Sunday, December 11, 2011

Who Are You, Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO, by Rev Steven R Mitchell, 12/11/2011

Who Are You?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United Church, Aurora, Co
Based on Isaiah 61:1-4 & John 1:19-28

We are starting the third week in Advent, which means we are half way to the time when we will celebrate the birth of Jesus, or more importantly for some of us, we have only a couple of more weeks till we get to open presents! In just eleven days we will once again experience the Winter Solstices, the longest night of the year. For those of us who prefer longer days and shorter nights, this time of the year can become very depressing for us.
For twenty-five years I lived in the Pacific Northwest, and was amazed at the length of the days in the summer, where bright twilight was common up to 10:30 p.m. The flip side to that is a realization that by mid August the days are shortening, and when “daylight savings” ends, there is a reality that darkness is rapidly increasing. In fact, come mid-October, you rarely see the sun until mid February.
Darkness often times is accompanied by a kind of sadness. For many it is a time of uneasiness, a time of possible danger, at the very least, a time of uncertainty. We equate darkness as a playground for misfortune, evil deeds, and vulnerability. In the movies, it is a time filled with vampires, zombies, and creatures that live beneath the ground.
Scripture also uses the contrast between darkness and light to describe moral situations. In the November 29th publication of The Christian Century, under the section of Faith Matters, Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “Biblically speaking, darkness is the pits. In the first testament, light stands for life and darkness for death. When God is angry with people, they are plunged into darkness. People grope in the dark without light….
In the second testament, light stands for knowledge and darkness for ignorance. When the true light comes into the world, the world does not know him. Jesus has come so that everyone who believes in him should not remain in the darkness…. First John sums it up: ‘God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” Or more succinctly stated on a Chattahoochee Baptist Church sign, “If you cut God’s light off, you’ll be sitting in the dark with the devil.”Redeeming Darkness, by Barbara Taylor pg 37
Advent is that sort of darkness that we live in until the birth of Jesus. We often use Isaiah as the primary book of reflection because of its understanding of being held captive, then the joy of freedom. As a book, Isaiah is split up into three major sections. The first speaks to the despair, the hopelessness of being held in captivity. The second part of the book, speaks about the hope, the joy of returning home, back to that place that God had given to them. In the last part of the book, there comes a realization that in the home coming, there has to be a rebuilding, for what had once been, no longer exists. Often times despair accompanies that realization; yet, Isaiah gives a message of “hope” as Israel looks to a time when all will be restored. This restoration has come to be understood through a little baby born in Bethlehem, whose name is Jesus.
Continuing on the thought of Barbara Taylor, she challenges the idea of darkness as “sitting with the devil.” As Christians, we measure time differently from the dominant culture in which we live. We begin our year when the days are getting darker, not lighter. We trust that the seeds of light are planted in darkness, where they sprout and grow we know not how. This darkness is necessary to new life, even when it is uncomfortable and goes on too long. The Christian Century, Nov 29, 2011, pg 37
In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, we read where the dominant culture has come out beyond the river Jordan, to inquire of John the Baptizer, asking “who are you?” This man was nothing like the dominant culture. When I read about John’s demeanor, I envision a thin man with hair pulled back in a pony-tail, dressed in holie jeans, a t-shirt that says something like: “It’s not about me”. A kind of David Popham type! John didn’t even have a church to preach in, and he used the local river to conduct his revival meetings.
On this third Sunday of Advent, the question, “Who are you” is a very valid question. It is valid because of my presence this morning. Outside of the short bio sent out to you a couple of weeks ago, I am a person unknown to most of you, standing here as a candidate seeking to become your next settled pastor. Although I am not wearing worn-out jeans or a t-shirt that says, “It’s not about me”, in a real sense, it is about me. Like John I do not represent the dominate portion of society in some ways, and like John the baptizer I understand what the dominant society is searching for, but seems to be stumbling around in a kind of darkness, not being able to discern what it is they most desire; a reconnection with the one who is the author of all that is.
Today’s reading of Isaiah 61: 1-4 is most appropriate for me, because it was what I used at my ordination service. It is the basis of my understanding of what being a minister is about. It is the foundation that I see as the church’s purpose, as it works to share the Good News of God to a creation that is walking around in a dark haze; in a kind of Matrix that has hidden the love and light that God has for all of creation.
We live in a society where people are less connected to a church than two generations ago. Today, Christians and churches are looked upon in wonderment by most of the un-churched world and wonder what is wrong with us, asking, “why we seen to hide in a world that isn’t real?” They look at us and ask, “Who are you?” I find many churches cannot answer that question with clarity. John was asked by his contemporizes, “are you a prophet?” No. Are you Elijah? No. Are you the Messiah? No. Then who are you? John’s reply was, “I am a voice in the wilderness, making straight the path for the Lord.”
Is the church supposed to be the savior of the world? No, that is God’s job. We are “the voice in the wilderness crying out”, and we are supposed to be making a path straight for the one greater than us to come. So how do we do this? What do we cry and how do we make the path level? What we cry and how we make this path, is by taking on the ministry that Jesus proclaimed at the beginning of his ministry. “… The LORD has anointed us to proclaim good news to the poor. God has sent us to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. We will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of God’s splendor. 4 We will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; we will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.”
Well pastor, “How will this happen?” “What bright idea’s, pastor will you be bringing if you come here?” “What kinds of programs will we undertaking to achieve these things?” I can’t tell you right now, for this is a journey that has to be taken in partnership; in partnership with one another and with God, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But before we can successfully take that journey, we need to be able to answer that question of “Who are you.”
A part of that answer is: you are a family of faith, united through three denominations that have a proud history in sharing the love of God. You are a voice in the wilderness, that cry’s out the restoration that comes through Christ and His teachings. Do you have all the answers? I hope not. Do you struggle with the questions and the how’s? I hope so. For it is in that struggle that God’s love is birthed; this struggle, this journey is the Advent that we celebrate. Amen

Sunday, December 4, 2011

What Shall We Cry?, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 12/04/2011

What Shall We Cry?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 12/04/2011
Based on Isaiah 40:6-11 and Mark 1:1-8

This week is the second week of Advent. Last week we discussed the news of the return of Christ not as the end of time, but rather as a beginning of a new understanding of living in God’s presence. The scriptures that we are looking at this week are now talking about “preparing the way” for the coming of God’s representative, of who we have come to understand as Jesus of Nazareth, through the person of John the Baptizer. We have experienced this morning a prophet coming down our aisle proclaiming that message from Isaiah as one in the wilderness crying out “make straight the path. Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Mark begins his Gospel with these words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah…” Mark is telling us that the arrival of Jesus was not a last minute event, a hasty decision by God to send his son, because the world wasn’t listening to previous prophets that spoke the word of God, rather Mark is telling us right from the beginning that God has been planning this event for a long time.
As we begin this second week of Advent, we also come before the Communion Table, where we will experience once again the act of remembering the Christ, of the selfless act in love of giving up his life so that we might enjoy a fuller communion with God. We come before this table after confessing our sins and being assured of our continuing relationship with God. Isaiah begins with the statement: “Comfort, O comfort my people, Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid…” This is the good news that God has shared from the beginning of time and was shared with the birth of Jesus, and is still being shared with us today. As far as God is concerned there is no more penalty held against us and we are able to come together at this table as debt-free people.
One of the temptations that can happen in reading about the one “preparing the way” is to assign that “voice in the wilderness” to someone other than ourselves. John the baptizer is the most famous voice, coming out of the wilderness, calling for repentance of sin. He declares himself as a person who is preparing the way for one who is greater than he; he is preparing the path for what Jesus’ ministry was going to be.
As your transitional pastor, I too am in many respects a voice like John the baptizer, preparing the way for your next called minister. But this scripture isn’t just for ministers; it is also for each congregation that calls itself a community of faith, based on Jesus’ teachings. The church is called to be the “voice in the wilderness.” Yet what is this voice suppose to be saying?
At times I find it helpful in substituting names and places that I am familiar with, into scripture as a way of making it more powerful. Hear how Isaiah speaks to us more directly with a few substitutions as he responds to God’s request to comfort God’s people. A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever. Get you up to White Mountain, First Congregational, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, Rock Springs, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Wyoming, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might…
So we as Disciples of Christ are called to speak out the Good News of God. Yet what does that news look like? Isaiah says, “God will feed his flock like a shepherd.” This speaks about God providing for the physical needs of the world. We as the voice in the wilderness, need to speak up for affordable housing for those who earn minimum wage, we are to be concerned about issues such as adequate health care for all people. We are to help the poor, care for the widows and orphans, to be peace makers, to be people who build and renovate, and to feed those who are hungry.
Isaiah points out a second aspect of what God does, “God will gather the lambs in her arms and carry them in her bosom.” This speaks about the spiritual nurture that we receive from God. We are to speak out about the concern that God has for all of creation, in ways that people who have been disenfranchised can once again believe in and take heart and know also that God truly loves them. We are to be the voice of respect in a wilderness that works hard at striping people’s dignity away, a voice of care and love in a world that tells people - they are not worthy of the gifts of God, we are to be the voice of encouragement in a world that likes to kick people when they are down. This is how we let people know that God carries them in her bosom.
The third and last point Isaiah shares in “what shall we cry”, comes in his statement, “and gently leads the mother sheep.” God provides guidance, and we find that guidance with the help of the Holy Spirit. These are the messages that as a body of faith, as the voices in the wilderness should be crying out. We are not called to be timid and quiet, but rather be like John the baptizer, calling into account the actions of those who do wrong, demanding that they repent for their hard-heartedness, of their injustice toward those who are not as strong as they. We are not called to live in a cocoon of comfort, but seek comfort for those who are being marginalized by society’s obsession for self fulfillment and self-edification.
As we meditate upon these readings during this second week of Advent, let us remember, we are the voice in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. Amen

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Waiting for the First Day!, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 11/27/2011

Waiting for the First Day!
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 11/27/2011
Based on Isaiah 64:1-9 & Mark 13:23-37
First Sunday of Advent

Today is the first day of the new church year. It happens every year on the Sunday following Thanksgiving; we call this season, Advent. Though, you might not recognize it, for you cannot look around without seeing decorations telling you that it’s Christmas. You drive down any main street and can see Christmas lights lining the avenues, the stores are decorated for the season, there is the white noise of musak playing Christmas music in the background. Many churches start singing Christmas songs with the beginning of Advent. Yet Christmas doesn’t start until the birth of Christ, which we typically celebrate on Christmas Eve and the twelve days after.
We are in the season of Advent not the season of Christmas. Advent is a four week period where we contemplate the “coming” of Christ. It is a time of preparation, not a time of celebration. We take this time to work toward the stable that is found in the little hamlet of Bethlehem, so that when we greet the Christ child, we will be able within our hearts to play that drum, or sing songs that Herald Christ’s birth, and bring our gifts to this person who is restoring the world into God’s image.
Each week we light our advent candles. The first is called the "Candle of Hope." It symbolizes faith in God keeping his promises to humanity. The second is called the "Candle of Preparation," reminding Christians to "get ready" to receive God. The third candle, the "Candle of Love," reminds Christians that God loves them enough to send his only Son to Earth. The fourth candle is the "Candle of Joy." It recalls the angels joyfully singing about the birth of Christ. The "Christ Candle," the white candle in the center, stands for Jesus Christ himself.
In general, I enjoy this period of “advent” as well as the season of “lent” for these make me take time to think about the “why’s” in my life, more so than the rest of the church year. Yet, I always seem to have issues with the scriptures that are presented for the first Sunday of Advent, each year. The first Sunday of advent generally focuses on scripture which deals with the second coming of Christ. This gives most ministers the opportunity to talk about the end times, the retribution that God will give to those who do not believe, of Christ riding up on a white horse with hoards of angels at his side, cutting down all the bad people. Historically, I dislike these particular texts because it is in conflict with how I view Christ’s role in healing a broken world, as well as poor theology about who gets into God’s Kindom and who is left out. These texts have somehow become messages of the end. Yet, if the first candle of Advent is the candle of “Hope”, how does that represent the idea of the “end?”
Our text for today does present the reality that all of us experience at various times in our lives, the question of “why me?” There are people sitting here this morning hurting because of broken relationships, of abuse, of the feelings of isolation, or feeling inadequate because of a job loss. There are times in our lives where we just want the world to stop so we can get off, or that God will come and punish all those bad people who make life so unbearable. Like our ancestors in faith, we and all of humankind stand before God in “helplessness and need.” “Not only are we vulnerable to those forces that may destroy our happiness – indeed, our very existence – but there is little or, nothing we, when left to ourselves, are capable of doing about our precarious state.” Quote from James Newsome, Sermon Seeds, UCC 11/27/2011
Earlier this past week, I was reading the continuing saga of my youngest daughter’s blog which I think exemplifies the Advent message of today. She writes: I am trying to stay upbeat, despite the fact that Thanksgiving is around the corner and I know my new boys won't be home to celebrate with us. I honestly never thought this would happen. Last September when we started this process, I had no doubts the boys would be home by now.
My sister had her new baby (#5) on Wednesday morning. Bless her heart, labor started Saturday, but she now has a beautiful boy to show for it! I am excited, sad, and jealous all at the same time. My brother and his wife also had a little girl placed in their home (hopefully to adopt) as well as giving birth to another baby, and I am still waiting. I was officially 'expecting' before either of them. Don't get me wrong, I am so excited for two new nieces, and a new nephew! I am SO excited! I love my family and all my nieces and nephews (there are a bunch!), but I want my boys.

I broke down Sunday at church. I just couldn't take it. Friends of ours have friends who started their adoption (from another country) after us, and are bringing their 4 kids home today. Another friend is pregnant, there are like 6 new babies in our church - 5 of which are families in our Sunday school class. I am so excited for each and every family and each baby. I am happy for them, truly joyful, but that doesn't mean at the same time, I don't struggle. I am human, I am jealous, sad, angry, frustrated, happy, excited, all at the same time. We were talking to friends on Sunday and equated this adoption to a roller coaster. I LOVE roller coasters, but we have now been on this one so long, that I am nauseas. I am about to lose my lunch! All I want is to get off!!! It can't come soon enough. And, just when I think we are about to be done and get off, there is another drop or loop
I am confident in my God. I am confident He has a plan and His will is being lived out through this adoption. That is the comfort I hold on to. We are being given the opportunity to witness to others. To be a Christian example. We have already seen this. We have been asked about adoption by a few people in our church who are sincere, which is exciting. Because of the delays, more people in the church are becoming aware of our situation, and are now praying for us. Our prayer support has doubled, at least. It is exciting and a challenge to see others watching us. What an opportunity we have been given to live out the gospel! I hold on to the Father, and He is holding us! Therefore, we have joy!
The title of today’s reflection is “Waiting for the First Day.” Where my daughter Tara is concerned, she is waiting for the end of the adoption process. An end that means she will be able to physically have her two new sons at home with her. Yet, what is truly going to happen when this “roller coaster” ride ends, all of her waiting will have been for the first day of a new life. This is what we are doing at present with our faith. We are on a roller coaster that we call life, waiting for God to enter once again and repair what’s wrong with the world, shaping a new creation where grace, justice, and joy will be the norm.
Within this week’s reading in the Gospel of Mark, we are reminded of the paradoxes within the Gospels. The paradox that God has already entered into the world through the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, but also the “not yet” reality of God’s kindom here on earth is not completed. We are in a waiting period. We are living in the present kindom of God, yet working toward the completion of that kindom, that “first day” that God has planned. This waiting period is a time of preparation for us, where we can actively work to help usher in the completeness that God wishes for all of creation. Amen

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"A Great Thanksgiving", First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY, by Rev Steven R Mitchell

A Great Thanksgiving!
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 11/20/2011
Based on Ephesians 1:15-23

Each Monday Father Bob Spencer of the Episcopal Church, Rev Martha Atkins of the Mount of Olives Lutheran Church and me gather to do a Lectionary Bible Study. We spend several hours reading and discussing what the text is saying to each of us. Because of our seminary experience we use a variety of ways of looking at the text such as: the literary style, a cultural meaning, a historical context, and the use of language to name just a few. We also bring in personal understanding through our life experiences and explore the implications for our particular congregations as to how can the text relate.
Father Bob and I became mentors to Rev Martha while she was in seminary; to say the very least, we have been a challenge to some of Martha’s seminary training in how one explores scripture and approaches ministry. This week's reading in Ephesians seemed to capture all three of our hearts and imagination, however, Fr. Bob and I seemed to have difficulty with parts of our translations and the way they were reading. We felt that the translations we had before us, just didn’t communicate the meaning as effectively as it could, so we started altering words within the text, in an attempt to express our understanding of what the Apostle Paul was trying to say.
You should have seen Martha’s look of horror as we reworked words such as “Lord” to “Brother” and changing phrases like, “the Father of glory ” to “ the Creator of All.” I think Martha is wondering if she is studying with a couple of heretics. Yet, later in the day, I found in Eugene Peterson’s translation “The Message” a version that best expresses what Fr. Bob and I think Paul would say to the twenty-first century ear. So, maybe Fr. Bob and I are not so far off base after all.
This coming week we will be celebrating “Thanksgiving Day”, a day where as a nation, we have set aside to contemplate the many gifts that we have enjoyed throughout this past year. On the Wednesday evening before, we will have the opportunity to gather with others at The Holy Communion Episcopal Church to remember the gifts that we receive, celebrating through a number of faiths represented by: the Baha’i faith, The Mormons, the Jewish faith, The Muslim Faith, and various Christian Churches, all who are a part of the larger family of Rock Springs, WY. We are able to do this because it is a Holiday that is not attached with anyone religious connection. It is truly a servie,where all faiths that look to God can gather together and celebrate. It allows us to be larger than what we are and gain a glimpse of the immenseness of God.
Paul writes of his joy to the Ephesians by saying: 15-19That's why, when I heard of the solid trust you have in the Master Jesus and your outpouring of love to all the followers of Jesus, I couldn't stop thanking God for you—every time I prayed, I'd think of you and give thanks. When you pray, I hope that this church family comes to your mind and that like Paul you are able to pray for this family of faith, thanking God for everyone, I mean everyone, in this congregation and for what is accomplished by our coming together. Giving prayers of support to each other when we are in need. Of thanking God for the physical help that we provide when people are in need and helped through the concern of our faith community, and of the social support we provide to anyone who wishes.
Paul continues saying: But I do more than thank. I ask—ask the God of our Master, Jesus Christ, the God of glory—to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing Christ personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, and grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for his followers, oh, the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him—endless energy, boundless strength!
This is my daily prayer for this community of faith, that God continue to provide ways of helping us grow intellectually and with discernment of knowing the love that God has for all of creation and to grasp the immensity of this glorious way of living, of the utter extravagance of God’s work in each of us! I cannot think of a greater prayer of “thanksgiving” than when we pray for one another and uphold each other’s journey of faith, where we continue to grow and become “awed” in the extravagance of God’s work that is in each one of us.
This Fall, there has been a group coming together weekly in the evenings studying the writings of Rev Rob Bell as presented in the book Love Wins, which speaks to what Paul is saying to the Ephesians and to us this morning. I would like to share some of these thoughts as a way of strengthening our resolve to continually recognize the extravagance of God’s work. Rev Bell writes: There is a mystery, something hidden in God, something that has existed and is true and is present with, and in, God since before time, and that mystery is a someone…Christ Jesus. As obvious as it is, then, Jesus is bigger than any one religion.
He didn’t come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day. He will always transcend whatever cages and labels that are created to contain and name him, especially the one called “Christianity.”
Within this proper, larger understanding of just what the Jesus story even is, we see that Jesus himself, again and again, demonstrates how seriously he takes his role in saving and rescuing and redeeming not just everything, but everybody. He says in John 12, “and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He is sure, confident, and set on this. All people, to himself. Jesus takes this very personally. He is willing to die for this, “for the life of the world.” Jesus is supracultural. He is present within all cultures, and yet outside of all cultures. He is for all people, and yet he refuses to be co-opted or owned by any one culture.
That includes any Christian culture. Any denomination. Any church. Any theological system. We can point to him, name him, follow him, discuss him, honor him, and believe in him – but we cannot claim him to be ours any more than he’s anyone else’s. Rob Bell, Love Wins, pg 150-152
I cannot think of anything greater to give thanks for this coming Thanksgiving, than the gift that God has given to us through the love and death that came through Jesus Christ, of God’s love for all of creation and for all of humanity.
As we gather on Thursday, November 24th, let each of us take some time out and thank God for not only the blessings that we have received throughout this year, but also thank God for the love that is shown through Jesus Christ, and that we commit ourselves to continue to teach, to act out, and to grow in this mystery that God has given to us, and for the utter extravagance of his work in us! Amen

Monday, November 14, 2011

Life's Greatest Risk, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY by Rev Steven R Mitchell

Life’s Greatest Risk…
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 11/13/2011
Based on Matthew 25:14-30

We are in the second of three parables being told by Jesus in private to his Disciples. Jesus has already made his grand entry into Jerusalem, creating a major disturbance in the temple by turning over the tables of the money changers, and created a number of enemies with the religious community and knows he is nearing the end of his life. It is only two days before the celebration of Passover and Jesus’ mind is thinking about the possibility of being killed.
The first parable in this trilogy was about ten bridesmaids, five of who are called wise, for they brought extra oil to burn, and five are called foolish because they did not prepare beyond the immediate need. The bridesmaids who had extra oil did not share and once the doors to the house were closed, those who had left to go get more oil upon returning were not allowed entrance. To add insult to injury, the Bridegroom turns them away saying, “He doesn’t know who they are.”
Matthew is writing to a church that is dealing in the reality that Jesus has not returned in the way in which they were expecting him to return. Much time has passed, since Jesus’ death and resurrection, yet much like the expectations of how the coming of the Messiah was to look, compared to what the religious community sees in the person of Jesus, the churches understanding of how Jesus’ return would look like, has also been misunderstood; and the church is still anxiously awaiting Christ’s return, as can be seen in movies and books such as the “Left Behind” series, or of this year’s prediction of the “end times” this past June and then recalculated for this past October. Some are uneasy with the idea of the Mayan Calendar ending in December of 2012 as possibly predicting the end of the age.
For those of you who are interested in what I had to say about last week’s parable of the ten bridesmaids, you can find copies of the sermon on the table out in the Narthex. The focus on that parable by my understanding deals with preparing for the “delay of Christ’s return?” In other words,”what is the churches job during the interim period before Christ returns?”
As we continue with this week’s parable, we read about a master who decides to leave on a long trip, but before leaving entrusts varying amounts of his wealth to his three servants, each according to their abilities. I think it important to note that the master, in giving this money to these servants, did so without giving any instruction as to what he is expecting in results from them.
The lesson in this story isn’t really found in the two servants who multiplied what they had been entrusted with, rather, the meat of our lesson is found in the actions or lack thereof, of the servant that was given only one talent. What would you do if your employer came to you and said, “I going away for awhile, and while I’m gone I want you to hold this money for me. The amount is going to be equal to fifteen years of your salary.” That is what one talent in Jesus’ time would be equal to. What would you do with fifteen years of your salary just handed over to you, above what you would normally be earning for your normal work? Would you take it and use it for yourself? Would you invest it in a bank and earn interest on it? Or would you take it and play the stock market. Or would you be more conservative and buy mutual’s which spread the risk over a wider portion of stocks and bonds?
Statistics have shown that when people win millions of dollars through the state lotteries, it isn’t long before the majority have run through their winnings and find themselves in the same financial situation they were in prior to winning. It might have been beneficial if these folks would have gone to an Actuary for advice on what to do with their new found fortunes.
This parable is often used to speak about stewardship, since the example that Jesus is using is that of money. Yet why would Jesus be so concerned about the stewardship of money with his believing that his ministry was coming to an end in just a few days? Also, this conversation is between Jesus and his disciples and was not being discussed in large group gatherings. This leads me to believe that there is another concern that is on Jesus’ mind that goes far deeper than that of finances. The use of the example of money is ideal, for scripture tells us, “where lays our money, there lays our heart.”
So the question arises, why did the third servant not invest what was entrusted to him as did the other two servants? I think the key to that question is found in verse 25, “… I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground.” The servant didn’t embezzle or squander his master’s money, he simply buried it. This person was immobilized by his fear of what he perceives his master would do to him should he fail and lose the talent entrusted to him.
For Jesus, I think His concern for the disciples was, “once he is gone, how would they live their lives?” This would be consistent with the previous parable of the ten Bridesmaids as well with next week’s parable of the “sheep and goats”. Think about the potential that comes in a new born child. As this child grows and develops, how will this child use its potential? Will this child take what has been given to them and work toward developing their abilities, by taking risks, which will most certainly include failing at some things, or will they play it safe and not take those risks, which ultimately does not tap that potentiality, thus is wasting what is available?
Churches today have to face this same situation. Do we, as a church invest our potential, or do we want to play it safe? One example is Mount of Olives Lutheran. They were in a financial situation that would only allow them to hire a part-time minister at best. They could have played it safe and done just that, but instead they invested their hopes into a member of their congregation who they saw potential as a minister, putting her through seminary, training her for a lifelong work in ministry, knowing that they will someday say “good-bye” as she moves on in her ministry. Through this step in faith they are seeing growth with young families and the probability of the churches ability for “sustainable ministry”. In the Harry Potter series, the muggles are constantly being referred to as people who are living below their potential, much like the third servant was accused of.
What Jesus is trying to say in this parable, is to not let our fears rule how we live. He risked everything to speak about God’s hopes for the creation that God has made. The churches one reason for existence is to take that risk as well. We are living in a world that judge’s success in terms of money. God judges success by what we do with our potential. What is our potential? What have we been given to use to grow as a person? What is the potential of First Congregational? Are we willing to act on our potential and “risk” or are we going to be like the servant that buried his potential, afraid of failing, and this fear ultimately become self-fulfilling? Life’s greatest risk isn’t in doing something, it is in doing nothing. Amen

Friday, November 4, 2011

He'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain, for St. Paul's Presbyterian Church, Aurora, CO, by Rev Steven R Mitchell

He’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Guest Speaker at St Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Aurora, CO
Based on Matthew 25:1-13 & Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16

One of the first songs that I can recall learning in grade school was a song about some woman coming around a mountain, driving a bunch of horses, then when she arrives someone is going to cook up a pot of chicken and noodles. Growing up on the Plaines of Kansas, at the age of six, I had no concept of what a mountain was, I saw horses as huge animals that snort at you and potentially dangerous should they step on me, and why did that rooster have to be killed? In short, I had no clue as to what the song meant other than “she” would be coming and in pink pajamas no less, yet it had a catchy tune and I enjoyed singing it. Only years later did I learn that the woman was an actual person, Mary Harris Jones, a union organizer going to promote formation of labor unions in the Appalachian coal mining camps.
The tune of this song was taken from a Negro Spiritual titled: When the Chariot Comes. This song refers to the second coming of Christ and subsequent rapture. The “she” refers to the chariot that Christ would be arriving in. The words to this song are:
O, who will drive the chariot, when she comes?
King Jesus, he'll be driver when she comes, when she comes…
She'll be loaded with bright Angels, when she comes…
She will take us to the portals, when she comes!
In this morning’s Gospel, Matthew is sharing with us a part of a discussion that Jesus is having with his Disciples. Jesus has already made his grand entry into Jerusalem, creating a major disturbance in the temple by turning over the tables of the money changers, and created a number of enemies with the religious community and knows he is nearing the end of his life. It is only two days before the celebration of Passover and Jesus’ mind is thinking about the possibility of being killed.
Jesus began his ministry speaking to a large crowd with what we now call, The Sermon on the Mount, speaking of how blessed are those who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on. Now at the end of his ministry he is having a private dialogue with his disciples about the end times, starting in chapter 24 talking about such things as:“signs of the close of the age”, of the “destruction of Jerusalem” and of the “coming of the son of man.” Then at the beginning of chapter 25 we read, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this, ‘the bridegroom was delayed’.”
This parable is one of those that seem to go against what we who would like to be a part of the “blessed for we hunger and thirst to do social justice and help those in need”. How can justice, and mercy for that matter, coincide with Jesus using an example of some of the bridesmaids who have extra oil not sharing it with those bridesmaids who are running low? Even more perplexing at the end, the doors are shut, not allowing the five bridesmaids entrance upon their return and the bridegroom (which represents Christ) turning them away, saying he doesn’t know them? The main battle cry within the United Church of Christ states without hesitation: “Jesus never turned anyone away and neither do we.”
I really didn’t want to deal with this parable, because on the surface this story goes against my sensibility as to how I understand what the ministry of Jesus was about. How do I reconcile the unwillingness to share what I have with those in need? How can I turn away people who are standing outside of my door? What was Jesus thinking when he told this story? Why did Matthew include a story that seems so opposite to Christ like behavior?
I have to remember that the purpose of a parable is not to give a factual account of a story, but rather is a story designed to make me think, and has multiple layers. The story is very bold in stating the concept of “being prepared”, but being prepared for what? This Gospel was written many years after Jesus had been crucified and the early church had been anticipating Christ’s return. Matthew then was writing to a church that had to come to grips with the reality that Jesus had not yet returned as they had envisioned and that their mission was to wait expectantly and in the meantime live faithfully, courageously, and in hopefulness. It has been two thousand years and the church is still awaiting Christ’s return. We have lived this year alone through two predictions of the end of the world and are awaiting another date of doom in December 2012 as the Mayan calendar ends. Yet Jesus states that no one will know the time or place.
The parable appears to speak about being prepared for Christ's coming, but what the parable speaks to being prepared for Christ’s delay? Would this not possibly change our behavior, change how we prepare? During Jesus’ ministry, he constantly told us that the “kingdom of God is among us, here and now”. But how can God’s kingdom be among us with so much suffering, neediness, loneliness, hatred, and dispare?
Rev Rob Bell, in his newest book, “Love Wins”, proposes that part of the confusion with our concept of ‘heaven’ as used in scripture comes with our not understanding that the writers substituted the word ‘God’ with the word ‘heaven’ because to use the word ‘God’ was forbidden. Rev Bell further states: sometimes when Jesus spoke of heaven, he was referring to the future coming together of heaven and earth in what he and his contemporaries called life in the age to come. Jesus also talked about heaven, as our present eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life. For Jesus, eternal life is less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more about a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God. Love Wins, pg 58-59
A second issue that I have with this story is why didn’t the five bridesmaids with extra oil not share with the other’s who didn’t? If we think of the oil as the metaphor for virtues such as faith, good works, practices and spiritual reserves, these are personal attributes that cannot be given away to someone else. I as a person can present to you advice on a topic but I cannot physically transfer my experience to you. You have to create that actual experience for yourself. How I experience God is something that I cannot give to anyone, I can however, share how I have experienced God with you, but you will not experience God, except through your own actions.
Finally, comes the “closing of the door” part of the text. How do I, who doesn’t want to see anyone excluded understand this? The reality is, there is a time when opportunity closes its door. When we chose to put off today for tomorrow, we can run the risk of not having the opportunity to do what we put off.
As I grew into my teenage years, the relationship between my father and me deteriorated to a point that as a young man with a family I had stopped communicating with my dad. His behavior toward me had been extremely abusive, which came from his disease of alcoholism. I therefore shut the door to that abuse by not communicating with him, always praying that some day he would sober up and come and make amends with me. Over time, he did go through treatment and achieved sobriety, but he never came to make amends. I realized that he did not have the tools that he needed in order to start the rebuilding of our broken relationship. Through my educational journey, I had developed those needed skills and decided to be the one to approach the repairing of our relationship. We had only two years of working on this, as my father suddenly died, due to years of abuse to his body by alcohol.
I use this story to tie together, my understanding of this parable with the message to the church. We should expect Christ to be delayed. He hasn’t come in the past two thousand years, and the odds are, he won’t come back anytime soon. This parable asks us to live in hope for what has been promised and what will be but hasn't yet happened. It reminds us that knowledge, faith, and love are tools for living in this time, before eternity comes. The temptation for ‘waiting’ for Christ’s eminent return is to not be actively living Jesus’ teachings, ministering to a world that has forgotten the love and promise of hope that God gives us all. “He’ll be coming around the mountain”, there’s no question about that. The question will be, “how will we be waiting? Are we preparing for Christ’s return or for his delay? Amen

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Remember Who You Are!, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY, by Rev Steven R Mitchell, 10-30-2011

Remember Who You Are!
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 10/30/2011
Based on I Thessalonians 2:9-13 & Joshua 3:7-17

As I was working earlier this week on narrowing what the focus of this Sunday’s reflection would be, I realized that there seemed to be a major theme being woven with respect to my scheduled commitments. Also it became crystal clear that my scheduled activities also seemed to coincide with this week’s lectionary readings. This seems to happen a good deal with me and I began to wonder, if my higher power does coordinate the lectionary and my life, or if through studying the scripture suggestions for the week tends to make me more sensitive to the events in my life? Much of my schedule is made from one to twelve months in advance and I generally don’t read that far ahead in the lectionary, so I would conclude that what might be thought of as a cohesiveness of activities and lectionary lessons, is more on the line of how I understanding “blessings” or “miracles” within my life. I believe that “blessings” and “miracles” are continuously happening, but I only recognize them when I am sensitive to their existence. Meaning, when I am looking for a blessing or a miracle in my life, I usually recognize it. It is called, “being present” in the moment.
This past week, I’ve been burning up I-80 between here and Salt Lake City. On Wednesday I participated in a dialog billed as, “The Mountain West Summit”, which was a dialog on Immigration issues. I was asked to sit on a panel discussion focusing on the religious and moral implications of immigration. Then yesterday, Sharon Pribyl and I attended the dedication of the new church building of the New Jerusalem Samoan Church in Midvale, UT. This is a new congregation of only 8 yrs old and the first real home for this congregation.
The theme of the week that became apparent to me was that of “who are we?” “Where do we come from?” These are very important questions, for unless we know “who we are” and “where we come from” we can find it difficult to live our “present.” One of the prominent memories that I have from my childhood was the reciting of family history at any gathering. I didn’t realize that is was not the norm of most families. As an adult, I am amazed of how many of my friends know very little about their families beyond their grandparents and some of my friends don’t even know much about their grandparents.
What can happen with such limited understanding of where one comes from, is we can feel isolated, or have a sense of not being connected to anything beyond our self. This can open us up to searching for a sense of belonging and of acting and reacting to choices in an effort to feel grounded that might become unhealthy for us.
This is true with the family of God. As followers of Christ, we need information about what Jesus thought, taught, his practices for finding his centeredness, and how he viewed and understood his relationship with God, so that as followers of Jesus, we have some idea of why we do things. If we don’t have any idea about who and what Christ was about, we can end up with developing some very interesting theological understandings, that might not follow what Christ was truly intending for his church.
This is Reformation Sunday, which is the day that the church remembers where it comes from, of its history, so that, as we live in the present we are able to lay courses for the future that are consistent not only with our past but more importantly are consistent with the teachings of Christ. In the Epistle reading this morning, Paul say’s, “Surely you remember…” and concludes with, “…when you received the word of God, which you heard from us…” This is talking about a history, a reminder to the church in Thessalonica that it is a part of a larger church, a greater faith than what is just spoken about and practiced within its own circle. In the Hebrew Scripture reading of the book of Joshua it starts today’s reading with, “And the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the eyes of all Israel, so they may know that I am with you as I was with Moses.” This is coming after the death of Moses and Israel was looking for a new leader, one who would have as close a relationship as Moses had with their God. It was giving a sense of connectedness and more importantly the ability to continue to move forward.
I want to share with you a short film clip from Tyler Perry’s movie: Madea’s Family Reunion. (Show clip)

As this clip shows, “At times we need to be reminded of who we are. Perhaps that's one of the reasons we belong in community: the reminding of who we are, and of who we are called to be, and of how we are to live. Perhaps that's the deepest call beneath much of what we "do" in church and as the church: in the teaching of both adults and children, in the preaching of the gospel, in the singing of hymns, in the breaking of bread and the sharing of cup. We need to be reminded that God's hand has not only shaped us but guides us still and is in fact still at work in the world, through us. It goes much deeper than our friendships and community within our churches. It goes much deeper than the esteem in which we hold our greatest teachers and the respect we give our pastors. It is indeed, who we are.” Sermon seeds by Kathy Huey, UCC Oct 30,2011
We recognize that God works through the world and that God can be found in many places, in many organizations that we would not specifically call “church.” Yet what makes “the church” distinct? And how can we respond when people say, “I don’t need church, because I can find God in other places?” What they are really doing is asking you the question, “what makes church distinct?” “What would I receive that I can’t get anywhere else?” Unless we know who we are, where we come from, we will never be able to adequately answer their question.
In one of the prayers that was lifted up yesterday at the dedication of the new building of the New Jerusalem Samoan Church, I think we can begin to know “what is distinct about a church”.
“Today we dedicate to your lasting service this house of prayer, which reflects the mystery of your church: A temple built of living stones, founded on the apostles and prophets, your Son Jesus Christ its Chief Corner Stone; a city set upon a hill, bright with the glory of your presence and echoing the prayers of your saints. Lord, send your Spirit from heaven to sanctify this place that it may be a sign of your presence among us. Here may the Gospel be proclaimed with boldness. Here may the waters of baptism cleanse and renew us. Here may your people celebrate the memorial of Christ’s risen presence. Here may prayer resound through heaven and earth, as a plea for the world’s reconciliation. Here may the poor find justice, the victims of oppression, true freedom. Here may the sick find healing, and those in darkness and despair find light. From here may your whole creation, clothed in the liberty of the children of God, enter with gladness your city of peace.” Dedication prayer of Jerusalem Samoan UCC, Midvale, UT 10-30-2011
Let us remember throughout this coming week, who we are, so that we may bravely carry forward the proud heritage of our past! So that we will be able to boldly say, “God loves you and so do I!” Let us stand and turn to the person next to you, give them a huge and say, “God loves you and I am here to support you in that love.” Amen

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Commandment or Commitment, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY, 11-23-2011, Rev Steven R Mitchell

Commandment or Commitment?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 10/23/2011
Based on Matthew 22: 34-46

This past week I took a Holiday in what people universally call “the windy city”, Chicago! In my opinion, those who call Chicago the “windy city” have never spent any time in SW Wyoming. While I was there, I went to the city of Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, and toured the early home of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Mr. Wright, at the age of twenty-two built his first home, where he and his family lived for about twenty years. This house which later included his working studio is nestled in a beautiful neighborhood of Victorian homes. Mr. Wright built this home around 1890. It was a dramatic break from the stately looking Victorians.
For those of you who are not familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright, he is one of the pioneers of what we would call “the green movement”. He helped reshape the concept that a building should blend in with its environment, not shape its surroundings. He is the father of the style of architecture called “prairie style” homes. After lengthy interviews with you, learning about you as an individual, he would design a home that reflected who you were. Yet his homes of the 1890’s through the 1920’s became what we now call the “norm” in building.
As I was taking a walking tour around the neighborhood, it was very obvious which homes had been either designed or redesigned by Mr. Wright. Next to very handsome Victorian homes, which might have been only five years old, you could see these modernistic, linear style homes designed by Mr. Wright. During my walk, I began to wonder what the established neighbors were saying about this young upstart, building these radically different looking houses in their well groomed traditional looking neighborhood.
Down the street I found two very fine looking traditional looking churches; one was the Methodist Church and the other was a Congregational Church. Then next door to the Congregational Church was the Unity Church, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It didn’t have the majestically upward spiraling look that the other two churches had, rather, the Unity church was low, almost hidden in the landscape with horizontal lines.
On my walking tour, I had a little cassette player that was giving me information about the specific homes that Mr. Wright designed or did additions to. The tour guide also called attention to some of the Victorian and Queen Anne houses that had significant architectural styles of their period which influenced Mr. Wright in his designs, bridging the older concepts with his newer visions.
In many respects, the way that Frank Lloyd Wright looked at architecture and how it was to blend with one’s life and that of nature, is very much how Jesus was with his understanding of how the “laws”, those ten commandments were to be lived out. When confronted by an expert in the law, of which was the most important, Jesus gives them an answer that not only stops his questioning but also reshapes how to look at it. “Instead of reducing the importance of the laws, he paints a picture of them as a coherent whole that “hangs together.” Jesus sees the law very differently than the experts did and his response “undermines the whole notion of the law as rules and regulations. What Jesus claims is that the whole law is about love, not rules, about really loving God and one’s neighbor, not about figuring out how to avoid stepping on cracks in the legal sidewalk.” UCC sermon seeds, Thomas Long.
As we read the story’s of Jesus and how he seems to come up with these outstanding teachings and responses, we tend to think that what he is saying is all original to him, yet much of what Jesus says comes from what is written in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus’ response to “which of the commandments is most important” comes from Deuteronomy 6:“4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.[a] 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”
We are coming up to that uncomfortable season of “stewardship”. That time when we talk about money and what to give to the church. Scripture tells us that we are to give 10% of back to God. When we think about what we are pledging to the church, we too often look at it as a “bill”, and the concept of “tithing” (which means 10%) like one of the commandments. “God says, you are to give a tenth of what you earn back to God!” “Now how do I tweak this law, so that I give 10% but don’t have to give actual dollars in that amount? Oh I know, I’ll give my time and do things around the church and for charity and things like that, then I will count that as part of my 10% as “in kind.” This is how the Pharisees would take this commandment and massage it to meet their legal obligations along their desire to spend their money on themselves.
Jesus shared stories to get his listeners to think about what was written in scripture. In this same way, the Rev Kathy Huey, staff person with the national offices of the UCC, shares her story about this question of “greatest commandment”: several years ago, inspired by the witness of two older women, longtime and faithful members of the church who told me their stories of tithing, I decided to take the step of increasing my own giving to the church I loved. Increasing to a tithe (10%) was a challenge but it surprised me that my feelings followed after the action, or after the commitment, if you will. I found that I loved my church more when I gave more to it, much as we love our children more after giving of ourselves to them over many years. So it seems that when we decide to set our hearts in a direction, toward something or someone, and when we do the things that fulfill that commitment, our feelings often follow afterward. The laws of giving and Sabbath and loving, I believe, are God's way of getting us to do what we need to do, what's good for us; these laws give us the direction for setting our hearts. Again, it's a thing of mystery. Ucc sermon seeds, Kate Huey Oct 23,2011 What Kathryn found out is that when she stopped looking at the idea of “tithing” as a commandment, and realized the wholeness of scripture as one of “love”, she then was able to live out her financial giving as a commitment rather than a commandment.
The definition of a commandment is: To direct with authority; give orders to. 2. To have control or authority over. When we read in Deuteronomy 6, “love God with all our heart and soul and strength, and have it on our heart”, the question arises, “How can we be commanded to “love” something or somebody?” A part of our problem with the understanding of the word “love” comes from how abused this word is in our culture. From a biblical sense, the understanding of love, “is not affection but commitment. Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that Deut. 6:5 demands of us but rather stubborn, unwavering commitment". And commitment can be seen as a setting of the heart, something we choose to do, a way we freely choose to live our lives. Commitment is that mysterious mingling of feeling and action, a beautiful dance between the two. UCC Sermon Seeds, Douglas Hare, Oct 23, 2011 You see, Jesus turns the question of “which is more important” into a commitment instead of a commandment; of a lifestyle not something to wiggle around.
What does it mean to you to “love God with all of your heart, mind, and soul? And then your neighbor as yourself?” Is it a commandment or is it a commitment? Each will determine how we look at what we do with not only our money, but with how we look at social justice, of stewardship of our world, and of how we treat the Sabbath! Amen

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Only Ten?, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY, by Rev Steven R Mitchell, 10/2/2011

Only Ten?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 10/2/2011
Based on Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

It is not often that we review the collection of laws that we call the Ten Commandments, but this is the focus of this morning’s reflection. Rev Kathryn Huey writes in this week’s Sermon Seeds, “Every once in a while, the Ten Commandments provoke a measure of controversy in our public life: not about whether we actually obey them and keep them at the heart of our life together, or how they might change the way we live if we observed them. That would be an excellent controversy. No, our national argument tends to be about their display, engraved (ironically) in stone and practically worshipped not for their content but for the message they are assumed to convey, that we are a nation under God, specifically, in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The prominent display of these commandments serves to remind people in other faiths, and atheists as well, about who "we" are, whenever "they" walk into public buildings, regardless of the separation of church and state that protects all of us, however futilely, from religious wars of one kind or another. And yet, we are apparently the ones who need to be reminded of who we are and what it means to live faithfully, for "in recent polls of the American public," Gene Tucker observes, "although the majority affirmed that the Bible is in some way the word of God, only a small percentage could name as many as four of the Ten Commandments" (Preaching through the Christian Year A). If we don't even know what they are, how can we obey them?” So, prior to reading this morning’s scripture, I am going to give you a quiz and have us as a group try to name all Ten Commandments.
In the progression of the story of the Hebrew people, we can recall how they are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was Joseph, the son of Jacob, the one sold off into slavery by his brothers who actually was able to provide a place of refuge and safety for his family as a great famine occurred. So, the descendants of Abraham, found themselves in the land of Egypt, living in security. Then a few generations down the road, they became enslaved by the Egyptians.
Through a man named Moses, God rescued these slaves and guided them through unknown territory, providing protection and food. Eventually they found themselves at the foot of Mt Sinai. It was there that Moses went up to meet with God and received these Ten Commandments. It must have been something to behold for scripture says, “When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance....”
We as a society really dislike the idea of having rules and regulations. We often look to rules, contracts, and covenants as being restrictive, rather than being a freeing agent. When we talk about the concept of “discipline”, we generally think in terms of punitive actions for stepping outside of a set boundary. Yet discipline is needed in order to active a given objective. If we wish to be able to read for example, we have to become disciplined in the alphabet and learning of words in order to be able to read. The same goes with writing or with mathematics or any other activity.
God in many ways is like a parent. We are made in God’s image; therefore, God knows that we operate best with boundaries. In order for us to live life to its best, we need to understand what is best for us. I believe that is what the Ten Commandments are intended to active. We are lucky, Moses only brought down ten from Mount Sinai, by the time Jesus was ministering, there were 613 laws to live by; after the destruction of the Temple there are only 271 laws that can be followed and acted upon as a Jew.
I suspect that most of us feel that we follow the Ten Commandments or rather that we probably don’t really directly violate them. This might be true or it might be that we don’t examine our heart or our actions very closely, thereby think we don’t violate these specific laws that God gave to us.
For example: the first commandment tells us who God is. It is God who brought us up out of Egypt. “What do you mean brought me up out of Egypt? I’ve never stepped foot out of this country, let alone visited Egypt.” Egypt is a metaphor meaning “enslaved”. For folks who have gone through any kind of 12 step program, they will tell you what being a slave to alcohol, sexual abuse, or drug is all about and how their “higher power” has helped bring them out of that slavery, up out of Egypt.
The next commandment is to have no idols. In our affluence as a nation, we are confronted daily with idols. Walter Brueggemann writes powerfully of these temptations: “We have always lived in a world of options, alterative choices, and gods who make powerful, competing appeals. It does us no good to pretend that there are no other offers of well-being, joy, and security. In pursuit of joy, we may choose philosophy, in pursuit of security, we may choose military might; in pursuit of genuine love, we may choose sex. It is clear that these choices are not Yahweh that these are not gods who have ever brought an Exodus or offered a covenant.” UCC Sermon Seeds, Oct 2, 2011
We are told to remember the Sabbath day. This is a word that has become lost in our culture. How many of you tell friends, “I go to church on Sundays?” How many of you say to friends, “On Sundays, I go to worship” instead of using the word “church”? When was the last time you kept the Sabbath? Or maybe more accurately, “what does keeping the Sabbath mean?”
Traditionally it goes back to God working hard for six days and then resting on the seventh day, reflection on all that was created. The Hebrew’s were delivered out of slavery which was a seven day work week and God was asking them to take one day out of the week and keep it holy, so that they could reflect on their relationship to the one who was not only their God, but the one who freed them from their oppression! The word Sabbath means something different than “doing church.”
Now we come to an easy one – don’t commit murder! Yet what happens if you are in the military and we go to war does the killing of the enemy mean murder? Mae West during a confrontation with the HAE’S commission on the topic of “immorality” specifically about her innuendo’s spoke a great truth when she told them, “Sending our boys off to kill one another is immorality!” Yet there are many ways to kill a person without physically killing them. We can kill a child’s spirit by demeaning them on a daily basis; we can kill someone’s character with slander or malicious intent, or even with idol gossip.
Jesus when questioned on which commandment was the greatest, his response was twofold: “Love your God with all your heart, mind, and soul; the other is to love your neighbor as you would love yourself.” That sounds pretty straight forward. Jesus has taken these Ten Commandments and brought them into two basic groups. But what happens if we don’t know how to treat ourselves with respect, or kindness, or with honor, but rather treat ourselves in negative ways that brings harm to ourselves. Are we supposed to treat other people the same way? The truth is we will treat people exactly the way in which we treat ourselves.
What the goal of these commandments is about is to help us focus on life outside of ourselves. It provides disciplines for “best living.” We are to remember, recognize, and then give over ourselves to a power that is greater than ourselves. Once we have done that, we are then able to relate to others in a healthier manor and look at the world through the lens of how God sees each of us. If we can get these Ten Commandments under our belt, I don’t think we would have need of those 613 laws that the Hebrews came up with after the fact! My challenge to you this week is to reread these Ten Commandments and take time to think about how we too often offend them simply because we haven’t taken the time to examine them. Amen.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Is God Hear With Us or Not?, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY, by Rev Steven R Mitchell

Is God Here with Us, or Not?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 9/25/2011
Based on Exodus 17:1-7 & Matthew 21:23-32

There are two basic concepts that I see being brought out in this morning’s Lection reading: the first deals with the topic of “trust” as used under the umbrella of faith; the second is “authority”, also under the umbrella of faith.
As I process the readings that are selected each week by the Common Lectionary, I quickly come up with a title for what I am going to speak about, and I use this title as the theme for what I reflect to you each Sunday. I usually come up with the title of the message by Tuesday so that Danielle will have it as she prepares the bulletin each week. The title of this reflection is “Is God Here with Us, or Not?” Little did I realize just how many times I would actually be asking myself this question throughout the week. I am not sure how much teaching will come in this week’s reflection as the focus will tend to share more reflections on how the week has progressed.
There are weeks when our lives are just floating along with very little trial and tribulation. Louise Wesswick was sharing with me yesterday about how she has spent a good share of this week in “heaven”, so to speak, through the opportunities of attending three differing events that lifted her spirit beyond her normal weekly activities. When these come, we need to make sure that we savor those times and give thanks for them. These are what are referred to as “Mountain top” experiences. There are however times in our lives when we are not having “heaven” in our experiences, but rather like the Israelites in today’s story have feelings of isolation, possibly a sense if abandonment, or in the midst of great suffering and loss find ourselves asking the question, “Is God Here with Us, or Not?”
When I received word that our church secretary, Danielle Valdez was not going to be able to carry her baby to full term and that her little girl will die upon delivery, I began the process of asking God “why” was this happening to her and Rolando? I was feeling pain for her, as it took me back to a time of the first pregnancy of my wife and I, and the miscarriage that occurred a few weeks after I had become use to the idea of becoming a father. I remember how angry I was with God, and wondering how God could let this happen to the person that I love. Are you here God with us or not?
This past Thursday and Friday, I was in Cody attending the Annual Meeting of the Wyoming Association of Churches. On Thursday afternoon we as a group visited the Museum of the Heart Mountain Interment camp. Personally, I have always had issues with how we as a nation handled our Japanese citizens at the beginning of WWII, but I had no idea of how much anger was inside of me about unjust acts, in general, until I began this tour. If you ever pride yourselves on being an American and that your rights as stated in the Bill of Rights will protect you, go up to this museum and let it challenge that trust in our government and nation as a whole. There were over 110,000 people rounded up from their homes, put behind barbed wire fences for three year plus, most of them second and third generation native born citizens, denied due process of law, because of panic and fear created by the attack of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese government. Where was God during this time of their life’s?
In the story of the Israelites, you have a group of people who have become free after generations of being enslaved by the Egyptians. Moses was called by God to become the person who was to speak to Pharaoh for the Israelites. Moses was the one called by God to give them courage and direction to leave the land of Egypt and move back into a land that God had waiting for them. A staff was given to Moses as a symbol of the authority give to Moses by God. It was through the staff that Moses confronted Pharaoh, it was through the staff that Moses was able to part the waters of the Great Sea. There was a cloud by day that protected them and a pillar of fire by night; when they were hungry and had nothing to eat, God gave them manna in the morning and quail in the evening to feed them.
With all these great events that showed the Israelites that God was in their presence, walking along side them, we read once again of how they cry out in despair for water, not remembering how God had set them free. They had forgotten the manna and the quail, that God gave them to eat. They had forgotten how they crossed the sea in safety as the waters parted. When they found themselves without water, they panicked and began to look for a scape goat through Moses, the man whom God had chosen to lead them, and asked, “Is God here with us, or not?”
We haven’t progressed that much from this story. When something goes wrong in our lives, we instinctively look for something or someone to blame our troubles on, forgetting all the blessing that we have received from God in the past, forgetting to remember that even during times of trial, of hurt, lose, and pain, that God is here along side of us, walking each step of the way, even holding us at times when it seems too much to bare.
So, all this discussion has come from Thursday afternoons visit to the Heart Mountain Museum in Cody. Yesterday, Saturday, I again was asking, “Is God here with us, or not?” at the ordination of Martha Atkins, the pastor of Mount of Olives Lutheran Church. In that celebration, it was easy to see God’s presence, as Martha received her ordination, her “authority” to become a called clergy. She had to go through a long process of schooling, of writing papers, of being questioned and interviewed by those who have previously been given authority to make sure that she truly is being called of God into the vocation of ministry.
In some respects, for those of us who have gone through this process, it is easy for us to point to where our authority comes from when asked by someone, “Who gave you the right to stand up there and tell everybody how to live their lives?” “Well, beside the fact that I received a call from God, I have a diploma from a seminary that says I have earned the right, and not only that, but I have had to sit in front of a large group of people, who questioned me about what I have learned, of what I would do in this instance or that instance, I have had people lay their hands on my head and bless me to do the work of the church, that is where my authority comes from.”
Jesus didn’t have it quite so easy. He didn’t go through the accredit schools, he certainly didn’t have the support of the Pharisees or other temple priests. He didn’t have a staff like Moses, in which he could wave in front of everyone and show that God gave him the authority. Jesus had been baptized by the prophet John to do ministry. He had a healing ministry to show his authority, he was able to help people leave a life filled with sin or of being possessed by demons and become a whole person again. When questioned about situations, he spoke answers that brought truth about God and the things God desires most for us.
In the parable that Jesus presented to the Pharisees in support of his actions, he asked which son was the “good son?” Of course, the one who did what his father had asked. What Jesus was telling the Pharisees, as well as us, is lip service isn’t what being a good child of God is about. Rather it is in the actions of what we do, that are pleasing to God. When we sit silently and watch injustices being done, or even being spoken, we are no better than the son who said yes and never did anything.
We can grumble and kick our heals all we want when we are challenged with what God is asking. We can even say “No”, but eventually if we want to be the people that God is asking of us to be, then we will have to open our hearts to listening and then incorporate what the Holy Spirit teaches us. Fear and panic is not the life of Gods people. Oh we may cry out “Is God here with us or not” but the fact that we are crying out to God, means that we trust God to hear us, not only in our pain, but also in our joys. Amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Assumptions are Planned Resentments, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 9/18/2011

Assumptions are Planned Resentments
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 9/18/2011
Based on Matthew 20:1-16

This past week, I read an article in the Christian Century titled, “Why sermons bore us.” It seems that for centuries, sermons have not held to the expectations of those who come to listen to them. The question then becomes, “why do we still insist on having the sermon as the focal point of the Worship experience?” The author of this article presents this observation: We joke about boring sermons, but often it is we who are boring – and bored. We say that sermons have bored us when actually they have disappointed us, failing to be the alternative word we need, failing to be the speech that arises not from our own meager entertainments but from the life of the Spirit. “We are bored, when we don’t know what we are waiting for.” One thing we are waiting for is for preachers who feel the strong wind, who sense the heights above them and the abyss below and take a deep breath and preach a life-changing gospel. Christian Century, Sept 6, 2011 pg31
This quote implies that for those of us who site on the far side of the pulpit assume that the responsibility of making scripture alive and exciting falls directly upon the person who is on this side of the pulpit. I would have to agree that in reality, this statement is true, but I have deep concers as to the health of a congregation where this is true. For a number of decades, the church in this country has structured itself as hiring the leadership and allowing the work of the church to lie upon those hired. If the church is growing, then it seems like a good thing, but if the church isn’t growing, then the poor performance report fall on the shoulders of those hired and does not include any responsibility on the part of the congregation. Another way to look at this, would be observing a congregation that has grown because of the pulpit skills of the pastor, a pastor who has exciting sermons, yet when that pastor leaves, the church suffers a great loss in attendance. This happens because the concept of “lay-ministry” did not take root during the time of the strong pulpit.
While hearing about the scripture might be boring, when it comes to reading scripture, I cannot believe that anyone would find what they read boring! Each week as I read and contemplate the suggested Lectionary readings, I am not only challenged with by what I read and of its meanings, for me, or for this church, or for the larger community of Rock Springs, but I find an excitement that comes through these stories. There is always something challenging to me, as well as ever changing, in finding something new in a well read parable. The point being, it is in the action of personally reading, the action of personally studying the scripture that makes it exciting. When we are not actively engaged, then we can become bored in what we hear.
As assumptions of what a sermon is supposed to do in order not to be disappointing or boring, assumptions can also lead to resentments, very much like what we have read about this morning. This morning’s parable about the “workers in the field” is another parable that assaults our 21st century sensibilities.
Here we see a landlord, hiring workers to work in his field; an agreed wage is set with those first workers and they go out and start working their little hearts out. Periodically during the day, the landlord see’s others who need work and also invites them into the labor force; here we do not see a discussion upon wages being agreed upon, it seems that just the opportunity to work is enough. Then at the last hour of work, those who are still unemployed are also invited into the field to work. Everybody seems to be happy until it comes time to receive their wages for their work. Those who worked only for the last hour were paid first, in front of those who had worked all day long. Seeing those who worked only an hour receiving a wage equal to what they had agreed upon by those who hired on in the morning, lead them to believe that they would receive a greater amount than what had previously been discussed. When they receive the agreed upon amount of wages, which was the same as those who had worked only an hour of the day, they became very resentful and were quite angry with the landlord for treating those last workers as equal to them.
Of course we cannot look at this parable as a literal understanding of employer/employee relationships. First off, this is a parable, which by definition means “a story” not meant to be factual, but rather to reveal a truism. Secondly, if we were to take this story as factual, we would simply have to not deal with it, because it goes against all of our understanding about how economics works both as an employer and as the employed.
The meaning them of course points to the understanding of how God treats each person; it is a story of who gets “in” and an implication that no one is left out. This is where we start to have problems with what Jesus is sharing with us. My former mother-in-law use to say to me, “you know, most of us Christians are going to be very surprised at who we will see in heaven!” That is the cruxes of this story. This parable relates closely with the story about the Prodigal Son, where the older brother who stays home and works, resents the generosity of his father. He resents his father, as well as his younger brother. Is this not a primary issue that we all must face?
As I visit with folks who no longer attend worship, anywhere, the overall theme that I hear come from “being disappointed” by either the pastor, or by the behavior of someone in the congregation, or of the members as a whole. Assumptions are planned resentments! When we assume something and when that assumption isn’t fulfilled in the manner that is expected, then resentment occurs. There seems to be an assumption that every pastor is “Omnipresent”, that is, when a person becomes ordained into ministry that they somehow become all knowing about what is going on in every person’s life. “Well, the pastor never came up to the hospital to visit me when I was sick.” “The pastor never came and visited with me when I really needed her, while going through my divorce.” Most of the time, the poor pastor wasn’t even aware of the hospitalization; same way about the private things going on in the life of each person in the congregation.
In this parable, the workers first hired to work, forget by the end of the day, that they too started out unemployed and become envious of those who were employed later in the day when they receive the same amount of wages. Instead of being thankful for the opportunity to work, envy becomes the focus. Do we find ourselves at times like those workers who were first hired, of being envious of another’s generosity, or gifts, of another’s talents, or abilities, possessions, social status and so on?
Over the past few weeks I have been presenting the Gospel, I hope in a true form that speaks to the forgiveness of God to all peoples, of the hope and gift of life eternal, because of the cross which Jesus died upon, a forgiveness of all people’s sins. Tonight 6 p.m., we start a study of the book Rev Rob Bell published, “Love Wins”, which continues the discussion about assumptions of who gets into heaven and who doesn’t. This book address the basic issue that we within the church can fall prey to, that of feeling we deserve something more than everyone else, because we see ourselves as being entitled over others that we perceive less deserving.
One of the problems with resentments that come because of envy is that it diminishes our own gifts and talents and secretly robs others of theirs. It is God who is the giver of every good gift, whether it is ours or someone else’s. The reality is that all of us benefit from gifts, whether it is a gift that we personally possess or whether it is a gift that someone else has. For when we allow these gifts to be presented, then everybody wins! Are we unable to celebrate another’s gift because we are not able to celebrate the gift that we have received? How often are we ungrateful for God’s graciousness and mercy? How often do we deny God’s love and forgiveness not in the life’s of others, but in our own life?
This is a hard parable to accept, because it goes against our humanness in the way that we have been conditioned in our society of economics and of competition that “capitalism” is based upon. We easily can fall into the trap of thinking that some of us are saved while others are not, solely because we feel entitled and view others as not being up to “our” standards. The other side of this coin is that we may feel that we are not worthy enough to deserve the gift and grace of God, which would keep us outside of the field and not enjoying the freedom to use the gifts that God has already given to us. This story is about the Love of God toward all of us! It is about how we are seen as equals in the eyes of God. Our challenge is to then look at each other and see what God see’s in each of us! Amen

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Word is Love, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY, by Rev Steven R Mitchell

The Word is Love
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 9/4/2011
Based on Matthew 18:15-20 and Romans 14:8-14

Last week I closed the message with these following statements and questions:”As people who say we are followers of Christ, we need to look at our actions … and compare them to what Christ teaches and how Christ acted toward those who tried to do harm to him. “How do we not repay evil with evil? How do we reconcile, not taking revenge when wronged? How do we truly ‘bless’ those who persecute us?
The quest for the Christian is to define their life by the standards that Christ laid out within his ministry. The road to peace is far more difficult than the road to revenge. We are called to live in genuine love, to hate what is evil but to not address evil with evil. Finally, we are a people called to rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer.” From sermon titled: Defining Your Life, by Rev Steven R Mitchell
This week’s lectionary text continues this discussion of “How do we act when wronged?” Matthew brings this point down to conflict within the church when it occurs between two individuals. It states, “15-16"If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you've made a friend.” Matthew then says if that person doesn’t respond, then you are suppose to again approach this person but this time with several other members of the church, so they can verify everything that is being said. This way, you have witnesses and you don’t get into a public fight with the “He says, I say” arguments. Again, if the perpetrator isn’t mending their way, then you are to bring this church member before the whole body and if the offender still refuses to listen, then we are told: ” if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
I don’t know how this particular section of Matthew strikes you when you read it, but this last Monday when I was starting my preparation for today, terror struck my heart. Every church has struggled with members who seem to be willful in their actions, meaning that they feel that they are above the rest of the assembly. If it isn’t hard enough to try to deal with situations such as this, then it is compounded with that little caveat, “if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” In truth, this is the part of Matthew that I found very difficult to deal with. Many churches, if they practice church discipline take this section and use it as a club to try and beat into submission the person that is accused.
What I see in this reading is the potential abuse on the part of the larger church body. Many churches have read the segment that says, “To treat them like pagans or tax collectors” to mean, excommunicate this person who isn’t changing their behavior. When this direction from Matthew is taken, the church has created an adversarial environment which often can escalate into an explosive situation and more than the original two people find themselves entangled, creating many more victims from the original “wrong.” The truth of the matter is: any disciplinary action by the church should be redemptive, not punitive, in intent. Feasting on the Word, Mitchell G. Reddish
Excommunication and/or exclusion type of behavior is punitive action, not redemptive or an act of reconciliation.
If we take this same line of scripture and listen to how Eugene Peterson understands it in his translation of The Message, we read a differing approach: If he won't listen to the church, you'll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God's forgiving love. In other words, we are to continually be in fellowship with this type of person, showing a love and forgiveness that Jesus himself showed those who mistreated him. In Romans, Paul says it this way: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
Among the many things that Paul tells us which can rule our physical bodies, hate and need for revenge, are two of the most powerful feelings that we deal with as humans. We are just a week away from the 10th Anniversary when 19 al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four passenger jets and brought down both towers of the World Trade Center, penetrated a section of the Pentagon and the fourth planed crashed in a field not reaching its objective because of the actions of the passengers. There has been a tremendous amount of programming on Television this past week on the topic. Some programs being aired focus in such a way as to promote a continuation of being a victim of these actions, and in essence allowing ourselves to be held hostage by the Al Qaeda. Other programs are presenting topics that focus on constructive actions that provide healing from this violence and the ability to move beyond being a victim toward providing space that allows for healing and hopes for a future that will promote peace. One of these ways is with the building of two fountains, one at the base of the North Tower, the other at the base of the South Tower, in a park setting, with the names of every person who lost their life that day.
This past Monday I attended a seminary/retreat in Colorado, which focused on how to diminish the destructive nature of “Them vs. Us”, specifically between the Muslim and Christian world, but this can be applied to any situation where we find ourselves in an adversarial situation, just like what Matthew is speaking to this morning. The key speaker was Dr Mirslov Volf, Professor of Theology at Yale’s School of Theology. Dr. Volf is one of our leading Theologians of the twenty-first century. Mirslov comes from a most interesting background. He is a Croatian, raised by a father who was a Pentecostal minister, in Serbia, had a Serbian nanny, all under the old Communist USSR. He spent most of his years during military service being interrogated because of his father’s profession, being seen as a potential enemy of the state.
Mirslov is a strong voice directed to the church, calling us to conduct ourselves as Christ has taught us in how to live. He spent much time discussing his involvement over the past decade in finding common ground within Christianity and Islam. He spoke about how the same miss-information about Christians is being feed to the Muslim world as we hear miss-information about Muslims in our country. I would also like to point out that, on Sept 11, 2001, Mirslov had just finished his concluding statements to a group of people in one of the conference rooms in the North Tower, when the first plane flew into the Trade Center. So when this man is talking about how anti-Muslim propaganda goes against our call by Christ to seek out peace, he is not just a professor who lives behind the doors in an Ivy tower, but was at ground zero that morning of the attacks, and what he shares with the wider Christian community should be listened to with much respect and reflection.
Coming back then to how I struggled with our lesson in Matthew, that of applying Matthews formula as solutions for discord within the community of faith, I already have shared that we are not suppose to approach these situations with censure and punitive intent. We are in fact told by Matthew to keep plugging away in love in relating to those who seem to create ill feelings. This of course can only truly be practiced when we, as Paul has put it, have put on the Lord Jesus Christ!
So the first step, as suggested by Mirslov, is to make ourselves open in order to provide the atmosphere that is needed for reconciliation. In Mirslov’s book, Exclusion and Embrace, he explains this concept with a simple illustration. 1) We must be able to embrace the other person. So the first act is that of “self-opening” our self, so that we are creating an invitation, an invitation that has created space for union. 2) There is waiting. We have created the invitation, but we must wait for the other person to respond to this invitation, by opening up our arms, there by becoming vulnerable and having the ability to embrace. Our hope is that they too will create space for this union, which means that they too also must open their arms in order to embrace each other. By forcing an embrace you have actually excluded that person, because you have not allowed that person to be their self. You might be hugging them but you are not embracing them. You have “assimilated” this person into your being, but by not allowing them to be their self, you have not “embraced” that person. 3) Once this person has chosen to enter into this “embrace” then we have the closing of the arms. It is affirming their presence as the other person also affirms being there. 4) Once we have had this embrace, we must open back up the arms to let the other person go back to being who they are. This allows for individuality to continue for both persons.
“Exclusion” is by nature the creative act that allows for individualism. It is the boundaries that I set up for myself, that allows me to be who I am and to exist within my space. This is the proper aspect of exclusion, of boundaries. However, we can create excluding acts when we violate a person’s boundaries. We can exclude a person when we assimilate them into our reality.
This is how I think we have to look at what Matthew is trying to teach us, in approaching conflict within the church body. We want to be able to create the space for union. We do not try to assimilate, because that is violating that person and there is no true union.. As Jesus told his disciples in last week’s text, “for what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but loses his life?” What happens to our soul is far more important than what happens to our bodies. As Paul tells us, “All the commandments, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
“How do we not repay evil with evil? How do we reconcile, not taking revenge when wronged? How do we truly ‘bless’ those who persecute us?” By loving our neighbor as Christ has loved us. As we stand at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ, we have to come to realize and then embrace the truth that Christ died for every sin that has been committed, he died for every sin that will be committed in the future. The sin of those 19 men, of 10 years ago has already been forgiven by God. Those sins that each of us do to one another, has been forgiven by God. Sin separates us from one another, so if that sin has been forgiven by God, then we as followers of Christ must create the invitation for reconciliation between one another. It means making no provisions for the flesh to gratify its desires (that of revenge or hate). The word is Love. Amen

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Defining Your Life, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 8/28/2011 by Rev Steven Mitchell

Defining Your Life
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 8/28/2011
Based on Romans 12:9-21 and Matthew 16:21-28

Earl Nightingale, an early twentieth century motivational speaker often said, “People don’t plan to fail, they just simple fail to plan.” This is not true about the person of Jesus, as we read in this week’s lection reading of the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus had very intentional plans, in which he shared with his disciples about what his future was to be, as well as stating what the results would be of those plans. He said he must go to Jerusalem, where he will undergo great suffering at the hands of the religious leaders, and be killed. The result of these events would however allow him to rise from death. At this Peter, who just last week we learned had been given the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth, didn’t want to hear what Jesus was telling him and tried to sway Jesus into not taking this course of action. Jesus then calls Peter, “Satan”, telling Peter that he is a stumbling block to Jesus; for Peter was setting his mind not on divine things but on human things.
Many of us are much like Peter, wanting to have direction, but when given the plan, don’t like what we hear and resist following what has been presented. Congregations are very much like this. They hire a minister, expecting the minister to create plans that will help the congregation move out of the rut they have found themselves in. But when the pastor lays out the plan that he has been hired to do, and after explaining the costs both financially and physically this plan is going to require, the congregation begins to voice concerns much like Peter, say things like, “We can’t do that, that is too difficult, it is too much work and it is too expensive.” In essence they have hired a leader, but don’t wish to be lead, because they don’t like hearing what it takes to move from point A to point B.
Jesus then explained to his disciples, “If you want to become my followers, you have to deny yourselves and take up your cross and follow me. If you don’t, then you will lose what you want to accomplish. This “picking up my cross” might sound simple, but just what does it actually mean?
When I was a child, I exasperated my parents a great deal because I was always asking questions. When they would give me a task to do, I often followed up with the basic, “who, what, why, when, where, and how” questions. They perceived that I was being defiant when asking these question, which I really wasn’t. In general, I tried to please my parents, but in order for me to know that I was accomplishing what they wanted me to, I generally needed more information than what they would initially give me.
In Romans, Paul, gives us some very practical instruction as to the “what, where, why, who, when, and how” to Jesus’ remark about “picking up our cross and follow him”, with a whole laundry list of behaviors that we are to not just strive toward but do, do specifically toward those who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. “9-10Love from the center of who you are; don't fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.
11-13Don't burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don't quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. “ Okay, these things sound pretty normal as to the way we are to act toward other Christians. It is pretty much the same type of behavior that parents would teach their children in how to act toward their brothers and sisters. Well, that is something that I can buy into, after all, if you are in a church setting, we should all be able to play nicely with one another, should we not.
But then comes the part of the lesson that isn’t so easy for most of us to buy into. Paul switches from how we are to act toward other Christians, to how we are supposed to respond to outsiders, to strangers who are not like us, even to the bad guys. 14-16Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they're happy; share tears when they're down. Get along with each other; don't be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don't be the great somebody.
17-19Don't hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you've got it in you, get along with everybody. Don't insist on getting even; that's not for you to do. "I'll do the judging," says God. "I'll take care of it." Generally, this is where most of us will throw down the cross. This is the part that we don’t like to hear and can become very anger and even nasty.
We are coming up on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, an event that has changed how we live in this country. That act by a group of terrorists has created an atmosphere where we now treat people who look differently than us with great suspicion.
Scott Bader-Saye, a teacher at the Episcopal Seminary of the southwest, writes in this week’s issue of the Christian Century, “Ten years later, I think the most significant change that occurred on 9/11 was that America became a victim, and since that day we have faced the moral hazards of negotiating that status. The moral challenge for the victim comes in the temptation to use one’s suffering as a shield to deflect moral questions, to say, ‘never again’ and to whisper under one’s breath, ‘whatever it takes.’ Victimhood becomes a kind of moral currency that justifies one’s actions in advance.
Vice President Dick Cheney gave voice to this logic a few days after the attacks, declaring that the U.S. had to ‘work the dark side,’ using any means at our disposal and without any discussion.” Ten years later, we continue to bear the bitter fruit of that decision: Muslims in the U.S. continue to face persecution, mosques are viewed with suspicion, Guantanamo Bay continues to operate, torture remains a political tool, and we are no closer to peace in the Middle East.
Jesus does not allow Christians to take refuge in the blank check of “what-ever it takes.” We are called to test our own actions and maintain our own faithfulness, to notice the log in our own eye even when we have been wronged. This is not to blame the victim but rather to understand that the victim remains a moral agent and that the logic of “there is no alternative” only provides cover for those unwilling or unable to imagine alternatives. Ten years later, the church must offer and embody the alternatives that our political leaders have refused.
The church’s capacity to respond to an event like 9/11 is formed long before the event in all the small ways we learn to practice patience, love, kindness, compassion and forgiveness. It is these practices that we need ten years later to empower our witness for peace and reconciliation.”
Now I do not know where you might stand on the actions that we took after 9/11, but we must realize that those actions have put us at war for eight years, with much loss of life, property, and resources on all sides, and has lead to our borrowing unimaginable amounts of money from other countries that puts us at peril for national security as well. These actions turned us away from looking at ourselves in an introspective and constructive manner that might have helped in the future to overt future wars; the need of looking at the log in our eye, so to speak.
As people who say we are followers of Christ, we need to look at our actions as a nation as well as on a personal level and compare them to what Christ teaches and how Christ acted toward those who tried to do harm to him. There are some very deep questions that need some serious discussions: How do we not repay evil with evil? How do we reconcile not taking revenge when wronged? How do we truly ‘bless’ those who persecute us?
Our challenge through this lesson is to understand the tension between living of the world (abiding and going along with the standard of the day) verses living in the world as a people called to live by a radical standard called for by Christ.
The quest for the Christian is to define their life by the standards that Christ laid out within his ministry. The road to peace is far more difficult than the road to revenge. We are called to live in genuine love, to hate what is evil but to not address evil with evil. Finally, we are a people called to rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer. Amen