Sunday, September 16, 2012

So What? by Rev Steven R Mitchell, Mountain View United

So What?
Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 9/16/2012
Based on Mark 8:27-28
 One of my favorite “classic” T.V. shows from the 80’s is the “Golden Girls”.  Sophia Petrillo, the oldest member of that household, is my most favorite character, because she seems to hold the true wisdom when it is most needed.  So I have developed an adaptation of how she might look at this morning’s reading out of Mark.
 Scene: Dorothy is having a discussion with her mother Sophia over Dorothy’s identity crisis.  To which Sophia shares one of her typical motherly stories which are filled with great wisdom and comfort.  Sophia begins her story with: Picture it, Caesarea Philippi, 0030 AD.  A band of men wondering around the countryside trying to hide from Herod, the King of Israel, who had just murdered John the Baptizer for identifying the King’s sinful marriage to his brother’s wife Herodias, but I digress; finding themselves in the middle of a Roman colony.  Roman soldiers walking around at every turn, just looking for an excuse to arrest any Hebrew that seemed suspicious. 
As these guys are marveling at the great white marble temple that was built to honor Caesar, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples answer back with, “Some say you are John the Baptizer; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”  Then Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”    “You are the Messiah,” they responded.
 Sophie with a seemingly blank look on her face, stops with a very long pause in her story.  After a number of seconds of silence, Dorothy anxiously asks, “What happened next?”  Sophia replies with, “He turned to the crowd and told them to deny themselves, pick up their cross, and follow him.”  With a puzzled look on her face, Dorothy asks her mother, “What does this have to do with me?”  Sophia again with a blank look on her face says, “absolutely nothing, I just liked the story.”  Dorothy not being satisfied with her mother’s response and a waste of her time in listening to her mother ramble on about a story that had no obvious point continues to bemoan about her identity crisis.  Sophia says, “Look pussycat, “So what”, who cares how people identify you?  The important thing is “who do you think you are?  How do you identify yourself?”  Because, when you know who you are, then everyone else will know also.”  End of scene.
 Was Jesus having an “identity crisis” and needing to have the support through opinion polls as a way of helping him identify “who” he was and “how” his mission would be shaped?  Possibly, but I think the story is asking us to think in a more personal direction.  Caesarea Philippi was a Roman colony, the “evil empire” so to speak.  This discussion might very well have happened right in front of the temple for Caesar, again, symbolizing the human kingdom, with all that it brings, which for the Hebrews meant enslavement.  With Peter declaring his view of Jesus as the “Messiah”, Jesus was able to understand how at least Peter was viewing who he was and what the expectations would be.  The Hebrew image of “Messiah” was solely one of a “political” image.  In Peter’s announcement, Jesus now understood that Peter saw Jesus as a political figure, one who would re-establish the earthly kingdom of Israel.  Because of this image, Jesus then in front, out in the open crowd tries to correct this understanding that he, Jesus, was not interested in an earthly kingdom, but rather was trying to teach people about God’s kingdom.  A kingdom not built on exploiting people in which to gain power, but rather a “kindom”, a community that is strong because of the giving of self for others.
 So the real question is, “what does Jesus mean to you?”  “Why do you or would you follow Jesus?”  Peter, in seeing Jesus as “Messiah”, implies that Peter was expecting some sort of political appointment, some position of power and authority in the new kingdom.  What is the “pay-off” in following Jesus?  This is the question that society is asking the church.  “What will I receive if I follow Jesus?” 
 In our own personal lives, we might say that we “follow” Jesus, but we all live in an empire that is physical and not based on the teachings that Jesus presented.  How do we live our lives in the shadow of this physical empire?  We are faced with this reality every second of our day.  It doesn’t just happen once a week, when we wake up and realize it’s Sunday, and then struggle with “do I get up and go to church today or do I stay in bed and just relax for a change.”  The historical reason for coming to church on Sunday is to celebrate and rejoice in our relationship with God.  It is that space in our week when we intentionally take some time out to hopefully have an experience where the veil that separates us from God can be thinner than usual, so that we can feel more connected with our creator.  It is in our daily living that we confront the ideas of Jesus with that reality of the earthly empire.
For several generations now, the church has not done a good job in sharing with people, “What it means to believe in Jesus.”  As a result we have less folks celebrating on Sunday mornings and huge portions of our population saying, “So What?  Why should I look at this Jesus person?  What am I going to get out of it?  How is my life going to be richer for following Jesus?
 Part of the problem is many of us have been taught a Jesus that focuses on doctrines and set statements about who he is, which isn’t who Jesus was.  Jesus was relational, interested in how each of us treat the other.  Jesus was about helping, expanding, including all of humanity, not about restricting, punishing, or excluding some.  We have two generations that have very little knowledge about Jesus and the church and what knowledge they do have is filled with negative behavior, so why should they be interested in learning about “who” Jesus is? 
 These two generations are very keen on friendships, and honoring those relationships over financial gain.  They are more interested in making sure everyone is receiving a fair shake and are less concerned with “rules” and “requirements”, and are more concerned with “equality.”  They see those who say they “follow” Jesus as being more of the empire of exclusion, exploitation, and of being punitive, because this is what they have watched on T.V. Christian programming, personally experienced from many churches, and in the political arena when Jesus is quoted when passing laws that re-enforce the attitudes of “as long as I have mine, the rest of you can suffer.” 
 Most of us sitting here this morning are pre-boomers and boomers.  Our generation thrived on self-achievement, self-actualization, and self-satisfaction.  Hear the difference?  Our children and grandchildren are of a generation that thrives on friendships, community as a support system (I would rather hang out with my friends this weekend instead of work overtime), and are more prone to group processing to achieve a goal.  In reality, I see Gen X and Gen Y values aliened more closely with how I understand the teachings of Jesus than the generation that I am a part of.
 I also see that Mountain View United, as a community of faith has in its core values most of what is attractive to these two generations.  Our quest is “how” are we going to let people know about Jesus?  Again, I think the answer comes back to each of us in being able to answer the question, “What does it mean to me, to believe in Jesus?” and “How do we pick up our cross and follow Him?”  Amen

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks, By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 9/9/2012
Based on Mark 7:24-37
 Let me ask you a question before we get into this morning’s discussion:  Is Jesus capable of using “racist” language?
Too often, the church has portrayed Jesus as this incredibly generous person, endlessly giving of himself and always open and approachable to anyone who is requesting help, yet today’s readings do not hold up to these high exaltations.  Here we have two negative revelations about Jesus.  The first is the racist language that he uses toward the Syrophoenician woman, who approaches him asking for a healing of her daughter, the other, is Jesus’ apparent reluctance of healing a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment.  Both of these situations took place in a foreign land, outside of the Hebrew culture.
Today’s lection reading tells us that Jesus set out from the region of Bethsaida to the coastal city of Tyre.  He had just finished teaching and ministering to a large crowd of five thousand men and additional women and children and was needing some alone time.  This was all occurring about the same time of King Herod having John the Baptizer beheaded and I suspect that Jesus was trying to put as much distance between him and Herod as possible.  By going to the city state of Tyre, he would be out of the legal jurisdiction of Herod.  Jesus discovers his reputation had preceded his arrival and he was not able to be lost in the crowd in Tyre.
Let’s look at the first of these two stories.  What did Jesus mean when he responded to the Syrophoenician woman’s request that he heal her daughter with, “It is not right to take the children's bread and give it to the dogs.  First let the children eat all they want.”  In this past week’s lection bible study, I was reminded that not everyone understands this response to be a “tongue and cheek” response of the lowest types.  The “bread” that Jesus is referring to is the “gift” from God that is provided to the Hebrew people.  The reference to “dogs” is that of gentiles, which from a Hebrew cultural perspective, the use of the word “dogs” is a metaphor for being the lowest of creatures.  Jesus was in effect telling this woman that because of her being a non Hebrew, she wasn’t good enough to receive any of the gifts that God has to offer.
When I was in seminary, Billy Graham was coming to Kansas City, where I was living at the time, to do one of his famous revivals.  When discussing this upcoming event with a student who was older than I by fifteen years or more, I was shocked that she was in no way going to give any support to Rev Graham and the reason was, back in his early days of preaching revivals in the 1950’s in the deep South, the African American person was relegated to having to sit in the balcony.  This discussion was happening in the 1980’s and African Americans no longer had to sit in a designated part of the auditorium because of the success of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.  Yet in her eyes, Rev Graham was a spokesman for God and God would not have condoned that type of cultural behavior.  The truth was, Rev Graham whether or not he agreed with the double standard, operated within those standards, thereby effectively condoning that racist behavior.
Jesus, I believe was just as influenced by the cultural standards of his day as was Rev Billy Graham in the 1950’s.  The Phoenicians were of the Canaanite culture, which was deeply hated by the Hebrew culture.  Queen Jezebel was a Canaanite, who not only brought her god Baal to Israel, but influenced her husband to turn away from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 
Jesus was also a student of John the Baptizer.  John believed that the Messiah was coming to carry on the message of “turn and repent”, a “hell, fire, and brimstone” type of message.  So in the early part of Jesus’ ministry, his teachings and healings were for the people of God – meaning the Hebrew people.  It is in this encounter, as I read and understand this story, that Jesus is encountered with his own message and exactly who is this message available to.  Up to this point, all those that Jesus encountered were Hebrews, but after this point we can read in scripture where Jesus expanded his ministry to include the Gentiles. 
The second story, again has Jesus encountering a gentile man who has some friends (we really do not know who the “they” were; it could be the disciples, friends of this man, or possibly the towns folk) who bring him to Jesus requesting that Jesus heal him.  Almost all of Jesus’ miracles are done in the presence of people; sometimes a small group, and other times in front of a large crowd.  Yet Jesus takes this man away from everyone and performs this healing in private.  “Why?”
One of the obvious behaviors of Jesus that was commented on in this past week’s lectionary study was the seeming reluctance on the part of Jesus to do these healings, as well as his insistence that people not talk about these healings.  One would think that His ability to heal people would be a great calling card to increase the awareness of his ministry.  When you read through most of Jesus’ ministry, we can read that Jesus almost always seemed reluctant to perform acts of healing.  On the other hand, you never read in any of the stories about Jesus being reluctant when it came to his speaking about God and the relationship that we are encouraged to have with God.  It is my believe that the reluctance toward the healing acts that Jesus performed, actually distracted from the message that Jesus was trying to express to his audience.
I believe we have this tension today, as the church in general struggles with the question of, “how do we make worship relevant to the larger non-churched audience without it becoming distracting as to the true reasons for being in worship?”   In the movie “Sister Act”, these two view points are discussed between Sister Mary Clarence and The Mother Superior.  Mother Superior was focused on making sure people were attending church for the “right” reasons – which in reality meant very few people were attending worship, while Sister Mary Clarence believed in updating the message through music and how it was performed in order to get the people out in the streets into the pew where they would then have the opportunity to hear the word of God.
Our mainline denominations today, struggle like Jesus with issues of “who is included” and “who is not included” in the community of believers.  During the 1960 – 1970’s, the debate was over the color of a person’s skin, and where were they allowed to sit during worship, as well as discussion as to ethnic marriages.  In the 1980- to present, the discussions of inclusion have been focused on sexual orientation and gender identification, as well as what constitutes a legally recognized marriage.  We have over lapped this conversation in the 2000’s through the next ten years or so on discussing who is allowed to enter and live within our boarders as we struggle with the topic of immigration.  Almost all these topics boil down to the fear of losing something, of not having enough to go around, of scarcity thinking.  We call it racism, we call it bigotry, or we call it Nationalism. 
We at Mountain View, as we search for the future of this ministry, have to be open enough to look at what it is that we have been doing and truthfully examine our culture, the DNA of this body of believers and see if we like Jesus need to make some changes in order to broaden the audience, so we may better share the word of God.  Are we willing to only keep the message, the bread for those who are like us, or are we going to share this bread with the larger community?  Jesus changed his focus once he got out of the Hebrew culture and was touring the land where the gentiles lived.  Old dogs can learn new tricks; we just need to be willing to walk outside in the land of the gentiles.  Amen

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Wonders of Implants, Rev Steven R Mitchell

The Wonders of Implants

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 9/2/2012

Based on James 1:17-27 & Mark 7:1-23


        When I was a child there was a commercial on T.V. that I thought rather cleaver, for it challenged our usual stereo types of what was being asked.  In this commercial you see this person walking up to his neighbor’s fence.  The neighbor seeing his visitor in a gesture of being a good host invites the neighbor over for a drink.  The neighbor declines by responding, “Thank you but no.  I don’t drink.”  The host say’s, “I was referring to a glass of water or some iced tea.”  The generic understanding that most people have of the word “drink” refers to some type of alcoholic beverage.  Yet the meaning is much broader than inferring alcohol.

Another word that gives a similar type of response is the word “implants.”  What comes to the mind when one first hears this word is “silicone.”  Yet there are all sorts of implants: there are dental implants, cornea implants, tissue implants.  There are implants for contraception and there are implants for fertilization.  When you place a fence post into the ground, that post has been implanted.  So there are implants that can leave us emotionally cool, warm, or even hot and bothered. 

But “implants” can also be wondrous and moving.  Medical implants generally give us a higher quality of life and many times is truly life giving.  In this morning” Epistle, James tells us of the implant that God has given each of us.  Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your soul.James 1:21b   James tells us that,“ God gave us birth by the word of truth.”  We are told in the Hebrew Bible that we were wonderfully knitted together at God’s own hand.  A part of that thread God used in us is God’s word of truth, it has been implanted in each and every person.  All we have to do is recognize it, not with boosting, but with meekness.  For it is through this recognition, this welcoming the implanted word that gives us what we need to grow and mature into what God wishes for us.

Over the past couple of meetings of Sacred Grounds, one of the questions that Wayne Laws helped answer in a follow-up e-mail this week was the timing of various books written in the New Testament.  Most people when looking at the books as they are placed in the New Testament think this is the chronological order in which they were written.  But this is not the case.  Most scholars today believe that the Epistle of James was the first document written to the church, dating around 50 AD.  This may sound like a mute point, but it is important in understanding who the audience was that the author was writing to and what might have been going on at that time in history, which would then give us a clearer picture as to how to understand and interpret these writings. 

James is giving us some advice that still holds true with Christians of today.  Several of these pieces of advice by James focus around our conduct with others.  James tells us to be slow to speak, but quick to listen.  One of the largest issues in most church disputes centers around this principle.  When leaders of a conference come in and try to make heads and tails of a church dispute, more times than not, that person will hear in one form or another that the problem comes because people are not being heard.  When we are in a board meeting and someone is saying something, often it feels to that person as if they are not being listened to.  Now, letting someone say what is on their minds and heart is the first step in communicating, but there is no communication until the one listening actually opens their mind enough to truly hear what is being sad. 

There is a story I like to share and if you have heard this one already, I apologize but it makes the point very clearly.  When I was around 4 or 5 years old, my grandmother and I were shopping for groceries.  As we rounded the corner of one of the aisles, at the other end was a woman who was very pregnant.  Now mind you, this was in the late 1950’s when you never publicly spoke about such matters.  I tugged on my grandmother’s dress and quietly informed my grandmother about the lady who was pregnant.  There was no answer.  As we each approached each other, I once again tugged on grandmother’s dress hem thinking that she didn’t hear me the first time, stated in a little louder voice that the woman coming toward us was going to have a baby; still no response.  Once we had passed each other, I said in a voice that the clerk at the front of the store could hear, “Grandma, that lady is going to have a baby! Yes, Steven I can see that.” my grandmother acknowledged with a face as red as a radish.  The point was, I thought I wasn’t being heard, and persisted until not only did my grandmother hear, but most likely everyone in the store as well.  Too often, we don’t acknowledge what someone is trying to tell us, or we might give some flipped response that comes across as saying “their thoughts and ideas” are not valid. 

Another issue that James is speaking to the early church: is how our faith translates through our actions.  It was James’ understanding that you cannot call yourself a true person of the light, without it showing through your deeds.  The Apostle Paul, spoke about this when he said, “if he gave money to the poor but did not have love, he was an empty sounding gong.”  In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus say’s, “that it is what comes from the inside that shows if we are pure or not.

Yesterday I attended the official acceptance of the Kenyan Fellowship that worships once a month in our sanctuary become an official chapter of the National Kenyan Christian Fellowship of America organization.  What an amazing time of worship I experienced there.  Some of the songs were in English, others were in Swahili.  During those songs in Swahili, various people at my table would lean over and tell me the English hymn it was taken from, many times being a variation of something that was familiar to me.  During that worship, much time was spent praising God and Jesus.  These were words that could only be spoken from what was coming out of the heart.  Because of those praises I was feeling apart of the gathering, not just a white man being tolerated, but a person included in their special celebration.  At various times there were people who would let out a sound that can only be made by the vibrating of the tongue, but you could tell that this was a praise that was coming from joy coming from deep within the heart as they were worshiping God.

James directs us in these verses to be dutiful to the widow and orphans who are in need.  This is a mandate to care for those who are less fortunate, who are in need, who do not have a voice.  Last week as Jean Mott and I were bringing some things from the retreat on visioning back to the church, we came across a man who is home challenged and spends a certain amount of time utilizing the patio near the office door.  We had some left over sandwiches from the retreat and after chatting with him for awhile, we asked if he had eaten supper yet, and of course the answer was, “no.”  So we gave a couple of sandwiches to him, which then lead into some more conversation.  What bothers me, is that during council, just the week before, we had discussed as to whether we should ask this man to move on, without even checking out what his circumstances in life might be.  I think James or Jesus for that matter would have been very sad with that discussion.

If we call ourselves people who are receivers of the word of truth, I think we have a huge up hill road to travel before we can truly make that claim.  Yes, we make burritos once a month to pass out to “day” labors and those who hang out at the downtown Denver mission, but how are we doing with people who are literally sitting at our front steps?  I wonder if we more often than not are the people James says, “who look at themselves in the mirror and then after walking away, forget what they look like. In other words, we can hear the word of God on Sunday morning, leaving here feeling good, but come Monday have forgotten what we had experienced on Sunday.

There is wondrousness in the implant that God gives to us.  Our challenge is to “welcome in meekness this implanted word from God,  for it is through this welcoming that we will bring life and salvation to a world that is stained in forgetfulness, selfishness, and egocentric.  Amen