Tuesday, November 27, 2018

God Has Not Given Up On Us; Sermon for Nov. 25, 2018

Rev. George Miller
November 25, 2018
Jeremiah 1:4-10; 7:1-11

A few months ago, I was given the critique by a few church members that my sermons had become a bit too inward-focused; that I was spending a bit too much time talking about things like my garden and Little Brother.

These constructive comments were taken as intended and for the past 3 months the messages have been more educational and outward based.

However, sometimes in life we go through an experience that deeply affects us, and the more we try to hide it, the more it shows through.

Such has been the case for me. For those who are unaware, I’ve been dealing with a breakup for the past month.

I had been dating someone for a few months in which everything seemed to be just fine. I had let my guard down and imagined a future for the 2 of us.

Then unexpectedly, in the cruelest of ways, he broke up with me, through a card in the mail, thus taking away my voice and any chance to ask “Why?” or to cry, or be angry, or even express gratitude for the good times we had shared.

In many ways, this unexpected event is more than a break-up, it feels like a death. As if the person has unexpectedly died or disappeared with no chance to say goodbye or be prepared.

I share this for two reasons- to be honest with you instead of wasting energy pretending things are fine when they are not.

Two- how do you celebrate the grace of God or the hope of the upcoming Advent Season when you feel like you’re living in the Heartbreak Hotel?

Any good pastor or counselor would say that the only way through grief is to go through it; that it is Ok to give in to the pain, speak your truth, wallow in your woe, be honest with the world and have a pity party.

Thankfully, today’s reading allows us to do just that as Jeremiah is a prophet who is wracked with pain, sorrow, and concern for the future.

When today’s reading begins, Jeremiah is a young man living during a capricious time of history. The northern part of his country was taken over by the Assyrians.

The current King of the south is about to form an alliance with a well known enemy, setting into motion another major war that will utterly destroy the land, the people, and their house of worship.

Young Jeremiah receives a call from God to be God’s mouthpiece, to speak to the citizens of Jerusalem.

In this seemingly innocent vignette we overhear this conversation between God and Jeremiah.

On the surface it sounds so heartwarming. God says to the youth “I knew you before you were born. When you were still in your Mama’s tummy I made you oh so special.”

Jeremiah protests, claiming he has no idea what to do. To which God says “Oh, Jeremiah- don’t sell yourself short. Everything you need I will provide. Don’t be afraid. I will give you the words to say, and I will stay right by your side.”

How wonderful. How sweet it seems. How so very, very nice- knowing that God has spoken directly to you with your own special job and the assurance that the Holy One will be right there!

Who could resist? Who would want to resist? How many people would’ve loved to be an apprentice to the God Most High?

What could go wrong? Think of all the green pastures, still waters, and prepared meals there would be!

Who would ever want to say no to a god who knew you before you even took your first breath?

…well, there is this teeny-weeny thing that Jeremiah is about to find out.

He’s not being called to baptize babies, or perform weddings, or sip sweet tea with people out on the veranda…

he’s being called to give a message about how God is about to tear things up.

Jeremiah is given the daunting task of telling the nation that they have been acting all wrong and that everything they know is about to be plucked up, pulled down, overthrown and destroyed.

No wonder young Jeremiah wasn’t so keen on being God’s messenger. Who would want to share that news with the people you know?

In fact, it takes awhile for Jeremiah to share this message with the nation, about 18 years.

But when Jeremiah gives this message, he does so in a huge way.

Jeremiah waits until one of the biggest worship days of the year, stands outside the Temple and starts preaching to the people as they walk in.

You know how we like to say “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”?

Well- Jeremiah says the complete opposite!

While everyone is flocking in to get their praise on, Jeremiah starts calling them out on their hypocrisy.

He says to them “God is unhappy with your unholy ways. Don’t think that you can come into this Temple acting like you’re better than everyone else when you’re not.”

“Susan-you know you’ve been shoplifting.”

“Mark- how many folk have you murdered?”

“Cory- everyone knows your cheating on your wife.”

“Geraldine- ain’t it about time you stopped your gossiping?

“And Bobby- you’ve been going to the house of Baal all week long worshipping another god!”

Jeremiah is unrelentless.

He calls them out for mistreating foreigners, abusing children and the elderly, for robbery and all kinds of injustice.

Speaking on behalf of God, Jeremiah says “How dare you come to this holy place and put on an act like you’re all goody-goody when you’re bringing pain upon others.”

“And how dare you ignore God’s voice and commandments and think God is going to keep you safe and condone your evil actions just because you come to praise him once a week?”

It should be no surprise to hear that Jeremiah is arrested and put on trial for his life.

He learned the hard way that you can’t call religious people on their stuff without suffering some kind of consequence.

If you read all 52 chapters of Jeremiah you will discover just how much pain the prophet and God are going through.

It is a deeply disturbing collection in which either God or the prophet or both are suffering, in deep tears, and experiencing great anguish.

Sorrow permeates every page, as the prophet shares God’s disappointment over the people God loves, and the awareness that their abuse of power, mistreatment of immigrants, and disregard for human life is going to result in the nation’s demise.

The people thought they could do whatever they wanted to do as long as they made an appearance in the Temple once a week; instead they are soon going to experience how God will pluck up and pull down, destroy and overthrow.

But…if that was all there was to today’s reading, if that’s all there was to Jeremiah’s message, then none of us would be here today.

Fortunately, there is more that is going on.

Because in the midst of the accusations and the ramifications, there is hope.

Because as Jeremiah states, there just won’t be a plucking up and a pulling down, but there is also going to be planting and building.

Though there will be a shuffling of circumstances, God assures them that if they reclaim the ways of justice, and kindness, if they live with true humility, then God would have no problem dwelling amongst them again.

In other words, God is saying something truly amazing to the people: God has not given up on them.

Even though it appears they have walked out on God, God has not walked out on them.

Even though they turn a deaf ear to God, God has not stopped speaking.

Even though they ceased coming to the Temple for holy reasons, God has not stopped being holy, fair, and full of grace.

The people may have forgotten the stories of their ancestors and what it means to be Children of God, but God has not forgotten the narrative and the promises he made so long ago.

God remembers the promises made via Moses on the mountaintop. God remembers the covenant made with a childless couple about people, land and blessings.

God remembers the rainbow that was cast across the sky as a promise.

Today’s reading deals with the joys and pains of being in a relationship and just what a relationship with God truly means.

A part of that relationship is knowing that no matter how bad things get, no matter how bad things seem, no matter how much we mess up and fail, no matter how severe the consequences may be…

…God does give up.

Even when we give up on others, even when we give up on God, even when we give up on ourselves, God does not give up on us.

God is present. God is constant. God is there. Good times or bad; happy or sad.

BUT this does not mean everything will be hunky-dory; it doesn’t mean things will be green pastures, still waters, and prepared meals.

Nor does it mean that when bad things come to an end, we will go back to being the same.

Because when things happen, no one ever goes back to being the same.

When tragedy occurs and life circumstances take place, there will always be a change.

No one plucks up and pulls down, to only plant and build the exact same thing.

Today’s reading is a difficult one because it speaks of God’s pain and of God’s disappointment.

Today’s reading reaches across time to point a finger towards us to ask “What are we doing here if we continue to turn our back on justice, kindness, and humility?

Today’s reading asks us as a nation “How can we claim to follow God if we oppress immigrants, refuse to help the vulnerable, and hurt the innocent?”

But today’s reading also has that ember of hope, that gift of grace, as it assures us that as bad as things may seem, God has not left us; God will not leave us.

As long as there is a still a remnant of humanity, as long as there is still the hope of a 2nd, 3rd, 30th, or 3 millionth chance, God will remember us, and God will be right here.

Ready to plant, ready to build.

Ready to continue the narrative and to do something new.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

What Does God Want? Sermon for November 11, 2018 based on Micah 5 & 6

Rev. George Miller
November 11, 2018
Micah 5:2-5a, 6:6-8

Today’s scripture is one that should sound familiar to anyone who has ever worshipped at Emmanuel or sung a Christmas Carol.

Micah 5:2 is the basis for “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” while Micah 6:8 is how we finish worship and is written on our Fellowship Hall wall.

It’s a wonderful theology, with a wonderful intent, this notion of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with the Lord.

It feels good to say these words each and every Sunday and it appears that people have grown to love it, accept it, and embrace it.

But the truth is that today’s reading does not come from a very good and happy place.

Today’s scripture is the result of doom, gloom and discontent.

Do you recall how just last week we discussed the healing of Naaman in the Jordan River?

Then there was the wonder of Solomon’s wisdom, the celebration of Joshua’s call to “choose today” and the passage through parted sea?

Well…it has all fallen apart.

The Promised Land. The Glorious Kingdom. The decades of peace and prosperity in which Israel and her neighbors enjoyed a time of imports, shared labor, and conversation.

The cracks began to appear with King David who committed acts of rape, murder, adultery and deceit.

The cracks deepened when his son Solomon to worship other gods and build temples in their honor.

Eventually these fissures created a ripping apart in Israel that resulted in 2 separate kingdoms, one that was north, one that was south.

The same people, but living in a divided nation, in which both claimed God as their own.

It was in the northern kingdom that Naaman went to last week when he sought out healing and became a believer in the Lord.

But since last week, there has been a major rupture.

The northern kingdom had become so dishonest, so unhealthy, so unholy that it has fallen under enemy capture.

The possibilities of the Promised Land have fallen so!

Enter into this reality the prophet Micah. He is a citizen of the Southern Kingdom, which still stands, but he’s not sure for how long.

See, Micah is very aware and very astute to all that is going on.

He’s a small-town boy with small town morals who has moved into the capital city of Jerusalem, and he does not like what he sees.

He sees how corrupt the political, economic, and religious leaders are.

He calls them out for how they take property away from the citizens, kick women out of their homes, and declare war on the hungry (3:5).

He sees merchants charging false prices, courts perverting the law, and
prophets accepting bribes to mislead their congregations.

Not to mention that during this time, the Assyrian enemy has control of land just 10 miles from the capital, and Jerusalem was swelling in size from political refugees fleeing the Northern Kingdom to seek safety.

Micah sees all these things going on and is absolutely sure that the nation is about to implode and everything God has worked so hard for is about to fall to bits.

So Micah laments. He cries for the injustice he sees. He weeps over the corruption and constant lies of the leaders.

He mourns how it seems the wicked have won and how at any moment everything will be blown to smithereens.

In chapter 6 he even envisions a courtroom scene in which God stands before the people and says

“What have I done to deserve this; how have I wearied you?”

God states all that has been done on the people’s behalf.

“I brought you out of Egypt. I saved you from slavery. I sent you Moses and Miriam to guide you through tough times. I prevented people from cursing you. I blessed you every chance I got.”

Micah channels God’s heartbreak and destitution in such a powerful way.

Yet- even in a scene of such wretchedness, there is hope.

Micah envisions that in this holy courtroom, the people display a contrite heart, offering to give God anything God wants to make things right- food, oil, their first born.

It turns out that even though God is hurt, even though God appears to have given all that God can give, God responds to the sinful people in the most amazing way.

In this holy courtroom scene of Micah’s prophetic imagination, God stands before the very people who have turned from him, and says

“Don’t you realize, don’t you know by now, that all I want is you. I don’t want a thing; I don’t want an object you can buy at the store.”

“I want YOU. I want you, and the very best you that there can be.”

God says to the people “What I want, all that I have ever wanted, is for you to do what is right, love being kind, and include me in everything you do.”

According to Micah, this is all God wants from us- justice, mercy, and mindfulness.

This is basically what Jesus meant when he said the 2 greatest commandments are to love the Lord with all your heart and all your soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

What does God want; God wants YOU; the very best version of you that you can be.

Isn’t that amazing? Here we are with such a bleak chapter in the nation’s narrative, and there is still hope.

Here we are, in the city of Jerusalem, in which refugees are flooding in to seek safety, the enemy is at the door,

religious leaders are misteaching for the sake of a buck, businesses are mistreating their customers,

and politicians are punishing the starving, the widowed and the land owners,

and even though they seem to be on the verge of extinction, God is offering another chance of hope and another chance of redemption?


Just as God remembered Noah in the ark, just as Joseph was not forgotten in the jail, just as Naaman could be made clean by dipping himself in the river…

…there is hope that is given to the people. There is hope in knowing that although the enemy is close, the good old days are gone, and sin has seized the day,

evil has not won out and evil will never have the last word.

Although difficult dark days may eventually fall upon the land due to their behavior and bad choices, God will not completely give up on or forget about the people and the promises God made to Abraham and Sarah oh so long ago.

Micah sees that hope coming from such an unexpected, and yet such a familiar place. Micah claims that hope will come from a little town named Bethlehem, from a family that most would pay no mind.

Now, we can’t speak for Micah, or assume we really know just what he really meant.

But in our troubled world, in our culture of chaos and corruption, we can make the claim that perhaps the one who Micah is pointing us to is the one we know as Jesus Christ.

Micah alludes to one who is both new and yet ancient, who feeds his flock and stands in the Lord’s name, who is both strong and represents peace.

Is it not in Jesus that we see these words of Micah become incarnate?

How Jesus enacted justice by feeding, by healing, by caring for all?

How Jesus embodied mercy by telling people not to cast stones, to take the planks out of their eyes, and to forgive?

How everything Jesus said, everything he did, and the way he lived was for the sake of God’s glory and the advancement of his Father’s heavenly kingdom…

We are not Jesus, and none of us ever will be. We are imperfect. We are incomplete.

We all still have so much self work to do and growing to accomplish.

But isn’t it wonderful, isn’t it inspiring to know that God is not looking for perfection?

God is not looking for things.

God is not looking for robots or rivers of oil or an abundance of gold.

What God is looking for is YOU. The best you that can be.

The you who does justice. The you who loves and wants to be kind.

The you who will walk with God in the garden, trust God in the storm, call upon God in the wilderness, choose God even in prosperity, seek out God’s wisdom for the benefit of all, and be willing to dip into the waters even if seems silly.

What does God want? God wants YOU.

Amen and amen.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

God's Healing Grace Goes Beyond Borders; Nov 4, 2018 message on 2 Kings 5:1-15

Rev. George Miller
November 4, 2018
2 Kings 5:1-15

What would you be willing to do to be a better, healthier you?

Would you be willing to cut 500 calories a day from your diet?

Would you be willing to go to the gym 3-5 times a week?

Would you be willing to travel 125 miles by foot or by horse?

Would you be willing to dip yourself 7 times into a dried up river full of algae and dead fish?

Would you be willing to take advice from a little girl from a foreign country who believes in a completely different god?

What would you be willing to do to be a better, healthier you?

That is just one of the many questions raised by today’s story.

It is a timeless story, one that speaks through multi-dimensions, and a story that Jesus referred to in his first post-temptation sermon.

A quick review- today’s tale takes place in the foreign land of Aram after they have recently defeated the Israelites in battle.

One of Aram’s warriors, named Naaman, has taken a little Jewish girl as a slave. One day this little girl says to Naaman’s wife “Your husband is in pretty bad health. If he went to see my God’s prophet, I know he’d be healed.”

A chain of events takes place in which Naaman goes to his king, who sends him to the enemy king.

Neither king is of any use, but the Jewish prophet Elisha intervenes and has his message-boy tell Naaman to wade in the waters of the Jordan.

Mighty warrior Naaman has a hissy fit, but after some coaxing from his employees, his dips himself into the Jordan and bing-bam-boom!, he’s made clean.

What a wonderful, rich story we have before us, full of exotic lands, complex characters, and a mighty miracle of God.

But if we take a step back and look at this story as a whole, we discover how we’ve been tricked, because nothing is as it seems.

First, we have a story full of all these power players.

Naaman, the mighty warrior prone to angry outbursts who seems to have it all: money, power, wife and servants.

We have not one but two kings who hold court, have unlimited resources, and own enough clothes to rip at whim.

Then there’s Elisha who can come and go as he pleases, capturing the attention of world leaders with a single message or seemingly silly directive.

But are they truly the power players in this tale of God’s mercy and might?

No, they’re not. Look closer at who the real power players are: a little Jewish girl who’s been captured and became a slave.

Messengers of the prophet who come before a king and stand before a warrior to tell them what to do.

And foreign servants who convince their highly emotional master what’s the right thing to do if he wants to be made well.

The author of today’s story has created such a magnificent account in which it is not the people in power who are avenues for God’s grace, but it is the least of these, the unexpected, the often unseen and unheard members of society.

The heroes of today’s story are the ones we have kept in cages, attacked in synagogues, and labeled as invaders.

What we see in this ancient, ancient story is just how much God will use the least of these to do the blessings, how even enemies are recipients of God’s healing, and how God’s grace continues to grow and expand, crossing borders, beliefs, and bad situations.

We saw that grace when God looked down upon Noah’s family huddled within the ark and remembered them.

We saw that grace continue to Sarah and Abraham as they traveled for decades across that land.

We saw that grace carry Joseph through years of false imprisonment, growing to include the Israelites as they crossed the Red Sea.

That gift of grace continued with Moses on the mountain, Joshua in the Promised Land, and King Solomon as he humbly sought out wisdom.

In today’s reading we witness how God’s grace and mercy, God’s love for all expands beyond the borders and includes those who are considered enemies and those who have yet to know the Lord.

Oh how God brings healing and good news! A little girl; the least of these; a slave. The absolute lowest of the low who looks at her captors and says “There is a balm that can heal your soul.”

Unnamed messengers who take the good news out to highways and byways so someone they don’t even know can experience salvation.

Servants from another land who endure their master’s wrath just so they can convince him that it’s worth giving God a try even if it seems silly to take a dip into the waters of life.

Who would ever think that these characters, these individuals could be the agents of change and the ways in which God would work?

And then there is Naaman, who appears mighty, but is perhaps the weakest of them all.

When the story starts out he is a foreign enemy who worships a different god and is riddled with disease.

But note how he is transformed by God and a poster boy for what God’s grace can do.

He goes from unclean to clean, from outsider to a member of the worship community.

He goes from non-believer to someone who believes, someone who wants to donate, wants to worship, and even wishes for forgiveness for all the future sins he is sure to do.

Today we witness the ever expanding reach of God’s Kingdom.

We see how something begun on an ark and continued with an elderly couple has expanded beyond pharaohs and parted seas and promised lands, growing beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, to include-

enemies, foreigners, and disease.

No wonder Jesus would refer to this story in Luke 4 when he gave his first post-temptation sermon, reminding the people that God’s healing is offered to all, even those who are not like us.

No wonder why the people of Jesus’ day did not like being reminded of this truth.

It is a shame that these very same issues Jesus and 2 Kings addressed are still plaguing us in modern times.

But for today…today we have a chance in the sanctity of this holy space and this holy time to revisit this story, to embrace this tale and to celebrate it and what it dares to teach:

That the grace of God is ever growing.

The grace of God is a gift that only needs to be received.

It does not matter how old or young you are. No matter how rich or poor. No matter if master or servant, king of the country or foreign resident.

The grace of God is transformative, offering healing to individuals, families and to entire communities when it is accepted, and when it is glorified.

The waters of heaven are abundant and the healing of God is for all.

Amen and amen.