Sunday, April 14, 2013

When Jesus Asks - What Wil You Do? by Rev Steven R Mitchell

When Jesus Asks – What Will You Say?

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO 4/14/2013

Based on John 21:1-19


        This past week Paul and I attended a retreat with other UCC pastors and their spouses.  The retreat focused on the basic Five Theological Worlds which are found in any congregation.  This retreat was lead by our very talented David Popham, who is the Associate Conference Minister for the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Church of Christ. 

We each operate within all five of these worlds, with several of these worlds being more dominate than the others.  What David was sharing with us in part, was how each of us through these various lens approach life.  For example, a World One person views themselves from a position of “Orphan or Pilgrim” and desires “Belonging”, a World Two person see’s the injustice and is a “Warrior”, one who is co-creating to bring “justice”, a World Three person sees themselves as an “Outcast” and works toward “Fulfillment”, a World Four dominate person see’s themselves through “condemnation” and restoration comes through “Forgiveness” (I’ve been washed with the blood of the lamb language), the Fifth World personality  experiences life as a “Refugee or Victimization” and “Endures” life, for nothing will ever really change.

        These worlds operate throughout our Biblical stories as well.  For example, in the Wednesday night book study of “The Last Week” by Marcus Borg and John Crossan, Marks Gospel is viewed from a World Two perspective, where Jesus’ mission was that of a “warrior” recognizing the injustice of the Domination System that the Roman Empire imposed upon Judea and His challenging that system and of His work toward instituting “just distribution” of resources to all people.

        As I look at this morning’s story of Jesus’ third appearance, I see several theological worlds being presented.    The story being’s with seven of the disciples having returned to the Sea of Galilee, and Peter saying, “I’m going fishing.”  Most of the seven disciples mentioned in this story had the previous occupation as fishermen.  The implication is that now that their leader Jesus is dead and the movement has died with Jesus, they see that nothing really changed, so they decide to go back to their previous lives. This is a World 5 response, after all that Jesus has done, after his death, nothing has changed and the world will continue to be following the path of injustice acts, so why bother, we will just go back doing what we know best, fishing.  And yet, most of the stories in the Gospels that have the disciples fishing say that they never caught any fish until Jesus tells them where to cast out their nets.  The implication is that their earlier professions of being fishermen were non-productive, and only by following Jesus’ instructions were they able to catch fish.  I wonder how often we feel like we are just spinning our wheels in life – thinking that nothing will really ever change?

        The second part of this story is one of the more familiar encounters of John’s Gospel, that of Jesus asking Peter, “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”  The context of this story finds its roots in earlier interactions between Peter and Jesus, more specifically focusing around those conversations where Jesus was trying to tell his disciples about his upcoming death.  When Jesus was telling his disciples the first time of his pending arrest and death, Peter is reported to have rebuked Jesus for having such thoughts, Jesus responded by saying, “Get behind me Satan, for your heart is not of the Kingdom of God.”  At the last supper, Jesus once again was telling his disciples about his upcoming arrest and death and how the disciples would dessert Jesus in his hour of need.  Peter again boldly spoke out saying, “Even if the others dessert him, he would never leave Jesus’ side.  Peter” Jesus responses “you will deny me three times before the rooster crows.  Now Jesus is once again preparing these men about His returning to God and inviting them to continue the fight.

        As I read this story, I see Jesus addressing Peter through a World 4.  Peter has stated his position to Jesus several times about how he would never fail Jesus and would stand by his side.  After the crucifixion of Jesus, Peter is now confronted with the failure of his integrity.  He had failed his friend, not just from physical harm, but worse, denying ever knowing Jesus.  This was the disciple when asked by Jesus ‘who do you say that I am?’ stated without any hesitation that Jesus was the Messiah!  It’s possible that for Peter, returning to his prior life as a fisherman was the only option, for he had failed as a disciple and as a friend.  Out of that failure, Peter was totally isolated from Jesus because he, Peter, had turned his back when his help was most needed.  How often have you found yourself as a betrayer – wanting that relationship to continue, but it cannot because of the mess you had made of it?

        When we are living in a World 4, the only way in which we can be redeemed is through confession and the undeserved forgiveness that comes from God.  Peter, do you love me” asks Jesus.  A second time, “Peter, do you love me?  A third time Jesus asks, “Peter, do you love me?  Peter responds by saying “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.  With each affirmation by Peter that he loves Jesus, Jesus gives Peter the task to “Feed and tend His sheep.  This is a restoration of the relationship between Peter and Jesus, for Jesus has the power to forgive. 

Then at the end of this story Jesus gives the invitation to Peter, “Follow me.”  In this invitation the story has come full circle.  Peter and the disciples, even though they had seen Jesus and had been given “peace” on the evening of the resurrection, and eight days later again had spent time with Jesus, seem to be unable to move forward with their lives.  On this third appearance, Jesus invites them to eat with him once again and during this time, after allowing Peter the opportunity to once again “confess” his love to Jesus, extends the invitation once again to “follow” Him. Restoration is now complete.

This story speaks to each of us, no matter what world we operate out of, whether it is: alienation to belonging, or injustice to justice, or death to life, or condemnation to pardon, or duplicity to integrity, we want to connection with God and the physical world in which we live in.  As the body of Christ we are asked daily “Do you love me?  That question can be heard and answered in differing ways depending on which lens of the Five Theological Worlds you operate in.  No one world has the “better” answer to Jesus’ invitation to follow Him.  The way of resolution to that question is found in our willingness to “participate” with Christ in “feeding and tending” through the integrity of our theological world.  I invite you this week to listen to the question posed to Peter, “Do you love me” and how is “feed my sheep” enacted through your life?  Amen

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Living between Shadow and Light, By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Living between Shadow and Light

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 4/7/2013

Based on John 20: 19-31


        As we recall last week’s story of Mary going to the tomb early in the morning while it was still dark, we pick up this morning with the disciples gathering behind locked doors at night.  As we examine stories of Jesus’ appearances on the first day of resurrection, we can see an inner play of “darkness” and of “light.” 

I would ask those of you who were in attendance at last week’s worship, “What did you feel when you were sitting in the sanctuary with the lights off, the windows covered in paper, making this room dark, and seeing the cross covered in black?  Then, “What were your feelings as you saw the black shroud removed from the cross and replaced with the white cloth, the procession of flowers brought in, and the tearing sound of the paper that had blocked the windows, giving way to the light of the outside?”

        John’s description of this evening appearance by Jesus to ten of the disciples gives images of shadows and all that goes along with living in the shadows.  Words such as, “behind locked doors” and “fear” are words that we use to describe life when we feel utter despair or hopelessness.  On that day when Jesus was crucified, it wasn’t only Jesus who died, but also the disciples.  For their dreams of the future, their goals that had been rooted in Jesus’ mission had also died up on that cross.  They were a group of people, who had suddenly found their life’s plunged into darkness, going into “lock down” mode in order to protect themselves from an over powering hostile world.

        As we read about these first accounts of the fear, confusion, and grief that those who were following Jesus were experiencing, we in our hearts can empathize with them, for most of us have gone through periods in our own lives where we too have felt the sting of death in one form or another.  When a spouse looses their life’s partner, or when we lose our job because of economic downturns, or go through a divorce stemming out of a betrayal, or receive a diagnosis of a terminal illness, or a thousand other forced changes that can happen in life, all of these are examples that can force us into the shadows of life.

        I don’t know about how your body works, but I am finding that as we are moving toward the summer, I am waking up earlier and going to bed later.  The opposite happens to me as we move away from summer and into the winter months.  I often find myself in the heart of winter sitting in my favorite chair, feeling like it is time to head up for bed, only to discover that it is 7 p.m.  Science explains to us that the reason why most of us become sleepy earlier in winter and later in summer is due to the amount of light that is available.  Our brains are stimulated by light or the lack of it, creating a chemical called melatonin.  The more melatonin released into the body, the higher the desire to sleep, the lower amount of melatonin released into the body, the greater the energy and reduction toward sleep.

        Whenever we find ourselves in a major change in life’s circumstances, our brain often re-acts much like it does to the relationship in the amount of or lack of light received.  When a person experiences a deep loss, they find themselves shutting down, unable to process clearly there by inhibiting their ability to function rationally and fully.  I think this was the state of mind that the disciples were in those first few days after Jesus’ death; then enters Jesus into this locked room of people filled with despair and hiding in the shadows, fearful of being discovered by the religious authorities saying, “Peace be with you.” 

We all have our own ways of discovering this “peace” that Jesus gives us.  For myself, I seem to process my deepest emotional crisis through dreams.   I recall one loss in particular in my life, where the loss was so deep I didn’t know how I was going to survive, and then one morning I realized that I was dreaming the same dream nightly.  It went something like this: In my dream I was doing my job, which was selling real estate.  I have a natural love of viewing homes as they are being built, thereby giving me knowledge of the type of quality of the builder.  

I happen to come across a house that was newly framed, having only the studs of the walls up, so one could look through the house.  When a house is at this stage it is often difficult to know the layout of the house.  As I was studying the framing, trying to discern the layout, I notice the foundation that the framework is being built upon.  It wasn’t the usual smoothly finished six or eight inch thick wall, but rather this foundation’s walls were very thick and rough in texture.  Then the dream would end, repeating exactly the same way night after night. 

What I came to realize as the important part of this dream was in understanding the “concrete foundation”.  This foundation was so thick that it could hold any structure that was built upon it.  This dream was the light that I needed to understand that I was foundationally strong enough to get through that period of despair

Our spiritual faith is our foundation for life.  We all find our spiritual foundation in differing ways.  For me, my foundation comes through experiencing God’s love as shown through the person of Jesus.  The “Peace be with you” that Jesus spoke to the disciples is the “light” that is found when we unlock the doors of our hearts and allow the light of God to fill us up.

When we read about the next encounter the disciples had with Jesus, eight days later, we don’t read about any darkness, we don’t read that the door was locked.  “A week later his disciples were again in the house and Thomas was with them.  Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.”  I think what John is sharing with us is that after the first visit from Jesus; the disciples were no longer living their lives in the shadows of darkness, but rather in the light.

One more piece that I want to bring to our attention comes from that first evening after Jesus breathed the “Holy Spirit” onto them.  Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.  Another way of experiencing the light comes in understanding the truth which comes through the act of “forgiveness”.  Forgiveness isn’t ultimately for the other person, the one who wronged you; rather, forgiveness is what brings the peace – the light that has to come to each of us in order to live in the light.  What I mean by this is, the disciples who lost their friend Jesus to the sinful actions of murder by those in authority, would never be able to move forward with their lives or with their mission that Jesus had been preparing them for, until they forgave those who brought them such pain.  In the translation The Message, Peterson puts it this way, “If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?  If we hold on to the wrong doings that have been done to us, what are we going to do with them?  How are those “wrongs” going to help us?   This was the topic that was discussed Saturday morning at the hot cakes and hot topics.

A huge portion of the “resurrection” story is about the resurrection that the disciples as well as Jesus.  These men who had their dreams, their goals killed by others, had to have their own resurrection.  They had to be able to release all the pain that comes with loss – they had to empty their tomb of grief and fear in order to leave the shadows that they found themselves living in and to start living in the light.  They had to open their empty hearts in order to receive the “Holy Spirit” the “light” that comes with letting God enter into ones heart.

On this second Sunday of Easter, what is your resurrection story?   I think it’s an ongoing story of resurrection.  Just as the Gospel of John gives continued accounts of Jesus appearing, we too will constantly encounter shadows but the resurrection of Christ is what allows Jesus to enter into those locked rooms that hold us in despair, giving us the “peace” that God promises to us again and again!  Amen