Monday, January 19, 2015

The Ten Words from God pt 5, "The Law of Life", by Rev Steven R Mitchell, based on Exodus 20:13

The Ten Words from God pt 5

“The Law of Life”

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO 1/18/2015

Based on Exodus 20:13


        Tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr Day, a day where we honor as a nation one of America’s greatest voices for unity and dignity of all human kind.  It is the 47th anniversary come April 4, when Rev Dr King Jr., was killed by an assassins bullet.  Ironic isn’t it, that a man who advocated peaceful change and passive resistance died through an act of murder.  A man who was passionate about the quality of life for not just the African American, but for all peoples of this country, because he knew that when one person is seen as less, then we all are less. 

        Today, we continue our look at the Ten Words from God.  The sixth commandment “You shall not kill” seems pretty straight forward.  Yet, I cannot imagine a more controversial topic to ever try and speak upon.  For a pastor, this topic is one of the top ten on the list of “No Win” subjects.  Why?  Because everyone has already figured out what the “correct” answer is to this commandment. 

Why is this commandment not so straight forward?  Knowing that all the commandments are built upon each other, we know through the first commandment that God is God, supreme in all that exists and has the power to free us from slavery.  We know through the second commandment that God has authority over all life.  So why the confusion about the sixth commandment?  This commandment is confusing because there are numerous laws following this commandment that speak about what to do with someone who has killed.  There are numerous passages that speak about the legitimacy of killing, as examples: the stoning to death of an unruly child, of adulterers, of fornicators, of homosexuals, those who worship false gods.  In one of my most favorite passages from Ecclesiastes it speaks about a “time to kill and a time heal”, which I like to use in wedding ceremonies as a springboard to the various ways we can kill love within a relationship.  The scriptures are full of contradictions around the concept of rightness and wrongness of killing. 

A second reason for the confusion is in the understanding of what does “to kill” mean, within the evolution of the Hebrew people.  If you look at the same Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy (chapter 5:17) you see a change in wording to:“You shall not murder”, which seems to change the whole focus of what might or might not be allowable, a sort of loophole.  We understand the word “kill” to mean the taking of life for any reason and in all forms.  We understand the word “murder” to mean a criminal act.  So how are we to interpret what the intent of this commandment was?  Not how we try to manipulate to support our personal opinions, but what was the original intent of “do not kill”.  This is where the preacher enters into the “no win” zone. 

We make up reasons all the time to kill: we kill to preserve the state; we kill to protect the self; we kill to punish wrongdoers; we kill to enforce authority; we kill for political reasons; we kill whole segments of society – strip their lands, rape their forests, soil their air – to satisfy whole other segments of society. Pg 70, The Ten Commandments, by Sister Joan Chittester.  These all pertain to physical killing.  There is not enough time this morning to go into how we kill emotionally or kill some ones character.

About 5 or 6 yrs ago the movie “Avator” came out with an amazingly in-depth message about the sanctity of life and various views on what justifies killing to American audiences.  It brought to light, the approach of justifying the destruction of not just human life but of the ecology by an imperialist society.  The indigenous people, the Nahavey, understood the sacredness of life and how all plants and beasts were connected.  The invaders from earth never understood this sanctity of life and because of that lack of understanding brought death and destruction; a killing of life not just on the planet Pandora, but of their own planet earth.

In all of recorded human history, over 60% of all war deaths have occurred in the Twentieth Century.  In just the past two years, after the mass shooting at the elementary school in Sandy Hook, CT, there have been 95 more mass shootings across this nation at schools.  In Florida, the Superior courts have upheld the right to kill a person by “reasonable fear of safety”, and we have many instances of accidental gun violence.  Is abortion murder or is it killing?  War, is it justifiable killing or murder?  When actress Mae West was having a battle with the Hayes Commission who was trying to censor her sexual innuendos as being immoral, she is reported to say,”I will tell you what is immoral.  Sending our boys off to war, killing one another, that is immoral!”  Capital punishment is it a deterrent or is it murder?  

To add to this confusion, we as Christians try to follow the examples that Jesus set while here on earth.  Like Rev Dr King, Jr, Jesus also preached a non-violent revolution and was executed by the state.  For the first couple of centuries, the Christian church in general followed a philosophy of pacifism until it was sanctioned by the Roman Emperor Constantine as the legitimate church of the state in the Third Century. 

I think when we argue the differences between “killing” and “murder”, trying to legitimize one over the other, we are missing the intent of this commandment.  What this commandment is pointing toward, I believe, is the understanding and struggle about the “Sanctity of life.”  When we think in terms of being made in God’s image and what that means about all of creation, the focus of “sanctity of life” starts to bring in a much broader view about “what is life”?  I wish to play a video that addresses this question in a very compelling apology (meaning statement of theological belief) about the commandment “You shall not kill.”  [youtube video: January is Sanctity of Life month, by Focus on the Family]

As this video speaks about the sanctity of life is a world view, it makes being prolife an issue that goes beyond the topic of abortion, it speaks about how we should regard life in general.  The Third Parliament of the World’s Religions met in 1999 in Cape Town, S. Africa.  The first Parliament of the World’s Religions met in 1893 in Chicago, to address the issues of Religion in the world and focus on the commonalities of differing faiths instead of the things that separate religious groups.  In the 1999 assembly, this Parliament agreed on a document called Global Ethic’s.  There were four central ethical principles, one of these principles being “you shall not kill.”  Life, every religion in the world said, was to be affirmed, protected, honored, and sustained. Pg 70, The Ten Commandments, by Sister Joan Chittester   

Maybe it’s time for us to look at this commandment in a different way – of turning the wording from a negative into a positive.  Instead of focusing on “You shall not kill”, how would we approach the topic of sanctity of life by saying, “you shall enable life!”  Would that not help change the view of Medicare and Social Security, and food stamps, and unemployment compensation from being simple “social programs” into the essence of what it means to sustain life for others, to make life livable for everyone?  Maybe the greatest sin against the sixth commandment, “You shall not kill”, may be indifference to what goes on that is sapping life out of the world around us.  Is not the underlying principal of “salvation of humankind”, the making of everything that affects the quality of our life’s the concern of quality for all lives? Pg 70- 72, The Ten Commandments, by Sister Joan Chittester   

Rev Dr King, Jr had a dream, Jesus of Nazareth had a dream.  Both were the dream of the sanctity of life.  Let us honor that dream by practicing “You shall enable life!”  Amen

The Ten Words from God pt 4, "Family! You just gotta Love Them", by Rev Steven R Mitchell

The Ten Words From God pt4:

Family, You Just Gotta Love Them

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Based on Exodus 20:12, Deut 5:16, and Sirach 3:1-16

For Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 1/11/2015



        The other day, as I was watching “Fried Green Tomatoes”, I was reminded about my childhood surroundings.  The story takes place in a small rural community; a community small enough where your business seemed to be the business of everyone who lived in that community.  To many people that may seem to be just a little too cozy.   The movie pointed out to me the differences between my childhood youth and that of my children and now my grandchildren. 

        The community that I grew up in was in south central Kansas with a population of 3,000 people.  My family was one of the earlier settlers in that community, meaning that I was directly related to about 1/3rd of the community, and being related through marriages to another 1/3rd of the community.  In otherwords, if you and I were not related by blood or through marriage, you and your family were “new comers”.  Believe me when I tell you that there wasn’t anything that I did away from home that my mother didn’t know about by the time I did get home.   I lived in a community where as a seven year old,I could walk a mile to the local swimming pool or spend part of my day milling around the stores downtown by myself.  Even though I thought I was doing things on my own, there were hundreds of eyes on me all the time.  My children never knew that type of freedom.  They were raised in communities of a million people or more.  There was not the ability to be nurtured in a community where there was extended family to look after them.  They only got to see their grandparents with planned visits.  I was able to walk to my grandmother’s house daily after school.  They did not have the opportunity to have weekly family gatherings where their aunts and uncles would gather, for meals, table games, and sharing stories of days gone by; not just of family history, but of the history of my community.

        We live in a world where many families do not live in the same communities as their parents or siblings, raising their children where there is no extended family nearby.  The fifth commandment of “Honor your father and mother” is a word of wisdom that is going to be very difficult to understand by our future generations because of the mobility that we have in this country.  I suspect that many of us when hearing this particular word from God probably think that to “honor our parents” means to put them up on a pedestal.  It may even mean to some of us, that we have to endure our elders.  I was told by my son, that it was his duty to care for me in my aging years because I was his father and that is what the bible tells him to do.  My response was not so agreeable.  I responded by saying, “I would prefer that he not take care of me in my aging years because the bible tells him to do so, but rather out of love for me and if he couldn’t then it would be best for him not to involve himself.”

        Sounds pretty harsh I am sure, but I think this is where the misunderstanding comes about this commandment.  We have been taught that the focus is that on adult child and aging parent, which it is, but it goes beyond that of the nuclear family.  This commandment is speaking to the collectiveness of the community that we all bring to that community.  It really focuses on cherishing the gift of human relationships. 

        I often joke about the number of “mothers” that I have in my life.  I tell people that I am more than what one mother could handle, so I needed the guidance of three other mothers to help keep me in line.  What it really speaks to is my appreciation of extended family, of relationships.  Sister Joan Chittister writes : This commandment tells us to honor whatever it is, whoever it is whose place in our life has been a place of honor, the ones who brought us to growth, to wholeness of life, the ones whose ways have given direction to our own.  This gives a much broader view than dealing with just biological connections.  For me this includes those teachers who influenced me as a student.  Women like Mss Settles, my kindergarten teacher, and Mss Dewisse my second grade teacher who took her whole summer providing summer classes for me and a handful of students, so that we could advance with our class to the third grade because we didn’t receive what we needed by our first grade teacher.  There was coach Ward, my basket ball coach who gave me encouragement when I wasn’t the most physically coordinated player on the team, or my father-in-law who shared with me about what to look for in wise investments.  It speaks to how I honor my mother and father’s memory.  My mother’s greatest gift to her children was the display of “unconditional love.”   I honor my father by remembering how he showed his care for me when he would include me as a 5 yr old on his camping trips, sharing little lessons on how to respect people of all walks of life.  The fifth commandment speaks about the generational connectedness.  This commandment doesn’t speak just about how we view the generation before us, but also about the generations that come after us.  I marvel at the number of people that I have met in the past year who have moved just to be near their grandchildren. 

        I am now in the age bracket of adult children who have aging parents, meeting the challenge of “how to care for our parents when they are no longer able to care for themselves.”  Although both of parents have pasted on, there are still three aunts who are alive and I am seeing how their children are changing their lives around to accommodate the needs of their parents.  One set of cousins are figuring out how to cope with their mothers need to move out of the house that has been her home for 55+ years, another who is giving up her time with her own grandchildren to be with her mother who is living in a care home, and the third set of children who have moved into providing community service in honor of their parents who are no longer able to physically help but are involved none the less.  Honor your father and your mother.       (read Lost Generation)

        Coming back to the movie, “Fried Green Tomatoes”, I said it reminded me of my childhood.  The story is very simple.  It is a story of one elderly woman who is living in a care home sharing her life’s story with a complete stranger – a middle-aged woman.  In that sharing they develop a deep friendship.  In these stories came a connecting of the past to the present and a bridge built for the future.  In the closing lines of the movie, the elderly Mrs Threadgood says to the middle-aged Evelyn, “You know what I think is the most important thing in life!  Family and friends.”  The Fifth commandment asks us to keep the most important aspect of life – for by honoring our parents we honor ourselves and the generations to come.  Amen

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Magic of Light, by Rev Steven R Mitchell, 1/04/2015 based on Matthew 2:1-11, for Mountain View United, Aurora, CO

The Magic of Light

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 1/04/2015

Based on Matthew 2:1-11


        “We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar.  Field and fountain, moor and mountain following yonder star. O Stare of wonder, star of night.  Star with royal beauty bright, westward leading, still proceeding Guide us to thy Perfect Light.”

        For many, Christmas is over and in many households the symbol of Christmas, the Christmas Tree has been taken down.  In the stores, the only reminders of Christmas are on the 50% or more racks, discounted to make room for the next Holiday.  Yet, as we come this morning to worship, the Christian Church celebrates today as the second Sunday of Christmas. In fact we have just two days left in celebrating Christmas Tide, or rather the season of Christmas.  On Tuesday we move into the celebration of Epiphany, which reminds us of the day that the world was introduced to the baby Jesus. 

        One of the sad things about taking down the Christmas decorations is the absence of light that comes with those decorations.  One of the joys that Paul and I experienced our first winter here in Aurora was to notice how many residences left their outdoor lighting turned on after the New Year.  In Seattle, many families burn their outdoor Christmas lights well into March, as a way of combating the dreariness and darkness of the winter. 

For Christians, Light and darkness hold very symbolic meanings within our scriptures and our music.  Light and darkness also hold deep symbolism in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as in writings of all major world religions.  Our very use of lights at Christmas testifies there “is magic in light.”   The very first story in the book of Genesis, the first thing that God creates is “light.”  On the first day, God said: Let there be light; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness… And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”   This light is not the light of the sun, moon, and stars: they are not created until the fourth day.  Rather, the light of the first day of creation is primordial light, the light that existed before sun, moon, and stars. The First Christmas, Marcus Borg, pg 174 

        Whether we recognize it or not, light and darkness evoke a great deal of emotion within us.  This fear of danger with darkness or feeling of safety in the light, is much more subtle in modern civilization than with our ancestors.  With the flip of a switch, we control light and darkness.  We flip the switch up and lights come on, we flip the switch down and lights go out.  In fact we have developed technology the turns the lights on or off by just the clap our hands. 

Yet even with this new found technology, deep within us comes the basic sense of safety by being in light, and a sense of danger when we are in the dark.  This comes from generations of humanity living in a world where light was only provided by the sun or by fire.  It wasn’t until the advent of Gas used for lighting in the late 1700’s that our city streets became lit.  The average family couldn’t afford candles for lighting in their homes until the early 1800’s.    Electrification of rural America didn’t occur until the 1940’s.  Our ancestors knew darkness in a very different way than we do. 

It is no accident that the birth story of Jesus is placed at the time of the Winter Solstice, on the longest night of the year, by our church fathers.  It wasn’t just to take the place of a pagan ritual as many historians like to point out, there is more mystical reasoning for choosing Dec 25th .  By integrating it with the Roman winter solstice festival that celebrated the “birthday of the Unconquered Sun”, it gave meaning to Jesus as the unconquered son of Light.

Light and darkness are strong symbolic terms in this morning’s story of magi coming from the East following a star, looking for the new king of the Jews.  This story sparks a lot of speculation about “who were these men; where did they come from; what celestial event occurred that allowed them to know about Jesus’ birth or allowed them to follow this star; why didn’t the wise men in Jerusalem see this same celestial event; why was King Herod caught so off guard about this event?” 

If we approach this story as a factual event, we are left with multiple unanswerable questions.  Science hasn’t been able to establish a verifiable celestial event that gives validity to the story.  Until the year 350 A.D. there was no continuity of celebrating Jesus’ birth.  Up to that point Jesus’ birthday was celebrated in March, April, May, and November by various church traditions.   To look at this story as factual events presents a good deal of consternation.

However, what if we look at this story as a parabolic telling of a truth; meaning what if we think of this marvelous story of Magi visiting the baby Jesus as a parable – a story that doesn’t necessarily have to be factual to be true?  By doing this we are then allowed to ask a completely differ set of questions.  Questions like, “what do the Magi represent, what does King Herod represent, what does Jesus represent, and maybe in relationship to this story, what does the star in the sky represent?”

Looking at this story from the Jewish perspective that Matthew brings, the visit of the Magi represents the gentile world acknowledging God’s active entry into history and bringing truth to the world through the new born Jesus.  The Magi also present a challenge to the established authority – meaning Rome, but more importantly to Herod a puppet King.  A challenge saying their reign on earth is a kingdom that is representative of darkness and not in accordance to God’s desire for justice.  If this star was leading these Magi to Jesus, there is no reason for their stopping off to visit Herod.  They did not come to pay homage to Herod or Rome, but to Jesus.  Herod represents the evil in the world that Jesus is to combat. 

The star doesn’t just appears in the sky, but it moves, it leads these men to find Jesus.  Even after visiting with Herod, the star re-appears and turns south to Bethlehem, stopping to the place that Jesus is to be found.  As they enter the house, they recognize Jesus as the true king.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus is referred to as “the light come into the world.”  We are also told that the darkness did not receive the light.  This is all strong imagery about Jesus, imagery found in all the Gospels about how God has entered into the darkness of this world through the birth of this little baby Jesus. 

We tell this story every year.  It is a part of our Christmas heritage, it’s in our carols, it’s in our scriptures, it’s in our pageants, but do we recognize it in our world?  Do we see this as history or can we see this story as current events?  Do we see the star that guided the Magi active in our world?  Was this star, this light, an only one time event?  I think not.  Are we like Herod and often caught off guard not recognizing this star when it is shining upon us?  I think if we don’t look around us, then yes, we will not recognize that the star of David still shines.

I think we have the star of the Magi right here at Mountain View.  It comes to us in the form of a homeless man named Ed.  Many of you are aware of Ed, maybe even have an uneasiness about his presence on the church property.  We’ve had members, in the past, call the police on him.  We’ve had council discussions as whether to let Ed hang out on our property.  Ed has brought a lot of uneasiness to this congregation.   As a small example, “what do we do with/for Ed as the sub-zero temperatures came just after Christmas?”

Let me share with you why I see Ed as the star of the Magi.  When I see Ed, I am reminded that all is not good in the world.  That there is still hunger, homelessness, isolation and loneliness, that we live in a world where justice is not practiced by our social policies.  Yet when I chat with Ed, I find a man who is well read, resourceful, kind hearted, wounded by life.  I find a man who is no different than anyone of us in this building this morning.  I find a creation of God who I am related to, as a child of God.  Ed is a reminder to me of the work that needs to be done, to work for the justice that the darkness of this world wishes to take advantage of.  I see Ed as a gift from God to Mountain View.  Jesus was a gift from God.  We are gifts from God, a light to the world of darkness.  We are the magic of light.  The question is, do we see ourselves as this light or are we fearful of the light?  As we celebrate the gift of the Magi, will we embrace who we are as the representatives of the light, or will we hid in darkness?  It’s a new year and the light of the world is at our doorsteps.   Amen

The Wonders of Waiting, by Rev Steven R Mitchell, 12/28/2014 based on Luke 2:22-40. For Mountain View United, Aurora, CO

The Wonders of Waiting

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 12/28/2014

Based on Luke 2:22-40


       This morning’s scripture reads pretty straight forward, yet as is generally the case, it has many directions in which one can contemplate.  We can reflect on how devout Joseph and Mary are in respect to their religious believes.  Even as a very poor couple they follow the Law of Moses to the letter; having their son circumcised on the eight day, at which time they give him the name Jesus.  Now they have journeyed into Jerusalem to consecrate their first born son.  They lived within a covenant community and were determined to raise their children in the way of that covenant.

        So, the most obvious way to take this morning’s reflections is to focus on the holy family.  But the story also has two other characters, Simeon and Anna, who were also very devout Jews and very much a part of this same community.  The theologian Fred Craddock says of Simeon and Anna that these two are, “miniature representation of Israel at its best: devout, obedient, constant in prayer, led by the Holy Spirit, at home in the temple, longing and hoping for the fulfillment of God’s promises.  They embody what has been called ‘the wonders of waiting’, an art seemingly lost to us today.”

        This is what I’d like to focus on this morning, the wonders of waiting.  Simeon declares at the sight of Jesus, “God, you can now release your servant; release me in peace as you promised.  With my own eyes I've seen your salvation;” Mary and Joseph were taking Jesus into the temple to be blessed, but before this could happen, Simeon, lead by the holy spirit to go to the temple that day, see’s them, steps up and takes the child into his arms and then Blesses God, not the boy!  God had made a promise to Simeon back in his youth that he would not die until he had seen the “hope” of Israel.

        Next in the story, a ninety-one year old widow who also is devout, never leaving the temple and waiting for God to fulfill His promises to her, sees the baby Jesus and goes out into the city to declare to friends that God’s promise of “freedom” had finally come.  We don’t know how old Simeon was, but he was up there in years, as was Anna, both who had been waiting to see the fulfillment of God’s promise to them! This begs the question, “How long are we willing to wait for a fulfillment of a promise? Especially one made by God? “

        Here is an important point: Because of these two peoples devotion to God, they had received particular visions of what they were to expect.  For Simeon, he was promised that before he would die, he would see the promise of Israel.  With Anna, she too had lived in hope of a promise, a vision that God would send one who would save Israel. 

        Having a vision, or rather gaining a vision in a world where there is so much at our finger tips is truly a difficult thing to do.  I compare it to the story of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate factory.  A story where a group of children are chosen to go through this candy factory and “the one” deserving child will become the new curator of this factory.  Almost all the children were children of privilege in one form or another and one by one are expelled from the factory.  As a society, we are pretty much like those privileged children, where we expect and at times demand what we believe we deserve, whether merited or not. 

        A great example of this can be found in the opening scenes of the movie “Harry Potter”, where the overly privileged Dudley throws a fit because his parents had the nerve to buy him less gifts for his birthday than what they had given him the year before.  While the orphaned child Harry living in care of his aunt and uncle, never has his birthday recognized and sleeps under the staircase.  There are children who live in very meager surroundings, very much like the economic level that Jesus was born into.  When a present does come to them, they are filled with joy because it was something that they were not expecting.  With some of these children they dare not even dream about receiving a gift.  They have no expectations, no visions of what life is like beyond their current meager subsistence

“A vision” is the life line of any person of faith.  “Vision” is at the heart of any ministry for a church.  For without a vision, you have nothing to look toward, no expectations, no promises to be fulfilled.  I want to share with you a thought shared by Kathy Huey, who writes for the UCC website.  She shares a story of a friend of hers who is blind, “I once had a conversation about the vision thing with a colleague who had lost his eyesight many years before. We talked about this reading, about the ability of Simeon to see more than a baby in his arms, to see within and beyond this baby to God's hand at work in the world.                                                      

My colleague said that his own inability to see with his eyes is sometimes a gift because it enables him not to be distracted by things that might keep him from seeing "to the heart of things." Whenever he would say that something was "gorgeous," I wondered how he knew that, but he explained that his heart sees what his eyes cannot. He says that he sees the beauty of creation – instead of ugliness – because he can only see with his heart, his soul, and his mind. Most of all, he tries to see to the heart of each person he encounters, so the things that matter to the world matter very little to him. He looks, instead, within the person, to the Christ within. He believes that we're each called to see – to behold – the promise of God's grace and the Christ in one another – which helps us to understand better Jesus' teachings about things like loving our enemies and having the reign of God within us.” UCC lectionary study, 1/1/2012 Kathy Huey

If we can hold onto the same vision that Simeon and Anna had, in a world that too often distracts us with the false promises of wealth, easy living, enlarged ego’s, then we will be able to see the world as Kathy Huey’s friend see it, “the promise of God’s grace and the Christ in one another.”  But it doesn’t just happen because we want it to happen, we must work at preparing ourselves for this type of vision, by practicing what our faith teaches us: things such as devotion, obedience, constantly in prayer, willingness to be led by the Holy Spirit, being at home in the temple, and longing and hoping for the fulfillment of God’s promises. 

These are not easy attributes; they come with commitment through a covenanted group of people.  It doesn’t come by just attending worship now and then, it comes from an intentional commitment of time; time that we commit to study, worship, prayer, fellowship, and a commitment of our money to make sure that these things will be available for us to pursue.  Following our faith is not cheap, even as poor as Joseph and Mary were, they paid the cost of sacrificing two doves in order to follow and be true to their commitment to the Law of Moses. 

Vision is a necessary thing to have, to hold onto, to work toward.  It is the cornerstone of “faith”, and yet as we read these and other stories found in the scriptures, we quickly learn that our faith, our visions, will not come cheap.  Amen!