Sunday, April 29, 2012

"Where One Lives", Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 4/29/2012

Where One Lives By Rev Steven R Mitchell Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 4/29/2012 Based on 1 John 3:16-24 and John 10:11-18 How many of you have ever spent extended time, meaning from several weeks to years, caring for a sheep? Very few people in today’s culture have spent much time around sheep or a sheepherder, for that matter. As our society moves more and more into urban settings and has less and less contact with the agrarian life style, examples that we find within scripture, such as today’s lection readings make it harder to relate to the messages that those first hearers about Jesus would have understood. When taken out of context, we too easily can read this passage in John 10 through the lens that Romanizes what is truly going on. As an example, we know through history about the great battles fought on our grassy plains between the cattle and sheep barons, but have little emotional attachment because of our distance in time. Reading this section by itself gives us a Norman Rockwell picture of Jesus walking with a wool wrap around his shoulders, accompanied with four hoofs, a tail wagging, and a bleat coming from a sense of safety and love. Jesus of course is a clean cut, blue-eyed, well groomed with dark wavy locks of hair, father figure from next door. When in reality, even if our father had blue eyes, he came home from work smelly, in dirty closes, his hands and face not washed, and his hair was definitely in serious need of Vidal Sassoon! Another stumbling block with this section of scripture comes with the too often comparison of the church’s pastor to that of Jesus. When this is done, several disastrous expectations are set into play. First of all, there can be an elevating of the pastor onto an unrealistic pedestal, which eventually becomes an altar of sacrifice. The second situation, which occurs simultaneously and is just as great a crime, comes with the removal or distancing of accountability on the part of the congregation of their responsibilities in ministry. The sad truth is, many pastors love this comparison because in effect, it separates them from the congregation, giving them an edge, a degree of importance that somehow is greater than those the pastor is serving; in other words a “Jesus” complex. Congregations easily like to give this responsibility to the pastor because it lets them off the hook in respect to their responsibilities within the church setting. How would we as the church measure up to the ideals, the expectations that we have of the “good shepherd”, if the “good shepherd” is not just the pastor, but actually includes the whole congregation? Would this have any significant change in how we at Mountain View would approach ministry? This Gospel story is not coming out of a pastoral setting, where Jesus is speaking to his disciples or a large crowd about the love of God as they sit along the grassy shores of the Galilean Sea. Rather, Jesus is under attack by the religious leaders for healing a blind man on the Sabbath. Not only had he broken the law, but he also was challenging the religious leaders about their abusive interpretations of the Mosaic Laws, which were given as a guide to the Hebrew people. In chapter nine, Jesus healed a blind man on the Sabbath; it is significant that the person healed was blind, for the implication is that after the healing, he could then recognize Jesus as being from God, doing the things of God. In chapter 10, we have the confrontation between the Pharisees and Jesus, and the Pharisees are being accused by Jesus of not being the “good shepherd” to the sheep. With this small addition of facts about the setting of our text, we who claim Jesus as our role model, can begin to explore a different message, other than “pastor” as the good shepherd. When I was in my early twenties, my mother-in-law gave me a book that has become a guiding post within my spiritual walk. The book, In His Steps, written by Rev Charles Sheldon, explores the cost of following Jesus’ teachings when a young pastor challenged the members of his congregation to simply ask themselves the question, “What would Jesus do?” before acting upon any situation that they encountered. As I have contemplated that question through the years, as well as using the scriptures as another part of the basis for making decisions, I have had to wrestle with a reality that, “where two Christians are present, there you will find three opinions!” How can two people, read the same text, both identifying themselves as followers of Jesus, come up with two differing ways of interpreting scripture? The reality of the situation is, since no two people have exactly the same experiences in life, the lenses that they use to view a situation will never be the same, and in actuality, this is very good news! It is good news because this then allows a platform for discussion, an opportunity for exploration of possibilities that live outside of our own circle of reality. This past Tuesday evening, those who had gathered for the Sacred Grounds discussion of today’s readings, the questions which came up centered on “what does it mean to be open and welcoming?” This is not a new question for Mountain View, after all we state in our bulletin that we are an open and welcoming, ecumenical people. So let’s take a look at ourselves here at Mountain View. Let us look through the lens where the pastor is not the “good shepherd” but rather the congregation is the “good shepherd”. If we are all the “good shepherd” then where is the sheep pen that Jesus is speaking about? Is it within these four walls or the boundaries of this property? By changing the understanding that Mountain View is the “shepherd”, does this not also change the boundaries of where the pen is? Take a look around this room; who do you see? Who do you see not being represented here? Is the community that lives within a one square mile of this church represented here? Does the community that lives within one square mile of this church know us? I don’t mean by the name of the church, or the fact that we have a community garden available to anyone who is willing to pay to use it, but truly know who we are, our values, our hopes, our dreams? More importantly, do we know who the community around us is, their hopes, their dreams, their concerns, and their needs? As I have mulled over this week’s lectionary readings, two words seemed to present themselves to me, “emulate” and “abide”. The definition of “emulate” is: to imitate with effort to equal or surpass. It seems to me that many of us who call ourselves Christians work hard at trying to “emulate” what we understand the “word” of God to be. The church in general works hard at teaching the words and actions of Jesus; we try to emulate Jesus! Could this possibly be a reason for so many differing opinions about what it means to be a follower of Christ? Abide, has a differing slant than emulate. Abide is: to remain; continue; stay, as to continue in a particular condition, attitude, relationship. In the Hymn “Abide with Me” we hear an understanding of how Christ abides in our hearts: Come not in terrors, as the King of kings, But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings; Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea. Come, Friend of sinners, thus abide with me. I have not touched on our other reading this morning, 1 John 3, but in this Epistle we learn that it isn’t in the study of God’s word alone that makes us Christians, but also in our actions. The love of God wasn’t in word alone, but also in the action of self sacrifice as shown through the life and death of Jesus. It is the action of love, the love that “abides” within our hearts, not the “emulation” of God’s love that the sheep will recognize, but rather the voice that “abides” in the love of God. I wish to send you away this morning thinking about us as being the “good shepherd”. Are we as “good shepherd” emulating Christ or are we “abiding Christ?” Not to one another in this room, but to the sheep that are on the other side of the gate? That is just the starting question. All the answers to the questions that follow depend on how we answer this question. Amen

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Faith That Touches, Mountain View United, Aurora, CO, by Rev Steven R Mitchell

A Faith That Touches
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 4/15/2012

Have you ever thought about “how you are known” or “how you are recognized” beyond your given name? All fifty states of these United States has a state name, yet if I said, “the evergreen state”, most people would relate that to Washington state, if I said, “big sky country”, people would immediately assume I am speaking about Montana. When I tell people that I’m a “Jayhawker”, you know that I come from Kansas. Missouri is often referred to as the “show me state.”
I have come to believe that the apostle Thomas must have come from Missouri. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Come on guys, do you really think I’m so naive as to believe what you are telling me? Nobody comes back from the dead. Or do they?
In the movie, Young Frankenstein, the grandson of Baron Von Frankenstein, young Fredrick Fronkenstein, (he didn’t wish to be associated with his crazed grandfather) takes up the family business of trying to create life from dead tissue. So with the help of his assistant Igor, they find a freshly executed criminal and prepare the body for a transplant of the brain of deceased Hans Delbrook, a brilliant scientist. As Igor attempts to steal this brain for his employer, lightening flashes, scaring Igor so much he drops the jar which contains the brain. Igor quickly grabs the closest jar, which contains another brain and takes it to the young Fronkenstein, at which time the Dr transplants this brain into the body of a seven foot corpse. After the Dr. completes his experiment and brings the body back to life, the new creation is determined to have a flawed brain, at which point Igor admits to not bringing professor Hans Delbrook’s brain, but rather the brain named “Abby Normal.”
In this morning’s Gospel reading we find a continuation of the Easter Sunday story of Jesus being alive after he was determined to be dead and buried. In the first part of this chapter, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, she runs to the disciples and tells them that she has seen and talked with Jesus. They do not believe her.
Our reading this morning takes up on the evening that Mary shared this unbelievable news. The disciples instead of running out to the tomb to check out her story sit behind locked doors, in hiding, not believing Jesus has risen from the dead. Then mysteriously, Jesus appears among those safely behind locked doors and bringing belief to those present. When Thomas shows up, they like Mary, tell Thomas that Jesus is alive. Thomas like the disciples does not believe their story and goes so far in his resistance to say that before he will believe this outlandish story, he would have to personally touch the wounds that Jesus had from his crucifixion. A week later, as scripture reads, Thomas was with the rest of the disciples, still behind locked doors and Jesus appears to them all again, specifically singling out Thomas, who immediately exclaims, “My lord and my God!” Now all of the disciples have had the opportunity to see Jesus post resurrection.
We in the church love Thomas. He is the incredulous nonbeliever who hides inside every believing Christian – the questioner in us that resists easy answers to hard questions of faith, who always wants a little more proof. Feasting on the Word, yr B, Vol. 2, pg 400 Serene Jones As Western Christians, who live in a world that demands empirical evidence in order to prove an event or substantiate a belief, stories like this still come up short in proving a fact that Jesus physically raised from the dead. But if we look to this story as one that shares the unique character of resurrection faith and its relationship to doubt, then we can start to relate what this story can mean to us personally.
We have a group of people who are riddled between guilt, fear, and doubt as they hid for their lives behind closed doors. Guilt for deserting Jesus in his greatest hour of need, fear that they too might be killed as followers of a man who had been pronounced a criminal against the state and the religious community, and doubt about the future of the movement that Jesus had been teaching, a movement about a world lived out through love.
Then Jesus shows up, somehow gaining passage through closed, locked doors. These men do not recognize Jesus until Jesus speaks to them saying, “Peace be with you”. After showing them his wounds, Jesus once again says, “Peace be with you. As God has sent me, so I send you.” Then Jesus breathed on them and gave them the Holy Spirit. A week passes by, a second time Jesus, passes through closed doors and this time goes up to Thomas and offers Thomas the proof that is needed before Thomas can believe.
The interesting thing is that the disciples, after encountering Jesus a week earlier and being given the gift of the Holy Spirit, still were behind closed doors. They still didn’t recognize Jesus on the second visit. When Jesus went specifically to Thomas, it is Thomas who says, “My Lord and my God!” We did not hear this proclamation from the disciples.
How often are we like the disciples or Thomas in particular, demanding proof that Jesus is alive and not recognizing the presence of Jesus when Jesus is right in front of us?
Referring back to the movie Young Frankenstein, there is a scene in which the young Dr, finally accepts his birthright and identifies himself no longer a Fronkenstein, but rather a Frankenstein. With this claim to his blood line, he then goes to the creature that he has created, the creature that has become known as the “monster” and proclaims to the creature that he is not unloved, unwanted, or evil as the world labeled him, but rather is worthy of love and is accepted and loved by the one who created him. Then they learn a song and dance routine to prove to the world just how lovable the monster can be. Yet, this wasn’t enough; there was no transference of what the creator possessed to that which was created. But finally, in a final act of desperation, the Dr hooks himself and the monster together through a machine and performs transference of a part of the Dr to the creature and vice versa, thereby allowing a part of the Dr to stabilize and normalize the creature into a whole human being.
This is what the Easter story is saying to us through the telling by John of Jesus coming to his disciples behind closed doors that are locked. It is not a story about these men going out looking for Jesus. Rather, it is the story of Jesus again and again, seeking out his flock, those who are filled with guilt, with fear, or doubt, yearning for him that Jesus will come to, over and over to help give strength, direction, and the ability to move beyond the perils of daily living. This story about Jesus’ resurrection cannot be based on empirical evidence, but rather through experiential encounters. It is Jesus who refuses to let heart’s hiding behind the dead bolts of guilt, or fear, or doubt to block the movement of God’s love toward those one who lack faith. It is a story about Jesus coming again and again to those of us who are scared and confused in a world which is full of hate and death. It is a story of a Jesus who offers himself to those who long to see him. It is our story of faith in the one who comes through locked doors touching anyone who is yearning for the peace that comes through pure love. Amen

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Loose Ends, Mountain View United, Aurora, CO, by Rev Steven R Mitchell 4/8/2012

Living Stones
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
First Congregational UCC, Rock Springs, WY 5/22/2011
Based on 1 Peter 2:1-10

When driving into the parking lot of the church, one of the very first features of this build that catches your eye, is the use of stone. One each corner of the exterior walls of the sanctuary there are massive stone buttresses, which gives the sense that this building being solidly anchored to the ground. Inside, at the center of this sanctuary, stands the alter or communion table; it is built on stone that is cemented into the floor. Again, this table is permanent because of the stone foundation that it rests upon. Stone is an amazing material. It is no accident that the architect of this facility used stone in strategic areas. He didn’t use stone as an accent material, but rather, he made subtle statements based on scriptural understandings. Stone is not only beautiful, but it has great strength and can support a mighty structure. Stone gives both a feeling of security and permanency, as well, as shelter.
Remember the story of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf! The first pig built his house out of straw, the second pig built his house out of sticks, and the third little pig built his home out of stone. Enters in this tranquil scene is the Big Bad Wolf, who is hungry for a pork sandwich. He comes up to the first pig and his house of straw; the wolf huffs and puffs and blows the house of straw down. Then he comes across the second pig’s house and still being hungry, he again huffs and he puffs and he blows down the house built of sticks. The wolf still hungry and looking for dessert, pig flambeau, goes to the third pig’s house. He again huffs and he puffs, but the house stays standing. Perplexed by this, the wolf huffs and puffs himself into despair and eventually leaves, and the third pig is safe and sound in his home that was built of stone.
Scripture uses a number of stories that deal with stones in them to help relate the idea’s of the steadfastness of God to those who recognize Him within their lives. Stones were used by the early patriarchs to signify their devotion and remembrance to the God who carried them through difficulties. King David, as a shepherd boy, used a stone to bring down the giant Goliath, thus ending the battle and bringing victory to the army of the Israelites. When Jesus made his entry into Jerusalem, the week before Passover, and the Pharisees were telling Jesus to quiet the crowd, Jesus responded with: “even if the crowd was silent, these stones would sing out in Praise of Gods work.” While at the temple, Jesus compared himself to the stones of the temple, saying once destroyed, in three days, they would be rebuilt, meaning his death and resurrection.
Here in 1 Peter, we read this beautiful metaphor about a relationship between God and his people. There is this play on words of “living stone”, where Jesus is not only the corner stone, that piece which anchor of any structure, but is also as a resurrected savior is “the living stone.”
This past Monday was the memorial service of Donna Morad, in which some of you attended. I chose for the text of her memorial this reading from 1 Peter specifically because of the powerful imagery that is found within these ten verses. I am struck by two ideas in particular, which are the phrases, "though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight" and "Like living stones."
Jesus and his teachings, his message, were rejected by the religious authorities of his day; those who were the establishment and held the power. These idea’ were rejected because those in power thought they would lose not only their control and position, but that Israel itself would fall if Jesus’ teachings were accepted. We talk a lot today about the “liberal” and “fundamentalist” Christian points of view. This is so wrong. There is no such thing as a “liberal Christian” and there is no such thing as a “fundamentalist Christian”. If we are true in our following of Christ, then as Disciples of Christ we all should be seen as “Radical Christians”. The founder of the Christian movement was a “radical”. We are called into a “radical lifestyle”.
A part of this radical lifestyle is stated in the very first verse of this morning’s text. Eugene Peterson says it this way: So clean house! Make a clean sweep of malice and pretense, envy and hurtful talk. This is radical because it goes against human tendencies to back bite, hold grudges, put on false airs, and to get even when we’ve been wronged. But Peter is telling us that, when we have had a taste of God, like infants at the breast, we are to drink deep of God's pure kindness. Then we'll grow up mature and whole in God.
The other part of this morning’s text that captures my imagination is that of “Living Stones”. The idea of "living stones" brings images such as solidness; stones are used in building structures that weather through time. The things that we do throughout our life are the stones that we lay for future generations. None of us lives in a vacuum. Each generation that is born comes with the good and the bad of the previous generation; some might say we come into this life with our parent’s baggage. When I think about all that I enjoy today, it comes from the sacrifices, the teachings, even from the mistakes of those who have come before me.
In the same respect, my theology, my understanding of God originates with what I was taught by my parents and grandparents. It came through watching their actions and how they related to others. I learned respect for people of all races because my parents and grandparents taught me that the color of some ones skin did not make them either better or worse than any other person. My concepts of a loving God, or of a judgmental God, or of an accepting or rejecting God, came from Sunday School teachers and from what was said from the pulpit. These are the living stones that I grew up with.
But once I started to personally read the bible, once I started to personally study and contemplate what I was reading, once I started to formulate my prayer life beyond the prayers that I learned as a child, once I started to read writings of great theologians, I then became more hungry for a deeper relationship with God. All these idea’s that I was reading were from God’s living stones that had been laid before my birth, and through these living stones, I have had the opportunity to learn, be shaped into what I am today. And the reality is, that I too am a living stone that is being placed into this marvelous building that God is creating for those who come after me. You too are living stones, and are also being placed into this marvelous building that God is building, so future generations may continue to build and shape their own lives.
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Can you image, the immigrant who leaves their home country and comes to live here. There is a time period where they are not a part of this country, but after a lot of hard work, of learning a new culture, they take and pass a test, then they are sworn in as new citizens of this country. We as children of God are very much like the immigrant. We leave our old ways behind, and we work hard and study hard the teachings of Christ, to learn what this new world of God’s is all about, not just the rules, but more importantly we learn about its potential, then we become active citizens of Gods kingdom, the one here on earth. Once we were not a people, but now we are the people of God.
We are no ordinary people, but rather, we are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession. We are not only the product of earlier generations, but we are the living stones that are laying the foundations for future generations, whether we like it or not. So let us live up to being the people that we truly are, God’s chosen people, who are not ordinary, but are of royal descent, and work toward creating a holy nation, God’s kingdom here on earth, for we are Gods’ Living Stones! Amen