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

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


Sermons

Okay, Let’s Try This Again. Only This Time…

Sermon ~ Sunday, January 7, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

 

Okay, Let’s Try This Again.  Only This Time . . .

Genesis 1:1-5   Mark 1:4-11

Yesterday was Epiphany!  Yea!  

I bet you’re tired from all the Epiphany parties last night!

Most people outside church circles and many times within them are not familiar with Epiphany.  We have Christmas, it lasts one day.  Then there is a week to recover before New Year’s Eve.  And then, we if are so inclined, we enter the season of resolutions which lasts usually about as long as our season of Christmas (one day!)

Epiphany is about the “revealing” of Jesus and who he is, or will become. It is marked with the reading from Matthew’s gospel about the visit of the Magi or wise men. In this revealing of Jesus there was in a sense a new beginning, now that Jesus was among them.  And it continues today with the reminder that Jesus is still among us through our baptisms and the presence of the Holy Spirit. 

So I guess in some ways Epiphany and New Year’s resolutions go hand in hand. Epiphany reminds us of new things made possible by Christ’s coming into the world and January marks the new year’s genesis which we often mark by resolving to live new or better lives according to new and improved habits. 

There is a sort of spirit of confession that begins the new year because resolutions are a way of admitting that we have not been the kind of people we want to be.  We confess that we are not as slender, cheerful, thankful, or productive as we would like to be. We admit to our humanness and commit to doing better.  These are ordinary mortal confessions: usually not all that spiritually motivated or spiritually empowered.  They are signs that we would like to do better in turning our lives around.  But when the days speed by and ordinary life is resumed, old habits tend to reassert themselves.  And come next January, the same resolutions are often made anew with plenty of hope, but no better chance for success! 

The baptism of John was similar to our attempts at making resolutions, though it was certainly a more spiritually oriented.  As one who has preached a fair number of times with mixed success, it amazes me is that John preached a message on repentance and was rather successful!  People were drawn to his river side chapel in the wilderness from countryside and city.  At the river he dunked them as a sign of their resolution to turn from their sins and back to the worship and service of God.  But, John knew that there was a tentative quality to his work.  He proclaimed that the One who would come after him would baptize with something greater than water.  The coming One would baptize people with (or in) the Spirit of God.

The Spirit of God represented something far more powerful, more efficacious than any human resolve.  It is the same Spirit that first moved over the waters at creation and brought form to the chaos and gave birth to the universe.  When Jesus rose from the river, this same Spirit descended upon him like a dove.  And in this Spirit, Jesus did the powerful deeds that marked his remarkable ministry. 

For us today, both John’s message of repentance and the empowering work of the Spirit are needed.  Sin is a powerful magnet that draws us ever closer.  Human resolve alone is weak, even with our annual booster shots in January.  Truthfully, repentance is more likely a daily need.

But our resolve to turn around will not do it alone, not very often at least.  Even Paul, the great Apostle, famously struggled with the inability of his humanness to help him do what is good (Rom. 7:15-20.)  Something greater is needed: this something is the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.  When Paul encountered the followers of John the Baptizer in Ephesus, he told them something similar to what John had taught.  Though baptized by John with water, they were in need of the kind of empowerment that came through Jesus himself, baptism in or presence of the Holy Spirit.  This is the gift of God that makes spiritual repentance something more than a mere resolution. 

As God asks us to turn from our sin, God also provides the means to become new creatures of spiritual resolve. Baptism with water and spirit is the mark of this gift. 

In Jesus’ baptism, he was fully identified with us as human creatures. In our baptism, we become fully identified with him.

His life in God is our new life. 

His capacity to bend to God’s will is our strength to live a godly life. 

His love of all is our charity towards others.  

Note, I am not making a case for a certain mode of baptism.  This is not a sermon on infant vs. adult or which method is better, dunking or “a little dab’l do ya!”  (This will have to wait for another time!)  

As Christians, we understand baptism differently, depending on denominational or theological tradition.  Accordingly there will be ways this message will be preached and heard within various congregations.  Those of the Anabaptist tradition may argue for God’s capacity to inspire people to godly living as they move toward baptism usually as a believer or adult.  More mainline churches like ours emphasize the action of God in baptism more than the human, thus we baptize infants believing that we are symbolizing God’s acceptance of them into the body of Christ the church universal and our acceptance of them into the care of a congregation.  Pentecostals may argue for the separation of the water baptism and the baptism in the Holy Spirit.  Indeed there are passages in Acts that lend biblical credence to such an idea. 

What is clear, regardless of tradition, is that God will do in baptism what God chooses to do.  God is not bound by human interpretation of the means of grace. 

John had it right. 

One who is mightier than any other human person has come to bring forgiveness of sins and new life in the Spirit.  Baptized into this new life, let us daily undertake to live as God’s people.   So okay, let us try this again.  Only this time let us seek the presence of the Holy Spirit and let God determine where we need the resolve to make things anew in our lives!  And God might even surprise us as we shed a few things along with those pounds!

Enjoy the Audio version of Pastor Neil’s Sermon, click the Download File link below and open it on your computer.   HAPPY NEW YEAR!


How Can This Be?

Sermon ~ Sunday ~ December 24th 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

How Can This Be?

Luke 1:26-38

 

Our little town sorely needed a bit of Christmas cheer this year. 

Maybe even a little miracle if its not too much to ask?

It’s been a rough one with the recent storm that took the power out and left us isolated for days, say nothing of this year’s lobster season starting late and slow, then ending abruptly about a month earlier that usual.  Seems the bugs aren’t coming into the bays like they used to.  And this year there seemed to be a preponderance of hens.  “Brooders or “tossers” they’re called.  The fisheries folks up at the university have their suspicions but aren’t saying much except that this might be something we better prepare for with forecasted ocean levels and temps.

So families are struggling this winter.

Buddy Watson and his gang is one of these families.  Buddy runs his traps off Walkers Head just down east o’ Broad Flats, which is another thing.  The red tide came in a couple times this summer and closed down the flats to the clamming, which didn’t help those families out there either.  But I want to tell you about Buddy and the star.  You see, Buddy is the “keeper of the Christmas star.”

The Christmas star has been illuminating the steeple of Old First Church on the Common since 1973 that’s when Buddy first built it and every November since before they called the fourth Friday “Black”, Buddy crawls up into the steeple with his cross. 

 

It is a traditional five-point, five armed star with 60 100 watt incandescent light bulbs shining its Christmas proclamation out over Rockhaven’s common and village, all these years drawing in the wise and the foolish with its 6000 watts of heavenly lumens.   When Buddy heard that incandescent bulbs were on the way out he ran right over to Howard Williams, when Howard was the proprietor of Harborview Hardware, and bought 25 cases with 24 four packs to a case of 100 watts of the Christmas cheer. 

It was always a bit of a task to keep all those hot light bulbs glowing each year.  About every 2-3 days Buddy would have to crawl up there and replace burnt out bulbs.  One year a storm hit followed by a vicious cold snap, Buddy didn’t get up there for a week and a half and by Christmas Eve the patrons of Helen’s Dinner claimed what they saw looked more like a stick figure doing the “M” of the YMCA song!

And to think, that all this holiday devotion comes from a fellow who never once attended a worship service in our church.  He and Emma were married in the church.  Both his parent’s funerals were held in the church, but Buddy nor Emma ever went to church nor did his name even show up on the cradle roll.  Although Rev. Williams did hear that when some members of the Blessed Day of Redemption in Christ Community stopped by the Watson place with some of their evangelistic tracts and pamphlets, Buddy thanked them kindly but informed them that he had a church and asked if they had ever seen the Christmas star shining over the Common.   

 

This year, on top of the poor fishing season, Buddy and Emma’s daughter Sybil, who married Wally Poindexter’s son Jerry, (Jerry is also a lobsterman, a stern man on one of the bigger lobster boats.) Well, they had a fire in their home and Sybil was taken to the hospital because of smoke inhalation.   If that wasn’t scary enough the x-rays of her lungs indicated something else was going on.  Further tests were run up at Eastern Regional Medical Center and they found lung cancer.  Buddy took it pretty hard.  When he first saw his 34-year daughter in the hospital room with all that tubing and such, fighting back the tears his eyes said “How can this be?”  

As I said our little town could use a Christmas miracle this year! 

 

Well, it was about this time that Miss Susie from up on Slabtown Road was over to the VFW in Uniondale.  She was Jed Carlisle’s guest for their annual Christmas dinner.  Jed a veteran, served in the first Iraq war is a member of the post over there.  Well, wouldn’t you know but Miss Susie won the door prize which happened to be 25 of those five-dollar Holiday Gold lottery tickets! 

Now, Miss Susie had no idea want to do with them.  She had never purchased a lottery ticket had had no plans to.  Jed even had to show her how to do the whole “scratch off” thing to see if she had won anything! 

Well, let me tell you, win she did, and Miss Susie won big!  The top prize in the five-dollar Holiday Gold tickets is $100,000.00 and Miss Susie had a “golden ticket” right there in her hand!!

 

 It was big news in our town and perhaps just the bit of good news we needed with the difficult year and now Sybil’s diagnosis.  And there is no one more humble and deserving than Miss Susie of Slabtown Road!  Of course, everyone was weighing in on how she should spend all her $100,000.00!  Sam Coleridge was quick to point out that the Feds would want their 25% right off the top and then the governor would grab his 5% so Miss Susie shouldn’t be spending it all before she has the check in hand!  Which, if you know Miss Susie, the only chickens she is counting are the ones already in her coup! 

The most anyone got out of her was, “My, oh my!  How can this be?”  This and that she might need a new wood stove and she always fancied having one of those little greenhouses.  She asked the Rev. if he would “gaggle” or “goggle” whatever the young people called it about these things for her.

Miss Susie’s good fortune has brightened things up a bit in Rockhaven, but not for everybody.                

Buddy and Emma have been caring for Sybil’s 4 children while she and Jerry have been making the daily trips to Eastern Regional Medical Center and Buddy’s focus being elsewhere hadn’t paid any attention to the Christmas Star.

Well, a couple of weeks ago some of the Priscilla Circle women got to talking after church and agreed that there just ought to be some way to help Sybil and her family.  Everybody knowing everyone’s circumstances in our town knew that as a stern man Jerry would have very little if any insurance, and knew all too well some from personal experience how the medical bills must be stacking up!

 

It was Bea Stearns who asked, “Why couldn’t we have a dinner in the church fellowship hall and raise a little bit of money to help out the family?”    And Leslie Jordan added that it should be an event that the whole community could get involved in.

Word got out and before long calls were coming into the church with donations of food.  

Wally’s Fish Market and Bait shop donated enough Pollock to make 15 gallons of fish chowder.  

Helen’s Diner baked over 40 apple and blueberry pies.  

Holgrum’s bakery promised enough of their famous split top dinner rolls so that everyone in Rockhaven could have two.  

Harry’s IGA sent over coffee and tea, sugar and creamers along with enough Chinet plates, bowls, cups and prepackaged utensils to serve several hundred.   

Even the Daughters of Scotia Society said they would bake 25 casseroles. 

“Danny” Killington donated enough potatoes from her root cellar not only for the chowder but to make several roasting pans of cheesy potatoes. 

People were calling in with milk and butter for the chowder, vegetables, and the ingredients for punch.  There were offers to help set up, serve, and clean up.  Let’s just say it was quite a spread!

 It was last Saturday and the whole town turned out or at least it seemed as though they did.   The fellowship hall is cozy at 125 but was set up for 145 and there were at least 4 settings.  A light snow turned to rain the day before left walkways a bit icy in places, so the Rockhaven Fire Dept. was there to help with parking and getting people in and out of the fellowship hall. 

No tickets were sold.  No one was at the door watching over a donation box.  That’s not how we do it in our town.  Fish bowl like containers were put out on the tables for donations.  To be sure there were certain people not wanting to be seen as uncharitable, would watch to see what their neighbor would put in and make sure that they at least matched if not out donated them!  A little peer pressure is okay for a good cause!  

After it was all over Rev. Williams along with Jerry Charles, Rockhaven’s first selectman and Bob Blaisdell, manager of the local branch of the Down East Banking & Trust, emptied out the bowls and tallied the donations.  There were dollar bills, and fives and tens, twenties and a considerable number of personal checks, even a few zip lock baggies heavy with change. 

And in one of the bowls they found a cashier’s check from the Down East Banking & Trust.  Bob had no knowledge of the check but recognized the signature of the teller who authorized it. 

The check was made out in the font of the bank’s old Remington typewriter to the “Jerry & Sybil Poindexter Family” to the order of $65,432.17!  The memo line blank. 

“How can this be?  This can’t be, can it?”  Jerry and Bob looked at each other.  Rev. Williams didn’t say anything, but he what he found online when he “goggled” wood stoves and greenhouses.   

 

The following day in the scripture for that Sunday the angel had just told Mary a bit of fairly farfetched news about her future.  And Mary said, “How can this be?” 

Maybe she wasn’t asking so much about the biological plausibility of a virgin birth but the more honest human response to such news, “How can this be happening to me?” 

How can this be? 

We may not always have a satisfactory answer for so often the mysteries of God are hidden from us.  But we always have the promise of God’s nearness.

Then and still today the angel’s response is: “Nothing will be impossible with God.”   Not for Miss Susie . . . not for Sybil and Jerry, Buddy and Emma, not for our little town.  

And perhaps this is the ultimate message of the mystery of God’s coming to us in an infant.  God’s nearness comes in unexpected ways, through unexpected people!    

We’ve seen God holiness breaking into our community’s life.  And while it may not have been through the innocence of a baby born to a common young couple, it came through to us through common everyday people just the same! 

 

And you know something else!  Just yesterday I was enjoying a cup of coffee in Helen’s Diner and I looked up at the Christmas star in our church steeple, and lo, all the bulbs are shining brightly.  And I thought, now I knew; we have indeed been visited upon by a number of angels.   And perhaps we have found our Christmas miracle after all! 

Click the link below and you will find the original audio recording from December 24th’s morning service.  Pastor Wilson is a talented speaker. 😉  


I Am Not…But He Is!

Sermon ~ Sunday, December 17, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

I Am Not . . . But He Is!

John 1:6-8, 19-28

Going to church can be a risky thing!

I’m not thinking about the danger of persecution like some Christians face even today.

Nor am I thinking about bad preaching, which is a very real concern (especially for those of us who may be the purveyors of such poison!)

No, I’m thinking about the danger of religion itself.  By this I mean any of the systems invented and defended by human beings in our efforts to pigeonhole God. 

Would you believe that “religion” is not spoken of very often in the Bible?  In fact if you take a concordance and look up how many times the word religion occurs in the Bible you find it is only 3 times!  Once in the book of Acts when Paul is talking about his past as a Pharisee, and twice in the letter of James, where the author defines religion as caring for the orphans and widows in their distress. 

That’s all the religion there is in the Bible!  Jesus never uses the word, perhaps because he found organized religion of his day so unfriendly.  The first time he preached in his home synagogue, the entire congregation rose up in wrath and tried to throw him off a cliff.  The clergy in Jerusalem had a similar reaction.  Every time he showed up in the temple, they stood around in tight little circles trying to figure out how to rid themselves of him, and at least once he got so angry at what was happening in God’s house that he overturned the furniture!

As near as I can tell, Jesus was not big on religion.  He seemed to think it was something that people did instead of actually worshiping God.  Perhaps it kept them at a safe distance from the all-consuming love that was unwavering, undefinable, and ultimately unknowable.  They invented religion as a way to manage all those things for them and they worshiped that instead.  Then they spend their prayer time making up rules and definitions.  They used time that should have been devoted to orphans and widows making sure their records were up to date!

All this seem to frustrate Jesus because they didn’t seem to know when to stop.  It might have been okay if they had limited their organizational skills to themselves but they didn’t.  They tried to organize God.  But rather than making God more accessible it seems that their religion became blindfolds that kept them from seeing the God who came to them often time sideways, unexpected, a voice calling you and your family to a far-off land, a burning bush, a babe in a manger to a working-class couple.   

 

John draws a crowd in the wilderness, which is how he draws the attention of the leadership in Jerusalem, only they do not know what to make of him.  He certainly did not dress, act and sound like any of them, so they send a delegation of clergy (Call it an oversight committee!) down to the camp by the Jordan River.  Their job, according to their by-laws, is to find out where John has gotten his authority to do the things he is doing and say the things he is saying.

“Who are you?” they ask.  Can you see them with their tablets and smart phones doing their “fact checking”?  Is he Orthodox or reform, a fundamentalist, a charismatic, a liberal, a traditionalist, a Pentecostal? 

Is he high church or low church? 

Does he believe in predestination, transubstantiation, dispensationalism?

Where does he stand on believer’s baptism, the ordination of women, the use of incense, and same-sex unions?

They want details, only John does not cooperate. 

“I am not the Messiah” he says, which is interesting answer because it wasn’t what they asked!  But John seems to be up to something here, which gets lost on the committee for oversight. 

“I am not,” John starts out with them, and that is how the whole conversation goes, with one denial after another.

“What then?  Are you Elijah?”

“I am not.”

“Are you the prophet?”

“No.”  It is becoming a bit frustrating for the committee!  The have a religious box with a square hole, a round hole, and a triangular hole, but John does fit in any of them.  They have their religious check sheet with various categories and John isn’t fitting into any of them.  He matter-of-factly dismisses all their attempts to categorize and pigeon hole him. And it doesn’t take them long to catch on to his trick.  Whatever they suggest John will say “no,” so they ask him to categorize himself. 

“Who are you?” they try again, “Give us an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 

But John does not say anything about himself.  He is Mr. Not Not No, the man with no face, no name, no identity at all, except for the sound that he makes.

“I am the voice,” he says at last, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘make straight the way of the Lord.”  This is the only claim he will make for himself.  John is the crowing rooster, the ringing alarm clock, the announcing trumpet.  He is not the main attraction.  He is the wake-up call of the event they should be preparing for.  And as uncooperative as he may seem, he is saying something crucial about the one coming after him.  If they think John is hard to peg, just wait until they meet the Light!  The Light will not match any of their descriptions or fit into any of their boxes either.  The Light will not obey their rules or honor their systems, because if the Light did that then he would not be the Light.  He would be something smaller perhaps a little mini mag-lite, something people could turn off and on at will but not the Light that was coming into the world.

And thus, by refusing every religious title the authorities tried to pin on him John becomes a very good witness to the Light. Neither John nor the One coming after him will fit into anyone’s pocket to carry around and pull out at will.  John is the unclassifiable witness to the undefinable Lord, who will be as elusive as a moonbeam and as hot to handle as the sun.  No system will be big enough to contain him, John warns his visitors so they might as well give up trying.  

“Among you stands one whom you do not know” John tells those who are supposed to know everything there is to know about God, and it is a wonder they do not have him arrested on the spot!  They can’t excommunicate him though, because he doesn’t belong to any group they can throw him out of!  He lives in the wilderness, far from the temple.  He operates outside their boundaries. He is Mr. Not Not No, who has already emptied himself in order to make straight the way of the Lord.

What John does not tell his visitors is that he does not know whom he is waiting for either, but this is the point.  If John thinks he knows whom he is looking for, he might miss the one who comes to him from way outside the limits of expectations.  The point is to know that he does not know, and to do what he can to help others know that they do not know either.  It is enough to trust God to open their eyes when the time comes.  It is enough to trust the Light to be light enough to see.

We are given this passage on the third Sunday of Advent because we still need John’s testimony to the Light.  While we are waiting for the baby to show up in the manger, waiting for perhaps the chance that this time, this season have a better handle on the infinite nature of the Incarnation, we can use John’s reminder that none of us ever knows exactly whom we are waiting for either, and that we need not be ashamed of this. 

It is a good thing, not a bad thing, to surrender ourselves to a love that we cannot predict or control, especially during this season when we look forward to peering into the manger, and perhaps even for just a moment holding him in our arms.  He will allow us to do that, but only on the condition that we understand we can never possess him, not entirely.

In the end, it is He who puts his arms around us. 

No religion can contain Him.

No church can box Him in. 

But oh, can we worship Him!  We can worship Him until the light dawns upon all nations and we all see him in his full glory!

Listen to the original audio of the Sermon by Pastor Neil Wilson by clicking download and opening the downloaded link.  God Bless!


Council Agenda

Sermon ~ Sunday, December 10, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Council Agenda

Isaiah 40:1-11

 

Prophets do not speak and their words are never recorded in a vacuum.  There is always a political, historical social context.   So allow me to bore you with a brief history lesson.

In the seventh century BCE the Assyrians swept from the north and conquered the Northern kingdom of Israel.  We find prophecy relating to this in the first 39 chapters of Isaiah.  This portion of Isaiah is often referred to as First Isaiah.  Then, in the beginning of the sixth century BCE some 35 years or so later, the Babylonians invaded the southern kingdom of Judah, destroyed much of Jerusalem, disrupted the economy, and deported leading citizens to Babylon.  All told the Babylonian kingdom occupied the land for 50 years.  It is during the latter years of this Babylonian occupation and deportation that Isaiah 40 and the following chapters were recorded.

There is could be as many as 100 years between the events and people spoken of in chapters 39 and 40.  Thus many scholars refer to Isaiah 1-39 as “First Isaiah” and beginning with chapter 40 as “Second Isaiah.” This “second Isaiah “emerges with his exquisite poetry and a very different tone with today’s reading.  Isaiah chapter 40 contains poetry so beautiful that many included the likes of George Frideric Handel of the 18th century and Bono of  U 2 of the 21st century felt the urge to interpret it in their music. 

Isaiah seeks to bring back to life a people crushed under a shroud of death with this poetic image. While he writes among a people with little to hope for and perhaps even less to live for, yet he imagines a nation restored, a city rebuilt, and a people reunited in Zion.

Some scholars see in the words of Isaiah 40 the image of a great heavenly council. YHWH, the God of Israel has assembled a heavenly host.  This is no council of bickering gods competing for position and control but servants of the Sovereign of the Universe, whose compassion and regard for justice distinguish this God from all others.  I would like to play with this idea of a heavenly council a bit this morning.

The council has been assembled and we have gathered in the balcony.  Before the council is the matter of the situation and condition of God’s children, the descendants of Abraham, the tribes of Israel.  On the agenda are three items.

The first item: To find agreement among the council members that God’s people have indeed served their time, received enough punishment for all their sins and that the council needs to inform them of such decision. 

For a grieving, futureless people, few words could be more surprising than the ones found here. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God”  For a people whose God had seemed to have been silent for all these years Isaiah opens with the longed-for consoling words.  They have suffered “double for all their sins.” (v. 2 NRSV)  Their suffering is massively disproportionate to anything they may have done.  For second Isaiah, the people’s sin does not adequately explain the historical disaster of the Assyrian invasion and the Babylonian exile and actually could be seen as taking issue with other prophets at the time! 

Send them a word of consolation: “Enough is enough, says yours God!”

Second agenda item:  To determine the tone and the wording of the proclamation.   

A voice is lifted up in the council:

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the way and level the highway” . . . for the glory of the Lord is about to be revealed!”

The message is clear: be ready, prepare now, for the Sovereign is coming.  The Glory of the Lord could be translated as “the presence of the Lord shall appear.”  All they may have hoped for, all they may have given up hoping for, is about to be realized!  The God, this bruised and battered community, thought had abandoned them or perhaps had been defeated by stronger Babylonian gods, is announcing that God is coming, prepare the way, for you shall all see the presence of the Lord and you can count on it for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Then another voice in the council speaks up “Cry out!”

And another, “And I said, “What shall I cry?”

And there is a mini discussion which draws attention to more the content of the message 

 All people are grass . . . grass withers and flowers fade but the word of our God will stand forever.  

This word, message is as steady, durable, and reliable as the God who sends it. 

“You shall see your Lord!”

 

The third agenda item:  To see to the proper commissioning of the prophet and setting out of the itinerary.

“You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain.

“You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid.”

The prophet is to go up high to project their voice far and wide as the good news, the message of joy is proclaimed.  The charge is to cry out fearlessly. 

But what is fearful about this message of redemption and return?  Are the words too improbable to be believed among those to whom the prophet is to proclaim them?  Even though they are in exile, have they grown comfortable enough with their life in Babylon?

Or is it the message that this God comes with strength, with arms outstretched in triumph, a God who it seems was not able to stop the invasion and subsequent exile?   

But here God’s strength is paradoxical, because it is not the strength of a bloody avenger, a violent warrior, or a demanding judge.  No this God’s strength appears in the barely thinkable power of gentleness, in a tender and caring presence, in intimacy such as a shepherd expresses when gathering the wounded, scattered flock. 

 

Take a look at our own world, and consider how preposterous our message of the gospel sounds to many.  It does indeed seem that the God of Israel and of Jesus has very little power in relation to the “gods” that seem to reign supreme in our 21st century “empire.”

Consumerism demands more of our resources, and our lust for cheap energy and convenient mobility threaten our environment.  The conduct of war robs us of precious lives and international respect.  Even in our own society religious zealotry pits one image of God against another, leaving the human community fractured and cynical.

How dare we speak of a God who promises to become present in a way that “all people shall see it together.” (v.5)

Yet, this is precisely what the faithful people of God are being commissioned to do.  In the face of all the derision and indifference, we are to speak of this God whose fierce compassion and care for all of humanity trumps the power of the other “gods” who seem to enjoy sovereignty in our human relationships.

Advent is a time to hear these promises spoken or perhaps sung to the community of faith once again.  It is a time for us, the faith community, to find our voice, overcome our objections and fears and speak words of comfort and assurance to all who feel separated from or abandoned by God.  It is time to get passed the “Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas” debate!  Is this our only message to a hurting world? 

How will the world hear God’s real message of hope and deliverance, the message that God will arrive and will come in gentle power, when too all too many “we” seem to be more concerned about losing our faith because of how we greet each other during this season. 

Let’s just begin by really noticing each other, by greeting the stranger with the love of God we come to know through Jesus.   Is this not one way of speaking tenderly and preparing the way, leveling the paths, straightening out the highways to each other?

If we can do this then maybe, just maybe, the world might see that the glory of the Lord has been revealed. 

And the heavenly council’s agenda will have been fulfilled!

Listen to Pastor Neil’s original Sermon from Sunday morning worship service by downloading the file below:


Hope: There is More to Come!

Hope: There is More to Come!
Mark 13:24-37

I am indebted to Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian pastor and author, for his insight and thoughts on the gospel of Mark and for much of the inspiration and thoughts I share this morning, especially his writing Peculiar Treasures and Beyond Words.

We do not know for sure who wrote the Gospel that bears Mark’s name. The book itself in the most ancient copy that exits doesn’t say. The title we know it as “The Gospel According to Mark” was given to this manuscript by the early church years if not decades after it was written.
There are those, including some biblical scholars, who claim it was the John Mark who shows up in the book of Acts as a traveling companion of Paul and the son of a woman named Mary, who owned a place where the group used to meet and pray back in the days when the church was young (Acts 12:12). There is also some speculation that he is the same person who appears in the scene of Jesus’ arrest at Gethsemane as a boy who managed to escape from the soldiers but not without leaving his shirt behind. As the story goes he ran off into the dark scared out of his wits and naked as a jaybird (Mark 14:51-52). The Gospel of Mark is the only one which reports the incident, and maybe he put it in as a kind of signature.

An early historian says he was a friend of the Apostle Peter’s and got much of his information from him. Who knows? In the long run, the only things you can find out about him for certain are from the book he wrote. Whoever he was, Mark is as good a name to call him by as any other.
He wrote as a man who was in a hurry, out of breath, with no time to lose because that’s how the people he wrote to were living. The authorities were out for their blood, and they were on the run and often in hiding, using secret signs to identify each other and safe places to gather. At any moment, day or night, a knock might come at the door. And they knew after that, it would be a short journey from there to being thrown to the lions or set on fire as living torches at one of Nero’s evening entertainments. Don’t be caught asleep!
So he leaves a lot out; it’s amazing how much. There’s no family tree for Jesus as there is in Matthew and Luke. There’s nothing about how he was born, no angel explaining it ahead of time, no shepherds, no Wise Men, no Herod, no star.

There’s nothing about his childhood. There’s precious little about his run-ins with the Pharisees, no Sermon on the Mount, and only four parables.
His teaching in general is brushed past hurriedly—except for one long speech, just a word here, a word there.
“Immediately” is one of Mark’s favorite words, and he uses it three times more often than Matthew or Luke, fifteen times more than John. “Immediately he called them” (1:20), “immediately on the sabbath he entered the synagogue” (1:21). Immediately the girl got up and walked (5:30), or the father cried (9:24), or the cock crowed (14:72).

Jesus himself races by, scattering miracles like rice at a wedding. Mark is alive with miracles, especially healing ones, and Jesus rushes from one to another. As if He had no time to lose either.

Mark writes for people who already believe. They do not need things explained for them. So he writes more about who Jesus was, rather than what he said.

Mark’s book is bursting with—who Jesus was and what he did with what little time he had.

He was the “Son of God,” that’s who he was. Mark says it right out in the first sentence so nobody will miss it (1:1).

And he came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). That’s what he did, and he died doing it.

The whole book is obsessed with the fact of his death and with good reason.

If Jesus died as dead as anybody, what hope did the rest of them have who woke every morning with the tangible fear of their own death hanging over them?

Why did Jesus die? Mark says, He died because the Jews had it in for him, because he is hard on the Jews. Mark, very likely was a Gentile and writing for Gentiles. He died because that’s the way He wanted it—that “ransom for many” again, a wonderful thing to be bought at a terrible price. He died because that’s the way God wanted it. Marvelous things would come of his death, and the one long speech Mark gives has to do with those marvelous things. Our reading for today is a portion of this writing.

“The stars will be falling from heaven,” Jesus says, “and the powers in the heavens will be shaken, and then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (13:25-26).

Of course there was hope – hope that would shake the heavens and send the stars reeling.

But even in the midst of his great haste, Mark stops and looks at Jesus, sees him perhaps better than any of the others do. When Jesus naps in that boat, it’s in the stern he does it, with a pillow under his head (4:38). The others don’t give us this detail. And the grass was green when he fed the five thousand on hardly enough to feed five (6:39), not dry crunchy, brown grass.

He tells us that Jesus got up “a great while before day” to go pray by himself (1:35), not at nine, not after a hot breakfast.

And he was sitting down “opposite the treasury” when he saw the old lady drop her two pennies in the collection box (12:41).

Only Mark reports how the desperate father said, “I believe. Help thou my unbelief” (9:24), and how Jesus found it belief enough to heal his sick boy by.
You can say they make no difference, such details as these, which the others skip, or you can say they make all the difference.

Then the end comes, and even Mark has to slow down there. Half his book has to do with the last days in Jerusalem and the way Jesus handled them and the way he was handled himself. And when he died, Mark is the one who reports what his last words were, even the language he spoke them in—”Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani”—which he translates, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (15:34). Only Matthew had the stomach to pick them up from Mark and report them too. Luke and John apparently couldn’t bring themselves to.

Mark ends his book, as he begins it, almost in the middle of a sentence. There was no time to gather up all the loose ends. The world itself was the loose ends, and all history would hardly be enough to gather them up in. The women went to the tomb and found it empty. A young man in white was sitting there—”on the right,” Mark says, not on the left.

“He has risen,” the young man said. “Go tell his disciples. And Peter,” Mark adds, unlike Matthew and Luke again. Was it because he’d known Peter and the old man had wanted his name there?

So the women ran out as if the place was on fire, which in a way of course it was, “for trembling and astonishment had come upon them, and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid” (16:1-8). Later editors added a few extra verses to round things off, but that’s where Mark ended it. In mid-air.

Mark’s last word in his Gospel is afraid, and it makes you wonder if maybe the theory is true after all that he was the boy who streaked out of Gethsemane in such a panic. He knew how the women felt as they picked up their skirts and made a dash for it. Wonderful and terrible things were happening, and more were still to come.

He knew what fear was all about—the clammy skin, the mouth dry, the midnight knock at the door—but he also knew that fear was not the last thing. It might have been the next to the last thing.

But the last thing was hope. “You will see him, as he told you,” the young man in white said (16:7).

If that was true, there was nothing else that mattered. So Mark stopped there.

And this is where we begin this season of Advent. With talk about Jesus’ death for without it we wouldn’t be here anticipating his coming again, whether we think of it in some apocalyptic end time scenario or coming again in to our homes and hearts when we celebrate his birth in 22 days.

It truly is about hope: for there is more to come!

Listen to the original Audio of Pastor Neil’s Sermon on HOPE! 🙂  God Bless!!!!


Heavy Lifting

 

Heavy Lifting

 

by Nathanael Wilson 

(Pastor Neil & Donna’s son)

 

Have you noticed how our popular culture exudes the idea that all one needs is superior self-reliance to make it in life? As if positive thinking, will power, and a little luck can solve all your problems. I think we all have experiences that prove otherwise.

Sadly, even popular Christian culture has taken scripture out of context to tell the world that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” In the full context of scripture that passage loses its shine as a rallying call for the self-empowered and shares a much different message of where relief and strength comes from.

“How I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but you didn’t have the chance to help me. Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be CONTENT with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. Even so, you have done well to share with me in my present difficulty.” Philippians 4:10-14.

How different is that message when in its full glory…fundamentally different I think!

Has anyone else uttered the phrase “I don’t have time for this”? We are busy, we find ways to fill every minute of our lives and leave no room for surprises. One of those surprises for me was that I had surgery to remove my gallbladder in September. That surgery really stressed me out! I was a little anxious about the surgery naturally, but my biggest concern was the recovery. I have 4 active kids and I work in the hands on home renovation industry. A large part of my job includes heavy lifting and here I was in the position of not even being allowed to lift my 9 month old son! The surgery was absolutely needed, but it also made me into one of my biggest fears…a burden on those around me. My family had to pick up most of my tasks around the house while some just went undone. There’s nothing like watching your 8 year old drag bags of trash out of the house to make you feel bad. Once I recovered enough to return to work my coworker still had to do 80% of the lifting and moving that I would have normally done. No matter what anyone told me, I was feeling pretty useless, but I believe God had a purpose for sitting me on my butt and slowing my mind.

Philippians 4:6 says “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.”

I was doing a poor job in the “do not worry” department! Useless as I was feeling, worrying wasn’t going to get me back on my feet any faster. Corrie Ten Boom said it perfectly “worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength- carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” I had lost track of the fact that it is ok to let other people help me out when I’m not capable, but as usual God always finds ways to remind me!

 One of the major roles that I have as a deacon at my home church of Markle Church of Christ is serving communion to shut-ins and members currently living in care facilities. Truthfully it can sometimes just be a blip in a busy Sunday schedule, but often it is the humbling experience that pulls my focus in line.

That specific morning was busy, it was Easter…2 full services with my wife Veronica singing in 1 and myself playing guitar in the other. After getting the girls and myself to the church and getting through practice I grabbed the communion kit and headed out the door to Markle Healthcare. I found the first church member by the nurse’s station and knelt down next to her wheelchair. I told her who I was and that I was there to serve her, as I proceeded to get the cup of wafers I could tell she was struggling to tell me something and she motioned with her head down to her hands…her hands that were curled up and locked into unusable fist from what I can only imagine was at the least very painful arthritis. I could feel her shame as she looked at me as I told her not to worry. I physically served her placing the wafer on her lips and pouring the small cup of juice into her mouth. A large tear ran down her cheek as she placed her hands on my cheeks and mouth thank you to me…I felt like a complete fool for having minutes before been concerned about schedules and what guitar parts I needed to play. She and I had church right there in the midst of a busy nursing home and there is no doubt that GOD was there as we shared a moment of clarity.

A lack of clarity with an abundance of worry is not a new issue or a problem solely my own. A quick look in at Numbers 21:4-9 shows us that it is a problem that crosses many generations:

4 Then the people of Israel set out from Mount Hor, taking the road to the Red Sea to go around the land of Edom. But the people grew impatient with the long journey, 5 and they began to speak against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die here in the wilderness?” they complained. “There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this horrible manna!”

Does that sort of complaining and distrust sound familiar to anyone else? This could have easily been coming from the backseat of our Suburban on the drive up to Charlevoix, but variations of this have come out of my own mouth as well. “For I have learned to be content” Paul wrote in the letter to the Philippians. A place or state of satisfaction is how content is defined. Have we really fallen into Paul’s kind of contentment in our lives? I know I haven’t! My worry to prayer ratio gets out of whack. When life isn’t going as planned everyone looks for an escape or a scapegoat, but God has a different plan for us as Christians!

“Give your burdens to the Lord, and he will take care of you. He will not permit the godly to slip and fall.” Psalms 515:22 NLT

Take a moment to wrap your mind around that scripture and Corrie Ten Book’s quote “Any concern too small to be turned into a prayer is too small to be made into a burden.” WOW…laid right out in plain sight, yet maybe the biggest stumbling block of our anxiety ridden society. If I won’t pray about it, I shouldn’t stress over it because it must not be a real problem!

Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, had this to say about faith and being Godly “you only believe the parts of the Bible that you do.” Seems simple enough, right? The application proves to be troublesome at times. Reciting something from memory is great and is not my gift sadly, but that knowledge doesn’t carry the same weight as action. Just telling someone that you love and care about them isn’t nearly as powerful as showing them with your actions that you really do love them. Is that not the same for God and his holy word, if we truly love him and his scripture than we should show it by living it in our lives everyday!

Magnus Ver Magnussen is one one of my favorite “strongmen”…I used to get sucked into the replays of “The World’s Strongest Man” competitions on tv, you know the ones where they had to flip tractor tires, carry tree trunks, and lift compact cars. These guys were doing some HEAVY LIFTING!! They didn’t just think they could lift a car…they actually went out and did It! So we all “know” that the Bible tells us to give our burdens to the Lord, but if we don’t actually do it then we don’t actually believe it!

So who is doing your heavy lifting? Are you carrying around the weight of life’s burdens or maybe like me you have felt like someone else’s burden?  Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-30 “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

My body will heal from surgery, but in the meantime that worry is not gaining me anything and seems very petty when I remember my moment kneeling next to a wheelchair. I think it is time for many of us to stop doing our own heavy lifting and bring the Bible into action. Jesus is all around us if we pay attention and his desire is to do our lifting for us so that we are free to shine his light into the dark places in our world. I pray that we see God and that our actions reflect that we know God!

If you would like to listen to the original Audio recording from Sunday’s Service please double click on “Download File” below and enjoy!


Composers and Cleaning Women

Sermon ~ Sunday, November 19, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

“Composers and Cleaning Women”

Matthew 25:14-30

To me they are more than words, more than a nice little slogan many churches print in their worship programs.  I take very seriously what is stated in the “Staff listing” of our worship program: “Every member, Ministers to the Community.”   This is not something that I believe in some intellectual/theological sense but one that I try to live out in my daily life.  In fact it was this very understanding of my Christian life that ultimately led to my sense of calling to pastoral ministry. 

The Christian life is just this, a life.  It is not a choice as in I chose this hobby or that style of attire.  It is not even a career choice, as in, I think I will be an accountant or an engineer or a fireman.  When one chooses to follow the Christian way it is a choice to follow the one called Christ.  It is more than a lifestyle it is a way of living.  And it was out of this calling to a way of living that God spoke more explicitly calling me to pastoral ministry. 

But as our staff listing should remind us, we are all called, and everyone is called to play their part to the full.  Valuing one another, accepting that the smallest of gifts is important, and believing that, in our uniqueness, God has called each of us, the whole people of God, to serve.

But you might argue a pastor is different (can’t argue with that!  We are a little different!) But it is not so much a different kind of calling as it is a particular calling within the call Christ puts upon all of us.  I am your ‘pastor’, for such is my role and the title I am given for my calling … but you are ministers to one another … I  minister with you, not to you or even more important to understand  not for you. 

I have gifts, but so do each of you. 

I have uniqueness, but so do each of you.

I have been given certain talents, but so do each of you. 

Why am I not a choir director?  Because I can’t direct a choir!  Roger, who is good at this does it for us.  Is that not a ministry, someone’s gifts being used well to the glory of God? 

And the rest of you? 

You serve in many ways.  Writing letters, visiting people, taking a meal to a friend or neighbor or taking them out for a meal! 

In the Church, how much do we value the people who offer a welcome at the front door?  Greeters are the very first impression of our congregation visitors get.  Talk about an important ministry!  The stewardship of our facility …  serving during our worship, Communion, lay readers, a couple of weeks ago we recognized the importance of music.  The ministry of Coffee hour?  All these are forms of ministry. 

In the community, how much do we value our refuse collectors, our community officials, the school bus drivers, the street-sweepers, the shop-assistants, etc.?

One of the lessons we might derive from the parable read this morning is that God blesses people with differing gifts according to the grace given us (Romans 12.6).  It was C. S. Lewis who wrote in The Weight of Glory:

“The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a cleaning woman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly “as to the Lord.” This does not, of course, mean that it is for anyone a mere toss-up whether he should sweep rooms or compose symphonies.  A mole must dig to the glory of God and the rooster must crow.” 

It isn’t that one person’s gifts are better than another’s, it’s about a belief in the uniqueness of every child of God, and the acceptance that God has a role for them to play –be they Beethoven or a cleaning woman.   God does not value one over the other, we may do this, but God does not!  God values the work that each of you have to do.  After all, it was God who gave you the ability and the work in the first place.  It is a rare position, job, career indeed in which one cannot find a way if you look, to serve God and God’s people.  To be sure, there somethings that some do that are not in service to God and in fact just the opposite, but in many cases it is a perversion of their work.  Brother Lawrence, a former soldier, who joined a monastery and spent the rest of his life working in the monastery kitchen and repairing the sandals of other monks wrote, “We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

The parable of the three servants also indicates that the reward for work done well is more work to do.  No this is not to be confused with being over-worked and the false sense of importance that can accompany this. Nor is it about always being at the center of things.  It’s about development and growth, not ‘resting on our laurels’.  

It’s not about the old expression, “If you’re looking for someone to do something, ask someone who’s busy.”  We are to care for one another and not take people for granted.  It’s about a joy in our service, knowing, learning and developing our discipleship.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t wrestle with the last part of the parable, the third servant:

But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy servant! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.  So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.  For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  As for this worthless servant, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Last week we considered the value of prudence and this, the last servant it would seem was in one way prudent in his use of the master’s property.  Yet, he gets the brunt of his master’s anger. It could be said that he is punished for his action or better his inaction.

This whole idea of ‘punishment’ is a tricky one … But it would seem to me that Jesus in using this parable perhaps is saying that there are negative consequences for the people who don’t even try.

I think of it this way …   During my high school years, I was not what you would call a star pupil, if you can imagine that!  I remember sitting in Algebra II and Calculus classes with Mr. Hammond.  (For you math geeks Mr. Hammond told this joke every year!

“Did you hear about the Park Ranger who saved the snakes from extinction?”

“No Mr. Hammond.”  Moans from the older students.

“He built them a log table then they could multiply for they were adders you see!” 

And he would laugh, “Har! Har! Har!”  Every year. 

In Mr. Hammond’s classroom I always choose a seat by the windows.  His classroom was on the third floor of Fryeburg Academy’s south wing and it had a nice view of the mountains!  And when I would get lost in algorithms and hyperbolas, I would wander among the mountains, along the ridges and down their streams, to the fire tower on Keasarge North.  I had a glorious time!  Then when it came time for the math test I would suddenly become a person of  great faith and lean on the power of prayer!  I would pray first that the questions would be easy.  And secondly, that they would be over the few things I did grasp.  After all God is good, right.  Perhaps, but Mr. Hammond was just!  And while I never failed a class I would often fail the tests!

What right had I to rely on the goodness of God when I had not done any work?  What right had I to expect God to show me special favors when I didn’t even try?  And my punishment/consequence?  To accept that my failure was of my own making … to learn that you have to put some work in to make success possible … that I did not have God at my beck and call. 

Is God still good?  Of course. 

Was my failure God’s fault?  Not at all. 

Did God remind me that trying my best is important?  You bet!

And lastly, if someone has a talent and uses it well, then this parable seems to say that he or she will be able to do progressively more with it.  And, vice versa, if a talent isn’t used well or at all, it will inevitably be lost to us.  Any of you who are musicians know this all too well!  But it is the same for all our talents, skills, our spiritual gifts.   Use it or lose it.  Not that God will take it away but without use it will atrophy.

But not only will your witness be weakened but the body of Christ will suffer as well!

Ephesians 4:11-13  So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:7     Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

Whether composer or cleaning person, preacher or pipefitter, deacon or diaper changer, physician or firefighter, young/old, male/female, God has given you an ability, a gift, and has asked you to use it to God’s glory in service to others.

1 Peter 4:10 – 11    Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.  If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Listen to the Audio Version below:


Dr. Hend Azhary – Guest Speaker

Dr. Hend Azhary joined us on Sunday, October 29th, 2017 to share her experience of the medical and humanitarian relief trip to the Syrian refugees in Jordan through the Syrian American Medical Society.  In July, Dr. Azhary led a team of 65 medical providers, medical students, nurses and translators to provide primary and secondary health care to thousands of refugees in Zaatari camp and in clinics throughout Jordan.

Please keep humanitarians like Dr. Azhary in prayer and all who make a difference in the lives of others.  God Bless you as you listen.

Below is the audio version of her sharing this experience with us and the type of difference that is being made to those who don’t have any other options.

Click on “Download File” and enjoy.  


Two Pegs

Sermon ~ Sunday, October 29, 2017

Pastor Neil Wilson

Two Pegs

Matthew 22:34-46

In our house as in many homes, we have a small area that you step into when you enter the door from our driveway.   Some call it simply an entry way or foyer, in New England and perhaps here as well, we call it a mud room.

Mud rooms are necessary spaces when you live on farms or you have a driveway that is gravel.  It is a place to take off your muddy boots, jacket, rain gear, running shoes, gloves, mittens, scarfs, etc.  In most mudrooms there will be a bench of some sort, a boot jack, and and in every mud room, worth its name, there will be a line of Shaker pegs along one or more walls.  We have the pegs in our “mudroom” on two walls at different heights.  And we keep on these pegs depending of the season, different jackets, hats scarfs, so forth, which we will grab and take with us as we go out the door.

Okay, now with this image in mind, let’s turn to the Gospel passage from Matthew.  This reading covers two short accounts from Jesus’ ministry.  I would like to focus on the first selection.

Verses 34-40 comprise what for Jesus was his definition of true religion, his summary of the law and the prophets – the law spelling out what God requires in written form, the prophets speaking this law into particular situations.

First there is the command to love God with everything we have.  Now if this is considered simply as a human requirement, it can lead to frustration, because if we are honest we have times when we may not feel at all loving, even toward God!  But the heart of spirituality is mutuality, that is, love for God is like faith, a gift from God.  We find that God gives us the love we have for God, so that the Holy Spirit is bearing witness in our hearts that we belong to God, through Jesus Christ. 

For me this love for God is expressed not only in my devotion to God through the worship of God but also in the way I approach all of God’s creation. I express my love for God not only through the prayers and songs in a service of worship but also in my service to the created world around me. 

How can you say you love another person and then abuse that person’s property?  How can I say I love God and then exploit and abuse God’s creation?

And the second commandment is like the first Jesus says, “You shall love you neighbor as yourself.”  While it might be possible for a person to force themselves, almost as it were through gritted teeth, into loving their neighbor, by-in-large we claim that no one can command us to feel something we just don’t feel.  But Jesus here is talking about “biblical love,” a love that is not a matter of “warm feelings” but rather a stubborn, unwavering commitment to another regardless of how we may “feel” about them at the time.  I know that there are times when I’m not very likable!  But Donna amazingly still loves me! (Or at least so she tells me!)  

In our Tuesday Bible Study material the author spoke of this commitment to do love, to show love, as being a “setting of the heart.”  A decision to act that then affects how we feel, no matter our mood or inclination at the time.  Think of it as a setting on your dryer or washing machine.  This is how we will choose to treat others.

I’ve found that when I decide to set my heart in a certain direction and I do things that fulfill that commitment; my feelings will often follow the actions.  Many of the “laws” of God, like giving and Sabbath and loving, rather than being punitive or negative, I believe are God’s way of getting us to do what we need to do, what is good for us. 

Back to the mud room!

Sometimes Eugene Peterson’s  translation of the bible called The Message can create an inmage that brings scripture alive. This is how a portion of this our Matthew passage reads in The Message:

Jesus said, “’Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’  This is the most important, the first on any list.  But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’  These two commandments are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.

Love of God and Love of neighbor, two pegs on which hang spiritual attitudes that we are need to take with us when we go out into the world.  

Scarfs to keep our hearts warm. 

Hats to keep good thoughts in our minds. 

Sturdy boots that will take you wherever God may call you. 

Gloves, so that we can be the hands of God doing the work of love and an extra pair or two for it will require effort!

Perhaps even a strong vest or jacket that will protect your soul from all the stinging criticism, for even doing good, doing the right thing will bring criticism from some quarters. (Jesus warned us about this in his Sermon on the Mount.)

So rather than “what’s in your wallet? (another sermon?) What is hanging in your mud room?  What do you take with you every time you step out into the world?  What spiritual attributes, “gifts of the spirit” do you put on?

Now realizing that all metaphors are just this, metaphors, symbols and not the real thing, there is one especially important place where my peg metaphor breaks down, that is we should not take off these spiritual attitudes when we reenter our homes, for they are just as needed in our homes as they are in the world!

Listen to Pastor Neil’s audio recording of this sermon, spoken during 10:30 a.m. Worship services here at First Congregational… Enjoy! 

Click on “Download File” below.


It’s All About Image

It’s All About Image

Matthew 22:15-22

 

Image.

People worry about their image.  I used to more preoccupied with it than I am now!  Weren’t you?  As a teenager I was concerned about my image. For me, the image I wanted to portray was not the popular kid or the athlete but the quiet outdoorsy type, if you can believe that.  But, even now I like to be seen in a positive light, a certain image.  So to a certain extent I do want to fashion the image I wish to present to the world.  We all do.  And this doesn’t mean it is a false image but perhaps the image of who we believe we most truly are. 

In the business world it is crucial to have a recognizable image.  “Branding” they call it.  You need to have a “brand” whether you are selling cars, an overnight stay, or caring for the spiritual welfare of souls as in the work of the church.  We are told by the religious/spiritual marketing experts that churches need a “brand” and we need to promote or (to use the business terminology) market it!  Because, the truth of it is, if we don’t promote one, a brand will be attached to us by the community and its perception what we do and/or do not do. 

How do you suppose the world has branded First Congregational UCC?   Is this how we want to be seen by our wider community?  In other words, what is the first thought or image that comes into someone’s mind when they hear that you attend this church?

With this bit of introduction let’s look at the gospel reading for today.

This is the first of a series of three passages in Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus is being tested by Jewish religious leaders.  Here the Pharisees quiz him about the lawfulness of paying taxes. This account is immediately followed by the Sadducees’ question about the resurrection which is an important theological point for them for they did not believe in the resurrection. (Matthew 22:23-33). Then (in next Sunday’s reading) the Pharisees are back with a question about the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:34-40).  And finally, Jesus will respond with a question to the Pharisees about the Messiah in which Jesus pushes them on an interpretation of Psalm 110:1 (Matthew 22:41-46).

These four encounters follow Jesus’s teaching in the Jerusalem temple, during which he declines to say by what authority he is teaching, and then tells a series of parables which are highly critical of the religious authorities (Parable of the Two Sons, Parable of the Wicked Tenants, Parable of the Wedding Banquet).  Matthew’s account culminates in Jesus’s warning to his followers: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matthew 23:2-3).

Today’s reading is a story which is often used as a basis for a reflection on the relationship between church and state.  Which we know even today is far from settled!  At the end of this month, October 31, the church will be marking the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation.  This is the date that popular legend says a Roman Catholic monk and scholar, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church.  In actuality, he more likely just hung the document on the door of the church as an announcement of an upcoming academic discussion he was proposing.  But his propositions were radical enough to result in what we call the Protestant Reformation. 

It was Martin Luther’s reading of this passage in Matthew which helped him to develop his doctrine of the two kingdoms, which distinguished between God’s spiritual rule through the gospel and the church, and God’s political or secular rule, through law and the authorities of the state.  In light of Jesus’ words Luther’s view about rendering or giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s was that, the soul is not under the authority of Caesar (the state); “he” can neither teach it nor guide it, neither kill it nor give it life, neither bind it nor loose it, neither judge it nor condemn it, neither hold it fast nor release it. … But with respect to body, property, and honor …, such matters are under Caesar’s (state) authority.

I dare say there might be a few today that would take some issue with Luther’s view!  But Luther’s thinking impacted church and state relationships including the version of it which was established in the fledgling democracy of the thirteen colonies.

In place of Luther’s language of gospel and law, it seems more helpful to me to tie it into last week’s message about idols and explore the question of “ultimate belonging.”  And ask the questio, “Ultimately, whose are we?”

Jesus asked for a coin.  The coin … bears Caesar’s eikōn [image], and belongs to Caesar. Humans, on the other hand, bear the eikōn of God.

In the first account of creation Genesis 1:27 we read these familiar words:

So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.    

For Luther, people (back then only men) may pay the infamous poll tax among other taxes, but they do not belong to the emperor.  Humans bear God’s image and wherever they live and operate –whether in the social, economic, political, or religious realm– they belong to God. Their primary loyalties do not switch (for Luther) when they move out of church and into the polling booth.

Human beings, made in the image of God, are called to belong to God. 

As humankind, we are created to be in the image and likeness of God in our nature and in our thinking, in the way we behave and conduct ourselves, and in the words we speak.  We are to be a reflection of God. 

Now of course we are not created in the physical image of God for no one knows what God looks like!  The Hebrew words translated image and likeness in Genesis do not convey any sense of physicality but refers to the nature and essence of God.   We are like God in that we have the ability to understand, to reason, to create, to act and behave, to feel and see, to listen and speak, but most of all to show compassion, to love.

It was John who wrote in his letter, God is love.  (1 John 4:8)

When asked by the lawyer about inheriting eternal life, Jesus in turn asked him, “What is in the law?”  The lawyer, a man of reputation (perhaps worried about image) replied, “You shall love the God with all you heart, soul, strength, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”  

Do you recall how Jesus answered him?  The Parable of the Good Samaritan.

As Jesus taught in many of his parables but perhaps most poignantly in the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” it is not about our status in the church (the priest) or the culture (the Levite) it is about how we love our neighbor.

Whose image do we ultimately bear?

I believe this in large part if not the whole, will be determined by how well we love!

 

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