, for the poor reputation of the Church and her Christ in these times?

Have I evaded my responsibilities and in effect lived in denial of the faith I claimed? The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans (10:9) that we are to profess Jesus with our lips.  True.  But unless you are living in times of persecution it is easy to say I believe in Jesus, it is quite another to live that proclamation out in real life!  But then Matthew (15:8) tells us that Jesus said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

What about you?

Are we living with the responsibilities bestowed up on us as people who confess Jesus as the Christ, Messiah?  

Or have we trimmed and tidied the faith to suit us?

Can the world see a bit of Jesus in us?

A class of children was being taken through a church one day.  The things they saw were patiently explained by their teacher, the pulpit, the altar, baptismal font, etc..  Then one little girl pointed to one of the stained glass windows. ‘Who are those people?’ she asked.  The teacher explained that they were saints, which precipitated a discussion about how those people became saints. 

After the tour, the teacher asked some questions to see what the children had learned. One of the questions was ‘Who are saints?’  The same little girl put up her hand and said, ‘Saints are the people the light shines through’. 

What better answer would there be to describe those whose faith in action casts the light of Christ upon the needs of a suffering world? 

By virtue of showing up here this morning, the name Christian will be attached to us not only by Jesus but also by the world.

What’s in a name?  Perhaps a whole lot more that we might think!


Listen to our Audio Version by clicking on “Download File” below and enjoy Pastor Neil Wilson’s timely message.

Mercy & Mystery

Sermon ~ August 20, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Mercy & Mystery

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32   Matthew 15: 21-28

“I ask then, has God rejected his people?  By no means!”

Those who study New Testament Greek (more that I have) will tell us that what is translated as I just read, Paul uses language that is much more emphatic.  They suggest it needs to be read with hand thumping the table and shouting “Absolutely not!”  

It is with such passion that Paul answers his own rhetorical question:  Has God rejected the people of Israel, the Jews?  Absolutely not!

In the some of the verses that follow, which the lectionary leaves out, Paul uses a rather confusing explanation that has to do with branches being grafted onto a vine as a way of explaining the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s overall plan.

Today’s reading picks up Paul’s words at verse 29, where the apostle emphasizes  that “the gifts and call of God are irrevocable.”  God is not in the business of rejection but inclusion.  Looking back on the 2000 years of Jewish/Christian relations, and in light of the silence of many white Christians over the violence in Charlottesville, and the church’s role historically and today in racism, the church would do well to remember this.  And we must do more than casually reflect on it, we must repent of our past sins of if not commission then silence and move beyond remembering to realistic actions.  “We” being not the “the church” in the generic but you and I.  

In a fuller reading of Romans, we can hear Paul in a perpetual struggle with the reality that not all his fellow Jews have accepted Jesus as the Messiah.  Paul simply cannot fathom anyone – Jew or Gentile – not wanting the wonderful life such as Paul himself experienced.  We need to note, however, that Paul’s desire that the Jews come to the same understanding as he does, does not mean that they must.  I may say “this is the best thing in the world, and you ought to try it” but my opinion, while valid, is nonetheless mine and therefore subjective.

It seems that Jesus has a similar frustration as Paul did.  Confronted by a Canaanite woman (a Gentile) seeking mercy, Jesus responds that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.  At a glance this is rather unsettling for most of us. Isn’t this the same Jesus who accepts all kinds of people: men, women, children, foreigners, tax collectors, the rich and poor, the saint and the sinner?   By all accounts, Jesus’ response implies that the woman is not deserving of God’s mercy. 

Yet she persists, and Jesus relents.

I wonder if Jesus is actually out and out rejecting her, or is he merely venting his frustration.  His own people, the very ones to whom Jesus has been sent, the ones he grew up amongst, have by-in-large not accepted him or his message.  Now here he is, wandering in foreign territory, and this “outsider” recognizes and by virtue of her question, accepts his power and authority.  

We can perhaps understand his frustration.  

It is a little reminiscent of Matthews’ account of Jesus’ birth. Unlike Luke, who tells of local shepherds hearing the good news and proclaiming it to all who would listen, Matthew tells a different story.  A story of foreign astrologers traveling a great distance to recognize the “king of the Jews.”  

Foreigners and outsiders clearly figure into God’s plan for humankind. This is not the same thing as predestination, however.  God does not have a specific plan for each individual, deciding long before our birth what our fate will be.  Rather, God appears to have a plan, a dream, a hope for all humankind.  How will we respond is pretty much left up to us!  

If we read on a bit more in Romans in v. 36, we read Paul coming to an acceptance of a simple reality that would solve his dilemma.  God’s ways are unsearchable and, ultimately, incomprehensible.  God has ways of doing things that are beyond our knowing.   We may not like the way things are going, but we can trust that God has things well in hand.  (I know for some and for me at times this seems like a copout.  But sometimes this is all we have and why we call it faith.)

Paul alluded to this earlier when suggesting that, just as the Gentiles were once nonbelievers, so now the Jews, and it’s all part of God’s planning.  Using  a rather circular argument, Paul suggests that God causes everyone’s disobedience so that, ultimately, everyone can receive God’s mercy. 

In the Tuesday Bible Discussion group we’ve been considering the story of Joseph’s family.  It is one of the longest stories in the Bible.  A series of amazing events come together so that the people of Israel settle in Egypt. Some suggest that while there are many “teachable points” in this story, the long-term purpose was to set the stage for God’s profound act of mercy, the exodus.  Without the people going into Egypt, they could not have been rescued out of Egypt.

The overarching lesson, we can trust God’s ways, even if we do not understand them or even like them. 

But this begs the question, “does God make things – especially unpleasant ones – happen in order to teach us a lesson?”

Yes and No.

Some situations certainly fall within that category.  Yet there is nothing to suggest that everything does.  Anxiously trying to understand something beyond him, Paul comes to the conclusion that this  – the Jews non acceptance of God’s new offer – is to teach people a lesson.  We may tend to do the same thing.  When we cannot understand what is going on around us, an easy explanation to which we can default is that God is teaching us something.  It may be true, but there is no guarantee.

However, we can learn from all that happens around us, whether that was God’s intention or not, if we are open to God.

So I believe we might take for this passage two important lessons.  The first is that God has not rejected the Jews or anyone else for that matter.  What God has done is to widen the door to include all who wish to come in.  All are welcome, all are included. 

The second is that in the end God’s ways are often beyond our understanding, and that’s okay.  Our faith in God can empower us to if not to accept then to work with what is going on in our lives – even when it’s not what we want, even when it makes no sense to us. 

If we were to ask the question, “has God abandoned any of God’s people, ever?” we can give a resounding “Absolutely not!

Listen to the Audio version by selecting “Download File” and open on your desktop!  Enjoy!

Did You Hear (See) That?

Sermon ~ Sunday, August 13th, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Did You Hear (See) That?

1 Kings 19:9-18

Have you ever had the experience of purchasing or leasing a new (or new to you) automobile and on your way home from the dealership you see four others identical to it? 

Back in the dealership’s lot when you first laid eyes on it, the color and design and classy lines jumped out at you and said. “I’m yours!  Just you and me baby! We’re going to be a stylish, unique pair, all eyes will be on us!” 

But then, again, on your way home and for the next few days, weeks even, you see vehicles just like yours. They are everywhere!      

A few years ago when we bought the green Honda CR-V we noticed two or three people apparently bought the same car at the same time we did.  We brought our Subaru Forester home, suddenly we see our twins going by all the time!   There can only be one explanation: We must be trend setters!

Actually there is another explanation: this experience is similar to what is called “frequency illusion”, or the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. This is a cognitive bias which describes a curious psychological fact: after learning some bit of new information we start noticing it everywhere else. 

Okay, interesting, but what does this have to do with Elijah and his experience of God on Mount Horeb? 

Elijah was a great prophet, through whom Yahweh had performed some pretty amazing things, like the poor widow of Zarephath and her jug of oil that never ran out and subsequent resuscitation of her dead son.  Then there was the challenge to the prophets of Baal and the fire from the sky to ignite the sacrificial fire which had been drenched in water.  And if this wasn’t enough, the deaths of all the prophets of Baal, after which a prolonged drought came to an end.   That last one might have been a bit too much.  In fact it was for Queen Jezebel.

The Jewish king Ahab had married Jezebel who was a worshipper of Baal, and when she heard about the death of Baal’s prophets, she threatened to take the Elijah’s life which sends the prophet running for his life into the wilderness.  Elijah travels about a day’s journey where he sits down under a tree and despairs for his life. Complainingly he prays:   “It is enough, now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” (v. 4)   

Yet, even on the run and with all his complaining, Elijah continues to experience God’s care and help.  That night under the tree, an angel comes to him as he sleeps and provides him with food and water which miraculously sustains him for 40 days and nights!   After these 40 days and nights Elijah makes his way to Mount Horeb and there he seeks the shelter of a cave.  Mount Horeb, another name for Mount Sinai, is where God had appeared to Moses, considered the birthplace of Israel’s religion.       

 This is where our reading picks up the story.  And it might be familiar one to some of you.  Inside the cave, Elijah hears the voice of the Lord saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  And Elijah begins whining again about the state of his affairs.  I paraphrase, “You know how faithful I’ve been Lord, so why is this happening to me?”

God tells Elijah to go out of the cave, stand on the edge of the mountain and wait, there Lord will pass by.  In other words, “Elijah you want reassurance, I show you reassurance!”

There’s a great wind, so powerful rocks were shattering, but no sign of the Lord. 

Next there came a shaking of the earth in a mighty earthquake, still, no Lord. 

After the shaking, a fire and after the fire “a sound of sheer silence.” 

Can one hear silence? 

Can silence, as we say, be deafening?

Mighty winds . . . witnesses frequently describe tornadoes as sounding like freight trains.

Earthquakes rumbling deep in the earth are amplified by the earth like a huge speaker.

Next a fire. . . I personally have heard the sound of a forest fire crowning through the tops of spruce trees and it is a frightening sound!

Elijah, like many of us, might have expected God to show up in fury and power, the awesome spectacle of any of these.  After all look at how he had experienced God up to this point.   Some pretty amazing, in your face sort of ways!

There is that great scene in the movie Forest Gump where Lt. Dan has joined Forest on his shrimp ingredients boat. After not catching any shrimp for days, Lt. Dan asks Forest, “Where to H is this God of yours?”  And in a voice over Forest says, “Its funny Lt. Dan said that, because right then, God showed up.”  And they are caught in the wrath of a hurricane.  

 God showing up . . . There is a term for such manifestations or experiences of the Holy, they’re called theophanies.  Elijah had had some fairly spectacular theophanies to be sure, but what Elijah seemed to need to learn was that God is not always found in the bright flashes of light or loud roaring of storms, spectacular events and portents in the heavens, but also in the quiet spaces in between.  Perhaps more often in the quiet spaces in between, for there are far more of these in life.  

Elijah like many of us needed to learn to create prayerful times and spaces filled with silence, set a part from the din and confusion of the storms and earthquakes in our lives. 

Related to this is the tremendous influence that past experiences have on our ability to discern and experience divine activity in the present. 

Elijah had experienced God in some pretty awe inspiring ways.  But here God comes to him in the quiet after the storm, after the awe.  Not maybe what he expected.

In our gospel reading, the disciples couldn’t believe what they were seeing in those early morning hours in the midst of a storm.  They thought it was some sort of ghostly apparition.  They had never experienced Jesus in that way.


We see what we have been “conditioned” to see.  The Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon speaks of something we recently learned or experienced.  Past experiences do have a way of shaping, coloring, the lenses though which we view our world. 

For instance even though it has been over 26 years since I in any way made my living in the logging trade, I notice trees.  And when I look at them I see white pine, red pine, eastern hemlock, red, white, black spruce, cedar, balsam fir where others see simply “pines” or “Christmas trees.”   While I’m getting better and can make myself see trees for their intrinsic beauty and value, I still see potential board feet of lumber and cords of pulpwood.  And when I look at a forest of trees I see the way the trees lean and the best location to fall them and the location of haul roads so as to do the least amount of damage to the residual stand. 

I see what years of experience have conditioned me to see.

My thought for us today is: How do our past experierences bias our expectations of how God will reveal God’s self in our lives? 

What have we done through prayer and study to shape and change those patterns of attention? 

Do we fail to see God at work in our lives, in our church because we believe that God’s presence is always and only made manifest in certain ways, places and persons?

Have we taken the time and energy to open our eyes and ears; to be receptive to new movements of the Holy Spirit in our midst; or do we miss them because past experience limits our vision and hearing? 


While God’s faithfulness and loving kindness never ends (Lamentations 3:22-23)and God is changeless. (Ps. 90:2 & 102:26-27) God is also about writing a new covenant on people’s hearts (Jere. 31:31-34) and doing new things  (Is. 43:19).

When we look upon the forest of humanity around us or out upon the raging seas of life, what do we see, what to we hear?  God is just as apt to be in the spaces between the trees and in the calm that follows the storm.

In the end God didn’t give up on Elijah even when Elijah prayed that God would.  Elijah  continues to prophesy to the rulers and people of Israel. 

With a renewed or even new vision, as we are able to see God moving in new ways and doing a new thing imagine what will the church be capable of!

May we be so attentive to the movement of the Spirit in our midst that we will be saying to one another, “Say, did you hear that?”


LISTEN TO THE AUDIO VERSION OF THIS SERMON recorded live and read by Pastor Neil Wilson:

The Kingdom is Like What!?

The Kingdom Is like What!?

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52


Have you ever noticed Jesus doesn’t begin his parables, “In a land far away there lived a beautiful princess . . .”

Not even, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

But “In an ordinary field next door to you there was a farmer who planted some seed . . . A baker woman kneading some dough . . .”


I wonder if the crowds were a bit disappointed with Jesus.  Maybe even some of his disciples as well. Jesus tells them one more parable about seeds and plants, followed by stories of baking bread,  plowing a field, and fishing. Yes, he throws in one story about a wealthy merchant, but all the rest are as ordinary as a mustard bush. 

No kings, or even princesses, inhabit this kingdom Jesus speaks about being so near. 

No military generals or revolutionary leaders to please Simon the Zealot or his colleague Judas.  They must have felt let down.

And what about us? 

I wonder if our culture might be disappointed too with some of Jesus’ stories.  For instance, I doubt most people’s vision of heaven or the reign of God includes mustard bushes and housework!  God is more often seen as “Lord” or “King” than farmer or baker woman.  And whether it is traditional hymns or modern praise music we sing about “enthroning” Jesus, “raising him up” and “exalting him in the highest heaven.” 

Jesus though, tells stories of the kingdom and of heaven that are literally “down to earth.”  Common stories about ordinary people, a tenant farmer, a housewife, fishermen, doing everyday things.  This is hardly an exalted image of God’s realm!

And of course this is the whole point.  As Christians we are called to believe in the incarnation, the mystery of the meeting of divine and human in the very human person of Jesus.  Yet it is interesting that in his parables Jesus puts the focus not on himself but on the world around him.  “The kingdom of God is like” some of the most common things in life.  Like Jesus himself, this everyday world of ours embodies the sacred meeting of divine and human, sacred and secular, pious and profane.  That is if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. 

It is in this very mundane embodiment that Jesus’ parables differ from Greek or Roman myths or Aesop’s fables.  Jesus’ stories contain no gods in human disguise or talking animals, just real-life women and men going about their everyday work. 

According to Matthew, the first thing Jesus does when he comes out from his 40 days in the  wilderness is proclaim, “The kingdom of God has come near.”  He give examples of this every time he heals, reaches out to outcasts, respects women and other unrespectables, or cares for the poor.  He illustrates that nearness through these kingdom parables.

Jesus’ kingdom is not some esoteric realm in the sweet by and by, but as close and real as the mustard bush in the neighbor’s field or the loaf of bread on the baking stone.  This nearness, far more than any threat of eternal agony, is the basis for Jesus’ call to believe.  Of these five parables, only the last includes any idea of apocalyptic judgement and gnashing of teeth.  The rest envision God in every nook and cranny of daily life, from the kneading of dough to the plowing of fields.  Jesus seeks to transform human life not by scaring the hell out of people, but by helping them see the heaven close at hand!

With such images Jesus echoes his and our faith ancestor Moses who in his farewell address to the Israelites reminded them that “the word is very near” them, in their hearts and close at hand.  (Deut. 30) In his earthy kingdom parables Jesus affirms this.

Another thing Jesus does not do is use the seven wonders of the world to illustrate God’s kingdom.  He doesn’t even use the stately cedar of Lebanon, but the lowly mustard plant.  Its seed is a symbol of the tiniest thing, and the plant it produces is a trash tree!  Or more accurately a trash bush, no matter how tall it grew.  We might like Jesus to speak of the kingdom as like the mighty red oak or majestic white pine, but Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a farmer who planted scrub juniper or even Russian knapweed!  How is that for an image of God’s realm?  I imagine the disciples scratching their heads and asking themselves, “The Kingdom is like what?”

Then there is the leaven, the smallest amount enough to provide bread for a wedding feast.  In a tradition where leaven is a symbol for corruption and impurity Jesus uses this as an agent of the miraculous growth of God’s kingdom.  If God can use weeds and corruptible leaven to grow the kingdom, imagine what God can do with you and me! 

Abundance from the smallest things, miraculous transformations from trash bush to tree of life, from corrupt leaven to bread enough to feed the multitudes.  God’s kingdom is like that, according to Jesus. 

And then in the next two parables we are told of people who gladly give up everything for that treasure.  The extravagant response of the tenant farmer and the pearl merchant is matched only by the extravagant mustard bush and loaves of bread.

Of course the paradox is that the kingdom equal to the value of a great pearl or treasure is not made of silver or gold, but of bushes and bread.  What would you give up for a old pasture overrun with an abundance of juniper bushes? 

  These are not simple moral fables in that they demand such decisions.  Again like Moses’ last words, the parables stress our responsibility to choose God’s way even when it may not make sense!  Moses framed it as a choice between life or death, blessing or curse.  Jesus’ parables has the realm of God up against that of the evil one, good fish or bad fish.  Like Moses, Jesus does not let us off the “hook.”  The nearness of God’s realm challenges us daily to choose a way.  

Unfortunately we live in a world where mustard comes in a plastic squeezable bottles, bread in plastic bags, both of which can be found on grocery store shelves.  And pearls go for discount prices on the Home Shopping Network. 

Has the church cheapened the kingdom as well?

Like the farmer plowing the field and the merchant searching for the invaluable pearl, what would you, what would this congregation, give up everything to possess?  All the while remembering that the hidden treasure is not made of silver or gold or even an actual pearl!  Nor is it made of wood or brick or stone or endowments funds and memorial accounts.  And on the personal side it isn’t that lucrative job offer or business opportunity, it isn’t our retirement portfolios! 

Rather Jesus is asking, “What would we give all these things up to possess?”

 And then he offers images of things that in the end will not complete our personal estate or fully fund a church’s capital improvement fund but will bring us closer to the realm of God that is right there in our midst if we but have the eyes to see and the ears to hear!

So look around you today.  Where do you (will you) see and hear parables of the kingdom?

Want to hear the Audio Version?  Select the link below to listen to Pastor Neil Wilson sharing his Sermon on Sunday morning here at First Congregational UCC.

There’s No Hiding Place Down Here

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, July 2, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson


There’s No Hiding Place Down Here

Matthew 10:40 – 11:1


“We have it in us to be Christ’s to each other . . .

   to work miracles of love and healing as well as to have them worked upon us.”

Frederick Buechner writer, poet, theologian and Presbyterian minister made this assertion in A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces.  It could have been a commentary on our reading from Matthew’s Gospel. These closing words of Jesus’ instructions and warnings as he sends the twelve out like “… sheep into the midst of wolves”  (10:16)  

This passage contains the heart of Matthew’s gospel: a ageless call for the church to go out into the world in Christ’s name, as well as to receive and welcome the “little ones” of the world in Christ’s name.  

When we read of giving a cup of cold water to the “little ones” perhaps our first thought is serving or feeding the children.  Which is partially true, but mikros (Greek)refers not only to children but to those considered inferior and vulnerable. 

This term “little ones” if it sounds like something else Jesus said, it should, for later in Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 25) Jesus speaks of serving the “least of these.”  And Jesus will tell us that as we serve the “least of these” we are actually serving Him.  It is in this same chapter we get a clue as to what the “reward” will be for those who indiscriminately meet human needs: Jesus says they inherit the Kingdom.  The ones who have given food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited those in prison are the ones who will know blessing, who will have both encountered Christ and embodied Christ. 

Mother Teresa in her book Words to Love By reminds us that every day we encounter Christ in “distressing disguise.” We find Him in those “hungry not only for bread, but hungry for love; naked not only for clothing, but naked for human dignity and respect; homeless but not only for want of a room of bricks, but homeless because of rejection.”

Although our social and cultural context maybe vastly different from that of Jesus and then Matthew’s, the church’s call is the same: in spite of any and all opposition, we are to go out into the world, to alleviate human suffering and meet real needs.  And as we offer these miracles of loving and healing through the offering of hospitable deeds and actions equivalent to the cup of cold water, we also go as those open to having the miracle of hospitality “worked upon us.”

In other words, we are called to both represent Christ to the stranger and to encounter Christ in the stranger.

Often though, the church is thought of as a place where we can go to meet Christ, and find a time and place to receive comfort and restoration.  Which it is for sure. The church is meant to be a place where the hurting and wounded in body and spirit can find compassionate care and safety. The Church is after all referred to in Scripture as the body of Christ.  But as pastor and author Barbara Brown Taylor reminds the church, “we are not merely consumers but also providers of God’s love.” 

We’re not supposed to use the church solely as a place of to meet our own needs.  For time to time yes, we can and should find the church a place to find personal healing and wholeness.  But ultimately, Barbara Brown Taylor goes on to say, that the church is not a “hideout . .  not the place where those of us who know the secret password can gather to celebrate our good fortune,. . . ” 

When I read this I found myself humming  the tune of the old country, blue grass gospel song, There’s No Hiding Place Down Here.  One verse goes like this:

There’s no hiding place down here

There’s no hiding place down here

Well, I run to the rock just to hide my face

And the rocks cried out, no hiding place

There’s no hiding place down here

Just as I was writing these words, four young women came into the church.  They were employed at the Weather Vane Terrace as seasonal chambermaids.  Two were from Turkey the other two from China.  After working through some significant translation obstacles, I learned they were looking for affordable bicycles.  Two bicycles would be enough they could share. I made three phone calls and within 5 minutes had options of four bicycles for them.  They were not looking for much, just something less expensive than the retail price of bicycles at the local shops and stores.   Was this a “cup of cold water?”

You know one of the things I realize is that by having an office person and our church building open as much as we do, we often find ourselves as the church where things such as this happen.

We are the church whose purple doors are not locked! 

Now, I do not presume to know the complete mind of Jesus, but I think Jesus would have told his disciples, if it were the 21st century, to not lock your doors.  To be open for business, his business, to be what is talked about today as a “missional” church.  


In our Tuesday morning Bible study lesson we read about how with Jesus and the early church there seems to have been far more emphasis on helping and comforting, healing and  raising than on the exact words and teaching they (we?) should use.  More emphasis on the doing than on the saying, more emphasis on doing good that on holding the “correct” beliefs.  Later Church Councils would argue over the words and “correct belief”, for the time being the Holy Spirit would be enough.

There is no such thing as church that is not a missional church.  Inasmuch as the church in its local and denominational expressions has been preoccupied with institutional survival, rather than being God’s witnesses sent into the world to bless all people, we have essentially not been the church.

So it is good to have unlocked doors, not only does it allow others access, but more importantly, through them we are sent out into the world and out there we are to be witnesses of Christ and to be witnessed to by the presence of Christ in others.  Even the least of these, no,  especially the least of these! 

The church is not a place to play “hide and seek!” In the same way God found Adam and Eve hiding in the garden God will seek us out, out of the church and into the streets and homes and neighborhoods where there are little ones in need of a cold cup of water or maybe a couple of bicycles.


Listen to the Audio version below by clicking on “Download File” and enjoy.

Gospel Transparency

~ Sermon ~ June 25th, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Gospel Transparency
Matthew 10:1, 5-7, 24-33

I have a task for each of you today. The instructions are simple.

Following this morning’s service and the coffee hour I am sending you out to your neighborhoods. I want you to start with those who are struggling, confused the lost if you will, amongst those of our community, your neighbors and friends.
Those of you in the balcony, I will have you to concentrate on downtown, shopkeepers, their employees, and any of the local people you know. The tourists, well, they’ll have to wait.
Those of you who sit on the north side of the sanctuary, I want you to focus on this message: “The kingdom of heaven is here, very near to everyone”
South side of the sanctuary, you are to be the healers, the counselors, the resuscitators. Offer freely. Expect no payment.
You will not need your cell phones, or your tablets, no fancy suits or special uniforms, nor will you need to have a fund raising campaign before you begin. You will be taken care of. Just go!
If you should find there are those who refuse what you are freely offering, do not make a scene and argue with them, just move on. Their stubbornness will catch up with them in good time. And that will be very difficult time indeed! And after all it is not your mission you are but the messengers.
What do you think? Would you be willing to take on such a calling? How many of you would be ready to hit the streets after coffee hour? How many of you would not want to leave the coffee hour and safety of the church building?
Yet this is what Jesus called the Twelve to do: Share the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven with the lost sheep of Israel, their neighbors; to heal, cast out demons, raise the dead!
How comfortable did you feel about the instructions I gave you?
I can answer for myself, “Not very!”
I would imagine for the twelve is was also a difficult, risky “assignment.” It is quite possible they might have asked, “Jesus, do you think we are ready for this? We’ve only been with you for a few weeks (months) and to be honest we’ve seen the mixed reactions people have had towards you!”
And so Jesus says to them “ . . . have no fear of them.”
The same providence of God that he shared in the Sermon on the Mount, he reminds them of here. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs on your head are all counted So do not be afraid you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Jesus then says something interesting, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered . . .”
There is complete openness to the work of Jesus. Jesus has no intention of starting a cult, an exclusive spiritual club with a secret wisdom and rituals in which an hierarchy of a select few will be in control and ultimately reap any spiritual benefits.
Now, we hear this today and are apt to smugly think, “Well, our church is nothing like that.” Experience, though, teaches that some churches are very much like that: an exclusive religious club with secret wisdom and rituals which only an elite group understand and thus are granted “salvation.”
In many cases church leaders hold onto their power (whether officially through board positions or not) by refusing to be “up front” about things, from agendas to relationships to intrachurch dynamics. Only those deemed worthy are allowed full participation, and usually only by conforming to unspoken (thus hidden) rules and expectations. Talk with Conference staff about the church conflicts they are often called in to mediate and one will hear the same refrain, “Communication, communication, communication.”
Full participation should never be determined by the supposed charity of so-called “gatekeepers”, but by the absolute grace of Jesus’ unconditional love. Further-more, it is not only “secret wisdom” that interferes with full participation, it is often just the plain old “secrets” kept from newcomers that are at the root of dysfunctional behavior within a church.
Jesus then warns any would be disciples: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
“Hell” is Gehenna, the valley outside the walls of Jerusalem, where it is said the city’s trash was continually burned; thus it is more a metaphor than a doctrine of a place in eternity. One way to think of this metaphorically is to recognize that the only one we have to fear is ourselves, because only we can destroy both soul and body in the fires of our own making. If this is so then when we prayer the Lord’s prayer “deliver us from evil,” we pray to be delivered from our own evil, which we experience as more toxic to our spiritual well-being than anything anyone else could do to us.
Jesus then says, “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” As harsh as this may sound to us, this seems to be the “bottom line” of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in Matthew 10. Those of us reading it today contemporary and privileged readers, may think that the first disciples and early Christians needed to hear this more than we do, as do those Christians living as religious minorities and often the brunt of sectarian oppression and violence.
The truth is that persecution exists today even in our nation’s privileged world of religious freedom. It’s just more subtle, more often expressed in apathy than antipathy. For the vast majority religion has become a private matter, often banned, along with politics from “polite discussion.” We are of the mind whether through a misunderstanding of the “separation of church and state” or just a simple aversion to politics that our religious values have no place in the public political discourse.
Because of this, unfortunately, the church’s shaping of public policy is to frequently left to those Christians with a politically confining agenda.
No Christian should check Jesus’ values at the door when exiting the church and entering the public sphere: Jesus’ compassion for the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the vulnerable and the demonized may (and should) shape public policy just as much as the Enlightenment values of equality, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is in this way as well, we “proclaim the good news that the ‘Kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
In the history of our nation the revivals of the two Great Spiritual Awakenings led the way to the significant social reforms that followed.
There is one more way I feel this may speak to our contemporary views of “sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Some Christians place conditions on God’s unconditional and extravagant love in Jesus Christ, resisting the gospel of grace. And on the other hand there are those Christians , in deference to our multicultural and multi-faith world, avoid talking about Jesus at all and resist a gospel of particularity. We worry about being offensive. Some would say politically correct.
In reality, each is a way of denying both Jesus and his gospel message that the realm of God is at hand.
For the gospel is not something to be hidden away. But to be shared and to be observed in the lives of Jesus’ disciples. Our lives should be transparent enough so that to anyone who cares to observe, the gospel, the way of Jesus, should be obvious.
Years ago when I started on my path toward ordained ministry I kept a little notebook of quotes. I haven’t been as faithful in collecting quotes as I was back at the beginning. One of the very first quotes I wrote in my book I heard from Roger Cobb, an elderly man from my home church when I was a young adult.
He would say to me sort of as a reminder:
“You are writing a Gospel,
A chapter each day,
By deeds that you do,
By words that you say.

Others read what you write,
Whether faithless or true;
Say, what is the Gospel
According to you?”

Listen to the audio version of Pastor Neil’s Sermon.  Select the “Download File”, and at the lower left of your screen you can select it and enjoy.

Family Values?

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, June 18, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson ~

Family Values?

Matthew 10:24-39

Jerome Jordan stepped to the lectern of the Old First Church on the Common and thumbed through the heavy pages of the massive pulpit Bible. The Bible overhangs the sides of the lectern by a good 3-4 inches on each side.  Interestingly, while Jerome is the youngest of the regular lay readers he is also the only one that chooses to use the lectern Bible.  Maybe it’s a simple matter of eyesight!  Most others bring the readings printed out in large font on pieces of paper. 

The leather-bound gilded Bible was presented to the congregation in 1879 at the dedication of the new church building after the fire of 1877 (or was it 78?)  The little bronze plaque reads “Given to the Glory of God and in memory of Deacon Ephraim Buckner.”  Old Eph was Bob and Jake Bradley’s great-great grandfather on their mother’s side.  A stern looking fellow in all the old tin-types.  The Bible, dating from the 19th century, of course is the King James Version. 

The text for the day was from Gospel according to Saint Matthew.  Jerome cleared his throat:  Think not that I am come to send peace on earth:

   I came not to send peace, but a sword.

 For I am come to set a man at variance against his father,

  and the daughter against her mother,

   and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

 And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.

 He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me:

  and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

Jerome ceremoniously closed the stiff ornate covers of the Bible

“The Word of the Lord. . .  Thanks be to God.” and stepped down from the lectern.

 As I said for the youngest of our lay readers he is the most solemn and traditional.

 Imogene Reynolds, third row back next to the center aisle, let out a sigh and not quite under her breathe muttered, “Well, I not so sure what I think of that!”   

Imogene is of the opinion that at times even Jesus took things a bit too far and this is a prime example of just one of those times!  Imogene knows that following Jesus is not supposed to be easy but never, never should it divide families. 

“What sort of family values is that?” she inquired of Rev. Williams as she shook his hand after worship.

She admonished the pastor for preaching such an “anti-Christian” thing.

“Why just this morning the Pastor Eugene B. Salsbury of the Salsbury Power Hour of Salvation preached on ‘biblical family values’ and it didn’t sound anything like your sermon, Pastor.” Imogene informed the pastor.  

She went on to add, “And Pastor Eugene knows his Bible.  After all, he is on television!”   

Rev. Williams had a mind to remind Imogene that it wasn’t his sermon she took issue with but Jesus’ words, but held his tongue.  Beth, Imogene’s sister was next in line and she had been a little under the weather the past week and he was a bit more concerned about her well-being that taking on a theological debate with a disciple of Pastor Salsbury’s Power Hour of Salvation.

One has to understand that Imogene and her sister Beth grew up in a very loving and supportive family.  When Imogene and Beth were young there were three generations living together in the old farm out on Ricker’s Bluff Road.  Ricker is Imogene’s maiden name.  The Rickers were a very devoted family.  Devoted to the church and more importantly to each other.  Gram Ricker lived with Carl, Betsy and their two girls, Imogene and her little sister Beth.  Rickers have been prominent in Old First Church leadership for the past 100 years.  Good people, good family. 

Anyway, Jesus’ words about a son set at variance against father, and daughter against mother was not Imogene’s experience.  And there was just no way she could see that Jesus would be part of anything other than the way she had experienced it.  And in her view this passage didn’t in any way act for the betterment of society.

Imogene is the unofficial chair of the Women’s Material Aid Society of the Priscilla Circle of the Women’s Fellowship.  They’ve been around since WWII when they began putting together old pieces of cloth to be used as bandages and such for the war effort.  Nowadays they knit lap blankets for the residents over in Maple Grove Care Center run by the Adventists. They also collect old pieces of clothe and make hooked rugs which they sell and give the proceeds to the Outer Island Relief Fund.  Even Rev. Williams chuckles to himself when Sam Coleridge refers to them as the Holy Hookers, which always sets Imogene off in a fit of temper.  Beth just smiles! 

For the past two meetings of the Women’s Material Aid Society of the Priscilla Circle of the Women’s Fellowship, there’s been a young girl showing up.  Actually Gina is 19, but to most of the Society she seems but a mere child. 

Gina has been coming to Old First now for a little over a year.  One day she just sort of walked into a meeting of the Material Aid Society all of her own doing.  She told them that she likes to knit and that she clerks and stocks shelves at Emerson’s Five and Dime in Stoneville, so she has access to all the remnant scraps of material from the store’s fabric department.  So of course she was welcomed with open arms.  It also provided Gina a place to serve when she decided she wanted to be more than just a Sunday pew warmer.

At a recent meeting the ladies were talking about growing up and how things have changed (common topic for this group!)They got onto the subject of how families aren’t sticking together like they used to and the younger generation not respecting the older. 

Gina was very quiet. 

“So dear,” Bea Stearns asked Gina, “tell us about your family. Are you living at home?”

Gina looked up from the cloth she was ripping into strips, stared out the window to the Minute Man statue on the common.  A couple of seagulls were attempting to land on his tricorn hat.  They kept sliding off and circling around.   

She looked back at the cloth in her hands, a white and green checked gingham.  She recalled a summer dress she had as a child, a little jumper.  It was one of her few pleasant memories of childhood.

“No ma’am.   I’m renting a couple of rooms outta Bobby & Rachael Parmenters.” 

The ladies knew the place.  It wasn’t much.  The Parmenter’s are good enough folks, just that life had been hard. Bobby fishing and some factory work for Rachael until the shoe shops all closed back in the 80s. 

“So what about your parents, dear,” asked Ruth Williams.  “Do they live in Stoneville?

Gina stopped what she was doing looked back out the window.  One of the gulls had quit trying to land on the Minute Man’s head piece, the other still flailing away attempting to find a secure perch. 

She sensed no malice or meddling in Ruth’s question.  Nor did Beas’ question seem mere chatter for sake of conversation.  There was a bit of genuineness in their inquiries.  Perhaps this is why she told them as much of her story as she did.  

She was the second child, oldest daughter in a family of four children.  Her older brother had left home when he was 16 and enlisted in the Army when he turned 18.  You see her father, while he always had steady work and provided for the family financially, had a tendency to “tip the bottle” a bit too much when he was home but more often than not, he would be out, who knows where, for who knew how long.  Her mother was the text book enabler, always trying to keep things quiet, focusing on appeasing her husband when he would go into one of his tirades.  Her brother’s departure left Gina at 13 to care for her younger sisters at that time 7 & 9.  More often than not this meant taking the brunt of their father’s anger and making up for her mother’s emotional distance.  

As Gina grew older she would try to get her mother to find help for herself.  But there was no convincing her.  She was locked in the cycle of addiction and abuse.

Gina struggled her last two years of high school but managed to graduate and that summer get a the job at Emerson’s. 

It was that summer after graduation, she had a Sunday off and not particularly wanting to be home, Gina found herself wandering around Rockhaven’s Common.  It’s early on a fine summer morning and through the open windows of the church she could hear Clara French going over some of her organ music for worship.

Gina timidly meandered over to the doors of the church and listens.  She not much for organ music but she can identify one of the songs. She doesn’t know the title but it takes her back to the few times she was around a church.  It was Vacation Bible School and she was about 6 or 7 before her father’s drinking had become a noticeable problem for their family. 

Clara saw her through the open doors standing on the bottom step.  She smiled motioned to Gina that it was fine for her to come in.  She slipped into a back pew as Clara worked on her Postlude.  Clara seemed to be struggling the song Gina watched her pushing and pulling all these little knobs on the organ!

Before she knew it others were coming in and began sitting around her.  Bea Stearns and Jeannette Holman, Mabel Bradley and Sarah McIntyre.  In the vestibule Bertie Dickson and Sam French were comparing their early garden production, apparently carrots, lettuce are doing fine, peas not so well. 

Little did Gina know at the time but if you wanted some space and a bit of quiet in our church you do not sit in the back!

Undeterred, she began coming when her schedule allowed and when a new clerk was hired Gina was able to have most Sundays off.

She absorbed everything she heard from the pulpit and soaked in all the attention and love that she felt surrounded by.

She would go home and share some of her experiences with her mother.  The love and care she felt from the church members.  She would also tell her mother some of the things she would hear Rev Williams would share in his sermons.  The pastor said such and such today . . . and she would tell of this Jesus who traveled around healing people and reaching out to the oppressed and victimized, even women!   

But unfortunately, whether it was jealousy of Gina’s new found friendships or the zealousness of her convictions, her mother would have nothing to do with Gina’s new found faith.  Sadly, Gina and her mother grew even farther apart

Not able to find herself fitting in or comfortable at home, she heard of the Parmenter’s rental and by fall she had earned enough for the deposit and moved in with the little she had. 

Gina paused. . .  Looked back out the window and there was the seagull.  She had finally found a perch on the Minute Man’s hat.   

Bea Stearns reached out and put her hand on Gina’s arm. 

No words were spoken.  Tears trickled down both women’s faces.   



When the gospel of Matthew was read by Jerome Jordan and Jesus said that he came not to bring peace but a sword, what Imogene found so scandalous, rang all too true for Gina.  Life was not easy for Gina and her new found faith and friendship in the church didn’t necessarily make it any easier. 

As Gina sat there surrounded by the friendship of women, most of them four times her age, a small smile broke out and the corners of her mouth caught her tears. 

She remembered something else Rev. Williams said this Jesus had mentioned.  She couldn’t remember it exactly but something to the effect:

What you should want most is God’s kingdom and doing what he wants you to do. Then God will give you all these other things you need.

Or as the lectern Bible reads:  But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Rumor has it that Gina’s mother has temporarily left the house and is in counseling.  This seems to have brought her father to the point of seriously seeking help and is now six months into recovery.

Indeed all these things. . .

Seems God’s kingdom is creeping into our little church and its community.

May it be so in yours as well.   Amen.


Enjoy the Audio version of Pastor Neil’s Sermon by selecting the “Download File” link below, open and enjoy!

The Challenge of the Trinity

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, June 11th, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

The Challenge of the Trinity

Matthew 28:16-20

Trinity Sunday, along with Transfiguration Sunday, is one of the trickier dates on which to preach.  It may require as much spiritual and intellectual bending and contortions as Hugh Hansen’s Tai Chi from last Sunday. (Thanks you Hugh!)  While there has been much ink spilled over the doctrine of the Trinity, much of what has been written is beyond comprehension and therefore doesn’t lend itself well to preaching! 

Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century) would say of the Trinity, “No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Three than I am carried back into the One. When I think of any of the Three, I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.”

Yet this magnificent and mystical relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that cohesive yet distinct community of faith, has much to say about the way in which the different “persons” (to employ the traditional anthropomorphic terms) of the Godhead relate to each other and to the created order. 

What are the purposes and point of the Creator,  of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit? 

How are we to understand them and learn from them?

To say nothing of the challenges of thinking of God as in human terms Parent (the Father/Mother discussion),

– the nature of Jesus (fully human and fully divine),

 – and the role and place of the Holy Spirit (the most mystical and the one often approached with great suspicion of the Trinitarian  trifecta). 

With a topic where mystery abounds, the challenge is to say something that speaks to the people today about Who God is, and what God is for, as much as to say anything about the ‘Why’ of God.  Mystery and majesty, attempting to know the unknowable, leading worship on Trinity Sunday deals with doubt and question, as much as it deals with any certainty and answers.

First, and this may negate the rest of what I have to say for some of you, the “doctrine” of the Trinity is a theological formula the church took several decades to develop. It may be hinted at in scripture but it is nowhere is a Trinitarian relationship spelled out with any clarity, nor is the term Trinity found in the Bible. 

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is about synergy.  We are meant to think of how things interact with each other, and what that interaction propels us to do.  The end of Matthew’s gospel is fraught with significance for the Church and Christians everywhere. Matthew’s gospel, from the beginning, has told the story of Jesus and His life and ministry, now the Church and the Christians who incarnate the Church are called to make their response to Jesus. We are to reflect inwardly and look at the transformation our faith continues to make upon our lives.  We act outwardly and move in ways that demonstrate our faith put into action.  Faith’s inward reflection is evidenced in an outward response.

Note, however, the context of these verses.  After the resurrection events and the fear and wonder surrounding them, we are told the surviving eleven disciples went to the mountain in Galilee (where they had been told to go by Jesus.) There they worshiped Jesus, though “some doubted.”  Faith is rarely one steadily progressive sunny upwards path of assurance, belief and commitment.  We would not be human if we did not admit to some doubt and darkness and falling away.  As one commentator notes, disciples waver between adoration and indecision, between prayer and puzzlement.

What we might also note from this passage is that in some ways the conclusion mirrors the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. The promise of Jesus, embodied in His name Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23-24) is God with us.  Here in the closing verses of the gospel, God in Jesus promises to be with us always.  The underlying purpose of the Trinity is unity and community, and it is underlined again.

This triune community in which we are engaged is one that compels us to reach out.  First with the gift of baptism: where we are named in the community of God’s presence. The gift of baptism in the name of the Trinity marks our formal entry into the community of faith, and confirms publicly the loving approval in which God already holds us.  With Matthew’s invocation of the Trinity it would not be helpful to assume that he is referencing the complex doctrines worked out in the controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries C. E..  His inspiration is to link together the three names of Godhead and the community of love from which all life emanates.

It is known that ‘naming’ was of great significance in the Hebrew world: it denoted both power and presence.  Baptism is therefore no empty ritual – it is an emblem of entrance into the lively gathering of worshipers who commit to the love of God.

After baptism, the Trinitarian community that is the Church is to teach and follow.  We discover and share what we believe, and remain open to the further promptings of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as the practice of faith evolves.  We are commanded to go out ‘to all nations’.  The community of the Trinity is not exclusive: it is inclusive.  Our authority is not our own but God’s, we achieve nothing on our own, but all becomes possible when God is involved.

The Parent, Creator is still creating, still imagining, still calling life into existence.

The Son, Emmanuel is still with us redeeming and saving.

The Sustainer is still moving and emboldening.

The Church, scarred but healing, broken but repairing, shattered but gathering,

 continues with faith in God.  A Godhead known to us, experienced by us, in a triad of ways accessing presence and power that does not coerce but serves and persuades and welcomes.

To follow, to serve and to welcome a Trinity of action!

This more than anything else, more than trying to comprehend it’s mystery, the challenge of the Trinity is to live into this way of community and communion with one another!

****   ****   ****


Holy God, Father/Mother, Son and Holy Spirit,

Creator, Redeemer and Comforter,

Here in this place and at this time, we offer our thanks.

The words of our mouths, the thoughts in our minds,

   the feelings of our hearts.

In awe we thank You for all that You have given to us,

And all that you accomplish through us and even despite us.

For the blessing of gathering and community we thank You.

Hear our prayers for those still on the outside and living in isolation.


For the blessing of imagination and inspiration we thank You.

Hear our prayers for those whose minds are closed down

 and whose lives are listless.


For the blessing of joy and good health we thank You.

Hear our prayers for those living with sadness,

  and struggling with pain and frailty.


Threefold God, we pray that You will continue to bless

Our world,

Our nation,

And our Church.

Distinct yet united;  . . . Diverse yet interwoven;

Call Your people, all Your people into the communion of Your love,

Where each is named and known,

And this we pray

In the love of the Father,

The healing of the Son,

And the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Amen

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