Monday, June 26, 2017

Intentionality; Romans 6:1-11

Rev. George Miller
June 25, 2017
Romans 6:1-11

Intentionality.

When we last gathered in worship, we discussed work. Today we discuss the intentionality behind the work.

But 1st- a true-life example.

On Tuesday a large envelope appeared in the mail, exquisitely detailed with calligraphy and a hand drawn bouquet of flowers.

Inside was a post card announcement about an upcoming event, a personally laminated copy of the ticket, a letter of instruction, and a frameable print-out of a quote from Vincent Van Gogh.

Touched by the class and amount of work done by the sender, I contacted her to give my thanks.

Her response was humble- “I was just in the mood. I want those I know who are coming…to know I care…It’s nice to have people we enjoy around us.”

Her generosity, rooted in love and thankfulness, branched out to others, intentionally expressing “I care for you.”

Intentionality.

The author of today’s reading is very intentional in his theology and purpose of composition.

Romans is an undisputed letter of Paul, addressing several issues- sin, grace, baptism, and the Crucifixion.

I can’t say that I agree with everything Paul writes. These are, after all, the views of a man living 2,000 years ago, speaking about cosmic events that, for him, were new and very local.

Paul is writing through the lenses of his culture, his time, his biases, and what he thinks his Still Speaking God is saying.

He does not have centuries of Christian study behind him, or knowledge of modern medicine, or the latest psychological studies about behavior or the brain.

Paul knows what he knows, and there is an intentionality to his opinions.

For example- his view of baptism. He doesn’t treat it as an afterthought or just a simple ritual.

Paul does not approach baptism as a pre-cursor to having cake or getting gifts.

For Paul, baptism is not just an act- it is an identity.

Baptism is expressed as intentionally becoming a part of Christ; to intentionally die on the cross with Jesus, to intentionally rise up from the waters, resurrected with the Lord, a brand new person, dead to the power of sin’s hold.

I appreciate Paul’s notion that baptism alters our present and shapes our future, and the importance he places on baptism- how it unites us to Christ, unites us to one another, and opens us up to new life, freedom, and the eternal.

Paul’s view of baptism reflects an experience that took place 3 weeks ago at Jacksonville Beach.

I was there for a boundary workshop, and the night before I went for a walk along the shore. What I saw in the surf surprised me- hundreds of people gathered around the water.

Baptisms were taking place for the congregants of a church made up primarily of people from Slavic descent.

It was beautiful.

Teenagers gathered in groups of four based on their gender. They all wore white, from top to bottom; the girls in dresses that would do for a prom or a wedding, the boys in jeans and pants

The girls held hands; the boys wrapped their arms around one another.

Each group of four made their way to the surf while loved ones surrounded them with flowers and music.

One by one, each teen waded into the waves by themselves, making their way to the baptizer. They were leaned back into the ocean, and when they emerged from the waters, they were greeted with the applause and cheers of the crowd.

These young adults were not only being intentionally baptized into the life of Christ, but they were being brought into the life of their community, as parents and relatives, some of them clearly from the mother-country were there to show their support.

Intentionality.

Why do we do what we do?

Why do we come to church? Why do we do the work we do? Why do we make offerings? Why do we sign up to bring in food or to sit on a committee?

Why are we here?

Why now?

Why with this particular group of believers, seekers, sinners, saints, and sojourners?

Why Christ? Why not Zeus, or Vishnu, or the tree outside, or yourself?

What is our intentionality?

Is it to placate an angry entity? To please a personal savior? To seek a spirit? To give thanks to a generous god?

What is our intention for being here?

To seek wisdom? To share in the wonder? To be spiritually strengthened? To feel safe?

Why are we here?

Is it because that’s what we’ve always done? Is it because there’s nothing else going on? Is it to experience an oasis in the midst of a desert?

Is it because of a hunger, a thirst, a loss, a gain, a question, an answer?

Why do we do what we do, and what is our intentionality?

Think of how the Gospels portray Jesus. How intentional he always seemed to be, even when he was interrupted, even when he acted extemporaneously.

If Jesus was about to speak to the masses he made a way onto a boat, or up a mountain, or sat upon the earth.

If Jesus was about to do a miracle, he focused his attention on God, gave thanks, included others, made it a teachable moment, or a time of celebration.

Jesus is always portrayed as aware, in control, as fully present and completely rooted in God.

What is our intentionality?

Is God pleased with empty rituals or does God enjoy genuine acts of gratitude?

Is Christ calling us to say words of “Yes” that we don’t mean, or to do ministry that we actually feel?

Is the Paraklete expecting us to speak up about the things we know nothing about, or to become courageous about the things we truly care for?

Does God want us to be puppets that are going through the motions of faith?

Or does God want us to be like surfers, playfully and intentionally riding the waves of the Holy Spirit, wherever they may lead?

Yes, work may be an important component of our faith, but so is the intention and heart behind it.

In conclusion, remember that packet of mail that was referred to earlier? Inside was a quote from Vincent Van Gogh.

Here is what it said-

“Love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well.”

In other words- if the intent is love, then love is what is accomplished.

Can we get an “amen”? Let us all say “Amen.”

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Work, Work, Work, Work, Work; Genesis 18:1-15 sermon

Rev. George Miller
June 18, 2017
Genesis 18:1-15

Here we have one of my favorite biblical stories. Maybe because it starts off like an oasis, placing us in the comfortable shade of the mighty oaks.

Maybe because it features the kind of southern hospitality that Maya Angelou wrote about, featuring an opulent meal.

Maybe it’s because of the skepticism of Sarah. Here she is, nearly 99 years old, hearing that she’s going to have a child.

So she laughs, which is such a human thing to do, reminding us that people of faith are really just like me and you.

Maybe I like this story because it features Abraham, the father of our faith. Of all the people in the Bible, Abraham catches my attention the most.

How out of nowhere God says to Abraham “Go!” and Abraham goes, leaving behind all he knows to venture into a new land.

How God makes Abraham a promise and though it takes decades to come true, Abraham does not give up.

How Abraham is far from perfect.

He makes mistakes, lacks durable decision making skills, gets everyone wrapped up in his drama, and has to be assured again and again that things will be alright.

How for most of his life, Abraham was without a child or anyone to pass on his legacy to.

Then, when all logic says his family lineage will flicker out like a flame, God surprises him by saying “Look up to the heavens and know that your family will be bigger than all the cosmos combined.”

Abraham starts off as an insignificant nobody who becomes the Father to Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

Who says one person can’t make a difference or that the reality of the world dictates what God can do?

The core of the Abraham and Sarah narrative is the frailty of faith- that everything God is planning to do rests upon a childless couple, and the choices they do or do not make.

A reminder that basically every church, every family, every nation, every organization is in reality just one generation away from perishing into oblivion, and yet, here we are…

…Last Monday I had the opportunity to visit Kathryn at The Palms. She was laid up in bed with such severe pain. Her whole body ached, and the doctors weren’t sure what was going on.

We talked and I told her about today’s reading, asking “If you were to give the sermon, what would you, in your current situation want to hear?”

I asked, because I knew that if I could not give a message from the pulpit that I could also give to Kathryn in her pain, then my theology was false.

Kathryn’s response surprised me, because she said something along these lines- “If you want to get better, if you want to get well, if you want things to change, you have to work.”

Work- that was the message Kathryn gave to me.

Immediately, I got a smile, because I liked that idea, and I’ll share with you why-

The idea of us working does not take away the wonder and the mystery of God.

It allows God to be free, be wild, be holy and otherworldly and it also allows us to have freedom, make choices, and play our own role.

What I heard Kathryn say, and we discussed in great detail, is that God is able to do many wonderful things, but- we have to be willing to do our own part as well.

In other words- Kathryn could pray to God for healing, she could hope for a speedy recovery, but she would also have to do her part by going to physical and occupational therapy, getting her rest, and working with the medical staff.

What Kathryn proposed was a faithful form of partnership with God, in which the Lord will do God’s part, and that we do our part as well.

Work.

Faith is work. Faith is not always easy.

One has to deal with naysayers. One has to deal with circumstances that say otherwise.

Faith is work because we are asked to believe in a God we cannot see, a Savior who’s supposedly been resurrected, and a Holy Spirit that may come as a breeze or a fire, as a sergeant or a still-speaking voice.

Faith is work.

Think about it- God could part the Red Sea, but the Israelites had to be willing to walk through it.

Jesus could turn water into wine but the servants had to first gather it.

The Holy Spirit could fall upon the disciples but they had to leave the safety of the upper room to share the Good News.

In order for any of these things to be possible, they required action, bravery, and belief.

Each of these things involved work that needed to be done.

Now, mind you- Kathryn and I had a good chuckle when we realized the kind of work that Abraham and Sarah had to do to conceive a child was a very different kind of work. But still, they had to do their part…

I’m thankful for Kathryn’s insight into today’s story, because it is something I think we all need to be reminded of.

That the world we live in is a mysterious, wonderful place in which miracles and the unexpected does take place. Things happen that common sense says should not.

The Holy Spirit breaks in at unexpected times. Jesus meets us upon mountains.

God takes dark voids, death-filled tombs, and empty wombs and brings forth creation, resurrection, and new life.

But we- we have our own part to play; we have our own work to do.

God can call out to us, but we have to be willing to hear.

God can part the waters, but we have to be brave enough to step out, get our feet dirty, and cross to the other side.

God can send bread from heaven but we have to be willing to see it, gather it, share it, and not hoard it.

We can meet the Resurrected Christ upon the mountain but we aren’t meant to stay there.

We can receive the Holy Spirit but it means nothing if we remain fearfully behind closed doors…

One closing thought, going back to Sarah and her laugh. The mysterious 3-in-1 shows up in her life and shares the stupendous idea that she will finally have a child after all these years, and she’s skeptical.

I’d like to say “Good for Sarah.”

Others want to condemn Sarah for laughing; some will claim she must have had little faith.

I’m thankful Sarah laughed- you know why?

Because maybe that’s what God needed to hear.

You know how some people seem to drag their feet; some people keep putting things off; some people seem to slack off until you give them a firm reminder?

Maybe Sarah’s laugh is what put the fire under God’s butt to take action.

If you read the full story in Genesis, Abraham and Sarah are about 75 years old when God first calls them to leave their land and have a child.

Which means it takes God 25 years and about 3 more visits for the promise to come true.

If that’s not slacking, I don’t know what is.

Sarah’s laugh was steeped in years of waiting.

Maybe Sarah was doing her own kind of work when she laughed. Maybe she was tired of waiting and she knew the best way to move God along was to goad him on with a laugh.

Maybe Sarah’s laugh was her way of saying “Oh yeah”, which prompted God to say “I’ll show you.”

And a year later- the promised child was born…

…By the oaks of Mamre God appears- are we willing to do the work of welcoming?

In the heat of the day the hungry appear- are we willing to feed them?

In the safety of our own structured lives God speaks an impossible word- are we willing to listen?

We can be skeptical, we can laugh at the absurdity of it all, but are we also willing to do the work?

Can we, like Abraham and Sarah, do our own part to make God’s promises come true and to ensure that the blessings of God’s Kingdom keep coming down?

Amen and amen.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Mourning and Mountains; Matthew 28:16-20 Messsage

Rev. George Miller
June 11, 2017
Matthew 28:16-20

Here we have the triumphant ending to the triumphant telling of Matthew’s gospel.

Jesus Christ has been raised from the grave and the disciples gather around him while he generously makes the promise “Remember- I am with you always, until the end of time.”

Upon the mountain Jesus meets them. With all authority he asks them to teach, and to baptize.

“Go!” he says, recalling the words of God to Abraham and Sarah. “Go!” he commands, copying the call of Moses.

“Go!” the Resurrected Christ says to the 11 men before him, those who were worshipping and those draped in doubt.

“Go, do the work of the kingdom and know that day by day, you will never walk alone.”

This is supposed to be a story of celebration, and yet…yet it is a story steeped in sadness.

Why?

Because there are eleven disciples that met Christ on the mountaintop. Not twelve, but eleven- a sobering reminder that one of them is missing.

Judas- a friend who unfortunately took his own life; a peer who fell victim to an act of violence, even if it was self directed.

The shadow of this senseless death hovers over the holy proceedings, reminding us that as fantastical as these stories seem to be, they are rooted in reality.

The reality that friends die, people make flawed decisions, bad things happen, and any group of people, anywhere, at anytime will have to deal with the reality of loss and the mystery of suffering.

I have always felt sympathy for Judas. Yes: he betrayed his friend Jesus. Yes: he connived his life away for a few coins. I like to think he had his own legitimate reason for selling Jesus out.

I also wish that he had not committed suicide, that he had stayed alive to experience the Resurrection, to have Jesus breath upon him and say “Peace be with you.”

I like to believe that if Judas had not killed himself that Christ would’ve said to him “I forgive you and I set you free from the guilt of whatever you have done.”

But Judas does not allow that to happen, and through his actions he affects not just himself, but he affects his friends, his co-worshippers…and he affects us.

Today’s tale is a timeless one, and always will be. Scholars will say that the Gospel of Matthew was written for the church in mind, a telling of the Good News in which the disciples become a microcosm of what every congregation is like.

What the disciples say and do represents what church members say and do; what the disciples experience, many church members will also.

So here we have the disciples meeting Christ. They are called to do the tasks of ministry. Some of them worship with joy; some have their doubts based in the reality of the world.

Just like any given Sunday.

Some folk come here ready to get their praise on; some wonder why they’re here at all and if it’s even worth it.

11 people gather, but in the past there used to be 12; just like any congregation- there is always someone who is missing, someone who is away, someone who has died, someone who has turned their back on their faith, someone you will never see again.

11 disciples are there with the resurrected Christ, and it should be a totally joyful time, but a hint of sorrow is still there, as it is in any church.

If we are honest, every one of us here today has entered these doors with a bit of heaviness. Someone we have lost, guilt over something we did, worry over the woes of the world, uncertainty about the future.

We could waste our energy and pretend these truths don’t exist, but why? The Bible doesn’t hide from these realities.

Christ triumphs over the grave and yet the reality of real world pain cannot be erased.

So what is the Good News?

First, we can look at Christ’s closing words to his disciples. “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Note- he does not say “All your problems will go away.” He does not say “There will never be an act of violence again.” Nor does he state “Your life from here on in will be easy-peasy.”

No. He says “I will be with you.”

This is a promise of presence; a promise of relationship. A promise that regardless if you are in a dark valley or besides still waters, Jesus will be with you.

He says “I will be with you to the end of the age.”

This is a promise for all time, a promise that is renewed day after day after day; a promise that means even after the clocks stop working, we will never be alone.

He says “Remember.” Ah- remember; what a powerful, potent word.

Remember is one way to say “Recall the generosity of God who gave you the gifts of creation, and who gave you the gifts of new life.”

But there is something else going on. Matthew makes it clear to us who’s there with Jesus, but he also makes it clear where they are- a mountain.

It is upon a mountain that the disciples meet Jesus and are empowered to do ministry and mission.

It’s not in the Temple; it’s not in a synagogue. It’s at the mountain.

Why does it matter? Because in Matthew good things happen upon mountains.

It is upon a mountain that Jesus defeats the devil (4:8-11).

It is upon a mountain that Jesus gives his inaugural speech. It is upon a mountain that he calls the merciful blessed and says that we are the spice of life (5:1-11).

It is upon the mountain that Jesus cures the crowd and feeds the thousands (15:29-39).

It is upon the mountain in which Jesus is transfigured (17:1-13). It’s to the mountain that Jesus goes when he wants to pray and spend time with God. (14:23).

Mountains are meaningful to Matthew. Mountains are a metaphor for where we most meet the Magnificent.

With today’s reading, I think we are given a gift, a gift meant to transcend any situation we are in, any darkness we may confront.

I like to think that each of us have our own “mountain”, meaning that each of us has a place or a time in which we most experience the Holy and we feel the most connected to God.

If each of you were asked “Where do you feel the presence of Christ the most?”, I’d hope that you’d all be able to say a place, a time, a moment in which the Sacred is most real, the Spirit is most present.

For me, it’s the Atlantic Ocean where I’ve spent so much time with folks I love.

It’s also this pulpit in which I get to look out upon your faces.

If Matthew was writing today’s reading just for me, I’d be meeting Jesus at Ft. Pierce or under our stained glass window.

If you were asked, what would you say?

Have you had a place, a time in which you knew, you just knew that you were taught, you were fed, you were healed, you were loved by Jesus Christ?

That’s your mountain. That’s your go-to place. That’s where the resurrected Christ is calling you.

That’s where we spiritually go when the bad things happen in the world. That’s what gives us hope when things seem hopeless. That’s what helps to make sense when things are senseless.

That’s the memory we hold onto that empowers us to remember, that calls us to be brave, even if we can no longer physically go to that mountain anymore.

Our metaphorical mountain is where we get to meet Jesus again and again and again.

In our world there is so much to worry about, there is so much to mourn, and so much to fear. But there is so much to be thankful for, so much to celebrate, and so much to enjoy.

Because of Christ, even in the face of death, there is life. Even in dark times, there is light.

Even in the face of loss, there are new things to discover. Even though others may leave, we are never left alone.

And though our days do eventually end, the love of Christ does not.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Gift of Generosity; Sermon on Acts 2:1-14

Rev. George Miller
June 4, 2017
Acts 2:1-14

One of my favorite books as a youth was “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou.

What I recall most was the author’s comment that because she grew up poor she had no idea that the Depression was taking place, and that she was raised in a community in which no one was turned away if they came to your home during dinner.

It didn’t matter how much or how little there was to eat, didn’t matter if you were black or white, a stranger or a somebody, you were welcome to the table.

This sense of generosity has shaped my view of southern living more than anything else.

Last week I attended a party given by dear friends in which they served the finest ribs I’ve ever had. Later that night, feeling ever-thankful, I complimented the host on the event and asked where the ribs came from.

He shared the place, and because we’re close, he shared the price. I was humbled beyond words and said he shouldn’t have.

His response was “But you are my friends and we love you.”

On Wednesday was the Mass for Jerry Million, which included Proverbs 3: 3-10. It said-

“Trust in the Lord with all you heart…Honor the Lord with your substance…then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.”

How true this was for Jerry and his wife, Elli. Because if you know anything about the Millions, you know they are generous people, people who have worked hard for every cent they have, who joyfully shared their substance.

Elli would never boast, but I can say that she and Jerry have freely given to so many people and organizations, but it is also so clear that everything they have released, God has given back in some way and form.

Generosity.

I think of what I’ve personally experienced. When my car acted-up, the number of people who offered me their automobile or a ride to the repair shop.

When my family came to town the number of you who offered me their air mattresses, sheets, cots, pillows, and use of their pool.

How the Coins for Kids jar was already half-filled on its first day.

When Judy Vekasy felt a nudge from the Holy Spirit to have a new sign made for the Feed My Sheep Jeep, she contacted Ken Hamlin, who wrote-

“I am always amazed at the giving and ideas that people come up with to help The Shepherds Pantry.”

Generosity.

Our own resident Buddhist Monk, the Venerable Rev. David Astor shared with me his own theological belief that all things stem from generosity.

If I recall correctly, he taught me that it is not our faith that makes us more generous, it is not our compassion for others that makes us generous, it is not our love that makes us generous.

It is the act of generosity that everything else flows out of.

That the more generous one is, the more one grows in faith, grows in compassion, and grows in love.

Rev. Astor did not define generosity as money spent, but being generous in time, gifts, intentionality, presence, and actions.

I don’t know if I fully agree with Rev. Astor, but I look at the way folks like Maya Angelou and the Millions have lived, and I can’t help but to wonder if generosity is indeed the key to living a real, authentic life, in which you are present and you are HERE.

It is with this generous spirit radiating out from Proverbs 3 and folks like Judy and Ken and you, the congregation, that my eyes were opened to today’s scripture in a way they have never been opened before.

Yes, today’s scripture is about the beginning of the Christian Church. Yes, it is about the Holy Spirit breaking into the world to do a whole new thing.

But it is also about generosity- God’s generosity.

It is 50 days after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It’s the festival of Pentecost which means men from all over the ancient world have gathered in Jerusalem to recall God giving the gift of the Law on Mt. Sinai.

On this day, at 9 am in the morning, as the disciples are gathered inside, the Holy Spirit falls down upon them like a fire.

Filled to capacity, they can’t contain themselves, causing folk from all around to come to where they are, thinking they must be drunk off of Boones Farm or Alize.

But no, explains Peter, they are not drunk- God has poured out God’s Spirit upon them, and God will also pour it out upon all flesh, old and young, sons and daughters, enslaved and free.

In other words, God is generous.

God has once again defied all expectations and has gone against the ways of the world, giving freely to all people a gift, a gift that is meant to be shared.

Pentecost is a day for us to celebrate and give thanks for just how generous God is.

God has been generous before.

God was generous when bursting forth with creation, filling the universe with stars and planets, oxygen and hydrogen, placing upon Earth people and plants and a multitude of life forms.

Creation was an act of God’s generosity.

Since then, God found numerous ways to be generous:

Giving a son to a childless couple.

Giving the commandments on Mt. Sinai.

Giving the exiles a chance to return.

Giving the gift of Jesus Christ.

Think of the Christmas story- what an act of generosity that truly was; that God would give Godself in the form of a child.

No wonder the magi felt compelled to respond with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The generosity of God is truly outstanding.

The generous gift of the baptismal waters. The generous gift of the Lord’s Supper.

The generous gift of Jesus’ time with the outcasts, healing of the sick, and sharing stories of salvation.

All of these things are signs of a generous God.

How did we respond? We denied, we lied, we crucified.

And yet- that did not stop God from being generous.

Because 50 days later God poured out the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and God did not do it sparingly- God did so generously.

God was so generous in giving the Holy Spirit it did not matter if folk were inside or outside the building to experience the gift.

God was so generous in giving the Holy Spirit that it did not matter if the recipients were Jews, gentiles or in-between.

God’s generosity didn’t care if they were locals or foreigners.

God’s generosity didn’t care if it was 9 am.

This- this story is about the generosity of God that goes beyond time, beyond nation of origin or immigrant status, beyond faith group, and beyond physical space.

This is about the generosity of God that goes beyond social status, beyond gender, beyond age.

This is generosity that goes beyond language and understanding.

This is a story about the Generosity of Radical Inclusion.

Acts 2 not only shows us the generous giving of the Holy Spirit but it is a testimony that no matter how much God gives, God is never, ever depleted.

God gave the world, God gave God’s Son, and God gave the Holy Spirit.

God gives and gives and gives, because God is generous.

Perhaps Rev. Astor is right. Perhaps generosity is the way of being from which everything else emanates.

Perhaps Maya Angelou was raised in the best way possible, in which no one is turned away.

Perhaps folks like Jerry have learned that the key to happiness is to share and to give away.

Ken was certainly right when he stated “I am always amazed at the giving and ideas that people come up with to help…”

Today we are not just reminded of the Church’s beginnings or the breaking in of the Holy Spirit but-

That the love of the Lord is not limited.

The compassion of Christ is not conditional.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit are not finite.

God is good, God is great, and God is generous. Amen and amen.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Does the Devil Exist? 2 Peter 5:6-11

Rev. George Miller
May 28, 2017
2 Peter 5:6-11

Wednesday was the Day of Demons.

Not for me, but for my cats.

It started with the Horrible Hoover, a menacing machine deemed to destroy all the dirt that dared to pass its path.

From the moment that demon whirred into life, Sterling hid from its horror, galloping past like it like a horse caught in a house-a-fire, hiding from its satanic suction.

The Day of Demons continued when the Sky Spirit opened up, raging down rain and ripping across the yard with roaring thunder.

From the moment that demon boomed into battle, Jesse ran for the kitchen, prying open the cabinet door so he could cave away until the rains ceased.

Then there was the Satanic Sneeze, in which an unstoppable “achoo!” from me sent both of the cats scattering away.

Of course, one creature’s demon is another creature’s escape from dust and dirt. One life form’s fear of loud noises is another’s song of celebration that the rains have finally fallen.

And then…there is the reality of what took place Monday in Manchester, as a suicide bomber caused numerous deaths, many of them young, many of them girls, who had simply, innocently gathered to enjoy a night of song and celebration.

It makes one wonder why there are acts of evil in the world; makes one wonder if the devil truly does exist.

Today’s scripture talks about the devil, giving it the attributes of a prowling lion, ravenous, looking for someone to devour.

Biblically speaking, the concept of the devil is fascinating. In the Old Testament satan is scantly referred to in just 4 books, portrayed as a courtroom adversary; a slick lawyer who is there on the opposing side.

The idea of demons entering into humans to do bad deeds does not appear until the New Testament and is more an influence of Greek mythology and pop-culture’s fascination with monsters and dragons.

It was centuries later, through the work of artists like Dante and Milton that hell and satan captured folk’s imagination. (The above 3 paragraphs are adapted from Lesson 10 of “Living the Questions” Bible Study. For further reading go to www.livingthequestions.com )

The devil appears throughout the New Testament, but scholars, theologians, and people of faith are asked to wonder if it is as an entity or an idea, a man or a metaphor.

Shirley Guthrie, in his classic book “Christian Doctrine” goes into great detail about the Doctrine of Providence and the Doctrine of Evil. (2nd edition, 1994, pp166-191)

It goes like this- if God’s desire is to give us every good thing, why are there things like cancer, dementia, orphaned children, suicide bombings, viruses and injustices of every kind?

Is it because God is loving and just but powerless, or is God powerful but not loving and just enough to do anything about it?

In our world, there are different levels of evil- what we can call “natural evil”, like earthquakes and illnesses, and “moral evil”, which comes from humans and institutions.

We deal with evil in different ways. We may ignore it, or say that bad things happen now for something good to happen later. Or we place blame- “you must have done something wrong.” Or we Monday-morning quarterback and say “if we had known we could’ve been prepared.”

Yet, humans are finite. We are not meant to live forever. Somehow, someway we are all going to die, be it by a bus, a bullfight, or a burst blood vessel.

Yet, we live in a world of free will, in which not just humans have free will, but it can be argued that so do animals, viruses, and weather-patterns.

Then there is what we experienced Monday in Manchester, which is evil that is more than sin, evil that is steeped in darkness, seeming to lurk about like a lion.

How does that kind of evil come about?

For some, that answer comes in the form of an entity called the devil. The reasoning is this-“evil cannot come from God, for what God wills and does is good.” (pg. 179)

So, evil must come from another source- satan, the anti-advocate who puts evil desires into our body, mind and soul, inciting us to go against God and challenge Christ.

2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6 hint at the devil being a rebellious angel, but can’t explain how or why he came about.

But how can a creature of God rebel against God if all that God creates is good?

So what do we do with scripture like today and the faith of those who say the devil is a real entity?

Shirley Guthrie has 3 points (pp179-181)-

Christians don’t say that we “believe” in the devil. We confess our faith in only God the Father, Jesus Christ our Lord, and the Holy Spirit. We do not profess our faith in satan or hell.

In other words, even if we think the devil is real, we don’t believe in the darkness; we believe in God’s power against the darkness.

Second, our focus on the devil should not become central to our faith and more important “than the reality of God.”

Scriptures tell again and again how Jesus has already opposed and defeated the demonic and that it’s forever limited by the resurrected Christ.

Third- pay attention to who Jesus refers to as satanic- it’s not the prostitutes, tax collectors, outcasts, or the aliens.

Jesus calls the overly-righteous religious leaders the sons of satan; he calls his close friends, Peter, satan.

This indicates that what is perhaps most dangerous are those who disguise themselves as better than others, or try to use their faith for their own power and prosperity.

Still, we are left to wonder- why do bad things happen, and how does evil exist?

To that, I cannot give you an answer that I could stand by 100% or stake my life upon.

Though I’ve experienced great evil, and have felt demonic presences in my life, I personally do not think that a supernatural being called the devil exists.

Here’s what I can say- evil is that which tries to separate us from the love of God, and evil is that which tries to make us think that our Shepherd is not good.

In the darkness of the devilish, there is always a light that burns.

It is the light we see so clearly when things appear to be going right, but when tragedy occurs we wonder if that light was real or just a mirage.

When that occurs, it helps for us to remember. To recall the stories we were told, the stories of how God’s desire is to give us every good thing.

To recall all that God has done in the past- the creation, the covenants, the land, the children, the parted waters, the bread from heaven, the journeys done in stages.

As Christians, we are challenged not to recoil in the horrors of the world, but to recall the wonders and ways in which God protected, liberated, and saved again and again and again.

We could dote on the devil or we could recall what God has done in the past.

See how Christ is in the present.

And hope for how the Holy Spirit will advocate, comfort, and cheer us on in the future.

Even when the utter godlessness of others threatens to rip the world apart, we can embrace the godliness that dwells within us.

That’s how the earliest Christians survived and thrived. Those who originally received this letter experienced the devil every day.

They dealt with Roman occupation. They dealt with religious persecution. They dealt with living in strange lands amongst strange customs.

They lived each day in the shadow and the threat of the cross.

But they did not place their belief in the devil, they placed their belief in God made known through Jesus Christ.

They remembered who Jesus was and how he lived. The remembered how he healed the sick and fed the sheep. They recalled how he defended the poor and called for compassion.

Yes, they recalled Jesus’ death, but they also recalled God’s power to raise him from the tomb.

They recalled that the Christ “who was the victim of evil is also the victor over evil.” (pg. 186)

That every Sunday is an Easter Sunday in which God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom. (pg 186 and Col. 1:13)

How could events like Manchester take place? Why is there evil in the world? Does the devil exist?

We can certainly keep asking ourselves those questions. But I also hope we remind ourselves again and again

-that the Holy Spirit dwells amongst us, advocating for us, giving us comfort and cheering us on.

-that the Spirit of the Living Christ dwells within us, calling us to continue on our stages upon the way, doing what is pleasing to God.

-that the Spirit of the Still Speaking God continues to invite us to do justice, love kindness, walk with humility and recall how God’s desire is to give us every good thing.

No prince of darkness can be greater than the Prince of Peace. No spirit of evil can be more powerful than the Paraklete, and no entity can be mightier than the hand of God.

And no amount of hate is stronger than the love of our Creator.

For that, let us say “Amen and amen.”

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Counselor, Comforter, Cheer Captain- The Holy Spirit according to John 14:15-21

Rev. George Miller
May 21, 2017
John 14:15-21

Enter into the world of Scripture, and you will encounter unforgettable stories. Each book is a multilayered, immersive encounter with the Divine, transporting us into realms of adventure, mystery, and discovery.

As we come up to the end of our Read the Bible in a Year program, one thing that’s clear is how the Bible is so full of details, so many which are obscure, that anyone can miss them.

Our scriptures may be 2-3,000 years old and yet they continue to surprise us, to speak to us, and to say “Hey, have you thought about God this way???”

Our Bible is composed of stories that were passed down generation to generation, modified by each teller to appeal to their current audience.

For example, the Gospels were written 40-60 years after Jesus walked the earth. They are composed of stories of what Jesus said, what he did, how he lived and what he taught. Stories filled with humanity, with the holy, and yes, even with humor.

Each Gospel writer took those stories and found their own unique way to convey an experience of the Incarnate God.

With an economy of language, they presented details and information that spoke volumes beyond what a simple word could mean.

Because each writer was living in a specific time and a specific place, they presented the Jesus-Experience in a way that folk could understand.

Mark was earthy. Matthew was churchy. Luke was cosmopol-ity. John was brainy.

Each writer takes what they know of Jesus and shares what speaks to them, what they think matters to their readers, and presents different shades of Jesus that contains hints of how the author speaks.

Thus, the Jesus in Mark talks more like a local who is attending a state college, while the Jesus in John talks more like a legacy who’s attending Yale.

Mark was writing for people during a time of war in which survival was paramount. John was writing post-war to friends who were being kicked out of their places of worship because they dared to go against the status quo.

So when John has Jesus speak, he does so in a way so his comrades in faith can comprehend.

For example- John 14. We are in the middle of a farewell discourse that Jesus is having with his disciples during a dark, dark time.

The hour of his arrest has come near; Jesus knows that soon he will no longer be physically there with his friends.

He has already told them that in their Holy Parent’s house there are many “monai”. Now, he is expressing to them that they will not be left alone, they will not be orphaned, or helpless.

This is Jesus so assured, so strong as a leader that he is confident that his ministry will live on even when he is gone.

This is Jesus delegating authority and empowering his partners to move forward, finding ways to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with the Lord.

Jesus does this is by making them a promise, a promise that the Holy Spirit will be with them. He calls the Holy Spirit the Advocate, which is Greek is the word “Paraklete”.

Now I know you’re wondering “Did pastor just say parakeet?”

“No, no- I think he said ‘a pair of cleats.’”

“Paraklete? Isn’t that the name of your cousin’s new baby?”

You heard correctly. Paraklete is a fancy-schmancy way of saying “Holy Spirit”.

Now keep in mind- Jesus was a Jew who spoke in Hebrew or Aramaic, but the Gospel is written in Greek, and we’re experiencing it in English.

Paraklete is a Greek word for the Holy Spirit that only appears in John’s gospel, and it is a word that points to John’s education and peer group.

Say Holy Spirit to different people and you’ll get many definitions and ways to describe what the Holy Spirit does.

For John, Paraklete is a legal word, meaning Advocate or Counselor, and not the kind you have in junior high or the kind who asks you to talk about your mother, but the kind you would have in a court of law.

John uses the word Paraklete to describe the Holy Spirit as someone who comes into your life to speak out and to act on your behalf, stepping up to the judge’s bench to plead your cause.

Another definition of Paraklete is Comforter. Not the kind you have covering your bed, but a person who comes in during times of sorrow and helps you to cope. Think of a home health aide, or a hospice worker, or someone from the Red Cross called in after a disaster.

You can hear how this attention to detail allows the words of Jesus to speak to people who are being kicked out of their synagogue, who are being challenged by local authorities, and have to choose between their faith or their family.

A third definition of Paraklete is one I really like- to put courage into soldiers who are depressed and despondent; to empower desperate people to be…brave.

Wow- this image and immersion into the word allows a whole other way to see the Holy Spirit other than an intuition or inspiration.

This definition means that Jesus is saying to his followers- “Listen, when things get tough, when things seem hopeless, when it appears there is no way out, call upon the Holy Spirit and you will find the courage to go on, and you will find a way to be brave.”

Counselor. Comforter. Cheer captain.

All these ways in which we can view and experience the Holy Spirit; all the ways Jesus is saying to his disciples that he will still be present in their lives.

Notice this- there’s something all these words have in common.

These are not roles that involve magic wands or do all the work for you.

These are not job descriptions that solve the problem for you, like a mechanic, or clean up after up you, like a maid.

The Paraklete, as used by John, inspires, empowers, and advocates, which means that there are still things we have to do.

There is still responsibility we have to take. There is still ownership of our issues.

There is still the need, on our behalf of action and wisdom.


This Holy Spirit will empower them, encourage them, and inspire them.

The Holy Spirit will plead their case for them, comfort them so they can cope, and fill them with courage when they are very, very afraid.

I think about our modern times, who we are, and how we live.

If John was writing today, what words could be used to describe the Holy Spirit?

Maybe the word “App.” Like the Holy Spirit is an application we can access to assist us in a task or to get information.

Or maybe “Home Repair Guide.” Like the Holy Spirit is a manual on how to face and fix things without doing all the work for you.

This week I am inspired to think of “Social Worker.” Like the Holy Spirit can be instrumental in bringing two individuals together so they can become a family.

What other ways or words would you use to describe the Holy Spirit?

If Jesus or John were talking with you today, what would inspire you, console you, and empower you so that you could step into tomorrow and brave whatever the world may bring?

The world of Scripture is full of unforgettable stories, featuring immersive encounters with the Divine, encouraging us to dive into discovery.

Our Bible is so full of details, that although our scriptures are thousands of years old, they continue to surprise, to speak, to say “Hey, have you thought about faith this way???”

With an economy of language, our Bible delights in details that speak far beyond what our own words and experiences can.

And because we live in a specific time and place, we experience the Holy One speaking in a way that each of us can comprehend.

Let us continue to listen, let us continue to learn, and let us continue to allow the light of Christ into our lives.

Amen and amen.

(Interestingly enough, the 1st and ending parts of the message were inspired by Susan Veness’ Introduction to The Hidden Magic Of World Disney World- 2nd Edition (2015; Adams Media, Avon, MA).

While trying to grease the creativity gears, searching for what to say about scripture, I picked up Veness’ book as a time-filler, pleased to discover that her description of Disney’s success/attention to details is in alignment with my feelings about scripture.

The Paraklete works in many, many ways!!!)

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Exploring What God's Home Contains; John 14:1-8

Rev. George Miller
May 14, 2017
John 14:1-8

Though we are in the 5th week of Easter, today’s reading takes us right back to before the cross, during a very dark, dark hour for Jesus and his disciples. It is beyond car problems, beyond employment issues, and beyond burn notices.

This is Jesus about to be betrayed, about to be brought before Pilate, and before this takes place, he asks his disciples…to believe.

In this dark, dark hour Jesus asks the disciples to believe what they cannot prove in a laboratory, or a court of law.

Jesus asks them to bravely, faithfully hold onto their trust in God.

In other words, he is asking them to believe in the words of the 23rd Psalm-

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.”

Thus John 14 transcends space, transcends time and becomes a scripture for all people-

For anyone who knows what it is like to tread upon dried grass, to thrash about in dangerous waters, to be in dark valleys, or to be surrounded by damaging enemies.

Jesus says “Believe” and “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”

With this statement, we wonder- what is Jesus talking about? And because this is an English translation of a Greek writing based upon the words of a Hebrew man, we cannot be 100% certain that what we just heard with our ears is what was actually meant.

For example, did Jesus say “house” or did he saw “home”?

House tends to be more of a physical location. If he meant house, is he referring, as some would think, to a place we go after we die, when all is said and done, and breathe is no more?

Perhaps.

But what good is belief, what good is comfort post-death, if the struggle, the pain, the stress is in the now?

When someone is confronted with suffering do they really want to hear “Hush, hush- years later when you die, things will be ok.”?

Or in their current suffering, do they want to know there is a way to rise above; a way to pass through, a way to survive, and a way thrive?

So…maybe Jesus is talking about a house, where you go. Or, maybe he is talking about a home.

A home is less a physical place, and more of an emotional experience. Home hints at heart; feeling.

Yes, we may live in a house; but it doesn’t mean we live in a home.

All of us have a place in which we feel home, even if it’s not a house.

A beach, a river, a garden; a golf course, a garage, a place in the woods.

Home can be your Momma’s bosom, or Auntie’s embrace, or Granny’s kitchen.

Home can be Dad’s tussling of your hair, Uncle’s dominos table, or Grandpa’s rickety old fishing boat.

So maybe what Jesus is doing is his metaphysical, mystical, emotional mumbo jumbo he does so well.

Is Jesus talking about our Heavenly Parent’s House or our Heavenly Parent’s Home?

And what exactly do many dwelling places mean?

In Greek, the word used is “monai.” And monai has many meanings.

When the King James Bible was written, they used the word “mansions”, which makes sense. If you’re writing for a king, you would use a huge, opulent word that expresses abundance and majesty.

Mansions do that. But how do many mansions fit inside a house; and does a mansion sound like a home?

Monai can also mean “room.” Think of it like living in a campus dorm in which all your friends sleep, study, socialize, and eat supper in the same place. Or being on a cruise ship in which all you need is right there.

Monai can mean “dwelling place” or “to abide in”. In this context, things become more relational. To dwell or abide are akin to saying that the person lives within you.

Like how your Mom or Dad may have died, but you feel like you are carrying them within your heart.

Now, before your eyes gloss over or your brain shuts down, monai can also mean “Room for all.”

Now that is deep. It is progressive. It is very, very UCC.

“In my Parent’s home, there is room for all.”

How does this notion touch you? How does it make you feel?

This possible translation indicates a God who is so big, so limitless; a God who is truly boundary breaking.

Would this cause you to believe and to bravely, faithfully hold onto your trust in God?

This is not God as a product, this is not God as magic maker, but God as welcoming, embracing, having a heart that houses all people, no matter who, where, or what.

Finally, the last meaning of monai is “stages upon the way.” Big difference from mansions or rooms.

“In my Father’s house there are many stages along the way.”

Think of that- stages, steps, levels.

Like how you can go to the same elementary school as your sister, but you’re in a different grade; or the same college as your brother, but you’re in a different year.

Stages don’t imply that one is better or one is worse; steps don’t indicate superior or supreme.

Stages simply mean that one is where they are at; one is where they are supposed to be.

The Bible is full of references to stages. The Old Testament tells us that in the wilderness the Israelites journeyed by stages, and each stage brought them a new act of redemption.

The Book of Acts tells us how the earliest Christians spent day by day together in worship, and day by day adding to their numbers. (Acts 2:46-47).

Day by day, step by step, stage by stage.

At this stage of my life, I like this interpretation of John 14:2; that in God there are many stages along the way.

It sounds like freedom. Its sounds like mercy. It sounds like…grace.

It sounds like we can let go of the notion that one person is holier than another; or one knows more about the Bible than another; or that one is more enlightened and redeemed than another.

It means that in our faith, we are exactly where we are meant to be.

It sounds like Jesus is saying “Even in the darkest of moments there are many ways to experience the Light of God.”

It sounds like Jesus is saying “Our Parent is so amazing that whatever we do out of faith can’t be wrong, even if we are unsure about the way.”

In conclusion, today’s reading is both complex and so simple.

I cannot tell you exactly what Jesus said or exactly what Jesus meant.

House and home are so different, and yet so much the same.

Mansions, dwelling places, room for all- what speaks to you? What gives you comfort? What gives you strength?

What allows you to believe so there’s comfort in the darkest valleys, the waters feel a bit calmer, and the grasses seem a bit greener?

Are stages along the way a source of joy? Is step by step, no matter how fast or how slow, an Ok way to go?

If you are dwelling in the Lord, and the Lord is dwelling within you, is that enough for whatever you may be going through?

Amen and amen.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

What are Right Paths? Psalm 23; May 7, 2017

Rev. George Miller
May 7, 2017
Psalm 23

I recently came back from my vacation to Grand Rapids. It was an experience in which I felt guided; shepherded if you will.

Drove to the Orlando Airport Economy Parking Lot in which I found the most perfect spot under a huge oak tree.

Landed safely in Grand Rapids in which the grass was green, lush, with fields full of dandelions and tulips.

Saw old friends over sandwiches, celebrated a birthday at the Moose Lodge with live music, and caught up with a former organist while sitting for hours alongside the Grand River.

Walked into a business establishment just by chance and was greeted with a long forgotten face who gave a huge hug and said “You just made my entire day!”

Coming home I felt particularly shepherded. My flight was to leave at 3:30 pm, with a connecting flight out of Detroit at 6:30, meaning I would not be back in Sebring until 11 pm.

I arrived at the airport at 1; had lunch, made my way to the gate. There were storms that day, and you could feel the nervous energy in the terminal.

I went to my gate prepared to wait for the next 2 hours. Turns out they were boarding for a 1:30 flight to Detroit.

Nice and polite, I went up the ticket counter and said “Excuse me, I have a question…”

“You’d like to get on this flight, is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“Give me your ticket,” the woman said.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes.” She explained that because of the storms they were trying to get everyone out and I was freeing my seat for someone else later on.

Beep-bop-boop!, I was given a boarding pass, got on the plane, landed in Detroit an hour later.

I felt the inclination to try my luck again, made my way to the next gate. Turns out they have a flight to Orlando leaving in 10 minutes; for $75 extra I can get on.

Beep-bop-boop!, I am on that flight which left Detroit at 3:15; 15 minutes before my original flight out of Grand Rapids.

By 6 pm I am safely in Orlando, relaxed as can be. Get to my car in the Economy Parking Lot…and see that I had left the window on the driver’s side down the entire time!

But I stayed calm. Checked the trunk- nothing missing. Checked my CDs- all of them were there. Checked where I keep my emergency money- nothing was touched.

And even though it had rained in Orlando, my car was dry, thanks to the protective covering of that mighty oak. And since the window was rolled down, the car smelt as fresh as can be.

I made it to my Cozy Cottage by 8:45 pm, decompressing on the couch by 10, and asleep in my own bed by midnight.

I did not want; I was not worried. I was comfortable and filled with the sense of goodness and mercy.

I felt shepherded…

Today’s scripture is a sacred text; one that everyone knows, and no doubt feels some ownership over.

It is a song about the journey, and we are all on a journey, a journey that we try our best to navigate.

There are those here today who are navigating what it means to be towards the end of one’s life.

Those who are navigating what it means to be retired. Those who are navigating what it is like to work. Those who are navigating what it is like to be in school and balancing so many things.

All of us are on a journey and many of us can say “This is not where I ever thought I’d be 10 years ago” or “I have no way to imagine where I will be 10 years from now.”

Knowing that life is a journey, we find solace in the 23rd Psalm, as it states that the Lord is our Shepherd, even if we have not grown up in a pastoral setting.

Though this scripture is familiar, it still finds ways to surprise and talk to us.

For example, the way it is structured. In the first 3 verses, God is referred to indirectly. God is talked about: God shepherds, God leads, God restores.

Then in verse 4 God is directly addressed- You are with me, you prepare, you anoint.

It’s a subtle shift, but it brings us back to what we discussed March 19 in regards to Exodus 17 and how the people tried to turn God into an object.

In other words, verses 1-3 refer to God like a performance based product; verses 4-6 refer to God as a person.

Verses 1-3 refer to God as utilitarian; verses 4-6 refer to God as “You.”

In other words, we experience a personal relationship with God in which relation, care, goodness, living alongside one another, and mercy are key.

It’s not so much “Hey- this is what you can do for me,” but more “Wow God! We are in this together, side by side, and I really like being in your presence.”

And because we have this personal relationship with God, because we experience God more as relational than an object that performs upon our beckoning, we grow, we deepen, we expand.

We welcome the opportunity to be led in paths of righteousness. But what are right paths?

Are they times in which we follow our instincts and happen to be in the right place at the right time so we can get the best parking spot and hop on an earlier flight?

Perhaps. I think that being open to the Holy Spirit and following our internal instincts is important and something that needs to be better taught.

Is right paths always being nice to people and always putting others first even if it means you may be left in want?

Sometimes??? Sometimes not???

Are righteous paths set-in-stone paths that exist until the end of time and are absolutes for everyone no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey?

What are right paths? Because the longer I live the more I think there are numerous right paths.

For those graduating from high school, what’s the right path- going to college or going to trade school, going into the military or immediately getting a job?

Knowing that 27 is the 3rd deadliest road in the nation, do the right paths demand that the speed limit is lowered or that slower drivers get the heck out of my way and stay out of the left lane?

For Christians is the right path one that is paved primarily on notions of moral sin or paved with acts of justice?

And who defines what justice is?

Psalm 23 sure does make paths of righteousness sound so good. But what are these righteous paths? And how does a right path get us to the best destination?

Because let’s be honest- the Bible doesn’t make it that easy.

In one book we have scripture telling people to never marry a non-believer, then we have the entire book of Ruth that tells how a non-believer became the grandmother of King David and the ancestor of Jesus Christ.

Scripture tells us to keep the Sabbath holy and to do no work, then we are told that Jesus did what he wanted 7 days a week, healing people every day even when religious leaders challenged him for it.

The Gospels tell us of the magnificent ministry women like Mary Magdalene, and Phoebe did, but then the contested letters of Paul tell women to be quiet in church and have no authority over men.

How do we know what is right? How do we know we are on the right path? How do we know that where we are walking is where God wants us to be?

And I don’t really know how to answer that question. I don’t know if there actually is a way to say “This is how you know.”

I think it’s almost more about the way…you feel. That you can just tell. You can sense. You can inhale, exhale…and it is there.

I think that this walk with God, this journey with the Good Shepherd is more about that personal relationship we build together, together meaning between us and our God.

I think because we are all individuals, we all have an individual relationship with God in which the right paths can sometimes be the same as others, but they can also be different from our neighbors and others that we know.

I do think we can find a sliver of an answer in verse 1: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Remember what we talked about 2 weeks ago, when Christ appears to the disciples and says “Peace be with you.” (John 20)

We shared that another way to say “Peace be with you” is “May God give you every good thing.”

Thus “I shall not want” and “May God give you every good thing” almost mean the same thing; spiritual cousins if you will.

“The Lord is my shepherd; God has given me every good thing.”

When you stop and think about it, what is every good thing?

Not much, really.

A place to call your own. Daily bread. Comfort in dark valleys. Rest. Relationships.

A true relationship with our Creator in which we can walk side by side, finding comfort, experiencing mercy.

Those are good things. If you have them, there is not much need for want

In conclusion, there is so much to love about the 23rd Psalm. I like this notion of verses 4-6 speaking to God in a one-to-one, you and I tone.

It feels real. It feels right. It feels personal, and healthy.

It moves us from seeing God as far away and distant, to seeing God as upfront and personal, like a parent in the kitchen, or a travel companion.

It moves us from treating God as an object who is only worth something if something is being done, to God being the one we can turn to when we feel the most alone, the most scared, and the most vulnerable.

It’s about not hiding ourselves or concealing who we are, but being brave before God to show our scabs and our wounds, our cuts and our abrasions, what we hunger after, what we thirst for, what we need protection from, and our desire to rest in green pastures.

It is a song of trust that does not deny there will be dark places. It is a song of eternity that does not deny that we all have enemies.

It is a song of relationality that says what we have with God is real, what we have with God is right, what we have with God is good for our soul.

Psalm 23 is a song that reminds us once again that with God we are worthy of having every good thing, and so is everyone else. Amen and amen.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

May God Give You Every Good Thing; John 20:19-31

Rev. George Miller
April 23, 2017
John 20:19-31

This week I’m heading to Grand Rapids, MI. It’s a sort of spiritual pilgrimage, as the 1st church I pastored was located there.

As someone who has lived in numerous states, I’ve noticed there are various geographic-specific traditions.

Michiganders are notorious for their frugality and fondness for windmill cookies.

Ohioans are bananas for buckeyes and Skyline Chili served over spaghetti.

Missourians like hamburgers and hot dogs marinated in BBQ sauce.

Minnesotans keep their butter-dish on the dining room table or in the kitchen cabinet so their butter stays soft and can be served at any time.

Something else Minnesotans do- run their fans, all year long.

Discovered this when I went to college at St. Cloud State. Visited friends in their dorm rooms in the dead of winter. Sure, they had the heat turned up, but they also had an oscillating fan going back and forth.

Makes sense. In the summer the fan keeps things cool. In the winter, when windows are closed up for a long, long time, the fan keeps things fresh- moves the air about, preventing stagnation and stank.

Air. Wind. Breath. All play an important part in today’s reading.

If you recall, back in January we did a sermon series titled “Land of Delight”, using Malachi 3 and the book Grounded In God.

Malachi is the prophet who challenges people to be generous so they can see just how much God is going to pour down an overflowing of blessings.

Malachi 3:12 states “Then all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight…”

Grounded in God talked about experiencing God in the natural world. On January 17 we shared how air, wind, and breath play a role in many religions.

The Buddhists believe that to breathe is to achieve mindfulness and connects us with all living things.

Our scripture tells us that at each stage of creation God breathes new life into the world.

In Genesis, God’s breathe speaks all things into being. In Exodus, a strong east wind parts the Red Sea. In Ezekiel, breath enters into a valley of dry bones so they can live again.

As Diane Butler Bass stated, it is this holy wind of God that animates life, which creates and recreates the world.

It is this holy wind that we encounter in today’s reading as the resurrected Christ breathes upon the disciples to mark the beginning of the church.

In John 20 we have a unique tale, as it seems to consolidate Easter and Pentecost into the same event.

According to John, it’s still the 1st day of the new week. Mary Magdalene saw the stone had been removed, prompting Peter and the beloved disciple to run to the tomb, in which they only saw the linen wrappings.

That night, while the followers of Jesus fearfully gather behind locked doors, Christ appears to them and says “Peace be with you”, not once, but twice.

He breathes upon them and says “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven…”

Air. Wind. Breath.

To breathe is to achieve mindfulness and connects us with all living things.

At each stage of creation God breathes new life into the world- Genesis, Exodus, Ezekiel, and now, John.

It is so elementary, so rudimentary; we almost fail to see how revolutionary this is, this story of how Christ says “Peace”, how Christ says “forgive”, how Christ…exhales.

…let us pause for a moment and think.

John is telling us about Jesus, the Messiah, Son of God. John sees Jesus as the end-all and be-all of every and anything.

There is nothing Jesus cannot do. He has all power, glory, and honor.

Jesus is the Alpha of all alphas, a supernatural Superman who calmly gives direction to his mother while being crucified, and sips wine right before dying.

As John tells it, the priest and Pharisees plotted to kill Jesus for raising Lazarus. Judas betrays him and brings soldiers and police to arrest him.

He is denied by Peter, questioned by Pilate, beaten by representatives of the state, and killed by a foreign government via the means of corporal punishment.

Ridiculed, shamed, lied about, naked, and watching military men divide his clothes.

Jesus undergone an embarrassment of actions, and yet…

…and yet, when the Resurrected Christ appeared to Mary, he said “Go to my brothers…”

Not “Go to the ones who denied me” or “Go to the ones who betrayed me” or “Go to the ones who deserted me.”

But “Go to my brothers,” an expression of family, a statement of love.

Jesus Christ, the Supernatural Superman, the Son of God, comes back, and

-He does no belittle his betrayers.

-He does not damn the disciples for deserting him.

-He does not demand jihad or jail for the Jewish priests or Pharisees.

-He does not say “Ravage, raze, and the ruin the Romans!”

No.

He says “Peace.”

He says “Forgive.”

“Peace be with you” is such a lovely expression. On one hand it can mean “May you be free from worry and full of calm.”

But it can also mean “May God give you every good thing.”

May God give you every good thing…can you imagine any better blessing to breath upon another being?

This sentiment can also be found in Hebrews 13:21 and 2 Corinthians 9:8.

In my opinion, what the Resurrected Christ is doing right here is bringing everything right back to the beginning of the biblical narrative, right back to the books of Genesis and Exodus.

Christ is saying “May God give you a garden growing with goodness; may God place you amongst milk and honey.”

The Resurrected Christ appears amongst very, very frightened folk. He has all the power and authority of all the earth to do whatever he sees fit.

He does not give them a curse. He does not start a war. He does not build a wall. He does not drop the mother of all bombs. He does not have 7 men executed in 11 days.

He says “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

He says “Forgive the sins of any…”

He says “May God give you every good thing.”

If there was anyone, at anytime who coulda, shoulda, woulda lashed out at friends, organized religion, government leaders and foreigners, it was this man who innocently hung on the cross.

Instead, he stepped back into the world, wishing blessings of contentment, blessings of having enough, and blessings of delight.

He is the one we base our faith upon; he is the one our church is built on.

May his breath be our breath as well.

Amen and amen.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

All Shook Up, Easter Message; Matthew 28:1-10

Rev. George Miller
April 16, 2017- Easter
Matthew 28:1-10

What a week! And Wednesday was one of those days.

Worried for Silvia’s family in El Salvador as they experience tremors that could signal a major earthquake.

One friend dealing with a horrible event; another friend horribly sick from whatever crud has been going around.

Issues involving Syria, Russia, the US and the UN.

An editorial condemning local pastors for not attending a workshop.

Not to mention all the events and expectations surrounding Easter from Maundy Thursday worship to the community Good Friday service to preparing a potent Easter message.

In other words- life.

So I come home and do what I always do on Wednesday- I clean the house, make a cup of tea. Spend time with God. Take a nap. Write my sermon.

As I’m sipping my tea, I just so happen to open up a book called Moments of Peace for the Morning and turn to where the bookmark is.

It reads “Some days you may feel that no one appreciates the unique pressures you face. And perhaps you are in such an exceptional situation that very few really could. God however knows you intimately and cares about what concerns you.

God knows the hidden thoughts of your heart and can see your circumstances from an all-encompassing viewpoint. He knows how you feel when you are emotionally spent.

Always remember that God understands you very well- even better than you know yourself- and can help you overcome any challenge you face. Take heart today by trusting him.” (page 18, Bethany House, 20003)

On the opposite page were the words of Hebrews 2:14 “We are people of flesh and blood. That is why Jesus became one of us.” (CEV)

That reading gave me great peace, and soon I was napping soundly, with my cats on either side of me, one purring, while the other cat groomed itself.

We are people of flesh and blood. That is why Jesus became one of us.

Note the words that are used- flesh and blood. That means real. That means human.

To say we are flesh and blood means that we are more than just spirit, we are more than just mind.

It means we are biological beings and are living and experiencing things in a physical world.

Which means that when something hurts our flesh, we hurt. When something affects our blood, we are affected.

Through our body we experience joy, we experience pain. We experience the world around us, we experience one another. We experience the best and the worst there is.

Through our bodies we experience life.

And Jesus, the Son of God, became one of us. Jesus became one of us so that he too could fully know what it is like-

To face pressure.
To deal with exceptional situations.
To care and to experience concerns.
To feel-
-physically
-spiritually
-socially
-emotionally

Jesus, Emmanuel, “God With Us”, became flesh and blood; one of us.

So, when Jesus was betrayed by a close friend, he would have felt the physical and emotional pain one goes through when betrayed.

When Jesus was stripped of his clothes he would have felt the emotional and physical sense of shame as you and I would.

When he endured the crucifixion, as flesh and blood he would have felt the pain, the humility.

The forsakenness that goes beyond the mental and the spiritual and creeps into every sinew, every section of your physical being.

…The depths God went to show just how much we matter, how much we mean to God...

For our Creator to experience our life, even to the point of pain and suffering.

This is what makes part of the resurrection narrative so powerful.

Not only that Jesus would experience the pain of death, but that he would be raised in such a way that says death cannot control, death cannot contain, death cannot consume.

That Jesus is raised, and it is God who raised him up.

But the resurrection doesn’t mean that everything from here on in is going to be perfect.

The resurrection doesn’t mean that suddenly everything is in pastels and the rest of the year will be nothing but pastures of pink and purple posies.

Yes, because of the resurrection we discover that life continues…but it does not mean the tremors decrease.

Let me explain-

Last week we explored Palm Sunday, as told by Matthew the Marketer.

We spoke of how Matthew was a Jew writing for other Jewish people to convince them that Jesus was the Messiah. So he makes Jesus the new Moses. He uses lots of scripture.

And he sure liked to shake things up.

For example, last week when Jesus rode into town, Matthew tells us that the whole city was in turmoil.

The Greek word that Matthew used is more akin to the word “shaken.” So, as Jesus enters Jerusalem, a wave of excitement ripples through the city, shaking it like when the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan or Ohio State won the National Championship.

On the cross, when Jesus cries out and takes his last breathe, Matthew tells us that upon his death the earth shook and stones were split, scaring the centurion and soldiers around him.

Then Matthew tells us that on Easter morning, as a new week dawned, two women came to the tomb, surrounded by guards.

And suddenly another great earthquake occurs, a shaking so great it ushers in the arrival of an angel. This scares the guards so much that they shake too.

And the Good News is shared- “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”

Tumult, earthquakes, guards being all shook up- direct results of God With Us.

And one can’t help but to imagine the tremors that continued within the two women as they ran from the tomb, only to experience the presence of the Risen Christ…

Easter has arrived once again, and with the proclamation of the Good News, comes yet another chance to explore just what does this all mean.

What does the resurrection have to say to us, today?

What strikes me is this notion of Jesus entering into our lives and there being tumult, there being earthquakes, that we become all shook up.

As one theologian stated, Easter is not a cheery “good morning” but a startling earthquake.

And though I have never lived through such a natural disaster, and sincerely worry about Silvia’s family, I think of how sometimes “shaking things up” is not such a bad thing.

Think about your own spiritual journey. We each have our own unique path, sharing some similarities.

How many can recall the time in their life in which they really became cognizant of what it meant to have Christ in their lives?

Of that moment in which you realized that Jesus really loved you, and because of Christ you were never truly alone.

That moment of realization is a bit of a shaking up, a tremor of the heart and soul.

Then there comes that time in which something clicks and you realize not only does Jesus love you, but in Christ you are forgiven, in Christ you are redeemed, in Christ you are justified.

That moment becomes another tremor, as it did for Martin Luther; a tremor that caused John Newton to put pen to paper and write “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”

Those tremors continue as we soon come to realize that if we are loved, if we are redeemed, then how do we live, how do me make decisions, how do we interact with one another that reflects these truths?

These tremors grow even more and become more substantial when we realize that how we live, how we think, how we interact with others… can actually affect more than just us, more than just our family.

That our faith in Christ, our experience of the resurrection can actually bring about a new day, can actually change our community, and can actually change the world.

Think of the tremors that the ancestors of our denomination brought about when they staged the original Boston Tea Party, helping to usher in our country’s independence.

Think of the tremors the Congregationalists caused when they spoke out against slavery or participated in the suffragette movement.

Think of the earthquake caused when Christian leaders like MLK dared to dream dreams and stand up for Civil Rights.

Think of the guards of the status quo who were shaken up when the UCC dared to say in 2005 that all people had the right to marriage equality.

Think of the tremors we here at Emmanuel have been able to do by trying our best to welcome all.

Think of the positive ways we have shaken up the lives of those who come to the Shepherd’s Pantry, Diamond CafĂ© and Vacation Bible School.

Think of the tremors, the shakes and the seismic shocks that your own experience of the Resurrected Christ has brought to you.

The tremors, the tumult, and the earthquaking-ness of the Good News is not limited to one Easter day or one empty tomb experience, but it reaches out to all aspects of creation.

Yes- some of Easter’s tremors will knock us on our feet; some can scare us,

But hopefully some of Easter’s tremors will inspire us, will give us great joy, will lead us out into the world, and will bring us even closer to God.

Easter morning is not a one-time event. It is an occasion that happens again and again and again and again.

Easter Sunday reminds us that we are people of flesh and blood. That Jesus shook the world when he came here just like us.

That Jesus shook the world through his teachings and healings, eating and being.

And that God forever shook our world, and continues to shake it up through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel.

And that we are all the better because of it.

For that, we can say Amen and amen.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Marketing- Matthew Style, Matthew 21:1-11

Rev. George Miller
April 9, 2017
Matthew 21:1-11

It’s been a busy week for news. On the pop-culture front, there’s the brouhaha about the Pepsi add featuring Kendall Jenner.

The ad features various kinds of people staging a protest, in which everything is solved and everything comes to a positive conclusion when Kendall simply offers a police officer a Pepsi.

Muslims, gays, brown people all cheer and celebrate that through Pepsi all the problems of the world are pacified.

Public uproar was swift and unforgiving, criticizing the ad for diminishing the real issues and struggle people have been protesting about.

There are 2 things I can say about the Pepsi ad- if the product was replaced by the bread and cup of Communion we would have an entire discourse on sacramental theology.

The other comment is this- hate it or like it, Pepsi’s ad was brilliant because it did what marketing is supposed to do- make people aware of what you’re offering.

Sure, people were upset, but Pepsi got a week’s worth of free advertising, news stories, parodies, social media posts and consumer awareness that no amount of polar bears got Coca-Cola.

Pepsi’s ad did what marketing is supposed to do- raise awareness.

Marketing has been around for ages: Lucy doing a commercial for Vitavegameatamin, Hope and Crosby shilling for Lucky Strikes, Marie Antoinette saying “Let them eat cake.”

An example of effective marketing is the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew had a message for the masses- Jesus Christ is the Messiah.

Matthew was a Jew writing for other Jewish people who wanted nothing more than for his peers to realize that Jesus was the right one for them.

If Matthew was alive today he would say that with Jesus you are in “Good hands.”

Matthew would say Jesus “Is the sweet one- uh huh.”

Matthew would say that Jesus is the “best part of waking up.”

Matthew believes that Jesus is the path to salvation, and he will do anything to share that Good News…even if it means finagling things a little bit.

So Matthew takes the story of Jesus and spruces things up a little to get his audiences’ attention.

He finds ways to subconsciously connect Jesus to Moses. So if Moses was a baby in Egypt, Matthew tells us that baby Jesus lived in Egypt.

If Moses received the 10 Commandments on a mountain, then Matthew has Jesus teach the Beatitudes on a mountain.

Matthew combs the scriptures to find verses that he can apply to his story of Jesus.

So if John the Baptist is in the wilderness calling people to repent, Matthew finds a scripture in Isaiah about a voice in the wilderness.

And this is all well and good, and was totally acceptable in his day.

Matthew is doing what he can to get his message across. He truly believes Jesus is the 1 we have all been waiting for. Matthew is marketing the heck out of Jesus, but because he is human, he does have a misstep here and there.

Example- today’s story, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

Everyone from common folk to religious leaders to politicians and the military have come to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival, the “12 Hours of Sebring” for Religious Types.

The story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem is one of the few stories that is told in every one of the Gospels, but each Gospel writer tells the story differently.

For example, John is the only Gospel that mentions palm branches. Mark includes an interaction with bystanders who worry that the disciples are stealing the colt.

But Matthew, Matthew does something so outrageous. I wonder if anyone even noticed it…

…Matthew has Jesus ride in on not one, but 2 animals. Look at verse 7-

“…they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.”

Say what?

Is Matthew trying to tell us that Jesus rode in on 2 animals at the same time?

How did he do that? Was Jesus so limber he could straddle two animals at the same time?

Does this mean Jesus was bowlegged?

Or, did Jesus ride side saddle, and he rested his feet on the colt, kind of like the foot cushion of a moving sofa?

Or was Jesus really, really cool like that and he just stretched out Cleopatra-style, resting his head on his hand, like “Hey- I’m Jesus- how you doin’?”

Why oh why oh why would Matthew tell us Jesus rode in on 2 animals when Mark, Luke and John do not?

I say it goes back to the marketing.

Matthew wanted to find a way to make sure his telling of Jesus fulfilled the scriptures.

So he found in Zechariah 9:9 a scripture that read-

“…Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

It’s a beautiful piece of writing that uses a poetic art form called parallelism, in which you restate something in a different way to add emphasis.

Zechariah states that the king was riding in on a donkey, then he explains it is a colt- the foal of a donkey.

He is not implying there are 2 animals.

It is akin to me saying “Last night I had the most delicious dinner, a hamburger, a hamburger covered in bacon and blue cheese dressing.”

I’m not saying I had dinner AND a hamburger, I’m simply stating what I had in a way that sounds much more poetic than saying “Yo- I went to the Caddyshack last night.”

Zechariah is simply using poetic license to say that our king will ride in on a donkey.

But Matthew, in his zeal for marketing, slips up, confusing the sentence structure to think the prophecy is saying there is an adult and a baby donkey that the king is riding upon.

So…when Matthew the marketer writes his account of Jesus entering the city, he adds this extra detail as a way to say to his Jewish customer-base “Look how Jesus fulfills the prophecy; see how Jesus is the sweet one we’ve been waiting for all along.”

Which means that if we were to film today’s story as a TV commercial, we’d see the disciples over here, the crowds over there, spreading out their cloaks and cutting branches from the trees, we’d hear them shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna!”

And we’d see Jesus somehow, someway, riding in to town on not one, but two animals.

If that is true, it would’ve been his greatest miracle of all time.

So- what do we do?

Do we throw the whole entirety of the Gospel away because of one possible mistake?

Do we give in to skepticism and question every and all things Matthew says?

Do we blindly accept Matthew’s telling and say “This is the inerrant Word of God free from all errors and questioning it is a sin!”

Do we ignore it away?

Do we find relief in knowing that even a Gospel writer can be a Left Shark and make a simple mistake?

Is our faith strong enough that we can admit that there are instances in the Bible in which we can’t say something is 100% fact, or 100% fiction, but we can say something is 100% truth.

Because I’m not mad at Matthew the Marketer for what he did here. I think Matthew has nothing but the best intentions and what he is saying is this-

#Truth-

Into this holy season, into a time and country ruffled with political leaders, soldiers, military maneuvers,

Into a place filled with turmoil, deplorables, common folk, men, women, innocent children…

…Jesus enters.

Into a Holy Week full of absolute uncertainty, Jesus enters-

Humble.
Unexpected.
In control.
About to shake things up.

Ready to show all of us just how far God’s love will go for the sake of the people and for the sake of the planet.

Who cares if Jesus rides in on one animal or on two?

What Jesus is offering right now is greater than Pepsi. More powerful than Putin. More precise than tomahawk warheads.

Jesus has entered into the city to offer a chance, a chance for us to cleanse our ways, to accept the invitation to attend the Lord’s heavenly banquet.

A chance to know that the greatest thing any of us can ever do is to love the Lord with all our heart and with all our soul and all your mind and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves…

…What will we do?

Will we shout “Hosanna!” or will we shout “Crucify!”?

Will we wave palm branches before the King, or will we strike Jesus with a reed?

Will we live in such a way that we cower in fear, or will we come to the tomb ready to be truly alive?

Amen and amen.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Who We Are; John 11:38-44

Rev. George Miller
04/02/17
John 11:38-44

Life is a series of discoveries, learnings and lessons.

For example, the concept of death.

Due to different experiences this week I’ve come to the conclusion that there are various kinds of death.

There is the kind in which death is death. For example, when a mousetrap snaps and breaks a rodent’s neck, there is no coming back.

Or, that unmistakable sickingly sweet smell that comes from the walls, signaling that something somewhere is dead and decomposing.

Then there is the kind of death that seems most assured, unless you do something about it.

For example, my flower garden. Due to the lack of rain, my plants have been drying up, wilting, turning brown, woody, and ready to be pulled up.

Monday I watered the garden to at least give the hibiscus a chance to survive.

Next day two of the plants were suddenly standing taller and seemed to have added some leaves over night.

Watered 30 more minutes on Tuesday. Next day a little green bud appeared on one of those ready-to-be-pulled up plants; a pop of purple decorated the front bush.

Watered some more on Wednesday. Now one plant had some pink peeping out and the petunias were standing upright as opposed to being slumped over.

By Saturday a plant Maydean gave me last year suddenly showed not one, not two, but three flowers fixin’ to flourish.

And in this seemingly dead and done garden an orange butterfly flit and fluttered around.

So there are at least 2 kinds of death- the dead-is-dead kind, and the dead-until-you-do-something kind.

There’s at least one other- the gone-but-not-forgotten kind, in which memories can make themselves known at any moment and loved ones can seem momentarily alive.

That’s what I experienced when I spoke about my Father’s twinkling eyes last week. It’s what happens when one of his favorite songs come on.

I can be driving down Lakeview and if something from “Chorus Line” or “Camelot” comes on, it’s as if I’m back in Dad’s car, going to the store or coming back from Commack…

…It is not that easy to talk about death. It’s a topic that affects us all.

But there’s something about today’s reading that is particularly pernicious.

How do we speak about a story in which a dead person is brought back to life when we know, we KNOW, that in this congregation are people who have lost a child, a spouse, a friend, a grandchild, a parent, a peer, and there is no way, no fantabulous way in which that person is ever, ever, EVER going to come back no matter how much we pray, no matter how much we believe, no matter how much we beg, plead, threaten, thank, or try to coerce God?

Oh! It would be so easy to be the kind of preacher who would say “This story is 100% real. It happened just as it was told, with every fact, every figure, ever detail correct!”

Then I could just dismiss anyone simply because their faith is weak and they truly don’t believe.

Oh! It would be so easy to be the kind of preacher who would say “This story is 100% made-up. It never happened and it is simply an allegory.”

Then I could just dismiss anyone for not being illuminated and progressive enough in their theology.

But to do the first could wound people who truly do believe, pray really hard and possess a truly fortified faith.

And to do the latter would strip all sense of mystery and wonder from the scriptures, to deny the wonderfulness of a God who cannot be contained.

What to do with a story like Lazarus when on one hand you are realistic and understand the allure of allegory?

What to do with a story like Lazarus when on the other hand you know that miracles do materialize and love the magical mysterious?

I don’t know what to tell you today in regards to is this story real news or fake news, if it actually happened as told or if it’s just a faith-based fairy tale.

Do we explain or explain away the story?

Perhaps like the flowers that simply needed some watering, there is a middle ground.

Perhaps between fact and fiction, we can find…truth. What is a truth that this story of Lazarus is trying to tell us?

One truth is that God, through Jesus, has a way to bring forth new life even when things seems dead as dead can be.

Let’s take a look at the story- what the people say, what they do, and how we know them.

There’s Jesus, who’s hanging out with his bros. He hears that Lazarus is sick but he delays going back for 2 days.

The disciples tell him that it’s too risky to go there, but he goes anyway.

There’s Martha who meets Jesus, holds him accountable for current events, while also proclaiming that Jesus is the great I AM.

There’s Mary who rushes to Jesus. She kneels, she speaks, she weeps.

Jesus weeps too.

Mary shows Jesus where the body of Lazarus is. With them are the Jewish neighbors; they console the sisters; they cry.

At the tomb Jesus stands amongst all the people. He speaks. He thanks God. He calls out to the one he loves.

He tells them to unbind Lazarus when he emerges from the tomb.

But there is one person in this story who does not speak, who does not say a word, who barely acts or does anything.

We have no idea what this person looks like; their appearance is hidden behind gauze and strips of cloth.

It is Lazarus, who is dead, who is cut off from community and family, who is bound up and blocked by a boulder.

It is Lazarus who is brought back to life.

So- why, in this momentous narrative, doesn’t the author give Lazarus any lines? Why doesn’t the writer tell us what Lazarus looks like?

Why doesn’t the Gospel go into detail about just who this person is that Jesus weeps for?

…Could it be, in a wibbly-wobbly, metaphysical kind of way that Lazarus is actually us?

Could it be, regardless if this story actually happened or is fully made-up, that the author is trying to tell us something-

That we are Lazarus; that we have all known what is it like to have died in some way; that we have all at one time been bound up and behind a boulder?

Could the author purposely not have given us any details or words to describe Lazarus because the author wants this scripture to be like a mirror- a mirror that we hold up and see ourselves and our own story being acted out?

Maybe the Gospel of John doesn’t want us to ask if God, through Jesus, can revive someone we love.

Maybe the Gospel of John wants us to recall “Once I was dead and bound and behind a boulder and because of Jesus I became alive again.”

Think about that for a moment…

How many of us here have a testimony? How many here can point to a time in which somehow, some way we were dead?

Dead to the world? Dead to life? Dead to love?

How many here, some way, somehow were dead?

Dead due to addiction? Dead due to finances? Dead to a job situation or unemployment?

How many here today have ever been dead to family or friends or even to yourself?

Dead is not fun. Dead is not pretty.

Dead is dark. It is dank and rank. Dead is depressing.

And yet we have all, ALL been dead at some part or at some point in our life.

Anyone who is part of a church experiences death all around them; there is no way of escaping it.

Church members die; our matriarchs and patriarchs pass on. We hear about one another’s family members and friends, so we pray, we console, we send cards, we weep with and for them.

We also witness the other kinds of death people go through from divorce to disabilities to dashed dreams.

So we pray, we console, we send cards, we weep with and for them.

But…because of Christ, we also get to see people coming back to life and we get to see them being unbound.

Think of those we know who have gone through the process of losing a spouse, who have endured the pain of seeing a loved one fade away.

And though it is never easy, and though it takes time, how many have been unbound from their heartbreak and discovered that it’s possible to love again, it is possible to date, to woo and be wooed, and it is most certainly possible to be romantically revived at 50, 60, 70 and 80?

Think of how many have been caught up in the death grip of addiction. How addiction has its own way in which it leaves a stench and separates one from family and friends, God and all the things that make life good.

How many recovering addicts can pinpoint the moment in which they had hit rock bottom, they felt most separated from God, that they were basically dead?

How many can point to the moment in which it felt as if Jesus had come to their tomb, called their name and had the cemetery clothe unbound?

How many other forms of death have people experienced here?

The news that cancer had appeared? The chronic condition that will never go away buy only increase?

The death-like state that comes from oppression, depression, recession?

How many can say that some way, at some point in their life, they were dead, and Jesus Christ, came into their lives, wept for them, and said “Come out.”

Today’s sermon dares to say that we- WE are all Lazarus, and that Lazarus looks like us, Lazarus speaks like us.

Because Lazarus is us.

As Lazarus, there are ways in which we die; there are ways in which we are raised; there are ways we are left forever changed, and affected by our experience.

We are, each and every one of us, Lazarus. We all have experienced a death, a binding up, and a separation.

We are, each and every one of us, Lazarus. We are beloved by Jesus. We are worthy of weeping over.

We are, each and every one of us, Lazarus. Which mean that in Christ, we can experience new life, and a setting free.

In Jesus, we’re all given that chance to experience the Good and Everlasting News and to once again sit with Jesus at the table, and to be part of the ever-living community. Amen and amen.