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

101 State Street
Charlevoix, MI 49720


The Gate and gatekeepers

Sermon ~ Sunday, May 7, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

The Gate and gatekeepers

John 10: 1-16

The Dixfield Congregational Church is where it all began. I had spent the summer of 1986 doing some pulpit supply In early November I got a call to fill in at the church in Dixfield. At the end of the service they asked if I was available for the following Sunday, which I was. At the conclusion of that second Sunday’s service, old Jim Convery offered me a proposition which I accepted and lead to almost 6 years of pastoral ministry with that congregation. The Dixfield Congregational Church was known as “the Church on the Hill.” Its steeple could be seen for miles. To reach the steeple required climbing four levels of stairs and ladders after which you emerge through a trap door out to the bell and then you could step out onto a three foot wide walkway around the steeple. The view of the Androscoggin River valley and Dixfield was encompassing.
The story I was told that lies behind the church’s location is that there were two factions in the congregation (imagine that!) One wanted to build the church in the village where Hall Hill Road leaves Main Street forming a wye. The other wanted to build the church up on the hill overlooking the town. The huge split granite foundation stones were purchased and awaiting the final decision when the hill top contingent took it upon themselves to move the granite blocks in the dark of night so that by the time morning arrived the foundation stones were in place.
It is a beautiful spot for a church building with one little caveat, it was essentially inaccessible for anyone with physical mobility concerns. It sits on bedrock (which the Bible says is a good thing!) so there is no basement. The hill dropped away from the church on all sides so that when I mowed the grass I lowered the the old Lawnboy mower down on ropes! So there was not enough room to put in a A.D.A. approved ramp. It would have required more switchbacks than the Pikes Peak Auto Road.
Try as we might, while I was there, we could not come up with a resolution to this access problem. There were those who just did not have access the church and its worship with us.

Todays’ gospel is about shepherds and sheep and things that perhaps seem disconnected from most of us in our 21st century world. Jesus speaks first about the nature of a sheepfold, the place where shepherds kept their flocks overnight, safe from the dangers of the night. It was in the sheepfolds where the shepherd would care for his/her sheep and they would get to know the voice of their shepherd in the shared protection of the sheepfold’s walls.
“[The shepherd]calls his own sheep by name,” Jesus says, “and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”
The sheepfold was a place of welcome, of community, but more a place of safety and rest in the care of the shepherd. As He often did Jesus was speaking in analogy or parable form and as often happened the Pharisees didn’t get it so Jesus tries another approach.
“I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.” And again in verse nine “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
And in v. 10, “I came that they may have life,” Jesus says, “and have it abundantly.”
Jesus says he is the Gate! The way in . . . and the way out! The access point, the one through whom we pass in order to find safety and respite. For the religious leaders who got it this time and who assumed that they set the criteria for who had access to the benefits of God, this not added not only to their frustration but anger as well.
Think about gates for a moment. Some gates are made to keep people or things in: children in the playground, pets in backyards, livestock in the pasture. Other gates are there to keep us out: gates at the ends of long private drives, gates around businesses, gates around properties. A garden gate draped with flowering vines can welcome us to enter a place of beauty and peace. Gates surrounded with razor wire send a very different message!
There are gates, then there are gatekeepers. These are those people who monitor the gate, deciding who gets in, who has access to what or whom. Watch dogs and security personnel are the most obvious gatekeepers we might think of, but what about the person who stands between you and your next promotion?
What about boards and committees with excess power and influence?
How about folks who say “we don’t do it that way around here” or “you don’t belong here” because of what you believe or who you love, the color of your skin or your gender or your age?
Notice though, Jesus doesn’t say he is a gatekeeper! He is the Gate itself, inviting “whoever” to enter, and “be saved,” (safe). He allows easy access, in and out, safety , and life.
The Gate, the way to intimacy with God.
The Gate, to the place of welcome, security, freedom and rest. Jesus says to the Pharisees and any others listening, that he isn’t about restricting or stealing or harming but about offering life – and this in abundance! Life that is sweet and whole and full!
I wonder about this easy access . . . do we find it or offer it in our own lives, in our own church? I wonder about this kind of unfettered welcome where folks can come and go, where abundance is what life is all about.
There are lots of churches where multiple gatekeepers obscure the welcome of the “Jesus gate,” plenty of places where folks who don’t fit the theological, physical, or spiritual mold aren’t invited in. Making churches accessible to the physically handicapped is a great challenge for many of our old buildings, it can be nearly impossible to invest enough money so that all can physically come into our buildings.
But our churches can be inaccessible in many other ways as well. Have you ever visited a church where it felt like there was some sort of invisible barrier? It has been called to my attention the many ways we limit people’s access to our faith communities, even to God. We abbreviate things in the bulletin (We say to save space and paper?!) so that only those who “know” get the message. (we getting better you probably noticed some time ago that we now have the words to this thing called the Doxology and the words that we use for the Lord’s Prayer.
We say “Everyone is welcome,” but we often do not say where we’re meeting or if we do how to get there or what we’re really about. We give lip service to wanting everyone to feel “at home” but we don’t really mean we want homeless people,
or sexual minority people,
or people who are more conservative or more liberal than us,
or deaf or blind people, or people who speak another language teaching our children and serving as church greeters and officers, do we?
If we are open to these, then we need to ask ourselves: “How will these people know they are welcome here?”
And if we are not open to them, we need to ask: “What is it about their presence that we are afraid of? What causes us withhold the welcome of Jesus to them?”
“I am the gate,” Jesus says. “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture (refreshment, relaxation, peace, rest). I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
Easy access, a genuine welcome, abundant living.
May we each hear this word of welcome and may our faith be lived in such a way that we grant easy access to any and all who seek the Jesus gate and with it, abundance of life!
I am glad to report that the Dixfield church has resolved their access concerns. It required buying the small house just to the north of the church and tearing it down and this gave them the space and distance to put in the A.D.A. ramp to the back door of the church.

Listen to the audio version by clicking on “Download File” below:

Two Evenings

Sermon ~ April 23, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Two Evenings

John 20:19-31

It was perhaps the worst of times not the best of times for the disciples. John in his gospel gives us not the tale of two cities but of two evenings. In each of them there is an appearance of the risen Jesus. They are separate, yet they belong together. The second being the consequence of the events and characters of the first.

John’s account of the empty tomb ends with, “Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news ‘I have seen the Lord!’ And she told them that he had said these things to her.”

John then moves us to a scene later on the same day, “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together . . .”

The risen Jesus appeared to Mary in the garden where she presumed him to be the gardener. He now also appears to the disciples on the evening of Easter Day. He comes to them, offers them His Peace, sends them out to continue His ministry, and then enables them for the task by the giving of His Spirit. The disciples are in the process of becoming apostles. They had followed Jesus as disciples, however it was always Jesus’ purpose to send them out to preach the good news, to send them out as apostles, emissaries (Mk. 3:13-15). Jesus appeared to the disciples for their sake as a group.

A week later Jesus appeared again, only this time it was for the sake of one disciple, Thomas. Thomas is not forgotten by the Lord. He has not been left out.

Thomas it seems is struggling, he is a bit lost. Or is he? We call him “doubting” Thomas but I believe that is a misnomer. Why has Thomas alone been labeled like this? Why don’t we refer to some of the others as “Denying Peter” for instance, or those power seekers James and John.

Personally, I believe Thomas has gotten a bad rap. Consider that a week earlier all the others were in this house, behind locked doors, fearful of what the religious leaders might accuse them of or do to them. Did you ever wonder, where was Thomas? If he wasn’t with them behind the safety of those locked doors, where was he? Was he out about town, out in the streets of Jerusalem, walking among the post-Passover crowds? Had he stepped out for coffee and donuts? Seriously though, wasn’t he afraid?

Ah, but remember another time, after he heard of Lazarus’ death, Jesus wanted to go to his friend and his sisters, the others disciples cautioned against it because of their fear. They said “But Rabbi, a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?” Remember it was Thomas who said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” No, I don’t think Thomas was easily frightened.

So what was Thomas doing while the others were locked in by their fears? One Presbyterian preacher, MaryAnn McKibben Dana, suggests that he may have been out looking for Jesus. After all he had heard what Mary Magdalene reported, that she “had seen the Lord!” So, was Thomas the only one brave enough to be on the outside, looking for Jesus on the streets of Jerusalem and not fearfully locked away in some building?

In the tradition of the church, Thomas is the only one to establish Christianity beyond the Roman empire, early church tradition tells of Thomas taking the gospel all the way to southern India.

Just a little something for you to ponder.

When Thomas heard that Jesus appeared to them he makes sure he is in the place where Jesus was last seen. This does not sound like someone who is a doubter or a person lacking faith.

So even though absent the first time, the risen Lord appears for Thomas’ sake too! As the Good Shepherd cares for the one lost sheep, Jesus cares for him as well. Thomas is just as important to the risen Lord as the rest of his team! How encouraging it is to read this, that the Lord does not forget about the individual in the midst of the congregation! While He has words for the whole group, He also has words for the individual member! He does not forget about the individual, or neglect any of us when we struggle, or are feeling lost alone in the pew, or at home!

As Jesus came after Thomas to offer him His Peace and Word of encouragement, He comes after us to grant us His Peace and renew our faith. The risen Lord comes to the disciples in His risen power and risen body. He is not weak, or defeated, but full of resurrectio power! Jesus has come to send them out, to commission them to continue with His ministry! The risen Lord offers all that they and we will need to carry on Jesus’ mission.
He offers them his Peace. Jesus greets them in the usual manner: Peace be with you! He says this a second time, but this time it is not just a greeting, this time it is His gift to them. Jesus called us not for a quiet, leisurely life, but for an active mission that will have its challenges, problems, and various trials. So He gives us first of all His Peace to carry out the mission. A true peace over and against fear and doubt.

He passes on to them His Purpose. The Lord gathered us to Himself that we will be witnesses for Him, going out to preach the coming of God’s realm, to share His Good News, foremost of which is the grace and mercy of forgiveness. He never meant us to be armchair theologians, locked up in an upper room, glued to our pews, but apostles, people sent out, moving among people, taking the Good News to them in word and deed. As He was sent by God to save the world (John 3:17) we are sent with the same message of salvation. Let me share with you my definition of salvation as I understand God was offering it through Jesus.
In the Bible, salvation is mostly concerned with something that happens in this life. Even in the New Testament, the primary meaning of the word “salvation” is transformation in this life. The roots of the English word salvation comes from “salve,” which is a healing ointment. Salvation is about healing. We all grow up wounded, life brings difficulties to us all, and salvation is about the healing of our lives and not only for eternity.

The Bible has specific images of salvation. It is about light in the darkness, liberation from bondage, return from exile, or reconnection with God. It’s about our hunger being satisfied, our thirst being quenched, and so forth. The identification of salvation solely with “going to heaven” I believe not only impoverishes the meaning of salvation but I also think distorts what being a Christian is all about and the message of salvation that Jesus sends us out to share.

So Jesus gives us Peace and sends us out with his purpose.

And lastly Jesus provides us with the Power to accomplish it. Jesus does not expect us to do His mission just on our own, relying on our own abilities and strength. He gives us His strength, His power: the Holy Spirit. The mission can be accomplished only through His Spirit. Jesus knew very well Thomas and the others will not be able to fulfil the calling on their own, so He came back for him, to empower him as He empowered the other disciples.

We are people of the Resurrection, and the Resurrected One calls us just as the very first were called to move in this world

With His Peace,

To fulfil His Purpose,

Enabled by His Power through the Holy Spirit.

Truly, blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed! Those who serve without fear, for you have life in his name.


Want to listen to the Audio version?  Click on the “Download File” link below and enjoy!   



Sermon ~ Sunday, April 16th, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson


Do Not Be Afraid!
Matthew 28:1-10

Have you ever been afraid? Really afraid.
Not the adolescent in the carnival funhouse or Halloween haunted house frightened or spooked. Not even the staying up late, all by yourself in a room with only one dim light on, watching the Exorcist movie for the first time or reading a Stephen King novel when the power is off and a storm raging outside.
Those of you who have been in war or battle know fear. As do any who have had a close encounter with death, either your own or a loved one’s.

Have you ever tried to comfort a child who came screaming into your bedroom terrified beyond words because of a frightening dream that awoke them? What words can sooth their fears? What actions might help calm their distraught emotions?

Mary Magdalene and the “other” Mary leave for the tomb of Jesus just as there is light enough for them to see. And just as they arrive, their world is shaken, literally according to Matthew! The ground begins to shake as if there was an earthquake. As the earth is trembling an angel descends and rolls back the stone from the tomb’s entrance and then apparently takes a seat there on the stone! The angel’s countenance is like lightening and its clothing as brilliant as blinding snow, as I imagine this scene, as the brilliancy fades, there’s the angel wiping the rock dust and dirt off his/her hands and taking a seat on the edge of the stone. Job done.

On the other hand imagine the women’s fear. This is not what they expected: earth shaking, angel appearing, stone moved away! The guards who were there, Matthew tells us, trembled in fear and then became like dead men. In the midst of this the angel speaks to the women, “Do not be afraid.”
Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth and Matthew’s account of Jesus resurrection share identical words of reassurance which when taken together provide bookends, if you will, for the entire gospel story “Do not be afraid.” According to Luke these are among the first words uttered to Mary by the angel Gabriel. And later after the birth of Mary’s son, they are the first words offered to the shepherds in the field, “Do not be afraid.”

The angel has them look into the empty tomb and then instructs them to go quickly and tell the others. When the women leave to tell the others what they had found, Jesus himself appears to them along their way and after a brief greeting his next words are: “Do not be afraid.”

As children whether it is a nightmare or the monsters under the bed or wolfaboomasses outside the door (wolfaboomasses and woogaboogahs frequent the haunts of our family’s stories) as parents, grandparents we can often eased their fears with a hug and reassuring words.

For adults, our fears can be more complex and words of reassurance harder to come by. As we get older we cannot escape the realization that in the words of Ernst Hemingway “life breaks everyone” at some point or another. Or at the very least life relentlessly wears us down. As adults we live with the increasing sense of death as greedy, eventually claiming everyone we love. When our grown-up fears are stirred up by the adult realities of life, it can seem as if words of comfort are scarce indeed.

In fact, we know enough about the way life works that, if someone tells us “not to worry” we suddenly become suspicious.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you will have noticed that we are experiencing an unusual amount of turbulence in our flight today, but let us assure you that there is no reason for concern.”

Your first reaction might be to think, “Hmmm, I was not particularly worried before. I wonder why the pilot felt the need to tell us that? What’s going on?”

As pastors we spend a fair portion of our time in close proximity to illness and death. In such places, shadowed by fear and loss, I want so much to find and share words that are reassuring. In the end I do not really have such words to offer, at least none of my own. Pastors are not alone in this, of course. Neither do the doctors. In the end, ultimately doctors do not have the authority to say, “Do not be afraid.” Doctors do not know the future. They do not have the antidote to uncertainty. They cannot accompany a patient down every road. None of us can.

Nevertheless, this is what the angels come to say – in scripture and occasionally, in our lives: “Do not be afraid.” It is an angel’s calling card. It is how you know you are being visited by an angel. For who else can say, “Do not be afraid,” and do so with authority?

Well, I guess Jesus could, and does. On a number of occasions in the gospels Jesus does say “Fear not.” It is another visitation.

Now, when an angel says, “Do not be afraid,” or Jesus says, “Fear not,” it is not the assurance that nothing will go wrong, because often things do go wrong.

It is not assurance that everything will turn out alright, because, if we are honest, frequently it does not.

Rather, it is the assurance that, whatever may happen to us, whatever a day may hold,
-God has the power to strengthen and uphold us;
-that whatever we must face, we do not face it alone;
-that nothing we encounter is stronger than God’s love;
-that ultimately God gets the last word;
-that in the end – and sometimes along the way – God’s love is triumphant.

Only God can offer such assurance, and this is why in the end, only God, or one of God’s messengers, can say, “Do not be afraid,” and say it with authority.
It is not the words that are said that matters, it is the source of the words. Soren Kierkgaard illustrates the difference by observing that when a theological student says, “There is eternal life,” and God’s own son says, “There is eternal life,” the words may be the same and equally true, but there is a critical difference only one assurance is said with the authority that can back it up.

The words “Do not be afraid,” take strong root in the hearts and lives of the characters of the Gospel stories, because they accept that these words come from the only One who has the ability to utter such words. There is only One who can offer such assurance in the face of life’s uncertainties and before the certainty of death, and do so with authority. So, if we as pastors are to offer words of strength, of comfort, of surety, we must offer them as messengers from a Source other than ourselves.

It is striking, however, that in this old story, that those who let such words of assurance steep in the hearts and minds end up singing praises and offering blessings. In such lives there are deep resonant echoes of the ancient benediction, as a promise fulfilled:  

“May you fear God so much, that you fear nothing else at all.”

The message of this and every Easter may come through a pastor and through the church but its source is the One who is Eternal and is the same every Easter:  It’s okay. Do not be afraid. Death has been conquered. There is nothing more to fear. And you can go tell the others!

Want to listen to the audio version? Select the “Download file” below and enjoy!

Procession to Passion and Beyond: Are You In?

Sermon ~ Sunday, April 9th, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Procession to Passion and Beyond: Are You In?

Matthew 21:1-11   Philippians 2: 5-11


Palm Sunday shares the worship stage and calendar with Passion Sunday, which in my personal opinion is a shame.  My sense is that we (the Church) has done this because if we had not the vast majority of church goers would hear of Palms and the joyful procession one Sunday and then the next time in worship they would hear the story of the amazing discovery of an empty tomb and the sightings of the resurrected Jesus.  What’s missing in this scenario is all that took place in between!  And again, in my opinion, without what took place in between Easter loses much, if not most, its significance!  So in order to remind the church of the painful account of how people treat one Isaiah prophesied as the “Wonderful counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” has been more and more included in the readings for Palm Sunday. 

But I know all of you will be here for our Maundy Thursday service and the community Good Friday service so I only included the Palm Sunday gospel and the reading from Philippians! (Okay I’ll get off my soapbox!)

Being true to our legitimate human condition is one of the most difficult tasks.  On Palm Sunday Jesus rides into Jerusalem as a sovereign.  By the end of the week, however, Jesus is crucified as if he were nothing but an ordinary common criminal.  The Romans, the religious authorities, the disciples, and the crowds each participate either actively of passively in Jesus’ death.  Throughout the story, however, Jesus remains the person God destined, chose him to be.  Our reading from Philippians reflects Paul’s understanding of who Jesus Christ is, and was, and will be.

Part of being true to the human condition is to be able to see and deal with life honestly and openly, to be willing to see life as it really is, warts and all.  There is a great story from history that illustrates to what extents we will go to in order to hide reality from us.

In 1787 Russian Czarina Catherine the Great left the Winter Palace with her elegant and colorful entourage for the Summer Palace, which was a 1000 mile journey.  As much as the monarch knew the poverty, suffering, and hardship of her people, she knew far less than she could or should have known.  Her then favorite statesman, General Potemkin, took great pains to see that Catherine never saw on her journey her country as it really was.  It is said that beautiful fake towns and villages were thrown up along the route which she traveled.  Brightly dressed and well-fed peasants were moved down the route from one fake village to the next to make her beloved Russia appear, happy, content, and well-fed.  But behind these “Potemkin villages” constructed for her benefit was untold misery, deprivation, and distress. Surely she was not completely deceived by Potemkin’s efforts, but it was much more comfortable (and comforting) to think of her country as it appeared, than it really was behind what we might describe as a Hollywood movie set. 

And don’t think we are any better.  Back in the winter of 2012 I was doing a ride along with our son-in-law Dennis, the Indianapolis police officer.  He worked in a part of the city known as “the swamp.”  A great deal of poverty and the unfortunately the crime that often accompanies poverty plagued the area.  The area was just to the east of down town Indianapolis.  I noticed several places where there was some exterior improvement work being done in the “housing projects” especially on the downtown side of his beat.  Facades and entries were being replaced, upgraded etc.  Dennis explained that a certain organization had given quite a substantial amount of money to the city in order to make more presentable some the areas around the downtown because they were bringing a big event to town.  The event planners wanted it to look nice for all the visitors they were bringing in.  Apparently this is something they do wherever they hold this event.  Indianapolis was not special.

Sadly, by-in-large it was all pretty much a cover-up.  Nothing was really improved  behind the facades, new entries, the parking lot landscaping.  And after the organization and event left town all the interest in the improvements left with as well. 

The event:  Superbowl XLVI       The organization: NFL 

We have these kind of choices in life: Do we want to see things as they really are, or do we want to avert our eyes from the truth that surrounds us?  These are the questions a Lenten faith asks of us, especially the during the events of Holy Week.

One of the fundamental of all human and Christian questions is:

How do we, how do I, how do you, see yourself as a child of God? 

Jesus summed up his philosophy toward material things in his Sermon on the Mount; where he teaches, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither rust nor moth consume and where thieves do not break in and steal.”  (Mt. 6:19-20)  

Let’s be honest, many of us, myself chief among you, rely on things that do not last.  Whether or not it be our health, wealth, position, influence, possessions, titles, or anything else, these can all disappear.  Not to lay a big bummer on you but there is nothing created by us or for us that we cannot lose at some point in our lives. 

The ALICE (Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed) Report for Charlevoix and Emmet counties points out something we hear about all too often; too many of our neighbors live only one or two paychecks away from poverty and homelessness.  While most of us may not be that close to financial disaster how about our health, any one of us could get a dreaded diagnosis and then as God said to the man who built all the barns “Then who will get all you’ve prepared for yourself?”

Perhaps this is why Jesus suggested that when the people of God build a life, they should built it on a solid foundation.  For Jesus this foundation was a relationship with God.

Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, shows what Jesus’ relationship with God looked like, so that we might model our relationship to Christ upon Jesus’ with God.  Listen again as Paul illustrates the incarnation of God in human form and why the incarnation makes Jesus a model to emulate, “ In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

It has been said that appearance follows substance; the message subordinates the medium.  A believer gets good results by discipleship, not by only appearing to be a disciple.

What does all this have to do with procession to passion and beyond?  If we are to be followers of Christ we cannot pick and choose when we are going to follow!  We cannot jump up and down in a Mardi Gras like hype on Palm Sunday and leave our comfortable pews for the week and return to the lily scented safety of our sanctuaries a week later.

For those of us who want to be more Christ-like, our best and most viable option to be a Christian is to actually be a follower of the example of Christ.  And sometimes this will lead us into what is for some uncomfortableness of a Maundy Thursday-like intimacy and at other times a Good Friday like place of vulnerability, ridicule, persecution and even pain.   For this is where Jesus went and it very well could be where Jesus just might lead you and me.

The week began with palms and a joyous procession.  It led to a mockery of a trial, ridicule and crucifixion.  Not to get too far ahead in the story, for we know what was instore for Jesus, but there was no other route for him to Easter morning other than through the gauntlet of Holy Week. 

The question we have to ask ourselves for Jesus is asking it of all his disciples:

For Jesus’ sake and ours . . . Are we in?  

Want to listen to the Audio version?… click “download file” below…enjoy.


Sermon ~ Sunday, April 2nd, 2017 ~  Pastor Neil Wilson


Ezekiel 37:1-14

Osteology . . .not really word that you might come across this week. And, no, it is not a subject that one studies in theological seminary. Those are topics like soteriology (salvation), eschatology (death, judgment, end times), and Christology. But I imagine that you might be able to decipher the definition of osteology through the etymology of the word and referencing one this morning’s scripture passages.  Osteology is the scientific study of bones. A sub-discipline of anatomy, anthropology, and archaeology, osteology is a detailed study of the structure of bones, skeletal elements, teeth, disease, pathology, the process of ossification, the resistance and hardness of bones, etc. often used by scientists in the identification of vertebrate remains with regard to age, death, sex, growth, and development and can be used in a biocultural context. (Thanks to Wikipedia!)

For example, using the field of osteology, osteologists have informed our understanding of history. In 2013 the city of London while expanding their railway system unintentionally uncovered 25 human skeletons at Charterhouse Square. Archaeological excavation of the skeletons temporarily halted the further development of the railway but gave way to new, possibly revolutionary discoveries in the field of osteology, as well as a chance to better understand history.
These 25 skeletal remains, along with many more that were found in further searches, are said to be among the mass graves dug to bury the millions of victims of the Black Death in the 14th century. Archaeologists and forensic scientists used osteology to examine the condition of the skeletal remains, to help piece together the reason why the Black Death had such a detrimental effect on the European population. What was discovered is that most of the population was in generally poor health to begin with. Through extensive analysis of the bones, they found that many of the inhabitants of Great Britain were plagued with rickets, anemia, and malnutrition. There was frequent evidence that much of the population had traces of broken bones from recurring fighting and hard labor.

This got my mind to wandering as it sometimes does during sermon preparation! What if, some hundreds of years from now, some archeologist or anthropologist were to find my bones. What would my bones tell some young osteologist about my life, my diet, my activity or lack thereof! Then I thought about the bones in Ezekiel and how we are told they are very dry. This was not because they were in an arid climate. This is to indicate the spiritual condition of the bones. There was no life in them, they were dry physically and spiritually.

I wondered, what would an analysis of our spiritual bones tell some future osteologist about our spiritual diet and life?

If they could tell us what would we find out about our spiritual health and well-being if our spiritual bones were to be examined? Imagine being run through a special MRI imager that could reveal our spiritual condition. Would the results indicate a deficiency of study, reflection, prayer and a meaningful relationship with God?

What would such an examination tell us about the richness of our spiritual gifts of the Spirit? You know things like, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

But I’m also afraid that some future osteologist doing a spiritual study of our “bones” would find signs in far too many of a history of broken hearts and defeated spirits. And unfortunately, like the bones uncovered in London, we will find too many cases of deep brokenness, often the result of too many church “quarrels and fights” people have been involved in.

The Lord asked Ezekiel if he thought “these bones can live?” What if the Lord were to ask us the same question? What would be our answer? Could we honestly give the humble Ezekiel’s response, “O Lord God, you know”, to God’s great offer of love and mercy?

Who might God be telling to preach to our bones, church?

What words do we need to hear for our life today?

How do we open ourselves up to that living breath of the Spirit?

God is so willing to breathe into us and fill us once more with the transformation that allows us to be part of the realm of God. Can we envision our spiritual bones with new flesh and blood? Can we work with the Spirit to prepare ourselves for the resurrection of Jesus and our own resurrection, in this life as well as any future realm?

When Ezekiel first had this vision and then shared it with the people, these words came as a great source of hope and reassurance to the exiles. I don’t know about you but I have times in my life, while I’m not being held captive in a foreign land, I do feel held captive by some of my old worn out ways and thought patterns. I have seasons when my usual spiritual diet has only served to make me overweight and lethargic. Other times I feel as though I am living in a place of spiritual exile away from the realm of God that I so desire. In all these my relationship with God suffers.

But it is never too late to improve our diet. It’s never too late to find our way home, our true home. The lesson of Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones, is that no matter how dry and lifeless your bones may be, God can still bring life back into them!

No matter how far from the presence of God you may feel you have wandered, God provides a path home and the sustenance to make the journey.

The Lord told Ezekiel to tell the people,

I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, . . . (Ex. 37:14)

God will put God’s spirit (breathe) in us, in me, in you. No matter how dry you think your spiritual life has become, or how empty your faith life feels right now, or how dried up your prayer life may seem . . . God can breathe God’s spirit into us. And these old dry bones can live again!
And what is possible in our personal lives and relationships with God, God is also able to work in our congregational life and relationship with God.

So when asked, “Mortal can these bones live?” our answer can be a resounding “Yes, Lord, most definitely yes!”

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Washing in the Life-Giving Water

Sermon ~ Patti Ulrich ~ Guest Preaching ~ Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Message – Washing in the Life-Giving Water

Lent draws the faithful – sometimes kicking and screaming – to a period of spiritual preparation and renewal in anticipation of the coming jubilance of Eastertide. Throughout the history of the church, candidates for Holy Baptism would often engage in rigorous study, prayer and fasting during Lent. (while we give up things like chocolate)  It was also the time when those who had committed “notorious sins” and were separated from the church would reconcile with God and one another in order to be restored to communion in time for Easter. Lent was, and remains, a time in which all Christians are called to reorient themselves from the distractions of sin, apathy and mundaneness, and return to the life-giving will of God.

The Gospel of John calls the faithful to do the same. It stands as a powerful and provocative witness to the fact that in Jesus Christ, God has revealed Godself to the world. John’s gospel begins by calling Jesus, simply but profoundly, “the Word.” In that first chapter, John employs powerful theological phrases in reference to Jesus, calling him the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”

The Gospel of John describes Jesus, not simply as a miracle worker or faith healer, but rather a worker of signs, each pointing beyond itself to a larger truth. Here in Chapter 9, Jesus works a sign by healing a man who was blind from birth. As word of what Jesus did begins to spread, some Pharisees puff their chests, saying, “If Jesus really was from God, he would have known that the law prohibits such actions on the Sabbath.” But in questioning the legality of what Jesus did, those Pharisees miss the larger point. They focus on the action itself, and not the larger truth that the action reveals.

The blind man receiving sight isn’t the point of the story – at least, not entirely. The man’s physical traits are only a part of the larger narrative. What is more to the point, however, is what the blind man’s relationship with Jesus teaches us about our own relationship with Jesus. John Chapter 9 is a sign that calls attention, not to the story’s resolution, but to the ways in which we find ourselves caught up in the midst of the story. Jesus affirmed the full humanity of this man born blind by treating him with the same compassion and respect that he treated everyone around him.

The disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” They assumed, as most people did in those days, that suffering was the result of sinfulness. As the disciples’ question meets our ears, we may find ourselves thinking, not of physical blindness, but of other scourges that plague us. We watch helplessly as the news reports yet another terrorist shooting. We weep as we hear of yet another life cut short by bullying. We feel inexplicable anger at the grim prognosis of a young mother stricken with cancer. “What have we done to deserve this?” we wonder. “Is God punishing us?” we ask. Suddenly, we realize that the disciples’ question is familiar because it is one that we have all asked of God ourselves.
And yet Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question – to our question – is unwavering: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”

Just a few weeks ago, we learned that our niece’s fourth child was born with Down Syndrome. The road ahead will be difficult for them as they grapple with a new reality for their family. But did they do anything to deserve this?

In our Gospel reading today, both the disciples and the Pharisees encounter a “man born blind,” and instead of seeing him as a person, they see him as an object, a lesson to be learned, a morality play to be performed. First, the disciples observe this man and ask Jesus, “Who sinned?” They equate physical disability with moral imperfection and punishment. The Pharisees hone in on Jesus’ apparent violation of Sabbath law by healing this man on a day of rest. But no one does what Jesus does. Neither the disciples nor the Pharisees actually see the human being in their midst. Their treatment of the man born blind exposes their own inability to see.

The history of people with disabilities in the United States follows a similar course. People with both physical and intellectual disabilities have been denied access to health care and education and even spiritual care for centuries. They have experienced physical suffering and social isolation. The general population has suffered the loss of their presence among us, even if we have failed to notice their absence.

On the day that President Trump took office, the White House website underwent a transformation. President Obama’s website had a page dedicated to people with disabilities. President Trump’s does not and in recent weeks, the Trump administration has sought to deregulate education and health care laws that protect some of our most vulnerable students and citizens. Once again, we are in danger of pushing people with disabilities out of view. (†)

And as our niece’s young family and all of our families start to receive love from people like their daughter, Ellyn, people whose gifts are not always valued by our culture, we can start to believe that every human being has gifts to offer, if only we have eyes to see.

Yes Jesus reminds us that the axiom is true, indeed: Sometimes bad things happen to good people. But Jesus goes beyond platitudes: “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Jesus shows the disciples and all of us that, even in the midst of things we cannot understand, God is at work.

And to prove it, Jesus works a sign. He gives the man sight, yes, but he also gives him something much greater. The man couldn’t quite put into words what had happened to him. He didn’t know exactly why it had happened. But he knew the Savior’s voice! And so, when Jesus says to him, “Go, wash,” he does just that. He hears the Savior’s voice, he follows it, and at long last, he sees Jesus. And he cries out, “Lord, I believe!” as he falls down and worships at Jesus’ feet.

This is the story that Jesus invites us into. Who among us has not experienced spiritual blindness in one form or another?

When we put ourselves before others, we are blind.

When we hold grudges and refuse to forgive, we are blind.

When we do what is easy instead of what is right, we are blind.

Blindness affects our communities, as well. Economic, social and political systems turn a blind eye to the poor, the disabled, the outcast and the marginalized in every corner of the world.

And who among us has not experienced suffering at one point or another? Depression, anxiety, abuse, neglect, broken relationships, illness, lost jobs, fear – the list goes on.

The powerful and life-giving truth of the gospel is that our suffering and grief will not have the last word. As our souls and bodies desperately cry out for relief, we hear the faint yet clear voice of the risen Christ calling us; reminding us that, through the cross, death and its trappings have been swallowed up in victory. The final word rests, not with suffering and blindness, but with life and peace.

And then we hear the most sublime words imaginable, “Go, wash.” And as the cool and refreshing waters of life wash over us, our eyes and our hearts are opened to behold the living Christ, standing as the chains of death and hell lay broken at his feet. And our voice cries out at last, “Lord! I believe!”

(†) Source:“Vulnerability: The Gift Not Fully Valued (John 9:1-41)  By Amy Julia Becker”

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In the Darkness Light

Sermon ~ Sunday, March 12th, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

In the Darkness, Light
John 3:1-17

I’ve seen it on signs at sporting events, on t-shirts, on bumper stickers, I believe even once on a license plate! JOHN 3:16 One of the best known and best loved verses of the Bible.
Can you say it with me?
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,
that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (KJV)
Perhaps it is the popularity of this verse that sometimes can blind us or deafen us to the rest of the chapter three in John’s gospel. It begins

There was a man of the Pharisee sect, Nicodemus, a prominent leader among the Jews. Late one night he visited Jesus . . . (The Message)
Nicodemus, like so many today, is seeking something, enlightenment, knowledge, faith. He makes the that Jesus is “come from God” a phrase that normally is used only of heavenly messengers, so it hints at his belief that there is “something more” about Jesus but at this point Nicodemus is not quite ready to commit himself. He refers to Jesus as a “teacher” and has questions about the “signs” Jesus has been reportedly performing.
Nicodemus, it seems, is ready for a theological and philosophical discussion with this teacher (rabbi), so he probably was not anticipating Jesus’ rather blunt reply about being “born again (from above or anew).”
“Being born again” has come to have so many negative connotations even with many Christians! Consider the following scenario:

A modern day John the Baptizer type knocked on the door of the local church parsonage. The pastor opened the door and a young man was standing there with a small booklet in his hand. “Are you saved?” were the first words out of his mouth.
To which the pastor smiled and said “Yes, I’m a Christian.”
“Yes, but are you saved?” insisted the fellow pushing the little booklet the pastor’s direction.
The pastor stiffened himself a bit and replied in a gruff sort of tone, “I’ll have you know my good man this is the parsonage of the Congregational church and I am the minister here!”
“Ah yes, is that not just like the Congregational Church. But are you saved?”
Let me ask some rhetorical questions which I invite you to use over coffee today or lunch this afternoon.
Where were you born?
What time of day, do you know what day of the week it was? If you wish to share, what year?
Were you born in a hospital or at home?
How did you celebrate your birthday as a child? Is there one that’s most memorable?
When did you first hear about Jesus?
Can you remember a day when you decided to become a Christian, or did it all happen over a period of time?
It may seem silly to ask now without expecting any answers, but they allow us to talk about being born again. Jesus says that being a Christian is like being born again. It is when you start your life all over again and make a fresh start with Jesus.
In many ways those who have had a dramatic, what is sometimes called a “Damascus road” experience of God are lucky in some ways. Blessed in that they know when that happened to them.

I would like to tell you about the time such an event happened in my life, when I suddenly saw the light, the totality of my depravity, my sins paraded before me and I got down on my knees and prayed the sinner’s prayer. . .
But I can’t. I never had such a dramatic life altering event in my life. But I am aware that during a particular period in my life I had an increasing sense of Christ becoming more real to me.
I assume there are people, here this morning, who know the very moment they gave their hearts to Jesus and there are others, like me, have been nurtured in the faith pretty much throughout their whole lives. For me the confirmation of being born again, comes day after day in the way we journey through life with God. And while I can point to that period of a couple of years when that became more of a conscious choice I was making, I find I have to continually, daily, choose to journey with God.
Which I guess could be to say that being born again, doesn’t happen only once, like God’s love which is new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23), we all have to start afresh each day, born again into God’s love, it is not only about newness or fresh starts but about being born again into deepening our relationship with God.
For the next few weeks through our gospel readings, we will be finding out more about Jesus from people who got to know him personally, there is the woman at the well and the man who was born blind, and we will learn that they often got more than they bargained for in those encounters.
If you want to find out about a person there are many ways you can go about it. You can ask others who know the person well to tell you what they know about him or her. You can observe how that person behaves – what they do. You can listen to what they say. You can read what others have said about them.
Or you can get to know them personally.
How does one get to “know” Jesus, not know about him but know him? The best way I know is to put your trust in him, by walking with him, by listening to what he had to say in scripture, talking with him in prayer, which also involves listening to what he has to say to you today.
Nicodemus went straight to Jesus, albeit at night, and in the conversation that followed found out more than he was expecting and perhaps wanted to hear. Like Nicodemus our first questions to Jesus might also be tentative ones. But if you are genuinely seeking to know Jesus he will reveal himself to you just as he did Nicodemus.
Be forewarned though, Jesus isn’t much into small talk! We going to want to talk about the weather and he’s going to press us on whether or not we are going trust him! He always moves to the heart of things, he moves swiftly beyond Nicodemus’ opening comment to the real issue. If you want to be part of the kingdom of God, you need to be born anew, born of the spirit. Being a Pharisee or a rabbi or a minister, a church member or leader in the church or a memorizer of scripture does not guarantee being in the Kingdom. New birth through Christ does. On this the young John the Baptizer character at the pastor’s door was correct.
We don’t know how Nicodemus reacted that night but his conversation with Jesus about the work of the Holy Spirit, the new birth and about Jesus himself, did change his life.
Nicodemus became a supporter of Jesus, spoke up for him in the Sanhedrin, tried to stop him being arrested. He was there at the cross. And in the end he helped Joseph of Arimathea lift Jesus’ broken body down and laid it gently in the tomb.
Nicodemus may have come to Jesus by night but he came into the light as a result of the encounter he had with this “One come from God.”
May we seek and be granted the same experience of rebirth in our lives not once but every day as we make our journey with Jesus.

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The Facelessness of Temptation

Sermon ~ Sunday, March 5, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

The Facelessness of Temptation

Matthew 4:1- 11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  

Did you catch that?  The Spirit led Jesus, if not to the devil, then at least to a place and condition where the devil might approach him.  We been shown the closeness of Jesus’ relationship with his “Abba” Father through the recent disclosure of Jesus’ identity as the “Beloved Son” at his baptism, he is then led by the Holy Spirit to the wilderness to be severely tested!  Clearly, easy, prosperous living is not part of being the Son of God!  It seems that closeness to God can involve struggle and conflict, that will lay bare one’s deepest passion and loyalty.

Just something to think about! 

“Tempted by the devil.”

There’s a scene in the movie The Usual Suspects where the character played by Kevin Spacey tells the detective who’s  interrogating him,

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

This adaptation of a phrase written by the French poet Charles Baudelaire is the premise of the 1995 neo-noir movie.  It is the story of five men wrongly interrogated for a crime, who then punish the police by masterminding a caper.  Payback leaves 27 dead, 91 million dollars worth of drug money missing, and two dark questions: Who is the mysterious Keyser Soze (Ki-zer Soh-zay) who put these crimes in motion, and what kind of unnamed sinister hold does he have over these five seemingly unconnected men? 

The heart of the darkness in this film is not the crime or death; darkness comes from the fact that evil is unrecognizable – it has no face.  Only at the very end of the film is Keyser Soze revealed to be one of the  men who pretended to fear Soze.  Evil was lurking closer than the audience or the characters ever knew.

There is something captivating about seeing evil incarnate on the big screen. Consider that The Exorcist ranks number 1 in total revenue for “R” rated films when adjusted for inflation.  Also in the pages of a novel, look at the success of a former neighbor mine, Stephen King, or to imagine evil in the names of those said by a nation to pose political and terrorist threats.  It is only human to feel the need to see evil anthropomorphized, to name, to visualize, vilify, and separate us from “it” as an opponent in battle.  This is true in the sacred texts as well.  Evil tests Eve and Aaron, the great high priest, Job and King David, Jesus and his disciples.  Over and over again, in order to live a life that chooses God, a faithful person must face the choice of acting outside God.  It is easier to make that choice if we can put a face on temptation, on evil.

A first glance Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness seems rather out of place, even perhaps heretical.  It’s almost gratuitous that Jesus is tempted, for as we know, he will not submit.  Much like the unavoidability of the cross, the defeat of the devil in this encounter with Jesus is inevitable.  Jesus will overcome; yet this scene stands in a pivotal place in Matthew between baptism and ministry, naming the reality of evil in the face of holiness.

Jesus is tempted by bread for his hunger. 

He is tempted to save himself from danger.

He is tempted to take all the power in the world that devil can offer for himself.

Each time Jesus rejects temptation, he sets up for the reader a way to understand the cross to come.  Certainly God can save God’s self from death on the cross, and certainly God in Jesus can refuse temptation to sin, but in our humanity we need to see God (Jesus) face and refuse temptation in the wilderness and be willing to sacrifice on the cross in order to learn the lesson ourselves. 

In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the author writes of a junior tempter-in-training named Wormwood and his mentor Uncle Screwtape.  Young Wormwood’s task is to darken the heart of his “patient,” to train him to love things of the world and reject God, so that Wormwood can finally escort him into what we can only imagine is hell.  The young apprentice tormentor is to keep his patient navel-gazing and self-involved, clueless about who he is as one made in God’s image.

Keep him spiritual, not practical, is Screwtape counsels his nephew, as it is the practical that often brings people to God. 

Encourage him to pray for tangible, desired ends and so direct his prayers to objects and not to God. 

Allow the patient to be overly sensitive until everything, even his own mother, grates on his nerves. 

Keep his prayers formless, as they are easier to manipulate. 

Turn his gaze away from God toward himself. 

Create a subtle conflict when he prays for courage; let him find himself turning boastful.  In the final letter, the patient dies and goes to heaven, leaving Wormwood a failure and Screwtape in a spiral of anger.

The captivating part of this story is not that Screwtape and Wormwood are trying to create an army of ruthless killers; rather they are trying to create a generation of people who are defined by selfishness and insincerity, pettiness and pride, fear and a need to control the things of this world. 

This is true of our own temptations.  Most of us cannot imagine the devil offering bread after a forty-day fast.  We do not know the fear of being held over one of the towers of the Mackinac Bridge and asked to jump so that angels will catch us.   We certainly do not know the temptation of being offered all the power in the world. 

Each one of us, however, understands the temptations Screwtape and Wormwood offer: the temptations of pride, vanity, selfishness, and apathy.  These are just as dark as Jesus’ temptations, and perhaps even more so, because most of the time, like the dreaded Keyser Soze, they do not come with a face.

Temptation comes to us in moments when we look at others and feel insecure about not having enough.

Temptation comes in judgments we make about strangers and friends who make choices we do not understand. 

Temptation rules us, making us able to look away from those in need and to live our lives unaffected by poverty, hunger, disease and oppression.

Temptation rages in moments when we allow our temper to define our lives or when addiction to wealth, power, influence over others, vanity, or an inordinate need for control defines who we are. 

Temptation wins when we engage in the justification of little lies, “small sins:” a racist joke, a questionable business practice we claim is for a greater good, the criticism of a spouse or partner when he or she is not around.

Temptation wins when we get so caught up in the trappings of life what we lose sight of life itself.

These are the faceless moments of evil that, while mundane, lurk in the recesses of our lives and our souls. 

The Lenten practice of penitence engages the dark places in our lives that we may come face to face with them, name them, understand them, and seek forgiveness for them.  It is not about guilt. Lenten penitence isn’t about who can feel the most guilty, which really is just another twisted form of pride.  It is about freedom from the control that our fears and insecurities have over us, about the amendment of life and new beginnings.

Lent can be about reminding ourselves that we are loved by God.  And in many ways we do not have to prove anything.  There is nothing we can do to make ourselves more beloved than we already are.  And with this will come the ultimate defeat of all the faceless temptations we will ever meet.




Ash Wednesday 2017

Let us look to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,
who for the joy that was waiting endured the cross. (Hebrews 12:2)

As You Gather a prayer you might use:

Almighty and Ever living God, who through your Son Jesus Christ,
provided a way of redemption for all who repent and turn from sin:
Create in me a clean heart and renew a steadfast and willing spirit,
that I acknowledge my sinfulness,
may live an upright and holy life by the power of the Holy Spirit;
through Jesus Christ my Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit,
lives and reigns forever, one God, world without end.

“Lectio Divina”, a Latin term, means “divine reading” describes a way of reading Scripture whereby we gradually let go of our own agenda and open ourselves to what God wants to say to us. It dates back to at least the 12th century.

The first stage is lectio (reading) where we read the Word of God, slowly and reflectively so that it sinks into us. Listen for a word of phrase that stays with you resonates with you.

The second stage is meditatio (reflection) where we think about the text we have chosen and ruminate upon it so that we take from it what God wants to give us. What was that word or phrase? Meditate on it.

The third stage is oratio (response) where we leave our thinking aside and simply let our hearts speak to God. This response is inspired by our reflection on the Word of God.

The final stage of Lectio Divina is contemplatio (rest) where we let go not only of our own ideas, plans and meditations but also of our holy words and thoughts. We simply rest in the Word of God. We listen at the deepest level of our being to God who speaks within us with a still small voice. As we listen, we are gradually transformed from within.

These stages are not fixed rules of procedure but simply guidelines to how the prayer normally develops. Movement is towards greater simplicity, with less talking and more listening.

Some suggested Scripture for you to use:
Isaiah 43:1-3a Psalm 103:13-17 Luke 9:23-25

A Prayer upon receiving Ashes (optional)
Almighty God, you created humankind out of the dust of the earth.
Grant that these ashes may be to me a sign of my mortality and penitence,
that I may remember that it is through your gracious gift that any receive everlasting life, through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

Parting Benediction
Go in peace to live for Christ,
to serve him alone and to walk in holiness and righteousness all your days,
through the grace of our Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks be to God!


Art Work and Lenten Poem by Jan Richardson:

All those days

you felt like dust,

like dirt,

as if all you had to do

was turn your face

toward the wind

and be scattered

to the four corners


or swept away

by the smallest breath

as insubstantial—


Did you not know

what the Holy One

can do with dust?


This is the day

we freely say

we are scorched.


This is the hour

we are marked

by what has made it

through the burning.


This is the moment

we ask for the blessing

that lives within

the ancient ashes,

that makes its home

inside the soil of

this sacred earth.


So let us be marked

not for sorrow.

And let us be marked

not for shame.

Let us be marked

not for false humility

or for thinking

we are less

than we are


but for claiming

what God can do

within the dust,

within the dirt,

within the stuff

of which the world

is made,

and the stars that blaze

in our bones,

and the galaxies that spiral

inside the smudge

we bear.


–Jan Richardson

Jan is an artist, author, United Methodist minister, and director of The Wellspring Studio, LLC.


If You’re Not Too Busy

Sermon ~ Sunday, January 22, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

If You’re Not Too Busy

Matthew 4:12-23

“Now when Jesus had heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.”
It would be a new beginning in the life and ministry of this carpenter out of Nazareth. New beginnings can be exciting full of the anticipation of great things to come or they can be full of anxiety about things to come! We cannot really be sure how Jesus felt about this move from Nazareth to Capernaum in Galilee. While apparently compelled to make the move he must have had some apprehensions about what might await him in light of what happened to John the baptizer.
One thing for sure, it would be the start of something, different, new. And right from the onset Jesus was clear with his message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!”
To those in Galilee of the Gentiles, a region that had been tossed back and forth between ruling empires some more oppressive than others, it was a message of good news, that this kingdom had come near (or close at hand.) This promised “kingdom” was something tangible something that was going to change their lives then and there. Yet today, many Christians have difficulty understanding the “kingdom of heaven” references in Matthew, and our misunderstandings may shape the way we respond to the call Jesus extends in this account.
N.T. Wright Anglican bishop and Bible scholar notes that Jesus’ references here and in all of Matthew are not teachings about “going to heaven.” They are not about our escape from this world to another one, but to God’s sovereign rule coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’
Jesus in this story is not calling people to future salvation, but to contemporary action, to fish for people! Jesus didn’t approach Simon and Andrew and later James and John and ask them if they had been saved and then repeat after him the “Sinners Prayer.” Do you know what I am speaking about? An example might be the following:

“Dear Lord Jesus, I know I am a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness.
I believe you died for my sins and rose from the dead.
I trust and follow you as my Lord and Savior.
Guide my life and help me to do your will. In your name, Amen.”

Nothing wrong per se about this. Just, this isn’t what Jesus was doing.
What did Jesus say to them? And what did they do?
Theirs was a call to discipleship, a call to adventure. They dropped what they had thought was important and joined up with something larger than themselves.
And you noticed, Jesus didn’t just sort of wander up to where they were working or hanging out shoot the breeze with them, kick the Capernaum soil around with his feet as they discussed the weather, the last catch, the type of rope they used repairing torn nets, the latest gossip over at the Capernaum Diner. etc., and then sort of unobtrusively ask, “Say fellas, you know, if you haven’t got anything better to do, I mean, if you’re not too busy I got this idea…”
Unfortunately, no, Jesus walked up to them according to Matthew and simply said “follow me.” Now Jesus’ “come and see” invitation from John last week was more like encouraging the curious than Matthew’s calling the fishermen to “Follow me.”
Whether invitational or demanding the response in all the gospels is the same, those called follow.
Have you ever known anyone to respond to the call of God with such clarity and determination? With Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday this past Monday perhaps we can think of or have known someone who responded to the call to leave behind the life they knew to take up the cause of civil rights. I was young at the time but I know the stories of African American sharecroppers, college students, northern priests and pastors who felt called to leave behind the life they had known and devote themselves to a new call.
A friend and mentor in things religious and forestry, the Reverend Dr. Duncan Howlett, was serving as senior pastor of All Souls Church in Washington D.C.. A passionate preacher of human rights Doc. Howlett’s sermons were regularly covered in the Washington D.C. media. Originally a Harvard educated attorney after two years of practicing law he realized, to quote Dr. Howlett, “Lawyers were interested in legal right, and I in moral right, and the two are not the same,”
In March of 1965 Rev. James Reeb and former Associate pastor under Dr. Howlett saw the violence perpetrated against the protestors in Selma, Alabama and decided to join them. A few days later while marching with them he was beaten by White Supremacists and died a couple of days after this. This horrific act went a long way toward galvanizing our nation. Duncan wrote a book about this incident called “No Greater Love: The James Reeb Story.”
Three years later Rev. Dr. Duncan Howlett determined it was time for All Souls to call a younger pastor and that because of the changing neighborhood that young pastor should be black. Which he did and the church not without some struggle called a younger black pastor, one of the first major traditionally white churches in Washington D.C. to do so.
In 1968 he retired to his tree farm in Lovell, Maine which is where my history with this man began. I learned about cultivating Christmas trees, looking for and releasing the trees in an overcrowded stand that will eventually become crop trees, the importance of landowner and local sportsmen’s cooperation. It was Duncan Howlett, who even though somewhat disappointed that I would not continue in the management of his 1200+ acre tree farm who told me that the call to ministry was “the highest and most noble of all calls.”
Duncan died at age 97 in 2003 his life still impacts mine and I often wonder what would Duncan say about this or that. And then I wish I would have the simple courage that he did to write, to say or do the things he did.
Follow Me. And they did.
Joseph Campbell, who did groundbreaking work into archetypal stories found in cultures around the world spoke of the beginning of something as a Call to Adventure. In this opening moment of Jesus’ ministry, when he has begun to call others to join him, we can see the moment when things begin to change: “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” Campbell said that such moments signify “that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity to a zone unknown.”
Many of us have faced such a moment in our lives. Something that challenges our center of gravity spiritual or moral and this wants to shift the story from one of self to one of a larger context.
Many classic and modern stories begin with a Call to Adventure. J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo in the former and Frodo in the latter are urged by Gandalf the wizard to leave behind the comfortable and set out on a quest. More recently the movie The Matrix (An illustration form which we began Confirm not Conform class.)Neo (Keanu Reeves) is sought out by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a man who joins others in convincing Neo that he is the One called to change the world. In both cases, characters are confronted with a call that will change their lives completely.
How we respond to the call of Jesus is significant. Simon Peter and Andrew – and later James and John – are said to have responded to this call straightaway. The Greek Matthew employees indicates a direct response. These fisherman did not pause to think it over, they did not consult their families or their schedules or bank balances.
They didn’t question whether or not they had the right qualifications, experience or background, whether they were too young or too old.
Jesus called, and they responded.
They seemed to sense that whatever it was, it was worth infinitely more than anything previous to that point in their lives.
Jesus is still calling “Follow me.” Not just to belief in him, or church membership, or even merely service for the sake of service. Discipleship is so much more.
And like with those first called, Jesus does not wait for persons to apply to him in the hopes of learning under him. Instead, Jesus is the one who seeks out followers, learners, apprentices who do not have to qualify for such a relationship, except for one quality, the willingness to follow into something which is sometimes very difficult yet bringing more joy, and infinitely more than you have known or thought possible.
I have not been the most faithful or courageous of Jesus’ followers but I can vouch for the fact that the life of discipleship has been for the most part more meaningful that most other decisions I’ve made and While I might not have impacted as many lives in the same way as my mentors the Reverend Dr. Duncan Howlett, my decision to take up Jesus on his call did impact one, mine!

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