Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What are you Looking For?, based on John 1:28-38, by Rev Steven R Mitchell

What Are You Looking For?

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 3/22/2015

Based on John 1:28-38


        Questions are an inevitable part of life.  Our very first thoughts of the day are usually in the form of questions.  “What do I have to do today?” “What shall I wear?” “What shall I have for breakfast?” “Where’s my coffee?”

When we get to work we are met with questions and the day usually ends with at least one question, maybe, “What did I forget to do today that needed to have been done?”  Some of us even have questions in our dreams! 

        There are two types of questions, closed-ended questions and open-ended questions.  Open-ended questions are used to probe in order to discover deeper levels of understanding.  Many a teenager would like to have their parents ask them, “Are you going out?” for it only requires a “yes” or “no” answer.  The parent has no idea what that “yes” or “no” answer really means.  That’s why parents invented the open-ended questions, “where do you think you’re going?”, or “who will be there?”, and then there’s the, “what will be going on there?”  It’s the only way as a parent we can get information out of our children, because it is a natural instinct for teens not to tell you anything specific until asked.

        There are times when all you need is a “yes” or “no” answer.  “Hey grandma, is dinner at 6 p.m.?”  That’s a very straightforward closed-ended question.  Unless you had a grandmother like mine, who would give you a 20 minute answer usually about family or community history before giving you the “yes” or “no”.

        Jesus was a master at asking open-ended questions.  In almost every story about Jesus, He was asking someone a question that was designed to probe.  Even in the parables, Jesus designed the stories in a way that provokes opened-end questions?  In this morning’s text as an example, after pointing out Jesus as “the chosen one of God” the day before, two of John the Baptizer’s disciples approach Jesus, full of questions.  As they approach him, Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?”  When you consider the fullness of scripture, in all of its richness of information in how to live one’s life, possibly one of the most re-occurring themes is that of, “What are you looking for?  This the gnawing question that all the other questions are really asking?

           In last week’s story of Jesus and the lawyer, the lawyer was searching for life eternal, even though he had all the answers as to how to find it, he still didn’t know what he truly was looking for.  I played the U2 video of, “But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” because of the reference to believing in the cross and God’s salvation.  Like the lawyer who talked with Jesus, Bono says, even with this knowledge I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.  I think this song echoes many of us as we go through life searching for something, but we just can’t quite put our finger on it. 

        Maybe that is the thing that drives us as humans in being constantly discontent with what we have and always looking across the fence, thinking that the grass is greener on the other side.  A certain amount of discontent is healthy, possibly, as it is the motivating force for us to move forward.  Think about the desire to look beyond our own world.  It isn’t enough that we have yet to understand and explore all that there is to know about the planet that we live our daily lives on, we have this huge curiosity to explore outer space, looking for something – we don’t know what we are looking for, but we are looking for it anyway.  We rationalize this search by saying it will help us to better understand our own world, but if we really looked honestly in our hearts for the real reason, it would most likely come out of a sense of “emptiness”; that feeling that we are not quite complete and that maybe somewhere out there we will find that one thing that will complete us.

        An old story tells of a rabbi living in a Russian city a century ago.  Disappointed by his lack of direction and life purpose, he wandered in the chilly evening.  With his hands thrust deep in his pockets, he aimlessly walked through the empty streets, questioning his faith in God, the scriptures and his calling to ministry.  The only thing colder than the Russian winter air was the chill within his soul.  He felt so enshrouded by his own despair that he mistakenly wandered into a Russian military compound off limits to civilians.

        The bark of a Russian soldier shattered the silence of the evening chill.  “Who are you?  And what are you doing here?”  “Excuse me?” replied the rabbi.  “I said, ‘Who are you and what are you doing here?”’  After a brief moment, the rabbi, in a gracious tone so as not to provoke the soldier, asked, “How much do you get paid every day?”  “What does that have to do with you?” the soldier retorted.

        With the delight of someone making a new discovery, the rabbi said, “I will pay you the equal sum if you will ask me those same two questions every day: “Who are you? And ‘What are you doing here?’” pg 3-4 ,Jesus Is the Question, by Martin Copenhaver   Jesus would often ask those who were coming to him, “What are you doing here?” and “what are you looking for?”  It wasn’t intended so much for his benefit, but rather, for the benefit of those coming to hear Jesus.  It’s very much like going to a therapist.  We go to a therapist because we know that something isn’t right within us and we are there to find out what it is, so that we can correct it.  The therapist asks us many questions that are “open-ended”, as a way of helping us, the patient, learn what our issue is.  Once we become aware of what it is we are seeking help with, then we are open to working on how to heal.

        I think as spiritual beings, this is where we fall short in our living life to the fullest.  We get so busy with stuff, some major, some minor of what we call “life” that we forget to take the time to ask ourselves those really important open-ended questions that we need to ask in order to know what we are needing and seeking.  Instead of asking ourselves those profound questions of life, we would rather take the easier direction of trying to fill our lives with stuff, with approval of others, with careers, with diversions, all things that we hope will fill that deep longing that is hidden deep within us, but it never really does.  So often we don’t know what we want and then are disappointed when we don’t get it.

        This longing, this search that so many of us have is expressed in the Psalms this way, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” (Psalm 90:1)  The philosopher Blaise Pascal says it this way: each of us is born with an empty place in our hearts –a void- that is in the shape of God, and that means that nothing and no one else can entirely or ultimately fill it.  This empty space is not a square hole or anything as simple as that, but a complex, hungering, God-shaped space where only God fits and only God can fill.  We can try to fill that space with other things – human relationships, careers, or other earthly pursuits – but they will sooner or later leave us unsatisfied.  Which means that our task is to learn what we are looking for and who we are looking for. Pg10-11, Jesus is the Question, Martin Copenhaver

        As we approach the celebration of resurrection on Easter Sunday, may we dwell on the question, “What are you looking for?”  It’s a question that if we can find the answer to, will allow us to grow into a life that provides contentment and peace, even in times that life is like a whirl pool, trying to pull us down.  Life is full of questions.  Letting ourselves ask some of the more profound questions is the best way of discovering true life.  Amen

The Churches Greatest Challenge, based on Luke 10:25-37, by Rev Steven R Mitchell

The Churches Greatest Challenge

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 3/15/2015

Based on Luke 10:25-37


        The story of the “Good Samaritan” is well known among most people who have been attending church for at least a couple of years.  It’s a story that ministers (including this one) enjoy using in order to point out how we need to reach outside of the church family and recognize those who are outside of our social circles.  It’s seems a rather straight forward sort of story, but the truth is, all parables have multiple sharp edges to it.

        The “who is my neighbor” is the most obvious question of this parable. This is the Fourth Sunday in Lent and I want us to reflect in this year’s journey as to, “who it is” that we recognize as our neighbors and those that we don’t, and when do we, if ever, have reason to exclude people as our neighbors.  The Hebrew understanding of a neighbor is any person who is a part of your tribe or community.  That might be family members, or fraternal organizations, or people who all go to the same church, or live in your community, but does not include people or groups found outside of your boundaries.  In other words our neighbors are those people that we have a relationship with in one fashion or another.

        We live in a world that tends to create natural barriers that keep us from creating relationships.  Think about where you live as an example.  Some blocks seem designed to create small communities; we call those streets cul de Sac’s.  Other streets are straight and long, not giving as easy access to know your neighbors.  Most of us have garages, which allow us to drive directly into our homes.  In our backyards, most of us have what we call “privacy” fences.   I have made it a point on my cul de sac to become acquainted with everyone who lives on my street.  However, I have not made the attempt to meet those two or three houses that are on the other side of my privacy fence in the three years that I have lived in my house.

        There are plenty of other barriers that society puts up to keep us separated and tries to pre-determine “who our neighbors” are supposed to be.  We hold certain professions in higher esteem than others.  We use income earnings or the lack thereof, in separating relationships.  We use color and ethnicity as a way of not building relationships.  We give people with all sorts of labels and through those labels decide which people we are willing to become associated with and possibly call our neighbor. 

        I think one of the largest barriers in recognizing others as “neighbor” comes during wartime or with groups that we perceive as unfriendly or dangerous.  In his book “Jesus is the Question”, Rev Martin Copenhaver relates a story about how his church in Connecticut dealt with a crisis between a former pastor of that church and a group of terrorists in the Philippines.   Rev Copenhaver relates these events:  Rev Lloyd Van Vactor and wife Maisie, with their two young boys moved to the Philippines in the 1970’s, where Lloyd was President of the Dansalan College, a school designed to not only educate its students but deeply dedicated in helping build positive relationships between the Christian and Muslim community in the Philippines.  On March 9, 1979, Lloyd was kidnapped by members of a Muslim sect and held for ransom.  A letter was immediately sent out to the congregation in Connecticut informing the members what had happened and asked for prayers for Lloyd in his captivity.  Prayers for his wife, Maisie, as she anxiously awaits word.  Prayers for both the Christian and Muslim communities in the Philippines, that the violence might stop.  And pray for Lloyd’s captors, that they might know the peace of God.” 

        Rev Copenhaver goes on to say: I remember so clearly how word of Lloyd’s captivity affected our entire church, and especially I remember the reaction to the last request in the letter, the request for prayers for Lloyd’s captors and persecutors.  It sent a strong and immediate jolt through the congregation.  Some church members asked, with no small measure of exasperation, “Why should we pray for them:  They are threatening our friend.”  Others said things like, “Sure, I’ll pray for his captors.  I’ll pray that they come to their senses.  And then I’ll pray that they get the punishment they deserve.”

        Obviously, we didn’t need to be told to pray for Lloyd or Maisie. And it may not be too difficult to pray for Christians and Muslims generally because such words as Christian and Muslims can seem comfortably vague.  They can lack a human face.  The easiest prayers are always the most general.  It is when our prayers gain in specificity that they can gain in discomfort.  So the last prayer request of the letter was a request to extend the reach of love beyond where we are used to taking it.

        To compound matters, During Lloyds time in captivity his wife Maisie passed away.  The anger of the Connecticut Congregation grew, but was channeled into a positive, by creating a memorial fund designated for American women who might want to pursue the ministry or social work, as she had done.  After twenty days Lloyd was released without a ransom being paid.  There also had been monies raised for his ransom, so the question came up, what to do with those funds.  It was given to Lloyd to decide how to use this money with the assumption that it would be used for American students.  Lloyd specified that a fund for Dansalan College students be established for Muslim students.  Even after all these years later, his decision still astonishes me.  Our congregation decided to help a beloved one of ours.  Lloyd decided to give aid to his enemies.  Jesus asks, “If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you?”  pg 61-64, Jesus is the Question, by Martin Copenhaver

            This story leads us into another aspect of the parable of the “Good Samaritan”, an aspect that we generally don’t like to look at, because it is an aspect that becomes too personal.  Within the question “what do I have to do to gain eternal life?”, Jesus was quite happy to leave the answer that the lawyer gave as correct to what the law said, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”   But then the lawyer asked, “And who is my neighbor?”  Here is where the really hard part of the story comes, for in that question is the question that each of us asks every time we are making a value judgment about someone or some group.  “Are the Muslims our neighbors?” “Are the Taliban our neighbors?” “Are those homeless people on the street corner our neighbors?”  These questions are a questions about the reach of love, of “just how far or to what limits do I have to reach out to those that I separate myself from because of differences that I perceive make them different or not as worthy to be in relationship with.”   Luke indicates that the lawyer asks the question “to justify himself.”  In other words, he wants to be told that he is already doing it right.  He wants to defend his conviction that there are limits to the command to love one’s neighbor so that he can go on living as he has. Pg 56, Jesus is the Question, by Martin Copenhaver

        This is an excellent example of the Church in today’s world.  As the lawyer is trying to do, the church wants to justify its lack of going out into the community and reaching out to those who do not involve themselves with organized religion.  Most churches refuse to change their behavior in the style of worship and in their social outreach.  The church does recognize established organizations that help the poor and homeless, giving monies to these organizations while it tries to ignore what is going on in their own neighborhoods. 

One of the questions asked at the last two workshops that I have attended over the past six months was, “if our church was to close its doors today, how would it affect the neighborhood that we worship in?  Would people say, ’How will we ever get along without them?’ or will they even notice that we left?  Mountain View United Church has been in this neighborhood for over 40 yrs, would our neighbors even notice if we closed our doors?  Do the apartment building that are all around us even know that we exist?  Over 40 years, Mountain View has created its family, its neighbors, but how far are we willing to extend our boundaries of love and interest?  It’s a question that needs to be taken seriously.  Jesus told this parable by using as its hero, a member of the most hated group within the Hebrew culture, a Samaritan.  He did this to show that boundaries only exist because of where we put them.  When we see people as one of us, then they are our neighbor. 

The question becomes, “where do I set my barriers and why?”  “Who is my neighbor?”  Mountain View says “We accept you for who you are.”  Where are the boundaries to that value statement?  How are we practicing those boundaries?  This week, let us ask ourselves, “What does Mountain View need to give up in order to fully live into our vision?”  Amen

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

What Are You Worth?, by Rev Steven R Mitchell, based on Luke 7:36-50

What Are You Worth?

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 3/8/2015

Based on Luke 7:36-50


        This morning I would like us to think about our “worth.”  Have you ever thought about what “elements” make up the human body?  The body is made up of 13 basic elements and then traces of other elements like aluminum, copper, zinc and even some silicon.  The major make-up of our bodies is: 65% oxygen, 18% Carbon, 10%Hydrogen, 3% Nitrogen, 1.5% Calcium, 1% phosphorous, and then smaller % amounts of Potassium, Sulfur, Sodium, Chlorine, Magnesium, Iron and Iodine.  If I were to ask you what dollar value could you get from the “elements” of your body, what would you estimate?  The answer is about $1.00.  If you were to tan your skin and sell it, you might get $3.50.  So if you are lucky, you could sell your body for about $4.50.  Now you could make a lot more by selling your organs individually on the open market, but that is illegal and actually when you think about how much money you could get for yourself, it comes only if you are dead and you wouldn’t really get to enjoy the profits.  If we are worth $4.50 dead, what would you estimate what you are worth alive, which is a much more pleasant prospect. 

So as we think about our worth, maybe the question is better asked as to how we base our worth.  Do we approach our worth by what we are able to produce or contribute?  Much of society judges who we are by what we are able to produce.  If you were to go on line and research the Median lifetime earnings by College Major’s, you can gain some sense of what your earning power could be over your lifetime.  A high school/GED graduate can expect to earn about $600,000 over the course of their working years.  With some college you can boost that up toward $750,000.  With degrees in elementary Education/social work/religion, the median is about $800,000.  In the field of Psychology you can expect around $900,000, in the health and medical administrative degrees you will receive $1,100,000 and with a chemical engineering degree which is the top of the degrees chart you will earn a cool $2,250,000 over your working years. 

That would be the worth that society has assigned if you fall in one of those categories, but is that really how we look at ourselves in light of asking, “What am I worth?”  Earlier this week I was watching the movie, “The Joy Luck Club” based on the book of the same title by Amy Tan.  The story focuses on four Chinese women who migrate to San Francisco and their relationships with each of their daughters.  I have been haunted this week by one of the values that this story presents.  It is the idea of what a person is worth.

This value was shared by the mother An-Mei, as she relates to her daughter June, the lesson that she had learned as a little girl while still living in China.  The mother as a little girl eventually went to live with her mother who had been kicked out of the parent’s house for violating the rules of being a young widow.  She had become the fourth wife of a wealthy man.  She became this man’s wife because he had raped her and she was pregnant with a little boy.  Her parents would not believe that their daughter had been raped and kicked her out of their home because of the pregnancy which was dishonoring the family.

The young An-Mei soon realized that the station in the household of the wealthy man was nothing better than that of a servant.  Her mother then instills in An-Mei the understanding that, An-Mei was not a child of a fourth wife, but rather a child of a first wife, which gave great status in any household.  Moving forward to modern day, An-Mei, now mother to a grown daughter, June, ho was going through a divorce asks the question of June, with respect to the division of property, “What are you worth?”  An-Mei was afraid that her daughter had not fully realized her worth, just like An-Mei’s mother in China, who discovered too late in her life the true value of herself.  The grandmother finally committed suicide in order to give all that worth to her daughter An-Mei, who found her voice through her mother’s sacrifice and now was wanting her own daughter to find her voice, her “worth” through the tragedy of a failed marriage.

In the scripture story we heard this morning we see where Jesus is enjoying the company of a wealthy man at a dinner party.  Then the enjoyment of the evening is broken when a woman, labeled only as a “sinner” crashes the party and begins to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and uses her hair to dry them, and then anoints his feet with a very expensive bottle of oil.  The woman saw herself as not being any better than a servant in her actions.  We are not told what Jesus had done prior to this dinner for this woman, but it was something so powerful as to risk ridicule of the community and do this act of love as a “thank you” to Jesus.

What was her worth?  According to the story, those at the dinner party were offended by her presence and by her actions.  Simon, the host, assumes that Jesus doesn’t recognize this woman as a sinner and tries to diffuse the situation by letting Jesus know what she was.  Jesus however saw this woman differently.  He asks Simon this question, “Do you see this woman?  Jesus wasn’t asking if they physically saw her, of course they saw her, that’s why they were offended, that she a sinner should come in and interrupt their fine evening.  What Jesus was asking Simon was, “do you not see what is in her heart?  “Simon do you not see in her actions her repentant posture, how could she be a sinner in the act of care and concern that she is showing me?”  Jesus said,I came into your house.  You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.  Therefore I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much.”

In his book “Jesus is the Question, The 307 questions Jesus asked and the 3 He Answered”, Rev Martin Copenhaver see’s the story this way: “Do you see this woman?” In this setting and this company, it is a probing and challenging question.  The woman may be right in front of them, but that does not mean they all see her.  Sometimes people choose not to see.  There is, after all, a cost to seeing.  If you see this woman, actually see this woman, you might need to move beyond the stereotypes and preconceptions.  You might have to stop simply labeling her a sinner and then leaving it at that.  You might have to relate to her as a person, as one soul to another soul.  You might have to respond to her with compassion.  Simon only sees what sort of woman she is.  Jesus does not see a “sort of woman”; He sees this woman.  The question Jesus asks – “Do you see this woman?”– challenges those around him to see her as well.

How does your family see you?  How are you seen as a friend?  Or by the larger community?  What is the “worth” that is seen in you?  These are deeply probing questions, but there are two questions that probe even more deeply.  How do you see yourself?”  And “How does God see you?”  The truth is, it doesn’t matter what others see as your worth, as much as it matters what you see as your worth.  Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “People can only have power over you when you let them.”  This was said by a woman who by many others standards had little beauty or worth as she was growing up.  Yet she has been one of Americans most shining stars through her wisdom and her work toward improving life for the working class.

As we enter into this third week of Lent, I would encourage you to think about your worth, in light of how God sees you.  Jesus was God present in human form, and he saw such great worth in you that he walked to the cross so that we might know how much God loves us.  “What are you Worth?”  You are worth the cross!  Amen

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Whose Vision Do We Carry?, by Rev Steven R Mitchell based on Mark 8:31-38, for Mountain View United, Aurora, CO

Whose Vision Do We Carry?

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 3/1/2013

Based on Mark 8:31-38



        This past Wednesday I drove a father and his two boys of second and third grade age from the airport to a destination in the Highlands in Denver. Because of the snow, it was a very slow drive of over two hours on I-70.  As we were nearing our destination the dad commended his boys on being very patient travelers.  Then he made the comment, “After all boys, it’s the journey not the destination that counts.”  I agreed with the father, except I suspect at their age it is totally the destination that is important and not the journey. 

As we enter into the second week of Lent, it is the journey that we should be thinking about and asking questions that focus on our Lenten journey.   The gospel of Mark is a story about Jesus’ journey, a journey that leads Jesus to the cross.  One of our primary questions that we should be asking ourselves during this season of Lent is, “what does it mean to be a faithful disciple of Jesus?  As Jesus began his three year journey toward the cross, he went out into the dessert for 40 days so he could do some personal reflection.  I suspect one of the major questions that Jesus was asking himself was, “What does it mean to be Jesus?  If Jesus was asking himself this question, then I suggest that it is equally important for us to ask the question of ourselves, “What does it mean to be me?  For it is within the answer to that question we are then ready to answer with integrity the question of “what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus.”  For it is in understanding clearly “what it means to be me”, that we are then able to determine, “whose vision we carry”, both as a Christian and as a congregation.

Think back (for those of us who are old enough) to when you were in high school.  One of the primary activities that each of us would have been involved in would be asking ourselves the question of “what does it mean to be me.”  To be me, “do I need to follow the crowd in order to be popular?” “Do I conform to listen to the music the group says is cool, or do I dare to listen to what I find more gratifying?”  Do I wear my hair in a Justin Bieber cut or wear a Mohawk because I like the statement of independence that it suggests?”  Does my character allow me to cheat on an exam when given the opportunity, or is it ‘the me’ who decides it is better to study hard in order to pass the exam? 

When we are raising a family, we often ask what does it mean to be a parent.  Do I still live for my own personal enjoyment or do I put my children before myself?  Singer/actor Bet Middler over the past thirty-five years has made a number of family movies with Disney, but prior to that she was well known to be a rather risqué performer.  When asked why the change, she said, “I realized as a mother, I didn’t want my daughter to know me as that kind of person.” 

The question, “what does it mean to be me”, goes deeper than our character, it asks about who we are at the “soul level” of our being.  I want to re-read for you this passage of scripture, but with my feeble attempt to update the language in hopes of making it relate more to how we understand things.  Then Jesus began to share with them that the work to achieve ‘God’s dream’ must undergo great obstacles and setbacks, and be rejected by the philosophy of consumerism, by Wall Street, and by the politicians killing legislation for social justice and environmental responsibilities in lieu of self-interests, but truth will rise again.  Jesus said all this quite openly.  And Peter took him aside and began to warn Jesus about the dangers of being so publically vocal on social justice issues.  But turning and looking at his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter and said, “Get out of my site, lover of the world’s ideals! For you are setting your heart not on God’s dream, but on human desires and standards.”  Jesus spoke to the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny their comforts and follow what they know to be right.  For those who want to live by human desires and standards will lose themselves, and those who chose God’s dream of justice, will find true life!”

You see, the troubles in the world are not sustained by the world, but rather by what is going on in our own hearts.  The troubles and the solutions exist in the, “what does it mean to be me” questions.  What is it that really is most important in my life?  Is it more important to bend to the will of my job that promises more money and stability in order to provide a standard of living that others say is important, which generally means I have to sacrifice my family in order to comply.  Is it more important to me to satisfy my desires at the expense of those that are most closely tied to me?  Am I comfortably content in my abundance, while others that I know struggle for daily survival – is that what it means to be me?

Jesus wasn’t saying that Peter is Satan.  Jesus was telling Peter that his heart was still thinking at the level of human desire.  The problem in the world isn’t so much others, as it is the “me.”  God has a dream for the world, a dream that has true equality for all humanity, a dream where every person has “enough” for each day, without being judged as to “why’ can’t they achieve what “I’ve” got.  God has a dream that justice and mercy is the standard that each of us thinks of first.  The poor, the needy, the helpless will always be with us, says Jesus.  That is something that we will never be free from, but it is in how we address those who are marginalized that determines who we are.  It is in how we strive to include those on the fringe of society that Jesus says he will know who we are and whether we acted as if we know Jesus. 

As we come this morning to the table of Christ, we can read through the gospel stories “who Jesus” finally defined himself as.  I hope that during this Lenten season, you take the time to create some “wilderness time” in your life, so you too can ask yourself “what it means to be me”, so you can determine “whose vision you carry.”  Amen