Thursday, September 7, 2017

Pastoral Reflections While Preparing for Hurricane Irma

Pastoral Reflection on Hurricane Irma
By Rev. George Miller, Emmanuel UCC

First- breathe.

Remember it was the breath of God that moved over the waters and brought forth creation.

Now- give thanks to God.

Just as Jesus did before he broke the bread and fed the masses with just a few loaves and fish.

Then- tell God how you feel, what you need, and the things you hope for.

Just as the psalmists, and prophets, and the people of God who lived centuries before us, and will live centuries after.

Breathe…

As we in the heart of Florida prepare for all the possibilities that can befall us this weekend, it is time to do some spiritual thinking.

We’ve already dealt with fear, we are doing our best to stock up and make plans. Now we wait.

Over the last few weeks here at Emmanuel UCC we have had the chance to explore scriptures that can give us the very tools that are needed for a time like this.

Think of John 6:16-21, when the disciples are in a boat, facing rough seas, and Jesus comes to them. So often we hear this story as the one about Jesus walking on water, or Peter sinking, or the storm suddenly stopping.

But I like the image the scripture presents of Jesus stepping into the boat…and they arrive at the other side. Perhaps that is the greatest miracle of the story- that at one point they are fussing and flailing, and the other moment, Jesus steps in, and they arrive at their destination. Doesn’t mean everything was perfect or all problems solved; it means that when Jesus is with us, we will get to the other side, whatever that side is or means.

I trust that no matter what Hurricane Irma brings, we will get to the other side of the storm with Jesus.

Breathe…

Think of the 23rd Psalm. The wonderful line that reads “…your rod and your staff-they comfort me.” (vs. 4) Note the intentional word usage here.

Comfort.

God will give us comfort.

This verse does not imply that the rod and staff are like a magical wand that will remove all issues, or will wipe away whatever it is that we are prevailing against, but that we will receive comfort. Emotional strength. Spiritual solace. The ability to face whatever is in the valley.

Breathe…

Last week we spent time with John the Baptist and Jesus in the countryside, where the water was abundant (John 3:22-30). We used this expressive image of plentiful H2O to talk about all the different opportunities that are presented to us to not only help others, but to best be our authentic selves.

Not only will Irma leave us with much water, but there will be many upon many opportunities for us to reach out to one another and be the best neighbor we can be, sharing the gifts that we have.

We will also have the humble opportunity to receive the help offered by our neighbors.

The waters/opportunities will be abundant, so empowered by the Holy Spirit, let the leaders lead, the builders build, the rescuers rescue, the cookers cook/grill/BBQ/feed, the caregivers give compassionate care, the spiritual soldiers provide spiritual support, those with $$$/resources to give, those with boats- rescue, those with power tools/saws to cut away/clean up, and the police to protect.

Let us- as citizens of Avon Park, Sebring, Lorida, Lake Placid etc. come together as ONE, and we will get through this.

Breathe…

The God of Creation will find ways to give us COMFORT.

Jesus will appear in ways/people we could never imagine and take us to the other side.

The moving, dancing, ever-free Holy Spirit will empower us to use our talents/gifts to help others when the opportunities arrive.

Breathe…

We are loved. We are beloved. We are loving.

Breathe…

Amen.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Joy of Knowing Who You Are; John 3:22-30

Rev. George Miller
Sept 3, 2017
John 3:22-30

Just came back from a mini-vacation; time spent by the waters of Ft. Pierce.

I love it there, and the abundance of aquatic life that is present. In the past I’ve seen manatees in the canal, crabs crossing the highway, and gopher tortoises in the parking lot.

Last month I swam in the same water as a sea turtle; saw what I think was a bull shark thrashing near the shore.

This trip saw a dolphin, breaking the surface, again and again, and again, its beautiful shape and fin rounding out of the waves as it journeyed north, then later as it went south.

So soothing and unexpected to see.

It was so nice to be by the water, to rinse away the character I played in “Second Samuel”, to rinse off what was before, and to prepare for what is ahead.

A purification if you will, in water that was abundant.

But mindful of the chaos and complexity that water was playing across the Gulf in Houston, Texas.

There the aftereffects of Harvey are devastating and will linger for a long, long time.

To see the images of the flooding they face, to know that neighborhoods have been devastated, and that the most vulnerable have been victims…it is almost too much to comprehend.

While people debate if the 1st Lady should have been wearing high heels or Joel Osteen should have opened up his mega-church, there have been the heroes-

The everyday folk who are taking their boats and rescuing people. Those individuals working together and as teams who have saved 2, 10, 30 people from the rising waters and continue to go back to assist and to help.

Their names are largely unknown, but their photos have popped up on the news and The Daily Show and Facebook pages.

Who are these heroes? What were they doing just a week ago? What are they doing today? Why do they do what they do?

Heroes helping their neighbors.

Today’s reading features one of the earliest heroes of our faith- John the Baptist.

In the Gospel of John 1:6-8 we are told that John came to be a witness to the Light; the light meaning Jesus Christ.

John was at the Jordan River, baptizing people in the water. This piqued people’s curiosity and they asked John “Who are you?”

He replied “I am not the Messiah.”

“Are you Elijah?”
“I am not.”

“Are you the prophet?”
“No.”

“Who are you?”…

…This question of “who are you?” continues through John’s ministry.

We see this in today’s reading.

Both John and Jesus are doing what they are doing. Jesus and his disciples have entered into the countryside; John is nearby doing his ministry.

Why not? The water is abundant; there is enough for all.

But you know how folks are; they like to stir things up. So someone comes up to John as he’s busy doing what he’s doing and they try to play into his ego.

“Hey- did you see that Jesus guy and all the people he’s got?”

But John does not take the bait.

Nor does he sell himself short.

John knows who he is; he knows what he is about. He knows why he does what he does.

He knows that the water is abundant, and he knows who all the glory belongs too.

He says to them “I am not the cause of the Heavenly Celebration you are about to experience, but I am the guy who helped to get the party started, and for that I am happy.”

This is such an under-shared scripture; it is rarely, if ever taught in church. But it has such a humble message.

The depiction of John serves as an example of what it looks like to be a witness to Christ.

That as Christians we get to proclaim and experience what it means to have a mystical connection with the world that at the same time shapes and informs our ethics and how we are to act, and to be with one another.

John’s comments are reminiscent of Paul’s letter to the Romans that we shared last week.

If you recall, in Romans 12, Paul wrote that we are one in Christ, each having our own role to play.

Teachers are to teach. Benefactors give. Prophets speak truth to power. Leaders lead. Care givers provide care.

John is with us today saying “Hey, the water is abundant and there are so many opportunities to do good, great things.”

That’s what John does. He knows he’s not the Messiah. Which means he does not have to save the world.

He knows he is not Elijah, which means he is not being called to stop the rains or visit hungry widows or speak before the kings.

He knows he is not a prophet, so he doesn’t have to speak good and write in pretty penmanship and use proper grammar.

He knows he is the guy who gets to be a witness to the light and prepare others for that experience, and how cool that there is more than enough “water”, or opportunities, to go around…

…There is something so wonderful about life that we each get to continue to learn and to grow and to adopt.

And if we are fortunate, we experience why we are here on this planet and what it is that God wants us to do.

The way the gospel portrays John in today’s reading, he clearly knew who he was and what he was about, and this brought him great happiness.

As John says “My joy has been fulfilled.”

How cool is that?

That John can look across the waters and see what is being done by Jesus, and he can find contentment in that.

Friends, there is so much water, so many opportunities, right here where we are today. So many opportunities, so many things that can be done, so many chances to let the light of Christ shine, shine, shine.

And we don’t have to be the Light. We don’t have to manufacture the Light.

But we get to be reflections of that Light, and to find our own way as individuals, and as Emmanuel UCC, to share that Light.

How we can do it is limitless and always continuing to unfold.

I like to think that those heroes in Texas who are picking up people in their boats are indeed doing their own kind of ministry, what they were created by God to do.

I also believe that Jesus is in the boat with them.

In conclusion, today’s story reminds me of a story about a man named J. Hudson Taylor.

He was a Christian Missionary from Britain who spent 51 years in China. He organized a ministry that started 125 schools, campaigned against the opium trade, and oversaw over 800 missionaries.

One day he was invited to give a presentation in Australia. The pastor who introduced him used a slew of superlatives, especially the word “great.”

When J. Hudson Taylor stepped up to the pulpit, he quietly said “Dear friends, I am the little servant of an illustrious Master.”

What a wonderful way to glorify God.

The gifts that we are given are abundant; the ways that we can do ministry are many.

May we find joy in doing what we do for the Lord; may we find our own way to be a witness to the Light of Christ.

Amen and amen.

(J. Hudson Taylor story from “Be Alive- John 1-12” by Warren W. Wiersbe, pg. 42)

Saturday, August 26, 2017

In Cahoots with Christ; Romans 12:1-8

Rev. George Miller
Aug 27, 2017
Romans 12:1-8

As you see in today’s bulletin, I leave for a mini-vacation tomorrow. After play rehearsals and performances, the events of Charlottesville and Arizona, and worries about Texas, it’ll be nice to get away, shut off the cell phone, sign out of Facebook and just…breathe.

But where to go, where to go?

I’ve been to many places; though I’ve never been in Cahoots. But, apparently you can’t go there alone. In order to be in Cahoots you have to go with someone, so that’s off my list.

I wouldn’t mind being in Cognito. I hear that no one recognizes you there.

I have already been in Sane. They don’t have an airport; you have to be driven there.

Maybe I’d like to go to Conclusions, but I was told you have to jump, and I’m not looking for physical activities this vacation.

I’ve already been in Doubt; that’s not a fun place to be.

Lord knows I’ve been in Flexible more times than I can count. I hate to admit it, but I’ve been in Capable quite a bit.

One of my favorite places to be is in Suspense! It pumps the heart and gets the adrenalin flowing, but for this vaca I’m looking for something a bit more Zen.

And I am in no rush to be in Continent.

Yes- for vacation it would be nice to be in Cahoots, but not this week; I’m just gonna go it alone…

In cahoots; what a fun sounding phrase. Its origin is French and it means to be in partnership.

Yes, in cahoots can be used to mean there’s some kind of conspiracy going on, but it also means to act with others in a common purpose; to share equally.

This notion of acting with others is a joyful aspect of Christianity; it’s a delightful facet of our faith.

That being a follower of Jesus Christ means that you are not following alone.

Being a Christian means that not only are you in the boat with Jesus, but that you are in the boat with many, many others, each with their own gifts, each able to play their own part, each working together to take us all to the other side.

In cahoots. To be in partnership; to act with others in a common purpose; to share equally.

That’s part of what Women’s Equality Day is about, isn’t it?

97 years ago women were granted the right to vote in America. But, don’t forget that it took 72 years of partnership and working together for that to happen.

In order for women to receive the right to vote it took the talents of many- those who could organize meetings; those who could hold and host those meetings, those who could eloquently speak and impassion the people.

Working together meant there were those who felt called to march, there were those who wrote letters, those who were willing to go to jail, and those with the means to bail them out.

Not one person could do all things but all things were done via many persons.

And as a result, our democracy, our country and the women who make up half its citizenry were taken to the other side.

That’s what Paul is talking about in today’s reading, the idea that in Christ we are One, but as One we are made up of many.

Each person has their own gifts, their own talents, and their own ability.

In other words, in Christ, we are in cahoots- equals, in partnership, all working together in the common purpose of God’s kingdom.

Paul makes this so clear and easy to understand.

If you are compassionate and truly caring for others out of empathy, care for the community around you, and do so with gladness.

If you have leadership gifts, lead, but do so with care and commitment; no half-stepping or cruelty.

If you are able to financially support, give generously and with joy.

If you are called to inspire, use your gifts of words to persuade and prod people to do what they can and what they should.

If you are naturally a teacher, teach. Help others to learn, discern, and discover.

If you are a care-giver, minister to those around you in a way that allows them true freedom and the ability to take up their mat and walk.

If you are a prophet, use your gifts to offer Christ-centered cautions and wisdom based warnings to remind us of the call to justice, kindness, and humility.

Paul makes it so, so clear- in Christ we should all be in cahoots, no one doing it alone, no one carrying a burden all by themselves, and no one thinking they and they alone have to do it all.

Paul would agree that with Jesus in the boat, we will get to the other side, together.

And what is this basis of this? What drives Paul to this notion that no one person has to do it all, and that we are free to do what we do the best?

Grace.

It is grace, God’s amazing grace that rows this theological discourse of Paul.

This celebration in Christ that because of God’s generosity we do not live in continued fear of a demonic deity bent on destruction.

Grace is the celebration that in Christ we do not have to slave away trying to please a vengeful God.

Grace is the celebration that because of Jesus we have already been promised the other side.

What makes grace so amazing is that there is nothing we have to do to earn it; there is no task we have to complete.

Grace means there is no Customer Survey check-list that grades us on a scale from 1-10.

Grace means there is no heavenly travel agent saying “Sorry, you haven’t accrued enough mileage points yet.”

Grace means we are already citizens of God’s heavenly community; we are already citizens of Christ’s colony.

Because of this good, great news, we are set free, and we are empowered to do what we can do the best way we are able to do it.

Grace says that we are in cahoots with Christ, so therefore we can act in partnership; and we act equally, not because we must, but because we may.

Grace is another way to say Jesus loves me, this we know, for the Bible tells me so- so therefore I can act with others in a common purpose and be the best me that I can be at this moment.

Romans 12 tells us that we are not only in relationship with Christ, but we are in relationship with one another.

And as with any other healthy relationship, we give of ourselves honestly and lovingly, doing what we are able to do, and knowing those things that we cannot do.

In Christ, God has generously given us Godself.

Because God is so generous, God asks that we give the best version of ourselves.

That we invite Jesus to step into our boat, knowing that we will be taken to the other side, and perhaps best of all, we will be taken together, not alone, and not apart.

For that, we can say amen and amen.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Day Jesus Called a Woman's Daughter a Dog; Matthew 15:21-28

Rev. George Miller
Aug 20, 2017
Matthew 15:21-28

In the midst of all that’s going on in our nation, from peace vigils, to White Supremacists, to a once-in-99 year eclipse, an important bit of American history went by virtually unnoticed.

Eatonville, FL- the oldest African-American city in the United States turned 130 years old. They celebrated on Saturday with a craft and cultural festival.

Home to 2,300 citizens and the home-town of Zora Neale Hurston, Eatonville has a place in American and literary history.

Now, people may wonder why the need for an African-American community. Isn’t that self-segregation or a form of reverse-racism?

Imagine if we’re here in 2017 dealing with the KKK and tiki-torch wielding Nazi’s, how much more so were things back in 1887, just a few years after the Civil War?

Eatonville was a place of sanctuary and community, where folk could be folk, until someone came along to act unjust, be unkind, or speak humiliating words.

Sadly, today, we have a story about that very thing happening to a woman and her child; even more sorrowful is that the culprit in this reading is Jesus and his disciples.

Let’s do a brief recap- according to Matthew 10:6, Jesus told his disciples that his ministry is 1st and foremost to the children of Israel, and they are not to bother with the Gentiles.

So all the people Jesus heals, the people he feeds, the people he sits with on the mountain are people from his same ethnic and religious group.

But one day, Jesus decides to go on a mini-vaca. His battery is on low. He’s tired of people criticizing how and when he does what he does.

Jesus needs a break, so he heads to where he assumes no one will know him and no one will ask him to pray for their sister’s uncle’s niece’s best-friend’s boss’s cat-sitter’s son.

Jesus heads to Canaanite Country. There, on the border of two worlds, comes a woman from an enemy nation who is of a different ethnicity, and a different religious belief.

She shouts out to him, asking for mercy. “My child is tormented and unwell.”

Jesus ignores her. Says zip, zero, nada.

His disciples say “She won’t shut up and she won’t get over it. Tell her to go away.”

Jesus says “I was only sent here for the stray sheep of Israel’s flock.”

But this Canaanite woman, of a different nation and a different religion, kneels before Emmanuel, and humbly says “Help me.”

Jesus responds “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to dogs.”

Let us pause there. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

What exactly does that mean?

The word children was meant to refer to the Israelites, the followers of God. Anyone else who did not believe as they did were called dogs.

Jesus has just called this woman’s daughter a dog.

Let that set in.

Jesus called someone’s child a dog.

And yet, this woman of a different nationality, of a different faith, held her ground, and while kneeling before the Son of God, she said “Yes, Lord, but even dogs get to eat what falls from their master’s table.”

Jesus thought he could put this woman in her place, but she persisted, and she reminded Jesus just what his place was.

This is one of the most difficult stories to share because it does not portray Jesus in a positive light.

Scholars have wrestled with this story for ages, trying to make sense of it all.

It is an uncomfortable story because it shows Jesus being all too human, showing that even Jesus gave in to the sexism and prejudice of the day.

I recall discussing this scripture in seminary class. I was currently reading a book on Eastern Religion and fell into the trap of thinking that one book made me an expert on all things Buddhist, Zen, and Tao.

I said that perhaps Jesus is following the Eastern form of teaching, a style in which the teacher does not answer questions, but instead provokes their students with questions that force them to think and arrive at the answers and solutions on their own.

Perhaps, I said, Jesus instinctually could tell that this woman knew the answer and how to achieve healing for her daughter and he was empowering her to come to that answer by herself.

Oh, I was so glib and self satisfied with myself until this July when I went to General Synod.

There I met a pastor named Guy Johnson, who is black, who told me of the issues he has with this scripture.

So, with my blue-eyed, middle-class, white-skinned self I went on my spiel about Eastern-style teaching, in which Guy immediately cut me off and said-

“NO- I am not giving you that. Jesus met a foreign woman of color and he called her daughter a dog. We all that what that means, and we all have to deal with that.”

…So here we are. Dealing with it. Shells in our teeth.

The woman was a Canaanite, meaning that her people were seen as the enemy, just as we are viewing those from Syria or North Korea.

She is a Gentile, meaning not Jew. Which means her people were seen the same way people view Muslims, or atheists, or anyone who is not our religion.

She was ignored, which is often used as a tactic by people who wish to render someone else as powerless or unimportant.

Her daughter is called a dog. Every woman here knows exactly what this means. History has shown that depersonalizing a person and referring to them as an animal or a thing is a way to justify use, abuse, and injustice.

Sadly, this silence and this name calling came from Jesus Christ.

So where is the Good News?

Well, the first thing is this- she persisted. She did what it took to help her daughter experience wellness.

She shouted. She used terms to show respect, like Lord and Son of David.

She refused to allow silence or public shaming to stop here.

She put her life at risk by taking a submissive position in front of men she did not know.

She used wisdom, logic, and emotion to achieve what her child needed.

When Jesus refused to act kind, she convinced him to be compassionate.

When Jesus refused healing, she convinced him to do what is just.

When Jesus ignored her hurt and used a derogatory term, she bravely spoke the truth that needed to be told.

She said “Jesus, step into the boat and take my daughter to the other side.”

She refused to stop until that’s just what he did.

In other words- she reminds Jesus what it means to be Jesus.

She embodies the words of Micah 6:8. She becomes the 1st person to confront and correct Jesus.

She becomes the 1st and possibly only person we know of who teaches Jesus something that he needed to know.

It is not the Centurion, or a lawyer, or a frantic father, it is not a government official or a religious leader who teaches Jesus and reminds him what he is supposed to do.

It is she, a complete and total outsider-
a woman of color
from a different nation
from a different religion
from a different sex

who reminds Jesus what it means to be Jesus.

In essence it is she who tells Jesus what it means to be a Christian.

That a Christian does not turn a deaf ear to suffering.

A Christian does not ignore pain.

A Christian does not deny healing or wellness based on nation of origin or religion.

A Christian does not look upon someone’s child and calls them a dog or any other demeaning term.

A Christian should be able to live on the border of many, many worlds and see with the eyes of amazing grace.

Hear with a heart of compassion.

Act with a mind set on mercy.

Live in God’s abundant generosity.

In conclusion, Jesus, on his way to the Cross, meets someone who is the opposite in every conceivable way.

He is challenged. He learns.

The boat he steps into is now bigger, better, and more beautiful than before.

We are all the more blessed for it.

Amen and amen.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Pastoral Statement for Tonight's Vigil on the Circle

Peace does not mean you are passive.
Peace does not mean you are silent.
Peace does not mean you are in-active.

Nor does peace mean you are complacent, or accepting of unkind, unjust realities.

Peace means you adhere to a vision and promise- that here in America ALL people are equals, that ALL people have a right to living a life of goodness; that ALL have the ability to come together and move forward as ONE.

ALL people.

Not 90%
Not some.

Not just those who have my same eye color, or same religious beliefs, or same ethnic make-up.

But ALL.

To gather in the midst of all that has gone on is to say to the community around us “WE are strong, WE are compassionate, and WE believe in the vision and the promise of our nation’s ancestral leaders.”

Those who have fear brandish torches; we with courage hold the flames of justice in our hearts.

Those who are detached from their fellow women and men shout of blood and soil; we who are in fellowship with our sisters and brothers speak of our beautiful land and the knowledge that there is enough for all.

Tonight, we let those who are filled with falsified hate know that history has shown again and again that the stories, the songs, the memories, and the acts of those who courageously act out of justice and kindness are the ones that last, because they give us hope.

And when one has hope, they are strong and unstoppable.

Though I am unable to stand beside you today in body, I proudly stand with you in spirit.

May the life-affirming call to say “No!” to hate guide you in being strong, guide you in being a positive presence, and guide you in saying to the Community that we are ONE.

We are One in which each of us is an essential person, and every one of us can be a channel for change.

In justice, in kindness, and in humility,
Rev. George Miller
Emmanuel United Church of Christ
Sebring, FL