Sunday, September 27, 2009

Fourth Sermon at Rock Springs, WY

Just a short note about how things are coming along at First Congregational UCC in Rock Springs. My first Sunday as their Transitional Minister, there were 51 adults and 8 children in attendance. The second Sunday we had 57 adults and 11 children present. On the third Sunday, we were down in count on adults with 41 in attendance and 7 children. This week, my 4th week, we had a special event of both a Baptism (my first as a UCC Minister as well as it being an infant!) and a "goodbye" to a long standing and well loved member who arrived at this church with her husband who was the pastor, three pastors ago. We counted 61 adults and 14 children in attendance.
I have found each week very interesting as I work on sermons that are designed to help this congregation, examine who they are and the behaviors that lead them to where they are presently at. This Sunday's sermon was most stressful for me as I was dealing with the topic of Boundaries, and what can happen when one or more people violate boundaries. As I become better acquainted with this body of believers I grow more fondly of everyone that I meet. It has been a long number of years since I have been in a Parish setting and working as a minister and I find myself continually being renewed daily and am finding such excitement and fulfillment as I exercise my calling. God is truly good and most gracious and I thank Him for allowing me the privilege of working with this faith community.

Courage for Community
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Esther 7: 1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
First Cong UCC, Rock Springs, WY Sept 27, 2009

How many of you enjoy going to a good party? What would be one of your favorite celebrations that happen on a yearly basis? One of my very favorite holiday celebrations is Halloween! Now there are a lot of Christians who would be highly offended by the fact that I as a minister enjoy celebrating the tradition of Halloween. In fact this October 31st, we are going to be hosting an after “trick or treat” party here at the church for children 6th grade and under. Now I have heard almost all the explanations as to why it isn’t a good idea for those of us who call ourselves Christian to celebrate this festive holiday; with the most severe reason being it is a way of celebrating Satan. What I have come to believe when I hear these explanations about why I shouldn’t dress up in costume and enjoy this celebration, is that those people who are telling me the reason “why not” really don’t understand what the origins of Halloween are.
Another name of Halloween is All Hallows Eve, or the day before All Saints day; which is a day that the church does celebrate. The idea of dressing up in scary costumes or wearing scary masks, such as Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton or Freddie from Friday the 13th movies or that of various demon, or witches, or anything else that we might perceive as representative of evil, was done by early Christians to help protect them from evil spirits that were believed to roam the earth that night looking for mischief. So, when I say that Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, I am really telling you that I enjoy celebrating the day prior to All Saints Day. Well actually, I just like dressing up into costumes and bobbing for apples and I just don’t understand why as a grown up, it is no longer acceptable to go trick or treating.
For those of us who label ourselves as Christians, we say our religious background is rooted in both the Hebrew and Christian tradition. Yet I would be safe in guessing that most Christians are not aware of many of the Hebrew Celebrations. So here is a test question to test my assumption. How many of you know of the Feast of Purim? What day was it celebrated on this year? Where did its origins come from? Well, we can find all this out in the Book of Esther. Let me try to give a Perry Mason summation of what today’s lectionary reading leaves out.
The joyous holiday of Purim celebrates the salvation of the Hebrews from the wicked Haman, through the leadership of Queen Esther and her cousin Mordecai. Purim takes place on the 14th day of Adar, the 12th month of the Jewish calendar (which corresponds with our season of Lent.) The carnival-like atmosphere of Purim, wearing of costumes, and bringing gifts of food door-to-door sometimes leads to it being referred to as the "Jewish Mardi Gras" or "Jewish Halloween".

The story of Purim is found in the book of Esther. This is publically read in synagogues twice on Purim: when the holiday begins at nightfall, and the following morning. When the name of Haman is read, people stomp their feet, hiss, boo, or shake noisemakers to obliterate his name.

The story takes place in the Persian Empire, which extended to 127 provinces. In the third year of his reign, King Xerxes threw a lavish party, to which he summoned his wife, Queen Vashti, to display her beauty. When Vashti refused to obey his command, he had her killed for insubordination. Regretting this decision after sobering up, Xerxes began a kingdom-wide search for a new queen, adding a member to his harem every night, but not finding a suitable replacement until Esther—a beautiful Hebrew girl—was brought before him. He fell in love with her and made her the new queen. She had not wanted to be part of the search, and would not tell him anything about her background.
Soon after this, Haman became the chief advisor to Xerxes. He felt slighted by Mordecai, a Hebrew who refused to bow to him (and who, unknown to him or the king, was Esther's cousin). He obtained permission from the king to send out a decree to the entire kingdom calling for all the Hebrews to be wiped out on the 13th of Adar. He chose this date, by using lots (or rolling dice.) (The Persian word for lots was pur; the holiday of Purim gets its name from this event.)

Mordecai sent word to Esther about this decree, and called upon her to intercede with the king. This was a risky move for Esther; it was forbidden to see the king without first being summoned, and he had after all killed his previous wife for not obeying his orders. Nevertheless, she accepted that she needed to take action. She called for a three-day fast among the Hebrews in the city, after which she went to see the king. She found favor in the king's eyes, and he offered to give her anything she wanted.

After a couple of subplots involving Mordecai and Haman fell into place, Esther informed the king that Haman was, in fact, plotting to kill her and all of her people. Incensed, the king ordered Haman to be hanged, and installed Mordecai in his place. While the original decree could not be rescinded, Mordecai was able to send out a second decree calling upon the Jews to defend themselves and kill their enemies. This they did, routing all opposition on the 13th of Adar, and celebrating on the 14th. This celebration on the 14th is now observed annually, on Purim.

The traditional observances of Purim include public readings of the Book of Esther, feasting, gifts of charity to the poor, and gifts of food among friends. Other popular activities include staging comedic plays, expounding on the Torah in humorous ways, dressing up in costumes, holding beauty contests, and marching in parades. (Web based information on Feast of Purim)

So, now for those of you who have never really read the book of Esther all the way through, you now have a general idea of what the story is about. Let’s turn our attention for a moment to the Gospel reading for today. Here we continue on with Jesus’ teaching. Last week we left off where Jesus was holding the child in his lap and telling us basically we need to respect and include everyone, even the most vulnerable among us, in our fellowship.
This week, the texts starts off with John, speaking up about a person who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and how proud they were that they had chastised him and told him to stop it, simply because that person wasn’t a part of their merry band of disciples. Jesus was not pleased! “Don’t stop him. No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally.”
Jesus then goes on to make this strange statement, “On the other hand, if you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You’d be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck.” This is some pretty strong teaching to those who like to bully and lord over others.
But here is the hard part of the story that doesn’t seem to be consistent with Jesus’ general nature. At least to the way we tend to Romanticize Jesus’ loving behavior. “If your hand or your foot gets in God’s way, chop it off and throw it away. You’re better off maimed or lame and alive than the proud owner of two hands and two feet, godless in the furnace of eternal fire….”
In the time of Jesus, it was believed that the only way to God was to be a person without blemish. It was taken to the extreme, so if you were blind, or lame, or had leprosy, you were not welcomed into the temple to worship and give tithe to God. This is one reason why we read about so many healings in the four Gospels, as it was about restoring people back into the family of faith. It was about “reconciliation” of those excluded and marginalized back to God.
So here is Jesus telling his disciples that you can still be in community with God, you can still worship and be acceptable in God’s eyes, even if you are missing a leg or a hand or your tongue. For it is better to cut off that which is truly keeping you separated from the life that God is asking us to be apart of – that of love and acceptance, of being just and seeking justice for those who have no voice and are being brutalized by social systems.
So how does the story about a courageous woman, such as Esther and the reprimanding that the disciples got from Jesus come together? There are numerous themes running through both of these stories, but the one that jumps out at me the most is that of Boundaries! These are two differing stories as to what can happen to people when Boundaries are not observed and are over stepped and if not challenged the pain and grief that can be placed on a lot of innocent life’s.
We have had some very painful examples of “boundaries” being violated over the last decade. There is a current film series being presented at the White Mountain Library on “The Faces of Addiction”. The one I saw this past Thursday was dealing with “Enron” and the pain and suffering and devastation of livelihood, that it’s CEO’s and corporate culture has caused. With the efforts of its CEO, Kenneth Lay in getting Congress to deregulate the utility industry, the checks and balances of business practices were not in place, thereby giving rise to abuse and over-stepping of ethical boundaries, legally! They had the power without repercussions to literally cut off electrical power to millions of consumers, solely to raise the price of electricity. The boundary crossed was the need to feed the addiction of greed and ego!
Haman, the right hand man to Xerxes, out of resentment toward Modecai, maneuvered to pass a law that would eventually allow him, with the law on his side, to carry out genocide of the Hebrew people. He had overstepped the boundary of “morality” and, had Esther not placed herself in probable danger, standing up and exposing this evil, would have seen an entire race of people murdered.
The problem of maintaining boundaries exists within any given church. There are people who, for a number of reasons, but generally stemming to the basic fear of loss of power, over- step boundaries. This was the case of the disciples when they were telling the “non-disciple” that he needed to stop his healing in the name of Jesus. The disciples had crossed a boundary that ensured “exclusivity” where Jesus was working towards “inclusivity”.
In the church where I hold my membership, there was a violation of boundaries a few years ago, between a person who had at one time been the Church Moderator. This person perceived themself as a main power broker in the congregation. When the church had hired a new organist, this person was not on the committee that did the interviewing and had a personal ax to grind with the chairperson of the music committee. This individual transferred that grudge to the new organist/choir director and proceeded to make life very uncomfortable for him as well as the choir members and eventually the whole church.
Ultimately, there was a show-down between the choir director and this individual, with the choir director resigning. Now mind you, there was plenty of boundary breaking going on by both parties. When confronted by the church council, this church member who had violated these boundaries was unable to “own up” to their behavior and left the church with angry feelings.
In time this individual sought out mediation with the Conference chair person of the Committee on Ministry, trying to receive vindication toward their action and wanting the pastor to make a public apology. This person was informed that a public apology couldn’t be made by the pastor because they had indeed over-stepped boundaries and that by giving in to their demands would only reinforce continued behavior in the future and create future problems in the church.
Moving forward a couple of years later, This person came to St. Paul’s to visit during a special occasion and after introducing themselves to our present choir director/organist, promptly stated with great pride that they were responsible for getting rid of the previous organist. I use this example because it is very, very sad to realize that this person still doesn’t recognize their part within the issue nor does this person understand the concept of boundaries.
What Esther was doing when she stood up and told the King that Haman wanted to kill her and her people, Esther was being the voice of accountability. Haman had crossed boundaries and if not kept in check would have destroyed a whole race of people. Jesus was saying, it is better to cut off that part of the body that is going to ruin you or those around you. Anyone who has ever dealt with “addictions” knows that the only way the addict is going to grow beyond that addiction into a healthier life is to not enable the addict to continue that behavior.
In faith communities, there has to be accountability of one’s actions and behavior. If the faith community never stands up and intervenes on behalf of the person who is not honoring boundaries – that person will never realize their behavior as unacceptable and will continue to violate boundaries.
As a society, we must demand accountability of our government and of corporate behavior. We have seen what happens when rules are broken or legally dismantled; left to themselves, addiction to greed and ego move to stepping over boundaries and people get hurt and sometimes even destroyed.
James gives us some encouragement on such a tough topic:”Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” There is salvation to ego, it is found through the love of Christ and the power of the resurrection. All we have to do is to have the courage to stand up, approach the King and state the truth; to love one another as Christ has shown us and to hold each other up in prayer and deed. Amen

Third Sermon At Rock Springs, WY 9/20/09

Equality: Fact or Goal?
By Rev. Steven R. Mitchell
Psalm 1; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 9/20/2009

Psalm 1 starts out with this lesson: “ Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of God, and on God’s law they meditate day and night.” In the book of James we read, “show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” In our Gospel reading in the book of Mark we read, “If anyone wants to be first, he/she must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
All three of these pieces of information seem to be very sound and wise advice. Good rules to live by. And I suspect that if all persons who call themselves “Christian” world wide actually embraced just these three rules, the whole world might want to know the God that has laid these rules (if you will) down to be able to live a peaceful and enriched life. How many times have you been in discussions with people about your church and even go so far as to “invite” them to join you in worship that coming week, only to hear them respond with: “Oh I’m a spiritual person, I just don’t believe in organized religion.” as an excuse for not coming with you? Well, the next time this happens to you, I have a response that you can share with them as a come back. Tell them, “That’s cool, and I understand totally. And since you don’t believe in organized religion, you will really like it at our church, because we have dis-organized religion!”
What we are really being informed of is that, historically the church has not lived up to what it teaches. We say we meditate on God’s Laws, but how much time per week do we sit and read the bible or sit in prayer longer than 5 minutes? We say we believe in justice but are we out in the market place voicing our convictions? We say we believe in peace, but how many times have we as a country that labels itself as Christian, gone to war; just since 1950 or have been involved in “skirmishes” or “conflicts”? As a whole, we pretty much talk out of both sides of our mouth, or as the Native American would say, “we speak with forked tongue.”
Today’s title of reflection is “Equality: Fact or Goal?” In the Epistle from James, he writes: “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” This is the type of behavior that keeps healthy, well adjusted people, who are Spiritual, away from “organized” religion. It is easy for us to look back at the very first century church and easily point the finger at them and say “shame on you, church people, didn’t you get what Jesus was talking about?” Of course, the twelve disciples seemed to never truly understand what Jesus was teaching. Mark says, “But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.”
But what about now, 2,000 years later – do we understand it? Have we progress any? Do we live in an atmosphere in this church that reflects the true meaning of this banner, “God is Still Speaking?” or the other UCC battle cry, “Never put a period where God has placed a comma?” Do we really understand what this is saying? Do we understand what the “comma” is or who the “comma” represents? Is equality in this community of faith, a fact; or is it still a goal? You do know that anytime you go pointing your one finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back toward yourself. Ched Myers, in his book “Say to This Mountain, Mark’s Story of Discipleship” writes, “According to Mark – our greatest individual and social addiction is the will to dominate.”
Today’s reading of Mark comes after the mountain top experience by Peter, James and John, where they experienced Jesus in conversations with Elijah and Moses. We call it the story of Transfiguration. After this tremendous experience that only these three disciples out of the twelve are recorded to have had the privilege of witnessing, we read that as they were walking along to Capernaum with Jesus, they were in conversations as to who out of the group of disciples were the most privileged and there by possessed the greater influence or power among them. We are not really told whether Jesus was able to over hear this conversation or not, but once at home in Capernaum, Jesus asked them what they had been discussing. Now in some translations and in other Gospels it is stated more harshly as to, “What were you guys arguing about on the road?” Scripture says, “The silence was deafening “
The silence was deafening. This small phrase can easily be glossed over by the reader thinking the focus of this story is on Jesus holding the little child and saying, “the greatest must become the least and servant of all.” I think this small phrase is the more important lesson out of today’s reading. Its importance is the basis for all non resolved arguments. The first time we read in the Bible about this problem is in Genesis, after Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Up to that point, God had daily walks with Adam and Eve. But once they had eaten that fruit, they ran and hid from God when they heard Him coming. What is being shown here is a breakdown of communication! It is the separation of us from God. The inability to communicate with God is the underlying theme through out the whole Bible and the death and resurrection of Jesus is the bridge to reconcile that broken relationship.
As a people of God, we are not asked or demanded by God to give up our person, our identity, but rather we are asked to develop who we are in the nurturing surroundings that we call our faith community. We all have differing opinions on how things should operate. Just like in a marriage, the idea when we say, “the two shall become one”, doesn’t mean that one person lords’ power over the other person, but rather through communications and working with each others perceptions come to a common agreement or goal, where both have their integrity in tact and not having to have had it compromised or marginalized.
But when one or more people within a faith community perceive themselves as having greater power or privilege then we see what James is warning about, “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” This is nothing new to any church. Every church struggles to find balance within its uniqueness of every member as to how to allow every voice to be heard. Not just voiced, but to be “heard”.
When one hears statements like, “I don’t like this pastor and I’m not coming back till he leaves,” or “I don’t like so and so, and I’ll just stay away until they leave,” or “I won’t come to church on the Sunday’s the music isn’t up to my standard, “I as a person of faith have to wonder where Christ is at in that person’s heart? I would have to ask what is the real reason one comes to Worship with these types of feelings. Is not the reason for coming to Worship, but togather with other members of the faith community and open ones heart to receive the Love and mercy of God and experience for that hour an environment where all are equal in the sight of our creator? When I hear statements that are negative about the “why’s” of not coming together, what I am truly hearing is the “importance of Ego” and not what James finishes in say, “ But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Is it any wonder why those who don’t come to church say they don’t like “organized” religion?
So Jesus’ response to the arguing over “who was more powerful” by taking hold of a child and placing this child in the middle of the group and giving us this lesson, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me – God who sent me.” Now for the 21st Century reader, this is a Kodak moment, or a Norman Rockwell painting; For at some levels, we value children in our society a good deal, but for the culture that Jesus was living in, children were the very least of the least. As a child you held no value in society, you weren’t even valuable enough to have been sold as a slave.
Once again Jesus was challenging social norms and values not only of his day, but also the behaviors of our society, not just in third world countries where baby girls are murder because sons hold value or young girls are sold into prostitution to pay for family debt, but also here in the United States; here in Wyoming; and here in Rock Springs. Quoting again from Ched Meyers, “Throughout this section Mark has articulated the Way of the cross as the practice of solidarity with “little ones” in daily life. In every social relationship, power is unequally concentrated, and the Jubilary task is to redistribute it – even in the context of traditional structures such as marriage and the family. Mark has also undermined any “proprietary” rights that the discipleship community may wish to claim for itself. There is plenty of exemplary behavior outside our own communities of faith and plenty of problematic behavior inside them. The vocation of the church is not to render moral condemnations, but to seek justice within and without.”
By using the example of “welcoming” a child Jesus is challenging the disciples as well as us to a new understanding of just how valuable every person is to God. And not just a new understanding but a challenge to truly be welcoming and inviting. In a culture where your “holiness” was based on your worth this is not an easy concept to understand.
The conversation the disciples might have had with Jesus could have sounded a bit like this: You mean Jesus, we are to welcome the person who doesn’t have the power or ability or place to welcome us in return? To invite people into our faith community with no expectation of reciprocity? Basically Jesus, you are telling us to welcome and even value small, insignificant, powerless people? So let me get this right, Jesus, you are telling me that the only way that I can truly integrate you into my heart is to accept and give value to the guy who is beating on his wife and kid and not expect him to stop and live by my standards; or even worse, I have to really accept and value the bum who comes in off the street and smells like the garbage dump and actually sit next to him in Worship and you expect me to invite him to coffee time and then chat with him? Can’t you just accept my money and my good intensions and call that good? Not really huh. That means that I have to give up my good opinion of myself before I can do that Jesus. Oh, that’s what you’ve been trying to tell all this time. I don’t know; can I get back to you on that one, please.
“Marks gospel holds a vision of society, church, and family that is based on access and acceptance. To become like a child is to acknowledge the place and condition of the most vulnerable ones in our midst.” Pg 122 Before we can really break the response of “I’m Spiritual, I just don’t buy into organized religion”, we need to do what James asks us to do, to empty ourselves of the selfish desire to be in control and allow the gentle love and wisdom of God to enter into our hearts. There is nothing scarier in life than to feel like you are not in control of yourself or of your environment. But Jesus is saying that equality is the only way life will be lived out peacefully and where the sense of safety and security is a fact not a goal. In the UCC battle cry, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma”, the comma is “every individual”. Never put judgements or boundaries or self imposed values on any of God’s creatures; that my dear friend’s is the “comma”. For it is in the “comma” that each one of us has the ability to be nurtured and to grow.

Second Sermon at Rock Springs, WY

When Trust Is Shaken
By Rev Steven R. Mitchell
Job 1:6-22; I Cor 13:1-7 & 13; Matt 26:17-25
Based on “A Hard-Fought Hope” by William Long & Glandion Carney

Today we are going to look at the meaning of “Trust” and what that means and the implications of what happens when our trust is shaken. Webster defines Trust as: a firm belief in the honesty, reliability of some person or thing; faith. Confident expectation, as have trust in the future, hope. As an adjective, Webster gives definition as: acting as trustee – in trust, in the condition of being entrusted to another’s care.
[Trust then covers all facets of our lives! Trust touches subjects as diverse as contract law, political realities, social theory, personal relationships, and religious faith. When we say, “I trust her” or “I trust God,” we express a firm confidence. (p 28) In our walk through the book of Job, we will explore how Job’s terrible suffering endangered his ability to trust God and his friends.]
A good basic starting point is how trust flourishes in one’s life. According to the author of the book, A Hard-Fought Hope, Journeying with Job through Mystery, William Long states, “The instinct to trust is built into our genes, passed on from generation to generation just as physical traits pass from parent to child. Trusting another person often means a commitment to the growth and basic integrity of the other. Trust nurtures faith in and expects the best from another person.” So when I say, “I trust you Mary Ruth Powell” or “I trust you Jonathan Firme” or “Paul Allen I trust you” this is nurturing faith and hope in you to be your best.
On the backside of our money we read, “In God We Trust”. This would imply that we trust God to keep the value of that bill. I’m not sure that is a realistic expectation to put on God, but none the less it is there. What it does imply is our faith and hope in the ability of our monetary system to perform to our expectations. Even in our Pledge of Allegiance to the American Flag, we use the idea that God is there to protect us as a nation. A very traditional childhood prayer that parents teach their children is, “Now I lay me down to sleep, the Lord I pray my soul to keep.” So this hope, this faith, this trust in God and in people we have relationship with is very basic to our feeling of security.
But what happens to us when our trust is shaken? How do we react; how do we cope; and how do we survive? This past Friday marked the 8th anniversary of the attack by terrorists on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as well as the downed passenger airliner known as Flight 93. It was the first time within my life time that we have been attacked by a foreign entity on American soil. I shall never forget the sick feeling deep within my stomach as it became apparent that we were under attack. My first thoughts were remembering how my grandparents would talk about the significance of December 7th in their lives and I remember thinking, “this must be the same type of feelings that they were feeling when their learned about the attack on Pearl Harbor.”
There was a shattering of true innocence of many in our nation that we as the leading world power and a nation that is protected by God would be spared such violence on a massive scale. Our trust in who we were and of our self-importance internationally has been forever shattered. In response our whole life style has changed. Out of fear we have given up many of our civil rights to our government, without questioning the legality of what was being asked of us. Out of a broken trust we allowed illegal detention of several thousand innocent people. Out of broken trust our government engaged in torture of prisoners. Out of fear we have engaged in profiling people because of their religious beliefs or the color of their skin without giving equal profiling to their Caucasian counter parts.
When trust is broken, the opposite of having trust happens. Instead of “the best” being brought out in us, broken trust generally brings out the worst in us. Words like treachery, betrayal, disloyalty and fraud are a few of the types of behavior that can occur when trust is broken.
So what I’ve been talking about thus far is what happens when we as humans break trust with other humans. But what happens when we have trust broken by God? How do we react? Is it “okay” to get mad at God for breaking trust with us? Can God actually break trust with us and if so, then just “how firm is our foundation” as Christians. This is the situation with Job. Here is a man who is totally faithful to God and utterly hates evil. He gives sacrifices to God and just in case his children aren’t being faithful enough, Job is giving sacrifices in their names as well.
God is so impressed with Job and his faithfulness that God is bragging to Satan about how wonderful Job is. Of course Satan’s response to God is, “So do you think Job does all that out of the sheer goodness of his heart? Why, no one ever had it so good! You pamper him like a pet, make sure nothing bad ever happens to him or his family or his possessions, bless everything he does – he can’t lose!” Satan then goads God with this challenge, “But what do you think would happen if you reached down and took away everything that is his? He’d curse you right to your face, that’s what.” So God tells Satan, that he can do whatever he wished to Job in trying to prove his point, but is restricted from physically harming Job.
Now it is important to understand that in Job’s day, your prosperity was directly related to your righteousness or rightness with God. Job by all accounts is the most holy person alive as he was truly the richest man of his day. The person, who would most likely rank with Job in our time as of February 2009, is Bill Gates as the wealthiest individual in the world who is estimated to have $40 billion, which he has lost value with the current downturn in the market. Mr. Gates just happens to have been raised in the United Church of Christ.
Now if trust is suppose to bring out the better in a person, then with all this trust that Job has in God, should bring out the best in God and in his actions. Yet it would appear that God is feeling insecure with His relationship with Job, by taking on the challenge that Satan has presented. It seems like the traditional 1950’s teenage boys sitting in their car’s, side by side, revving up their motors while waiting for the red light to change to green, so they could prove which car had the more horse power. Instead of being content in knowing that the car that was being driven had all the power it needed to do the job, there is an insecurity pushing them to prove who had the more power under the hood.
So Satan promptly goes to work on Job. In less than 6 verses, Job learns he has lost his fortune, all of his possession and worst of all, all of his children. Job found himself totally alone! In his day, he would have been judged by his friends and neighbors as having some deep and horrible sin in his life to have had all this happen to him. He was no longer the holiest man on earth but the most sinful man!
I am sure that many of you have had negative events happen in your life that seemed to have the hand of God in it. I recall when my wife and I had our first pregnancy. Marsha really wanted to have children shortly after we were married. I was more cautious and thought we need at least 5 yrs of marriage before we should start a family. Well, nature seemed to win out and we became pregnant about a year after we were married. After I got over the shock of the news, I started to really warm up to the idea of fatherhood and was looking forward to it. Then a few weeks later, we learned that Marsha had a miscarriage. We were devastated, but what was hurting in me the most was seeing the extreme disappointment in my wife and the lack of self-esteem that seemed to appear over the lost of this child. I became extremely angry with God. My trust in God had been severely shaken.
[Broken trust leaves us with a huge dilemma. To whom do we confide our sense of loss and betrayal?] Especially if the betrayer is God. [Do we try to act as if nothing has happened but in the meantime plot revenge? Beat ourselves up for being so na├»ve as to fall for the scheme by which we were defrauded? Chalk up the loss to experience and try to get back on track emotionally and spiritually? Or, just lock everything up in a closet and try to forget about it and let it fester within us? Maybe we decide never to trust again and live on the basis of that vow;] and if that feeling is toward God – just stop coming to worship or stop praying, possibly denying the very existence of God!
These are all normal thoughts and feelings that we can go through when we feel that trust has been broken, be it from God, friends, colleagues, neighbors or our governmental representatives. Under grey rainy skies at this past Friday’s memorial gathering at ground zero in New York, with names of those who lost their lives being spoken out loud – Vladimir Boyarsky, whose son, Gennady Boyarsky was one of the victims – spoke these words, “we miss you. Life will never be the same without you. This is not the rain. This is the tears.”
[The dilemma of trust exposes the fragility of our mechanisms for dealing with life’s adversities. When our trust is broken, we do not die. We keep living. We often have to face the next day with the same people who broke trust with us. So we need to find positive ways to deal with the breaches of trust that enter our lives.] Ways that will heal and rebuild those bridges and allow us to work in an atmosphere of confidence and comfort; in developing an environment that provides hope and faith that is nurtured and lived to its fullness.
As we come today to the table of communion, we have to think about the betrayal of trust that lies at its base. We read in Matt: “After sunset, he and the Twelve were sitting around the table. During the meal, Jesus said, ‘I have something hard but important to say to you: One of you is going to hand me over to the conspirators.’ They were stunned, and then began to ask, one after another, ‘It isn’t me, is it, Master?’ …Then Judas, already turned traitor, said, ‘It isn’t me, is it, Rabbi?’ Jesus said, ‘Don’t play games with me, Judas.’”
Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest friends and colleagues. How did he handle this betrayal? First off, he recognized what it was and called Judas on it, in the presence of the other disciples. Later in the garden he prayed for guidance and strength to go through what was about to happen because of the breach in trust. We do not read that Jesus got angry and quite. We do not read where Jesus cursed God for what was happening. We do not read where Jesus gave up on his disciples. What we do read is Jesus giving his Disciples instructions on how to think anew the idea of fellowship and of communion with the faithful. He did this with the common bread and wine. Jesus tells us to do this as often as we meet. I think one of the reasons for this is to help us remember that we are not alone in this world, but rather we are a part of a larger body and even when we feel that our trust has been shaken, even to its foundation, that through Christ’s example, we can survive and rebuild that trust, that hope, that faith!
Let us dwell upon this lesson as we come to Gods table of love today. Amen

Monday, September 14, 2009

First Sermon at First Cong. UCC, Rock Springs,WY

Ministry of Reconciliation
By Rev Steven R. Mitchell
Isaiah 61:1-2a & 11; II Cor. 5:16-21; John 1:1-14
September 6, 2009

I first would like to bring to you “greetings” from St Paul's UCC of Seattle! It is with mixed emotions that they celebrate in my joining you here at First Congregational UCC of Rock Springs! I wish to say, “What a pleasure and a privilege it is for me to be entering into relationship with you; serving as your new Transitional Minister.”
With this Labor Day weekend, we are at the end of the one season, Summer and at the start of a new season, Fall. As we begin this new season, we also stand at the “Threshold” of a new chapter here at First Congregational. Some of you may think of me as your new “Interim Pastor” and that the phrase “Transitional Minister” is just a fancy name, but there is a very different meaning and subsequently differing actions between the two. The word “Interim” means: the period of time between; or temporary. The word “Transition” means: a passing from one condition, place and/or activity to another. So, as your Transitional Minister, I will be walking with you through this passing from who you are presently, to where you wish to be moving toward. The work that we as the body of Faith found here at 1275 Adams Ave during this period of “Transition” will be very different than what would be done during the period known as “interim.”
I would like to share a poem with you that was written by Robert Frost, that I think helps speak to the whole idea of “transition”. The title is The Road Not Taken

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth; 5

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same, 10

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back. 15

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 20

The inspiration for this poem came from Frost's amusement over a familiar mannerism of his closest friend in England, Edward Thomas. While living in England, Frost frequently took long walks with Thomas through the countryside. Repeatedly Thomas would choose a route which might enable him to show his American a rare plant or a special vista: but it often happened that before the end of such a walk Thomas would regret the choice he had made and would sigh over what he might have shown Frost if they had only taken a “better” direction. Frost, himself had been reared with the biblical notion that a man, having put his hand to the plow, should not look back. However Frost found something quaintly romantic in sighing over “what might have been”, which after returning to America, he so thoughtfully expressed in this poem.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Life is a journey, a journey that is full of choices. Here at First Congregational, we are going to start looking down differing paths to see which one will look best to follow. There are three words associated with the time period for any congregation that is between “settled” pastors: change, transition and transformation. Change is inevitable, whether we want it to happen or not, nothing stays the same. It is a given that during the interim time, a congregation will struggle with the concept of change.
Transition is the process process by which individuals and congregations will deal with change. What are the options? What can be done that will create the best opportunity to handle this change in a healthy way?
Transformation, then, is the new shape that grows out of this time of transition. Transformation is the result of individuals and congregations struggling with change. Transformation is what gives the church new life and new possibilities and new energy as we her people clam our place and purpose in God's Kingdom.
The three scripture lessons that we heard this morning all deal with change, transition and transformation. Isaiah was writing to a people who had found themselves in a foreign land and longing to go back home. In the Gospel of John, we hear about transition, “In the beginning was the Word....”; “There as a man sent from God....”; “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming....” All of these are speaking about movement toward something. In Paul's letter to the church in Corinth, we read, “the old has gone, the new has come.” Change, transition, and transformation!
The church during the time of Jesus' life had grown stagnate and inward. It had forgotten Isaiah's words of what God expected from them, “to preach good news to the poor; bind up the broken hearted; and to proclaim freedom for those in captivity...” Jesus used this passage in Isaiah to announce his ministry and what the focus of his mission was going to be about.
The Apostle Paul was a man who went through great revelation in his life and came out transformed. Paul's early career was that of knowing the “law” of the Torah and was active in upholding it. So much so that he saw the mission and ministry of those who were calling themselves “followers” of the Christ, as heretics of the church and actively pursued and punished anyone who was deviating from the prescribed law's. Paul was proud and untouched by his attitude of “righteousness” with the stoning of Stephen. After all, Stephen was speaking about a man whose teachings on love and acceptance went against the understanding of the established church leaders. The teaching that Jesus was teaching actually allow women position in society; Jesus spoke radically about reaching out beyond your own and treat them as you would treat your own family member; and Jesus challenged the laws, saying that the law was made for the people, not the people for the law. Meaning that people were more important than that of established tradition.
To put it into today's terms, those who have, if they were to buy into the teachings of Jesus, would feel endanger of letting the “have not's” become equal with themselves. I think the debate that we are hearing about with regard to making sure everyone in the United States has affordable medical coverage is an excellent example of how the power structure in Jesus' day viewed and feared the message Jesus was speaking. There is a fear of loss - when everyone has what you have. I remember at my first vocal contest, how proud I was when I had received a “First Place” rating after my performance, only to be deflated and having the sense that I was no longer “special” when I found out that the majority of vocalists that day also received “First Place” ratings. It took away all of the joy that I had received and satisfaction in knowing that all of my hard work was not being helping me in being “outstanding” but rather, equal with the other students who were participating.
Paul then was assured that his persecution of these Christians was the right thing to be doing. Then one day he had a revelation, that changed his whole understanding of what God was wanting the church to be about. It was on the road to Damascus, that he encountered Jesus and was transformed into the man who became the churches greatest church planter. In his very own words, Paul states, “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.” Paul realized that when you do not have God's spirit in your worship, in your heart and are only following form through “tradition”, you really are only able to view the teachings presented by God through the lens of worldly understanding.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to God in Christ, not counting anyone's sins against them. And has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassador's, as though God were making his appeal through us.”
At the beginning of Jesus' ministry, he stated that his mission, his focus of his work was Social Justice: “To preach good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for those captive and release from darkness for the prisoners.” This past week, I have made several visits down to the Broadway Bargain's. I did this in part because it is one of the outreach programs of this church and I wanted to see what it is about. Let me share with you how impressed I am of the depth of involvement that the members of this faith community has in this mission. I have also had the opportunity to witness the food bank in operation as well as how the benevolent fund is used. These are social ministries in action. I am sure there are more things like this going on, but with only 4 days of being with you, this is all that I have experienced so far.
During this time of Transition, we are going to be looking at who we are; at what we do; we will look at our strengths and examine our weak points and work at reshaping them so they will not hinder the mission of this ministry but help in moving it forward. For us as a church to build upon what we have done in the past and move into the future as a healthy congregation who is able to be a people who truly are ambassadors for Christ and do the ministry of reconciliation; we will need to have the same type of “transformation” that the Apostle Paul had in his life.
Over the next number of weeks we are going to be taking valuable lessons out of the book of Job. I understand that you studied Job in the not to distant past, but I think there are some great lessons that can be gleaned from his story. Through the book of Job we will learn a lot about solitude, self-examination, the role of friendship, spiritual guidance, and , ultimately, forgiveness, confession and reconciliation. The book of Job also examines the depths of anger, bitterness, grief, the pain of false hope, and the enduring power and ache of memory. All of these aspects that we during this transitional time need to work through, learn, understand and build upon as apart of the journey to move into the next chapter of this churches ministry.
As Isaiah stated in verse 11 of the 61 chapter, “For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden cases seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.” Just as we are moving into the season we call Fall and then in to Winter, where it appears that life dies back, we here at First Congregational, are seeds that are waiting in the soil to sprout up. The season of transition can be thought of as Fall and Winter, where we will work on becoming the hope that sprouts and brings forth a beautiful garden. For it is in the winter when seeds rejuvenate themselves for the next season.