Monday, November 29, 2010

The Art of Preparation, Sermon by Rev Steven R Mitchell, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY

The Art of Preparation
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 11/28/2010
Based on Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44

As I finished reading today’s lection readings, the very first thought that came to my mind was the idea of “preparation.” I’m not sure how much of your life is taken up with preparation, but I would guess that over eighty percent of all my activities would be able to be classified as “preparing.” If a therapist, were to examine what I am saying, I suppose she would tell me that I have a need to live in a very controlled environment, to feel secure as I function. That may or may not be true, but what I do know is, I find, not only do I get more things accomplished, but when it comes time to have a finished product, there is far less anxiety in wondering how it is going to turn out, and I am pretty assured that it will be successful, not by others standards, but more importantly by my own personal standards.
Many years ago, when I was a pastor in Kittitas, Washington, I had a buddy from seminary visit for a week. One evening he was in the kitchen watching me cook, and when it was time to put the food on the table, he looked at me in amazement and said, “How did you do that, Steven?” “How did I do what?” I asked. “How did you get everything cooked, so it is all ready to eat at the same time?” he responded. So I proceeded to explain to Larry that you: first, decided on what you wanted to serve at the meal; secondly, you needed to know how long each dish takes to prepare for cooking; thirdly, you needed to know how long that dish takes to cook; then with that knowledge you can then figure out in what order you have to work in order to get everything to come off of the stove and out of the oven and onto the table at the same time. Every good cook understands there is an “Art to Preparation!”
As we enter into this season of Advent, this taking time to prepare for the birth of Jesus, it might seem odd to be reading scripture that deals with Eschatology, as opposed to reading scriptures over the next four weeks that would deal more directly with Mary and Joseph, the angels, of Elizabeth and Zechariah, and the events that occur around the birth of Jesus. Yet, one of the characteristics of the Christian faith is, its focus is not on the past, but rather, focus is on the future. As Christians, we celebrate past events of our history, such as the birth of Jesus, and of his crucifixion, but more importantly, we look to what the story of the resurrection is telling us and of the implications that come with a living Savior. We as a faith look, then to the future and not to the past.
In the earliest parts of the book of Isaiah, we read how this prophet see’s Gods Kingdom in the future. “In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.” “Many people’s will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”
And Isaiah sees these teachings resulting into a land of peace, where our swords shall be beaten into ploughshares and our spears into pruning-hooks, and nation shall not lift up sword against other nations, and neither shall we learn war anymore! In other words, God’s kingdom truly turns into a land of “Kin-dom”, where we are no longer living in war or fear of war, but truly living in peace and being productive of things that will bring harmony and security for all people.
Now let’s jump ahead about eight hundred years, to Matthew’s time, where the city of Jerusalem and the Temple itself have been destroyed by the Roman Empire. Here we read about the second coming of the Messiah, not one where he enters into history quietly one night, but of an entrance that will shake the foundations of our world. It will be a time when people are not expecting his arrival, where we will be busy doing life and then without warning, in that twinkling of an eye, Christ will once again directly encounter humanity. In that day there will be disorder, confusion and disaster awaiting those here on earth.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this reflection, the first thing that came to my mind as I was reading this portion from Matthew, was the idea of “preparation.” The second image that came to my mind was the 1972 movie, titled, “Left Behind”, a movie that is heaped in Eschatology, the second coming of Christ. In Western civilization, we are fascinated with the concept of the end of the world, with the entrance of Christ coming as the avenging agent of God, where there is a final show down between good and evil. Last night, I was watching the movie, Legion. A story line of how God, like in the days of Noah, had become disillusioned with His creation and was sending down the angels of Heaven to destroy modern man. Yet one angel, Michael still had hope for the human race, found in a single woman who was pregnant and her close male friend, who cared both for her and her child, even though they were not married and the child not his. Ultimately, Michael had to go to battle for us against the angle Gabriel, so that the child might be born and provide a new hope for God’s creation. This movie speaks about a second coming of Christ in a new light, differing from what many view within the church.
The early Christians were also pre-occupied with the second coming of Christ. So much so that we read within the letters to certain churches, where Paul, who also early on in his evangelistic journeys saw the return of Christ as imminent, started to change his understanding about Christ’s return, and that Christ might not be coming as quickly as the early church had anticipated, and with that understanding, needed to focus more on how we live and develop our moral conduct by the standards of what Jesus was teaching during his ministry on earth.
Quoting from Peter Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, What’s So Good About The Good News? from the chapter, The Gospel and the Future:
“New York City’s Trinity Institute devoted its 2007 National Theological Conference to the subject of “God’s Unfinished Future,” which addressed head-on what it described as an American battle over Christianity’s vision of God’s Future. Popular apocalyptic works such as the ‘Left Behind’ series pit the forces of good and evil in an imminent showdown where God will defeat the forces of evil, the earth will be annihilated, and the ‘saved’ lifted up.” This is a view held by millions of American Christians, and the language of apocalypse and end-of-time conflict is very popular. Televangelists hold forth on the subject, websites proliferate with end-of-time prophecies, and books purporting to explain the signs of the times in this worldview fill the shelves of religious bookstores across the country. The “rapture,” a term not found in the Bible and a concept introduced into popular theology only in the nineteenth century, has engaged the imaginations of an enormous number of people for whom current events seem only to confirm the prophecies in the books of Daniel and Revelation. Eschatology, once the sleepy domain of theologians and fringe preachers, now commands center stage among evangelicals and a host of other Christians.” Pg 138
I have to admit, even though I do not hold to modern day Evangelical views of the second coming of Christ, I get a chill down my spine, when I hear of events like the current attack of North Korea on South Korea. Where there is a person of power that posses nuclear capability, who seems to not have the restraint in using such destructive weapons that could ultimately bring life as we now know it, to an end. Or when thinking about the President of Iran, who has such a hate toward Israel, that given nuclear capabilities, might easily plunge the world into what one might call, the beginning of the end.
So how do we who are living in the twenty-first century make sense to these first Advent readings? The message of preparation to the church is very clear. The Rev Kate Huey quotes Mary Hinkle Shores saying, “… observing how Matthew moves in this chapter from the cosmic and grand to the most mundane images, from the sun and moon going dark and the stars falling from heaven to workers in the field and women grinding meal. How do we connect apocalyptic images to our own mundane, ordinary lives? Shore reminds us that apocalyptic literature has been understood as addressed to people who are suffering from terrible oppression, to give them hope that things are going to change, and change suddenly and dramatically, because help is coming from outside. But this text is different, she says, because here "Jesus seems to address apocalyptic imagery not to the oppressed but to sleepy people," for "whether they are persecuted or privileged, they no longer believe that anything will change. They imagine today and tomorrow looking exactly like yesterday, and after days, months, and years of such scaled-back expectations, they are getting…very….sleepy." Shore reflects on the way God "wakes" people up, suddenly, most unexpectedly, sometimes with good things, and sometimes not, but in any case, the "intervention of God into human affairs cannot be managed or scheduled the way many of the events of our days can be. Whether God's advent is as manageable as a heart attack, or as manageable as falling in love, either way, you know you are not in control" (New Proclamation 2007).
This is the message to us this morning. No matter how hard we try to be in control of our lives; no matter how much planning we do, of how much preparation we put into our future, God has a hand in our lives and it is not for us to know when we shall encounter God. As we wait, and trust, in that extravagant mercy of God, Matthew gives us a very strong hint of how we are to live in preparation for Jesus' return. David Bartlett writes: "One day Jesus may appear in the clouds, suddenly, like a thief in the night. But before that – as Matthew reminds us – Jesus will appear just around the corner, suddenly, like a hungry person, or a neighbor ill-clothed, or someone sick or imprisoned" (Feasting on the Word). How we respond to Jesus in these terms will shape, Matthew says in chapter 25, how Jesus encounters us on that great day of fulfillment. And that fulfillment isn't the end but just the beginning, Richard Swanson's excellent commentary claims: "Jewish and Christian hopes are better characterized as expecting the Beginning of the World, not the end, the freeing and fruition of creation, not its destruction. It is a good exercise to raise your eyes to the horizon of this event" (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew). We are a people not just of the past, but more accurately, a people of the future, where life as God has planned it, will begin, in God’s fullness! So, let us look this Advent season to the birth of Jesus as our future to a world that God has envisioned! Amen

Whose In Charge? Sermon by Rev Steven R Mitchell, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY

Who’s In Charge?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 11/21/2010
Based on Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; and Luke 23:33-43

Several weeks ago I was invited by Martha Atkins supervisor of the ELCA Lutheran Churches, to be one of her mentors for her last year in seminary, along with Father Bob Spencer of the Holy Communion Episcopal Church. One of the responsibilities is to meet with her and Father Bob, weekly to do a discussion of the current week’s Lectionary readings. At our first meeting this past Monday, we all three felt that this week’s Gospel selection about Christ’s crucifixion was out of character with this week’s celebration of “Christ the King” Sunday. For those of us who follow the church year, today is the end of our current church year; this is our New Year’s Eve so to speak. Next Sunday we start a new church year with the First Sunday of Advent. With that in mind, I have been thinking throughout this week that using the Crucifixion story is actually an appropriate end to the yearend study. We start out each new church year with the anticipation of Christ’s birth, the story of the introduction of the Messiah into our world, this “hope” that is coming to us; so it seems only proper to end the church year, with his death, with the message that Christ is King; this “hope” completed, which has changed into the “assurance” of God’s salvation.
With the start of the Hebrew reading this morning, we are told that God would be sending the world a good “shepherd”, who would be able to tend to God’s flock, showing them the true mind of God. This shepherd from God would be able to do this because he was from God, coming to us through the human bloodline of King David. God spoke to Jeremiah saying, “…concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them…” As I think about this charge from God, my first thought goes to King Saul, who was charged to look over God’s people as their king. The problem with Saul is that he ended up turning his back to God as he became seduced by power and position.
God in turn decided to use David, a man who had been an actual shepherd to become the shepherd of Israel. Of course, David was no angel, and he had many faults, one of them was having a very lustful heart and out of that lust, committed murder. Yet David never lost sight of his relationship with God and of what God asked of him, which is why I believe he was chosen as the line in which God would use to bring the message of “reconciliation” to a world that so often forgets and goes astray.
But I also think that there is a strong message for us within the church when we look at what God was saying through Jeremiah. We as the church have too often not been good shepherds to those within the church as well as to the larger community of humanity. We often have turned our backs to God’s will and have been guilty of leading God’s people away from the fold. We do this by letting our own personal agenda’s become the “idols” that we worship instead of asking God for advice and direction.
Yet, God promised a true shepherd, which came in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Through his teaching, in his willingness to shepherd a group of women and men, showing them that rules and rituals were not the way to experience the God who loves them, but rather through ministering to the needs of the poor and of the outcast, of giving hospitality to the immigrant, of tending to the needs of those who were sick and in prison, and of those who were possessed with spirits that were not their own. Through Jesus’ heart and of his working with all people, he showed the true message of “reconciliation” and “inclusiveness” of God’s love to every person.
So, through the teaching of Christ and in his death upon the cross, the ultimate example of humanities sin against God, we as children of God and as brothers and sisters to Christ, are enabled to share in the inheritance of Christ’s message. It is a message of life. This life is given and lived out when we act toward each other in the love of a living reconciliation to every human being, those that we meet and those that we will never have the privilege to meet.
For through Jesus’ life, we have been given the word of God, the light, that shows us how to live in harmony, not just with one another, but also in harmony within our selves, and even more greater than this, by living in harmony with God! It is in this state of being reconciled with God then, that the Kingdom of God is actually being lived out here and now, in the present! Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is here and now! When we are giving of ourselves to God’s teaching, when we are giving our hearts to the Spirit that God has sent to us, and asking through God’s Holy Spirit to fill us with love, guidance, charity and forgiveness, then we will be the continuation of that “Good Shepherd” that God sent to this world, some two thousand years ago. We will be the continuation of that Promise of hope, of reconciliation, of love, and of salvation that has been transferred unto us.
It is in the letter to the Colossians that we are given this assurance of the Promise of God that came to us in the person of Jesus Christ. It is this reason that we can say that Christ is the head of the Church. The writer of this letter to God’s church tells us that Christ himself was before all things and in him all things hold together. It might seem to us, when life has become too much to bear, due to the illness of a loved one or through our own illness, that God might not really be in control of everything. We can become so weighted down with financial problems with the loss of a job, or a decrease in our income, or by unexpected expenses, that we might wonder if God actually cares about our situation. As Christians, we are not exempt from all the stress and trials that come with life. Jesus never said to his followers, life will be an ongoing party. Jesus never told his disciples that God would spare them from pain, death, or hate directed at them by others.
In the Gospel, we see God’s own son was not spared any of the harshness that life can offer. Jesus was not shielded from the hate of those who were evil. Rather, we read where Jesus set his path to encounter those who were false teachers, those who were in leadership and doing harm to God’s world. We read where Jesus was so hated and feared by men who were only interested in what they could gain for themselves at the cost of everyone else, that he was falsely accused, tried, and put to death.
We have as our example of God’s true servant, the knowledge and assuredness that if we stand up and speak “truth” to those who are unjust and looking out only for their own benefit at the cost of others, that we will be crucified. We have a role model that tells us, that when we present God’s message of social justice, of God’s desire to reconcile the brokenness that comes when humanity hardens its heart to God, we can expect to be assaulted, be falsely accused, and have our character assassinated at the very least.
Yet, we can see that even when Jesus was up on the cross, amid the humiliation and bad mouthing of the crowd, he was able to ask God to forgive them of their ignorance and not hold their sinful behavior and actions against them. In fact, when one of the two other men who were also being crucified along with Jesus, asked Jesus to forgive him personally for his sins, Jesus, assured him that he would be alongside Jesus in paradise.
After examining today’s scriptures, you tell me who is in charge. It is clear to me that God is the one who is in charge. When we are feeling the weight of the world upon our shoulders, all we need to do is to look to Jesus and be assured God is in charge. Even in the darkest of lifes events, God has not abandoned us. We might not understand “why” life is going the way that it is going for us, but we can be assured that through God’s love for us, we are not abandoned, but that God is walking with us. We can be assured that God will not let the leadership of bad shepherds destroy God’s creation, but rather God will gather us back into His pasture. As the writer of Colossians so accurately points out, “…and through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile to herself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the
blood of Christ’s cross.” Amen

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Destructive Nature of Disorderliness, by Rev Steven R Mitchell, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY

The Destructive Nature of Disorderliness
By Rev. Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 11/14/2010
Based on 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Just in case some of you wonder how I pick and choose what scripture I am going to use for any given Sunday’s worship, I can guarantee you that I don’t sit around each week seeing what problem we here at First Congregational might be dealing with and then go through the Bible looking for specific scripture that will help me “proof text” the points that I share with you. I follow what is call “the Common Lectionary Readings”, which is a three year cycle designed to look and examine a well balanced reading of the whole Bible. Once again, Paul is writing to not just of church some two thousand years ago but to us in this very congregation. It is one of those scripture lessons that tend to get pastors fired because it too often hits the nerve of issues going on in the church body. What I find interesting is, the lectionary throughout this whole year seems to be hitting directly to issues that exist here at First Congregational Church and I just know that God is trying to get me fired by bringing up these delicate topics.
But, as a minister of the gospel and in my effort to be true to my calling, I cannot ignore what seems to be the leading of the Holy Spirit and the word that God has for this congregation. Sharon Pribyl tells me that I like “confrontation” and I would have to tell her, she is correct in that assessment. But I don’t like confrontation that brings up arguing or anger just for anger and argument’s sake. It comes out of my own journey in life; I understand the value of confronting issues that are present in order to build a more healthy life.
The large part of today’s thoughts are going to come from the commentary, “Feasting on the Word”, with specific authors Rev Barbara Blodgett, Minister of Vocation and Formation, Parish Life and Leadership, Local Ministries of the national offices of the United Church of Christ, and of Rev Neta Pringle, Minister of Word and Sacrament, Presbyterian Church (USA), because they have expressed today’s thoughts in a way that far exceeds what I can formulate.
Some of the Thessalonians are letting the others down by refusing to contribute to the community by working. Paul has had to address this problem before in (I Thess. 5:14) but apparently now the situation has become even worse. So Paul admonishes them again. The writer does not mince words: he tells the responsible ones to keep their distance from the slackers and tells the slackers to either get back to work or expect not to eat!
It is important immediately to clarify three potential misinterpretations of the theological intent of this passage. First, Paul does not counsel the community to shun completely its idle members. All believers, even obstructive ones, are considered worthy of inclusion and concern. Secondly, Paul is not addressing individuals who were unable to work for some reason. There is no suggestion that dependents are being criticized for their dependency alone; such an interpretation would contradict the entire thrust of New Testament teaching on caring for all regardless of ability. Finally, Paul is not expressing “an early form of the Protestant work ethic” To early Christians, work and prosperity were not signs of individual grace but, rather, evidence of supporting oneself and thereby the whole community. To refuse to work was therefore to rebel and take unfair advantage of others, and this was the problem, not mere idleness.
In fact, in the history of interpretation of this text, many have suggested reading “idleness” as “disorderliness.” It is legitimate, therefore, to go beyond the specific issues of laziness and labor and consider more generally the problem of disorderly conduct within communities of faith like the Thessalonians or possibly like First Congregational of Rock Springs! This will help us better to appreciate the strict disciplinary tone of the text. Rev Barbara Blodgett, UCC
Paul’s most critical problem was the absence of a standard for settling intragroup disputes. This text raises two significant Spiritual issues. The first has to do with the individual. Each of us needs to take responsibility for our own life – our physical life and our spiritual life. Remember the line from I Corinthians 13:11? “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”
When grandson Brendan was two, if he wanted something he would grab it and demand,”mine!” At four he began to grow out of that childish way, but some people never do. To become mature Christians means that we do give up childish ways. We learn that we are not the center of the universe. We learn that sharing goes both ways. We learn to respect the needs and rights of others.
There are those who do not mooch just sandwiches, or money. They want to mooch spiritually as well. They may sit in the pew Sunday after Sunday, but they do not do any work themselves. “The preacher will tell me what the Bible says. The congregation will do my praying for me.” At that point Paul’s admonition – “if you will not work, you cannot eat” – becomes descriptive rather than prescriptive. If you do not read the Bible for yourself, if you do not have your own prayer time, no one else can do it for you. You will not be fed. You will not grow. You will not mature as a Christian.
The second issue Paul focuses on concerns the life of the community. It is not enough to have an individual commitment to Christ. That commitment must be lived out in the context of the community of faith. Read Paul’s letters and see just how much his writings focus on building a community that is caring, supportive, and joyful. Moochers and busybodies disrupt the community. They build resentment and distrust. They shame us in the eyes of the world. Who wants to be part of a group that is always fighting? Moochers and busybodies tarnish our witness and keep us from being Christ’s body in the world. Rev Neta Pringle, Presbyterian (USA)
Our text today is ultimately speaking to church discipline and accountability. Over the past few months there have been a group of folks working on revising our church constitution and by-laws, trying to update its language and bring it into line with how we truly function within this body. One of the last pieces that need to be addressed is that of “Membership”. Questions such as: “what does it mean to be a member of First Congregational Church of Rock Springs?” “Does giving money to the church but never showing up to worship or participating in other functions in the life of the church, constitute membership?” “Or should we demand more commitment from an individual who wishes to call themselves a member?” “What about accountability?” “Where does church discipline come into play?” All these are very serious questions that as a body, we need to be in conversation about and defining, not just a few, but the whole body. Because of the magnitude of these questions, we are holding a workshop on Saturday December 4th, focused on the topic of Membership. This workshop will be lead by Rev Jean Wade. From this workshop those who are working on membership issues within the by-laws will have an idea of how we as a congregation wish to define this important piece of who we are.
One of the things that we have discovered in our review of the by-laws is there is no standard for dealing with issues that come up within the life of the congregation, or as Rev Reta Pringle puts it, “intragroup disputes.” We have standards in which ministers and denominational representatives are held to and procedures to which we can follow to deal with misconduct and grievances, but most churches do not have in writing any standards to which they hold their membership to when there are grievances or misconduct. This allows then for what we call living a “disorderly” life. It allows for dysfunctional living which demoralizes a congregation. This is what Paul was struggling with, with the church in Thessalonica.
In his book “Seven Deadly Sins”, author Dr Rev Tony Campolo speaks to the very first deadly sin as “Sloth”, which we call “laziness”. We tend to think of laziness in relationship to the Protestant work ethic and not a spiritual issue, but Dr Campolo quotes psychotherapist, M. Scott Peck as pointing to Laziness as a major cause of evil, a primary cause of psychological illness, and the main reason that Americans are increasingly failing at human relations. Peck points out that laziness is what prevents us from being loving. Love requires commitment and work, and those who are lazy are seldom willing to expend that kind of energy. Our culture promotes a view of love that makes this most important characteristic of being human and of being Christian seem to be a spontaneous emotion which can be neither controlled nor created. This failure to recognize that love is an art requiring discipline and hard work is largely responsible for the absence of love in so many of our interpersonal relationships. Pg 14 Dr Campolo continues to say, “Joy in Christ requires a commitment to working at the Christian lifestyle. Salvation comes as a gift, but the joy of salvation demands disciplined action.
If the Apostle Paul were to point out this churches greatest issue, I think he would say we struggle with the very same sin as the church in Thessalonica did, that of Sloth at a congregational level. He would say, we have abdicated our responsibility to work at our Christian faith. As members, we have abdicated our responsibilities to work on committees, to work on our spiritual growth, to work at making Christ the head this church. And what would give him cause to say this? It’s not hard. We have on our membership roles, 134 members, how many of them attend worship regularly? We have difficulty in having people fill committee and board positions. We have a missions committee, but when was the last time that committee has been active? When I got here there was no children’s education going on. Why? The two things that I heard were, “I’m tired of teaching, I’ve done my tour of duty” and the other was “the pastor didn’t think it was important.”
There are two types of churches, those that have a vital ministry through its laity and those who have a maintenance ministry through the pastor. In other words, there are those churches that have a disciplined and working lifestyle of their faith and those churches that have grown into Slothfulness. I would ask, “did your last pastor truly think Sunday school or committees like Missions were not important, or was he saying that as a congregation, the laity needed to be disciplined enough to work at fulfilling those needs?” The church at Thessalonica was a church that was plagued with sloth.
Disorder come to a congregation when it’s members have abdicated their responsibilities to the greater body. By their refusal to work within the body of faith, they allow moochers, and busybodies to drain the church overall of its energy and resources. It allows for resentments and distrust to rule within the life of the congregation.
How then do we live together? That is Paul’s concern. Do the folks outside the church look at us and say, “That is not any place I want to be!” Does the face that we present to the world embarrass our Lord?” Or, do we create a place that makes folks stop, look and think: “Maybe there is something happening there that I want to be part of? Might this be a place where I can grow in my faith? ”
I realize that this sermon sounds like I am beating you down. I am not. But like a parent who loves their children, and wishes only the best for them, and wants to build strong Christ like character within them, at times the conversation sounds harsh. You all are tremendous people! But, there is still deep hurt within this congregation. I know this not just because of what people say to me in confidence, but because of those who are no longer sitting in worship with us. What we are living with at the moment is the result of people who abdicated their responsibilities as members to this congregation and allowed “disorder” to enter into the life of this congregation. It is our responsibility to work at correcting this and work on bringing “order” back into our congregational life. That takes work, discipline, love, and lots of forgiveness.
Churches today, like the Thessalonians, are sometimes plagued by forms of misconduct. In response, they might do well to remember that discipline and community formation are not necessarily contradictory. As individuals and as communities, brothers and sisters need to be encouraged not to become “weary in doing what is right” for each other’s sake. Rev Blodgett Amen

Monday, November 8, 2010

An Epistle from Rev Steven R Mitchell, Rock Springs, WY

An Epistle from the Reverend Steven R. Mitchell
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY, Nov 7, 2010
Based on Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 6:20-31 & Segments from personal profile
For All Saints Day Celebration

To the First Congregational UCC Church of Rock Springs:
Steven, a minister of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To God’s holy people at First Congregational Church in Rock Springs, WY, the faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace and peace to you from God our Parent and the Lord Jesus Christ.
As we come to worship this morning and remember those who have passed on before us, I thought I would share with you some portions from my Ministerial Profile, as these selections speak to how I was able to discern my call into minister. In these thoughts you will learn how some special folks, who are now gone to be with our Lord, influenced my life, as well as some other people who I have learned from, so far in my walk with Christ.
As I look back over my life and examine ‘my call’ to ministry, the best I can say is, ‘God has and is continuously cultivating’ me for ministry. There is not one person that has been in my life who has not had some kind of impact in the development of my gifts, talents and skills that I use in the role of Pastor. Most of you are here this morning because of the saintly influence of people in your life. People like your parents, or grandparents, or aunts and uncles; friends from when you were in school; you possibly are hear because of the influence of a Sunday school teacher or youth sponsor. The point being, God speaks to us in many differing ways and in many various voices.
As a young child my mother took me weekly to church, that is until my father insisted that she stop wasting her time at church and spend that day with him. Then an Aunt who was Catholic would take me to mass when she could. There were a couple of parents of my childhood school mates who also saw to it that I was in church on a regular basis, by picking me up and taking me to their churches. Religion was discussed in one of my grandmothers home, where going to church was not one of the expectations of our spiritual training.
There were a couple of key people in my life that helped mentor me in my early development of my Christian walk while in me teens. One couple eventually became my parent-in-laws. Another was the mother of one of my buddies. I would go out weekly to their house and she and I would have deep theological discussions. One day she announced to me that ‘God’ was calling me into the ministry. With horror I denied this prophetic announcement saying, “I wanted a very different style of life.” Even though I thought she was overboard on her assessment of my future, deep down I knew it was possible.
I moved to Wichita, KS to attend the University. At that point I became involved in the life of a local American Baptist Church. In time I became the chairperson of a task force charged with the relocation and settlement of some 200 Southeast Asian refugees. It was while working on this task force that I remembered my mentor’s words, ‘God is calling you to ministry’. At the same time I was managing a convenience store. Time and again, as I listened to my customers, I became increasingly aware of just how many people had a feeling of separation and a deep longing to belong and be a part of something bigger than what they were currently experiencing, though not recognizing it as a spiritual longing. One would think having this insight and the epiphany of my high school mentor that I would have easily answered that call to ministry and enrolled at once into seminary. It took three years of struggling with that call before I could embrace it as ‘my call to ministry’. This time, was for me, my evening in the garden of Gethsemane.
Books have been an important influence to not only my calling but also in the shaping of my ministry. If I were limited to pick just one or two thoughts to describe the essence of my view of ministry, I would look to Matthew 25, “When you have done this to the least of my brothers, you have done this to me” and to Paul’s call in II Corinthians 5:18, “Christ gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”
As each day passes by, this realization becomes more real to me than the day before. Author/teacher and lecturer, Tony Campollo put forth an idea that if you see Christ in the face of each person you meet, then as a Christian, you would treat that person differently than what you might currently do. When I see the face of Jesus in the face of whom ever I encounter, I find that I cannot help but be more connected to that person; open to listening to their joys, their needs, their failures, their pain, their hopes and their wisdom. As we take the time to become intimately involved with one another, we become more intimately involved in our relationship with Jesus.
In Charles Sheldon’s book In His Steps (a Congregationalist Pastor in the early 20th Century); a minister challenges his congregation to ask this one question, “What would Jesus do?” When honestly asked, the answer more times than not conflicted with what traditional wisdom would say. This was true for Jesus, as he consistently asked for God’s guidance and when acting on those answers, saw himself crossing the established line of acceptable behavior both in the religious and secular community. It is my experience that when a person honestly seeks out the ‘truth’ in their spirit, they will often be at odds with the established systems that they once operated under.
One of today’s challenges within the church comes through “how do we minister.” Yet many churches are looking at their ‘ministries” through the eyes of survivalism. In reading many church profiles there is a common theme in the desire to grow, many times focusing on the need of “increased numbers” as a means to keep their local ministries alive. Church growth is important, but I believe “growth for survival” is misdirection and is not “ministry”.
As I continue to look at “effective ministry”, I look to Diana Butler Bass’s (author of Christianity for the Rest of Us) study of the last ten years of church growth among liberal mainline Protestant churches as she notes three basic commonalities among those congregations that are growing. These congregations work: 1) on becoming a community; 2) growing in intimacy with God; and 3) welcoming strangers. These three aspects fit right in with Matthew 25 and II Corinthians 5:18, the cornerstone of my understanding of the Good News that Jesus brought to a world that continues to be so disconnected.
I offer my personal insight: I have learned over the years that personal growth and change is the primary focus in growing a church. I would title my present focus on church growth as “An experiment in growing faith.” Once our faith is truly owned and personalized, we become more open to the beauty of “all” God’s creation and become encouragers of others. We become a magnet for people who are looking to grow and find expression in their spiritual journey. True church growth starts – with the growth in faith by oneself! It is my opinion that one should look to church growth not in terms of “How do we grow” but rather looking to answer in earnest “How can I deepen my relationship with God.” In other words, not how can we grow our church but rather, ‘how can I grow myself?’ It is with the personal growth in our spiritual lives that is the basis for any significant growth of a congregation and thus deepening of the congregation’s ministry.
It is through the faith of those who have come before us, that we are able to be who we are and even more importantly, become what God wishes for us to be. The work of this church has been the labor of those saints before us, we are here to labor forward, continually laying the foundation for the next generation. Thank God for those we look to as our mentors and may God help us to be the Saints of those who come after us! Amen
I wish to close with this prayer from Paul: “…I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. 17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, may give you the Spirit[f] of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart’s may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe…”

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Love Is Say, "I'm Sorry"

Love Is Saying, “I’m Sorry”
Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 10/31/2010
Based on Psalm 32: 1-7 & Luke 19:1-10

We American’s love a good love story. Millions of books are written depicting the search for that one “true love”. Hundreds of movies have been produced concerning “true love”, with its audiences quietly dabbing the tears from their eyes in the darkness of the theatre. Movies like Sleepless In Seattle even refer to these types of movies, such as a scene where all the women in the apartment are in tears as they watch An Affair To Remember, and the guys in the kitchen drinking their beer, berate it as a “Chick flick”, when in another scene you see all the men sitting in the living room crying while they are watching the movie Rocky, and the women are in the kitchen contributing their husbands emotionalism to watching a “Man flick.”
There are always memorable lines that come from these types of movies. Lines like, “We’ll always have Paris”, or “Play it again, Sam” which actually really wasn’t in the movie Casablanca, but became a memorable line anyway. Another memorable bit of Proverb comes from the 1970 hit movie, strangely enough titled, Love Story. The line used twice within the film about two young lovers, both from the opposite side of the tracks; the man from old New England family and money, the girl from a poor family with no notoriety. This famous line was, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
I didn’t much like this line in 1970 and the older I become the more convinced it is the furtherest thing from truth. Actually, in 1972, in the movie What’s Up Doc, Barbara Streisand’s character looks up to Ryan O’Neal, bats her eyes and once again delivers the line, “after all Doc, Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Ryan O’Neal, who first delivered that line in the movie Love Story, looks at the camera and with a blank look on his face, say’s, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
If we look at what today’s lectionary reading is saying this morning, saying “you’re sorry” seems to be the only way to come back into fellowship with another person. In Psalm 32, we read where the renewed relationship between the writer and God comes by recognizing his sin and the asking for forgiveness. It was the psalmist’s sin that was keeping him separated from God. The result of his refusal to acknowledge his sin kept his spirit in despair and his strength was draining away from him. But once the psalmist said, “I am sorry for my sin”, he recognized a change within his heart and his burden, his aloneness was at once changed to where he felt “renewed” and “alive” and no longer “alone” in life.
Our relationship with God so very much parallels the relationships that we have as humans, whether it is between two people who are in love, or between individuals within a faith community, or two friends, or even within the family structure. When we are in relationship with someone, we have to be open within our heart in order to deepen that relationship. When we find that we have wronged that person, and become stubborn and do not acknowledge that wrong, we then begin to build walls that if left unattended, eventually become such barriers that the relationship experiences an ultimate break down.
This happens far too often in church communities. One person gets their feelings hurt, or their integrity or authority challenged by someone else, sometimes without the other person realizing it. Lines are drawn and the process of “retaliation” begins, which can escalate into all out and out conflict that by this point includes a good number of people, each taking sides. From the point of the psalmist and looking at the faith community as a single body, he says, “my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.” This is what happens when we build up walls and do not acknowledge our sin to God or to one another. The body begins to dry up and whither, a cancer grows within the body and eats away at all that is good.
The only way that healing and reconciliation can come about, then, is to say, “I am sorry”. I want to share a couple of examples of how varying aspects of wrong doing develop into the building of walls and ultimately prevent healing. In my early twenties, I was a fresh kid on the block, so to speak, as a new member of a church that had had a major split. A split so severe that it was handled at the Superior Court level and the winners, if you want to call them that were a handful of people who were given back a building that could seat 2,000 for worship, along with two educational wings, one with five floors and the other four stories. This group of 175 members was able to keep their place of worship but from the eyes of the larger community, the building was always viewed as, the place where those people can’t get along with one another, and the growth of that faith community suffered because of the cities sigma that was represented by the physical building. The healing for that congregation didn’t come until a pastor by the name of Dr. Roger Fredrickson, a man with great skill, contacted the pastor of the larger, displaced congregation who had build a new home across the river, with the intent to trade pulpits and have each congregation worship with the other in both buildings in two separate evening services. This was going against a court order of twenty-five years that stated the group in exile was never to step foot inside the original building of dispute. As it turns out, the larger, displaced congregation was also in need of healing and through this act of worshipping together and with many people saying, “I’m sorry” to folks that they hadn’t seen in twenty-five years, there was a renewal within the heart of both congregations. It was big news and with the coverage by the local news paper, there was a healing within the community itself and no longer did people look at the big old stone building on Broadway Ave, as the church where “they can’t get along.”
As a new person and wanting to contribute within the structure of the church, I joined various boards over my years there. As I worked on these boards, I continually butted heads with one man in particular, who always seemed to be on the other side of any issue. By my way of thinking, his views tended to be in the directions that strangled church growth. My frustration continued to grow toward this man. Finally I decided to pray about the situation. I had once been told by a wise person, not to pray for change for the other person, but for myself. As I did this, I eventually began to realize that this person’s opposition wasn’t to keep the church from growing but rather was based on good intensions. I was so convicted of my frustration, that once I found release from it through prayer, I had to go and share what had been going on within my heart with this man and asked for his forgiveness. The funny thing was, he wasn’t aware of our alienation, for you see, most of it had been in my own heart, yet through that conversation, and we were able to build stronger bonds of respect and open communications. This wouldn’t have been possible had I held onto my feelings of frustration and had I not been willing to go to him and say, “I was sorry.”
On the other end of the spectrum, my first appointment as a pastor was in a small rural community, where once again, there had been a huge dispute, again between the pastor and the congregation. Through the hardening of hearts, on both sides of the issue, this dispute ultimately involved the whole community of around a thousand people. During this dispute, one of the patriarchs of the church received a letter for a minister in the neighboring town, basically accusing him as being the center of that dispute. This man deeply hurt by these accusations, held on to this letter for several years, often referring back to it. Eventually I submitted to reading this letter and in truth it was a letter filled with many hurtful things. Whether, the things within the letter were based on fact or not, isn’t the point that I am wanting to stress. What this letter represented was a wall that was preventing a healing for this man over a situation that had pasted several years earlier. The eventual healing came when this man was able to destroy the letter, for in destroying the letter, it broke down that barrier and allowed him to heal and move forward. Once his healing started, the church seemed to begin to heal as well. I’m not saying that this man was keeping the church from moving forward, but rather, there was a change that seemed to occur within the whole congregation, that can only be explained as the “healing through the Holy Spirit” at a congregational level. This healing wasn’t able to happen until this one person actually started to heal emotionally and spiritually, I think because the congregation as a whole saw the change within him, much like what we see in the change in Zacchaeus the tax collector.
In Luke, we read where Zacchaeus, an obviously sinful person, finds healing through an encounter with Jesus. In this particular story, we do not read that Zacchaeus has actually “repented” in front of Jesus, but by his actions was definitely a different man prior to Jesus coming to his house. I think to get a fuller picture about this story we have to go back to chapter eighteen and read about the parable Jesus was telling about two men who were praying to God; One was a Pharisee, the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, was looking up to heaven thanking God he wasn’t like the tax-collector, who was a sinner; while the tax-collector was so contrite in his pray of asking for forgiveness, that he couldn’t even raise his head to heaven. In this parable, Jesus indicates that it was the Tax-collector who went away as a forgiven man and able to enter into a right relationship with God and that the Pharisee, the religious man was the one not forgiven for his sin, first and foremost because he actually didn’t ask for forgiveness.
I think that this parable Jesus was sharing came from an actual encounter that he had had with Zacchaeus, and that when Jesus had entered into Jericho, he recognized Zacchaeus as the tax-collector in the previous town and by his inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ house, gives the indication of just how included Zacchaeus actually is, as a man who had asked to be forgiving for his wrong doing and has found reconciliation and affirmation in the eyes of Jesus.
The church as a collective body has often acted like the Pharisee that sees itself as righteous, when in fact has done many sinful and harmful acts upon individuals, harmful acts so great that it builds up walls that prevent “reconciliation” between God and those individuals, as well as walls of isolation between God and the church. True healing doesn’t take place until there is a real, “I’m sorry” being spoken. The opportunity for healing for American Japanese did not take place until our government publically “apologized” for placing them into concentration camps during World War II. The work of Congregational Missionaries in Hawaii, destroyed a culture, and with the admission by the UCC to the Hawaiians, that we recognize the pain, sorrow, and injustices that were incurred through our zeal to provide “salvation” to them and in saying “we are sorry for our wrongness”, deep wounds are starting to heal.
A church will never truly over come deep hurts that occur within its individual members until there is forgiveness being asked for. There are people within a faith community that can feel they are the “victims” and pray that they will be vindicated. But you know what? That is a prayer of futility, for that type of prayer will never change anything. The prayer of the person who feels “victimized” should be a prayer for personal healing. Why? Because, you can never change “the other person”, but we can change ourselves, and it is through personal transformation where we are able to break down those walls that separate us spiritually, both from those that we feel have victimized us, as well as from God. For the odd thing is, the more we hold on to hurt and pain and memory of “who did what to us”, the farther away we move from a truly loving relationship with God. Our hearts are either like the Pharisee and see “others” as being the problem, or our hearts are going to be like the tax-collector and know that we are the problem. It is in the heart of the tax-collector that God truly is able to heal, and with that healing, everyone benefits, not just the one saying, “I’m sorry” but everyone! Am