Tuesday, July 27, 2010

First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 7/25/2010

Dickering with God!
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 7/25/2010
Based on Genesis 18:20-32 & Luke 11:1-13

(Start off the sermon by asking a couple of people what their day consisted of yesterday)
When you stop to think about what we do each day, meaning, doing all the things that are essential to getting through that day, such as: finding food to eat, picking out what clothes to wear, body maintenance (bathing, shaving, brushing ones teeth), working to earn money so you can supply all those needs; interacting with friends and family throughout the day, finding entertainment at the end of the day, and taking time for the spiritual needs, I find it amazing that we give the least amount of thought or time (generally) to the things that are of most importance to our overall well being.
When one thinks in terms of “holistic” lifestyle, it includes everything that is needed to be complete. Food, shelter, safety, leisure time, career and the spiritual are all a part of the umbrella we term as living holistically. In our culture we tend to give the least amount of energy and time to the most important part of ourselves, that of our spiritual “well being.” And for those of us who call ourselves Christian, we generally fall short of living a “holistic lifestyle” by not giving enough time and attention to our “spirituality.”
With in our culture the typical areas that we identify when we think of nurturing our spiritual self, and I am going to center just on those who call themselves “Christian” are: worship, study of the scriptures, prayer, and meditation. Those are the four primary food groups, if you will, of the Christians spiritual life. The most important of these four in my mind is Prayer. I say prayer, because it is through prayer that we communicate with God. Yet it is no surprise to me when asking people what they have been doing, to not hear them speak about the level of activity of their prayer life.
This is not to say that each of us is not actively engaging in conversation with God, it is simply saying that “we” culturally don’t seem to express “those experiences we are having with God” to one another very often. As an example, back in Seattle I was a member of a monthly play reading group. This group was started through the church that I was a member of as a way of helping build closer bonds through small groups of people with similar interests. There were about ten of us.
The general format of the group was to meet for the purpose of reading a play. We would gather, chat in general conversations until the director for that month’s play called us into session. Generally the plays were in two acts and after we had finished the first act, we would have dessert and continue in general conversations, checking in with one another and seeing what was going on in each other’s lives over the past month. Then we would reconvene and finish reading the second act. After that we generally would finish up the evening with good-byes and finishing up those unfinished conversations. As we were getting ready to go home one evening, for the first time in months, there was a prayer request given by one of the members of the group. Remember that this is a group of Christians that include three members who are ordained ministers, and one preacher’s child, whose brother is a missionary. You would think with this particular collection of people that we would be asking for prayer requests every time we would gather. Yet we don’t seem to do that. And if you were to ask any of us from that group as to why we didn’t ask for prayer requests each time we met, I doubt that any one of us would be able to give an answer other than, “We just don’t’ think about asking for prayer requests.”
In today’s Gospel reading, we learn that the Disciples were asking Jesus to teach them how to pray. It is out of this request that they come away with what is the most recited prayer in all Christianity. That of what we call the “Lord’s Prayer.” This might not sound strange at all, until you start to realize that it was back in chapter 5 of Luke that the first disciples were called. It isn’t until this chapter, chapter 11, that the disciples are asking Jesus for a way to pray. There have been a number of major events happening between chapter five and now, such things like: the sermon of the Beatitudes, the lessons on “love your enemies”, of not “judging” others, there was the story of the faith of the Roman Centurion – where he goes to Jesus and asks for the healing of his servant, of Jesus’ healing of the widow’s son. This request comes after Jesus has calmed the angry storm while he and the disciples are out at sea, after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ and after the experience of Peter, John and James seeing Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah in what we now call the story of the Transfiguration.
What I am trying to show is that there were a lot of experiences that happened before the disciples get around to asking for instruction on “prayer.” So maybe it isn’t so strange that we, in our daily lives don’t seem to make known with our friends, as we talk, the amount of time or frequency of our prayer time, of our spiritual well being.
Actually, the request that the disciples are making of Jesus is as revolutionary as the way Jesus interacted with women or his placing greater value on the little children in that day. Coming from a Protestant history, we are encouraged to develop daily prayer lives; to come to God personally in prayer, this is a part of what we call this, “the priesthood of all believers.” Yet, at the time Jesus was tutoring his disciples, it was only the Priest’s and teacher’s who did the praying. So it is within this request that we are seeing another social barrier being broken down through the ministry of Jesus!
If we were to go into the study of the “Lord’s Prayer”, we would learn about the overall way that we should approach prayer. We are to come to God as recognizing God as Supreme; ask for forgiveness for the things that we have fallen short of; ask for guidance; ask for our daily needs; and ask for forgiveness of the things that need to be forgiven.
Earlier I indicated that “prayer” is the most important aspect of our daily walk with Christ. I say most important, because it is through prayer that we communicate with God, that building of “relationship.” As individuals we communicate with one another only when a relationship exists. Praying is a major way in which we can experience our relationship with God. This is why we give so much time during worship to “congregational prayer” time as opposed to having a “Pastoral prayer.” That is what the Disciples were looking for when they asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. They were asking Jesus to help them have that one-on-one relationship with God in the same way they saw Jesus and his relationship with God.
In the Hebrew text of Genesis, we see another expression of relationship through the exchange of Abraham and the men who were on their way to Sodom. This story is hands down one of my most favorite accounts of what goes on between Abraham and God.
We read within these verses where three men visit Abraham. As the story unfolds, we learn that one of these men is the “Lord.” As we read, we see where relationship is being built between Abraham and these three men. There was lodging, breaking of bread, conversation, and rest provided, all a part of relationship building; then came time for these men to leave.
Let me point out there has been a continual progression of relationship building going on between Abraham and God, though out the entire story of Abraham, starting with God asking Abraham through a dream to leave his family, his friends and his country to settle in a land where God had picked out for him. When Abraham did this, he was committing himself to following one God. This is the beginning of our understanding of Monotheism, that of believing in one God as opposed too many gods. Abraham is promised to be the father of many nations and later he has a vision of God making a covenant with him about having a son and in last week’s lection reading again re-enforcing the promise of being the father of many nations. Abraham’s relationship started off with dreams, then in visions and now he is having a physical encounter with the Lord.
In verse seventeen, we read where as the men were leaving and heading toward Sodom, the Lord says to Abraham, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” This response from God can only happen because of the relationship Abraham has with God. So God shares with Abraham about the great outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah, because their sin is very great and because their sin is very grave. Later in the story we learn what that sin is, but that is a topic for another lesson.
Then Abraham stood before the Lord and said, “Would you also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there were fifty righteous there in the city, would you also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from you! Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?”
Now, I don’t know how many of you are versed in the fine art of “dickering”, but I can honestly tell you that I am not very good at it, at all. I’m the type of guy, that when I’m told what the price is of something that I am interested in, if it seems reasonable, I’ll buy it; or if it doesn’t sound reasonable, I will just leave. One time in China town in San Francisco, I was in a shop, showed interested in a couple of items by handling them, placing them back down and was starting out the door, when the sales person, quoted a price. I politely thank him, but said I needed to think about it and started out the door, again, the sales person, quoted a lower price, and again I thanked him but wasn’t interested (which was the truth, I really wasn’t interested in the items), as I once again headed toward the door, the sales person quoted me an even lower price, a price that I thought was ridiculously low. At that point I found myself buying three items that originally wasn’t of that much interest to me. The same experience happened to me in Mexico over this shirt that I am wearing this morning. In both instances, it was the sales person who instigated the “dickering” as a way of not losing a potential sale.
In our story with Abraham, he has dickered with God to save Sodom if God could find fifty righteous people. But then Abraham asks God, if he would actually destroy the city if there were only forty-five righteous found. Again God concedes that if he found forty-five righteous, he would spare the city. “Well what if you only found thirty?” “Again forgive me, but what if there are only 20 righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah, what would you do?” “Forgive me this one last time, would you actually destroy the city if you found only ten righteous?” God tells Abraham that if he finds even just ten people in Sodom and Gomorrah, that he would spare the cities from being destroyed. Now I ask you, “If God were here today and telling you that he was going to destroy the city of Green river because of its great sin, would you stand up and start dickering with God the way Abraham did?” And if the answer is “no”, then why wouldn’t you?
What is the lesson here? What we are seeing in the story is someone who is becoming an advocate for others. Abraham was dickering with God, not to be difficult, but to intercede on the behave of those who were righteous and living in those two cities. The only reason that Abraham was able to be such an advocate and have this ability to dicker with God was out of his relationship that he had developed with God.
When I think about whose voices in more recent times who have spoken out on behave of those who cannot speak for themselves or are not able to be heard, I think of people like Mother Teresa or of Martin Luther King, Jr. Michael Moore also comes to mind with his film, Fahrenheit 9/11. It was a very emotional film to watch. Some people haled the film as a great blow to the Bush Administration. Some think that it was full of twisted half-truths to make the past administration look less than shining. This is what I took away from that film. I think it is an indictment against our country, calling all of us into accountability for a multitude of actions and policies that we as a nation have executed for a number of decades. I think Mr. Moore was calling us into accountability as a nation, for a lack of responding for truth and justice.
Jesus used the example of a man going to a friend’s house late at night and asking for bread for the guests that had unexpectedly arrived. The friend lent him the bread not upon the initial request but because of the repeated and persistence of the neighbor asking for it. Abraham didn’t just ask the Lord to save Sodom and Gomorrah if he found fifty people, but was able to get God to commit to holding off judgment of the cities if He could find just ten people.
As a nation, we now have the opportunity to enter into honest conversation about what a fair immigration policy ought to be. Will we be an Abraham and take up the conversation for those who are not able or will we be silent, not wishing to be bothered?
Prayer is the lifeline of our relationship with God. We need to do it often and we need to pray in a well-rounded fashion, not just a shopping list type of, “I want.” I would like to give you a challenge this week, to increase your time in prayer by fifteen minutes. If you try this and you find that you are running out of things to pray about, then take some time out and examine what it is that you are praying for. I have found that when I center my prayers on just my own needs and concerns, I don’t need the fifteen minutes. When I go beyond myself and start thinking of the needs of the world outside of mine, I don’t seem to have enough time to be able to finish the prayer in that fifteen minutes. Prayer is in truth relationship with God. “So I say to you: ask and it shall be given, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” Amen.

First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 7/18/2010

Hospitality toward God
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 7/18/2010
Based on Genesis 18:1-10a; Colossians 1:15-28; & Luke 10:38-42

Let me begin by saying, it is so easy for me to relate more closely with Martha than Mary in this morning’s Gospel reading. Entertaining guests in my home is one of my passions, especially when it centers on a Holiday celebration. I think the largest group of people that I ever hosted at one time at home was around fifty-five people, or so. At that particular time I was living in a house that boasted over four thousand feet and was a two and a half story home, with the upper floor being a former ballroom. That space was ideal for large sit down dinners; whereas the dining room and living room, while holding that many people, lent itself more toward a reception type of entertaining.
For me, it isn’t so much about the number of guests that come to a dinner or party, as much as it is in the preparation for that event. I love working out what the menu is to be, deciding which dishes and glassware is to be used, and if it is a sit down dinner, arranging the seating chart. I love the opportunity to prepare the food that is to be served. I know this sounds like I’m really a masochist, but I also love polishing the silver that is going to be used.
One Christmas season I remember becoming enticed by a commercial that was promoting a coffee bean roaster. What appealed to me was the added touch that I would be able to give to visitors. It was that extra step that I would be able to go through, as a way of showing my guests “just how special” they truly were. Very much like baking bread or cinnamon rolls, where the aroma, says “I have done this especially for you.” This is exactly why I didn’t buy the roaster, as I have driven past plants that roast coffee and remembered just how badly it smells.
This whole process of preparing is a large part of how I perceive “hospitality” and making sure that my guests will have all that they will need, in a warm and friendly atmosphere. I find all the work, very relaxing, even though I am expending large amounts of energy and time focusing on “getting things ready.” I generally even have the table set by mid-day the day before, all as a way of being able to spend some time with my guests. Of course, there really isn’t much time for visiting as you go around the room to see who needs their glass refilled, or if there are enough hors d’oeuvre, making sure that the food is served at the right time. Truly during that point of the evening, I’m thinking to myself, “Why haven’t I hired some teenagers to work the party for me, so I can spend more time with my guests?” Then at the end of the evening when everyone has gone home and I’m left with all the clean-up, I find myself totally wiped out, even though I feel good that I was able to provide a wonderful evening for my guests.
I get the feeling that Martha might not enjoy working in the kitchen as much as she sees it being an obligation. Nor am I sure that Martha, given the opportunity, would let herself join the ‘men folk’, for culturally it was understood that women were separated from the men in social situations.
In this story, Martha is very resentful of her sister Mary for not helping in the preparations of the meal. This resentment goes beyond Mary not helping in the kitchen, I see Martha as very upset by Mary’s actions of joining the men. This action of stepping out beyond acceptable behavior would be very unbecoming of a woman. “What would Jesus think of Mary, sitting there at his feet, joining in on the discussions that only men would be privy to participate in?”
Out of her frustration in trying to provide “hospitality” to her guests, and more so, her embarrassment of her sister Mary’s breach of social etiquette, she tries to involve Jesus to join in her position of insisting that Mary return to the kitchen and do the things that would be expected of a woman in that situation. Jesus’ response was, “Martha, don’t worry about all these things, take your cue from Mary, and take time for the more important thing, like Me!”
Okay, so is this where we take our cue and stop volunteering for hospitality after church, or not volunteer to help provide food for guests whom we are hosting, like what we did last Saturday evening with the thirty young bicyclists? Where would we be if everyone decided to only worship and pray, and decide not to be working behind the scenes doing all the things that need to be done to make possible all that this church does? Where would this church be without the work of the women’s fellowship, or the Paul Legerskis and the Paul Bauchmanns who do grounds and building maintenance, or the Joanie Kurtzes and Annie Fletchers and Maggie Collettis and all the other women who work in the Sunday School during Worship, of the Jonathan Firmes or Don Slaughters who take time out to provide children’s stories and bible studies on Monday evenings, or those of you who plant and work in the church gardens and everyone else who does something around the church that helps provide an inviting and Relaxing atmosphere? If we see this story as Jesus saying that the contemplative is of greater value than that of being active, (Mary’s choice of sitting and listening over Martha’s activity in the kitchen), I think we will be missing the true meaning of this story.
All three lection readings this morning deal with the topic of “hospitality” and more directly, what does “hospitality” look like? On the surface, the reading in Genesis, takes on a similar feel, where there are three men passing by, one of them being identified as “the Lord”. Abraham quickly invites them to take time out of their travels to refresh themselves and eat and rest before going on. They do so, and next we read where Abraham sees to it that his servants get some water for his guests to drink as well as to wash up; he instructs Sarah his wife to cook them some bread; he goes out to the pasture and has his herder kill a young tender calf and cook it up for his guests. Abraham is very busy, just like Martha making sure that his guests are well tended to. Then we read, after he had brought all the food that had been prepared for his guests, Abraham stood at their side, while they ate.
A key element to this story is found in Abraham’s invitation: “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.” There was more happening here than Abraham just observing “A law of the land” by inviting these travelers to stop and rest and eat. Abraham recognized one of these three men as being “the Lord”. Abraham asked the Lord to stop and spend time with him if the Lord found “favor” in Abraham. The point being that it isn’t in our efforts in coming to worship that we will find the Lord, but rather, it is in the Lord’s favor of us, that we will be able to spend time with God.
Let me continue on with this thought by quoting from our reading in Colossians. “Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;… All things have been created through him and for him. Christ himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Jesus is the head of …the church. For in Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Jesus, God was pleased to reconcile to God all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of Christ’s cross.” It is through Jesus God has chosen to make known the nature of God; it is through the teachings of Jesus that we are able to better understand the nature of God; it is through the actions of Jesus that we learn the love that God has for us all; it is through the death of Jesus that we, all of God’s creation have found a healing, a reconciliation to God. Abraham asked, if he found favor in the Lord’s eyes, to stop and spend time with him. It is through the life and death of Jesus that we have received the same favor of God that Abraham was seeking.
Now with Martha and Mary, God was there at their home, finding favor to spend time with them. Mary seemed to understand that God was in her presence and chose to take time out to relate personally by giving her attention to him by sitting at his feet. This is what Jesus was saying to Martha, “take the higher road Martha, and don’t miss out on spending time with God by being distracted with preparing food, by doing what seems to be providing “hospitality” for me. What is the true hospitality is to leave that alone and spend some time with me personally.”
Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. He was on the way to the cross, his life was not long here on earth. “Martha, take the opportunity to spend quality time with me while I am here with you; don’t miss out on this opportunity to share with me, by letting yourself be distracted by things that will give only temporary satisfaction.” I wonder what distractions are in our lives, those things that give only a temporary satisfaction, and those things that take away our ability to recognize when we are in God’s presence. This is only an answer that can come by self-examination of what we do with our life, with how we fill up our time each day.
Have we been in the presence of God and have been so busy that we missed recognizing that opportunity of sharing, of relating to God? Do we make the effort to provide the opportunities that are needed to be able to recognize when God is in our presence? As a church, are we doing the things that need to be done, so that when God is passing by, we are able to invite God in, and enjoy all the blessings that are present in that one-on-one interaction? I invite you this week to think about what distractions there are within your life which limit your time with God, thereby not providing the “hospitality” that God would otherwise receive. Amen

First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY July 11,2010

Love the Nuisance!
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational Church UCC, Rock Springs, WY
Based on Colossians 1:7-14 and Luke 10:25-37

As a child, one of the T.V. comedies that I most identified with was about a young boy, just about my age, who was always full of energy and very busy investigating all the things in life that a little boy finds interesting. Important questions that need to be answered in life, such as: how does one make a frog jump on demand so you can win the frog race against your peers; or can lightening really strike your kite during an electrical storm, with a key tied at the end and create a glow? The name of this T.V. show was Dennis the Menace. I am not sure if I identified with the character because he was my age and the things that he did were things that I was doing, or if it was because he had the same family name as I did. His name was Dennis Mitchell and there seemed to be family traits that I could relate to in each episode.
Now Dennis wasn’t a bad boy at all, but it seemed that everything he became involved with, any project, even when he was going out of his way to help out, ended up being perceived as mischief, particularly by the folks next door. Dennis’s neighbor was a retired couple by the name of Wilson and for Mr. Wilson, Dennis was his nemesis. I too lived on a block where we were the only family with children, young children, and children being children, I am very sure that there were times when my neighbors saw me coming up their driveway, and felt like Mr. Wilson did toward Dennis thinking, “Oh, please Lord, don’t let Steve see me and maybe he’ll go away.”
To Mr. Wilson, Dennis represented a nuisance at the very least, always somehow interfering with Wilson’s focused task. Shivers of anxiety would go up and down Mr. Wilson’s back every time his peaceful environment would be interrupted with the sound of a loud high pitched voice, crying out, “Helloooo Mr. Wilson!” For in that greeting came nothing but disruption to Mr. Wilson’s life. It always seemed to get Mr. Wilson’s gall when he would find himself in a peculiar circumstance and find out that it was Dennis who ended up saving not only the day but also saving “face” for Mr. Wilson.
This morning’s Gospel story about the Good Samaritan has some elements of how Mr. Wilson and Dennis related to one another. When we think of this story about the Good Samaritan, we tend to think in terms of “how nice it was that this one person stopped and help another person in need.” Too often we walk away from this story with the understanding that it is the “right” thing to do, helping others in need, yet if this is what we come away with, then we have lost the true impact and understand of what was going on between Jesus and the “lawyer”.
Last week we saw how Jesus was in the process of expanding his ministry and in the process of turning it over to those he had been teaching, with the sending out of the 72 into the towns and villages where Jesus himself was planning to go, but couldn’t because of his new goal of going to Jerusalem, where he would no longer have the role of teacher but rather the role of prophet. When the seventy-two had come back they were full of “joy” because to them, in the name of Jesus, even the demons and unclean spirits retreated. However, Jesus told them not to rejoice in the achievements that they had experienced, but rather rejoice in the knowledge that they were accepted into the Kingdom of God.
There is a verse that follows that story and sets the stage for this morning’s reading but isn’t included, so I would like to share it with you. Reading from Luke 10:21, 21At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, "I praise you, God, Creator of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. What Jesus is referring to by the “hidden things” is the understanding that finding God, does not come by obeying the Law or the fact that you are a descendant of Abraham. Rather, people find God through opening their hearts and minds to what God desires for God’s creation, that of reconciling love, and that God’s kingdom is really God’s “kin-dom”, meaning “family” or “inclusiveness”, not by blood, but through the heart of each individual being involved with God, that one-on-one relationship.
Thus starts this morning’s reading, with the lawyer interacting with Jesus and asking the question, “What must I do to have eternal life?” We do not have a discussion going on between “equals” here. The one who is asking the question would be equated by today’s standards as being a “Harvard” or “Yale” man. Jesus is seen as a country bumpkin who has just rolled into town and spouted off ideas and philosophies, of which he has very little training. For me, it is when I’m in professional conversations with other ministers and find out that they are from “Princeton”. I graduated not from an Ivy League seminary but rather a Baptist Seminary. Although none of these ministers to date have openly looked down their noses, so to speak, at me, there is a social difference when one looks at the pedigree of our diplomas.
I am reminded of an incident during a summer polity class in seminary with my professor, Dr Fullup. He started to express his disdain at youth directors who would, at camp, use milk and Oreo cookies as communion elements, and how disrespectful it was to the sacredness to the whole idea of communion. At that point I interrupted his discourse on the matter and suggested that he obviously didn’t understand the correct way of eating an Oreo cookie, otherwise he would understand the symbolism that the youth directors might have been thinking about. He looked at me like I had just stepped off the turnip truck as I explained to him that the correct way of eating an Oreo cookie (as I learned at an early age from T.V. commercials) was to break apart the two sides of the cookie, exposing the crème filling on the inside, there by symbolizing the breaking of Christ’s body. I was sitting within arm’s length of him and was sure by the redness of his face that I was going to receive the back of his handed. As it was, he became so flustered with my explanation that he dismissed the class fifteen minutes early.
So there is a challenge going on at the beginning of our reading, between the formally trained seminarian, so to speak, and Jesus, the “bible-school” trained, at best. It is possible that this lawyer was truly interested in what Jesus had to offer and was asking for clarification, but I doubt this, since some translations say, “the lawyer stood up to ‘test’ Jesus.” The goal in this questioning was to discredit Jesus’ teaching and help turn Jesus’ followers away from these radical teachings and back to the Law of Moses.
What we can aunderstand then, is the legalism that the lawyer has in interpreting the “law of Moses.” As a way of getting to the heart of this questioning and turning the tables on the situation, Jesus, answers this question of, “What must I do to have eternal life” by asking a question, “What does the law say?” This put the lawyer on the defense instead of on the offensive. The lawyer gave an accurate account of “loving God with your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself”, which Jesus commends and states that this will give him eternal life. But in an attempt by the lawyer to regain the offensive, he asks Jesus, “who then is my neighbor?”
For the orthodox Jew this is very important to define “who” qualifies as “neighbor” for it is only the neighbor that one needs to be concerned with. The Christian who is more inclined to live by the literal interpretation of Scripture would very much be asking this same question. The real question being posed then is, “just what are the boundaries?” Or another way of asking this question, “Who is excluded in your definition of neighbor?”
This is where Jesus then presents this tale about a man who is on a journey and is overtaken by robbers, robbed and brutally beaten, and left for dead alongside the road. This man is a Jew; this story is being told to a Jew. The first two persons upon the scene were a priest and a Levite. Both, seeing the man and not wishing to get involved, crossed over to the other side of the road, not doing anything to help this man. The Levite is from the tribe of Levi, which served particular religious duties for the Israelites and had political responsibilities as well. Then comes along a foreigner, a Samaritan, the most despised race by the Jews, and helps this beaten and battered person. Not only does he tend to his wounds but he takes him to a hotel and pays for his room/board and care. This is the part of the story that we usually gain the lesson that we need to stop and help someone else who is in need, but do not realize just how radical and distasteful this story is to the lawyer. The scripture reading ends with the question from Jesus to the lawyer, “who then is the neighbor?” This story by Jesus is so insulting to the man that he can’t even say the word, Samaritan, but rather answers by saying, “the one who helped the injured man.”
The depth of this story would come if we were talking to a person who is a member of the KKK, and told a similar story of a man needing a kidney transplant. The first available donor is the KKK’ers brother, who declines to help; then the second person is the KKK’ers district clan leader, who by giving up one of his kidneys, would help save the life of the man needing a transplant, but also declines. Then the third person who matched up is an African-American who, knowing all the hate and violence that has been perpetrated upon his race, gives up his kidney to help this man live.
It isn’t so much the generosity of the donor as it is the acceptance by the person who needs the help that is the sting in this story. For the KKK person, the last person in the world that he would accept help from is that of a Black person; he would rather die than receive help from an African American. This is the power in this story.
I would ask all of you to take just a minute to look around and look at everyone who is here in worship this morning. Now ask yourself, who is the last person in this room you would accept help from? That is what this story about the Samaritan is about. The thrust of this story then comes with your own answer to this question. This is the person that you then need to include in the definition as “neighbor”. It is this story about the Samaritan that is one of the reasons for us as a church to go through the Open and Affirming process. When we are open to asking the question, “who is our neighbor”, is the homosexual someone that we will let in? Is the person of another race a person that we will let in? Is the mentally ill person someone that we will let in? Are these groups a part of whom we are willing to call “neighbor”? If we are like the lawyer and acknowledge the “person who helped” as the neighbor, that is only tolerance. When we are able to call the person who helped by name, the Samaritan, then that is affirmation. In our conversations of Open and Affirming, that is what we will be trying to answer: are we going to be a congregation, a people, who tolerate or are we going to be a people who affirm, God’s children? Are we going to be a people who tolerate the nuisance or are we going to be a people who affirm and embrace the nuisance? Amen.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Throughts on a funeral service of a murder victim

Last week I was asked to officiate a funeral service for a 32 yr old man who was gunned down in his driveway in Casper, WY, by three young men, ages 17,18, & 23. These young men had rather lengthy criminal records already.
Funeral services are often difficult to conduct. Sometimes they are difficult because of the circumstances, other times they are difficult because you know the family, other times it is because you do not know the family. This particular service was very difficult for me as it hit home with my personal experience of feeling the pain of a loved one dying because of a violent death.
This service brought up many feelings that I thought had been dealt with, with the death of Howard Pickens, the man that I had dated for 5 yrs. At times our relationship seemed rocky, as Howard was a man who always thought the grass would be greener on the otherside of the fence. Yet, even with that issue, I always saw the two of us growning old together. My love for Howard was very deep to say the least. As it happened, Howard had met a woman on a cruise and over the course of about a year had decided to move down to where she lived to see how deep that relationship would go. After about six weeks, he had announced his engagement to her. Of course this was a deep blow to me, but not unexpected.
The following night, Howard was returning to her home after work, and as he was getting out of his car, was shot in the head twice by two persons who had just executed two men, two houses down from where he was at. The driver of the car eventually turned himself in, but never exposed who the other gunman was, so the case is still open.
What I remember is recieving a phone call around 11pm that evening from one of Howard's daughters in tears trying to tell me that he had been shot and killed. Instantly, my world as well as theirs had become 'surreal' and the days following, were very difficult with respect to keeping ones mind on task. I recall how very angry I was at Howard for moving down to New Orleans and placing himself in harmsway. I also remember the disbelieve at how none shallantly the police treated his murder and not doing everything they could (legal and illegal) in gaining the information that the driver of the murder car had.
None the less, the service that I was being asked to do last week in Green River, brought up all these memories as well as the realization of just howmuch I still miss Howard and the love that we gave to each other. I think that is the most difficult part of all is realizing the love that is no longer able to be mutually shared. I found myself crying during a movie last evening because it was expressing similar loss of friends. I sometimes wonder if I will ever move beyond the pain and sorrow of his death.
So, I have decided to share the Memorial thoughts that I gave to the family of Chad Ferguson, the man who was murdered for just a few dollars, several weeks ago in Casper, WY by three men who obviously felt that they were more important and their needs greater than Chads.
Meditational Thoughts:
I would like to share with you as family and friends of Chad, a couple of thoughts that come to my mind with the event of his death. The first recorded death in the Bible was from the act of murder, with a man named Cain killing his younger brother Abel, out of what seems to be jealousy. From that time forward, death by the hands of humans toward other humans has continued, for a variety of explanations, but ultimately it comes from a fundamental brokenness between humanity and God.
In the story of Cain, there seemed to be little remorse of his actions toward what he had done to his brother Abel, rather, he was more concerned about what was going to happen to him as God cast him out of the safety of his family. So we are told that God placed a mark upon Cain as a way of telling the world to stay away from this person.
In the death of Chad, there is not just one victim, but many. You Holly and Wade as sister and brother are victims to this crime. You as a Father, Bob, are a victim, as well as everyone else who is related to Chad. Those who are friends with Chad are victims as well. And as much as we wish not to acknowledge the three men who were involved with Chad’s death, they too are victims. Like Cain, everyone who knows Chad is marked for the rest of our lives with this act of violence on Chad.
I speak about this not from someone who is an outsider, but as one who has also been marked by the loss of someone who died, by an act of violence, very much like Chad. There are questions of “why”; why would anyone do something like this? There is not just grief but feelings of violation to one’s very core, making us realize just how fragile life is and how vulnerable any one of us can be. There is tremendous anger that accompanies the grief, so much so, that if left un-dealt with will in itself become a killer within our own person.
There may be explanations by those who took Chad’s life, but there truly are no real answers, because, in violent death there is no real sense to it. Intellectually we will never be able to reconcile the “whys”. Within our heart, the only way to repair the pain and anguish is to understand how God must have felt the day that His own son was murdered by those who were ultimately afraid of the message of “love” and “reconciliation”. We know through Jesus of Nazareth life and teaching, that God truly loves us all and stands not just beside us during these times of horrible loss, but is there carrying us in His hands through these particularly dark valleys; caring for us through the comfort, care, and concern of our family and friends. It is through this support group that we most see God’s love being pouring out upon us.
Don’t shy away from this gift of love being presented to you. Let your hearts be open, let the tears flow as they are a source of healing. The other painful part of loosing Chad is not just in saying “good-bye”, but in the fact that there will be months of having to relive his death with the trials of those three young men who chose to end Chad’s life.
Because of the ongoing process of their actions, you in many ways can become victims daily if you so allow yourselves. Although the pain and anger is strong today, I ask that you shield yourselves in the “love and care” of God. In the proceeding days, months and possibly years, the only way that you will be able to not continually be victimized by these three men will be to release the hatred that is a natural reaction toward those who have hurt you by taking Chad from you.

I would like to share with you a scripture that speaks to the love that can come with God’s help. In many ways it also speaks to the way that Chad looked at life.
Reading from I Corinthians 13
Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn't want what it doesn't have.
Love doesn't strut,
Doesn't have a swelled head,
Doesn't force itself on others,
Isn't always "me first,"
Doesn't fly off the handle,
Doesn't keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn't revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
8-10Love never dies. 12We don't yet see things clearly. We're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won't be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We'll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!
13But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.

4th of July Sermon, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY

This sermon was also preached over at our sister church in Green River, Union United Church of Christ, Green River, WY

How Far Are You Willing to Go?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY & Manface UCC, Green River, WY
July 4, 2010
Based on Galatians 6: 7-16 and Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20

The other evening I went to the cinema and watched the latest film directed by M. Night Shyamalan, titled The Last Airbender. The basic story goes this way: The world is divided into four kingdoms, each represented by the element they harness, and peace has lasted throughout the realms of Water, Air, Earth, and Fire under the supervision of the Avatar, a link to the spirit world and the only being capable of mastering the use of all four elements. When young Avatar Aang disappears, the Fire Nation launches an attack to eradicate all members of the Air Nomads to prevent interference in their future plans for world domination. 100 years pass and current Fire Lord Ozai continues to conquer and imprison anyone with elemental "bending" abilities in the Earth and Water Kingdoms, while siblings Katara and Sokka from a Southern Water Tribe find a mysterious boy trapped beneath the ice outside their village. Upon rescuing him, he reveals himself to be Aang, Avatar and last of the Air Nomads. Swearing to protect the Avatar, Katara and Sokka journey with him to the Northern Water Kingdom in his quest to master "Waterbending" (the first needed before mastering the other remaining two elements) and eventually fulfill his destiny of once again restoring peace to the world.
This mythical story pulls heavily from various faith traditions for the Avatar character, such as how the Dahlai Lama is chosen and of various aspects of the Christian story, with Christ being the one who is to restore balance within God’s creation. The question for Katara and her brother Sokka were, “just how far were they willing to go” in order to help and protect the Avatar until he had mastered all of the elements in order to complete his destine.
Jesus might have been asking himself this same question as he was sending out the newly appointed 70 to go out into the regions where Jesus was personally wanting to go, but couldn’t because his time was running out. Jesus had just finished having an encounter with Moses and Elijah on a mountain top, what we have come to know as The transfiguration. In this experience Jesus was having conversations about the final confrontation in Jerusalem and in the tradition of a Prophet, facing the corruption of the Priests.
There is a significant shift is taking place in the way that Jesus has been handling his ministry by the time we reach this morning’s Gospel reading. In the early part of Luke’s story, Jesus has primarily been the main person of the stories. Jesus has been the one doing the teaching and the healing. Then a couple of chapters back, we see where Jesus sends out the twelve disciples to go out in his name. In today’s story, we read where Jesus has recruited 70 more and has sent them out “in his name” into the villages and countryside to do the teaching and healing. Jesus is realizing that he has very limited time and starts to expand his ministry through authorizing more and more people to do this work in his name.
There are four aspects to the Gospel reading that I would like to share with you as seen through the eyes of Rev Dr David J Lose, Chair of Preaching at Luther Seminary, in St. Paul, MN.
The first aspect is in Jesus’ promise of abundance in harvest, but sees that the number of harvesters is few. Jesus sees abundance where others might see scarcity. Jesus does not commission the seventy to prepare a harvest; that remains God’s responsibility. Rather, Jesus commissions his disciples to gather the harvest in and to pray that other laborers will join them in this important work. Feasting on the Word Commentary How often do we think that the success to God’s work solely depends on our own efforts? That it is we, who are to be the planters, the cultivators as well as the harvesters.
The second aspect is in the inescapable vulnerability that is involved in the mission to which Jesus calls his disciples. The seventy will be going into a hostile world, yet Jesus does not arm them for battle; rather, they will go out like lambs. Similarly, they are to bless those homes that receive them and even if they are rejected, they are not instructed to offer curses. Feasting on the Word Commentary
The example that comes to mind is, “how willing would you be to quit your job, pack up the family and move to a completely different part of the country, without a job waiting for you?” You might do that when you’re twenty something or even if you are thirty something, but how inclined are you to take chances like this when you get into your forties and fifties? I would say the same challenge comes to churches; when the majority of their membership is in their twenties and thirties, the willingness to take risks in developing new ministries is greater, and as that congregation grows older, the willingness to take new risks in new areas of ministry dramatically diminish.
The third aspect is in the successes of the seventy. While their accomplishments are, at one level, no more than echoes of Jesus’ earlier work, Jesus declares that they portend the downfall of Satan and the inauguration of a new age. There is more happening here than meets the eye, as the net effect of the disciples’ acts of fidelity far exceeds what is apparent. Similarly, to this day, wherever we attend faithfully to our Lord’s mission and accomplish acts of mercy in Jesus’ name, the kingdom of God is being announced, the reign of evil is being challenged and the promise of God’s consummation is being made. Feasting on the Word Commentary
At the Annual Conference this past June at our camp in La Foret, there were a number of video clips shown dealing with the topic of Our Churches Wider Mission. The clip that jumps out to me was the story of an aging congregation of twelve people, the youngest being 80 years old and ranging into their mid-nineties. This congregation was in the heart of Alabama. They took a chance on a newly graduated seminary student, who identified himself as openly gay, and hired him to help them rebuild their church. This was in a very conservative and at times hostile environment toward non-heterosexuals. This small band of believers knew in their hearts that they needed to step out not only in faith, but put substance to their belief that God’s love is for every person. Over the years this church has grown in membership and is now a young congregation in age, solely because of their willingness to attend faithfully to God’s call of love, mercy, and reconciliation.
The fourth aspect and perhaps most importantly, Jesus declares that there is something even more significant than the triumphs of the seventy: “I have given you authority… over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (vv. 19-20) What matters more than the earthly and spiritual successes of Jesus’ followers is the eternal relationship with God they enjoy through him. Feasting on the Word Commentary
It is natural for us to revel in our successes, but truly it isn’t in the success that the reward is found. It is in what we learn during the journey. As members in a faith community, we far too often look to growing numbers of members or in attendance in our worship as the sign of our success in sharing God’s message of love and reconciliation. Those things are important bench marks with respect to the ability of the faith community to continue to provide the opportunity for the mission of that community to continue, but if that community of faith hasn’t learned the true message that God has for them, then they are as the Apostle Paul puts it, nothing more than clanging gongs.
The size of the church doesn’t speak to the depth of ministry that is going on within it. The depth of a churches ministry is how open it is in sharing God’s message of love! This message cannot come from hardened hearts, but rather through the openness of those who call themselves ‘disciples of Christ’. It isn’t our success that we should be rejoicing about, but rather the fact that we are aware of God’s love; love for us and for the entire world. It is through our presents in our communities as representatives of Christ, as scripture says, “The kingdom of God is near you”, and it is up to those we touch as to whether they choose to welcome or ignore this reality.
“How far are we willing to go” in developing our faith and trust in God? Are we willing to go out into the wilderness, so to speak, without a safety net, as did the seventy that Jesus entrusted to carry his message? Are we willing to see beyond the obstacles, and trust that God has prepared the harvest and all we need to do is go out and gather it, as did the twelve members of an Alabama Church? These may sound like simple things to do, but I think they are not; otherwise, we would already be doing the things that are awaiting us. Jesus has empowered his church to go out and gather the harvest, what we need to do is to grow into a trust that will allow us to step out and trust in that power. Just how far are we truly willing to go? That is the question. Amen