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

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


Sermons

A Wild Goose Community

Sermon ~ Sunday, May 20, 2018

“A Wild Goose Community”

Pentecost Sunday

 

As some of you may know I am a bit of a student of Celtic Christian Spirituality.  One reason I am draw to it is the way historic Celtic spiritualty viewed the created order.  For the Celts creation is a “second gospel.” Creation is another means alongside the Holy Scriptures through which God reveals God’s self to us. 

It was thought that even the animals could proclaim the goodness of God.  Franciscan scholars believe that in his early life, Saint Francis of Assisi spent time in a Celtic monastery in Northern Italy.  And St. Francis viewed animals as gateways to a deeper knowledge of God.   

It is thought by many that the ancient Celts used the wild goose as an image for the Holy Spirit.  You see the symbol in their artwork over the centuries. (Examples in the worship folder.)  They understood from Scripture and from their own life experience that God/Holy Spirit was not someone we bend to our wants and desires, but rather someone who was beyond our control.  Someone who we would need to pursue rather than subdue.

This idea permeates the Celtic theological thought, God was not someone who could be tamed or domesticated by humans.  Thus it was the wild goose, not the human-adapted almost domesticated version of the Canadian geese we see wandering around our beaches and parks.

There are those who would like to domesticate God, God or Jesus our buddy; but we shouldn’t lose the notion of a healthy awe of God or as the Bible likes to say, “fear of the Lord.”

The Holy Spirit cannot be domesticated for our use at our whim.  Another mistake I believe we make is to think that the Holy Spirit is something that comes to us in solitary or individual experiences.  That special feeling, or insight we get, or “ah hah” moment, which can be a movement of the Spirit, for sure, but the Spirit also works within communities of people as well. This we see in the story of Pentecost. 120 were gathered when the Holy Spirit “as of fire” rushed into that place, along with all those who were there and observed this wonder. 

With this in mind I have a piece that speaks of the wild goose and the community, cooperation, I believe in a way that reminds us of the work of the Spirit in our midst.  It was given to me many years ago by my mother who heard it at a conference she attended.  It is written in poetic form and I have adapted it a bit for us this morning..

 

We are led to believe that the goose is weak  . . .

  not strong like the eagle. . .

But though the eagle may be stronger, with fight more fit for the kill,

A goose can fly farther . . . and longer . . . than any eagle will.

 

Oh, I’ve heard much walk and talk about eagles . . .

And it’s not my desire, nor would I conspire, to put the big birds down . . .

But . . . as implied, whether in the trees or in the sky,

Eagles, falcons and hawks are almost always alone.

 

And in a way that’s what separates those birds from a wild goose.

I suppose for those from Iowa and Nebraska, it’s really nothing new,

But even as a lad surrounded by hills of western Maine,

I looked forward to each fall . . .

  to seeing hundreds of wild geese, narrowing into view . . .

Over Autumn enflamed maple and white pine tall. 

 

One day, while alone I stood,

   listening to the call of an owl in some far off wood,

I saw before my eye,

   hundreds and hundreds of geese flying and filling the sky.

 

The head goose, the leader of the geese, suddenly veered of the line . . .

Leaving a vacancy, which was filled by the bird behind.

The leader then flew along the side of the formation,

 which continued growing wide until he found a spot at the back.

All the while, they never missed a flap.

 

Well,  . . . I stood there, gaping north, gaping south,

 wondering what on earth this was all about!

I told my friends.  And they said, “So . . .”

“So!!??!!  What do you mean, ‘So . . ‘!!??

Did you ever see such a thing, Jack? What about you Paul?!!”

They said, “So . . . let’s go to the park and play some ball.”

So we did . . .

We used to play a lot of ball, . .  when I was a kid. . .

 

Well, now I’m an adult and I suppose that’s a part of being grown.

I’m very busy and seldom have time alone . . .

Let alone, time to look at the geese high in the sky. 

And if I do see some, it’s more or less luck . . .

Oh, I’ll see a goose . . .  or was that a duck?

 

And I might catch a glimpse through the windshield when I’m stuck in traffic . .

I guess I should be thankful for the National Geographic!

For they told me what I’m telling you . . .

And if you don’t believe me you can look it up too!

 

What I witnessed that day as a child

Is something that has been going on in the wild . . .

     Since the very first Autumn.

 

You see, their bodies are streamlined,

  their necks like a spear, slicing and breaking the wind.

Now, from the ground it’s impossible to see,

  But those wings, they’re not flapping randomly.

 

When the head goose grabs the wind, air is displaced,

  Which rushes up to reclaim its space,

Only to see the smiling face of the bird flying behind in place,

Whose wings just happen to be in a downward position,

    A very dangerous condition . . .

    Which, doesn’t last long,

     Because that upward rush gives them a push  . . . .

And they’re right back up to where they belong.

 

That bird then grabs the air again, causing another upward wind,

Which lifts the wings of the bird behind . . .

And so it goes, on down the line.

 

So, the lead goose shields the wind,

And all the rest are carried by him,

    In varying degrees of course,

   From the back which is the best,

   To the front which is the worst,

With very little effort, I’ve heard,

  on the part of any one bird;

Because when the lead goose has had enough,

 He or she simply drops back depending on another to show its stuff!

 

That’s how I found out how a goose can fly

 From way up north . . . to way down south  . .  . and back again.

 

 

Still, they cannot do it alone.  You see . .

It has something to do with community . . .

 

These days it’s a popular notion,

    And people swell with emotion and pride

When they think themselves on the eagle’s side . . .

Solitary 

        Sufficient

          Strong

But . . . we are what we are . . .

In some ways, we cannot choose . . .

For many of us, the goose . . . might be a clue to who we are . . .

I thank God. . .

      . . . I was made . . .

                   . . . More like a goose . . .


I’m Praying For You

Sunday ~ May 13, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

“I’m Praying for You”

John 17:6-19

 

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

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

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

“that they may be one.”  

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

And this is where I make it personal! 

 

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

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

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

If we just talk of thoughts and prayers

And don’t live out a faith that dares,

And don’t take on the ways of death,

Our thoughts and prayers are fleeting breath.

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

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

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

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

And did you?

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

To enjoy the Audio version please click on the arrow below!


Fearlessness of Love

Sermon ~ Sunday, April 29, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Fearlessness of Love

1 John 4:7-21

I took the commentary off the bookshelf and opened it to the page where todays Epistle reading is discussed and you might imagine my surprise when the first thing I read was: “Caution: Handle with Care!”  I thought, “Really?  Isn’t this about love? How difficult is love?”  (At least to talk about anyway!)

The warning went on to explain that it is not that the original Greek is difficult to translate.  It isn’t.  In fact it is some of the easiest to translate, often where first year New Testament Greek students begin. 

The danger lies with anyone who chooses to preach on this passage.  Preachers beware!  “Beware (and I quote) of the tendency to turn it’s soaring testimony to the primacy of God’s love and the resulting corollaries of human love into something saccharine and simplistic.” 

Even more than Paul’s exposition on the nature and character of God’s love in 1 Corinthians 12-14, 1 John 4 sets forth a powerful exploration of how the initiative of God’s love in Christ makes possible the reality of a deeper human love. 

Whenever one talks about love, God’s or human, the temptation is to turn it into a romantic sentiment, an individual feeling, or some kind, caring deed to add to our “to do” list.  It is all too easy to twist this reading around and turn it into the unstated assumption: “We love others; therefore God must love us.”  Throughout the author’s at times circuitous argument, he makes it clear “We love because God first loved us.”   It starts with God not us! 

 

Love, is a universal hunger in the human heart, and John knows this. (As does, it would seem, just about every song writer and musician.)  Yet, as universal as it may be many are terribly confused about love.  Why just yesterday on my way home from the united Northern Association Meeting In Onekama I heard these songs on the radio:  Love is a Battlefield Pat Benetar, Addicted to Love Robert Palmer, You Give Love a Bad Name  Bon Jovi You Make Lovin’ Fun Fleetwood Mac. (Can you tell what I listen to while driving?)

Someone once observed graffiti on a restroom wall (Which of course is the retainer of all wisdom!) “Love is all I want.”  Someone had come along later and scribbled underneath it “Sex is all you get.”  We are terribly confused when it comes to love. 

But even in “Christian“ circles we sometimes get this biblical love stuff a bit turned around.  Again, John doesn’t, notice today’s passage begins with, “Beloved, let us love one another, . ..”  not “Beloved, let us love God.” 

“. . . love one another. . .”

But let’s be honest, sometimes it is easier (and safer?) to talk about how much we love God or love Jesus than it is to express and actually love our family, friends and colleagues, or children especially when they don’t follow certain “acceptable  behaviors and or lifestyles. And, let’s just be honest, sometimes we are not all that likeable!  Yet, John clearly says that the love of God, born of God, insists that those who know and love God must love one another.  It is harder sometimes to love those close to us than to love a God who is far away, mysterious, and unseen.  Those close to us, we can see them warts and all!   

John reminds us that God’s love is given to humans in human form, in the person of Jesus.  God loves us and sent the Son, a person, as the word of love, the sign of love, the living love of God given in the flesh to humanity.  So if God loves us, in human form, his argument goes, we must love one another in the same way, in our and their humanness.

Another mistake we sometimes make about love is that it somehow has to be perfect.   And the author even says, “. . . if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected in us.”  But love is not an ideal; it is a relationship.

The Message  “But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!”

John speaks a fair amount about abiding in this passage.  The Message translates verses 13-16 this way: “This is how we know we’re living steadily and deeply in him, and he in us:

 He’s given us life from his life, from his very own Spirit.

 Also, we’ve seen for ourselves and continue to state openly that the Father sent his Son as Savior of the world.  Everyone who confesses that Jesus is God’s Son participates continuously in an intimate relationship with God.  We know it so well, we’ve embraced it heart and soul, this love that comes from God.

Am I perfect in my love for others?  By no means!  Are any of us?  Not that I know of.  But it is the Spirit dwelling in us that is guiding us toward a more mature relationship of love with God and with others.

And there is another important point the author makes in our reading for this morning.  It’s about the nature of God.  Some say God is to be feared which becomes God is fear followed closely or interchangeably with God is judgement.  Not as negatively, some think of God as light.  Some as mercy.   But the message of Jesus and the author of 1 John say it clearly,  God is love.  All God’s activity is loving activity.  If God creates, God does it in love.  If God rules, God does it in love.  If God judges, even here, God does it in love.  God cannot help it – God is love.

The gospel answer to the human problem of anxiety,(culturally based not brain chemical based) mortality, and meaninglessness is simple – God is love.  In this world of impersonal forces, ruthless power, and extremely complicated international issues, some may want another gospel, but to proclaim anything less than the heart of the universe as being a pulse of mercy with infinite passion is to betray the gospel. 

The gospel’s answer to our obsessive problems of anxiety and meaninglessness is simple: God is love and you are loved by this love.  We learn about God by what God does.  No love, no gospel.  This flies straight in the face of those who would define God only as a correct theology (theirs!), or an adherence to a strict moral code that consists of petty morality and organizational power.

John does talks about fear.  We know that fear is among the most powerful of motivators for good and evil. It is the parent of caution.  So it can warn us and protect us.  It is also an incentive to preventative action.  Healthy religion must have within it that sober and persistent “fear of the Lord” that can be the beginning of wisdom.  But our faith must have more than that.  If it makes fear its foundation, it will never be enjoyed; it will be paralyzing, and there will be little if any inspiration. 

Fear cannot generate love, sympathy, tenderness, or compassion.  We cannot frighten people into faith, scare people into tolerance, or terrify them onto kindliness.  The fruit of fear ends up being distrust, suspicion, and resentment.  A joyless religion is fruitless and loveless, and at its best is beneath the Christian ideal.

It is against the lovelessness of fear, John sets the fearlessness of love. 

No longer must we have the anxious tormenting endeavor to placate God, but rather ours can be the response of a loving, confident heart to a love already shown and shared. 

Love is strong medicine for the heart. Perfect love rejects fear from the heart.  Fear, John says, has to do with punishment, but in Christ we are to  think not as much of that as we do of love, of the forgiveness of God,.  Fear as seen by John, as well as Paul, is a sign of inadequate religion.  For sure, there can be no religion without awe in the presence of the Creator.  Reverence in awareness of God is a protection against sin, but when reverence turns to fear, religion becomes stunted and loses its grace and glory

New Testament religion asks us to love others as we are loved by God.  There is no place in the fellowship for those who nurse grudges, seek revenge, assume intellectual superiority, or are careless of the feelings of others.  We must remind each other that only the merciful will know and understand mercy, and only the forgiving will know the full extent of our own forgiveness. 

A loving heart lives in the love of God.

May each of you find your hearts and the heart of this congregation in such a state of fearless love.  


As you see below, we have 2 media options for you.  The first is the Audio Version of Pastor Neil’s Sermon, simply double click on it to download it to your computer.

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The Incident at the Beautiful Gate

Sermon ~ Sunday, April 22, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

The Incident at the Beautiful Gate

Acts 3:1-19

 

It was in October of 1958, some segregationists slipped into the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple in Atlanta, Georgia carrying with them a considerable amount of dynamite.  Shortly after 3:30 in the morning an explosion ripped through the oldest Jewish synagogue in the city doing extensive damage.  In her book The Temple Bombing, Melissa Fay Greene describes the events surrounding this hate-crime.  It was on the next Friday evening, at the first Sabbath service after the bombing, the congregation gathered in their temple, its windows shattered and boarded up, doors hanging off their hinges.  The temple that evening was packed almost as if it were the high holy days.  The rabbi, a powerful preacher and civic leader, Jacob Rothschild, stood up to speak.  He looked out over the overflowing congregation, and after standing silently for a moment surveying the crowd with a penetrating gaze, he quipped, “So this is what it takes to get you to temple.”

A somewhat similar scene is taking place in our reading from Acts.  In this case, the “explosion,” the event that attracts the attention and draws the big crowd, is not a tragic hate-crime, but a piece of shocking news nonetheless: that crippled beggar, you the one, always hanging around over at the Beautiful Gate, well, word has it that he has been somehow unexpectedly healed, and in the name of this fellow, Jesus of Nazareth. 

As one can imagine, an astonished and puzzled crowd gathers in the area of the temple known as Solomon’s Portico, and they are pressing around these two Galileans, Peter and John, who seem to be the source of the miracle.

It has been my experience and I think yours, that after momentous events, both good and tragic, people are drawn to sacred places and to people who seem to have a connection to divine power.  At the end of World War II, when humans first walked on the moon, when the soaking rains fell after the drought of the 1930s, when President Kennedy was assassinated, when rumors spread that the Virgin Mary had appeared in a small southern town, and as I experienced personally, the full sanctuary for a week or two after the tragic events of 9/11/2001 – these and other events over the years have seen people flocking to places of worship out of fear and anxiety, as well as wonder, curiosity, and amazement. 

Similarly, when the word got around about this beggar’s healing at the Beautiful Gate, a throng gathered around Peter and John. 

What were they looking for?  Healing for themselves?  To be in the proximity of  spiritual power?

More miracles?  Perhaps an explanation of the one they had already seen or heard about? 

Who knows? 

Perhaps they did not even know themselves.  All they knew was that something startling and unexpected disrupted their normalcy and so they gathered at this holy place.

“So this is what it takes to get you to temple!”

Whatever drew the crowd to Solomon’s Portico and Peter and John, the chances are good that what they received when they got there was not exactly what they expected.  They came to the Solomon’s Portico wide-eyed and astonished, lured by the mystery of a healing, and what do they get in return?   A sermon!!

They came like moths drawn to the flickering light of the miracle and what they got was the clear, steady, penetrating light of a homily.  In fact, the way the author of Acts tells the story, the main event here is not the healing, but the preaching! (As pastors we love to hear this!)

Why is this?  Amazing as it was, the healing by itself was mute, ambiguous, and ultimately misleading.  It took the proclaimed word to tell the whole truth.  The healing was powerful to be sure, but its true meaning was hidden or misinterpreted until the Peter’s message was added.  Notice what went wrong in the people’s minds and hearts, before Peter’s message gave full meaning to the event. 

First, they misunderstood the source of the healing and assumed that it came from Peter and John.   We have this relentless human hunger to believe that there are people who have tapped into the healing powers of the universe and who can make these powers available for us, whether they are the faith healers of the backwoods revival tents or the slick self-help counselors on television talk shows.  We want to believe that these people have the right touch, can say the right prayer formula, have the right technique, have discovered the right wisdom to bring wholeness to our lives.  So we order their DVDs, go to their rallies and retreats, watch their programs, read their books, touch the hem of their garments, seeking for ourselves some of their power, knowledge, and success they purport to offer.

“You’ve got it all wrong,” Peter declares.  “Do you really think that it was our power, our spirituality, our piety, our clever wisdom that healed this man?  It is not about us.  This is about God.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the one true healer.” 

 Second, they misunderstood the nature of life with God, thinking that brokenness is the rule and healing and wholeness is the exception.  Currently there seems to be a kind of functional atheism for many.  Life is seen as barren of God, and if God ever should speak or act, it would be the incredible exception to the norm.  Indeed the crowd in our reading ran to Peter and John  because their ministry of healing seemed to be an amazing interruption to life as usual.

“Why do you wonder at his?” Peter asks them, and in his sermon he speaks of another world, an Easter world, where the healing and forgiving power of God is as pervasive and present as sunshine and rain.  One of the things I appreciate about Celtic spirituality is that it begins with the belief in the goodness of God’s creation and that each person is made in the image of God and that in the beginning God breathed God’s spirit into life and so it is good.  The bad, the evil, trials and trouble are the exceptions to God’s intent for creation. To be sure all this bad stuff can sometimes be so overwhelming as to seem to blot out the light of God within, but it can never completely extinguish it!  We live in an Easter world!

Third, they thought that the healing called only for astonishment; but it calls for more, it calls for (interestingly enough) repentance.  Whenever we see signs of God at work in our world – someone is healed of cancer, a broken relationship is restored, a hungry child is fed, communities come together and make real progress in race relations, nations put down their weapons and work toward peace, personal despair turns to hope, – as  people of goodwill we are filled with wonder and joy.

But Peter’s sermon lets us know that such events also call for an ever-deeper response of self-reflection. God’s healing and restorative work discloses another world, another reality, another realm shimmering amidst the wreckage of a decaying culture.  In the face of God’s deeds of mercy all around us, we are summoned not merely to say, “How wonderful, how amazing!  Isn’t God good!” but to turn around, to repent, to change our citizenship, and become a faithful part of God’s work in the this world. 

Healing should do more than touch the body, spirit, emotions of the one healed but should also cause those of us standing by to assess our relationship with the one true Source of the healing.  Not that we may be selfishly looking for something for ourselves, healing, wholeness etc. but that we recognize that the Healer also seeks us to be healers in our families, our communities and in this Easter world we now all live in.

May it be so beginning with us, beginning today!

Enjoy the audio version of this Sermon by Pastor Neil by selecting “Download File” below!


Do Not Doubt But Believe

~ Guest Sermon ~ April 8, 2018 ~ The Reverend Barbara Hoig

Scriptures: Psalm 133

                  Acts 4:32-35

                  John 20:19-35

KEY TEXT: John 20:27a: “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and           put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe.”

Sermon Title:  “Do Not Doubt But Believe”

Prayer:  O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you.  Amen.

We all have doubts.  Sometimes I think that doubt is the by-word for our times.  We doubt the weather predictors, we doubt the promise makers, we doubt the news, we doubt the world leaders, we doubt the IRS, we doubt the insurance companies, we doubt our government…

It’s all about being able to trust people.  Who do you trust in your life?  I have had that concept deeply shaken recently when a 44 year old woman whom I have known for nearly 30 years, and have kept in contact with, came crashing back into my life in a very real way.  Back before Christmas I heard from Kathy, not her real name, and she wanted to talk.  But before I tell you too much, you need some background.  Kathy was an abused child, abused by all the males in her life as a small child, and also in High School.  Kathy was adopted as an infant and a few years later her parents adopted a little boy.  Her Mother did not know that after her husband had abused her, left her unconscious on the floor, he was also abusing the children.  They, of course, were sworn to secrecy being told of horrible punishment if they said anything.  It wasn’t until the age of 25 when Kathy, with my hand in hers, was able to tell her Mom what had happened at the hands of her dad and brother.  Then we found out that her Mom had also been an abused child.

Kathy was brought up to believe that men were bad news.  They hurt you.  When Kathy was of an age that her friends were dating, her Mom didn’t let her date because men will just hurt you and leave you in the end.  You’re better off without them.  Kathy also has several severe and chronic diagnoses, the worst of which is epilepsy.  Her doctors believe that it was brought on by all the hits she took to her head as a child.

There is a beautiful new development to this story.  Kathy has a boyfriend.  He is a wonderful, Christian man that she has known for 10 years.   He was divorced when she met him, got married and divorced again, and has kept in contact with Kathy through his profession, all this time.  He has now declared his love for her, and Kathy was terrified, though she knows Tom is a good man, and does love her and won’t hurt her, it took a tremendous amount of courage for Kathy to go out to dinner with him for that first date.  In fact, she told him she would go to dinner if he didn’t call it a date.  It turns out that Kathy’s Mom, believing she is protecting her, does not approve of this relationship.  Kathy is now engaged to Tom, and planning a wedding.  She is so amazed that love can be unconditional, that a man can love a woman without hurting her, that all the things she has been told about male/female relationships over her 44 years have been proven slanted by an abused parent. 

Suddenly, in not quite 3 months, Kathy has taken a monumental leap of faith.  She has learned to trust a man on a personal level, even though she has many doubts, she is learning to talk to Tom about them and she has found that he does not lie to her when the questions are hard to answer.  

We all need to deal with our doubts.  Sometimes it is easy, sometimes hard.  But in order to live our lives, we must move past them, or know that we have doubts for a good reason.  I believe that is where Thomas was.  He was doubtful that this apparition standing in front of him, who had come through a closed door, was actually the man he had known before he saw him crucified.  Let’s examine some of the leaps of faith Thomas had to make to believe.

We live in an interesting time; long years past Jesus’ time.  So when we read these scriptures, and ponder their meaning, we look back, to what we think Jesus might have meant, then try to give that some relevance in 2018.

When Jesus was resurrected, he entered the same world he had left 3 days prior. 

Rome was still in charge, and the Christians were hiding out and looking over their shoulders.  His disciples, the eleven, (the twelve minus one), were hiding in an upper room in a house.  I saw a friend on Easter Sunday who just returned from a trip to Jerusalem.  She said they visited an ‘upper room’ in a house.  You had to climb a very rough ladder to get there, and it was a fairly large shelf of rock in the cave that the dwelling was made of.  There were no windows, only a small opening along the front side for air.  This is where the eleven were hiding out.  They were going out only in ones and twos and coming back to the room with the news of the day.  When Mary Magdalene found Jesus’ tomb empty, she ran to tell Peter and John.  When the news reached the group gathered in the upper room, they were amazed.  Then when the risen Christ visited them, they recognized their friend and teacher.  But Thomas was skeptical.  He had seen Jesus crucified and then placed in the tomb, after the body had been prepared for the grave.  How could Jesus now be alive?  Was this a ghost?  Was there some trick?  Why were Mary and Peter and John calling Jesus The Christ?

Christ sensed Thomas’ confusion about him and asked him to come close and examine the wound in His side.  “Put your hand in My side.”  He also asked Thomas to put his finger in the wounds in His hands.  The wounds in His hands that the nails had made.  In Jesus’ time, the Romans crucified a lot of people.  They did not use nails in the hands and feet.  The used leather bands to bind the people to the cross.  Jesus was nailed to the cross as per the prophesy.  Those wounds in his hands and feet were truly identifying wounds.  Christ was picking up his lessons where Jesus had left off before the crucifixion.  He was teaching the disciples to trust him.  Jesus IS the son of man.  He IS the son of God.  He IS the Christ.  Jesus was at one time both fully human and fully divine.  Now he is the risen Christ.  Still son of man and son of God, but more.

Christ was soon to ascent to heaven and be with the Father.  He would no longer be walking with the disciples on earth.  Instead they would be acting in his name.  They would be encountering people every day who would not believe them when they said that Jesus, now known as Christ, lives, He has risen.  He has ascended to heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father.  So this lesson to the disciples was extremely important. 

The Christians in those days were riddled with fears of demons and ghosts, as well as persecution by Romans.  There were all kinds of tricks and happenings that could not be explained.  They feared them all.  They ran and hid from them. 

The disciples needed to be able to convince the rest of the Christians that Jesus was indeed risen, and that He was ascended to the Father in heaven.  I believe that is why He visited with the disciples and continued to teach them during His short time left with them before His ascension.  The disciples were the first ones commissioned to go out and act in Christ’s name.  They were charged with baptizing and teaching all the people they met.

In the UCC, we believe in the priesthood of all believers.  That means that we believe all of us are able to perform priestly duties.  We hire some people who have been educated beyond the general congregant in the pews, so that they may teach us.  But we believe that we can petition God through Christ for anything we need.  Each one of us can pray for others, can teach others, can offer forgiveness to others we encounter in our daily lives. 

What we know about Jesus, the Christ, and His teachings, we have learned from the Bible.  We know that what is written in the Old Testament are words and concepts that were first passed down by word of mouth remembrances and then they were written down.  And in the New Testament, while there are probably some accounts that have a few of Jesus’ actual quotes, they are mostly what was remembered and written down after Christ ascended to the Father. 

Many of the Gospel writers never knew Jesus personally.  They knew him from the stories and teachings of the disciples and the leaders of the Christian movement. 

None of us ever knew Jesus personally, we never even knew the writers of the Biblical texts.  We cannot go to that upper room and ask Jesus to share communion with us.  We cannot stand with the eleven and watch the Christ walk into the room through a closed door.  We cannot put our finger in His nail holes or our hand in His side.  Our whole Christian Faith is entirely based on just that.  FAITH. 

Christ said to Thomas, “You believe because you have seen.  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  In what ways have your lived on blind faith in your life?  For myself, while I was in seminary, I had left my full-time nursing job, and I was working part time as a nurse, and my new part time job didn’t quite cover all the bases.  Every month there were checks in the mail, from my home church, from friends and family, they really paid the bills so I could accomplish my dream.  I was truly living on faith.

Today, I live on the faith that my car will last another few months, and I will stay healthy and find interesting things to do that keep me busy, (I could do with a few less of these today).  I live on the faith that every time I go out and drive, I will get back home safely.  I live on faith the when I am in a crowd, there will not be a shooter in the crowd with me.  I live in fear of travel to some parts of the world.  I live in fear that some parts of the world will invade my happy life here in the US.  I attended a conference in St Louis, MO last fall.  It was all UCC clergy and their families, and I learned that many of them were locking doors, stripping altars and placing all valuables in vaults, hiring security for their parking lots whenever there was an event at the church, and asking choir members not to bring their purses to church and to keep their car key in a pocket because people were walking into the building during services and events and taking car keys out of pockets and purses from choir rooms.  Choir members were coming out of church to find that their money and their cars were missing.  In Traverse City, churches with child care centers are hiring security to police any door that is unlocked during the daytime hours, and only unlocking 1-2 doors unless there is an event.  If there is an event, they hire security for each open door to watch people coming in and going out.

In 2018, we call it being careful; protecting out assets; our families; our patrons; our congregation.  It takes the same kind of faith to live in 2018 as it did to live in the year Jesus was crucified.   “DO NOT DOUBT but believe.”  Christ promised us eternal life with Him and the Father and the Holy Spirit.  “Do no doubt but believe.”

Life with eternity in it – is God’s gift to us.  We have heard it, but we are slow to believe.  We have received it, but we are slow to trust.  It is ours to enjoy, but we have not lived it.  Let us discuss the matter with our Creator.

Closing prayer:

Ever-present God, who by the power of the holy Spirit transforms us individually – and as a church to be your dwelling place, confront us here in the midst of our doubts, grant us your peace while we face our fears, and increase our trust that we may embrace life in all its fullness. Speak to us now the word that we need, empowering us to be a unifying presence in our broken world.  Amen

Pastoral Prayer
We have taken the name Christian, but few of us are known primarily by that name.  We have experienced Easter radiance, but we seldom reflect the light of our risen Savior.  We have heard the message of salvation, but it grows cold on our lips and is of little influence in our lives.  Sometimes we delude ourselves that, because we are basically good people, there is no sin in us.  We deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  Sin is separation from you, and we have allowed great chasms and built high walls to keep you out of our lives.  Forgive us, we pray.

The Bible tells us that If we walk in the light as Christ is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin.  If we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive us.  Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sin.  When we are one with God through Christ, we extend forgiveness to our sisters and brothers, that all may come to faith and have life in Jesus’ name.

Help us to forgive our brothers and sisters; Our neighbors and friends.  Bring us peace in our lives.  Help us to approach that person we shy away from at work, at school, in our neighborhood.  Help us to make a difference in the lives of others by offering friendship and fellowship with another Christian. 

Help us to put our faith in you asking for healing for our neighbors and friends, and for ourselves.  Help us to have faith that you will show us the way each day as we leave our beds and venture out into this world.  Then help us to have courage to step out on that faith we have, and follow your example, teaching and making disciples of all we meet.

Hear us, O Lord, as we pray the prayer you have taught us saying, Our Father…  debts

Amen.

Enjoy the Audio version of Guest Speaker Rev. Barbara Hoig’s Sermon by selecting “Download file” below.


Just You Wait

Sermon ~ Sunday ~ March 25  ~ Pastor Neil Wilson 

Just You Wait

John 12: 12-19

Like his recounting of the evening of the Last Supper, in John’s account of Jesus’ “triumphal” entry in to Jerusalem John seems to take a different vantage point than those of Matthew, Mark and Luke.  In his version of the Last Supper John focuses on Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples (last week’s message) and says little of the actual meal.  In fact, all he says is, “The evening meal was being served. . . “   

In today’s reading of what we now refer to as Palm Sunday, while the others seem to devote a great deal of words to the subplot of how the disciples found a suitable animal and how they were to locate the place they were to gather, for John it is all about the celebratory character of Jesus’ procession into the holy city.  There are also a couple of other little notes of interest.  We call this day Palm Sunday but it is only in John’s account that palms are mentioned.  In the other three, people cut generic “branches” and throw them and their cloaks on the road before Jesus.  The palm branches in John perhaps carry a political meaning more obvious to John’s readers than to us.  They would know well the two passages found in the Apocryphal books 1 and 2 Maccabees describing the victory of the Maccabees over their gentile overlords.  Palm fronds are used then as symbols of celebration and the victory over their oppressors.    

Matthew and Luke tell of the procession that leads straight to the temple where the surprising and troubling depiction of an angry Jesus clearing the money-changers and their tables out of his Father’s house.  Mark’s account tells of Jesus arriving in Jerusalem with great fanfare, but then simply looks around, decides its late and heads back out of town!  It is the following day that Jesus returns and clears the temple.     

John on the other hand focuses squarely on the entry into Jerusalem and adds details that serve only to make sure the reader understands just how momentous an occasion this is.  It is a sign of Jesus’ sovereignty and a foreshadowing of how his final victory would take place.  And for added twist, tells how there were those looking for Jesus because they were there when this little incident took place in Bethany with this fellow Lazarus.

Its Passover, festival time, imagine the Fourth of July with a little Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s Day thrown in for good measure!  There are crowds of happy people.  Then there are the antagonists, a bunch of despondent Pharisees.  And while the group of disciples may not understand what is happening in the moment, John assures us that they will soon realize the significance of this grand, heroic entry.

This account (for that matter all the gospels) but especially John’s, is written to people several decades after the events in the story happened.  In other words they were written to people who know the story.  They’ve seen this movie before and know how it ends!  And just like any of us who’ve seen a movie before and are watching it with someone who hasn’t, we might be tempted to say,  “But just you wait!”

  Just you wait!

 You heard about what Jesus did with Lazarus?  I know you did, you are going around spreading the news about It.   Just you wait!

You think this parade with Jesus on a donkey is something to celebrate (Which it is!)  Just you wait!

Like those who first heard these words of John, we are both reassured of where the story is going and invited to be join the victor’s side.  We can enter Holy Week with our heads  high, with the foreknowledge that the one riding in on that donkey is without doubt the king of Israel, the promised Messiah, and the conqueror of death. 

Yes, our problems are real, and our sins many,  tomorrows news feeds will be filled with bad news and often things still get worse before they improve.   None of this is denied here, but just you wait!  The final victory is assured.  

This assurance encourages you and I to become part of the Palm Sunday crowd, and not just the one that recognizes the king of Israel and waves branches in the air.  The crowd that shouts “Hosanna!” continues to give witness about Jesus’ resurrecting power, even after the events of this day.  For those who are convinced of Jesus’ victory over death, anything less than exuberance and full commitment to the cause seem lacking.   

John knows all too well that there will be another crowd shouting just as loudly, “Crucify! Crucify!”  But as one biblical commentator points out, John’s final depiction of a large crowd with palms is found in his writing called the Apokalypsis of John or as it is more commonly known Revelation.  In chapter seven John describes the vision he has been given,

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all the tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne  and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”  

These are the ones who see with their very eyes the victorious lamb who was slain.

Just you wait! 

Just you wait you Herods of the world, who want to maintain control through corrupt political power! 

Just you wait all you Caiaphases who abuse and misuse your religious authority! 

Just you wait you Pontius Pilots, who want to wash your hands of the problems of others. Not my problem!  Not in my back yard.

Just you wait all you scribes and Pharisees who with self-righteous sight see only the speck of sawdust in the eyes of others and not the logs in your own!

John’s triumphal entry begins Holy Week with great pomp, and in doing so previews the joyous day that is still to come.  As an Easter people, we look back on that first Palm Sunday already knowing the outcome.  We can therefore not only fully participate in a festive procession of palms; we can also give up our spot on the sidelines and join Jesus’ side with confidence. 

Christ has won.  Death has found its match. 

True, the worst is yet to occur as far as Holy Week is concerned, but in the end, well,

just you wait! 

If even the Pharisees could recognize way back then that “the world has gone after him,” then what are we still waiting for today?

With our palm branches in hand, let us join the procession and go forth into our world and be the difference Christ calls us to be.

Enjoy the Audio version by selecting “Download File” and then opening on your desktop.  Easter Week Blessings to each who read and listen.


Seven Essential Questions: What Brings Fulfillment?

Sermon ~ Sunday, March 18th, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Seven Essential Questions: What Brings Fulfillment?

John 13:1-5, 12-17

 

In our Essential Questions of Faith series we’ve asked “Who Is Jesus?”  “What Matters Most?” and “Am I Accepted?” Today we probe the question: 

What brings fulfillment? 

Perhaps you would choose other descriptive term: contentment, joy, satisfaction, or as Pastor Rick Warren made popular: purpose.  What brings purpose to life?  

What word might you use to describe that state of being I’m trying to capture when I say, “fulfillment?”

How would you describe a “fulfilled life”?  When you look back over your life, when did you feel a sense of fulfillment?

In our gospel passage, Jesus is closing in on the end of his time on this earth.  I wonder, do you think he was feeling some pressure to “wrap things up,” complete his work; perhaps to fulfill his purpose?

If he did, I believe it might have been articulated in the second sentence of verse one.   “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”  The NIV Bible says it this way, “. . . he now showed them the full extent of his love.” 

How does he go about demonstrating the “full extent of his love”?  

He gets up, takes off his outer clothing, ties a towel around his waist, and begins washing their feet. 

For Jesus fulfillment of his earthly ministry was found in loving service.  Jesus takes on the role of a household servant.  As Paul would write to the Philippians, using what is thought by some to be a portion of an early Christian hymn:        

he made himself nothing

    by taking the very nature of a servant,

Jesus serves his disciples. The one they looked to as their “Master” they now see stooped before them, washing the day’s dirt off their calloused heals and chipped grubby toe nails.  Peter wouldn’t have any of this until Jesus reminded him that, “Unless I wash you (serve you), you will have no part with me.”  

To which Peter says “Well if that’s the case, then here are my hands and my head as well!”

After he has given the disciples this compelling example of his love, Jesus says to them, “Do you understand what I have done for you?”

Then he talks them through how if he, their teacher/rabbi did this for them, then how do they think they should treat one another. 

He concludes by reminding them and through them instructing us, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.  . . .  Now that you know these things you are blessed if you do them.”

I ask you, what could be more fulfilling than to know God’s blessing on your lives?  I cannot think of anything right off hand! 

If you what to be more like Jesus . . . serve. 

If you want your life to have more meaning, to experience some fulfillment . . .serve.

Jesus found fulfillment of his mission in serving others to the end.  Ultimately this meant execution by crucifixion for what he believed in and for the salvation of those he loved.

I don’t think that Jesus intended such an act in order to find fulfillment for all of us, crucifixion that is!  But I truly believe whether I act on it often enough or not, satisfaction with life comes through service.

 

You know, I’ve done many things in life that were fun, exciting, were adrenaline rushes, (I am a confessed adrenaline junkie!)

After 40 plus years I finally realized a dream I had to fly some sort of aircraft.  

I love to travel even though I haven’t done it as much as I hoped I would have by this point.  I plan on doing more!  More travel, more adrenaline fixes, more flying.

I’ve been complimented on occasion for something I might have said in a sermon or two.  (I’ve also been criticized!)  In a former life I received accolades for my skills with a chainsaw and ability to work a difficult logging site with minimal damage to the residual stand. 

But in all these things I’ve never found the greater sense of fulfillment, call it satisfaction, that I find whenever I am serving someone or some cause beyond what is solely a personal benefit to me.  I first noticed something about this as a boy of perhaps twelve or thirteen.  You see, I had an uncle who had muscular dystrophy or maybe it was polio.  (You know I don’t know as I was ever was told.)  All I knew is that he wore metal braces on both legs and it was difficult for him to get around.  Once he finagled his way into the seat could operate equipment.  He had a small excavating business. For several years my aunt had some horses and one summer he needed help getting hay in.  About all he was able to do was drive the truck around to pick up the bales. 

It had been a long day already.  I’d had probably been caddying at the golf course that morning.  That afternoon probably worked in our vegetable gardens and then just before supper I had taken care of Sadie and Brownie,our two milk cows.   When my father got home he said he needed help getting Uncle Kenny’s hay in before the rain forecast for the following day.  I was twelve or thirteen, what do you think my initial response was?! 

Yet, later that evening as we were driving the last load of hay off the hillside field, and the whippoorwills were beginning their evening chorus, I remember my father saying something rather philosophical for him (He was not a sentimental person!)  “This feels really good tonight, getting this hay in.”

And I remember to this day how I felt at that moment.  There was a rush of goodness, one of those rare fleeting moments when one might be able to say, as Robert Browning wrote in his poem “Pippa’s Passes” “God is in his heaven, and all is right with the world.”

I’m not sure that as a preadolescent boy I could fully express it at that point but I had an inkling that real “happiness” (The word I would have used at the time.) was to be experienced in helping others and not in doing things I considered necessarily “fun.”  It was one of those moments in which we find ourselves taking a bit of a leap in maturity; we are not the child we were before.  It amazes me that I still recall it vividly today some 50 years later.     

Having loved his own who were in the world,

   he now showed them the full extent of his love. . . .   

Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

I pray that each of us will know more and more the fulfillment and blessing that comes through, if not a life, then occassional acts of service to others following the example and the name of Jesus!

You will be blessed! 

Enjoy the audio version of Pastor Neil’s Sermon below:


Lost Boys of Sudan – Special Speaker

Lual Awan Deng, a friend of Dr. Bill & Betty Wadland,  shared both during worship and after about his experience as one of the “lost boys of Sudan.”

In 1987, Sudan’s Muslim government pronounced death to all males in the Christian south: 27,000 boys fled to Ethiopia on foot. In 1991, they were forced to flee to Kenya a journey of 1,000 miles.  12,000 survived to live in U. N. refugee camps.

Lual’s story about his life in Africa, his life since coming to the United States and the work he is now involved with reaching back to the people of South Sudan is remarkable, inspiring and well worth hearing.  Make plans to invite a neighbor or friend and join us next week!  

The following is the website that tells  more about the work that Lual and his friend     Jacob Atem are doing in South Sudan.              www.sshco.org 

Below are some of the few documentaries that documented the story of the Lost boys of Sudan.  The first one is a 12 minutes video form 60minutes (CBS). This is very educational because it gives a brief overview about the Lost Boys of Sudan.  The next one is an hour movie that followed some boys in the USA cities.

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-R5YNZxj2E

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5N_qKbHHWw

 

Due to the size of the file we are unable to share Lual’s time with us this past Sunday.  If you are interested in hearing it, I will be happy to email it to you.

 

Thank you and God Bless you!

 


Seven Essential Questions: Am I Accepted?

Sermon ~ Sunday, March 4th, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Seven Essential Questions: Am I Accepted?

John 8:1-11

What makes a person (you or me) acceptable to God? 

Is it a life of great deeds?      Great commitments to worthy causes? 

Perhaps it is a life of simple humility with wisdom?     

Is it being a person of unshakeable trustworthiness?  Or a good reputation?

How about great compassion?

We might say these, and many other ways define an acceptable person before God.  As well as striving for the right, the right way to act, to live. 

Is the person lacking these qualities unacceptable before God, a “sinner?” 

If so, what turns one who is unacceptable, a “sinner” into a person of honor?  

Is it even possible?

In our reading this morning, presented with a “sinner,” a person of unacceptable reputation and behavior, Jesus turned the question of condemnation back on the supposedly honorable leaders of his community.  And then he gave the possibility of change, call it conversion, repentance, whatever, to one considered unacceptable.  And he did it with a simple change in the point of view.  Jesus looked at the “sinner” from God’s perspective not the human.

We know the story.  It is morning, a crowd of people have gathered around the Rabbi Jesus.  He sits down, as rabbis do when they teach, and begins his lessons for the day.  Somewhere in the middle of his instruction the religious leaders barge in with this woman they claim to have caught in the act of adultery.  (I’ve often wondered what the religious leaders were up to that they actually caught this woman “in the act.”  I’ve also wondered where the man was because the Law is clear that, if this is the case, he also is guilty.)

They ask Jesus what they should do with her.  They remind him that she has broken God’s law and the Law says she should be stoned to death.  Of course, according to the law they were supposed to bring two witnesses.  Where were they? 

It becomes apparent that this is all a scheme to trap Jesus.  If he chose fulfillment of the law, he would seem cold-hearted in the eyes of those gathered to listen to him.  If he chose compassion, he would be seen as one who disrespected the “Law” and is “soft on crime.”

Jesus does something next that must have frustrated the religious leaders to no end.  He stoops over and begins doodling in the dirt with his finger!  They keep asking him over and over, “Teacher what should we do?”

After a bit, Jesus straightens up and turns to the religious leaders first. 

“Let the person who has never broken God’s Law throw the first stone at her.”

Then he bends over and resumes writing in the dirt.  And we are told that the religious leaders left one by one, beginning with the elders. 

When Jesus added this condition to the Law it made it impossible for them to follow through on the punishment.  Since no one could keep the Law perfectly, no one could be the perfect (sinless) witness.  Sinners accusing others of sin was and is the height of hypocrisy.

 After they all left Jesus straightens up, looks around, only he and this woman are left. “Woman, (which would be like us saying “Ma’am”) isn’t there anyone here who says you are guilty?”

“No one sir.”

“Well, I don’t say you’re guilty either.  Go your way and leave your life of sin.”

The Law breaker has found grace. 

The Unacceptable has become the accepted. 

The unlovable is the beloved.

This is the Good News. 

Now for many of you this may not be something you ever give much thought to.  Perhaps you grew up in a home where it was safe; you were cared for; you were loved and told you were loved.  But some were not.  Perhaps it wasn’t at home; perhaps it was in school, maybe on the playground.  You were ridiculed for your athletic ineptitude.  You’re the last to be chosen and then placed out in right field.  And as you make your way out there you hear someone say, “No one hits the ball to right field anyway.”

So perhaps for those of us who never really had to struggle with our sense of self-worth and acceptableness, the more appropriate question might be “Who do I find acceptable?”

The world goads us on to judge others.

Whether it is the peer pressure of that school playground or today’s social media sites such as Facebook posts or Twitter “tweets” (I wonder why we shouldn’t call some twitter tweets “twits.”  This seems more appropriate to their content or lack thereof!)  But it isn’t limited to Social media, oh no!  This has been going on for generations around tables where people have played cards and yes, sadly it even happens around many a church coffee hour table. 

We are quick to judge, attach a label, to think we know all that we need to know, about another person or their circumstances.   

So a cautionary word is needed here, in this story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, we must be careful that we do not find ourselves among those holding stones!

Jesus gently invites and encourages us in living a life of humility and honest assessment of ourselves with a generous spirit towards others in our community.  While we are constantly being invited and tempted by the world’s propensity for dividing humans in to us and them – good guys and bad guys, the guilty and the guilt-free, saints and sinners – in truth we are each a little of both, every one of us.  

Whether you are feeling judged and unworthy or find yourself judging others, the lesson is the same.  Jesus speaks the same words to each of us, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”  

It is with such grace and compassion we find ourselves, no matter who we believe we are, or where we think we are in our walk with God, we are accepted.

Whenever I read this story, I wonder what this woman might have done after that encounter with Jesus.  Did she just leave like her accusers? 

Did, she perhaps, become a follower of Jesus? 

Maybe we are left wondering because we are left with the same choices, but also like this woman, even with our flaws, Jesus loves and accepts us as beloved children of God. 

 

Listen to this week’s audio version of Pastor Neil’s Sermon by downloading the link below; open and enjoy. 


Seven Essential Questions: What Matters Most?

Sermon ~ Sunday, February 25th, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Seven Essential Questions: What Matters Most?

Mark 12:28-34

 

Continuing with our “Seven Essential Questions” based on Pastor Martin Thielen’s “What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian”, today’s question is simply, “What Matters Most?”  Of all the things we discuss and do as people of faith what is it that is of first importance?

In our Gospel reading this morning, a teacher of the law or “scribe” comes up to Jesus with a pretty straightforward question, “Which commandment is the first of all?”  In a way similar to the question we are asking today, “What matters most?”

First, a bit of back ground and context: just prior to this particular scribe approaching Jesus, Jesus had been confronted by three rounds of questioners that were not, let’s just say, as genuine in their motives!   

First came the “chief priests, teachers of the law, and elders” we find this back in chapter 11 verse 27.  They want to challenge Jesus’ authority.  So they ask, “By what authority do you do these things? (Healings, forgiving of sins, overturning of the money-changer’s tables in the temple) And who gave you such authority?”  Jesus in turn asks them a question about John’s baptism and this has them arguing with each other.

Then came the Pharisees and the Herodians (Herodians were a sect of Greek speaking Jews who were supporters of the Herod family/dynasty.)  They came with the question of whether Jews should pay taxes to Caesar or not.  All this in an attempt to put Jesus in a difficult position and either have the people turn on him or find a good reason to have him arrested.

And thirdly, we have the Sadducees, a more conservative group within Judaism.  So conservative, because there is no mention of it in the Torah, they didn’t believe in the resurrection.  The Sadducees come to Jesus with this fictitious scenario about a woman who marries, and her husband dies.  She remarries her husband’s brother according to the Levirate law who also dies. In turn each of the brothers marry her and they all die, seven of them.  And so, Sadducees ask, “Who will she be married to in the resurrection?”  Can you hear the absurdity of this farce?  First, they don’t even believe in the resurrection, so what is the big deal?  Secondly, what are the chances of seven husbands dying?  Again, it was all done as a means to try to trick Jesus into saying something that would have the crowd turn on him.

So, after these confrontations comes a teacher of the law who seems to be genuinely interested in what Jesus thinks.  He had heard Jesus answering all these others and thought he had handled himself quite well. 

I also can imagine Jesus being rather grateful for this person.  At last here is someone who seems to be sincere, really seeking truth.

“So, Jesus,” he enquires, “Of all the commandments, what do you think is the most important?”

Without hesitation, Jesus responds with the Shema, Deuteronomy 6: 4-5. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and all your strength.”

But he doesn’t end there, he goes on to say, “And there is another, love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”

Some think that here we have another example of Jesus taking his teaching beyond the law, beyond the ways of Judaism. Such as when Jesus taught, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you . . .”  But this isn’t the case.  Right there in the middle of the Mosaic Law, Leviticus 19:18, God instructs Moses to tell the people “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

Jesus seeks to remind this earnest fellow that the love of God and love of neighbor together capture the essence and express the greatest concern of God’s commandments.  Taken together, these teachings from Deuteronomy and Leviticus underscore the interconnected relationships between one’s self, God and neighbor that permeate the Biblical tradition and that will serve in turn as the foundation of Jesus’ vision for the kingdom of God.

In short: what matters most is relationships! 

Our relationship with God and with neighbor. 

Some may not be comfortable with the language of relationship, as in, perhaps our uncomfortableness with the person who talks about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the difference it has made in her/his life.  And while this may not be language we use, to be in relationship is what God seeks from us.  It is what we really need the most in life, whether we are fully aware of it or not.  All other relationships outside of love of God and neighbor will never completely satisfy.  Or perhaps better said, all other things we seek to have a relationship with cannot fill the void that only God can.  We talked some about this at our Lenten study on the Red-Letter words of Jesus, especially on materialism.  No other relationship will in the end truly satisfy.

As the famous passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions claims, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

“Okay Pastor.” you’re probably thinking, “How do I love God with heart, soul, mind and strength?  I can see loving neighbor, having a relationship with another physical human being or even a pet, but God is a bit more abstract!” 

Good question and I think some of the answer lies in what Jesus said after he had washed his disciples’ feet.  He said this to them, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”   (John 13: 34-35)

And also what the author of 1 John echoes in his letter:  (1 John 4: 20-21)

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.  And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

To be in a relationship with God means being in relationship with neighbor. 

This is the what of our question, as in “What matters most?”  Relationships. 

It the “where” question that may be just as important, that really brings it home.

Where do we see this love of God in love of neighbor being lived out in our midst?

We see it every time, I see it every time, I hear of you going to Boulder Park, Georgia House, Grand View, American House.  Sure, sometimes you are going there to visit a loved one, but you don’t limit yourself to kin alone.  That simple “Hello” to the woman in the wheel chair, taking the moment to sit with the man left by himself after all the other diners have returned to their apartments or rooms.

Greeting someone with a “How is your day going?”  and pausing enough to really listen

The touch of an arm, touching is so important.  Like the rest of us these folks want to be acknowledged and a person of worth.

The time you spend assisting people shop at the Food Pantry, but more than this, it is the conversations you have with them.  Again, the listening.  We all want to be heard, acknowledged.

The extra effort it takes to get up early to prepare for the Community breakfast.   And the visiting around the tables.  I’ve personally seen how people are greeted when they walk into the breakfast.  I’ve seen their faces light up when their name is called out and “It’s good to see you.”  Or “We missed you last week.”  And by the way, the breakfast may be held at the Community Reformed Church, but it is a community effort with many different churches involved.

The hours you spend at the Rainbow Shoppe, the lives you touch, not just through the funds raised and the countless ways this makes a difference in our community but also through the relationships you build with shoppers and other volunteers. 

In all of these and countless more Jesus could just as well be saying to you as he did to this scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  Because the kingdom is about relationships: with God, with neighbor, with the God we see and love in neighbor.     

Audio Version is below, please note that the Audio and Video vary from the written sermon as it was an interactive service on this day.  Enjoy and God Bless!

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