Sunday, June 30, 2013

Picking up the Mantle, by Rev Steven R Mitchell

Picking up the Mantle

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 6-30-2013

Based on 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14


        This coming Thursday we will be celebrating our countries 237th birthday of independence from Great Britain.  Over the years as a country, we have developed a tradition of celebrating this day with the use of fireworks.  Most cities have firework displays and then in the good ol’ days, we as families use to be able to purchase and light fireworks for home use.

        For me, the July 4th has very specific memories as to the way my family used to celebrate.  As a child in the small town that I lived in, the tradition of celebrating the 4th of July was not just a family affair but also a community affair.  The day would start out with gathering at the city park with the extended family gathering for a picnic.  About an hour after lunch was over, the adults stayed gathered for an afternoon of visiting while the children went over to the local swimming pool.  By late afternoon the rodeo would start which was across the street from the city park at the county fairgrounds.  The rodeo lasted until dusk at which time we would then cross back over to the city park grandstands and end the day with a spectacular pyrotechnics display.

        This went on throughout my childhood.  As my family started coming along, we lived in a much larger city and we started developing our own traditions around the 4th.  The family gathering was smaller in number, but the city fireworks had grown into including musical soundtracks that corresponded with the Arial displays.

One of the constants of my childhood that I was able to carry on my new family was that of purchasing and shooting off family fireworks.  By the time I had moved to the Pacific Northwest, my children expected this tradition.  This was particularly important because as a family we had transitioned into two separate households with their mother living in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and my living in the Pacific Northwest.  Our tradition had morphed into gathering with several families to celebrate the 4th with potluck picnics and an ever expanding arsenal of fireworks.

Due to the fire hazards and safety issues around fireworks, the tradition of families shooing fireworks on their own has decreased and increased with viewing city displays.  In small towns things like family picnics and rodeos and carnivals may still exist, but for me the traditions of how I celebrate the 4th is no longer like the way it was when I was a child.  For most of us, this is most likely true, not just in the way we traditionally celebrate the 4th of July, but in most of our celebrations of various Holidays.

Traditions are very important as we celebrate specific events because it gives a sense of continuity for our lives.  Yet traditions change from generation to generation for a variety of reasons.  Change comes because of change in the basic family unit, or because of economic shifts or popularity in a particular way of doing the expression of the event.  The point being, the activities and expressions of a tradition change, but what stays constant is the reason the event started.  We will always have the event of declaring our independence from Great Britain; therefore we will always celebrate in some fashion.  We will always have a Memorial Day, but the way in which we remember will continue to change.  Thanksgiving and Christmas are not immune to the shift in traditional ways of celebrating them.

As a Christian, have you ever given deep thought as to belonging to a tradition?  Do you know what tradition that might be?  Some would look to the denomination in which they come out of as the tradition of their faith.  Yet it goes much deeper than this.  As I was preparing for this morning’s scripture text, I found myself chatting with an Old Testament scholar about the foundational meanings of the books of Kings and more specifically about the relationships of Elijah and Elisha. 

The story is a very familiar story, where Elijah has now come to the end of his life and is ready to die, and his apprentice Elisha follows along wanting to be given the power that Elijah had, in order to carry on the prophet work that Elisha had been anointed to do.  The story tells us that this passing of power was done through the mantle of Elijah going to Elisha.  My challenge with this piece of scripture is how to take a seemingly singular event, that of Elijah being taken up to God in a fiery chariot and Elisha being witness to this and as the witness is granted his desire to become a more powerful prophet than was his mentor, and make something relevant to us.  How can or how does this impact our lives?

How does Elisha picking up the mantle affect us?  How do we as disciples of Christ understand the importance of the picking up the mantle?  What my conversation with my Hebrew Bible Scholar friend reminded me was that these two prophets, Elijah and Elisha, are a part of what is known as the Mosaic tradition.  Meaning that these two men are understood to have carried on the work of teaching the Torah, which was established by Moses.  The Hebrew understanding of the word “Torah” means in the strict sense, “instruction designed to teach us the truth about God.  Torah means direction, teaching, instruction, or doctrine.

As you read through the stories about Elijah and Elisha, you see much of their activities as re-enacting stories that are told of Moses.  King Ahab was the worst King up to his reign, treating his subjects no better than when they were slaves in Egypt under Pharaoh.  Elijah in his battles with Ahab and Jezebel are distinct events, but are about the older struggle of “enslavement”. 

The parting of the Jordan with Elijah’s mantle is a differant circumstance than Moses parting the Red Sea, but shows the same power.  The passing on of the Mantle from Elijah to Elisha shows Elisha becoming the new leader of the prophet brotherhood and reminisces of Moses passing on leadership to Joshua.  Moses experienced God through the burning bush, and Elisha receives his affirmation by experiencing God through Elijah being taken up by the fiery chariot.

Now let us move centuries forward to that of Jesus.  Throughout the Gospel of John, the writer is again comparing Jesus to that of Moses with Jesus as even more important, more powerful.  We see old stories retold through stories of Jesus’ live and ministry.  The most powerful being the event on the mount of transfiguration story, where Jesus is in physical conversations with the two most powerful prophets, Moses and Elijah.  This story reflects the story of Moses on the Mount Sinai receiving instruction “the ten commandments” from God, and of Elijah going to Mount Horeb to seek Gods word.  There is no doubt that Jesus should be considered as a part of the Mosaic tradition. 

What does this have to do with us?  At the end of Jesus’ ministry, he breaths upon the disciples the “Holy Spirit” and at Pentecost the church again receives the power of the “Holy Spirit”, the affirmation of the Mosaic tradition.  The church is actually a part of the Mosaic line of prophets.  We are a part of this line because we are charged with keeping the Torah.  We are charged with giving direction, with the teaching of our history, and with understanding and sharing the truth of God.  Elisha was asking for a double portion of the faith that Elijah possessed.  Jesus tells his disciples that they will be doing greater things than what he was able to do.

As followers of Christ we are a part of this Mosaic tradition.  We have been given power to do greater things than what Christ had done.  Yet when we look around our world, I wonder if we truly believe this?  According to Christ, we have been given a double portion of what Christ had.  Like Elisha, we need only pick up the mantle and go forth! 

The way that we conduct our worship, our ways of affecting social justice, our traditions continues to change, but the reason for us existing has not, the call to take up our mantle and continue in the teaching of the Torah.  There is a strong tie between the Hebrew Testament and the Christian Bible that gives us the theme over and over and over about our being chosen to pick up the mantle of the Mosaic Prophets.  It’s the mantle of Moses, of Elisha, and of Jesus.  Let us pick up the mantle and exercise our heritage as Mosaic prophets.  Amen

Sunday, June 23, 2013

What Are You Doing Here? by Rev Steven R Mitchell, based on I Kings 19:1-15a

What Are You Doing Here?

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO 6-23-2013

Based on I Kings 19: 1-15a

        Two years ago during our first Lenten Season together, I showed a movie titled “Meet the Browns”.  The series was called Theology according to Tyler Perry, an African American story teller and producer.  In the opening scenes of this movie you meet Mss Brown, a single working mother with three children.  You learn that she has been deserted by the men she had loved, living in the projects, victim of wage theft, and because of that wasn’t able to keep up with her bills.  She was literally at the end of her rope.  She breaks down at the dining table of the wise old woman who is babysitting her youngest daughter, sharing her utter helplessness and saying, “I just don’t know why I can’t keep it together anymore.”  The old woman asks her if she prays.  “Yes I pray all the time but it seems like God isn’t listening.”  The old woman responds, “Then God is getting ready to do something special in your life.  When you keep faith with God and nothing seems to be going right, then God is getting ready to do something special in your life!”

I think Elijah might have been feeling the same way as Mss Brown was feeling.

Here is a story about a man who was called by God to help Israel remember their God.  Times were tough for a prophet of God in those days.

King Ahab had a wife who didn’t worship Israel’s God, nor did she ever intend to abide by any other god other than the one she had grown up worshiping, the god Baal.  The conflict between whose god was going to be worshipped, that of Israel’s or of Queen Jezebel was so intense that there was a show down between the priests of Baal (Jezebel’s god) and Elijah (Israel’s prophet.)  Elijah and the priest of Baal had a contest on which god would come and accept an offering first.  Elijah let the priest’s of Baal go first, letting them do all their ritual acts of worship through half the day, their god didn’t come down to accept their sacrifice.  Elijah then build his alter, had the wood that was to be used to burn drenched in water, not once, not twice, but three times.  Then he sacrificed the calf and prayed to the God of Israel to accept this sacrifice and show Israel that their God was still their God and a God of action.  Down comes fire from heaven and consumes the offering, the wood, and the alter, leaving nothing.  At which point, Elijah feeling he had God’s justification had all the priests of Baal killed on the spot.

One would think, with this kind of power behind you, as Elijah was showing, if you were Ahab and Queen Jezebel, you would have repented and turned to once again worship the God of Israel.  Not Jezebel.  She wasn’t going to let something like that stop her from having her way.  She retaliated by putting a contract on Elijah’s head, which is where our story picks up this morning, a story about despair, confusion, and defeat.  It’s a story that we all will face at some point in our lives, if we haven’t already been there.  I believe that there is a time in each person’s life where we are at the very end of our rope.  I just can’t go on Lord.”  There’s no more fight in me, God.  I just want to die, please.”

Elijah has now become a man with a price on his head.  He has to go on the lame in order not to be killed.  He heads south, as far south as he can get, down to Mount Horeb.  Elijah was a man totally confused and utterly dismayed, not because of Queen Jezebel trying to kill him but because he was not seeing the fruits of what he believed he was “called” to be doing.  Elijah was called by God to show the Israelites that their God was still with them, was the one true God, the God that would and could intervene in their lives.  After the defeat of Baal, people should have been going back to the Temple in droves, yet that wasn’t the case.  Jezebel hadn’t repented and had systematically worked at having all of Yahweh’s priests put to death and Ahab didn’t seem to be doing anything to stop her. 

Was I wrong God?” Elijah must have been thinking to himself.  This is the type of second guessing, the type of questions that we start to ask ourselves when we have been following a course of action and yet nothing constructive seems to be coming out of it.  It’s the feelings of failure that you get when you know deep in your gut that what you were working to achieve was the right thing for you, and yet it didn’t work out the way that it should have.  Your standing there left to pick up the pieces, and yet those pieces seem like they will never fit back together, just like Humpty Dumpty.

Elijah’s going south to Mount Horeb wasn’t just running away, he was looking for answers.  His trip down to Mount Horeb was known as the mount of God.  We also know this mount as Mount Sinai, where God spoke to Moses.  Once Elijah got to Mount Horeb God came to him saying,”What are you doing here?  Elijah didn’t say, “Well it was because I was told to come here.  Rather, Elijah was so filled with his emotional stuff that he tells God all that’s gone wrong, “I have been zealous for you God; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with sword.  I am the only one left and they want to kill me as well.

Then Elijah was told to do this one simple thing.  Go out and stand at the mouth of the cave, because God was going to be passing by.  Then God does this Cecil B. DeMile thing with the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, each time scripture says, “God wasn’t in it”, and then comes the sound of sheer silence.  Now there God was to be found!  Then came the voice of God once again, “What are you doing here?  Did Elijah say, because I was told to be here?  No he proceeds to unload his story of woe to God once again.  Do you know what advise God gave him?  After all, Elijah had come down to the place where God hangs out to get first hand advise.  God tells him, to stay out in the wilderness and go up to Damascus!  So what is this, doesn’t God give us answers?  Are we supposed to just figure it out on our own? 

The story tells me a couple of important truths.  The first truth is: when we are at our lowest God is still walking with us.  God sent an angel down to Elijah and feed him, and then he sent another angel down and feed him again telling to eat because he had a long journey ahead of him.  A second important truth is: When looking for advice from God, be ready to receive it.  Even when Elijah was at the place where God was passing by, Elijah wasn’t ready to hear what God had to say.  How do I know?  Because he sent him back up North on another long journey.  If it took forty days for Elijah to get from where he was at to Mount Horeb, it was going to take about twice as long for him to make his way up to Damascus.  That’s a lot of alone time for soul searching thoughts on a walk such as that.  A third truth is: God is generally working behind the scenes through other people, not just ourselves.  If you look ahead in scripture, you find that God has all sorts of people for Elijah to anoint to do God’s will.  Elijah anoints a couple of new kings that end up taking out Ahab and Queen Jezebel.

        The question that God asked Elijah and it’s the question that each of us when we are at our lowest points in life is, “What are we doing here?”  Sometimes the answers are giving to us readily, but more times than not, I think we are more like Elijah, needing more quiet times in order to be able to receive the answers that God has for us.  Amen

Sunday, June 9, 2013

What Is Your Rate of Return?, Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO based on Luke 12:13-21

What’s Your Rate of Return?

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO 6/9/2013

Based on Luke 12:13-21


        Most of the time this morning’s text is used in relationship

to stewardship messages and generally making us feel poorly about the material things that we have accumulated, and urges us to evaluate what we have, and where we have really received them from.  It’s easy to do, after all the story tells us that a farmer had become so successful in his production of crops that he needed to build bigger barns in which to store these bummer crops.  In fact, he had so much that he felt he could finally retire, relax, and enjoy what he had reaped.  Of course, the oil in the ointment comes when God says, “Look at you, you think now you can rest.  I’ll show you rest.  You’ll rest from now on, for tonight you die.”

        This story can be a downer for most of us in this country, for we judge our quality of life by our possessions.  Of what we have or don’t have, not so much in relationship to our needs, but rather based on what we see others possessing.  To compound the matter, we are constantly told that we do not have enough and that more is better.  We also receive messages everyday of our lives say, “the only person you can truly rely upon is yourself.”  

One of the ways that we exercise this belief is in our saving for our retirement years.  Yet if we believe that God truly does provide for us, is not our saving money for our retirement year’s kind of saying, “I really don’t think God is able to provide for my needs when I’m old, so I will have to make sure that ‘I’ take care of ‘me’ ‘myself’

Most of us would argue, “if I don’t save up for my retirement, how am I supposed to survive in my senior years?”  It only seems logical for us to save up our excesses or even be frugal during our working years so that we will have something to live on in those years that we are not working.  Right!  Surely God would want us to be fiscally responsible through saving so we are not a burden on someone else!  After all Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream of 7 fat cows and 7 skinny cows as a need to safe for those years when draught would come.  

But if you examine why Jesus was telling this story it becomes clear that Jesus wasn’t speaking about the accumulation of wealth in and of it’s self.  There was a man in the crowd who wanted Jesus to intervene and mediate a dispute between he and his brother about the division of their inheritance.  Jesus uses today’s store to tell the man about “greed”.  Now there’s something that we can all relate to. 

Last week the largest Powerball lottery to date, $600 million was won by one person who is 86 years old.  Chances are good that she personally probably will never live long enough to spend all that she has just won.  Yet there are studies that show, most lottery winners have spent all the money within just a few years of when they win it.  Now, what makes the difference in a person’s spending habits prior to winning verses after they have won?  That is the real question.  It’s a mindset that has plagued humanity from our onset.

We call it by many names but most often we use the word greed.  The result of this is seen in the action of accumulation.  The more that we possess the greater the desire becomes to accumulate more.   For most of us, when our standard of living rises, so does our desire for more stuff.  The reality is that greed is actually rooted in “scarcity.”  When we have more, somehow our brains start to think that we don’t have enough, which leads us to concentrating on acquiring more.  This is what the issue in scripture is trying to tell us.  It’s our focus that is being called into examination!

This morning’s scripture says, “Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.” Vs. 15  The issue with scarcity thinking is that it “distracts” us from God.  The farmer had a dilemma with this great harvest.  What shall I do?”, “I have no room.”, “My crops” are what the farmer says to himself.  His resolutions sound like this: “I will do…”, “I will build…”, “I will store up…”, “I will say to my soul…”.  There was no thought about what God has provided, no thought about how these crops might benefit the community, no thought about anyone except toward himself. 

Within our confession this morning we were using words such as: not loving you with whole heart, loved ourselves at expense of others, ignored the cries of the poor, turned away from needs of others, shunned those who are different, abused and exploited each other and the world,.  Why do we say these things?  It’s because, deep down we recognize that more often than not, we are distracted from God as we live life.

This weekend, the Rocky Mountain UCC had its annual meeting.  The theme was “Becoming a New Story”.  This is a timely theme, as the conference is moving into a new chapter of its life with the retirement of the Conference Minister, Tom Rehling as of August 31st of this year.  This means several years of living with an interim Conference Minister before we are able to call our next.  You know how this feels, you here at Mountain View went through a similar process between Craig Peterson’s leaving and my coming.  

With my arrival we have started our own new story.  This particular gathering of delegates was asked to do some story telling about who we are as a conference and what we envision ourselves five years down the road, very much the same type of work that a few of us did a few weeks ago at our “Walking Toward Tomorrow” workshop.  As I was thinking about what I personally was taking away from this particular conference, I was amazed at how similar the stories and the desired future parallel at both the conference level and of those who attended our process here at Mountain View.

As I was mulling over what I experienced at the conference, at our workshop, and with this morning’s scripture, I was reminded of the word “Gift.”  When we stop to think about the fact that what the farmer failed to remember was the Gift that God had given him, that the crops didn’t happen just because of his toil but with God’s help, I started wondering, “What does it mean to be rich toward God?”  This question isn’t only about those things that we actually acknowledge coming from God, but also, what do we do with those gifts?  Do we build larger store rooms in which to hold onto these gifts, or do we use these gifts so other’s benefit as well?

When I attend various workshops, conferences, small meetings, it doesn’t matter if it’s with the UCC, or the Presbytery, or with the United Methodist; when I am here at Mountain View or visiting another congregation, what I see is the gift of God.  When I am with my family, or with friends, or in the middle of a crowd of people that I don’t know, I am seeing, and receiving the gift of God. 

Do you see yourselves as the gift of God?  This isn’t a trick question, but the most earnest of questions.  Do you see yourself as a gift of God, and if so, how are you using that gift?  Do you see Mountain View as a gift of God?  Like the farmer, we can become side tracked with being who we are and forgetting what we are – the gift of God.  We have a serious task before us, it is the task of making sure the gift of God is distributed to everyone, not locked up in a store house.  What is our rate of return on God’s gift? Amen

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Trusting in God's Love, By Rev Steven R Mitchell 6/2/2013 based on Luke 7:1-10

Trusting in God’s Love

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 6/2/2013

Based on Luke 7:1-10 and 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43


        We often think in terms of what gifts we either receive or might receive from God.  But how often do we think about our giving gifts to God?  I know that each week we bring our tithes and offerings and dedicate them to God, but what do we give to God beyond these monetary expressions?  The late Father Brennon Manning, author of “Ruthless Trust: the Ragamuffin’s Path to God” says, that ‘Trust’ is our gift back to God!

        The story we read this morning of Luke’s account of the Centurion’s request for Jesus to heal his beloved slave speaks volumes to the idea of “trust.”   So much so that the story finishes with Jesus saying, “I’ve yet to come across this kind of simple trust anywhere in Israel, the very people who are supposed to know about God and how God works.  This is an amazing accusation being made by Jesus toward as He says those who are supposed to know about God and how God works! 

        This accusation by Jesus of “the very people who are supposed to know about God and how God works.” and the trust shown by the Centurion, an outsider,  remind me of a scene in “Gone With the Wind”, with a conversation between Mss. Melanie and the town prostitute Belle Watling.  Belle Watling had come in the cover of night to circumvent a visit that Mss Melanie was going to pay at Belles establishment.  Mss Melanie was going to see Belle to thank her for her kindness in protecting her husband from arrest by the Union Soldiers the night before by hiding him at her place of business.  Belle didn’t think it proper for a “lady” of Mss Melanie’s stature to be seen in public with a woman like herself.  The jest of the conversation from Belle’s point of view was that Mss Melanie was the only Christian woman of her acquaintance that treated her respectfully and without judgment of her life style.

        The Centurion is very much a Belle Watling in Luke’s story.  As a Centurion, he was a representative of Roman and also was a Gentile, so by Jewish standards was someone who is less than human.  Yet, this agent of Roman seemed to have an uncommon love for those Israelites in Capernaum, for he had built a house of worship for the Jewish community.  This man seems to be highly respected within the Jewish community, but when Jesus comes to town, the Centurion sends a delegation to plead on his behalf for the healing of his slave.  Why would this man who was so supportive toward the Jewish culture, a man of powerful influence in the community, and a commander of a hundred men not come to Jesus personally to seek the help of Jesus?  After all, the Centurion actually had greater stature in Capernaum than did Jesus.

        I truly think it is very hard for us in the 21st Century to see some of the not so subtle aspects of the stories that we read in the Gospels.  One of the major statements against Rome throughout Luke’s Gospel comes in the character of the Centurion.  In the 21st Century we do not fully comprehend the major conflict that the authors of the Gospels were presenting through the ministry of Jesus.   From the birth narratives to the resurrection of Jesus, the Gospels are confronting the pagan understanding of Caesar as being a god.  Caesar represents a god whose power comes by physical force; Jesus on the other hand represents God or the kingdom of God as powerful not by force, but rather by love.  The Centurion, as a representative of Rome, the Emperor god, is in conflict with the message of Jesus, who as the son of God was the representative of a God whose power comes by virtue of being the creator of all.  With the acknowledgement by the Centurion of Jesus representing a greater power, the Centurion is denouncing the supremacy of the Emperor.

        The Centurion which has a great deal of power over those that he has under his control, realizes that this power is temporal and cannot do the one thing that he wishes most, that of healing his beloved slave.  Yet he sees that Jesus represents a power that is beyond his and can heal sickness to the point of even postponing death.  The Centurion understands position and rank and realizes that he is subjective to Jesus and to who Jesus represent’s, this is the reason why he doesn’t approach Jesus personally, for he feels that he isn’t good enough to be seen by Jesus.

        Again, we in the 21st Century find this type of decorum difficult to understand, for we have dropped so many layers of etiquette.  For example: many of us when writing our elected officials do not know how to present our requests in a manner that is respectful of their position.  We have come to a point where we give very little reverence to ones station or position in society.  As the church has tried to be “less formal” I think we have lost a certain reverence of how we view God and tend to approach God in an almost irreverent manner, or have we?  

        I wonder if we are not like the Centurion when we approach God with a request that is literally a life and death situation.  Do we come to God full bore with our request, or do we come with timidity and contriteness trusting that God will honor what we are asking?  When we speak about having “sacred conversations” do we speak as if we are the ones in charge and have the power to achieve what we desire, or do we speak with the hope, the trust that God is the one and only who can act upon what is deep within our heart?

        When we come to the table of Christ, are we not recognizing that the bread that Jesus speaks of means more than just crushed wheat?  Do we not recognize a deeper meaning of the gift of life in the wine as something that we are not capable of doing ourselves?  Does not our coming to Christ’s table physically demonstrate our faith and trust in God’s love? 

        Coming to Christ’s table is not just a gift from God, but also a gift from us to God, for we can only approach this table in trust of God’s love.  The fact that the Centurion feels that he himself cannot approach Jesus personally, asks us to think about “who is able to be a part of God’s family?”    If Jesus calls us brothers and sisters and says we are God’s children, himself calling God “Father” – Do we truly think we are able to come to God directly – feeling equal to Jesus in that type of relationship?   Or do we see ourselves more like the Centurion – as an outsider unable to fully access God – because we feel our lives truly do not measure up to the expectations of who we should be?  This story asks us to examine the restrictions that we have put in place that exists as barriers in keeping us from feeling truly accepted.  What things in our life keep us here from feeling “totally included?”    What keeps us personally from feeling fully accepted as a child of God, that personal one on one relationship with God? 

        I think most of us, if given the opportunity to be standing before God, say like Moses did before the burning bush, or Paul before Jesus on the road to Damascus, would feel like we are not worthy enough to be in God’s presence, yet as Jesus states, “it is in our trust” that provides that relationship with God.  It is our ‘trust’ that is our gift back to God.  As we come before Christ’s table this morning let us give fully to God, our gift of trust.  Amen