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

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


Sermons

Procession to Passion and Beyond: Are You In?

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

Procession to Passion and Beyond: Are You In?

Matthew 21:1-11   Philippians 2: 5-11

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The event:  Superbowl XLVI       The organization: NFL 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Osteology

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

Osteology

Ezekiel 37:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lord told Ezekiel to tell the people,

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

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

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

Listen to Audio Version by clicking on “Download File” below:   


Washing in the Life-Giving Water

Sermon ~ Patti Ulrich ~ Guest Preaching ~ Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Message – Washing in the Life-Giving Water

Lent draws the faithful – sometimes kicking and screaming – to a period of spiritual preparation and renewal in anticipation of the coming jubilance of Eastertide. Throughout the history of the church, candidates for Holy Baptism would often engage in rigorous study, prayer and fasting during Lent. (while we give up things like chocolate)  It was also the time when those who had committed “notorious sins” and were separated from the church would reconcile with God and one another in order to be restored to communion in time for Easter. Lent was, and remains, a time in which all Christians are called to reorient themselves from the distractions of sin, apathy and mundaneness, and return to the life-giving will of God.

The Gospel of John calls the faithful to do the same. It stands as a powerful and provocative witness to the fact that in Jesus Christ, God has revealed Godself to the world. John’s gospel begins by calling Jesus, simply but profoundly, “the Word.” In that first chapter, John employs powerful theological phrases in reference to Jesus, calling him the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”

The Gospel of John describes Jesus, not simply as a miracle worker or faith healer, but rather a worker of signs, each pointing beyond itself to a larger truth. Here in Chapter 9, Jesus works a sign by healing a man who was blind from birth. As word of what Jesus did begins to spread, some Pharisees puff their chests, saying, “If Jesus really was from God, he would have known that the law prohibits such actions on the Sabbath.” But in questioning the legality of what Jesus did, those Pharisees miss the larger point. They focus on the action itself, and not the larger truth that the action reveals.

The blind man receiving sight isn’t the point of the story – at least, not entirely. The man’s physical traits are only a part of the larger narrative. What is more to the point, however, is what the blind man’s relationship with Jesus teaches us about our own relationship with Jesus. John Chapter 9 is a sign that calls attention, not to the story’s resolution, but to the ways in which we find ourselves caught up in the midst of the story. Jesus affirmed the full humanity of this man born blind by treating him with the same compassion and respect that he treated everyone around him.

The disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” They assumed, as most people did in those days, that suffering was the result of sinfulness. As the disciples’ question meets our ears, we may find ourselves thinking, not of physical blindness, but of other scourges that plague us. We watch helplessly as the news reports yet another terrorist shooting. We weep as we hear of yet another life cut short by bullying. We feel inexplicable anger at the grim prognosis of a young mother stricken with cancer. “What have we done to deserve this?” we wonder. “Is God punishing us?” we ask. Suddenly, we realize that the disciples’ question is familiar because it is one that we have all asked of God ourselves.
And yet Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question – to our question – is unwavering: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”

Just a few weeks ago, we learned that our niece’s fourth child was born with Down Syndrome. The road ahead will be difficult for them as they grapple with a new reality for their family. But did they do anything to deserve this?

In our Gospel reading today, both the disciples and the Pharisees encounter a “man born blind,” and instead of seeing him as a person, they see him as an object, a lesson to be learned, a morality play to be performed. First, the disciples observe this man and ask Jesus, “Who sinned?” They equate physical disability with moral imperfection and punishment. The Pharisees hone in on Jesus’ apparent violation of Sabbath law by healing this man on a day of rest. But no one does what Jesus does. Neither the disciples nor the Pharisees actually see the human being in their midst. Their treatment of the man born blind exposes their own inability to see.

The history of people with disabilities in the United States follows a similar course. People with both physical and intellectual disabilities have been denied access to health care and education and even spiritual care for centuries. They have experienced physical suffering and social isolation. The general population has suffered the loss of their presence among us, even if we have failed to notice their absence.

On the day that President Trump took office, the White House website underwent a transformation. President Obama’s website had a page dedicated to people with disabilities. President Trump’s does not and in recent weeks, the Trump administration has sought to deregulate education and health care laws that protect some of our most vulnerable students and citizens. Once again, we are in danger of pushing people with disabilities out of view. (†)

And as our niece’s young family and all of our families start to receive love from people like their daughter, Ellyn, people whose gifts are not always valued by our culture, we can start to believe that every human being has gifts to offer, if only we have eyes to see.

Yes Jesus reminds us that the axiom is true, indeed: Sometimes bad things happen to good people. But Jesus goes beyond platitudes: “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Jesus shows the disciples and all of us that, even in the midst of things we cannot understand, God is at work.

And to prove it, Jesus works a sign. He gives the man sight, yes, but he also gives him something much greater. The man couldn’t quite put into words what had happened to him. He didn’t know exactly why it had happened. But he knew the Savior’s voice! And so, when Jesus says to him, “Go, wash,” he does just that. He hears the Savior’s voice, he follows it, and at long last, he sees Jesus. And he cries out, “Lord, I believe!” as he falls down and worships at Jesus’ feet.

This is the story that Jesus invites us into. Who among us has not experienced spiritual blindness in one form or another?

When we put ourselves before others, we are blind.

When we hold grudges and refuse to forgive, we are blind.

When we do what is easy instead of what is right, we are blind.

Blindness affects our communities, as well. Economic, social and political systems turn a blind eye to the poor, the disabled, the outcast and the marginalized in every corner of the world.

And who among us has not experienced suffering at one point or another? Depression, anxiety, abuse, neglect, broken relationships, illness, lost jobs, fear – the list goes on.

The powerful and life-giving truth of the gospel is that our suffering and grief will not have the last word. As our souls and bodies desperately cry out for relief, we hear the faint yet clear voice of the risen Christ calling us; reminding us that, through the cross, death and its trappings have been swallowed up in victory. The final word rests, not with suffering and blindness, but with life and peace.

And then we hear the most sublime words imaginable, “Go, wash.” And as the cool and refreshing waters of life wash over us, our eyes and our hearts are opened to behold the living Christ, standing as the chains of death and hell lay broken at his feet. And our voice cries out at last, “Lord! I believe!”

(†) Source:“Vulnerability: The Gift Not Fully Valued (John 9:1-41)  By Amy Julia Becker”

Want to hear the Audio Version… click on the “Download File Bar” below:


Chance Encounter at High Noon

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

Chance Encounter at High Noon

John 4:5-42

Word had gotten back to him about a rumor going around among the “establishment” that he was “baptizing” more than that wandering prophet John. John had been enough of a thorn in their side now there was this fellow breaking with the customs and practices of the temple. Knowing that that this was not the time to take them on directly, the rabbi from Nazareth gathered his ragtag band of disciples and left Judea for Galilee. It would be safer there, for the further one is away from Jerusalem the fewer Pharisees you’ll run into.

Only one problem some of his followers grumbled, that the quickest way out of town would take them through Samaria, that land of half-breeds and religious mongrels. Hopefully they would be able to bypass that abomination on Mt. Gerizim. The nerve of the Samaritans to build another so called “temple” when there was only one true city of our God, Jerusalem, and the one temple that stood on Mount Zion!

Their way took them just to the east of the hill with its scandalous alternative to Zion’s glory. Midway through their second day they reached the outskirts of the little village of Sychar. The sun was high, about noon, the heat was beginning to build, so the Rabbi stopped to rest at a well-known place where there was a well that was associated with Father Jacob. Those with him decided to go off into town to see about provisioning their company.

**********************************

Meanwhile in town, earlier that morning, lamps were lighting the windows of homes. In one was a woman, like the rest she rose early to prepare for her day. She went about her usual tasks. As she collected bits of animal dung and a few sticks for the breakfast fire she noted that it was going to be a warm day. But that would be okay with her, this would mean that the other women might fetch their water earlier and she could get to the well before the early afternoon heat. She would still wait, though, that way she would avoid those uncomfortable stares from the other women. And if the women’s glares weren’t shameful enough, the hurtful taunts of the occasional child accompanying their mother which sometimes strike her with a sharpness as if it might cause a welt to raise up on her back.

It is just before noon that she makes her way over the rise and down to the well. She can see that someone is there, resting in the shade of a rocky outcrop. As she gets closer she is a little confused. Could this be? Surely not! But it is, a Jewish man resting by the well.

What was he doing here?

At least she won’t be bothered by any small talk about the heat or the weather in general! After all he is a man and a Jew at that.

“He’ll pretty much ignore me.” she thought as she lowered her water pots to the ground.

*****************************************

The rattling of water pots stirred the Rabbi from his quiet moment of meditation. He looks up to see a local woman pulling the rope up from the well.

He smiles at her.

She sends a guarded glance his way not making direct eye contact.

Still looking her way, with that smile, he asks, “Would you mind drawing a bit of water that I might have a drink as well?”

It surprised her at first that she even responded, say nothing about the boldness of her reply.

“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”

And that’s when it began, a conversation that would break social barriers and forever change her life.

“You are here for water. But wouldn’t you like something more?

A spiritual refreshment, a living water that will satisfy your insatiable thirst, gratify that deep longing for life?”

She dips into her water pot and offers this stranger a sip of her water.

“Sir, you sit here by this deep well, in this hot sun. You have no bucket, no rope and yet you talk of living water? Where does such water come from? Do you think you can draw such water from this well? Are you claiming spiritual superiority over our father Jacob who dug this well?”

“Draw water from this well and you will be back tomorrow and the next day. I wish to offer you refreshment from the wellspring within you that gives life though out eternity. Your heart will never thirst for fulfillment again.”

“Please sir. If I may, would you get me this water.”

The Rabbi from Nazareth changes the subject rather abruptly.

Out of the blue he asks her to bring her husband to the well. To which the woman replies, “I have no husband.”

Again the rabbi smiles, looks straight into her eyes, “Ah, yes, you are in principle correct, for is it not true that you have had five husbands and the one you are with now has not married you?”

There is no harsh tone, no sense of condemnation or judgement, no “repent and change your sinful ways” tone in the rabbi’s voice. No, he’s just sitting there sharing a cool drink with her in the high noon sun.

Once again the woman surprises herself in her response.

Seemingly out of nowhere she asks, “Okay, now I see you are some sort of prophet. So I have this question for you.”

“Where is the proper place to worship God? Up on the mountain, Gerizim, or in the Temple in Jerusalem?”

Apparently she feels no need to explain her situation to this person who seems to know all about her yet accepts her anyway.

Before her encounter at high noon with this Jewish rabbi she had felt ostracized, a cast off.

She met this man who knew her, not just as a woman from Samaria, but knew her inside and out, the beautiful and good, the bad and the ugly. He knew her needs, her dreams and hopes, as well as her nagging doubts, darkness and shame. He knew her bitterness and brokenness, her life of rejection and still spoke with her and listened to her. He saw her not just a Samaritan woman at a well, or a woman with several husbands, but a person thirsty for more out of life, more out of her faith.

********************************************

There is a quote from one of the Lemon Snicket’s Series of unfortunate Events books: “Someone feeling wronged is like someone feeling thirsty. Don’t tell them they aren’t. Sit with them and have a drink.”

Jesus’ answer to the woman’s question about where to best worship God resonated with her in such a way that she went back to her village and told everyone who would listen about this prophet, the man who knew everything about her, yet still accepted her. Perhaps we might understand it better if we hear it in another version, the Message:

The time is coming” Jesus says, “it has, in fact, come – when what you are called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people God is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before God in worship.

God is sheer being itself – – Spirit. Those who worship God must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”

If God so desires to have us worship with such simplicity and honesty of heart, should we not also see one another with such generosity of spirit? If God sees us as we really are, and loves us as we really are, as hard as it may be, should we not strive to love one another in like manner? Can we be simply and honestly ourselves before God and one another?

Can we extend the same compassion, grace and acceptance to those we meet at the wells in our lives?

According to the proper social customs of the day Jesus didn’t have to even acknowledge that woman. And likewise her him.

Yet look what happens when compassion and love become more important than keeping up appearances.

Aren’t we all like this woman? And those you will meet this day and week? Especially those the customs of culture and pressures of status quo are telling us to ignore?

Some time in the near future you’ll find yourself at a well with a Samaritan.

How will you be? Who will you be with them?

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


In the Darkness Light

Sermon ~ Sunday, March 12th, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

In the Darkness, Light
John 3:1-17

I’ve seen it on signs at sporting events, on t-shirts, on bumper stickers, I believe even once on a license plate! JOHN 3:16 One of the best known and best loved verses of the Bible.
Can you say it with me?
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,
that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (KJV)
Perhaps it is the popularity of this verse that sometimes can blind us or deafen us to the rest of the chapter three in John’s gospel. It begins

There was a man of the Pharisee sect, Nicodemus, a prominent leader among the Jews. Late one night he visited Jesus . . . (The Message)
Nicodemus, like so many today, is seeking something, enlightenment, knowledge, faith. He makes the that Jesus is “come from God” a phrase that normally is used only of heavenly messengers, so it hints at his belief that there is “something more” about Jesus but at this point Nicodemus is not quite ready to commit himself. He refers to Jesus as a “teacher” and has questions about the “signs” Jesus has been reportedly performing.
Nicodemus, it seems, is ready for a theological and philosophical discussion with this teacher (rabbi), so he probably was not anticipating Jesus’ rather blunt reply about being “born again (from above or anew).”
“Being born again” has come to have so many negative connotations even with many Christians! Consider the following scenario:

A modern day John the Baptizer type knocked on the door of the local church parsonage. The pastor opened the door and a young man was standing there with a small booklet in his hand. “Are you saved?” were the first words out of his mouth.
To which the pastor smiled and said “Yes, I’m a Christian.”
“Yes, but are you saved?” insisted the fellow pushing the little booklet the pastor’s direction.
The pastor stiffened himself a bit and replied in a gruff sort of tone, “I’ll have you know my good man this is the parsonage of the Congregational church and I am the minister here!”
“Ah yes, is that not just like the Congregational Church. But are you saved?”
Let me ask some rhetorical questions which I invite you to use over coffee today or lunch this afternoon.
Where were you born?
What time of day, do you know what day of the week it was? If you wish to share, what year?
Were you born in a hospital or at home?
How did you celebrate your birthday as a child? Is there one that’s most memorable?
When did you first hear about Jesus?
Can you remember a day when you decided to become a Christian, or did it all happen over a period of time?
It may seem silly to ask now without expecting any answers, but they allow us to talk about being born again. Jesus says that being a Christian is like being born again. It is when you start your life all over again and make a fresh start with Jesus.
In many ways those who have had a dramatic, what is sometimes called a “Damascus road” experience of God are lucky in some ways. Blessed in that they know when that happened to them.

I would like to tell you about the time such an event happened in my life, when I suddenly saw the light, the totality of my depravity, my sins paraded before me and I got down on my knees and prayed the sinner’s prayer. . .
But I can’t. I never had such a dramatic life altering event in my life. But I am aware that during a particular period in my life I had an increasing sense of Christ becoming more real to me.
I assume there are people, here this morning, who know the very moment they gave their hearts to Jesus and there are others, like me, have been nurtured in the faith pretty much throughout their whole lives. For me the confirmation of being born again, comes day after day in the way we journey through life with God. And while I can point to that period of a couple of years when that became more of a conscious choice I was making, I find I have to continually, daily, choose to journey with God.
Which I guess could be to say that being born again, doesn’t happen only once, like God’s love which is new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23), we all have to start afresh each day, born again into God’s love, it is not only about newness or fresh starts but about being born again into deepening our relationship with God.
For the next few weeks through our gospel readings, we will be finding out more about Jesus from people who got to know him personally, there is the woman at the well and the man who was born blind, and we will learn that they often got more than they bargained for in those encounters.
If you want to find out about a person there are many ways you can go about it. You can ask others who know the person well to tell you what they know about him or her. You can observe how that person behaves – what they do. You can listen to what they say. You can read what others have said about them.
Or you can get to know them personally.
How does one get to “know” Jesus, not know about him but know him? The best way I know is to put your trust in him, by walking with him, by listening to what he had to say in scripture, talking with him in prayer, which also involves listening to what he has to say to you today.
Nicodemus went straight to Jesus, albeit at night, and in the conversation that followed found out more than he was expecting and perhaps wanted to hear. Like Nicodemus our first questions to Jesus might also be tentative ones. But if you are genuinely seeking to know Jesus he will reveal himself to you just as he did Nicodemus.
Be forewarned though, Jesus isn’t much into small talk! We going to want to talk about the weather and he’s going to press us on whether or not we are going trust him! He always moves to the heart of things, he moves swiftly beyond Nicodemus’ opening comment to the real issue. If you want to be part of the kingdom of God, you need to be born anew, born of the spirit. Being a Pharisee or a rabbi or a minister, a church member or leader in the church or a memorizer of scripture does not guarantee being in the Kingdom. New birth through Christ does. On this the young John the Baptizer character at the pastor’s door was correct.
We don’t know how Nicodemus reacted that night but his conversation with Jesus about the work of the Holy Spirit, the new birth and about Jesus himself, did change his life.
Nicodemus became a supporter of Jesus, spoke up for him in the Sanhedrin, tried to stop him being arrested. He was there at the cross. And in the end he helped Joseph of Arimathea lift Jesus’ broken body down and laid it gently in the tomb.
Nicodemus may have come to Jesus by night but he came into the light as a result of the encounter he had with this “One come from God.”
May we seek and be granted the same experience of rebirth in our lives not once but every day as we make our journey with Jesus.

Audio Version:  Select “Download File” below, the audio version will be downloaded to your computer for your listening pleasure.

 


The Facelessness of Temptation

Sermon ~ Sunday, March 5, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

The Facelessness of Temptation

Matthew 4:1- 11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  

Did you catch that?  The Spirit led Jesus, if not to the devil, then at least to a place and condition where the devil might approach him.  We been shown the closeness of Jesus’ relationship with his “Abba” Father through the recent disclosure of Jesus’ identity as the “Beloved Son” at his baptism, he is then led by the Holy Spirit to the wilderness to be severely tested!  Clearly, easy, prosperous living is not part of being the Son of God!  It seems that closeness to God can involve struggle and conflict, that will lay bare one’s deepest passion and loyalty.

Just something to think about! 

“Tempted by the devil.”

There’s a scene in the movie The Usual Suspects where the character played by Kevin Spacey tells the detective who’s  interrogating him,

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

This adaptation of a phrase written by the French poet Charles Baudelaire is the premise of the 1995 neo-noir movie.  It is the story of five men wrongly interrogated for a crime, who then punish the police by masterminding a caper.  Payback leaves 27 dead, 91 million dollars worth of drug money missing, and two dark questions: Who is the mysterious Keyser Soze (Ki-zer Soh-zay) who put these crimes in motion, and what kind of unnamed sinister hold does he have over these five seemingly unconnected men? 

The heart of the darkness in this film is not the crime or death; darkness comes from the fact that evil is unrecognizable – it has no face.  Only at the very end of the film is Keyser Soze revealed to be one of the  men who pretended to fear Soze.  Evil was lurking closer than the audience or the characters ever knew.

There is something captivating about seeing evil incarnate on the big screen. Consider that The Exorcist ranks number 1 in total revenue for “R” rated films when adjusted for inflation.  Also in the pages of a novel, look at the success of a former neighbor mine, Stephen King, or to imagine evil in the names of those said by a nation to pose political and terrorist threats.  It is only human to feel the need to see evil anthropomorphized, to name, to visualize, vilify, and separate us from “it” as an opponent in battle.  This is true in the sacred texts as well.  Evil tests Eve and Aaron, the great high priest, Job and King David, Jesus and his disciples.  Over and over again, in order to live a life that chooses God, a faithful person must face the choice of acting outside God.  It is easier to make that choice if we can put a face on temptation, on evil.

A first glance Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness seems rather out of place, even perhaps heretical.  It’s almost gratuitous that Jesus is tempted, for as we know, he will not submit.  Much like the unavoidability of the cross, the defeat of the devil in this encounter with Jesus is inevitable.  Jesus will overcome; yet this scene stands in a pivotal place in Matthew between baptism and ministry, naming the reality of evil in the face of holiness.

Jesus is tempted by bread for his hunger. 

He is tempted to save himself from danger.

He is tempted to take all the power in the world that devil can offer for himself.

Each time Jesus rejects temptation, he sets up for the reader a way to understand the cross to come.  Certainly God can save God’s self from death on the cross, and certainly God in Jesus can refuse temptation to sin, but in our humanity we need to see God (Jesus) face and refuse temptation in the wilderness and be willing to sacrifice on the cross in order to learn the lesson ourselves. 

In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the author writes of a junior tempter-in-training named Wormwood and his mentor Uncle Screwtape.  Young Wormwood’s task is to darken the heart of his “patient,” to train him to love things of the world and reject God, so that Wormwood can finally escort him into what we can only imagine is hell.  The young apprentice tormentor is to keep his patient navel-gazing and self-involved, clueless about who he is as one made in God’s image.

Keep him spiritual, not practical, is Screwtape counsels his nephew, as it is the practical that often brings people to God. 

Encourage him to pray for tangible, desired ends and so direct his prayers to objects and not to God. 

Allow the patient to be overly sensitive until everything, even his own mother, grates on his nerves. 

Keep his prayers formless, as they are easier to manipulate. 

Turn his gaze away from God toward himself. 

Create a subtle conflict when he prays for courage; let him find himself turning boastful.  In the final letter, the patient dies and goes to heaven, leaving Wormwood a failure and Screwtape in a spiral of anger.

The captivating part of this story is not that Screwtape and Wormwood are trying to create an army of ruthless killers; rather they are trying to create a generation of people who are defined by selfishness and insincerity, pettiness and pride, fear and a need to control the things of this world. 

This is true of our own temptations.  Most of us cannot imagine the devil offering bread after a forty-day fast.  We do not know the fear of being held over one of the towers of the Mackinac Bridge and asked to jump so that angels will catch us.   We certainly do not know the temptation of being offered all the power in the world. 

Each one of us, however, understands the temptations Screwtape and Wormwood offer: the temptations of pride, vanity, selfishness, and apathy.  These are just as dark as Jesus’ temptations, and perhaps even more so, because most of the time, like the dreaded Keyser Soze, they do not come with a face.

Temptation comes to us in moments when we look at others and feel insecure about not having enough.

Temptation comes in judgments we make about strangers and friends who make choices we do not understand. 

Temptation rules us, making us able to look away from those in need and to live our lives unaffected by poverty, hunger, disease and oppression.

Temptation rages in moments when we allow our temper to define our lives or when addiction to wealth, power, influence over others, vanity, or an inordinate need for control defines who we are. 

Temptation wins when we engage in the justification of little lies, “small sins:” a racist joke, a questionable business practice we claim is for a greater good, the criticism of a spouse or partner when he or she is not around.

Temptation wins when we get so caught up in the trappings of life what we lose sight of life itself.

These are the faceless moments of evil that, while mundane, lurk in the recesses of our lives and our souls. 

The Lenten practice of penitence engages the dark places in our lives that we may come face to face with them, name them, understand them, and seek forgiveness for them.  It is not about guilt. Lenten penitence isn’t about who can feel the most guilty, which really is just another twisted form of pride.  It is about freedom from the control that our fears and insecurities have over us, about the amendment of life and new beginnings.

Lent can be about reminding ourselves that we are loved by God.  And in many ways we do not have to prove anything.  There is nothing we can do to make ourselves more beloved than we already are.  And with this will come the ultimate defeat of all the faceless temptations we will ever meet.

 

AUDIO LINK COMING SOON!


ASH WEDNESDAY PERSONAL MEDITATION

Ash Wednesday 2017

Let us look to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,
who for the joy that was waiting endured the cross. (Hebrews 12:2)

As You Gather a prayer you might use:

Almighty and Ever living God, who through your Son Jesus Christ,
provided a way of redemption for all who repent and turn from sin:
Create in me a clean heart and renew a steadfast and willing spirit,
that I acknowledge my sinfulness,
may live an upright and holy life by the power of the Holy Spirit;
through Jesus Christ my Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit,
lives and reigns forever, one God, world without end.
Amen.

“Lectio Divina”, a Latin term, means “divine reading” describes a way of reading Scripture whereby we gradually let go of our own agenda and open ourselves to what God wants to say to us. It dates back to at least the 12th century.

The first stage is lectio (reading) where we read the Word of God, slowly and reflectively so that it sinks into us. Listen for a word of phrase that stays with you resonates with you.

The second stage is meditatio (reflection) where we think about the text we have chosen and ruminate upon it so that we take from it what God wants to give us. What was that word or phrase? Meditate on it.

The third stage is oratio (response) where we leave our thinking aside and simply let our hearts speak to God. This response is inspired by our reflection on the Word of God.

The final stage of Lectio Divina is contemplatio (rest) where we let go not only of our own ideas, plans and meditations but also of our holy words and thoughts. We simply rest in the Word of God. We listen at the deepest level of our being to God who speaks within us with a still small voice. As we listen, we are gradually transformed from within.

These stages are not fixed rules of procedure but simply guidelines to how the prayer normally develops. Movement is towards greater simplicity, with less talking and more listening.

Some suggested Scripture for you to use:
Isaiah 43:1-3a Psalm 103:13-17 Luke 9:23-25

A Prayer upon receiving Ashes (optional)
Almighty God, you created humankind out of the dust of the earth.
Grant that these ashes may be to me a sign of my mortality and penitence,
that I may remember that it is through your gracious gift that any receive everlasting life, through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

Parting Benediction
Go in peace to live for Christ,
to serve him alone and to walk in holiness and righteousness all your days,
through the grace of our Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks be to God!

 

Art Work and Lenten Poem by Jan Richardson:

All those days

you felt like dust,

like dirt,

as if all you had to do

was turn your face

toward the wind

and be scattered

to the four corners

 

or swept away

by the smallest breath

as insubstantial—

 

Did you not know

what the Holy One

can do with dust?

 

This is the day

we freely say

we are scorched.

 

This is the hour

we are marked

by what has made it

through the burning.

 

This is the moment

we ask for the blessing

that lives within

the ancient ashes,

that makes its home

inside the soil of

this sacred earth.

 

So let us be marked

not for sorrow.

And let us be marked

not for shame.

Let us be marked

not for false humility

or for thinking

we are less

than we are

 

but for claiming

what God can do

within the dust,

within the dirt,

within the stuff

of which the world

is made,

and the stars that blaze

in our bones,

and the galaxies that spiral

inside the smudge

we bear.

 

–Jan Richardson

Jan is an artist, author, United Methodist minister, and director of The Wellspring Studio, LLC.

 


Where Are They Going?

“Where Are They Going?”

Sermon ~ Sunday, Feb 26, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Matthew 17: 1-9

 

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.   And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 

Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear

But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them,

  “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

 

Often when a person, preacher or otherwise, does sermon prep or Bible study a useful exegetical tool is to ask oneself, “Which character in the story do I identify with?”  We can do this with many of the biblical stories: The Prodigal son, the Parable of the Talents, in fact just about any of the parables lend themselves to this sort of imaginative insight. 

As I read Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration I was draw to some characters that aren’t actually mentioned in the text of the story. I imagined myself standing there when Jesus pulls Peter, James, and John aside.  I kept wondering, “What about the nine left behind?” Seems like Jesus was often singling out these three.  Was he playing favorites?  I don’t know. But there they go off on this path that leads up a nearby mountain. And I’m standing there, one of the nine, wondering, “Where are they off to now?  Why them?  It isn’t fair!!” 

Thus the title: “Where Are They Going?” said with a bit of envy and annoyance!

As many of you know I am a mountain person.  Given the options of a day on the beach, a day boating on a lake or a day pounding my feet up a rocky trail to a mountain peak, I’m up bright and early on the trail.  So to be left behind as these others get to go with Jesus would have been difficult if not heartbreaking for me! 

But then I wondered, if I had been there, would Jesus have thought I was ready for what he was leading the three into on that mountain?

I also wondered were Peter, James, and John, really ready for what they were to experience?  Are any of us ready for what Jesus may actually be calling us to be or do?  But then it has been said that God doesn’t call the equipped but equips the called. 

I wonder, on that mountain top, who was transformed more, Jesus in the divine glory or the three who accompanied him?  They didn’t seem to know what to do with what they had experienced.  So, what does Peter do?  I like the way The Message translates this: Peter broke in, “Master, this is a great moment!  What would you think if I built three memorials here on the mountain. . .

Read in a certain way this was a part of the story that seems to have brought some embarrassment to those who first retold it.  Mark explains it away by suggesting the disciples didn’t know what to say because they were terrified.  While Luke says they did not know what they said, being “weighed down with sleep.”   And both Matthew and Luke make clear that their offer was interrupted almost midsentence by the voice of God from the midst of the cloud affirming the importance not of all three but One alone.

It`s perhaps understandable that the disciples would say this or behave in this manner. What was happening was both exciting and threatening, it was something they had never experienced before.  Something they could have never imagined.  It carried the risk of changing them forever!

The impulse in situations like this is to try to make sense of things, get things under control, to be busy doing something, which often means defaulting to what we always done, doing the familiar!  When faced with te unexpected, the temptation is always there to hold on to what we know. 

Yet how could things be the same after this?  They had seen their master, teacher, conversing with the heroes of their faith, Moses and Elijah.  And more than this, he had been transfigured!   And they were transformed by this event.

The cloud that overshadowed them out of which they heard the voice of God, what did God say?  “This is my beloved. . .Listen to him.”

What is it we hear when we listen?  Jesus says, ‘If any one wishes to be a follower of mine, he must leave self behind and take up his cross and follow me.’ 

To listen to Jesus, to be a disciple of Jesus, is to walk with him as he makes his way to Jerusalem and what awaits him there.  On this journey as we walk and we talk and we listen, our human nature is being transformed into the likeness of that same divine nature that was in Jesus.

The Season of Epiphany which we are concluding is all about the revealing of who Jesus is and this upcoming period of Lent is a time when we specially think of our life as a journey in the company of Jesus. A journey that will take us to Gethsemane, Golgotha and the garden tomb. 

As we walk with our crosses on our shoulders, as we come nearer and nearer to Golgotha, we are also being transformed and transfigured. The life and the light of the cross of Christ will shine on our face. For to be filled with the divine light is our destiny.  Remember  “You are the light of the world!”

“Where are they going? 

I might just as easily thought, “Who is that coming back with Jesus?” 

Would I be ready for such a transfiguration in my life? To be forever changed?

I would like to think so. 

But then who really knows until you have spent time with Jesus on the mountain, but more than the mountain when you have followed him down the path and joined him on the road, all the way to Jerusalem, carrying your cross upon your shoulder.

May we have the courage to be so transfigured ourselves.  Amen!

 

Benediction

There once was a stream which started as a small trickle high on the mountain. Dripping from the snow and ice far above the trees, it began its journey down over the mountain’s bedrock and stone-filled gullies until it reaches the forest below. 

There it joyfully overcomes all the obstacles, roots and downed trees, as it runs down through the firs and pines. Eventually its pace slows as it meanders out onto the plain and finds itself in a shallow lake on the edge of a great desert.

And it is there that our little stream has to trust the wind to transform it and carry it across the desert into the life that awaits it beyond.

Over and over scripture called us to let the Spirit carry us through life’s challenges and Jesus relied on the Spirit that filled him at the Transfiguration to carry him to and through the cross into resurrected life. 

May we also go forth transformed and carried to those places where the Spirit would take us.

Amen.

Based on the story “The Stream” from One Hundred Wisdom Stories from Around the World by Margaret Silf (Lion Hudson, 2011).

Want to hear Pastor Wilson share this Sermon from the Pulpit?  Simply double click on “Download File” listed below:


When Tempers Flare

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

When Tempers Flare

Matthew 5: 38-48

Just as we thought we were going to squeak by this winter, mother nature and her sister Ellie Nino reminded us of just who is in charge!
Rockhaven got blasted this past week with not one but two 18” snow storms. We still call them storms not snow “events.” And you’ve got to understand, we don’t get into all this foolishness about naming the storms either. Actually, storms around here aren’t really worth mentioning unless there is at least 10 inches, that is according to the “knights of the round table” who meet for coffee and gossip in the morning at Helen’s Diner. (Did I say gossip? I meant enlightening conversation!)
How those fellows and gals on the Weather Channel get all excited when there is the possibility of 6” of snow someplace. They’re out there standing around in these light flurries with their L.L. Bean jackets, all they’re doing is selling more ad time by naming their storms Gladys, Henry, Izzy, and Jerry.
Here a while back they named one Imogene and our Imogene Reynolds was all wound-up thinking they had named it after her. Pappy Holman told the fellas over at Joe’s Barber Shop one day that they hadn’t made a barometer that could read low enough to produce a storm that could match Imogene for intensity and personality!
Highway department was out 24 hours straight last Tuesday with the first snowstorm. They had about an 18 hour break before the second low moved up the coast and seemed to get hung up on Nova Scotia leaving Rockhaven right in the heavy snow/wind/and cold track, what was her name? Oh yeah, Ursa, which means bear! And let me tell you, bustah, it was!
Jed Carlisle and the crew were getting a bit testy by the time the second storm hit. Lack of sleep and 15-20 cups of that vending machine coffee will do that to a person. (They have one of those coffee vending machines over to the highway garage that uses those little paper cups with the playing cards on them.)
It finally reached the tipping point when some of those pesky snowmobilers came along side Jed. All they wanted to do was ride alongside or just out in front of Jed’s Kenworth 6X6. Now, with “everything down” he could clear a swath 18 feet wide except for those “idiots” on their snowmobiles. All he could think of was one of those YouTube videos he’d seen of dolphins racing alongside a boat playing in the wake. He’d like to give them a wake to ride in . . . right into someone’s mailbox! About that time they revved their engines and disappeared down a trail off toward Hobbs Pond.
He had just turned around at the end of the Christian Point Road and was heading back out, still fuming, when he saw the lights of another snowmobile coming up right behind at him. He could see that there were two people on it and they were trying to get around him. He had had enough!
Just as the snowmobile got right by his back wheels Jed began easing his big rig over into the other lane. The driver gunned his machine in a desperate attempt to pass, but it was too late. With nowhere else to go snowmobile and passengers went right up and over the snowbank and into the 3 feet of soft snow and there they floundered.
As he drove by he rolled down his window and glared at them, only to be taken aback and embarrassed to see that it was Jeff Robbins and his very pregnant wife Gloria. Jeff had one of those “how could you” looks on his face. And Gloria, it was becoming obvious to Jed, was doubled over in significant labor pains!
Seems, with all the snow the local volunteer EMS people could not get to the Robbins house with their ambulance. If Jeff could get to town, they said they would meet at the fire station. They thought they could make it from there.
Jed stopped his truck, backed up, loaded them into the cab and drove them to the fire station and then cleared the highway all the way to the hospital in Union City, some 15 miles.

Later in that same storm, Billy Whitaker was making his way across the open lands of the barrens, battling the occasional white out and he can see the light from Sean Bemis’ place. Sean is well known to the highway crew. A regular complainer about how they maintain the road on the barrens, Sean doesn’t take to it very well when occasionally during one of those wet-heavy snows the passing plow will obliterate his mailbox! Billy is very aware of this and is careful to give Sean’s mailbox plenty of berth, except, that of all places, the one car he will meet on the road across the barrens is coming right down the middle of the roadway as he approaches the Bemis driveway!
Crowded by this wide-eyed, white knuckled driver in the oncoming car, Billy ends up striking the mailbox with the plow’s side wing, only this time the mailbox doesn’t move rather it tears the side wing completely off the truck, spins the truck sideways which leaves no place for the wild-eyed driver to go but right into the side of the snowplow.
After getting out and making sure the occupants of the vehicle are okay, Billy goes to the other side of his truck to inspect the damage. What he finds has his blood boiling!
There under the new mailbox Sean Bemis had installed this fall, was a cement post with a chunk taken out of it where the side wing had struck it. I guess Sean figured he’d fixed the highway guys for good this winter! The estimated damage to vehicle and snowplow $25,000!
As winter drags on and the snow piles deeper, the gray skies seem darker, tempers become shorter and shorter, for some anger and bitterness is right there beneath the breathe, under the mutter, ready to spill out. Even with the good folks at Old First Church on the Common.
Rev. Williams has been stuck on the Sermon on the Mount for several weeks now (at least so it seems!) From the conversations over lunch after worship at Hellen’s Diner and in the Dunkin Donuts in Union City, the congregation is ready for him to move on. But the Rev. doesn’t seem want to and he reminds us when we complain that it was Jesus who said all these things and not him! So lately, I’ve been thinking about all this Sermon on the Mount stuff.
You know, we have our problems here in Rockhaven, but seems to me that in the world beyond our little village life is a bit more difficult, the issues are bigger and a bit more complicated. Here in our little town, Jed may let the frustration get to him but then after he understands the particular situation, he feels bad and clears the road the Union City. Sean Bemis and the Highway department will be the talk of town for a while and it will come up at the next town meeting but eventually they will come to a sensible resolution.
But how does one turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, give a second coat when you have people quick to settle things with their fists or their firearms, groups instilling hate in young disenfranchised youth or you have a rogue country test firing missiles in your direction.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . .” how does one do that, really?
“Do not resist the evil doer,” its one thing for the big fellow in the sports arena being trash talked on sports radio or the male CEO in a board meeting who is being slandered by his colleagues. But “do not resist the evil doer”, doesn’t sound the same, even when Jesus says it, to the woman sitting on a cot in a domestic abuse shelter, holding her child close.
I have to be honest. I question, what can I do to impact any of these things?
I don’t know that there is unless or until I begin where I can, where I might make a difference, in my town, with my people.
And if perhaps we can have more Rockhavens in this world (Again not that we are perfect here in Rockhaven!) then we might just have fewer fists and bullets flying at each other.
If we foster more reasonable conversations over a difficult neighbor’s fence just maybe, eventually, we could do the same over patrolled borders or even razor wired DMZ’s.
After all as he said the sun shines the same and the rain (or in our case, snow) fall and waters the soil the same on both sides of an argument.
And if we Rockhavenites can practice Jesus’ teachings right here in our town, it may not be perfect, but it just might bring us a bit closer to the One who is. And maybe then we will truly believe and follow the wisdom of this Jewish rabbi we claim is our Messiah!

Want to hear Pastor Wilson share this Sermon from the Pulpit… simply double click on “Download File” listed below


Straight to the Heart

Sermon ~ Sunday, February 12, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Straight to the Heart
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 Matthew 5:21- 37

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus – Sermon on the Mount Matt. 5:20
This is one of those hard teachings of Jesus.
Exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees! How? They are the righteous ones.
They are the ones who know Torah, the Law. They teach it. They interpret it for us.
How could we commoners, ever attain a higher righteousness than they?
And even when Jesus goes on to clarify this greater righteousness, he doesn’t make it any easier! He begins, “You have heard it said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’ . . . but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement . . .”
“You have heard it said ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you. Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is God’s footstool . . .”
What is one to do with these and the others Jesus taught about divorce and retaliation and love for enemies? Impossible you say? (see Mk. 10:27)
Some would argue that Jesus is using hyperbole here. And perhaps he is, especially when concerning adultery he says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, cut it out and throw it away.”
As Jesus goes on to explain what he means by a “righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees,” he begins with the condemnation of murder found in the law. It seems extreme to use murder as a place to begin a teaching on anger. The people knew the Torah. They knew what the law said about murder, but there was no specific teaching on anger. Jesus’ comparison is clear: murder is serious and so is anger. There was a need in the first century community of Jesus as there is in today’s church to look at relationships and how individuals treat each other. And Jesus seems to be saying that there is value to life and how we value the lives of others.
This is perhaps the heart of the matter in this teaching.
The O.T. law condemned murder, but at the heart of this law lies a respect for the life of another, regard for the right of another to be, reverence for another as the creation of God.
The same could be said about adultery. The teaching is clear: a man should not desire the wife of another. The woman here has no agency, but is an object to be taken, possessed and fought over. But here too Jesus gets to the heart of the law. Jesus values the role and personhood of all people and women are people. A woman is not a thing, a property to be coveted so as to possess, but a person to whom one relates with care and respect.
Right relationship was a goal of Jesus for his disciples, for the church in Matthew’s time and for the church in ours. These teachings of Jesus come from the heart in that they are a call for this “higher righteousness” and a better way of living in community. Eugene Peterson translated Matthew 5:19-20 this way in The Message: “Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom. Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom.”
Relationships are not to be taken lightly. Now, Jesus’ command to love God and to love others as self is not stated explicitly here like elsewhere, but is central to his understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven and this “higher righteousness” Jesus calls his followers to seek.
So while, yes, Jesus is talking here about anger, lust, divorce, oath-taking and in the next section, retaliation and love for enemies, what is at the heart of it is a choice. In our reading from Deuteronomy 30 (the fifth book of Moses, the Torah, the law) Moses sets before the people a choice. Follow God’s way to life and prosperity or the way which leads to death and adversity. It is a matter of life vs. death and blessings vs. curses. And Jesus, in being the fulfillment of the Law (Matt. 5:17-18), defines this life and blessings in terms of relationships with God and with others.
Are we going to choose to make relationships a priority?
Our relationship with God over our relationship with the idols of this world. (And believe me whether we admit it or not, we live in a polytheistic culture.)
Are we going to choose our relationships with others over a society that it would seem devalues relationships. In a society that all too easily renders individuals less than because of any number of things: economic status, race, gender, sexual orientation and of late political orientation! How quickly we pigeon hole and label people. (Friends will not have anything to do with each other because of who they voted for.)
Our nightly newscasts are filled with story after story of individuals or groups who are dehumanized and rendered victims of a society that no longer values relationships and has ceased loving neighbor as self. It is easy to look at the problems of the world and name them as the fault of others but the bigger challenge comes when we dare to find ourselves in the midst and ask, “How am I contributing to this.”
Or better, “How can I bring a difference to what I observe around me?”
The prophets of the O.T. often urged the people to see the world through God’s eyes and not ask God to see the world through theirs. Jesus challenges us to do the same to see others as God sees them. A world that God so loved that God sent God’s only son to save the world.
And then Jesus challenges us to live our lives and foster relationships in such a way that this Kingdom of heaven which Jesus said has come near will come near to us and through us to all.

Want to hear Pastor Wilson share this Sermon from the Pulpit… simply double click on “Download File” listed below.