Tuesday, December 5, 2017

"Get Your Butt Off Your Throne, God" Psalm 80:1-7 sermon

Rev. George Miller
Dec 3, 2017
Psalm 80:1-7

Dressing up in our state is an interesting experience. The first week I moved here in 2010, I attended our Conference’s Spring Gathering in Naples wearing a pair of jeans paired with dress shoes, a pink button shirt and a navy blue sport coat.

A clergy colleague came over and said “I’ve been living here all these years and can never figure out what to wear, and it looks like you already have.”

7 years later I now know what he means. There are days in which long pants and a button down shirt feel just about right, other days a pair of shorts with Jesus sandals make more sense and is way more comfortable.

Look out into our congregation and you’ll see where the real meets the ideal, from folk like Hardric and Gerry who are always dressed to the “T”, to Ken who wears festive Hawaiian shirts and always ready for his next cruise, to Norma with her purple streak of hair.

All solid sartorial choices in which they are wearing what they feel comfortable with to praise the Lord.

As a pastor, I always want to look presentable, but I also want to be realistic. It doesn’t matter how fancy my clothes are if I’m sweating through my armpits or tugging on my collar.

There are events I go to and people to visit in which if I’m too dressed up it comes across as aloof and out of touch, but if I’m too dressed down, I can sense they are saying to themselves “Well bless your heart.”

That’s why I am ever-so thankful for the Emmanuel UCC polo shirts we have.

I can pair our church polo with a pair of slacks and shoes and look like I have the good sense God gave a goose. Or I can rock them out with a cargo shorts and Birkenstocks and I’m ready to go-go-go and get my hands dirty.

Or I can put a sports coat over it, and viola- ready for a banquet.

Yes- clothes can be a mystery here in Florida, but they can also be a ministry.

Is the pastor one of the people, apart from the people, or somewhere in between?

Which brings us to today’s reading. Here we have in Psalm 80 a song that is known as a “Psalm of Lament.”

It is sung by folk who feel like God has not been present in their lives, God has been somewhat asleep, and they have been left to fend for themselves.

Anyone here ever feel that way?

Anyone here ever have a time in your life in which nothing seems right, you’ve been crying for days, and it feels as if God is far, far away?

We all have, and we all will. It is part of the spiritual, human condition.

Three times in the Psalm they sing out to God “Restore us, make your face shine, and bring us back to a life worth living.”

But sadly, God seems silent; sleepy.

“Hear us. Save us,” they say.

“Don’t you remember that time you took our ancestors out of Egypt and put them in the Promised Land?”

But now?

Well now the people feel like they have been left unprotected and made vulnerable to all their enemies.

They assume God is mad at them; that God’s smile has turned into a scowl.

They feel like the bread and cup they used in worship has now been replaced with a pitiful portion of salty tears.

Yup- sometimes our experience of God can be that way.

If you go through this entire Psalm, you see all the ways they view God- as a Shepherd who leads the flock, as a farmer who clears the ground, and as a king who sits on a mighty throne.

All those descriptions sound wonderful…at first. Until you think about what they mean.

A shepherd and a farmer sound cool- hands on folk who deal with the every day. But the image of God enthroned upon the cherubim?

First of all, what the heck is a cherubim and how do you sit on it?

It’s cool to imagine God as king, but a king who is sitting on a fancy, schmancy throne while the people suffer?

I don’t know about that.

Sounds to me like this particular kind of king has been too comfortably snoozing while the people are crying and dying.

I can’t help but to feel that what the psalm is actually saying is:

“Hey, you- God. Get off your big ol’ BUTT and get down and do something to help us out!”

Personally, I love this, because once again we have another biblical example of deeply faithful people who have NO problem holding God accountable and telling God what to do.

Too often folk think they have to be all meek and mild with God, when sometimes we need to remind God just what it means to be God, just as Moses and Abraham did.

“God,” the psalm seems to say “Wake up, wipe the sleep from your eyes and help us out just like you helped all those slaves you freed hundreds of years ago.”

That’s faith. That’s courage.

That’s being in a real relationship with your Creator.

That’s covenant- making sure that all sides stick to their end of the deal.

“Get your butt off the throne, put on a pair of overalls and work gloves, and start to digging!”

…and as we enter into the Advent Season, isn’t that just what God did?

We are just weeks away of welcoming the birth of Jesus Christ into our complex world.

As Christians we claim that Jesus embodied the incarnate God, and by encountering Jesus one was encountering the face of God.

A face that was not scowling, or asleep, or set apart and far away.

But a face that was near, and dear, and real, a face that was like one of us.

With Advent we experience this amazing miracle that when God chose to enter into the world in a new and unexpected way, it was not as a prince in a palace with servants and tutors and trust funds and polished finger nails.

But when God entered into our lives, God did so in the most meek and mild, most messy, ordinary and vulnerable way-

A child born to blue collar folk, surviving the political climate of their time, who needed to learn a trade, figure out what his 20’s were all about, who wasn’t above drinking wine at weddings and talking to wild women at a well.

Forget about the Son of God being an untouchable king asleep on a throne, what we got in Jesus is a tangible, human presence who was not afraid to face the elements, mix with all members of society, and teach and preach and demonstrate what it meant to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with the Lord.

In Jesus Christ, we see that God was anything but asleep and far removed.

BUT- there is another element to today’s scripture.

If we feel that God is asleep, or not keeping the covenant or needs to get off God’s big BUTT…well that means we have to be willing to get off our big butt too, doesn’t it?

If we are in a true, honest relationship with our Creator, it means there are things for us to do as well.

And fortunately, as we learned last week, Jesus has made it so, so easy for us.

If you remember, last week we explored Matthew 25, which is so foundational to our UCC faith.

And what is it that Jesus invited us to do?

Give food to the hungry. Quench people’s thirst. Clothe the naked. Show care to the sick. Let the imprisoned know they are not alone.

Welcome the stranger.

So simple. So clear. So concise.

Not because we must, but because we may.

Not because we are trying to buy our way into heaven, but because we already know we were given a ticket via the gift of grace.

Feed. Quench. Care. Visit. Welcome.

Part of our Covenantal Relationship with our Creator.

In conclusion, there are times in all of our lives in which God will seem far away, life will be filled with sorrow, and all we want is to sense that God’s smiling, sparkling face is nearby.

Today’s reading reminds us that it is Ok to feel that way. It is Ok to call upon God.

It is Ok to remind God of what has been done in the past, and to expect God to do it again.

It is Ok to say to God “It’s time to get your BUTT off the throne and get to work.”

And it is Ok to say “Alright, God- you need to take off that sport coat and put on some shorts and get your hands dirty and face sweaty.”

And as Christians, we can expect that God will say the same thing too, and expect that we will work together.

It’s not just God; it’s not just us.

It is ALL of us- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, pastor, parishioners, friends, and Conference Ministers who can-

work together, clear the ground, plant the vine, and make the Kingdom of God a little bit better known right here on Earth. For that we can say “amen” and “amen.”

Monday, November 27, 2017

Christianity- Compassion or Condemnation? Nov 22, 2017 sermon on Matthew 25:31-46

Rev. George Miller
Matthew 25:31-46
Nov 22, 2017

There was once a preacher who gave the sermon of his life. It was all about the evils of alcohol, a message he gave with great passion.

As he came to the end of the sermon he was on a role, declaring “If I had all the beer in the world, I’d take it and pour it into the Mighty Mississippi River.”

“If I had all the wine in the world, I’d take it and pour it into the river.”

And finally, shaking a fist into the heavens, he said “And if I had all the whiskey in the world I’d take it and pour it into the river!”

With a rousing “Hallelujah!” and “Amen!” from the congregation, the pastor proudly sat down, knowing he had made a point no one, not one, could argue against…

…and ever so cautiously, the Minister of Music stood up, and with a nervous smile, she announced, “For our closing song, let us turn to hymn 365, ‘Shall We Gather at the River’.”…

…Ever notice that when it comes to organized religion, there seem to be two ways to use Christianity?

Some, like the preacher in the story above, use it to judge and condemn others, to tell them what they should not do; placing emphasis on what they perceive to be evil.

For them, Christianity becomes a check list of things “thou shall not do.”

Then, there is the other side of Christianity which is not so much about condemnation, but about showing compassion and care.

It’s less about monitoring the moral lives of grown folk and more about how to be caregivers to a world that is often feeling lost and lonely, broken and sick.

Today’s reading does have images of judgment, but as I read it, I feel it to be more about what we can do and what Christ expects to be done.

As we discussed in Tuesday’s Lectionary Bible Study, today’s reading played a major role in shaping our denomination.

The United Church of Christ is composed of at least four denominations that came together in 1957. The four branches were the congregational, the evangelical, the reformed and the Christian.

While the congregational side was primarily the Pilgrims and Puritans who settled along the east coast, the evangelical side was German, Hungarian and Swiss who settled in places like PA and Missouri.

They had experienced severe persecution in their homeland, so when they came to America they embraced a peace-loving life-style.

They also embraced Matthew 25, allowing it to guide their faith. And guide it did.

Caring about pastoral ministry, they set out to create social institutions that benefited all kind of people. They explored new ways that Christ’s love could be made manifest.

Such as residential homes for people living with developmental disabilities that treated them as people, not things.

Retirement communities that surrounded the elderly with the things that make life good, and empowered them to live as fully as possible.

Instead of focusing only on building churches, they built hospitals, community centers, and schools, such as Eden seminary, which I attended.

They did all of these things based on their understanding of Matthew 25.

Part of their faith stemmed from the fact that they knew what it was like to be persecuted.

Matthew’s church also knew a bit about being judged. After all, they were doing something entirely new. What we call “church” basically began with them.

Most of them were born in the Jewish faith; chances are they had been kicked out of the synagogues for what they believed. With no real road map, they were trying to figure out what it meant to follow Jesus Christ.

So it’s very telling that Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats is placed where it’s placed; it’s as if everything in Matthew’s Gospel has been leading up to this.

For 25 1/2 chapters we have followed Jesus, seeing how his ministry begins, witnessing his teaching, his healing, and his miracles.

And then right before he is betrayed, Jesus teaches this one last story, a story that tells us that when we give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, and comfort to the ill and imprisoned, we are actually doing it to Jesus himself.

And as the story goes, in doing so we are the inheritors of the Kingdom even if we are not fully aware of what we were doing.

What is so interesting is that right after Jesus teaches this story, the exact opposite happens to him.

He is betrayed by one of his own flock. He is falsely arrested, mistreated, and mocked; he is stripped naked, and hung between two criminals where he hungers and thirsts, asking why God would have forsaken him…

…but the story doesn’t end there, does it?

No.

Because 2,000 years later we are here, giving thanks that Jesus was not forsaken at all, but was raised by the God Most High, in which nothing is impossible…

This is a scripture that everyone should know. Why?

Because it impacted Matthew’s church. Because it shaped our denomination.

Because it’s a story about how we are to treat one another.

Not because we must, but because we may.

Not because we’re seeking heaven’s reward but because no one alive should experience hell on earth.

This is a story that everyone should know because it’s not about earning brownie points with Christ, but because it reminds us that by being generous, and by generously caring for other, we are actually caring for Christ.

Not because we want the world to know us by what we say, but because God wants to recognize us by what we do.

Not because we desperately want to be part of the Heavenly Family but because we already are part of the Heavenly Family; created by God, restored in Christ, and filled with the Holy Spirit.

In conclusion, let’s end with another story:

The other day I was on the Circle, enjoying the Chili Cook-off. There was a driver who stopped for a man at the crosswalk even though he could have blazed on through.

Well, this infuriated the woman behind him. She started tailgating him, honking her horn, screaming out her window in frustration, and flipping him a few choice signs.

Next thing I knew, while she was in mid-rant, a very serious looking police officer was tapping on her window.

The officer asked her to exit the car with her hands up. She began to beg and plead and wonder what was wrong, but he placed her in handcuffs and had her sit in the back of his squad car.

A few minutes later, after a rather lengthy conversation on his cell phone, the officer released her with an apology.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said in a wonderful southern manner, “When I pulled up behind your car I saw you blowing your horn, yelling out the window and flipping off the guy in front of you.”

“And when I noticed the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ bumper sticker, and ‘Follow me to Sunday School’ decal, well, I just figured you must have stolen the car!”

Emmanuel UCC- we don’t need bumper stickers or decals to declare our faith if our actions are already doing it.

So let us prepare to enter into the Advent season, displaying the deeds of our faith and allowing the Lord to prosper the works of our hearts.

For that, let me hear a mighty “Hallelujah!” and a grateful “Amen.”

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Home; Psalm 90:1-6

Rev. George Miller
Psalm 90:1-6
Nov 19, 2017

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.”

That’s the opening line of today’s psalm. When I hear it, I find great comfort; the notion of God being our dwelling place.

Roots. Grounded. Eternal.

But when put in context of the entire song, conflicting thoughts emerge.

Why would someone claim that God has been their home? Could it be that perhaps the person who wrote this is homeless?

Could it be they’ve been wandering around some kind of wilderness, waiting for a permanent place to rest their head?

Think about it: would a person who is already home in a secure place need to make the claim that God is home?

Or would it make more sense if that person is far away from momma’s cooking, far from fixing things with Dad, far from their pesky siblings, beloved pets, and childhood friends?

A person who is far from home, in a strange place, may just be the kind of person who calls God their dwelling place.

They may also be the kind of person who thinks about things like the mistakes we make, and how life seems too short and filled with too much toil.

And to what end? That we die, like a sigh, to become dust that gathers in the corner of a room?

These are the thoughts that fill Psalm 90. “How long?” the singer asks God. “How long?”

So, if we go back to the first line of the psalm and reread it, we can wonder if it’s designed to be words of comfort, words of distress, or words meant to remind God just what it means to be God.

Perhaps it’s all of these things; perhaps it is none.

Perhaps this is an appropriate scripture for acknowledging Thanksgiving.

Can’t you imagine these words being composed by one of the Pilgrims after they travelled overseas to an unknown land?

That someone in the wilderness of early America could write this?

Or, since last week we acknowledged Veteran’s Day, could you imagine a soldier currently across the ocean composing this?

Calling God their dwelling place, their refuge, when they know their life can be ended in a moment?

Could any of our veterans here today have composed such a song, knowing all too well the fragility of life, especially after watching one of their comrades die?

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. From dust we were made, to dust we shall return.

Humbling.

My father, who served in Vietnam, could have been one of those men.

I’d like to share something with you, the most emotionally valuable thing I own.

It’s a Bible that’s been in my family for three generations, passed down from 1st born male to 1st born male, used to mark an important transition in each life.

My father gave it to me in 1990 when I left for college. His father gave it to him in 1968 when he left for Vietnam.

His grandparents gave it to him when he was confirmed April 6, 1926.

This tattered Bible is one of the two things I put in my backpack in case I had to flee my home during Hurricane Irma.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned the true story of this Bible.

When my father was oversees, his unit was the victim of a roadside bombing.

It killed my father’s friend, and badly wounded my Dad. He had shrapnel throughout his body and a permanently damaged eardrum.

In fact, after the bomb went off, the enemy came and stripped my father of everything he had and left him for dead in the dirt on the side of the road.

Everything that is, except for this Bible.

My Dad received the Purple Heart and he returned home to start a family. Like many veterans, he carried deep wounds from the war.

I find comfort in knowing that even though he was left for dead in a strange, foreign wilderness, surrounded by those who tried to hurt him, this Word of God remained by his side.

Could it be that this family Bible, passed down from 1st born male to 1st born male, became some kind of refuge, shelter, fortress, home?

What is home?

In an idealized sense, home is where compassion begins, where we learn how to say “please” and “thank you.”

Home is where we discover that we are loved, we are forgiven and we are part of something bigger then ourselves.

If you are lucky, home is the place in which you are welcomed no matter who we are, and welcomed back when we have gone away or astray.

It’s those places the Pilgrims left behind to get a second chance at life, to have a piece of land to call their own, and to worship God the way they felt best.

Home is the place our veteran’s and current soldiers have left behind for months and for years.

I am sure that for the Pilgrims, and for many of our veterans and soldiers, God would become or is the only home they could count on, even if they were wondering “how long?” and about the toil of human life.

In closing, the psalmist referred to God as the eternal dwelling place.

Did such a statement come from a place of comfort or a place of distress?

Think of where you are in your life. Of where you came from, and all you have been through.

What does it mean for you to say that God is your home?

One writer stated that “Home is the place where when you get there, they take you in.”

If Scripture teaches us anything, and if the life and resurrection of Christ teaches us anything, is that no matter what we go through in life, no matter where we go, no matter what we do-

We will always be welcomed into the home that we call God.

Eternal. Everlasting. Offering grace upon grace upon grace.

For that, we can say “Amen” and amen.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Pastoral Response- Shooting at Sutherland Springs

Dear Editor,

Psalm 90, begins with "Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations." Other translations use the word "home" or "refuge", thus making the claim that God is a safe place.

Yet, on Sunday November 5, the members of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, TX did not experience safety or refuge.

At a time like this, people want words of comfort, but perhaps what we need most are words of discomfort. Comfort can lull us into a sense of complacency; discomfort can cause us to respond, think, and act.

Once again the issues of mental illness, hate, and guns enter into the political discourse, but at what value?

We look at the number of people killed by guns this year alone, and some say there needs to be more gun control. But then we can look at the number of people killed by cars or automobile accidents, and no one says "Cars are dangerous and need to be taken off the street."

We can look at scripture, when Jesus was arrested in the garden, and one of the disciples drew their sword and cut off the ear of the high priest's slave, which indicates that the disciples were strapped. But...we also have Jesus say "Put your sword back into place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword." (Matthew 26:31-31)

I wonder, while wrestling with all that has taken place, if perhaps there needs to be a change in vocabulary as we discuss events like those that took place in TX, Las Vegas and PULSE.

Words matter. Maybe the phrases "gun rights" and "gun control" need to be replaced. Personally, I believe everyone has the right to own a gun. But "gun rights" makes it sound like an inanimate object has more meaning than a human life. I also believe there should be certain rules around guns, but "gun control" sounds like someone wants to take guns away.

So, maybe a better phrase is "gun wisdom." Wisdom is a word that infers deep thought, a process, and the ability to see things from all sides.

In the discomfort of the events at First Baptist, I wonder if what we could must benefit from is a discussion about the wisdom around what it means to own, sell, and care for guns; wisdom on how they are to be used, stored, treated; wisdom on the consequences of misuse; and wisdom on how to prevent and respond to events like those that recently happened.

I see the gun debate as one in which people are digging in their heels on either side, doubling down on what they think is the true, and only, solution. I think there is so much more to discuss and to learn.

People have always found weapons to inflict great harm, pain, and power over others. Lest we forget, the swords the disciples carried were weapons. Lest we forget, the means by which Jesus was crucified, the cross, was the weapon of choice for the Roman government.

There are no words of comfort that I feel I can honestly convey. It is more like a numbness; a "here-we-go-again-itis." But I do think that we, as a community, and as a country, can begin really wrestling with the wisdom around what guns are, why we have them, and what are the ways to ensure our children, our churches and our communities are kept as safe as possible.

As Psalm 90 begins with the claim that God is our home/dwelling place/refuge, it ends with a prayer that makes so much sense, and proves to be so timely-

"Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands- O prosper the work of our hands!"

Peace and prosperity to everybody.

Sincerely, Rev. George Miller

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Courage to Stand Still; Joshua 3:7-17

Rev. George Miller
Joshua 3:7-17
Nov 5, 2017

Veteran TV actress Jenifer Lewis has stated “The elevator to success is broken; take the stairs.”

How true are these words. Success can take a year, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, 40.

40 years.

That’s a long time. A lot can take place.

Think of what life was like 40 years ago. No cell phones. No Google. Diet Coke did not exist for another 5 years.

Fleetwood Mac’s infamous album “Rumors” is released on vinyl because there is no such thing as CDs or iTunes.

“Three’s Company” made its debut on ABC during a time in which there were only about 7 stations. No cable, live-streaming or Netflix. You adjusted the antenna on your TV to get better reception and your children were the remote.

Jimmy Carter is President. The world’s 1st all-in-one home computer debuts, and an unknown movie called “Star Wars” opens.

If you’re like me, you enjoy our paper’s daily column that shares all the “On-This-Day” events.

It makes history a bit more real. It also makes me realize that things I grew up taking for granted are relatively recent in the span of human history.

For example, as Millie Grime shared a few weeks ago, women in the United States did not get the right to vote until 1920.

People of two different races were not legally allowed to be husband and wife until 1967.

That’s just 3 years before I was born.

40 years from now, I wonder if some preacher will say “Can you believe it wasn’t until June 26, 2015 that same-sex marriage was legal in the U.S.?”

To which someone in the congregation will be thinking, “Yeah, and by June 27 they also got the right to be divorced!”

These events are revolutionary.

We can look at such moments in time and say that there was a before and after; there was a way in which things used to be done and a way they are done now.

On paper, such things can give the impression of an easy transition. But that is rarely the case. Usually there is some type of symbolic river to cross.

Often times, things that we take for granted, like women having the right to vote, came about thanks to the actions of those who paid a great price.

Reggae singer Jimmy Cliff sang “there are many rivers to cross.”

If there is anything we learn from history and from scripture is that it’s not unusual to take a long, long time to get to the other side of the river.

And on a day in which we are honoring All Saints, we should give thanks to those who faithfully took those steps forward, knowing they were not easy.

Take for example today’s reading.

The Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land after wandering through the wilderness for forty years.

4 decades ago their ancestors were freed from slavery and lead across the Red Sea waters.

They camped out by Mt. Sinai, where they were given the Law and taught the commandments.

Moses led them through the wilderness towards the Promised Land in which they experienced how God could and would provide food and water for them.

But something went wrong.

Numbers 13-14 tells us that the people were poised to enter the Promised Land. The ancestors were right on the cusp of true freedom…but then they became scared.

As the story goes, God had them send 12 of their leaders to check out the land the Lord had promised the people.

It was harvest time. The land was filled with plenty. Grapes big and abundant, milk and honey for all.

But there were also people who lived there who were much taller them they, so 10 of the leaders became afraid.

Though God had set them free, parted the Red Sea waters and filled their bellies with food, 10 of the 12 leaders decided to give the people a bad, and fear-based, report.

They said that the land devoured its inhabitants and its citizens seemed tall and strong.

And though God had promised them the land, though God had performed amazing deeds of deliverance, the people believed the false report of 10 fear-based individuals.

The people became scared. They rebelled. They cried and they wept.

Their behavior saddens Moses.

It saddens Joshua who says to the people “Don’t listen to their fearful reports, the land is good. God is pleased with us. Do not be afraid: we are on the verge of being blessed.”

But the ancestors were afraid. They complain that it would’ve been better to die as slaves in Egypt.

They think of turning back, threatening to kill anyone who tries to move them forward into God’s Promised Land.

This angers God. God feels hurt and despised.

As a consequence to their unfounded fears and unfaithful lies, God decides the people will wander the dessert for 40 years before their children will get a second chance to enter the Promised Land.

For 4 decades they struggle, they live, they die, they wait, when all God wanted to give them was paradise.

It is not until the next generation comes along that God’s people get to finally enter the land of milk and honey.

As we heard in today’s reading, God gives clear directions to Joshua and the priests and the people follow.

The priests carry the arc of the covenant into the Jordan River and when the soles of their feet rest in the river, the water stops flowing, and a path of dry ground is created for the people to journey across to the other side.

And they all do so, without a hitch, without complaint, without a quarrel, without a “what if?’ or a “woe is me.”

Perhaps that was the true miracle, not that the water had stopped flowing. But that after 40 years the people had finally learned how to trust God

The result: they are wilderness travelers no more; they are people of the Promised Land. Grounded in God, able to establish roots.

That’s how it is sometimes, isn’t it?

The things we fear the most, or have been taught by others to fear, are sometimes nothing more than just a river to cross, trusting God to keep us dry.

Like allowing women to vote or people of different races to marry.

To get from here to there took working together. It took some people to simply stand still.

It took trust in the Lord and believing in the promise.

It took courage.

You know, images of courage occur throughout the stories of our spiritual ancestors; stories designed to show us how to find and to have courage in the Lord.

As Christians, our ultimate example of courage would be Jesus Christ.

Jesus was a man of courage.

Jesus showed courage by fraternizing with those who were seen as “not one of us.” He wasn’t afraid to reach out to those who were seen as different.

Jesus wasn’t afraid to be close to someone who was unwell, or to touch the hands of someone who was sick.

He was willing to be seen talking with those of questionable morals or those deemed too dangerous for society.

Jesus had great courage. How else could he talk to a Samaritan woman at the well? Or walk across rough seas in the middle of a storm? Or stand before a multitude of hungry folk?

Jesus, like Joshua, was a person of faith, a person of action.

He was a person who showed courage by reaching out to folks when the world around them would not.

Jesus would meet people where they were, when they were here, on one side of the river, and he would metaphorically take them to there, the other side in which they experienced spiritual, physical, and social healing.

Where did this courage of Christ come from?

His relationship with God. His understanding of scripture. Knowing the stories of the saints and ancestors who came before him.

His ability to sometimes be still.

His sense of justice, kindness, and humility.

His sense that who we are now is not always who we are capable of being.

Knowing that each of us deserve the chance to grow, to learn, and to cross over to the other side.

The feet of the saints from oh so long ago led us out of the wilderness, and into the Promised Land.

And the feat of our ancestors is that although they were often afraid and unsure, they did learn how to trust the Lord, and in trust, they were able to move forward in faith and action.

We too are following in the feet of our ancestors.

Some are the saints who came long ago. Some are our immediate relatives.

Some are those who helped to shape the denomination, those who worked hard to build this specific church; some are even amongst us today.

Regardless if they knew it or not, what they did and have done took courage, courage based on faith and an understanding of God’s grace and love for all.

In conclusion, each person, each community has many, many moments in which they come to a symbolic river and are invited by God to cross over into something wonderful, something new, and yes, perhaps even something scary.

But may none of that stop us from getting our own feet a little wet, trusting that in God the path ahead will be doable.

And with the grace of Christ, we have the chance to go from here to there with feet of faith that moves us forward into feats of faith.

For that, we can say amen and “Amen!”

Monday, October 23, 2017

Kaepernick, #MeToo and Paper Towels- What Do We See?; Exodus 33:12-23

Rev. George Miller
Oct 22, 2017
Exodus 33:12-23

Sight.

To see/to be seen.

To hear/to be heard.

To know/to be known.

To believe/to be believed.

To see…

When Colin Kaepernick kneels during the National Anthem, what do you see?

A brown-skinned American man peacefully bringing national attention to the fact that 180 black men have been killed by cops in this year alone?

Or an overpaid athlete disrespecting the flag and our military?

When women post on Facebook #MeToo do you see the courageous act of individuals bringing to national attention the fact that at least 1 in 4 of our mothers/sisters, wives/friends have been sexually assaulted?

Or do you see an overly sensitive movement of political correctness in which you’re sure many of the women are lying or making more out of it then what’s really there?

When you saw Trump throwing paper towels into a crowd of people in Puerto Rico did you see a man who was acting presidential and compassionate towards citizens of the USA?

Or did you see a world leader out of touch and insensitive to the needs of his nation’s citizens?

What do you see?

What do your eyes tell you?

What do you hear?

What do you know?

What do you believe?

What does your heart say?

Today’s reading, based on the NRSV version of the Bible, is all about sight and the ability or inability to see.

Took a look at today’s scripture and the words “sight” and “see” each appear 5 times.

Clearly, the narrator wants to bring the ability to see to the forefront of the story.

See- this is a glimpse into the intimate relationship that God and Moses shared. We are given a chance to witness the kind of relationship they had, in which Moses and God talked as if they were old, dear friends.

God has set the Israelites free- an act of spiritual, physical, and political liberation. And now they are about to leave Mt. Sinai to wander through the wilderness, towards the Promised Land.

At first God was going to leave them on their own, but Moses says “Umm-hmmm God, we ain’t going nowhere without you. See- we want the whole world to know what a mighty God we serve.”

So God acquiesces with one caveat- “I will let all my goodness pass before you, but you cannot see my face.”

Why?

Why can’t the face of God be seen? People have pondered this question for centuries, and people will have to ponder it for many centuries to come.

Because today we’re not going to talk about the “why?” That’s a mystery best left for you to walk around with.

Today we are going to talk about the “what?” As in “What do you see?”

See- as Christians we make a rather radical claim. A claim that although God is transcendent and invisible, we can actually catch a glimpse of God in Jesus Christ, Emmanuel.

The faithful have believed that if you want to know who God is- look to Jesus. If you want to know the extent of God’s grace and mercy- look to Jesus.

If you want to see what the love of God looks like- look to Jesus and what he did, how he interacted with others, and even how he died.

Emmanuel- meaning God with Us.

Look to Jesus, and what do we see?

We saw a time in which the disciples were in a boat, facing a horrible storm, and they were terribly afraid.

What did we see Jesus do?

He came down from the mountain, walked across the water, spoke words of comfort, got into the boat, and took them to the other side.

Look to Jesus, and what do we see?

A time when he met a foreign woman with a daughter in need, and although he was a bit slow to help, he engaged the woman in dialogue, hearing her out.

As a result, Jesus learned something from her, and he offered wholeness and healing to both mother and daughter.

Look to Jesus, and what do we see?

A brown-skinned middle-eastern man who was falsely arrested, brought before the courts on trumped up charges, and unfairly executed in a public manner in which some spectators ridiculed him, some ignored his pain, and others said he only had himself to blame.

Look to Jesus, and what do you see?

If Jesus Christ is the Son of God, Emmanuel, what do we see in him that allows you to better see, hear, and know the Most Holy of Holies???

…Sight.

To see/to be seen.

To hear/to be heard.

To know/to be known.

To believe/to be believed.

To see…

If Jesus was here today and you saw him kneeling during the National Anthem would you try to understand why or would you condemn his actions?

If Jesus was on Facebook today and posted #MeToo would you believe him or disregard his testimony?

If Jesus was in Puerto Rico, do you think you would see him throw paper towels into the masses or could you see him doing something else?

What does it mean to be a Christian?

What does it mean to say we follow Christ?

What do you think we see in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, God With Us, Emmanuel?

What do we hear?
What do we know?
What do we believe?
What do we see???

Amen & amen.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Letter to the Editor- President's Actions Show Us Who He Is

When someone shows you who they are, believe them. What have we seen in President Trump?

He was slow to respond to Hurricane Harvey, late in visiting the folks of Texas and quick to make a joke at their expense. When Irma hit Florida, he spent his time on the coast but never ventured inland to places like Highlands County where honest working, blue-collar folk dealt with the loss of cattle, citrus, and uninsured homes.

When Maria hit Puerto Rico, he was slow in responding but quick to publicly shame the mayor of San Juan and to throw towels into a crowd of brown-skinned American citizens. When primarily Caucasian, country-music loving folk faced a brutal assault in cash-fueled Las Vegas, he was there as fast as he could be with a sense of dignity and remorse.

While California, a predominately Democratic state, is besieged with wildfires, he has yet to visit them, make any plans to visit, or show any sign that he legitimately cares.

President Trump- your actions speak loudly. We see who you really are. Half of America is not surprised because we knew this was truly you all along. The other half of America is either enjoying your disregard for humanity or they are doing their best to fool themselves into thinking you are an OK guy.

But you are not. What we have witnessed in our Republican President is someone who is callous, uncaring and non-compassionate. It is time for the other half of our beloved country to open up their eyes and to truly see who our President is.

Faithfully,
Rev. George Miller

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Advice to Far-Away Friends When Disaster Strikes

“Advice to Far-Away Friends When Disaster Strikes”
By Rev. George Miller
Emmanuel UCC, Sebring, FL

Having recently experienced the destructive actions of Hurricane Irma, I also experienced the compassionate care of family and friends who lived far away. What I learned was that natural disasters cause many people to feel helpless.

There are those who go through the disaster, and then there are those who watch it from afar, wanting to help, but knowing there is nothing they can do but to call, text, and pray. Though everything my family and friends did was well-intentioned, there are four bits of information I’d like to share.

Do not stay-shame. The days leading up to Irma I got FB posts telling me to leave, get out, go. That my house would not hold up, prayers do not work, and my life was more important than things. These comments were written as signs of love and concern, but they felt like daggers of shame.

There are reasons why people choose to stay. For some, like me, they are care-givers and community leaders. As a church pastor I was not going to drive away and leave my congregation and community behind. My calling to ministry made it very clear that I was there to stay and be present before, during and after the storm.

Many people I knew are caregivers- nurses, social workers, home help aides, non-profit administrators, first responders. If we all left, who would be there for the community immediately after Irma?

Many of us had pets and most shelters do not accept pets. So out of love for our animals, and because they love us, we chose to stay instead of leaving them alone.

There is also the importance of HOME. For those who chose to stay it wasn’t about things, or items that can be replaced. I made peace that everything I had could be lost, and I was Ok with that. But I was not Ok leaving my HOME, where my roots were. There are those who will understand this, and there are those who will not, but I was willing to die within my home. That sense of bravery gave me peace and purpose.

Also, there comes a point in which even if someone decides to leave it may no longer be wise. For example, right before Irma hit, traffic out of state slowed down to an 11-mile-an-hour crawl. It took 8 hours to go what should have only taken 90 minutes. People ran out of gas; cars were stranded on the side of the road.

What’s safer- to be in your own home during a hurricane, or to be caught in traffic with cars full of fearful, angry people?

So please, don’t try to shame your friends or family into leaving their home or a community during a storm or disaster; simply say “I support you and will be here for you.”

Keep communication during the storm short. Cell phones have changed the way we live. Contacting people via text, FB, messenger and phone is instant and real time. It was comforting to see how many people cared about me and was contacting me during the storm.

However, many people wanted to engage in long conversations via text and messenger. This was difficult to do while riding out the storm. It also left me in a quandary- do I ignore their numerous text messages and appear rude or give the impression something bad just happened or do I respond?

This sounds frivolous but the fear and worry from family/friends during the storm was palpable and I felt like I was doing as much work to calm their nerves as I was calming mine.

At one point I was sitting on a chair against my front door trying to keep the wind from blowing it open, while individuals kept trying to engage me in a text conversations while the eye of the storm was overhead.

Keep communication after the storm simple. Cell phones work differently after disaster. There is no rhyme or reason, they just don’t function. Memes, attachments, links, voice mails, and long texts do not go through. Folks up north still wanted to communicate but did not fully understand that my cell phone was not always functional, nor did I always have the emotional energy to respond or to reassure them that I was OK, or repeatedly detail what the experience as like.

Not only was I in survival mode (living without electricity, stinky and sweaty, working on little sleep, worrying about if my car would run out of gas or my tires go flat, barely hungry yet always thirsty), but our cell phones were wonky.

I could text, but not receive instant messages on FB. I could receive calls, but not call out. My cell didn’t work at all at church, but did work in my home. Sometimes I’d have to step out into the middle of the street to send a text. Other times I’d cross a road and all of a sudden, the cell phone would blow up with message alerts spanning a few days.

What I most appreciated were folks who left a brief text saying they loved me and were glad that I was OK. The long, drawn out texts in which a loved one tried to engage me in back and forth conversation as if everything was fine…. did not feel fine, and added emotional exhaustion on top of the physical and spiritual exhaustion.

Don’t forget us when we need you most. Ok- the storm passes. A month goes by. But we have what’s called “hurricane brain.” We’ve become forgetful. We’ve lost a month of our life. Everywhere we look there is still damage and debris from Irma. Depression is setting in; folk are getting sick. And some other storm or disaster or political event has taken center stage and we are no longer “sexy” and everybody has moved on.

NOW is the time when what you do can make the biggest difference.
NOW is when you can offer hope, show your love, and share your resources.

And it is so simple- send them a card that features words of hope. Send them a letter that celebrates who they are and what that person means to you. Better yet, get a little gift card to a store or place or website they like- be it CVS, Panera, Olive Garden, i-Tunes, and say “Treat yourself to something you like.”

A month into surviving a disaster is when folk seem to lose hope and wonder if things will ever be the same again. This is a time in which they don’t need utilitarian things, but fun things that make life a bit better, a bit easier, a bit more enjoyable.

Trust me- you send a note with a gift card to a friend a month after they experienced a disaster- you will make a difference in their day and their life that they will not forget.

In conclusion, next time you have a dear family member of friend facing a disaster, and you feel incredibly helpless and wish there was something you can do, keep in mind these things
1) Don’t stay-shame, but support their decision to remain at home.
2) Keep communication short with your loved one during the storm.
3) Keep communication simple after the storm- don’t send memes, attachments, long messages/texts that require full responses
4) A month after the storm surprise your loved one with a card and a little gift.

Trust me, these four things will make a huge difference and truly say “I care about you, and I am here.”

Monday, October 16, 2017

Seeds of Hope; Pollinators of Peace- Philippians 4:4-9

Rev. George Miller
Oct 15, 2017
Philippians 4:4-9

Pollinators of peace:
Truth; honor; justice.
Purity; nobility; excellence.
Wholeness.

There is story from this week that is worthy to be told.

We have a child on our prayer-list named Gunner, a young boy living with severe disabilities. Twice this year he nearly died. After the hurricane he required a working generator to keep cool air on him so he would not have a seizure.

His mom, an amazing woman named Tonya, rode back and forth from Sebring to Fort Pierce twice a week to ensure they had enough gas to run their generator.

Tonya did not just get gas for her own son, but for the parents of other special needs children, as well as for a local UCC pastor you may know.

She also brought back cases of water, coolers with ice packs, and let others know about our Shepherd’s Pantry.

Tonya is a mother and community leader who is always on the go go go, caring for her son and others in need.

Earlier this week, she and Gunner were at a gas station. Gunner’s IV pole was in the van and his feeds were running, and as Tonya was pumping gas, she noticed her son had fallen over.

So, she went to the side of the van, opened it up, adjusted him and gave Gunner a kiss like she always does.

A few minutes later a man with a truck pulling a jet ski approached her. He said “I’ve been watching you and it looks like life is probably pretty tough for you.”

He took out money from his pocket and placed a folded $100 bill into the hand she was pumping gas with.

Tonya didn’t know how to respond so she said “No, no, no.” But he more than insisted.

This immediately made her think of her own mother who had died, and that perhaps this was a way she was reaching out to help and to give hope.

As Tonya shared on her Facebook page “I don’t know who this man is but a small gesture as it seemed to him…was impacting and large on my side. No real words will suffice.”

Tonya’s testimony of hope, complete with photos of the man, has been viewed by over 200 people, but no one knows who he is.

We don’t know his name. Where he’s from; where he’s going, the sins he may have committed, or the other lives he may have helped

What we do know is that he acted honorable and just, pure and noble, bringing a sense of wholeness to a family.

Making the Kingdom of God near…

Today we revisit Paul’s letter to the Philippian church. It is a letter composed during a time of imprisonment.

Paul was arrested for preaching the Good News. His freedom has been taken away. He is shackled in chains, far from the people of Philippi.

It would appear to be a hopeless situation, an experience that could challenge the fragility of faith and make anyone wonder where God is.

In his letter, Paul admits to the Philippian church that he has experienced a period of despondency. His physical pain has been so great he wonders if it would be better to die.

But something happens…a care package arrives from this congregation; a gift; a sweet-smelling offering.

We don’t know for sure what the gift is, but we do know that of all the churches Paul has been associated with, this is the only one that has reached out to him.

And out of thanksgiving, he tells the congregation that he is fully satisfied.

Clearly, their gift to Paul was more than just a gift; just like the $100 Tonya received was more than just money.

Their gift was not just an item; not just a thing.

It was hope. It was friendship. It was the gift of tomorrow’s promise.

Paul responds in kind by creating a letter to them that says “Rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord!”

Reading through this letter it is clear that Paul is not expressing false hope. This is not hope based on denial. This is not hope that magically melts his chains away.

This is the kind of hope that gives one a reprieve from their current situation.

This is the kind of hope that helps pollinate the possibilities of days to come.

This is empowering hope that propels Paul to meditate on what he knows about a life lived in Christ.

This is the kind of hope that soothes the soul.

Hope that is rooted in the reality that the Lord is near. Hope that even in the darkest valley, there is comfort.

Hope that says we can find peace in the Lord. Not peace that is absent of conflict, or peace that means a perfect life.

But peace in knowing that God has a way to work through things; that God is greater than a jail cell; that God’s ability to restore is more powerful than any storm’s ability to demolish.

With the peace provided by the Philippians’ unexpected gift, Paul is able to hold onto hope, and though he is incarcerated, he finds his own way to inspire.

“Imagine,” he says. “Think about these things- think about what is truly true. Think of what is honorable. Think of what is just and what is right.”

“Think of what’s pure and untainted. Think of what is excellent. Think of anything worthy of being praised- and God will be with you.”

Though his body is shackled, Paul encourages them to free their mind as he states “Think thoughts of thanksgiving and the wholeness of the Lord will bloom and be within you…”

Paul is offering a vision of heavenly living in which one does not have to die to experience the glory of God…one just has to be willing to live in truth and justice, honor and thanksgiving.

How wonderful would the world be if we lived with this as our definition of a faithful life?

What hope Paul was giving to himself, what hope he was giving to the Philippian church, and what hope he is giving to us today.

While thinking of the testimony that Tonya shared about the man with the $100 bill, I have thoughts of another testimony taking place.

Though there is still tons of debris lining Lakeview, and so much of our soil is beyond saturation, there has been solace coming from the earth.

I look out upon my own yard. A plumbago bush by the driveway that a month ago seemed worse for the wear has bloomed beautifully with blue flowers that have quadrupled after the storm.

Hundreds of purple flowers now fill the wooded area of my back yard, filling out the spots that Irma leveled and dressing a cactus with a royal robe of amethyst that even King Solomon would be jealous of.

A long wished-for wildflower garden that was started in August is now alive with the colors of maroon, mimosa, mandarin, and lavender. Each plant growing taller; dancing in the breeze.

Perhaps best of all, there are now yellow moths, bees and butterflies visiting my home, flitting about, sipping nectar, adding life amidst the fallen fences and browning leaves.

There is comfort in knowing that all these things that have come about post- Irma are playing a part in a new creation.

There is also the hope that as the moths, bees and butterflies go from bloom to bloom to bloom that they are doing their part to pollinate the area and possibly create sweet, sweet honey.

In conclusion, Paul received such unexpected sweetness from the Philippian church, and he could not help but to be sweet in return, and nearly 2,000 years later his message of hope continues to-

Pollinate our hearts.
Sow seeds of salvation.
Remind us that the Lord is near.
Not far away; not absent.
But near.

And with that, we have hope beyond understanding; we have hope that allows us to praise the Lord from the wholeness of our hearts.

For that, we can say Amen and amen.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

2 Days Off for Jesus; John 4:39-45

Rev. George Miller
Oct 8, 2017
John 4:39-45

2 Different Worlds.

When anyone moves to a place like Florida they will become aware that they are living in at least 2 different worlds.

South and north. Conservative and progressive. Coastal and inland. Retired and working. Transplants and 4, 5, 6 generation.

If you are lucky and willing to move from world to world, you become enriched and learn how others live.

For example, I think of a house party I went to hosted by a family from the Caribbean.

You learn that a 4 pm invite does not mean you arrive at 4, but means “We’re gonna start thinking about getting ready around 4 but we won’t actually start cooking until 5 so don’t come until 6.”

Then the world of the hunters, in which trucks, chewing tobacco, blue jeans, plaid shirts, country music, polarized sunglasses and guns take the forefront.

And if a hunter tells you to be ready at 6 am, they are parked in front of your home at 6 am.

I’ve been to a few gatherings hosted by a couple from Puerto Rico in which the main event was dominoes.

Not dominoes as in old men sitting in the park or young kids at Vacation Bible School, but dominoes as a sport, in which each man brings his own custom-made domino table complete with a picture of the Puerto Rican flag.

You learn there’s a whole way of talking when playing dominoes- talking big and saying smack is an art form, and no one just places their pieces gently on the table, but presents them with passion, as bones are slammed down and counted up.

I love all these worlds and am thankful for every one I’ve been welcome to.

My own world was shook when last week our planning committee met and worked over slices of pizza.

There, in front of my eyes, Sam Darley ate her pizza with a fork.

The horror! Pizza is to be folded and honored, not cruelly cutlery-ized!

2 different worlds.

That’s what we witness in today’s readings. Jesus a Jew, hanging out with Gentiles.

Jesus, a good ol’ boy from the southern kingdom hanging out with a bunch of Samaritans in the north.

Shocking. Scandalous. Something that simply was not done.

Back in the day Jews and Samaritans were mortal enemies, total opposites:

Crips and Bloods. Jets and Sharks. ISIS and the US. Fox News and CNN.

That’s how people saw Jews and Samaritans.

So to have a story in which Rabbi Jesus is not only in Samaria, but socializing with the Samaritans is not only controversial it is boundary-breaking revolutionary.

The fact that the Samaritans come to Jesus and invite him to spend 2 days with them is mind-blowing, and the fact that he said “yes” and stayed in their homes, ate their meals, and entered into a relationship with them is beyond comprehension.

This reading is about radical hospitality in which the Hatfields have invited a McCoy over for a weekend retreat, and the McCoy has graciously accepted.

Jesus, the Son of God, is invited to spend 2 days in Samaria, and he says “Yes.”

And you know what- I am so grateful that he did.

This scripture gives us a brief glimpse into Jesus, the man.

Part of me is sad that the Gospel Writer didn’t think it was important enough to tell us what Jesus’ 2 days off were like.

We’re told of his baptism, his teachings, his healing, his miracles, the people who didn’t like him and the threats he endured.

But we’re not told what these 2 days off were like, almost as if what Jesus did doesn’t matter unless if he’s giving giving giving to others.

Another part of me is thankful we’re not told what the 2 days off were like because it gives Jesus some much deserved privacy.

It also allows our imagination to have some fun.

What do you think it was like for Jesus to be away from Judea and all the work waiting to be done there, and for Jesus to just be…Jesus…one of us.

What do you think Jesus did during those 2 days off?

What do you wish he got to do?

I like to think that Jesus had his own Jimmy Buffet, How Stella Got Her Groove Back experience.

I like to think that he was given the most welcoming guest room with 1,000 thread count bed-sheets and a big comfortable quilt.

I like to think that Jesus got a chance to catch up on his ZZZ’s; that his hosts allowed him to sleep in that morning.

I imagine Jesus waking up late the next day to the aroma of freshly made coffee and the sounds of someone singing in the kitchen as eggs are frying on the stove.

Imagine Jesus sitting down to a breakfast of fresh buttermilk biscuits with all kinds of jams and jellies and a big bowl of fresh fruit at his side.

Imagine Jesus eating his fill, not having to turn water into wine or loaves and fishes into a banquet.

Picture Jesus going for a long, uninterrupted, peaceful walk along the shore, his skin getting tan from the sun, his toes in the water, exhaling and breathing in the air.

Imagine that during the 2 days off, the women of Samaria take him to the local beauty shop where he gets a deep scalp massage, a hot oil treatment for his hair, and a soothing manicure/pedicure.

Imagine the kids of the community coming to play hop scotch, or double-dutch, or duck duck goose.

Imagine at night the men of the town take him out to the local tavern where Jesus is able to throw back a few beers, play some pool, talk sports and brag about the biggest fish he ever caught.

Do we ever think of Jesus this way?

Could you see him at a cook-out, or grilling a steak, or playing Spades and blackjack?

Do we ever allow Jesus just to be…not as someone who has to teach, or heal, or fix, or save, or die for our behalf?

You know what I hope Jesus got to do?

I hope he had a weekend romance.

Wouldn’t it be nice to think that there was a time in Jesus’ life in which he had a special girl (or a special guy) in which he was able to share secrets, hold hands, and sit beside while watching the sun set…

…Jesus lived during such a complicated time filled with natural disasters, political unrest and religious warring.

It would be nice to know that for 2 days he got away and was welcomed into a different world in which Jesus could just be Jesus.

In conclusion, I’d like to invite us, for this week, to reevaluate our relationship with and our view of Jesus.

Is he someone who is only of use to us when we cry out for help, when we seek healing, and we need hope, or is Jesus someone we can welcome into our lives to simply be there, as a friend, a companion, a guest?

Do we love Jesus only because of what he can do for us, or do we love Jesus because he is loveable, likeable and willing to walk beside us?

Does Jesus always have to be about results, sacrifice and salvation, or can Jesus also be about relationships, celebration and simple joys?

In the midst of a chaotic world, Jesus was given the chance to take 2 days off and just….be.

And sometimes just being is the loveliest thing one can achieve.

For that, we can say amen and amen.

Monday, October 2, 2017

God Cares for Even the Smallest of Seeds; Leviticus 19:13-19

Rev. George Miller
Oct 1, 2017
Leviticus 19:13-19

To All the Saints in Christ Jesus, grace to you and peace from God our Parent.

Here we are-3rd Sunday post Irma. We are not perfect, but we are strong, adapting to our New Normal as Jesus continues taking us to the other side.

Though the threat of Irma is over, we are still reminded on a daily basis what we have survived- destroyed docks, debris lined streets, damaged drains.

And like the stages of grief, we are going through the expected phases.

There’s denial, in which one pretends Irma did not happen, or wasn’t as bad as it seems.

There’s bargaining. The whole shouda-couda-wouda stage in which one wishes they could go back in time.

I shouda had a home generator. We couda have had a better disaster plan. Things wouda been better if our officials had known Irma’s eye would come here.

There’s the anger stage. Why did you do a,b,c and not x,y,z? How did they mess it up? Why aren’t Comcast, Duke, FEMA, FL Conference doing anything?

There is the depression stage. The inability to get out of bed or off the couch and the increase of headaches, backaches, sickness and sinuses.

These stages come in and out as people wait for insurance adjusters, or receive checks that barely cover their claim.

Such stages of grief are enough to challenge one’s faith, their church, and if they’re to be honest, God.

It’s not unusual during a disaster for some people to stop attending their place of worship, to question what they believe, or to have a crisis of identity.

Eventually, there comes some sense of acceptance. The realization that things did happen, a person did the best they could have done at that time, and the lessons learned for the next real or metaphoric storm.

Most of us in Highlands County are dealing with denial, anger, depression, and the shouda- couda-woudas.

And that’s OK- because we are survivors; we may not be perfect, but in Christ Jesus, we are strong.

This also ties into today’s reading.

If you recall from last week, we made the claim that this big, beautiful book we call the Bible is a book written by survivors that is all about surviving.

Through one way of thought, Leviticus can be seen as a generator or a power line of how to live after a storm.

First, some history- progressive scholars will say that no one is 1000% certain who wrote Leviticus and when.

There is the traditional belief that these are the laws God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai and Moses wrote them down.

Some believe these laws were created centuries later by the monarchy as a way to unify Israel and redirect them back to their religious roots.

Then there are those that believe these
were created by religious leaders post-Exile as a way for survivors to live and honor God during their New Normal.

What is the Exile?

It was a time when the Babylonians came in and attacked Judah. They decimated the land and destroyed the Temple, where God was worshipped.

They took the best of the best of Judah’s citizens away to live in Babylon for 50 years. They left the undesirables behind to fend for themselves amongst the wreckage.

After 50 years, the exiles were allowed to return to their native land, and it took 100 years for the Temple to be rebuilt.

This created all sorts of denial, anger, and depression for the people of God.

How do you worship God if there is no longer a place to worship?

How do you maintain your identity if your entire identity is wrapped in your religious beliefs and practices?

Possible answers became rituals you could do any place, and any time, and the ethical ways in which one lived.

And what better way to give validation to these rituals and practices than to claim that they were given to Moses by God a long, long time ago?

Here in chapter 19 we have the theological foundation of Leviticus, as vs. 2 states “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy.”

Holy means separate. Holy means beyond and greater than the greatest thing you can imagine.

To say God is holy means that God is more powerful than the mightiest of mighties; more mysterious than the greatest mysteries.

The Lord, our God, is Holy.

Which means God is indestructible, untouchable, and unstoppable. There is no place in which God is not; no event in which God cannot act, and no boat in which the Lord cannot step into.

And because our eternal Father/Mother is holy, there are ways we can live that welcome that holiness in, remind us of whose we are, and make us holy too.

Leviticus conveys this.

And yes, some of these laws seem to make no sense, and yes- some of them seem to go out of their way to keep others in their place, but if we see them as a reflection of their time and their culture, we discover a way in which Leviticus says “God is still speaking, so you can keep living the best way possible.”

So, let’s apply this one way of viewing Leviticus into real life scenarios.

We know there are laws about food; what you can eat and what you cannot. It may not make total sense to us today.

But what if you had lost your home, your place of worship, and lived amongst people who didn’t share the same faith, but you still wanted to honor God?

One way is what you eat and how. Everyone’s got to eat. So maybe one way to honor God is to refrain from eating things like pork and shellfish.

Folk love a good BBQ and fish fry, but what if by choosing not to consume hot dogs and shrimp, you’re finding a way to respect God and say the Lord is holy?

Maybe before a meal you make sure the floor is swept, the plates and cups are washed, and you only use certain utensils.

This can sound a bit OCD, but by doing these things, suddenly the dining room table becomes sacred, the meal becomes a time in which God is welcomed, and the family is engaging in a way of worship that does not require a building that’s been destroyed.


Think about the Sabbath. If there is one thing every human being shares, it is time.

We all live in the same hour, same minute, same second, no matter who you are.

But what if you make a conscious choice to set aside a bit of time to do nothing?

You are setting aside a piece of time that just belongs to you and God. You are creating holy space through the invisible reality of time.

Best yet- it requires no tools, no talent, no money, and no energy.

By not doing anything, that time becomes holy, which brings us closer to God.

Today’s reading talks about paying fair wages, making just decisions, and not sowing two seeds in the same spot.

Think of the mercy these statutes provide to people who have endured much and may wonder where God is.

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

Maybe you have lost your home, your place of worship, and you’re living amongst people with different beliefs, but you’re fortunate enough to own your own business.

Guess what- even if you can’t attend worship, even if you have to hide what you believe, you can worship God in the way you treat your employees and how you pay them.

Think about it- if you pay your workers in a timely manner, you are doing an act of worship; you are being holy, and therefore being brought closer to God.

If you can’t attend worship or have to hide what you believe, you can still worship God by trying your best to make fair decisions.

If you look at each situation before you as its own entity, and don’t make elitist excuses for the powerfully rich, or make enabling excuses for those you feel sorry for, you have a way to use justice as a way to worship; you are being holy, and therefore being brought closer to God.

What if you can’t do anything of these things?

What if can’t change how you eat, or take 24 hours off, or pay employees on time, or always exact justice?

Then vs. 19 says you can do something as simple as make sure that you don’t sow two seeds into the same spot.

This interesting bit of agricultural instruction is my favorite part of today’s reading.

Do not sow your field with two kinds of seed. Why?

One possible reason is this- that it is simply too unfair to make two seeds have to struggle and fight it out to see who will flourish and who will survive.

This seemingly simple direction is profoundly deep; as it indicates the all inclusiveness of God’s love.

If God knows every hair on our head, if God’s eye is on each sparrow, then it makes sense that God’s compassionate love is extended to even the smallness of seeds.

Ever wonder how deep and wide God’s love is for all of Creation? In my opinion- it is right here.

That God’s love is so grand, so mighty, so holy, that it even extends to a seed.

That God has blessed us all with so much- so much land, so much water, so much nourishment, that God says-

“There is enough for all, and no one and no thing should have to fight it out to flourish- not an employee, not a neighbor, not cattle, not even a seed of wheat, or barley, or sunflower.”

If God’s love is so rich that it even extends to seeds planted in the same soil, imagine just how great and mighty God’s love is for you, no matter what you have endured, where you are, or the things you have done or done not.

In conclusion, we are living in a New Normal, just as the people of Jerusalem did after the Exile. Like them, we are relearning, rebuilding and being resurrected.

In the process, we are reminded that the ways we live, things we do and how we treat one another is a way to worship God and a testimony to who we are and what we believe.

In doing so, we continue to grow into our identity and into our faith.

And with faith and we have hope, and with hope we have strength.

We are each in our own way holy.

We are each special seeds that have been personally planted by God, watered by the Holy Spirit, fed by the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

We each have the ability to find our way out of the dirt, to stand tall, face the Son, and praise the Lord our God.

For that, we can say amen and amen.

Monday, September 25, 2017

"I May Not Be Perfect, But I'm STRONG" 2nd Post-Irma sermon; Philippians 1:21-30

Rev. George Miller
Sept 24, 2017
Philippians 1:21-30

“As God is my witness, I will never be hungry again.”

“Great men are not born great, they are made great.”

“Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.”

“There’s no place like HOME.”

“I’m still HERE.”

These are all quotes from movies, providing inspiration for all people when the storms of life rage on.

My favorite movie quote is not a well known one, but nevertheless a quote that has carried me through 2 decades-

“I may not be perfect, but I’m strong.”

It’s from a movie called “The Best Man”, stated by a woman who refuses to be lied to, coddled, or protected from the truth, even if it hurts.

“I may not be perfect, but I’m strong.”

I wonder how many people can claim this quote today, after all we have been through pre and post Hurricane Irma.

I think this is a quote that the author of today’s letter could attest to as well.

“I may not be perfect, but I’m strong.”

Philippians is a letter written by Paul to a congregation he loves very much.

He is currently under arrest in another city, separated from his beloved church, and he is in chains, chains that no doubt were devised to make him physically uncomfortable 24 hours a day.

Paul’s crime? Preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ; the Good News that even in the darkest of times there is an eternal light that shines forth for all.

Paul is in an uncomfortable situation. His emotional pain is eased by a care package the Philippian church has sent him, with items meant to soothe his weary soul.

As a way to say thanks for their ministry to him, he composes a letter in which he is honest about his predicament, and he is honest about his emotions.

Paul does not sugar coat things or present his current state through false hope.

He tells them that he has been thinking about dying. That perhaps death would be better than to be denied his freedom and shackled with chains.

And yet, he finds a wellspring of strength within him to stay alive; to stay strong. This wellspring is the Living Water of Christ, and Paul’s understanding that he has been called to share this Heavenly Water with as many as he knows.

Paul is aware that the church members are worried about him, and here he is, the one in chains, finding ways to comfort the congregation; to let them know that though they may never meet again, Paul has no regrets.

Paul has peace, and he wants them to remember what a fellowship, what a joy divine it is to believe in Christ and to be part of such a faithful community.

He tells them to strive side by side with one another, and to live in a way worthy of Christ’s Good News.

If Paul was writing this letter today, and saw “The Best Man,” perhaps he would say “I may not be perfect, but I am strong…in Jesus Christ.”

Paul is a survivor, which makes sense, because after all he is a Jew, a person of the Book…

This big, beautiful Bible is a big, beautiful book written by survivors, and it is all about surviving.

Before there were movies that could inspire us with inspirational quotes, there was the Bible, telling us of how Eve and Adam survived being kicked out of the Garden.

How a family survives a devastating flood.

How a childless couple’s family tree survived with a promise from God about land and lineage.

How 2 minimum-wage women fooled Pharaoh and ensured that the Hebrew babies would not be put to death.

How former slaves survived harsh winds, turbulent waters and wandering in the wilderness for 40 years.

How an entire faith survived total destruction of their Temple and being taken away to Babylon.

How 11 disciples and a handful of women survived the trauma of having their leader crucified, and boldly found a voice to proclaim the Good News of Christ’s resurrection.

Letters from a man, isolated from everyone he knew, freedom completely taken away, kept in chains cutting his wrists, who is able to write these words-

“…I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus…”

As people of faith, as People of the Bible, as Christians, as part of the Emmanuel United Church of Christ community, we are survivors.

As survivors we can testify that the troubles we’ve faced have not been easy. The last 2 weeks did not offer us any quick resolutions.

We each had our own unique pain, unique fear, unique exhaustion, unique problems to solve.

Many of us still do, as recovery from this kind of trauma takes a while to recuperate from.

We are not perfect, but we are strong.

As we continue to heal, as we continue to rebuild from the reality of Irma, there will be things we can do as we strive side by side.

We can believe in and look for the miracles. Not everything that happens next will make sense or be logical.

But if Jesus could feed the masses with a few loaves and fishes, there will be ways in which Jesus can care for us all.

We can develop ways to tell our stories to one another and to ourselves. Stories that follow Paul’s example and admit how we truly feel, instead of pretending everything is Ok when it is not.

We can hold dear to our rituals that hold meaning to our life. Our morning cup of coffee. Our afternoon walk. Our lunch at Outback or Caddy Shack.

As a church, we embrace our ability to celebrate Communion, to confess our sins, to give back to God, and to Fellowship.

And following Paul’s wise words, we find a way to recover by coming together as a community; to stride side by side just as we have with the ministries of the church, and the opportunities that present themselves to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with the Lord.

“I may not be perfect, but I am strong…in Jesus Christ.”

As alluded to earlier, one way Paul endured his torment was the fact that the Philippian church had sent him a care package, a gift of things that kept his spirits up, that gave him hope, that helped him feel connected.

Today’s letter is Paul’s testimony to a community that came together. A community of many individuals that acted as ONE.

That was the mark of the earliest Christians. They were people who learned how to share their gifts, and to share their resources.

The earliest Christians called each other “Brother” and “Sister”, greeted one another with a kiss, and were known throughout the community for how they shared meals, fed the hungry, soothed the sick, visited the imprisoned, and cared for the widow, orphan and immigrant.

In conclusion, we of Emmanuel UCC are survivors.

We have survived the storm.

We survived 3, 4, 5, 6 7, 8, 9 nights of no electricity, torn up trees, flooded streets, and unsafe water.

We survived ripped apart roofs, far away families worried about us, and we have survived watching our beloved animals suffer in the heat.

It was not easy. It was not fresh smelling. It was not pretty to see.

It was not without its problems, quibbles, or shells in our teeth.

But we survived.

We may not be perfect, but we are strong.

The Lord is our Shepherd.

Jesus was certainly in the boat, and Jesus certainly took us to the other side.

For that we can say “Amen” and “amen.”

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Post-Irma Sermon from Sept 17, 2017; Exodus 12:1-14

Rev. George Miller
Sept 17, 2017
Exodus 12:1-14

The Holy Spirit moves in unexpected ways. Months ago this scripture was selected with no idea how relevant it would be.

Here we are with the People of God about to experience an extraordinary circumstance, a life-changing event that would forever shape who they are.

An event involving land, wind, and water.

The people, who have been living as slaves for centuries are on the cusp of experiencing freedom. Here, the Lord gives a message to their leader, Moses, about how they are to prepare.

It involves a last meal, a meal in which they have 4 days to plan out. On the 10th of the month they are to have a lamb, and on the 14th they are to slaughter it, place some of its blood over their door, and eat it in a hurry.

For the next day they will be set free, an act of liberation that includes the winds parting the Red Sea, them wandering through the wilderness, and experiencing the ways in which God will provide, even when it seems beyond hope.

Vs. 2 makes mention that this will mark the beginning of a new time-line for them; that this moment will create a before and after sense of reality.

4 days to prepare for their final meal before land, wind and water would come together to create an unbelievable experience…

…When I think about it, that’s what I unconsciously did in preparing for Irma.

Wanting to use up what was in the fridge, I cooked up frozen ravioli on Thursday. Friday took all the chesses to make a mac-n-cheese dish. Saturday was baked tofu.

I planned to have a frozen Totino’s pizza for my last meal on Sunday, the reasons because that is my comfort food, harkening back to my 20’s when a 99 cent frozen pizza fit my budget and could be doctored up with olives, garlic, and hot sauce.

But on Sunday night, right before everything really happened, I got a text from a dear friend, Gingerlee who said “Now is the times to prepare your last hot meal before the hurricane hits.”

That immediate sense of reality changed everything. I had no appetite, but I knew I had to eat, so the left-over ravioli was put into the micro-wave, and I ate it in the kitchen, standing up.

It was tasteless and emotionless, but it was a meal.

Then Irma hit. The darkness; the rain; the noise. The powerful wind blowing against the door, so powerful that for 2 hours I sat in a chair against the door to keep the wind from blowing it open.

As scary as it was, I felt some calm.

Though I brought everything from the yard inside, one thing I left outside was a blue wooden anchor ornament with seashells hanging on my front door.

It represented my connection with the ocean; it also looked a lot like a cross. It also made me feel like it was my own way to mark the doorpost.

For as vs. 13 states, the people are to mark their doorposts as a sign to them that God will not allow them to be destroyed.

That anchor clanged and banged against the door, but it survived the storm.

The day after- what a sense of relief. That cool breeze. That thankfulness of being alive. Seeing the stars in the sky.

But as we all know, the days following Irma have not been easy, for anyone. 100% of our beloved county lost electricity. The breeze stopped; the heat stifling; and it was clear that a whole new reality had settled in.

A new era had begun.

I do not want to go on into detail because we have all experienced a great trauma, and the emotional affects of the storm will last for months, if not years.

For me, living through Irma has given a whole new understanding of today’s scripture and the entire Exodus narrative.

It’s one thing to talk about how God sent a wind to part the Red Sea waters. But now there’s the realization that a wind like that would have been scary as heck for the people to experience.

By the 4th night of no electricity I was at my breaking point. How did they make it through 40 years?

If we all got stinky, sweaty, and funky with the inability to take hot showers, imagine how stinky, sweaty, and funky the Israelites must have been.

If we here are restless due to what we are experiencing, imagine how restless they would have been for those 2,080 weeks they wandered the wilderness.

Just last week, it seemed so easy to judge the Israelites for their grumbling in the dessert.

It was so easy to ask “Why were they always complaining about being hungry or thirsty when they saw God part the Red Sea, give them water from a rock and send them manna and quail? Where was their faith?”

Now I understand. The people’s grumbling was not about a lack of faith- it was about the reality of survival.

Here we are, all feeling a myriad of emotions, not because we lack faith or don’t believe in God, but because we just experienced a major event involving land, wind, and water, and we are just in the beginning stages of what our new reality is about.

The Passover marked a new era for the Israelites; just as Irma marks a new reality for us.

Here is what I think the miracle is- that even though the people experienced an event of land, wind, and water, and endured years of wandering the wilderness, being stinky, sweaty, funky, and no doubt shell-shocked, they somehow, someway found a way to be a community and to continue their relationship with God.

The event of the Passover meal and the winds parting the Red Sea would forever define them.

I think that for those who are here, Irma will define us.

I also wonder what it will be like for those who come back in October, November, December, January who will never, ever know what these last 14 days have been like, both pre- and post-Irma.

I believe that our experience of Irma will further define who we are as a people of God, who we are as a church, and who we are to the community.

Knowing what we know now about an entire annihilation of our electric system, about the waters that literally ran down our sidewalks, about our total dependence on air conditioning, cell phones, cars, gas, and generators, how do we minister to the community, and to each other…and minister to ourselves?

How do we, as a church, better prepare and respond the next time an event happens like this, because we all know there will always be a next time.

There are those here today who have their electricity back and homes are relatively intact.

I ask that if you are in this group, please be humble in what you say and do around those who still do not have electricity, air, or access to clean and hot water.

I can personally tell you that as someone who went 5 days without, it is hard not to be hurt, angered, feeling helpless, neglected and forgotten when your home is stifling, your pets are suffering, and your residence smells of mildew, rotten food and animal.

If you have electricity, or access to hot water, or a spare space to sleep, or means of serving a meal, or providing someone with ice, gas, or a generator, please find a way to share with someone who does not have these things.

To those here who are without electricity, or have extensive damage to your home, or can’t get to your home, or are feeling post-traumatic stress, please know that you have permission to feel somber, scared, stressed out and shell-shocked, and angry-as-heck.

It is not a reflection of your faith or a sign of weakness, or that you do not have trust in the Lord.

You are surviving; and you will survive.

Be honest with yourself, be honest with others. Let it be known what you need and how you really feel.

Jesus had no problem crying out to God. The psalms and prophets had no problem crying out and expressing their pain.

A few weeks ago we talked about the disciples being in the boat during mighty winds, being terribly afraid, and how Jesus got in the boat and took them to the other side.

Despite all we have been through and still have yet to go through, I truly do believe that Jesus is in the boat with us, and we will get to the other side.

We who lived through Hurricane Irma and this week are survivors, and survivors have the right to feel scared, and to be scarred by what they went through.

I think that we who are here are experiencing our own sort of resurrection, if you will.

Just as the Passover meal plays a part in giving the Israelites a new identity, what we have experienced with Irma will also give all of us a new identity, a new understanding, and a new way to be God’s people.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Pastoral Reflections While Preparing for Hurricane Irma

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

First- breathe.

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

Now- give thanks to God.

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

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

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

Breathe…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breathe…

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

Comfort.

God will give us comfort.

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

Breathe…

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

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

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

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

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

Breathe…

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

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

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

Breathe…

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

Breathe…

Amen.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

So soothing and unexpected to see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heroes helping their neighbors.

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

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

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

He replied “I am not the Messiah.”

“Are you Elijah?”
“I am not.”

“Are you the prophet?”
“No.”

“Who are you?”…

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

We see this in today’s reading.

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

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

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

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

But John does not take the bait.

Nor does he sell himself short.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As John says “My joy has been fulfilled.”

How cool is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a wonderful way to glorify God.

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

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

Amen and amen.

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