Sunday, July 29, 2012

Does God get What God Wants? by Rev Steven R Mitchell -29-2012

Does God get What God Wants?

Based on Love Wins Series

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 7/29/2012

Revelations 21:1-5

As we read through the Hebrew and Christian Scripture, we come away with at least one solid understanding that God is God and in that, God has an ultimate goal of reconciling creation with God’s will! Not only does God have a plan, but God has the power to achieve this. This makes things pretty comforting. That is until someone goes into a dark theater and opens fire on an unsuspecting audience, forcing a whole community to come face to face with evil and its destructive powers. All of a sudden we can start to wonder, even doubt God’s power. Maybe God isn’t really in control. Is there a God of “good” and a separate god of “bad?” Do these two god’s battle one another for dominates, and if so, whose winning?

Most churches have websites that introduce themselves to potential visitors. Within these websites you will find information about what that particular group of people believe regarding God. You will also find what these people believe will happen to those people who do not believe the way that they believe. Statements that read something like these: “The unsaved will be separated forever from God in hell.” “Those who don’t believe in Jesus will be sent to eternal punishment in hell.” The general understanding is “If you don’t have Jesus, you will get to spend eternity in torment and suffering.”

So what about those twelve people who lost their lives a week ago Friday at the Century 16 Cinema Complex? We know from news interviews that several of the victims were Christians. But what about those who had no church connections, will they be spending eternity in eternal punishment? Or what about those churches who view scripture differently than those who talk about the dangers of eternal damned nation?

This past Monday our church received a phone call from an individual from Illinois, a chosen prophet by God, telling us that because we do not teach the “word of God” in this church, not only are the theater murders on our hands, we too will be spending eternity bathing in the flames of hell.

On the websites I was just speaking about, you can also find affirmations of the goodness and greatness of God speaking about a God who is: mighty, powerful, loving, unchanging, sovereign, full of grace and mercy, all-knowing. So if God is all knowing and in control, how do we address the events of last weekend? Does God get what God wants? If so, does this mean that God wants a large portion of people, to suffer and be condemned to an eternity of suffering? Is God a loving God or is God a fickle vindictive God? Choosing without rhyme or reason those who will live in eternal bliss and creating many more souls who will live in eternal suffering? As it was pointed out at the Sacred Grounds discussion group this past Tuesday, in the book of Revelations we find that only 144,000 people will be saved and all the rest of the world will end up in hell. This paints a very poor picture of God in my estimation.

How great is God? Great enough to save all people, or a medium powerful God who can save some but not all? Will all people be saved or will God not get what God wants? Psalms 24 say, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” The prophet Malachi asks, “Do we not all have one Parent? Did not one God create us?” What scripture tells us from the first sentence to the last sentence of the bible is that God is not helpless, God is not powerless, and God is not impotent.

Rob Bell makes a point in his book when he says: God has a purpose. A desire. A goal. And God never stops pursuing it. Jesus tells a series of parables in Luke 15 about a woman who loses a coin, a shepherd who loses a sheep, and a father who loses a son. The stories aren’t ultimately about things and people being lost; the stories are about things and people being found. The God that Jesus teaches us about doesn’t give up until everything that was lost is found. This God simply doesn’t give up. Ever. Love Wins pg 101

What an amazing comfort this is. God simply never gives up! This is the Good News that we here at Mountain View wish to tell the world. This is the Good News that the “appointed prophet of God from Illinois” needs to understand, God isn’t satisfied with having one person lost and God will not allow that to happen!

Last week I asked: “Is there a “hell?” Of course there is, we each will have to live through some variation of it because “evil” exits in this life, but does that mean that those who do not self-identify as a Christian are lost forever? Not if we understand God’s love. Here is a point that needs to be made clear about the basic virtue about “love.” God’s nature is love. Humanity is made in the image of God, which means that we too have the nature of love. We tend to identify love as coming from the heart. It is a feeling that we all have, but that we cannot require of others.

In last Saturday evening’s family movie night, we watched the Wizard of Oz. The Tin man’s greatest desire was to have a heart, so he might be human. As the wizard gave the Tin man this mechanical clock in the shape of a heart, he gave the Tin man a piece of great wisdom. “Remember Tin man, the measure of a person’s heart is not found in how much you love, but rather by the number of people who love you.” Love cannot happen by force, nor can love survive or thrive in captivity. For love to flourish, one has to be willing to let love go, to risk it’s leaving, for it to be truly love.

This same truth exists within God’s love. God provides love, but as an individual we have the option to accept it or reject it. If God over-rides this option, then God is robbing us of our freedom to choose, and God has then violated the fundamental essence of what love is.

A question that flows out of this understanding of love, then, is quite simple. Lots of people in our world right now choose to be violent and abusive and mean and evil, so why won’t they continue to choose this path after they die? That question leads to another idea, one rooted in the dynamic of nature of life. We aren’t fixed, static beings-we change and morph as life unfolds. Love Wins pg 104 If we believe in life existing beyond this physical plane, then the idea in the dynamic of nature of life would continue to exist as well. If we believe that God has total control over what God wishes and if that wish is that none should be lost, could it not be possible that a person who in this life has chosen to reject God’s love, given enough time (eternity) could ultimately change enough to choose to embrace God’s love?

The argument being: If we are made in God’s image and choose to live a path that separates us from God, as time continues we become less human, meaning we become less in the image of God, could eventually become non-human, there by not being the image of God. I think the movies that used the man “Hannibal” explores this best. In last week’s scripture example of Lazarus wishing for relief, do you think the story might have been different had Lazarus asked for forgiveness? Would God have said to Lazarus, “Sorry, it’s too late”? If the answer is yes, this implies that God doesn’t get what God wants, which is everyone of us.

In the Book of Revelations, we read all this imagery of how Jesus comes back to mop up a badly messed up world, but in the end it states that all comes together and is in union with God’s will. Again Rob Bell points out: We read in these last chapters of revelation that the gates of that city (Jerusalem) in that new world will ‘never shut.’ That’s a small detail, and it’s important we don’t get too hung up on details and specific images because it’s possible to treat something so literally that it becomes less true in the process. But gates, gates are for keeping people in and keeping people out. If the gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go.

Can God bring proper, lasting justice, banishing certain actions-and the people who do them-from the new creation while at the same time allowing and waiting and hoping for the possibility of the reconciliation of those very same people? Keeping the gates, in essence, open? These are questions that we live in tension with and are not able to answer because of our finite perspective of life, and this is okay. Love Wins pg 115

When we think of God as creator, we have to acknowledge that God is full of possibilities and unlimited imagination. Does God get what God wants? In chapter 21 of the book of Revelations, John says, “3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” I don’t know how much clearer scripture can be on this topic! Amen

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Reflection of my feelings over the past five days since the Batman Movie Shootings.

Reflection over these past Five Days

July 25, 2012

There are times within our lives when an event stops us cold in our tracks. This past Friday (July 20, 2012) is one of those times. Often these times are not a result of our actions; rather, they are invasions upon our life.

This particular event that I am referring to is the mass shooting at the Century 16 Cinema Complex in Aurora, CO. where 12 people lost their lives and over 50 others were wounded. As I woke up that morning and lazily went to my computer to check my morning e-mail before starting my typical Friday routine, I innocently assumed that this Friday would be like any other (of going to Starbucks to write my weekly sermon with the assistance of several large cups of caffeine.) I noticed one e-mail from a friend who was anxious to hear that I was safe and had not been near the theater where “the shooting” took place earlier that morning. My first thoughts were that of wondering why she was so concerned. After all, shootings happen all the time, correct. I thought that there must have been an altercation between a couple of people at a theater and it ended badly with the exchange of gun fire. Just after answering this friend and assuring her that neither my partner nor I were out the night before another e-mail popped into my box, this one from a church in Alexandria, Virginia expressing grief and concern and indicating that their church was holding the congregation that I am serving and the community of Aurora up in prayer over the shootings at a local theater. Finally bells went off in my brain warning me that something very evil had occurred during the night.

After watching about twenty minutes of news in utter disbelief about this tragic event, I felt myself sinking into shock. Usually my first response to “breaking news events” is to wake up Paul and share that news with him, but I found myself needing this time alone, so that I could absorb the gravity of what I was hearing. I needed this time not only to process the news reports, but to first educate myself as quickly as to the available information, and then it began to soak into my brain that the next few days were going to be filled with challenges that I had never planned for and was not sure I was equipped to handle. Then I began to fret about the safety of my congregation – were any of them at that movie last night? I had not received any phone calls telling me so and so had been hurt or killed. I then started formulating my plans of action – things that I needed to do in the awake of this community disaster. First off I needed to contact my family to assure them that I was not immediately involved in these shootings, then go down to my office and check-in to see if there were messages left on the phone system there. After that, I hadn’t a clue what I was going to need to be doing. I woke Paul up and let him know what had happened during the night and set off for a day of unknowing.

Just as I walked into the church, I received a phone call from Tom Rehling, my Conference Minister with the UCC, asking if I had any information about immediate involvement of members. Then a quick check-in with my secretary for any information on potential injuries of church members. Luckily there were none. After that, I started phoning and texting churches that I have relationships within the Aurora area, to see if there had been anyone in their congregations directly affected. Amazingly, we all seemed to have been spared that piece of the tragedy. Then came a long barrage of phone calls and e-mails popping up on my computer screen every few minutes, and text inquiries by friends wanting to know if Paul and I were alright. The Denver Presbytery called to check on how things were with us at Mountain View and let me know that the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Team was on its way into Aurora as a resource to the local churches. Then someone from the National New Office of the United Methodist called requesting a short interview, of which I was totally unprepared to do, but seemed to muddle through it. What was this person thinking about when she asked “what was I going to say on Sunday in Worship?” I had no clue as to what I was going to be doing thirty minutes from now, let alone thinking about what to say two days from then.

After spending almost four hours at the church, I finally decided to go home and escape from life for a few hours. Even at home, my phone was constantly ringing with meetings being arranged for the incoming Presbyterian Assistance Team. There had been a vigil planned for that evening and I was ready to attend, and then received several e-mails indicating that it was being post-pone until that coming Sunday. I was glad of that, and decided to spend a couple of hours working in the flower bed. I was needing time to myself and this was a productive way of physically being active while letting my mind sort through the days information and start the work of self-examination as to how this shooting was victimizing me personally.

Boy did that process of self-reflection open up my awareness of feeling victimized from a personal trauma that happened five years earlier with the murder of my beloved Howard. I recognized that as I was first hearing the news on T.V. about the shootings at the Midnight Movie premiere of Batman, that I was recalling my feelings of a late night phone call from Howard’s daughter Amanda, choking out the words, “Daddy is dead. They shot daddy.” The chill that ran down my spine with those words and having to work through her grief on the phone to gain enough information about how Howard had just gotten home from work, with the car still running, checking for mail at the mailbox at the end of the drive and was shot in the head at blank range by people in a car, who had just executed two other men two houses down in their front yard.

A grave full of grief, anger, and pain had instantly been opened up just ten minutes after waking up last Friday morning. How was I to deal with this new found personal grief as well as dealing with potential grief from the larger community? How was I going to be able to separate my personal feelings so to best help others during their grief without transferring any of my “stuff” onto their needs? Of course this is one of those things one deals with in seminary, but academics are not the same as the feelings of the moment.

Has this past weekend been a struggle personally for me? Yes, a very deep on. My mind goes fifty differing directions with just the prompting of a single word. If only I could keep it to just one word, at least I could focus on it and work through those feelings that are evoked. But there isn’t just one word; it’s a constant bombardment of a whole dictionary. Words that fall under the general heading of “Theological” or “Philosophical”, in other words, words that ask the “why” questions, the questions that are perpetually asked, because there are no real answers.

How does one man become so ‘off’ balanced that he calculates how he can do the most harm to strangers? Why does ‘evil’ exist? Why does God allow these people the freedom to hurt others? How have we as a society failed this man who killed 12 people? How his parent’s hearts must be breaking in two over their son’s actions.

On Sunday evening I went to the prayer vigil that was held by the City of Aurora. I chose to identify myself as “clergy” in that setting, as a way of making known the presence of the church. While I was there, I was reminded once again of what a sacred trust I have been called to, as a clergy person. That the job that I do day in and day out is so different from other jobs that one can do. When I looked around the crowd and made eye contact with strangers, I could see that I wasn’t seen as just another person in the crowd, mourning along with everyone else, I was there representing an idea, a concept that is never seen, but often felt. The concept of a “higher power”, a presence that we as humans feel but do not physically see.

When I am wearing my clerical collar, I am a representative of “hope.” As a professional clergy, my job is to relate in physical actions, those attributes, those expectations, those images we have of the creator of all. It is an overwhelming realization, one that makes me more than humble. Why? Because, I am not God, I am human, and I most fear of failing people who transfer their mind, heart, and soul toward God onto me. Me, who so often falls short of doing good, of being unconditional, of being just “a guy.”

Until this last Friday, I am not sure, that I have fully anticipated the depth of my job and the impact that as a clergy I have? Growing up, I was never the “outstanding” person in my class. I don’t think I ever really strove to be a “leader” among my peers. I’m not even sure, or maybe a more accurate phrase would be, I never felt that I was particularly bright, academically or socially. Oh yes, I loved being noticed for sure, but it always seemed to be a struggle to be “accepted” in my environment.

Even now, I feel that I do not give enough toward what I do. I’m selfish with my time and with my private thoughts. Unlike my husband Paul, I seem to struggle to reach out to people who are in need. I so admire Paul’s genuine gift of compassion toward others, I am put to shame in his shadow. Yet, I find that I have been called to be this ambassador for the creator of all things, to speak the truth of love, in love, and through love. Again, why? Why would I be someone who is so capable of doing more harm for God’s kindom than good be directed into this profession we call “minister?” I receive far too much affirmation for little effort. Or does it seem like “little effort” because the things that “the job” asks of me, are things that I so enjoy giving?

We live in a world filled with irony. There is daylight and darkness, love and evil, happiness and sadness. Sometimes these opposites exist alongside one another. We start the day out refreshed and positive and with just a few words it can turn into a nightmare. We generally get through it all with surprisingly few lasting bruises. Events as this present tragedy, this evil that was showered on this community, will eventually fade into the recesses of our minds, until the next traumatic event. Yet, it during these times in our lives that we take stock. We take stock of what is true value, those riches that we possess in our life and realize that the material stuff is just that, things that can easily be discarded, realizing that the riches that we possess and will always possess are found in our relationships with one another. Even when those that we love pass on into another dimension, we still have within our hearts and minds those precious experiences.

What am I feel most at this stage, five days later? I miss being with my family: my children, my mother, and sister and brother. I miss Howard deeply. I lament in what life might have been for me, if he were still alive. I miss being with his children, of the weekend gatherings of our family time. I miss some other relationships of my past, although all of those are still living, so inner action continues with most of these past relationships. Maybe I even miss my childhood, that simplistic period in my life where I was unaware of the cruelty that life brings to us all if we live long enough.

Right now, I am not able to think about the things that I am thankful for. That is okay, for this is truly a time for mourning, for creating space to lament, so in time I will be able to once again sing praise of how sweet life can be. Now that the initial part of this week is winding down, I am going to take a week off for myself to connect with those who have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I am going to take some time to care for myself, so that I might come back refreshed and prepared to do the long caring for those who need the gifts that God has given to me, specifically for helping those whose path I might cross.

Thank you God, for the gift of my job. Help me to not stumble and disappoint those who rely on me as your physical presence in their lives. Be with those families who have been directly affected by this current evil, help them to feel your presence in their sorrow. Amen

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Life can be a Garbage Dump, by Rev Steven R Mitchell 7/22/2012

This particular sermon comes in the wake of a tragic mass murder of 12 lives and 51 others wounded while watching a midnight showing of the latest Batman movie.  It too closely co-insides with the topic that is scheduled for today's reflection based on the book by Rob Bell, Love Wins.

Life can be a Garbage Dump!
(Love Win’s series)
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 7-22-2012
Based on Luke 16:19-31 & Love Win’s, by Rob Bell
 How does one even begin to attempt to bring a “word” of God to a faith community that gathers in the wake of this past Thursdays act of violence on not just those people who were attending the midnight showing of the newest Batman movie, but violence that also affects the whole community of Aurora?  For we all are victims to this evil that was produced by one human being.
 This summer we started a sermon series that is examining some of Western Christianities understanding of what Jesus meant when he was using terms such as “eternal life”, “heaven”, and “hell”, as well as continuing the discussion of “who gets into God’s Kingdom”, and “who gets to stay out”, with reflections by Rev Rob Bell, author of Love Win’s.  I find it ironic that this week’s scheduled topic is supposed to be on the idea of “hell” which implies evil.
 As I was thinking about various titles for this week’s reflect, I thought about our cultures continued fascination with Vampires and Zombies.  Both of these creatures historically have represented evil, creatures of the night that seemed only to be able to be combated in the safety of “daylight”.   There have always been clear lines between ‘good’ verses ‘evil’ in these story lines.  I had not thought about the story lines that focus around batman as an example, until Friday morning when I awoke to the news of a young man dressed as “the joker”, an arch villain of Batman, opened deadly gun fire onto an unsuspecting audience, where twelve people have died and over fifty others wounded.
 When we are faced with such acts of evil, it seems almost futile to be discussing concepts as to what did Jesus mean when he spoke about “eternal life?”  Or, “Is there a physical place that is called heaven?”  Do people actually “go to hell?”  We are now being forced to shift from an “intellectual” state of thinking about such matters to a more immediate act of “feeling”; from taking the “offensive” posture, to having to react “defensively.”   These topics all of a sudden become “real” and not academic.
 One of the victims who received two gunshot wounds to his shoulder was quoted as saying: “I want to forgive ‘him’ for what he has done, but it’s a struggle and being a man of faith, becomes wary at times.”  Questions arise as we struggle with our feelings.  Questions like:”Is it okay to wish this man to go to hell? Or, “Am I really a very good Christian when I find myself ‘hating’ this man?”  “The Apostle Paul says that we as Christians are not suppose to live in fear, but “I’m afraid to go to the movies now”, does this mean that I don’t trust enough in God’s protection?”  “If God’s is good, then why does God let these kinds of things happen to innocent people?”
 The questions go on and on, and in truth we are not in a position to really be able to understand the “whys” that we are called to face during times of trauma and loss.  Is there “evil” in our world?  Yes, there is most certainly evil in our world.  Sometimes we place ourselves in positions that open us up to encounter evil.  But more often, we just happen to be in the way, when evil decides to pass by and we are caught in its wake. 
Many of us have been spared in having direct contact (meaning the loss of a family member or immediate friend) with someone who is killed by a violent act.  Eleven years ago at age 48, was the first time I was touched by a death through a violent act, when my assistant manager from work was murdered one evening after being abducted in the store parking lot.  It was 5 years ago that a man who was very dear to me was murdered in his driveway in New Orleans.   With the act of violence of last Thursday, I have experienced many emotions that I had from the first two acts of violence.  I would expect this is happening to many of you, as you too are remembering past losses.
When we cry out to God for “justice” in cases where we have been violated such as what we are feeling presently with the Batman Movie killings, we are putting a voice to our pain, fear, and anger.  We most likely are drawing on our historical understanding for “justice”,  which for the young man who pulled the trigger would mean for him punishment by ‘death’, and because of his apparent disregard for human life, will of course end up in “hell” where he belongs.  Again, it is through cultural preconditioning that we have very specific images of ‘hell’,  images that ultimately boil down to an “eternity” of suffering in a fiery pit someplace in the bowels of the earth. 
The story if the rich man and Lazarus seem to re-enforce this image.  When I clicked onto various film clips that have been produced about this story, one thing in common was the imagery of the rich man being isolated on a plot of ground with flames surrounding him, while Lazarus is in a pasture full of sunshine, grass and flowers.  Yet is there really a location for “hell?” 
Last week we spoke about whether there is a physical location for “heaven” and we explored the three types of references to “heaven” that Jesus used.  To review, Jesus spoke of “heaven” as a place where God’s will and only God’s will is done, a place that is physical and with substance, but is in a time to come, and Jesus spoke about “heaven” also as here and now. 
So what about “hell”, is it also a place of substance, a place in a time to come, is “hell” here and now?  Let me start off by clarifying the difference between the words “Hades” and “Hell.”  We tend to see the word “Hades” more in the Hebrew scripture.  The understanding that the Hebrew had when the word “Hades” was used, is that of being below ground.  It was not the images that twentieth century humanity has of a place of torment, but rather a place of darkness where people went when they died. 
Secondly, the Hebrew understanding of “life” and “death” is different that our understanding.  We think of “life” and “death as fixed states or destinations, as you are either alive or death.  Hebrew’s often thought of “life” in one sense, as being in a vital connection with the living God, in which they experience more and more peace and wholeness.  The other kind of life is less and less connected with God and contains more and more despair and destruction. Pg 66, Love Wins
In the New Testament, the word “hell” is used twelve times and mostly by Jesus.  There was an actual location south and west of the city of Jerusalem, a valley called Hinnom, which was the city garbage dump, where there was an eternal fire, a place where wild animals came and ate what they could find. Love Wins, pg67 In the Second Jewish Book of Why, it describes an actual location where in ancient times, children were sacrificed to the god Moloch, the same location of the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem that Jesus referred to.  This valley had been deemed unclean and was the expression for all that is evil and sinful. Pg 209 of book of Why
When I was a teenager, I often pestered my father (who was a confirmed Atheist) about issues of “salvation”, about his not going to “heaven” and his journey toward “hell.”  His response to my concern was, “Steven, there is no ‘hell’ after death, because I am living in hell as we speak.”  It took many years before I started to understand what he was trying to tell me. 
Rob Bell states: God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it.  What is being said is, we as human’s have the capacity to chose to have life – this connection with God and God’s desires for the creation that had been intended and which will ultimately come to fruition, or we have the option to create conditions that go against God’s will, which translate into a physical life that we can call “hell”.  Thursday night, a young man decided to create a world of “hell” for 71 people directly and for the larger community of Aurora.
As is with any act of terror, be it by a group or by an individual, we all become victims.  As victims, we cry out to God for justice.  Yet the question of justice is what becomes muddled for us, I think.  How do we understand “justice?”  We as Christians cry out for social justice all the time, but when it becomes intermingled with “evil” and “violence” that we are directly affected by, how are we able to balance out this vision?  As the one victim says, “I want to forgive this young man who shot me, but as a Christian, it becomes wary.”   This is an honest question that comes from his heart.
Is there a physical “hell?”  Yes there is, it isn’t just a concept, a place where someone who has been bad goes when they die, it is also here and now, existing alongside the “heaven”, the kingdom on earth that Jesus often called us to live in and to work to continue to build. 
Intellectually we can fall short in understanding its existence.  But through our feelings, we understand it when we hurt, or fear, or live in anger.  Hell is truly real, it’s real because “evil” is real.  As Christians do we forgive as part of our seeking “justice?”  Yes, but how does that forgiving play out?  These are the real questions that we struggle with this morning.  These are the questions that we as a faith community need to share with one another, and with God as we work toward our continue goal of bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth.  These are questions that we can bring to one another, as we support each other in the healing process.  “When you have done this for the least of these my sisters and brothers, you have done it to me.”  This is how we combat the acts of evil and continue to bring about God’s kingdom.  Amen

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Kingdom of Far, Far Away, by Rev Steven R Mitchell, Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 7/15/2014

The Kingdom of Far, Far Away

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 7/15/2012

Based on “Love Wins” by Rob Bell and Matthew 25: 31-40 & 1 Cor.13:11-13

In the beginning scenes from the “SHREK 2” movie, we have Shrek the ogre and his princess bride, Fiona, who also happens to be an ogre, returning home from their honeymoon only to receive an invitation to come to meet Fiona’s dad and mom, the King and Queen of the Kingdom of Far, Far, Away. As they approach the city limits, you realize that this Kingdom looks very much like Hollywood. The castle itself has the Disney motif; the streets are paved with gold and lined in palm trees. Again these are subliminal reflections on our cultural views of “heaven”.

As is often the case, Shrek the new son-in-law isn’t exactly greeted by his new father-in-law with open arms. In fact, the king works at having Shrek removed from the picture in order that his daughter might marry the man of his dreams, Prince Charming. Yet through all these trials and tribulations, there actually is a happy ending, with Shrek proving his worthiness to the king. A twist comes at the end of the story as we find out that the king, who appears to be human, actually was that frog we hear about in the story’s used to console young girls: if you only kiss enough frogs, you will find your prince!

In Shrek 3, we find that the king has become quite ill and Shrek and Fiona have to step up and handle the “affairs of state”. This proves to be very interesting. Fiona, since she was raised as a princess seems to have all the breeding and knowledge that is expected of royalty. Shrek on the other hand is a total “Ogre”. He has to act and think in a way that is totally foreign to him, because he has not had the training that one needs to be a king.

The whole Shrek series challenges societies “childish” points of view on so many topics. Paul tells the church in Corinth, “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.” The church as a whole is in the midst of a major upheaval, as it struggles to re-examine the stories told in scripture, stories that seem to no longer make sense modern society.

This, I believe, is because the church has too long been teaching scripture from the child’s point of view refusing to become the adult that we should be, insisting on continually wanting to live in a child’s world. A part of this problem comes out of fear by the pastor, that if she/he should present views contrary to the congregation, they could be fired; thus not allowing for any real growth, theologically.

Although seminaries have been training pastoral leadership for several hundred years in this country, the church has suffered intellectually because of the rapid expansion as the country moved from the east coast toward the west coast. During the height of expansion of the Mid-west and Plaines states, the need for churches far exceeded the availability of seminary trained pastors. This gap was filled by persons who had very limited biblical education, presenting what we would now call “literal” interpretations of the writings within scripture, literal interpretations being based on those cultural experiences of the times. Couple this with history loosing much of the understanding of the early Hebrew culture; it is easy to see why views of a place such as heaven would be filled with promise of rewards, which would not be consistent with the first century hearers of the words of Jesus and later of the apostles, such as Paul.

Today, we have the benefit of archeological discoveries that have helped scholars re-discover a good deal of the Hebrew mindset, allowing us to look more accurately at words such as “eternal life” or “heaven” and understand them from the point of view of those first listeners of Jesus.

Last week we discussed the understanding that “eternal life” did not mean “living forever” but rather, “in the age to come”. What then was Jesus speaking about when he used the word “Heaven?” Well Jesus uses this word to mean several differing things. One of the understandings of the use of the word “heaven” is as a substitute for the word God. In our culture, we have no problem in saying God’s name, but in Hebrew culture, the creator of all things was so revered that it was inappropriate to use the name of God directly, so there were substitutes used, one of them being the word “heaven.” Jesus often referred to the”kingdom of heaven,” and he tells stories about people “sinning against heaven.” “Heaven” in these cases is simply another way of saying “God.” Love Wins, Rob Bell pg 42

A second understanding that Jesus has of “Heaven” is as a real place, space, and dimension of God’s creation, where God’s will and only God’s will is done. Heaven is that realm where things are as God intends them to be. Love Wins, Rob Bell pg 42 This is found again in the Lord’s prayer as “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” This also relates to the idea of “eternal life”, the age to come, that we discussed in last week’s worship. So, there is this future place called “heaven”, which is God’s kingdom, a place that is reconciled to God’s wishes of which things exist in harmony. While Jesus was hanging on the cross, he was asked by one of the other two men, if Jesus would remember him when Jesus came into his kingdom, this age to come. Jesus’ response was, “this day you shall be with me in Paradise or what we might call “heaven.”

Then there is a third understanding of “heaven” used by Jesus. Jesus often spoke about “the kingdom of God is among you.” This relates to this morning’s Gospel reading when Jesus spoke about the separation of the sheep and the goats. Of how those who gave food, shelter, clothing, looked after the ill, and those in prison, all these things done for those in need, they were doing to Jesus. This is the active state of now, of heaven in the present.

In many respects, the things that we learn and do in our present life is preparing us for life with God, this future understanding of living in God’s presence. Usually we think of heave as a place of comfort, yet heaven also is a place of accountability. What I mean by this, is the way we think and act now in the present will also be the way we think and act in the future. If Gods concept of creation is that of all being reconciled, how do you think I will deal with sitting next to a person that during my life on earth, I thought as a subordinate to me? Say, I was a member of the KKK, and in heaven I found that I was a roommate to a black person? Would this be heaven for me or would this be “Hell?”

Remember the “rich young man” story, who was told by Jesus, to sell all that he had and then he would be able to follow him? It’s very common to hear talk about heaven framed in terms of who “gets in” or how to “get in.” What we find Jesus teaching, over and over and over again, is that he’s interested in our hearts being transformed, so that we can actually handle heaven. To portray heaven as bliss, peace, and endless joy is a beautiful picture, but it raises the question: How many of us could handle it, as we are today? How would we each do in a reality that had no capacity for cynicism or slander or worry or pride? Love Wins, Rob Bell pg50

Like Shrek, who finds himself living in the Kingdom of Far, Far Away, he had not had any training, any opportunity in life to learn how to act as a representative of the King and when asked to help reign, found himself like an Ogre out of the swamp. “When I was a child, I thought and acted as a child. But now as an adult, I put away childish things.” To say it again, eternal life is less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more about a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God. Amen

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Somewhere Over the Rainbow, by Rev Steven R Mitchell, Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 7/8/2012

Somewhere Over the Rainbow
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 7/8/2012
Based on “Love Wins” by Rob Bell and Matthew 19:16-22

 In the opening scene of the “Wizard of Oz”, you have a young girl, Dorothy Gayle, who feels as if no one is interested in her life, of what she thinks or feels.  As she tries to share with her Auntie Em about her problem with the mean and nasty Miss Gulch, Dorothy is told to go and occupy her own time and try to stay out of trouble.  Dorothy begins to ponder as to whether there is a place that actually does exist, a place where there are no problems. 
While pondering about this place, Dorothy shares her thoughts by singing a song of promise and hope: Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, there's a land that I’ve heard of once in a lullaby.  Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue, and the dreams that you dare to dream, really do come true.  Someday I'll wish upon a star, and wake up where the clouds are far behind me.  Where troubles melt like lemon drops, a way above the chimney tops, that's where you'll find me.
Somewhere over the rainbow, blue birds fly.  Birds fly over the rainbow, why then, oh why can't I?  If happy little blue birds fly beyond the rainbow, why, oh why can't I?
The things that Dorothy is singing about sound very much like images that could be found in the place we call ‘Heaven”.  A place we go once we leave this present life filled with pressure, stress, and anxiety, a life that has pain and heartache.  A place where we no longer struggle to survive, where the streets are paved with gold, where there is no darkness.  Some even imagine this place as a place where we walk around dressed in white robes, strumming harps, and continuously sing.  Heaven has been said to be a place where little boys no longer have to take baths, or as a place where we can have a golf game at par!
However for Dorothy, once she gets over on to the other side of the rainbow, she discovers that she can find “trouble” just as easily.  Starting through the act of her arrival, with the house she was in falling on a witch and killing her, creating very bad blood between her and the dead witch’s sister.  All along her journey in Oz, she has struggles and life is anything but easy.  Dorothy discovers that life even on the other side of the rainbow is not without its challenges.
Our Gospel reading this morning has a similar issue to Dorothy’s story.  The rich young man was also thinking about life beyond the present.  He too was anxious about how he was living and wanting to make sure that he did all that he needed to do in order to achieve “eternal life.”  Over time our culture has changed the understanding of “eternal life” to mean something different than what the Hebrews who first listened to this story understood, “eternal life” to be.  We translate “eternal life” into an understanding of life without end, and that this life without end exists in one of two specific places: heaven or hell.  Our cultural concepts of heaven go somewhere on the line of the “Over the rainbow” song and translates in our understanding as “eternal life”, whereas, hell is eternal suffering or “eternal damnation”, in continual torment.
For many modern day followers of Jesus, the ultimate purpose in following Jesus, is so one might have “eternal life.”  If you were to go to our library and look around for information on how to share the “saving grace” of Christ, you will not find much on the topic.  On the other hand, if you were to go into a church that identifies itself specifically as an Evangelical church, you most likely will find all sorts of literature on how to not only receive – eternal life, but how to share that “good news” with others.
How many of you have been approached by someone while walking down the sidewalk and asked you, “If you were to die tonight, do you know that you would go to heaven?”  Or have a person pass you a “bible track” that explains the simple steps to salvation?  You can find classes that will teach you how to answer the rich young man’s question to Jesus, “what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”  Maybe you have even wondered if as a church we might be missing this important piece of evangelism because we do not have any classes on how to share the “gospel” with others so that they too might have “eternal life?”  Shouldn’t we as a church have this as one of our priorities?
After all, don’t we here at Mountain View take the Bible seriously and if we take the bible seriously, shouldn’t we be knowledgeable as to how to “share” the good news of “eternal life?”
 The rich man’s question, then, is the perfect opportunity for Jesus to give a clear, straightforward answer to the only question that ultimately matters for many.  First we can only assume, Jesus will correct the man’s flawed understanding of how salvation works.  He’ll show the man how eternal life isn’t something he has to earn or work for; it’s a free gift of grace.  Then, he’ll invite the man to confess, repent, trust, accept, and believe that Jesus has made a way for him to have a relationship with God. Pg27 Love Wins, by Rob Bell  
 Yet Jesus doesn’t do any of that.  What he says to the young man is, “If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”  Did Jesus miss the boat by not sharing the Bible track on salvation with this guy?  Has Jesus completely missed an opportunity of teaching about “eternal life” by telling this young man to follow the commandments so he might “enter life?” 
“Keep the commandments?  Which one of the 613 commandments am I suppose to keep, Jesus?”  Jesus then lists five: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, and don’t steal, don’t give false testimony and honor your parents.  These aren’t even the commandments that deal with our relationship with God, but rather with other people, about things that go on in this life, not about things of heaven, like spirituality.
I think the confusion comes in not understanding what the question by the young man is truly about.  When the man asked about getting “eternal Life”, he isn’t asking about how to go to heaven when he dies.  This wasn’t a concern for the man or Jesus. Heaven, for Jesus, was deeply connected with what he called “this age” and “the age to come.” Pg 30 Love Wins, by Rob Bell.   
When Jesus speaks about “age” he is speaking about a period of time that has a beginning and an ending, much like “eras” or “periods of time”.  As an example, “My great-grandparents lived in an age of horse and buggy.  My grandparents lived in the eras of the automobile.  I live in an eras of space exploration.  Another way of saying “life in the age to come” in Jesus’ day was to say “eternal life.”  In Hebrew the phrase is olam habah.  “What must I do to inherit olam habah?”  “What must I do to inherit life in the age after this one. Pg 31 Love Wins, by Rob Bell 
If we can understand that “eternal life” in this gospel story is about “life in the age to come”, it is easier for us to understand Jesus’ response about what is needed to “enter life”, which is consist with the overall message that Jesus taught.  For Jesus, the concern about what takes place in this present eras is of far more important than looking for a destination after this life.  We often speak about this when we say, “it isn’t the destination that is the goal, but rather the goal is the journey.” 
For Jesus, the Kingdom of God, often what we want to call “heaven” is already here among us.  The commandments that Jesus quoted to this young man were behaviors that we are to strive for in order to build a stronger, more loving and peaceful existence with one another.  The one commandment that Jesus left out until pressed further by the young man was the commandment that deals with “you shall not covet”.  It’s not about whether we have great wealth, but rather, what do we covet that will keep us from “entering life.” 
Eugene Peterson best expresses this when he translates, “22That was the last thing the young man expected to hear. And so, crest-fallen, he walked away. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and he couldn't bear to let go.”  The ultimate reality is that for us to “enter life” to be able to engage in what is going on around us, we must become vulnerable to life.  We must relinquish those things that control us or that we possess that position us to be in control.
Once Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz had done everything that she could possibly do in order to get back home to Kansas, she discovers that none of those external things were able to help her.  Ultimately she realized that the way home, was something that she always possessed, it was inside of her and all she had to do was realize that what was most important to her were her relationships, that  love which was in her own back yard.  I think in our journey to find eternal life, we first have to “enter life.”  We have to first let go of those things that hold us back from living life right now in this age.  Amen

Sunday, July 1, 2012

What Jesus are We Talking About?, by Rev Steven R Mitchell, Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 7/1/2012

What Jesus Are We Talking About?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 7/1/2012
Based on “Love Wins” by Rob Bell and Mark 5: 21-43

 Once each month we as a congregation celebrate the life of Jesus in the act of “Communion.”  We take almost a quarter of the Worship Service with communion, which indicates the importance we give to it.  As indicated by part of the words of institution, Jesus said, “as often as you do this, remember me.”  But what is it really that we are to remember about Jesus?  Are we to remember Jesus as a victim of murder, or remember Jesus as the man who rose up from the dead?  Do we remember Jesus in “thanks-giving” for giving us salvation?  Or do we remember Jesus for his teachings?  Just what Jesus are we talking about when we come to the communion table?
Last week Judy Rowe brought her granddaughter to church.  That was the very first time that this little five year old had ever been exposed to anything that deals with discussions about God.  After worship, Judy and her granddaughter attended the weekly communion service that is held in the back parlor for those who wish to take communion weekly.  I had the privilege of standing next to the five year old.  The language of that service was heavy in sacrificial type images, not unusual for those of us who have grown up with those images, but I heard the little girl ask her grandmother if that was really the body of Jesus and did she have to eat it?
 Her question immediately reminded me of one of the problems that the early church had as it would celebrate communion behind closed doors. Those who were standing on the outside of those closed doors interpreted those sacramental words just like Judy’s granddaughter.  The early church was accused of being cannibalistic because the language used imagery of eating flesh and drinking blood.  How frightening this must be to a five year old, of to someone who has not been raised in the church.
In this morning Gospel reading from Mark, we see Jesus returning from the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  He is met by a Priest of the Synagogue, asking Jesus to come to his house to heal his sick daughter.  Along the way, a woman who had been ill for many years grabbed Jesus’ robe in an attempt to be healed.  Is the Jesus we are remembering today, a healer?   Or is there something, some message that goes deeper, that describes what Jesus we are to remember?
In the celebration of communion we share Jesus, yet is that the only way in which we share Jesus?  This brings up another question: When we are talking about Jesus, what Jesus are we speaking about?  A few of the biblical references to Jesus are: teacher, Messiah, healer, son of God, son of man, Priest, Prophet.  In modern thought we have expanded references to Jesus as: Man of God, God’s only son, miracle worker, savior, risen Lord; some know Jesus as one who condemns behavior that we disapprove of. 
Rob Bell shares a story about a woman who had invited a male friend to one of their worship services.  He asked if this service was a Christian church.  She responded yes, it was.  He then shared a story about Christians in his village in Eastern Europe who rounded up the Muslims in town and herded them into a building, where they opened fire on them with their machine guns and killed them all.  He explained to her that he was a Muslim and had no interest in going to her Christian church. Love Wins, pg 7/8 
What Jesus are we talking about?  Many practicing Christians think of Jesus as the one who saves the world, “For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”John 3:16 This implies that God’s love is conditional, that even though God provides a scapegoat for our behavior, we still have to act upon that.  For many evangelicals, this means reciting a prescribed confession or prayer often referred to as “the sinner’s prayer.”  This view of Jesus leads to the discussion of “heaven” and “hell”; both are words Jesus used in his teachings.
Again these two words lead to discussions as to the relationship that we have with God and God’s relationship to us.  These two words are basic questions that humanity has always asked.  Depending on how we understand the concepts of “heaven” and “hell” shapes our response in both personal behavior and our interaction to others.
Do we see God as a loving God, one who is interested in justice and if interested in justice, justice for who?  For all peoples or just justice for those who call upon God’s name, and if for only those who call upon God’s name, what name is the right name?  When we come to this table, do we look to a Jesus that saves?  Do we look to a Jesus who saves only a particular few?  Are all people actually welcomed to this table or does Jesus exclude those who do not say “the believer’s prayer?”
If we think of “heaven” and of “hell” as specific locations, then what happens if the church looks to “heaven” as the goal, the desired destination?  This is the message that a large portion of the church preaches.  If you do not accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior you will not make it into heaven.  With this type of belief, with this type of message, it is easy then for the church to not worry itself about what is going on in the world, of the millions of people who are starving, who have no home to live in, or of the exploitation of those who are weaker.  In a word – social justice would not be a concern for those who follow Jesus.  Is this the Jesus we are to remember?
Is Jesus’ message really about getting to heaven and staying out of hell?  If this were so, then why was Jesus crucified?  What possible reason would anyone have in killing a man who taught about getting into heaven?  No, I think that what Jesus was teaching had something more to do about how we viewed our immediate world and not so much about waiting or preparing in order to get to “heaven.”  If the true message of Jesus was only about “getting to heaven” then what do we do about Jesus’ statement that, “the Kingdom of God is among us?”
This summer, we will be taking a journey, discussing what Jesus means when he refers to “heaven” and “hell”, of his understanding of “the kingdom of God is here, now”.  We will explore some basic questions of what does salvation mean and who is in and who is out.  We will be discussing questions about “faith” and how this faith affects our lives and our responses to not only spiritual matters, but at the level of our humanity.  We will be asking the question of “What Jesus are we talking about.”
If God so loved the world that through Jesus all might find salvation, what does that really mean?  Is life in God conditional or unconditional? These are hugely important questions to ask, I’m not sure that we can fully answer them, but if we call ourselves followers of Christ, then they are questions that need honest exploration.  We use phrases such as “More Light”, “Reconciling”, and “Open and Affirming”, these phrases speak more broadly than just about sexual orientation.  They speak about a relationship between us and God, between us and others, it speaks about where our hearts and minds are with ‘truth’.  As we come this morning to the banquet table of Christ – What Jesus are we remembering?  Amen