Sunday, January 26, 2020

Suffering of Those Who Surround Us; Sermon on Mark 5:1-20

Rev. George Miller
Jan 26, 2020
Mark 5:1-20

Last week we began our sermon by discussing Dr. Martin Luther King and his pilgrimage to non-violence.

This week we begin with another kind of pilgrimage, this one a perilous journey from death into life.

1st-let us set the stage.

Jesus gets into a boat and travels to an unfamiliar part of the world, in which he has a terrifying encounter in a place of the dead.

To fully grasp the mood, think of the movies, more particular, those RKO creature-features shot in black n white

Think of KING KONG, with Faye Wray on the boat traveling to Skull Island where she will soon encounter prehistoric monsters of all kinds.

Today’s reading is meant to evoke that sense of foreboding, but just underneath that sense of danger, there are other emotions-

Isolation. Loneliness. Abandonment.

For just as Faye Wray is about to meet the mighty Kong, the last of his kind, Jesus is about to meet a man, a person who is unlike all the others.

Someone who is so feared, so terrifying, he is made to live by himself, surrounded by death and shackled in chains.

In this place of gloom and doom, demons and death, there is also sadness and solitude.

The man is utterly alone.

Jesus offers him healing, and as a result he can leave behind the skulls and bones of the cemetery.

He is able to re-enter civilization; he is able to re-enter life.

Now, there are so many ways in which we can read scripture.

We can count the number of times certain words are used. We can look for parallels to other ancient tales. We can bring in modern day psychology.

There’s another way to study scripture that often unlocks its many mysteries-

To ask ourselves- who else is in this story? Who else lives in this narrative?

Jesus heals the man and says “Go home…and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.”

Which means the man had a family. He had neighbors. He had friends.

In the beginning of this movie we think we are meeting a monster, but after Jesus steps in, we discover that who we are actually meeting is a man.

A son.
A brother.
A nephew.
A neighbor.
A friend.
An uncle.
A husband.
A dad.

The man is somebody’s somebody.

This man has an encounter with Jesus and is he is restored back into society and back into life.

That’s profound.

If you recall, last week we discussed how Americans tend to view things from the lens of manufacturing and how we “make” things.

There’s also another very American thing we tend to do- we tend to view things from the lens of individualism.

We tend to see ourselves as isolated islands, but that’s not how the world was when Jesus lived.

Back in Jesus’ day, it was all about relationships and society, being part of the community and belonging to something greater than yourselves.

So, today’s story is not just about a man who is possessed by demons; it is about a man who is excluded from being part of the whole.

Because he is deemed unclean, he is not welcome in worship, he is not welcome at work, he is not welcome at the Monday Night Bowling League.

Because of his condition, he is not welcome at his kid’s softball game, he is not welcome in his marriage bed, he is not welcome in his own home.

Therefor, this story is not just about the suffering of one man, but about the systematic suffering of everyone who surrounds him.

So this healing that Jesus offers becomes the very thing that begins the process of restoring the man’s relationships, and healing the others who surround him.

Restoring his family circle. Restoring his community. Restoring his friendships.

Think of the ways in which we are connected to one another.

Think of how when those we care about are tormented, we are tormented too.

That when someone we care about suffers, we suffer as well.

Spouses who see their beloved in the hospital.

Those of us who see our parents struggling in skilled nursing.

Parents who watch their children dealing with addiction.

Siblings who experience how mental illness can ravage a family.

A circle of friends who watch as another self-destructs.

A community heartbroken by a senseless act of violence…

…The man in today’s story suffered greatly.

So did his parents. So did his siblings. So did his spouse. His kids. His neighbors, his co-workers, and his friends.

So when we witness Jesus healing this one man, we realize that Jesus is actually healing many.

This isn’t a movie about one man stuck on Skull Island, who comes before Christ and is healed.

It’s also about the people he told…and the people they told who went on to tell the author of Mark.

This story isn’t just about one solitary man, it’s also about the people who read Mark, and who shared Mark.

It’s about those who hear the Gospel of Mark preached; those who are reading the sermons and watching the videos.

This story is about every one of us here today and everyone across the social media stratosphere who now become recipients of this testimony,

of this one man, who at one time, was left so utterly, completely alone and feared and despised…

Until he has an encounter with the Living Lord.

That’s what can happen when we let Christ into our lives, when we are willing to submit and bow before him.

We can co-create ripples that grow and expand beyond ourselves, that connects, giving hope and inspiring.

This lone man, a discarded thread of a human, has an encounter with Christ, and he is not only brought back from death and into life,

he now becomes a part of the tapestry of our faith.

And for that, we can all give thanks.


Sunday, January 19, 2020

Sow with Generosity; Sow with the Willingness to Fail, Sleep, Be Surprised; Sermon on Mark 4:1-9, 21-32

Rev. George Miller
January 19, 2020
Mark 4:1-9, 21-32

Hear these words from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he writes about his journey into non-violence.

As you listen, pay attention to how the images he uses are similar to today’s reading.

“I do not want to give the impression that nonviolence will work miracles overnight. Men are not easily moved from their mental ruts or purged of their prejudice and irrational feelings.

When the underprivileged demand freedom, the privileged first react with bitterness and resistance…The nonviolent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it.

It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage they did not know they had.

Finally, it reaches the opponent and so stirs his conscience that reconciliation becomes a reality.”

Can you hear some of the parable-like language Dr. King used- overnight, ruts, changed hearts, souls, stirs?

Replace those words with sleep, rocky ground, brought forth, soil, and sow, and we could say that Dr. King is using parabolic language to discuss his particular pilgrimage.

Today we enter into the world of the parables of Jesus.

Parables are not sown to point out clear morals, or to make us feel comfortable.

Parables are meant to make us uneasy, to think on our own, to sew together ways to view God, ourselves, and the world.

Jesus uses parables to illuminate and surprise, relying upon images from his day that people would have understood.

As an agricultural community, his hearers understood about soil, and seasons, and how mustard was a weed.

As modern-day Americans we may not understand these concepts as well. As one author noted, Americans no longer view life through agriculture, but through the lens of production and manufacturing.

We don’t believe we “grow”, but that we “make”- we make time, we make friends, we make a living, we make love. (Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer, 2000, pp. 95-97)

This got me thinking. How do we approach our life and our communal relationship with God?

How do we, as a church, approach sharing the Kingdom of Heaven with others?

The other day I said to someone “I’m about to work on my sermon.”

Was “work” the right word, and was it really “my” sermon?

Could other words be used?

Maybe saying I was about to “grow”, “water” or “get muddy with” the message would have been better.

And whose sermon is it really? Mine? Yours? Ours? The Holy Spirit’s?

Think of the words we would use if we lived in a different kind of culture.

What if our country was purely a culinary based society- we’d talk about ingredients, kneading, and marinating.

What if we were the United States of Sit-N-Stitch? We use words like basting, clipping, and seam allowance.

Think of the what Jesus would use if it was the 1950’s, 80’s, or 2020’s- he’d tell parables that involved hot rods, Donkey Kong and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”!

Parables are like tiny appetizers, one-of-a-kind garments that no one can really tell you how they’re supposed to taste, or what they should look like.

They can feel or taste uncomfortable or bitter, scratchy or sweet, ungathered or overcooked.

Parables can feed your soul or cling too tight, but they will make you think, and in the process, flavor your faith, grow your relationship with God, and weave together ways to experience the world.

So, it is not really my place, or anyone elses, to tell you what these parables are about or how you are to think of them. That is why we omitted verses 10-20, as some people feel they are not the authentic words of Christ.

What we can do, though, is share an idea that sprouted from the soil of my mind- how much seed is sown.

We see a tiny mustard seed that grows into a great shrub. Seed that sprouts while an unnamed someone sleeps.

A sower, so generous with the seeds, throwing them here, throwing them there. They go everywhere- cascading upon paths and rocky ground, falling among thorns, landing upon good soil.

It’s like these sowers, with reckless abandon, just allow the seeds to scatter in the wind.

Letting go, lavishly.

But did you notice- most of the seeds do not grow into what we would classify as a success.

Mustard is a weed- who really wants that? The sickle separates the grain that is unripe.

¾ of the seed in the first parable did not yield what was expected- some were eaten, some shot up fast and burned out quickly, while others were choked.

Only ¼ of the seed did do what they were anticipated to do.

Is that what we, as Americans, would consider a success?

Is 25% success rate a good ratio?

Would you rehire the sower? Would we approve their budget for 2021?

Is this is what the Kingdom of God is supposed to look like?

A wild weed that houses noisy birds?

Someone napping with no idea why things happen the way they do?

Is the Kingdom supposed to have a 75% failure rate?

…It all depends on how you view failure; how you define success; and what you call seeds, soil, and harvest.

Going back to Dr. King, he wrote that nonviolence does not work miracles overnight, move men from mental ruts or immediately change hearts.

But he did say that nonviolence does something to the hearts of those committed to it, gives self- respect, calls up resources of strength, and reaches out to opponents.

It’s as if Dr. King is talking about seeds and soil and sleep.

It’s interesting, when thinking about the ministry of Dr. King- he traveled 6 million miles, spoke over 2,000 times.

Yet, if you were asked “What did he say?”, you may recall his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, his claim to have been to the mountaintop, and that he had a dream.

If you were asked to visually recall Dr. King, you may “see” him marching in Selma, speaking in DC or standing on a balcony.

Yet he had been all over the world and spoke so many times. But none of us would say that since we don’t remember every word he said, or recall every place he has been, that Dr. King’s life and ministry was a failure.

We wouldn’t say “3 seeds out of 2,000 messages was a waste of time.”

We would say “Dr. King abundantly, bravely, sowed seeds wherever he could. And though not every seed fell on good soil, those that did…helped to reshape our world.”

Maybe that’s one way we can look at today’s parables.

That we are being encouraged to be generous and daring in what we can do as a church and as a people.

Maureen gave a great example this morning with the gifts we’re giving to our visitors.

The Service Committee is continuing to discover new ground and cast out seeds into the Sebring community.

Council, with their current restructuring and “Pop-Up Ministries” is creating soil so we can all be sowers, scattering seed of new ideas.

Some will not take, some will grow quick and wither away, some will lay dormant and germinate while we sleep, some will yield 100 fold, and some will seem so, so tiny, yet surprise us most of all.

And all will be dependent on God.

Today’s parables are an encouragement for us in 2020.

That the very American manufacturing way of seeing life and success may not be the best way for us, as Christians, to view things.

Perhaps we are being challenged, nudged to be a bit daring, a bit reckless, a bit generous like the sower.

To scatter. To cast out in all directions.

To see what takes. To see what surprises. To see what grows, to see what burns out. To see who will make their nests.

To even see what happens when we are willing to rest for a bit and let the mystery of God does its thing.

Today’s reading nudges us, creating fresh images of God’s Kingdom.

It creates new recipes for us to share, stitching together unique garments to try on.

Think of the seeds that can be sown.

Even if we fail 75% of the time, imagine what that 25% can do, for the glory of Christ and for the benefit of God’s Heavenly Kingdom.

Amen and amen.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

What If God's Kingdom Is More Like a Large n Lovely Fashion Show? Mark 2:1-22

Rev. George Miller
Jan 12, 2020
Mark 2:1-22

One of the joys about living in Sebring has been attending a variety of fashion-related events in the community.

The Heels That Heal event benefitting ARC.

The Greater Mt. Zion AME High Tea Party that took place here benefiting students.

The Large n Lovely fashion shows.

If you’ve ever been to a Large n Lovely fashion show, you know what a heavenly experience it is.

These are events designed to celebrate women who look like women: full figured and robust.

These events always have a great crowd that comes out to show their support.

At a Large n Lovely event you’ll find people of all skin tones, ages, shapes, and economic backgrounds.

Each person in attendance wearing their very best, whatever that may be.

At one event there was a woman wearing an impeccably tailored white suit, her hair done up like a modern-day movie star, with a handbag that clearly cost more than my mortgage.

Next to her was a young lady with clothes that probably came off the sales rack at K-Mart, but she accessorized it with earrings, bangles, high heeled shoes and makeup that was on point.

No one was there to judge another, but we were all gathered to cheer the models on.

And these models were real. You saw everything- back rolls, jiggly arms, ample bosoms, thick thighs…and all the women were gorgeous.

Why? Because they stepped out onto that runway with pride, poise, fully present to us and in their skin.

These Large n Lovely ladies did not have a look of anger, disinterest or hunger; they held their heads high, smiled, twinkled.

Living their best lives possible; confident, aware.

Their clothes were not wearing them; THEY were wearing the clothes.

It was a Kingdom of Heaven moment: folks being folk, allowing others to be who they are, clapping and cheering them on.

Celebrating one another’s own unique beauty- skinny, thick, old, young, white, black, brown.

The Kingdom of Heaven; the Kingdom of God.

Here we have today’s reading, and one question we can ask is “What are we witnessing?”

Another question is-

“If today’s reading was a fashion show, who do we see coming down the runway?”

-A person living with paralysis.
-Friends who assist.
-People crammed into a room.

-Levi, who would be considered an enemy of the state.
-People of questionable lifestyles sitting side by side.

-Disciples who find their faith by fasting.
-Disciples who find their faith by indulging.

-Intellectuals who are perplexed.
-People who want explanations.

Then there is this Jesus guy who somehow, someway seems to be present to everyone, equipped with sharp wit and a response for anything thrown his way.

For today we are not going to just focus on one character, or pit one person against another, or try to decide who is right and who is wrong.

Instead- you are invited to step into this story and to ask which person are you strutting down the narrative runway?

Who is the person you most identify with?

Is there someone else in this story you would like to be?

And just what does it mean to live your best life possible?

There are so many ways we can interpret today’s scripture- faith, sin, healing.

But perhaps this story is best seen as a living embodiment of God’s Kingdom.

What does the Kingdom of Heaven actually look like? What if we don’t have to die to find out, because we can experience heaven right here, on earth?

What if the Kingdom is not about rules and codes and manmade laws?

Is it possible that the Kingdom includes those who find themselves paralyzed in life and friends who are willing to do whatever needs to be done?

Does the Kingdom include imperfect people with very human flaws?

Could the Kingdom include people leaning, reclining, taking the time to enjoy the gifts of creation, side by side?

Can the Kingdom include joy, good food, and humor?

Can the Kingdom include new fabric that doesn’t always have to be tethered to the old?

What if the Good News that Jesus came to share with us is not about legalistic rules and moral codes or people deciding who is in and who is out?

What if the Good News is about living your best life possible, and allowing others to do the same?

What is the Good News is that those who feel paralyzed can still experience new life?

What if the Good News is about celebrating others innovation?

Seeing the good in those who are trying to survive?

Welcoming the imperfect?

What of the Kingdom of Heaven is about allowing others to weave, sew, knit, crochet the kind of cloth they believe God is calling them to create?

What if the Good News not about seeing the Gospel wear the person, but seeing the person wearing the Gospel?

Do they wear the Gospel in their smile, and in their pain?

In their love, and in their heartbreak?

In their success, and in their failure?

What if the Good News is not about paying attention to people’s faults and mistakes, but seeing how they pick themselves up after they fall?

How do they make amends?

How do they extend forgiveness? And how do they receive it?

What if the Good News is that we have all been invited to the fashion show, and that we are each able to show up being fully present, wearing our best selves possible and allowing others to do the same?

Cheering each other on.

Could it really be that simple?

Could it be that grace-filled?

Could it be that as far as Christ is concerned, simply showing up is the beginning of being the best that we can be?

Amen and amen.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Passion and Compassion; Sermon on Mark 1:35-45

Rev. George Miller
Jan 5, 2020
Mark 1:35-45

Today we end the Christmas season by beginning worship with the words “We have a passion for God and compassion for all.”

It’s a saying that’s been in our bulletin for many years, although it may have gone unnoticed by most.

It is a statement about faith, emotion, and action.

But what does it mean to say we have a passion for God? What does it mean to say we have compassion for all?

As we get to discuss and explore these questions, we have today’s reading which helps to give an idea of what passion and compassion can look like.

We start the new year with Mark’s telling of the Good News.

Mark is most likely the first gospel to be written. It’s a quickly told story infused with a sense of immediacy.

It features a very human Jesus who experiences very human emotions.

1st- let’s talk about the passion.

Passion means to have an intense desire or enthusiasm for something.

Passion is what we see from the disciples today.

Our reading starts in darkness. It’s before the sun rises, most likely around 3:30 am.

It’s that time when we find ourselves stirring to use the restroom or waking up with heavy thoughts on our mind.

That in-between time when it’s not really day and it’s not really night and we can feel our most vulnerable.

Perhaps that’s why the disciples go looking for Jesus. But the disciples are not just looking for Jesus, they go hunting for Jesus.

Hunting, as you would for a deer or a misplaced set of car keys. Hunting, as you would when your dog breaks free from the yard.

The disciples are not simply sending a text message to friends saying “Hey, have you seen Jesus?” They’re not just knocking on their neighbors’ doors.

This use of the word “hunted” implies they went to every and all places they can think of to find Jesus-

The highways, the byways, the bars, the underpasses, the dark alleys, the deserted places and spaces, and they do not stop until they find him.

That’s passion. Zeal. Zest.

To seek out Jesus even when it’s dark and in-between; hunting even when you don’t know where it will lead.

That’s just one way a passion for God can look- to never stop; to never quit.

Now, let’s talk about compassion.

Compassion has its roots in Latin, meaning “to suffer with.”

Compassion means allowing ourselves to be moved by the experiences of others; to be thoughtful in our response; to feel the desire to help out some way.

Compassion is love in action. It’s about being present to another; showing up to their experience.

That’s what we see Jesus do in the next part of today’s reading.

After the disciples passionately hunt down Jesus, he takes them on a preaching tour through the city.

A man living with a skin disease comes before Jesus, seeking to be made clean.

Jesus acts and the man’s life forever changes.

…A few days ago, there was a TV show that so illuminated this story, called “Dr. Pimple Popper” on TLC.

It’s a show about a dermatologist named Dr. Lee who cares for people living with various forms of skin growths.

Dr. Lee is the walking embodiment of compassion. Every client she cares for is greeted with a smile and immediate affirmation.

She doesn’t make assumptions. She asks her patients to share their story and define what issue they’re facing.

Last week featured a young man named Daniel. He had psoriasis over 90% of his body; pinkish-white scales that covered his skin.

He shared how his skin sheds in the bathtub, how it leaves a trail on the floor, how much it affects his physical, emotional, and social well-being.

He used powerful, nearly biblical words to describe his condition- he said he felt consumed. He said he felt “entombed.”

He said he felt the skin disease had stolen his life, to which Dr. Lee, filled with compassion said, “Well let’s steal your life back.”

And through medical treatment, they do just that.

Compassion- the ability to feel for another person, and to act upon it.

In today’s reading we see Jesus exhibit great compassion.

The man living with leprosy comes to Jesus kneeling and begging.

Jesus doesn’t see this man as just a statistic, but he sees him as a person; a human sparrow, and Jesus responds.

We are told that Jesus is moved with pity. This is the first time in the Gospel in which we get a look into Jesus’ emotional life, and how he felt.

But here’s something you should know-there are at least two different written versions of this text, and they each use different words that offer insight for how Jesus felt.

In one version, the word used can mean compassion or pity; to suffer with.

But there’s another component- back when this was written, people believed we felt our emotions in our bowels.

To say that Jesus felt a response to the man meant he felt it in the pit of his stomach.

Go a step further and we may get a deeper meaning- it’s possible that Jesus felt his stomach turn or that Jesus felt like he was going to throw up.

Think of that for a moment- that Jesus met a man whose suffering was so great, it may have caused Jesus to feel nauseous or to retch.

That’s not a very sanitized depiction of Jesus, is it?

It’s a very real, perhaps a more honest depiction of Jesus-

That he saw someone whose suffering was so great that Jesus had a physical, emotional response.

Isn’t that what any of us would have?

So, one translation gives us the indication that Jesus felt a physical response.

There is another version that doesn’t use the word compassion; instead it uses the word for anger.

Can you imagine that?

A man living with a skin disease comes begging and pleading to Jesus and Jesus responds with anger.

Again, a very human trait.

It leaves us to question why anger? Why would Jesus feel anger?

Was Jesus feeling anger because he was interrupted?

Was Jesus angry that yet another person sought him out?

Was he angry at the world? That society could make things so difficult for a person afflicted with illness?

Was he angry at the concept of suffering?

Was he angry because the man felt consumed, entombed and stolen of his life?

We don’t know; we’re not told.

We don’t know which version is the correct version.

Was Jesus moved with pity? Was he moved with anger?

Was his stomach in knots? Was his face red with rage?

We don’t know.

But we know this- regardless of how Jesus felt; Jesus acted.

He saw the man; he heard the man; he reached out to the man; he offered a new chance at life to the man.

Jesus felt something and Jesus acted upon it.


Today’s reading is so very short yet so very rich, offering us an emotional insight into Jesus Christ, our Lord, and our Savior.

The insight that Jesus, the embodiment of God, is someone who feels, and someone who responds.

Today’s story makes it very clear that we do not worship a God who is a robot, or a Messiah who is numb to it all.

Instead we find in Jesus someone who is very much real, very much human, and very much capable of feeling what we feel, responding as we respond, and able to act with passion and out of compassion.

As we begin a new year, we have this story to help guide our way.

To help us better understand what it means to have passion-

To seek, to hunt, to find, and to not give up.

To help us better understand what it means to have compassion-

To be moved, to feel, to respond with love, to act.

As 2020 continues may we each find our passion and engage in compassion,

even when it is dark, even when we are uncertain, even when we find ourselves on our knees before the Messiah, saying “Help, help, help.”

Amen and amen.