Monday, February 21, 2011

Victorious Living through Christ pt5 "Looking for the Sacred in the Secular", First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY

Victorious Living through Christ pt 5
“Looking for the Sacred in the Secular”
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 2/20/2011
Based on Matthew 5: 43-48 & 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

What do the “Simpson’s”, “South Park”, the singing group “U2” and famed rape artist “Kanye West “all have in common? One of their commonalities is they are all considered to be a part of the arena we call secular entertainment. Another commonality with these and other secular groups is how much they deal with the concepts of “spirituality” and “sacredness”.
This past week, Paul and I attended what is called the annual “Pastor/Spouse retreat”, but it was what I refer to as a working retreat. We were at 9,000 to be closer to hear God speak; at a place where God’s creative nature provided natural hot springs to help keep us warm as well. As a person who was on the planning committee, I was very pleased with the speaker that we were able to bring in for this retreat, Jim Luck. Jim is a reformed Southern Baptist minister, who is now in the UCC family in South Carolina, as well as holding a degree in Psycho-therapy.
The focus of this working retreat was to explore the sacredness that is being discussed in the secular world, a discussion that is being handled by and for people who are not connected to a traditional faith community; that which we call, church and through the act of “worship.” One of the groups that were presented during these discussions was a group known as “U2”. This group has spent its entire existence staying away from the religious world, yet has a growing number of churches using their materials within the context of worship, with specific focus at the communion table, being labeled “U 2cherist”. (Just a warning, I now have been supplied with resources to where we will be observing a worship that will be a U 2cherist in the not so distant future, that not only featuring U2, but also a speech by Bishop Desmond Tutu, as well as a homily delivered by Bono, lead singer of U 2, at the 2007 Presidential prayer breakfast.)
Just a little back ground on U 2, it is a group that comes out of the turmoil of the Irish Protestant/Catholic war that lasted for generations. The groups background is 3/5th Catholic, 2/5th Protestant. A part of the Christian world looks to U2 as presenting the Christian message, while another part of the Christian world rejects them as “not having the answer” and the group U2 does not identify with any faith community that uses the word “Christian” in its name. Yet, their words and music speak to millions of people at a very deep spiritual level. Let me share some of the words of the song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for” as one example.

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”
Vs 3….I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone

But I still haven't found what I'm looking for

I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one
But yes I'm still running

You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross
Of my shame
Oh my shame
You know I believe it

But I still haven't found what I'm looking for

The discussions at this retreat that Jim Luck asked us to focus on were questions such as: Why do singing groups, movies, and T.V. programs have such impact on millions of listeners concerning spirituality; How is it that discussions of “the sacred” are occurring with such frequency outside of the church; Without the wisdom and guidance of religious teachings, what will the answers look like, with only secular input?
I think there is a huge assumption with many churches, who are struggling to keep their doors open, a conclusion that those on the outside are not interested in “spiritual” matters. I recall in one of my very early sermons asking how many of you have heard the phrase: I’m Spiritual, not religious. The answer in itself speaks volumes to how the church has failed society. We have failed to speak to people at an honest level. An honest level about the hardships that come in life, giving platitudes that like: this is God’s will; you’re not praying hard enough; there must be something wrong in your life to be experiencing all these troubles. We have failed to address the evil that happens in the world. We feel that we must have all the answers to spiritual questions and use formulated words at sacred moments in order to show the power and the “omnipresence” of God.
The Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile…” The church continues to think that it has all the answers to life’s questions. That unless you come to us, you on the outside, will never know the love of God. Jesus, warns us about this type of conceited thinking by telling us,” This is what God does. He gives the Parental best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty.”
We, meaning the human race, are standing at the threshold of a new paradigm of understanding our connectedness to God. This new paradigm started with teachings such as those that Christ taught. It comes through many other prophets such as Mohammad, Buddha, and others, teaching us about our interconnectedness with one another, with our environment, and with God. It has been moving forward for several thousand years. But if all we can do is look through the lens of our arrogance, we will be misplacing our energies; to resist this new shift and will not be a part of the next level of reality in truth, but will become extent as an ancient teaching that has no value to it. We will not be around to help minister to folks as they continue to ask those most intimate questions of God, we will not be around to help people celebrate those most sacred moments in their lives.
As a church, as a people who profess to know God, we are not the only source of comfort and help or knowledge of God. Organizations like AA have filled the vacuum that the church left when it chose not to address the issue of alcoholism. Current estimates say, AA has around one and a quarter million members. They do not talk about God directly, but they do address spirituality and sacredness of life at a level that the church has not.
One of the purposes for my doing this series of Victorious Living through Christ, which is based on AA’s twelve step program is to help us as Christians renew our connection to God for spiritual growth that is based on a program that has been super successful in the secular setting. Another one of the steps that we need to take and work, not only on an individual basis but as the church at large is to: Admit to God, to ourselves, and to humanity the exact nature of our wrongs. As people of God, we must admit our arrogance and our tendency to “exclude, diminish, and marginalize” those we believe do not fit within our image of what God wishes for. The greatest sin of the Christian Church has been and continues to be in our arrogance and self-conceit that we have all the answers.
You see, it doesn’t matter if you believe in a God or not, as human beings we all are asking the questions of life. Questions about why does evil exist, why do others seem to be luckier in life, while I try to do good, but get dumped on all the time? Why did I get cancer when I did all the healthy things that you are suppose to do, yet Joe Blow over there, drinks a case of scotch a week, smokes a carton of cigarettes a day and has no health issues. Why does John Doe who has thousands of dollars in his investment portfolio win the mega millions lotto, while I am in bankruptcy, losing my house and will have my children living on the streets, because I can’t find work? Where is the justice I hear that God is so interested in?
There is sacred and spirituality outside of the church. We as the church have been failing humanity by thinking we have all the answers. We continue to fail humanity by expecting them to conform to our church language, to conduct their experiences of the sacred in the way that we understand the sacred. We are guilty of “institutionalizing” God instead of making God accessible.
In reality, God is always accessible to all; we in the church have forgotten this. I think we are the ones, who sin against God the most, and we need to recognize this and go and confess this, not among ourselves, but with those we have excluded and to those that are marginalized by society. Let us not exclude the secular but rather embrace what it has to offer and see how we within the church can enter into the conversation that is going on outside of these walls. Amen

Monday, February 7, 2011

Victorious Living through Christ pt4 "Searching the Interior", First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY

Victorious Living through Christ pt 4
“Searching the Interior”
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 2/6/2011
Based on Isaiah 58:1-9a and 1 Corinthians 2:1-16

If you are looking for a truly good movie to go and see, may I suggest going to “The King’s Speech”, which is currently showing at the local cinema. It is a story about King George VI, and how he strove to overcome a speech impediment. As the second son of King George V, Albert was not anticipating his eventual ascent to the throne of the United Kingdom standing in the shadow of his older and more charismatic brother, Prince Edward VIII.
Prince Albert, was plagued with a sever stammer when speaking. He went to the best therapists of the day, trying a range of techniques going back to ancient Greek medicine to more modern treatments. Nothing seemed to help, and after his closing speech at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, one which was an ordeal for both him and the listeners, Prince Albert resolved to never see another therapist. Out of desperation and through a friend’s reference, Albert’s wife Elizabeth (mother to Queen Elizabeth II, current Queen of England) encourages Albert to go and see Lionel Logue, an Australian-born speech therapist. Wikipedia on line.
Mr. Logue, used very unusually methods in treating Prince Albert, with the most being, having Albert go back into his memories and recall portions of his life that might have set the stage for his stammering. This was met with resistance by the Prince, but over time, along with other methods such as breathing exercises, the Prince took on the challenge to recall incidences in his childhood, thus doing internal examinations, looking for experiences that kept him from speaking without stammering. Eventually with lots of work and understanding some of his childhood experiences, Prince Albert, was able to overcome much of his stammering.
One of the twists in the movie comes when the Arch Bishop of Canterbury is challenged by the future King of England (which also meant, holding the title as ‘Head of the Church of England’) to have Mr. Logue, at his side during the coronation, it is revealed that Mr. Logue had no formal education or credentials to back up his methods, thus having his success with Prince Albert being diminished and not worthy of standing next to the future King of England.
Have you ever had anyone throw out the “superiority” card at you, thus trying to diminish or dismiss your abilities, your opinions, and your validity as a person? I suspect we all have at one time or another. This was an issue with the Church in Corinth. Paul is addressing a church in conflict, because there were people in this church that felt they were superior to the common member of that faith family.
Paul started his address to the church in Corinth by saying, he came not to bring to them “a greater knowledge”, but rather he came and kept the message simple; first telling them about Jesus and who he was, and then what Jesus had done for every person. Paul then goes on to say, “6-9We, of course, have plenty of wisdom to pass on to you once you get your feet on firm spiritual ground, but it's not popular wisdom, the fashionable wisdom of high-priced experts that will be out-of-date in a year or so. God's wisdom is something mysterious that goes deep into the interior of his purposes. You don't find it lying around on the surface. It's not the latest message, but more like the oldest—what God determined as the way to bring out God's best in us…”
Paul then says, to be able to overcome what is holding us back, we need to not rely on the wisdom of the day, but rather go to God’s way of providing healing and growth. “God's wisdom is something mysterious that goes deep into the interior of God’s purposes.” Paul shares this can only come once our feet are on firm spiritual ground. What does that mean to you, this being firm on Spiritual ground? How do we get our feet on firm Spiritual ground? Again Paul helps us out by saying, “Spirit can be known only by spirit – God’s Spirit and our spirits in open communion. Spiritually alive, we have access to everything God’s Spirit is doing…”
Last week, I suggested that the next step in living a Victorious life through Christ was to turn our will over to God and let God become the guiding person in our life. Yet how do we do this? What do I functionally, turn my life over to God? How do I let my Spirit talk to God’s Spirit?
We need to take time alone, without distractions and search our soul. We need to trust in God’s love and take a deep look at who we are. We need to take a moral inventory of ourselves. This was Mr. Logue's method for Prince Albert. "Albert, look at what went on in your childhood that caused you to become afraid of your potentiality!"
God told Isaiah to shout out and don’t hold back and tell those who called themselves God’s chosen people, to look at their own sin. God asked, “How do you expect me to commune with you and bless you when you forsake My ordinances; Why do you fast in My name when you serve your own interest and oppress others; You come to worship only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.”
We are experiencing this type of behavior in this session of our legislation. We have a large group of elected officials who are presenting their agenda’s on fear and ignorance, of trying to pass laws that are discriminatory and taking away dignity and freedoms at almost every level of life in this state; being directed at our educators, at the GLBT community, and even toward Federal laws.
To deepen our Spiritual growth, both individually and as a faith community, we need to take a moral inventory of ourselves, by asking hard questions like: do I really care about what happens to my neighbor? Do I really believe in equality of all people, or am I afraid of losing my privilege by actually working toward justice for all? Am I really willing to put myself out on the line and speak out about protecting the rights of all people, when I might not agree with the way those people act and behave?
God told the people of Israel, “Is not this the worship I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”
This isn’t something that I am telling you, this is God’s message to us. Without opening up our Spirit to God’s Spirit, we will not be able to hear God’s true message. God’s love is not for some, it is for everyone. It is through our actions that this love, this will of God is experienced here in our physical world.
If anyone thinks that the church shouldn't be political, I would suggest taking a closer read of what the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are saying. God's call and Jesus' message is for Social Justice, to reconcile humanity to humanity, to balance out the differences between those who have, and those who have been disenfranchised. It attacks political power that creates injustice.
We think that when we come to church and give prayer, give our tithes, sing pretty hymns that talk about loving God, that God is pleased with us. The honest truth is, God doesn’t care one eye-ode about those things. God is more impressed when we are busy taking care of business. God asks us to take a moral inventory of our most inner self, so that we, like King George VI can overcome our fears, our stammering and speak out against injustice.
The economy of those who are self-seeking is that of fear, deceit, and of self-interest. The economy of those who’s spirit is in communion with God’s spirit is one of joy, of freedom, of hope, and of selflessness. As we come to Christ’s table, let us remember what Christ spent for our lives and understand that through that same sacrifice we too are called. Amen