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“Evangelism 101”

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller’s Sermon
Sunday, August 21, 2016 (Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost)
“Evangelism 101”
Luke 13: 10-17

“What’s her name again?”

“I have no idea. We just call her ‘Bent over Woman.’”

People had watched this woman for eighteen years and, with each passing year, her head sank deeper into her chest, her gaze became hollower, and her spine protruded more grotesquely.  She sat in front of the corner grocery store, year after year, and rarely did anyone stop to say hello.

Jesus did stop but the bent over woman didn’t even lift her head.  She knew better.  She had been rebuffed by too many people.  Jesus had to invite her to come closer.  He looked at her affectionately and called her the endearing name, “Daughter of Abraham”—not “Bent over Woman.”  He then miraculously said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment” and, with a gesture more tender than words, he touched her.

Jesus’ touch calls to mind St. Francis of Assisi directive, “Preach the gospel and if necessary use words.”

Many theological words like faith and grace, mercy and salvation, become trite when used carelessly and too often.  My seminary preaching professor, William Muehl, warned us to use such holy sounding words cautiously and sparingly.  When worshipers hear them, they nod in sleepy assent rarely sensing what message is being conveyed.  Think about it: what does the word “grace” convey to you?   Mr. Muehl would want me to define grace this morning in a manner that touches your heart, maybe like this: “When Jesus looks straight into your eyes and you feel undeserving of such a loving glance, your heart skips a beat and you feel deeply touched.  That is grace.”

The church, at its best, dares to look straight into people’s eyes and to touch them.  When I say dare, I realize how hard it is for some of us to look someone straight in the eye, to touch them, or even to speak a few words to them.

In a few moments we will engage in the ritual called Passing the Peace.  One will say, “Peace be with you,” and the other will respond, “And also with you.”  The ancient church called this the Kiss of Peace.  I suppose kissing in church is a bit too risqué even in our age.  For some of us, even a handshake challenges our personal comfort zone.

We may feel threatened, even outraged, to be asked to introduce ourselves to others in Christ’s name.  All of this chatter and hugging interrupts the solitude of our worship: “I came to be alone and to pray not to be involved in a seventh inning liturgical stretch.”  This protest is nothing new.  The leaders of the synagogue were outraged as well when Jesus healed the bent over woman on the Sabbath.  Weren’t six others days sufficient to heal suffering folks?  Why did Jesus have to ruin things and heal the tormented woman on the seventh day, causing all manner of chaos?  Hadn’t Jesus’ childhood rabbi taught him in Bar Mitzvah classes, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy?”

Passing of the Peace is a remarkable opportunity to model grace to one another.  This morning, as you Pass the Peace, I encourage you to do something daring: look around and find two people you do not know and introduce yourself to them.  This requires courage.  Some of you are already mumbling, “There is no way I’m doing that! This new pastor doesn’t have a clue about the sanctity and sensibilities of Holy Trinity worship.”  But I wonder if there is more going on.  Could it be that there are people here you have seen for years and still don’t know their names?  As your pastor, I give you permission to chuckle a bit with one another, even to become a bit mortified when you say to the person next to you, “Welcome to Holy Trinity,” and they respond, “Oh, thank you, but I have actually been a member for thirty-three years!”

Let us start our adventurous evangelism program now just as Jesus did with the bent over woman.  I guarantee you this will be one of the most important things we do at Holy Trinity in the months to come.  We don’t need fancy programs, elaborate planning documents, or even sticky-notes on the wall; all we need is to say, “Peace be with you,” to someone we have never met or whose name we still do not know.

I recently read a study that claimed that first time visitors decide within ten minutes whether they will ever return to a church.  Ten minutes!  That is before we have sung the first hymn with astonishing accompaniment or listened to the sermon—decent or dreadful!   Visitors decide straightaway how friendly we are and whether they feel welcomed.  This study found that there are congregations with hideously ugly buildings, unbearably screeching choirs, and monotonously dreary sermons and yet people return in droves because they have been greeted with warmth.

Are you bent over?  If you are, you know what it feels like when people pay attention to you and make you feel that you matter.  New York City can be a lonely place.  What a precious gift when someone calls you by name and even remembers your name the following Sunday.  Wouldn’t we all join a church like that?

If you think I am mistaken, watch Pope Francis.  I am not sure we hear many of the words he speaks.  We are too enthralled watching him step out of his Fiat 500 and going over to embrace a teenager with cerebral palsy; we are challenged as he washes the feet of Muslim refugees on Maundy Thursday; we are exhilarated as he hugs and kisses former prostitutes, rescued from the sex trade.  Pope Francis is capturing our imagination and we are prouder than we have been in a long time to call ourselves Christians.  You see, he looks straight into the eyes of bent over people and touches them with astonishing tenderness.

We come here this morning longing for someone to do the same to us.  I promise this will happen to you.  Listen as someone says to you, “Peace be with you.”  That, my dear friends, is Jesus speaking.  Adventurous!  Daring!  Loving!  Let’s call it Evangelism 101.

This Week at Holy Trinity

This Week at Holy Trinity

WORSHIP

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 21, 2016
Mass –
11 o’clock in the morning

Join the growing number of members, prospective members, and visitors worshiping together at Holy Trinity.

Pastor Miller’s Sermon:  “The Bent Over Woman”

(more…)

“Carving Rotten Wood and Riding Lame Horses”

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
Mary, Mother of Our Lord (August 14, 2016)
Luke 1: 46-55
“Carving Rotten Wood and Riding Lame Horses”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
Alma Quigley went to Woodsdale Junior High School.  She lived in a shotgun shack in one of Wheeling’s tumble-down neighborhoods.  She wore stained skirts and threadbare blouses. The ornery boys mocked her; if any of their pals got too close to Alma, their stomach-churning taunt began instantly, “You have cooties.”

Then, one day a miracle occurred.  Colin Masterson, the handsomest and most athletic boy in our school, asked Alma to the spring dance.  As soon as we acne-faced teenagers heard the news, our view of Alma Quigley changed instantly: what exquisite beauty had Colin discovered that we had overlooked since we were in kindergarten?

Has it ever happened to you?  Out of the blue, someone looked straight into your eyes and said, “My, do you have a beautiful smile.”  Or at the Passing of the Peace, the person next to you said, “Did anyone ever tell you what a lovely voice you have?”  Simple words changed your life and for the better.

A similarly marvelous thing happened to Mary when God chose her to be the mother of Jesus.  Out of the blue, Mary became breathtakingly beautiful and she knew it.   Mary sang the song that the church has sung at Evening Prayer ever since, “My soul magnifies the Lord…for the Lord has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…the Mighty One has done great things for me…”  God invited Mary to the dance and that invitation changed the world forever.

Martin Luther said it this way: “God can carve the rotten wood and ride the lame horse.”  Mary was, after all, younger than gold medalist gymnast Simone Biles and her tiny Olympic gymnast cohorts and, like Alma Quigley, she had cooties.  If you think otherwise, recall how people wagged their tongues, wondering exactly who the father of her baby might be.

Mary was as an unlikely choice to be the Mother of God, as Luther called her, as unlikely as an undocumented Mexican immigrant or inner-city African American teenager in our day.

People often say to me, “Pastor, I am looking forward to hearing the Word of God proclaimed from the pulpit this morning,” I always wonder: Do you really want to hear the heart of Luke’s gospel or would you prefer a more appetizing gospel?  If you are clamoring for the Word of God this morning, see how this little nugget works for you: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”

I am always grateful to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters for their theological claims about Mary.  Beliefs such as the Immaculate Conception (the belief that Mary was conceived like us all except without original sin or its stain), the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (the claim that at the end of Mary’s life she was assumed, body and soul, into heaven, just as Enoch, Elijah had been before her), and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary are attempts to give deserved honor to Jesus’ mother, Mary.  And yet, I worry what, to my mind, are nonbiblical doctrines, may have the unintended consequence of making Mary more than she was when God chose her, more than you and I were when God chose us with “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  Such lofty theological sentiments may diminish the wonder of God stooping down and choosing Mary and you and me to aid in the heavenly plan of salvation.

You will learn that my favorite author is Annie Dillard; you may hear her name more than you ever wished!  She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for her book, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”   I adore Annie Dillard’s ability to discover the sacred amidst the mundane.  In her book, “Holy the Firm,” she writes of the little church she attends.  Listen: “On Sunday mornings I quit the house and wander down the hill to the white frame church in the firs. On a big Sunday there might be twenty of us there; often I am the only person under sixty, and feel as though I’m on an archaeological tour of Soviet Russia…the minister is a Congregationalist, and wears a white shirt. The man knows God. Once, in the middle of the long pastoral prayer of intercession for the whole world — for the gift of wisdom to its leaders, for hope and mercy to the grieving and pained, succor to the oppressed, and God’s grace to all — in the middle of this he stopped, and burst out, “Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week.” After a shocked pause, he continued reading the prayer. Because of this, I like him very much…We had a wretched singer once, a guest from a Canadian congregation, a hulking blond girl with chopped hair and big shoulders, who wore tinted spectacles and a long lacy dress, and sang, grinning, to faltering accompaniment, an entirely secular song about mountains. Nothing could have been more apparent than that God loved this girl; nothing could more surely convince me of God’s unending mercy than the continued existence on earth of the church.”

Aren’t we all bit like that tiny church in the firs with the pastor in the white shirt and the hulking girl with the chopped hair and big shoulders?  Where in the world did we ever get the quaint notion that God chooses our little ragtag gathering on this scorching humid August morning to be instruments of heavenly love?  Why, of course, because God carves rotten wood and rides lame horses. God chose a thirteen-year-old girl from Bethlehem to be the Mother of Lord.  And if God did that, God can also choose us to be servants of the most high.  That is why the choir sings today, the incense floats to the ceiling, and we sing, “Magnify, my soul, God’s greatness.”

God indeed has done great things for us, cooties and all.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

This Week at Holy Trinity

This Week at Holy Trinity

WORSHIP

Mary, Mother of Our Lord – August 14, 2016
Mass –
11 o’clock in the morning

Join the growing number of members, prospective members, and visitors worshiping together at Holy Trinity.

Pastor Miller’s Sermon:  “Carving the Rotten Wood & Riding the Lame Horse”

(more…)

“Taking the Long View”

Pastor Wilbert S. Miller
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
August 7, 2016 (Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost)
“Taking the Long View”
Genesis 15: 1-6

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In your heart of hearts, do you really believe Abraham and Sarah had a bouncing baby boy when they were well into their nineties?  Be honest: goodness gracious, they were card-carrying AARP members going on forty years and had been collecting Social Security for twenty-five.

When their bouncing baby boy finally arrived, they named him Isaac, as in “son of laughter.”   Isaac’s birth was a hoot, a real laugher, and never forget: his arrival had nothing to do with Abraham and Sarah’s ingenuity at child planning.  Baby Isaac was all about the sheer grace of God.

Jumping the gun and getting hilarious little Isaac on the scene too quickly, however, can ruin the story.  Things need to age a bit.  How could Abraham and Sarah possibly have believed they would soon be parents?  Time was not on their side. (more…)