Sunday, January 24, 2010

3rd Sunday after Epiphany, Rock Springs, WY, 1st Congregational UCC

All for One and One for All
By Rev. Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 1/24/2010
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; I Corinthians 12: 12-31a; Luke 4: 14-21

For the last couple of weeks, the lectionary readings in the Gospels have been out of John. Last week in particular, I spent a good deal of time trying to clarify and hopefully presenting some new comparisons for you of how John used the Hebrew Scriptures in his presentation of showing the Divinity of Jesus. As we started in this season of Epiphany, we first heard the words that let us know that Jesus was with God from the beginning. Then we learned of the man who was preparing the way for the coming of God’s son, known as John the Baptizer. Then there was the recognition of who Jesus was by John, when Jesus came down to the river Jordan to be baptized, not only by the words of John himself but also by God in the symbol of a dove coming down from Heaven and landing on Jesus’ head. Then last week, we learned of Jesus’ first miracle, his coming out of the closet, so to speak at the Wedding in Cannon, where his mother outs him as she insists on Jesus making sure that there is sufficient wine for the guests.
Again, the focus of the story wasn’t so much in the turning the water into wine as it was addressing the state of the church of Jesus’ day and that it was spiritually bankrupted because of the “law”, those physical dos and don’ts that were suppose to keep you in good standing with God. But that through Jesus, the idea of the best from God had finally come, that of “grace” and “mercy”. Now we are back in the Gospel of Luke and here we read of Jesus going back to his home town and he himself is announcing that “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
I don’t think that when we read stories about Jesus, politics tend to be at the forefront of your brains. Yet this whole segment of scripture just lends itself to images of a candidate who is announcing his candidacy for office. You have Jesus coming into the party; he is nurtured and even announced as the next promised hope of the future. Luke says, “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He stood up to read. The eyes of all were fixed on him.” Then after the reading, Jesus announces that “he was the promise”, basically.
We see this all the time on the news. A candidate almost always goes back to his home town when he is getting ready to announce his running for public office. He does this after he has laid the ground work of his agenda out among his potential constituents. Jesus was doing the same thing. It is through this reading from Isaiah that Jesus has set up his agenda, his vision of what his work was to be about; and not just his work but subsequently the work of those who wish to follow in his footsteps, which over the years has become known as the Christian church!
The fact that Jesus was reading from Isaiah is also very important, as what Jesus is saying about his agenda was, “it isn’t new.” Jesus wasn’t introducing a new concept to what his ministry was going to be about. He was going back to what the people had always looked to as the promises of God; those promises that even while in exile, God was going to give to them “restoration”! Restoration of their nation; restoration from a battered life, to one of healing and wholeness; restoration from not being able to see truth and justice.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because ‘she’ has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. ‘She’ has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is the whole of Jesus’ message to the church, no, to the world! That God has come and made good on the promises of “restoration.”
After graduating from Seminary, I started my vocation in ministry with only two weeks behind my last final exam. I took my last test on Dec 15th and on January 1, started as pastor of Kittitas Community Church, in Kittitas, Washington. Because of personal issues, it took me about a year before I was ready for my Ordination Ceremony. Actually, I felt a bit like Jesus, as I wasn’t really ready to go through that process quite yet, but the members of the church were really pressing me on completing that one last piece. The piece that officially said, Steven Mitchell was truly a minister, not just one licensed by the church in order to perform those necessary functions such as communion or weddings, but the ceremony that states, “This person is truly called by God to do the work and leadership of the church.” My theology of ministry, of what the church is suppose to be about is very clear and it was reflective with one of the readings of scripture that I had at my Ordination service. It was this same reading from Isaiah! Everything that I personally do with respect to guiding the life of any congregation always comes back to these basic concepts: bringing good news to the poor; proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor!” We call it “Social Justice”; Jesus’ ministry was about Social Justice; God’s promise is about Social Justice!
These types of activities come in many forms. It comes as a person who stands in the pulpit, or in this case on the main floor, and tries to interpret the scriptures, this word of God that is given to us. I take this very seriously; there isn’t a Sunday that I stand up here wondering if what I am saying is truly reflections on scripture or if it’s just something that Steve Mitchell wants to say. So much so, that there are times when I will ask various people to read what I am proposing to preach, to get feedback.
Another way of staying true to what Jesus says is the work of the church, comes with how I interact with the larger community as the official representative of this congregation. Like my working with the Wyoming Association of Churches and helping represent the voices of our Wyoming churches in matters of social justice to the legislative body in Casper. Or, taking time away from this pulpit and preach in other places, much like what I will be doing on Feb 21st as I go over to our sister church in Green River and share with them my perspective on Homosexuality and God’s word; or going to special events that honor members of this congregation, like Louise Wesswick’s award from the Governor this next month or visiting members of this congregation in their homes, care facilities or hospitals. It comes in my representing the love and compassion of God when I am called upon to officiate a memorial service, especial to those who really have never had much to do with organized religion.
It comes in events during the High Holy Seasons, such as the Christmas Eve program, or this coming season of Lent where we nvite the community of Rock Springs to come and view different films and documentaries on topics that affect us all. A film series that will run for 6 weeks, exploring such topics as: women’s self-images in this country and how it is shaped by the fashion industries “perfect size”; we will explore the topic of global climate change; we will have the opportunity to learn about “white privilege” and how does that affect our lives and the lives of others; There is going to be a look at breast cancer, which can be applied to any potentially life threatening disease; we will be addressing the consequences of taking a stand on major issues through the movie Lions For Lambs; as well as watching and discussing one of America’s most controversial musicals of the 1970’s, Jesus Christ Super Star and explore for some another view of Jesus.
Through these documentaries and films we will not just be addressing issues, but more deeply, working on what Isaiah called, “recovery of sight to the blind; issues on the oppressed of our society; stewardship of our mother earth, that which God entrusted us to care for.”
In our reading what the Apostle Paul was addressing to the church in Corinth, we read about his using the analogy of the human body as the body of Christ. It goes beyond the idea that the church is representative of Christ and his teachings. In Paul’s eyes, the church is truly the body of Christ. The church is Christ incarnate, just as we look to Jesus as God incarnate.
Today’s lectionary readings are not just laying the ground work of the “nice” things that the church should be working on. What we are reading is that the Church is the body of Christ and if Christ is God, then as the Church we don’t just represent God, we are the body “incarnate” of God. It is the connection through the Holy Spirit that we have not only the power to Proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, but through the Holy Spirit, we have the energy and the message. We have the road map, so to speak, of what “Our” responsibility is, as the body of Christ. It goes beyond just proclaiming and pointing out the social issues that need working on. We have the responsibility to make social justice happen; we have the responsibility to help heal a world that has become blinded by self-interests, even our own countries self seeking interests; and we not only have the responsibility to bring “restoration”, but through the Holy Spirit, we have the power to do so.
Last week we hear the words of Dr Martin Luther King as he contemplated what he would like to be remembered as, at his funeral. There were other great speeches that he has given us to continue on our walk of ministering to those who need a voice for justice. We have the words and examples of great men and women, who have dreamed and worked toward equality not only in our nation but around the world, men like Gandhi and women like Goldie Amir. But most of all we have the words and examples of people found in Holy writings that provide the great light of what God asks of his creation, that of being a reconciling people, not to just one another but also to the planet and as we continue to venture out into the Cosmos, to be reconciling to it as well.
We are the body of Christ. We are a part of the body of Christ. As a part of the body of Christ, we are individuals within this body. It takes each and every one of us, old and young, rich and poor, educated and the non-educated, to help make this body function. As we look to places like Haiti, where there is such pain and suffering; or to Afghanistan and Iraq where there is war; or to the genocide that goes on among tribes in Africa; or the poverty that exists in Rock Springs; it may seem overwhelming to us, but if we can pull together, as a church, as a community of churches, as a collective group in this country as well as throughout the world, then we can work more effectively on making this the reconciling world that Jesus was proclaiming at the onset of his ministry! Amen

Sunday, January 17, 2010

2nd Sunday After Epiphany

Strength In Diversity
By Rev. Steven R Mitchell
2nd Sunday of Epiphany, January 17, 2010
First Cong UCC Rock Springs, WY
I Cor. 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

This morning, in churches all across the country, preachers are standing in pulpits like this one and delivering their annual Martin Luther King, Jr, Day sermon. As I was reviewing today’s lectionary selections, it seemed obvious to me that I should focus on the reading coming from I Corinthians as it deals with the message of diversity, which is nicely summed up in verse 12, “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.” For many of us, especially those of us who lived through the civil rights movement era, look to Dr. King as an icon to “justice” issues and a name that comes to our minds when we hear the question asked, “Does God still send us prophets?” In Dr. Kings martyrdom we are strengthened in our confidence that he was indeed a man sent from God, showered with gifts, who will be remembered for his eloquent words, his courageous deeds, and his deep and abiding commitment to non-violence as the ultimate form of Christian resistance to injustice, even in the face of police dogs with snarling teeth and the taunts by “nice, Christian” Americans- twentieth century Americans who reacted angrily and self-righteously when a people demanded justice too long delayed. Justice too long delayed, Dr King said, is justice denied.
As each year goes by and we remember Dr. King with our sermons and singing and even our renewed commitment to justice for all of God’s children, it seems to me that it’s rather tempting to lift up this prophet, onto a pedestal, much as the church has done with Jesus.UCC study guide In the movie Torch Song Trilogy, when confronted by his mother about trusting her enough to speak the truth, Arnold responds in reference to his deceased partner, “It’s so much easier to love the dead.” The inference being that it is easier for us after someone is gone to look at their good qualities in our own timing, than to recognize their qualities while we are being confronted at the time with their messages that differ from our own understanding of the issue.
It is this understanding then that I found myself continually coming back throughout this past week to the other lectionary selection, the Gospel of John. For it is John’s story that helps provide the foundation in which Paul is able to build upon in the understanding of how each member of the body is essential to the working of the entire body. So if you will bear with me, I will try to be true to the memory of Dr King’s efforts as I focus some of my thoughts and understanding of what John is saying in todays Gospel reading. For as Arnold says, “it is easier to love the dead” as the further away we are from the time that Jesus walked this earth the easier it is for us to lose sight of what the true meaning of his ministry is about and by doing so we elevate the message to a point to where it becomes so sacred that it is unapproachable and untouchable and ultimately non-meaningful and relevant to today’s audiences.
This morning’s Gospel reading begins with: On the third day; even though this is the beginning of a new chapter, if we only look at this selection, one is left wanting to understand what has happened during the first two days and since the rest of the Gospel readings through Epiphany come from the book of Luke, I think it bears just a little recap of what has happened up to this point as a way of helping understand what is actually being said beyond the obvious reading of the turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana.
If we go back to the first chapter in John we read where the writer is establishing the Divinity of Jesus through the cousin of Jesus, John the baptizer! After the writer establishes that Jesus is baptized, he shows where John the baptizer announcing Jesus as the Messiah, the chosen one of God to lead the people of Israel to establish or to many, re-establish their Kingdom. Yes, I am saying that the early portion of Jesus’ ministry was viewed by the larger masses that followed him as a political movement.
The writer of this gospel moves from the day of Jesus’ baptism to saying the “next day” that two of John the baptizer’s disciples run after Jesus after hearing Johns declaration that “here is the one I speak of” “here is the Messiah”. One disciple is identified as Andrew; the other is not named but can be concluded to be John the beloved who is also the author of this gospel. They go and stay with Jesus after they decide to leave John the baptizer and follow Jesus. It is during that first day that Andrew goes to his brother Peter and brings him onboard. Then there is another, “next day”, so on day two, they come across another man named Philip, who is so impressed with Jesus that he goes and gets his brother Nathanael who also decides to follow Jesus. At the close of the second day, Jesus leaves with five disciples for the town of Cana in Galilee to attend a wedding.
It is at this wedding “On the third day”, that we learn that Jesus’ mother and other brothers are introduced into the story. We also hear Jesus state that, “My time has not yet come." One of the major points in today’s reading hinges on the concept of “timing.” We also read “He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him” with the first recorded miracle; that of turning water into wine. But we need to finish this chapter to make total sense of what we are asked to focus on this morning. After the wedding is over we read that Jesus, his disciples and his mother and brothers all leave and travel down to Capernaum and stay there for several days. We then read that during that time, Passover is nearing and Jesus goes to Jerusalem, to the temple and sees the temple being used as a place of business. He is enraged and turns over the tables of the money changers. He is confronted by the Pharisees with, "What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?" Jesus then presents them with his first challenge by saying, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days."
I hope that you are following the language and the days that are being presented within the first two chapters by John; for they are reminiscent of the theology of the creation stories, in regard to timing and his way of showing the divinity of Jesus as being God’s son. The use of the “on the first day” that of creating out of the void, light; then, “on the fourth day” planets, moon and sun. If you read the six days of creation in Genesis not as six separate days but as a re-telling of three events, meaning on the first day and the fourth day as the same day, the second day and the fifth day as one day, and the third day and the sixth day as another day. Then on the seventh day God rested, you will see John relating God’s authority of dominion over His creation and thus, Jesus’ authority to do the ministry that Jesus as challenging the Pharisees with. You can also start to see how early humanity understood creation as first the creation of the heavens and earth; next the development of life in the oceans and thirdly life finally developing on dry land. Sounds a bit like our understanding of the evolutionary process.
John, then lets us know that there is a correlation between the “3rd day” of Jesus’ ministry being exposed at the wedding in Cana and his statement of “destroying this temple and in 3 days I will rebuild it.” Timing is very important in today’s lesson. There is a tremendous metaphor being presented by John’s story, as Jesus selects the “purification vessels” as the vehicle of providing wine; the ritual of each guest who arrives to this celebration has to be ceremonially washed, thus purified before being able to attend this event. The idea that these vessels were empty is another important statement by John about Jesus’ divinity. Then the statement by the host of the wedding ceremony making a statement to the groom saying, “you have saved the best wine till the last” is another statement to Jesus’ divinity. John is using all of this to represent the understanding the old way, the temple law was empty, no longer working, no longer being a way of salvation for people and that through Jesus there was a new life, giving way to “live life to its fullest.” The water had to be fetched to fill the empty ceremonial jars, meaning it had to be drawn from a well or from a river; water represents a living source, a necessity of sustaining life, the wine we look to as the new covenant as we come to the communion table, as Jesus re-established its meaning as “new life”. The underlying message in today’s gospel is that the old structure of the church was empty, dead and that by the coming of Jesus, there was a new order; there was a moving away from the law to grace.
How does this affect us in today’s church if we say that we are living in grace since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? I believe the message is ongoing. For life to exist there needs to be the ability to change, for death comes when life becomes stagnant. For the church to exist, it needs to “re-invent” itself with each new generation. With each generation, there lies a danger of becoming empty, having nothing to offer that is relevant to the new generation. I believe this was the conflict that we read about between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus was presenting a message of how to reconnect a relationship to God that had become meaningless through “laws of do’s and don’ts” and no longer had any meaning for these who lived under the law; thereby not allowing for spiritual growth, this connecting with God.
This happens to every congregation; there is a time when the church is vibrant and its ministry is reaching not only its members but also out into the community, where there is excitement about what is happening and there is a growing of the Spirit among its members. Then comes the next generation and there is not the same connection to meaningful activities that provides for the same spiritual growth. This then creates a conflict, whether it is open or not. But something will happen, either the new generation will fall away because their spirituality isn’t being nurtured, much like a leaf on a tree will wither and fall off the tree due to the lack of nourishment; or the new generation will try to establish methods and activities that will be meaningful to them so that they will grow spiritually. Out and out conflict will erupt when the older way of doing things is challenged by a new way of doing things, just as what was happing between the Pharisees and Jesus. It happens between parents and their teenagers. When there is an inability as parents to release our children as they become adults and let them form their own life styles, the tension becomes great and sometimes a breaking off of contact.
The challenge for any church is just like that of parents as their children grow up and become adults; that of balancing the foundations that have been taught with the building of the needs of the next generation upon it. That moving from the law into the living under grace. It isn’t an easy movement but it is one that has to happen. Otherwise, the ultimate outcome is death of the once vibrant institution.
Now we come to the melding of today’s gospel with that of the lesson from the Apostle Paul as he addresses the importance of each member of the body to make a complete “whole” and that the whole cannot function without its parts. In this country, the established church used the scriptures to justify slavery. It took a war between the states to abolish it. In this nation, we used the same bible to keep women from having equal rights as men. The war for women’s suffrage was won, I believe, in the bedroom. We use the same bible today to continue to justify violence against those who do not use the same name in their religious beliefs. I can remember when Dr King was alive and calling our nation into account for its refusal to recognize its injustice through segregation because of bigotry, that good “Christians” tried to demean “truth” by using scripture to justify evil. This is not the message of “love” and “justice” that Jesus gave his life for. We seem to never learn the lesson of the simple song we learn as children, “Jesus loves me this I know for the bible tells me so.” Or “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children in the world.” So you tell God, at what point do these little children no longer become precious in his sight? When do some of us no longer become God’s children? Jesus was crucified because of that question. Dr King was murdered for challenging our country in not allowing all the children in.
I would like to close by sharing a piece of a sermon Dr King spoke just two months before he was murdered in the name of preserving our culture for the future of our children.
"Every now and then," Dr. King said, "I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral. And I don't think of it in a morbid sense. Every now and then I ask myself, 'What is it that I would want said?' And I leave the word to you this morning….
"I'd like somebody to mention that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day, that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try, in my life, to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say, on that day, that I did try, in my life, to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity."
The Apostle Paul wrote, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
We here at First Congregational, have some very exciting opportunities coming before us as we meet at the end of the month for our annual meeting; we are going to be asked to start thinking about who we are and who will we let into our family and who will we exclude. We are going to be asked to what degree are we willing to make this a ministry of God and at what cost are we willing to do this. We are at a point, I believe, that is representative of the Wedding at Cana. I wonder sometimes, if our wine has run out; the question is, “are we going to let Jesus fill the empty jars to the brim with living water and allow the new and best wine to now be served?” Only you can answer this question. Amen

1st Sunday After Advent

From Water to Fire
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
1st Sunday after Epiphany, 1/10/10
Isaiah 43: 1-7; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22
1st Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY

Today is the First Sunday after Epiphany. This year, Epiphany came on Wednesday. Traditionally, Epiphany is the day that we would read the story about the three wise men from the East who traveled to Bethlehem, looking for the new King of the Jews! The definition of the word Epiphany can mean: manifestation or revelation or showing and suggests a shining light; thus the story of three foreigners traveling to find a new king being lead by a bright shining star. This story also speaks to the revealing of the Messiah not just to the Jews, which came with the telling of shepherds on a hillside, but to the world beyond the Jewish Kingdom, or rather to the greater world as depicted by these three men coming from the East.
All through the Advent season, we were constantly reading where God was speaking through Angels to various people such as Joseph and Mary, as well as Zechariah in preparation to the birth of Jesus. Then of the news of Jesus’ birth being delivered to the shepherds by not just one angel but through a host of angels! There was a constant phrase of re-assurance being given to ever one who was encountering these celestial beings with the words, “do not be afraid!” Angels through the first three chapters of Luke come at the bidding of God’s Spirit as it intertwined with life here on earth.
Yet angels are not the only reference within the Bible that is used in the descriptions of God’s Spirit moving among humanity. All through its pages, you can read that people interpreted God’s Spirit moving among them in the form of “water, wind and fire.” All three of these elements can bring terror to the hearts of those who experience them. One only needs to think about being on I-80 between Rock Springs and Rawlins in the middle of a blizzard to understand the feeling of fear about the possibility of being stranded; or during a good old Kansas storm as you huddle in the corner of your basement, and hear the roar of what sounds like a freight train going through your house, as a tornado sweeps clean everything in its path; or that sinking feeling as one watching on T.V. and sees Yellowstone National Park, one of our national treasures being consumed by a rushing wall of fire that was started by a bolt of lightning.
And yet all three of these have a mystical quality, too: water is the stuff of life – beginning with birth, we thirst for it all our days; fire brings light in the darkest night and heat in the coldest winter; and wind – wind is the most evocative sign of the Spirit moving among us; in fact, the word Spirit in this week’s reading from the Gospel of Luke can be translated also as “wind”, and when the heaven was opened, the Spirit descended like a dove upon Jesus, standing there in the River Jordan. One can imagine that it felt like a great wind blowing through. Reflection by Kate Huey
Epiphany’s in one’s life generally do not happen with occurring frequencies. For me, the last epiphany that I can point to occurred in 1989, at 32,000 feet above the earth on a return flight to Kittitas, WA after attending 4 day convocation on ministering to those people living with AIDS. Although a dove didn’t descend from heaven and land on my head, I did hear God speak words that at that time of my life were very much needed; that I was loved by God and She was well pleased with who I am. These were life changing words to me, words that not only brought a true sense of peace, but also the courage that I needed to face life openly.
I am not sure how many of you here this morning can recall your baptism; if you were raised as a Congregationalist or Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or Lutheran, you were most likely baptized as an infant and not able to recall that experience. For those of us who come from the more so called “Evangelical” side of the Church, where “believers baptism” is practiced, probably do recall your baptism. I don’t know about you, but I had grown up in Sunday school hearing year after year about how when Jesus was baptized a voice boomed from Heaven saying “you are my son, of whom I am well pleased” and then a white dove came out of the clouds and descended upon Jesus’ head. So, when I was ready to be baptized at age 14, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect at my baptism.
I was being baptized in the tradition of Baptists, which meant that when you were baptized you were dunked totally under water. Now I wasn’t na├»ve enough to think that God’s voice was going to be booming out about how proud he was of me as I came up out of the water, or even that a dove would mysteriously appear in the church and land on my head. I mean, I wasn’t born yesterday and I had seen plenty of baptism and nothing like that had ever happened to any of those people. But I did expect as I was coming up out of the water, to see the clouds part and would be able to see the gates of Heaven. You can imagine my disappointment when that didn’t happen. I instantly thought that I hadn’t been baptized correctly or worse, that it didn’t take. So, I did experience the water, but I didn’t experience any wind or abnormal lighting effects. Those words that I was hoping to hear at age 14 didn’t occur until for 22 more years when I was 36; not in a baptismal tank but jetting through the air at 32,000 feet at 630+ mile per hour; for Jesus it was with a dove descending, for me it was in mid air.
In the book of Acts, we read that: the apostles in Jerusalem had learned that Samaria had accepted the word of God, and they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. Acts 8:14-17
I realize that this is one of those selections of scripture that the Charismatic Christians and Pentecostals use to fortify their understanding of being able to speak in tongues, or in a language that is foreign to them as prove that they have been “baptized” by the Holy Spirit and somehow hold a higher ranking on the spiritual ladder in this life. I don’t wish to say that “speaking in tongues” isn’t a valid gift from God. But when I read this particular scripture, what I understand it to say doesn’t pertain to “speaking in tongues.”
What I see in this selection of scripture speaks to the growth that comes out of one’s baptism. You see, our Spirituality isn’t something that becomes “mature” with the act of being Baptized. Our spirituality is something that comes with growth. In Luke, we read where the dove didn’t descend upon Jesus until after He prayed. Throughout the entire Gospel of Luke we will read where “prayer” is the center of Jesus’ life. I believe that we are never truly mature spiritually until we die and join God in our spiritual bodies, but through our baptism we start that journey of growing, through studying God’s word, reading and reflecting upon inspirational writings outside of the Bible, and through the act of prayer, lots and lots of prayer. If baptism is the foundation of our awareness of God, then prayer is the corner stone to that building of a relationship with God. Paul likens our bodies to being the Temples of God; it is through prayer that we allow the Holy Spirit to thrive within these temples.
I wish to close with a story that comes from Marilynne Robinson’s book, Gilead:
The narrator of the book is an elderly minister who knows he’s about to die after a long and steady but fairly quiet life as a pastor. He is writing to his young son, the child of a late-in-life marriage to a much younger woman. One of the story’s he is relating comes from his own childhood, being a son of a minister himself. It was a story of him and another preacher’s kid who decided to baptize a litter of kittens. The boys took this all very seriously, he says, but the mother cat didn’t, and she interrupted their little service and took the kittens away right in mid-baptism. When the boy asked his father the pastor “in the most offhand way imaginable what exactly would happen to a cat if one were to, say, baptize it,” his father gave him a stern response that the sacraments must always be treated and regarded with the greatest respect. The narrator remembers, “That wasn’t really an answer to my question. We did respect the sacraments, but we thought the whole world of those cats. I got his meaning, though, and I did no more baptizing until I was ordained.”
Now, at the end of his life and after many years of baptizing the faithful of his flock, the old pastor looks back on the day he baptized the cats: “I still remember,” he says, “how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature; I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.”
Baptism, it is an acknowledgement of God’s blessing upon the life of the person being baptized. It is the starting point in which the stir of the Holy Spirit begins. It is the coming from water to fire. It is prayer that nurtures and strengthens the spirit within us. Today we have the opportunity to acknowledge and re-affirm our beginning, our baptism, our blessing! Amen

Friday, January 8, 2010

2nd Sunday of Christmas, 1st Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY

The Greatness of God’s Love
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1: 1-18
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 1/3/10

Today is the second Sunday of Christmas (please note I say “of” and not “after”), as those who are more in tune with the Christian Calendar understand that we celebrate 12 days of Christmas. Next week we start the season of Epiphany and by the second week in February we begin the season of Lent with the observance of Ash Wednesday. For those who like to follow any of the afternoon Soap Operas, I should think that this time of the year can be quit confusing and possibly frustrating. For in the Soaps, you could miss watching for 5 months and when you tune back in, the plot has only unfolded a mere hour. Since I was last with you, on Christmas Eve, celebrating the birth of Jesus, in a matter of 3 days, Jesus went from being an infant to a preconscious pre-teen of twelve, and next Sunday as we celebrate the first Sunday of Epiphany, we once again go back to the infancy of Jesus with the visit of the three wise men.
Yet isn’t that really a reflection on life itself? Many times whatever we are doing today in way of tasks, we must take time out to revisit and address something that has happened previously; say last week or a month ago, or even a year ago or even further back in time. It is a simple fact that what we are doing today has its presence because of what we did yesterday or the day before, or the week before that and even on decisions and actions that we took decades ago.
When you look at the placement of the stories and books within what we call the Bible, their placements are reflective of the understanding that something has happened before the current story. The name of the first book in the Hebrew Bible, Genesis depicts “the beginning” or “the start of”; even the first story tells of the beginning of life on this planet. The Christian Bible starts off with 4 books (called the Gospels) speaking about the person that we look to as the founder of our faith and then is followed by the Epistles which speaks to the spreading of the Christian faith and the teachings by which the early church started to incorporate as standards in which to live by.
Two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke start their stories off with the birth of Jesus. For Matthew, the beginning comes with the explanation of Jesus’ human lineage, tracing it back to Ruth and Boaz. For Luke, we start with the lives of Mary and Joseph. In the Gospel of Mark, the author begins with Jesus’ ministry and ends with his crucifixion (somewhere down the road, someone added the story of the resurrection.) With the Gospel of John, which is where a portion of today’s readings come from, the writer speaks to the beginning of Jesus not through family lineage but rather beyond time itself, the beginning being with God and of God and in God. Hear these words once again:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
As we read this first segment of scripture, our understand of what it is saying will be influenced by what we have been taught from the pulpit in the past as well as what we may have learned in other settings within the church system such as: Sunday school, youth groups and bible studies, or through teachers found on the religious radio and television stations. Our understanding of the meaning of this text will also be influenced by what we have experienced outside of the church’s teachings, such as social structures, ones level of educational background, the economic level of one’s back ground (meaning growing up poor, lower-middle class, middle-middle class, upper-middle class, or just plain rich), the ethnic and cultural background (meaning African-American, Northern European, Irish, Middle-eastern, Native American and Asian to mention just a few) as well as geographical background (the deep south, New England states, Mid-west, Southwest, Pacific Northwest, Northern Plaines states or the Rocky Mountain region); all of this plays into our understanding, our interpretation of not just this scripture but all scripture.
I hope that for everyone here this morning, you have had the marvelous experience of realizing that each time you read scripture it is saying something new to you. The reason for this is because of what has happened within your life between the last time you read that passage to the present reading of that passage. From time to time I like to go back to some of my old sermons and see what I found of interest in that reading as compared to what I am focusing in on currently. It is the stillspeaking God when we find something new in scripture!
Since I was on Holiday this past week and feeling a time crunch to make sure I had a sermon for today, I looked at the sermon that corresponds to today’s lectionary reading. It was on Jan 5, 1986, fresh out of Seminary that I first struggled with today’s lectionary texts. I discovered that I worked on the Ephesians text and not on John’s. Today, however, I found John as the text that most interested me. More specifically about the meaning of the use “word” and “light”. Are these two words meaning the same thing or are there just the obvious differences?
As I mentioned just a few minutes ago, the 4 Gospels had their way of explaining and justifying to their original audience that Jesus was the Messiah that they were waiting for. With John, he was explaining Jesus’ authority as not being based on an earthly kingdom but rather of a Heavenly Kingdom as he uses the imagery of Jesus being with God as well as apart of God. John definitely refers to Jesus as being the “Word” and that the “word” is what gave life. We have to recall the original creation stories as it was God, who with a “word” created all life as we understand as well as what we have yet to understand. It was God, breathing “life” into creation that gave it activity. So from Johns argument, Jesus’ authority comes not from his lineage, but rather because he was with God and of God before earth came into existence. It is from this reality that Jesus is able to provide life for all of creation through his death, because Jesus was a part of creation to begin with.
John moves from establishing Jesus as the life giver to also defending the idea that Jesus was not overcome by evil, but rather that Jesus gave up his life willingly in the phrase, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The idea here of course is that God cannot be overcome by evil. This is where the inner play of the words “light” and “darkness” start to come into play. The idea of darkness is the opposite of the idea of light. Darkness is used to describe evil and light is used to describe good. Remember that in the creation stories, God pronounced all that was created as “good”. The concept of darkness didn’t occur until Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden tends to convey the idea of living in harmony with God and that by not living in the garden is living life away from God or living life in darkness.
As John develops his understanding of Jesus, he uses this phrase, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” So the “word” which was Jesus, became life, from life came “the light” for all people; hence my fascination with the word “light”. What does “light” ultimately mean? If we were in seminary and I was your professor, I could spend over a month, chewing on this word and its meaning. However, I am going to give you a conclusion without the pain of arriving there yourselves. The word “light”, to my current understanding comes to mean, “Truth”. The life that Jesus has brought to us is “Truth” toward understanding God. If we understand God, we then will have the desire to act in the manor that God acts, or at least that is the underlying hope we have as Christians.
John finishes this section of his treaty with this statement: The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John is letting us know that by way of Jesus, humanity no longer has to experience God through the law, but rather we know God because of grace and truth. As we go through out the rest of the church year we will be learning the concepts of “grace and truth.” Through Jesus’ life we are also able to see that the church is not stagnate, but evolving and growing. Once we were under the law, something that was condemning, but through Christ, we live under grace, the active process of redemption of forgiving and of growth; an ever speaking God, not one who has nothing more to reveal.
This redemption is best expressed in Ephesians, where Paul writes: In Jesus you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in Jesus, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people…” There is a process, a flow to what is being said here: first we hear, and then we believe what we have heard and through that believe we receive the fruit of what we believe.
This week while on Holiday, along with the opportunity to visit with many of my friends in Seattle, I took time to read and start preparing myself for upcoming conversations that I will be participating in with the Union Church in Green River as they begin to start learning about the topic of Homosexuality. The book that I was reading was recommended to me by their pastor, Curtis Tutterrow as one of the books that is a springboard for their discussions. I also had the opportunity to watch one of the Box Office hit movies, Avatar, which deals with the theme of one group of people feeling empowerment over creatures that they deemed less valuable, thereby able to justify their destructive behavior toward these lesser creatures.
These may sound like two unrelated subjects but actually they are very much related. What struck me from the book that I just finished titled, Crisis, 40 stories revealing the personal, social and religious pain and trauma of growing up gay in America edited by Mitchell Gold and the movie Avatar, which brought back to memory a film released back in 1985, titled, The Mission, which depicted the decimation of a complete culture in South America as the price to keep peace between Spain and Portugal by the Roman Catholic Church as these two countries were vying for ownership of land in South America, is just how powerful the church has been in our culture and continues to be. We are the voice the “light” that John writes about. We are the voice that is charged to bring “truth” to the larger community. Yet, so many times the church has acted in “darkness” and not as “the light” of the world as it used Gods word to promote slavery, laws against inter-racial marriage, hatred toward the Jews (especially in Nazi Germany), the dehumanization of America’s Native Indians and continues the hatred toward non-heterosexuals. I don’t think it is generally done out of malicious acts but rather more times than not, it has come out of ignorance and a non-willingness to look at truth, when it challenges our own person biases.
As we come to the Christ table today and take part in communion I pray that each of us remember that Christ came to us to bring us truth and in accepting the wine and the bread, we take the challenge to continue to learn about “truth” and to turn that truth into action. The church has more power in our world than what we may think! Let us be working at using this power for the true meaning of what God intends for all of life. Instead of us praying with the mindset of “God be on our side”, let us pray with the mind set, “God let us be on your side”, for it is only with that attitude that we can accept the “light” that came to us in the body of Jesus, the Christ and to share the greatness of God’s love. Amen

4th Sunday of Advent, 1st Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY

Moving Toward the Future
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Micah 5:2-5a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55
4th Sunday of Advent, Rock Springs, WY 12/20/09

As I was preparing for today’s reflection on our Lectionary texts I discovered some marvelous thoughts from the United Church of Christ’s website. So today, I would like to share with you some of the perspectives that I was blessed to read.
“We’ve just heard three weeks of preaching from Jesus and John the Baptist, those prophets out of the wilderness, about world-shaking events, part judgment, part exhortation to get our lives turned around in preparation for what is to come. In this week’s unique situation, we have, in a sense, four unlikely prophets gathered not in the wilderness but on the front step of Elizabeth’s home, two of them not even born yet, and still John (the unborn child Elizabeth is carrying) is already able to acknowledge the One who is greater. The other two prophets are women, women with names and stories, women with voices and something to say, or in Mary’s case, something to sing. Women and babies: we’re definitely not at “the top of the heap,” here, especially not when there’s an actual priest in the house, Zechariah, a professional, licensed and learned, knows-what-he’s-doing expert in matters of faith. [Just a short background, Zechariah is the husband of Elizabeth. As he was in the temple doing his priestly duties, he was visited by the angel Gabriel and was told that he and Elizabeth were going to have a child and he was to name this child John. Because of his and Elizabeth’s advanced age, he questioned Gabriel about their ability to have children. Because of his disbelieve, he was not able to speak until the time of John’s birth.] Ironically, though, Zechariah is the very one in this scene without a voice, literally, since he’s been struck speechless during his own angelic visit. The stage is set this week, then, for us to have the rare opportunity to hear from the women and children for a change. And what a change they dream of!
A recent book by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas, provides an excellent lens through which we might read the familiar and beloved Nativity stories. Matthew and Luke each provide what the authors call an “overture” to their Gospel in which important themes in that Gospel are first heard. Borg and Crossan describe each evangelist’s “overture as microcosm to his gospel as macrocosm.” In Luke’s story, his Gospel’s emphasis on women, the marginalized, and the Holy Spirit are all evident in the birth narratives, including the one we read this week. In this short passage, the prophetic words of these two women, filled with the Holy Spirit, give voice to those who are lowly, like the shepherds to whom the angels later announce the birth of Jesus.
In his book, The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey, Henri Nouwen provides a thoughtful reflection on the encounter between Elizabeth and Mary. His meditation is worthy of the best feminist theology, which draws our attention to the easily missed things that are happening to and with the “little ones” in our Scripture texts. It may be true that the mighty are brought down, and the great promises of old are kept, but in the meantime, on the dusty road, on a well-swept doorstep, two women meet to share the ancient, womanly experience of being with child.
Advent is indeed a time of waiting, a time pregnant with hope. On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, Mary and Elizabeth could be seen as two ordinary, pregnant women in the most extraordinary time and circumstances, on the brink of greatness but first tending to their relationship with each other and with God. Motherhood is daunting to every woman, especially the first time around, and these two women have found themselves pregnant under most unusual and unexpected terms, one past the age to conceive, and the other a virgin. So, like women in every place and time, they spend time together, keeping each other company, learning and praying and perhaps laughing together, as they face first-time childbirth and motherhood.
The new life promised in Mary’s pregnancy, of course, is the focus of Luke’s story, as it fulfills promises to all humankind, but one wonders how these two humble women must have felt about what was happening in their own lives. Nouwen says, “Who could ever understand? Who could ever believe it? Who could ever let it happen? But Mary says, ‘Let it happen to me’, and she immediately realizes that only Elizabeth will be able to affirm her ‘yes’. For three months Mary and Elizabeth live together and encourage each other to truly accept the motherhood given to them.” As Nouwen reads this story, neither woman had to wait alone for the extraordinary events to unfold, slowly, as pregnancies do: “They could wait together and thus deepen in each other their faith in God, for whom nothing is impossible. Thus, God’s most radical intervention into history was listened to and received in community.”
In this Advent season, we in the church are keenly aware that we wait in community for the promises of God to unfold in our lives. Here, in community, we hold each other up when one of us needs encouragement or support. We help one another search for meaning, rejoice with one another, walk alongside each other. Just as Elizabeth must have listened to Mary, and helped her prepare for what was to come (at least, as much as such a marvelous thing might be prepared for), we help one another work things out. Sometimes, we just sit in the dark quiet and wait together, trusting in the promises of God, listening for a word from the Stillspeaking God. “In a way,” Timothy Mulder writes, “here is a preface for Emmanuel. We humans are not meant to go through the tough or the wonderful alone. Both need to be shared” (New Proclamation 2009) And in the midst of our waiting, as Paul, writing from prison, encouraged the Philippians; as Hannah and Mary sang God’s praise;[let me interject that Hannah was a woman who prayed to God to give her a son, whom we know as Samuel, she then gave his life back to God, recognizing that the only reason why she had Samuel was because of God’s favor; and out of this recognition sang a song of praise, from which much of Mary’s song comes. So in reality, Mary’s song was quoting from Hannah.] and as Elizabeth welcomed her beloved cousin and companion, Paul says: we rejoice, our hearts dancing within us.” That is the way that we move with Mary’s song.
I want to stop for a moment and reflect on this last paragraph. Look around you, see who is here in Worship this morning. Now, look around again and think about those who are not in Worship this morning. How many people can you think of who are members and friends of the church and were regularly attending worship 2 yrs ago, 3 yrs ago, maybe 4 yrs ago and are not here today?
When I was interviewed by the Transitional Ministers committee, one of the things that we discussed was “how to get those people back” or “should we even try? Possibly moving forward and not worry about them as it had been suggested by denominational leadership.” What I’m about to speak to, I say with the deepest love and concern for every person who is associated with this body of faith; to those who are here and to those who are painfully missing. One of the processes in healing, is to recognize when there has been an injury. One of the realities that we as a congregation need to face up to is that there have been many people who have been severely hurt by behavior that took place over the last few years. Many of those faces that you do not see here this morning are casualties and many of you who are here this morning are also still trying to heal.
As a transitional minister, one of my jobs is to help you as a faith community heal from the experience that you have come through. One of those ways is to listen; listen to the pain that is held within one’s heart especially after it’s been deeply wounded. Yet many times, my listening cannot provide the real healing ointment that needs to be applied to help that person let go of the hurt and anger and move forward with their spiritual life. One of the 12 steps in the work of AA in order to heal is to address the “wrongs” that one has done to others and seek forgiveness for those actions. That type of work has to be done one on one and by those whom it involves, it isn’t something that “a third party” such as a pastor can effectively do.
As I read just a couple of minutes ago: we in the church are keenly aware that we wait in community for the promises of God to unfold in our lives. Here, in community, we hold each other up when one of us needs encouragement or support. We help one another search for meaning, rejoice with one another, walk alongside each other. We humans are not meant to go through the tough or the wonderful alone. And as a congregation we need to do the same for those who are not here and hurting. The only real way for us as a congregation to heal is to examine our hearts and if we need to go to those who are not here and talk with them, to open the doors of communication in order to allow healing to start, then I pray that this work can start with this Advent season.
For one of lessons that we can hear when Elizabeth is praising Mary at her door step is that of Mary’s accepting the word spoken to her from God. The key point is “accepting” when the word of God comes to you! That is where and when the blessing and the joy starts to fill your heart. Mary’s song came not just from hearing God’s word, but by accepting God’s word, even when it meant that she would possibly be ridiculed, not only by her family or Joseph, but by the community, a community that had a law that, if imposed, could lead to her death by stoning for having sex outside of marriage. Is it an easy task to humble oneself to what God teaches and wishes to occur in our lives? No, it’s probably the hardest job anyone of us has; the job of letting go one’s ego! But it is the only way to prepare the way for God’s joy that is waiting to expand within our hearts.
We are knit together in a community of faith. When we are missing some of our family, we have a huge hole within our fabric. We are missing the blessings that they can bring into our midst. We are missing opportunities of growth when we just let them slip away. But more importantly, we are guilty of damaging a spirit that God has placed within our midst for support, encouragement, and to experience the good times in life together as well as the tough times.
From time to time people send me poems and cartoons and other items of interest by way of e-mail. As I close today’s lesson, I would like to share with you one of these e-mails that Liz Strannigan shared with me, which re-tells today’s reading of Mary’s Song; it is titled The Christmas Pageant.
My husband and I had been (most of the time) happily married for five years but hadn't been blessed with a baby.
I decided to do some serious praying. I promised God that if he would give us a child, I would be a perfect mother, love it with all my heart and raise it with His word as my guide.
God answered my prayers and blessed us with a son.
The next year he blessed us with another son.
The following year, He blessed us with yet another son.
The year after that we were blessed with a daughter.

My husband thought we'd been blessed right into poverty. We now had four children, and the oldest was only four years old.

I learned never to ask God for anything unless I meant it. As a minister once told me, "If you pray for rain, make sure you carry an umbrella."

I began reading a few verses of the Bible to the children each day as they lay in their cribs. I was off to a good start. God had entrusted me with four children and I didn't want to disappoint Him.

I tried to be patient the day the children smashed two dozen eggs on the kitchen floor searching for baby chicks.

I tried to be understanding... when they started a hotel for homeless frogs in the spare bedroom, although it took me nearly two hours to catch all twenty-three frogs.

When my daughter poured ketchup all over herself and rolled up in a blanket to see how it felt to be a hot dog, I tried to see the humor rather than the mess.

In spite of changing over twenty-five thousand diapers, never eating a hot meal, and never sleeping for more than thirty minutes at a time, I still thank God daily for my children.

While I couldn't keep my promise to be a perfect mother--I didn't even come close--I did keep my promise to raise them in the Word of God.

I knew I was missing the mark just a little when I told my daughter we were going to church to "worship" God, and she wanted to bring a bar of soap along to "wash up" Jesus, too.

Something was lost in the translation when I explained that God gave us everlasting life, and my son thought it was generous of God to give us his "last wife."

But my proudest moment came during the children's Christmas pageant:

My daughter was playing Mary, two of my sons were shepherds, and my youngest son was a wise man. This was their moment to shine.

My five-year-old shepherd had practiced his line, "We found the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes." But he was nervous and said, "The baby was wrapped in wrinkled clothes."

My four-year-old "Mary" said, "That's not 'wrinkled clothes,' silly. That's dirty, rotten clothes."

A wrestling match broke out between Mary and the shepherd and was stopped by an angel, who bent her halo and lost her left wing.

I slouched a little lower in my seat when Mary dropped the doll representing Baby Jesus, and it bounced down the aisle crying, "Mama-mama."

Mary grabbed the doll, wrapped it back up and held it tightly as the wise men arrived.

My other son stepped forward wearing a bathrobe and a paper crown, knelt at the manger and announced, "We are the three wise men and we are bringing gifts of gold, common sense and fur."

The congregation dissolved into laughter, and the pageant got a standing ovation.

"I've never enjoyed a Christmas program as much as this one," laughed the pastor, wiping tears from his eyes.
"For the rest of my life, I'll never hear the Christmas story without thinking of gold, common sense and fur."

"My children are my pride, my joy, and my greatest blessing," I said as I dug through my purse for an aspirin.

Jesus had no servants, yet they called Him Master.

Had no degree, yet they called Him Teacher.

Had no medicines, yet they called Him Healer.

Had no army, yet kings feared Him.

He won no military battles, yet He conquered the world.

He committed no crime, yet they crucified Him.

He was buried in a tomb, yet He lives today.

Feel honored to serve such a Leader who loves us.