Rev. George Miller
Jan 25, 2015
Christianity is full of stories about leaders who encourage those around them to step out on faith and to do the unimaginable.
Last Monday our nation recalled one such man when we acknowledged the mission and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Multiplexes around the country are showing Selma, a movie detailing a 3 month period in which Dr. King inspired a march from Selma to Montgomery.
It was a journey that black and white, southern and northern, educated and blue-collar, Jew and Gentile took in the belief that all people are worthy of equal treatment.
Two Sunday’s ago we heard our Founding Pastor, Rev. Loffer talk about how Emmanuel UCC came to be.
How we first met in a bingo hall and before each service things had to be transported in, taken down, put up, and at the end it was all put back in its original spot.
We heard about the door-to-door knocking, the radio broadcasts, the fundraising, all to create a place where no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here.
November we celebrated Thanksgiving, a holiday rooted in how a group of people hungered for religious freedom.
Under the leadership of Rev. John Robinson, they left their native church; they left their native land and moved to the Netherlands, even after their first attempt led them to be jailed for a month.
Eventually 35 of these believers of freedom stepped onto the Mayflower and set sail across a perilous sea to a promised land they had not seen, but only believed in.
The UCC can be directly traced back to them as these people were our spiritual ancestors, the roots of congregationalism, following the call of God and the guidance of Rev. Robinson.
And today we hear from Mark, the first of the 4 Gospels written, detailing the call of the first 4 disciples.
Mark portrays their call as immediate and instantaneous. Without an intro or their back story, we simply have Jesus walking along the seashore saying “Come follow me.”
And the men do.
Simon and Andrew were busy casting their nets; James and John were busy mending.
Jesus says “follow” and they fellow. Rev. Robinson says “let’s sail”, and they sail. Dr. King says “Let’s march” and folk march.
Rev. Loffer says “Let’s do mission and ministry” and we’ve been doing that for 25 years.
I don’t know about you, but I hear these stories and I say “Really?”
A group of retirees, many of them in their 60s transport liturgical items, knock on doors and raise money for a building?
People in the 1960’s marched in the midst of high racism and billy club beatings?
Pilgrims in the 1600’s sailed across an ocean before there were cell phones and GPS?
The disciples let go of their livelihood to follow some guy promising to make them fishers of people?
These stories have a way of making one almost feel inadequate. I look at my own journey and think of how slow I was on the uptake, especially since I had more than enough nudges along the way.
Most of you have heard my call story. How I was a 17 year old kid running around a high school track and when God said “I want you to be a pastor” I said “Heck no!” and continued running.
Today I’d like to share another chapter, from 1991 when I was attending college in MN.
For a class on intercultural communication I attended a black, inner-city congregation in Mpls called Grace Temple.
The moment I stepped into that church I knew it was what I had been looking for all my life. The music; the message.
I went back a few weeks later, the service was inspiring. The music was rocking.
The organist was a woman named Doris Akers. She was extremely light skinned with red hair and ruby lipstick. She played the organ and sang with soul.
Ms. Akers startled me when in the middle of worship she said “That young man over there, I want you to come up and talk to me after worship.”
Because it was a 3 hour service I had briefly dozed off and thought I was going to be chastised. Instead it was the opposite.
Ms. Akers took me aside and said “I’ve been watching you the entire time. There’s something about this place that’s speaking to you.”
“Yes,” I replied.
“I know what that’s like because the same thing happened to me. I want you to continue coming back.”
I offered my excuses: I didn’t have a car, school was an hour away.
“That’s alright,” she said, “You can take the bus and someone will pick you up at the station.”
Well, I didn’t follow her advice. In fact, it wasn’t until 3 years later when I returned to that church. Doris Akers were still there and I learned something important: she wasn’t just an organist, she composed gospel songs.
Here is a snippet of one song she wrote: (choir sings).
That’s right, the song we sung for our 25th Anniversary, “Sweet, Sweet Spirit”, was one song she wrote. A classic for all time.
If I had known then what I know now, I would have clasped onto her. I should have sat beside her feet and asked her to tell me stories, to teach me all she knew, to absorb and embrace the gifted and talented woman she was…
…But I didn’t. I was too new. I was too naïve.
I didn’t know what it meant to have a church elder call forward my gifts; what it meant to have someone like Doris Akers say “I’ve been watching you.”
Sadly Ms. Akers died a brief time later, and I had done none of those things.
What would have happened if I did? I don’t know, but I can say that the first person to call forward my spiritual gifts was Doris Akers.
Still, even with that experience, it would take another 5 years before I stopped running from God, and another 7 before I finally attended seminary.
Thank God that God was patient.
So when I hear these stories about our founding members being inspired by Rev. Loffer to start Emmanuel, of folk following Dr. King, or Rev. Robinson inspiring pilgrims to book passage, and fisherman following Jesus,
I can’t help but to think how?
What’s the secret, what’s the key?
And what keeps coming back to me is that they were each somehow, some way focused on something bigger then themselves.
They were each focused on the belief that there is something better; there is something more.
For our founding members it was having a progressive Christian voice in central FL.
During the Civil Rights movement it was freedom for all. In the case of the pilgrims, it was freedom of religion.
In the case of the disciples, it was the Kingdom of God.
And it couldn’t have been easy for Simon and Andrew, or James and John. They were living during an era in which the only kingdom anyone pledged allegiance to was that of the king.
They were living during a time in which one of their prophets, John the Baptist, was cast into jail for telling people to turn from their ways and to be prepared for a different kind of Lord.
Simon and Andrew were on the low rung of the social ladder, blue-collar workers who smelled of fish and cast nets into the sea.
James and John were slightly higher up, working for their father and having employees. Yet they still had to deal with the daily minutia, like mending nets.
These were not high class folks we’re talking about; people who could live outside the realm of public scorn,
These are not religious leaders or college grads that Jesus called; people who had lots of options before them or could buy their way out of trouble.
They were everyday people who worked hard to make a buck, who most likely lived paycheck to paycheck, who lived under the rule and threat of the politics of their time.
Following someone who spoke about another kind of kingdom, who spoke of living a new kind of way was a huge risk and could present huge loss and punishment.
And yet, Mark wants to lead us into believing that’s what these men did…
…Truthfully I’m not so sure things happened exactly as Mark writes it. I’m not so sure that Simon and Andrew, James and John were that quick to respond.
That within mere seconds they accepted Jesus’ invite and followed the path before them.
It took me 12 years to say yes, and that’s with someone like Doris Akers nudging me along.
And I’ve watched you as individuals, and us as a congregation wrestle with the callings to ministry and mission.
How some resist. Some doubt themselves. Some come up with reasons, valid or not. Some allow fear and finances to get in the way.
How some folks will come right up to the edge of the Promised Land and say “Nope, not ready yet” and retreat back.
How some allow the voices and stories of their past to get in the way of their future.
That is being human. That is part of the process.
I don’t think everyone can be a James or a John. I don’t think everyone can respond as swiftly as Simon and Andrew.
But I think the true question is “When?”
“When do we respond?” “When do we step out on faith?” “When do we become inspired that there is something bigger and more important than just ourselves?”
“When do we let down our nets” and “When are we ready to follow God’s call made known through Jesus?”
And it will not always be easy; it will not always be worry free.
But if it’s from God, it will bear Good News. If it’s from God it will bring the Kingdom nearer to thee.
We experience that every Sunday as we get to worship here.
We see it as a nation as the shackles of segregation continue to lose their grip.
We see that as our country continues to value freedom of religion and freedom of speech, though we may not always be successful.
Though the Kingdom of God is not yet, there are times and places in which we can say it is already, and we are among those who are casting and mending.
And as we celebrate 25 years of having faith in Sebring, and prepare for 25 more, we can proudly say there is a sweet, sweet spirit in this place, and we know that it is the presence of the Lord.
May God continue being patient with us, may Jesus continue calling us to follow. Amen and amen.