Saturday, November 29, 2014

Sermon for Nov 30, 2014; Mark 13:24-37

Rev. George Miller
Nov 30, 2014
Mark 13:24-37

Today’s scripture deals with the themes of staying awake, of seasons and of waiting.

There is an art to waiting; an ebb and flow that comes with rituals and expectations. Events that mark rites of passage and of time: hunting season, Superbowl, prom.

Events that mark both an end and a new beginning: end of summer leads to 1st day of school. Easter ushers in winter’s end.

We all have traditions, we all have special days that hold meaning for us, something we look forward to that says something new has begun.

For me, Thanksgiving is that mark of time. It’s a full day off from work in which I choose to stay in and not leave home.

I look forward to starting the morning with no alarm, a pot of coffee and homemade pancakes.

Of watching the Macy’s Parade. Calling family. Making a turkey with turnips and my Mom’s pearl onions in cream sauce.

At some point I get to take out the Christmas tree, the red and green storage box full of decorations, and the CDs of Luther Vandross, Natalie Cole and Vanessa Williams singing seasonal standards.

The best part: putting up the ornaments. If you recall, last year I shared how I got rid of the ornaments that I no longer liked or those that had negative memories attached to them.

What you may not know is that throughout the last 2 years I’ve been purposely collecting ornaments from everywhere I’ve went and everything I’ve done.

Ornaments from days at Disney with Cornelius. Ornaments from my trips to New York and Connecticut; even places like Cats on Main in Wauchula and events like Small Business Saturday in Sebring.

Ornaments given by friends, theater folk, church members. Ornaments made by nephews; mailed by my brother. Some a year old, some from two decades back.

Virtually each one tells a story and reminds me of a person and a time. Some mark sad moments, others the good. Some represent transitions, others travels or tribulations.

But all these ornaments tell a story, come with history, and are therefore a blessing.

I’ve been waiting for a long time to put them up. Every time I’ve opened the hallway closet, they’ve been there in their gift boxes. When I received one as a gift or purchased one at an event, I’ve peered upon them all, waiting to be hung.

Every day this month has been one day closer to pancakes and parade, Christmas carols and putting up those priceless items.

And now they are up; there is light in the living room illuminating the night and the cats are having a great time hiding under the tree, jumping upon the branches and swatting the decorations.

Another year has come to an end; another year has now begun. Transitions, seasons and waiting.

That’s part of the sense I get from today’s reading.

On first read it’s bleak and terrifying. It features talk of the world falling apart, signs of suffering and stars falling from the sky.

Taken on its own it can seem scary, sad and soul-sucking but amidst its prophetic words are images of Good News and light.

First, it makes clear the presence of God with great power and glory. That just as barren branches of a fig tree do bring forth fresh fruit, the Almighty is near and not too far.

Second, while the world is in constant flux of the familiar and the comfortable constantly changing and falling away, God through Christ is doing something new.

Something that is wonderful and life-affirming, such as gathering people from far and near, from north and south.

Third, though the world at times may feel like we are all a motherless child, God is still working to fulfill and make real the promises that were made so long ago to Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Jacob and Joshua.

And while chaos may be all around, our hope comes from knowing that while God is near, active and promise-keeping, we are called upon to be alert, to wait, and most importantly- to live.

To live in the moment before us with the people alongside us.

To live, not stuck in the past, not uber-focused on the future, but to live in the present moment, alert and aware.

We, as Christians, are called to live in the now; to find our ways to receive and reciprocate the gifts of grace.

Called to nurture forgiveness and to get back on up after mistakes.

To do what we can, when we can, to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with our Lord.

To continue to find ways to say we have faith in Sebring, we faith in the United States, we have faith in the world.

To continue to see and to celebrate all the ways in which God, through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit continues to create, save and to bless.

So, this Advent Season, we wait.

Amidst news of rioting, looting and protests in Ferguson, MO- we wait.

In the cold of winter and the change in the climate- we wait.

Amongst the political undercurrents and the financial strains of the season- we wait.

With bright lights that illuminate the dark, ornaments that decorate the tree and carols of Christmas- we wait.

While waiting, we seek out the ways in which God is active.

We seek out the ways in which the Son of Man is fixing to arrive with power and glory.

We seek out the ways in which the Holy Spirit surprises and calls us to live in the moment.

The ways in which we can experience and witness the beauty and the abundance of a world created by our God who is not absent and who is not asleep.

For the baby born in a manger so that we may all experience the joy of eternal life- we wait.

Amen and amen.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sermon for Nov 23, 2014; Genesis 45:1-15

Nov 23, 2014
Genesis 45:1-15
Rev. George N. Miller

It was a busy day. With so much to do I was heading to the café to work on my sermon when the phone rang.

The conversation was a social one and started pleasant enough but somewhere along the line I began to get a bit edgy: I really had to start work on that week’s message.

So the New Yorker in me came out and I became short and curt.

Didn’t the person on the end of the line know that I had a lot to do? Apparently not, because they continued to talk and talk.

Finally, I felt I had no choice but to cut the conversation off, say my goodbyes and go back to work. Which is what I did.

I went inside, ordered my cup of coffee, and sat down to my sermon writing work.

…Except I couldn’t.

I wasn’t able to focus on the words in the book or the work at hand. I was blocked.

I felt ashamed about my behavior. I was rude on the phone and I was wrong.

The consequence was a restless spirit and no matter how hard I tried to read and write my notes, I just couldn’t do.

The afternoon had been shot.

I knew what I needed to do: call the person back and apologize for my behavior.

I stepped outside of the café and made the call, nervous about what I had to say. The phone picked up. “Hi: this is George.”

“Oh, hello again.”

“I’m calling to apologize.”

“Apologize? For what?”

“I realized I was very rude to you on the phone and I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry.”

“I didn’t notice that you were rude.”

“I know that I was and I am sorry for that.”

“That is OK. You didn’t need to apologize. I forgive you even though I wasn’t aware you did anything wrong.”

…“I forgive you.”

With those three words I smiled and felt as if a weight was lifted off me.

We finished the conversation and I returned to my cup of coffee, my books, able to now focus and get my work done.

That was the day when I learned about the power of forgiveness and the newness it can create...

As Christians, forgiveness is perhaps the trickiest and most difficult of Christ’s teachings to embrace.

Feed the poor? Visit the sick? Love God and love your neighbor? Those all make sense and are something we can do.

But to forgive someone? Seventy times seven? Now that’s hard. What if the person has done the unthinkable? What if they intentionally brought us great harm? Hurt us, hurt one of our own?

Forgive them? That’s a hard lesson to accept.

But yet, isn’t forgiveness something Jesus himself was able to demonstrate again and again, in his stories, in his actions, even in his final hours when he hung on the cross?

Forgiveness is something we ask from God when we pray the “Our Father”. Forgiveness is what we receive every Sunday during the Words of Assurance.

Forgiveness is part of what we are singing about when sing “Amazing Grace.”

And yet, when we have Bible Studies and group discussions, forgiveness becomes the one theme people seem to wrestle with the most.

Perhaps its because we confuse forgiveness with forgetting. Perhaps because we forget that we can be forgiven although there may still be natural and legal consequences.

I also think we forget that often times we forgive more so for our sake: so that we can move on, let go and be transformed...

...More and more psychologists and pastors are learning about just how important forgiveness is.

As humans it is part of our nature to make mistakes; to hurt one another. We can’t help it. Every day we say or do something that brings harm to another person, a part of the planet or to ourselves.

Most of the time we’re not aware when we’ve trespassed against someone, but there are times we know we have hurt someone and we know when we have been hurt.

There is a response when that happens.

When we are hurt we can feel threatened, angry, and out-of-sorts. When we are the ones who have done the hurting we can feel shame, anger, and disappointment in ourselves.

None of those are good feelings to carry around.

And if we do not find a way to properly deal with those emotions, what happens? They simmer and stew, working their way into our soul and begin to manifest themselves in unhealthy ways.

Being silent of pretending it never happened doesn’t do a thing. Instead our anger turns into rage. Shame turns into harsh criticism of others. Disappointment turns into isolation.

The inability to forgive and to receive forgiveness destroys friendship and rips families apart as those unvoiced feelings take on the forms of addiction, passive aggressiveness, abusive behavior or spending the rest of one’s life as a walking doormat.

Christ asks us to forgive and seek forgiveness because when we don’t, relationships breakdown and life feels stymied and crippled.

But do not be fooled: forgiveness is not easy, nor is it a one stop deal. It’s a process, it takes time, and it involves seeing through the eyes of faith.

Today’s scripture is a perfect example of that.

After 20 years Joseph comes face to face with the brothers who once sold him into slavery. During those years Joseph has been a servant, falsely accused of rape, thrown into a prison, and then upon receiving his freedom has risen to the second most powerful position in the land.

But when a famine rips across the earth, his brothers come begging to him for food. All those years of unresolved anger come to a head: what they did to him, what they put him through, so Joseph toys with them a little. He makes them squirm, like a cat with a mouse.

He’s in the position where he can get full retribution for what they did. If he wants payback he can lock them up, turn them into slaves, have them each executed.

But what good would that do? And how much more would that tear apart and destroy his already broken family.

And his brothers? Life for them has not been easy. They have lived a life of emotional and spiritual hell, carrying with them the secret of what they have done, leading their father to believe Joseph is dead, then watching and listening to him grieve every night and day.

So here the brothers stand. The ones who hurt Joseph 20 years ago, and Joseph who has all the power.

Where will the story go? Will Joseph use his might to bring about retribution, or will he find a way to bring about healing?

His brother Judah speaks. He tells Joseph about the heartbreak his family has endured, the hard times they have faced, their father’s grief.

And to make things right, Judah offers himself up to be a slave. Time may not have changed his sin, but time has clearly changed Judah the man.

And with those words, Joseph is moved. He weeps so loudly that everyone can hear. He reveals to his brothers the truth of who he is.

And then he issues them an invite: “come closer to me”. Joseph may not have said the words “I forgive you” but it is clear that he does.

It is an amazing scene of reconciliation in which Joseph could have sentenced them to death, but instead he shared with them the gift of life.

He could have sent them away starving, but instead he invites them to step closer.

He could have told them to go home and never cross his path again, instead he invites them to come and live with him.

The entire Joseph story is a powerful tale of reconciliation and the power of forgiveness in which the victim finds a way to become a magnificent survivor and those who have sinned are redeemed.

But how is Joseph able to move beyond what they did? First, he had time. Over 20 years to process what had happened. 20 years to think about what they had done.

Second, he is able to honestly confront them with what happened. He acknowledges all the bad that has happened, he doesn’t not sugar coat it. He tells them point blank “You sold me into slavery.”

He has said what they all need to hear and admit. They heart of the issue has been confronted.

Speaking the sin has it made it real. Speaking the sin has now also taken away its power.

Third, Joseph found a way to see his experience and his life through the eyes of faith. He makes the claim that God was able to find some good in the situation.

In saying this Joseph is better able to come to terms with what he has endured, and in the process he helps his brothers to release their own feelings of anger and distress.

In seeing how the power of God has been able to work through all their mess, Joseph created a newness for he and his family that has negated the pain of the past, redefined the present and has opened the future to new possibilities.

Life, not bitter anger, has won the day. Joseph freed the brothers from their captivity to their sin and shame. And Joseph has moved from being defined by what they did into having what they did just become a part of his story.

So today, we are here to celebrate and embrace the gift of forgiveness. Forgiveness we can give to one another, forgiveness we can give to ourselves.

It is a wonderful gift to share, but remember that forgiveness is rarely a one step deal, it is usually a process. Nor does forgiveness mean that you are going to forget: it means that you are not going to let it have power over you.

Christ asks us to forgive so that life, not death, is given a chance to grow and we can create and re-create. For example, once forgiven, I was able to go write my sermon. Once he forgave Joseph had his whole family back.

So today, the Sunday before Advent begins, let us begin the process of forgiveness.

As your pastor I stand before you asking that you forgive me for all the wrong I have done over the past 12 months.

For the times the New Yorker came out in me and I was rude, for the times I was curt. For the Sundays and busy weekdays I barreled through like a bull in a china-shop, I apologize.

If there was a sermon I gave or a message I shared that caused you any kind of harm, I am sorry.

For the things I said I would do that I have not done, forgive me. For dreams I have stepped on or unwanted dreams I have shoved upon you, I am sorry.

For anything I have done that may have brought shame or dishonor, I apologize.

I ask for your forgiveness and another chance to become a better man, a better pastor and a better child of God…

...And now, it is time for us to participate in a symbolic ritual of forgiveness.

In your bulletin are little slips of paper saying “please forgive me for” and “I forgive.”

Write down the words that you need to say. Think of who you have been hurt by and who you have hurt.

Then come forward, place your prayer slip in the pewter bowl, offering it up to God as the beginning step of the healing process.

After service, we will set them on fire, using the light from the Christ candle, allowing the flames to symbolically carry our forgiving prayers up into the compassionate arms of God.

We forgive and ask for forgiveness as much for our sake as for theirs. It allows us to move beyond our traumas, and it allows us to become survivors in Christ

This doesn’t mean there won’t be times we won’t still feel angry or mourn what has happened, but it does mean we have begun the process of letting go, and letting God.

Hopefully you’ll feel a bit lighter, a bit more free. You may feel a greater sense of peace and be able to say “it is well with my soul.”

Joseph found a way to forgive his brothers and brought forth new life. Jesus spent his whole career and even died speaking words of forgiveness.

May forgiveness be in our hearts today.

Thanks be to God who forgives us again and again, to the Son who healed with his forgiving touch and the Spirit that speaks newness into our lives and into our relationships.

Amen and amen.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Sermon for Veteran's Day 2014; Joshua 24:1-14

Rev. George Miller
Joshua 24:1-14
November 9, 2014

One day the Navy Chief noticed a new seaman and barked at him. “Get over here! What’s your name sailor?”

“John,” the new seaman replied.

“Look,” the chief scowled, “I don’t know what kind of bleeding heart, momma’s boy, namby-pamby stuff they’re teaching you sailors in boot camp nowadays, but I don’t call anyone by his first name.”

“It breeds familiarity, and that leads to a breakdown of authority. I refer to my sailors by their last name only. Smith, Jones, Baker. Whatever.”

“And you are always to refer to me as Chief. Do I make myself clear?”

“Aye, Aye Chief!” said the sailor.

“Now that we got that straight, what’s your last name?”

The seaman sighed. “Darling, Chief. My name is John Darling.”

“OK, John. Here’s what I want you to do…”

Today is an important day. We’re not only holding our Annual Meeting, we’re also acknowledging Veteran’s Day.

Since it’s the second Sunday of the month we have also shared in saying our denomination’s Statement of Faith.

It is good and appropriate that we share these words as they help shape our understanding of who we are and what it means to be a member of the United Church of Christ.

Perhaps you’ll like to take your bulletin home today so you can read over what we said, because words matter.

It starts by calling God the Eternal Spirit. It is to God’s deeds, not our own, that we testify.

And it states that God, the Eternal Spirit, our head Chief, sets before us the ways of life.

Further on, it boldly states that we are called, to be servants in service to others, to proclaim the gospel and to accept the cost and joy of discipleship.

It is a covenantal statement, expressing who God is to us, who we are to God, and what it means to accept the opportunity to experience forgiveness, to experience grace, to experience eternal life, not in our realm, but in God’s.

Very similar to today’s reading. In Joshua 24 we have basically come to the end of a narrative that lasted 6 Biblical books.

The people are no longer slaves in Egypt, they’re no longer wandering the wilderness, they’re no longer newbies in the Promised Land.

After promises made to Abraham and Sarah, after the ministry and leadership of Moses, Miriam and Aaron, after the disaster of leaders who were too afraid to accept the immediate blessing, after the threat of Balaam’s curse, the congregation has settled into the land of milk and honey, streams and calm waters, manure-rich soil and flowers all around.

Joshua knows his time on earth is coming to an end, and so, as a faithful leader, he gathers God’s people to retell them their history, to remind them of their story.

On behalf of God, the Grand Chief, Joshua reminds them of all the verbs God has done:
God took them, God gave them children and land, God sent them leaders, God brought them out of bondage.

That would have been enough, but Joshua continues with their history: God made the sea cover their captors, God destroyed their enemies, God sent blessings when the world wanted to curse them.

When politicians wanted to hurt them, God sent hornets, when they had reached their breaking point God gave them land and homes they had not worked for.

Creation, salvation, blessings. Blessings, salvation, creation. Again and again and again.

Joshua tells the people this so that they will revere the Lord, so they will let go of the ways of the world, and so they will make the right choice, that day and every day, to serve the Lord.

Joshua is doing what any good religious leader will do: putting God first, recounting how God has acted throughout history and throughout their story.

In doing so, he empowers them to remember. To remember who they are. To remember just how far they have come and the grace they have received.

To remember just how much their cup has overflowed and how in God they keep drinking from their saucer.

To remember it has not always been easy. It has never been completely struggle-free. That there have always been obstacles; there have always been struggles, tough times and difficult decisions to make.

But God has always prevailed, and God has always been there…

…over a year ago a Vietnam Vet met with me, plagued by horrific memories of the war and the emotional wounds he still carries.

He shared with me a copy of his Bible, a very special Bible created especially for Vietnam Veterans.

The first page laid it all on the line. The editor writes: “It was unreal. On Tuesday I was locked in a life-and-death struggle in a jungle country next to nowhere.

A few days later, after my discharge, I was eating lunch at McDonald’s, in clean and safe American suburbia…I couldn’t handle it and became filled with anger…”

“I can answer a lot of questions about the war, but here’s one I can’t- why them and not me…”

The writer goes on to talk about what it’s like to live alone in quiet desperation, the memory, the nightmares, the images and smells of rain, of jungle, and of children begging in the city.

Just when it seems to be too bleak, too dark, too much to bear, the author states “Here’s the GOOD NEWS. God knows…he understands. No matter how lonely or isolated you feel, (God) cares. No matter what you’ve done, (God) can forgive.

No matter what your struggle, (God) can bring you through. There is hope.”*

That is what Joshua is doing in today’s retelling of their history; this is what Joshua is doing by retelling their all-too familiar story.

This is what our Statement of Faith is doing and why we have been reciting it in unison the second Sunday of each month.

Because it is not just about me, it’s not just about you, it’s about US.

And not us as a particular congregation, or us as a particular denomination, or us as a particular faith.

But us as a people, as God’s people, called to choose each and every day who we will pledge our devotion to.

It doesn’t matter how we wish to be called: John, Darling, Buddy, Chief, Beloved.

It’s important to know who we are: elders, warriors, leaders, faithful members of the flock, heroes, sinners, grace-receivers.

We are Children of God, a Community in Christ, Sister and Brothers in the Holy Spirit.

Created, saved and blessed.

Called to be servants in service to others, to proclaim the gospel and to accept the cost and to accept the joy of discipleship.

Walking closer and closer with Thee.

Amen and amen.

*Taken from the Vietnam Veteran’s Bible, Tyndale House Publishers, 1990.