Sunday, February 24, 2013

Image of Christ (Series) Light of the World, by Rev Steven R Mitchell

Images of Christ (series)

Light of the World

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO 2-24-2013

Based on John 1-1-5 and John 8: 15-20 and Colossians 1:15


        How many of you can recall your first nightmare?  I am talking about that first time that you woke up, screaming in terror?  Or possibly walked into a darkened room and become overtaken with fear with no particular provocation?

        For me, the first time that I can recall being totally terrified by the darkness was at age 5yrs old.  It was in the Fall and the movie “Wizard of Oz” had its premiere on T.V.   My dad insisted that as a family we watch this classic movie from his childhood, assuring us that we would really enjoy it.  What was supposed to be an evening of family entertainment ended up becoming a night of terror for me! 

My mind was so stimulated with the image of the wicked old witch of the West and her flying monkeys, I found it hard to settle into the security of my bed and just fall asleep.  As I laid there in the darkness of my room, I suddenly realized that the wicked witch of the West was hiding in my bedroom closet.  As I screamed in terror mother came in, turning on the light and assured me that this mean old person was not hiding in my closet.  After being shown that indeed there was nothing in my closet other than my cloths, mom turned off the light and went back to bed. 

Within minutes, that crafty old witch was back in my closet, ready to do harm to me.  Once again I screamed out in terror, bringing mom back to my bedroom.  This happened several more times until my father’s patience had worn thin and I was told, “One more outburst, your father would come and do what was necessary to convince me that there was no witch in my closet.  [In reality, I would have rather had an encounter with that wicked old witch than with my dad.]  So once the light went back off and mom had left my room, I convinced myself that the witch no longer was there.  And you know what?  She wasn’t!  She had been replaced by a man waving a gun at me!  Instead of crying out in terror again, I decided it was better to just hide under my covers and hope for the best, because I didn’t want to have to deal with dad.

Darkness in a real sense has a quality about it that can heighten ones fears.  Darkness allows for real or perceived danger.  I recall one back-packing trip in the Cascade Mountains where a companion and I had set up camp.   There was a burn ban in place, so the only light that we had was a small lantern, which was turned off as we retired to our tents for the night.  About five minutes after turning off the lantern, there was a blood-curdling scream from somewhere around the lake.  After that scream, you could hear the sound of feet running alongside the hillside.  Our fear of being in the dark was so great that we broke the law and built a fire in front our tents providing light to ward off any animal predators as well as giving us the security that comes with light.

Those two examples talk about the physical realities between darkness and light.  In scripture we read not only about physical realities that come in darkness and light, but also about theological implications.  Darkness refers to evil or lack of knowledge, where as light speaks about knowledge, safety, goodness.  As we study the variety of “images” that are attributed to Jesus, the writer of the Gospel of John, shows Jesus as “light of the World”.  John begins his Gospel by tying God and Jesus together: John 1:” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.

John then picks this theme up again in chapter 8 as he writes of Jesus saying, “I am the world’s Light.  Then Jesus goes on to explain what this “light” means.  No one who follows me stumbles around in the darkness. I provide plenty of light to live in.   Jesus is saying that because of his relationship to God, Jesus is illuminating God.  God is the giver, the creator of all life, so by Jesus being with God prior to creation, Jesus then is a part of the “life” giving entity.  The implication is, Jesus understands God and thereby contains the knowledge of the Divine.

As I was searching through the scriptures dealing with Jesus as the light of the world, I found a very similar understanding from the author of Colossians in the first chapter, starting with verse 15, The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him…  This letter to the church was written 20-30 years prior to the Gospel of John. 

Within these two books we then can see how the early church understood Jesus.  What I found intriguing with the Colossians writing was the very first verse: The Son is the image of the invisible God.  Jesus is understood as the image of God, this is the light that God gave to humankind, this physical reflection of our creator parent.  So, if the church is supposed to be the “image” of Christ, what does that look like for us?  So for me the question is “how does one ‘image’ the invisible?”  How are we to be “the light of the world?” 

We are in the midst of a new awakening, that started back in the 1960’s and then stalled in the 1980’s, but has once again emerged in the late 1990’s.  What do I mean by “an awakening”?  The definition of an awakening is the realization within a culture that what has been working no longer works and a shift is made at a cultural level.  There is a new way of thinking and then of action.  An awakening affects the three basic levels of society, the Political, the Financial, and the Religious.  All are institutions that run on agreed upon rules of behavior.  When these institutions no longer are effective, then the status quote is examined, there is exploration of new possibilities, and then integration of a new order.  We see this today as no confidence in our Government, the implosion of our financial system, and the shrinking numbers of Americans who attend church on a regular basis.

So again, how does one “image” the invisible?  Through Jesus’ ministry, we have a pretty good idea of what God is?  We can learn through the “light” that Jesus brought to his generation that to image the invisible is to care for the needy, to provide a voice for those who have no voice, and to see that every person has the basics needed to live. 

The church has been asking for forty plus years, “Where are the people?”  If we are in this new spiritual awakening, then shouldn’t our churches be filling up instead of becoming empty tombs?  Remember what happens in an awakening?  What isn’t working is dropped, exploration of new ways, and then integration of a new order.  The church over the past 40 years has ceased being the image of the invisible within our social structure.    People are “spiritual” and not “religious” because they have seen the institutional church not reflecting the essence of God. 

You might disagree with me, but how did the average religious institution react to the outbreak of A.I.D.S?  They condemned victims instead of standing by them.  Christians say “we” represent the “light of the world”, yet we are viewed by the general public as having a message of condemnation and hateful actions.  The church is seen as darkness. 

I had the opportunity this week to help a cousin of mine of whom I had not seen since he was about 4 yrs old.  At the request of his mother, I stepped up to the plate to help him.  When she was telling her son who I was and how we were related she shared that I was a minister.  His first response was, “Mom, you know I don’t like to be around ministers.  I don’t like to be preached at and made to feel that I am no good unless I go to church.”  This my friends is how the church is perceived by millions in our country.  To be the light of the world, we need to image the invisible. How does one “image” the invisible?  That is the question.  This is also the challenge, to image ourselves after Jesus, who is the image of the invisible.  When I was hungry you fed me, when I was naked you clothed me, when I was a stranger you welcomed me…   Amen

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Images of Christ (series), The Branch, Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO

Images of Christ (series)

The True Vine

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 2-17-2013

Based on John 15:1-8


        I don’t know about you, but by the time mid-February arrives, I’m getting very weary of the winter.  I become weary of the brownness, of the cold, of the barren trees.   Although this has been a very dry winter with very little snow, and the temperatures are up and down, over all gardens are still dormant.   On those days when it is in the 20’s, you want to hide inside the house, when the temperatures rise into the 50’s and 60’s, I find that my fingers start to itch to dig into the soil and start preparing the flower beds for this Springs flowers.  I even find myself on these warm days, looking in the flower beds to see if any of the Spring bulbs are starting to break ground with their green shoots.  Then the temperatures once again drop to seasonal averages reminding me that Winter is still with us.

        That’s when attending an annual Home and Garden Show becomes inspiring.  In Seattle, it is just about this time of the year when the annual garden show opens.  I realize here in Denver the exhibitors combine both the home improvement industry with the horticultural industry, making for a smaller floral experience, but none the less, it does allow for those of us the opportunity to experience Spring early. 

I found myself taking a good amount of time sitting on a large stone at one of the exhibits surrounded by tulips, daffodils, Hyacinths, fox gloves, evergreen trees, ornamental cherry trees and many other varieties of flowers.  On two sides of me were pools of water designed as mountain streams with waterfalls.  It was rejuvenating to sit there for awhile, taking in this arrangement of nature, having my senses injected with the beauty that had been designed by a landscape artist.  It was an experience that I didn’t wish to leave.

        The display that I had the privilege to experience was provided by someone with a specific talent.  A person who is able to vision what various plants alongside other plants would look like, then taking a little rock, some water, and a water pump, fashioning it all into a small paradise, where those who stopped long enough to experience this creation would be blessed visually, audibly, and with fragrance.  In essence, the whole body was being fed by this one gardener’s vision and work.

        In this morning’s scripture, Jesus gives us an image of himself as the vine, the part of the plant that comes out of the ground.  It is through the vine that branches and through the branches, leaves appear, that important part of the plant that is needing in order to take the warmth and the light which comes from the sun and turn it into food that will produce the fruit that the vine is designed to give.  The leaves also are designed to take the air that has been polluted and spent of usable oxygen that we breathe and rejuvenates it into fresh, life giving oxygen. 

        The story that Jesus is telling us is a metaphor of how we (the branches) when attached to Jesus (the vine) will produce the fruit that the plant has been designed to produce.  Now, as any gardener knows, a plant left unto itself will grow and produce multiple branches.  This may sound like a good thing, but actually it isn’t.  When a plant has too many branches, the branches become counterproductive, using up needed nutrients needed to produce the best fruit possible.

        When Paul and I moved to our home this past year, we discovered a grapevine along the back fence.  It was obviously neglected with branches going everywhere, growing such that they were all twisted up into one large ball.  Had we left this vine continue to do “its own thing”, it would have continued to produce more branches and growing into a bigger ball, and what grapes that would have developed would not have had enough food from the vine to develop into the best grapes.  So after some studying about how to re-train over grown grape plants, Paul proceeded to prune back the healthy part of the plant and cut away the old dead growth.  By mid-August that once over grown grapevine produced two large bowls of the sweetest grapes that I had eaten in a long time.

        We have the same issue with the two apple trees in our back yard.  They have not been properly cared for and are well over thirty feet tall.  Yes they produced apples this year – a bumper crop actually, but I suspect if we cut back the tree to where it is only about twelve feet high or so, that the apples will actually be larger and easier to harvest.  For you see, we were not able to pick the apples that were in the upper part of the tree.  So much of what the trees were able to produce, went to waste.

        Jesus was telling us, that as the branches, we can only survive by being attached to him.  Yet he alone isn’t the only part of the equation.  He speaks of the gardener that is the one who shapes the vine into what his vision is.  Bearing of fruit also hinges on the work of the Gardener!  God is this gardener.  We are often trying to describe God as a trinity – a three – in – one concept.  I wonder if wouldn’t be better understand the trinity in terms as Jesus is explaining in this story.  God is the gardener, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches.  It takes all three of us to produce the fruit that the gardener is hoping to produce.

        This brings into question then: What is the fruit?  If we look to Matthew 25, Jesus tells us what the Kingdom of God is like, in other words the fruit of God.  In the story of the sheep and the goats, Jesus says, “When I was hungry you feed me, when I was naked you clothed me, while I was in prison you came and visited me, when I was a stranger you invited me in.  And they asked, “when did we see you hunger, as a stranger, in prison, or naked? “ Jesus said, “When you did this to the least of these, you did this to me.”  

        We all are over grown with self-pride, prejudices, short sightedness, greed, grieve, selfishness, just to name a few.  Not just toward others, but with ourselves as well.  Jesus says when we are in his word, we are already clean, but this doesn’t mean that we are not plagued with the pollutants that the world is filled with.  These are the things that God prunes out of our lives.  It is not easy for us, this pruning, but if we wish to grow and provide the fruit that God desires from us, it is a necessary process.

        Jesus says that if we wish to “abide” in him, then we must allow this pruning to take place.  Abide means to “live in”, as the leave lives in the vine, then we too must “live in” Jesus.  To “live in” Jesus, by my understanding means to take the actions and the knowledge of Jesus and store it deep within our hearts. 

        Like the gardener who had the vision to create the garden that I was able to enjoy at the Home and Garden Show, God too, has a vision for us.  For God’s vision to become all that God desires, it takes relationship.  It took a relationship between Jesus and God, it takes a relationship between Jesus and us, and it takes a relationship between God and us.  God is the gardener, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches.  Abide in Jesus and allow the Gardener to shape you!  Amen

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Images of Christ (series) The Branch, by Rev Steven R Mitchell

Images of Christ (series)

The Branch

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 2/03/2013

Based on Isaiah 11: 1-5, 10


        This past week I had the pleasure of hosting my sister, brother, and mother.  There was a family re-union of sorts, with my mother’s older sister, two of her daughters and a grand-nephew joining us for a dinner in honor of mom’s 80th birthday.  It was a grand time, as it’s been a couple of years since mom and my aunt had seen one another and many years since mother had seen her two nieces and the grand-nephew.  When my family gathers there is lots of laughter, but when we gather around the dining table the intensity goes up as we regaled one another with family stories of the past.

        It has long been a custom on both sides of my family, that much of the table discussion wasn’t centered on current events but rather the reciting of family history.  Those stories that if not told would over time become forgotten, losing a vital connection between the present and the past.  It was through these stories that I have come to realize that the confidence I posses as I look toward the future comes because I know some of where I come from, through the lives of those who preceded me.

I know that by nature, I tend to have an adventurous spirit because of the examples of my ancestors who crossed the Atlantic Ocean, seeking to plant new roots in a foreign land.  Out of these roots, my ancestors moved to each new frontier as it opened up.  Through diaries of my ancestors I can renew my history, knowing of and in a sense have ongoing re-unions with those that I never had the opportunity to meet.   

Sometimes you may wonder why we as Christians give such value and weight to the Hebrew Scriptures, since we do not refer to ourselves as followers of Abraham, but rather followers of Jesus of Nazareth.  As we read in the Gospels of Mathew and Luke a genealogy of Jesus is given, making us aware of those family connections between Jesus and his ancestors.  Through the Gospel stories we have an understanding of the earliest relationships between a nomadic people and God and how those relationships formed Jesus’ understanding and relationship with God, which gives us some basis on how we struggle to forge our relationship with God work for us in our present lives.

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”  This was a description by Isaiah, speaking to the hope that the young Hezekiah who would become king after his father Ahaz might be the righteous Davidic ruler long hoped for.  This did not happen as in time the Hebrew people would be carried off into exile and viewed as a consequence for their lack of faith.  This branch from Jesse would rise to leadership with the blessing of God, as did King Saul and then King David, each being anointed by God. 

We see this anointing or blessing in the Christian Scriptures of Jesus with his baptism by John the Baptizer in the symbol of a dove descending down from Heaven, and then again at the top of a mountain after Jesus visited with Moses, and Elisha.  It is through these stories that the church has grown to understand Jesus as being the “anointed one”, the one that God will use in a covenant commitment, employing actions of righteousness and equity.  Those who will receive the benefit of this “anointed covenant” are the poor and vulnerable, those with no voice to plead their needs.

As followers of Christ, these stories from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are the diaries of our faith family.  They are history that needs to be read over and over, as a way to ground us and help us understand the basic principles that we base our visions and ministries on.  As the Christian church we too are the “root of Jesse”.  As I am a branch of my ancestors, and you of your families of origin, Mountain View is a branch of three denominations.  Those three denominations are branches of earlier brands of Christians.  All have changed in their original make up with each generation.  Each of the changes has come from the shift in needs of each of those generations.  Each of these new branches takes on a new vision, working toward providing fresh voices of justice and equity. 

We speak about a “God who is still speaking” with the assurance that there is an ongoing relationship with God.  Yet when God speaks to us, often there is a feeling of unsettledness, confusion, and fear.  Confusion because we have to work through the process of discerning what God is saying to us, unsettledness because doing something different is hard, and fear because we don’t know what the outcome will look like.  Questions asked tend to focus on our own personal needs, making it hard to focus in on the greater needs of our community.

When I arrived here last February, wondering what Mountain View was all about, wondering what I could bring to you, and what possibilities we would achieve together, I received a phone call from the pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Denver, sharing how God’s spirit was moving within their congregation.  The question was put forward asking if Mountain View might be interested in exploring if there were some common interests that might enable our separate congregations to join in some shared ministries.  Although Calvary is going through a major discernment process as to what God has in store for them and what their ministry might look like in the future, we have been asked to help them in their discernment process. 

I see this as one of a number of ways that God is speaking to Mountain View.  This summer, I initiated a congregational retreat as a way of laying down foundations to start an intentional process of developing leadership within the congregation, preparing ourselves to start our own discernment process of examining how Mountain View understands God’s call.  After three years of the leadership holding the church together until a settled pastor arrived, it is now time for us to start intentional conversations to discern what we think God is asking of us as a congregation.  This means confusion, unsettledness, and fearfulness for a time.

We are, I believe being asked by God to grow a new branch out of the root of Mountain View.  What is this new branch?  Who will be a part of this new branch?  How will the new branch function?  I don’t know.  This is a group process, even though it might seem to be questions focusing on Calvary, it has nothing directly to do with Calvary, but with our own need to understand what we at Mountain View see as God’s calling for us.  Maybe our future might intersect with Calvary or another congregation, maybe it doesn’t, but what I know for sure is this: We must be willing to open our minds and hearts to listening to the leading of the Holy Spirit, if we are to continue to be a branch out of the root of Christ.  In Romans 11: 17-18 Paul says of the church, and you have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root… Consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.”

We are not lone rangers, living as an island, but are a part of a larger story.  A history that goes back beyond our 40yrs as Mountain View, a history that goes beyond the origins of any of our three parent denominations, a history that goes back beyond Jesus’ ministry.  We are a part of God’s creation, intertwined to all that God created.  This is who we are!  It is a history that guides us in the present toward the future.  A future that we do not know what will look like.  But we can be assured that we will not look the same in the future as we currently are.  We don’t look like what we did last year, three years ago, or even twenty years ago.   If you don’t believe me, just look in the mirror and then look at an old photo of yourself.  We change even when we try not to.

It is scripture that gives us not only the knowledge of where we have come from, but it gives us the assurance that when we listen to the prodding of the Holy Spirit, that we will become a branch that God will honor.  We do not support the root, but the root supports us.  God is our root, we are the branch.  Let us be nourished by the food that comes from our root!  Amen