Wednesday, April 13, 2011

I AM, "says so", First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 4/10/2011

I Am” Says So!
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 4/10/2011
Based on Ezekiel 37:1-14 & John 11:1-45

We are just two weeks away from celebrating Easter Sunday! The day that we set aside for “praising” God and presenting Christ with the academy award for best “Savior” in his role of “Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God”! The scene that critics point to in giving this award is that of Jesus’ resurrection, specifically the scene where he comes to Mary at the empty tomb!
Yet in today’s lection readings we find two more “resurrection” stories. You might possibly have remembered the story of Jesus calling Lazarus out of the tomb, knowing of at least two resurrection stories, but were you aware of the story in Ezekiel, where God helped in the resurrection of those who had been dead for years in the valley of the bones?
In Western European culture, we tend to relegate skeletons to the celebration of Halloween. Yet today, two weeks before Easter Sunday, we are reading a story that deals with Halloween images. Resurrection is a difficult topic for the modern rational scientific mind, thus making the resurrection of Jesus a pretty hard thing to wrap our brain around. The raising of Lazarus from the tomb is also a hard sell, but at least a person could raise the question of whether Lazarus was actually dead, or did he just appear dead and they buried him by mistake and somehow Jesus was aware of this. But how do you reconcile this story of Ezekiel, where you have bones that are bleached by the sun, coming together, muscle and skin forming and then them breathing?
If I were talking to my mother about these two stories, she would probably tell me, “Steven, don’t fret over whether science can support these stories or not, after all, God is the creator of all life and as creator, God has the power to do things outside of the laws of this world. After all, we don’t understand all of the physical laws of this world and who’s to say that God isn’t using some science that we don’t know about yet? Just accept what you are reading as hard fact!”
My problem is, I can’t share in that type of trust and faith that my mother is able to read scripture with. I am more of a doubting Thomas, I am a product of my generation that says, the laws of the universe are constant and that all things have a predictable behavior, such as, when you’re dead, your physical body is forever dead.
Now, I do however believe that we have very little science that can quantify and explain what we call a spirit world, so I can at least ponder upon “spiritual” things more freely and with a simpler level of faith. Meaning, I can look at these two stories and look for meanings that do not conflict with hard physical science. People who tend to look at scripture more like I do would then call the account in Ezekiel at the very least a “Myth”. A myth is a story that doesn’t rely on the details as having to be factual, but use the story as a vehicle to present a “truth.”
So what is the common theme running through these two stories? In one story, we have a prophet who is lead by God out into a valley of bones, and is told by God to speak to these bones and tell them basically to come to life, which they do! In the other story we have Jesus, son of God, speaking to a dead man who has been buried for four days to come out of the tomb.
Well, for starters we are dealing with two groups of people who are in deep despair. Martha and Mary have lost their brother and are in the midst of deep grief, feeling that their world has come crashing down around them. We feel this when we lose someone who is very dear to us. For Martha and Mary, this may be more acute than just losing their brother. There is never any mention in scripture about either of them having a husband, so when Lazarus dies, they could possibly be looking at poverty, since they no longer have a male figure to defend and provide for their necessities.
For Ezekiel, the story reveals itself as speaking about the loss of the Israelites, as they had been captured and taken off to a foreign land, living in exile, and the temple, which in their culture say’s, “God lives in” has been destroyed. For those who Ezekiel was a prophet to, there was a feeling of defeat, of no hope, of no joy, a feeling of being dead!
So God directs Ezekiel out to this valley and tells him, speak to these bones and say to them come together, and then tell the breath, “enter into them” so that they might live. Ezekiel does all that God has directed him to do and these bones gather, become flesh and blood again and then come to life with the breath that God gave them. Then a pivotal verse at the end says, “I will put my spirit within you and you shall live.” Essential to the recovery of these dry bones is the spirit of God. It is the very breath of God that makes a difference in the life and death of the community. Karen Georgia Thompson, from Sermon Seeds, UCC
One more point is brought out by theologian, Dennis T. Olson as he emphasizes this aspect of the story: “The how of this amazing skeletal resurrection will be through the ‘breath’ (ruah) – spirit, wind, breath of the Lord which will enter these bones and give them life. And that breath of God will come through a human priest/prophet speaking the word of the Lord in ordinary human language.”
This past Monday, in the group of ministers that I have bible study with, the primary question raised was, “how do we as pastors inspire our congregants to deepen their relationship with God?” You see, most pastors hold high expectations for their congregations. We are naive enough to assume that if a person comes to Worship on Sunday morning that they want to deepen their relationship with God. This is true for some, but not for all.
As we look at this story and the story of Jesus raising Lazarus, both are men speaking the word of God which brings life. It is through speaking the “truth” of God, through the spoken word of God, that the breathe of life enters into a person whose soul has been filled with hopelessness, despair, possibly even death.
This is powerful stuff that we are hearing about this morning. We are hearing about the truth that “God gives us life”, not just in the hereafter, but here and now! It is a truth for those of us who harbor pain, and hurt, who feel violated by life itself, it is through speaking “God truth” to these bones that have become dead and dried up, that we can once again be filled with life, with hope, with joy. We live when God’s breathe has entered into our soul! This is what the meaning of resurrection is all about. We don’t have to be waiting until we die as Martha was professing to Jesus, but as Jesus showed with the raising of Lazarus, resurrection is now.
One last thing for us to think about, in both stories, this coming back to life, this gift of new life is for the enhancement of God, not for the benefit of those who were dead. Jesus prayed to God, saying that he was doing this in order that those who see will believe. It wasn’t for Lazarus’ sake that he was given back his life; it was so that God might be glorified.
We speak a lot about the mission of the church, or another way to say it is the life of the church. The life of the church isn’t for the purpose of its members. The life of the church isn’t for us to revel in, to enjoy for ourselves; rather the life of the church is to glorify God! The mission of the church is to help bring people into an active relationship with their creator. If we are expecting anything other than that then we are misguided in our purpose. Last week at communion I made the point that the communion table wasn’t our table, but God’s table. This church isn’t our church. This church is God’s church. Its success in its outreach will be determined by how much we allow God to breathe the Spirit into our body! Our life line is through the “saying so” of the, “I Am”! Amen.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Whose Disciple Are You?, Rev Steven R Mitchell, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY

Whose Disciple are You?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 4/3/2011
Based on John 9:1-41

Back in the days when I was in Seminary, one of the activities that my class had to experience dealt with “sensory deprivation.” Two of those exercises we participated in consisted with variations in sight and sound. At one point we were blindfolded, then lead around by the hand, then we were pushed into a direction that the leader wanted us to go, and finally we were allowed to wonder around, unassisted.
A second exercise was being placed into a sound proof room, for a good ten to twenty minutes, being totally deprived of any sounds. At first you hear nothing, but eventually you begin to hear the pinning of molecules bumping into one another, so there is never a total void of sound. The purpose of these exercises is to give you, a potential care-giver some sense of what it is like to be a person living without the benefit of sight or sound. Once you have experienced one or more of your senses not being available to you, when you do come in contact with an individual who is living without sight, hearing, a leg or an arm, or any other physical limitation of their body, you become more sensitive to the challenges of a person in that situation.
In today’s Gospel reading, we learn about a man who from birth has not been able to see. Along comes Jesus, who recognizes this encounter with the blind man as a “teachable” moment for his disciples, by explaining to them that “sin” is not the reason for this man to be blind. What starts out to be a happy occasion for the man who is healed by Jesus, very quickly deteriorates into a tumultuous situation when he is presented to the Pharisees at the temple. He is badgered about his healing, with his testimony not being believed, even his character was being questioned.
It is almost like a scene out of the T.V. show, Perry Mason, where the Pharisee plays the part of District Attorney, Hamilton Burger, cross-examining Perry’s client, in this case the man who was blind, in order find some flaw in his story. Frustrated in not finding any change in the defendant’s testimony, the Pharisee changes tactics and tries to discrete this man standing before him, by attacking the witness’s character. He calls in the man’s parents and tries to get them to admit that their son has been lying about being blind his entire life. When this doesn’t work, the defendant is brought back in for further cross-examination and then the unthinkable happens, the defendant begins to accuse the Pharisee of being uninformed. Out of frustration, the defendant is dismissed from the court, and is also barred from every stepping foot back into the Synagogue. Not because he was guilty of a real crime, but rather, because he was seen to stand outside of what the Pharisees understand as truth. Their final accusation being, the defendant is a disciple of Jesus and they are disciples of Moses.
Today’s true focus isn’t in the actual healing of the man who was born blind, but rather a broader truth that centers on both “seeing” and “hearing”. If you go back and re-read the progression of this story, you will see where the man who is born blind moves from his first encounter with Jesus as being not able to see, of being in the dark. For the writer of John, being in the dark is very symbolic of not knowing “truth”. The man born blind, when being questioned the first time by the Pharisees, recognizes that the man who gave him sight must be a prophet. When being questioned a second time by the Pharisees and listening to their theological arguments about not knowing who Jesus was, the man born blind then moves into understanding that Jesus must be a man from God, as God does not honor the requests of “sinners”. Finally, when Jesus comes back to visit him, he knows that Jesus was the one who healed him, even though he was not able to see, he could hear and he recognizes Jesus’ voice and calls him “Lord” and falls down to worship him.
In the same progression of the story, the Pharisees are assumed to be able to see, to possess the truth, for they are disciples of Moses. This means that they follow the law, for it was through Moses that God gave the Israelites the pattern for living. Yet these men of the truth, are not able to recognize Jesus as being from God, they were unable to see who Jesus was because they did not recognize his voice! They never understood anything that Jesus said to them as coming from God, because they had stopped being open to new possibilities, the possibility that the true Messiah had indeed arrived.
We in the church have the potential to be like the Pharisees, of not able to hear the voice of Jesus, because at some point we came to stop being open to the ever speaking voice of God. What I learned as a child in Sunday school, which made sense to me then has become the stable truth for me. I learned as a child that God created the earth and all that lives on it, in just six days. It says so right in black and white. As an adult, I still read the same black and white, God created all of life in six days, but have I closed my mind and reject all sorts of scientific data that says, those days are not measured in 24hr increments or am I open enough to realize that God speaks in many ways and that the collective knowledge of science suggests that creation is more evolutionary than creature specific, and that the truths about God creating me might not be based on what I learned as a child?
Do we accuse an individual of not being a Christian because they do not conduct their life in the manor that we have decided to be consistent with our understanding of Jesus’ teachings? Do we shun people who are not at our level of education or economic standards? There are many ways in which the church is blind and does not recognize Jesus, because we have become closed and unable to hear the voice of Christ.
Are we disciples of Moses, living and judging life by a standard that was giving thousands of years ago, or are we like the man who was born blind and received sight in a non-conventional way, open to hearing the ever still speaking God?
As we come to this communion table this morning, are we coming as Disciples of Moses, worshiping a stagnate God, or do we come this morning, recognizing Jesus’ voice and open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, which was sent to guide and to comfort us, as Disciples of Christ? For us to recognize the Still Speaking God, we must have an open and active relationship with Christ! Amen