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

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


Sermons

Stay Bendy, My Friends

~ Guest Sermon ~ Sunday, June 4th, 2017 ~ Hugh Hansen

Oh, to be bendy again!

Well, they say time passes more quickly as we get older, so I must have aged plenty because there were 18 months between my first two talks and seems like only 6 since the last one.

I want to talk about another couple of related traits that seem to change with age. [Walk to center.] This is called “Phoenix Eating Its Ashes.” [Demonstrate] This is called “Single Whip, Down.” [Demonstrate] They’re part of the tai chi exercises I learned from a fellow named Ray Sol. Most of my fellow students were my age or older, none of us were seeking it as a form of self-defense (which is good, because it wouldn’t help much), none of us were particularly devotees of Eastern philosophy. So, what benefits were we seeking? Primarily, flexibility and balance, two qualities that can be difficult to hold onto through the tale of the years.

Little children fall asleep in absurd positions, young people still enjoy Twister,but why do we value balance and flexibility? If we’ve learned certain postures are best for us [demonstrate] why seek out the ability to get into others? Because, we all learn, life will require different positions of us, as unavoidable negatives like a stumble or a fender-bender, or with “an offer we can’t refuse” for its goodness, like playing horsey with a grandchild. And why don’t we all pursue them regularly? Why don’t we all practice activities of flexibility and balance every day? Because we are busy and they are a pain to start! They basically involve hurting ourselves a little bit over and over so we won’t hurt ourselves a lot later on.

Now consider our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual selves. These qualities are just as necessary, just as beneficial, and just as hard to maintain. We have evolved as categorizing machines of uncanny ability, which has been of great value in the survival of the species. This shape or color of fruit is good, that one is poisonous. These clouds mean rain for crops, those mean tornado approaching. We will always want to do that categorizing, AND, we must acknowledge it can limit us, it can leave us rigid and off-balance. Setting aside Spirit for the moment, we know we put ideas and things in categories and stop thinking as hard about them. This may lead to practical problems, like “heavy objects fall faster” or “ulcers are caused by stomach acid” did when those turned out to be, ummm, incomplete statements. It may lead to injustice and a waste of people’s gifts, like “a woman’s place is…” and “children should be…” (didn’t some people sprain their attitude when women entered factories during WWII? Despite the clear need?) The phrase “think outside the box” is an exhortation to be bendy this way, and it could go further. Think inside AND outside the box! There are likely some good things in the box, it must have helped some people sometime!

We find this plurality in the Bible many times. (Now, what we have as “the Bible” is of course the product of thousands of people over thousands of years speaking and writing and translating in scores of languages under known and unknown contemporary pressures, circumstances, and outlooks, so it isn’t easy to know whether all its intentions are coming across. We won’t try to unpack that.)

What does it take to go to Heaven? Matthew has the sheep and the goats, in which the sheep are welcomed to Heaven because when the least of their brethren was hungry they fed him, naked they clothed him, and so on. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians insists we are saved by faith, not works.

John tells us God is love. Paul tells us that love is not jealous. When delivering the Ten Commandments, God tells us the Lord our God is a jealous god.

Jesus is our great Teacher, and we are pulled into plurality of thought as we learn from his life and teachings. He the Prince of Peace, at whose birth the heavenly host bid there be peace on Earth; Jesus specifically blesses the peacemakers in the Sermon on the Mount. He is later quoted as saying he comes not to bring peace but a sword, and blasts a fig tree for not having fruit (out of season). He is human, Son of man; he and God his Father are One. The Law says people (who have all sinned) shall stone adulterers, Jesus says sinners shall not cast the first stone, and also says he has not come to abolish the Law and that not one jot or tittle of it will be erased before the world ends. Last shall be first, who would be master must be servant, we must die to live…in today’s Gospel reading I hear how hard it was for those he taught to let in ambiguity and uncertainty. The whole generation wants a sign, wants “the answers” to be clear and visible. The Twelve fixate on not having enough bread while they cruise around with their friend who just fed thousands. Are there any parents or teachers among us who can’t identify with Jesus’ “sigh deep in his spirit” and his “don’t you get it yet?”

There have been millions of words devoted to rationalizing these and other views, to harmonizing, to assessing one as having priority over another. Those efforts have helped people clarify their choices and purposes in life, AND they have led to intolerance, murder, and war. Was Jesus man-then-God, completely man and completely God, or completely man-and-God? There were at least seven organized “heresies” around this question in the first seven centuries, winners killing losers. (This version of “heresy” reminds me of “treason”—“Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason? For if it prospers, none dare call it treason.”) Faith vs. works was the first and foremost cause of the split between what’s now Protestantism and Catholicism, which fed centuries of war in Europe, along with hangings and burnings.

Because we of this congregation believe ourselves to be both human AND spiritual beings, working for flexibility and balance is all the more important, in theological matters AND everyday worldly matters. Words, languages, have come about from our humans-as-animals experience; if we are more than human animals, if we are more than we seem, then no set of words, or the thoughts behind them, can hold all of the truth! We are required to hold what seem like contradictory opinions, simultaneously. Tolerating and indeed valuing others’ differing opinions and viewpoints, yes, that is good and necessary, AND I must accept that both “sides” participate in truth. Addiction involves both disease and personal responsibility. Both abortion and unwanted pregnancy hold great sorrow. Even if I think one side has more ‘“truthiness” than the other, as Stephen Colbert would say, when I get all categorical and rigid about some words and ideas being right, good, or true, I am going to end up pulling a mental ligament by deciding other ideas must be wrong, bad, or false.

No talk of mine would be complete without some input from music and the movies. It is no coincidence that a most wonderful example of this practice of holding conflicting ideas simultaneously is Tevye, the Jewish milkman from “Fiddler on the Roof.” (I say “no coincidence” because, as a friend pointed out, a formative practice of rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the Temple was for rabbis to hold conflicting elements of the Law together in group discussion and contemplation, leading to the creation of the Talmud.) What do we know of Tevye? He is a man of “Tradition!” and a deep, sweet love of his faith. AND he is the loving father of daughters. In the story, life brings these two beautiful qualities into increasing conflict as his daughters find their life paths. Each time Tevye is confronted with a new level of conflict we follow him into reverie, where he uses “on the other hand” to think and pray his way through—in one case, he ends up with five hands. All of those hands are his, all equally deserving of honest consideration. He follows them to what we agree is the most loving choice with his eldest daughter Tzeitel, and then with his second, Hodel. The hardest comes with Chava, who is in love with a Gentile. Tevye says, to himself, us, and God:

How can I accept them? Can I deny everything I believe in? On the other hand, can I deny my own daughter? On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith, my people? If I try and bend that far, I’ll break.

In agony, he rejects Chava and her husband. No mere sprain, a compound fracture of his family. AND, because he holds these ideas, these pieces of love, within himself rather than casting them away or denying their reality, even this fracture begins to experience love’s healing power by the end of the story.

So, then, are there tai chi/yoga-like exercises for our minds and spirits? How can we avoid straining our emotional joints, and straining relationships as a result? Let me suggest one practice I think has helped me. Unlike Sir Mix-a-Lot, I don’t like big “buts” (and I admit I can lie). Too often, I use “but” to set things in opposition. “But” denotes conflict, “but” implies falseness or less-ness, and demotes or even denigrates whatever statement preceded it. For instance, what is the effect of “Jesse Owens was a great sprinter, BUT/(AND) Usain Bolt is faster”? How about, “This man committed a horrible crime, BUT he has been a model prisoner,” compared to “This man has been a model prisoner, BUT he committed a horrible crime”? Doesn’t each case mean ‘the first phrase matters less than or even not at all compared to the second?’ When I use “but” I am more prone to putting the other idea away from myself—and in so doing, I risk putting the person or people who hold the other idea away, too, distancing or dismissing them in a way that’s not loving my neighbor. When instead I use AND, as I have tried to do in this talk, I am recognizing more truth and respecting those who think and speak it.

So, with The Most Interesting Man in the World, who parallel parked a train and who speaks fluent French in Russian, I say:
I don’t always have an idea in my head.
When I do, I prefer Dos Ideas.

Stay bendy, my friends.

Enjoy the Audio version of today’s Guest Sermon by clicking on the “Download File” link below:

 


Don’t Look Up, Look Out!

Sermon ~ Sunday, May 28th, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Don’t Look Up, Look Out!

Acts 1:6-14

There are many themes running through the readings: there is a reference to spiritual unity in the Acts passage and Christ’s prayer that his followers be one or look at Peter’s letter and explore questions such as: Does Christian persecution happen in our country today? What does it look like? Do we really suffer? And how should we handle it?

I would like for us to focus, however, upon the way these passages in Acts, in John’s Gospel, and in Peter’s letter assure that almghty God out of his grace equips all God calls to undertake his work. It is on this point where one could make a connection to this weekend’s significance as a time of remembering and memorializing. Think for a moment about all those who served our nation over the years in the many, far too many wars. How many of them when called to serve really felt prepared for what they were being asked to do? For those of you who were the one called how prepared did you feel to face the danger that was possible?

But then it isn’t always about the bravest or the best prepared is it. It is about a willingness to respond to the call; whether it is the call of your country of the call of Almighty God, as we will see in our reflection on this morning’s scriptures.
I would like to think about the Ascension. So, when was the last time you attended a worship service on Ascension Day?
For me it was sometime in the early 1990’s. The U.C.C. churches in the southeastern corner of Indiana gathered for a mid-day service on Ascension day. I recall going to at least one but not many. By the time I arrived to the Southeast Association of the Indiana/Kentucky conference it was a tradition that was on its way out.

Christ’s ascension is a tricky subject for our post-enlightenment minds and post-Christian age. Most can make the leap of faith in the resurrection because as Paul says, “. . . if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15:17-19)
So okay we step into that realm of faith when it comes to the resurrection, but the idea of Jesus being spirited up heavenward in front of the disciples’ eyes seems more the stuff of magic and myth! Perhaps this is because we have become, today, rather fixated with the notion that ‘facts’ equal ‘truth’ This is to say that for something to be true it must be factually correct and if we cannot establish the literal facts then the matter in question must not be true. Please do not confuse this with some of the recent talk about “alternative facts.” What I’m referring to is to say that there are things in the Bible that might not be factual in a literal way, but they can most assuredly convey truth, truth about humankind, truth about the nature of God and the way of Jesus and our experience of the Holy Spirit.
This narrow ‘facts equal truth’ outlook blinds us: it has turned truth into a fundamentalist subject which limits us rather than liberates us. The Bible is not concerned with the question about ‘how’ something happened but rather its focus is upon ‘why’ something has happened. We do not need to become bogged down with how Jesus ascended to heaven but rather we need to concentrate upon the question of why was it vital to Luke to record that Jesus’ risen earthly life came to an end.

Jesus’ ascension transforms the particular story about Jesus of Nazareth into a universal one – it ensures that Jesus is not left to a particular time or place in human history; it affirms God’s glorious work of the resurrection and means that we, in this time and in this place, can know the Risen Jesus and profess him as Christ/Messiah.

Luke does not linger on the ascension itself but instead swiftly calls the disciples to return their focus to earth for it was there that their work was to be done.
Mission is at the heart of Luke’s account of the ascension – Christ’s mission to his disciples to spread the Good News to all corners of the earth, the Good News that through Christ people are blessed with the fullness of earthly life and ultimately eternal life.
This task is an arduous one and thus Jesus prays to God for their protection in John’s Gospel. But as we recall from last week Jesus also promises his disciples that they will be strengthened, equipped and supported for their calling by the Advocate, the Helper, the Holy Spirit.
Peter takes up this theme in his letter – that followers of Christ can expect to suffer but God in the Spirit is present with them to grant them ‘firmness, strength and a sure foundation’.

This is the grace of God, El Shaddai: the Almighty God, Jehovah-jireh: the provider God, Elohim, the God who was there at creation and is the Creator of all that is seen and unseen, the master of light and darkness whose hesed – loving-kindness blesses and equips all God calls to undertake their God-given task.
We as the Church are Christ’s agent in this world – we, like those first motley crew of disciples have a calling to fulfil – we are not to look heavenward but straight ahead into the reality of this earth, to bring the Good News of Christ to all people – especially, as Jesus reminds us, the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the least of these.

And we are to do this together, as brothers and sisters in Christ, – as Christ prayed:

‘And now I am coming to you; I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. Holy Father! Keep them safe by the power of your name, the name you gave me so that they may be one just as you and I are one.’ (John 17: 11)

Are we one in Christ in the Church today?

It is my prayer that heavenly messengers do not come upon us standing around staring wistfully up into the clouds.

Yes, the messengers said he would return but in the meantime their is work to be done.

Let us not be looking for Christ in the heavens above . . . but in the world out there.

For that is the world Christ gave his all for!

Shouldn’t we give some as well?

 

Do you wish to listen to the Audio version?  Select “Download File” below and enjoy Pastor Wilson’s Sermon:


Part of the “In” Crowd

John 14: 15-21

 

During my time with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) I learned that one of their particular tenets was the importance of truthfulness and “speaking the truth” whether in religious, social or business affairs.  For many of my Quakers friends this meant carefully choosing words that in order to say as best and truthful as you can what you intend to say.  It was Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain (who was not a Quaker!) who said “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”   But then he also said “Honesty is the best policy — when there is money in it.”

There is a nuanced power of language such that  even two letter words can carry  a influence greater than their size  (Remember the famous “It depends upon what your definition of is is.”)

The word for you this morning is “in.”    

In    It’s a tiny word. Two letters: one vowel, one consonant.  Basic.  In many ways it seems as if it should not matter all that much.  That is perhaps, if it wasn’t Jesus who uses it!  But here we have Jesus , promising to be “in” the people who keep his commandments, his earliest disciples, and promising too that those disciples will be “in” him.  So here are we, who may think of ourselves as heirs to those disciples, and maybe we are wondering about this little word “in” as well. 

Is Jesus actually “in” us?  Like in some sort of crazy SiFi channel  sort of shape shifter thing? Or is it a spiritual  thing like the communion elements? Or just a metaphor? How would we know?

The key maybe just be what Jesus has told them prior to this where Jesus promises the gift of the Paraclete, Advocate, the Spirit of truth, who will be with them – with us – forever.  It can be easy for us to hear the word “spirit” and immediately think of warm, personal feelings – feelings of security, of connection with God.  Many of our hymns seem to focus on an experience of the Spirit that is personal like that.  This understanding offers many of us comfort, especially when the world around us seems to be spinning out of control. 

But think about for a moment what the word “advocate” might conjure up.  “Advocate” the Greek word is “paraclete,” which means one who has been “called to our side,” to stand up for us, to explain us to the court.  Think of lawyer shows on television.  Think of detectives and mystery and action.  The Paraclete, the Advocate, is a force on the move. 

Jesus calls the Spirit another Advocate.  The first Advocate is Jesus himself.  Our reading from 1 John states this explicitly.  “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous;” 

And Jesus was certainly a force on the move.  Think of the meals with outcasts and sinners.

Think of the moneychangers in the temple. 

Think of the healings and the preaching, the travels between Galilee and Jerusalem. 

The story of Jesus is a story not of private feelings and comfort, but of action.

This Paraclete, Advocate Jesus promises, “will be with you . . in you.”   Jesus himself will be “in” the disciples, as he is “in” the Father, and as the disciples will be “in” him.  Is it enough to imagine some kind of mystical union?  Is the indwelling of Christ or the Spirit of truth like a sense of warmth or a feeling of confidence?  Is it an abstract notion or a state of grace? 

Remember the scene with Jesus standing before Pilate.  Pilate asks Jesus “What is truth?”  Jesus stands there in silence.  Why does he not answer?

The answer is right there.  You are looking at it, Pilate.  The truth is standing in front of you.  Watch him, and you will find out what truth is. 

We cannot see the Spirit, but we can “see” Jesus.  Through the stories of scripture we can “see” Jesus healing, and teaching, and dying in his faithfulness.  Draw an outline around that moving picture of Jesus, and you have a framework for recognizing the truth Pilate was asking about.  You also have a framework for recognizing the Spirit of truth, the Advocate, Jesus himself dwelling in and among us.

Throughout the gospels we can find Jesus operating in community, with his disciples and with the other people he serves.  The story about Jesus is not the story of Jesus and a single disciple, like some of the prophets and holy men and women from other traditions.  Jesus is present and active with groups of people – real people who sometime struggle just to get along and other times enjoy sharing their successes and resources, their hopes and their questions.   So when Jesus promises to be “in” his disciples, and promises that they will be “in” him, it seems that he cannot be promising only a mystical union with individual believers.  Everything we know about Jesus suggests someone who is operating as an active presence in a communal setting. 

In fact, the Greek word usually translated “in you” can also be translated “among you” (plural). 

How might this impact our ability to receive Jesus’ promise if we put less emphasis on our individualized, mystical interpretation and more on this communal approach?  Not that we do not ever have any personal mystical experience of the Spirit for we do, I have!  But if we consider it in the communal context, might it reduce our anxiety about whether we are really “right with God”?  Might it, in fact, lead us to dwell less on our own, individual worthiness and focus our energy on an active life of faithful service?  Believing the promise that Jesus, the Spirit of truth, will be “in” us as we are in this service to him?

I was reading recently about Mother Teresa of Calcutta and I was rather taken aback by the professed spiritual struggle she had much of her life.  In Mother Teresa’s writings she tells of her lifetime of struggle – struggle with the darkness that plagued her because for more than half of her life, she did not feel the presence of Christ. *

Nonetheless, among Christians she has generally been regarded as a modern saint.  Some consider her an even greater saint because in spite of the dark she continued to be faithful.  Even though she had not been gifted with spiritual certainty, she steadfastly pursued the mission to which she believed she had been called, and the Christian community recognized and affirmed that mission.

Jesus clearly promises his presence and the presence of the Spirit to those who keep his commandments to love and serve one another.  The love Jesus commands is not a feeling – not even a feeling of certainty about union with Christ.  The love Jesus commands is about a master washing the feet of his disciples, and a king dying the death of a criminal.  We have this outline around the moving picture of Jesus, an outline that can define the Spirit of truth as it appears in our own lives and our own actions.

What if we were to understand Jesus’ words this way?

What if we were to recognize that Christ is truly present among us when we keep his commandments  to love and serve one another?

Look around us in our community – our church community as well as the greater community in which we live and serve – and see where you can discern that outline around the picture of Jesus on the move.  See where, in the familiar life of this group of God’s people, where you can discern the presence of the Spirit of truth.

Where is Jesus?  Look for the action, the movement.

There he will be in the “in” crowd!  Are you?

 

* When Leadership and Spiritual Direction Meet: Stories and Reflections for Congregational Life  by Gil W. Stafford

 

***Listen to Pastor Neil’s Audio version of his Sermon by selecting “DOWNLOAD FILE” below…Enjoy!


What About Us?

What About Us?
John 14: 1-14

If I were to show you this (older model “flip phone”) you would probably recognize it as a cell phone. Our grandchildren play with this and think of it as an historic relic! And when I tell them about rotary phones and party lines, they roll their eyes as if I were giving them the standard old people’s line: “When I was your age I had to . . .”
Have you found it increasingly more difficult to keep up with life? I’m not speaking of the physical slowing down that is the natural progression of aging something that has plagued humanity from the beginning.

I thinking about how this world has become an increasingly more complex place in which to live. The culture which existed in 1950’s America has passed and some of us may feel ill equipped to face the new future. Many of us who grew up in the late 50s or 60s and even though the 1960s was touted as a time of rebellion and great change, we now find ourselves woefully lacking in the technological prowess which seems to be natural to the younger generation. Our grandchildren are computer geniuses compared to us, are they not! What seems so simple to them, is a bit complex and confusing for me. I hear some of my generation and older saying that there is no place for us anymore. We just don’t fit. Not sure where we belong.

It’s not that they are planning to “check out” early, mind you. They just don’t know how to cope with the increasing complexity of life. And it is not just technology that has us stymied. Some of us might feel the same. But few are ready to take it to the extreme that Christopher Knight did. I just finished the book The Stranger in the Woods about the “hermit of North Pond” Maine. When he was finally “caught” in 2013 the authorities asked how long he had been there in the woods. His reply, “When was the Space Shuttle explosion?” Twenty-seven years he lived alone in the woods of central Maine. Unfortunately though, while he never physically harmed anyone, never smashed a door or broke a pane of glass, he stole foods and items in order to survive, yet he took only enough to survive.
This is nothing new brought on by onslaught of our high tech world but a fear which has befallen each generation when for that generation things seem to rapidly change beyond their understanding. And so we ask: What about us? Where do we fit in? Christopher Knight felt that he didn’t fit in so he took to the woods. (I can sympathize to a point.)

As people of faith, though, how do we wrestle with this question? For some it is rather simple, as the answer might appear to be. As elders, parents, grandparents have done for generations, we can still tell the stories of our faith and our journey. That is a response which makes us feel a little better. But who will listen? Who will see? Will this not sound just like another version of “When I was a kid we walked to school uphill both ways in 12” of snow year round!”
In some ways the disciples of Jesus face a similar identity dilemma. He presented them with the fact that he would not be with them for much longer. And not only would he be gone from them, he would be taken from them in such a way that the painful experience would leave them filled with fear and doubt.
The life the disciples had come to know with their teacher was changing rapidly, in some very unexpected and undesired ways beyond their control. What do you mean you’re going to be handed over? What are we to do then? Where are we to go? What is expected of us?

The disciples’ world with the Roman occupiers and those in religious leadership who were in collusion with them, made life a very tense and at times an angry place. Jesus brought a gospel of love, peace and hope, but it appears that at every turn this message was squashed by hatred, bigotry and prejudice. They were discouraged, very discouraged. And now Jesus tells them that he will be leaving them fend for themselves. What? What do you mean you going away? What about us, Jesus? This is not what we signed up for!

Jesus reminds them that they are loved by God and belong with God. This will never change, no matter what their circumstances are. Take hope and courage in this knowledge now for soon there will be a time for going to work, spreading Jesus’ good news of God’s presence and love. The greater the world’s confusion and hostility, the greater the need for healing and hope. They had a job to do and when that job was complete, in God’s good time, they would find their rest.
God has a purpose for each of us. God has called you here to this place, this time, a sort of upper room place, if you will, to receive healing balm, to experience love and peace, to abide in the eternal hope which is Christ. When congregational worship and fellowship is at its best, this is what we offer each other in Christ. Healing, love, peace, encouragement and hope.

It is my calling, my assignment, as pastor to set before you Jesus, not me, not the church, but Jesus. When the disciples gazed upon Jesus, standing before them, they could see God in a most unique way. Now they were needed to embody the ways of God’s realm to a broken world. And Jesus promises to be with them. He wouldn’t let them down. They could count on that – you can count on that! And today as much as ever, the world, our community, our families need our witness of God’s healing love.

You, who abide in God’s house, are called, empowered, and challenged to be the witnesses.

You are never too old or too young. And you know what none of depends on your computer literacy or the understanding of the latest technology. And while some biblical knowledge is good, God seems to have a way of using just about anybody God calls. Remember, God doesn’t call the prepared but prepares the called. Far more often God has come to me through a source or a person I would not have expected!

Jesus has shown us the way. His is the way, the truth and the life. “Believe in God” He said, “Believe also in me. . .”

Live the love you have been shown, be a welcoming presence in the name of God to all whom you meet.

And to help us accomplish this Jesus promises the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.

But that is next week’s message!

 

Want to listen to Pastor Neil preach this message?  Select “Download File” Below and enjoy…


The Gate and gatekeepers

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

The Gate and gatekeepers

John 10: 1-16

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

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

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


Crossing the Barrens

Sermon ~ Sunday, April 30th, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Crossing the Barrens
Luke 24: 13-35

The Blaisdell boys, Doug and Caleb, were down at Longmeadow’s Wharf in Wally’s Fish Market & Bait shop picking up a barrel of pogies last week. “Pogies?” You might call them herring but round here they’re pogies. Oily, smelly, nasty business, a barrel of pogies, but lobsters love them!
Well, last week they were stocking up for their first setting of pots for the season and they were telling this strange tale about a trip they took over the Barrens a couple of weeks ago. They were on their way to Ferguson’s Funeral Home in Uniondale, their beloved Mimi passed away right before Easter.
Georgie Vernon, lovingly known as “Mimi” to her grandsons, Doug and Caleb, was their mother’s mother. Mimi’s only child, Gloria, married Cliff Blaisdell. It was a sad thing her dying when the boys were just 7 & 9. Their father had a difficult time coping and ended up hitting the bottle pretty hard, so Mimi took the boys in and pretty much raised them.

Mimi lived here in town most of her life but near the end moved into the Maple Grove Care Center in Uniondale. Maple Grove is run by the Seventh Day Adventist Church. It’s a nice place, if one has to be in such a place. The Adventists are good people.

Mimi was a lifelong member of the Pine Plains Baptist Church and would take the boys across the Barrens every Sunday to attend church with her. That is until they were teens and rebelled, as teenagers will. They never rebelled against Mimi or religion in general just her form of it. Their form of rebellion was to get up early on Sunday mornings and go lobster fishing in their grandfather’s old skiff.

Mimi died on a Friday. It was a miserable, misty morning which turned to rain and roads to mud in the afternoon.

The boys miss her something fierce.

Seems they were on their way over to the visitation at Ferguson’s that Sunday afternoon and decided to take the Stud Mill Road across the Barrens to Uniondale. Not the most direct route nor the most traveled and for good reason, the road was gravel all the way and if it wasn’t wash boardy, it was filled with mud holes.
That afternoon the road was both rough and filled with muddy spots. As they maneuvered their way across the barrens they spoke about Mimi as affectionately as two lobstermen could speak with any level of emotion. (Which wasn’t much!) Among other things they were recalling the smell of her kitchen when they would come home from school, the feel of those flannel sheets and the scratchy wool military blankets she would get out on the especially cold nights.
Doug was driving and as they crested Butterfield Knoll the way looked fairly smooth and clear so he applied a little more throttle. At the end of the stretch though was a blind corner, not that anyone would be coming but what they couldn’t see was the old spruce that had toppled over in the recent rain and was blocking most of the road. Doug made a quick decision to try to squeeze the truck around the tree hoping the shoulder of the road wouldn’t be too soft. Doug allowed he should have known better, mud season in these parts and all, but the other option was to take the chance of not stopping in time and hitting the tree.
There they were the frame of their pickup sitting right in the mud. Of course everyone knows that out in these parts of the barrens there is no cell phone reception whatsoever. Their only option was to hoof it and hope to find someone. It was still over 10 miles to Uniondale.
It was bad enough that they were on their way to their beloved Mimi’s visitation and that they would no longer know her love and comforting presence but now they would be late if they make it at all. Whose hair-brained idea was it to take the Stud Mill Road anyway? The guilt torn at them making the grief even more unbearable.

They had been walking about 15-20 minutes when they crossed over glacial esker known locally as “The Whaleback.” They rounded another turn and there back off the road about a hundred yards they see a house up on a windswept rise. They didn’t realize that there was anyone that lived out here but obviously someone did, there were clothes on a line strung out the back flapping in the wind and smoke rising out of the single center chimney. A old wooden wheelbarrow serves as a flower bed with some spring flowers just starting to bloom.

But no vehicle in the drive.

They go to the door and before they can knock and older woman opens the door and invites them in.

“I see’d you acomin’ ovah the Whaleback.” She tells them before they could ask.

“And Nope. Don’t have a phone. Least right now. Storm took it out when the tree fell on the line. I suppose it was the same tree that put you fella’s in the ditch.”

“But I do have some coffee in the pot and some donuts in the frying pan.”

Well, according the Doug & Caleb’s account the next thing they knew they were sitting at the kitchen table with two mugs of coffee and a plate of fresh, hot out of the pan home-made donuts. They both noticed it at the time but didn’t say anything about it until after, that coffee was so strong it needed extra sugar to get it down the coffee. And then there was how the old woman went to the frig and brought out little glass serving pitcher of heavy cream, no half & half! The home-made donuts were placed on the table in a dinner plate with a sheet of paper towel under them and the towel was soggy with the oil from the donuts. Wasn’t this just like you know who?

“You boy’s got yourselves in a gaum, I ‘d say.” She said as she flopped another round of donut batter in the frying pan.

“Gaum!” They didn’t know many others who used that expression other than . . .

Caleb was the first to speak, “Ma’am, do you have any idea when the phone line might be fixed?”

“Hard telling not knowing.” she replied carefully flipping the donuts.

“Been out for three days now. I s’pect someone will be out ‘day or tamarrah.”

“Hard telling not knowing!” Wait a minute! That sounds just like . . .

“Suppose you boys are in a hurry to get somewheah.” Doug gave his brother a slight tap with his foot under the table and nodded his head in the direction of the window over the kitchen sink. Caleb didn’t notice it at first but once he did it sent shivers through the crusty lobsterman.

There attached by little suction cups were two sun catchers. You know, those little plastic ones that kids make. A daisy and a cross. Just like the ones they had made for their Mimi during Vacation Bible School some 20 odd years ago. No, no couldn’t be. She must have children or grandchildren that attended some VBS at some time. Yeah, that must be it.

There on the table beside the salt and pepper shakers was a worn Bible and sitting on top of it was an equally well used copy of Oswald Chambers “My Utmost for His Highest.”

A tear rolled down the wind burnt cheek of that tough seasoned fisherman, as Doug remembered his Mimi’s favorite quote she posted over the kitchen sink: “We have to pray with our eyes on God, not on the difficulties.” It was said by the very same Mr. Oswald Chambers.

The old woman chattered on with them talking about this and that and nothing in particular and sitting here in the warm smells of this woman’s kitchen, they felt their worries about being late for the visitation slip away, their concerns about the upcoming lobster season seemed unimportant. They felt washing over them an un-explainable peace, a very real Presence; and even as they retold it down at Wally’s they stumbled looking for words adequate to describe what it felt like sitting at the old woman’s kitchen table.

How long they had sat there? Neither would venture a guess, two hours, five hours, but it was the old phone on the wall that brought them out of the warm, numinous moment they found themselves bathed in.

The old woman looked at them and said “God ahead and answer it.”

Doug was closest. He got up and lifted the receiver of the old yellow rotary phone dial phone. It was Sandra with the Downeast Phone company letting them know that the lines were now open. Doug made a quick call to Packard’s Garage and Perry said he could be out with his tow truck in about 45 minutes. “And just what were they doing on the Stud Mill Road after all this rain?”

They thank the old woman for her coffee and donuts and the wonderful conversation. And couldn’t they do something for her?

“Oh no I have all I need. Besides I’ve got others I’m expecting.”

“You boys are going to be okay.” She said with a twinkle in her eye and soft tone in her voice that gave them more comfort than the mere words should have.

By the time they made it back to their mired truck, Perry Packard was there and had already pulled the tree out of the way and was now running the winch cable back to the tow hooks on the bumper of their pickup.

With a little effort the truck was back on relatively solid ground, after promising to catch up with Perry on Monday, the boys climbed in and fired up the engine.

They noticed that the clock on the radio said it was 3:00 p.m.

How could that be they certainly spent more than the hour with the old woman that the time on the clock indicated. At this rate they would still make the visitation! 

Just then a truck from Adrian’s’ Tree Service came along and told them that the rest of the way into Uniondale was now clear. With Caleb behind the wheel now, they eased down the road being careful to stay right in the middle where it was driest.

They climbed up over “The Whaleback”, down the other side, around the corner. There on the windswept rise is the old woman’s house.

They slow down as they drive by turn and just stare at each other. Before them is a house, most of the first floor windows are broken out and the front door is swinging in the cold north Atlantic wind that sweeps across the barrens.

There is no smoke curling out of the chimney, no clothes flapping in the wind, no phone or utility lines running into the house. But there in the middle of the front yard is a single flower surrounded by a what looks like old pieces of oak boards and a few pieces of rusty iron. And both Doug and Caleb swear on their Mimi’s eternal life that there was an Easter Lily growing in the midst of what was once and old wooden wheel barrow.

 

Listen to the original audio version by selecting “Download File” below and enjoy!


Two Evenings

Sermon ~ April 23, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Two Evenings

John 20:19-31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a little something for you to ponder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With His Peace,

To fulfil His Purpose,

Enabled by His Power through the Holy Spirit.

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

 

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

 


DO NOT BE AFRAID!

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

EASTER SUNDAY

Do Not Be Afraid!
Matthew 28:1-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Procession to Passion and Beyond: Are You In?

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

Procession to Passion and Beyond: Are You In?

Matthew 21:1-11   Philippians 2: 5-11

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The event:  Superbowl XLVI       The organization: NFL 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Osteology

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

Osteology

Ezekiel 37:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lord told Ezekiel to tell the people,

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

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

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

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