First Congregational Church
(United Church of Christ)
Greg Briggs,
Interim Pastor

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


Sermon and Worship Services

Sermon ~ Sunday May 24th, 2015

Living the Dream

 Ezekiel 37:1-14 Acts 2:1-21

Medical researchers tell us that everyone dreams.  It is just that some lose the memory of them upon waking.   Dreaming is part of our shared human experience.  Most people average from three to five dreams per night that last for a few seconds or as long as 20 minutes.  The succession of images, ideas, and sensations occur, involuntarily in the mind.  There is a whole field of study, called oneirology, related to analyzing the content and purpose of dreams.  Our dreams apparently act as a kind of release mechanism that lightens the load of stimulation our brains accumulate during our waking hours.  Most of us have wondered why it is that our pleasant dreams seem so fleeting but our bad dreams stick with us.  However we assess them – good or bad – our dreams convey a message. 

The prophet Ezekiel had a vivid dream, and its message is as important today as it was to Ezekiel’s contemporaries.  Ezekiel was speaking to a group of people from ancient Jerusalem and Judea living in exile in Babylonia.   Ezekiel himself was one of these exiles, and in his dream he was standing in a valley of dry bones. He recalls the dream with vivid detail: “There were very many [bones] . . . and they were very dry.”  With God’s prompting, Ezekiel preached to the dry bones.  Ezekiel preached to these dry bones declaring that God would restore them to life.  With restored flesh and muscle, with life breathed back into them, these bodies would be knit together and these rebuilt and alive-again people would become a restored nation.

Ezekiel’s dream conveyed a message of hope based on the amazing power of God to bring breath and new life to dry bones.  This message brought hope to a dejected people in the midst of a long exile in a foreign land. 

We 21st century North American Christians over a certain age can sometimes feel like we are strangers in a foreign land.  The social landscape has shifted and the church is no longer guaranteed a place of influence in the community.  We may feel displaced and discouraged.  Our faith may have gone dry.  How good is it that on the 50th day after Easter we come again to the Day of Pentecost.  Today’s scripture readings from Ezekiel and Acts remind us of the Holy Spirit being gifted to the church and of the difference this makes to its life and work. 

Luke’s description of a noise from above like the rush of a mighty wind and the appearance of what looked like tongues (interesting Luke says “tongues” not flames) of fire and with these the unexpected ability to speak in other languages seems as amazing and dream-like as Ezekiel’s vision of new life in dry bones. 

Peter stands up and raises his voice to cut through the clamor, and he does this by reminding them of another dream, Prophet Joel’s dream/vision of the day when God’s spirit would again be poured out.  When this would happen men and women, younger and older, will also dream and prophesy and see and understand signs of God’s transforming power at work, bringing new life to the world and all that is in it, on it, and above and beyond it.

Ezekiel and Joel and Peter weren’t the last to be aware of the Spirit working in them to prophesy, or to see visions and dream dreams.  They weren’t the last to claim a God-given power to be transformed themselves and to bring transformation to others.  The change, the new way of living will be as obvious and as powerful as a strong wind and a mighty flame and can be found still at work today. 

The Rev. Mark Lewis a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada tells of a dream he had that affected his life deeply.  He dreamed that his life was being appraised like an item on the Antiques Roadshow.  In the course of his dream he thinks of all the things he has, all the possessions and achievements that he values.  Near the end of the dream he is shown how little these things matter but how much his life and his faith and his feelings are valued by Jesus.

Rev. Lewis says, “I awoke with joy and peace and with the prayer that I would remember the message of the dream.”  He recommends that as we go through life we put less emphasis on possessions and accomplishments and instead fill the earth and heavens “with the sounds of your joy in a new way of living.”

This experience of transformation and renewal is found in the traditional spiritual practice of some Native American or First Nations peoples who build a sweat lodge, a circular wooden frame covered with hides and blankets that when finished is like a cave.  Heated rocks are placed in a central pit inside the lodge.  Those participating in the cleansing ceremony crawl inside and sit around the pit.  The lodge quickly becomes hot and the participants sweaty.  The leader will then bu burns some sweetgrass and sage on the rocks.  The fragrance helps participants concentrate on praying that God will send visions and dreams to help people live in a new and better way.

The witness of scripture and of a variety of spiritual practices is that God’s Spirit offers a prophecy, a vision and a dream for each of us to live by – an experience of new “flesh and breath” that brings new life to dry bones, and an experience of the presence of God that leads to a new understanding and appreciation for the good news of the gospel: in Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, God can indeed make all things new and this includes you and me, and whatever trials, problems, exiles we may be living through!

I’m reminded of the question our grandson Camden put to me last summer, “What is life?” and how his understanding gave me a new vision.  He said something to the effect, “I believe God is dreaming and our lives are all part of God’s dream.” 

My friends, if God is love, as I believe God is, just imagine what God’s dream is for you and me.


 

 

 

 

Sunday, May 17th, 2015 – Sermon

Matthias & Justus

 Acts 1:15-17, 20-26

Many of us are familiar with the playground scenario from our childhood where you and your classmates are lined up against the fence or the school house wall.  Two people have been chosen as “captains” and they are about to pick teams for a very competitive game of kick ball. 

Let me ask you, during which round were you usually picked in this version of the playground draft?  Usually the strongest or most athletic are chosen first and then just like the NFL on down the line in the as your skills were ranked by the captains.  On occasion someone might be chosen because they are friends with one of the captains.  But usually friendship gives way to improving the captain’s chances of winning!  Choices are made back and forth between captains until there is only one position left to fill.  But there are two potential players left.  Who will be chosen, and who will be left to sit on the sidelines?  Or were you the one of whom it was remarked “Oh, you can have him too.”

In today’s reading from the book of Acts a fairly significant choice is made in what many would consider a very strange manner.  Imagine discovering that your pastoral search committee actually got together in the prayer room back in the corner of the sanctuary and made their final decision with a roll of the dice.  (Actually I have it on good word that what they did was placed photos of the two or three final candidates on a wall and each committee member was blindfolded and then threw a dart at the wall and the photo with the most hits was chosen!  So you could say they chose the one who was the . . . wait for it . . . “holiest” one!) 

   Sounds ridiculous?  Is it any more so than choosing the disciple to replace Judas as the twelfth apostle by rolling some dice?  Now granted we are told they prayed before they cast the lots.  But I’m also pretty sure that are a great many prayers uttered before those bones are tossed at the craps tables at the Odawa Casino!

On closer look, we learn that both candidates for this position had very specific and similar qualifications.   Both had been with Jesus from the day of his baptism up until he was taken into the heavens at the ascension.  Luke makes it clear that both of these men were equally qualified to be witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. 

Matthias is chosen to become part of the inner circle; the other loses the toss of the dice. 

Now while we may consider this an odd way of choosing someone to fill an important position, consider these points: 

There is no campaigning negative or otherwise. (Oh that it might be so today!)

They consider first and foremost whose gifts might best equip them for this position.

They didn’t choose on the basis of popularity or influence or social connections.

It wasn’t a matter of who ran the best campaign or raised the most money.

And like some many churches, they didn’t just ask for volunteers and take the first person to offer. 

 

In that day the process of casting lots was understood to be a way of discerning God’s will.  First found in Leviticus where God tells Moses to have Aaron cast lots on two goats to determine which will be for God and which for the scapegoat.  In Proverbs 16:33 The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the Lord’s alone.

So they did their homework and as I said both were equally qualified.  So in this way it was not a random choice.  Matthias’ selection as the 12th apostle was as far as they were concerned truly God’s call.

 

And we don’t hear much about Matthias after this, anything in fact.  Like the majority of the other apostles, Matthias carries out his ministry away from the limelight, in relative anonymity in comparison to the scriptural super stars like Peter, James, and John.  Even though he did not receive the kind of recognition that the Twelve did, he had been present from the beginning and so Matthias is not an insignificant bystander.  He becomes one among countless faithful generations of Jesus’ “friends.”  Matthias is been called by God to use his gifts in service of the reign of God.  Even though we do not know the specifics of his story (At least from scripture, there are some legends around his life and ministry feast day May 14, said to have evangelized beginning in Jerusalem, then Cappadocia and the region now known as Georgia where some say he was beheaded. Other accounts say he was stoned in Jerusalem.) Matthias has been called to bring healing, to proclaim justice, to feed others in Christ’s name.  Ministry happens through him, but it is not about him.

 

And then there is the other guy, the one left standing against the school house wall as the teams make their way on to the field of play.

Remember, Justus had also been present from the beginning.  Yet all we are told about him is his name: Joseph called Barsabbas, also known as Justus.  Even though he wasn’t numbered among the twelve he was counted among the faithful. 

We are not told what happened to him but by the same token we are not told that he went away bitter, sulking and angry.  As far as we know he still continued to witness to what he had seen and known in Jesus.

So I’ve been wondering, who has been a Matthias or even a Justus in our faith journeys? 

Perhaps it was a Sunday school teacher who taught and modeled faith for 40+ years but was never eligible for a church board because in those days women were not allowed. 

Or perhaps it was the fellow who rose early every Sunday morning to clean the snow off the walkway.  Thinking no one noticed and not looking for attention, he would sit quietly by himself in the back row, his wife having died years ago . . . but you noticed and you remember!

The man who stood by his wife even as she deteriorated into the darkness of something, we’d not heard much about at that time, they called it Alzheimer’s.   He continued to care for her in spite of her unpredictable outbursts and horrid language.

There is that woman who told you about how Jesus held her through the days of her husband’s death and for the weeks after.  And you cannot recall her name.  But you remember her story.

There’s the pastor who always served small country congregations but would never go back to seminary reunions believing he didn’t have anything to talk about.

I’ve met Matthias and Justus over and over in my life — ordinary men and women and even children who have taught me about what the Bible calls the communion of saints. 

 When it comes right down to it the only thing that makes us (this church, any church) different from any other kinship group, club or society is the mysterious presence of Jesus in our midst.  We are his body which is somehow a bit more than mere metaphor.  

Imagine ordinary people and ordinary churches really are capable of hosting the infinite Being.   

Think of that . . . No, more than think, live into the truth of it!! 

Incarnation isn’t just something that occurred with Jesus. 

It’s happening right here!

 Matthias went on to his calling as one of the twelve.  And He had a role in all that they were able to accomplish in those early years in the face of persecution from all sides.

Justus lost the roll of the dice but there is no indication that he lost his faith in Jesus or that he went off a sore loser.  As the book of Acts unfolds there will be hundreds of unnamed people who pass on the story of Jesus, most of them even less known than Matthias and Justus. 

Without these ordinary folks, Peter and Paul would have remained quite lonely and ineffective in their witness “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. 

 

You are here this morning because ordinary people in ordinary churches, living faithful ordinary lives were witnesses to the truth of the presence of Jesus and, to use a little Robert Frost, this has made all the difference.

Not wanting to embarrass you a little bit ago I could easily name a few Matthias and Justus types right here in this congregation sitting in these pews this morning.  Some of you are Peters, Johns, James and Pauls, but most of you are more like Matthias and Justus; quietly doing your works of faith behind the scenes not wanting attention. 

And to use Mr. Frost again, you have made a difference! 

And here in this congregation I hope that no one is left sitting on the sidelines!

 


 

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

Members of the Sovereign’s Society of Friends

 John 15:9-17

 

What better Sunday to talk more about love and friendship then on the day set aside to honor those in our lives who have been “mothers” to us?  Last week we looked at divine love and how it is expressed in actions and deeds not in emotions and warm fuzzies in the heart. 

This week I would like to consider love as friendship.  Jesus said, “I have called you friends . . . You did not choose me but I chose you.”        

As some of you may know the official name for the Quakers is the Religious Society of Friends and they take their name from this passage in John.

You are my friends if you do what I command you. . . I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.

Friends.   With the advent of social media the definition of “friend” has expanded to include not only friends and relatives, but also acquaintances and even those who are only tangentially connected with us.  Because of Facebook, those who are the friends of the friends of friends of your friends can be called your friends, too.  And heaven forbid we “unfriend” anybody!  So may be difficult to list the characteristics of a good friend. 

What is a friend? Someone who is loyal, compassionate, and caring.  A friend is someone who is fun to be with, willing to do things with you and for you.  A friend is someone who accepts you for who you are. (And if you are a good friend you will let them see the real you!)  At the same time, a true friend is willing to be honest with you and gently tell you those hard things and uncomfortable truths that you really need to hear.  A friend is someone who knows your strengths and weakness and won’t take advantage of you.  A friend is someone you can turn to when you need help, someone who will look to you for help in return. 

A friend is resilient and forgiving, and willing to give you second chances.  A friend is someone who really knows you, yet likes you anyway!

It is really something then when you have found a true friend!

Jesus says that we are his friends.  He doesn’t say “You are my servants.” 

Nor does he say, “You are my followers, or my flock, or even my disciples.”  No he says, “You are my friends.”   For many this can be a comforting idea.  May even invoke the sentiment of a favorite hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus . . .”

For others the idea of God as a friend – not judge, master, or lord – has the power to open us up new possibilities for a closer relationship with God.  It can break through any associations of God as some distant deity who is always finding fault, aloof, or unapproachable.  When we think of God as a friend, we are perhaps better able to experience God’s grace.  For  such a God knows us and loves us anyway.

 Now we really don’t need to be told to love our friends.  This comes naturally for most.  Where we may need some work is living in such a way that our friends can see and know that we truly love them.   We are invited to think not only in terms of Jesus being a friend of ours, but also to consider what it means that we are friends of Jesus. 

Jesus draws out the distinction between being a servant to a master and a friend to a friend.  The servant is follow instructions and conforms to the master’s plans as to how things are to go.  A servant is rewarded for doing things right and punished when doing it wrong.  Servants find their security in having what is expected of them spelled out very clearly. They may not have a full understanding of all that the master is doing, but they know enough of what they are to do and don’t have any choice in the matter. 

In contrast, a friend is a willing partner who shares in understanding the “big picture.”  A friend is entrusted and empowered in working together side by side to accomplish that shared vision.  Friendship is characterized by freedom, trust and responsibility.   And to think Jesus said, “I call you friends. . .”

Jesus’ word to us that we are truly friends of God has radical implications for us in the way we live our faith and do ministry together.  It moves us away from a self-centered religious posture that measures our faith commitment in terms of cost-benefit analysis of what we put into it compared to what we get out of it.  

To be friends with God/Jesus changes how we hear words like evangelism, stewardship, and mission

As friends of God/Jesus, we are invited to share in God’s generosity.  This is stewardship!

When we see ourselves as friends of Jesus, we live as God’s friends in the world.  When we see ourselves as God’s friends, we hear Jesus’ words “love one another as I have loved you,” as an invitation for us to share in the values held by our divine friend.   This is mission!  Friendship begins with words of introduction and invitation.  Friendship is about connection and sharing.  As God in Christ is always seeking new friends, we are encouraged to be intentional and not shy about inviting others into friendship with God.  This is evangelism!  As friends of Jesus we are invited to share in his life and mission.

Because God’s love and friendship is so vast, there is always room for more.  Friendship with Jesus is not an exclusive club limited to just a few.  God seeks to be friends with everyone.  There is no limit to God’s friendship and love.  

God “friends” you and will never “unfriend” you!  Christ never stops looking for new friends, and never stops inviting us to grow and deepen our friendship with him.

Such are the requirements and blessings of membership in the Sovereign’s Society of Friends. 

I’ve been on a run lately with the titles of pop songs with last week’s sermon title “All You Need is Love” by the Beatles and then Boston “It’s More Than a Feeling.”   The one that came to mind for today’s message was from the 80’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”  To which I would say to Tina (Turner) “Everything, if it’s God’s love!

 

 

 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

All You Need Is Love . . . Really?

 John 15:1-17    1 John 4:7-21

 

“All you need is love” so sang the Beatles in the 60’s.  Now I was never part of the hippy generation (I grew up so far back in the mountain’s and hills that the 60’s didn’t reach us until the late 70s!)  But being 13 at the time this song was released I supposed that I figured this was the case, all one really needed in life is love.   And during the time Donna and I were dating I probably operated under the same premise.  But then what would an 18-19 year old know.  (Everything of course!!)

By the time I was in my early 20’s and Donna and I had been married for a few years I began to surmise that perhaps it may take a little more than love or at least love as I had been defining it.  Young love was easy, it swept you up in its wildness, excitement, and sensuousness and you could just go along for the ride.  I was beginning to see that love at times took work.   As another rock band sang at that time in my life: “It’s more than a feeling.”  Love became something you do or show or live out and not just what one feels.

The Bible has quite a bit to say about love.  The author of 1 John calls us to “love one another, because love is from God.”   This command to love one another is more than just a sweet, sentimental suggestion spoken to those who don’t really need to hear it.  The scriptures are not complacent about love.  Love, though easy in theory, can be difficult in practice.  No matter whether we are new to faith or longtime Christians, we never reach the point where we have mastered God’s love.  The Great Commandment, to love God with all one’s heart and strength and mind and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is a lifelong undertaking for God’s people.

The author of 1 John engages in an earnest plea for us to love one another.  Whether our starting point is indifference or even hatred, the author of 1 John calls us to love.  Where we already experience love, we are called to even greater love.  We are called to love more fully and more widely.  This commandment comes to us as a word to draw us more deeply into relationship with God.  It is a word to connect us with our brothers and sisters in Christ.   God loves us into loving others.  This love propels us outward to share God’s love with the world.  Loving God and loving neighbor are intertwined: one cannot separate one from the other.  In fact, according to the author, the only way one can tell if they have the love of God in them is by how they love others.     

God is love.  This is one of the most profound theological statements made in the entire Bible!

Wherever we experience love, God is there.  Love is a sign of God’s presence.  As I said last week just as God’s very being is goodness, so it is love.  God reaches out to us in Christ.  God’s love flows into us, and out through us to others and mysteriously back to God. 

Love calls us to a new reality.  Love moves us beyond our resentments, criticisms, and jealousies.  It calls us to let go of our longstanding grudges and dislikes against those who may have slighted us, those who disagree with us and those we disagree with.  

A Christ-like love melts away our impatience, our indifference, our self-centerness and yes, even our denials and betrayals.  It can transform us.  We are rooted in God’s love, claimed as God’s beloved daughters and sons, and named Christ’s friends (Jn. 15:15).  We are drawn into relationship with God and with one another.  We are called to love one another in the same way God loves us.  This can be powerful and intimidating!

No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and [God’s] love is made complete in us.  (1 Jn. 4:12).   Think of a lightbulb and its source of electricity.  Lightbulbs need electricity to work whether that source is a battery or a turbine powered by water or air, natural gas or some other generator of heat and carried through miles of wires to our homes, lightbulbs need electricity.  If the battery dies or the power goes out when a tree takes a wire down, the light bulb won’t shine, even though there is nothing wrong with the bulb itself.  If electricity is present, the wiring intact and the bulb isn’t broken, the light will shine whenever the switch is turned on.  The power itself is hidden from our view.  You can’t see it, except through what it does.  If you want to know whether the power is on, look at the lightbulb.    

The lightbulb can’t shine on its own.  It doesn’t generate its own electricity.  Its power comes from an outside source.  Likewise, love (agape love) doesn’t just generate from within us like romantic love, love that stems from physical attraction.  The love the author of 1 John is speaking of comes from outside, from God.  Love is energy, God’s energy flowing through us.  God’s love hidden and unseen, is made visible in our lives as we express our love one another.  Our love for one another is the sign that God’s love is present. 

The gospel uses the metaphor of a vine and its branches bearing fruit to express this same relationship.  As the branches we bear fruit because we are connected to the vine.  We draw our energy from the vine and express it by bearing fruit.  As branches grow, they both strengthen their connection to the vine that sustains them and expand further outward.  As branches grow, they produce more and more fruit, the visible sign that the branch is healthy and connected to the vine.    Our call is to share Christ’s love by loving others.  Those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them. 

Love is more than a feeling.  Love is not passive.  God’s love for us is active, pursuing.  It is like that image of the mother chasing down her teenage son during the riots in Baltimore.  It is a bold love not ashamed to do what it takes to show love.  It is fierce willing to risk much.

It casts out fear, as the author of 1 John will write in just a few verses.  (1 Jn. 4:18)   It is the love of a friend willing to lay down his life for another.  It is the love of a brother or sister willing to forgive.  God’s love reconciles enemies.  God’s love unites us.  God’s love flows through us and becomes visible as we love one another.   

God’s love is poured out generously and is freely poured into us.  Christ’s love comes as a gift.  You don’t need to earn it, you can’t!  And you do not need to worry about losing it!  God’s love for you is certain.  Remember “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me . . .”

It is unshakeable.  It is unwavering and it is unbreakable.  God loves you, me no matter what, where  or who!  

It isn’t just a feeling or merely an emotion.  Love is action.  It is expressed in caring, in compassion, and in service.  God’s love for us is most clearly visible in Christ.  Jesus loves us fully, laying down his life for us.  So it is that our lives are opened to Christ’s love.

Let us receive that love as a gift.  Let it abide in our hearts.  And then let us share this love.  For in this way “God’s love is made complete in us.”

All we need is love? . . . Yes, if it is God’s love shining through us!  

 

 

Sunday April 26th Sermon ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Goodness and Mercy

Psalm 23      John 10:11-18

Psalm 23 is both familiar and loved.  Together with the Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm is a passage that is so treasured that countless generations of Christians have learned it by heart.  It has been recited at bedsides and gravesides, taught in Sunday school classrooms, and inspired hymn-writers and artists, especially when paired with John’s Gospel and Jesus’ words “I am the good shepherd . . .” 

From hymns like the one we will sing shortly  to portraits of Jesus standing beside a flowing stream among a flock of sheep, with the wooden staff in one hand and cradling a small lamb in the other, the imagery of God as our shepherd tugs at something deep in our hearts.  The psalm conjures up comforting images of pastoral landscapes and pastoral care.  It is profoundly personal and intimate.  This psalm has sat up with us during sleepless nights and sat with us waiting outside the emergency or operating room for the doctor to return.

The Lord is my shepherd. There’s nothing I shall want! 

Even though I walk through the dark valley…  Thou art with me!! 

You comfort me…  

 

This psalm is one of those places where the Christian reader is perhaps caught in the context of our Christian identity.  The very Christ image I was speaking about is unavoidably superimposed on the psalm.  It can be difficult for us to extricate David’s shepherd from the Good shepherd of John 10.

We have to remind ourselves that this was and is first a song from the Hebrew hymnbook.  The section in our Bibles given the name “Psalms” is a collection of songs/prayers that most likely originated in the Jewish temple worship.   If we were to have it in our pews racks today it might bear the title: “Jerusalem Temple Songs of Praise and Lamentation.”

As such this Psalm would have been part of Jesus’ musical and religious repertoire.  Something he would quite probably have sung or prayed on a regular basis, much in the way we do.   Imagine for a moment:  you are one of those following Jesus and he has stepped off to be by himself as was his habit, listening carefully we can hear him, singing, praying “Yahweh you are my shepherd, I lack nothing . . .”  

For Jesus, he was praying the “Prayer of David.”  Imagine this psalm shaping the prayer life of Jesus perhaps in a way not unlike it has shaped yours and mine!

The Hebrew Scriptures are steeped in images of the shepherding God even before we get to John’s pronouncement that “the Word became flesh and … we have seen his glory.”  (Jn 1:14)

Who is the subject of this psalm?  Far too often, believers are swayed and seduced by the thinking that we ourselves are the subject.  Abraham Heschel, one of the 20th century’s most thoughtful theologians, said that the story of the Hebrew Scriptures was not our search for God but rather God in search for us.  From the beginning of the story when God goes walking in the garden looking for Adam and Eve, the Hebrew Scriptures tell of a God who is seeking ways to draw the wayward back into the fold.

The intimacy of this psalm is conveyed in a sudden shift in reference to God. The writer first speaks of the Lord (YAHWEH) by name and use of the third person singular pronoun (He).  Before the psalm is over, the writer shifts from talking about God to talking with God – You (King James “Thou”). On the other hand this psalm says so much about “me” that one might think that “I” am the center of its thought. 

I mean, look at what “I” get in this psalm:

Led beside still waters … Made to lie down in green pastures …

Restored in soul … Comforted with rod and staff … (although as a child I wasn’t so sure about the comfort of a rod!)

Fed in the presence of enemies …  made to dwell in the house of the Lord …

And:  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me…

In a culture that more often than not confuses wants with needs; the provision of God is placed in a precarious position.  The psalmist gives us a troubling word to describe the pacing of these two attributes of God.  Literally, “shall follow me” means “pursues, chases me down.” 

Why would God want or need to do that with us? 

The entire Hebrew Scriptures drip with the goodness of God.  There is an opportunity here to see a biblical perspective that actually begins in the goodness of God in the very first days of creation.  Simply put, God is good and all God created is good long before the human was ever created.   God is not good because we may need goodness.  God is goodness in the same way the author of 1 John can write “God is love.”   (1Jn. 4:8)

 

The goodness of God is in every place before we ever arrive at any particular place.  The good things that happen to us along life’s journey do not happen because “we” have arrived.  God’s goodness has already been where we are planning to go.  The goodness of God is so present that every direction that we turn to look, wherever we are, we bump into goodness again. 

It is perhaps egocentric and arrogant to think that goodness follows us.  The goodness of God goes ahead of us, clearing the way, pulling us to new terrain, lighting a pathway in the dark- places of the new possibilities, opening doors that no one can shut! 

But mercy – now this is another thing.  Mercy is made necessary and nonnegotiable soon after the human is created.  Prone to both mistakes and missteps, sometimes deviously yet strategically placed, at other times just because of circumstances and surroundings, we need mercy.   

I read where there is an amusement park in the Midwest (and have yet to identify which one) where the grounds crew, the street sweepers, go around dressed in formal clothing – the men in tuxedoes with tails and the women with long, flowing formal gowns.      

Their task, as in any amusement park, is simple, clean up behind the guests who threw garbage on the park grounds.  They walked the streets with such extravagance just to clean up behind inconsiderate and thoughtless guests.  Always smiling, always dressed impeccably.  After a while, a guest was embarrassed to have such nobility picking up behind them. 

This is what God does.  Not with grudge or spite. This God extravagantly picks up behind us, and follows us.

 

We need mercy

behind us, sweeping up the refuse we have inadvertently or carelessly left in our wake;

we need mercy to erase even the memory of our sins as God casts our sins as far the east is from the west.  (Ps. 103:12)

Shutting doors that no one can open. 

This is the reality that gives the author the certainty so that at the end he can say, “Surely…”   Surely Goodness and mercy…     

Thank God we live between these two shielding and protecting provisions of God,

sandwiched between the goodness of God in front

 and the mercy of God behind

so that – no matter which way we turn… there is God!

And we will be in the words of the Message

“…back home in the house of GOD for the rest of [our lives].”


 

 

Sunday April 19th, 2015

Did You See That Miracle!

Acts 3:12-19

 

If you would allow a bit of literary license with some of Peter’s words in the passage from Acts.  I feel hearing it in perhaps a more contemporary vernacular might help.  It certainly would help my message make more sense!  

The scene: people were amazed by what they had seen: a man lame from birth now up and walking.  They began crowding around Peter and John who have this fellow clinging to them.  And then Peter, always ready with a spur-of-the-moment sermon began:  

“The healing you’ve just witnessed is not magic, dependent on our skill or sleight of hand.  You witnessed a miracle: God’s healing power at work right before your eyes.  Nothing a human being can do ever comes close to God’s power unleashed for good, so don’t dismiss what you saw, or deny it, or misname it.  Don’t try to make it smaller or control it.  Allow yourself to be changed by seeing it for what it is: a miracle.”   

Let me ask, how many miracles did you see on your way into church this morning?

 

This past Tuesday the usual crew gathered at Holgrum’s Bakery for their morning coffee and low fat muffins.  Over time they have appropriated the big round table in the alcove by the front window.  From this vantage point they have a great view of the common with its Minute Man statue, stately old centennial maples, those green park benches, and this year some left over Christmas decorations which haven’t been seen since the big snow in January. Through that window all the comings and goings of the town square which provides plenty of material for their running commentary. 

Because the table is round and for other reasons we don’t need to mention here, they have become known about town as the “knights of the round table.”   As in when Bertie Dickson on his way to the Post office pops his head in and asks, “Well, noble knights of the glorious round table, how many fierce dragons bent on the destruction of our fair town have you slain so far today?”

There is Bob Barstow who comes in after finishing his bus run.  He delivers 49 scholars to the elementary and middle schools.  There are days, especially this time of the year, with spring’s sunnier and warmer days when Bob comes in he’ll ask for the “spring scholar espresso.”  I’m not sure what this is but Carl Holgrum will pour some coffee into a large mug then briefly disappear out back and when he returns the mug is full.  It seems to me, Bob savors his coffee a little longer those mornings.

Wally Poindexter is there, the proprietor of Wally’s Fish Market and Bait Shop and if you’re not too particular whatever you purchase there can be used for either.  (Fishing or eating!

Howard Williams, who used to own the Harborview Hardware now owned by one of those franchise companies that carries a lot of stuff but never what you need.  Locals call it the “I can get it on the next truck” store.  Retired now, Howard is one of the founding knights of the round table.  I guess you could say he is their Master of Arms.

Gayle, the UPS driver, she will often stop have a cup of coffee and visit with the loafers.  When she’s in their midst, our knights seem to appear a little younger, stand a little taller and little firmer around the middle.  

There is Joe who stops by before he opens his barber shop for the day.  The shop being right next door, Joe will often hang out with the “knights” until he sees through the window his first customer pull up.

There are others among them from time to time Melvin Stearns, Sam French and lately there has been Chet.  Chet retired from civil service.  For years Chet was the FHA loan administrator and for many a young couple he was the first banker type they had the pleasure to work with.  He sort of fell into this position.  An uncle or some relation was a regional supervisor and got him the job which he held for 40 years.  Chet’s life was about as exciting as the mounds of paperwork he was required to navigate each bewildered newly married couple through as they purchased their first home.  Chet doesn’t come every week but when he does he can change the whole tenor of the conversation.  Chet’s a coffee mug “half empty” sort of a person. 

On occasion the knights will hatch a plan to go save some damsel in distress such as the time Imogene Reynolds called Ruth to see if Howard would come over to help her with a bathroom lavatory and toilet that were not draining out as they should.   Ruth called the bakery Betsy told Howard and the next thing Imogene knew a detachment of the knights were standing around staring down into her toilet bowl.   

Chet, though, always seem to be busy with some vague project and never able to help.

This week Betsy was running a special on leftover hot cross buns.  Seems they aren’t selling like they used to.  Years ago they would sell out by 3 Good Friday afternoon.  Now it is not uncommon to find 2-3 dozen still in the display case Monday after Easter.

Chet noticed and this got him started on things religious, spiritual and otherwise churchy.  

After purchasing a couple to consume with his coffee Chet speaking to no one in particular: “All these left over hot cross buns seems to say to me that people aren’t into all this religious mumbo jumbo, hocus pocus , rising from the dead, miracle stuff.  I guess people don’t believe in them miracles anymore.” 

Chairs creaked as weight shifted, eyes rolled.  

“Betsy, Carl, Joe” he asked.  “You’re church going people.  Why is it that we don’t hear much about miracles anymore, especially amongst you church people?”

Carl wasn’t sure just how to respond.  Betsy usually ignored Chet with his pessimistic views but this was hitting a little too close to their hearts.  While they may not be as vocal and demonstrative with their faith as some, they loved their church and the people they sat with in those pews every week.  And there was something of God in all that.  Or at least they believed or hoped there was.  

Chet let loose again, “Sure those TV preachers are hawking their books on faith healing, near death experiences and such.  And the Catholics have their shrines where reportedly one will find mounds of cast away crutches and wheel chairs.” 

“But when was the last time you saw a miracle over at your Old First Church.  Your old Rev. hasn’t got the gift or what?” Chet remarked more with a sneer than seeking an answer.

Well . . .  you couldn’t have heard a pin drop because all those gathered around the table in unison began sipping their coffee so intently there were a fair amount of slurping and sucking sounds.  

It was quiet for quite a while, Chet oblivious to the consternation he had caused tore into another three day old hot cross bun.

 

Well, about that time Peter Warren pulled up in front of the bakery.  He hopped out ran around and assisted Miss Susie out of his pickup.  On his way into town stopped by to see Miss Susie who mentioned she needed some things in town so Peter offered to drive her.

The first words out of Miss Susie as she entered into the bakery “What a glorious day!  Oh, Betsy, it always smells so delicious in here.” 

“Why on the way in this morning just as you come over the hill by Barker’s farm, you know, before you get to Carters’ Hill Road, well,  the woods were so full of trilliums . . . Oh my!  I just had to have Peter stop so I could get out and walk among them for a bit.  And you know when I got out, there in the midst of all the sand and dirt the snowplow had left were mayflowers carpeting the roadside with such beauty and fragrance I nearly forgot the trilliums!”

“I’m blessed to still have faculties enough to enjoy them!  My, isn’t God good and extravagant with all this spring time beauty.  ”  

Putting their mugs down one after another the knights chime in “He sure is Miss Susie!  He sure is!”

 

Betsy and Miss Susie talk as Carl puts together the rest of the hot cross buns in a box for Miss Susie to take with her . . . . . .

The knights finish their coffee. . . . 

Bob Barstow mentions that he had heard that Pappy Holman was in the hospital over in Uniondale his “ticker isn’t ticking right.”  Jeanette would need a ride over seeing as she doesn’t drive. 

Howard asks if he doesn’t mind he’d like to go along, it would be good to see old Pappy.  

Joe hasn’t seen anyone pull up for a haircut so if they’ll give him a minute to hang up the sign that says “I’ll return at . . .” (Which for years has been so loose that it invariably says 6:30! Which everyone knows mean “whenever”!) 

“I’ll join you.  While Pappy has never had much hair he has been a faithful customer.”

Gayle waves a good day to the gallant knights and climbs into her brown delivery van. 

Wally tells Howard to say “Hello” to Pappy and give him his best.  And be sure to tell him when he gets better to stop by the bait shop he’ll have a bucket of shiners waiting for him. 

And each goes out into their day . . . its going to be a good day!

 

Now let me ask you, how many miracles will you see . . . here in this place . . .  and on your way home from church today?