Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Discovering Spiritual Awareness (series pt 4), "Jesus Says, 'Love' Who?, by Rev Steven R Mitchell, based on Matthew 5:43-48

Discovering Spiritual Awareness (series pt 4)

“Jesus Says ‘Love’ Who?”

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO 7/19/2015

Based on Matthew 5:43-48


        When I was entering into my sophomore year in high school, my parents relocated to what seemed like the edge of the world, Western Kansas.  As the new kid in school, it is never easy making friends, especially when you are as introverted and shy as I was in those years.  As I went about trying to make friends, it was very apparent that I had attracted the attention of one of the schools bullies.   I had never really ever encounter being the focus of a school bully before and was unequipped to deal with this type of encounter.  My attempts to avoid him, seemed less than successful as a final show down occurred before class with a demand to meet him after school for a fight.  If I declined, he would have proved me to be a coward and thus establishing my lowliness in the “pecking order” of classmates.  If I accepted his challenge, I would be going against my personal belief that all situations could be negotiated to a satisfactory end by both disagreeing parties.  I had adopted this standard due to a poor choice to become involved in a fight in Fifth grade that landed me in bed for over two months with a blood clot at the base of my brain.  Fortunately the teacher of that class had come into the room over hearing the challenge.  She had a zero tolerance for “bullying” and with no uncertain terms put the bully in his place and ending future focus on me.  But life continually shows us that not all bullies and enemies are so easily dealt with.

        In this morning’s scripture, Jesus brings another understanding of what it means to be living in the “Image” that we are made.  Last week we looked at the importance of our “self-image” as we are commanded to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”  So what do you do when confronted with the school bully?  The advise that my older cousin gave me was stand up to the bully, which meant “fight the dude” otherwise he would be bothering me throughout high school.  But practical experience had showed me that fighting never ends well.  What do you do with bullies like Hitler?  Do you just step down and allow them to destroy world peace?  Or how about the situation with Iran?  How do we handle their threats against Israel as they want to continue their development of nuclear energy? 

President Teddy Roosevelt use to say, “Speak softly but carry a big stick.”  Is that the advice that Jesus is telling us in this morning’s text?  To be brutally honest most of us do not believe in what Jesus is saying in this passage.  We most generally brush this teaching off by rationalizing it as a “nice goal” or “objective” to work toward, but see it as not practical advice.  Think back to how we as a country reacted to the attack by terrorists on our shores on September 11, 2001; the majority of Evangelical Christians were crying to retaliate which has lead us into 14 years of war with Iraq and Afghanistan.   We see the results of “an eye for and eye” between the Israeli and Palestinian governments.  We see Russia, escalating its nuclear armament once again.  The National Defense budget makes up the largest percentage of our national budget.  Sensible gun laws are often being challenged as gun sales continue to be on the rise.

 The awareness of “enemies” is not just worldwide but also on the rise within our neighborhoods.  Surely it is impractical to follow what Jesus is saying in Matthew.   What would Jesus know about violence; after all he was a bleeding liberal, preaching “love” not “war”, totally out of touch with the reality of life.  You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer.”  What’s wrong with this man, what does he mean don’t retaliate, or not seek the death penalty for retribution?  Yet Jesus lived what he said.  When he was arrested, he insisted on nonviolence when Peter picked up his sword.  Before the Pharisees he did not return evil accusation with hate.  He allowed himself to be flogged by Pilate and then went without resistance caring his own cross to Golgotha.  Why?  Jesus could have immobilized a physical rebellion but he chose to live by what he taught.  Even on the cross, he prayed for those who had persecuted him saying, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.

There are five verses before this morning’s text where Jesus talked about various acts of aggression toward an individual and how not to resist, but even give more.  The general wisdom of Jesus’ day was, when someone did you wrong, you sought retribution with the same act toward the person who wronged you, this is where we understand the “eye for an eye.”  But Jesus realized that this type of behavior never really cures the ailment. 

This past week, a 94 year old former Nazi SS member, who was an accountant  at Auschwitz, was convicted as an “accessory” to the criminal acts of murder of over 300,000 Jews.  He was sentenced to 4years for his participation at the camp.  This now opens up future trials for others who would be classified as “accessories” to the deaths.  I have a lot of mixed emotions over this trial, struggling with questions of justice and mercy.  I recall what Auschwitz survivor Eva Moses Kor shared in her presentation at this year’s Governors 34th Annual Holocaust Remembrance service.  Eva said that she was only a prisoner at Auschwitz for two years, but spent the next 45 years being a victim and prisoner of the Nazi’s because of the hate and fear that she held onto.  Then one day she realized that she no longer wished to live as a victim and freed herself of her enemies by releasing that anger, fear, and hate.  What she realized by holding onto all those negatives, she was playing into the hands of those who were her enemies.

I don’t think Jesus is advocating to subjugate to our enemies and just roll over and take it, so to speak, when he says, turn the other cheek, or not to resist ones enemies, or by going the extra mile, or giving up your cloak when you are being sued for your shirt.  What Jesus is speaking to is a path of change by not playing into the acts of violation but rather resistance by not resisting the opponent, but rather by resisting opposition itself.  Within Jesus’ words of, “Love your enemies and pray for them”, Jesus is giving us a clue as to how to resist our enemies, without physical resistance which only continues future violence toward ourselves and our adversaries.

       Professor of Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School, Rev Dr Matthew Boulton sums it up this way: In the face of the most extreme opponents (enemies) and acts of opposition (persecution), Jesus advises defiance – but not defiance directed against the enemies themselves, since this simply perpetuates and intensifies the adversarial relationship, but rather a deeper defiance directed against the vicious, endless cycle of enemy making.  Pg 385, Feasting on the Word, Yr A, Vol 1   

I think of it as how to react to a Charlie-horse or leg cramps.  I have had to learn to not resist the cramping of the muscle, as that only intensifies the restricting by the muscle, but rather to move into the pain of the constricting muscle, which then allows the muscle to start relaxing and the constricting leaves.  It is very painful and it goes against our nature, but it works. 

Jesus say the same thing about how to react to the unjust actions of our enemies, by not resisting them, but rather defuse the acts in ways that work toward resisting cycles that create enemy making.  The “Prayer Walks” that are occurring each Friday this month in the Park Hill neighborhood is one way a number of Christians are working toward ending violence in that neighborhood.  By walking the streets and stopping to pray at sites where people have been gunned downed and along the way passing out fliers that speak about how to positively interact with a person who is a member of a violent gang, they are resisting the cycle that create enemy making.  

When we recognize that within each of us is the “Image of God”, we will find it more difficult to cultivate the soil that creates enemy making.  Our spiritual journey is the work of cultivating this awareness.  To love our enemies and to pray for them can only happen when we see the “Image” in others, so that we might be able to resist the cycles of enemy building and become neighbor builders.  Amen

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Discovering Spiritual Awareness (series pt 4), "The Soul of the Cosmos" based on Mark 12:28-34 & 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a

Discovering Spiritual Awareness (series pt 3)

“The Soul of the Cosmos”

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United Church, Aurora, CO 7/12/2015

Based on Mark 12:28-34 & 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a


        This past week, I received a call from a seminary buddy who lives over in Westminster, telling me that a former class mate from seminary was going to be in town that evening and wanted to know if we could all gather for dinner and some catch up conversation.  Ultimately there were 5 of us from seminary gathering for this impromptu dinner.  It had been 30 years since the five of us had been in the same room.

        The evening went too quickly, catching up on reader digest versions of what had been going on in our lives these past 30 years.  At one point, our conversations touched toward Spirituality, as one would expect in a gathering of theologians. 

There was a discussion of how things are changing in awareness of spirituality and of how science is playing a major role in this.  In the earlier human experience, events such as a volcano exploding or an earthquake, was understood as direct results in a society’s behavior.  As we grew in our understanding of science we started seeing natural events not as a warning or punishment of God, but as explainable events.

        Then as humanity developed into what we call the industrial era, science once again re-defined life in general.  In order for industrialization to develop, there was a need to start understanding how elements acted independently from one another.  A visualization would be to look at the alphabet.  With the development of industrialization we stopped looking at the alphabet as a whole, but started to look at each letter individually.  We would see less correlation between A and B, and started to see just what A was made of and what it could produce by itself.  This was necessary for the growth of industrialization. 

This perspective of finding solutions to new challenges began to color the way that we approached religious and spiritual questions.  The Western world started to separate and compartmentalize the understanding of relationship between creation, humanity, and God; seeing each as independent of one another.

Science is once again influencing how we perceive relationships.  Through quantum physics, we are becoming re-acquainted with the understanding of the interrelatedness between elements.  Quantum physics is at the cutting edge of Western science…. Through quantum physics original goal of seeking out the elemental building blocks of the Universe (separate elementary particles), science has discovered that the Universe appears to be an undivided Whole.

        Like Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Quantum Physics reveals the Universe to be a single gigantic field of energy in which matter is just a 'slowed down' form of energy. Further, Quantum Physics has discovered that matter/energy does not exist with any certainty in definite places, but rather shows 'tendencies' to exist. (i.e. the 'Uncertainty Principle') Even more intriguing is the notion that the existence of an observer is fundamental to the existence of the Universe - a concept known as 'The Observer Effect' - implying that the Universe is a product of consciousness. (i.e. the Mind of God)  Quantum Physics, by Alex Paterson It is in this new understanding of the relationships between the elements that we are starting to redefine our spiritual relationship with God and creation.  Growing up I was taught that we live in a 3 dimensional world and that the 4th dimension was something beyond.  With Quantum Physics there is now a belief that there are as many as 12 dimensions that are all operating in conjunction with one another.

        As we think about our journey in spiritual awareness, Jesus when questioned by one of the scribes answered that the basic level of understanding our spirituality is to know that God is at the heart of it all.  Quantum Physics understand that at the heart of all matter is a “consciousness”, that the average person calls God.  It is out of this reality that Jesus says that we are to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  By doing this, we are conscious of the relationship of our “image” in the Divine. 

        But Jesus doesn’t leave it there, for this only requires an inward journey.  Jesus then says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Now Jesus is telling us that we have to look beyond ourselves.  I think the first part of Jesus’ answer is not too hard for most of us to buy into, as it seems pretty cut and dry.  It would seem pretty easy to love God, since God is the creator of all.  The idea of “agape” is implied as God through love, created all that exists, so it is pretty easy to say, since God loved us first, we should love God back, without conditions and something more pure than brotherly love, which always requires something in return.

         I don’t even think that the concept of loving our neighbor is too hard to understand, as it is in how we relate to those around us.  Yet, we see many evil things done to people in the name of God. Why?  Just a few decades ago, it was unlawful for a black person and a white person to marry one another.  A hundred and fifty years or so ago, we fought over ownership of human beings, both being justified by some through religious beliefs.   How can we has children of God, being made in the “image” of God, justify such behavior and believes? 

I must confess that I have always been uncomfortable with Jesus’ response of “love your neighbor as yourself.”  My stumbling block on this second commandment is in the phrase “as yourself.”  What does “loving yourself” mean?  If I love myself so much (narcissistic) then there is no room for loving another.  Or what happens if I think so little of myself that I truly don’t love myself?  This statement is based on an assumption that I have the self love that Jesus understands to be “pure love.”  The reality is that every person is damaged to some degree, so how does this “agape” understanding come into fruition? What is the yardstick that I can measure love by?

        In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul gives us some examples of what true love is like as a way to self-check our spiritual health.  Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous, it does not brag, and it is not proud. Love is not rude, is not selfish, and does not get upset with others. Love does not count up wrongs that have been done. Love takes no pleasure in evil but rejoices over the truth. Love patiently accepts all things. It always trusts, always hopes, and always endures. Love never ends.  Paul is speaking about this in the context of gifts, so I understand that “love” in this form is actually a spiritual gift.  In fact Paul speaks about three main gifts of Faith, Hope, and Love, but love is the greatest gift. 

I see in Corinthians Paul describing “agape”.  I would guess that this too is what Jesus was saying with “love yourself.”   To be able to love without jealously, or to love non-selfishly, of not keeping wrongs, and not to rejoice in others misfortunes all require our “giving up” or “letting go” of self.  There is a fear in giving up stuff that we hold onto internally.  Our most basic conflict as humans is found in “racism”, which is rooted in fear of loss of identity and power.  It finds its roots in tribalism, which is the most basic form of community. 

Ecumenicalism is a thought that found its life in understanding the inter-dependence and inter-relatedness of faith in God, as the one who creates all, as one who loves all, as one who cares for all.  It all works together, life, liberty, the right to pursue happiness.  The love of God, the love of neighbor – it all exits as an interacting force that comes from a consciousness that we in faith communities label as God.  Our spiritual journey of awareness is not static and its energy comes from our being made in the “image” of God.   To love yourself is to recognize and interact with your God image.  And the greatest of these is love.  Amen



Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Discovering Spiritual Awareness, pt 2, "Wonder and Mystery", by Rev Steven R Mitchell, based on John 1:1,4-5 and 1John 1:5-7

Discovering Spiritual Awareness (series, pt 2)

“Wonder and Mystery”

By Rev Steven R Mitchell

Mountain View United, Aurora, CO 7/5/2015
Based on John1:1,4-5 & 1John 1:5-7


        The beginning of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence states: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--  For two hundred and thirty-nine years, we as a people of these United States of America have been in constant struggle to live up to these ideas.  Sometimes we don’t do a very good job of living those words and at other times we seem to find our way into living that belief.  Since the Supreme Court rulings on the Affordable Health Care Act and the Right to Marry two weeks ago, this 4th of July holds significant meaning to a good many American’s.  For some, it is a time of rejoicing with the affirmation of being able to pursue happiness.  For others it is a time of concern that their liberty is being overshadowed by the courts and legislators. 

In the past two weeks, we have seen Christians murdered while praying in their own church, the renewed discussions as to the appropriateness of displaying a flag that represented in its origins, a battle over liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and terrorist acts toward our black brothers and sisters with the arson of five black churches.  As a nation that calls itself a Christian Nation, it is evident that we do not have a common understanding of what it means to be created equal.

Last week we started a seven week series titled “Discovering Spiritual Awareness.”  We explored the question about being made in the image of God.  This week I would like to explore a bit more about the image of God, by thinking about what the gospel writer of the book of John might be saying when he opens this story about Jesus with the words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…In the Word was life; and the life was the light of humanity.  And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

What does he mean when he says, “life was the Light?”  What does he mean when he says, “in Darkness?”  Is there any connection between these and our unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?  The writer of John in the very first lines of his story about Jesus declares his understanding, his experience that Jesus was with God and was God from the beginning.  He does this by summing up God and Jesus as being the “Word.”  Now “word” has several levels of meaning.  It means on the one hand: mind or rationality, and on the other, it means: speech or communication.  The reader’s digest version is this:  Mind conveys understanding or thoughts; Speech conveys action or realization.  Jesus as the incarnation of God is able to present to humanity the thoughts of God, through the actions of Jesus.  So when Jesus heals someone, he is showing us the compassion of God; when Jesus forgives someone of their sins, he is showing us the mercy of God; when Jesus went to the cross, he was showing us the love of God. 

In 1 John we learn more about what Light and Darkness mean.  This is the message we have heard from him (Jesus) and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.  Throughout the book of 1 John, we learn that darkness consists of these actions: Hating our brothers and sisters; of loving the world (which means valuing possessions over people); the denial of Jesus’ values as representing the mind of God; and of not loving one another.  George W Stroup, professor of Theology at Columbia Theological Seminary states it this way: Truth, is not so much a doctrine as it is fellowship with the Father and his Son by the power of the Holy Spirit.  That fellowship is not based primarily on idea’s or philosophical principles but on a person who could be seen, and heard, and touched (meaning Jesus).  Pg 396, Feasting on the Word Vol. 2, Yr B   We understand Jesus as the incarnation of God, because those early followers, could see his works, hear his words, and physically touch Jesus.

One of the joyful events for me this past week was the opportunity to have lunch with a family from Rock Springs, Wyoming.  They were in town to pick up their daughter at the airport, who was returning from a high school music trip in parts of Europe.  Over lunch we discussed a little bit about the decision by the Supreme Court on marriage, a decision that upholds the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness principle as presented in the Declaration of Independence.  Yet there was sadness for a gay friend who is a teacher in the Rock Springs School District.  Even though this person now has protection to marry under the law, the prejudices against homosexuality within the school administration are so strong that this person, if they came out would become a target for hate and injustice.  Even if this person were to go to the Congregational church in Rock Springs, an ONA congregation and find support and affirmation, he still couldn’t come out because of its ties throughout the community and again this teacher would be putting himself in arms way.  The sad reality is, that much of this hatred is perpetuated by a number of churches in Rock Springs.

This teachers story touches on many levels what I believe the author of 1 John speaks about as living in darkness.  As I struggled with what to bring to you as an example of what the author means by “living in light”, I came across a podcast made about a year ago by a Southern Baptist Minister, speaking to his church in an after worship meeting as to why he had changed his mind on homosexuality.  I want to play you just about 4 minutes of this podcast, because I think this minister has summed up so eloquently the idea about what it means to be living in the light, of what it means when John says, “In the Word was life; and the life was the light of humanity.  (pod cast is on You tube titled, “Why I Changed My Mind on Homosexuality”, 50:28 – 54:08 min)

I believe, when we think about what it means to live in the light, we need to realize that it isn’t found in reading books, it isn’t found in memorizing scripture and learning what we call doctrinal truths, it isn’t even found in coming to church on Sunday’s and worshiping, but as Rev Danny Cortez discovered, living in the light is “finding the Kingdom of God in the things that people deem worthless; and in the people that are the most broken.”

The fruit of the spirit is in mercy and love and in peace.  As we rejoice in living in a country where we can openly struggle with these values, let us remember that these values were based on the recognition that God as creator gives us the opportunity to practice both in word and action what gives life to humanity.  Amen