Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sermon for May 23, 2010

Rev. George Miller
Psalm 104:1, 14-35
“Playful God ”
May 23, 2010

Today is Pentecost Sunday. It’s a day to celebrate the unexpected, playful side of God.

Pentecost is considered to be the birthday of the universal church, when the Holy Spirit poured down upon a gathering of folk, causing playful unexpectedness to sweep across the land.

And since this is a birthday, we have what you expect at any birthday gathering: music, which we’ve already heard, refreshments, to be served after worship, and since no birthday is complete without laughter, here’s a joke, courtesy of Highlands Today:

There’s an old saying that drinking doesn’t make you fat, it makes you lean- lean against the bar, lean against the table, lean against the chair.

Because Pentecost is about the unexpected, I thought we’d forgo with the traditional reading of Acts 2, and instead read from Psalm 104, which as you may know, is my favorite Scripture.

As an A-type personality, I love the sense of order. As a foodie, I love the wine and bread references. As an ecotheologian, I love that it’s a hymn about God’s gifts to Creation.

Last week we heard a quote from Alice Walker that said “Helped are those who find something in Creation to admire each and every hour. Their days will overflow with beauty... ”

This Psalm has plenty to admire, from gushing springs to singing birds to a giant sea monster playing in the ocean. Wonder, joy and beauty overflow from this song.

And to make sure we do not miss the point, this is the first place in the Book of Psalms in which the words “Hallelujah!” appear.

Hallelujah means “Praise the Lord” and every time I read this Psalm I find another reason to say those words.

With each stage of life I enter into, I return to this Psalm and it reveals something new, much the way an Emily Dickinson poem or Shakespearean play does.

Lately, I have noticed that this Psalm is not only a very A-personality type of song , but a very Alpha-centric one as well.

As one writer stated, Psalm 104 shows Creation as a sense of achievement, in which everything depends on the authority of God. Another word for authority is alphaness.

This Psalm shows God as the alpha of all alphas.
God is the alpha who cares for all, no matter how big or small, seemingly important or seemingly inconsequential. Birds to lions, humans to fish, all creatures matter to God.

God is the alpha who makes sure every living things has a home. Birds have the trees, goats have the mountains.

God is the alpha who provides and protects. The donkeys have water to drink. The cattle have grass to eat. The coneys have rocks to hide in.

God is the alpha who makes sure everything has a job to do. Lions hunt by night, humans work during the day.

But perhaps most importantly, this shows God as an alpha who makes sure everything has fun.

Yes, protection, food, work and a place to call home are important, but none of that matters if there’s no fun and frivolity involved.

Check out vss. 25-26, perhaps my favorite lines in my favorite scripture: “Yonder is the sea, great and wide...There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.”

What is Leviathan? Leviathan was the name of a giant creature that lived in the sea. It was a monster to be feared and respected.

Different scriptures and scholars give different views of what Leviathan is, but when you hear that word, you are to think big, you are to think bold, you are to think of the most alpha of all the alpha sea creatures.

Some would say Leviathan was a giant crocodile. Voracious and violent. Think of the crocodile in “Peter Pan” with it’s taste for human flesh, who with a tic-tic-tok of a swallowed alarm clock sends Captain Hook fleeing in fear.

Some would say Leviathan was a ruthless shark, a serial killer who swims the sea. Think of the movie “Jaws” with its daunting music and Chief Brody saying “We need a bigger boat.”

Authors and artists have rendered Leviathan as a giant whale. The mightiest of mammals. Think Moby Dick and the epic battle between Captain Ahab and the great white whale.

Regardless of what Leviathan is, crocodile, shark or whale, it was huge, it was scary, it was chaos. It was to be feared.

But listen to what vs 26 does: Leviathan? That thing that humans are so scared about? Guess what? God created Leviathan to sport in the sea.

“To sport” means “to play” or “to frolic” or “to amuse.” In others words, that giant monster, the one you’ve been so afraid of...? It’s God’s pet, God’s plaything. It’s a creature God created solely for fun and amusement.

In other words, great big alpha Leviathan is God’s great big...rubber ducky.

Think of the theological significance of that. It means the ocean is God’s great big bathtub and Leviathan is God’s water toy.

Just imagine: God, like a child, sitting in a tub, bubbles in hair, giggling, laughing away, playing with the world’s largest rubber ducky!

In Psalm 104 God is Alpha above all alphas, even the dreaded Leviathan, but Psalm 104 also gives an image of God we rarely stop to think about: God at play.

This is a God who laughs, God who has fun. Go back into the Psalm and you’ll see that sense of enjoyment. There’s God drag racing clouds and riding the wind like a Harley (vs. 3). There is the music of birds singing from the trees.

And just to make it clear, verse 15 cinches the deal: God is responsible for the wine we drink and the cosmetics we wear. How awesome is that?

God is not just the Alpha who provides what we would consider the essentials, but God is the Alpha who makes sure we have fun, relax, look and feel beautiful.

As John Calvin wrote, verse 15 is a sign of Creation’s abundance of joy.

Now, last week we got a little serious, talking about the vulnerability of God and Christ crucified. Those are part of what Christianity is about. But they are not the only parts.

As Psalm 104 reminds us, God is also a playful God, appreciating a good song, a shining face, and a time to play with rubber duckies in the bathtub.

And if God enjoys that, we can allow ourselves time to enjoy that to. That not everything has to have a purpose, not everything has to be so serious, that not everything has to be so goal orientated.

Home, food, safety and work are all important, but what do they matter if at the end of the day you can’t relax or splurge a little on your self?

I myself am still learning that. In fact, it has been nature, in particular my cat, Martin Isaac, that has been reminding me of how much I should be practicing what I preach.

For example, on Tuesday I came home from church, revving to work on this sermon. But when Martin greeted me at the door with a great big meow, I knew I needed to give him some playtime.

So with Beyonce on the stereo, he chased after a fake mouse on a string, jumping off and onto sofas and chairs. Afterwards he went outside, sniffing the trees, eating the grass, hiding in the bushes as he watched the birds at the feeder.

I didn’t get to work on my sermon that day, but I did get to sit back and watch one part of God’s creation find joy in and interact with many other parts of God’s creation.

And good thing too because in those moments of joy, the Spirit and I were most connected, allowing the sermon to be created when it was ready to be written.

Today is Pentecost Sunday. It’s the birthday of the church. It is the time when the Spirit of God broke in to do something new, something playful.

May we also find that playfulness inside of us. May we be unafraid to tell a joke, dance, share a good meal, perhaps even fill up a bathtub with some Mr. Bubble or Calgon and ease into it with a glass of wine, and our own rubber ducky.

In conclusion, I’d like to share with you something that recently took place on Molasses Reef, off Key Largo.

There was an atheist deep sea diving. He surfaced on the Reef and began swimming back to his boat when he saw a shark behind him.

So the atheist starts swimming faster and faster but when he looks back he sees the shark heading towards him. He’s scared to death and screams out “Oh God! Save me!”
Suddenly time is frozen still and a bright white light shines from above. The voice of God says “Aren’t you an atheist? Why do you call upon me when you do not believe in me?”

Knowing he can’t lie the man replies, “Well, that’s true. I don’t believe in you. But can you make the shark believe in you?”

The Lord replies “As you wish.”

The light retracts back into the heavens and the atheist looks back to see the jaws of the mighty leviathan start to close down on him, when all of a sudden, the shark stops and pulls back.

Shocked, the atheist believes he has been saved as the huge beast closes its eyes, bows its head and says “Hallelujah and Thank you Lord for this food which I am about to receive. Amen.”

Thanks be to the Spirit for making all things new, thanks be to Jesus who enjoyed wine and time spent with friends, and thanks be to God who is playful and limitless in joy.

Amen and amen.

Sermon for May 16, 2010; John 17:20-26

Rev. George Miller
John 17:20-26
“Knowing God”
May 16, 2010

In one of my favorite books there is a character named Shug Avery. She’s one of those earth-mother rabble rousing kind of characters who sings jazz, slings booze and loves hard.

Towards the middle of the book she writes her own set of Beatitudes. They say things like “Helped are those who find something in Creation to admire each and every hour. Their days will overflow with beauty... ”

or “Helped are those who are content to be themselves; they will never lack mystery in their lives... ”

It ends with Shug stating “Helped are those who know.”[i]

I was so moved when I read this, feeling as if I found a kindred spirit, someone who shared my beliefs and reflections and I got it. I felt as though I understood just what Shug was saying.

So I shared it with my friend Fabian. And he said “Know what?” And I say “They know.”

And again he asked “Knows what?” Unable to articulate an answer for something that was not meant to be articulated, I had to give up.
You see, there are those for whom knowing is empirical. It is a fact that can be proven, tested and documented. That was Fabian.

Then there are those for whom knowing is something you feel, you “get” even if you can’t put it into words. That would be me.

“Helped are those who know.” Those words appear in the novel “Temple of My Familiar” by Alice Walker, but they could also be the words that sum up the Gospel of John.

The author of today’s scripture was big on knowledge. For him, knowing was important. How do we experience God? By knowing God.

How do we specifically know God? By looking no further then Jesus Christ. Meditate over our reading and you’ll discover that for yourself.

According to John, these are the last words Jesus says before the soldiers, carrying torches and weapons, come to arrest him:

“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

That’s 4 times in 2 sentences that Jesus used a variation of ‘to know.’

And it is also in the Gospel of John that the resurrected Christ says to Thomas “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.”

To believe.

To know.

“Helped are those who know.”

So, how does one know God? Is God even real?

I think about Friday when we caught 6 feral pigs in the traps we set up. Now, those poor pigs were real.

But God’s not like a pig. You can’t see it. God’s not like a pig, you can’t hear it. God’s not like a pig, you can’t touch it. God’s not like a pig, you can’t taste it. God’s not like a pig, you can’t trap and contain it.

So how do we know God?

One way is through our sacred scripture, the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.

For example, are you the kind of person who likes things neat and ordered? Are you the kind of person who makes a list, checking off each item when you’re through? And if you do something not on the list, do you add it on, and check it off?

Then Genesis 1 is a great way for you to know God.

If you are the kind of person who likes to alphabetize your CDs, showcase your DVDs by genre and put everything into clearly marked folders with the tabs prominently displayed, then you will know God through the revelation of Creation.

In Genesis 1 we have God as the great orderer who clearly marks and separates things according to where they fit and how they should go.

There is day and there is night. There is water and there is dry land. There is a sun and there is a moon. There are birds and there are fish. There are men and there are women.

Very A-personality, very organized. There is a rhyme and a reason. And if that is how you prefer to live your life, then Genesis 1 gives you a way to know God.

But note, that by chapter 2 God calms down a bit and creates the Sabbath, a day of rest, indicating that rest is part of work. And perhaps Sabbath, a time of doing nothing, is actually the truest way to know who God is.

But let’s say you’re not really an A-personality. Instead of the finely orchestrated music of classical you are more into the likes of jazz. You like spontaneity, surprises, organized chaos.
By organized chaos I mean that although your home, your office may look like a mess to others, you know where everything is and everything has its own logic, and if it doesn’t that’s OK.

You see life more as an improv, a jazz riff in which everyone gets to join in with their own bits.
Perhaps you have no problem getting in the car and guessing where you’re going without first checking Mapquest or using GPS. Maybe you enjoy driving along the side roads, excited about what you may find.

Well then the God of Acts may be more for you.

Instead of a God who is so clearly following an organized plan, we have God, via the Holy Spirit, breaking in and doing unexpected, unfamiliar things.

Group of men gathering for a festival? God’s Spirit just enters right in making people speak different languages, appearing like drunken fools.

Plan on going to Asia to spread the Good News? Guess what, you’re going to Macedonia instead to talk with a bunch of women by the water.

This is Playful, Mysterious God, the One who throws surprises your way and although it seems like God doesn’t know what God is doing, in retrospect, it’s clear that in this apparent chaos God knew exactly what was going on all along.
Kind of like the Search and Call process.

How do we know God? The organized structure of Genesis is one way, the organized chaos of Acts is another.

But today’s scripture is from John, and if you asked John he would say “We know God by knowing Christ.”

How do we know God?

By knowing Jesus, but even that is not made easy. Which Jesus are we talking about?

For starters, there’s Jesus as a baby. Although John says nothing about Jesus’ birth, Luke tells us that Jesus was wrapped in swaddling cloth.

Do you know what swaddling cloth is? It’s a way of wrapping a child so you can protect its neck, so the child is not hurt. To be wrapped in swaddling cloth means that you are vulnerable.

Which mean that Jesus, as a baby, was vulnerable. Which means that God is too. Have you ever thought about that? About God as vulnerable?

After all, if we were created in the image of God as Genesis says we are, then that means the emotions we experience God experiences too. So if we can feel vulnerable, why can’t God?

Deep stuff, isn’t it? I mean, have you ever stopped to think that God can be hurt? That God can feel neglected, deprived, alone?

Have we ever thought that perhaps God needs us as much as we need God, that God needs us to come to worship just as much as we need to go for our own sake?

If God is vulnerable, what we have done that has hurt God, and what can we do to lessen that hurt?

How do we know God? By knowing Jesus.

What about the Jesus at the table? The one who sat with outsiders and sinners, the one who turned water into wine, the one who on the night he was betrayed took bread and said “This is my body.”

The Jesus who was hospitable.

If he sat with all people, ate with all people, then who does that make God for us? A host who says “Come on in and have some sweet tea with me?” or a host who says “I don’t have the time and you’re not worthy?”

Organized and chaotic, vulnerable and hospitable. How do we know God?

As Christians, the ultimate example becomes the cross. John would tell us if you want to know God, know Christ. And if you want to know Christ, look at the cross.

It was the cross Jesus willingly journeyed to. It was on his way to the cross that Jesus told the authorities “You have no power over me.”

And according to Luke, it was on the cross that Jesus said “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” and when one of the other crucified men asked to be remembered, Jesus said “You will be with me...”

Who is God? Look towards Jesus on the cross who is willing to go as far as it takes for us, who stands his ground above all worldly powers, who forgives even as we inflict pain, who promises to be with us.

That is who God is. And that is why we gather here today, to praise God’s name and to give God thanks.

We don’t have to understand it all, we don’t have to agree with everything, we don’t have to have PHDs or GEDs. We don’t even have to have the words.

All we have to say is that although so much of our faith remains a mystery, we know.

And because we know, we are blessed.

Thanks be to the God who organizes, thanks be to the Spirit that creates a mess and thanks be to Jesus Christ, vulnerable, hospitable and crucified.
Amen and amen.

[i].Alice Walker, Temple of My Familiar, 1989, pp.287-289.

Sermon for May 9, 2010; Acts 16:1-15

Rev. George Miller
Acts 16:1-15
“Making Glad the City of God”
May 9, 2010

The Holy City. It is an image we find in the Book of Revelation.

In Revelation 21 John writes “I saw a holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming out of the heaven....It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel...its gates will never be shut by day... people will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations.” (vv. 2,11, 25, 26)

This City is a place where God is the light and Jesus is the lamp, where there is gladness and no more hurt.

It is a city in which everyone is made glad.

Some believe this is an image of a time and place that is far off, while others say it is a vision that can pertain to the here and now.

That we do not have to wait to die or for the end of the world to experience God’s heavenly city, but there are ways we can experience it today.

It’s a matter of wanting to look for it, the ability to embrace just how far reaching it can be, and accepting the invitation to be glad in it.

Communion is such a time when the Kingdom of God, the Holy City, breaks into our reality and says hello.

Worship is another time when the City makes itself known.

But I have also experienced a glimpse of the City in the laughter of a child, the purr of a kitty cat or the unconditional love of a mother.

The City of God is all around us, if we only take the time to look and its citizens are not always who we think they are. But mama mia!, they sure do work to make the City glad!

To get a glimpse of who makes up God’s city, we can take a look at today’s reading which shows just how boundary breaking Christianity is.

Our scripture begins with Paul meeting Timothy, the product of a mixed marriage. Together they go from city to city, guided by the Spirit, strengthening the local churches in faith as they grow.

A vision sends them to Philippi, and they go to the outside of the city where they meet women in prayer.

One woman, Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, has her heart opened by God. She not only listens, but is baptized and has the men stay in her home.

Lydia, a woman found on the outside of the city, becomes the first person on European soil to be converted, and it is in her home that the Philippian church begins.

Read the scripture as a travelogue and you’ll hear city after city being named, but the pay closer and you’ll hear just who it is that is making glad the City of God.

First, there is Paul. If you recall, he once went by the name of Saul and was a venomous man who arrested and possibly killed the earliest Christians.
Who is helping to make glad the City of God? A reformed thug who has become a brother and a friend.

Second, there is Timothy. His mother was a Jew, his father a gentile Greek. Because of that, Timothy did not look like everyone else.

Who is helping to make glad the City of God? A poster child for diversity.

Third and fourth are the women worshiping by the river, including Lydia, a non-native who may have been a freed slave.

Who is helping to make glad the City of God? A group of people located on the outside.

Reminds me of Galatians 3:28- “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Can I get an amen? Amen indeed.

For today, let’s focus on Lydia. We’ve already heard about Paul; Timothy will have his day. Since today is Mother’s Day, let’s focus on Lydia, one of the first Mother’s of the Church.

Like many stories in the Bible this one is very short, only 3 verses. But also like many stories in the Bible this one seems deceptively simple.

Paul and Timothy have made their way onto European soil. It is Saturday, the Sabbath, and they are looking for a place to pray. There are no synagogues inside the city, so they go outside the city gates, beyond the city limit, to the river.

A group of women have gathered there. They’re praying. Paul and Timothy sit down, join the women, and talk with them.

And Lydia, a woman from another town, a dealer in expensive fabrics, has her heart opened, and she listens to every word they say.

She is so moved she and everyone who lives and works in her house is baptized. She offers Paul and Timothy a place to stay, and she does not stop until they agree to accept her hospitality.

Who is this Lydia? The biological answer is that she is a woman. The historical answer could be that she was the mother of the Phillipian church.

A theological answer is that she was someone who was on the outside.

Outside, not just in terms of the gates of the city, but outside in terms of the gates of society and outside the power structure.

Lydia was a woman, that immediately put her and 50% of humanity on the outside.

She was an artisan. Even if she made a good income selling her purple clothe, she most likely worked with her hands. How often is that looked down upon? As one author stated “We take pleasure in things but despise those who make it.”

And as those who attended Tuesday’s bible study can tell you, the making of purple cloth was not a pretty or neat process. That would put her on the outside of the society pages.

Lydia was a foreigner. She was not from Macedonia, where the story takes place, but from the city of Thyatira. How often do non-citizens live and work on the outside of the community?

Lastly, there is no indication that Lydia was married. There is no mention of a husband and the house is called hers, so one can assume she was widowed, divorced or single.

Have you ever been single or separated or widowed and went out with friends who were coupled? Didn’t that make you feel like you were on the outside looking in?

Outside, outside, outside. In so many ways Lydia, like so many people today, was on the outside.

But what do Timothy and Paul do, in the name of Christ? They go to where she and the other outsiders are. And they welcome them in.

How? They sit down. They speak. Their actions say we are all equal, and you are one of us.

And like that the City of God is made that much more glad...

...Today is Mother’s Day. It is a chance for us to celebrate and give thanks for all the women who have made our lives glad.

Our mothers and grandmothers, aunts and wives, friends and neighbors.

But there is also a poignancy with today’s celebration, because the reality of motherhood is that, like Lydia, there is much time that is spent on the outside.

I don’t want to romanticize motherhood, or compare everyone’s mother to mine, but as I grow older I realize how much of being a mother means being on the outside.

For those who were in the kitchen cooking the Thanksgiving meal while the children watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and the men watched the game in the living room.

That was like being on the outside.

For those who awoke hours before everyone else to make sure there was breakfast on the table, and those who were the last ones to go to bed, making sure the bills were paid and the house was secure.

That was like being on the outside.

For those who watch again and again as their grown children make the same mistakes, wanting to solve all their problems for them, but knowing that you can’t.

That is being on the outside.

Socially, motherhood can place one on the outside. I think of an episode from “Sex and the City.”

Miranda is a new mom and she discovers just how hard motherhood is. She has no time to go to the salon, her hair’s a mess, there is baby spit up on all her shirts, she falls asleep while on the phone.

There’s a scene where her best friends leave her behind so they can spend the afternoon shopping.

That was being on the outside.
Earlier this week I received a touching e-mail from a member who talked about how for her Mother’s Day is about loneliness.

It’s lonely because she knows her kids will claim they were to be too busy to write a letter, make a call or stop on by.

My own Mom says that motherhood is going to the mailbox everyday hoping that there is a letter from one of her kids, or some photos so she can show off her family to her friends.

That is being on the outside.

I am not trying to make today a downer, because it should not be, it does not have to be. Today is a day to celebrate the women in our lives.

They give birth to us, they nurture us, they guide us, they give direction and advise, they offer us love and provide for us comfort.

But how often are they doing it from the outside?

If you are a mother, thank you. If you have a mother and she raised you right, thank her. If you had a mother and she did not always do the best job, find a way, if you can, to forgive her.

In conclusion, today’s reading gives us a glimpse of what the City of God looks like. In some ways it is like a hard working, hard loving mother in which all children are loved.
Those children who use to be bad. Those children who are different and unique from all the others. Those children who are on the outside, working hard to make our lives beautiful.

God through Christ has already found a way to make them part of the inside. Can we find a way to do the same thing too?

All praise and honor to God who loves us like a mother, Jesus Christ who is the light for us all, and the Spirit that directs our paths.

Amen and amen.

Sermon from May 2, 2010 Acts 11:1-18

Rev. George Miller
Acts 11:1-18
“Heavenly Hospitality”
May 2, 2010

Heavenly Hospitality: that’s what we’re here to celebrate today.

This morning we share communion, and per the United Church of Christ’s custom, no matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. Not just at Emmanuel UCC, but here at our communion table.

God’s heavenly meal is open to all. It doesn’t matter if you are male or female, white or black, gay or straight, old or young, Republican or Democrat, Buckeye or Blue n’ Gold or if your Facebook status says you’re a Dorothy or a Sophia, a Rose or a Blanche, you are invited to share in this meal and to taste just how good God’s Kingdom is.

That’s why this is called the Lord’s Supper. Not the UCC’s Supper or Pastor George’s Supper, but the Lord’s Supper.

And since God is Lord of all, everyone is invited.

Now this may not seem like a big deal to some, but for other’s who have been denied communion elsewhere because of what they believe or who they voted for, to say we have an open table is revolutionary.
Why? Because food matters, and it was the sharing of food that allowed our faith to grow.

Food matters. We see and hear this is today’s reading. Peter is returning from a victorious evangelism trip in which he converted the family and friends of a Roman soldier.

But instead of being greeted with shouts of congratulations Peter is asked “Why did you go to Gentiles and eat with them?”

Not “Good for you” or “Hurray” but “Why did you eat with people not like us?”

To understand their concern, let’s do some history. Once upon a time, the world was divided into two kinds of folk: Jews and Gentiles.

The Jewish people were the chosen people, the ones through whom God was going to bring redemption to all of the world. The Gentiles were everyone else.

God delivered the Israelites from slavery, parting the Red Sea for them. God blessed them and wanted to make sure they were raised right, away from the negative influences of the Gentiles, with their false gods and acts of injustice.

So, as it is said, God met with Moses on top of a hill and gave out a list of commandments, things to do, and things not to do.

Some of these commandments dealt with food and can be found in Leviticus 11. These are the Kosher Laws that forbid the eating of pig, lobster or shrimp, as well as mixing milk with meat, which meant a cheeseburger’s outta the question.

It may sound odd to hear that you can’t enjoy a piece of bacon, but think about it: if you want to limit who your family can interact with, limit what they can eat.

How can your son hang out with the rowdy kids at a birthday party if they’re serving pulled pork and cheeseburgers?

Or for your daughter to date Gene the Gentile if his favorite restaurant is Red Lobster?

Or for your family to attend the neighborhood shrimp boil?

Food matters, so if you limit what people can eat, you limit who they can eat with and perhaps limit how much they are influenced by outside sources.
That’s great if you want things to forever stay the same, but because of the Christ-experience change was happening.

You see, Jesus was a Jew, as were the earliest disciples who followed him. After his life, death and resurrection, people began to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, and they would gather to celebrate the Good News.

For the most part, the earliest Christians were Jews who would meet in the homes of local rich widows and they would share a meal.

In fact, back then worship was like a pot-luck in which everyone brought food and during the meal they would celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

In the early church you could not separate food from worship, nor worship from a meal.

But therein was a major problem. Some of the newest members were non-Jews, Gentiles who had heard about or had an experience with Christ that they wanted to share with other believers.

But how could Jews and Gentiles eat and worship together if they ate completely different things?

Would Gentiles have to convert to Judaism? Would Jews would have to violate the Kosher Laws?

If someone didn’t decide things real quick, there was a chance Christianity could die out forever.

Thankfully, someone didn’t have to decide: God stepped in and did it for us.

That is what today’s reading is all about. In Acts 11 we see how God takes his people towards another step of boundary breaking inclusiveness.

Jesus has been resurrected and the Spirit has been poured out; people are being blessed all over. Peter has gone up on the rooftop for some alone time in which he is fasting and meditating.

During his meditation he has a vision: a picnic blanket comes down from heaven filled with all the foods he can’t eat.

A voice tells him to eat but Peter says “No way Lord, I’m Kosher. I will not break dietary rules.”

The voice says “Everything is Ok to eat: have yourself a shrimp cocktail or a ham sandwich.”

But Peter refuses to listen. Because of a faithful stubbornness that I find beautiful, this vision takes place two more time times until finally Peter says “OK God, you, you win. You always win.”

And just then Peter is invited into the home of a Cornelius, a Gentile who asks to hear about Jesus.

If it was not for the vision, Peter would have turned down Cornelius’ invitation, but instead Peter steps inside a non-Kosher home, shares in a meal and Cornelius becomes the first Gentile in the book of Acts to become a Christian.

Food matters. It was food that could have kept Cornelius and Peter apart, but God’s stepped in and allowed them to share; not just at the table, but in the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Today’s reading is not a foofy tale about why we can enjoy crab legs dipped in warm butter. But it is another example of the ground-breaking way in which God, through Christ, has entered into our lives and transformed the world.

Because God changed the rules about who can and can not eat at the table, a millennium of regulations regarding social interaction has been altered; folks from all different backgrounds are given yet another way they can interact.

Peter’s rooftop experience was revolutionary in that now God is saying there are no clean or unclean people; there are no insiders or outsiders.

It means that the drama nerds and computer geeks can eat at the table with the cheerleaders and football stars.

It means that snow birds can eat with native Floridians. And it even means that Bukeye fans can sit down and eat with everyone else.

Food matters. It matters more then we know.

Food nourishes our body and soul, it bonds us to one another, it creates community, and food becomes a way to experience God.

Before ending this message let me share with you how I learned this to be so. It was 15 years ago. I was attending Grace Temple Deliverance Church, a black Pentecostal church where people called each other Brother or Sister, Mother or Deacon.
I was just George.

We were getting ready for the church anniversary dinner. For weeks Rev. Battle talked up the event, telling us of all the good foods we’d be eating.

She mentioned something called chitlins. She looked at me and said “Now you probably never had them before, but let me tell you, you’re in for a treat. Ain’t nothing in the world like chitlins.”

She said that at first I wouldn’t like chitlins, that after a second try I’d say they’re nasty, but after a third try they’ll “taste just like candy: you’ll want to eat them all the time.”

The congregation gave a knowing, communal laugh.

The day of the dinner arrived. We went to the fellowship hall, and sure enough the spread was mouth watering: macaroni and cheese, collard greens, smoked turkey, sweet potato pie...and chitlins.

I went through that line, loaded up my plate, smothered the chitlins in hot sauce and took a bite.
Dr. Battle was right: they were the nastiest smelling, tasting food I ever did eat; I fought to keep them down. But I didn’t complain. In fact I went back for seconds and had me some more.

And an interesting thing happened: from that day on, my name changed. From that day on I was called Brother George.

By sharing a meal I became a part of the church family. It didn’t matter that I was white or couldn’t tell a mustard green from a collard- I was welcomed and I was loved.

And whenever I go back, Dr. Battle always invites me to a meal.

In conclusion, food matters. Food matter more then we know. It nourishes our body and soul, it bonds us to one another, it creates community, and food becomes a way we experience God.

Today’s scripture shows us how God uses food to surprise us and break old divisions down so that Jesus Christ can be proclaimed near and far, from Red Lobster to Sam’s BBQ from Wendy’s to White Castle.

So as we get ready to partake in communion, let’s be mindful that this meal comes via heavenly hospitality, hosted by God our Parent, Jesus our brother and the Spirit, our vision giver.

Let us all, as one, share and taste just how good God’s Kingdom is.

Amen and amen.

Sermon from April 25, 2010; Rev 7:9-17

Rev. George Miller
Rev 7:9-17
“Coming Out of the Ordeal”
April 25, 2010

If you ever want to fully grasp the Christian experience, one thing you can do is read Psalm 22 and Psalm 23 back to back.

Psalm 22 begins with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me...”

Psalm 23 states “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul...Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff- they comfort me.”

Both Psalms speak about creation’s experience of God; how God can seem far away and forgetful, and yet God is right beside us, offering comfort.

It’s a harsh contradiction to process. What good is a shepherd if we face ordeals that threaten to break us down?

I had my own epiphany with Psalm 23. I thought it said “You rod and staff protect me.” If that was so, were was my protection when spears seemed to pierce my life?

Upon closer inspection I realized that Psalm 23 really says “You rod and staff comfort me.”

Being comforted is different from being protected. Comfort does not prevent problems from occurring, but comfort can mean that those problems do not have to get the best of you.

Parents can not protect their children forever, otherwise they will never mature and find true happiness. But a parent can find ways to comfort, be it through a word, a presence, or a hug.

Still, ordeals are difficult to endure and no matter how much comfort one receives it’s hard to go through the fire and emerge on the other side with a spirit of rejoicing.

But try we do.

If you haven’t realized it by now, living through our ordeals is a huge part of my theology.

I am not a pastor who assumes everyone’s life is great. Nor am I the kind of preacher who focuses all my sermons on people who are out there because I believe people right in here have their own plights and struggles.

Nor do I believe that only the poor have problems or only those who are visibly different face oppression.

I haven’t had that luxury in life so I dislike it when I hear a preacher give a sermon in which there’s no word of assurance that the Shepherd is comforting me, or evidence that whatever I am facing God will somehow see me through.

That’s one reason why I have no fear about the Book of Revelation. Marginal and persecuted Christians have identified with it’s message about salvation and encouragement for centuries, and so have I.

Revelation forces us to confront the threats of life. Because I’ve lived in the ghetto, cared for abused children and worked in a hospital I’ve seen the events in Revelation take place everyday; its various horsemen galloping through our lives.

For me, Revelation is a book that uses images and metaphors to talk about the ordeals that people are facing, while at the same time offering comfort.

Through its poetry the author saying is “Even though it may not seem like it, God is active and God already has the victory.”

That’s just part of what we see in today’s reading. John has a vision: one with a multitude of people.

There is amazing diversity; folk from every ethnic group and language. They are all dressed in white and before the throne of God and the presence of Christ they have become one.

They are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal. But now they are no longer hungry or thirsty.

Instead they are worshiping like it is no one’s business because the Shepherd has wiped away their tears and is guiding them to cool waters.

John is referring to the early Christian martyrs.
Their belief in Christ was seen as an affront to God; the government called them mischievous and dangerous.

Therefor, they were punished and the ordeals they faced were legionary, from jail and torture to permanent banishment.

Some how these men and women held on, keeping their faith. And even though what they faced was different from what we struggle with today, it does not mean our own problems aren’t serious.

An ordeal is an ordeal. The Lord doesn’t use the shepherd’s rod to measure how much we suffer, it is used to acknowledge our pain and to offer us comfort.

Because we all need comfort from time to time. As one pastor wrote, the church is a communion of sufferers who will ultimately claim victory.[i]

After all, isn’t that what a honest reading of the Biblical narratives tell us again and again?

Nowhere does the Bible portray a life devoid of ordeals. Instead it shows life as something full of surprises and difficulty in which, despite all the odds, God finds a way to break in to do something unexpected, offering comfort and hope.

For example, think of Elijah. Afraid for his life he flees into the wilderness and finds himself under a broom tree asking God to let him die (1 Kings 19).

Think of Paul who is locked up in jail for proclaiming the Good News (Philippians).

Think of Jesus, placed on a cross because of who he ate with and how he dared to preach a message of God’s inclusive love.

These were ordeals that were difficult to face, that could have spelt the end of our faith’s family.

But recall what God was able to do. For Elijah God used an angel to provide food and rest, giving Elijah strength and encouragement.

Paul realized that he was part of a body greater then his own, and after his death his words lived on, creating a foundation for our faith.

And though it may have seemed that the cross put an end to Jesus’ ministry, the resurrection showed that no ordeal is so great that it would have the last word over God and God’s Kingdom.

In fact, through the raising of Christ God ensured us that we would always have a Good Shepherd who knew what our ordeals were like, a Good Shepherd who could comfort and ensure us that our own suffering was not negated or ignored.

Through Christ our ordeals have been yoked to his, ensuring that the good news of the resurrection is our good news too.

In conclusion, Revelation 7 offers us a glimpse of how those who faced great adversity will emerge from them, praising the Lord, in which no matter what, no matter who, their tears will be wiped away and they’ll receive peaceful rest.

Whatever it is you are facing today, finances or family, friends or health, work or government, know that God is giving you the strength to hold on and the ability to cry out.

Because of the resurrection all of our ordeals have been yoked to Christ’s and he will comfort us all, leading us to green pastures and still waters.

Don’t be afraid of Revelation but instead hear in it the promise that no matter what we face, God already has the victory.

No matter what struggles you endure, in God’s graciousness you will be comforted and sustained.

In Christ we are not forsaken nor do we ever have to feel like we are doing it alone.

With that knowledge we can give thanks to God when we emerge from our own ordeals. With that knowledge we can reach out to others as they face their own.

And we can join the multitudes in raising our voices in praise, knowing that one day we will all be free from hunger, free from thirst, and free from facing ordeals too great to bear.

All thanks to the Spirit that allows us to see how wonderful things can really be, to Jesus Christ whose blood washes us clean and to God who has promised to wipe away every tear from our eyes.


[i]. Daniel J. Price, “The Lectionary Commentary- Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts: The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles”, Roger E. Van Harn, editor, 2001.

Sermon from April 18, 2010

Dear Friends, It's been awhile since I posted. Life has been good as I now adjust to my call at Emmanuel UCC located in Sebring, FL. Hopefully these messages will speak to you just as well as they did last month.

Rev. George Miller
Acts 9: 1-20
“Transformed Family”
April 18, 2010

It’s a joy to finally be here today. I’ve been looking forward to our spiritual journey together, curious as to how God’s Spirit will move to transform me, to transform you and to transform the community.

Because if there is one thing we can glean from today’s reading is that when one has an encounter with the living Christ, transformation can not be too far away.

Last time we met we heard Paul’s letter to the Philippian church, a letter in which he encouraged everyone to mature as one into the Glorious Body of Christ.

Today, we go to the start of Paul’s ministry, to a time in which he went by the name of Saul and persecuted the church.

How did Saul make that transformation? How did he move from hate to love? And who else had a role in his transformation?

Before exploring these questions, let me share with you what’s been going on in my life. A lot has taken place since we last met.

I toured Sebring and the surrounding area. I stopped at my sister’s home in Tennessee and got caught in the Kentucky traffic.

In Michigan my friends kept me busy celebrating my Call, taking me out, saying their goodbyes.

Emotions have run the gamut. Excited. Scared. Confident. Reserved.

One night I met a federal agent who talked about Florida the way some folk talk about the south, warning me to watch out for racists and bigots. My pals reminded me that such people exist everywhere, even if northerners try to hide it.

Well, two weeks ago it was not so hidden. In MI a vacation resort’s fence was spray painted with derogatory terms and swastikas. It made the news and set the internet afire. People responded by calling the vandals red necks and toothless yokels.
As a pastor, I can not respond the same way as others, feeling the need to go below the surface for a possible reason for such vandalism.

I thought of the economy. Historically when the economy suffers people cope by acting out and finding scapegoats. Is that what happened?

I thought of who would vandalize a vacation destination. Perhaps folk who lived in the town year round or right across the street. Perhaps they were unemployed or struggling to get by.

What would that be like for them to see the coming and going of people who could afford a vacation or a summer home?

Would it be easy to grow angry and for that anger to result in desecrating a resort?

Should my friends be upset that the resort was vandalized? Yes.

Should they respond by name-calling and making assumptions? It’s human nature.

But is that what Christ would have us do?

Can we still show love to our enemies even if at first it seems they wish to do us harm?

Today we have such a scenario in which Ananias is called to visit a man who could have hurt him.

Today’s reading is from the book of Acts. The resurrected Christ has poured his Spirit upon the people, spurring a new religious movement. They are a peaceful bunch who share meals and preach about forgiveness. But they also face severe persecution.

One of the people responsible for their problems is a young man named Saul. He has a distinct understanding of God’s Word and attacks anyone he sees as God’s enemy.

He oversees the murder of the first Christian martyr, collecting the coats of people so they can throw stones. He drags Christian men and women from their homes so he can send them off to jail.

One particular day Saul’s anger is bubbling hot. With his breath full of murderous hate he makes his way to Damascus. But something happens.

A blinding light, a falling to the ground, a voice from heaven. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me.” It is Christ who assigns Saul a special task.

But for Saul to do this task, someone else is called by Christ; someone else is called to be the vehicle through which grace will allow Saul to see, transforming him from murderer to missionary.

“Ananias,” says the Lord to a Christian man living nearby, “There is a man named Saul. I want you to go, lay hands on him. He is the means by which the world will know my name.”

“But Lord,” Ananias says, “He’s evil. He can arrest me and anyone else who worships you.”

This would be like God asking Martin Luther King to come to the aid of a Grand Wizard or Anne Frank to help a Nazi.

What would you do if you were called by God to help someone who could hurt you? Would you accept the challenge or would you brush it away?

What kind of proof or assurance from God would you need to make such a decision?

How often have we taught about Ananias and given him credit for what he did? After all, he could have said no. But he didn’t.

He goes to where Saul is at. He reaches out his hand to touch the man who could arrest him...

...and he calls him “Brother.”

Not redneck, not toothless yokel. But as one would address a blood relative.

“Brother Saul” Ananias speaks, his words sweet like honey.

“Brother Saul” Ananias states, welcoming Saul into his family.

“Brother Saul, the Lord has sent me here so you can see and so the Holy Spirit may fill you up.”

From fearfulness to fearlessness, from foe to family, Ananias is called by Christ to do the unimaginable.

And not only does he do it, but he goes beyond what he was asked to do by addressing Saul as a Brother.

Ananias’ words introduce a new season of shalom, his actions a sublime example of what Christian love looks like.
He assists Saul’s transformation, restoring sight, and sharing a family meal.


This is an example of the wonderful working ways of God. This is about the lion laying down with the lamb.

This is not about acting alone or acting in seclusion, but about how Christ enters into our lives, calls us to come together and brings us into his heavenly Father’s family.

Acts 9 reminds us that rarely are we called to act alone, rarely are we called to make the Christian journey alone, rarely are we transformed alone.

But like Ananias our ministry exists within a community in which we are called by Christ to empower, encourage, and to love one another.

And like Saul, we are introduced to folk who have been called to heal us, guide us, and help interpret our experience through faithful eyes.

The Christian life is strongest when it is not lived in isolation, but as part of a bigger community, in which we can engage in a mission beyond our own vision, in which we collaborate with the wisdom and gifts of others.

Like Ananias, God calls us to be open to people and places we never would have imagined.
Like Ananias we are inspired to move beyond fear and distress.

And like Ananias, Christ challenges us to healing actions that are for the benefit of God’s Kingdom.
In conclusion, we have all been on and continue to be on a spiritual journey. Who has been the Ananias in your life?

How will you respond when called to be an Ananias to someone else?

And how, as a pastor, as a congregation and as a community will we all be transformed together?

All thanks be to God who takes us down paths never imagined, to the Holy Spirit that fills us with strength and to Jesus Christ who calls us into being fearless instruments of transformation.

Amen and amen.