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

101 State Street
Charlevoix, MI 49720


Let Me Be There.

Sunday, May 15th, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
John 14: 7-12. 25-27

Wherever you go . . . Wherever you may wander in your life

Surely you know . . . I always wanna be there

Holding you hand . . . And standing by to catch you when you fall

Seeing you through . . . In everything you do

Let me be there in your morning . . .Let me be there in your night

Let me change whatever’s wrong and make it right

Let me take you through that wonderland

That only two can share

All I ask you is let me be there

Who would have thought that young woman born in Britain, who grew up in Australia would have had a country song hit in the U.S.? And who would have through that it could be used as a text on Pentecost Sunday?

Do you remember the song and artist?

Olivia Newton-John . . . Long before Grease and John Travolta she was country!! I know this because even though I was 19 and a fan of rock and roll I can remember hearing this song on the pickup radio driving to and from our logging sites. John Chandler, chopper, and sort of the woods boss, mentor, friend and co-worker was a fan of 101.9 FM WPOR Maine’s Country Station. So on the way home from work in my early years of logging I had to listen to such hits as Why Me? (Lord) Kris Kristofferson, Before the Next Teardrop Falls Freddy Fender; Behind Closed Doors and The Most Beautiful Girl Charlie Rich and this favorite of loggers and other blue collar workers If We Make it Through December by Merle Haggard and of course in the midst of this was this sort of early cross-over hit “Let me be There.” (Sounds like one of those special offers “Country Hits of the 1970sby the original Stars only on K-Tell Records!)

Never in my wildest thoughts during that time in my life could I have ever envisioned a time when one of the songs blaring from that truck radio would come to mind when I was pondering a sermon! Who am I kidding? The thought of me pondering a sermon was not on anyone’s probability charts back then!!

The 14th chapter of John’s gospel is a rich source of topics on which to reflect. Like: What does it mean to ask God for something in “Jesus’ name?” (v. 14) Or: What could it possibly mean that the works of those who believe in Jesus will exceed Jesus’ works? (v. 12)

And then in the verses surrounding of today’s reading in v. 6 we have the thorny issue of the exclusive claim of the Christian faith “No one comes to the Father except through me.” And then in vs. 18-19 we have the nature of Christ’s second coming. “I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you. . . . The world will not see me but you will see me. . .

All great topics for a sermon . . . for another Sunday!

But going back to the beginning (where all good books and stories should go) we find in the first verse of chapter 14 those familiar comforting words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” What I hear in these words of Jesus and those that follow is the Great Pastor expressing pastoral concern and care for his disciples. “I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” And thus in my mind I hear the words of Olivia Newton- John:

Wherever you go . . . Wherever you may wander in your life

Surely you know . . . I always wanna be there

Holding you hand . . . And standing by to catch you when you fall

Seeing you through . . . In everything you do

Let me be there in your morning let me be there in your night. . .

In the literary context of John (How or the way he tells the story.) Jesus has just told his followers that he will not be with them forever and in fact not much longer. And that this will come about because he will be betrayed. And even Peter will deny knowing him. One can imagine the multitude of emotions this would have stirred.

In the historical context of John’s gospel, (What was going on when it was written.) we have a community of disciples many decades removed from Jesus. And they just might be wondering what they are to be about now that their founder is no longer present to them and his promised return seems to have been stalled, delayed, postponed or perhaps even misunderstood. Has their community been left on its own, cut off from any access to Jesus’ presence and transformative power?

Important questions!

John recounts this episode in the life of Jesus in order to convey to the ongoing community of disciples a confidence that, because of the presence of the Advocate, there is not, and will not be any loss of the presence or the power of Jesus!

The Advocate or the Spirit of Truth (grk. paraclete means “helper”) is sent to teach and help them/us remember of all that Jesus said. And this is not a remembering for its own sake, not even remembering that may lead to a fuller intellectual understanding of Christ. The remembering Jesus had in mind was for the sake of faithfulness.

As Jesus says in v. 23 “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

Note the use of the plural “them.” This Spirit will not just be a matter of an individual expression or experience but it is sent to and is found within the community of faith. The love of God made know in Jesus continues in the post-resurrection communities through the promised gift of the Spirit. And this is a gift to the community as a whole. The Spirit for John is not a private possession of an individual believer. It is Jesus’ gift to the church.

Do not let you hearts be troubled church. . . I will be with you. I will be there to help you remember when troubled by anxiety. I will be there to help you stand firm when fear would have you stray. I will be there with you to the end of time. You will know the presence of this Spirit because it will be revealed in your love of me and the way you love others in my name. (vs. 22-24) Through this “presence” this Spirit, this Advocate, you will “know” me. And in this knowing you will find peace.

No wonder this passage is a favorite at so many memorial and funeral services. But its pastoral tone and themes resonate far beyond times of grief just as they resonate far beyond the original context in which they were spoken by Jesus to those few disciples in the upper room.

Jesus as the Word Incarnate is present to and through the church in the Paraclete, Advocate, Holy Spirit, Spirit of Truth. Remember when the Holy Spirit presented itself with power on Pentecost as recorded in Acts, it was to the gathered community of faith and it came to them as a whole not just to certain “more spiritual” individuals within the gathering.

So church hear and believe the promise of the great Pastor: Believe in me. . . I will take you to myself . . . where I am you will be also. . . I will not leave you orphaned. . . I will send the Holy Spirit . . . and you will remember.

So receive my peace a peace that only I can give the world cannot give and neither can the world take it away!

And again I couldn’t get that song out of my head!

Watching you grow

And going through the changes in your life

That’s how I know . . . I always wanna be there

Whenever you feel you need a friend to lean on, here I am

Whenever you call, you know I’ll be there

The Spirit is here, Church! Alive and well, in our midst! I see evidence of it all over the place! Not in tongues of fire swooping down over your heads but in selfless acts of love and compassion for each other and your neighbors and even those you don’t know but care about as in the children of Crossroad, the children of the Christmas Project, the young parents (sometimes grandparents) picking up diapers for their little ones. The care letters, the flowers and cookies and so many other ways we share.

Are these greater works than Jesus?

I don’t know but if you ask those who have been on the receiving end of these actions they just might say that they have a better sense of Jesus because of what the spirit is doing through His Church! AMEN!

Special sermon presented by Charlevoix First Congregational member, Patti Ulrich as her Final (exam, so to speak) sermon as she walks through the door to the next chapter in her life of service to God and those who have an ear. Congratulations Patti Ulrich.


Don’t Just Stand There . . .

Sunday ~ May 8, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Acts 1:1-11

When was the last time you remember celebrating Ascension Day?

Or heard sermon on the Ascension passage? (Actually it was June 1, 2014!)

Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday (40 days after Easter) so it is often passed over in most Protestant congregations. In only one of the communities I’ve served did any protestant churches observe Ascension Day. A few neighboring UCC congregations in southeastern Indiana would mark Ascension Day with a combined service.

We may have read about the Ascension, remember it from Sunday School lessons, and we’ve seen it portrayed in art. But we rarely celebrate it or mark it in worship. So today I thought I would draw our attention to the passage in Luke/Acts that describes that moment in the life of Jesus’ disciples. Do not worry we’ve not forgotten that it’s Mother’s Day as well!

Every time I hear the story about Jesus’ ascension I’ll admit I have this mental image that is not all that flattering of the eleven disciples. For you see in my mind’s eye they’re all standing there gawking at the clouds, their heads tipped back, eyes wide and their mouths hanging open. “They stood there staring into an empty sky.” is how this scene is translated in The Message.

For some reason I see a flock of domestic turkeys staring up at the rain, dumfounded.

Have you ever heard of or seen the TV show called “The Carbonaro Effect”?

Michael Carbonaro is an illusionist and improv actor who sets up an undercover scene in real life situations such as a music store where he is showing customers a specially trained chinchilla who supposedly can take whole pieces of bamboo and with his teeth chip perfect clarinet reeds. In another he is a receiving clerk in the shipping department of a museum where he is opening up packages sent in from other museums. One such crate has a mummified cat, which he has his unsuspecting helper wrap back up to return only to see a moment latter the shipping crate moving then meowing. Opening it up out jumps a very live cat! The unsuspecting person is usually left blinking their eyes shaking their heads and trying to wrap their minds around something that couldn’t have just happened but yet they saw it with their own eyes. (Or at least they thought they did!)

Can you imagine the disciples staring into the clouds saying “Okay, Jesus, you can come back now. Enough is enough, really okay?”

You have to feel for the disciples a bit here. I can understand why they were frozen in place, shocked and numb. I imagine I would have been too. And, I bet, if you were honest with yourself, you would admit that you just might have been dumfounded as well.

They had had a rough few weeks. The week leading up to Passover was a whip lash-producing switch from coronation to condemnation, all at the hands of the very people Jesus had spent three years teaching and healing. The day after Passover (Good Friday for Christians) was anything but a “good “experience for those standing at the foot of the cross, watching helplessly as their rabbi and friend died in agony.

The following first day of the week brought the shocking news that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb! Did this mean he was making good on his promise to rise after three days? Apparently so, for over the next forty days there were numerous surprise appearances, which reassured the disciples, that indeed Jesus was back.

And now, now Jesus had taken them outside the city, promised to be with them forever, and then disappears up into the clouds. Yes, you have to feel for these folks.

There are other retellings of Jesus’ ascension in the scriptures. In Matthew, for example, Jesus tells the assembled disciples that he is giving them the power to be leaders among those who believe and that it is their task to spread the Gospel, baptize and teach what Jesus had taught. Mark also includes the instructions to go and preach, teach and baptize. (Albeit this is in what most scholars believe to have been an addition to the original manuscript.) The author of Luke (who also wrote Acts) tells us at the end of his gospel that Jesus “. . . led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (24:50-53)

His first description of the disciples’ behavior after Jesus’ ascension was much more flattering. We might wonder, what was Luke’s purpose of this second account in Acts?

I would suggest that perhaps Luke was attempting to address with the early community of Jesus’ followers the question, “Why do you continue to be paralyzed with inaction when Jesus told you what you should be doing?” The story is an equivalent of “Don’t just stand there, do something!” This retelling of some angelic words is a nudge to shake the cobwebs loose and get to it.

Angels! They are often portrayed as the reassuring messengers God sends during the times when people have seen or heard something that causes them to blink and shake their heads in an attempt to realign a new experience with what they thought to be true. Often the first words out of angel’s mouth is, “Do not be afraid.” But the author of Acts is a bit more on task. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (that . . . staring into an empty sky.)

Why indeed? In their amazement at Jesus’ disappearance, it was taking their brains a second or two to catch up. The angels continued, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Again I like the way The Message has translated this: “. . . will come as certainly . . .and mysteriously as he left.

And then the story goes on to say that the disciples returned to Jerusalem and gathered with the other believers (about 120 total), praying and taking care of a little nominating committee work in replacing Judas with Matthias, all this while waiting for the Holy Spirit which arrived as we will see next week on Pentecost.

By the time Acts was written, things were different with the believers. The Gospel of Luke seems to lay out the life of Jesus and how the reader should interpret the events of his three-year ministry, death, and resurrection. The book of Acts is about the formation of the Christian church and the many questions the young faith needed to address a few decades removed from the resurrection.

This second telling of the ascension includes momentary confusion and inaction, but then continues with the disciples getting back with the program and the promised arrival of the Holy Spirit, which provides the spiritual authority and incentive to reach out in Jesus’ name. In the Acts version, the author walks the disciples through a nagging question of authority which was being asked by the fledgling church and gives them a reminder from where their authority arises.

It is a reassuring retelling, when you stop to think about it. We too are often immobilized by doubt or confusion or a sense of being all on our own. Even though the Holy Spirit is available to us through baptism or in the way you may personally understand the working of the Spirit, we still balk at being bold in our work for the Lord. Even though we are part of the body of Christ, we often underestimate the power of our work in the world and the difference we can make.

The story doesn’t stop with the angels providing a sort of V8-sytle thump on the disciples’ heads, (or a Gibbs thump to the back of DiNozzo’s head!) it continues through the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to be with and empower them through the Holy Spirit as we read throughout the rest of Acts.

And that, is the good news that carried them from the stunned turkeys gawking at the clouds to performing the deeds of faith and healing and preaching that built the church.

Now we are standing in the line of those early disciples and the early church; like them we cannot just stand here starring to the heavens with a look of bewilderment. We cannot sit here in our comfortable pews staring into some heavenly eternity thinking that is all this Christian faith is about.

We too are called to do something. We have our own chapters in the continuing book of Acts to write with our lives and our deeds for future generations. We are called to do something just as amazing in our day for Jesus.

So . . . don’t just stand (or sit) there . . .

Faces in the Dirt

Easter Sunday ~ March 27, 2016 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Luke 24:1-12

There are places in the story of Jesus’ life where there are gaps. And the silence in these gaps can be at times intriguing and also frustrating. There are periods in his life about which it might be interesting if not helpful to know a bit more, like what was Jesus like as a young person (our teen years), Jesus with his brothers and sisters, and one I wondered about, why did he choose to go for a walk on the Sea of Galilee in the middle of a storm at night!

Perhaps the most intriguing silence in the Gospels in that time between the burial of Jesus’ body late Good Friday afternoon and the early morning visit of the women on the follow Sunday. A mere 36 hours, yet it changed the course of history for a significant portion of humanity.

This time of silence is marked in some congregations by the ancient celebration of the Easter Vigil. It is a time of waiting. We wait with the followers of Jesus, remembering how the women disciples planned to go to the tomb. In the silence they sit together to support one another in their grief, and to plan.

The Sabbath silence is broken as we begin to hear the early morning stirrings of the women. The muffled noise of the pottery pots filled with oils and spices as they gather them and make their way to the place where Jesus had been laid.

I can imagine their shadows flitting in and out of the shadows of the landscape of early morning. When they arrive to see the stone at the opening rolled back, we see them standing eyes wide with wonder and fear in front of the unexpected yawning emptiness of the tomb. It is no use pretending at this point we are surprised – we already know what they will find. We’ve been here many times before on this day.

The very familiarity of the scene hinders our attention to Luke’s unique details. For example, we might not notice that Luke talks of two men dressed in luminous clothing in the tomb, not the one figure that Mark and Matthew mention. Matthew even calls him an angel. Surely in Luke they are the same kind of otherworldly messengers. Even more significant, however, is the response of the women. In Mark’s gospel, the women are amazed; in Matthew’s account it is the guards who were fearful. In Luke the guards are long gone and we are told that the women are afraid and bow their faces low to the ground.

This is not an image of a mere curtsy, a polite bowing at the hip or even a genuflection. This was a complete full obeisance much like we see in the Muslim prayer posture. Literally, a position of bowing with their faces actually being “to the ground,” a face in the dirt!

Confronted with this totally unexpected mystery, this effacement seems wholly appropriate. The stone rolled away from the doorway, the body of their rabbi/teacher gone, the appearance of two strangely bright men – all these things cannot but fill them, not just with awe, but terror!

Yet we who are too accustomed to this story, who are used to thinking of Jesus as our “good buddy,” who have tried to make God as knowable and dependable as breakfast cereal, hardly linger at the dreadful silence of these women with their faces in the dirt. Our efforts to tame the holy dull us to their sense of fear and awe.

We miss Luke’s first preachable lesson here: God’s ways are not our ways. They are beyond our comprehension; they subvert what we expect; they demand the impossible. They are holy precisely because they are not of our own making. When we encounter God’s ways, our first response should always acknowledge this with more than just a nod.

A second lesson we might learn from Luke comes moments later. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angelic visitors say to the tops of the women’s heads. We are just as guilty of such a fruitless search. We too want to tend the corpses of long dead ideas and ideals.

We cling to former visions of ourselves and our churches, as if they might come back to life as long as we hold on to them.

We grasp our loved ones too tightly, refusing to allow them to change, to become bigger, or smarter, or stronger, or more independent.

We choose to stay with what we know in our hearts to be dead, because it is safe, malleable, and so we can with our selective memory process, improve things with age, (at least in our own minds!)

The words of these otherworldly messengers are a challenge to stop hanging on to the dead and move into new life. They are reminders that the Holy One dwells wherever new life burst forth. Jesus was not found in the emptiness of the tomb but in the garden and Galilee!

Still another point we can pick up on is also found in the mouths of the two angelic beings. “Remember how he told you,” they tell the women, “that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.

This memory, this remembering connects the empty tomb with the very human Jesus who ate and talked, suffered and died. In remembering these words of Jesus they also were taken back to the all the other things he had taught and done.

They remember the meals they shared in Jesus’ fellowship, the times they watched as he healed, they recalled the parables, the bent woman, the ten lepers, the man with the shriveled, the blind Bartimaeus.

If they (we) are to understand the meaning of the empty tomb, we need to remember the Jesus of Galilee. The mystery of the resurrection is best understood in the everyday world of human living.

This means that the boundless gift of the empty tomb cannot be separated from the words and deeds of Jesus. Resurrection is, after all, not some lofty ideal, unconnected to the real world. It is an invitation to receive the power to live as Jesus lived.

It is a doorway to a life in which meals are shared with enemies,

   Healing is offered to the hopeless,

      Prophetic challenges issued to the powerful.

Only now it is not Jesus who does these things – it is each of us who see at last the subversive power of the resurrection and believe it can empower our lives and our living as well.

On that first shadowy Easter morning, when the women cowered in the dust and angels picked them back up, pointing them back out the door of the tomb and gate of the garden into the full light of the morning, the power of God was no longer silent. The silence had been broken, and the women rushed back to tell the others what they had seen.

It did not matter whether they were believed or not. I mean, after all, under the circumstances who would believe their tale?

Did not matter that Peter had to test the veracity of their story by running to the tomb himself, finding there the linen grave clothes, and wondering all the way back about what he had seen and not seen.

It did not matter because the women knew.

   The women remembered.

      The women believed.

And the women responded by breaking their own silence to speak their own truth, truth as they had seen and experienced it.

Which is, after all, exactly what God asks of each of us.

Caught in the Crossfire (of Blessings)

Sermon ~ Sunday, March 26th ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Luke 19:28-42

If I were to say “The peace of Christ be with you.” As a congregation how would you respond? What would you say? (Without consulting your worship program!) . . . . “And also with you.”

This echo is created every Sunday in countless congregations across the world when Christians gather for worship. Somebody says it to us and we say it right back. According to Luke this practice dates back at least as far as the first Palm Sunday.

“The Peace of Christ be with you.”

Luke’s Palm Sunday account echoes his Christmas story. When Jesus was born, the gospel writer tells us that the angels appearing in the heavens and sang, “Peace on earth.” Now, as Jesus rides his colt into Jerusalem, the people look to the sky and sing, “Peace in heaven.” Heaven rings of peace on earth. Earth echoes back, “Peace in heaven.” And as the church gathers this day, we are caught in the crossfire of blessings!

For Luke this is not just some slick literary device, the repeat of an earlier theme. It is the announcement of what God makes possible in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We hear the story of Jesus approaching Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, from the direction where tradition says the Messiah would appear. A gathering of his followers surround him, praising God, waving their branches and laying down their cloaks. They sing Psalm 118 as their song of deliverance, affirming that God will rescue God’s chosen people.

Like so many peace songs, (remember the 60s!) the psalm provokes anxiety. Those in power are not comfortable with “peace songs” because they often carry an undertone of protest. Some Pharisees want the crowd to be quiet. It is hard to really know their reasons. Perhaps they think the moment is too politically charged. It has been pointed out by other biblical scholars that about the time Jesus rode in to Jerusalem, on the other side of the city, from the west, in rode Pilate, moving with the Roman army. He would come into the city at the beginning of Passover week to ensure that nothing got out of hand. So were the Pharisees saying, “Now’s not the time to attention to yourself Jesus!”

Or is it simply that the Pharisees disagree with the suggestion that Jesus is the Messiah. We cannot say for sure. Either way the Pharisees cannot contain the crowd. On a day like this it was be like telling church musicians that Faure’s “The Palms” is off limits.

As Jesus rounds a corner in the path, something changes. The whole city spreads out before him, his destination these past several weeks, months. He pauses, considered the ways and circumstances of the holy City and this brings him to tears. He cries out in prayer, “Oh Jerusalem! If only today you knew the things that make for peace, but you do not know them. They are hidden from your eyes.”

His words interrupt the echo. Peace on earth . . . peace in heaven – – – yet in between Jesus says, there is no peace. An eerie premonition of what will occur later in the week. In spite of all the “Hosannas,” Palm Sunday in a day of contrasts. We can sense it in the hymns, beginning as they do with the triumphal entry, yet always out there is the shadow of the crucifixion. We see it in Jesus, as ruler of the universe chooses to ride a borrowed colt. The contrast is clear in the destination, as the city that welcomes him will later call out for his blood. For now, at least, the greatest hopes of peace are hidden from those who wish for it.

We have our own contradictions, of course. We are easily convinced that the best way to create peace is by initiating a war. The strong are strengthened by holding off the weak. Parents confront fear by buying a handgun for the dresser draw. Schools encourage competition more than cooperation. Governments and businesses seek to win at all costs, even if it bankrupts them. Churches in the name of the Prince of Peace find themselves embroiled in conflict and splitting over non-eternal matters. And Jesus rides his lowly farm animal through all of it.

Here the question has to be asked: “What are the things that make for peace?” What are the things “hidden from our eyes?”

By asking, we recognize that we do not know the answer. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus indicts again from the cross saying, “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing.” And we stand right there with the Roman soldiers. There is here a kind of ignorance, not of intellect, but of the heart. It is possible to think through a problem without committing to a solution. We can reason our way through a conflict as if it is a game of chess, and totally miss the victims. If we think ourselves superior, we will even miss ourselves.

Jesus rides no high horse, just a lowly colt. He chooses to enter a deadly situation without force or protection. He gives himself freely and without reservation. This is a prophetic act, a sign of God’s vulnerable love, which risks everything and promises to gain all. This is the means by which God creates peace.

One of my favorites places on the Holy Land tour is a little chapel on the side of the Mount of Olives (back cover.) It is not an old chapel by Holy Land standards or any for that matter. Built in the mid 1950s by the Franciscans, it stands on the route pilgrims would have used as they entered Jerusalem from the east. The name of this chapel is Dominus Flevit, Latin for “the Lord weeps.” It is the traditional site where it is believed Jesus paused and wept over the city.

At the foot of the altar, a mosaic of a hen gathering her chicks under her wings recalls Christ’s words “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Lk. 13:34)

Behind the altar is a much-photographed picture window overlooking the city (worship program cover.) The cross and chalice in its arch-shaped design, focus not on the Dome of the Rock in the foreground but on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Pilgrims (and tourists) gather in the little chapel to share the Eucharist as they move to the city of Jerusalem. As they view a city still divided, with people from many faiths still squabbling over the same real estate, they pass the bread to the words, “This is my body, broken for you.” Then they pass the cup saying, “This is the new covenant in my blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins.”

It is a moment to recall the great cost of reconciliation, as God sent Jesus into the world to bring all back to God’s powerful love.

Sometime we are clueless when it comes to peace.

However, for those who continue to share the body and blood of Christ, it is common to say, “The peace of Christ be with you all.”

How does each of us respond? . . . . With the words, “And also with you.”

May it really be so, beginning in each of our hearts, families, neighborhood and nation, so that the Peace in Heaven will be the peace on earth! And we will once again be caught in the crossfire of blessings.

A Long (un)Expected Party

Sunday, March 6, 2016 ~ Sermon ~ Pastor Neil Wilson

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” The Hobbit J.R.R. Tolkien

Hobbits, in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, as well as being diminutive, hairy-footed people who along with comfort, enjoy gardening, good food, a casual smoke of pipe-weed, also above all else enjoyed a good party.

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” The Lord of the Rings

Hobbits also had, according to Tolkien, an unusual tradition surrounding birthday parties. On a hobbit’s birthday, he or she does not receive gifts from family and friends. Instead, the birthday-celebrating hobbit presents gifts – and perhaps throws a party – for all of his or her family and friends. At first glance, this may appear an unappealing custom. “What? It’s MY birthday and I have to go to the trouble and expense of gifts and a party for everyone else? This is supposed to be MY day to celebrate and be celebrated!”

But stop and think for a moment what this means in terms of the total number of birthday gifts and parties a hobbit participates in every year. Instead of celebrating a birthday – “my birthday” – only once a year, the Hobbit celebrates birthdays many times a year, in fact on each and every day that a loved one has a birthday. JRR Tolkien gave the first chapter of his The Lord of the Ring trilogy the title “The Long Expected Party.”

It is at this party that Bilbo gives his famous speech with that wonderful quote that I’ve considered using when I’ve left one church to move on to another. (Perhaps I’ll use it when I retire!)

“I am immensely fond of all of you, and eleventy-one years is too short a time to live among such excellent hobbits. . . I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like half of you half as well as you deserve . . .”

Their birthday custom suggests that the hobbits might understand very keenly the famous story we usually call the parable of the Prodigal Son. As Jesus tells it, a prosperous landowner has two sons. The younger cannot wait until Daddy dies before he gets his inheritance. Despite the insult, the father gives the younger son his share of the family property (which would have been 1/3). The youngest son then runs off to some first century Las Vegas, squanders it all, and ends up eating beans and mush alongside the hogs he is reduced to feeding. (There is a lot there that I will not bother to unpack today! Needless to say he had hit the very bottom.) Then he decides he might return home – even if his father will not take him back as a son and treats him like a hired hand, it will be better than this. So he rehearses his “Please take me back Father” speech.

So home he goes, he doesn’t have to pack his bags because he has nothing. All the way there he is preparing himself for humiliation. I cannot imagine what might have been going through this younger son’s thoughts as he approached the last rise in the road over which would be the family farm and whatever future awaited him. Just as he reaches the top of the hill and comes in sight of the homestead, the unheard of happens, he sees his father running up the road to meet him.

He hardly has time to launch into the speech had prepared and been rehearsing, “I deserve nothing Father and would willing serve as a hired-hand” -before the old man is wrapping him in the family’s finest robe and putting a ring on his finger, literally getting the “royal treatment!” Before he can grasp the full gravity of the moment, a fatted calf has been slaughtered and most of the town invited to celebrate in a spectacular party. A party, dare I say it, “of biblical proportions!”

Thinking again of Tolkien and his customs of Middle-Earth he titled the first chapter in the Hobbit where all the dwarfs show up at Bilbo’s: “An Unexpected Party.”

For us Plain Earth folks, the story would be perfectly satisfying if it ended right there. It would be like Jesus was trying to tell us the Kingdom of God is like a birthday party. You or I or he or she finds our way back to God and God celebrates. Not bad. Like the sound of that.

However, Jesus does not stop his story there. For next he brings in the elder son and big brother is not happy! This is putting it politely! He has never insulted his father. He has not blown his inheritance on prostitutes and wild living. His stayed on the farm, worked hard every day all these years. And what did he ever get for his faithfulness? NOTHING! Not a single “atta boy” good job party for him and his buddies.

His is mad. And he is not going to set one single foot in this overblown, over the top extravagant bash. He could hear the music from the upper field where he was working. His face is getting redder by the minute and the steam rolling out of his ears.

Now, I do not know about you but as a Plain-Earth person I can relate to the older brother. He had been responsible, behaved himself, didn’t bring any disrespect or shame to the family name. The spoiled brat on the other hand wasted it all and word had gotten out about his escapades and he can remember the shame he saw in his mother’s eyes. And now, for his punishment, he is getting the party of the year! Who was being punished here anyway? Doesn’t big brother have the right to feel at least a little resentful?

In the story, as Jesus tells it, the father does not berate and get all critical of the older brother. Neither does he defend the younger brother. Instead he shifts attention away from both of them. The father turns attention to his own love and bounty.

There is plenty to go around, he says in so many words. “No one’s going to run short ‘all that is mine is yours.’ This is not your younger brother’s party so much as it is my party, the party I throw for many. I am on the lookout for all my loved ones, near or far. I am working for them, and ready to celebrate with them before they even think of responding to me or giving anything back.”

Behind this well-known and loved parable of Jesus lies a profound and overwhelming truth about God and God’s kingdom. We humans, we are all lost, mired in the sins of our own doing, the sins of others, and the cultural/societal systems in which we live: greed, sensuality, self-referential resentment, we’re floundering hip-deep in the slop of envy. Before we knew it, God reached out in the people of Israel and then in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

God raised us up out of the pods and slop and called us home. It is not just about you or me, or my sin or your sin, or what I deserve or what you should have coming. It is about God and God’s life-giving love and mercy.

God reaches out and invites each and every one to forgiveness long before our hearts are softened to a place of repentance.

Every time God’s active, stretching, searching healing love finds someone and calls that person back home, it does not mean there is less for the rest of us.

It means there is more. More good feasting. More food and drink. More music. More dancing. It means another and now bigger party with gifts enough for all!

Maybe those hobbits are on to something!