Monday, September 27, 2010

First Congregational UCC of Rock Springs, WY 9/26/2010

Just a short comment about the last three sermons or so. Although I follow the Common Lectionary, it seems that the Holy Spirit is very supportive by seeing that the lectionary selections are corresponding with the needed challenge for this congregation to move beyond the comfort of being only a Sunday focused Church and look at becoming a congregation that is more pro-active in Social Justice Issues. It is very difficult in my observations for a person to grow Spiritually and not be aware and concerned with social justice. As a whole this congregation has no real focused programming in this area and with the help of the Scriptures, I have been able to continue to present the understanding that "faith" goes hand in hand with "justice", that this is a major part of what Jesus was challenging the religious structure of his day. This weeks scripture is particularly difficult to hear as a consumer driven society to realize just how much cost there is to so many around the world in order that we can enjoy the standards of daily living.

Making Visible the Invisible
By Rev. Steven R. Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 9/26/2010
Based on Luke 16:19-31

I am a great fan of motion pictures, early Television programs, and of early radio programs. As radio gave way to Television, many of the early 1950 T.V. programs were continuations of radio hits, such as The Jack Benny Show, or Amos and Andy. One of my favorite T.V. couples is George Burns and Gracie Allen. For those of you who might not be familiar with Burns and Allen, both were comedians with George being the person who would set up the joke or the story line while Gracie was the person who would deliver the lines that would receive the laughs. She was portrayed as a scattered brained housewife and would generally be the person who was always able to resolve whatever the crisis of the day was, in her own unique and very quirky logic!
In one episode, Gracie was working hard at becoming a member of a precigous book club. She enlists George’s help to stage their living room so that it would look as scholarly as possible. She had George place small statuaries on the coffee table that were of Shakespeare, David, and Venus De Milo. While placing a few classical books here and there, George asked her where she wanted the book, Tales of Two Cities placed? She thought for a few seconds then decided that it shouldn’t go out on any of the end tables. When George asked “why”, Gracie responded with, “I haven’t read the book yet and one of the cities might be in Florida.” This in her mind was not a good thing.
Today’s Gospel reading is very much like the title of the book “Tales of Two Cities”. It is a parable of two men and of two realities; this physical world and the afterlife. It is a story of a rich man and of a poor beggar, a story of two social classes, and a world of comfort verses a world of afflictions. It is also a story of reversals. The poor man is given a named, Lazarus, and the rich man is not named. In the story, we read where the rich man is dressed in purple while the beggar is dressed in sores, the rich man has ample food, living in abundance and in luxury, while Lazarus is praying for just the crumbs from the rich man’s table, and lives out on the street. Then when Lazarus dies, it is Lazarus who is in the bosom of Abraham, the Patriarchal Father, and it is the rich man who is now living in Hades. Both far removed from their former physical life’s circumstances.
This parable is filled with such subtle messages that most modern ears will miss if not familiar with early Jewish understanding. This story to the original audience was a story so abrasive, I am surprised that Jesus wasn’t taken out and strung up at that very telling. Every reference to the rich man was a reference to “being acceptable”, that of “being a righteous man before God”, while the poor beggar Lazarus would be perceived as one filled with “sin” and his living in poverty and plagued with sores was the punishment for his sinful ways. Yet, after death it was Lazarus who was in the arms of Abraham, which translates into being in the arms of God (Abraham being the founding father of the Hebrew faith, the highest example of righteous living) while it was just the opposite for the rich man who finds himself in eternal damned nation. All of this was a frontal assault on the perception of one’s trust in wealth as an assurance of your righteousness or right living and your salvation.
Jesus’ telling of this story comes directly after telling the parable of the “Shrewd Manager”, where he warns the children of the light (those who follow after Jesus) to be street-wise and as cleaver as the shrewd manager but only for good. In verse 14, we read: 14The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15Jesus said to them, "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight.
G. Penny Nixon, Senior Minister of Congregational UCC Church of San Mateo, CA, sums up this parable told by Jesus in this way: What we know from the parable is that because of his lack of action and compassion, the rich man cannot cross over to the place of faith, nor does he have a place by Abraham’s side. The great teacher (Jesus) puts Abraham, the parent of faith, in the role of judge. Abraham sits with Lazarus, indicating a startling truth about who is faithful and who is not. To an impoverished group of people, this parable would offer great comfort that God sees their suffering and is on their side. To most of us, however, steeped in a consumer society and often on the wrong side of the chasm, this parable is one of the hardest to hear…if we really hear. Feasting on the Word, Yr C, pg 121
This parable doesn’t portray the rich man as being cruel or antagonistic toward Lazarus. For in truth, the rich man when he is looking through his window or even when he comes and goes from his home doesn’t even notice Lazarus sitting outside his door. You ask yourself, “How could anyone not notice someone who is dressed in filthy rages, covered in sores, and begging for food right outside of your own house?”
We don’t have many street corner beggars here in Rock Springs, but go to any major city and in the downtown area’s you can hardly walk on the sidewalks without tripping over people who are down and out. You hear them asking you for money and as long as you don’t look at them, you can walk by them, hearing their plea’s as nothing more than white background noise, thereby having very little intrusion on your consciousness; they truly are not there. But the minute you make eye to eye contact with one of these people, you at that point have recognized their plight and at that point must wrestle with your conscience about whether or not you will help them with a few coins. It is a making visible that which was invisible. This parable is attacking the rich, not because of their wealth, but because of their lack of responding to the needs of those who are suffering and live outside of the comfort of adequate resources.
This parable is depicted in the 1927 German expressionist silent film, Metropolis, and remade in animation in 2001, where we see the social crisis between workers and owners in capitalism. The story line is this futurist city where all of the capitalists live above ground in these marvelous skyscrapers and enjoy all the benefits of the “good life”, much like the rich man, at the expense of those laborers (the Lazarus’ of the world) who are doing back-breaking and life threatening work far beneath the earth’s surface, totally un-noticed by those who are benefiting from their harsh existence.
Today’s parable is a call for “Social Justice”! We as Christians cannot claim to have an active faith in the teachings of Christ, without being active in Social Justice Issues. This parable is calling us to task and letting us know that we as “good” people will ultimately be held accountable for the lack of response to those who are suffering from economic deprivation, of those who suffer from social alienation, and of our stewardship of our natural resources.
I use to rent out some of the bedrooms of my house when I was pastor at the Kittitas church to college students. One housemate in particular wasn’t the best English student and had transferred to Central Washington University from a very liberal college in Western Washington. He asked me and another housemate to read a paper that he had written because he wasn’t receiving the best grades from his earlier work.
This particular paper he was very proud of as it was showing the “evils” of the wealthiest of Americans (such as the Rockefellers, the Whitney’s for example) and how they have gained, as well as maintained their wealth at the expense of Third World Countries. Not that there wasn’t a good amount of truth in his report, but I asked him about his part as a “Wealthy American” who’s life style is supported by these same Third World Countries? He was totally unaware of what I was asking about, after all he didn’t come from one of these huge money families and he was a struggling college student. So we began a conversation about the amount of the world resources and how much we as Americans use compared to the rest of the world and that even our basic, what we would call, average economical existence is very much based on the cheap labor of Third World Countries. As American’s an average evening meal would be considered a banquet to most underdeveloped nations, our modest 3 bedroom, 2 plus bath homes are palaces to most of the world, and even the idea of taking a holiday is a non-reality to much of the world’s population. In essence, we are very unaware of the poverty of much of the world. It doesn’t make us bad people, but like the rich man, we do not see the true picture of our standard of living and at what cost to those who don’t have enough to survive on.
I wonder as a congregation, at what level of “awareness” and of action we see ourselves at? If we are students of Christ’s, as a teacher, what grade would He be giving us on our overal response to social justice issues? Would we be graded at the level of Lazarus or would Jesus grade us at the level of the “rich man”. We have very few programs that are geared to be pro-active to issues that are directly focused on social issues. I think Jesus would have us be more active in our working to understand the brokenness of our immigration laws. I think He would want us to be working at finding those who are disenfranchised in our community and working at bringing them into community. Jesus would call us to be working and learning how we could reduce our carbon footprint for the benefit of future generations.
This parable is a direct call for us to personally examine our heart and work at making the invisible (these social justice issues) into being visible within our hearts. It is a call for us to make that eye to eye contact with those in need and responding to that need. This parable powerfully calls into question how we handle not only our resources in dollars, but our time and attention and whether we “see” the poor at our doors. It calls us to realize, as one of the wealthiest nations in the world, who is suffering at the cost of what we enjoy on a daily basis. It is a parable calling us to make visible within our minds and hearts the invisible suffering of those outside of our doors, within the city of Rock Springs, of this country, and of the world at large. Amen

First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 9/12/2010

Caring Enough!
By Rev. Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, WY 9/12/10
Based on 1 Timothy 1:12-17 and Luke 15:1-10

Each time we come together to worship, at the very beginning of our time together I give a greeting that says, “No matter who you are, whether you are a believer, a doubter, or a seeker, you are welcome in this sacred space.” I don’t know whether you think of this greeting as something that sounds “nice” and “welcoming” or if it brings to mind any type of “theological” statement that we as a congregation is trying to make. Actually, this phrase has been tentatively added into the basic constitution of this church which once all of the revisions are completed, will be discussed and voted on in the not too distant future. This morning’s lectionary texts are actually two examples of why the content of this greeting exists.
The believers could be representative of Paul in his opening statement to Timothy, as well as to where Paul himself was, prior to becoming a believer and spokesperson for Christ. The seekers would be representative of the one lost sheep or the one lost coin. It is Christ who is the one who is welcoming us into this place, and it is sacred because of the sacrifice that he made for the entire world.
This morning the Gospel reading is another set of very familiar parables. The problem for those of us who have grown up listening to these parables year after year or once every three years, is that after so many times of hearing about them or reading them, we start to turn off our minds to what they might have to say “anew” to us. As a minister, I find that the more often I have read a story, I have to spend more time thinking about what I am reading, and not just time but actually the clearing of my mind of any preconceived understanding that I am bringing to that reading.
Today’s parables are a direct response to the grumblings of the Pharisees and the scribes, as they were upset with the conduct of Jesus around people that the Pharisees perceived as “no account, good for nothing reprobates.” These are two of three parables that deal with being lost in one fashion or another. For us this morning, we need to figure out “who” it is that is lost with respect to how it relates to us. Are we the shepherd or the woman who leaves what she has to go and search for that one lost sheep or lost coin? Or is Jesus referring to the Pharisees and the scribes as being the lost? After all, they are the ones who would know the law, they are the ones who are suppose to be “welcoming” and “administering” to the needs of those who are in need, and they were, as it says, “grumbling about whom Jesus was willing to hang out with. Would these stories be relating to those who had come to listen to Jesus, where he is able to have one of those “teachable moments”, where Jesus is able to present a case for their “salvation?” Or is it possible that “we” are the ones being referred to as the ones being lost? Is it even possible for those of us that call ourselves “disciples of Christ” to actually be or become lost for that matter?
When I get to reminiscing about my childhood and try to tell whomever it is that I am sharing stories of my childhood with, I generally am trying to convey what a model child I was, and how I rarely gave challenge to my parents. But then there are stories that start to come to the forefront of my mind that might give a different perspective than how I tend to view myself.
One such story deals with my desire to go visit my cousin who lived on the other side of town. I lived in a small community of about three thousand people. I lived just one block away from my grandmother’s house, and actually all I had to do was cut across the yard on the opposite side of the street that I lived on, and then I was at my grandmother’s. I visited my grandmother every day without fail. I hadn’t seen my cousin for what felt like weeks, while in truth it was probably just a couple of days. After all, when you are four years old, time holds a different standard than it does for grown-ups.
As I was saying, I had been missing my cousin for some time and for whatever reason, my mother wasn’t willing to take me over so that I could visit and play with him. I had even been talking to my grandmother about this situation, hoping to enlist her sympathy, to where she would either make my mother relinquish her position or grandmother herself would drive me over so I could see my cousin. That didn’t seem to work very well either, so one particular afternoon I decided that I was going to go on my own to see my cousin.
Now I was a pretty smart kid, I knew Mom expected me home from grandmother’s each day at a certain time, so I on the day that I decide to take matters into my own hands, I left my grandmother’s house about an hour early, telling her that I was going home. I had full confidence that I would be able to walk over to my cousin’s house, have time to play with him and be back home within that hour. After all, when we would drive from our house to his, it took only a matter of minutes. Of course, at the age of four, you also don’t realize that a ten minute ride in a car could equal several miles in one direction. My home town may have been small, but it had big yards and long blocks!
When I started out on my little adventure, I had full confidence that I knew my way to my cousin’s house. I knew that I needed to get onto the street that had the courthouse on a corner of an intersection. I also knew that I needed to go past my Aunt and Uncle’s tavern. Well, go past might be understating it just a bit. The reality was, I needed to sneak past it and not be seen by my great-auntie, otherwise, she would call my mom and I wouldn’t get to visit my cousin. Well, I managed to do that, or so I thought. Over all, I was doing pretty well until I got to a street that I didn’t quit recognize. Then there was another street that I didn’t recognize, but I knew that if I just continued in the general direction of West, even though I had started to zig and zag around streets that didn’t seem familiar to me, I would eventually get to his house, or at the very least, find the edge of town, which was just as good, since the street he lived on was the last street in town.
At some point there came the realization that it was taking me a lot longer time to get to my cousin’s than I had previously thought. I also don’t mind sharing that it was at that point that I started to worry about whether I actually was going to make it to my cousin’s house. Finally, after a very long time, I came upon a street that did look familiar and in fact I could actually see my cousin’s house on the top of the hillside. It was also about that time that my mother pulled up beside me in the car. I could see in her eyes a certain relief that she had found me, safe and sound. After I had gotten into the car and had assured her that I was all right, we started to have a discussion about my being lost and how that made my mother feel.
In many respects, my mother was like the shepherd, who had left the rest of the flock, meaning my sister and infant brother, to come and search for me. Although I wasn’t aware of it, I had wondered off like that one sheep told in the parable. I have to tell you that once my mother found me, I was very surprised that I didn’t receive a spanking right there and then, which was the usual mannor of swift justice and retribution. Rather, I recall my mother asking me what I thought she should do to me as a way of deterring this or similar behavior in the future; a behavior that wasn’t just disobeying the authority of my mother, but behavior that could truly be harmful to my health. I remember telling her that I suppose I should receive a spanking, as I did realize this was a major breach of conduct. I don’t really remember if we went with my suggestion or if mom was just so glad that I was safe and knowing I had actually learned a valuable lesson, that I never received that spanking.
I think one of the things that we can learn through this parable is that even those of us who call ourselves “Christians”, members of the flock, so to say, are capable of wandering off and becoming lost, and not even know we are lost at the time. “What if it is our faith that we have lost? Do we not sometimes find ourselves in the place of the seeker, not exactly seeking God, but seeking the faith that has become lost to us? What is it to “lose faith”, but to lose the conviction that one has been found, to begin to wonder whether one is sought at all – whether there is in fact a shepherd or a peasant woman tracking us down? To those who are lost, object is faith itself, these parables whisper that losing faith – that is, becoming like the tax collector and sinner rather than the Pharisee and scribe – is to have wandered into the place where one can be found.” Scott Bader-Saye, Feasting on the Word, YR C
In this week’s UCC reflections, Rev Kate Huey shares this story: This week, I watched a segment of Primetime Live in which Diane Sawyer was revisiting – eight years later – several young people she had interviewed on the streets of a city in Oregon. These kids were definitely lost children. At least two of them were gay, and one can only imagine the terrible rejection that drove them from their homes and families. One young boy was asked to describe his dream home. He answered quickly, as if he had dreamed of it often; his dream home would have a marble staircase and a big entrance hall (doesn’t that sound like someone who feels the need to be welcomed?) Asked to describe his dream parents, he said, “They would have their mouths taped shut so they couldn’t yell at me and their hands tied so they couldn’t hit me.” Years later, this same young man looked back on the years he spent as a runaway; when Diane Sawyer asked him, “Is that what you wanted – for someone to come and find you?” His response: “Yes, that’s what I wanted – I wanted someone to care enough to come looking for me.”
This morning’s sermon title “Caring Enough“, was inspired by this story about the young man who had been a runaway. All he wanted was to know that someone cared. We all have times in our lives when we feel that no one cares about us, whether that is real or falsely perceived, the fact that we feel this way, means that it is real to us. We just want to know that someone cares. That someone might not be able to do anything to physically improve our situation, but just knowing that someone does care, many times is enough to help us get past that feeling of being lost.
The important position that these two parables present to us, is that our being found is not by our efforts. Like the sheep and the coin, we are found – and found in a way that is not dependent on our seeking but only on our being sought. The good news is just that – we are sought, and more, we have always already been found. Scott Bader-Saye, Feasting on the Word, YR C This is one of the most important facets of what we as a church or as an individual follower of Christ can provide for everyone that we meet. We can provide that care, a sense that each person we meet is important, because we ourselves at one point or another have been lost but then found.
Today’s lesson is one that lets us know that we are that lost sheep or that lost coin at some time in our lives, and we might not even realize this condition. It is a lesson to those who already have that sense of belonging to learn to rejoice in the recovery of those who have been lost in their journey. It is a story about celebration for those who have been found and brought back home. It is a story of assurance, that no matter what happens along life’s pathway, we are so precious that if even one of us seems to find ourselves lost, God’s love is so great, that we will be sought after by God, no matter how far gone we think we have strayed. That is truly the resurrection story: that God so loved the world that he sent his son into the world that none may be lost! Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah! The message today is a resounding: GOD CARES ENOUGH! Amen

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sermon for First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 9/5/2010

Doing the Right Thing
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 9/5/2010
Based on Philemon 1-21 and Luke14:25-33

What an interesting Gospel reading we have this morning as we come together not just for worship but also to partake in Communion. Here we read where Jesus is speaking about our need to “hate” in order to follow him as a disciple, and yet we are coming to a table that, Jesus tells us, comes out of an act of “Love”. IF we are to take this scripture at face value, at the words that are used, then for most of us, we will be totally turned away and unable to understand why Jesus says in order to follow him we must “hate” our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and even ourselves; all the time hearing that Jesus’ mission in his ministry was to speak about “reconciliation”, of “unity”, of “love”, none of which can occur if “hate” is at the heart of our feelings instead of “love.” So, which is it, Jesus? Are we suppose to hate or are we suppose to love? How can we in good conscience come to an “agape” celebration (agape being the Greek’s understanding of the highest and most pure love), and be in the state of “hate”?
In the Eugene Peterson translation called “The Message”, we hear this with a different, and I hope in a more accurate, language. "Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one's own self!—can't be my disciple. Anyone who won't shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can't be my disciple.” With this type of language, we can then bring into consideration our reading from the letter to Philemon, a letter that is written by the Apostle Paul to Philemon in love and about acting in love; a letter about “doing the right thing.” Not only does the Peterson translation lend itself in bringing both of today’s readings together in unity, but it brings our celebration at the communion table into a cohesive act of what Jesus is trying to teach us; the “cost” of being a disciple of Christ.
Early in my ministry, I would time to time watch on Television the worship program “The Hour of Power”, at the Crystal Cathedral, with Robert Schuller. He, along with Norman Vincent Peale, are the Kings of “Positive” thinking in the religious world. I would listen to him and found most of his messages to be very shallow and what I would call, “sugar and spice and all things nice” Christianity. Then some years later, I had the opportunity to read Schuller’s autobiography, “My Journey”, where I learned more about the depth of Dr. Schuller’s theology and how it has shaped his ministry.
Within those pages I discovered that Dr. Schuller started out his ministry in the style of what we would refer to as the preaching of “hell, fire and damned nation.” It wasn’t until he had a guest speaker from his own denomination, the Dutch Reformed Church of America, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, speak to his congregation who stated that, “Jesus never condemned anyone.” Of course Dr Schuller took exception with that statement and never heard the rest of the message as he was searching through his scriptures in order to correct Dr. Peale. Schuller was never able to find the scripture to repute Dr. Peale and it caused him to re-evaluate his own ministry and theological stance. It was that epiphany that helped Dr Schuller realize that people needed to hear if only for one hour a week, that message that they are good in the eyes of God and not condemned as so many sermons in too many pulpits are preached each week, because, most of us hear all week long about how we do not measure up. This is how the “Hour of Power” ministry was born!
I bring this story up, because, even though God loves us and we are good within God’s eyes, we forget there is a cost that comes with being called “disciples” of Christ. We don’t seem to have too much of a problem when we talk about the “cost” of our freedom that we enjoy here in this country. It is understood that the life we enjoy comes at the cost of defending our soil, and not a cheap cost, but literally the cost of the lives of our young men and women, of our sons and daughters, of our fathers and mothers.
Yet, when we think of the cost of being a Christian, we generally think about how much money are we suppose to give to the church, or how does this affect my willingness to give up my Sunday mornings of staying home and reading the New York Times or which do I attend, a home game of the WY State Football or pay penance and go to church that Sunday? Jesus, isn’t talking about an actual “hate” toward our family, friends, society, or even of self. What Jesus is speaking about is realizing that we have to divorce ourselves from the things, the distractions, the self-desires that keep us from fully incorporating the life and teachings of Jesus into our hearts, minds, and lives. Remember the greatest commandment, “to love your God with heart, mind, and soul and to love your neighbor as yourself.”
For Philemon, Paul is challenging him to grow to another level in his Christian understanding and discipleship, and to change his perception of the slave Onesimus. In this very personal letter to Philemon, we learn that Philemon isn’t just a Christian, but that he has been taught by Paul, that he has worked side by side with Paul, and that Philemon is the head of the house church that is held in his own home. Philemon is a wealthy man and one who is respected within his community and one who also is spreading the gospel of Christ. Paul is asking Philemon not just to “free” Onesimus, but to look at him as his equal, to see him as a brother, not just in Christ but in a social setting.
It is in this letter that we see where Philemon is going to have to choose what the cost of his relationship to Christ is going to be. It means that if he chooses to honor Paul’s request, he will be giving up a slave, who has a dollar value to it, he will also have to face probable ridicule and standing within his community (those who are not living by Christian standards) and ultimately, if he has more than one slave, have to reconcile a consistent standard of, “if I free one slave, how can I then own other slaves?” There is a tremendous cost being weighed here.
What does it mean to us, who call ourselves Christians and members of this church? What does it cost us? Are we really able to “let go of our own selves” to follow Jesus, or are we more of the “sugar and spice” type of person, a person who believes and lives in what we and possibly Jesus would call, “cheap grace?” We may say that we are willing to follow Christ and his teachings to develop a life that is filled with “true rewards”, but it is through our actions that we will truly speak about where our priorities lay.
What does church membership mean to us? These are huge questions as they speak about our commitment and the cost of our commitment, to this ministry, to Christ’s ministry through this congregation. Do we come to church when “we feel like it”, or “when the Cowboys aren’t playing at home”, or when it doesn’t interfere with other opportunities that are placed before us? When we are not town, but in another city, do we go to a nearby church and take time to “Worship” or create a time for formal praise while camping, or do we look at it as a day “off”?
We come to this table this morning because of the commitment that Christ had in his relationship to God. The cost of Jesus’ relationship with God was his life. I remember a line in the movie, “Torch Song Trilogy”, where two lovers were discussing the possibilities of a reconciled relationship that had broken up some years before because of the one person’s inability to be open about his sexual orientation while the other person was totally open and out, and the one man after hearing the plea of his lover wanting a second chance, says, “I just threw my own mother out of my life. All she wanted to do was just not “talk about it.” Do you think I would expect any less from you?” Even when there is love involved, there is a cost to any relationship. When we think by not choosing to do one thing over another, we have made a choice and there is a cost in that choice.
We do not know what Philemon chooses to do with Paul’s plea to free Onesimus and to welcome him into the family as an equal. We have the words of Jesus to each of us this morning about counting the cost to follow him. What will be our response? How much is following Jesus worth to you? Think about it the next time you have the option of deepening your spiritual walk or choosing that which will “not.” Our discipleship comes at a cost. Jesus asks us to think hard about what we are willing to give up to follow him. This table symbolizes the cost that He paid for us, He simply is asking what will we do in return? Amen

Sermon at First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 8/29/2010

Looking for Your Place Card
By Rev. Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 8/29/2010
Based on Hebrews 13:1-8, 1516 & Luke 14:1, 7-14

This past February, I was invited to attend an “awards banquet” put on by the Governor of Wyoming, to pay honor to four patrons of the Arts, one of them being Louise Wesswick. Granted, I actually had to let Louise know that I would be very interested in attending that special event, so in reality, I invited myself! Nevertheless, I was a guest for this particular function.
Upon my arrival I was informed as to what table I would find my Place Card. I really don’t know how many tables were actually dedicated to Louise, but I was aware of two tables, the table that she was sitting at and the table that had my Place Card. I have to share with you that I have a tendency toward an “A” personality. An example of an “A” personality is when there are three people standing next to one slice of apple pie, the “A” personality, just assumes that the piece of pie was there for them and will place it on their plate and proceed to eat it in front of the other two people, never asking if they might like to have part of it.
Had I been exercising my “A” personality that evening at the banquet, I would have just walked in the room, found Louise and plopped myself down beside her, totally unaware that I might be taking someone else’s seat, as it was, I had arrived not early but not late and found her table filled with members of her family. Even though I was her pastor, I was relegated to a lesser position of importance. This can be quite a personal blow to many pastors, because, of our work, we often fall into the trap of thinking of ourselves with more importance than what we really should have. Much like the Pharisees in Jesus’ time. I would have felt very comfortable had I been seated at the table where Louise was seated, for to tell the truth I was feeling just a little intimidated sitting at the table that contained our Mayor and his wife, our districts State Senator and his wife, and one of our City Council members and his wife. Now depending on what circles one would normally run in, the table that I was seated could be considered by some to have been the table to be sitting at, however, that particular evening was honoring Louise, thereby making her table, the table of honor, of which her family rightly occupied with her. Even when we are not attending a formal dinner but dinning by invitation, be it in a private home or a public restaurant, it is still good etiquette to wait to have the host or hostess direct where at the table you are going to sit.
Although today’s Gospel reading is using dining at a banquet as the story, Jesus is really only using this as the vehicle for a deeper issue; that of one’s self-perception or more specifically one’s attitude of self-importance. We live in a society that is obsessed with “success.” If you take time to walk up and down any bookstore, you will find shelves filled with how to succeed in business, in financial independence, in developing more self-confidence, even how to succeed in romance. I think I forgot to read that particular book, because I had a number of people share with me at Paul’s and my wedding just how many “frogs” I had kissed before finding my Prince! And they would be right.
You will also find on many bookshelves, books that tell us how to relax, find inner peace, wholeness, and wellness. Books that tell us how we can enjoy a more fulfilled, happy life. I have two daughters and a son; one of my daughters and my son tend to have personalities that demonstrate over-achievement and hyper goal-setting. I cannot for the life of me figure out where they got those traits! The other daughter seems to be more docile and lack-a-daisical, which is more like her mother’s nature.
One of yesterday’s Internet Headlines was “Six Signs That You’ve Made It to Middle Class”. It starts off by saying, “Not so long ago, most people viewed the hallmarks of success as something along the lines of a house, a white picket fence, two weeks’ vacation, two children and the ability to send those kids to college.” We tend to measure success by the things that we collect and then think trust our happiness to be found in those things. The interesting thing is that this is not really true. Jesus tells us that the answers to successful living and finding inner peace is not found through the standards that the world lives by, but rather is found in the standards that are written within the books of the Bible.
Today’s story is once again telling us how we can find fulfilled lives. According to Jesus, it is not by climbing the corporate latter, or by amassing great wealth, or by placing ourselves at the head table, but rather by not taking ourselves too seriously, of not thinking of ourselves as the most important thing that has graced this earth since the printing press was invented, but rather, by living in humility. By looking out for the other person instead of always looking out for “number one.”
Talking about self-esteem can be a very dangerous subject, especially for those who have grown up in an environment that has consistently told them that they are not worthy people and that others deserve more out of life than they do. My son, Steven, has severe dyslexia, so as a child, one summer he was enrolled in Sylvan’s Learning Center as a way of giving him a boost. When I was questioning my older daughter about what he was learning there, her response was, “he’s there to build up his self-confidence, but honestly dad, I think he has plenty already.” I understood what she was saying, as my parents use to tell me that there was no conceit in the family, because I possessed it all.
Now when I am talking about living with “humility” I am not talking about a false humility, which we can sometimes portray, because we don’t want to be perceived as being “arrogant”. In my family, my parents mis-understood the difference between “arrogance” and being “confident” in your talents and achievements. When I was a young boy, I wasn’t very good at sport’s, I sang “okay”, I didn’t think of myself as very good looking, I was a mediocre student, and I was painfully shy. By some peoples’ standards I was not going to be very successful in life. In fact, my high school counselor actually thought he was doing me a favor by encouraging me not to attempt to go to college because I would only fail.
I would like to share with you a seven minute clip from the film, “Joy Luck Club”. A story of four Chinese mothers and their interactions with their daughters. We are going to see the climax of the main character, June, and her mother, about June’s self-image and her perception of what she believes her mother thinks of her. I also want you to think about how this clip is a marvelous metaphor between “humanity”, through the daughter’s character and “God” through the character of the mother.
What my high school counselor didn’t know was, I had a belief in what scripture said about “who I was as a child of God and that as a child of God, I was ‘best quality’.” As the mother told her daughter, Waverly, the houseguest, took the best quality crab, that was her reward, but June took the worst quality crab because her heart was “best quality”, a reward that would go beyond that one experience. Jesus is telling us, not to take the best quality, but rather in our hearts, be the “best quality”, for this is where we will find the “success” and the “peace” that the world is wanting to experience.
Jesus also told us not to just invite, or more directly, just hang-out with our friends, because we know that we will continue to receive their friendship and support, but rather, we are to invite, to hang-out from time to time with those people that we do not know. Those people that will just enter into our lives for only a short time and we know that we will probably not receive back from them what we are giving. Because by doing this, we may very well be entertaining angels unaware, but more importantly, we will be sharing the “best quality” that comes from within our hearts with other children of God. If we think of ourselves as too important, then we will be missing the blessings that God is presenting to us through those that we deem less important than ourselves. Amen