Sunday, November 27, 2011

Waiting for the First Day!, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 11/27/2011

Waiting for the First Day!
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 11/27/2011
Based on Isaiah 64:1-9 & Mark 13:23-37
First Sunday of Advent

Today is the first day of the new church year. It happens every year on the Sunday following Thanksgiving; we call this season, Advent. Though, you might not recognize it, for you cannot look around without seeing decorations telling you that it’s Christmas. You drive down any main street and can see Christmas lights lining the avenues, the stores are decorated for the season, there is the white noise of musak playing Christmas music in the background. Many churches start singing Christmas songs with the beginning of Advent. Yet Christmas doesn’t start until the birth of Christ, which we typically celebrate on Christmas Eve and the twelve days after.
We are in the season of Advent not the season of Christmas. Advent is a four week period where we contemplate the “coming” of Christ. It is a time of preparation, not a time of celebration. We take this time to work toward the stable that is found in the little hamlet of Bethlehem, so that when we greet the Christ child, we will be able within our hearts to play that drum, or sing songs that Herald Christ’s birth, and bring our gifts to this person who is restoring the world into God’s image.
Each week we light our advent candles. The first is called the "Candle of Hope." It symbolizes faith in God keeping his promises to humanity. The second is called the "Candle of Preparation," reminding Christians to "get ready" to receive God. The third candle, the "Candle of Love," reminds Christians that God loves them enough to send his only Son to Earth. The fourth candle is the "Candle of Joy." It recalls the angels joyfully singing about the birth of Christ. The "Christ Candle," the white candle in the center, stands for Jesus Christ himself.
In general, I enjoy this period of “advent” as well as the season of “lent” for these make me take time to think about the “why’s” in my life, more so than the rest of the church year. Yet, I always seem to have issues with the scriptures that are presented for the first Sunday of Advent, each year. The first Sunday of advent generally focuses on scripture which deals with the second coming of Christ. This gives most ministers the opportunity to talk about the end times, the retribution that God will give to those who do not believe, of Christ riding up on a white horse with hoards of angels at his side, cutting down all the bad people. Historically, I dislike these particular texts because it is in conflict with how I view Christ’s role in healing a broken world, as well as poor theology about who gets into God’s Kindom and who is left out. These texts have somehow become messages of the end. Yet, if the first candle of Advent is the candle of “Hope”, how does that represent the idea of the “end?”
Our text for today does present the reality that all of us experience at various times in our lives, the question of “why me?” There are people sitting here this morning hurting because of broken relationships, of abuse, of the feelings of isolation, or feeling inadequate because of a job loss. There are times in our lives where we just want the world to stop so we can get off, or that God will come and punish all those bad people who make life so unbearable. Like our ancestors in faith, we and all of humankind stand before God in “helplessness and need.” “Not only are we vulnerable to those forces that may destroy our happiness – indeed, our very existence – but there is little or, nothing we, when left to ourselves, are capable of doing about our precarious state.” Quote from James Newsome, Sermon Seeds, UCC 11/27/2011
Earlier this past week, I was reading the continuing saga of my youngest daughter’s blog which I think exemplifies the Advent message of today. She writes: I am trying to stay upbeat, despite the fact that Thanksgiving is around the corner and I know my new boys won't be home to celebrate with us. I honestly never thought this would happen. Last September when we started this process, I had no doubts the boys would be home by now.
My sister had her new baby (#5) on Wednesday morning. Bless her heart, labor started Saturday, but she now has a beautiful boy to show for it! I am excited, sad, and jealous all at the same time. My brother and his wife also had a little girl placed in their home (hopefully to adopt) as well as giving birth to another baby, and I am still waiting. I was officially 'expecting' before either of them. Don't get me wrong, I am so excited for two new nieces, and a new nephew! I am SO excited! I love my family and all my nieces and nephews (there are a bunch!), but I want my boys.

I broke down Sunday at church. I just couldn't take it. Friends of ours have friends who started their adoption (from another country) after us, and are bringing their 4 kids home today. Another friend is pregnant, there are like 6 new babies in our church - 5 of which are families in our Sunday school class. I am so excited for each and every family and each baby. I am happy for them, truly joyful, but that doesn't mean at the same time, I don't struggle. I am human, I am jealous, sad, angry, frustrated, happy, excited, all at the same time. We were talking to friends on Sunday and equated this adoption to a roller coaster. I LOVE roller coasters, but we have now been on this one so long, that I am nauseas. I am about to lose my lunch! All I want is to get off!!! It can't come soon enough. And, just when I think we are about to be done and get off, there is another drop or loop
I am confident in my God. I am confident He has a plan and His will is being lived out through this adoption. That is the comfort I hold on to. We are being given the opportunity to witness to others. To be a Christian example. We have already seen this. We have been asked about adoption by a few people in our church who are sincere, which is exciting. Because of the delays, more people in the church are becoming aware of our situation, and are now praying for us. Our prayer support has doubled, at least. It is exciting and a challenge to see others watching us. What an opportunity we have been given to live out the gospel! I hold on to the Father, and He is holding us! Therefore, we have joy!
The title of today’s reflection is “Waiting for the First Day.” Where my daughter Tara is concerned, she is waiting for the end of the adoption process. An end that means she will be able to physically have her two new sons at home with her. Yet, what is truly going to happen when this “roller coaster” ride ends, all of her waiting will have been for the first day of a new life. This is what we are doing at present with our faith. We are on a roller coaster that we call life, waiting for God to enter once again and repair what’s wrong with the world, shaping a new creation where grace, justice, and joy will be the norm.
Within this week’s reading in the Gospel of Mark, we are reminded of the paradoxes within the Gospels. The paradox that God has already entered into the world through the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, but also the “not yet” reality of God’s kindom here on earth is not completed. We are in a waiting period. We are living in the present kindom of God, yet working toward the completion of that kindom, that “first day” that God has planned. This waiting period is a time of preparation for us, where we can actively work to help usher in the completeness that God wishes for all of creation. Amen

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"A Great Thanksgiving", First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY, by Rev Steven R Mitchell

A Great Thanksgiving!
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 11/20/2011
Based on Ephesians 1:15-23

Each Monday Father Bob Spencer of the Episcopal Church, Rev Martha Atkins of the Mount of Olives Lutheran Church and me gather to do a Lectionary Bible Study. We spend several hours reading and discussing what the text is saying to each of us. Because of our seminary experience we use a variety of ways of looking at the text such as: the literary style, a cultural meaning, a historical context, and the use of language to name just a few. We also bring in personal understanding through our life experiences and explore the implications for our particular congregations as to how can the text relate.
Father Bob and I became mentors to Rev Martha while she was in seminary; to say the very least, we have been a challenge to some of Martha’s seminary training in how one explores scripture and approaches ministry. This week's reading in Ephesians seemed to capture all three of our hearts and imagination, however, Fr. Bob and I seemed to have difficulty with parts of our translations and the way they were reading. We felt that the translations we had before us, just didn’t communicate the meaning as effectively as it could, so we started altering words within the text, in an attempt to express our understanding of what the Apostle Paul was trying to say.
You should have seen Martha’s look of horror as we reworked words such as “Lord” to “Brother” and changing phrases like, “the Father of glory ” to “ the Creator of All.” I think Martha is wondering if she is studying with a couple of heretics. Yet, later in the day, I found in Eugene Peterson’s translation “The Message” a version that best expresses what Fr. Bob and I think Paul would say to the twenty-first century ear. So, maybe Fr. Bob and I are not so far off base after all.
This coming week we will be celebrating “Thanksgiving Day”, a day where as a nation, we have set aside to contemplate the many gifts that we have enjoyed throughout this past year. On the Wednesday evening before, we will have the opportunity to gather with others at The Holy Communion Episcopal Church to remember the gifts that we receive, celebrating through a number of faiths represented by: the Baha’i faith, The Mormons, the Jewish faith, The Muslim Faith, and various Christian Churches, all who are a part of the larger family of Rock Springs, WY. We are able to do this because it is a Holiday that is not attached with anyone religious connection. It is truly a servie,where all faiths that look to God can gather together and celebrate. It allows us to be larger than what we are and gain a glimpse of the immenseness of God.
Paul writes of his joy to the Ephesians by saying: 15-19That's why, when I heard of the solid trust you have in the Master Jesus and your outpouring of love to all the followers of Jesus, I couldn't stop thanking God for you—every time I prayed, I'd think of you and give thanks. When you pray, I hope that this church family comes to your mind and that like Paul you are able to pray for this family of faith, thanking God for everyone, I mean everyone, in this congregation and for what is accomplished by our coming together. Giving prayers of support to each other when we are in need. Of thanking God for the physical help that we provide when people are in need and helped through the concern of our faith community, and of the social support we provide to anyone who wishes.
Paul continues saying: But I do more than thank. I ask—ask the God of our Master, Jesus Christ, the God of glory—to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing Christ personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, and grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for his followers, oh, the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him—endless energy, boundless strength!
This is my daily prayer for this community of faith, that God continue to provide ways of helping us grow intellectually and with discernment of knowing the love that God has for all of creation and to grasp the immensity of this glorious way of living, of the utter extravagance of God’s work in each of us! I cannot think of a greater prayer of “thanksgiving” than when we pray for one another and uphold each other’s journey of faith, where we continue to grow and become “awed” in the extravagance of God’s work that is in each one of us.
This Fall, there has been a group coming together weekly in the evenings studying the writings of Rev Rob Bell as presented in the book Love Wins, which speaks to what Paul is saying to the Ephesians and to us this morning. I would like to share some of these thoughts as a way of strengthening our resolve to continually recognize the extravagance of God’s work. Rev Bell writes: There is a mystery, something hidden in God, something that has existed and is true and is present with, and in, God since before time, and that mystery is a someone…Christ Jesus. As obvious as it is, then, Jesus is bigger than any one religion.
He didn’t come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day. He will always transcend whatever cages and labels that are created to contain and name him, especially the one called “Christianity.”
Within this proper, larger understanding of just what the Jesus story even is, we see that Jesus himself, again and again, demonstrates how seriously he takes his role in saving and rescuing and redeeming not just everything, but everybody. He says in John 12, “and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He is sure, confident, and set on this. All people, to himself. Jesus takes this very personally. He is willing to die for this, “for the life of the world.” Jesus is supracultural. He is present within all cultures, and yet outside of all cultures. He is for all people, and yet he refuses to be co-opted or owned by any one culture.
That includes any Christian culture. Any denomination. Any church. Any theological system. We can point to him, name him, follow him, discuss him, honor him, and believe in him – but we cannot claim him to be ours any more than he’s anyone else’s. Rob Bell, Love Wins, pg 150-152
I cannot think of anything greater to give thanks for this coming Thanksgiving, than the gift that God has given to us through the love and death that came through Jesus Christ, of God’s love for all of creation and for all of humanity.
As we gather on Thursday, November 24th, let each of us take some time out and thank God for not only the blessings that we have received throughout this year, but also thank God for the love that is shown through Jesus Christ, and that we commit ourselves to continue to teach, to act out, and to grow in this mystery that God has given to us, and for the utter extravagance of his work in us! Amen

Monday, November 14, 2011

Life's Greatest Risk, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY by Rev Steven R Mitchell

Life’s Greatest Risk…
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 11/13/2011
Based on Matthew 25:14-30

We are in the second of three parables being told by Jesus in private to his Disciples. Jesus has already made his grand entry into Jerusalem, creating a major disturbance in the temple by turning over the tables of the money changers, and created a number of enemies with the religious community and knows he is nearing the end of his life. It is only two days before the celebration of Passover and Jesus’ mind is thinking about the possibility of being killed.
The first parable in this trilogy was about ten bridesmaids, five of who are called wise, for they brought extra oil to burn, and five are called foolish because they did not prepare beyond the immediate need. The bridesmaids who had extra oil did not share and once the doors to the house were closed, those who had left to go get more oil upon returning were not allowed entrance. To add insult to injury, the Bridegroom turns them away saying, “He doesn’t know who they are.”
Matthew is writing to a church that is dealing in the reality that Jesus has not returned in the way in which they were expecting him to return. Much time has passed, since Jesus’ death and resurrection, yet much like the expectations of how the coming of the Messiah was to look, compared to what the religious community sees in the person of Jesus, the churches understanding of how Jesus’ return would look like, has also been misunderstood; and the church is still anxiously awaiting Christ’s return, as can be seen in movies and books such as the “Left Behind” series, or of this year’s prediction of the “end times” this past June and then recalculated for this past October. Some are uneasy with the idea of the Mayan Calendar ending in December of 2012 as possibly predicting the end of the age.
For those of you who are interested in what I had to say about last week’s parable of the ten bridesmaids, you can find copies of the sermon on the table out in the Narthex. The focus on that parable by my understanding deals with preparing for the “delay of Christ’s return?” In other words,”what is the churches job during the interim period before Christ returns?”
As we continue with this week’s parable, we read about a master who decides to leave on a long trip, but before leaving entrusts varying amounts of his wealth to his three servants, each according to their abilities. I think it important to note that the master, in giving this money to these servants, did so without giving any instruction as to what he is expecting in results from them.
The lesson in this story isn’t really found in the two servants who multiplied what they had been entrusted with, rather, the meat of our lesson is found in the actions or lack thereof, of the servant that was given only one talent. What would you do if your employer came to you and said, “I going away for awhile, and while I’m gone I want you to hold this money for me. The amount is going to be equal to fifteen years of your salary.” That is what one talent in Jesus’ time would be equal to. What would you do with fifteen years of your salary just handed over to you, above what you would normally be earning for your normal work? Would you take it and use it for yourself? Would you invest it in a bank and earn interest on it? Or would you take it and play the stock market. Or would you be more conservative and buy mutual’s which spread the risk over a wider portion of stocks and bonds?
Statistics have shown that when people win millions of dollars through the state lotteries, it isn’t long before the majority have run through their winnings and find themselves in the same financial situation they were in prior to winning. It might have been beneficial if these folks would have gone to an Actuary for advice on what to do with their new found fortunes.
This parable is often used to speak about stewardship, since the example that Jesus is using is that of money. Yet why would Jesus be so concerned about the stewardship of money with his believing that his ministry was coming to an end in just a few days? Also, this conversation is between Jesus and his disciples and was not being discussed in large group gatherings. This leads me to believe that there is another concern that is on Jesus’ mind that goes far deeper than that of finances. The use of the example of money is ideal, for scripture tells us, “where lays our money, there lays our heart.”
So the question arises, why did the third servant not invest what was entrusted to him as did the other two servants? I think the key to that question is found in verse 25, “… I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground.” The servant didn’t embezzle or squander his master’s money, he simply buried it. This person was immobilized by his fear of what he perceives his master would do to him should he fail and lose the talent entrusted to him.
For Jesus, I think His concern for the disciples was, “once he is gone, how would they live their lives?” This would be consistent with the previous parable of the ten Bridesmaids as well with next week’s parable of the “sheep and goats”. Think about the potential that comes in a new born child. As this child grows and develops, how will this child use its potential? Will this child take what has been given to them and work toward developing their abilities, by taking risks, which will most certainly include failing at some things, or will they play it safe and not take those risks, which ultimately does not tap that potentiality, thus is wasting what is available?
Churches today have to face this same situation. Do we, as a church invest our potential, or do we want to play it safe? One example is Mount of Olives Lutheran. They were in a financial situation that would only allow them to hire a part-time minister at best. They could have played it safe and done just that, but instead they invested their hopes into a member of their congregation who they saw potential as a minister, putting her through seminary, training her for a lifelong work in ministry, knowing that they will someday say “good-bye” as she moves on in her ministry. Through this step in faith they are seeing growth with young families and the probability of the churches ability for “sustainable ministry”. In the Harry Potter series, the muggles are constantly being referred to as people who are living below their potential, much like the third servant was accused of.
What Jesus is trying to say in this parable, is to not let our fears rule how we live. He risked everything to speak about God’s hopes for the creation that God has made. The churches one reason for existence is to take that risk as well. We are living in a world that judge’s success in terms of money. God judges success by what we do with our potential. What is our potential? What have we been given to use to grow as a person? What is the potential of First Congregational? Are we willing to act on our potential and “risk” or are we going to be like the servant that buried his potential, afraid of failing, and this fear ultimately become self-fulfilling? Life’s greatest risk isn’t in doing something, it is in doing nothing. Amen

Friday, November 4, 2011

He'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain, for St. Paul's Presbyterian Church, Aurora, CO, by Rev Steven R Mitchell

He’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Guest Speaker at St Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Aurora, CO
Based on Matthew 25:1-13 & Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16

One of the first songs that I can recall learning in grade school was a song about some woman coming around a mountain, driving a bunch of horses, then when she arrives someone is going to cook up a pot of chicken and noodles. Growing up on the Plaines of Kansas, at the age of six, I had no concept of what a mountain was, I saw horses as huge animals that snort at you and potentially dangerous should they step on me, and why did that rooster have to be killed? In short, I had no clue as to what the song meant other than “she” would be coming and in pink pajamas no less, yet it had a catchy tune and I enjoyed singing it. Only years later did I learn that the woman was an actual person, Mary Harris Jones, a union organizer going to promote formation of labor unions in the Appalachian coal mining camps.
The tune of this song was taken from a Negro Spiritual titled: When the Chariot Comes. This song refers to the second coming of Christ and subsequent rapture. The “she” refers to the chariot that Christ would be arriving in. The words to this song are:
O, who will drive the chariot, when she comes?
King Jesus, he'll be driver when she comes, when she comes…
She'll be loaded with bright Angels, when she comes…
She will take us to the portals, when she comes!
In this morning’s Gospel, Matthew is sharing with us a part of a discussion that Jesus is having with his Disciples. Jesus has already made his grand entry into Jerusalem, creating a major disturbance in the temple by turning over the tables of the money changers, and created a number of enemies with the religious community and knows he is nearing the end of his life. It is only two days before the celebration of Passover and Jesus’ mind is thinking about the possibility of being killed.
Jesus began his ministry speaking to a large crowd with what we now call, The Sermon on the Mount, speaking of how blessed are those who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on. Now at the end of his ministry he is having a private dialogue with his disciples about the end times, starting in chapter 24 talking about such things as:“signs of the close of the age”, of the “destruction of Jerusalem” and of the “coming of the son of man.” Then at the beginning of chapter 25 we read, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this, ‘the bridegroom was delayed’.”
This parable is one of those that seem to go against what we who would like to be a part of the “blessed for we hunger and thirst to do social justice and help those in need”. How can justice, and mercy for that matter, coincide with Jesus using an example of some of the bridesmaids who have extra oil not sharing it with those bridesmaids who are running low? Even more perplexing at the end, the doors are shut, not allowing the five bridesmaids entrance upon their return and the bridegroom (which represents Christ) turning them away, saying he doesn’t know them? The main battle cry within the United Church of Christ states without hesitation: “Jesus never turned anyone away and neither do we.”
I really didn’t want to deal with this parable, because on the surface this story goes against my sensibility as to how I understand what the ministry of Jesus was about. How do I reconcile the unwillingness to share what I have with those in need? How can I turn away people who are standing outside of my door? What was Jesus thinking when he told this story? Why did Matthew include a story that seems so opposite to Christ like behavior?
I have to remember that the purpose of a parable is not to give a factual account of a story, but rather is a story designed to make me think, and has multiple layers. The story is very bold in stating the concept of “being prepared”, but being prepared for what? This Gospel was written many years after Jesus had been crucified and the early church had been anticipating Christ’s return. Matthew then was writing to a church that had to come to grips with the reality that Jesus had not yet returned as they had envisioned and that their mission was to wait expectantly and in the meantime live faithfully, courageously, and in hopefulness. It has been two thousand years and the church is still awaiting Christ’s return. We have lived this year alone through two predictions of the end of the world and are awaiting another date of doom in December 2012 as the Mayan calendar ends. Yet Jesus states that no one will know the time or place.
The parable appears to speak about being prepared for Christ's coming, but what the parable speaks to being prepared for Christ’s delay? Would this not possibly change our behavior, change how we prepare? During Jesus’ ministry, he constantly told us that the “kingdom of God is among us, here and now”. But how can God’s kingdom be among us with so much suffering, neediness, loneliness, hatred, and dispare?
Rev Rob Bell, in his newest book, “Love Wins”, proposes that part of the confusion with our concept of ‘heaven’ as used in scripture comes with our not understanding that the writers substituted the word ‘God’ with the word ‘heaven’ because to use the word ‘God’ was forbidden. Rev Bell further states: sometimes when Jesus spoke of heaven, he was referring to the future coming together of heaven and earth in what he and his contemporaries called life in the age to come. Jesus also talked about heaven, as our present eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life. For Jesus, eternal life is less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more about a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God. Love Wins, pg 58-59
A second issue that I have with this story is why didn’t the five bridesmaids with extra oil not share with the other’s who didn’t? If we think of the oil as the metaphor for virtues such as faith, good works, practices and spiritual reserves, these are personal attributes that cannot be given away to someone else. I as a person can present to you advice on a topic but I cannot physically transfer my experience to you. You have to create that actual experience for yourself. How I experience God is something that I cannot give to anyone, I can however, share how I have experienced God with you, but you will not experience God, except through your own actions.
Finally, comes the “closing of the door” part of the text. How do I, who doesn’t want to see anyone excluded understand this? The reality is, there is a time when opportunity closes its door. When we chose to put off today for tomorrow, we can run the risk of not having the opportunity to do what we put off.
As I grew into my teenage years, the relationship between my father and me deteriorated to a point that as a young man with a family I had stopped communicating with my dad. His behavior toward me had been extremely abusive, which came from his disease of alcoholism. I therefore shut the door to that abuse by not communicating with him, always praying that some day he would sober up and come and make amends with me. Over time, he did go through treatment and achieved sobriety, but he never came to make amends. I realized that he did not have the tools that he needed in order to start the rebuilding of our broken relationship. Through my educational journey, I had developed those needed skills and decided to be the one to approach the repairing of our relationship. We had only two years of working on this, as my father suddenly died, due to years of abuse to his body by alcohol.
I use this story to tie together, my understanding of this parable with the message to the church. We should expect Christ to be delayed. He hasn’t come in the past two thousand years, and the odds are, he won’t come back anytime soon. This parable asks us to live in hope for what has been promised and what will be but hasn't yet happened. It reminds us that knowledge, faith, and love are tools for living in this time, before eternity comes. The temptation for ‘waiting’ for Christ’s eminent return is to not be actively living Jesus’ teachings, ministering to a world that has forgotten the love and promise of hope that God gives us all. “He’ll be coming around the mountain”, there’s no question about that. The question will be, “how will we be waiting? Are we preparing for Christ’s return or for his delay? Amen