Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Image of Christ (series), Lamb of God, preached at Mountain View United, Aurora, CO

Images of Christ (series)

Lamb of God

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United Church, Aurora 1/27/2013

Based on Isaiah 53:1-10 and Revelation 5:11-13


                The Christian church has come to interpreted Isaiah 53 to be a prophecy of the coming Messiah that we know as Jesus of Nazareth.  This morning’s passage gives attributes that we can see in Jesus such as: a person born into a family of little importance, who was arrested, beaten, and killed unjustly.  Jesus himself referred to himself as a shepherd, yet eventually being lead off as a lamb to be slaughtered.  Yet scholars tell us this passage in Isaiah was truly referring not to one specific man, but rather in general of a person who speaks out for the rights of others and against social injustices that are committed by those in positions of responsibilities, yet pervert their positions of trust for their own selfish gains.

        When we think of the overall person of Jesus, he actually was the personification of how the Hebrews viewed themselves as the instrument of God to the world.  As a people, they were considered the underdog, the less powerful.  They were born out of a man named Abram and his wife Sari, promised by God to become a great nation, if they put their faith and trust in this one God.  This new nation found themselves as slaves in the land of Egypt, escaping the powerful hand of Pharaoh through the leadership of a man known as Moses.  Under the leadership of a shepherd boy, David brought together the twelve tribes of the Hebrews, turning them into one nation.  Then once again, this nation found itself in exile and only temporarily enjoying peace before finally being defeated by the Roman Empire.  Even though this tribe of people is not known for its economic or political might in history as other countries are, it is known as the nation who gave us the concept of one Universal God, who is more powerful and more relational than any understanding of deities prior to them.  Our Christian religion is built upon the understandings of this small nomadic people.

        I am struck by the question Isaiah poses in the very first verse, “Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?  I remember my very first week in Seminary were I first started to be confronted with this question, when introduced to a particular man attending classes.  What made this man fit the question, “Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?” was the fact that this man was in a wheel chair and his body was constricted by Cerebella palsy.  Truly, how is this man going to be effective as a voice for God?” I thought to myself, “You could hardly understand a word he spoke.  No congregation was going to hire a man who couldn’t speak clearly.”   My thoughts were coming from a lack of understanding of how God can use anyone who is willing to follow the call of God.  This man was eventually going to use his degree, his credentials as a way of giving voice to people who needed his understanding of design for physically challenged people in a way that would prompt legislators to consider future building codes that would force housing to conform to the needs of handicapped people.

        Over the years, I have come to ponder more and more on this question of “Who would have thought God…. “especially from the perspective of the small church?  We most often think of the larger churches who provide the voice that will be heard by those who are entrusted through political positions.  Yet over and over again, what I have observed is that God uses those who seem to have no power, no political pull, no monetary means to persuade.  God uses the Rosa Parks of our society to say, “No, this is not right.” Or patrons from a gay bar in New York City known as Stonewall telling police that, “Enough is enough”, no more harassment would be tolerated.  Or a mother who started M.A.D.D. after the death of her child by a drunken driver.  Jesus was this type of voice, and for it he was arrested, given a trial and used as a scapegoat by the religious leaders of his day. 

        So I often wonder, what is the voice of Mountain View?  Are we satisfied with where we are at or do we want to become more?  Are we a body of faith that people in Aurora will say, “Who would have thought God could use them?”  Every morning I wake up and I ask God this question, “How can Mountain View be a voice for you?”  Yet I get paid to ask this question.  I ask God, “how can I be used to help Mountain View be what God wants us to be?”  If I challenged you to pray every morning asking the question, “Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?” what would our church look like in one year from now?  I wonder what we will have accomplished.

        I was asked to come service this body of faith with the understanding that I would shake things up.  The understanding being that there needs to be some new challenges put forth to help us move in a forward direction.  I have a vision for this body of faith and it is based on the founding principles of this church.  The basic principle that as a collective group of faith filled people, we will be the voice of God to Aurora. 

        What is the voice of God?  It is the simple understanding that all people are the children of God, that justice be equally applied to all people, and that reconciliation be made between humanity, which comes through the reconciling of individuals with God.  Jesus quoted his agenda, his message from Isaiah 61 when he read to the elders of his synagogue, “…the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  God has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, to comfort all who mourn. The injustices that we see today range from poverty issues, immigration issues, cultural differences, economic abuses, non-righted wrongs to Native Americans to name just a few.   We have not only the opportunities as a body of faith but the responsibility to be a voice for God.  I was hired as the person to help lead us to be this voice, but ultimately the responsibility for its effectiveness lies on each members shoulder.    I can lay out the road map, bring to light the issues and struggles, but it is the congregation as a whole who has to accomplish the work.

        In Revelations we read, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!   How do we give praise and honor and glory to God and to the Lamb of God?  King David, when asked by the priests why he didn’t worship God in the manor that was prescribed in the book of worship, David responded with, “If God wanted incense and sacrifice, I would do it, but what God desires of me is my heart!”  Jesus set the examples of challenging those who abuse power and bully those who are not seen as equals.  The best way for us to “worship” and give “praise” to God, is to become the “Who would have thought…” people of God.  I challenge you for one month, as you get up in the morning or as you go to bed at night to ask yourself this question with Mountain View in mind, “Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?” and see if you can start to envision what Mountain View will look like this time next year.  Amen

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Images of Christ (series) pt 1, "The Good Shepherd" by Rev Steven R Mitchell, for Mountain View United, Aurora, CO

Images of Christ (series)

The Good Shepherd

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora 1-20-2013

Based on John 10:11-18


        Today we are embarking on a journey that will look at some of the images of Christ found in scripture.  We often hear or read references to Christ as a care giver such as: good shepherd.  We have images of Christ as being submissive when we refer to him as: the lamb, or as the suffering servant.  Jesus is also compared as a plant when we say; Jesus is the branch, or true vine.  Jesus is a revealer of truth when he is said to be the light of the world.  We give Christ titles like: bridegroom, head of the church, or corner stone.  We honor Christ as life giver when we refer to him as bread of life.  It is my hope that as we learn more about how Christ is described throughout scripture, we will be better able to see the relationship between these descriptions of Christ and our own lives.  And by understanding our relationship with Jesus, be able to become more like these images ourselves.

        I have chosen to begin this series with the image of the Good Shepherd to correspond with the remembrance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr King, in my opinion, is one of the best examples of the Twentieth Century’s good shepherds. 

This has been a week of revelations and of stimulation, both of the mind and more importantly of the heart, for me.  I was able to attend the annual board meeting of the Aurora Inter Church Task Force with Kathy Groth, our churches representative.  I also attended a breakfast, one of many functions going on this week in honor of Dr. King with Wayne Laws, where we heard two riveting speeches addressing disunity and brokenness as it is experienced through racism in this country.  I watched a PBS special that chronicled the Mormon Church’s teachings on sexuality and its involvement in California’s proposition 8, which repealed equal rights and protections given through marriage.  This weekend has provide stimulating conversations with Paul’s daughter and son-in-law as we spoke about the goals and visions of a new church in which they are members of and how changes toward being a religious institution in their former church were so dramatic,  prompting them to leave and join this new fellowship.

So how does Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd.” relate to these experiences I just spoke of?  How does racism, bigotry, homophobia, and new church starts relate to the concept of “good shepherd?” 

Within this story, we hear how Jesus sees himself and his relationship to those who follow God’s teachings as well as his relationship to God.  We hear Jesus say, “I am the Good Shepherd”.  But what does Jesus mean when he says, “good”?  Is this the same as when we say, “Mary Jo is a good teacher”, or “Mark has good health”, or “I will give you a good amount of money.”  In our understanding of the word good, we most frequently think of “attribute”, “quality or quantity of”, even “morally just or righteous.”  We tend to think of “good” as opposite to “evil”.   Yet a more accurate way of understanding the word “good” as it was used in Jesus’ day would be more likened to our understanding of “Model”.  I am the Model Shepherd” would be more of how the first century listener would understand. 

It may seem like it’s the same meaning and I am just playing around with semantics, yet there is a subtle difference from an “attribute” to that of “model.”  Jesus is speaking about the relationship and trust that exists between, in this case a shepherd and his flock, or between teacher/prophet, or even parent, student, congregation, or child.  When I was in seminary, my New Testament Professor was Dr Gam Shea.  Dr Shea was from Burma and he modeled for those of us in his classes what it means to be meek, another concept most severely misunderstood in our Western culture. 

Model then can be understood as a “way of life”, the way one reacts automatically.  Jesus says that a “model shepherd” is in such relationship to his flock that he would go so far as to die for them in order to have their life spared.  Jesus’ relationship to the people of God was a reflective model to his relationship with God.  Jesus’ relationship was so deep with God that he often referred to God as his parent.  We read about the intimacy Jesus had with God, by the amount of time he spent in prayer and in his references to God.  The authority in Jesus’ words reflected his relationship with God.

Not only did Jesus speak about his relationship as shepherd for the Hebrews, who saw themselves as God’s chosen people, but he tells them that there are other sheep that are outside of the flock (non-Hebrew) that he will bring in.  This was the offensive part of Jesus’ message. 

We don’t see its offensiveness when we read about it in the context of John, but how many times has the Christian church found it offensive when we have had “model prophets” such as the Dr Rev Martin Luther King, Jr tell us that those with dark skin are equal in the site of God?  It cost Dr King his life, preaching that message.  How welcomed is the message that we still do not look at the Native American with equality?  How offensive is it to many Christians in this country when there are voices that rise up and demand marriage for all people, or that those who are in the LGBTQ community are also fully accepted by God.  The Mormon Church funded proposition 8 with millions of dollars.  I hear Christians argue that basic medical care should not be a right to all people in this country.  And I could go one with multiple examples such as: the death penalty, immigration reform, and housing for the poor.

My question for us is, “Where do we as a community of faith draw boundaries?”  “How big is our pen?”  “What model of shepherd” do we as a congregation live by?  Is the word “political activism” or “social justice” one of our boundaries that we do not wish to cross over?  Yes, we call ourselves an “open and affirming/more light/reconciling” congregation, yet what is the prevailing color of this family?  We have 106 or so members, yet almost a third of those members do not attend any church sponsored function.  Is it because of some type of boundary we have placed before them?

Jesus says that there are wolves that attack the herd.  What are the wolves that attack us?  What are some of the wolves that attack the relationships and trust within our families and between our friendships?  What are some of the wolves that attack us spiritually and work at detouring our spiritual growth?  What are some of the wolves that eat away at the relationships in this church family?

If Jesus were with us this morning he would be asking us to think about our relationship with God.  How open are we to allowing the Holy Spirit space within our hearts, so that we might be more deeply nourished by love, assured that we are not alone, and the sense of peace that comes when we let God take the helm of our lives.

We are starting a series of monthly breakfasts to start educating ourselves on a variety of social issues, as a way of seeing where we as a congregation would most want to focus our energies.  We are in early conversations with another church that is looking for a new partner in ministry.  We have youth that need model adults for learning how to cope with life’s challenges as they grow up.  As a church, we need to seriously understand what Jesus is about, of what he means when he says, “He is the model shepherd”, so that we can work at continuing to be that “model shepherd” for those who we meet. 

I asked at the beginning of this morning’s reflection as to how does: racism, bigotry, homophobia, and new church starts relate to the concept of “good shepherd?  All of these are symptoms of what happens when wolves are attacking God’s people.  Just where are our boundaries and how do we need to widen the circle so that the “model shepherd” can include everyone?  Amen

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Being Confronted with Jesus, for Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 1/06/2013

Being Confronted with Jesus

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 1-6-13


        I come to you today with some sad news.  For those of you who have been holding out throughout the twelve days of Christmas to receive that one last present – I have to inform you that Christmas officially ended yesterday on January 5th.   Meaning, if you haven’t received what you were wishing for this Christmas, you will have to wait until next Christmas.

        Since we last met, we have entered into a New Year!  I have been listening to radio and T.V. commentators speak with experts about the tradition of making “resolutions” for the New Year and that only about 42% of those resolutions succeed, as well as what types of behaviors help in keeping those resolutions.  I am curious as to what resolutions some of you have made for this New Year.  It seems the number one key to successfully keeping your resolution comes in having “support” of at least one other person.  The second important key in being successful in keeping that resolution is to take steps prior to the resolution that will help prepare you for achieving your goal.

        Maybe your resolution is in the area of finances and working toward building your savings account.  Or possibly your resolution might be in the area of downsizing and working toward living a more simple life with “less” stuff cluttering up your home or personal life.  One way of achieving these types of goals would be to take some workshops on learning to recognize “consumerism” philosophies as well as re-acquainting yourself to Biblical philosophies, such as the financial freedom classes that we tried to offer this past Fall and will be offered again later this Spring. 

Maybe your resolution is to become more involved in community affairs this year, or become more pro-active in social Gospel issues.  Again, we offer many avenues with a biblical understanding for working in these areas providing guidance, support, and commodore.  Our upcoming monthly pancake breakfast is one of those opportunities to help explore and provide input as to specific social gospel outreaches we as a congregation wish to focus on.  The council has been in discussions about creating a Social Justice Ministry position and asking Wayne Laws to officially join in the leadership as we work in becoming more intent in our Social Justice outreach.  There have been many building blocks being laid this past year in order for us, as a community of believers to start moving our vision of being an open and welcoming community of faith to the larger community of Aurora.

        Even though January 1, marks the beginning of our calendar year, the Christian Calendar year actually began this past Dec 2nd, which we commonly recognize as the First Sunday of Advent.  So we are actually in the sixth week of the Christian New Year.  During Advent we worked at preparing ourselves for the birth of Jesus, so on the night of his birth, we like the shepherds can come and welcome Jesus into our lives. 

        Today is Epiphany, probably even more important to the world than is the day we celebrate Jesus’ birth.  It is in the story of the Wise men of the East coming to pay homage to this “new king” that we learn about the importance of what Jesus’ ministry is going to be.  As you can see on the communion table this morning, I have taken the baby Jesus out of the normal Nativity set along with the camel and the Wise men.   I have done this specifically as a focal point, allowing you to ponder what this scene means to you specifically. 

Note that these porcelain images are in front and behind them is a plate with bread and a cup with juice, for we cannot separate these two events.  The Eucharist is a symbol of Christ’s ongoing ministry in our world.  This is a symbol of welcome to all, an invitation to partake in the family of God.  It is the reminder that “truth”, “grace”, and “peace” are enemies of the selfish, egocentricism of humanity.  It is a reminder of what the “economy” of God is about and how this “economy” is in conflict with the economy of a separated humanity.

There are multiple subliminal messages found in this Epiphany story. When the angels of God spoke to those shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth, the news of God’s grace was being shared solely within the small community.  The Wise men from the East represent a message that “this king” is going to be seen by the world.  These men of the East were star gazers and gave great meaning to world events by what they observed in the night skies.  Herod represents the world and its interests.  Herod is not only the king, but he is living in Jerusalem which is the center of religion for the Hebrew people.  Jerusalem represents God giving direction to God’s people.

Yet Herod was totally unaware of what was happening outside of Jerusalem.  Even those who were the experts in the book of Torah and other religious writings were unaware of the movement of God, of what was taking place just outside the city.  This has a strong message to the church of today.  Is God moving through the church of the 21st century or is God moving outside of the church? 

There is a trick that I learned very early in my teens as a young Christian, which is to replace the name of the subject in scripture with my own, thereby making it personal.  In doing this, I now am the one being involved in whatever story I’m studying.  We can do this as a faith community as well.  If we read this story and substitute non-churched people (instead of the Wise men) coming to Mountain View asking “where will they find the gift of God?” How would we react?  How would we react when we understand that these people are not coming to us with the anticipation of finding God here, but thinking that we should be the ones who would know where they could find God? 

You see, many churches could be substituted for both the implications of “Jerusalem” and/or “Herod”.  The “new born king” could easily be substituted for movements that are working for human rights and equal justice for all humans.  Where do we stand when we place ourselves in that light?  In the novel written by a Congregationalist minister over a century ago, this question was posed.  The book, In His Steps, a young pastor of a very affluent congregation asks his congregation to ask themselves this one question before making any decision – large or small, “What would Jesus do?” 

In the story, you follow four different people and how their lives changed because they took up that challenge.  As they continued to ask themselves this question, their hearts grew more into the economy of what Jesus was teaching.  One man who had taken up this challenge ended up losing his job because of his responding in the way he believed Jesus would have responded of exposing corruption and graft in the company he worded for. 

The point that is at hand in this morning’s Epiphany story is “How would we react when we are confronted with Jesus?”  Herod knew that if he welcomed Jesus, his entire world would be turned upside down and he wasn’t willing to give up what he thought was “the good life” for a life that he couldn’t understand Jesus would be offering.

The reality for us today, is that we either embrace the birth of Jesus into their lives, or we react like Herod, refusing to open our heart to the message of God.  We can see where God’s message is being embraced and lived.  We as mainline denominations see that in many cases, Jesus is not within our churches, yet we refuse to open ourselves up and to make the resolutions to adjust our behaviors that block our ability to bring Jesus into our congregational lives.  It’s not that we do not understand about the Jesus of scripture.  For many of us, it is the non-willingness to let go and let God!  The first step in the Big Book (AA) is to recognize that you are not in control and that you must turn your life over to a higher power.  For those of us in the church, God is that higher power.

As we continue in our journey on the road which leads us to the cross, may we be more like the shepherds who embraced the herald of change and like the wise men who want to come and pay homage to the one who truly has the power to change the world.  Amen