Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Problem Child, by Rev Steven R Mitchell for Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 12-29-2013

The Problem Baby

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 12/29/2013

Based on Matthew 2: 13-23


This past Friday, I was able to hang-out with my eldest daughter and her family.  She has six children ranging from 15 ½ down to 8 months old, five of them boys and one daughter.  In one of our discussions my daughter told me among the many things that she is trying to expose my grandchildren to, is an appreciation for music of the 1980’s, my daughters era of course.  I was reminded of conversations I had with my kids as to why can’t they listen to Disco, and of my mother’s conversation with me about how the Beatles were not writing music. 

        This tension between parent and child, was humorously dealt with in a song from Bye, Bye, Birdie titled, “Kids.” 

Kids! I don't know what's wrong with these kids today!  Kids!  Who can understand anything they say?  Kids!  They are disobedient, disrespectful oafs!  Noisy, crazy, dirty, lazy, loafers!  While we're on the subject:  Kids!  You can talk and talk till your face is blue!  Kids!  But they still just do what they want to do!  Why can't they be like we were, Perfect in every way? What's the matter with kids today?  Kids!  I've tried to raise him the best I could.  Kids!  And while we're on the subject!  Kids!  They are just impossible to control!  Kids!   With their awful clothes and their rock an' roll!  Why can't they dance like we did? What's wrong with Sammy Caine?
What's the matter with kids today!

Now can’t you just see King Herod singing this song to his religious advisers as he learns from the three wise men who study the stars and have learned that there is a new King of the Jews?  No, I don’t think Herod was worried about a generation gap.  Herod is worried about his throne.  Herod hears this news with such fear that it disturbs the whole palace. 

When you stop to think about it, the whole story about Jesus’ birth seems to be pretty disturbing, to just about everybody involved.   Staying solely with Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, the first two people that we learn about is Joseph and Mary, who are engaged to be married.  The first problem arises with the news that Mary is with child and Joseph is pretty sure he isn’t the father.  Joseph loves Mary and doesn’t want her to be publicly ridiculed so he was going to call off the engagement quietly.  Then he has a dream telling him not to be afraid of taking Mary as his wife, for she is going to have a son who will be called Emanuel, “God with us.”  So they get married and she delivered a baby boy by the end of first chapter.

At the very beginning of the second chapter, we are introduced to two more sets of people, the wise men of the East who have come looking for the new born Jesus and King Herod, who lives in Jerusalem just a couple of miles from Bethlehem where Jesus was born.   The wise men were looking for the New King of the Jews, for they had seen his star in the East and had come to worship him.  This was a huge surprise to Herod.  After confirming this prophesy with his own religious leaders, Herod calls in the wise men and asks one little favor of them, that they after finding the child come back and share the news with him, so he too might go and pay homage to this new king of the Jews.  Again another dream, this time to the wise men telling them to go home a differing route and avoid Herod at all costs. 

I’m not sure how many of you with children have ever thought about your newborn child as “being a problem”.  Oh sure, there are going to be those broken windows resulting from a stray pitch, or those fights with the neighborhood bully, and even those broken bones from falling out of the tree, but to be considered a problem to the point that the city sheriff, or the mayor wants to have your child killed?  What was it about this child that would attract attention of three learned men in a far off country and compel them to make the long journey to pay homage?  What is it about this child that at his birth caused the most powerful man in Israel to fear him?

        The problem with this child is that he is a threat!  If Jesus was truly the new King of the Jews as the wise men describe him to be to Herod, then this means that Herod was no longer an unchallenged ruler.  The problem of this child is that once he is a grown man, he would become a threat to the Emperor of Rome.  This baby was perceived as a threat, so much so, that Matthew tells us Herod wants him dead and is willing to kill a number of little male boys to insure it.  Again, Joseph has a dream and is told to take the child and his mother to safety in the land of Egypt.  Then another dream tells Joseph that it is safe for them to return, but to go on into Galilee and raise Jesus in Nazareth, an obscure little village a long way from the eye’s of the Herod’s.

When I look at my two youngest grandsons who are 8 months old and 2 years old and then think about this morning’s scripture, my blood runs cold.  How could anyone want to harm little ones who are so innocent?  I don’t know if this story that Matthew tells is factually accurate, but it does speak to the darker side of humanity.  A darker side that still goes on today with ruling powers who commit genocide and what they justify as ethnic cleansing. 

This story about Herod’s fear still speaks to us today.  It speaks to us at the levels of social justice.  Last month I watched the movie The Butler, which tells the story of a young black man and of his life from the 1930’s up to the election of President Obama.  At the end of the movie I was so moved that I couldn’t speak, because my throat was so constricted by emotion.  I knew going into the movie that I was going to be taken down memory lane of the civil rights movement of the 1960, what I didn’t realize was how much emotion I carry from that decade.  I think the greatest “aha” moment that I had in that movie was in watching the news reels that dealt with the violence heaped upon those civil rights marchers and activists as they marched out against the inequality found in this country.  What I saw was that those who wanted to hold onto inequality, to hold onto the power of oppression were those who acted out in violence toward those who protested peacefully.  I recall how civil authorities brutalized demonstrators who spoke out against the war in Viet Nam.  I was reminded that those who gain something from those who cannot defend themselves usually react violently to try and keep it.

Jesus came as a revolutionary against the greed and injustice of his time and his message still threatens the greed and injustices of our time.  The promise of peace, the promise of justice, and the promise of love that comes through the birth of this baby also brings violence, resistance, and fear.  Think about how Gandhi threatened the Imperialism of India, or of the Nelson Mandela’s message of unity against the Aparti in South Africa, or of Martin Luther Kings call for equality in our own country.  It brings violence and unrest because it challenges those who use their power, their wealth, and their positions at the expense of those who are disenfranchised.

        The problem with this child comes by what Jesus asks of us to give up.  When we meet this baby, we all have a part of Herod in us.  We have things that we are afraid to give up.  At some levels we are afraid to turn loose of what we perceive to be our power and allow the good news that God has given us to enter into our hearts, freeing us to see others as equals in the eyes of God.  On the night of Jesus’ birth, there was a joy, a peace that filled the air.  In the pursuing months, there was excitement as the wise men came to meet this new born Prince of peace.  And there is also fear that accompanies the news of Jesus’ arrival; fear so great that it can drive men to murder to stop the promise.  And yet, this is a story of how God continues to help guide those who are willing to listen, like the dreams that came to Joseph and to the wise men so that God’s work toward justice for all people shall continue to unfold.  Amen

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Act of Gifting by Rev Steven R Mitchell, as part of Childrens Sunday before Christmas program 2013

Act of Gifting

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United Church, Aurora 12-22-2013

Based on Matt 2:11 and Legend of St Nicholas

For Children’s Worship


Children sing their 1st song, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”.

        Explore with the children their understanding of what this song means to them. 

This song was by two men named John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie.  Their publisher saw this song as strictly a song for children and didn’t expect it to do much in sales.  In November of 1934 singer Eddie Cantor made this song an instant success and it has become one of the basic songs that we sing during the Christmas Season.  I learned this song before I even started school with my grandmother Mitchell singing it to me in the summer time as we would sing on the outdoor porch swing.

Who is Santa Claus anyway?

Back in the early days of Television, I use to watch everyday a program called Santa’s Workshop.  It was a special showing that started on Dec 1st and it would end on Dec 24th with Santa loading up his sleigh with all the toys that he was going to be delivering that evening.  Santa would talk about all sorts of things on his show which came direct from his workshop in the North Pole.  He would talk about how he had been reading all the letters that were sent to him by boys and girls just like you.  He would get interrupted by his elves with problems that would be taking place out in the toy factory, so he would show a cartoon while he would go and take care of those problems.  But Santa spent a lot of time talking to us about the true reasons for Christmas.  Can you tell me about the true meanings of Christmas?

I would like to share with you a story that talks about a man who we have come to know as Santa Claus.  I beat you thinks I’m going to talk about the baby Jesus as the person that we have come to know as Santa, don’t you?  Well, Jesus is the reason for Santa Claus, but he is not Santa; they are two very different people.

About 300 years after Jesus, there was a young man who lived in the country of what we now call Turkey, in a town called Myra, and his name was Nicholas.  Nicholas was from a very rich family who happened to be Christians.  Out of the teachings about Jesus, Nicholas decided to become a minister and eventually become a Bishop within the church.  This means that he was a very important person in the church.     

Even though Nicholas was very rich, he spent a lot of his time with those people in his town who were very poor.  Often he would help them with what they needed without letting anyone know he was the one who helped them out.  It is said that he became aware of a family who had lost all their money because the economy was bad.  This family had three daughters who were grown up enough to get married, but couldn’t because there was no money for their father to give to their future son-in-laws.  It was customary in those days for the family with a daughter to give a dowry to the future husband.  But without a dowry, none of the girls could marry and the family was too poor for them to stay at home. 

So one night, while they were all asleep, Nicholas walked by their window and through a bag of money into the house.  Because the girls only had one pair of shoes and one pair of stockings, they would put them in front of the fireplace at night so they would be dry the next morning.  When Nicholas through that bag of money through the window, the bag opened up and the money landed inside their shoes and stockings!  There was enough money that all three of the girls were able to get married.

Eventually people discovered that the gifts and help that they had been given had come from Nicholas.  Nicholas was especially fond of children and they were the first people that Nick would give special gifts to.  Back in those early years when Nicholas was a Bishop, he had to go to prison because of his faith in Jesus, because being a Christian had not be seen as a good thing yet by the Roman Empire.  After a few years in prison the new Empire Constantine became a Christian himself and made it okay for other people to become Christians if they wanted to and freed Nicholas.  In fact, Nicholas was one of the Bishops who was at the Council of Nicene, where all the books of the New Testament were decided on.

It was through St Nicholas’ loving examples of giving to others that over time, people everywhere started to give gifts on a particular day.  When the Dutch settlers first came to this country and settled on an Island that we know as New York City, they developed how we think St Nicholas would look like.  This image has developed in to the man we know as Santa Claus, dressed in bright red, with fur trim, a rolly polly man with a long white beard.  St Nicholas’ day was originally celebrated in May, but by the early 1800’s had become merged with the celebration of Jesus’ birth. 

(Children will sing “Jingle Bells”)

It was during this time that the song “Jingle Bells” was written.  The title was “One Horse Open Sleigh” and it was originally written for to be sung at Thanksgiving time.  But once again, it seemed to capture the imagination of the nation and it very soon became a standard to be sung during Advent and Christmas Tide.  It was a common practice in those days to adorn horses’ harnesses with straps bearing bells as a way to avoid collisions at blind intersections as horse drawn sleighs in snow makes almost no noise.  The rhythm of the tune mimics that of a trotting horse’s bells.

As we in America become more accustom to blending St Nicholas with the birth of Jesus at Christmas, the visual concept of t Santa Claus was born.  There was a Theology Profession at one of the Theological Seminaries in New York City, who wrote a poem that has for ever set our image of Santa Claus.  Dr Clement Moore wrote the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1812 for his children.  This poem soon became know, “The Night Before Christmas’.

The last song that the children wish to sing for you became popular in the 16th century.  It’s origins tell about a tradition of wealthy people of the community giving Christmas treats to the carolers on Christmas Eve, such as figgy puddings.  Because of the message of wishing good tidings and happy spirits at Christmastime, it became tradition to sing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” at the end of their Caroling.

So, this is how we have come to combine the birth of Jesus, God’s greatest gift of love to us and the idea of giving a secret gift , from the acts of love and giving of the Bishop of St Nicholas in to Santa Claus visiting children on the Eve of Christmas.   Amen

Sunday, December 8, 2013

What Needs to Go? by Rev Steven R Mitchell based on Isaiah 11:1-4a & 6-10, Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 12/8/2013

What Needs to Go?

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO 12-8-2013

Based on Isaiah 11:1-4a, 6-10


        Harry Potter has become the most successful series both in literature and on film of this century.  Artfully crafted, the author JK Rowlings has brought to life a story that chronicles the life of a young wizard named Harry Potter and the hope of the future that only he can bring.  The first time that I actually heard about this series was in a conversation with my eldest daughter, Bobbie Jo.  She sheepishly admitted to me that she had been reading the Harry Potter series.  I thought to myself, what was so wrong with a twenty something girl reading this fantasy?  I later realized that I was confusing the Harry Potter series with that of the Beatrix Potter’s series of animal books, specifically the Tales of Peter Rabbit? 

        What starts with an evil wizard out to conquer the wizardry world and enslaving mortals, a young child survives a brutal attack that kills both his parents.  Harry is then hidden until he comes of age to learn how to use his magical powers.  As the series progresses, you eventually realize that JK Rowlings is using basic Christian stories in developing her primary character, Harry, to retell the stories of Jesus and his role as savior for humankind.  With each book, the stories become more dark and sinister; in the movie series, the photography becomes darker helping us to visually experience the power that the Dark Lord Voldemort brings to the world.  Harry’s character becomes blatantly the Christ figure, in a battle which looks a lot like Armageddon with Harry dying and returning as the only wizard who can defeat the Dark Lord and bringing peace and harmony to the wizardry world.

        Another telling of this basic theme comes in this morning’s reading of Isaiah.  Isaiah, has just finished telling the people of Israel that God will be cutting down the forest thickets with an ax.  Isaiah was sharing with his audience that there was going to be a complete upheaval of the world that they knew and loved, but that this upheaval wasn’t going to be the work of a foreign empire Babylon, but rather orchestrated by the hand of God.  Although the destruction may seem complete, Isaiah says there is hope for out of the stump; for out of the stump of Jesse will come one who will bear fruit and will possess the Spirit of the Lord, with the Spirit of Wisdom, the Spirit of counsel and of power, and the Spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord. Isaiah 11:1-3a   So changed will the world be that the wolf will live with the lamb and the leopard will lie down with the goat, a child will play near the hole of a cobra and put his hand into a vipers nest; so changed will the world be that the Root of Jesse will be a banner that even nations will rally to him.  The desire for the type of world that Isaiah speaks about continues in the heart of humanity.  It has even appeared in a jingle in 1971 titled, Buy the World a Coke.  It had such a powerful message calling for peace and harmony that it soon hit the pop charts having eliminated the “buy a coke today” and helped inspire a generation to work toward ending war and challenged a rethinking of what is truly important in life. 

World peace, the end of poverty, justice for all truly sound like great goals don’t they?  But what is the price to achieve all of this?  Are these even real objectives or some dream that comes out of the end of a smoke pipe?  There are forces with voices so strong telling us that world peace is not achievable, that poverty will never be irradiated, and that justice is just an exercise in futility.  We are told that “self” is the primary object that each of us needs to be looking after.   Our laws are constantly written in favor of those who have the stronger voice without any consideration of the harm that can be done for those whose voices are weak.  The Lord Voldemort’s of this world seem to be in control and growing stronger each day.  In the Harry Potter series, I noticed that few of the adult wizards and witches seemed to be willing to stand up against the darkness that Voldemort represented, mostly out of fear. 

In the examples that Isaiah uses such as the wolf (who is by nature predatory), he contrasts with the lamb (who is non-aggressive), or the calf and the lion, again non-predatory verses the predatory, and all these will be lead by a child, not an adult, symbolizing innocence over calculating adults.  What is the message being given here?  Is it truly possible that the predatory nature that seems to terrorize the world can actually be altered to a point that there can be harmony, peace, and equanimity for all?  Is it truly possible, or are people like Isaiah just blowing smoke about a world that is only a daydream?

The world is mourning the passing of Nelson Mandela, one of the world’s most loved men.  Loved because he strove to enrich the world that Isaiah dreamed about.  Mr. Mandela helped the world understand that peaceful change could happen.  Mr. Mandela taught the world that the possibility of the wolf laying down with the lamb is possible, but at a price.  The price is the ability to let go of the Lord Voldemort’s value system of power.  Under Mr. Mandela’s Presidency the world saw for the first time an experiment in forgiveness as a stepping stone to peace between two races through the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”  For this experiment to have worked both sides of South Africa had to let go of the age old standard of “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth” mentality.  I would like to share several of Nelson Mandela’s most favorite quotes as examples of “letting go”: 

1)   “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

2)   “A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.”

3)   “Hope is a powerful weapon, and (one) no one power on earth can deprive you of.”

I love how JK Rowlings translates the Dark Lords desires as being held within Horcrux’s as a way of protecting his hate filled desires.  Each one of those Horcrux’s had to be destroyed so that Voldemort himself could be defeated thus restoring life to the way it was originally intended to be lived – that of peace and harmony.  In this Advent season, we need to prepare for the joy that comes with being in the presence of God.  Each of us hold basic horcrux’s that prevent the world that Isaiah speaks about, a world of wisdom, peace, and justice that is based on the knowledge of God.  We know that God exists, but what needs to be let go so that the vision of Isaiah and the vision of a child who was born in Bethlehem might truly be realized?  The Voldemort’s of this world tell us we are dreaming about Isaiah’s world, but the word of God tells us it is already happening, we have seen it at work in South Africa.  We are that branch from Jesses stump, we are capable of being the branch that bears fruit!  Amen