The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller’s Sermon at Bach Vespers
at The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
“God Loves Misfits and Liars, Murderers and Scumbags, Scoundrels and Scalawags.”
Reformation Sunday, October 30, 2016
Jeremiah 31: 31-34
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As most of you are aware, today is a special day in the Lutheran church: this is Reformation Sunday—hence we are decorated in red. Reformation Day actually occurs tomorrow, October 31, All Hallows Eve, when Martin Luther is reported to have banged his 95 Theses on the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This occurred in 1517.
All manner of havoc was unleashed the day that pesky Augustinian monk announced to all the world—or at least to those coming to church the next morning, on All Saints’ Day—that he wanted to debate a few key and thorny issues with his beloved church.
Just a hammer, a few nails, and a piece of paper unleashed a ruckus like few others in the history of the world. To put it a mildly, Luther was destined for the Revolutionary Hall of Fame.
What I want to say tonight is that Martin Luther had NO INTEREST in creating a new church or even disrupting the one he loved; he certainly had no interest in having an entire Christian denomination named after him. What he did want was to dust off a few key areas of the church’s life that, to his mind, were preventing people from being touched fully by God’s magnificent love.
For many years, we Lutherans were much like those long-suffering Chicago Cub fans on an Autumn evening. Instead of singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” we took great delight in gathering on Reformation Day, beating our theological breasts like a bunch of wild Neanderthals, and singing “A Mighty Fortress” as loudly as we could, whether we could carry a tune or not—we even threw in a bit of Johann Sebastian Bach with timpani and brass just to be certain we were as rowdy as possible. What sadly occurred on those occasions was, rather than celebrating God’s love for us, we rejoiced in how much we despised our Roman Catholic neighbors. Whether we realized it or not, we pathetically reveled in the division of Christ’s body, the church, here on earth.
The Reformation principle for far too long was much like the high theology my Grandma Miller held fast to: if Roman Catholics do it, Lutherans don’t; and, conversely, of course, if Roman Catholics don’t do it, Lutherans do. Take for instance this evening’s Vesper’s liturgy: the incense, chanting, and elaborate vestments would convince my dear grandma beyond a shadow of the doubt that her grandson is destined for hell. Why? Of course, that is what Catholics do!
But that is not what the Reformation was or is about. What our tradition at its best holds up is the long-standing belief—both Jewish and Christian—that we heard in this evening’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah: God will forgive our iniquity, and remember our sin no more.
(And, by the way, remarkably, Pope Francis—our Pope by the way—will gather for worship tomorrow at the Lutheran cathedral in Lund, Sweden, as the observance of the 500th year of the Reformation begins. While there will be no Mass—further indication of the tragic brokenness of the church, it is with much delight that we behold Christ’s church mending inch-by-inch, forsaking ancient bitterness for renewed joy. God certainly knows that our tearful world desperately needs our united witness to God’s love for those who are broken and forlorn and certainly not our shabby divisions that have tarnished the church’s witness for far too long.)
That was why Luther took hammer and nail and paper to the Castle Church door: to make certain that even 499 years later, we know that God forgives all our peccadillos and remembers our depravity no more.
Martin Luther would urge us tonight: read through your Bible. It is filled with a hodgepodge of flamboyant scoundrels from beginning to end. Remember Adam and Eve—I doubt I need to tell you their sultry story. And there was Jacob who stole his brother Esau’s birthright and lied up a storm to his blind daddy Isaac. And then King David whose Psalms we have been singing with much delight this evening: old David made every modern-day politician seem like a paragon of spotless virtue with his disgusting affair with Bathsheba and his murderously vicious rampaging ways. On and on the Bible goes: Peter-you remember him, he claimed he didn’t even know Jesus even as Jesus hung dying on a cross; and Paul—he took positive delight in murdering the earliest Christians. These are but a few of the misfits who litter the Bible with muddles of mayhem.
And yet, over and over again, out of the blue, we also hear biblical messages like Jeremiah’s, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” Jeremiah could easily recount the biblical litany of heroes who happened also to be liars, murders, and scumbags and yet, every time, God forgave these foul-ups and failures for their transgressions. That’s exactly how Luther urged us to read the Bible: he wanted us to proclaim from pulpits like this and with the cantata we are about to hear that no matter how dastardly the act, there is always hope for us in God’s eyes.
People often ask me, “What do Lutherans believe?” I tell them this, “We believe God loves misfits and liars, murderers and scumbags, scoundrels and scalawags.” That is why we pull out the brass and timpani tonight and let ‘er rip—because God remembers our sin no more. Amen.
The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller’s Reformation Day Sermon
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
Sunday, October 30, 2016
“There Is a Free Lunch for Everyone”
Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Romans 3: 19-28; John 8: 31-36
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A few years ago I was interviewed by “The Reader.” This magazine has a section called “Sheep and Goats” in which the worship, music, architecture, sermons, friendliness, and even snacks of a church are rated on a one to five-star system. This free weekly with lots of Botox and medical marijuana ads can be picked up on virtually every San Diego street corner along with all manner of unsavory publications. The interviewer asked me what subject I most like to preach about. I told him simply, “There is a free lunch for everyone.”
His eyes glazed over straightaway. He clearly hoped for a more theologically profound response, expecting me to say I love to wax eloquently on the rapture, predestination, or even delicate political issues and who the next President of the United States of America should be. When I told him I like to preach on “there is a free lunch for everyone,” the interview spiraled downhill, and fast.
People often ask me—and I imagine you too—what Lutherans believe. When I say Lutherans believe in law and gospel, word and sacrament, justification by faith apart from works prescribed by the law, their eyes glaze over. To get the conversation revved up again, I usually say something like this: if you worship with us on Sunday morning, you will find our liturgy resembles the Roman Catholic Church because we are, after all, cousins; we don’t believe, however, that the Pope has absolute authority and, oh by the way, our pastor is married.
These answers always beg other questions: are you like Methodists? Presbyterians? Baptists? What do you believe about Holy Communion? With all these questions looming, I have come to believe the simplest and best Lutheran answer is that we believe God offers a free lunch for everyone. That is, of course, why Martin Luther banged his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, 499 years ago.
The Presbyterian minister and writer Frederick Buechner describes what I call “free lunch theology” this way: “Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it, deserve it, or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.”
We know better than that though. We have become masters at reading the fine print. We know nothing in this world is free. My favorite fine print these days is found in advertisements for miracle drugs. These sensational medicines claim to eradicate all manner of aches and ails, enable us to live almost forever, and infuse us with unimaginable powers as we approach our autumn years. Then always come the warnings, in fine print: taking this drug may cause unintended side effects such as heart attacks, insomnia, athletes foot, excessive gas, or other mind-boggling maladies that may last longer than four hours and for which you must immediately see your doctor…Just as you suspected, there is no such thing as a free lunch.
All the fine print makes it almost impossible to fathom the Reformation’s guiding principle that grace is free for all. This is precisely why most of us madly scramble to read the fine print: we must have to believe to be saved, to be baptized, to confess Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, or, at the very least, to be a very good person.
Take stewardship for instance: “Pastor, are you saying I don’t have to give a nickel to be saved, that I can come along for a free ride and leave the driving to others?”
Let me attempt to answer that. We are about to embark on our 2017 stewardship campaign here at Holy Trinity. There is an incredible buzz in the air these days. Worship attendance is higher than it has been in at least four years; your giving this year is projected to be the highest that it has been in the history of this congregation. Worship and music is beyond belief. Our future at the corner of 65th and Central Park is very bright indeed!
To make our ministry continue to grow and flourish, each of us must do our part. And you are doing just that! We gathered for three listening sessions this summer at which you offered dreams to make this an even more vibrant congregation, things like moving our baptismal font to a more central location, improving our sound system, painting the parish hall; all these things are being planned or are in the process of happening. Our Finance Committee met three hours on Thursday evening; our Capital Project Committee met four hours last Saturday; our Church Council has been listening to your dreams. Serious planning and considerable hard work are being done to make our considerable dreams become realities.
To achieve our dreams, here and beyond our doors, each of us needs either to increase our pledge by between 5-10% for the coming year or, if we have never pledged, to do so this year.
In about a week, you will receive your pledge card in the mail. I pray that you will join Dagmar and me in giving serious consideration to how you will financially support our astonishing ministry. Some will give $500 a week, others $1 a week; each gift is essential to our proclaiming Christ to this community.
These are amazing days. Won’t you do your part in making our dreams come true by making a pledge? I guarantee you this: if every one of us commits to announcing that FREE LUNCH IS SERVED HERE at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity, our ministry will blossom well into the future. That’s why we pledge and that is why Luther banged the 95 Theses on the church door. He wanted everyone to know, Roman Catholic and Lutheran, pledger and nonpledger, $500 or $1 a week offeror: there is a free lunch served to all of us by Jesus Christ.
Guess what: lunch is ready! So, come: the gifts of God for the people of God. For free…and with no fine print!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Your prayers and presence are requested
at Solemn Vespers on
the Feast of Christ the King
Sunday, November 20th
at 5 o’clock in the afternoon
for the Installation of
The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
as the 14th Pastor of
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
Central Park West & 65th Street
in the city of New York
Bishop Robert Rimbo, preaching
The Rev. John Flack, presiding at the Installation
The Choirs of Holy Trinity and Bach Players
featuring music by Nicolaus Bruhns & Franz Tunder
A reception will follow.
All rostered ministers are invited to vest and process.
The color of the day is white.
499th Observance of the Reformation Mass
Sunday, October 30, 2016 – 11 o’clock in the morning
Beer and Brats Extravaganza
(immediately following worship)
Brats and mustard will be provided. Please bring one or some of the following: pretzels, rolls, sauerkraut, rotkohl, spaetzli, potato salad, cucumber salad, green salad, German-inspired desserts..
The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller’s Sermon
“Where Fluorescent Lights Flicker”
at Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity’s
October 23, 2016 (23rd Sunday After Pentecost)
Luke 18: 9-14
I love telling others about books I have read. What better opportunity than right now to tell a large crowd my top five desert island books:
• Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop”
• Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory”
• William Styron’s “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness”
• Annie Dillard’s “Holy the Firm”
• Frederick Buechner’s “Telling Secrets.”
As I pondered these gems, it struck me that all five books deal with people facing brokenness—feelings of insignificance, struggles with drunkenness, bouts of depression. And yet, in each book, delight mysteriously radiates through the darkness.
In “Telling Secrets,” for instance, Frederick Buechner writes of some broken people you might even know:
“They are sitting in the basement of a church…Fluorescent lights buzz overhead. There is an urn of coffee…In one sense they are strangers who know each other only by their first names and almost nothing else about each other. In another sense they are best friends who little by little come to know each other from the inside out instead of the other way around, which is the way we usually do it. They do not know each other’s biographies, but they know something about each other’s frailties, failures, fears. They know something too about each other’s strengths, hopes, gladness and about where they have found them…
“The meeting in the basement begins with all of you introducing yourselves. ‘I am Fred…I am Mary…I am Scotty,’ you say, and each time the rest of the group responds with ‘Hi, Fred…Hi, Mary…Hi, Scotty.’ Just by getting yourself there and saying that, you have told an extremely important secret, which is that you cannot go it alone. You need help. You need them…”
And then this: “I believe that the church has an enormous amount to learn from them. I also believe that what goes on in them is far closer to what Christ meant his church to be, and what it originally was, than much of what goes on in most churches I know…They have no preachers, no choirs, no liturgy, no real estate. They have no creeds. They have no programs. They make you wonder if the best thing that could happen to many a church might not be to have its buildings burn down and to lose all its money. Then all that the people would have left would be God and each other.”
Frederick Buechner understands what many of us sense: God is often found in unexpected places among surprising people.
This is exactly what occurs in this evening’s reading from Luke (which, by the way, is woven into this evening’s Bach cantata, “Mein Hers Schwimmt im Blut”).
There is a Pharisee. Now, be careful: the word “Pharisee” too easily sets off judgmental alarm bells, alerting us that self-righteous prigs have drawn near. I must tell you, most pastors, including this one, long to have a few Pharisees in the church. After all, they are the ones who pray regularly, will serve on any silly committee, and give 10 percent to every church appeal that pops up. We pastors prefer Pharisees on our church councils to thieves, rogues, and adulterers.
Remarkably, however, Jesus opts for the miserable tax collector over the righteous Pharisee. How could he choose the one with the striking resemblance to those who gather in church basements and cry out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The tax collector is a mess and he knows it. He never dreams of being ushered to the front pew of any sanctuary; he always sits way in the back.
This is my third Bach Vespers. Some of you have already confessed to me, “Don’t expect to see me around here on Sunday morning. “I’m an agnostic,” you say, or even refer to yourselves as atheists. “To be honest, reverend, I come here just for the music.” Do you feel a bit removed from the so-called “holier company” that gathers here on Sunday morning—at what we might call the “big boy and big girl worship service”? Come to think of it, do you cry out the words of this evening’s cantata:
My heart swims in blood,
since the offspring of my sins
in the holy eyes of God
make me a monster.
How astonishing that Jesus lovingly says of a person pretty just like you, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus’ words, “those who humble themselves will be exulted,” are the looming hope of all manner of foul-ups who repeatedly stumble. They should, of course, be the looming hope even of those of us who imagine we have it all together. Jesus’ words sound much like those from Bach’s cantata:
How joyful is my heart,
for God is appeased…
As the fluorescent lights flicker and the coffee pot gurgles, may you all hear our Savior say, “Come one, come all.”