Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sermon from June 26, 2011; Jeremiah 28:1-9

Rev. George Miller
Jeremiah 28:1-9
“Peace Prophesying Prophets”
June 26, 2011

Last week, the television comedy “Hot in Cleveland” ran an episode in which Joy, one of the main characters, is reunited with Owen, the son she had given up for adoption.

Alas, nothing about their meeting goes as planned, from a case of mistaken identity to an accidental shooting. Owen expresses regret, stating that he pictured the moment he met his birth mother as cosmically life changing.

“Maybe this was a mistake,” he says, “And we should get back to our regular lives.”

Joy is at first heartbroken, until she has an epiphany: “Why does everything have to be the way people picture it? Life doesn’t work that way.”

She says to Owen “So this isn’t how either of us pictured it to be. How could it be? It’s awkward and painful and messy, but sometimes if you’re willing to work through the messy you get to something good.”

“OK,” Owen replies, “Let’s get messy.” He starts asking the difficult questions: who’s my Dad? Why did you give me up? In doing so, a new relationship begins.

Life is messy; there’s no running away from that. This week has been particularly messy.

First, we’ll start with today’s liturgy. It was created awhile ago with the plan that this scripture would be used to celebrate the 54th anniversary of the UCC and all the wonderful voices who speak about peace.

Turns out I totally misunderstood what this Scripture was really about.

Second, as you all know, I experienced an unexpected loss this week when my beloved cat died unexpectedly on Monday.

Martin Isaac’s death was messy and is heartbreaking. He was my companion, my reason to come home, and my connection to all I’ve known during the last five years.

Life has not gone the way I pictured it. So, to preach as planned would not be authentic.

Life is awkward and painful and messy, but sometimes if we’re willing to work through the messy we get to something good.

I believe that to be true for today and I believe Jeremiah would say the same thing.

Jeremiah was a prophet; a reluctant prophet who was called by God to share difficult messages with the people of Judah.

Messages about how the people had been unfaithful to God. How they had polluted the land, mistreated the weakest members of society and had become greedy.

No one seemed to care about what Jeremiah had to say. Instead they listened to those who gave the impression that everything was alright by saying “Peace, peace” even when the people’s lives were lacking peace.

These false prophets were trying to convince everyone not to worry, that God would prevent any harm from coming their way.

Jeremiah knows differently. He knows that political thunderstorms are hovering in the horizon; he knows that if things don’t change soon, things are going to get real messy, real fast, for a real long time.

So he tries to warn the people and the leaders. He gives them chance after chance to realize that things are not the way they’ve been picturing it.

No one listens; in fact Jeremiah is publicly humiliated, as we heard in today’s reading.

Jeremiah has been predicting that the Babylonians will attack Judah, pillage the Temple and kidnap the King and other notable people from the city.

Certainly not words of peace at all, but words of war, famine and pestilence.

Hananiah has a different message, a feel good message of sorts. He tells the people not to worry: in two short years the enemy will be defeated, everything that was stolen will be replaced, all those who were kidnapped will return and everything will be go back to just the way things were.

What Hananiah fails to verbalize is that when the messiness of life happens, nothing ever goes back to the way things were.

Anyone who’s ever experienced a miscarriage, lost a job or had their home destroyed can tell you that.

Things may become good, they make get worse, but they will never, ever be 100% the same.

That’s one thing I’m dealing with this week.

Martin’s death has brought a slew of emotions and a barrage of conversations. People calling me, sending e-mails, cards, posting on my Facebook. Through this all, I’ve experienced two types of messages.

The first is: we are here for you, but this sucks, and it hurts, and this is going to take time…but you will get through this.

The second is: we are here for you, and Martin’s in heaven and is always with you…and you will get through this.

Both messages are well intentioned, but oddly enough it is the second message that causes the most pain.

Right now, like any newly grieving person, I feel hurt and scared and angry, and I don’t want Martin in heaven or watching over me, I want him back in my life, in my home, curled up and purring in my lap.

It is the first message that has given me the most comfort and hope. To hear from other people that the pain of seeing an empty food dish is real, that my feelings of loneliness are legitimate, has provided me a way to feel things and to express emotions and to make my way through the messiness I am facing.

But I can face it, because I know I am not alone, or crazy, and that even though I will make it to the other side, it will not be the same. Nor will he ever be exactly replaced.

I think of when someone has a miscarriage and they’re told “The good news is that you can start trying to have another one real soon.”

Or when someone who’s been fired is told that “When one door closes another opens.”

Or when someone has their home town flooded and are told “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Those sentiments may sound good, but what they actually do is force life into an impossibly perfect box and act as a way to ignore the messiness that comes with it.

That’s what Hananiah is trying to do here. He’s telling the people that they shouldn’t worry and that things will be fine, even though they’re not.

But Jeremiah, with his harsh sounding words of judgment, comes to the people with a message meant to help, not to make people feel good.

He puts it all out there for them; he speaks of pain too great to bear, of situations that will not be easily resolved.

In doing so, he offers them a gift: the chance to repent. He offers them the opportunity to rethink about the messiness their lives are in and to do something about it.

By speaking the truth, he allows the people to act justly and with righteousness, to help those they have wronged and to reach out to the less fortunate.

In speaking the truth, Jeremiah offers a different kind of hope. He tells them to still continue living, to build homes and plant gardens, eat healthy and get married, raise children and seek what is best for everyone.

He doesn’t tell them that everything’s coming up roses, but he does encourage them to create a life for themselves, to trust that God has a plan for their welfare and that in time this too will be over.

In doing so, he assures them that as broken as they may be, as hopeless as things are the Master Potter, will indeed find a way to reshape them in a way that seems good.

Maybe not perfect, or exactly the same, but good.

Because of the hard truth of prophets like Jeremiah and the faithfulness of God, the people did make it through, and they did survive.

And when they emerged from life’s messiness they brought with them some of the most beautiful passages in the Bible, some of the deepest reflections about God and some of the truest insights into what it means to be human.

Though this is did not take the place of their former comfort and security, what emerged were things they were able to pass down to their children and their children’s children, all the way down to us and beyond.

So that we can survive as well, emerging from the things in life we could never have planned.

In conclusion, Jeremiah did not think sugar coating things would help the people. He told them what they needed to hear so they could survive.

And by God they survived; perhaps not perfect, or without wounds. But awkwardly, and painfully, and messy. Never the same, but different.

It is their story, and their strength, that thrives within us as well.

Let us give thanks that when life does not go as we had planned, we can turn to Christ, who is both the wounded and the resurrected, the Holy Spirit who gives us strength when we think we can not carry on, and to God who’s there to help us to work through the messy.

Amen and amen.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sermon from June 19, 2011; 2 Corinthians 13:1-13

Rev. George Miller
2 Corinthians 13:1-13
“Tough Love”
June 19, 2011

I have a confession to share with you, not something I tell many people: 21 years ago I tried to break into modeling.

This was at a time when big hair, blue eyes and the preppy look were in style and people kept telling me I should try my luck.

So I went to a modeling agency in NYC, got pictures taken, went to one or two casting calls, did some work for MTV and basically lost interest.

The truth is that to be successful in the entertainment world you really have to want it, more then anything else, so much so that you devote all your time going to auditions, waiting for call backs and facing rejection.

The head of the modeling agency I visited was named Cheyenne, a regal, former model who was truthfully blunt.

She told me that because my face was blotchy I would need cover-up. I was to always address her with a “Yes maam” or “No ma’am.” And my handshake was to always be firm and friendly.

Basically, she taught me the things any good father should teach his son, well, except perhaps about the cover-up.

After 1990 I never pursued modeling again, but Ms. Cheyenne’s tough love stayed with me and has come in handy when seeking a job, greeting people, or living in the South.

Ms. Cheyenne also influenced how I watch talent shows. For example, some people will say Simon Cowell from “American Idol” is too tough and demanding.

I disagree. I think he knows what it’s like out there, what it takes to excel in his field. When someone does their best, and gets it right, Simon is right there to lavish them with praise.

When they haven’t put in the work necessary, Simon’s critiques may seem harsh, but the road to excellence isn’t always paved by sugar-coated comments.

Sometimes tough love is needed.

I talk about tough love because today is Father’s Day, a day to celebrate the men in our lives who have influenced who we are: dads, grandpas, uncles, teachers, mentors, church elders.

And this is an important thing to do, because Lord knows being a man, and being a father is not always easy.

It requires a delicate mix of watching over but letting go, guiding but not controlling, laying down the law but not abusing the law.

Knowing when to say no even though saying yes would make you more popular.

Sometimes being a father is about knowing how to show tough love; not allowing children to get by with poor manners, sloppy work or bad decisions, when you know they are capable of so much more.

Is it any wonder why some men have run away from the responsibility of being a father? Or why so many kids are missing this anchor in their life?

And when boys don’t have a father to walk with them and teach them how to be a better man…well then how they can walk and teach their sons?

In today’s reading, Paul is also having some issues that are similar to being a father.

See, Paul has been responsible for starting various congregations throughout the land. In many ways he has fathered them.

He helped give them life; he saw them take their first steps. He set boundaries and guided them with rules. He instructed them through the stages of maturing.

Some of the members were like babies to the faith, needing extra attention. Others were growing up and becoming faithfully mature.

Like a good father, Paul tried his best to model to them what it looked like to live a Christian life. He hoped that by emulating him, they would emulate Christ.

He reminded them of how much they were loved. He reminded them of how they were accountable for their actions. He helped to give them roots and to give them wings.

When the time was right he stepped away from each congregation, so they could grow on their own.

Some church families thrived under Paul’s fathering; others, not so well. The Corinthian church was one of them.

It was a congregation that Paul had loved deeply, but a congregation that was having a multitude of issues. Sin had crept in, breaking down the sense of community.

Two of the members were butting heads. Some questioned his teaching; others disliked his personality, while others challenged his authority.

And like most fathers, Paul did not appreciate anyone in his household challenging his authority.

So Paul, like any good father, tries his best to deal with the events without making himself the issue or the message.

He focuses them on Communion. He repeats the Christian story. He reminds them about forgiveness.

However, when none of that seems to work, Paul breaks down and says “If you don’t stop misbehaving right now, I’m going to pull this car over and….”

…Well, he doesn’t really say that, but you can hear the frustration in his letter. There’s a frankness to his words in which he tries to nudge them towards improvement.

Here’s an abridged take on the passage that we just heard read: “This is the third time I am coming to you…I warned those….that if I come again I will not be lenient.”

Can you hear the exasperation in his words, that sense of “These kids are acting up again!” But instead of unleashing a can of whoop-butt on them, Paul tries to find a way to speak to them through the lens of faith:

“Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith…Don’t you realize Christ is in you?”

This is a way of saying “Hey-I raised you better then this.”

Paul brings the elders into the discussion: “We pray to God that you may not do anything wrong…and that you may become perfect.”

Which is Paul’s way of saying “We can’t control what you do, but we’ve done the best job in raising you. Let’s see you make the right choices.”

To ensure that no one thinks Paul has gone soft, he says “I write these things, so that when I come, I may not have to be severe in using the authority that God has given me for building up and not tearing down.”

In other words, Paul is saying “I gave you life and I can take it away, but I would rather see you succeed.”

To ensure that Paul has not gotten too hard, he finishes his letter with an ode to family love: “Brothers and sisters…agree with one another, live in peace, and greet each other with a holy kiss.”

Paul succeeds in doing such a difficult balancing act of being tough and stern yet being lovingly focused and affirming.

How could he demonstrate tough love so well to the Corinthian church?

Because this wasn’t about ego; this wasn’t about popularity points.

This was about Paul wanting what was best for the church. He knew they had something unique to offer the world: the news that in Jesus Christ we have experienced the loving actions of God, we are the recipients of grace, and death and sin have lost their sting.

Paul does not want these messages to be lost or blotted out. He doesn’t want this home to be ruined by a few siblings who are fussing and fighting.

He wants the family of God to live and to thrive and to experience healthy lives.

To do so, he knows that sometimes the line has to be drawn and sometimes he has to show tough love. Not to punish or to hurt. But to protect and to bless.

Not to destroy or annihilate. But to build and create.

The same way, if we were fortunate, the men in our lives did for us.

Because when a man forgets about popularity points and is willing to do what is right, they have done their family a favor.

When a man does this, the result can be children who are able to grow, to embrace the gifts they have been given and the things they have been taught.

When a man does this, he allows children to go out into the world with respect, and greet one another in a manner that says “I matter and so do you.”

When a man does this, his children can run and dance, to stand tall and proud; knowing that they can live their lives to the fullest in the way that God wants them to be lived.

We do not know if Paul’s letter had the desired affect or if the Corinthian church ever got their act together.

But this letter touched someone, because they saved it and shared it, and nearly 2,000 years later we’re still talking about it.

We can learn from Paul’s letter a few things: if you are a parent, a grandparent, an uncle, mentor or elder, don’t confuse what you think is being nice with what is right.

Try to live the ways you want your children and grandchildren to live.

And if you are fortunate enough to have a father who is still alive, who did right by you, find a way to tell them thanks for what they have done…and to forgive them for whatever they may have done wrong.

Happy Father’s Day to all the men out there; regardless if you have a family of your own or your family is the church, you are all Fathers today.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you…and with us.

Amen and amen.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Sermon from June 12, 2011; Acts 2:1-21


Rev. George Miller
Acts 2:1-21
“Cleaning House”
June 12, 2011

(Sermon starts off bland & dry.) Today is Pentecost. It is the birthday of the Christian Church and the day that we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Pentecost means “Feast of Weeks” and took place 50 days after Passover. All Jewish men within a 20 mile radius of the Temple were expected to attend.

It was around 9 a.m. in the morning when Peter and the apostles were together in one room when…

You know what? Forget this! (Tear up sermon and toss it into the air.)

Let me tell you a joke instead. Remember ‘Lil Ricky? Well, one day he came home from Sunday School. His Mom asked what he learned.

“Well,” Ricky said, “Our teacher told us how God sent Moses behind enemy lines on a rescue mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

“When they got to the Red Sea, Moses had his army build a pontoon bridge and all the people walked across safely.

“Then Moses radioed headquarters for reinforcements. They sent bombers to blow up the bridge and all the Israelites were saved.”

Ricky’s mother was silent for a moment before she said “Now, is that really what your teacher taught you?”

“Well, no Ma,” he said, “But if I told it the way the he did, you’d never believe it!”

That’s a good jumping off part for today’s message, because Pentecost is about something so amazing, so astounding that there’s no real way to convey it within the confines of time, space or words.

Simply put, it is the day the Holy Spirit was poured out, allowing the Gospel to be heard in a way it had never been heard before.

The disciples and certain women had spent the previous days cooped up in the upper room. They stayed busy by selecting someone to replace Judas and by devoting themselves to prayer.

But there’s almost a sense that they were beginning to stagnate, keeping the Good News to themselves. They needed a reason, a boot in the pants to go out beyond their walls and to do the work of God.

God took care of that by sending them the Holy Spirit.

In doing so, the Gospel went out beyond the north and south, east and west, and it demanded a response, amazing some and making others sneer.

When this story is read, some may ask: “Did it really happen this way, with fiery tongues that rested on top of people?”

Others may state “Does it really matter, because somehow, something happened?”

Or would someone like ‘Lil Ricky describe this story in a way that was more believable?

What is this Holy Spirit?

It’s what Joel had prophesied about and what Jesus promised.

The Holy Spirit is the aspect of God that is wild and unpredictable, which can not be contained or forced to act as we’d like.

It is like the flicker of a flame, the rush of the wind or a wave upon a beach. And just like them, the Spirit can be ferocious and loud or gentle and soft.

The Holy Spirit is the breathe that gave humanity life, the wind that parted the Red Sea, and the fire that was there when the Law was given.

For those of us who are creative, the Holy Spirit is what prompts one to write, paint and compose, act, dance and sing.

For those of us who are involved in social justice, it is that energizing source that makes people march in protests, stand up for their rights and to speak out even when everyone else disagrees.

The Holy Spirit is like Ginger Rogers spinning around the room or Gene Kelly jumping through puddles while singing in the rain.

The Holy Spirit is Martin Luther King saying “I have a dream” and Gandhi saying “Be the change that you want to see in the world.”

It is the feeling a mother, or grandmother gets when they hold a newborn against their breast.

It is the moment of silence before worship begins and it is the singing of “Alleluia” when worship comes to an end.

The Holy Spirit is in everything and everywhere, and the more we recognize it, the more it seems to be present.

The Holy Spirit is the free and eternal part of God, so instead of trying to contain it, I’ll share a recent illustration.

As you know, I’ve moved into a new home on the lake. It had been closed up for years; the front was covered with bugs and the inside had the musty smell of closed doors, unwashed linen and dirty towels.

First thing I did? Open up all the doors and windows. Got a cross breeze going. Turned on all the fans.

One by one, went through all the closets and drawers. Washed them with soap and water, sanitized them with scented cleaner, left them open.

Every single towel, sheet, and blanket into the washer with detergent, softener, bleach, let them get agitated; then into the dryer, let them tumble.

Ran all the faucets until the water was clear. Let the ice machine cycle its way through. Burned candles in each room.

What did this do? Began to get the musty smell out.

And as a breeze danced through the place, as the waters ran, as the flames flickered, out went the sense of lifeless stagnation; in came a space for the lively new.

The structure of the house did not change, but the energy did. The walls remained, but it began to feel as if life was inside.

The bugs got gone and different life appeared in the forms of human visitors bearing flowers and bottles of wine.

But a month later I noticed that the musty, stagnant smell and feel was starting to creep back in.

So once again, everything was opened, the fans put on full blast, the floors cleaned, the outside swept.

This time I did something else: I cooked and I baked, making the house not only smell fresher and more like me, but more inviting and a sign that there is life inside.

I think that’s a bit of what the Holy Spirit is about. That just like my home, all people, places and organizations can come to a point in which they become too comfortable, too stagnant and the Holy Spirit, like a cleansing cross breeze, needs to come in and shake things up.

But the coming of the Holy Spirit isn’t meant to be a one time experience. It is meant to be a constant event that shakes us up and asks us to take chances and to create space for fresh air.

We are the church, and as the church, sometimes we do get a little too stagnant, sometimes we get too used to the same old same old.

Sometimes we hate to try new things, but that’s exactly what the Holy Spirit and Pentecost is about.

It is the part of the God that keeps us fresh, keeps us alert and will keep us alive.

We should not be afraid of the Holy Spirit. It is a gift from God, it is God.

With that said, I’d like to end by sharing one more joke:

The minister of the oldest church in town was nervous. He needed to find a way to ask the congregation to come up with the money needed to keep the building in order.

He planned the service down to a T with songs he thought was inspirational. Imagine his distress when the regular organist was sick and was replaced with a last minute substitute.

“Here’s a copy of the service,” he said impatiently and without hope. “Just think of something to play after I make the announcement about our finances. Maybe the Spirit will inspire you.”

Well, the minister came to the dreaded part of worship. He stood up and solemnly said “Brothers and Sisters; the roof repairs are twice as much as we anticipated and we need $4,000 more.”

“If there are any of you who can pledge $100 or more, please stand up.”

Well…just then the substitute organist played “The Star Spangled Banner”!

And that is how the roof was repaired and a new full time organist was found.

Happy Pentecost, Happy Birthday to the Church Universal.

Not only are we the church, we are the Body of Christ, called by God, breathed upon by the Holy Spirit.

May we all learn how to embrace the wild, untamed, fiery, windy part of God, be it in worship, in our lives or in our actions.

Amen and amen.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party

Every now and then, a series of books come along that just allow the reader to do nothing but read, fall in love, laugh, smile and cry.

Alexander McCall Smith's series of "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" is one of those series. They are so predictable, but in a way that is comforting and joyful.

The 12th book, "The Saturday Big Tent Wedding" really nails everything that makes this series so good, and if it is the last book in the series, that will be fine because it feels as if all the loose ties have been tied together.

Old vans, new husbands, impetuous relationships, talking shoes and cups of bush tea all come together.

Of course, McCall Smith uses his familiar characters and simple writing style to tackle big truths. Does God forget some people? Why are some people in our lives? How often do we each get to hear what we all want to hear- that somebody likes us, just as we are, whatever our faults may be.

A joy to read; this book is a perfect summer read and addition to a wonderful series.

Sermon from June 5, 2011; 1 Peter 4:12-5:11

Rev. George Miller
1 Peter 4:12-5:11
“We are the Church”
June 5, 2011

Sometimes, life is not so pleasant.

We go through fiery ordeals.

We get bogged down in watery chaos.

We discover our neighbors
are not so neighborly

and our family…
well our family is sometimes
not what we would choose

more like what we got
and who we are stuck with.

But through it all
We have this place.

A place called CHURCH.

A place where we gather
a place where we worship
not ourselves

But we worship God.
And we give thanks
and we learn
and we wrestle
and we wonder

And for at least one hour a week
we let go of worries
and we just…be

-Out there/beyond these walls
it may seem like we have little control
over what happens

who likes us

how we are treated

who speaks to us or not

But in here
we gather
we shake hands
we sing
we share
we give
we eat

We unite
As One

As the living, breathing
BODY OF CHRIST

Shepherded by God

Surrounded by the Spirit’s sustaining breath

So that we-
can go back
out into the world
to hopefully do some of God’s work
to maybe reflect the light of Christ

But basically…
to survive
another heartbreak
another storm
another flood…

Let me share with you something interesting that deals with watery chaos and acting as
one.

You know fire ants, those creatures we worry about here in FL?

It turns out that they can survive the heavy storms of life. Know why?

They can float.

A colony of fire ants can actually turn into a life raft that allows them to withstand flooding and enables them to float to a new land, even for months at a time.

Engineers have been studying this phenonema for some time now.

When a single ant is dropped into water, it struggles and flails. But, as it turns out, the ant will produce a thin layer of air around it.

However- when a group of fire ants are dropped into water, something amazing happens.

First, the ant colony becomes a sphere. The ants on top crawl down into the water and grab a hold onto their companions.

The next layer of ants crawl to the edge, then the next layer of ants crawl out, then the next layer until within 2 minutes that sphere has flattened out into a raft shape.

The ants cling to each other any way possible: legs on legs, jaws on jaws.

In doing so each ant’s personal air bubble pushes against the other air bubbles, and these bubbles join as one, connecting and protecting the raft.

They become a “super-organism” in which their teamwork prevents any water from coming into contact with them.

These floating rafts become so buoyant they can be pushed underwater 8 inches before any water leaks through.

And if for some reason they become submerged? The ants pull even closer, working to maintain their “communal craft”.

A lesson we can learn? Sometimes it’s good to be full of hot air!

But on a more serious note, they can teach us that when ordeals occur and our livelihood is threatened, it is better to work together and to find a way to endure.

I believe the earliest Christians would have understood this illustration; after all, it wasn’t easy being the new faith in town.

Some called them pagans, others thought they were cannibals, and others accused them of civil disobedience.

Soon they were faced with threats and arrests; eventually some would be tortured, others given death sentences.

Yet somehow the earliest Christians held on, defying the chaos by pulling closer together

They found a way to create their own family

A family of God’s choosing
Formed in Christ
Surrounded by the Holy Spirit

They met in homes
They broke bread
They told stories

They did the work they had been called to
do.

How they managed, I’m amazed.

But today’s reading gives us some insight into how they found that strength.

One way was through group imagery.

The author tells them that they are to work
as one.

The elders to humbly watch over
and tend to the members.

Not in a way that’s selfish, or a chore.

And the younger members;
those who are new to the faith-
they are to listen and to show respect.

No one is to be better
or more important then the other,
but equals

who keep alert
who stay disciplined

And by working together as one?

What will the end result be?

That when all of life’s floods
permanently subside

the big picture will be revealed
and together we will be in glory

and we will see,

with our own eyes

how Christ is right there

to restore us
to support us
and to strengthen us.

Yes, trials will come

yes we will feel like we are
being flooded by the waters of chaos

but in Christ
formed by God
and breathed upon by the Holy Spirit

we as the church can hold on
work together
and in the end find salvation.

For that we should all give a big “Amen!”

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Sermon from April 29, 2011; Acts 17:22-34

Rev. George Miller
Acts 17:22-34
“Searching for God”
May 29, 2011

The other day I was going through my files and came across this joke: What are three proofs that Jesus was a Mexican?

First, his name was Jesus. Second, he did things in large groups. Third, he was always being harassed by the authorities.

On the other hand, what are three proofs that Jesus was black? First, he had Sssooouuulll. Second, he called everyone “brother.” Third, he couldn’t get a fair trial.

But perhaps most compelling is this: what are three proofs that Jesus was a woman?

First, he had to feed a crowd at a moment’s notice when there was no food.

Second, he kept trying to get the message across to a bunch of men Who. Just. Didn’t. Get. It.

Third, even when he was dead, he had to get up because there was more work to do…

Yes indeed, in my office I have files upon files filled with stories, e-mails, poems.

Some of them try to solve the great questions of faith.

Ya’ll know the type: they use witty acronyms or reduce each book of the Bible to a one sentence explanation or tell you what to do to create a desired affect.

Want to know how to pray: do this.

Have stronger faith? Do that.

Get to know God? Follow steps a, b, c.

Ensure your salvation? Embrace 1, 2, 3.

But you know what? That all leaves me non-plussed. I’ve stopped believing there are certain steps to guarantee a desired spiritual result.

Now I’m like “I don’t know.” And I don’t mean it in a condescending, dismissive way.

I mean “I don’t know” as in “So much of faith is about mystery and I’m not afraid to embrace it.”

I mean “I don’t know” as in “The more I learn, the more I discover, and the more I discover the more I realize I have yet to learn.”

I mean “I don’t know” as in “I may not know about the past, but I know who’s been present since the very beginning.

“I may feel like I’m stumbling through the present, but I know I’m not stumbling through it alone.

“And I may not know about the future, but I know who holds it.”

Which reminds me of another joke:

There was a Sunday School teacher who believed that memorization was the key to her students’ salvation. So she decided to have her class memorize Psalm 23.

There was one boy, Ricky, who was so excited about the task. But try as he might he just could not memorize it. After much practice he could barely get through the first line.

On the day when the children were scheduled to recite Psalm 23 in front of the congregation, Ricky was so nervous.

When it was his turn, Ricky stood up to the microphone, took off his baseball cap, and proudly said “The Lord is my shepherd, and that’s all I need to know.”

The Lord is my shepherd and that’s all I need to know. Amen and amen!

I admire folk like Little Ricky. I admire anyone who has the courage to say things like “That’s all I need to know” or “I don’t know” or “Can you help me understand?”

There is a beauty in people who are on a spiritual journey, who feel like they don’t know anything, but know that they want to know.

Those are the people, who when I talk to them, make me feel like God is right there; their seeking uncertainty seems to make God so real, so present.

Even when talking with supposed atheists, I feel the presence of God. It may just be me, but it seems like every atheist I’ve met has an amazing knowledge of religion.

They seem to bring up the topic of God and the Bible more then so-called believers.

Which makes me wonder, “If this person really believed God didn’t exist, then why waste their breath and read so many religious books and articles?”

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote about a time when his father suffered a stroke. Tony was 10 and in school.

His teacher, sensing something was wrong, suggested that they pray for his father’s recovery. Tony whispered to him “I’m afraid my father doesn’t believe in God.”

The teacher replied “That doesn’t matter. God believes in him. (God) loves him without demanding or needing love in return.”

This made a lasting impression, teaching Tony that faith matters because it can inspire and raise people’s sights beyond themselves.

The Lord is my shepherd and that’s all I need to know.

This is a simplified boiling down of what Paul is trying to teach in today’s reading.

In chapter 17 Paul has been the cause of two religious riots. So the church sends Paul to Athens thinking there’ll be no problem there.

But Paul looks around and sees all these shrines and altars and statutes devoted to all these other gods.

This distresses Paul, so Paul being Paul, speaks up once again. Except this crowd is different from the others he has encountered.

He’s is a college town, the Harvard of its day, made up of scholars, professors and privileged folk.
So Paul has to think fast, and come up with a way to appeal to the crowd.

“People of Athens,” he says, “I can tell how very spiritual you are. I can see that you worship many gods, even if you don’t know who they are. But let me shed some light:

“The God who started it all is Lord of everything, everyone, and everywhere. Because of this, God does not live in buildings or man-made things.

“After all God made us all from one, giving us boundaries of space and time. And why these boundaries?

“So that we can seek, so that we can question. So that we can grab, grasp, and grope.

“So that when we search, we will find God and discover that God is never, ever, far away from us.”

I admire the technique Paul uses. I appreciate his use of words.

He says that we grope for God, a word that demands a reaction, if not a chuckle.

To grope is an action, it’s not about being passive or waiting for something to happen.


When we think of the word grope we may think of a teenager on his or her first date.

It’s a word that speaks of desire coupled with desperation, purposefulness coupled with a sense of na├»ve fumbling, of hopeful excitement coupled with fear and awe.

In speaking to this particular group of people, Paul is using his gifts to say “You don’t know it all, but you’re off to a good start. So let’s go on this journey together.”

The result? Some of the people laughed at him. Some said “We may not agree with you but we’re willing to listen to you again.”

Some of them joined Paul and continued their search for God as revealed through Jesus Christ.

As do we. As do I.

I continue to wonder who God is. Just what Jesus is about. What to fully make about the Holy Spirit.

I question what is real, what is made-up, what is a metaphor, what is a mistranslation.

Sometimes I wonder if we got the story wrong; I wonder how the story will really end.

But I don’t worry so much about who the author and main character is.

And I know that as long as I, as long as you, as long as we, continue to search, we will find, and we will be found, and we will discover how God is indeed not far away from us at all.

In conclusion, let me tell you one more joke.

One day a priest, a pastor, and a guru were arguing about the best way to pray, while a telephone repairman was working nearby.

The priest spoke first, with great certainty, “Kneeling is definitely the best way to pray.”

“No,” said the pastor, “I get the best results standing with my hands outstretched to Heaven like this.”

“You’re both wrong,” said the guru. “The most effective way to pray is laying down on the floor.”

“Pardon me,” the telephone repairman said, “I may not much know much ‘bout nuthin’, but the best praying I ever did was when I was hanging upside down from a telephone pole.”

Faith is a mystery. We don’t have to be so caught up in steps a, b, c, or embracing 1, 2, 3.

Nor should we be afraid of searching, or groping, as clumsy as it may seem.

What we can know is that somehow, someway, we will make a discovery that God is real, that God has never been too far away and that God believes in us.

For the Lord is our Shepherd, and perhaps sometimes that is all we need to know.

Blessing be to the mystery that is the Holy Spirit, the Way that is Jesus Christ and the known unknown who is God.

Amen and amen.

Sermon from April 24, 2011; John 20:1-18

Rev. George Miller
John 20:1-18
“Letting Go to Hold On”
April 24, 2011; Easter

It’s Easter; the day in which we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We celebrate what God has done.

We celebrate that death has lost its hold, tears turn into joy and that God, the giver of life, prevails.

…but truth be told, resurrection is complex and difficult to preach.

Why? - Because resurrection is a mystery. It defies any concept of space and time; a reality that no words can fully define.

The meaning of Easter is truly something that is best understood here (point to heart) and not here (point to head).

In the Bible alone there are at least 5 different accounts of the Resurrection given by at least 8 different authors, and none of them match up.

That’s partly due to the fact that each writer wanted to convey a different aspect of what the Resurrection meant to them and to their community.

In Mark, Christ’s resurrection creates terror and amazement. Matthew’s Resurrection is an event that shook the world. Luke tells us that the risen Christ is present when we break bread.

John puts a cool spin on the Resurrection- that it is something we should simply believe in even if we did not see it or do not fully understand it.

During our Bible Study last week, one of the participants felt that John’s resurrection accounts were very personal and unique. I like her take on John.

John, as a writer, is very deliberate in his images and words. We just heard how he tells his version of the Resurrection.

It’s dark. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb. The stone has been rolled away.

Expecting the worst she runs to the disciples. She reports the news. Two of them engage in a running match. The body’s not there.

Mary stands outside. She weeps. She bends. She looks. She sees. She weeps some more. She turns. She talks…

She hears her teacher’s voice: “Mary.”

Thanks to a scarcity of words, John creates a powerful tale of reuniting. Then something happens which has puzzled scholars.

Christ says to Mary “Do not hold onto me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them ‘I am ascending to…my God and your God.’”

Why does this puzzle scholars? First, Mary is not sent to proclaim that Christ has been resurrected or that he’ll make future appearances; Mary is sent to say that Christ is ascending to the Father.

Second, Mary is told “Do not hold onto me.” Another way to put this is “Stop clinging to me.”

What does this mean? Why would Christ tell Mary not to hold on?

…I don’t know about you, but I’ve become a reality-show junkie. “America’s Next Top Model”, “Celebrity Apprentice”: guilty pleasures, except for one show called “Hoarders.”

“Hoarders” is about people whose homes are filled with things they can’t let go of. For example, one young man who was afraid that if threw out an item, like a water bottle his mother gave him, that it meant he did not love her anymore.

I could understand his rational. Because so many people in my life have died I too can hold onto things, be it emotional or physical.

As an example, for years I’ve had in my dresser draw a little black book that belonged to my Grandfather George, who died when I was around 5.

After watching this particular episode of “Hoarders” I came across Grandpa’s black book. I read it, at first thinking it was a cool bit of family history; soon I realized it was a memento of a very sad life.

One entry was about his father’s death. The following entry was about his sister’s death.

The book was filled with addresses and names of people who were long gone, people I had never known or heard about.

One entry was about meeting my Grandma, whom he adored. But truth be told, she never truly adored him back, marrying him only because she was afraid of being an old maid.

I realized that by holding onto his book I was literally holding onto my Grandpa’s sadness and grief. So I said my goodbyes and put it into the recycle bin.

But by letting go, three things happened.

There was a peace in knowing that somewhere that lifeless paper had been tuned into something usable, perhaps a newspaper or a best seller.

Second, I got to know more about my Grandfather and in a way he feels present and real.

Finally, I feel as if he is free; his grief has been released into the world and transformed into something else, I know not what.

By holding onto that book, it stayed dead, by letting go, life prevailed.

I think this is part of what John’s Jesus is trying to say to Mary Magdalene.

John’s Gospel embraces Jesus ascending back to God; after all, it is John who starts his Gospel by saying “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God…”

So it makes sense that John would want to see the Word return to God; it becomes yet another way in which Christ is glorified.

But what did this ascension, this return to God do? It accomplished a few things.

First, by ascending to God, Christ created a space that allowed the disciples to be united by a common bond, in which they shared an intimate, spiritual relationship with Christ, in which physical contact was no longer needed.

Second, by ascending to God, Christ created a space for the Holy Spirit to enter in, so that everyone can experience God in new, unexpected ways.

So that we can embrace our gifts, remember what Jesus taught and do our part in reflecting God’s love to the world.

Finally, by ascending to God, Christ went ahead to prepare; to prepare a place for you and for I;

to ensure that each of us has a heavenly destination to return to when our earthly time has come to its conclusion.

None of these things could happen if Mary Magdalene held on to and clung to Christ. For to have clung onto would not have been an act of faith or an act of trust.

To cling onto is to want that person or that thing all to yourself, believing you can only feel that way or remember that joy if you smother it, suppress it, and control it.

But the Good News could not be smothered; it could not be controlled or clutched onto like a guarded gem.

The news of Christ was meant to be given flight and shared unselfishly with the world, giving new life, fresh beginnings and freedom from fears.

In conclusion, when the risen Christ appeared to Mary she became the first to pronounce the Good News.

She who felt his absence at the tomb was the first to see how God defeated death’s hold.

She who was the first to try and hold on became the first to learn how to let go.

One thing we can learn from John’s Gospel is that when we have an encounter with the Risen Christ, we can let go, announcing to the world that in the one who was crucified, resurrected and ascended:

Good returns to good
Love returns to love
life returns to the source of life
and God ultimately prevails.

Happy and joyous Easter to all and blessings be to our Heavenly Parent, the Beloved Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen and amen.

Sermon from March 6, 2011; Matthew 17:1-9

Rev. George Miller
Matthew 17:1-9
“What the Outside Reveals”
March 6, 2011

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Beauty is only skin deep. It’s what’s on the inside that counts. That’s what we tell our children.

Then come Sunday we teach them about Rebekah who was “fair to look at”, Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat, and about Jesus’ face shining like the sun and his clothes becoming dazzling white.

If appearances don’t matter, why does the Bible share these details?

Is it possible that sometimes appearances do count and are a means in which the ways of heaven are seen and God’s glory becomes visible in the very fabric of our lives?...

…Today’s Scripture is known as the Transfiguration. It takes place 6 days after Jesus tells the disciples that he will die in Jerusalem and be raised three days later.

Although it was just 10 weeks ago that we witnessed the birth of Christ, we are about to join him on a death march that will bring us to the place where Jesus will be betrayed and nailed to the cross.

It’s a journey we embark on every year. But first we are first taken to a mountain top, in which past meets present to move us into the future and the ways of heaven are seen.

It is during this moment that we discover Jesus is a victor. His face shines, his clothes become luminous, not because of some mutation, but as a way to show what is already true, revealing God’s favor and the purpose that has been woven into his existence.

The Transfiguration is about the outside revealing what has always been inside…

A way to illustrate this is a scene from the Broadway musical “Legally Blonde” which played in Tampa not too long ago.

“Legally Blonde” is one of those feel good plays about embracing your full potential, no matter what others may say, and about celebrating who you are.

The main character is named Elle, a blonde beauty who makes her way into Harvard. While there, she meets and falls in love with a scruffy teacher’s assistant named Emmett.

Emmett has a great future as a lawyer. He’s smart, compassionate, a hard worker; unfortunately, his clothes don’t reflect this.

He wears a raggy corduroy jacket, an outdated tie and shaggy hair. At one point his boss kicks him out, citing his attire.

As a way to help Emmett out, Elle takes him to a department store where he is shown different clothes, stating what he likes, what he does not.

Eventually they find him the right tie, and a classic, fitted suit. He tries it on…and when he comes out of the changing room the audience applauds and he and Elle go “Woa.”

“I look…good.” He says “But it’s just me.”

To which Elle sings “That’s the best part. The outside is new. But now it reflects what’s already in you. Couldn’t change that if I wanted to. And I do not.”

…The outside reveals what’s already inside.

That’s part of what the Transfiguration is about, and it is a good theme for us as we embark on our Stewardship season.

Last week we heard about how it is OK for us to make mistakes and be imperfect if we have sincerely done our best for the sake of God’s Kingdom.

Today, as we gather in this holy house, we are asked “Is it apparent where our heart is?”
Do we present ourselves as the living, thriving family of God that we truly are?

Can an outsider or first time visitor tell that
Emanuel UCC sincerely loves the Lord, that we do the kingdom’s work and that we honor this space?

In other words: are we dressing our faith in a timeless suit or in raggy corduroy jacket?

This is God’s house. And as important as prayer, Bible Studies and sermons can be, it takes much more to keep this house going.

It requires time donated by our dedicated members. It requires talents shared by everyone. It also requires financial gifts.

Ministry is an expensive endeavor to perform. To keep our church running, we depend on donations.

What do those donations do? For one thing, they help to make sure that the outside reveals what’s inside.

First, we are a people who worship God. To do so, we have microphones, furniture, the AV system. Music.

As stated before, we have what’s been called the best music program for a church our size. Connie, Sue, both choirs do an amazing job. But it comes at a cost.

For example, it costs about $170 a year to maintain our handbells. Or should I say $3.27 a week.

The songs the choir sings cost about $200 a year, or $3.85 a week.

Can anyone say they are not worth it? The anthems, bells, organ, musicians; they all work together to give God our praise.

Raggedy corduroy? No, our music program is a timeless, well-fitted suit.

Second, the ministry that takes place. Cards that are sent out, calls that are made, house, nursing home and hospital visits; the mileage they require.

The Agape offering that helps those in need, not to mention the fees we pay to help run our conference and denomination.

Should these forms of ministry be treated like an outdated tie?

What about the buildings and grounds? The mowing of the grass, trimming of bushes, the landscaping. The signs of welcome, the care of our roof.

All these are ways we care for the space in which we worship and do ministry in.

But it doesn’t stop there. To truly welcome the stranger in, we need lights to illuminate the rooms, plumbing that works, clean water to drink, a heating system that keeps us warm, and air-conditioning to keep us cool.

Let’s not forget supplies like paper, ink, and computers to put out the bulletin and newsletter and the electricity needed to make it all possible.

All these things, plus many, many more, add up to create a budget we must meet each and every year. A budget that says we reflect
what we feel, that our treasures show off our hearts.

The question is, does our offering reflect a fine suit or an outdated tie?

To maintain our church, it costs $193,000 a year. That sounds like a lot. But allow me to break it down. In the last 11 months we have averaged 95 people per week in worship. 95.

If each person donated $39 a week, we would meet our budget. If each person donated $40 a week, we’d end up with over a $4,000 surplus. If each person donated $41 we’d have a $9,000 surplus.

Last week we heard Gene talk about the biblical principal of tithing and the importance of giving to God.

We acknowledge that like sex and politics, money is a very personal thing to talk about.

Agree or disagree, one of the main ways we show our love to God is what we are willing to give.

Give to church. Give to neighbor. Give to those in need.

Do we give in a way that says God, Christ and the Holy Spirit are deserving of a classic suit or do we give in a way that the Holy Trinity should make due with an outdated tie and raggy corduroy jacket?

Do we share our financial blessings in such a way that Emmanuel UCC reflects all the ways that God has blessed us?

Are we willing to step out on faith, trusting that our financial gifts will become a way to assist God in making the ways of heaven visible in the very fabric of our lives?...

In conclusion, let us embrace the joy of stewardship so that this glorious, living body of Christ can continue to be transfigured again and again, reflecting all the holy glory, peace and joy that dwell within.

Thanks be to God who has given us so much, the Holy Spirit that aids in our transformation and to Jesus Christ who makes the ways of heaven that much easier to see. Amen and amen.

Feb 27, 2011; Matthew 6:24-34

Rev. George Miller Matthew 6:24-34 “Life A la Carte” Feb 27, 2011

Today’s message is dedicated to all the people who make worship and ministry at Emmanuel UCC possible.

To our Administrative Assistant who works hard to put out our newsletter and bulletin.

To our Minister of Music and the members of both choirs who works hard to give us such beautiful songs.

To our Moderator who spends time on the audio visual component of worship.

To all who head committees, sit on those committees, those who work behind the scenes, and those who work in front.

This sermon is dedicated to everyone here today because without you, we would not and could not be a church family.

Because we are a church family. And like any family we have our share of situations, personalities, and our share of traditions.

Traditions like Harvest Home, the Spaghetti Supper, and Yard Sale, in which so many worked so hard to make it all possible.

And new traditions like the Air Conditioner Chat.

We are a family, and every family has their own traditions. Right or wrong. Crazy or sensical.

Many times we’re not even aware of them until an outsider enters in. For example, last week I joined Rosie and her daughter for lunch at Homer’s, in which I was welcomed to their own family tradition: making root beer floats before your meal.

My family had our own traditions. Some of them dealt with order and control. Like my Mother’s need to get to church 45 minutes early so she could sit in her favorite pew.

Or going to McDonald’s. I was one of four children, which on Long Island was seen as a big family.

Before we could enter the restaurant, my father would gather us around and ask what we wanted to eat.

He’d frugally downsized our orders: a large fry became a medium fry; a medium shake became a small shake.

With all of our orders written down, Dad would go to the counter and we’d find our seats.

Looking back, I appreciate Dad’s logic. Who wants to be stuck behind some kids who can’t decide what they want to order?

There was this one time, when I had a girlfriend named Gina, and we all went out. We got out of the car. Dad took our orders. Even Gina’s, which caught her by surprise.

Although that was over 20 years ago, Gina still jokes about that day. Last month she e-mailed me and made a comment about eating at McDonald’s and it tickled me so, because right or wrong, crazy or sensical, my father had created a family tradition.

We all have traditions. They may bring back fond memories, they may irritate us, but they are ours, and those memories can not be taken away.

That’s part of what’s going on in today’s reading. Matthew has invited us to take a glimpse at an unusual family that did things different from the rest of the world.

After all, Jesus, his disciples, Mary Magdalene, were a family of sorts. They shared meals, they traveled together, they experienced life; they witnessed death.

Today, we hear a bit of from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus sees the crowds. He sits down. The disciples come to him. And he begins to teach.

In today’s portion, he is telling them not to spend so much time worrying about food or clothes. Jesus wisely reminds them that worrying does not add time to your life.

“God knows what you want,” Jesus tells them, “strive for the kingdom and these other things will be given to you.”

This is such a beautiful passage, so logical in its thoughts, so pastoral in its poetry. Simply reading it aloud gives one hope and a respite from their worries.

There is something about these verses that can make you feel as if Jesus is talking directly, assuring us not to worry about the things we think we need and items we wish to have.

But it also works on a corporate level. Jesus is talking to the disciples, people who had given up their way of life to help spread the Good News.

Comments about food and clothes were most likely directed to those who were already living in such a way that they were dependant on the hospitality of those they ministered too.

Following that line of thought, this message is not so much Jesus talking to the common person dealing with the every day aspects of life and survival.

Jesus is talking to the kingdom people who were busy doing the ground work for what would later become known as the church.

I don’t believe Jesus is saying food and clothes don’t matter. Nor do I believe Jesus is saying “Sit back, and do nothing.”

I believe that what Jesus is telling the disciples is “If you stay focused on why you are doing ministry, if everything you do is to make the Kingdom real, then you do not have to spend so much time worrying or being afraid of the what ifs and how-sos.”

Think about it: Jesus knew who the disciples were. Jesus knew what they were and were not capable of. Jesus knew their strengths; he knew their weaknesses.

But it didn’t stop Jesus from teaching them. From giving them the authority to cast out demons and cure diseases.

He trusted them enough to go out into the world to proclaim the Good News. He knew they would face dangers. He knew they would experience great joy.

And when they succeeded, they succeeded, and when they failed, they failed.

What mattered was that whatever they did, they did so for the sake of the kingdom, and for the glory of God.

Think about the Resurrection. When Christ appeared to the disciples, it wasn’t to chastise them, or judge them or to tell them what they could have done better.

When the resurrected Christ appeared to the disciples, it was to be present to them.

To assure them. To give them comfort. To remind them that they were “not losers but winners” (as one author stated).

In the Gospel of John, Jesus comforts a grieving woman who loved him with all her heart.

In the Gospel of Luke he walks alongside a couple trudging back to Emmaus and breaks bread with them. (*above 2 examples taken from “Snapshots of Truth” by A. Kenneth Hannum, pp. 17-18.)

In the Gospel of Matthew he greets the disciples in Galilee and makes a promise: “I am with you always to the end of the age.”

With those words, a new tradition, the tradition of Christ’s eternal presence, entered into the life of the Christian family.

…So what does this mean for us, as a church family?

It means that as a unified whole, we do not have to be so anxious, worrying so much about tomorrow, and about all the things we spend so much time worrying about.

It means that as long as we stay focused on the kingdom of God, as long as we strive to do what is righteousness, it is OK.

It is OK if from time to time the bulletin has a mistake or misses a key point.

It is OK if from time to time if a song falls flat or someone in the choir hits a wrong note or dings the bell at the wrong time.

It is OK if the AV does not project the right image at the right time all the time.

It is OK if we have a day where the sanctuary seems to be a bit hot.

It is OK if one of the banners is accidentally hung up wrong.

It is Ok if we only have 5 types of cookies instead of 20 types of treats.

It is Ok if we can only help out 5 organizations and not the 5 million that exist.

…It is even Ok if sometimes the sermon falls flat, or the liturgy is a little weak…

Because what Jesus is calling us to do is to strive first for the Kingdom, to set our sights on the Good News, to be reminded that what we do is not about ourselves or our egos, but it is about the glory of God and the work of heaven.

As long as we keep our focus on that, our heavenly parent will see to it that the other things will be given too.

In closing, we are a family. A magnificent, diverse, complicated family.

We are joined by a ministry that is not to be about tightly wound control or a fear of mistakes, set backs and missteps.

But instead, a ministry that is first and foremost focused on the Kingdom of God and the Gospel message.

Let us trust that as long as we strive to sing it, preach it, live it, reflect it and share it, God will do God’s part to make sure that everything else that is needed will be provided.

That is a beautiful tradition to behold.

All thanks and honor be to God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, our heavenly treasures.

Amen and amen.

Sermon from Feb 20, 2011; Matthew 5:38-48

Rev. George Miller
Matthew 5:38-48
“Welcoming*”
Feb 20, 2011

Jesus ate. A lot. And with everyone.

It has been said that Jesus was crucified for who he ate with.

Jesus ate with Jews and Gentiles. Jesus ate with rich and poor. Jesus ate with the religious elite and Jesus ate with notorious sinners. Jesus ate with men, Jesus ate with women.

Jesus ate the night before he died, sharing the table with the very person who would betray him.

Jesus ate after he was resurrected.

If we were to remove all the scriptures that involve Jesus eating or talking about eating, we would have very little left.

Jesus ate with every body, which is important, because when we eat with someone, our actions say “I like you.”

Jesus ate…

…Allow me to share a story, one of the most powerful childhood memories I have.

On the block that I lived was a woman named Marty who taught catechism classes. Kids would go there after school for their lessons. Some days Marty had them over just for fun.

One of those days everyone was invited to Marty’s for popcorn and to play in her basement.

Everyone, that is, except for me.

Marty gave me a bowl of popcorn, closed the door, and like an idiot, I sat down on her stoop, and ate it.

There are other memories of being made to feel like an outsider. Trying to find someone to sit with during school lunch; graduation parties not invited to.

Each slight a not so subtle message that said “I do not like you and you don’t belong.”

It’s a story that everyone shares at some point of their life, no matter if you are the star quarterback or the class geek.

We all want to feel welcome; we all want to be liked.

Now, my 30’s brought some healing. I attended seminary and had a core group of friends I hung out with. We were active in everything, hosting dinner parties and going to cafes.

One day someone said “You’re part of the popular crowd.” That made me feel good… until I realized that what they were really saying was that some people were feeling left out.

As you see, you can not have an “in” crowd unless if there is someone to make up the “out” crowd.

And that is where hospitality becomes so important. Perhaps more then any other act, hospitality is the way in which we say “You are welcome and you belong.”

Think about it, isn’t there a thrill to being invited to something, the chance to feel like you are part of a group?

In today’s reading there is a sense of hospitality that runs throughout, a radical sense of welcome that speaks in impossible-to-match hyperbole:

giving someone not just your coat but your cloak as well. Not refusing someone who asks for help. Even loving your enemy; the very person who would do you harm.

Jesus challenges us to show compassion and mercy and to always act with love.

Is there any wonder why he was seen as such a threat?
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

This is one of the most difficult scriptures to hear, agree upon, and to act on.

Jesus expects us to treat everyone as a child of God and to welcome them into our lives.

But the notion of welcoming is so complex.

Here at Emmanuel UCC we have a saying that is stated every Sunday:

“No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

And as wonderful as it sounds, as simple as it may seem, we have found ourselves challenged as to what that idea of welcome should look like and if we actually practice what we preach.

After all, what does this word welcome mean?

Does it mean that someone can bring a pet to church, even if it poses a safety risk to the rest of the congregation?

Does it mean that we provide financial assistance to a family, even if we know they will squander it on their addictions?

Do we extend the hand of fellowship to a former pastor even though ethics may say otherwise?

These are questions we’ve had to ponder over the years.

In fact, the whole reason why the title of today’s sermon has an asterisk is because some people have asked if we truly do welcome everyone.

One parishioner bravely suggested that perhaps we need to put an asterisk after our welcome statement so we can make a disclaimer on who we do not mean.

As Christians we should be thankful for these observations. They help to keep us honest and to prayerfully consider just what the idea of welcome means.

After all, the definition of everyone and welcome has expanded throughout the years.

There used to be a time when everyone meant men and women. Then it grew to mean black and white. Then it became Christian and Jewish. Then it became gay and straight.

But have you noticed how lately the categories have exploded?

Race now includes Hispanic and Asian, Haitian and Hmong, Indian (both Native American and from India).

Religion now includes Muslim and Buddhists, Wiccans and atheists.

It’s no longer just about being gay or straight but bisexual, transsexual, asexual.

Issues of being ageist against children or the elderly.

Those living with a physical disability, such as those who are deaf or blind or in a wheelchair.

Someone who has a mental illness.

Or a prison record. Or committed a crime.

Just what does welcome mean? What does welcome look like?

These questions are raised with each new instance of what welcome can mean.

For example, many churches are dealing with the reality of registered sex offenders joining them in worship.

Are they welcome to sit in the pew? Are they welcome to teach Sunday School?

Or say if someone like Bernie Maddoff moved to Sebring and wanted to join Emmanuel?

Do we welcome him with open arms? Do we let him be in charge of balancing our books?

How does welcoming look? When does caution and wisdom come to play?

These are all questions for us to wrestle and think about, to engage in theological conversation, because the truth of the matter is that Jesus calls us to welcome and to love,

not just our neighbor and those who are just like us, but to show welcome and acts of love to everyone, even those who we may fear or think will do us harm.

And as long as we are church, as long as we state these welcoming words, we will always be challenged.

We will always find people who are on the fringe, who are part of the unpopular crowd, who are sitting on the doorstep waiting for a chance to come on in.

Since I can not provide the answers, I’d like to end with a true life story.

In Texas there was a football game between Grapevine Faith Academy and Gainesville State School.

Gainesville State is a maximum security correction facility. Their team is made of 14 teenagers who’ve been convicted of crimes ranging from drugs to assault and robbery.

Most of their families have disowned them. They wear outdated helmets and shoulder pads. They play every game on the road. Their record: 0-8; they've only scored twice.

The other team, Faith Academy, has 11 coaches, 70 players and new equipment.

Chris Hogan, their head coach, realized that Gainesville had no fans or people to cheer them on, so he thought, "What if half of our people cheered for them?"

He sent out an email asking people to do just that. Some thought he was nuts.

Hogan said "Imagine you have no one to pull for you. Imagine that everyone has given up on you. Now, imagine what it would feel like to suddenly have hundreds of people who believe in you."

The idea took root. On the night of the game, the Gainesville players took the field. There was a banner for them to crash through, the visitors' stands were full, cheerleaders cheered for them, and the fans were calling them by their names.

Isaiah, their quarterback, said, "I never thought I would hear parents cheering us to tackle their kid. Most of the time, when we come out, people are afraid of us. You can see it in their eyes, but these people are cheering for us. They knew our names."

Gainesville lost the game, but when the teams gathered, it was Isaiah who led them in prayer: "Lord, I don’t know what just happened…but I never knew there were so many people…that cared about us."

On the way back to the bus and under guard, each player was handed a burger, fries, and a Coke with an encouraging letter from the players from Faith Academy…

… Members and dear, dear friends of Emmanuel United Church of Christ: could this be the very thing Jesus meant when he called us to love everyone, even our enemies?

Is this what your idea of welcome looks like?

How can we find ways to welcome everyone in, and help the Kingdom to grow?

After all, no one should be made to sit on the outside, to feel as if they are not liked, eating their popcorn all alone.

All honor and blessing be to God who calls us to welcome our neighbor, to Jesus who ate with everyone at the table and to the Holy Spirit that breaks into our world in the most unusual of ways.

Amen and amen.

Sermon from Feb 13, 2011; Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Rev. George Miller
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
“Standing Before the Feet of Moses”
Feb 13, 2011

The past, the present and the future; what do they all have in common? For one thing, they all come together in the book of Deuteronomy.

In today’s reading, we hear what was believed to be the final words of Moses before he died.

The people had been wandering the dessert for 40 years, facing trials and tribulations, good times and bad. After such a long journey they’re about to cross the Jordan River and enter into the Promised Land.

Before they do, Moses has gathered them in a place between Paran and Tophel, and he gives them this final message.

He recounts the journey they have made together, the ways in which God chose them, took care of and loved them.

Moses reminds them about the laws and commandments that God has given them so they could live, flourish and be blessed.

Moses tells them that they are to make a choice: choose God.

In essence, Deuteronomy is an extended Valentine’s Day card to the people God has loved, continues to love and will love forever more.

And it’s a love story that does not follow the rules. See, in ancient times it was said that the gods only showed divine favor to the leaders of the world. The gods did not care much about ordinary people.

But our God was different. The Israelites believed that God did care about them. They claimed that God had “set his love” upon them, not because of any greatness or merit on their part, but simply out of God’s choice.

Even when they constantly showed themselves to be a rebellious, cantankerous bunch, God still loved them, just as God continues to love us.

This love is a powerful, holy love, a love that produces life and brings blessings that reach out beyond the spans of time.

But it is also a love that God will not force upon the people. As Moses tells the Israelites, God has chosen them, but they are free to choose God or to choose other gods to worship.

They are free to be blessed or to live a life of non-being.

They are free to live as part of a larger community or to live if they are alone.

God will not force their hands, God will not make unfair demands.

Before the feet of Moses the people are asked to make a choice: will God be their Valentine or not? The choice is theirs to make; today.
………………………………………………

There’s a sense of timelessness to the book of Deuteronomy. The people are standing between Paran and Tophel, and they are given a choice, but as it turns out, they are not the only ones who are there.

For so are we, and our children, and our children’s children.

Read through Deuteronomy and you’ll get the sense that you too are before the feet of Moses and that Moses is talking right to us.

That’s because Moses is.

This is a sermon craftily created to be heard throughout the ages. It’s a sermon in which certain words appear again and again. Choice is one of them; love is another.

It is the phrase “today” that appears nearly 100 times. For example:

“The Lord our God made a covenant with… all of us here alive today” (5:2-3)

“See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse…” (11:26)

And “I am making this covenant …not only with you who stand with us today…but also with those who are not here today.” (29:14-15)

Thus, before the feet of Moses we are not just hearing a sermon about the ending of one journey, but about the beginning of many others.

We are not only hearing about the past, we are being asked to participate in the future.

And we are being assured that our past failures and present mistakes will not rule our future, because that is how much we are loved.

But we have to choose. Are we going to choose God or are we not?

Are we going to embrace life or are we going to continue living the ways of death?

Moses, being the awesome leader that he is, makes it easy for all of us to make an informed choice. Consider these facts:

Once you were enslaved; God set you free.

When you felt like you were lost, God lead you through the wilderness, making sure you had want for nothing.

God fed you when you were hungry, God fought your fights, and it was God who carried you as a parent carries a child. (1:31)

If that is not love, then what is?

“So choose!” Moses says, speaking to each and every one of us. “Choose God, so that you and your children’s children can have life. Choose life so you can live it!”
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

You know, most of us here today have chosen God, or we have a deep desire to choose, otherwise we wouldn’t be here today.

There are so many other things we can be doing; so many other gods we can be worshipping, like golf, shopping or staying in our warm, cozy beds.

But we have chosen to be here, in this place, today. In doing so, we have chosen to be part of this community, to stand before the feet of Moses and to hear his words of exhortation.

But I wonder how many of us this day, or this week, or this month, have really chosen God, and have really chosen life?

How many of us have found ourselves in an argument that in retrospect seems silly? Or are carrying around a grudge that they would rather hold onto then to give an inch?

How many of us have found ourselves caught up in gossip; the whole he said/she said/they all said mentality that can really tear a group apart?

How many have decided that they would rather stay in the wilderness, at Paran and Tophel, then to cross the Jordan River and enter into the Promised Land? (RAISE MY OWN HAND)

How many of us have made a choice that was not the right one to make because we were too obsessed with the present to think about the future? (RAISE MY OWN HAND)

It is amazing that as Christian as we are, as much as we pray and worship and try to do the right things, we still fall down, we still make mistakes, and we still allow our ego-driven selves to get in the way.

We prefer to hold onto our anger, assuming it gives us power while it prevents us from having to address our own flaws and issues.

We find comfort in our illnesses because they bring us the attention we so desperately need, afraid that if we were healthy no one would acknowledge just how wonderfully beautiful we really are.

We embrace our helplessness because it prevents us from having to step out of our comfort zone and try something new, instead of discovering how responsibility can be an amazing gift.

So we linger about, between Paran and Tophel, afraid of what it will mean if we let go of these things and step into the Promised Land that God has prepared for us.

But here is the Good News: God already knows all of this- all that we have done, all that we have felt, all that we’ve experienced. God is not surprised; God knows all about it.

And God still loves and chooses us anyway.

And here is another bit of good news: we are not just standing before the feet of Moses, but we are also standing before the feet of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Less then two months ago we welcomed the light of Christ into our lives, and today and every day we get to do the same thing again.

And here is where it gets even better: before the feet of Moses we get the gift of choice.

BUT before the feet of Jesus we get the gift of…………forgiveness.

Forgiveness: the gift that stems from the very love of God.

Forgiveness: the gift that says “I know you are human, I know you have hurts and I know you make mistakes, and I forgive you.”

Forgiveness: the act that says whatever we have done wrong in the past has been wiped away.

Forgiveness: that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.

Forgiveness: the most wonderful Valentine which says “Guess what? Today is a whole new day with a new chance to make your choice.”

The forgiveness of God that Jesus demonstrated at the table and on the cross, is the very gift that God has freely given us, designed to bring about blessings and give us new life….

…if we can just learn how to reach out, and to accept that gift;

to share that gift of forgiveness with others when they need it most;

to ask for forgiveness when we have done the hurting.

So, before the feet of Moses and before the feet of Christ we are given a choice, each and every day, each and every hour, each and every minute, to choose God and to choose life.

When we do choose God, we bring healing to our past, hope to our present and our future becomes pregnant with possibilities.

What will each of us choose today?

May God bless you with the making of your choice, may Jesus show you how the choosing is done and may the Holy Spirit guide your feet into your heavenly future.


Amen and amen.

Sermon from Feb 6, 2011; Isaiah 58

Rev. George Miller
Isaiah 58
“Resting the Body, Restoring the Soul”
Feb 6, 2011

Three weeks ago Tracy Miller shared a story about working for John Deere. He said they had been approved for a major project with a tight budget and strict deadline. Trouble is- nothing went right.

Equipment- did not work, contractors- behind schedule, ovens -didn’t get hot, washer- didn’t clean. And some of the tractors actually fell off the conveyor.

As you could imagine, Tracy was having a bad day, his frustration was apparent and one of his peers said to him…

… “You know, if John Deere never makes another tractor, the cosmic scheme of things will not change.”

With those words Tracy’s co-worker had created a space of emptiness for peace and wisdom to enter on in.

There is a holiness about emptiness.

Sometimes the modern, liberal church can feel as if it’s lacking in a sense of holiness- that aura of majesty and ritual that creates space for bits of heaven to break in.

The repetitious chanting of words; the embrace of silence; the burning of incense in which smoke dances up to the sky.

Two religious acts that we heard about today were fasting and observing the Sabbath.

Fasting is a practice that exists in almost all the world’s religions. It’s a means in which one intentionally does not eat anything for a period of time.

Fasting accomplishes various things. From a spiritual point of view, fasting can become a form of prayer, contrition and repentance; a way to connect to God.

From a physical point of view, it gives the body a chance to rest, clears away toxins and relieves the digestion system from overworking. Doing so balances out our emotions, increasing our awareness.

From a social justice point of view, fasting gives one just a glimpse of what the poor and hungry face nearly every day.

In the Bible you’ll find fasting done as a sign of grieving, such as when David’s son was ill. Or as a sign of repentance, such as when the residents of Nineveh donned sackcloth and refrained from food. Or as a time of preparation, such as when Jesus was in the wilderness.

Now, Sabbath is a time for rest. Sabbath appears immediately in Genesis and runs throughout the Bible.

It is a time set aside by God in which all of Creation is meant to rest, from the people to the animals to the land.

Designed to begin at sunset on Friday, Sabbath is a period of 24 hours in which one is not to work or worry, but to relax; one is not to be in control but to be in accord with the world.

It is a time of grace in which everything is freed from toils and strain to just be and exist in a “sanctuary of time.” (29)

Sabbath is a way to become attuned to the holiness of time in which one says farewell to work for a day, is reminded that the world has already been created and to remember that we are not God.

Fasting and Sabbath are wonderful, holy practices, that unfortunately, so many of us have failed to embrace, which is a shame, because I think we lose something.

The way we live nowadays is spiritually draining and physically killing us. How many of us (me included) will eat until it hurts and our stomachs dangerously expand?

But how many of us know how to eat just to the point of being pleasantly satisfied?

In the same manner, how many of us over plan and over-schedule our day with lists of chores and things to do until we are so exhausted, burn out or end up sick?

But how many know how to work with a combination of fun and rest?

Think of a cup. There’s only so much it is meant to hold. Once it is filled, everything else that’s poured in is wasted and spills out.

In terms of food and activities, how many of us fill our cups until they are overflowing? For example, the jeans I’ve had to put into storage can testify to that.

So why do we do it? Why do so many modern Americans overflow our cups with too much food and with too many things to do?

I think it’s because we’re afraid.

I don’t think it’s because we are afraid of going hungry, or because we are afraid of being lazy.

I think it’s something else.

I think it’s because we’re afraid that if we don’t eat, we’ll feel the true emptiness inside- the emotional emptiness that makes us question everything about our lives.

I think our list-making and our hyper-activities are because we’re afraid of being out of control.

Those emotions can be very scary things, especially if you’ve ever had your choice taken away or if your life feels void of the very things that matter most such as family, friends, and faith.

I think that sometimes we eat so that we can feel satisfied here (points to belly) and not have to focus on the emptiness that is here (points to heart).

And we overwork so that the exhaustion we get from using these (show hands) covers up the thoughts and worries that we carry up in here (point to brain).

If you have ever felt empty or ever felt like your life was out of control, know that you are not crazy nor are you alone. These are very common and basic human conditions shared by everyone.

But there is good news: that emptiness you may feel, that lack of control you are experiencing can actually mean that now there is finally some space in the cup for God to enter in and to do something new.

Sometimes it takes us realizing and accepting the fact that we feel empty for our ego to step away and create space for the Holy Spirit to enter on in.

Sometimes it takes acknowledging and admitting the fact that we have lost control for us to rouse Jesus from the hull of the ship so he can calm the waters and say to us “Peace…be still.”

But we can’t get there if our bodies, minds and souls are constantly being bombarded with food and drink, work and stress.

That’s where the holy mystery of fasting and Sabbath come into play, because what they can do is create space and create sanctuary.

When one chooses to fast, one creates space to not be tricked by their emotional belly. The time spent cooking, eating and cleaning up after oneself is freed up to spend in thoughtful prayer, pondering life and living.

To celebrate Sabbath, one creates space to discover that they are not God, nor do they have to be. By not working, creating or planning a person can discover it is alright to leave things unfinished and to just be present in the moment and for whatever the day may bring.

When fasting and Sabbath are embraced, they allow us to truly see and experience whatever emptiness we may have so the Trinitarian God can enter on in.

If you are experiencing restlessness or chaos, you can receive peace.

If it is uncertainty that you are facing, you can receive wisdom and guidance.

If it’s hopelessness you feel, you can be given a ray of hope that brightens up the night, allowing your eyes to shine.

Perhaps that’s why Jesus’ ministry was so powerful: he constantly found ways to be emptied so that he could be filled with God.

Jesus emptied himself out during his time in the wilderness, yet emerged with greater wisdom and resolve.

Time and time again Jesus went away to pray and be by himself. When he returned he was able to face the most difficult of situations.

Finally, when Jesus was on the cross, he emptied himself out, admitting his thirst and feelings of forsakenness, and we all know how that played out three days later.

In conclusion, just as the cosmic scheme of things does not rest on the production of a tractor, our souls do not depend on what we eat or how much we work.

Because of what Jesus did for us on the cross, we are no longer bound to the rituals of fasting and Sabbath. Grace has been given, salvation has been assured.

But there is no reason why we have to totally neglect these holy rituals. It is Ok to embrace and engage in them from time to time; after all they were designed to allow our bodies and minds to rest.

And you may just be surprised to discover how they can create a holy emptiness within you that will allow your spirits to soar, making you more connected to God, connected to others, and yes- even connected to yourself.

May the love of Christ be enough to fill your empty spots, the love of the Spirit refresh your soul and the love of God satisfy all your earthly needs.

Amen and amen.