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

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


Sermons

Nothing Stays the Same . . . Except . . .

Change-Graphic

Sermon ~ Sunday ~ August 28th, 2016  ~  Pastor Neil Wilson     

Hebrews 13: 8

 

 Ever since the Age of Enlightenment with its scientific revolution had it impact on the field of Biblical studies readers and scholars alike have pondered over just what kind of “book” Hebrews should be considered. 

One seminary professor joked that the funny thing about “The Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews” is, that is a perfect name for this piece of literature except, that it was not written by Paul, it was not written to the Hebrews, and it is not an epistle!

As early as the end of the first century there was no consensus as to the author with more than three persons considered authors of this “word of encouragement” which the anonymous author calls this piece.  In the writing we call Acts this same term is used to describe what we now refer to as a sermon.

Whatever it is and whoever wrote it, Hebrews offers wisdom to those in the church who want to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ.  The writing, among other things, has to do with living faithfully in the midst of the wider society as people who are obedient to the Messiah while not being all that impressed with how the world does business.  In other words, we might title this writing “Adaptation: Can We Roll with the Punches?”  Most of us would say that being able to adapt is a sign of not only a healthy person but also a healthy church.

I love the old story John Chandler would tell me about old Bert Hawser, who lived up there in Batchelder’s Grant, an unorganized township a little north of where I grew up.  Seems he had the occasion to make a trip down to Boston.  His kids wanted him to see Fenway Park before he expired.  First time he’d ever been outside the shadow of Caribou Mountain. 

He took the Pine Tree Bus line out of Fryeburg to Portland where he and Mildred and a couple of the younger children boarded the Downeaster train.  In a little over 5 hours he found himself on the ground floor of the John Hancock Center down there on Trinity Plaza.  Right there, inside the lobby, he stood transfixed with the elevator.  He watched as this older, rather haggard, looking woman hobbled into the elevator.  In a few minutes the doors opened and out smartly stepped a young attractive woman! To which Burt hollers out to his youngest son, “Efie!  Quick, go get your mother!”

This little story told many ways would not be understandable or as humorous unless we recognize that someone who was not technologically advanced was part of the story.  Yet all of us, to one extent or another, are victims of technology that seems to continually outrun us.  In times gone by, people knew how to fix their own cars and use a telephone.  Just this week, talking with the fellow who works on our vehicles, I was told that it is getting to the point where car manufactures are designing the technology so that one is just about forced to take it to a dealership for repairs especially if it involves some computer technology.   Seem even independent mechanics are losing the race against technology!  (Unfortunately it maybe an unfair track they are forced to compete on!)

In a very real sense we are stuck with change – for better and for worse.  It is almost every human being’s destiny to either change or face the alternative of getting run over by everything and everyone in society.  As an interesting quotation puts it: “Some people will change when they see the light.  Others change only when they feel the heat.”  

In our scripture today (at least in part of it), we are reminded of one truth that seems to never change.  The writer of Hebrews puts it this way, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and forever.”  (13:8)   Hold on to that!

Who is the congregation to whom Hebrews is addressed?  Thomas Long professor of preaching at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, speaks of the “tiredness” of the community addressed in Hebrews, tiredness that comes with the territory of living distinctive and faithful in the midst of wearying circumstances. 

 

I see so much of us, and I see so much of myself, in this description that it is frightening.  I am tired and I know many of you are tired. We think we know what we need to do as a church and as a people following in the manner of Jesus Christ, but we grow weary.   We volunteer in the Food Pantry, hospice programs, hospital guild, library, fine art councils and music councils and drug councils and school councils and community government councils and church councils . . .  and you get the picture!  

And I think I know what it is that is making us tired.  It is not that we do not believe anymore.  We have faith in our church, in our community and in God.  But we are weary of trying to keep up with all the change that keeps coming at us faster and faster.  Every time we seem to have something down pat, then things change.  We have to adjust and adapt to things we thought we had a firm grip on.  We have to accommodate things that we thought were under control.  We thought we had command of these things and then a new cell phone comes out or a new remote control enters the house! And we don’t have any children in the house to teach us how to use them!

Unfortunately, none of us has the luxury to fail to change or even to simply ignore it.  Change is too powerful.  A healthy church can adapt to the changes that take place in its surroundings.  In our context the downward population trend of young families and retirees. We can see how this has impacted our church’s education programs!  Our trend toward becoming more and more of a seasonal community and therefore a seasonal church!  We have committees that either do not meet or struggle to meet in the months of January through April say nothing about the summer when so many are so busy.  We have folks understandably that move away to be closer to family.  And then there is the increasing population of religious “nones” and “dones” in our society as a whole.

We need to adapt the things that used to work and try new things that might work better.  By the way, there are no guarantees, no sure fired “Three easy steps to improve the life of your church.”  I’m sorry.  It will be trial and error!  Mistakes will be made and this will be okay.  It will have to be.

We need to find new ways to connect with people with God and with one another. 

Our pursuit to adapt never ends.  We have to constantly change the ways in which we share the message of the gospel.  It is part of what it means to be a disciple.  At the same time we have an eternal message: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

A healthy congregation as a living organism must also adapt to its circumstances in order to retain its significance.  All the sympathy in the world little benefits the body of Christ without the ability to adapt and change. 

While the truth of gospel never changes, our world radically changes and with increasing speed.  This fact requires a healthy congregation to adapt to new methods and models for ministry.  The challenges posed by contemporary culture will never slow down nor will they wait for the church the “catch up!”

How will this congregation adapt?  Which is a less obtrusive way of saying how will you/we adapt?  This is not something we can put off on the next generation. 

Leo Tolstoy once said, “Everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.”

So my challenge for us this morning is this: 

When you leave worship today, ask yourself or pray,

“Jesus, with your help, how can I change the world for the better and for the sake of the gospel? 

And most importantly, “Jesus, where will this all start with me?”

 


Who’s In Charge Here?

Sunday ~ August 21, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson                                                   

                                       Luke 13:10-17

 

Can you imagine walking bent over for 18 years?  18 years this woman had borne this affliction.  Horrible!  Helen Eshleman, the wife of the associate pastor who ministered with me walks bent over at the waist with osteoarthritis all the years I’ve known her which has been 18 years now.  When I was with Helen I was reminded this woman from Luke’s gospel. 

But, this woman had lived with it for 18 years, right?  She wasn’t really in any mortal danger.  Neither was Helen. She still got around (albeit with a cane), still had a cheery outlook on life.  So what is it, really in the scope of everything, for this woman to wait just one more day or two?  Then on a day that wasn’t the Sabbath no one would have anything to complain about, right, seems reasonable to me.  Jesus might have just waited one day or maybe even until that evening after sunset, when the Sabbath was over, and healed her then.  Then he wouldn’t have upset the leader of the synagogue and perhaps maybe even had won him over.  

After 18 years of this crippling posture and she finds herself in the presence of one who might be able to heal her I don’t think she would say to Jesus after he called her forward, “Yeah, I think he’s got a point.  This might not be such a good idea, rabbi, why don’t we wait until tomorrow.”  

No, of course she finds herself in quite a different place from the synagogue leader. 

You know, it is easy to counsel someone else to be patient.  And rules and policies are more likely to be considered reasonable when they do not affect the one enforcing them. 

Jesus, as we have come to expect, takes the side of the crippled woman over the religious leaders, as though her disfigurement were his own, or perhaps his mother’s.

We have become used to hearing Jesus criticize the religious establishment for their perverse priorities and hypocrisy.  Why were they fussing about Sabbath minutiae when a woman was set free from a long infirmity?  After all, he reminds them, that would they not set their herd or pack animals free or led them to water on the Sabbath without giving it a second thought.

But the message here is so much more than simply “people are at least as important as animals.”

In the deformed condition in which this woman had found herself for so long, she had also become religiously marginalized.  People with such conditions were not allowed in the temple in Jerusalem, period.  It’s a bit surprising she was even allowed in the synagogue, and perhaps she would not have been there except for the fact that Jesus was teaching that day.  In the synagogue, she would have been seated near or at the very back of the room, with the other women, who were not permitted to actively participate in the teaching and worship, offered up front by the men.  Indeed, women were not even supposed to speak.

Jesus, as teacher/rabbi, would have been seated front and center.

So when Jesus sees this woman and calls out to her while he is teaching, every eye in the place is transferred from him to her, from the very front and center to the very rear, from the one most valued to the one least valued.  Jesus reinforced this shift by calling her over.  This meant this woman was now being empowered by Jesus to move into the place of the men.  

There he laid hands on her.  

Immediately, she stood up straight and began praising God; that is, worshiping—out loud!   A woman who had been crippled for eighteen years was now standing (like the men) and praising God (as only men were to do) in the area where the men offered their worship, all at the instigation of the guest rabbi that day, this Jesus from over in Nazareth.

 

Luke doesn’t say it, but any Jewish reader or anyone familiar with Jewish synagogue practices would have known it.  The synagogue leader wasn’t just mad about breaking the “not working on the Sabbath rule.”  That was a convenient law to pull out, because everyone knew it and he would seem to have some ground to stand on when interpreting it this way.  But this was barely about Sabbath at all.

It was about control.

Not just about control in this service.

This was about the control of the culture as he knew it.

The synagogue leader was indignant because Jesus had just shown up and disrupted the caste system of the entire religious culture, a caste system the synagogue leader and all the men in the synagogue benefited from at the expense of the women and any others who had been suffering for years without any possibility even to ask for relief.

The function of Torah (the Law) was never intended to be about keeping people in “their” places—which really means keeping “lesser” people in the places the more powerful want them to stay!

Instead, as the central story of Exodus declares, Torah is all about setting people free to praise and service to God and neighbor. 

One version of the Ten Commandments puts the Sabbath commandment this way:  Deut. 6: 12-15  (Yes, there are two versions!)

Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the LORD your God has commanded you.  Six days you shall labour, and do all your work:  But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD your God: in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates; that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you.  And remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD your God brought you out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Which brings us to the point of this text in Luke.

This is not a story about Jesus bashing Judaism.  After all, remember, Jesus was born a Jew, lived as a Jew and died a Jewish man!  And here he was teaching in a Jewish synagogue!  We do not know what his “text” was that day.  But we do know he had been invited to be the teacher on that Sabbath.  So, in a sense, he was in welcome territory.

Until he applied the heart of his teaching and preaching:

“The kingdom of God is drawing near.”  (Luke 17:21)

When the kingdom of God draws near, things like this happen.  The marginalized are brought to the center.  The “impure” are touched and healed.  Women worship among men.  And from time to time even the “faithful religious social order” is broken.  Sometimes, it would seem to the rule breakers, outrageously.

And how do we react when we lose our grip on the levers of control because God’s kingdom does what it does?

Perhaps not much differently than the synagogue leader did.

As we keep seeking to adjust our lives to the presence and work of God’s kingdom in our midst, we don’t just have to ready ourselves and our finances.  And it’s not enough to get ready for opposition “out there” in the world.  Both of those are hard enough.

We’d better be ready for some in the leadership within the church to try to squelch what God’s kingdom is up to.  And if we’re those leaders, we’d better be ready to know this about ourselves, and work at being open to letting the Spirit speak and act through whom it may speak and act!     

Some questions for us to consider. 

There are probably still some “caste systems” at work in our wider community, and even in our worshiping community.  What are they?  Can we name them?  And in naming them, call them forth to disrupt them in the name of Jesus?

Who sits on the edges of our worship, not in the back by choice, but relegated to the margins for reason we not even be fully aware of?

In what ways are we (church and wider community) creating a culture that contributes to setting people free to praise and serve God and neighbor as the Spirit leads them and not as we with our traditions hold to be “proper”?

Now we must be clear about a vital distinction between castes and functional roles.  In the life of churches and communities, we have varieties of leaders and followers not because followers are “less” in any way than leaders, but because the leaders are trusted to lead in these ways.  

In castes, people are prevented from sharing their giftedness with the larger community because of some trait outside their control—gender, class, social status, physical or mental ability or challenge, or others you might name.  

Jesus calls us out of the crowd to step forward.  We are called to follow Jesus with our abilities and inabilities, in our giftedness and commonness, with our strengths and frailties, to each in our own way break all such castes and divisions among us, so that the church “may be one” as Jesus prayed and that it also might be as we pray it will be  “Thy Kingdom come thy will be done on earth s it is in heaven.”  

Then we will all known who is in charge here!


Guest Patti Ulrich

~ Sunday ~ August 7th, 2016 ~ Guest Patti Ulrich 

Christians have always believed in a God who is concerned with the natural world. We have prayed to God from the depths of coal mines to the heights of Everest and from outer space. We have blessed ships and planes in God’s name, built soaring cathedrals to the honor and glory of the Almighty, and even equated scientific achievements to God’s guidance and blessing. These are all material things, because we believe in a material God.

 

Today’s readings cause us to step back for a moment and consider God in another light, as one who is beyond the material. In the passage from Isaiah, God castigates the people of Sodom because they have allowed material things such as incense and sacrifices of animals to become more important than their relationship with God. God defines the relationship as being centered on justice and care for orphans, not expensive feasts and liturgies, as God commands the people to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

 

The quality here is not material, but a spirituality that deeply honors a God who cares passionately for the whole of creation and doesn’t need to be appeased with sacrifice when things are going badly. It’s not about God; it’s about us. And God expects us to address the things that are amiss, not fix them through incantations.

 

However, we continue to write a check for the hungry without learning why there is hunger in the world. We pass legislation that addresses immigration reform without wanting to know why people want so badly to come to America that they are willing to risk imprisonment and deportation to do it, leaving their families behind while they work to send money home. Our minds whirl around whether Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter. But I tell you today that for God ALL lives matter! The truth of the causes for these issues is something that we may not think deeply about as we go about our busy, privileged lives. We cannot appease God with our prayers while we ignore the things that make us uncomfortable.

 

In our gospel reading today, Jesus addresses this issue of how we are to live with God:

 

He says “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

 

Recently a conversation took place in a coffee shop. A woman with a loud voice revealed how frustrated she had been because she couldn’t find a parking spot. She then related how she had loudly prayed, “OK, God, I give up. You find me a parking place or I’m going home.” As she drove around the block for the fourth time a place opened up right in front of the coffee shop. Her friend, a rather quiet woman, smiled and then shared how she had been praying for weeks for her friend who had received a bad prognosis for her recurring cancer. She had just spoken to her friend that morning and learned that the doctors were now confident she would recover. Both of these women were sincere, but the one who asked for healing for her friend knows what God’s power is for – it’s not for finding parking places! But you know friends go ahead and pray for parking spaces and lost keys and all such things. Keep talking to God about all the big and little things! God is listening to us!

Anne Lamott wrote a book about the three essential prayers: Help, Thanks, Wow!! If you are like me, those three words spoken to God speak volumes! See if you agree with what C. S. Lewis wrote: “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”

It’s true that we may not get very far with God as long as we understand the Kingdom as material rather than spiritual. We are not going to have as deep a relationship with God when we pray for material wealth or our weekends are spent spending the money we have earned on more material things. Sabbath is not shopping; it is rest. It is time set aside for us to enjoy quiet, rest and refreshment. Have we forgotten about keeping the Sabbath? I know I have!

Sabbath is the rest that helps us to prepare for the full lives that God would have us lead as Disciples of Christ. We are given the commandment to observe the Sabbath for our better selves. We are given the space to rest, restore our spiritual lives, and avoid being completely swamped by the world’s material goods. Nothing that rusts or wears out will enter the kingdom of heaven. We need to be able to leave it all behind. And by the way, Sabbath doesn’t necessarily have to occur on Sunday.

Outside of these readings but deeply inside their message, is the great voice of the Creator reminding us how much we are loved, not for what we have, but for who we are. We are treasures, servants who are blessed by the Holy One. Our economic standing, our homes and wealth are of no account to God. What matters is our lives. How we live, how we approach justice, care for the poor among us, and how we treat one another is the bottom line for judgment. Our success in worldly things will ultimately mean nothing.

Summer is a good time to take another look at all that we possess and inventory in our hearts and minds the spiritual treasures we have, the friends who love us without condition, the church that keeps us in communion with each other and God, the beauty of the material world that belongs to every human being. It is a good time to look up at the stars in awe, and remember that the God who made us also made them, but they are nothing compared with the treasure we have of being loved by that same God who asks us to show that love and care to every person we meet.


Would You Like to Supersize That?

Sunday ~ July 31, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson ~

Luke 12:13-21

A few years ago a new series aired on BBC which was called, The Men Who made us Fat.  In the opening scene of one episode the journalist who narrates the series goes into a diner for breakfast.  He orders a breakfast with the innocuous sounding name: The Kid’s Breakfast.  Now, that sounds like a prudent caloric­ saving choice for a grown person, doesn’t it?  But, there is a hidden catch with this menu choice.  This kid’s breakfast consists of an eight egg omelet; a dozen pieces of bacon; a dozen sausage links; two kinds of potatoes (hash browns and potatoes sauteed with mushrooms); and four pieces of French Toast, sliced bread, and toast (all buttered).  The restaurant calls it the Kid’s Breakfast because “it weighs the same as a small child.”

Now most of us couldn’t begin to even put a dent into this breakfast, even if we sat there all day.  But, believe it or not, there are people who actually try.  There are probably even a few that get their money back (as promised) if you eat it all.

“Supersizing” is what most of us call it. Legend has it that the phenomenon got started when Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s, was finally persuaded to add a “size large” to all the menu items. Kroc was sure that people would just buy another order of fries if they were still hungry. His executives argued otherwise. They knew that people would not want to go to the counter a second time because that would make them look like gluttons. But eating a double portion that was sold as a single serving? I don’t have to tell you how successful that marketing idea became!

It wasn’t long before fast food chains figured out they could increase profits even more if they bundled food items together and knocked a dime or a quarter off the price. And voila, the value meal was born. Today so many people have been persuaded that up-sizing and item bundling is the smart thing to do that 35% or more of adults over the age of 20 in America are overweight to the point it endangers our health. It seems that corporations with an insatiable hunger for profits hit on something big: We humans often have no idea when to quit. And eating isn’t the only area we have this problem. We can see that clearly in the parable of the rich fool.

The farmer, the fool, in the Gospel story, doesn’t have a problem with pushing himself away from the table.  He has a problem with putting the brakes on expanding his agricultural operation.  Usually this parable is held up as a warning against the accumulation of wealth, but perhaps there is more to it than this.  Greed is only one of several possible reasons that could have caused the farmer to

become obsessed with filling up grain bins and building new ones.

Maybe he wasn’t so much greedy as fearful and insecure -not trusting God to provide his daily bread.

Maybe he did it for the sheer love of the game, the challenge and the achievement.

Or maybe he really liked to win and he enjoyed besting his fellow farmers in the Biggest Crop of the Year competition.  Whichever of these scenarios may be the case, Jesus makes it clear that this farmer’s life is at odds with what God regards as a meaningful and substantial life.

The Message version of the Bible often has a way of getting to the heart of the matter it translates verse 20: “Just then God showed up and said, ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods-who gets it?

 

This is arguably the strongest condemnation that Jesus renders in all the Gospels.  It comes out of a tradition that long predates Jesus. That tradition, known as the Wisdom tradition in biblical studies, intends to teach about nature, reality, virtue, and the divine. In this tradition to be a fool wasn’t really about being dim­-witted, thoughtless, or unwise. To be a fool was to be one who failed to comprehend the power and purpose of God in all things.

The farmer is a fool because he seems little concerned or aware of the fact that he is not in full control of his own destiny and welfare. As he goes about his business, he doesn’t give a thought about the fact that his days are numbered.  He acts .as if he has all the time in the world, when in truth only God knows the number of any of our days.

Well, the weather produced a fine harvest and he benefits from it.  Good for him.  He seems to be a capable farmer.  Yet, he fails to acknowledge that God’s abundance has been poured out for anyone other than himself.

His life is all about whatever he can create, what he can consume, what he can accomplish.  His days are like golden fat-saturated French fries consumed one after another.  He has no awareness of how sluggish, flabby, and poorly fed h;s soul has become.  If he thinks of the spiritual aspect of his life all, there is no indication.

No need to worry about things of God.  There will always be tomorrow, right?

There are retirement days ahead that can be devoted to such matters of God and his church. Right now, though, personal business affairs, practical matters of home and family, and life’s pleasures take priority.  The things of My ” world need

attention.  God’s business can wait.  All the while a slow spiritual heart disease sets in, his life connection to God filling with plaque and slowly clogging up.

I heard a TV preacher once say that far too many Christian today live on a spiritual diet equivalent to little more than Fritos and Coke.  One good burp and it’s all gone!

 

God in Christ offers us a different menu than the world offers.  Compared to the world’s menu it is simple and yet nourishing.  There is only one thing: It is not fast-food picked up at a convenient drive-through and consumed as we speed through life oblivious to God and others around us.

We share this heavenly food whenever we gather around the table for Holy Communion.

But we also share it whenever we are aware of our place within God’s wider plan for all of humanity and all creation.

There is nothing wrong with the idea of supersizing life, God is all about that!

But it is never about just me or you.  God when God acted in creation created us in community, first a family in the garden.  Then even after sin tainted the creation God acted to save creation through a people.  And when Jesus came he acted through a group of disciples which became a new community, the church.

We, you or I are not God’s plan but we are all an important part of God’s plan.

So when God offers you physical sustenance of any sort it’s okay to say “Will you supersize that, God?”  And then tum to your neighbor in need and say to him/her “Here, I’ve got more than I need.”

But most importantly we will find that everyone’s spiritual sustenance will have been supersized as well!


Amos: The End

Sunday ~ July 17th ~ Pastor Neil Wilson 

This is what the Lord GOD showed me – -a basket of summer fruit.

He said “Amos, what do you see?”

I said, “A basket of summer fruit.”

 Then the LORD said to me, “The end has come upon my people Israel;

  I will never again pass them by.    Amos 8:1-2

 

This passage from Amos has within it one of those turns of phrase that is completely lost in translation. 

The LORD asks Amos what he sees.  Before Amos is this image of a bowl full of ripe seasonal fruit.  Imagine a large bowl of sweet cherries on the altar.  It conveys an image of plenty, abundance and God’s providence.  All is well, it would seem.  There has been a good harvest, healthy crops, good market prices.  

 Amos replies that he sees “qayitz” (ka’yitz) summer fruit.  We’ve heard the word twice already.  First in saying God shows it to Amos and then when Amos answers.  Summer fruit.  Summer fruit.  qayitz, qayitz. What gets lost is what God says next.

Rather than continuing the image of summer fruit, qayitz, God’s very next word rhymes with it – “qets” (kaits) which means “end.”   In the original language this is a powerfully unsettling image, but impossible to capture in English.   

Something similar in English might sound like this:  

It was morning. The Lord asked me, “What time of day is it, Amos?”

Morning” I said. 

Then the Lord said to me, “Mourning shall replace songs of praise, loud lamentations the thanksgiving of the people, and the streets of your cities shall be open graves.” 

Qayitz shall be qets the fullness, the ripeness of the land shall be no more, for the end is upon them. 

As I said last week Amos is a harsh prophet, unrelenting in his “word from the Lord.” 

Now it might be easy to consider Amos one of those street corner doomsday prophets with the large placard or sandwich board in large letters proclaiming “THE END IS NEAR!”  Except that Amos would not be on a street corner.  He would  be walking the halls of the capital in Lansing and Washington D.C.; he is standing on the steps of the National Cathedral on Sunday morning; in St. Peter’s Square just as the Pope is about to give an address; and places like Bentonville, Arkansas (Walmart) and Seattle, Washington (Amazon.)  

Amos’ was a message to the people in these places of power about how the people on the street corners were being treated.

What all this comes down to is an understanding that for Amos part of Israel’s greatness was that the people at one time has seen themselves as accountable to something higher and more substantive than their own opinions.  Amos was called to remind Israel especially the religious and civil leaders that to be a people (a nation) of faith is to be dependent on and tethered to the righteousness of God.  And according to the word of the Lord that Amos received God’s is especially concerned for the way the poor were being treated in Israel.   

 

What according to Amos was supposed to happen?  Everyone’s labor was to be fairly rewarded. The Sabbath was to be observed in its entirety by all, Israelite and alien in the land, for the rest and restoration of all. Weights and scales were to be accurate to ensure a fair price for all, especially the poor.  Slavery and indentured servitude were forbidden by this point in Israel’s history.  And parts of everyone’s fields were to be left unharvested for the poor to gather from if they could not afford to buy it.  (Remember the story of Naomi and Ruth?)  And the “sweeping” or the chaff would not be sold as grain. 

This is what the people did for one another because they were all God’s people!  And God required and cared for justice for all.  This is the God who rescued them from slavery in Egypt and had provided for them a land that was more than able to support everyone who lived there. The economy that they had created which oppressed the poor and the alien and harmed everyone by reducing the time for rest was an affront to the character of God. 

Well, that was then, in the 8th century b.c.e.

Everything we see in Jesus tells us God still rejects the sort of practices identified by Amos in today’s reading.

What about our society today?   Where might we find or need an Amos with his message?  In some of those places I mentioned earlier?   Do we know any modern day Amos’s speaking a difficult word of correction and resistance to ways of the world? 

You know there are different roles one can take as a disciple of Jesus.  There is the role of pastor/priest, these are the people who are called to feed to souls/spirits of their faith community.  There are the deacons (male/female) who are called to serve, originally it was to literally feed the people.  Then there are those who are called to be prophets. 

Another way to think about these roles is that pastors feed and nurture congregations and individuals.  Out of this spiritual nurturing there are those who feel called to serve in a diaconal role (now understand, I am not talking about church committees and boards here.  Not at all!)  The deacon types of people feel called to work in places like food pantries, second hand clothing and furniture shops and the like.

Then there are the few that are called to the prophetic role.  Pastors feed the soul, deacons feed people, and prophets ask the difficult question “Why are there hungry people?”    We need all three but are not particularly comfortable around prophets! 

I am reminded of Helder Camara, a former Brazilian Archbishop, once said: “When I feed the hungry they call me a saint.  When I ask why they have no food, they call me a communist.”

Back in November of 1965, a few days before the Second Vatican Council ended, 40 bishops led by bishop Hélder Câmara met at night in the Catacombs of Domitilla outside Rome. They celebrated the Eucharist and signed a document under the title of the Pact of the Catacombs. In 13 points, they challenged their brother bishops to live lives of evangelical poverty: without honorific titles, without privileges, and without worldly ostentation. They taught that “the collegiality of the bishops finds its supreme evangelical realization in jointly serving the two-thirds of humanity who live in physical, cultural, and moral misery”. They called for openness “to all, no matter what their beliefs”

Here we are some 50 years, later does this sound like someone we are familiar with in the larger Christian Church Universal?  (Another South American Bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio aka Pope Francis.)

With Amos as with Jesus Christ there is no straddling the fence.  From the lowliest to the highest in society and in the church we all fall under the righteousness of God.  And there with Amos and some of the ideas of the current Pope I leave us to ponder:

How we are doing in our society today? 

Or more importantly how are those who end up on the short side of unfair scales,

Those who are burdened with the impossible demands of the modern day high pressure workplace,

And the children who are being sold for a pair of shoes or clothing or iPads, and they themselves never being able to afford the opportunity of such things. 

 What do you see Amos?   Summer Fruit?

I’m not Amos so I can say it is not too late!

 May the fruit of our land and our faith never go bad.

As Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

May we so order our lives, personal, corporate and civic so that this may be said for all! 

Amen!


Harsh Words from a Herdsman

Sunday ~ July 10, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Amos 7:7-17

Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’

Amos 7:14-15

Early in my years of ministry I identified rather closely with Amos’ self- assessment.  I still do, even some 35 years after I sensed that initial call to ministry.             

“Who am I, Lord?  I’m just a harvester of trees, a caretaker of the forest.  You know I get along much easier with swamps and hills and trees than I do people.  Trees are much more predictable.  And they don’t talk back!  What would I have to say?”    And the Lord kept on saying to me, “But, I am calling you. Go!”

Because I identified with Amos and this passage, I have spent some time wrestling with it over the years.  And as I have come to understand this prophet, his message and his historical context, I have discovered that Amos is not an easy book of prophecy to draw on for sermons!  And I do not believe I would have wanted Amos as a mentor on my journey toward ordained ministry!  Unlike Isaiah and Jeremiah, Elijah and Elisha, Amos by-in-large is pretty heavy on judgement and light on any hope for reconciliation and restoration!

And apparently it wasn’t easy for Amos either.  The opening words of this section “This is what he (the Lord) showed me. . .” is literally “this is what God mademe see.”  As if to say, Amos didn’t really want to see or hear it either.   

What Amos saw was an image of the Lord holding a plumb line up in the midst of the people, Israel. And as you know with a plumb line it is obvious when you are not in line and apparently they were quite a bit “off plumb”!

Now Amos lived and prophesied at a time of relative peace and prosperity in the northern kingdom of Israel.  To quote the logo of a popular clothing line, “Life is good.”  Or, that is, for a few anyway!  And this is what the Lord made Amos to see

The kingdom of Jeroboam in its prosperity had become corrupt and this corruption was felt, as in most cases, most severely by the poor and needy of the kingdom.  More critically, the court priests like Amaziah, who should be advocating for the needy and poor, had bought into the political scene of the day and were just as corrupt. 

Speaking to both political and religious leaders Amos says:  

“Here this, you who trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land, saying,” When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”

(Amos 8:4-6)

This is the way The Message translates this passage:

Listen to this, you who walk all over the weak,

    you who treat poor people as less than nothing,

Who say, “When’s my next paycheck coming so I can go out and live it up?

How long till the weekend when I can go out and have a good time?”

Who give little and take much, and never do an honest day’s work.

You exploit the poor, using them—

    and then, when they’re used up, you discard them. 

 

With the metaphor of the plumb line Amos points out a fatal flaw in the community’s structure, it has come out of “true” with God’s will for it.  The plumb line shows that the ways of God and the harmony of social relations should be aligned.  Things are not lining up in Jeroboam’s kingdom and Amaziah’s religious realm!

Because of this, Amos proclaims, there will be no escaping God’s judgement!

Then the Lord said, “The high places of Isaac will be destroyed and the sanctuaries of Israel will be ruined; with my sword I will rise against the house of Jeroboam.”  (v. 9)

Therefore this is what the Lord says:

“‘Your wife will become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and daughters will fall by the sword. Your land will be measured and divided up, and you yourself will die in a pagan country. And Israel will surely go into exile, away from their native land.’”  (v. 17) 

All this is proclaimed without one word of hope.

Amos makes religious audiences uneasy still today, for his message seems to shake the certainty that God’s “loving kindness” will always overcome even the worse judgements we deserve.  Even Isaiah and Jeremiah who were quick to condemn the sins of the priests, kings and people always held out a word of comfort that God would always welcome back the repentant.  Amos however, is uncompromising.  God has finally turned away from his people.   End of story! 

The chilling part of all this is that history proves Amos right.  Approximately 40 years later Israel was overrun by the Assyrians and taken away into exile and the images of destruction that Amos saw and proclaimed were very real to the people of Israel.

Okay!  So now preacher, what do you do with this depressing word?

Well, I’m not sure!  There are at least a couple of ways to think about this:

First a point I would like to make: The word of judgment in question here is God’s.  It isn’t Amos’ and in fact we can sense that Amos was a bit uncomfortable with sharing it!   It isn’t the pastor’s or the church council’s or the church hierarchy, it’s a word from the LORD! 

So having said this one approach to this  is to say that sometimes God’s only word to us can be one of judgement! 

Sometimes regardless of our attempts at justifying, rationalizing, compromising, God says NO MORE!  Because there can be no compromising, there is no rationalizing. 

 No means no!  Like parents with young children who do not yet understand for their own safety and their ultimate wellbeing, certain behaviors are not acceptable, period!   This is one way to hear the words of Amos. 

Then as Christians (remembering our faith ancestors were the Jews who first followed in the way of Jesus!) we can hear this word of judgement as no less the word of the God who intends, ultimately to save us in Jesus Christ, which is, who is, the ultimate blessing. 

But much of contemporary Christian theology in North America, while it attempts to be gracious, sentimentally portrays us as hapless victims. Thus we “would be” victims are offered therapy. 

On the other hand, orthodox Christian theology, especially in the Protestant Reformed tradition (of which we hail), depicts humanity, despite any injustices we may have suffered along life’s way, not just victims but also as perpetrators who, while deserving God’s wrath, in the end will receive God’s mercy.

And like the children who don’t understand why Mom or Dad simply said “No”, sometimes God’s mercy has a way of feeling like God’s judgement!

So as parent might say “I’m doing this for your own good.” when God says it we probably better believe it.  For God sees what we cannot!   

Old Testament prophets “word from the Lord” have ways of transcending history and cultures and peoples to speak to every new generation.  It can require (or demand) us to consider the current way of ordering ourselves as church, whether as congregations or individuals, and see how we might stand under such a word from the Lord.   

One of the questions Amos requires us to consider is: Are there ways we being complicit either in our commission or omission of words and actions that trample the poor and needy?   

How far has the religious scene of our day, bought into the ways of the world, and therefore unable to stand above the corruption and politics of business as usual and speak a word of correction to places of power?

These are just a couple of thoughts for us to consider.  Amos’ message is things have gone too far. Next week perhaps we’ll take another look at Amos as he says more about why.  

I started out by saying that I could identify with Amos, being a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees. 

Also, on occasion, I can identify with Amos when it comes to sharing a difficult word with a congregation. 

And so like Amos I can say, “Don’t shoot me!  I’m only the messenger. 

God is the one who sent the text.  And believe me, sometimes I wished I was out of range!”


Just Jesus (Nothing Else needed)

Galatians 2:15-21

Sunday ~ June 12, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.”

Would someone like to explain this for me . . .  justification . . . any ideas?

Okay then . . . how about some other religious terms like:

Redemption . . . Sanctification . . .  Salvation . . . Atonement?

There are Christians who like to use these terms and use them in such a manner that they make the rest of us think they know what they are talking about.  (Now I can honestly say I’ve not found many of this sort of Christian here!)

Rather, I would hazard to guess that most of us here, if we were honest, would have to admit we struggle with understanding many such theological terms.  In today’s reading of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, terms like “justification” and “the presence of Christ in us” fly right over the heads of most of us and may require some thoughtful consideration.

So I thought I would talk about justification this morning.  (I can see some of you checking your watches already!!)  Paul mentions several times in our reading that a person is justified not by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ (And if you would like more, I encourage you to read Paul’s letter to Romans.  No, I challenge you!)  For Paul, this “justification by faith” is at the very heart of the gospel.  But what does he mean by this?

 

With the advent of modern word processing and home computers we know that with a click of the mouse we can “justify” our document.  “Justification” is what the program will do when you want full alignment between either the indents or the margins.  It will create a fuller or some might say boxier look to the page with even alignment along both edges.

Or you could say that justification straightens up the words so that they are in right relationship to the page.  This might be helpful in understanding Paul’s theological use of justification.  Justification is what God does for sinners who are out of line.  Messy human lives get straightened out, put in right relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  The grace of Jesus Christ makes it happen for all.  (Although there is another word that may need some fleshing out grace.)

Jews are justified by grace.  Gentiles are justified by grace.  Baptists are justified by faith, and so are Catholics, as well as Congregationalists. Americans and Europeans; Hispanic and Australian, Asian, Russian, all are justified by grace.

Christ alone has done what obedience to the law in general and circumcision in particular (in the case of Paul’s writing) could never do: he has realigned human beings with God and one another, resulting in harmony, in a new community.

As Paul would write to the Ephesians, For[Christ] himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, (2:14)

Paul is adamant; people are not justified by Jesus and the works of the law.  While the underlying concern over circumcision in Galatians may not be much of a theological issue for us today, it is important to fully grasp the concept that salvation (Again another word we may need to unpack sometime!) salvation is never a matter of Jesus and something else!

 

Not Jesus and certain cultural practices;

Not Jesus and a certain spiritual practice or theological perspective;

Not Jesus and a particular income level;

Not Jesus and a specific denomination;

Not Jesus and a political party;

Not Jesus and being good enough;

JUST JESUS!

If anyone or anything else can be said to justify the sinner, the gospel is derailed, and, in the words of Paul’s devastatingly abrupt conclusion, “Christ died fornothing!

Now on the other side of this there are those who believe that their deeply personal failures, some seemingly unforgiveable sins in their past are just that, unforgiveable.  And so they might doubt such “good news” asking “But did Christ die for this too?”  “This” being that part of them or their past that they deem beyond the reach of God’s grace.  The church’s answer to any such doubt has to be an unequivocal, “No, not for this, too.  Christ died for this period!”

No sin is an addendum to the cross.  No amendments needed.  It was all covered the first time!

Stubbornness or stupidity:  covered.  Addiction or depression: covered.  Guilt or greed: covered.   Every “pre-existing” condition is covered.

God’s grace is unconditional.  That is why it is called good news not Insurance for Heaven with all sorts of additional riders and exclusionary clauses!

Unfortunately, what is often lost in the church is this very good news.  It is as though the gospel is a very valuable diamond on display, but the church focuses too much on the dark velvet background of sin, the bad news.  The sparkling gem of grace is diminished or missed altogether.

Maybe this is why for many persons, churches are seen a places of judgement and bad news, to be avoided by those who are troubled and struggling – the addict, the divorced person, the homeless single mom, the parolee.  Why would I want to go there?  They will only make me feel worse.

A common perception out there is that we have it all together and will be quick to point out where they do not!   (Which of course we do, don’t we.  We have it altogether! J   Perhaps this is our biggest sin!)

Of course in our multicultural, pluralistic world there are other options available to seekers, on line or on the corner: there’s the Hindu conception of karma; the Buddhist eightfold path; Islam’s five pillars; the Jewish covenant and Torah; but none of these (In my humble opinion, that is!) are quite so unconditional as the gospel of Jesus.

For the gospel news is Just Jesus not Jesus and  . . .

The message of forgiveness is Jesus died for the forgiveness of sin and to show us the way . . . period.

Maybe what the church needs is to become better at living out the evidence of justification. This even more than we need to be able to explain it to one another! Perhaps the seekers and sinners of the world might better understand the meaning of “grace alone” the more we are able to live it out, even amongst ourselves!

And this is where that continuing presence of Christ Paul speaks about it is so important.

Paul says, “. . . it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

What the church is or ought to be more than anything else is the continuing presence of Christ in the world.  The world does not need another social organization for our entertainment.

The world doesn’t need another club with membership rights and privileges.

The world surely does not need another religious business or spiritual marketing scheme;

What it needs is to see the continuing presence of Christ.

Perhaps the real challenge facing us today is learning how to pay attention to what the living Christ is up to, right here in our midst!  For when we do, when the world can see living Christ moving in us, the church, the work of spiritual renewal will begin. 

Just Jesus.  It is that simple and yet that challenging.


On the Outskirts of Town

1 Kings 17:8-16

Sunday, June 5th 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

It was supposed to have been a big day for the congregation of Rockhaven’s Old First Church on the Common.  Supposed to have been.  About a month ago Rev. Williams received word that the Rev. Sylvia Buckholt, Minister for Small Town and Rural Congregational Life from the national office, was going to be in the area and the local Judicatory officials thought it would be good for them to call on Old First Church.  How about the last Sunday in May?   

Now having high church officials around is a good thing, thought Rev. Williams, when they have been invited.  But to have them invite themselves?  Something has to be up and of course it cannot be good!

Rev. Williams informed the Church Cabinet of the impending visit and that was all it took.  An unexpected and uninvited “inspection” visit (This is what it came to be called.) needed all hands on deck.  And while Rev. Williams tried to reassure the congregation this was just a courtesy call, you know they never are.  They just knew they were under review! 

So the platoons and detachments sprang into action and preparations began for the big visit.  They wanted to look their best.  While the congregation was preparing the facility for the “inspection” (I mean visit!) Rev. Williams, on the other hand, was trying to figure out how he could go about preparing the congregation for the Denominational officials or vice versa!  You know, which parishioners he wanted to keep busy and away from the church leaders and which ones he could discretely (of course) direct their way.  Those to showcase, you might say, and those to misplace!

 

Well, of course, who should be the first one in the Church office the next day but Sam Coleridge.  Yep, good old Sam, always looking out for the welfare of his beloved church.  And usually in there somewhere, somehow is calculated a little benefit to Sam Coleridge as well.

“Rev. this is a big deal and we need to look our best.  And if you don’t mind I would like to have the honor of giving our distinguished guests a tour of our church and community.  And I was thinking that we would start by taking them up into the bell tower where they can see the Common and the vista from the hills to the northwest all the way down Rockhaven Bay and the waterfront.” 

Sam was just one of those he hoped to keep busy elsewhere, like in the kitchen or the parking lot even!   For the past several months Sam had been bringing up before the Church Cabinet the idea of lighting the church steeple.  Now on the surface, not such a bad idea except that with Sam it was never simple.  His plan was for a massive array of LED lights wired through a computer program that would enable them to flash in time to music.  Sam suggested some of the classic Christmas carols like “Silent Night” and “Frosty the Snowman” and other such spiritual favorites. 

And of course, some music for Lent like “Go to Dark Gethsemane” “I Got Friends in Low Places” and other such hits of the season.  Then of course on those nights when the fog rolls in off the cold north Atlantic, the lights could project all sorts of religious images in the fog over the church for the whole of Rockhaven to enjoy.   

“And then . . . we could also sell some advertising time to some of the local merchants!”  

“Can’t you picture it, Pastor? ”” 

He was trying hard not to but the images of Jesus along with Wally’s Fish Market & Bait Shop floating in the fog over Old First Church was burning into his imagination!

Sam had seen it done by a church in Atlantic City and it was just inspiring!  And he just happened to have some information about a company called Holy Holographics that could come in and give them an estimate.  

“What do you say Rev.?”

The Rev. knew what was up.  Sam wanted to approach the church officials with his idea and see about securing a loan for his inspirational project. 

Imogene Reynolds stopped by.  She was very concerned about the coffee hour after worship.  It just wouldn’t do to have the usual fare.  She read on the signup sheet that Leslie and Jerome Jordan were scheduled for that Sunday and with all those kids wouldn’t it be a bit too much for them to prepare a coffee hour when we are having extra guests.  Rev. Williams reminded Imogene that it would be only 2 more people. 

“Oh it’s no bother pastor.  Betsy Holgrum and I will get together and plan something ‘real nice!’  Now don’t you worry.  I call Leslie this week.”  

Clara French, church organist, was pushing the Pastor about his sermon topic for she wanted to make sure the choir was well prepared and the service music something special.  The ordinary fare just would not do.

The more he heard from his parishioners the more he wondered if he would even recognize his church and congregation on the morning of the “inspection” excuse me, I mean visit. 

He kept reminding himself “They mean well.  They mean well.”

 

Well, on the morning of the anticipated visitation, the church was sparkling clean.  Cobwebs brushed out, old bulletins removed from all the hymnals one Abby found dated back to 2007!  The morning little Bobbie Flanagan was baptized.  The altar clothes had been dry cleaned.  Some of the congregation that morning wondered if the church had bought new ones the colors were so much brighter.  Why someone had even taken it upon themselves to clean up that accumulation of stuff that cluttered the shelf in the pulpit! 

The church’s good silverware and real coffee cups and plates were stacked up on the coffee hour buffet.  And the table filled with all sorts of cakes and fancies, all from Holgrum’s bakery.

Rev. Williams had even gotten a haircut.  Joe the Barber insisted to the point where he offered to cut it for free.  And the Rev. never one to keep a parishioner from doing good works took Joe up on it!

 

Reverends Buckholt and Pearson left early that morning from Augusta to take a more scenic route to Rockhaven.  They decided to take the more northerly route which would bring them into town across the Barrens and through those very hills Sam wanted to point out.  It would add an hour to their drive but they had time and it was such a beautiful spring morning, one of those precious days between ice out and black fly season. 

The blueberries on the Barrens were in full bloom which meant the bees were busy and the bears even busier trying to get into the hives.

Their route took them through all those kettle ponds let behind by the last glacier that visited that area.  On past the Pine Plains Baptist Church where Rev. Buckholt said a little prayer for them, a habit of hers.  On through Clancy’s Corner and they begin the climb up and over Carter’s Hill.  And this is where God seems to have intervened in everyone’s plans. 

You see, Rev. Pearson’s 2002 Subaru Forester had over 250,000 miles on it.  The one thing you don’t do is go into denominational leadership for the big pay raise! (And Old First Church is part of a very spread out conference!)  Well, the old Subaru began to rebel a bit against the slope of the hill and then it began to sputter about it and by the time they reached the height of the land the 250,000 miles had caught up them and the Subaru gave one last gasp and quit!  So coasting into a turnout they pondered their predicament. The last sign they saw said it was how far to Rockhaven?  That’s right they hadn’t seen any sign!

Well, what’s the first thing you do in such a situation?  Yep.  And nope. . . there was no cell coverage!

From where they stopped the view was breath-taking.  They could see for miles nothing but forest and hills, but they did see a driveway just a few hundred feet down the hill.  So they began to walk that direction hoping to find someone home and a phone.  As it would turnout God would grant part of their prayer, they would find one but not the other. 

At second look the drive seemed more like a washed out two track that lead back into the brush but there was a mailbox with the name Holman so someone must live up there.  Sure enough up around the corner was an old mobile home clinging to the hillside. One downhill corner was held up by at least 8 cement blocks to keep it somewhere near level.  It had one of the shelter roofs built over it to protect the thin metal roof from the harsh winter snows and spring rains. 

They climbed up the rickety steps to the makeshift plywood shelter that acted as a wind break from the constant winds that blew across the barrens and over the height of the land on Carter’s Hill.  

Before they could knock on the door a tall thin woman, her hair pulled back in a tight bun met them.  After brief first name introductions and explanations of their predicament the woman welcomed them in and introduced herself as Jeanette Holman.  And that she was sorry but they didn’t have a phone and her husband, known to all as “Pappy,” had taken their automobile over to Uniondale just a while ago to buy some more paraffin wax for the preserves she was making. 

“Perhaps they had met him along the way.”   The only vehicle they recalled meeting was this old, very old Dodge, they recalled how odd the fellow driving it looked with his baseball cap on sideways.  

Jeanette returned to the little kitchen of the mobile home where there was an old blue Formica topped table covered with jars, cooling the wax she had just sealed them with.

Jeanette and Pappy don’t entertain very often so she was quite chatty.  She explained that while it was Sunday and that she usually goes to church in town she hadn’t today.

They, being pastors, but not revealing so, were curious about why she had not gone to church this day and which church in town did she belong to.

“Oh Bea Stearns usually picks me up and we go to Old First Church on the Common.  Were they from around here and did they happen to know Rev. Williams?”

Wanting for the time being to keep some of their anonymity they simply said they were not from around there.  

Jeanette went on to say that she didn’t go to church that day for she felt like with the special guests coming in she would feel out of place.  Everybody had been working so hard to get things ready for these special guests and she lived so far out (It is a good 15 miles into town.) that she hadn’t been included in all the preparations.  And after all it was one thing to go to church dressed the way she does with her friends but quite another when you have special visitors. 

She would have liked to have presented these out of town visitors with some of her blueberry preserves but she wasn’t sure she would have enough.  This was the last of the berries she was able to winter over and she sells her jams to the local markets as a way of trying to keep their utility bills paid up during the winter.  It had been a long cold winter and they had fallen behind. 

They offer to buy some jam but she would have no part of it.  They were her guests and they would have some of her blueberry preserves on some of her homemade oatmeal bread and that’s that. 

“Pappy” will be back in a bit and he would drive them into Rockhaven where they would get some reception for their cell phones.

They enjoyed a cup of tea along with several slices of toasted homemade oatmeal bread, slathered with the most wonderfully sweet and delightful blueberry preserves.   And they spent a rather enjoyable morning. Every once and awhile Jeanette would say, “I don’t know what keeping that man. He knows I need that wax.  I bet he stopped by the Paris Farmers Union Store just to gab.”

Some time passes before they hear tires on the gravel drive and sure enough out of this ancient Dodge pops this wiry elderly fellow with his hat all a skew.  “Here’s your wax, Mother and a packet of pumpkin seeds form Billy at the Farmers Union.”  Jeanette looks her guests way and smiles.

“Who do we have here?  You wouldn’t belong to that car parked up the hill would you? That’s nearly as old as my Dodge out there!”

“They do and they need a ride into town Pappy.”  Jeanette informed her husband of over 50 years.

She hands them each and little bag.  “Here take this with you for later.”   

The visitors thank Jeanette for her wonderful hospitality and the brunch she provided and load into Pappy’s Dodge for the harrowing ride into Rockhaven.  

Being that by now it was well passed 1:00 in the afternoon long past their appointed hour at the church, Pappy drops them off at Perry Packard’s General repair shop. Perry happened to be in that afternoon helping Danny Killington with a little project of hers, an old Farmall tractor she is restoring. 

Perry drives Rev. Pearson back to his car while Danny shows Rev. Buckholt over to the church, where she walks in to find Mabel Bailey and Sarah McIntyre folding the last of the fancy tablecloths.  She introduces herself and apologizes for being late and before she could explain any further Mabel runs to find Rev. Williams. “They’re here! They’re here!  Or at least one of them.” 

The Reverend’s in the church kitchen helping Imogene and Ruth Williams putting away the last of the fancy silverware most of which had not been used.  (Why use the good stuff if your special guests aren’t there to see you use it!)

Rev. Buckholt tells them all about how their car had quit up on Carter’s Hill and they walked to Jeanette and Pappy Holman’s and all about Jeanette’s wonderful hospitality.  And what a character her husband was and even though he drove them all the way onto Rockhaven and they knew he could use it Pappy would not accept anything for gas.  Indeed God had richly blessed their morning with the very fortuitous opportunity to meet the Holmans.

Well, let me tell you, the church people, they were aghast!  Of all the people, Pappy and Jeanette Holman, and they rode into town with Pappy behind the wheel.  Why, Jeanette rarely did that!

Even Rev. Williams thought to himself, “Of all the people he would have wanted the denominational people to meet the Holman’s would have been down on the list.  Above Sam Coleridge, mind you, but down there.” 

But why shouldn’t they be?  Why shouldn’t God step into the midst of all their plans and preparations and do something completely unexpected? 

And really what is so odd about God using someone “outside” the mainstream to show us God’s way?

Meanwhile on their way back to Augusta in an old Subaru with a new Mass Air Flow Sensor, two visiting denominational folks are feeling blessed and Rev. Buckholt reflects that while what she experienced was not what she expected, it was just exactly what she needed and may have been looking for but just didn’t know it.  The reminder that goodness of God is often found in out of the way places and people, people who live on the edge of towns, on the edge of life.

As she finishes a text message back to the national office and puts down her cell phone, she sees the bag that Jeanette gave her.  As she opens it, the abundant blessings of that day continue, in the appearance of a small jar of blueberry jam and a few slices of oatmeal bread.  And in there a note:

 May the Lord bless you as you return home.

May light of Jesus shine on the roads you take. 

May the wonders of the Holy Spirit always surprise you.

And she wondered . . . who had blessed who. . . and who was the prophet?  

And as was her habit she said a little prayer: May her pantry always have some oatmeal and her blueberries always be bountiful.


Will You Offer the Blessing?

Luke 7:1-10

Sunday ~ May 29th, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

I knew a pastor who said they didn’t have the gift of prayer.  “You call yourself a pastor and you say you don’t have the gift of prayer!  Preposterous!  How can you not!”  I mean after all, isn’t that a prerequisite for pastoral ministry?  And if you’re not blessed with it before isn’t it something they teach you in seminary?  

Well, the pastor went on to explain that he developed this mantra early on in ministry.  He found that even before he entered professional ministry he was frequently asked to pray at every church meal and at every church function.  Once he was ordained, his family asked him to pray with much more regularity at family meals.  All of a sudden, he realized he was the delegated human hotline to heaven; he had become the “official” pray-er. 

It wasn’t long after I had announced to my home congregation that I felt called to pastoral ministry I started to notice the same thing.  People began to ask me to pray in many situations simply because I was going to be a pastor. “Won’t you offer the blessing, Neil?”  “Neil, would you begin this gathering with prayer?”

For some reason, maybe even subconsciously, over the years people either think that my expressed requests to God have a better chance of be granted because I am a pastor (really folks?), or they feel embarrassed to say an incorrect prayer in front of a pastor (As if there is such a thing as an incorrect prayer!)

In our gospel reading this morning, a centurion heard about Jesus, and apparently believed that Jesus would be able to help him.  The centurion had a highly valued servant who was very ill close to death even.  And while he believed Jesus could help him, for some reason the centurion did not go to Jesus directly.  Was he embarrassed, did he feel it improper, or was he just too busy? 

 

Whatever his reasoning, he first called the elders, the distinguished religious leaders of the synagogue in Capernaum, and he asked them to intercede for him.  The elders then went to Jesus with a list of reasons why this particular centurion’s request should be granted even though he was a Gentile. He loved the Jewish people and helped them build a synagogue.  Jesus was apparently impressed enough to go and meet with this fellow. 

As he approached the house, Jesus was met by a group of the Centurion’s friends.  They too asked for Jesus to heal this man’s servant. Once again, this centurion sent someone else to talk to Jesus.  First he sent the religious leaders with high reputations.  Then he sent his friends.  Perhaps he felt he could not talk to Jesus directly.

Isn’t this the case with us sometimes?  We can pass our prayer requests to the pastor, thinking that she will have the best chance of getting a response from God.  Then we will tell our friends about that prayer request.  Are we thinking that if we hand it to someone else, it is no longer our own responsibility?  But how often is it that we actually talk to Jesus directly ourselves? 

I believe that perhaps this is what the pastor wanted to refute with his standard response to every public request for prayer was “I don’t have the gift of prayer.”  Perhaps this pastor knew that if every time he was asked, he actually took away an opportunity for someone else to communicate with God.  Surely God does not discriminate; God hears each of us as we pray!      

This might have been what the centurion needed to hear, to hear that you do not need an intermediary to talk to Jesus. No matter how unworthy you feel, you can have direct communication with God yourself.  As we read in this story, the centurion doesn’t actually ever speak with Jesus directly.  We don’t hear that they ever actually come in contact with each other. 

So we might expect there to be no response, right?  Isn’t this the way?  After all, if you don’t have the courage ask me face to face, why should I help you?  Looking at this from another perspective, are we not cautioned about being triangulated into a situation?  True, but this is human thinking, a human attitude, not God’s! 

In the case of the centurion, his prayer tag team worked.  Somehow, Jesus still directly answered his circuitous method of prayer.  The final verse reads“When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the servant in good health.”

So what is there to say?  We can say that although they never met face to face, Jesus knew of the centurion’s faith.  When Jesus showed up, he answered the centurion’s indirect prayer not because of the elders or the friends’ convincing arguments, but because of centurion’s faith that his servant could be healed.   In fact, Jesus said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 

In the same way we can know that when we bring our concerns to Jesus, Jesus hears more than just our words; Jesus hears our faith, he hears our hearts where those unspoken words reside.

At the same time, we can say that even though we each have direct access to God through prayer, Jesus stills hears, and even answers prayers that go to and through someone else.  Sometimes we need to be able to count on prayer partners in our lives to lift prayers to God that we have a difficult time doing on our own. 

I think of the time Donna went in for a routine gall bladder surgery and they found a large tumor.  I found I had all I could do to listen to the doctor and understand what he was saying to me!  I thank God I had a wonderful man of prayer at my side, Jim Eshleman!)

Perhaps this is a cautionary word against privatizing our faith so much that we do not communicate to others what we are facing in our personal lives.  We all know people who seem to request prayer for every little hang nail but my guess would be that most of you here would be just the opposite.  It takes quite a bit for you to share prayer requests with others. 

This story of Jesus and the centurion seems to say that sharing prayer concerns is not a matter of weakness, rather, just the opposite it is a matter of firm faith in the one to whom all prayers are directed!  It is okay and appropriate to filter our prayers requests through trusted friends and church leaders. 

That pastor may have been right: perhaps only a very few truly have the gift of prayer.  But this does not mean that we should stop communicating with God.  As we can see from this story, while we may think we do not have the gift of prayer, we believe in a God who does have the gift of listening! 

Jesus listens to those who speak, and Jesus even hears those who don’t.  Even when our prayer requests are mediated, God’s response is uninterrupted.   

I know for sure there are many people who can pray better than I can and the truth of it is, no one can pray your prayer better than you can!  

So I give thanks that we worship a God who hears our prayers even and especially when for whatever reason, we are unable to find the words to pray them!


Street Wisdom

Sunday ~ May 22, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31

 

Wisdom.  We talk about it quite a bit.  We seem to know it when we see it or hear it.  We say that a person is very wise; or has a “wisdom beyond their years.”  We also use it dismissively, “He’s just a wise guy.”

But just what is wisdom and how does one attain it?  Can one attain it?

Hermann Hess in Siddhartha doesn’t.  He wrote, “Wisdom cannot be imparted.  Wisdom that a wise man attempts to impart always sounds like foolishness to someone else

Is wisdom the same as knowledge?  Most of us would agree it is not.  Hesse also wrote, “… Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.” 

Or how about this one: “Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.”  By the late great Jimi Hendrix.  

What about “common sense”, is wisdom the same as this?  It used to be thought that common sense was just that, “common”, to all human beings.  But as we learn through interactions with other especially other cultures much of what we think of as “common sense” has a cultural basis and varies according to culture.  

Is wisdom self-knowledge?  What about these two quotes from a couple of people who were contemporaries: Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”   ― Aristotle

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”   ― Socrates

Reminds me of the young pastor right out of seminary.  The ink on the diploma hadn’t even dried when a phone call came from Bob Cook chair of the board of Little Salmon Lake Congregational church, a little woodland country church in northern Maine, up there in Aroostook County.  Wouldn’t this seminarian like to come up for a candidating sermon? 

Little Salmon is a congregation of potato farmers and retired potato farmers’ widows.  Not the congregation a typical seminary trains students to face!  So this young pastor-to-be was extremely nervous and it very evident throughout the whole morning.  Sermon notes were dropped and mixed up.  In a nervous hurry the choir’s anthem was completely skipped over.  In a momentary brain lapse the words of the Lord’s Prayer just left and was muddled and muttered through. After the service the board met to vote on whether or not to call the young pastor.  It didn’t take them long and they called the greenhorn in.

“Well got bad news and good news.” 

“Really?” 

“Ahup. Three on the board thought that we might as well have nothing as to have you.” 

“Oh my.” 

“Ahup.  The good news is that four of us figured you was about as close to nothing as we were going to get.  So, you’re hired!”

 

The human quest for wisdom. 

Indeed where is wisdom to be found?

Is she found by climbing the lofty heights to a solitary recluse sitting in a sukhasana (yoga) pose in some alpine cloister or pagoda?

Perhaps.   But if Proverbs provides us any illumination, Wisdom is to be found on the heights, yes, but also “beside the way” and “at the crossroads” and “by the gates at the entrance.” 

The Message translates it this way: “She has taken her stand a First and Main, at the busiest intersection. Right in the city square where traffic is thickest . . .”

And yes, that is correct, wisdom is personified in Proverbs as feminine.  Sophia, Lady Wisdom, of whom it says,

“The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old;

I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be.

When there were no watery depths, I was given birth,

 when there were no springs overflowing with water;

Before mountains were settled in place, before hills, I was given birth,. . .

I was there when God set the heavens in place,

 when the horizon of the deep was marked out . . . 

I was constantly at God’s side.”

 

If this sounds similar to a NT passage you are right.  This Lady Wisdom sounds very much like John’s description of Jesus as the Word from the prologue of John’s gospel.  Or should say vice versa John writing sounds a lot like these words in Proverbs which John would probably been very familiar with.

So wisdom is God’s creation, God’s gift to the Creation, and is to be found in and through the created world.

Wisdom is found in the interaction of the very public spaces in our world.  Especially in those border zones where cultures meet.  Picture a McDonalds, Burger King or Johann’s where it is not just the local crowd but a group of European travelers, Native American fishermen, Hispanic businessmen, Muslim students who are women, all gathered for a cup of coffee and one of those glazed raised pretzel shaped donuts.  Imagine the conversations going on in such a place!

Wisdom is found in the interaction of cultures and religions in an open and honest give and take of ideas.  “A wise man gets more use from his enemies than a fool from his friends.”   ― Baltasar GraciánThe Art of Worldly Wisdom

According to Proverbs you could say that wisdom is learned “on the streets.”  But it is not the same as “street smarts.” 

The Wisdom of God, Sophia, is found in the everyday interactions we have with Creation and creatures (including other homo sapiens!) in everyday ways.  J. Philip Newell former rector of the abbey on the isle of Iona suggests in his book “The Book of Creation” that we don’t have to find God/wisdom by leaving our daily lives to go to church or worship services, or looking to the invisible, “spiritual” realm, but by “. . . entering attentively the depths of the present moment.  There we will find God, wherever we may be and whatever we may be doing.”  In this way Lady Wisdom is very democratic.  She is wisdom for everyone not just a select few.  It is for all and all have equal access to it.   

So then, it could be and I might argue that wisdom can be found right here, this morning. 

Not in this space because it is a sanctuary, but because of who is gathered in this place.

Not that it is found as you sit in the pews and listen to a sermon (I’m not that naïve!  Wishful, maybe, but not naïve!) but in your personal interaction with the scripture as you hear it, your interaction with the spirit in the praise whether in the liturgy or the music or in prayer. 

But just as importantly, wisdom can be revealed around the coffee hour tables just as readily as the communion table!  Especially if we can heed the advice of Jimi Hendriks and listen more that we talk!

I see a lot of wisdom out there.  I see a lot of knowledge and experience as well, but these are not quite the same are they.  Experience and knowledge can inform wisdom but it does not make for it.  

 

Some of the wisest persons I’ve ever known had limited education and rarely traveled more than 75 miles from where they grew up.  (Names that mean something to Donna and I: Bob & Gladys Littlefield, Jeanette Hill, Ruth Fox and others.)  And then others whose wisdom was informed because of their wide travels and many experiences.  The key to their wisdom was in the ability to listen and learn and grow and adapt to the new information they were receiving.  Wisdom is expansive enough to take in more and integrate it into and expand our world view.

So have I given you a definition of wisdom?  No I don’t believe I have! 

Can I?  No, I don’t believe I can!

Will you know it when you see it or hear it or experience it?  I believe you will!

Will you know if you are a person of wisdom?  No, because it seems to be the way of true wisdom that if you possess it others will sense it in you and you may very well be clueless!  If you do have this notion of yourself as a person of great wisdom, beware!  It is a sure thing that you probably are not!

In an attempt to sound wise, let me leave you with two last quotes again from contemporaries but from two different “worlds”:

“Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.” 
― Albert Einstein

“The small wisdom is like water in a glass: clear, transparent, pure.
The great wisdom is like the water in the sea: dark, mysterious, impenetrable.” 
― Rabindranath Tagore  (Hindi)