Saturday, September 22, 2012

Sermon for Sept 23, 2012; Mark 9:30-37

Rev. George Miller
Mark 9:30-37
“Welcoming the Lord”
Sept 23, 2012

(This sermon is done in character)

There is a story I heard not so long ago. It goes like this: one day the local rabbi came upon Elijah the prophet and asked him “When will the Messiah come?”

Elijah responded “Why don’t you ask him yourself?” “Where is he?” the rabbi asked.

“Sitting at the gates of the city, among the sick covered in wounds and those who are struggling in their daily lives.”

The rabbi went down to the gates of the city and he asked “When is the master coming?”

To which he received this response “Today. He will come today if you welcome Him into your home and listen to His voice.” (liberally adapted from Talmund story told by Henri Nouwen in The Wounded Healer, pp81-82, 94-95)

Allow me tell you about the day the Messiah entered into the home of me and my family.

My name is Ishmael. I am a fisherman, as was my father, as was his father before him.

It is not an easy job to do. I rise before the sun to prepare the nets; I work under extreme weather conditions and I am not done until way after dark.

Sometimes the catch is plenty; sometimes we go days without anything to show for it.

Our livelihood depends on many things: the weather, the location and the market’s price.

I have had days of plenty and days of never enough.

Yet, this is what I do, it is who I am.

I have a wife, named Deborah. We were married when I was 15 and she was at the proper age of 13.

Times were much better back then. Fish were plenty and so we had a huge wedding complete with an abundance of food and wine; friends and family came all over for the 3 day celebration.

Our first year of marriage was bliss. I’d go out in the morning with my father and we’d work all day, filling our nets with plenty of fish.

I’d come home and make love to my wife and we were happy. Looking back I think of how young we truly were.

Then after the first year things began to change. People kept asking us when we were going to have a child.

We told them we did not know; and though we were content, we could feel the building judgment by the others.

See, in our village it is seen as a blessing to have children; the more you have the more you are considered to be blessed.

Yet the irony is that children themselves are looked down by society. Especially those who are our Greco-Roman neighbors.

For them children are considered to be on the lowest rung; basically property to work the land or to marry off for a dowry.

The first year people kept asking when we were going to have a child. By the second and third year people acted as if we had something wrong with us.

We visited the doctors; we sought counsel from the Temple priests. We tried every herb, potion and prayer you can think of, to no avail.

By the fourth year we heard the gossiping tones of others who assumed that we must have been horrible sinners; that we must have done something to displease our God.

Yes, their words added strain to our lives, but they never affected the affection we felt for one another.

Then, just as we had resigned ourselves to a childless life, Deborah came to me with the miraculous news: she was pregnant.

Suddenly life changed. Our neighbors were back to being hospitable with us. They came over with foods and herbs to help make the pregnancy easier.

The day came, and Deborah gave birth to a beautiful child; a baby girl that we named Elianna.

Our miracle child. And we were happy.

The sea was filled with plenty of fish. Our home was complete. Our daughter grew healthy and strong.

As was our custom, we promised her to the neighbor’s son, a good boy five years older then her. We knew that he would take good care of her when the proper time came for them to be married.

But until then, she was our daughter and we loved her.

Then things took a turn. The sea seemed to become less plentiful.

It affected the prices of things; even when we did have a big catch we would only get a percent of what we used to.

This persisted for years. I’d work longer hours to only make less then before.

Still, I loved my Deborah and we loved our little miracle, Elianna.

But soon we, like many others in our village, were faced with some difficult decisions. How were we to survive financially if the economy did not rebound?

Some of our neighbors started taking drastic steps: they began marrying off their daughters at a younger and younger age.

Instead of waiting for them to be 13, some were 12, others 11, others as young as 10.

For the hungry families it meant one less mouth to feed and a little bit more money coming in from the dowry.

We thought about Elianna. By this time she was 11. Still very much a child. We watched her play with the other girls.

How they’d laugh and sing, play run and hide or act out stories from our ancestors. How innocent, how young, how free.

How could we force her to enter into an adult world so soon?

Yet our Gentile neighbors seemed to have no problem. Some of them married off their young girls; others sold them, pawned them off, or even killed them. It was all allowable under the Greco-Roman rule.

I could never do any of those things, but marriage, especially to a boy I knew to be fine and respectable, started to seem like a possibility.

When I talked about this with Deborah she would whine and wail, saying our precious daughter was way too young.

I did not know what to do.

Then one day, we had an unexpected guest join us for dinner.

A few of my fishing companions had been hanging out with this guy. They said that his name was Jesus and he had a gift of healing, teaching and transforming lives.

Some even went so far as to claim he was the long-desired Messiah, come to set us free from life’s burdens.

I found that hard to believe as it appeared to me that they were still struggling day to day as I did.

Then one night I heard a commotion outside our dwelling. It was Peter, James and John along with about 9 other men, and they were following a guy I assumed to be this fellow Jesus.

They were arguing over something stupid, as men often do. This time it was over who was the greatest of them.

I thought “If this is what Jesus’ people talk about then he can’t be much of a Messiah.”

Here I am, debating if I should give my 11 year old child into marriage and these guys are having a testosterone fueled bull match over who is the best of them all.

I walked away from the window, but then I heard a rapping on the door. It was Peter with his padres.

“Friend!” he exclaimed. “It is good to see you. We were hoping we could stay here for the night.”

I turned to Deborah who had “that look” on her face, but we knew that in our community it was wrong to deny hospitality to anyone.

So we welcomed them in.

Peter introduced us to everyone, saving Jesus for last. When we shook hands, I noticed there was a gentleness mixed with an inner strength; the kind that comes from a confident, compassionate man.

There was something calming and reassuring about his grip and the way he looked at me, as if he had known me forever.

Deborah welcomed them with glasses of wine but apologized that there was not a lot of food in the household.

Jesus calmly stated “No need to worry, I am sure that there will be enough.”

Filled with excitement about having guests in the home, Elianna ran over to them and sat besides Jesus’ feet. She had a little doll that she offered him to hold, which Jesus did.

With a bit of a smile, he turned to his men. “So, he said, “Tell me what you all were arguing about on our way over from Galilee?”

The men were silent. A hush like I had never heard filled the household. Even the lids of Deborah’s pot were silent.

“Busted!” I thought to myself.

I waited for Jesus to reprimand them and put them in their well-deserved place. Instead, Jesus sat down beside our little miracle, taking the posture of a teacher.

In a voice clearly reserved for parents, he said to these arguing, grown men, “Come here. If you really want to be first, you have to humble yourself and be servant of all.”

He then gently picked up Elianna, stood her before all of them. Then, wrapping an arm around her, Jesus said “Do you see this precious little one? Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me. And who ever welcomes me is welcoming God.”

The men were awestruck, as was I; as was Deborah, who dropped a ladle on the floor.

Elianna just glowed and glimmered.

“Whoever welcomes one such child welcomes God.” It was as if the answer to our dilemma had come in the most unexpected of ways.

Here we were ready to marry off our daughter like a commodity, when this Jesus, this stranger comes into our home and with deep understanding reminds us of the simple truth: she is yet a child.

She is still young, innocent, wide eyed, and full of potential. And that is a gift to be celebrated, not to be rushed or discarded.

After the affect of what Jesus had said and done wore off, the conversations turned to many other things, things I don’t remember so much right now.

What I recall is what he said, how he said it, and how it made me, as Elianna’s father, feel so proud.

It felt as if indeed the Lord, the Messiah, had entered into our household and our day.

Deborah served a fine meal that day with nothing more then bread, wine, bits of fish and almond cakes, but I tell you, it was one of the best meals we ever ate.

After that day, things began to feel a bit better. For one thing, it seemed as if Deborah’s jar of oil and flour never ran out. Each day there was a bit of fish to put on the plate.

We did not have a lot, but what we had was enough.

After that day we decided that Elianna was indeed too young to be married. That the day would come when she would be given, as promised, to the neighbor’s son.

That together the two would make a good couple and good parents. But not now, not for another 2 years, not until she truly became a maiden ready to be married.

Until then, she would be a child. Our child. Free to run, free to play, free to imagine. Free to fill our home with laughter and stories and songs.

We never saw Jesus again. Next thing we heard was that he was heading towards Jerusalem. We were immediately worried about him, for we knew Jerusalem was the place known for murdering their propjets.

That no one who spoke openly of humility and acceptance would be welcome in a town overrun with corruption from both its religious and political leaders.

Sure enough, we got word about what happened to him. How Jesus was accused of treason, of speaking blasphemous words; that he spoke as one with an authority only reserved for God.

We all heard the news of how he was arrested and interrogated, how he was nailed to the cross and left to die.

That was a particularly hard weekend for our little miracle; when she heard the news, Elianna clutched to her doll tighter, as if doing so would perhaps bring him back to life.

Then we began to hear odd, strange stories; people claiming that Jesus was still alive. People on the street and in their homes were experiencing encounters with Jesus in which he broke bread and spoke with them.

People began to proclaim that Jesus was alive and that it was God who had raised him; that the innocent had been vindicated and a new time of peace had entered into the world.

At first Deborah and I were skeptical about these stories, but we began hearing them more and more; and we ourselves began recounting our very own personal experience with Jesus.

How he entered into out home; how he brought with him a word of hope; and how he pronounced that anyone who welcomed our daughter was welcoming God.

How it seemed that ever since that day we always had just what we needed; how our daughter has been able to remain with us even during these tough times.

Soon we began to gather with others who had experienced of Jesus. We met in one another’s homes.

We shared stories, we sung songs, we broke bread, we began to realize the work he had begun in us we were called to do for others.

So we all began to pool our resources together, to give to those more in need, to speak out against wrongs we saw, and to celebrate the things that were right.

And our daughter, our miracle baby, is growing into such a strong girl, soon to be a woman. Lately we notice how she and her friends like to play games in which they act out stories featuring women of faith.

Like Sarah who with Abraham leaves everything behind to follow the call of the Lord. Or they’ll take turns playing tambourines, pretending they are Miriam singing about how God has lead them across the Red Sea.

Or they’ll reenact the story of the lady at the well who met Jesus and found out he was the true living water.

Of course, Elianna’s favorite story is when she reenacts the day Jesus came into our home and taught the arguing men that the key to heavenly greatness is to welcome a child, just like her.

That’s when Elianna beams and Deborah and I are filled with so much love.

In conclusion, the ways of the world are still not easy. Money is still tight; the seas are not as generous as they once were, every month we still have pennies to pinch.

But Jesus reminded us that no child is a commodity, but a precious gift; to be honored and respected. They rejuvenate our spirit and give us hope for the future.

Because of this we have decided that for Elianna’s sake we will do whatever it takes to keep her a child as long as we can, even if its eating fish head soup every day.

Because if Jesus, the one who was crucified, and the one who was risen, could show compassion and care, if he could find value in her, then so must we.

We have discovered that a life of faith is no longer waiting for the Messiah to appear.

A life of faith is finding a way each and every day to welcome the Messiah into our lives and into our heart, and to realize that it can often happen in the most unexpected of ways.

For that we can say Hallelujah and for that we can say Amen.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Sermon from Sept 15, 2012; Isaiah 50:4-9

Rev. George Miller
Isaiah 50:4-9
“The Eternalness of God”
Sept 15, 2012

I have a joke I’d like to share, about Forrest Gump. I don’t agree with its theology but I appreciate its humor.

On the day Forrest Gump died, he went up to heaven and was greeted by St. Peter.

“Welcome Forrest,” St. Peter said. “Before you can enter in I just have three simple questions to ask you. First question: how many days are in a week?”

Forrest thought and thought, and once he was ready, Forrest replied “Well sir, I believe the answer is three.”

“Three?” said St. Peter.

“Yes sir,” said Forrest, all polite like his Mama taught him, “Yesterday, today and tomorrow.”

“Well,” said St. Peter, “That wasn’t the answer we were aiming for, but I see no reason to disagree. Next question: how many seconds are there in a year?”

Forrest thought and thought, and then he thought some more. Forrest replied “Well sir, I reckon the answer would be 12.”

“12!” said St. Peter. “Now Forrest you got to tell me how you came to that conclusion.”

“Yes sir,” said Forrest all polite, just like his Mama taught him. “There’s January 2, February 2, March 2, April 2…”

St. Peter scratched his head, “Why Forrest, I reckon you’re right.” (Someone St. Peter had become southern as well!) “I’ll let you have that one as well.”

“Third and final question: what is God’s first name?”

Forrest had an immediate smile. “Shoot, I know that one, sir: Andy.”

“Andy?” said St. Peter, “Now Forrest, you have got to tell me just why you think God’s first name is Andy.”

“Simple,” Forrest said, taking off his hat and breaking into song, “Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me, Andy tells me I am his own, and the love we share while we tarry there, none other has ever known.”

…I have a soft spot for characters like Forrest Gump. You know: the person who appears to be simple minded but is perhaps wiser then most.

The person who thinks differently, who seems eccentric, but when you stop and really think about what they’re saying, they actually have a point.

Rose Nyland from “Golden Girls” was such character, as was Phoebe Buffet from “Friends”.

My Grandmother was a lot like them. She had a unique way of saying and doing things that could make her come across as air-headed, but the truth was that she was so brilliant she saw the world through a different set of lenses and acted accordingly.

I would also venture to say that almost every writer and hero in the Bible saw the world much differently then most.

They had to, otherwise they wouldn’t have done things like stand up to Pharaoh and his army, believe they could rebuild the Temple or follow a middle-aged homeless man all the way to the cross.

There are those who in their wisdom think there are seven days in the week, and there are those who in their wisdom believe there are only 3.

I think most of us fall somewhere in between.

What is wisdom anyway? Who is it that gets to decide what the right answer is and what is the wrong answer?

When is thinking outside the box the very thing that helps to build the box?

And when is thinking inside the box the very thing that destroys it?

The people of biblical times had a high esteem for wisdom. Knowledge was a currency that was valued among a certain folk.

In fact, for them wisdom was the ultimate experience of God. They believed that when you were learning, you were experiencing the Divine’s presence in a way that was unparalleled to any other.

That is why when some people met Jesus, when they experienced his teachings and heard his stories, they felt like they were encountering the Living Lord.

When Jesus would walk past, some would say “Behold the Wisdom of God.”

But the trouble is that God’s wisdom does not always match the world’s wisdom.

And the world’s wisdom does not always welcome God’s.

That’s part of what we encounter in today’s reading. The author of this passage is writing to a group of people who are experiencing the worst of times.

Nothing is going right.

This isn’t a case of “is the glass half full or half empty?”

It’s more like a case of “someone done took the glass, threw it against the wall and all the water has been dumped into the ground.”

Their situation seems hopeless and there is seemingly nothing they can do.

And the author of this passage is fully aware of this, in fact he is going through the same suffering they are.

Except for one difference: he believes that God is speaking to him. He believes that morning after morning, God is waking him with words to say.

Are they words that are to tell the people what to do?

Are they specific instructions as to how to get out of their dilemma?

No, they are simply words that are meant to sustain the weary.

They are simply words to give the people something to believe in.

They are simply words to remind them that somehow, someway this too will pass.

Maybe the glass can not be repaired, but it doesn’t mean another sort of glass can’t come along, waiting to be filled…

Has anyone ever felt like this?

That you come to a place in your life in which you feel like the glass you knew, the glass you’ve held onto, has been shattered against the wall?

Have you ever come to the place where you are weary? In which you feel like you can not do one more single thing?

Have you ever come to a place in which you just want to let the dishes pile up in the sink and the trash to wait another day before its put out?

We all do.

The reasons can be many.
-We’re exhausted from working a long week.
-We’re exhausted from trying to help out another.
-We’re exhausted from trying to hold things together.

We all do. I know I do.

And you know, those are the times where really nothing can be done by anyone to truly make a difference.

That’s when I’m the most thankful for church.

Those have been the times when I most needed to go to church, to be surrounded by other people, to hear the minister preach a word, to hear the choir sing a song.

Those are the days where I just want to be reminded of the hard-to-believe, unrealistic accounts of the way that God intercedes and the ways that God acts.

How God can keep a widow’s flour jar from ever running out.

How God can hold back the waters of the Jordan so the people can cross.

How God can bring forth a nation from an infertile couple.

How God can take the darkness of chaos and with three simple words bring forth a brand new world.

If God could do all those things, who is to say what God can or can not do?

That knowledge, that wisdom, is what gives Isaiah the ability to speak out; that is what allows him to offer the people hope.

With no magic tricks up his sleeve, with no long-term solution plan, the most he can do is to remind the people of the eternalness of God.

The most he can do is to remind the people that God is indeed still speaking.

And in doing so, he provides them a sense of comfort, he provides them a sense of peace, he provides them with a source of strength.

In conclusion, there is a lot about our faith that does not always make sense. There is a lot about our faith that does not seem to always solve our problems.

But there is enough about our faith to remind us and to assure us that we are not alone, we are not forsaken, nor are we forgotten.

And sometimes this knowledge is enough to give us hope, to give us something to believe in, and to trust that there will be a tomorrow.

That God walks with us
And he talks with us
And he tells us that we are his own.

And sometimes that is enough, even when the wisdom of the world wants us to believe that it is not.

This week, may God
give power to the faint,
strength to the powerless
and for those that wait on the Lord,
may they be lifted up on eagle’s wings,
able to rise above whatever situations they may be facing.

For that we can say amen and amen.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Sermon for Sept 9, 2012; Proverbs 22:1-9

Rev. George Miller
Proverbs 22:1-9
Sept 9, 2012

Last week we talked about the theme “A God So Near” in which I admitted that there are some weeks when I wonder how that can be true when facts seem to say otherwise.

And then…God does something to show that nearness. It occurred this Thursday during the memorial service for Barry in which the sanctuary was filled with people from all walks of life, gathering to pay honor to someone they cared about so much.

Then on Friday, I found this article in the paper. It’s written by Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson, who is not only a UCC pastor in the Tampa area but president of the North America World Council of Churches; in other words a living bit of UCC history right in our own back yard.

Rev. Jackson’s article, titled “How the World Can Stop Preventable Child Deaths” was inspiring.

Rev. Jackson stated that during the political campaigns we will hear from a variety of voices, but the voices we will not hear from are the voices of children, especially those who are the world’s poorest.

She gave a startling statistic: 30 years ago 14 million children under the age of 5 died each year.

However, after decades of hard work and innovation, that number has been cut in half. Yet, 7 million children is still too high of a number.

So 55 health ministries around the world are focusing on one simple, doable goal: end preventable deaths of children by 2035. Scientists and health experts believe this can be done.

Rev. Jackson states that there are several health improvements that have already helped to reduce the number of deaths.

Vaccines, sanitary birth conditions and antibiotics all play a role in achieving this goal.

Can you guess what’s the 1st thing she listed as helping to eliminate childhood deaths?

Clean drinking water. The very topic of our Global Missions Fair today.

You’ve been hearing about it for weeks; we’ve received handouts, mailings, e-mails all about today, and now it is finally here.

Our 4th Annual Global Missions Fair in which everyone is invited to have a fun time participating and showing to the global community that we have “enough” and that we are blessed by our ability to share it with others.

Since April 29 when I preached on John 10, the topic of “enough” has been a reoccurring theme for the past few months.

In that reading Jesus said that his desire for us is that we have life and that we have it abundantly.

Not knowing what abundant truly meant, I looked it up in the Roget’s Thesaurus and it said “enough.”

So abundant life doesn’t necessarily mean that we have so much stuff we don’t know what to do with it, but that we have enough to live and to be happy.

This notion of having enough allows us to experience the glory of God’s Kingdom in the “here and now” as opposed to the far away and future.

Because of Christ we have enough.

We have enough time. We have enough family. We have enough friends. We have enough finances. We have enough food.

And once we realize this fact, we realize that we also have enough to share. And because we have enough to share, we are blessed.

That is what sticks out for me in today’s reading. All these wonderful, wise pithy sayings; bits of wisdom that an elder is passing down to the younger generation so they know how to live a faithful, fantastic life.

Verse 22:9 says it all: “Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.”

Could it be any simpler then that? Could it be any more counter-cultural then that?

Don’t hog what you got, but share what you have, for you will be blessed. That is God’s good will for those of us who discover that we indeed have enough.

Church, can I get an “amen”?

Let me share with you a story about sharing that happened to me recently.

I’m one of those people who will never be rich; I’ll always have bills and student loans to pay. But yet I have never had to truly do without.

I have only bought about five pieces of furniture in my life, but I’ve always lived in places that had a place to sit, a place to sleep.

Years ago I was given a couch that was the most comfortable thing to sleep on. I spent many afternoons decompressing on it after
Sunday service.

Unwilling to part with it, I brought it to FL and put it on the porch, even though it did not fit and made everything else look cramped and tacky.

Then a few months ago, someone offered me their loveseat. Much smaller, virtually new, tastefully done.

It was a marked contrast to my couch, with its cat scratched fabric, gently stained cushions and too-cramped-for-words presence.

I asked my neighbors if they could use a couch. I was apologetic about it, embarrassed. They immediately said yes.

With two small kids and a third on the way, they had a small couch that was hard as wood to sit on. Coming from an extended family they always had siblings, cousins and friends staying over and often times people had to sleep on the floor.

With the new love seat on my porch, the old couch was brought over to their place…and immediately it was clear that it was more then “enough.”

Whereas for me as a single man it was too big, for them it was just the right size. The children who were present immediately jumped on the couch. They grew even more excited once they realized it could pull out into a queen sized bed.

With that part done, I went back to my porch and realized the patio table which I had for nearly 6 years no longer worked. So I went to the dumpster to throw it out, figuring who would want it.

Another neighbor, a veteran on disability, saw what I had and asked if he could have it. Immediately he cleaned it up, placed it outside his front door and it became a place for he and another veteran to sit and smoke and talk.

So, this one love seat that was given away became a source of blessing for three different households: mine, my neighbors with an extended family and a disabled vet.

Realistically speaking, how can one couch possibly bless more then 7 people?

The answer is simple: it’s a “God thing.” That’s what God can do. That’s what Jesus came to remind us about.

That the intention of God’s heavenly kingdom is that we have what we need right here, right now on earth.

After all, that’s what we experienced in the story about manna from heaven; that’s what we witnessed when Jesus turned water into wine; that’s what we recall when 5 loaves were turned into enough for 5,000 people.

In conclusion, in Christ, through the actions of the Holy Spirit, we have enough.

The challenge, the counter-cultural instruction we heard today is: are we willing to trust that God can take what we have and multiply it into abundance?

Abundant bread, abundant supplies, abundant water, abundant life?

And how cool would it be that if we truly live this way? Our church family can be known for not only our radical welcoming but for our compassionate sharing!

Today, we get to share and to show the world that in Jesus Christ we do indeed have “enough” and that we are blessed indeed.

Amen and amen.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sermon for Sept 2, 2012; Deut. 4:1-9

Rev. George Miller
Deuteronomy 4:1-9
“A God So Near”
Sept 2, 2012

Last week during the offering, Judy Vekasy invited us to fill out cards, stating what kind of action we would do this week.

Here are some of the responses:
-“visit a friend I haven’t seen nearly as often as I should”
-“(write) 3 notes for away folks”
-“Feed the Willing Workers”
-“Forgive others”.

While none of these actions may seem earthshaking, they are ways to think beyond oneself, to reach out to another and to express the presence of God.

In other words, they are ways to say “Emmanuel.” Yes, Emmanuel is the name of our church, but it is more then that: it’s the Greek work that means “God with Us.”

To say “God with Us”, to say “Emmanuel” is to say “A God So Near.”

That’s the phrase that stands out in today’s reading, taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, a series of speeches given by Moses.

The people of Israel are at an interesting place. They have been wandering the wilderness for many a year and are soon about to enter into the Promised Land.

And here they are, located between two significant bodies of water. Behind them is the Red Sea which represents the past they have left behind; all those terrible years in bondage and humiliation.

Just ahead of them is the Jordan River which represents the future they have been promised: a bountiful time of freedom and jubilation.

In other words, they are in the “now.”

Moses, knowing he will soon be dead, gives them these words of encouragement, referring to their past so they can better embrace their future.

He reminds them of all they’ve been through, all they have accomplished through God.

Then in verse 7 he makes the claim “For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God…?”

This was not a simple one-off statement, but a continuation of the revolutionary experience of the Lord.

To claim there was one god and to state that God was close by was not what everyone else believed.

There were people who believed in many gods, worshipping different deities they thought responsible for things like fertility, serenity, economy.

There were those who worshipped idols; things they had created with their hands or grown in the field. Objects like statues and trees.

Others thought their gods lived in the sky, above the moon, behind the sun, governing things from far, far away, never truly interacting with any of them.

Others believed that their gods only cared about the rich and famous. Only kings and princes mattered; the poor and destitute were simply sawdust to be ignored and swept away.

So in essence, they were people whose faith rested in gods that could easily break; gods that were impersonal and distant; gods that were merely extensions of their selves.

But not Israel. For they understood God was not something you could see or control, but a holy experience. God was beyond the reach of the stars yet as close as one’s breath.

They believed that God cared not just for the mighty, but for all; that God cared for them. That even though they were a small group, that even though they were the underdogs of all underdogs, they mattered to God and God was near to them.

Because of their belief that God is so near the Israelites were able to face and overcome their enemies, they were able to accomplish more then anyone could imagine.

Because of their belief in a God so near they were able to survive and thrive.

And so now they stand, in the present moment, in the “now”, no longer shackled to their past, ready to step into their future.

Not alone, but together, and with God.

The simple claim that God is so near is part of what made the Jewish people, and later the Christians, so unique.

The belief that our God is mighty and worthy of awe, but that our God also knows who we are and is never too far away.

We experience this in the Garden of Eden when God came to walk with Adam and Eve in the coolness of day.

We experience this as Elijah flees with fear into the wilderness and God ensures that he is given bread and drink for the journey.

We experience this when we encounter Emmanuel, Jesus at a wedding and just as the celebration seems sure to stop, he turns water into wine so people can continue to celebrate the joy of family and friends.

And we experience this at the Last Supper when Jesus turns both wine and bread into signs of grace when he says “This is body and this is my blood, given for you.”

In the garden, a God so near.
In the wilderness a God so near.
In community a God so near.
In the shadow of the cross a God so near.

…Although, I’ll admit, this week had made things a little difficult to pronounce that God is near…

Across the Gulf, in places like Mississippi and Louisiana, we have our brothers and sisters who are dealing with the after effects of Hurricane Isaac, just two years after the BP Oil Spill and 7 years after Katrina.

With nearly a foot of rain poured down upon them, hundreds of thousands right now are without power.

Because of a levee break southwest of New Orleans, there are places where the water is over 12 feet high. Over 100 residents needing to be rescued, some stranded in their attics because the water was so high.

I wonder how many of them feel that God is so near.

Then in preparation for our Global Missions Fair we’ve been talking about the world’s water crisis. The sobering reality that 1 out of 6 people do not have access to clean water; that every 20 seconds a child dies from contaminated water.

Makes you want to get into a boat and just sail away, doesn’t it?

Here we have a reading in which Moses and the people are standing between two bodies of water celebrating the nearness of God, and yet in our nation and in our world, water has become an issue to reckon with.

So now that we have been placed before the cross, where is the Good News? What are the words that can speak into life the Resurrection and promise for new life?

The Good News comes from remembering our very name. That we are members of a church called “Emmanuel.” And that Emmanuel means, literally “God With Us.”

And that as Emmanuel there are many ways we can address the storms in people’s lives,

One way was through the cards Judy asked us to fill out last week. The acts of care and kindness that we enact upon another.

Visiting, feeding, forgiving.

They may not seem like much, but they do make a difference. The calls we make, the cards we write, the hands we hold, and the prayers we offer all embody the presence of God to others.

And next week we get to address the fact that there are others in the world with not enough water.

We get to do this through communally and playfully, by gathering after worship, by sharing at table, by eating a meal.

We get to do this by various forms of fun and fundraising from cake walk and bingo to some competitive cake auction.

We get to do this through education, by reminding ourselves that we are not the only ones in the world that matter to God, by not emotionally shutting ourselves off because we think there is nothing we can do.

By realizing we are not called by God to do it all, but we are empowered to at least do something.

In conclusion, as the people are poised to go from their past into their future, Moses uses the present moment to remind them of a simple truth:

God is near.

And that an appropriate response to God is to live a life that represents the goodness of God to others: justice, compassion, love.

And next week we have a way, a chance to show to others that nearness of God, even though they may be an ocean away.

A chance to show how God’s ways are not about death or sickness or scarcity.

But God’s ways are about life, liberation and enough for all.

What an honor that we get to play a role. How awesome that we, as members of Emmanuel UCC, in the little ol’ town of Sebring, FL get to show that “God is with us”.

God is with us indeed.

Amen and amen.