Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sermon for Aug 26, 2012; Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

Rev. George Miller
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
“Every Day, A New Day”
Aug 26, 2012

As a Christian, and as a pastor, I continue to wrestle with what the cross and resurrection can mean in our lives. Over the course of my vacation, I have come to discover that both events can be symbolic ways in which we release our past to step into the beauty of our present.

I am reminded of a song that is featured in the Broadway play called “Rent.” Set in New York City during the start of the AIDS epidemic, “Rent” has a scene in which the characters sing these words:

“There’s only us, there’s only this.
Forget regret or life is yours to miss.
No other road, no other way.
No day but today.”

No day but today; it fits perfectly into today’s reading. I like that notion, even if I do not always live by it.

I can easily spend a lot of time in the past while simultaneously worried about the future, allowing today to just slip on by. This seems to be a common part of the human condition.

Which is one reason why I love Sunday worship so much. It’s truly the one hour of the day, one day of the week, where I find myself rooted in the “now”.

During worship I find that my body, mind, and spirit are able to release the past and forget to fret about the future. I wonder how many others feel the same as I do.

No day like today.

That’s also seems to sum up my vacation. I went back to Long Island to perform the wedding for my oldest and dearest friend.

As most of you know, my family is rather disjointed. Many of my relatives died while I was rather young. My mother and siblings are spread out throughout the nation.

It’s been easy for me to boo-hoo about it, define myself by it. But something has happened since I’ve been living here in Sebring; something that you all and my neighbors have taught me.

Which is: family is family, no matter if they are your siblings, your aunt or uncle, your cousins or your cousins’ children.

And friendships, when they are true, have no expiration date, no matter how much time or distance has passed.

So this vacation was not just about a wedding, but about seeing folk I have not seen for 4-10 years.

I spent a night at Aunt Anna’s, who made macaroni and gravy along with her infamous Italian salad. Her children came over, as did her grandchildren. And we spent all night, sharing stories, learning more about family history, getting progressively louder and louder as we each jockeyed for attention.

I visited my Godmother who lovingly berated me for staying in a hotel room when I could have stayed with them. She told me of how she met my mother and became best friends and I met, for the first time, all her grandbabies.

I visited an ex-girlfriend whose son asked if he could call me “Uncle George.” I met with an old college professor and thanked him for all I learned. I met a church friend who played a role in my going to seminary.

I visited the cemeteries where my family members are buried. I shared fabulous meals on the south and the north shore of the island.

In this vacation, I discovered what I’ve needed to know for a long, long time: that as small and dispersed as my family may appear to be, they all love and miss me very much and that I have places to stay whenever I wish to go back and visit.

In many ways, I’ve reclaimed my past, allowing me to embrace my future and to truly live in the now.

In other words, I have discovered that though my family may appear to be small and spread out, they are all “enough.”

And I thank you all for helping me to learn this life-changing lesson. There is indeed no day like today.

This is the message from this morning’s reading, and the message that we experience at both the cross and in the resurrection…

The Book of Joshua was written to address a bleak period of God’s people. They had experienced something called the Exile, in which the enemy had come in, destroyed their homes, destroyed their economy and had taken many of them into captivity.

The people couldn’t understand how such a thing could have happened. Had God abandoned them?

The author of Joshua uses this story to say it wasn’t God who abandoned them; it was they who had abandoned God and failed to trust that God was “enough.”

To make his point, the author refers back to a pivotal moment of Israel’s history. The people had been living in the Promised Land for decades now.

Under the compassionate and effective leadership of Joshua, they had finally come to a time of peace and of rest.

But, as it usually happens, the people had grown complacent; some of them forgetting all the good that God had done for them.

So Joshua gathers all the people for a service of remembrance and rededication to the Lord.

He starts by reminding them of their ancestors. How God took a childless couple and gave them many offspring. How God sent Moses to deliver them from slavery.

How in the face of unrealistic odds, God fought all their battles along side them. How God blessed them and gave them a bountiful land.

In other words, how God has always been “enough.”

So now the people have come to a point in their lives in which they must decide. Are they going to continue to love and revere the Lord in total faithfulness or are they going to worship other gods and give in to the popular way of thinking?

In essence, Joshua is saying to the people “Choose today; choose now. Who will you serve: God or the ways of the world? You can’t do both and be successful.”

The people wisely choose to continue their covenantal relationship with the Source of Life, with the Blesser of Blessings.

But there is an underlying theme to this recollection: that every day we are given another chance to make the same choice.

That every day we are to decide if we are going to follow God or if we are to give in and follow the ways of the world.

Every day is a new day, so every day welcomes a new choice for us to make.

This sentiment is reassuring because what it means is that no matter what has gone on before, no matter what has happened in the past, no matter whatever inflictions we have suffered or have inflicted, we always have a new day to renew ourselves and to make that choice:

To follow ego or to follow God. To live in disbelief or to live in reverent faith.

And as long as we breathe, as long as we walk the face of this earth, we always have another chance to make that choice.

And that, dear friends, is great news, and that is part of what the Gospel is all about.

That regret, that wrong suppositions, that sins and trespasses do not have to have a hold on us. For the Good New is that there is no day but today.

As Christians, we find that everlasting truth through Jesus’ saving actions on the cross and the event of Christ’s resurrection.

One symbolic action of the cross is that it becomes for us the place where negativity can die. The cross is the place where the things that have trapped us, the things that have held us back, can be released.

You know those stories we have told ourselves for too long that keep us stuck? Those experiences we have had that keep replaying in our minds?

Those things we’ve done that we’ve regretted doing that we try so hard to hide?

Those are, in many ways, false gods that we have been worshipping. They are thoughts and ideas that have done us more harm then good.

They are things that have held us back from truly experiencing the blessings of God.

But today they don’t have to. Because today and every day we are given a new opportunity to hand them over the Jesus.

Today and every day we are invited to release them, to ask Jesus to take them to the cross where they can be disempowered.

And when we make the choice to bring our baggage to the cross, we also make the choice to experience our own personal resurrection.

For what we release to Jesus creates space for something new, something exciting, something different to take place.

In other words, because of the resurrection, whatever we hand over to Jesus becomes transformed and becomes a source of new life; an opportunity for new blessings we could not even begin to imagine.

Because of Jesus’ saving action on the cross followed by the good news of the resurrection, we discover that friendships can be mended, families can be restored, mistakes can be forgiven and healing occurs in all different formats.

Through the cross the pain of the past can be buried; through the resurrection the glory of the future becomes ours to embrace.

For myself, I discovered that all my preconceived notions of having no family can be placed on the cross to be resurrected into the realization that I do have family in numerous forms, and regardless of time and distance, I can always turn to them to be reminded that I have “enough.”

In conclusion, in Christ there is no past, there is no regret, there is only today, and with it a new chance for a new start.

And we have the honor of making that choice to let go of the defeatist ways of the world and to dedicate ourselves to God.

And we have that choice not once, not twice, but every day of every week of every month of every year of every decade.

A chance to celebrate all that God has done and to welcome all that God is ready to do.

Because in God, in the Spirit, in Jesus Christ, there is no other path, there is no other way. There is no day but today.

And that, dear friends, is life in abundance.

Amen and amen.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Sermon for 08/12/12 1 Kings 19:1-9

Rev. George Miller
1 Kings 19:1-9
“Bread for the Journey”
August 12, 2012

We’re going to start today’s message by playing a game called “Guess the Number.”

To play is simple: I give the clue, you guess the number and if you guess correctly, I’ll put that number of quarters into a jar to go towards this year’s Global Mission Fair.

First up, in the category of songs, “___ is the Loneliest Number.”

Next up, in the category of classic TV shows, “My ___ Sons.”

Next up, in the category of biblical studies, The ___ Gospels.

Good job, now it the category of Disney Cartoons, “Snow White and the ___ Dwarfs.”

Back in biblical studies, The ___ Commandments.

Excellent, staying in biblical studies, Jesus and the ___ Disciples

Bonus question, returning to Disney cartoons, “___ Dalmatians.”

That should get us off to a good start for next month’s fundraiser.

In today’s reading we got to hear a story about the prophet Elijah taken from what is perhaps the best known and oft-preached about chapter in 1 Kings.

But before looking at today’s scripture, let’s start first with a look at Jesus, more particular his style of ministry.

Jesus, as we know, is fully divine and fully human. To say that Jesus was fully human meant that he shared in the same experiences as you and I do, he encountered and wrestled with the same emotions.

He was hungry when he was hungry, tired when he was tired, laughed when he was happy, cried when he was sad.

Jesus also got to make choices on how he was to live his life, perform his daily tasks and how he would go about doing his work for the sake of God’s Kingdom.

And here’s the cool thing: although he probably could have done everything by himself, he chose to do it with others.

In fact, it can be said that his first act of ministry was to form a community of co-workers.

Be it a group of blue-collar men he called to be his disciples, a tax collector who invited him to supper, or a Samaritan woman he met at a well, Jesus rarely went it alone.

Stop and think about this for a moment. Here is Jesus, Son of God, the Messiah, fully human and fully divine, able to calm storms, heal the sick and feed thousands of people with a loaf of bread.

And even with all those talents, even with all those credentials, he choose not to go it alone, but to invite both men and women into the tasks of ministry, where they walked together, talked together and did the work of God together.

It’s a sign of just how clear Jesus was about his identity and call to ministry.

It’s amazing when you stop to actually think about it. And it’s not hard to figure out why Jesus would choose to work this way.

One, it helped prevent burnout and feelings of aloneness, of being one against the world.

Two, it welcomed the voices, talents and resources of others. It meant there were homes Jesus could gather, places he could use to heal, and food he could share.

Third, by choosing to work with others, Jesus was actually empowering them to go out into the world and do what needed to be done once he was gone.

If Jesus had not done these things, it’s possible the Gospel could have died with him…

Last week we learned that when bread is broken and shared, there is enough. Jesus teaches us that when responsibility is shared, often times the burden becomes lighter.

Talking about burden, let’s go back to today’s reading. Elijah was a powerful, passionate prophet for the Lord.

The ministry of Elijah up to this point has been accomplished almost virtually alone and had seemed, on the surface, to be successful.

For example, right before today’s reading he single handily won a battle for the Lord and defeated a multitude of false priests.

But the trouble is that when someone got angry for what he had done, Elijah was the sole person to take the blame. So with a death threat against him, Elijah runs away.

Far away, into a wilderness, a place so lonely that there’s nothing there but a lone, raggedy, broom-tree to rest under.

Elijah, who has been busy doing church work all by himself, becomes the perfect picture of burn-out.

He’s stressed out, tired, feeling overburdened. This creates a sense of failure and loss of identity.

He asks God to end it all. He feels it is too much and assumes he is alone in his sense of burden.

But he is not alone, is he?

For in verse 6 we have a turning point of the story: God sends an angel to Elijah.

Imagine this heavenly messenger to be like an Italian mother.

She touches him and says “Get up, eat. Mancha.” Before him is bread and water, as if a NY bakery has miraculously opened up in the dessert.

Elijah does, falls back asleep again.

The angel wakes him up a second time, touches him, and says “Elijah, look at you: you’re skin and bones. Go, eat. This will make you strong for the journey ahead.”

Which Elijah does, discovering that now he does have the ability to go on his journey, eventually finding out there are others who are ready to help him do the Lord’s work.

But first, Elijah has to discover that in the midst of this self-imposed wilderness that he is not alone. That he does not have to do it by himself.

That God will not give up on him.

That’s what the angel is there for. In the form of touch, so healing, so reassuring, so clearly stating in a non-verbal way “I AM here.”

In conversation, “Get up, eat, and be strong.” How nice it must have been for Elijah to have someone else give the commands and make the decisions for him.

In empowerment, by the angel’s encouragement that he is to move on.

Elijah doesn’t feel like he can go a step further, that he’s done his part for the Lord.

But instead of enabling him or throwing him a pity party, the angel says “It may feel like that now, but after a good dinner you will find all the strength you’ll need to accomplish your next task.”

Here, we see that it is nothing that Elijah does by himself that allows him to continue or be a success, but what is done with him.

And here we come to a core elemental truth of Christianity: we are a faith that is not meant to be experienced alone. It is not a chore that God wants us to do in solitude.

Christian life is meant to be lived and experienced in community.

Christianity is something we do side by side, it is something best accomplished as a team, nourishing and nudging one another on when it feels as if we’d rather just sleep.

Elijah’s story becomes for us a cautionary tale of what happens when we think we have to do it all on our own. It’s a reminder that singleness can cause distress.

But if we are to follow the ways of Jesus, if we are to be the Body of Christ, we are to help share the burden together; that no one should feel left to bear the entire load.

In conclusion, a pity-party now and then is OK, but what God desires for us is not that we permanently stew in our discontent but that we thrive and be alongside others.

1 can be the loneliest number. But it doesn’t have to be that way, because it takes as little as 2 to be company and for 2 to be church.

And as Christians we are called to support and help one another, as well as to seek out and welcome that support.

In doing so, we are able to grow, able to continue our unique journeys, and to find joy in what we do for the sake of the KINGDOM.

By working together we help to spread the gospel message that through the gifts of the Holy Spirit there is enough,

that God will provide bread for the journey

and that in the Jesus Christ, “No Matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

No matter if we are talking about My 3 Sons, 7 Dwarfs or even if you are Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.

We are all in this together.

Amen and amen.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Sermon from Aug 5, 2012; Exodus 16:9-26

Rev. George Miller
Exodus 16:9-26
“Kingdom Economy”
Aug 5, 2012

In April I attended a two day conference in which one of the guest speakers gave a presentation on this very scripture.

According to him, this is the first lesson that God teaches the Israelites after freeing them from slavery.

Is the lesson about the proper definition of marriage? Is it a thesis about gun control?

No, it’s a lesson about Economy 101: to trust or to not trust God.

But 1st, a true story: as a church pastor I’m considered self-employed, which means I am responsible for paying my own taxes on a quarterly basis.

As a responsible person, I try to set aside the correct amount of money each paycheck; the key word being try. But I’m human, and life happens, and well, sometimes finances can get a little tight during tax time.

I reached a point in May where I knew my taxes for June were coming up, but not all of the money was in the savings account. I had three options: not pay what I was supposed to, pay it and charge my living expenses to my credit card or severely tighten the wallet and make my pennies stretch into dollars.

Wisely, I chose option 3, creating a next-to-impossible budget, saying my prayers and trusting that somehow I would survive.

I did pretty good combining pantry items in ways I had never thought of before, making my groceries stretch as far as possible.

Then one day I visited a parishioner; we had a pleasant visit, talking about this and that. When I was ready to leave, the parishioner asked if I liked Omaha Steaks. Turns out he had a freezer full of their frozen products, and due to a recent dietary shift, he would not be able to eat any of it.

“Yes!” was my answer, and though he tried to give me all he had, I only chose what I thought was “enough”.

Needless to say, even though I was wandering through a financial wilderness for a few weeks, my freezer looked like it was raining hamburger, chicken, filet mignon, lasagna and chocolate cake from heaven!!!

Much like today’s lesson.

I love this story and how can you not? It’s one of the Bible’s most important stories, influencing a large part of Jesus’ ministry.

Let’s review. The Israelites had been slaves for centuries. The Pharaoh preyed on their fears, forcing them to do hard work. Their job was to take straw and turn it into bricks. If they don’t meet their daily quota they are to be beaten.

So the slaves spend every day, morning to night, searching for straw, making bricks, living in fear that they will never make enough.

But God does not forget them. After a series of miracles, God sets the people free. They experience the crossing of the Red Sea in which the Pharaoh and his army is defeated, and the people begin their journey into the wilderness.

Here, in the wilderness, they are in a place of transition, a nurturing place in which they are to unlearn old behaviors and discover new ways of thinking.

This is the time for them to start letting go of their slave mentality where they were under the abusive, hateful rule of the Pharaoh and to discover what it means to live as free people under the protective, loving care of God.

Immediately the people come across a major concern: out in the wilderness, where nothing exists, what are they to eat; how will they survive?

God hears their legitimate complaints and comes up with a novel idea: God will supply them with bread from heaven; little honey flavored wafers that they can bake and boil and get all the energy they need to survive.

It may not match the kind of food they were used to in Egypt, but at least they don’t have to live in fear or hunger anymore.

However, there are some very specific instructions. 6 days a week they are to go out and only gather what they need. If they try to be selfish, if they try to hoard any of it, it will spoil.

But on Friday they are to gather twice as much so they can have Saturday off.

God’s lesson in Economy 101 is joyfully simple: trust and obey, act and rest.

Of course, not everyone listens. Some clung to the slave mentality they had learned in Egypt. Out of anxiety and greed they take more then they need only to discover the next day their bread was filled with worms.

Others couldn’t grasp the concept of taking a day off, but when they went out Saturday they discovered that indeed nothing is there.

This miraculous manna, this bread from heaven becomes a sign of God’s grace.

Think of just how radical these lessons were and still are, and how they go against all sense and logic:

-Trust that in a wilderness full of nothing God will provide something,
-trust that there is indeed enough for all,
-and trust that sometimes the best thing you can do is rest!

It totally goes against the way of the Pharaoh; it totally goes against the American work ethic.

This is God’s Kingdom Economy. A new dance for the people to learn that doesn’t go to the beat of the slave masters whip, but to the beat of God’s steadfast heart.

This story about manna from heaven is not just something from the Old Testament; it also appears in the ministry of Jesus Christ.

For example, in the Gospel of Mark Jesus and the disciples are in a deserted place surrounded by thousands of people.

When dinner time arrives, instead of sending the people away, Jesus takes what little food they have, and after giving thanks, he shares it with others. And miraculously, that little bit of bread and fish becomes enough for all who are present.

Today’s story also informs the words of the Lord’s Prayer and helps to shape the experience of the Last Supper.

And yet, thousands of years later we are still trying to learn what it means to trust in God; what it means to know that we have enough.

These are lessons that I believe any church community needs to be reminded of time and time again.

As members of Emmanuel UCC, I believe that right now we, in the very best sense of the word, are in a wilderness, in a time of transition, in which God is present and working, and God is preparing us for many new things.

For example, the Vacation Bible School we just had. Never been done before.

Some people assumed that we would never find the children to attend since we did not have children in our services.

Yet we headed God’s call to step into the wilderness of VBS and sure enough, not only did God provide the children, God provided 17 wonderful kids who each brought their own unique gifts and talents.

And even though we had only been prepared for 10-12 kids, we certainly had enough supplies and food for all.

This exciting sense of being in the wilderness continues in other ways, such as the social groups that have been started and conversations around redoing our kitchen.

If God could do this, what else can you imagine God calling us to do next?

In conclusion, when the slaves were freed, the first lesson they learned was about the Kingdom’s Economy; an economy built on trust in God and the importance of rest.

When it seems like we have entered into the wilderness, into a time of transition, how should we respond?

Should we run away, automatically assuming defeat? Do we trudge back to Ol’ Pharaoh, resuming a life filled with drudgery?

Or do we move forward, trusting that even when we are not certain where we are going, even when it seems like nothing is there; we can move ahead with the assurance that we are not going it alone?

That God, the great I AM, is present, ready to supply us with whatever we need.

Are we ready to realize that God’s ways are not our ways, or the Pharaoh’s ways, but that God’s ways are always different, always new and always for the sake of the Heavenly Kingdom?

Where miracles happy every day, work and rest do coexist and through the simple act of sharing and believing, there is indeed enough for all.

That the love and grace of God through Christ is indeed bread from heaven.

Amen and amen.