Monday, March 31, 2014

Sermon for March 30, 2014

March 30, 2014
John 9:1-41
“Stirring Up the Mud”
Rev. George N. Miller

A few months ago I shared with Council a book called Alligators in the Swamp about ministry, leadership and the use of power.

The author made the claim that each church has its own culture, with three different levels. He used the image of a swamp as a metaphor.

According to the author, a swamp is a beautiful place in which diversity thrives and everyone is interdependent on one another, but it’s also important to acknowledge that if one is not careful and aware of the surroundings, they can be hurt.

According to the author, there are three levels of church culture that correlates to a swamp. On the first level is the shoreline; all the “stuff” we can see, like this pulpit, the altar, the hymn books.

The second level is the water; or to be more exact, the things below the surface. This is made up of the things we say; the symbols behind our stuff.

An example is when we state “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Or the beginning of service when we light the candles to represent the light of Christ.

Then there is the third layer; the most important layer: the mud. The mud is what holds everything together. It can’t be seen from the shore or the surface of the water, but it’s always there.

The mud is the unspoken, deeply held beliefs that are passed down from generation to generation. The mud comes from real-life experiences, things that happened in the past, things that were taught.

The mud consists of how liturgy should be, how pastors should dress, what kind of music we sing, the kind of flowers we order for Easter, etc.

I knew one church in which red drinks, such as fruit punch, were banned because they might stain the carpet.

You don’t realize the mud is there until someone new comes along and stirs it up, like a pastor who wants to remove the flags from the sanctuary, or wants to use new hymnals or someone creates an after-school program in which juice-boxes are served.

Then the mud gets stirred, which in turn can also affect the surface and the shoreline.

But stirring up the mud isn’t always a bad thing, because that’s also how new things come about; it is how stagnant water becomes fresh again.


That’s such a fun word to say, isn’t it? Especially if you put a southern drawl to it.

Say it with me: mud.

I would venture to say not many people think about mud. Where it comes from; what it’s made of.

No one has conversations about mud; not if it’s dry outside. Not if the front yard is looking good. Not if your children are grown and left the house.

We don’t think about mud until something happens such as when it rains and the front yard gets all wet and the brown dirt turns into black mud that spills into your driveway and gets stuck to your shoe.

Or you get new white carpet and your grandbabies come to visit after playing outside all day, and they forget to take off their shoes.

Or, unfortunately, you turn on the news and hear about the Washington mudslide and the lives that have been lost and the community distraught.

Then the topic of mud becomes real, especially if you are trying to clean it out of your carpet, wiping it off of your shoes, or digging through it to find a loved one or a remnant of your home.

Until this week, I’d venture to say mud is not something anyone here thought about unless if you happen to work with the earth for a living.

But go back 2,000 years and people did think a lot about dirt and mud. Back then, the world was a community of people in which you were either in or out, seen as clean or unclean.

The people of the day, desiring to have a close relationship with God, and fearful of being viewed as an outsider or unclean, followed a strict set of biblical laws found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

These were laws and instructions about how one was to live and act. Many of these laws made sense: don’t kill, don’t cheat on your spouse, and don’t abuse those less fortunate then you.

During a time when indoor plumbing and refrigeration did not exist, there were laws that dealt with issues of cleanliness and health.

Dirt in the field where crops grow, that’s soil. Dirt on your clothes, or on your dinner ware, well, that’s just dirt.

There were special rules about washing ones hands before a meal, about how to wash plates, cups, cookware; special rules about bodily emissions.

In other words there was to be no fruit punch in the carpeted areas.

If a person did not follow these rules, they were seen as unclean and part of the out crowd.

Just like being back in high school, being seen as part of the out crowd brought with it issues of shame and humiliation, not only upon oneself, but upon ones family and associates.

No one wants to be associated with someone who’s unclean or unpopular.

And yet Jesus did, and the Kingdom of God that Jesus talked about was a kingdom in which everyone, including the unpopular would be welcomed and loved.

In other words, God’s Kingdom is a place where fruit punch is allowed and God’s children don’t have to take off their shoes after playing.

With this in mind, let’s enter into this Scripture. Jesus encounters a man who’s blind. To point the way to God’s Kingdom, Jesus heals the man. But the way in which he does it literally stirs up the mud and upsets the local religious leaders.

First, Jesus performs this healing on the Sabbath, a day in which work is forbidden. Yes, the man was blind, but his condition was not considered an immediate emergency. It was the kind of work that could’ve been done during regularly scheduled office hours.

Second, there is the whole business of Jesus using spit, a bodily secretion, to heal the man.

Third, in order to turn his spit and dirt into mud, Jesus was kneading, as one would knead dough or fashion clay into a pot. Kneading was work.

Jesus was literally stirring up the mud as he violated at least three elemental rules of religious society.

Now add to the fact that Jesus applied mud to the man’s eyes.

Yuck! In today’s society of anti-bacterial hand cream that’s got to gross us out a bit.

Plus who knew what was in that dirt Jesus used: bits of broken down rock, decomposed pieces of vegetation and food, worm and bug excrement, flecks of dead human skin, pieces of feces from local animals, microscopic bacteria and other living organisms.

That’s what makes up dirt and that’s what Jesus used to mix with his spit, kneed into mud and apply it to the man’s eyes.

That’s the reality of what Jesus did. There is nothing neat or respectable about it.

Bad enough the man was blind, but now Jesus uses unclean excretions from his body to mix with the unclean dirt to place onto his eyes. It’s adding shame on top of shame on top of shame…

…and yet that is what Jesus does for the glory of God and for the sake of his children.

Jesus gets down and dirty in a world that tried so hard to be prim and proper, sanitized and saintly.

And here is where the scandal of Christmas continues and carries us into the season of Lent, and brings us one step closer to the Cross.

That the infant boy known as Emmanuel grows into a man who is unafraid to get dirt under his nails, who is unafraid to sit and eat with the unpopular, and who isn’t worried about what others may say about him or his means of ministry.

Jesus doesn’t feel the need to metaphorically take off his shoes when he walks across the white carpets of the day. He doesn’t let some fear of fruit punch stains get in his way.

And in doing so he continues to stir up the mud between himself and the so called righteous, religious leaders of his day.

Jesus wasn’t afraid to get down and dirty for the sake of God’s people, while others try to keep things neat and to always follow the rules.

Jesus enters into history, and the rules change. The kingdom of God is not just for those whom know the proper fork to use for their salad, but the kingdom of God is open to everyone who hungers.

The kingdom of God is not just for those who abstain from fruit punch but is available for all who thirst.

The kingdom of God is not just for those who wipe their feet before they enter a house, but it is also for those who track mud across the carpet.

Today we learn another lesson about what it means to follow Christ: the ability to get down and dirty and to stir up the mud.

Being a Christian is not about looking down upon people so we can keep our clothes and carpets spotless and clean, but it’s being out amongst the people: their bodies, their minds and their souls.

Being a Christian means knowing it’s ok to stir up the mud and to not be so worried about what others may say. It means utilizing the resources we have to reach out to others and introduce them to God.

It means that sometimes we ourselves may be seen as unclean or as unpopular.

Last week, the Gospel of John showed us that Jesus was willing to talk to a woman who was considered the enemy.

This week John shows us Jesus being unafraid to get his hands smudged for the sake of another outsider.

What can we take from this scripture? Perhaps that we should not be afraid to get our own hands dirty, nor our church.

We’ve already become a bit dirtier, with the advent of Vacation Bible School, Trunk or Treat, Sunday brunches and now the Shepherd’s Pantry.

Can we get even a bit dirtier; a bit muddier?

Because at the end of the day, we shouldn’t be so worried that we’ll get dirty, be we should be worried that we won’t get dirty enough.

Dear Ones: God is in our midst, the Holy Spirit has gathered us to worship and experience the Holy in new and astounding ways.

Christ is walking amongst us.

Are we ready to continue following, to do justice, love kindness and to journey humbly, unafraid to stir up the mud, willing to get dirt under our nails, and fearlessly reaching out to those who are hungry for healing?

May God bless our day with new realizations, may the Holy Spirit continue to empower us to work for the Kingdom and may Jesus lessen our fear of spilling fruit punch on the floor or tracking in some mud.

Amen and amen.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Sermon for March 23, 2014

Rev. George Miller
John 4:5-42
“Samaritan Shuffle”
March 23, 2014

(This is a character sermon featuring Jacob of Genesis and the Samaritan Woman at the Well).

Jacob(coming from the left/pulpit side):

I wonder if you heard the story- of how years ago I was just a boy; a foolish boy who made a series of bad decisions; choices I now regret.

My name is Jacob. Once I tricked my brother Esau into selling me his birthright. Another time I tricked my father into giving me the family blessing.

These acts of trickery caused a divide between my brother and I. So much so that he wanted to kill me. So I ran away, as far as I could.

But God has a funny way of working through even our worst mistakes.

Eventually I arrived at this well in the field surrounded by flocks of sheep. A stone covered the well’s mouth.

And there, in broad daylight, came the most graceful, beautiful woman I’d ever seen. Her name was Rachel and she was with her father’s sheep.

Immediately I went over and rolled away the stone from the well, and as her flocks drank, I rushed over and kissed her.

Her lips were sweeter than any water I’ve ever tasted.

Long story short, I ended up working for her father. I was tricked into marrying her sister Leah before I got to marry Rachel.

Though Leah and I had many children, it was Rachel I always loved and eventually we had a child of our own, named Joseph.

But things for our family were not easy. My father-and-law and I nearly had it out. My daughter Dinah was attacked and my sons sought out a bloody revenge. And then there’s what happened to Joseph.

People say you’re not supposed to choose favorites, but how couldn’t I? Joseph reminded me so much of his mother. He was an outspoken dreamer, foolish and full of life.

I should have seen it coming: his brothers grew jealous and one day they stripped him of his coat and cast him down a well. Then they sold him into slavery.

They lied to me and told me Joseph had died of an animal attack. I believed them and grieved his death for decades. When we discovered Joseph was still alive, I rejoiced, but a part of me is still dead.

Knowing my own history, it was foolish for me not to realize that my own children were capable of hurting each other in such a way.

I still carry the shame and the sadness of knowing that Joseph was cast into a well. What it must have been like for him to be down there, yelling for help, begging for mercy, but never receiving any.

It used to be that wells reminded me of when Rachel and I first met. But now they remind me of what my sons did to Joseph.

It used to be, that for me, a well represented life and unity, love and peace.

But now the only thing a well represents is death and inhumanity, unkindness and the war that is waged between brother and brother.

Can anything good come from a well again? Only God knows… (Jacob stands aside as the Samaritan Woman enters)

Samaritan Woman (coming from lectern side):

I wonder if you’ve heard the story. Of how Jacob built this well; how he gave this plot of land to his beloved son Joseph.

That would have been 2,000 years ago. We know all too well about Jacob’s experiences with wells.

One well is where he met his future wife, Rachel. Another well is where his son, Joseph, was cast down.

Time has erased for certainty where exactly that well is located. But sometimes I wonder if it’s not this one, the well from where I draw my water each and every day.

Just like Jacob, the history of us Samaritans is not so care free and easy.

At one time we were just like the Jewish people who live south of us in Jerusalem. We believed in the same God; we shared the same stories.

But 700 years ago we were attacked by the Assyrians. Those in the south said it was all our fault, that we brought it on ourselves by living a sinful lifestyle worshipping fake gods and not keeping the commandments.

Then 150 years ago the Jewish army came into Samaria and destroyed our place of worship on Mount Gerizim. It would have been the same as if we had marched into Jerusalem and tore down their temple.

Needless to say, the Samaritans and the Jews do not get along. For nearly 700 hundred years we have been seen as the enemy. They accuse us of consorting with their foes.

Things are so bad that people will avoid traveling through Samaria even though it is the quickest way from Judea to Galilee.

They call us unclean and will do anything not to speak with us or to touch us, afraid that doing so will contaminate them.

Can you imagine how that makes us feel?

Though we both worship the same God and claim to share the same Father, we are like divided siblings who can’t make up because our wounds are so great.

That’s what made my recent encounter at this well so fascinating.

Let me tell you what happened. I was at this well which Jacob had built. It was noon and the sun was out and it was hot.

I was by myself, because…well, see- I’ve been married five times before and the current guy I’m staying with is not legally my husband.

You know how it is. People talk. When people talk they say some of the meanest things. Because I had 5 husbands they think there’s something wrong with me.

Like I’ve done something bad. Like I’m to blame. Or I’m a black widow.

No one asks me my side of the story. No one stops to think that perhaps my husbands beat on me, or cheated on me or realize that if a husband dies sometimes the only choice a woman has to survive is to remarry.

Because of this, I am treated like an outsider…an outsider of the outsiders.

So I wait for all the other women to leave the well before I come out to get my water.

I get to the well, and there is this guy sitting there, alone. Clearly he’s not from around here, clearly he is a Jew, and clearly he’s a man.

Jewish men are discouraged from talking to an unknown woman alone. And I was all three of those things. Not to mention a Samaritan. Unclean.

But he speaks any way: “Give me a drink.”

This shocked me and I told him so. He spoke again, this time about the gift of God and of living water.

It was too hot and I was too tired to understand what he was saying at first. I thought he meant the kind of living water you find in a river or a creek, you know, the kind of water that moves.

Like the fountains that kings have in their palaces.

Oh, I thought, how wonderful it would be to have living water that flowed in my house; I’d never have to leave home again and face the judgmental looks of others.

But apparently this was not the kind of living water he was talking about.

He continued on, speaking to me. Speaking with me. Engaging in a conversation like no one had ever done before.

He had a gentle, steady strength that made it seem as if he was comfortable with who he was.

He acted as if I was smart. He acted as if I was worthy. He acted as if I was his equal and not a second or third class citizen.

He talked as if we were no longer Jew and Samaritan, male and female, but as if we were peers; brother and sister of the same Father.

I asked if he was greater than Jacob who gave us the well. He told me that whoever drinks this water will never be thirsty again, that they will experience eternal life.

I thought of the stories of our past, the common stories both he and my people shared. Of the spring that watered Eden. Of how the Israelites experienced water in the desert during the Exodus.

I thought of the songs that spoke of the Messianic Age when we will have more than enough water to drink and to be happy.

I thought of how he seemed to embody the Good News; that he carried himself as if he knew for sure that he was loved by God.

That’s when something inside of me clicked, and I realized who I was talking too. He may have had no robe, he may have had no crown, but he was certainly God’s own Son.

I thought to myself “Why is he here, talking with me, I am just a girl?”

But in his eyes, I felt like I was something more. More than just a girl, more than just a Samaritan, more than just a woman who had been married 5 times.

I felt like I was somebody, and I was someone. I felt like I was deserving of this living water he had to offer, whatever it may be.

So I was bold. I put myself out there, and I asked him “Give me this water so I may never thirst again.”

And he knew who I was. He knew my story. And he did not judge, he did not condemn. Nor did he demand I stay silent.

He asked that I believe him and know that the hour has come for true worshippers to worship the Father in spirit and truth.

At the well of Jacob, in the heat of day, I felt peace. I felt kindness.

I felt loved not for what I can do or what I can offer, but for who I am.

Finding the courage to say what I knew to be true, I said “I know the Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”

The man responded “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

…2,000 years ago Joseph had been ruthlessly tossed into a well by his brothers, forced to look at death and cruelty in the eye.

2,000 years later I was standing beside a well, blessed to look at life and kindness in the eye.

My soul was satisfied far more than any water could have done.

What could I do but to go into town to bring all my neighbors to him?

Many people from the city listened to what I said and came to believe in him and to feel the same as I did.

For two days Jesus stayed with us, talked with us, slept in our homes, listened to our stories, and ate with us.

That first night as we shared a meal, he asked me my name. I can’t tell you the last time somebody asked me that.

And I found the courage to tell him: “I am Mary Agnes. I may be a Samaritan and I may be a woman but I too am a child of Moses, a daughter of Joseph. I am the daughter of Jacob and the daughter of Abraham and Sarah.”

Jesus smiled, and simply said “Amen.”

By giving me space to acknowledge my past and my present, Jesus empowered me to create my new identity.

…Did Jacob ever wonder if anything good could come from a well.

I am here to say that yes it can.

Because of my meeting with Jesus, this well is alive with life and I thirst no more.

In Jesus shame and sadness are gone and the pains of the past no longer linger.

In Jesus, the pits of loneliness and despair are transformed into living fountains of kindness and peace and the things that used to divide us are no more.

In Jesus, death and inhumanity, unkindness and the war that is waged between brother and brother is replaced with the living waters of life and unity, love and peace.

In Jesus, brokenness is restored and spiritual thirst is quenched.

And I am so glad, for I believe that he will save the world.

Amen and amen.

(This message is inspired by the song “Just a Girl” by Brandon Heath, the spirit of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple and by all people who found a way to have a voice despite what difficulties they have faced)

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Sermon for March 16, 2014

Rev. George Miller
Genesis 12:1-9
“Stage 1…”
March 16, 2014

Arthur Miller once wrote “Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.”

There are many regrets I harbor, but one I’ve never had is of having a bird feeder.

On Thursday our guest speaker Jill Badonsky asked us to write down memories from our growing up and three of our current favorite things.

I discovered that the phrase “bird feeder” made both lists.

As long as I can recall, we always had a birdfeeder in the backyard, visible from the kitchen and dining room, a place that was always full of flight and movement, color and noise.

Mom kept the birdseed outside in a silver box once used for the delivery of milk jars. It was our responsibility to fill the feeder with the mix of corn and seed my mother blended herself.

A little over a decade ago I purchased my own bird feeder and bought a bag of seed and set everything up right outside my window of where I lived.

I filled the feeder up to the brim, looking forward to having tons of birds flocking to my part of the courtyard…and nothing happened.

Not a single bird came. Not the first day, not the second. Not the third. I couldn’t figure out why. I poured some seed on the ground; I put out a bowl of fresh water.

Eventually a pigeon came to the feeder. It was somewhat of a letdown; a far cry from the cardinals and blue jays we had at home.

The next day that pigeon came back, then a few more, then the other birds: the cardinals, the blue jays, even the occasional hawk.

Pretty soon it got to the point where the courtyard was filled with birds and the ground around the feeder was devoid of grass from all the feathered friends flocking there.

That experience taught me a valuable lesson: that some things require great patience; that you can’t just decide to do something and expect immediate, tangible results.

Certain things, like developing a community of wild, beautiful birds takes time, sometimes seasons, sometimes years.

This lesson of the bird feeder has carried over to each place I’ve lived. I now know it takes more than just the location, the type of feeder and the kind of feed you use, it is the ability to wait.

Last month, when my Mom came to visit, I got to view the birdfeeder with a new set of eyes. Since she relocated to Arizona, my Mom no longer has the variety of birds she once had, basically just morning doves.

So during her visit, we got to sit on the porch with our coffee and look out the window to see the birds which were there.

There were the pigeons, the blue jays, Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal, a hummingbird or two. Red tipped blackbirds. Woodpeckers. Chickadees.

One day a flock of egrets came swooping into the backyard. There were 30, 40 of them, all pecking at the grass with their white feathers, short legs and long beaks. Mom also saw sandhill cranes fly over head.

My favorite moment was when two mallards made their way from the lake up to the feeder. The male stood guard while the female ate the seed off the ground. Then they waddled back to the lake.

I’d been waiting almost three years to have ducks and now they’re here. Every day they waddle up to the feeder, every day I put a new pile of seed down in the grass.

Before Mom visited, before Jill spoke on Thursday, I had become blasé about the avian community that have developed, over time, in stages, in my own back yard.

But this week I was able to see them with new and fresh eyes.

There are things we do, opportunities to create, things to build, that take time, take patience, that occur not at once, but in stages.

And sometimes we don’t even realize what part we’ve played or what role we have had.

But others do.

I experienced this yesterday. Rev. Lawrence invited me to a gathering he had organized. It was a reunion of people he had known, mentored, loved, who were part of the Lake Byrd Lodge Community.

For those who don’t know, the Florida Conference of the UCC had their office in Avon Park, right off of Lake Byrd. It was also the place where the summer camp was.

Rev. Lawrence played a huge role for both the Conference and the Lodge.

At this gathering yesterday, I was the warmly welcomed outsider who got to observe and listen as they shared stories, told jokes, relieved experiences, many which had taken place over 40 years ago.

Not all of it I understood, not all of it I found especially funny, because so much of it was what you’d call “You had to be there” kind of humor.

But there was this moment when one of the women was talking and I could see the young adult she was.

I could hear the excitement and exhilaration in her voice of what it is like to be at that age when sneaking beer into a camp is exiting, where dressing up and lip syncing to songs creates a rush and everyone is discovering who they are.

Not only at that moment did I get to see them all as the youth that still lives within them, I got to understand just what a difference Rev. Lawrence made in their lives and how none of them would be who they were if it wasn’t for the way in which they experienced God through him.

I don’t know if Rev. Lawrence really knows the impact he has made on others lives.

I don’t know if any of us ever truly know the difference was can make in another’s life.

Do any of us really know the ways in which the bird feeders we’ve put up, the seeds we’ve scattered have affected others and shaped not only the present but the future?

This all leads up to today’s reading. It’s the story of how a couple named Abram and Sarai become the people through which God blesses the entire world.

It’s a story that is as ancient as time but feels as new as today.

The narrator wastes no time setting up the plot. Without fanfare or a long origin story, we are introduced to Abram. He is the son of Terah, uncle of Lot and husband of Sarai.

He is beyond middle aged, he is without children and the Lord says “Go. Go from your native land. Go from your people. Go to the land I will show you.”

Why does God choose Abram? What made Abram so unique?

We don’t know, but we know God’s command to go is matched with a 3 fold promise: there will be land for Abram’s descendents, from his family will come a great nation, and because of his family all families of the world will be blessed.

Land, greatness and blessings all sound like wonderful promises. But at what cost? And…how long will it take to come true?

Today’s reading starts with a startling command to go, but it ends with the languid statement that Abram journeyed by stages.

In other words, Abram did not put up a birdfeeder and whoosh a multitude of birds filled his life, but it would take his entire lifetime and beyond.

The biblical irony of already and not yet; of being told to go but then having to wait.

I love the Abram and Sarai narrative because it is so unclear, because there is so much left unsaid, because there are so many missing pieces that we are welcomed into the story to fill in and find our own bits of narrative.

God tells Abram and Sarai to go and they go. But the way is not always easy, the path is not always clear.

There is no indication that either of them knew where they were going or what to expect.

You even have to wonder if God knows either or is God just making it up as they go along.

God tells Abram and Sarai to go and they go, over 500 miles, in a series of short movements, in stages that they journey by.

Stages filled with courage and hope, stages of tragedy and stupidity, stages of new birth and of death.

There are stages in which they make some terrible mistakes, they come across some interesting characters, stages in which they have their share of blessings, and they also have their share of heartbreaks.

And yet…neither Abram nor Sarai live long enough to see God’s promises come true. Yes, they have a child, but the promises of land, nations and world-wide blessing do not come to pass in their lifetime.

Yet that did not stop them from moving forward, it did not stop them from believing, it did not permanently stop them from acting as if it was true.

And if they had not acted with some form of patience and faith, would we even be here today?

Abram and Sarai had the amazing ability to listen to the Still Speaking Voice that nudged them on.

Abram and Sarai had the amazing ability to journey in stages even when the way was not clear, even when the path was not easy.

Doing so allowed them to go from being tied to the past to playing a part in creating the future.

Doing so allowed them to go from being confined by their age to becoming eternal.

Doing so allowed them to go from childlessness to an abundant legacy of life.

From them came the generations which brought forth Joseph and Moses, King David and Solomon.

From them came the prophets and the poets, the scholars and scribes.

From them came a baby born in a manger; a savior who would journey in stages from the Sea of Galilee to the cross and beyond.

The truth is that anyone who does anything in any way to make this world a better place will never really know what a difference they have made in the world.

Rarely do all their gifts, their impacts, their choices come into fruition in one lifetime or even the next, but many more down the line.

The truth is that we will all live with, and we will all die with, regrets. With shoulda, woulda, couldas in our lives.

But one regret we should never have is what we did for the Lord if what we did was truly felt, truly done, and truly for the sake of God’s kingdom.

As people of faith, there are things we do, things to build that take time, take patience, that occur not at once, but in stages.

And sometimes we don’t even realize what part we’ve played or what role we have had.

We each have our own kind of bird feeder; we have our own kind of seed that is meant to bring beauty and color, life and abundance to the world.

Sometimes we do get a glimpse into the differences that were made; most of the time we just have to be patient and faithful and trust that God’s plan is being worked out.

Step by step, stage by stage, Sunday by Sunday, each of us hoping that we end up with the right regrets.

Amen and amen.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sermon for March 9, 2014

Rev. George Miller
Matthew 4:1-11
“Led by the Spirit; Attended by Angels”
March 9, 2014

Today we begin our Lenten sermon series by lifting up the fruit of the Spirit that we talked about last Sunday.

Each week we are encouraging you to pick one of the spiritual fruit and to practice it.

Today we spotlight self-control, gentleness and goodness.

But let’s be honest- who am I to talk about any of those things?

Self-control is not my forte- if I had any, I’d look more like John Hamm the actor rather than looking like I just ate a whole ham.

Gentleness; well I’ve inherited from my mother what my father called German-hands, which means nothing is handled gently.

As Dean can testify, woe to any office chair that my 270 pound frame sits upon.

And goodness? Well that depends if you catch me when the office is not dealing with a deadline or I’m not in the midst of creating.

It’s easy to be good, polite and hospitable when everything is in line, but when the office is trying to complete the Heartline or the bulletin or when I’m creating liturgy or the week’s sermon…that’s something else.

Sermon writing is not an easy thing. There is not only the research that goes into it, it’s the creativity and trying to find a new way to say something that’s over 2,000 years old.

It’s all been said before, all been done before.

There are some sermons that seem to fall right out of the sky, fully formed-the character sermons are a perfect example.

Then there are those that pop out like a newborn chick from an egg simply from a book I read, or a movie or TV show I saw.

But then there are the other weeks…the times where it seems impossible to craft or form a single word, idea or message.

As a writer there is a series of thoughts that run through my being:
-I have nothing to say
-I have no witty story, joke, parable to use

Which segues into:
-I am nothing
-I’ll never be able to write another sermon ever again.

Which then derails into:
-I’m going to have to get another job
-I have no marketable skills
-I’m going to work at Publix for the rest of my life

Believe it or not, this can happen almost every single week, for years, and yet the miracle is that something always emerges.

But as any creative person will tell you, the act of creation is a wilderness experience of self-doubt, fear, and worry.

For pastors it takes on another element, because sermon creations are tied into the awesome responsibility of sharing the Good News, of teaching people about Jesus Christ, of encouraging them to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with the Lord.

Of giving a reason to hope even when things seem hopeless; of believing and turning to God…

…and then, that’s when the light clicks, the truth sets in. The ego is vanquished and the reality is reminded: it’s never about us; it’s about God, it’s for God, and it’s from God.

So the preacher steps back, stops worrying, lets go, clears the head and soul by running, sleeping, cleaning, reading, anything to reset the body and soul, and it comes together somehow, someway.

Anyone who is creative, who has written, composed, crafted, collaged will tell you this is so.

The creative process is a wilderness and if not careful, the psyche works in a way that can make one turn away from God, not trust in the Lord, not believe that all things are possible.

I share this all for two reasons. The first is because this Thursday our church is blessed to have a nationally known author and speaker joins us for a speaking engagement.

Her name is Jill Badonsky and she’s worked with numerous creative folk, she’s published books and writes an interactive blog.

With humor, gentleness and goodness she’ll share with us how to “Create a World of Joy Within the Real You.”

In preparing for her visit, I read over her blogs. One that struck me was about dealing with pessimism and negative emotions.

Jill’s response was fascinating. She stated that if you feel any kind of negative emotion, instead of suppressing it, you should embrace it.

If you get bad news, like the plumber is late or your car is not ready, instead of running away from that feeling or irritation, embrace it.

Jill gives an exercise: feel that emotion in every cell of your body. Slump in your chair. Furrow your eye brows, squint your eyes, grunt like you are a cat expelling a hairball.

Sigh big and deep, cross your arms, think of the doom, harbor resentments. “Banish any notion of being civil.” Snivel, scowl, and say cynical statements.

Connect to the suffering. Then, let it go…

Sit and write about how you felt. When done- smile.

According to Jill, this ability to connect with what you feel can actually create a person who can positively channel how they feel into what they do, who has a flow of freedom, and who is truly authentic.

Does that sound, by chance, anyone we might know?

Positive, free and authentic…could those be words we use to describe Jesus Christ?

Today’s reading is an interesting one because it allows itself for so many questions:
-Did it really happen or is it a metaphor?
-Does Satan really exist?
-Do angels really exist?
-Could Jesus really have been tempted?

All of these can be a sermon on their own. But what interests me this week is the notion that part of Jesus’ temptation was about turning from God.

Note that Satan doesn’t tempt Jesus to do things like steal, kill, and lie. What Satan does is try to fool Jesus into no longer trusting God.

Jesus is in a wilderness. A lonely place; a challenging place. He has undergone a rough patch of days. Temptation comes in a variety of ways with one intention: to turn him away from God.

After 40 days of being in the dessert it would have been so easy to do. After 40 days of having nothing to eat it would have been so easy. After 40 days of no other contact it would have been so easy.

Yet Jesus does not fall into the trap; Jesus does not give into the temptation to turn from God.

How did he do so? The easy answer is to say he’s the Son of God, holy and without sin.

But to immediately say that doesn’t give credence to the other side of Jesus. The human side. We claim that Jesus was fully human and fully divine.

But what does it mean to be fully human?

It means more than just to live and breathe. It means to experience. It means to think. It means to feel.

To feel lonely when you are alone.

To feel famished when you have not eaten.

To have doubt when you are scared.

To cry when you are sad.

To laugh when something is funny.

To be tempted when you are without.

Do you believe that Jesus felt these things? Are you willing to allow Jesus to have that human side in which being in the wilderness could be scary and make him feel alone?

Can you allow Jesus to have his own doubts, to even possibly explore the idea of turning from God?

Do you think that at any time Jesus could have said to Satan “Yes.”?

These are not mindless, simple questions being asked, but deeply theological questions that help us shape not only our understanding of who Jesus is, but who we are as well.

Jill Badonsky encourages people to give in to what they feel, to experience it, so they can let go and move on.

I wonder if that’s what Jesus had to do as well.

During those days in the wilderness was he being polished and prepared for ministry?

Did he also have to find his own way to deal with his own doubts, fears, worries, and emptiness?

I think so. I think in this story what Matthew is telling us is that Jesus also had a time in his life in which he had to wonder if perhaps there was an easier way to live. That instead of relying on God he could do it all alone, magically, and by himself.

I think this story is telling us that Jesus too had a time in which he could inflict self-harm on himself as a way of challenging God.

I think this story is telling us that Jesus too had a time in which he could have taken the easy way, without any hard work, suffering or sacrifice.

I think this story is not about a match of wills between two supernatural beings, but it’s about how Jesus himself also experienced a similar set of temptations that we all face over and over and over again.

Therefore, it allows Jesus to have solidarity with us; therefore Jesus becomes the one we can turn to when we are also facing such trials, we are facing such temptations.

After all, it is not the temptations that define who we are; it is how we confront and deal with them.

It’s how we each find our own way to turn to God even in the most difficult of times; it’s how we each find ways to confront the temptations and wildernesses in our lives.

In conclusion, this week I’d like to suggest something different for all of us then what I had originally planned when we came up with this Stewardship Sermon Series.

This week, instead of unselfishly focusing on others, let’s focus on ourselves in a way that is self-full.

Regardless if we are creating, or building, or healing, or planning, or leading, be good to yourself this week.

If you come across a difficult situation that tries your faith, be gentle with yourself, because after all, you are only human.

And if you worry if you made the right or wrong choice, show self-control on how much you may judge or limit or criticize yourself.

When you find yourself in a wilderness of doubt or worry, fear or shame, loneliness or being overwhelmed, don’t run from it.

Embrace it, acknowledge it, turn to God and find a way to trust, to believe and to receive.

That some way, somehow the demons of doubts and distress will be diminished.

Believe that somehow, some way, God will be revealed and attending angels will make themselves known in a multitude of ways.

After all, no one here is called to be Christ; we are called to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be.

To be free, to be authentic. To be us.

For that, we can all say “Amen and amen.”

Monday, March 3, 2014

Sermon for March 2, 2014

Rev. George Miller
1 Corinthians 12:4-7 & Galatians 5:22-23
“Surprising Gifts of the Spirit”
March 2, 2014

Today I have two stories to share. First, there was a young woman wandering the world, lost and lonely, no idea where she was going.

One day she came across an amazing find: a beautiful gem. She held it up to the light and every color of the rainbow shined bright.

Finding that gem brought her great joy, the greatest gift she could have ever found. It empowered her to continue her journey with new found excitement and confidence.

To the first person she met, she said “Let me show you what I’ve found.”

Oohing and aahing the person said “How priceless this must be. It is the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen!”

The woman thought “Yes it is. Perhaps I should hold onto it tighter to make sure it doesn’t get lost or stolen.”

With the gem in her possession she realized she was done journeying and stopped at the first place that provided safety and shelter.

Because of the gem, she felt encouraged and applied for the best job she could find and built a home to call her own.

She carried the gem in her coat pocket, near her heart, until fearing it may fall out, she placed it in her pants pocket, then tucked it into her sock.

Finally, she locked the gem away in a box.

The woman grew older. She had a loving family, wonderful job, a fabulous home, and the most resplendent gem that had ever been seen.

But she stopped sharing her find with others, fearing that if people knew what she had they’d hurt her or steal it, so she hid the gem away where no one could ever see it.

Each day she’d take it out of hiding to admire its beauty until one day a knock came at the door. She quickly hid the gem and when the person left she thought “That was a close one. Perhaps I should limit how often I look at it.”

She looked at the gem only once a week, but that seemed too much. Then once a month, but the risk was still too great. So she limited viewing to holidays only.

Finally, she decided the safest thing to do was to tuck the gem away in a dark, secret place that no one could ever find.

Years passed. The woman grew older. Her health became frail. Although her days of wandering were long over, she felt more lost than ever before.

Realizing she was not much longer for this earth, she decided to take out the gem and look at it once more.

She hobbled into the basement, dug behind the secret brick, moved the fresh earth, pulled out the locked box, took out the smaller box inside it, pulled out the rolled up sock, unwrapped the tissue paper…

…and the gem was not there.

After years of being hidden in secret, after years of not being shared, the special and unique gem had deteriorated to dust.

In agony the woman grabbed the handful of the remains and lifted it up hoping the particles would still catch the light, but no luck.

By keeping the priceless gem in a permanent state of security the woman had rendered it useless and brought about its demise.

She spent the last days of her life mourning what she had lost…

And now the second story: One day Jesus took Peter, James and John on a journey up a mountain and the most amazing thing happened: Jesus was transfigured before them, his face shining like the sun, his clothes dazzling white.

As if that wasn’t amazing enough, Moses and Elijah appeared and began talking with Jesus.

Peter stated “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I’ll make three dwellings here for you, Moses and Elijah.”

Who knows why Peter felt moved to say what he did.

Was it because he felt Jesus was a precious gem and if not hidden away he’d be lost forever?

Was it because the moment was so amazing, so free of the world’s worries that Peter never wanted it to end?

We’ll never know because a bright cloud overshadowed them and a voice said “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.”

The disciples fell to the ground, but Jesus touched them, saying “Get up and do not be afraid.” When they looked up, Jesus was alone.

They walked down the mountain where they were greeted by a crowd and a man came up, asking that they help his son. (Matthew 17)

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, when we recall this memorable day in the ministry of Jesus.

This biblical story resonates because it speaks about those times in which we experience the Holy as being so present, so real, that we want time to be frozen forever.

We’ve all had those moments that we wish we could bottle up: a day on the golf course where everything is just right, a relaxing vacation we don’t want to end, a romantic date, or the holding of a newborn baby.

So much better than real life where people are sick, war looms and weather gets in the way.

Peter has an experience so perfect, so right, he wants to stay on that mountain with Jesus forever, but they come back down.

Why? Because there is life to be lived, relationships to be made and ministry to perform.

There are gifts to be given. There is fruit to be shared.

Today is not just Transfiguration Sunday, but it’s also the day our Stewardship Committee passes out Intent to Give cards.

Today we invite you to think about not just the mountaintop moments you’ve had with Jesus, but how we are each called to share Christ’s ministry, to share our fruit, to share our gifts with our neighbors.

Over the last few weeks we’ve talked a lot about what it means to be a person of Christian faith; about finding the holy in every day experiences, acknowledging that we belong to God, and the ways in which worship allows us to connect with God and to discover what God wants.

As Christians we get to have mountaintop moments, we get to experience God as loving parent; we get to experience God in ways that are affirming and life-giving.

As Christians we are blessed with so many gifts: we have an identity, we have assurance and we are the recipients of fruit of the Holy Spirit, freely given so that what makes us unique, what makes us special can be appreciated by all.

In Galatians 5, Paul refers to love, joy and peace, patience, kindness and generosity, gentleness and self-control.

Throughout this month of Stewardship we will focus on these gifts, on these fruit.

And since we are also entering the Season of Lent, we’d like to offer a friendly challenge: instead of finding things to give up for the next 40 days, we invite you to find ways to share these fruit, bit by bit, each week.

Why? Because the gifts of God are not meant to be frugally used or to be horded.

The fruit of the Holy Spirit is not meant to be locked in a basement or kept in a tent on top of a mountain.

They are meant to be freely given; trusting that in Christ there is enough.

They are meant to be shared, trusting that we are not only sharing what makes us unique and special, but in our own sharing others are also given a chance to shine.

In closing, in Christ we have been given great gifts and told not to be afraid. The Holy Spirit blesses us with fruit sweeter than any the world has ever produced and we are encouraged to share them with all.

Lets trust that in God’s kingdom there is enough to go round, there is enough to share and that what makes us special and unique also allows us to shine, never to run out, never to be shut off from the world to view.

In Christ’s plentiful goodness, we all have love, joy and peace, patience, kindness and generosity, gentleness and self-control.

Why hold onto them tightly, locking them away or safely storing them on top of mountains?

In Christ’s plentiful goodness, we can all say “Amen.”