Sunday, August 21, 2011

Who Has the Keys?, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 8/21/2011, Rev Steven R Mitchell

Who Has the Keys?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, 8/21/2011
Based on Matthew 16:13-20

How many keys do you have on your key ring? Do you have more than one ring to which you keep keys on? Do you know which key works on what lock? I actually still carry around a few keys to locks that no longer exist. It was once said that you could tell the importance of a person by the number of keys that he or she possessed.
Keys are very important. They give you access to what’s on the “other side” of the door. Many people will give a spare key to their house to a friend or family member. When you are dating an individual and you are given a key to their house or apartment, you are being told that you now have access to their personal space. A key represents “trust” in the individual who holds it.
Every parent of a Teenager goes through one of the worst days of their lives when asked to give their child the “keys” to the car. Before handing over the keys, we start taking mental inventory, “does this child have the maturity to handle this tin can that has the capability to go 100 mph or more?” “Will my child really focus on the serious task of driving on a public street?” “How many stop lights and stop signs are there between here and there?” And the list continues to go on as you surrender your keys to the trusting hands of your child.
I wonder if Jesus really understood what he was doing when he was turning over the keys of heaven to Peter! Peter, who tended to react to situations. Peter, who often spoke without thinking about what he was saying. The same Peter who loses focus when given a task; remember what happened when he started to walk on water, he sank when he started to look around. Just a few verses back in Matthew, Jesus calls Peter “Satan” for setting his mind on human things instead of the divine. Peter was constantly missing the point and even ended up denying knowledge of Jesus when Jesus most needed the support of his friends. How does someone give the keys to the kingdom of heaven and build the church upon them with a track record like Peter’s? Clearly Peter’s authority is not based on his rightness or righteousness. Then what is its basis?
Back at the beginning of this passage, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”(v 13) Their response seems to depend on what particular faction they are a part of – whether they are partial to John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another prophet. In the Protestant church today, people might respond by interpreting Jesus through the lens of Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Karl Barth, Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Graham, or even Marcus Borg. The tendency, in other words, is for people to project onto Jesus their particular cultural, theological, and denominational allegiances.
In the next verse, however, Jesus responds by making the question to his disciples more pointed: “But who do you say that I am?” (v.15) Simon Peter, as he often does, speaks first and replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (v.16) Jesus responds, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (v.17-18)Feasting on the Word, YR A, Vol. 3, pg 382
Peter did not receive this promotion, if you will, because he had the answer that Jesus was looking for, but rather, Jesus was responding to Peter by what his “testimony” was about Jesus! Peter wasn’t describing Jesus by his theological understanding, but rather by the experiences he had had with Jesus. It was because of what was in his heart, not in his head, that Jesus singled Peter out to give the “keys to the Kingdom of Heaven” too.
Over the last couple of millennia, Christians have been arguing the point as to the meaning of Peter being the foundation that the church is built upon. In the Roman Catholic tradition, it is believed that Peter, through the response that we just read by Jesus, literally gives Peter the authority of Christ, here on earth, and in turn, each succeeding Pope receives this direct authority over the church.
I personally look at what Jesus said to Peter, from the understanding that it was not Peter himself that the church is built upon, but rather it is the “faith” to which Peter was “testifying” about Christ, that is the foundation in which the church was built upon and continues to be built upon today. This then makes the church a living organism that survives because of its “profession” of Christ, which can only come through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In the United Church of Christ, we would say the church is alive today because of the Ever Speaking God!
We call ourselves the “Church of Christ”; we as part of this church carry the “keys to the kingdom of heaven”, pretty impressive isn’t it! When you look at your key ring, do you see the key to heaven there? What does it look like? What do the doors look like that this key open? Do you believe that you and you alone are the rock, the foundation in which Jesus is building up his church?
Jesus told Peter that even the gates of Hades, would not be able to stop this church. Do you believe this? I mean, do you really believe that the First Congregational Church of Christ is a part of this reality and that it will never die? Just last year, we experienced the death of one of our sister churches in this community. Why did that church not survive? The “gates of Hades” that Jesus is referring to here is not the image of “hell” but rather it refers to a physical death. So why do some churches burst at the seams while others are withering on the vine? Do not all churches hold the keys to the kingdom?
Jesus was asking a very important question to the disciples when he asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” We need to be asking that question of First Congregational, “Who do people of Rock Springs say that we are?” Are we seen as a social group? Are we seen only through the eyes of the annual bazaar? Are we seen as a non-biblical people? Are we seen as a church that is open to all peoples? Are we seen as a spiritual people?
The rock that Christ was speaking about is not founded in a person of Peter, but rather it is founded in the Testimony that we have about who Christ is. “Who do you say that I am?” This is the question that Jesus asks each of us. Whether we have the key to the kingdom of heaven will be revealed in our answer to Jesus’ question. Who do you say Jesus is? The answer isn’t found in theology. The answer is found deep within your heart. Amen

Monday, August 15, 2011

Even the Crumbs, First Congregational UCC, WY 8-14-2011

Even the Crumbs
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 8/14/2011
Based on Matthew 15:21-28

What is your “image” of Jesus of Nazareth? Is this reading from Matthew consistent with your image of what the Son of God’s actions are supposed to be? If not, then what is making this reading inconsistent with what we are reading in the Gospel? How would you react if you went up to Jesus and asked for help and was treated in the manor as this Canaanite woman was treated by Jesus? Would you continue to badger him for help or would you turn around and as Jesus himself said to his disciples that “if you are not received in a community dust the dirt off your sandals and leave that town?” Today’s lesson is dealing with “outsiders” and the topic of “who is really welcomed
Every so often, we here in the United States get a dose of this story as we struggle with whom is considered equal. From 1950 – 1980’s we labeled this story, “the civil rights movement.” Since 1976 thru now, a major segment of the church has labeled this story, “the gay agenda.”
I think another upcoming label to this story is going to be labeled “Migratory habits of aliens” and I don’t mean those beings from outer space. As followers of Christ, we Christians have to translate what we read in scripture in order to help make what we read relevant to us. Specifically, when we read words such as “Israel” we generally translate that to mean, the Christian church. We do this because the word “Israel” as used in scripture is generally the vehicle in which God interacts with Creation.
When Jesus was telling the Canaanite woman that, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus was indicating that Israel meant “those who are called by God.” It would translate to us as saying, “I was sent only to those lost sheep of Christianity.” It is also true that as we read scripture, we within the church, take on the teachings of Jesus, his actions, and his temperament to be a path in which we are to follow. Jesus says, “Love one another”, we try to incorporate that within our lives; Jesus says, “feed my sheep”, again we work at providing food for the hungry. With this understanding in mind, does today’s reading provide a loop hole in which we can use to deny someone or some peoples group and not be held to the basic teachings that in general Jesus has taught during his ministry? Are we really allowed to see some people as being on the level of an unwanted “dog?” Are we able to turn our backs on some who cry for help?
It would seem Jesus was doing this; at least at the beginning of the text. There are however some interesting aspects of this story that need to be brought into light. First off, Jesus was not in an area where the general population were Jewish. Rather, he was truly in a foreign region, a region of Tyre and Sidon, which was home to Gentiles. It would be as if Jesus was in Mexico, still in North America, but out of the United States. Jesus was the foreigner not the woman who came up to him seeking help. This interchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman reminds me of the “ugly American” image that has developed with those Americans who feel privileged and empowered, who while visiting in a foreign country, are offended by the customs of that country and vocalize to the locals the idea that the way we do things in the United States is the correct and proper behavior and that they, the locals, need to change to accommodate the tourist.
Matthew just doesn’t say to us that a woman came up to him and started shouting. This woman was a “Canaanite woman”. This is a powerful word to any Israelite. The use of this word brings up images of “ungodliness”, of “idol sacrifices” and “idol worship”. It would bring up images of Elijah the prophet and his quest to help bring back the Hebrew leadership to worshiping the true God of Israel and not the god of Queen Jezebel, which was Baal, which was one of the stories that the children studied this last month in VBS. The prophets of Baal and Elijah had a show down on which god was more powerful. After an all day frenzy by the priests of Baal to bring down fire to accept their sacrifice, nothing happened. Then Elijah, after preparing his sacrifice to God, upped the ante by pouring water, not once, not twice, but three times on the wood, making it so wet, that it could not be light by fire. Then prayed to God and God sent down a blaze of fire, consuming the offering as well as the alter itself. Meaning God accepted Elijah’s offering.
Today, a large portion of the church would use words that are just as highly charged as did Matthew, when they say, “the Homosexual agenda”. The word Homosexual brings up tremendously negative feelings to many people when they hear it. It is a proven fact that when the topic of who should serve in the military was discussed, when the word “gay” men and women was used, the majority polled were favorable, but when the word “homosexual” was used the polls showed a far less support about “those” people serving as defenders of our country. The word Canaanite was just as explosive to the first generation of readers of the Gospel of Matthew.
The disciples were highly bothered by this Canaanite woman, crying out to Jesus to help her daughter. They were obviously not able to get rid of her and so they ask Jesus to send her away. At first, Jesus even ignores her cries for help. But out of persistence, he finally sits down and tries to reason with her, saying that his mission was only for those who God counts worthy.
That’s a shocker! Does this statement mean that there are truly those who are counted as favored by God and the rest are going to hell? Undeterred this mother continues to beg Jesus to help heal her daughters illness. Then Jesus actually likens her, solely because of her being a Canaanite, to that of a dog! “It's not right to take bread out of children's mouths and throw it to dogs.” And she once more responds with, “You're right, Master, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the master's table.”
I would like to point out that this story comes after a serious of stories where Jesus is confronting the Pharisees over questions of ritual purity and obedience to the law of God, and Jesus quoting from Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy not sacrifices.” Jesus is now being confronted with exactly what he had been chastising the Pharisees of doing. It is a story of a woman putting a mirror up to Jesus’ face and calling him on his own prejudices and limited scope of what and to who his mission was about. Finally, as I understand this story, Jesus has an epiphany as to who is equal in the sight of God. It isn’t just about who gets help, who we in the church give assistance to, but rather a point of “who is equal in the eyes of God”, which translates for us, “who do we see as equal”, as “brothers and sisters – as family?” This is a profoundly important message to the church! It is a profoundly important message to us – are we truly seeing even the most undesirerable of our society as being not just acceptable to receive the word, the love of God, but truly “acceptable” to God?
I mentioned earlier that the civil rights movement was one of those labels for the Canaanite woman. Much of America feels that we have moved into an era of being less racist, yet I hear language being used every day that says we are still struggling with racism; if you don’t believe me, then who comes to your mind when I use the word “terrorist?” If your first thoughts are “Arabs”, “Muslims”, “Iraqis”, or “Afghanistan’s” then you are thinking as a racist. There is a population of people who are crying out to the church to be let in and accepted as children of God, and yet the church fears them and sees them as undeserving of God love or being equal. Yet they are still marching, still raising their voices, asking the church to have “mercy” on them, to welcome them as brothers and sisters.
Our text today is truly speaking about God desiring “mercy over sacrifice”. Sacrifice is form and doctrine; mercy is love, acceptance, and equality. God is telling us, that every person, regardless to race, social standing, educational level, sexual orientation, even mental illness is equal in God’s kingdom. It is a challenge to us to recognize that “even the crumbs” are there for everyone. In reality, if we can come to such an understanding and reconciliation within our own hearts, then there will be no need to discuss who gets the crumbs for everyone will be eating at the table. Amen

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Why Do You Doubt?, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 8-7-2011

Why Do You Doubt?
By Rev Steven R. Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 8/7/2011
Based on Matthew 14:22-33

Last week we struggled with the concept of preparing enough food for five thousand plus with only five loaves of bread and two fish. For some of us the idea of a truly physical multiplication of these meager items might seem too impossible, as it goes against natural reasoning. On the other hand, if we look at that particular story as understanding the concept of taking what we do have and trusting it will be the start of something bigger, then the feeding of the five thousand plus is more understandable.
This week, the story that we are studying, seems to be even more unbelievable. You have the disciples once again out on their own, in the middle of the sea and finding themselves in the midst of a storm. Scared half out of their wits, they then see a man who appears to be walking on the water. Of course, it would be very natural for any one of us, seeing this same scene to image that what we were seeing was either a mirage or possibly a ghost walking on the water.
In the midst of this fear, Jesus hears the disciples crying out and so Jesus spoke to them saying, “Hey guys don’t be afraid, it’s just me, walking out here on the water, during this really bad storm, with the strong winds and the waves crashing all around me.” Evidently, Jesus wasn’t convincing enough, because nobody really seems to believe that it was Jesus. After all, it isn’t everyday that you see someone walking on the water. Usually, you would find them swimming at best. What was he wearing, sandals that had little life preservers that inflated, allowing him to be walking on the water. And what keep him from being knocked down by the waves as they came crashing up against his body. No, I think I would rather stick with assuming what I was seeing and hearing was a ghost.
Yet Peter decided to give Jesus a challenge saying, “If you really are Jesus, then command me to come to you, for if you command me, then I too will be able to walk on the water.” Although scripture doesn’t say this, I can imagine that Jesus extended his arm and held out his hand and simply said to Peter, “Come.” So Peter, trusting in Jesus, gets out of the boat, leaving the rest of the disciples on board, watching Peter walking on the water toward Jesus. Peter gets a good distance from the boat, and then he probably starts to think to himself, “What in the Egyptian Dessert am I doing? No man can walk on top of water. I don’t care if Jesus did tell me to come to him, it’s humanly impossible for me to be outside of the boat, walking on water, what am I thinking about?” At which point Peter takes a dunk into the sea, and he probably isn’t a very good swimmer either. As he is bobbing up and down like an apple in a barrel, he cries out to Jesus, “Save me, Lord.”
Jesus reaches out and grabs Peter, pulling him up out of the water. I have a sneaking idea, that Peter was probably saying a few choice words to Jesus, inquiring as to what made Jesus think he, Peter, could possibly walk on water. Then Jesus responds with, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus pretty much drags Peter over to the boat and throws him back in, and once Jesus himself got into the boat, the storm stopped and the sea became calm.
Then scripture tells us that those in the boat worshipped Jesus saying, “Truly you are the Son of God!” So, this makes a really good story line for children in Sunday school or an Indiana Jones style movie, but what could it possibly be saying to us, especially those of us who don’t live by water, who don’t like to get into boats, and have no intension of trying our luck at walking on water.
Have you ever started in a direction and at some point wondered if you had made the best choice? This story talks about our human nature and how easily we can become disoriented, confused, and have the sense that we are lost. It is a story about how at times we don’t recognize God being with us, because God’s presence doesn’t fit into our “perception of reality”. It is a story of how we often decide upon an activity or path and as we get into it, encounter problems or rough times, and we begin to doubt ourselves and then many times stop what we have set out to do, because we don’t have the faith in what we are trying to achieve.
A common scenario for a church would be to embark on an intentional growth program. Everyone decides that being intentional in going out to recruit new members is what the church is being asked to do by God. So, the excitement is there, everyone has studied really hard on how to go out and invite new people into the church. There has to be some new programs started so that the new members will have things of interest to study and learn once they come. Then after about a year or two, the recruiting has paid off, and about a third or more of the church consists of new members.
But then the long term members start to realize that with all these new people, things are starting to change. There are new ideas and new ways of looking at things. Eventually, it becomes obvious that many of these new folks are wanting to work on church boards, which means that those who use to have the main voice in what was happening, no longer had that strong of say in business meetings. The long term members start to panic and begin to act out in behaviors that actually drives away the new members and then one day, the church which started out with a direction from God, finds itself once again sinking, because when the storm of change came, they got scared and lost faith in what they were wanting to accomplish.
I struggled this week with the conversation between Peter and Jesus, particularly over the word “command” which was the word Peter used in order to make sure that the person he was seeing out on the water truly was Jesus. After all, if Jesus is the son of God and he commands, then I will be able to do what he says. I struggled because Jesus simply said, “come”. There was no command by Jesus, but rather an invitation. There seemed to be an inconsistency between the two words. Finally, I figure out what was bothering me. It was a matter of “responsibility” more precisely, self-responsibility.
If Jesus had done what Peter had asked and had “commanded” Peter to come to him, then Jesus was the responsible person for what would happen to Peter. If Peter was able to walk on the water and made it safely to Jesus, then Jesus was the man! If however, Peter went out to Jesus and started to become side tracked and sank as he did, had Jesus commanded him to come out, then his failure to walk on the water would have been Jesus’ responsibility. But Jesus doesn’t command Peter to come out; he invites Peter to join him. In this way, Peter is the person responsible for his own conduct. If Peter falls into the water, it is Peters fault, not Jesus’.
Too often I hear people in their conversations, refer to something that has happened to them as a result of God. It’s not that we shouldn’t be giving praise to God for the good things that come our way in life, but when we use language like that, it is taking away personal responsibility. We so often use this type of language when trying to console someone who has lost a loved one, especially if it’s been in a premature death, like a car accident. We say things like, “It’s Gods will” or “God just needed that person to help them out in heaven”.
God does welcome us, yes, but I cannot believe that God is responsible for that person dying. We say God sent His son in order to save the world – meaning God sent Jesus to die. Yet scripture tells us Jesus, while in the garden of Gethsemane chooses to go down a path that will surely result in confrontation with the religious community and probably death. It was Jesus’ responsibility for this action, not God’s.
Today’s lesson is teaching us about personal responsibility, and what happens when we lose sight of God in our life. God invites us to do many things; it is we who decide to take that invitation. Then when the storm of change comes along, we often get so caught up in the uncomfortableness that our faith wavers and we find ourselves sinking. Then you hear things like, “we really want this church to grow, but God just doesn’t seem to think it’s the right time yet.” It isn’t God who’s not ready.
The story ends by stating that once Jesus get’s into the boat, the waters calmed and the storm stopped. It begins with the disciples not recognizing Jesus, but once they see who he is, and have him come aboard, once Jesus is among them, then the storm stops. Always remember that Jesus is beside you, all you need to do is recognize him, then and only then will the storm stop. Jesus asks each and every one of us at one time or another, “Why do you doubt?” It is a question for all of us to ponder on as we come to the table Jesus has prepared for us all. Amen

Monday, August 1, 2011

You are the Miracle, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 7/31/2011

I would suggest watching the two videos that I showed for todays worship, prior to reading the sermon as it will help round out what I spoke about. I used one video during children's time and the other at the start of the sermon. Titles in order are: What is your " 5 Loaves & 2 Fishes"?, the other was, Fish Eyhes - Feeding of the 5000 (US Film version) staring Jason Hildebrand and Ted Swartz. These can be found on Youtube. Remember, You are the start, and you are the miracle!
You are the Miracle!
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 7/31/2011
Based on Matthew 14:13-21

We have had several versions this morning in looking at the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, through the two videos that we watched as well as with the reading from Matthew. I hope that you haven’t come this morning thinking that I will be able to explain to you how Jesus was able to turn those few loaves of bread and two fishes into a banquet that could feed over five thousand men as well as all the women and children that were also there listening to him, because I can’t do that. But I can address how Jesus was able to use those few loaves and fishes, so that everyone was not only satisfied but there were left-over’s.
Are you aware that “reality” is fluid? No two people sitting in this room, has exactly the same experience as to what is going on in this service. Take the glass with water that is filled to the middle. To some people the glass may be half filled; to others it may be half empty. Ink blots on a card are always interpreted differently by everyone who looks at them. If you were to take two people, one who is colored blind to say, green, the other who is not color blind, have them look at a garden filled with flowers, the person who is color blind to green’s will see the garden very differently from the person who isn’t color blind. Reality of the garden is different to both of the onlookers.
Today’s lessen isn’t really about how the bread and fish were able to multiply enough to feed everyone who was hunger, but rather it is a story dealing with perceptions. As you saw in the video presentation, when Andrew and Peter were asking Jesus to send the people away, to go back into town, so that they may eat, Jesus gives them the opportunity to feed them. In the eyes of the disciples, they did not have enough resources in which to feed such a massive crowd. Jesus asks them, “What do you have?” After they looked around, they discovered they only had a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, hardly enough to feed 5,000 hungry men much less all the women and children who must have been there.
To the disciples, the glass was half empty. To Jesus, it was a start. Think about the number of people who have placed their faith in the actions and teachings of Jesus over the past two thousand years. Jesus started out with only a few followers, and they told their friends about Jesus and his teachings, and eventually there were twelve disciples. A small core of men for such a great undertaking of spreading the “Good News” that Jesus was teaching. When he looked at the twelve disciples do you think he saw this core group as not being enough to accomplish such an important mission? Or do you think he saw them as, “it’s a beginning”?
The heart of Jesus’ ministry and his teaching is what we call today, “social justice”. Jesus saw the injustice of those who had more than “enough” to live on, and how they gave very little concern to those who were poor, des-enfranchised, needing health care, needing adequate housing, needing food to eat, those suffering with mental-illness, those who are victims of racism and sexism. It is the same topics we struggle with in today’s world.
Today’s sermon is ideal for a stewardship lesson, an opportunity for us to look at the abundance that we have and examine our perception of what we have been given by God and about our attitudes toward Social Justice issues. As a nation we have been teetering on the verge of a financial collapse not experienced since the Great Depression. We have had some recovery but according to some economic experts the worst is not over and we will see even a larger economic dip in about a year and a half from now. This is very disturbing news, and should this actually occur, it is going to be through our perceptions as to how well we will survive through that period of time.
I bring this up to point out an observation about how we as a society and as individuals react and handle prosperity and depression. During the Great Depression, when practically nobody had any money, to speak of, there was a willingness to help out our neighbor, or the stranger who was in more need than you. Winnie VanValkenberg shared a few weeks ago of how her parents house was marked by the hobo’s as a house to come to for food. Their home was not unusual. Yet today we live in untold wealth, compared to the 1930’s, yet we keep our house locked, we are hesitant to speak to strangers, and we give less to charities and to our churches, per capita. The point that I am bringing out is, it seem that the more wealth that we accumulate the less giving we become. When we are in a position to share from our abundance to those who need, we actually give less. Why do you think that is? It comes from a perception of scarcity, “If I give, I may not have enough for myself.”
We speak of God’s economy in the church, about the abundance of God’s love. We speak about extravagant hospitality, yet we give to social need with the attitude of scarcity. We need more money to do a program, we need more members to survive, and we need more help, God. We don’t have enough; it is up to you God to do something about this.
Wrong, wrong, wrong! When the disciples asked Jesus to act, he said, “No, you do something about it.” “You figure it out and do something about it.” The late President John F. Kennedy said it this way, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but rather, ask what you can do for your country.” The church needs to ask less about how God is going to help us, but start asking more of God, “What do you want us to do?”
Once the disciples started to look around, asking, working with what they had, they realized that they had more than what they needed. When Jesus gave a blessing over the food, it wasn’t blessing the food so much as it was, blessing God for God’s faithfulness. Two years ago, this church was asking, “How are we going to keep the doors open?” Now we are asking, “How are we going to make the budget?” Is the glass half empty or is the glass half full? Are we like the disciples, wanting to send people home hungry because we don’t have enough faith to recognize the abundance that God has given us?
Two years ago, there was no Sunday school for the children. Two years ago, I heard people asking where are the children? Through the concern and dedication of some of our people, we provided a program for our children. Bingo! We average 15 children during the year in Sunday school. Out of this has come the opportunity to hire someone to work at developing even a better program for our children. We started out with two fish and some bread, we are now experiencing more than what we started with!
Are we going to be true to the call of Jesus, to not look at what we can’t do, but rather, trust in the extravagance of God to provide what we see needing to be done? Are we just two fish and some loaves of bread or are we the start? I think if Jesus was here this morning, He would see you as the start, He would see you as the miracle! Amen