Friday, August 30, 2013

Sermon for September 1, 2013; Hebrews 13:1-16

Rev. George Miller
Hebrews 13:1-16
“Pleasing to God”
Sept 1, 2013

Throughout the Bible there are images of God; ways for us to imagine and understand our Creator.

Last month we read Hosea 11:1-11 which referred to God as a heartbroken parent who has taught their children how to walk, healed them and held them.

That same reading from Hosea also referred to God as a mighty lion; a lion who roars and calls the faithful back home.

Throughout the Bible there are also images that refer to the people of God; ways for us to imagine and understand who we are in relation to our creator.

Hosea 11 refers to us as trembling birds; doves who return to God the roaring lion.

It also refers to us as children; children who are taught by God how to walk, who are held and healed by God; children who grow up to break God’s heart.

In the Joseph sermon series which we recently completed, we witnessed what happens when siblings fight and how transformation occurred when one of those children realized it’s time to become a man.

Time and time again throughout scripture God’s chosen people are referred to as children: during the Exodus, throughout the Exile, in the ministry and teachings of Jesus.

In talking about children and the process of growing up, there are also the games which children play: board games, card games, and the athletic activities that not only pass away the time, but teach children valuable lessons.

Lessons like the importance of strategy and thinking ahead, how to play fair, how to be a gracious winner, a courteous loser, and the reality of just how much luck plays into things.

Most games that kids play come with rules. There are rules that are universally accepted; there are the rules that are specific to families, location or age group.

Think of Scrabble. Before sitting down to play a game you have to decide what counts as a word and what doesn’t. Is there an approved dictionary? Is slang valid? Are racial slurs appropriate and curse words ok?

There’s Monopoly. Everyone has their set of rules that you need to agree upon before you play, or watch out! Do you get extra money for landing on Go? Is money put in the middle? Just how does buying property, houses and hotels really work?

There’s another game called Mancala. We played it during Vacation Bible School. It’s considered the oldest game in the world, created by those who built the pyramids.

Mancala involve s nothing more than marbles, a working hand, a quick mind and a sharp set of eyes.

Because of its nature, Mancala has over 100 ways to play it, with different ways to count and move around the board.

I have the game in my office, and every time we have Vacation Bible School I take it out and play it with the children. I always have them play the way I know how.

But this summer one girl wanted to show me the way she played it. At first I said no, because it was unfamiliar, but then I gave in. And we played, and it was just as fun.

I lost and another kid stepped in to challenge the winner. At first I hovered over them to make sure they were following the rules, whatever they now were, and then realized they were fine; they were OK. They could handle things on their own.

I also realized something else: in an age of internet, computers, cell phones with digital games, this simple, ancient game was holding their attention.

It wasn’t about bells and whistles or technology; it was about the time spent together and the relationship being established.

It didn’t really matter which way we played Mancala because what mattered was two individuals were taking time out of the day to sit and engage with one another.

If we talked about the day or how summer was going, we talked; if we didn’t talk, well it was just as ok; silence can be a good thing when you are not alone.

And the outcome of the game didn’t really matter; it was more about the process and the time together.

I think that can apply to scripture as well. I’m sure you’ve heard people refer to the Bible as an acronym: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.

I’m not too keen on that acronym because it sounds a little too rule-based and we’ve all experienced those who take the teachings of the Bible as very literal, a stern list of dos and don’ts that is used as a tally to reward and condemn people.

“Oh, very good. You are one step closer to heaven. Go straight to Reading Railroad and if you pass Go collect $200.”

“Ooh, not good. You are one step closer to hell. Go to Jail, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.”

I hear this at the theater when people raised with more conservative beliefs then I apologize for not going to church or act surprised when they see me enjoy a cocktail or tell an off-color joke.

It does not fit into their understanding of the “rules of faith”, of how a Christian is or is not to act.

When faith is approached this way, it doesn’t seem to me to be much fun; it doesn’t seem to bring about flourishing. Such an approach to faith almost seems like one is more prone for failure and fatigue.

That’s one thing that came to mind as we approach today’s scripture. Depending on where you are in your faith journey, it can sound like a celebration of what it means to try your best and live a life of faith.

But it can also come across as a list of do’s and don’ts to be checked off.

DO: Let mutual love continue.

DO NOT: Fail to show hospitality to strangers.

DO: Remember those in prison.

DO NOT: Commit adultery or have sex outside of marriage.

DO: Be content with what you have.

DO NOT: Have a love affair with money.

The “rules” kinda seem straight forward, right? But now they get a little deeper-

DO: Follow your religious leaders because they know what’s best for you.

DO NOT: Be fooled by false teachers.

DO: Be like Jesus and suffer the same abuse he did.

DO NOT: Focus on where you live now, but on what’s to come.

Gets a little more complicated. For example, you are commanded to listen to what I say but beware that what I’m teaching you could be wrong.

And here’s a rule, a theology that has kept slaves in their place, women silent, and a way to justify the suffering of others: stop your complaining because suffering makes you more like Christ and besides, this isn’t where you are going to end up.

If we approach Hebrews 13 as a set of rules to be followed at all costs, we will either find comfort in what the winners get- a city yet to come.

Or we will be distressed by the notion of punishment. Will those who lose or those who violate the rules be cast down into a waterless pit? Sold into slavery? Locked in a dungeon?

There are denominations that approach the Bible this way. There are faiths that hold this viewpoint.

Either you play be the rules and you win; or you break the rules and you lose.

Here, at Emmanuel United Church of Christ, I believe we see things differently. The United Church of Christ, as a denomination, tends to view the Bible a bit differently.

As a UCC pastor I cannot tell you what to believe, I can only share with you what I think and what I am wrestling with. You are to take what I share and to process it on your own, with God, with your own Bible, with what you believe the Still Speaking God is saying to you.

I believe that readings like today are more like holy guidelines, spiritual marks on how to live our lives the best way we are able.

I believe that scriptures like today help us understand ways in which we can play nice with one another. How we can sit beside one another, talk with one another, relate with one another, and live with one another.

How we are able to flourish together.

Like Scrabble with a dear friend, like Monopoly on a rainy day, like Mancala during Vacation Bible School, it’s not so much the rules of how to win and who is to lose, but it’s more “Hey, this is what you are to do so you can have the best time possible together.”

Like Scrabble, like Monopoly, like Mancala, it’s not so much the end result, it’s the time spent getting there.

It’s about relationships.

It’s about how to be gracious to one another. How to be gracious to those who are not doing so well.

It’s about being gracious to ourselves.

As Christians, we do so by following the example God gave us in Jesus Christ. As Christians, we do so by recalling the ways in which Jesus was able to show forgiveness to people who had done terrible things or lived a life filled with mistakes.

As Christians we do so by recalling the ways in which Jesus reached out to and listened to, talked with and empowered those who were sick, those who were festering, those who were on the outside of the city or thirsty at the well.

As Christians we do so by recalling the ways in which Jesus cared for himself. How he spent time alone, how he took time to be with and talk to God, and how Jesus did things he enjoyed, like attending community events and partaking in a glass of wine.

I see today’s reading as a way to remind us, God’s children, that we are called to play beside one another and to play nice.

That we are not to cheat, or get vengeful at one another. That when we don’t get what we want we do not wipe all the pieces off the board or permanently walk away from the game at hand.

It doesn’t mean that we won’t have conflicts, it doesn’t mean we won’t have disagreements or argue over the rules or what they mean or what is applicable or what is not.

But it means that we, as Christians, as children of God, know how to sit side by side one another. We know how to engage with another. We get to know one another and how to be in relationship with one another.

And when others come along who want to see what we’re doing, or engage with us in the game, we can show them how it’s played and the guidelines which make the playing worthy and fun.

God, the loving parent, the mighty lion, roars, to bring the children back together. Jesus teaches us how to play nicely.

The Holy Spirit fills us with the creativity, imagination and energy to play and to move around the board.

And not so one person wins, or one person looses, but so we all get to pass GO, we all get to collect $200 and we all get the double letter and triple word score.

That, I believe, is what becomes pleasing to God.

Amen and amen.

***invite congregation to sing “Jesus Loves Me”

Friday, August 23, 2013

Sermon for August 25, 2013; Genesis 45:1-15, 25-28

Rev. George Miller
Genesis 45:1-15, 25-28
“Israel and the Son Who’s Alive”
August 25, 2013

As Christians, we are children of the Resurrection. Believers that God raised Christ from the grave; ecstatic over of the Easter message that life prevails.

From manger to cross to the empty tomb we proclaim that God, not death is the author of our journey.

While this message is certainly colorful and triumphant, it is not new to the biblical narrative. After all, Jesus told a story about a father with two sons and how one returns after a lifetime away.

For another glimpse of resurrection glory we can go back, way back, to the beginning. To the book of Genesis.

Genesis starts by telling us how God creates out of emptiness; God takes the chaos of nothingness and brings forth life- colors and sounds, wonderful and new.

Then we witness how creation responds: disobedient bites of forbidden fruit, brother killing brother, floods, rainbows, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th chances.

How God calls a childless couple to bless all the families of the world. How that family fights, struggles, falls short, flounders.

Yet God never forgets them, desserts them or goes back on God’s promise of blessing.

The Joseph narrative brings the book of Genesis to a close. It’s a story about how God’s promise, God’s plan for the world is almost, almost blacked out because
-a father plays favorites
-a dreamer bragged and boasted
-and brothers revolted.

Let’s review: Joseph is 17 and living in the land of Canaan when the story begins. He is given a glorious coat by his father and tells his brothers that one day they’ll bow down to him.

His brothers conspire to kill him, cast him down into a waterless pit, and sell him into slavery. They tell their father that Joseph was killed by a wild animal, casting Dad into a pit of unending grief.

For 13 years Joseph survives as a slave and a prisoner, a dreamer locked away in an Egyptian dungeon.

Then at age 30 he is elevated to second most powerful person in Egypt when we predicts that 7 years of plenty will be followed by 7 years of famine.

Joseph’s prophecy comes true. During this time he adapts the Egyptian style and dress. He acquires an Egyptian wife, has Egyptian children.

But back in Canaan his family is struggling to survive. Famine has struck, the earth is dry, and resources have been used up.

Not to mention the terrible secret the brothers are hiding from their father. For 22 years they have kept up the charade that Joseph is dead. For 22 years they have held back the truth.

Imagine the turmoil and stress that would have created amongst them. Imagine the conflicts that such a secret would create. The hushed conversations they would have had; the shame at watching their bereaved father cry but not being able to honestly console him.

2 years into the famine, Israel sends his sons to Egypt for aid. There they come face to face with Joseph, although they do not recognize him. But he recognizes them.

How will Joseph respond?

How would you respond?

22 years ago his life was in their hands and they cast him into a waterless pit and sold him for a few pieces of silver. Now they come groveling for help.

Chapters 42-44 show us just what Joseph does. He’s no innocent; he’s no saint. He toys with them. He engages them the way a cat does with a rat.

He speaks harshly with them, he accuses them of being spies and locks them away for 3 days. He sets them free only to place money and a chalice in their luggage so it looks like they stole from him.

Then, but the end of chapter 44 Joseph is prepared to turn Benjamin, his youngest brother, into a slave…when Judah steps up and passionately explains that enslaving Benjamin would destroy their father, the grief would literally kill him.

Judah states “Take me instead. I would rather be a slave then to see my father suffer anymore…”

Chapter 45 tells us how Joseph responds. He who had been attacked, stripped, cast down, sold away, locked up.

He who now had all the power, he who could have destroyed every single one of them, he who could have stopped God’s promise to bless the entire world through this dysfunctional family…

…Joseph breaks down and he weeps. He weeps so loudly everyone can hear. He weeps for each and every year he struggled to survive, he weeps for all the lies that have been told, he weeps for all that had been lost…

I also believe he weeps for what will be gained.

He has the power to decimate and destroy and instead he chooses…to flourish, he chooses new life.

What Joseph does in this story is absolutely amazing.

Understandably, Joseph first responds out of a place of hurt, but then he finds a way to move into healing.

He reveals to them just who he really is and then takes everything that has happened and puts it into theological framework.

Although his brothers do not say “I am sorry” and although he does not say “I forgive you” Joseph finds a way to bestow grace upon them.

“Do not be distressed, do not be angry at yourself,” he tells them, being incredibly pastoral. “What is done is done.”

He kisses them, he hugs them, and he weeps some more.

He essentially tells them “What you did brought grey into my life, but God was able to take that grey and bring about goodness and color, rainbows and light.”

He then sends them back to Canaan so they can get their father and live out the rest of their life in security and blessedness.

When Israel is told the news, he proclaims “Enough! My son who was dead is still alive!”

A resurrection proclamation if there ever was one.

Thus, the family is restored; through God what was once a colorless nightmare has become a Technicolor dream…

What can this mean for us? What is one lesson we can learn?

What really strikes me here is not how Joseph’s decision affected him and his brothers, but how it creates a ripple effect that also reaches out to his father.

It gave Israel back his son. It reopens a chapter he thought long closed. It allowed for a relationship to be restarted.

This is resurrection, this is the cross moving into an empty grave, this is life prevailing over death

This story is about one person’s ability to let go and to let God. It’s about one person’s chance to make a decision out of hate or out of love, and love prevails…

For 22 years the entire family has been in some kind of colorless dungeon. Israel was in a dungeon of grief. The brothers in a dungeon of denial and deceit. Joseph in a dungeon of distance and disconnect.

And instead of keeping them all there, Joseph acts in a way that grants freedom and life. He works through the present moment, he looks beyond the wrongs of the past and he steps into the future and brings his family with him.

Joseph does so by not just focusing on self, but on God. By understanding and trusting that God can work through the people, events and places of his life to bring about transformation.

But as we see with Joseph, transformation does not happen immediately, nor it is a one-time event, but it requires time.

Time to weep, time to be angry, time to ponder and think and decide the right course of action. Time to grieve for what can never be and time to grieve for what cannot ever be undone.

Joseph could have allowed hate and vengeance to prevail and kill them all, but then he really would have been alone with no chance of reconciliation.

But instead, he chooses to act with grace and enlightenment. He puts the situation in the hands of God and chooses life.

The result: a son that was once dead is now alive, a family which was once broken is restored and given a new future full of possibilities, and an entire nation becomes blessed.

This is a story about the healing act of forgiveness, and the saving acts of compassion. Together they create new possibilities for God’s creative acts to shape and redefine what we think we know to be true.

This is a perfect example of how God can mysteriously move through moments of famine, survival and assured death to bring about enough, flourishing and life.

And in doing so relationships are restored, our cups run over and our turbulent oceans give way to islands of refuge…

We never know what paths our lives will take; we never know what journeys we’ll go on. Nor what kind of dungeons we find ourselves in.

But each of us will come to places again and again in which we get to decide what we want to leave behind and what we wish to carry with us.

And to remember that the promise God made a long, long time ago to our ancestors was to bring a blessing to all the families of the earth.

And though we may think we are small or insignificant, we all have a role to play in that blessing, just like Joseph, and we all have moments in which we can help make that blessing real.

For that to happen, what do we need to leave behind in the dungeon and what are the choices we can make that bring forth life, abundant, colorful and enough?

How do we let go of the nightmare to embrace the dream?

Amen and amen.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Sermon for Aug 18, 2013; Genesis 39:20-23 and 41:9-16

Rev. George Miller
Genesis 39:20-23 and 41:9-16
“Dungeons and Dreamers”
Aug 18, 2013

There is something about Sunday morning worship: an opportunity to take a break from the week before and the days ahead to gather, gives thanks and regain perspective.

No matter what has transpired or what is bound to take place, Sunday morning is peace, ease, joy…an island of refuge in the midst of a primordial ocean, a splash of Technicolor when the rest of the world is grey, a dream in the confines of a dungeon.

Each and every week I try to hold onto the good feelings that come from worshipping together, of not fixating on the passage of time, micro-managing responsibility and trying my best to go with the flow, hoping those feelings will last all week…or maybe a day…or perhaps just an hour…

…but then life creeps in like sinking sand and feelings of flourishing can quickly subside into a sense of surviving.

For example, a few weeks ago we had a wonderful day of worship. We explored the concept of faith migration with the call to come back to God.

After worship, we communed, ate tasty treats and shared stories. I drove to Stephanie’s to continue the good will of the day, when I noticed a small drop of water on my brand new, expensive cell phone, right where the menu button was.

I tried to remove the cell phone’s special casing, but couldn’t unlock it and became nervous as I watched that single drop spread across the screen, sure that disaster was about to take place.

Bless their hearts, Stephanie and Joanne calmly took care of the issue, removing the cover, wiping down the screen and snapping it back in place.

All three of us laughed as I commented on the fact that just an hour ago I was so calm and serene.

Then there was the storm Tuesday night on Dinner Lake. Flashes of light appeared in the sky. Sound of hail-like rain pelted the windows. Horror-movie thunder barreled down on every side.

At a quarter-to-ten there was a booming “boom!!!” and everything went out- the lights, the TV, the air-conditioner.

Two more thunder-claps came, making both my cats jump. Then the reality set in of what it meant to have no electricity.

I lit candles, turned on the battery-powered hurricane lamp, packed an emergency bag and got out the cat carrier in case lightening struck the house and I’d have to flee.

Without electricity, the house got hotter, but with the rain I couldn’t open the windows.

Scariest thing of all: there was only 42% of battery life left on my cell phone: how was I to survive?

I texted friends, to see if they were OK. Everyone was. They all offered me a place to stay if my lights were not restored …which they were, 2 hours later.

But let me tell you; those were two looong hours. The uncertainty; the loss of control. The inability of watching “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” DVR and opening the refrigerator door anytime I wanted.

It makes one further appreciate that this year’s Global Missions Fair is going to disaster care. It also illuminates today’s reading.

We are in week two of our Joseph sermon series. Last week we were introduced to Jacob’s deliciously dysfunctional family.

Jacob openly favored one son over another. Joseph openly shared his egotastic dreams with his brothers. His brothers openly despised him, stripped away his clothes and cast him into the bottom of a waterless pit.

Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. He is taken to Egypt, becomes the overseer of his master’s house until he’s falsely accused of attempted rape. He is tossed into jail where he is granted some authority and becomes known as a discerner of dreams.

Then one day, Pharaoh is alerted to Joseph’s special gifts and calls upon him. In rather quick succession, Joseph is removed from the dungeon, shaved, dressed, deciphers the Pharaoh’s dreams and is immediately promoted to the second-most powerful position in the country, adorned with fancy clothes, fancy jewelry and a fresh ride.

Within the space of 2 chapters, 82 lines, Joseph goes from slave to free, dungeon to opulence, powerlessness to powerful.

A happy success if ever there was…until you stop to realize that Joseph’s story began was he was 17 and now he is 30.

This means that for 13 years he has been a slave and a wrongly-accused prisoner. There are no rainbows or birds of color in his world. He is far removed from his family, far removed from his friends.

The story makes those 13 years pass by quick, but really, how quick could they have gone by for Joseph?

To be locked up. To be forgotten. To be a number, not a name.

I had a hard enough time with a drop of water on my cell phone and 2 hours without electricity. Could I have handled 13 hours in jail? 13 days? 13 months? 13 years?

When we read the Joseph narrative, it makes the claim again and again how the LORD was with Joseph, how the LORD caused all Joseph did to prosper, how the LORD blessed the Egyptians through Joseph.

It’s a fairy-tale like story designed to teach us that no matter what we go through, the LORD does not forget us, the LORD is steadfast, and the LORD delivers.

Which I believe. But let’s step into Joseph’s garb. Those 13 years he was cast into a waterless pit, sold as a slave, jailed and forgotten, how do you think he felt? How easy could it have been?

Would Joseph say God acted fast? God acted slow? Was God late or was God on time? Could Joseph feel the blessings God was bestowing? Was he aware of the steadfast love he was receiving?

Does it matter if the world around you prospers and bursts into color when you’re alone and feeling forsaken?

The biblical narrator can look back upon the experience and say that God did not forget Joseph, but what good is that if every door is closed to you???

This experience is not just limited to Joseph. In our own lives there are dark moments in dungeons; moments in which we feel as if we are decaying. Times when it feels like God has forgotten about us or is asleep.

During those times in our lives we’ll hear people say “Be patient,” “Trust in the LORD”, “Deliverance will come.”

But when? How long is long enough to wait upon the LORD? 2 hours? 13 years? A lifetime?

I cannot answer that question, nor can anyone else. But I do believe that God hears, I do believe that God works.

I do believe that God restores and I do believe the LORD wants us to flourish and not just survive.

Even when it seems like water is on our cell phone, even when the electricity is off, even when we feel like we are in a jail.

I do believe the LORD is with us, the LORD watches over, the LORD blesses. And we…well, we find ways to go on.

As we learn in Joseph’s story, not every journey will be pleasant. Not every person will be welcoming.

But it is important to remember that we are created in the image of God, dreamers, creators, people of the Light.

It is important to remember that God is able to work through the history of human folly to bring about Kingdom flourishing.

We may never know in what way or understand the time frame. But through our faith in the LORD we can still believe in and hope for a better tomorrow.

To play our part in creating, building and dreaming.

Were we created to live life to the fullest?-Yes. Will we face dark moments?-Yes

Can any prison, person, place separate us from the grace of God?-No!

When our surroundings are dark and grey the Holy Spirit still finds ways to fill it with splashes of Technicolor.

When the world seems to be a primordial ocean, our faith in God becomes an island of refuge.

Even when it feels like we are confined to a dungeon, in Jesus we find the courage to dare and dream.

Are we willing to believe that God will make real the dreams we were created to dream?

As followers of Christ, as siblings of Joseph, are we willing to trust that God will enter the dungeons of our existence?

Amen and amen.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Sermon for August 11, 2013; Genesis 37:1-24

Rev. George Miller
Genesis 37:1-24
“Joseph and the Waterless Pit”
August 11, 2013

Last week I went to Vero Beach. Not wanting to go by myself I invited my friend, Sully Ann, and her two children, Mark and Maykala, to go with me.

Mark was Young Patrick in the local production of “Auntie Mame” and I played his Uncle Beau. Since then, “Uncle Beau” is how he, his sister and mother refer to me.

Sully was busy that day but said I could take the kids, so I did, and away we went, eating at an ocean side restaurant, swimming in the surf, skipping stones, and having ice cream.

On the way to and from Vero Beach we drove through the part of Florida known as the Lake Wales Ridge, a unique eco-system composed of plant and animal life you can’t find anywhere else in the world.

Lake Wales Ridge is about 10 feet wide; over 100 miles long, made up of ancient islands that existed back when the ice-caps melted and flooded the FL peninsula.

The Ridge is the highest part of our state, 300 feet above sea level. Over the course of nearly a million years the waters would rise and recede over FL but the islands of Lake Wales Ridge remained, and with it an ecosystem that was undisturbed and has remained virtually unchanged.

So when you journey through parts of Polk and Highlands County, you come across these ancient islands, except now they are part of the land, appearing as peaks and valleys along the way.

For fun, when Mark, Maykala and I drove back from Vero Beach and came across the Lake Wales Ridge, we made comments as we traveled uphill: “Now we are on an island!” As we went downhill: “Now we are in the ocean!”

Uphill: “Now we are on an island!” Downhill: “Now we are in the ocean!”

It was cool to see central FL from that point of view, thinking that at times we were driving where there was once water and prehistoric sea creatures: alligators, sharks, dinosaurs. Then knowing we were where island refuges used to be.

We are fortunate to live where we are in FL because we are so high up, and with all the rain we’ve had, although it has been wet, things are not as bad as they could be.

While we get to happily watch Lake Jackson Lake fill in, there are those south-west of us and in Lake Placid who are not so happy.

Right now Highway 66 is forming large bodies of water on the south and north side of the road where pastures and trees were. A 1st time driver to Zolfo Springs would think what they’re seeing is an actual lake, not a field.

Then there is Lake Placid. If you’ve ever noticed while driving there, Lake Placid is actually downhill of us and is much flatter. The lay of the land which allows their caladiums to flourish has also caused havoc in some peoples’ lives.

For the last two services you’ve heard me pray for the folk of Lake Placid. The reason is that there are homes that are flooded and each day it rains they go further underwater.

There are streets so covered with rainwater it is unwise to drive a car through. There are yards that have gone from having a puddle to becoming marsh-like to a mini-lake.

Every day it rains things get worse; one family has permanently moved to Orlando, another had to abandon their home just a few days ago.

So water has been as issue for the past few weeks, although it is the absence of water which ends today’s reading.

This morning we begin a 3-week sermon series about the Joseph narrative. Today we have the set up.

As the author states, this is a story about Jacob’s family. Jacob is the grandson of Abraham. If you recall, God made a covenant with Abraham to bless all the families of the world through his family.

But as we see, no one in Abraham’s family tree is free from flaws. None of them are perfect and each of them play their own role in what will happen.

We have Joseph, the next-to-last-born of the family. He has the gift of dreams but Joseph is also cocky, uncouth and a straight-up tattle-tale.

We have his brothers who are jealous, conniving, violent and easily intimidated.

And then there is their father Jacob (also known as Israel). He of all people should know about the dangers of sibling rivalry. We can look at his part of the story and say that he should have known better than giving one son a special gift; or… was he purposely egging the sibling rivalry on?

At best Jacob was unaware of what could happen, at worst he was willfully causing chaos.

Either way, all the people in today’s story act like those prehistoric sea creatures in Lake Wales Ridge. Alligators, sharks, dinosaurs: all of them. They are all imperfect people in an imperfect family…

…and yet this is the family that God is going to bless all of creation through.

This is the family in which God is going to work overtime to bring forth Boaz and King David, Solomon and eventually Jesus Christ.

Theologically speaking, God is going to work through this family to take us from being in a waterless pit to experiencing the gifts of Living Water.

But for now, today’s story ends with Joseph in the wilderness, stripped of his robe, abused by his own brothers, left for dead in the bottom of an empty well.

That can happen when people are left to their own devises. That is what can happen when people live in a me-me-me-world or find themselves stuck in survival mode.

People get hurt, things become torn, friction takes over, and dreams become shattered.

Though today’s story ends on a negative chord, it reminds me of another story, this time a positive one that takes place in the Gospel of John, chapter 4.

Perhaps you know this story: it’s when Jesus comes to a well in Samaria, a well that had been built by Jacob. Once there he meets a woman and asks for something to drink.

They engage in a lengthy conversation in which he tells her about a kind of water that gives eternal life, a spiritual resource which he refers to as Living Water.

At first the woman thinks he is talking about real, drinkable H2O until she realizes he is talking about something else, something greater; something more- so much more.

Today’s story reminds us of what happens when we take God for granted and allow too much negativity, too much competition, and too much jealousy into our lives.

But what we have in Jesus, what we receive in him, is so much different.

Because what the world has to offer us is one thing, but what Jesus offers us is beyond amazing Technicolor dream-coats.

What Jesus has to offer us is beyond power, beyond battles royale, beyond being daddy’s favorite.

What Jesus has to offer us is life, eternal life, abundant life, flourishing life.

Joseph wants to boast to his brothers that they will bow down to him.

But in Jesus we get to boast that no one is better than the other.

Joseph’s brothers would rather attack and kill him then work things out.

But in Jesus we are called to rectify disputes and find ways to discover a middle ground.

Joseph’s father wanted to show love to one causing disharmony among the others.

But in Jesus we discover our Heavenly Father has equal love for us all, ready to bestow grace and abundance, justification and islands of refuge

And when we realize this, when we embrace these truths for ourselves, and for others, we begin to understand we don’t need a special coat, nor do we need to cast others down a well.

But through Christ, we get the chance to become the hands of compassion to those who are swimming with alligators and dinosaurs; we get to be the hands of Christ to those whose lives are flooded and underwater; and we get to become the hands of Christ to those cast down in waterless pits and thirsty for that Living Water.

That’s why we are preparing for Global Missions Fair, that’s why we are going to reach out to those as far as Oklahoma and as close as Lake Placid, that’s why we are coming together to help this family in need.

So today, if you are feeling like you’re swimming in an ocean full of prehistoric creatures, know that Jesus will be your island refuge with scrub jays and purple flowers.

Today, if you are feeling like your life is quickly going underwater, know that Jesus will find a way to stop the rain.

And today, if like Joseph, you find yourself in the bottom of a waterless pit, know that you will be delivered; know that you will be lifted up and out; and know that Jesus will become your Living Water.

Let us give thanks to God for being so good, for the Holy Spirit that leads us to dry land and for Jesus who quenches our thirst.

Amen and amen.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Sermon for Aug 4, 2013; Hosea 11:1-11

Rev. George Miller
Hosea 11:1-11
“Faith Migration”
August 4, 2013

10 years ago a documentary about birds came out called “Winged Migration.”

It begins with the narrator saying “The story of migrating birds is the story of a promise; the promise to return. They fly… thousands of miles beset with danger for a single reason: to survive.”

The next 90 minutes feature stunning, up close images of birds from all seven continents, during all four seasons, as they make their way across the globe to mate, give birth and return.

The film captures the exquisite beauty of nature, from snow capped mountains to the lush green fields. It also captures the reality of eggs that fall from their nest, snagged birds that are left behind, and predators of both the animal and human kind.

“Winged Migration” is about survival and promise; it’s about the journey that God’s creatures make and how they are able to face odds, obstacles, and great distances to flourish season after season.

Last week we came to an end of one of our seasons: Vacation Bible School.

As you’ve heard and seen, our 2nd annual VBS was an unqualified success. There were all the ways in which we were able to show and share God’s love and compassion.

There were the scriptures that were selected. While they celebrated God’s creation, they also taught
-there is no place we can go where God is not
-the power of words to heal/hurt/create.

There were the guidelines that were given: no teasing or bullying allowed; to accept the fact that everyone looked different- we have different hair color and textures, different body shapes, and eyes, and they were all Ok.

The children were fed, and fed well. There was always more than enough and no kid went to bed hungry those nights.

There were crafts and lessons to learn, to cooperate, to imagine, and to put their own personal spin on.

The “chicken jar” in which the kids could put their coins to help feed others.

There was Communion, held outside by the fire pit, using juice boxes and goldfish crackers. There the children learned that Jesus is like the green grass we can rest upon when the world seems to be a desert.

For a week the children of our VBS were well fed, well taught, well protected, and well cared for. They were safe.

As expected, the last day had a mix of emotions. Good to see it over, sad to say goodbye. For me there was some melancholy because this was at least the 10th group of children I have said goodbye to.

The melancholy was partly due to questions I asked myself:
-will they recall the lessons they learned?
-will they not be so quick to judge or to be judged by others?
-will there be someone in their lives to help them do their homework and tell them they are smart?
-will they have a place to rest that is green and safe when the rest of the world is a desert?
-will they have enough food to eat?

As a non-parent, I have no idea how so many of you do it. You create life; bring forth a child into the world
-teach them to walk
-pick them up when they fall
-kiss their boo-boos when they are hurt
-try your best to show kindness and love
-feed them with food that will help them to thrive and grow

And rarely during this time of nurturing are you thanked. More than likely you are taken for granted: it is assumed that’s what you’re supposed to do.

You’re damned when you discipline; barely noticed when you show an ounce of grace.

And then….you have to let go:
-the 1st day of school as they get on the bus
-their 1st field trip
-their 1st overnight sleep over
-1st date followed by 1st heartbreak
-1st day at a job
-1st time driving alone in a car

Seasons come, seasons go, a child’s time of migration arrives and, if you are a good parent, a strong parent, you let go…

You trust.

You know they will fail and fall down. You hope they will succeed and soar.

You pray that when they come back it will be by their own accord and not with too many ruffled feathers or a broken wing.

If you have children, if you’ve ever worked with children, if you’ve dealt with the raising up and training of people, you understand all too well what today’s scripture is all about.

Today’s reading is, simply put, about God as parent. Not mother, not father, but parent.

Hosea 11 gives us an uncensored look at God; it is a tender, loving and heart breaking image.

God who gives so much and blesses us every day- but instead we turn to worship things, the Baals in our lives, thinking they made us who we are.

God, who calls us, carries and leads us, but still we want to do things our way, follow our own ego and our own decisions rather then try to discern what God might be trying to say.

God takes a step closer, but we migrate away.

God grants us freedom, but we’d much rather prefer to be slaves.

God’s desire is for us to flourish, but we’d rather forsake the gifts before us and instead try to survive doing it our way.

We see this happen again and again throughout scripture:
-the freed slaves in the wilderness wishing to go back to Egypt
-the comfortable Israelites in the land of milk and honey who stop doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with their Lord
-the decision that Jesus’ place belonged upon the cross and not at the table beside sinners

-the empty seats we see in church each and every Sunday, in every place of worship

For millennia people have been migrating from God not aware that it was the Lord who called them, lifted them up, and bent down to feed them.

Thankfully, God is not a human, God understands. God is patient.

God operates on a different time line then we do; an eternal time frame in which no amount of seasons is too long to be away. Nor any distance too great to travel back from.

We all, at one time or another, in some shape or form, wander away from God.

God waits.

When the seasons change, when we get to the place in which we are tired, when we are weak, when we are worn, we can return.

When we’ve lost all that matters, when we find ourselves surrounded by pigsties and craving something more, so much more, we can return.

When the shadows of night appear, when darkness seems to last longer and longer, we can return.

When we are done with false gods and hungry hearts and ruined lives, we can return.

Like beautiful, noisy, trembling birds we can return.

We migrate back to God.

Like a mighty lion, God will roar loud and sure so the direction is clear.

Our feathers might be a bit ruffled, a wing may even be broken, but no matter what has happened, we will be forgiven; the grace of God never fails.

We will be forgiven, because no matter how many seasons come, no matter how many seasons go, God is anxiously awaiting our return.

We will be forgiven; because the heart of God becomes our home.

The place where we are washed in the water, the place where we taste the food of the field and fruit of the vine.

To fly towards the Son, to be lifted on high by the Holy Spirit and to know that no matter who, no matter what, God is awaiting our return.

We will be healed and we will indeed flourish.

That is God’s promise to us.

Amen and amen.