Sunday, June 19, 2011

And God Said it was Good. First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 6/19/2011

And God Said it was Good!
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 6/19/2011
Based on Genesis 1:1-2:3

When my son, Steven was in the Third grade, he was having a crisis in faith. I was pastor in a small community church in Washington State and the Sunday school teacher that he had was a well meaning individual who just happened to read scripture literally. Steven was deeply interested in dinosaurs and his learning in the public school system told him that dinosaurs lived millions of years before human kind. This conflicted with what his Sunday school teacher was trying to teach him. She believed in a literal version of creation, while Steven was being taught in the public school system about life evolving.
Moving back just a few years before living in Washington State, while in seminary my wife and I were foster care parents for several sixteen year olds. One of these boys named Hia, as very much into evolution as a process for the development of life and informed me one day that based on his studies in evolution, “There was no God.” I then proceeded to ask him a number of questions to determine why he came to such a conclusion, and we eventually got to the “Big Bang” theory. He was in utter shock when I told him that I could buy into that theory. Then I asked him the question of, “where did the mass come from that exploded?” After a few seconds of him stuttering and stammering around, he replied with, “quite messing with my head”, and our conversation ended.
I bring up these two examples because these issues came about because of a particular way the reading of scripture was employed. When my son came to me seeking a reasonable answer do to a conflict in teaching between the public school system and his Sunday school teacher, I asked him, “if it seemed logical for the Bible, to start out with a couple of chapters that deals with ‘hard science’ and then devote the rest of its books to theology, meaning the relationship between God and humanity?” After he answered, “no it didn’t make sense”, I then explained how when we read scripture through the lens of humanity trying to understand its relationship with God, we could open up a multitude of ways to understand all the stories that we read within the bible.
Relating a story is an ever changing reality in our culture. Currently, we hear stories in what we call “sound bites”, a few years ago, it was by “headlines and maybe the first paragraph” of a story. Even the way that we structure sentences has changed a good deal. I find that I most enjoy reading stories that were written between the mid-nineteenth and very early twentieth century, mostly because there is an elegant flow to those stories that no longer exists in modern writing.
We have the same issue of how the early Hebrews spoke and wrote their stories compared to later writings of Hebrew story telling. And if we in the modern world do not recognize these differences, we then stumble on what was meant in that telling and will most likely come up with a poor interpretation at the very least.
With a great number of writers over the past hundred or so years, the book of Genesis, especially these first couple of chapters has lead to much misunderstanding and creating what we now label as “creationism” doctrine. There are even some Christians who are scientists, who try to reconcile the age of our world and the development of life, as occurring only within a few thousand years, based on a literal reading of these first two chapters in Genesis. This is achieved by the use of counting backward the various generations listed in Genesis, again using only those names listed. What the originating professor of this genealogy, didn’t understand is that those names listed in the “who begat who”, listed only key persons and left out many generations of names.
How we read and interpret scripture in today’s society can mean the difference in being able to engage into heart filled conversations about God or being dismissed as people who live in a dream world, refusing to recognize what “hard science” is telling us. People are spiritually hungry, but if we as the church universal, present a message that is based from a literal understanding of scripture, then we will be perceived as non-thinking people who live in a world filled with superstition.
I would like to present another option to how we can read the creation story that allows for the opportunity to enter into meaningful dialog with people who are not familiar with the Christian story or experience. (Discuss the re-reading of the 7 days of creation into three segments, i.e.: day one and day four, day two and day five, and day three and day six. This will show three stages of creation, which then allows for evolution type of movement.) This is how I approached discussing my son’s questions about creation and the scriptures.
A part of the confirmation process that our eight confirmand’s dealt with, was about expanding their concepts of God, as we asked questions like: What does God look like? If God is the creator of this world and the universe, what does this mean to us? What does it mean when we are told in Genesis to subdue the world?
The language is very subtle in scripture especially, among varying translations. Most of the translations read: In the beginning God created. But in some translations it reads: In the beginning when God was creating. The difference here talks about when “time” began. Did time begin at the same time as God? Or did time begin when God created the heavens and the earth?
This is something that can be argued through eternity and has been for eons, but when we spend our energies on questions like this, we are missing the most obvious point that the story teller wants us to understand. When we read about this very first day, we learn what the story teller deems most important. It may seem obvious to most of us, but the implications are most profound. Scripture begins not with the choosing of Abraham or the election of Israel, but rather it begins with creation.
This means that we have to get rid of any idea’s that lead to any ethnic superiority, that one culture is more favored than another, meaning Israel of any of its surrounding cultures. Scripture says, “In the beginning God created the world”, it doesn’t read, “In the beginning God created Israel.” In creating the heavens and the worlds, God is inclusive. Who are we, to then tell God, that we are better than someone else? Who are we to believe that we alone have the truth over another religion? The subtle difference comes in the difference between “entitlement” verses “grace.”
As we read this creation story we can come to new understanding as to the reason for God creating. Quoting from Rev Dave Bland, Professor of Homiletics at Harding University Graduate School of Religion, in Memphis, Tennessee: God’s specialty is loving and caring for creation. God demonstrates this love in the collaborative way in which the world operates. In recounting the six days of creation, nothing is made for itself alone. Everything contributes to the whole of creation. God provides for the needs of all God’s creatures because God’s specialty is love. Humans are given dominion, not domination; we are caregivers, not exploiters. We are called to do unto creation as God has done unto us; we express love and care toward the world. Feasting on the Word commentary.
This afternoon, at 1 p.m., there is going to be a gathering at three point picnic areas, south of town as a conclusion to the Red Desert Preservation awareness. I hope some of you will attend, as this weekend’s rendezvous, which has been focusing on the environmental concerns of this piece of God’s creation. As people of God, we are called to look after the well being of what God has put us in charge of. We are not independent of the world that we live in and we must relearn how each part of God’s creation works with one another in order to continue to bless what God has said is “Good.” Amen

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"Many Voices of the Holy Spirit", First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 6/12/2011

Many Voices of the Holy Spirit
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 6/12/2011
Based on 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13, John 7:34-39, and Acts 2:1-21

Before moving to Rock Springs, I spent the last twenty years of my life, living in Seattle, WA. It is called the “Evergreen” state for good reason, not just for the vast forests of evergreens that grow there, but more importantly because the grass stays green throughout the winter months!
For most of us, spring is generally signaled by the first blooms of the crocus, but in Seattle, in the first part of January the Camilla bushes open up with their bright red flowers; these blooms stay on the bushes for almost two months. Then in March, as the blossoms of the Camilla begin to fade, up out of the ground appear the welcomed bloom of the crocus. Followed by the appearance of tulips in April and soon after that, the Oriental poppies, Iris, and by mid May, peonies.
I love tulips, and I love seeing them in vast quantities, so every couple of years, in April, I would make a short trip north of Seattle to the tulip farms in the Skagit valley, where acre after acre of tulips are seen from almost any road that you travel on. The bonus of this drive comes in parking your car and walking out into these fields, where you can immerse yourself with colors of the rainbow, able to kneel down and cup these glories blossoms with your hands, and those are just the fields. Many of the farms have elaborate displays of spring flowers in their front yards or around their temporary store fronts, where you can place your order for bulbs to arrive at your house that coming Fall.
This past Fall, Paul and I spent a good amount of energy planting tulip bulbs, not knowing if we would be here this Spring to see the fruit of our labors. I think it was toward the end of April, that we started seeing the shoots of those tulips start to sprout up out of the ground. Now, I don’t know if it was because it seemed like Winter hung on later this year or if it’s just because there is no hint of Spring color until the tulips bloom, but I don’t think that I have ever appreciated the beauty of this flower more than I have this season. In each of our flower beds, there are tulips that are red, pink, and yellow in color; single petal, parroted, and multi-petaled. There is such a variety of color, style, shape, height, and time of blooming, but all are a tulip, providing a single message, that Spring is here and that the Winter is pretty much behind us now.
All of this morning’s readings deal with variety and diversity, yet there is a uniform message. This message comes to us through differing sources: we read about Moses who has gathered the leaders of Israel and is anointing them with a portion of the Holy Spirit that he himself has, and yet two who were not there, also received it; In the story of Acts, the Apostles received the Holy Spirit directly from God, with each speaking a differing language; The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians and speaks about their gifts which were given through the Holy Spirit; And Jesus himself cried out, asking for people who want to have ‘living water’ to believe and through believing would have, “a heart that flows rivers of living water”, which meant the receiving of the Holy Spirit. The message was and is about the “love God has for us all” and of work toward “reconciling creation back to love’s original state.”
Today is the day that we celebrate Pentecost, the churches birthday! I can tell who read their e-mail from me earlier this week, because you are the one’s wearing red this morning. This color symbolizes the fire that scripture describes settling upon each of the Apostles and other believers head the day the Holy Spirit descended down from Heaven. A spirit that gave each who received it the ability to speak the message of God in a variety of established languages; languages from all over the world, to those Jews who were there celebrating the Feast of Tabernacle.
The Feast of Tabernacle was the “celebration of harvest”, similar to our Thanksgiving celebration. One of the rituals that occurred during this feast was the pouring of water gathered daily from the pool of Sloam and mixed with wine, poured from the altar into a conduit which carried this mixture to the Brook of Kidron located across from the eastern wall. This ritual symbolized the prayer for the Fall rains upon which Israel depended. Secondly, it pictured the coming of the Messiah and His kingdom in which the Holy Spirit would be poured on Israel and believers of all nations. So when Jesus stood at the last day of this festival and cried, “if any one thirsts, let them come unto me, and drink. You who believe in me as the scripture has said, “out of your belly shall flow rivers of living water”, was in fact, offering the coming of the Holy Spirit to anyone who wished to have it. Jesus had promised this companion to us prior to his death and ascension back to God.
Should we this morning expect the same type of outcome as did the first apostles and believers, with the coming of the Holy Spirit? If we are not able to speak in a language other than what we grew up learning, does this mean that we have not received the blessing, this fire of the Holy Spirit into our lives? The Apostle Paul has given us a very sound response to this question.
He equates the gift of the Spirit to that of our anatomy. Paul starts off saying that, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” So if you are able to say that Jesus is Lord, chances are, you already possess the Holy Spirit. Paul goes on to say, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”
You might not have noticed a subtle addition to the top of the Worship bulletin. It was made last week. Does anyone know what it is?? It is up at the top, where we give information about who is participating in the worship. Let me give you a hint by asking how many ministers does this church have? The change is in stating how many ministers we have here in this congregation. It says, “Ministers”, The Congregation! The reason for this is that as followers of Christ, we are all Priests for God, and are given the gift of the Holy Spirit in order to convey God’s message to a world that has forgotten. As Paul tells us, we all have been given very special gifts: some who can teach, some who can preach, some who can sing, some to administration. These gifts are given to us, but not for us! This is an important thing to remember, and because we can sometimes think that we are more special than someone else, because of a particular gift that we have been given, is the reason why Paul was writing to the church in Corinth and to us as well.
The purpose of any gift from God, is not for our own benefit, but is given solely to benefit and glorify God. If we keep that in mind, not only will we have less jealousy and self pride creating problems within our faith community, but we will find ourselves more inclined to use our gifts and feel less tired and experience less burn-out, as we will be fueled by a higher power, one that gives us not only the energy to perform, but the desire and direction in which to best use our gifts.
There are many voices that are spoken by the Holy Spirit. It might be in language, it might be through our gifts, it might come through support and encouragement of our friends and family, it might come through dreams or visions, or through children; it might even come through our pets or through nature. Like the tulips in my garden, the voices, the sounds of the Holy Spirit are many, but the message is always the same: God loves you! God desires to have a one on one relationship with you! God is active in our world, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Let us today, work at creating the space within us that will allow the Holy Spirit of God to become even more effective for tomorrow! Amen

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Live As a Living Stone, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 5/22/2011

Live As a Living Stone
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 5/22/2011
Based on 1 Peter 2:1-10

When driving into the parking lot of the church, one of the very first features of this build that catches your eye, is the use of stone. One each corner of the exterior walls of the sanctuary there are massive stone buttresses, which gives the sense that this building being solidly anchored to the ground. Inside, at the center of this sanctuary, stands the alter or communion table; it is built on stone that is cemented into the floor. Again, this table is permanent because of the stone foundation that it rests upon. Stone is an amazing material. It is no accident that the architect of this facility used stone in strategic areas. He didn’t use stone as an accent material, but rather, he made subtle statements based on scriptural understandings. Stone is not only beautiful, but it has great strength and can support a mighty structure. Stone gives both a feeling of security and permanency, as well, as shelter.
Remember the story of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf! The first pig built his house out of straw, the second pig built his house out of sticks, and the third little pig built his home out of stone. Enters in this tranquil scene is the Big Bad Wolf, who is hungry for a pork sandwich. He comes up to the first pig and his house of straw; the wolf huffs and puffs and blows the house of straw down. Then he comes across the second pig’s house and still being hungry, he again huffs and he puffs and he blows down the house built of sticks. The wolf still hungry and looking for dessert, pig flambeau, goes to the third pig’s house. He again huffs and he puffs, but the house stays standing. Perplexed by this, the wolf huffs and puffs himself into despair and eventually leaves, and the third pig is safe and sound in his home that was built of stone.
Scripture uses a number of stories that deal with stones in them to help relate the idea’s of the steadfastness of God to those who recognize Him within their lives. Stones were used by the early patriarchs to signify their devotion and remembrance to the God who carried them through difficulties. King David, as a shepherd boy, used a stone to bring down the giant Goliath, thus ending the battle and bringing victory to the army of the Israelites. When Jesus made his entry into Jerusalem, the week before Passover, and the Pharisees were telling Jesus to quiet the crowd, Jesus responded with: “even if the crowd was silent, these stones would sing out in Praise of Gods work.” While at the temple, Jesus compared himself to the stones of the temple, saying once destroyed, in three days, they would be rebuilt, meaning his death and resurrection.
Here in 1 Peter, we read this beautiful metaphor about a relationship between God and his people. There is this play on words of “living stone”, where Jesus is not only the corner stone, that piece which anchor of any structure, but is also as a resurrected savior is “the living stone.”
This past Monday was the memorial service of Donna Morad, in which some of you attended. I chose for the text of her memorial this reading from 1 Peter specifically because of the powerful imagery that is found within these ten verses. I am struck by two ideas in particular, which are the phrases, "though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight" and "Like living stones."
Jesus and his teachings, his message, were rejected by the religious authorities of his day; those who were the establishment and held the power. These idea’ were rejected because those in power thought they would lose not only their control and position, but that Israel itself would fall if Jesus’ teachings were accepted. We talk a lot today about the “liberal” and “fundamentalist” Christian points of view. This is so wrong. There is no such thing as a “liberal Christian” and there is no such thing as a “fundamentalist Christian”. If we are true in our following of Christ, then as Disciples of Christ we all should be seen as “Radical Christians”. The founder of the Christian movement was a “radical”. We are called into a “radical lifestyle”.
A part of this radical lifestyle is stated in the very first verse of this morning’s text. Eugene Peterson says it this way: So clean house! Make a clean sweep of malice and pretense, envy and hurtful talk. This is radical because it goes against human tendencies to back bite, hold grudges, put on false airs, and to get even when we’ve been wronged. But Peter is telling us that, when we have had a taste of God, like infants at the breast, we are to drink deep of God's pure kindness. Then we'll grow up mature and whole in God.
The other part of this morning’s text that captures my imagination is that of “Living Stones”. The idea of "living stones" brings images such as solidness; stones are used in building structures that weather through time. The things that we do throughout our life are the stones that we lay for future generations. None of us lives in a vacuum. Each generation that is born comes with the good and the bad of the previous generation; some might say we come into this life with our parent’s baggage. When I think about all that I enjoy today, it comes from the sacrifices, the teachings, even from the mistakes of those who have come before me.
In the same respect, my theology, my understanding of God originates with what I was taught by my parents and grandparents. It came through watching their actions and how they related to others. I learned respect for people of all races because my parents and grandparents taught me that the color of some ones skin did not make them either better or worse than any other person. My concepts of a loving God, or of a judgmental God, or of an accepting or rejecting God, came from Sunday School teachers and from what was said from the pulpit. These are the living stones that I grew up with.
But once I started to personally read the bible, once I started to personally study and contemplate what I was reading, once I started to formulate my prayer life beyond the prayers that I learned as a child, once I started to read writings of great theologians, I then became more hungry for a deeper relationship with God. All these idea’s that I was reading were from God’s living stones that had been laid before my birth, and through these living stones, I have had the opportunity to learn, be shaped into what I am today. And the reality is, that I too am a living stone that is being placed into this marvelous building that God is creating for those who come after me. You too are living stones, and are also being placed into this marvelous building that God is building, so future generations may continue to build and shape their own lives.
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Can you image, the immigrant who leaves their home country and comes to live here. There is a time period where they are not a part of this country, but after a lot of hard work, of learning a new culture, they take and pass a test, then they are sworn in as new citizens of this country. We as children of God are very much like the immigrant. We leave our old ways behind, and we work hard and study hard the teachings of Christ, to learn what this new world of God’s is all about, not just the rules, but more importantly we learn about its potential, then we become active citizens of Gods kingdom, the one here on earth. Once we were not a people, but now we are the people of God.
We are no ordinary people, but rather, we are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession. We are not only the product of earlier generations, but we are the living stones that are laying the foundations for future generations, whether we like it or not. So let us live up to being the people that we truly are, God’s chosen people, who are not ordinary, but are of royal descent, and work toward creating a holy nation, God’s kingdom here on earth, for we are Gods’ Living Stones! Amen