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“Dizzy and Blessed”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Dizzy and Blessed”
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
(Matthew 5: 1-2; 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31)
January 29, 2017 (4th Sunday after Epiphany)

If you are a connoisseur of church websites as am I, you are aware that every one of them has a picture of the congregation at worship and, in every picture, the crowd is overflowing.  You have probably noticed that there are lilies or poinsettias in every picture.  You’ve got it: the pictures are always taken on Easter or Christmas Eve when the gatherings are the largest.  No congregation dares use a picture taken on July 23.  We all want to look big and important.

That is why the Sermon on the Mount or the Beatitudes feels so unnerving.  Jesus forces us to look at our lives upside down.  We prefer worldly standards, standards of power and wisdom; we are repulsed by the standards of Christ’s cross that appear weak and foolish.

Listen, for a moment, to Eugene Peterson’s Beatitudes from his “Message” translation of the Bible: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.  You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.”  Make you squirm?

In these days, no matter what our political persuasion, we want to be powerful, to fight for what we believe to be right, just, and sensible.  Blessed are the peacemakers—are you kidding me?  These days call for backbone and fisticuffs, a tough streak that gets results done TODAY.

I suppose that is why it is so hard to be a Christian, at least the kind of Christian Jesus seemed to envision.

We began worship this morning with a cross leading the way.  Did that, by chance, make you feel a bit queasy?  My dear friends, Jesus died on that cross.  You can almost imagine Pontius Pilate using the water-boarding technique as he screamed at Jesus, “What is truth?”  We feel so unsettled when we are forced to listen to St. Paul’s dribble, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the woe world to shame the strong.”  “No way!” we holler.  We prefer the powerful and important.

When I was a pastor in Washington, D.C., we got word that President Clinton might be worshiping with us on Sunday morning.  Volunteers dusted every nook and cranny, trimmed bushes and raked leaves, removed the clutter of old bulletins and frayed offering envelopes stuffed in the pews; those in charge of refreshments made certain they were fit for a queen…or at least a president.

…By the way, President Clinton never showed up that morning.  Remarkably, though, a lot of important people did show up.  They were not powerful or important by worldly standards but they did end up feeling honored by a spic and span church, stunning music, and delicious food.

What if we treated every person with such honor and respect, or in Jesus’ terminology, as blessed by God?  What if we celebrated the presence of the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the meek, and the bedraggled—US!—as if we were the most important people in the world?  What if, this morning, we saw the world as Jesus saw it?  What if we viewed people from Syria and Iran, Iraq and Libya, Somalia and Sudan and Yemen, as blessed?

I know what you are thinking, “Pastor, Stop!  That’s all I read these days on my iPhone, all that I hear on television.  I came here for shelter from the storm not more blather from a guy who, quite frankly, doesn’t have a clue about the world order. Hush.”  And yet, shouldn’t we at least try, as the Bible commands us, to see the widow and orphan, the strangers and sojourners, through the immensity of God’s love and not through the narrowness of our little hearts?  Of course, you are right: that’s seeing the world upside down and that’s not easy.  Didn’t I tell you seeing the world through God’s eyes will make us dizzy?

New Year’s Day fell on Sunday this year.  Attendance was spotty that morning, not a worship service we will show on our website.  I ended up opening our front doors.  There was quite a bit of trash around the steps.  Having no gloves or broom, I tore off a piece of cardboard from a discarded box to create a make-shift dustpan.  I gingerly cleaned up cast-off Kleenex and other disgusting rubble.  As I bent low to pick up a lipstick-stained cigarette butt, two visitors stopped to inquire when worship began.  They were from central Pennsylvania—a retired pastor and his wife.  Later that week, they sent a lovely email.  Regrettably for me, they made no mention of my “towering sermon” that day—not a word!  What they did mention, though, was their amazement that the pastor of this so-called “prestigious Lutheran congregation on Central Park” was picking up trash; “there must be a sermon there somewhere,” they said.  What they realized—and what I had forgotten—was that Jesus was coming to church that New Year’s morning.  They were so delighted by the possibility of it all and there I was, begrudgingly at best, cleaning up trash on Jesus’ behalf.

The Beatitudes work like that.  They surprise us with whom Jesus calls blessed.  Think of just one of the beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Have you ever felt so walked over and ignored that not in a million years would you expect Jesus to tap you on the shoulder?  Maybe that’s why the Beatitudes are so unsettling: they invite us to see ourselves and our neighbors just as Jesus saw the poor and orphaned and, yes, the aliens…as blessed.  It isn’t just presidents who are important.  Suddenly, by heavenly standards, we are all important, no matter how much is in our pocketbook or from what country we come.

When I was feeling so sorry for myself that New Year’s morning, I forgot there was no greater honor than to clean the church steps, hold the door open, and usher Jesus in.  If only I had noticed Jesus down on his knees picking up the cigarette butts with me, I would probably have been much happier and certainly more blessed.

Do we notice Jesus in our lives?  I wonder if Jesus would have been turned back yesterday at JFK Airport—you do know what he looked like and, if the truth be told, many of those who followed him thought the best way to bring about the kingdom of heaven was through violence.

It’s so easy to forget that God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.  Let us always remember that Jesus chooses us, too, by bowing down to us and calling us blessed.

“Immediately!”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Immediately!”
Matthew 4: 12-23
January 22, 2017 (3rd Sunday after Epiphany)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan

The gospel reading we just heard demonstrates why we should be extremely careful when making important decisions in life.

Jesus had only twelve choices for the disciples who would assist him in proclaiming that the kingdom of God had come near.  If you had been in his place, wouldn’t you have exercised extraordinary vigilance in picking your dream team?

Professional football teams do that.  They spend enormous amounts of personnel time and money studying which players to choose in the college draft.  Character, speed, strength, agility, intelligence—these are carefully analyzed before any player is picked.  Teams have high hopes of assembling the next Super Bowl team so every choice on their fifty-three-player roster matters.

Jesus didn’t have a fifty-three-player roster, his was composed of twelve.  Given that, you might be surprised how he went about selecting his disciples.  Jesus walked along the Sea of Galilee and, from all appearances, chose the first guys he came across.  Matthew makes no mention of whether Jesus had a head-hunting firm conduct advanced interviews but I doubt it.

Perhaps Jesus should have been more judicious.  He came up short on all twelve of his selections; they all ended up being clunkers.  His first choice, Peter, was a compulsive liar, denying ever having known Jesus when push came to shove; another pick, Judas, sold Jesus up Calvary’s hill for thirty pieces of silver; and the other ten disciples, well, they were nowhere to be seen when Jesus breathed his last.  Losers, cowards, reprobates…you name it.  Quite candidly, Jesus’ choices do not come off as particularly imaginative or insightful.

And how astute were Peter and Andrew, James and John?  When Jesus said, “Follow me,” they dropped everything and followed immediately.  Admittedly, the swiftness of their decisions sounds awfully holy, but honestly, would you really have followed Jesus the minute he snapped his fingers?  Wouldn’t you have analyzed the job description first, talked to people whose judgment you respected, and asked about the compensation and benefits package?  For goodness sakes, the disciples were being asked to turn their backs on their boats and nets and family and to follow a quirky Galilean rabbi…Wouldn’t you have said something like, “I am flattered, Jesus, but give me a few days to study this whole thing and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”

And yet, that’s not what happened.  There was a sense of urgency.  The kingdom was near and Jesus had to act decisively and swiftly.  There was no time to dilly-dally.

We all want to be successful, don’t we? We listened to our parents who counseled us to count the costs, to be certain we are doing the right thing before jumping in head first.

The Christian life is no different.  We have our questions about our faith and want to get them answered the best we are able before we say, “I do and I ask God to help and guide me.”  Maybe we should read one more book, attend one more class, have one more meeting with the pastor, make certain we don’t do anything we will regret later.  And, as citizens of this nation, we want to listen to all sides before standing up for the poor and vulnerable.  We fear that one error in judgment will ruin the day.  Give it all time, see how it all unfolds—really…not exactly eager for the kingdom of God.

The church is no different.  We engage in painstaking research before acting.  Study, study, study…count, count, count…discuss, discuss, discuss.   When you called me as your pastor, you did exactly that as far as I can tell.  You spent a year-and-a-half in an interim process before choosing your next pastor.  You analyzed Holy Trinity’s strengths and challenges and pondered how best to move forward.  The Call Committee invested an enormous amount of time reading candidates’ exhaustive bios, parsing our in-depth answers to questions provided by our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, interviewing us face-to-face, and calling our references to make certain we were telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  You flew Dagmar and me all the way from California to New York—not once, but twice.  You watched carefully to see which of the three forks we used to eat our entrées; you listened to my chanting with high hopes I could carry some semblance of a tune.  The entire congregation had the opportunity to “meet and greet” on a Saturday afternoon and to ask any pressing questions you might have.  You listened to me preach to see whether I kept you awake or immediately sent you to Lalaland.  And then, with fingers crossed and heads bowed, you voted…This all didn’t exactly occur immediately.

Most of us have a million and one reasons why we should be patient and prudent: resources our limited and rash decisions will be costly for years to come.  We worry about making a mistake we will regret and yet, in some ways, Jesus made twelve flagrant ones.  None of his disciples stood out in a crowd and none stood up for Jesus when his life was on the line.

The disciples must have felt like they had made a mistake as well, especially when they saw Jesus hanging on the cross.  Why had they been so impulsive, why had they dropped their day jobs to follow the abysmal failure named Jesus?  Maybe they should have listened more carefully to their parents and exercised more patience when making such a significant decision.

Perhaps that is why today’s gospel reading is so useful for us.  Just as he called the first disciples, Jesus calls us now to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near.  There is an urgency to act, not tomorrow or next month or next year, but now…immediately…on behalf of all God’s children.

Our decisions, of course, will be filled with ambiguity, even fear; that’s why they are called leaps of faith.  Finally, we must trust that God is leading us and guiding us and will excuse our errors in judgment due to our eagerness to act in this suffering world on God’s behalf.

Oh, and by the way, God calls us, we don’t call God.  God knows we will stumble or our all-knowing God wouldn’t have called us in the first place!

And so, let’s get going and believe that God supports us every step of the way.

“Make America Great!”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Make America Great!”
At the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
January 15, 2017 (2nd Sunday after the Epiphany)
John 1: 29-42

I first lived in New York in the summer of 1976. I was participating in a program called Clinical Pastoral Education at the Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn that teaches pastoral care to seminary students. It also helps future pastors, as they are fond of saying, “get in touch with their feelings” through intensive group activities.

One group activity occurred on a Tuesday morning when our supervisors, Sister Teresa and Father John, asked us, “If you were an animal, what would you be?” That was a moment of crisis for me: I was certain my quest to become a pastor had abruptly ended; for the life of me, I could not come up with a suitable animal.

Forty years later, I am still perplexed: what animal would I be?

And you, what animal would you be?

It is puzzling. I probably would opt to be a scorpion or grizzly bear—though I would never admit such yearnings publicly. I would choose such an animal because of its penchant for unleashing ferocious bites in order to protect the helpless.

My heroes have all had a ferocious and venomous side. That is not to suggest they have not been astonishing pastors—they have; and yet they have never been afraid to bare their teeth when shielding the most vulnerable against the ravenous appetites of the powerful. They have stood up for what Jesus stood up for and cherished the people Jesus treasured.

One of my heroes is the late John Steinbruck, the longtime pastor of Washington, DC’s Luther Place Memorial Church. While blessed with a remarkable pastoral heart that created such visionary ministries as the N Street Village for homeless women and the Lutheran Volunteer Corps for recent college graduates, he could spew rancor at DC’s power brokers that would cause you to duck if you happened to be in the way. He was a curious concoction of animals, really: though often as gentle as a lamb, he could also be as thick-skinned as a hippopotamus when standing up for the weak…In my dreams, I would be like my dear friend John whose calling it was to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

With that said, it always comes as a surprise, at least to me, that when John and Andrew noticed Jesus, they exclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God!”

A lamb…Did any of you choose to be a lamb?

Four figures are carved into Holy Trinity’s pulpit. They represent the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. With the exception of Matthew who is symbolized with an angel-like figure, the others are symbolized with animals and dangerous ones at that: Mark, a lion; Luke, an ox; and John, an eagle. The eagle’s beak is so sharp, by the way, that when our custodians were putting up the Christmas trees, Christian accidentally bumped his head on the beak and the beak drew blood…An eagle’s beak, quite a symbol for bold and forceful preaching!

But a lamb? Who would ever brag, “Our pastor preaches like a gentle, little lamb”?

Tomorrow, our nation pauses to give thanks for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. His soaring rhetoric could be as fearless as a shark and could sting like a hornet. It behooves us during these decisive days of our nation’s life to recall Dr. King’s final sermon preached at Washington’s National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, only five days before he was assassinated. Listen carefully: “…we have difficult days ahead in the struggle for justice and peace, but I will not yield to a politic of despair. I’m going to maintain hope as we come to Washington in this campaign. The cards are stacked against us. This time we will really confront a Goliath. God grant that we will be that David of truth set out against the Goliath of injustice, the Goliath of neglect, the Goliath of refusing to deal with the problems, and go on with the determination to make America the truly great America that it is called to be.”

Did you hear Dr. King’s words, “to make America the truly great America that it is called to be”? As you are aware, president-elect Donald Trump has been proclaiming a remarkably similar phrase.
My dear friends, as the people of God, we are called to pray mightily for our newly elected president Donald Trump as he installed this coming Friday, January 20. We are called to pray just as Martin Luther King prayed, calling on God to fill Donald Trump with this nation’s deepest values of liberty and it highest aspirations of justice for all people. We are also called to pray that, by God’s amazing grace, President Trump will exhibit breathtaking courage whenever little people are trampled upon and chewed up by the rich and arrogant. Oh yes, pray for our president-elect we must.

When the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about making America the truly great America that it is called to be, he did so as a follower of the lamb. Dr. King never grew weary or hateful; he was a man of utmost dignity and supreme bravery. In the face of high-pressured hoses, snarling attack dogs, and even a deadly bomb that blasted through his own home while his wife, Coretta, and ten-week old daughter, Yolanda, were there, he pled with his followers to follow a different way, Jesus’ way, the way of love toward those filled with hatred, the way of decency toward those perpetrating all manner of wickedness upon those who wanted to be treated as human beings.

As you know, Martin Luther King was gunned down for speaking fearlessly, not on behalf of himself mind you, but on behalf of God’s defenseless and abandoned ones—that, my dear friends, is what it means to make America great.

I sadly confess, I am never quite certain what animal to choose. I often find myself preferring ferocious lions and violent sharks at my side when the going gets tough. Nevertheless, the truth is, we are called to follow the gentle lamb, the Savior who died for every one of God’s children…Such a vision would truly make American great again. Pray we must, O dear God, pray we must.