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

101 State Street
Charlevoix, MI 49720


Did You Hear (See) That?

Sermon ~ Sunday, August 13th, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Did You Hear (See) That?

1 Kings 19:9-18

Have you ever had the experience of purchasing or leasing a new (or new to you) automobile and on your way home from the dealership you see four others identical to it? 

Back in the dealership’s lot when you first laid eyes on it, the color and design and classy lines jumped out at you and said. “I’m yours!  Just you and me baby! We’re going to be a stylish, unique pair, all eyes will be on us!” 

But then, again, on your way home and for the next few days, weeks even, you see vehicles just like yours. They are everywhere!      

A few years ago when we bought the green Honda CR-V we noticed two or three people apparently bought the same car at the same time we did.  We brought our Subaru Forester home, suddenly we see our twins going by all the time!   There can only be one explanation: We must be trend setters!

Actually there is another explanation: this experience is similar to what is called “frequency illusion”, or the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. This is a cognitive bias which describes a curious psychological fact: after learning some bit of new information we start noticing it everywhere else. 

Okay, interesting, but what does this have to do with Elijah and his experience of God on Mount Horeb? 

Elijah was a great prophet, through whom Yahweh had performed some pretty amazing things, like the poor widow of Zarephath and her jug of oil that never ran out and subsequent resuscitation of her dead son.  Then there was the challenge to the prophets of Baal and the fire from the sky to ignite the sacrificial fire which had been drenched in water.  And if this wasn’t enough, the deaths of all the prophets of Baal, after which a prolonged drought came to an end.   That last one might have been a bit too much.  In fact it was for Queen Jezebel.

The Jewish king Ahab had married Jezebel who was a worshipper of Baal, and when she heard about the death of Baal’s prophets, she threatened to take the Elijah’s life which sends the prophet running for his life into the wilderness.  Elijah travels about a day’s journey where he sits down under a tree and despairs for his life. Complainingly he prays:   “It is enough, now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” (v. 4)   

Yet, even on the run and with all his complaining, Elijah continues to experience God’s care and help.  That night under the tree, an angel comes to him as he sleeps and provides him with food and water which miraculously sustains him for 40 days and nights!   After these 40 days and nights Elijah makes his way to Mount Horeb and there he seeks the shelter of a cave.  Mount Horeb, another name for Mount Sinai, is where God had appeared to Moses, considered the birthplace of Israel’s religion.       

 This is where our reading picks up the story.  And it might be familiar one to some of you.  Inside the cave, Elijah hears the voice of the Lord saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  And Elijah begins whining again about the state of his affairs.  I paraphrase, “You know how faithful I’ve been Lord, so why is this happening to me?”

God tells Elijah to go out of the cave, stand on the edge of the mountain and wait, there Lord will pass by.  In other words, “Elijah you want reassurance, I show you reassurance!”

There’s a great wind, so powerful rocks were shattering, but no sign of the Lord. 

Next there came a shaking of the earth in a mighty earthquake, still, no Lord. 

After the shaking, a fire and after the fire “a sound of sheer silence.” 

Can one hear silence? 

Can silence, as we say, be deafening?

Mighty winds . . . witnesses frequently describe tornadoes as sounding like freight trains.

Earthquakes rumbling deep in the earth are amplified by the earth like a huge speaker.

Next a fire. . . I personally have heard the sound of a forest fire crowning through the tops of spruce trees and it is a frightening sound!

Elijah, like many of us, might have expected God to show up in fury and power, the awesome spectacle of any of these.  After all look at how he had experienced God up to this point.   Some pretty amazing, in your face sort of ways!

There is that great scene in the movie Forest Gump where Lt. Dan has joined Forest on his shrimp ingredients boat. After not catching any shrimp for days, Lt. Dan asks Forest, “Where to H is this God of yours?”  And in a voice over Forest says, “Its funny Lt. Dan said that, because right then, God showed up.”  And they are caught in the wrath of a hurricane.  

 God showing up . . . There is a term for such manifestations or experiences of the Holy, they’re called theophanies.  Elijah had had some fairly spectacular theophanies to be sure, but what Elijah seemed to need to learn was that God is not always found in the bright flashes of light or loud roaring of storms, spectacular events and portents in the heavens, but also in the quiet spaces in between.  Perhaps more often in the quiet spaces in between, for there are far more of these in life.  

Elijah like many of us needed to learn to create prayerful times and spaces filled with silence, set a part from the din and confusion of the storms and earthquakes in our lives. 

Related to this is the tremendous influence that past experiences have on our ability to discern and experience divine activity in the present. 

Elijah had experienced God in some pretty awe inspiring ways.  But here God comes to him in the quiet after the storm, after the awe.  Not maybe what he expected.

In our gospel reading, the disciples couldn’t believe what they were seeing in those early morning hours in the midst of a storm.  They thought it was some sort of ghostly apparition.  They had never experienced Jesus in that way.


We see what we have been “conditioned” to see.  The Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon speaks of something we recently learned or experienced.  Past experiences do have a way of shaping, coloring, the lenses though which we view our world. 

For instance even though it has been over 26 years since I in any way made my living in the logging trade, I notice trees.  And when I look at them I see white pine, red pine, eastern hemlock, red, white, black spruce, cedar, balsam fir where others see simply “pines” or “Christmas trees.”   While I’m getting better and can make myself see trees for their intrinsic beauty and value, I still see potential board feet of lumber and cords of pulpwood.  And when I look at a forest of trees I see the way the trees lean and the best location to fall them and the location of haul roads so as to do the least amount of damage to the residual stand. 

I see what years of experience have conditioned me to see.

My thought for us today is: How do our past experierences bias our expectations of how God will reveal God’s self in our lives? 

What have we done through prayer and study to shape and change those patterns of attention? 

Do we fail to see God at work in our lives, in our church because we believe that God’s presence is always and only made manifest in certain ways, places and persons?

Have we taken the time and energy to open our eyes and ears; to be receptive to new movements of the Holy Spirit in our midst; or do we miss them because past experience limits our vision and hearing? 


While God’s faithfulness and loving kindness never ends (Lamentations 3:22-23)and God is changeless. (Ps. 90:2 & 102:26-27) God is also about writing a new covenant on people’s hearts (Jere. 31:31-34) and doing new things  (Is. 43:19).

When we look upon the forest of humanity around us or out upon the raging seas of life, what do we see, what to we hear?  God is just as apt to be in the spaces between the trees and in the calm that follows the storm.

In the end God didn’t give up on Elijah even when Elijah prayed that God would.  Elijah  continues to prophesy to the rulers and people of Israel. 

With a renewed or even new vision, as we are able to see God moving in new ways and doing a new thing imagine what will the church be capable of!

May we be so attentive to the movement of the Spirit in our midst that we will be saying to one another, “Say, did you hear that?”


LISTEN TO THE AUDIO VERSION OF THIS SERMON recorded live and read by Pastor Neil Wilson:

The Kingdom is Like What!?

The Kingdom Is like What!?

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52


Have you ever noticed Jesus doesn’t begin his parables, “In a land far away there lived a beautiful princess . . .”

Not even, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

But “In an ordinary field next door to you there was a farmer who planted some seed . . . A baker woman kneading some dough . . .”


I wonder if the crowds were a bit disappointed with Jesus.  Maybe even some of his disciples as well. Jesus tells them one more parable about seeds and plants, followed by stories of baking bread,  plowing a field, and fishing. Yes, he throws in one story about a wealthy merchant, but all the rest are as ordinary as a mustard bush. 

No kings, or even princesses, inhabit this kingdom Jesus speaks about being so near. 

No military generals or revolutionary leaders to please Simon the Zealot or his colleague Judas.  They must have felt let down.

And what about us? 

I wonder if our culture might be disappointed too with some of Jesus’ stories.  For instance, I doubt most people’s vision of heaven or the reign of God includes mustard bushes and housework!  God is more often seen as “Lord” or “King” than farmer or baker woman.  And whether it is traditional hymns or modern praise music we sing about “enthroning” Jesus, “raising him up” and “exalting him in the highest heaven.” 

Jesus though, tells stories of the kingdom and of heaven that are literally “down to earth.”  Common stories about ordinary people, a tenant farmer, a housewife, fishermen, doing everyday things.  This is hardly an exalted image of God’s realm!

And of course this is the whole point.  As Christians we are called to believe in the incarnation, the mystery of the meeting of divine and human in the very human person of Jesus.  Yet it is interesting that in his parables Jesus puts the focus not on himself but on the world around him.  “The kingdom of God is like” some of the most common things in life.  Like Jesus himself, this everyday world of ours embodies the sacred meeting of divine and human, sacred and secular, pious and profane.  That is if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. 

It is in this very mundane embodiment that Jesus’ parables differ from Greek or Roman myths or Aesop’s fables.  Jesus’ stories contain no gods in human disguise or talking animals, just real-life women and men going about their everyday work. 

According to Matthew, the first thing Jesus does when he comes out from his 40 days in the  wilderness is proclaim, “The kingdom of God has come near.”  He give examples of this every time he heals, reaches out to outcasts, respects women and other unrespectables, or cares for the poor.  He illustrates that nearness through these kingdom parables.

Jesus’ kingdom is not some esoteric realm in the sweet by and by, but as close and real as the mustard bush in the neighbor’s field or the loaf of bread on the baking stone.  This nearness, far more than any threat of eternal agony, is the basis for Jesus’ call to believe.  Of these five parables, only the last includes any idea of apocalyptic judgement and gnashing of teeth.  The rest envision God in every nook and cranny of daily life, from the kneading of dough to the plowing of fields.  Jesus seeks to transform human life not by scaring the hell out of people, but by helping them see the heaven close at hand!

With such images Jesus echoes his and our faith ancestor Moses who in his farewell address to the Israelites reminded them that “the word is very near” them, in their hearts and close at hand.  (Deut. 30) In his earthy kingdom parables Jesus affirms this.

Another thing Jesus does not do is use the seven wonders of the world to illustrate God’s kingdom.  He doesn’t even use the stately cedar of Lebanon, but the lowly mustard plant.  Its seed is a symbol of the tiniest thing, and the plant it produces is a trash tree!  Or more accurately a trash bush, no matter how tall it grew.  We might like Jesus to speak of the kingdom as like the mighty red oak or majestic white pine, but Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a farmer who planted scrub juniper or even Russian knapweed!  How is that for an image of God’s realm?  I imagine the disciples scratching their heads and asking themselves, “The Kingdom is like what?”

Then there is the leaven, the smallest amount enough to provide bread for a wedding feast.  In a tradition where leaven is a symbol for corruption and impurity Jesus uses this as an agent of the miraculous growth of God’s kingdom.  If God can use weeds and corruptible leaven to grow the kingdom, imagine what God can do with you and me! 

Abundance from the smallest things, miraculous transformations from trash bush to tree of life, from corrupt leaven to bread enough to feed the multitudes.  God’s kingdom is like that, according to Jesus. 

And then in the next two parables we are told of people who gladly give up everything for that treasure.  The extravagant response of the tenant farmer and the pearl merchant is matched only by the extravagant mustard bush and loaves of bread.

Of course the paradox is that the kingdom equal to the value of a great pearl or treasure is not made of silver or gold, but of bushes and bread.  What would you give up for a old pasture overrun with an abundance of juniper bushes? 

  These are not simple moral fables in that they demand such decisions.  Again like Moses’ last words, the parables stress our responsibility to choose God’s way even when it may not make sense!  Moses framed it as a choice between life or death, blessing or curse.  Jesus’ parables has the realm of God up against that of the evil one, good fish or bad fish.  Like Moses, Jesus does not let us off the “hook.”  The nearness of God’s realm challenges us daily to choose a way.  

Unfortunately we live in a world where mustard comes in a plastic squeezable bottles, bread in plastic bags, both of which can be found on grocery store shelves.  And pearls go for discount prices on the Home Shopping Network. 

Has the church cheapened the kingdom as well?

Like the farmer plowing the field and the merchant searching for the invaluable pearl, what would you, what would this congregation, give up everything to possess?  All the while remembering that the hidden treasure is not made of silver or gold or even an actual pearl!  Nor is it made of wood or brick or stone or endowments funds and memorial accounts.  And on the personal side it isn’t that lucrative job offer or business opportunity, it isn’t our retirement portfolios! 

Rather Jesus is asking, “What would we give all these things up to possess?”

 And then he offers images of things that in the end will not complete our personal estate or fully fund a church’s capital improvement fund but will bring us closer to the realm of God that is right there in our midst if we but have the eyes to see and the ears to hear!

So look around you today.  Where do you (will you) see and hear parables of the kingdom?

Want to hear the Audio Version?  Select the link below to listen to Pastor Neil Wilson sharing his Sermon on Sunday morning here at First Congregational UCC.

There’s No Hiding Place Down Here

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, July 2, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson


There’s No Hiding Place Down Here

Matthew 10:40 – 11:1


“We have it in us to be Christ’s to each other . . .

   to work miracles of love and healing as well as to have them worked upon us.”

Frederick Buechner writer, poet, theologian and Presbyterian minister made this assertion in A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces.  It could have been a commentary on our reading from Matthew’s Gospel. These closing words of Jesus’ instructions and warnings as he sends the twelve out like “… sheep into the midst of wolves”  (10:16)  

This passage contains the heart of Matthew’s gospel: a ageless call for the church to go out into the world in Christ’s name, as well as to receive and welcome the “little ones” of the world in Christ’s name.  

When we read of giving a cup of cold water to the “little ones” perhaps our first thought is serving or feeding the children.  Which is partially true, but mikros (Greek)refers not only to children but to those considered inferior and vulnerable. 

This term “little ones” if it sounds like something else Jesus said, it should, for later in Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 25) Jesus speaks of serving the “least of these.”  And Jesus will tell us that as we serve the “least of these” we are actually serving Him.  It is in this same chapter we get a clue as to what the “reward” will be for those who indiscriminately meet human needs: Jesus says they inherit the Kingdom.  The ones who have given food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited those in prison are the ones who will know blessing, who will have both encountered Christ and embodied Christ. 

Mother Teresa in her book Words to Love By reminds us that every day we encounter Christ in “distressing disguise.” We find Him in those “hungry not only for bread, but hungry for love; naked not only for clothing, but naked for human dignity and respect; homeless but not only for want of a room of bricks, but homeless because of rejection.”

Although our social and cultural context maybe vastly different from that of Jesus and then Matthew’s, the church’s call is the same: in spite of any and all opposition, we are to go out into the world, to alleviate human suffering and meet real needs.  And as we offer these miracles of loving and healing through the offering of hospitable deeds and actions equivalent to the cup of cold water, we also go as those open to having the miracle of hospitality “worked upon us.”

In other words, we are called to both represent Christ to the stranger and to encounter Christ in the stranger.

Often though, the church is thought of as a place where we can go to meet Christ, and find a time and place to receive comfort and restoration.  Which it is for sure. The church is meant to be a place where the hurting and wounded in body and spirit can find compassionate care and safety. The Church is after all referred to in Scripture as the body of Christ.  But as pastor and author Barbara Brown Taylor reminds the church, “we are not merely consumers but also providers of God’s love.” 

We’re not supposed to use the church solely as a place of to meet our own needs.  For time to time yes, we can and should find the church a place to find personal healing and wholeness.  But ultimately, Barbara Brown Taylor goes on to say, that the church is not a “hideout . .  not the place where those of us who know the secret password can gather to celebrate our good fortune,. . . ” 

When I read this I found myself humming  the tune of the old country, blue grass gospel song, There’s No Hiding Place Down Here.  One verse goes like this:

There’s no hiding place down here

There’s no hiding place down here

Well, I run to the rock just to hide my face

And the rocks cried out, no hiding place

There’s no hiding place down here

Just as I was writing these words, four young women came into the church.  They were employed at the Weather Vane Terrace as seasonal chambermaids.  Two were from Turkey the other two from China.  After working through some significant translation obstacles, I learned they were looking for affordable bicycles.  Two bicycles would be enough they could share. I made three phone calls and within 5 minutes had options of four bicycles for them.  They were not looking for much, just something less expensive than the retail price of bicycles at the local shops and stores.   Was this a “cup of cold water?”

You know one of the things I realize is that by having an office person and our church building open as much as we do, we often find ourselves as the church where things such as this happen.

We are the church whose purple doors are not locked! 

Now, I do not presume to know the complete mind of Jesus, but I think Jesus would have told his disciples, if it were the 21st century, to not lock your doors.  To be open for business, his business, to be what is talked about today as a “missional” church.  


In our Tuesday morning Bible study lesson we read about how with Jesus and the early church there seems to have been far more emphasis on helping and comforting, healing and  raising than on the exact words and teaching they (we?) should use.  More emphasis on the doing than on the saying, more emphasis on doing good that on holding the “correct” beliefs.  Later Church Councils would argue over the words and “correct belief”, for the time being the Holy Spirit would be enough.

There is no such thing as church that is not a missional church.  Inasmuch as the church in its local and denominational expressions has been preoccupied with institutional survival, rather than being God’s witnesses sent into the world to bless all people, we have essentially not been the church.

So it is good to have unlocked doors, not only does it allow others access, but more importantly, through them we are sent out into the world and out there we are to be witnesses of Christ and to be witnessed to by the presence of Christ in others.  Even the least of these, no,  especially the least of these! 

The church is not a place to play “hide and seek!” In the same way God found Adam and Eve hiding in the garden God will seek us out, out of the church and into the streets and homes and neighborhoods where there are little ones in need of a cold cup of water or maybe a couple of bicycles.


Listen to the Audio version below by clicking on “Download File” and enjoy.

Gospel Transparency

~ Sermon ~ June 25th, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Gospel Transparency
Matthew 10:1, 5-7, 24-33

I have a task for each of you today. The instructions are simple.

Following this morning’s service and the coffee hour I am sending you out to your neighborhoods. I want you to start with those who are struggling, confused the lost if you will, amongst those of our community, your neighbors and friends.
Those of you in the balcony, I will have you to concentrate on downtown, shopkeepers, their employees, and any of the local people you know. The tourists, well, they’ll have to wait.
Those of you who sit on the north side of the sanctuary, I want you to focus on this message: “The kingdom of heaven is here, very near to everyone”
South side of the sanctuary, you are to be the healers, the counselors, the resuscitators. Offer freely. Expect no payment.
You will not need your cell phones, or your tablets, no fancy suits or special uniforms, nor will you need to have a fund raising campaign before you begin. You will be taken care of. Just go!
If you should find there are those who refuse what you are freely offering, do not make a scene and argue with them, just move on. Their stubbornness will catch up with them in good time. And that will be very difficult time indeed! And after all it is not your mission you are but the messengers.
What do you think? Would you be willing to take on such a calling? How many of you would be ready to hit the streets after coffee hour? How many of you would not want to leave the coffee hour and safety of the church building?
Yet this is what Jesus called the Twelve to do: Share the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven with the lost sheep of Israel, their neighbors; to heal, cast out demons, raise the dead!
How comfortable did you feel about the instructions I gave you?
I can answer for myself, “Not very!”
I would imagine for the twelve is was also a difficult, risky “assignment.” It is quite possible they might have asked, “Jesus, do you think we are ready for this? We’ve only been with you for a few weeks (months) and to be honest we’ve seen the mixed reactions people have had towards you!”
And so Jesus says to them “ . . . have no fear of them.”
The same providence of God that he shared in the Sermon on the Mount, he reminds them of here. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs on your head are all counted So do not be afraid you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Jesus then says something interesting, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered . . .”
There is complete openness to the work of Jesus. Jesus has no intention of starting a cult, an exclusive spiritual club with a secret wisdom and rituals in which an hierarchy of a select few will be in control and ultimately reap any spiritual benefits.
Now, we hear this today and are apt to smugly think, “Well, our church is nothing like that.” Experience, though, teaches that some churches are very much like that: an exclusive religious club with secret wisdom and rituals which only an elite group understand and thus are granted “salvation.”
In many cases church leaders hold onto their power (whether officially through board positions or not) by refusing to be “up front” about things, from agendas to relationships to intrachurch dynamics. Only those deemed worthy are allowed full participation, and usually only by conforming to unspoken (thus hidden) rules and expectations. Talk with Conference staff about the church conflicts they are often called in to mediate and one will hear the same refrain, “Communication, communication, communication.”
Full participation should never be determined by the supposed charity of so-called “gatekeepers”, but by the absolute grace of Jesus’ unconditional love. Further-more, it is not only “secret wisdom” that interferes with full participation, it is often just the plain old “secrets” kept from newcomers that are at the root of dysfunctional behavior within a church.
Jesus then warns any would be disciples: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
“Hell” is Gehenna, the valley outside the walls of Jerusalem, where it is said the city’s trash was continually burned; thus it is more a metaphor than a doctrine of a place in eternity. One way to think of this metaphorically is to recognize that the only one we have to fear is ourselves, because only we can destroy both soul and body in the fires of our own making. If this is so then when we prayer the Lord’s prayer “deliver us from evil,” we pray to be delivered from our own evil, which we experience as more toxic to our spiritual well-being than anything anyone else could do to us.
Jesus then says, “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” As harsh as this may sound to us, this seems to be the “bottom line” of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in Matthew 10. Those of us reading it today contemporary and privileged readers, may think that the first disciples and early Christians needed to hear this more than we do, as do those Christians living as religious minorities and often the brunt of sectarian oppression and violence.
The truth is that persecution exists today even in our nation’s privileged world of religious freedom. It’s just more subtle, more often expressed in apathy than antipathy. For the vast majority religion has become a private matter, often banned, along with politics from “polite discussion.” We are of the mind whether through a misunderstanding of the “separation of church and state” or just a simple aversion to politics that our religious values have no place in the public political discourse.
Because of this, unfortunately, the church’s shaping of public policy is to frequently left to those Christians with a politically confining agenda.
No Christian should check Jesus’ values at the door when exiting the church and entering the public sphere: Jesus’ compassion for the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the vulnerable and the demonized may (and should) shape public policy just as much as the Enlightenment values of equality, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is in this way as well, we “proclaim the good news that the ‘Kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
In the history of our nation the revivals of the two Great Spiritual Awakenings led the way to the significant social reforms that followed.
There is one more way I feel this may speak to our contemporary views of “sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Some Christians place conditions on God’s unconditional and extravagant love in Jesus Christ, resisting the gospel of grace. And on the other hand there are those Christians , in deference to our multicultural and multi-faith world, avoid talking about Jesus at all and resist a gospel of particularity. We worry about being offensive. Some would say politically correct.
In reality, each is a way of denying both Jesus and his gospel message that the realm of God is at hand.
For the gospel is not something to be hidden away. But to be shared and to be observed in the lives of Jesus’ disciples. Our lives should be transparent enough so that to anyone who cares to observe, the gospel, the way of Jesus, should be obvious.
Years ago when I started on my path toward ordained ministry I kept a little notebook of quotes. I haven’t been as faithful in collecting quotes as I was back at the beginning. One of the very first quotes I wrote in my book I heard from Roger Cobb, an elderly man from my home church when I was a young adult.
He would say to me sort of as a reminder:
“You are writing a Gospel,
A chapter each day,
By deeds that you do,
By words that you say.

Others read what you write,
Whether faithless or true;
Say, what is the Gospel
According to you?”

Listen to the audio version of Pastor Neil’s Sermon.  Select the “Download File”, and at the lower left of your screen you can select it and enjoy.

Family Values?

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, June 18, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson ~

Family Values?

Matthew 10:24-39

Jerome Jordan stepped to the lectern of the Old First Church on the Common and thumbed through the heavy pages of the massive pulpit Bible. The Bible overhangs the sides of the lectern by a good 3-4 inches on each side.  Interestingly, while Jerome is the youngest of the regular lay readers he is also the only one that chooses to use the lectern Bible.  Maybe it’s a simple matter of eyesight!  Most others bring the readings printed out in large font on pieces of paper. 

The leather-bound gilded Bible was presented to the congregation in 1879 at the dedication of the new church building after the fire of 1877 (or was it 78?)  The little bronze plaque reads “Given to the Glory of God and in memory of Deacon Ephraim Buckner.”  Old Eph was Bob and Jake Bradley’s great-great grandfather on their mother’s side.  A stern looking fellow in all the old tin-types.  The Bible, dating from the 19th century, of course is the King James Version. 

The text for the day was from Gospel according to Saint Matthew.  Jerome cleared his throat:  Think not that I am come to send peace on earth:

   I came not to send peace, but a sword.

 For I am come to set a man at variance against his father,

  and the daughter against her mother,

   and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

 And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.

 He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me:

  and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

Jerome ceremoniously closed the stiff ornate covers of the Bible

“The Word of the Lord. . .  Thanks be to God.” and stepped down from the lectern.

 As I said for the youngest of our lay readers he is the most solemn and traditional.

 Imogene Reynolds, third row back next to the center aisle, let out a sigh and not quite under her breathe muttered, “Well, I not so sure what I think of that!”   

Imogene is of the opinion that at times even Jesus took things a bit too far and this is a prime example of just one of those times!  Imogene knows that following Jesus is not supposed to be easy but never, never should it divide families. 

“What sort of family values is that?” she inquired of Rev. Williams as she shook his hand after worship.

She admonished the pastor for preaching such an “anti-Christian” thing.

“Why just this morning the Pastor Eugene B. Salsbury of the Salsbury Power Hour of Salvation preached on ‘biblical family values’ and it didn’t sound anything like your sermon, Pastor.” Imogene informed the pastor.  

She went on to add, “And Pastor Eugene knows his Bible.  After all, he is on television!”   

Rev. Williams had a mind to remind Imogene that it wasn’t his sermon she took issue with but Jesus’ words, but held his tongue.  Beth, Imogene’s sister was next in line and she had been a little under the weather the past week and he was a bit more concerned about her well-being that taking on a theological debate with a disciple of Pastor Salsbury’s Power Hour of Salvation.

One has to understand that Imogene and her sister Beth grew up in a very loving and supportive family.  When Imogene and Beth were young there were three generations living together in the old farm out on Ricker’s Bluff Road.  Ricker is Imogene’s maiden name.  The Rickers were a very devoted family.  Devoted to the church and more importantly to each other.  Gram Ricker lived with Carl, Betsy and their two girls, Imogene and her little sister Beth.  Rickers have been prominent in Old First Church leadership for the past 100 years.  Good people, good family. 

Anyway, Jesus’ words about a son set at variance against father, and daughter against mother was not Imogene’s experience.  And there was just no way she could see that Jesus would be part of anything other than the way she had experienced it.  And in her view this passage didn’t in any way act for the betterment of society.

Imogene is the unofficial chair of the Women’s Material Aid Society of the Priscilla Circle of the Women’s Fellowship.  They’ve been around since WWII when they began putting together old pieces of cloth to be used as bandages and such for the war effort.  Nowadays they knit lap blankets for the residents over in Maple Grove Care Center run by the Adventists. They also collect old pieces of clothe and make hooked rugs which they sell and give the proceeds to the Outer Island Relief Fund.  Even Rev. Williams chuckles to himself when Sam Coleridge refers to them as the Holy Hookers, which always sets Imogene off in a fit of temper.  Beth just smiles! 

For the past two meetings of the Women’s Material Aid Society of the Priscilla Circle of the Women’s Fellowship, there’s been a young girl showing up.  Actually Gina is 19, but to most of the Society she seems but a mere child. 

Gina has been coming to Old First now for a little over a year.  One day she just sort of walked into a meeting of the Material Aid Society all of her own doing.  She told them that she likes to knit and that she clerks and stocks shelves at Emerson’s Five and Dime in Stoneville, so she has access to all the remnant scraps of material from the store’s fabric department.  So of course she was welcomed with open arms.  It also provided Gina a place to serve when she decided she wanted to be more than just a Sunday pew warmer.

At a recent meeting the ladies were talking about growing up and how things have changed (common topic for this group!)They got onto the subject of how families aren’t sticking together like they used to and the younger generation not respecting the older. 

Gina was very quiet. 

“So dear,” Bea Stearns asked Gina, “tell us about your family. Are you living at home?”

Gina looked up from the cloth she was ripping into strips, stared out the window to the Minute Man statue on the common.  A couple of seagulls were attempting to land on his tricorn hat.  They kept sliding off and circling around.   

She looked back at the cloth in her hands, a white and green checked gingham.  She recalled a summer dress she had as a child, a little jumper.  It was one of her few pleasant memories of childhood.

“No ma’am.   I’m renting a couple of rooms outta Bobby & Rachael Parmenters.” 

The ladies knew the place.  It wasn’t much.  The Parmenter’s are good enough folks, just that life had been hard. Bobby fishing and some factory work for Rachael until the shoe shops all closed back in the 80s. 

“So what about your parents, dear,” asked Ruth Williams.  “Do they live in Stoneville?

Gina stopped what she was doing looked back out the window.  One of the gulls had quit trying to land on the Minute Man’s head piece, the other still flailing away attempting to find a secure perch. 

She sensed no malice or meddling in Ruth’s question.  Nor did Beas’ question seem mere chatter for sake of conversation.  There was a bit of genuineness in their inquiries.  Perhaps this is why she told them as much of her story as she did.  

She was the second child, oldest daughter in a family of four children.  Her older brother had left home when he was 16 and enlisted in the Army when he turned 18.  You see her father, while he always had steady work and provided for the family financially, had a tendency to “tip the bottle” a bit too much when he was home but more often than not, he would be out, who knows where, for who knew how long.  Her mother was the text book enabler, always trying to keep things quiet, focusing on appeasing her husband when he would go into one of his tirades.  Her brother’s departure left Gina at 13 to care for her younger sisters at that time 7 & 9.  More often than not this meant taking the brunt of their father’s anger and making up for her mother’s emotional distance.  

As Gina grew older she would try to get her mother to find help for herself.  But there was no convincing her.  She was locked in the cycle of addiction and abuse.

Gina struggled her last two years of high school but managed to graduate and that summer get a the job at Emerson’s. 

It was that summer after graduation, she had a Sunday off and not particularly wanting to be home, Gina found herself wandering around Rockhaven’s Common.  It’s early on a fine summer morning and through the open windows of the church she could hear Clara French going over some of her organ music for worship.

Gina timidly meandered over to the doors of the church and listens.  She not much for organ music but she can identify one of the songs. She doesn’t know the title but it takes her back to the few times she was around a church.  It was Vacation Bible School and she was about 6 or 7 before her father’s drinking had become a noticeable problem for their family. 

Clara saw her through the open doors standing on the bottom step.  She smiled motioned to Gina that it was fine for her to come in.  She slipped into a back pew as Clara worked on her Postlude.  Clara seemed to be struggling the song Gina watched her pushing and pulling all these little knobs on the organ!

Before she knew it others were coming in and began sitting around her.  Bea Stearns and Jeannette Holman, Mabel Bradley and Sarah McIntyre.  In the vestibule Bertie Dickson and Sam French were comparing their early garden production, apparently carrots, lettuce are doing fine, peas not so well. 

Little did Gina know at the time but if you wanted some space and a bit of quiet in our church you do not sit in the back!

Undeterred, she began coming when her schedule allowed and when a new clerk was hired Gina was able to have most Sundays off.

She absorbed everything she heard from the pulpit and soaked in all the attention and love that she felt surrounded by.

She would go home and share some of her experiences with her mother.  The love and care she felt from the church members.  She would also tell her mother some of the things she would hear Rev Williams would share in his sermons.  The pastor said such and such today . . . and she would tell of this Jesus who traveled around healing people and reaching out to the oppressed and victimized, even women!   

But unfortunately, whether it was jealousy of Gina’s new found friendships or the zealousness of her convictions, her mother would have nothing to do with Gina’s new found faith.  Sadly, Gina and her mother grew even farther apart

Not able to find herself fitting in or comfortable at home, she heard of the Parmenter’s rental and by fall she had earned enough for the deposit and moved in with the little she had. 

Gina paused. . .  Looked back out the window and there was the seagull.  She had finally found a perch on the Minute Man’s hat.   

Bea Stearns reached out and put her hand on Gina’s arm. 

No words were spoken.  Tears trickled down both women’s faces.   



When the gospel of Matthew was read by Jerome Jordan and Jesus said that he came not to bring peace but a sword, what Imogene found so scandalous, rang all too true for Gina.  Life was not easy for Gina and her new found faith and friendship in the church didn’t necessarily make it any easier. 

As Gina sat there surrounded by the friendship of women, most of them four times her age, a small smile broke out and the corners of her mouth caught her tears. 

She remembered something else Rev. Williams said this Jesus had mentioned.  She couldn’t remember it exactly but something to the effect:

What you should want most is God’s kingdom and doing what he wants you to do. Then God will give you all these other things you need.

Or as the lectern Bible reads:  But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Rumor has it that Gina’s mother has temporarily left the house and is in counseling.  This seems to have brought her father to the point of seriously seeking help and is now six months into recovery.

Indeed all these things. . .

Seems God’s kingdom is creeping into our little church and its community.

May it be so in yours as well.   Amen.


Enjoy the Audio version of Pastor Neil’s Sermon by selecting the “Download File” link below, open and enjoy!

The Challenge of the Trinity

~ Sermon ~ Sunday, June 11th, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

The Challenge of the Trinity

Matthew 28:16-20

Trinity Sunday, along with Transfiguration Sunday, is one of the trickier dates on which to preach.  It may require as much spiritual and intellectual bending and contortions as Hugh Hansen’s Tai Chi from last Sunday. (Thanks you Hugh!)  While there has been much ink spilled over the doctrine of the Trinity, much of what has been written is beyond comprehension and therefore doesn’t lend itself well to preaching! 

Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century) would say of the Trinity, “No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Three than I am carried back into the One. When I think of any of the Three, I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.”

Yet this magnificent and mystical relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that cohesive yet distinct community of faith, has much to say about the way in which the different “persons” (to employ the traditional anthropomorphic terms) of the Godhead relate to each other and to the created order. 

What are the purposes and point of the Creator,  of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit? 

How are we to understand them and learn from them?

To say nothing of the challenges of thinking of God as in human terms Parent (the Father/Mother discussion),

– the nature of Jesus (fully human and fully divine),

 – and the role and place of the Holy Spirit (the most mystical and the one often approached with great suspicion of the Trinitarian  trifecta). 

With a topic where mystery abounds, the challenge is to say something that speaks to the people today about Who God is, and what God is for, as much as to say anything about the ‘Why’ of God.  Mystery and majesty, attempting to know the unknowable, leading worship on Trinity Sunday deals with doubt and question, as much as it deals with any certainty and answers.

First, and this may negate the rest of what I have to say for some of you, the “doctrine” of the Trinity is a theological formula the church took several decades to develop. It may be hinted at in scripture but it is nowhere is a Trinitarian relationship spelled out with any clarity, nor is the term Trinity found in the Bible. 

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is about synergy.  We are meant to think of how things interact with each other, and what that interaction propels us to do.  The end of Matthew’s gospel is fraught with significance for the Church and Christians everywhere. Matthew’s gospel, from the beginning, has told the story of Jesus and His life and ministry, now the Church and the Christians who incarnate the Church are called to make their response to Jesus. We are to reflect inwardly and look at the transformation our faith continues to make upon our lives.  We act outwardly and move in ways that demonstrate our faith put into action.  Faith’s inward reflection is evidenced in an outward response.

Note, however, the context of these verses.  After the resurrection events and the fear and wonder surrounding them, we are told the surviving eleven disciples went to the mountain in Galilee (where they had been told to go by Jesus.) There they worshiped Jesus, though “some doubted.”  Faith is rarely one steadily progressive sunny upwards path of assurance, belief and commitment.  We would not be human if we did not admit to some doubt and darkness and falling away.  As one commentator notes, disciples waver between adoration and indecision, between prayer and puzzlement.

What we might also note from this passage is that in some ways the conclusion mirrors the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. The promise of Jesus, embodied in His name Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23-24) is God with us.  Here in the closing verses of the gospel, God in Jesus promises to be with us always.  The underlying purpose of the Trinity is unity and community, and it is underlined again.

This triune community in which we are engaged is one that compels us to reach out.  First with the gift of baptism: where we are named in the community of God’s presence. The gift of baptism in the name of the Trinity marks our formal entry into the community of faith, and confirms publicly the loving approval in which God already holds us.  With Matthew’s invocation of the Trinity it would not be helpful to assume that he is referencing the complex doctrines worked out in the controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries C. E..  His inspiration is to link together the three names of Godhead and the community of love from which all life emanates.

It is known that ‘naming’ was of great significance in the Hebrew world: it denoted both power and presence.  Baptism is therefore no empty ritual – it is an emblem of entrance into the lively gathering of worshipers who commit to the love of God.

After baptism, the Trinitarian community that is the Church is to teach and follow.  We discover and share what we believe, and remain open to the further promptings of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as the practice of faith evolves.  We are commanded to go out ‘to all nations’.  The community of the Trinity is not exclusive: it is inclusive.  Our authority is not our own but God’s, we achieve nothing on our own, but all becomes possible when God is involved.

The Parent, Creator is still creating, still imagining, still calling life into existence.

The Son, Emmanuel is still with us redeeming and saving.

The Sustainer is still moving and emboldening.

The Church, scarred but healing, broken but repairing, shattered but gathering,

 continues with faith in God.  A Godhead known to us, experienced by us, in a triad of ways accessing presence and power that does not coerce but serves and persuades and welcomes.

To follow, to serve and to welcome a Trinity of action!

This more than anything else, more than trying to comprehend it’s mystery, the challenge of the Trinity is to live into this way of community and communion with one another!

****   ****   ****


Holy God, Father/Mother, Son and Holy Spirit,

Creator, Redeemer and Comforter,

Here in this place and at this time, we offer our thanks.

The words of our mouths, the thoughts in our minds,

   the feelings of our hearts.

In awe we thank You for all that You have given to us,

And all that you accomplish through us and even despite us.

For the blessing of gathering and community we thank You.

Hear our prayers for those still on the outside and living in isolation.


For the blessing of imagination and inspiration we thank You.

Hear our prayers for those whose minds are closed down

 and whose lives are listless.


For the blessing of joy and good health we thank You.

Hear our prayers for those living with sadness,

  and struggling with pain and frailty.


Threefold God, we pray that You will continue to bless

Our world,

Our nation,

And our Church.

Distinct yet united;  . . . Diverse yet interwoven;

Call Your people, all Your people into the communion of Your love,

Where each is named and known,

And this we pray

In the love of the Father,

The healing of the Son,

And the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Amen

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Stay Bendy, My Friends

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

Oh, to be bendy again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay bendy, my friends.

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


Don’t Look Up, Look Out!

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

Don’t Look Up, Look Out!

Acts 1:6-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we one in Christ in the Church today?

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

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

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

For that is the world Christ gave his all for!

Shouldn’t we give some as well?


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

Part of the “In” Crowd

John 14: 15-21


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

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

The word for you this morning is “in.”    

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think of the moneychangers in the temple. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

What About Us?

What About Us?
John 14: 1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that is next week’s message!


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