Friday, December 23, 2011

Sermon for 12 24 11; Luke 2:1-20

Rev. George Miller
Luke 2:1-20
“Between Emperors and Angels”
Dec 24, 2011

Ya’ll may remember that when I arrived at Emmanuel UCC in 2010, one of the first sermons I gave was about being an A-Type personality.

There’s no denying that. I am “A” all the way. Not only that, I’m a list maker.

During that first sermon, I asked how many of you were the type of list makers that if you do something that’s not on your list, you write it down and then scratch it off.

Doesn’t it feel good to be in solidarity with others and to know you are not alone?

Well, is it me, or has this holiday season been one long list on top of list on top of list?

The lists of who to buy for, what to buy, and there’s always that one person you forgot?

How many have created a “Countdown to Christmas list?”

The time lines for when to wrap and mail presents, when to send out cards, when to grocery shop, when to take the turkey out of the freezer, when to make certain dishes.

List after list after list after list.

Because of this, how many already feel a bit burned out, tired, and looking forward to Dec 26 when life slows back down?

It’s normal to feel this way, that things are uber-busy, because truthfully that’s part of what’s going on in today’s reading.

Chapter 2 of Luke’s Gospel begins by making reference to a census decreed by Emperor Augustus.

And what is a census after all, but a list of lists?

It’s a government mandated event in which people are to be counted and compiled into where they are from, where they live now, how much they make etc.

By letting us know there was a census taking place, Luke is trying to set the birth of Jesus into a historical, social setting that people could understand.

And if you think about it, this census was more then an ordinary census: it was an event.

What do people need to do to prepare for an event? That’s right- make more lists!

For folk like Joseph and Mary who had to travel about 70 miles by foot or donkey, there were preparations to be made.

Such a trip would require food, water, clothes, shelter, supplies for the animals, all which require packing and planning.

Don’t forget making provisions for people to mind your business, look after your home, water the plants and take in the mail.

You don’t just jump onto a donkey with a pregnant woman and say “Away we go!” No, you plan, you prepare, and you save.

Then there are the people in places like Bethlehem who have to prepare for the return of their family and friends. They’ll be expected to open their homes, to provide meals, and entertain.

For them there’ll be the cleaning of the house, the washing of linens, the fixing up of broken windows and creaky doors.

There’s all the food preparation that will have to take place. Grapes made into wine, grain turned into bread; the planning of the meals, shopping at the market, killing the fatted calf,

figuring out who will sit next to Cousin Moira and where the kids table will be.

Lists upon lists upon lists to plan and prepare!

Let’s not forget about all the local business owners as they plan to welcome hundreds if not thousands of people into town.

The supplies they’ll need to order, the extra staff they’ll have to hire, the stocking of the shelves, the jacking up of prices, making sure they have the latest fashions, spices and perfumes so visitors can buy gifts for their hosts and their friends back home.

Then there is the underground community gearing up to be busy; the pick pockets ready to make a catch, the pool halls and nightclubs, call girls and card sharks.

Bethlehem would have been a busy place with people arriving, people hosting, people selling, people exploiting.

All busy busy, making lists and checking them twice to make sure nothing is missed.

The whole world it seems is moving at a dizzying pace…and this is when and where Jesus enters into their lives.

Not when things are calm and peaceful; not when everyone has had a chance to catch their breath.

But when the government is busy telling the world what to do and the world is busy and alive with movement.

So busy that barely anyone notices the birth of Jesus because they are so focused on their own lists and tasks.

No one that is, except for some poor shepherds who find a way to leave behind their work in the field, for the most important task of all: to glorify the Lord.

…The world was busy when Jesus was born, and the world continues to be busy now…

But for right here, for right now, for all my list makers, planners, worriers, and deep thinkers,

Tonight; tonight
we are to take a deep breath
we are to be present before the Lord; just like Mary and Joseph,
just like the shepherds who came in from their field.

Tonight we are to forget about our lists,
our to-dos
about who will sit next to Cousin Moira
forget about where the kids table will be
forget about what still needs to be done

Tonight we are invited to be still, and to be present and to know that we are about to witness the greatest gift of all:

Emmanuel, which means “God with Us.”

And if you are sitting next to someone you love, someone you trust, I invite to clasp their hand for a second…and just be….

You know, just like back then during the census of Emperor Augustus, there is always so much to do.

Modern marvels like washing machines and e-mail haven’t really reduced the amount of work we have, they’ve just created space for new work.

So why do we continue to rush, rush, rush?

Just like back then, there will always be the rich and powerful among us, like Augustus and Quirinius.

Just like back then, there will always be the poor among us, like the shepherds, Mary and Joseph.

But between them exists an entire world, a world ablaze with light, in which there are angels amongst us, living and heavenly, who point us towards the Lord.

Angels who break through the darkness of night to remind us that there is so much more then what we can imagine or what we think we must do.

Nearly 2,000 years ago, between emperors and angels, between palaces and fields of clover, a baby was born into our world.

His name is Jesus; Christ the Lord,
born to set us free;
born to give us true sight;
born to bring good news and joy to the people,
both the 1 and the 99 percent.

Amongst all the traveling and list making and planning and doing,
what really mattered that night,
what really transpired in the manger,

was that Jesus was born so that our hearts

may sing out,
our minds may open up and
our spirits may be filled with light.

Light that says no amount of darkness,
no amount of worry,
no amount of anything can dim what we have found,

wrapped in swaddling clothes,
crying out to a wounded world
which will eventually cry out to Him.

Tonight, while the rest of the world is busy with lists and politics and commerce and greed, we are called to exist instead somewhere between emperors and angels,

for to each of us, the Christ child is born and we all are given a chance yet again to breath anew.

In conclusion, if you are an A-type personality, like me;

if you are a list maker, as I think many of us are,

tonight is the night for us to let that go,
to surrender to the moment,
and to know that it is a silent night,
a holy night,
in which all is calm,
and all is bright.

And we can leave our lists and our worries for another day.

For that, we can say “Hallelujah!” and for that we can say “Amen.”

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Dec 18, 2011 sermon; Luke 1:26-38

Rev. George Miller
Luke 1:26-38
“Nothing’s Impossible”
Dec 18, 2011

“For nothing will be impossible with God.” I invite you to repeat this with me: “For nothing.” “Will be.” “Impossible.” “With God.”

In many ways we could call this the creed of all biblical creeds. If we were looking for a way of branding the Bible or creating a logo, this could be it.

“For nothing will be impossible with God.” From creation to deliverance to resurrection, this creed, brand, logo is pretty spot on.

It’s something I hold dear; something I refer to in gatherings, committees, and Bible studies; something I believe I have lived.

Let me share with you an example. Years ago, I worked at a summer camp, a small operation that took place in the basement of a small church in a relatively poor town.

Because of this, the children qualified for free lunches that were delivered each day.

One day we ran into a problem. Lunch for that afternoon was chicken nuggets and juice boxes, which for kids is the Holy Grail of food. Trouble is, we had 13 lunch boxes and 19 people to feed.

For a moment, we went into crisis mode; what were we to do? Not have 6 kids eat?

The answer came by recalling the scriptures.

We gathered the children; we were honest about the situation. We then told them the story of the loaves and fishes, and that we should trust that there would be enough food to go around.

We said our prayer, divided the nuggets, the juice, the pieces of fruit and crackers and we ate, and we ate, and we talked, and we joked, and lo and behold, there was enough for all.

Not only that, but the child next to me had a left over chicken nugget and asked if I would like it.

Truthfully, I wasn’t hungry, but I knew that this was a teachable moment: a lesson in hospitality, in which that child felt it was necessary to give me his last chicken nugget.

Therefore it was important for me to receive it with a “Thank you” and an “Hmm-mmm” that indicated it was the best tasting chicken nugget ever.

Impossible to feed 19 hungry people with 13 boxes of food? Not impossible at all, but completely, totally, 100%...possible.

We started with way too little, and through God we ended with more then enough!

Little miracles happen every day, all around, and yet they still amaze and confound.

Yet, if I was to make a confession: in my off time, behind closed doors, in my personal life, it’s a bit harder to live by this notion of the impossibly possible.

When the moments of darkness and doubt enter into my life, I wonder if they will happen.

Like the time I was 25 and figured I’d never make it back to Disney World. Or when I was 28 and certain that I could never afford to go back to school.

Or when I was 39 and afraid that no church would ever be brave enough to call me as their own.

But I am here to remind you, to remind myself, and to remind the darkness that nothing is impossible with God.

That’s what Luke wants us to know.

Luke is the third of the Gospels and it’s one of only two that try to tell us anything about Jesus’ birth.

In fact, Luke goes back to before Jesus is even born. He introduces Elizabeth, an older woman who has lived her whole life unable to give birth.

This is during a time when bareness was seen as brokenness and a judgment from God.

But through God, the impossible happens: she finds out that she is soon to be a mother, and with new life growing in her belly, Elizabeth states “This is what the Lord has done for me.”

But Elizabeth is not the only one in the family to experience the impossible. In another town, lives her much younger cousin, Mary.

Whereas Elizabeth is an older, mature woman from the big city with a white-collar husband, Mary is at what you may call that awkward in-between stage of life.

She’s from the country and has yet to see the world. She’s no longer a girl, but not yet a woman. She lives at home but is engaged to be married, and her husband Joseph; well, he’s blue collar.

If Elizabeth is red wine, Mary would be Pabst Blue Ribbon. Not who you would ever think to be the mother of the Messiah.

Oh, and there is the whole issue of her being a virgin.

And yet…nothing is impossible with God.

For one day, an angel comes to this small town girl living an in-between existence, and calls her the favored one.

And Mary, full of fear, discovers that she will have a boy and he will be called Son of Most High and his kingdom will last forever.

Mary, as you can imagine, says what anyone of us would say if we were in the same situation: “How can this be?”

The angel explains it to her, then to prove that anything-can-happen, the angel let’s her know that Elizabeth is also pregnant, “for nothing will be impossible with God.”

I don’t know about you, but this month I needed to be reminded of that.

In the midst of the republican nomination hullabaloo,

in the midst of my Mom having a car accident,

in the midst of being single yet again for Christmas,

it is sure good, and it is so right, to be reminded that where we are is not always where we will be;

that what we have is not always what we got,

and that no matter what man, no matter what woman, no matter what doctors, economists, scholars say,

nothing will be impossible with God.

I feel like we need to have an amen.

Use a woman who society deems as too old to bring forth new life? Why not?

Use a girl who society deems too young? Sure thing!

It’s happened before, and it’ll happen again.

I love these stories in the Bible, don’t you?

There’s Sarah in the book of Genesis. She’s living her life, doing her thing with Abraham when God calls them to travel to a new land so God can bless the world.

Even though Sarah laughs at the idea of having a child, God reminds her that nothing is too wonderful for the Lord.

There’s David in the book of Samuel. He’s the youngest of 8 boys and treated with little regard, even by his own Father.

He was so young he couldn’t walk with armor and a sword. Yet it is he, with nothing more then a smooth stone and a sling shot, who slew the mighty Goliath and became a mighty king.

And in just a few days, we welcome the birth of Jesus, a poor, homeless baby, born to a young Mary and blue-collar Joseph from an ill-reputed town.

Baby Jesus who will have to use a manger for a bed, who will grow into a man with no known home, no secure job; yet it will be he who will live to reflect the light of God and become the way of our salvation.

Living proof that nothing will be impossible with God, a foundational truth that we find throughout the Bible.

The world may say “No” but God says “Yes.”

The world may say “Not yet” but God says “Yes, now.”

The world may say “No way” but God says “I’ll tell you who is the Way, the Truth and the Light.”

In conclusion, let me be honest and say I still find it hard to live by faith every day and to find the faith to make it through every storm, to make it through every dark night.

But I believe that the words of Luke 1:37 are ultimately true.

After all, looking back I did get to school, I did get called to a church, and yes, I even did eventually get to Disney World.

It may all be coincidence; it may be the result of hard work, but somehow I can’t help but to feel like it was all part of a plan.

But I sure wish that sometimes we could better see God’s plan; I wish that sometimes we could better understand it.

But I know that God has a plan, a redemptive plan not just for you, not just for me, but for the entire world.

And because God does, we can let go of some of our fear, we can let go of some of our worries, we can let the light of Christ shine a little bit more into our darkest places.

Because with God nothing will be impossible.

In Christ, there will be enough chicken nuggets and juice boxes for all.

If you believe that to be so, let me hear you say “Hallelujah!”

If you believe that to be so, let me hear you say “Amen.”

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Dec 11, 2011 sermon; John 1:1-28

Rev. George Miller
John 1:1-28
“True Light, True Love”
Dec 11, 2011

I have news I’d like to share with you. As many of you know, 6 months ago, my cat died unexpectedly of a heart defect. As you can imagine, it threw me into a period of darkness and loneliness.

Death of a beloved animal is hard, especially when living alone, and I’m not the only who lost a pet this year (like Joanne and Elaine). Though it’s not the same as the death of a human, it still involves a period of grief.

Grief is grief, with its own moments of darkness and sorrow, in which joy is unfairly stolen away.

For me it meant packing away his toys, no longer stopping at Petco and coming home to an empty, silent house.

But as of Thursday, there is new life; 2 kittens that I’ve named Sterling and Jesse. Which means that now, the cat toys have come out. Watching them play has brought joy into my house, turning it back into being a home.

Sterling prefers the mouse on a bouncy string, which causes him to do back-flips. Jesse prefers the laser beam, chasing after its tiny dot of light, which is kind of funny, and kind of sad, because it can never be attained.

(As an aside, do you know that Charles Townes, one of the creators of the laser, is a life-long member of the UCC?)

Light plays an important part in the lives of God’s people.

Soon, our Jewish sisters and brothers will celebrate Hanukkah, otherwise known as the Festival of the Lights.

Hanukkah has its roots in a time in which the Temple had been seized by the enemy and the Jews fought back. They won, but in order to resume worship, they had to purify the Temple.

Trouble is, it required burning the menorah for 8 days in which they only had enough oil for one.

In an act of faith, they lit the menorah anyway, and beyond reason, the light burned for not one, not four, but eight days, dispelling the darkness and showing that nothing is impossible for the Lord.

Centuries before, light played a role in the call of Moses. During a time when the people lived under the darkness of slavery, God called to Moses to help set the people free.

The means by which God called Moses: the burning bush. It was through this miracle of light that God spoke to Moses, saying “I have heard the cries of my people and I have come…to deliver them.”

Let’s not forget, the entire Biblical narrative starts with “In the beginning…God said ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw the light was good…”

Creation, deliverance, victory; light plays an important role, as it does in the majestic introduction to the Gospel of John.

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Notice the verb tense of the last sentence. Darkness is referred to in the past tense. But the light; light is stated in the present.

As in now, as in always.

What does it mean to say the light shines? To understand light, we should first have an understanding of dark.

Darkness can represent many things, I’ll suggest three.

Darkness can mean to not know, to be absent of wisdom, to lack facts.

Have you ever been to the hospital or doctor’s office and ask a question in which you get no answer or no one seems to know? It’s like you’re being kept in the dark.

Second, darkness can refer to sin. The things we do that makes us feel separated from God; the things we do that separate us from others; the things we do that separate us from our selves.

Sin can also include the things that others do to us. Sin that breaks down relationships, sin that abuses body and soul, sin that goes against the definition of compassion.

Third, darkness can refer to sadness, the dark clouds that linger over our heads due to feelings of loss, betrayal and loneliness.

All of us carry traces of this darkness wherever we may go, because to be human means to encounter loss and disappointment.

Darkness in the form of uncertainty, sin and sadness are part of all our lives.

But the good news is that darkness does not have power over us, because through it all, there is a light that shines, and that light is the Word, and the Word is Jesus Christ.

Just as God spoke and said “Let there be light”, Jesus Christ is the Word who says “Let there be life!”

And what a life it is!

For if darkness means uncertainty, sin and sadness, then life in Jesus Christ means the exact opposite.

To say that the light shines means that in Jesus Christ wisdom succeeds. In Jesus exists all knowledge and truth, the questions that need to be asked, and the answer to all of our questions.

In Christ our light shines through study and discovery, our minds become open to the ways of God and the possibilities of the Spirit.

To say the light shines means that in Jesus Christ there is forgiveness.

The things we do that we know we should not? We can bring them to our Lord and be relieved of the burden they create.

The moments where we have failed to show compassion or been too afraid to act? We can bring them to the Lord and before we even utter a single word, we are released from the dark grip they have over us.

And because are hearts are illuminated with the Lord’s forgiveness, we are called to share this gift of light with others.

To say the light shines means that as we wonder while we wander, our days are filled with elements of joy.

Joy in knowing that on Christmas day we’ll see Emmanuel in a manger.
Joy in knowing that on Good Friday we’ll see true love demonstrated on the cross.
And joy in knowing that on Easter morn we’ll see that the tomb is empty.

That in Christ, “The Lord has done great things for us” (Psalm 126:3) and joy has a way of bursting through in a multitude of ways, be it family, friends, or even two small kitty cats.

John’s Gospel is a living testimony to the light that we find in Jesus Christ:
the beginning of all wisdom,
the beginning of all forgiveness,
and the beginning of all joy;

Which no amount of darkness can ever put out. Can I get an “Amen”?

Before we end today’s message, a quick little sumthin’ sumthin’ to make you smile.

One day Jesus and Satan were having an on-going argument about who was better on the computer. They had been going at it for days, and frankly God was tired of hearing all the bickering back and forth.

Finally fed up, God said “That’s it! I’ve had enough. I’m going to settle this debate for once and for all.”

“I will set up a test that will run for two hours, and from those results, I will judge who does the better job.”

So Jesus and Satan sat down at their laptops and typed away.

They moused!
They faxed!
They e-mailed!
They e-mailed with attachments.
They sent reports,
They created labels and cards.
They Googled.
They Facebooked.
They Skyped.
They downloaded I-Tunes,
They filed income tax reports,
They created charts and graphs.
They did every tech job you can think of!

Jesus worked with heavenly efficiency; Satan worked faster then hell.

10 minutes before time was up; lightening flashed across the sky; thunder rolled, rain came tumbling down, and of course the power went out.

Everything went dark.

Satan stared at the blank screen and screamed every curse word known in the underworld.

Jesus just sighed and gave a smile of joy.

Finally, the electricity came back on; each of them restarted their computers.

Satan searched frantically, screaming, “It’s gone! It’s all gone! It’s hopeless! I lost everything when the power went out!”

Meanwhile, Jesus quietly started printing out all of his files from the past two hours of work, that smile of joy never wavering.

This made Satan even more irate. “How can this be? All is lost? This can’t be fair! He cheated. How come he has all his work and I have nothing?”

God shrugged and said:

“Jesus saves!”

Yes, kittens are adorable and great to have around; toy lasers can be fun; but they’re elusive, something you can never catch.

If what we are seeking is something attainable, something true, in which light and love illuminates our lives; then it is in Jesus Christ that our joy rests.

Jesus Christ is the Word who always was and always will be. No amount of darkness can ever put out that fact.

And with that, let us say “Hallelujah!” and let’s all say “Amen.”

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11; Dec 4, 2011

Rev. George Miller
Isaiah 40:1-11
“Words of Comfort”
Dec 4, 2011

In our world there is so much uncertainty. Everything can hang on such a thin, breakable string: finances, health, family dynamics, government.

With so little to be sure of, the season of Advent brings with it the assurance that through it all, a child will bring hope to the hopeless, and rest to the restless.

In other words, comfort.

But first, a story: at Dot’s Diner, a family arrived to have a meal. As the mother placed her son, Erik, in his highchair, she noticed how everyone else seemed to be eating and talking quietly.

Suddenly, Erik squealed with glee and said “Hi!” He pounded his fat baby hands on the highchair tray. His eyes crinkled with laughter and his mouth was a toothless grin. He wrinkled and giggled in merriment.

The mother looked around to see the source of his joy: it was an old man who had clearly seen better days: his shirt was dirty, his hair uncombed, his toes poked out of would-be-shoes.

He waved to the baby. “Hi there, big boy. Hey there, baby. I see you buster.”

The mother and father exchanged looks, not knowing what to do. Erik continued to laugh and say “Hi!”

When their meal came, the parents ate as fast as they could. The old man continued the conversation with the baby: “Do ya patty cake? Do ya peek-a-boo?”

At this point everyone in the restaurant was glaring at the man; nobody thought this man was cute. Nobody that is, except for Erik.

With their meal finished, the parents headed to the door. The father went to get the car. The mother took Erik to meet him at the door.

The old man sat poised between them and the exit. “Lord,” she thought to herself, “Just let me out of here before he speaks to us.”

As she drew closer to the man, she turned her back so she could avoid breathing in his smell. But as she did, Erik leaned over her arms into a baby’s “pick-me-up” position.

Before she could stop him, Erik had propelled himself into the old man’s arms.

Suddenly a ragged man with would-be-shoes and a young child with a face full of giggles were in full embrace.

The baby, in an act of total trust and love, laid his tiny head upon the man’s ragged shoulder.

The man’s eyes closed, and tears hovered beneath his lashes. His aged hands, full of grime and pain, cradled the baby’s bottom and stroked his back.

The mother stood awestruck.

The old man rocked and cradled Erik in his arms and he looked at the mother and said “You take care of this baby.”

Somehow, she managed to say “I will.”

He handed Erik back to her and said “God bless you, ma’am; you’ve given me my Christmas gift.”

She could say nothing more then muttered thanks. With Erik in her arms she ran to the car, crying “My God, my God, forgive me.”

That day, the mother and the patrons at the diner had witnessed God’s love made known through the innocence of a tiny child.

A child who showed love with abandon, who passed no judgment, who saw a person while all the others saw raggedness and stench…

“Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God.”

These words speak to us today, just as they did to the people of Israel almost 3,000 years ago.

These are words spoken for people who had experienced great shame and uncertainty.

They were sure that God had forgotten about them. Their lives had become a series of trials in which they felt beaten up by life, stuck in an eternal wilderness of loss and anxiety, punished for their sins.

But in this sense of spiritual darkness, comes a voice. A word of hope and encouragement; a powerful proclamation that God was about to do something new.

The people of Israel were about to be delivered, God was going to make for them a way in their wilderness in which obstacles would be removed and their emptiness filled in.

This word that came filled with mystery and hope was “comfort.”

“Comfort, O comfort my people.”

Not comfort based on high hopes or wishful thinking, but comfort based on God’s promise of steadfast love; a covenant given to Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Moses; a promise enthroned with King David and enlarged to include all of the people.

God speaks words of comfort that assures them that as ragged and worn-down as they may appear, they have been claimed as God’s own, an intimate bond that no bit of human drama can erase.

And these words of comfort are words that are spoken again and again, because they are words that are eternal; they are words that are true.

For us, as Christians, these are words that find their ultimate manifestation in the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God With Us.

So although these words were spoken to others long, long ago, and far, far away, they speak to us today.

This Advent we prepare for that gift of comfort, of experiencing once again how God claims us as God’s own, through a child born on Christmas morn.

That though we each have our own share of wildernesses, shame and anxiety, we know that our restoration rests in Christ our Lord.

And that although comfort may not be instantly experienced or solve all of our dilemmas, we realize that through Christ, God has entered into our wilderness.

Together we are gathered to be fed and lead, to be carried gently by the same one who has embraced us, to experience the forgiveness of our sins and the freedom that comes from the awareness.

Advent is about us hopefully waiting for the promise to be fulfilled (as it will be) in a savior who begins as a baby, meek and mild.

That is the meaning of this season: the gift of a child, the promise of a King; one who will feed the flock, one who will govern over a new kind of kingdom where we are seen, and we are loved.

Advent is about the fact that through God there is yet again hope for the world, and that hope comes in the comfort of a child who will reach out to us with laughter and giggles, who will offer us joy and give us rest.

And yes, it does not stop our world from being filled with so much uncertainty. Everything may still seem to hang on a thin, breakable string.

Yet even with so little to be sure of, this Advent season brings with it the assurance that through it all, a child, a babe, will bring hope to the hopeless, and rest to the restless.

In other words, comfort.

Comfort in knowing that God has not forgotten us, that in the Holy Spirit we have been gathered together, and in Jesus Christ we are each compassionately embraced.

For that we can all say “Hallelujah!” and an “Amen!”