Monday, December 27, 2010

The Trouble with Christ, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 12/26/2010

The Trouble with Christ
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 12/26/2010
Based on Matthew 2:1-12

When you stop to think about the four differing seasons that we live our lives by, Christmas has to be one of the most amazing times of our year! It comes in the dead of winter. In many parts of the world, the temperatures are below freezing and snow often accompanies these low temperatures. Just a few days ago, the shortest day of the year occurred. When you look out the window, it can easily become depressing, knowing that you might be getting up in the dark, going to work in the dark and at the end of the day, coming home in the dark.
This particular year, the snow that fell this last week, was a wet snow, and if that isn’t enough, the following day, we had freezing rain, making driving on certain streets rather dangerous. There have been multiple times this past week that I was very thankful that the signal lights at many of the intersections that I found myself starting to slide through, when trying to brake, changed to green giving me the right of way, helping reduce the chances of my meeting another car in a rather unpleasant manor.
Yet, with all this bleak winter weather, there is in general an excitement that comes as well. We many times tend to bemoan this time of the year along with our heightened sense of expectation. The majority of us tend to feel that this particular time of the year focuses too much on consumerism. For those of us who are at least a thousand years old, remember when stores didn’t display their Christmas merchandise, and decorations until the day after Thanksgiving. These days, it isn’t uncommon to see Christmas displays being put up before the arrival of Halloween.
Now we celebrate the day after Thanksgiving by paying homage to a thing called, “Black Friday” and for those of us who are not into the huge crowds at Herberger’s and Wal-Mart, there is a growing tend to go on-line and do our Christmas shopping on the following Monday, allowing us to have those same savings but not the stress of fighting over merchandise in a crowded store. It is true, for many Americans, Christmas has become a very stressful holiday, with expectations that seem to go beyond the limits of sanity. There is a culture that has developed, especially for people who have no exposure to a church that understands Christmas solely as a time of the year where consumerism runs out of control.
The flip side to the out-of-control commercialism that plagues us during this time of the year, is that of time intentionally set aside to be with family and friends. About 10 days ago, Paul and I made a fast trip to Western Kansas in order to spend a couple of days with two daughters, five of my grandchildren and my mother. As a bonus, my sister and her partner drove across the state to join us for our last night in Garden City,KS. Even though the trip was long and the time spent visiting was too short, I had a sense of satisfaction of being able to physically connect with part of my family.
Once we arrived home, to Rock Springs, the marathon of Christmas week started with the Christmas Pageant that the children presented last Sunday. Then two nights ago, we gathered for a candle light service on Christmas Eve, where as extended families, we listened to familiar scriptures speaking about Jesus’ birth, and sang carols that herald that event some two thousand years ago; afterward, going home or to someone else’s home to continue celebrating familiar family traditions. Yesterday, being Christmas, was again filled with continued celebration.
And here we are today, the day after Christmas, with all the presents unwrapped, looking forward to eating leftovers, and having homes that are once again quiet as friends and family have left to return to their own homes. What a letdown. After all the anticipation of the last four weeks of Advent, buying and wrapping gifts, baking and cooking; all the planning for what has happened over the last couple of days, we are left with nothing to look forward to. That can be truly depressing.
Do you know what would have been more depressing? If I had followed the lectionary which talks about the disaster that happened to many people in Bethlehem, after Herod discovered that the “new king” of the Jews had been born. So I thought I would just touch a little bit on the alternative lection text, which we will revisit more fully in two weeks.
Today we listened to the story of three amigos who traveled from their home land after seeing a star in the heavens, which to them symbolized a sign of someone great coming into this world. When they neared Jerusalem, the star had stopped shining, so they began inquiring around the city hoping to find where this new king was at. I suspect they assumed that Herod had become a new father or possibly a grandfather of this new king. Yet, they discovered that their quest for this new king wasn’t over yet. They then are asked by Herod to go on and find this new king of the Jews so he too could go pay homage to. Scripture says that after they left Herod, the star once again appeared to them and leads them into Bethlehem, where they finally found Mary and baby Jesus.
What I would like to point out are three aspects of this text. The first aspect is the star and what does it signify. Without getting caught up in what might have caused this light that guided these men to Jesus, I think the importance of this star is to look at what its function was about. The star is a vehicle in which Christ is revealed. It was a signal to these men that we now call the “Wise men”, that something important had taken place. It was through their observing eyes that they were directed to where Jesus was living. Once they had discovered the location of Jesus, the star disappeared, never to be seen by them again.
I think (metaphorically speaking) each one of us has the opportunity to see this same star that the wise men saw. All we have to do is be open to seeing it. In the same respect, we can be like Herod and totally miss the star that can lead us to Christ. This star comes differently to each one of us. It will come to us in the form that will speak most intimately to us. For me this star came while I was thirty thousand feet above the earth, flying back from a conference I had attended in New Jersey. It came at a critical point in my faith development. I think the only reason why I was open to seeing that star, was because I was searching for some truth in my life.
The next piece of this story that I would like to touch upon, comes with the differing behaviors between the wise men and that of Herod. The wise men, were guys who were looking at life beyond themselves, which allowed them to recognize the star. Once they found Jesus, the very first thing they did upon entering the house, was to bow down before Jesus and paid homage to him.
Herod on the other hand, was not searching the heavens thereby missing the signaling of the birth of Christ. This is a very poetic way of saying that Herod was so full of himself that he didn’t have the desire to know what was going on beyond his own life. When he discovered that a new king of the Jews had been born, he became fearful of losing what he possessed. This can be each of us. If we think of our “egos” as Herod, we often do not wish to give something or someone else first position within our life, but would rather keep control of what we think we possess. Instead of us humbling ourselves, this letting go of our own personal interests, and allowing God’s spirit to enter into our hearts, we truly act out the same way as Herod did. We try to destroy that which we perceive to be more powerful than we.
So the day after Christmas can be either a letdown for us in a spiritual sense or it can be the beginning of a journey. We can recognize the star that comes to us in the night as either promise of hope, joy, and peace, or we can see this star as a threat. If we celebrate Christmas with the spirit of consumerism, then today is truly anticlimactic. If however we celebrate Christmas as not being a “season”, but rather as part of a life style, then we are at the threshold of a great adventure. Amen.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Do You See What I See?, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY. 12/12/2010

Do You See What I See?
By Rev. Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 12/12/2010
Based on Matthew 11:2-11

I would like to start this morning’s reflective thought by having you join in with me in singing just a couple of verses of the very simple Christmas song, “Do You Hear What I Hear.” I will start the song and I would like you to sing the echoes or responses to the question that the song asks. For example when I sing “Do you see what I see”, you in turn sing back the echo, “Do you hear what I hear.” Of course you are invited to sing the rest of the verse with me, if you wish to.
Said the night wind to the little lamb
Do you see what I see (Do you see what I see?)
Way up in the sky little lamb
Do you see what I see (Do you see what I see?)
A star, a star
Dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite

Said the little lamb to the Sheppard boy
Do you hear what I hear (Do you hear what I hear?)
Ringing through the sky Sheppard boy
Do you hear what I hear (Do you hear what I hear?)
A song, a song
High above the tree
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea
Do You Hear What I Hear?" was written in October 1962 with lyrics by Noël Regney and music by Gloria Shayne Baker, as a plea for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis.[ Regney was inspired to write the lyrics "Said the night wind to the little lamb, 'Do you see what I see?' “and "Pray for peace, people everywhere," after watching babies being pushed in strollers on the sidewalks of New York City.[1] Baker stated in an interview years later that neither could personally perform the entire song at the time they wrote it because of the emotions surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis.[1] "Our little song broke us up. You must realize there was a threat of nuclear war at the time." [1] Wikipedia
The season of Advent is not only a time of expectancy, where we are in waiting for the time of the coming of the Messiah, but it is also involves a sense of “awareness”. An awareness of what “is”, or another way to say it is, “being in the present!” John the Baptizer was a man who was looking for the coming of the Messiah. He was aware that he was a person called to “prepare the way” for the coming king. John had the awareness that God was sending this king soon; in fact, the king was already alive on earth, waiting for the appointed time to make his appearance and begin his reign. John was aware of this from the time he was in his mother’s womb, as Luke tells us in the first chapter of his Gospel, that when Mary (then three months pregnant) entered into the house of her cousin Elizabeth (who was six months pregnant), the fetus, John, leaped with joy sensing the presence of Christ in the room.
John was such a man of God, seeing his role in life to preach the news that God would soon be on the scene. Living in the dessert, he delivered a message of repentance (what we might call today: hell, fire, and damned nation style of preaching) and baptized those who believed in John’s warnings of the pending vengeance of the Lord. For John, understood God’s coming to set up his kingdom, as involving the killing of the unjust and wicked and allowing only the repentant in God to live within this earthly kingdom. It was a ridding of illegitimate political powers such as Roman, who was oppressive and curial to Israel. John recognized Jesus as this person sent of God, to be the chosen instrument at the time of Jesus’ baptism.
John, even though he was a very popular prophet among the people, was not so popular with the ruling class. In fact, he had been thrown into jail for accusing Herod the Tetrarch of an adulterous marriage with his brother’s wife, Herodias. While in jail, John hears about the work that Jesus is doing, but is confused by the reports about Jesus. It seems that Jesus wasn’t quite living up to John’s expectations as to what the Son of God was supposed to be doing.
This is where we pick up in this morning’s lection reading. John is so confused, being so sure that Jesus was the Messiah that he’d been preparing the way for, yet Jesus wasn’t doing the things that John had thought God should be doing, so he send’s two of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Is he the one, or does John still need to be looking for the ‘chosen’ one of God?”
In the early church, there was an anticipation of the return of Christ, to come and set up his earthly kingdom. A part of this vision of God’s return is similar to that of John the Baptizer. When Christ returns to this earth, it is God who will have the last say in all of the evil that humanity has been doing. In the book of Revelation, it is stated that Christ will come back in battle armor, with a sword that will kill all who deny the “goodness” of God. There is this sense of “vindication” that will come with the second coming of Christ. There are many today, who hold this same view of the return of Christ, that God will get His day, so to speak.
When I was growing up, and my brother, sister, and I seemed to be doing things that either were in direct disobedience to our mothers will, or whether we were just so unruly that she had had enough, in desperation would cry out to us, “You kids just wait until your father gets home! He’ll take care of you.” The message being, once dad got home, we three would receive our deserved punishment, the retribution that would be well deserved. Now I don’t know if what we received once dad did get home was “true” justice for what we had been doing to provoke such a pronouncement of doom by our mother, but what I do know is, in her mind, she was being wronged and that she would be “justified” and more importantly, she would be “vindicated” when dad got home.
I think this is what many Christians are truly holding in their hearts, when they are looking to a second coming of Christ, as a warrior! They are looking for some sort of vindication for all of the “injustices” that they feel have been perpetrated toward them. “You just wait, Mr. Hitler, you’ll get yours when Christ comes back!” “You just wait, those communist countries, they will get a new understanding of what’s what, once Jesus, comes back and teaches them a lesson about what real human rights are about!” What we are saying in those types of words and thoughts, is that we want to have our idea’s of justice “vindicated”, our sense of honor to be restored. It is truly, “an eye for an eye” mentality.
When John’s disciples went to Jesus and asked him if he was the Messiah, so that they could go back and tell John, “yes, Jesus is the one he had been waiting for”, or “no, he isn’t the one.” John was in need of having his perception of what God on earth was supposed to be like justified. He was in need of knowing that his actions as a prophet were going to be vindicated and that being thrown into jail for pointing out wrong was really worth it all. Don’t we all get that feeling at times, this need to be vindicated for the wrongs that we have endured? And of course the greatest vindication of our lives comes by God’s hand.
Yet Jesus gave John’s disciples this answer: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. ‘Is this what you were expecting? Then count yourselves most blessed!’" I am sure that this is not what John wanted to hear. John was being challenged to re-evaluate his expectations of what God was going to do here on earth.
As I think about all of the various ideas of the seconded coming of Christ, I have to look at what we are being told by Matthew, in this particular explanation of what Jesus is about. If Jesus was saying that God’s Kingdom has already come, and then shows by action that the kingdom is being formed through his ministry of healing, restoration, and of reconciliation, then why would I expect Jesus to so radically change in his second coming?
Why would I believe that Christ is going to come back to earth with a sword in hand and legions of angels to do battle against evil, when Christ did none of this during his first time on earth? I think Christians who see a Christ as a warrior, ready to do battle, are people looking to be vindicated, just like what my mother was looking for, when “dad” got home.
What if Christ’s second coming is through the actions of the church? What if God’s kin-dom is being build, each time we take on the system of greed and self-interest that we humans too often place upon one another? I would suggest that Christ’s kin-dom comes through our stopping exclusionary behavior, whether it be in sexual orientation, mental illness or other physical handicaps, or through physical territorial boundaries, those we call aliens to our culture? I suggest that when we learn to honor and respect other’s for whom they are, this is the way in which Christ is re-entering into our world.
Christ is most definitely coming again, but is it in the way in which we think? Are we like John the baptizer, looking for one type of God, who will vindicate our actions and our perceptions, not realizing that God’s way of vindication isn’t through violence, but through reconciliation?
“Said the Sheppard boy to the mighty king
Do you know what I know
In your palace wall mighty king
Do you know what I know
A child, a child
Shivers in the cold
Let us bring him silver and gold

Said the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say
Pray for peace people everywhere
Listen to what I say
The child, the child
Sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light

The child, the child
Sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light”
Do you see what I see? Amen

The Fruit of Jesse, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 12/05/2010

The Fruit of Jesse’s Root
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 12-5-2010
Based on Isaiah 11:1-10 & Matthew 3:1-12

As I first read this morning’s lection reading, the first images that came to my mind were that of the Star Trek series. Between 1966 and 2005, there has been a total of five differing Television series of Star Trek. The first known as: The Original and concluding with Star Trek: Enterprise. Four out of the five series in general depicted the “Federation”, a collection of life forms who have banned together, as the good guys who were about the business of: Exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations in an expanding vast universe. The mandate was, never interfere in the culture of a newly discovered civilization when possible.
This sounds all good and well, yet in any good story line you have to have an adversary in order to have a good plot. Generally in most of the series, the Federation were the good guys and other civilizations were the adversaries. With one exception, in the second Television series of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the adversary generally was nature, or the struggle to survive and live in harmony with the elements of the universe in general, which was a major shift from the first series as well as those that followed after the Next Generation, where there was always a bad guy or a bad civilization. It was the general idea of good versus evil, with the “evil” being cultures that existed differently from that of the “Federation”.
In the series, The Next Generation, I see the story line, tended to mimic the concept that Isaiah used as the ending of this week’s reading, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.” It is a concept that states implicitly that there is no longer “us” against “them”, but rather a statement of a world that is “All inclusive”, of a world living in harmony.
Yet this vision doesn’t come out of life that continues doing what it has been doing. Isaiah starts off with the image of a stump. This means that a tree has had to be cut down, for there to be a stump. In fact, in the previous chapter, Isaiah speaks where God has cut down the whole forest. The message that we are reading today is, that in order for there to be this time of peace and harmony, there has to first be a complete change from what the normal order of things has been, in other words, there must be a “new” normal.
Matthew, in his story of John the Baptist, says it in this way, as the Pharisees and Sadducees were coming down to be baptized: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” The basic message is: it doesn’t matter who you say you are, it is in the actions that tell what is in your heart. You might say you are a Christian, a follower of the teachings of Jesus, but if there is darkness in your heart, your actions will betray you. It doesn’t matter that you’ve been raised in this church and that your parents were members, but if all you do is just sit in the pew on Sunday, occupying space, maybe give a tithe to the offering, this does not make you a follower of the Messiah; what makes you a follower of Christ is the fruit in your life. You know what happens to fruit that just sits around, it eventually draws nats and spoils.
Yesterday, a group of folks gathered to discuss what it means to be a member of this church. At the very onset one of the basic statements about what membership looked like was in ones behavior. It was determined that there should be expected from each member to be “gentle in word” and “respectful” of one another. In other words, we as members should be expected to be nice to one another and not be viscous in our language or actions, especially during periods when we do not see eye to eye with one another. At the close of our four hour workshop, I found it interesting that several folks were wondering “why” if we call ourselves Christians, “we would have to put in writing such a statement;” shouldn’t we just assume that as Christians we would treat each other with respect and be gentle with each other’s hearts, and let me say, this is an issue with many churches, not just First Congregational UCC. The answer comes with John’s accusations to the religious leaders that the fruit of their actions were not consistent with a repentant heart. They were fruit from a system that had spoiled on the tree.
Isaiah gives us an idea of what the fruit of Jesse’s root is going to look like. The first fruit that comes is the “spirit of wisdom and understanding. In the Message, it translates as, the spirit of direction and builds strength.
The second type of fruit is the spirit of counsel and might, and the third fruit that is identified is the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. These of course are attributes that over 2,000 years we have assigned to Jesus of Nazareth, but as his disciples, these are also attributes that we through the gift of the Holy Spirits guidance should be striving for ourselves.
John was telling the religious that they were in need of repentance. The fact is, “Even now, each one of us stands in need of repentance, of conversion, not just once in our lives, but every day of our lives. When I can sit in a family’s home and have the patriarch of that family, choking back the tears as he shares his discovery that change for the church first comes with the change in his own heart that is a confession of “repentance”. Of course, we don't experience conversion or repentance in order to make God love us. No, we turn toward God and away from everything that keeps us from God, so that we can come closer to experiencing the breadth and height and depth of God's love for us, of God's amazing grace at work in our lives.
I wish I could say I came up with this, but image the credit card commercial as a way of saying it, in this way: our possessions, our toys, our stuff – worth a lot; our careers, our schedules, our agendas – really important; our power and place and security – very valuable; pushing all those things aside and making a way through the wilderness, a straight, clear path for God to come into our lives – priceless. Rev Kate Huey, UCC Resource
As we focus this Advent season on the birth of Jesus, we come today to the Table of Christ, which tells us the story of the salvation that comes through a repentant heart. It is the fruit of Jesse’s root that has yet to be completed. We are still waiting for the Lion to lay down with the lamb. We are waiting for the birth of the New Jerusalem, the kin-dom of God here in this creation. Only when we let our ego’s, our greed, and self-interests, be chopped down with the ax of the Holy Spirit, we are then able to let the new branch that God has promised start to grow out of our stump. It starts here, today, at this table, if you let it. Let this be the day that you open the gate of your heart to God’s spirit and through you, the fruit of Jesse’s root will grow and be nurtured! Amen