Sunday, December 11, 2011

Who Are You, Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO, by Rev Steven R Mitchell, 12/11/2011

Who Are You?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United Church, Aurora, Co
Based on Isaiah 61:1-4 & John 1:19-28

We are starting the third week in Advent, which means we are half way to the time when we will celebrate the birth of Jesus, or more importantly for some of us, we have only a couple of more weeks till we get to open presents! In just eleven days we will once again experience the Winter Solstices, the longest night of the year. For those of us who prefer longer days and shorter nights, this time of the year can become very depressing for us.
For twenty-five years I lived in the Pacific Northwest, and was amazed at the length of the days in the summer, where bright twilight was common up to 10:30 p.m. The flip side to that is a realization that by mid August the days are shortening, and when “daylight savings” ends, there is a reality that darkness is rapidly increasing. In fact, come mid-October, you rarely see the sun until mid February.
Darkness often times is accompanied by a kind of sadness. For many it is a time of uneasiness, a time of possible danger, at the very least, a time of uncertainty. We equate darkness as a playground for misfortune, evil deeds, and vulnerability. In the movies, it is a time filled with vampires, zombies, and creatures that live beneath the ground.
Scripture also uses the contrast between darkness and light to describe moral situations. In the November 29th publication of The Christian Century, under the section of Faith Matters, Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “Biblically speaking, darkness is the pits. In the first testament, light stands for life and darkness for death. When God is angry with people, they are plunged into darkness. People grope in the dark without light….
In the second testament, light stands for knowledge and darkness for ignorance. When the true light comes into the world, the world does not know him. Jesus has come so that everyone who believes in him should not remain in the darkness…. First John sums it up: ‘God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” Or more succinctly stated on a Chattahoochee Baptist Church sign, “If you cut God’s light off, you’ll be sitting in the dark with the devil.”Redeeming Darkness, by Barbara Taylor pg 37
Advent is that sort of darkness that we live in until the birth of Jesus. We often use Isaiah as the primary book of reflection because of its understanding of being held captive, then the joy of freedom. As a book, Isaiah is split up into three major sections. The first speaks to the despair, the hopelessness of being held in captivity. The second part of the book, speaks about the hope, the joy of returning home, back to that place that God had given to them. In the last part of the book, there comes a realization that in the home coming, there has to be a rebuilding, for what had once been, no longer exists. Often times despair accompanies that realization; yet, Isaiah gives a message of “hope” as Israel looks to a time when all will be restored. This restoration has come to be understood through a little baby born in Bethlehem, whose name is Jesus.
Continuing on the thought of Barbara Taylor, she challenges the idea of darkness as “sitting with the devil.” As Christians, we measure time differently from the dominant culture in which we live. We begin our year when the days are getting darker, not lighter. We trust that the seeds of light are planted in darkness, where they sprout and grow we know not how. This darkness is necessary to new life, even when it is uncomfortable and goes on too long. The Christian Century, Nov 29, 2011, pg 37
In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, we read where the dominant culture has come out beyond the river Jordan, to inquire of John the Baptizer, asking “who are you?” This man was nothing like the dominant culture. When I read about John’s demeanor, I envision a thin man with hair pulled back in a pony-tail, dressed in holie jeans, a t-shirt that says something like: “It’s not about me”. A kind of David Popham type! John didn’t even have a church to preach in, and he used the local river to conduct his revival meetings.
On this third Sunday of Advent, the question, “Who are you” is a very valid question. It is valid because of my presence this morning. Outside of the short bio sent out to you a couple of weeks ago, I am a person unknown to most of you, standing here as a candidate seeking to become your next settled pastor. Although I am not wearing worn-out jeans or a t-shirt that says, “It’s not about me”, in a real sense, it is about me. Like John I do not represent the dominate portion of society in some ways, and like John the baptizer I understand what the dominant society is searching for, but seems to be stumbling around in a kind of darkness, not being able to discern what it is they most desire; a reconnection with the one who is the author of all that is.
Today’s reading of Isaiah 61: 1-4 is most appropriate for me, because it was what I used at my ordination service. It is the basis of my understanding of what being a minister is about. It is the foundation that I see as the church’s purpose, as it works to share the Good News of God to a creation that is walking around in a dark haze; in a kind of Matrix that has hidden the love and light that God has for all of creation.
We live in a society where people are less connected to a church than two generations ago. Today, Christians and churches are looked upon in wonderment by most of the un-churched world and wonder what is wrong with us, asking, “why we seen to hide in a world that isn’t real?” They look at us and ask, “Who are you?” I find many churches cannot answer that question with clarity. John was asked by his contemporizes, “are you a prophet?” No. Are you Elijah? No. Are you the Messiah? No. Then who are you? John’s reply was, “I am a voice in the wilderness, making straight the path for the Lord.”
Is the church supposed to be the savior of the world? No, that is God’s job. We are “the voice in the wilderness crying out”, and we are supposed to be making a path straight for the one greater than us to come. So how do we do this? What do we cry and how do we make the path level? What we cry and how we make this path, is by taking on the ministry that Jesus proclaimed at the beginning of his ministry. “… The LORD has anointed us to proclaim good news to the poor. God has sent us to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. We will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of God’s splendor. 4 We will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; we will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.”
Well pastor, “How will this happen?” “What bright idea’s, pastor will you be bringing if you come here?” “What kinds of programs will we undertaking to achieve these things?” I can’t tell you right now, for this is a journey that has to be taken in partnership; in partnership with one another and with God, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But before we can successfully take that journey, we need to be able to answer that question of “Who are you.”
A part of that answer is: you are a family of faith, united through three denominations that have a proud history in sharing the love of God. You are a voice in the wilderness, that cry’s out the restoration that comes through Christ and His teachings. Do you have all the answers? I hope not. Do you struggle with the questions and the how’s? I hope so. For it is in that struggle that God’s love is birthed; this struggle, this journey is the Advent that we celebrate. Amen

Sunday, December 4, 2011

What Shall We Cry?, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 12/04/2011

What Shall We Cry?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 12/04/2011
Based on Isaiah 40:6-11 and Mark 1:1-8

This week is the second week of Advent. Last week we discussed the news of the return of Christ not as the end of time, but rather as a beginning of a new understanding of living in God’s presence. The scriptures that we are looking at this week are now talking about “preparing the way” for the coming of God’s representative, of who we have come to understand as Jesus of Nazareth, through the person of John the Baptizer. We have experienced this morning a prophet coming down our aisle proclaiming that message from Isaiah as one in the wilderness crying out “make straight the path. Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Mark begins his Gospel with these words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah…” Mark is telling us that the arrival of Jesus was not a last minute event, a hasty decision by God to send his son, because the world wasn’t listening to previous prophets that spoke the word of God, rather Mark is telling us right from the beginning that God has been planning this event for a long time.
As we begin this second week of Advent, we also come before the Communion Table, where we will experience once again the act of remembering the Christ, of the selfless act in love of giving up his life so that we might enjoy a fuller communion with God. We come before this table after confessing our sins and being assured of our continuing relationship with God. Isaiah begins with the statement: “Comfort, O comfort my people, Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid…” This is the good news that God has shared from the beginning of time and was shared with the birth of Jesus, and is still being shared with us today. As far as God is concerned there is no more penalty held against us and we are able to come together at this table as debt-free people.
One of the temptations that can happen in reading about the one “preparing the way” is to assign that “voice in the wilderness” to someone other than ourselves. John the baptizer is the most famous voice, coming out of the wilderness, calling for repentance of sin. He declares himself as a person who is preparing the way for one who is greater than he; he is preparing the path for what Jesus’ ministry was going to be.
As your transitional pastor, I too am in many respects a voice like John the baptizer, preparing the way for your next called minister. But this scripture isn’t just for ministers; it is also for each congregation that calls itself a community of faith, based on Jesus’ teachings. The church is called to be the “voice in the wilderness.” Yet what is this voice suppose to be saying?
At times I find it helpful in substituting names and places that I am familiar with, into scripture as a way of making it more powerful. Hear how Isaiah speaks to us more directly with a few substitutions as he responds to God’s request to comfort God’s people. A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever. Get you up to White Mountain, First Congregational, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, Rock Springs, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Wyoming, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might…
So we as Disciples of Christ are called to speak out the Good News of God. Yet what does that news look like? Isaiah says, “God will feed his flock like a shepherd.” This speaks about God providing for the physical needs of the world. We as the voice in the wilderness, need to speak up for affordable housing for those who earn minimum wage, we are to be concerned about issues such as adequate health care for all people. We are to help the poor, care for the widows and orphans, to be peace makers, to be people who build and renovate, and to feed those who are hungry.
Isaiah points out a second aspect of what God does, “God will gather the lambs in her arms and carry them in her bosom.” This speaks about the spiritual nurture that we receive from God. We are to speak out about the concern that God has for all of creation, in ways that people who have been disenfranchised can once again believe in and take heart and know also that God truly loves them. We are to be the voice of respect in a wilderness that works hard at striping people’s dignity away, a voice of care and love in a world that tells people - they are not worthy of the gifts of God, we are to be the voice of encouragement in a world that likes to kick people when they are down. This is how we let people know that God carries them in her bosom.
The third and last point Isaiah shares in “what shall we cry”, comes in his statement, “and gently leads the mother sheep.” God provides guidance, and we find that guidance with the help of the Holy Spirit. These are the messages that as a body of faith, as the voices in the wilderness should be crying out. We are not called to be timid and quiet, but rather be like John the baptizer, calling into account the actions of those who do wrong, demanding that they repent for their hard-heartedness, of their injustice toward those who are not as strong as they. We are not called to live in a cocoon of comfort, but seek comfort for those who are being marginalized by society’s obsession for self fulfillment and self-edification.
As we meditate upon these readings during this second week of Advent, let us remember, we are the voice in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. Amen