Friday, February 21, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, Feb 23, 2014; Leviticus 19:1-19

Rev. George Miller
Leviticus 19:1-19
“What Not to Wear”
Feb 23, 2014

Until recently there was a television show called “What Not to Wear”. It was comfort food TV, something to pass the time.

The premise of the show was fairly simple: fashion advisors Stacey and Clinton guided people in ways to dress that impressed and truly reflected who they are or want to be.

Regardless of a person’s height, age or body shape, they showed how using the right cut, color, and pattern made all the difference.

There were basically two kinds of people that Stacey and Clinton assisted: those who didn’t believe in their own self-worth and dressed drab and frumpy.

Then there were those who believed they were special and unique so they dressed loud and inappropriately.

This second group had a hard time letting go of their current clothes, afraid that if they were to dress any other way then they would stop being…special and unique.

What happened during the course of the show is that they learned it was not the clothes that made them special and unique.

What the right clothes did was make them shine in a way they never had before, without losing what made them special and unique…

Today we come to the end of a three-week series in which our scriptures were selected by Debbie Teeters. I believe she did a wonderful job, starting with Isaiah 58, continuing with 1 Corinthians 3.

We’ve discussed how being a Christian shapes who we are, how we act and how we are to worship God.

Today we conclude with a reading from Leviticus. A lot of folk aren’t too familiar with this book; others are afraid of it. This is a text that some use as a weapon to judge or hurt others.

But we should not be so uncomfortable or afraid of this book. It offers insight into the beginning stages of our faith when people were trying to figure out what it means to follow God, what it means to live a holy life.

When this book was written, its audience was the minority group and they were indeed special and unique.

While others worshipped gods of war, gods of royalty, and gods of wealth, the Israelites worshipped another kind of God.

They believed in a God whose every action went against the expected norm.

In Genesis, when God calls forward a couple to become the family through which all families of the world will be blessed, who does God choose?

A young, virile king and queen?

Nope: an older, childless couple who live off the land named Abraham and Sarah. Their family tree was as good as dead and they were at that stage of life in which people think about retiring to Tanglewood for pickleball and aqua aerobics.

Abraham and Sarah were special and unique, yet they were the ones God chose to bring new life into the world.

In Exodus, when God selects the chosen people, who will they be? The Egyptians with their pharaohs, palaces and pyramids?

No. The chosen people are the foreign slaves, oppressed, lowly, poor and despised.

The slaves are special and unique, yet it is for them that God parts the Red Sea waters.

In 1 Samuel when God calls forward a new king to replace Saul, is it Saul’s first born son, raised in royalty with servants on hand?

No, it’s David, the youngest son of a rancher who was raised in the field, watching sheep and playing music.

Young David was special and unique, yet it is he who God calls.

While other nations, other religions claimed to worship gods of war, gods of royalty, and gods of wealth, the Israelites claimed the God they worshipped, the God they believed in, is, was and forever will be a God of the elderly, the childless, the hopeless, the youngest, the forgotten, the enslaved, the despised, the oppressed, and the different.

Because of this understanding of what made them special and unique, it shaped how they believed they were to act as people of faith.

Since God went out of the way to show love and care to the special and unique, they were to also find ways to care for and respect others, being the best dang neighbor one can be and to treat others as one would want to be treated.

With this in mind, let’s look at Leviticus 19. It states that since God is holy, the people are to be holy as well.

Holy is another way to say special and unique.

A list of ways follow. Some may seem puzzling, like the notion of not eating sacrificed food past the third day, although for people with no refrigeration, it must have made sense.

Then there are the things that are timeless: don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t cheat your neighbor or hold back someone’s pay.

Don’t gossip. Don’t give someone special treatment in court just because they are rich or because they are poor.

Respect your parents, don’t be mean to your kin, or someone deaf or blind.

Socio-economic justice exists in the instruction to leave the edges of land and all fallen fruit for the poor and alien to gather.

(Imagine if everyone with an orange tree or orange grove actually did that?)

Do not act on vengeance or bear a grudge, but love your neighbor as yourself? Why?

Because God is our Lord.

Can you hear just how special and unique these notions are?

But then we go to verse 19 about not interbreeding animals, or sowing a field with two kinds of seeds or wearing clothes made of two fabrics.

What? Why?? Let me share two thoughts-

First, here’s a notion of our God being so special, so unique, so holy that care isn’t just extended to humans, but it goes beyond to animals, the earth, and even to what we wear.

A God so special that it matters how we treat other living creatures. A God so unique that even seeds are to be given a chance to grow and thrive with their own share of soil and sun.

Here’s the second thought: the Israelites religious life focused on the Temple. It was where they worshipped God; where they brought their thanksgiving offerings; where they received forgiveness of their sins; where they gathered as a people, forging and maintaining their cultural identity.

They also believed the Temple is where God lived.

Then, one day they are attacked. Their homes are destroyed, the people are kidnapped and the Temple is burned to the ground.

The people, the priests and even God are literally homeless.

They are devastated and left with a theological dilemma: how can you worship God with no Temple?

With no temple, where would God dwell?

With no temple, how could they hold onto their identity as special, unique, holy people???

…That, dear friends, is part of what makes today’s reading so powerful. It helps to offer a solution to the theological dilemma.

Being holy, being special and unique was not just about a building of brick and stone; it involved every aspect of their life.

Even with the Temple gone, they could experience God’s holiness in the ways in which they lived in relationship with one another and with their environment:

-Being nice to your momma.

-Not lying, cheating or engaging in gossip.

-Paying what is right; charging what is fair.

-Looking out for the deaf, the blind, the poor, the alien.

-Treating others as you’d want to be treated.

All those ways are holy, ways one can still experience God; to know God has not deserted you, to discover that God indeed has a dwelling: within your heart.

But it goes even a step further: care for your animals; plant a garden. That’s holy.

Even if the only thing you can do is take one day to rest or to be mindful of what you are wearing, that too can be holy.

This is a revolutionary notion that God’s holiness extends out to all aspects of life.

Everything we do can become a holy act infused with the presence of God, no matter how simple, no matter how mundane.

This means that our awareness of and relationship with God is not just tied to a specific building or a religious leader but it can be attached to all the daily things we do.

Though Leviticus is often seen as a set of constricting rules, there are elements of freedom because it lets us know that no matter who we are, no matter where we are on life’s journey, no matter what happens to us, there are ways we can experience God, there are still ways we can share God.

There are still ways in which we can be holy, there are still ways we can be special and unique, even if all we have are a song to sing, kind words to say or a packet of seeds.

Reach out to another: God is there.

Be honest and just: God is there.

Pay attention to what we wear, the animals we care for, the gardens we tend: God is there.

In God we can all be holy; in God we are all special and unique.

In God we can all shine, shine, shine.

Amen and amen.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Sermon for Feb 16, 2014; 1 Corithians 3:1-9

Rev. George Miller
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
“You Belong to Me”
Feb 16, 2014
A burglar broke into a home one night. He shined his flashlight around, looking for valuables. When he picked up a computer, a strange, disembodied voice echoed from the dark saying, "Jesus is watching you."

He nearly jumped out of his skin, shut his flashlight off, and froze. When he heard nothing else, he shook his head, promised himself a vacation after the next big score, then clicked the flashlight back on.

Just as he pulled a stereo out to disconnect the wires he heard, "Jesus is watching you."

Freaked out, he frantically shone his light around, looking for the source of the voice. Finally, in the corner of the room, the light came to rest upon a parrot.

"Did you say that?" he asked the parrot.

"Yep," the parrot confessed, then squawked, "I'm just trying to warn you!"

The burglar relaxed. "Warn me, huh? Who in the world are you?"

"Moses," replied the bird.

"Moses?" the burglar laughed. "What kind of people would name their bird Moses?"

"The same kind of people that would name their Rottweiler Jesus!"

…If you were alive during the 1950’s-early 60’s you may recall that it was a magical era for music on the radio.

Rock and roll was new, and you may hear “Splish Splash I was taking a bath” alongside a song like “Moon River.”

There were tunes like Nat King Cole’s “L-O-V-E”: “L is for the way you look at me, O is for the only one I see, V is very, very extraordinary, and E is even more than anyone that you adore…”

Or Peggy Lee’s “Fever”: “Never know how much I love you; never know how much I care. When you put your arms around me I get a fever that’s so hard to bare.”

Then there was the doo-wop music. Groups of handsome, clean cut young men who’d sing in gorgeous harmonies about their affections for a sweet, pretty girl.

These songs captured that all-too brief period in American history when everyone loved Lucy, liked Ike, war was over, jobs were plentiful and teenagers had cars meant to be driven slowly through town, with the top down, and to park at the drive in theater or at lover’s lane.

One of the song’s from that era is “You Belong to Me” by the Duprees. It has picturesque lyrics about pyramids along the Nile, sunrises from tropic isles, flying over oceans in a silver plane and seeing jungles wet with rain.

It’s rich with creation-based imagery that any ecotheologian would delight in. And, as “Sister Act 1 & 2” taught us, virtually any love song from that era can be turned into a song about God.

“You Belong to Me” sounds like a lyric God would sing to us as a reminder that it’s not pyramids or market squares or silver planes that we belong to, but it is God.

Not in a crazy, stalker way, or in a “Jesus as a Rottweiler” kind of way, but in a way that reminds us that we belong to God much as we would to a loving father, a faithful lover or a longtime companion.

Last week we heard a message from our guest speaker Joshua who used the teaching of Isaiah 58 to remind us of what God wants and what it means to follow God.

Today’s reading is a natural progression of Isaiah in which we read a letter from Paul reminding us of what it means to be a Christian.

There is controversy taking place in the Corinthian church. It’s the early 50’s, just two decades after Christ was crucified and resurrected.

Paul has started a church in Corinth and is succeeded by Apollos.

People are starting to stir things up. Who can belong, who can’t? What are the accepted sexual norms? How does the Holy Spirit function in worship? What’s the true meaning of the resurrection?

Who do we actually follow: Paul who started the church or Apollos who is now our current preacher and religious leader?

So Paul writes them this passionate letter. He explores numerous topics, but in today’s portion he states “You don’t belong to me. You don’t belong to Apollos. You belong to God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

“We are God’s servants working together; you are God’s field; you are God’s building.”

But I got to tell you: methinks Paul doth protest too much. Did you notice that in just 9 verses Paul refers to himself twice by name, twice he refers to himself indirectly as the planter, and he used the word “I” three times?

If Paul was really being sincere, he could have simply said “It doesn’t matter who your past or present pastor is, you belong to God and Jesus Christ is your foundation.”

Instead Paul is like:

“You are babies. I fed you with mother’s milk. But you argue: I belong to Paul; I belong to Apollos.”

But who is Paul? I am just a man. It is because of I that you came to believe in Jesus.

I simply started the church. But really I, Paul, who planted this congregation, am nothing. God caused it to grow.

“Really, I only started the church; later I will receive my award for that. Really, I am only a simple servant.”

I love this! I think consciously or unconsciously Paul really does want the accolades, he wants the recognition. And the more he brushes them away, the more he brings attention to himself.

And you know what? That’s OK. Because Paul is, after all, only human. He is just as much a spiritual baby as he claims the congregants to be.

Paul is still flawed, still learning, still growing, still on his own personal journey that will take him across the continents, sharing the Good News about Christ.

Here’s what’s cool about Paul’s “don’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain” spiel: he really does bring home the point that ultimately as followers of Christ it is God we belong to.

Paul’s very human letter to a very human congregation reminds us 2,000 years later that as Christians our ultimate allegiance does not belong to country, does not belong to state, does not belong to political party.

As Christians our ultimate allegiance does not belong to just one denomination, one congregation or to just one pastor.

Our ultimate allegiance is to God as revealed in Jesus Christ, who ate with us at table, died for us on the cross and rose 3 days later.

Paul’s letter is a timeless reminder that we are more than just American, we are more than UCCers, we are more than Emmanuelites, and we are more than parishioners of Bill, Bob, Barbara or George, that we are Christians.

We belong to God.

We are servants of God. We are God’s field; we are God’s flowers. We are God’s building. Christ is our foundation.

We are children of God. To be nourished, protected, fed so that we can mature, so that we can freely receive the gifts of grace and in return share ours gifts with others and do what God wants.

What does God want? As Isaiah 58 stated, to worship in ways that are pleasing to God by loosening the bonds of injustice, freeing the oppressed, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and helping the homeless.

Who do we belong to? Not to pyramids or market squares or silver planes or to parrots named Moses.

We belong to God. We are God’s field. We are God’s building. And Christ is our foundation.

Amen and amen.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sermon for Feb 9, 2014; Isaiah 58:1-12

Rev. George Miller
Isaiah 58:1-12
“Fast & Faithful”
Feb 9, 2014

(Delivered in character as a Virginia farmer during the Reconstruction Period)*

Our country is not what is was, nor will it ever be again. It’s been 10 years since the Civil War has ended, yet the wounds have not begun to heal, and we as a nation are still just as divided.

The war took the lives of both my sons Jacob and John and has broken my wife’s heart. Every night Martha still cries for the loss of our boys. Every day I still look around at the wreckage that was done.

Houses, banks and factories destroyed and looted, two-thirds of our railroad tracts pulled up, the Shenandoah Valley scarred and wasted: forests cuts down, plantations burned and unplanted, animal bones littering the land, homeless left wandering the street.

How Martha and I survived is a miracle, a miracle I can only attribute to God.

To be honest with you, I wonder where God is now; I wonder is he’s been asleep or just plain deserted us, or if he is punishing us.

What they call a Radical Reconstruction has been going on, but it’s been a slow, painful process. Carpetbaggers from the north have come down, some to help, others to take advantage of the situation. Scalawags are shunned for being Confederate traitors.

4 million freed slaves are trying to define a new life for themselves. The Civil Rights Act has been passed.

A group of men called the Ku Klux Klan operate on fear and prejudice, seeking their revenge for perceived wrongs.

Though my land is recovering, our hearts have not as nothing can ever bring back our two boys.

Still, we go to church, or the makeshift building we call a church. Sunday morning has become a time of escape; a reprieve from all the week’s woes.

We gather with others offering our praise to God. Sometimes I sense it’s all a show: people dressing up, spouting platitudes, sharing pleasantries yet seeming to be engaged in a contest to see who can praise God the loudest, give the most eloquent prayer or perform the most humbling of acts.

It’s like folks are going through the motions hoping that if they dress the best, sing the loudest, pray the prettiest or fast the most furious then God will finally hear them and do something, anything to speed up the condition of things.

After worship is over, I’ve noticed that most folk’s lives go back to the way they’ve been. The quarrelling, the infighting, the pointing of fingers, the exalting of one’s self and the violent acts perpetrated on innocents.

Nothing seems to be getting done. Our ruins are not yet rebuilt; the streets are still in disrepair. We have no foundation for the future generation. The homeless still wander the street, the hungry still beg for bread, and kin folk have neglected to care for one another.

It all reminds me of Isaiah 58. The prophet was writing to people not unlike us who had endured a difficult situation. Their city had been attacked by the Babylonians, their finest citizens were kidnapped and everything was burned to the ground.

For 50 years they lived in a foreign land until they were granted their freedom and returned to Jerusalem, only to find their streets were in shambles.

They thought things would be easier, but discovered it would be just as hard. And they prayed and they fasted and they sung out to God, assuming God would make things right. But nothing changed.

Then one day the prophet came to the people and said God was not interested in false acts of show, that the offering God sought was one that was done to neighbor: justice, food, freedom, clothes, and a place to call home.

Then the glory of God would be revealed and light would break into the darkness; that parched places would be satisfied, ruins would be rebuilt and the future would become possible.

I remember the day the pastor preached on Isaiah 58. I thought to myself that it made common sense, but a lot good it would do me with my boys dead, my land still scarred and my wife still weeping.

Where is God? Does God listen? Does the Good Lord still even care?

I thought about these things all week. As I worked the land, as I brought the produce into town, as I left the country store with a bolt of fabric thinking it may cheer Martha up to make herself a pretty ‘lil dress.

On the way back a young man came up to me. It was hard to tell just how old he was. He was dark as coal and looked young but had an air about him that said he had already become too aware of the ways of the world.

“Excuse me mister,” he said, coming right up to the buggy. “I have nowhere to go and nothing to eat; can you take me away from here?”

My first response was “No.” I don’t take to strangers in my vehicle. I rode away.

But there was something about him: an earnestness, a gentleness in his eyes. I can’t explain it, but despite the color of his skin he looked as if he could have been one of my own sons, like he could have been Jacob or John.

For that moment I felt a kinship with him. Didn’t know his story, who he was, what he really wanted. But then I remembered the pastor’s preaching on Isaiah and decided it didn’t matter. I pulled the wagon to the side of the road and called him over.

I had some money I keep with me for emergencies. Knowing it would not make a difference in my livelihood, I handed it over to him.

Immediately the young man fell to the ground in thanksgiving. “Praise Jesus!” he stated. He jumped up and said “Thank you. My name is Jeremiah.”

I smiled; a prophet’s name. “And I’m Joshua.”

Jeremiah then did something I considered bold: he held up his hand, exposing his palm, and by instinct I held mine up my hand too, and we interlaced our fingers… then he was on his way.

I continued home, a few dollars lighter, but the darndest thing happened: it seemed as if the road was less bumpy, the sun seemed to shine a bit brighter, the fields a bit fuller, and wouldn’t you know it, for the first time in a long time, a humming song started to come from my soul.

Is this what Isaiah 58 was about? Is this the kind of fast God was referring to? A simple act done for another for no other reason but that it was the right thing to do; that though we were different we still shared a kinship?

When I arrived home, Martha noticed the difference in me. When I told her the story, she broke out in a smile; when I told her how Jeremiah reminded me of Jacob and John, she spilled a little tear.

When I gave her the bolt of fabric she took it into her arms and said “I know just what I’m going to make with this.”

For the next few days Martha worked on that bolt of fabric, humming as she did. When done, she presented it to me. Instead of a dress, she had made a shirt.

“For Jeremiah,” she said, “If you ever see him in town again.”

In her act, in her words, I feel like I have seen God once more and I’m reassured that the Lord is not asleep, nor is the Lord absent.

The Lord is there when we find ways to do unto others.

The country is not what is was, nor will it ever be again. Too much has taken place for us to return to ways of the past.

But I have discovered that as Christians, as folk of faith, we must realize that change and progress does not rest solely on the carpetbaggers, the governments nor the kings of the world.

It rests on us: ordinary folk called by God, joined in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit to do our own acts of justice and righteousness.

I learned that while worship is enjoyable and pleasing to God, it also puts us in touch with what God wants.

According to Isaiah 58 if we each play our own part, we each find our own way to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share what we have and to not hide our gifts from one another.

The country is not what it was, but in Christ it can be even better. In Christ our parched places will be satisfied, our ruins rebuilt, and our streets made straight for the journey.

In Christ we each have a chance to raise up foundations for the generations yet to come and to make God’s kingdom on earth just as it is in heaven.

Amen and amen.

*Sermon inspired by the Broadway musicals Shenandoah and Assassins and the books The Aftermath of the Civil War by Dale Anderson (2004) and Reconstruction: Rebuilding After the Civil War by Judith Peacock (2003) and the commentary on Isaiah 58 written by J. Clinton McCann.