Monday, February 26, 2018

When We Work For God, God Works With Us; Sermon on 1 Kings 17:8-16

Rev. George Miller
Feb 26, 2018
1 Kings 17:8-16

“If only I could go back in time, I’d do things differently.” “If I knew then what I know now…”

These are familiar refrains that we’ve heard others, and ourselves, say.

This is my “If I could go back in time” moment, because this right here has been my favorite biblical story for nearly 2 decades.

This is the scripture that has given me hope, has given me strength, has given me the reason to keep on keepin’ on when the world said “Maybe you should just stop and be a bit more realistic.”

I came across this scripture when I was in my 20’s and felt I was at a dead-end, with nowhere else to go.

As someone working 2-3 jobs at a time, living paycheck to paycheck in a 3rd story walk-up studio apartment, I felt like I was that widow and the only reason I was able to make it through was because of God and God’s miraculous ways…

…Looking back now, I realize I was perhaps being a bit overly melodramatic in my youth.

That I didn’t know, and there was no way of me knowing, that in your 20’s you’re supposed to struggle, you’re supposed to work long hours at crappy jobs, you’re supposed to drive a junk car and live in a cheap apartment, and that you’re supposed to exist on snack ramen as opposed to beef wellington.

Looking back now, I can see how yes, things were difficult.

Like the time my fridge broke and the only food I had in the house was a gift-box of mustards from around the world.

And yes, how my shower didn’t work so for years I could only take baths.

And yes, I was up to my eyeballs in debt.

But looking back, I can catch my breath, and realize I was in debt because I was well-to-do enough to go to college and own a car.

Yes, I could only take baths, but they were in a claw-foot tub that rested upon art-deco tiles in a downtown apartment building with marble floors, conveniently located next to world class theatres.

Yes, I only had a box of mustards at home, but I spent my days working at an Italian restaurant in which the staff ate gourmet pasta for our break and snuck tastes of red wine and crème brulee when the boss wasn’t looking.

Yes- back then I felt like the widow, barely getting by, but if I could go back in time, I’d say to my former self-

“Don’t lose hope, don’t judge yourself too hard. This is exactly what you’re 20’s are supposed to be, you’re just paying your dues and one day you’ll be living a life that is just, just fine.”

Would it have made any difference?

Probably not.

And in many ways I am thankful for whatever my perceived experiences were way back then, because they shaped who I am now, and this story, this story has always prodded me along, willing to believe that when it comes to God-

-the jar of flour will never run out; the jar of oil will never go dry.

God will provide.

God always has, and I’ve witnessed too many miracles to ever doubt this not to be true.

God, who has this ability to take nothing and turn it into a wonderful something.

We see that in the creation story when God’s Spirit moves over the waters and with just a word, there is light and life.

We see that with the resurrection, in which Good Friday ends with death but Easter morning begins with new life.

We see that with the loaves and fishes story in which so little becomes so, so much in the hands of our Savior.

And we saw this just last week.

Do ya’ll recall the weeks leading up to the Spaghetti Supper? We didn’t outwardly say it, but we knew there was a sense of worry and a bit of dread about how things were going to go.

We were holding the supper later than usual, with new people organizing it, and barely anyone signing up, and not many tickets sold.

Just last week we had to send out an e-mail and start Ash Wednesday service by stating we were in the need of 40 pies and 5 people to serve. If not we’d have to buy them all.

But the day of the Spaghetti Supper came along and we had more pies than we knew what to do with.

Yes, not many folk were here to serve, but it allowed me to really mix and mingle with our guests, and we had new faces who were happy to share their time as we served 200 meals.

We went from not knowing if we could pull it off, and not knowing if we would have any pies, to making a tidy profit of $1,280.91.

But here is where I think the true miracle came in-

all that left over spaghetti, all that left over sauce, all that left over salad, all that left over pie we were afraid we’d run out of-

we ended up serving to our Shepherd’s Pantry guests, feeding 105 families with real, home cooked, honest-to-goodness soul food that

nourished their bodies,
calmed their minds,
satiated their spirits,
and created a true, true moment of fellowship and diakonia.

On Feb 14 we were so worried we wouldn’t have enough pies.

By Feb 19 we had enough to feed 200 paying guests and 105 hungry families, with pies, pasta and sauce still left over to share.

We’re talking about
-children who looked dazed from their reality of poverty,

-to elderly vets barely getting by on their disability,

-to young adults dealing with the reality of addiction,

-to mothers, aunties and grandmothers who were happy that there was one less magical meal for them to pull together.

Last Monday our Fellowship Hall was filled from start to finish with folks who came in thinking they were simply getting groceries and discovered they were being served a meal;

a real heavenly banquet in which they were treated as honored guests.

If that is not a miracle, I don’t know what is.

If that is not real, real ministry, then someone needs to send me back to seminary so I can learn…

So now, so now that I can learn to let go of my 20’s, and we have seen how God can make nearly empty vessels full and overflowing, what do we do?

Where do we go from here?

Tracy has said that now that they know what they are doing things been be done even better next year.

Service Committee has hopefully witnessed a new way they could continue doing what we’ve been doing.

As a congregation, I hope we are continuing to absorb, continuing to realize this narrative before us, that has always been there-

That God will provide.

That when we work for God, God will work with us.

That miracles do happen, and more often than not it is both God and creation, God and human, God and institution working together, then God just doing it all alone.

I am excited about the events of last week.

I am excited about our present moment in time in which we are reaching out and welcoming people in.

I am excited about our future and the ways in which God will send Elijahs and widows and children into our lives.

I am excited about the opportunities that are out there, yet to happen, that we can’t even begin to imagine.

But we can begin to anticipate and prepare for.

This is God’s world, and we are so, so fortunate to serve and to share with those around us.

May our jars of flour never run out; may our jars of oil never run dry.

Because when we have an opportunity to feed and to care, we are feeding and caring for ourselves as well.

For that, we can say amen and amen.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Story of 4 Trees- An Exploration of Current Events Through the Lens of Psalm 25

Rev. George Miller
Feb 18, 2018
Psalm 25:1-10

Today I share with you the story of 4 trees that have left a mark on me.

The 1st is a maple tree that grows on Long Island. It’s as old as I am.

As family legend tells it, shortly after I was born, my parents found a sapling in the forest that they assumed was the same age as I.

They dug it up, planted it in the front yard, and to this day, there it stands, its roots stretched out, lifting up small bits of the street.

The 2nd tree is the oak that grows in front of my cozy cottage. Clearly it’s close to a century old; it’s sturdy and strong.

In the morning and afternoon it is full of birds of all kinds. Facing the south side, I swear it’s the reason my home survived the hurricane unscathed, as it blocked a lot of the wind.

There’s a third tree, located in Augusta, Missouri, that is on the way to where my niece lives.

I’ve never seen it with leaves or greenery; it is always bleak and bare. I don’t have any idea what kind of tree it is, but I know it’s where lynchings have taken place.

I know this because every time I ride with my brother and nephews to pick my niece up at school, they will point it and tell me so.

They would say it so matter-of-factly, as if they were pointing out the library, Dairy Queen, or high school.

“That is where they would lynch black people.”

No shock, no outrage, just a direct expression of this is what it is; no emotional realization that they’re not talking about oranges or apples, but people.

I share this because this week I came across two bits of history that shocked me.

One, is the fact that between the Civil War and World War 2, there were 4,000 black children, women and men who were lynched.

4,000 children, women and men.

Second, was learning about Ida B. Wells, a journalist who led an anti-lunching campaign that took her all the way to the White House.

My 1st thought was “You go! Ida B.!”

Then it hit me- someone actually had to lead a movement that said lynching was bad? Like, people had to be told that hanging children, women and men from tress was wrong?

It sunk into me that this is such a part of American history, OUR history, and we have not fully come to terms with what this means.

What does it mean that when I visit family in Missouri, we will drive past this barren, bleak tree in which my grade school nephew will once again tell me, matter-of-factly, what used to hang from that tree…

Have ya’ll noticed just how angry everyone seems to be? How disjointed we have become as American people?

Notice how folks seem to be so mad at one another, mad at life, mad at their leaders, teachers, and preachers?

It’s like we as a people are twisted and being torn apart.

We’re not talking with one another, we’re talking AT one another. Or yelling, shaming, or unfriending.

It’s a rocky, stormy time, and add to it the recent shooting in Parkland.

17 people dead. Killed. By one person.

And everyone has an opinion- it’s about gun control, no it’s about mental health, no it’s about the FBI not doing their job.

Everyone offering their view of what the magic cure will be, how we can prevent school shooting #19 from taking place.


Well, I don’t believe there is just one solution. I believe there are multiple solutions and steps that can be taken, just as there are multiple things that led up to Thursday’s events.

Deep down, at the root, I think we are seeing the breaking down of the old ways to introduce a new and better way.

As things break down and begin to phase and burn out, we are seeing and hearing the voices who are speaking up about profiling, incarceration, #metoo, Women’s March, Time’s Up, anti-bullying, equal pay, ADA, and the Wall.

But it’s too much for everyone to process, and when there is too much, and people’s can’t process, or breathe, or think, the people become scared, mad, sad, numb, and vigilant.

This week, I am beginning to wonder if the root cause of all this is a three-letter word- SIN.

I don’t talk about it often. It’s a complex, complicated word.

It’s a word that’s been used to judge, a word used to silence, a word used to condemn.

But it is an important word.

But a difficulty about sin is that I don’t believe it’s a one-size-fits-all kind of thing.

Also, it is clear that our English language does not properly convey what sin is, from a biblical perspective.

But today’s scripture does a good job at that.

Psalm 25 is a conversation with God.

The speaker is saying to God “Do not remember my sins of the past, do not remember my foolish sins of youth, and do not remember my current sins.”

The speaker says to God “Pardon my sins, help me to know what is just, and what is right; teach me and lead me in your path to wholeness and healing.”

The psalmist is not only speaking up for himself, but for his entire nation- do not remember my sins.

However, part of what makes this psalm so powerful is that in its original language, it uses 3 different words to describe sin.

1st, it uses the Hebrew word “hata” in verses 7,8,18.

Hata is an archery term. It means to miss the mark; to miss the target.

This notion of sin is the implication that sometimes there are things we do with the best of intentions, but we happen to do them incorrectly or for the wrong reasons.

2nd, is the Hebrew word “pasa”, which also appears in verse 7. It means to rebel, like a teenager.

This notion of sin is the implication that there are times in which we know what is right, but we just don’t want to do it.

Either we are tired of always doing the right thing, or we want to test our limits. We want to do things our way and see what we can get away with, and if it really makes a difference.

3rd is the Hebrew word “awon” which appears in verse 11.

It means to be twisted, to be out of shape. It means to be bent over or bowed down.

This kind of sin is most related to guilt. Doing something that is just plain wrong.

Committing the kind of sin that if not dealt with can fester, eat away at your soul, make you feel disjointed, out of whack and riddled with guilt.

The kind of sin that can last long after you die and infect an entire family, community, or country.

And every one who has ever lived a full life has experienced each of these sins-

we have all tried our best but missed the mark, we have all rebelled against another or a system, and we have all been twisted out of shape due to something we have said, done, or seen.

Sin is not just individual, it can be communal. We can look at local news for examples.

In terms of “hata” or “missing the mark”, we have the current events on 27.

More and more we are seeing dangerous and deadly accidents taking place on the highway.

People are speeding, people are driving too slowly, people are texting, people are not paying attention.

No one is intentionally out to cause harm or an accident, but there they are- on Hammock, on Bayside, in front of the Wal-Mart.

What wisdom or right path will curb these accidents? Lower the speed limit, ban texting, pass out more tickets?

Then there is the “pasa” or rebelliousness around recycling.

We all know that recycling is important. We know it is better to reuse and our plastic, paper, and cans.

But with only one recycling location in Downtown and curbside pickup a complete bust, who really wants to do it?

I don’t think anyone wants to intentionally hurt Mama Earth, but who here really wants to spend all that time washing and cleaning containers, and collecting stacks of paper so they can fill up their car, drive to Commerce and hope the bins aren’t filled to capacity?

It’s easy to rebel and say “not today” then it is to rinse the cat food funk out of a tin can.

Then there is the “awon”, the being twisted, bent out of shape, or bowed down from too much.

Isn’t that exactly how we are all feeling after Thursday? After the horrific shooting that took place in Parkland?

Though none of us were the ones who took up the gun that Nikolas Cruz carried, I sense that all of us are feeling some sort of guilt over what can be done to stop these kind of things from happening.

Do we advocate for open carry? Do we ban the sale of all automatics?

Do we allow teachers to be strapped? Do we place guards in every hallway of every school?

Do we begin to honestly talk about how 1 out of 4 families is affected by mental illness? Do we view every comment on social media as proof of an immediate threat?

Do we admit that today we are all feeling twisted and tapped out about yet another massacre on American soil?

At what point do we, as a country, state that the sins that take the lives of seventeen individuals are our sins too?

…Now, I am not here to give answers, or tell you what to believe, or to tell you how to vote or what to do.

But, as a preacher, I am here to be theological about all these things.

Theologically, it can be stated that when we encounter multiple accidents on highway 27 each and every day- we have a problem.

Theologically, it can be stated that when we have recycling bins that are overflowing because the amount of locations has been reduced- we have a problem.

Theologically, it can be stated that when we have 17 individuals who have been killed due to an act of violence- we have a problem.

How do we address it, and what do we do?

I don’t have a complete answer.

But I do know where we can start, by being honest about it.

I also know that we can turn to God and admit that we are missing the mark, admit our rebellious ways, and admit how our actions and non-action have us twisted us out of shape.

I know that we can’t undo the past, but I know that we can discuss it and accept that there have always been, and will always be, mistakes that are made.

I also know that we can take our missed marks, our rebellious ways, and our stooped-over sins, and bring them before God.

God knows. God hears. God forgives.

God wants to lead the way, a new way that brings us to fullness of life, wholeness and healing, as well as joy, unspeakable joy.

In conclusion, I stated that there were 4 trees that have left a mark on me.

Let me share with you the 4th- a crepe myrtle that grows right outside my front door.

The original owner created a flower bed around it with 4 blocks of wood.

Up until a few months ago, that wanna-be-flower-bed was so pitiful, and so empty, simply because I didn’t know no better.

Eventually I began to fill the space around the tree with bags of dirt and top soil. Then it became the place I put my used coffee grounds.

Eventually it became an unofficial compost heap of sorts- bits of unused vegetables, fruit rinds and eggs shells went into the dirt. Then it became the place I poured out the stale water from the cat bowl.

In other words, anything that was broken, dirty, imperfect, or garbage worthy went into the ground around the tree.

Then one day a whole bunch of wildflower seeds were planted in that soil, and eventually flowers grew.

They grew, they died, they reseeded.

Now that flower bed is filled with even more wild flowers- orange and yellow marigolds, pom-pom looking plants, little wisps of white flowers, miniature blue buds, and a single, solitary caladium leaf.

All beautiful, peaceful flowers that have sprung out of soil that is at its essence made out of rotten fruit and imperfect items that…

…in the hands of God have become more than what they were, and greater than the sum of their parts.

The good news is that we are greater than what we realize; we are more than our mistakes and our less-than perfect ways.

We are rich and ready, able to offer up our missed marks, our rebelliousness, and our burden-filled guilt to God.

We do so, knowing that as individuals, and as a community, God has a way of taking all of our sins and transforming them into something new, something beautiful, something life affirming.

But first, we have to be willing to offer them up, and to look them over.

With Christ’s help, we can.

For that we say, amen and amen.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Questioning Centuries of Disservice to Big Momma; Mark 1:29-34 sermon

Rev. George Miller
Feb 4, 2018
Mark 1:29-34

This week there was an article about women in Iran who are taking off their traditional hijabs to protest the theocracy’s dress code.

Women were standing atop benches and utility boxes waving their head coverings, resulting in 2 arrests.

This is a huge deal and a grassroots movement that is non-violently speaking out against social codes that were instituted after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

The women are wearing white clothing on Wednesdays as a way of saying that the enforcement of hair coverings are outmoded and infringe on their freedom of choice.

Freedom is a beautiful thing, and I celebrate those who have the courage to make themselves known, especially when the result can be imprisonment.

Many of us look upon the hijabs of the Islamic world and may not understand it, or dislike the way it seems to keep women in a certain role.

But - American Christianity has our own hijabs as well, meaning that there are ways we view women or treat them that can hide them.

Take for example, today’s reading. It’s one we’ve all heard before, but whose ears have we heard it through?

And if we were to view this story as it unfolded what would we actually see?

Because there is a good chance we have gotten this story wrong for far, far too long, and perhaps it is time to take its hijab off.

First, we start with the text before us.

We are told that right after Jesus and his 4 disciples leave the Synagogue, they make the way to Simon’s house.

Simon’s mother-in-law is sick in bed, so Jesus goes to the woman, takes her by the hands, lifts her up, and viola!, the fever is gone.

The mother-in-law serves them and that evening people bring those who are sick or demon possessed to Jesus so he can care and cast out.

The whole city is there, gathered around the door.

1st thing 1st: let’s talk about the mother-in-law and her healing.

I wonder if she actually wanted to be made well.

Think about it- did she ask Jesus to come into her sick bed and sit her up?

I ask this because I have a secret to share- I like being sick.

Being sick means I am free to lay on the couch during the day, watch TV, and not feel bad that I don’t have a nab thing to do.

Growing up, I came from a sturdy German-English family in which no one got sick because there was school to go to and work to do.

If you had a slight fever you pushed through.

My Mom, for example, did not take aspirin, so if she had a headache, she’d go into the bedroom, shut off the lights and lay down until it went away.

But if Mom was really sick, she had Dad go to the Chinese restaurant and get her a quart of wanton soup and an egg roll.

So for me, when I am sick, my go-to food is Chinese. If my throat hurts- rainbow sherbet. If my tummy aches- ginger ale.

If all 3- hey! It’s a soup-sherbert-soda kinda day, and that ain’t so bad.

So those few times I feel a fever coming on, or a bit of the chills, I embrace it, lay on the couch, pull the blanket over me, put on a DVD, order Chinese delivery, and I’m in my happy place.

I share this, because maybe, just maybe Simon’s mother-in-law didn’t mind being sick.

Maybe it gave Big Mama a chance to be off her feet, relax, get some sleep, and allow someone else to do the work for a change.

Maybe she was thinking to herself “I can’t wait for Simon to get home so he can get me some Wonton Soup and Schweppes ginger-ale!”

Maybe Big Momma was thinking “Finally! It’s my turn to be pampered and someone else is gonna take care of me!”

Maybe she was tired of cleaning their stanky fish, washing their funky clothes, and reminding Simon to leave the toilet seat down.

Maybe being sick meant that Momma finally had some “me-time.”

If so, then Jesus coming into her room and interrupting her rest was a really rotten thing to do.

Did he even ask if she wanted to be well? Shouldn’t she have had a choice in the matter?

What if she was like “Shoot! Now I gotta go back to work.”

And then, what about this whole service thing?

How did she serve them???

What exactly did she do?

Where do you picture Big Momma and what do you think she was doing?

Because if you notice, the author never says; the author never tells us.

But through the centuries people have had no problem putting a symbolic hijab on her and assuming that if she’s a woman she must have served them a meal.

Which could have been possible, especially in a culture in which hospitality was everything.

But we are not told. All we know is that she serves them.

What does it mean to serve?

In the original Greek, the word used here was diakoni, which is where we get the word “deacon” from.

Deacon means to serve, it can also mean to wait table.

Our ushers are acting as deacons today, as they meet and greet, hand out bulletins, take the offering, and help “wait” at the Communion Table.

Simon’s mother-in-law “deacons” Jesus and the disciples, but it may not be in the way we think.

To deacon also means to attend to the care and concern of a congregation.

So when the Caring Committee visits folks, calls, or sends cards, they are doing diaokoni.

To deacon also means to connect community needs with the resources that are available.

In other words, when the Shepherd’s Pantry provides people with food and flyers of upcoming events and lists of community resources, they too are doing diakoni.

Connecting those who are without to those who have what is needed, is a form of serving.

And in the Jewish community, there is a wonderful Yiddish word for a woman who gets involved in people’s lives and helps connect them to who and what they need.

She is called a Yenta, or in Broadway terms, “Hello, Dolly.”

For all we know, Big Mama could have been a matchmaker.

She could have been one of the original social media mavens, telling everyone she knew where they could go to get what they needed.

I imagine her walking through the town: “Hey Bobby- you got a boo-boo? Go to my house, there’s a guy named Jesus who will take care of you.”

“Hey Delores- you got a demon? I got the dude to make it depart!”

“Hey Frankie- you got a fever? Go to my home and Jesus will hook you up!”

Think about it- verse 32 tells us that by sunset people were bringing the sick to Jesus, and the entire town was there to watch.

How would a whole city know where to go unless there was someone to tell them so?

What if Simon’s mother-in-law was the one?

Think about what a disservice we may have done to this woman by assuming she only cooked them a meal, when she may have been the first evangelist, introducing an entire community to Christ?

Think about what a disservice we may have done to this woman by placing her behind pots and pans when she may have been Jesus’ original PR person?

Perhaps she was the Sam of the Synagogue.

Or she was the Maureen of Wynstone Lane.

Or the Pat of Lake Placid.

When we are told that Big Mamma serves Jesus and the disciples, it does not necessarily mean that she made them a hot cooked meal.

It could mean that she used her talents to reach out to community to tell folk where they could go for a cure and a cleansing.

She could have been a webmaster like Ruthie, or a songstress like Silvia, or vivacious like Vekasy…

She could have been the kitchen organizer like Kathy, because Lord knows women can cook a kick-butt meal and have a leadership position.

Maybe Simon’s mother-in-law did stay at home and wash their clothes or maybe she went out into the community.

Maybe she made them supper or maybe she scheduled the night’s appointments.

Maybe she Yenta-ed. Maybe she mended.

Who truly knows, but let’s not keep her in a hijab and assume housework and serving men a meal was the only thing she could have done.

And why does this matter?

Because when we look at scripture, really look at scripture, we see things that may have always been there that we get to know see and hear for the very first time, proving that God is indeed Still Speaking.

It matters because being able to approach scripture this way opens up the world of our faith, helping us realize just how radical Christianity is and just how boundary breaking an encounter with Christ could be.

It matters because when we begin to actually look at and to truly see the people of the Bible, we begin to see who we truly are, and just what we have the possibility to become.

It matters because the ability to worship and serve Jesus can be the most joyful, rewarding thing there is.

And if we allow Simon’s mother-in-law to do more than wear a hijab and do more than what our preconceived notions allow,

then we also free ourselves to remove restrictions that we or society have placed upon ourselves.

If we free Simon’s mother-in-law to serve Jesus in her own special way, then we are freed from what we think we can or cannot do for the glory of God’s heavenly kingdom.

By letting Big Mamma be free in Christ, then we are all also free indeed.

And that is a sweet, sweet thing.