Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sermon for Jan 25, 2015; Mark 1:14-20

Rev. George Miller
Mark 1:14-20
Jan 25, 2015

Christianity is full of stories about leaders who encourage those around them to step out on faith and to do the unimaginable.

Last Monday our nation recalled one such man when we acknowledged the mission and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Multiplexes around the country are showing Selma, a movie detailing a 3 month period in which Dr. King inspired a march from Selma to Montgomery.

It was a journey that black and white, southern and northern, educated and blue-collar, Jew and Gentile took in the belief that all people are worthy of equal treatment.

Two Sunday’s ago we heard our Founding Pastor, Rev. Loffer talk about how Emmanuel UCC came to be.

How we first met in a bingo hall and before each service things had to be transported in, taken down, put up, and at the end it was all put back in its original spot.

We heard about the door-to-door knocking, the radio broadcasts, the fundraising, all to create a place where no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here.

November we celebrated Thanksgiving, a holiday rooted in how a group of people hungered for religious freedom.

Under the leadership of Rev. John Robinson, they left their native church; they left their native land and moved to the Netherlands, even after their first attempt led them to be jailed for a month.

Eventually 35 of these believers of freedom stepped onto the Mayflower and set sail across a perilous sea to a promised land they had not seen, but only believed in.

The UCC can be directly traced back to them as these people were our spiritual ancestors, the roots of congregationalism, following the call of God and the guidance of Rev. Robinson.

And today we hear from Mark, the first of the 4 Gospels written, detailing the call of the first 4 disciples.

Mark portrays their call as immediate and instantaneous. Without an intro or their back story, we simply have Jesus walking along the seashore saying “Come follow me.”

And the men do.

Simon and Andrew were busy casting their nets; James and John were busy mending.

Jesus says “follow” and they fellow. Rev. Robinson says “let’s sail”, and they sail. Dr. King says “Let’s march” and folk march.

Rev. Loffer says “Let’s do mission and ministry” and we’ve been doing that for 25 years.

I don’t know about you, but I hear these stories and I say “Really?”

A group of retirees, many of them in their 60s transport liturgical items, knock on doors and raise money for a building?

People in the 1960’s marched in the midst of high racism and billy club beatings?

Pilgrims in the 1600’s sailed across an ocean before there were cell phones and GPS?

The disciples let go of their livelihood to follow some guy promising to make them fishers of people?

These stories have a way of making one almost feel inadequate. I look at my own journey and think of how slow I was on the uptake, especially since I had more than enough nudges along the way.

Most of you have heard my call story. How I was a 17 year old kid running around a high school track and when God said “I want you to be a pastor” I said “Heck no!” and continued running.

Today I’d like to share another chapter, from 1991 when I was attending college in MN.

For a class on intercultural communication I attended a black, inner-city congregation in Mpls called Grace Temple.

The moment I stepped into that church I knew it was what I had been looking for all my life. The music; the message.

I went back a few weeks later, the service was inspiring. The music was rocking.

The organist was a woman named Doris Akers. She was extremely light skinned with red hair and ruby lipstick. She played the organ and sang with soul.

Ms. Akers startled me when in the middle of worship she said “That young man over there, I want you to come up and talk to me after worship.”

Because it was a 3 hour service I had briefly dozed off and thought I was going to be chastised. Instead it was the opposite.

Ms. Akers took me aside and said “I’ve been watching you the entire time. There’s something about this place that’s speaking to you.”

“Yes,” I replied.

“I know what that’s like because the same thing happened to me. I want you to continue coming back.”

I offered my excuses: I didn’t have a car, school was an hour away.

“That’s alright,” she said, “You can take the bus and someone will pick you up at the station.”

Well, I didn’t follow her advice. In fact, it wasn’t until 3 years later when I returned to that church. Doris Akers were still there and I learned something important: she wasn’t just an organist, she composed gospel songs.

Here is a snippet of one song she wrote: (choir sings).

That’s right, the song we sung for our 25th Anniversary, “Sweet, Sweet Spirit”, was one song she wrote. A classic for all time.

If I had known then what I know now, I would have clasped onto her. I should have sat beside her feet and asked her to tell me stories, to teach me all she knew, to absorb and embrace the gifted and talented woman she was…

…But I didn’t. I was too new. I was too na├»ve.

I didn’t know what it meant to have a church elder call forward my gifts; what it meant to have someone like Doris Akers say “I’ve been watching you.”

Sadly Ms. Akers died a brief time later, and I had done none of those things.

What would have happened if I did? I don’t know, but I can say that the first person to call forward my spiritual gifts was Doris Akers.

Still, even with that experience, it would take another 5 years before I stopped running from God, and another 7 before I finally attended seminary.

Thank God that God was patient.

So when I hear these stories about our founding members being inspired by Rev. Loffer to start Emmanuel, of folk following Dr. King, or Rev. Robinson inspiring pilgrims to book passage, and fisherman following Jesus,

I can’t help but to think how?

What’s the secret, what’s the key?

And what keeps coming back to me is that they were each somehow, some way focused on something bigger then themselves.

They were each focused on the belief that there is something better; there is something more.

For our founding members it was having a progressive Christian voice in central FL.

During the Civil Rights movement it was freedom for all. In the case of the pilgrims, it was freedom of religion.

In the case of the disciples, it was the Kingdom of God.

And it couldn’t have been easy for Simon and Andrew, or James and John. They were living during an era in which the only kingdom anyone pledged allegiance to was that of the king.

They were living during a time in which one of their prophets, John the Baptist, was cast into jail for telling people to turn from their ways and to be prepared for a different kind of Lord.

Simon and Andrew were on the low rung of the social ladder, blue-collar workers who smelled of fish and cast nets into the sea.

James and John were slightly higher up, working for their father and having employees. Yet they still had to deal with the daily minutia, like mending nets.

These were not high class folks we’re talking about; people who could live outside the realm of public scorn,

These are not religious leaders or college grads that Jesus called; people who had lots of options before them or could buy their way out of trouble.

They were everyday people who worked hard to make a buck, who most likely lived paycheck to paycheck, who lived under the rule and threat of the politics of their time.

Following someone who spoke about another kind of kingdom, who spoke of living a new kind of way was a huge risk and could present huge loss and punishment.

And yet, Mark wants to lead us into believing that’s what these men did…

…Truthfully I’m not so sure things happened exactly as Mark writes it. I’m not so sure that Simon and Andrew, James and John were that quick to respond.

That within mere seconds they accepted Jesus’ invite and followed the path before them.

It took me 12 years to say yes, and that’s with someone like Doris Akers nudging me along.

And I’ve watched you as individuals, and us as a congregation wrestle with the callings to ministry and mission.

How some resist. Some doubt themselves. Some come up with reasons, valid or not. Some allow fear and finances to get in the way.

How some folks will come right up to the edge of the Promised Land and say “Nope, not ready yet” and retreat back.

How some allow the voices and stories of their past to get in the way of their future.

That is being human. That is part of the process.

I don’t think everyone can be a James or a John. I don’t think everyone can respond as swiftly as Simon and Andrew.

But I think the true question is “When?”

“When do we respond?” “When do we step out on faith?” “When do we become inspired that there is something bigger and more important than just ourselves?”

“When do we let down our nets” and “When are we ready to follow God’s call made known through Jesus?”

And it will not always be easy; it will not always be worry free.

But if it’s from God, it will bear Good News. If it’s from God it will bring the Kingdom nearer to thee.

We experience that every Sunday as we get to worship here.

We see it as a nation as the shackles of segregation continue to lose their grip.

We see that as our country continues to value freedom of religion and freedom of speech, though we may not always be successful.

Though the Kingdom of God is not yet, there are times and places in which we can say it is already, and we are among those who are casting and mending.

And as we celebrate 25 years of having faith in Sebring, and prepare for 25 more, we can proudly say there is a sweet, sweet spirit in this place, and we know that it is the presence of the Lord.

May God continue being patient with us, may Jesus continue calling us to follow. Amen and amen.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Sermon for Jan 18, 2015; Psalm 139:1-14

Rev. George Miller
Psalm 139:1-14
Jan 18, 2015

What would you do for someone you loved? How far would you be willing to go for a cause you cared about?

Would you search out and hem in? Would you take wing and settle at the furthest limits of the sea? Would you allow darkness and danger to get in your way?

Perhaps if you were Victor Mooney you would set sail from the coast of Africa and follow the 3,000 mile path of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to St. Maarten.

According to the Tribune, the 48 year old Brooklyn Native made the journey to honor his brother who had died of AIDS and to bring attention to the need for HIV testing.

Three times Victor Mooney attempted to cross the Atlantic, three times he failed. But his fourth attempt in June was a success.

11 months ago Victor began his journey to honor his brother and raise awareness, citing “We all have responsibility to do something.”

So he left the Canary Islands in high spirits that were quickly dashed once he hit rough seas with big waves and violent currents that tossed his boat around.

His response? As a devout Catholic he placed crucifixes all around the vessel and reminded himself of this- to be still.

The weather improved. He continued his journey, holding onto his faith, chatting by radio to an oceanographer and a meteorologist, reminding himself that his African ancestors had traveled the same route as slaves.

He fell into a routine: up at 4, rowing an hour at a time, followed by a thirty minute break. Often the rough seas erased his efforts: he’d go ten miles but wake up the next day 15 miles behind.

Life can be that way sometimes, can’t it?

“I asked my ancestors…for help to push me along,” he stated.

He’d devour freeze-dried food until it ran out and so he fished for his food, until the line broke and then he scooped up the fish with nets or waited for one to fly into his boat.

Then came the sharks that circled his boat. They’d go around, go under, come up and strike, damaging the 24-foot vessel.

Before landing at St. Maarten, a tanker asked if he needed help. “I don’t need a rescue,” Victor responded. “I want a burger.”

128 days later, after losing 80 pounds, traveling the 3,000 mile path his ancestors took, in order to pay tribute to a brother who died and to encourage others to get tested so they can live, Victor said he never felt alone.

Where have you come from, and where are you going?

What would you do for someone you loved? How far would you be willing to go for a cause you cared about?

Would you search out and hem in? Would you take wing and settle at the furthest limits of the sea? Would you allow darkness and danger to get in your way?

Would you allow sharks to stop you? Would your faith be enough to carry you through?

If we have lived long enough and we have the empathy and intellectual ability, we will have asked ourselves these questions from time to time.

What would you be willing to do for someone, for some thing you loved?

What is your ministry? What is your mission?

When it comes to God, and what God would do, we don’t have to look very far. Psalm 139 makes it easy for us to comprehend.

“Oh Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up…you search out my path and are acquainted with all my ways…”

“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence. Your right hand shall hold me fast…even the darkness is not dark to you…”

In other words, we are not alone; no one is alone.

See, if Genesis 1 & 2 was all we had- and with it the knowledge that God created the world, separated the dark from the light, formed us by hand and called what was created “good”- that would have been enough.

If Exodus 3 & 14 was all we had and with it the knowledge that God had heard the cries of the Israelites and parted the Red Sea for them, that would have been enough.

If Joshua 3 was all we had and with it the knowledge that the people crossed over the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land, that would have been enough.

Creation, salvation and blessings: how much more do we really need to live a healthy, happy, eternal life?

But that’s not God. God is generous, God is extravagant, God is passionately loving, so with God there is also going to be something more.

And according to Psalm 139, that more is this: that God knows us. Not in passing; not in a fleeting sort of Facebook-way.

But God knows us, intimately, truthfully, deeply.

God knows us the way a best friend, a parent, a lover knows us.

The real us. Not the perfectly fake us that we try to present to others. Not the denial-ridden us that we present to ourselves.

But the us that we really are: the bad and the good, the hurts and the halo, the scarred adult and the starry-eyed kid that still lives in us all.

God knows us. When we wake up, when we doze off on the couch. God knows what we are about to say and the thoughts we keep to ourselves.

God knows when we are at a place and a time of great life and light.

God knows when we are in dungeons and darkness.

God knows when we have rowed 10 feet ahead; God knows when the waves have pushed us 15 feet back.

God knows when the sharks are circling; God knows when we are hurt because of the brother or son we have lost, or the husband and friend we are losing.

God knows us even when our memories begin to fail and we barely know ourselves; God sees us even when our eyes begin to grow dim; God hears us even when our ears can no longer hear without the assistance of new batteries and a hearing aide.

God not only knows us, but God loves us for who we really are and God is constantly working to help us better become who we were created to be.

That may not sound like much to you, but for me, knowing that God knows who I am, no matter where I am on life’s journey or what I’ve done or left undone, is comforting.

Psalm 139 is a poetic reminder that no matter who we are, no matter what is currently going in our lives, God knows what is happening…and it means that we are not alone.

That means we have at least one person in our lives cheering for us; that means we have at least one person who is rooting us on.

That means that no shark, no sea, no boat, no bad guy can ever have complete hold over us.

That means that we are people of worth; that means we are people who are worthy.

Wonderfully formed in our mother’s womb, knitted together by the ultimate artist, intricately made and the apex and most awe-inspiring aspect of Creation.

That’s why God became incarnate. That’s why baby Jesus was born- to bring new light into the world and remind us that we were not designed to flounder in the dark.

That’s why the 10 Commandments were given on Sinai, that’s why Jesus told parables and shared stories on the mountains and on the plains and in boats.

That’s why Jesus offered healing to the unwell and wounded, shared meals with the outcast and curious, and forgave the sinful and the sincere-

To remind them, to remind all of us that not only were we each wonderfully made by God, but we are all known by God.

And because we are known, we are loved, no matter what paths we take, no matter where we lay our head.

We are known. We are loved.

We are not alone.

Amen and amen.

*Victor Mooney’s story adapted from “Man Rows Across Atlantic on 4th Try” by the Associated Press as it appears in Tampa Tribune, June 29, 2014

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Sermon from Jan 4, 2015; Jeremiah 31:7-14

Rev. George Miller
January 4, 2015
Jeremiah 31:7-14

“Where have you come from and where are you going?”

Today’s reading is taken from the prophet Jeremiah, giving words of inspiration to his people during a time of need.

They have come to a difficult moment in history in which all has seemed lost forever. A time of confusion and sadness, dashed hope and lost dreams.

Into their dark days, the prophet shares a word, a word meant to bring great light into their lives. A word that God is about to do something new and exciting, something that will save and bless them.

They may have come from a place of sorrow, but the Lord is about to bring them into a time of gladness.

A time in which their weeping will be consoled. A time in which they will sing and be radiant.

Where they have come from will soon change into where they are going: along straight paths by brooks of cool water in which they will have grain and wine and oil, watered gardens and flocks that are full.

The women will dance; the men will be merry. Comfort will be given and the people will be satisfied because they will once again have “enough.”

“Where have you come from and where are you going?”

Although the word “feet” is never mentioned in this particular reading, I can’t help but to see the feet of God’s people.

The feet of those walking in paths besides brooks of water. The feet of the flock as they graze in the field. The feet of the women dancing with glee and glory.

“Where have you come from and where are you going?”

That has been the theme since Dec 21 when we heard Mary’s song of praise and on Dec 24 when we made our way to the manger.

Today we liturgically end the Christmas season as we commemorate Epiphany, the day in which the wise men visited the baby Jesus and bestowed upon him the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

It’s hard to believe the season has come to an end because I remember so clearly how it began for me: waking up Thanksgiving morning, watching Macy’s parade, putting up the Christmas tree with all its ornaments.

Then shopping on Small Business Saturday with my friend Tonya. We walked around the circle in our plaid pajamas, buying gifts, eating lunch.

That was the day I wore my brand new cowboy boots for the first time. Slipped them on at 8:30, went to the Circle…then walked around, up and down until 1:30 pm.

By the time I got home, ooh wee!, my feet hurt, not only from being in brand new boots but walking 5 hours in heels. What was I thinking?

I can tell you what I was thinking as I tried for the next 15 minutes to take them off! But I can’t repeat all the words I used because it took forever to remove those boots.

I pulled, I pushed, I twisted. I lay on my back, I took mini breaks. Eventually the boots came off, but not before I hurt my back and broke into a sweat.

But wow!, did my feet feel good once they were set free and on flat, carpeted ground.

You can bet that the next time I wore those boots it was for a shorter period of time and while sitting down.

If there’s one thing I learned, you got to take care of your feet; that’s no joke. Our feet are our main form of transportation.

“Where have you come from and where are you going?”

It’s hard to do either if your feet are not in fully functioning order.

Yes, you can take a camel, you can take a horse, you can take a plane, train, or automobile, but feet are still the most basic mode of transportation we got.

With 26 bones and over 7,000 nerve endings our feet are among the most sensitive body parts. They provide us with strength and movement, yet are more delicate then our hands.

Those who work in alternative medicine make claim that a map of the human body can be found on the soles of our feet and that our feet are a reflection of our health.

For over 5,000 years in places like Japan and Egypt, healers have worked with people’s feet to ease tension, soothe emotions and help to reconnect with their spirit.

Throughout time, feet have represented mobility, security, foundation and for the Greeks, the feet represented the soul.

Think of our American sayings. After a disaster or disappointment, what do we do? Get back on our feet.

We put our best food forward. We find ourselves on good footing.

Others of us have been known to put our foot in our mouth.

That’s way more than anyone ever expected to hear about feet during Epiphany, but there is a reason.

Nearly 2,500 years ago, Isaiah wrote “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace…who says to Zion ‘Your God reigns.’”

Nearly 2,000 years ago Joseph and Mary entered into Bethlehem and the shepherds came to pay tribute.

It was most likely done by foot.

While King Herod chose to remain on his throne, in fear and trepidation, the wise men came to pay tribute to the Christ child. Was their entire journey by camel or donkey or did they make their way on foot as well?

And though scripture doesn’t say it, can’t we just picture how the feet of baby Jesus must have kicked out from the manger with glee?

Can’t we see how Mary, like any good mother, would tickle her child’s feet and play with his toes and say things like “cootchie cootchie coo”?

In fact, throughout the Gospel of Luke which we read from on Christmas Eve, feet play an important part.

In Luke’s Gospel, Martha’s sister sits by the feet of Jesus as he teaches her. The man with demons sits beside the feet of Jesus once he is cured.

A sinful woman bathes Jesus’ feet with tears and anoints them with tender kisses. Faithful believers fall beside his feet.

The beautiful feet of Jesus brought Good News about the Kingdom of God from village to village, as he offered teachings and healings, hospitality and hope.

Can’t you just see the feet of his followers as they follow their shepherd amongst green pastures and still waters?

Can’t you just see the feet of Jesus’ followers as they dance with joy with the knowledge that their God creates, saves and blesses?

Of course, it would be wrong of me not to state something else: that it will also be the feet of Jesus that will be nailed to the cross.

His feet, made up of 7,000 nerve endings, one of the most sensitive parts of his entire body, will be pierced by the powers that be.

…but I would also be remiss not to remind us that it was also with his feet that the resurrected Christ invites the disciples to look at so they would know and believe that he is indeed the Risen Lord.

“Where have you come from and where are you going?”

Jeremiah told the people of a day that they will walk beside brooks of water and the women will rejoice in dance.

Isaiah states “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace.”

Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the wise men all made their journey into Bethlehem, most likely using their feet for part, if not all, of the journey.

We too have made our way into Bethlehem to see and discover the Christ child and to realize that his feet will not only be signs of how he lived, but how he died and how he was resurrected.

And it is not just the feet of Jesus that are beautiful…it’s the feet of anyone who carries the Good News of God’s Kingdom.

The feet of anyone who does justice, who love kindness, who loves neighbor as themselves and humbly walks with the Lord are beautiful as well.

“Where have you come from and where are you going?”

Friends, family, community members, we have journeyed into Bethlehem to see the face of God and to find our spirits born anew.

Now, may we go out into the world proclaiming joy, proclaiming peace, proclaiming hope, proclaiming healing.

May our feet, our mouths, our hands, our words, our actions, whatever we may have, whatever we may be able to use, show the world that our God is one who offers us

comfort, our God is one who can turn our sorrow into our joy and that in Jesus Christ we do have “enough” no matter what the reason, no matter what the season.