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“Standing on Tiptoe”

Sermon at Vespers
The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
“Standing on Tiptoe”
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2016
Romans 13: 11-14

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

The heroes of the faith down through the ages have known that it is time to wake up.  They have lived life in full stretch, in lavish expectation, and on tiptoe.

The Lutheran pastor Philipp Nicolai is such a hero.  He lived in Germany in the sixteenth century.  Imagine his dismay as the plague killed 1300 of his congregants, 170 in one week.  He could either fall asleep in disgust or seek how to comfort his parishioners.  He chose the latter, writing a gorgeous hymn whose breathtaking strains take your breath away as they punctuate this night, “Wake, awake, for night is flying.”

Pastor Nicolai had to stand on tiptoe to see above the death and heartbreak.  Of tippy-toe standers, Saint Paul wrote, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrew 11: 1).

The heroes of the faith defy the darkness and courageously sing of a new day when most have resigned themselves to drone on in miserable dirges.  The tiptoe standers take the long view, gazing over distant mountains to the Promised Land even while their feet are sunk deep in desert sand.

I think of prophets like Isaiah singing soaring poetry of peace when the world is at war; they imagine swords being beaten into plowshares even as the machinery of battle raucously rattles. Or who can forget Martin Luther King, Jr.’s stunning vision announced amidst the horrifying pandemonium of high-powered fire hoses and snarling attack dogs?  It is hard not to join his music: “I have a dream that one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.”  Dr. King stood on tiptoe.

So often we lose the courage to live life in full stretch, dreaming in vibrant colors.  Sometimes, rather than chanting soaring testimonials to God’s presence, we warble hackneyed ditties that lull everyone to sleep with their sentimental triviality.

The story is told of the nineteenth century German poet Heinrich Heine as he stood with a friend at Amiens Cathedral in France.  As they gazed upon this stunning structure, Heine’s friend asked why great architecture was no longer created.  Heine answered: “In those days [people] had convictions, whereas we moderns only have opinions, and something more is needed than an opinion to build a Gothic cathedral.”

Every age needs people with more than an opinion.  We need people with conviction, people who stand on tiptoe for what matters most.

One of the great temptations on evenings such as this is to lift up only the giants of the faith, people like Isaiah and Martin Luther King, Phillip Nicolai and Dietrich Buxtehude and Heinrich Schutz.  Doing this makes believe that only the virtuosos of art and music, prophesy and preaching, can make a difference in the world.  We risk being lulled into slumber, giving little old you and me a free pass when it comes to living lives that matter in our groaning world.

I have been struck in my first few months here at Vespers that we stand together on tiptoe whether we realize it or not.  We come to listen to the finest music of the ages overflowing with conviction.  But we do more: we all sing with wonder.   In our music-making, we pray that in our world entrenched in deep gloom as the shadows lengthen that indeed light will break forth.

I recently read a poem that invites us to stand on tiptoe and sing.  Listen…

I like a growling congregation,
hope creaking through difficult lives;
I like choirs of bright voices,
light filling dark places;
But best I like indifferent singing,
the soloist who gets the high notes flat,
the warbler who makes herself heard over all,
the organist who embarks on an extra verse;
For here is the greater challenge to love,
amid fastidiousness, vanity, human failing;
here, in spite of me appears the greater blessing,
on finding love sweeter than any singing.  
(Meg Bateman, “Music in Church”)

You may not be capable of singing the soprano aria or playing the tricky violin part but you are essential to the wonder of this evening.   Just by showing up, you demonstrate that you are awake and yearn for the light. When it is your turn, grab your hymnal and stand on tiptoe…sing and dream so all the world can hear that Christ is coming soon.

“723,794 Days or So and Waiting”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“723,794 Days or So and Waiting”
First Sunday of Advent (November 27, 2016)
Psalm 122; Romans 13: 11-14; Matthew 24: 36-44

Two Sundays ago, I wanted to be in church more than I can ever remember in my entire life.  Really!  I eagerly anticipated singing with you, lifting up our prayers together, and gathering at the Lord’s table.

Today isn’t too different.  I love Advent.  I got all antsy last night as I thought about being with you this morning, singing the Advents hymns I adore and chanting Psalm 122.  I feel like I could have written the words to today’s Psalm, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”

Since arriving here, I have come to relish our Psalm singing.  I can’t wait to hear how our choir interprets their verses—each remarkably different, each breathtakingly magnificent—and how Donald Meineke highlights our Psalm with his magical organ accompaniments.

Saint Paul writes: “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”

Coming to the Lord’s house and singing Psalms and Advent hymns wakes us up to God’s presence. The church has other Advent techniques to awaken us as well, the color blue for instance.  If you are an early riser, you know the sky is deep blue just before sunrise.  Advent blue reminds us that God’s son will soon dawn.  It is so easy to grow downcast as the days grow darker.  After eleven years in California, I had forgotten how dark it gets here—and how early!  We need light, especially Christ the light of the world.

In the face of such deep darkness, the church also lights candles.  We light them on the Advent wreath, one after another.  We will create Advent wreaths in the parish hall today so you can mark time for Christ’s coming in your home.

The green Advent wreath reminds us that, even as the Central Park trees have become barren, life prevails in this cold winter.  The pine scent wafting in the air even prompts us through smell to await Christ’s coming.

Though it is dark outside, we come to the Lord’s house with great anticipation, yearning for Christ’s return among us.  We commit ourselves financially to Holy Trinity so that this neighborhood will not lose hope.  Our 2017 pledging has already grown more than 7% from last year’s total and, God willing, quite a few of you will join the excitement today, using the pledge card in your bulletin and making a financial commitment for the coming year.  We have so much reason to hope!  Your pledge is one Advent candle you bear so that the forlorn among us will not grow discouraged.  We are here at the corner of 65th and Central Park West, reminding people of Jesus’ promise: “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming…you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Waiting can be grueling.  Some grow impatient as if their broken dreams are like shattered precious china.  Imagine what it must have been like for the earliest Christians who came forty years after Jesus had been crucified.  They had heard Jesus and his closest followers announce that he would come again maybe even in their lifetime.  They believed this good news.  And yet, as each year passed, they wondered: had Jesus sold them a bill of goods? Their cherished Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed; their brothers and sisters were being tortured and executed.  “Christ, are you coming or not?” they pleaded.

Is it any different for you?  It may be worse!  By my inaccurate calculation, 723,794 days or so have gone by since Jesus left this earth…and still no Jesus.  Like little children impatiently awaiting Santa’s arrival, you anticipate Jesus’ coming…or have you grown too cynical to wait?

Maybe your precious temple has not been destroyed and maybe your loved ones have not been fed to the lions for their faith, but you so want Jesus to return in your life. You desperately want someone to take note of you and to say, “I love you”; you crave a meaningful job that will finally give you some measure of satisfaction and address some of the world’s deepest needs; you want to stop your excessive drinking, this time for good.  There are countless nights when you frantically wonder and pitifully wail, “Jesus, are you coming again or should I look for someone else?”

For such unrelenting restlessness, this place exists.  It is why we just courageously prayed, together, “Stir up you power, Lord Christ and come.”  It is why in a matter of moments we will confess “Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” some of us weakly as others more confidently urge us on.  It is why we will shout with one voice, even as some falter: “Christ has died. Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.”

The Advent church, at our best, navigates the terrifying shadows together, telling one another a story or two the best we are able that Christ will not forsake us and that he will come again.  The Advent church draws close to a dear friend in the hospital who is fearful of what the coming night will bring and so needs a story of hope.  Such a church gathers with a neighbor around a dining room table at two in the morning in the face of a cruel betrayal and promises the sun will rise again.  This Advent church sings the Alleluia story at a freshly dug grave as everyone returns to their cars and the grieving spouse’s world has turned upside down. We tell the story that Christ will come again, here, now, in a way, pray God, that all will hear.  So, let us sing to one another and tell the old, old story that Christ will come again.

Yes, indeed, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”

Bishop Rimbo’s Sermon at Pastor Miller’s Installation

SERMON – Bishop Robert A. Rimbo
Christ the King – Year A
Installation of Pastor Wilbert Miller
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
The City of New York
20 November 2016 at 5 p.m.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last Sunday, on the way into this sanctuary for an amazing and timely Bach Vespers, Lois and I turned the corner at 65th and Central Park West and were met by a team of what seemed to be 20 police officers. (Perhaps I overstate the number a bit; there were probably 8.) My first thought?? “What has Wilk done now?” Then I realized it probably had something to do with the protests going on around our City. I said to one of the officers, “Thanks for your service,” and, seeing the collar, he replied, “My pleasure, father. The other priest said that, too.” Then I knew what Wilk had done: he had already been out there making a connection on the corner.

Today, the Feast of Christ the King, is a day for making such connections on the corner, where church meets world, if you will. Holy Trinity is in a position to make ever-increasing, visible, powerful connections in witness to Christ right here and throughout our Synod and our City and our world.

My expectations might seem a bit high, but they are not unrealistic. We serve the Ruler of the Universe, so I have great expectations and enthusiasm for this next chapter in the story of this beloved congregation as we install its 14th pastor. (Remember: I was number 12. Like the disciples.)

Welcome, dear Wilk and dear Dagmar. And thank you for this opportunity to preach as we celebrate the Reign of Christ together.

On his ninetieth birthday, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was asked by a reporter, “What has been the secret of your success?” The illustrious justice solemnly responded: “The secret of my success is that at an early age I discovered that I was not God.”

Not bad advice, not bad at all. There is one who reigns, even though Wilk tried to borrow a crown from the Metropolitan Museum of Art for me to wear and Dagmar had to return the dress with the ostrich feathers. (Ask me later; I’ll tell you what that’s all about. Or, better, ask Dagmar or Wilk.)

It’s good to realize that you – each of you and all of us – are not God. Thank God, that job is already taken.

History would have been eminently more peaceful and productive if only its leaders would have discovered the same lesson. Throughout history, rulers were considered divine
because, like God, they held the power of life and death over their subjects. Rome’s emperors proclaimed that indeed they were living gods. Europe’s queens and kings lorded over their subjects by “divine right” – I’ve been binge-watching The Crown on Netflix and highly recommend it, especially the stunning portrayal of the enthronement of Queen Elizabeth II which pointed to this kind of understanding of rule by divine right.

In 1925, Pope Pius XI realized that Europe’s royal reigns would soon become the stuff of fairy tales. But the Pope was convinced that the new rulers of such kingdoms as socialism, communism, and fascism eventually would not save people because these modern “isms” would also lord it over their subjects and rob them of their freedom as children of God.

Because the Feast of Christ the King emerged from such a particular political scene, at the corner of church and state, it is a rather relevant feast to celebrate for us, even though we are Americans. While Lutherans did not really begin to mark the Feast of Christ the King until 1978 there were vile rumors that the Pope saw Lutherans having such a blast with Reformation Day at the end of October each year with tympani and trumpet that he decided to one-up us Lutherans and celebrate this last Sunday in the church year with a whole lot of hoopla. I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s the product of Lutheran inferiority complexes.

What is actually more accurate is that the Holy Father saw the fascist Benito Mussolini coming to power in Italy and decided to set the record straight: Christ is the King of the Universe, no politician, no ruler. Only Christ.

Hmmmm…that’s a good message for all of us who meet at this corner this evening. The Church is declaring to all: You are not God.

Today I see our nation and our world shaking in its boots. This morning I was with one of our Arabic pastors who reported great fear among people who are here in the United States – legally or illegally – fear that they will be deported. Hideous graffiti is on the increase, apparently. There is deeply troubling anti-Semitism. Bullying is everywhere. Punch them in the face. Get them out of here. There are increased police numbers on our streets. There is fear about the Thanksgiving Day Parade that will soon course its way toward and beyond this corner. And we are here to worship Christ the King who died naked on a cross between two criminals?!?!

I think we are at the point in our society when ordinary citizens will realize that their God-given rights make them able to move rulers and “isms” by a voice of human solidarity. I hope we in the church and all faith communities will soon say, without tanks or guns but with a loud voice, “You are not God.”

I don’t want to make trouble for you, dear Pastor Miller – all of you pastors – but I have to say that we surrender our souls whenever we fail to speak to those in authority – to our leaders – whether they are communists or congresspersons, parents or teachers, bosses or bishops (!) or, yes, pastors. We surrender our souls whenever we remain silent when those who have authority over us forget that they are not God.

My dear brother, Wilk, has already made it very clear that his ministry here at my beloved Holy Trinity is not about power. You, dear Wilk, have made it clear that you know what real leadership is all about. You proclaim Christ crucified and risen. And you have been reminding us – I read the facebook postings of your sermons faithfully, even when I am not in town – you are reminding us that the reason Christ reigns from a cross is that Christ never failed to tell the political and religious rulers of his time that they were not gods. So they killed him. Christ the King calls us to this kind of witness here in the midst of this world, on this corner.

Our ancestors called the powers around us “gods” and named them Mars, Jupiter, and Venus and told wonderful stories about them. We call them hormones or economics or politics or narcissism, and we have theories about how these forces may be manipulated and managed, but I’m not sure that we know much more about how to deal with these powers than our ancestors did.

We’ve got problems with the powers, don’t we? We feel so power-less ourselves over forces we cannot control.

So in Colossians St. Paul gives thanks that there is a church in the first place because we need each other to deal with life. And then the Apostle urges them – and us – to be a song of thanksgiving to God – a motet, a cantata, a hymn that sings “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Here is the basic affirmation on which everything else depends: “All things were made through Christ and for Christ.” And by “all things” St. Paul means all things – including the powers, everything at every corner.

And that is why I dare to say to Pastor Miller, and to Dagmar, and to the members of Holy Trinity, and to the community that gathers for Bach Vespers so faithfully, and to all of you who are here at this corner right now: “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from Christ’s glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father …God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 111-14)

We don’t need anything else as we live and give our witness at this corner.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“A Most Peculiar King”

Sermon by Pastor Wilbert Miller
At The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
“A Most Peculiar King”
(Luke 23: 33-43)
The Feast of Christ the King (November 20, 2016)

In the Name of Christ the King, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“The Crucified God”…I remember the first time I heard of this book written by the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann.  I was horrified—“The Crucified God?!?”  I had always thought God was above such barbarity.  God, after all, looks down from heaven, refusing to dive into our muddled affairs here on earth.  And yet, in a few moments, we will confess in the words of the Nicene Creed that God did exactly that, ending up crucified, dead and buried.

We cry, foul!  That’s no way to treat God and, far worse, it is no way for God to behave.  God must stand clear of the riff-raff.  Respectable gods are untouchable.

We conclude another church year today, Christ the King.  The entire year has been a tutorial in helping us spot this most peculiar king amidst the chaos.  We are like school children trying to locate God in a religious version of “Where’s Waldo.”

Christ the King is so hard to find, especially if we seek him among the company we expect: the landed gentry, the power-brokers, the goody two-shoes.  When God came to earth, his Son was born in a stinky stable, in the alleyway of oblivion—and here we thought we would find him in an ornate palace. When he preached his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, family and friends tried to toss him off a cliff; they were outraged that he sided with the trampled upon, the broken, the prisoners—this is no king! When the Son of God met up with religious leaders, they scolded him for hanging with fraudulent tax collectors and scandalous prostitutes—no king here.  When he died, his enthronement occurred, not inside a majestic pyramid, but on an ugly instrument of torture and execution.  Where’s Christ the King?

Jesus is a most peculiar king, especially for those who prefer their kings a bit less sullied and far more formidable.

Where might we spot such a king?  Jesus helps us in our search: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Whoever dreams of finding God in people like this?

When Holy Trinity’s Call Committee interviewed me about nine months ago, they asked about the themes you might expect to hear in my preaching.  I told them of my favorite character in all of literature, Mr. Fruit.  Mr. Fruit appears in the novel, “The Prince of Tides.”  He lives in a little village in South Carolina’s low country.  Every town has a Mr. Fruit as does every church.  He is the misfit who directs the 5 p.m. traffic at the busiest intersection and yet is not the constable; he leads the 4th of July parade, waving a tiny American flag, always marching proudly ahead of the high school band, the VFW float, and the mayor in the vintage Cadillac.  Remarkably, the people of Colleton are not embarrassed at all by Mr. Fruit; in fact, they usher him to the center of their life. The author Pat Conroy notes: the character of any community is measured by how it treats its Mr. Fruits.

Most of us avoid the Mr. and Ms. Fruits.  They drive us crazy.  And yet, we dare not forget Christ the King who said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

As we arrive at the end of another church year, we are invited to behold this most peculiar king. So often, we look for him in all the wrong places and, even when we stare at him face-to-face, we end up befuddled.

We have a number of staff members living in this building—your fine cantor Donald Meineke and your pastor and his wife, Dagmar.  You treat us quite nicely.  Others live here though you have not formally met them.  This evening, immediately after I am installed as your pastor and the front doors are locked tight, a few hapless souls will spread out their raggedy beds on our front steps.  Jesus will be among them as he promised he would but we may be tempted to reckon the whole lot as revolting vermin scampering around our building.  Some will object, they always do, though they will couch their indignation in a more refined manner.  Our natural inclination is to keep our church tidy, free of riff-raff, certainly free of controversy.  Even if taking such risks lifts up God’s blessed poor ones, we prefer a bit less drama.

Soon after we arrived, I met a woman at a party who lives two blocks from here.  As soon as she found out I was Holy Trinity’s new pastor, she launched into her speech.  I was panicky.  She proceeded to thank me that this church allows homeless people to sleep at our doors.  She knows the well-honed opposition—she lives here after all.  She then added, “I am Jewish, but I so admire your ministry.”  Interesting, isn’t it, how so-called “outsiders” sometimes glimpse this peculiar king more quickly than those who think they know him so well?

On this final Sunday of the church year, it would be easy to get caught up in the royal razzle-dazzle.  But, surprisingly, today’s gospel reading reveals a different kind of king, one nailed to Calvary’s tree between two other despicable criminals; that is God’s royal enthronement.

Maybe we are best when people wag their tongues and ridicule us for the company we keep.  Maybe we are far closer to our king when we end up being Mr. and Ms. Fruit ourselves, standing up for the hungry and the thirsty, the sick and naked, the outcast and refugees, and getting punched in the nose every step of the way by the powerful.  All we can do is trust that our peculiar king will defeat wickedness and death through breathtaking love and bring all his subjects to life everlasting.

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