Monday, January 25, 2016

Lack of Soul at the Oscars

I've been thinking a lot about the current Oscar uproar in regards to no black actors being nominated. Frankly, I think it's been about time this conversation took place, and people should listen.

It's become so apparent that movies about the experience of black people, and other communities considered "other" have long been excluded, while movies that seem to be steeped in "white people problems" or the man's point of view are applauded.

For example, I found "Casablanca" contrived, and if it had been told from the view point of Ilsa, and not Rick, it would have been deemed as simply a "chick flick." Recently I saw "Jerry Maguire" and found it bogged down in a woe-is-rich-little-white-me narrative, and wondered why does the Academy only seem to care when an upper-middle class white woman in the 1950's has a love crises ("Carol"), or a privileged member of royalty has to overcome one of life's hurdles ("The King's Speech"). Yet other films that had so much to say, like "School Daze," "Sarafina," and "Fruitvale" get ignored.

A movie like "Waiting to Exhale" which featured solid, strong performances from 4 stunning actresses at the top of their game gets no love and is dismissed as a "chick flick." Why the writer, director and actors in "Eve's Bayou" received no Oscar recognition even though it's a haunting story that was expertly filmed?

How is it that Jennifer Hudson gave one of the most exhilarating screen debuts in cinematic history with her portrayal of Effie in "Dreamgirls" and yet, even though she did take home the Oscar, she's not being offered parts worthy of her talents, so she has to go to TV and Broadway to find those roles?

Anyone who has watched the work of Tisha Campbell, Regina King, Angela Basset, and Lynn Whitfield know that all of their careers can and should be so much more, and each still have the potential to be given meaty roles that blaze across the bring screen and garner Oscar love.

Did no movie producers see the way Jill Scott acted the heck out of "Why Did I Get Married" and say to themselves "That woman is a STAR!" and find ways to create movies for Jill to soar in? (At least HBO was able to see Jill's gifts when they cast her in "#1 Ladie's Detective Agency.)

Has anyone noticed that Niecy Nash has quietly become an actress who can do comedy and camp with lots of make-up and big hair (like tv's "Scream Queens"), as well as devestating, 3-dimensioanl, understated drama with no make-up and lived-in hair (like HBO's "Getting On")? Why isn't she being offered movie roles that drip of Oscar-nomination possibility.

It's sad that Whoopi Goldberg has not had a more glorious film career, because Whoopi can act. Put her silent, nuanced portrayal of Celie ("Color Purple") next to her boisterous, hysterical Odea May Brown ("Ghost") to see how far she can stretch herself. At least she was nominated for both roles, and won for Odea. But just like Jennifer, Tisha, Angela, and Lynn, Hollywood just doesn't seem to know what to do with Whoopi. In part it is because of Whoopi's race and age, and also because her "look" was never, ever conventional. At least Whoopi is a smart business woman/entertainer and she knew how to pick other projects to stay active and to get paid ("The View).

And how is it that Regina did not get an Oscar nomination for "Ray"? She was, in many ways, the heartbreaking heart of that film.

I think, in many ways, these ladies made it look so, so easy that people failed to see the acting they were doing.

There's also the musical aspect. Listen to "Be Alone Tonight" from "School Daze" and ask yourself- how could this not have been nominated (and won!) for Best Song from a movie? How did none of the songs from "Waiting to Exhale" or "Jason's Lyric" or "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" not get a nominee? Especially "Waiting to Exhale" in which the entire soundtrack, produced by Babyface, featured a who's who of R&B songstresses and used the music to tell the story.

How could "See You Again" from "Furious 7" not get an Oscar nod this year for best song, when the entire movie lead up to that final scene in which everyone in the theater shed a tear?

While I'm on that subject, did anyone else notice that "Mad Max", which is nothing but an extended car chase, is set in a future world in which apparently no one is black or biracial? But the "Fast and Furious" movies feature the most racially diverse, and kick-ass assortment of men and women in movies.

I am glad that people are finally talking about the ways in which Oscar neglects the faces, talents, stories, and artistic gifts of the black community. Because it is a conversation that has needed to be addressed for decades.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Not One, But Many; Jan 17, 2017 sermon, John 2:1-11

Rev. George Miller
John 2:1-11
Jan 17, 2016

Wednesday I went to Publix to do my weekly grocery shopping. I’m a faithful fan of the South location who is adjusting to having to shop in the North location.

Right away, I noticed that the parking lot was virtually full. “How cool,” I thought- it’s like the entire community is here together, united as one.

The difficulty of having just one Publix became readily apparent when there was a traffic jam in the potato chip aisle.

I breathed a sigh of relief when entering the coffee aisle and was the only customer there.

Didn’t even bother with the seafood counter.

Began to lose my sense of “How cool-ness” when I saw how long the check-out line was; but impressed with how quickly they called more cashiers forward to open.

Having adjusted to the benefits of small-town living, the congested Publix was a reminder of what life is like in a bigger city.

Thankful to be done with my weekly shopping, I walked out to my car and had an epiphany-

What I had just experienced is what milennials have humbly termed “white people problems.”

I realize that term could possibly offend some, so I’ll rephrase it this way: my shopping experience in which the worst thing I had to endure was traffic in the snack aisle and a ten minute wait to be rung up amounted to “1st World Problems.”

For $5.40 I bought chicken tenderloins. I didn’t have to raise, feed, kill, pluck, or quarter the chicken.

Nor did I have to grow, fertilize, pick, or squeeze the oranges that made up my Tropicana Juice, which was $2.99 with coupon.

It was all done for me, and I didn’t have to see the work, the sweat, the back-break that went into the production of any of my food selections.

See- when things are done right, you don’t realize the work that has been done.

When all you encounter is the finished product, there is no way of knowing the many people, the many hours, something can take.

Case in point- Friday’s Spaghetti Supper.
We had a great time. We served hundreds of people. We ate delicious spaghetti sauce and pies to our stomachs’ content.

But not many people realize the months of preparation that went into it. The original planning that our organizers put in. The list making, budgeting, buying, stocking, worrying, and dreaming.

Tables and chairs did not emerge overnight. People came in Wednesday and spent hours carrying, lifting, opening, unfolding.

Sauces stirred, seasoned, simmered. Pies constructed, baked, cooled, sliced.

Tickets sold by passionate individuals who hustled to get the word out to the community that our annual event was here and there was no better place to be that Friday night.

If all one did was come to Emmanuel UCC on Friday, they would’ve seen a smooth moving operation that appeared effortless.

That’s because all those who made the Spaghetti Supper possible believed in what they were doing, they were working together, folk of the community gathered, and best of all: Christ was present.

Can we get an “Amen”? Amen, indeed.

When people believe in what they are doing, when they work together, when the community gathers, and Christ is there, miraculous, majestic, wonderful things can and do happen.

Think about tomorrow’s national holiday to acknowledge the life, ministry and dreams of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Here was a man who did not have the luxury of white-people problems.

He could not play football with his friends because he was black. He could not go to certain parks, pools, hotels, and schools where he lived.

When things became too much too bear, he used his pastoral role to speak up and to say “There comes a time when people get tired of being kicked about.”

Tomorrow we acknowledge Rev. King’s birthday, but in many ways we are also acknowledging the Civil Rights Movement, an experience in which people from all backgrounds, economics, skin color, and denominations did the work that makes today’s world possible.

Without giving a long drawn-out history lesson, Rev. King, through his faith rooted in Jesus Christ and the stories of liberation found in the Bible, inspired folk to march, speak up, boycott, pray, and peacefully act.

People were also arrested, threatened, bombed, and killed.

Why? Why would do they do that?

So one day our children could go to the same school together. So our children could play on the same playground together and drink from the same water fountain.

Why would they do all that work; all the behind the scenes blood-sweat-and-tears?

So folk could marry who they love regardless of their skin. So we can worship together.

Be born in the same hospital; die in the same hospital.

So we can do something so simple as share a spaghetti supper in which no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome.

No matter if you identify as black, Latina, Asian, mixed, Scandinavian, republican, democrat, gay, straight, buckeye, Yankee, gator, or Viking.

…So that one day an openly gay pastor from the north can move to small southern town and safely do the Wine Walk with friends named Tonya, Travis, Dominic, Tony and Monica, and not worry about being arrested, condemned, or lynched...

See- that is the reality of the work and ministry Dr. King and all the others did which makes what we do possible.

And it may look easy, it may seem effortless, but it’s not.

I wonder if we here at Emmanuel UCC have forgotten to remember that what we are doing here in Highlands County is amazing.

What we are able to do, and are doing is wonderful, that what we are doing is miraculous, because no one else is able to do what we do the way we do it.

And thanks to all of you, our leaders, our volunteers, our members and regular visitors- ya’ll make it seem so effortless.

That’s what we see in today’s reading. How the work to make the Kingdom of God known is actually the work of many, and most of it is not seen.

At first sight, today’s story seems so simple. Jesus is at a wedding, the wine runs out, water is turned into wine, and viola!- the party continues.

What we fail to notice is the work of the many it took to make it possible.

Because it’s just not the work of one man.

First there is the mother of Jesus who states that there is a need, and directs the staff to do what is instructed.

Then there is the simply stated direction from Jesus to fill the six stone jars with water.

But what it entails is a bunch of people working behind the scenes.

Since they are not living in an age of indoor plumbing, running water, or prepackaged bottles of Evian, the servants must go to a well.

They must patiently let down and pull up bucket after bucket after bucket of water until they have about 160 gallons worth.

Then they must pour bucket after bucket after bucket into each stone jar until it is filled, not half way, not almost all the way, but to the brim.

Then it requires the majestic, miraculous, wonderful miracle to take place.

Then for the new wine to be ladled out, brought to the steward to be taste-tested and proclaimed worthy for consumption.

And, if you pay attention to the telling of the story, there is never, ever, any indication that anyone at the wedding saw what was being done.

There is no indication that the attendees were even aware that the wine had run out or that there was an issue.

There is no indication that the bride or her family or friends or wedding guests were aware that it took the work of Jesus, his mother, the workers or the steward to do what needed to be done to ensure that all could have a good time and bask in the benefits of Heaven breaking in.

Think of all the work that was done behind the scenes of this story so that everyone could enjoy the sweet, sweet fruits of the Spirit, in which Jesus was present, work was being done in tandem so the community could continue celebrating.

Men, women, old, young, members, visitors, and friends of Emmanuel UCC, know this- we are not living in a vacuum.

We are not worshipping in a vacuum.

We are not church in a vacuum.

But together, we are united, working, striving, believing, sweating, dreaming, fellowshipping, enjoying, and unleashing cats from the chancel together.

Like those at the wedding party, we are a community gathered, and best of all, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is present.

And whenever that happens, something new, something grand, something miraculous, wonderful and majestic can and does happen.

Therefore, let us continue to do what we do, and let us continue to not live in worry about running out.

Let us embrace the promise and possibility of abundance that takes place when Jesus is welcome and in our midst.

It may have taken one man to point us to the gifts of God’s kingdom, but it takes all of us to make those gifts known to everyone we encounter.

For that, let us say “Amen!” and “amen.”

Saturday, January 9, 2016

No Cats in the Chancel; Jan 10, 2016 sermon on Luke 3:15-23

Rev. George Miller
January 10, 2016
Luke 3:15-23

Christianity is about many things.

There is the part that is about wonders, majesty, and miracles. There’s the part of doing justice, kindness, and humbly walking with the Lord.

There is also the part about God doing a new thing; that God is still speaking, God is still dreaming, God is still stirring the waters.

We experienced this during the Christmas season when God does the unexpected and comes to us a baby born in a manger, to live amongst us, and to share in our life and death, our joys and our sorrows.

Today we experience another new thing, as Jesus is baptized. It is an important moment in the life and ministry of Jesus, and it is an important moment in the life of the church.

As we discussed during Tuesday’s Bible Study, there is something distinct in Luke’s telling of the baptism story: Jesus is not baptized separate or apart from the other people.

Jesus does not request a special appointment to be baptized. He is baptized after all the people were baptized.

What this implies is that Jesus was present with everyone. He was there with the crowds, with the other Israelites, with tax collectors, with soldiers, with repentant people hoping for something more.

It meant Jesus went into the same waters they did. It meant he received the same words they did.

It meant that Jesus was not acting aloof or better than anyone else, but that he publicly shared in their human condition, and in doing so Jesus showed that he identified with our humanity and our yearning for a new start.

That is deep, but it’s not what spoke to me today. It’s the words of John the Baptist that come before.

As Luke tells it, we have the rebel John in the wilderness. At a time of tumult in which the nation is being divided, John is out in the Jordan proclaiming to the people a chance to be baptized.

This baptism John’s promoting is one to help folk to turn from their sins and to be forgiven.

John is direct with his words. He demands that they learn how to share, they learn how to play fair, and they learn how bear fruits of good consciousness.

John’s passion fills the people with a sense of urgency and excitement that something great is about to happen.

He tells them that the One to Come will have a winnowing fork that will separate the wheat from the chaff.

To be honest- John scares me. He’s a bit too charismatic for me. Not knowing anything about winnowing forks, this image is a bit too Freddy Krueger-ish for me.

But after doing some research, it turns out John is using a rural, farming term, one that people who worked in wheat fields would understand.

Back in John’s day, when it was a windy outside, farmers would go out and toss the wheat into the air using their hands or a fork.

This would separate the wheat from the chaff; which was the waste or discards.

Chaff was dangerous, as it was highly combustible, so if there was ever a fire in the field, there would be no way to contain it.

So on a windy day, the farmers, using a fork, would throw the wheat into the air, and all that was useless, unnecessary, or dangerous would just blow away, leaving the healthy wheat behind to thrive and to grow.

It’s kind of like John saying “Be prepared for the Lord and untie your cats from the chancel.”

Let me explain- back when I attended seminary, a professor shared a story that has stayed with me.

Once upon a time there was a church that had the most unusual custom- during worship they always had a cat on a leash that was tied to a piece of chancel furniture.

No one knew the reason why; it was just something they had always done.

Eventually someone asked “Why?’ and discovered the reason: a long time ago they had a pastor who brought his cat to church on Sunday and tied it there while he preached.

Apparently he had been there long enough that people assumed that the cat on a leash had religious significance. So year after year, pastor after pastor, Sunday after Sunday, some poor cat on a leash was tied to a piece of chancel furniture.

I don’t know if this story is fact or legend. I don’t know if it really happened, or if it’s something my professor made up.

But I do know this story was told to share an important truth- in church there are things we do that we don’t always know the reason why, and there are things we do simply because we’ve always done them that way.

For example, why do we light the candles? In the age of electricity it’s not like we need the light.

We light the candles because symbolically we are welcoming the light of Christ into worship.

Another example: why do I wear a stole? One theory is that centuries ago, the pastor had a handkerchief to wipe up any juice that spilled during Communion.

At some point, someone conveniently draped the handkerchief over their shoulder. Over time that handkerchief grew and grew until it became what it is today.

Then there is the question- what do the colors of my stole mean, as well as the colors of the paraments?

Great question, because there are meanings behind the colors we use.

Today we have white. White represents holiness and purity. It may not be the most festive color, but it makes the point that the day is special and different than all the others.

Therefore, white is used for baptisms, weddings, funerals, Transfiguration, World Communion, All Saints, the 12 Days of Christmas, and the Baptism of Jesus.

Next week you’ll see the sanctuary decked out in green. Green represents life, growth, Creation.

Green is used when there are no special events to commemorate, but to remind us that the Living Lord is still amongst us.

During Lent we switch to violet or purple. Why? Because purple is a color that represents royalty and majesty…it is also a color that represents wounds and bruises, like those Jesus experienced on the Cross.

Then for Easter Sunday and the 6 weeks that follow, when we proclaim Christ has risen, the color will be???

Then for Pentecost and the months that follow we use red. Why? Because red represents fire, power, strength, boldness and bravery.

August comes along, we go back to green. Then Advent comes along and the colors change to blue. Why?

Because blue represents hope and expectation. Blue is the color that covers the earth in the hours before the sun rises in the east.

Then December 24 and the 12 Days of Christmas comes along and everything goes to ????

There you have it- all you never wanted to know about why we do the colorful things we do.

There is nothing in the Bible that says we have to have different colors throughout the year. There is nothing in my contract that says I have to change my stole, or even wear one.

But if we didn’t use the colors, if we didn’t engage our visual senses, I’m not sure if things would feel the same.

But then again, there may be people here who would not care if we used stoles and paraments and colors as long as we were worshipping the Lord and living as Christ would want us to.

I share all this because just last week we welcomed a new iteration of the Council.

Some members of Council are serving for the first time, some are continuing to serve, and some are serving in a new capacity.

For those who are on Council for the 1st time, you have been called to a unique opportunity: to lead pre-existing committees, but to lead them in your way.

You are inheriting things of which you had no part in. You will inherit committees that have their own cats on a leash, and their own handkerchiefs that have becomes religious emblems.

There will be things you’ll want to continue. There’ll be things you’ll wish to tweak. There will be things you’ll want to cast away, like chaff in the wind.

There will also be new, exciting, different things that you will want to do. Things that only you could have envisioned. Things that only you can do the way you can do them.

And there will be things that you’ll want to try that have been tried before and didn’t work, but you’re fairly confident that they will work this time with you and your committee.

And for all our new and returning Council members I’d like to say “Try away!”

Do your new things, switch things up, step into new waters, adapt to the times, talents and speaking of the Spirit.

There’s a saying that goes like this “If no one will die, give it a try!”

And for the members and friends of Emmanuel I’d like to encourage you to encourage our Council members.

Let our leaders take chances, take risks, dream big, do things new.

I encourage us to hold back from saying “It won’t work,” or “we tried it once before and it failed,” or perhaps worse of all “We’ve never done it that way.”

Because the truth is, Christianity has always been about taking chances, taking risks, dreaming big, doing a new thing, and shaking things up a bit.

Christianity has always been about wonders, majesty, and miracles. Of doing new things, of stepping into new waters.

Yes, the Christmas Season has come to an end. But now we have entered the time in which we get to experience who Jesus is, what he’s about and what it means to follow him.

We have the chance to reflect not only the light of Christ, but the gifts of Christ.

We already know the gifts that God wants from us: to do justice, love kindness, and to continue humbly walking with the Lord.

Now, it is time for us to do so, and to have fun doing it. To play, to dream, to imagine.

To take chances, to do new things, to fail. To fail small, to fail big.

We don’t need to tie cats to the chancel just because that’s what’s been done before. Nor should we hold onto chaff that is better off blowing in the breeze.

It’s time to go out, to build, to create, to hold on, to let go, to reboot, to remix, to repent, to stand in the water.

To believe that if no one will die, let’s give it a try.

Because if we thrive, we will stay alive.

John did something new; Jesus did something new.

Let us be bold enough to do so too.

Amen and amen.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Light of Kindness; Jan 3, 2016 sermon

Rev. George Miller
John 1:1-18
January 3, 2016

We just heard one of the most beautifully poetic writings in history. An overture that exalts the glory of God and the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The author refers to Christ as the Word, reminding us that it only took a word from God to bring forth the world; a reminder that words have power to transform and to illuminate our lives.

Words, in which so much can rest upon. Words like justice, like humility.

Like kindness…

What is kindness? What does it look like? How can kindness be embodied?

Sometimes the best way to answer a question is to tell a story.

As most of you know, my Momma was in town this week. On Wednesday I took her to the Garden Café for lunch.

As we walked in, Lolly the owner waved hello. Her husband greeted me with a handshake. Suzanne from the theater was sitting at a table, so I went over to say hi. I went back to my table to sit down…

…and there’s an envelope with my name on it, perched on the table. Inside is a gift certificate to the Café.

Someone, somehow, someway, knew I was going there with my Momma, and in a generous act of kindness, they somehow, someway made sure our lunch was paid.

A random act of kindness that, like a candle, joyfully shed light upon the rest of my day.

A reminder that it is still the Christmas Season.

So far we’ve experienced the birth of Jesus, heard the angels who appeared to shepherds in a field, and we’ve seen the miracle of the manger.

Although stores may have their Christmas items on markdown, if you’re like me, your tree is still up, your horizontal, sparkly cards with cardinals are still on display, and your waistline is still expanding from all the delicious left-over holiday foods.

Because before Christmas season can come to its official end, we have Epiphany to celebrate- the time when a group of Gentiles, bearing gifts, journeyed to see the baby Jesus.

As Matthew tells us, Kind Herod is visited by wise men who come wondering where is the one born King of the Jews. They’ve come to exalt the child.

They are sent to Bethlehem, following the light of a star, arriving where the light leads them.

Overwhelmed with joy, they kneel down before mother and son and open their treasure chests, featuring gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Then, they leave, going a new way back to life, and back to reality.

This story becomes the basis of why we give gifts to one another and what the 12 days of Christmas are about.

For centuries folk have wondered what the meaning behind these gifts are. Theories abound as to why these generous gentiles would bestow upon Mary and her child a treasure trove of myrrh, frankincense and gold.

But no one really, really knows.

For the past few days I’ve been thinking. Remember the sermon 2 weeks ago on Micah?

Remember the ways in which God invited the people to recall all God had done?

Remember how the people asked what they could give God as a form of thanks?

Remember what God’s response was?

God did not want thousands of rams or barrels of oil or bottles of cologne.

All God wanted was for the people to do justice, to love kindness, and for them to humbly walk with the Lord.

Those were 3 things God wanted.

What did the magi bring Jesus? 3 gifts.

What if, for us, this year, those 3 gifts the magi gave Jesus were symbolic of the 3 gifts God asked the people for in Micah?

What if gold can symbolize justice, because after all, it often takes gold to make sure justice takes place?

Frankincense is sweet smelling, so what if that can represent kindness?

Myrrh has been used to anoint and purify, so what if myrrh represents walking with the Lord?

I don’t know about you, but I think that for now we got the justice part down pat. The Shepherd’s Pantry has become a way to feed the hungry and to ensure that children, widows and the elderly are being cared for.

Other churches may feel the need to write their senators, lead protests and march down a street, but for now it seems like we’re doing our part in our little segment of the world by taking care of food related issues.

If that’s the case than our gold, our generous offerings of money, can be seen as accounted for. (And besides, how many here are tired of always being asked for donations?)

Frankincense is a resin that comes from a tree. When rubbed between your fingers, it smells so, so sweet; a scent that lingers on. With its pretty yellow tones, frankincense has a way of capturing light.

Can frankincense be tied to kindness in any way? How acts of kindness can linger with you; how kindness can be oh so sweet.

On a woman named Kim makes her own candles, each named after a virtue. Her candle called Kindness is made with frankincense.

Intrigued, I contacted Kim and asked her why, and she sent a beautiful response, which I’d like to read.

Kim said “…I wanted to make something special that had meaning. I chose virtues that inspire me. Virtues that I would want to live by and experience in others.

“I believe that kindness is the essence of humankind. It is the beginning of our relations with one another.

“It embodies both compassion and respect…

“...Frankincense for me is the traditional scent of the church…Of all places to experience kindness and compassion, it should be within the church.”

Kim continued, “We are all human…and need to be reminded that we are all the same.

“My kindness candle with frankincense is a small reminder to not judge our brothers and sisters.

“A reminder to lend a hand, to listen, to accept, and to be gentle.”


In the beginning of the message I asked “What is it? What does it look like? How do we embody it?”

I don’t know about you, but Kim just answered it in the best way possible.

Kindness is the beginning of relationships; it is the essence of humankind.

It means to lend a hand, to listen, to accept, to be gentle, and to not be so quick to judge.

I think the Gospel writer of John would appreciate Kim’s comments.

He spoke of Jesus being the light who shines in the darkness. The Word that shined so brightly people could see his glory.

I think it’s fair to say that in 2015 we have accomplished a lot in terms of the justice.

Let’s make 2016 a year in which the sweet, sweet smell of kindness perfumes the air like frankincense, and lingers on.

Let us find ways this year to be kind to one another, to be kind to ourselves, to be kind to our community, to be kind to our little part of the kingdom.

Jesus is Lord; he is light; and he is love.

Like the gifts that were brought by the magi, let justice, humility and kindness prevail and continue the reason for the season.

For where there is kindness, there will certainly be Christ, and the spirit of Christmas.
Amen and amen.