Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sermon from Oct 10, 10; Luke 17:11-19

Rev. George Miller
Luke 17:11-19
“10, 9, 1, Go!”
October 10, 2010

This week, Nobel winner Desmond Tutu turned 79, and at the request of his wife, retired. Bishop Tutu told Time magazine that “The texture of our universe is one where there is no question at all but that good and laughter and justice will prevail.”

Goodness, laughter and justice: a trinity of triumphant words.

So with the Bishop’s lead, let’s spend today, which is the 10th day of the 10th month of the 10th year talking about how Jesus touches the life of 10 people. I will do so by talking about my niece Rylee, who just turned 10.

But first a joke, sent courtesy of Larry Andrews: an unjust lawyer and a sleepy senior citizen are on a long distance flight. The unjust lawyer, with his degree, laptop and cell phone, thinks he’s so smart and that all seniors are slow witted.

So he asks the sleepy senior to play a game: “I’ll ask you a question, if you don’t know the answer you give me $10. Then you ask me a question and if I don’t know the answer I’ll give you $100.”

The sleepy senior just wants to nap, but the idea of making a fast buck keeps him awake. The unjust lawyer goes first: “What’s the distance between the Earth and moon?” The sleepy senior says nothing and reaches into his wallet for $10.

Now it’s his turn. “What goes up a hill with 3 legs and comes down with 4?” The unjust lawyer checks his e-mail, texts his friends; nothing. He gives the sleepy senior $100, which he pockets and goes to sleep.

He goes nuts trying to find the answer. He wakes the man and asks “Well, what does go up a hill with 3 legs and comes down with 4?” The sleepy senior reaches into his pocket, hands him $5 and goes back to sleep…

Goodness, laughter and justice are important traits for any person, any organization, and any church to share.

One way for goodness, laughter and justice to prevail is the ability to see: to see what the current political and social environment is; to see just who the lost, lonely and wounded are.

To actually see them, not as a disease or a sin or an easily silenced group, but to see them as people, as individuals with their own hopes, fears and gifts.

I’m biased, but when I think of someone who is a true individual, I think of my wonderful, smart and funny niece, Rylee Ann, who turned 10 on August 23.

I remember the day she was born: my brother called from MO announcing her birth; we could hear her cries on the phone.

It was because of her that I chose to attend seminary in St. Louis. I was there when she turned 1 and was at Target, learning how to walk by pushing the shopping cart.

I watched as this amazing young girl learned how to open and close doors and turn the TV on and off by using the remote control.

At my place, I kept loose change in a potato chip can and when Rylee came over she’d dump it out onto the floor and then proceed to put each dime, nickel, penny back in, enraptured for as long as it took.

She had a sense of humor and warm laugh; she was also quite an actress, playing the role of wounded waif when she didn’t get her way.

One of my favorite memories was in the spring of ’08. I was back in MO taking a continued ed. class and spent the afternoon with Rylee and my brother Timmy. We went by the river, climbed up a hill and took photos.

On the way home Rylee became silly, singing this song: “Ten little monkeys jumping on the bed, one fell down and bumped is head; mommie called the doctor and the doctor said ‘No more monkeys jumping on the bed.’”

Rylee had a lisp, singing what she learned in school and enjoyed hamming it up for her father and uncle. “Nine little monkeys jumping on the bed, one fell down and bumped is head; mommie called the doctor and the doctor said ‘No more monkeys jumping on the bed.’”

She laughed and she sang, she sang and she laughed, getting into the character of being both the narrator and doctor. “One little monkey jumping on the bed, one fell down and bumped is head; mommie called the doctor and the doctor said ‘No more monkeys jumping on the bed.’”

That is how I will always see Rylee Ann. No matter what wrong she may do, no matter what mistakes she makes, hurts she causes or endures, I hope too always see her as that lisping, laughing girl so I can forgive and offer her the recognition of God’s mercy in her life.

As long as I can do that, I can respond to her with actions that acknowledge her humanity and her rights to justice and grace.

That is part of what I understand about Jesus’ ministry.

Jesus, filled with an awareness of God and God’s Kingdom, was someone who lived a life “deeply and fully alive”, who was totally present to other people because he was a “remarkably free man,” free “to forgive” and “free to be.”[i]

That freedom allowed Jesus to reach out to others and to see them as unique individuals.

Luke found a way to show this to us through his references to sight and the way he introduced people into the Jesus narrative.

For example, in Luke 13:10-14 Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. Luke tells us a woman comes in with a spirit that has crippled her. Jesus sees her, calls her over, speaks to her and frees her from her ailment.

It would have been easier to call her a cripple; but that would have robbed her of her humanity and her right to goodness and justice.

Instead, Luke refers to her the way Jesus saw her: a person first in which having a crippling spirit was just part of her story. This was a dignifying recognition of personhood.”[ii] Because Jesus saw her as a person, he was able to set her free.

The humanizing ability of Jesus appeared in his story of a son who returns home after squandering his father’s money.

Jesus tells us that even though the son is still “far off”, the father “saw him” and was so moved with compassion that he runs to his son with hugs and kisses.

A woman with a crippling spirit, a son who was financially irresponsible: all worthy of being seen and treated with freedom and love.

That is part of what I see in today’s reading. Jesus is journeying towards the cross. From a distance ten men who are living with leprosy call out to Jesus and we are told that Jesus “saw” them.

Not just a quick look that said “Oh, these men have skin issues” but he “saw” them the same way he saw the woman with the crippling spirit, the way the father saw his son, the way I hope to always see my niece:

As three-dimensional human beings with their own hopes and dreams, who just so happen to live with the imperfectness of life.

Jesus saw the ten men and his act of seeing restores them back into community. I feel a silly song coming on: “Ten men with leprosy see Jesus up ahead/they called out and this is what he said/ ‘I can see your personhood, your hope and dreams/ Go and see the priest for I have made you clean.’”

Jesus sees. Jesus sees all of us. Not just the just things we do or the boundaries that divide.

Jesus sees all of us. Not just the good and the well, but the sins and ills that can separate us.

Jesus sees who we are now, who we have been, what we have endured, the joys we have embraced, as well as the accidents of chance that can put one person at the head of the class and put another into the back.

When Jesus sees us, he sees all that we have done and knows of all that we can become.

He doesn’t just allow the present to define us, but he also recalls the lisping child singing about monkeys in the back of a car.

And all those negative things that happen, that can be used to keep us divided or make us unwell? They may play a role in shaping us, but in Christ they do not define us.

We are more then any illness or ailment we may have, we are more then our bodies will or won’t allow, we are more then any sin we can commit or any hurt we can cause.

Because Jesus sees us, he knows us, he knows that no matter what we all still have that child inside of us, full of goodness and laughter, who knows what is just and what is fair, who is waiting for someone else to see so that we can be saved and set free.

Jesus sees each of us little monkeys jumping on the bed and in return extends mercy and the recognition that we are children of God.

In return, we are called to follow that example by showing that recognition and mercy to all the other monkeys we meet, jumping on the bed, bumping their head.

In conclusion, it doesn’t matter if we are 100, 90 or 10. Jesus sees all of us. We are made well so we can go and do the same.

It doesn’t matter if we are 10, 9 or 1. Jesus sees all of us. We are made well so we can go and do the same.

From our borning cry to our final breathe, may we accept the fact that in Christ we are loved, we are well and we are known.

Because in Christ we are all seen.

Amen and amen
[i] John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, 1998, pp. 114, 126, 127.
[ii] R. Alan Culpepper, Luke Commentary, New Interpreter’s Bible, pg. 326.

"The Road from Coorain" by Jill Ker Conway

The Road from Coorain
By Jill Ker Conway

This book is a bit tricky, because the author aims to tell one story: growing up in Australia, from a solitary sheepfarm in the grasslands to moving into the metropolitan world and becoming an academic. But it’s true story is not discovered until the end, in a rather rushed off way: what it is like to grow up the lone girl in a family in which the mother descends into an alcoholic, depressive darkness; a world in which feelings and emotions are to be hidden and people are rewarded from true grit.

On page 151, this theme becomes very clear: “How could I tell this woman who lived for me that I did not want to live for her?”

The first part is rather long with barely any dialogue to break it up. Once Jill leaves the farm, the storytelling, visuals and story pick up. For example, on page 168 she discovers that “university study was about learning and reflection, not the cramming of texts and information. Now I had a purpose in my life.”

I also like this insight, on page 227: “Every intellectual woman wants to be loved for her whole self, to found attractive for minds as well as body…”

Though insightful, this is not a quick read or something one reads for enjoyment.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sermon for Oct 3, 2010; Lamentations 3:19-26

Rev. George Miller
Lamentation 3:19-26
“What Size Portion Will You Take? ”
Oct 3, 2010

Hear these words from Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry out to you, O Lord...Hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.”

A cry out to the Lord from deep darkness, akin to a grave, buried in hopelessness. When will sunlight penetrate in, scattering the darkness, to redeem and restore?

We have all experienced moments of darkness, where loss seems to be the victor. The types of darkness can be innumerable. The loss of a job, a repossessed car, a failed marriage.

The depths can be many. Loneliness, illness, death. There is no depth or sadness in which we are permanently shielded from.

To live is to climb to the highest highs and to walk in the darkest valleys. We have all been there, regardless if we admit it or not.

The book of Lamentations explores those realities, traveling through some of the most vile and violent images possible.

Lamentations takes place after the community has experienced a series of horrible events. One word that runs through is “How” and it ends with the statements that God is angry and has rejected the people, perhaps forever.

It is a book cloaked in darkness, except for this small part, in which the poet recalls the good that God had done in the past, and claiming that the Lord’s loves is eternal, the poet decides that he will wait and hope in God..

For that moment a ray of light breaks in, allowing him to move into being a survivor, even if only temporarily.

Survival: for most of the world survival is a day to day reality. And right now, many in the world are paying close attention to a group of men who are in the deep, deep depths of Chile.

2,300 feet below the Atacama Desert, 33 miners have been trapped since August 5, learning how to maintain their sanity and safety.

They spent the first 17 days in virtual darkness, barely able to breathe, rationing their food, eating every other day. The first images we saw of them were naked, dirty and unshaven.

Though such an experience is horrifying, it showed that the men have the drive and strength needed to survive.

Half a mile above ground scientists, doctors, and cooks have been working to not only rescue them from the depths but to help them stay focused.

Through holes in the ground they’ve been sent down pieces of cots to be reassembled, as well as TV, movies, dominoes and letters from family.

Toothbrushes were one of the first things the men asked for. Since then the miners have been sent razors and clean clothes, including matching red shirts: tidiness translates into discipline and the matching shirts create the sense of togetherness.

When a crises hits, people try to normalize the situation, trying to press on in as ordinary a way as possible. People can also develop what is known as a “mortality salience” in which the awareness of death can bring people together.

So psychologists and anthropologists are studying them, following the ways in which they are coming together.

To confront their fear of being swallowed by the depths, the oldest miner, Mario Gomez, took on the role of coordinator, organizing everyone into 3-men groups so they can look after one another. He also set up a chapel to offer spiritual support.

To normalize things, another man, named Luis Urzula has given them jobs and responsibility, coordinating work schedules from a desk he made from a mine vehicle. His desk has become a sign of civilization to the men.

Luis created an important rule: none of the 33 men can eat until all 33 of the men have received their food; Communion in one of its purest forms.

They are sent down food, such as yogurt, tea, sandwiches, and meatballs, but no beans, for exactly the reasons you think.

There are no cigarettes, as they can create toxic fumes; no wine until their diets even out. Nor will they receive hand-held video games or Ipods with headphones because those things can cause them to isolate from one another, and isolation will not help alleviate the depths of the pit they are in.

The miners rebelled against these rules, rejecting a delivery of peaches in protest, but this was seen as a good thing: it means they still have fight in them, they are still individuals capable of making choices. Men who are defiant are not beaten men.

They have a long road ahead of them. Soon they may face fatigue, illness, depression. And when rescue comes, it means each man will be lifted one person at a time in cage for a two hour ride, in which, at some point, one of them will be left completely, and utterly, by himself.[i]

Buried in the depths.

It is amazing what the human soul and body can endure when forced to look death in the face, and when it finds a way, through community, to hold onto hope, even if it seems as if the sunlight will never come.

I think that’s part of what’s lacking in the book of Lamentations. The people have been left feeling so broken down, so humiliated that they have fractured off and lost sight of the community.

The sense of destruction has so thoroughly pierced their souls, that instead of turning towards one another for comfort, they turned away, further creating a sense of alienation and complete loss.

And in today’s reading we hear one sole voice, saying that he will recall what God has done in the past, and that he will wait quietly, alone is silence.

...But perhaps it is because he sits alone, waiting, that the book ends with him feeling rejected by a God who is angry beyond measure.

What is more faithful: to sit and wait alone for God to act, or to find people to band together with and say “God, get off your tookas- it’s time to act!”?

In life and in faith there is passive waiting and there is active waiting; there are those who look into the face of death and crumble and those who find within them the reason to act and live.

That is what I understand Jesus to have done.

When I read about the Chilean miners, about how Mario and Luis have developed a life of work and worship, community and coordination, I felt like I had another understanding about Jesus and his incredible ministry.

The more I think about Jesus the less I see him as a passive, long haired floormat and the more I realize what a strong, alpha leader he was, a man so full of God and so full of life that he could give and give of himself and never run empty of the God-force that resided within him.

Part of this leader that we see in Jesus is the very fact that to do his ministry, he called other people forward, he invited them to share in the responsibility of doing the Kingdom’s work.

Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs, trusting them to do what’s right, empowering them to do what needed to be done. Jesus held them accountable; neither coddling nor enabling them.

When the disciples came to a place in which they were not welcome, Jesus didn’t let them get stressed out. Instead he taught them to shake the dust from their feet and to move on.

Jesus did many things, but rarely did he do them alone. When he taught, the disciples were there, when he healed, the disciples were there, when he stood up to the authorities, the disciples were there.

Jesus, as a leader, demonstrated to them how to develop a “mortality salience” because virtually everything he did was in the shadow of the cross.

No wonder the disciples were able to do what they did, because they watched and learned from Jesus
-that a person is most powerful when they are untied with others for the cause of God
-that standing up to an abusive system is standing up for God
-that even in moments of darkness we each have something to give.

Jesus demonstrated this on the last night he was alive. Knowing that he was about to face the depths of death, Jesus did not isolate himself, but made sure they were all together for a meal.

He didn’t disappear or emotionally shut down. He shared a meal with them, lifting up the bread and giving thanks, before passing it to them. In an act of unlimited fullness, he took the cup of wine saying that it was be poured out for them.

Because he shared himself so completely and unselfishly, we share in that bread and cup, today.

His sense of leadership, that call to create a community in the face of death and destruction, radiated from Jesus’ very being.

And it is because of those acts that when he faced the darkness of the cross and the depths of the tomb, death could not put out his light.
For 3 days later, women and men were able to say “He lives!- he lives in the garden, he lives in the gathering room, he lives at the table.”

In conclusion, the author of Lamentations tried to find solace by sitting alone, quietly waiting in hope, remembering what God had done.

The 33 Chilean miners are surviving by banding together, working as a team, and through the help of those who are above.

Jesus did what he did because he found a way not to go at it alone, but to gather others and surround himself, to call and to share, to include and not exclude.

Christianity has survived because every time we gather at this table, whenever we have a chance to share in Christ’s last meal, we are reminded that we are not alone, that sunlight is breaking in and darkness does not have the final say.

God’s renewing grace and restorative love is not limited because in Christ that supply is limitless.
So what size portion will you take?

All thanks and honor be to the Spirit that empowers us to survive, for God who will not reject or deny us and for Jesus Christ, the leader who pulls us through, up and out of the depths.
Amen and amen.
[i].The information about the miners comes from the Time article “Trapped” by Jeffrey Kluger, 2010, and the Tampa Tribune Article “Trapped Miners Get Home Comforts”, Sept 28, 1010.

Sermon from Sept 26, 2010

Rev. George Miller
Luke 16:19-31
“Listening to the Prophets ”
Sept 26, 2010

I didn’t know this before, but the Gospel of Luke spends a lot of time on the subjects of poverty, possessions and wealth. The gospel is full of songs and sermons, parables and prophecies, warnings and woes that deal with issues of giving and not giving.

For example, near the end of Luke, two people on their way to Emmaus meet a stranger who teaches them about the prophets. They ask him to share a meal and as they break bread, they realize the stranger is actually the resurrected Christ.

A lesson we gather from this Easter tale is that when we welcome the stranger, when we share what we have, we are also welcoming and sharing the resurrected Christ into our midst.

In other words: sharing resources is sharing Christ.

Now, I’ve been reading a book called Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Its author makes the claim that churches can not continue doing and believing what they have believed and done in the past if they wish to survive.

In chapter 11 the author writes about the two functions of the church. The first, most important function is the gathering of people each week for “divine worship.”

The second function is that worship services are attached to important life moments. Birth may be met with baptism, love is connected to a wedding ceremony, death is followed by a funeral service.[i]

I don’t disagree with the author’s claim, but I was surprised that he missed a third, very important function: that the church is a place of mission, called to be Christ to a wounded world.

“The church is mission!” is what Michael Kinnamon, one of my professors used to always say, and it would drive me crazy. In my head (and to my friends) I would disagree, holding fast to my belief that the church, first and foremost is for praising God and offering up our thanks.

But after surviving unemployment, after living through this recession that’s supposedly over, after reading that 1 in 9 Americans are now living in poverty, I can’t help but to admit that Professor Kinnamon was onto something.

I may not go as far as to say that the church is mission, but I am now more inclined to say “Church is a where we praise God and mission is one of the ways in which we show our praise.”

Mission is that concept of reaching out to others. To assist our neighbors who are in need, whatever that need may be: clothes, comfort, food, shelter. And our neighbors do not have to just be the person next door, but the person in the next town, the next state, perhaps even in the next country.

In an age of internet, Facebook and C-Span everyone is now our neighbor. And so many of them are in need.

But their needs can seem so overwhelming.

In today’s reading Jesus tells a story, a fictional tale, about two very different men. There is Lazarus, very poor and very hungry. And there is the unnamed man, very rich and very satiated.

Lazarus lay by the gate, where dogs licked his sores, while the rich man sat at the table filling his face. Both men died: starvation? Gout and heart attack? We don’t know.

Lazarus finds eternal comfort. The rich man eternal thirst. He begs for his brothers to be warned, but is basically told “What makes you think your kin will listen if they couldn’t even listen to the prophets?”

What was it the prophets said? What was it that the rich, well-fed man should have listened to? Don’t eat so fast? Don’t talk with you mouth full? Don’t wear purple after Yom Kippur?

No. None of those things. Most likely what the prophets would have said was “Look outside your window. Walk out your door. Open up your eyes to the man right outside your gate and do something, anything, to alleviate his pain, even if you can only acknowledge that he has a name.”

And of course he had a name: Lazarus, the only person in all of Jesus’ parables to be given one.

The prophets cared about many things. But they particularly cared for those in need.

For example, Isaiah 58 reminds us to share our bread with the hungry, show hospitality to the homeless and to clothe the naked. The Law of Moses states that we are to “open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land (Deut.15 7-11).

Yet, it is so easy for us to close our hand, to seal it shut, even when throwing our money away.

I am ashamed to say that last week I went to the International Plaza in Tampa, a very high-end mall. I am not ashamed that I went there shopping, because I bought things I needed and some treats that make life fun.

But I am ashamed to say that I passed by two traffic lights in which there were men; grown, real men, like me, looking for assistance. One carried a sign asking for nothing more than work.

The other was a father of four, who had lost his job. While one of his sons stood on the grass, he walked towards the cars with a sign asking for help. All I could think of was “Don’t look at me. I hope he doesn’t look at me.”

I had three dollars of loose change clanging about in my brand new 2010 car and all I could think about was myself. I might as well have been wearing purple linen and stuffing my face.

And today I ask the Lord to forgive me for not doing something, anything to at least acknowledge that man’s humanity and plight.

Because just like Lazarus, that man had a name too, perhaps Al or Charles, Duane or Ed, Glen or Herb, Jim or Kirk, Sam or Tom. Or George.

Just as we all have names, so do the poor, the needy, the lonely and the alien. And they are all right outside our gates, deserving some help.

And one way we help is through our mission. Or Service, as we call it here at Emmanuel UCC.

And it is our offerings, our financial contributions that help make that happen.

Soon it will be that time of the year in which we’ll be hearing facts and figures, budgets and plans.

And I know that for some people the talk of money scrambles the brain and upsets the stomach. I know that for others the talk of money is personal and taboo.

But for us, to continue to function and grow as the Body Of Christ, it is very real and very necessary. For money is what we use in this earthly realm, and money is what our acts of mission, our service, requires.

In just the few short months I’ve been here I have already witnessed the amazing generosity of our congregation. In the spring, when a stranger was released from jail without even a pair of underwear, we rallied in such a way that the hallway was filled with socks and shoes, shirts and shampoos and stuff that was enough for two, three, four men.

Two weeks ago our Global Mission Fair raised over $600 for Heifer International. When I asked for $20 more to buy ducks, we received over $100.

The folks of Emmanuel UCC clearly know how to give to individuals and to individual causes. So now I encourage you to please keep giving. To our church, to our community, to those who you can see with your own eyes are in need.

You don’t have to give it all, but what God has called you to give.

Last week, our “guest” Safari Sam told us about the giraffes; how they give their tears to the basket-weavers of Botswana, reminding us that everyone has something to give.

The prophets tell us to give to those right outside our gates, and with 1 in 9 Americans living in poverty, they will not be so hard to find.

For when we push ourselves away from our sumptuous feats, when we take our attention off the purple and linen we’ve been blessed enough to earn and to wear, we discover there are many who will be happy with even a tenth of what we have.

And like those two people on their way to Emmaus, we may be surprised to find that when we reach out, when we invite in, when we’re brave enough to share, we not only embody Christ but we are experiencing the resurrected Christ who dwells among us.

How, through our generosity, will we ensure that Emmanuel UCC will keep reaching out to the Lazaruses in our midst?

All thanks to the God of the prophets, the Spirit of visions, and for our story-telling Savior.

Amen and amen.
[i].John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, 1998, pp.169, 172.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"Why Christianity Must Change or Die"

Why Christianity Must Change or Die
By John Shelby Spong

I’ve had this book on my shelf for ages, but finally read it after a guest of the church encouraged me to read it. So, after finishing off some of the other books on my “pastor’s pile” I finally got to it.

Spong is an Episcopal Bishop who basically states that we must stop viewing God from a theistic viewpoint (in other words, God is like us). He makes some good claims, such as on pg xix “…that any god who is threatened by new truth from any source is clearly dead already.”

The major thesis of his book appears on page 70: “There is no God external to life. God, rather, is the inescapable depth and center of all that is. God is not a being superior to all other beings. God is the Ground of Being itself.” (pg 70).

Written in 1998, I can see how it is an enlightening book, however, many of the things he discusses were articulated by Alice Walker in her excellent novel “The Color Purple” and have been a major part of United Church of Christ’s (U.C.C.) scholarship for decades.

Spong is right in mentioning that the church is not a place where many people today expect to seek out God (page 21). He states that we must discover if the death of the God we worshipped in the past is the same thing as the death of God (pg 41). He also does a wonderful study on how anger informs many preachers, stating that some people act as if they can not enjoy heaven unless they get to watch those in hell writhe in pain (pp 53-54).

Spong calls us to let go of the image of Jesus as a rescuer and instead as a spirit filled person, “radically, deeply, and fully alive” (page 114) who could be “present, totally present, to another person” (page 126). And because of this Jesus was a “remarkably free man. He was free to forgive, free to endure, free to be, and free to die” (page 127).

Thus, “the primary message of the Christian Church to the emerging adolescent in the Church rites of passage is ‘You share in eternity. You are holy. Your life reveals the presence of God.’” (page 193).

The main complaint I had with the book is that Spong seems to erase away whatever mystery and freedom God can have. In my opinion, by spending so much time disclaiming who and what God is not, Spong seems to create his own God that fits into his own rulebook and expectations, and then Spong wants us to think the same way and worship his definition of God. There is not a lot I disagreed with in his book, but there were many times in which I said “But God is free and God is mystery.”

But here is my bias: I would rather believe in a God who is free and full of mystery then a God who can or can not do what I say and expect.