Monday, January 28, 2019

Sermon on Jan 27, 2019 in response to SunTrust Murders; Matthew 5:1-20

Rev. George Miller
Jan 27, 2019
Matthew 5:1-20

There are things about homeownership that people do not tell you:

-There’s going to be a lot of cleaning of things you never thought would need cleaning.

-There’s going to eventually be hurt because you cannot truly live in a place without there being some kind of heartbreak.

First, let us address the cleaning. Who knew that places like the bathroom could get so dirty?

For example, the shower. That’s the place you go to get clean. With all that soap, shampoo and hot water, how exactly does a shower get so dirty?

And the mirror? It’s hanging up there on a wall; where does all that smudge come from?

Well, that smudge is most likely water stains, hair spray, finger prints, gel, toothpaste, mouthwash.

So you learn that you got to clean your mirror on a regular basis. You take out the Windex and the paper towels, you spray, you wipe, and then you notice that something…magical happens.

You can see.

Like, you can truly see things as they really are. With all the smudge gone, you notice how the room seems brighter. The mirror is better able to capture and reflect the light, allowing it to shine as brightly as it really is.

With the mirror cleared of all the smudge that’s accumulated you can also see how you really look, and who you truly are; beautiful, blessed, and unblemished…

…That is one way we can view the Beatitudes today- that they can serve as a mirror held up by Jesus to show us who we truly and honestly are...

Here we have Jesus amongst the people.

Just a few months ago we had John the Baptist proclaim that we were about to meet someone who was going to thresh the floor, gather the wheat, and burn the chaff while holding a winnowing fork in his hand.

But we have yet to experience Jesus do this, as he goes about building a ministry team, teaching in the synagogue, proclaiming the good news and curing the sick.

In today’s reading, we witness Jesus doing something new. He goes outside the synagogue and goes beyond the walls of the building.

Jesus journeys up a mountain, sits down, and begins to speak.

The disciples are there, but so are the crowds. A diverse crowd no doubt.

There were sure to be Jews and Gentiles present. There was sure to be a tax collector or two, a prostitute, foreigners and native born, those who made money working the land, those who sold their wares, those who sailed the sea.

But dig deeper and think of who else would’ve been there:

There would have been those who worshipped other idols; those who would’ve taken the Lord’s name in vain.

No doubt there would have been those who worked on the Sabbath, and those who did not honor their Mom and Dad.

Present amongst that crowd there would have been people who committed adultery or stolen a thing or two.

There would have been people who told lies about their neighbors or coveted what others had.

Is that the moment Jesus takes out the winnowing fork and wreaks havoc? Is that the time Jesus swings an ax and cuts down the bad trees?

Is this the moment in which unquenchable fire comes down to consume them all?

No.

It is the moment in which Jesus opens up his mouth, looks out upon this smudged, soiled, imperfect group of people and says “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Instead of fire and fury, Jesus speaks words of light and of life.

It is like Jesus himself is taking a newly cleaned mirror, lifting it up, and holding it out to the crowd and saying “Look. Look at who you truly are- blessed. Citizens of God.”

If we take today’s reading further, and apply it to today’s time, we enlarge the crowd with other folk.

Those in the Keys who lost their homes to Irma. Those who lost their entire city in Michael.

The government employees who have lost an entire month of pay and have no idea when life will return to normal.

They are in the crowd too, as Jesus says “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

Through the bending of time and space and accepting how Jesus is speaking to all, we place within the crowd those who are currently struggling.

All of us who are dealing with the reality of aging and the knowledge that we each reach a point in which there is no going back to how things were.

Those who are faced with a dear friend who is dying, or a spouse who is sick, or a beloved pet that is no longer well…

A community that has been ravaged by the violent, senseless death of five of our own; women who were brutally robbed of their lives, their breath, and their future.

Husbands, children, best friends, coworkers, nieces, nephews, customers, neighbors, who have had the one they care about shot down in cold blood and hot evil.

Imagine all of them, all of us, all of Highlands County, in that crowd too, upon the mountain, and Jesus, sitting on the green, green grass before us,

looking out upon us, seeing the smudges, the hurt, the pain, the tears, the numbness, the fears, the rage, the spit…

And Jesus saying “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted…”

…Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the poor in spirit...

You know, there are days and times in which it is really hard to see who you truly are and who you were truly designed to be.

There are times in which our physicality gets the best of us.

There are times in which our finances cause us to fear.

There are moments that muddy us, situations that scare, and events that are just so evil they smudge and stain our spirits,

leave marks and imprints that dim our shine,

that hurt so bad we truly cannot see, hear, or think properly.

So we forget. Our vision is blurred. Our present moment is smeared. Our light is dimmed and the room is dark.

Then Jesus, somehow, someway, looks, looks upon us and calls us “blessed.”

And for a moment we are reminded. For a moment we are cleaned. For a moment we are restored.

For a moment we are reminded, that the God we worship, the God we believe in, is a God who remembers, a God who gives dreams,

a God who gets prophets to speak, and queens to save.

And that is the same God who told Joseph not to fear, told Mary that nothing will be impossible,

and who, in the person of Jesus, chose to walk this earth with us, alongside us, experiencing all our same joys, all our same pains, all of our celebrations and all of our injustices.

In a time like this, in the moment that we live, in the community in which we ALL serve, in which there is hurt, in which there is heartbreak,

Jesus looks out at each and every one of us, and reminds us of who we truly are and what we are truly created to be.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”

Friends and family, community members, visitors and grieving citizens, we have experienced a historical event that has certainly stained and blemished the mirror in which we see.

Our communal loss is so great; our fear, worries and mourning, are so real.

And we have a long, long way to go before there can be any true healing or recovery from the events that have taken place at SunTrust.

We cannot hide from it, we cannot deny it, but we can begin by being reminded with Jesus upon the mountain, that we are blessed.

Though we may be poor in spirit, we are still blessed children of God.

Though we hunger for justice, we are still blessed.

Though we mourn…we are blessed.

We may not feel it; we many not believe it. But as God’s children, it is true.

And that knowledge, that assurance from Jesus Christ is more powerful, more elevating, and more illuminating than we could ever know.

For that, we can say “Amen.”

Sunday, January 13, 2019

What Kind of Messiah Will Jesus Be?

Rev. George Miller
Jan 13, 2019
Matthew 3:1-17

The Christmas season is over. Advent is done.

The manger is back to feeding animals. The Shepherds are back in their fields. The Persian Magi have returned home.

The cries of Mary’s baby boy are now replaced with the voice of a full grown man.

The question the Gospel of Matthew now places us before us is “What kind of Messiah will Emmanuel be?”

In chapter 3 it seems like we are going to get some answers via John, a prophet in camel hair outside the city limits, pumping up the crowd for what’s to come.

He’s this amazing hype man who’s baptizing folks and saying things like-

“Oh, just you wait, just you wait. You think I’m intense. You ain’t seen nothing yet!”

“This guy has a pitch fork in his hand and is about to lay down some holy wrath!”

“There’s an ax that’s good and ready to chop down some trees!”

“He’s gonna gather all you pitiful fools and it’s going to be Burn! Baby burn!”

Try to think about what the people back then pictured when they imagined the guy John was telling them about.

Perhaps they had an image of someone like Zeus with perfect, long flowing hair and lightning bolts in his hand.

Or maybe they thought of someone like Thor with biceps out to here and a hammer in his fist.

Or maybe they thought of someone like Poseidon with pecs out to there, riding in on a shark with a super sharp trident.

That would be intense. This big, buff, alpha god-like guy who is super angry and with a word could burn all the unrighteous down to the ground.

John promised an ax by the trees that was going to be swung Paul Bunyan style….

…and instead, the man who emerges is this…guy…from Galilee.

He has no ax. He has no trident. He has no lightning bolts.

He doesn’t seem super angry. He’s not lighting matches and flicking them at folk.

Where’s the wrath? Where’s the fire? Where’s the wow-factor?

Instead of a WWE Wrestler or a Roman King or a Greek God, we have someone who appears to be a man…just a man.

A rather humble man who comes before John and indicates he wants to be baptized, like all the ordinary folk.

John is surprised, John is taken aback.

Perhaps he got it all wrong? Perhaps he was hyping the wrong guy?

What kind of Messiah is this?

What kind of Messiah would seek to be dunked in the same water as all the repenting, unrighteous, sinful people of Judea?

What kind of Messiah will Jesus be?

Even when the heavens open, the Spirit of God descends, and a voice calls him “My Son, the Beloved,” we are still left to wonder- what kind of Messiah will Jesus be?

And Matthew begins the process of giving us the answer, although it may not be the answer we or pop culture would expect.

Because in chapter 4, right after Jesus is baptized, and the Spirit soars down, and a heavenly voice speaks, what do you suppose Jesus does?

Does he allow it to all go to his head?

Does he head to Miami to party with Pitbull at the Mardi Gras?

Does he lease a limo so he can go see the Superbowl in VIP box seats?

Does he sit with Lady Gaga at the Golden Globes and sip champagne with Bradley Cooper?

Does he feast on unlimited crab legs at Red Lobster?

No, he does something so unusual, so bizarre, so surprising-

He goes into total seclusion, by himself, in the wilderness for 40 days in which he experiences hunger, he experiences temptation, and he experiences what it’s like to be totally and utterly alone.

What kind of supposed Son-of-God would do something like that?

If he wanted to be alone he could have gone to Chateau √Član and ordered room service.

And then when he returns from his wilderness experience, he doesn’t throw lightning bolts, or swing a hammer, or chop down a single tree.

He goes for a walk along the shore. He starts building a small team of common, hard-working, every day guys.

And he starts teaching. He starts telling people about the good news of God.

He goes about offering free health care to all by curing diseases, casting out demons, making the sick well.

And by the beginning of chapter 5, Jesus sits down amongst the people on a mountaintop, he looks out amongst their faces, and he calls them “Blessed.”

When we stop to really think about it, it is all so very odd.

Less than 2 months before John is making a big scene about this guy who is going to chop down and burn up, who is all winnowing fork and fire.

And instead what we encounter is a Savior who sits amongst the people, who works in a team, who heals, who teaches, who chooses to live amongst us.

When you actually pause to think about it, it is rather odd.

That the person John worked so hard to prepare us for, is a person who experienced a time of testing when anyone else would’ve been celebrating;

who was building people up when he could have been cutting them all down;

who decided to teach and heal when he could have been only about judgment and punishment.

Was John the Baptist completely wrong?

Is there more to Jesus than what the 1st five chapters of Matthew say?

Does it matter? And why?

Because as we continue the process of learning about God and the Holy Scriptures, and learning about Jesus, we take a step forward.

A step forward into this narrative in which:
the God who created,
who put the rainbow in the sky,
who parted the Red Sea,
who spoke from Mt. Zion,

would choose to come to earth,
chose to be incarnate,
chose to be made known through the life of one man,
and this is how God goes about doing it.

After all the chances the people had, all the times God remembered them, all the times God chose to forgive them,

after all their centuries of self-created war, strife, injustice, breaking of the commandments,

God would chose to step out of the air-conditioned coolness of eternity and step into the heat of the wilderness,

and into the heart of history,

without an ax to grind, or a lightning bolt to throw, or a pitchfork to winnow with.

How utterly amazing that God, through Jesus, would come to the Jordan and step into the same water as us, choosing to identify with our human plight and our very human need to be washed of our sins.

How astounding that Jesus’ 1st public appearance wasn’t to make folk quake in their sandals or bow down in reverent fear,

but for it to be known “This is my son, the Beloved with whom I am well pleased.”

What kind of Messiah will Jesus be? What will he do? Where will he go?

At what lengths will he gather us in, offer us life, and show that we are truly blessed?

Slowly this season we will get to find out. Hopefully this season, we will be truly surprised.

Amen and amen.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Who Said the Magi Were Men? Jan 6, 2019 Message on Matthew 2:1-12

Rev. George Miller
Jan 6, 2019
Matthew 2:1-12

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, about 1,000 miles east of Jerusalem, was the kingdom of Persia.

About 600 years before the birth of Jesus, they had slowly, steadily risen into power.

They conquered the much hated Babylonians and established a diverse, thriving community in which Jewish men and women lived amongst them.

These were Jews whose ancestors had been captured by the Babylonians decades before and forced to live as strangers in a strange land.

The Persian leaders had a unique relationship with the Jewish people who lived amongst them.

There was the one time in which Daniel, the faithful Hebrew man, was made one of their 3 presidents.

Another time the king of Persia gave the Jews money so they could buy whatever offerings they needed to go and praise their God- bulls, rams, grain, wine, whatever- and they were even told they could keep the change!

There was the time the king supplied lumber from their forests and exported it to Jerusalem so they could rebuild their Temple.

And of course, it was the King of Persia who married the very beautiful Queen Esther who bravely spoke out, risked her life and saved thousands of her people from total annihilation.

And while the Jewish community worshipped their own God, the Persians had their own set of religious beliefs with spiritual, intellectual leaders named Magi who read stars, discerned dreams, sought truth and performed their acts of magic, healing and prophesying.

So for centuries the Persian and Jewish communities had this interesting, almost symbiotic relationship in which even though they worshipped different gods and had different traditions, they were able to respect one another and extend acts of unselfish generosity.

So perhaps we should not be surprised to discover that when Jesus Christ was born, it was most likely the star gazing, dream discerning, highly empathic Magi from Persia who made the 1,000 mile trip to Bethlehem, extending radical acts of generosity to Mary, Joseph, and their child.

But who exactly are these nameless star gazing, dream discerning individuals, and what could we possibly learn from them today?

Let’s take a real look at this story.

First, how many Magi were there? Note that we are never told. There could be 2, there could be 20.

What are their names? Matthew never says.

What color or shade is their skin? Christian art work has created this narrative of the Magi being dark skinned, from very brown to very black.

It seems like a wonderful nod to cultural diversity, but does it do us any good if the Jesus they are kneeling before and bearing gifts is traditionally being portrayed as Nordic white?

If we do a simple Google search we discover that people from Persia, not to mention Jesus and his family would have run a beautiful variety of skin shades and tones, from olive and tan, to brown and beige, to golden and sun-kissed.

Finally, what was the Magi’s gender?

Think about this for a moment.

Tradition has always taught us they were men, which makes sense that it was mostly men who translated scripture and taught scripture.

And right here, in the NRSV, is uses the words “wise men” not once but twice.

But here’s the thing- the original Greek word that Matthew used was “Magi.”

Magi could denote a specific set of priests. But Magi can also refer to seers, soothsayers, and pranksters.

It was Magi from the east who came to Jerusalem. It was Magi who Herod called to hold a secret meeting.

Note that in the rest of the story, there are no male pronouns. There are the words “we” and “them” and “they.”

The NIV translation calls them “Magi”. The Good News Bible calls them “astrologers.”

Though there is zero research to back this up- a question is presented to us today: is it possible that one, or some, of all of the Magi who came to visit Jesus were women?

Could it be that farfetched?

Look at religions and spiritual communities throughout the world and what do we see?

In the Yoruba culture of Africa there is a group of women called the Iyami-aje or “powerful mothers” who use their gifts for the well-being of community, fertility of the land, healing, political empowerment, and hold onto the principal of “share everything.”

In the ancient Greek world of gods and goddesses, there were women who were priests, who led rituals at homes and in the temple, dealt with issues of soldiers leaving for war, fertility, strengthening family identity, and traveled for festivals and to visit shrines.

In America, we have the indigenous community with women and men called “Two Spirit” people who would fall under today’s LGBTQ umbrella.

They were widely believed to be the result of supernatural intervention in the form of dreams and in many tribes they were the healers, shamans, witch-doctors and ceremonial leaders.

So if those in Greece, Africa and the Americas could have women who were conjurers, priestesses, and healers, how hard can it be to think that there were female Magi who were capable of reading the stars, paying attention to the elements, and willing to make a 1,000 mile journey to honor the birth of a child who was said to be King of the Jews?

Now, does any of this really matter?

Does our faith hang on how many Magi were there, or from where they came from, or what color was their skin or what sex they were?

Maybe not, but our faith can be illuminated by allowing ourselves to ask these questions and revisit the story.

And there is an element of today’s narrative that is perhaps most important- what is the purpose of their visit and what is it they do?

They journey so they can show their respect. They come as an expression of admiration and adulation. They come to revere the Christ-child.

They arrive as a simple, pure act of worship.

They have no known agenda. They begin their journey with no known motive other than to pay homage.

They also come with something else: generous spirits. They come bearing gifts. Gifts from the heart.

The Magi travel from nearly 1,000 miles to worship God with symbols of generosity-

Note how when they arrive at the house which Jesus and Mary are at, they kneel, they give praise, they open their treasures.

They have no special request. They come with no personal plea. There is no quid pro quo. There is no seeking of anything in return.

Note how the spirit of generosity emanates from them, offering aromatic incense, fragrant perfume, and everyone’s favorite- money.

These are not poor-intentioned gifts, or last minute items picked up at the Dollar Tree or Ollie’s Bargain Outlet.

These are gifts chosen, carried, and presented in an act of generosity and worship that says “Gracious Good Shepherd, we have come to give you praise.”

…You know, I have been so thankful for this Advent and Christmas season. The journey we have all made together towards Bethlehem, the chance to come to the manger, and to follow a star.

Part of the joy has been finding the ways in which God truly surprises us, even today.

How every time we read scripture, every time we journey back to our sacred text, every time we step back from what we think we know, or what we’ve been told,

we discover that there can be another way to view things, that there may be another possibility, that things could have happened another way.

We discover that God is still trying to tell us something. God is still surprising us. There is always so much more of the story that can be told.

As the hope-filled glow and generous spirit of Christmas comes to a close today we are thankful that we have had a chance to worship. We have a chance to journey here, bearing heart-felt gifts.

And just like the Magi, we have the chance to journey home, but to leave another way and a little bit different than when we began.

For that we can say “Amen.”