Sunday, March 24, 2019

Disappointing God; March 24, 2019 sermon on Matthew 22:1-14

Rev. George Miller
March 24, 2019
Matthew 22:1-14

How do you express disappointment?

How do you teach respect?

Disappointment can be expressed through the words we use; such as when someone says “You let me down,” or sends a message that reads “I was really disappointed when…”

But disappointment is perhaps best expressed through the non-thinking part of communication: a person’s body language, their facial expressions, and their vocal tone.

That’s because those things involve energy and emotion, creating a moment that the body, the mind and the spirit can actually experience and feel.

Growing up as a child, I was raised in a family that used various forms of discipline- denial of TV privileges, the wooden spoon, and the infamous “go to your room.”

But of all experiences, the one most remembered and with me today, is the time I did something so disrespectful, so bad, that all my father could do was look at me with pained eyes, and say-

“I am so angry with you right now that I can’t even punish you.”

That moment of non-punishment was the worse punishment I’ve ever received.

It meant that I had really, really hurt my father’s heart…

Then there is the concept of respect.

Earlier this week the internet was all aflutter in regards to an old video of Maya Angelou that had resurfaced.

The video was from a talk show in which a 14 year-old girl referred to her as “Maya.”

And Dr. Angelou’s response was instant-

“First, I’m Miss Angelou; I’m not Maya. I’m 62 years old. I have lived so long and tried so hard that a young woman like you, or any other…has no license to come up to me and call me by my 1st name.”

The audience applauded, and then she continued “Also, because at the same time I am your mother, I am your auntie, I’m your teacher, professor…”

As you can imagine everyone with a Twitter account chimed in on if they thought Dr. Angelou’s response was appropriate or not.

There were those who felt she was harsh, and too quick to correct.

But many others understood that Dr. Angelou was using a time honored technique of taking on the role of elder, teaching the young woman the importance of social standards that will empower her in the long run.

It could be said that Dr. Angelou was using a technique called “gentle severity.”

Gentle severity refers to people who use consequences and push their students, children, teammates, co-workers to strive for their absolute best.

Think of that piano teacher who says “Again.” The coach who assigns pushups for missed practice.

Or Jesus who said “Many are called, but few are chosen…”

…What we have here in today’s reading is one of the most frustrating, in your face, “what the heck?” teachings from Jesus Christ.

This is Jesus doing his absolute best to rile emotions, poke the bear, and stir the hornets’ nest.

You know how there is the TV show “How To Get Away with Murder”? Well today’s reading could be titled “How To Get Yourself Murdered.”

If you recall, a few weeks ago Jesus revealed to his followers that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer, and die.

Well, Jesus is now in Jerusalem. He is literally a few days away from death, and it’s as if Jesus is intentionally doing everything he can to ensure the nails will be pounded into his flesh.

It is the holiest time of the year. The city is full of religious folk from all over the ancient world who have come to celebrate the Passover.

Which also means all the political leaders are there to put in their face time, and an entire army of soldiers are there to provide protection.

And in this political, cultural, religious hot bed, Jesus turns up the heat by publicly teaching a parable about kingdoms, kings, slaves, business owners, soldiers, undesirables, and a man wearing inappropriate attire.

…sounds like 2019, doesn’t it?

Even more daring, he does it in front of the very religious leaders who want him arrested.

His parable is about a king who creates a banquet, but brutally kills all those who refuse to attend. Then the same king welcomes the unwelcomed…but kicks out a man for not wearing the right robe.

What happened to “No matter who you are, here you are…you are welcome here”?

What happened to last week’s vineyard owner who called us “Friend”?

Why would Jesus teach such a thing?

…and the most honest answer I can give is “I don’t really know.”

We can guess.

If parables are meant to teach us about the nature of God…and God is supposed to be represented by this violent and precarious King…I don’t know if I want to believe in or worship this God.

I want the gentler, all accepting, ooey-gooey, sitting on the front porch, lemonade sipping image of God.

Not the God who burns cities down and banishes people to outer darkness.

So…what could Jesus possibly be trying to tell us about the nature of God?

I think…I think that one lesson Jesus is trying to articulate is God’s disappointment when we do not accept God’s goodness and generosity.

I think Jesus is using extreme acts of violence and rage as a way to express just how extremely hurt and sad God becomes when we don’t respond to or embrace God’s gifts.

I think Jesus is trying to say “Look- look at all God has done for you- the green grass, the yellow lemons.”

“Look at all God has given you- forgiveness, freedom, love.”

Maybe Jesus is using extreme images of emotion to say “But when you don’t acknowledge or accept any of these things it breaks God’s heart, it makes God sad, and it disappoints God when you act like you don’t know no better.”

Jesus could have said that; but would it have made a difference? Would it have been heard? Would it have left a mark?

Probably not.

God’s hurt. Boo hoo; get over it!

But to express God’s disappointment and pain through an act of vengeance and an angry army- now that has power, that creates lasting images that make us have to rethink what we do.

It can be argued that the more violent, destructive, annihilation that takes place indicates just how hurt God really, truly is…

If that is true, then in today’s parable Jesus is presenting a truly painfully sad and wounded God who wanted nothing more than to share a meal with us.

And notice how not only did the people decline the invitation once, but they did so twice, making fun of the invitation, going back to their businesses, and killing the messengers.

Think of how much is must have pained the King to have set the table with the most delicious foods only to be ignored and made fun of…

Today’s reading is not an easy one. We haven’t even scratched the surface. We have not touched upon the many meanings of the wedding robe or the gnashing of teeth.

But this morning we are invited to balance this image of a king who is so hurt, so upset that his invitation has been declined, and for us to think about our own ways that we have declined, ridiculed, and forsaken the Lord.

Are there ways we can rectify those moments? Are there ways we can make amends?

How can we respect and better receive the generosity that the Lord so much wants to share with us all?

There are no sure steps; there are no clear instructions, but there is time, and there is promise, and there is the assurance that it is never too late to say “Yes Lord” and to put on the clothes of righteousness.

For that, let us say “Amen”.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

God of Grace; God Of Time; March 17, 2019 sermon

Rev. George Miller
March 17, 2019
Matthew 20:1-16

In the beginning, when the earth was a dark and formless void, God’s breath moved over the waters and God said “Let there be light…”

…and WOW!

There was day and there was night, and there was sky and there was ocean.

There were red tomatoes, and green grass, and yellow lemons!

There were stars in the heavens and great lights in the sky; sharks, and turtles, and cats, and sandhill cranes.

And there was woman and there was man and there were family and friends and grandbabies and uncles and aunties.

And on the 7th day God say “Whew! I’m tired.”

So God pulled up her favorite rocking chair, and sat on the front porch overlooking the galaxy, sipping some lemonade, and resting his feet.


Time danced on. There was the Rainbow Rumba. The Sarah Slide. The Joseph Jump. The Moses Mash.

Then it came time for the Ten Commandments 2-Step.

And amongst all the instructions given, God said “Remember the Sabbath. Keep it holy; keep it blessed.”

“Don’t stress yourself out with work, but join me on the front porch, and let’s chill out with a cool glass of lemonade, as we both enjoy Creation.”

…Time is a holy and sacred to God.

Time is the one thing that unites each and every person here on earth.

No matter how rich, no matter how poor, no matter how black, no matter how white, no matter how old, no matter how young, we all experience the same tick of the clock.

Every second, every moment, we all experience in equal measures: the same 60 minutes, the same 24 hours.

Time is a universal sanctuary that surrounds us all.

That’s one reason why the Sabbath is considered holy. It is a way in which we acknowledge that time belongs to God, and not to us.

Which brings us to today’s reading.

Jesus is on his final trip to Jerusalem, meaning he is just days away from his death.

His earthly time is coming to an end, so each moment is precious; each teaching is vital.

And here Jesus is, doing what he’s so good at- telling a parable meant to make us think about the nature of God.

Perhaps it is fitting, now that all the disciples know that Jesus is going to soon die, that Jesus shares a parable that has time as its basis.

Jesus talks about a vineyard and a landowner who seeks and finds.

Jesus talks about different periods of time. Jesus talks about pay.

He toys with our human concept of time, and our worldy way of adding monetary value to time; the notion that those in the vineyard longest should receive more.

Yet Jesus surprises us when he says that each person receives the same thing from the landowner.

Does time not seem to matter to the Master?

Why does he equally give to all no matter who they are and where they landed on the clock?

…Think about time, and what a wonderful wibbly wobbly thing it really is.

How time can appear to be so “fixed” and yet time can be so “fluid.”

How the exact same set of seconds are experienced by us all, but we all do so much different things with our seconds.

How one person can fit so much into their day, when another can barely do a load of laundry and trip to the gym.

Why is it that on vacation you can do more in 24 hours than you can during a week at home?

Or that15 minutes in the post office feels longer than an episode of CSI?

You can go 10 years without seeing your best friend but the moment you set eyes on them it’s as if time has never passed; yet five minutes sitting across the table from someone who can’t carry on a conversation feels like a decade?

…Like any of Jesus’ parables, there is no clear cut analogy that can be made, nor just one lesson to be learned.

This parable is meant to really make us think, to make us ponder, and to make us feel some kind of way about God.

One possible lesson is this-

Since all time belongs to God, God does not measure our time in the vineyard the ways others would.

Each and every one of us has had the most unique faith journey.

If each of you were to see your life with Christ as time working in a vineyard, where would you say you began?

Were you right out there working at 6 am? Were you more like the person who slept until 11 and didn’t get there until noon?

How many of us would say we started in the vineyard at 9 am but walked away for a few hours and didn’t come back until 3?

How many didn’t truly know about Jesus or believed God loved them until they reached that 5 pm mark in their lives?

…and how many here today feel like you are at the 5 pm 59 minute and 59 second mark of your life and you’re still not sure that what you’ve done in the vineyard even constitutes as worthy?

How many have felt the ravages of time and feel bogged down by the shoulda-coulda-wouldas and assume it is just too late?

How many regret that for whatever reason you weren’t able to be there at 6 or 9 am and that perhaps if you were, your whole life would’ve been easier?

…if any of these things resonate with you, I hope you know that right now the Master of the Vineyard is looking out at you and calling you “Friend.”

We say that because there is one part of this parable that is so cool.

In vs. 13, after the workers come to the landowner, grumbling and griping and saying “You did this,” and “you did that,”

the Master responds by simply saying “Friend, I have done you no wrong.”

“Friend.” What a great word to hear.

Here the owner of the vineyard is, being attacked, judged, and questioned, and instead of shouting back, or engaging in name calling, the Master calls them “Friend.”

If a parable is meant to teach us about the nature of God, what a wonderful lesson- that we can question and challenge God, and God will still call us “friend”…

…Are any of you feeling bogged down by a sense of lost time, or regrets, or guilt?

If so, please know that God’s gift for you is the same gift for even the most holy of holy persons: Grace.

Generous, unlimited, amazing grace.

You see, in Christ, it is never too late and it is never too early.

It is never too soon and it is never too far behind.

In Christ there is no expiration date and there are no deadlines.

In Christ there is always time to come to the Vineyard.

There is always time to worship the Lord, to bask in the Son, and to hear the Master call you “Friend.”

The Good News is this:

Not only is the Lord an On-Time God, the Lord is an All-The-Time God.

Meaning that God is ready to bestow upon you grace upon grace upon grace, no matter what the time, morning, noon, or night.

And that we all will get that chance to sit on the front porch with God, sipping our lemonade, looking out upon creation, and saying “Wow, oh wow. Oh wow!”

For that, we can say “Amen and amen”.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Forgiveness; March 10, 2019 sermon on Matthew 18:15-35

Rev. George Miller
March 10, 2019
Matthew 18:15-35

A few weeks ago we studied Matthew 7:1-14 and shared how Jesus sets the bar high hoping that we will exceed; that Jesus wants us to be a Bruno Mars and not a Maroon 5 in the Superbowl Halftime Show of Life.

We discussed that if you are different, you must go beyond what the world expects if you are to succeed- your shoes must be shined and tie on point.

Of course, these are only things you can know if someone taught you.

Now, if we were to put our heads together and pull from our nearly 9,000 years of collectively lived experiences, what would we say are the top 10- 20 things everyone should know in order to live a successful adult life?

How to boil water, cook an egg, fix a flat tire, and balance a checkbook is up there.

What else? What do you suggest???

…If we were to get a step further, and say that you knew your time on earth was limited, what would the pearls of wisdom be that you would want to pass on to your loved ones???

…Last week we studied chapter 16 and 17, and heard how Jesus revealed to the disciples what is about to take place.

Jesus told them again and again the news that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer, and be killed.

No ifs, ands or butts- Jesus is going to die.

It seems that with this bit of information revealed, Jesus’ ministry has changed, and there is a new focus.

In the beginning, Jesus was in the synagogue teaching. He was on the mountains calling people blessed; miraculously feeding the masses. He was by the seashore healing the sick, eating with sinners, walking on water.

But now, with the news of his death, it seems as if Jesus has switched up his ministry to telling his followers how to live without him.

In chapter 18 he talks about humbling oneself like a child, he warns them about causing others to sin, and to not despise others.

Today, he teaches about church relationships, reconciliation, and forgiveness, and in Jesus’ true fashion, he doesn’t make things easy, he speaks in extreme hyperbole, and he sets the bar super, super high.

If you notice, in the 1st part of today’s reading, Jesus does not sound very UCC. He does not say “No matter who you are, or where you are, you are welcome here.”

Matthew reports Jesus as saying that there is a specific way to handle sinful behavior within the church, and if it cannot be worked out one-on-one, or three-on-one, or in front of the whole congregation, it is best for that person to be let go.

But in the same breath Jesus tells Peter we are to forgive not 7 times, not 17 times, but 77 times.

Then Jesus shares a parable about a servant forgiven of a large debt but having an unforgiving heart.

Let’s be honest here- how do we even begin to preach about forgiveness?

Forgiveness is perhaps the hardest thing there is in the human experience.

We can talk about being housework- if your floor is dirty, sweep it!

If you have dishes in your sink-wash them!

But how do you address something so emotional, so relational, so circumstantial as forgiveness?

Learning how to forgive is like learning how to fold a fitted sheet- nearly impossible.

After all, how many of us here today are mad at someone, and not only are you not ready to forgive, you wouldn’t know how even if you wanted too?

How many of you at this moment are either currently mad at me or have been mad at me in the past?

Or mad at the council, or someone sitting in the pews, or up here on the chancel?

How many are mad at someone who severely, permanently, or violently hurt someone you loved, and no amount of forgiveness can ever undo what’s been done?

…How many here today may be mad at themselves???

And Jesus says to forgive not 1x or 7x, but many many times?

Then this story about a king who forgives his servants extremely high debt?

Perhaps this is like Matthew 7 in which Jesus is setting the bar super high so that we succeed.

Perhaps this is Jesus acknowledging that humanity’s ability to forgive one another is not like a magic wand that is waved and “poof!” it happens right away.

Perhaps this hyperbole is a way for Jesus to acknowledge just how difficult true forgiveness really is.

That true forgiveness takes time, takes practice, takes many, many attempts.

That forgiveness is not about perfect execution, but the fact that we try our best to achieve it again and again.

Maybe this amount of scriptural space and hyperbole is an indication of truly just how important forgiveness is to God.

Perhaps Jesus is speaking in poetic extremes because he knows that as human being, forgiveness is perhaps the hardest thing we can do.

Mountains can be climbed, oceans can be sailed, the stars can be explored.

But to forgive someone who has truly hurt you beyond repair- that’s hard.

But it matters to Jesus, and it matters to God, and it mattered to the early church, otherwise it would not be here.

Today is a difficult reading to preach upon, because there is no magic solution we can dispense.

There is no witty acronym to give.

There is no step-by-step instruction to tell you how or when to forgive.

There is no shaming you into submission.

There is no way to even start to pretend that I can teach you how, or that I practice an ounce of what I preach.

But I do believe that Jesus is raising the bar in hopes that we exceed; that Jesus wants us to excel, if not for that person’s sake, than for ours.

In the beginning we talked about how if you are different, you must go beyond everyone else to succeed.

This is Jesus acknowledging that we are different; we’re not like everyone else.

We are not like the rest of the world.

We are a heavenly family right here on earth; sisters and brothers of the same God.

And the God who remembers, the God who sets free, the God who parts the seas, the God who feeds from the mountaintop, and saves us from the storms,

Is the same God who wants us to forgive, and to be forgiven.

For that’s part of what being a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven is about.

Amen and amen.

PS- after the sermon, each person is given an index card and encouraged to write down the name of one person they would like to start the process of forgiving. While music is played, they are invited to place their folded-up card in the prayer bowl upon the altar as an offering to God.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Can Praising God and Doing Acts of Ministry Both be Forms of Worship? March 3, 2019 sermon on Matthew 16:24-17:13

Rev. George N. Miller
March 3, 2019
Matthew 16:24-17:13

(This is a character sermon, given as Peter)

As I grow older there are things I forget. But there is 1 week I will always remember-

The week when Jesus revealed to us his destiny and shared with us his glory.

Jesus was heading into the final stage of his time here on earth.

He had taught atop the mountain. Guided us on prayer. Shared parables about the kingdom; set the bar high so we could succeed.

Escaped to a deserted place in which he fed the masses. Walked on water.

Saved me for the storm.

Then he told us his traumatic truth- that he must go to Jerusalem in which he would suffer; he would be killed; that he will rise.

It was too much for us to bear. It was too much for me to bear…

He told us again and again. It hurt more each time he said it.

So, 6 days later when he offered to take me, James and John to a high mountain by ourselves, I was relieved.

A reprieve from all this talk of death and dying.

And then an amazing thing happened…

He began to shine! His face….like the sun. His clothes…like washed in pure light.

He was dazzling!

Then, beside him appeared Moses and Elijah, fellow brothers of the deserted places.

He shone and he shone and he shone and he shone.

And I thought “This is it! This is what it’s all about! This is the Kingdom of Heaven!”

All I wanted to do was to stay there and worship and praise God. So I blurted out “Lord- it is good for us to be here.”

I thought of how much I wanted to stay there forever. I didn’t want to leave that holy space, I didn’t want to leave that holy time.

I just wanted to build 3 places where Moses, Elijah and Jesus could dwell forever and we could worship them until the end of time.

I didn’t want to go back down that mountain. I didn’t want to return to the world we left behind.

I didn’t want to see another hungry face; I didn’t want to hear the groans of the sick.

I didn’t want to touch the hands of the sinner; I didn’t want to smell the stench of the diseased.

I didn’t want to taste another meal beside sex workers and tax collectors.

I was done; I was done. I was tired; tired.

No more, Jesus, no more.

Dealing with the needs of the needy. Putting up with the politics of the political. Squeezing lemon juice from the change purse so we could take care of others.

No more, no more.

I just wanted to be on that mountain worshipping with my Lord…but eventually that moment ended.

The dazzling disappeared; the prophets gone.

We made our way back down the mountain…and immediately we were met by a crowd of people and a man whose son was demon possessed.

Back to work; back to reality, back to Jesus telling us how he was going to be killed and how he was going to be raised.

None of us truly understood what he meant…until it happened for real.

We had entered Jerusalem to great fanfare. Jesus went to the Temple and created a disruption unlike anything we have seen.

And just as Jesus said, he was betrayed by one of our own, he was arrested, humiliated, and crucified.

We thought- what was the point? Why did we just do all that we did? Was it for nothing???

Then that Sunday morning, an amazing thing happened:

Mary Magdalene and other women came and shared with us the most unbelievable news- that they had met Jesus along the way.

He was not in the tomb. Death did not have the final say. He had been raised.

Jesus told them that we were to meet him in Galilee.

Galilee- that place has so many memories.

It was in Galilee that Jesus had begun his ministry; it was in Galilee beside the sea that he called me and my brother to follow him.

It was in Galilee that we first experienced what ministry with Jesus was like- he taught in the synagogue, shared the good news, reached out to the sick, the afflicted.

It was in Galilee that Jesus went up the mountain and told the poor, the sad, the hungry, that they are blessed, heirs to the kingdom of heaven, light to the world and salt of the earth.

And now, atop that same mountain in Galilee, we looked out and we saw Jesus, and we saw that he had indeed been raised from the dead.

And we worshipped, and we praised.

And the resurrected Christ made it be known to us that we were now empowered to do the same things we had witnessed Jesus do.

“And remember, I am with you always, until the end of time,” Jesus said.

And something happened…something happened within me, within all us disciples.

In light of the resurrection we began to remember all that Jesus had said, all that Jesus had done, all that Jesus had taught, and realized that he truly was the Son of God.

And we began to realize something else:

All those things we had done, all the tasks we had been doing, they weren’t just work, they weren’t just chores…they were all forms of worship.

That every time we saw a hungry face and responded, we were performing an act of worship.

Every time we heard the groans of the sick, and offered comfort, we were performing an act of worship.

Every time we touched the hands of the sinner, we were performing acts of worship.

Every time we smelt the stench of the diseased and did not turn away, we were performing an act of worship.

Every time we tasted a meal beside sex workers and tax collectors, we were performing an act of worship.

Every time we dealt with the needs of the needy, put up with the politics of the political, and squeezed lemon juice from the change purse, we were performing acts of worship.

We realized that praising God and doing the ministry of Jesus are not two exclusive things, but both viable forms of worship.

This was a revelation for me.

I had thought that praise and mission were different.

But since the resurrection, I’ve come to realize that I can praise Jesus on the mountaintop when he is dazzling before me, AND I can also praise Jesus on the ground by showing compassion to those before me.

I can worship Jesus in a holy space and a holy time, AND I can worship Jesus by visiting a friend who is sick or someone who is not doing well.

I can worship Jesus by offering songs of praise, AND I can worship Jesus by offering some of what I have.

This does not mean the way is always easy; it does not mean we still do not feel overwhelmed from time to time.

Sometimes we look out at all the pain and suffering in the world and want to shout “It is too much!”

But then we look at what we can do, no matter how small it seems, and we say “Yes Lord, let us worship you.”

And we realize that every time we do justice, every time we love being kind to another, and every time we humbly walk with the Lord, we are indeed worshipping God.

And that has made all the difference. Amen.