Sunday, October 30, 2011

Remember Who You Are!, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY, by Rev Steven R Mitchell, 10-30-2011

Remember Who You Are!
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 10/30/2011
Based on I Thessalonians 2:9-13 & Joshua 3:7-17

As I was working earlier this week on narrowing what the focus of this Sunday’s reflection would be, I realized that there seemed to be a major theme being woven with respect to my scheduled commitments. Also it became crystal clear that my scheduled activities also seemed to coincide with this week’s lectionary readings. This seems to happen a good deal with me and I began to wonder, if my higher power does coordinate the lectionary and my life, or if through studying the scripture suggestions for the week tends to make me more sensitive to the events in my life? Much of my schedule is made from one to twelve months in advance and I generally don’t read that far ahead in the lectionary, so I would conclude that what might be thought of as a cohesiveness of activities and lectionary lessons, is more on the line of how I understanding “blessings” or “miracles” within my life. I believe that “blessings” and “miracles” are continuously happening, but I only recognize them when I am sensitive to their existence. Meaning, when I am looking for a blessing or a miracle in my life, I usually recognize it. It is called, “being present” in the moment.
This past week, I’ve been burning up I-80 between here and Salt Lake City. On Wednesday I participated in a dialog billed as, “The Mountain West Summit”, which was a dialog on Immigration issues. I was asked to sit on a panel discussion focusing on the religious and moral implications of immigration. Then yesterday, Sharon Pribyl and I attended the dedication of the new church building of the New Jerusalem Samoan Church in Midvale, UT. This is a new congregation of only 8 yrs old and the first real home for this congregation.
The theme of the week that became apparent to me was that of “who are we?” “Where do we come from?” These are very important questions, for unless we know “who we are” and “where we come from” we can find it difficult to live our “present.” One of the prominent memories that I have from my childhood was the reciting of family history at any gathering. I didn’t realize that is was not the norm of most families. As an adult, I am amazed of how many of my friends know very little about their families beyond their grandparents and some of my friends don’t even know much about their grandparents.
What can happen with such limited understanding of where one comes from, is we can feel isolated, or have a sense of not being connected to anything beyond our self. This can open us up to searching for a sense of belonging and of acting and reacting to choices in an effort to feel grounded that might become unhealthy for us.
This is true with the family of God. As followers of Christ, we need information about what Jesus thought, taught, his practices for finding his centeredness, and how he viewed and understood his relationship with God, so that as followers of Jesus, we have some idea of why we do things. If we don’t have any idea about who and what Christ was about, we can end up with developing some very interesting theological understandings, that might not follow what Christ was truly intending for his church.
This is Reformation Sunday, which is the day that the church remembers where it comes from, of its history, so that, as we live in the present we are able to lay courses for the future that are consistent not only with our past but more importantly are consistent with the teachings of Christ. In the Epistle reading this morning, Paul say’s, “Surely you remember…” and concludes with, “…when you received the word of God, which you heard from us…” This is talking about a history, a reminder to the church in Thessalonica that it is a part of a larger church, a greater faith than what is just spoken about and practiced within its own circle. In the Hebrew Scripture reading of the book of Joshua it starts today’s reading with, “And the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the eyes of all Israel, so they may know that I am with you as I was with Moses.” This is coming after the death of Moses and Israel was looking for a new leader, one who would have as close a relationship as Moses had with their God. It was giving a sense of connectedness and more importantly the ability to continue to move forward.
I want to share with you a short film clip from Tyler Perry’s movie: Madea’s Family Reunion. (Show clip)

As this clip shows, “At times we need to be reminded of who we are. Perhaps that's one of the reasons we belong in community: the reminding of who we are, and of who we are called to be, and of how we are to live. Perhaps that's the deepest call beneath much of what we "do" in church and as the church: in the teaching of both adults and children, in the preaching of the gospel, in the singing of hymns, in the breaking of bread and the sharing of cup. We need to be reminded that God's hand has not only shaped us but guides us still and is in fact still at work in the world, through us. It goes much deeper than our friendships and community within our churches. It goes much deeper than the esteem in which we hold our greatest teachers and the respect we give our pastors. It is indeed, who we are.” Sermon seeds by Kathy Huey, UCC Oct 30,2011
We recognize that God works through the world and that God can be found in many places, in many organizations that we would not specifically call “church.” Yet what makes “the church” distinct? And how can we respond when people say, “I don’t need church, because I can find God in other places?” What they are really doing is asking you the question, “what makes church distinct?” “What would I receive that I can’t get anywhere else?” Unless we know who we are, where we come from, we will never be able to adequately answer their question.
In one of the prayers that was lifted up yesterday at the dedication of the new building of the New Jerusalem Samoan Church, I think we can begin to know “what is distinct about a church”.
“Today we dedicate to your lasting service this house of prayer, which reflects the mystery of your church: A temple built of living stones, founded on the apostles and prophets, your Son Jesus Christ its Chief Corner Stone; a city set upon a hill, bright with the glory of your presence and echoing the prayers of your saints. Lord, send your Spirit from heaven to sanctify this place that it may be a sign of your presence among us. Here may the Gospel be proclaimed with boldness. Here may the waters of baptism cleanse and renew us. Here may your people celebrate the memorial of Christ’s risen presence. Here may prayer resound through heaven and earth, as a plea for the world’s reconciliation. Here may the poor find justice, the victims of oppression, true freedom. Here may the sick find healing, and those in darkness and despair find light. From here may your whole creation, clothed in the liberty of the children of God, enter with gladness your city of peace.” Dedication prayer of Jerusalem Samoan UCC, Midvale, UT 10-30-2011
Let us remember throughout this coming week, who we are, so that we may bravely carry forward the proud heritage of our past! So that we will be able to boldly say, “God loves you and so do I!” Let us stand and turn to the person next to you, give them a huge and say, “God loves you and I am here to support you in that love.” Amen

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Commandment or Commitment, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY, 11-23-2011, Rev Steven R Mitchell

Commandment or Commitment?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 10/23/2011
Based on Matthew 22: 34-46

This past week I took a Holiday in what people universally call “the windy city”, Chicago! In my opinion, those who call Chicago the “windy city” have never spent any time in SW Wyoming. While I was there, I went to the city of Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, and toured the early home of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Mr. Wright, at the age of twenty-two built his first home, where he and his family lived for about twenty years. This house which later included his working studio is nestled in a beautiful neighborhood of Victorian homes. Mr. Wright built this home around 1890. It was a dramatic break from the stately looking Victorians.
For those of you who are not familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright, he is one of the pioneers of what we would call “the green movement”. He helped reshape the concept that a building should blend in with its environment, not shape its surroundings. He is the father of the style of architecture called “prairie style” homes. After lengthy interviews with you, learning about you as an individual, he would design a home that reflected who you were. Yet his homes of the 1890’s through the 1920’s became what we now call the “norm” in building.
As I was taking a walking tour around the neighborhood, it was very obvious which homes had been either designed or redesigned by Mr. Wright. Next to very handsome Victorian homes, which might have been only five years old, you could see these modernistic, linear style homes designed by Mr. Wright. During my walk, I began to wonder what the established neighbors were saying about this young upstart, building these radically different looking houses in their well groomed traditional looking neighborhood.
Down the street I found two very fine looking traditional looking churches; one was the Methodist Church and the other was a Congregational Church. Then next door to the Congregational Church was the Unity Church, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It didn’t have the majestically upward spiraling look that the other two churches had, rather, the Unity church was low, almost hidden in the landscape with horizontal lines.
On my walking tour, I had a little cassette player that was giving me information about the specific homes that Mr. Wright designed or did additions to. The tour guide also called attention to some of the Victorian and Queen Anne houses that had significant architectural styles of their period which influenced Mr. Wright in his designs, bridging the older concepts with his newer visions.
In many respects, the way that Frank Lloyd Wright looked at architecture and how it was to blend with one’s life and that of nature, is very much how Jesus was with his understanding of how the “laws”, those ten commandments were to be lived out. When confronted by an expert in the law, of which was the most important, Jesus gives them an answer that not only stops his questioning but also reshapes how to look at it. “Instead of reducing the importance of the laws, he paints a picture of them as a coherent whole that “hangs together.” Jesus sees the law very differently than the experts did and his response “undermines the whole notion of the law as rules and regulations. What Jesus claims is that the whole law is about love, not rules, about really loving God and one’s neighbor, not about figuring out how to avoid stepping on cracks in the legal sidewalk.” UCC sermon seeds, Thomas Long.
As we read the story’s of Jesus and how he seems to come up with these outstanding teachings and responses, we tend to think that what he is saying is all original to him, yet much of what Jesus says comes from what is written in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus’ response to “which of the commandments is most important” comes from Deuteronomy 6:“4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.[a] 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”
We are coming up to that uncomfortable season of “stewardship”. That time when we talk about money and what to give to the church. Scripture tells us that we are to give 10% of back to God. When we think about what we are pledging to the church, we too often look at it as a “bill”, and the concept of “tithing” (which means 10%) like one of the commandments. “God says, you are to give a tenth of what you earn back to God!” “Now how do I tweak this law, so that I give 10% but don’t have to give actual dollars in that amount? Oh I know, I’ll give my time and do things around the church and for charity and things like that, then I will count that as part of my 10% as “in kind.” This is how the Pharisees would take this commandment and massage it to meet their legal obligations along their desire to spend their money on themselves.
Jesus shared stories to get his listeners to think about what was written in scripture. In this same way, the Rev Kathy Huey, staff person with the national offices of the UCC, shares her story about this question of “greatest commandment”: several years ago, inspired by the witness of two older women, longtime and faithful members of the church who told me their stories of tithing, I decided to take the step of increasing my own giving to the church I loved. Increasing to a tithe (10%) was a challenge but it surprised me that my feelings followed after the action, or after the commitment, if you will. I found that I loved my church more when I gave more to it, much as we love our children more after giving of ourselves to them over many years. So it seems that when we decide to set our hearts in a direction, toward something or someone, and when we do the things that fulfill that commitment, our feelings often follow afterward. The laws of giving and Sabbath and loving, I believe, are God's way of getting us to do what we need to do, what's good for us; these laws give us the direction for setting our hearts. Again, it's a thing of mystery. Ucc sermon seeds, Kate Huey Oct 23,2011 What Kathryn found out is that when she stopped looking at the idea of “tithing” as a commandment, and realized the wholeness of scripture as one of “love”, she then was able to live out her financial giving as a commitment rather than a commandment.
The definition of a commandment is: To direct with authority; give orders to. 2. To have control or authority over. When we read in Deuteronomy 6, “love God with all our heart and soul and strength, and have it on our heart”, the question arises, “How can we be commanded to “love” something or somebody?” A part of our problem with the understanding of the word “love” comes from how abused this word is in our culture. From a biblical sense, the understanding of love, “is not affection but commitment. Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that Deut. 6:5 demands of us but rather stubborn, unwavering commitment". And commitment can be seen as a setting of the heart, something we choose to do, a way we freely choose to live our lives. Commitment is that mysterious mingling of feeling and action, a beautiful dance between the two. UCC Sermon Seeds, Douglas Hare, Oct 23, 2011 You see, Jesus turns the question of “which is more important” into a commitment instead of a commandment; of a lifestyle not something to wiggle around.
What does it mean to you to “love God with all of your heart, mind, and soul? And then your neighbor as yourself?” Is it a commandment or is it a commitment? Each will determine how we look at what we do with not only our money, but with how we look at social justice, of stewardship of our world, and of how we treat the Sabbath! Amen

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Only Ten?, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY, by Rev Steven R Mitchell, 10/2/2011

Only Ten?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 10/2/2011
Based on Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

It is not often that we review the collection of laws that we call the Ten Commandments, but this is the focus of this morning’s reflection. Rev Kathryn Huey writes in this week’s Sermon Seeds, “Every once in a while, the Ten Commandments provoke a measure of controversy in our public life: not about whether we actually obey them and keep them at the heart of our life together, or how they might change the way we live if we observed them. That would be an excellent controversy. No, our national argument tends to be about their display, engraved (ironically) in stone and practically worshipped not for their content but for the message they are assumed to convey, that we are a nation under God, specifically, in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The prominent display of these commandments serves to remind people in other faiths, and atheists as well, about who "we" are, whenever "they" walk into public buildings, regardless of the separation of church and state that protects all of us, however futilely, from religious wars of one kind or another. And yet, we are apparently the ones who need to be reminded of who we are and what it means to live faithfully, for "in recent polls of the American public," Gene Tucker observes, "although the majority affirmed that the Bible is in some way the word of God, only a small percentage could name as many as four of the Ten Commandments" (Preaching through the Christian Year A). If we don't even know what they are, how can we obey them?” So, prior to reading this morning’s scripture, I am going to give you a quiz and have us as a group try to name all Ten Commandments.
In the progression of the story of the Hebrew people, we can recall how they are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was Joseph, the son of Jacob, the one sold off into slavery by his brothers who actually was able to provide a place of refuge and safety for his family as a great famine occurred. So, the descendants of Abraham, found themselves in the land of Egypt, living in security. Then a few generations down the road, they became enslaved by the Egyptians.
Through a man named Moses, God rescued these slaves and guided them through unknown territory, providing protection and food. Eventually they found themselves at the foot of Mt Sinai. It was there that Moses went up to meet with God and received these Ten Commandments. It must have been something to behold for scripture says, “When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance....”
We as a society really dislike the idea of having rules and regulations. We often look to rules, contracts, and covenants as being restrictive, rather than being a freeing agent. When we talk about the concept of “discipline”, we generally think in terms of punitive actions for stepping outside of a set boundary. Yet discipline is needed in order to active a given objective. If we wish to be able to read for example, we have to become disciplined in the alphabet and learning of words in order to be able to read. The same goes with writing or with mathematics or any other activity.
God in many ways is like a parent. We are made in God’s image; therefore, God knows that we operate best with boundaries. In order for us to live life to its best, we need to understand what is best for us. I believe that is what the Ten Commandments are intended to active. We are lucky, Moses only brought down ten from Mount Sinai, by the time Jesus was ministering, there were 613 laws to live by; after the destruction of the Temple there are only 271 laws that can be followed and acted upon as a Jew.
I suspect that most of us feel that we follow the Ten Commandments or rather that we probably don’t really directly violate them. This might be true or it might be that we don’t examine our heart or our actions very closely, thereby think we don’t violate these specific laws that God gave to us.
For example: the first commandment tells us who God is. It is God who brought us up out of Egypt. “What do you mean brought me up out of Egypt? I’ve never stepped foot out of this country, let alone visited Egypt.” Egypt is a metaphor meaning “enslaved”. For folks who have gone through any kind of 12 step program, they will tell you what being a slave to alcohol, sexual abuse, or drug is all about and how their “higher power” has helped bring them out of that slavery, up out of Egypt.
The next commandment is to have no idols. In our affluence as a nation, we are confronted daily with idols. Walter Brueggemann writes powerfully of these temptations: “We have always lived in a world of options, alterative choices, and gods who make powerful, competing appeals. It does us no good to pretend that there are no other offers of well-being, joy, and security. In pursuit of joy, we may choose philosophy, in pursuit of security, we may choose military might; in pursuit of genuine love, we may choose sex. It is clear that these choices are not Yahweh that these are not gods who have ever brought an Exodus or offered a covenant.” UCC Sermon Seeds, Oct 2, 2011
We are told to remember the Sabbath day. This is a word that has become lost in our culture. How many of you tell friends, “I go to church on Sundays?” How many of you say to friends, “On Sundays, I go to worship” instead of using the word “church”? When was the last time you kept the Sabbath? Or maybe more accurately, “what does keeping the Sabbath mean?”
Traditionally it goes back to God working hard for six days and then resting on the seventh day, reflection on all that was created. The Hebrew’s were delivered out of slavery which was a seven day work week and God was asking them to take one day out of the week and keep it holy, so that they could reflect on their relationship to the one who was not only their God, but the one who freed them from their oppression! The word Sabbath means something different than “doing church.”
Now we come to an easy one – don’t commit murder! Yet what happens if you are in the military and we go to war does the killing of the enemy mean murder? Mae West during a confrontation with the HAE’S commission on the topic of “immorality” specifically about her innuendo’s spoke a great truth when she told them, “Sending our boys off to kill one another is immorality!” Yet there are many ways to kill a person without physically killing them. We can kill a child’s spirit by demeaning them on a daily basis; we can kill someone’s character with slander or malicious intent, or even with idol gossip.
Jesus when questioned on which commandment was the greatest, his response was twofold: “Love your God with all your heart, mind, and soul; the other is to love your neighbor as you would love yourself.” That sounds pretty straight forward. Jesus has taken these Ten Commandments and brought them into two basic groups. But what happens if we don’t know how to treat ourselves with respect, or kindness, or with honor, but rather treat ourselves in negative ways that brings harm to ourselves. Are we supposed to treat other people the same way? The truth is we will treat people exactly the way in which we treat ourselves.
What the goal of these commandments is about is to help us focus on life outside of ourselves. It provides disciplines for “best living.” We are to remember, recognize, and then give over ourselves to a power that is greater than ourselves. Once we have done that, we are then able to relate to others in a healthier manor and look at the world through the lens of how God sees each of us. If we can get these Ten Commandments under our belt, I don’t think we would have need of those 613 laws that the Hebrews came up with after the fact! My challenge to you this week is to reread these Ten Commandments and take time to think about how we too often offend them simply because we haven’t taken the time to examine them. Amen.