Wednesday, February 27, 2019

God Meets Us in Our Deserted Places; Sermon for Feb 24, 2019 on Matthew 14:13-36

Rev. George Miller
Feb 24, 2019
Matthew 14:13-36

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was an Egyptian slave-girl named Hagar. She was the property of Sarah and Abraham.

Though she had zero say in the manner, Hagar became pregnant by Abraham and mistreated by Sarah.

So she took control over her life and ran away. She ran into the wilderness. She ran and she ran and she did not stop running until she came across a spring of water.

It was at that deserted place that the angel of the Lord found her, and said “Hagar, child, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

Hagar shared her heartbreaking story and God made her a promise- that she would have a son named Ishmael and she’d become the Big Mama of many.

Realizing she had just experienced a holy space and a holy time, Hagar named the Lord “Elroi” which means “You are the God Who Sees.”

She named the deserted place “Be-er-la-hai-roi” which means “The Well of the Living One Who Sees.”

7 centuries later in another land far, far away there was a 40 year-old man named Moses.

Though he had been raised in a palace, he was now a sheep-herder, watching over his father-in-laws flock.

Moses was in a deserted place, beyond the wilderness, utterly alone.

There, in a burning bush, the Lord appeared, calling out to him:

“Moses, Moses…I AM the God of your father; I AM the God of Abraham. I have heard the cries of my people, and I AM sending you to save them from their captivity.”

Moses was afraid. Moses was unsure. Moses said “But who am I that you would give me such a big responsibility?”

The same God who had spoken to Hagar 7 centuries before in another deserted place, said “Don’t doubt who you are; know that I AM the great I AM, and I will be with you.”

The wilderness plays a special role in the Bible. Deserted spaces appear throughout scripture, from Hagar to Moses, Elijah to the exiles.

These are places of danger and uncertainty, of apparent bleakness and isolation, of being without and therefore totally vulnerable.

Whenever we hear of someone being in a deserted place we are not to think of someone on a spiritual retreat, or taking “me time” to contemplate a tree.

We are to think that they have hit a low spot in their lives, or are facing a harrowing threat, or are in a time of transition.

A deserted place can be a desert, the deep, dark woods, or a secluded mountain way up high.

A deserted place can be an emotional space of fear and loss, worry and uncertainty.

Biblically speaking, a deserted place is many times the place in which God appears and does the unexpected, speaks a new word, does a new thing.

A deserted place is where God can rewrite the narrative from hopelessness into hopefulness.

Hagar flees into the wilderness and discovers that God sees her.

Moses schleps beyond the wilderness and discovers there’s a whole new chapter to his life.

Today, Jesus escapes into the wilderness and performs what is perhaps his greatest miracle.

First, some important back story.

Remember John the Baptist?

How he baptized Jesus in the Jordan? How he told people to repent because the kingdom of heaven is near?

Well, John’s preaching about God’s government has not gone well, and he’s been arrested and executed by Herod.

Now Herod has his sight on Jesus as a threat to the established rule of order.

Upon hearing this news, Jesus leaves as fast as he can, taking a boat to a deserted place. But word gets out and the crowds follow him.

Here Jesus is: his comrade in ministry has been murdered, his life is in danger.

He’s in a deserted place yet surrounded by a multitude of people, meaning his location is no longer a secret.

Night falls and now there are thousands of hungry men, women and children.

And apparently there is nothing to offer them except….except…

…so with nothing else to lose, Jesus instructs them to sit on the green, green grass…

…he takes what little they have, and looks up to the heavens…

…and there is enough for all to eat and be filled, with an abundance of left-over broken and fragmented pieces…

…Hagar ran into the wilderness and God saw…Moses schlepped into the wilderness and God called…Jesus escaped into the wilderness and God fed the multitude…

What an amazing story that defies description, refuses an explanation, and challenges us to believe a miracle of magnificent proportions.

The Kingdom of Herod demands John’s head on a platter, but the Kingdom of Heaven says there is enough food for everyone around.

Today’s scripture is so vital, so elemental to our faith. It is the only miracle of Jesus to be told in all 4 gospels.

When paired with the death of John, the storm at sea, and the healing of the sick, we get a true view of Jesus’ ministry and the ways in which God breaks into our world.

We see how it is not just at wedding parties, or mountaintop classrooms or seashore services that God works,

but how God works in times of fear, God works in deserted places,
God works in times of scarcity,
God works in the storms, and
God works in times of illness and disease.

In some ways Matthew 14 may be the single most important chapter of the New Testament because it really allows us to see how Jesus is human and divine.

It shows us the beauty and the horrors of the world.

It shows both the miraculous and disastrous, side by side.

Matthew 14 shows how God, through Jesus can act in our lives, and what we can expect by living a life of faith.

Today’s reading reminds us that there will always be wildernesses in our lives, there will always be lonely places, and deserted times.

There will always be stormy seas and torturous winds.

There will always be political turmoil and unjust events.

There will always be the sick, the needy, and the hungry.

The Kingdom of the World will say “That’s that! Time to give up. Time to give in. There’s nothing you can do. Nothing good will ever come from a deserted space.”

But scripture tells us another thing; scripture tells us another truth.

The narrative of God’s people tells us that sometimes the wilderness, sometimes the deserted spaces are

exactly where we are supposed to be, exactly where greatness is about to happen.

After all, it is in the deserted spaces that we are most vulnerable, the most exposed, most devoid of all things…

…therefore we are most ready to receive.

Sometimes it is in the deserted places that God is most able to act.

Those in bondage, caught up in the unfairness of life’s circumstances, might be better able to see and hear.

Those in a rut can come across an unexpected fire with a unique voice that says “This is what you are being called to do.”

Those who are gathered, hungry, far from home, can be fed and experience how scarcity can turn into plenty.

Those who are caught in a storm with water up to their neck and harsh winds from every side, can call out to the Lord and experience God’s hand reaching right back.

The Kingdom of the World may tell us “More! Brighter! Bigger! Pop-boom-zing!”

But sometimes, sometimes it is in the complete absence, in complete lack, in complete solitude, in complete loss…

…that the God Who Remembers,
the God Who Sees,
the great I AM

is most ready to heal us,
to save us,
to fill us with the bread from heaven, with plenty left over,
and more surprises yet to share.

For that, we can say “Amen and amen.”

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Aretha Franklin and the Kingdom of Heaven; Feb 17, 2019 sermon

Rev. George Miller
Feb 17, 2019
Matthew 13:24-34

When soul-legend Aretha Franklin died a few months ago, stories started swirling around about her life, her legacy, and her music.

One story in particular stood out. It is said that one night Aretha and her husband got into an awfully terrible, heartbreaking fight.

It was so bad that Aretha stormed out of their home and went for a long, long walk through the streets of the city.

By the time her emotions had cooled down, Aretha went to go home, but she realized that in her anger and haste she had left her pocketbook behind.

All she had was some loose change for the subway. So here she is, The Queen of Soul, riding a subway late at night on this desolate, journey through the bowels of the city, when she sees and overhears a couple across from her.

They are standing by the sliding doors, entangled in a lovers embrace.

“I love you,” the man said to the woman.

“I love you too,” the woman responded.

When the train stops and the doors open, the woman steps out and the man says “Call me the moment you get there.”

Legend has it that Aretha was so touched and inspired by this exchange that as soon as she got back to her place she sat down at the piano and immediately composed one of her greatest songs, “Call Me,” which begins with a word for word repeat of the conversation she had just heard.

Because of a negative experience, Aretha experienced an opportunity to create a tender, heart-felt ode to love that has proven to be timeless.

Because of weeds, she had an unexpected opportunity to create a slice of musical bread that has outlasted whatever anger or fire she and her husband had endured a few hours before.

We never really know, do we, how things will or will not work out in the world.

That is one way we can approach today’s readings.

We are no longer on the mountain with Jesus, but this time beside the sea. Jesus has gotten into a boat as the crowds gather on the beach.

Jesus teaches the people using parables, a rather unique form of storytelling in which the rather ordinary and mundane is used to spark wonder and surprise.

The parables are not straight metaphors, nor are they direct revelations of knowledge. They are more like verbal puzzles in which the pieces are intentionally not meant to fit.

This ancient story telling technique is meant to make a person think, to scratch their head, to feel uncomfortable, to debate, and to further enter into the world of mystery that ancient religions so thrived upon.

Parables are rich with imagery but lean in actual words. They can tell us what we are ready to hear, or what we need to hear.

If you notice, each of today’s parables use the expression “The kingdom of heaven is like…”

We hear this expression so often, we have perhaps grown numb to it.

First, “heaven” is not a word that specifically means a place in the sky we go after we die. Back then “heaven” was a poetic way to refer to God without always having to say God or Lord.

So when Jesus says “Kingdom of heaven” there is a chance he is actually saying “Kingdom of God.”

But there is another component; the political one. Kingdom is a very loaded, powerful word that sparked emotions and created responses in people just as the words “Wall” and “#MeToo” spark reactions today.

Kingdom is another word for empire, or rule, or government.

So Jesus is not just telling a quaint series of parables about wheat and weeds, seeds and birds, yeast and bread.

Jesus is being in-your-face provocative, standing on a boat, speaking to a mass of people around him, saying “The government of God is like….”

“The constitution of God is like…”

“The presidency of God is like…”

If you wonder why Jesus was such a threat, it’s because he used political terms to address spiritual matters.

And in this world of parables, what did Jesus teach about God’s government?

There are numerous interpretations. But one interpretation can be that the government of God is like a field in which both weeds and wheat are allowed to coexist and it’s not for the people to decide who are the weeds that need to be ripped out.

Another interpretation can be that under God’s rule, the smallest of seeds can become a place in which every bird is welcome to make its home and raise their family.

Another interpretation can be that in God’s empire, the simplest of resources can be used to create a feast for hundreds.

Of course, these are just 3 interpretations. You may like them; you may not. You may be nodding your head in agreement; you may be scratching your head in confusion; or you may be shaking your head in anger.

But you got to think, to wrestle, to wonder, and to ride a subway train into the heart of the scripture and see what is there.

But what’s really cool about the parables of Jesus is how often they are about surprise, about the unexpected, and about how the ways of God often go against what the world says is possible or expects.

The world expects a morsel, God provides an abundance.

The world expects the weeds to be immediately ripped up, while God says “wait; be patient; let me deal with this.”

The world expects a tiny seed to become nothing more than a tiny shrub, and God says “Hold my wine and watch how this is going to become the biggest tree you’ve ever seen.”

The world expects a lover’s spat to end in heartbreak and God says “Listen to the melody I am about to place within your spirit.”

After all, in God’s kingdom, we saw how a childless couple was able to give birth to a nation.

In God’s kingdom, we witnessed how a queen saved her people not with weapons but with her words.

In God’s kingdom we are witnessing how Jesus turned an ordinary boat into a pulpit, a mountaintop into a church, and a ragtag group of 12 men into revolutionaries who would change the world.

In God’s kingdom we saw how a manger could hold a king, and how a Cross would mark not the end, but welcome a whole new beginning.

The Kingdom of Heaven is an amazing awareness of reality in which God is present for those who wish to see,

and God is working behind the scenes, using the most mundane, the most unexpected to bring growth, to affect change, and to show God’s eternal love.

God loves us. God invites us to grow. God invites us to gather. God invites us to be fed.

On the mountaintop, by the sea, on the subway, God is there.

In the hardships and obstacles, in the miraculous and mundane, in the ordinary and the extraordinary, God is there.

Amen and amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Why Be a Maroon 5 When Jesus is Challenging Us to be a Bruno Mars; Sermon on Matthew 7:1-14

Rev. George Miller
Feb 10, 2019
Matthew 7:1-14

There’s a saying with so much truth to it: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in heels.”

This statement addresses what it’s like for anyone who can be considered “different” in this world, and how everything you do has to be done better than average.

This ode to Ginger Rogers can be applied when job hunting.

If you are considered different, you learn that you will be scrutinized, so when going in for an interview, your shoes just can’t be polished, they have to be pol-lished.

You can’t just wear a tie: that tie needs to be on point.

You do what it takes to stand out because when you are different, average just won’t do.

It’s a shame that Maroon 5 did not learn this lesson before last week’s Superbowl half-time show.

If you didn’t see the show, or already have forgotten about it, you’re not alone.

Basically Maroon 5 put on a rather average show which was reflected in their wardrobe.

It was like the drummer called Adam Levine and said “Hey- what are you wearing tonight?”

“I don’t know, I was thinking of throwing on a tank top that matches my momma’s living room cushions.”

To which the drummer said “Cool, I was thinking of wearing my gym hoodie.”

Their sartorial choices seemed sloppy, especially when musical guest Big Boi came out, and he’s like “Oh no, that’s not how we do things here in Atlanta!” and he’s wearing a bright red baseball cap with a mink coat.

People on social media immediately took notice of Maroon 5’s rather lazy show. They pointed out how in the past, Katy Perry came in on a lion and danced with sharks.

Beyonce had a bevy of beautiful women dance in Formation.

Bruno Mars and his men moved in synchronized steps while playing instruments and wearing glittery coats.

Lady Gaga skydived down to the stage.

Adam Levine did take off his shirt, but Diana Ross? She did 4 costume changes and flew off in a helicopter.

Yes, in this world some people get to be Fred Astaires while others are the Ginger Rogers.

Some are the Adam Levines, taking the easy way, while others are the Bruno Mars, accepting the challenge to be more.

Today’s scripture asks us- which one do you want to be? Which one do you think God is hoping you will pick?

We are on the mountaintop with Jesus. He is sitting on the green grass looking out amongst all us imperfect, smudged, and sinful people.

He has called us blessed. He has reminded us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

Now, we are coming to the end of his sermon, hearing the final words of his message.

He asks us not to dirty that which is beautiful. Jesus gives us the Golden Rule.

Then he gives us a challenge. He says:

“While the rest of the world finds delight in judging others, you are being asked to first look upon yourself and deal with your own issues.”

Jesus metaphorically hands us a pair of heels and says “You can take the easy average path, or you can take the complicated extraordinary way that leads to true glory.”

And just to make sure we get the point, Jesus says “There are few who find it.”

...“There are few who find it.”

For those who were at Tuesday’s Bible Study, this closing line caused a definite reaction.

“What’s the point?” someone asked.

“What’s the point if we do all these things, and try our hardest, and we pray and we read and we help out, and only a few find it? What’s the point?”

…Ever notice how Jesus is really good at getting a response from folk even 2,000 years later?

How Jesus can still get us to wonder and wrestle?

Now, you can take 5 different preachers who will tell you 10 different theories about what Jesus means, but here’s what my take is…today.

I think Jesus is utilizing an effective tool of public speaking. He’s speaking in absolutes to get us to think; to think really hard about God, and what God really wants for us and from us.

I think Jesus is using the expression “there are a few who find it” not because he wants us to think we can never be part of the few…

…but because Jesus wants us to really
want it,
to work for it,
to go for it,
to give our 100%,
to try our best,
to not give up.

The purpose of Jesus’ sermon is not to say “The road is hard and only a few find it, so give up now, go back to your momma’s house and put on your hoodie.”

No. I think Jesus is saying is “The way to God’s Kingdom is not easy, it’s not average, but you can do it if:
you polish your shoes,
put your best self forward,
go that extra step,
and trust that you are the salt of the earth and a child of God.”

When Jesus says “few find it” he is not telling us to give up or to put on an average half-time show.

Jesus is encouraging you to strive for God’s Kingdom, follow Christ’s teachings, and don’t be afraid to ride in on a lion or take off in a helicopter.

Jesus isn’t trying to discourage us from living holy lives; he is doing his best to raise the bar and set the standards so the world can really see what it means to follow the Lord.

And maybe Jesus is also saying that the path ahead is difficult and not so easy, and you may not find it…for now.

But don’t give up.

If you don’t find it today, you may find it tomorrow, and if you don’t find it tomorrow, maybe next week.

And if not next week, maybe you will find it next month.

And if you fall down while along that narrow, intricate path, just get back up.

Today’s scripture is not meant to scare us away from God, or distract us from our faith.

It is meant to encourage us, to motivate us, to want us to do more and to be more for Jesus.


Because if you haven’t figured this out by now- God wants you to have the best, most righteous life possible.

How do we know that?

Because if God did not want you to have the best life possible God would not have given us purples or blues, yellows or red.

If God did not want us to have the best life possible, God would not have given us B flat, D flat and F.

If God did not want us to be happy, we would not have been given hair we can style, braid, decorate, in various shades of brown, red, blonde, white, and grey.

God would have simply made the world monochromatic, silent, and without style.

If God did not want us to find the best, most righteous life possible, God would not have entered into the world as an infant child.

God would not have walked amongst us in the person of Jesus, talking with us, tending to our hurts, and sharing our meals.

God’s desire for us to find the best life possible even led Jesus to the cross, even while we took the easy route and judged him.

And God’s will for us to find our best life was made very clear 3 days later when Christ was resurrected, told the women “Do not be afraid,” and said to the disciples “Receive the Holy Spirit and forgive.”

Friends, visitors, sisters and brothers in Christ- believing in God is easy.

It’s following the ways of God and the teachings of Christ that are difficult.

But it doesn’t mean that Jesus wants us to give up.

Jesus doesn’t want us to throw up our hands and say “What’s the point?”

Jesus doesn’t want us to put on a tank-top and do a mediocre job.

Jesus wants us to grab life by the heels and say “Let me try this out and give you the best I got.”

Jesus wants us to ride in a lion. Jesus wants us to step in the most flawless formation.

Jesus wants us to let our line shine in the most spectacular display.

Jesus is not setting us up to fail.

Jesus is setting us up to soar.

For that, we can say “Amen.”

Saturday, February 2, 2019

During a Time of High Alert, a Moment to Look at the Lord's Prayer, Sermon for Feb 3, 2019

Rev. George Miller
Feb 3, 2019
Matthew 6:7-18

Currently we are living during a time of anxiety, being on high alert.

Our illusion of safety has been soiled and Eden’s Garden of orange groves, golf courses, and pristine lakes has been shattered by gunshots into the bodies of 5 local women.

Today we’re supposed to hear words of prayer, deliverance, and forgiveness from someone who lived 2,000 years ago.

But how could Jesus speak to us and address issues such as guns, border control, and government shutdowns?

Yes, Jesus may not have lived during a time of guns, but he did live in a world of swords, daggers, and crosses.

He lived in a time of walled off cities.

He lived in a place occupied by the enemy who made their presence known everyday in the temple, in the courtyards, and in the marketplace.

When Jesus taught of daily bread he was not addressing a quick run to Publix, or dashing off to Dunkin’, or meeting your best friend at Panera.

He was referring to the reality that for some people, bread may be the only thing they got to eat all day.

When he referred to the kingdom he was making a political statement because he was not speaking of Rome’s rule or Caesar’s reign, but speaking about God’s kingdom.

The God who gave them land, gave them a promise, and gave them commandments.

When Jesus referred to evil, it was all too real. Those who would strike you on the right cheek or try to take your coat. The demon possessed who were kept chained in the graveyards.

The Roman soldiers who marched down the streets.

Especially as a Jew, Jesus knew the narrative of evil all too well.

How Cain killed his brother Abel over God’s preference for barbeque.

How the Pharaoh had male babies tossed into the Nile.

How Queen Esther bravely risked her own life to save her people from annihilation.

How his own birth caused the murder of innocent children and led his family to flee to Egypt.

Jesus is no naïve waif or out of touch commentator who lived off of a trust fund, or assumed that anyone who was hungry could simply take out a loan.

Jesus was real; he was in touch, in sync with the people and with what was truly going on in his city.

And yet…in the face of fear, in spite of political unrest, in spite of weapons being everywhere you looked…

…Jesus chose hope. He chose trust. He chose relationship.

And when Jesus saw the people, when he saw the crowds of imperfect folk, he made his way up the mountaintop; he sat on the green, green grass.

He looked at all of them- imperfect, scared, wounded, sinful, smudged…

…and he held up the heavenly mirror to them, and he called them blessed.

And then he taught them about issues of anger and oaths and enemies.

And then he taught them how to pray, how to pray to God as if they truly, really knew God and trusted that God truly, really knew them.

Not only that, but he encouraged them to do something brand new- to approach God as Father.

As Papa.

As Daddy…

Jesus instructed them to pray as if they were related to one another as sisters and brothers.

Jesus told them to pray as if God was their heavenly parent.

Jesus encouraged them to ask for the very things any child has the right to expect-

The right to be fed.

The right to be forgiven when they do wrong.

The right to be kept safe.

To be kept safe from-
the bad guys
the boogie men
the creature under the bed
the evil step-mothers
the monsters
the demons
the thing that’s in the closet.

Today’s prayer is a prayer of dependency. It is a way of admitting that we cannot do it alone, that we need help, that we are not weak or wrong for seeking the most basic of things.

It is also a prayer of relationship. A prayer that says we are in this together, we are interconnected, we are united, we are citizens of the same kingdom and children of the same Poppa.

It is a prayer that does not claim to stop the evil or to fill the belly, but it is a prayer that reminds us we are not alone, we are not forgotten, and that we are worthy of receiving what we need.

We cannot undo the events that took place last week. We cannot immediately silence the fears that fill us.

But we can come together as one, we can take our journey up that mountain, and we call upon our Father, and we can request what we need, and know that we will be heard.

And sometimes in a world full of anxiety and fear, that can be “enough.”