Saturday, January 28, 2012

Celebrating God!, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY, 1/29/2012 by Rev Steven R MItchell

Celebrating God!
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 1/29/2012
Based on Psalm 111
(Last sermon as Transitional Pastor)

Worship consists of a wide and varied spectrum, ranging from music, to readings, time for reflection, opportunities for confession and re-assurance of God’s love, space for prayer, for welcoming into the community new life through baptism, a time for social affirmation of old and new friends. Worship is celebrating God in our lives!
The psalmist gives us reasons as to “why” we should come and celebrate God. We celebrate God because of the works that God has done. We celebrate God because God is righteous, gracious, and merciful! God provides for our basic needs and never forgets the covenant made with all of creation. All we have to do is look around us and we see the power of God’s work. In our deepest times of despair, God is with us, walking along side, sometimes in Spirit, other times physically through friends and family.
This is my last Sunday to celebrate God with you as your Transitional Pastor. Some are celebrating my departure I am sure, but for many, this seems like a time in which “celebrating God” is difficult. Difficult because “good-byes” are not generally easy, especially when a deep bond has developed. For twenty-nine months, we have prayed together, sang together, come to Christ’s table together. You have sat week after week listening to my reflections of scripture, and what a great privilege it has been to stand at this pulpit, sharing with you my understanding of God’s word.
When I first met the search committee charged to find the transitional minister, we had some very frank discussions as to the situation that First Congregational had found itself. Upon arriving, the mood of the congregation was one of heaviness, deep concerns, of pain, whispers of wondering if there was a future or would the doors be closing. There was concern that a gay pastor was being hired. “What would the church look like with him? Will people be turned off and not come?” And in truth, there were some people who stopped coming because I offend their perceptions about human sexuality. The mood during worship was one of low morale, possibly the lowest this church has seen in many years.
That was twenty-nine months ago. Today, we are a community of faith who has experienced the transformation that comes when we really do let God work through us! The energy that is in this room on any given Sunday is one of excitement. As an example, one Sunday Mark Kurtz came up to me after worship and confided that he was surprised at how few we had in attendance that morning, because it felt like there were at least another twenty or so. I responded by saying, “it is the energy, the excitement that he was feeling, which makes us seem larger than what the numbers actually were.” You see, our spirits have expanded faster than our physical growth.
If one of the pieces of worship is to “celebrate God”, then what do we have to celebrate this morning? One reason for celebration is for the positive energy that we receive when we are in worship. Not only do we feel good for being here, but this feeling makes it easier to roll out of bed on Sunday mornings and look forward in coming to church. During worship, we are able to forget about the differences that we might have with a fellow member and truly find the opportunity to focus on the act of worshipping. Visitors who come, feel this energy as well and are more prone to return.
I have seen a number of you grow in your spiritual hunger and growth. We have had the opportunities to discuss some very deep personal questions about life, even discuss and learn how others see God, heaven, community, and spirituality and how all of that ties together with a person’s own experience. As a congregation, we have been working on bringing God and the outside world together, realizing that when we enter the doors to this sanctuary, we do not check our problems, our lives at the door, but intergrate the two together. As Thomas Parker, Theology Emeritus of McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, Ill., “To live as if there were no God is to live in a space too small for our souls to grow and flourish. It really is all about cultivating a sense of the presence of God.” God is not just in this sanctuary, but is in our living rooms, at our work, even at a Wyoming Cowboys game.
We have seen a solid steady increase in attendance in Worship, from the lower 30’s in the Spring and Summer of 2009, to numbers in the 80’s through most of this last November and December topping out at 99 on December 18. There is a strong commitment to the educational program which didn’t exist two years ago. I hear less and less comments like, “let someone else do it, I’ve done my bit.” There is a solid group who likes to meet on Sunday evenings for Spiritual studies.
Is there room for growth and more things to happen? Of course there is. There should never be a sense that “we have arrived”, for if we have, then there is no future. The greatest joy that I celebrate this morning is the sense that ministry is happening here. We should “thank God” for what has been accomplished in such a short amount of time. Take just a moment and reflect on all the changes that have happened over these past twenty-nine months, with just a Transitional pastor. Now imagine all of the wonderful possibilities that can happen with your next settled pastor. You have the people, you have the momentum, you have the Spirit, and you have God standing ready to guide you into the next level of ministry. A ministry that has yet to be defined, but I am confident that God will reveal it to you as you faithfully work at presenting God’s love to Rock Springs. Remember, your ministry isn’t for this congregation; this congregation is for the ministry to Rock Springs.
Let me close with what I “celebration to God” this morning. I celebrate God for the existence of First Congregational, as a specific faith community. Many of you constantly comment on what you feel I have brought to you, but the truth is, you have given me more than I have given to you. You have not just allowed me to serve you as pastor, but you have allowed me into your lives, a space that is so very sacred. You have let me stand beside you at the hospital. I have buried you, married you, baptized you, confirmed you, and eaten at God’s table with you. You have shared your hopes, your pains, your losses, your fears, and your joys with me. We have prayed together, laughed together, and cried together. Your pain has been my pain, your rejoicing has been my rejoicing.
I celebrate God, because I have watched a group of faithful believers grow in strength, in confidence, in hope, and in spiritual wisdom. You invited me in and allowed me to show you my understanding of God’s love, of God’s forgiveness, and of God’s inclusiveness. You have given me freedom to develop worship experiences that pushed the envelope of traditional styles. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t, but the important thing was, the willingness to explore. “The essential structure of God’s gathered people is to be an unfolding narrative, rather than a rigid institutional system.” Anne H.K. Apple, Feasting on the Word. Pg 300 yr B, vol1
I celebrate God, because I see a congregation that is living out the end of Psalm 111, “The reverence and awe of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.” Let us all continue to develop in reverence and awe of the Lord. Let us all “celebrate God” each day of our lives! Amen

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Second Chances, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 1/22/2012, by Rev Steven R Mitchell

Second Chances
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 1/22/2012
Based on Jonah 3: 1-5, 10 & Mark 1:14-20

“Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time…” Have you ever done something that was really wrong and wished that you hadn’t? Said something to someone and wished you could take it back, because what you said destroyed instead of build up? Or made a decision years ago and wondered what your life might be like if you had made a different choice?
In the classic movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, the main character George Bailey had his life all planned out for himself. He was going to go off and see the world after graduating from High School, then attend college and graduate with an architectural degree, then design building. There wasn’t going to be anything or anyone who was going to get in his way of achieving the goals he had for himself.
No body or anything, except life. At each important cross road in his life, George had to make a decision that challenged his dreams. As a young boy he lost the hearing in his right ear because he saved his younger brother from drowning in an icy pond. In Junior High, George was physically beaten by his boss, the druggist, for not delivering medicine to a family; medicine that the druggist, who in a distraught state of mind over the death of his own son had mistakenly added poison to the prescription. George had no plans of falling in love with the beautiful Donna Reid, but ended up marrying her and together they had four children. On his wedding day, George spent all his savings to stop a run on the family savings and loan at the beginning of the depression. George gave up his dream of adventure and becoming an architect when he took over the leadership of the family business, a business he hated in order to give an option to the citizens of Bedford Falls in doing business, so they would not be held captive to the evil Mr. Potter.
All of George’s life, the decisions that he was asked to make, seemed to always benefit others but never fulfilled his own dreams. George’s greatest challenge comes when his Uncle Billy misplaces the company’s deposits. For George, this meant scandal, financial ruin for the company, and prison for himself. He finds himself, standing on the edge of life, ready to jump off a bridge to end his life, for he felt that he was a failure; all of his decisions came to no good end. At this point in George’s life, God intervenes by sending down an angel who needs to earn his wings named Clarence.
George, true to his nature puts off killing himself to save the drowning Clarence. As the two are drying off next to a fire, George wishes he had never been born. With the help of Clarence, George is given a second chance; a chance to see what life would be if he had never been born. Since George wasn’t around to save his younger brothers life, his brother wasn’t able to save the lives of a thousand soldiers on a transport vessel during WWII. The druggist went to jail, because George wasn’t there to prevent the mistaken prescription. The beautiful Donna Reid never married and had an unfulfilled life. There was no Bedford Falls, as the town was owned by the evil Mr. Potter and was named Pottersville. George then realizes just how precisions his life has been and begs for a second chance to continue to live the life that he had had.
The story of Jonah is a great story about the adventures of a prophet. It shows us more of the human side of a prophet’s life, one that helps us realize that even though one is called to be a prophet for God, one doesn’t always willing follow orders. With Jonah, he is told by God to go to Nineveh and tell them they have only forty days before they are destroyed. Jonah being the devoted prophet that he was turned and ran the other direction. Of course, this decision brought on particular calamities for a lot of other people. Like George Bailey, the actions of Jonah weigh heavily upon what happens to others.
Also like George Bailey, Jonah at several junctures of his life journey is asking God to take his life that it is just too unbearable to continue on. Then God answers by coming back to Jonah a second time, and once again telling Jonah to go to Nineveh. So with much fear in his heart, he travels into Nineveh and delivers the message that God told him to deliver. To his surprise, the Ninevehites hear the word and repent are spared by God.
There is a similar reaction to the word of God, found in the first chapter of Mark, as we see Jesus, walking up to Simon and Andrew, then coming upon James and John and saying, “come follow me, I will make you fishers of humanity.” Upon hearing this invitation, these four men changed course, changed careers.
The main focus in today’s lectionary readings asks us to ponder upon the suddenness to which we can change when God speaks to us. There is no indication by Marks writings that these four fishermen had any prior knowledge of Jesus and his mission, only that when Jesus asked them to drop what they were doing and in following him, they did just that. For the people of Nineveh, they were not even told that their destruction was going to be coming from God, or that by repenting there would be hope of survival. They just inherently knew that they needed to repent from their actions.
Sudden change! Second chances, this is what we are reading about today. Barbara Brown Taylor, professor of religion at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia writes: Much has been written about the response of the disciples who dropped everything to follow Jesus. Why did they do something so drastic, and how could they up-end their lives so dramatically, and would that really be a good thing for us to do, that is, if we could "manage" it?
Could we measure up to the standard of those disciples, and drop everything, too? We might wonder why and how those first four disciples could do such a thing, without even a stirring sermon from Jesus, or maybe a dramatic miracle, or better yet, the sky opening up and a voice announcing that this was God's own beloved, and that they should listen to him Such an incident would have provided some clear explanation for their sudden abandonment of everything to follow Jesus. What did they know, on that seashore that we don't know?

We're missing the point if we linger on such questions. This is a story about God, not the disciples or us. To focus on what the disciples gave up (and whether we could do the same), is "to put the accent on the wrong syllable." This "miracle story," is really about "the power of God - to walk right up to a quartet of fishermen and work a miracle, creating faith where there was no faith, creating disciples where there were none just a moment before." Now this way of approaching the story may, oddly, make us uncomfortable, especially in a culture that emphasizes our choices and independence, our ability to shape our lives and determine our destinies. We can do whatever needs to be done; it's within our power; we can fix and improve everything; we can take hold of the future and make it what we want it to be. In fact, we have to do it, in order to please God and get to heaven. The better we are, the more saintly and sacrificing we are, and the more likely we are to earn our salvation.
With this type of thinking, Taylor says: "What we may have lost along the way is a full sense of the power of God – to recruit people who have made terrible choices; to invade the most hapless lives and fill them with light; to sneak up on people who are thinking about lunch, not God, and smack them upside the head with glory". Whether we're ready or not, God acts. Sermon Seeds, 1/22/2012
There are major changes going on within our community of faith. We are looking for a settled pastor to lead us. We are facing a budget that calls for more money than what is currently committed. Do we truly believe that God has the power to lead us, like the fishermen did when Jesus said, drop your nets and follow me? Or do we act like Jonah, size up the request as being too expensive, too risky, falling back on the false sense of "prudent paths of action" and try to run away from doing what God is asking us to do? As Barbara Taylor says, "are we putting the accent on the wrong syllable", have we lost along the way the sense of the power of God?
We stand at the threshold of new choices, of second chances. Will we run from the challenges or will we take up the call of God? Amen

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Ears Tingling, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY, 1/15/2012, by Rev Steven R Mitchell

Ears Tingling
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 1/15/2012
Based on 1 Samuel 3:1-11 & John 1:43-51

“11 And the LORD said to Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle.” When I read this particular verse, I recall the movie, “The Music Man”, particularly the scenes where the women of the town are talking amongst themselves about the recent events concerning the newly arrived salesman, Professor Hill. As onlookers we are only privy to what they are saying through the song’s lyrics, “Pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little, Cheep cheep cheep, talk a lot, pick a little more.” Everyone’s ears in River City, Iowa were a tinglin’ with news about the extraordinary events that were happening since Professor Hill came upon the scene.
This morning’s scriptures are some of the most ear tingling selections of the lectionary readings for this year, as it explores the topic of hearing, listening, and responding to the calling of the Lord. We have three main characters, a small boy (Samuel) who represents those who do not yet know the Lord, an aging priest (Eli) who has served the Lord for many years, and (Nathanael) a man most likely in his mid to late twenties and is described as a man with no deceit.
In the story with Samuel and Eli, we have a young boy who has been given up by his mother, Hannah, to live a life of serving God in the temple located in the town of Shiloh. Samuel was an answer to prayers put forth by Hannah, who had for a number of years asked God to send her a child. As soon as Samuel was house broke, his mother presented him to the Priest Eli, so that Eli could mentor him in serving the Lord. In many respects that is what we celebrate this morning through the baptism of young Jason Martin. As a part of a much larger family of faith, we are an “Eli”, committing ourselves to help Jason grow up in the teachings of the church, helping him develop his relationship with God.
Eli, is described as growing in years, so much so, his eye sight was becoming dim. This could be just a description of the physical aspects of Eli, but I wonder if it is not also a metaphor for what was happening in Israel, as the beginning of this chapter starts off with the observation, “In those days the word of the LORD was rare.” We also read that Eli was not hearing the voice that Samuel was hearing that evening.
So here we have a seasoned man of faith and a newbie. Both are in the service of God; one who doesn’t seem to be able to hear God’s calling, the other, too new to recognize the calling of God. What an inspiration to us within the church, for are we not a group that also hosts a wide range of spiritual experiences! Here we have a young boy who is being called by God, “Samuel, Samuel”, but doesn’t recognize that it is God calling to him. Eli doesn’t hear this voice that Samuel is hearing but eventually recognizes that God must want to speak through Samuel. Neither are in a position to listen to God without the help of the other.
In contrast to this shared community, we live in a country that prides itself on “individualism”. We are taught to live on our own, make our own decisions, become the master of our fate; we are heavily influenced by the document we call, “The Declaration of Independence.” Yet, when we have big decisions to make within our lives, is it not prudent to seek out the opinions and advise of others? As Congregationalists, do we not believe in corporate decision making? As a part of our discernment process we not only look to scripture for guidance, but we as a denomination, as a congregation, also consider historical teachings of the church.
As a minister, I cannot tell you how often I hear people say in one form or another, “I don’t need the church to be spiritual”, or “I can be close to God out in the wilderness”. There is truth in what is said, you don’t need church to have a relationship with God. Yet, when and where do we generally take the time out within our busy lives in order to feed our spirituality? Where is it that we most frequently open our bibles and read from it, or be in conversation specifically dealing with the word of God? The majority of the time is in community, at church.
This leads me to the story with Nathanael. Here is a man described by Jesus as an Israelite who has no deceit. Yet, upon meeting Jesus, being introduced to Jesus by his own brother, Nathanael does not immediately recognized Jesus as being, “the one he has been waiting all his life to meet.” In fact, his first response upon being told that Jesus was from Nazareth was, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” What a slap in the face that must have been to Jesus. It would be similar to going up to a Muslim and saying, “How can you know the word of God, you are Muslim.”
Nathanael had a pre-conceived understanding that the “Messiah” was to come out of Bethlehem, out of the family of David, in other words, the long awaited King would come from a more prestigious setting than from a poverty stricken, no nothing town of Nazareth. A town that not only had a just few hundred inhabitants but was up north in the “other kingdom”, not coming from Judea where the prophets of old had said the Messiah would come from.
How often do we deny ourselves the joy of hearing God, of seeing miracles, because of pre-conceived ideas? Of the way it is suppose to happen? Of not being able to hear God, when God calls to us? That is a strong argument for a community of faith needing to meet regularly, to study together, to discuss what we read, and of sharing the experiences that we have, so that we can through collaboration hear what God is trying to say to us.
God is constantly trying to speak to us. God is calling “Samuel, Samuel” all the time. God comes to us every day, just as Jesus came up to Nathanael, but like Nathanael, our pre-conceived idea’s, our already made up minds on how things are suppose to look, we the opportunity of God speaking to us.
An unfortunate fact for a large portion of the church in our country is that we have forgotten that God speaks through many voices: through the voices of children, through the voices of the dis-enfranchised, voices that come through the arts and sciences, even through the voice of our environment. We need to be open enough to collaborate with all these differing voices in order for us to hear what God is trying to tell us.
I suppose the true question is, “Are we truly willing to open ourselves to listen to the calling of God?” Will we be able to say as did Samuel, “Here I am Lord. Speak for your servant is listening”? Let us be ready to have our ears tingle! Amen.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Remember Your Baptism, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY, 1/8/2012 by Rev Steven R Mitchell

Remember Your Baptism
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 1/8/2012
Based on Mark 1: 4-11

Last week we read about Jesus being presented at the temple for the ritual of purification, which was required in the Law of Moses. It was at the temple that Simeon and Anna, two individuals who were faithful in their commitment to God, finally received the fulfillment of God’s promise to them of being able to see the “hope” of Israel before they died. The theme of last week’s scripture focused on “vision” and living through that vision in hope, waiting for God’s timing.
This week, we are thrust forward many years, and we now see Jesus as a fully grown man, who is at the start of his ministry, a timely spot to start as we begin another new year within our own lives. In this morning’s story, we are told about this guy named John, coming from the dessert into the wilderness outside of the city of Jerusalem. This man was very unorthodox in his manor, he wore camel’s hair robes, was a vegan, and said, “Repent from your sins and be baptized in water.”
Take just a minute and think about how we, who live out our faith within the walls of the “established church” {of who we will call “Main-line denominations” such as the Episcopal, the Lutherans, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the American Baptists, the United Church of Christ}, would react to a guy who just hit town and started holding prayer meetings down in the Bitter Creek River bed. The guy is wearing sandals, wearing blue jeans, a polo shirt, has a shaved head, and is speaking at the top of his lungs like a used car salesman, telling people that they need to repent from their sins, follow a new path and leave the old behind. Funny thing is, thousands of people in Rock Springs are hearing about this, wondering out to where he is at and for some reason are buying into what this guys is saying, being baptized in the dirty waters of Bitter Creek and having changed lives. This guys church is growing in leaps and bounds, reaching out to all sorts of people, that we in the “main-line” denominational churches, those established institutions, have never been able to reach. What would be our first reactions to all this, when we out of curiosity, go out to see for ourselves, what is going on, to see what is being said to bring such a change to the general population? Would we rejoice in what we observe? Or would we grumble and try to discount the validity of what these people are experiencing? My guess is that as part of the established religious groups in town, we would have the latter reaction to what this up start preacher was doing.
What we are reading in this first chapter of Mark is a revolutionary event going on. The whole description about John the Baptizer puts him as the outsider of the establishment. (The Joe Blow, down at Bitter Creek baptizing people.) His location alone – is announcing that God can live outside of the temple, that Jerusalem is not the only place that faith is acted out. John was telling a population that was spiritually hungry that there was something more that was needed beyond being a Hebrew, a biological part of father Abraham, that just because you are a descendant of Abraham, you are not necessarily living in the spiritual path that God is hoping for.
The need to repent, which tends to be more associated with the season of Lent, is brought up at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. When we hear this word, we tend to think about the turning away from sin, or sinful acts. The word for us, tends to mean, “Being sorry, or remorseful, or even penitent”, but there is a deeper meaning within Jesus’ Judaism. Repent, is more closely associated with the idea of returning from exile; ‘to repent is to return, to follow ‘the way of the Lord’ that leads from exile to the Promised Land.” The Greek roots of the word suggest an additional meaning; to repent is to 'go beyond the mind that you have' - to go beyond conventional understandings of what life with God is about" (Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary).
When we read that Jesus also came out to the river Jordan and was baptized as well, this begs some questions that scholars have argued about for the past several thousand years. Questions such as: “Why did Jesus need to be baptized”? “If John’s baptism was for repentance, then why would Jesus need to be baptized, if he were in truth sinless?” But if you think in respect to what Mark is describing with the whole story of John the Baptizer, the message that God is found not only in the temple but outside where daily life takes place, that repentance wasn’t so much about “remorse for actions, or a turning away from specific actions” but rather a refocusing on returning from exile, that idea of being imprisoned or enslaved and breaking away from what has kept you away from God’s promise, then for Jesus, it would be a natural statement for him to be making. A statement that says, “I want to move beyond the understanding that I currently have about my relationship with God, to move into a new aspect of living in that promise that God has made.”

Theologian Marcus Borg reflects further on this story in his book, Jesus: A New Vision - Spirit, Culture, and The Life of Discipleship: "Renowned for his eloquent and passionate call for repentance, John proclaimed that it was not sufficient to be 'children of Abraham,' but called the Jewish people to a more intense relationship with God sealed by a ritual of initiation. Crowds flocked to this charismatic, some to be baptized. Jesus was among them." Not only does this story place Jesus "in the Spirit-filled heart of Judaism," but it also puts him right in the midst of a renewal movement. Elton Brown quotes The New Oxford Annotated Bible: "Jesus himself is baptized into the renewal movement that began before him." Therefore, Brown observes, "In part this reminds us that in Jesus Christ [God] does a new thing, but not a brand-new thing. Israel, Torah, the prophets, John the baptizer all prepare the way" (Feasting on the Word). Found in the Sermon Seed UCC 1/8/2012
In a few minutes we are going to remember our baptism. This is something that we do yearly. But before we celebrate our life in Christ, as members of this faith community, I ask that you think about “what does your baptism mean to you?” Some of us were baptized as infants, so we can’t remember the actual event, for you I would ask you to think about, “what feelings are evoked when you witness a baby being baptized?” For those who have been baptized as young adults or later in life, I ask that you take a few moments and reflect on that event and recall feelings or possibly impressions of that special time in your life. (pause)
Baptism is a bond that uniquely shapes us as a community. God has formed us in love and found us good, yet much too often we see ourselves and one another as flawed and deficient. What would happen if we saw ourselves as created for God's glory (Isaiah 43:7)? What if we saw ourselves and others as God saw Jesus the day that he was baptized, with the heavens being torn open and a voice saying:”You are my child, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” How much stronger, do you think we as a body of faith would be able to love not only those around us, here in this sanctuary, but to those who have not yet started on that road that will return them to the promised land of God? Remember your Baptism. Amen

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Wonders of Waiting, First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY, 1/1/2012, Rev Steven R Mitchell

You may notice that there hasn't been any posting for the last two Sundays of December. That is because the children held the worship on Dec 18th and there was no Sunday worship on Dec 25th. So we start off this year's Worship reflections on the very first day, first Sunday of the New Year of 2012. There are many changes in the wind as I work toward separating myself from the transitional ministry of the past 2 1/2 yrs with First Congregational UCC, which ends on Jan 31, 2012 and begin to serve the Mountain View United Church of Aurora, CO starting on Feb 1,2012 as their settled pastor. Much excitement is being generated with this up coming move and I will address those items in the up coming weeks. Peace to you all and have a Prosperous New Year and in harmony with the reflection of this week, may you know and embrace "The Wonders of Waiting!"

The Wonders of Waiting
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 1/1/2012
Based on Luke 2:22-40

This morning’s scripture reads pretty straight forward, yet as is generally the case, it has many directions in which one can contemplate. We can read how devout Joseph and Mary are in respect to their religious believes. Even as a very poor couple they follow the Law of Moses to the letter; having Jesus circumcised on the eight day, at which time they give the name Jesus to their son. Now they have journeyed into Jerusalem to consecrate their first born son. They lived within a covenant community and were determined to raise their children in the way of that covenant.
So, the most obvious way to take this morning’s reflections is to focus on the holy family. But the story also has two other characters, Simeon and Anna, who were also very devout Jews and very much a part of this same community. The theologian Fred Craddock says of Simeon and Anna that these two are, “miniature representation of Israel at its best: devout, obedient, constant in prayer, led by the Holy Spirit, at home in the temple, longing and hoping for the fulfillment of God’s promises. They embody what have been called ‘the wonders of waiting’, an art seemingly lost to us today.”
This is what I’d like to focus on this morning, the wonders of waiting. Simeon declares at the sight of Jesus, “God, you can now release your servant; release me in peace as you promised. With my own eyes I've seen your salvation;” Mary and Joseph were taking Jesus into the temple to be blessed, but before this could happen, Simeon, lead by the holy spirit to go to the temple that day, see’s them, steps up and takes the child into his arms and then Blesses God, not the boy! God had made a promise to Simeon back in his youth that he would not die until he had seen the “hope” of Israel.
Then comes along a ninety-one year old widow who also is devout, never leaving the temple and waiting upon God’s promises, sees the baby Jesus and then goes out into the city and declares to friends that God’s promise of “freedom” had finally come. We don’t know how old Simeon was, but he was up there in years, as was Anna, both who had been waiting to see the fulfillment of God’s promise to them! This begs the question, “How long are you willing to wait for a fulfillment of a promise? Especially one made by God? “
Because of these two peoples devotion to God, they had received particular visions of what they were to expect. For Simeon, he was promised that before he would die that he would see the promise of Israel. With Anna, she too had lived in hope of a promise, a vision that God would send one who would save Israel.
Having a vision, or rather gaining a vision in a world where there is so much at our finger tips is truly a difficult thing to do. I compare it to the story of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate factory. A story where a group of children a chosen to go through this candy factory and the one deserving child will become the new curator of this factory. Almost all the children were children of privilege in one form or another and one by one are dispelled from the factory. As a society, we are pretty much like most of the over privileged children, where we expect and at times demand what we believe we deserve, whether merited or not.
As a society, Christmas is a season where this becomes so painfully obvious. There are children who have an abundance of toys, yet expect to receive even more gifts and are disappointed if those expectations are not met. Then, there are children who live in very meager surroundings, very much like the economic level that Jesus was born into. When a present comes to them, they are filled with joy because it was something that they were not expecting, even though the season of Christmas promises the gift of presents. With some of these children they dare not even dream about receiving a gift. They have no expectations, no vision of what this season of giving promises. While others as the poem goes, “dream thoughts of sugar plums dancing in their heads.”
“A vision” is the life line of any person of faith. “Vision” is at the heart of any ministry for a church. For without a vision, you have nothing to look toward, no expectations, no promises to be fulfilled. I want to share with you a thought in this week’s “Sermon Seeds” as written by Kathy Huey. She shares a story of a friend of hers who is blind, “I once had a conversation about the vision thing with a colleague who had lost his eyesight many years before. We talked about this reading, about the ability of Simeon to see more than a baby in his arms, to see within and beyond this baby to God's hand at work in the world.
My colleague said that his own inability to see with his eyes is sometimes a gift because it enables him not to be distracted by things that might keep him from seeing "to the heart of things." Whenever he would say that something was "gorgeous," I wondered how he knew that, but he explained that his heart sees what his eyes cannot. He says that he sees the beauty of creation – instead of ugliness – because he can only see with his heart, his soul, and his mind. Most of all, he tries to see to the heart of each person he encounters, so the things that matter to the world matter very little to him. He looks, instead, within the person, to the Christ within. He believes that we're each called to see – to behold – the promise of God's grace and the Christ in one another – which helps us to understand better Jesus' teachings about things like loving our enemies and having the reign of God within us.” UCC lectionary study, 1/1/2012 Kathy Huey
If we can hold onto the same vision that Simeon and Anna had, in a world that too often distracts us with the false promises of wealth, easy living, enlarged ego’s, then we will be able to see the world as Kathy Huey’s friend see it, “the promise of God’s grace and the Christ in one another.” But it doesn’t just happen because we want it to happen, we must work at preparing ourselves for this type of vision, by practicing what our faith teaches us: things such as devotion, obedience, constantly in prayer, willingness to be led by the Holy Spirit, being at home in the temple, and longing and hoping for the fulfillment of God’s promises.
These are not easy attributes, they come with commitment through a covenanted group of people. It doesn’t come by just attending worship now and then, it comes from an intentional commitment of time, time that we commit to study, worship, prayer, fellowship, and a commitment of our money to make sure that these things will be available for us to pursue. Following our faith is not cheap, even as poor as Joseph and Mary were, they paid the cost of sacrificing two doves in order to follow and be true to their commitment to the Law of Moses.
Vision is a necessary thing to have, to hold onto, to work toward. It is the cornerstone of “faith”, and yet as we read these and other stories found in the scriptures, we quickly learn that our faith, our visions, will not be cheap. Amen!