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

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


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Well, At Least I’m Not . . . !

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Sunday, October 23rd, 2016 ~ Sermon ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

 

Well, At Least I’m Not . . . !

Luke 18:9-14

Two people stopped by a church to pray one day.  They came separately but stepped into the sanctuary at about the same time.

The first woman, dressed to the “nines” in her mid-forties, walked in through the front doors of the church.  She had an elegant, well-mannered look about her.  The other one much younger, slipped in through the side door that came in through a hallway from the parking lot on the back side of the church.  It would appear she had come in from work and if her garb was any indication she perhaps worked as a chambermaid or even a dishwasher at a local restaurant.  She wore a stained apron and had a tired, worn look about her.

They each took a seat in a pew.  They were the only ones in the sanctuary so even though they were several rows a part, they were certainly aware of each other.

The first one removed her lace gloves, carefully bowed her head and began praying out loud, “Holy Lord God, Divine author of life and death and all that is seen and unseen, I thank you for the manifold blessings I have been privileged to know and continue to experience. Oh source of all Divine love, I am undeserving of your lavish grace.  I have been blessed with a wonderful family, loving husband, three beautiful children. And Lord, for whatever reason, you have blessed me with a comfortable life, unlike some who have to toil at hard labor for long hours for a living.  I know that none of us are worthy of your goodness but I thank you that I have received much from you.  Perhaps it is because you think I can handle it better than others that I have been these blessings. So I’m here to thank you and tell you your trust in me was not misplaced.  Once again it has been my pleasure and privilege to speak with you in this holy and sacred moment of prayer.  Amen.”

With this she opens her eyes, lifts her head, reaches in her purse pulls out a little mirror looks herself over in it, touches up her makeup a bit, slowly stands while she slipped her fancy gloves back on and made then her way to the door and left.

  The other woman had sat quietly through this time half listening and half wondering what she would say.  She was feeling rather intimidated by what she had just over heard. 

So sitting there fidgeting with something or other in her little handbag, she looks up into the ceiling of the sanctuary and began, “Um, um, God?  Jesus?  Whatever, whoever?  I’m not sure what I’m supposed to call you but I am callin’ on you, right now!  If I remember you like it when we are humble, so Lord I’m a tryin’.   But right now it’s been pretty damn hard and it’s not fair.  My kid is sick and is missing school.  I’ve had to stay home with him because as you know whether you like it or not I’m not married and there no one else.  So I’m taking the night shift and I’m just plain worn out.  I’m lucky the neighbor is willing to watch him at night.  I think she is trustworthy.  I’m not so sure about her boyfriend though.  I hope so, but what else can I do?   I’m trying my best.  A little help would be greatly appreciated!”

“Well, that’s about it.  And I guess, I thank yah for listenin’. That is if you are?  I have no idea because I haven’t heard a word from you yet!”

She looks down from the ceiling, gathers her things together, looks at her cell phone, lets out a quiet gasp, apparently she is late for something.  She jumps up and starts toward the doors.  But just as she leaves the sanctuary she looks back to the pew where the other woman had been praying, the scent of her perfume still lingering in the air, and not quite under her breath she adds another little prayer: “Well, Lord, at least I’m not like her!”

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. 

Who are you Pharisee of tax collector?  It is hard to read this parable without putting ourselves the one role or the other and perhaps both at different times.  But in the end does it make any difference?

Regardless of our station, class, rank, location in life it can be all too easy to compare ourselves to others and to do so in a more favorable light.  No one is immune to a deficiency in humility.  And there is no vitamin supplement for this!

“I may be such and such but at least I’m not like so in so!”

 “I may not be the best whatever (dad, mom, friend) but I’m at least better than some others.”

And let us not think that we do not do this as Christians with each other!!

I’ll be the first to raise my hand as guilty.  How many times have I thought if not said out loud “Well at least I’m more theologically astute, biblically informed, morally enlightened, spiritually mature that those ????!”

I am not preaching to the choir this morning folks!

How seductive it is to trust in ourselves that we are the enlightened, and to regard others with contempt.  (We like that word better than “righteous”!)  We do our good duty, go to church whenever possible; we put our envelope in the plate or make that automatic payment online.  We serve the church and our community in many ways. 

Hooray for me!  Boo for those who do not follow the rules as we do – those whose work is detestable to us, who we would prefer not sit in the same pew with us.  Even if we do don’t take our judgement to this extreme, it can be difficult to avoid looking on some with a bit of contempt when they do not conform to our expected standards of behavior, especially when it comes to religious behavior. 

Well, at least I’m not like . . . !”  If we have not said it, we have thought it!!

Jesus challenges us to avoid trusting in our own efforts at righteousness and to humble ourselves before a merciful God.  Trust is called for, but not a trust in ourselves or our ability.  What is called for is a trust in God’s mercy.  In a culture that values individual; achievement so highly, this can be a tall order, but even as we are cautioned not to trust our ability to fulfill the law, nowhere else does Jesus say that we may ignore the law! 

Humility in discipleship is a balancing act.  Because as we all know the moment you realize just how humble you are . . . you’re not! 

“. . . for all who exalt themselves will be humbled,

               but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The question is: Can we humble ourselves?  Or does it take an act of God?   

For some of us it is only when we mess up in a big way or to use a phrase from the recovery community “hit rock bottom” that we gain the humility and in that humility a heart that has room for God. 

This past week I was called to visit an individual in the local jail.   I did not know this person before I met with them in the contact visitation room in the jail.  All I knew was that this person had had a difficult few days and wanted to talk with a pastor.

I listened as the events that led up to the arrest and imprisonment were shared.  I heard lots of things but what I did not hear were excuses, any rationalizations, or attempts at self-justification.  An act had been committed that resulted very tragic consequences for which this individual took full responsibility.  We talked about forgiveness, human and God’s.  We spoke about mistakes made and repentance.  We spoke about the love and support of a few that had stayed with this individual throughout the ongoing ordeal. 

This person had been leaning hard on the psalms especially the Psalms of  lament.  I encouraged him to read and reflect and pray on Romans 8: 35-39

 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . .   No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,  nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

 

Here was a person who had hit rock bottom and had messed up in such a big way that there was nothing left but a wounded heart that was wide open for the undeserved mercy of God.  In the end this person’s only request:  pray for fairness and justice for every one including the victims.

But the tax collector, standing far off  . . .  was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ 

I pray that it will not take such an act on my part understand the mercy of God and to open my heart up to such love and grace.

To which I guess my prayer would be simply:

Lord, help me be humble, but don’t ever let me know it!  Amen!


{Don’t} Be a Pest!

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Sermon ~ Sunday, October 16, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Don’t Be a Pest!

Luke 18:1-8

 

Jesus told them a parable . . .  In a certain city there was a judge.  Now this judge neither feared God nor had respect for people.  And in that same city was a widow . . . 

 Starts out like any number of teaching stories Jesus used but then it turns a bit awkward.  Actually this is one of the more difficult parables in all of the Gospels.  Interestingly Luke is the only one who records it, maybe because it is so odd or perhaps he found it fascinating and wanted to try to incorporate the unusual and challenging into his portrait of the teaching Jesus.

On the surface of the story the widow is being a pest.  And this is where the story becomes a bit problematic for me.  The widow is portrayed as continually harassing the judge for her right to be heard.  I grew up in a culture where it was considered poor form and impolite to bother or pester someone.  You might ask 2 or 3 times and then you would wait.  Now this may not have always been the case when I was a child!  Thus I was reprimanded many times, “Don’t be such a pest!”  Am I alone here?   

On the other hand she is going up against a crooked (unjust) judge.  At least this is how Jesus describes him.  Jesus imagines in his story a woman with a legal case to pursue and by implication her case has legitimacy.  Jesus describes the judge as neither, fearing God or respecting of people.  In other words he could not care less.  There was no one in a position to pressure, cajole or manipulate him.  He wasn’t elected and didn’t feel any accountability to God or human.  Yet the widow will not leave him alone.  She pesters him endlessly until he finally adjudicates her case in her favor.  And he does this not because it was the right thing to do, but simply because she is being such a nuisance.    

At first glance like in many parables of Jesus, we might assume a character like the judge to be analogous to God.  But here this certainly does not set well with us.  How could God ever be like this judge?

It helps to understand the classic rabbinic rhetoric at the time.  Jesus was using the reasoning that if something small and mundane were true how much more the parallel point would be true on a higher level with issues which were greater, say, even heavenly.  If an irritating widow can coax justice out of a crooked and uncaring judge, how much more will a compassionate God hear and respond to our cries? 

And the moral of the story?  Pray constantly – just like the widow. 

At least on one level that is the “moral of the story”!

But it is also a parable about the powerful and powerless; the power of a male judge against the power of a woman, a widow, in a society that stacked the cards in favor of men over women.  The fact that she is a woman and a widow matters.  In the world of Jesus, women were very vulnerable; widows were extremely vulnerable.  The premise of the parable would have on first take been rather ridiculous and difficult to accept in ways that we might find difficult to understand from our 21st century western perspective.

But the reality of it was that no woman in the in the ancient world would have been likely to intercede on her own behalf in the way that Jesus portrays this widow.  His listeners would have been either shocked by her brazen actions or laughing at her foolishness as she breaks every social convention.  She had no right to approach the judge whether in private or public.  Women did not do such a thing, and women had no access to legal recourse or recognition in a court before a judge.

The rules of Jewish society in Jesus’ time were harsh and discriminatory against women.  Unmarried women were not supposed to leave the home of their father unaccompanied.  Married women were not allowed to exit the home of their husband unaccompanied.  Women could not testify in court because their word was considered unreliable.  Remember how the women who went to the tomb in the Easter story were disbelieved as recounting “an idle tale.”

Women could not appear in public venues, they were discouraged, if not banned from talking to strangers, which is why the account of Jesus and the woman at the Samaritan well so scandalized the disciples.

This parable of Jesus was and is difficult to understand because it breaks so many of the moral and traditional rules of the time, which in some ways may actually be the point!  According to societal norms, this widow should have just accepted her fate; but by refusing to do so, she acts so out of character that the judge is astonished.  In this way, she becomes the model of faithfulness on earth that Jesus is looking for in verse 8.

The teaching point or “moral” here: To be faithful sometimes may require acting a bit out of character!  Being faithful may sometime look like pestering for justice.  Being faithful may put you outside the norm of the culture!

There is however, another level to the story, which is tough to swallow: this issue of persistence.  And I’m thinking back to the “don’t be a pest” that I was my indoctrination as a youngster.  

The parable is about persistence, about showing up consistently to press the case, the injustice.  An unrelenting widow makes a pest of herself to an unjust judge who does not care for or have the time for her, even though she presses him to give her a favorable judgement.  The Judge is called “unjust” – meaning perhaps that he takes bribes and milks the system and gets what he can to his personal benefit, and is only willing to listen to those who will or can pay for justice. 

As I mentioned earlier, the literary rhetorical technique used by Jesus seems to be the ‘lesser to greater’.  Jesus concludes that if the unjust judge can grant justice in response to badgering, how much more will a righteous God grant justice to those who cry out day and night.  It is important also to note that Jesus avoids the notion that God must be worn down before granting justice.  Luke presents Jesus categorically saying “God will quickly grant justice.”

This is where it gets hard to accept at least for me.  In our experience, it is not often the case that justice comes quickly, and the by appearance of things, prayer is not always answered in the way we pray and want.  Much as we might like it to be the case, persistence in reality is not an automatic formula which equates earnestness with the desired outcome.

When our prayers begin and end with what we want, as opposed to what God wants, we have a very narrow field of spiritual vision.  Prosperity, as attractive as it is, is not what God promises, and unlike some popular TV preachers, anyone who promotes the idea of prosperity as an outcome of faithful living needs to take a fresh look at the cross and the cost of faithful discipleship as exemplified in the life of Jesus Christ!

It is an odd parable with an odd set of characters, and odd dynamics.  If the parable is strange and disturbing, the last line is the oddest of all because it seems to come out of nowhere.  Having made the point that God is more than an unjust judge, and more readily responsive than any jurist who can be cajoled by a woman who pleads her cause incessantly, we are left with a question that does not seem to fit what has gone before.  Luke places this question on the lips of Jesus, “When the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

It is a particularly haunting question.  It transforms the story from one that is simple and easy to apply, into one that is much more expansive and important.   Why on earth did Jesus tell that parable and then ask this question?

In verse 1 Luke writes that the parable is meant to encourage us to pray always and not lose heart, to live expectantly and in anticipation of God’s work in and among us.   

The question Jesus leaves us with is: “Will we?” 

We will be as bold and brash as the widow in seeking justice not just for ourselves but all?

Will we dare to step outside the cultural norm because of our faith?     Risk even seeming foolish in the eyes of those who have bought into the way things are.

In sort when the day comes, will Jesus find faith in us? 


Living Between Gracious & Greedy

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Living Between Gracious & Greedy

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, October 9, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Luke 17:11-19

 

Diane Gottsman, a present-day manners and etiquette expert, (so of course her advice “column” is “online”) was asked these questions regarding the etiquette of expressing gratitude for a gift received.

  1. In your opinion, is the traditional thank you note outdated?

Her response: “Is gift giving outdated?”

  1. How do I know when I need to write a thank you note?

If you are ever in the position to wonder if you need to write a thank you note, the answer is most likely a resounding yes!

  1. Is it true that if you are “looking them in the eye when you say thank you”, you do not have to send a thank you note?

Generally speaking, if you live in the same house or share the same bathroom, you are likely immediate family so a verbal thank you is all that is warranted.  However, it all depends on the gift, gesture, and effort. Even your mother or husband would appreciate an unexpected and heartfelt thank you note for their gesture of kindness.

  1. How long do I have before a thank you note is no longer appropriate?

It’s always best to send out a thank you note within the first 48 hours but a tardy thank you note is better than no thank you note at all.  Even a year later, believe me, the giver still remembers and will be relieved to know you used the gift or appreciated a monetary gift.

And by the way the mass email thank you just does not cut it!!  

http://dianegottsman.com/2011/01/thank-you-note-etiquette/

 

The question for this morning is “How soon do we have to say thanks?” 

And the answer, informed by today’s well known biblical story, is: “The moment we feel grateful.”

But what does gratitude feel like?   How do we identify its presence in us? 

For some, gratitude may feel like a tightly budded rose slowly unfolding in the chambers of one’s heart, a deep seated, wordless sensation.  At other times, gratitude may feel more like fireworks exploding in the center of your being, the uncontainable seeking expression.

Whether gentle or intense, these moments of gratitude demand a response – a tear rolling down a cheek, a quick prayer, a promptly made phone call or a bear hug delivered to the one who has been for me the “bearer of God’s grace.”

Jesus was such a “bearer of God’s grace” to these ten lepers.  They in their longing for wholeness and healing called out to him as he walked the road to Jerusalem.  “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  They pleaded from a safe distance.  And Jesus, ever so compassionate, tells the ten to “show themselves to the priests.”  While they are on the way to the temple, their leprosy is healed.  The rest of the story is legendary – ten were healed, one return to thank Jesus and this one was a Samaritan, a despised foreigner.   

The truth is we are sometimes found among the ingrates and sometimes we might be like the one who came back.

One theologian calls this dual aspect of our nature the battle between the gracious and the greedy.  The greedy side of us overconsumes all the good things of life thinking that we are somehow deserving, entitled.  It’s rather like the old Scotsman who was said to have kept the Sabbath and anything else he could put his hands on!  (Being of Scottish ancestry I can say that!)

The gracious side, on the other hand, meets life with a sense of humility at the many blessings all around us.  It takes only what it needs and understands that such gifts are meant for all.

So let’s take a look at these two sides of ourselves

First, when we are among the nine, what is it that keeps us from coming back to God in gratitude? 

There are many answers. 

We’re too busy, too self-absorbed, too taken up in the whirl of each day. 

We are too wealthy; we are too poor,

   or too worried about the current state of our lives.

We care too much about ourselves and too little for others. 

We are striving too hard to get ahead. 

We are too bitter about past hurts, too demanding of other people,

   and our expectations for what we deserve in this life are entirely too high. 

To name a dozen!

What worries me most, though, regarding my own lack of gratefulness, is that too often it stems from my tendency to be more rational that faith-full.  How often have I, in my oh-so-modern wisdom, explained away God’s grace with a ton of rationalizations?

Charles L. Brown (Not the friend of Linus and Lucy!) suggested some time ago that the nine cured lepers who did not return with gratitude might have used these rationalizations.

One waited to see for sure if it was real.

One waited to see if it would last.

One said, “I’ll catch up with Jesus later.”

One decided that he probably never really had leprosy to begin with.  

One said that he would have gotten well anyway.

One gave all the glory to the priests.

One said, “O, well, Jesus really didn’t do anything.  He just spoke to us keeping his distance.”

One said, “Any rabbi could have done it.”

And the last said, “I was already much improved.”

I guess my point is that gratitude rarely grows from a rationalizing mind.  Gratitude grows from an open heart, a believing heart, a heart willing to believe that God can and does offer us grace-filled moments that cannot be, need not be explained away by rationalization.

“Gratitude is born in hearts that take the time to count up past mercies.” said Charles Jefferson (a congregational minister from the early 20th century.) As trite as it may be it is good to on occasion take the time to “count our blessings.”

Which leads us to the other side of usWhat makes us come back to God with grateful hearts? 

What makes us come back are powerful infusions of grace.  We are going about in our heady, preoccupied state and, wham, grace breaks through and rips the blinders from our eyes.  And then we can see:

That smile in a stranger’s eyes when she looks our way;

The puffed up sparrow in a winter tree disclosing perfectly the beauty of God creation;

The apology that is accepted without one judgmental word;

The snide remark withheld; the sarcastic word suspended;

The healing that comes from one kind word delivered to us on a bad day;

The utter miracle contained in each breath we take, each sunrise we witness, each day of this magical mystery tour we call the human life;

 

And oddly enough gratitude helps us to see the inequalities of our world such as absolute injustice of some feasting happily on God’s plenty, while others go hungry in the night, to recognize our modern day “lepers” who are forced to live on the edges of society.

But what happens when even just a few Christians cannot see this, when we choose to be indifferent or ignorant of the sufferings of people, strangers, those different from us.  Sometimes we do not “see” in order to protect our privileges, way of life and comfort.  What does this say to others about our faith and our Jesus?  The world is watching and sometimes wondering!      

In his book, The Christ of the Indian Road, E. Stanley Jones asked Gandhi how to best naturalize Christianity into India. Gandhi replied in part:

“I would suggest first of all that all of you Christians, missionaries and all begin to live more like Jesus Christ.”   

Remember the fellow who came back was a Samaritan, a foreigner.

It is only when grace has removed our blinders that we can begin to allow our graciousness to overcome our greed.  And that is the moment when our gratitude is perfected in God’s sight.

A while ago I was driving from home to the church on State Street, I came to one of the intersections and there was a group of three or four people just about to step into the crosswalk.  Now I don’t know about you but hardly anybody stops for pedestrians on State Street, especially after Labor Day!  But that time I did for some reason.  And as they started across the street I could then see that one of them was using a walker.  And it was soon evident that even with a walker this person needed some assistance.  So it took a little more time than usual, a little more time then I planned.

So I waited.  A vehicle came up behind me.  They had to wait.   

Another one coming in the other direction was forced to stop and wait because of what I had begun.  They had no more than got across the one side of the street when the driver of the oncoming vehicle impatiently pulled through right on their heels. 

When they reached the other side the person with the walker looked my way and simply smiled.  The companions with a tip of the head mouthed a “Thank you.”  And everyone was on their way. 

There we were on a cool autumn morning doing a little dance of gratitude, the strangers for making it across the street without as much worry, me for the little smile, a tip of the head acknowledgment that made my morning.

How soon should we say thanks? 

The moment we feel grateful. 

And what will it look like? 

A wave of the hand, a silent thank you, and smile that opened up the “eyes” of one’s heart that it might have a little more room that day for gratitude.

 


Increase Your Faith Three Easy Steps Call Today!

increaseourfaith

Increase Your Faith Three Easy Steps Call Today!

Sermon ~ Sunday, October 2, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Luke 17:5-10

 

This story has been around for a while in various forms.  One version is that of a husband and wife who regularly attended church together.  But it seems the husband would on occasion doze off during the sermon.  He was attentive to the announcements, sang along with the hymns and songs, wide awake and serious in prayer, chuckled along with the rest at the antics of the children during the children’s message. But when the preacher stepped into the pulpit it was like he suddenly developed sleep narcolepsy.  Bam!  He was out . . . much to his wife’s mortification he would occasionally snore! 

One Sunday on their way home she started to scold him but he insisted he had been awake.

“Very well,” she said triumphantly, knowing better.  “What did the minster preach about?”  She had him!

He paused.  “He preached about sin.”

“What did he say about it?”  She asked smugly.

“He was against it!”  He harrumphed.

Now I don’t know if this answer proved whether or not he was awake, but I do know that generally a preacher who has spent some time preparing a message for Sunday morning would, all things considered, prefer you stay awake and pay attention.

However, this week, some of you are getting a free pass.  Some of you, I know, need to let your minds wander.  And that is alright.  Sometimes something is said and you need to explore that thought and it is fine with me to let your mind wander as you process it chase it down if you will.

Today some of you are getting a free pass because this message is not about you.  If you are humble, if you are meek, if you are a confessing Christian who is already aware of your sins and have asked Jesus for forgiveness, have never struggled with doubt or questioned your faith, you have permission to close your eyes, lean back, and relax.  You’ll hear the organ began the Hymn of Reflection.

As for the rest of us, (and I do mean us because I include myself!) we might want to pay attention but don’t let on this is hitting us right in the heart.

The Bible speaks some uncomfortable truths.  Sometimes people don’t like the way the Bible speaks.  You may have heard about Thomas Jefferson’s Bible but sis you know that in 1833 Noah Webster, whose influential dictionary shaped the American lexicon, published his own version of the King James Bible because to his thinking the biblical writers insisted on using indelicate words to describe human things.  He found biblical language “offensive,” “distasteful,” and “unseemly.”

Now there is that place at the end of Revelation where we are warned not to change a single word. (Some forget though, that at best this applies only to Revelation!)  All the same, if we could, who wouldn’t do just a little pruning?  Especially in today’s passage where Jesus talks about slavery, acts as if slavery were normal, and then tells us we need to consider ourselves slaves in relationship to God.

Slavery is a real problem in the world today.  Any reference to slavery that might suggest approval can be painful, or at least distracting.  No one should suggest in any way that scripture approves of slavery.  Even in the ancient world, where slavery was an economic, not a racial, condition, and many slaves could earn money and buy their freedom, it was still an instrument of power and it was wrong, to use a biblical word an abomination!

So when we find a reference in Luke that sounds as if Jesus takes slavery for granted, we might consider what Jesus was actually saying in this text.  He is chastising his disciples, who were his closer followers and should have been stronger in their faith, for their lack of faith, their inability to match the faith of a mustard seed.  He calls them to stop acting as if they were entitled to a place in the kingdom, and to work a little harder to make it happen. 

In the same way we ought to consider how this passage might be directed toward us who are a little too fat and sassy in our faith.  Especially in our era, when our hymns and our testimonies and even some of our theologies lead us to talk about “my Jesus” and “my God” and “my Bible.”  We can get to feeling pretty tight with the big Guy, “Just you and me Lord, just you and me.”

God becomes someone, a force, an energy, we can call in to help us on our project, to reach our goals.

Now those of you who have been asleep, this is why this message isn’t for you.  You are the ones who sit at the last place, to whom Jesus says, come forward and take your place at the table of honor.  You identify too much with the preachers of our colonial Congregationalists who referred to us as worms and describe what it’s like to be sinners in the hand of an angry God, while you’re safe from God’s wrath!  You’re really the ones to whom Jesus says, “Come unto me all you who are heavy laden, and l will give you rest.”

The rest of us, however, have to ask if we are really all that heavy laden.  Are we pulling our fair share?  Or have we pretty much had a free ride until now?  We who are proud, too self-assured, lacking in humility, who put ourselves in the first place, and look down on others as unworthy of God’s grace and salvation, we’re the ones to whom Jesus says, “Whoa there!  Wait a minute.”

Yes come to the table, but for once come to serve the Master.  Come expecting nothing, but a full helping of discipleship.  Tend God’s sheep, then feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit those in prison.  Maybe we’ve had it just a little too easy. To be sure the grace of God is free.  Maybe because we’ve paid nothing for it we have no real notion of its value.

The disciples said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” as if it were something to be done with a magic wand, with no more effort than the wave of a hand.  Authors today promise, “Read my book it will explain it all out for you.”  The supermarket tabloids keep on assuring us that we don’t need to sweat, we can lose those 40 pounds without dieting and exercise, that we can build muscles without any effort, six-pack abs while sitting in our recliners.  

Mustard seed faith might just work a little better if we plant our prayers on our knees.  This is not a scripture for the poor in spirit. They are blessed already.  This is for the rest of us.

But take heart – because we are not alone in this and we have someone on our side.  Someone wise and good: Jesus our master, and not only Jesus but our sisters and brothers!  The ones who are sleeping through this service.  Who among you, Jesus asks, would seat yourself, a slave with the master, poor with the rich?

In the Roman Empire such boundaries were honored as a matter of course.  But we know from church history that as the early church acted on these teaching of Jesus they found that when they came to the table of fellowship, all were welcome, despite the restrictions of Roman society.  And there was transformation.  The rich became poor.  The poor were lifted up.  Slaves were freed.  Masters bent to wash the feet of slaves.  As they all sought to emulate the way of their Master, Jesus of Nazareth.

Would you be with me in prayer?

Holy One, we come before you, humbled by the sacrifice of Jesus.

 As we break the bread and drink the cup

 let us call to mind the cross of Jesus until his return. 

Let us serve each other as slaves, not bound by laws or chained by the powerful, but freely pouring out our lives in service to each other and to God’s kingdom, following your example.

May we renounce the sins of selfishness and pride.

One Christ, one cross, one table, one people, serving one God.  Slaves to each other, freed with each other.  In your great name we pray.  Amen.

Okay. The rest of you can wake up.  We’re through.  And if someone asks you later How was church, show them your bulletin and if they want to know what the message was about just say sin.  And if they need any more details just tell them that we’re against it.  Especially our own! 

And again . . .  Amen!


The Photo Op

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Sermon ~ Sunday, September 18, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

THE PHOTO OP

Luke 16:1-13

(Told in Maine accent) Business has been slowing down at Joe’s Barber Shoppe now that Labor Day has passed.  The summah complaints have left but the locals haven’t made their way back to Joe’s.  They like to give it a few days maybe a week or two to make sure they’re all gone.   That way when they hang out a Joe’s they have something to talk about!  

So when Rev. Williams stopped by earlier this week he was the only one in the shop the entire time he got his haircut and then for the hour following.  He has found that it is often during these unexpected moments that real ministry can take place or as in the instance of this opportune moment his knowledge of our local history helped to enhance his ministry.

It all began rather matter-of-factly when Joe was sharing all the news he had heard that morning over coffee at Helens’ Diner.  The McConnolly boys were hauling docks out of Hobbs Pond. Somehow they didn’t set something right and their brand new Dodge pickup ended up in 4 feet of water and 2 feet of mud!  Perry Packard broke his tow cable twice trying to break the truck loose from the Hobbs Pond muck!

Then there was the account of the red lobster that the Parker boy caught off of Christian Pt.  He’d already caught a blue lobstah in one of his traps last summah.  But a red one (red right out of the trap not the cooking pot!) is rare.  Folks up to Orono at the university say 1 in 10 million!   And oh yeah, Sam Coleridge was thinking about getting back into the used vehicle business. 

In spite of the images of the McConnelly boys hopping and tearing around as their pick up slid into the pond and the rarity of a red lobster, what caught the Reverend’s ear was that one of his church council members “getting back into the used car sales.”  Sam Coleridge was known for many things but he had never heard of him ever being in the used car business. 

Rev. Williams only knew of one used car dealer in the area and that was Ernie DesChambeau’s Used Car Emporium over in Pembleton, where he had purchased his current 2012 Ford Escape Hybrid which wasn’t at all what he planned on buying the day he stopped by Ernie’s.  But you know it was his “lucky Day!”

Now Sam has the reputation about town as one who has his hand into just about everything, and both hands, if there is a dollar to be made.  Mostly it is the construction business with various side enterprises that might be loosely affiliated with the business of building, digging, moving dirt and such.  A few years ago he purchased an old worn out City of Portland vacuum truck that he refitted to serve as a septic tank pumper.  On the side of the huge tank Sam had the words painted “It sucks but somebody’s gotta do it.  Coleridge Septic Services Rockhaven, Maine.”  On the back there’s a picture of Pepe Le’ Pew pinching his nose with his fingers.  Across the bug deflector on the hood is written in large magic marker lettering, “Sam’s Kucka Sucka.” 

Old Jim always claimed that with Sam’s luck at business he could fall into one of those septic tanks and come out with someone’s lost wedding ring and be the town hero.

 “Oh yeah,” Joe replied as he brushed the last of the Reverend’s now more than occasional gray hairs from his electric clippers. “It was back in the 70s ‘bout the time of the Oil Embargo.”  

“You’ve heard of Northland Auto Group, well, they were big even back then.  They had a franchise with every major manufacturer from Cadillac to Chrysler.  You could by a Cadillac Fleetwood or a Ford Fiesta, even a Fiat from a Northland dealership.” 

No patrons were waiting so Joe went over the old pop machine reached around the back grabbed the key and unlocked the machine, reached in a got himself a Fanta Root beer and offered the pastor an Orange which the he politely first refused then accepted at Joe’s second offer.

 

“Ayuh, the CEO, Peter Pierson, came up himself to make the sales pitch to Sam.  Oh it was all very impressive.  Peter, you know, was and is the face of Northland Auto group on all the TV commercials and his smiling face features prominently in all those full page ads in the big city newspapers.”

“The rumor got around after a fashion that Northland Auto Group approached Sam thinking this area would be an opportune place to unload some of their older, less desirable, used vehicles. Especially those big old gas guzzlers!  What do we know up here about cahs anyway, right?”  Joe slid into the vacant barber’s chair and took a big swig of his root beer.      

  Yes, the Reverend had heard of them and their very slick television commercials.  Their tagline: “We have the most beautiful cars in our dealership show rooms. So, come on in. They’re bigger than ever and they last a lifetime!”

So the Reverend did just that, . . . once.  He stopped found that indeed they were bigger and last longer . . .  the loan payments that is!

“O yeah,” Joe continued with his little bit of Rockhaven history for the parson.  “Sam ran Northland Auto Group’s used car lot for a number of years until all of a sudden word got out that Northland was threatening to take the dealership away from Sam.  Whether it was some shady dealing on Sam’s part or just poor accounting practices seems Sam got into trouble with cooperate headquarters.”  

“Sam, always with his ear to wind for the next great opportunity, got word of what may be coming down from corporate in Portland.  Threatened with the loss of his dealership and feeling like he was about to slip into a septic tank, Sam devised a little plan of his own.” Joe paused in thought chuckled to himself.

“Suddenly, pastor,  there were deals galore!  Signs went up under hoods: no reasonable offer refused, double money on your trade-in, every vehicle $500.00 dollars under Kelly Blue Book.  And Sam was good to his word.  Cars started leaving the lot and tow trucks were hauling off the clunkers that Sam took in on trade.” 

“But he didn’t stop there.  Oh no, Sam was on a roll.”  Joe leaned forward in the barber chair and looked out the window onto the common and back in history.  “Why Sam, even donated a few cars to some needy families.  One family with 6 youn’ uns, two of ‘em with autism.  You know, he donated a 1972 Ford passenger van to that family.  I remember it was blue and white.”  Joe paused swirled the root beer around in the bottle.

“Well, let me tell you, Rev., the word got out about our old Sam’s generosity and good will!  First it was a local reporter with the Down East Gazette. She came over and took a picture of Sam handing the keys to this family of 6 kids and their two parents.” 

“It wasn’t long before that picture was seen by the Press Herald out of Portland and they got right on the phone to Northland Auto Group corporate office and asked to speak to Mr. Peter Pierson about this wonderful human interest story taking place at one of his dealerships!”

“Well, the Press Herald people praised Mr. Pierson right up and down and insisted on meeting him at this dealership and getting a photo with him and the local manager.  What a great story this would make.  People just love warm and fuzzy human interest stories!”

“Now let me tell you, what was old Peter Pierson to do?  He was caught between a stump and a mud hole!”

“I guess you could say if Mr. Pierson wasn’t careful he might be the one to fall into some of Sam’s kucka!”

Joe stopped there. . . .  Paused. . . .   Finished off his Fanta root beer and chuckled to himself. 

“Well?” the Reverend a pushing Joe to finish. 

Joe gets up and strolls over to the crate where he keeps the returnables, tosses in his empty.  “Another Orange, Pastor?”

“What happened Joe?” prodded the Reverend impatiently.

“Well, Sam doesn’t have the dealership anymore.” stating the obvious. 

“Sam claimed he got out of the business because, to quote Sam,

        ‘There’s no money in used cars anyway.’” 

“And Peter Pierson, what could he say or do?”  That little photo op was probably worth more to Northland Auto Group in potential sales than all their previous advertising!  Certainly more than the few old beaters that Sam sold for little or nothing or just plain gave away.”

“Ayuh, guess you could say that photo op saved Sam Coleridge’s neck and his future career here in Rockhaven.  For good bad or otherwise we may not have gotten to know our Sam Coleridge if it wasn’t for that Press Herald photo of him alongside Mr. Peter Pierson of Northland Auto Group!  In fact it is right over there on the wall.”

About that time the little bell on the door jingled, Howard Williams stepped in.    

The Reverend got up and walked over to the side wall of Joe’s shop.  He’s seen the framed photos there.  Mostly they’re of young men and women from Rockhaven in their military uniforms.  A few photos of some of the more memorable sporting highlights from Rockhaven High (Go Quarriers!)

But there in one old frame was a faded newspaper article with a grainy photo.    Headline read: “Neighbor helping Neighbors.”  Highlighted was a quote by a much younger Sam Coleridge, “In keeping with the Northland Auto Group’s tradition of being a good neighbor, we started this program to assist those with the need of reliable transportation.” 

And there is Peter Pierson handing the keys of a 1973 Chevy Impala to a young couple, a skinny looking young fellow, and his wife with two grubby looking kids hanging off her.  On the second page of the article the headline read “Down East Branch of Northland Auto Reaches Out in Caring Gestures.” 

The Gospel for that Sunday was all about the unscrupulous manager, of whom the good book said, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly . . .”  

To which Jesus oddly commented, “. . . for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

And then even more perplexingly He said, And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

 He looked up after reading the Gospel lesson and there was Sam Coleridge whispering something to Bob Barstow! 

And he wondered what would be on the agenda at the next Church Council meeting!

He could hear it now. “Say Pastor, I’ve been thinking about a way to increase church membership.  What do you say we offer to anyone who joins before the end of 2016t a year free like they won’t have to pledge?”

 

 

 

 


Reclaiming Lost Possessions

 

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Reclaiming Lost Possessions

Luke 15:1-10

Sermon ~ Sunday, September 11, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

 

Last week, if you recall we had that rather difficult passage and subsequent message about the cost of discipleship. We read and wrestled with Jesus’ use of cutting language in an attempt to get across his expectations for whoever would choose to be his disciples.

Hate family. . . Carry the cross. . . and one particularly awkward demand: Give up all your possessions. . .

And now this week we have two stories from the lips of this same Jesus all about finding and reclaiming and rejoicing over lost possessions found.

One might want to say, “Jesus, would you make up your mind! Do we let go of our possessions and then seek them again, at all cost?”

Well, no, of course not. In these two stories (parables) of Jesus we know that the lost possessions are stand-ins for “lost people.” The broader context surrounding the telling of these stories makes this plain. And the story Jesus tells following (which was not part of today’s reading) is actually about a lost person, in the character of the prodigal son.

“Lost” What do you think of when you hear someone use this adjective with an individual, not in the context of driving or walking in the woods but in a religious context such as, “She is such a lost soul.”? Do you have this image of the street evangelist who is out there preaching repentance “and reaching out to those who are lost and have gone astray”? If this is the case, then you probably do not readily identify with the lost in this passage. You probably identify more with the shepherd looking for the one sheep or woman turning her house upside down in order to find the lost coin.

I never particularly fond of word lost in this manner. I am more akin to the phrase JRR Tolkien’s “not all who wander are not lost” whether they are physically wandering or spiritually exploring.

I guess one challenge for me this morning is to have you (to have me) consider ourselves as not only as the ones looking but also as ones that God desires so deeply to seek us out no matter the cost! Each of us, you, me, every person gathered here this morning…is God’s beloved possession.

And from time to time we get lost, we stray, we walk around with a befuddled look! Indeed, we live in an increasingly confusing world; we can be prone to doubt, ridden with anxiety/fear. And if it isn’t enough any number of political candidates want to make sure we know just how scary this world is and how much scarier it will be if their opponent is elected!

Okay, off my soapbox! Back to the scriptures, some religious leaders were criticizing Jesus for the time he was spending with tax collectors and “sinners” and daring to eat with them, even welcoming them to eat with him! Eugene Peterson in The Message translates verses 1 & 2 this way: “By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, ‘He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.’ Their grumbling triggered this story: ‘Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep…'”

Now, these leaders knew the rules and genuinely worked hard to live by them. Jesus does not critique that here. What he is critical of is their attitude toward those who did not “live by the rules” indeed, those who might be called lost. In the view of the religious officials, such persons were either lazy or weak or rebellious. In other words, it was the fault of the lost that they were lost.

The question was what should be done about this. For the leaders, it was clear. Stay away from them. If they’re going to “return,” that’s up to them. “Hanging with the wrong crowd” is only likely to get you moving with them in the wrong direction, as well.

Now to be sure these religious “experts” had solid biblical backing for their solution. And it’s present in both testaments so Christians have often offered the same advice.

“Be holy, for I am holy.’ Wrote the author of 1 Peter (1:15-16.)

And Paul wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? … Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever?… Therefore come out from them…” (2 Co. 6:14-16)

“True religion… is to care for widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” penned James. (1:27)

This has been the reason given over the years why some chose not to associate with the rest of us some of the clergy circles I’ve been part of.

On the other hand this is wise counsel we give our children. For we know from experience that we tend to become like the people we hang around. So if we’re working to start a new habit or stop an old one, it helps to surround ourselves with others who already have the new habit, rather than “fall in” with folks who are continuing in habits we’re trying to break or change.

Jesus nowhere disagrees with the potentially toxic effect of “bad company.” But he also doesn’t see that as an excuse to leave the “lost” to fend for themselves and find their own way back. That only insures that they will probably remain “lost.” Lost sheep and coins cannot restore themselves. For the most part, Jesus implies in his telling of these two stories, nether can lost people. Even in the story of the Prodigal son, the son may see the error of his ways and begins his return home but he is not completely home and restored until his father receives and welcomes him with that great banquet! So to Jesus, when people get lost, it’s up to the community, not simply the one(s) lost, to go and help them find their way home.

Now we are not going to be very successful if we go with this “holier than thou” attitude that we are going to “save” them no matter what, even against their will. That “by God” we will bring them back into the fold, kicking a screaming, if we have to. We know how that approach would work on us! Many have tried but it hasn’t worked on me! Yet too many well-meaning Christians seem to take this approach to evangelism.

Again we see this in the next story Jesus tells. (The Lectionary should have included the Story of the Prodigal Son!) The father sees the son while the son is a long way off and goes running to greet him. It is the father’s action not the son’s request, which fully restores the son to his family. The father in the story is a “stand in” for God. This is how much God desires us.

So, yes, we let go of possessions. But when people are struggling, wandering aimlessly, riddled with anxiety, lost if you will, we are to seek them not to browbeat them into submission but to walk with them as they find their way to a better state, whether that be a better emotional, mental, physical state, or spiritual place. We seek to see them restored to God. We even eat with them. For, as Jesus reminds, twice, there is supreme joy in heaven over even one sinner who repents.

That’s why Jesus eats with sinners. That’s why we give thanks “he ate with sinners” when we gather at the Lord’s table.

 

I don’t know about you but over the years I’ve found myself on both sides of Jesus stories.

We are those searching and restoring and from time to time we are the one that God is seeking. And I for one am glad God has not given up on us!!

Jesus, you and your traveling companions are welcome at my table anytime.


What Did He Just Say?

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Sermon ~ Sunday, September 4, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson 

Luke 14:25-33

 

Just about every preacher understands that if she or he wishes to have a peaceful and lengthy tenure with a congregation you must be careful around certain subjects.  Perhaps the most controversial and potential career ending subject for a pastor is money.  Stewardship and one’s use of money, if not addressed with care and caution are like hidden landmines for pastors!  These can be difficult subjects to approach for they can be difficult topics for church members to talk about.

Well, that may be so, but consider the controversy Jesus is stirring through his teaching in the reading from Luke’s gospel in today’s reading.  He seems to be taking dangerous preaching topics to a new level.

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father or mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple. . . (How is that for “traditional family values!)

Hate is such a strong term, such an extreme emotion.  We have immediate negative reactions to it. We live in a world where there are “hate groups” and in which “hate crimes” are committed.    

Still Jesus goes on:

Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. . .

And if that isn’t enough he adds:  None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up ALL your possessions.”  

Tough, hard teaching, even offensive!  Hate your family?  Take up a crucifix and follow him?  Give up all your possessions?  And if you don’t, then just forget it, don’t even bother trying!  Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.  What kind of a cult leader is this Jesus guy? A first century Jim Jones, David Koresh or a Reverend Sun Myung Moon?

There are a couple ways to respond, maybe three. 

  1. To out and out reject the offensiveness of it. To simply say, no I don’t buy it.  But this means we don’t buy into the one who said it either.  In rejecting the offense, we reject the offender, which in this case is Jesus.  Are you ready to do that?   
  2. So if you are concerned about totally writing off Jesus then another approach might be to reinterpret it. “What Jesus really meant was . . .” (usually something other than what he obviously seems to have said!)”   “What He meant was something more like “love me more than anything” and “try your very best” and “don’t focus on things as much.”

This response, and it is very common in preaching and commentaries, might evade the offense.  But it still is a way is evading the one who said it.  How many of us like to have something we said reinterpreted and in the process “watered down?”

  1. Okay, so you still have some apprehension about rejecting or reinterpreting Jesus’ teachings, I guess a third option would be to reframe it. This approach imposes an outside ethic on Jesus’ teaching, often an ethic that is far more 21st century than 1st century. In this case we might impose for instance the ethic of balance or tension. 

We have to balance our love for Jesus with our love for family.  We have to live with the tension of faithfulness to God on the one hand and duty to others on the other, being sure not to go too far in either direction, lest we become completely faithless (duty to others alone) or cause ourselves foolish harm (carrying the cross to our detriment). 

We need to be prudent with our possessions, giving out of our overflow, perhaps, but certainly not giving it all.  After all, where would that leave us?  

This is a way of completely ignoring both the offense and the offender.  And we may be drawn to this sort of reframing Jesus’ teaching.  Only one problem, Jesus never once, anywhere in scripture, calls us to live in such balance or tension.

Greek philosophers encouraged it.  Reinhold Niebuhr (UCC theologian thought to be the author of the “Serenity Prayer”) wrote about it.  Jesus never did.  And while modern psychologists seek to help us find balance and the release of tension; Jesus says plainly, clearly, “Follow me.”

The qualifications Jesus puts forth for being his disciples were and are offensive and radical.  But they are His conditions as He considers whom he will trust as disciples.  They are not ours as we choose whether we want to follow such a demanding master.  Ours calling as disciples is not to “dumb down” his demands, but to accept the radical nature of his challenge, and to live into them, if we want him to choose us as part of his construction crew or army (using the illustrations Jesus uses in verses 28-32).    

And this is where we begin and perhaps spend all of our life of discipleship: in the process of living into the call Jesus has put forth. 

At this stage of Jesus’ ministry, we see large crowds of people, groupies if you will, who are now joining the growing entourage around this wonder-working rabbi from Nazareth.  Some of them probably think that simply joining the crowd constitutes being one of his disciples. 

Notice it is to the crowd that Jesus turns and speaks in this passage.  He wants them to be very clear what His expectations are.  It’s will be far more than admiring him, or even traveling with him.  If he is going to be building a new movement and fighting against the spiritual strongholds at the same time (which he is!), He needs people He can count on, without any wavering. Their allegiance must be to Him and him alone.  Not family.  Not self-preservation.  Not to comfort.  And not to possessions.  Only to Jesus!  

Now, is so doing, he was not telling his admirers to go away.  He was telling them not to confuse being part of a crowd with being disciples, because he didn’t.  On the other hand, if some of them were willing to be that committed to him, Jesus was offering a call to discipleship.  It would appear, based on Luke’s testimony in Acts 1&2 (there were 120 disciples praying together for ten days in Jerusalem and preaching at Pentecost), that perhaps some of them did.

Now There are those (like the Jim Jones and David Koresh types) who would use such a passage as this to browbeat their followers into submission.  Nowhere in this passage or in all of the gospels does Jesus browbeat anyone!  He simply puts forth what his standards for disciples are, and explains those standards are as high as they are because the stakes of his mission and ministry are that high. 

They still are.  

Again, Jesus did not turn anyone away.  If they left, it was a decision they made as a result of Jesus’ teaching.  Now, did those who chose to follow him begin their journey as perfect disciples? 

Hardly!  Look at what happened at his crucifixion.  Just about everyone abandoned him.  But then, look at who was there at Pentecost and look what Jesus did for Peter after completely denying his Master three times. (I’m referring to that beautiful moment of restoration in John’s Gospel (21:15-19) which concludes with Jesus saying to Peter one again, “Follow me.”

Living into discipleship. That’s what is all about. 

Are the standards high?  Yes, to be sure!  

Yet, as tough as Jesus’ words are in this passage the call is to follow him, not, that we are perfect disciples from the get go, hardly, but this is the direction we are to grow.  Do we think that James and John, Peter and Andrew completely understood what they were getting into and thought they had it all together that day on the seashore when Jesus approached them? 

The life of discipleship is never a linear journey, that is we start in one place and steadily progress to another, there are bumps and setbacks, wrong turns and loops, and plenty of times when we get stuck in one place. 

Can it be done?  I believe we can all think of those who have responded to the call and demands of discipleship. 

In the first congregation Donna and I served Lee & Joyce Oliver would attend on occasion.  Joyce’s sister Wilma was a regular attender.  One Sunday Lee & Joyce announced that they were going to be leaving their lovely 19th century brick home on Weld St., family that lived nearby, friends, and a comfortable early retirement and go to a place called His Mansion. No salary, no sure housing, nothing familiar, no background in ministry (Lee was a retired Coast Guard boiler engineer) they had nothing to commend or qualify them except that when they heard the director of His Mansion speak at a conference or retreat, they heard a call from Jesus saying follow me to “His Mansion.” 

There the Oliver’s worked with young men and women in a Christ Centered healing community. Drug abusers and those who were abused, Lee worked with them as they worked alongside him taking care of the plumbing and electrical matters of the Mansion.  They worked up 30+ cords of firewood every year.   Joyce was asked to mentor and disciple the young pregnant moms that had found their way to His Mansion. 

Take up the cross and, come follow me.

Can we, will we, ever meet the expectations Jesus has for discipleship? 

I don’t know.  I know I haven’t reached it yet. Still I’ve heard the call and desire to be as faithful a disciple as I can be with God’s help

And this I can testify to:  As long as I keep on trying, God will keep on giving me opportunities to grow into the disciple Jesus has called me to be.

I believe God will do the same for each of you. 

So what do you say? 


Nothing Stays the Same . . . Except . . .

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Sermon ~ Sunday ~ August 28th, 2016  ~  Pastor Neil Wilson     

Hebrews 13: 8

 

 Ever since the Age of Enlightenment with its scientific revolution had it impact on the field of Biblical studies readers and scholars alike have pondered over just what kind of “book” Hebrews should be considered. 

One seminary professor joked that the funny thing about “The Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews” is, that is a perfect name for this piece of literature except, that it was not written by Paul, it was not written to the Hebrews, and it is not an epistle!

As early as the end of the first century there was no consensus as to the author with more than three persons considered authors of this “word of encouragement” which the anonymous author calls this piece.  In the writing we call Acts this same term is used to describe what we now refer to as a sermon.

Whatever it is and whoever wrote it, Hebrews offers wisdom to those in the church who want to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ.  The writing, among other things, has to do with living faithfully in the midst of the wider society as people who are obedient to the Messiah while not being all that impressed with how the world does business.  In other words, we might title this writing “Adaptation: Can We Roll with the Punches?”  Most of us would say that being able to adapt is a sign of not only a healthy person but also a healthy church.

I love the old story John Chandler would tell me about old Bert Hawser, who lived up there in Batchelder’s Grant, an unorganized township a little north of where I grew up.  Seems he had the occasion to make a trip down to Boston.  His kids wanted him to see Fenway Park before he expired.  First time he’d ever been outside the shadow of Caribou Mountain. 

He took the Pine Tree Bus line out of Fryeburg to Portland where he and Mildred and a couple of the younger children boarded the Downeaster train.  In a little over 5 hours he found himself on the ground floor of the John Hancock Center down there on Trinity Plaza.  Right there, inside the lobby, he stood transfixed with the elevator.  He watched as this older, rather haggard, looking woman hobbled into the elevator.  In a few minutes the doors opened and out smartly stepped a young attractive woman! To which Burt hollers out to his youngest son, “Efie!  Quick, go get your mother!”

This little story told many ways would not be understandable or as humorous unless we recognize that someone who was not technologically advanced was part of the story.  Yet all of us, to one extent or another, are victims of technology that seems to continually outrun us.  In times gone by, people knew how to fix their own cars and use a telephone.  Just this week, talking with the fellow who works on our vehicles, I was told that it is getting to the point where car manufactures are designing the technology so that one is just about forced to take it to a dealership for repairs especially if it involves some computer technology.   Seem even independent mechanics are losing the race against technology!  (Unfortunately it maybe an unfair track they are forced to compete on!)

In a very real sense we are stuck with change – for better and for worse.  It is almost every human being’s destiny to either change or face the alternative of getting run over by everything and everyone in society.  As an interesting quotation puts it: “Some people will change when they see the light.  Others change only when they feel the heat.”  

In our scripture today (at least in part of it), we are reminded of one truth that seems to never change.  The writer of Hebrews puts it this way, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and forever.”  (13:8)   Hold on to that!

Who is the congregation to whom Hebrews is addressed?  Thomas Long professor of preaching at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, speaks of the “tiredness” of the community addressed in Hebrews, tiredness that comes with the territory of living distinctive and faithful in the midst of wearying circumstances. 

 

I see so much of us, and I see so much of myself, in this description that it is frightening.  I am tired and I know many of you are tired. We think we know what we need to do as a church and as a people following in the manner of Jesus Christ, but we grow weary.   We volunteer in the Food Pantry, hospice programs, hospital guild, library, fine art councils and music councils and drug councils and school councils and community government councils and church councils . . .  and you get the picture!  

And I think I know what it is that is making us tired.  It is not that we do not believe anymore.  We have faith in our church, in our community and in God.  But we are weary of trying to keep up with all the change that keeps coming at us faster and faster.  Every time we seem to have something down pat, then things change.  We have to adjust and adapt to things we thought we had a firm grip on.  We have to accommodate things that we thought were under control.  We thought we had command of these things and then a new cell phone comes out or a new remote control enters the house! And we don’t have any children in the house to teach us how to use them!

Unfortunately, none of us has the luxury to fail to change or even to simply ignore it.  Change is too powerful.  A healthy church can adapt to the changes that take place in its surroundings.  In our context the downward population trend of young families and retirees. We can see how this has impacted our church’s education programs!  Our trend toward becoming more and more of a seasonal community and therefore a seasonal church!  We have committees that either do not meet or struggle to meet in the months of January through April say nothing about the summer when so many are so busy.  We have folks understandably that move away to be closer to family.  And then there is the increasing population of religious “nones” and “dones” in our society as a whole.

We need to adapt the things that used to work and try new things that might work better.  By the way, there are no guarantees, no sure fired “Three easy steps to improve the life of your church.”  I’m sorry.  It will be trial and error!  Mistakes will be made and this will be okay.  It will have to be.

We need to find new ways to connect with people with God and with one another. 

Our pursuit to adapt never ends.  We have to constantly change the ways in which we share the message of the gospel.  It is part of what it means to be a disciple.  At the same time we have an eternal message: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

A healthy congregation as a living organism must also adapt to its circumstances in order to retain its significance.  All the sympathy in the world little benefits the body of Christ without the ability to adapt and change. 

While the truth of gospel never changes, our world radically changes and with increasing speed.  This fact requires a healthy congregation to adapt to new methods and models for ministry.  The challenges posed by contemporary culture will never slow down nor will they wait for the church the “catch up!”

How will this congregation adapt?  Which is a less obtrusive way of saying how will you/we adapt?  This is not something we can put off on the next generation. 

Leo Tolstoy once said, “Everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.”

So my challenge for us this morning is this: 

When you leave worship today, ask yourself or pray,

“Jesus, with your help, how can I change the world for the better and for the sake of the gospel? 

And most importantly, “Jesus, where will this all start with me?”

 


Who’s In Charge Here?

Sunday ~ August 21, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson                                                   

                                       Luke 13:10-17

 

Can you imagine walking bent over for 18 years?  18 years this woman had borne this affliction.  Horrible!  Helen Eshleman, the wife of the associate pastor who ministered with me walks bent over at the waist with osteoarthritis all the years I’ve known her which has been 18 years now.  When I was with Helen I was reminded this woman from Luke’s gospel. 

But, this woman had lived with it for 18 years, right?  She wasn’t really in any mortal danger.  Neither was Helen. She still got around (albeit with a cane), still had a cheery outlook on life.  So what is it, really in the scope of everything, for this woman to wait just one more day or two?  Then on a day that wasn’t the Sabbath no one would have anything to complain about, right, seems reasonable to me.  Jesus might have just waited one day or maybe even until that evening after sunset, when the Sabbath was over, and healed her then.  Then he wouldn’t have upset the leader of the synagogue and perhaps maybe even had won him over.  

After 18 years of this crippling posture and she finds herself in the presence of one who might be able to heal her I don’t think she would say to Jesus after he called her forward, “Yeah, I think he’s got a point.  This might not be such a good idea, rabbi, why don’t we wait until tomorrow.”  

No, of course she finds herself in quite a different place from the synagogue leader. 

You know, it is easy to counsel someone else to be patient.  And rules and policies are more likely to be considered reasonable when they do not affect the one enforcing them. 

Jesus, as we have come to expect, takes the side of the crippled woman over the religious leaders, as though her disfigurement were his own, or perhaps his mother’s.

We have become used to hearing Jesus criticize the religious establishment for their perverse priorities and hypocrisy.  Why were they fussing about Sabbath minutiae when a woman was set free from a long infirmity?  After all, he reminds them, that would they not set their herd or pack animals free or led them to water on the Sabbath without giving it a second thought.

But the message here is so much more than simply “people are at least as important as animals.”

In the deformed condition in which this woman had found herself for so long, she had also become religiously marginalized.  People with such conditions were not allowed in the temple in Jerusalem, period.  It’s a bit surprising she was even allowed in the synagogue, and perhaps she would not have been there except for the fact that Jesus was teaching that day.  In the synagogue, she would have been seated near or at the very back of the room, with the other women, who were not permitted to actively participate in the teaching and worship, offered up front by the men.  Indeed, women were not even supposed to speak.

Jesus, as teacher/rabbi, would have been seated front and center.

So when Jesus sees this woman and calls out to her while he is teaching, every eye in the place is transferred from him to her, from the very front and center to the very rear, from the one most valued to the one least valued.  Jesus reinforced this shift by calling her over.  This meant this woman was now being empowered by Jesus to move into the place of the men.  

There he laid hands on her.  

Immediately, she stood up straight and began praising God; that is, worshiping—out loud!   A woman who had been crippled for eighteen years was now standing (like the men) and praising God (as only men were to do) in the area where the men offered their worship, all at the instigation of the guest rabbi that day, this Jesus from over in Nazareth.

 

Luke doesn’t say it, but any Jewish reader or anyone familiar with Jewish synagogue practices would have known it.  The synagogue leader wasn’t just mad about breaking the “not working on the Sabbath rule.”  That was a convenient law to pull out, because everyone knew it and he would seem to have some ground to stand on when interpreting it this way.  But this was barely about Sabbath at all.

It was about control.

Not just about control in this service.

This was about the control of the culture as he knew it.

The synagogue leader was indignant because Jesus had just shown up and disrupted the caste system of the entire religious culture, a caste system the synagogue leader and all the men in the synagogue benefited from at the expense of the women and any others who had been suffering for years without any possibility even to ask for relief.

The function of Torah (the Law) was never intended to be about keeping people in “their” places—which really means keeping “lesser” people in the places the more powerful want them to stay!

Instead, as the central story of Exodus declares, Torah is all about setting people free to praise and service to God and neighbor. 

One version of the Ten Commandments puts the Sabbath commandment this way:  Deut. 6: 12-15  (Yes, there are two versions!)

Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the LORD your God has commanded you.  Six days you shall labour, and do all your work:  But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD your God: in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates; that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you.  And remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD your God brought you out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Which brings us to the point of this text in Luke.

This is not a story about Jesus bashing Judaism.  After all, remember, Jesus was born a Jew, lived as a Jew and died a Jewish man!  And here he was teaching in a Jewish synagogue!  We do not know what his “text” was that day.  But we do know he had been invited to be the teacher on that Sabbath.  So, in a sense, he was in welcome territory.

Until he applied the heart of his teaching and preaching:

“The kingdom of God is drawing near.”  (Luke 17:21)

When the kingdom of God draws near, things like this happen.  The marginalized are brought to the center.  The “impure” are touched and healed.  Women worship among men.  And from time to time even the “faithful religious social order” is broken.  Sometimes, it would seem to the rule breakers, outrageously.

And how do we react when we lose our grip on the levers of control because God’s kingdom does what it does?

Perhaps not much differently than the synagogue leader did.

As we keep seeking to adjust our lives to the presence and work of God’s kingdom in our midst, we don’t just have to ready ourselves and our finances.  And it’s not enough to get ready for opposition “out there” in the world.  Both of those are hard enough.

We’d better be ready for some in the leadership within the church to try to squelch what God’s kingdom is up to.  And if we’re those leaders, we’d better be ready to know this about ourselves, and work at being open to letting the Spirit speak and act through whom it may speak and act!     

Some questions for us to consider. 

There are probably still some “caste systems” at work in our wider community, and even in our worshiping community.  What are they?  Can we name them?  And in naming them, call them forth to disrupt them in the name of Jesus?

Who sits on the edges of our worship, not in the back by choice, but relegated to the margins for reason we not even be fully aware of?

In what ways are we (church and wider community) creating a culture that contributes to setting people free to praise and serve God and neighbor as the Spirit leads them and not as we with our traditions hold to be “proper”?

Now we must be clear about a vital distinction between castes and functional roles.  In the life of churches and communities, we have varieties of leaders and followers not because followers are “less” in any way than leaders, but because the leaders are trusted to lead in these ways.  

In castes, people are prevented from sharing their giftedness with the larger community because of some trait outside their control—gender, class, social status, physical or mental ability or challenge, or others you might name.  

Jesus calls us out of the crowd to step forward.  We are called to follow Jesus with our abilities and inabilities, in our giftedness and commonness, with our strengths and frailties, to each in our own way break all such castes and divisions among us, so that the church “may be one” as Jesus prayed and that it also might be as we pray it will be  “Thy Kingdom come thy will be done on earth s it is in heaven.”  

Then we will all known who is in charge here!


Guest Patti Ulrich

~ Sunday ~ August 7th, 2016 ~ Guest Patti Ulrich 

Christians have always believed in a God who is concerned with the natural world. We have prayed to God from the depths of coal mines to the heights of Everest and from outer space. We have blessed ships and planes in God’s name, built soaring cathedrals to the honor and glory of the Almighty, and even equated scientific achievements to God’s guidance and blessing. These are all material things, because we believe in a material God.

 

Today’s readings cause us to step back for a moment and consider God in another light, as one who is beyond the material. In the passage from Isaiah, God castigates the people of Sodom because they have allowed material things such as incense and sacrifices of animals to become more important than their relationship with God. God defines the relationship as being centered on justice and care for orphans, not expensive feasts and liturgies, as God commands the people to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

 

The quality here is not material, but a spirituality that deeply honors a God who cares passionately for the whole of creation and doesn’t need to be appeased with sacrifice when things are going badly. It’s not about God; it’s about us. And God expects us to address the things that are amiss, not fix them through incantations.

 

However, we continue to write a check for the hungry without learning why there is hunger in the world. We pass legislation that addresses immigration reform without wanting to know why people want so badly to come to America that they are willing to risk imprisonment and deportation to do it, leaving their families behind while they work to send money home. Our minds whirl around whether Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter. But I tell you today that for God ALL lives matter! The truth of the causes for these issues is something that we may not think deeply about as we go about our busy, privileged lives. We cannot appease God with our prayers while we ignore the things that make us uncomfortable.

 

In our gospel reading today, Jesus addresses this issue of how we are to live with God:

 

He says “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

 

Recently a conversation took place in a coffee shop. A woman with a loud voice revealed how frustrated she had been because she couldn’t find a parking spot. She then related how she had loudly prayed, “OK, God, I give up. You find me a parking place or I’m going home.” As she drove around the block for the fourth time a place opened up right in front of the coffee shop. Her friend, a rather quiet woman, smiled and then shared how she had been praying for weeks for her friend who had received a bad prognosis for her recurring cancer. She had just spoken to her friend that morning and learned that the doctors were now confident she would recover. Both of these women were sincere, but the one who asked for healing for her friend knows what God’s power is for – it’s not for finding parking places! But you know friends go ahead and pray for parking spaces and lost keys and all such things. Keep talking to God about all the big and little things! God is listening to us!

Anne Lamott wrote a book about the three essential prayers: Help, Thanks, Wow!! If you are like me, those three words spoken to God speak volumes! See if you agree with what C. S. Lewis wrote: “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”

It’s true that we may not get very far with God as long as we understand the Kingdom as material rather than spiritual. We are not going to have as deep a relationship with God when we pray for material wealth or our weekends are spent spending the money we have earned on more material things. Sabbath is not shopping; it is rest. It is time set aside for us to enjoy quiet, rest and refreshment. Have we forgotten about keeping the Sabbath? I know I have!

Sabbath is the rest that helps us to prepare for the full lives that God would have us lead as Disciples of Christ. We are given the commandment to observe the Sabbath for our better selves. We are given the space to rest, restore our spiritual lives, and avoid being completely swamped by the world’s material goods. Nothing that rusts or wears out will enter the kingdom of heaven. We need to be able to leave it all behind. And by the way, Sabbath doesn’t necessarily have to occur on Sunday.

Outside of these readings but deeply inside their message, is the great voice of the Creator reminding us how much we are loved, not for what we have, but for who we are. We are treasures, servants who are blessed by the Holy One. Our economic standing, our homes and wealth are of no account to God. What matters is our lives. How we live, how we approach justice, care for the poor among us, and how we treat one another is the bottom line for judgment. Our success in worldly things will ultimately mean nothing.

Summer is a good time to take another look at all that we possess and inventory in our hearts and minds the spiritual treasures we have, the friends who love us without condition, the church that keeps us in communion with each other and God, the beauty of the material world that belongs to every human being. It is a good time to look up at the stars in awe, and remember that the God who made us also made them, but they are nothing compared with the treasure we have of being loved by that same God who asks us to show that love and care to every person we meet.