Saturday, December 25, 2010

Sermon for Dec 26, 2010, Matthew 2:1-12

Rev. George Miller
Matthew 2:1-12
“Gifts of Light”
Dec 26, 2010

What is it about light? The flicker of a flame, the glow from a TV screen, the sense of security a child gets when their parents turn on the nightlight?

Why, for the past few days, have people driven through Sebring Village to look at the lights that adorn the homes? What is it about light?

A few Saturdays ago I came home from a day spent shopping in Tampa. Christmas gifts were for the most part finished and my sermon was done.

As my cat napped comfortably in the chair, I shut off almost all of the lights in the house and turned on the Christmas tree lights.

With a glass of ice water in hand, I went to the sun room, sat down on the couch, and just watched the tree. It was so peaceful…

I thought how nice it was to have something to look at. Then I realized something- I was looking at light. Then I realized something else: how much of what draws our attention is, in essence, light.

After all, what is a TV or computer screen but glowing light? While camping, people will sit quietly content looking at a camp fire.

And what is a Christmas tree but light, light, and more light? It seems as if we are designed to seek the comfort of light.

For us, as Christians, Jesus Christ is the ultimate light; a source of luminosity that guides us towards hope, peace, truth and love.

Now yesterday was Christmas. Gifts have been opened; today many of those gifts will be returned.

Food has been eaten; today many people are dealing with indigestion. Families have visited; today many are glad to see them go.

Two nights ago we gathered for our Christmas Eve service. We heard from Luke 2 in which the theme was about hope. I asked "How can we, as a family of faith, share hope with others?"

Today, we’ll talk about how the Light of Christ has entered into our lives and how we can try not to let it go.

This morning’s scripture is from Matthew, which takes place after Jesus is born. Wise men come from the east enquiring about him.

One of the accepted translations calls them astrologers, which makes sense, since we are told that they were following a star.

Yet it wasn’t just any star, it was a sign and a source of light that they could follow; light that leads them to where Jesus is.

These astrologers enter into the home, pay their respects and offer up their gifts. Then, after experiencing the True Light of the World, they leave to go home another way.

So I ask again, what is it about light?

First, light illuminates our reality. It chases away the darkness, revealing that which is hidden. Light allows new life to grow and old life to be restored.

Light is also a sign of great things. Not only did light of a star lead the magi to where Jesus lay, it was by the light of a dawning day that Mary came to the empty tomb.

At Christmas it is so easy to be drawn to and enraptured by the Light: a baby in a manger, angels that sing from on high, gifts freely given and smiles easily shared.

Like the flicker of a TV screen and the crackling of a camp fire, our eyes, ears and minds are attracted to what’s before us.

On Sunday, songs, scripture and sermons focus us on the Light and ways in which we can follow. The acolyte lights the candles, reminding us of why we have gathered and who it is we adore.

But what happens the rest of the week, when we leave this holy place and this holy time?

Do we remain drawn to the Light and stay focused on the ways of Christ? Or do we find ourselves easily submerged with the rest of the world in darkness?

One way we can keep the light burning is to continue doing what we talked about Friday night: to share and to be the hope that has entered into our lives. After all, hope is another form of light that breaks into our dark places and points us to something greater.

The light that burns from Jesus Christ is far brighter then any sun or celestial being or man-made bulb. When that light is allowed to connect with others, there is no limit to how bright our world can become.

I’d like to give you an example of how light can be shared with others.
In a house in Ohio (or was it Michigan, or perhaps it was New York or Florida), on a Christmas tree aglow with lights, sits an envelope, just as it has for many, many years.

It’s a small, white envelope stuck among the branches; no name nor inscription. It was placed there by a woman who wanted to bypass getting her husband the usual gifts.

You see, her husband, Mike, had grown tired of the consumer driven hustle and bustle of Christmas, saying that it left him feeling drained.

So his wife reached for something special that would bring an element of light into the world.

A few weeks before their son had competed in a wrestling match against an inner-city league. The youngsters, dressed in ragged sneakers, had no uniforms, no headgears, no anything that said they were a viable team. So of course, they lost every weight class.

Mike was upset. The light from his eyes faded as he shook his head, saying “I wish that just one of them could have won. They have so much potential but losing like this can take the heart right out of them.”

That’s when the idea came to her. She went to a sporting goods store and purchased an assortment of shoes and wrestling headgear and sent them to the inner-city team.

On Christmas Eve, amidst the glow of the holiday light, she placed an envelope on the tree telling Mike what she had done and that this was her gift to him.

Mike’s smile was the brightest thing about Christmas that year. So each year she followed the tradition- sending a group of children with developmental disabilities to a hockey camp, a check to a pair of brothers whose home had burnt down, and on and on.

That envelope became their ray of light each Christmas. It was the last thing opened; the children would put down their toys to watch as Dad took down the envelope from the tree.

Then one year, Mike was diagnosed with and died from cancer. This threw the family into a state of darkness. Christmas rolled around, but they didn’t want to do anything.

Grieving, the mother put up the tree. Alone, she placed an envelope on its branch. It felt like the darkest holiday of her life…

…but that morning, when she woke up, there were three more envelopes on the tree. Each of the children had put up an envelope in honor of their dad.

Though Mike is gone, his family has not forgotten. They hope that the tradition will grow with grand and great-grandchildren; that they too will stand around the tree, with light in their eyes, watching as the envelope is taken down.

In conclusion, that giving spirit, that spirit of hope in the midst of hopelessness, is but one way in which that light that can always be with us.

Just as the magi found ways to follow the light, may we also find ways to seek out the light that is Christ, and to follow wherever that light may lead.

May that light speak hope, may that light speak peace, may that light speak love and may that light speak joy.

Blessings be to God, to the Spirit, and to Jesus Christ, the true light of the holiday season.

Amen and amen.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2010

Rev. George Miller
Luke 2:1-21
“Into this Family”
Dec 24, 2010

I once heard someone say “When you have hope, you hope with God.” I invite us to hear a story about a family and how hope came into their lives.

One day, in Ohio, or was it Michigan (or perhaps it was New York or Florida), a boy went to see Santa at the mall.

He was holding a photo of his sister Sarah, who had leukemia. “She wanted to see you so much Santa,” he said, “But she can’t.”

Santa tried to be cheerful, so he changed the subject, asking what the little boy wanted for Christmas. The answer was so simple “Can you visit her? She’s not expected to make it through the holidays.”

Santa thought about family and what if he had a sister in the hospital. He asked where she was, and later that night, after all the girls and boys went home, Santa made his way there.

Inside Sarah’s room was a family, with a mother and grandmother, uncles and aunties and the brother. They had the weary, sad look of people who were crying and afraid.

Santa took a deep breathe and entered the room bellowing “Ho, ho, ho!”

Sarah shrieked with glee, a nine year old girl with IV tubes attached to her frail body. She was bald due to the affects of her chemo.

But her huge, beautiful eyes spoke of the joy she had of seeing Santa. Santa and Sarah talked for awhile; he commended her for being such a good, brave girl. The family circled the bed, holding hands.

Not knowing why, Santa asked Sarah if she believed in angels. She said yes.

Santa said “I’m going to ask the angels to watch over you. I want you to concentrate on getting well. I want you to have fun with your friends this summer, and I expect to see you next year at the mall.”

Santa knew it was risky to say this to a young girl with a chronic illness, but he knew he “had” to do it. He knew that beyond the gifts of dolls and toys, the greatest gift he could offer was hope.

The family began singing the words to “Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright,” and ended with a word of prayer.

Sarah was beaming when Santa slipped out of the room, back into the cold winter night. Everyone was smiling, crying tears of joy, crying tears of hope.

A year later, in Ohio, or was it Michigan (or perhaps it was New York or Florida), a boy went to see Santa at the mall…

…but this time, he was joined by a little girl with long hair and rosy cheeks. She sat in Santa’s lap. “Hi Santa! Remember me?”

“Of course I do,” Santa proclaimed, for it was his job to make each child feel as if they were the “only” child for that moment.

“You came to see me in the hospital last year” she said. Santa’s jaw dropped, tears sprung to his eyes. “Sarah! I barely recognize you with all that hair!”

He looked over and saw her brother, smiling and waving. Santa looked up to the heavens and humbly said “Thank you, God. ‘Tis a Merry Christmas indeed.”

That was the best Christmas for Santa, for he had witnessed the miracle of hope…

…It has been said that when we hope, we are hoping with God. Hope is what I’d like to talk about tonight, because our scriptures show how hope comes into the life of a particular family and into a community.

Then I will ask how we as a church family can use these gifts of hope to bless our local community.

The Gospel of Luke goes out of its way to show us not just the birth of Jesus Christ, but how Jesus was born into a particular family, in a particular way.

Although our world has become narcissistic, Luke shows us Jesus’ extended family made up of Elizabeth, Zechariah and John.

We are told of their careers, their faith and feeling of disgrace. We’re told of their blessings, joy and place in human history.

Luke tells us of the unique situation in which Jesus comes into this world: the first born son to parents who are not married; a mother who was very young, a father who was descended from King David; a child born on the side of the road placed in a feeding trough for animals.

Through these particulars, Luke makes it so clear that we’re not dealing with superstars or demigods, but with a very human family.

If you think Mary and Joseph had it easy or lived a fairy tale, you got it all wrong. Their family was one with their own issues, fears and possibilities.

But, as we heard tonight, God stepped in and did something for this family that God is so good at doing: God gave them hope; a child who would bring blessings upon his mother, lift up the lowly and fulfill promises made throughout the generations.

It doesn’t stop there. Another kind of family receives hope, a family created by hard work and long hours: shepherds in a field.

In the dark of night, when most people were asleep, hope comes to this motley family of manual workers. “Do not be afraid” they’re told. “This day a Savior, the Messiah, has been born, and God has given you a sign.”

Joyful songs break through the night and this man-made family of shepherds makes their way to where the family of Jesus is.

Seeing Emmanuel, God is With Us, must have given them so much hope. After all, if the Messiah could come to them as “One of Us” then their own lives could not be seen as lowly or despised.

They share what they’ve experienced with Mary and Joseph; the hope between these two kinds of families brightens the night.

Then, another kind of family appears: a family of faith. 8 days after Jesus is born, he’s brought to the Temple where he is circumcised and named.

More then just events, these were signs that he had an identity and was accepted into the covenant community of faith, and the hope that Jesus brings extends out, as we later see in folk like Simeon and Anna.

Hope, through the birth of a child enters into the life of a seemingly hopeless family, radiates out into a group of folk stuck in a hopeless job and spills into a family of faith through which God has promised to bring hope to the entire world.

Immanuel, God is with Us, becomes a reality, ushering wholeness and healing upon all of God’s people.

So tonight, as signs of hope fill this place, as we gather together, away from the elements and fears of night, I ask: how do we, as one kind of family, embrace this hope?

For we are called to do more then just celebrate the goodness of hope that has entered into our lives, but to share and to be that hope with others.

One way we do that is when we say “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

Though we do not always live up to this statement, we try and we are constantly being challenged in what that welcome means, what it looks like and how it is done.

Because we try, our acts of welcome become one way in which the hope of Jesus is shared with others.

What are the other ways?

This Christmas, let us embrace the fact that we are a family, a family of faith that has been gathered to hear the hope and share that hope with others.

Let us, through the Holy Spirit, discern ways to be that hope to families that are dealing with realities that can threaten to wipe hope away.

Let us embrace and celebrate that the gift that has been given through the birth of Jesus Christ is a hope that will continue to change the world, one family and one community at a time.

Because when we hope, we are hoping with God, and beyond the gifts of dolls and toys, hope is a powerful gift.

Blessing be to God for being so, so good, for the Holy Spirit for leading us to places we could never imagine and for Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate tonight.

Amen and amen.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sermon for Dec 19, 2010; Isaiah 7:10-16

Rev. George Miller
Isaiah 7:10-16
“Sweetness and Light”
Dec 19, 2010

I’ve been toying with a theory this week: that almost everything is a sign. These signs help us make observations and decisions, even if we are not conscious about it.

There is body posture. When someone leans forward (like this) during a sermon, I know they’re listening closely. If they look at their watch I know I’ve gone on too long.

There are consumer based signs. For example, if you see golden arches, you know there’s a McDonalds. If you’re hungry you can stop or you can keep going.

Companies that do well tend to have a logo that is identifiable and signifies something to their core customer.

For example, let’s do an experiment. Men- how many of you know what this is? (Hold up a shopping bag from Tiffany’s)

Now, how many women know what this is?

This robin-egg blue shopping bag with white handles and black lettering is perhaps one of the most powerful, most iconic signs to people who know what this bag signifies.

This is a shopping bag from Tiffany’s, world class jeweler and glass maker. This will sound sexist, but I believe that every woman should receive a gift from Tiffany’s at least once in her life.

If you’ve ever shopped at Tiffany’s, you know that part of the experience is receiving this bag and walking through the city or mall with it. And this bag seems to give you power!

That’s because this bag signifies something. For some people, it means you have the cash to spend on something nice (and sales people are very quick to notice it!). For other’s it means you have fine taste.

For others, it means there is something beautiful inside of it. It does not matter if it’s a piece of crystal, a diamond or simply a Christmas ornament; you know that whatever’s inside this bag is exquisite.

Therefore, something happens when you carry such a bag around. For lack of better words, it just makes you feel…goooooood.

Many things in life are signs to be observed and the reaction can depend just as much on the person as it does the sign.

For example, do any of you know someone who is always looking for signs that assure them that life is A-OK?

They pick up a penny and it just so happens to be from the year they were born. Or a butterfly lands on their shoulder.

For them signs portend to good and great things and they act accordingly in cheerful bliss.

Then there are those who look for the first sign that something is wrong. They’ll notice the smallest bump on their body and right away make a doctor’s appointment. Or see a cloud in the horizon and cancel the picnic.

For them signs point to disaster and they act accordingly in a defeatist attitude.

In other words, one person will see a Tiffany bag and say “Inside is something beautiful” while another person will say “That person just put themselves further in debt.”

Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. I think King Ahaz, from today’s scripture, was more of the second kind.

Ahaz is an interesting fellow. According to 2 Kings 16, Ahaz became king of Judah when he was 20 and ruled until he was 36. Although he was in charge of caring for God’s people, he did ungodly things. He sacrificed his son. He took gold and silver out of the Temple.

He was not good at acknowledging obvious and beautiful signs; he instead responded to signs of threat and defeat, acting in rash ways that put everyone in danger. We see that in today’s reading.

Trouble is a brewing in Judah. Various warning signs are telling King Ahaz that they will be attacked by two nations that have allied themselves.

Yet despite these signs Ahaz does not pray to God or seek out council from the Priests. Instead, he goes outside the city’s walls to check on the water supply.

And even though Ahaz has not been faithful to God, God has been faithful to Ahaz and has not forgotten the promise to care for and protect the people.

So God has the prophet Isaiah go to Ahaz with a message: “Don’t be afraid and don’t give up hope. These threats that you are facing are nothing more then but smoldering stumps of wood. I’ll take care of them for you. Just stand firm in your faith.”

The Lord says to Ahaz “Ask for a sign, any sign you’d like. It can be as big as a flat-screen TV or as small as a Tiffany’s bag. Ask for a hopeful sign and I’ll give it to you.”

Could you imagine? Being invited by God to ask for a sign that things will be OK? How often does that happen in life?

Yet, Ahaz is clearly not a fan of positive signs. He has no idea what to do with that. So he flippantly says “I’m not supposed to put God to the test.”

Apparently now Ahaz has some morals. It was Ok for him to steal the gold and silver from the Temple. But to ask God for a positive sign? That’s where he draws the line.

It’s as if Ahaz can only see signs of impending doom, but signs of promised hope he is blind too.

But listen to just how good God is. God gives Ahaz a sign anyway.

God has Isaiah say “You see that young woman over there, the pregnant one? She is going to have a son, and when he is no longer breastfed, this whole ordeal will be over and done with.

“So don’t do anything. Don’t make any rash decisions or try to take matters into your own hands. Don’t fret, don’t worry. I will work this all out for you.

“Oh, and by the way, the child will be called ‘Immanuel’.”

What an amazing sign to give. What a thing of beauty. Immanuel, which literally means “God is with Us.”

This sign basically states that in less then four years time Ahaz’s current problems will be resolved. And he doesn’t have to do a single thing- just wait with patience and believe that God will take care of it.

Apparently the sign was too beautiful, simple, and direct for Ahaz, because what does he do?

The complete opposite. He goes to the King of Assyria, the most ruthless, pagan man around and becomes buddy buddy with him.

In doing so, Ahaz forfeits God’s promise and the bitter irony is this: it is the Assyrians who ultimately attack Ahaz and his people.

God handed Ahaz an exquisite Tiffany bag filled with the promises of safety and care, and Ahaz, unable to appreciate the sign, dashed it to the ground and the kingdom became shattered in the process.

Some people can be like that. Refusing to acknowledge signs of peace and comfort in exchange for acting out of fear and dread.

Now Christmas is a time of signs. Signs all around us meant to assure us and remind us of “Immanuel”- God Is with Us.

Admittedly, many of these signs have been co-opted by the consumer culture and have lost their original meaning.

But they are signs nevertheless.

The signs seem to start earlier and earlier each year, usually right after Halloween. Candy canes and red ribbons tied on lampposts outside of Publix.

Strings of Christmas lights that illuminate the night. Carols that play in the stores.

I don’t mind how early these things begin, because all of them point towards a truth that no merchant can fully eradicate- that God is with Us.

Other signs begin to emerge in the middle of the winter landscape. Gatherings in which people share in a meal. Cards that are sent with bright colors signed with words like “love” and “peace”.

Trees are put up in which busy families set aside a few hours so that they can be together and decorate with cherished ornaments, some which may become family heirlooms.

People step outside of themselves and donate to local charities and buy gifts for those less fortunate.

All these things that we do, regardless if we realize them or not, are signs and ways in which the Holy Spirit breaks in to say “God Is with Us”.

Do we stop and pay attention to these signs? Can we see them as they were originally designed?

Can we reclaim them as signs of promised hope and belonging, living our lives in a way that say to everyone we meet “Immanuel”: God Is with Us?

In conclusion, let’s not be like Ahaz, seeing only signs of impending doom and acting out of hopeless fear.

Let us learn how to see the signs of God’s promised hope. Let them illuminate the night and brighten our day so we can step forward in acts of wholeness and healing.

So put up your decorations, send out your cards, wrap up gifts and tie them in bows.

As you do, realize that each act is a sign that says to others “God is With Us”.

Let these signs bring us closer to the manger, where God enters into our world and reminds us that we are not alone.

May we see and accept these signs, knowing that Immanuel, God is with Us, is indeed the most beautiful thing.

Lovelier then crystal, more important than diamonds or anything a bag from Tiffany’s will ever contain.

Happy Advent and blessings be to the Spirit, to God and to the Christ Child.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sermon from Dec 5, 2010; Romans 15:4-13

Rev. George Miller
Romans 15:4-13
“Abounding In Hope”
Dec 5, 2010

As many of you know, I am continuing to acclimate myself to life in Florida. First it was getting a cell phone with an 863 area code. Next it was changing my driver’s license, and then buying a new car. Last week I took another step: I got Dish TV.

I originally held off on getting cable so I could save some money and figure out where I was going to live. It was fine for the first few months. I rented DVDs and used the opportunity to know the state.

But then the Fall Season began with new and returning shows and I felt like I was missing something, not part of the popular culture, and out of the entertainment loop.

The cincher came when I realized that without cable I’d miss the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. There was no way I could do that. So I broke down and got satellite TV.

The day it was installed? I sat my butt on the couch and watched the Food Network. For hours. By the next day I remembered that as nice as it is to have TV, there’s really nothing on. Doesn’t matter if you have 12 stations, 24 or a 120.

Still, it’s sure nice to watch first-run programs, present day commercials and local news. It’s even better when you catch a show that reminds one of what good TV is supposed to be all about- carrying you away and making you feel better.

That show for me, and for a lot of people, has been Glee, a modern day musical set in an Ohio high school in which students and teachers break out in song in a joyful Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland-“let’s put on a show” kind of way.

One of the strengths of Glee is how diverse the cast is. There are characters who are gay, Asian, disabled and no one’s portrayed as all good or all bad, just fully human and full of hopeful possibility.

In last week’s episode, the Glee club director, Mr. Shue, realizes that he’s been showcasing the same vocalists for each singing competition, unintentionally keeping others in the background.

To rectify things, Mr. Shue mixes it up by giving the prominent solos to those who were “the least of these”. This upsets the ones who were used to “sitting at the head of the table.”

Chaos and petty fights erupt between the group to the point where no one wants to sing on stage or work together.

This prompts Mr. Shue to passionately remind them of what they are about and why they are signing.

“Enough,” he says, “Listen to yourselves… Think back to where you were this time last year. In this room, with no set list, no choreography, no chance…in winning. But you did win. Because you did it together…

I don’t care if you hate each other. All I want is for you to go out there and sing together. Go out there and for six minutes remind yourself that you are not alone.”

And of course that’s just what they do. The hot shots allow the underdogs to shine; they dance and sing, and sure enough, bring the audience to their feet.

Call me simple, call me silly, but I felt that those “six minutes” of television perfectly captured what this part of Romans is all about.

The Book of Romans has been called Paul’s masterpiece. Composed towards the end of his ministry, Paul is writing to a church he has never visited but hopes to one day stop by.

It’s a relatively new church, but it’s not a church without some problems. See, it’s a congregation composed of people from so many different backgrounds that their differences are starting to create cracks in their fellowship.

Not major cracks, mind you, but hairline fractures that if not attended too can lead to some serious wounding of the church body.

What are some of the differences? Well some have been religious people all their life with deeply-grounded notions of what is right and wrong.

Others are people new to the faith or any faith who are just learning about God and Jesus and not so sure that some of things are a big deal.

For example, there’s the question of food. Is it OK to bring baby-back ribs and shrimp cocktail to the church potluck or is it best to leave it at home lest it upsets someone who is kosher?

Do the men have to be circumcised before becoming Christians or can they be allowed to go au-natural?

May not seem like a big deal to us today, but 2,000 years ago- crucial. Enough to have a pre-concert shown-down. Until Paul steps in and does his own “Mr. Shue.”

“Hey!” he writes in chapter 15, “If you are strong in your faith, let those who are new to this have some wiggle room.

“Be good to one another and help each other out. Let God show you how to live in harmony so that with one voice you can offer praise.

“Welcome one another, accept one another as is, because in Christ, God has given everyone hope.

Let that hope fill you. With the power of the Spirit, abound in hope.”

Part of this letter is Paul’s theology of worship, which is that no matter what disagreements we may have, we are to welcome one another in worship; and that no matter how different our beliefs may seem, we can raise our voices up to God and know that we are not alone, if even for just six minutes. Can I get an amen?

This is a wonderful scripture for a wonderful day for a wonderful church.

Now that the Installation is complete, now that the season of Advent has begun, now that our year-long residents, returning residents, new members and visitors are gathered here together, it is good and important for us to hear these words and to be reminded of this message.

For like that church in Rome, we are a fairly new congregation. Like that church in Rome, we come from all over the land. Like that church in Rome, we come from a variety of beliefs and religious experience.

And if we are not careful, those differences, as simple and minor as they may seem, can tear us apart.

Do we stand or do we sit? Do we celebrate communion by intiction or with trays? Do we read from one biblical translation or from many? Should you come to church in suit and tie or shorts and a t-shirt.

Should I wear a goatee or shave it off?

Ya’ll know these issues are real; and they exist everywhere. Even 2,000 years ago.

And as we continue to know one another, the differences will really come out. Was Mary a virgin? Did Moses write the first five books? Did Jesus rise from the dead?

Oh, we’re going to have some fun and we’re going to have some heated discussions.

Those differences are going to emerge, and thank God, because a church family without differences would be boring indeed.

So, now that I have been installed, now that it is official, what do we do? We, as the unified body of Christ, move forward.

We continue doing just as we have done, saying to everyone “No matter who you are and where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

Because when we say to someone “you are welcome here” we are saying “I accept you as you are.”

And in that welcome, in that acceptance, we get to gather, we get to praise and pray, sing and give, and unite our voices to celebrate all that God has done through Jesus Christ.

By looking beyond our differences, we become united by the Spirit, and for at least six minutes, hopefully more, we can remember that in Jesus Christ, none of us are alone.

And that gives us hope.

Blessings to God, blessings to the Son, and blessings to the Spirit.

Amen and amen.

Sermon from Dec 12, 2010; Luke 1:47-55

Rev. George Miller
Luke 1:47-55
“Across the Generations”
Dec 12, 2010

Back in 2004 a country song by Gretchen Wilson was blazing the airways called “Redneck Woman.” I thought it was an ignorant song, after all, in New York, calling someone a redneck was one of worst things you could say.

But then I took up Line Dancing and this was one of the first songs I learned. I tried to act as if I was too cool to enjoy it, but I had to admit it had some energy and a bite.

After dancing to it a few times I realized something: this song isn’t ignorant at all. It’s actually a song of empowerment in which the singer is unabashedly claiming who she is and making no apologies for it.

So what if she likes to keep Christmas lights up all year, buys negligee at Wal-Mart and chooses beer over wine? She is who she is, as we all should be.

You know what else? Gretchen Wilson is a broad, and I mean that in the best sense of the word.

I love the word broad. It’s is a word with a lot of power that has sadly seemed to lose its place in the popular vernacular.

Ya’ll know what a broad is: she’s strong, courageous, and tough; unafraid to ruffle a few feathers.

She’s that force of nature that’s all woman but can hang with the guys. She’ll gladly join you for a drink and tell it like it is.

A broad is unafraid to speak her mind and engage in witty wordplay. She doesn’t mince words, nor is she easily fooled. She’ll call you on your junk but she’ll also save your butt when you’re in a bind.

Where have the broads gone? Back in the day we had Marlene Dietrich strutting through the nightclub in a tux. We had Katherine Hepburn throwing golf clubs out the front door. Bette Davis and her cigarette telling us it’s going to be a bumpy night.

Bacall held her own against Bogey, Cybil Shepherd bantered with Bruce Willis in “Moonlighting,” Bea Arthur nailed every single line in “Golden Girls” and Dixie Carter gave the most cutting monologues ever in “Designing Women.”

Sadly, many of them are gone. Bette Midler is a broad; Julia Roberts is not. Paula Dean is definitely a broad with a southern bent, Rachel Ray is certainly not.

We have some broads in the FL Conference and right here at EUCC. Rev. Dr. Jean Simpson- definitely a broad. Our wonderful secretary- a broad indeed.

The rest of you know exactly who you are. And I thank you for unapologetically being your amazing self, because there is nothing like a broad.

But still- where have all the broads gone?

Fortunately, we can find them in the Bible. I bet some of you have never thought of that before, but the Bible is full of tough, no-nonsense women who can hold their own against any guy.

Trouble is, for too many years the Bible has been interpreted and preached from a male perspective, and without a true appreciation for the biblical broad, many of them have been silenced or profiled as helpless, docile creatures.

Thank God that over the last 50 years we have welcomed the voices and insights of blacks and Hispanics, women and gays have helped us to rediscover these voices and to perhaps more clearly see who our Biblical brothers and sisters really were.

For example, go to Exodus 1. The King, feeling threatened by the Israelite presence, comes up with a plan to keep down their population- have all the male babies killed.

He sends out an edict, sure that all the women will do as they were told. Except, there are these two broads named Shiprah and Puah.

They were midwives, probably making minimum wage and even though it put their lives in danger, they disobeyed the king and let the boys live. They even went as far as to lie to the King about why they didn’t follow his orders.

Two women standing up to the “Man”? Sounds like Thelma and Louis.

What about Hannah in 1 Samuel? She’s a woman who refuses to give up her dream of having a child. She goes to Temple and prays so hard the priest thinks she’s drunk.

She promises to dedicate her first born to God and when her prayer is granted, she does just what she promised. Talk about your Unsinkable Molly Brown.

Then we have today’s reading from Luke. I don’t know about you, but I have grown tired of the images we see of Mary. She’s always dressed in those blue and white robes with such docile, submissive poses.

I don’t think Mary was docile at all. I think she was tough, like Hepburn and Bacall, like Siphrah and Puah.

I think Mary and Elizabeth were broads. And thank God, because they ushered in the arrival of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Let’s review the story. In the beginning of Luke we meet Zechariah and Elizabeth, a childless couple who is said to be getting on in years. And some amazing things happen.

For one thing, Elizabeth finds herself pregnant. At an age when most women were preparing to be grandmothers, Elizabeth becomes the oldest woman in town to be wearing maternity clothes.

On top of that, her husband has been rendered mute for the entire pregnancy. (Which may not have been such a bad thing…I’m just sayin’.)

So here she is with a husband who can’t talk and a growing belly. How do you adjust to such a change? It couldn’t have been easy. Yet she found a way to be strong and make it through. Sounds like a broad to me.

Then we have Mary. No one knows what her age was, but general consensus is that she was young, perhaps only 13 or 14. And regardless of how you interpret the story, she finds herself unmarried and pregnant.

What is it that she does? She embraces her future and then she travels out of town, alone and without support, to visit her cousin.

A young, single, pregnant girl traveling by herself? Do you realize how dangerous that would have been? Do you realize that Mary did this while having bouts of morning sickness and bloating?

Does that sound docile or submissive to you? No, Mary must have been a broad as well, or at least a broad in training.

In today’s reading the two women meet. Elizabeth is six months along and when the newly pregnant Mary enters her home, Elizabeth’s body has an immediate physical reaction, which provokes her into words of blessing.

Then Mary goes into what is called the Magnificant. If you listen to her words, they are not submissive nor a “calming lullaby,”[1] but in-your -face revolutionary.

Mary speaks of how the proud will be scattered, the powerful leaders on their thrones will be brought down and the rich will go away empty.

If that doesn’t sound like the words of a
Bad Mamma Jamma, what does?

Also note that in a true biblical fashion Mary is not speaking about just breaking down, but of building up: the lowly will be lifted, the hungry will be filled and mercy will be extended from generation to generation.

It is said that Mary’s words establish her as the founder of Christian theology[2] and that her and Elizabeth created the first Christian Community.[3]

Not such a bad thing to credit two broads.

Who knows what transpired during the three months Mary stayed with Elizabeth. I hope it was a time of bonding, that they were truly there for each other, sharing concerns and joys, embracing the possibilities that lay ahead, trusting that God would see them through.

Two broads: strong, courageous, and tough, facing life head-on.

In conclusion, don’t let anyone fool you into thinking people of faith are weak or that the people of the Bible, in particular the women, were goody-goodies, pure and helpless.

That’s an insult to our faith and to what our spiritual ancestors went through and were willing to endure.

The generations of faithful who came before us had real personalities with weaknesses and strengths, fears and hopes, not perfectly passive holy people; nor were they afraid to ruffle a few feathers.

Biblical women, like Hannah, Shiprah and Puah, Elizabeth and Mary did what they had to do and what was right for them to honor life.

They did so to celebrate God and to lift up what God has done and will do across the generations.

And what God does is give strength to the lowly, hope to the hopeless, peace to the peaceless and love to the forsaken.

Let us give thanks for these biblical broads and let us give thanks for anyone who finds a way, through God, to also be strong, courageous and tough.

In other words, let us give thanks to anyone who finds a way to be unapologetically real.

Blessings to the Spirit, Blessings to the Creator and Blessings to Jesus Christ, whose birth we joyfully anticipate.
Amen and amen.
[1] Sharon Ringe, Luke, 1995, pg 35.
[2] Brigitte Kahl, “Reading Luke Against Luke…” in A Feminist Companion to Luke, edited by Amy-Jill Levine, 2001. pg. 87.
[3] Kahl, 79.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Sermon from Nov 21, 2010- Colossians 1:11-20

Rev. George Miller
Colossians 1:11-20
“Finding Fullness”
Nov 21, 2010

“May you be made strong with the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience…for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” (vss 11 and 19)

Strength and power. Patience and endurance. Fullness.

Let me share with you a story about fullness. This flask is very special; its wood and oil came from Jerusalem. I bought it for my former church. The oil was used to bless the members and for an infant born with serious birth defects.

It’s also been utilized here. As our Tuesday Bible Study class can testify, we have used the oil inside to bless nearly 20 prayer shawls; shawls for those who’ve been ill, for those who’ve been grieving, and also in anticipation of a child’s birth.

Last Tuesday, after blessing a shawl, the oil ran out. I took it home to refill it. But I had a problem: I couldn’t put the cap back in. I had filled it too much, leaving no space. So I delicately poured some oil out. Still, the cap would only go in half way.

I did not realize it, but the cap has little openings in it that allow air to go through. Because of that, it will not properly seal the flask until it is emptied enough to be capped.

In other words, for this flask of oil to be full, it actually had to be emptied. This could not be used as a vehicle for blessings until there was space for air to go through.

How fitting that this vessel, that has been used as a vehicle for strength and power, patience and endurance, which connects my previous church with my new, would run out just a few days before our Installation…

…Fullness. Now, I know this letter is exquisitely written and rich with Christology, but it is the word fullness that has been speaking to me.

There is a great sense of fullness that I have been feeling since I arrived here 7 months ago. Fullness of love, fullness of hope, fullness of the future. I pray that you all feel the same way.

However, 12 months ago, fullness was not a word I would have used. Emptiness was more like it. During the last half of the Search and Call process I felt unwanted, hopeless, and I felt like there was no future.

Perhaps you felt the same way too, as you were searching for a pastor.

However, looking back now I can stand before you and testify that I was not empty, in a negative way. But instead, I was being emptied, as in, I was being prepared.

I was being emptied so the moving of the Spirit, the Calling of Christ and the Hand of God could do what needed to be done to bring me, to bring us, to this holy time, to this holy place, to this holy day of Installation.

This idea of sacred emptiness appears throughout scripture. In Paul’s letter to the Philippian church he encourages them to be like Christ, who emptied himself and took the servant role. (Phil 2:5-11)

Another example of emptiness is when the Spirit is poured out upon the people during the Day of Pentecost. It is this pouring out that marks the anniversary of the church.

One pastor I read stated that there are people in our lives who pour themselves out so that we may know the love of God. He pointed to Sunday School teachers and congregation members. He went on to state that when we pour ourselves out, we help to make the lives of others full.[i]

Fullness and emptiness. Poured out to be filled up. That’s what today’s Installation means to me.

I have experienced the ways in which our Triune God has worked, danced and created to make today possible, and I am thankful for our guest pastors who are here today, because each of them has played a role in my own emptiness and filling up.

First, Rev. Dr. Scott Davis, my Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor from St. Louis University. When we met in 2002, I was full of myself, full of false bravado, full of fear.

Through his General Patton style of teaching, his vast wealth of knowledge and his enormous love for Christ, it was Rev. Davis who taught me how to provide proper pastoral care.

He did so by emptying me out. He prodded me to let go of my fears and step into the leadership role I was being given.

He taught me that true pastoral care happens when I let go of my need to talk, can sit comfortable in silence and allow the emptiness of the moment to create a space for the wounded to speak the words that need to be said and heard.

It was last winter, in the emptiness of my soul, that I called Rev. Davis and he said “I know the perfect church for you- my parents are members and it’s called Emmanuel UCC.”

If I had not been feeling so empty that day, I may have never made that phone call. So I bless God for you, Rev. Davis.

Second, Rev. Dr. Bruce Roller, my mentor for the last 5 years. He is the Executive Director of United Church Outreach Ministries in Grand Rapids, MI.

It has been Rev. Roller who I went to when I was filled with stress, worries, and doubt. It has been Rev. Roller who did just what Rev. Davis tried to teach me: he sat silently and let me moan and groan before he would speak, and his words, infused with the Spirit, made their way into my brokenness, filling me with understanding and an assurance that I was indeed doing my best.

During the nine months I was unemployed, it was Rev. Roller and UCOM who kept groceries in my household and even arranged it so that my cat would get the services he needed.

Rev. Roller gave me back my humanity at a time I felt I had lost it. Last November he called me to pick up a holiday basket that had all the makings of a Thanksgiving dinner. What he did not tell me was that I was really coming over to help hand out those baskets to others in need.

I showed up at UCOM on a freezing, snowy Saturday and there is a food truck with over 100 people lined up. By the end of the morning, I was cold, my nose was running, my back ached, I sweated through my shirt.

But when I got home, I knew that I had worked, and I had done something besides sitting on a couch and waiting. From that day on, I found healing by stocking the shelves and cleaning up the clothes room.

In February of this year, I hit the lowest point, unsure of where everything was going. I called Rev. Roller and I cried and I cried because I was so angry with God.

Rev. Roller allowed me to say all I needed to say, then he so eloquently, so beautifully said a prayer that filled my broken body and soul up with validation and assurance.

It was less then 10 days after being so completely emptied that I received that wonderful phone call from Emmanuel.

I bless God for you, Rev. Roller.

Finally, Rev. Todd Petty, Senior Pastor of Historic Park Church in Grand Rapids. He is one of 10 UCC pastors given a President Fellow grant, which he is using to study urban congregations across the country. He also, by they way, has known Gene and John for a long time, and has himself worshipped here at Emmanuel.

Rev. Petty pastors a big beautiful church, a church that has brass instruments and a silver tea service that anyone would covet.

Now, there will always be churches that say they care about social justice and they care about the poor, but not many actually do. But during my time of unemployment, Rev. Petty and his church reached out to me. He didn’t wait for me to call; he himself would pick up the phone to ask how I was doing.

When I wanted to process an interview with a church, Rev. Petty was there, for however long it took. When his church offered a book study preceded by a hot meal, it was he who invited me, to make sure that I was fed, I was around people, and I was still, in some way, connected to a church.

Thanks to Rev. Petty’s sense of ministry and mission, I was kept from being homeless. I can not tell you how many times he would call to see if I needed help paying my rent. He didn’t wait for me to ask; he just knew, and he handled it in a way that allowed me to keep my dignity.

Rev. Petty and the members of Park UCC demonstrated to me how Christ calls the church to pour itself out to help heal others and to find ways to fill their needs, be it physical, social, and mental. And that it is more important for a church to do, then to say.

So I bless God for you, Rev. Petty.

Fullness and emptiness. Poured out to be filled up.

Of course, I can not finish today’s message without paying thanks to the one who is responsible for me being here, as in on this Earth: my mother.

It was in the fullness of your belly that I was nourished; it was an act of emptiness that brought me into this world.

You filled my life with good things: stories that you creatively told through hand-drawn photos, a house filled with the smell of fresh made bread, chocolate chip cookies and spaghetti with meatballs, a front-yard filled with the colors of blooming flowers, a backyard filled with the sound of birds at the feeder, your own personal walk with God and the decision you and Dad made that we should go to church.

Lord knows how you’ve emptied yourself out again and again to make my siblings and I feel full and whole and loved. Each year as I grow older I realize that for better and for worse I am very much our son.

Just as I am very much my father’s son.

In conclusion, today I find myself full, full with love. Love for these three men who have shaped my ministry. Love for my Mom. Love for the Search Committee. Love for all of you.

That love is from God, that love is God.

We are all part of God’s love; we are part of that legacy that Colossians, and Paul and the Gospel writers talk about.

And in that love, we are poured out. We are poured out, so we can leave room in our life for Christ, in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

We are poured out for each other, in community, to remind others that the body of Christ moves beyond circumstances and trying situations.

We are poured out, like the oil in the flask, to leave room for the Spirit, so that Christ can work through us, to bless, heal and point others towards restoration.

May we continue to be poured out so that we can continue to be refilled and to share in Christ’s strength and power, patience and endurance.

All blessings be to the Spirit that moves in surprising ways, to God who has a plan even when we can’t yet see it, and to Jesus who teaches us how to be humbly empty so we can become wonderfully full.

Amen and amen.
[i] Rev. Dr. S. Ronald Parks, “Poured Out,” given at Calvary United Methodist Church on 8/24/2008.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"In the Company of Cheerful Ladies"

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies
By Alexander McCall Smith

Smith continues to write about nothing, yet everything, at the same time. He has allowed his characters to continue developing. Mma. Makutsi solves a case; get a 25% commission and goes out to buy new shoes (with a buckle that will attract men’s attention!). She also finds love and in the touching last scene, is proposed to, although in a rather unusual way.

Mma. Ramotswe goes toe to toe with her abusive ex husband, Note, and temporarily faces the reality that her van has been stolen. There is also the addition of Mr. Polopsti, a man wrongly jailed who can not get a job…until the day Mma. Ramotswe hits him with her little white van and convinces Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to give him a job.

The soul comes pouring out on the last page, when Mma. Makusti, glowing over her marriage proposal thinks about love. “She had so much love to give-she had always felt that- and now there was somebody to whom she could give this love, and that, she knew, was good; for that is what redeems us, that is what makes our pain and sorrow bearable- this giving of love to others, this sharing of the heart.”

Monday, November 8, 2010

Sermon for Nov 7, 2010, Haggai 2:1-9

Rev. George Miller
Haggai 2:1-9
“Claiming Courage”
Nov 7, 2010

My name is Aaron. I am 13 years old. This is the only kind of life I have known: ruin, destruction and loss. The streets are torn up, the land is dry and unusable, and the Temple is blackened blocks of charred mess.

I live in a broken down house that I share with my parents and grandparents. It’s a time of economic hopelessness where Dad has to work twice as hard to make half of what he should.

Across the street is my friend Sarah. Her parents gave her that name because it reminds them of the past when God had done an amazing thing.

I look around and see the ruined buildings and skinny cows and say “God is dead.” That makes my grandmother cry and my grandfather Joseph upset. He tells me to never say such a thing, but I do anyway.

Dead, dead, dead, God is dead. Don’t believe me? Just look at what happened to our city 67 years ago.

Grandpa Joseph said that Jerusalem was like nothing you’ve ever seen. The city was the highest point of Judah and the Temple was the highest building. He said that when the sun hit it just right, the Temple shined.

The land was good for growing, the city’s location perfect for trading and God had blessed the people with milk and honey and the promise to always be with them.

But as Grandpa Joseph tells it, people forgot about God and bad things began to happen. They were attacked by the Babylonians who leveled everything: the stores, the houses, the fields, the Temple.

They took people away to be treated like slaves. My grandparents were just 5 at the time. Grandpa Joseph said that in Babylon they were forced to work long hours and were teased for their beliefs. And they wonder why I say God is dead.

My grandparents were married in Babylon, and had my father. Somehow they kept their faith, believing that one day they would return to Jerusalem.

Their beliefs came true 50 years later. The Persians defeated the Babylonians and set my family free. As joyful as it was for my grandparents, it was confusing for my parents: they had been born in Babylon and that was the only placed they knew.

Everyone was devastated when they came to Jerusalem and saw it in ruins. For fifteen years the people tried to rebuild the Temple, but with no luck. The Temple remained in a state of defilement and uncleanness.[i]

Instead they worried about the economy, and they focused on their own needs, struggling for a long time.

I was born here. My parents named me Aaron after Grandpa Joseph’s father who has died during the exile. I hate my name and that I’m named after a foolish old man who believed in a God who is dead.

I said that once and it broke Grandpa Joseph’s heart.

One day this guy, Haggai, a real charismatic fellow, comes up from nowhere claiming he has a message from God. He tells everyone that we are too stop being so wishy-washy and worrying only about ourselves and to get to work on rebuilding God’s Temple.

I was there to hear it. It was a pretty powerful speech; got people real excited and motivated.

Grandpa Joseph said that Haggai had some real matzos to say what he said. Grandma and Mom were embarrassed but Dad and I laughed.

Haggai told everyone upfront: “Take courage, take courage, take courage oh you people, and work, for God is with you.”

I was with Sarah and I said “Yeah right, God is not real and I don’t want to work as much as I don’t like girls.” For some reason that made Sarah run away and cry. I guess I forget that she is a girl.

My father made it very clear that God was calling us all to pitch in and help, and that since I was part of the family I was expected to help too. I said no.

Well, Dad made me cut down my own switch from the tree. After giving me a good what for, he, Grandpa Joseph, mom, Grandma, Sarah and her family and myself all went to work helping in any way we could to rebuild the Temple.

I hate God….

My name is Aaron. I am 16 years old. This is the only kind of life I have known: ruin, destruction and loss.

The streets are still torn up and the Temple is a hodge-podge of half done walls and unfinished floors.

Across the street is my friend Sarah. She’s been promised to me in marriage. Our parents decided that we won’t get married until the Temple is finished. They want us to have a proper Jewish wedding, the first in either family for 70 years.

God and I are still not doing that well. I can’t say that I hate God. But I still don’t care about or get God.

The older I get and the more I learn about what my family went through in the exile, the more I ask how a loving God could allow such a thing to happen.

But Dad still has us working alongside everyone else. I tell you one thing, the work is hard but it’s done a wonder in keeping our minds off of our worries. It’s also done a wonder for our bodies, making us strong and tan and feeling like for the first time in a long while like we can do anything.

While we work people tells stories and sing songs from the days before the exile, about God’s deliverance and goodness, and I’ve enjoyed hearing some of the tales, even if they seem far-fetched.

But it’s not like things have been easy. First, the elders haven’t been too happy. You know how old folk can be. Always talking about the “good old days” and the “way things used to be” and “we didn’t do things like that back in my day.”

Makes me wonder if I’ll be the same way when I get to be their age.

Anyhow, here’s what happened. Haggai got everyone so excited about rebuilding the Temple. We’ve done more in 3 years then were done in 15. But it seems like nothing we do can compare to the splendor of the original Temple.

People keep bringing up the past and how it used to look, but Haggai has to remind them that back then we still had the Ark of the Covenant and all that other religious stuff that was taken by the Babylonians.

Haggai also reminded them that it’s not their Temple, but God’s Temple, and that it’s more important that the Temple is rebuilt then it being an exact replica of the original.

Well, I still wonder why we even need a temple to worship a God who seems to be asleep. Dad tried to explain that the Temple is more then just God’s house, that it’s where we gather as a unified community and become as one.

“Yeah, yeah,” I thought, “Blow it out your ear.” Although I don’t say it to Dad lest he make me get another switch; I already learned my lesson last time.

But something really sad happened last week: Grandpa Joseph died. It bought near killed my grandmother, especially her knowing that Grandpa did not live to see the Temple restored.

We did what we could to give him a proper funeral. We took Grandpa Joseph’s corpse and washed it, covered it in a white shroud and buried him the same day he died. We put three pieces of broken pottery on his eyes and mouth.

Next we put a handful of dirt under his head. Then it began to hit me: this wasn’t just dirt. It was dirt from Israel, his…my, homeland.

We each shoveled dirt onto Grandpa Joseph’s body and said a prayer that went “may the Omnipresent comfort you among mourners of…Jerusalem.”

That’s when Grandma and Dad really began to cry, because the appeal to Jerusalem was of course, a reference to the Temple, which had not yet been restored.[ii]

I was glad to have Sarah by my side. She is strong and full of hope and will make a good wife. Yet I still wonder why we should continue building a Temple for a God who let my grandparents be taken away and has allowed Grandpa Joseph to be 6 feet under ground…

My name is Aaron. I am 18 years old. Five years ago, all I knew was ruin, destruction and loss. But not anymore: after five years of back breaking work the Temple has been restored.

Sarah no longer lives across the street, she is now my wife. Just as our parents had hoped for we were wed in the Temple, the first one in either family since the exile 72 years ago.

God and I are doing much better. I think I’ve begun to understand some things. I still wonder how God could allow my family to go through the exile or let Grandpa Joseph die before the Temple was done.

Life has become better since we followed Haggai’s prophetic call to take courage and work.

For one thing, everyone’s happier. People seem more unified and the economy seems better.

I didn’t realize it before, but the Temple really is much more then just the House of God, but it’s the home for God’s people.

It’s become the center of our community, where we go to study and pray; gather to worship and celebrate, to mark the turning points in our lives, regardless if they involve tears of joy or of sorrow.

The Temple is where we do these things not only in the eyes of the community, but in the eyes of our God who does indeed love and care for us.

Do you know what the proudest day of my life was? Eight days after my son was born, we brought him into the Temple to be circumcised. The temple priest asked what we were to call him, and I said “His name will be Joseph, after my grandfather.”

Joseph was circumcised, a declaration of his heritage and the mark of his acceptance into the covenant community of God.[iii] My grandmother and parents wept with joy.

And then I really understood it: the Temple is more then just about now. It is about yesterday and all the people that came before and all the good things God has done like leading the people out of Eygpt and giving them the law and the prophets.

It is also about today; all the things God is doing seen and unseen and all the people’s lives God is touching and blessing, like Sarah and I and baby Joseph.

But it is also about the future, all the things God has yet to do and will do, like the coming of the promised Messiah, the beating of swords into plowshares, the lion laying down with the lamb, and the resurrection of the dead.

Maybe Joseph will get to be a part of that. Or maybe his son, or his son’s son.

When Haggai spoke his message of hope amidst the harsh reality of our destroyed land,[iv] convincing us to take courage and work, I was but a child. I spoke like a child, I acted like a child. But now I have put way childish things and I have become a man.

With the work of the Temple completed, I’ve learned a few things. First, God is indeed the Great I AM. Always with us, always loving us, no matter how hard and difficult life may seem.

Second, God can be revealed in ways that are concretely present and deeply personal. One way is through the House of God, which allows us to acknowledge God’s presence with us. The symbols we use can remind us to seek out and to look towards God.[v]

The third point is this: we give thanks for what God has done in the past and present, and to remember that God is moving all of us towards the future.

Yes, God has worked in the past, but we are to move forward, making new discoveries, realizing that every day holds the chance for wonder-working power and limitless possibilities of transformation.[vi]

In conclusion, five years ago Haggai convinced us to take courage and work and rebuild the Temple. In essence he was calling us to give testimony to the reign of God in the present and the future.[vii]

Now that I have become a husband and a father, I give thanks for Haggai’s fearless word of courage and work. He knew that without the Temple, without proper worship, we’d be doomed to fail.[viii]

The Temple reminds us that despite issues of poor health, economic worries and fears of vulnerability, God’s peace is present; and God’s peace brings with it prosperity of health and community to the people.[ix]

And the Temple, more then just being the House of God, becomes a concrete reminder that as chaotic as life can be, we can make it one day at a time, with the love of God.
Amen and amen
[i] Wm Brown, Haggai, 128 (see Lam. 1:8-9, 4:14-15, Ezek 8)
[ii] All of the above funeral information comes from Jacob Neusner’s Judaism- An Introduction, 2002, pp. 92-95.
[iii] R. Alan Culpepper, New Interpreter’s Bible vol IX- Luke, pg. 69.
[iv] Rhodes, New Interpreter’s Bible vol VII- Haggai, pg. 708
[v] As claimed by Achtemeier in the Interpretation series of Haggai, pp. 96-97
[vi] Achtemeier, p. 102.
[vii] Rhodes, 712.
[viii] Brown, 128.
[ix] Rhodes, 725.

Sermon for Oct 31, 2010, Luke 19:1-10

Rev. George Miller
Luke 19:1-10
“Embracing Our Costumes”
Oct 31, 2010

It’s Halloween: a time for tricks and treats, chocolate and scary films. Like we said last week, Halloween has grown in popularity, not just with kids, but with adults who enjoy putting on outfits full of playful imagination.

With those costumes I’ve noticed there is a sense of ease and friendliness. Go to an adult Halloween gathering and you’ll find folk relaxed, laughing and easily engaged in conversation with others they’ve just met.

Why is that? Some may say that putting on a costume allows people to hide who they are so they can pretend to be someone they’re not, allowing them to feel free and to let go of whatever shyness, inhibitions or worries they may have, if even for one night.

This may be true for some, but I’m starting to wonder if the costumes we wear actually allow us to be the person we really are and who we have hidden from others, even ourselves.

For example, those who dress as a superhero, like Superman or Wonder Woman, or those who opt for true life heroes like soldiers, doctors and police.

Does donning a cape or a similar accessory require a person to already have within them a bit of heroism and good will? And if so, does their costume foreshadow a future yet to come or a calling yet to be embraced?

I’d like to propose that for some folk the costume they chose to wear can reveal who that person truly is deep, deep down, and that in a round about way this is also what happens when one encounters Christ.

Again and again Scripture testifies that when people meet Jesus a transformation happens. For example, Simon thinks he’s to spend the rest of his life as a fisherman, but discovers he’s actually a fisher of men.

Saul thinks he’s meant to persecute the church but discovers he is meant to preach the Gospel and grow the church.

I see part of this theme in today’s reading. In Luke 19:1-10 we have Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. He meets a man named Zacchaeus, who we are told is a short, rich, chief tax collector.

But is that really who he is, or has he been wearing the wrong costume? Will his encounter reveal him to be something else, something more, and someone heroic?

First, some history. Tax collectors collected money for the Roman government. Jewish tax collectors were seen by other Jews as traitors who were unclean and unworthy of being considered a child of God.

Chief tax collectors, such as Zacchaeus, were even more despised. They were like bookies, paying people’s taxes upfront then demanding payment with exorbitant fees added on. They often hired slaves and unskilled people to do their dirty work.

Chief tax collectors earned a hefty profit, so Zacchaeus would have been hated by most; the ultimate bad guy who lived off the working poor barely able to get by.

There were also certain social rules back then. First, men were not supposed to run in public. It was seen as uncouth and low-class. Second, men did not climb trees- that was what children did. Third, religious leaders would not enter the house of a tax collector lest they also be considered unclean.

Again, Zacchaeus was a short, rich, chief tax collector. But was that his true costume?

Let’s revisit the story. Jesus comes to town. The crowds have gathered, and Zacchaeus wants to see him for himself, but because of his height he can’t.

So Zacchaeus disregards all social etiquette and runs ahead and climbs a tree. Upon seeing this, Jesus tells him to hurry down, invites himself over and Zacchaeus, happy as can be, comes down from the heights

Then he spiritually peels back the assumed definitions of his self to reveal his true costume: he invites Jesus into his house; he offers to give half of what he has to the poor; he says he will pay back those he may have defrauded, with interest.

This prompts Jesus to acknowledge the hero within him by saying “Salvation has come to this house for he is a child of Abraham.”

Again, Zacchaeus was called a short, rich, chief tax collector. But is that really who Zacchaeus is? Someone to be despised, blessed only with finances?

The answer is no. His encounter with Jesus reveals the “S” that is on his chest and that Zacchaeus is much, much more then that.

First, people saw him as a tax collector, a despised outsider who was assumed to be dishonest.

I would not be surprised if Zacchaeus bought into that lie, pushing the envelope on what he could get away with, especially if people already told him he could never consider membership in the family of God.[i]

But he meets Jesus and his real costume is revealed: he is indeed a beloved child of God and always had been, even if others refused to see believe it.

And because Zacchaeus is a member of the God’s holy family, he is free and capable of doing good things and worthy of love.

Zacchaeus embraces his true outfit and repents of his former ways, finding a way to set things right.

Second, people thought of Zacchaeus as short. But he was far from being short: he was tall in self-fullness.

So what if men did not run or climb trees? He was a big enough man not to worry what others thought or let so-called social decorum to get in his way of salvation.

Like Spiderman he heroically scrambled up that tree, a man big in his self-fullness, doing what he needed to do to see Jesus.

Such passion and determination perhaps alluded to the traits he already possessed that allowed him to be a chief tax collector.

Finally, Zacchaeus was defined as being wealthy, but as we discover, he was rich with something else- spirit.

He clearly had a heart filled with enthusiasm and love, even if he had to suppress it to do his job, even if he did not fully realize it until the moment he met Jesus.

Zacchaeus was rich in joy at the idea of seeing Jesus, and when Jesus spoke to him, that richness grew into full blown happiness.

Happiness that allowed him to extend hospitality, happiness that motivated him to give half of what he had away, showing that when one is rich in joy, it is that much easier to part with the worldly things we thought would make us happy.

Salvation comes to a short, financially well-off enemy of the people, and through his contact with Jesus, Zacchaeus’ false costume comes undone and he finds himself dressed in the true clothes of righteousness.

He repents, he welcomes, he gives, he restores, and he laughs. He is happy.

And one can only imagine how this newer, truer costume influences Zacchaeus’ relationships with his family, his employees and those he collects taxes from.

No longer alienated from the family of God, Zacchaeus become a truly big man, rich in joy, who belongs, is blessed, and able to bless others.

In conclusion, when Jesus enters into our lives, something happens. Some might say that we are transformed into someone else.

I will say that perhaps we’re actually introduced to a reality that was always there, waiting to be released.

When we have an encounter with the living Lord we are set free from who we think we are and from how others want to see us.

We are ushered into our truer selves, into who we were always destined to be, who God has always wanted us to be: beloved Children of God, part of the holy family, saved and made well. Tall in our faith and rich in spirit.

Thanks be to God our Father, Jesus our Brother and the Spirit that propels us to be self-full and rich in joy.

Amen and amen.
[i] Ringe, 233.

Sermon for Otc 24, 2010 Luke 18:9-14

Rev. George Miller
Luke 18:9-14
“Not What You’d Expect”
Oct 24, 2010

Today is “audience participation day”; you are going to help with the sermon-telling process. Now, not to worry: there’s not much you’ll have to use except your voice, your money and your imagination.

First I need your voice. Repeat after me the title of today’s message “Not what you’d expect.” You’ll be prompted at various times to say it. Your money and imagination will come later.

We have entered Halloween week, a holiday that is growing more and more in popularity. Next Sunday we hope people will come to our after-church potluck in costumes. I’d tell you what I’m going dressed as, but guess what? It’s “not what you’d expect.”

What is Halloween without horror films? One of the most well-known is Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho, which turned 50 years old this year. Psycho changed movies forever, ushering in the modern horror film.

Part of its notoriety was that it was “not what you’d expect.” It defied censorship codes, being the first film to show a toilet being flushed. It also flouted expectations, tricking people into thinking Marion Crane was the main character, until she stepped into the shower and it’s “not what you’d expect.” How many people can take a shower in a motel without thinking about this film?

That shower scene is the most dissected scene in history; its power rests in what’s left to the imagination and how it tricked people into seeing what’s not really there.

Psycho took the moviegoer’s assumption of good and bad, plot and character and rotor-rooted it in a way that left people shaken, unsure and uncomfortable.

The same can be said about the parables of Jesus, some of the sharpest bits of storytelling that one can come across.

Parables are made up stories that used well known places, situations and characters to provoke thought and discomfort.

For his parables, Jesus used the overly familiar, easing the listener into thinking they knew what he was about to say, only to zig and zag in such a way that the parable ended up being “not what you’d expect.”

For example, today’s story, featuring a Pharisee and a tax-collector. Back in Jesus’ day, Pharisees were seen as the most holy of people. Tax-collectors were seen as traitors to their country, to be hated.

Jesus starts by telling us that a Pharisee and a tax-collector go to the Temple to pray. Already assumptions are made on who will be justified and who will be condemned. But it’s “not what you’d expect.”

And I bet that today you assume that the rest of my sermon is going to be about humility and confessing our sins. But guess what: it’s “not what you’d expect.”

Taking a cue from Psycho and the parables, we are about to go somewhere completely different. If I’ve lulled you into calmly sitting back to enjoy the ride; we’ve just entered into the Bates Motel and although what will happen next is not bloody, it’s still “not what you’d expect.”

Here’s what I want us all to do: dig into your wallet, your pocketbook, wherever you keep your money. Take out one of your bills. Now take your bill and wave it in the air, so everyone can see.

The stewardship season is about to begin. Stewardship is about encouraging people to give money to the church, but guess what. It’s “not what you’d expect.”

Here’s what I want everyone to do: take that bill…and spend it on something this week that you’ve always wanted or that you really, really like. (How many of you wish you had taken out a 20 and not a 1 bill?)

Why am I saying this? Because today’s message is not about being humble, meek or mild; today’s message is about being self-full. It’s “not what you’d expect.”

Self-full. That’s a word most people don’t know. That’s because it’s not a word at all. It’s been created by women, care-givers and spiritual leaders who’ve discovered that the key to happiness and effective care of others is not about putting yourself last or beating your chest non-stop in humility, but it is about making sure to take care of yourself and that you are personally fulfilled before meeting the needs of others.

We’re not talking about selfishness here, but self-fullness. And it’s “not what you’d expect.”

Self-fullness is a spiritual, healing matter. It’s about finding time to reenergize, about doing the things that make you truly happy and about honoring your right to feel safe.

Noted theologian Henri Nouwen wrote in his book The Living Reminder, that we should embrace the totality of life, which includes work and rest, eat and drink, act and wait.

He stated that when we do this, we are walking in the presence of God and every thing we see, hear, touch and taste will remind us of God.

Trouble is that many people come from cultural and religious backgrounds which assume that self-care is wrong and selfish and self-denial is right and good.

I can’t tell you how many people I know in which there is the assumption that work, work, work is good, and resting or treating yourself is bad, bad, bad.

We see this in mothers, first born children and in people who lifted themselves out of poverty. It’s all about self-sacrifice and doing without and putting everyone else’s needs first.

Forget about your own health needs if someone else is sick; don’t buy anything unless if is serves an absolute purpose; buy the cheapest food even it’s unhealthy and tasteless.

We all know people like this. And what usually happens? - it’s “not what you’d expect.” It turns one into a miserable martyr; a mood killer; an unhappy soul who looks upon others with contempt and jealousy.

There’s one thing to beat your chest while confessing your sins, it's another to beat your chest because you think you’re unworthy of enjoying life.

Some cultures and religions have tried to shame us into being as self-less as possible, but it’s really to no one’s benefit. But being self-full? Now that’s something to lift up.

But what does it mean to be self-full? For some people, this will come naturally, but for others it’s “not what you’d expect.”

First it means to learn how to say “no”, perhaps the most important word in the English language.

There are so many who don’t know how to say no. “Can you work this weekend?”, “Can you chair this committee?”, “Can I borrow $20?” These poor people say yes to everything, thinking it will earn them popularity or extra points. But it doesn’t.

What it does do is make someone easier to take for granted, sucking all of their energy, making them feel like a bad person when they can’t do it. Which can create a rage that is unleashed onto others.

Being self-full means knowing how to say no, and not feeling like you have to offer an excuse or an apology. “Can you work an extra hour tonight?” “No.” “Can you stop by my 2nd cousin’s uncle’s boss’s sister’s house: to take care of their dog?” “No.”

To be self-full means you know what you need to feel happy. Each person has their own list. For me it’s bubble bath, Pepsi, music, the making for a martini, and chocolate. Such simple, inexpensive things that make life good.

(As a side note: did you notice how long it took me to acknowledge that I deserved a new car with air-conditioner, working locks and stereo speakers? And when I finally got one, how do you think that has benefited my ministry?)

Third, being self-full means knowing what recharges your battery and energizes your soul. What do you like to do? An afternoon nap, a round of golf, a walk around the lake, going out to eat, reading a book?

Whatever it is, that’s what a healthy, self-full person does, not because they’re selfish but because they know that after caring for themselves they can better care for others.

A key to being a successful Christian and a successful church? It’s “not what you’d expect.” It’s about embracing the totality of life: work and rest, eat and drink, act and wait. This is, after all, what we see in Jesus, a man who was self-full.

Yes, he taught and healed, but he also spent time alone in prayer, he attended community events and ate sumptuous meals. He knew how to treat himself, balance work and wait, take time off, which allowed him to be fully present to others.

So what does this mean for us, this notion of acting self-full? First, it means we can give ourselves permission to care about ourselves.

It’s OK to focus on our needs, what we want and require, what we deserve, much like the widow who was seeking justice. Self-depriving martyrs don’t help anyone out or fit into God’s vision of how we are to live.

Second, it means that as the unified Body of Christ, we do not have to deprive ourselves. It’s ok to say “we deserve the best worship experience”, “we deserve a minister who can preach, pastor and be present”, and “we deserve a safe, clean place where no matter who or where we are, all are welcome.”

Because when we take care of ourselves and when we take care of our church, we can truly go out into the world to do and share the work and message of Jesus Christ.

In conclusion, I’ve pulled a Hitchcock by flouting expectations. Today’s message was “not what you’d expect”, but I hope it’s one that you can take with you and remember.

I hope that each of you will take the bill that was in your hand and use it to treat yourself, and may it make you smile and feel good in doing so.

Life is meant to be lived and shared. Yes, there’s a danger in thinking so highly of ourselves that we belittle others, but it’s almost just as dangerous to think so little of ourselves that we beat ourselves up and burn ourselves out.

Let us follow Jesus’ example, knowing how to care for ourselves, so we can all be self-full, so full that there’s enough of us to share with others.

Because when that happens, we truly do become healthy, happy reflections of God’s abiding love, able to care for others, and sharing the gifts of life, not to watch it swirl down the shower drain.

Blessings to Jesus who took time alone to pray, to the Spirit that surprises us and to God who calls us in unexpected ways.

Amen and amen.

Sermon for Oct 22 2010 Memorial Service at Good Shepherd Hospice

Rev. George Miller
Psalm 139:1-18
Memorial Service- Good Shepherd Hospice
Oct 22, 2010

There are moments in which the preciousness of life is so clear: the birth of a child, a first kiss, the death of a loved one. Each marks an ending, and a beginning.

Birth marks the end of time in the womb; a time of mystery ends as new life enters in, ready to experience and influence the world.

A first kiss signals that for better or for worse, the age of innocence has come to an end, but a first kiss is also a harbinger to the sweet sensuality of life and the importance of deep, loving relationships.

And death: yes that marks the end of one’s time in this world, but I believe that there is something beyond death that leads to a new kind of beginning, another mystery that none of us can fathom.[i]

Hebrew has phrases that refer to the idea of an afterlife. One term is “the future world”, another is “the future yet to come.”[ii]

Let me share with you a story; a fictional one, I’m sure, that holds an element of truth: A man was diagnosed with cancer. As a way to regain some control, he met with his pastor to get his funeral in order.

He chose what was to be read, what songs to be sung. He had a final request: “I want to be buried with a fork in my hand.”

The pastor couldn’t hide her perplexed look. The man explained “My favorite part of going to potlucks was when the main course was cleared. Someone would always lean over and tell me to keep my fork. I knew something better was coming along, like key lime pie or chocolate cake. Something wonderfully sweet with substance!

“So when people see me in my casket with a fork in my hand and wonder ‘Why?’, I want you to tell them ‘The best is yet to come.’”

The pastor hugged the man, sensing this would be the last time she’d see him alive.

Sure enough, at the funeral, people asked “Why the fork?” The pastor answered, with a smile that spoke of eternity, “To remind us that the best is yet to come.”

The best is yet to come…you may wonder how can I say that when we have gathered with collected tears, experiencing our own sense of loss and grief.

Because, I believe in God, and that God is good. I also believe in a creative, loving God. Therefore, I believe that whatever is good and right never truly disappears, but returns to God, the source of all blessings, whose abiding love never ends.

Because of this, I believe that we can trust God; we can trust God with our living, our destiny, we can even trust God with our death.[iii]

That’s part of what I glean from Psalm 139, a testimony to our loving God, who is there before our beginnings and after our endings.

“You have searched me and known me,” the psalmist sings. “You formed me in my mother’s womb; you saw me when I was unfinished, when I sit, when I rise, even before I speak. You lead me and your hand supports me.”

The unending presence of God in our lives, even when life ends, is celebrated: “If I go to heaven, you are there. If I go to the land of the dead, you are there.”

The songwriter makes this claim: that when we count our days, and come to the end, we are still with God. There is comfort and there is poetry in this proclamation of faith, knowing that even when the sands of time have run out, we are still in the presence of our Creator.

Which means that because God is eternal, so are we…

…Today, we have gathered, from different faiths and denominations, each with each its own poetic understanding. Many of our poetries claim that when people die, they live on. You can call this heaven, reincarnation, resurrection, or energy.

And because God lives, I believe that when a loved one dies, they live on as well. One way they continue to live on is through us; the people they loved, the lives they’ve come across. Let me share with you what I mean by this.

I have had many people in my life die. Over the years as I’ve aged, I’ve discovered just how much I’ve become like them. I look at photos and see how my legs, face, stomach have filled out like theirs. That makes sense; for I have inherited their genes.

But genes are not the only things we inherit. I believe we can also inherit their culture and personality. Sometimes it can seem silly and superficial.

For example, my grandmother had a great sense of humor, a bit on the blue side. She also had a long tongue that she could touch the tip of her nose with, which fascinated me. Sadly, she died when I was 9, before my youngest sister, Samantha, was born.

But just the other day Samantha sent me photos of her and her sons. In every picture they were being silly, sticking out incredibly long tongues. It felt like, for a moment, that Grandma was alive again, popping out through them, to say hello.

Sometimes the ways our loved ones live on are more concrete. For example, my grand-father was a member of the VFW, held poker games in the basement and kept a refrigerator stocked with spicy foods and beer. He was also a pretty good cook, making the best western omelets you’ve ever had. He died when I was 16.

Come to my home; you’ll find people over and a kitchen stocked with spicy foods and cocktails. I also like to cook. Whenever I attempt to make eggs, it’s as if he’s right there, even if they never taste like his.

Many of the things my grandfather did and who he was in terms of friends and food have wonderfully infiltrated my own life, making me want to more consciously incorporate them into my own being.

Four years ago, I made a discovery: Grandpa was the chaplain for the VFW. I don’t recall ever knowing this; that he was a spiritual leader who offered comfort to those in their time of need.

Did I inherit my calling from him? Is my ministry a way in which my Grandfather, though dead for 24 years, still lives on?

I believe that there are many ways our loved ones live on through us and our children. Their hopes and dreams; temperaments and talents, their joys and tears; sometimes we can even see it in our own eyes when we walk past a mirror or come across a photo.

It’s not just blood relatives who live on through and with us. There are those we meet that we emotionally and intellectually take into ourselves.[iv] Rarely are we left unaffected by someone who has come into our life. They can be our teacher, friend, someone we took care of.

I recall a parishioner with a series of ailments. He and his wife played cards on a daily basis to maintain his dexterity and mental capability; I’d join them on occasion.

He went to hospice and was given two days to live. Through a quiet courage, he told his wife he was ready to go home, which for him meant being with Jesus. Instead of discounting him, she expressed her love and granted him permission to go home.

He defied all expectations by living another 8 months, I believe in part due to her healing acceptance. He spent his last days in his own house, each day another chance for them to be together with family and friends who visited, not in pity, but in love.

Whenever I play a game of cards I feel reconnected to him. And although I do not carry his genes, I do carry his story which has influenced my ministry, and allowed me to encourage people he’s never met.

I know that in some way, some how he is still present, just as my grandparents are.

Just as I believe your loved one, your father and mother, your sister and brother, your son and daughter, your grand mother and father, your dear friend, your co-worker, your patient, your husband, your wife are.

Love does not stop because someone has died. Relationships do not stop because someone has died. Nor does the importance they have played in our lives.

The death of a person does not have to freeze us in our living or stop the love we have for those who have come before.

Though they are out of sight, they do not have to be out of our hearts and minds.

For whether we realize it or not, they have influenced and shaped us so much, that what we do, how we think, what we like, all are an extension of them. Through us, they live on, and will be passed to our loved ones.

In conclusion, as Psalm 139 states, it is God who knew us before we were born; who formed us, who is present in all we do and wherever we go, and that even when we reach the end of our days, God is still with us.

God is the eternal good, therefore our goodness will also remain eternal and eternally present.

Good from good, good to good, never to be fully lost. Ready with a symbolic fork in our hand for that something better that is coming next.

All thanks and honor be to the Creator of life who fills us with a spirit of being and connects us in ways we can not even imagine.

Amen and amen.
[i] Influenced by John Shelby Spong’s Why Christianity Must Change or Die, 1998, pg. 201.
[ii] Marc Angel, “Afterlife: A Jewish View” in A Dictionary of the Jewish-Christian Dialogue, 1995, 3.
[iii] George Lea Harper, Jr., from the phenomenal book Living with Dying: Finding Meaning in Chronic Illness, 1992
[iv] Spong, 213.