Monday, September 22, 2014

When Is Enough, Enough?, By Rev Steven R Mitchell based on Matthew 20:1-16 and Exodus 16: 2-15

When Is Enough, Enough?

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 9/21/2014

Based on Matthew 20: 1-16



        Dr. Charles Campbell, Homiletics Professor at Duke University Divinity School suggests a look at the story of the manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16:2-15), as helpful in understanding this morning’s parable about the Laborers in the Vineyard.  So I thought I would share a part of his reflections as a spring board to mine.

        Dr Campbell says: Out in the wilderness with Israel, God is creating a new people who will embody an alternative to the ways of Egypt, the ways of domination and submission, rich and poor, powerful and powerless.  Central to the formation of that people is the gift of manna.  The manna is nothing fancy or luxurious; it is basic sustenance, “daily bread.”

        Most importantly, however, manna is a gift that cannot be hoarded.  Indeed, when people try to gather more than their share, the extra manna becomes worm ridden and foul.  With manna, everyone has plenty, but no one has too much.  The leaders and the servants receive the same amount. The able and the disabled receive the same amount: plenty, but not too much – and it is all a gift.  The story becomes an embodiment of the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Feasting on the Word, YR A, Vol4 pg93.

        As we read this morning’s parable the most stricking conclusion seems to be that “there is an acceptance by God” of everyone.  Those laborers who were hired early in the day could represent those of us who become followers of Christ early in age, busily doing the work of God, expecting a certain reward – heaven, for our loyalty and efforts.  Then at the last hour of the day, those who have not yet found work are invited to work and because of their acceptance are given the same reward as those who accepted earlier.  Seen in this light, it is a story of who gets “in” and possibly an implication that no one is left out.  This is where some of us start to have problems with what Jesus is trying to say.  My former mother-in-law use to say to me, “you know, most of us Christians are going to be very surprised at who we will see in heaven!”

This parable also relates closely with the story about the Prodigal Son, where the older brother who stays home and works, resents the generosity of his father.  He resents his father, as well as his younger brother.  So the resentment spoken about in our parable centers around the gift of “equal” which is given by the land lord.  God treats everyone with the gift of equality – meaning it doesn’t matter when you start to recognize your relationship with God – God is going to give you the same gift of life. 

This understanding of the parable makes sense if our understanding of relationship with God means that the reward is going to heaven.  But what happens if our understanding of our relationship with God doesn’t mean going to heaven or the lack of our relationship with God means not going to hell?  Another way of thinking about our relationship with God is to ask the question, “What does being a Christian mean?”  Is “being a Christian” a basic insurance policy for getting into heaven and not going to hell, or is there another reason to be a follower of Jesus?  The most prevalent understanding of “what being a Christian” in this country is based on a “heaven and hell” theology.  Some folks “get in” and others get “left out.”  Some are rewarded while others are penalized.

What I appreciated with Dr Campbell’s understanding of the manna in the desert story was his exposure of the domination system, the system in which Egypt operated under, making slaves of the Israelites.  God, through the giving of the manna while out in the desert provides an alternative to  this old system.  It is a system of egalitarianism.  A way of life, where everyone has enough, but no one has “too much”.  It is a system where resources are available to everyone.

At the time that Jesus was telling this parable to his disciples, Rome was enforcing a domination system upon the Israelites, it was life being lived under the old order.  In today’s world, we still are battling life as we live under the old order of Domination, only now days we call it “free market of Capitalism.  We have been conditioned to believe that hard work should be rewarded accordingly.  Seniority gives priority to the newbie’s, both in pay and privilege.  But ah!  There lies the under meaning of this parable – equality.  In a society where we base our self-worth on our “output” and “stored up wealth”, this story should be most unsettling to us.

Here we see a landlord, hiring workers to work in his field; an agreed wage is set with those first workers and they go out and start working their little hearts out.  Periodically during the day, the landlord see’s others who need work and also invites them into the labor force; here we do not see a discussion upon wages being agreed upon, it seems that just the opportunity to work is enough.  Then at the last hour of work, those who are still unemployed are also invited into the field to work.  Everybody seems to be happy until it comes time to receive their wages for their work.  Those who worked only for the last hour were paid first, in front of those who had worked all day long. 

Seeing those who worked only an hour receiving a wage equal to what they had agreed upon by those who hired on in the morning, lead them to believe that they would receive a greater amount than what had previously been discussed.  When they receive the agreed upon amount of wages, which was the same as those who had worked only an hour of the day, they became very resentful and were quite angry with the landlord for treating those last workers as equal to them.

Jesus, in using this parable, tries to help his disciples understand a new order of living – an order of life that is different than the old order of domination.  God’s economy is one of equality and one of having “enough.”  I so enjoy Gene Rodenberry’s “Star Trek”, as it gives a vision that is different than that of current cultural values.  This series does not see humanity as being given the privilege to dominate creation, but rather where humanity is working at being a steward in God’s universe.  One thing that I most noted in this series was the idea that people worked for the good of everyone else without the need of compensation of money.  Everything was provided for your daily needs and enjoyment.  This is the concept of God’s economy – there is enough for our daily needs.  We pray this each week during worship, but do we really live it?

This parable also exposes the harm that happens to society when we operate in the domination system.  What I mean by “domination system”, is a system that restricts the flow of resources equally to all.  The accumulation by a few at the expense of the many.  It is a system built on the concept of scarcity. 

Dr Campbell again says: This parable painfully unmasks the deep presuppositions that all too often form the “air we breathe” and shape our lives to such an extent that we cannot even imagine alternatives.  It exposes the fundamental metaphors that so often structure social relations: winners and loser, superior and inferior, insider and outsider, honored and shamed.  It unmasks an order and often encourages us to pray, “Give me this day my daily bread,” rather than, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

This exposing lies behind the householder’s odd method of payment, in which those who worked the longest must watch everyone else receive the same as they do.  Those who worked all day complain, bringing to mind the grumbling of Israel in the wilderness.  Their complaint does not simply concern money; it goes much deeper, to what the money represents.  The real issue is superiority: “you have made them equal to us.”  Work becomes not simply the means for earning daily bread, but a source of division and competition, a means of reinforcing the categories of winners and losers, superior and inferior. Feasting on the Word, YR A, Vol 4, pg 95, 97

The issue for the church to understand is, that in the “domination” systems, there develops a theology of who “get in” and who is “left out.”  We do this throughout our society, at all levels.  There are restricted neighborhoods, there are restricted clubs.  The church has lost a whole generation of people because it has become a group that also teaches that some are good enough to “get into heaven” and there are those who are “not worthy enough” to be let in.

This is a hard parable to accept, because it goes against the way  we have been conditioned in our society through economics, and of  competition that “capitalism” is based upon.  We easily can fall into the trap of thinking that we deserve more while others deserve less, solely because we feel entitled and view others as not being up to “our” standards. 

The other side of this coin is that we may feel that we are not worthy enough to deserve the gift and grace of God, which would keep us outside of the field and not enjoying the freedom to use the gifts that God has already given to us.  This story is about the Love of God toward all of us!  It is about how we are seen as equals in the eyes of God.  Our challenge is to then look at each other and see what God see’s in each of us!  Amen

Monday, September 15, 2014

Living in the Place of God, by Rev Steven R Mitchell, based on Genesis 50:15-21

Living in the Place of God

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 9/14, 2014

Based on Genesis 50:15-21 and Romans 14:7-12


        There is an old Buddhist story that goes something like this:

        There was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years.  One day his horse ran away.  Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit.  “such bad luck,” they said to the man sympathetically.

        “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

        The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses.  “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed to the farmer.

        “Maybe,” he again replied.

        The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg.  The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.  “Such bad luck,” they said to the farmer.

        “Maybe,” he answered.

        The day after the accident, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army.  Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by.  The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “What good fortune!” they exclaimed.

        “Maybe,” said the farmer.

        The story reveals that we cannot fully know the evil or good that may evolve from life’s events. Feasting on the Word, Yr A, Vol 4, pg 52   This morning’s reading is the conclusion of the story of Joseph, number 12 son of Jacob, and of his brothers.  After their father Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers are very fearful about what Joseph might now do to them since their father is no longer alive to help keep this fragile balance of peace.  As they beg for their lives, Joseph makes a very disturbing statement: Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people…”  It is disturbing because in the word “intended”, it can implies that God is somehow orchestrating events that go on in our daily lives.

        Two weeks ago we looked at Moses’ encounter with God in the form of a burning bush and its message of having courage enough to encounter God, listen to God, and then to act upon what God is saying.  In the example of the burning bush, I suggested a radical perspective of how we might hear God in acts of violence; instead of looking at the evil acts of violence through the eyes of a victim, examine these acts with courage to hear the deeper messages of what part we too have played in the situation.  Maybe this is what Joseph was saying to his brothers of how God was able to take their wrong and use it to save multiple lives later down the road.

        In his 2005 publication of “Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember Its Misdeeds”, Donald W Shriver, President Emeritus of the Union Theological Seminary, calls us to do justice by remembering injustice, for any love of this or any country that is uncritical of its past and present deeds runs the risk of killing the best of its history and engendering its own destruction.   He refers to as examples: How did Germany deal with the Holocaust?  How did South Africa deal with the forgiveness of those who held power during apartheid?  How do European countries remember the colonization of Africa, Latin America, and Asia?  How do Africa, Latin America, and Asia reflect and act upon this legacy? Feasting on the Word, Yr A, Vol 4, pg 53-54

        This is at the heart of this morning’s story of Joseph and his brothers.   Joseph, through the plotting of his older brothers, was sold into slavery at a young age.  Joseph through his gift of interpreting dreams was given freedom and a position in the Egyptian court, eventually becoming second in command over the whole land of Egypt.  Through this position he was able to spare Egypt economic disaster by storing up enough grain to feed all of Egypt and many other tribes throughout the region, during a 7 yr famine.  

        It is because of this great famine that Joseph once again crosses paths with the brothers who had plotted against him.  Joseph has to deal with the history between him and his brothers.  Will he dish out retribution for the wrong that they had done him, or will he forgive them?  Joseph had to chose to deal with his brothers either through the eyes of being a victim or through a vision of greater good.  If we go back earlier in the life of Joseph we see that Joseph was not innocent in his actions that had provoked his older brothers.  His misdeeds were those of an over indulged youth, who lorded over them, his favoritism by their father. 

        Comes the final paragraphs of this family saga, as his brothers fearing for their lives after their father Jacob had died, begged Joseph for mercy and offer themselves as slaves to him; a basic “what goes around comes around” scenario.  You see, the understanding that his brothers had, was the idea of reciprocity, what you do to me, I do to you in return.  But Joseph saw their actions as something bigger than the twelve of them.  Joseph sees God at work through his life and acted in a non-conventional way of not just forgiving but giving them land that would allow for a good living.

        The Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans this command:  “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.  Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”   Among the many things that Paul tells us which can rule our physical bodies, hate and need for revenge, are two of the most powerful feelings that we deal with as humans.  They destroy not only those that hate and revenge are directed toward, but also the one who is acting upon their hate and revenge.

On the ten anniversary of 9/11, there was a tremendous amount of programming on Television remembering that fateful day.  Some programs aired focused in such a way as to promote a continuation of being a victim of these actions, and in essence allowing ourselves to be held hostage by the Al Qaeda.  Other programs presented topics that focus on constructive actions that provide healing from this violence and the ability to move beyond being a victim toward providing space that allows for healing and hopes for a future that will promote peace. 

        As a nation, we chose to view ourselves as victim and have conducted ourselves internationally with that mind set.  The state of Israel has built a society on the foundation of being a victim (I believe) and from that foundational view, reacts to its neighbors and the world in a way that creates much strive and pain.  When South Africa became free from Apartheid, as a nation they had to decide whether they would be a nation of victims or victors.  They chose to be victors by designing a radically new way of dealing with the injustice many had endured through the South Africa National Peace Accord.  It is believed that this helped stop the potential violence that many feared with the fall of Apartheid. 

        Forgiveness is costly.  It demands repentance and it should not happen without a long-critical engagement between victims and perpetrators.  Forgiveness goes hand in hand with issues of justice.  Joseph’s brothers talk about justice as a matter of simple reciprocity.  Joseph changes this perspective and offers a new model of justice by way of forgiveness. Feasting on the Word, YR A, Vol 4, pg 54

        I was deeply touched by Joseph’s question to his brothers, “Am I in the place of God?  We are created in the image of God.  This is a metaphorical statement expressing a truth that we have God within us.  Because of our finite constraints of this physical world, we are too often tempted to forgo our image of God and act in a way that is hurtful and harmful to those around us.  Joseph told his brothers not to be afraid, not because Joseph thought of himself independent of God, but because he saw himself in accord with God – through a repentant heart he was able to look beyond the violence that his brothers had perpetrated upon him and saw how God used that action in providing salvation for not only his brothers, but for the land of Egypt.  I believe Joseph went from asking the question of “Am I in the place of God?” to “Living in the Place of God.”  For to live in the place of God is to dwell in the same space, the space of love.  Amen

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Invisible Handcuffs, by Rev Steven R Mitchell for Mountain View United, Aurora, CO based on Exodus 3:1-15

Invisible Handcuffs

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 8/31/2014

Based on Exodus 3: 1-15



        A week ago this past Saturday, our Hot Cakes and Hot Topics focused on Prison, Re-entry, and Alternatives to Violence.   Out of the 16 people attending, four where from a church in Denver searching and hoping for some ways in which to deal with a specific situation that was going on in their congregation.  Another person who attended, learned about this particular forum and received an invitation by Njeri Kingangi.  This forum was of particular interest to her because she had personal experience with the prison system as an inmate, as well as re-entry as a parolee.  Much of our conversations focused around the idea of “victim”.  The standard wisdom in our culture is in order to have a victim, you must also have a perpetrator.  One of the major breakthroughs in the discussions was to understand that the “victim” might also be a “victimizer.” 

In other words the issue of being wronged and of wronging is very fluid.   For the representatives of the visiting congregation, the issue centers on a group of members who in the past have been victims of a particular action and remain with that insight.  There is a new member to the faith community that represents the prior activities that remind those who were victimized of the trauma they experienced.   The reactions of those original victims are now causing them to become the victimizers of a person who has no direct connection to the original incident.

As a voice of experience of being both in prison and on parole, the Rev Tammy Garrett-Williams was able to provide some very pointed and helpful incites to those of us who have never experienced incarceration.  Her newest e-book “Invisible Handcuffs” is the inspiration of this morning’s reflection title.  To me, her life parallels in some ways to that of the story of Moses and the burning bush.  Both had been convicted of a crime, Tammy went to prison; Moses ran and lived in exile in the land of Midia.   After Tammy’s release on parole, she encountered God, who (she feels) has asked her to expose the invisible handcuffs that exist in our judicial system of those who are re-entering society.  Moses after many years of living in exile encounters God and is asked to go to back to Egypt and face Pharaoh and speak out about the injustice to the Hebrew people.  For either story to continue, both have had to accept God’s request.

This morning’s story about Moses and the burning bush is such a familiar story to most of us that I wonder sometimes if we forget just how significant it is.  We hear about this story as a little child and think, “what a cool thing that the bush was on fire but never burned up.  As we grow older and learn more about the relationships between science and physics, we start to dismiss the factualness of the event because it doesn’t hold up to the laws of science.  As we mature into our senior years of life, I suspect we can start to dismiss this story as, “what does it have to do with me at this stage of my life?”

For those of you who have grown up listening to this story of Moses and the burning bush, I am sure you have heard many explanations of its meaning.  I would be willing to bet that the most common theme you have heard about this story centers on the response that Moses gave God when asked to go Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrew slaves, “Who am I that I should go…?”  Since the Jesus movement of the 1960’s the American Evangelical Christian has been plagued with this question in one form or another; generally asking “what does God want me to do with my life?” 

Now there are many possible ways to look at this morning’s scripture as it is so very rich with a variety of information.  You have the enslaved Hebrews, the oppressive Egyptians, a baby boy who was supposed to be killed by royal decree ,yet raised in the royal household by the Pharaoh’s sister becoming an elite part of society.  Moses then becomes a convicted murderer and runs, living a good deal of his life in exile in a barren land.  He then encounters God and is ordained to become the leader and savior of the Hebrew slaves.  Also, a major theme of this story is the reality that God is invisibly present in the lives of the Hebrew people and specifically with Moses.

Yet with all these possibilities to reflect upon, I believe that all the possibilities hinge on this particular question, “Do we have the courage to listen and respond?  Today’s story is the foundation for the celebration of Passover.  Through the courage of Moses to go and investigate the burning bush, to then listen to God’s concern about the Hebrews unjust existence, and then on an act of faith respond to God’s call is the most basic message to each of us here this morning.  It is a story asking each one of us, “if we have the courage to listen and to respond?”

No one likes to be taken advantage of, yet each of us has been taken advantage of in one way or another.  We are capable of abusing others all the time in ways that we generally aren’t even aware of, that is until someone or something brings it to our attention.  It is at that point that we have a choice to either “listen” and hear, or listen and not hear.  Our response will be based on either our willingness or refusal to listen, even if we think we are not responding, we are making a response.  Generally, most of this congregation does not take advantage of the Hot Cakes and Hot Topics for one reason or another, but these topics are the burning bushes of our day.  I hope that many of you will make the commitment to attend the upcoming forum as we watch the documentary, “Injustice for all.”  It speaks to the reasons of the shrinking middle-class and explains the reasons for the prolonged recession this country is in.  It is truly a burning bush that we need to have the courage to listen to and then respond.

In the Gospel stories, the reason why Jesus is often compared by its authors to Moses is because of the actions of Jesus toward the injustice of the system in which the Israelites were living by the rule of Rome.  Moses was asked by God to take action about the injustice of the Hebrew people by the Egyptians.  This injustice was not about “legal” justice or injustice as we in today’s world think about the term justice.  The justice that God is addressing both through Moses and through Jesus is about “distributive justice”, the fairness of resources for all to have access to.

We are quickly approaching the 13th anniversary of the 9/11, an act that has done immense damage upon the American psyche and as a result has cost us as a nation not only lives, and money, but the loss of ethical stances that we once lived by.  The then Vice-President Cheney declared that, “the U.S. had to work the dark side, using any means at our disposal and without any discussion.  Is it possible that as we asked the questions of “why did this happen to us”, asked with a perspective of beyond “being a victim”, would we have been able to see this as a burning bush about “distributive justice”?  I do not condone violent actions in any way, shape, or form, but I do see this type of behavior as extreme measures, demanding by those who perpetrate these acts of violence as cries to be heard.  We are now faced with many more horrors of terrorist activities, the most recent labeled as ISIS.  Do we have the courage to truly listen to what they are trying to say to the world, or do we want to close our ears and see them only as deranged individuals and a threat to humanity?  As Americans, we have to come to the realization that we are a part of the domination system that restricts access to basic resource in under developed countries.  The World Trade Center was a beacon of the world domination system that we operate under.  Jesus challenged Caesar about the injustice of the domination system by Rome.  Moses challenged Pharaoh about the injustice of the domination system by Egypt.  As disciples of Christ, we too are called to challenge the injustice of the domination system.  As a citizen of the United States, I love the level of economic comfort that is available to me.  But you know what:  God asks me to look beyond myself, and hear the cries of his people all over the world and face the tyrants that enslave the majority.

The story of Moses is a story about God’s desire and God’s ability to accomplish “distributive justice” in the world that belongs to God.  It is a story that provoked Jesus to stand up against the oppressors of his day.  It is a story that calls us to “have the courage to listen and to respond” against the invisible handcuffs that we encounter today, not just between one another, or in this country, but worldwide.  This morning’s story about Moses and the burning bush is a story about whether we have the courage to approach God, to recognize that we are living on sacred soil, and to respond to God’s call for justice.  Amen  


Wide and Wider Our Circle Expands, by Rev Steven R Mitchell for Mountain View United, Aurora, CO based on Matthew 15:21-28

Wider and Wider Our Circle Expands

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 8/17/2014

Based on Matthew 15:21-28



           At the close of each worship we sing the chorus:  Wider and wider our circle expands.  As to the world we reach out our hands. Led by the Spirit, we’re learning to bend.  Loving, and growing, and loving again.

We sing this song because it speaks to our willingness to be not only inclusive but our willingness to look beyond our current boundaries and expand our understanding.   This comes in part by our understanding of Jesus’ call about who is included in the kin-dom of God.   So I would like to start off this morning’s reflection by asking you: “What is your image of Jesus of Nazareth?”   Is this reading from Matthew consistent with your image of what the Son of God’s actions are supposed to be?  If not, then what is making this reading inconsistent with what we read in other parts of the Gospel? 

        This morning’s story raises some deep questions about prejudice, divine election, and the limits of God’s kingdom.   How can the image of the man who goes from village to village speaking about the salvation of God, healing the sick, and feeding the hungry be so prejudice in this morning’s reading?  And is this side of Jesus inconsistent to what we think we know about Jesus?  If we were to go back a few chapters in Matthew to chapter 10, as Jesus was sending the twelve disciples out on their own mission, we would read these instructions that He gave, “5 Don’t go to the Gentiles or the Samaritans, 6 but only to the people of Israel—God’s lost sheep. 7 Go and announce to them that the Kingdom of Heaven is near.[d] 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received!  This morning’s story seems to be consistent with Jesus’ earlier practices. 

        Every so often, we here in the United States live out this story as we struggle with whom is considered equal.  From the 1950’s – 80’s we labeled this story, “the civil rights movement.”  Since 1976 thru now, a major segment of the church has labeled this story as, “the gay agenda.”  In the past decade we can re-label it as “immigration reform” as we deal with the subject of who has the privilege to live in this country.

As followers of Christ, we have the task to continually interpret scripture in order to help make what we read relevant to us.  How do we understand in today’s world what Jesus was telling the Canaanite woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  I have come to understand “Israel” to mean “those who are called by God.”  The term “Israel” is difficult for us in the United States, as there was a strong association between religious practices and the political state separated along ethnic lines in a way that does not exist in our society.        

As disciples of Jesus, we take seriously the teachings of Jesus, his actions, and his temperament to be a path in which we are to follow.  When Jesus says, “Love one another”, we try to incorporate that within our lives; When Jesus says, “feed my sheep”, again we work toward providing food for the hungry.  With this understanding in mind, does today’s reading provide a “loop hole” in which we can use to exclude specific individuals or particular groups of individuals equalities and inclusion to our circle?  The reference to the Canaanite’s as “dogs” is equivalent to the use of the “N” word in our culture toward people of color.   Are we allowed, based on this morning’s story, to see some people as being on the level as less than human?

        It would seem Jesus was doing this; at least at the beginning of the text.  There are however some interesting aspects of this story that need to be brought into light.  First off, Jesus was not in an area where the general population was Jewish; he was in the region of Tyre and Sidon, which was home to Gentiles, and out of the reach of Herod Agrippa, how had just recently beheaded John the Baptizer.  It would be as if Jesus was in Mexico, still in North America, but out of the United States jurisdiction.

This interchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman reminds me of the “ugly American” image that has developed with those Americans who feel privileged and empowered, who while visiting in a foreign country, are offended by the customs of that country and boldly insist that the locals change their behaviors to match those of the American tourist.

        Matthew says a “Canaanite woman” came up to him and started shouting.  The use of the word “Canaanite” is a powerful word to any Israelite as it brings up images of “ungodliness”, of “idol sacrifices”, and “idol worship”.  The word “Canaanite” is to the Hebrew as is the word “Homosexual” in our culture.  

        What is disturbing about this story isn’t that the disciples were highly bothered by this Canaanite woman, crying out for the help her daughter, that is normal for them, but that Jesus ignores her.  Only because of her persistence, does He finally sits down to talk with her, not to find out what she is needing, but rather tells her that his mission was only for those who God counts worthy.

That’s a shocker!  Does this statement mean that there are truly those who are counted as favored by God (divine election) and the rest are going to hell?  Undeterred this mother continues to beg Jesus to help heal her daughters illness.  Then Jesus actually likens her, solely because of her being a Canaanite, to that of a dog!  It's not right to take bread out of children's mouths and throw it to dogs.”  And she once more responds with, “You're right, Master, but beggar dogs do get scraps from the master's table.”

        I would like to point out that this story comes after a serious of stories where Jesus is confronting the Pharisees over questions of ritual purity and obedience to the law of God, and Jesus quoting from Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy not sacrifices.  Jesus is now being confronted with exactly what he had been chastising the Pharisees of doing.  It is a story of a woman putting a mirror up to Jesus’ face and calling him on his own prejudices and limited scope of what and to whom his mission was about.

Finally, as I understand this story, Jesus has an epiphany as to who is equal in the sight of God.  It isn’t just about who gets help, who we give assistance to, but rather a point of “who is equal in the eyes of God”, which translates for us, “who do we see as equal”, as “brothers and sisters – as family?”  It is a profoundly important message to us, “do we tolerate a person who is homeless by letting him sit out on the side patio of the church or do we see that person as a part of this community, a part of the family of God?  Do we go out of our way to speak to this homeless person, to invite him not just to worship, but to our community meals?  Or do we see him as outside of our acceptable social circle? 

Or more closely to home, how do we view all of our members in this faith community?  Do we see them for only what they can contribute to the larger good?  Are we actively concerned about what is going on in one another’s lives or are we too busy with our own personal agenda’s to be bothered by other people’s concerns?  When we don’t see someone for a few weeks in worship do we drop by their house or give them a call to see how they are, or are we like the disciples going to the pastor and asking him to take care of it? 

        Our text today is truly speaking about God desiring “mercy over sacrifice”.  Sacrifice is form and doctrine; mercy is love, acceptance, and equality.  God is telling us, that every person, regardless to race, social standing, educational level, sexual orientation, even mental illness, is equal in God’s kin-dom.  It is a challenge to recognize that we do fall short of inclusion and need to take the time to sit down with those asking for help and realize that their needs are as valid as are ours.  It is a call to reach out and allow our circle to widen, for in that widening we are opening ourselves up for new blessings that God gives when we interact with those outside our own circle.  In reality, if we can come to such an understanding and reconciliation within our own hearts, then there will be no need to discuss who gets the crumbs, for everyone will be eating at the table and our circle will be like the ripple in the water, continually moving outward and ever enveloping those that we meet.  Amen 

Take Courage! It is I., by Rev Steven R Mitchell for Mountain View United, Aurora, CO based on Matthew 14:22-33

Take Courage! It is I.

By Rev Steven R. Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 8/10/2014

Based on Matthew 14:22-33



        Last week we discussed the concept of preparing enough food for five thousand plus with only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.    For some of us the idea of a truly physical multiplication of these meager items might seem too impossible, as it goes against natural reasoning.  On the other hand, if we look at that particular story as a metaphor of taking what we do have and trusting it will be the start of something bigger, then the feeding of the five thousand plus is more understandable. 

        This week’s text seems to be even more unbelievable.  You have the disciples out on their own, in the middle of the sea, and find themselves in the midst of a storm, scared half out of their wits.  Then, they see a figure that appears to be walking on the water.  Already scared half out of their wits, it would be very natural for them to image that what they were seeing was a ghost walking on the water.

        In the midst of this fear they hear this apparition saying: “Hey guys don’t be afraid, it’s just me, Jesus, walking out here on the water, during this really bad storm, with the strong winds and the waves crashing all around me.  Evidently, Jesus wasn’t convincing enough, because nobody really seems to believe that it was Jesus.  After all, it isn’t everyday that you see someone walking on the water; swimming maybe, but never walking.  What was he wearing, Armani inflatable sandals that allowed him to walk on water and not be knocked down by the waves as they came crashing up against his body?  No, if it were me seeing this, I think I would rather stick with, “I was having a full blown hallucination.”

        Yet Peter decided to challenge the unbelievable by saying to this figure, “If you really are Jesus, then command me to come to you, for if you command me, then I too will be able to walk on the water.”  Although scripture doesn’t say this, I can imagine that Jesus extended his arm and held out his hand and simply said to Peter, “Come.”  So Peter, trusting in Jesus, gets out of the boat, leaving the rest of the disciples on board watching Peter walking on the water toward Jesus.  Then being a good distance from the boat, Peter starts to realize what he has just done by getting out of the protection of the boat and starts to think to himself, “What in the Egyptian Dessert am I doing?  No man can walk on top of water.  I don’t care if Jesus did tell me to come to him, it’s humanly impossible for me to be outside of the boat walking on water, what was I thinking about?   At which point Peter takes a dunk into the sea.  As he is bobbing up and down like an apple in a barrel, he cries out to Jesus, “Save me, Lord.”

        Jesus reaches out and grabs Peter, pulling him up out of the water.  (I have a sneaking idea, that Peter was probably saying a few choice words to Jesus, inquiring as to what made Jesus think he, Peter, could possibly walk on water.)  Then Jesus responds with, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?  Jesus pretty much drags Peter over to the boat and throws him back in, and once Jesus himself got into the boat, the storm stopped and the sea became calm.  Then scripture tells us that those in the boat worshipped Jesus saying, “Truly you are the Son of God!  

So, this makes for a really good story line for children in Sunday school or possibly an Indiana Jones style movie, but what could it possibly be saying to us, especially those of us who are not comfortable around water, who wouldn’t get out of a boat on a lake without wearing a life preserver and having a pair of water-skies strapped to our feet? 

Have you ever started in a direction and at some point wondered if you had made the best choice?  This story talks about our human nature and how easily we can become disoriented, confused, and have the sense that we are alone, even lost.  It is a story about how at times we don’t recognize God being with us, because God’s presence doesn’t fit into our “perception of reality”.  It is a story of how we often decide upon an activity or path, and as we get into it, encounter problems or rough times, and we begin to doubt ourselves and in that doubt stop what we have set out to do, because we have lost the faith that it takes to achieve our goal.

        I struggled this week with the conversation between Peter and Jesus, particularly over the word “command”, which was the word Peter used in order to make sure that the person he was seeing out on the water truly was Jesus.  After all, if Jesus is the son of God and he commands me to do something, then I should be able to do what he says.  I struggled because Jesus simply said, “come”.  Why an invitation and not a command?  Finally, I figure out what was bothering me.  It was a matter of “responsibility”, more precisely, self-responsibility.

        If Jesus had done what Peter had asked and had “commanded” Peter to come to him, then Jesus was the responsible person for what would happen to Peter.  If Peter was able to walk on the water and made it safely to Jesus, then Jesus was the man!  If however, Peter went out to Jesus and started to become side tracked and sank as he did, had Jesus commanded him to come out, then his failure to walk on the water would have been Jesus’ responsibility.  But Jesus doesn’t command Peter to come out; he invites Peter to join him.  In this way, Peter is the person responsible for his own conduct.  If Peter acts on the invitation, then sinks as he attempts to walk out to where Jesus is standing, the responsibility lies with Peter, not Jesus’.  We say God sent His son in order to save the world – meaning God sent Jesus to die.  Yet scripture tells us Jesus, while in the garden of Gethsemane chooses to go down a path that will surely result in confrontation with the religious community and probably death.  It was Jesus’ responsibility for this action, not God’s.  Jesus had enough faith in God to speak out God’s truth that was surely a walk toward certain death by those who feared or offended by God’s message. 

        Today’s lesson is teaching us about personal responsibility, and what happens when we lose sight of God in our life.  God invites us to do many things; it is we who decide to take that invitation.  Then when the storm of change or challenge comes along, we often get so caught up in the uncomfortableness that our faith wavers and we find ourselves sinking.  Many a church growth program has sunk in defeat as it encountered unforeseen challenges and crisis.

        Rev Ernest Campbell, former pastor of Riverside Church in New York, City (an American Baptist/UCC congregation), addressed a group of pastors on the crisis in today’s churches, saying, “the reason that we seem to lack faith in our time is that we are not doing anything that requires it.Pg 336-337 Feasting On the Word, Vol 3, Year A   Ask yourself, “Are we at Mountain View living a life that requires faith?”  Churches that struggle with limited resources and dwindling attendance are most likely guilty of not taking a chance and stepping out of the safety of the boat, or as Rev Campbell says,”taking a chance and doing something that takes faith.”   Instead they act like the disciples in the midst of a stormy sea, confining themselves to the safety of their boat, and not recognizing Jesus’ presence. 

        This morning’s story tells us that Peter took the risk to go to Jesus.  Did he fail, yes, because he became overwhelmed by the “impossibilities” instead of holding fast to the faith that initially prompted him to get out of the boat.  But the story also re-assures us that Jesus, even when we find ourselves failing and bobbing around like a cork, is there to pick us up and his presence in our lives can calm the storm.   For some of us, this seems like an impossibility.  Yet when we place our trust and faith into God’s hands, we can find that calmness that gives us the strength to continue stepping out of the boat.  Always remember that Jesus is beside you, even in the midst of a storm saying to you, “Take courage.  It is I.  Don’t be afraid.”   Amen

We are the Miracle! by Rev Steven R Mitchell, for Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO based on Matthew 14:13-21

We are the Miracle!

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO 8/3/2014

Based on Matthew 14:13-21


        AS we come to this communion table this morning, this morning’s scripture reminds us of the importance of food to our physical bodies, and more importantly, when we share it with others, how it feeds us spiritual.  Coming together to eat is one of the most basic of ways in how we open ourselves, bringing down the walls which we use to protect ourselves from others and begin to build relationship.  It is at the table where we share what has occurred that day, it is where we listen and learn, it is a basic bonding event.   

It is easy to become distracted when we look at the miracle of Jesus taking just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish by focusing on how can this have physically happened?  The true miracle and meaning of the feeding of the five thousand is not in how the two fish and some loaves of bread multiplied to feed so many.  There is, I believe, a deeper meaning in this story that is far more important to us than, “how did Jesus do this?   

        In the movie, Aladdin, there is an old man imprisoned telling Aladdin that, “Not everything is as it appears.”  Reality is fluid?  No two people sitting in this room, experiencing this morning’s worship, singing the same songs, listening to what I say, hears or integrates what they experience in the same exact way.  There may be general consensus as to what went on in worship this morning, but each of you will not leave here having exactly the same perception, the same reality of what went on.

Take the glass with water that is filled to the middle.  To some people the glass may be half filled; for others it may be half empty.  Ink blots on a card are always interpreted differently by everyone who looks at them.   I am reminded of a service many years ago in Washington State, where in my reflection I presented statistics that showed only about 4% of families in this country would be considered “normal.”  At the end of worship, one person remarked that she was glad that her family was a part of that 4%.  Her reality of her family and my reality of her family did not match up.  

        Today’s lessen isn’t really about how the bread and fish were able to multiply enough to feed everyone who was hunger, but rather it is a story dealing with perceptions.  When Andrew and Peter were asking Jesus to send the people away, to go back into town, so that they may eat, Jesus gives them the opportunity to feed the crowd.  In the eyes of the disciples, they did not have enough resources in which to feed such a massive crowd.  Jesus asks them, “What do you have?”  After they looked around, they discovered they only had a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, hardly enough to feed such a large crowd of children, women, and men.

        To the disciples, their glass was half empty.  To Jesus, it was a start.  Think about the number of people who have placed their faith in the actions and teachings of Jesus over the past two thousand years.  Jesus started out with only a few followers, and they told their friends about Jesus and his teachings, and eventually there were twelve disciples.  A small core of men for such a great undertaking of spreading the “Good News” that Jesus was teaching.  When he looked at the twelve disciples do you think he saw this core group as not being enough to accomplish such an important mission?  Or do you think he saw them as, “it’s a beginning”?

        The heart of Jesus’ ministry and his teaching is what we call today, “social justice”.  Jesus saw the injustice of those who had more than “enough” to live on, and how they gave very little concern to those who were poor, des-enfranchised, needing health care, needing adequate housing, needing food to eat, those suffering with mental-illness, those who are victims of racism and sexism.  They were the same topics we struggle with in today’s world. 

        Today’s sermon is an opportunity for us to look at the abundance that we have, and examine our perception of what we have been given by God, and about our attitudes toward Social Justice issues.  As a nation we are slowly working our way out of one of the worst financial collapses since the Great Depression.  Financial resources have been dramatically cut back, especially in social care programs, donations to non-profit organizations, and tithing in faith communities.  Too many, our glass of water is half empty and as a result, we are frozen from moving forward with vital programs that can help others, saying, “We do not have what is needed to do this or do that.”

I bring this up to point out an observation about how we as a society and as individuals react and handle prosperity and depression.  During the Great Depression, when practically nobody had any money, to speak of, there was a willingness to help out our neighbor, or the stranger who was in more need than yourself.  I often hear stories from people who were children during the Great Depression speak of how their parents would help with a meal to those men who rode the rails, they were called “Hobo’s” in those days, as they came to their houses hoping for a meal.  As it turns out, those houses that provided a meal were marked by the hobo’s as a house to come to for food.  In my naiveté, I assumed that any home during those years would provide some sort of handout to those in need, but over and over again, I would hear that was not the case.  What was true were those families that seemed to always have an extra sandwich available for a stranger, often had less than their neighbors who didn’t share with the stranger.  Their actions were of those who see the glass half full. 

Yet today we live in untold wealth, compared to the 1930’s, yet we keep our houses locked, we are hesitant to speak to strangers, and we give less to charities and to our churches, per capita.  The point that I am bringing out is, as a nation who is in a position to share from our abundance to those who need, we are actually giving less.  We call it “trickle down economics.”  Why do you think that is?  I believe it comes from a perception of scarcity, “If I give too much, I may not have enough for myself.”

We speak of God’s economy in the church, about the abundance of God’s love.  We speak about extravagant hospitality, yet how much do we give back to God?  How guilty are we of being just like the disciples who said, “We don’t have enough to feed them?”  Do we not say, “We need more money to do a program, we need more members to survive, we need more help, we need more, God.  We don’t have enough; it is up to you God to do something about this”, as we stand around wringing our hands, worrying, and doing little. 

Wrong, wrong, wrong!  When the disciples asked Jesus to act, he said, “No, you do something about it.”  “You figure it out and do something about it.”  The late President John F. Kennedy said it this way, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but rather, ask what you can do for your country.  The church needs to ask less about how God is going to help us, and start asking more of God, “What do you want us to do?”

At the beginning of this story, the disciples perceived their reality as not having “enough”, enough food for certain, but they didn’t perceive a reality of themselves as having enough power to do something special in their own lives.  Jesus in another setting says to the disciples, “You have seen me do many great things, but I tell you, you will do more wondrous things than I.”  In order for this to happen, we have to realize the potential within ourselves.  Once the disciples started to look around, working with what they had, they realized that they had more than what they needed. 

Too often the gathered faith community see’s the glass as half empty, asking their pastors, “Want are you doing about growing the church?  What type of programs are you designing?  How are you going to help us?”   Is it because the faith community is apathetic, or even lazy?  Or is it more fundamental than that?  Could it be that too many of us, see ourselves as the disciples saw themselves, as not having enough to get the job done?  The question for today is, “How do you see yourself; Half full or half empty, or maybe just containing a couple of Teaspoons in your glass?”

 Are we going to be true to the call of Jesus and trust in the extravagance of God to provide enough for what we see needing to be done?  Are we just “two fish and some loaves of bread”, or are “we the start?”  I think if Jesus were here this morning, He would see us as “the start”, He would see us as the miracle!  Amen