Sunday, August 26, 2012

Is God In This Place? by Rev Steven R Mitchell, Mountain View United, Aurora, CO

 This morning’s scripture text comes as a remembrance of the dedication of the Temple, built by Solomon, while Israel was in Babylonian captivity.  The writer tells of a beautiful dedication, full of pomp and circumstance; of the temple that had been build to honor God.  There was the procession of the priests, of the Ark of the Covenant which had been moved around for decades awaiting a home in which to rest.
 The scripture indicates that even though the temple was built for God, there is recognition that even heaven could not contain God, much less a building which is built by humans.  So if Solomon recognized that God couldn’t possibly be contained in the four walls of the temple, why build it?  Not only was God too big for the temple, we are told that even foreigners would come and offer up prayers in this temple.  Again, why would a structure such as the temple prompt foreigners to come and offer up prayers? 
 This past Friday evening and Saturday a group of us from this congregation gathered at a retreat focusing on questions such as these.  As a way of jump starting our thinking process, we watched a part of the movie Sister Act; a story about a woman living in the secular world sought sanctuary in a convent.  The story discussed a variety of issues that centered on leadership, vision, outreach, growth (personal and physical), fear of the unknown to name just a few. 
 One of the noticeable things of this film was the church in which the major part of this story took place.  It is a rather large, cathedral looking type structure.  You could tell that in its younger days, it was a beautiful building in which to worship in.  However, the church had dwindled down to just a few worshippers, was in great disrepair.  The exterior was not only tired looking but it was separated from the neighborhood by a chain link fence.  After Sister Mary Clarence (the secular woman needing sanctuary) shows up and posing as a nun, you start to see a physical change of the church building.  The fence comes down, colorful murals are painted on the exterior walls, and the once empty sanctuary once again is filled with excitement and worshippers. 
 The story spoke to what happens when leadership and visioning come into play in the life of a church and how that affects the community.  At the retreat we discussed the importance of our congregation owning a vision for Mountain View.  We have a vision statement, but the question asked was, do we as a faith community actually own this vision?  You see, a vision is not just a statement, a plan, it is a feeling, an intuitive part of knowing where we want to go, or in the case of the church, knowing where God wishes us to head.  Moses gained his vision through the burning bush, a vision that compelled him to challenge the social structure of Egypt to lead the Hebrews out of slavery.  Nehemiah had a dream, where God gave him the courage to ask the Assyrian King to let him go back to the land of his fathers to rebuild Jerusalem.  Martin Luther King’s vision was spelled out in his “I have a dream” speak at the march on Washington.  A vision where one day, blacks and whites, rich and poor, stranger and friend would walk in harmony (paraphrased.)
 During times of relative calm, where life seems to be just floating smoothly along, the idea of having a place where one can go isn’t very high on the priority list.  In fact, much discussion often focuses around how much financial resources should be allocated to the upkeep and/or improvement of our four walled edifices.  “Wouldn’t we be better stewards of our resources by investing into social programs instead of replacing carpet or padding the pews so they are more comfortable to sit in?”  And these are truly important discussions, for are we called to be slaves to a building or to do ministry among Gods children?
 Yet, when we are faced with terrifying violence such as 9/11, or the mass shooting at the Aurora Century Cinema complex, or when nature flexes her power which brings massive destructions, or when we are having a personal crisis, we often come to a church where by just being in a sanctuary seems to give comfort.  Why is this the case?
 While serving in Rock Springs, I introduced a “Blessing of the Pets” worship.  This was a new concept for those folks and when they found out that we were going to do that service in the sanctuary, I received a lot of skeptical concerns, primarily indicating that the animals wouldn’t know how to act in the sanctuary, or around other animals, especially dogs being around cats.  I assured them that there would be very little problem, that once their pets were in the sanctuary they seemed to know they were on holy ground and would be very calm.  This has held true with every blessing ceremony that I have been a part of.  In fact one year, Paul brought the neighbors dog, Ogar to be blessed, and while at church Ogar fell in love with two of the female dogs there that day.
 Why are churches seen as places of sanctuary, where people can find safety?  When I was in my early twenties, living in Wichita, KS, as a lay person, I found myself at times during the week, that I would go to the church that I was a member and would go and sit in the sanctuary, praying for guidance.  Now we can pray anywhere and at anytime, but there were times when I needed to physically be in a sanctuary to do my praying.  For it was there at those times I seemed to feel that God was sitting next to me.
 What does the church building represent to you?  Have there been times in your life when being physically in a sanctuary was the only way to feel safety, comfort, and a closeness to God, which seemed to not be achievable elsewhere?  Could it be then that the God who larger than the universe, can actually fit inside these four walls?  We speak a lot about the merit of going outside these walls in order to do service, to do mission.  We speak a lot about the world being able to experience God’s love and compassion through our actions in God’s name.  Yet when we are feeling beat up, or feeling threatened by our environment, or overcome by deep loneliness, do we not find comfort and soles in the house of God!  It is in our faithful support of our church that makes it possible for this “holy place” to be possible, to be physically available, and to be a concrete reminder of God’s presence. 
 There is just something different about a sanctuary, that configuration of building materials, drawn together and raised up as a witness.  It is poignant, even heartbreaking, to watch churches being turned into condo developments and restaurants.  What feelings does that evoke in you?  What makes a space sacred to you?  Perhaps, when we sit in church, we are aware of those who came before us, whom we will never know, that great cloud of witnesses who’s generosity and faithfulness left us this great legacy.  Perhaps the beauty of this church and the memories they evoke, inspire us to greater generosity, not for ourselves as much as for those who come long after us, searching for a home, seeking refuge and solace, and seeking inspiration in order to return into the world with renewed strength and vision. Ucc Sermon Seeds, by Kate Huey 8/26/2012   God is greater than the heavens and yet God is in this place.  Amen

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Seeking What Gives Life, by Rev Steven R Mitchell 8-19-2012

Seek What Gives Life

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO 8/19/2012

Based on I King 3:5-14 and John 6: 26-34, 58

Often times, when looking in the “personals” you will come across ads of people who are looking for someone to spend some “intimate” time with in order to not be alone. Many times these ads will say something to the effect of, “looking for love in all the wrong places.” What they really mean is they are looking for the wrong type of companionship. These people realize that there is a loneliness within them that they think can be filled by having another person around. The unfortunate reality is that the loneliness isn’t from being by oneself, but rather a lack of something deeper within them. What they are lacking is an inner wisdom of who they are.

The Hebrew scripture that we read this morning speaks about the young man who became king and yet felt that he wasn’t prepared for the job. He might very well have not been raised to know how to act and speak like a king, as he had an older brother who by rights should have been the next king. Yet the young men’s father, King David on his death bed, appointed not the elder son, but the younger son to take his place as ruling Monarch. This tells me that David saw something in Solomon that he felt would make him the better ruler. Yet Solomon states that he doesn’t know how to come or go as a King, so in a dream, Solomon has a visit with God. God asks Solomon what he would most like to have as a gift from God. Solomon replies that what he most needs as king is “Wisdom” so that he might serve the people to the best of his ability. Why? Because these people are God’s people and Solomon wishes, I think, to please God.

The definition of Wisdom is: The ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting; insight. Common sense; good judgment. Most translations use the word “mind” in connection to “wisdom”, but I think the word “heart” better describes the essence of “wisdom.” Our minds can think critically, but wisdom goes deeper than just critical thinking. It also involves “feeling” and “intuitiveness”, and these specific attributes we tend to apply to the heart as providing.

Solomon, so pleased God in his request that God gave him not only the gift of “wisdom” but also “riches” and “honor” among all the nations. God also told Solomon, that if he continued to follow after God, that he would also be given a longer life. Even though Solomon ruled for forty years, which sounds like a very long reign, he didn’t follow God through the last part of his leadership. Solomon, might have ruled in part with wisdom on behalf of his subjects, he most certainly did not use wisdom to live his personal life, and eventually fell away from following God and took to following many minor gods which were introduced by his many wives and concubines. In other words, Solomon basically got off track and minimized his relationship with the God of his father and of his people.

In this morning’s passage from John, we see a huge crowd, pressing Jesus for more signs to prove that he is the son of God. The story just before this text talked about the feeding of the five thousand and how many of them went searching for Jesus after he left in a boat. Jesus tells the crowd that they are not looking for Jesus because of the “truth” that he can provide, or because of the miraculous signs that Jesus has performed in their presence, but rather because they ate all the food that they wanted. Jesus urges the crowd to look for what will feed them eternal life.

At this point the crowd wants to know “what they must do in order to accomplish what God requires?” Jesus tells them that, “God wants them to believe in the one who God sent to them.” Meaning Jesus. This is where we can become splintered within the church, because we can take several differing paths in understanding what Jesus was saying here. One way is to believe in Jesus as the sacrificial lamb. The way that I understand this passage is to take Jesus not as a sacrificial lamb, but rather infusing the essence of Jesus’ teaching and his understanding of relationship with God.

The crowd wanted a sign; they said that their ancestors received manna while out in the dessert as they followed Moses out of Egypt. They were confusing how the manna was provided. They understood that the manna came because of Moses and failed to recognize that it came from God. They saw the earlier feeding as coming through Jesus, not from God.

I wonder if we are any different today, in how we look to God. Do we see the miracles that are given to us daily? And if we see miracles, do we miss the point of them? Do we see them as not only gifts from God, but as an indication of our relationship with God and that it is through this relationship that we find “life”? You see, we can receive many things that will temporarily satisfy us; possessions or achievement of personal goals, that like after a meal make us feel satisfied but a few hours later, we are hungry again.

As a church we were born out of a vision in the 1960’s that three denominations had; a vision of being able to come together with differing talents and gifts of these denominations to minister to the community of Aurora. The problem with a vision is over time it can be lost, very much like King Solomon, we become distracted by many opportunities and forget what the original agreement was about. Over time, we have acquired new members who were not a part of that vision and might not know about what the original idea was for Mountain View. Times have changed as well, and the way that we do “church” is not consistent with the way that the general population understands. Now we can resist modern norms and behaviors but this over time isolates us and what our purpose for “being” is about. It puts us out of touch with the larger community.

This coming Friday and Saturday, we as a church have the opportunity to spend time in conversation about “who” we are, “what” we want for our community of faith, and “where” does God want to lead us? We in essence are going to be asking God for “wisdom”. As the crowd asked Jesus, “What must we do in order to accomplish what God requires”, we too need to consistently be asking this same question. As a child of God, if we are interested in an active relationship with God, we must not just ask for specific things, for that makes God nothing more than a “Santa Clause” or a “Genie.” In order to deepen our relationship with God, to walk in God’s way, we must let God speak to us and listen, both individually and corporately.

Solomon at the beginning of his kingship was walking close to God, for God came in his dreams. Solomon was able to ask God for “wisdom”, the gift that not only would make him an effective ruler, but also a gift that would have the potential of deepening his relationship over time with God. Jesus was telling the crowd, not to look at things in life that only sustain life temporarily, but to eat the bread that gives life eternal. This bread was the “truth” the “wisdom” that Jesus taught. It’s like taking a bag of liquid “Jesus” and receiving an I.V. that gives us this wisdom, this infusion of Jesus’ essence that allows us to incorporate it into who we are.

If this community of faith wishes to continue to have a long life we must consistently be asking for the gift of “wisdom” that only comes through God. We need to ask for not just concrete direction and understanding, but also for the “intuitive” and the “feeling”, for the “wisdom”, the “vision” that is needed in order to do the best for what God has for us to do.

It most likely will not come through a letter written by God, but rather, it will come through our preparing through prayer, specifically asking for “wisdom” and for “vision” prior to our meeting this coming weekend, and then through our taking time to open our minds, our imaginations, and our hearts, to the bread that God has in store for us. The bread that gives us nourishment and life, that in turn we might provide God’s nourishment and life to a world that is desperately looking for relationships in all the wrong places. Amen

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Who's Story Do You Believe? by Rev Steven R Mitchell, Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 8-12-2012

Who’s Story Do You Believe?
(Love Wins Series)
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United, Aurora 8/12/2012
Based on Luke 15: 11-32
 For those of you who haven’t noticed thus far, we are entering another season of political campaigning.  We will be hearing more and more ads from our candidates about all the marvelous wonders they are going to perform once they are elected or re-elected into the office that they are seeking.  One says that they can balance the budget!  What they fail to tell us is how they intend to balance the budget.  One tells us how concerned they are about the middle class.  Yet, they don’t really give any information as to how they are going to show this concern.  Our candidates are even so bold as to tell us they are going to “change” things once in office.  But truthfully do they even have the power in that “office” to actually make major changes if given the opportunity? 
Who’s story are you going to believe, candidate “A” or candidate “B”?  Here is some practical election advice to consider when choosing a candidate.   First off, just know that every candidate will say whatever they think you want to hear in order to be elected.  It’s been that way in the past, it’s that way in the present, and it will be that way in the future.  So don’t base your choice on “what they say they will do”, rather look at the history of what they have done.  Chances are that what they have done in the past will be a pretty good indication as to what they will be doing if given the opportunity in whatever office they are seeking.
We have the same issue at a personal level as well.  We are told many things about ourselves through many sources, conflicting information many times.  Let me give you a recent example.  Last week while visiting my sister in Kansas, I had the marvelous experience of spending time with her grand-daughter, Caylynn.  Caylynn is a beautiful young lady of almost 15 years old, who is starting her freshman year of high school.  Caylynn is a little chunky, which at her age isn’t unusual.  What I learned about this young lady through our visits is just how poor a self-image she has of herself.  She has learned through her junior high years that to be a part of the “in crowd”, you have to be thin and your family needs to have a good amount of money, so you can be seen in the latest designer fashions and have the latest electronics. 
The things that she has been told during junior high have had a great influence on her behavior, her academic achievements, and the type of friends that she seeks out.  She doesn’t come from a family with lots of disposable income, as her mother has always been a single parent.  This places her in an area where gangs have control of not only the neighborhood, but also the surrounding schools.  Most of her friends have parents who are involved in these gangs and all that goes along with that culture.
I also observed this past the amount of effort that my sister puts toward her grand-daughter in telling her how smart she is, how attractive she is, and how she can have a great life living without all the designer stuff or latest electronics.  Caylynn seems to like her great uncle Steven, so I had some very in-depth discussions with her about how she perceives herself.  So here is a young girl who has been taught by her surroundings that she doesn’t disserve a certain quality of life that many of us take for granite.  This is her story.  Her grandmothers story say’s she truly is physically beautiful, smart, and a gifted person.  Whose story is she going to believe; the story that has been told her over the past few years or the story that her grandmother tells her?
This is what is going on in the story of the indulging father and his two sons.  We have two sons, the older son who appears to be more stable, trust-worthy, and responsible; the other son appears to be less stable, foolish in his behavior, and immature.  I use the word “appears” because the story goes deeper than what the surface reading gives. 
I found it interesting this past Tuesday at Panera’s as the Sacred Grounds group met for the study of today’s Gospel.  I thought there was going to be a mutiny over my selection of The Prodigal Son.  When I asked why such a negative reaction to this parable, it boiled down to viewing this parable as “being unfair”.  It seems that most of us relate more easily with the older brother, thus giving us an uneasy feeling about this parable. 
So we have two sons, who like my grand-niece have their story about who they are.  The younger son’s story or understanding of himself, is that of being a failure, of not being worthy enough to be called “son” by his father, but is lower and less deserving and hopefully can be accepted as a servant.  The father has a different story about this young man.  Even before the boy gets to the gates of the estate, the father has run out to greet his son.  He has the boy cleaned up, dressed in fine clothes, and has the family ring put on his finger, indicating that he is not accepted as a servant but is only allowed to come back home with full status and privilege of standing as a member of the family.  The father makes this public by throwing a huge party for him.  This younger son has to decide which story he is going to believe, his story as being only good enough to be a servant or his father’s story of being worthy as a member of the family.
The elder son has his story – he is the loyal one, the one who never asks for anything, the one who works hard and keeps his nose to the grindstone.  He is the son who does what is right, he never does anything wrong, he is the reason why the estate continues to operate.  Scripture says:
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.
He describes his life in his father’s house as slaving!  How opposite the image the elder son has of himself from the younger brother who feels unworthy to be called a member of the family, the elder brother who has always stayed home and counted as a family member views himself as a slave.
 The father shares with him, “31 “‘My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”  In just one sentence, the father tells an entirely different story about the elder son.  The elder son hasn’t been a slave, the father hasn’t been cheap, the elder son could have had whatever he wanted whenever he wanted.  The final truth is that the father never set out to be fair in the first place.  “Grace and generosity” aren’t fair; that’s their very essence.  The father sees the younger son’s return as one more occasion to practice unfairness.  We can also refer to this as “extravagant welcome.”  The younger son doesn’t deserve a party – that’s the point of the party.  That’s how things work in the father’s world.  Profound unfairness. Love Wins, pg 168   The older son now has to choose which story he is going to believe, his father’s story or his story.
 The story that Jesus has been trying to get across to this world is the truth that it isn’t about who gets “in”, but rather it is a story about whether we chose to partake in God’s love.  The older son has two options; one is to accept his truth about not being a slave but rather a member in the family and enter into the party, or he can refuse his father’s truth and in essence continue to live a life as a slave.  The younger son has the same choice, to believe his story of being “unworthy” or accept his father’s story of being a member of the family as well, and join in the party.
 In this story, heaven and hell are within each other, intertwined, interwoven, bumping up against each other.  Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story. Love Wins, pg 170   Some of us are haunted by our past actions.  Abuse, betrayal, addictions, infidelities – secrets that have been buried for years.  For some it is our ego, our pride that keeps us from seeing our true worth in God’s eyes.  All these things are our stories, these are the things that keep us from entering into the party that God has for us.  What the stories in scripture do is confront our version of our stories with God’s version of our story.  What is God’s version of your story?  “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”  Our challenge is to accept God’s version over our own.  Amen