Monday, September 27, 2010

"The Clowns of God"

The Clowns of God by Morris West

Written in the 1981, it is a pre-Divinci Code kind of book that celebrates faith while questioning it, and is both pro and anti-Catholic.

It’s about a pope who has a direct revelation from God about the end times, is declared insane, forced to resign, and the people caught up in this all. One way the ex-pope is to get his message out is by writing an anonymous book of letters to God, in which he writes from the voice of a clown in a traveling circus, using simple, every day images and idea. Like Psycho, the characters this book starts with are not necessarily the main ones, though they appear at the end.

Obviously, there’s a lot of “sole” in this book.

When asked how to interpret Scripture to the faithful, a pastor responds “As a mystery…a mystery which, under the influence of divine grace, gradually unfolds its meaning to each individual soul.”

The once-pope says “I am a persuader, not a dictator.”

Communion is seen as “A sharing of life with the source of life.” (208)

Anneliese Meissner, an atheist psychiatrist who views things from a Jungian view, talks with the ex-pope “I am forced to conclude that you are a special man with a special perception of what Jung calls the collective unconscious. Therefore, you have a magical affect on people. It is as if you are privy to their most intimate thoughts, desires, fears…So, when you talk or write about it, people feel you inside themselves, almost as a function of their own egos. As a result, everything you do or say has profound and sometimes terrible consequences. You are the giant dreaming under the volcano. When you turn in your sleep, the earth shakes.” (211)

The gospel parables use commonplace surroundings that are “like a minefield, full of traps and trip wires. They all contain contradictions, alienating elements, which bring the listener up short and make him see a new potential, for good and evil, in the most banal event.” (240)

The anonymous clown writes to God how different each person in the “circus” is, and “yet, when the show is over and we all sit at the supper table, tired and hungry, do You see much difference between us? Do you care?” (297)

Explaining why he does not believe in hell “I believe-and I have been shown only the faintest glimmer of what is to be- that the final Coming and the final Judgment itself must be acts of love. If they are not, then we inhabit a chaos created by a mad spirit, and the sooner we are released from it into nothingness, the better.” (324)

“The biggest mistake we’ve made through the ages is try to explain the ways of God to men. We shouldn’t do that. We should just announce Him. He explains Himself very well.”

Finally, “Somewhere at the deepest core of himself- the sorry fortress so beset and bombarded and ruined-there was a place of light where the Other dwelt, and where, when he could withdraw to it, there was communion of love, blissful but all too brief. It was like- what was it like?- deaf Beethoven with his head full of glories, Einstein bereft of mathematics to express the mysteries he understood at the end.”

"The Miracle At Speedy Motors"

By Alexander McCall Smith

As always, a breezy joy to read, however I am discovering how the mysteries really are not the point of the books, and never were, and the author has ways of introducing people and things that just do not matter, but are. I do love how Mma Makusti shows a love, a guilty love, for shoes, and her shoes, the old ones begin to talk to her. About how she has become “too grand for us-after all we’ve done for you!” (43) On 89 we learn how after a rainstorm people can go out and catch flying ants (termites) and eat them, enjoying their peanut-butter taste and crunchiness.

A woman tells Mma. Ramotswe her story; she signals Mma. Makutsi to out “on the kettle. The telling of a story, like virtually everything in life, was always made all the easier by a cup of tea.”

On character talks about how the ancestors “are with us…They are all around us. What we have done. Their voices. The memories they have left us. All of that is there.” (57)

A scene of comfort: “Mrs. Moffat had taken her hand, for comfort, and they had sat there in silence for a long while. Sometimes it seemed as if the world itself was broken, that there was something wrong with all of us, something broken in such a way that it might not be put together again; but the holding of hands, human hand in human hand, could help, could help make the world seem less broken.” (96)

Finally, after a failed attempt for seek out a miracle for their physically disabled daughter, Mma. Ramotswe says to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni “It is not foolish to hope for miracles…No, it is not foolish, Rra. Not foolish at all. There are many miracles.” (213)

"Morality for Beautiful Girls"

Morality for Beautiful Girls
By Alexander McCall Smith

From a cultural viewpoint, we learn that anyone with a well-paid job with two or more bedrooms was expected to have a maid; to not have one was seen as selfishness. (pg 75)

Ecotheology appears in chapter 14: “God Decided That Botswana Would Be a Dry Place” in which, (page 164), Mma. Ramotswe is reminded of the values of her people: “They shared the land with cattle, and with birds and the many other creatures that could be seen if only one watched.”

166 deals with mourning, as Mma. Ramotswe visits the cows her late father left her. She missed him “acutely” and she knew “she would probably weep and they would wonder why this woman still wept for her father who had died long ago. We still have tears to shed, she thought. We still have to weep for those mornings when we went out early and watched the cows able along the cattle paths and the birds flying high in the thermal currents.”

Mma Ramotswe solves a case for a disrespectful Government Man. When he tried to disrespect her, she stands her ground and lets him know where the door is. He comes to his senses and apologizes for his rude behavior and she informs him on who has tried to poison his family. But then she remarks that ‘the real poison within families is not the poison that you put in food, but the poison that grows up in the heart where people are jealous.” (220). When the man begins to cry, she tells him “Do not be ashamed to cry, Rra…It is the way that things begin to get better. It is the first step.” (220-221)

"The Help" by Kathryn Stockett

Well-written, easy to read book that captures what it was like to live in Jackson, MS during the early-mid 60's, from food to clothes to customs to white/black relations.

This book has perhaps the best line I have read all year: "Bosoms," she announces, "are for bedrooms and breastfeeding. Not for occasions with dignity." (618 Large Print)

There's a touching scene on 515 when Skeeter's Dad tells the local Senator that he is " 'Ashamed of what goes on in Mississippi.' Mother's eyes are big, set on Daddy. I am shocked to hear his opinion...I'm suddenly so proud of my daddy, for many reasons. For a second, I swear, I see it in Mother's eyes too."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sermon for Sept 19, 2010; Jeremiah 8:18 to 9:1

Rev. George Miller
Jeremiah 8:18 to 9:1
“For the Hurt of My Poor People I AM Hurt ”
Sept 19, 2010

(Sermon starts in character as a safari tour guide.)

Hallo. My name is Rra. Samuel and today we are going on a safari. But this will not be a bang!-bang! kind of safari in which we will use guns. But a safari in which we will use our hearts and minds.

Our safari takes place in the beautiful country of Botswana, Africa. Botswana is a place that has been blessed by God, in which the rains restore the land and the earth is full of diamonds.

And the people believe in old, old values of respect, hospitality and sharing the land with all God’s creatures.

In Botswana you will find much cattle. Cattle is used to measure wealth and security. A family with 20 cattle can plan on living a good, good life. When a woman gets married, cattle become her dowry. The more pretty a woman is, the more cattle her family can expect.

In Botswana there are many, many chickens. Chickens all over the place. In the front yard. In the market. In front of stores. Sometimes, if a shop keeper is not careful, they can find chickens for customers.

Botswana also has snakes. Big, big dangerous snakes that can get into your home, inside your car or bite you on the leg. We do not like snakes, especially the giant mamba.

Botswana also has giraffes. Beautiful, beautiful, majestic giraffes, with their long, long legs and tall, tall heads and their pretty, pretty spots.

A giraffe is a magnificent thing to see. He stands tall and proud, up up in the air. He eats the leaves off the trees and walks in magnificent strides.

There is a story in Botswana that we tell about the giraffe. You see, the women of the village will make baskets to sell on the side of the road. Each basket has a design worked into the weaving,

The little marks that make up the design are tears. It is said that the giraffe gives its tears to the women and they weave them into the basket.

The giraffe gives its tears because it has nothing else to give, and to remind us that we all, no matter what, can give something.

And sometimes tears are all that we have.

Life is a wonderful, wonderful thing; filled with beauty, filled with laughter and love, and yes, even filled with tears....[i]

(Here ends the character acting.)

Life can be like a Botswana safari. Moments when hospitality is displayed, be it a cup of cool water or a hot cup of tea. When love and laughter rain down so profoundly that heaven breaks in.

Even when our eyes become a fountain of tears, because that means we were loved and we have loved. And our tears, like Botswana’s diamonds become a way for God’s light to enter into our lives.

Yes, life can be like a Botswana safari. Around us are the cows of finances and wealth in which we put all our energy into money and financial security, wanting to gather as much as we can, making sure that none is lost or stolen, afraid of what will happen if we do not have enough.

Around us are chickens, the aspect of being busy. Busy in the yard, busy in the market, busy shopping, busy doing-meeting-making. So busy doing that some times we forget to just be.

Around us are snakes, or perhaps better said, the fear of snakes. We worry about what others are saying or doing, wondering who is plotting and who is planning, so afraid that there may be a snake in the grass that we forget to even notice the grass. How much time is devoted to fear?

But do we leave room for the giraffes? Do we leave room for the tears? For the tears of others, for the tears of ourselves?

Do we allow for our tears to be woven into the fabric of our life, or do we instead push them back inside, so we can go back to focusing on finances, keeping busy and feeding our fears?

The people in Jeremiah’s time were very busy with their symbolic cows and chickens. They were on a constant quest for more, more, more. More wealth and more power, even if it meant forgetting about the widow, the poor or orphan.

They were too busy with their idols, praying to wood carvings and worshiping false gods, hoping all their inward-focused needs would be met.

They were busy, busy. Too busy to pay attention to foreign affairs, too busy to notice the injustices going on in their country, too busy to realize that things were not as shiny as they seemed.

But Jeremiah could see exactly what was going on. And he became their giraffe, offering his tears. Jeremiah also became the vessel through which God was able to speak to the people.

Jeremiah was unafraid to shed tears on behalf of the people and for God. These were tears based on love, but they were tears also based on pain.

They were tears based on disappointment for all the ways in which the people were hurting each other, hurting themselves, and hurting God.
Through tears of melancholy Jeremiah said “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt...O that my head were a wellspring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears.” (8:21, 9:1)

He stood before the people, with his tears, pleading for God, pleading for their own sake. He was hoping that the people would take his tears and weave them into their lives.

But they didn’t. Instead, they went into denial.
They resented Jeremiah’s tears and his words of warning. They began to treat him as if he was a dangerous mamba snake, placing blame on him, causing him to suffer the consequences: prison, humiliation, rejection by family and friends.

Unfortunately, time proved Jeremiah right, and just a few short years later, in came the snakes, true snakes he had been warning them about. And Jeremiah watched his people fall. Men, women, children, people he knew and loved, killed by the enemy.

And then, finally, the people began to weep and they began to cry and they began to call upon God “Why us?”, “Where are you?” and “Why won’t you help?”

Not realizing that as they were suffering and crying, God was suffering and crying too.

For the hurt of God’s poor people, the great I AM hurt too.
The story of Jeremiah’s people can be our story as well, if we are not careful. Like the people of Jeremiah’s era, we also spend a lot of our time worried about our wealth. Like the people of Jeremiah’s era we are always too, too busy. Like the people of Jeremiah’s era we leave little room for tears.

Think about our cultural makeup and teachings about sorrow and grief. When we attend a funeral and the wife or the husband stoically sits by as the preacher rambles on, people will say “Oh, he is so strong” or “She is the picture of grace under pressure.” But if someone cries, they are said to be a mess and people run over with boxes of Kleenex to keep the tears in.

Hospitals have many, many rooms. Operating room, waiting room, family room. But I have yet to see one marked “crying room” in which people can freely poor out their grief.

And why is it that when somebody does cry, they are the ones to say “I am so sorry. I do not know why I can’t stop crying.”?

I’ll tell you why we cry and why we can’t stop crying when we hurt: because we are human, and the ability to feel sorrow, loss and pain are a part of our humanity.

And we cry because our humanity has been created in the image of God.

Our God, as experienced in Jeremiah, is a God who experiences great pain and sorrow, who knows what it is like to feel anguish.

Our God, who created the world and was willing to take the risk in having us care for it, is also a God who suffers disappointment and hurt that can only come from being in love.

And, as we heard in today’s reading, sometimes there are not enough tears to express God’s distress.

Have you ever stopped to think about God’s grief and tears? It is there, throughout the Bible, and it is there in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

It is through Jesus that we encounter the fullest revelation of God, and in that encounter, in that spiritual safari, we discover that Jesus cried too. And Jesus did not just cry. No: Jesus wept.

Jesus wept for the community. We witness that as he approaches the city of Jerusalem. With tears in his eyes he said “If only you could all see what brings peace you could prevent the suffering of you and your children.”

Jesus wept for friends and individuals. We witness that as he hears the news that Lazarus is dead. When greeted by Mary and the others, with heavy sobs and tears, he asks where the body is. And when they tell him, Jesus weeps too. It is the shortest and perhaps most powerful verse in all the Bible.

Jesus wept for himself. In the garden, before he is to be betrayed, while his disciples sleep, he prays, grieved and agitated. And on the cross, he cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Because Jesus, as the full revelation of God, wept, we know that God weeps too. And because that is so, we can claim our right to weep and be unashamed of our ability to cry, to grieve and to mourn.

We are created in God’s image. When we are sad, we can cry out. When things are not as they should, we can cry out. When we hurt, we can cry out.

Because not only does God know and hear our pain, but when we hurt, God hurts too.

In conclusion, in this great safari of life we will be kept busy with many, many things. With cows of wealth, chickens of busyness, and snakes that can bite us on our heel.

But may we not be so busy that we have no place for giraffes with their tears. Because tears are not something to be ashamed of, silenced or feared. But our tears are a way of saying we hurt, life has been fractured, something is wrong.

And as the giraffe gives its tears to be woven into the baskets of Botswana’s women, our tears can be lifted up and given to God.

Because when we give God our tears we are presenting a chance for God to offer us comfort, and we are allowing space for transformation.

When we offer up our tears to God, we allow ourselves to receive God’s healing balm, better then any that can be found in Gilead. Better than any amount of wealth, busyness or fear can ever offer.

When we offer our tears to God we allow ourselves to become more woven into the very fabric of life and God’s redemptive plans for this world.

All thanks and honor to be to the Spirit that gives sound to our sobs, for God who feels our pain and for Jesus who, as we are told, wept also.

Amen and amen.

[i].Based on Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, 2000, pp. 226-227.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sermon for Sept 12, 2010; 1 Timothy 1:12-19

Rev. George Miller
1 Timothy 1:12-19
“Avoiding Shipwrecks of Faith ”
Sept 12, 2010

Storytelling is a part of the human experience. In fact, I wonder if one day scientists will claim that our ability to tell stories is the only thing that separates us from animals.

Since storytelling is a part of our humanity, it is also a part our faith: the Bible is full of stories, Jesus was an expert storyteller.

Stories have a way of helping us learn a truth better then a direct statement ever could. “Don’t talk to strangers” is rather mundane, but put a young girl in a red cape into the woods with a wolf, and now it has some oomph!

Stories help us learn about the experience of others so we’ll know how to act when in a similar situation.

Stories also give us archetypes: the kinds of personalities that exist. In my journeys there are two archetypes that I’m intrigued by: the ones who think the sky is falling and the ones who sit idly by, expecting God to do everything.

Remember the story of Chicken Little? She’s sitting under a tree when an acorn falls atop her head. She’s so sure that the sky is falling that she runs around proclaiming words of doom to anyone who’ll hear, creating a self-defeating paranoia?

If you’ve ever been a Chicken Little let me hear you say “Cluck, cluck”.

Then there’s the story you’ll come across on the internet about a man who refuses to leave his house during a storm even though everyone else has been evacuated.

First, a Jeep comes to rescue him he says “No thanks, God is going to save me.”

The rain is pouring down so hard it floods the first floor. By now the man is sitting on the second floor windowsill. A boat comes to rescue him he says “No thanks, God is going to save me.”

The water continues to climb until the man is now sitting on top of his roof. A helicopter comes to rescue him but the man says “No thanks, God is going to save me.”

Eventually the man drowns and goes to Heaven. He meets God and asks, rather upset, “Why didn’t you save me? Couldn’t you see me?”

To which God says “Who do you think sent you the Jeep, the boat and the helicopter?”

If you’ve ever been like him say “No thanks.”

I can be like him if I’m not careful...come to think of it, I can also be like Chicken Little. I think we all can, that’s why these stories are so memorable.

Then there are the true stories, the one’s that involves ourselves and express our experience of God, in which we recall what God has done for us. These are called testimonies.

Testimonies are a powerful form of evangelism because when we share our stories, we help others understand their own story and their relationship with God. For example, here’s a testimony you may know.

Once upon a time, long long ago, in a place called Long Island there lived a teenager. He always felt a close connection to God, even if he didn’t always feel it in church.

One day, while running around the high school track, he “felt” the voice of God say “I want you to be a pastor.” The teenager said “No way, pastors are boring and I want to have fun.” So he kept on running, doing what he wanted to do.

But the truth was, he did not always have fun. Oh, there were good times in college and friends were made, but there were also bad experiences and folk who hurt him badly.

He became a waiter, which he thought was glamorous and would bring in lots of money, except it wasn’t always glamorous and did not always bring in lots of money.
8 years later and now a young man, he felt that voice of God again. This time it called him to work with kids. This was not as boring as being a pastor, so he took a job working with neglected children. The pay was not great, but the joy was.

God moved in unexpected ways, like in a hail storm, nature walks and cups of hot tea.

It was during this time that the young man realized he was at his happiest when at church, sharing God. So as he entered middle age, he finally accepted the calling God had given him when he was a teenager running around a high school track....

...and by no longer running away, the hills he once faced had become flat, the finances he had been struggling with came together, and that which he though would make him the most boring brought the most joy; real joy.

And one day, on the night before he was to turn 40, he received a phone call. It was from a search committee in Florida, and they asked if he would like to be their pastor.

They lived happily ever after, and the teenager who went from being a young man to middle aged to 40 and grey learned some valuable lessons.

First, when God calls, answer. Second, that one is the happiest when doing what they were created to do, even if at times it can be hard.
This is my story, from shipwrecks to rescue. It’s what shapes and informs my trust in God.

By telling my story I can perhaps help others steer away from having their own shipwrecks of faith that will leave them stranded on jagged rocks.

What are the stories that we tell? What are the stories we, the members of Emmanuel United Church of Christ tell? I ask because what we tell will play a role in wether we will have smooth sailing or crash into jagged rocks.

Will our stories make us out to be Chicken Littles or complacent Christians who will sit back and expect God to do it all?

Or will our stories point us to a healthy balance in which we say, “Before the sky even seems to fall, let us call upon God, seek out Christ and find ways to work together, seeing what the Holy Spirit can do”?

Think of three issues most mid-sized churches face today: children, finances and membership.

Then ask: how is God going to use our time, resources and talents to address these concerns?

Next, we ask: what are the stories that we will tell? What stories exist within our cannon of faith and what are the personal and communal stories that will most give us strength?

The stories that we tell will help us address each concern and either direct us towards rocks of destruction or towards open waters in which God’s creation is busy at play.

For example, people worry about there being no children in the congregation. Some will say its because there are no children in this part of Sebring. But others will point to the YMCA down the road and say that at any time you will find it filled with young ones.

What about the stories in our Bible? For example, the one of Abraham and Sarah. It starts by telling us that God appeared to a childless man and promised that in due time his wife would have a child, and they would have as many offspring as there are stars in the sky. And that’s exactly what came to be.

See, when you learn and recall this story you can begin to understand that for God age ain’t nothing but a number and if God can bring children into the household of one couple, how much more can God bring children into a holy household made up of many, many couples, young and old alike?

People worry about finances, everyone in this recession is. However, do we act as if the sky is falling or do we passively sit by waiting for God to make it rain down pennies from heaven?

What story do we tell? We could tell the story about how a few years ago our church had a vision to build a new sanctuary, and through hard work and a plan we were able to raise the money to build it with no mortgage and funds left over!
Now that’s a pretty dang good story.

Or how about this story: last week there was so much money in our offering jars, that when someone unselfishly put more money in, the entire Tuppence Tree fell over, crashing to the floor, sending loose change all over the place: pennies from heaven!

Finally, folk worry about membership. Our numbers are not like they were 10 years ago; not many other churches are. But numbers are not the sole indicator of faith or successful ministry. Look at the stories in our Bible.

Like how Jesus started his ministry with only 12 men. Not 24 or 48 or 96 or 192, but with 12 men, many of whom smelt like fish!

Some want to focus on the number of people who have left. I ask what good does that story do? Wouldn’t you rather talk about the number who stayed, the number who returned or how about the people who have joined us today?

Which story do you think offers the most hope, speaks about resurrection and the transforming capabilities of our Heavenly Captain?

In conclusion, we are storytelling creatures. We can’t help it: it’s in our DNA. And we love to tell and hear the same stories over again and again.

The stories we tell become the stories we live by; how we choose to tell our stories can influence our reality, creating shipwrecks of faith or steering us safely into bluer waters.

Which stories will we be telling? My favorite ones are the stories that remind us how we’re not the sole captain of the ship, but that we sail along with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit leading the way.

Because I believe when we know these kinds of stories, when we tell these kinds of stories again and again, we help to create a means through which children will find their way into our midst, finances will pour in like pennies from heaven and fellow sailors will find safe refuge here.

This is God’s glorious church, and we are all a library full of stories. What stories will we tell and believe in to keep the church alive with the Spirit?

Thanks be to Christ, our storytelling brother, the Spirit that gives us breathe to tell our tales and for God, the first and ultimate creative artist.

Amen and amen.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Sermon for Sept 5, 2010, Philemon

Rev. George Miller
Philemon 1
“Considering Your Partners”
Sept 5, 2010

A few weeks ago we discussed that one of the great Christian mysteries is the claim that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. There are other mysteries: the Trinity, communion; but perhaps the ultimate one is resurrection.

What exactly is resurrection? Mumbo jumbo, medical miracle, hocus-pocus?

I remember how the president of Eden Seminary gave his take on it. Dr. Greenhaw said that to fully understand what resurrection is about, we can go to a story Jesus infamously told. The story goes something like this:

Once upon a time there was a man with two sons. The youngest said “Father, I want my share of the inheritance now.” So the man divided his property between the two and the youngest took his share and scrammed, to another world, far, far away.

He wasted all the money on booze and broads and was in tough luck when the recession hit, so he took a job working with pigs. No one cared about him or fed him; he was so hungry he would have gladly eaten the slop he fed to the swine.

He was good as dead.
Finally coming to his senses, he said “I’m starving to death while the people who work for my Dad have bread to eat. I’ll go back home and admit that I have sinned and ask to be his servant.”

That’s just what the son did. While he was still a distance away, his Dad spotted him and moved with love, came running towards him with kisses and hugs.

The son said the lines he had been rehearsing, but his father interrupted him, saying to his servants “Quick, get me the best robe we have, put it on him with a ring and sandals for his feet. Kill the fattest cow and let’s have ourselves a BBQ....

...because this son of mine who I love so much was once dead and now he is alive again; he was lost and now he is found.”

So they partied like no one’s business. (Luke 15:11-24)

This story, Dr. Greenhaw stated, is about resurrection. It starts with a relationship that had been destroyed; the son for all intent and purposes was dead.

Yet somehow, someway there came about a transformation in which the one who was good as dead had returned to life and the relationship had not only been restored, but enhanced.

I love this understanding of resurrection. What a great image of Christianity: it’s not about holding grudges, punishment or pointing fingers.

Instead, Christianity is about welcome and embrace, about believing in transformation in which relationships are renewed and families are restored.

Resurrection is a way of saying that dead and hopeless situations can become alive and hopeful.

That when one encounters Christ, what seems at first to be useless can become useful.

I share all of this because it occurred to me that today’s reading can also be about resurrection.

The book of Philemon is actually a letter that Paul wrote. The specifics are a bit fuzzy, but Philemon was a beloved friend of Paul’s.

Like Lydia, Philemon had a house church. Early Christians gathered in his home and they learned about Jesus, worshiped God and shared a meal that would include the Lord’s Supper.

Philemon had a slave named Onesimus, and for some reason Onesimus ran away. We’re not sure why; it could be Philemon was mistreating him, it could be Onesimus had done something wrong; it could have been both.

Onesimus visits Paul, who is under arrest for doing the work of Christ. He helps Paul out, doing the things Paul can’t do while awaiting his trial.
In the process, Onesimus becomes a Christian. Paul grows fond him and comes to think of him as his son and as his brother.

This is a joyful thing for Paul, but now he’s stuck in a sticky situation. He considers himself a brother to Philemon as well. He also knows that Onesimus can be punished, even killed for running away, and that he can be in trouble for harboring a fugitive.

What a delicate balancing act Paul must do. He loves both Philemon and Onesimus. He knows he is legally obligated to send the runaway slave back to his master.

But now that Onesimus is a Christian, Paul does not want to see him go back to being a slave, but he can’t tell Philemon what to do.

So Paul composes a letter, a letter sweetened with words of grace and love. He asks Philemon in honeyed words to welcome Onesimus back, as a brother “in the flesh and in the Lord.”

That’s the essence of this letter; let’s unpack it a bit more: when Onesimus ran away from Philemon, it would be as if he had become dead.

Think about it: Onesimus is no longer there. He can’t be seen, he’s not where he sleeps, whatever Onesimus’ task was, there’s no one to do it. He’s not there to clean up before or after the church service or the meal.
Onesimus is gone; as a slave, he’s dead to Philemon. Paul uses the word “useless,” a good word to describe death.

But he’s not actually dead is he? He’s with Paul, learning about Jesus. Onesimus is transformed, becoming more then he was before, moving from slave to Servant of God, working for the Kingdom, set free in Christ.

But even though Paul knows Onesimus has been transformed, he knows he has to send Onesimus back to Philemon.

So Paul writes this letter to Philemon, gives it to Onesimus to carry, and sends this runaway slave, who was as good as dead, back to his master, praying that things will work out...

We never do find out what happens. These two men are not mentioned elsewhere, but the fact that this letter was saved, the fact that it made it into the Bible, the fact that we are discussing it 2,000 years later is an indication that something happened.

We just don’t know what…but we do have our imagination.

Since today’s sermon began with a story that Jesus told, I would like to end with what I would like to a have imagined happening. I invite you to listen and to hear where the notion of resurrection comes in.
Onesimus leaves Paul with this letter in his hand, unsure and scared of what will happen.

Word comes to Philemon that the runaway slave is on his way back. Philemon is full of anger and keeps himself busy by deciding how to punish the one who was dead to him.

The search party brings Philemon back in chains, Philemon’s ire is sky high. He’s handed the letter, he reads it, his rage begins to dissipate with each word.

The Spirit moves with him, he takes some time to think, then says to Onesimus “I am sorry for whatever I may have done to you that made you run away. If I have wronged you in anyway, will you forgive me?”

Onesimus says “Yes, and I am sorry for what I have done to you. If I have wronged you in anyway will you forgive me?”

Philemon thinks and speaks “When you ran away I was so angry that I counted you as dead. But you are not dead. In Christ you have come back to me, much more than what you were before you left. You are no longer my slave, but you are my brother.”

With those words, Philemon invites Onesimus inside where it is Philemon who washes his feet and gives him fresh sandals.

I like to imagine that Philemon gathers all the members of the household and church to celebrate Onesimus’ return. During the meal, Philemon and Onesimus sit side by side, and together they break the bread and share in the cup.

For in that day, the return of Onesimus was like a resurrection of sorts. The one who was gone had returned, relationships were restored and enhanced, and transformation had taken place.

He who had left a slave had returned as a brother. He who had been the master became a co-worker for the Kingdom.

Their bond was no longer one of hierarchy, but of equality found in Christ.

And that day, in Philemon’s home, the return of a slave who was as good as dead taught everyone that in Christ Jesus there is no slave or free, but we are all One.

...I also like to think that after they shared in the Lord’s Supper, they would have sung this song if only they had known it: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost bust now am found, was blind but now I see”...

Let us give thanks for the Spirit that speaks to us throughout the ages, for God who brings life out of death and for Jesus who makes us all brothers and sisters. Amen and amen.

Sermon for Aug 29, 2010, Jeremiah 2:4-13

Rev. George Miller
Jeremiah 2: 4-13
“Chasing Pavements ”
August 29, 2010

Two years ago a beautiful, woeful song came out called “Chasing Pavements.” The vocalist has this raspy, soulful voice, singing to a lover who can’t decide what he wants. In the chorus, she asks “Should I give up or should I keep on chasing pavements, even if they lead nowhere?”

It is the perfect song for anyone who’s had an unrequited love or dead-end relationship. It’s also what played in my head as I read today’s scripture.

Jeremiah 2 is a beautiful, woeful love song, a song stating how the people have forgotten about God and have been chasing pavements instead.

In this song, God takes on the role of a spurned lover who took care of the people, led them through difficult times and gave them a home.

But once the people had their new homes they forgot. They forgot all that God had done, they forgot how God had blessed and gave them life.

By forgetting, they failed to trust, to trust that God would continue to be active in their lives. They turned to other gods, committing acts of sin and injustice.

God looks at the people as they self-destruct and compassionately asks “Why did you give up on me?”

God looks at the priests, prophets and rulers and asks “Why aren’t you calling out to me?”

God watches as everyone tries to unsuccessfully quench their thirsts with cracked cisterns and asks “Why have you neglected me, the fountain of living water?”

“Why? Why are you chasing pavements that are leading you nowhere?”

This is an emotional appeal from a heartbroken God who loves us so. And unfortunately, it’s an appeal God is still saying today.

Dr. John Bracke, a professor of mine, wrote that the book of Jeremiah is very much about God, and that it answers the questions Who is God? What is God’s character? And what purpose does God have for Creation?

Today I would like to put a spin on Dr. Bracke’s hypotheses to create a sermon that explores what it means to be human from a theological stance.

Jeremiah states that the people have gone after worthless things, becoming worthless themselves. They have placed their hopes, fears and trust in other gods, chasing pavements that they have lead nowhere.
In this weeks K.I.T. I said that one of my idols is time, and I believe that everyone has an idol or two or five or ten that they have placed their trust or fear into, pulling their energy and focus away from God.

But idolatry is not what I wish to spend the rest of our time on. In reading Jeremiah 2, there are three affirming statements that appear, even if not directly stated.

The first, is that as humans we are beloved children of God. Why can I say that? For starters, in the Jeremiah 1 we have God saying “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”

The biblical testimony time and again reminds us of this, that God not only knows us intimately, but loves us so deeply, deeper then we love ourselves.
God loved us enough to place us in a garden where all of our needs were met. God loved us enough to deliver us from bondage. God loved us enough to send his only begotten Son so that we may not perish but have eternal life.

What does it mean to be a human? It means that we are worthy of being protected and cared for.

Today’s chapter makes this so clear. God recalls leading the people through the wilderness, protecting them from their enemies and meeting their needs. God recalls leading them to a plentiful land, full of fresh fruit and good things.
Being human means being worthy of protection and care. So God is left wondering, why? Why aren’t the people calling upon the Lord?

Why, when things are about to go bad, have they not raised their voice, asked for help, reminding God that they deserve help and care?

Beloved children should know how to cry out for help. Why have the people forgotten about that and chased after other pavements instead?

Lastly, what does it mean to be human? It means that we are sinful beings, capable of making mistakes, hurting ourselves, one another, hurting God.

Human sin abounds in today’s reading. Straying from the teachings, defiling the land, forsaking God and thinking we’re so self-sufficient that we alone can save ourselves...and if not us, then worshiping worthless things will.

Yes, to be human means that we are all sinners. But here’s the good news, here is where we can stop chasing pavements: we are all worthy of grace.

Grace, that wonderful, majestic, beautiful word. Grace that says God forgives, that God has chosen to forget and that God is giving yet another chance for us to get things right.

In today’s reading God is so heartbroken and so upset at the people. But God will not give up on them. Even as they forsake God, God refuses to let go, calling them “my people.”

“My people.”

In grace, God calls the people to return and acknowledge their guilt, promising to not look at them in anger but to be merciful, blessing the nations (4:2) and providing shepherds who’ll feed them with wisdom and understanding. (3:11-15).

And of course, we did receive a Good Shepherd, didn’t we? In the person of Jesus Christ, who became our living water, who forgave us our sins and who said “Follow me”, leading us in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

In conclusion, Jeremiah wrote to people who were chasing pavements, placing their trust in other things. He tried to refocus them on who God is, what God is about, and what God’s plan is for us.

I make the claim, that through Jeremiah’s writing, we can learn about ourselves, discerning a little bit more about what it mean to be human.

Yes, as humans we stumble and worship other things. But to be human also means that we are beloved children of God. We are worthy of being protected and cared for.

And that even though we are sinners, we are all worthy of grace.
We fail, we flounder, we do what we are not to do. But the amazing thing is that God through Christ always provides a path for us back home and back into God’s loving arms.

And there is where the Lord will be...and we no longer need to continue chasing pavements.

All thanks and honor be to God who leads us like a loving husband, to the Spirit that falls fresh upon us like living waters and to Jesus Christ who is our way, truth and light.

Amen and amen.