Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46; given on Nov 20, 2011

Rev. George Miller
Matthew 25:31-46
“The Story Everyone Should Know Pt II”
Nov 20, 2011

If you’ve worshipped with us the last few weeks, you may have picked up on the fact that there’s been a theme of sorts running throughout the morning messages; a theme that can be called “The Body Politic.”

First, we looked at Joshua 3 and talked about the feet of our ancestors. Then we explored Psalm 90 which asked God to prosper the works of our hands.

Last week we studied Ephesians 1 which talked about the eyes of our hearts and the Body of Christ.

It all culminates today in a reading from Matthew which is explicitly about taking care of the bodily needs of others.

My sermon title makes the bold claim that this is a story everyone should know; because quite frankly, it is; and it’s an important part of our U.C.C. heritage.

But first, a story of another sort:

Last week, my friend in Missouri told me that he attended a church in which the minister was giving a passionate speech against the evils of alcohol.

As he came to the end of the sermon he was on a role. With powerful emphasis he said “If I had all the beer in the world, I’d take it and pour it into the Mighty Mississippi River.”

“If I had all the wine in the world, I’d take it and pour it into the river.”

And finally, shaking a fist into the heavens, he said “And if I had all the whiskey in the world I’d take it and pour it into the river!”

With a rousing “Hallelujah!” and “Amen!” from the congregation, the pastor proudly sat down, knowing he had made a point no one, not one, could argue against…

…ever so cautiously, the Minister of Music stood up, and with a nervous smile, she announced, “For our closing song, let us turn to hymn 365, ‘Shall We Gather at the River.’”

Have you noticed that when it comes to organized religion, there seem to be two ways to use Christianity?

Some, like the preacher in the story above, uses it to judge and condemn others, to tell them what they should not do; placing emphasis on what they perceive to be evil.

For them, Christianity becomes a check list of things “tho shall not do.”

Then, there is the other side of Christianity which is not so much about condemnation, but about showing compassion and care.

It’s less about monitoring the moral lives of grown folk and more about how to be caregivers to a world that is often feeling lost and lonely, broken and sick.

Today’s reading does have perceived images of judgment, but as I read it (and perhaps you do too), I feel it to be more about what we can do and what Christ expects to be done.

So why is this a story that everyone should know? First off, this has played a major role in shaping our denomination.

If you recall, the United Church of Christ is composed of at least four denominations that came together in 1957. The four branches were the congregational, the evangelical, the reformed and the Christian.

While the congregational side was primarily the Pilgrims and Puritans who settled along the east coast, the evangelical side was German and Swiss, settling in places like PA and Missouri.

They had experienced severe persecution in their homeland. When they came to America they embraced an irenic, peaceful nature.

They also embraced Matthew 25, allowing it to guide their faith. And guide it did.

Caring more about the pastoral then preaching side of ministry, they set to work creating social institutions that benefited all peoples. They explored new ways that Christ’s love could be made manifest.

Travel through Missouri and you’ll see the compassionate legacy they left behind: residential homes for people living with developmental disabilities that treated them as people, not things.

Retirement communities that empowered its residents to live fully and surrounded them with the things that make life good.

Instead of focusing only on building churches, they built hospitals, community centers, and schools, such as the seminary I attended.

They did all of these things based on their understanding of Matthew 25.

I wonder how much of their faith stemmed from the fact that they knew what it was like to be judged and persecuted.

Matthew’s church also new a bit about being judged. After all, they were doing something entirely new. What we call “church” basically began with them.

Most of them were born in the Jewish faith; chances are they had been kicked out of the synagogues for what they believed. With no real road map, they were trying to figure out what it meant to follow Jesus Christ.

So it’s very telling that Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats is placed where it’s placed. As one author stated, it’s as if everything in Matthew’s Gospel has been leading up to this.

For 25 1/2 chapters we have followed Jesus, seeing how his ministry begins, witnessing his teaching, his healing, and his miracles.

And then right before he is betrayed, Jesus teaches this one last story, a story that tells us that when we give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, and comfort to the ill and imprisoned, we are actually doing it to Jesus himself.

And as the story goes, in doing so we are the inheritors of the Kingdom even if we are not fully aware of what we were doing.

What is so interesting is that right after Jesus teaches this story, the exact opposite happens to him.

He is betrayed by one of his own flock. He is falsely arrested, mistreated, abused and mocked, stripped naked, and hung between two criminals where he hungers and thirsts, asking why God would have forsaken him…

…but the story doesn’t end there, does it?


Because 2,000 years later we are here, giving thanks that Jesus was not forsaken at all, but was raised by the God Most High, in which nothing is impossible…

So why do I make the bold claim that this is the story that everyone should know?

Because it impacted Matthew’s church.

Because it shaped our denomination.

Because it’s a story about how we are to treat one another.

Not because we must, but because we may.

Not because we’re seeking heaven’s reward but because no one alive should experience hell on earth.

Not because we’re seeking to earn points with Christ, but because by caring for the least of these we are actually caring for Christ.

Not because we want the world to know us by what we say, but because God wants to recognize us by what we do.

Not because we desperately want to be part of the Heavenly Family but because we already are; created by God, restored in Christ, and filled with the Holy Spirit.

In conclusion, let me end with another story:

The other day I was on the Circle, enjoying lunch outside. There was this driver who stopped for a man at the crosswalk even though he could have blazed on through.

Well, this infuriated the woman behind him. She was tailgating, honking her horn, screaming out her window in frustration, and flipping him a few choice signs.

Next thing I knew, while she was in mid-rant, a very serious looking police officer was tapping on her window.

The officer asked her to exit the car with her hands up. She began to beg and plead and wonder what was wrong, but he placed her in handcuffs and had her sit in the back of his squad car.

A few minutes later, after a rather lengthy conversation on his cell phone, the officer released her with an apology.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said in that wonderful southern manner, “When I pulled up behind your car I saw you blowing your horn, yelling out the window and flipping off the guy in front of you.”

“And when I noticed the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ bumper sticker, ‘Choose Life’ license plate, and ‘Follow me to Sunday School’ decal with the Christian fish on it, well, I just figured you must have stolen the car!”

Members and friends of Emmanuel UCC, we don’t need bumper stickers or decals or license plate holders to declare our faith if our actions, our hands, our feet, are already doing it.

So let us continue to move forward in faith and in action, displaying the eyes of our hearts and allowing the Lord to prosper the compassionate works of our hands.

For that, let me hear a mighty “Hallelujah!” and a grateful “Amen.”

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sermon for Nov 13, 2011; Ephesians 1:15-23

Rev. George Miller
Ephesians 1:15-23
“The Eyes of Your Heart, the Head of Our Church”
November 13, 2011

Two weeks ago, I ended the sermon by saying “…with compassion, we have the chance to go from here to there with feet of faith that moves us forward into feats of faith.”

Last week, we explored Psalm 90, which ended with this line “Let the favor of the Lord God be upon us, and prosper for us the works of our hands- O prosper the work of our hands!”

In other words, compassion moves us ahead to do feats of faith, and the Lord allows our hands to bear fruit.

I invite you to take a look and to see just a token of how good God is (points to all the donated food in front of the altar).

What more needs to be said? Some times words do not matter.

Look with the eyes of your heart to see what we have done with compassionate hands as the Body of Christ.

Faith and action.

Don’t you think that this part of Ephesians could have been written to our church, to our entire denomination, this week?

A body of Christ that found a way to say “no!” to death and “yes!” to life through writing letters, offering financial gifts and donating a multitude of food items.

“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you…”

That’s how today’s scripture begins.

Pay attention to how the writer knows about the people’s faith and action. It’s not by newspaper advertising, not billboards, not by witty slogans.

Through word of mouth: “I have heard”, which means that people were talking.

Word was getting around town that here was a group, a collective Body of Christ, that wasn’t just speaking a good game, they were living it.

And of course, people will talk if you give them something to talk about. Let me give you an example.

I am a stickler for customer service. I won’t purchase an item if I’m not happy with the way the employees treat me or do their job.

But if I get great customer service, I will go out of my way to go there and spend my money.

Just this Monday, I woke up with a craving for a Spinach Florentine bagel, which you can only get at Einstein Brother’s Bagels, which is located in Winter Park.

90 miles away.

So I called them to find out what time they were open until. I got in my car and drove there with a stack of books to work on today’s sermon.

Let me tell you about my experience:

One: when I got there I was warmly greeted by the staff.

Two: they recognized my voice from the phone call hours ago.

Three: before they closed their doors for the night, the manager came over to me with a bag containing their two remaining Spinach Florentine bagels, because she knew how much I like them.
Not only did she give them to me for free, she did so with a smile in which her heart showed through.

What more could a person want then to know they were heard, they were remembered and they were cared for?

Because of these things, I will go back, again and again.

“I have heard of your faith…and your love toward all the saints.”

Out of curiosity, how many here first came to Emmanuel U.C.C. because of what they heard?

…Faith and action, based on compassion…

Today is our Annual Meeting. It’s the time when we gather to embrace our congregational polity and to vote on important issues like budget, by-laws and to elect council members.

Today’s reading reminds us that how we vote and what we decide should not be based on our own wants, our own agendas, or our own fears.

How we vote today should be done with the eyes of our hearts which are enlightened with the knowledge of what our riches are.

Not riches based in silver and gold, but riches that come from the Holy Spirit:

Wisdom and faith; healing and love.

How we vote today should be done with eyes of our hearts that are enlightened with the greatness of God’s power.

A power that created the world, a power that parted the Red Sea, a power that raised Christ from the dead.

How we vote today should be done with eyes of our hearts that are enlightened with hope.

Hope that knows the future doesn’t hinge on us, but in Jesus Christ who has claimed victory over all rule and authority, for all things are already under Christ’s feet.

Ultimately, what the author of Ephesians is reminding us today is that not only does Emmanuel U.C.C. belong to Christ, but it is his church, we are part of his body.

Therefore, however we vote, whatever we decide to do, is to be done with the eyes of our hearts, with a wisdom based on the knowledge that we are part of the Universal Body of Christ.

Emmanuel United Church of Christ: today is the day for us to remind the community what being part of the Body of Christ means.

Let the eyes of our hearts reflect the riches, the power, and the hope which we have found in Christ.

Let the eyes of our heart assist the Holy Spirit in the direction God is ready to take us.

Let the eyes of our heart play a part in our own reputation: what people will do, what people will say, what people will hear.

Let our feats of faith and work of our hands prosper and give testimony to the fact that we do indeed have a passion for God, and compassion for all people.

With that, let us all give a big “Hallelujah!” and a powerful “Amen!”

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Sermon from Nov 6, 2011; Veteran's Day Service; Psalm 90:1-6; 16-17

Rev. George Miller
Psalm 90:1-6; 16-17
“The Eternal Dwelling Place”
Nov 6, 2011

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” That’s the opening line of today’s psalm. When I first read it, I found great comfort; the notion of God being our eternal dwelling place.

But when put in context of the entire song, conflicting thoughts emerged.

Why would someone claim that God has been their home? Could it be that perhaps the person who wrote this is homeless?

Could it be they’ve been wandering around some kind of wilderness, waiting for a permanent place to rest their head?

Think about it: would a person who is already home in a secure place need to make the theological claim that God is home?

Or would it make more sense if that person is far away, far from momma’s homemade cooking, far from learning how to fix things with Dad, far from their beloved pets?

A person who is far from home, in a strange place, may just be the kind of person who calls God their dwelling place.

They may also be the kind of person who thinks about things like the anger of God, the sins we all harbor, and how our lives are too short and filled with too much toil.

And to what end? That we die, like a sigh, to become dust that gathers in the house of God?

These are the thoughts that fill Psalm 90. “How long?” the singer asks God. “How long?”

So, if we go back to the first line of the psalm and reread it, we can ask ourselves if it is designed to be words of comfort, words of distress, or words that are designed to remind God just what it means to be God.

Perhaps it’s all of these things; perhaps it is none.

Perhaps you’ll agree with me that regardless, this is an appropriate scripture to share for today’s Veteran’s Day service.

Can’t you imagine these words being composed by one of our men or women oversees right now? Or something one of our own veteran’s could have written?

That someone in the wilderness, always changing location, always in fear of being attacked, could write this?

That someone who knows their entire life can be ended by a bullet or a suicide bomber could write about bodies returning to dust?

My father could have been one of those men. Let me share something with you, the most emotionally valuable thing I own.

It’s a Bible that’s been in my family for three generations, passed down from 1st born male to 1st born male, used to mark an important transition in each life.

My father gave it to me in 1990 when I left for college. His father gave it to him in 1968 when he left for Vietnam.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned the true story of this Bible. When my father was oversees, his unit was the victim of a roadside bombing.

It killed my father’s friend, it wounded my father. Shrapnel throughout his body; a permanently damaged left eardrum.

In fact, the enemy (for lack of a better word), came and stripped my father of everything he had and left him for dead in the dirt on the side of the road.

Everything that is, except for this Bible.

My Dad received the Purple Heart and he returned home to start a family. Like many veterans, he carried deep wounds from the war, both physical and psychological.

I find comfort in knowing that even though he was left for dead, the Living and Eternal Word of God remained by his side.

It’s Veteran’s Day this week, and this can be a complex day to process. Traditionally, our denomination has been more of an irenic, peace based denomination.

This leaves space for theological debate: do we, as a church, as the Body of Christ, acknowledge the day or do we ignore it?

Do we use this day as a chance to go “Rah, rah! America, we’re number One!!!” or to give an anti-war message?

I personally believe that no matter where we stand as individuals, it is important that we acknowledge the unselfish dedication of what our veterans have done.

And to realize that in order for them to defend our homes, or the homes of others, they had to leave their own home behind.

What is home? In an idealized sense, home is where compassion begins, where we learn how to say “please” and “thank you.”

Home is where we discover that we are loved, we are forgiven and we are part of something bigger then ourselves.

If you are lucky, home is the place in which you are welcomed “no matter who you are and where you are on life’s journey,” and welcomed back when you have strayed.

It’s those places our veteran’s left behind for months and for years. For many, God would become the only home they could count on, even if they had to wonder “how long?” and about the toil of human life.

For the men and women who served in the military, that time in the wilderness is over. But soon our current soldiers will be coming back.

Some will return with post traumatic stress over what they’ve endured and feelings of guilt over what they have done.

Coming back with eyes that have seen death, ears that have heard gun-shots, bellies that have had their fill of bitter coffee, and questions about if God could truly exist after all they went through.

We will have to discern how to respond. But we won’t discern it alone. For after all, we have the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and guidance from this book.

And we have Jesus Christ as our example of how to respond.

What do you think Jesus Christ would want us to do for our returning soldiers?

Show compassion.

How do we do that? Provide space to hear their stories with empathy, not judgment.

Offer forgiveness for whatever they feel they’ve done that went against their nature.

To help restore their eyes so instead of seeing danger all around, they can once again enjoy a sunset over Lake Jackson and groves of fresh oranges.

To help restore their ears so instead of explosions they can hear the songs of returning birds, the croaking of frogs, even the love calls of gators.

To feed them so instead of powdered eggs, they can enjoy grits and fried green tomatoes and Mama’s homemade pecan pie.

As a church, we can welcome them home; this home. Where Goes does indeed exist.

Where they will be met not with the threat of surprised attacks but by friendly folk, where they can sing, listen, worship, volunteer and be part of something healing.

In closing, the psalmist referred to God as the eternal dwelling place. Did such a statement come from a place of comfort or a place of distress?

Is it a statement that our veterans, our men and women currently oversees can claim?

We are thankful for those who served their homes oh so bravely even when it meant leaving their own.

Let us make sure to welcome back our men and women who will soon be coming home.

Not just home as the place where they live, but home, as in here, a holy house in which the Trinity dwells in harmony.

Until the day when peace prevails, when the lion lays down with the lamb and swords are turned into plowshares, let us learn how to call upon our Lord, who is now, and forevermore, our eternal dwelling place.

Our home.

For that, let us say “Hallelujah” and “Amen.”

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Sermon from Oct 30, 2011; Joshua 3:7-17

Rev. George Miller
Joshua 3:7-17
“The Feet/Feat of Our Ancestors”
Oct 30, 2011

Show of hands: how many people here are honest to goodness history buffs?

How many would say they are on the opposite side, so much so that sometimes you forget that July 4th is our nation’s day of independence and not just a chance to enjoy bbq?

I myself fall more into the second group, but if I was to justify it, I’d say it means that when I come across certain bits of information I find it exciting.

Take for instance; did you know that it wasn’t until 1534 that a version of the Bible was released in a language other then Latin, meaning that people other then priests could finally read it?

Or that women did not get the right to vote in America until 1920; 1971 in Switzerland?

Or that interracial marriage was illegal until 1967?

Years from now, our descendants will say “Can you believe it wasn’t until 2009 that the first black person was elected President?”

All of these things are revolutionary; we can look at a specific moment in time and say that there was a before and an after.

That there was a way in which things used to be done and a way they are done now.

On paper, such things can give the impression of an easy transition. But that is rarely the case. Usually there is some type of symbolic river to cross.

Often times things that we take for granted, like being able to read the Bible on our own or women having the chance to vote, came about thanks to the actions of those who paid a great price.

Sometimes it can take a long, long time to get to the other side of the river; so we should give thanks to those who faithfully took those steps forward, knowing they were not always easy.

Take for example today’s reading.

40 years ago the ancestors were freed from slavery. Through the leadership of Moses and the mighty acts of God they were lead across the Red Sea waters.

They entered the wilderness where they cried out for food and water and discovered that God could and would provide both.

They camped out on the mountain side where they were given the Law, taught the commandments and experienced first hand how God’s grace could even lead God to change His mind.

And at one point they were poised to enter the Promised Land. The ancestors were right on the cusp of true freedom, when they became scared (Numbers 13-14).

As the story goes, they had sent out spies to check out the land of Canaan, the place the Lord had been leading them. These spies came back with their report.

The good news is that there is milk and honey and everything a person could want.

The bad news is that the people there were different, and they appeared strong.

And though God had promised them the land, though God had performed amazing deeds of deliverance and grace, the ancestors were scared. This lead to people to rebel.

They cried and they wept; they complained that it would have been better to die in slavery; that they should turn back around.

This saddens Moses. It saddens one of the men named Joshua who says to the people “Don’t listen to their fearful reports, the land is good. God is pleased with us. Do not be afraid: we are on the verge of being blessed.”

But the ancestors were afraid; they threatened to kill anyone who tried to move them ahead.

This angers God. God feels hurt and despised, and because of their unbelief no one from the original group is allowed to make it into the Promised Land; no one that is except for Joshua’s family.

So for 40 years the people wander the dessert; for 40 years they struggle, they live, they die, they wait, never to experience the paradise God had wanted to give them.

It is not until the next generation comes along, one no longer tied to bondage and the old fears. And then it becomes time for the people to finally enter the Promised Land.

God gives clear directions to Joshua and the priests and the people follow.

The priests carry the arc of the covenant into the Jordan River and when the soles of their feet rest in the river, the water stops flowing, and a path of dry ground is created for the people to journey across to the other side.

And they all do so, without a hitch, without complaint, without a quarrel, without a “what if?’ or a “woe is me.”

(Perhaps that was the greater miracle then the water stopping.)

The result: after 40 long years they are wilderness travelers no more; they are people of the Promised Land.

That’s how it is sometimes, isn’t it? The things we fear the most, or have been taught by others to fear, are sometimes nothing more then simply crossing a river, trusting that God will keep us dry.

Like allowing women to vote or people of different races to marry.

It took trust in the Lord. To reference last week’s sermon, it required faith and action.

To get from here to there took courage.

For the last few days, via e-mail, members of Council have been discussing the concept of courage.

Images of courage occur throughout the stories of our spiritual ancestors; stories designed to show us how to find and to have courage in the Lord.

As Christians, our ultimate example of courage would be Jesus Christ.

This is perhaps another way for us to look at and experience Jesus. That he was a man of courage.

Jesus showed courage by not being afraid to fraternize with those who were seen as “not one of us.” He wasn’t afraid to reach out to those who were seen as different.

He wasn’t afraid to be close to or touch the hands of someone who was sick.

He was willing to be seen talking with those of questionable morals or those deemed too dangerous for society.

For example the woman at the well who had been married many times before and was living with a man who was not legally hers. (John 4)

For example, the man possessed by demons who was left in a grave yard naked, chained and alone because people feared him. (Mark 5)

These are but two people who had an encounter with Jesus in which their lives began here, but through their experience with Jesus ended up being there, spiritually, physically, socially.

Jesus, like Moses, like Joshua, was a person of faith, a person of action.

He was a person who showed courage by reaching out to folks when the world around them would not.

Where did this courage come from?

His relationship with God. His understanding of the Spirit of the Law.

I would also like to say from his sense of compassion.

Compassion meaning love and mercy, grace and kindness.

Compassion means to look upon someone and not judge them but to say “I can only imagine what you’re going through.”

I believe compassion is one of the means through which Jesus found the courage to reach out to people who felt lost in their own wilderness and lead them into a variation of the Promised Land.

The woman left alone at the well to gather water became the one who went out into the community and gathered people for Christ.

The man left naked and alone, finally clothed and healed enough to return home.

And because of the resurrection, Jesus is still present to us today, blessing us and showing us how to do our own courageous acts of compassion.

In conclusion, the feet of the ancestors from oh so long ago led us out of the wilderness, and into the Promised Land.

And the feat of our ancestors is that although they were often afraid and unsure, they eventually learned how to trust the Lord, and in trust, they were able to move forward in faith and action, grace and compassion.

We too are following in the feet of our ancestors.

Some are the ancients who came long ago. Some are our immediate relatives.

Some are those who helped to shape the denomination, those who worked hard to build this specific church; some of who are even amongst us today.

Regardless if they knew it or not, what they did and have done took courage, courage based on compassion and an understanding of God’s grace and love for all.

Each person, each community, each nation has a moment in which they come to their symbolic river and are invited by God to cross over into something wonderful, something new, and yes, perhaps even something scary.

But may none of that stop us from getting our own feet a little wet, trusting that in God the path ahead will by dry.

And with compassion, we have the chance to go from here to there with feet of faith that moves us forward into feats of faith.

For that, let the people say “Hallelujah!” and “Amen!”