Monday, March 15, 2010

4th Week in Lent, 1st Cong UCC, Rock Springs, WY

God, Founder of Extravagant Welcome
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational Church, Rock Springs, WY 3/14/2010
Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32

Today’s parable found in the Gospel reading is one of the most popular story’s found in the teachings of Jesus. It is a story that I learned early on in Sunday school and have heard frequently from the pulpit over the years. And it should be told and retold often, for it is one of the best story’s relating the act of reconciliation. It is a story that allows the reader the ability to relate with all three of the characters. With this story being so familiar to me and wishing to seek view points of others on this parable, I found myself calling my son one afternoon and asking him for his understanding of this story. I had hopes he would spur some new light on this story that I had yet to see within my own reading and study.
We had a great discussion over this parable, which to my way of thinking is the whole purpose of a parable to begin with; that of being a springboard toward discernment. The view that my son Steven, presented centered on the act of “repentance” by the younger son, thereby invoking “reconciliation” by the father. The story speaks to each of us, as a sinful person needing to recognize our sinful state (that out of step relationship to God) before we can receive the forgiving grace of God. I can tell you this is the point of view that I received growing up and one that you will hear in many Evangelical pulpits when this parable is dealt with. And I think it is a reasonable way of dealing with this text as it is subtitled, “The Prodigal Son”, for the subtitle of this parable presents the focus to be on the younger son.
One of the observations that I immediately relate within this parable is the fact that the son’s view is not necessarily the view of his father. I learned many, many years ago, my way of thinking wasn’t necessarily the way that any one of my three children would think. My standards and viewpoints were not automatically their standards and their view points. I shared with you my son’s viewpoint on this parable, which is very consistent with a large portion of Evangelical Christians in this country. Let me share with you now, my viewpoint of today’s text.
There are certain Biblical scholars as well as theologians like myself who believe the title of this parable, “The Prodigal Son”, completely throws off the focus of what the story is trying to say to us. The story’s focus and main character in this teaching is stated at the beginning, “A certain man had two sons.” The real focus of this story is that of the father and of his behavior. So if we were to change the subtitle of the parable from “The Prodigal Son” to “The Prodigal Father”, it will be a little easier for us to examine what is going on and rethink the meaning of this parable.
About four years ago, the United Church of Christ presented to the public a vision of who we are as a faith community, with the “God Is Still Speaking” campaign. This vision is truly a mission statement and one that all of our churches can grab hold of should they chose to do so. Out of this campaign the phrase, “A church of Extravagant Welcome” has become our battle cry! It just so happens that this coming April, there is going to be a new commercial about “who we are” being aired. Not on any of the Prime time T.V. stations which pretty much refused to show them originally, but rather through the internet, such as through YouTube and other hosts that use the “internet” as mass communications.
The Lectionary Commentator suggests that the word “Prodigal” can be interpreted as “recklessly extravagant”. You see, this parable is a story about “reckless extravagance”, a story of the high cost of being extravagant. It’s not just a story of how the younger son recklessly used up his inheritance in a far off land, but a story of “reckless giving” by the father toward his son’s. Yes, I said son’s, for it is an often over looked fact that both boys received their share of inheritance from their father at the same time. The study guide for this week’s lectionary text that is on the UCC website sums it up this way, “Yes, the son wastes his inheritance on a good time in a distant land, but the father seems just as free and even wasteful in lavishing his wealth on a son who comes home not in sincere repentance but in calculated self-interest.”
I would like to share just a few points found in this story from a historical cultural perspective as a way to see more clearly just how extravagant the father was in this story and how it can more easily relate to us in our own lives. Once, when members of the news media brought up to Prince Charles the prospect of his ascending to the throne of England, he stopped the conversation cold when he said, “Gentlemen, you are speaking of the death of my mother.”UCC study site. You see, when the younger son was demanding his inheritance, the message that was being sent to the father was, “you are dead to me, and I want what is mine.” The older son would normally act as a mediator of this riff between the father and younger son, but chooses to remain silent and also received his share of the inheritance. This suggests that the relationship between the older son and his father was lacking as well, for the original listeners would have expected to hear the older son verbally refusing his inheritance until his father had actually died.
The younger son breaks ties with the larger community by “going to a far off land.” When the younger son is coming back home asking for food and shelter, it is seen by the larger community as a offense, for this son had gone off into the land of the Gentiles and wasted his wealth (or more directly, wasted his birth right) among the gentiles.
There was an established practice that all the members of a family continue to live on the estate after the father’s death. This was ignored by the younger son leaving for the far off land and also through the older son’s expressing offense with this father’s invitation to his younger brother to come back and live on the estate. The actions of both sons were serious breaches of social norms in that culture.
Lastly, the act of the father going out and “running” to greet his youngest son was unheard of at that time. It was considered inappropriate behavior for a man of that age and stature to have been running in public, let alone the impropriety of giving ones personal wealth to the heirs before he dies.
These are just a few of the main cultural expectations of the day that the first listeners would have used to filter the story that Jesus was telling them. The story in itself was spoken in response to the religious leaders of the day, who were questioning the recklessly extravagant behavior of Jesus as he was sitting and dinning with sinners and tax collectors, or what I like to refer to as “those types of people that are not thought good enough to be associated with the ‘polite society’.”
So where are we at today, within the context of this story? Are we guilty of being recklessly extravagant? Are we the father who is running out to greet our child who is coming back home? Are we the older son who is willing to accept our sibling back home but on our terms? Are we the younger child who is coming back home with selfish motives? I suspect we are pretty much all three of these people at various times in our lives.
One last observation that I would like to mention in the return of this younger son, is when the father welcomes back home his son and the son accepts this welcome, the message being delivered to us is the father no longer is dead, but has come back to life again. This is a part of the Easter story, that of resurrection, a new life that comes through the act of “reconciliation.”
The message I hope we at First Congregational are giving to Rock Springs, is the same message that of the larger family of the United Church of Christ is speaking, that of: “God is the founder of Extravagant Welcome.” We have heard the message and I hope we not only wish to continue to proclaim it but also to try and live it. The cost is not cheap! It cost the father his life in the eyes of his children, but once there is reconciliation, there is rebirth, a resurrection in the life of that relationship between parent and child.
Not everyone will be willing to pay the price for this type of reconciliation, for some the cost of being open and accepting, that of turning loose of our prejudices is too extravagant. There are those who can only provide reconciliation with conditions, just like the older son, and that is just the way it will be.
The “Good News” is, God always comes running to greet us when we are ready to come back home; even when our return is cloaked in self-serving motives. God reconciles us back into the family with “unconditional love.” So one of the costs for us in providing an extravagant welcome is the “letting go of the conditions” that we want to place on others in order for them to be a part of this family of God. Let us all become “recklessly extravagant”, let us all become like the father of in this parable, let us become “Prodigal’s” of love! Amen

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

3rd Week of Lent

Why Me Lord?
By Rev. Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY
Exodus 3:1-15; Luke 13:1-9 3/7/2010

Today’s Gospel reading seems so appropriate when one thinks about some of the most current disasters over the past couple of months. When we read this story out of Luke we could change some of the locations and it could read like this: At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about some pilgrims worshipping in Baghdad who were killed by a few insurgents. Jesus asked them, “Do you think that because these Pilgrims suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Iraqi’s? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those 700 who were killed when the earthquake happened in Santiago – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Chile? No, I tell you;”
The question that Jesus was addressing comes as a response to the general belief of “prosperity” religion. As is commonly believed by many Christians and preached in many pulpits today, the Hebrew’s tended to believe that there was a direct correlation to ones blessings and ones troubles to that of one’s relationship to God. If I am a good boy and am kind to my neighbor, and I go to church every week and I follow all of the ritual laws, and I give 10% of my income to the church, then God will reward me and I will have a great spouse, my children will be many, and most of all, I will hold high position within the community and have a very large investment portfolio! If however, I do not follow the “right” God and all of his teachings, then I will be poor, and might develop cancer and my children will all be in jail because they can’t get a job and earn enough money to pay their bills. This is prosperity religion.
What Jesus was trying to relate to those asking these questions, is that neither your wealth nor your poverty, your excellent health or all the bad things that can happen to anyone of us is directly related to God blessing us or cursing us. Jesus is saying that it doesn’t matter who you are or how good you have been or how bad you have been, life is going to bring its rewards and its chaos, its joys and its sorrows. Pat Robertson of the 700 Club was very vocal in condemning the folks in Haiti when their country was decimated with an earthquake last month, saying it was punishment for their leaders making a pack with the devil. One of our friends wrote Paul after the earthquake in Chile saying he couldn’t wait to hear what Robertson was going to blame Chile with as a way of explaining this act of violence by Mother Nature.
In effect the message that Jesus is telling us is this: no matter who you are or how good of a person you try to be, just because you believe in God and do all the “correct” things that you think God wishes you to be doing, doesn’t mean that bad things will not come your way. The terrible thing about believing in “Prosperity Christianity” is that when something horrific does happen in our life, too often we lose our trust in God. “Why me Lord?” “What did I do to deserve this?” More times than not, I did nothing to deserve “this”, it just is something that happened. People don’t deserve to die in earthquakes; people don’t deserve to die in car accidents; people don’t deserve to die of cancer; people don’t deserve to die of AIDS, these things just happen and depending on your theology, your view of what God is and is not responsible for, will have a direct effect in how well you will handle the tough times that will come your way. If you think God is there to protect you and when that doesn’t happen, you may very well lose your trust in God. If you think that God is there walking beside you, then when something terrible happens in your life, the odds are greater that you will not lose that trust in God and your faith will most likely continue to grow.
There is a poem that became very popular many years ago that deals in a positive way in which to think about ones walk through life and the relationship in which one has with God. There is much disagreement as to who and where this poem originates. Some suggest that the source of this poem is the opening paragraph of Charles Haddon Spurgeon's 1880 sermon The Education of the Sons of God.[2] While others suggest that its origins lie in Mary B. C. Slade's 1871 hymn "Footsteps of Jesus". Wikipedia Let me refresh your memories with this poem, this version is attributed to Mary Stevenson, written 1936:
One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there was one only.
This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints, so I said to the Lord,
“You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?”
The Lord replied, “The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.”
Jesus concludes this story with a parable about a fig tree that had not been producing fruit for the past three years and said that the owner was wanting to have it cut down as it was wasting the soil that it was living in. The gardener asks for one more year so that he can fertilize the tree to see if it will produce at that point. Jesus uses this story as a way of saying what will happen should we not repent. The idea of repent here corresponds with the concept that as repentant people our lives will be productive and not wasted. Jesus also said, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did, (meaning those killed in the first part of the story.)”
Jesus’ use of the word “perish” then holds a deeper meaning about our relationship with God. He didn’t use the word “die” if we don’t repent. In truth, Jesus was saying, everyone will die, even Jesus was on his way toward the cross to die as well. What is meant by perish is to be “no more” to be none productive, giving nothing that will last to the world beyond the time you die.
Death is something that none of us has any control over, even Jesus died a physical death. But what we do have control over is what we leave behind, the life that we currently live has all sorts of possibilities. It is up to us, as to what we do with our lives; do we ignore our personal relationship with God and ultimately perish because we did not nurture our Spirits, or do we chose to allow the gardener to feed our Spirit and enrich our relationship with God, so there will be fruit that is produced; fruit that will feed others so that they might also have the opportunity not to perish.
As we come to the communion table this morning, let us be thankful for each day, for this allows us to nurture our relationship with God. This allows us another day in which we can help the world to be a brighter and better place in which to live. It may come through the tiniest things such as a smile to a stranger or it may come through volunteer work down at places such as Broadway Bargains or the hospital or the prison; it might come through raising your grandchildren because of some problem with their parents not being able to do this task; it may be in teaching Sunday school or singing in the choir or doing committee work. All of these activities are “fruit” from your relationship with God. Sometimes we are tired and we do these things out of duty, but other times there is a fire within us that pushes us to reach out beyond ourselves. Either way, this table is the representation of not just God’s love for us, but also a reminder that we are called to partake in the act of living life, living life with God at our side, walking with us through all the good times and carrying us through the bad times. Amen

2nd Week in Lent

Don’t Worry, Be Happy
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, Feb 28, 2010
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

Several decades ago there was a very popular song playing on the radio with a Calypso genre that is credited to Bobbie McFerrin titled: Don’t Worry, Be Happy! Let me share a few of the lyrics from this song with you:
Here's a little song i wrote,
you might want to sing it note for note,
don't worry, be happy

in every life we have some trouble,
when you worry you make it double
don't worry, be happy

dont worry be happy
aint got no place to lay your head,
somebody came and took your bed,
don't worry, be happy

the landlord say your rent is late,
he may have to litagate,
dont worry (small laugh) be happy,

look at me im happy,
don't worry, be happy

i give you my phone number,
when your worried, call me,
i make you happy

don't worry, be happy

aint got no cash, aint got no style,
aint got no gal to make you smile
but don't worry, be happy

cos when you worry, your face will frown,
and that will bring everybody down,
so don't worry, be happy

listen to what i say
in your life expect some trouble
when you worry you make it double
dont worry be happy

don't worry, don't worry, don't do it,
be happy,put a smile on your face,
don't bring everybody down like this

don't worry, it will soon pass whatever it is,
don't worry, be happy,
i'm not worried
The Story that we have this morning dealing with Abraham might very well have been inspiration to Bobbie McFerrin’s song of Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Abraham at this stage of his life was in an examining stage of his life, we might refer to it in today’s terminology as dealing with a “mid-life crisis”. Abraham was finding that he was aging and he had no blood heir in which to pass on the empire that he had been so focused on building. He was starting to worry that all that he had accumulated was basically for nothing because up to this point he, Abraham, was the end of his bloodline.
Within Western Christianity, there is a tendency not to give too much attention to the Hebrew bible and the stories that it has to share with us. I think the basic reason being we look to Jesus as the completion of God’s promise; that promise of living under grace and not living under the judgment of the law to which we ascribe to the Hebrews as living under. But the Hebrew Scriptures are rich with our history and the more we understand the stories of the Hebrews the better we are able to understand what Jesus was saying to his generation and the better we are equipped to deal with issues and situations that we face in the twenty-first century by using Jesus as our guide.
This August, Paul and I will be attending one of my family re-unions that represent my father’s family, the Browns. For me this has been a very important gathering, as my grandmother, my father’s mother, was the only one of the Browns that stayed in our home town in Kansas. All six of her brothers moved out to the West coast during the late 1930’s and decided to settle in California, Oregon and Washington State after WWII. I only had memory of one of my cousin’s who is the same age as me only because of their final visit to KS when I was 16 yrs old. Once I had moved to Washington State, I was able to finally make connection with one of my Aunts and discovered that there was a re-union that meets every other year.
I was able to talk my sister in coming out to Washington State to attend the first re-union that I went to, mostly for moral support just in case I found myself feeling as an outsider within this group of cousins. Actually, these cousins are my second cousins as it is my father who is the true first cousin. Yet they all looked to my father not as a cousin of theirs but rather as an Uncle for he was 10 yrs older than the next oldest cousin and they saw him as part of the generation of their parents. Anyway, upon the first meeting of this part of the family I had no memory of; it was one of those Kodak moments where, you just seem to understand the sense of family, of this connection, even though you had no memories of one another.
Two things were evident for me at that re-union and all the re-unions that have happened since. The first thing is the sense of history and of belonging. I was living out in Washington State, isolated from my family in Kansas; my grandmother as well as my father had both passed away. For a number of years I was missing that connection with my father and grandmother because of their deaths, but when I gather with the Brown family, I have that sense of connection with dad and grandma; one connection comes because there are facial features that resemble both my father and grandmother; another reason is there is behavior among my cousins that is similar with those that I grew up around. This is one of the things that I discovered when I first met this side of my family.
The second thing that I came to realize is that my cousins know very little about the Brown family history, in part because, as they have very little physical relationship to where their parents grew up at. The cousins all grew up on the West coast, while their fathers grew up in south central Kansas and earlier in Southern Missouri. Another aspect to their lack of knowledge came from the fact that their parents never shared any of their family history with their children. Where for me, not only did I grow up in the “home” country so to speak, but on a very regular basis, the family history was repeated at almost every gathering. Subsequently, I was the cousin who has the family history of the Browns; I posses a number of photographs of their grandparents and great-grandparents. I know firsthand the graves of where these ancestors are.
For the cousins that attend the Brown family reunion, they receive the benefit of being able to relate to one another only on the level that comes from growing up together and the stories that they can share from their childhood. For me, my experience is not only of being with this cousins but also it gives me a sense of continuity of family through history, because of my knowledge of this family. It helps me understand who I am as a person, not just being alone in the world, but as someone who connects with family through history as well as in the present.
Abraham was having all this worry because there was no heir in which to pass on the future to. In the culture that he came from, ones immortality comes from those that come after you. God had promised Abraham that through him great things would happen. As Abraham passed the time of normal child rearing, he began to question the promises of God and was wondering if there would be a future, of whether or not the promises of God would truly hold as life moves forward.
“But the Lord came to him: I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess. God brought him outside and said, ‘look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them’, then he said, ’So shall your descendants be.’ And Abraham believed the Lord.” What a marvelous scene, you can almost picture, Abraham sitting in his easy chair worrying about the fact that he had no son’s to carry on the name of Abraham. Then in comes God, starts to have a discussion with Abraham about his anxieties, and says, “hey let’s take a walk.” Walking side by side, God puts his hand around Abraham’s shoulder and says to him, “look up into the sky Abraham, see all those stars? Don’t worry about your future; I will give more blessings than you see numbered in the stars.”
God was promising Abraham that through his descendents, God would be with them, an everlasting promise that even if things seem dim today, there is the promise that God will continue to be there not just today but in the future. Jesus is what eventually came from this promise and if we like Abraham look to God’s promise through Christ, we will have the knowledge that God is the one who is in control. For we are the descendants of Abraham; the church is the promise that God now uses in a world that has forgotten their connection to God.
When we gather weekly, we should have the sense that we are not here just for one another and share in memory those events that have happened just between us, but rather, we should have the sense that we are a part of a history of what God has been doing in this world. We only have this knowledge of our history, through telling and retelling every time that we meet the stories of Abraham, the stories of David and of Solomon, and the stories of the Exodus and of Pentecost, of Palms Sunday and of the Easter event, of Mary and her stories, of the disciples and all that they struggled with.
This is our history of faith, it is through these stories that we gain our strength; it is through these stories that we keep our equilibrium during times of trial; it is through these family stories that we can keep our faith, that the work that was started in the past by people who have preceded us at First Congregational will continue to exist in the future ministries of this congregation. As we look to the future and plan and work at shaping the future ministry of this faith community let’s remember the wisdom that God gave us through the song by Bobbie McFerrin, Don’t worry, be happy! Why? Because God is the one in charge! Amen

Guest Preacher at Green River, WY UCC church

No Distinction between Believers
By Rev. Steven R Mitchell
Union UCC, Green River, WY 2/21/2010
Based on Romans 10:1-4, 8-13

It was this past December Curtis shared with me about the bible study that you as a congregation were going to be undertaking this first part of the year about Homosexuality and what the scriptures say about topic. In that conversation Curtis asked if I would be open to coming over and sharing with you my perspectives on this topic as well as sharing some of my experiences as they have related to the church. One basic reason for my being asked is that I am the closest minister within the UCC who happens to be “gay.” So, most of this morning’s discussion at its basic level is dealing with perception; perception of who can do what and by whose standard. We all have pre-conceived ideas as to standards and from time to time we have the privilege to examine those pre-conceptions. When I first started seminary, I saw a wide range of ages of people studying for the ministry; those straight from their undergraduate degrees to those who had newly retired from 30 or more years in secular work. Then there was one student who had cerebral palsy who was also studying for the ministry. My first thoughts were, “how can this person serve the church in that physical condition.” I had in my mind excluded him from the gifts that he could bring to the church; I had at that point in time devalued him as a person. After becoming acquainted with this gentleman I changed my understanding as to just “who” God could use and would use in ministering to His church.
Curtis sent me three of his outlines that he was going to use in this study, so I have some idea about the subject matter and references that you all have been exposed to in these conversations. When Curtis asked what scripture I would be using, I originally told him I would probable use something from I Corinthians where Paul was talking about the body of Christ and how all members of the body were needed to make up the complete body and function as a healthy entity. So for those of you who recall those particular passages within the bible that are used to condemn Homosexuality are probably wondering why I am using anything out of Romans since this Epistle has one of the most used “clobber” passages within its chapters? The reason is because of this statement that Paul uses in verse 12, “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Before we get too far into today’s thoughts, I want to give you a very brief overview of what Paul’s letter to the Romans is about. I realize that for most of you, this will be a repeat of information, but you never know, we may have someone here this morning who hasn’t heard the basic thrust of this letter.
“To these believers in Rome, Paul wrote the longest of his thirteen letters, introducing himself in advance of his upcoming visit. Sometimes called ‘Paul’s testament,’ Romans presents a beautifully detailed doctrinal statement of Christianity (as Paul see’s it.)
Paul presents the need for all people to realize their position before God – of which falls short of God’s glorious design and plan for their lives. But by an act of God’s grace and by faith, people are restored to their rightful relationship with God. Because of the confidence of forgiveness, all believers can present their talents, gifts and abilities – whatever they are – as an act of worship to God.
Paul also encourages his readers to realize that God is in control when he says “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Rom 8:28) He also comforts them with the knowledge that nothing can separate them from the love of God.” Robert Schuller commentary in Possibility Thinkers Bible
Chapter 10 starts off with Paul saying, “Friends, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”
What Paul is saying, of course, is that the established church of his day did not recognize Jesus as the true gift from God. Rather they had become entrenched with the “law” that had been giving to them through Moses, not understanding, as Paul says, given to them to prepare them for the true messiah, this gift of grace, that came through Jesus.
We as Christians still have the issues today, in that too often we forget that God is in control. Too often the church of today gets so focused on issues that have nothing to do with Spirituality, our relationship with God, but rather we prefer to exclude with the help of the “law” those that we have decided don’t fit and only allow those that agree with our perspectives to be “welcomed” into the “grace” of Christ.
One of those areas that I am speaking about is on the topic of Homosexuality. The word “Homosexual” is a very highly emotionally charged word. In a recent survey that I saw this week on the internet news, when asking the public about their opinion with respect to who should be allowed to serve in our military, when the word Homosexual is used, the % of people who think this portion of the population should serve, drops greatly; where as if the phrase, “should gays be allowed to serve in the military” the % of people who think “gays” should be allowed in the military greatly increases. This usage of language is also used by what is termed “religious right” when speaking out about topics where ones sexual orientation is being attacked, by using the term “Homosexual”. No longer is this group using the phrase, “the gay agenda” but have changed their phrases to say “the homosexual agenda”, solely because of the negative emotional power that is invoked.
I suppose what I am trying to relate with these first four verses from Romans is that we are too eager to use scripture to prove a point and too often support a bias or bigoted point of view. Instead of letting scripture speak to our hearts, letting it help us grow in understanding, we prefer to keep the Holy Spirit out of it, because if we let God’s spirit speak to us, it could just possibly confuse the issue. What Paul was saying to the church of his day, was that by hanging onto the “law” they were “not letting go and letting God” rather they preferred to stagnate and let their hearts harden instead of letting go and letting God grow their hearts into a fuller life, and in the process wanting to keep those who were wanting to follow God out of the club, so to speak; of not letting God be available to those who didn’t measure up to their expectations. But Paul say’s, “Surprise! Even though you are trying to keep certain people out of the synagogue, God has over ridden your narrow views and has opened up His love to be available to the whole world.”
Now as a way of preparing for our discussion after worship I would like to share just a little bite about my journey of faith and inner action with the church. At age fourteen, I made a profession to Christ. Coming from a faith tradition where there was what is called, “Believers Baptism” which would be equal in my eyes to confirmation of those who have been baptized as infants. In those early years I read scripture nightly for hours after completing my home work and although “the sins of homosexuality” were not addressed from the pulpit, I had no guidance as to understanding what scripture was saying in passages like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. I knew that socially, male to male attractions were not viewed as normal just by the way other guys would talk about their attractions to females. I was never accused of being “gay” nor did I really ever hear out and out condemnation of it. That is with the exception that my father seemed to realize that I wasn’t a typical “boy” as he through his limited social and communicational skills would demean me in an effort to help make me a “man.”
Although I dated girls, my attraction to them sexually was basically none existent, while my attraction to men continued to increase. I assumed that I my hormones were just overly active and once I married, which was the proper thing to do, that my attraction to men would disappear and my attraction to the female body would naturally increase to be what was normal for most men; this turned out not to be the case.
While in my twenties, my struggles with sexual orientation issues continued to increase. I was in a terrible situation. I was married, had three children, believed in committed relationships and standing true to those commitments and found myself struggling between two worlds; that of living a heterosexual life style (out of duty and because this is what society said was the normal thing to do) while having increasing homosexual desires. Eventually the strain became too much for me and after confiding with my wife about my struggles went to couples therapy. The bottom line with my wife was, either I get fixed or lose my family.
Because of my love for my wife and children coupled with the thought of losing everything that I had been raised to value as well as not wanting public humiliation or even censure from the church, I tried to bring my life into the wholeness of heterosexuality. While in seminary, I discovered an amazingly large number of books on the topic of Homosexuality. During those 2 ½ years at seminary I read every one of those books, some pro, others con on the subject. What I came away with from all that reading was, “Nobody really knew what they were talking about” on either side of the topic. I eventually found my way into “reparative” therapy and a Homosexual’s anonymous group. At that same time, my wife had come to the conclusion that “I” wasn’t going to change and filed for divorce and taking our children and moved back to Kansas. I was on the verge of suicide because of the disgrace of the divorce and because I had failed at being “heterosexual”. I was not able to control who I was basically and who I was, was not acceptable to the church. The only thing that stopped me from destroying myself as the knowledge that suicide often made the survivors feel guilty and the last thing I wanted was to put my children into a situation that they might have blamed themselves for my death.
Ultimately I completed my ordination and soon after went to a national convocation on “ministering to people living with AIDS”. It was at that event where I was confronted with all the teachings about homosexuality that I had been taught up to that point. The very first lecture given was about the wrongful preaching and misunderstanding about what the bible actually said about homosexuality by a professor from Colgate Rochester Seminary. That professor delivered from the pulpit every citation from almost every book I had read while in seminary about the topic of Homosexuality and the misunderstanding and abuse that had been used toward men and women who by natural process had same sex attractions. I cannot tell you the power to hear from the pulpit that I have been misunderstood and even abused by the very institution that I had dedicated my life to serve.
As I was flying back to Washington State and processing all that I had heard and experienced during that convocation, I had an epiphany. I heard God tell me that I was a whole, healthy person of whom He loved. For the very first time in my life I felt the peace that I had been looking for my entire life come over me. This was truly what we talk about when we say, “I give you a peace that passes beyond all understanding.” From that time forward I have come to know that God loves me and more importantly accepts me for who I am. I am positive that is because of this relationship that I have with God that I have never faulted in my faith journey with God. I can tell you that I literally lost everything that was dear to my heart. I lost my wife; I lost my children, in respect to being able to live with them 24/7; I lost my vocation in ministry.
Let me share one last thought with you, an apology made by Rev. Brent Childers Executive Director of Faith in America, again coming from the book Crisis. He writes: …
Because of who I am, a man who happens to be gay, in secular society, I have have more of my rights recognized than I do by the church. I have to ask myself “why”, why is it that human rights is being acted upon by the general population and it is in the church, where most of the resistance and hateful language and behavior comes from. The institution that says, “it is the body of Christ?” Paul writes in Romans: Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame. For there is no difference between Jew and gentile, the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him. Because of the understanding of some congregations within the United Church of Christ, where they practice their belief that, “God is Still Speaking” I have found support as a person who is loved by God. I applaud you as a congregation who is asking the questions and willing to listen to what God is telling you, for if you are asking the questions then this means that your hearts are open to the leading and the teaching of God’s holy spirit for, Anyone who trusts in Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit will never be put to shame. Amen

Valentines Day Sermon

When Love Is Involved
By Rev. Steven R. Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 2/14/2010
Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36

“. . . a light-radiant cloud enveloped them. As they found themselves buried in the cloud, they became deeply aware of God. Then there was a voice out of the cloud: "This is my Son, the Chosen! Listen to him."Lk 9:34-35
Today is the 8th Sunday since Christmas Day. Each week since celebrating Christmas, we have been following the life of Jesus, this man from Nazareth as they relate to telling the story of not just an ordinary person, but rather the man who became known as The Messiah; the Son of God; the Christ!
Stories that explain the exceptional man that Jesus was; a man marked by God to bring news of restoration to a world that had become so lost. Stories from the beginning of Jesus’ life: where angels from Heaven were singing of his birth; of learned men from far off countries seeking him out to pay him homage as a king; of Jesus’ baptism and the word of God descending down from the clouds in the form of a dove; the announcement of his ministry at the wedding of Cana along with many other stories that specifically point to Jesus’ deity.
All of these stories have been taking place during the season of what we call, Epiphany; the time of becoming aware of whom Jesus is. Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany, next Wednesday we celebrate Ash Wed. the start of Lent; a season that calls us into reflection about our lives’ and how it relates to our relationships with Jesus and one another. Today we see the final story that reveals who Jesus is. We call today Transfiguration Day.
Once again, today’s lectionary reading starts in the middle of some very interesting events that I think we should be aware of. This chapter in Luke is concluding a rather lengthy set of stories about Jesus’ teachings with a version of the Sermon on the Mount; of Jesus’ depth of love for those outside of his race when he encounters a Roman Centurion and heals the Centurion’s servant; of how Jesus’ ministry starts to decline and begins to antagonize some, by his bold act of forgiving the sin of a woman who was so repentant that she washed his feet with her tears and used her hair to dry his feet; there is sharing through a couple of parables the understanding of the importance of faith; finally we learn how Jesus sends out his disciples into the towns to preach and heal, and of the feeding of the 5,000 who had gathering; and this segment finishes up with the great confession of Peter as to who he believed Jesus to be.
After all of these events we read in today’s scripture that Jesus takes his disciples and leaves the crowd to go up into the mountains to pray. It is there in the seclusion of mountains that Jesus takes Peter, John and James with him up further on the mountain. While they were in prayer, it seems that the three amigos fell asleep while Jesus was in prayer, very much like what will happen in the future in the Garden of Gethsemane; only to awake to hear God once again re-affirm Jesus as the Son of God, who was chosen by God and to listen to what Jesus tells them.
In the Hebrew text for today, we have Moses going up to the Mountain and speaking with God. In, fact it is at that point in the Exodus that Moses is receiving what we know to be the Ten Commandments. When Moses came off the mountain, it is said that his face was “shiny”, so much so that it scared everyone who saw him. With Jesus it says, “As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.”Lk9:29 Moses brought down the “word” from God to the people, while Peter and the boys are told by God to “listen” to what Jesus has to tell them.
One of the goals of the Gospels is to show Jesus as the Son of God. Up to this point in time, Moses was the man considered basically as the First Messiah, the man who delivered the Israelites out of bondage. For those who were relating the ministry of Jesus as the expected Messiah, the man who was to once again lead Israel out of bondage, it was very important to compare Jesus with the acts of Moses, not to discredit Moses or the Law that had become the standard by which to live by, but rather to show that Jesus was the next in line, to bring the completion of God’s work. This is the reason why we read in today’s scripture that Jesus was conversing with Moses as well as with Elijah who was representative of the Prophets; then having God once again saying Jesus was His son, the chosen one and to listen to him.
Early on as we started our study in the Gospel of Luke, I mentioned that one of the major themes throughout this book was Luke wanting to show us the importance of prayer and that Jesus’ ministry was always being fortified with prayer. Luke shows us the balance of whenever Jesus spoke to a crowd, of his go off in solitude and spending time in prayer not just a few hours but many times for days before coming back into public life.
This last week, I attended a Pastors retreat down near Gunnison, CO. It was a 3 night, 4 day event, with an Anglican Priest and a Nazarene Youth Minister as our Spiritual Guides helping us to understand the necessity of balance between the work that we as pastors do and the need of taking time for our own spiritual needs. It was a time to look at what we think is important within our work and what truly was happening within our lives. There was a focus on “balance” within our public life and our spiritual life, much like Jesus as he worked at keeping a balance with his ministry and spiritual welfare.
Everyone will agree that prayer is a primary component to anyone’s spiritual life, but as happens to most of us, the perceived needs and demands of one’s job often takes away the time needed to maintain ones spiritual health. Most of you probably don’t realize it, but many church congregants believe that their pastor should never take time away from his/her work; or that when the pastor says he/she is taking a day for prayer, it is perceived that he or she isn’t really doing anything of value. By example Jesus spent as much time taking care of his own spiritual needs as he did taking care of the needs of those around him.
I recall a discussion that I was having with my mother-in-law as I was finishing up with my seminary studies and we were discussing contracts that I would be making with my first search committee. She of course had decades of experience within the church and wished to make sure that I wasn’t going to be taken advantage of, as some congregations have done with their pastors. So I was telling her that I had just finished reading a book that talked about the time needed for a pastor away from the job. It stated that a pastor should have no less than 4 weeks away from his job as means of keeping himself refreshed for his duties. To my surprise, she was in total disagreement to that advice, stating it as one of the problems with modern expectations for ministers. I shared with her that this book had been published in 1912! The point being, our relationship with God is the most important relationship that we can have and that relationship needs to be fostered, which involves time together with God.
Today is Valentine’s Day. The one day out of the year that we set aside to purposefully express our love toward those we care about. We have many ways of showing that love, of course, through the giving of cards that express our sentiment or through the giving of candy, particularly chocolate, or through eating a nice romantic meal with the ones that we love (often a couple will dine by candlelight) and let us not forget the gift of flowers, particularly red roses. All of these are ways that we in this society have come to express our affections toward those we love. But ultimately what we are doing is responding to the relationship between us and those we love.
For me, one of the greatest joys I experience comes through the little pictures and notes that I have received from my children and now from my grandchildren. Now, for the average person, these drawings mean very little, they bring very little emotion for them, but for me when I look at them, my heart fills with pride and my eyes become misty; to me these are the most precious pieces of paper that I can receive from these grandchildren. You see the difference comes because I have a relationship to these people, they are my flesh and blood; they are my son, my daughters, my grandsons and my granddaughters.
For myself, I don’t care if these representations of art are not perfect, they do not have to color within the lines for me to appreciate the beauty of the person who was doing the coloring, for they are a part of me and I am apart of them. There is a relationship between us.
I think this is just how God looks at us. We don’t have to be perfect, we don’t have to stay within the lines, we can use any color to express ourselves, and we will still be seen and appreciated and accepted in our fullness because of the relationship with God. God is our parent, our lover, our friend. What God is wishing for is the relationship. God is looking for the same type of activities that we do with those we love: our wives, our partners, our children and grandchildren, our parents and grandparents, our siblings and our friends. God is looking for that special time we give to him; those times we pray, those times when we write our thoughts out to him, those times we sing love songs to him or recite poetry or read his words and meditate upon them, to name just a few. When we take time out of our day and spend it with God, which is the same type of relationship that Jesus was giving to God, this is when love is involved and God is our Valentine!

1st Cong. UCC Rock Springs, WY

The Bitter Sweetness of God’s “Good News”
By Rev. Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY Jan 31, 2010
Jeremiah 1:4-10; I Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30

The Hebrew text for this week is one I was quickly able to connect with, as my daughter Tara and son-in-law Dan were in Ethiopia, this past week, picking up their first child, Mason Mamush Simmons. It was this past October that they found out theyMMMo were going to be adopting this specific baby.
My daughter is truly a product of her generation and the majority of her communications with family and friends comes by way of Face book and through her Blog. So from the very onset of them finding out they were finally getting a baby in their lives, they started the stream of information through cyber space. No phone calls, no letters, where there is certain privacy about one’s life events, but open communication, a broadcasting of their joy to a world that they might not even be aware but is listening! It’s kind of like Joseph and Mary, where instead of using cyber space to have the birth of Jesus announced, God chooses to use Angelic voices and signs in the Heaven’s for all who might be searching the skies to see.
Because of the adoption agencies rules, they were not allowed to put on face book or their blog either a picture of Mason, nor his name. Those particular details could only occur through private e-mails and phone conversations. So since last October, if you were to be reading Tara and Dan’s Blog, or following their conversations on Face book, you would only read references to “baby M” with respect to information about Mason.
As I followed my daughters Blogging, I couldn’t help but remember the first baby (a daughter) that my wife and I were waiting for. I recall one day in particular my, mother-in-law could no longer stay quiet, when hearing her first grandchild being referred to in conversations as “it”. Discussions such as, “Do you know what sex ‘it’ is?” “Has ‘it’ been moving around much today?” So she demanded that we name the baby something while we were pregnant. My wife’s two younger sisters came up with the name, Binky Jingles or more commonly called, B.J. A good name since we didn’t know the sex. After she was born, we had become so fond of the initials B. J. that among other reasons we named her Bobbie Jo!
For Tara and Dan, as adoptive parents they were given all sorts of information about Mason, so that when they finally were able to hold him in their arms this last Sunday morning, they knew much about him. For my wife and me, when we first held B. J. in our arms, we virtually had had no information about her. She was a complete mystery to us. All we knew is that she had 10 fingers and 10 toes, a bald head and was the most precious gift we had received from God up to that point in our lives.
In Jeremiah, we are told by God, “Before God formed us in the womb, God knew us…” Isn’t that just one of the most comforting assurances that one can read in the scriptures; that before we are even conceived in our mother’s womb, we are known. Not only are we known, but we are consecrated, consecrated meaning, we have been appointed for specific tasks.
Often times, parents out of frustration with the monumental job of directing their children will often times say, “I’m doing the best I can, after all you didn’t come with instructions!” And from the view point of the parent, there is some truth in that; yet God knows exactly who we are! In reality, if parents are very observant and actually listen, their child will be telling them who they are and how the parent can best work at helping them grow up to become the healthy person that God really has in mind for them.
It’s in the little things that need to be observed; such as does this child respond better to tactile learning or does he learn better by listening or is she more visually stimulated; does your child prefer to show the nurturing aspects in ways that society says is not normal for that gender? For example does your son carry his books close to his chest, while your daughter prefers to carry her books at her side? Or at Christmas time, does your daughter wish for a Tonka truck and your son wants a Barbie and Ken doll set? All of these things are signs of who your child is trying to become; of who they are; the consecrated person that God has in mind.
As parents it is our obligation to that child to raise them up into who they are. As a church we make an oath at the time a child is baptized to see that they are nurtured and supported not just in Christian teaching, but to nurture them into who they have been designed to be. We have an obligation as parents and as the body of Christ to stand up to society and to those who do not want to allow these gifts of God to grow into who they are consecrated by God to be.
Let us turn our attention to what is happening this week as Jesus is announcing his “consecration” of who he is and of what his job assignment, so to speak, by God is to be. We read that he is still in Nazareth, his home town, is sitting down after reading from Isaiah and announcing that the day of the Lord’s favor has been fulfilled in their hearing. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” “Isn’t this Joseph son?” Can’t you just hear the conversations going on between one another in this crowd? “Look, we have a celebrity here in our midst. Jesus, this home town boy of ours is becoming well known around the region. I hear he not only can give a good sermon, but that he can heal people who have been blind and he has healed people who couldn’t walk in the past,; then there was that thing at the wedding in Cana, where I hear tell, he turned plain water into the sweetest wine you have ever tasted.”
Now what happened from the point of when Jesus was sitting down and telling those within the room that he was here to restore site to the blind and hearing to those who were deaf and free those who are imprisoned, and in just two verses, had the crowd in a complete uproar, shouting hateful things at him, even coming to a point where they took him to a cliff where they were going to throw him off?
What happens to a person or a crowd, when they hear some piece of information and they become so angry that they loss all control of civility and become physically violent or verbally abusive? Especially when they are listening to God’s words, from God’s own son! This type of behavior happens when we hear something that we don’t wish to hear; when we hear a truth that differs from our perceived truth, it is a ‘bitter sweet truth’.
Think of all the hateful statements that people like George Wallace was making about integration during the years of the civil rights movement and when the government was stepping in and ending the “separate but equal” type of socialization that continued in the Deep South. It also happened in the North as well, in communities where the upper middle class families were being told that their children were going to be bused across town to black schools as well as having black youth bused into their white schools. This was not only a truth of equality that we as Americans were being forced to listen to, but forced into participate in as well. Many of the loudest voices protesting these events came from organizations that called themselves Christian.
Author and commentator Kim Beckmann can help show us a cultural view of what is happening in Jesus’ home town of Nazareth, as a means of helping us understand what might be going on in this week’s story.
“The Judeans would have seen the Galileans as “peasants,” “common people,” “unwashed people of the land” with an accent that betrayed their region’s long history of a rich mix of cultures and races. For instance, the story Luke mentions about the Inn at Bethlehem of Judea as having ‘no room’ for Mary and Joseph, not as being ‘full,’” which gives another layer of meaning to our Christmas story. We might expect the Galileans, then, to hear only good news when Jesus’ evokes the memory of ancient promises of restoration for those oppressed, and those Judeans would finally have to move over and make room for them. However, striving for what the Judeans had wasn’t the restoration God was bringing to pass, neither was armed rebellion to bring the state to its former glory, but concern for all those on the margins that made humanity whole. These weren’t the terms they had in mind. They wanted the privileged, chosen status and the prosperity gospel that their brothers and sisters of Judah aspired to and that the dominant culture had normed.”
So it is very possible that what angered these people of Nazareth so much was the realization that their “favored home town boy, Jesus” wasn’t going to bring them the status that they had been hoping for. In the film, White Privilege that will be shown as part of the Lenten study, talks about this very aspect of how, the very low classes who are White, those who do not hold much privilege in our country with respect to economics and having voice for their needs, will almost always vote for programs that will continually keep them from having what the upper part of society enjoys, just to keep those who are of color, out in the cold. The whole debate on “Health care” has been fueled with this type of controversy, yet those white folks on the lower end do not see how they are being manipulated and through this manipulation are keeping themselves without proper healthcare. You see the word “Privilege” implies that that there are those who “are not privileged”.
As Jesus was trying to show those in the synagogue that the restoration wasn’t about them getting what the Judeans had, that of getting “privilege” within their own race or the re-establishing of their county to its former glory, but rather this restoration was to all peoples, the Apostle Paul was having similar issues with the church in Corinth. A church that was highly divided with issues surrounding the “haves” and the “have not’s”. Paul in addressing the arguments and disharmony within the Corinthian church by chapter 13 sums up the concepts that we all need each other in order to experience an enriched life; a life where everyone wins! Paul states, the only way that this can happen is through Love; and not only can this richness of life happen just through love, but it can only be sustained in the environment and security that comes through love. This environment is the recognition that each one of us is special; we have been made uniquely and we are each known by God; each one of us is consecrated by God. The Bitter Sweetness of God’s ‘Good News” is that we are restored, but not to be privileged, rather restored so that we might help one another to be the consecrated person that God has made us to be. We are all of one body, the body of Christ; yet we are all individual parts of that body, young/old, rich/poor, educated/not so educated, Hispanic/Caucasian/Native Indian/African American/Asian, whether of sexual majority or minority, we all are of one body and not giving up our individuality are called to live in harmony; which can only be achieved by respecting one another as a whole human being and this is accomplished through love and this love is sustained only with the security of commitment. In this case, commitment to the love, grace and mercy that God has ordained. Commitment in deepening our relationship with God.