Sunday, December 25, 2016

Imperfect and Broken, yet Beautifully Wonderful; Christmas 2016 sermon

Rev. George Miller
Sermon for 12-25-16
Luke 2:15-20

Recently we had a wedding at Emmanuel.

It was for a young lady who always dreamt of having the perfect wedding. A traditional wedding, in a church, with a white dress, bridesmaids and the happily ever after.

She wanted it just right, with the white floor runner, flower girls, a Unity Candle, and aisles decorated in ribbons.

But, as anyone can imagine, the striving for a perfect wedding can create a lot of stress, sleepless nights, and sadness.

The days leading up to the wedding she couldn’t sleep; the day of the wedding she ran more than 2 hours late.

In the process, she forgot the Unity Candle, the aisle runner, the ribbons, and one of the flower baskets.

But she didn’t forget her exquisite gown made up of 50 pounds of stunning.

Her bridal party wore blue dresses that complimented our window.

Her wife and her best men stood proud and strong in their Army uniforms.

And their wedding was…beautiful. It was wonderful. Sue played gorgeously, the ring bearer paid attention the whole time and responded on cue, and without a doubt the Holy Spirit was present.

After all, a wedding is not about pomp and circumstance, flower baskets and candles- it’s about the covenant made between 2 people in-front of God and their community.

A wedding is the prelude to the marriage, a lifetime event that is more important than any 20 minute ceremony could possibly be.

During the week of the wedding, as the bride worried about getting everything just right, I found myself thinking about a hero of mine, Stephen Sondheim.

Sondheim is a Broadway composer, having created music for “West Side Story,” “Gypsy,” and “Into the Woods.”

Sondheim once shared what the creative process was like for one of his shows, called “Sunday in The Park with George.”

He said that the show was imperfect, that there were things that were flawed that they could not figure out how to fix.

Until they did fix them…but then they discovered with the fixes the show became too perfect, it lost its heart, its edge, its soul.

So they restored the play to its original state, and not only did it prove to be a success, but it won the Pulitzer Prize, a rare feat for a musical.

It was in the imperfections of the play that the beauty and wonder shone through.

I personally feel that the same can be said about our reading today, which is Luke’s telling of the Christmas Story.

It is a story that is beautiful, it is a story that is wonderful, however it is not a story that is perfect.

In fact, it is a story that is very broken, about broken people living during an imperfect time experiencing something brand new.

No, Luke does not tell a story of family perfection, nor is it a story of prestige.

It begins in the midst of political turmoil, in which Caesar decides there is a need to do a census. A census, so that no doubt the people can be taxed and the government leaders can be made richer.

Into this political climate of a census, everyone is to return to their family home.

And there is Joseph, with his fiancée Mary. Though they are not married, she was with child.

The scandal of imperfection is present. For there are words for young ladies who are found in such a state.

Though she is nearing the end of her 9 months, there is no where to stay. Family members of Joseph, for whatever reason, are not willing to relinquish a room, a bed, a corner of the kitchen to the unmarried couple.

For who would allow the shame of an unwed mom-to-be in their home?

At least there is the place where the animals are cared for. That should do. Just watch where you step, and cover your nose.

So far nothing about the Christmas story is perfect or prestigious.

Mary gives birth to her 1st born son, and with no proper place to put him, she makes do with a feeding trough for livestock.

In darkness, in a time of danger, angels appear to shepherds with news of the child’s birth. The shepherds make way to Mary and their pay their honor, they pay their respects.

But there is a part of this story I never noticed until Tuesday, a part of the story I never heard anyone else articulate.

Where was Joseph’s family? Where was his kin?

If Bethlehem was the home of Joseph’s descendents, where were his uncles, his aunties, his 1st, 2nd, 3rd cousins?

Why wasn’t Joseph’s family there?

Did they not know Joseph had come in for the census? Did they not know that his bride-to-be-was pregnant?

Or did they know, and just not…care?

What does it mean to say that the Son of God, the Baby Jesus was born, and he was greeted by working class shepherds, but not by his own kin?

Is that not heartbreaking? Is it not…real?

For anyone here who has had their own share of family issues, for anyone here who may feel alone this Christmas, or neglected by those around you, is it not in some ways affirming that even at his birth Jesus experienced those same things too?

And then, his name- Jesus.

Most people may not realize this, but Jesus was actually a very common name of his day. Jesus was not a unique name at all.

It would be as if he was born in New York and called Tony, or in the South and called Billy Bob, or born in LA and called Trevor.

Jesus, the Son of God, Emmanuel, wasn’t even born with a one-of-a-kind or fascinating name. His name was run of the mill, just like everyone else.

So the birth of Jesus was not a dream. It was not perfect. It was not whole.

His birth was nightmarish. It was imperfect. It was broken.

But here is the thing- just because the birth of Jesus isn’t perfect doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful.

Just because it’s broken, doesn’t mean it’s not wonderful.

In fact, I find the birth of Jesus to be beautifully wonderful, because it is so real, it is so down-to-earth, it is so what we all go through in our own lives.

Like a wedding, the Christmas story is not about candles or bows or flower baskets. It’s about what does the birth mean to us, and where does it lead.

For me, at this time, at this moment- the birth of Jesus means this-

That God so loved us, that God was willing to enter into our lives even if the means was not always easy, even if the going was tough, even if it was a bit smelly, and lonely.

That the God we worship, the God we are willing to believe in, was willing to enter into our lives and experience the same things we do.

Do you feel like you are living in a time of political confusion?

So does God, because that’s the time Jesus was born into.

Do you feel like your identity is not your own and taxes dominate your life? So does Jesus because that’s the situation that set the stage for his birth.

Ever feel like your wandering, or homeless, or without roots? That’s the existence into which our Savior was born.

Ever feel detached from family, friends, or community? Ever wonder why no one is there for you at your time of need?

That’s the brokenness that Joseph, Mary, and their Son experienced together.

But I am Ok with the Christmas story being imperfect.

Think of how exhausting things are when people try to be perfect; when people try to make everything just right, or to make a dream come true.

Trying to have the perfect wedding. Trying to raise the perfect family. Trying to be the perfect wife, the perfect husband, to have the perfect child.

The stress of trying to create the perfect vacation memory, or cook the perfect meal, or host the perfect party.

The stress of removing all mistakes, trying to erase all the blemishes, to cover all the flaws.

Yet it is often the flaws, the blemishes, the mistakes that makes things the most real, the most honest, the most true.

It is often the bumps in the road, the misplaced ingredients, the forgotten items that create the memories, that make the stories memorable, that create opportunities for something new and unexpected.

Just because something isn’t perfect doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful.

Just because it’s broken, doesn’t mean it’s not wonderful.

For though the fields were covered in darkness, angels filled the skies and sang their songs of glory.

Though family was nowhere to be seen, good news comes from the unexpected visit of the shepherds.

Though the future was uncertain, and the past not the best, what this Holy Family had was…NOW.

A mother. A father. A new born babe.

Though the birth was not perfect, what exists in the now is possibilities, promise, and…peace.

Emmanuel, God With Us, is born against the odds.

Emmanuel, God With Us, is gently crying in the night.

Emmanuel, God With Us, has entered into our lives to share our experiences, to celebrate our success, and to console our scars.

The Birth of Jesus may not be perfect, it may be broken, but it is beautiful, and it is wonderful.

For that we can say “Amen.”

Thursday, December 8, 2016

How Many of Ya'll Know the Tate Family? Sermon for 12/11/16; Matthew 11:2-11

Rev. George Miller
Dec 11, 2016
Matthew 11:2-11

Last week we celebrated the 10th Anniversary of our Sanctuary. January marks the 27th Anniversary of our congregation.

April marks my 7th year of being here; July will mark my 12 years of being a pastor.

During all these years we have all had our share of leadership, volunteering, being part of a team, and not just here at church.

It’s safe to say that we at Emmanuel UCC have an active congregation in which people have been members of other churches, sat on other boards, held other jobs, and volunteered at other non-profits.

And we can all, unequivocally testify, that each and every one of us, no matter where we have been, no matter what we have done, have come across the Tate family.

Ya’ll know the Tate family- they are everywhere.

There is old man Dic-Tate; he likes to run everything and tell people what to do.

While Uncle Ro-Tate tries to change everything.

There’s Sister Agi-Tate who is sure to stir up plenty of trouble with the help of her favorite cousin Irri-Tate.

Lord knows if your organization, board, church, or group try to do something that benefits the good of the community you’ll come across Mr. Hesi-Tate, along with his spouse Vega-Tate, both who like to keep postponing things or creating committees that’ll put things off for another year.

There’s Imi-Tate who tries to be like the popular kids, and the dramatic diva Devas-Tate who is the voice of doom and gloom.

And don’t get me wrong- it’s not that the Tates are a bad bunch.

After all Dic-Tate has a way of getting things done. Ro-Tate keeps things fresh. Agi-Tate can keep people sharp and alert.

Hesi-Tate and Vegi-Tate can prevent others from foolishly running into things.

And let’s not forget the other Tate family members, such as Facili-Tate who is helpful in matters that need clarity and redirection.

And Medi-Tate who is always available to think things over, lend a helpful hand, breath in, breathe out…Namaste.

Yes- we all know the Tate family. They have been around since the beginning of time.

No doubt we see a bit of the Tate’s in the family of Adam and Eve. The Tate’s where right there with Moses and his mob of folk.

And the Tate’s where surely there while John the Baptist and Jesus were doing their separate ministries.

In today’s reading Jesus has been busy doing his thing. People are hearing and seeing things that make the heart proud.

Blind are regaining their sight, the lame are walking, and the lepers are being made clean. Surely a successful ministry of healing and kindness if there ever was one.

But John, who had spent time in the countryside encouraging people to repent and be ready for the Lord, is not so sure Jesus is doing what his job description says.

John had people in the Jordan River being baptized and confessing their sins. He called out the Pharisees and Sadducees as vipers who think they are better than others.

John is expecting the Messiah to come and cut down those who are not bearing good fruit. John is expecting a Messiah who will arrive like a Lion and bring fire and destruction with him.

John in waiting for a Messiah who is more like Dict-Tate or Devis-Tate, who will infiltrate and annihilate…

…but, instead, the Messiah he sees in Jesus, the Messiah that emerges from the waters of baptism, is one who gives sight to the blind, mobility to the wheelchair bound, and clearer skin to those with bad acne.

It’s like John was hoping for General George Patton, and instead he got Doctor Oz.

John expected a Messianic Lion; instead he got a Good Shepherd.

So John is understandably confused. He is in jail because of his actions and the things he has said and done, and with nothing but time on his hand, he sends word to Jesus.

John has his people ask a very simple question: “Are you the one we’ve been waiting for, or are we waiting for another?”

Now, the Gospel writer does not tell us what Jesus’ reaction was. We know nothing about his body language or tone of voice.

But if we are to see Jesus as fully human, as fully one of us, I think it would be fun to imagine Jesus being like….

“…Dude!...Really? I’m going from city to city teaching and proclaiming and telling these really awesome parables and John wants to know if I’m the one?”

Just picture this- Jesus with his hands and feet dirty from all the walking he’s done. He’s surrounded by people he’s helped. He’s probably been so busy he skipped breakfast and is having a late lunch.

And Jesus, after experiencing a bit of Agi-Tate in John’s question, looks around and points to all he’s done. “The deaf can hear, the poor have good news, and even the dead are coming back to life. What more can John want?”

When read this way, there is great humor and realness in this story. After all, how many of us have had a boss or co-worker question what we are doing.

John’s people go away, and Jesus turns to those around him. In his typical style, conducive of a teacher and religious scholar, Jesus deepens the dialogue by providing his own questions.

“What were you all expecting? Did you go into the wilderness expecting someone who was wishy-washy, who would flip-flop like a reed in the wind?”

“Were you expecting someone in a tower wearing luxurious clothes who is all about pomp and pop?”

“Or,” states Jesus, “Were you expecting a prophet? I tell you, John is amazing. There is no one like him, and there never will be.”

“But the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom that is already here and yet to be, has a new way of measuring greatness, and it is not how humans sees things, but how things are seen through Heaven’s Eyes.”

Jesus has an encounter with the Tate family, and instead of caving in, instead of losing faith, he has another way of expressing to the people what his ministry is…

Today we are one step closer to welcoming the birth of the Lord. We have experienced another week of waiting.

We have welcomed the lights of HOPE, PEACE, and JOY. We have talked about the promise of COMFORT, and the truth that life goes on.

Today we are reminded of the radical nature of Jesus Christ. That he was and is the Messiah that was promised. But he did not necessarily arrive as one expected, and he did not always do what people thought a Messiah does.

Advent Season reminds us again and again, and again and again the very freedom of God, the surprising ways in which the Lord enters into our lives and defies what we think, or expect, or demand.

That Emmanuel, God With Us, can enter into our world as a defenseless baby boy.

That Emmanuel, God With Us, can be more focused on healing and restoration than damnation and devastation.

That Emmanuel, God With Us, is not wishy-washy or looking down from a tower, but is right with us, in the midst of our existence.

Tending to our needs. Teaching us how to grow. Telling us that we are loved, and that we are lovely.

How much more could we possibly need?

Yet how much more does God, through Christ do for us?

No matter what the Tate family may say, no matter the wilderness we are in, no matter what we expect or assume, God is with us.

God is ready to do something new. God is ready to surprise us in ways we cannot even begin to expect.

For that we can say “Amen” and “Amen.”

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Comfort- sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11

Rev. George Miller
Isaiah 40:1-11
Dec 4, 2016

In our world, there is so much uncertainty. Everything can hang on such a thin, breakable string: finances, health, family.

Fires in TN, shooting at Ohio State, and standing firm at Standing Rock.

With so little to be sure of, the season of Advent brings with it the assurance that through it all, a child will bring hope to the hopeless, and rest to the restless.

In other words: COMFORT.

But first, a story: a family arrived at a local establishment to have a meal, it may have been Dot’s, it may have been Dee’s, it may have been Marley’s or Don Jose’s.

As the mother placed her son, Erik, in his highchair, she noticed how everyone else seemed to be eating and talking quietly.

Suddenly, Erik squealed with glee and said “Hi!” He pounded his chubby baby hands on the highchair tray. His eyes crinkled with laughter; he giggled in merriment.

The mother looked around to see the source of his joy: it was an old man who had clearly seen better days: his shirt was dirty, his hair uncombed, his toes poked out of a pair of sorry-lookin’ shoes.

He waved to the baby. “Hey there, baby. Hi there, big boy. I see you buster.”

The mother and father exchanged looks, not knowing what to do. Erik continued to laugh and say “Hi!”

When their meal came, the parents ate as fast as they could. The old man continued the conversation with the baby: “Do ya patty cake? Do ya peek-a-boo?”

At this point, everyone in the restaurant was glaring at the man; nobody thought this man was cute.

Nobody that is, except for Erik.

With their meal finished, the parents headed to the door. The father went to get the car. The mother took Erik to meet him at the door.

The old man sat poised between them and the exit. “Lord,” she thought to herself, “Just let me out of here before he speaks to us.”

As she drew closer to the man, she turned her back so she could avoid breathing in his stench. But as she did, Erik leaned over her arms into a baby’s “pick-me-up” position.

Before she could stop him, Erik had propelled himself into the old man’s arms.

Suddenly a ragged man with sorry-old shoes and a young child with a face full of giggles were in full embrace.

The baby, in an act of total trust and love, laid his tiny head upon the man’s ragged shoulder.

The man’s eyes closed, and tears hovered beneath his lashes. His aged hands, full of grime and pain, cradled the baby’s bottom and stroked his back.

The mother stood awestruck.

The old man rocked and cradled Erik in his arms and he looked at the mother and said “You take care of this baby.”

Somehow, she managed to say “I will.”

He handed Erik back to her and said “God bless you, ma’am; you’ve given me my Christmas gift.”

She could say nothing more then muttered thanks. With Erik in her arms she ran to the car, crying “My God, my God, forgive me.”

That day, the mother and the patrons at the diner had witnessed God’s love made known through the innocence of a tiny child.

A child who showed love with abandon, who passed no judgment, who saw a person while all the others saw a problem…

“Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God.”

These words speak to us today, just as they did to the people of Israel 3,000 years ago.

These are words spoken for people who had experienced great shame and uncertainty.

They thought that God had forgotten about them. Their lives were a series of trials in which they felt beaten up by life, stuck in a spiritual wilderness, punished for their sins.

But in this sense of spiritual darkness, comes a voice…

A word of hope and encouragement; a powerful proclamation that God was about to do something new.

The people of Israel were going to be delivered, God was going to make a way out of no way, in which obstacles would be overcome and their emptiness eradicated.

God’s word came to them, filled with mystery and hope- “COMFORT.”

“Comfort, O comfort my people.”

Not comfort based on high hopes or wanton wishfulness, but comfort based on God’s eternal love.

Comfort based on the covenants given to Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Moses; a promise enthroned with King David and enlarged to include all of the people.

God speaks words of comfort that assures them that as sorry and ragged as they may feel, God has claimed them as God’s own.

This is an intimate bond that no human-caused drama could ever erase.

These words of comfort are words that are spoken again and again, because they are words that are made forever true by God’s promise made long ago to our ancestors.

For us, as Christians, these are words that find their ultimate manifestation in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So, although these words were spoken to others long, long ago, and far, far away, they speak to us today.

This Advent, as we wait with joyful anticipation, we also prepare for the gift of comfort, of experiencing how through a child born on Christmas morn, God claims us as God’s own.

That even though we have our own share of wildernesses, worry and woe, we know that our restoration rests in Christ our Lord.

And that although comfort may not be instantly experienced or solve all of our dilemmas, we realize that through Christ, God has entered into our story.

We are gathered, we are fed, and we are carried gently by the Great Shepherd, to experience the forgiveness of our sins and the freedom that comes from such awareness.

Advent is about us hopefully waiting for the promise to be fulfilled in a savior who begins as a baby, meek and mild.

The gift of a child, the promise of a King who will govern over a spiritual kingdom where we are seen, we are fed, and we are loved.

That is the meaning of this season

Advent reminds us that through God there is always hope for the world, and that hope comes in the comfort of a child who will reach out to us with laughter and giggles, who will offer us joy and give us rest.

And yes- it does not stop our world from being filled with so much uncertainty. Everything may still seem to hang on a thin, breakable string.

Fires still burn, people still protest, shooters will still shoot.

Yet even with so little to be sure of, this Advent season brings with it the assurance that through it all, a child, a babe, will bring hope to the hopeless, and rest to the restless.

In other words, COMFORT.

Comfort in knowing that God has not forgotten us, that the Holy Spirit has gathered us together, and in Jesus Christ we are each compassionately embraced.

For that we can all say “Amen” and “Amen!”