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

“How Often Do You Use the Word ‘Like’”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
“How Often Do You Use the Word ‘Like’”
Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
July 30, 2017 (Eighth Sunday after Pentecost)

Perhaps you have experienced the exasperation of trying to define a particular word or phrase to someone and coming up short.

There are the big words like antidisestablishmentarianism. My friends and I knew this word in sixth grade but, not in a million years, could we have told you what it means.

Then there are the tough ones like inchoate, circumlocution, and exigent; most of us have never used them in a sentence and we are clueless as to what they mean.

And then there are those churchy words like faith, grace, and mercy. My seminary preaching professor forbade us from using such go-to-words in sermons because, while they sound awfully holy coming from pulpits like this on Sunday morning, most people don’t have an inkling what they really mean.

Take for instance that pesky phrase the “kingdom of heaven.” Can you define that?

You can, of course, revert to your Webster’s. Kingdom: the spiritual reign or authority of God often depicted as being above the sky or a state of being eternally in the presence of God after death.

One thing is for certain, when I try to define the kingdom of heaven, I stumble and bumble: “The kingdom of heaven is like…you know… like…well…uh…like…you know.”

You have probably noticed a speech pattern of late where people rely heavily on the word “like.” “Like,” by the way, is replacing “you know” as a go to word.

Linguists say that we use “like” unconsciously as we try to gather our thoughts, not sure what it is we want to say. The problem, they claim, is that when overused, words like “like” and “you know” make us sound nervous and incapable of explaining what we mean.

If you are a bit embarrassed right now because you use “like” as much as a D- tenth-grader, you may be relieved to hear that Jesus used the word “like” five times in today’s gospel reading when trying to define the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, he said, like yeast in dough, like buried treasure, like a fine pearl, like a net cast into the sea.

Could it possibly be that Jesus was as challenged as we when trying to define the kingdom of heaven?

The Bible offers clues about what the kingdom of heaven is like. In heaven, we will sing “Holy, holy, holy” with the angels before the throne of God. The book of Revelation claims heaven will shine with the glory of God, and its brilliance will be like a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. Isaiah describes heaven as the lovely place where death is swallowed up for ever and the Lord God wipes away tears from all our faces. While these majestic visions are instructive, I have a hunch we still catch ourselves stuttering, “The kingdom of heaven is like…well…you know…. like.”

Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to ordinary things like nets, yeast and dough, and pearls. He even claimed the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, the smallest seed in the world, and yet it becomes the greatest of shrubs where birds make their nests. A shrub, perhaps a big bush—certainly not a soaring tree—this is the kingdom of heaven!

When I try to describe the kingdom of heaven, I increasingly turn to poets and novelists rather than theologians and biblical scholars—but, please, don’t tell a soul! Take for instance the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Earth is crammed with heaven.
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

According to Browning, if we don’t see every common bush as an occasion to discover God, we will likely end up sitting around plucking blackberries.

Do you have poetic eyes? Will you discover the kingdom of heaven this afternoon as you walk through Central Park—in the majestic American Elms lining the walkway just across the way, in the staccato-mad cadences of the red-bellied woodpecker, and in the lazy boats as lover’s glide across the lake? Is God somewhere thereabouts?

Annie Dillard, the writer I spoke about last week and whom I adore, regularly discovers God in mustard seed kind of places and doughy kind of folks. “On Sunday mornings I quit the house and wander down the hill to the white frame church in the pines…The church women all bring flowers for the altar; they haul in arrangements as big as hedges, of wayside herbs in season, and flower from their gardens, huge branches of foliage and blossoms as tall as I am, in vases the size of tubs, and the altar still looks empty, irredeemably linoleum, and beige. We had a wretched singer once…a hulking blond girl with chopped hair and big shoulders, who wore tinted spectacles, a long lace 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.”

How about The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity: are you able to spot the kingdom of heaven in this mustard seed place? Are you able to glimpse heaven in the words of this broken-down preacher, in the rotgut wine purchased on the fly at the corner drugstore, and in the plastic disks passed off as Christ’s body? Can you catch sight of the kingdom in our pedestrian missteps and pathetic insecurities as we do our best to speak gentle words to our detractors instead of bombastic ones? Do you gaze at the kingdom as we try to arouse rich people to bow to the poor and to urge our leaders to pray as did Solomon when he asked of the Lord, “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil”? Maybe that’s a shrubby kind of kingdom dream but I believe it something like what Jesus had in mind when he described the kingdom of heaven.

Yes indeed, earth is crammed with heaven right here at 65th and Central Park West. This mustard seed kind of place called Holy Trinity and the doughy people we are rubbing shoulders with this very moment are like…you know…. like…uh…. like the kingdom of heaven.

Exciting News at Holy Trinity!

Exciting News at Holy Trinity!

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Mass

July 30
11  o’clock in the morning

Pastor Miller’s Sermon This Sunday
How Often Do You Use the Word “Like”

(please read & meditate on Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52 in advance of worship)

(more…)

“For God’s Sake, Let the Weeds Grow!”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“For God’s Sake, Let the Weeds Grow!”
Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
July 23, 2017 (7th Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

This is an amazing day as we receive seven new members into our Holy Trinity family.  Quite a few of you have said, “This is terrific.  What a gift from God.”  Yes indeed, our hopes are high!

Those joining are excited, too.  You do not take this step lightly.  You have thought about this for a while, looking around at churches, even exploring other denominations.  You are praying, “Make this the perfect faith community.”

We all want our life together to be perfect.  Jesus understands our longings.  That’s why he tells the parable of the wheat and weeds.

In today’s parable, we are reminded—and glaringly—how oblivious Jesus is to rational horticultural practices.  He tells us to let the weeds sprout up with the wheat and all will turn out fine. “Jesus, you have got to be kidding!” we protest.  Nevertheless, Jesus urges calm and we agree to excuse his botanical naïveté; he is, after all, our Savior.

Like Jesus, I am no gardening enthusiast.  There have been countless occasions when Dagmar has flown off to Germany with no choice but to tolerate my mismanagement of her prize-winning gardens.  In advance of the gut-wrenching separation—from the gardens, Dagmar has taken me by hand, warily expounding on how to water and how to discern ripeness in vegetables and fruit; she inevitably provides a tutorial for dummies on the minute differences between weeds and blossoms.  Invariably, upon her return, Dagmar weeps: “Wilk, those were artichokes you pulled out, not dandelions.”  I always promise to do better the next time.

While many of us have no gardening experience or have purposely chosen to live in this concrete jungle to avoid the nauseating nuances of flowers and weeds, we all yearn for Eden.  That’s why Jesus instructs us, “Leave the wheat and weeds alone or you might end up ruining the good stuff.  I will take care of the rest.”  Jesus knows we want things to be impeccable and, in the face of the least little flaw, we will drive ourselves and others nuts in seeking perfection.

This longing is nothing new.  We are embarking on the 500th year of the Reformation when the reformers yearned for a purer church.  Protestants and Roman Catholics remain tragically divided as we attempt to separate weeds from wheat.  You may believe things are purer because of Martin Luther and his sidekicks, but don’t forget the wars waged over pure doctrine, the heads lopped off, and the families devastated when their beautiful Catholic daughters married vulgar Lutheran boys.  And that was not the only time the church was torn asunder.  500 years prior to the Reformation, in 1054, another theological squabble led to the Eastern and Western Church divide.  And that wasn’t even the first monumental fracas.  Remember how the first Jewish Christians tussled with the Gentile Christians over the earth-shattering issue of whether believers should be circumcised?  Oh, how we long for perfection and what ugly rubble we create in pursuit of it.  Could it be that every 500 years or so, we, the people of God, forget what Jesus has told us about wheat and weeds, and try once again to purify the church with our own preferred gardening techniques?  Perhaps you have noticed the church is at it again, this time, issues of human sexuality are causing all manner of discord and people are ripping out wheat and weeds in all kinds of devastating ways.  Oh, if we only would listen to Jesus: let the wheat and weeds grow together, he said, particularly since you are clueless what is a weed and what is wheat.

Something within us believes we can achieve perfection and, doggonit, we will stir up all manner of havoc in the struggle.  When our personal lives and families, church and nation, are flawed, instead of doing as Jesus commands and letting the wheat and weeds coexist, we rip everything asunder, inevitably losing precious artichokes in the process.

I have a hunch Holy Trinity attracts lots of folks in search of purity.  Would you agree?  How many of us are here because we love the liturgy being “just so,” reflecting the venerable church traditions through the ages?  We want to bow right, make the sign of the cross at the precise times, sing theologically fitting hymns with only the finest music, and wear appropriate vestments even when it is 95 degrees and soupy…By the way, I like it that way, too, or I wouldn’t have accepted your call to become the pastor here and I certainly wouldn’t be wearing this toasty get-up this muggy morning.

And yet, we need to be careful.  My favorite author Annie Dillard writes: “The higher Christian churches – where, if anywhere, I belong—come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.”

Perhaps our freedom comes when we ease up a bit, taking ourselves less seriously and letting the weeds and wheat coexist.  Rather than becoming nervous wrecks if we commit a nauseating faux pas like making an improper left turn instead of right as we process to the altar, let us manage a little smile, trusting that God will spare us the raging fires of hell and mysteriously let us enter into heaven.  You could call this grace.

In a few moments, when the bread is broken at the altar, I will say, “Holy things for holy people.”  You know better than that, of course you do, and you will shout out the ancient response, “Only one is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God.”

Here’s what is astonishing: pure and spotless Jesus comes among us, repellant weeds that we are, looks straight into our eyes, and says, “Let the weeds remain.”

Perhaps Jesus, crummy gardener that he is, knows a thing or two about beautiful flowers.  Maybe he knows beautiful flowers are nothing more than trained weeds…or at least forgiven ones.

“Wildly Extravagant Ministry”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Wildly Extravagant Ministry”
Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
July 16, 2017 (6th Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West

During the next few weeks, Jesus will tell us a few parables about the kingdom of heaven.  His stories about wheat and weeds, a tiny mustard seed, buried treasure, a fine pearl, a fisherman sorting through good fish and bad ones, will invite us to see the Christian life much more exuberantly than most of us typically do.

Jesus might stun us this morning as he tells of the most peculiar seed-sower.  The sower flings seeds every which way—onto rock-hard paths, lousy soil, and weed patches; thank goodness, some seeds end up in good soil.  No hoeing, no fertilizing, no soil analysis at the local community college’s agricultural branch—seeds are simply hurled hither and yon in what appears a wildly careless fashion.

I adore this extravagant seed-sowing technique, I suppose, in large part, because of how I grew up. My parents taught me a far different style: seeds are to be planted precisely, in straight lines, at correct depths, and in carefully prepared soil.  I detest gardening to this day because of the mind-numbingly cautiousness of it all!

I learned a similar risk-adverse style when it comes to money: save it and never spend it foolishly.

I remember taking a vacation to Sea Isle City at the Jersey shore.  My mom and dad kept a financial logbook the entire way.  Every penny spent was recorded: gas purchases, Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls, camping site costs, even the cokes, pizza, and salt water taffy bought on the boardwalk.  At one point—at least this is how I remember it—dad warned us, “We are running very low on cash.  We must be careful or we will run out of money.”  I have a hunch we weren’t quite as low as he made us out to be—dad was far too cautious for that; instead, he was teaching us to be frugal.  I do not remember that vacation as a particularly extravagant or fun one; what I do remember was, at times, being scared to death that we might run out of money!

This may sound unusually harsh toward my father but dad was a very good man.  He grew up in the depression and thriftiness was undoubtedly drilled into him by his parents.  His chief goal in life—and he passed it on to me—was to leave his children and grandchildren enough money so that we could go to any college that accepted us and that as the years went by we would never have to worry—no extravagances, not an ounce, just care for his family’s future.

Some good church people are like my father.  Don’t call them miserly; such a view demeans their well-intentioned sacrifices for the well-being of future generations.  These folks invariably are some of the most generous givers to the church’s ministry.

Churches can easily begin to mimic the anxieties of such good and prudent people. They save money for leaky roofs and, lo and behold, when leaks appear, they become nervous nellies: how can we possibly spend our hard-saved money to repair our roof, we will go broke?

I know a few churches like that; they have literally died with millions of dollars in the bank.  They had oodles of money available to proclaim the good news of Jesus to the community but they were too afraid to do that.  How distasteful to be extravagant, they always thought.  Oh, for sure, they ended up with invincible roofs…they also died rich.

Communities and people who have ears to hear Jesus’ parable of the outlandish sower are inevitably far more vigorous and certainly more exciting.  Jesus wanted us to know that God will create a harvest beyond our imagining, especially if we only dare scatter seeds extravagantly in God’s name. Today is the day to announce that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near—not tomorrow!

How extravagant are you?  Now, please, don’t answer too quickly.  In a congregation I once served, an active member repeatedly voiced harsh criticisms to me because, in his mind, we weren’t spending enough on his favorite pet projects.  He criticized our church as “penny wise and pound foolish” as we tried to get years of deficit spending under control—which we did.  There was only one catch: while he criticized us for being cheapskates, he didn’t give one cent to the church’s ministry, not one!  Don’t feel sorry for him: he drove a fancy sports car!  It is a good idea that whenever we get the urge to demand our church to be more extravagant, we first examine how generous we are ourselves.

Anyway, I can guarantee you that people will be far more attracted to extravagant ministry than miserly ministry!  People can see extravagant joy a mile away and they can smell miserly fear from even further.

We are called to follow the one who gave away everything, including his life, in love for his neighbors.

To be completely honest, a number of churches that have touched me most deeply over the years are long gone.  One church had a building as grand as Holy Trinity’s.  Ministry flourished day and night.  Bills were paid by what I call the “shoebox method,” placing them in a shoebox and prioritizing what had to be remitted immediately before gas, electricity, or water was turned off.  Thousands of people were touched with Christ’s love in this breathtaking place but it is now dead and gone; a Buddhist monastery is in its place.  But I, along with many others, continue to bear the excitement of having been part of that place, a ministry that exuberantly celebrated the life Jesus promised in the face of constant threats of death.  That’s how we learned to do ministry and, God willing, that’s how we will do it here.

You know of such extravagance because you have been there.  You have dropped clods of dirt mixed with your warm tears on your loved one’s casket; you have taken Jesus’ extravagant promise to heart: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of what falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

One day, these words will be spoken over all our graves.  We will be planted in the ground with the assurance that we will sprout up and live forever.

May our hearts be filled with joy as we hear Jesus’ wild story of the extravagant giver and may we fling seeds of hope and joy into all the world.