Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sacred Spaces in Life, Mountain View United, Aurora, CO, 2/19/2012 by Rev Steven R Mitchell

Sacred Spaces in Life
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 2/19/2012
Based on 2 Kings 2:1-12 & Mark 9:2-9

Fourteen years ago this coming May, I took a five week holiday driving from Seattle to Dallas, Texas to visit my first grandchild. Since I was in my car, I had decided to spend a week or so visiting my family in Kansas, then spent a week with my daughter, son-in-law and new grandson, then finish up my travels by stopping off at a few tourist sites that I had not yet been to that are located in the Southwest, specifically the Grand Canyon.
For more than forty years I had seen pictures of this great slice in the earth’s crust, watched documentaries on how water has carved through the dirt and rock, I even had read stories about a little donkey that lived in this wilderness. It was time to go see it. When I arrived there at the first stop in the area of the major observation point, none of this had prepared me for what I was about to experience.
When I had walked a short distance along the path to the edge of the canyon, I was by myself, not another person around. In the silence of the early morning, with the wind gently blowing up out of the canyon, gazing out toward the great expanse of the North, I was overcome with an indescribable feeling which the only word of “Awe” can come close to expressing that experience. The color, the magnitude, the immensity of this geological wonder was in those very first moments, truly a “Sacred Space” in my life. I was breathless, drawn to tears, almost speechless, I hear myself quietly repeating, “My God, how great thou art”, over and over, almost in a mantra. It was the only response that I could give in those first few minutes.
Then, the silence was broken when a bus filled with Japanese tourists stopped, unloaded with what seemed to be an endless line of noisy camera snapping, which felt to me like an act of irreverence. Why weren’t these folks stopping to take in this awe inspiring piece of work that God had created? Why were their lips not silenced by the color, the rock formations, and the sheer size of the canyon? After the crowd had left, again I was standing all alone, still looking at this natural wonder, but I was no longer in the same space that I experienced upon my arrival.
This morning’s lectionary texts speak to this experience that I just shared with you when I first saw the Grand Canyon. We don’t know what John and James were thinking nor is there any record of what they had to say about their experience, all we have is Peter’s response. “It is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Said another way, “Hey Dude, let’s build something really cool, so everyone who comes after us, can know that this is a very special place!” Peter was so moved by what was happening, that he wanted to do something that he thought would ensure an ongoing experience, not just for him but for everyone “forever after!”
Peter knew that he had just experienced a sacred moment. This story and the experience that I had through those very first minutes of viewing the Grand Canyon, started me thinking about “sacred spaces in life”. How do we live with those sacred spaces that occur in our lives? Do we want to be like Peter and try to hang on to those moments, or do we react like the noisy tourist, just stumbling along, not really experiencing the “moment” because we don’t take the time to be still and recognize those spaces?
There are several things going on in this story. One of those comes with what is happening with Jesus. Here we have Jesus, taking a very select group up the mountain. While up on the mountain top, Jesus not only is having this encounter with Moses and Elijah, but he is described as physically changing in his appearance. This is reminiscent of the change that Moses had had when he has spent time up on Mount Sinai in conversation with God and receiving the Ten Commandments.
I believe one of the realities that come in our encountering God or a representative of God, is that there are changes that occur, sometimes physically, other times emotionally. When we have experienced something that to us is so personal, so sacred, our lives are forever changed. In this past Tuesday evening’s Bible study, I shared what I believe to be the most powerful “sacred moment in my life.” In 1988, I had attended convocation on the East Coast that focused on ministering to people living with AIDS. It had been a very powerful four days, where I not only was learning about the disease and how as the church we were called to provide compassionate response, but the very first lecture dealt with the churches historical misreading of scripture regarding sexual orientation.
This subject was one that I had personally been struggling with at that time, having gone through a divorce over this issue, losing my family, as well as having participated in “reparative” therapy. In short, personally, I was feeling pretty lousy about myself. On the plane ride home, I was processing all the information that I had received, especially the information about how for centuries the church had abused scripture in its understanding of human sexuality. Then at thirty thousand feet above the earth, God spoke to me; not in my mind, but audibly just as you and I would have a conversation, saying to me, “Steven you are the way I have made you! I love you.”
Years of self-hatred immediately left me. For the first time in my life, I felt a true sense of peace. No longer was I afraid of being discovered; of being found out. For the first time in my life, I was able to be the “real” Steven Mitchell. Now nobody else heard this conversation. There was no wind, no booming voice. It was a “sacred moment” between me and God. I have never heard that voice again, but in that instant I had found my “voice”.
Often times, when we have those “sacred moments in life”, we want to hold on to them, not letting them end, wanting to revel in them. That’s what Peter was saying to Jesus when he wanted to build those three monuments. Yet, there came a point with this sacred moment, when only Jesus and the three disciples were the only ones left on that mountain top. When we have those sacred moments in our lives, there is a beginning and an ending of the actual event. What we are left with, is the question of “how are we going to incorporate that event into our lives?” What voice will we find through that sacred space?
Do we all have these “sacred spaces in our lives?” I believe we do. Oh, it may not come with an actual audible voice from God, or with a vision of Moses and Isaiah, of even seeing the face of Jesus of a grilled cheese sandwich (which was the theme in the T.V. show, Glee). Only you will be able to recognize what these sacred spaces are in your life. But they will be a mountain top experience for you! It can be in something as ordinary as through a wedding, or as miraculous as being present at the birth of a child, or sharing those fleeting moments with someone who is transitioning into the next plain of existence.
Sacred spaces in life, I think, come more often than we think. For myself, I find sacred space most often when I have the privilege to hang out with my grandchildren. I find sacred space as I spend time becoming more acquainted with you here at Mountain View. I find sacred space, when I read scripture, sit and think about what I have read, then write how I have been moved, challenged, and enlightened by God’s words.
If you feel that you have been short changed in this area, then I would challenge you to step back just a little, take more time to smell the sweetness in life, be more receptive to the possibilities that each day brings. Sacred spaces in life! They come and then they go. What will you do with them? Amen

Sunday, February 12, 2012

There's Danger in the Gospel, Mountain View United, Aurora, CO, by Rev Steven R Mitchell, 2-12-2012

There’s Danger in the Gospel
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 2/12/2012
Based on Mark 1:40-45 and 2 Kings 5: 1-14

In this morning’s scripture, we read about two men who are plagued with Leprosy. One we are told is a non-Hebrew, the other is a Hebrew. Naaman, the non-Hebrew, was a commander of an army; the other man is unnamed and ostracized by his Hebrew community, based on Hebrew purity laws. Both of these men seek out someone who is able to help them deal with their disease. Naaman is seeking to be healed and learns of a prophet in Israel who can help do this for him. The unnamed Hebrew has heard about Jesus and what he has been doing in Capernaum and seeks Him out in the wilderness. Both the Prophet and Jesus were Hebrew’s, both men of God, both seem willing to help.
But again, there are differences between these two stories. In 2 Kings, the prophet Elisha, hears about Naaman and his request to be healed and sends word to the King of Israel to send Naaman to him, not out of compassion for Naaman, but because the King of Israel is upset about the request being made upon him and thinking that this is a set up to start a war between King Aram and Israel. So Naaman goes to see Elisha, who doesn’t even go out and speak to Naaman, but sends out a messenger to tell him to go wash in the river Jordan seven times and then his leprosy will heal him.
Of course Naaman, being the big shot commander that he is, becomes very offended that first off, the King of Israel isn’t the one who is doing the healing, but someone lower on the food chain. Once Naaman gets to where Elisha is, Elisha doesn’t come rushing out, making a big fuss over him, but rather sends out a messenger to great him and tell him what he needs to do in order to get rid of his leprosy. There is no special oil brought out, no special incantations, no laying on of hands, just simple, go down to those dirty waters of the Jordan, bath in it seven times and you will be healed.
On the other hand, Mark is telling us a story about a man who because of his leprosy has been ostracized by his entire community, his family, his friends, his church, because he was seen as someone who could “infect” the entire community if allowed to stay within the city limits. When this man comes up to Jesus, he says, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus moved by pity, stretches out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean.” The man then is instructed to keep quiet and go to the priests and present himself for the ritual purification ceremony so that he might be able to re-enter into the community. The story also says, that the man didn’t do this, but rather started telling everyone how Jesus had touched him and in that touch had made him clean, creating a situation where Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but having to stay out in the countryside.
True story, my two daughters just had a real life lesson on what happens when you have or perceived to have a communicable disease. Shortly after my youngest daughter and son-in-law returned from Ethiopia with their two newly adopted sons, all the males in her family came down with the measles. They of course were quarantined because they had a highly contagious disease. As it so happens, before they found out that they had the measles, my youngest daughter and their oldest son pay a visit to my older daughter’s chiropractic clinic for a short visit. When the health department learns about this, they have the clinic send out letters to all their clients that had been to their office that particular afternoon, stating that they (the clients) may have been exposed to the measles.
Also, the news media, catches wind of this, as one other family from the church that my youngest daughter attends also comes down with the measles. It is now an epidemic! Because of the way the news was handling their reporting of these two cases, mass hysteria hits the whole state of Kansas about the potential epidemic that will most certainly strike the entire state. Not only does my oldest daughter get to keep all of her children home from school because of the possible exposure (which by the way, when my grandson from the family with measles was at the clinic, was not yet contagious, nor did any of my older daughters children come down with the measles or anyone who was at the clinic that day), but she was constantly having to deal with damage control with her clients. This didn’t stop with just my daughter being harassed, but also a niece of mine who lived several hundred miles away in Wichita, KS, having an old school friend who still lives in the community where my daughters live, harassing her about how her cousins were a menace to the safety of society. My two daughters and the man with Leprosy shared a good deal in common.
When Mark was writing about Jesus being moved by pity, Mark wasn’t speaking about a feeling that comes from the heart, but rather about a feeling that comes from the gut! Some of the earlier manuscripts use a more harsh translation that Jesus was moved by anger! Rev Jon Walton of the First Presbyterian Church in New York City says about this story: Jesus is frustrated and upset when he heals the man; and in the process of healing him, Jesus breaks down walls that have been carefully built and scrupulously preserved by well meaning religious types, when he touches the leper. He dares to do the unconventional, in fact, the unlawful, so that he may accomplish the unlikely. Feasting on the Word, Yr B, Vol 1, pg 358 In other words Jesus healed this man because he was angry at a system that was repressive and excluding, not out of love and compassion because of the man’s illness.
In the movie “The Help”, we learn about a young white woman who decides to expose the racism in Jackson, Mississippi through the voices of the African American women who worked as maids. The writing of this story took place as the Civil Rights movement was just becoming big news, and happened only because of the courage of one black woman who after hearing a sermon in church was moved to come forward and speak up. This led to another and then eventually there were a number of women who spoke and told their stories. Both the young white woman collecting these stories and the African American women who told their stories were breaking the law.
We still have these types of struggles today within the Christian community. Those churches that have stood up and said there is room in the church for the Lesbian, Gay, Transgendered, and Bi-sexual community and that God loves them are ostracized by the larger more conservative Christian community. In the 1980’s, there were a number of congregations throughout this country that participated in what we call the “Sanctuary” movement, which broke the law by helping refugees from South America move through our country into Canada. Much like Christian folks did with the Underground Railroad in helping escaped slaves of the South find freedom in the North, breaking the laws of their time.
When we read scripture and study it at a level that starts to reveal to us those laws and social mores’ that are meant to be repressive and exclusive of certain populations within our larger communities, then like Jesus, we should be moved with anger to make “clean” those systems of inequity, and restore justice to those who have been pushed out.
When we hear about large portions of our working population who cannot afford health care, we should be speaking up for them. When we see families being separated because of unjust and outdated immigration laws, then we should be working to reform those laws. We need to be advocates for those who deal with mental illness. There is danger in the Gospel. It is dangerous because it calls for us to open our eyes and look beyond our own circumstances in life and see the injustices that are in our backyards; injustices that are deliberately created to maintain the boundaries between the haves and the have not’s.
The story of the man with leprosy is a story about those who are pushed outside of the systems of support. Jesus was moved with pity to touch him and without hesitation make him clean so that he could once again be included. When the church reaches out in the same way to those who are excluded for one reason or another, we too can expect to be excluded just like Jesus, no longer being allowed into the city, standing outside of the larger community that thinks it benefits by excluding some and not others. Thank God, there is danger in the gospel! Amen

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Power of Hand Holding, Mountain View United, Aurora, CO,2/5/2012 by Rev Steven R Mitchell

This is my first Sunday as Settled Pastor for Mountain View United Church in Aurora, CO. It has been a fun first week with much activity in my office, with a hug snow on Fri! 20" at my aunts house in Littleton, CO where I am staying until we get the furniture here at the first of March. Please pray for Paul and I that we find a house to purchase before the furniture arrives! Peace, Steven

The Power of Hand Holding
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Based on Mark 1:29-39 and 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 2/5/2012

I wish to apologize in advance for the message that I am about to deliver. Since I don’t know you very well yet, I don’t know how much of what I’m going to say as background is going to be “old hat” and potentially boring to you. This of course will change as we become better acquainted.
In this morning’s Gospel we read that Jesus, upon entering Simon’s home, finds Simon’s mother-in-law very ill and when he took her hand, and lifted her up, she immediately became well. This story on the surface seems to be pretty straight forward telling us about another healing that happens when Jesus touches someone and how the word gets out and people from all around come wanting Jesus to heal them, which after all this takes place, Jesus decides to move on to other towns to do more of the same.
A large part of our task as modern readers of the scriptures is to try and step away of our twenty-first mindset and read these passages with the eyes of the first century reader, to hear with the ears of the first generation of listeners; only when we can strip away what we see as “normal”, as “everyday” occurrences, such as reading about Jesus’ activities within the Synagogue and the activities outside of the Synagogue, or about the women that Jesus encounters, will we realize that something new and shocking is taking place. Only then will we start to understand the subtleties of the stories.
Some of this morning’s reading in Mark is setting the stage for the conflict that Jesus finds throughout his ministry. In this passage, we are introduced to Simon’s mother-in-law, the first of many women that Jesus will be encountering. You might say, “Okay, so he heals many women throughout the Gospel. What would make this healing unusual?” Beyond the fact that this is the first woman mentioned in Marks writings, the real news comes in her response as she encounters this prophet, Jesus.
Mark tells us that upon her fever breaking, she immediately “began to serve them.” Now if we read this through the eyes of patriarchal theology, we will conclude that she fixed them all dinner! Yet the Gospels are stories about change, stories about how people change after they encounter Jesus. Theologian Ched Myers in his book, “Say to This Mountain”, makes this important observation: The Greek verb “to serve” (from which we get our word “deacon”) appears only two other times in Mark. One is found in chapter 10:45 –“Jesus came not to be served but to serve”, and the other comes at the end of the story, where Mark describes women “who, when Jesus was in Galilee, followed him, and served him, and…came up to Jerusalem with him” (15:41). This is a summary statement of discipleship: from beginning (in Galilee) to end (at Jerusalem) these women were true followers who, unlike the men practiced servant hood. In other words, both at the outset and at the conclusion of Mark’s gospel, women, in a society which devalued them, are identified as the true disciples. In this “minor” healing, Mark is serving notice that patriarchal theology and the devaluation of women will be overturned!” pg 15,” Say to This Mountain” by Ched Meyers
A second important subtlety that I see comes in the different reactions of those people in the Synagogue, who observed Jesus healing the possessed man in the story just prior to the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law by Jesus in the home of Simon. Worshipping in the Synagogue, implies that the Sabbath laws are to be observed, which basically means for Jesus, no healing of anyone, as that was “work”. Scripture says that people were “incredulous” about Jesus casting out the demon from the man who was interrupting worship.
There seems to be an opposite reaction toward Jesus’ healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, still during the Sabbath time, for people seem to clamor at the door of Simon’s house. So what might be the difference? Are there certain things that one is allowed to do at the temple verses what one can do outside of the Temple? I think the key is found in how Mark continuously speaks about the “crowd” which he mentions some thirty-eight times throughout his Gospel. The inference to the description of “crowd” refers to those who were “disenfranchised”. The crowds are almost always described as being outside of the temple.
So with all this exciting information that I’ve just shared with you, how does this relate to us? Most of us can not heal anyone with our touch, or can we? What I receive from this story is “where ministry” takes place, how we are to “do ministry”, and with “who” is most receptive to receiving the gospel news.
The image that comes to my mind with Jesus holding Simon’s mother-in-law is what happens when lots of people hold hands with one another (take the opportunity right now and feel the energy when we all hold hands). We see the power that comes by holding hands, the solidarity that not only gives those who are hand holding the strength to do what needs doing, but it also gives a message of strength to those who observe the hand holding. I see that ministry is most effective outside of the “Worship” setting. Most of the work that Jesus was doing was done outside of the Synagogue.
I think that the message being shared at the time of Mark was, God isn’t found just in the Temple, but also out amount the population. That is where the majority of people who feel they are not able to be in “church” are found. Many people do not come to worship, because they feel that they are “not good enough” in one form or another to be with those who call themselves followers of Christ. I would suspect, most of us are probably not good enough to be with those who “follow church”, but would much rather feel at home with those who follow Jesus.
Another lesson that I see in this morning’s story is Ministry, doesn’t just come through the spoken word. Ministry comes by doing, by touching, so to speak. Missionaries finally got the message that they were most effective in being able to share the “good news” about Jesus, once they stopped preaching and trying to change people to become “European” and started living with those they were ministering to. To be of service, to serve those in need, by building hospitals, schools, helping dig water wells, helping in agricultural needs, by working alongside instead of insisting that God is found inside church walls. Urban residence are more receptive when they learn job skills that will help them become employable, when they are seen not as those disenfranchised and not worthy, but as equal participants in God’s creation.
How do we do this? Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that he became all things to all peoples, so that he might be able to share Jesus’ message of the gospel. To the Jew, Paul was a Jew, to the weak, he became weak, to the Gentiles, he became like a Gentile. We as disciples of Christ, then should always be open to doing things, no matter how unorthodox it may be to our background, so that we might win the honor of being servants to those who either have been hurt by those who call themselves followers of Jesus or who have never experienced Gods love and acceptance in their lives. For no matter who you are or where you are in life’s journey, you are welcomed into God’s grace, love, and mercy. Amen