Thursday, August 21, 2014

Moved to You Tube

Thank you for following this blog...
As of today we have shut down our website and using Facebook exclusively

and the sermons are now placed on You Tube

Justice, Peace, and Grace,
Westminster Presbyterian Church

Sunday, August 18, 2013


August 18, 2013
Rev. Mark R. Miller
Luke 12:49-56

Is anyone else troubled by the words of Jesus in this passage?  This is one of those difficult passages where, frankly I want to pass over.  It is particularly difficult because deep down we like to think about Jesus as a kind, nice, and respectable fellow who loves everyone, and of course never loses his temper.  Unfortunately, if we are willing to grow deeper in the life of faith, we find a troubling figure that does not fit the ideal of respectability. 
            What is the, “Prince of Peace,” doing promising division and hoping for fire?  In preparation for his birth we are told that he will, “guide our feet into the way of peace.”  When Jesus sends out the disciples to heal, feed, and teach, he sends them on a mission of peace.  Jesus even tells parables where Father and son are reconciled in the Prodigal Son.  And following the resurrection, the first words Jesus speaks to the disciples are:  “Peace is with you.”  I am left wondering if the passage this morning is simply an aberration.  Was this one of those moments where Jesus is tired and fed up and loses his temper? 

            Actually, Jesus’ words in this passage are a reminder that preaching, living, and working for peace can have some unexpected consequences.  We only have to go back to the parable of the prodigal son.  The father and younger son are reconciled, but the older brother refuses to be reconciled.  His reaction to the good news is not peace but anger and jealous.  The good news of the gospel is often rejected most fully, Jesus teaches, from the most religious people. 
Nowhere is this more evident than when Jesus stands up to preach his first sermon.  He reads these words from the prophet Isaiah:  “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Jesus then says that these powerful words, that have become too familiar to those in the faith community, have real implications for life right now.  And the response to his sermon is to try and hurl him off a cliff.  The message of peace, justice, and God’s kingdom lead to struggle and find the most unwelcome audience among the most religious.

            Peace is a word that has all but lost meaning in our own time.  Peace often means the absence of conflict or simply order.  We call in armed military or police to “keep the peace.”  What we really mean is that a particular interpretation of order will be created by any means necessary.  But to understand the peace of Jesus we have to recognize that true peace is built upon justice.  The peace of Jesus isn’t about being nice but about building relationships, communities, neighborhoods, cities, states, nations, and economic orders based on the loving justice shown in Jesus. 
            That all sounds great in theory but working to build true peace based on justice, even in our family relationships or our faith community, is never easy.  “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”  These words from Dorothy Day get at the heart of Jesus teaching.  It is easy to say these things and hope for them in our hearts but when Sunday is over, or even twelve fifteen rolls around, life gets messy.  How do we live this out?

            I think the key is to embrace Jesus teaching about baptism and fire.  When he wishes that the fire had already been kindled, he is not talking about the destruction of people.  He is talking about those things, in our lives and personalities that need discarding.  The fire is a metaphor for the cleansing, transformation, or ridding of those parts of us of which we are not particularly proud and which do not buildup the body of Christ.  In acknowledging this reality we become more aware that each person we meet, each person in this community is dealing with heavy stuff. 
And each one of us is broken. 

Baptism is the Key – the role of baptism sets us aside and creates a new identity.  It means that our brokenness does not have to have the last word.  And it means that we will be less surprised when resistance to true peace comes our way.  Picking of the mantle of Jesus – good news to the poor – release to the captives – oppressed goes free is fantastic rhetoric and a beautiful vision.  But it is a dreadful thing for some in action.  We might just find out that folks want to hurl us off a cliff.  But the good news is that we are not the first, or the last, we are part of a long history of people who know, truly know, that peace can truly be divisive.  Amen





Sunday, August 04, 2013

Bigger Barns

August 4, 2013
“Bigger Barns”
Rev. Mark R. Miller
Luke 12:13-31

            It was one of those random moments where a student asks the teacher a question and the entire class thinks to themselves, “What on earth are you talking about?”  The question is so utterly off topic that you wonder if the student is listening.  Up to this point Jesus has been talking about the life of a disciple.  There has been teaching on hypocrisy, God’s faithfulness, how to pray, and the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the community, and the need to not be afraid.  It is pretty powerful stuff.

And then, and then a hand goes up.  “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  You can almost hear someone say, “Really? Weren’t you listening?”  Fortunately, Jesus does not dismiss the man’s foolishness.  Like any good teacher he knows this is a teachable moment.  Jesus quickly discerns that the question is rooted in greed, selfishness, and fear. 

It would be easy to use this man as a foil.  But before we beat up on the man too much, it is important to know that he was most likely a person in need.  In Deuteronomy the laws are very clear about inheritance.  It only goes to the men and most of it to the oldest son.  Two-thirds of the estate belongs to the older brother.  It appears that he is not giving the younger brother his third.  The issue for this man is fairness and justice for himself.  Jesus is not blind to these things.  He seems to understand this man needs a change of focus. 

Jesus understands the power and pull of materialism.  This man is distracted by one thing.  It is one thing that stands in his way of faithful discipleship.  Money or lack thereof is keeping him from focusing on living as a disciple.  This results in Jesus reframing the question and helping to open his eyes.  “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

To make this point Jesus tells a parable meant to show the foolish impulse of hoarding.  Massive accumulation of wealth consumes our whole being.  The man already has full barns.  He already has more than he needs or can use.  So with no thought of sharing his overabundance he builds bigger barns.  Or today, we might call them off shore bank accounts to avoid corporate taxes.  How else will we be able to pay billions of dollars to those who serve as CEO of the worlds’ major corporations?  Jesus’ response to this is simple, “You people are fools!”

Once again we come face to face with how the biblical story and our culture are at odds.   Our consumer culture has tapped into something deep in the human spirit.  We all have God-given desires.   But consumerism has gotten those desires out of order.  In a consumer society, everything becomes a commodity to be bought and sold – the value of everything and everyone is based upon their utility to us.  Just like the man whose desire is for his inheritance and the desire for bigger barns, the underlying motivation is selfishness, what is in it for me.

Thomas Aquinas, monk and medieval theologian, had much to teach on the issue of property.   Property, like anything else, should be regarded as a gift from God, he said.  And, that gift is only valid if we use it for the benefit of others.  In other words, life and possessions are a gift of God to be used to advance God’s agenda of care and compassion, precisely for those who lack resources to provide for themselves.  For Jesus and for his followers, money is not a neutral topic and that is why healthy communities of faith learn to see money as deeper spiritual issue.  Indeed it is practical.  The building must be fixed and bills must be paid, but it is not simply a practical issue.  And when we separate out our discussion about resources from our corporate and spiritual life, it is a sign that our spiritual life is not healthy.

A few years ago I read an article about money, faith, and the local congregation.  It said that one of the simple truths about money is this:  “Money matters reveal the true heart of a congregation.”  How is money used?  How is money talked about?  These are the questions that reveal the most about our spiritual health.  So how are we doing with our money?  (Big Pause)

Being very deliberate with our money is important.  In fact, I cannot say this enough.  Planning with our money is essential – ignoring it is not the way forward, in our homes or in the congregation.  The plan must be rooted in our faith values.  The long term goals must be focused on the building of disciples for ministry in the world.  The simple truth is that we cannot do everything.  And we need to learn to say no more often, we cannot and should not do everything, but we cannot fall into the trap of the young man.  It is not about us and our desires.

What does it mean for Westminster to be rich toward God?  It means that our first desire is to order our desires in God’s desires.  It means that we as a small congregation cannot jump at everything that comes along.  It means we must stop comparing ourselves with what other communities are doing.  Just because it worked somewhere else does not mean that is God’s plan for us here.  We have been called by God to invite people into deeper relationship with God and one another for all that means along the Delmar Divide. 

There isn’t enough money for that.  That is too expensive.  Those are not unimportant considerations.  It is true that there are some things we simply cannot do because of resources of time, people, and money.  However, those words seem to take on a life of their own.  They become a way to hide our true feelings.  If there isn’t enough money no more discussion needs to be had.  And this is the flip side of what is happening with the young man.  Everything, all the kingdom conversations, healings, breaking bread, have to come to a halt until we deal with the practical issues of the money.  Until we have exhausted all possibilities through prayer and discernment, our best creative minds, saying there isn’t money for something is a sign we need to attend more closely to our spiritual life.   So let us commit to do just that, to keep one another accountable and remember that bigger barns, or bigger endowments, or bigger congregations were not the building blocks Jesus sought in showing us how to be part of God’s work.  Amen?



Sunday, July 28, 2013

Hungry People

July 28, 2013
“Hungry People”
Rev. Mark R. Miller
Luke 11:1-13

            “The clasping of the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”  Most conversations about prayer do not begin to touch on this simpler reality.  But these words form Karl Barth get to the heart of what we call the Lord’s Prayer. When we put our hands together we are not just talking to God, but also saying “No” to the current arrangements of our lives and of the world.  To pray is to be part of the uprising against everything that is wrong.  Maybe that is why so many people are afraid of prayer.
            Prayer in a consumer society simply does not work.  When we spend money or time, which in our society is the same thing, we expect something in return.  We give because we will get more in return.  Isn’t that what we teach our children?  It is better to give than receive, because what you get in return is more than you could ever give.  The underlying problem is that we are focused on what is in it for us.  This not only impacts our understanding of prayer but impacts our understanding of church.

            When Christians in North America struggle with the loss of membership or lack of “young people,” this same mentality can show up.  We need more people to keep our church going!  Or, less blatant, is the desire to change all sorts of things in the hope that “young people” will like what the church has to offer.  The problems come when the church finds itself in the business of meeting everyone’s individual needs.  At some point, we will not be able to do it all.  What happens when we cannot make everyone happy?  What happens when things do not go the way each person likes?  If we continue to believe our work is to please people and provide for all the desires of people inside the church we have failed in our mission just as sure as we will fail in the attempt to be a good consumer church.
            The biggest problem with this orientation in the life of faith is that eventually we have to deal with one big issue.  God does not act like this and Jesus never said, “Come and follow me and you will be happy and like everything about the other people who are following me.”  What happens when God does not answer prayer the way we expect or hope?  How do we deal with this?  We could say, God always answers our prayers, just not in the way we want.  Or, we could tell people it is their fault for not praying hard enough.  After all, Jesus said if you are persistent, God will give you everything you want!  So if you do not have what you want in life, it is your fault!  Except that is not what Jesus said. 

            What Jesus is saying to the disciples is the foundation for prayer in the life of faith.  And it is not about praying hard enough or even about God simply saying “No” to your request.  When the disciples ask Jesus about prayer it is not what they or we expect.  The simple reality about prayer is that it is about asking God for one thing, “Bring about the kingdom Lord!”  The rest of the prayer is about how to live in the meantime.   Give us bread for tomorrow.  Not me, not just my family, but we.  This means all people.  Forgive our sin and where we fall short and make us forgive others, and save us from the troubles that come from working for your kingdom. 
            Praying the Lord’s Prayer is necessary because we are unwilling to share our resources.  In our culture it is alright for some people to be homeless.  It is acceptable for families to go hungry and children to be exploited.  In our culture it is alright to give to charity but you better not question why charity is necessary.  And in our culture it is alright for people to hoard more than they, their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren could ever use while all this happens.  And many of them claim this is just God’s blessing.  Which leaves me wondering which God are they talking about?

            Jesus talked about persistence in prayer and God providing.  But what is it that God provides?  The good news is that the answer to this question is right there in the text.  Be persistent Jesus says.  Demand things from God – Give us, forgive us, and deliver us!  These are not timid prayers.  These are words that come from a relationship with God as Abba, and even like a friend you would go to in the middle of the night for help.  Jesus says, ask, seek, knock and your prayers will be answered.  And what is it that God will give?  The answer is in verse thirteen, “…how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.”
No car, or job, or parking space, or anything else other than the Holy Spirit. 

This is a difficult teaching.  It is not a very satisfying answer for those of us used to getting a return for our investment.  Anne Braden tells a story about her work for justice and about persistence.  And she says that we will not get to see the end of our work.  But we are able to keep going if we know in what Cathedral we are placing our stone… talk about the great cathedrals…  it is not a very satisfying answer.
            Prayer is resistance to the disorder in God’s world.  It helps us continue on and changes us from being consumers to being part of the body of Christ.  And when we truly look at the disorder around us, receiving the Holy Spirit, in whatever form it may come, seems more powerful than anything else I could imagine to ask.

Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Give us each day our daily bread.  And forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  And do not bring us to the time of trial.  Amen?