Monday, December 15, 2014

Moving Toward the Light, By Rev Steven R Mitchell. 12/14/2014

Moving Toward the Light

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United Church, Aurora, Co 12/14/2014

Based on Isaiah 61:1-4 & John 1:19-28


        We are starting the third week in Advent, which means we are half way to the time when we will celebrate the birth of Jesus, or more importantly for some of us, we have only a couple of more weeks till we get to open presents!  In just seven days we will once again experience the Winter Solstices, the longest night of the year.  For those of us who prefer longer days and shorter nights, this time of the year can become very depressing for us. 

        For twenty-five years I lived in the Pacific Northwest, and was amazed at the length of the days in the summer, where bright twilight was common up to 10:30 p.m.  The flip side to that is a realization that by mid August you could actually notice the days shortening on a daily basis.  In fact, come mid-October, you rarely see the sun until mid February.  That is one reason since moving here, I do not feel like I have experienced a winter – because of so much day time light.

        Darkness often times is accompanied by a kind of sadness.  For many it is a time of uneasiness, a time of possible danger, at the very least, a time of uncertainty.  We equate darkness as a playground for misfortune, evil deeds, and vulnerability.  In the movies, it is a time filled with vampires, zombies, and creatures that live beneath the ground. 

Scripture also uses the contrast between darkness and light to describe moral situations.  Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor writes in The Christian Century, “Biblically speaking, darkness is the pits.  In the first testament, light stands for life and darkness for death.  When God is angry with people, they are plunged into darkness.

In the second testament, light stands for knowledge and darkness for ignorance.  When the true light comes into the world, the world does not know him.  Jesus has come so that everyone who believes in him should not remain in the darkness….  The Gospel of John sums it up: ‘In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.’” 

Metaphorically, Advent is that sort of darkness that we live in until the birth of Jesus.  During this season, we often use Isaiah as the primary book of reflection because of its understanding of being held captive (Israel living in bondage in Babylon), then the joy of freedom.  As a book, Isaiah is split up into three major sections.  The first speaks to the despair, the hopelessness of being held in captivity.  The second part of the book, speaks about the hope, the joy of returning home, back to that place that God had given to them.  In the last part of the book, there comes a realization that in the home coming, there has to be a rebuilding, for what had once been, no longer exists.  Often times despair accompanies that realization; yet, Isaiah gives a message of “hope” as Israel looks to a time when all will be restored.  This restoration has come to be understood through a little baby born in Bethlehem, whose name is Jesus.

        Barbara Taylor, says, “As Christians, we measure time differently from the dominant culture in which we live.  We begin our year when the days are getting darker, not lighter.  We trust that the seeds of light are planted in darkness, where they sprout and grow we know not how.  This darkness is necessary to new life, even when it is uncomfortable and goes on too long. The Christian Century, Nov 29, 2011, pg 37

        Today’s reading of Isaiah 61: 1-4 is most appropriate for me, because it was what I used at my ordination service.  It is the basis of my understanding of what being a minister is about.  It is the foundation that I see as the church’s purpose, as it works to share the Good News of God to a creation that is walking around in a dark haze; in a kind of Matrix that tries to hid the love and light that God has for all of creation.

        We live in a society where people are less connected to a church than two generations ago.  Today, Christians and churches are looked upon in wonderment by most of the un-churched world wonder what is wrong with us, wonderign why we seem to hide in a world that isn’t real?  They look at us and ask, “What is your purpose?”  I find many churches cannot answer that question with clarity. 

        This week has been another amazing week for me.  It started off with a very deep conversation with Sandi Ghaffari as we talked about various aspects of gun violence in our country.  Although we had more questions than solutions, one thing that we both realized is how much fear there is in our world today, and out of this fear, comes anger and harmful actions.  The underlying question that I came away with from that deeply meaningful conversation was, “How do we navigate in a world of darkness?”  How do we keep hope when the predominate message is “no hope?”  The follow-up to that conversation came on Thursday when six of us from Mountain View  attended a prayer vigil starting at First Baptist of Denver and ending on the steps of the Capital, encouraging our elected officials to hold fast to the laws that were pasted last year to help prevent further gun violence.

        Over the life of the church, the church has developed what I call “the Messiah syndrome.”  The church thinks that its job is to save the world.  If you were to read ten mission statements from varying churches, you will find that at least 80% will say their mission is to safe the world.  It sounds like a reasonable goal since we are carrying on the work of Jesus.  But the reality is, saving the world is  is God’s job.

We are “the voice in the wilderness crying out”.  Our job is to come, “as a witness to testify concerning that light…We come only as a witness to the light.  So how do we do this?  What do we cry and how do we bare witness to this light?  The best example for us is to take to heart what Jesus proclaimed at the beginning of his ministry.  “… The LORD has anointed us to proclaim good news to the poor.  God has sent us to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.  We will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of God’s splendor.  4 We will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; we will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.”

        On this Third Sunday of Advent, we live in darkness; there is no doubt of this.  There are many issues facing us as a country concerning world stability, many issues facing us as a body of faith, and there are many issues facing us as individuals.  As we approach the longest night of the year in just a week, it is symbolic to note the over powering feelings of fear, sadness, and non-direction that exists in our daily lives.  But it is equally important to know that through God and God’s love, there is light by which we can find our way.  As a family of faith, united through three denominations, we have a proud history in sharing the love of God.  We are a voice in the wilderness, that cry’s out the restoration that comes through Christ and His teachings.  Do we have all the answers? I hope not.  Do we struggle with the questions and the how’s? I hope so.  For it is in that struggle that God’s love is birthed; this struggle, this journey is the Advent that we celebrate.  Amen


Monday, December 1, 2014

Shine On Us, O God, by Rev Steven R Mitchell

Shine On Us, O God

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO 11/3-/2014

Based on Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19

First Advent Sunday


        As you came to worship this First Sunday of Advent, you might have thought it a little peculiar listening to Native American pipe music, instead of traditional Advent music.  The reason for this is we have been asked to give 150 seconds of silence in remembering and honoring the 150th anniversary of the Massacre of more than 160 innocent children, women and elderly Native Americans by U.S. Soldiers at Sand Creek, CO.  We have been asked to remember this tragic event by our sister denomination The United Methodist, for the Captain leading  this attack was a United Methodist Minister and sanctioned by the Territorial Governor, also a United Methodist.   

As a part of this time of remembrance, I specifically chose to play a 9 minute video that Bishop Elaine, of the Rocky Mountain Conference,  put together sharing information about this event and the intentional healing process that was started during this summer’s annual conference with survivors of this Native American community, asking for forgiveness for this part of our heritage, not just as United Methodists, but as descendants of all who are of European immigrants, who gained control of the America’s through brute force.    

We refer to Advent as the beginning of the church year.  It is the beginning as it represents the season of expectation, hope, promise, and salvation.  From a theological standpoint, it is the start of the message of redemption that we look to God for.  I think it is very appropriate for us to begin this Advent Season with this focus on repentance as this act of terror took place two days after the beginning of Advent in 1864.

Each week we light the Advent Candles with the first candle representing “Hope." It symbolizes faith in God keeping her promises to humanity. The second is called the "Candle of Preparation," reminding Christians to "get ready" to receive God. The third candle, the "Candle of Love," reminds us that God loves us enough to send his only Son to Earth.  The fourth candle is the "Candle of Joy." It recalls the angels joyfully singing about the birth of Christ. The "Christ Candle," the white candle in the center, stands for the Messiah, Christ himself.

Our reading from the Psalms represents the hope of the psalmist that God will keep the promises made; promises of unity and peace, of right living and mercy, of reconciliation and of redemption.  But Psalm 80 also recognizes that there is much pain and suffering in the world and that God’s plans and timing are a mystery.  There is anger in this psalm toward God, as well as a call for help and ultimately a statement of assurance that God will come and correct what has gone so terribly wrong.

We live our lives in Advent, really.  We live waiting in hope for God’s coming to correct what has gone wrong.  It is during this season that we take time to ask those questions of “why”.  It can be a time to express our anger of those things that have gone wrong – sometimes attributing those accusations directly toward God.  

There are people who say that we should never blame God for something, but the Psalmist has no problem in doing so.  I can still recall my feeling when I first learned that I was an expectant father.  Honestly, at first I wasn’t sure I was ready to become a daddy, but once I got over the shock of the news, I embraced the future roll whole heartedly.  Then a few weeks later, we had a miscarriage.  Not necessarily so uncommon, I think, but I saw how devastating this event was to my wife, I became so angry with God.  All sorts of painful vile came out of my mouth against God.  But you know what I learned?  I learned that God’s shoulders must be pretty broad, because after I got over the pain of lose, I realized that God was still sticking by me and my wife. 

In the video, I was struck by the one woman’s comment about how she was raised to believe that tears were the highest honest of prayer to God.  I believe she shared such wisdom with us about how to deal with our pain.  The church says, it is a place where we can come to in our deepest needs, a place where we can be with others who know our pain and help us connect with God, giving hope that in the future, there is peace for us from the pain of life.  Yet not all churches are a place where one can go and honestly and openly share that pain.  The Christian song writer, Ken Medema, wrote a song titled, “If this is not a place”, verbalizing the accusations of a hurting world toward the church.  The chorus says, “If this is not a place where tears are understood, where can I go to cry?  If this is not a place where my spirit takes wings, where can I go to fly?  The church is this place of love and growth and acceptance, but if this is not a place where tears are understood, where can I go to cry?

Bishop Elaine of the Rocky Mountain Conference of the UMC, with the move to reach out to the survivors of the Sand Creek tribe understands the church to be the place where we can come and shed our tears of pain, where we can come and ask God to ‘restore us’, where healing of wrongs can begin.  I cannot help but look at Sand Creek as something that happened because of the evils of racism. 

Over the past few years, several young African American boys deaths have come to National attention, focusing on racism.  In Ferguson, MO, the community is being torn apart because of racism.  As the psalmist cries out, “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”  It is this type of leadership that Bishop Elaine has demonstrated saying, the church needs to take the lead in the healing process that must come in order to rid our nation of the sin of racism.

Advent is a season that asks us to look to the future salvation through God by making confession of those things that separate us from one another as well as separating us from God.  We experience separation from God in many forms and levels.  We suffer pain as a nation because of our separation from God.  We suffer personal pain because of our separation from God.  This separation ultimately comes because we hold onto the hurt that comes from simply experiencing life.  But when we let go of that hurt, we can then sing with the psalmist when he says: “then I will never turn back from you;… and I will call on your name.

We find that healing power in the birth of a little baby boy born so long ago, named Jesus.  Today is the beginning of a journey of hope.  “For everything there is a season…a time to weep…a time to mourn”  “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples.  And God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”  Someone once said, “The tears of life belong to its interlude, not its finale.”  Advent is our interlude, life with God is our finale.  Amen

The Ten Words from God series pt 3, "Who has time to Rest?" by Rev Steven R Mitchell

The Ten Words from God pt3

“Who has time to Rest?”

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO

Based on Exodus 20:9-11 and Mark 2:23-27


        Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it Holy” vs. 8

I would like to start out this morning’s reflection by asking a couple of questions.  First question is: Who knows what a “Blue Law” is?  Second question which is harder:  Who admits having lived with “Blue Laws?”  Third question: “What did you and your families do on those days that were protected by these laws?”  Forth question: “How does community life differ today in comparison to those day’s with the ‘Blue Laws’?”  Blue laws were a part of social behavior and norms which carried over the earlier interpretations of what Scripture meant to “keep the Sabbath Day Holy.”   So my last question is this: “What does it mean to you to keep the Sabbath Holy?

This morning’s focus is on the fourth word from God which says, “Remember to keep the Sabbath Day Holy.  Does it mean not working on a particular day?  Does it mean doing specific activities while not doing other specific activities?  Are we allowed to ride our donkeys to worship, or are we expected to walk to worship?  Are we suppose to stay at home and twiddle our thumbs, or is it a day where we “catch up” on what we’ve neglected to do around the house during the other six days?  Is the idea of having a “Sabbath day” still necessary or is it something that we can discard?  These are the questions that this fourth commandment brings up. 

Shortly after moving to Seattle, WA, I developed some strong friendships with a group of Canadians who lived three hours north in Vancouver, B.C.  One of the things that I noticed was their work schedules.  It seemed to me that they had an enormous amount of time away from their jobs.  Not just a few, but everyone that I knew.  The reason for this being, they alternated working between a 5 day work week and a 4 day work week, which was mandated by their employment laws.  Time study research tells us that Americans work 350 more hours or nine work weeks more than the average European per year.  The same studies tell us that Americans suffer more from stress, cardiac arrest, hardening of the arteries, and cancer than Europeans do. Pg 46 of The Ten Commandments, Laws of the Heart by Joan Chittister 

We have built-in vacation requirements in America because of the recognition that people need to take some time away from their work, otherwise you end up with employees that perform less efficiently and develop stress related illnesses.  I remember when I was graduating from seminary, a conversation I had with my mother-in-law.  It was over the amount of time that a pastor should have away from his work.  I read to her a piece from a book that indicated that the minimal time frame for a pastor to take away from the parish work (vacation time) should be four weeks no matter how long the pastor has been employed.  Her comment was, “you see, that’s what’s wrong with the church today, creating all these new expectations, making it difficult for the pastor to do his/her job.”  I then read her the publication date of this book, 1906.

So, “what is Sabbath?”  Is it a day off?  Is it a day when businesses are supposed to be closed?  Is that even realistic these days?  What are we suppose to do on that Sabbath day?  For those of us who are concerned, “how do we make ‘Sabbath’ holy”; which is probably the greater question of any these. 

What was the purpose in Exodus for God providing the Ten Commandments and then later having it restated in the book of Deuteronomy?  As I pointed last year as we took a deeper look into the Beatitudes, these commandments are not “stand alone” statements, rather each of these commandments build upon those stated previously.  The First was to have no other gods before God, this addressing those systems who present themselves as gods.  The second was to have no engraved images, this prevents the worshipping of an object instead of worshiping the source – the bible could be seen as an engraved image of God.  The third was not to miss use the name of God, which goes beyond having a potty mouth.  These first three speak about the temptations of trying to manipulate God for our own purposes.  Today’s forth commandment again provides another hazard that can separate us from our roots, from God and from community – it is not taking time out to “remember.”  Rituals help us remember, such as the ritual we partook a few weeks ago on All Saints Sunday, by lighting a candle in honor of a loved one who has died.  It is in this remembering that helps keep us connected to our past and reminds us in small ways of who we are.

These commandments help us to address the issue of distributive justice.  While under the hand of Pharaoh, the Israelites were slaves to the god of scarcity, the god who restricts rather than provides, a god who begat injustice instead of providing justice.  The reason why we are taking a longer look at these Ten Commandments is because, each generation has to deal with a system that tries to prohibit the God of justice. 

So how does the Fourth Commandment provide for distributive justice?  Hear who is affected by this commandment: On (the day of Sabbath) you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.  Not only are you not supposed to work, but neither can your children, or your servants (possibly employees in modern understanding), not even your animals, nor those who are foreigners.  Nobody is supposed to work!  What does this do?  It makes on that one day, everybody equal.  There are no bosses to satisfy.  It brings into balance the whole of the animal kingdom.  I suppose in one respect, we could see this day as being able to allow humanity and the world to re-enter into the Garden of Eden for that 24hr period.  What does that mean?  It means being in relationship with creation prior to what we call the “fall.”

Sister Joan Chittister provides three reasons for the Sabbath.  Firstly, it provides for the creation of equality for that one day – the rich and the slave are equal since there is no work happening.  Secondly, it gives time to reflect on the meaning of our lives – it allows time to think about those bigger questions in life.  Thirdly, it gives us time to reflect on the goodness of our work as God did on creation when God rested on the Seventh Day – in other words it allows us to enjoy what we have worked for. 

When we work so hard to get the things that we think will give us pleasure, but we continue to work to keep it or get more of it, then we have missed the opportunity to enjoy it.  We forget to “remember” most frequently those that we love the most.  We work hard to provide a good life for them, but do we take the time just being with them and enjoying them, or are we guilty of what Kat Stevens so brutally say’s in his song “The Cats in the Craddle”, depicting how the father was always too busy to spend time with his son, in his old age wishing to spend time with his son who is now to busy for his dad, “One day it occurred to me, my son has turned out just like me.”

In the simplest of forms, Sabbath is about taking time out to remember, to reflect, to enjoy the life that we work so hard to build.  It is a time to remember what is most important in life – relationships!  Relationship with ourselves, relationship with our family and larger community, and our relationship with God, the one who makes all things possible. 

It isn’t about having to go to church for an hour or two.  In fact, church too often is seen like the restrictions of the earlier Israelites, of having to do this in order to achieve a requirement.  Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.”  What going to church should be is an opportunity to “worship”, for worship provide a time for us to come and “remember” who we are, and reflect on our relationships with God, creation, and with one another.  Worship should not be a “blue law” but rather something that we look forward to doing, for it is an act of remembering who we truly are.  We are a people of freedom, freed by the hand of God.  Amen.