Sunday, June 19, 2016

What Are You Doing HERE...June 19, 2016 sermon

Rev. George Miller
1 Kings 19:9-15
June 19, 2016

Scripture is wonderful. It is rich. Alive. Breathing.

Though most of what we encounter in the Bible was written 2-3,000 years ago, it can speak to us as if it was just written this morning.

Scripture can say where we were. Scripture can point us to where we are going. Scripture speaks to us where we are.

In many ways, the Bible is simply written. Simply written, therefore wonderfully complex.

Rarely do the authors make a judgment about how someone behaves. Scripture sparingly uses adjectives to tell us if someone is good, bad, deceitful, trifling, so therefore the people just…are.

Scripture does not often tell us how someone speaks, or the tone they use, or the intonation of their voice.

Therefore, we are left to use our imagination. To approach stories with a new set of ears and eyes almost each and every time we read the Bible.

In its seeming simplicity, Scripture allows room for the Holy Spirit to come in and say “A-ha” or “Ahem” or “Oh my.”

Today’s reading is an example. Today, God asks Elijah in a Still-Speaking voice “What are you doing here…”

The story thus far: the country has been stuck with King Ahab, a ruler who has turned his back on justice, kindness and walking humbly with the Lord. Therefore, the nation has faced 3 years of drought.

Elijah and Ahab have a face-off in which they battle to see whose god is the true God.

Elijah wins when Yahweh sends fire from the sky to consume the burnt offering.

In an act of religious zeal Elijah gathers the 450 prophets of Baal…and kills them with a sword.

…even before there were AME churches and gay nightclubs, and guns, people were capable of being killed due simply to someone else’s zealousness…

…but that’s a sermon for another time…

When King Ahab’s wife hears the news, she places a bounty on Elijah’s head and he runs away for fear of his life.

Elijah wanders into the wilderness and rests under a tree, tired, and despondent and wishing he had never lived.

He comes to a cave, in a mountain; the same mountain that Moses had been too.

While there, feeling all alone in the world and extremely vulnerable, he hears a word from the Lord, saying “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Now, we don’t know exactly how the Lord said this. Was it said loud? Was it said soft?

Was Elijah’s name spoken sternly, as if God was a Dad about to punish his child?

Was Elijah’s name spoken tenderly, as if God was a Dad whose heart was breaking?

Were the words spoken with equal strength, or were certain words given more of an emphasis?

If so, was the emphasis on the word “what”? As in “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Or was the emphasis on the word “doing”? As in “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Or was the emphasis on the word “here”? As in “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

In the first case, the emphasis on the word “what” could imply that Elijah was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, that he is somewhere he is not supposed to be.

In the second case, the emphasis on the word “doing” could imply that Elijah was doing something inappropriate.

Then there is the emphasis on the word “here.” It has an almost philosophical, existential tone.

“What are you doing here…”

What are you doing here? What are we doing here? What are any of us doing here?

It’s almost like a “To be or not to be” of scripture.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?” God asks, and with this reading I feel that God’s like a Father who has compassion, concern, and care for God’s children.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

For me, this is God saying “Before I knit you together in your mother’s womb, I knew you. Before you were born I knew your name.”

For me, this is God saying “Elijah, you have a purpose in life. What is that purpose? Why are you right here, right now, during this time in history?”

“Is it to run away and to hide in a cave, or is it something greater, something more.”

I like to imagine that this is God saying “Elijah, tell me what you’re role in life is, and what you were placed on the earth to do.”

In other words “Why are you here…”

I think that’s a question God asks each and every one of us throughout our lives.

“Why are you here?”

The answers can be many. To raise a family. To work the farm. To be the best Parent you can be.

To care for the community. To usher in change. To feed. To teach. To heal.

To love. To be loved in return.

“Why are you here?”

That’s a question that resonates with me this week. Like Elijah, like Jonah, like so many others, I have spent a good deal of my life running away and hiding in caves.

Then something like the Pulse murders happen, and the answer becomes clear- I am here for a time like this. To be present, to minister, to speak up, to stand in solidarity.

I can ask each of you individually “Why are you here?”, and there’d be so many responses, because we are so many bodies.

However, we are One body- the body of Jesus Christ.

So today, as your pastor, I ask “Why, Emmanuel UCC, are we here?”

“Why, Emmanuel UCC, are you here?”

In memory of the 9 black people killed at Emanuel AME in Charleston;

in knowledge of the 49 gay, lesbian, Latino, white, black, straight, male, female, teenage and middle aged killed in Orlando last week,

Why are we here?

Why is it that 26 years ago God formed us?

Why is it that 26 years ago the Holy Spirit breathed life into us? Why is it that 26 years ago Jesus Christ said “follow in my foot-steps”?

Why are we here?

Why are we part of this particular body of Christ during this particular time in this particular place?

Is it to be a social group? Is it to be a safe haven? Is it to be a house of worship? Is it to be a place for feeding? Is it to be a place for healing?

Is it to be a place of silence? Is it to be a place with a voice?

Why are we, Emmanuel UCC here? What has God called us to do? What does God not want us to do?

How are we to act? What behaviors do we let go?

How do we be a church in a semi-rural, semi-small town made up of retirees and working-class citizens, northerners and native born, in the center of a state in which so much is going on?

Why are we here?

Tracy- why are you here as our moderator?

Nancy- why are you here as head of property?

Cindy- why are you here in charge of hospitality?

Silvia- why are you here overseeing word and sacrament?

Sheryl- why are you here putting together VBS and hopefully making plans for Sunday school?

Ken, Sue and Mary- why are you here, overseeing worship and making music?

People of the Shepherd’s Pantry- why will you be here tomorrow?

For those who’ll be present during Wednesday’s Vigil of Unity- why will you be there?

Randy, Dave, Buddy- why are you here handling finances and note-taking?

Tina- why are you here as liturgist?

Why are you, in the pews, here today?

Why am I here, in this time, in this place, in this unique, quirky town and amazing congregation???

…Elijah hits a speed bump, a tope, in his life and his initial answer is to run far, far away.

But God sees Elijah, God speaks to him, God says “What are you doing here…” and it is as if, today, God is speaking to each and everyone one of us.

What are we doing here?

I cannot answer that for you, or for anyone else.

But I believe that the answers continue to be the same as it’s been for thousands of years:

To do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with the Lord. To love our neighbor as ourselves.

To forgive.

To be the best reflections of Christ’s light that we can be.

What that means, how that looks, how it is done will be unique to each person.

Thankfully we don’t have to figure this out all alone; thankfully we have a guiding light in Jesus Christ who will continue to show us the way.

In peace and beauty, mystery and calm, let us say “Amen, and amen.”

Sunday, June 12, 2016

To Life- a Pastoral Response to the PULSE Murders

Statistically speaking, we are living in the safest time in human history...ever. But when mass violence takes place we become full of fear.

Right now a 1,000 voices are saying 10,000 things about an event not many people fully know enough facts about.

Again, I find myself numb and unsurprised. Partly, because I'm the son of a NYC cop and have always known these things can always when one is in public. Partly, because I'm a gay man who came out in 1991 at a time when "gay-bashing" was real and we all knew people who were attacked entering, leaving or at a nightclub.

For better or for worse, these two realities (being a cop's son and an openly gay man) have informed my perception of reality- that I or my friends can easily be hurt for being who we are or who we are with.

This is why you see me smile when I'm out and about, or why I am quick to raise a glass in cheers- it's not because I'm oblivious or intoxicated- it is a cheers to light and to life, and to the awareness that I could not live as I live or be who I am if it was 1950, 1960, 1970 or even 1980, or if I was living in an other country. It's also the knowledge that since I have a diverse radius of friends, many of them may not be welcomed for a variety of reasons.

I don't know who entered into the nightclub Pulse (and please know- it is a gay club), and the reasons as to why he felt the need to kill, and wound, and hold hostage all those people.

I don't know what his religious beliefs were and were not, or if there were issues of mental illness or personality disorder, or jealousy, or unexpressed rage that was boiling over.

I worry that people and the media are quick to make assumptions, to point fingers, to take sides, to make demonic one group of people, to think they have all the answers when it comes to guns or rights or morality.

All I know is that a tragedy happened really close to home. So close are all of us are probably associated to a victim, survivor or perpetrator by 1-3 degrees.

People are scared. People are confused. People are worried. A Facebook page has already been established, so people in Orlando can check off that they are alright so their Facebook friends can know they are ok. It appears that everyone I know in Orlando was far from the scene.

Now, people wonder what to do. Light a candle? Hold a prayer service? Give blood? Go out and rough house a Muslim? Say the gays got what they deserve? Claim this is an act of judgement from God?

I know what I will do- keep on living. Keep on going out with my friends. Keep on attending public functions. Keep on lifting up a glass of wine in celebration of life. Keep on connecting with God.

Keep on giving thanks that we belong to a church and a denomination that tries our best to welcome, to not judge, to not condemn.

To keep celebrating the gift of grace that comes from our faith in Christ; grace that says because God loves me, I am free to love and to be loved. That because of grace we don't have to be so quick to judge, to be filled with hate, to purposely want to hurt another.

Why would anyone go into any club or public place and want to kill anyone?

I don't know, but I do know that our fear means they won. And I don't want them to have that power over me or anyone else.

So today, whatever you do, find a minute, a moment, a second to give thanks for what you have, for who you are, and find a way to embrace life, even if it is as simple as saying thanks to God, watering your flowers, calling a family member or friend, or having an extra glass of wine.

This is not the last time an event like this will take place.

But remember, God (as experienced in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is eternal and will always have the last say.

In love and peace, Pastor George

Offense of Grace; Galatians 2:15-21

Rev. George Miller
Galatians 2:15-21
June 12, 2016

Last week we heard a message from Antonio, a local entrepreneur upset with how Jesus was messing with the local economy.

Antonio preferred the way things were, in which people were scammed, loans were given at high interest rates, and it was easy to make a buck off of people’s religious beliefs.

Antonio did not approve of the Kingdom of God in which compassion, not greed, ruled the day.

To show just how provocative Jesus really was (and continues to be), we can look towards one of the most controversial parables he taught.

In Matthew 20 Jesus tells of a landowner who goes out in the morning and hires people to work all day in his vineyard for the usual daily wage.

A few hours later he goes out, and upon seeing some idle people, he invites them to work, saying he will pay them what is right.

He does this again at noon and at 3 pm. At 5 pm he sees more people who are idle and asks them why, and they state “Because no one has hired us.” So he invites them to also work in the vineyard.

When evening arrives the vineyard owner has the workers come to receive their wages. Those who had been working since daylight assumed they’d be paid the most. But instead, everyone, from the 6 am shift, to the noon shift, to the 5 pm shift, all receive the equal amount of pay.

Those who’ve been working all day become mad, they grumble, they complain.

The owner of the vineyard responds “Friend, I have done no wrong. Take what belongs to you. I choose to give to the last what I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what I have, or are you that envious that I am this generous?”

This story always illicits a series of reactions when I teach it. This story flies in the face of logic. This story flies in the face of the Protestant Work Ethic.

This story, if told by one of our presidential candidates today would sink their campaign.

A Kingdom in which all workers are treated equal not matter how long they have worked or been idle? A Kingdom in which the last will be first, and the first would be last?

How do you think Antonio, or the Roman government, or the Temple Priests would feel about this story?

In the words of theologian Fred Craddock, this story is an example of the “offense of grace.”

God’s Kingdom goes against the world’s ways of what’s fair, how things should be done and the assumption that in order for some to get more others need to be given less…

…But what if, in God’s Kingdom, the event of Jesus Christ means that everyone gets what they need to live an abundant life?

What if, in God’s Kingdom, the event of Jesus Christ means that everyone, every single person, is a winner, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey?

Does that give you great comfort, or do you find great offense?

Today we study Galatians, a letter Paul wrote in response to a painful experience at a local church.

Religious leaders from the outside came into this particular congregation to tell them that in order to truly reap the benefits of Jesus Christ they would have to embrace the Laws found in the Old Testament.

Laws about eating kosher, laws about being circumcised, laws about being clean and unclean, laws that created insiders and outsiders.

Paul disagrees and passionately hustles for the Lord, using all the theological tools he can to prove that what God did for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was “enough.”

In today’s reading Paul becomes like a lawyer and gets all courtroom on us. He uses legalese to explain how we’ve already been acquitted and pronounced as righteous.

In other words, we are “justified by faith in Christ.”

But what does that mean? What does the “grace of God” refer to?

Does that mean God is like a figure-skater gracefully moving too and fro?

Can a fairly progressive, welcoming congregation like ours, in the year 2016 even have an idea what words like “justified” and “grace” meant back in the year 50 CE?

Here’s something that may help: years ago in Psychology Today there was a section that examined how creativity can become stifled and limited.

One article was called “Fear of Failure Narrows Vision.” It stated that in physical or tedious tasks, we do our best when we know we are being evaluated.

But in tasks that require insight and creativity, we do better when we’re not evaluated.

Why? Because then we are not afraid to fail.

A psychologist ran an experiment in which participants were asked to make something creative. A panel of experts evaluated them on being coherent, meaningful, original and surprising.

Some people were told their works would be judged. Others were told their works would be entered into a contest with prizes. Others were told not a thing.

Who did the experts say had the most creative, original and meaningful projects? Those who had no idea their work would be judged.

Why? Because they were just playing.

They were creating art for arts sake, not for judgment or reward, to be liked or to become famous or better loved.

Another psychologist theorized that positive emotions broaden our views and thoughts, allowing us to create in new, exciting ways.

But negative emotions narrow our imagination because we become focused on the idea of being judged, rewarded or punished.

In other words, you can’t force people to be creative or tell them to try harder. Creativity comes from “playing” rather then aiming to please or for praise.

Theologically, I believe this can be applied to Paul’s notion of being justified. Because of Jesus Christ, we are not being judged by an expert panel or by a list of do’s and don’ts.

Because of Jesus Christ, God is not keeping a scorecard and lining us up to be loved according to being coherent, creative, meaningful, or surprising.

Because of Jesus Christ we are justified and deemed worthy of God’s love for once and for all.

For evidence of this, think of how God showed eternal, kingdom love for us in the manger on Christmas Day.

For evidence of this, think of how God showed eternal, kingdom love for us by healing the sick, raising the dead, and welcoming no-good girls and no-good boys at the table.

For evidence of this, think of how God showed eternal, kingdom love for us at the Cross on Good Friday and at the tomb on Easter Morning.

It is worth repeating and it is worth remembering: because of Jesus Christ we are justified and deemed worthy of God’s love for once and for all.

Meaning there is nothing we can do. There is nothing we have to do to earn God’s favor, to earn God’s love.

We can just accept it, embrace it, and not doubt it.

We can just be and play, have fun and create, and have faith in God’s love for us.

Do you find the story of the workers in the vineyard to be wonderful or woe-full?

Do you find today’s message incredibly offensive or do you find it incredibly freeing?

Is it possible that in Christ everyone wins, or do we have to have losers?

Is it possible that in Christ everyone can have enough, and folks don’t have to go without?

As Americans, we are people of reward and achievement. Because of this, there have been amazing strides in culture and science.

But we are also people who are so into pleasing others: our parents, friends, teachers, bosses, spouses, peers, co-workers, team mates, and pastors.

Why? We want their love and we want to know we are loved; we want to know that we are a person of worth.

We want that gold star, that certificate, that praise.

What about God? How many here have struggled with trying to please God? To earn God’s favor? To be guaranteed a place at the table? A space in the Kingdom?

How many have gone to houses of worship where you were told you didn’t belong? Or weren’t good enough? Or you were to be left behind unless…unless you tried harder, did the right thing, said the right words?

That’s not what Paul is saying here. That’s not what Paul is talking about when he refers to faith, grace and justified.

We’re not a kid who thinks he can only get his mother’s love by hitting a homerun.

We’re not a toddler with a tiara who thinks she can only make her father happy by winning first place.

Being justified means there is no magic number we have to hit on the scale.

We do not have to give the best sermon, sing the best solo, play the best postlude, host the best hospitality hour, create the best VBS, or design the best website in order to be accepted, loved or deemed worthy by God.

Because guess what? In Jesus Christ we already are.

In Jesus Christ we already belong, we are already good enough, and we will not be left behind.

In Christ we are justified by faith, meaning that we have already won, so we can just… be.

In Christ, we have already won, so we can play.

In Christ, we have already won, so we are free to create.

In Christ, we have already won, so we are free to do for the sake of doing, because it brings joy into our life, and the lives of others.

In Christ, we have already won, so we are free to be the best version of ourselves that we were initially created to be, freed of the snares and defeatist attitudes of others.

In Christ, we have already won, so we are even free to be Left Sharks, to hit topes, and to free the cats from the chancel.

Through Jesus Christ, we’ve been shown for all time that we are forever acceptable in God’s sight, so we can stop trying to earn God’s favor and instead start faithfully living the best life we can.

A life that is creative, magical, meaningful, and surprising.

Amen and amen.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

I Hate Jesus

Rev. George Miller
June 5, 2016
Luke 7:11-17

(This is a character-based sermon)

I hate Jesus! Oh, it feels so good to say that. I hate Jesus and I know I ain’t the only one.

I hate Jesus. Ever since he’s come to town he’s been messing up the local economy and getting in the way of all my jobs.

I’m Antony; I’m what you’d call an entrepreneur. I got my hands in a lot of projects and make my money in a variety of ways.

I know who in the Roman government I should be tight with, and I know which Temple Priests can be purchased with Prada shoes.

Right now I’m into construction, loans, and selling sheep to be sacrificed for sin and guilt offerings.

Buildings, money and religion: can you think of three greater guaranteed scams?

Everything was good until this Jesus fellow showed up. Now talk about a scam artist-

he’s got folk flocking to him like he’s a rock star, listening to his stories, believing he can heal them, meanwhile he’s getting all these free meals and fancy places to stay.

First, it began when Jesus healed my competition’s servant.

See, I have this construction company, and we have this thing in which we under bid for projects, we use cheap labor, shoddy material, and get in and out before anyone figures out we’ve ripped them off.

My competition is this Centurion guy who also runs a construction business on the side. He’s got this slave working for him who’s really good at his job.

His slave builds better and quicker than anyone I’ve ever seen. Because of that, they got the contract to build the newest synagogue.

I was madder than King Ahab at Elijah.

But then I got word that the Centurion’s slave was sick, really, really sick, and about to die. And I thought “Good! With him out of the way I can win the next bid.”

But then I heard that the Centurion called upon Jesus to heal his slave. He acted all humble and spiritual, like “Oh Lord, I know if you just say a word my slave will be OK.”

Jesus told the crowd he’s never seen a man with greater faith, and when they returned to the house, the slave was up and about, ready to build.

Needless to say my construction company didn’t get the next job.

But I wasn’t too worried. See, there was this widow in town whose only son was really sick. That made me really happy because not too long ago I had given her a high-interest loan.

See- besides orphans and aliens, widows are the most vulnerable people in society, meaning it’s easy for someone like me to prey upon them.

With her husband dead and just one son working, she didn’t have much of an income. With hardly any money she had to take a second mortgage out on her house.

Guess who she borrowed from? That’s right- me. And with laws being the way they are, I was able to charge her an insane rate of 50% interest.

No way she’d ever be able to pay that off.

So when I heard her son died, I knew it meant her main bread-winner was gone and that it wouldn’t be long before she’d default on her loan and her house would be mine.

It’s a cute house too, with a lovely vineyard in the front yard that I may turn into a vegetable garden so I can grow collards and kale, beets and avocados.

So the day of his funeral I got all excited thinking how much money I’ll make once I get my hands on her house.

But then just as they’re leaving the gates of the city to bury her son, Jesus comes up and sticks his nose in their business.

“Don’t cry,” he tells the widow. Then he touches the stretcher, tells the man to rise, and the son sits up and begins to speak.

I kid you not. Sacred me so much I almost pooped in my pants!

Then everyone gets all excited and begins to praise God for what Jesus has done.

Not me- I cursed God because that was twice now that Jesus got in the way of me making my money.

Then, there was the dinner Jesus went to at a Pharisee’s house. He’s sitting at the table and this no-good woman came with an alabaster jar of ointment.

To the shock of everyone around, she began to cry, and then anoint his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.

No one could believe their eyes, and they challenged Jesus for allowing these actions.

What does he do? He doubles down and tells us and her that her sins are forgiven.

“What?” The Pharisees say. “Who is this man who forgives sins?”

Jesus turned to the woman and said “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

For me, what Jesus did was the last straw.

No one but the Temple Priests has the right to forgive sins on behalf of God. And sins cannot be forgiven without a sacrifice.

The Law tells us that to be forgiven of our sins we are to offer a young bull, or a male goat, or a female lamb, or two turtle doves or pigeons, or some fine flour.

You are to bring the sacrifice to the priest who checks it out, and if it meets their approval, another priest sacrifices it on the altar.

And viola! Your sins are forgiven.

It’s a great system in which the priests get a kick back of what they sacrifice. And guess who just so happens to sell some of the animals the people need?

That’s right- me! Antonio’s Animals- here’s my card.

So if you wanted your sins to be forgiven, you’d come to me for your bulls, goats, lambs, birds, and flour.

That bad girl who anointed Jesus’ feet- she was a regular customer. She’d be good for a few goats or turtledoves throughout the year.

But when Jesus used his authority to forgive her, and to tell her that her faith had saved her, I lost a sale.

By saying her sins were forgiven, he gave her no reason to come to me to buy an animal to sacrifice in the Temple.

Can you see why I hate Jesus now?

Since he came to town he cost me a construction job, a home foreclosure, and a loyal customer.

This Jesus person is bad news for people like me.

I mean, who is this guy who can heal the sick with just a word?

Who is this guy who can restore families and relationships?

Who is this guy who can forgive the dirtiest of sinners?

Who is this so called Son of God who speaks about his father’s kingdom?

A kingdom in which aliens, orphans and widows are cared for?

A kingdom in which people with physical ailments receive free healing?

A kingdom in which women are treated as equals to men and deserve to be students, and leaders and run their own businesses?

A kingdom in which debts are forgiven?

A kingdom in which bad girls and bad boys can be forgiven and told to go in peace?

A kingdom in which compassion and not greed rules the day?

No thanks- I’d rather stick to the world I know, of shady deals, high interest loans, and preying off of people’s foolish religious beliefs.

I’d rather stick to a world in which my government officials are corrupt and my religious leaders can be bought off.

Kingdom of God? That’s for fools! And this Jesus fellow- the sooner we’re rid of him, the better.