Sunday, June 27, 2010

Living Apocalyptically, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY

Living Apocalyptically
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY June 27, 2010
Based on 1 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 and Luke 9:51-62

There is a commercial that appears periodically where a person is having a plain glass of tomato juice, and then they hit the side of their head with the realization that they “could have had a glass of V8!” In my continual study within the Holy Scriptures there are times that I have a similar revelation and discover something within its text that I had not previously been aware of. This happened this week with the realization of the importance of the Prophet Elijah. I must have been asleep in Hebrew class the week we studied him.
I was aware that Elijah had encountered the wrath of Queen Jezebel in defending God’s covenant with Israel against her false god Baal; and of his bringing God’s wrath upon the priests of Baal, having all 450 of them killed after God had accepted Elijah’s offering in the name of Israel, and the god Baal had failed to accept the sacrifice of Jezebel’s priests; and of Elijah being taken up into Heaven by a whirlwind, as we read in this morning’s text.
What I didn’t realize was Moses was not the only person to part waters in order to cross over to the other side. I did not realize that Elijah had parted the waters of the Jordan River, and not just Elijah, but also Elisha doing the same. I also never really realized what the significance was in Elijah not dying, but being taken up into Heaven by God. There are only two men recorded in the Hebrew bible as not ever dying; Enoch and Elijah. We are told that one day Enoch was walking with God, and was no more. There is never any follow up to this story in later Hebrew scripture nor is there any reference made in any of the writings found in the New Testament. We do, however, hear many references made about Elijah in the New Testament, such as the story that Luke tells just prior to what we read today, where Jesus was in retreat with John, James and Peter and had conversations with Moses and Elijah; further, in the earlier part of this chapter in Luke, Jesus was asking Peter who people were saying He was, with Peter replying, “some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah…”. Within the book of Revelations, Elijah is one of the prophets who are supposed to come back with Jesus. Within Jewish tradition, Elijah is the forerunner of the Messiah and is the “empty seat” at the Passover Seder, as the guest who is always present and watching over Israel. Elijah is this ever present person because, he did not leave this earth by death as everyone else has, save Enoch.
In the Gospel for today, we read where Jesus had set His sights toward Jerusalem. What we don’t read is that this focused determination comes from the discussions that Jesus had just had with Moses and Elijah. In a very real sense, Jesus was being given direction to what He was to do next with his ministry, which was to personally challenge the corruption of the religious leaders (those who were turning their backs to the truth that the God of Israel had laid forth.) Elijah was handing over the mantle, the torch of the Prophet to Jesus, just as Elijah had selected Elisha, and when his work was finished and it was time for him to meet with God, Elijah, handed over the mantle to Elisha, so that Elisha would move forward with the same power to provoke God’s word to a leadership that had turned their backs to the word of their God, JHWH.
Rev Carrie N. Mitchell (no relation to me), Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian of Pittsford, NY gives an excellent review of this story in the Feasting On the Word commentary.
“When we think of a favorite mentor, we often ask ourselves: how has he or she nurtured us in our callings? In the Elijah/Elisha story we see several stages shown in the process. They are 1)inviting, 2) developing, 3)testing, 4)parting, 5)grieving, and 6)confirming.
Following God’s command, Elijah sought Elisha while the latter was plowing and cloaked him with his mantle.(the invitation) Although Scripture makes no mention of Elisha between his calling and today’s text, Elijah is busy pronouncing God’s judgment upon Kings Ahab and Ahaziah, thus giving on-the-job training to Elisha. (development) Elijah encouraged Elisha to stay behind three times, and each time Elisha insisted upon following. This parallels Peter’s threefold denial of Christ in his passion, and the resurrected Christ’s three times asking Peter if he loved him. I would also interject that this reminds me of Naomi requesting Ruth to stay behind with her own people, but Ruth’s continual insistence to follow her mother-in-law. It is human nature to test the limits of love. (testing) Elisha’s shock at the chariots of fire that separate him from Elijah reminds us that even anticipated separations are painful for those left behind. (parting)
Knowing Elijah would be taken from him did not minimize Elisha’s Grief; rather it made his own ministry more poignant. Composer Giacomo Puccini wrote a number of famous operas. In 1922, he was suddenly stricken by cancer while working on his last opera, Turandot, which many now consider his best. Puccini said to his students, “If I don’t finish Turandot, I want you to finish it for me.” Shortly afterward he died. Puccini’s students studied the opera carefully and soon completed it. In 1926 the world premiere of Turandot was performed in Milan with Puccini’s favorite student, Arturo Toscanini, directing. At the point where Puccini had been forced to lay down his pin, Toscanini stopped the opera and in tears cried out to the audience, “Thus far the Master wrote, but he died.” A vast silence filled the opera house. Toscanini smiled through his tears and exclaimed, “But his disciples finished his work.” When Turandot ended, the audience broke into thunderous applause.
Elijah knew Elisha would be his successor but left that revelation to God. Although Elisha asked to inherit a double share of Elijah’s spirit, Elijah did not promise it to him; rather, he called Elisha to vigilance upon his departure so that God’s will might be revealed directly. When Elisha did see Elijah’s dramatic departure, picked up his passed-on mantle, struck the water, and crossed over, he was confirmed in his new role.” pg 173-177 Feasting on the Word.
Elijah as a prophet, saw the yoke of injustice being cast upon the people of Israel, not by the Pharaohs of Egypt but rather by the pharaohs of their own Kings. In the books of First and Second Kings, Israel’s main challenge is remaining faithful to YHWH in a world in which Pharaoh (or manmade kingdoms) appears to have all the power. Israel’s continual temptation is to buy into Pharaoh’s view of reality and operate, as the pragmatists advise, as if immanent power were everything and transcendent power nothing. Feasting on the Word commentary
The unique call of the prophet, in this context, is to open the nation’s eyes to the illusory nature of Pharaoh’s power and the ultimate reality of YHWH’S. In order to do so, however, the prophet must be equipped with the penetrating vision that is required to perceive YHWH’S supreme power and authority through Pharaoh’s thick smoke screen. Pg 176 of Feasting on the Word
These smoke screens come in many forms, as we read through both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. For Moses the smoke screen could be symbolized by the ring of smoke that hid him from the people of Israel, while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments, and by how that smoke on Mt Sinai disappeared as Moses brought God’s law to the Israelites. For Elijah and Elisha both, the river Jordan represents the smoke screen. As for Elijah, he had to part the waters to cross over to the other side where he was to meet God and join God in Heaven. For Elisha, he had to be able to part the waters of the Jordan to get back into the world where he was to carry on the work that Elijah had been doing, and by parting the waters of the Jordan, he was confirmed of his authority to do this work. For Jesus, as he died on the cross, the curtain in the Temple was torn in two, thereby opening direct access for the people to God. Finally, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples of Christ on the day of Penecost, provided the direct gift of God’s spirit to all who were open to receive it, allowing for God’s word to be delivered in every person’s language.
These are all “apocalyptic” events. The basic meaning of this word is “vision to perceive and discern the reality of Gods activity within Gods creation.” As a church, are we able to be visionaries of God’s activity, or are we living our existence lost in the smoke screens of the Pharaohs among us? What is the Pharaoh that we need to break from? Are we slaves to tradition, of the memories of days gone by, of ministries that no longer exist or have little relevance to today’s social needs? As Christians, do we hide behind our baptism, thinking this is all we need, to be a part of God’s family?
In order for Elisha to be able to pick up where Elijah left off, he first had to accept the invitation to become a person who would have vision and discernment from God. Elisha, then had to study and train for the job. For us, this means personal study of the Holy Scriptures as well as other Inspirational works, as well, as dedicated time in prayer (for God speaks in the silence.) We then have to take action upon what we learn; we do this by taking on the role of the prophet in our community.
As Elisha began his work as Prophet, he did not follow the path that Elijah had made, rather Elisha developed his own ministry. Unlike Elijah who worked as a solitary individual, Elisha works closely with several prophetic “companies.” His miracles are quite secular, most often done for the benefit of the “sons of the prophets” and their families, and usually have no moral or religious implications, whereas, Elijah was forcing the hand of Baal. Elisha finishes the work assigned to Elijah by anointing Hazael as king of Aram and Jehu as king of Israel. As he skillfully manipulates political and historical events, Elisha serves the purposes of the God who works behind the scenes of human history. Feasting on the Word Commentary
Like Toscanini pointed out in the premiere of Puccini’s final “uncompleted” work of Turandot, the master started the work, but it was his students who finished it. Elijah starts the work of helping Israel remember whom their God is, but it is Elisha who completes the plan God had started. With the words and works of Jesus Christ, the disciples picked up the mantle and have passed God’s words on to us. The work of God here through First Congregational has been passed on to us, but we are not asked to carry on the work of ministry in the form that has been handed to us. Rather we are like Elisha; we need to gain a vision of what is needed today for our society, not trying to minister to something that no longer exists, but rather discerning to whom we need to minister and how will we best be able to do this. This is what “Living Apocalyptically” is about: to live our ministry with vision and discernment, which can only be done with earnest dedicated discipleship and seeking God’s will for ourselves as well as our church. Amen

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

When God Speaks, Rock Springs, WY, 1st Congregational UCC

When God Speaks
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 6/20/2010
Based on 1Kings 19:1-15a, Galatians 3:23-29, and Luke 8:26-39

Today is the day where we as a nation recognize “fathers”. Typically for me and with many pulpits throughout this country, the focus of the sermon on this day is on some aspect of “fatherhood”. This generally means not using the suggested Lectionary readings and finding some story within the scriptures in which to support whatever is going to be said by the pastor about “fatherhood”.
I’m not going to do that today. Rather, I think in today’s Lection reading, there are aspects found that relate to most men. When I think about what the role of a father in our society is, I think about how much change is going on. In the 1950’s and 1960’s when I was a child, the father of a typical family was generally the sole bread winner. The father worked 8 hours away from home and was responsible for the maintenance of the structure of the house and outside perimeters: meaning fixing anything that broke around the house, mowing the lawn and so forth. Fathers had very little interaction with their children and were usually used by moms as the authoritarian figure, with the threat of, “you kids just wait till your father gets home!”
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, fathers were no longer the sole bread winner as moms started to work outside of the home for a variety of reasons. This meant that dads started to move from doing maintenance outside the house to also helping do domestic duties inside the house. This meant that for many men, we had to learn where the “on and off” switch was on the vacuum sweeper! But I think the most radical change came in how we as fathers interacted with our children. Dads could be seen taking their children to the park to play, or taking them to the grocery store with them to do the weekly shopping. Dads were taking on the role of hands-on care-givers, a role that was filled mostly by mothers up to that time.
By the 1990’s to the present, it isn’t uncommon to see dads working from home as telecommuters. It also isn’t unusual to see a number of dads becoming “stay at home dads”, where the mom is the sole bread winner. With our current economic climate, this phenomenon had increased exponentially. Who knows how the role of “fathers” will look as the current generation of children grows into adulthood?
Even though the roles of dads has changed over these past three generations, there is still the “historical” attitude of what a man who is married and has a family is suppose to be like and, it has nothing to do with the current role of fathers. We still perceive fathers to be the bread winners, the protectors, the final decision makers, and the one who will stand strong when the world is falling apart around him. This type of perception brings tremendous internal conflict within men who see their current role not matching up to the perceived role of fatherhood. This conflict often brings feelings of isolation and a sense of failure over success. Now there is the same issue going on with women as well, but since today is Father’s Day, I will use fathers as the example for all adults, for in reality, we all have these same feelings at one time or another in our lives.
The prophet Elijah certainly was having these feelings in today’s lection reading. Here he has had great success in confronting King Ahab and Queen Jezebel in defeating her false prophets of Baal. Yet he runs and hides for fear of his life as Jezebel threatens to kill him. Elijah who has had the God of Israel on his side, is now feeling totally isolated, fearful for his life, and is hiding out in a cave. Elijah, who could in many ways be representative of what our society still perceives the role of a man to be, was in his mind anything but that.
When I was in my twenties, I had the world by the tail. There wasn’t anything that I couldn’t accomplish, if it was something that I had set my sites on. I seemed to know no failure. One day, a dear woman in her early 70’s, who had been adopted by us as a surrogate grandmother, told me out of her wisdom that I shouldn’t expect to get everything that I wanted; that at some point in my life, there would be some things that would be out of my control to accomplish. I finally had the realities of her wisdom in my 30’s. The changes that happened in my life during that decade could have easily defeated my spirit for the rest of my life yet it didn’t. I was able to survive both emotionally and physically because of one important aspect in my life. I was able to “hear the still-speaking God.”
While Elijah was hiding in the cave, an angel came to him and told him to go outside, for God was going to pass by. So Elijah went outside before the Lord and waited for God to pass by. “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. Then there came a voice to him ….” In our thinking of the majesty and the might and power of God, we often attribute things like earthquakes, high winds, and fire as places that we would find God, yet here we read that God’s voice is found in silence. It is not in activity that we will be able to hear God’s voice, but rather it is in the quiet times, those times that we just sit in silence, that we will hear God speak to us.
I just mentioned that, in my thirties, I was going through some of the most challenging times in my life. I was being challenged with my identity and how that challenge was going to affect every aspect of my life. It was in those times of silence that I was able to hear God speaking to me. I spent hours in prayer, without distractions of T.V., radio, or family and friends; just me in my room, quietly waiting for God to pass by. And like Elijah, I was then able to find renewal and move forward with what I needed to do in order to reconstruct my life.
I would like to jump to the Gospel lesson that we have in Luke and make a couple of observations, as again I think it speaks to the changing role of “fathers”. I had a laugh with Paul the other day as he was searching for the musical selections that we are singing today, as he wanted to know if I was going to use the Gospel text in my reflection this morning. He informed me that, “Casting Out the Swine” isn’t in our hymnal. In his mind, he was thinking it a pretty difficult subject of Jesus casting out demons into pigs and relating it to modern day experiences. He is right, I don’t think I have ever experienced an exorcism of demons, let alone really believe in demon possession. Then he laughed and said he has been surprised at how well I’ve approached some other difficult passages and was able to make it relate to current cultural understanding. So hopefully I will be able to do the same with this passage as well.
In the Gospel ready we see just how powerful the word of God can be. Jesus is confronted with the man who is possessed by not just one or two or three demonic spirits, but a whole legion of demons. It isn’t until Jesus is able to identify who has possessed this man, that He is able to exorcise the demons out of him. This is the first point that I wish to bring forward. Before we are able to move forward, we must first be able to identify what the issue or issues are in our lives. When we are feeling isolated and that separated from our support group and even from God, we must first be able to name what the issue is. No problem can be addressed until we are able to name it. If I am an alcoholic, I cannot work on that illness until I can name it; if I am tormented with sexual identity, I cannot move forward until I name it; if I have issues with physical or emotional abuse, I cannot begin to heal from it until I name it.
After Jesus identifies who possesses this man, Jesus is then able to cast the legion of demons out, and in this story he honors the request of the demons to not be cast out into space where they would perish, but rather into a herd of pigs where they may continue to live. This presents some very interesting theological questions. Why would Jesus allow the demons to continue to live? Isn’t the ultimate goal of God to bring about harmony and healing by doing away with evil? Even in the book of Revelation, we read where the Evil one and his followers are cast into prison for a thousand years, before they are again released to create havoc upon the earth, then ultimately cast into a lake of fire, implying that evil is ultimately consumed and no longer exists. Does this story imply that Jesus doesn’t have the power yet to destroy these demons? This is a question that I or the best theological minds are not able to answer.
The last piece in this story that I would like to examine is in allowing the demons to go into the pigs. Many a person would not see a problem with this part of the story, thinking that in Jewish culture, pigs were unclean and it is only natural that they would be used as a host for spirits that are also unclean. Yet, that is only for a Jewish mindset. What about the livelihood of the Gentile who doesn’t look upon pigs as unclean and in fact had his livelihood in pig farming?
Elaine Heath, in the commentary “Feasting on the Word”, gives this understanding,
“…because to the people whose living depends on the pigs, their loss is catastrophic. The swineherders are understandably afraid and, despite the miraculous healing, want Jesus to leave. From this standpoint, the story demonstrates that the coming of the gospel brings upheaval and sets in motion forces that will disrupt economic and social arrangements. (repeat) The good news will not seem good to everyone. We do not know how the Gerasene man fell into his pitiful state, but he is not unlike homeless people today, who wander the urban wastelands of bridge abutments and alleys. Many of them are mentally ill, unable to live a normal life with a job, family, home or basic necessities.”
Let me tie this all together by referring back to a question that I presented a few weeks ago, from the book, In His Steps, “What would Jesus do?” Often throughout that book, the work ethics that many of the characters had were called into question, such as: is this Christ-like? In one instance, one of the characters lost his job by becoming a “whistle blower” on his employer, an act spurred solely by his honestly asking “What would Jesus do.”
Today’s lectionary readings might seem disjointed but actually they address God speaking. With Elijah he was able to move forward after hearing God speak to him in the silence. In the Gospel, we see that when God speaks, for healing to occur, the economy of the town is disrupted. For us, if we truly ask the question, “What would Jesus do”, we will have to be prepared to have our lives disrupted. When we wrestle with questions such as “human sexuality”, we will have our social arrangements altered; when we struggle with the questions of who is allowed inside our borders and who isn’t, the discussion will go beyond immigration; the real question will ultimately be given a name, and that name is “entitlement”, and in discussing who has the “rights” to receive the majority of the earth’s resources, our economic structure will dramatically change. Once we start to address these issues with honestly and integrity in light of God’s ethics, we will be faced with major economic upheaval.
On this Fathers Day, as men who have families, our roles are constantly evolving. The best way for us to be able to cope with the pressures of these changes is to make sure that we allow time where there is silence, so that we might hear God speaking to us. As a nation we must understand that as God speaks out toward injustice, we must be prepared to act upon God’s leading and that there will be change, sometimes economically, sometimes socially. As Christians, as disciples of Christ, we are compelled and obligated to put a name to the injustices that exist, not just around the world, but in our country, and in our homes, and more directly within our selves, for we are people of the “still-speaking God”. Amen

Thursday, June 17, 2010

June 13, 2010 First Congregational UCC, WY

There is not sermon to read for this Sunday as I was at the Rock Mountain Conference Annual meeting. It was my first time to be able to attend this Annual Conference and enjoyed meeting many new people who are members of various churches throughout this conference. The main speaker was Tim Wright, an ELCA Lutheran pastor who has worked both in a mega church and is now in a smaller congregation of 300 or so, in developing a different style of ministry - meaning instead of reaching out to those folks who have never been to a church service or have spent many years away, a "seeker" style of ministry, he is developing a ministry that is geared for those who are churched but disciplining them to go out and do ministry. Much the way most mainline denominations would typically work at. The largest difference being how you approach your worship style and educational processes. I discovered that I tend to structure worship much in this style which blends many different approaches and styles of worship (contemporary and traditional), but again the basic difference is where one assumes the level of understanding of those who are attending. Being do they understand "church" language or not.
I also was able to gain some insight at this annual meeting of what I plan to do for programing this Fall, with respect to the Adult educational level. This was not a part of the conference meetings agenda, but rather a bi-product of my attending it, allowing me the time away from my work and in an introspective mind set for three days.
Until next week, I pray that all who read this blog have a great week and a deepening encounter with God!

1st Sunday after Pentecost, 1st Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY

When All Else Fails
By Rev. Steven R. Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 6/6/2010
Based on 1Kings 17:8-24 and Luke 7:11-17

[Show power point of ‘A Duck Story’ first] “Like all of us in the big times of our life, they never could have made it alone without lots of helping hands” quote from power point This story about a mother duck and her little ones is a modern fable that speaks to this morning’s reading from Hebrews. A story that speaks about two strangers helping one another out and through that cooperation survives a terrible drought.
Let me set the scene of this morning’s reading. Most of us are familiar with the name Jezebel and at the very least know that when we are referred to as a “Jezebel” we have just received a denigrating remark! Jezebel was the wife of King Ahab, a man described in 1 Kings as the worst King up to that point in time. He seemed to work hard at doing things that were displeasing to God. So much so that he built a temple for the worship of the god Baal, which was the hometown god of Jezebel. Baal was the god of storms and was believed to be the god who brought the rains in which to water the crops.
Under the direction of God, the prophet Elijah goes before King Ahab and tells him just how displeased God is with his behavior and idolatry and tells the King that there is going to be a severe drought in the land as a result of the Kings actions. Of course, this is a direct challenge to the god Baal and this makes King Ahab and Queen Jezebel really unhappy, so unhappy that God tells Elijah to leave town for his own protection. Don’t you find it interesting at just how upset some people become and how violent they can be when God is trying to tell them something and how it is usually against those persons who are bringing God’s word to them?
So where does God send Elijah, right to the homeland of Jezebel. I think this is another way that God is challenging Jezebel’s mischievous behavior and speaking to the irony of Baal’s so called power over rain and ability to nourish the crops. God tells Elijah to go stay with a widow in Zarephath, a small suburb of Sidon. When he gets there, he sees a woman who is picking up firewood and asks her for some water, as she goes and draws some from a well, Elijah then asks for some food. It is at this point that the woman speaks up about her situation of only having just enough flour and oil to make her and her son’s last meal. In other words, she wasn’t going to fulfill this part of Elijah’s request.
But Elijah, says, “Do not be afraid” and tells her to go home and make her bread, then if she brings him a small piece, she and her son would always have enough flour and oil to make bread enough for all three of them to survive this drought. For whatever reason, probably out of sheer desperation and wanting to believe that there was a brighter future ahead for her and her son, she does as Elijah asks and even invites him into her home to live during this time.
From a practical sense, this woman being a “widow” had nothing more to lose, as she was at the bottom of society, not having a husband to fend for her or to speak for her. She had no money and no voice; she was literally living on the streets of Zarephath. The only hope she has is to survive long enough for her son to become a man, who could then provide financial security and elevate her to at least an acceptable social standing. But even in all of this misery, her son does die and she feels she has been betrayed by Elijah and his God and it is again another punishment for her past life.
Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, proposes a frame for understanding traumatic experience, that is, for why we human creatures are so upended when tragedy strikes us. We live, she says, with certain core assumptions about the world, that is, that the world is benevolent (bad things will not happen) and meaningful (events of the world should make sense), and that the self is worthy (events in our world correlate to the good or bad that we bring into the world.) At first glance most of us might argue that we are certainly smart enough to know that the world is not fair and that sometimes tragedy follows no line of reasoning. Yet in that moment when our world comes crashing in around us, very often one of the first questions to rise from our lips is, how could this happen? Or why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this? These questions imply the very assumptions Janoff-Bulman suggests. Pg 118Feasting on the Word
Without a son, the widow had truly lost everything at that point. Elijah feels that possibly he is responsible and in his prayer actually shames God into bringing the boy back to life. Very much like the story of Jesus when he was in Sidon and encounters the Syro-Phoenician woman who is asking Jesus for help and she shames him into giving her the crumbs from his table.
Widows stand for the image of all manner of poor people in the Bible. Widows are also metaphors for spiritual or emotional poverty. Too many around us are that widow or that child, literally or figuratively. Too many around us feel lost, hopeless, hungry, and thirsty for something beyond the tangibles of daily living, for more than meager leftovers, scraps of food, love and justice. We are all indeed needy, we are all the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in 100 Feasting on the Word Yet in our hope and trust in God we are led to open our hearts and reach out for that bread and that cup of life, which we find at the communion table.
I don’t know how many of you watch the T.V. reality show Extreme Make Over, but when I think about a person being at the end of their rope, so to speak, this show comes to my mind, and how a person’s life can be so altered when a group of people come into that individual’s life and work together to help improve their living situation. The family that is chosen usually has done tremendous community work in selflessly helping others while living in housing that would be considered substandard to their own personal needs. The crew of Extreme Make Over come and sends the family on a two week vacation while they demolish and rebuild a house that will be more than adequate for the family in order for them to continue to reach out into the community in their own special way. Usually this help comes not from just the Extreme Make Over staff but from many people within the community who recognize the value of this family and wish to help as a way of saying “thank you” for all that the family has done within the larger community. When the family comes back from vacation and sees how much their home has transformed, you can see through the tears in their eyes a renewed spirit. I almost always am in tears watching them and my heart is deeply warmed and my spirit renewed as well.
We do not live isolated lives; the things that we do and say affect other people. Like the people within a community that help the Extreme Make Over crew or as we saw in the power point presentation, it takes many hands to help us all through the big moments in our lives. To coin a modern battle cry, it takes a village to raise a child; it takes that same village to help and love each member. As individuals, we generally are not ready to receive this type of love until we become vulnerable enough to accept it. Generally, we only look to God or to the larger faith community for help, when all else fails. The irony of it is, God is already there wanting to walk beside us, hold our hand, and provide what we need, we just have to have our hearts open to it, both in times of need and in times of great plenty! Amen

Pentecost Sunday, First Congregational UCC of Rock Springs, WY

Our Companion in Faith
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 5/23/2010
Based on Acts 2:1-21 and John 14: 15-17 & 25-27

Today, we celebrate Pentecost Sunday. It is a day often thought as the Churches Birthday; the day we celebrate the receiving of the Holy Spirit, the beginning of the Christian Church. One of the ways that we celebrate this particular day is in the use of the color “red”. We display red cloth on the pulpit, you see a number of red candles here on the communion table, and many of us are even wearing red, all in honor of this particular day. Red is the symbol of the flame that scripture speaks about that came down from heaven and landed upon the heads of all the followers of Jesus.
Our wearing or displaying red isn’t nearly as impactful in today’s society as it would have been 70 yrs ago, for it is now a color that is completely acceptable in polite society. Yet I have had women from previous congregations tell me how as little girls or young women, they were chastised for wearing red to church, as red was a color left only to women of “questionable” morals. For those of us who live in Wyoming, reading this story about the wind coming up, at gale force, again would not have the same understanding or feeling of what that means, as it had for those who were in Jerusalem that particular day. After all, we get gale force wind here in Rock Springs quit frequently.
All of this is to help us realize that there is so much that we read within scripture that we find very hard to relate to, with respect to how unusual some events were experienced and then recorded, because of how we perceive what goes on around us today. When a volcano blows out the side of a mountain and covers the sky with smoke and ash for days, as did Mt Saint Helens in Washington State 30 years ago, or the volcano in Iceland that is causing such havoc over the last month or so, because of my current understanding of science, I do not look to these events as a message from God as some folks might. Nor do I look at meteors striking particular locations on earth as God punishing us for wicked behavior. Yet if I were living a few centuries ago, I might very well have a different interpretation of those events.
As products of the modern age of science we, by conditioning, have come to rely solely on empirical information or evidence in order to believe something. Anything that is being explained outside of this empirical information is scoffed at and we come up with explanations that try to diminish the event. The interesting thing is, even as scientific understanding increases our base of knowledge, human behavior has changed very little.
On the day that God’s Holy Spirit was given to this group of followers of Jesus, there were those who couldn’t understand what was going on, and as a defense accused these people of having drunk too much wine. Today, I would suspect that when I speak about the power of the Holy Spirit, there are those of you who would roll your eyes in disbelief. I would bet that there are those of you who would try to rationalize this as being just an emotional state that one can let themselves enter into. It is our nature to discount what we do not understand.
When I watch T.V. programs that deal with the paranormal, I am constantly rolling my eyes and saying to myself, “and there are people who really believe these guys?” Yet, I have to stop and recall an event of being awakened at night by a flash of light and a crashing sound, knowing there is no storm outside, looking the next morning for evidence of a broken tree branch to explain the noise, only to find out later that day that a very close friend had died that night at about the same time as when I was awaken. And again a few years later having that same experience while attending seminary and then learning that another person who was very important in my life had been killed in a plane crash at about the same time that I was awakened from my sleep. And even if I doubt the possibility of a spirit crossing over into this plane of existence, why would I enter into “prayer”? After all, isn’t prayer, a form of sending thoughts and emotions out into the universe, and expecting them to be intercepted and acknowledged by something that “empirical” evidence cannot substantiate?
This story in Acts goes well beyond the idea of the church’s birthday. I think that this story is dealing with the continuation of God’s work within God’s creation. This event doesn’t happen on just any day. It happened on the day of celebrating Shavuot, which in Jewish history was the day that Moses received the 10 Commandments. These commandments were in essence a guide or a road-map for “right” living; this knowledge of how we relate to God as well as to our neighbors. While this was happening, it is recorded that the people down below on the plain saw Mt Sinai encircled with smoke, and there was loud thunderous noise and lightning flashing.
Next we see God acknowledging the gift of salvation in a differing form, through that of Jesus the Christ. On the day that Jesus was baptized, it is recorded that the clouds parted and a rush of wind came upon those at the river and a dove descended down and landed on Jesus’ head, and a voice said, “here is my son, of whom I am well pleased”. Jesus was the physical embodiment of God showing humanity the path for “right” living.
Then before Jesus left his disciples, he informed them to wait in Jerusalem, for he was sending a companion to them. Acts 1:8 says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." And come the Spirit did. When she landed upon this small group of about 120 followers of Jesus, they began to speak in all the languages of those who were within listening range. Many of us through school have studied a second or third language, it isn’t all that unusual for us, but this group of people was pretty much from Galilee, in other words were considered to be “country bumpkins”, an uneducated group, by those living in Jerusalem.
I would like to share with you a clip from the movie Klondike Anne, which stars Mae West. (Show clip where she sings, Barfly and a Bum”.)
The point is that in order to be able to communicate with somebody, you have to be able to speak their language. In Jerusalem, that meant actually speaking a foreign language. For us, in order to truly communicate the message of Jesus to a world that hasn’t listened, this means that we have to stop speaking “church” talk and speak the language that non-church people speak. I’m not talking about speaking coarse bar room words but rather, speaking in the style that those who have not heard about the love of God would understand. What that means is, knowing what the world of a non-Christian is like, and being proficient in working, walking beside, and playing with those in that world. God sent us the word in the form of the 10 commandments, then sent us His son (the living word) in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and now we have the promised companion, the Holy Spirit, something that empirical evidence will not be able to substantiate; that proof is known only in the heart. It is a gift and power that we gain solely through an active prayer life.
You will note the seven red candles here on the communion table, with red star shapes in front of them. These candles represent seven differing gifts that we all can receive from God. Although there are more than seven gifts available to us, I have chosen to focus on those gifts as written about in Isaiah 11: wisdom, understanding, right judgment, courage, knowledge, reverence, and wonder. As we read through The Litany of the Gifts of the Spirit, you will be asked to come up and select which gift you wish to take with you this day.
These gifts do not come at our beacon and call, but rather, it is through the Holy Spirit’s timing and not through our own efforts. It is the Holy Spirit that knows when we are ready to use these gifts and we can recognize that these gifts are from God. She is our guide in life as well as our strength in speaking Gods love. All we need to do is wait, pray, and be receptive vessels for the Holy Spirit to come and land upon our heads and be that promised companion, that Christ promised us nearly two thousand years ago. Amen