Monday, December 14, 2009

3rd Sunday of Advent, First Cong.UCC, Rock Springs, WY

What Is Salvation?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
3rd Sunday of Advent
First Cong UCC, Rock Springs, WY 12/13/09
Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

This past Tuesday was one of those rare occasions where my whole day literally spanned the whole spectrum of what a minister does. My first meeting was with a group of colleagues, a meeting designed to give support to one another as professionals; my next meeting was with a couple wanting to get married; then I met with a family who had lost their family member with a sudden death and we discussed what the memorial service would entail as well as doing some grief counseling; my last meeting of the day centered around the excitement of a baptism.
In general, most of those meetings were dealing with exciting and joyous events within one’s life. But there was also the reminder that life is not always exciting and fun, but at times filled with pain, loss, grief and feelings of aloneness. Even though these people’s lives ran the full range of life’s experiences, the one basic theme that connected all four meetings centered on the “spiritual” needs of each person I visited with that day.
Today we are in the third week of Advent, a time that we focus on preparation and of anticipation of the coming of Christ. The first Sunday of Advent tended to focus on the return of Christ, and depending on whether your belief structure lends itself to a physical return of Jesus or if your belief system leads you to think in terms of a more metaphorical meaning of “His second coming”, we spent that Sunday taking a look at what that might mean to us. Last week we started to focus on preparation of our Spirit with the coming of Christ. This week we continue more fully on the discussion of ‘where’ we are at in our Spiritual journey.
In recent weeks I have begun to develop a working relationship with the local funeral homes. Vase in particular is starting to ask me to help with services for families that do not have an active relationship with any of the local churches and the reason comes not just from my skill and sensitivity but because of my believe of what is and isn’t appropriate conduct at a memorial service; and this code of conduct comes from my theological understanding; or through my interpretation of what Jesus was teaching during his life.
The short version of my theology is that going to church does not speak to “Ones Salvation”. If you haven’t already figured it out from previous sermons, I do not believe that going to Worship services means you are or are not a religious person. I grew up hearing every Sunday morning, “Steven, just because you go to church doesn’t mean you have any more faith than the person who doesn’t go.” And that is so very, very true. Now I have very definite reason’s on why “we should come to Worship” on a regular basis, but it has nothing to do with whether I am a good person verses being a bad person, or whether my faith in God is stronger because I attend church over the person who doesn’t attend church. For far too many centuries the Christian community has been presenting the idea of “what salvation” is in nothing more than a “Fire Insurance Policy”.
One of Jesus’ starting assumptions, as I understand his teachings, is that every person is a spiritual being. As a spiritual being, we have a natural desire to connect with others on a spiritual level. So what does that mean? Well, that is where the issue of language and the short coming of language can come into play. For when we deal with language we tend to deal on the level of “intellectualism” and that isn’t where “Spirituality” lives. Spirituality lives in the home of “feelings”, or another way of saying it, spirituality lives in the heart. When we deal with our spiritual nature we do not want to use the “I think” type of language, but rather we would use “I feel” type of phrases as a way of expressing what we wish to convey. This in itself becomes very scary for those of us who do not like to dwell in the world of “feelings” as this opens us to being vulnerable, which for the most part we are taught from an early age, to be on guard so that we are not injured emotionally. Men more so than women have a more difficult time in expressing emotions; men are suppose to be the warriors, the protectors and so at an early age they are taught to put their “feelings” safely into a box somewhere deep within us as part of the process to being strong. Jesus would say “Hog wash” to this type of training of our young people! For it is in our heart that we find our “humanity”.
So, how do I then as a minister, approach a family who does not have religious ties, in their time of deep grief over the loss of their family member? How do I approach developing a service when the family tells me that the deceased was not a religious person and they too are not particularly interested in dealing with a “religiously” based service? For one of the purposes of a funeral is to provide comfort for the survivors in knowing that the person who has died, spirit, will live on in peace. One of the basic Christian premises is that of life after death, and that one’s spirit will either exist in peace, which we call Heaven or will not exist in peace but rather eternal torment, which we have labeled “hell.”
I suppose when we ask that question, what we are really asking is, “How as a religious leader, do you stay true to this premise?” As I mentioned earlier, it is based on how you understand the teachings of Jesus. If your understanding of “Salvation” is based on some grouping of words that basically boil down to something like this: “I believe in Jesus Christ as my personal savior and that he is the son of God and I believe that through his death and resurrection I will have life everlasting only if I believe in his saving grace.” Then as a minister, you might have a very difficult time in dealing with a funeral of a non-religious person.
Being a staunch believer in the teachings of Jesus, I find that I can approach these families with deep compassion and love because they are a part of the family of God. When I visit with a family in their time of grieving from the death of their beloved family member, I speak to them in terms of not a funeral or even a memorial service, but rather as a time where we will “celebrate” this loved ones life. The reason I call it a celebration is, because as children of God, we as “spiritual” beings, experience the love of God on a variety of levels. What I hear when I am told that someone isn’t a religious person doesn’t mean that they are not devoid of this spiritual relationship, nor doesn’t mean that that individual hasn’t developed a strong spiritual believe system. It doesn’t mean that the person how has died, hasn’t experienced “salvation.” What it is telling me is that they did not engage, at the level church goers would recognize, as having a practicing religious belief system.
When someone tells me that they are “spiritual” but not religious, what I am hearing is not something lacking in this persons spiritual development, but rather an indictment toward the church. It means that the church has failed to speak in a language of that individual; a language that would encourage that person to come and feel a part of a faith community. For those of us who were raised in the church, we understand the language, we love the hymns that we sing, the prayers that we pray; but for someone who has not grown up in the church or was raised in the church but left; our language is foreign to them, and our hymns make no emotional connections either rhythmically or with their words. In other words, the way in which we conduct a Worship Service generally doesn’t connect or engage people who have little to no church memory. It’s not that people do not turn away from the church, but rather, it is the church that is not reaching out to those not here and communicate in a way that they hear what we wish to share with them.
In today’s Gospel, we read where John is accusing those who were coming out to be baptized of being vipers! Eugene Peterson puts it this way, “You brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snake skins is going to deflect God’s judgment? It’s your life that must change, not your skin. And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as ‘father’. Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.”
The reader’s digest of what John is say is this. It’s not the words that we speak that is where our salvation comes from. We are not saved by calling ourselves Christian; we are not saved because we go to church; we are not saved because we have been baptized. John is telling us that we are saved because of what is in our heart! There we go again talking about that place where “feelings” live at! Our salvation doesn’t come from “religious” activities; it comes through “relationships”; relationship with God and relationship with others.
For those of us who only deal with life on the “intellectual” level, I am not sure if we will really understand the concept of “salvation”. The relationship with God is no different that our relationships with those that we love, be it our partner, our children, our friends. These relationships can only exist and deepen with ongoing contact. That is one of the reason’s I give for coming to church. It is in coming together that we build these relationships; it is by coming into community that we foster and deepen our “feelings”, of finding a sacred space where we can open our heart and become vulnerable so we can feel the Holy Spirit within us and among us.
To John, as with Jesus, salvation is experienced by what we do with our lives. It is found in how we enter act with others, not just our friends and families but with strangers. Do we give to those in need, not just in food or in money, but do we give of ourselves? The battle cry of “Social Justice” just isn’t in providing equality or giving voice to those who cannot speak for themselves. Social justice extends to how much of ourselves do we give to those in need. Martin Luther King had it so very right in his vision of equality. For it went far beyond equality of blacks being equal with whites, it is the vision that God has for his children; for we shall find our salvation when we all understand and live in true community, where there is no thought of do you “belong” because of your skin color, or because of your educational level, or because of your family connections, or of your religious beliefs; but because we all understand that every human being is one of God’s children, that we are all truly brothers and sisters and we are all equal in the love of God. This is the massage that Christ came to deliver to us; this is the message that Christ was killed for speaking. This is the message that I want us to hear as we prepare for Christmas: The message is that of Love, of community, of being open to growing into God’s understanding; that we all belong and all are welcomed. Or as this weeks fortune cookie said: Don’t judge a work of Art by it’s flaws!” Amen

2nd Sunday of Advent, First Cong. UCC, Rock Springs, WY

Responding to God’s Promise
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
2nd Sunday of Advent
Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6; Philippians 1:3-11

Today is the Second Sunday of Advent; it is also the Sunday that we celebrate the Eucharist. Once a month we celebrate communion which is not only in remembering the work and sacrifice of the Christ Jesus but it is also a remembering that He will be coming again. It is very fitting that we celebrate communion on the 2nd Sunday of Advent, for it is the 2nd Sunday of Advent that we think in terms of “Preparing”. Advent in itself speaks to a time of preparation for the coming of the Messiah; the celebration of the Eucharist is also a time of preparing for the return of Christ. The celebration of communion makes no sense without this concept of Christ’s return and the season of Advent is lessened without the act of celebration of the Holy Sacrament of Communion.
“…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, The voice of one crying out in the wilderness; ‘Prepare the way of the lord…’”
As we think about the idea of preparation, I have an idea that most of us think in terms of time lines, especially time lines that we ourselves will personally be able to complete. For example: when a person receives what we recognize as “a call into ministry” there again is a time of preparation before this person starts officially to fulfill the duties of a minister. Within the denomination of the United Church of Christ, one is required to attend and graduate from an accredited seminary; while in seminary, usually you are required to do an internship under the direction of an Ordained Minister; after graduation one has to then write and defend their Theological perspective, demonstrating that they have basic concepts of Christian Theology and that they have sufficiently thought through their own personal beliefs and can defend them; then once you receive a call to serve a congregation, you go through the actual Ordination in which your receive a blessing and official recognition of your call.
In Luke we read where John, who is the son of a priest, Zechariah, and cousin to Jesus, receives a call while he is out in the wilderness. Luke references this call back to Isaiah, which gives us a time frame to which God has been working on the birth of Jesus. From the point of Isaiah calling for Preparation of the coming Messiah to the point of John, there were many generations; it didn’t happen within one persons live time. Even John, wasn’t really sure that the certainty of the Messiah’s coming upon the scene was going to be happening within his life time, which can be witnessed when he while in prison, sent several of his disciples to go and ask Jesus if he was indeed the Messiah.
So, how is this scene that we are reading in Luke actually able to relate to our present day lives since we are reading it as history? Well, there is one idea that pop’s out to me that I think is very relevant to us in our modern times. This point comes in the phrase, “…in the wilderness.” In the book of Lamentations, we read: there is a time for everything under the sun: a time to live and a time to die, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for joy and a time for sorrow, a time to prosper and a time of famine; I think in each one of our lives, our Spiritual life goes through these same types of seasons.
Our Spirituality is just like a field, it begins with very fertile soil, full of all the nutrients that are needed to grow and sustain life. When this soil is cultivated, planted with seeds, watered and cared for, it will automatically produce an abundant harvest. During the growing cycle of this field, not only are there the seeds that we intentionally plant within this fertile soil, life has a way of planting unwanted seeds to grow as well. We call any unwanted seeds, weeds (which doesn’t necessarily make the seeds they come from good or bad, it just means they are unwanted in that place.)
There are times when our field goes through droughts, a period of time when we are missing elements that are needed for our fields to grow and produce the harvest that we are intending. This drought can be a lack of water, or a lack of nutrients. A field after producing its crop, needs to be amended, it needs to have the nutrients that it used for the previous crop replenished so that it has the energy to produce the next crop.
When I graduated from seminary my Spiritual life was like this field that was ready to produce bumper crops. Then through lives events, through my work in the church, through going through a divorce, of losing my family, of needing time to learn who I was as a single person, I found myself spiritually depleted. I needed time to rejuvenate, so I took a sabbatical from parish ministry. After about six years, I was ready to go back into ministry feeling that I was spiritually renewed. Yet, it wasn’t until I found myself back in the class room preparing for my entry into the United Church of Christ and volunteering in a church that loved and accepted me for who I was as a creation of God’s love, that I actually could feel my Spirit coming back to life. It was as if I were watching a dormant tree that had been denied life giving water for a long time, starting to sprout out new shoots. This is what I am speaking about with regard to our Spirituality as being like a field.
The Spirituality of a church is a reflection upon the spiritual health of its members. If the members of any church body are busy in feeding their spiritual lives, then the activities of the church reflect that energy and excitement that comes with an active spiritual life. There are basic nutrients that we need to keep our spirituality thriving. Note I say, thriving, for we will always have our spirituality, but just as a dormant field, we can become spiritually dormant. Studying God’s word is the most single important nutrient that our Spirit needs. Not just studying it in private, but in a group setting, to where you take the word of God and discuss it with others, listening to the understanding of others as they read and study God’s word. This is one of the opportunities that happen every Sunday evening, at 6:30 p.m. during Vespers, we hear the word and then we discuss what we have heard, of how it relates to what is going on in our daily life and giving support to one another. I would invite all of you to come and join in the enriching power that this study group provides and it is Lay lead. It is one of the ways that I am feed spiritually.
As we come to Christ’s table during this advent season, let us open our heart and prepare. As John was crying out in the wilderness, let us examine the wilderness within our heart that needs to prepare for the coming of the Messiah; the one who can truly reign within our hearts; the one who provides peace, justice and love for all of God’s creation, when we allow him to. For in our examination of our heart, we may find that we need to do some personal repenting and opening of our live to God’s call of accepting the forgiveness that is offered to us through Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross. Amen

1st Sunday of Advent, First Cong. UCC, Rock Springs, WY

Keep the Watch
By Rev Steven R. Mitchell
First Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” What apocalyptic language to be given to us on this First Advent Sunday! This idea of apocalyptic discussion seems so different from what I grew up with in terms of what we are “suppose” to be thinking about during Advent.
Last year, I had the opportunity to preach the First Advent Lesson at my home church in Seattle and it was there that I realized, I must have been asleep in class on the day the professor at seminary talked about Advent! For it was during my studying last year’s lectionary readings that I discovered that Advent Lectionary readings were filled with apocalyptic language and imagery.
I had grown up thinking that Advent was solely looking toward the nativity scene, where we get that warm, cuddly feeling of being at the manger with Joseph, Mary and the new born baby Jesus; a scene that speaks of love and joy; of promise and peace. Advent is a season where we listen to Christmas songs (sometimes more than we wish) on the radio; it is a time where we go shopping, being serenaded by MusSac with songs like Frosty the Snowman and Santa Baby.
Advent is the season where we see the winter landscapes become lit up over night with bright colors and outdoor displays of sleighs and reindeer; of angels and Santa Clauses, again giving a sense of warmth and comfort and safety from the frigid temperatures of the winter night. It’s a time where we are to prepare for Christmas Day! Well, you get the picture.
Advent is a season of preparation, but not just of the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Advent becomes a time when we reflect on Jesus’ coming in its many dimensions: his historical coming in his birth, his eschatological coming at the end of time, his existential coming into our own present.(common lectionary yr C) In the Epistle of 1 Thessalonians, we are being exposed by the existential coming of God, where in the Gospel of Luke the language is much more apocalyptic in nature, speaking to the end of all things and the coming of the kingdom of God. Even in the Hebrew text of Jeremiah, we are exposed to the idea of God’s completion of unconditional promises of restoration!(common lectionary yr C)
I would like for us to look just a little more closely to what Paul has written to the Thessalonian church: “Now may our God…and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”
I would like to share an exegesis of this passage as presented in Preaching the New Common Lectionary yr C: “When Paul wrote these words, he had just a few months earlier established the Thessalonian church. As one reads this epistle, it becomes clear that this young, fledgling church still occupies Paul’s thoughts and prayers. He recalls the success of the gospel among them, speaking of them as his “glory and joy”. His anxiety is that of the minister who frets over new converts who have been left behind in a struggling mission church, knowing that their faith is fragile at best.
Here we are at the very center of the Lord’s coming as it is understood existentially: the minister praying for the members of the church – thankful, joyful, triumphant, yet anxious to see them, concerned about their welfare, eager to teach them more and supply what is lacking, hoping that their love for one another will hold them together and that they will be presentable on the Day of the Lord. In another sense as well, this passage illustrates the existential dimension of the Lord’s coming. Here we see faith taking root – and taking shape. The Thessalonians have received the word of God not as a preacher’s oral report, but that which is at work within them as believers.
Paul’s hope is that their love for one another will increase even as his does for them, but their form of community is not to be narcissistic, turning in on itself and its own needs exclusively. Their love is to abound to “the whole human race”. The church that genuinely experiences the coming of Christ into its own midst most fully embodies this presence when it extends its love beyond itself and lives for others. The church thus becomes a reenactment of the Christ story – love for others.”
Today’s Epistle is very near to my heart as it seems to resonate the relationship that we here at First Congregational have with each other. “May our God and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you” This was a pray that I had been praying since October of 2003 after I had completed my Privilege of Call with the United Church of Christ and started to actively look for a congregation in which I could serve. With the receipt of each church profile that was searching for their next settled pastor I would pray that God would direct me to a faith community that He had in mind for me. Over the next four years I was the focus of four very differing search committees, always as one of the finalists being considered. Four times I was looked over as the other finalist was chosen.
My mother has extraordinary faith. She has a very simple believe that God provides and it will be in God’s on time. When I would discuss with her each of the four differing possibilities to serve and then the disappointment that I would be dealing with when I wasn’t called, she would just remind me that it is God’s timing and to trust in that. You would think that as a minister I would understand and resign myself to this truth, yet having a highly developed competitive nature, to which Sharon Pribly can attest, and having a slight tendency to want to be in control of my environment it is very difficult for me to accept God’s timing when it doesn’t coincide with my own.
Then while on vacation this summer, bing, bang, boom, First Congregational of Rock Springs comes onto the radar as an opportunity for me to serve as your Transitional Minister. At the same time I was working on setting a date with a search committee in Connecticut for a time and place for a neutral pulpit, which means that we were coming to a final stage of interviewing for a “settled” pastorate position. I was feeling pretty convinced that Connecticut was going to be my new home. Then within a week’s time of learning about Rock Springs, I was given the opportunity to become your Transitional Minister. I could hear my mother’s voice saying, “you see, what did I tell you Steven, in God’s timing.” I could hear my mother’s voice because I was at my mother’s house when I said, “yes” to your offering.
If you look at the time line of my beginning my search through the UCC it seems to corresponds with the time when you were last looking for a settled pastor. One of several discussions I had as I was preparing to move to Rock Springs from some members dealt with the feeling that they thought, “it was the right calling to have Harvey Joyner” come as your pastor and the confusion of the stress that seemed to accompany his time with you. The confusion coming from, “if Harvey was the right person, when why would there have been so much stress?”. One could argue: “ why didn’t we see Steven’s name as one of the potential candidates when we were looking at Harvey?” After all you had called Harvey and now you have called me. My mother would counseled you, “God provides and in His timing.”
It is my belief that “God” was providing you the right person when you hired Rev Joyner. Only time will tell what God was providing for you, as well, as wanting to teach you as a congregation when he sent you Harvey. If you look to the apocalyptic writing in Luke, you will see that even as believers, we will not be spared the trials and tribulations that come in life, but as believers, we will know the comfort that God’s will is being worked out. So, just because there was strife and turmoil over the last few years, it doesn’t negate the fact that Rev Joyner’s calling wasn’t what God wanted for this church at that time.
I believe that there is great correlation with the annual season of Advent and where we are at here within this faith community at this season of Advent. We as a church are in an advent season within the life of this congregation. With this “interim” time that I am with you, we are in a time of the churches life of anticipation for the unconditional promise of God’s restoration! What is that restoration? Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all…And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God….”
As we begin this season of Advent, we are in anticipation to what the next chapter of ministry will look like. Let us look into our hearts and continually pray to God that our love will increase and our relationship, that personal experience with God will grow, so that when we come on December 25th to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we will be counted among those who help bring justice and mercy to a world that forgets to do so. For as Jeremiah wrote:”The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” Let us be expectant of that day to come and let us be a part of that branch that springs up for David. Let our hearts continue this season to deepen in love for another and of all peoples.