Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Sermon for Nov 2, 2014; Matthew 23:1-12

Rev. George Miller
Matthew 23:1-12
Nov 2, 2014

A few months ago I was given a poem by John Paul Moore. It goes like this:

“I’ve never made a fortune
And it’s probably too late now,
But I don’t worry ‘bout that much…
I’m happy anyhow.
And as I go along life’s journey
I’m reaping better than I sowed
And I’m drinkin’ from my saucer
‘cuase my cup has overflowed.

I’ve not got a lot of riches
And sometimes the goin’s tough
But I’ve got my family and friends that
love me and that makes me rich enough.
I just thank God for his blessings
And the mercies he’s bestowed…
And I’m drinkin’ from my saucer
‘cuase my cup has overflowed.

I remember times when things went wrong
My faith got a little bit thin
But all at once the dark clouds broke
And that old sun peeked through again.
So, Lord, help me not to gripe
About all the tough rows I have hoed,
I’m drinkin’ from my saucer
‘cuase my cup has overflowed.

And if God gives me strength and courage
When the way grows steep and rough,
I’ll not ask for other blessings,
I’ve already had enough.
And may I never be too busy
To help another bear his load…
Then I’ll keep drinkin’ from my saucer
‘cuase my cup has overflowed.”

Here is a poem that speaks in gentle terms about what today’s reading tries to teach us in harsh terms: humility and contentedness, loving neighbor and loving God.

What we just heard falls into the category we can call “Angry Jesus.” This is certainly not the Jesus, meek and mild, that hangs in our Council room walls.

This is not the sunkissed, tousled haired, smiling Jesus that greets people as they enter our Fellowship Hall.

This is brash, bold, bustin’ Jesus who uses his words wisely and with clear intent to stir the pot, get a reaction and force people to think.

While standing within earshot of the religious leaders of his day, Jesus tells the people to do as they say, but not as they do.

Jesus points out the flaws of their leaders and scholars: they place too much burdens on others, they put on acts of show, they vie for the best seat at the table, they adorn themselves with flashy things and they expect everyone to greet them with titles of honor and prestige.

And that’s just the first 12 verses. Read the rest of the chapter and you’ll hear how Jesus boldy, brashly, bustingly calls them children of hell, blind guides, and hypocrites.

Jesus challenges them for worrying about the cleanliness of their saucers rather than the contents of their hearts, for caring more about spices than justice, mercy and faith.

He calls each and every one of them snakes, vipers, and murderers. Is it any wonder his journey led to a cross?

This kind of reading, this kind of scripture is not the most comfortable to read let alone teach, because anyone who tries to point a finger will find 4 fingers pointing right back.

So, let me tell you a story.

As anyone who read this week’s KIT or my FaceBook page knows, I went to Tire Kingdom this week to fix a leaky tire.

To pass the time, I brought my Bible and notepad and research books to prepare for today’s sermon. I was reading what the scholars had to say, trying to figure out just what the heck I’m going to say.

I look over at the guy next to me; he’s reading the paper, but not any paper: the Sun News Times, and he just so happens to be on the page about our church and the Shepherd’s Pantry.

Clear as day I can see the photo of Tracy Miller and I. It was a most surreal moment. I’ve never had that happen before.

He looks over at me and there’s this moment where I can tell exactly what he is thinking.

My ego wants to bubble up and say “That’s me!” but this dang scripture is right before me, challenging me to not boast or brag.

I would not have been drinking from a saucer whose cup had overflowed, but drinking from a bling-ed out goblet of pride.

Well, maybe I can let him know that’s the church I pastor. What could be wrong with that? It could be an opportunity for evangelism, to further get our name out.

But let’s be honest, it wouldn’t have been that. It would have been a moment to feel like a star, to briefly enjoy the spotlight and to bubbly say “That’s me.”

Not what Jesus- the brash, the bold, the bustin’- would have wanted.

That’s the thing about Jesus- he challenges us. Even 2,000 years later, he still challenges us.

Through the Holy Scripture Jesus speaks across space, time and culture to challenge his leaders, his followers, and his people.

When he challenges us, it’s not as the gentle, meek and mild man we see in our Council Room or the sun-kissed guy in the Fellowship Hall.

It’s this guy standing in front of the Pharisees and scribes who is saying “Do what they say, not what they do. Do not be called rabbi or Father. And those who exalt themselves will be humbled.”

So the question is “why?” Why does Jesus go on this ranting tirade that upsets everyone around him and brings him one step closer to the cross?

Is he insane? Is he addicted to chaos? Does he have a death wish?

No. It’s because he loves.

He loves the people he is talking to. He loves the people he is talking about. He loves the community he is standing in.

See, it’s important to recall that Jesus is not speaking as an outsider smugly looking in and telling the people they got everything wrong.

Jesus is an insider.

He’s a Jew, just like the Pharisees and Sadducees, just like the scribes and the people present, and he sees them.

He knows them. He’s in relationship with them. He shares their same history, he shares their same stories, her shares their same ancestors in David and Jonathon, Miriam and Moses, Abraham and Sarah.

He shares the same God who blesses, who saves, who creates.

And he knows they can do so much better; they can do so much more than they currently are.

Jesus knows that as God’s Children they have two very simple responsibilities: to love their neighbor and to love their Lord with all their heart, with all their soul and with all their mind.

Not to love titles, or to love first row seats or to love gold plated cups and utensils.

But to focus on the things that really, truly mattered: the blessings that have been bestowed, the journeys that lay ahead and the grace that have been given.

Or as Jesus says in 23:23 “…the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”

Yes, in today’s reading Jesus is bold, brash and bustin’…but he still speaks to them with words of hope and words of relational love.

For is verse 38 his parental heart pours out as he states “How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her (offspring) under her wings…”

Even in disappointment, even in righteous anger, Jesus still desires to protect them, he still desires to guide and cherish them.

He still desires to call them blessed.

If only they can get out of their own way, stop trying to make things so difficult and embrace the font of every blessing that is before them.

If only they can learn to embrace the sentiment in this morning’s poem:

“I’ve never made a fortune
And it’s probably too late now,
But I don’t worry ‘bout that much…
I’m happy anyhow.
And as I go along life’s journey
I’m reaping better than I sowed
And I’m drinkin’ from my saucer
‘cuase my cup has overflowed…

…And if God gives me strength and courage
When the way grows steep and rough,
I’ll not ask for other blessings,
I’ve already had enough.
And may I never be too busy
To help another bear his load…
Then I’ll keep drinkin’ from my saucer
‘cuase my cup has overflowed.”

If there is one thing to walk away from today’s message is that Jesus’ love for us is a relational love that came from knowing who we are and whose we are.

Yes, he could be bold, brash and busting, but he did it as a Mother or Father would do.

Jesus offered that grace-filled, relational love so that we, in turn, can share that love with others, ourselves and with our God, because in Christ, our saucer, our cups, our plates, our tables overflow.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Reformation Sunday Sermon, Oct 26, 2014, Matthew 22:34-40

Rev. George Miller
Matthew 22:34-40
Oct 26, 2014

A woman’s daughter was sick. Worried, she stopped by the pharmacy to get medication, got back to her car and discovered that she had locked her keys inside.

She found an old rusty coat hanger left on the ground. She looked at it and said, “I don’t know how to use this.”

So she bowed her head and boldly prayed to God for help. Within 5 minutes a burly, bearded man on a beat-up motorcycle pulled up, asking if he could be of assistance.

She looked past his many tattoos and skull cap and said “Yes, my daughter is sick and I locked my keys in the car. I must get home. Please: can you use this hanger to unlock my door?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, wiping the sweat from his brow. He walked over to the car and in less than a minute the car was open.

Out of sheer joy, she hugged the man and through tears exclaimed “Thank you SO much! You are a very nice man.”

Blushing just a bit, the biker responded “Lady, I am NOT a nice man. I just got out of prison yesterday.”

“What for?” she asked, still hugging him.

“Car theft.”

“Oh thank you God! You not only heard my prayer but you sent me a professional!”

Isn’t that just like God? The ability to use sickness as an opportunity for wellness?

The chance for an old, rusty object to be turned into a means of salvation?

The ability to use someone once behind bars to perform an act of deliverance and good-will?

God is good, and God is full of grace.

Today is Reformation Sunday. It’s more than just the day in which we celebrate the beginning of the Protestant movement. It’s more than just a day in which Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door as an act of faithful defiance.

Reformation Sunday is a day to mark new beginnings. A day to proclaim that we are all worthy to stand before the Lord.

A day to celebrate the limitless gift of grace.

Grace: the unparalleled, unequaled love of God made known by Christ in which a wretch like me, a wretch like you, a wretch like the thief on a beat up bike

can be turned, transformed, redeemed and used for the glory of God and the benefit of the Kingdom.

But what is this notion of grace we are referring to?

Are we talking about the way one skates gracefully across ice? Or the words one says before a Thanksgiving meal?

No, we are talking about grace made known through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that proved once and for all that God loves us beyond our imagination.

Loved not because of who we are, or what we have done, but because we are worthy.

Church, let me hear you say “I am worthy.”

Let me hear you say “We are worthy.”

Now turn to your neighbor and say “You are worthy.”

This may not sound like such a big deal, this may not seem super radical, but it used to be that religious leaders taught that mere mortals were not worthy.

Mere mortals were not worthy to stand before the Lord to offer their prayers, that mere mortals could not carry worship banners or the Bible, that mere mortals could not go directly to God to receive forgiveness.

It used to be that only priests were seen as good enough to go before God; that only clergy could do acts of ministry and praise.

But that is not so; it is certainly not true.

Because we are worthy. We are worthy to stand before God and boldly pray, just as Hannah did so long ago.

We are worthy to carry the banner and participate in worship just as David danced before the Ark and sung songs of glory.

We are worthy to celebrate that we, as a corporate body, can offer God our praises in the highest way possible without the intercessory actions of a Priest or a Pharisee or Sadducee.

Because of God’s grace, Reformation Sunday means that we are free to try our best to emulate the ways of Jesus and to try to be as Christ-like as we can be.

Why? Because we are worthy.

And yes, we know we will fail, we know we will make mistakes, and that’s OK.

Because grace is amazing, and grace says we get another and another and another chance to try again.

Why? Because we are worthy, and we are loved.

As a result of this realization, we are free. We are free to worship our God, known through Christ, in a way that feels right.

Which means that we could easily sit on the altar steps like children and sing “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are week but he is strong.”

Or we can stand by our seats and gently sway as we sing “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

Or we can proudly process down the aisle with banners and Bibles and horns while whole-hearts proclaiming “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

And because of grace, all would be pleasing to God. So why not be big, be bold, be brave, knowing that it’s not because we must, but because we may?

We are worthy.

In today’s reading we overhear how the legalistic religious leaders of Jesus’ day tried to trap him and get him to slip up.

They were so focused on the 613 commandments and following the letter of the law, that they were threatened by the way in which Jesus allowed others to experience the character of God.

And that character of God is love.

Not love that is phony or fake, not love that is coerced or demanded, but love that is relational and of the deepest nature.

So when they ask Jesus to share the most important commandment, he does them one better and gives them two:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and with all your mind.

How can anyone argue with such brilliant orthodoxy?

Second: love your neighbor as yourself…

Love that invites. Love that welcomes. Love that exists within tears and frustration, laughter and joys, strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears.

Love that treats the shamed with honor; love that declares the unclean worthy of human touch and compassionate care.

When we experience such love with one another, we also experience the love of God.

When we experience the love of God we experience life, eternal life, itself.

And that is life filled with grace, grace meant to be received, grace meant to be shared, grace meant to make us be the best people we can be.

The grace of God knows how to find ways to open up locked doors.

The grace of God knows how to turn the negative days of our past into positive opportunities for the future.

Grace knows how to turn something old and rusted into a tool for newness and beauty.

Grace has a way of uniting people who had never met before.

So this Reformation Sunday, let us give thanks for all that God has given.

If God had simply delivered us from Egypt, that would have been enough. If God had simply given us the 10 Commandments and led us into the Promised Land, it would have been enough.

If God, through Christ, had simply given us the Sermon on the Mount, a table filled with bread and wine and calmed a storm at sea, it would have been enough.

But God has given us more, so much more. God has given us the gift of grace.

God has told us, for once and for all, that we are all worthy, we are all good enough; we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.

As such, we can stop trying so hard to please God by our actions, and instead we are free to allow our actions to show how much God is pleased by us.

Jesus loves me this I know. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. A mighty fortress is our God.

And because of this, we are all, each and every one of us, professionals in the eyes of our Lord, set free to do good in the world.

To love the Lord with everything we got and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Amen and amen.

*this week’s message would’ve been impossible without Stephen Patterson’s insights about love in God of Jesus, and the conversation I had with Maureen Wygant (our Interim Director of Music). Thank you.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sermon from Oct 19, 2014; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10

Rev. George Miller
2 Thessalonians 1:3-10
Oct 19, 2014


The bond between 2 or more people that say “you belong,” “you are a part of” and “there is something bigger than yourself.”

There are so many different kinds of relationships because there are so many different kinds of people and situations.

Relationships we have with our medical providers. Relationships we have with our mahjong club. Relationships with those we volunteer alongside of.

Relationships we are born into, for better or for worse; relationships we choose to enter for worse or for better.

Relationships like that between Jonathan and David in which our souls are cosmically connected.

If we have lived long enough and we are fortunate enough, we have entered into our share of real, healthy relationships. Not the kind that are phony or based on matters of insignificance, but the kind that are real.

The kind in which you are changed for the better; you are changed for the good. In which your share of tears and frustration, laughter and love are plenty.

A true relationship is one in which you can stand before another and say “This is who I am, these are the strengths I possess, these are the wounds that I carry, these are my hopes, my fears and my dreams.”

For me, an example of a such a relationship exists within the pages of the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith.

This series, set in Botswana, is less about solving mysteries, and more about kindness and community.

The main character is Mma Ramotswe, the owner of the detective agency. She is an independent woman who embraces her full-figure and values the tradition of her people.

She has an assistant named Mma Makutsi who can be stubborn, socially awkward and painfully aware of her appearance.

Mma Ramotswe has escaped an abusive husband and endured the death of a child. Mma Makutsi endured years of poverty and caring for a brother who died from AIDS.

During the course of the series, they don’t so much detect as they drink lots of tea, share stories and live very full lives.
They each find love, raise families and co-exist within the larger community.

There is a scene between them in the 13th book of the series in which Mma Makutsi has had a baby and is on maternity leave.

Mma Ramotswe realizes just how much she misses her assistant and her friend, so when Mma Makutsi stops by for a visit Mma Ramotswe has an immediate reaction.

The author states that “she felt the most exquisite, and regrettably rare, of pleasures-that of welcoming back one who has left your life.”

Her response? “Mma Makutsi, thank you. Thank you for coming back…and thank you for everything you have done for me…I don’t know if I have ever thanked you (enough)…”

Mma Makutsi stares at her boss, her best friend. “You don’t have to thank me. I should thank you. You took me-a nothing girl from (a nothing town)-and gave me a job. You taught me everything. You showed me how to be…myself.”

“You were always yourself,” says Mma Ramotswe. “Right from the word go, you were always yourself.”


That’s one of the most important marks of Christianity. Not just what we believe, or the songs we sing or the scriptures we study, but the fact that we are called to be in relationship with one another.

That our faith is meant to be shared together, not experienced in silence and solitude.

That our faith is strongest when we gather together to break bread, drink the fruits of the vine and call upon God as our Father and Jesus as our Brother.

We get a glimpse of this relational nature in today’s reading. Though people dispute who the true author of this letter is, one thing is very clear: whoever wrote it, they know and care about this particular congregation.

This is not a form letter posted on Facebook for all to see or an e-mail that has been cut-and-pasted with the name of the church changed.

This is a letter from a person to a group of people who are in a relationship together. A relationship that is honest and true, a relationship that is strong enough to span across space and time.

Just as Mma Ramotswe shares with her assistant how much she means to her and how much she has grown, the author of this letter lifts up the recipients and showers them with love:

“We give thanks to you because your faith is growing abundantly; we give thanks to you because your love for one another is increasing.

We are proud of you because even when times are hard, even when things are bad, you do not let that diminish your faith.

Even when people try to hurt you, even when others try to hide your light and take your joy away, you do not let that take your love for one another away.”

These are not false accolades; these are not the words of someone trying to butter them up.

These are the words of someone who has been changed for the better and because of their relationship with them.

These are words shared by people whose history, whose stories have ultimately been changed by their relationship with God; God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

The letter’s author and the congregational recipients have discovered that they have a relationship through God who is righteous and working to make all of them worthy for the Kingdom.

They have a relationship through Jesus who is aware of their trials and tribulations and will not let them suffer alone.

They have a relationship through the Spirit who sanctifies them, calls them to stand firm
and to obtain the glory that is presented to them.

This relationship with Father, Son and Spirit, this relationship between apostle and parishioners is what allows them to see beyond their current situation, to see beyond their current afflictions, to see beyond their current worries and woes.

In the words of #1 Ladies Detective Agency, they are each learning how to be themselves and how to be thankful.

From a faith perspective, they’re learning how to be the best Christians they can be, worthy of God’s call and focused on faith’s good works.

But not just through the good times. Not in a way that’s phony or untrue. But in a relational way that is real and really felt.

As we prepare for Reformation Sunday, as we prepare to welcome back familiar faces, as we prepare for our Congregational Meeting, may we strive to be like the church in Thessalonia.

May we continue to learn how to be in relationship with one another and to be in relationship with our Lord.

May we too experience the grace of God and the peace of Christ, so that we can continue to grow abundantly in our faith and to increase our love for one another, no matter what.

Amen and amen.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sermon for Oct 12, 2014; Isaiah 25:1-10

Rev. George Miller
Isaiah 25:1-10
Oct 12, 2014

One of the honors of being a pastor is having people share important things from their lives, like a copy of a prayer that pulled them through, the manuscript to a novel they’re working on or an article about someone who meant very much to them.

Recently, I received a reflection about a man named Franz Plunder, a master wood worker who mentored our very own Jack Spencer.

Franz was born in Austria and came to St. John’s College, Maryland in the 40’s as an Artist in Residence. He taught sculpture and fine arts.

His handiwork was well known: strong, beautiful, useful pieces like the walnut study tables for students to write their papers; octagonal tables in the Coffee Shop.

But his true passion was building and sailing boats. Legend has it that Franz single-handedly built a boat that he then sailed with 3 people from Hamburg to NY.

By the time he retired, Franz had built about 10 boats, the last of which he and his wife sailed daily on the lake.

Students recalled him as a romantic adventurer of ideas. He was said to be courageous, resourceful, curious and honest, with a love for life that spilled over into his sense of humor and gift for storytelling.

He loved beautiful things and was a peaceful man; a man who hated war and hated all things military from the bottom of his soul.

And yet…

And yet Franz became a soldier not once but twice in his life. The first time was as a young man for the Austrian Army in 1914.

The next time was 30 years later, when by his own choice, he left the college to serve with the United States Military Intelligence against the Nazis.

Why would a creative, peaceful man who hated war choose to do such a thing when, at his age, he clearly did not have to?

Because the Nazis had overrun his beautiful, small hometown in Austria. (article by William A. Darkey)

Though I never met Franz, the little I learned about him demonstrates the idea of complexity.

People are complex. The world is complex. Ethics, wars, and religion are all complex.

Rarely are we able to put someone, some thing or some situation into a neat little box in which we can walk away and say “that’s that.”

One can be 100% anti-war, but when the enemy invades your home and threatens your people what do you do?

You can spend your life making walnut tables for people to study and have fellowship, but under threat you might break the table of your enemy.

The story of Franz can perhaps help us to better understand today’s reading. It’s not an easy one.

Isaiah was a prophet writing about 700-740 years before Jesus was born. As a prophet, Isaiah was incredibly plugged into what was going on in his day.

Filled with wisdom, gifted (or cursed?) with eyes that truly see and ears that truly hear, Isaiah saw and heard what the state of the nation was, and it wasn’t good.

After nearly 500 years of living in the Land of Milk and Honey, the people had become complacent and forgetful of their history and of all the wonderful stories about their God.

The local politics and economics of their day were not what it should have been for people who had been led out of Egypt and lovingly planted and watered like a vine.

The people of God had stop doing the things that truly mattered. They had stopped doing justice, they had stopped loving kindness, and perhaps worse of all, they had stopped humbly walking with the Lord.

Because of all this Isaiah wrote them a warning: that if things continued as they were, there were going to be consequences.

God would not be pleased. Their enemy would come in and attack them. Like a vine they will be ripped from the ground.

Isaiah’s prophecy for the people is not a good one. But…all hope is not to be lost, for though they will fall victim to their enemy, God will not let them be permanently destroyed.

God will eventually turn the enemy’s city into a heap of bricks, a ruin never to be rebuilt.

The poor and distressed will find an oasis in God. And upon a mountain God will hold a heavenly BBQ for all to feast upon, featuring rich, fatty food and aged wines.

For me, this reading is a bit odd, because as I understand it, Isaiah is predicting a future event in which the people will suffer, but he is also saying “This too will pass and God will wipe away all your tears, remove the shroud of sadness and defeat your enemies.”

It’s a message to be feared; it’s a message to find great hope.

Complex indeed.

But here’s where I personally find myself struggling. The notion of ruins, the notion of the enemy’s city being a heap.

I am sure Franz could have understood this back in 1944. I’m sure everyone who is petrified of ISIS can understand this.

When our enemies fall, when those who have tried to hurt us are defeated, it makes sense we would want to celebrate and have a big ol’ BBQ to mark the occasion.

But…but my pastoral heart cannot forget, that in those ruins there are not just bricks but in those ruins there will also be wives and mothers; there will be aunties and nanas.

In those ruins will be the fallen homes with their tchochkes, memories and keepsakes.

The ruins of war will include children, nieces and nephews, sons and daughters, uncles and brothers.

In the heap of the enemy’s city will be front yards and gardens, pets and livestock, and trees that had stood for hundreds of years.

You can’t have a ruined city of the enemy without these things.

And yet if I was an Israelite during the time of Exile, if I was an Austrian during the reign of Hitler, if I was a father in Syria, how could I not want God to step in and do something to stop the enemy’s attack?

Again, the complexity of God: the Shepherd who leads us balanced with the Warrior who protects us.

The Almighty who gathers all people on the Mountain; the Almighty who makes the city a heap.

The Almighty who reduces into ruin; the Almighty who make a refuge for the poor.

This week our sign outside says “In you O Lord we put our trust.”

But in which Lord, in which God, are we trusting?

The Lord who creates, saves and blesses or the Lord who destroys, trods down and curses?

The Lord who wages war or the Lord who acts as a gracious hostess with a meal of fatty food and fine wine?

It’s not so easy, is it?

God, like us, is complex. God, like us, is not limited by labels…

Earlier, I mentioned the traits of Franz, the builder of boats. Listen to some of those traits again:

a sculptor, known for his beautiful handiwork that allowed others to socialize, study, and journey.

A romantic adventurer of ideas; courageous, resourceful, and honest with an appreciation for humor and storytelling.

A lover of peace and beautiful things, who hated war but was a soldier out of necessity and to protect his people and their land.

Is it a stretch of my imagination, but don’t those things sound a bit like the God we’ve been talking about the last 11 weeks?

Don’t those characteristics sound like a God who would create an oasis for an ostracized mother and child, a God who would set slaves free, get a donkey to talk, and who’d lead people into a land of milk and honey?

God is complex. God is not like a character in a Broadway musical or a video game in which you can predict every move.

God is more than just a refuge or a warrior, God is more than just a host or the catcher of tears.

Our God is so great, so limitless, and so mighty that for us, the wrestling match, the struggle, comes in when we are confronted with a scripture like today’s, and we ask ourselves “Just what does this mean?”

Or we give ourselves permission to wonder “Do I agree or not?”

Can we find God in the ruins? Can we find God on the mountaintop? Can we find God in the places of refuge? Can we find God in the abundance of food and plethora of drink?

And even if we never truly get an answer to the questions, can we still find our own way to say “This is the Lord for who we have waited, let us be glad and rejoice in God’s salvation.”

Amen and amen.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sermon for Oct 5, 2014; Pslam 80

Rev. George Miller
Psalm 80
Oct 5, 2014

While growing up there was a series of books my friends and I enjoyed called “Mad Libs.”

“Mad Libs” is a vocabulary game in which people are prompted to supply a series of words that are then plugged into a story.

For example, if I asked for a noun, someone might say “dog.” If I asked for a tree, you might say “oak.” After all the words are given, you’d then read the story aloud and hopefully hilarity ensued.

I thought we’d give it a try today. I’m going to say a category, you give the response.

Body part:
Supernatural creature:
Action verb:
Body part:

Now, let’s plug those words in:

“Give __________, O _____________
of Israel.
You are __________ upon the __________,
Shine forth before _________, __________ and ___________.
_______________ up your might, and come to ________________ us!
______________ us, O God; let your _____________ shine, that we might be saved.”

That, our Abrahams and Sarahs, is Psalm 80 “Mad Libs” style.

It is also a demonstration of how words matter.

Words matter, especially if you believe, as the ancient Israelites did, that God is personal and active and that the creating, saving, and blessing actions of God are best seen though history and the stories we tell.

Words matter. Titles and verbs matter, especially if we desire to learn how to increase our faith.

Psalm 80 is a song composed of carefully chosen verbs, titles and images. It is written as a community lament, meaning it’s a song to be sung by people who are experiencing hard times and wondering why God is not acting in their current history or part of their story.

As a lament, Psalm 80 follows a certain pattern: an address to God, a series of direct requests, a list of complaints, an affirmation of trust and the promise to praise God if God does indeed act (James Limburg).

But in order to do so, God has got to wake up and take the cotton out of God’s ears.

Therefore, there is a definite tone to this psalm. At first it sounds quite flowery but if you break it down, there is an element of direct boldness.

“Stir up.” “Restore us.” “Turn again…look down…and see.”

Depending on how you read this, the psalmist can sound very forward, if not demanding.

There is no passive “if it pleases you,” there is no apologetic “we just ask,” there is no “if it’s in your will.”

What Psalm 80 asks for, what Psalm 80 requests are very specific, very direct:

“Look down from heaven and see…restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

Which poses the question: is it Ok for ordinary folk, for people like you and I, to be so forward when we make a request to God?

Is it acceptable for us to blatantly ask for what we need, especially if what we’re asking for is life in its truest essence?

Not talking about a Lamborghini or a 2-car garage; not talking about short lines at Disney.

We’re talking about life, liberty, protection.

Is it acceptable to ask for what you need? Is it Ok to make a demand?

Scripture tells us that Hannah did.

Do you recall that in her distress she went directly to the Lord and asked that God would give her a child? Hannah prayed so passionately that Eli thought she was drunk.

Book of Numbers tells us that Moses turned to the Lord on behalf of the people.

When the leaders lied about the land and the people wanted to turn back, God became so angry that God wanted to disinherit each and every last one of them.

But Moses said “If you do so everyone will think you are weak, so let your power be great in the way in which you have promised.” (Numbers 13-14)

What a potent line- “…let the power of the Lord be great in the way that you promised when you spoke…”

Were Hannah and Moses in any way ordinary?

Hannah was the second wife of a man from the hill country, unable to have kids. Moses harbored a fear of speaking in public.

If Hannah and Moses can make direct requests to the Lord; if they could make demands, why can’t we?

Do ordinary, non-biblical folk have the right to be bold before our Lord?

I’d say yes. Why? Because if nothing else, that is how Jesus taught us to pray.

Think about it. Think about the Lord’s Prayer.

Perhaps we’ve said it too many times, or we’ve been falsely lulled by its poetry, but the “Lord’s Prayer” is one of the most direct, unapologetic prayers there is and it’s the prayer that Jesus Christ taught us to say.

“Our Father who art in heaven…”

Is this opening line descriptive: you are our Father, you dwell in heaven? Perhaps, if things are going well in your life, these words are wonderful descriptors.

But what if life is not going so well? Do the words then change into reminders?

You are our Father- so do what a good parent does.

You dwell in heaven- so do what an inhabitant of the Kingdom is supposed to do.

If God has the power and glory forever, why wouldn’t we be able to ask for those things?

Think of the other components of the Lord’s Prayer:
Give us this day our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts as we forgive others.
Lead us not into temptation.
Deliver us from evil.

Note how direct and unapologetic they are. Note how they ask for what is needed.

Jesus did not teach us to say “If you can, give us some bread.” Jesus does not teach us to say “We just ask, if it’s Ok with you, that you forgive and deliver us.”

Jesus does not teach us to say “If you don’t mind, can you deliver us from evil.”

No. It’s very up-front, very concrete, very life affirming and very much what you’d expect a Father, a Mother, a King, a Queen, a Guardian of the Galaxy to do:

feed, forgive, lead, protect and deliver.

Why? Why would Jesus teach us to pray in a way so bold, a way so direct?

Because we too are part of the vine that was brought out of Egypt; we too are part of the vine that the Lord planted and cared for.

We too can claim that in the Lord we have been able to take deep root, send out branches and play a role in providing shade.

I do not believe the vine referred to in Psalm 80 is a one-time historical event.

It is a continuous story about the ways in which God finds us where we are, carries us to a place that has been cleared, so that we can live and thrive and to play our own role in the Kingdom of God.

So when we are feeling as if we are broken down, when we feel like wild boars are ravaging us, when we feel hurt, when we are left asking “why?”, “how come?” and “how much longer?”,

we too can say to God “turn back” and “restore”, “give ear” and “save.”

When we pray to God, we too can say “give” and “forgive,” “lead” and “deliver.”

Why should we be so bold in our prayers?

Why not?

If Moses could do it, why not us? If Hannah could do it, why not us? Is the Psalmist did it, why not us?

If Jesus taught us to ask for bread and deliverance, why ask for anything less?

If God is indeed personal and active in both history and the stories we tell, why can’t we pray in a direct, active manner?

If God indeed creates, saves and blesses, then why can’t God also do so in our history, in our story, in our own lives?

May we each find our own ways to be so bold in our own faith this week.

May we each find our own ways to do what the Psalmist does and what Jesus taught us and to do, which is to trust that God will do what God can do: to create, to save and to bless.

Amen and amen.