Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Sermon for June 23, 2012; 2 Corithians 6:1-13

Rev. George Miller
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
“Ears of the Heart”
June 23, 2012

Anyone who’s attended Emmanuel UCC over the last two years has heard me admit that most preachers only have 3-4 sermons that they repeat again and again.

Anyone who’s been truly listening knows that many of my sermons are about overcoming life’s obstacles.

I’ve preached about the wilderness, chaos, and the storms we survive.

Last month at our Staff Meeting I stated that I was done preaching about those things; that instead I wanted to focus on the sunshine moments of our lives.

Well, there’s an old saying that goes “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.”

I think God has been laughing a lot at me, and I’m not sure if I like it.

If you read my most recent K.I.T. you know the things that have been going on. My 49 year old neighbor was found dead, it was the anniversary of my cat’s death, Ruth W. is in Good Shepherd Hospice, Richard was taken to Palm Beach to have his aorta valve replaced, I was asked to pick up Carol’s ashes, and we had her funeral yesterday.

When it rains, it pours, which it has been literally been doing for the past few days.

Whenever we have a funeral for someone like Carol who was active in the community, we get lots of folk from other churches, and we get to hear a plethora of theologies that we may not always agree with.

One theology I heard yesterday was that our mortality is under God’s control. That we die when God decides it is time for us to die.

I don’t totally believe that train of thought. When people said Carol’s death was in God’s time, it made me think “Really?”

Did God really look upon Carol as she was driving down Manatee and say “Now is her time”? Really?

The day after Carol discussed Hurricane Preparedness, the Feed My Sheep Jeep and a back-to school drive was the day God decided it was best for Carol to die?

And in the way she died, in a car accident, in an event that has forever changed the life of another driver who is still in his 20’s?

If that is God’s version of grace and time, then God has a lot of explaining to do.

But that’s my own personal feeling, maybe you disagree, or maybe like most of us, you are left wrestling with it all.

As a pastor I encounter a lot of different beliefs that I want to question.

Perhaps the two biggest beliefs deal with what it means to be a Christian and why bad things happen.

There are people who think that in order to be a Christian they have to totally change their lives and they have to be perfect and blameless every day for the rest of their life, which is impossible for anyone who breathes.

These may be the same people that when they feel like they have sinned or done something wrong, they assume they are unworthy to enter the doors of a church.

Then there are others who think that if you are a Christian, bad things will not happen to you, that bad things should only happen to bad people.

So when they or someone they love gets sick or has an accident or a tragedy occurs, they can’t understand it.

The notion that bad things should never happen to good people is not only untrue, but it is also unbiblical.

Throughout the Bible we discover that often time things can become more difficult for a person who is trying their best to lead a Godly life.

You may give your life to Jesus, but there are still trials and temptations and things that go wrong.

For ultimate proof, all you have to do is look at the path that Jesus himself led, and how that path led him right to the cross.

So if Jesus himself, the Son of God, could not avoid trouble in his life, then why do we assume we should?

Still, many assume that only blameless people should attend church and all Christians should have a charmed life.

All the proof we need about the destructive power of these two theologies is to simply look around at the empty seats we find in not only our church but almost any Christian church.

There are hundreds of people who have decided they could not go to church today because of these beliefs.

And in believing they can not attend a house of worship, they miss a chance to hear about the never-ending grace of God and the ever-present compassion of our Lord.

Thank God there is always another Sunday to go and hear the Good News.

So, last month I had hoped I could spend less time talking about life’s storms, but it is hard to avoid when life happens. That’s in part what is going on in today’s reading.

Paul is writing a compassionate letter to the church in Corinth. He is trying his best to help them realize the amazing gift of grace they have received.

But closely read this letter and you can sense some of the anxiety Paul himself is feeling about his life and ministry.

He writes about the afflictions he has endured: beatings, arrests, hunger. And he’s not making this stuff up; you can read about them in the Book of Acts.

Here is Paul, who had his own personal experience with the resurrected Christ, sharing that he too has had sleepless nights.

It’s comforting to hear that even he, as religious as he was, could experience such things.

But the trick is that he does not blame God for them. He doesn’t assume that his new found faith will equate a care-free life.

What he does instead is find a way to focus on what his faith in Jesus has allowed. He has discovered that day after day we are all given a chance to make a change.

That there are gifts to be received from the Holy Spirit. He finds that even in the midst of his storms there are moments of knowledge and patience, power and truth, holiness and kindness.

There is the grace of God, and in Christ there is life even in the midst of death.

And because of this, Paul encourages the church to open their hearts. To receive God’s grace and to hear the Good News that is being shared.

I like this message that Paul is bursting to share; I like this news that in Christ, we are not alone in this thing called life, but that we are together, each supported by one another.

It’s as if all we have to do is to listen with the ears of our hearts, and we will discover the goodness of God.

I believe that Paul would tell us today that trials and tribulations will occur, but we are not left helpless; that through our faith we always have choices on how we can respond.

There are ways in which we can persevere.

Sometimes we find that strength within ourselves. We do the things that give us comfort. Perhaps it is a bowl of popcorn and a trashy reality show.

Perhaps its garage sales, Dove Chocolates and doing things for God’s sparrows.

Perhaps it is prayer, physical exercise or escaping into a good book.

Sometimes we find that strength in the church community, where we learn how to be vulnerable and honest with one another; where we learn to ask for help and to humbly accept assistance.

It is in church where we praise God for what has been done; where we can listen to a word of hope spoken from the scriptures; where we gather in a time of fellowship and mission.

Ultimately, we find our strength in Christ.

In the knowledge that Jesus knew just what it was like to be human, to experience times of temptation, to experience times of scorn, and to walk the daily paths we walk.

Because Jesus lived his life knowing it would eventually lead to the cross, I believe that he too understand the chronicity of life and what it is like to face the reality of death.

And because of this, the presence of Christ is always there for us to draw upon, for us to speak to, for us to claim.

That even in the moments of despair, we can call out to Jesus because he knows just how we feel, and his grace gives us the ability to not only survive, but to find ways to thrive.

In conclusion, in our world there are a lot of theologies. Some are helpful, others are hurtful.

But at the end of the day, we are called to listen to that Still Speaking, Ever-Present voice of God that says “I am with always, until the end of time.”

That voice that assures us that no matter what we face, no matter what we endure, we are not alone, we are not forgotten, we are not victims, but we are victors.

In Jesus Christ, we have been claimed as Children of God, doing the best that we can, living in the face of death, finding joy in a life overflowing with grace.

If we just open up our hearts and listen with ears directed towards God.

In doing so we are rich with what matters; and in Jesus Christ we truly will have “enough.”

For that, we can say amen and amen.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Sermon for June 17, 2012; I Samuel 16:1-13

Rev. George Miller
1 Samuel 16:1-13
“Israel’s Next Top Model”
June 17, 2012

Last week I came across a quote that I’d like to share: “All children are propelled by the need to make themselves whole.”

It’s an appropriate quote for this morning. After all, it’s Father’s Day, we are all children of God, and we each long to fill that space in us that feels incomplete.

Sometimes, no matter how old we are, when tragedy strikes we find ourselves back in a child’s frame of mind, wanting our Daddy or Mommy to comfort us and to tell us that everything will be OK.

I’m sure that’s where many of us were last Sunday when we heard the news that Carol Orth had died. I know I was.

Like I do whenever something painful occurs I went to what gives me comfort: food and TV.

So on Sunday afternoon, after church was over, fellowship and visits were finished, I went back to my house and did what I needed to do: I popped pop corn, poured a glass of iced tea and put on an episode of the cooking program “Chopped.”

“Chopped” is a reality competition that I find reassuring. It follows a structured, set formula in which I can always tell when the next commercial break is about to take place.

Because each episode is basically the same, I was able to zone out, eat my food, drink my drink and safely fall asleep, allowing an escape from the devastating news.

Another reality show that gives me great comfort is “America’s Next Top Model” by Tyra Banks. I’ve been watching it for 8 years now.

One thing I like about that show is the message it gives. Beauty is not based solely on what’s on the outside, but how comfortable the model is with who they are, and the life-force that dwells within them.

Girls who were once made to feel like outsiders because they were deemed too tall or too awkward or too skinny or too curvy discover that those very things are what makes them beautiful and unique.

Therefore, the winner of “America’s Next Top Model” is not always the one who is the most classically beautiful, but usually the unconventional one who has that “je ne sais quoi” or “IT” factor.

That’s basically the gist of today’s story.

The people of Israel have a King named Saul. At first he seemed to have all the right creditentials: tall, handsome, brave.

But Saul has been a complete flop: he disobeys God, accepts zero accountability and just can’t be what the people need.

So a new king is needed to take his place. God sends Samuel to a little hick town to a virtual nobody named Jesse whose family tree is at best non-traditional, filled with foreigners and prostitutes.

But that does not stop God. God is about to do a new thing, and as so often the case, God’s perfect work does not require perfect people.

So what follows is something akin to “America’s Next Top Model”: a runway show in which Jesse’s sons are the participants.

One by one each boy is sent to strut it out before Samuel for inspection.

First down the runway is Eliab, the oldest son with the good looks of Cary Grant and the stature of Michael Jordan.

So impressed by his beauty, Samuel assumes he is the one. But God’s Still Speaking voice says “Na-ah. I’m looking beyond the superficial.”

Next comes Abinadab, followed by the five other brothers, but none of them have that “je ne sais quoi” that God is looking for.

In a situation similar to Cinderella, Samuel asks Jesse if he has any more sons. Jesse hesitantly states “Well, there is an eighth one; but he’s the runt of the family and we have him out working with the sheep.”

But guess what: it is the eighth born of a no-count family in a no-count town that possesses what God has been looking for.

“That’s the one!” God says to Samuel when David steps up to do his runway walk. “Go, anoint the boy; he will be our new king.”

Logic said Eliab should have been king, but it was last-born David with his earthy ruddiness that is called the chosen one.

The moral of the story? There’s a few; so pick the one you like:

-God does not see the way that we do.
-God does not always do what we expect.
-God’s ways can sure seem odd, but in the end they are always the best.

These leave a few questions for us to ask:

-What did God see in David that did not exist within the other brothers?

-Why was God able to see what David’s own father could not?

We could find some answers by reading ahead to discover that David was strong, steadfast, and spiritual.

He would work hard to unite the people and although he didn’t always do the right thing, he would become the model for the expected messiah.

Ruddy, marginalized, eighth born David kept hidden in the field because he wasn’t deemed worthy enough by his own family.

But wow, oh wow, he was deemed more then worthy enough by his heavenly Father.

In conclusion, perhaps in addition to saying that “God is Still Speaking” we can also say that “God is Still Seeing.”

How many people like David have we passed over in our lives?

People who we assumed were not the right, or obvious or safe choice?

How often have we been more bedazzled by someone’s looks or position then the possibilities they possess or the contents of their character?

I do not know.

But I believe we could do a better job trying to see as our Heavenly Father sees: beyond rank, beyond age, beyond pedigree.

Because when we try to see the world through the compassionate eyes of our Father, we allow ourselves to be surprised by the wonder working ways of the Spirit.

And we get to see one another as beautiful children of God
-each with their own uniqueness,
-each with their very own “je ne sais quoi,”
-each made whole in the eyes of God.

For that we can be thankful and for that we can say “Amen.”

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sermon written for June 10, 2012; 1 Samuel 8:1-22

Rev. George Miller
1 Samuel 8:1-22
“Pay Attention”
June 10, 2012

This evening is the Tony Awards, an event that honors the best of Broadway.

Since moving to Sebring I have rediscovered my inner “theater geek,” listening to the Broadway station on XM radio, seeing plays and volunteering at the Little Theater.

There is something about musicals that allows people to express universal emotions and experiences in a way that resonates.

My favorite Broadway lyricist is Stephen Sondheim who composed such musicals as “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.”

About 25 years ago he did a play called “Into the Woods.” It’s a fractured fairy tale featuring characters from different fables.

One such character is Rapunzel who is kept trapped inside a tower by the Witch.

Rapunzel longs to leave the confines of her prison but the Witch warns her about the dangers of the world, where wolves and humans will try to hurt her; that she is safer kept behind walls.

Yet, Rapunzel longs for her freedom and she finds it in a prince who rescues her. But things do not bode well, as Rapunzel is eventually killed by a giant in the woods.

In one of the play’s most heart wrenching scenes, the Witch sings a song of lament in which she states that children will not listen; that children can only grow from something you love, into someone you loose.

The idea of children not listening to sage advice is a sentiment that any parent can relate to when facing the fears of what waits for their children out in the world.

Yet, if one truly loves their child, their grandchild, their niece or nephew, there comes a time when we have to let them free, even if the risk seems great.

A life behind walls may be safe, but it is no life at all.

This is a bit of what’s happening in today’s scripture.

The people are no longer the slaves of Egypt; they are no longer under Pharaoh’s rule. They have been living freely in the Promised Land for the last 200 years.

They are a unique nation because instead of a king’s throne it is their devotion to God that binds them.

Instead of a monarchy, they have been guided by religious leaders who were anointed by God to protect them.

But it’s no longer enough for them. After 200 years of prosperous living the people want something more. They desire to be like everyone else. And every other nation has a king.

Being led by the Spirit and solely relying on God is not going to do it for them anymore.

So they turn to their current leader, Samuel, and they say “You are too old to lead us and your sons are no good. Give us a king.”

This breaks the heart of both Samuel and God, perhaps Samuel’s more so.

God says to Samuel “They’re rejecting me just as they always have; no matter what I do, they’re never happy.”

“Listen to the people. If a king is what they want, a king is what they’ll get.”

It’s interesting to hear how often the word “listen” is used in this passage.

3 times we have God telling Samuel to listen to the people. 1 time we are told the people refuse to listen to Samuel.

It says something about their relationship.

Listening is a useful trait for one to possess. It’s also a lost art form. Most people just seem to talk and talk.

Get a group of people together, especially extroverts, especially New Yorkers, and you’ll experience overlapping dialogue with no space in-between to actually hear one another.

In school we learn how to give presentations and how to do public speaking. But do we ever teach people how to listen?

To not make comments, to not add in one’s 2 cents; to not justify, fix, or one-up, but to just listen?

The key to earning people’s trust is not the talking, but the listening. The secret to a good job interview is to get the boss to talk and to listen to what she or he has to say.

The key to pastoral visits is to listen to the worries, woes, and the stories that are told.

To listen: which means to be quiet, to be engaged, to put the other person first for a while.

That’s what we see God doing here. The people complain, Samuel prays, but God listens.

Just as God was listening when they were slaves back in Egypt.

Although God is not pleased, God responds to their voices. “Listen to them,” God says to Samuel, “But warn them about what will happen when they do get a king.”

Unlike the Witch in “Into the Woods,” God understands that with love comes freedom. That true love is not saying to someone “The world is too dangerous so I’m going to lock you away forever.”

No, love is saying “I care enough about you to trust you; to give you the best tools I can to help you survive, and to be here when you need me.”

Love is saying “I’d prefer not to see you make a bad choice, but I honor you enough to know that the decision has to be yours.”

That is what God does in this story. The people are warned. The king will be like a ravenous wolf who takes their sons, their daughters and the best of what they got, causing them pain and strife.

But the people do not listen. They do not care. They only want what they want, which is to be like everyone else.

It broke God’s heart, yet God still says to Samuel “Listen to their voices.”

This is a timely story today and every day. In a world filled politicians vying for our attention, with computers and cell phones crowding our ears, I believe that God is Still Speaking.

Even if we are unable or unwilling to hear.

Though we are long past the age of holy men and women ruling our lives, God is still saying “There’s a world out there that will not love you like I do. They will hurt you, use and abuse you.”

“So let me be the head of your life. Let me walk with you, talk with you, and make decisions with you.”

But no matter what, God will not take away our freedom; God will not take away our choice.

God will not lock us away, even if it would seem to be for the best.

Because that would not be love.

In conclusion, I doubt it will ever be possible for us to go back to the way things were, when God and God alone ruled our lives.

We are too imperfect, we are too fearful; we are too enmeshed in political systems to ever rely 100% on the voice of God.

But perhaps, perhaps in our personal lives, in our private lives, we can learn to do a better job of welcoming those moments in.

Those moments where regardless if we are in the woods, or in complete sunshine, we welcome the Still Speaking voice of God, in which we humble ourselves enough to say “OK God, what is it you want me to do.”

And perhaps when we do so, we are able to stop, listen, and wait to hear just what God has to say.

And perhaps if we have enough moments like that in our day, we won’t have to worry so much about the woods.

May the Holy Spirit bless us each this week with a time in which we can listen, and bless our ears for us to hear the Still Speaking voice of God.


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Sermon for June 3, 2012 John 3:1-17

June 3, 2012 Scripture: John 3:1-17 Sermon Title: “From Darkness Into Light” Rev. George N. Miller In the spirit of Pentecost, I feel moved to do something different. Before opening with a prayer, I’d like to share with you something I overhead the other day. I was at the Garden CafĂ© and there were these three men. By the sounds of it, one was Russian, one was American, and the other was a politician. They were arguing over who was the greatest. “We,” said the Russian, rather proudly, “Were the first to go into outer space.” “Big deal,” said the American, rather smugly, “We were the first to go to the moon.” “Who cares; that’s old news,” said the politician. “I’m working with some people to land on the sun.” “That’s preposterous,” the Russian said, “The sun’s too hot.” “You’ll burn up before you even touch down” said the American. “Don’t worry,” the politician said, rather cocky, “Not gonna happen: we’re going at night.” Let us pray… According to John 19:38-42, it was one those moments. A moment in which a person can no longer worry about what others may say or do. The sun was still out. The crowd was still there. Nicodemus and Joseph did not care. After Jesus died on the cross, after the soldiers made sure he was dead, Joseph of Arimathea asked if he could have the body. Usually the bodies were left on their cross for the wild animals to eat, sending a message to other troublemakers. It was unusual for anyone to associate with, let along put in a request for, the body of a crucified man. Yet that’s what Joseph did. Nicodemus was right there with him, carrying a 100 pound mixture of myrrh and aloe. It was a testament to his wealth. It was a testament to his love for Jesus. And before the sun set the two began their work. Usually a man such as Nicodemus would never touch a dead body right before the Holiest Day of the year, but that did not stop him. Nicodemus and Joseph took the spices, applying it to Jesus’ hands: hands that healed the sick, fed the hungry and reached out to the lonely. They took the spices, applying it to his feet: feet that traveled from Nazareth to Jerusalem, from mountaintops to water wells, proclaiming the Good News. When done, Nicodemus and Joseph wrapped Jesus in a linen cloth, filling it with more spices, and then, while still in the sunshine, they placed him inside a brand new tomb. Somehow, even after the violence of the cross, Nicodemus seemed to have lost his fear of what others may say or do. Somehow he was very much in the present; he boldly stepped into the sunshine of righteousness; showing radical hospitality to the body of a man he once visited under the cover of night. And in his actions, Nicodemus helped to set the stage for God’s greatest miracle of all: the resurrection. How did Nicodemus’ story, how did his song, get to this place in time? How did he get to play such a role in our faith? I’ve been thinking this weekend about the notion of change and transformation. About who we are is not who we were, but more often then not who we will be, and who we are becoming. In fact, that notion of transformation, of change, is my favorite aspect of being a minister. Sure, I enjoy preaching on Sunday, I enjoy getting to visit folk and share in a good meal. But what I enjoy, what really seems to feed me, is watching the transformation that takes place in people’s life when they begin to develop a deeper relationship with God. Be it those who attend worship, Council, Bible Study, Sermon Writing classes or the liturgist meetings, I enjoy witnessing the ways in which someone’s life changes because of their experience of Christ, because of the stirrings of the Holy Spirit. But change, good, healthy, real change, does not happen overnight. True transformation is a slow, organic process. It’s subtle, barely there, most especially to the person going through those changes. But week after week, month after month, year after year, it’s exciting to see just how much an encounter with Christ can make all the difference in the person’s words, in their actions, in their very demeanor. In that way, Nicodemus holds a special place in my heart; a hero, if you will. Even though we know very little about Nicodemus, even though he only appears three times in the Bible, it is very easy to see that the man he starts off as is not the man he becomes. So journey with me as we explore the transition Nicodemus makes from darkness into light… The first time we meet Nicodemus is in John ch. 3. We are told that he was a Pharisee, one of the religious power players of his day; a man with a reputation to uphold. Jesus, the new kid on the block, has been stirring up trouble, hanging out with unclean folk, driving vendors out of the temple. What would he do next? Nicodemus wanted to find out, so he pays Jesus a visit. He comes to him at night, a time when the masses would be fast asleep, when no one else would see or know. “Rabbi,” he stated, “We know you’re a teacher who has come from God...” It seemed like straightforward comment, but Jesus responded with what sounded like a riddle. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anothen.” Anothen was a word that had two meanings: it could mean “from above” or “again.” Either way it made no sense to Nicodemus. He took his best shot at trying to understand. “How can an old man be born again?” he asked. Jesus replied, saying that no one can enter God’s kingdom without being born of water and Spirit. Apparently this still didn’t make things clearer for him, so Nicodemus asks “How can this be?” Jesus responded in a way that was perhaps off putting “You’re a teacher, and yet you don’t understand?” For Nicodemus it must have been an odd, uncomfortable moment, one that left more questions then answers. I imagine he left that night, with the moon still in the sky, pondering his secretive meeting with Jesus. The words Jesus used had given Nicodemus no easy answers; it must have left him scratching his head. Anothen? Born from above, born again? Just what did Jesus mean? Yet this late night meeting must have had an affect on him, filling his days with deep religious introspection about Jesus and about God. Though his encounter with Jesus did not provide easy to understand answers, I sense that it was enough to begin replacing his nighttime fears with sunshine fearlessness. Why do I say that? Because the next time we encounter Nicodemus is in chapter 7. He’s no longer operating alone or under the cover of night. The Good Ol’ boys are ticked off at Jesus; they’re working with the police trying to get him arrested. But who is the one person who is willing to stand up for Jesus and speak on his behalf? That’s right: it’s Nicodemus. He finds his voice; he speaks up to his peers: “This is wrong: we don’t have the right to judge people without a fair trial.” Clearly, he no longer feels the need for the masses to be asleep for him to make risky remarks about fair and honest justice. But it’s not easy, because the others quickly turn on him, accusing of being “one of them.” And we all know what that means. Truly, a ray of light was entering into Nicodemus’s life, a beam of sunshine that was a turning point for Nicodemus in which he could never be the same. That can happen when we have an encounter with Jesus… Just like nightfall must transition into the early dawn before the sun can fully come out, our transformations in Christ usually take awhile. After all, Nicodemus didn’t find his own strength overnight. It took 1-3 years for him to go from a secret meeting in the dark to speaking up in public and to anointing Jesus’ body in the day. Just as our own spiritual transformations take time. Sometimes those transformations begin in the sun filled moments of our lives: when we fall in love, when we experience the birth of a baby, when we experience that there is a place for us to belong. Sometimes these transformations begin in the dark moments of our existence, at those points in our lives in which we turn to God, we turn to Jesus and we ask the difficult questions like Why? How? When? Like Nicodemus, we may end up feeling like our questions have gone unanswered or we’ve just received a bunch of jibber jabber. But even if we do not realize it, usually a ray of light has broken into the darkness, a change has begun. These changes are a testimony to the wonderful working ways in which God enters into our lives and changes things around. The ways in which God says “Who you are now is not who you will be or who you are becoming.” The way in which even if we don’t understand, God is speaking to us and we are transformed and ushered into the sunshine in which we have “enough” and we are the recipients of eternal life. …In conclusion, like Nicodemus we all have opportunities to encounter Christ in which we may not fully understand everything, in which no easy answers are revealed. But just like Nicodemus we also have the chance to be born anothen, and over time we find that our lives are transformed, changed, and empowered, making us into who we were always meant to be. Until we take our final breath, our stories are never complete; our songs do not end. For in Jesus Christ we are always growing, always learning, always adding new chapters, always adding new lyrics into our lives. In Jesus Christ we are always moving forward, from darkness into the light. Amen and amen.