Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sermon from July 24, 2011; 1 Kings 3:5-15

Rev. George Miller
1 Kings 3:5-15
“Blessed are Those Who Know”
July 24, 2011

What is intelligence? How do we know what we know? And who gets to say that they know better?

Is an English professor smarter then a car mechanic? Is a care mechanic smarter then a fisherman? Is a fisherman smarter then a seamstress?

Who’s to say, but I know who I’d want to teach Hamlet, I know who I want to fix my car, I know who I want to bait my hook, and I know who I want to hem my pants.

What is intelligence? How do we know what we know? And who gets to say that they know better?

Reminds me of a pastor I knew. He was the kind who brought his definition of morality and clean living into the pulpit.

One Sunday he was so sure that he had created the perfect sermon illustration. He stood up with a jar of worms in his hand and “Behold!” in his best holier-then-thou voice, “See what happens when I place one of these worms into a glass of alcohol.”

The congregation sat enraptured as he plopped a hopeless worm into a fifth of vodka. It squirmed, it turned, and it floated to the bottom of the bottle, dead.

Proud of himself, the pastor took out an ashtray filled with cigarettes. “Behold what happens to this worm when it’s introduced to tobacco.”

He shoved a worm into the tray. It squirmed, it turned, and it was dead.

The sanctuary was silent. “And finally,” he said, taking out a bottle of vegetable oil, “Behold what happens when this worm is introduced to grease!”

He plopped the worm in. It squirmed, it turned and it floated to the top of the bottle, dead.

“Now,” the pastor said, so in love with himself, “Can anyone tell me what lesson God is trying to teach us today?”

It was so still, you could hear a Communion wafer drop. Until Old Lady Peggy chimed up “We should all drink, smoke and eat fast food so we won’t get worms!”

…..What is intelligence? How do we know what we know? And who gets to say that they know better?

I find the concept of intelligence to be fascinating. Some equate it with the ability to take tests. But that’s not really intelligence; that’s more the ability to spit information out.

Intelligence happens on many levels. Such as musical intelligence. How someone can look at lines and squiggles on a piece of paper and turn them into rhythm and song.

Athletic intelligence; how a child could pick up a football and know how to throw it and catch; how someone can hit a teeny tiny golf ball into a teeny tiny hole 100 yards away.

Street intelligence; how to walk the walk and talk and the talk; where to go, what to say, how to stand up and when to back done.

Perhaps intelligence is best replaced with the word wisdom because wisdom goes beyond facts and figures and brings into play ethics and emotions, reality and relationships.

Wisdom is a way in which one can experience the world and as Proverbs 1:7 states “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”

Wisdom plays an important part in today’s reading. We just heard about Solomon, he who was King of Israel, son of David.

He was a man who was truly imperfect, who made his own share of mistakes, but he was also a man who sincerely loved the Lord.

One night the Lord appears to Solomon and offers him anything his wishes, anything at all.

…reminds me of a biker I knew in Sarasota who was one day riding along the coast when he heard God say “Because you have been faithful to me, I will grant you one wish.”

Immediately he said “Build a bridge from here to the Keys so I can go there whenever I want.”

The Lord replied “Your request is too materialistic. Think of the supports needed; the concrete and steal it would require. It’s an enormous task to undertake; it’s hard to justify such a worldly thing. Think of something that would honor me.”

The biker thought, then said “Lord, I wish that I could understand my wife. I want to know how she feels inside; what she’s thinking when she gives me the silent treatment; what she means when she says nothing’s wrong but I know something is. I want to know how to make her happy.”

And the Lord replied… “You want that bridge to have two lanes or four?”

…Wisdom. That’s what Solomon asks for; an understanding mind to govern the people, the ability discern between good and evil.

This so pleases God that not only is wisdom granted, but so are all the other things Solomon could have asked for, but did not.

Wisdom becomes a way for Solomon to be a better ruler and wisdom is one way in which people experienced Jesus Christ.

Wisdom was highly prized in Jesus’ day. In fact, for some people wisdom was the way to know God, be it scholarship, debates, storytelling.

God was not simply a thing or a magician or a being in the sky, but God was seen as thought and logic, reason and wonderment.

So for some people, when they experienced Jesus they would say “Behold, the Wisdom of God” or “Behold, the Word of God.”

The wisdom that Jesus displayed was extraordinary; it had to be for Mary to sit enraptured at his feet, for thousands of people to forget that it was dinner time, and for the Sadducees and Pharisees to continuously try to find ways to trip him up.

In fact, the earliest written collections about Jesus were not about what he did or who he healed, they were about what he said and taught; the wisdom that emanated from his very being.

Wisdom was a way in which Jesus made people feel as if they had truly encountered the living God.

And that wisdom is still alive today.

I believe that this is one of the most important teachings that I as a pastor can share because far too often we neglect the wisdom aspect of God and of our faith.

I hear people talk and pray and it’s all about what God has done or can do or should do. Which is all well and good and has its place in our religious life.

But unfortunately what I often get is a sense of God doing it all, as if all choice and ability to think for ourselves has been stripped away.

But wisdom? To embrace the Triune God as a source of wisdom is a way to experience the Trinity as co-participants in our lives.

If God is the source of all wisdom and Jesus is the embodiment of that wisdom, how can we better welcome wisdom into our lives?

Think of the Serenity Prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr, a UCC pastor: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Praying for wisdom in times of trials can be empowering because it moves one from feeling like a passive victim into feeling like a proactive victor.

For example, instead of asking that God sends one a job, it may help to ask for the wisdom to sit down, think about one’s skills and to go about creating a cover letter and resume that will get a person in the door.

Instead of asking God to solve a problem, it may be more helpful to say “Give me the wisdom to figure out the best possible solution.”

Instead of the Democrats and Republicans playing ‘My Budget is better then yours’, they could stop and ask “God, give us the wisdom to do what’s right for your people.”

Wisdom is not just a way to experience life, but a way to experience God because it further solidifies a relationship in which we are working with God, side by side, as opposed to being puppets on a string.

Sometimes we listen to God’s wisdom, but thank God for grace for those moments we do not.

Speaking of which, let me end with another story. Up in Michigan there was a woman named Mildred, the church gossip and self-appointed know-it-all who felt she alone had the smarts to monitor people’s actions.

Oh how Mildred stuck her nose in everyone’s business. Many people disapproved of her actions, but were afraid of the ramifications if they spoke up.

Mildred’s big mistake was accusing Stephen, a new member, of being an alcoholic.

She told people that she had spotted his car in front of the town bar and as she proudly boasted “Everyone knows what that means.”

Stephen, not being a man of many words, didn’t speak up to defend himself. He just turned to walk away.

Next Saturday, while everyone was asleep, Stephen very quietly pushed his car onto Mildred’s driveway and walked the 2 miles home, leaving it there on Sunday morning.

You can imagine what people thought and talked about as they drove past Mildred’s house on the way to church that day…

Wisdom. How do we know what we know? And who gets to say that they know better?

I know enough to know that I don’t know, and I am fine with that.

And I’m sure glad that we have a Savior who is the living wisdom of God, who teaches us how to love and calls us to be students of the Spirit.

May we all find ways to seek out and utilize that wisdom this week.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sermon from July 17, 2011; Matthew 13:24-30

Rev. George Miller
Matthew 13:24-30
“Wild Flowers in the Garden of God”
July 17, 2011

“I come to the garden alone, when the dew is still on the roses…”

Take a moment, imagine: a garden. Roses, hyacinths, daisies; peonies, pansies, and petunias.

Weeds; wildflowers. Do you picture those as well: dandelions, Queen Anne’s lace, and bluebells? (And are bluebells even weeds or are they flowers?)

But guess what: WEEDS HAPPEN.

Weeds happen no matter what, no matter how much you prune, plow, pick, pull and plan.

No matter how much black plastic and white rocks you put down, weeds find a way to grow.

Do you know why? Because weeds are strong. Weeds are persistent.

Weeds know how to survive. Weeds know that the secret to life is to have deep roots.

If we were to be horticulturally politically correct, we’d call them wildflowers because that’s what they are- wild and free.

And anyway: who decides what’s a weed and what is not?

The one who creates the garden?
The one who works in the garden?
The one who looks at the garden?

And let’s be honest: some weeds are the prettiest of flowers; they’re just out of place, different, unplanned or unwanted.

“I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses. And the voice I hear, falling on my ear…”

But gardens aren’t the only place where unplanned things exist, are they?

Think of the growing trend of what’s called “guerilla art” or graffiti. There’s the ol' skool kind, like spray-painting on the side of a train. But now there’s the kind of graffiti that’s causing city governments to debate what’s art and what’s illegal.

Take for instance this mosaic known as “Surfing Madonna.” It’s made out of stone and stained glass that cost an estimated $1,000 in materials and was put up in Encinitas, CA by an artist posing as a construction worker.

This piece took 9 months to create and was attached to a railroad bridge. Instantly it drew attention: thousands of people flocking there to take pictures, leave flowers; to feel like they were making a religious pilgrimage.

Yet technically it is graffiti and was removed, but not before sparking conversation on the nature of art, the separation of church and state and who defines what is beautiful and what is not.

Take a look at it for yourself, and wonder: graffiti or art; flower or weed?

“I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses; and the voice I hear, falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses.”

In terms of people, who gets to decide who’s a weed and who is not?

The Nazi’s who envisioned a master race of blue eyed babies with blonde hair?

E-mail composers who fear Muslims will take over of the world?

Gator fans who are surrounded by Buckeyes?

At what age can you tell if someone is going to grow into a dignified garden perennial or a common weed? 5? 10? 20? 40? 80?

When is a person actually ever truly done growing that one can say “She’s a hyacinth” or “He’s a Queen Anne’s lace”?

Who gets to decide all these things?

Thank God for today’s Scripture because it removes all the stress from our shoulders and gives the role of final judgment to God.

Can I get an “Amen”?

“I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses; and the voice I hear, falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses. And he walks with me, and he talks with me…”

Today’s reading comes courtesy of Matthew’s Gospel. In it, Jesus is telling a parable, a way of teaching in which no easy answer is given and the hearer is made to come to their own conclusions.

Jesus is telling them what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. And just to clarify things, many UCC scholars believe that Jesus is not referring to an end time notion of where we go after we die, but he’s talking about the here and now.

The Kingdom of Heaven that exists at this exact moment if we just open our eyes, loose our hearts and live according to the ways of God.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a Master who plants good seed in his garden. Weeds also appear. The servants freak out, ask if they should rip the weeds out.

But the Master, showing amazing grace and pleasant patience, tells them there is no need too, in fact if they were to collect the weeds they could harm the wheat.

“Let them both grow,” the Master says, “At harvest time I’ll tell the reapers what to do.”

This, I believe, is Jesus’ way of saying “Be patient with one another, just as God is patient. No one but God can tell who is truly good and who is truly bad.

“So don’t exhaust yourself. Let God be God and trust that the garden will be well cared for. And who knows?- maybe even a wildflower can grow into a stalk of wheat.”

“I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses; and the voice I hear, falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses. And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own…”

What if, what if the garden, the field in this parable, is actually our own inner selves?

What if this story isn’t just about the weeds that inhabit the world, but it’s about the weeds that exist inside of us?

What if this parable is about the things we dislike about ourselves? The ways in which we punish ourselves with self-judgment?

The way we think we look, the way we feel; the things we can’t do, the failures we’ve endured?

What if this is Jesus’ way of saying “Don’t be so quick to change who you are, because what you label a weed I call a flower?”


What if this is about those things we do, the paths we’ve taken that have poisoned our relationship with God, blocked our view of the Son and choked out the Spirit?

What if this is Jesus’ way of saying that all those negative things that get in the way and prevent us from embracing grace will be burned away, leaving us refined and freed to take our rightful place in the garden?

“I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses; and the voice I hear, falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses. And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own, and the joy we share, as we tarry there, none other has ever known.”

We are in the garden, together.

And we may not be perfect roses, hyacinths or daises. But we are far from weeds.

We are more like wild flowers in the garden of God.

Imperfect? Yes.

Always where we are supposed to be? No.

Beautiful to some; a nuisance to others? Yes, yes.

Our roots deep? Yes.

Are we strong? Yes.

Strong in Christ.
Watered by the Holy Spirit.
Tended to by God.

Growing, changing, and evolving.

Waiting to be gathered to become part of the Kingdom’s glorious bouquet.

Let all of the Master’s wild flowers say “Amen.”

*The first verse of “I Come to the Garden Alone” written by C. Austin Miles is taken from The New Century Hymnal

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sermon from July 10, 2011; Romans 8:1-11

Rev. George Miller
Romans 8:1-11
“Synod Reflections”
July 10, 2011

After four days away and a week of what would be best be called “messy” it is good to be here, behind the pulpit once again.

Today my goal is to tell you about General Synod 28; not to bore you with endless information, but to share with you what this particular experience was like.

As most of you know, the United Church of Christ held our national meeting last week in Tampa. Over 3,000 people participated; nearly 5,000 attended the Sunday afternoon worship service.

There were classes, resolution meetings, and plenaries; there was a flash communion service, a protest at Publix, catered meals, cocktail gatherings, and cookies.

Lots and lots of cookies; over 10,000 dozen baked by members of the FL Conference. At the end of the 5 day event, every single one of those 120,000 cookies was enjoyed.

That’s 7.78 cookies per person per day, which for me sounds just about right.

But why? Why did we do this? Why do we as a denomination that values autonomy decide to meet every 2 years?

To worship. To listen, to learn, to share. To make decisions: the seemingly simple and the divisively difficult. To find out what is going on with the other 1.1 million members of the church.

To be a family, a family that is known as the UCC; a kooky conglomerate of congregational kin who are part of the universal Body of Christ.

And let’s be honest: as a denomination we are sometimes that annoying part of the body that demands to be scratched, which some people would prefer to lance off.

General Synod is not so much about what we have done; it’s about what God has done and is doing. That’s also a bit of what the book of Romans is about.

In this letter, Paul is writing to a group of churches he has not met, but hopes to visit one day. He’s establishing a relationship. He shares with them that he knows what they are going through, how their churches are made up of people from various backgrounds.

Paul encourages them to look past their immediate differences and to welcome each other as Christ has welcomed them.

This sense of inclusiveness in the midst of diversity is meant to influence both the ways they worship and the ways they provide hospitality.

In this portion of the letter, Paul tries to shift them from ways that may be too obsessive, self-centered and holier-then-thou, and to get them to bask in the spiritual freedom that comes from belonging to God in Christ.

In essence, Paul is saying “Imagine What’s Possible”, which was the theme for this year’s General Synod.

At Synod, the idea of imagining was represented by a tent, on a patch of sand; a tent meant to represent the dwelling of Abraham and Sarah; a tent meant to invoke the ways in which they were called to participate in God’s redemptive work.

And so 3,100 of us gathered, from far and wide, and we discussed ways in which God has called us to say yes to life and no the ways of death and sin.

There was columnist Leonard Pitts who encouraged us to walk and talk with a sense of purpose and power that comes from knowing that “Daddy has the whole world in the palm of his hand.”

He reminded us that history is filled with important people who did not exceed in everything they imagined, but still left the world a better place.

As he stated “Only when you’re prepared to fail is there any hope for a chance at success.”

There was a passionate presentation on the plight of tomato pickers in our country; how 1,000 workers in FL are held against their will to work in the fields and endure physical, financial and sexual abuse, and of how Publix, which gets their produce from some of these suppliers, stated “If there are atrocities, it’s not our business.”

There was the decision to streamline our national office by consolidating our five existing boards into a single board.

This did not come without much debate and arguments, with issues ranging from theological language, to concerns about limiting the voices of some, or alienating the voices of others.

There were forward thinking resolutions that make the UCC such a progressive Christian player.

One resolution affirmed the rights of gay and lesbian parents to raise children.

Another resolution was to share a baptismal understanding with three other Reformed traditions and the Roman Catholic Church, which is a major step in ecumenical talks and imagining that “They all may be one.”

There were the farewells of people who faithfully served the denomination, such as Associate General Minister, Edith Guffey. But there were also the hellos of those like W. Mark Clark who will be her successor.

Rev. Geoffrey Black, our UCC President and General Minister shared his “Big, Holy, Audacious Goals” that include being widely recognized for our witness to justice and equality in a way that is unapologetic and fearless.

But this wasn’t all that General Synod was about. From a social aspect, it meant being reunited with dear colleagues. It meant meeting new people and hearing first hand the ministry they are doing.

The prominent story I heard from those whose churches are vibrantly alive is not about how the pastor or council have total control; but the ways in which they lead by creating an environment in which members could step up on their own to create new programs and to do hospitality in endearing ways.

Yes, all those things took place. But let me share with you the moment that epitomized General Synod 28 for me.

Last Sunday I was walking to my hotel room when a man named Frank, from New Jersey, asked if I could help with a bit of money.

I like to carry loose cash for such occasions, so I gave it too him and we had a conversation. After we talked, another man rolled up on a bicycle asking for help. I told him I had no more money, but we exchanged names. His name was Mike.

Later that night I was returning from a gathering for clergy with my former classmate and pastoral peer Jeanne.

As we were on our way, Mike came riding up to us, calling to me in that wonderful southern display of respect “Mr. George.”

I was ready and reached into my pocket. “Mr. Mike, it’s good to see you,” I said, shaking his hand while sliding cash into his palm.

“I don’t want your money,” he said in the politest of ways, “I want you to pray for me.”

We were still in mid-handshake, the money visible through our fingers; for me a humbling reminder that ministry is not always about material needs.

Mr. Mike shared some of his story, being vulnerable, admitting his mistakes.

It was Jeanne who prayed.

This was not a moment of sin or death, but a holy moment of life and of peace: the three of us, standing on the city street, close to midnight, holding hands; black and white, male and female, straight and gay, north and south.

I can’t even tell you what Jeanne said; just that it flowed out of her in a way that said “Yes, the Holy Spirit is here.”

When she finished, Mr. Mike offered up his own prayer, asking God to bless our denomination and the work we’re doing.

When we were done, Mr. Mike rode away, and Jeanne and I walked back to the hotel, not saying anything, because everything had been said.

It was a God moment.

At first it seemed that it was Mr. Mike who was reaching out to touch the hem of our garments, but the truth is that we too were also reaching out to touch the hem of his.

That’s the moment that epitomized what Synod meant to me: a reminder that there is still so much of God’s work to do in this, God’s world.

If we can only be brave enough to imagine, willing to fail, fearlessly unapologetic.

As Paul would want to remind us, regardless if we do it alone, as a church, as a denomination, as an entire faith, it is, and has always been, God’s work, called upon by Christ, shaped by the Holy Spirit.

Look at what God has done, is doing and will do. How blessed we are to be called to play a role in how God is accomplishing these things.

Let us set loose our imagination upon the ways of the Holy Spirit. May God’s Heavenly Kingdom shine in our hearts and may Christ continue to shape our lives, today and ever more.

Amen and amen.