Saturday, February 23, 2013

Sermon for Feb 24, 2013; Psalm 98

Rev. George Miller
Psalm 98
“Clap hands and Sing”
Feb 24, 2013

Today is Choir Recognition Sunday which means that as we journey with Jesus on his way to the cross, we pause to give thanks to God for the musical gifts we have been blessed with.

Today we celebrate the gift of music; today we celebrate the gifts of our musicians; today we celebrate our choirs, our organist, our Minister of Music. Today we celebrate God for giving us music in the first place.

Music which makes the soul want to clap hands and sing; music which says what the heart feels and what spoken words can not.

Perhaps no better scripture for today is Psalm 98. If it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the inspiration for “Joy to the World” and it was the reading used to celebrate the life of our beloved Phil Weber.

Psalm 98 is a song that asks us to remember what God has already done, to anticipate what God will accomplish and to spend the moment, this moment, in the here and now, singing songs, offering praise and being joyful.

With its references to lyre and trumpet, horn and victory, it sounds like an invitation to be part of a parade

But not a local parade for just the town folk, or a national parade for all the folks, but a global parade involving all of creation, with seas that roar, hills that sing and floods that clap hands.

(If this was set in Sebring, I’m sure we’d invite the cows to moo, sand hill cranes to trill and snowbirds to chirp along.)

Music, clearly, is a proper response to God’s goodness and glory.

Last week we heard about the temptation of Jesus. We did not talk about specific temptations; it was purposely left undefined so each person could think about their own.

During the week, I’ve wondered what temptation is. The conclusion I came to was that temptation is anything that pulls us away from God and from being in a true relationship with one another.

Temptation is that thing which gets in the way of us being able to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with the Lord.

To use a metaphor, it’s like we are participants of a parade and temptation is anything which distracts us, causes us to fall out of step, and feel lost along the way.

If we use this analogy, what then is a purpose of music? I’d like to say it’s that which bring us back in step, back with others, and back with God, before the parade passes by.

There’s all kind of music, all kinds of songs. Think of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” which asks one to look at the world with clearer eyes.

Music like “Over the Rainbow” which speaks of longing of the soul. A song like “Singing in the Rain” that places a smile on our face.

Simply humming “Amazing Grace” is enough to remind someone that “it is well with my soul.”

What has your experience with music been? In talking with Connie this week, I realized that music formed my first sensory experience of church.

It was a Wednesday night when my Mom dropped me off at the back of the Lake Ronkonkoma United Methodist Church.

I walked up a short flight of concrete steps into a small, square room filled with rows of folding chairs. It was choir practice. There I learned “Morning Has Broken” and “They Will Know We are Christians by Our Love.”

The first a gentle tune that felt peaceful to sing; the second had a marching beat with a Native American vibe that “felt” strong.

To this day, nearly 35 years later, when I hear those two songs I can see those steps, picture that room, and those chairs and get that same sense of peace and strength.

Truth is, music has always been a huge part of my faith journey. It was music that God used to call me to ministry. It was a song about children that lead me to work with neglected and abused youth.

It was music that gave me voice when I have felt angry at God. It’s music that’s been there when my soul just wants to clap hands and sing.

Music has been there every step of the way; good and bad, empty and full, lost and found, with the ability to heal and transform, to create and inspire.

Before we get to the conclusion, how many people read the article in last Sunday’s paper about an artist in Mexico City who is using music in the most unique way?

His name is Pedro Reyes. He has gathered guns from all over the city, guns that have been seized by the police, to create a musical instrument.

He has taken guns which were used to kill and intimidate others, many for the purpose of drug trafficking, to transform them into an instrument that sounds like a bass guitar.

Using pieces that were once ammunition magazines, gun barrels and pistol parts, Pedro Reyes has made it so that now instead of destroying life, they are used to create “rhythmic, syncopated sound.”

Reyes says his creation has an ability to exorcise the demons within the parts, that when his musical creation made up of weapons is played “the music expelled the demons they held, as well as being a requiem for lives lost.”

Think of how profound a thing he has done. Some thing that once represented death, now used to celebrate life.

(Like the cross.)

Amazing how God can change even the sound of gunfire into the sound of a song.

In closing, God has indeed done marvelous things. Yes, not all of us lead charmed lives with an easy existence or steady success.

We face temptations, we fall out of line, we lose our place in the parade, but we can say that God has been good; God has been the music in our lives.

Today we give thanks for that music.

We give our thanks and we show our appreciation for our organist Sue, for our Minister of Music Connie, and for our choir, all our choirs, with the songs they sing; the anthems they share, the ways in which their talents remind us of God’s glory.

They allow us to respond to God’s greatness with joy. They remind us that no matter what may have happened during the week, no matter how much we may have fallen out of line, the Lord alone is King.

The seas roar, the hills sing, the floods clap their hands, and we, as inhabitants of creation’s congregation, get to join in on the chorus, breaking into joyous song and praise.

Amen and amen.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Sermon for Feb 17, 2013; Luke 4:1-13

Rev. George Miller
Luke 4:1-13
“Given Enough”
Feb 17, 2013

As a church, we have entered the Season of Lent. A somber period of reflection designed to confront one’s own mortality while journeying with Jesus to the cross...

…Of course, this week the world also exploded in pink and red decorations proclaiming “Happy Valentines Day! Eat as much candy as you can!”

Death and romance- an odd pairing. Or are they? In some ways are not mortality and love two of life’s most powerful experiences?

Mortality reminds us that no matter how much we accomplish, no much how much stuff we accumulate, we are all going to die.

Then, as the Beatle’s proclaimed nearly 50 years ago “Love is all you need.”

Valentine’s Day leads me to think about one of my favorite films called “Overboard.”

“Overboard” is a screwball comedy from the 80’s starring Goldie Hawn. Though it’s not perfect, it’s a film that makes me laugh, cry, and at the end, to feel good about the world.

For those who’ve seen “Overboard” and for those who haven’t, here’s a quick synopsis:

Goldie Hawn plays a rich, spoiled heiress who is used to having her way and being waited on hand and foot. She is surrounded with all the material comforts one can want, but it’s clearly not “enough.”

Her unhappiness comes through in the way she orders people around, complains about the quality of caviar and has a comment for everything she encounters.

One day, she falls off of her yacht and is washed ashore with amnesia. A former worker of hers tricks Goldie into thinking she is his wife and the mother of his kids.

During the course of the film, she goes about trying to recall who she is while having to do things like wash dishes, clean clothes, cut wood and care for a turtle.

A transformation takes place in Goldie’s character. She falls in love with the three boys. She stands up for them when their teacher claims they are not smart or good enough.

She takes part in creating a miniature golf-course for the community. She dances the night away at the local tavern, enjoying a $7 bottle of champagne. She gets excited when she’s given a new washer for her birthday.

The thing that most satisfies her is when she’s reading a book with the youngest boy and he reaches behind the seat cushion to surprise her with a macaroni necklace which he made for her at school.

Previously, she was a woman who surrounded herself with caviar, yachts and servants, yet was unhappy.

Now she was living in a run down home with leaky ceilings, doing daily chores, wearing a necklace made out of pasta, and it was “enough.”

Sometimes we have to almost lose ourselves to find out who we really and truly are…

…For those who have been worshipping with us for the past year, we’ve talked quite a bit about the word “enough”.

It started when we heard a message about abundant life, and came to find out that another word for abundant is “enough.”

So when Jesus says that we will have abundant life, he’s not making the claim that we will be surrounded by caviar, yachts, and servants, but that we will have a life surrounded by the things that make life worth living.

Since that sermon, I’ve experienced the notion of “enough” unfold in terms of time, family, finances and friends in my own life.

As a congregation we have corporately witnessed this- the new members we have welcomed, the kitchen remodeling we’ve approved, the programs begun, and the stewardship taking place.

It’s by embracing the fact that we have “enough” that we have come to discover that in Christ we now have plenty.

This notion of “enough” also exists in today’s reading. After Jesus is baptized he is whisked away to the wilderness by the Spirit. This will be the time in which Jesus forms his identity and his mission.

For 40 days he eats nothing and is famished. The devil speaks to him, goading him to turn stone into bread, to seek power, and to test God. Though famished, Jesus does not fall or compromise.

There is a word in today’s reading which really jumps out: famished. What a strong word filled with possibilities. Famished is not just hungry; it’s not just a 4 pm rumbling in the tummy.

Famished is a sense of being completely empty; without. Famished is a sense of loss; a lacking that can almost not be fulfilled.

Here we have Jesus, who is famished. Think of how completely radical that theological claim is-that Jesus, who we claim to be fully human and fully divine could possibly by lacking for anything.

Yet that’s what we are told- that Jesus was famished. Famished for what? After 40 days in the wilderness, alone, I’d assume he is famished for more then just food.

He must be famished of sound- to hear another’s voice. Famished of sight- to see something more then sand and scrub brush. Famished of touch- to feel another’s skin upon his.

Jesus is famished, and that’s when the devil appears, trying to use the senses that Jesus has been famished for.

The devil’s voice would have been the first voice Jesus’ famished ears would have heard. To be so secluded, anything spoken would have sounded like music.

For someone famished of food, to turn stone into bread would have been a treat, a Panera Paradise of croissants and bagels galore.

For someone famished of sight, to be shown all the kingdoms of the world-with their glittering of silver and gold, their vast architecture, would have been a sight to behold, like standing in EPCOT’s World Pavilion.

For someone famished of touch, to be told that he would feel the touch of angels’ hands upon his skin as they bore him up…

How could anyone who is so sensory famished of all those things say no?

My only guess is that in God, Jesus felt like he had already been given “enough.”

That even in his famished state there was nothing the devil could offer- no amount of caviar, no amount of yachts, no amount of servants- that could come close to the treasure he already had in God.

This is a story that speaks to us because we live in a world that thrives on telling us we are famished; that there is happiness to be found in the right car, the right house, and the right restaurant.

We live in a world in which we all feel famished from time to time.

Famished for the one’s we have lost. Famished for the days long gone by.
Famished for the way things were and for the way things never did end up being.

Famished for when our health was much better. Famished for eyes that could see, ears that could hear and bodies that did not creak, groan or moan when we got out of bed.

Famished for kind words to be said; famished that someone cared enough to listen.

Famished for whatever sound, taste, sight or touch we are not currently receiving.

Everyone is famished for something, and as we start our Lenten journey with Jesus, we discover that he was famished too.

And that is a deep thought.

Last week, Psalm 99 told us that God is exalted and holy, a king, awesome in name. Today, we get another view.

We encounter an incarnational God who is hungry, who is vulnerable, who is without. Who is famished and capable of being tempted. That’s deep.

What this means for us is at least two things. That temptation is universal to the human experience. So if Jesus himself could be tempted, so can we.

It means that all of us, no matter how holy or perfect we may be, will come across situations in which we can easily turn from God and give into the ways of the world.

But it also means something else- that in Jesus we can find a way to turn from those temptations, to stand up to principalities, to not give in when we are the most vulnerable, and feel that we have been tossed overboard.

One way is by realizing that no matter how famished we may feel, that in God we do have enough. That in God we have been given what we need.

That in God we have everlasting arms in which we can lean, as weary as we are.

That in God we do have an advocate, because Jesus himself shared in our common life; the same toil, the same dangers, and the same snares.

Because of this when we find ourselves famished and temptations coming our way, Jesus shows us how we can find that inner strength and trust that God is indeed enough.

In conclusion, sometimes we have to almost lose ourselves to find out who we truly are.

We have entered into the reflective season of Lent in which we discover that it will not be the caviar, yachts or servants that bring us happiness, but the simpler, truer things like community, family, and hand-crafted macaroni necklaces.

This is a time for us to confront the reality of our own mortality, to embrace what is true, and truly matters.

During the course of the next 40 days, as we find ourselves tossed overboard, as we encounter our own wilderness, as we forget who we are and feel our own famishedness-

-may we also find the blessed peace that comes with the knowledge that Christ has already lit the path for our hearts and that in God we have each found our own “enough.”

Amen and amen.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Sermon for Feb 10, 2013; Psalm 99

Rev. George Miller
Psalm 99
“Why Jesus?”
Feb 10, 2013

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, an important day for the church when we honor a moment in the ministry of Jesus Christ.

According to Luke’s telling of the event, Jesus has foretold his death and resurrection to his disciples. He admits that he’ll endure great suffering and be rejected by the elders.

8 days later he takes Peter, John and James to the mountaintop to pray. While there Jesus’ face changes, his clothes become dazzling white and Moses and Elijah appear.

Peter proclaims “It is good to be here, let us build three dwellings.” Peter receives no response as a cloud overshadows them and they hear the voice of God.

Afterwards, they descend down the mountain where it becomes life and ministry as usual.

Peter has an encounter that is holy and wholly other, but alas it remains but a moment…

…In many ways going to church is a moment, an hour or two in which we take a break from the rest of the world.

Why do we come to church?

That is the question posed for today. Why, when we can stay in bed, go out for breakfast, or hit the golf course, do we go to church?

There are at least two reasons. The first is so that we can experience the Lord, together.

Throughout the week, many of us have been solitary figures, sitting under our own fig trees, wondering what for and how so.

But as this morning’s opening hymn stated, we come to church with hope and longing; we come for assurance.

We come as seekers, searching. We come for a token of God’s grace.

Many people spend most of their life at this spiritual place. For them, church becomes the mountaintop where they can catch a glimpse of Christ and hear a word from God.

Then, there is the second reason why we come to church: so that after we have caught a glimpse of God we can go out into the world to be the hands and heart of the Lord to those who are waiting to experience assurance and grace themselves.

But… what Lord are we referring to? There are after all different variations of God that we hear people talk about.

Are we talking about the angry Lord? The one who smites sinners and strikes people down with diseases and poverty?

Are we talking about the judgmental Lord? The one who looks down upon people and decides who is worthy and not; who is willing to cast ¾ of the world’s population into the fiery pits of hell because they do not worship the right way or live the correct life style?

Are we talking about a soft and cuddly Lord who is nothing more then just a good buddy who is completely happy being our floor mat just as long as we show some attention from time to time?

Today’s Psalm gives us a version of the Lord that is beyond angry, damning or cuddly.

In Psalm 99 we encounter a version of the Lord that is holy, a Lord that is separate and set apart from the people; a King.

But not a king that only cares about the King, but a king that cares about the people.

Look again at the words of today’s scripture and the image of God becomes clear: one who loves justice, who establishes equity, one who acts in a way that’s just and right.

One who listens to the cries of the people, who answers, who speaks, who keeps promises.

One who holds people accountable for their wrongdoings, but who ultimately forgives.

Holy, holy, holy is our God. Just. Listening. Forgiving.

Why do we come to church on Sunday when we can sleep in, eat out or hit a few golf balls?

To experience the Lord in God’s dwelling. To experience God’s mighty grace. To leave said time and place to be the hands and heart of the Lord to the rest of the world.

So simple, so neat.

As members of the United Church of Christ, we can find great kinship in Psalm 99, after all, its words are all over our history.

As participants of our New Member Class can tell you, the four branches that make up our denomination each speak of the ways we have been the hands and heart of Christ.

There are the Congregationalists who spoke out against slavery and created schools for those most often excluded by American institutions at the time: Native Americans, blacks and women.

There are the Evangelicals who headed the call of Matthew 25 and established hospitals, nursing homes and facilities for those living with developmental disabilities.

There are the Reformers who trained their preachers to ensure that everything they did, from giving the sermon to serving the sacraments became moments of experiencing God’s grace.

Then the Christian branch which went beyond dwellings and rode out into the uninhabited parts of the nation to bring the Good News in the form of tent revivals and open-air preaching.

Today, all 4 branches of the UCC come together as we get the opportunity to embrace our polity and to vote on a decision that will have long lasting affects.

The question we will each have to ask ourselves is: are we voting for ourselves or are we voting for God?

Are we deciding what we want or are we listening for what God desires?

Is today’s Congregational Meeting about a dwelling or it is about a ministry? Are they the same, or is there a difference?

How will our vote strengthen the glimpse of glory; how will our vote proclaim what we profess?

In conclusion, Psalm 99 claims that the Lord is King, lover of justice, executor of what is just and right.

Luke 9 tells us that during the course of Jesus’ ministry, he was transfigured and his clothes became radiantly white.

It was but a moment, but a moment that allowed him and the rest of the disciples to continue the work of the Lord.

Are we voting today for a dwelling or are we voting for a ministry?

What is the Lord, who is holy, forgiving, and full of grace, saying to you today?

Amen and amen.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Sermon from Feb 3, 2013; Luke 4:16-30

Rev. George Miller
Luke 4:16-30
“Widows, Lepers, Captives and Poor”
Feb 3, 2013

Today’s message “Widows, Lepers, Captives and Poor” has to have one of the most depressing sounding sermon titles ever.

A far cry from Advent when each week we had pleasant, peppy titles like “Hope”, “Joy”, “Peace”, and “Love.”

“Widows, Lepers, Captives and Poor” does not proclaim “Dance Party USA! Get up and get happy!”

Knowing this, I planned on starting today’s message with a joke. Something Rev. Lawrence would approve of.

Before doing so, I checked on my kitties; they were both asleep on the porch, basking in the morning sun.

The computer was turned on, a cup of coffee poured and my copious notes were out.

I decided there needed to be some music. Instead of something sedate and serious I opted for something fun.

Chaka Kahn’s “I Feel For You” came on, and I admit, I felt a little dance come along.

That’s when one of my cats, Sterling, came into the living room, expectantly sat down, giving me the look.

His brother Jesse followed soon after, and I quickly realized what was happening.

Over the past year the cats must have learned that when I play a danceable song and move quicker then usual, I usually pick up one of their toys for a time of play.

Sterling and Jesse came into the living room because they were expecting me, almost demanding me, to spend the next few minutes playing with them.

Which I did.

As Chaka Kahn sang on, we went from room to room with both of the cats hopping, twisting and turning while trying to nab the feathers on a stick.

Afterwards, they ate their snack and then went back to the porch to continue sleeping in the sun, content.

My cats have been conditioned to equate their Dancing Daddy with a time of play and canned food.

Which led me to wonder: just how attuned were they to my other behaviors? Were they aware of all my moods and actions?

If they knew Daddy dancing meant “Let’s play” was there anything I said or did that signaled “stay away”?

This realization led to another:

For the last two months I’ve played Beauregard, a kind character in which every word he utters has a positive connotation:

“Fine-looking”, “Christmas present”, “charm”, “family”, “big-hearted”, “higher” and “lucky.”

Night after night for 2 months, I said those words again and again, on stage, at home, in the car.

…and it felt good.

Living in a society in which criticism is common-place, coming from New York state in which sarcasm is the accepted form of conversation, it was transformative to speak words that were complimentary and sincere.

I believe being Beau has transformed me into a better person who has discovered that kind words and a kind demeanor do more then I realized.

Which leads to the next thought: what happens when the words we use are not so kind or not so pleasing to the ear?

What happens when calling someone “fine-looking” is replaced with “foul” or “ugly”?

When “lucky” is replaced with “unfortunate”?

What happens when “family” is replaced with “foe” and “Christmas presents” is replaced with “debts” and “You owe me”?

If speaking kindly words have the power to make one feel and act kinder, what happens when the words spoken are riddled with judgment, anger or society’s sense of pecking order?


They almost hurt just saying them, let alone seeing them as a sermon title.

But there they are. So what do we do with them in a way that is faithful to the scripture yet does not make us want to block our ears or gouge out our eyes?

First thing we do is acknowledge them. These are the words that were used. They were the “fig trees” people found themselves placed under, often against their will.

They were the words used to describe the people who were most often neglected by society back in the day.

People lived in a culture of class divisions in which everyone had a place where they belonged. The lower you were the easier it was to ignore or mistreat.

But what does Jesus do?

According to Luke’s version of the Gospel, the first words of Jesus’ public ministry allude to the idea that Jesus will:

-Bring good news to the poor
-Proclaim release to the captives
-Let the oppressed go free.

Further down, Jesus recalls how God showed favor not just to a widow and a leper, but to a woman and a man who were of a different nationality and faith-background.

What is Jesus basically saying here?

That God has “enough” love and grace for all, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey.

That God has “enough” grace and love to shine a light into everyone’s lives.

That God has “enough” grace and love to find you no matter what fig tree you are situated under.

And what is the result? The people try to hurl Jesus from a cliff, a reminder of just radical his message is and what it really means to follow in Christ’s footsteps.

Why are the people so angry at Jesus? One reason is he basically said to them that God cares for everyone, not just them.

The other is because Jesus’ first recorded act of public preaching is a statement that he will overturn the way things are and that distinctions meant to divide will be null and void.

A freed woman is a captive no more.

A seeing-impaired child with sight can no longer be called blind.

A poor man who is filled with good news can no longer be called dumb or lazy or a free-loader.

A leper is made whole.

A widow is loved.

With this advent, new words, new behaviors come to be.

What happens when through Christ we no longer define the social stratosphere by “widow”, “leper”, “captives” and “poor”?

In Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit, we use anointed words like “friend”, “neighbor” and “Child of God.”

What happens is we start to move from words like “hopeless” to “hope.”

From “pointless” to “worthwhile.”

From “undeserving” to “blessed.”

What happens is that as the words our mouth speaks begin to change, so do the actions of our hands and hearts.

Instead of only worrying “What’s in it for me?” we begin to ask “What will it mean for others?”

Instead of providing care to just those we know, we reach out to the community in ways we can not even begin to imagine.

Instead of using a kitchen to feed only ourselves, we use it to feed as many as we can.

It means that when God’s Good News makes us want to get up and dance, we are not dancing alone and others will take notice.

In conclusion, because of Jesus Christ the widows have a name. The lepers have a name. The captives and the poor have names as well.

Jesus has already proclaimed to them the Good News.

It is now our time to live the Good News, to dance the Good News, to speak the Good News, no longer keeping it just to ourselves, but to show and share it with those we meet.

Amen and amen.