Thursday, December 24, 2015

Yes- We Matter, Yes-God Cares, Yes- We are Worth It; Christmas Eve Message 2015

Rev. George Miller
Christmas Eve
Dec 24, 2015

Our faith is one of wonder, one of majesty, and one of miracles.

Sometimes we lose sight of this.

News of the world brings us down: death, terrorists, natural disasters, injustice.

They mire us in reality, in bleakness, and place us into the dark. Yet Scripture keeps finding ways to bring us back towards the light.

The Gospel of John reminds us that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome the light.”

Genesis reminds us of how a rainbow was placed in the sky to remind us of God’s promise.

Exodus tells us of words spoken from a fiery bush that leads to the freedom of slaves, to seas that are parted, bread from heaven and words given from a mountaintop.

Yet, throughout history, the people have asked “Do we matter?” “Does God care about us?” “Are we worth it?”

In our doubts, sin creeps in. Unsure of the answers to these questions, we are overtaken by anger, jealousy, wars, greed, hate, and fear.

Which makes us wonder even more: “Do we matter?” “Does God care about us?” “Are we worth it?”

So God continues to fill our lives with wonders, majesty, and miracles.

We are led to the Promised Land. Walls come tumbling down. Lions become gentle. Oil, flour, and candles do not run out.

Still, we wonder: “Do we matter?” “Does God care about us?” “Are we worth it?”

Tonight, dear friends, family, and followers of the faith, we get answers to these questions.

Tonight, as we arrive at the manger in Bethlehem and look upon the Face of God, we discover that “Yes!”

“Yes, we matter. Yes, God cares for us. And yes- we are so, so worth it.”

So let’s revisit the Christmas story as told by Luke. It’s a story that doesn’t begin tonight, or 9 months ago, but over a year ago.

A couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth are living in Judea. They are an older couple who sadly have never had a child.

Gabriel, a heavenly messenger of God, visits Zechariah with astounding news- his wife will have a son, a boy named John who will bring joy and gladness, who will bring people back to God.

6 months later, in a small town by Galilee, Gabriel visits Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary, who is engaged to be married.

“The Lord is with you,” the angel proclaims. “You will have a child, and he’ll be great. His Kingdom will have no end. Your holy child will be the Son of God.”

Mary is young; she is perplexed, but she accepts the call to carry new life within her womb, and says with great courage “Here I am, servant of the Lord.”

Mary journeys to Elizabeth’s home, where the two women, filled with the promise of life, spend their days together, magnifying the Lord and anticipating the things that God will do.

As it so happens, life interrupts. The Emperor, seeking to create new tax revenue, orders a census to be taken, forcing people to journey to their hometown.

Though she is 9 months pregnant, Mary and her fiancé Joseph make the long trek to Bethlehem, a small, tiny country town.

But there is no place for them to stay; no one has room for them.

They are virtually alone.

In the darkness of homelessness, loneliness, and politics, Mary gives birth to her child. He is wrapped in swaddling and placed in a feeding trough designed for farm animals.

It is there, that the family is greeted by shepherds, who come to share the good news and to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

What does this mean? Why does this story matter?

For one thing, it’s a reminder of how wonder, majesty, and miracles do indeed exist.

On a deeper level, it is a celebration of how God loves us so much that God wanted to fully share in our daily life.

It is a celebration of how God is not distant, but actually has entered into our lives.

It is a celebration of how God came into the world to be just like us.

God could have stayed away; God could have waited for a more stable moment in history.

God could have chosen to be born to a king, in a palace, with servants and slaves, placed in a crib lined with 600-thread-count cotton sheets.

But instead God came into our world during a chaotic time, to ordinary folk, in a small, rural town, surrounded by the sounds and smells of common creatures.

And God did so to be our Messiah, to be our Emmanuel, to bring peace among the people.

In tonight’s reading from Titus, we hear of how through Jesus the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.

We hear how in Jesus, God freely gave Godself so that we can be redeemed; so we can become more humble, to live in hope, and to have the audacity to expect glory and greatness.

God did not allow a childless, older couple to get in the way of hope for the world. God did not allow a young woman’s marital status to get in the way of doing an amazing thing.

God did not allow a greedy Emperor, or a shortage of rooms, or the lack of a proper crib to get in the way of bringing deliverance and happiness to the people.

God used what God had in order to do wonders, to bring about majesty, and to create a miracle…

…Sometimes we all have moments in which we lose our faith. We have moments in which we wonder. We have moments in which we become incredibly afraid.

It’s hard not to when so much of life seems to hang on the tiniest thread of hope.

It’s hard not to when terrorism, natural disaster, politics, illness, death, racism, sexism, and poverty all continue to darken the light.

But then- Christmas comes along! The stories, the songs, the sense of community, the generosity of folk, the spirit of the season comes in and once again, we are reminded of just how God works.

Christmas reminds us of the unexpected places in which God does wonders: small towns, mangers, fields filled with migrant workers.

Christmas reminds us of the majestic ways in which God works through non-traditional families, homelessness, and scarcity.

Christmas reminds us of how God brings forth miracles to unexpected people: a couple thought too old to have children, a young girl who is not yet married, shepherds who earn their keep while other people sleep, even Emperors who wish to have a tighter control over their citizens.

Why would God do all this?


Because creation, rainbows, freedom, commandments, tumbling walls, gentle lions, unlimited food supplies were not enough.

So on top of all that God has already done, God said “Let me show you how much I love you. Let me show you how much I care.”

“Let me show you that I am not distant, aloof, or uncaring.”

“Let me come to you as you, to share in your suffering and your sanctity. To share in your sorrows and your success.”

“Let me come to you to share in your joy and your pain; to share in your life…and to even share in your death.”

…So tonight, let us stop trying to be so rational, to be so serious, to be so afraid.

Our faith is one of wonder, one of majesty, and one of miracles.

Sometimes we lose sight of this.

Instead of letting the darkness of the world to bog us down, let us turn back towards the light.

Let us embrace the wonder, the majesty, and the miraculous.

Tonight, as we prepare to see the face of God in the manger, to welcome Baby Jesus, let us boldly say:

“Yes! We matter!”

“Yes! God does care about us!”

And “Yes! We are worth it!”

All we have to do is to look at the manger to know that this is true.

Amen and amen.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

What if God Sent Christmas Cards? Sermon on Micah 5:16 for Dec 20, 2015

Rev. George Miller
Micah 5:1-6
Dec. 20, 2015

Last week we talked about the two different ways in which people seem to prepare for the Christmas season: those who do everything last minute and those who are uber-organized.

How many here have all their gifts in the mail? How many plan on standing in a long line tomorrow or Tuesday?

There’s another way to playfully categorize folk this season- the tradition of sending Christmas cards. Specifically, what kind of cards to send.

First, for the card sender, do you prefer the cards that stand vertical, which open out? Or the cards that stand horizontally, which open up?

My family has a tradition of stringing cards along the wall, so horizontal cards are the ones we prefer.

Second, which kind of Christmas card catches your fancy? The one’s with nativity scenes and religious imagery? Or the ones that are a bit more nature based?

For me, there’s something about Christmas cards that feature birds, especially a vibrant red cardinal which just pops off the page.

Third: sparkly or sparkle free?

The sparkle-free are so neat and clean. The sparkly are fun, but they can create a crunch-crunch-crunch sound as you press down to write your note; they also leave glitter embedded in your table, carpet and hands, and can stay there for weeks, or months.

Then there is the actual card writing itself. Do you include a full page year-end missive catching folk up with everything you’ve done?

Do you simply write to and from?

Do you take a moment to write something personal and specific to the card recipient?

Of course, in today’s culture one can even wonder “why even write?” In the age of Facebook and Facetime is it even necessary since cyber-space has allowed us to stay connected to folk all year long?

And if you do decide to send a horizontal, sparkly card with a cardinal on it, to whom do you send it?

I was aghast last week when reading a post from a pastor wondering if they should send cards to folk who didn’t send them a card last year, as if token of friendship is based on reciprocity.

So, being a good A-type personality, I’ve been going through my phone book day by day for the last few weeks, doing a few cards each night.

For some reason this year, I became more aware of who I was sending cards too. Sure, there were the obvious people: siblings, aunts, close friends.

But what about those I haven’t seen or even talked to in years? Those who I have almost forgotten because it’s been so long?

Do you use up a card, spend money on a stamp? What do you even say? Would they even notice if you didn’t send a card ever again?

There’s an ex I haven’t heard from since we broke up years ago. A great uncle who I haven’t seen in decades. An old friend who never writes back but I miss dearly.

Should I write? What to say? How to sign it?

This year the answers were simple. Yes- send a card. Speak simply from the heart. Sign it “always” because that is right and it is true.

“Always”, meaning my ex, my uncle, my friend will always be in my heart and I’ll always remember the joyful times we’ve had together even if we never set sight on one another ever again, even if we never hear one another’s voice, even if there have been hurt feelings and no chance of reconciliation.

While writing those Christmas cards this year, there was perhaps an understanding of why we do this each holiday season.

Because even in that one moment of writing, there is a sense of reconnection, there is a recollection of good times, and there does become a flicker of hope, that maybe one day things can resume.

Not the same; rarely are things ever the same. But different.

And different is OK…

…What if God sent us a Christmas card? What would it look like? What would a Christmas card from God say?

Would God send us a vertical card we can stand on a table or a horizontal card we can hang from a string upon the wall?

Would God opt for a nativity scene or something with a nature-theme?

Would God go for sparkly-free or super-duper sparkly?

Would God sign each Christmas card with a simple signature or a personalized note?

Today’s reading from Micah is like a letter from God. A passionate letter in which God speaks to the people through the prophet.

It’s not the happiest of letters. God tells the people that things ain’t so good.

The north has had their share of problems and the south is quickly following suit. The rich are becoming richer at the expense of the poor who are becoming poorer.

Widows are losing their homes; the youth are being robbed of a promising future.

There have been falsehoods and lies, nation is against nation, and those in power are breaking the hopes and backs of others.

In this letter to the people, God is actually quite mad at them. God’s honest about this anger; brutally honest.

God basically says to the people “You’re actions are causing chaos and will create great suffering to come your way; so great that it’s too late to even stop it from happening.”

Who’d ever want to receive a Christmas card like that from God?

But, as always, grace, optimism, and the promise of regeneration comes from the Lord.

“Listen,” God says through the words of the prophet, “from the little town of Bethlehem shall come one who will be of peace.

“This little one will bring you back to how things were supposed to be, to the real purpose of your life.

“A new kind of ruler will emerge from Bethlehem who will unite the people, nullify your pains, and help you return to the things that makes living in community so great.”

God continues to speak to the people, “The One who is yet to come will stand tall and strong. He’ll be like a shepherd, feeding the flock from my pantry of righteousness.”

“This small-town shepherd will reflect the Lord’s majesty until the ends of Creation. His greatness will empower people to stop, pause, and breathe securely.”

“Because- He is of PEACE.”

That’s what God has the prophet write in chapter 5, but if we read on to chapter 6, we hear how God calls upon the people to remember- remember all that God has done.

Remember how God has delivered, God has redeemed, God has sent Moses and Miriam, God has reversed curses and performed many saving deeds.

“Remember,” God says, and the people respond by asking “What should we give you as a way to say thanks?”

We don’t know if the people are being honest and humble, or if they are being facetious and fake.

But they say to God “What do you want as a gift? Should we give you burnt offerings? Thousands of rams? Barrels of oil? Bottles of cologne? Should we give you our 1st born?”

And in chapter 6, verse 8 of Micah, do you know what God tells the people?

God answers their question so briefly, so eloquently, so simply:

“O, what is so good, what do I really, really want? But to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with me.”

…That’s it?

God has done all these things for the people over the course of centuries: freedom, redemption, salvation, and now the promise of a shepherd who will stand strong and feed us all…

…and all God wants, all God ever wanted, was-

-For us to treat one another fairly
-For us to enjoy the ability to be kind to one another
-For us to simply walk, side by side, with our Creator.

…I’m speechless…


…If God was to send us a Christmas card this year, be it vertical or horizontal, religious or nature based, plain or super-sparkly,

Is it possible that the words of Micah 6:8 would be just what God would inscribe?

And if God indeed did so, would we be able to obey and follow?

If the people of Micah’s time never seemed to learn, is there a chance that we, living 2,500 years later, 2 continents away, in our own unique geo-political world, can learn?

If we were to get such a Christmas card from God, and we didn’t respond in kind, would God still send us a card with the same message again and again, year after year after year?

If God did not fully give up on the people of Micah’s time is it possible that God will never give up on us as well?

…As we conclude our final days, our final miles into Bethlehem, sending out Christmas cards, giving and receiving gifts, awaiting for the birth of Jesus Christ,

maybe this year we can be a bit more mindful of the gifts God has already given us.

And the gifts that God so clearly wants to receive.

In joy we can receive; in joy we can obey.

Amen and amen.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Why We Give; Today's sermon on Philippians 4:4-23

Rev. George Miller
Dec 13, 2015
Philippians 4:4-23

Show of hands- how many people take the Holiday Season as it comes, doing things as needed, perhaps even shopping last minute?

Who here races to finish and send out cards?

Swears that next year they’ll get an earlier start on the shopping, decorating, baking?

How many here are my organized folk? 3-4 weeks out you set aside time, make a list, break down what you’re going to do day by day?

Know the exact day to go the Post Office so you don’t have to deal with long, long lines?

How many simply love this season?

How many secretly dread this season?

How many feel this Holiday season is weighted down with a sense of sadness?

Someone is gone; family is missed; a friend is deathly sick; a pet has died?

How many here have ever experienced the Holiday Blues?

The Holiday Blues are no joke. NAMI, which is the National Alliance on Mental Illness, stated that 64% of people surveyed claim to be affected by the Holiday Blues.

The Holiday Blues are temporary feelings of anxiety or depression associated with the extra stress, unrealistic expectations and the memories that accompany the season.

People who claim to experience the Holiday Blues report fatigue, frustration, tension, isolation, sadness and sense of loss.

The Holiday Blues may only last a season, but they still hurt, and they are still real.

So for those who are experiencing the Holiday Blues, I’m here to say you are not alone, you are not crazy, and you do not have to put on a false mask of joy.

We are all here for one another; I am here for you; Emmanuel UCC is here for you.

So, for those with the Blues, you may not be too fond of today’s reading. It’s a letter Paul wrote to one of the first churches he knew.

A church that stood by his side when others would not; a church that strived with him in the work of God’s Kingdom; a church that has tried their best to be the hands, feet, and heart of Christ.

What makes this letter amazing is that Paul is currently about 800 miles away from them, yet he talks as intimately too them if they have been side by side every Sunday morning.

Even more amazing is this- Paul is writing from jail. He’s been arrested once again for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ; he’s been punished for being too provocative in his words and deeds.

Historically, no one really knows if Paul is in the big jail facing charges of corporate crime, or if he’s under house arrest.

Either way, his physical freedom has been taken away, and he’s been under some form of lock-and-key for about 2 years.

You’d think that Paul would have no reason to be happy; you’d think he’d be as blue as can be.

But at this moment, he appears to be OK; content with where his life has taken him.

“Rejoice!” he says. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Do not worry about a thing!”

How many here today who are experiencing a bit of the Holiday Blues secretly want to say “Oh just shut up, Paul! Take your happiness elsewhere!”?

Reading just this portion of Paul’s letter can make him sound just a bit starry-eyed. It can also give a false impression of the complex person Paul most likely was.

Are we to assume that this letter accurately reflects Paul’s mood every day, every minute, every second he’s on lock-down?

Are we to assume that for 2 years of imprisonment Paul went around singing “Oh, Happy Day”?

I doubt it, because if he did he wouldn’t be human, he wouldn’t be three-dimensional, he wouldn’t be real.

No, my guess is that this letter of Paul’s just so happens to catch him on one of those days when he’s feeling pretty positive, his blood-sugar is even, he got enough sleep, and he’s a bit reflective.

You can hear a Christ-like quality in him in which he looks back over his life and gets to think things over.

As Paul states, he’s had a lot and he’s had little; he has gone hungry and he’s had his share of all-u-can-eat buffets.

But through it all, Paul claims he is content and he won’t complain.

One gets the sense that although Paul is in jail, he has no regrets and would do it all again if it meant leading people to the light of Christ.

But how did Paul get to this Zen-like place? How did he get to this moment of immense understanding and deep reflection?

I have a theory, and it’s a theory that fits into the Christmas season and the work of the Service Committee- Paul has received a gift.

Reread vss. 15-20 and we’ll discover perhaps the reason why Paul wrote this epistle- it’s a thank you letter.

It’s a letter in which the Philippian church has sent him a gift; many gifts in fact. At least one of those gifts appears to be a bottle of cologne.

A gift.

Could it be that simple?

Now, typically Paul did not like to receive presents. He preferred not to receive gifts or financial assistance. He felt it was not right to make a profit from preaching the gospel. (He’d probably be appalled that modern ministers make a salary.)

Paul did not like to receive gifts, and yet he welcomed the gifts from the Philippian church.

Perhaps it’s because he sees their gifts as a reflection of their partnership.

Perhaps it’s because he knows accepting their gifts could enhance their partnership.

Perhaps Paul has reached that place few A-type personalities reach in which he realized that sometimes it is good to let someone else do the caring.

Perhaps he realized that this was the way in which the Philippian church was able to be the hands, feet, and heart of Christ to him.

Perhaps this was an example in which a congregation becomes like living angels to help another in need.

I wonder if the receiving of gifts is what sparked in Paul this sense of rejoicing, this sense of contentment, this sense of having “enough” (Dayenu).

I wonder if just hours before writing this letter, Paul was a little blue. I wonder if he was in prison, feeling frustrated, fatigued, lonely, and sad.

I wonder if Paul shed his share of tears while imprisoned? I wonder if there were moments he doubted God?

I wonder if he ever wondered if God had simply forgotten about him?

We can’t tell by this particular letter, but if Paul was anything like you, if he was anything like me, if he was anything like us, the answer would be a “yes!”

I wonder if receiving this care package from the congregation allowed Paul’s spiritual button to be reset; if that’s really the thing that made him feel happy?

This is a great letter to read for the Advent season. It’s a letter that brings home the real reason why we give gifts.

It’s not to boost sales. It’s not to earn a spot as the favorite son, daughter, aunt or uncle.

It’s not to go into excruciating debt.

We give this season because God first gave to us: the gifts of creation, the gifts of freedom, the gifts of the commandments.

As if that isn’t enough, God continued to give with the gift of Jesus Christ, the gift of the Gospel, and the gift of the Holy Ghost.

We also give, because it reminds others that yes- they care cared for, yes- they are remembered, yes- they matter, and yes- they are not alone.

Even in our distress, even in our loneliness, even in our prisons, real or imagined, no one is alone…

…Sometimes it takes a gift, to make that message known.

So as we continue to prepare for the Birth of Jesus, as we prepare to face the Holidays, let us give in a way that reflects how we truly feel for one another.

Let us give not by the content of our wallets, but by the Christ that lives in our hearts.

Because when we give, we are widening the reach of Christ’s magnificent light.

Amen and amen.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Cleansed, Refreshed, Refined; Dec 6, 2015 sermon, Malachi 3:1-7

Rev. George Miller
Dec 6, 2015
Malachi 3:1-7

Christmas-time in Florida can be odd. We know it’s the Christmas season, we hear the songs, we see the TV specials, and we’ve begun the holiday-related over-eating.

But the decorations outside of Publix, the ads featuring snow, just do not match the green of the grass, the humidity of the last few mornings, and the fact that people at both the Avon Park and Sebring parades were in shorts and using insect-repellent.

Does it seem like Christmas? It probably doesn’t help that the scriptures thus far are not the traditional Advent readings we’re used to.

Where is the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah being told they will have a child named John? Where is the angelic visit to Mary? Where is the celebration of Joseph being man enough to love a child that isn’t biologically his?

Instead we have this reading from the last book of the Old Testament that uses images of fullers’ soap, refiner’s fire and bad news for adulterers and those who do not pay a fair wage to their employees.

Merry Christmas, anyone?

Yet, within these verses, throughout the brief book of Malachi, there is indeed Good News, and glimpses of Christmas cheer.

To find it, we can do what the writers of the Bible often do, which is to turn to lessons learned in nature, both the perilous and the purifying.

One lesson we observe, and have observed this week is that of cleansing. Creation has a way of making itself clean.

For example, the rain that fell on Thursday and Friday night. It seemed as if that rain had been held in the clouds for days. The humidity was higher than usual, salt shakers were clogged, and my poor cozy cottage felt like it needed to be wrung out.

Then thankfully, the skies opened, the rains fell, and it washed away the debris on the street, the stains on the sidewalk, and the gunk on our cars.

The flowers, trees, bushes soaked all the water up. And like that, the heavy and burdensome feeling that humidity bears seemed to vanish.

Yesterday, with the moisture gone, a cool breeze blew throughout Downtown. A relaxing breeze permitted windows and doors to be opened, allowing fresh air, and a refreshing spirit to flow through people’s homes.

I opened all the windows of my automobile, realizing just how funky cars can become when they sit in the sun for too long and don’t have a chance to air out.

Nature can be cruel, but nature can also be cleansing. Beside rain and wind, another way cleansing takes place is through fire.

Ever notice how you can gage how long someone has lived in Highlands County according to how they respond to fire?

For those who were raised in non-rural settings, the notion of a controlled burn is a foreign thing.

During the 1st one to two years here when a recent transplant sees a fire, or hears that the city is doing a controlled burn, they are fearful, wondering what’s happening, and doubting the wisdom of why anyone would intentionally set fire to an orange grove or a part of the Hammock.

They can be told the reasons, shown the evidence of how it’s beneficial, assured that the fire department has it all under control, but still there’s the sense of fear and trepidation about them.

I recall one day driving to church, seeing a fire in the groves, calling 911 to report it, worried that my home could be caught in the blaze. Nonchalantly the operator stated that they must’ve started a controlled burn sooner than scheduled.

That didn’t feel very reassuring, but alas when I got home, my house was still there.

Around year three one gets used to driving through the county and seeing plumes of smoke in the sky. There’s still the worry that it could be your house, coupled with the uneasy realization that it’s probably not.

You know you’ve lived here long enough when a burn takes place and you’re the one reassuring a newbie that all will be fine.

Such was the case when there was a fire alongside our walking path. Ruthie was all worried and fearful about her apartment’s safety. I was causally positive that a scheduled burn was taking place.

Around year 4 or 5 one gets to the point in which you see the smoke on the other side of Lake Jackson, and automatically think “Oh, there’s a controlled burn.”

You go back to driving your car, and thinking about what else has to be done that day, as if smoke in the sky is the most ordinary of things to see.

Like the rain and the wind in nature, fire plays its own role as well.

Fire can reduce the dangers of overgrowth, cut-back the spread of weeds, tree disease, the debris of litter and dropped branches.

It stimulates the germination of some trees, like the Sequoia, whose cones need the heat of a fire to open up and disperse their seeds.

Controlled fires don’t stop life; they actually help in regeneration and restoration, as they enhance wildlife habitats, improve spaces for grazing, and allow accessibility to the soil and nutrients on the forest floor.

Rain, wind and fire are all part of the natural order. They can be destructive; they can be life-giving. They can sully, but they can also cleanse.

It is the cleansing aspect that Malachi is focusing on today.

Written nearly 500 years before the birth of Jesus, Malachi is giving a message to the people of God, a message that things have not been so good.

Religious leaders have not behaved the best they could. There is corruption and misuse of authority.

People have forgotten that they’re united under the one God who asks for justice, kindness and humbleness.

Instead, they do what they want, refuse to give properly to God, and participate in gossip. Then they wonder “Where is God and why does God seem so powerless?”

But God has not been absent; God has not been inactive. God has been busy remembering; God has been busy waiting.

Remembering what?

That once upon a time, God had made a promise to a childless couple named Abraham and Sarah that he will bless them with a family more numerous than stars in the sky, and that their family would bless all the families in the world.

No matter what, God remembers this promise. Even when the people seem to forget, God remembers. Even when the people seem just about to destroy themselves, God remembers.

In remembering, God is also actively waiting. Waiting for what?

For the people to turn back to God.

For the people to stop putting God last. For the people to stop giving their attention to false gods and idle distractions that don’t mean a whit in the real world.

But the people have been so caught up in their way of living, the systems that have been in place, that they don’t even know how they can turn back to God.

“How shall we return?” they honestly ask.

“How shall we return?” they wonder, and it’s heartbreaking that they have forgotten the very essence of who they are and what it means to be God’s people.

But fortunately, God does not forget, nor has God turned away. Fortunately, God is not inactive.

Nor has God forgotten or turned away today. Nor is God inactive, although recent events seem to say so.

If there is something we can learn from Malachi is that like a professional cleaner, God is right there, ready to remove our stains, ready to rinse us clean, ready to get rid of the things that are funky, so that we can start anew.

Like a refiner’s fire, God is ready to burn away the dross that dims our shine. God is ready to burn away the unnecessary stuff that holds us back from being the precious silver and gold we truly are.

Like a controlled fire, God is able to burn away that which chokes out new beginnings, and God can burn away any overgrowth that blocks the paths that lead to fresh starts.

Advent is a season of getting ready and focusing on what truly matters most.

Advent is a time in which we wait. We wait with Mary, we wait with Joseph, and we wait with the entire cosmos to experience the birth of the Promised Child who will redeem us all.

Advent is also a time in which we journey; we journey to that small town of Bethlehem, we journey to the manger, we journey to see, once again, the eyes of God.

As we wait, I believe Malachi would tell us that now is a perfect time to re-invite God into our lives. Now is a perfect time to seek a return to sacred holiness and unity in God.

As we wait, as we journey along familiar paths, we recall the ways in which rain, wind, and fire can work to rinse, to revive, and to refine.

As we ask “How can we return?” we find ways to invite God to wash away what needs to be washed away.

We invite God to refresh what has become stale and funky; and we ask God to burn away that which is preventing fresh seeds from being scattered.

When God responds, when God acts, when God refines, we are better able to do what God has always wanted us to do- to do justice, to do acts of kindness, and to fearlessly walk beside God, in grace and humility.

And when those stains, when that funk, when those moments of overgrowth reoccur, we can always turn back to God.

Because although we may from time to time forget, God does not.

God is righteous, God is ready to refine, and God is sending a messenger to prepare the way that is being set before us.

May we have eyes to see, ears to hear, and the heart to believe that this is always true.

Amen and amen.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Hyperbole and the Absurd; Nov. 29 sermon on Luke 21:25-36

Rev. George Miller
Nov. 29, 2015
Luke 21:25-36

When is a fig tree more than a fig tree? When is the sun not the sun?

Nearly 25 years ago, a program debuted on TV that set out to present Southerners in a positive light, to feature strong women who were savvy, politically incorrect and able to poke fun of themselves. The show was called “Designing Women”.

A trademark of the show was how well-written it was. It was not a TV program you simply watched; it was show to be heard, in which one had to devote all their attention to soak in what was being said.

Language was descriptive, capturing the southern art of using hyperbole and the absurd.

One episode featured an author named Dash Goth, who was equal parts Rhett Butler and Ernest Hemingway.

He described one of the women as having “one of those laughs that make you feel like ridin’ around in a convertible.” He said another woman “could fan a fire with a quick sashay of her walk.”

During one scene, Dash laments how we seem to have lost the art of communication, that we no longer use powerful, poetic words; that we have become lazy in the way we speak.

I think this sentiment rings even truer today. Gone are the days of hand-written letters in which people had the space and time to pour out their emotions.

In the age of texting, gone are the days of having a long phone conversation in which one can spin a story about a daily event and make it seem like an exciting adventure.

It also seems like less and less are we attuned to the verbal art form of hyperbole and the absurd, in which someone can say they were “knee high to a grasshopper” and folk knew what they meant.

I believe this has become especially true with how we approach scripture. Often times we take things very literally, perhaps too literally.

Because we are not experiencing scripture in the time and culture it occurred, and in the original language it was spoken, we are not always able to truly hear the poetry, the hyperbole and art of the absurd that would have been the mark of any good speaker or story-teller back in the day.

And, it often seems that when it comes to Jesus, unless if he prefaces something by saying it’s a story or a parable, we want to take everything he says as literal fact.

Maybe it is…sometimes. Maybe it’s not…sometimes.

So, when we come across a scripture like today’s, we can find ourselves immediately feeling uncomfortable, and perplexed.

As presented by the gospel writer of Luke, we hear Jesus seeming to talk about the end times. He speaks of cosmic signs, of nations being confused, and of having the strength to escape all that will take place.

When we hear this passage we may feel scared, ready to run away and bury our head.

But if we do, we may also fail to hear the way in which Jesus has infused his monologue with hope, with power, and with the poetic symbolism of peace and plenty it ultimately points to.

First, note the way in which Jesus makes specific reference to certain things- the sun, the moon, the stars, the sea. As modern-Americans we hear those words and immediately our brains form concrete images to go with these words.

But what if Jesus isn’t being so concrete? What if he’s speaking in a code that back then his listeners could hear and understand?

Back in Jerusalem, when Jesus said these words, the people were living under Roman rule, and as such, they were surrounded by temples and shrines that paid tribute to the plethora of Roman gods.

When Jesus spoke, the sun was not just a source of light, but it was a god worshipped by the Romans, called Sol.

The moon was a god called Luna. The stars were ruled by the Roman god Astraeus. The sea was the domain of Neptune.

What if, when Jesus made reference to the sun, the stars, the sea, and talking about events to take place, he wasn’t so much talking about the end of the earth as a physical event, but the end of the secular world as we know it?

What if Jesus was poetically finding a way to say the gods of the Roman empire, the Roman way of doing things was coming to an end?

Meaning, that there will be signs of the sun, moon, stars was really referring to signs of how the current political structure, the current way of living, was coming to an end?

What if what Jesus meant was that the corruption, the acts of injustice that Jesus and the people were experiencing was eventually going to stop?

What if when Jesus refereed to the sun, moon and stars, he really meant that the false gods of the world that seemed to control, dominate and humiliate the common, every day folk, were going to eventually die out and make way for something better; something more?

We can often come across scripture that sounds like its talking of end times, and emotionally, we think that is bad.

But are all end-times bad? Aren’t there situations in which the end is something that is good?

It was good when segregation came to an end. It was good when Apartheid came to an end. It was good when the Berlin Wall came toppling down.

All of those marked an end of an era.

Today’s scripture is not necessarily about the end times. It is also about new beginnings. The majority of Jesus’ speech talks of something else- of hopeful expectancy.

He talks of the Son of Man coming in a cloud. Again, this is not so much a literal image, but a theological testimony.

This image is meant to express that power does not rests in governments, gods, or kings, but that power and majesty ultimately belongs to God and God alone.

This almost absurd, humorous image of the Messiah surfboarding in on a cloud can be a poetic way to point to the glory and majesty that exists in the Lord.

It also does something else- it points to what is going to replace the current ways of the world- the kingdom of God.

And what is the kingdom of God? Is it a place we go after we die? A territory of land where only nice things happen?

Could the kingdom of God be akin to a fig tree? Perhaps.

Going back to the culture of Jesus’ day, the fig tree had a lot of meaning.

Figs were a food to be savored, a fruit to be eaten slowly, in which every part could be enjoyed and shared, from the skin, to the soft flesh, to the edible seeds.

Fig trees were used to symbolize peace and plenty, harmony and abundance, brother- and sisterhood, and the assurance that everyone had enough.

Is Jesus literally telling us to look at a fig tree? Or is Jesus talking in hyperbole about something more than we can humanely comprehend?

Is it a coincidence that Jesus tells a story about a fig tree as he also tells of earthly things passing away?

Would it be so bad if the false gods of the world came to an end and were replaced by peace, unity and enough for all?

At first, today’s scripture seems to be a difficult one to hear; it sounds like a reading that is not easy to digest or appropriate to start the Advent season with.

However, it contains so much fruit for us to digest.

1st- a reminder that change happens; and not all change is bad. Things come to an end so new beginnings can take place. It may seem as if something has been destroyed, but in Christ we find out it is actually being transformed; regenerated.

2nd- it is reminder once again that no matter what, God is present. God is present in the cosmos. God is present in the waves of the sea. God is present even when it seems like chaos abounds.

3rd- it is a reminder that there is a greater kingdom than the one created by us or worshipped by the world. There is the Kingdom of God in which peace and plenty reign, in which wholeness and healing take place.

The Advent season has begun; a time in which we journey to Bethlehem to once again meet Emmanuel.

During this time the gods of the world will continue to intrude. There will continue to be worries about Isis, focus on presidential candidates, fears about climate change, and arguments over refuges.

But all these things that seem so huge now, they will eventually fade; they will eventually no longer exist.

Because God is forever, and the Word of God will never pass away.

The more we stay alert, the more we focus on the Son of Man, the more the Kingdom of God will find its own way to break in, to shed its light and to make the insignificant, false gods of the world that much smaller.

Amen and amen.