Sunday, May 16, 2010

7th Sunday of Easter, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY

There is no posting for the 6th week of Easter as the Women gave the service in honor of Mothering Day. It was a most inspirering worship and I look forward to this coming Fathering Day where I can get the men to lead the worship. Nevertheless, here is todays Reflection upon the scriptures read.

The Look of God’s Kingdom
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 5/16/10
Based on Acts 16: 16-34 and John 17:20-26

The Gospel reading this morning opens with Jesus praying to God on behalf of his disciples, asking that they may be filled with the Holy Spirit in the same way that Jesus is filled, not for the benefit of His disciples but rather so that the world might “recognize” them as being representatives of God, and through this recognition become one with God, as Jesus was one with God. If you have ever wondered what the mission of the church is, you can read it here in Jesus’ prayer: Righteous Parent, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these (meaning the disciples) know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them. The single mission of the church is to make known the “love” that God has for us! Now, the big question then for us is, “how do we work that out in our community and in the greater world?”
Out of the many books that I have read over the years, there is one that seems to be very impactful in my life. It was given to me by my mother-in-law. This particular book was written in 1896 by a Congregational minister while he was pastor of what is now known as Central Congregational UCC in Topeka, KS. The title of this fictional story is In His Steps, written by Charles M. Sheldon. In fact, this book is so powerful in the life of Central Church; it is still being performed every 3 or 4 years as a play.
In this fictional story, we are at once introduced to Henry Maxwell, the affluent, mild mannered, and well spoken Pastor of the First Church of Raymond. We meet him while he busies himself with preparation for his weekly sermon. The theme of this week’s sermon: The Atonement and the fundamental link of Christ’s sacrifice being synonymous with our own sacrifice in his call to leave our old lives behind and follow Him. A "tramp" appears at Rev Maxwell’s door (tramps, or the poor in general, represent Christ in Christian thought) and is turned quickly away, though with a kind word. The tramp would later set the hearts of many of The First Church community alight with the fire of God's own Love. The Spirit would take this opportunity to teach them what true discipleship is; what it means to offer one's entire being to Christ. As usual, the well-dressed community expected a beautiful service, fine music, and, to end it all, an intellectually satisfying and well-presented sermon by Rev. Henry Maxwell.

After Rev. Maxwell delivers another fine sermon, the service is brought to an abrupt halt as the tramp we met earlier makes his way forward and addresses the people. The tramp expresses his nagging question: What does the Christian mean when he says that he gives all to follow Christ; that he suffers for Christ, while everyone lives in such comfort and dares not raise a finger in aid of the poor's plight? He then falls to the ground unconscious. This event touches and offends many, but in the end brings to birth the well known "What Would Jesus Do?" movement.
“What would Jesus Do” seems to be at the heart of what Jesus was seeking in His prayer for the disciples and, ultimately, the church that has developed out of His ministry here on earth. It’s a simple question that each one of us should be asking at every movement of our life. I have to wonder if Rev Sheldon was thinking about the Apostle Paul and his actions when the young woman who was possessed by a spirit of divination kept following him around, and Paul finally exorcised her of this spirit.
Listen once more to this story: One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.”
As we read this short tale of events, we might think this is another story of great healing, as Paul heals this young slave girl of the “evil spirit” that possessed her, yet there are some very haunting questions left in this story that beg our examination. One of the unanswered questions of this story is: what about this young girl’s life after this exorcism by Paul? Another question that comes to mind focuses on the motive of Paul in his “healing” of this young woman. Scripture says, Paul became annoyed with her, which prompts his exorcising this spirit of fortune-telling. Theologian Lawrence W. Farris asks the question this way: Isn’t she still a slave, and isn’t Paul moved to help her beyond freeing her from the spirit that possessed her? Paul and his assistants, do not invite her into the freedom of faith offered to Lydia earlier in Acts or the jailer later in the story. Not only does she continue in bondage to her owners, but also to her separation from the very God she names. UCC Study Guide
Curiously, Farris says that Paul is “implicitly” challenging “the economic system of the day,” but the text doesn’t really indicate that as much as it describes his annoyance at being interrupted, or perhaps heckled. Paul was on a mission, and he didn’t really see the girl or her healing as part of that mission, and certainly not as at the heart of it. UCC Study Guide
I think this is the question that we need to be asking of ourselves this morning: Are our acts of ‘Christian charity’ acts based on what Jesus would have us do or are they based on annoyance? Do we perform our mission of proclaiming God’s love out of a deep sense that comes from the movement of the Holy Spirit within us, or are we doing things in the “love of God” solely based on what we think we should be doing?
Picture it: Seattle, the Fall of 1990, a young preacher has just moved from his ministry in a small town to Seattle, where he was in the process of ‘rediscovering’ who he was and what his life was going to look like in his new found-personage. He was taking time out of the ministry as a preacher and working on himself, working in the secular world not in one but two jobs, trying to survive economically. One Sunday morning, as he is on his way to church, he stops off at a 7-eleven, for a cup of coffee and a donut, which is his breakfast. As he leaves the store, he is accosted by two Native Americans for a hand-out (a very common event on the streets of Seattle.) As he tries to brush by them with a “no I can’t help you” he then hears their plea for food as they address him “Oh great white father, can you buy us something to eat?” Out of embarrassment, the young former minister, finds himself going back into the 7-eleven and buying each of these people a couple of hotdogs and a drink.
Was I motivated out of the love that God wishes me to act upon by providing food for these two people who were in need at that point in time? No, not at all; rather I was helping them as a way of easing my conscience. Like Paul, in my trying to live out my Christian walk, I was being interrupted by an annoyance to my agenda to act out my Christian beliefs.
My question is, as a church that says we believe in the “Love” of God, how often are we motivated into action more out of “annoyance” than by the movement of God’s Holy Spirit? How often are we ready to help someone who is in need, without really walking through life with them? Meaning, we help someone with their rent, but are we there visiting with them in their home? I don’t need to belabor the point, as I’m sure you know what I mean.
The title of today’s reflection is, The Look of God’s Kingdom. Jesus was saying in His prayer that the Kingdom of God is here on earth, and that it is found within our hearts. My challenge to you this morning is to think about, “how God’s Kingdom looks” within your heart as you go throughout this next week. Does it look like “Love” or does it look like an act that comes out of “annoyance”? Will we act upon our Christian responsibility out of annoyance, or will we first ask ourselves “What would Jesus do”? Amen

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

5th Sunday of Easter, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY

This sermon is my first attempt to write a dialog sermon. It is obvious in most places where the worship leader is reading, the other places are in Bold letters. Most of the italics are indicating references from the UCC weekly sermon study guide. Hope you all enjoy the read about "inclusion" as it was lots of fun to write and give.

Who Is In God’s Family?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY May 2, 2010
Based on Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

In every Worship service we hear readings from scripture. Many times we listen to three differing readings, usually one from the Hebrew Bible, another from one of the letters to the church, we call the Epistles, and then one reading about Jesus’ ministry from one of the Gospels. From these three readings then, I am charged with the task to reflect on what we hear from these varying readings, and bring together some type of cohesive thought. When we are listening to these readings we sometimes forget that these come from a variety of books that have been accumulated into this volume that we refer to as The Bible.
I am a person who loves books. I love the way a book feels in my hands, I love the smell of the paper that is used in creating a book; I love the fact that by reading a book, my mind has been affected in some fashion. Out of my love for books, I find it very difficult to walk past a book store, so I usually will go in and start to browse through the shelves filled with books. I am also a people watcher and I think book stores can be very telling about a person and what is of most interest to them. What I mean by this is just watch where any person heads who goes into a bookstore, or a library for that matter. For me, I instinctively head directly over to the religious section, and then from there I head to the psychology and self-help section, and then find my way to the architectural section and lastly stopping off at where the novels are shelved.
In selecting each week’s scripture, I use the Common Lectionary. It is designed to present over a three year cycle something from almost every book that is found within the Hebrew and Christian Bible, thereby forcing me to deal with books I might otherwise pass over. It asks me to think upon books like Revelation, which is one of those books that I never want to deal with. By nature, I tend not to want to deal with books that have become cornerstones for apocalyptic preaching. People, who think only with a “doomsday” frame of reference, generally focus solely on topics of “Salvation” and ignore issues that surround “social justice”. After all, why worry about social justice issues when people need to have their souls saved because Christ’s coming is just around the corner? I am in good company with not wanting to deal with the Book of Revelation, Martin Luther gave this book a secondary classification, Ulrich Zwingli flat out denied it scriptural status, and John Calvin largely ignored it.
Thank goodness for modern theologian Marcus Borg who does respect this book enough to tackle what it brings to the total collection of the Bible. Borg paints a larger picture of Revelation, not only about its writing and origin but also the reaction of those in the church who really didn’t see it as Holy Scripture, such as Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and yours truly. Borg reminds us that this book was written to seven specific churches that are about one generation old and perhaps already straying from their original vision. “The issues facing the communities,” he writes,” are persecution, false teaching, and accommodation to the larger culture.”UCC study guide
(Worship Leader): Ah excuse me Pastor Steve. I apologize for interrupting you, but I have to just ask, “Why, if the book of Revelation is so ‘not holy writing’ to you, why then are you preaching on it this morning?” Granted, what I read this morning is one of those passages that I often hear quoted at funerals, when I am looking to be consoled, to think of a future time with no more tears, and no more pain, even no more death.UCC Study Guide But really, what does a book like this have to really say to us here this morning? We’re not attending a funeral, but rather this is communion Sunday, where we think about remembering Jesus’ life and his teachings and about life beyond the grave.
Jonathan, that’s a very good question and quite frankly I am happy that you think enough about what I think to ask that question. Let me address it with this thought. While our passage today starts off with a beautiful and all-encompassing vision of a new heaven and a new earth, there is a very specific city, the New Jerusalem, at its center. “Remember the bible in Genesis, begins with the Garden of Eden, but in Revelation it ends in the City of New Jerusalem.” ucc study guide Remember, Jonathan, that the writer of Revelation most likely was a person who survived the Jewish-Roman war between 66-70 AD that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
So why would a city be important? Cities are places where people live together in dependence upon one another. In the Garden of Eden, it was a story of only two people, Adam and Eve, not a story that deals about living in community with other people. “A city works when everyone in it does something to contribute to its welfare. It is the welcome place where people arrive home at the end of a long and sometimes confusing journey. For the writer of Revelation, it is where God lives.”Feasting on the Word
What an intriguing way to spur our spiritual imaginations about our own city of Rock Springs, as a place where God lives. Imagine what Rock Springs might look like for everyone who lives here, if we didn’t live in competition and anxiety but in a grace filled community, welcoming people home and inviting them in. Such a vision is the opposite of destruction, separation, loneliness, and exile, which is familiar to the author with the fall of the “old Jerusalem.” ucc study guide For this reason, Jonathan, we can look at Revelation as the bookend, when we think of Genesis as the other end of the Bible. We start out in isolation but end up in community, very much representative of our spiritual journey, don’t you think?
(Worship Leader) Well, I suppose that might explain why you are at least willing to look at a book that generally gives you a knee-jerk reaction. But how does that tie into the story that you had me read where Peter has this vision about a sheet coming down from heaven filled with all sorts of food, food that up to that point was considered as unclean? What was God trying to tell Peter? I mean, after all, I’m not Jewish, so what does this have to do with me? I don’t have a problem in eating pork chops, just like I love eating shrimp. I mean, what does this story about God telling Peter it’s okay to eat any food that was in front of him, on that sheet, have to do with what you were just saying about “God living in Rock Springs?”
Hmm, Jonathan, do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions, as a way of answering your question? {No, go ahead} Jonathan, how many nationalities does Rock Springs boast about being “home” to? {56 or so} Okay, and in broad terms what would some of those nationalities be? {well, there would be Caucasians, it would include, Chinese, Africans, and Hispanics. Those would be the major groups, I suppose.} Okay, Jonathan, now let me ask you this question, “How did we get so many different nationalities here in Rock Springs?” {Well that’s easy; it was because of the mines} So it was because of economics that Rock Springs has so many different nationalities. Now let me ask you this question Jonathan, “When you and your family moved here, from where did you move?” {Jean, Abbey and I moved here from Illinois} And why did you move from your home in Illinois? {We moved here because Jean had an opportunity to teach which she wasn’t receiving back where we lived.} So in essence you migrated here from your home in Illinois because of economic opportunities and it gave Jean an opportunity to use the degree that she had just completed at the time? {Yes, basically}
Jonathan, did you realize that today is Immigration Sunday on the UCC calendar? {No. I didn’t} Let me share these thoughts with you from Rev Persida Rivera-Mendez through her reading of today’s Lectionary texts. “For me it is interesting to read this Revelation text in light of the immigration situation facing our country. The heading in my bible on the text says, “The New Jerusalem,” and for me the immigrant is looking for the New Jerusalem, a place where God is moving and transforming the world. Yet there are Christians who question the motives of those coming into our country for a better life. There are those who have a misconception that people come because they don’t want to be in their own country. There are many people who feel that we should have stringent immigrant laws and there are others who feel that we need to reform our immigration system that is broken. There needs to be a balance of ideas and methods in place so that we may have comprehensive immigration reform that is just and beneficial for all, not just for a select few.
My question is, how do we, as followers of Jesus’ way, begin to wrestle with this reality that we are called to love one another, care for the least of these, and proclaim the good news of the gospel to all God’s creation, which also includes the stranger and the immigrant in our midst? Are we living out this commandment as it relates to our immigrant brothers and sisters?” ucc study guide
As I look around this room, I would first ask the question to everyone here, how many of us have our roots from other countries? I know that my earliest ancestor came from Germany, as an indentured servant. I can only assume that he came to this country to find a better life than what he had in Germany. I can only assume that the only reason he sold himself into servant-hood was to find a place that would allow him to become more than what he was, to find the New Jerusalem where he could thrive and contribute. When I look at places like Arizona and how they are handling the issue of immigration or at how we as a nation on the whole have been wrestling with the topic of immigration, then reflect upon where would I be had my ancestor not been allowed to immigrate into this country, or where would this congregation be, without families like the Strannigans, the Wesswicks, the Bunnings, the Willette’s, the Ghormleys, the Firmes, the Slaughters, or the Jon Anderson’s; and I don’t mean to slight anybody by not specifically mentioning your family names, for we all are products of immigration.
Jonathan, when we read scriptures out of Revelations that speak to the coming of the New Jerusalem and in Acts where Peter is challenged to eat food that had been religiously off limits, we see God challenging Peter and the new church that came out of the teachings of Jesus to take a second look at who was being excluded and who was being included. I then have to look at what we as people of faith need to be asking ourselves. Are we truly inclusive? Do we really care about the needs of other people who are different from us, or are we satisfied to hold on to what we have and not share with those different than us? In other words, am I comfortable using words that allow exclusion such as “them” and “us” instead of words that are inclusive, like “we” and “all”? Are we concerned about people in other countries that are risking their lives to enter into this country without proper documentation because life in their country cannot support their basic needs, or are we satisfied to close our borders and use labels like “illegal” aliens as a way to exclude?
As your pastor, I have to ask questions of this body of people who call themselves Christians: “What really matters to us today,” “What should matter to us today,” “What does it mean to be a people of faith: as followers of Jesus who trust in the goodness of God and seek to participate in God’s plan for the world?” “What should we Christians be thinking about, be planning for, dreaming of, and hoping for?” “What should our priorities be?” “What’s the big picture and where are we heading, individually and corporately?” ucc study guide “Are we here just to play church or are we here to learn what God has to teach us?” “Are we here to be challenged by God’s message to us?” “Are we here to reach out beyond who we are?”
(Worship Leader) So Pastor, you’re saying this story in Acts tells us, “This is what the church meetings were about in those days: who was in and who was not, and that the headquarters in Jerusalem was in an uproar over the report that Peter had been breaking some very important rules and boundaries in his ministry with the Gentiles?” So basically, we need to look at who we might be excluding without realizing it? In other words, our discussions on what being an Open and Affirming Congregation includes things like immigration issues as well?
Yes, Jonathan, that is right.” Today we come to the table of which Jesus says, “all are invited to eat.” We say that all are welcome, but when we close our borders, are we truly an “inviting people”; when we discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation, are we truly an “inviting people”; when we are afraid of losing power or position, can we truly be an “inviting people”? The table of Jesus speaks to the hope of a New Jerusalem. Are we willing to be a Peter and eat with those who are on the outside, thereby bringing them into the fold? My prayer is that we are becoming that type of people. Amen