Saturday, January 30, 2021

Meeting the Lord at Our Lowest Moment; Luke 7:11-17


Rev. George Miller

Jan 31, 2021

Luke 7:11-17


In the Book of Genesis, chapter 21 there is a story about a mother and a son on the outskirts of town. 


Her name is Hagar. She is an Egyptian woman who is enslaved by Abraham and forced by Sarah to sleep with him in hopes of having a child.


It is a complex, unpretty part of our faith family’s history, a story that deals with sexual exploitation, and the power dynamic of the haves and have nots.


Hagar has done the role that was forced upon her.  She has given birth to Abraham’s first son, Ishmael.  But Sarah is furious, jealous, abusive.


Sarah has Hagar and her son sent away, out into the wilderness.  With nothing more than a loaf of bread and canteen of water, the mother and son wander alone into the unknown.


…But, they are not alone.  For God is with them… 


At the moment in which all hope seems lost, in which food and water are gone, Hagar lifts up her voice and weeps.


…the Lord hears.  The Lord sees.


The Lord responds- “Tell me what is hurting you.  I don’t want you to live in fear.  Come, hold your son to your bosom.  I have a promise to make you.”


God opens Hagar’s tear-soaked eyes.  She sees a well of water that is deep and wide.  She fills her canteen with water and tends to her son.


Here is one of the 1st biblical stories about an unexpected person, facing an unexpected situation, in an unexpected place, having an unexpected encounter with the God of Compassion.


Hagar was not an Israelite, she was not part of the promise, she was not part of the 2%.  Hagar was completely “other” and seen as completely disposable…


…and yet, not only does God see her, but God also hears her, God knows her by name, and God supplies what she and her son need to make it through the wilderness.


Hagar joins the ranks of Rachel, Hannah, and Elizabeth who have an experience with the Impossibly Possible God.


In some ways Hagar also becomes a new kind of Patron Saint for us-


Did you notice where she experienced God?  It’s not in a sanctuary, it’s not on the Sabbath.


Hagar experiences God when she is on the outskirts of town, at her lowest emotional point, when liminal time no longer has any meaning.


In some ways, Hagar is a Quarantine Queen, completely separated from everyone and everything.


Thus begins an important Biblical trope- how God is often experienced outside of conventional norms and expectations.


For example, think about Jonah, our Old Testament Patriot, who’d rather see his enemies suffer than be saved.


Where does Jonah experience God?


-While running away on a storm-tossed ship at sea


-In the belly of a stinky, stanky fish


-Far east of the city beside a withering bush under a blazing hot sky


Like Hagar, Jonah has a life-altering moment with God and it’s not inside or on an assigned day at an arranged time.


Which we also see in today’s reading.


Last week Luke showed us Jesus breaking free from the expectations of Sabbath and synagogue walls.


Today Jesus takes his ministry to another boundary breaking place- outside the gates of the city and the realm of the living.


Jesus and his followers are making their way to Nain, but before entering the city-limits, they see a funeral procession. 


It is a widow who is preparing to bury her only son.


With such a brevity of words, Luke tells us so much.  This woman has lost everything- her spouse, her son, and now, her place in society. 


With these deaths, she joins the ranks of the Hagars and Ishmaels- she is amongst the most vulnerable, the most likely to be exploited, the most likely to be treated as invisible, uncountable, and unworthy of being heard.


This is when she meets Jesus.


Not at the high point of her life.  Not on her wedding day.  Not on the day she gives birth to her son.  Not on the day she presents him in the Temple.  Not in the green pastures, calm waters, or cup overflowing.


She meets Jesus at the lowest moment in her life.  She has lost family, she has lost status, she’s no longer an insider, but an outsider, literally watching her life pass right before her eyes.


THAT’S when she has her encounter with Jesus.  THIS is her HAGAR moment.  This is her JONAH time.


When all hope is lost, and everything seems so wrong with the world.


And what does the Lord do?


He has compassion for her.  He experiences womb-love for her.


The kind of love in which he not only acknowledges her pain but feels her pain. 


Jesus is not put-off by her pain.  He speaks.  He steps forward.  He acts.


It is one thing to say “Oh, I’m so sorry.”  It’s one thing to say, “My thoughts and prayers are with you.”


It’s a whole other thing to take those thoughts and prayers and to put them into action.


Jesus takes his womb-love and turns it into a blessing of restored life.


This blessing isn’t just about the son.  This blessing means that the mother can return to her place in society, she can return to inside the gates of the city.


It means she can go back to life, back to reality; she can keep on movin’.


So often we think that we must go to where we believe God is, but today we are reminded that many times God meets us right where we need God the most.


When we are grieving.

When we are scared.

When we are at our most vulnerable.


When we are on the outside.

When we are on empty.

When all hope seems lost.


The widow loses everything and that’s when see encounters Christ.


Jonah has his ego bruised and sits alone, and that’s when he and God have their biggest heart to heart.


Hagar is a woman in no-mands lands with no food, no water, and discovers that she is seen, she is heard, and she is known by God.


In that experience she is refreshed.


In that way Hagar and today’s woman become our Quarantine Queens.


In that way Jonah becomes an unexpected Quarantine King.


In all these ways we find the strength and ability to press on even when we feel the affects of COVID pressing in.


May God refresh us this morning.


May the Holy Spirit lift up our soul.


May we see Jesus right where we are and not just where we think we ought to be.                     



Monday, January 25, 2021

Casting Nets Through Internet; Sermon On Luke 5:1-7


Rev. George Miller

Jan 24, 2021

Luke 5:1-7


Today is a familiar story- Jesus on the shore, calling the first set of disciples.


Today’s tale ties right in with virtually every Old Testament and Advent reading we’ve shared.


Like that of Elijah and the widow, it’s about a person with nothing, meeting a prophet who is offering everything.


Today’s story, like that of Elizabeth, Hannah, Rachel and Sarah, is an empty womb story. 


Instead of a belly, it’s an empty net.


This Simon Peter is a man of the sea.  He’s worked all night without a bite.  He’s done for the day, given up hope, washing his empty net, no fish to sell.


Like the widow, no food to feed the family.  Like Elijah, along comes Jesus.


Instead of asking for a morsel of bread, he asks Simon Peter to cast his nets.


As a result, the nets become full, swollen with life, so much life that two boats are filled.


Once again, a story about God entering into a time of nothing and bringing about abundance.


Once again, a story about how that which seemed empty becomes full.


Elizabeth, Hannah, Rachel, and Sarah had an empty womb; Simon Peter had an empty boat.


The widow of Zarapeth listens to Elijah and her jar of oil never runs out; Simon Peter listens to Jesus and his nets nearly break apart.


There’s something else about our story that speaks to our current situation- God takes that which is ordinary and turns it into a vessel of Good News.


Think about it- today we see Jesus do something brand new.  Up to this point, Jesus was worshiping at the synagogue, teaching and preaching on the Sabbath, going to where the worshippers are.


But today, it’s not the Sabbath, and it’s not the synagogue. 


It’s a beach with sand, not pews. It’s outside, not inside 4 walls.


And it’s a boat, a boat that Jesus uses to share the Good News; a simple, every-day boat that belongs to an everyday man.


This is not The Love Boat. It’s not the yacht Goldie Hawn sunbathed on in “Overboard.” This is not a ship you see docked outside in Sarasota.


This is an stinky, smelly fishing boat that belonged to a stinky, smelly man.


Anyone who’s ever fished with men can attest that there is nothing classy or holy about a fishing boat.


It’s sun bleached, barnacled, with bird poop stains, permanent fish gut smell, heard its’ share of blue humor, boasts and burps, had men urinate off the side and throw food scraps into the water.


A fishing boat is the furthest thing from the ritual purity and hallowed holiness of a synagogue.


And that’s what Jesus uses to preach the Good News, to produce abundance, and to build the worship community.


A barnacled, sun-bleached, boat.  On a non-Sabbath.  Free of walls and posted worship times.


How similar to what we’ve experienced since Spring. 


Because of COVID, churches are finding new ways to bring the Good News to people.


Because of COVID, we’ve finding shores, boats, and other means to cast out and to be The Good News.


Just as Jesus was ministering outside of the Sabbath, going beyond walls, and using the every-day, Jesus is doing the same thing in 2021.


Instead of a boat and a net, it’s our cellphones and the internet.


Think about it- 9 months ago we used our cell phones to gossip, shop, and take selfies.


Now we’re using cell phones to film worship, to transmit live services, to share a message with people who are standing on the virtual shores.


Who could have imagined a year ago that this “thing” would become the most essential tool outside of the Bible that we would use to share the Gospel?


Yes, that’s how God works, isn’t it?


If God can take an empty womb and make it full, God take can take an empty net and fill it to breaking.


If God can use a burning bush, a giant fish, a manger, then God can use a barnacled boat or a cell phone.


Once again, we see God taking that which seems empty and turning it into soul affirming joy.


We see God taking that which seems ordinary and turns it into extraordinary.


We see God working outside of Sabbaths and Sundays, outside of walls, outside of set times and schedules.


Yes…we are still in a period of mourning.  Yes, we as a nation, as a people, as a church, have lost a lot.


Yes, we miss you every single Sunday.  We feel your spirit, but we miss your presence, your voice, your touch.


We grieve for what we are without, and how empty the sanctuary is without you.


At the same time, we give thanks for the ways that Jesus is on the shore, finding ways to still teach, finding new ways to still cast Heaven’s Net.


We give thanks for the Kathryn Ferguson’s who are able to worship with us even though they are far away.


We give thanks for the Joy Vera’s who have never set foot in our sanctuary but feel called to give to The Shepherd’s Pantry.


We give thanks for those who are at home, comfortable in their pajamas, sipping their coffee, maybe even doing their nails while being spiritually filled.


We give thanks that a technology we took for granted has now become its own boat in which we can cast out a net that goes beyond walls, time zones, state lines, and days of the week.


We also give thanks, in advance, that one day, ONE DAY, we will return.


ONE DAY we will return to our beautiful sanctuary, we will return to hymn sings and hugs, we will return to walls that keep us secure and sounds and smells that fill our spirit.


We also give thanks that when we return, we will continue to use the boats, the nets to continue discovering ways to share the Good News, to be The Good News, and to give thanks for the Good News.


And for that, let us all say “Amen!”

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Release, Set Free, Jubilee; Sermon on Luke 4:14-21


Rev. George Miller

Jan 17, 2021

Luke 4:14-21


One of the heart-hurting aspects of COVID is not having Bible Study.


It’s difficult not seeing your eyes and faces when you have an “aha!” moment, wrestle with a scripture, or teach me something.


One common perception people have when beginning Bible Study is that in the Old Testament God is pure wrath.


But weeks in, they start formulating another view- God as Creator, merciful, and just.


Old Testament readings make it clear that God cares about the ancestors, the ecology, the marginalized.  God cares about justice, kindness, humility, rest.


If we come across scriptures in which it sounds like God is about the grab the belt for a good butt-whooping, it’s often because either we, our leaders, or those who should know better, have chosen not to follow the path of God.


What we see as God’s wrath is often a consequence to when we pollute the earth, when we don’t care for the least of these, when we don’t do justice, or embrace the Commandments.


To be honest- how hard are they really?

-don’t lie about others

-be content with what you have

-Don’t steal or kill

-for God’s sake, take a day off to rest.


Why do we fail to do these things?


We forget.


We forget that we are the children of Sarah, of Zilpah, of Hannah, of Esther, of Elizabeth and Anna.


We forget what God has done- freed us from bondage, walked beside us in the wilderness, granted us nahalah.


We forget that God is merciful, with a womb full of love.


We forget that each day we are we given another chance to choose God, to choose life.


What we really forget is that WE are NOT God.


By forgetting we’re not God we fall victim to our own ego, we disrespect the land, we disrespect our neighbors, and we put misplaced trust in human leaders who we think will save us.


When we forget all these things we end up sinning, we make mistakes, we hurt others, and we hurt ourselves.


That’s one lens Luke is looking through as he writes his Gospel.


Luke is concerned about how we have failed to see who Jesus really is.


Luke is doing everything he can to say “Look!  Look right here!  Jesus is the embodiment of the very things the prophets, the scriptures, the covenants of God were all about.”


An example is today’s reading. 


Like a good Sabbath- observing Jew, Jesus is in the local house of worship.  He reads from the prophet Isaiah.


Jesus says “The Spirit is upon me. I am here to bring Good News to the poor, vision to the blind, and to those who are being held back- release.  I am here to proclaim Jubilee.”


What is Jubilee? 


Jubilee is a Year of Liberty.


According to Leviticus 25, God wants us to experience a full year of Sabbath every 50 years.


God instructed the people that every 50 years they are to

-let the ground rest

-not plant, sow, or prune

-rely only on what the earth produces

-Return to your family and roots

-Return land you purchased from someone who only sold it out of duress

-Release indentured servants.

-Be extra mindful in following the commandments and choosing God.


The Year of Jubilee did a few things-


Reset the economy so that those who had fallen onto hard times get a do over.  It redistributed the wealth so that once again everyone had “enough.”


Refocused their attention on God, reminding them how God is merciful, and that the land belongs to God.


Jubilee is about rest and release.


The lands rests.  Debts released.

Indentured servants released.

Ancestral land released.


Jubilee was created as a time of joy, rest, family reunions and fresh starts, in which God was praised…sadly, there is no evidence that Jubilee was ever observed.


There is not one time we know of in which God’s people were willing to take a year out of their life to collectively show respect to their family, their neighbors, their God, or to God’s land.


Do we now get a better understanding of why sometimes in the Old Testament God seems to get a little testy?


All God wants is for everyday to be like Christmas, but instead we’re too busy littering the living room floor, arguing over our gifts, jealous of what someone else got.


But Jesus- Jesus has not forgotten. 


Jesus uses his moment in the synagogue to remind the people that he is there to bring Good News, new vision, liberty, rest, and release.


In other words- Freedom.


That’s what Jesus is offering today.  That’s what his message of Jubilee comes down to- Freedom.


Freedom from the shackles of the world; freedom to choose the life-giving ways of God.


Freedom is so fitting today as we celebrate the 31st Anniversary of our church.  Emmanuel UCC was first established to be a progressive witness in the community, where justice, kindness, compassion and passion exist.


It’s also a fitting theme for a New Year.


By now most people have already forgotten the resolutions they made to themselves, but Jesus is offering something much better than a resolution.


Jesus is offering us a chance to claim and proclaim freedom.


Today is a day in which Jesus stands before us, reading the words of Isaiah, and Jesus is asking us this-


What is it you want to be released from?  What is it you no longer wish to be chained too?


What is holding you back from being a better neighbor, a better family member, a better guardian of God’s nahalah?


Jesus is not asking for a thousand answers.  Just 1.


What is 1 thing that you would love rest from?  What is 1 thing you would like to have released?


It could be a negative thought you keep going back to.


It could be a regret that you shoulda-coulda-woulda.


It could be something someone did, and you’ve allowed their chain to choke your neck.


All those things can be so exhausting.  All those things can keep you stuck.


So, release. 


Give it up to Jesus.  Set yourself free.  Allow yourself the right to rest.


It may not be the Year of Jubilee, but this is a new year, a new chance.


To see what happens.  To choose God, to choose life.


To see Jesus as he is, to say “Release my chains.  Give me rest.”


And watch what Jesus can do.


Watch as God’s womb-like mercy enfolds you.


Watch as the Holy Spirit continue to guide you.


Watch as the love of Jesus sets you free, and gives you peace.


So that we can all say “It is well, it is well, with my soul.”


Amen and amen.