Monday, August 23, 2010

Sacrificy Souls for Tradition First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 8/22/2010

Sacrificing Souls for Tradition
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 8/22/2010
Based on Isaiah 58: 9b-14; Luke 13:10-17

In the acclaimed Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof, the opening number is titled "Tradition". In the song, the main character, Tevye, explains the roles of each social class (fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters) in the village of Anatevka, and how the traditional roles of even the matchmaker and the rabbi contribute to the village. The song also sets the major theme of the show: the villagers trying to continue their traditions and keep their society running as the world around them changes. Wikipedia
This song speaks to the importance of how “Traditions” help stabilize and give a sense of continuity in a world that is ever changing. As each ethnic group has migrated to this country, they bring with them traditions that helps bring some familiarity of their former lives. Traditions are designed to teach the next generation values of their ancestors. For instance, many Germans, Swedes, and Italians, to name just a few, once arriving in this country set up churches that held services in their native languages. It had nothing to do with not wanting to become “fully” integrated with other Americans, but it had everything to do with being able to sustain a part of their past, to be able to pass on to their children a pride of who they were by showing where they had come from; of providing for just a few hours a sense of belonging without the need to work at converting a new language in your brain. It is like going back home to mom and dad after you have moved out and are on your own, a place where you bring your children and know that they will experience a part of the history that was learned while growing up.
As positive as “traditions” can be, they can also become restrictive to growth and a movement forward. I am beginning to find myself more and more reflecting back on what life was like in my childhood and find myself warmed by the reminiscing of days gone by. Yet if I try to conduct my life today in the same way as it was when I was five years old in 1958, I would not be able to function very well. It is a natural thing for us to think back about years gone by and say, “I wish we could go back to the way life was in so and so year or decade.” Yet would we really want to do that? Would we really want to go back to a day when female teachers were only able to teach if they were single, not being allowed to have a husband or a family? Would we really like to live in a society where women were not allowed even a simple credit card in their name? Would you really like living in an environment that oppressed you because of the color of your skin or the gender that you were born with, an oppression that dictated which neighborhoods you could live in or what position on the bus to sit down as you commute to work? Would you truly be happy living in a world where you are censured because of your parent’s behavior, such as being born out of wedlock?
The conflict that Jesus is involved in this morning’s Gospel reading comes with the leader of the synagogue, where Jesus was teaching, trying to chastise Jesus for breaking not just tradition, but the law that focuses on “not working on the Sabbath.” The leader tells everyone that there are six days in which to come to the synagogue to be healed and that the Sabbath was the day of rest, where no work was to be done.
This was based on the acts of God when God created the earth in six days and on the seventh day rested. Over time this traditional observance became a part of the Judaic law that is found within the Torah. The idea being that if God worked for a certain amount of time and then took some time off to admire and commune with the fruit of this work, then we as God’s created, should follow suit and take time in which to honor the one who created us, for it is only in the taking “time out”, do we have the opportunity to do reflection.
Isaiah wrote, “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD's holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the LORD…”
So why would the leader of the synagogue become so upset with Jesus, for doing something good and kind during a time of worship? Why would he become so outraged that Jesus was breaking a “law”, that had come out of a tradition of focusing on God one day a week, and in what we would recognize as “a house of God?” It wasn’t because of what Jesus was doing, for the leader indicates that there were six other days of the week in which to do healing. It wasn’t the fact that Jesus was breaking the understanding of “no work” on the Sabbath, although that was the rule brought up as being broken. The true reason for the leader’s outrage comes from Jesus undermining the authority of the priests. It was a control issue that the synagogue of Jesus’ day used as a way to keep the general population under their influence.
Quoting from Feasting on the Word this thought written by Dr. Rodney S. Sadler, Jr,
Associate Professor of Bible Union Presbyterian Seminary at Charlotte, “The desire to control Sabbath observance is critical for maintaining another social order as well. The slavocracy of the American South was in part maintained by the restriction of “doing good” on the Sabbath. Reflecting on religious practices in the slaveholding South, Frederick Douglass notes: It was necessary to keep our religious masters at St. Michael’s unacquainted with the fact that instead of spending the Sabbath in wrestling, boxing, and drinking whisky, we were trying to learn how to read the will of God; for they had much rather see us engaged in those degrading sports, than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings.
While enslaved Africans desired to worship God and to educate themselves, literally to “do good,” they were prevented because their improvement represented a threat to the social system that circumscribed their lives. Although the plantation setting is clearly not a direct parallel to the situation Jesus faces, similar issues of power, control, and order are present in both cases. The control of Sabbath practice in both instances represents a convenient way of maintaining an oppressive system whereby some people are forced to endure perpetual suffering by others who are more concerned with sustaining a system that benefits them than alleviating the burdens of those it cripples.”
It was the church of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, especially in the American South, that supported slavery and it took the courage of some of the churches of the American North to challenge that belief which ultimately led to the great Civil War in order to end that particular system of oppression.
Note that the woman, who was crippled, did not approach Jesus to be healed; she simply had come to worship at the synagogue. It was Jesus who took the initiative and invited her to come to him. By her accepting that invitation of “welcome” she opened herself up to being healed of her affliction, which is stated to have been a result of Satan, so this was in truth dealing with a spiritual problem. She would have been considered as “unclean” and would never have been touched by any of the Priest’s for by traditional thought in touching her; they too then would become “unclean.” Jesus’ healing of this woman was in two steps, first he pronounced her healed, thereby allowing her access back into the community; then he actually touched her as a second step, which then included her physically back into the community.
The church today is so very much like the synagogues in Jesus’ day. Too often the church wants to fall back on laws, rules and traditions of the past, solely in order to keep the status quo. In the 1800’s it was used to maintain slavery for the purpose of providing wealth for a particular group of people at the cost of another group of people. We still deal with racial hate today because of a system that the church, in general, supported. Today many churches are using the same bible and the same arguments to try and oppress various people groups based on social economics, race, sexual orientation and mental illness, as a way of protecting what some perceive as only being appropriate for a select group and keeping out others from those same privileges and rights.
This past Tuesday, some of us took the opportunity to listen to Jen Smyers, of Church World Services speak about the brokenness of our Immigration laws. We had representatives attending from the Hispanic community and the Jewish community, which helped give another aspect to this topic. I’m sad to say that we only had one member and a former member from this congregation attend that discussion. During Lent this last Spring, the opportunity to educate ourselves on the building blocks that lead to social justice, as well as to social injustice were presented, but very few people took advantage of that opportunity. As a congregation, we voted to enter into discussions on the Open and Affirming process, so that as a congregation, we can educate ourselves as to where our strengths lie and our willingness to be an inviting people of God, and learn what areas we need to work on in order to become a more inviting and affirming congregation. Yet I observe very little interest in this topic based on previous attendance of those opportunities that have already been offered.
What is this saying about who we are? Are we satisfied with who we are as children of God and don’t feel a need to explore, or question, or work at expanding ourselves? Or are we like the religious leader that became upset at Jesus for “rocking the boat”, who are afraid of change or giving up preconceived beliefs that if challenged, would upset the way we conduct our lives? Are we sacrificing our own souls to maintain what we are familiar with, let alone sacrifice the souls of those who are not being allowed to be included into the family of God?
I am sure that most of you get tired of hearing about the sexually oriented minority topic, be it from the news, or from me in the pulpit. Some of you may even think that it is an “agenda” that I have and want to promote. The reason why I speak about this topic so often is because; I have been one of “those” people who have been victimized by the church, solely because of who I am. I have lived with good meaning Christians telling me that I am not loved by God. (I want to tell you that I have never experienced this from this congregation, for you have welcomed Paul and me with such love.) But I speak from a perspective of knowing extreme injustice and I understand its power to defeat and spiritually enslave a person. I can relate to racism, I can relate to the inequities of the immigrant, both documented and undocumented, I can relate to the struggle for equal rights for women, because I have to struggle for equal rights myself.
As I have studied history about this country, I see in more recent times that our social justice issues have their grass roots, not in the church, but in secular society. In fact, it is the church that in many cases vocalizes extreme opposition to social justice issues such as: the right of marriage, such as forty years ago speaking against inter-racial marriage and now between same sex marriage; of the demonizing of people who are not heterosexual in their orientation and how God hates them; through their interpretation of scripture of being masters over this planet allows for the raping of our environment instead of good stewardship of our natural resources) there by supporting social injustice. What is wrong with this picture? The church is supposed to be the leaders in teaching the world about God’s love and of God’s reconciling desire. This can only be done, my friends, when we do what Isaiah wrote about: to keep the Sabbath and not let our own way keep us from doing God’s will. We need to be like Jesus, pro-active in seeking out those who are on the outside and inviting them to join us. We need to take the time to grow through study and conversation, even when it is inconvenient to us, so that we will be open to seeing those who are being victimized by injustice, so that we are not scarifying souls for traditions that are not God’s bidding. Amen

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs,WY 8/01/10

Soul Investment
By Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 8/01/10
Based on Psalm 107:1-9, 43 & Luke 12:13-21

In the summer of 1975, I was still attending Undergraduate classes, married with our first child who was born that May. Toward the end of that summer my wife and I and our three month old daughter, along with another couple who had a nine month old son decided to drive my in-laws camper up to Grand Lake, CO and spend a week there. We also had arranged to visit our Adult Sunday School teacher who was also in Grand Lake vacationing that summer.
While we were there, we had the opportunity to attend a local production of the musical Cabaret. I was quite excited for I had been listening for several years to the theme song and thought it a marvelous tune. Of course musicals have many songs; after all, that is what makes a play a musical. Another song that I heard that evening was called. “Money Song (Sitting Pretty)”, the chorus lyrics are these:
Money makes the world go around. The world go around, the world go around. Money makes the world go around; it makes the world go 'round.
A mark, a yen, a buck, or a pound. A buck or a pound, A buck or a pound
Is all that makes the world go around, That clinking clanking sound, Can make the world go 'round.
And over all this song is correct, Money does seem to make the world go round. Without money you are not able to purchase those items that are needed to survive on a daily basis, such as food and shelter. I am assuming that almost every person in this sanctuary has at one time or another had to work in order to get money. How many of you younger folks get a weekly or monthly allowance? How many of you are required to keep your bedroom clean or do some chore around the house in order to receive that allowance?
Now my parents were so poor that I got to do chores around the house for free! So in order for me as a child to have any money in my pocket or save in my piggy bank, I had to go out and work. One of my very first business ventures as a child, was to go along side the dirt roads and look for empty pop bottles, which at that time could be redeemed at a grocery store for three cents on a small bottle and for a nickel on the larger bottles. Then around third grade I started selling “Occasional Cards” door to door. That was big money, as I recall, I was able to earn about a third of what I sold a box for, So, for a three dollar box of cards, I was able to earn about a dollar. If I had stayed with collecting pop bottles, that means I would have had to find twenty empty bottles to make the same amount of money as selling one box of cards. That was a pretty sweet deal, I thought. But you know, as I grew older, my need for more dollars increased, so I would have to find better ways of making larger amounts of money, so that I could buy all the things that I needed.
When I was first married and was buying my first home, I was making about six hundred dollars per month and I was able to put a fair amount of that into a savings account. But again, as I grew older my need for more money increased and a funny thing happened along the way. The things that I needed to buy seemed to become more expensive as well, so I guess that meant that other people felt that they also needed more money. So things have become more costly and I find that the amount of money that I need today is greater than the amount I needed to live on, say, forty years ago.
This I am pretty sure is a pretty typical story for everybody who is here this morning. Which leads me to this next thought, “Have you ever fantasized about receiving a windfall of money, and how it would make you feel relieved and secure at last?” I know I have, each time I bought a lotto ticket. “Do you think you would be free from worries?” Isn’t that what happened to the rich farmer in today’s parable? True, he started out with advantages in his society, where a tiny percentage of folks actually owned land. On top of that, his harvest that year was staggering and he had to tear down his barns and build new ones to hold it? It’s always interesting to think about what might be in the minds of those listening to Jesus’ story might make them remember the story of Joseph in Genesis, who built new barns to hold the abundant harvests during the “fat” years in Egypt so that the people (including his own family, who had tried to kill him) would have enough to eat during the “lean” years. (We call that putting away something for a rainy day type of fund.) But Joseph wasn’t plotting for his own profit and he wasn’t motivated by greed. The rich fool, alas, thought only of himself. He said to himself, “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” He seems to be completely turned in on himself.
The rich fool doesn’t seem like an evil man who has cheated and stolen his wealth; like all of us, he’s benefited from good luck, from the rain that “falls on good and evil alike.” The trap he falls into is in his next steps: when he has a windfall, he doesn’t run into the village celebrating and announcing his plan to share his good fortune with the community, let alone get their help with deciding how to deal with this excellent problem. He turns inward and stays there, figuring that he can be self-sufficient and secure solely because of his wealth. Eleven times he uses the first person (“I” and “my”) and never “our” or Their.”
It’s tempting to think that Jesus is just down on material things and wealth. But it’s much deeper than that: he knows the seductive power of possessions, and he wants to clear the way for us to receive much greater blessings and joy. The man’s anxiety about the inadequacy of is barns mirrors in some ways our own preoccupation with handling our possessions, protecting them with security systems, investing them safely, worrying about them. It’s not that such things are irresponsible or wrong, but they do distract us from what is really important. As beloved children of God, we have a Parent who wants to give us good tings, if we can just make room in our lives for them! UCC study help.
A person example comes by way of where my mind was in my teens and twenties. As I mentioned earlier, I grew up rather poor, actually the phrase, very poor would be more accurate. As a child, I remember that had my father not gone out and shot rabbit throughout the winter, we would not have had any meet to eat. My mother could write a cookbook on a 1001 ways to prepare rabbit. I had decided in my early years in high school that I was never going to be that poor myself and everything that I did reflected on that promise to myself. So much so that by the time I was twenty-seven, I had a portfolio, of savings, land investments and home at almost a quarter of a million dollars. I was on the fast track to becoming financially independent. Money was all I ever thought about, truly, until the Holy Spirit started weaseling her way into my heart and I began to recognize my call into ministry. My biggest obstacle that I needed to over come so that I could move forward in that call was my obsession with money. I was very much like the rich young fool. I was putting my faith into the security of something that is not secure at all. It is alluring that is a fact, it has the potential of becoming “master” over people, but it is forever eroding away in its value and it can never provide the “peace”, the “security” that Christ tells us we will find in His word.
Ultimately, the parable tells us, that the rich young fool, died, and never was able to enjoy his wealth. I think what Jesus is trying to tell us, is when we do not allow God to be the master of our hearts, then we will be cheating ourselves, a short changing of the real gifts that God truly has waiting for us. You might think that this parable is being directed at us as individuals, and it is in part, but I believe that this is a parable that is pointing its finger at the organization that we call First Congregational United Church of Christ, of Rock Springs, WY.
I am wondering if as a collective group if we are in fact becoming the “rich young fool?” What I mean by this, is if you look at where we are putting our finances, I have to ask myself, “Are we being good stewards of what we possess?” Some of you may be thinking about this past years annual meeting when we voted in a deficit budget and in the back of your minds, thinking, that isn’t being very good stewards of our money. In one respect, I could agree, except then I look at the balance sheet of the money that we have stashed in a variety of bank accounts and investments, the barns that we are keeping our abundance in. Are we being the rich young fool?
I know for a fact that one of the building blocks that we need to have in place in order to grow and to blossom is in providing adequate church school for our children and not having not their parents doing the primary teaching, but allowing these young parents the opportunity to be in Worship, where they are able to have some quiet time to rejuvenate their souls and allow their spirits to be nurtured. Yet in our church budget, we are providing practically nothing to allow this to happen and then we ask ourselves why aren’t we attracting young families?
I understand the necessity of having savings for a rainy day. I understand the general need of most people who grew up in the depression, to hold onto a larger savings, mostly because they still remember what it was like to not have anything. Of not having a sense of security that money, falsely gives us. Even though I’m a baby boom, who by definition had everything handed to them on a silver platter and really don’t know what it is like to go hungry or not have enough money to buy a pair of shoes for school or to wear hand-me-downs, I do know, because my life mirrors more closely to those who were growing up in the depression than my peers.
We as a church have around two hundred thousand dollars that is sitting in bank accounts and investments. Why are we not taking advantage of the abundance that God has given us and using this money to build for the future? Why are we not hiring a person to direct the educational program that is needed to bring in families that would truly benefit by our investing in them? I am afraid that as a congregation that is growing older, we are looking too much to these funds as security and not allowing room for God to give us a true sense of security, because we are finding a false sense of security in our barns being full.
Before I could accept a call into ministry; before I could trust that God had something more, something better waiting for me, I had to struggle with my insecurity of “not having enough”, of looking to money as the one “sure” thing that would bring security to my soul. It wasn’t until I was able to let go of the need to amass wealth that I was able to let God enrich my life in ways that I could never express to you.
Do you know how many churches die because they didn’t grow and they watched, one by one all their members die, and had a net worth of a million dollars or more? Just ask any Conference Minister they will tell you story after story of churches they pleaded with, to go into debt and give that ministry a real try, only to watch the members cling to those assets because they didn’t have enough faith that God would bless them.
We are setting in a unique position brothers and sisters of reviving this ministry to unbelievable heights, but we can only do that if we trust that God will take care of us and not be mislead into believing that our security hinges on a large bank balance. That is what the rich young fool did. He died with his barns full. It didn’t help him, nor did it help his community. You hired me to help you move forward during this time of transition. I am presenting to you a very valuable truth on being faithful stewards of not only your finances but of your faith. I am assuming that I have stepped on some toes this morning, if I haven’t then either you have tuned me out or have come to the same conclusions of what I am saying. The parable is telling us what we need to be doing, my question is, are we going to trust in what Jesus tells us about God’s abundant blessings. Hear what the psalmist says, “For god satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry God fills with good things. Let those who are wise give heed to these things, and consider the steadfast love of God.” Amen