Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"In the Company of Cheerful Ladies"

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies
By Alexander McCall Smith

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

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

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

Monday, November 8, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hate God….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.
[i] Ringe, 233.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and amen.

Sermon for Oct 22 2010 Memorial Service at Good Shepherd Hospice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for Oct 17, 2010, Luke 18:1-8

Rev. George Miller
Luke 18:1-8
“When Widows Won’t Welent”
Oct 17, 2010

Last week we heard a quote from Bishop Desmond Tutu. It was “The texture of our universe is one where there is no question at all but that good and laughter and justice will prevail.”

I find myself still responding to this quote and its simple truth, and I love that Bishop Tutu, a noted Nobel Prize winner, would place such an emphasis on the importance of laughter in our life.

Life without laughter is like a martini without an olive: it makes no sense. So blessings to God for filling our life with things that make us smile and laugh out loud.

One of those things that evoked laughter while growing up was Saturday morning cartoons, especially Looney Tunes.

Remember those cartoons? Created at a time before the world became so overly politically correct, shown at movie theaters before the main feature.

One of the stand-out characters was Elmer Fudd, with his speech impediment and hunting gear. What was he always hunting? Wabbit.

“Be vewy vewy quiet,” he’d say, “I’m hunting wabbits.”

And for the next 5-10 minutes we’d laugh at his foibles of trying to catch and kill Bugs Bunny. But things never went his way.

It’s not that he wasn’t persistent. Oh he tried; he tried indeed. But no matter what Bugs Bunny always outsmarted him.

That wascally wabbit would dress up like Carmen Miranda, or tie Elmer’s gun into a knot, or surprise him with a kiss on top of his bald head, getting poor Elmer all flustered.

Alas, he never did catch that wabbit, but Elmer, dear Elmer would not welent.

And I admire that trait in him. There is something to be said about determination in the face of uncertainty and repeated failure.

Welentlessness is a key to success and if it wasn’t for those who wouldn’t give up in the face of adversity there would not have been a United States, nor women’s rights, civil rights or my ability to be here.

Relentlessness can be a virtue, or wirtue, as Elmer Fudd would say. So why couldn’t he catch that darned wascally wabbit?

Because he was pursuing death, not life. He was intent to destroy, not create. He was determined in domination not to build relation.

If the very fabric of the universe is for good and laughter and justice to prevail, then Elmer Fudd was doomed to begin with.

Today’s scripture is also about someone who won’t welent: a widow who wears down a wuthless judge. However, her outcome is very different from Elmer’s: she gets what she is seeking.

In Luke Chapter 18 Jesus is continuing his journey towards Jerusalem. The disciples are with him and Jesus is busy blessing children and restoring sight.

He tells the people this parable: a widow in the city has had an injustice happen to her. This wasn’t unheard of, since widows were some of the most vulnerable and mistreated people.

Whatever this widow is facing, she knows a wrong has transpired. So she does what she can, going to the local judge, seeking justice.

However, this judge has no respect for anyone nor does he fear God. So he cares nothing about this woman.

Again and again her request falls on deaf ears. But, like Elmer Fudd, she will not welent. Again and again she goes to the wuthless judge asking for one thing “Grant me justice.”

And we’re not told when, or how long it took, but finally, the wuthless judge cracks, realizing that this welentless widow is going to wear him down.

He says “That’s it, I’m done. She wins and I will grant her wish and give her want she wants.”

The wuthless widow wins, but why do you think she won? My claim is that she won because she was fighting for was justice; justice equals life, and as the resurrection of Jesus Christ proves, life will always win out over death.

Justice equals life. It’s a simple equation, but one that stands up to the test.

Think of any injustice you can come up, and there will be a direct correlation between a substandard form of living, from housing to economics to health.

But think of acts of justice and not only will it be linked directly to acts of freedom but justice will lead to a more improved and joyful life filled with laughter and goodness.

That’s what the welentless widow was seeking, and that is why she won. Because in God, justice and life have to win, even if ruthless powers seem to say no.

That’s what the empty tomb displayed. That’s why Jesus was unafraid to face the Cross.

Life and justice will always win. That’s part of the beauty you will find in Luke 18.

I invite you to look at your Bible and read through this chapter and you’ll discover a celebration of life and right.

Verses 1-8 are about justice. Verses 9-14 are about humbling honesty. Verses 15-17 are about children. Verses 18-30 are about releasing the power our possessions can have over us. And verses 35-43 are about regaining sight.

Justice, humility, children, release, and sight: all aspects of life, things we can do and seek that speak out against the forces of death and injustice that threaten to rob us of our innocence, sight and what we deserve.

Each and every one of us deserves to have our humanity and our life acknowledged. We deserve to be safe, to be treated fairly and to live free from oppression.

That’s called justice.

But justice does not always seem to happen, does it? We find ourselves told what we can’t do, where we can’t go, what we don’t deserve. Some because of the color of their skin, others because of who they love, others because of their age.

Big business makes choices that benefit just a few. Government is always being questioned about what is right and what is wrong. School districts and counties scramble for the resources they need.

Justice is life, and we all deserve to live.

Part of what we can glean from today’s parable is that when we find ourselves in a situation that is unjust, it is Ok for us to be like the widow.

It is Ok to seek. It is Ok to demand. It is Ok to be persistent and unrelenting.

It is Ok to voice expectations and to do what needs to be done if it is justice that we seek.

Because when we seek justice, we seek life.

In conclusion, Elmer Fudd may never have caught that wascally wabbit, but that’s because he was pursuing the ways of death.

The welentless widow? What she sought was just, and right and good, and everyone deserves the same.

Whenever we seek out justice, God is on our side, even if the outcome is not immediate, even if we do not live long enough to see the results, even if it seems like a lost cause.

The cross may have been where wounds of injustice occurred, but God used the empty tomb to remind us that healing justice will ultimately prevail.

Therefore, we can act in faith knowing good, laughter and justice equal life.

And life will always win.

Blessings to the Spirit that empowers us to fight for what is right, to the Son who never gave up and to God who is merciful and just.

Amen and amen.

"The Full Cupboard of Life"

Number 5 in the "#1 Ladie's" series. Very enjoyable, in which (spoiler alert), Mr. J.L.B. and Mma Ramotswe finally get married. But first there's business about jumping out of a plane to raise money for the orphan farm, the death of Mma. Makusti's brother to AIDS (done "off camera") and Mma. Makusti moving into 1/2 a house that she now rents (a very touching development for my favorite character).

As usual, lots of bush tea and fruit cake is consumed and there's jokes about having big bottoms and Mma. Ramostswe is allowed to really have a keen sense of humor. Reading these books are about visiting old friends in which the pace and plot of the book serve no purpose other then to make on smile and feel good, even when talking about difficult issues.

This book, like all the others, celebrates the land, traditionally built people who are healthy, beautiful and like to eat, respecting one and another, being humble and not taking oneself too seriously.

There is also a funny scene where Mma. Ramotswe play on the mechanics vanity by making them think an anonymous love letter left for "Mr. Handsome" was perhaps written by a man.

Good book, great series.

"The Kalahari Typing School of Men"

Book number 4 in the "#1 Ladies Detective Agency" is perhaps the strongest book of the series, in which the author allows each of the characters to grow and change, for better or for worse. One of Mr. J. L. Matekoni's apprentices "finds religion" (even for a short while), Mr. J.L.B. finds a back-bone and stands up to the matron of the orphan home, Mma. Makusti begins a successful business and ill-fated love affair etc.

A major theme is the admitting of one's sins and finding a way to air them out and make up for past mistakes, as well as allowing people the opportunity to do so. Another theme is of mutual support, the way each person, business is interconnected.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Lightening Thief

I recently became a volunteer for Big Brothers/Bis Sisters. My "Little" is a fan of this book, so I picked it up and was wonderfully surprised with how well done it is. Yes, it is created and read in the shadow of "Harry Potter" so it has that to compete with, and the hero goes on a quest with a guy and girl and they go to a camp for Half-Bloods. Yet still, it's an original book that deals pretty honestly with Greek mythology without giving too much adult info to the young readers, yet at the same time not dumbing it down.

The author, Rick Riordan, creates in Percy a hero diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD, who is actually the son of Poseidon. He's dyslexic because his minds wants to read Greek, he has ADHD because he sees more then the average person. He also longs to have know his father, to have friends, and find where he fits in. No wonder so many kids like this series, as it hits upon universal wants and experiences, the way "Harry Potter" did.

The kids of Half-Blood are all children of Gods. Some of them stay there forever, others are sent out for quests; that's what most of them want. The "real world is where the monsters are. That's where you learn whether you are any good or not." (pg 170)

One soleful part is when Percy is to fight against Ares, the God of War. He gets nervous, but is reminded "Ares has strength. That's all he has. Eventrength has to bow to wisdom sometimes." (229) (Where have I heard that before...)