Tuesday, October 13, 2009

6th Sunday at First Congregational, Rock Springs, WY

Commitment to Justice
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
October 11, 2009

In many ways I am a product of my generation. We have come to be known as the Baby Boomers, yet I recall another name that we carried for many years, “The Silver Spooned” generation. And it was descriptive of those between 1946 and 1964 in general; especially when compared to the economic climate that our parents had come through.
My parents generation is referred to by sociologists as “Depression Babies”; meaning that they were born during the time of this nation’s Great Depression. They grew up in a time when a new pair of shoes from the store, often hinged on the sale of a farm animal at the beginning of the school year and those shoes were to last you a whole year! It was a time when you rarely had “ready to wear” cloths, but rather hand sown at home. There was no such thing as eating out at the restaurant two or three times a week, just because you didn’t feel like cooking.
My parent’s generation also grew up during the Second World War and experienced daily life with ration booklets. There was no longer the lack of money to buy things that you needed, let alone wanted, rather there was nothing available to purchase, because all the natural resources were going toward the war effort, leaving only limited items that were necessary to survive on.
With the close of the war, America emerged a world power. With the dawn of the 1950”, America was entering into her zenith. A nation who had lived for several decades with very little was now poised to give its children all the things that they were denied. Unprecedented housing development erupted with the return of our young men and women from the war; freeways were built to expedite commerce and travel; the government worked at providing electricity to rural areas, where once chargers were hooked to windmills providing power so families could listen to their favorite radio programs by lantern; With plenty of electricity to every home, two or more T.V. replaced the single radio; families grew into a two car household; Children were told to chose the job that made them happy, instead of having to work at one that paid the bills but didn’t provide self-gratification. Consumerism became the new religion and the phrase “conspicuous consumption” was coined to describe the mindset and lifestyle of where we, as a society have arrived.
The story of the Rich Young Ruler is often associated with Stewardship drives. We generally think about stewardship in terms of Dollars and cents, but stewardship is so much broader than just the “church budget”. There are areas that we all need to be looking at, such as our talents and gifts that can be utilized not just here at church but in our community; there is stewardship of our natural resources, not just here in the United States, but world wild; There is stewardship of our environment; There is stewardship of human rights and dignity which we call Social Justice.
You are probably thinking right now, that this is the first sermon of many to come on stewardship, and just how much money does the church want from me this year, but you would be wrong, at least from the perspective of money and the church. The story we read about where the young man comes to Jesus and is asking what more must he do to be insured “eternal life” is about stewardship, but not about the “externals” but rather about the “internal” wealth of this person.
From time to time, I get asked the question of, “How did I receive my call to ministry?” It’s an honest question and usually asked by search committee’s. My story goes something like this: “Even though I grew up as apart of the ‘Silver Spooned’ generation, my family was pretty poor. However, because of the general affluence within our society, I was able to utilize many of the advantages that were available with respect to educational opportunities. I had vowed to work hard and accumulate the wealth that I didn’t get to experience as a child. It just so happened that I married into a family that was very secure financially and not wanting to be referred to by my peers as a person who received his wealth the “old fashioned way” meaning I inherited it, I worked hard at creating my own financial security.
While in my twenties, I worked hard, went to college, saved, invested in real estate successfully, and by age 27 had accumulated a very handsome looking portfolio. I was well on my way in achieving my goal of financial independence. Yet, I found myself suffering from insomnia. I had been pledge by this condition from the start of college. I assumed this was a condition that comes with being a student, but after graduation with my accounting degree, it seemed to worsen. Being the “goal” oriented individual that I am, I had realized that I had accomplished my entire short, medium and long-term goals by age 27 and for the next three years floundered in trying to gain some new meaningful goals.
By this time, I had discovered that I really didn’t like working in the accounting field and found my way into management with a convenience store chain. I also had become the chairperson of “the No-longer Strangers Task Force” at church. This task force was responsible in working with World Church Services and helping resettle Southeast Asians who were trying to immigrate into the United States. I was finding satisfaction in helping these people resettle in this country.
At the same time, I became aware that many of my customers through the convenience store seemed to be discussing unidentified yearnings for something greater in their lives; something that would give them a deeper satisfaction and a sense of greater self-worth. Over time I grew to understand these to be “Spiritual” issues and I recognized that my own lack of goal setting came from “Spiritual” longings that were inconsistent with my previous mindset of finding “wholeness and security” through the amassing of wealth. Once I connected all the dots and realized that going into parish ministry was where I needed to go, my insomnia stopped immediately. Then came the wrestling over personal wealth and the desire to accumulate more, because we all know that being a minister is not the road one takes to get on the list of the Fortune 500.”
Today’s questioning by the rich young man is really very similar to many of us. Here is a man who has it all. He was secure financially and was by all rights a very moral man; he followed and never strayed from the commandments – he hadn’t committed murder, he hadn’t committed adultery, nor did he steal, lie or cheat and he honored his father and mother; yet there was something missing in his life. If he had been satisfied, he would have never been asking Jesus the question, “what must I do to get eternal life?”
The answer of: sell everything and give it to the poor, was not just devastating to the young man, but also to the disciples of Jesus. “What do you mean give up your wealth and that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom of God? What type of nonsense is that Jesus?” “After all Jesus, we all know that it is those with the most wealth that are most blessed by God; for our riches come from God through right living. So if this man who has held up all the laws and is obviously greatly blessed, if he can’t get into heaven then what hope is there for the rest of us?”
One of my favorite authors from the 80’s and 90’s is Tony Campolo, who was a Baptist preacher and professor of social sciences at Eastern University as well as an adjunct professor at Eastern Baptist Seminary. In his book, “Seven Deadly Sins”, Dr Campolo addresses the chapter on Greed this way: “Our society has built its economy on the production of things that people are conditioned to want, but do not really7 need. Many of the consumer goods we spend so much to buy did not even exist a generation ago. We buy these things because we have been manipulated into wanting them through advertising and peer pressure.
We are willing to work two jobs in order to satisfy these artificially created wants. We are willing to take time from our families so that we can buy those things which we are assured will express our love to our loved ones more than our mere presence ever could. We are willing to reject biblical principles of living in order to buy the consumer goods which the media prescribes as essential for the “good life.” And when there are threats to the affluent lifestyle that has become synonymous with America, we stand ready to fight and if need be, to die to protect it.
If our greedy consumption of oil is challenged by the OPEC nations, we do whatever is necessary in order to keep the oil flowing into our tanks. If totalitarian dictatorships or oppressive racist regimes promote policies which help us sustain our overly consumptive way of life, we support those dictatorships and tolerate those oppressive racist regimes. Our greedy materialistic way of life drives us to compromise principles of justice, yield on the canons of morality, and even to lose our souls.”
The rich young man went off saddened because he could not release the reliance of security and follow Jesus. This person, who knew that there was something missing in his life, was unwilling to let go, so he might live life more fully.
When St. Francis of Assisi, challenged the church of his day with the same issues as the rich young man who came to Jesus had; and as do we as Christians face today; that of reliance on possessions; of money; even on traditions, and sensing that there was more to life than just these, he was seen as insane. St Francis was a man of great wealth in a time when the church valued great wealth. When he gave all his wealth to the poor and lived as a beggar, rebuilding a church and providing a meaningful existence with very little, those in religious leadership couldn’t understand Francis actions. I want to share a scene when with you from “Father Sun, Sister Moon”, where Francis comes to the talk with the Pope about what he might have done wrong to have had the local Bishop close the church that Francis had rebuilt and where peasants were going to worship.
It isn’t the matter of giving our wealth away and living like beggars that is the lesson here. The lesson is stripping away the baggage that keeps us from reaching out to God, in the innocence of children to live by God’s call for justice. The lesson for us is not to rely on external possession to make us happy, but rather to rely on the inner piece that comes through our relationship with God, with Christ’s teachings as a model. For it is in our true poverty that we gain our true wealth; that of the love of God and our ability to share that love with others. It is in our poverty that we are able to free ourselves from the sin of consumerism and greed. Come, let’s follow God! Amen.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

5th Sunday at First Congregational, Rock Springs

Enfolding Love
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Psalm 8; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

When Paul and I first moved to Rock Springs, there were a number of people who were very active in giving us little vignettes about the history of Rock Springs. This was very helpful in helping us better understand our new environment. These stories came by way of mouth, books and pamphlets. We also have learned bits and pieces of the history of this church. The most talked about piece is where the church first worshiped; upstairs over a bar. Quite frankly that was one of the selling points to me by the search committee when we were discussing First Congregational.
This week I have been working on a short press release about my arrival and so the history of the church has been on my mind a good deal of the time. As I tried to learn a bit more about the churches history I finally found a couple of sources that had a brief history of our faith community. Let me share some of our history with you.
First Congregational Church began with a Sunday school meeting in a one-room school house in 1876, and in 1881 was organized as the first church in the city, under the name of “Union Congregational Church”. Financial difficulties in the early 1890’s resulted in the loss of the first building on “B” Street, but the church re-organized with a new name “First Congregational” in 1891, and began a new building on “B” Street, after meeting for a few months in a vacant saloon on North Front! With additions and remodeling, that building served the congregation until 1970, when the property was sold to Mountain Bell, and a new structure was completed at our present location and dedicated on October 4th, 1970. Today Ladies and Gentlemen, we are celebrating our 39th year in this location. I think that deserves a big applause of Rejoicing! The mortgage was burned in the Centennial Celebration in October of 1981.
Just a little more history about who we are: The Congregational church had its beginnings with the Puritans and Separatists in England in the 16th Century, and the Pilgrims of the Mayflower and the Massachusetts Bay Colony were the first Congregationalists in the “New World”. Congregationalists were called that because of their belief the individual congregation was the ultimate authority in terms of Christian faith and action as well as church governance.
The United Church of Christ was founded in 1957 as a merger of the Congregational Church with a “native” America “Christian Church” body and with two German language and history bodies, the Evangelical Synod of North America and the Reformed Church. The resultant denomination has become a Prophet voice among Protestant churches with a strong interest in education, missionary activity, health and welfare, and social justice as well as a determination to take the Bible “seriously rather than literally”. Let me say that again, we are a part of a denomination that takes the “Bible seriously rather than literally.”
I want to bring that to your attention because today’s lectionary readings can either be taken literally and cause a great many people much pain and heartache, or we can take the Bible readings, “seriously rather than literally”, which still might bring a good deal of discomfort and anguish for those whose view of what marriage is suppose to look like or who is and who isn’t allowed to be married.
Take my relationship with Paul as an example; there are people who think that I am single, which is not true, Paul and I are as much a couple as anyone that has a certificate of marriage from the courthouse. We are taking aquatic aerobics at the Family Rec. Center and one of the ladies who teaches when Sharon Pribyl isn’t there asked me the other day “if my friend” was coming to class that evening. At the front desk we had a discussion with the person who issues passes whether or not we were going to be able to purchase a “family” pass, since we were in fact a family. These are questions that we are having to ask and discuss because we are living in a state that does not recognize equal rights to all of its citizens. This is quite a challenge for Paul and I who moved away from a state that is very conscious about civil liberties and equality.
The Pharisees came to Jesus asking about not the morality of, but rather the legality of divorce. There was already a legal system set up that allowed for it, in fact, it was Moses who allowed men to divorce their wives. Jesus chose not to give voice to the matter of divorce. He did say however, “divorce is the by-product of a hardened heart.” Then in private Jesus goes on to say that “Anyone who remarries commits Adultery against their former spouse”.
I would like to share some of the thoughts that were shared this week on the UCC website about today’s text: Jesus is asked a legal question, a technical, down-to-earth, question about every day, lived reality, and he answers with an ideal that is, to be honest, almost impossible to achieve, at least for most of us. One can ask the question, “Has Jesus turned law-giver, seeking to impose an especially stringent law on his followers” Would he insist that a man who remarries after divorce be put to death, as the law prescribes for adultery (Lev 20:10)?” In our hearts, we sense that Jesus was not about ordering people to be put to death because they had disobeyed the Law, even if the Law seems to call for it. What is the lesson here? What do we hear in this passage?
At first, it might sound too easy just to say that Jesus was holding up the ideal of marriage in response to the Pharisees’ preoccupation with divorce. But isn’t that exactly what needs to happen in our own time: don’t we need strong voices that lift up the ideal, the intention of God from the very beginning, of two people joined together for life, faithfully loving each other? In the “defense to Marriage Act”, those who propose to keep marriage to be defined as one man and one woman, argue the fact that any legal recognition other than that, would in fact destroy the integrity of the “family”. My question to this is what is happening to the integrity of the family when the divorce rate is 50% and that it isn’t uncommon in today’s world to find people married up to three times before there seems to be any stability within that institution of marriage. These figures are of coursed based on the only system we have, one man, one woman marriages.
Are there ways for us in the church to focus more energy on the ideals of lasting, faithful, loving unions that are a sign of God’s love in the world? We could strengthen our support systems for married couples and our marriage preparation programs, and perhaps even consider a measure of holy hesitation before marrying every couple that asks. Are we spending too much time in the church thinking about other ways to “defend” marriage? Is it possible for pastors, in the pulpit and in other settings of the life of the congregation, to speak about marriage in encouraging and hopeful ways that also affirm those who have had to leave a marriage in order to seek wholeness and healing? And if salvation is about healing and wholeness, then the possibility of remarriage seems not only a matter of compassion but a question of justice.
James J. Thompson in the book , “feasting on the Word” wonders if we might “ask whether the human was created for marriage, or marriage for the human?” In the book “Provoking the Gospel of Mark” Richard Swanson writes: “This basic ritual of intimacy and support is figured as a field on which we encounter God. This is an important understanding, especially because it takes place at the heart of human life. Encounters with God are often imagined as taking place on the edges of existence, in retreat from ordinary life.” However, in marriage, “encounter with God takes place in the mist of the ordinary rituals of daily life”.
Its true then, that marriage is sacramental, a means of God’s grace in our lives. Of all people, then, faithful followers of Jesus should take marriage seriously, and should hesitate before denying anyone this means of encountering God.” It is this type of taking the Bible “seriously but not literally” that the UCC at the twenty-fifth Synod issued a statement in support of marriage for all people, whether it be between one man and one woman or between same-sex couples.
Today’s lectionary is speaking on primary human relationships and they do so by affirming God’s purpose in creation. God’s acts and God’s intent can never be negated or superseded by legal permission. As Hebrews stated, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways, by the prophets, but in these days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the world.”
Yes, “ God is still speaking” to us today, through scripture and through the sciences and through thoughtful deliberation about social justice and equality. It is God who out of love created humanity and it is through basic relationships like the sacrament of marriage that we can live and celebrate that love. It is my hope that as we celebrate 39 yrs of worshipping in this building and as a faith community with history of over 133 years in Rock Springs, that we continue to wrestle with what the Bible has to say, taking its words “seriously but not literally”; and as Jesus told his disciples not to turn away or discourage the little children from receiving his blessing, we recognize that every human being is in truth a child and that we truly open our doors so those who wish to receive God’s blessing, can in truth and in safety find it here! Amen