Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter Sermon; April 20, 2014

Rev. George N. Miller
John 20:1-18
“Sharing the Resurrection”
April 20, 2014

6 years ago the country was in survival mode. The recession was really kicking in and it was especially felt throughout the state of Michigan.

I was living in Grand Rapids at the time and it was heartbreaking. The economy was at its worst; unemployment was at its highest and Michigan’s main source of revenue was outsourced oversees.

This was not just a tope; a minor speed bump. It was a major traffic accident that left many lives, many dreams destroyed on the roadside.

Plants shut down, churches closed their doors, and once thriving department stores were left empty, their buildings like deserted, bloated dead bodies.

It was easy to lose focus. Easy to lose hope. Easy to give in to tears and fears and to feel absolutely deserted by God...

...and yet in the midst of what seemed like certain death there were flickers of hope.

For example, in Ferndale, a suburb of Detroit, I experienced a shared moment of community that left a positive mark on my life; an opportunity to witness musical history being made.

Trivial history; the kind you find in the Guinness Book of World Records: a 50 hour marathon performance of the song “Danny Boy”.

Scheduled to coincide with St. Patrick’s Day, this music fest featured over 1,000 singers, groups, musicians and spoken word artists.

It took place at AJS Café in which their slogan is “Where family and friends come together.”

And boy were there family and friends.

There were bald black men in green ties, young white guys with guitars, old ladies with feathered boas, women holding infants, men in kilts playing the bagpipes, people of all types sporting long dreads, and a man in a green dress complete with wig and high heels.

People sung to piano, people sung to recorded tracks, people sung off key, people sung a capella and as a crowd.

There were people who sung with confidence, people who sung with uncertainty, those who had talent, those with no talent whatsoever. There were instrumentalists, vocalists, choirs.

And not once during my time there did it get tired. Not once was I bored. In fact, I found myself amazed, astounded and moved to tears.

This was an event that was bigger than me, bigger than the people at the table next to me or those who were on the stage.

The event was bigger than us. It was an event that created community.

It was also my first time hearing “Danny Boy” and when I looked at the lyrics I was astounded to find out what the song was about: death.

And love.

The change of seasons.

The promise that through it all the love we share with one another prevails over all other things.

No wonder why we were gathered; no wonder why the song was so moving- it spoke to where we, as residents of Michigan, of the United States, of the world, were as a people during those difficult days of the recession.

I looked around, listening and realizing that what had brought us together was a song about death that ends with the lyrics “And when you end and tell me you love me I’ll sleep in peace again until you come to me.”

Those moments that we shared at AJS Café were not about a failing economy, or the shutting of businesses or outsourced jobs.

It was a celebration of love and the power it has over all of life’s circumstances.

And it was there, at AJS Café, over cups of coffee and a crowd of folk, that I came to understand that we all share the same thing: life, death and the promise of resurrection...

Friends, visitors and family, we have gathered here as a community of Christ to celebrate Easter.

We have come here to stand witness to and testify that in the end of all things God is in control.

We have come to share the good news that not only is Christ resurrected, but that we share in that resurrection as well.

We have come here to shout “Hallelujah!” knowing that new life and new hope exists in our hearts.

Today’s scripture is one of the most poignantly written pieces of literature you’ll ever find.

It is a reading that moves us from weeping to joy, from fear to jubilation, from loss to new beginnings as we are right there in the garden with Mary Magdalene as she realizes that through it all, the love of Christ is still with her.

The gospel writer tells us that Jesus was crucified. Mary was there when he said “It is done.” The writer has told us of how Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus prepared the body of Jesus and laid it in the tomb.

Sunday morning, somewhere between 3 and 6 a.m., Mary makes her way to where her preacher, her teacher, has been buried. But the stone has been rolled away and his body is missing.

She runs to tell the disciples. They check it out themselves. They leave Mary, filled with grief, standing by herself.

Bad enough she lost Jesus to death, but apparently she has now also lost him to grave robbers.

Weeping, she meets a man she confuses with the gardener. Until… he calls out her name: “Mary.”

And she realizes, she knows, she discovers that Jesus is right there beside her. He has not left. He has victoriously been...transformed.

Her grief turns to joy and her emptiness turns into radical embrace.

And here we encounter the breathtaking, mighty mystery of the Resurrection and of our faith:

that through God, death does not have the final word, but becomes a transition into something new, something greater than ever before or ever even imagined.

It’s amazing when you think about this story and about Christianity. In the beginning we were just a small group of men, women and some children who followed a man whose teaching could be simply summed up as:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind…and love your neighbor as yourself.”

He certainly wasn’t the first person to teach this. He certainly wasn’t the first preacher to come into town and begin a new movement. And he certainly wouldn’t be the last.

But an interesting thing happened. Usually when a leader of a group dies or leaves, the group dismantles. No matter what their best intentions are, they stop gathering; they stop believing. The group dies right with its leader.

But not this group. Not this time. Not in this circumstance. Here they were, a rag tag community of sinners, widows, fishermen, and tax collectors.

And something happened; something inexplicable.

Jesus is slaughtered by the powers that be. But he is not silenced.

His teachings continue to inspire. His love continues to transform. He is present in everything they do, everywhere they go and everyone they meet.

God has won: Jesus has been resurrected.

The authorities could not stop God; the crowds could not stop God. The cross could not stop God.

Jesus, the Son of the Most High, was so filled with graceful love and glorious light that the love and light lived on.

In the garden.

On the road to Emmaus.

In the upper room where they huddled in fear.

On the shore by a campfire.

In large gatherings of people.

…When the bread was lifted up and broken and the cup was poured…

Christ lived on.

The people discover that it was not just the good news that Christ has been resurrected but that they themselves have also experienced transformation.

Mary Magdalene is moved from tears to joy. The disciples are moved from fear to courage; Thomas from doubt to assurance. Years later Paul moves from persecutor to evangelizer.

They discover that they have now entered into a new relationship with Christ in which they’re no longer just disciples, but children of the living God, brothers and sisters of God’s eternal household.

They and we become beneficiaries of the Resurrection because we are liberated and we are set loose from whatever may hold us back.

And because of this, we sing because we are happy; we sing because we are free.

Family and friends, we gather today to celebrate the resurrection of Christ because we discover that in the long run it is not just about politics or economics, it’s not just education or the environment.

And it’s not just about ourselves.

It’s about being part of something that is bigger than it all: the stars, the trees, the sky, the people, the color purple, and red and green and white.

The entire cosmos.

It’s about God and how there is nothing God can’t do. Nothing that can stop God.

Not a long, drawn out winter filled with snow; not a summer season filled with non-stop rain. Not wars that rage on or governments that can’t play nice and get their acts together.

Not a world whose history is filled with discrimination, domination and destruction.

And most certainly, not a cross and three measly nails.

The promise of the resurrection is not that we won’t ever be scared, or lonely, or cry or be upset again.

The promise is that we don’t have to allow these events to have final say or to rule over our lives.


Because in the big scheme of things they are simply topes; because as residents of the Kingdom of God we are recipients of the resurrection good news.

This means we are empowered to move from surviving to thriving; from the fear of having too little to the assurance of having enough.

We know that in the end, in the ultimate end of all things, there is God, and God is in control and in God we have the victory.

Christ is resurrected, and we, as his children, are resurrected as well.

No thing, no person and no principality can ever take that away from us…

…Six years ago surrounded by economic death and difficulties a group of people gathered in a small Detroit suburb to sing.

Infants and elderly, black and white, male and female, single, married, divorced and widowed, they sung about love, they sung about death, they sung about the changing of seasons.

And they sung about the promise of return that only love can bring.

Not only has Christ been resurrected, but we have as well.

Now that the journey to the cross is over and the resurrection has occurred, may we go out into this thriving world singing lyrics of life; may we be reflections of the Good News.

Let us sing praises to God the highest; let us sing praises to the Holy Spirit that fills us with song.

Let us sing “Hallelujah!” to the Son, Jesus Christ who proved that death will not be the final note.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Sermon for April 13, 2014

Rev. George Miller
Matthew 21:1-11
“Quarters for Christ”
April 13, 2014

A new minister moved into town. One day he takes the bus to the downtown area. When he sits down he discovers the driver has given him a quarter too much change.

As he considered what to do, he thought to himself, “You’d better give the quarter back. It would be wrong to keep it.”

Then he thought, “Oh, forget it, it’s only a quarter. Who would worry about this little amount? They will never miss it. Accept is as a gift from God.”

When his stop came, the pastor paused at the door, then handed the quarter to the driver and said, “Here, you gave me too much change.”

The driver, with a smile, replied, “You’re the new preacher in town. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about going somewhere to worship. I gave you that extra quarter to see just what you would do. I’ll see you at church on Sunday.”

When the preacher stepped off the bus, he literally held onto the nearest light pole and said, ‘Oh God, I almost sold your son for a quarter.”

Though this story is not fact-based, it is full of truth: for some people, our lives and actions are the only Bible they will encounter.

Remember this when we call ourselves Christian.

Remember as well that being a Christian means trying our best to do the right thing, even when the right thing is not the easiest thing to do.

Today Jesus enters into Jerusalem. Taken by itself it’s a joyous celebration of the Messiah’s entrance into history with people shouting “Hosannas” and songs of blessings.

But look ahead to the cross and we realize that today’s entrance into the Holy City is another step towards the eventual arrest, trial and murder of an innocent man.

What we’re witnessing is not a party that leaves all feeling well, but a man confronting his very death.

Today we are invited not to focus so much on Jesus or the crowd or the donkey and colt, but to focus on the disciples.

When we begin the reading, they are with Jesus at Bethphage, the Mont of Olives.

Bethphage is the city where Jesus’ close friends lived: Martha, Mary and Lazarus. It is a place where he is loved, where he has a place to rest, where he is fed, where he can just be.

Bethphage is also a symbol of hope.

According to the Old Testament, the coming Messiah will stand on the Mount of Olives before delivering his people.

Then there is Jerusalem which has been hovering in the background. It’s where King Herod presides. It’s the place where the Temple is located, but it’s also been called a city that kills prophets and stones those who are sent to it.

We have been prepared for this moment in time. In Matthew, ch. 16 Jesus told the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to undergo great suffering.

In ch. 20 he pulls the disciples aside to tell them that in Jerusalem he will be handed over and condemned to death.

Both instances are enough to make a sane person say “It’s been nice knowing you, Jesus, but let’s call the whole thing off.”

Instead, the disciples stay by his side and he teaches them that to follow him means to deny oneself.

He teaches them that to be a disciple means to willingly pick up their own cross, for as Jesus states: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but to lose their life?”

These are not easy teachings to hear or to live by.

Imagine being with Jesus that day.

Before meeting him you were a nobody going nowhere and now, because of him your life has purpose, direction, and you are warmed by the mystery of love.

Imagine you’ve spent a year to three years following him, observing miracles, seeing people’s lives transformed.

Imagine you’ve shared meals with Jesus, gone fishing with him, witness him reaching out to all of those society has neglected.

Imagine that he’s told you twice that in Jerusalem he’ll be humiliated and killed and now here you are, standing on the Mont of Olives, looking out on the city of Jerusalem, knowing full well what comes next.

Behind you, in Bethany, is the house of Mary and Martha, a place you have visited, a place where you know Jesus is welcomed, safe and cared for.

Ahead of you is the city where you know Jesus will be captured and crucified.

Imagine you are one of the two disciples Jesus asks to go into the village to get him a donkey and a colt so he can ride in.

What would you do?

Would you obey his direction for the sake of the Kingdom or would you say “No: it’s not safe for you there.”

It’s not an easy question, is it?

Giving back an extra quarter. Now that’s easy.

Knowingly bringing a man to his death- that’s a different story.

A few weeks ago I preached about stirring up the mud, but this is too much…

Following Christ isn’t so easy.

Being a faithful disciple is more than just reading scripture and saying your prayers.

It’s a complete way of life. A way of life that brings so much joy and feelings of completion.

But it also involves sacrifice, going against the popular norm, and doing things you’d rather not do for the sake of Christ.

Think of the United Church of Christ. How we, as a denomination, have a history of doing things that we believe Jesus wanted us to do, even if it meant that it could stir up the mud.

For example, being the first denomination to ordain a woman. That surely caused a few rifts in the body of Christ back in the 1800’s.

How many denominations are still debating that issue in 2014?

Sometimes doing the will of Christ is something we’d rather not do, especially if it seems like it could hurt the church.

For example, what happened in Biloxi, Mississippi in the 60's.

Back before there were casinos, decades before Hurricane Katrina, Biloxi was a sleepy southern city with a thriving fishing industry with beautiful beaches along the Gulf Coast.

Winter, spring, summer or fall, you could go to the beach, walk up and down the peer, do some fishing, and when it got hot enough, go for a swim.

You could, that is, as long as you were white. The beaches in Biloxi were segregated.

If you were black, it did not matter if you lived ½ a block from the shore, you could not enter the waters.

We’re not talking about one beach; we’re talking about 29 miles of beach.

One day, a black doctor, named Gilbert Mason, had enough, and with 9 other people, he waded into the water as a form of non-violent protest. They were arrested and a movement had begun.

A year later, more wade-ins happened. Although the protestors were peaceful, the authorities were not. Police were called in, arrests were made.

This led to the bloodiest race riots in Mississippi’s history as bullets sprayed the air, innocent people were killed, cars were overturned and set afire, and protestors were placed in unventilated trucks that sat in the hot Mississippi sun.

I tell you this because this story became part of the UCC’s story. At the time, the UCC was a presence in Biloxi with two churches and an outreach organization called Back Bay Mission.

Their pastors (Rev. Gallagher and Rev. Aregood) participated in the wade-ins, believing they could not sit back and watch as the city discriminated.

Though white, they too waded into the water with other protestors and sure enough they were arrested and thrown into those unventilated vans.

One night Back Bay Mission held a special session for the NAACP and was besieged by an angry mob of people who threw rocks and smashed windows.

To the sound of broken glass, the two UCC pastors joined the NAACP leaders in singing “Life Every Voice.”

They paid a price for walking in the footsteps of Jesus in those difficult days of the early 1960. These UCC pastors not only gave back their quarter but they were willing to go get the donkey.

And their churches paid the price. Word got around that the UCC was filled with troublemakers. Bosses told their employees that if they continued to go to “those churches” they would lose their job.

Eventually so many people left the two congregations, the churches had to close their doors. Until recently, there has not been a UCC presence in all of Mississippi except for Back Bay Mission.

That’s a big price to pay for following Christ. Talk about standing between Bethphage and Jerusalem.

They could have ignored the call of Jesus to do justice and continue living their nice southern lives by the nice waters of Biloxi.

Maybe they could have signed a petition or two or given a sermon about how segregation is wrong. Doing so would have kept them in Bethphage.

But they heard a call from Jesus to get the proverbial donkey and enter into Jerusalem when they joined hands with the other protestors and waded into the waters of Biloxi.

This is but just one example of how following Jesus is not always an easy thing to do. There are countless others and there are people right here in our congregation who have done bold things in their belief.

But it’s not always easy; it’s not always neat. And, as demonstrated by Jesus himself, it is rarely without ramifications.

As we talked about two weeks ago, Christianity is not a religion of just the prim and proper. It’s also for those who feel the challenge to dig in, get down and dirty, and to get their hands muddied.

Jesus doesn’t just call us to worship by solely saying a few prayers and reading choice scripture, but Jesus calls us to worship him and to show our appreciation by caring for others, by reaching out, and in doing the things he calls us to do, even when we wish we did not.

And sometimes Jesus may even call us, as a body of Christ, or as a member, to say or do something that may seem, in the short term, to hurt the body.

But thanks to the resurrection Good News, it may actual strengthen the universal body of Christ and make the Kingdom of God even that more real.

For in Jesus, we are not only empowered to bring change, but we are glorified, and although up close the cross may seem oh so frightening, in the end it is in, with and through God that we have the victory.

God’s ways are not always our ways. That’s part of what this week is all about.

May we find in Jesus a fearless leader we are willing to faithfully follow with loud Hosannas!

May the Holy Spirit empower us to continue being faithful participants in this amazing story called life. Amen.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Sermon for April 6, 2014

Rev. George Miller
Romans 8:6-11
“Whole; Holy”
April 6, 2014

I have a story to share, it’s one I’ve already told, but it fits perfectly into the theme of yesterday’s memorial service for Joy Spencer. And it’s all true.

Once upon a time, a priest, a Baptist minister, and a UCC pastor were out boating on Lake Jackson when they discovered the cabin was filling with water and they were sinking.

"Oh, Lord," said the priest, "if you let us walk on water as you did your Son, we could make it to the Fountain Head and be saved." He stepped off the stern of the boat and drowned.

"Oh, Lord," said the Baptist minister, "If you would part the waters just as you did for the Israelites, we could make it to Veteran’s Beach and be saved." He stepped off the bow of the boat and was eaten by an alligator.

"Oh, Lord," said the UCC pastor, "did you say to turn the handle on this valve right or left?” When the water left the boat he went to the Sunset Grille for a basket of fish and chips and a nice, cold vodka martini.

It is good to laugh after saying goodbye to a beloved member of our church community.

It is good to laugh as the world holds its breath for more information about the Malaysian airplane.

It is good to laugh knowing people are still reeling from the mudslide in Washington, the earthquake in Chili and the fires in Avon Park.

Laughter is good because it means life still goes on, it means the darkness has not won out, it means that the human will to live stays strong.

Laughter means that we are resilient.

Resilient. Perhaps my second favorite word in the English language. Behind “mm-hmm” and before “no.”

Say it after me: resilient.

It’s a word to describe Celie in The Color Purple. It’s a word to describe the Woman at the Well who we met two weeks ago.

It’s a word to describe those in the Philippines.

Remember back in November when they were hit by a typhoon? Neighborhoods were destroyed. Roads were overflowing with debris, homes were sandblasted, and the city of Tacloban was reduced to rubble.

The landscape was covered with uprooted trees and dead bodies which lay by the roads or were buried under the wreckage.

Over 4,000 people died. Hundreds of thousands of survivors endured the unimaginable: hunger, thirst, makeshift shelter, and waiting days for help to arrive.

About a week later a journalist named Todd Pitman went to visit and was unprepared for what he saw.

There were plenty of people with hopeless, fear-filled faces, but then there were also moments of flickering hope and of life.

For example a group of boys found a basketball hoop in the ruins of their neighborhood. They propped up the backboard with broken wood beams and rusty nails scavenged from the wreckage.

And there, on a bit of land where no debris, no dead bodies, no uprooted trees lay, they played a game of basketball.

Todd was stunned; he was even more stunned when he heard the basketball net was one of the first things the neighborhood rebuilt.

Why did they do it?

The kids needed to play so they could take their mind off of things. Spectators needed something to watch, so they could forget, if even for a moment, what had become of their homes.


The journalist noticed that hope had begun to flicker; people smiled if even briefly. They joked, even in passing.

A kid wearing grimy, mismatched shoes rolled the ball towards Todd and he was encouraged to slam dunk. He opted for a free-throw, and when he sank the first two, the crowd cheered.

Amidst the rubble, they cheered.

When he missed the third throw, some “awwwww”ed in sympathy; others laughed.

Later that day, Todd saw 4 giggling kids jump up and down on soiled mattresses; two women on a hilltop high above danced.

A 21 year-old strummed a guitar and sang and when asked why, he stated “I am sad about (what happened to my city) but I’m happy because I’m still alive. I survived. I lost my home. But I did not lose my family.”

This type of reaction to a natural disaster is not always common. It was not seen in Japan when the tsunami hit.

But this form of resilience in the Philippines has been noted. Some say it’s because of an expression they have: “Bahala Na.”

It basically means: whatever happens, leave it to God.

“Bahala Na.”

A local psychologist says her people have grown use to the knowledge that catastrophes happen, from typhoons to earthquakes, even political unrest.

Nationally, they have found a way to make dealing with disaster an art for. Instead of letting life get the best of them, they learn to let it go, let it go, let it go.

Not that they are happy-go-lucky Pollyannas but they are resilient enough to say “I can deal with this. I’m at peace. And whatever happens tomorrow happens…”

Resilience. Bahala Na. Whatever happens leave it to God.

Is this part of what Paul is trying to tell us in today’s letter to the Christians in Rome?

Paul is nearing the end of his ministry and his time on earth. He’s been around the ancient world. He’s done it all, seen it all.

He’s had his share of free throws that made it through; he’s had his share of free throws that have completely missed the net.

He’s had his own dealing with sinking ships and proverbial alligators and religious leaders who thought their way was best.

And through it all, Paul does not lose faith; he does not lose sight. In fact he appears to be even sharper, sounder then before.

Don’t set your mind on the flesh, he states. He doesn’t mean flesh in the sense of what we eat, what we drink, or who we love.

He means flesh as in the ways we can become selfish and self-centered, the ways we can put our egos above all else and the ways we worships ourselves as Gods.

Don’t do that, Paul says. You won’t have a good, full life. You’ll be miserable.

Instead, writes Paul, put your focus on the Spirit. He does not mean spirit as in body, mind and soul.

He means Spirit as in God. As in Holy. As in that which is connected with Christ.

Put your mind on the Spirit because then you will have a good, full life that is stronger than storms, stronger then rubble, stronger then death.

Put your mind on the Spirit, because after all the Spirit of God already dwells within you.

In other words: Bahala Na.

Paul is not separating mind, body or soul here. He is not saying the body is bad and the spirit is good.

I believe that part of what he’s saying is that we are complete beings; whole and holy, and that which affects the body affects the soul, what affects the soul affects the body.

And as Christians we have two ways of living: we can focus on the negative, be in rebellion and only care about what’s in it for us.

Or we can trustingly place our lives in the hands of our Creator and be set free from the things that use to hold us down.

It means that we are no longer just our own, but we belong to God, as made known through Christ, and we belong to one another, and we belong to the greater community around us.

It means we don’t have to stay on a sinking ship. It means we don’t have to hold onto that which pulls us down.

Nor does it mean that life will become perfect and worry free, but it means that when, not if, but when disaster strikes, when storms come along, when we come across a tope, we may suffer, we may cry, we may feel afraid…

…but that ultimately with a combination of faith, trust and good ol’ fashioned common sense we will endure, we will survive, we will have enough.

We will, through Christ, find a way to dig a basketball hoop out of the wreckage and be able to play a game.

We will not be alone; we will be surrounded by others; we will be cared for by Christ.

For after all, the Spirit of God already dwells within us and the promise of the resurrection is ours for all eternity.

Amen and Bahala Na.

***today’s message used a huge portion of Todd Pitman’s excellent article “Signs of Life Amid Misery Reveal Filipino’s Spirit” (Associated Press, Nov. 19, 2013). For an inspiring read, I encourage you to Google it.