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

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


Sermons

Confirmation Sunday August 5 2018

This was Confirmation Sunday… Enjoy a view from our youth.

 

 


Dining on The Living Bread

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, August 19th ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Dining on Living Bread

Luke 11:2-4         John 6:25-35

 

I love bread . . . honey wheat, honey oat, French bread, multi-grain bread, cinnamon bread, English muffin bread, brown bread (a New England Church bean suppah staple!) 

I love bread! 

Donna likes to bake bread. 

I’d say that’s a match made in bakery heaven!  My midsection says it’s a little closer to the ground!

So when it comes to placing myself in the scripture story I’m pretty sure I would have been among the crowd that followed Jesus across the Sea of Galilee looking for more bread.  And I just might have been the one who asked, “Jesus when did you get here?”  And then I would have added,  “And have you had time to whip up another batch of that bread?  That was umm, umm good!  Do have any butter and perhaps some strawberry jam?”

And I’m afraid I wouldn’t have fared any better than the crowd that day.  In his response Jesus cut straight to the fact of the matter, “The truth is you are looking for me not because you are really looking for me but you want something for your bellies!”

“Don’t work for food that perishes.  Fill yourselves with that which will truly satisfies.” 

“Feed on that which will really sustain you and bring you eternal life.”

Eternal Life . . .  Most of you by now have heard my understanding of “eternal life.”  I understand that when Jesus’ uses this term he is speaking as much about the “Here and now” as the “hereafter.”  As the old Nazarene pastor I knew said. “It’s  not just pie in the sky by and by but steak on your plate while you wait!”

 

Jesus said a little bit later in John’s Gospel that he came that we might “have life and have it abundantly.”  (Jn. 10:10) 

It’s not that Jesus is ignoring the physical needs of hungry people, after all he had just fed a large crowd of hungry people!  Rather he is saying is life is more that eating, and until they understand this they will not grasp what he is really is about.  We do not live by bread alone!

I say all this as a way of sharing with you any of the little parting wisdom I might have. 

If the church, this church, any church is going to flourish it must nourish itself on the Bread of Life.  Not the sermon of any pastor including me!  The sermon is not the Bread of Life!  Now to the extent that a sermon, anyone’s sermon, contains a bit of the Bread of Life then draw it out and feed on this.  The Bread of Life, however, is not dependent on any preacher or sermon. 

And I would add, it is not dependent on any particular theology.  The Bread of Life, like baked bread can come in a variety of flavors, and some people like one flavor or mixture better than another, the thing is they’re all versions of the bread of life and they are all good!  But only one source, one baker, Jesus. 

I pray that you will receive the interim and eventually your new called pastor and listen for the Bread of Life coming through her or his messages and nourish yourselves on this living bread.  Nourished by this the church will flourish. 

The second of our readings for this morning is from the Luke’s version of what is commonly referred to as “The Lord’s Prayer.”  You may have noticed that Luke is a bit more terse and shorter than Matthew’s version which is the version more commonly used in worship. 

Give us each day our daily bread.  There has been quite a bit written about just exactly what Jesus might have originally said and meant here.  The interpretive quandary Biblical scholars face is that what we have is from the Greek and Jesus spoke in Aramaic.    

What we do have at our disposal though, are some very early copies of the gospels in second century Syriac which is closely related to Aramaic.  But even here what we have is Syriac Christians taking the words of Jesus from the Greek and returning them to a language very close to Jesus’ native language.   

There are a couple of interesting things we can learn from the Syriac version of this verse.  

Lahmo (a Syriac word) means both bread and “understanding.”  Food for all forms of growth, physical, intellectual emotional, spiritual.  But it carries the sense of that which is basic for life in general. 

The Greek word epiousios which traditionally has been translated “daily.”  And here is another interpretive dilemma: this word appears nowhere else in the Greek language!  From the beginning and over the years there have been numerous ways of addressing this matter.  And it seems that again if we return to the early Syriac church’s view of this passage, they opted for an interpretation that focused less on frequency (“daily”) and more on the amount of bread necessary for life.  They translated it as “provide for us the bread that we need.”  Or as the very earliest Syriac version translated it: “Give us today the bread that doesn’t run out.”

One of the most basic of human fears is the dread of economic privation.  Will we have enough?  We’re managing now, but what about the future?  What if I lose my job?  What if the kids get sick? What if I’m unable to work?  What if my retirement doesn’t last? How will we survive? One of the deepest and most crippling fears of the human spirit is the fear of not having enough to eat.  Perhaps Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer is teaching his disciples to pray for release from this fear.

Fear of not having enough can destroy a sense of well-being in the present and erode hope for the future. 

I would offer this interpretation of what Jesus may be attempting to convey to us:  Give us bread for today and with it give us confidence that tomorrow we will have enough.  

One other thing, note that in the Lord’s Prayer we ask for bread, not cake! This is the meaning of lahmo, that which is basic for life.  Consumerism and the kingdom of mammon have no place among those who pray this prayer.  We ask for that which will sustain life, not all its extras.

So church, do not fear about tomorrow or next month or next year.  You are in God’s care.  You pray this every week!  Give us this day that which we need and as we use it help us trust that there will be enough tomorrow as well.

I am preaching to myself here as well.  I worry about you.  Not that I am concerned about any future leadership.  But if we love someone we worry about them, don’t we? 

When I told Rev. Cheryl Burk, our Associate Conference Minster, (who will be here next week) that I had accepted a new call.  She saw something in me which lead her to say, “Don’t worry we’ll take care of them.” 

So even as I tell you not to worry about the future, I am trying to myself.  You have been blessed.  In God’s “economy” there is always enough.  So live and serve boldly, welcome others extravagantly, God will refill you with all you give away!   

One last thing, note that throughout the Lord’s Prayer there are no singular pronouns!  They are all plural.  It is “Our Father”  . . .  Give us this day, our daily bread . . . lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil . . .

We ask for ours, not mine.  Church you are in this great adventure together.

Story told by Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

She  had an old gentleman come to their house and said that there was a family with eight children and they had nothing to eat.  Could the Sisters do something or them?

So she took some rice and went there.  The mother took the rice from Mother Teresa’s hands, then divided it into two and went out.  Mother Teresa could see the faces of the children shining with hunger.  When she came back Mother Teresa asked her where she had gone. Her answer was simple: “They are hungry also.” And “they” were the family next door and the woman knew that they were hungry.  Mother Teresa said she was not surprised that she gave, but was surprised that she knew . . .  And I quote Mother Teresa: “I had not the courage to ask her how long her family hadn’t eaten, but I am sure it must have been a long time, and yet she knew – in her suffering.  . . . In her terrible bodily suffering she knew that next door they were hungry also.”

 

There are hungry people out there, hungry for real bread, yes, so keep on doing this, but also hungry for an understanding of Jesus’ love that is not judgmental, that is welcoming of all, people that are searching for a place where there is a God who is compassionate and filled with grace, not condemning and wrathful. 

This is the bread of life you have to offer the hungry in this community. 

God has provided, it will not run out. 

Share it that others may have life and have it abundantly

 

Rejection    One of the things I’ve been reiterating with people individually but I think it is important that I share it with all of you.  Our decision to accept the call to serve another congregation is in no way a reflection of  how we feel about you, this church, this community.  We love this congregation, we love you as individuals, we love this town and the northern Michigan area.  And this is why Donna and I wrestled with it for so long.  It was a very personal decision based on what we were both feeling. As we get closer to retirement whatever that is going to mean now, we both felt it was time to go home.  This came long before Melanie and her family moved there.  That eventually we wanted to grow old together in the place that for us is “home.”  In a perfect world we would have taken all of you and this community with us.  But then you wouldn’t be where you want to be.  

 


Love Is Our Defense

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, September 2nd ~ Patti Ulrich ~ Guest Preacher

Love is Our Defense

Many years ago, our church here in Charlevoix took on a huge expansion project. My feelings about the project were mixed, at best. We took up temporary residence at the Christian Science Church across the parking lot which was kind enough to let us use their space, so we squeezed in there. We even held church in the barn at the llama farm on Boyne City Road! Do any of you remember that?   Sitting on the hay bales like barn swallows, we sang hymns of praise.

As we prepared for our temporary move out of the church and how it might look after we moved back in, I thought about the times I had felt close to God in that space: late at night alone in the sanctuary during a prayer vigil, at our children’s baptisms and their confirmation services, in the chaos of Christmas Eve children’s pageants, with angels and shepherds jumbled together in a procession of sorts, trying to keep their headgear (halos and such) straight while they sang carols as only children can. We used to crowd in the stairwell at the back of the church trying desperately to shoosh the excited children. Remember when Marti Trubilowicz made little sheep hats out of felt for the children? They were so cute! And the time one teenage Mary took a small camera out from under her robe to snap a photo of the baby Jesus! (That was before cell phones) Too funny! Wonderful memories!

At the time, it didn’t seem to me that we needed a magnificent new structure to feel close to God, to be “at home with God.” But I have found that even though I loved that simple space very much, I now love the new space just as much with all the new memories that are being created here each and every week and each and every day.

Psalm 84 is a joyful song praising God, not a building, although God’s presence is mysteriously and powerfully experienced there. The psalmist begins by calling the Temple   God’s “dwelling place,” but of course “dwelling” in a place doesn’t have to mean being contained by it.

Psalm 84 is one of the “Songs of Zion” which, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann explains, “serve to celebrate, Zion-Jerusalem as the epicenter of reality wherein YHWH dwells permanently in a way that guarantees the city,” thereby making the people feel safe–after all, God is in their city. Could there be any better source of security? I think when he’s talking about God being in our city, he’s talking about a place where we can imagine how things should and could be, rather than how they actually are. A place where we can dream the dream of God. If God is love, and we know that’s the truth, then that “source of life” is also our best home, our best defense, our best security and shelter. Love is our best defense, indeed.

That’s the key, isn’t it? Keeping God, and God’s love, at the heart of everything: I think of the concept of “sanctuary” as a safe haven for those fleeing other powers. Something that we see on the news almost every night these days as desperate people try to seek safety for their families from violence they face in their home lands. It is something that we might find hard to relate to here in our beautiful community.

And yet today in our country, we are still shaken and grieved by the horror of shootings in places of worship – our faith and other faiths. Nine people were killed in a mass shooting at the Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. It was at the end of a Bible study where they had offered warm hospitality and kindness to the man who then shot them, for being Black, he told the police. It’s jarring to realize that even church itself can’t offer safe space, sanctuary, when such a thing can happen on sacred ground. But the people of the church found a way to forgive that young man. Surely God is dwelling in their city!

And as we look to a new future for our church, we have faith that we will portray and yes BE a church community that is safe and is God’s home. Our very lives, then, and all of nature, are sacred ground, holy ground. Thus, we too can “go from strength to strength” (v. 7). For wherever we are, we are “at home with God.” So are the sparrow and the swallow, of course: the psalmist sings of their good fortune in finding a home in the sacred surroundings of the Temple.

We can’t help recalling Jesus’ own words about God’s eye being on the sparrow. One wonders at the repeated image of tiny sparrows in the Bible, one of the smallest of God’s creatures. Throughout the Bible, we hear that God cares for the ones we might easily overlook: the small ones, the humble ones, the ones on the margins.

The swallows and the sparrows, all of creation then, join with humans in a song of praise to God, according to the psalmist–just think of Psalm 104, for instance. “Praise the Lord, O my soul. Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty…. The birds of the sky nest by the waters; they sing among the branches.”  I hope you’ll read it when you get home this afternoon! Imagine the “continuous birdsongs” playing harmony to our pilgrims’ hymns like Amazing Grace! What a lovely image, for a Temple long ago and the sacred spaces of our lives today, too. The next time you are outside and hear them singing their sweet songs in the trees and bushes, be reminded of God’s love for the little ones and for you as well. I hope that will make you smile!

The swallow and the sparrow find a place to make a nest for their little ones in the temple. And we humans can also find a nest in a church whose worship experience encompasses “serenity, innocence, and trusting delight” in the presence of the God who loves [us].[i] Of course, the image of “nest” suggests a place of safety, nurture, and home. We may certainly find a “nest” in other places where we experience being at home with God, but we pray and have faith that our church community will continue to be a place for people to find a safe place, a home! AMEN!

Inspiration and quotes in this message come from Kathryn Matthews, UCC Worship Resources

[i] Walter Brueggemann, Texts for the Preaching Year

 

 

 

Benediction

 

Happy are those whose strength is in the Lord.

The Lord is our light and our protector giving us grace and glory.

No good thing will the Lord withhold from those who do what is right.

Blessed are those who trust in him. Go now in peace to love and serve.

Amen!

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Texts for the Preaching Year

Benediction

 

Happy are those whose strength is in the Lord.

The Lord is our light and our protector giving us grace and glory.

No good thing will the Lord withhold from those who do what is right.

Blessed are those who trust in him. Go now in peace to love and serve.

 

Amen!


CALLED TO COMFORT

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, August 5th, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson ~

Original Sermon date:    April 28, 1985 by Pastor Neil Wilson

CALLED TO COMFORT

GOD USES MANY PEOPLE IN MANY WAYS TO SEE THAT HIS WILL IS DONE.  QUOTE FROM A SALADA TEA BAG:  “LIVE AND LET LIVE IS FINE, BUT LIVE AND HELP LIVE IS BETTER”.

AS CHRISTIANS WE HAVE BEEN GIVEN A NEW LIFE TO LIVE THROUGH CHRIST’S SACRIFICE.  IT IS IMPORTANT FOR US TO GIVE THAT SAME NEW LIFE TO OTHERS AND THIS REQUIRES SHARING OUR LIVES WITH PEOPLE.  WE MUST BECOME INVOLVED.

BUT IT IS NOT EASY TO SHARE OUR LIVES WITH OTHERS.  IT TAKES COMMITMENT, TIME AND ENERGY.  IT IS AN INVESTMENT IN AN AREA THAT BAY BE SLOW TO SHOW A RETURN, IF WE SEE ONE AT ALL.  RELATIONSHIPS CAN BE JOYOUS, BUT THEY CAN ALSO BE VERY PAINFUL.

LIFE IS THAT WAY ISN’T IT?  IN OUR PERSONAL LIVES WE HAVE THOSE SPECIAL MOMENTS, WE ARE STANDING ON A MOUNTAIN PEAK AND ALL THE WORLD SEEMS TO BE OURS, “WE’RE ON TOP OF IT”  WE SAY, BUT THEN WE HAVE THOSE LONG, BROAD AND DUSTY VALLEYS TO CROSS BEFORE WE REACH THE NEXT SUMMIT.  IT’S DURING THOSE DUSTY TURBULENT TREKS ACROSS THE VALLEYS OF LIFE THAT WE FEEL WE COULD USE ALL THE HELP WE COULD GET FROM GOD, SAY NOTHING ABOUT BEING THE SHINING EXAMPLE OF A MODEL CHRISTIAN THAT WE ARE SUPPOSED TO BE TO THE WORLD!

TODAY I WOULD LIKE TO SHARE WITH YOU FOLKS A FEW WAYS IN WHICH I FEEL GOD REACHES OUT TO US DURING THOSE VALLEYS IN LIFE AND WHEN WE ARE LIFTED OUT OF THOSE DESERTS OF DEPRESSION WE ARE BETTER PREPARED TO DEAL WITH AND HELP A SUFFERING WORLD.

ONE OF MY FAVORITE VERSES HAS ALWAYS BEEN 1COR. 10:13 “NO TEMPTATION HAS OVERTAKEN YOU THAT IS NOT COMMON TO MAN.  GOD IS FAITHFUL, AND HE WILL NOT LET YOU BE TEMPTED BEYOND YOUR STRENGTH, BUT WITH THE TEMPTATION HE WILL ALSO PROVIDE THE WAY OF ESCAPE, THAT YOU MAY ENDURE IT.”

BUT LET ME SAY THIS FIRST, I AM A STRONG SPIRITUALIST THAT IS I BELIEVE STRONGLY IN THE SPIRITUAL STRENGTH OF CHRISTIANITY.  ALSO I AM AN INDIVIDUALIST IN THAT I BELIEVE WORKING WITH AND STRENGTHENING INDIVIDUALS CAN BE JUST AS VALUABLE AND PRODUCTIVE AS MINISTRY TO THE LARGER SOCIETY AS A WHOLE.  ALSO GOES FOR CHURCHES, TOWNS, ETC.  I BELIEVE WE MUST BE FAITHFUL OVER THE LITTLE THINGS.  I BELIEVE IN STARTING SMALL AND WORKING UP, LOCAL AND WORKING OUT.  BUT MORE THAN ANTYTHING ELSE I AM TRYING TO BE A REALIST, I WANT TO TAKE ALL THAT HAS BEEN REVEALED TO ME THROUGHT READING, STUDYING, PRAYING, HOLY SPIRIT (SPIRITUAL ASPECT OF OUR FAITH) AND PUT IT INTO SOMETHING REAL, CONCRETE, THAT WILL HELP AN INDIVIDUAL. 

SO, BEING THIS WAY, I ALWAYS HAD CERTAIN QUESTIONS WHEN I READ VERSES LIKE 1COR 10:13, I DID NOT DOUBT THAT A WAY OUT WILL BE PROVIDED BY GOD, BUT HOW DOES IT COME?  WHERE DO WE LOOK FOR IT AND WHAT ABOUT I BEING COMMON TO EVERYONE?  I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU BUT WHEN I HAVE A PROBLEM I FEEL LIKE I’M THE ONLY ONE.

BUT GOD DOES PROVIDE COMFORT DURING OUR TRIALS AND TEMPTATIONS.  GOD COMFORT CAN COME THROUGH A VARIETY OF METHODS:

  1. PRAYER

            BEING A SPRITUALIST I BELIEVE VERY STRONGLY IN PRAYER AND WHAT CAN BE DONE THROUGH PRAYER.  PRAYER NOT ONLY GIVES US THE OPPORTUNITY TO UNLOAD OUR PROBLEMS AND CONCERNS ONTO THE LORD’S BROAD SHOULDERS, BUT BY STOPPING EVERYTHING AND SPENDING A FEW MINUTES IN PRAYER IT GIVES US THE TIME TO STEP BACK FROM OUR PROBLEMS , PERHAPS START TO PUT THEM INTO PROPER PERSPECTIVE AND GO ABOUT THE TASK OF TACKLING THE MOST PRESSING, IMPORTANT FIRST.

I TOOK A COURSE CALLED CRITICAL THINKING WHICH TAUGHT ME TO SEE A LARGE PROBLEM AND SEVERAL SMALLER ONES WHICH IF TAKEN ONE AT A TIME MAKES THE PROBLEM SOLVING THAT MUCH EASIER.  YOU KNOW MANY OF LIVES PROBLEMS CAN BE APPROACHED IN THIS FASHION AND PRAYER GIVES US THE CHANCE TO SAY “GOD I CAN’T HANDLE THIS ANYMORE, HELP ME PUT THINGS BACK IN ORDER”.  THE LORD MAY NOT GIVE YOU THE WHOLE ANSWER RIGHT AWAY BUT I BET IF YOU ARE ATTENTIVE, AN ANSWER TO A STEP IN THAT PROBLEM WILL COME ALONG.

  1. READING

            THIS COULD BE SCRIPTURES OR THE STORY OF SOMEONE ELSE WHO WENT THROUGH A STRUGGLE SIMILARY TO YOURS.  MANY FIND COMFORT IN DAILY DEVOTIONS.  SO READING INSPIRATIONAL MATERIAL CAN BE COMFORTING.

  1. OTHER CHRISTIANS

            PROBABLY THE MOST TANGIBLE WAY THAT WE CAN FIND GOD’S COMFORT IS THROUGH FELLOWSHIP WITH OTHER CHRISTIANS.  WHY CAN OTHERS BE SO HELPFUL?  PAUL SAYS “NO TEMPTATION OR TRIAL HAS OVERTAKEN US THAT IS NOT COMMON TO MAN”.  SO YOU SEE NO MATTER HOW ALONE WE MAY FEEL THERE IS SOMEONE OUT THERE THAT HAS SUFFERED THROUGH THE SAME TRIALS THAT WE ARE.

WELL WE SAY THAT’S ALL GOOD BUT JUST BECAUSE SOMEONE ELSE FELT LIKE I DO, DOESN’T MAKE ME FEEL ANY BETTER, NO IT DOESN’T.  BUT GOD IS FAITHFUL AND WILL NOT LET US BE TEMPTED BEYOND OUR STRENGTH AND WILL PROVIDE A WAY OUT.  BUT WHERE, WHERE IS THAT WAY OUT?  AH!  MAYBE JUST MAYBE GOD WILL USE THAT OTHER CHRISTIAN TO DO HIS WORK IN THIS INSTANCE, IN YOUR LIFE.

YOU KNOW THE SAYING “DON’T JUDGE A PERSON UNTIL YOU HAVE WALKED A MILE IN THEIR SHOES”.  I THINK A TWIST ON THAT IS TRUE WHEN SEEKING COMFORT.  WE ARE MUCH QUICKER TO SEEK HELP FROM OR OPEN UP TO SOMEONE THAT WE FEEL HAS WALKED THE SAME ROUGH ROAD WE ARE TRAVELING, THEY UNDERSTAND WHAT WE MAY BE GOING THROUGH, THEY HAVE SAT WHERE WE ARE SITTING.  AND IF THEY ARE CHRISTIAN, WE SHARE A COMMON BOND WITH EACH OTHER AND OUR SAVIOR FROM WHICH WE CAN DRAW AN ENORMOUS AMOUNT OF STRENGTH AND COMFORT.

THERE ARE MANY WAYS WHICH WE CAN FIND GOD’S COMFORT.  THROUGH PRAYER, AND MEDITATION, READING, AND FELLOW CHRISTIANS.  AND PROBABLY MANY OTHER WAYS WHICH YOU HAVE EXPERIENCED THE STRENGTH AND COMFORT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT.  SOMEDAY YOU MAY BE ABLE TO SHARE WITH SOMEONE WHO MIGHT BENEFIT FROM YOUR PAST EXPERIENCES.

THIS LEADS ME TO THE MAIN POINT I WANT TO MAKE, IN TODAY’S READING PAUL WRITES “THE GOD OF ALL COMFORT WHO COMFORTS US IN ALL TROUBLES, SO THAT WE CAN COMFORT THOSE IN ANY TROUBLE WITH THE COMFORT WE OURSELVES RECEIVED FROM GOD”.   WHETHER WE RECEIVE OUR COMFORT THROUGH PRAYER, MEDITATION, DEVOTIONS, OR OTHER CHRISTIANS, THE COMFORT IS A GIFT FROM GOD.  PAUL FOUND GOD’S COMFORT THROUGH TITUS AND HIS MESSAGE FROM THE CORINTHIAN CHURCH.

I FEEL IT IS CRUCIAL TO OUR UNDERSTANDING OF THESE VERSES TO UNDERSTAND THE FULLER MEANING THAT COMFORT HAD IN PAUL’S DAY.  TO US COMFORT SUGGESTS A SOOTHING OF PAIN, BE IT PHYSICAL OR PSYCHOLOGICAL, CONSOLATION, SYMPATHY.  THE COMFORT OF GOD WHICH PAUL SPEAKS OF IS NOT A DRUG, TRANQUILIZER TO LOWER OUR ANXIETY USED TO NUMB OUR PAIN.  THE HOLY SPIRIT IS CALLED THE “COMFORTER” WHICH MEANS “STRENGTHENER”.  IT HAS THE SAME ROOT AS “FORTIFY”.  COMFORT IN THIS INSTANCE DOES NOT MEAN TO FEEL SORRY FOR, TO SYMPATHIZE, BUT RATHER TO SUPPORT, TO STRENGTHEN, TO ENCOURAGE, GOD’S COMFORT IS NOT PASSIVE BUT ACTIVE.  IT IS A GIFT THAT MUST BE PASSED ON.  I AM VERY MUCH CONVINCED OF THIS.  WE ARE TO SUPPORT AND NURTURE EACH OTHER IF WE ARE TO BUILD UP THE BODY OF CHRIST.  IF YOU HAVE EXPERIENCED GOD’S COMFORTING IN YOUR LIFE, SHARE IT.  USE THE STRENGTH YOU WERE GIVIEN DURING A TIME OF NEED TO HELP A FELLOW TRAVELER WHO HAS STUMBLED.  WE ARE ALL ON THIS JOURNEY TOGETHER AND THERE WON’T BE ANY JOY IN THE END WHEN WE REACH OUR DESTINATION IF THERE IS NO ONE THERE TO SHARE OUR TRIUMPH WITH.

IN TODAYS UNISON READING ISAIAH IS SPEAKING OF CHRIST WHEN HE SAYS “ME”.  THIS ALSO SPEAKS ABOUT CHRISTIANS IN THE 20TH CENTURY.  WE ARE TO CARRY OUT THE WORK THAT BEGAN WITH THE APOSTLES, THAT OF PREACHING THE GOOD NEWS TO THE AFFLICTED, COMFORT THOSE WHO MOURN, TO FREE THOSE THAT ARE BOUND BY THE CHAINS OF WORLDY CONCERNS.  CHRIST HAS PROMISED TO BE WITH US “UNTO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH”.  THE HOLY SPIRIT IS THERE TO STRENGTHEN US.  SO LET THE SPIRIT OF CHRIST, THAT DWELLS IN EACH OF YOU, REACH OUT TO THOSE WHO ARE IN NEED.

NOW YOU’RE SAYING “THIS SOUNDS ALL NICE AND PROPER, AS IT SHOULD BE, BUT LET’S BE MORE REALISTIC.  HOW CAN WE DO THIS?”  WELL, WHAT ARE SOME WAYS THAT WE CAN REACH OUT TO OTHERS AND SHARE IN GOD’S COMFORT.

FIRST OF ALL I DON’T BELIEVE WE ALL HAVE TO RUN TO THE NEAREST BOOKSTORE AND BUY A BOOK ON COUNCELING.  BUT WE COULD BEGIN BY USING THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT WHICH IS BESTOWED UPON US.  SUCH TRAITS AS LOVE, PATIENCE, KINDNESS, GOODNESS, GENTLENESS; SOMEONE IN NEED OF COMFORTING IS SURE TO RESPOND TO SUCH FEELINGS.  IN ANOTHER COURSE, “THE HELPING PROCESS” WE READ A BOOK “BECOMING NATURALLY THERAPEUTIC”, (WE CAN ALL BECOME HELPERS), WHICH IS ALL ABOUT DEVELOPING IN YOURSELF QUALITIES SUCH AS EMPATHY, GENUINESS, RESPECT, WARMTH, IMMEDIACY, CONCRETENESS.  DOESN’T THIS SOUND VERY SIMILAR TO THE FRUITS OF THE SPIRIT?  THE FRUITS OF THE SPIRIT ARE OURS ALREADY, TO PUT TO WORK BECAUSE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT, WHICH DWELLS IN EACH OF US. 

ONCE WE START TO DEVELOP OR USE THESE TRAITS OR QUALITIES, IT IS IMPORTANT FOR US TO BE READY TO CAPITALIZE ON EACH MOMENT.  IF YOU SHOW LOVE, EMPATHY, PATIENCE, RESPECT, GOODNESS AND GENUINESS, PEOPLE WILL OPEN UP TO YOU AND SHARE THEIR CONERNS AND WHEN PEOPLE HINT OF A PROBLEM, FOR INSTANCE, HOW MANY OF YOU HAVE GONE UP TO SOMEONE AND SAID “HOW ARE YOU TODAY?” THEN YOU GET THE UNEXPECTED RESPONSE, “WELL, NOT TOO GOOD, OR I’VE BEEN BETTER” AND YOU RESPOND WITHOUT THINKING “OH, THAT’S NICE” OR “ THAT’S TOO BAD” AND OFF YOU GO, OR IF YOU ARE REALLY ATTENTIVE THEY MAY SAY “I’M DOING OKAY” BUT THEIR BODY LANGUAGE OR THEIR AFFECT IS CRYING OUT IN PAIN OR LONELINESS.  WHEN PEOPLE HAVE DROPPED A SUBTLE HINT LIKE THIS, DON’T HESITATE, DON’T THINK I BETTER TELL THE PASTOR OR SOMEONE (YOU’LL PROBABLY WANT TO DO THAT ANYWAY) THAT PERSON HAS SHARED A LITTLE BIT OF THEIR HURT WITH YOU, THEY FEEL SAFE ENOUGH WITH YOU TO LOWER THEIR DEFENSES, EVEN IF JUST A LITTLE.  IT IS UP TO YOU TO CAPITALIZE ON THE PRECIOUS MOMENT TO REACH OUT TO THEM WHILE THEY ARE OPEN, SHARE WITH THEM IN THEIR SUFFERING, SHARE WITH THEM THE COMFORT THAT COMES FROM GOD. 

I AM SURE THAT MANY OF YOU HAVE IDEAS ON HOW YOU COULD BE USED BY GOD TO COMFORT OTHERS, IF YOU HAVE, SHARE THEM WITH ME, BUT ABOVE ALL , SHARE THEM WITH SOMEONE ELSE IN NEED.  SOMEONE COULD USE A COMFORTING WORD.

BEFORE WE END THIS MORING I WOULD LIKE EACH OF YOU TO DO SOMETHING FOR ME.  I WANT YOU TO LOOK AROUND, LOOK AT THE PERSON SITTING NEXT TO YOU, IN FRONT OF YOU, BEHIND YOU, IN THE NEXT AISLE.  DO YOU SEE SOMEONE WHO IS DEPRESSED, DOWN IN THE DUMPS; DO YOU SEE ANY SUFFERING AND PAIN?  MAYBE YOU SEE SOMEONE WHO HAS BEEN IN YOUR POSITION.   SEEK EACH OTHER OUT!  GET TOGETHER, TALK AND SHARE WITH EACH OTHER.  LET THE PEACE OF GOD START HERE WITH US AND SPREAD THROUGHOUT THE COMMUNITY.  IT WILL FEEL GOOD AND BRING HOPE; GOD’S COMFORT ALWAYS DOES.

Listen to the Audio Version of this Sermon by clicking on the button below:


July 28, 2018 Why Am I here? Why Are You Here?

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, July 28th, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Why Am I Here?  Why Are You Here?

John 6: 1-21

 

Believe it or not I spend a fair amount of time and effort selecting the hymns that we sing on Sunday morning.  First, I try to match the hymns to the scripture I will be speaking on, or the season of the church year.  But I also, (again believe it or not), take into account what you like for hymns.  I ask, “Do they know this hymn?  Do they like to sing this hymn ?  Can they sing it well?”  It makes a difference what sort of music you like.  I will be honest and tell you that this is probably one of the main reasons why some hymns are selected for singing: Does the congregation like this song?”

And sometimes I have to remind myself that it’s not what I like.  (I would go for more of a contemporary sound or the more contemplative mood of Taize songs.)

While this may be a fair question (What does the congregation like?), isn’t it interesting that we rarely ask an even more important question: Do we think God would like this hymn or music?  

Of course, this can be a tricky if not scary question; tricky because there are bound to be many different answers, and scary because many of them conflicting, but also because it is such a basic question.  And it is scary because the scriptures note that Jesus drove away about as many people as he attracted!  Jesus obviously based his ministry on more substantial questions.  You know, I just can’t picture Jesus sitting around with two or three of the disciples and asking “What do you think about using this song right before I teach today?  Do you think the people of Capernaum know it?”

   All this brings me to our reading from John’s gospel.  It’s a story about Jesus, but it is also a story about a crowd.  “A large crowd kept following him,” says John.  Can there be a surer sign of success than this?  Isn’t this one of the things we look at in churches?  Who can argue with numbers?  Look at the bottom line, a large crowd.  Jesus has become popular!

 

Then John tell us why they were following Jesus.  “They saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.”  Jesus has healed many hurting people.  Freed those possessed by their inner demons. If there is one certain, uncontested good that we all have, it is our health.  Large crowds were following Jesus because they see his signs.  He heals them, meeting their fundamental need for good health.   

Curiously, Jesus does not continue to meet these needs.  The next verse says: “Jesus went up the mountain and sat down with his disciples.”  Even a dedicated do-gooder, even the “Messiah” needs a break, a temporary respite from meeting people’s legitimate needs. 

Sitting there on the mountainside Jesus looks up and “saw a great crowd coming toward him.”  Jesus turns to Philip and a little tongue in cheek asks him, “Philip, Where do you think we might find a caterer, and  how much would it cost for a meal for such a crowd?”   

Philip replies “Well it would take well over what I make in half a year and that would probably cover just the appetizer!” 

Andrew finds this young fellow in the crowd and pulls him up to Jesus.  He happens to have his lunch with him, a few loaves of bread and a couple of broiled fish.  Jesus takes the boy’s food, give thanks, and all eat their fill.  Here we see Jesus, the compassionate one who feeds the hungry, as well as heals the hurting.

Okay, at this point you’re probably saying, “Heard this sermon before.  Yes, Jesus is the compassionate one who meets all our need for health and food.”  And after all isn’t this why we’re here?  We hoping that in some way to have our needs met by Jesus.

 

But our story does not end with Jesus feeding the crowd.  To be sure the people are impressed.  “This Jesus must be a prophet of God who has come into the world!” they’re saying.  Surely Jesus is gratified by their accolades.  At last, they appear to have gotten the point.  After so much rejection, at last the people see Jesus for who he is and proclaim him as Lord.  At last, the movement around Jesus is getting somewhere.

But no!  Jesus rejects their praises and compliments.  The next verse says: “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”   (Jn.1:15)

Right at the point when the people have at last accepted Jesus, have proclaimed him a prophet sent by God, he nervously withdraws, and this time completely alone.  The inner circle of disciples apparently were not invited this time!

Why did he withdraw right at the height of his popularity, when his coronation was being arranged? 

The people need bread.  Jesus has given them bread. They proclaim him king.  What else could he want from them?

Remember, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he was tempted in the wilderness” the Tempter met Jesus and offered him this world and heaven too.  “Just make stones into bread.” Satan said.  Jesus refused.

Isn’t bread good?  Isn’t feeding the hungry good?  Why then did Jesus refuse, and why , when he did feed people, was he so put off by their calling him king?

Something in Jesus recognized that he could not meet the needs of so many people seeking him without at the same time denying who he was called by God to be

In the wilderness, Satan tried to transform Jesus into a wonder worker, Jesus refused.  Now, Jesus has given bread and when the grateful crowd attempts to crown him king, Jesus withdraws. 

In the passage that follows what was read this morning, when the crowds find him the following day, Jesus chides them for caring only about their bellies!  They ask for a sign from Jesus, perhaps because they are hoping for another free happy meal.  Jesus doesn’t buy into this but rather launches into the famous “bread of life” teaching, where he identifies himself with what they truly need.  As a result many of his disciples say, “This teaching is difficult.”  Many of them actually leave after he stops giving them bread saying that he is their “Bread from heaven.” (v. 60)

Jesus refused to do for the crowds what they wanted, as if to do so would be forsaking his mission.  Then and now the question “Jesus, what will you do for us?” must be secondary to the more critical question, “Jesus, who are you and what is your mission?”

I confess that I think most of us show up in church to get help to make it through the week, to obtain a sense of inner peace, to receive guidance in making difficult decisions that are before us.  And there is nothing wrong with any of these reasons!  Yet, note that this story, which at first seems to be about the crowd, about us, before it is done is a story about Jesus.  We come to church thinking mostly about ourselves, but then we hear the scripture talk mostly about God. 

I believe this is one of the important lessons of this account of the fishes and loaves, even the walking on water.  When we will ever learn that Christianity, following Jesus, is not merely another useful means of helping us get what we want.  Rather, following Jesus is the means whereby God gets what God desires, people of faith!   

Jesus will not be co-opted into being just another therapeutic device to enable us to get what we want without actually meeting Jesus.  Now, can a relationship with Jesus help us in a therapeutic way?  For sure.  After all Jesus did promise the Holy Spirit as another Counselor!  But the Gospel implies that we often do not know what we really need, until we have an encounter with Jesus.

The great preacher William Sloane Coffin (Riverside Church NYC) once said that he did not know how you attract people to the gospel by appealing to their essentially selfish needs and then end up offering them the unselfish gospel of Jesus Christ!

 John says that Jesus performed a great “sign,” by feeding the hungry crowd, but notice John always uses the word “sign” not miracle.  This is important.  A sign is something that points beyond itself to something greater and more important than the sign.  The bread blessed and given for the people was a sign that God was among them, not so much among them as the fulfillment of their hearts’ desires, but present in Jesus as the heart of God. 

This God was even greater than their hunger.  Jesus coming to them across the water the sign that God is greater than any of their fears.

This God was there to be worshiped, to be obeyed, to be followed,

  even when the following did not appear to meet their needs.

May we listen and learn as well!

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A Song of Trust

~ Sermon ~ July 22nd, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

A Song of Trust

Psalm 23

 

“Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude . . . And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is . . .” (1 Cor. 13:4)  Where do these words take you?  Memories of young women dressed in white, young men in formal attire?

 There are some scripture texts that transport us to specific places and times. 

We hear the words: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus . . .”  and we are back at a Christmas Eve service the children have presented their pageant and we’re about to sing “Silent Night” while the light of the Christ candle is passed on from one person to the next. 

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”   For some of us we hear these words and we can remember the smell of flowers, perhaps fresh dirt, the quiet sounds of sadness, and the embrace of those who have come to comfort.  These words are most often recited when the heart is weighed down with grief and we are at a loss for other words we might say.   Throughout generations, when the faithful have walked through the valley of the shadow, the psalm listed as 23rd of the 150 in our Bibles has provided words of comfort.

Even a cursory reading of the Psalm the point is clear that God’s care is like that of a faithful shepherd.  If God is described through the metaphor of the shepherd then by default, we become sheep and one does not need to know much about sheep to understand what this image means.  This is evident in the popularity of Psalm 23.  Sunday School classes memorize it.  No fewer than  six arrangements of this Psalm are readily available in hymnals.  It is requested for services bearing witness to the resurrection.  And yet many who have uttered these words as faithful confession or prayed them in times of trouble, have known nothing about shepherds, or even seen a real sheep!  Those who have known such creatures will describe them in less than flattering terms. 

Sheep are herd animals.  They are defenseless. They are vulnerable.  Most commonly noted, sheep are not necessarily the brightest animal in the barnyard!

But these are not the characteristics the psalmist has in mind when speaking of the shepherd and sheep.  The psalmist speaks of the sheep’s reliance on the shepherd.  Sheep cannot survive making their own way.  Sheep are absolutely dependent on the shepherd for life.  Sheep can trust the shepherd.  Knowing this dependency between sheep and shepherd bring to focus the central testimony of the psalm: the shepherd Is faithful.   

When we bring our hearts to the edge of the grave, we become aware that we cannot make our own way through the grief.  When we face the end of our own days, our dependence upon the Shepherd stands before us with more clarity than perhaps at any other time.  We are not the Creator, we are the created, and the prevailing reality for the creature is our dependence upon God for life.  Perhaps this is why we find Psalm 23  so comforting at the time of death.    

But it is crucial to note that the witness of Psalm 23 is that the Shepherd is faithful throughout the whole of life.  What we confess in the presence of death remains true in every stage and season of life! 

Sheep-like dependence would be paralyzing, if not for the knowledge  that the One on whom we depend is the good shepherd.  This shepherd leads, restores, comforts, and prepares.  Under this shepherd’s care there is no want. 

Often in funeral and memorial services I will suggest that if Psalm 23 is to be used we  say it communally.  But this psalm is not presented in scripture as a “communal credo.”    Like the song “In the Garden” this psalm is filled with first person singular pronouns. 

“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”

This shepherd makes me and leads me and restores me and anoints my head, and  I shall dwell.

This is a “song of trust” by someone who knows in the midst of the vicissitudes of personal life and over the course of the years that they have been carried in the bosom of God, sheltered from harm, and given rest.  This is not so much a theological confession or statement of belief, as it is a personal testimony to the faithfulness of God.

 

In the middle of this psalm we find what some have referred to as the “gospel kernel of the Old Testament”  the good news that turns tears of anguish and fear into shouts of joy, that glad tidings given to by the angelic choir to the shepherds, which itself echoes a word first given to the patriarchs and repeated again to Israel in moments of distress and fear: “You don’t have to be afraid.”  This is the word of salvation in a nutshell in both the first(Old) and second (new) Testament! 

There is perhaps no more relevant message for our time than the invitation to set aside fear.  Consider how much fear there is in our world.

Governments trade in fear of terror or evil empires. 

The markets trade in fear of there not being enough.  (We give it this innocuous term “supply and demand” but at its root it is fear.)

The church often trades in fear of exclusion or judgement or our numbers dwindling to the point of irrelevance. 

And there are many things to fear.  Our culture is becoming increasingly prone to violence.  The environment is struggling to breathe under the growing effects of abuse.  Families are fragile.  Every minute of our schedule is filled to the point that the honoring of the Sabbath seems an unrealistic practice for many. 

And yet, in the midst of these struggles and more, this psalm offers the testimony  of a gracious God, a faithful shepherd with whom we will lack nothing and we need not fear.   This is indeed good news!  Here with the witness of author of Psalm 23.  I hear and I hope you do as well, echoes of other moments recorded in scripture when messengers have said, “Be not afraid.”  Such a declaration in our time should sound to us, as it has to others, like nothing less than the voice of angels.

When I read or pray the 23rd Psalm I always slow down and really hear the promise of the last verse:

And I shall dwell . . .

  Where? . . .  in the house of the Lord . . .  

    For how long?. . . forever!

For this I think we can all breathe an “AMEN!”

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You Are Blessed

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, July 15th, 2018 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson ~

You Are Blessed

Ephesians 1:3-14

 

Reading and hearing this passage from Ephesians can be a bit challenging in the best of times.  But to subject you to it in the midst of the summer season in Charlevoix can be a bit like sitting down to a picnic on the patio or deck overlooking the water on an unusually warm day and being served a steaming hot bowl of thick beef stew.  Not really what you have an appetite for!   Perhaps a nice Michigan cherry chicken salad would be more palatable.

The very first sentence can be a mouthful for the reader and an earful for the listener!  And if we’re honest, we’re probably more in the mood for a nice little parable this morning than this densely worded, run-on sentence.  Yes, in the original Greek much of this is one long sentence! 

But even with all this, I want us to hear in the denseness of Paul’s words, the wonderful good news carried in phrases like : 

“blessed in Christ”,  “chose us in Christ”,

 “destined us for adoption”,

 “God’s glorious grace freely bestowed”,

“the riches of God’s grace lavished on us”.

“Made known to us the mystery of his will”

“So that we might live for the praise of God’s glory.” 

Paul has heaped superlative upon superlative, one blessing piled on another as if he thinks the little congregation in Ephesus does not believe him.  And one might suspect that this may be the case.

The congregation in Ephesus, like all the “churches” in Asia Minor (If you can call them “churches” at this point in their development.) was a small loosely organized movement.  And in this very cosmopolitan city, Ephesus was the seat of the region’s governor, a city of great wealth and power; this fledgling sect of Christ followers was up against some pretty big cultural forces.

Ephesians is thought to have been a “circular letter” sent and meant to be read in many congregations.  If so “Paul” writes to this church and the other struggling fellowships to remind and encourage them,

“Don’t listen to the voices of the culture around you.  

Don’t feel shame because you’re not as big and well attended and funded as the temple to the Artemis, you are blessed in Christ!  (The Temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.)

Don’t feel of like you are of little value, you are destined for adoption, the riches of God’s grace lavished on you!  A glorious grace freely bestowed.

Don’t feel abandoned, God chose you in Christ.

Don’t say “Who are we or what difference can we make.”  With all wisdom and insight God has made known to us the mystery of God’s will.

Yes, you, little church in Ephesus. 

Yes, I’m talking to you, First Congregational Charlevoix Michigan!  

And by the way, Paul reminds them, this is all God’s doing not yours!  It is a gift!  You do not have to earn it!  You can’t acquire it, it is gift, a amazing gift of grace.  All that is needed is to believe it and accept it!   

 

We may not feel it as much here in northern Michigan, but I suspect we do or at least we are aware of it,  the world, culture, society is telling the church “You’re no longer relevant!”

We are told, the church has little if any influence. Nobody pays any attention to you. The church may have been a place of influence “once upon a time” but like all other stories that begin with those words, the church is now only a fairy tale, like those stories found in that book you people take so seriously.

We are told indirectly and directly that we have nothing important to say to the world’s issues.  That’s the political realm and religion and politics are two separate things.  Well, I couldn’t disagree more!  If your faith doesn’t impact your politics then I would question your faith!

Perhaps we have lost our place in our culture and we certainly do not have the influence we once did.  (Like 60+ years ago, the “Good old days!”)  But actually the church and the culture were more closely aligned back then and I’m not sure that was always a good thing.  Because from the beginning, since the time of the church’s founder, that fellow out of Nazareth, his movement has always been counter-cultural!     

It can be easy for us to look around and feel the world is “going to H in a hand basket.”   Bu Paul  is saying to us through these Ephesians, “no” as difficult as it may seem to believe, trust that “all things in the fullness of time will be gathered up in Christ, things in heaven and on earth!

“So that we who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.”(12)

These words of Paul are important.  He is telling us about the sort of life we should be living as people who are adopted, graced, and richly blessed with this immense inheritance of love.  Paul says this inheritance is a way of life.   And he says it twice to make sure the church hears it. Paul refers to this way of life as living to “the praise of God’s glory” (vss. 12 & 14).  It is a journey “toward redemption as God’s own people” (v. 14). 

The words “praise” and “glory” are easily domesticated by the church.  They can become little more than words of a hymn or what we call a certain style of worship.  The glory of God for Paul  – a rabbi by training – is the kabod, the weight and gravitas of the presence of Holy.  Paul imagines the church of the Ephesians and the Ephesus’s of today living as a people known not for their praise of human institutions or idols or ideas but for their joy in what Christ is doing to redeem aching souls and a suffering world. 

Paul is imagining the church even today, as marked by people who keep a consistent focus on what God is doing in its midst and in the midst of a troubled earth. 

We can have this hope not because all this is visible to us, but because according to Paul we have knowledge of God’s final plan as yet only partially realized but one day to be fulfilled.

How do we know all this to be true and that we are not the victims of some self-imposed delusion?  Again Paul provides an answer here.  It is the presence of the Holy Spirit, which according to Paul is the “down payment” on the ultimate inheritance of unity and peace.  Where the church in all and every age, praises God and confesses Christ as Lord, that Spirit is present, assuring us that the divine goal will one day in fact become reality. 

Indeed we are blessed.  Let us live into the blessing.

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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.

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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!  

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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. . . ”

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