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

101 State Street
Charlevoix, MI 49720


Thus Says the Lord…But Who is Listening?

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, July 8th, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson ~

“Thus Says the Lord . . . But who is listening?”

Ezekiel 2:1-5


It is always an interesting worship service at Old First Church on the Common on a Sunday after Rev. Williams attends one of those Spiritual Revival in Leadership conferences.  Especially if it is one sponsored by one of those big non-denominational churches! They do it up big! Bright lights, jumbo screens, big name speakers, you get the whole load!  One year, somehow, Rev. Williams talked Melvin, Bea Stearns’ husband, into going along with him.  Upon returning Melvin allowed, “It’s like attending one of those Amway conventions.  You may not make a lot of money but they’ll get you wicked excited and all wound up!”

Well, he does, Rev. William returns from one of these and steps into the pulpit on Sunday morning all wound up and ready light a fire under these stolid New England Congregationalists.  Trouble is, they sittin’ in the pews and huffing a puffing right back, snuffing out the flames of the Holy Spirit out as fast as a 5 year old blowing out the candles on her birthday cake!  And the good Reverend is sure that some may have even brought along buckets of water! 

And so, on Monday mornin’ he slumps into the chair in his church study all deflated and thinking, “Well, who am I anyway? I’ll never be invited to speak at any convention.”

He lets out a long breath, “Nobody listens to me anyway.”

And then he slides even deeper into despondency, “No, I’m no a great orator and we are certainly not spirit-inflamed people. We are but a small town gathering of the faithful, and some of the ‘not so sure about it all.’”

“Why would anyone listen to us?  What do we have to offer?” 

 Yeah, he was feeling pretty blue that Monday and it carried on into Tuesday and Wednesday.  Thursday morning found him staring at the computer screen without a clue as to what he was going to preach on, when there was a soft knock on his door.  Abby had left for the post office, so he got up and went to the door and standing there was Wendy Barstow. 

Wendy had just graduated from the Rockhaven High School and was the only senior from First Church on the Common this year and in a way just another reminder for Rev. Williams the state of the congregation.  She had an unusual request for the Rev.  She wanted to know if she might speak to the congregation sometime this summer.  

Well, the good pastor saw this as a way out of the spiritual desert he’d found himself in.  So, sure she could speak to the congregation, “How about this Sunday?!”  He would like that and sure the congregation would as well.  (He just didn’t let on that it was probably be the whole sermon!)

So it was, this past Sunday, Wendy Barstow told her story.

The Barstow’s are one of those families that has had its share of generational hard luck.  Her great-grandparents had a farm out on the tidal flats on Prescott Road of Ricker’s Bluff Road south of town.  They had apple orchards, hay meadows, some good timber land on high ground.  Then at the urging of the State Milk Board, old Chauncy Barstow decided to become a modern dairy operation.  With the loan the bank provided, they bought the equipment, built a new barn and purchased a herd of Holsteins.  That was the spring of . . . 1929!

By 1932 milk production was high and consumption low, prices even lower!

In the end they managed to keep 5 acres and build a small home and each successive generation has struggled to recover. 

Now there are three little homes on the five acres (actually the one Wendy, her two younger brothers and parents live in is a 1985 14’ by 70’ mobile home.)

Wendy paused at this point in her story, but she couldn’t look up from her notes the feelings welling up.  She gained her composure and went on to say, that a little over two years ago she made an extra effort to study and work really hard and she was able to get B’s and one A- on her grade report.  For the first time in her life and her family’s she thought that maybe, just perhaps, college or some sort of technical school might be a possibility.

So one evening she spoke to her parents, who quickly pointed out that they had noticed that she had been missing some of her chores and doing homework instead.  With both Mom and Dad working long hours to make ends meet, as the oldest, she carried extra responsibility at home.  But with their hesitant blessing the next day she made an appointment to see the school guidance counselor.

She sat across the big wooden desk from Mr. Campbell, the counselor, and nervously shared her desire to further her education after high school.  Could he help her explore her options and see if there just might be some financial assistance or even a scholarship or something? 

Mr. Campbell smiled and looked at Wendy with all seriousness, “We’ll see Wendy, you know, you’ve only got these grades for one semester so far.” 

And then those dream demolishing words . . . “Higher education isn’t for everyone, you know.”  He might as well have said, “Especially those like you and your family, Wendy Barstow.”

A wave of murmurs swept through the congregation. 

Wendy paused again, swallowed her tears back and went on.

It was about that time that Elsie Flanagan invited her to come along on an Old First Church youth outing to Bangor to see “The Hunger Games: Mockingbird II” which was all the rage among teens at the time.  Wendy says she was hesitant at first. Their family had no extra money for movie ticket and dinner out even if it was just going to be Taco Bell.  When Elsie assured her that the Church Youth Fund was covering everyone’s cost, Wendy said with some hesitancy still, she would go.   

With her voice cracking, Wendy told how what she found that day and the two and a half years since was not just a group of high school friends but an extended family.  She recalled when how Gerry (Geraldine) Walton volunteered to pick her up and bring her to church.  All the questions she had for Gerry during those drives!

Why are there tablecloths on that big table up front? 

Why were they green last week and purple now?

Whose “Gloria” And is Patri her last name?   

Why does the pastor wear that black thing?

Looks like it made out of a drapery from Nichol’s funeral home! 

And she recalled how when she got to church because Gerry taught Sunday school on occasion she would sit with Betsy and Carl Holgrum.  She still remembers the day Betsy asked if Wendy would assist her with Coffee Hour the next Sunday.  

The next Saturday afternoon she met Betsy in the kitchen of their bakery and she told the congregation how Betsy let her use that humongous Hobart mixer to make the batter for the cupcakes they baked for coffee hour.  And how Mabel Bradley invited her over to “tea” one Sunday after church just this past winter and helped her navigate the confusing paths through scholarships, educational grants and college applications.

She paused here again.  She looked at Mabel with deep appreciation.  She turned to Betsy and had this sort of smile that said they shared some special knowledge. 

Before she spoke again, she looked out into the entire congregation for the first time and sitting there with Gerry Walton and her husband Brad, were Wendy’s parents, Sharon and Clint Barstow. Their eyes beaming with pride and yet a bit misty as well (at least her Dad’s!) 

Wendy drew in another breath. “I want to share with my parents and with the extended family I found in this place that I applied and have been accepted at the Eastern Maine Community College and this fall will be entering their Culinary Arts Program!”  

And for the first time ever (other than the obligatory clapping for the children’s Christmas pageant) the congregation broke into applause with all manner of indecorum for us Congregationalists.  Why I believe I even heard a hoot and whistle or two!

When it settled down Wendy drew upon all her inner strength and looked into the eyes of the congregation and said,

“When I first came here two and a half years ago and sat in that pew with Gerry Walton, I was asking myself, ‘I wonder, if even the church would care about a student like me from a family like mine?’” 

The church fell silent.  They had no idea.

Rev. Williams reflected back on his response to last Sunday and he thought:

Sometimes the church is called to be prophetic with its words and actions spirit-filled.  And you know, other times it needs to hear the life-giving words of a prophet. 

And sometimes that prophet isn’t someone with the grand gift of oratory or dressed in black funeral home drapes, but just happens to look and sound like a recent high school graduate from Prescott Road just off Rickers Bluff.

And so we learned last Sunday at Old First Church on the Common.

To listen to the Audio Version of this Sermon, please select “Download File” below and enjoy:

Grace & Power in Weakness

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, July 1st, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson ~


Grace and Power in Weakness

The Lord said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

2 Corinthians 12:9


“My grace is sufficient for you.”

Here we are on the weekend before the Fourth of July where in the United States of America many this week, rather than remembering our 242-year history will think only of fireworks, picnics and more fireworks.  Look at the many firework stands that pop up every year in June!  They are more abundant and more reliable sign of June that u-pick strawberry farms! 

But I would like to at least take this morning and pause long enough to remember that 242-year history and give thanks for the liberty and strength of this country and the many other ideals our nation stands for when it’s at its best.

“America, America, God shed his grace on thee.” Those lines from the song are both a statement and a prayer.  Indeed, God has shed grace on this country.  

When leaders of our new country gathered to declare independence, when they gathered to write a constitution, it didn’t come easy, but God gave them grace.  

A hundred years later, when our country was threatened with civil war, God gave us grace—even during the deadliest battle fought on this nation’s soil—and we avoided secession and division.

The twentieth century saw the United States become a world leader in commerce and trade.  When our country was drawn into wars abroad, God gave us grace to come together with our allies and overcome dictatorship and totalitarianism.

Over the years, God has graced this country with a pioneer spirit, (Which to be sure, wasn’t without its excesses and abuses!  Ask the Wampanoags of New England or the Sioux of the plains or the Apache and Navaho of the southwest!) Still at our best, God blessed our nation with courageous energy and generous wisdom.  

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, these “unalienable rights” which our Declaration of Independence says have been given to all human beings by their Creator, and which governments are created to protect.  It is because our country thrives that people want to join us.  And so throughout our history, our country has attracted immigrants.  We have always benefitted from this influx of new energy and ideas, and we will always need these.  Sadly for some today, this stirs up more fear and suspicion than welcome.  But it has been the experience of our nation that it more often brings with it, grace and strengthens our nation’s character.

But here in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, the Lord says to the Apostle Paul something else about grace. “My grace is sufficient to you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).  

In other words, according to God, grace involves weakness.  Paul delivers to us today an important lesson for any individual, and for any country: power, good and righteous power, is able to acknowledge weakness, individual and our weaknesses as a nation.

As a nation we are experiencing more and more horrendous actions within our society.  Deadly shootings in movie theaters, night clubs, shopping malls, places of business, in our schools!  And every day on the streets of our major communities. 

Three years ago (does it seem possible that it’s been that long?) our country was horrified at the murder of faithful black churchgoers in Charleston.  It struck our land with pain and horror.  How could this be?  How could a young man, any person, in our country commit such terroristic murder?  Yet, that tragedy was powerfully answered by forgiving attitude of those left in the church.

And our country by-in-large reacted as if we too were a part of that healing grace.  People lowered and removed confederate battle flags.  Even people who don’t necessarily think the battle flags are racist began removing them.  The pro golfer Bubba Watson who owns a replica of the “General Lee” the iconic car from the 1980’s Dukes of Hazzard television series, painted the American flag over the Confederate one on the car’s roof!  He did this he said to show his solidarity with those for whom the flag was very disturbing.

Of course, in our country these tragedies have sparked a national debate on everything from race, gun control, video game violence to mental health matters.  And with the current lack of civil discourse in our nation, it seems we will be arguing about these issues and many more for some time.  

Yet, when we are at our best as a nation, it is by God’s grace that we can carry on such arguing freely and hopefully constructively.  But sometimes, these arguments have revealed embarrassing weaknesses, and they have revealed arrogance and fundamentalism, too.  Now, let me be clear, “arrogance and fundamentalism,” is not limited any one particular political party!  As a very progressive politically and theologically minded mentor of mine once reminded me, “There is sometimes no one more close-minded that an open-minded liberal.”  He knew that the dangers of arrogance and fundamentalism were not the sole traits of any one political or theological perspective.  

Scripture teaches us that power is made perfect in weakness. God’s power is perfected in weakness.  “The Lord said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Our country has always been at our best when we have considered the needs of the weak, the suffering, the minority.  Seeking and serving the weak, no matter where and who they are, makes this country who we are.  And it makes people want to live here!  But realizing weakness is also what makes each of us, as individuals, stronger people.  Indeed, the spiritual life starts and ends with humbly realizing our weaknesses, acknowledging our struggles and pains.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians in an earlier letter: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor. 1:25)

And the faithful Christian spiritual life certainly means following the example of Jesus, seeking and serving the weak.  In the wonderful “miracle economy” of God, God works like this: when we seek and serve the weak among us, we are actually better able to recognize our own mistakes and weaknesses.  It is then that amazing grace occurs.   

One of the glories of our country is that we are able (or have been able), with grace, to recognize our needs and weaknesses.  I know that some of us don’t want to hear about our country’s weaknesses especially on this holiday.  Some people mistakenly think it is treason to point them out.  But such is not the case. 

This ability to acknowledge weakness, wherever it might be in our country’s structure, is exactly what makes the United States different from authoritarian countries, and from dictatorships, and from tyrannies.  

We are different!  But our difference is this: that our greatness comes from being able to voice criticism and name our mistakes and weaknesses. We are not an imperial power, a power that blocks out all disputes and opponents.  We are freer, much freer, than those countries of the world which seek to suppress dissent and acknowledgement of weakness.  Again at our best we listen to each other individually and internationally.  We learn from listening to each other, really listening.  And we can learn from our mistakes.  But first we must admit them! 

And in the end as Christians, we hear as Paul heard, “My grace is sufficient to you,” says our Lord, “for power is made perfect in weakness.”  When we can acknowledge weaknesses, we can then experience grace.  And in this grace find our strength as persons, as a people, and as a nation.

So yes, “America, America God shed your grace on us.”  May this be our prayer: And may it be O God, your grace and your power for only then we will really understand greatness in weakness!  

To enjoy  the Audio Version of this Sermon, please select “Download File” and enjoy!

Touching Bottom

~ Sermon ~ June 24th, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

“Touching Bottom”

Mark 4:35-41

Did you hear about Jerome Jordan walking on water last week?

You didn’t!  Well, maybe it didn’t happen exactly like the gospel account of Jesus;

or even as it has been retold a dozen times over at Joe’s Barber Shop, but still a pretty good story non-the-less!

Let me back up a bit. 

This past winter the Rev. Samuel Hartford, director of the Outer Island Relief Society was a guest preacher at Old First Church on the Common.  He shared heartbreaking as well as heartwarming stories about the hardships of life on the outer Islands and how the Relief Society seeks to meet the needs of those remote island fishing families as they deal with the isolation, substance and physical abuse, medical emergencies and lack of educational opportunities for their children.

In his Power Point presentation during coffee hour, Rev. Hartford had photos of an old lobster trap shack on Great Seal Island that the island high school youth (all 4 of them) were attempting to convert into a computer lab.  The Relief Society had helped them with a grant to get satellite internet to the island but only to one location.  The school such as it was, is located such that the satellite signal would be obscured by the high ridge to the south. So the kids decided to mount it on the old trap shack which because of its shoreline setting has an unobstructed southerly exposure.  The youth have been working to weatherize it, new roof, shingles, windows, and finish it off inside and purchase computers and routers, printers and scanners. 

The youth of Old First were of course interested in this seeing as it was right up their bailiwick, computers, internet, Wi-Fi and all that.  But they were also amazed at how difficult life must be on Great Seal Island without the technology they took for granted!  

So several of the youth got together, Bobbie Flanagan and his sister Elsie, Banda McIntyre, Billy Hollman, a Walton youn’ un or two, the Jordan kids and they approached church member, Peter Warren, a teacher at the alternative high school in Pembleton to see if he would he be willing to help them organize a trip out to Great Seal Island to help the kids there finish their computer lab.

Well, within a week those kids had hit up just about every business in town and amazingly had raised enough money to purchase insulation, tongue & groove paneling, two of those assemble yourself computer desks and a couple of iPads for the Great Seal student computer lab project. 

Their success at fund raising is possibly the more amazing part of the whole story and perhaps the real miracle.  You see, historically there has been no love-loss between the outer islanders and the mainlanders.  The islanders can be an odd lot (not that us mainlanders are all that sociable at times) but islanders keep pretty much to themselves.  What happens out there stays out there.  Except some 50 years ago something happened between two of the old families, the Bailey’s from Great Seal and the Teagues from Rockhaven.  Threats were made, traps and gear sabotaged, storage sheds burnt, boats sunk.  This bad blood spread and the islanders retreated to Great Seal and Little Lookout Islands.  To this day islanders will take their boats across the exposed open waters of Englishman’s Bay, an extra 25 miles to Machias, rather than do business in Rockhaven, even though the only living descendant of the Teague clan in Rockhaven is Buster MacMillan, a great nephew of old Tiger Teague one of the antagonists in the “lobster war” as the dispute is known today. 

Day of the trip Peter had enlisted the adult help of Jerome Jordan, Bertie Dixon and Abby Reynolds, the church secretary.  They met down at Longmeadow Wharf at 7 a.m. where Peter had thought he had secured the service of two 35 ft. lobster boats through Wally Poindexter of Wally’s Fish Market and Bait Shop.  Only instead of two 35’ wide beam lobster boats, tied to the piling they found three little 20’ footers with what Peter thought of as “vintage” 20 hp Evinrude outboards!  “They not vintage.”  Bertie informed him “They just old!”   

And to top it all off, one of the boats boasted the very sloppily hand-painted name, “S.S. Minnow” after another boat infamous for a three hour tour that lasted three seasons and three movie sequels!  Not a good omen! Jerome drew the short stick and loaded his gear into the “Minnow.”

Well, they had no time to find alternative transportation, the tide was in their favor and the wind light, eerily light, Bertie Dixon noted.  So they divided the supplies and passengers up as evenly as they could into what amounted to little more than oversized tenders and got the ancient Evinrudes fired up and put out into the bay working their way in and around moored sailboats and small motor yachts.  All the lobster boats were, of course, out for the day.  They worked for a living. 

Great Seal Island was just a dark ragged line on the horizon.  About half an hour into their motoring Bertie could see a change in the water color out just beyond Great Seal.  He knew how the tides and the wind could play tricks on mariners when a summah sow-westerly would push against the tides in the narrows between Great Seal and Little Lookout Island, a scrub covered rock of about 200 acres.  Within minutes the seas could become a choppy, turbulent, mixing bowl of whitecaps and deep troughs.  And the only navigable harbor on Great Seal was up through the narrows.           

As luck wouldn’t have it, just as they rounded Pilot’s Point on the east end of Great Seal, they came about into the full fury of one of Mother Nature’s occasional tantrums.  It was only a mere two miles through the narrows to reach the shelter of the breakwater off the landing on Great Seal but the winds were making the old Evinrudes struggle.  And occasionally the outboards would scream as they lifted completely out of the water!

Jerome worked to manage the throttle on his outboard as they shot up the swells, over the crests and plunged into the depths.  Abby, in the same boat as Bertie, kept her eye on the lighthouse of Little Lookout Island and could tell that they were gaining some headway but it also looked like the lighthouse was getting a bit closer with each swell they climbed! 

Panic was beginning to come across the faces of the youth aboard the S.S. Minnow, as Jerome Jordan nursed it over a steep side swell.  And just as the old Evinrude came out of the water it let out one last roar as it over-revved and came to an knocking halt.    

Jerome called for Banda and Beverly Walton to grab the paddles that were stowed along the gun’ales of the boat.  By this time there was sheer terror on the faces of the youth!

The best Jerome was hoping for was to use the paddles to get them to move in the general direction of a small pebble beach on Little Lookout Island know as Jasper Cove.  The other boats seeing what had happened and being carried by the out-going tide themselves closer to Little Lookout decided to stay with their friends in trouble and see if there would be anything they could do to help. 

At some point a rogue wave hit the side of the floundering Minnow and sent Banda flying, his paddle shooting overboard.  Grabbing it before it floated out of reach, Jerome took over helping Beverly get their boat righted around and pointed roughly in the direction of Jasper Cove. 

Meanwhile Peter, Bertie and Abby looked on helpless from the other boats.  Bertie thought of the story of Jesus and the storm of the Sea of Galilee and said something about it hoping to calm their fears.  

To which Abby, always the cynic, quipped, “Maybe Bertie, but I’m looking around and I don’t see a sleeping Jesus in any of our boats!”

After about 15 minutes Jerome could see that they were actually making headway toward the beach in Jasper Cove and so he shouted to Beverly “Give it all you got!”

She and Jerome dug deep both within for strength and into the depths of the stormy sea.  They topped the first crest, plunged into the trough.  Paddling in desperation up the next one and quickly dropping.  So quickly in fact, Jerome was still paddling when they hit the low point and wham his paddle hit bottom!   And suddenly he realized that even though they were still a good distance from shore the water there was only maybe 2 feet deep 3 at the most! 

A few more strokes and a couple more crests and troughs and Jerome grabbed the bow line and without a word jumped over the side of the S.S. Minnow and felt his feet quickly hit the pebbly bottom.  Standing there suddenly the waves didn’t seem as high and the troughs as low, in fact most of the time he could see over them.  With the bow line over his shoulder he began making his way toward the beach perhaps 75 yards away. 

Peter and Bertie at first couldn’t believe their eyes!  First, that he jumped out and then, from where they were it looked like he was walking on water!     

Abby, the skeptic perhaps finding faith, muttered “Well, I’ll be God-dazzled.”  (except she was dazzled!)

Seeing this, the others motor in a little closer, shut off their faithful Evinrudes and Peter and Bertie, each taking the bow line in hand, walk their loaded boats to the safety of Jasper Beach where they wait until evening when the sou’wester dies down and the tide runs with the wind!

Paul Bunyan in his classic allegorical novel  The Pilgrim’s Progress tells about Christian, Bunyan’s archetype of a person struggling to lead a life of faith.  Christian with his friend, Hopeful, is reaching the end of his symbolic journey.  But to reach the end will require crossing a mighty and fearsome river. 

Christian is desperately afraid .  Together with his friend Hopeful, he wades into the water with trepidation. 

Christian cries out, “I sink in deep Waters; the Billows go over my head, all His waves go over me.” 

Hopeful replies with what may be among the most grace-filled words in all of literature, “Be of good cheer, my Brother, I feel the bottom, and it is good . . .”    


Now I don’t know about you but I haven’t found that I can walk on water.  More often than not though, I’ve found that there is a bottom, something solid under the storm or within the storm, and find in that, something to stand upon which helps me move forward.  


It was later that evening, round a campfire safely ashore Great Seal Island  for some strange mystical reason, a little sea shanty came to Peter’s mind so he sang,

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip. . . ”

Enjoy the Audio Version of this sermon by selecting “Download File” below, enjoy!:

Where Is God?

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, June 10th, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson ~

“Where Is God?”

2 Corinthians 4:13 – 5:1

Let me start with a “simple” question. . .   Where is God? 

I’m not asking in the sense of a spiritual crisis as in “Where is God when a child dies because her house is hit with artillery shells?” (We cannot answer that in the next ten minutes or so even if it could be satisfactorily answered!)   But this is simpler, more of a spatial reference question.  Where is God located? Up/down, in/around or out?

  In 1934 two heavyweights took a few intentional jabs at each other.  Think of pre-fight sparing between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman or Joe Frazier, only this time the opponents were not wearing boxing gloves but were two testy European theologians, Karl Barth and Emil Brunner who sparred with their pens.  At stake was determining once and for all the Anknupfungspunkt or the “point of contact” between God and human beings.  Where do we find or meet God?

Emil Brunner believed the point of contact was located inside of us, while Karl Barth saw the point of contact as truly beyond us.  To summarize many pages of their argument , Brunner believed there were echoes of Eden still inside our heart, soul, and mind, while Barth staunchly defended the notion that God is nothing like us, but instead distant and ultimately “other.”

So . . . where is God?

In our reading from 2 Corinthians this morning, Paul suggests, amidst the trial and tribulations of life, we can take comfort that a resurrected Christ lives “inside us.”  Like Brunner, Paul locates the anknupfungspunkt at first inside us rather than outside.  Paul writes, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”  (2 Cor. 4:16)

Bede Griffiths was a twentieth century Benedictine monk who in his travels around the world asked people of various faiths, “Where is God?”  Hindus and Buddhists in the East, he found out, would typically point to their heart; while Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the West would point outside of themselves to the “heavens.”

So let me ask you our question a bit differently . . . Where do you find or meet God in your life?   Inside or outside?  Up or down?   Or do these spatial references not fit with your understanding of the Holy.

Returning to Paul’s writing, he claims that (as I think we can testify) that indeed while we are being renewed within, our outer nature is being worn away.  And ultimately this earthly tent we live in will be destroyed.  Paul’s point is as Ben Franklin quipped, like taxes, death is inevitable.  Everything that is human will crumble and perish, whether it is a city, a home, or even our own life.  But in the face of this reality, Paul steers his readers to the hope found in “eternal” things.

What does this mean?  I believe like an inner nature grounded in the resurrected Christ, there also exists Paul says, divinity “outside of us,” another reality to restore us, but not one easily seen.  So we might assume that if Bede Griffiths met up with Paul and asked his question, “Where is God?” Paul would have first pointed to his heart, and then with his other hand to the world and stars overhead. 

How would you describe your experience of God?

Those moments you cannot fully explain. . . but that somehow hint of a spiritual dimension within this world or beyond it.  Some might describe them as coincidences or déjà vu.  The Celtic Christians called these moments “thin places.”

It has been observed that some creatures seem to have a sixth sense.  For instance sharks and birds have a magnetic sense to enable them to respond to the earth’s magnetic field.  Rupert Sheldrake who wrote The Sense of Being Stared At, says that while humans may not have this sixth sense, we seem to have what he calls a seventh sense – a spiritual awareness that connects us to each other, the world and to the realm of the spirit.  He points out how many of us believe we have sensed people staring at us even though our backs are turned at the time.  Sixty percent of us claim to have experienced telepathy.  Sheldrake points to the skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, who dazzled us at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics.  According to Dean, the reason they could skate so fluidly and beautifully was telepathy.  “There’s simply no other way to explain it,” Dean said in an interview.

Have you ever thought of someone and have the phone ring, or receive a letter in the mail or email or text?  Have you ever woken up right before the alarm rang?  Or before your baby started to cry?

It seems to me that just as Elijah heard the still small voice at the entrance of the cave, and Samuel the voice call him in the night, and as Moses saw God’s glory on the mountain, we can discover God’s presence all around us – inside and out – if we have the eyes of the heart to see. 

There is an old story about a disciple and his teacher. One day the disciple approached his master with a question, “Where shall I find God?”

“Here.” the teacher said.

“Then why can’t I see God?”

“Because you do not look.”

The disciple pressed his teacher, “But what should I look for?”

“Nothing, just look.” the teacher replied. 

“But at what?” he protested. 

“At anything your eyes will light upon.”

“But must I look in a special kind of way?”   

“No, the ordinary way will do.” the teacher insisted

“But don’t I always look in the ordinary way?” asked a puzzled disciple.

“No, you don’t.” the teacher answered matter-of-factly. 

“But why ever not?” the disciple pressed further. 

“Because to look you must be here.  You’re mostly somewhere else.”


It has been said that the Apostle Paul’s thought, as a theologian, could be summed up as the “triumph of God.”  This triumph of God is discovered when we come to understand that as Christians we already live in the dawning of God’s coming reign and since the coming of Christ and his victorious resurrection, suffering becomes all the more tolerable. 

Perhaps Paul would say both Brunner and Barth were right, that God’s presence and triumph is both internal and external – as the resurrected Christ renews us from the inside out, but also God continues to birth in our midst and with our help and before our very eyes, a new heaven and a new earth.   

Might God grant us the eyes of faith to see and behold the wonders around us and also see those traces of the Holy within ourselves and each other, without regard to the color of our skin, the language we speak, the name by which we pray to God or the ones we call family.  Amen.

Enjoy the Audio Version of this Sermon by clicking on “Download File” below:


~ Sermon ~ Sunday, June 17th, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson


Mark 4:26-34


I was driving down County Road 700 North in Ripley County, Indiana, when I saw this solitary form out in the middle of what appeared to be a recently planted field of about 100 acres.  I slowed down and could tell that it was our neighbor, Ron, a grain and hog farmer, who also happened to be the church’s organist.  It looked to me like he had lost something perhaps off a piece of farm equipment.  Not being in any particular hurry, I stopped to see if I could help.

As I walked across the field I could see that he was kneeling, but he wasn’t looking directly down at the ground rather he was looking down the length of the field.  As I approached he looked up at me and said, “I’ve been doing this for years and it never ceases to amaze me!” 

Then I saw what he saw, a hundred acres, row upon row of soybean seedlings most of them just breaking the surface of the blue clay soil of southeastern Indiana.

On the back page of our worship folder there is a photo I took of a tiny balsam fir seedling that had taken root in a crack in a ledge high in the White Mountains of northern New England.  If I were to give this photo a one word title it would be “Tenacity.”  As I was preparing for today’s message I thought of this photo and wondered if Jesus had come in our time in a little northern out of the way UP town, might he have used the image of the fragrant balsam fir or the tall white pine or perhaps more in keeping with Jesus’ imagery would it have been the Juneberry, a tree that doesn’t grow to much of a height, for such was the illustration of the mustard seed Jesus intended.  The kingdom of God is like unto a fir seedling, clinging to life in a crack of the rock . . .

Seeds.   In chapter 4 of Mark’s gospel we hear Jesus speaking a fair amount about seeds. The chapter begins with the “Parable of the Sower” and seeds scattered indiscriminately over all conditions of soils.  And in today’s reading we have two more parables involving seeds.  

Mark is right up front about his understanding of Jesus’ ministry, he informs his readers in the first chapter 14th verse:  “Jesus came to  Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.’” 

And here in chapter 4 Jesus, teaching in his preferred style, the story, says, “The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground. . .”

The mystery of growth.  Though the farmer would “sleep and rise night and day, and the seed sprout and grow, the farmer does not know how.”  Ron bent low in his field marveling at the miracle of life, the mystery of growth.  None of it our doing.  We can work with God but not without God!  Ron can prepare the soil, which in that blue clay took a great deal of careful timing and groundwork!   He can purchase good seed.  He can make sure his equipment plants the seed the proper depth but in the end he cannot bring about the sprouting and growth.  That lies with the mystery of God within each seed. 

We live in an age when the mystery and surprise of life including God’s power are being squeezed out of our consciousness.  This parable asks us not to close our imaginations too quickly, because there is a dynamic in life that is mysteriously beyond our comprehension and intellectual grasp.  Jesus is perhaps suggesting that history has been made ready, just as fields are made ready to be planted.  And now the reign of God has burst into history in the person of Jesus.  If this is the case, that the reign of God has come among us, why are we often so nonchalant about it?  Jesus uses the second parable to speak to this. 

“With what shall we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable (story) will we use for it?  It is like a mustard seed . . .”  

The mustard seed was a common metaphor in Palestine for “the smallest thing.”  The plant could grow as tall as a house, the birds seem to love its tiny black seeds.  Like the mustard seed, the followers of Jesus are a ragtag bunch, full of doubts, full of fears, unable to comprehend much of what Jesus is doing and teaching them.  And the coming Kingdom of God into human history rests with them? 

Jesus seems to emphasize, “Yes, you are this scruffy seed through which the kingdom of God will be proclaimed and given form in this world.”

Jesus lifts up the grace and power of God to accomplish this, if God can take the smallest seed and make of it a great plant that provides sustenance and shelter for others, imagine what God can do with the seed of the gospel residing within each believer!  It is at once a humbling and exhilarating parable for the followers of Jesus in any age. 

Our passage closes with a bit of mystery.  Earlier in chapter 4:11-12 “And [Jesus] said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables, in order ‘that they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand, so that they may not turn and be forgiven.’”” 

Jesus uses these words to add emphasis to the parable of the sower. He seems to be saying that he uses parables to guard against too many people comprehending what he is saying, which always struck me a bit odd.  Why wouldn’t he want as many as possible to “get it?” 

It has been suggested that Jesus is looking for hungry hearts, those really longing for the bread of life, those for whom the world’s answers are not adequate.  In all these parables in the fourth chapter of Mark, the seed is the foremost image.  Indeed, it is often important throughout the Biblical story. Ezekiel uses it, John uses it, Paul uses it.  It is an enduring symbol of life growing out of what seems not only small but dead.  Out of the most insignificant beginnings, God creates a mighty wind that will blow throughout the entire world.  Through these “seedy” parables, Jesus invites seekers in every place and age to consider joining in this kind of journey.  

What seed(s) of God’s goodness, mercy, grace, justice, peace are lying dormant in our hearts?

Isn’t it time to bring them forth into the light and nourish them with care?

It is amazing at the potential God has placed in each of us, in every church and fellowship of believers where ever we may gather together.

Are our hearts hungry enough to receive the word and to allow it to grow?


Guest Speaker ~ Patti Ulrich ~ June 3rd, 2018

~ Sermon June 3rd, 2018  ~ Guest Speaker Patti Ulrich ~

Unfortunately we do not have a written version.

Click below to listen to the audio version of Patti’s Sermon.


A Wild Goose Community

Sermon ~ Sunday, May 20, 2018

“A Wild Goose Community”

Pentecost Sunday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

  not strong like the eagle. . .

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

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


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

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

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

Eagles, falcons and hawks are almost always alone.


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

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

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

I looked forward to each fall . . .

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

Over Autumn enflamed maple and white pine tall. 


One day, while alone I stood,

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

I saw before my eye,

   hundreds and hundreds of geese flying and filling the sky.


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

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

The leader then flew along the side of the formation,

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

All the while, they never missed a flap.


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

 wondering what on earth this was all about!

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

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

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

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

So we did . . .

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

I guess I should be thankful for the National Geographic!

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

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


What I witnessed that day as a child

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

     Since the very first Autumn.


You see, their bodies are streamlined,

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

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

  But those wings, they’re not flapping randomly.


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

  Which rushes up to reclaim its space,

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

Whose wings just happen to be in a downward position,

    A very dangerous condition . . .

    Which, doesn’t last long,

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

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


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

Which lifts the wings of the bird behind . . .

And so it goes, on down the line.


So, the lead goose shields the wind,

And all the rest are carried by him,

    In varying degrees of course,

   From the back which is the best,

   To the front which is the worst,

With very little effort, I’ve heard,

  on the part of any one bird;

Because when the lead goose has had enough,

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


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

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



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

It has something to do with community . . .


These days it’s a popular notion,

    And people swell with emotion and pride

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




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

In some ways, we cannot choose . . .

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

I thank God. . .

      . . . I was made . . .

                   . . . More like a goose . . .

I’m Praying For You

Sunday ~ May 13, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

“I’m Praying for You”

John 17:6-19


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

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

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

“that they may be one.”  


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

And this is where I make it personal! 


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

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

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

If we just talk of thoughts and prayers

And don’t live out a faith that dares,

And don’t take on the ways of death,

Our thoughts and prayers are fleeting breath.

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

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

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

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

And did you?

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Fearlessness of Love

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

Fearlessness of Love

1 John 4:7-21

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“. . . love one another. . .”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A loving heart lives in the love of God.

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

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

The second option is the YouTube Video recording of the Sermon.  If you would like notifications for the YouTube versions, please go to this video and follow the instructions to follow Neil Wilson’s videos.                                     ~BE BLESSED~



The Incident at the Beautiful Gate

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

The Incident at the Beautiful Gate

Acts 3:1-19


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who knows? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so beginning with us, beginning today!

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