Monday, March 28, 2011

"Thirsty Voices", First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 3/27/2011

Thirsty Voices
By Rev Steven R. Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 3/27/2011
Based on Exodus 17:1-7 & John 4:5-42

This past Wednesday, one of Hollywood’s greatest and larger than life actors passed away, Elizabeth Taylor, at age 79. Quoting from DAVID GERMAIN and HILLEL ITALIE, Associated Press: Taylor was the most blessed and cursed of actresses, the toughest and the most vulnerable. She had extraordinary grace, wealth and voluptuous beauty, and won three Academy Awards, including a special one for her humanitarian work. Taylor was the most loyal of friends and a defender of gays in Hollywood when AIDS was new to the industry and beyond. Mss. Taylor was personally afflicted by ill health, failed romances (eight marriages, seven husbands) and personal tragedy. Her troubles bonded her to her peers and the public, and deepened her compassion. Her advocacy for AIDS research and for other causes earned her a special Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, in 1993. As she accepted it, to a long ovation, she declared, "I call upon you to draw from the depths of your being — to prove that we are a human race, to prove that our love outweighs our need to hate, that our compassion is more compelling than our need to blame."
In an interview around the time Liz was turning 50, she said, "I don't entirely approve of some of the things I have done, or am, or have been. But I'm me. God knows, I'm me," Whether we approve, or disapprove of the life that Mss Taylor lived, there is much to be learn by her on how to face life’s adversities and be a survivor, of how one picks themselves up and moves forward after making mistakes, of being a courageous voice in social justice issues when it isn’t popular, and of living life to its fullest.
As I read through this morning’s Gospel lesson, I can almost substitute Elizabeth Taylor for the woman that Jesus has encountered at the well. Both women seem to mirror so much of the other’s life style. Both had had multiple husbands, neither seemed uncomfortable in stepping out of the usual roles and norms of their day, especially when it comes to encountering men. Both could be said to have, “Thirsty Voices”, not only easily speaking their minds, but also in seeking answers about life’s deepest questions.
The woman whom Jesus encountered understands the inequality of those who seem to hold the power and those who do not as she says to Jesus, “Our ancestors (also children of Abraham) worshipped on this mountain, but you (the Jewish religion) say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Liz Taylor pleaded with Christians at the onset of AID’s, “— to prove that we are a human race, to prove that our love outweighs our need to hate, that our compassion is more compelling than our need to blame.”
As I was trying to map out today’s text with what I most wish to share with you, the most obvious theme deals with “sustainability”, both physical and spiritual sustainability. Looking at the Exodus story, we read where the Israelites are fearful of dying due to the lack of water, one of life’s necessities. With the woman at the well, water is again the focus of discussion. Next, the Disciples come along and they are worried about food, again a basic need in order to sustain physical life.
In Exodus, with the Moses story, you have a group of refugee’s wondering about in a dessert, finding themselves in a place where there is no water. This could be a metaphor about finding oneself at the end of their rope and not knowing what to do next. Moses goes to God and asks for help, telling God that his people are very unhappy with the way things are playing out – after all, they left their lives in Egypt where they might have been slaves, working dead end jobs, and had no hope, but at least they had water to drink and some food to eat; now they are out in the wilderness with no food, no water, and seemingly no hope! They are asking, “Is the LORD among us or not?” They are at the end of their rope.
In the encounter with the woman at the well, she too is at a point in her life, where things probably haven’t panned out the way she had hoped. She was not looked upon by the other women with any positive feelings, exhibited by her being at the well by herself at noon, when the rest of the women would have been at the well early in the morning, before the heat of the day. She was probably not respected by the men of the town, as she seemed to run through men like sand in an hour glass. In fact, she was not married to the man she was currently living with.
Through the discussion of water with Jesus, we see that this woman was able to comprehend that what was needed in her life was something deeper than just the basic physical necessities of life. The disciples on the other hand were not so quick on the upbeat, requiring Jesus to explain to them that the discussion about food was that of a spiritual matter.
Although the theme about spiritual sustainability is the obvious theme, there is a more subtle lesson being provided. It is the theme of being aware and able to recognize the blessings that we receive in our daily living, of being open enough to receive those gifts from God, of receiving God’s life giving water.
I would like to present this point in a most poignant video about the problems with receptiveness due to first impressions. Show Britain’s Got Talent, Susan Boyle’s performance.
I started out this morning’s sermon with giving tribute to one of Hollywood’s most physically voluptuous women, next I talked about a woman who lived on the edge of society, and then ended with a woman who was frumpy looking in appearance. All three of these women have given the world tremendous gifts, one through activism and film, another with her music. The message of “living water” came to a Samaritan town through a woman who was the most unlikely person to deliver a message about the “love” and “saving” grace of God. The town’s people heard her testimony about this man Jesus and went out to see for themselves. In the story in Exodus, through Moses’ pleas with God, the “life giving water” came to the Israelites from taking a rod and striking a rock.
The purpose of these stories is to remind us that God is always here! We need to be open, we need to be receptive of what gifts God wants to bestow upon us. These gifts are many times presented in the most unassuming manor. If Susan Boyle’s had accepted the initial audiences rejection and left the stage without singing, we would have never been able to be blessed by such a beautiful voice, a voice that speaks to the very core of one’s soul. If the Samaritan’s had not been receptive to this woman who normally was censured, they would have not heard Jesus’ message. If the woman at the well had not been willing to enter into a conversation with a stranger, who was breaking all the social rules of the day, she would never have been able to accept the Good News that was in front of her. We need to be aware that we are a people thirsting for the living water that only comes through Spirit, to Spirit. We like the Israelites, experiencing God’s miracles one after another, truly are Thirsty voices in the wilderness of our journey! Amen

When Did Temptation become so Bad?, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 3/13/2011

When Did Temptation become So Bad?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 3/13/2011
Based on Matthew 4:1-11

Have any of you ever found yourself in a situation where a choice that would be life altering had to be made? The great poet Robert Frost wrote about such a situation in his poem, The Road Not Taken.

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;         5
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,         10
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.         15
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
A widely held interpretation, by critics, is that the poem is about making personal choices and rationalizing our decisions, whether with pride or with regret. With the last two lines telling us, that the speaker was a courageous nonconformist in taking a road few other people had taken.
This morning’s Gospel reading could most certainly point to the actions of Jesus as a person who chose to take the road less traveled. Yet according to Mr. Frost, the poem is intended as a gentle jab at his great friend and fellow poet Edward Thomas, with whom he used to take walks through the forest (Thomas always complained at the end that they should have taken a different path), those always thinking that the “other” path might have been the better choice. Wikipedia
On Friday, June 19, 1953, at 9:15 a.m., I embarked on a most incredible journey; it was the day that I breathed my first breath of air on this planet. It has been a journey filled with much learning; a journey filled with much emotional and physical development; a journey that has had no real road map to follow, other than by advice freely given and by advice personally sought out, as well as by examples of those who have preceded me in their own journey of life! It has been a journey filled with choices, and with all of this wonderful advice that I have received, examined, weighted and either rejected or implemented, do you know what I have discovered? I have discovered that I have managed to make a few mistakes along the way! Imagine that, with all this marvelous help, I would actually have had the audacity to have made one or two, or three, or maybe thousands of wrong choices in my journey.
Rod Roddenberry, the creator of the famed Star Trek series, managed to sum up my whole life, past, present and I’m sure future. He says of my life: Going where no man has gone before! Have any of you ever felt as if, your life has gone where no other person’s life has gone before? That the choices you have made have sometimes been the wrong decisions? I hope so, otherwise, you are probably not human, but maybe a Klingon or some other life form.
This morning’s lectionary readings are dealing with standing at a cross road and making decisions. The process that we go through in making a decision is by examining as many differing outcomes that we can think of and basing our decision on the results of this process. We call this process, discernment. Another word that could be substituted for discernment is the word, “temptation.”
Today’s scripture readings focus on Temptations and the result of choices made, due to specific temptations. The first temptation that we read in scripture occurs in the Garden of Eden. The story line tells us that if Adam and Eve ever eat the fruit from the tree in the center of the garden, they would end up dying. As the story goes, Eve has a lengthy conversation with a serpent discussing (which is one of the tools we use in the discernment process) whether what God had told them was really truth or was God just saying things in order to keep them under control. When did the word “temptation” become a negative meaning? Is not this word just another part of the process that we use as we try to go through a discernment process?
Have you ever wondered when Jesus truly realizes that He is the Son of God? Was it at his baptism or later in his journey? After Jesus was baptized, was he ready to take on the mission of His ministry or did he need time to think about how that ministry was going to look like; of how he was going to shape his ministry? We read that Jesus needs time to figure things out and goes off into the wilderness for 40 days in order to go through a discernment process. Scripture uses the word “temptation” to describe events that Jesus had during that time.
I would like to share with you a dramatization of this event that helps put some meat onto today’s reading. (You tube: The Temptation of Jesus by the Devil in the Wilderness 8:51 min
I asked at the beginning of this sermon if, anyone of you has ever had to make a decision that was “life altering.” A decision where you had to spend time by yourself, in quiet contemplation, thinking of all the implications of your next step in your journey in life? Did it look a little like what Jesus was being faced with while in the dessert for those forty days?
As we go through the next 41 days of lent, take some quiet time out for yourselves and face some temptations that might be life changing for you and in doing so, remember how Jesus dealt with His dessert voices. Amen

Monday, March 7, 2011

Victorious Living through Christ pt6 "When God Is Revealed", First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY

Victorious Living through Christ pt 6
“When God is revealed”
First Congregational UCC & (Mt of Olives Lutheran), Rock Springs, WY 3/6/2011
Based on Exodus 24:12-18 & Matthew 17:1-9

This is the last Sunday of Epiphany, and this coming Wednesday we start the long journey to the Hill of Golgotha, as we celebrate Ash Wednesday; the official start of the Lenten season. The whole season of Epiphany has been one of “revealing” to the world who Jesus was and what his mission on earth was about. This mission of course was to reveal the Glory of God to a world that so frequently loses sight and to let the world know the depth of love God has for us.
One of the definitions of Epiphany is: a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple commonplace occurrence or experience. Scripture is filled with many “epiphanies”. One such epiphany occurred with Moses as he encountered God on the top of Mount Sinai, and waited for the Tablets that contained the Law, as read from the book of Exodus this morning.
Another epiphany came by way of three outsiders of the Hebrew race; we call the ‘wise men’ or ‘kings of the East’. As the three men approached Jerusalem looking for the new born king of Israel, Herod had a new understanding of his limited reign and lack of knowledge of God’s plans, as laid out in scripture.
This morning’s reading in Matthew speaks of the most dramatic epiphany to date in the lives of Peter, James, and John, as they travel up the mountain with Jesus, leaving the rest of the disciples at their camp. While they were up on the mountain, a great light suddenly appeared around them, and they saw Jesus enveloped completely within this light. Then they saw both Moses and Elijah alongside Jesus; Jesus seemed to be having a conversation with them both. Then a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” Then as Jesus and the three disciples start their way down from the mountain, Jesus tells them, “not to say anything about what they had witnessed until after he has been raised from the dead.”
Over the life of the Christian Church, we have come to know this story as the “Transfiguration of Christ!” As I read and re-read this story of what happened on this mountain top, I come away with a lot of questions. Questions such as: Why did Jesus only take Peter, James and John on this particular journey? Why was it Moses and Elijah who appeared and spoke with Jesus, and not God personally? Why did God think it necessary to speak to the three disciples during this occurrence, and once again say how “pleased” Jesus has made God and that the disciples needed to “listen to what Jesus tells them?” And why did Jesus want these guys to keep silent about what they had witnessed until after his death and resurrection?
Last weekend, Jonathan Firme and I, spent our time with 40 Confirmands at our conference retreat center, La Foret, located near Colorado Springs. The major focus of this time together, was to help the youth explore various images of God, and to give them permission to start expanding their concepts of what God looks like, and to ignite their interest of asking questions of how God works in their life’s.
At one of the secessions the story of Jesus’ first miracle was discussed; another epiphany story. In the story, Jesus, his disciples and his mother were guests at a wedding banquet, where the wine starts to run short. Jesus’ mother urges Jesus to take care of this problem. Jesus is not willing to help, so being a good Jewish mother, Mary tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do. Being forced into dealing with this problem, Jesus then directs the servants to fill ceremonial barrels with water, then to take a pitcher of water from one of the barrels to the host where at that point the water had become wine. Jesus did all this while staying seated. After the wedding, Jesus then tells his disciples that they will perform greater miracles than that. That story has stayed with me during this week as well as the question that I posed to the group at large and then again to the three confirmands that went from this church, “What type of miracles can we recognize that we have either already preformed or are able to perform that are greater than what Jesus has done?” After all, as a minister, I have yet to turn water into wine. I have never been able to walk on water, and I have yet to heal anyone or bring someone back from the dead. So what miracle am I as a disciple of Christ able to do that by Jesus’ standard would be greater than what he did during his ministry?
That is a question that I am going to let you struggle to find the answer, as I think it is a personal question and only you will be able to find the answer for yourself.
Many times the epiphanies in our lives’ come through what we would call a mountain top experience. For the three disciples it came with Moses and Elijah visiting with Jesus. I think the reason why Moses and Elijah are the two visiting with Jesus, is Moses was the one who brought Israel up out of Egypt, out of slavery and has always been referred to as their redeemer; Elijah is representative of the prophet who never died, but rather was taken up to God in the firer chariot. So in this mountain top experience you have the giver of the law from God and the prophet who was delivered from death and was expected to return before the messiah came, thus a fulfillment of the prophet writings.
I have been preaching a sermon series called, Victorious living through Jesus, which is based on the AA 12 step program. This week I am combining step 6, “Being entirely ready to have God remove all the defects of character” and step 7, “Humbly asking Him to remove our shortcomings.” You might ask where does this figure into the story of Jesus’ transfiguration.
I would like to share with you a conversation that I had early in my week with my secretary. We entered into a discussion on the topic of “faith” versus “knowing”. For some people, faith is good enough in order to move forward in their walk with God. For others, those I like to call, concrete thinkers, those who need actual proof in order to believe in God, like doubting Thomas, faith just leaves too much of a gap to believe in. When Thomas was finally able to put his hands into Jesus’ wounds, he then was able to believe, this was Thomas’ epiphany, and this was the point where Thomas was able to ask Jesus to remove his shortcoming of “doubt.”
Peter, James and John all three had a physical encounter with an event that most likely took away any doubt about who Jesus was. My personal epiphany came at 32,000 feet when I had an audible encounter with God, which I have shared with some of you; and from this encounter, there is no doubt in my mind about the degree of love that God has for me. There will be people who will say, my experience can be explained by the lack of oxygen being so high in the atmosphere. It doesn’t matter whether anyone believes what my experience was, because for me it has moved me from operating beyond faith into the understanding of a fact, and it took away my defect which was in doubting the love of God for who I am. I think the reason why Jesus told Peter, James and John not to say anything about what they experienced until after Jesus died and was resurrected was because, no one would have believed them before hand. Possibly, they were still in disbelief.
The point of an epiphany is that through a new revelation, or perspective of life, we are able to move forward in a way that we would not be able to do prior to that epiphany. Before we are able to ask God to remove those things within our lives that keep us from moving forward in our lives, allowing us to become successful in our spiritual walk with God, we need to have our own personal epiphany; our own transfigurational event.
I would like to share a prayer that I have used many times that I think can help us put into perspective the concept of living our life in a transfigurational understanding. It goes like this: Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger women and men. Do not pray for tasks equal to our powers, but for power equal to our tasks. Then the doing of our work will be no miracle – we will be the miracle. Every day we will wonder at ourselves and the richness of life which has come to us by the grace of God. The epiphany found in Christ is that we go beyond whom we are and with the help of God, we are able to overcome many adversities in our life when we let God take away those things that hold us back, and we then become the miracle, which becomes the blessing to this world. Amen