Monday, July 22, 2019

Letter to the Editor sent July 22, 2019 re: Miquel Arceo's recent column

I'm writing with great respect and admiration for Miguel Arceo's latest "Viewpoints From a Teenager." In my opinion, his assessment of the President's behavior is spot-on and his ability to address it from a non-partisan viewpoint is exactly what we, as a nation, need. It is encouraging to see an articulate young man use his words carefully to express what so many are thinking, but too afraid to sate. I hope Mr. Arceo continues to write and that the News-Sun continues to publish his column.

Sincerely, George Miller

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Sometimes Being Solo Is What Saves the Soul; Message for July 21, 2019; Acts 17: 16-33

Rev. George Miller
July 21, 2019
Acts 17:16-33

Last Friday the ARC Foundation held a fundraiser called Heels That Heal, celebrating women in philanthropy.

One of the guest speakers was a dear friend and community organizer, Aisha Alayande from Drug Free Highlands.

Aisha spoke of the importance of listening to your body. She spoke about the importance of family.

Perhaps most importantly, she spoke about the need to find and form your own “tribe”- that group of individuals in which you can always be yourself, be authentic, and be vulnerable with.

For some people in the room, this use of the word “tribe” was a new one, and it became a part of that night’s vocabulary, appearing in various conversations and Facebook postings.

It can be said that in the Book of Acts we have been following the ways in which people like Paul have been building their own tribe; a tribe founded on Jesus Christ.

Paul’s tribe began with Ananias, who had the courage to call him “Brother.”

Paul’s tribe expanded when he bonded with Barnabas, strengthened souls is Syria, and joined the gang in Jerusalem.

Paul’s tribe grew and grew as he announced the Good News in Antioch, spent time with Timothy, set sail with Silas, and sat down with Lydia outside the gates of the city.

Paul’s tribe included a throng of powerful women in Thessalonica, and a burly band of brothers in Bereo.

And then…it came to a screeching halt.

Due to an uproar from the Religious Right, Paul’s life became endangered.

He is separated from his traveling companions and sent to Athens, all alone….

There is no more tribe.

No cohorts, no friends, no family.

No Timothy, no Silas, no Peter, no Lydia, no Golden Girls or Silver Guys.

Just Paul, in a strange new land, with strange new customs, with shrines all over the place devoted to deities who don’t even have names.

It is beyond “magenta.”

I wonder how many people here today have an inkling of what Paul must have been going through.

To be all alone in a place with people you don’t really know. No family, no friends, no church.

No one who thinks like you do, talks like you do, believes as you do.

Add to this the fact that Paul’s faith is still brand new and seen by everyone as awkwardly odd.

Paul is the lone follower of Christ in a community of folk who still hold onto the old ways, believe in Zeus or have no belief at all.

So not only is Paul alone, abandoned in Athens, he has not a single person to sing “Jesus Loves Me” with.

He has no one to recite “The Lord’s Prayer” with.

He has no one to break the bread and share the cup with.

Paul is that single, solitary sparrow in a world of strange shrines and curious customs…

On the surface, today’s scripture sounds triumphant, but if you read between the lines you discover that it’s about a very real person going through the very real aspect of what it means to be all alone.

If this was a movie, there were would be that montage filmed in blacks and greys in which a French accordion would play as we watch Paul wander through the streets of the city.

We would see Paul walk along endless storefronts, passing endless shrines as it rains.

He would be sitting alone in a café watching couples kiss and laugh.

Paul would be that guy coming home, popping a tv dinner into the microwave and eating it in silence while watching TV.

That Paul did not lose his faith in God or lose sight of the Good News is absolutely amazing.

With nary a tribe in sight, he just keeps on keepin’ on.

…That’s what faith in Christ can do…

Without anyone else by his side, Paul sets out to do what he can.

He speaks up.

He reaches out.

He talks so much that the locals label him as “The Babbler”…

…but eventually the people begin to listen; they want to know; they become curious; they request to hear more about the resurrection.

As it turns out, all those lonely days, all those woeful walks through the park has paid off, because Paul is able to use what he has seen to share what he knows to be true.

By being alone and having no one else but Christ to confide in, he conjures up a conversation no one was prepared for-

“You see that shrine over there,” he says with the confidence of a natural born man, “That shrine devoted to an unknown god? Well let me tell you just who that god is; and let me tell you what God has done!”

While standing amidst a throng of over-thinkers, in a place of people who put philosophy over personhood, Paul tells them all about God-

God the creator, God who is unlimited, God who can take one ancestor and make a nation.

But more than that, I think what Paul is actually doing is preaching to himself.

That at this moment in which he has been abandoned by his tribe, he has been shipped off and left on his own, in which he has spent countless days, hours, weeks by himself…

…Paul is preaching to remind himself just who he is and what God is about.

Paul is reminding Paul who God is-

Not consigned to one place, not stuck to one building, not limited by circumstances or geography or people who look or act or think as you do.

How God can take one ancestor; one single sparrow, and create an abundance, a flock, a nation…a tribe.

Paul tells them, and in essence tells himself, and tells us, that no matter what- GOD. IS. THERE.

Even if we have to search; God is there.

Even if we have to seek out; God is there.

Even if we have to wait, wrestle, or walk it alone; God is there.

And when we discover that no matter what, God is there, we can live, and we can find belonging.

As result of Paul’s preaching, pay attention to what happens- he ends up finding a new group of folks, he ends up discovering a new tribe.

Dionysus and Damaris join him as do others, and a brand-new chapter begins.

Today’s scripture is a reminder that the Christian story is one about always moving forward, always creating, co-creating and celebrating new communities.

Of reaching out and finding out that there are others reaching back.

Today’s story is a reminder that God is not limited to or found only in shrines and buildings and people and places that are familiar, but that God can also be found in the strange places, the new places, and the lonely places.

That God can be found within ourselves, and in the stories that we share.

Perhaps most of all, God is found in the communities we create and the tribes that we form, in which Christ is the center and the Holy Spirit moves through all.

Amen and amen.

Monday, July 15, 2019

We Worship An "Out" God; Sermon on Acts 16:1-15

Rev. George Miller
July 14, 2019
Acts 16:1-15

Good morning Emmanuel UCC! Are you ready to play a game?

It’s called the Game of Opposites.

For example the opposite of “Silver Guys” is…."Golden Girls.”

So let’s start. The opposite of night is…..

The opposite of enemy is…
The opposite of man is…

The opposite of white collar is…
The opposite of last is…

Finally, the opposite of in is….

Today’s scripture is a beautiful story about opposites and historic 1sts.

Picture it- Europe in the 40’s. Not the 1940’s, but the 40 40’s.

The time- Saturday, the Sabbath, when folk rest after a long week of work.

The place- beside a river outside the gates of the mighty city.

The people- an assortment of wildly diverse folk:

-Women who are sitting by the river.

-Timothy- the son of a mixed marriage.

-Paul- a former thug who used to go by the name of Saul.

-Lydia- an immigrant woman who sells clothe to the rich and famous.

How they come together and what they accomplish is a testimony to how God works, the Spirit moves,

and how just good it is when Christ is used as an olive branch and not as a weapon.

Last week we witnessed Saul breathing hot hate against the Christians, but after an encounter with Christ, he’s welcomed by Ananias as a Brother, has a new mission and a new name-Paul.

Paul has channeled all the angry energy he once used for hunting down Christians into his new mission- proclaiming The Good News.

He has gone here; he has gone there. He’s been on land; he’s been on boat. He’s been adored; he’s been despised.

He’s had great successes; he’s had major flops.

Paul and his companion Timothy were all set to go to Asia when for some reason, God said “No.” Instead a vision sends them to Macedonia, in Europe.

Here, in the subtlest of stories, and the quietest of moments, amidst the gentle bubbling of the river, a revolution takes place.

In a world in which everyone longs to be “in”, they choose to be “out.”

Pay close attention to the words of today’s scripture, and you’ll see.

Paul and Timothy are in the city after traveling hundreds of miles. But on the day of Sabbath they choose to leave the city and go outside of its walls.

That’s like being on vacation in Orlando and choosing to visit Apopka.

Or being in the 7th grade lunchroom and leaving the table of jocks and cheerleaders to sit with the math wizards and theatre nerds.

Once outside of the city, Paul and Timothy see a bunch of women sitting by the river, and they do the most unheard of thing- they sit down.

Back in the day Pharisees were told that talking with women was an act of evil and could lead them to hell.

Yet here Paul is, taking the stance of a teacher and sitting with the women and talking with them as peers.

Not just any women; for among them is at least one strong, independent, foreign woman named Lydia.

See, Lydia was not from Macedonia; she was from a place called Thyatira. She was not married; she was most likely widowed, single, or “other.”

She was not helpless; she had her own business and her own household to run.

She dealt with purple clothe- an expensive product that only the royal, the rich, or their escorts could afford.

And the process of making purple dye was not pretty, for it involved among other things crushed seashells, animal urine, and hard work, which often left people’s hands permanently stained.

So here are the heroes and sheroes of our story:

Timothy who is from a mixed marriage.

Paul who used to be Saul; the Angry Pharisee.

And Lydia- an immigrant woman.

All literally sitting on the outskirts of society, beside the river, talking about Jesus Christ, building relationships, sharing stories.

Each sitting on equal, level, ground…

…and something beautiful happens.

The Lord opens Lydia’s heart; she listens eagerly with enthusiasm…

…and Lydia and her entire household become baptized…

…and get this…

…this immigrant outsider becomes not only the first Christian convert in all of Europe…but her home also becomes the 1st European church.

If that is not a testimony to what God can do, what is?

If this story is a not a display of how the Holy Spirit exceeds all preconceived conditions; what is?

If this story doesn’t show that in Christ there is no east and west, there is no slave or free, there is no Jew of Gentile, there is no male or female, there is no in or out; what does?

Today’s reading is a glorious telling of how the Holy Spirit moves and shapes and informs and works on its own time, in its own place, with people we could never imagine coming into our lives.

Today’s story takes the very notion of opposites and turns it inside out, upside down and says “LOOK! Look what Christ can really do!”

Today’s story also does something else. It teaches us a valuable lesson-

Sometimes the biggest changes take place with the smallest of steps.

Sometimes revolutions don’t involve big bangs but tiny movements.

Yes- there are some revolutions that require boxes of tea tossed into the sea, or trash cans tossed through windows, or hundreds of people gathering at Homestead.

And yet…sometimes the biggest revolutions take place when ordinary folk of different backgrounds sit beside one another, when stories are shared, and actions of hospitality are extended.

Sometimes the most revolutionary thing we can do is to be unapologetically ourselves…and to allow others to be unapologetically them.

Sometimes the most revolutionary thing is not pandering to the A-listers, or the in-crowd, or those in-status,

but it is going to where the outsiders are, the ones who have stained hands, the ones society has said “no” too.

Isn’t that what God did when the Hebrew slaves were set free?

Isn’t that what the magi did when Mary had no place to rest her child?

Isn’t that what Ananias did when he greeted Saul as Brother?

So often we think the answer lies inside the gates where everyone else is; with the popular people who seem to be doing everything right.

But the Good News of Jesus Christ says something different.

Sometimes the answer lies with the very ones we would normally overlook and miss.

The ones we would naturally keep away may be the very ones who hold the key to a new beginning.

The last can be first. The lost can be found. The stained can become clean.

The old can become new; the outsider can become the biggest in.

In Christ there truly are no limits, there are no boundaries, there are no periods or final words.

In Christ there are constantly new beginnings, new chapters, and new friends to discover.

For that, we can say “Amen.”

Letter to the Editor; sent July 15, 2019 re: Concern over President's Leadership

Dear Editor, As a Christian pastor, I've grown increasingly concerned about the leadership of President Trump. July 4 he stated there were airports during the American Revolution. The ICE raids appear to be an orchestrated attempt to strike fear into people of color. His telling certain Congresswomen on July 14 to go back to their countries is misogynistic. It's vital that we are honest with ourselves- every single one us (pro- and anti-Trump) know EXACTLY what his "go back" statement means and the prejudice behind it. Not only am I pastorally concerned about our President, I'm concerned about anyone, especially public figures, who still support him. We are long past the point in which any of his behavior is to be admired, deemed acceptable, American, or reflective of Christ's teachings.
Sincerely, Rev. George Miller
Emmanuel UCC

Sunday, July 7, 2019

What We Call One Another Makes All the Difference; Sermon on Acts 9:1-25

Rev. George Miller
July 7, 2019
Acts 9:1-25

Today’s rather lengthy reading is such a vital moment for the church and one of its most illuminating-

The #1 threat to the Good News becomes the biggest proponent of the Christian message.

Today’s reading is not just about the Resurrected Christ, or about Saul.

It is about a man named Ananias who calls Saul “Brother”, and a community that welcomes him in when they could’ve easily shut him out.

Grace and mercy; mercy and grace.

So let’s get going-

The Holy Spirit has been moving through the early church.

Peter has found his voice; a man who was crippled has been given a new lease on life.

Philip has discovered that he can preach and heal. The Court Official from Ethiopia has been welcomed into the family of Christ.

But in the midst of all these events are the hot, violent storms of persecution coming from a man named Saul.

Saul is an overly exuberant Pharisee who is all about keeping things “as is.”

He’s a young, high achiever who believes it’s either the right way or wrong way, and Christianity is the wrong way.

So Saul wages a war against all things Christ. He’s going into folks homes, dragging them out.

He’s ravaging their places of worship. He’s sending folks to jail. He’s going to their trials just so he can vote to have them killed.

He sets religious traps to weed believers out, and he gets local officials to approve all the havoc he can create.

In other words, Saul is his very own ICE unit, and he’s after Christians.

Today’s story begins with Saul breathing hot hate against the disciples.

He’s gone to the higher ups seeking permission to travel to Damascus to capture more followers of Christ.

Men or women, it doesn’t matter to Saul, just as long as he can drag them back to the state capital and have them persecuted.

But here’s the thing- Damascus is 140 miles away; a week’s journey.

In a world before Facebook, planes, trains, and UBER, why would anyone care what grown folk are doing so far away in the privacy of their own homes and houses of worship?

I don’t care how athletic you are or how much you track your exercise on a FitBit, who in their right mind would waste their life taking 280,000 steps so they can bust into churches and rip people from their pews?

What was really going on with Saul that he felt he had this righteous need to hunt out and humiliate anyone who did not believe as he did?

There is passion for what you love; and then there is obsession with what you hate…

It seems that traveling 140 miles is a bit much.

So we got to wonder- What was Saul really storming off to? OR- what was Saul really running away from?

Cause no one puts that much effort into hurting others unless they themselves are dealing with great hurt.

…We will never know what Saul was really, really dealing with, internally.

What we can focus on though, is how Saul was received after his miraculous encounter with the Resurrected Christ.

As Acts tells us, Saul experiences a bright light, hears a voice call out his name, and is struck blind.

He is left helpless in the wilderness; MAGENTA; and requires the help of others to make his way into town.

The Saul who had planned to storm in breathing hot flames of fire, is escorted like a helpless babe who needs to be bathed and fed.

There, he is greeted by one of the very people he had planned to arrest, a man named Ananias.

Ananias knows exactly who Saul is; he knows what Saul is all about; but inspired by God, Ananias goes to where Saul is, lays his hands on the very man who meant to hurt him and everyone he knew…

…and calls him “Brother Saul.”

Not “Pharisee”. Not “Persecutor”. Not “Police Officer”.

Not “Mr. Mad-At-The-Whole-World-And-Everybody-In-It.”

But “Brother.”

Brother Saul.

…Because names have POWER, and names affect how we see, are seen, and how we treat one another.

Please allow me to share a personal story:

Years ago I was living off of Dinner Lake, in an apartment complex made up of families who were from Sebring.

We’re talking about individuals who have a southern drawl, aren’t afraid of gators, like their cigarettes, their beer, their country music, and their guns.

Here I am, from the north, gay, church pastor, listening to Lalah Hathaway, and living in the “Lake House” by the water, while everyone else was in the concrete apartments up the hill.

One Sunday after service, I came home wanting nothing more than to relax, but my neighbors were down by the water, blasting their music, talking loud, jumping off the dock, catching fish.

I just wanted to lay out on my porch and fall asleep but that’s hard to do when folks are cranking their country.

I was feeling so angry, but decided I was not going to be “that guy.” I was not going to be that snobbish Yankee killjoy.

So I grabbed a bottle of Tequila that had been languishing in the fridge, all the shot glasses I could find, and made my way to the water… and was I ever well received!

Folks gathered round. Drinks were poured. Toasts were made. And the afternoon was spent talking, chatting, swimming, and just being neighborly.

But here’s the biggest thing- my name was changed. One person called me “Bubba.” Another called me “Uncle George.”

And I knew enough to know that names like that are not randomly given out; names like that have to be earned; they are a token of affection and of trust.

From that moment on I became part of something I originally felt so angry about.

…and that night, I intentionally fell asleep without locking my doors, because I knew I was now part of a community that could be trusted, that would protect me at any cost, even though I may have been different.

Names, title, and what we call one another makes all a difference.

For example, if you walk into a store or attend an event in which you don’t know anyone but people call you “Chief”, “Papi”, “Mama”, “Fam”, “Sister”, or “Son”, know that what they are really bestowing upon you is an honor that says-

“I SEE you.” “I TRUST you.” “I KNOW you.”

Names make all the difference. Names affect how we are treated; names affect how we act.

For example, the current issue with illegal immigrants. Not many people realize that is not the correct name.

According to our nation’s immigration laws, no one is listed as a “legal” or “illegal” immigrant.

They are either someone who is “in status” or “out of status.”

May not seem like a big deal, but think of how different we as a nation may treat or react to people if we stopped calling someone “illegal.”

Same can be said for physical and mental conditions.

How often have we heard someone described as being “bipolar” as opposed to “living with a bipolar diagnosis.”

How often do we say someone is disabled as opposed to “living with a disability.”

Rev. Andy Conyer of UNITY Church teaches that we are not our emotions, but that we experience our emotions.

In other words, Rev. Conyer suggests that instead of saying “I’m angry,” as if it’s a title, you say “I feel angry.”

Instead of saying “I’m sad,” state “I feel sad.”

It may not seem like a huge shift, but by refusing to be named by one’s emotion, one is free to faithfully address why they feel the way they do.

Names make a difference. Labels make a difference.

How we call one another and are called by one another can shift the very nature of our own personal narrative.

Imagine what could have happened if Ananias had decided not to call Saul “Brother.”

Imagine if he had called him a “Pig” or “Persecutor.”

Imagine if he refused to greet Saul at all, and instead left him standing blindly in a room full of strangers.

Imagine where our faith would be, where the Gospel would be, where WE would be, if Ananias had refused the nudge from God and said “That man is no brother of mine!”

Would we even be here today? Would Emmanuel UCC stand?

Ananias welcomed a call from God, and in return called Saul “Brother”, and it made ALL the difference.

Today we are reminded just how revolutionary it is to be part of the Family of Christ.

That though we are all, in many ways, people living between “magenta” and mountaintops, we are so much more.

We are not just Elaine and Carnide, Curt and Lisa, Sonia and Walter, Betty and George.

But we have other names too.

We are Sisters and Brothers in Christ.

We are Children of God.

We are Sons and Daughters of the Spirit.

We are Beacons of Light.

We are Voices of Change.

We are Hands of Christ.

We are Emmanuel UCC.

In Christ, our names are more than what we have been born with. Our names are more than what we do; or how we feel, or how we act.

Our names are indications of Who We Belong To, what we mean to one another, and who Christ calls us to be to the world.

We are Brothers and Sisters, Hermanos y Hermanas, Frere et Soeur.

Bubbas and Bubbettes.

Praise be to God, Amen!