Monday, November 27, 2017

Christianity- Compassion or Condemnation? Nov 22, 2017 sermon on Matthew 25:31-46

Rev. George Miller
Matthew 25:31-46
Nov 22, 2017

There was once a preacher who gave the sermon of his life. It was all about the evils of alcohol, a message he gave with great passion.

As he came to the end of the sermon he was on a role, declaring “If I had all the beer in the world, I’d take it and pour it into the Mighty Mississippi River.”

“If I had all the wine in the world, I’d take it and pour it into the river.”

And finally, shaking a fist into the heavens, he said “And if I had all the whiskey in the world I’d take it and pour it into the river!”

With a rousing “Hallelujah!” and “Amen!” from the congregation, the pastor proudly sat down, knowing he had made a point no one, not one, could argue against…

…and ever so cautiously, the Minister of Music stood up, and with a nervous smile, she announced, “For our closing song, let us turn to hymn 365, ‘Shall We Gather at the River’.”…

…Ever notice that when it comes to organized religion, there seem to be two ways to use Christianity?

Some, like the preacher in the story above, use it to judge and condemn others, to tell them what they should not do; placing emphasis on what they perceive to be evil.

For them, Christianity becomes a check list of things “thou shall not do.”

Then, there is the other side of Christianity which is not so much about condemnation, but about showing compassion and care.

It’s less about monitoring the moral lives of grown folk and more about how to be caregivers to a world that is often feeling lost and lonely, broken and sick.

Today’s reading does have images of judgment, but as I read it, I feel it to be more about what we can do and what Christ expects to be done.

As we discussed in Tuesday’s Lectionary Bible Study, today’s reading played a major role in shaping our denomination.

The United Church of Christ is composed of at least four denominations that came together in 1957. The four branches were the congregational, the evangelical, the reformed and the Christian.

While the congregational side was primarily the Pilgrims and Puritans who settled along the east coast, the evangelical side was German, Hungarian and Swiss who settled in places like PA and Missouri.

They had experienced severe persecution in their homeland, so when they came to America they embraced a peace-loving life-style.

They also embraced Matthew 25, allowing it to guide their faith. And guide it did.

Caring about pastoral ministry, they set out to create social institutions that benefited all kind of people. They explored new ways that Christ’s love could be made manifest.

Such as residential homes for people living with developmental disabilities that treated them as people, not things.

Retirement communities that surrounded the elderly with the things that make life good, and empowered them to live as fully as possible.

Instead of focusing only on building churches, they built hospitals, community centers, and schools, such as Eden seminary, which I attended.

They did all of these things based on their understanding of Matthew 25.

Part of their faith stemmed from the fact that they knew what it was like to be persecuted.

Matthew’s church also knew a bit about being judged. After all, they were doing something entirely new. What we call “church” basically began with them.

Most of them were born in the Jewish faith; chances are they had been kicked out of the synagogues for what they believed. With no real road map, they were trying to figure out what it meant to follow Jesus Christ.

So it’s very telling that Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats is placed where it’s placed; it’s as if everything in Matthew’s Gospel has been leading up to this.

For 25 1/2 chapters we have followed Jesus, seeing how his ministry begins, witnessing his teaching, his healing, and his miracles.

And then right before he is betrayed, Jesus teaches this one last story, a story that tells us that when we give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, and comfort to the ill and imprisoned, we are actually doing it to Jesus himself.

And as the story goes, in doing so we are the inheritors of the Kingdom even if we are not fully aware of what we were doing.

What is so interesting is that right after Jesus teaches this story, the exact opposite happens to him.

He is betrayed by one of his own flock. He is falsely arrested, mistreated, and mocked; he is stripped naked, and hung between two criminals where he hungers and thirsts, asking why God would have forsaken him…

…but the story doesn’t end there, does it?


Because 2,000 years later we are here, giving thanks that Jesus was not forsaken at all, but was raised by the God Most High, in which nothing is impossible…

This is a scripture that everyone should know. Why?

Because it impacted Matthew’s church. Because it shaped our denomination.

Because it’s a story about how we are to treat one another.

Not because we must, but because we may.

Not because we’re seeking heaven’s reward but because no one alive should experience hell on earth.

This is a story that everyone should know because it’s not about earning brownie points with Christ, but because it reminds us that by being generous, and by generously caring for other, we are actually caring for Christ.

Not because we want the world to know us by what we say, but because God wants to recognize us by what we do.

Not because we desperately want to be part of the Heavenly Family but because we already are part of the Heavenly Family; created by God, restored in Christ, and filled with the Holy Spirit.

In conclusion, let’s end with another story:

The other day I was on the Circle, enjoying the Chili Cook-off. There was a driver who stopped for a man at the crosswalk even though he could have blazed on through.

Well, this infuriated the woman behind him. She started tailgating him, honking her horn, screaming out her window in frustration, and flipping him a few choice signs.

Next thing I knew, while she was in mid-rant, a very serious looking police officer was tapping on her window.

The officer asked her to exit the car with her hands up. She began to beg and plead and wonder what was wrong, but he placed her in handcuffs and had her sit in the back of his squad car.

A few minutes later, after a rather lengthy conversation on his cell phone, the officer released her with an apology.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said in a wonderful southern manner, “When I pulled up behind your car I saw you blowing your horn, yelling out the window and flipping off the guy in front of you.”

“And when I noticed the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ bumper sticker, and ‘Follow me to Sunday School’ decal, well, I just figured you must have stolen the car!”

Emmanuel UCC- we don’t need bumper stickers or decals to declare our faith if our actions are already doing it.

So let us prepare to enter into the Advent season, displaying the deeds of our faith and allowing the Lord to prosper the works of our hearts.

For that, let me hear a mighty “Hallelujah!” and a grateful “Amen.”

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Home; Psalm 90:1-6

Rev. George Miller
Psalm 90:1-6
Nov 19, 2017

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.”

That’s the opening line of today’s psalm. When I hear it, I find great comfort; the notion of God being our dwelling place.

Roots. Grounded. Eternal.

But when put in context of the entire song, conflicting thoughts emerge.

Why would someone claim that God has been their home? Could it be that perhaps the person who wrote this is homeless?

Could it be they’ve been wandering around some kind of wilderness, waiting for a permanent place to rest their head?

Think about it: would a person who is already home in a secure place need to make the claim that God is home?

Or would it make more sense if that person is far away from momma’s cooking, far from fixing things with Dad, far from their pesky siblings, beloved pets, and childhood friends?

A person who is far from home, in a strange place, may just be the kind of person who calls God their dwelling place.

They may also be the kind of person who thinks about things like the mistakes we make, and how life seems too short and filled with too much toil.

And to what end? That we die, like a sigh, to become dust that gathers in the corner of a room?

These are the thoughts that fill Psalm 90. “How long?” the singer asks God. “How long?”

So, if we go back to the first line of the psalm and reread it, we can wonder if it’s designed to be words of comfort, words of distress, or words meant to remind God just what it means to be God.

Perhaps it’s all of these things; perhaps it is none.

Perhaps this is an appropriate scripture for acknowledging Thanksgiving.

Can’t you imagine these words being composed by one of the Pilgrims after they travelled overseas to an unknown land?

That someone in the wilderness of early America could write this?

Or, since last week we acknowledged Veteran’s Day, could you imagine a soldier currently across the ocean composing this?

Calling God their dwelling place, their refuge, when they know their life can be ended in a moment?

Could any of our veterans here today have composed such a song, knowing all too well the fragility of life, especially after watching one of their comrades die?

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. From dust we were made, to dust we shall return.


My father, who served in Vietnam, could have been one of those men.

I’d like to share something with you, the most emotionally valuable thing I own.

It’s a Bible that’s been in my family for three generations, passed down from 1st born male to 1st born male, used to mark an important transition in each life.

My father gave it to me in 1990 when I left for college. His father gave it to him in 1968 when he left for Vietnam.

His grandparents gave it to him when he was confirmed April 6, 1926.

This tattered Bible is one of the two things I put in my backpack in case I had to flee my home during Hurricane Irma.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned the true story of this Bible.

When my father was oversees, his unit was the victim of a roadside bombing.

It killed my father’s friend, and badly wounded my Dad. He had shrapnel throughout his body and a permanently damaged eardrum.

In fact, after the bomb went off, the enemy came and stripped my father of everything he had and left him for dead in the dirt on the side of the road.

Everything that is, except for this Bible.

My Dad received the Purple Heart and he returned home to start a family. Like many veterans, he carried deep wounds from the war.

I find comfort in knowing that even though he was left for dead in a strange, foreign wilderness, surrounded by those who tried to hurt him, this Word of God remained by his side.

Could it be that this family Bible, passed down from 1st born male to 1st born male, became some kind of refuge, shelter, fortress, home?

What is home?

In an idealized sense, home is where compassion begins, where we learn how to say “please” and “thank you.”

Home is where we discover that we are loved, we are forgiven and we are part of something bigger then ourselves.

If you are lucky, home is the place in which you are welcomed no matter who we are, and welcomed back when we have gone away or astray.

It’s those places the Pilgrims left behind to get a second chance at life, to have a piece of land to call their own, and to worship God the way they felt best.

Home is the place our veteran’s and current soldiers have left behind for months and for years.

I am sure that for the Pilgrims, and for many of our veterans and soldiers, God would become or is the only home they could count on, even if they were wondering “how long?” and about the toil of human life.

In closing, the psalmist referred to God as the eternal dwelling place.

Did such a statement come from a place of comfort or a place of distress?

Think of where you are in your life. Of where you came from, and all you have been through.

What does it mean for you to say that God is your home?

One writer stated that “Home is the place where when you get there, they take you in.”

If Scripture teaches us anything, and if the life and resurrection of Christ teaches us anything, is that no matter what we go through in life, no matter where we go, no matter what we do-

We will always be welcomed into the home that we call God.

Eternal. Everlasting. Offering grace upon grace upon grace.

For that, we can say “Amen” and amen.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Pastoral Response- Shooting at Sutherland Springs

Dear Editor,

Psalm 90, begins with "Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations." Other translations use the word "home" or "refuge", thus making the claim that God is a safe place.

Yet, on Sunday November 5, the members of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, TX did not experience safety or refuge.

At a time like this, people want words of comfort, but perhaps what we need most are words of discomfort. Comfort can lull us into a sense of complacency; discomfort can cause us to respond, think, and act.

Once again the issues of mental illness, hate, and guns enter into the political discourse, but at what value?

We look at the number of people killed by guns this year alone, and some say there needs to be more gun control. But then we can look at the number of people killed by cars or automobile accidents, and no one says "Cars are dangerous and need to be taken off the street."

We can look at scripture, when Jesus was arrested in the garden, and one of the disciples drew their sword and cut off the ear of the high priest's slave, which indicates that the disciples were strapped. But...we also have Jesus say "Put your sword back into place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword." (Matthew 26:31-31)

I wonder, while wrestling with all that has taken place, if perhaps there needs to be a change in vocabulary as we discuss events like those that took place in TX, Las Vegas and PULSE.

Words matter. Maybe the phrases "gun rights" and "gun control" need to be replaced. Personally, I believe everyone has the right to own a gun. But "gun rights" makes it sound like an inanimate object has more meaning than a human life. I also believe there should be certain rules around guns, but "gun control" sounds like someone wants to take guns away.

So, maybe a better phrase is "gun wisdom." Wisdom is a word that infers deep thought, a process, and the ability to see things from all sides.

In the discomfort of the events at First Baptist, I wonder if what we could must benefit from is a discussion about the wisdom around what it means to own, sell, and care for guns; wisdom on how they are to be used, stored, treated; wisdom on the consequences of misuse; and wisdom on how to prevent and respond to events like those that recently happened.

I see the gun debate as one in which people are digging in their heels on either side, doubling down on what they think is the true, and only, solution. I think there is so much more to discuss and to learn.

People have always found weapons to inflict great harm, pain, and power over others. Lest we forget, the swords the disciples carried were weapons. Lest we forget, the means by which Jesus was crucified, the cross, was the weapon of choice for the Roman government.

There are no words of comfort that I feel I can honestly convey. It is more like a numbness; a "here-we-go-again-itis." But I do think that we, as a community, and as a country, can begin really wrestling with the wisdom around what guns are, why we have them, and what are the ways to ensure our children, our churches and our communities are kept as safe as possible.

As Psalm 90 begins with the claim that God is our home/dwelling place/refuge, it ends with a prayer that makes so much sense, and proves to be so timely-

"Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands- O prosper the work of our hands!"

Peace and prosperity to everybody.

Sincerely, Rev. George Miller

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Courage to Stand Still; Joshua 3:7-17

Rev. George Miller
Joshua 3:7-17
Nov 5, 2017

Veteran TV actress Jenifer Lewis has stated “The elevator to success is broken; take the stairs.”

How true are these words. Success can take a year, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, 40.

40 years.

That’s a long time. A lot can take place.

Think of what life was like 40 years ago. No cell phones. No Google. Diet Coke did not exist for another 5 years.

Fleetwood Mac’s infamous album “Rumors” is released on vinyl because there is no such thing as CDs or iTunes.

“Three’s Company” made its debut on ABC during a time in which there were only about 7 stations. No cable, live-streaming or Netflix. You adjusted the antenna on your TV to get better reception and your children were the remote.

Jimmy Carter is President. The world’s 1st all-in-one home computer debuts, and an unknown movie called “Star Wars” opens.

If you’re like me, you enjoy our paper’s daily column that shares all the “On-This-Day” events.

It makes history a bit more real. It also makes me realize that things I grew up taking for granted are relatively recent in the span of human history.

For example, as Millie Grime shared a few weeks ago, women in the United States did not get the right to vote until 1920.

People of two different races were not legally allowed to be husband and wife until 1967.

That’s just 3 years before I was born.

40 years from now, I wonder if some preacher will say “Can you believe it wasn’t until June 26, 2015 that same-sex marriage was legal in the U.S.?”

To which someone in the congregation will be thinking, “Yeah, and by June 27 they also got the right to be divorced!”

These events are revolutionary.

We can look at such moments in time and say that there was a before and after; there was a way in which things used to be done and a way they are done now.

On paper, such things can give the impression of an easy transition. But that is rarely the case. Usually there is some type of symbolic river to cross.

Often times, things that we take for granted, like women having the right to vote, came about thanks to the actions of those who paid a great price.

Reggae singer Jimmy Cliff sang “there are many rivers to cross.”

If there is anything we learn from history and from scripture is that it’s not unusual to take a long, long time to get to the other side of the river.

And on a day in which we are honoring All Saints, we should give thanks to those who faithfully took those steps forward, knowing they were not easy.

Take for example today’s reading.

The Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land after wandering through the wilderness for forty years.

4 decades ago their ancestors were freed from slavery and lead across the Red Sea waters.

They camped out by Mt. Sinai, where they were given the Law and taught the commandments.

Moses led them through the wilderness towards the Promised Land in which they experienced how God could and would provide food and water for them.

But something went wrong.

Numbers 13-14 tells us that the people were poised to enter the Promised Land. The ancestors were right on the cusp of true freedom…but then they became scared.

As the story goes, God had them send 12 of their leaders to check out the land the Lord had promised the people.

It was harvest time. The land was filled with plenty. Grapes big and abundant, milk and honey for all.

But there were also people who lived there who were much taller them they, so 10 of the leaders became afraid.

Though God had set them free, parted the Red Sea waters and filled their bellies with food, 10 of the 12 leaders decided to give the people a bad, and fear-based, report.

They said that the land devoured its inhabitants and its citizens seemed tall and strong.

And though God had promised them the land, though God had performed amazing deeds of deliverance, the people believed the false report of 10 fear-based individuals.

The people became scared. They rebelled. They cried and they wept.

Their behavior saddens Moses.

It saddens Joshua who says to the people “Don’t listen to their fearful reports, the land is good. God is pleased with us. Do not be afraid: we are on the verge of being blessed.”

But the ancestors were afraid. They complain that it would’ve been better to die as slaves in Egypt.

They think of turning back, threatening to kill anyone who tries to move them forward into God’s Promised Land.

This angers God. God feels hurt and despised.

As a consequence to their unfounded fears and unfaithful lies, God decides the people will wander the dessert for 40 years before their children will get a second chance to enter the Promised Land.

For 4 decades they struggle, they live, they die, they wait, when all God wanted to give them was paradise.

It is not until the next generation comes along that God’s people get to finally enter the land of milk and honey.

As we heard in today’s reading, God gives clear directions to Joshua and the priests and the people follow.

The priests carry the arc of the covenant into the Jordan River and when the soles of their feet rest in the river, the water stops flowing, and a path of dry ground is created for the people to journey across to the other side.

And they all do so, without a hitch, without complaint, without a quarrel, without a “what if?’ or a “woe is me.”

Perhaps that was the true miracle, not that the water had stopped flowing. But that after 40 years the people had finally learned how to trust God

The result: they are wilderness travelers no more; they are people of the Promised Land. Grounded in God, able to establish roots.

That’s how it is sometimes, isn’t it?

The things we fear the most, or have been taught by others to fear, are sometimes nothing more than just a river to cross, trusting God to keep us dry.

Like allowing women to vote or people of different races to marry.

To get from here to there took working together. It took some people to simply stand still.

It took trust in the Lord and believing in the promise.

It took courage.

You know, images of courage occur throughout the stories of our spiritual ancestors; stories designed to show us how to find and to have courage in the Lord.

As Christians, our ultimate example of courage would be Jesus Christ.

Jesus was a man of courage.

Jesus showed courage by fraternizing with those who were seen as “not one of us.” He wasn’t afraid to reach out to those who were seen as different.

Jesus wasn’t afraid to be close to someone who was unwell, or to touch the hands of someone who was sick.

He was willing to be seen talking with those of questionable morals or those deemed too dangerous for society.

Jesus had great courage. How else could he talk to a Samaritan woman at the well? Or walk across rough seas in the middle of a storm? Or stand before a multitude of hungry folk?

Jesus, like Joshua, was a person of faith, a person of action.

He was a person who showed courage by reaching out to folks when the world around them would not.

Jesus would meet people where they were, when they were here, on one side of the river, and he would metaphorically take them to there, the other side in which they experienced spiritual, physical, and social healing.

Where did this courage of Christ come from?

His relationship with God. His understanding of scripture. Knowing the stories of the saints and ancestors who came before him.

His ability to sometimes be still.

His sense of justice, kindness, and humility.

His sense that who we are now is not always who we are capable of being.

Knowing that each of us deserve the chance to grow, to learn, and to cross over to the other side.

The feet of the saints from oh so long ago led us out of the wilderness, and into the Promised Land.

And the feat of our ancestors is that although they were often afraid and unsure, they did learn how to trust the Lord, and in trust, they were able to move forward in faith and action.

We too are following in the feet of our ancestors.

Some are the saints who came long ago. Some are our immediate relatives.

Some are those who helped to shape the denomination, those who worked hard to build this specific church; some are even amongst us today.

Regardless if they knew it or not, what they did and have done took courage, courage based on faith and an understanding of God’s grace and love for all.

In conclusion, each person, each community has many, many moments in which they come to a symbolic river and are invited by God to cross over into something wonderful, something new, and yes, perhaps even something scary.

But may none of that stop us from getting our own feet a little wet, trusting that in God the path ahead will be doable.

And with the grace of Christ, we have the chance to go from here to there with feet of faith that moves us forward into feats of faith.

For that, we can say amen and “Amen!”