Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Sermon for May 26, 2013; Numbers 25

Rev. George Miller
Numbers 25
“Text of Terror pt 1”
May 26, 2013

Today we discuss one of the most difficult scriptures one can encounter, and we are doing so when people are celebrating the start of summer and our nation is honoring our fallen soldiers.

It would have been easier to do a reading that seemed more patriotic or a story that was filled with sunshine and smiles.

But it’s been said that it is the difficult situations that make us grow and that some people do their best work when backed into a corner.

Today I have no choice but to call upon the Lord to ask that this is one of those moments in which I, in which we get to grow, and that today’s message, though doubtfully will be considered my best, will be good enough.

After hearing Numbers 25 read you are probably wondering “Why? Why are we hearing about it?” I’d wager that many people have never heard it before.

The reason why stems from conversations I have had over the last few months. People have been talking a lot about Islam. It seems most people don’t know about the religion, so they can only go by what they see and hear on the news, read in the paper or over the internet.

What we are most often exposed to are the radical acts; the uber-conservative side that bring about their reign of terror.

Rarely do we hear about the common, peaceful people who go about their day, just as we do, trying to do the best they can.

Political pundits, talk show hosts and people who like to hit “forward” on their e-mail without performing a fact-check will cite texts in the Koran that incite violence, which speak of horrible actions and a call for destroying the enemy.

“See,” people will say, “This is proof that they are all out to kill us.”

Yet the truth, if we are to be totally honest, is that we have the same kind of stories in our scripture.

The Bible which we call the Good Book, the Good News, is filled with story after story about God being angry, nations being punished and people being wiped out because of who they are, how they live and what they believe.

As a pastor who has been called to be your teacher and preacher, I can only say it is my fault if people do not know these stories.

I know they exist. As a Bible nerd I’ve read them many times. I’ve encountered them in my seminary training.

But how can I expect people to know what is in the Bible if I don’t share with you, or I shield you from the truth or act as if they do not exist?

Because they do exist. And this is just one of those stories, and I have struggled with what to talk about today. How much to share. What to hold back.

I could so easily spend our time going over the history of when this story was written and when it was supposed to take place.

I could delve into the theology, take the scripture apart bit by bit and talk about the theological truths that exist here and how to apply it to our lives.

I could approach this story as a giant metaphor. About the danger of becoming complacent in pop culture and how we need to slay sin if we are to live healthy, holy lives.

Yes, I could do all those things. But none of it will change the fact that we have a story in which

1) God is not only jealous but so angry that God can kill
2) Phinehas brutally murdered an interracial, interfaith couple while they are in the act of love making
3) Not only does God approve of the act, but God rewards Phinehas and his family with an eternal covenant of peace
4) God tells Moses to harass and defeat the Midianites, which they do in chapter 26.

For some it is too perplexing, too upsetting that a scripture like this even exists. Or that we, as a UCC church should even speak of it, much less on a day like today.

Just last week we celebrated the event of Pentecost in which Peter gives a sermon that the Holy Spirit is poured out upon all flesh.

We start each and every worship service saying “No matter who you are and where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here.”

And we just heard the choir sing about the raining down of God’s mercy and how God’s works are worthy of trust.

Yet here is scripture telling us that not all are welcome; in fact it could be used to advocate the murder of anyone of a different faith or who engages in an inter-racial or inter-faith relationship.

And best believe that there are people who have committed such hate crimes, justifying their actions with such a story as this.

How would we feel if someone took today’s scripture and used it as the basis to judge all Jews and all Christians?

How would we feel if all our actions, all our words, our entire value as a people was based on today’s story alone?

The Bible, dear friends, is a book filled with tension. It is a sacred text that attempts its best to capture creation’s experience with God our Creator, Jesus our Savior and the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes, I believe, the Bible gets it right; sometimes I feel like it gets it all wrong.

But even when it says something I am not comfortable about or disagree with, I do not throw it away.

Instead, I believe that we are to wrestle. We wonder what it’s about, what it is trying to say. We seek a way to find God’s voice. To discover the meaning that is underneath.

The Bible is a book in which we extend grace.

We understand it was written by different people in different cultures living in different times who were trying to make sense of everything that was happening around them and just where God was and how God acts.

Sometimes they use images which portray God as a warlord who wants to wipe out others.

Sometimes they portray God as a compassionate soldier who is protecting the children.

Sometimes God is a shepherd who wants to lead us beside still waters and give us rest in green pastures.

Sometimes God is so angry and disappointed in us that it seems easier to wipe us out with one good flood or plague.

So we wrestle with these tensions. Instead of ignoring scriptures like Numbers 25 we ask what they mean and what we can learn.

We also ask what it is that we are accountable for. Are there things in our own faith that have lead to the harm of others? Are there times in history where what we professed held others down?

After all it was Christians during the crusades who killed anyone they deemed a heathen. It was Christians who saw fit to enslave the African and force Native Americans onto reservations.

It was Hitler, a baptized Catholic, who caused the annihilation of 6 million Jews not to mention gypsies and those deemed unworthy of life.

It has been Christian churches that have said women were unfit to preach and there are churches that will sever ties with the Boy Scouts because they have said that gay youth can belong.

Should we, as Christians, be judged for all the events that have taken place using our name?

Should we, as followers of God, be judged solely on a few biblical texts taken out of context?

As a pastor, as a preacher, as a theologian, I invite us to do something more. That we are to look at the big picture.

That we do not focus on just one text, nor do we focus on just one event, but the whole story. The story that is told in the Bible from the first verse of Genesis to the last verse of Revelation.

That story is one that says in the beginning before there was anything else there was God.

It says that over the waters of chaos God’s Spirit moved and God spoke and from God came forth life, and in all its diversity, life is good.

That story says that in the end, when all else is gone, there will still be God. Chaos will be no more, the Lord will be our light, and it will be good.

The story says that when we were in the garden God was there. When we were enslaved God was there.

When we were wanderers God was there. When we were home God was there.

When we were exiled and trying to remember who we were, God was there. When we had times of comfort and enough God was there.

And when the time was right, God came to us in the form Emmanuel, vulnerable, alive, and free.

In Emmanuel we experienced who God truly is.

In Jesus we saw someone who cared about the sick, who showed compassion to the poor, who forgave sins, who ate with and socialized with those who were different, those who had been deemed unworthy.

In Jesus we encounter a God who does not spear another because of their sin, but a God who is willing to be speared if that’s what it takes to show how much we are adored.

And in the story of Pentecost we witness how the Holy Spirit is a gift to all people, for all people, regardless of race, age, sex or status.

Today’s scripture is indeed an uncomfortable one. It is not easy to speak, hear, or to teach about in just a few minutes.

Fortunately it is not the lone story about God that we have; it is not the one instance of which to base our faith.

So I leave us with more questions.

What is Christ calling us to do? How is Christ calling us to live? Who is Christ calling us to love?

Is it just those who look like us? Those who live like us? Those who believe like us?

Are there those we deem worthy of grace and forgiveness? Are there those that we deem not worthy at all?

Who do we point our spears at? When do we pound our swords into plowshares?

I can’t answer those. But I can share what I know and ask the difficult questions.

I can also invite us as a congregation to continue calling upon God, to seek out the guidance of the Holy Spirit and to try every day to be a bit more like Jesus Christ: to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our Lord and one another.

Amen and amen.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sermon from May 19, 2013; Acts 2:1-21

Rev. George Miller
“Freeing God”
“Acts 2:1-21”
May 19, 2013

Monday I was flipping through the TV channels when I came across “Dancing with the Stars.” I’ve never watched the show, assuming it was all genteel, polite ballroom-style dancing. 1,2 step. 1,2 step.

Well, what I saw instead surprised me: Afro-Cuban dancing. It began with Alexandra Raisman and Mark Ballas on the stage in face-paint, headdresses and spears. Drums played as smoke filled the background.

And then…woosh! They’re pounding and twirling spears. They're stomping their feet. Whoosh! They jump off the stage onto the dance floor. They’re spinning; they’re windmilling their arms.

Whoosh! They are completely in the moment while using every bit of their body: hands, hair, butt, thighs, back, quads. Whoosh! They're doing handstands, rolling on the floor, leaping over each other, shaking what their momma done gave them.

The crowd went wild. The judges went wild, telling them “You were athletic, you were connecting…you have exceeded all expectations.”

I could not get this performance out of my head, so the next day I pulled the clip up on YouTube and watched it again with the same sense of “Wow!” and “Oh my goodness.”

Scrolling down to the comment section, the 1st statement said this: “I don’t know what that was, but I loved it!”

“I don’t know what that was, but I loved it!” also sums up today’s reading. Other thoughts are “What the...?” “Holy Cow!” “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s gonna be a bumpy night.” And “I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Today we just read about Pentecost, perhaps the most important event in the life of the early church. It’s the day God’s Holy Spirit broke in to our lives to do something new.

Not new as in “That’s nice” but new as in loud, forceful, unexpected. Strange beyond strange; beyond imagination.

We’re talking about an experience that could only be described by referencing rushing wind, divided tongues as of fire, people feeling bewildered, and wondering if everyone around them is drunk.

“What does this all mean?” the people ask after experiencing such an extravagant production. Or, in YouTube’s vernacular: “I don’t know what that was, but I loved it!”

Why? Because today’s reading reminds us that the same God who was with Moses and Miriam, Abraham and Sarah is the same God who raised Jesus from the grave.

Why? Because today’s reading reminds us that the birth of the church was a gift from God and the Holy Spirit gave us what we needed to proclaim and hear, to minister and empower.

“I don’t know what that was, but I loved it!” Why? Because today’s reading reminds us that God is transformational, God is full of vitality, and God is free.

God is free to act as God chooses. God is free to communicate as God pleases.

God is free to break into our world in ways we can not even begin to imagine or be prepared for.

A burning bush? Sure, why not. A giant, prophet-swallowing fish? Who’s to say? An empty tomb? Heck yeah.

God is free, God speaks, God communicates to us in so many ways. And if we are humble enough to hear the many ways, we too get to say “I don’t know what that was, but I loved it!”

Today’s author has God’s Holy Spirit jumping off the stage onto the world’s dance floor using wind, fire, and words and whoosh! - salvation is promised to all who call on the Lord.

Thinking ahead, it’s just not flames and wind that the Spirit uses to move and communicate with us today.

There’s music. Slow, meditative melodies to set the mood and center the soul. Upbeat, lively tunes to awaken the spirit.

The use of color, the various kinds of art. The spoken word which can make us laugh, cry, feel, and think. Words have begun revolutions and forever changed lives.

The use of food to welcome the stranger, to establish fellowship, to become a visible sign of grace.

The Holy Spirit moves through the minds of those who study, the hearts of those who do service, the hands of anyone who creates and builds.

Way after way after way in which the Holy Spirit breaks into our world, dances into our lives, twirling, stomping, leaping.

After an experience with the Holy Spirit we may find ourselves invigorated; we may find ourselves wiped out, we may find ourselves saying “I don’t know what that was, but I loved it!”

So here is our question for the week, perhaps the next month, perhaps the next year: how do we remember that God is unusual, amazing and free?

How do we not domesticate God to only fit into a set hour, a set style, a select list of possibilities, a pre-set notion of hows and whens and whys and why-nots?

Are there times in which God is quiet? Yes. Are there times when God is loud? Yes!

Is God gentle? Yes. Is God rough? Yes!

Is God orderly and civilized? Yes. Is God wild and untamed? Yes!

Can God ballroom dance and go 1,2 step, 1,2 step? Yes. Can God also break out and stomp and jump and twirl and windmill? You bet your sweet…

God is already free. From the very beginnings, when God’s Spirit moved across the waters of chaos and brought forth life, God was always free.

The Holy Spirit is athletic, connecting and always surprising us beyond our expectations, asking us to dance to ballroom, fox trot, and Afro-Cuban.

The challenge for us is to welcome that freedom, to let go and give in to it. To understand the same God who spoke to our ancestors, who entered into our lives as Emmanuel is the same God whose Holy Spirit gives us ears to hear and tongues to speak.

It is that Holy Spirit which gives assurance to all who believe, which gives us ability and talent beyond imagination.

And we are all that much better, and we are all that much more vital because of it.

Amen and amen.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Sermon from May 12, 2013; Mother's Day; John 17:20-26

Rev. George Miller
John 17:20-26
“That They All May be One”
May 12, 2013

It’s Mother’s Day. Know how we can tell? Because 2 weeks ago Publix began running their ad-you know the one: the pregnant woman and her daughter making a meal using all perfectly placed Publix products.

They are shilling the heck out of their stuff, but it still gets me emotionally every time.

This add shows one aspect of motherhood: the meal-creator. Other commercials assign other roles to Moms.

There is the bather: the one who makes sure the children are washed and clean before going to sleep or going to school.

Another role is the mess cleaner-upper. If something spills, there they are with a 2-ply quilted paper towel or wet mop or stain remover, sometimes dancing as they do so.

If you are dealing with children, there are a lot of messes to clean up after. And if we are to be honest, as advanced and liberal as we like to think we are, a lot of women will still say their spouse or partner is just another kid they have to clean up after.

Keeping things clean is not an easy task. We are a people who like to have stuff, lots of stuff. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that we like to take care of them.

How many people here truly enjoy having to sweep their floors, vacuum the carpets, wash dishes, dust their knick-knacks and launder, dry, fold and iron their clothes?

Life is a mess and no matter how hard we try to keep things spotless, there is clean-up which needs to be done and not everyone wants to deal with it.

Which can be a good thing. If people liked to clean up things themselves there would be a bunch of people out of their jobs.

Ask Joanne and Stephanie, who make a living cleaning up for people who don’t want to or no longer can. Or the good folk at Griffin or Feather’s dry cleaning.

If the world wasn’t a messy place, we wouldn’t have judges and lawyers, police and fire departments.

The church also deals with the messiness of life. People seeking care and assurance when life falls apart. People seeking help with everything from rent to utilities to transportation.

We try our best to respond with compassion but alas we can’t clean up everyone’s mess.

For some, simply having a place to come to for an hour or two a week gives people a reprieve from whatever mess is at home, the work place, the doctor’s office or their check book.

Life is messy. Things break. Things fall apart. Things unexpectantly happen. And it is particularly hard when you’re not prepared for it and feel like you are left alone to deal with it all.

Is that part of what is going on here in today’s reading?

What we just heard today is a piece of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse”, a rather lengthy monologue he gives the last night or his life.

Jesus has shared a last meal with his followers, he’s washed their feet, and now he is preparing them for the messiness of what’s to come: his own betrayal, the hatred that others will show to them, the persecution they will face, how they will be put out and scattered about.

Those are hard truths to share, but like any parent, Jesus knows he can not hide them from the realities of life.

So, like a loving parent, he also gives them words of instruction and inspiration.

“Little children,” he calls them, “Believe in God. Continue doing the good works I have shown you. Keep my commandments. Go and bear fruit.”

“Don’t let troubles rule your life; know that fear passes. Love one another just as I have loved you.”

Then, Jesus turns his attention to God and on their behalf he asks “God, watch over them; guard them so they don’t become lost. Sanctify them; be present to them just as you are to me. Let them know you intimately.”

Jesus asks something else. “Do not take them out of the world, but protect them.”

I think any good parent knows just what Jesus is saying here.

You raise your children the best that you can, shelter, wash, clothe and feed them. Teach them values. But at some point you have to let them go.

Out into the world.

The first time they cross the street alone. Their first day of school. Their first sleep over. Their first time driving a car by themselves. Their first day at work.

Step by step, event by event, there is the letting go, the trusting, and the hoping, even in the midst of worry.

You prepare them the best you can; that they look both ways, are nice to others, make smart choices, and don’t worry about what people may say or think.

That’s partly what Jesus is doing here.

Jesus is soon to leave them, and although he will still be present in their lives, it’ll be in another way, a way that’s not always so obvious.

Though the world can be a messy, treacherous place, Jesus does not want to remove them from the world; he does not want to sequester them away.

He knows there will be bullies. He knows there will be those who will test their limits and try to get them to do things they should not. He knows all about the many trials and temptations they will face.

Because he knows that things will be difficult, things will be messy, he tries to prepare them.

Maybe if they hear his prayer to God it will prevent them from making bad choices. Maybe if he prays on their behalf they will do the right thing. Maybe if he entrusts the future of the community to God, the community will entrust their future to the Father.

Maybe, just maybe, by them being out in the world, independent but unified as one, they can help transform the world into a better place.

Perhaps, just perhaps, by remembering his words, by emulating his actions, they can bring joy and life into their community.

They can demonstrate to others that there is another way, a better way. A way that involves service instead of selfish greed. A way that involves mutuality instead of “what’s in it for me?” A way that involves reaching out as opposed to pointing fingers.

A way that places God, and God’s commandment that we love one another, first.

Does Jesus think all of these things will come to pass? I don’t think so. He knows well enough problems will arise, friction will frazzle them, and faults will take place.

His followers are, after all, only human.

But like a loving parent, Jesus tries his best to prepare them, give them the tools they need, the assurance that they matter and the knowledge that they are not alone.

Maybe, when they fail, when they are hurt, or when they hurt another, they will find comfort by recalling his words and resetting their spiritual compass.

Like a good parent, Jesus has bathed and fed his children. Like a good parent, he loves them all equally, wants to see them all get along, and to play well with each other.

And now he has instructed them so they can enter into the world, with all its messiness and strife, so they can live their lives, so they can make a difference, so they can participate in God’s gift of eternal life.

Jesus wants the same for us. Jesus wants us to have joy in the now, to experience the glory of God.

Jesus wants us to know that no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey, no matter how messy life is, no matter how starved or soiled we get, we all have the Lord’s love dwelling within. We are all God’s children.

With that knowledge is hope; in that hope we are united. Being united in Christ is our vitality.

Amen and amen.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Sermon from May 5, 2013; Rural Life Sunday; Psalm 67

Rev. George Miller
Psalm 67
“The Size of an (Orange) Seed”
May 5, 2013

Theologian Gerhard Frost wrote “It is appropriate to give thanks to God over a plate of food because it took a whole universe to produce it.” That’s a good quote for today since we are celebrating both Communion and Rural Life Sunday.

Most likely it was not a big city that produced the bread and the juice that we are soon to receive. Chances are the grain of the field and the fruit of the vine were created in rural communities, like ours.

After all, with cow pastures, lakes everywhere you look and wildlife always on the verge of reclaiming the land we are a rural community.

There are over 15,000 Agriculture related jobs making up 40% of our employment, contributing 33% to the gross regional product, creating $700 million in revenue.

Let’s not forget, we have over 8 million citrus trees on 65,000 acres, making Highlands County the 3rd largest citrus provider in the state. Which means that if someone in the United States is drinking a glass of orange juice, there’s a good chance it came right from our own town.

Which makes one wonder: if Jesus was alive today, and the Gospel stories took place here in Sebring, would Jesus have used orange juice for the Last Supper?

Because after all, Jesus was a rural boy, a small town guy who lived simply among the people. He would have been in Hammock Park, on the shores of Veteran’s Beach and hanging out with the patron’s of the Blue Crab.

Today is Rural Life Sunday. I can’t lie to you, I don’t know much about what rural life really means in terms of working the land, getting my hands dirty and depending on the sun and the rain.

I can imagine. I can watch movies and read books, but I can not personally tell you about silos filled with grain, of cows that needed milking every morning no matter how tired you were, nor about the danger of horses that kick.

But what I can share is the community aspect that exists in such a place as ours. See, there is no “I” in “Rural.” In a rural community, it is often more about the “U” and the “us.” And that’s a beautiful thing.

Let me give three recent examples. The other day, while going to lunch, I stopped at Griffin’s dry cleaners. I was greeted by Irene and after a friendly conversational exchange, she said “Come here, I want to show you something.”

In the back of the store was a cage with two bunny rabbits that had been rescued after their mother died. Irene and the woman next door are taking turns caring for them until they are big enough to be set free somewhere along Dinner Lake.

Where else but a small town can you have an unexpected conversation like that?

Afterwards I went to Brisas del Mar for lunch. Within minutes a family just began talking to me. Turns out it was one of their children’s birthdays and soon we’re all singing “Happy Birthday” together.

Where else but a small town can you experience that?

Days later, I’m at Publix, carrying a fresh basil plant around the store. A woman comes up to me, smiling and asking questions about it and comments on my Emmanuel UCC shirt. As she says goodbye, she states “WE are all united in Christ.”

Where else but a small town can you experience that?

That sense of community; that openness and genuineness that comes from living in a small, rural setting.

Of course, to truly experience these things it means that the concept of time has to take on a new meaning. In order to see bunny rabbits, sing happy birthday and share the Good News, you have to be able to stop, to engage, and to talk.

It also means being able to see beyond the “I”, being able to see the “you”, being able to see the “us”, being able to see the “all.”

There is no “I” is rural, but there sure as heck is a “U.” We witness that sentiment in today’s scripture.

It’s a communal prayer for blessing, a testimony that God is the Lord of all Creation. As such, God bestows gifts that enhance our existence.

God gives us all “enough”; God gives us that what makes life good. God does not give so that just you and I can be blessed, but so that all of us, all the peoples of the earth can be blessed as well.

Now this can sound so simple, it can sound so cute. But do not be fooled: what this psalm is saying is radical and revolutionary.

By saying “all the nations” it means all the nations, regardless of race, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of who you are and where you are on life’s journey.

Note what is missing from Psalm 67. Just like the word “rural” there is no “I.” This is a communal song if there ever was one.

The word “peoples” appear 5 times; “us” appears 4 times. “Nations” appear 3 times; “earth” and “all” each appear twice.

This is a song written by a small, communal group of folk who live and work and worship side by side by side, and in God, the individual “I” moves into the sacred “us.”

“Us” meaning people like Irene who will say “Come see what I have.” “Us” meaning a family who say “Join in celebrating a birthday.” “Us” meaning a stranger in a store who becomes, if even for a moment, a neighbor.

The “us” that Mary Alexander and the folks at Good Shepherd Hospice reach out to each and every day.

The “us” that the Agriculture Extension reach out to who get up early each morning, who get their hands dirty, who bring millions of dollars of revenue into our town.

The “us” that the Tourism Development Council reach out to, who are looking for a lake to fish, a place to stay, for a chance to be alive in a way that a big city may not always be able to provide.

Country roads, productive land, good neighbors, the ability to pause, be gracious, and to say “Yes sir” and “No ma’am.”

This is the “us” that exists in rural towns like ours. This is the “us” that the Israelites found in God.

A belief that they did not have to be big and mighty, they did not have to possess skyscrapers and corporate logos to influence the world and to transform it for the better.

But that as small, as communal and as intimate as they were, if God blessed them, then God would also bless the world…

…Do you recall the lesson Jesus teaches in Luke 13:18-19: “What is the Kingdom of God like?...It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”

The Kingdom of God starts off small, rich in possibilities, part of creation.

We here at Emmanuel UCC, located on Hope Street, may not know what a mustard seed looks like, but we sure as heck know about orange seeds, and how they grow, the fruits they produce; their color, their taste, their fragrance, and the economy they create.

We can also be God’s orange seeds. Being planted, growing and sharing, praising and blessing.

As we grow, as we continue to welcome the birds of the air, we grab onto the vitality which we have, not just to offer praise for all that God has done, but to be a blessing to all those around.

We get to play our role in sharing the Good News with all the people of the earth, so they can not only experience, but celebrate God’s blessings as well.

Now, as we come to the end of our message, as we prepare to celebrate Communion, there is a prayer I’d like to share, one that was passed on to Jim Sparks’ by his brother-in-law:

-“Back of the loaf is the flour.
Back of the flour is the mill.
Back of the mill is the wheat
And the shower, and the sun
And the Father’s will.”

Amen and amen.