Sunday, July 17, 2011

Weeds In the Garden, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 7/17/2011

Weeds in the Garden
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 7/17/2011
Based on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 & Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19

Last Sunday we looked at the Parable of the Sower and I shared with you my childhood experiences of gardening. This week we are again looking at a garden and what to do about those unwanted plants that seem to thrive more abundantly than what we'd like.
I grew up in a very large extended family, where my maternal grandmother was the strong Matriarch of the family. It was through my grandmother that the family’s religious education was passed down (not from formal reading of scripture, but rather through verbal teachings); the primary basis for morality was implanted by her understanding and experience from her childhood education in the scripture, of behavior within the church, and from life experiences. One of the axioms that I grew up with was: Why do I need to go to church? I can be just as close to God and am probably more Christian in my actions and believes than those ‘Hypocrites’ who go to church every Sunday. Has anyone ever heard that justification for not going to worship? How about this one: I can’t stand so and so, and until they die or leave the church, I’m not coming back. Or possibly, I’ve been so hurt by Joe Blow, I can’t step foot back into that sanctuary. (The reality generally being, they don’t step foot in any sanctuary.)
Matthew is writing this parable, supposedly taught by Jesus, to a church that was young and gaining new members and as a community of faith, was struggling with the reality that not everyone who had joined them had the same goals, or looked at or understood the teachings of Jesus in the same way. In other words there was internal struggle.
We struggle today with the same issue of not being unified, both as local congregations and as Christian Churches worldwide, usually around theological understanding. So much so, we within the larger church family have divided ourselves into categories or labels such as “liberal”, or “conservative”, or more sever “fundamentalist”, we have set up a situation that creates division and disunity by creating an “us” and “them”. I hear this same language to some extent used by some who volunteer at Broadway Bargains and by non-volunteers who attend First Congregational, openly use “us” and “them” language, setting up an adversarial atmosphere, instead of us all recognizing both bodies as being one and working toward the same goals. It is because of the adversarial atmosphere within and between churches and church related organizations, the non-churched folk’s question, “Why would I want to belong to something where so much fighting going on?” Weeds in the garden!
Last week’s parable focused on the planting of the seed and how it produced, this week the parable presumably uses good ground, but also gets mixed results because of the actions of an enemy (someone came in during the night and sowed seeds that were weeds among the field of good seed.) Let me remind you that ‘parables’ are not stories that give direct answers, but rather are designed to speak more to the “heart” and less to the mind. For when we think we have “understood” a parable, chances are we are more likely to be mistaken in its meaning. But if we’re made uncomfortable by the challenge of a parable, we’re probably getting a little closer to the heart of its meaning. Sermon Seeds, UCC, 7/17/2011 Kathy Huey
When we look at this parable within the context of the church, we can understand that it is God who has planted the good seed. Yet what church has not experienced weeds within it's congregation! Remember a little thing in the life of the church called, “The Crusades”? The church justified on “spiritual” reasoning that it needed to go to Jerusalem and purify the Holy City. We have sense been able to understand a more basic reason of “greed” to have been the underlying motivation. Weeds in the garden!
This past Thurs, I was reading in the New York Times, an article that was discussing the battles over abortion. “Taking Fight Back to Wichita, Doctor Seeks Abortion Clinic”. Listen to some of the article: Not long ago, Dr. Mila Means, the physician trying to open an abortion clinic in this city, received a letter advising her to check under her car each morning – because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it.” The note said. There was reason for concern: the last doctor to provide abortions here was shot to death (at the church where he worshipped, by a Christian from Kansas City), because of his work. I recall reading on face book the comments made by my fundamentalist Christ believing niece, praising the actions of the murderer – as doing God’s will in order to prevent the killing of unborn children. Weeds in the garden!
I am bringing this topic as an example, because it holds two sides of theological reflection within the church, those who we call “prolife” and those we call “prochoice”. Depending on which side of the issue you find yourself, the odds are that you have set up a “them” vs. “us” stance, and know full well that God is on your side. When we live with attitudes of “us” vs. “them”, we are unable to approach an issue in order to discuss it and find solutions that everyone can live with.
Here in Matthew, we can see where the evil doers will be judged, but by who? Not by the church, and not by humanity, but rather, will be collected at the end of time by the angles and judged by God. Then we have a much softer version in our reading from the Wisdom of Solomon, where it is written, “Although you [God] are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness, and with great forbearance you govern us. Through such works you have taught your people that the righteous must be kind, and you have filled your children with good hope, because you give repentance for sins.”
Boy this is a true blow to those of us who feel we need to take “righteous” actions towards those that we perceive to be doing evil. Barbara Brown Taylor describes the frustration of “good” church members who recognize “weeds” in the midst of the church that ought to be a refuge from the tainted world saying: ‘If God really is in charge, then why isn’t the world a beautiful sea of waving grain? Or at least the church – couldn’t the church, at least, be a neat field of superior wheat?’
Then as now, “however the weeds get there, most of us have got them – not only in our yards but also in our lives: thorny people who were not part of the plan, who are not welcome, sucking up sunlight and water that were meant for good plants, not weeds”. Doesn’t this kind of attitude set up an either/or, Us and Them situation, where some of us are “wheat” and others are “weeds”? Who can tell the difference, and who can presume to pull the weeds without harming the tender wheat?
Religious communities, that’s who…at least we often presume to do just that, according to Richard Swanson: “even communities that affirm the radical otherness of God, that claim that God is above and beyond all human distinctions, even such communities assume that, if we must divide Us from Them, God is properly on our side of the dividing line [as was the thinking of the man who shot the Dr of the abortion clinic in Wichita, KS]. Carefully developed theologies, balanced and properly in awe of the majesty of God, hide in the other room when Us/Them divisions are being made.”
Kermit the Frog may claim that “It’s not easy being green,” but Barbara Taylor again observes that it’s not easy being wheat, either, having to compete with the weeds for fertile soil. How many people have thought they were doing the right thing, even if they use “hostile means” to rid the church of troublesome weeds, when they’re really doing the same thing as those they are fighting against? But, Taylor points out, “God said no!” Is it possible that the mystery of the parable has something to do with God’s timing, and our inability to judge or, for that matter, our unwillingness to trust in God’s own judgment? God’s judgment, of course, is always better for someone else than it is for us. Still, there is evil and wrongdoing, and surely we’re supposed to do something.
Taylor says that “what God seems to know is that the best and only real solution to evil is to bear good fruit. In the movie "The Greenlantern", the head lantern asked the Immortals to fashion a ring made from the lake of firery fear, in order to combat the force of "fear" that was killing the universe. The newest green lantern begged the Immortals not to go down that path - for there would b no return and there would be only destruction! Our job, in a mixed field, is not to give ourselves to the enemy by devoting all our energy to the destruction of the weeds, but to mind our own business, so to speak – our business being the reconciliation of the world through the practice of unshielded love. If we will give ourselves to that, God will take care of the rest…”
“Thank God, God judges us” this takes the burden off of us. Thomas Long writes, “It is easy for Christians to look through the church windows at the world and to think of ourselves as God’s special insiders, the ones who will ‘shine like the sun’ in the end. We can relish with smug self-satisfaction the thought of worldly types being rounded up at the great final, collected like weeds and burned up in the everlasting fire. However, we are, ourselves, a mixture of good and evil. Sometimes we are faithful, and sometimes we are not…”
Let us be reminded that God sends both sun and rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. If God shows such generosity of spirit, can [we] do any less? It’s hard to be a faithful follower of Christ, yet we must remember that Jesus told us to love our enemies. Sermon Seeds UCC, 7/17/2011 If we can work at doing this, we will be helping to stop the division that comes with the Us verse Them, and will allow us to place our energy on cultivating the “good” seed that God has placed within each human being. Amen

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Is Extravagance at odds with Wisdom?, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 7/10/2011

Is Extravagance at odds with Wisdom?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 7/10/2011
Based on Isaiah 55:10-13 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

A large portion of my childhood memories relate to the business of growing plants. Since we were a poor family, it was most important that we gave focus to the vegetable garden and less to the things that I really enjoyed growing, which were ornamental plants. It was my thought that it was important to provide plants that helped bring beauty into the world; it was my mother’s opinion that growing plants that produced food for the body was of more importance.
When it comes to vegetable gardening, I have only memories of huge gardens. After moving out to a farm, not many miles from the town that I had started my life in, dad decided that with forty acres and free slave labor of three children, he would utilize as much of the land as possible and become a truck farmer. A good share of this land was very sandy and of low quality. We had no real farm equipment, so most all the working of the soil was done with hand tools. There was only one water well, near the house with minimal water spickets in which to water the plants that we were cultivating.
It’s a marvelous thing to farm and to plant. You plow up the soil, get the clods chopped up, and get the ground smooth and ready to plan; then plant the seeds or the starter plants, water them, and watch them grow. What is interesting is everything else that is in that soil will also grow. The technical term for the “everything else” is called “weeds”. I remember long days of handling a hoe, chopping at the weeds, which seemed to thrive better than the plants that I was supposed to be tending. Then after hoeing out the weeds, the next step was bending over and pulling out those weeds which grew right up next to the plants.
As I said, dad, wanted to utilize as much ground of the forty acres as possible, and become what I am now positive, to be the sole vegetable supplier for the whole community of Kingman, KS, a town of 3,000 residences. Our green bean patch had 16 rows, each a city block long. The potato patch was located more than a quarter mile away from the house; a full five acres of seedlings. To utilize the remain acreage of that site, we planted 500 tomato plants. You must understand that the closest water was back at the house and dad believed that instead of running pipe out to this remote spot or buying enough hose to reach those tomato plants, his children would carry water out to them. Well, you can image how well those poor plants survived; they didn’t. As the summer temperatures of over a hundred degrees advanced, and by the way you could not work in those temperatures, those tomatoes eventually dried up and died because of the lack of water.
The lectionary readings today speak to my experiences on the farm and our efforts to truck farm. Where we had the opportunity to work the plants and to nurture them with water, de-weeding, and providing manure, those plants produced in abundance; where we planted seeds and plants and were not able to provide any one of these needed tasks, those plants provided much less fruit, or withered in the heat of the sun, or were choked out by the persistence of the weeds.
I find this particular story interesting with respect to where it is placed in Matthew. At the end of chapter 12, we read where Jesus has been healing and preaching to a group of people and of course getting the Pharisees very upset, so much so, they are beginning to plot as to how they might be able to kill Jesus. Then his mother and brothers come wanting to take Jesus back home with them, at which point Jesus asks, “who is my mother and who are my brothers?” With this response, he indicates that those who have been following him and learning his teachings were truly his brothers and sisters.
It is at this point that Jesus decides to tell the story of what we now call “The Parable of the Sower”. The usual way of reading this parable is to study the types of soil that the seeds are being planted in.
When we think about what it takes to plant a new church, it is prudent to examine the type of community in which to plant a new church. A lengthy study of demographics, city potential of continued growth, what type of nitch can the new church provide that presently isn’t being met.
In church revitalization, such as the present need of this congregation, conversations that focus on growth should be asked: what type of pastor would best help us grow, what type of programs would work best in revitalizing this ministry, what type of people do we want to minister to? These are examples of tiling the soil, of determining the best soil, of plowing it, and of nurturing the effort that will be put into it.
This is what any good farmer would be doing, yet is this really what the deeper meaning of this story is about, especially when you read it within the context of being a response to what he says about his mother and family?
The other day, Rev Nick Natelli, stopped by to take a look at the church and visit just a little, catching up on what is currently going on in the life of this congregation. For those of you who have joined this family of faith after 1971, you might be interested in knowing that Rev Natelli is the minister that was serving this congregation as it moved from “B st” to this location. When he left, this sanctuary was filled at every worship with a membership of over 300. He was sad to hear that we are now averaging in the upper 70’s during the school year and with only 136 members.
His response to me was, “I had whispered in ears before we built here, but maybe I should have whispered harder.” He was referring to the location of this building, being at the end of a street, meaning that there was little exposure, since cars wouldn’t be driving by and realize that there was a church in which to visit, should the driver be so inclined to do so. I remember a comment that Sharon Pribyl made to me when I first arrived. She said, “How do you like the sign at the end of the street that says, ‘dead end’?” Finally that sign was removed. Although the sign was descriptive of the fact that this street was a cul-de-sac, a more subtle message about the church was being given by its presence.
Even in the clergy text study group, that meets weekly to discuss the upcoming lectionary readings, there was discussion as to the “wisdom” that we should have in where and who we share the “good news” of God. A reference being made that we were not being good stewards of God’s word by spending our time with people who would never respond to it.
As a business person, I might, and I say might, agree with that insight. However as a person of faith, I have to look at this parable in a slightly different manor. As I read this story, I see the meaning speaking about the person of faith and what can happen to them. This directly relates then to speaking about a congregation, a faith community, since it is an identity unique unto itself as well.
As a community of faith, we have received the word of God, the seed planted. The question that needs to be asked is, “What type of soil is this congregation made up of?” Are we hard and rocky, who gives only the birds nourishment, as they directly eat the seed that doesn’t take root? Are we soil that is full of weeds, there by choking the work of the Holy Spirit? Are we soil where the distractions of the world take away focus from the needs of being nourished? Are we the soil that receives God’s word and allow it to be nurtured within our hearts, to grow and be able to feed the needs of those we come in contact with?
The focus is on the sower. The story is asking what type of soil is the sower. It is God who originally planted his word within us? How have we received it? God did not contemplate his love to be bestowed on some and not others. That is a teaching that came about as a way to gain followers and to control people. God loves beyond abundantly. God loves extravagantly, giving the gift of reconciliation and healing to every broken heart.
The question is this: How have your received this seed from God? Is your spirit one of hard packed soil? Is it one who received the love of God but because of life’s circumstances has found this love withering? Or is your heart the type of soil that has received the love of God and has allowed it to flourish, thereby giving it freely to all that you met?
I wish to close with a couple of thoughts given to us this week through the Psalm 119 and Isaiah 55. “Your word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path. I have sworn an oath and confirmed it, to observe your righteous ordinances. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeeded in the thing for which I sent it.”
The first part is the recognition of the person who has received the seed from God. The second part is the promise that God makes to those that receive this word. As long as we, as a congregation, have open hearts to receive the extravagant love of God, we will continue to do the work that God has asked us to do, and we will reap abundance through Gods promise to us! Amen

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Devil made Me Do It!, Rev Steven Mitchell, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 7/3/2011

The Devil made Me Do It!
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 7/3/2011
Based on Romans 7:15-25a & Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Not long ago, during a pastors meeting, the Rev Leroy Jones, pastor of the “Church of What’s Happening Now”, was sharing a situation much like what the Apostle Paul is sharing in Romans 7. It seems that one day the Reverend came home from the office to find that his wife, Lillian, had purchased another dress. Now they had agreed several months earlier that she had been spending way too much money on dresses, in fact, her closets were over flowing with dresses that she had purchased just that past year.
So Rev. Leroy’s wife begins to explain just exactly what had happened and why she had that dress. She starts out: I was doing my morning power walk in the White Mountain Mall, minding my own business, when I stopped in front of the Herberger’s display window to see what the new Summer fashions were, when up from behind me comes the Devil. He stopped and said to me, “Hey momma, what cha doing there looking so fine?” I told him, “I was just looking through the window to see what was on display.” “I also told him to get lost because I didn’t need to be talking with him.”
The Rev Leroy said, “That sounds fine, but I don’t understand what that has to do with you buying this dress.” Rev Leroy’s wife then said, “The devil wouldn’t go away and asked me if I was going to go in and try on the dress.” “I told the devil that I wasn’t going to buy that dress, so I didn’t need to try it on!” Then the Devil said, “Oh go ahead, try on the dress. You at least owe yourself a try on!” Then I told the devil, “Devil get behind me!”
“Okay,” said the Rev., “Then what happened?” The Rev’s wife continued her story by saying, “He got behind me, and then he started to push me into the story. He just pushed and pushed until I was at the rack where the dress was hanging.” “So I thought I would out smart him by trying on the dress so that he would be satisfied and would leave me alone.” “After I tried on the dress, he told me how ‘fine I looked in it on me’.” she continued, “I told him I had promised you not to buy any more dresses for awhile and that I wasn’t going to buy this dress, and to just leave me alone!”
The Rev. then asked, “What happened? Didn’t he leave you alone?” “Well,” said his wife, “after I pleaded with him to leave me alone, I found myself standing at the counter, where the devil was forcing me to get out my check book from my purse. All the time I was screaming, ‘Devil, get behind me. Devil leave me alone!” “Well, then what happened?” asked Rev. Leroy. “After all that pleading and me telling him I wasn’t going to buy that dress, he pulled a gun on me and forced me to sign your name to the check!”
The Rev Leroy then asked her, “why is it that the devil always seems to benefit you and get you things that you want and he never seems to do anything for me.” The Mrs. Rev. replied saying, “I asked him about that! And he says he already has helped you. He said, ’If it wasn’t for him, you wouldn’t even have a job!’”
How many times have we not taken responsibility for our own actions and have placed the blame on someone or something other than admitting our short comings and admitting that we truly are responsible for our actions? This is the struggle that Paul is sharing with us this morning. He says that, as a follower of Jesus’ teachings, he still was finding that his actions were not always what he was wanting to do or at times not proud of.
So, instead of saying “the devil made me do it”, Paul insists that it is the sin that is a part of being human that keeps him doing those things that he wishes he wasn’t doing. This is the basis for the late 4th century theologian Augustine of Hippo and later, the early 16th Century Theologian John Calvin, in their development of what we now call, “original sin.” The simplest explanation being: we are all born with a sinful nature and only through Christ are we given the freedom of life.
This point of view actually comes from the Hellenistic point of view, that the Spirit is good but that the physical body is evil. Paul, even though he was a Hebrew, was heavily influenced in this philosophy, which accounts for his conflict between his behavior and his intellectual desires. “I know what the right thing to do is, but somehow, I seem to do the opposite. I don’t wish to do the wrong thing, but it just seems to happen.”
So, does the devil truly make us “do it?” Or are we born with sin that was started with the disobedience of Adam and Eve? These are questions that humanity has asked itself for generations. Paul speaks that by one man, Adam, came death, but by Jesus comes life. This thought process developed the whole idea that sin is passed on through the “sin gene”, and because Christ was born without sin, he was able to provide the avenue for life. This then developed the theology that Mary, his mother, also had to be conceived not by a human father but by the Heavenly Spirit, as was Jesus.
I am not sure that I personally buy into the “original sin” theory as it has been passed down through the ages. I do however understand the theory “free will” and tend to attribute my behavior more with this outlook than that of original sin. The reason is that if I am born this way, with original sin, then this can lead me to not taking responsibility for my actions (the devil made me do it!), whereby if I believe more in the concept of “free will”, it places the burden of my actions directly upon my shoulders and not that of someone else’s.
Over the past couple of years, I have received so very nice cards from many of you, talking about all the good qualities that those who sent them, see in me. Quite frankly, I wonder if they are talking about the Steve Mitchell that I have to live with. I know, as Paul speaks about, the conflict that I have in “not doing the right things verse doing the wrong things.” We all do I suspect.
When we think about how we don’t act upon the right things that we could be doing with our lives, we can run the risk of becoming very negative about ourselves. Paul, asks the question, “who can save me from myself?”
His answer is, “God! Thank God, God has saved me from myself.” In other words, we do not accumulate on our balance sheet of life, all the negatives and have them weigh against all the good that we also do. We are a forgiven people. It is Jesus who calls us to himself. He says, "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly."
It is just as the song says, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling. Calling for you and for me; See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me. Come home, come home, You who are weary, come home; Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, Calling, O sinner, come home!
As we come before Christ’s table this morning, listen to your heart. Are you burden with those things that you do, but wish you haven’t done? If so, release them into the arms of the God who lovingly calls us to come to His table of love and forgiveness. For whether we are by nature prone to do the things we shouldn’t and not do the things we should, or whether we just choice to take the lesser paths in life, it is through the love of God that we are abundantly welcomed and extravagantly forgiven. For walking with Jesus is a lighter path than walking on our own. Amen