Sunday, November 18, 2012

Do You Believe In the Message of Jesus?, by Rev Steven Mitchell, Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 11/18/2012

Do You Believe In the Message of Jesus?
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO 11/18/2012
Based on Hebrews 10
 This coming Thursday most of us will be gathering with our families and friends to celebrate one of several feasts that we recognize in this country.  The feast of Thanksgiving!  For those who are helping in the preparations of this great day of feasting, there will be special attention given to creating the menu, the gathering of the ingredients, and of the presentation of home and table as we gather around the table.  For some, the feast will be extravagant, for others it will be simple; for some it will be a time of joyful gathering, for others a time of anxiety, but for all it will be a time of memories to be recalled and memories in the making.   This is a week of preparation and of anticipation. 
 Today as a faith community we are kicking off this week of celebrating Thanksgiving in several different ways.   It is fitting for us to recognize those many blessing that God has given us this year in a corporate celebration.  Today we are thanking God for many of the ways in which we recognize Gods promise to care for us.  One of those ways is going to be in our giving back to God by bringing offerings of gloves, scarves, rubber boots that will be given to those men who we call “day laborers”.  Most of these men are living in this country without the proper documentation which would allow them to secure jobs that would be steady.  In this small way we are helping God to care for a few people who are in a very vulnerable life existence.
 A second way that we will be giving thanksgiving is in the opportunity to give monetarily a portion of our income to this mission of God’s which we call Mountain View United.  Just as one prepares for a Thanksgiving Dinner, we have been spent six weeks preparing for this celebration, though recognizing the many ways we as individuals experience the promise of God’s love toward us.  We started our journey of preparation with the celebration of personal talents that we have and how when we share those talents, others are blessed.  We were reminded through one of our conference leaders, how our giving to the larger families of faith, the Presbyterian, Methodist, and UCC, we receive help in times of disaster such as what we experienced this summer with devastating forest fires and the Aurora theater shootings, or how we extend help to those who have been impacted by hurricane Sandy.  We recognized the care and love that God gives through the companionship of our pets, as we blessed our pets.  We reflected on the value of our gifts with the story of the widow whose offering of two copper coins showed her response to her faith and relationship to God.
 I have titled this morning’s reflection, “Do You Believe in the Message of Jesus”, because it reflects both, “why” we give money to Mountain View United and “where” this giving originates from.  In Hebrews, we are told that before Christ, it was the job of the priest to accept the “sin offering” from the giver, so that God would not remember what is being asked to be forgiven.  Hebrews then goes on to tell us that through the death, the offer of Jesus himself for sin, that a “sin offering” is no longer necessary. 
 The writer of Hebrews is telling us that there is a new game in town.  We no longer need to give with the mindset of “sin offering”; we no longer have to give to have our sins erased.  The other evening on T.V., the movie “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” was on.  Molly in her unbridled enthusiasm crashes the party of her neighbor Mrs. McGraw in order to meet those society members to which she so much wished to belong with.  In front of everyone she and her husband, as the story is told, gave to the churches building fund for children, gave $15,000 to the priest.  A side comment was made, “that should see them into heaven”, to which Molly responded, “it might grease the gates a little.”  That is a mindset that we need to give as a way of helping God forget those things that we think might keep us out of heaven.
 Hebrews tells us, “Where there is forgiveness [meaning Jesus’ offering] there is no longer any offering for sin.”  The game changer is that we no longer should give out of our sin, but that we should offer our gifts to God out of the recognition of the gift of life that comes through Christ.  We are also assured by God that it is through the Holy Spirit that ”God will put Gods law in our hearts and write them on our mind.”  That law is what Jesus confessed as the basic commandments, “That there is only one God, and to love God with all our mind, heart, and soul.  And the second is to love our neighbor as ourselves.”
 This past summer, a group of members and friends of this church met for a weekend retreat where we restarted the conversations about the “vision” of this congregation.  It reads:”… Our Vision is to educate and support a spiritual, Christian, ecumenical body that reaches out {in hope}to the community and to those in need throughout the world.”  In our discussion we realized that we were missing the piece that reads in this morning’s scripture, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering…”   “Our hope”, hope is an emotion, it is the energy, the desire, that one needs to move forward through the unknown.  Hope is what the founding members had as it formed this faith community.  I think “hope” comes in many differing dreams that are in each of us, but ultimately I believe that the “hope” is that which we pray each week through the Lord’s Prayer, that of God’s kin-dom continues to be developed here on earth.
 Let me ask you, “What do you like about Mountain View?”   “What keeps you coming back?”  “What do you hope to see Mountain View as having become in 5 years?” 
As we bring our pledge cards up to the alter this morning, I would like you to think about all these “hopes” that have been expressed this morning and through this heart shaped piece of paper offer your commitment of “hope” to the possibilities through this ministry of Mountain View to extend the love and ministries on behave of God.  Let us pray: God like little children we toddle to you, offering you a tiny gift we have brought with your money – and expecting a perfect world in return.  Help us to grow up in the faith of the widow, who gave out of her lack, knowing that letting go of all she had would challenge you to rain down blessing on her in abundance. 
God, we tithe not just our money and goods to you today, but long to tithe the more intangible things we hold on to that you demand of us.
You demand that we give up our worry and anxiety.  Help us to release the fear we constantly live in.  You demand that we give up our anger and our prejudice, so that you can defuse it and beat the swords of our minds and actions into plowshares of peaceful living, reaching out in love and acceptance to all your children: of every color, sexual orientation, age, religion – the stranger in our land and the homeless person, even to the criminal, who deserves our love and compassion.  You demand that we give up our insecurities, so that we may become people of courage and confidence who don’t sell ourselves or others short.  Help us to see ourselves as you have made us, so that we are challenged to do great things for the good news of Jesus Christ – ordinary people made extraordinary by our faith and conviction.  Let us place all of these at your alter this morning, loving God.  Amen  Before the Amen by Molly Phinney Baskette pg 195
Prayer Dedication of our pledges:  Gracious God, You call us, your church, to share all that we have and all that we are with one another and the world.  We remember the story of the widow who gave two small coins and know that you are more concerned with how we give than how much.  Bless each pledge that together they may bring your kin-dom into being in the broken places here and beyond.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen  Before the Amen, by Sue Henley pg 196

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Giving Out of Our Poverty, by Rev Steven R Mitchell, for Mountain View United, Aurora, CO

Giving Out of Our Poverty
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 11/11/2012
Based on Ruth 3:1-5; 4: 13-17 and Mark 12:38-44
 This morning’s two scripture readings contain two differing stories of the same theme.  In the book of Ruth, we see life through the eyes of two widows, in the Gospel of Mark, we again read about the actions of a widow.  In both stories the overall theme is the importance of acceptability of one’s gift.  All three widows would be classified as financially destitute.  Yet we see through the commitment of Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi, a child was produced, which was referred to as “a restorer of life.”  In Marks story, Jesus speaks about the giving of “all she had” of a widow.
 Through the story of Ruth, we learn how the commitment between two women did not just secure their personal futures, but that the child born to Ruth and Boaz was destined to be the grandfather of Israel’s greatest king, King David.  This is no ordinary story, for this story was challenging a lot of tradition that contained bigotry and social ostracizing. Ruth was not just a woman from another country, but a Moabites, the lowest of races by Hebrew standards.   It is through the story of this despised alien that God chooses to start the family line in which Jesus the Christ comes from.
 As we read this story, it becomes most apparent that we do not always understand the contributions to the world that any one person will be making.  One of the best arguments in avoiding war, is in the destruction of people who if not killed, will benefit humanity, if not directly, possibly through their descendants, as was the case with Ruth, for she became the Great Grandmother of King David. 
 This story also challenges us as we struggle with the migration of peoples from one country to another.  Ruth was willing to take a chance and give all that she had, to stay at Naomi’s side.  It was Ruth who went out into the fields by day to work and bring home food.  It was Ruth who ended up marrying Boaz, thus providing for the security of Naomi and the ability to regain their family properties which had been lost at the beginning of the story.  It was Ruth who was able to produce an heir, thus giving new life back into a family line that had died with the death of Naomi’s two son’s.  This not only brought back to Naomi, social standing and financial security but a new purpose in her life, the caring of her grandson Obed.  The question then arises for us in this country by denying or persecuting immigrants, who wish to come to live in our country or have entered without proper documentation, “what blessings, what benefits are we not accepting when they are denied status?”   I wonder how much poorer our faith family would be if we didn’t have non-U.S. American born members in our community?
 What about the story of the widow in Marks Gospel, what can we glean from her giving her two copper coins?  As we are finishing up what has turned into a six week series on “stewardship”, if I were a good Baptist preacher I could construe this story to mean that you need to give more sacrificially, just like this widow that Jesus speaks of.  Yet that isn’t really what this story is speaking about, although much of the time it has been abused in that direction.
 As Wayne Laws and I were discussing this text at the Sacred Grounds study this past Tuesday evening, I was wondering how this example of the poor widow can actually speak to us in a society that is truly obscenely affluent.  The last line of this story reads, “They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”   For me the question is, “How do we give out of our poverty?”  Most of us do not go to bed hungry.  Most of us have a house with a bed in which to sleep each night, sheltered from the elements.   Most of us have jobs, in which we achieve our goals and dreams through.  We do not live in a country where we are told how to think, although there is plenty of subliminal messaging being feed to us as to what we should and should not value.  So out of all this plenty, can we actually give out of our poverty?  Do most of us really understand poverty?
 As Wayne and I were discussing this, my memories kicked into when I was a child.  Much of my childhood was by governmental standards lived at or below poverty level.  I remember one particular winter where the only meat that we had on the table was that which dad was able to hunt in the fields.  (To this day the only way I can appreciate rabbit is to watch them eating my grass in the yard.)
 There was one particularly Christmas time, I recall where we were so poor that there was to be no Christmas presents.  It had been carefully explained to me and my sister and brother that financially, there just wasn’t going to be any presents.  They also made it very clear that Santa would not be forgetting us, but mom and dad wouldn’t be able to buy us any gifts.  This also meant that the usual moneys that we would receive to purchase presents for everyone in our family had also dried up.
 A few days before Christmas, as we three children looked at a Christmas tree which had no presents underneath its branches, made a decision not to be defeated by the lack of money.  After all, who says that you need money in order to give presents!  After a very long and thoughtful discussion between us three, we concluded that we could hunt around the house and find things that already existed in which we could wrap up, some in actual Christmas paper, other presents in news paper or grocery sacks.  It took only one afternoon of imaginative thinking to fill that empty space under the tree.  When mom and dad got home from work, they were much surprised at all the presents that magically appeared under a once lonely tree.
 On the morning of Christmas, we found that Santa had indeed not forgotten us.  There were a few extra gifts under the tree which contained new clothes that our mother had made, sewing late into the night after spent a full day at her job.  Today can’t recall what Santa had brought that year or the gifts that mom had worked so hard on.  What I can remember are all the things that my sister, brother, and I had given to each other.  Gifts such as: whiskey bottles filled with colored water, old hats found deep within mom’s closet, cooking tinsels, odd bowls, and bath soaps from the hall closet.  One gift in particular was a box of rocks that my brother had given my sisters.  This particular gift became the annual gift given between my sister and brother, with the one receiving the box of rock the previous year, giving it to the giver.  This became the most cherished gift of all, to the point that a few Christmases ago, when I was able to join my sister for Christmas and my brother was not, I purchased some polished rocks and a vase, and gave them to my sister in my brother’s name.
 What that Christmas showed us as a family, was that Christmas wasn’t about the ability to buy gifts for those we loved, but that it was in the act of “giving” in itself.  That year, the giving of those rocks and whiskey bottoms really was giving out of our poverty.  They were worth very little by the worlds standards, but they were the most precious gifts that we both gave and received by our standards. 
 It shaped the value for us three, that giving of ourselves is the most precious gift.  It is in the effort of sticking together, working through tough times, and most importantly to “just be together”, for me and my sister and brother, this is what brings the most priceless gift one can give, and it came out of our giving out of our poverty.
Today, many families spend outrageous amounts of money on presents that are quickly forgotten.  Many children once they open their presents, spend the rest of the day, isolated from their families, focused on what they received.  I wonder if we have lost our ability to come and celebrate the gift of each other, because of our giving out of our abundance.  It’s like the song of the little drummer boy, in his question, “what can I bring to the baby Jesus?”  For him a poor drummer boy, it was the talent that he possessed, that of drumming a tune. 
 As we prepare to bringing our pledge cards this coming Sunday, I would ask you to think about the question, “Do I give out of my abundance, which has the danger of un-engagement, or do I give out of my poverty, which has the potential of making me more engaged within this faith community?”  Amen

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Walking the Talk, by Rev Steven R Mitchell, 11/4/2012 for Mountain View United, Aurora, CO

Walking the Talk
By Rev Steven R Mitchell
Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 11/4/2012
Based on Ruth 1:1-18
 In my first parish out of seminary, it was expected of me to lead a mid-week bible study.  Feeling rather intimidated by the prospect of being the teaching authority, and knowing that many of scholarly things that I had learned about the books of the bible would not go over very well with the congregation that I was called to, and also knowing how delicate the relationship between pastor and congregation was with this group who had had a major upset with the previous pastor, I decided to do a study on a book that would have very little controversy within its pages, or so I thought.  I choose for our first book of study the book of Ruth.
 After all, here is a book that speaks about unconditional love.  What better topic for a congregation that had been split apart and alienated from the larger community for its perceived “unchristian” behavior toward members and pastor.  This is a love story of how two women brought together by marriage become one family, caring for one another, and triumphantly over came all the difficulties and hardships that being two widows of the time would have encounter. 
Easy book study, right.  Wrong!  I stepped right into the frying pan without even realizing it.  Do you know that when it says that Ruth laid at the feet of Boaz there on the thrashing floor, most of those folks in the bible study envisioned Ruth literally laying at Boaz’s feet, like an obedient dog might do!  Maybe some of you have that same image, if so, know now that I see that phrase as a metaphor about intimate relationships.  I can safely tell you that the way I now understand the book of Ruth is not the same understanding that I came out of seminary with.  Do I still step into the frying pan today when I talk on this seemingly simple story?  You bet I do.  But the difference from the first time I taught on Ruth and now is I know that I most likely will be walking into the frying pan.
Over the years, I have grown to appreciate the depth of what seems to be a simple love story.  And it is a love story, a love story that speaks of unconditional love, a love story that speaks to the relationship of God to humanity, a love story that screams of extravagant giving and acceptance.  It is a story that challenges many principles that a society who trusts in Capitalism should take a closer look at, instead of being the monkey who holds his hands to his ears so he “hears no evil”, or being the monkey who holds his hands over his eyes so he “sees no evil”, or even the monkey who holds his hands over his mouth, so he will “speak no evil.”
When my eldest daughter was 18 or 19 years old, she and her boyfriend decided to spend a weekend visiting my sister.  Now I thought this was great, because my children didn’t get to spend a lot of time with my side of the family after their mother and I divorced.  Several weeks later, as I was discussing how wonderful I thought it was that my daughter had paid her a visit, my sister brought a little bit of reality into my world.  “You do realize Steve, that both of the kids stayed in the same bedroom, don’t you?”  This is not the type of information that a father wishes to hear about his adult daughter, of who still thinks of his daughter as “daddy’s little girl” and I immediately found myself telling my sister, “I don’t want to hear about this.”  I did the hands on my ear thing and sang, “La, la, la, la, la…”
The story that Ruth tells the church is very much like the information that my sister was trying to share with me, and I think the church very much reacts like I did with the “La, la, la, la, la”, hands over the ears, maybe even over the eyes and most certainly with hands over our mouths, so we don’t have to speak about the truths that scripture challenges us with.
So here is the scoop about Ruth.  The most obvious use today in the book of Ruth is to speak about the alien, the foreigner within our midst.  I suspect, many a minister this morning will focus on the shambles that our countries immigration laws are in.  This year’s Presidential elections will very much have a say in what the future holds for those people who are living productive lives in our country that are undocumented. 
This focus would not be unwarranted, for the church in this country is far too silent on this issue, but the understanding of alien or foreigner is what is open for interpretation.  Just as in Mark 12, when a scribe asked Jesus what was the greatest law or commandment, Jesus answered, saying: “30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[f] But then Jesus compounded this commandment by adding,”31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[g] There is no commandment greater than these.” 
I am sure that the scribe was very satisfied, for there was no stretch to what was already understood.  Love God, that’s the one who is the provider of all things.  Love our neighbor, that’s easy as well, for that means anyone who is like me.  You see in the Hebrew mind, the neighbor was another way of saying your countryman, or since you were a Jew, your neighbor was anyone who would be a Jew as well.  Your neighbor was certainly not a gentile.  
Jesus understood this limited interpretation of “neighbor” and addressed it with the story about the good Samaritan.  In that story, the two Jews who crossed the road so as to not having to help the man who had been brutalized and left to die, represented the governmental and religious sections of Hebrew society, the two institutions that were charged with the care and well being of its people.  It was an outsider, a none Jew who stopped and helped the man in need.  This broadened the interpretation to mean any person is our neighbor.
If Ruth is challenging the listener in how one should be inter-acting with the alien or foreigner, we need to then understand who is this individual?  Is it just the person who is being forced from their homeland and moving to another country in order to be able to survive?  Have you thought about yourselves as being the alien or foreigner?  How many people have directly moved from their birth city and have lived in a different city or state?  What was the reason for moving?  Ultimately it was seeking a better life.
But who is the alien or foreigner within our midst, if we broaden our definition?  If we classify “alien” as: one who has little or no voice in how laws affect them, would that not broaden our understanding?  What if the alien or foreigner was also characterized by being “outcast” “not seen?”  Maybe the person who is standing at the intersection with their hat out asking for help, food, or shelter?  What about if that person who is not “seen” is the person walking down the street who is talking to themselves in non-sensical jabber or has tourettes, could they not be the alien or foreigner in our midst?
My point is, there are many ways in which to understand who the “foreigner” or “alien” among us is.  The easiest way to recognize that person is asking the question: is this person an outsider, is this person being used as a social scapegoat?  Or is this person mistrusted out of fear because we are not familiar with their cultural background, or religious practices, or the color of their skin. 
Where are we on our “Walking the talk” as a church?  Knowing that a church is a collection of individuals who calls themselves followers of Jesus’ teachings?  When we are confronted with issues surrounding immigration reform, or topics around prison reform or the conversation about the death penalty, or on mental health care, or on health care for everyone, on homelessness, basic quality of life issues, are we actively being the “good Samaritan” stopping to do something about these problems?  Spending time in conversation in order to better understand and reconcile these issues?  Or are we of a mind that “it's not my problem” and react like the three monkeys who hide their eyes, their ears, and their mouths, mostly because we don’t want to put out the energy that Jesus calls us to put out, because it’s too much trouble to speak out, because if we speak out, we might be seen as unpatriotic, queer, or aa trouble makers?  Or possibly we think that we have resolved within our hearts and minds that change is necessary, and we don’t have to supply the voice for those who have no voice.
 What does “walking the talk” mean to you?  Better yet, what does walking the talk in light of what scripture says, mean to you?  Does it mean just offering up our sacrifices or does it mean scarifying, going the second mile like Ruth did for Naomi when she said,  “Your people shall be my people; your God shall be my God.”?  Amen