Monday, September 25, 2017

"I May Not Be Perfect, But I'm STRONG" 2nd Post-Irma sermon; Philippians 1:21-30

Rev. George Miller
Sept 24, 2017
Philippians 1:21-30

“As God is my witness, I will never be hungry again.”

“Great men are not born great, they are made great.”

“Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.”

“There’s no place like HOME.”

“I’m still HERE.”

These are all quotes from movies, providing inspiration for all people when the storms of life rage on.

My favorite movie quote is not a well known one, but nevertheless a quote that has carried me through 2 decades-

“I may not be perfect, but I’m strong.”

It’s from a movie called “The Best Man”, stated by a woman who refuses to be lied to, coddled, or protected from the truth, even if it hurts.

“I may not be perfect, but I’m strong.”

I wonder how many people can claim this quote today, after all we have been through pre and post Hurricane Irma.

I think this is a quote that the author of today’s letter could attest to as well.

“I may not be perfect, but I’m strong.”

Philippians is a letter written by Paul to a congregation he loves very much.

He is currently under arrest in another city, separated from his beloved church, and he is in chains, chains that no doubt were devised to make him physically uncomfortable 24 hours a day.

Paul’s crime? Preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ; the Good News that even in the darkest of times there is an eternal light that shines forth for all.

Paul is in an uncomfortable situation. His emotional pain is eased by a care package the Philippian church has sent him, with items meant to soothe his weary soul.

As a way to say thanks for their ministry to him, he composes a letter in which he is honest about his predicament, and he is honest about his emotions.

Paul does not sugar coat things or present his current state through false hope.

He tells them that he has been thinking about dying. That perhaps death would be better than to be denied his freedom and shackled with chains.

And yet, he finds a wellspring of strength within him to stay alive; to stay strong. This wellspring is the Living Water of Christ, and Paul’s understanding that he has been called to share this Heavenly Water with as many as he knows.

Paul is aware that the church members are worried about him, and here he is, the one in chains, finding ways to comfort the congregation; to let them know that though they may never meet again, Paul has no regrets.

Paul has peace, and he wants them to remember what a fellowship, what a joy divine it is to believe in Christ and to be part of such a faithful community.

He tells them to strive side by side with one another, and to live in a way worthy of Christ’s Good News.

If Paul was writing this letter today, and saw “The Best Man,” perhaps he would say “I may not be perfect, but I am strong…in Jesus Christ.”

Paul is a survivor, which makes sense, because after all he is a Jew, a person of the Book…

This big, beautiful Bible is a big, beautiful book written by survivors, and it is all about surviving.

Before there were movies that could inspire us with inspirational quotes, there was the Bible, telling us of how Eve and Adam survived being kicked out of the Garden.

How a family survives a devastating flood.

How a childless couple’s family tree survived with a promise from God about land and lineage.

How 2 minimum-wage women fooled Pharaoh and ensured that the Hebrew babies would not be put to death.

How former slaves survived harsh winds, turbulent waters and wandering in the wilderness for 40 years.

How an entire faith survived total destruction of their Temple and being taken away to Babylon.

How 11 disciples and a handful of women survived the trauma of having their leader crucified, and boldly found a voice to proclaim the Good News of Christ’s resurrection.

Letters from a man, isolated from everyone he knew, freedom completely taken away, kept in chains cutting his wrists, who is able to write these words-

“…I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus…”

As people of faith, as People of the Bible, as Christians, as part of the Emmanuel United Church of Christ community, we are survivors.

As survivors we can testify that the troubles we’ve faced have not been easy. The last 2 weeks did not offer us any quick resolutions.

We each had our own unique pain, unique fear, unique exhaustion, unique problems to solve.

Many of us still do, as recovery from this kind of trauma takes a while to recuperate from.

We are not perfect, but we are strong.

As we continue to heal, as we continue to rebuild from the reality of Irma, there will be things we can do as we strive side by side.

We can believe in and look for the miracles. Not everything that happens next will make sense or be logical.

But if Jesus could feed the masses with a few loaves and fishes, there will be ways in which Jesus can care for us all.

We can develop ways to tell our stories to one another and to ourselves. Stories that follow Paul’s example and admit how we truly feel, instead of pretending everything is Ok when it is not.

We can hold dear to our rituals that hold meaning to our life. Our morning cup of coffee. Our afternoon walk. Our lunch at Outback or Caddy Shack.

As a church, we embrace our ability to celebrate Communion, to confess our sins, to give back to God, and to Fellowship.

And following Paul’s wise words, we find a way to recover by coming together as a community; to stride side by side just as we have with the ministries of the church, and the opportunities that present themselves to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with the Lord.

“I may not be perfect, but I am strong…in Jesus Christ.”

As alluded to earlier, one way Paul endured his torment was the fact that the Philippian church had sent him a care package, a gift of things that kept his spirits up, that gave him hope, that helped him feel connected.

Today’s letter is Paul’s testimony to a community that came together. A community of many individuals that acted as ONE.

That was the mark of the earliest Christians. They were people who learned how to share their gifts, and to share their resources.

The earliest Christians called each other “Brother” and “Sister”, greeted one another with a kiss, and were known throughout the community for how they shared meals, fed the hungry, soothed the sick, visited the imprisoned, and cared for the widow, orphan and immigrant.

In conclusion, we of Emmanuel UCC are survivors.

We have survived the storm.

We survived 3, 4, 5, 6 7, 8, 9 nights of no electricity, torn up trees, flooded streets, and unsafe water.

We survived ripped apart roofs, far away families worried about us, and we have survived watching our beloved animals suffer in the heat.

It was not easy. It was not fresh smelling. It was not pretty to see.

It was not without its problems, quibbles, or shells in our teeth.

But we survived.

We may not be perfect, but we are strong.

The Lord is our Shepherd.

Jesus was certainly in the boat, and Jesus certainly took us to the other side.

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

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Post-Irma Sermon from Sept 17, 2017; Exodus 12:1-14

Rev. George Miller
Sept 17, 2017
Exodus 12:1-14

The Holy Spirit moves in unexpected ways. Months ago this scripture was selected with no idea how relevant it would be.

Here we are with the People of God about to experience an extraordinary circumstance, a life-changing event that would forever shape who they are.

An event involving land, wind, and water.

The people, who have been living as slaves for centuries are on the cusp of experiencing freedom. Here, the Lord gives a message to their leader, Moses, about how they are to prepare.

It involves a last meal, a meal in which they have 4 days to plan out. On the 10th of the month they are to have a lamb, and on the 14th they are to slaughter it, place some of its blood over their door, and eat it in a hurry.

For the next day they will be set free, an act of liberation that includes the winds parting the Red Sea, them wandering through the wilderness, and experiencing the ways in which God will provide, even when it seems beyond hope.

Vs. 2 makes mention that this will mark the beginning of a new time-line for them; that this moment will create a before and after sense of reality.

4 days to prepare for their final meal before land, wind and water would come together to create an unbelievable experience…

…When I think about it, that’s what I unconsciously did in preparing for Irma.

Wanting to use up what was in the fridge, I cooked up frozen ravioli on Thursday. Friday took all the chesses to make a mac-n-cheese dish. Saturday was baked tofu.

I planned to have a frozen Totino’s pizza for my last meal on Sunday, the reasons because that is my comfort food, harkening back to my 20’s when a 99 cent frozen pizza fit my budget and could be doctored up with olives, garlic, and hot sauce.

But on Sunday night, right before everything really happened, I got a text from a dear friend, Gingerlee who said “Now is the times to prepare your last hot meal before the hurricane hits.”

That immediate sense of reality changed everything. I had no appetite, but I knew I had to eat, so the left-over ravioli was put into the micro-wave, and I ate it in the kitchen, standing up.

It was tasteless and emotionless, but it was a meal.

Then Irma hit. The darkness; the rain; the noise. The powerful wind blowing against the door, so powerful that for 2 hours I sat in a chair against the door to keep the wind from blowing it open.

As scary as it was, I felt some calm.

Though I brought everything from the yard inside, one thing I left outside was a blue wooden anchor ornament with seashells hanging on my front door.

It represented my connection with the ocean; it also looked a lot like a cross. It also made me feel like it was my own way to mark the doorpost.

For as vs. 13 states, the people are to mark their doorposts as a sign to them that God will not allow them to be destroyed.

That anchor clanged and banged against the door, but it survived the storm.

The day after- what a sense of relief. That cool breeze. That thankfulness of being alive. Seeing the stars in the sky.

But as we all know, the days following Irma have not been easy, for anyone. 100% of our beloved county lost electricity. The breeze stopped; the heat stifling; and it was clear that a whole new reality had settled in.

A new era had begun.

I do not want to go on into detail because we have all experienced a great trauma, and the emotional affects of the storm will last for months, if not years.

For me, living through Irma has given a whole new understanding of today’s scripture and the entire Exodus narrative.

It’s one thing to talk about how God sent a wind to part the Red Sea waters. But now there’s the realization that a wind like that would have been scary as heck for the people to experience.

By the 4th night of no electricity I was at my breaking point. How did they make it through 40 years?

If we all got stinky, sweaty, and funky with the inability to take hot showers, imagine how stinky, sweaty, and funky the Israelites must have been.

If we here are restless due to what we are experiencing, imagine how restless they would have been for those 2,080 weeks they wandered the wilderness.

Just last week, it seemed so easy to judge the Israelites for their grumbling in the dessert.

It was so easy to ask “Why were they always complaining about being hungry or thirsty when they saw God part the Red Sea, give them water from a rock and send them manna and quail? Where was their faith?”

Now I understand. The people’s grumbling was not about a lack of faith- it was about the reality of survival.

Here we are, all feeling a myriad of emotions, not because we lack faith or don’t believe in God, but because we just experienced a major event involving land, wind, and water, and we are just in the beginning stages of what our new reality is about.

The Passover marked a new era for the Israelites; just as Irma marks a new reality for us.

Here is what I think the miracle is- that even though the people experienced an event of land, wind, and water, and endured years of wandering the wilderness, being stinky, sweaty, funky, and no doubt shell-shocked, they somehow, someway found a way to be a community and to continue their relationship with God.

The event of the Passover meal and the winds parting the Red Sea would forever define them.

I think that for those who are here, Irma will define us.

I also wonder what it will be like for those who come back in October, November, December, January who will never, ever know what these last 14 days have been like, both pre- and post-Irma.

I believe that our experience of Irma will further define who we are as a people of God, who we are as a church, and who we are to the community.

Knowing what we know now about an entire annihilation of our electric system, about the waters that literally ran down our sidewalks, about our total dependence on air conditioning, cell phones, cars, gas, and generators, how do we minister to the community, and to each other…and minister to ourselves?

How do we, as a church, better prepare and respond the next time an event happens like this, because we all know there will always be a next time.

There are those here today who have their electricity back and homes are relatively intact.

I ask that if you are in this group, please be humble in what you say and do around those who still do not have electricity, air, or access to clean and hot water.

I can personally tell you that as someone who went 5 days without, it is hard not to be hurt, angered, feeling helpless, neglected and forgotten when your home is stifling, your pets are suffering, and your residence smells of mildew, rotten food and animal.

If you have electricity, or access to hot water, or a spare space to sleep, or means of serving a meal, or providing someone with ice, gas, or a generator, please find a way to share with someone who does not have these things.

To those here who are without electricity, or have extensive damage to your home, or can’t get to your home, or are feeling post-traumatic stress, please know that you have permission to feel somber, scared, stressed out and shell-shocked, and angry-as-heck.

It is not a reflection of your faith or a sign of weakness, or that you do not have trust in the Lord.

You are surviving; and you will survive.

Be honest with yourself, be honest with others. Let it be known what you need and how you really feel.

Jesus had no problem crying out to God. The psalms and prophets had no problem crying out and expressing their pain.

A few weeks ago we talked about the disciples being in the boat during mighty winds, being terribly afraid, and how Jesus got in the boat and took them to the other side.

Despite all we have been through and still have yet to go through, I truly do believe that Jesus is in the boat with us, and we will get to the other side.

We who lived through Hurricane Irma and this week are survivors, and survivors have the right to feel scared, and to be scarred by what they went through.

I think that we who are here are experiencing our own sort of resurrection, if you will.

Just as the Passover meal plays a part in giving the Israelites a new identity, what we have experienced with Irma will also give all of us a new identity, a new understanding, and a new way to be God’s people.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Pastoral Reflections While Preparing for Hurricane Irma

Pastoral Reflection on Hurricane Irma
By Rev. George Miller, Emmanuel UCC

First- breathe.

Remember it was the breath of God that moved over the waters and brought forth creation.

Now- give thanks to God.

Just as Jesus did before he broke the bread and fed the masses with just a few loaves and fish.

Then- tell God how you feel, what you need, and the things you hope for.

Just as the psalmists, and prophets, and the people of God who lived centuries before us, and will live centuries after.


As we in the heart of Florida prepare for all the possibilities that can befall us this weekend, it is time to do some spiritual thinking.

We’ve already dealt with fear, we are doing our best to stock up and make plans. Now we wait.

Over the last few weeks here at Emmanuel UCC we have had the chance to explore scriptures that can give us the very tools that are needed for a time like this.

Think of John 6:16-21, when the disciples are in a boat, facing rough seas, and Jesus comes to them. So often we hear this story as the one about Jesus walking on water, or Peter sinking, or the storm suddenly stopping.

But I like the image the scripture presents of Jesus stepping into the boat…and they arrive at the other side. Perhaps that is the greatest miracle of the story- that at one point they are fussing and flailing, and the other moment, Jesus steps in, and they arrive at their destination. Doesn’t mean everything was perfect or all problems solved; it means that when Jesus is with us, we will get to the other side, whatever that side is or means.

I trust that no matter what Hurricane Irma brings, we will get to the other side of the storm with Jesus.


Think of the 23rd Psalm. The wonderful line that reads “…your rod and your staff-they comfort me.” (vs. 4) Note the intentional word usage here.


God will give us comfort.

This verse does not imply that the rod and staff are like a magical wand that will remove all issues, or will wipe away whatever it is that we are prevailing against, but that we will receive comfort. Emotional strength. Spiritual solace. The ability to face whatever is in the valley.


Last week we spent time with John the Baptist and Jesus in the countryside, where the water was abundant (John 3:22-30). We used this expressive image of plentiful H2O to talk about all the different opportunities that are presented to us to not only help others, but to best be our authentic selves.

Not only will Irma leave us with much water, but there will be many upon many opportunities for us to reach out to one another and be the best neighbor we can be, sharing the gifts that we have.

We will also have the humble opportunity to receive the help offered by our neighbors.

The waters/opportunities will be abundant, so empowered by the Holy Spirit, let the leaders lead, the builders build, the rescuers rescue, the cookers cook/grill/BBQ/feed, the caregivers give compassionate care, the spiritual soldiers provide spiritual support, those with $$$/resources to give, those with boats- rescue, those with power tools/saws to cut away/clean up, and the police to protect.

Let us- as citizens of Avon Park, Sebring, Lorida, Lake Placid etc. come together as ONE, and we will get through this.


The God of Creation will find ways to give us COMFORT.

Jesus will appear in ways/people we could never imagine and take us to the other side.

The moving, dancing, ever-free Holy Spirit will empower us to use our talents/gifts to help others when the opportunities arrive.


We are loved. We are beloved. We are loving.



Saturday, September 2, 2017

Joy of Knowing Who You Are; John 3:22-30

Rev. George Miller
Sept 3, 2017
John 3:22-30

Just came back from a mini-vacation; time spent by the waters of Ft. Pierce.

I love it there, and the abundance of aquatic life that is present. In the past I’ve seen manatees in the canal, crabs crossing the highway, and gopher tortoises in the parking lot.

Last month I swam in the same water as a sea turtle; saw what I think was a bull shark thrashing near the shore.

This trip saw a dolphin, breaking the surface, again and again, and again, its beautiful shape and fin rounding out of the waves as it journeyed north, then later as it went south.

So soothing and unexpected to see.

It was so nice to be by the water, to rinse away the character I played in “Second Samuel”, to rinse off what was before, and to prepare for what is ahead.

A purification if you will, in water that was abundant.

But mindful of the chaos and complexity that water was playing across the Gulf in Houston, Texas.

There the aftereffects of Harvey are devastating and will linger for a long, long time.

To see the images of the flooding they face, to know that neighborhoods have been devastated, and that the most vulnerable have been victims…it is almost too much to comprehend.

While people debate if the 1st Lady should have been wearing high heels or Joel Osteen should have opened up his mega-church, there have been the heroes-

The everyday folk who are taking their boats and rescuing people. Those individuals working together and as teams who have saved 2, 10, 30 people from the rising waters and continue to go back to assist and to help.

Their names are largely unknown, but their photos have popped up on the news and The Daily Show and Facebook pages.

Who are these heroes? What were they doing just a week ago? What are they doing today? Why do they do what they do?

Heroes helping their neighbors.

Today’s reading features one of the earliest heroes of our faith- John the Baptist.

In the Gospel of John 1:6-8 we are told that John came to be a witness to the Light; the light meaning Jesus Christ.

John was at the Jordan River, baptizing people in the water. This piqued people’s curiosity and they asked John “Who are you?”

He replied “I am not the Messiah.”

“Are you Elijah?”
“I am not.”

“Are you the prophet?”

“Who are you?”…

…This question of “who are you?” continues through John’s ministry.

We see this in today’s reading.

Both John and Jesus are doing what they are doing. Jesus and his disciples have entered into the countryside; John is nearby doing his ministry.

Why not? The water is abundant; there is enough for all.

But you know how folks are; they like to stir things up. So someone comes up to John as he’s busy doing what he’s doing and they try to play into his ego.

“Hey- did you see that Jesus guy and all the people he’s got?”

But John does not take the bait.

Nor does he sell himself short.

John knows who he is; he knows what he is about. He knows why he does what he does.

He knows that the water is abundant, and he knows who all the glory belongs too.

He says to them “I am not the cause of the Heavenly Celebration you are about to experience, but I am the guy who helped to get the party started, and for that I am happy.”

This is such an under-shared scripture; it is rarely, if ever taught in church. But it has such a humble message.

The depiction of John serves as an example of what it looks like to be a witness to Christ.

That as Christians we get to proclaim and experience what it means to have a mystical connection with the world that at the same time shapes and informs our ethics and how we are to act, and to be with one another.

John’s comments are reminiscent of Paul’s letter to the Romans that we shared last week.

If you recall, in Romans 12, Paul wrote that we are one in Christ, each having our own role to play.

Teachers are to teach. Benefactors give. Prophets speak truth to power. Leaders lead. Care givers provide care.

John is with us today saying “Hey, the water is abundant and there are so many opportunities to do good, great things.”

That’s what John does. He knows he’s not the Messiah. Which means he does not have to save the world.

He knows he is not Elijah, which means he is not being called to stop the rains or visit hungry widows or speak before the kings.

He knows he is not a prophet, so he doesn’t have to speak good and write in pretty penmanship and use proper grammar.

He knows he is the guy who gets to be a witness to the light and prepare others for that experience, and how cool that there is more than enough “water”, or opportunities, to go around…

…There is something so wonderful about life that we each get to continue to learn and to grow and to adopt.

And if we are fortunate, we experience why we are here on this planet and what it is that God wants us to do.

The way the gospel portrays John in today’s reading, he clearly knew who he was and what he was about, and this brought him great happiness.

As John says “My joy has been fulfilled.”

How cool is that?

That John can look across the waters and see what is being done by Jesus, and he can find contentment in that.

Friends, there is so much water, so many opportunities, right here where we are today. So many opportunities, so many things that can be done, so many chances to let the light of Christ shine, shine, shine.

And we don’t have to be the Light. We don’t have to manufacture the Light.

But we get to be reflections of that Light, and to find our own way as individuals, and as Emmanuel UCC, to share that Light.

How we can do it is limitless and always continuing to unfold.

I like to think that those heroes in Texas who are picking up people in their boats are indeed doing their own kind of ministry, what they were created by God to do.

I also believe that Jesus is in the boat with them.

In conclusion, today’s story reminds me of a story about a man named J. Hudson Taylor.

He was a Christian Missionary from Britain who spent 51 years in China. He organized a ministry that started 125 schools, campaigned against the opium trade, and oversaw over 800 missionaries.

One day he was invited to give a presentation in Australia. The pastor who introduced him used a slew of superlatives, especially the word “great.”

When J. Hudson Taylor stepped up to the pulpit, he quietly said “Dear friends, I am the little servant of an illustrious Master.”

What a wonderful way to glorify God.

The gifts that we are given are abundant; the ways that we can do ministry are many.

May we find joy in doing what we do for the Lord; may we find our own way to be a witness to the Light of Christ.

Amen and amen.

(J. Hudson Taylor story from “Be Alive- John 1-12” by Warren W. Wiersbe, pg. 42)