3 West 65th St | New York, NY 10023 | 212.877.6815

“Resting in the Lap of God”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Resting in the Lap of God”
Matthew 17: 1-9
Bach Vespers
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
February 26, 2017 (Transfiguration of Our Lord)

O Lord, how good to be here, here on this mountaintop with a gorgeous view of Central Park, here where we will soon pray: “O Lord, support us all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, in your mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
We have longed for this place of holy rest and blessed peace.  However we say it—“I love Bach,” I love incense,” “I love Vespers,” even “I like the refreshments”—we come here where the busy world is hushed and where we can pray and sing and listen to glorious music.  We feel as did Saint Augustine so long ago when he said, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

Three little words in tonight’s reading, “six days later,” tell us volumes.

Do you know what occurred six days before Peter, James and John climbed the mountain with Jesus and gloriously witnessed the astonishing sight of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus together?  Six days earlier Peter had the audacity to suggest to Jesus that he need not suffer and die.  Peter was doing what dear friends do, protecting Jesus the best way he knew how from dying a horrific death.  We often say a similar thing to those we love, “You will not die,” though we know they will soon breathe their last. We cannot bear their suffering and death and we really do not know what to say so we say what we think is best no matter how flimsy our words may be.

Jesus would have none of Peter’s dismissive words even though Peter meant well.  In what may be the most stinging rebuke in all of Scripture, Jesus said to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.”

If your best friend called you Satan, how long would it take you to get over the scolding—twenty-four hours, six days…a lifetime?  Harsh words hurt!

From what we can tell, Jesus began the healing process with Peter six days later as they hiked up the mountain.

I don’t know exactly what brings you here tonight, what stuff won’t go away—the sting of a relationship gone sour, the heartache of declining health, the discouragement of a country in turmoil.  My guess is, whether it is sickness or health, joy or sadness, your heart is restless and you have come yearning to rest in the lap of God.

As I mentioned, the three words, “six days later,” are important.  When you hear “six days later,” do you perchance think of creation?   God toiled for six days, creating the heavens and the earth, giraffes and bumble bees, beautiful baby girls and ornery little boys, gleaming oceans and towering mountains.  I don’t know why, but whenever I think of the seventh day—the one that came after God had worked so hard on the previous six—I imagine God plopping down in an overstuffed La-Z-Boy, kicking off huge, dirty work boots, falling asleep and snoring away.

Jesus, Peter, James and John trudged up the mountain on the sixth day.  The seventh day was to be their delight.  Oh, how they needed to kick off their work boots and to rest awhile.

God knows we need our rest day as well. God also knows just how suspicious our culture is of rest.  And so, protecting us from the beguiling temptation of incessant work, God gives us the gift, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” God realizes all the silly stuff that tempts us: “I don’t have a free day until May 22…I work 169 hours a week”—all this trying to prove our worth, all the while forgetting that God loves us just the way we are.

I worry about people who don’t rest and I sense people worry about me when I don’t rest.  We are frightened when we watch people lose their centers of gravity; they have been seduced to believe they are the only ones who can make this great big world go round.  We quickly forget that God makes the planets spin and not us!

This evening, on the Transfiguration of Our Lord, we rest just as did Peter, James, and John, and, yes, even as did Jesus.  During these holy moments, we do absolutely nothing to prove our worth; it is, as the theologian Marva Dawn suggests, “a royal waste of time.”

By the way, it is a good idea, if you haven’t done so already, to turn off your stupid phones.  I was taught in seminary by the good Benedictine monk, Aidan Kavanagh, to take off my watch before worship begins—that was, by the way, before we had these stupid phones and instead communicated home to our parents with carrier pigeons.  Father Kavanagh told us just to rest in God’s presence and not to worry about time; in fact, he said, these holy moments are beyond space and time.

For now, I beg you, remember the Sabbath, delight in the music, and rest as the shadows lengthen and the evening comes.  Remember: when you leave here tonight, there will be no bragging rights as to who worked the hardest because you will have done nothing.  You will have wasted an hour and twenty minutes in God’s lap as Jesus was transfigured before your very eyes…and that is more than enough.

“Up the Hill and Down the Hill”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Up the Hill and Down the Hill”
(Matthew 17: 1-9)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
February 26, 2017 (Transfiguration of Our Lord)

Whenever I hear today’s gospel reading, for some reason, I think:

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.

In the Transfiguration of our Lord, Peter, James, John, and Jesus went up the hill.  They went up for a bit of rest from the weary work of ministry.  They went up because Peter, James, and John were dreadfully upset and disillusioned: Jesus had just announced to them that he would soon suffer and die a horrendous death.  They went up the hill to get away, to be alone for a time, to ponder what was about to happen.

And up on the hill, an amazing thing occurred: Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.  Even more stunning, the three disciples suddenly saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah.

They needed this vision in the worst way.  Only a week earlier, Jesus had told them the shocking news that he was about to die, not peacefully but violently.  The powers, threatened by Jesus’ invitation to care for the poor and love their enemies, were none too happy: they did not take kindly to having their ways challenged, especially when it affected the bottom line of profits, authority, and reputation.

Oh, how the disciples and Jesus needed to get away from it all, to go up the hill.

The disciple Peter had tried to do what good friends do when hearing the fatal diagnoses of family and friends: he told Jesus he didn’t need to die.  Jesus, in a fit of fiery anger, said to Peter in return, “Get behind me, Satan.”

Ministry is often messy if we care at all about doing what is right…

Actually, some ministry is not messy at all, the boring kind that refuses to see the world as God sees it.  Some ministry is content to make certain everyone gets along even if that means putting up with all manner of injustices that trample upon others.

Authentic ministry, on the other hand, is forever taking risks in Jesus’ name.  It gets bruised and battered, not, by the way, over silly matters that some churches seem so adept at squabbling about.   Authentic ministry gets bruised and battered because it dares to stand up for the bruised and battered. That kind of ministry, by the way, dares to come down the hill.

If we are to engage in authentic and vibrant ministry here on the Upper West Side of New York City, we need to honor the rhythms of going up the hill and down the hill.

Today, we are up the hill.  We stand here before Jesus, beholding the dazzling light of his presence.  We hear Jesus speaking to us.  Right here, in this place, we are strengthened to go back down the hill, as we must, to do ministry in the world.

I have seen very fine people who have done stunning ministry crash and burn because they have neglected the necessary rhythm of going up and down the hill.  These lay members and pastors and their families have toiled for the disenfranchised and yet, all too often, bearing too heavy a load, have come to say, “I can’t take it anymore.”  Quite a few of these compassionate folks have frankly been skeptical about giving much attention to excellent worship.  They have said, “We need to do the real stuff of ministry, not sit in our sanctuaries and fool with the fringes.”  I know these people—very well and very intimately: they have worked long into the night, every night; revolvers have literally been stuck to their heads; bullets have crashed through their kitchen windows as they and their children celebrated New Year’s Eve.  Hard, agonizing work.  Some have stood up when recalcitrant congregational members have refused to open their doors to the community as they tried their best to integrate the membership or hoped to call a pastor from Central America who could effectively evangelize to a changing neighborhood; they have faced fiery opposition when trying to speak a welcoming word to the LGBTQ community.  It has gotten bloody and contentious and, sometimes, sadly, these committed folks have thrown up their hands and said, “I have had it with the church.  Enough!”

The most enduring ministries with which I am familiar couple the finest worship with the finest outreach to the vulnerable.  There is no apology for ministry up the hill or down the hill.  These ministries dare to get their hands dirty often times in the toughest neighborhoods of our country.  These people know the necessity of being in the valley with the suffering and on the mountaintop with Jesus and Moses and Elijah.

Isn’t that why we are here today?  We are here not to get a cheap fix of fluffy religion or to escape the world and all that haunts it.  We are here to behold beauty, to hear Christ speak to us, to taste his body and blood, to sing with the saints and angels…And then, of course, we will go back down the hill again, as we must, where the cross looms.  We will carry the vision we have beheld here and the alleluias we have sung here and we will be strengthened all the day long.  We will go to hospitals where people suffer horribly; we will volunteer in homeless shelters where unfortunate souls huddle with all their nasty revulsions; we will confront the maddening issues of our day head-on wherever the vulnerable are trampled upon. It will be bloody; in fact, if there is no blood, it is highly unlikely we will be doing the work Jesus calls us to do.

And so, up and down the hill we go, up to be refreshed and down to serve, up to gaze on beauty and down to confront ugliness, up to taste salvation and down to feed those who have not had a good meal in ages.

Up and down, up and down we go, always singing “alleluia” and always with Jesus at our side.

“When Enemies Seem Just About Everywhere We Look”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
Sermon at Bach Vespers
“When Enemies Seem Just About Everywhere We Look”
Sunday, February 19, 2017 (7th Sunday after Epiphany)
Matthew 5: 38-48

The words, “Love your enemies,” are simple to domesticate.  They easily become trite fodder for crossed-stitched samplers hung on our dining room walls.

And yet, if the truth be told, Jesus’ invitation to turn our cheeks and to love our enemies has bedeviled many good people for a long time.  While I may not be a very good person, the directive regarding enemy love has bedeviled me most of my life.  I concocted a college minor called “Peace Studies” to try to come to grips with what Jesus was saying.  I took courses on pacifism and Christian nonviolence from a very good Quaker, created an independent study on the works of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton who had much to say about enemy love, and took history courses that examined how nations have tried to coexist throughout the ages with other pesky enemy nations.  You may or may not want to know, but my senior thesis was my “Conscientious Objector” papers which I then submitted to my local draft board in Wheeling, West Virginia, during the Viet Nam conflict.

It has been forty-four years now since those papers were handed to the draft board and yet, to this day, enemy loving continues to befuddle me.  The classic question asked of those who claim that they will refuse to fight in any war is, “What would you have done in the face of Adolph Hitler?”  That is an important question to ponder and points to how monstrously difficult it is to live purely in this world no matter how hard we try.

It is so simple to be naïve about matters of war and peace and even simpler to be self-righteous prigs about loving our enemies or defending the common good.

For those of us who live comfortably, it is convenient to get all teary-eyed as we place our hands over our hearts and sing the National Anthem at the Yankee’s game all the while leaving the bloodier stuff to less fortunate souls who do not have the advantage of good educations and fat parental investment portfolios.  Unless we or our own children are in the line of fire, we dare not arrogantly rattle our sabers in the name of God and country or profess purity about refusing to engage in armed conflicts, especially if we are benefitting from others’ sacrifices.  Whether we bear arms or refuse to, loving our enemies is dreadfully difficult.

As I have said, this question of how to love our enemies has bedeviled me a long time. As a Lutheran, I do not come from one of the historic peace churches like the Quakers, Mennonites, and Amish.  We Lutherans have typically had a cozier relationship with the state; perhaps it is in our blood to be warriors as opposed to peace lovers.

You will soon hear these words in this evening’s Bach cantata: “A Christian should strive to be dove-like and live without falsity or malice.”  The question: how to do that?  Asked another way, “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you for being dove-like?”

To be frank, it takes a fool to love one’s enemy, a fool like Jesus, a clown who died on the cross for those who hated his guts.

A fool…Actually, the fool has a rich tradition in some churches.  The holy fool is revered in the Eastern Orthodox Church and held in similar esteem to bishops and priests, deacons and monks.

It takes fools to love their enemies because they typically have nothing to lose.  They have no houses to defend because they most often sleep in the bushes in Central Park or on church steps like Holy Trinity’s.  When we pass them on the street with their matted beards or soiled dresses, if we have heard of holy fools, we might blessedly find ourselves wondering if we could ever be so blessed not to have the many wretched cares that so easily drive us to hate others. What would it take to be a fool like that?

These fools, often found in Russian writers like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, are particularly prevalent when the church and the empire have gotten too cozy with one another.  They are not the least bit impressed when the emperor holds his coronation at the cathedral on the hill or at all awestruck when Caesar shows up at the church across the street on the day of his elevation to high office.  If anything, the fool is on the church doorsteps with a sign that says, “Love your enemy.”

Could it be that one of the deepest joys awaiting us is learning to love our enemies?  On this Presidents’ Day weekend, we do well to remember a very good man and a very fine president, Abraham Lincoln, who once said, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

When we make our enemies our friends, our lives are changed for the better.  Not only do we quit seething in bitterness, we also create a vision of living in peace.  Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes all people blind.”

Maybe it is not such a risk to love.  Maybe in loving our enemies, we catch a glimpse of life lived at full stretch.  Maybe we should try it, especially in these contentious days when our enemies seem just about everywhere we look.

“Enemy Loving”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Enemy Loving”
Matthew 5: 38-48
February 19, 2017 (7th Sunday after Epiphany)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan

G. K. Chesterton was a late nineteenth and early twentieth century English writer and lay theologian. He once wrote: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”

When we think of our enemies, our first inclination is likely not to think of our neighbors or those belonging to our church. The word “enemy” makes us instinctively look for terrorists and spies living far across the ocean, certainly not those who haunt our local Starbucks.

My experience suggests that Chesteron is on to something. The farther our enemies live from us, the easier it is to pontificate about loving them—after all, we don’t see them daily and aren’t forced to put up with their shenanigans. The nearer our enemies, the more likely they are to infuriate us—after all, we know them so much better!

I speak from experience. On Monday evening, Dagmar, our younger son Caspar, and I attended the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden. We had dreamed of this for years and even considered flying here to see the doggies when we were living in California. We have been particularly enthralled by the public-address announcer David Frei who says things that make us smile. I can imagine him introducing your current Holy Trinity dog in residence, Cisco, at the Garden: “The Boykin Spaniel, the state dog of South Carolina, is bred for the rigors of low-country waterfowl hunting. He loves to hunt pigeons and squirrels in Central Park and imaginary animals in tiny Upper West Side apartments. Do not let his cheery disposition, curly brown hair, floppy ears, and adorable eyes fool you: though a doting companion, the buoyant Boykin is not for the faint of heart.”

We were thrilled to be at the dog show. Sitting immediately behind us were four people who were investing their parents’ entire trust fund on $12.50 beers. As the night wore on, they got funnier in their own minds and more obnoxious in ours. These were our neighbors and I wanted to clobber them. I kept thinking about what I could say that would humiliate these hot shots in the presence of their lovely dream dates. Suddenly, the enemies Jesus told us to love were sitting a row behind us and kicking our chairs throughout their drunken escapade.

Funny, isn’t it, how our nearest neighbors are often our enemies. Some of you have heard me say that when and if I arrive at the Pearly Gates, if a congregational meeting is in session, I will ask Saint Peter if there is another option besides heaven. Think of those church meetings you have attended where nuclear wars have been waged in Jesus’ name over such monumental matters as the color of paint for the parish hall, the choice of hymns, the use of incense, and where coffee hour should be held. Forget about enemies lurking in Russia, Syria, and ISIS camps, our enemies are closer and far more dangerous and, often, they are Lutherans!

This loving of enemies—and neighbors—is so difficult. Perhaps that is why it took Jesus to show us how to do it. No matter what people turned their back on him, friend and foe alike, Jesus loved them all the way to the cross. We do well to keep our eyes on him, to see how he loved his enemies. Jesus never gave up on those he loved nor does he give up on us. Even when we fail to love those who drive us nuts, Jesus keeps loving us back.

I hope that you have a few good role models who have taught you a thing or two about enemy loving. I doubt any of you have heard of the Rev. Will Campbell though some of you may know him as the Rev. Will B. Dunn, the bombastic preacher with the broad-brimmed clerical hat in the comic strip “Kudzu.” The only reason I know Will Campbell is because I heard him speak at the divinity school I was attending and where he had graduated twenty-five years earlier; I was mesmerized by the story he told, a story about enemy loving.

The good Reverend Campbell was a contrarian sort of fellow. He was active in the civil rights movement and left his job as the chaplain at the University of Mississippi when he started receiving death threats over his views on integration. He was the only white person Dr. Martin Luther King invited to the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He helped escort African American students through angry mobs in an attempt to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Will Campbell eventually abandoned organized religion, accusing the Southern Protestant churches in particular of standing silent in the face of bigotry.

You may be thinking, I wish I could have met him. But wait, there is more. Reverend Campbell was a real, honest-to-goodness, down to earth, Southern enemy lover. Not only did he stand up for black folks, he harbored the quaint belief that Jesus also died for racists. This odd notion prompted him to become a chaplain of sorts to members of the Ku Klux Klan; he visited James Earl Ray in prison after he assassinated his good friend Dr. King in 1968. Now, that, my friends, is enemy loving in the extreme and it does cause us to wonder, “Jesus, you don’t mean all our enemies, do you?”

We easily let Jesus’ words, “Love your enemy,” fall off our lips like melting butter on a warm cinnamon bun but sometimes the enemy is so close it isn’t even our neighbor. Sometimes the enemy we loathe dwells deep within ourselves. Some of our fiercest hatreds and most abusive behaviors are directed not at others but at ourselves where self-loathing threatens to annihilate us. Jesus invites us to love this enemy with tender compassion. Indeed, when you feel angriest at someone else, always, always, first look to see what enemy lurks deep within you that infuriates you so. See whether you are able to love yourself before trying to love your neighbor.
“Love your enemy,” says Jesus. A good place to start this enemy loving is in our own neighborhood, in our own our own church, in our own heart. These are good training grounds if we ever are interested in trying to love those who live outside our zip code.

By the way, you learned how to do this as a little tyke but may have forgotten. Let’s review: whenever fury starts doing its dirty business inside your heart, immediately begin to sing that simple children’s song, “Jesus loves me! this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Remember: Jesus loves you and all your neighbors and he wishes you would, too.