Saturday, July 25, 2009

Wanderings for July 26, 2009

Good evening. Here we are, the night before our final service. Tomorrow we explore two scriptures. For the 10:10 service we'll hear from John 6:1-15. This is where Jesus feeds the 5,000 with fives loaves and two fish. For the 3 p.m. closing service, we'll hear from Genesis 1:1-5, "in the beginning" which can sound off for a church coming to its end. But I don't find it odd at all.
As you'll hear tomorrow, I pose the question "Where did the waters come from if God had not yet created?" For the sermon I address the question symbolically, but tonight I pose it metaphorically.
Do you remember Shari Lewis and Lambchop, and how at the end of each show they'd sing a tune called "This is the song that never ends/ it just goes on and on my friend?" Did you watch any of last season's "Lost." In Genesis, I get this sense of a time/space continuum. That God creates out of nothing, yet something was there, how did that something get there, well from something that came before, well how can there be a before if this is the beginning, and owwww my head hurts, but yet it is fun to think about, and what if time, as those in metaphysics say, does not exist, but is actually flat, and everything is happening at the same time, and time runs like an LP or a circle, where the end flows into the beginning and the beginning leads into the end and the end starts the beginning.
Oddly enough, in those thoughts I find comfort. Perhaps its just comfort in knowing that there is more than just right now, that there will be more then what happens tomorrow, that there is more then what happened yesterday. And that more is God. That ultimately, everything, everyone, every time comes down to God.
Heard hurt yet? Maybe that's good, because it helps to take away from the pain in the heart. As I write these words I am amazed how at the moment I am not feeling anything about us closing. Perhaps its because we have been dealing with this for three months. Perhaps because there is still so much to do to prepare for both services. Perhaps because it scares me. Perhaps because it hurts too much. Perhaps because I know it will not seem and be real until we actually gather together and close.
I've been rambling, an indulgence for my last Wanderings. But if I speak from my heart, I will say "Thank you." Thank you for allowing me to be your pastor. Thank you for the love you displayed and the love you shared. Thank you for caring about my future even as you worry about your own. Thank you for being part of my story. I know when I come home Sunday evening I will crash on my couch, and I will probably cry my eyes out. And that's a good thing.
We have come to our end, together. And it will be God, through Christ and the Spirit, together, three-in-one, who will, together, help us all get through tomorrow and the days/months/years that follow.
Thank you, and God bless you with peace, grace and miracles,
Pastor George Nicholas Miller

Sermon for July 29, 2009

July 26, 2009
Scripture: Genesis 1:1-5
Sermon Title: “And It Was Good”
Rev. George N. Miller

God said “Let there be light”: and there was light. And God saw that the light was good...

Well, here we are, at the opening words of the Bible. The last sermon this congregation will hear preached. “In the beginning...” It may sound odd for a family that’s coming to an end, but I would make the claim that the whole Gospel is message in this scripture.

Here we have all the keys players. We have God, the Creator, the Spirit moving in new, unexpected ways. And if John 1 is read back into this text, we have Jesus, the Word, present.

Biblical historians will tell you that Genesis 1 was written during the exile, a time in which the temple was destroyed, people were taken from their homes and everyone was trying to make sense of it all.

This scripture was meant to give the people reassurance, saying to them “Listen, hear how God has a plan. God is ultimately in control. And when God is in control, there is hope.”

And today Genesis offers us hope and assurance.
Yes, we are losing our spiritual home. Yes, we as a family will break apart and go our different ways. But we are neither forgotten nor forsaken.
God does have a plan.

You see, as far as I am concerned Genesis 1 is not just about creation but it is also about resurrection. Read closer and you’ll find the first mystery of the Bible.

We’re told that a wind from God swept over the waters. But if God had not yet created, how did these waters exist? Where did they come from?

For the ancient people, water often symbolized chaos, unknown dangers, and death. To say a wind from God swept over the waters is another way to say the Spirit moved over whatever chaos, messiness, or death there was.

When read this way, we have resurrection and creation existing at the same time. A stunning idea that the very act of creation involved death, and that it was death that brought forth creation. Just as it was Jesus’ death that ushered in the creation of the Christian faith.

Here we have life and death, resurrection and creation, God, Jesus and Spirit in action. And it takes a spoken word to set everything into play, a word filled with possibilities, a word filled with “yes” even though the waters seemed to say “no.”

God said “Let there be light.” And there was light. And it was good.

This is a message we need to hear today. For we are gathered to honor and recall the life and ministry of this particular body of Christ, known as Burlingame Congregational United Church of Christ.

In our historical records it is written “May our church be a shining light in the community. May it be a place of togetherness.” One of our pastors, Rev. Alfred Allard wrote that “every pastorate has lights and shadows of various experiences...” Let us take a look at those shadows and lights.

In 1923 the Spirit first moved over this congregation, at a time when 6,000 people lived in the community, working for Leonard Refrigerator, Pierre Marquette or one of the 60 furniture factories in Grand Rapids. The pastors from Smith Memorial and Park Congregational met and discerned a need for a church in the area.

A meeting was held at Lee High and on April 28,1924 a new congregation of 28 members was created. James Hamilton and his wife Clara, nee Burlingame, donated the land for the church.

First time pastor Rev. Arden Johnson was called. A year later ground was broken to build the church. We were the only English speaking protestant church in the school district, and we were a Mission Church, with the state giving $600 a year for operating costs.

Throughout our years, one significant trait was our dedication: when a need was apparent the members responded with generosity, even though it wasn’t always easy. The depression hit hard.

In 1937 the state tried to close our doors. Trusting that God was not done with us just yet, Rev. Ed Evans encouraged the congregation to hold on. He focused people’s attention on making the sanctuary as beautiful as possible. The fruit of their faith paid off.

By the 50's Rev. Dalrymple was the pastor and the church building expanded, which meant a new Fellowship Hall and no more classes in the boiler room. The Buzzings were created, programs flourished and people developed bonds.

The 70's were a bit difficult. Rev. Herold’s charismatic way did not fit, causing some people to leave. He also had a young son who died, a solemn reality for any church to cope with.

In the 80's we called another first time pastor, Rev. David Smith who remained our shepherd for 21 years. He wrote articles for the paper, shared his musical talents, and grew the choir.

In 2005 yet another first time pastor, Rev. George Miller was called, and together we did many things, perhaps more things then any church our size could possibly do.

But now we have reached the end of our journey. We beat the odds when the state tried to shut us down, we beat the odds when pastoral theology threatened to tear the church in two .

Today we are called to fully acknowledge our death. That we as a church body will be no more, we will say our goodbyes, and close our doors forever.

No more will there be angels in white dancing to a song Clella Watts choreographed. No more will there be a Couple’s Night in which everyone accidently brings dessert and the men have to get the main course from the local restaurant.

No more will people teach Sunday School in the kitchen with the smell of gas and the antics of a naughty boy named Jerry Waalkes.

No more will Burlingame host Mother-Daughter meals, craft sales or donut sales to help the youth.

No more will there be the ability to come to church in the evening after a bad day and finding people to talk to. No more will the children have fish to feed or plants to water.

No more will we see the magnificence of the sun as it shines through the stained glass. No more will we wonder which of the three hymnals we’ll sing out of. No more will there be ladies smoking in the kitchen.

No more will we hear “speak louder” or “the microphone’s not on”. No more will I see your smiling faces or will you sit there listening to one of my sermons.

No more will any of us be together again, like this, as we have been for the past 10, 20, 40, 85 years.

Yes, our time is coming to an end. But here is where the good news comes in. Because although this is an ending, we are leaving space for God to do a new thing. We are unselfishly stepping aside so God can create something new.

We are leaving the building empty so it can be filled with new possibilities.

For just as Jesus stepped out of the empty tomb, just as there were waters in the beginning of creation, we are leaving behind what can become for God and for the conference, a new beginning.

Although today there is a death, in the hands of God there is the reality of resurrection. We have created a space for new creation, in which God’s Spirit can move over this mortar and brick, these pews and stained glass, and bring forth new life, and new hope, just as God did when the Spirit first moved over the waters.

Today we are gathered to grieve the closing of Burlingame Congregational Church, but we are not to mourn the end of the Body of Christ, for that Body eternal, and that Body is here to stay.

And I have a favor to ask of you. After you go through your grieving process, as you begin the journey of traveling through the wilderness, finding a new church home, do not be ashamed about our church.

When people ask, “Aren’t you from the church that shut down?”, do not be embarrassed.

Say “Yes, but did you also know that our church gave over 12% of our offerings back to the community and our food pantry was the only one open on a Sunday. And it was good.”

When people ask “Aren’t you from the church that shut down?” Don’t be embarrassed.

Say “Yes, but we also hosted bluegrass concerts, held block parties and handed out treats on Halloween, reaching out to over to 800 people. And it was good”

When people ask “Aren’t you from the church that shut down?” you can say “Yes, but we also had a Southern Preacher lead us through Spiritual Renewal Services and two of the finest musicians around. And it was good .”

When people ask “Aren’t you from the church that shut down?” you can say “Yes, but we were also the ones who turned an empty lot of rocks and broken glass into a community garden filled with flowers and birds. And it was good.”

When people ask “Aren’t you from the church that shut down?” you can say “Yes, but we also were the ones who had a Vacation Bible School and after school program that fed the local children and taught them the Gospel of Christ. And it was good.”

When people ask “Aren’t you from the church that shut down?” you can say “Yes, but we were also the church that was brave enough to call an openly gay pastor when no one else would. And it was good”

When people ask “Aren’t you from the church that shut down?” you can say “Yes, and our children were not passive observers but active participants who played instruments, took the offering and introduced the Passing of the Peace. And it was good”

When people ask “Aren’t you from the church that shut down?” you can say “Yes, but we also had bake sales and soup suppers and picnics in the park like no others business. And it was good.”

When people ask “Aren’t you from the church that shut down?” you can say “Yes, but we were also the ones who could honor our veterans with a special corner while having a garden devoted to peace. And it was good.”

When people ask “Aren’t you from the church that shut down?” you can say “Yes, and we laughed and we cried, we baptized our children and buried our dead, we ate and we cooked, we worshiped and we were indeed the living, breathing Body of Christ. And it was good”

Friends and family of Burlingame Congregational UCC, it is now time for me to step down as your pastor, and it is time for us to formerly close the doors that have welcomed hundreds of people over the past 85 years.

Though this is a time of loss and goodbyes, let us find assurance and hope. Assurance that just as the Spirit of God moved over those mysterious waters oh so long ago, God’s Spirit will move again, transforming what has been our past into a new, exiting future.

And may it also be good.

All thanks and honor to God, who created us all, to Jesus who loves us all, and the Spirit that dwells in each and every one of us.

Amen, and amen.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sermon for July 19, 2009

July 19, 2009
Scripture: Psalm 104
Sermon Title: “Playful God”
Rev. George N. Miller
Before we begin our message let’s start with a joke: An elderly woman walked into the local church. The usher greeted her at the door and helped her to a seat. “Where would you like to sit?” he asked.

“The front row please,” she answered.

“You don’t really want that,” said the usher. “The pastor’s really boring.”

“Do you know who I am?” the old woman asked. “I’m the pastor’s mother.”

“Do you know who I am?” the usher asked. “No,” she said. “Good,” he replied.

To ensure no one is bored, I invite you to repeat after me: Bless the lord, O my soul.
Praise the Lord!

On this summer day, surrounded by the beauty of the earth, I’m excited about preaching. I’m excited because this is one of my favorite Scriptures. I’m excited because virtually everything I believe is right here.

Psalm 104, an exuberant song that praises God for all that’s been done in creation. It’s also the first place in the Bible where the word “Hallelujah!” appears.

Joy radiates throughout the text. There’s wonder and delight; play and recreation. We are taken from the heavens to the earth, from the waters to the trees, from the stars to a sea monster that plays in the ocean.

By placing its emphasis on everywhere and anything, Psalm 104 joyfully claims that all of the universe is God’s holy house.

And the Psalm celebrates just what a mighty God we serve; an incredible Creator who set the earth on its foundations, created the oceans and streams, called forth the moon to mark the seasons and the sun to mark the day.

As the Psalmist makes clear, God is not just out there, but right in our midst. And we see how every creature, no matter how strange or terrible, no matter how small or large, all come under the handy work of God.

We hear of the intricate way God created and connected everything. The rivers give drink to the animals and water the trees. The trees become a home for the birds, and from their branches the birds sing their songs.

Grass grows for the cattle. Mountains are home to wild goats, rocks are a place for the badgers, nighttime is for lions to hunt their prey and daytime is so they can sleep.

This is indeed a mighty, mighty God. One who creates and cares for all of Gods creation.

When humans appear in verse 14 we’re seen as another part of creation. When the animals go to sleep, the humans go to work. The same land that grows grass for the cattle is the same land that grows plants for people.

For today, what I want to focus on is the way Psalm 104 portrays not just a powerful God, but a playful God; for throughout the Psalm there is undeniable fun and frivolity.

Yes, God creates things that are necessary and important, but God has also blessed us with unnecessary things that make life worth living and fun.

We are told that oil is a gift from God to make the face shine, that wine was given to gladden our hearts.

Think of the theological claim: God gave us oil for cosmetic reasons so we can feel and look good. And God gave us wine to make us happy. Who would have thought!

Read further along and you come across this verse: “There is the ocean, large and wide, where countless creatures live...The ships sail on it, and in it plays Leviathan, that sea monster you made to amuse you.”

Now that’s the part I find most fascinating. Forget the streams for the trees and the tress for the birds, but here is the claim that God made a giant sea creature for nothing more then to make God happy.

In essence, Leviathan is God’s pet. Or as one writer mentioned, Leviathan is God’s water toy.

This is the image of God being a big kid playing in the bathtub with a rubber ducky!

In essence: God wants to have fun!

What an mighty, mighty God we serve indeed! That God not only creates and provides what we need, but God wants us to enjoy life, and furthermore, God likes to have fun, God enjoys recreation and play.

No wonder this is the first place where the word “Hallelujah” appears!

I love this notion that God likes to have fun. What a refreshing break from the stoic, serious images we place upon God. What a nice break from the fearful God people tend to call upon.

This is a God who can enjoy a good laugh, appreciate a thing of beauty and sit down with a friend over a cool drink.

It reminds me of a line from Alice Walker’s book The Color Purple. In it, a character says “God likes to be appreciated. I think it upsets God if you walk past the color purple in field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

God is indeed a playful God who enjoys beauty. Think of all the things that God has blessed us with that are, in essence, unnecessary. Look at all the colors we have.

The world didn’t have to look like a Crayola box. It could have been all white and grey. But no, we have red and yellows, greens and blues, gold and purple, and not just purple but shades of purple, from plum to violet to lavender.

And we have sounds. Oh do we have sounds! Of rain fall and wind blowing, of birds that sing good morning and ducks that quack.

And music! What would life be like without music. The note of a keyboard, the rattle or maracas, the beat of a drum, the toot of a trumpet, the clapping of our hands, the beat of our heart, the song in our voice.

And the dance. Square dance, line dance, ballroom dance, break dance, ballet, jazz and hip-hop.

And food. Think of it, food does not have to be as wonderful as it is. We could get by on one type of meat, a vegetable and some bread.

But the variety: beef, pork, fish, squash, brussel sprouts, broccoli, oranges, kiwis, tomatoes, whole grain, multi- grain, bagels, rolls.

Fried chicken, Gummi bears and Snapple iced-tea.

There is so much that God has created that we actually don’t need. So much that has been given as a gift, as unnecessary item.

Like good old Leviathan. A sea creature frolicing in the waves, an animal that was created to have fun, amuse God and to make God laugh.

So much that God has created has been unnecessary, but if we look deeper we realize just how necessary they truly are, because they are what helps make life so good.

And through the acts and gifts of creation, God is calling to us and saying “Do you want to play?”

We can be like the schoolyard bully and kick sand in God’s face or we can join in on the fun. So let’s have fun and share another joke:

A Rabbi and a Priest are at the town’s annual 4th of July Picnic. Because they are old friends, they do what old friends like to do: banter.

The Priest begins. “This baked ham is really delicious. You ought to try it. I know it’s against your religion, but I can’t understand why such a wonderful food should be forbidden. You don’t know what you’re missing. Tell me, Rabbi, when are you going to break down and try a piece?”

The Rabbi looked at the priest with a big grin, and said “At your wedding!”

In conclusion, how wonderful that when God created this world, it wasn’t just for you and I, but for the birds and trees, the lions and the grass.

How wonderful that when God created this world there was already a notion of play and fun, of enjoyment and pleasure shared in community.

How wonderful that God created some things, such as wine and sea creatures, for the purpose of bringing joy and laughter, happiness and play for God and for us.

No wonder this is the first place in the Bible is which the word Hallelujah is exclaimed.

Hallelujah to God for being so good!

Hallelujah to God for providing for us all!

Hallelujah to God for wanting to have fun!

Bless the Lord, oh our souls. Bless the Lord! Amen.

Sermon for July 12, 2009

July 12, 2009
Scripture: Joshua 24:1-18
Sermon Title: “Choosing the God of Life”
Rev. George N. Miller

For the Israelites it was a long time coming. 70 years ago they were in Egypt. 70 years since God took them from the sting of the slave master’s whip to a magnificent journey across the Red Sea.

It’s been 30 years since they entered the Promised Land; a place in which milk and honey, grain and grapes were plentiful.

Before they were to enter, Moses gathered the people and gave a beautiful speech. He reveled to them that his part of the journey was over, that he was soon going to die.

But he assures them this: that he saw the land God had promised, and it was good. And Moses told the people they had two choices: they could choose life and prosperity or death and adversity.

“Choose Life!” Moses encouraged the people. “Love and obey God and the land will be blessed and your children and your children’s children will joyfully live.”

His speech was so rousing that the people chose life. A new leader was called; a man named Joshua who had been with Moses to the mountaintop.

Joshua was a person who knew how to stay the course and to move forward even when the others wanted to give up and go back.

After Moses died, Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan river. It was Joshua who led them into the promised land. It was Joshua, with the hand of God, who helped them fight their battles and let go of their baggage.

For years peace filled the land, and it was good. And when Joshua new his time on this earth was almost over, he gathered the people just as Moses had 30 years before.

He gathered the elders and judges, he gathered the officers and families, and he began to remind them of all that God had done.

And like Moses before him, Joshua gave the people a choice: worship God or worship the gods of the earth.

“Make your choice” Joshua stated. “Either serve the Lord 100% or not at all, no half stepping or second guessing.”

What Joshua said to the people, what Joshua is saying to all of us today is this: if you choose God, you’re choosing life. So choose life.

Joshua speaks on behalf of God and shares the history of Israel up until that moment, illustrating ways in which God is life.

When Abraham was just a nobody who worshiped other gods, it was God who called him to the land of Canaan and gave him and Sarah children.

In others words God is saying “I gave you life.”

When they were slaves in Egypt, God sent them Moses and Aaron to deliver them.

God is saying “I gave you freedom.”

When they came to the Red Sea and the soldiers were on their back, God used the waters to protect them.

“I saved you.”

God brought them to the promised land.

“I gave you a place to call home.”

When the King tried to use Balaam to curse the Israelites, God used Balaam to bless them instead.

“I blessed you.”

When the enemies attacked the people God made them victorious.

“I fought for you.”

The Israelites received a land filled with fruit and olives.

“I fed you.”

Free, save, home, bless, defend, feed: life.

All the things God did for them, and all that God asks is they put away their other gods, they let go of their idols and they focus all their attention on the one who made them and loved them so.

Joshua admonishes the people: choose God or do not choose God. Choose life or choose death. But don’t think you can half step this one.

And 3,000 years later that question still lingers today, and we stand right beside our spiritual sisters and brother. What do we choose? Who will we profess to follow?

Do we commit fully to God our heavenly parent, teacher, and friend, or do we commit to the gods of the world and of our own doing?

You’re probably thinking “But we do worship God, don’t we? We’re in church when we could be sleeping or at the mall. We don’t have to worry about worshiping other gods, or do we?”

Of course we do, even if we don’t realize it. Every day we are faced with the temptations of idols, fears and celebrity that can fool us into placing them above and before God.

The easiest example is money. The importance we place on it. What we’re willing to do for it. How fearful we are to part with it. How we trick ourselves into thinking it’s money and not God that makes a ministry doable.

Another idol can be technology. How much time we devote to Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. How we may forget to say our prayers before we leave home but we would never forget to leave our cell phone at home.

And perhaps the most timely idol is celebrity. The entertainers we worship, the contestants we vote for, the recently departed Michael Jackson who’s songs touched a world but was certainly not God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit, although his gifts may have come directly from them.

Allow money, technology and celebrity to be the gods of your life and soon you’ll be among the living dead. For none of them will love you, free you, feed you or bless you the way God does.

God, through the words of Joshua, lays it out for us, breaking it down: “Look at what I did for you when you made me the focus of your life. So continue to choose me and you will choose life.”

As Christians, we realize things are not always as simple as that, and as gloriously simple as this sentiment sounds, we must still wrestle with the thought. Because many of us have chosen God. And yet death is still so real and so imminent.

And the man who taught us that is the one person who had no problem choosing God 100%.

In Jesus we have the irony that choosing God did not at first seem to lead to life but instead to a cross.

But Jesus was indeed choosing life. Because by living as he did, he lived a fully realized life and fully immersed himself in what it meant to be alive.

From dinners with friends to celebrations with the community, from worship in the synagogue to healings of the people, Jesus lived life to the fullest. So much so that not even the cross could silence him or stop his work.

Because by choosing God, Jesus had indeed chosen life, when on Sunday morning he overcame the darkness of Friday and the loss of Saturday and came stepping out among the people, where his light and his life continues to shine and inspire.

So we too are invited to make a choice today, and tomorrow, and each and every day after that: will we worship God and live life, or will we choose to worship imitation gods, seduced by the world, opting instead for spiritual death.

3,000 years ago Joshua asked the Israelites a very important question. And today we get to stand with the elders and judges, the officers and families, the young and old together, and we get to say our answer.

And may each and everyone one of us be able to say just what our ancestors did “We will serve the Lord and it is God we will obey.”

God loves us so, and in that love there is great and abundant life.

Choose God, my family and friends. Choose God because in doing so, you will have chosen life.

All thanks and praise be to Jesus who showed us how to make that choice, for the Spirit that blows upon us limitless blessings and God who has done more for us then we can ever imagine.

Amen and amen.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Wanderings for 07 19 09

Greetings everyone.

We are winding down to our final day of Little Star Vacation Bible School. And let me tell you: Most Successful Little Star Yet! Since we began this program in 2006 we have had good turns outs, averaging 9 kids per day and having had 13 children participate in last years program.

Well, we easily beat all records on Monday alone. On Monday we had 16 kids. On Tuesday we had 18 kids. On Wednesday 20 kids. On Thursday 17 kids (2 of them were new). That means we are averaging 17 kids per day, for a total of 22 children we have reached out to, sharing meals, worshipping, playing games and engaging in social activities.

The kids are loving it, as have our 9 volunteers.

Today is our last day in which (if the weather permits) we'll be splish-splashing in the front yard, with the kids playing in the sprinkler and jumping into the kiddie pool.

And it fits with the images we have in this Sunday's scripture, Psalm 104. Psalm 104 is my second favorite scripture. It celebrates God and all the wonderful things God has done for creation. It is also the first place in the Bible in which the word "Hallelujah" comes into play.

And speaking of play, I absolutely love verses 25-26. It presents the sea, far and wide, in which ships sail by and Leviathan plays in the water. In Biblical times, Leviathan was a mythic sea creature, a monster to be feared. Leviathan would be our Jaws or our Godzilla if the Psalm was written today. But here, in Psalm 104, all sense of fear is removed from Leviathan and she/he is presented as a giant, playful creature that is designed to amuse God. One way of putting it is that Leviathan is God's giant bath toy, a rubber ducky, created for play and fun and laughter.

How awesome is that, that a sense of play makes its way into the Holy Scriptures, that we get a glance of God not being stoic or oh so serious, but light and carefree, wanting to have a good time and to laugh a little.

How good it is to imagine God enjoying the playful side of life. How affirming it is to know that God created whole spectrum of things. Some for survival, some for work, and some for fun.

How will you have fun this day to honor God? What can your Leviathan be?

Peace and joy,

Pastor G

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Sermon for July 5, 2009

July 5, 2009
Scripture: Mark 6:1-13
Sermon Title: “Unpack Your Bags”
Rev. George N. Miller

(This message is acted out with a slight country twang and scads of bags/luggage hanging from the body)

Oh. Hey! Good to see you. Thank you for coming to visit. I’d have come to you. But as you can see, I got too much baggage.

Lots o’ baggage: past and present. Trouble is, I’m so weighed down it doesn’t seem like I’m going to have much of a future.

Still, it’s my baggage. Don’t want to let any of it out of my sight.

I used to travel all the time when I was younger, back when my baggage was much smaller and way more lighter.

I would soar in the air, but it’s now impossible to pass through security with all this stuff.

Tried the good old American railways to travel sea to shiny sea, but the baggage took up too much room. Same thing with the bus. Except the weight of my baggage turned it from a Greyhound into a Tortoise.

Thought I could take all my baggage with me in the car, but wouldn’t you know: soon the rear window was blocked and the dashboard was covered and I couldn’t close the car door. Dang economy vehicles.

I know, I know. I know just what ya’ll thinking. Why don’t I just let go of some of my baggage?

But see, I can’t. It’s not that easy. Keeping my baggage close to me is what I do. It’s my thing.

Besides, I’ve done it for so long it would take an act of God for me not to have all these bags with me.

What’s in them you ask? Oh, stuff. Like this here: this is my bag of fond memories. Like the old toy castle I used to play with. Photo albums- see how young I looked. And books. Oh, I would read this one again and again.

You certainly can’t blame me for parting with any of this.

Now these bags: I call them my shoulda-coulda-woulda bags. Let’s see. Ah yes. I shoulda went to college. I shoulda asked Pat to the prom. I shoulda bought stock in Microsoft.

My coulda bag. I coulda been a doctor if I studied harder. I coulda been a pro-tennis player if I hadn’t hurt my knee. And I coulda been a millionaire if I had bought stock in Microsoft.

This here: my woulda bag. By now I woulda been a Dad if Sam and I had stayed together. I woulda been 20 pounds lighter if I just stuck to my diet. And I woulda been living in Beverly Hills if I’d just purchased that dang Microsoft stock.

Good times.

And these here: my grievance bags. Like how I’m still mad that Chris told everyone back in high-school that I kissed like a jellyfish. Or that my sister borrowed my jersey as a nightgown and spilled nail polish all over it.

Here’s a good one. That Sunday, 15 years ago, when the pastor forgot my name so I refused to go back to church until he called to apologize. Which he never did.

As you can see, I have my baggage. I carry it around with me everywhere I go. But who doesn’t. I mean, you do right?

You know, memories of how good things were back in the day and how its too bad we’re not like that anymore. Like when Big Macs were served in Styrofoam containers and MTV only showed music videos.

I can’t be the only one with shoulda-woulda-coulda bags, am I?

What do you wish you shoulda done? What woulda you been? What coulda you done?

And let’s be honest: we hold grudges against folk, don’t we? Silly ones, big ones, under the surface ones?

I can’t be the only one. Although I’m so weighed down by my baggage that I just can’t seem to move forward at all.

So...for the longest while it’s just been me and my baggage. Not going anywhere. Spending a lot of time in the past. Not really enjoying the present.

Fortunately, with the age of infomercials and internet I don’t need to leave the house. I can order what I need by dialing 1-800 and if I choose chat with faceless folk on the computer.

One day, while nothing else was on, I turned on the TV and there was this preacher.

Like I said, it’s been ages since I last stepped foot inside a church. But the pastor on the TV seemed cool and there were lots of smiling faces, so I decided to listen, all my bags comfortably surrounding me.

And the preacher was talking about Mark 6:1-13, of how Jesus wasn’t that well respected in his home town. Folk didn’t take him seriously, claiming he was just a carpenter, and how they found him just a bit too much. So Jesus could only do some minor healings.

But then the next thing you know, Jesus is sending the disciples out 2 by 2, like them there animals on the ark, encouraging them to do God’s work and preach the word, and if folk didn’t want to hear it, well, they were to just shake the dust from off their feet.

Well, I kinda liked that. And I was a bit amazed. I mean, if I was Jesus, and I was humiliated like that in my own hometown, I’d have such a large bag filled with all the names of people who ticked me off. And I would certainly not have the energy to travel to a new place to do anything else.

But here is Jesus, letting their slights roll off his back like water to a duck, and he was able to move on and do what he needed to do.

And I had to ask myself “How he do that?”

So the preacher on the TV kept on talking about how the disciples were to travel without the basic necessities: no bread, no money, no extra clothes, no baggage.

No baggage? Just a tunic for their body, sandals for the feet and a staff to propel them forward. This was a way to teach them how to rely upon the Lord, and to also demonstrate how the Christian life is a life of simplicity.

Well I thought that was funny, considering the preacher was wearing an expensive looking suit talking to a stadium full of folk.

But something about the message resonated with me. Historically the scripture was saying one thing, but for me, metaphorical-like, it was saying a whole ‘notha thing. What I heard was Jesus saying “Let go.”

“Let go. If you want to move forward, if you want to experience life, you got to let go.”

I looked at my baggage, I looked at my life, all the things I had accumulated, all the things I held onto, all the junk I was refusing to let go.

And I heard the Savior say “Let Go.”

But I didn’t know how. After living a life in which I have held on so tight to everything single thing, how could I possibly let go?

So I pulled my baggage closer, afraid of parting with one single thing; not my castle, not my love of all things Styrofoam, not my regret over not purchasing Microsoft stock, not my anger at my sister.

But it seemed the tighter I held on, the more and more I began to hear that voice: “Let go.”

It started off small, like a still small voice, a whisper in the night: “Let Go.”

It got louder, like a song on the wind: “Let go.”
Then it boomed, like the crash of thunder: “Let go!”

I was scared. But then I remembered: somewhere in one of my bags were a few of my favorite Bible memories.

Like God calling Abraham and Sarah to “Go”, God inviting Moses to “Set my people free” or God telling Philip to mosey on down that lonely road that leading him to the Ethiopian Eunuch.

And how they were all the better for it.

So I did something daring. Next time I heard “Let go” I reached into one of my bags, and I released what was inside. I called up my sister and told her I forgave her for staining my jersey.

It didn’t seem to make much of a difference. But next time I heard “Let go” I reached into my bags and took all things Microsoft out and released those regrets to the wind.

Next time I heard “Let Go” I decided to accept the fact that MTV now only runs reality shows.

And little by little, more by more, an amazing thing happened: my baggage became lighter.

More and more I found ways to make amends, I found ways to forgive and let go of past grievances.

Little by little, more by more I began to let go of some of my childish ways, and I found ways to not be so rooted to the past.

And as hard as it has been, it’s been good. All the bags that I’ve been carrying, their straps cutting into my skin, their weight disfiguring my back, have become smaller.

I first noticed the difference, when one day I felt enough freedom to get into my car, and there was enough space to see what was ahead of me, as well as what was behind.

Soon, I was able to step onto the bus and go at Greyhound speed.

Soon, I was able to travel sea to shining sea. My baggage was still with me, but it was noticeably smaller and no longer limiting me.

And now, now after listening to that voice that called me to “Let Go” I find that I can travel in the air, like the Spirit, heading into my future, freed from my past, no longer trapped by my baggage, having new adventures, meeting new people and making new friends.

And, as you can see, my baggage has become light enough that I’ve been able to step back into church. Where I can see all your smiling faces, I can hear your beautiful songs and I know that God is real.

Even forgave the pastor for forgetting my name. After all: he’s only human, right?

Sure, I still got my own baggage to deal with. We all do. We’re human. But because of Christ, because of the grace that he gives, I have found a way to let go, a way to move ahead, and a way to trust on the Lord.

As scary as it is, when the Lord says “Let go”, let go. And you’ll be amazed where the Spirit takes you. You’ll be strengthened by Christ on your side. And you’ll discover that God will provide what you need for whatever journey is ahead.

Amen, and amen.

Sermon for June 28, 2009

June 28, 2009
Scripture: Mark 5: 21-43
Sermon Title: “Between Life and Death”
Rev. George N. Miller

(Tell people of audience participation. Right side is group 1; Left side is group 2)

After witnessing the fashion show in Samuel and the courthouse of Acts, we find ourselves back in the land of Mark. As you recall, this gospel was composed during uncertain times. The author does not spoon feed us our faith, but invites us to be uncomfortable in the unknown.

Mark’s Gospel announces itself as “The beginning of the Good News” and ends with people running fearfully from the tomb. In between there are children who die, women who bleed out, and men who are bound by chains: in other words, a world gone mad.

Doesn’t it feel a bit right now as if the world is going mad? What with the economy and flooded parking fields and riots in Iran’s streets. But let’s be honest: when hasn’t the world seemed a bit mad?

The Vietnam War, Monica Lewisnky, Michael Jackson’s death: it seems as if there is always something throwing things out of wack.

That’s how the seminary journey was for my classmates and I. We began school in 2001, bright eyed and full of life. Then two planes flew into the World Trade Center, placing our education in the shadow of the valley of death.

Professor Peggy Way helped us make sense of the mess. She reminded us that we are all living, biological, chemical creatures dealing with the chronicity of life. Which means illnesses happen, tragedies occur, and everyone will die. She challenged us to ask how God was present in the aftermath of 9/11 and how we were called to be the Body of Christ.

As if the events of 9/11 weren’t enough, over the span of three years, four of our classmates died. The shadow of death loomed large at seminary, but it did not have the only voice. For even in the midst of death, there was an abundance of life.

We had dinner parties, danced to Beyonce and 50 Cent, had late night conversations and studied in cafes. Couples met, friendships formed, circles of healing were created, Ultimate Frisbee broke the monotony of our studies. Mission trips took us around the country and around the world. And God was worshiped in unique ways.

At Eden Seminary we truly lived between life and death, and I would not exchange that experience for anything. To this day I believe those events created some of finest pastors in the country, because everything we learned and did was in the shadow of those realities.

When planes collide into buildings, when friends die in car accidents how does one still find the faith to be made well, to get up and walk, and to hear words of life when others want to laugh at you or cry out in defeat?

Mark has us wrestle with these thoughts as he tells of a time in which one woman’s life is bleeding out while a young girl is taking her final breathe, and how Jesus brings wholeness to both situations.

Jesus has traveled to where there is much life going on. There’s the hustle and bustle of folk who’ve gathered by the waters to experience Jesus for themselves.

The excitement is soon interrupted. A leader of the synagogue comes to Jesus. His 12 years old daughter is dying. He falls to his knees, begging Jesus to lay hands on her so she may live.

Death has made itself known.

Jesus and the man go to the girl. While on their way, a woman comes up to Jesus. For twelve years she’s been bleeding. She says if she touched his clothes she’ll be made well.

Immediately, her bleeding stops; Jesus turns to ask who touched him. Trembling, she kneels before him and admits her actions. And Jesus says (point to group 1. They say “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”)

Life has been restored. Wholeness and healing have won the day.

But wait: while Jesus is speaking, people come for the father of the sick girl and say (point to group 2. They say “Your daughter is dead.”)

The balance between life and death. It exists throughout the Bible, between the garden and the cross, between desserts and green pastures.

But pay closer attention to how Mark writes this story. As Thomas Long points out, it’s when Jesus is saying his words to the woman that the people talk about the girl. In other words, both sentences are said at the same time.

And here is where your participation really comes in. On the count of three, everyone is to say their line. 1. 2. 3. (“Daughter, your faith has made you well/Your daughter is dead.”)

Did you hear that? Jesus isn’t just living between these moments of life and death. He’s operating while both are happening at the same time.

This is a story for the ages, and a fitting story for our church today.

For in downtown Grand Rapids, UCC members from all over have gathered for the 27th National General Synod. Right by the flowing waters of the Grand River there is the hustle and bustle of folk coming to share and experience Jesus Christ.

Visitors are filling our streets with life and exciting newness. This is at a time in which both the mayor and our President are members of the UCC, and our denomination is blessing the city with the largest convention they’ve ever had, pumping $3 million into the economy.

Meetings have been electrifying, worship has been grand, and we can proudly say “I am a member if the UCC, where God is still speaking.”

There is much life.

And yet, we at Burlingame Congregational UCC are going through the pangs of death. In four weeks we close our doors for good. Like the leader’s daughter, we are taking our final breathes.

Our death is very real. And we are not the only church in the area facing this reality as other churches in Wyoming are struggling to stay alive.

Nor are we the only church in the UCC to struggle. In Massachusetts in which we are the largest protestant denomination, 39 UCC churches have closed in the past decade.

In some ways the women in today’s scripture represent what mainline congregations seem to be facing.

We have congregations that are bleeding out. Bleeding out in the form of members who are leaving because they’re unhappy with a stance the church has made.

Congregations that are bleeding out financially, as money is being spent faster then it is brought in.

Congregations that are bleeding out physically. People feeling drained from all the work they do, not allowing themselves rest and rejuvenation.

Like the girl, there are churches that are taking their final breath. They’ve fallen upon hard times too difficult to bounce back from. Congregations have been complacent, finding it easier to stay in bed then to step out into the unexpected.

Congregations that have just been too sick for too long from inside squabbling or unresolved issues.

And we ask, as members of the Christian faith, how do we survive, how do we continue to exist?
As we live in both life and death, we wonder if there is anything we can do.

But I’m not here today to preach doom and gloom, but to preach a word of hope. Because I believe there is indeed hope for the universal church, hope for the UCC and hope for the world.

That hope comes in the person and the life giving actions of Jesus Christ.

That hope comes from the belief that sometimes what looks like loss and despair is really just rest and opportunity for transformation.

That hope comes from the fact that both the UCC and Christianity have come too far to be left bleeding out or laying breathless in bed.

Because we, as a denomination, proudly come from ancestors who once decided, in Boston, that it was time to throw some tea into the water.

Because we as a denomination trace our roots to brave women and men who risked crossing a sea to worship God in freedom.

Because we as a faith trace our roots back to a Messiah who met people by the shore and spoke calm to a raging sea.

Because we are the Children of God whose Spirit moved over the waters of creation and it was good.

People can say what they want about the fact that we’ll be closing next month, people can say what they want about it seeming as if Christianity is waning. Let them go ahead and join the folk who are crying at the little girl’s house.

But I invite you to be like the synagogue leader and the bleeding woman, doing what needs to be done to experience Christ and to live out the Christian story.

As long as people continue to seek Jesus out, unafraid to ask for what’s needed, Christianity will survive.

As long as we’re willing to walk the distance with Jesus, even when failure has been announced, Christianity will survive.

As long as we are willing to act in hope, believing what we do can make a difference, Christianity will survive.

And as long as there are people willing to tell their story and wait for a word of healing, Christianity will survive.

The closing of our particular church does not signal the end of the story, because even as we prepare to say our goodbyes, there is celebration in the streets.

There are over 3,000 living representatives of Christ making themselves known to the people right by the waters of Grand Rapids

In conclusion, Mark wrote for a world steeped in madness and loss; and he could have easily written for our world today.

Through his telling of the Jesus story, Mark is saying that even when death seems too real, even while others are crying out, we still have ways to welcome Christ and the new life he brings.

It may mean falling to our knees, it may mean taking the chance to reach out, it may mean patiently waiting other events out, but it will be worth the work and worth the wait.

Between hearing “Your faith has made you well” or saying “Your daughter is dead” which do you choose?

I believe Mark would tell us not to lose our faith, because God is still working. It may seem as if we are bleeding out, it may appear as if we’re taking our last breath, but Jesus has stepped out of the boat and Jesus is in our midst.

Thanks be to God who is with us during these difficult times, to Jesus Christ who listens to our stories and to the Sprit which empowers us in ways we can only imagine.

Amen and amen.