Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Pastoral Response to Charlottesville

Lamentations 3:35-36 asks “When human rights are perverted…does the Lord not see it?”

I will never know what it is like to be a natural-born southerner, or what it’s like to be black. But I recall two separate conversations I’ve had.

One was with a friend who told me his relatives participated in Civil War reenactments, and when I smugly joked, he whole-heartedly said “I have family that died in that war.” Another friend told me that when he returns to his home-town he is referred to as property, as the citizens there will remind him who his family originally belonged to.

Both men look back upon American history in which slavery, the Civil War, General Lee and Sherman have more meaning than my heart could ever comprehend; history that involves the bodies and blood of their ancestors.

So the removal of yet one more Confederate statue sparks a myriad of emotions rooted in the very core of one’s identity and understanding of what they think it means to be an American.

In Charlottesville we saw these feelings, thoughts, and fears erupt into a fiery assault on human rights and a disregard for the Declaration of Independence’s bold claim that “all men are created equal.”

We saw white Christian nationalists, supremacists, neo-nazis and kkk show up to protest the removal of Lee’s statue, an act of free speech regardless if we agree with it or not. In another act of free speech, counter-protestors also came. The result was chaos, with street brawls and violent clashes, leaving one woman and two state troopers dead.

Some say that these two groups of people were two sides of the same coin, each equally at fault and destructive.

I say no.

Here’s why- the white, male, Christian nationalists/supremacists/kkk/neo-nazis came from a place of hate; a dislike based on race and religion. They came from a place in which they did not want freedom for all, just freedom for themselves. We’ve seen their ideologies play out in lynchings, segregated schools, water fountains, marriage laws, unfair arrests, inordinate incarcerations, pay disparity, and tiki torches brandished as very-clear threats.

Black Lives Matter is not the same coin. Black Lives Matter is a response to the hatred that has been exhibited for centuries and the historically documented injustice that has taken place. It is a movement that is a response to the stories we’ve heard and videos seen of black fathers, sons, husbands, lovers and friends who have been shot, shamed, slammed, and stunned into submission.

When Black Lives Matter and counter-protestors came to Charlottesville, they were not part of, or the cause of, the problem. They were the prophetic response to the problem. Their words, signs, and actions were a response to the reality of hate, anger, injustice and unkindness that was around them.

As a result, an angry white Christian man rammed a sedan into a crowd of people holding signs that said “LOVE”, then reversed it to run over even more people. As our Attorney General stated, this was an act of domestic terrorism.

Yes- there is anger on all sides. But let us not demean our nation’s historical truth by saying Black Lives Matter caused hundreds of white Christian nationalists/nazis/kkk to descend upon Charlottesville.

Hate did. Injustice did. Unkindness did. Prejudice did.

As a white Christian male, and as an ordained pastor, I do not condone the actions that took place in Charlottesville. Nor do I think any blame can be placed on the counter-protestors who bravely came to speak out against hate and speak up for love.

Though we cannot undo what has transpired, I apologize on behalf of my gender, my ethnicity and my faith for what has taken place in Virginia.

Respectfully,
Rev. George Miller
Emmanuel UCC
Sebring, FL

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Jesus, Step Into the Boat and Take Us to the Other Side; Aug 13, 2017 Sermon on John 6:16-21

Rev. George Miller
August 13, 2017
John 6:16-21

Years ago there was a song by Luther Vandross called “Little Miracle Happen Every Day,” a song that testifies to the ways in which God is active in all our lives, even if we don’t know it.

This song has gotten me through so much-seminary, search and call, health scares, and the loss of loved ones.

Though my sermons may speak about issues of fact and truth, metaphors and metaphysics, I am, at the very heart of my faith, a miracle-believing Christian.

Miracles manifest in many ways. There are those that are simply coincidences; some are easy to explain. Some occur because our eyes were open to see what had always been there, our mind was able to understand, or our heart was finally open to receive.

Then, then there are those miracles that make no sense; that defy all forms of logic, all rules of science, and have to be experienced to be believed.

Like hitting the guard rail on the highway, and emerging without a scratch to you or your car.

Or receiving a cancer diagnosis, but the next time you visit the doctor it is suddenly and completely gone.

Finding your dream home and the inside is covered with wallpaper of your parent’s favorite bird or butterfly.

How do these things happen? Why do miracles occur? When and where do they materialize?

Is there a miracle memory muscle that the more you look for them, the more they are experienced?

Who can say, and does it matter, if a miracle reminds us that the Magnificent, Mysterious God of grace and mercy is present in our lives?

I had my own miracle moment earlier this week.

Last year I went on a cleaning spree, getting rid of clothes that no longer fit, didn’t make me feel good, or were too worn out for wear.

A product of this cleaning spree was an especially special pair of socks. They were green socks with happy blue whales on them.

What made these socks so special was that they were the 1st pair of fancy socks I ever purchased. Until then, my socks were either white, blue, or black, and purchased in packages from Walmart.

But years ago, while unemployed, poor, and in a prolonged Search-n-Call process, I came across them in a high end store in Portland, Oregon.

I had no business being in Sacks Fifth Avenue, had no business putting down $12 for a single pair of socks, but for some reason it felt good getting them.

They were kind of like a promise of success in the midst of continued defeat.

Well eventually those green socks with the happy blue whales wore out, the elastic gave away, and they no longer stayed up around my calves. So last year, in the trash they went…or so I thought.

Because in the middle of last week, with worries about opening night, and a delayed adoption process, and an acquaintance in the hospital, I randomly opened up an end-table drawer in my living room…and they were there.

My 1st ever fancy, funky green socks with the happy blue whales purchased at a time of struggle.

It brought the biggest smile to my face, like seeing an old friend, or a long lost toy from childhood.

I immediately felt the presence of God, and for me, it was a miracle.

Now- maybe it was no miracle at all. Maybe I only thought I had thrown them away. Maybe I did, but had a random sleep-walking episode in which I rescued them from out the garbage.

Why would worn-out green socks with happy blue whales ever end up in the draw of a living room coffee table?

Who knows? Does it matter? Did it make me feel good? Did it make me feel as if God was right beside me?

Luther is right- little miracles do happen every day.

Today we have perhaps the Mother of all Miracles.

Though this story is short, don’t get it twisted. It has way more levels than anyone could ever imagine, with references to Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, and the 23rd Psalm.

This is a great “I AM” story in which Jesus appears and takes us to the other side.

So before we go any further, I invite you to repeat a simple, simple prayer-

“Jesus, step into the boat…”

“…and take us to the other side.”

Jesus, step into the boat and take us to the other side.

John chapter 6 is a fundamental story about Jesus, also told in Matthew and Mark with various nuances.

It begins with Jesus atop a mountain with a hungry crowd surrounding him. He feeds the 5,000 thousand people with 5 loaves and 2 fish.

When evening comes, the disciples get in their boat and head to the other side. But, a storm hits.

It’s the kind of storm in which things seem bleak, they can’t see ahead of them, the wind is howling, and the sea is battering the boat.

The disciples feels lost, alone and confused, trying their best to row ahead, navigating the way forward, but no luck.

Then…Jesus appears to them, walking on the waves. They are afraid. They bring him into the boat.

They reach the other side.

Talk about a miracle. Jesus walking on water. Can you imagine? What a surprise!

But then again, maybe it shouldn’t be all too surprising. After all, in the beginning, God’s breathe did dance over the waters. God parted the Red Sea. God brought water from a rock. 23rd Psalm says the Good Shepherd will lead us beside still waters. Jesus turned water into wine.

The waters belong to God. They are a force of life that sustains creation. From a world religion point of view, invoking water is a fundamental form of prayer.

So there should be no surprise that Jesus, the Son of God, the incarnation of God, Emmanuel, is able to walk upon water, because the waters belong to him and his Father.

Jesus walking on water is indeed a miracle, but perhaps the greater miracle, the miracle that’s never really talked about, is that once Jesus walks on water, and gets in the boat- they reach the other side.

For hours, for miles, the disciples had been straining at the oars, trying to navigate where they were going, fighting the storm.

But they see Jesus. They want him in the boat. They make it to the other side.

Somehow, someway the great “I AM” gets in the boat and takes them through.

That, perhaps, is the greatest miracle.

A way out of no way. Safe passage in the midst of a scary storm.

Dry land despite dark skies, harsh wind and wild waves.

A miracle.

And note- just like last week’s story, there is an element of choice in this tale.

Just as the man by the waters of Bethzatha had to stand up, pick up his mat, and walk, the disciples had to see, want and receive Jesus for this act of wellness to take place.

I wonder if today’s scripture gives us another expression to add to our worship life and way of believing.

Perhaps, perhaps the simplest prayer there can be is “Jesus- step into the boat and take me to the other side.”

Think of the ways in which such a prayer would work.

For someone who is job hunting in which the only way to be employed is to go out, seek, and apply again and again and again- “Jesus, step into the boat and take me to the other side.”

For someone dealing with the death of a loved one in which the only way to go through the grieving process is to go through it- “Jesus, step into the boat and take me to the other side.”

For someone whose life is immediately disturbed by a cancer diagnosis- “Jesus, step into the boat and take me to the other side.”

For someone facing a rough break-up- “Jesus, step into the boat and take me to the other side.”

For someone who is facing a long adoption process and opening weekend jitters- “Jesus, step into the boat and take me to the other side.”

For anyone who is watching their child or grandchildren struggling and trying to make their own way- “Jesus, step into the boat and take them to the other side.”

For our state during the hurricane season, or our nation during a tense political environment, or our world facing the threat of nuclear war- “Jesus, step into the boat and take us to the other side.”

For when we are in the process of completing our journey here on earth and ready to take our final, final breaths- “Jesus, step into the boat and take me to the other side.”

Storms and difficult situations arise all the time. It’s how we face them that makes a difference.

Today we are told of a miracle that happened far, far away, but a miracle that can and does take place anywhere.

Today we are reminded of a miracle that happened a long, long time ago, but that miracles do happen every day.

Today we are reminded that no matter the storm, no matter the sea, Jesus is able to appear, Jesus is able to get into the boat, and Jesus can take us to the other side.

For that, we can say, amen.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sermon on John 5:1-18; Wellness and Freedom

Rev. George Miller
Aug 6, 2017
John 5:1-18

Last week I came across a fortune cookie that said “It’s too late to start digging a well when you feel thirsty.”

From a worldly point of view, it sounds like wise advice, but from a Christological viewpoint, I’m not sure if this fortune is true.

In Christ, is it ever too late? Could it be that when we are the thirstiest is when the Living Waters make a way?

Let us pray…

…For our astute observers, you’ll notice that our sanctuary looks a little different. Gone are the red paraments and wall hangings we’ve had up to represent Pentecost, and in their place are green paraments and wall hangings.

We are in the liturgical season which the church calls Ordinary Time. The color for Ordinary Time is green.

Now- two things.

First, I so dislike the term Ordinary Time. It’s a phrase meant to express that there are no major religious holidays coming up. But when it comes to the wonder of God, the miracles of Jesus, and the surprising nature of the Holy Spirit is anytime truly just ordinary?

Second- green is a difficult color to pull off. Green is the color of life, representing the renewal of the earth.

But the wrong shade of green creates the wrong mood. Avocado green puts us back into the 1970’s. Neon green is too MTV. Dark green looks sickly.

But the right shade of green? The right hue with the perfect balance of pop and power and positivity- that’s, that’s life.

That’s abundant. That’s garden-good and lawn-luxurious.

You want a green that makes you so glad to be alive, because simply living is not being alive. Simply breathing is not life. Simply being here is not what the good, great Lord intended.

God wants us to have every good thing; God wants us to be alive.

Today’s reading helps to teach this principle.

Here we are, at the waters of Bethzatha. By these pools there are people who are struggling with issues of sight, issues of strength, and issues of mobility.

The NRSV calls them invalids, but another translation uses the word impotent; or powerless.

During an era in which the average life expectancy was between 45-60, we meet a man who’s been there for 38 years.

Jesus sees him lying there. Instead of saying “It is too late for you to start digging a well,” he says to the man “Do you want to be made well?”

Now, notice a few things. We’re never told what the man’s ailment was. We have no idea what he suffered from.

We’re not given a case study on the man; not told about his history. Nor is there any sense of judgment from the author.

It is simply told- Jesus sees him, Jesus knew he had been there a long time, and Jesus asks the important question- “Do you want to be made well?”

Note the careful word usage here.

Jesus does not ask him “Do you want to be cured?”

Nor does he ask “Do you want me to solve your problem for you?”

He asks “Do you want to be made well?”

This is vital to the story.

Many Christians believe that God cures people. We hold onto this notion with our power of prayer, with our calling upon Christ, with the seeking of the Spirit; this need to be made well, the desire for divine intervention, the pleading for positive outcomes.

And certainly the Bible has stories that testify to this, and each of us can testify to times in which we believe that God has affected our ability to live.

But then there are so many questions-

What does it mean to be made well?

Is healing the same as being cured?

Can one be whole even if they are still sick, or infirm, or impotent?

What does being well, being whole, and being cured have to do with anything?

What exactly is going on here?

During Tuesday’s Lectionary Bible Study we read this scripture and one of the students had an important insight-

“Why did Jesus even have to ask this question? Why would anyone need to be asked if they want to be made well?”

I don’t know about ya’ll, but I felt like I could answer that.

It seems like there are a lot of unwell people out there who seem quite content in their unwellness; and there seem to be a lot of people who keep doing things that are the very opposite of wellness.

And no matter how metaphorically thirsty they get, there is nothing nobody can say, do, or suggest that will make them dig that well for themselves, until they are ready.

I’ll use myself as an example. I’m a former smoker, and as any smoker can tell you- it is the hardest thing in the world to quit.

It doesn’t matter if smoking is expensive, makes you stink, and causes you to cough, no smoker has ever stopped because someone said “Yon know that’s bad for you, right?”

You have to want to stop.

I learned that back in 1999. I was 29, back to living with my Momma on Long Island, facing a cross roads of uncertainty. Smoking was an escape and a time killer.

There was a holistic school nearby that gave free acupuncture treatments so I went there to stop smoking, but nothing seemed to work.

They put needles in my ear, my chest, my feet, and after a treatment I’d stop at the gas station to get another pack.

The student who was working on me couldn’t figure out what to do so she went to her advisor who said “Ask him if he actually wants to quit.”

So, she came to me and said “Do you really want to quit smoking?” Or, in today’s scripture, “Do you want to be made well?”

I told her the honest truth “No.” It felt so good to admit that I wasn’t ready to quit.

So they stopped the smoking treatments and focused on other areas, until that time did come, and I was ready…

…Look how Jesus is portrayed in today’s story. How he goes about offering wellness to this man. So different from how most people do things.

How many here have ever been told by someone what to do, as if you had never had the same thought yourself?

The doctor who says “You need to lose weight.” Then says all you have to do is eat less sugar and include more leafy greens and yogurt, and you’re like “Yeah, well if I liked leafy greens and yogurt I’d already be doing that!”

That’s not how Jesus rolls in this story. He’s like “Do you want to be made well?”

Such a simple question, but one that has far reaching implications.

Do you want to be made well or do you want to continue as is?

Jesus is not saying that it is too late for something life-affirming. He’s not blaming the man for his situation. He is not offering to do the work for him, nor is Jesus making excuses for why the man can’t achieve wellness.

He simply asks “Do you want to be made well?”

What we have here is a story about one of the greatest gifts God has given us- freedom.

Just as God is free, so are we.

God did not create us to be helpless. God did not create us to be puppets. God did not create us to be passive.

God loves us so much that we are given freedom, even if that freedom means we can turn away from God and deny God’s help.

Naaman could receive healing from his leprosy, but first he had to make the choice if he was to go down to the river and dunk himself 7 times.

The starving widow was promised that she’d not go hungry if she first made the prophet Elijah something to eat.

At the wedding in Cana, the servants had to be willing to pour 180 gallons of water into 6 stone jars if Jesus was going to turn water into wine.

None of these things happened without the people’s willing participation.

Jesus’ love for this man does not take away the man’s right to choose.

Nor does Jesus do a simple “Hocus pocus- you are made all better.”

No.

Jesus gives him 3 direct directions: stand up, take your mat, and walk.

If the man truly wants to experience wellness, he has to do his own part.

Stand up.

In other words Jesus is saying “You are not as paralyzed and stuck in place as you think you are.”

Take your mat.

This is Jesus saying “You are not has helpless as you think or as helpless as people say you are.”

And walk.

This is Jesus saying “You may have been here 38 years, but the past is the past. You can leave it behind.”

Jesus gives the man 3 direct directions which allows the man the freedom to choose to experience wellness.

Stand up- rise above your current situation.

Take your mat- do something for YOU.

And walk- step into your future, because it is never too late.

And the man is made well.

Note- there is no indication that the man’s life became dramatically easy and rosy, nor do we ever know if he has set backs or hits new kind of obstacles.

But we know for that moment, for that day, he was given a choice, and he made the choice to be well.

In conclusion, today’s story reminds us how our Heavenly Parent is still working, moving, and affecting lives.

It is a story which states that in Christ it is never too late, and one is never too powerless to experience the Living Waters and a restorative life in Christ.

Is there a difference between simply living and being alive? And if so, what does being alive look like?

And what does it mean to be made whole, to be cured, to be healed, to be made well in Jesus Christ?

Only you can decide that for yourself.

Only you are able to stand up, take your mat, and to move into your future.

Amen and amen.