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“The Truth Will Make You Free”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“The Truth Will Make You Free”
John 8: 31-36
500th Commemoration of the Reformation
October 29, 2017
Bach Vespers (Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott)

Please let me say to you, “Happy 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.”

And, while I am at it, please excuse any Lutherans sitting near you who sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” a bit too rambunctiously for your taste.  We simply cannot help ourselves as we ruminate on our fearless leader, Herr Doktor Martin Luther.  We love his vigor against Pope Leo X; we adore his courage, standing before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and proclaiming, “I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. May God help me, Amen;” we revere his towering intellect, translating the Bible into the German vernacular.  Forgive us, please, at least tonight, for being a bit more boisterous than is typical for us pokerfaced Lutherans as we cheer for our guy, the fellow who turned the world upside down.

We Lutherans, by the way, have gotten into hot water over the years, making claims about Luther similar to those who stood before Jesus and said, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.”  We have sung grandiose things at worship as our choir just did; were you paying attention to what they sang: “Long live Luther, long live Melanchthon!  Long live you luminaries of this land!”—and I am told the uncensored version actually has something, that the sopranos sang, about giving honor to the Elector Frederick the Wise—that can’t possibly be Psalm 119 as it states in our bulletin, can it?

On his best days, Luther would censure us for raising our beer steins too high in his honor.  It was he, after all, who warned: “People should not call themselves Lutherans, but Christians…How did I, poor stinking bag of maggots that I am, come to the point where people call the children of Christ by my evil name?”

Oh, the dangers of this 500th observance of the Reformation.  I don’t need to tell you the other side of Luther, the outrageous and bombastic, arrogant and horrid side.  Think of the tragic fault lines between Lutheran and Roman Catholic; think of the ecclesiastic squabbles that have led to horrific wars.  You have likely experienced similar family brawls, all because we claim to bear a greater truth than someone else.

And there is the other abhorrent part, Luther’s anti-Semitism.  Some of Luther’s writings on the Jewish people are so vile that our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declared in 1994: “Lutherans feel a special burden because of certain elements in the legacy of the reformer Martin Luther and the catastrophes, including the Holocaust of the twentieth century, suffered by Jews in places where the Lutheran churches were strongly represented.”

If we are honest about the Reformation and, believe it or not, if we are true to Luther, we must tell the truth because, after all, we proclaim truth-telling will make us all free.  And the truth is that Luther was human, very much so.

A few months ago, I attended a lecture by the Luther scholar Thomas Kaufmann who teaches at the University of Göttingen in Germany.  One participant was particularly exasperated by Luther’s anti-Semitism.  Professor Kaufmann simply said, “Say goodbye to Luther the hero!”

In our apologies for Luther’s anti-Semitism, our Lutheran church also noted: “Luther proclaimed a gospel for people as we really are, bidding us to trust a grace sufficient to reach our deepest shames and address the most tragic truths.”

That’s the good side of Luther, the truth that proclaims that all our heroes—including us!—are clay-feeted. We can be breathtakingly courageous and remarkably brilliant one day and pathetically cowardly and disgustingly offensive the next.

The Lutheran legacy we celebrate on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation is that God never gives up on us.  As he so often did, Luther said it best, “God can carve the rotten wood and ride the lame horse.”

One of my favorite books is Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory.”  It is about “a seedy little half-baked, cowardly, adulterous, whiskey priest in revolutionary Mexico.”   Frederick Buechner writes: “Every life he touches is somehow brought a little more to life by his presence, making him a saint in a way, not a saint in the sense of a plaster saint, of a haloed saint, but a saint in the sense of a person as mixed up as the rest of us through whom, nonetheless, God’s grace was able to work.”

Luther was like the whisky priest as, by the way, is the church on earth and as are we all.  The wonder is that God makes music through scoundrels and vagabonds, ragamuffins and jailbirds, Luther and Bach, and, yes, you and me. Our music-making, each in our own way, is as wondrous and brilliant as Luther’s “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.”  For that alone, it is well worth celebrating this 500th observance of the Reformation.  As we lift our beer steins high, let us give glory to God alone on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

“500 Years of the Reformation: Repentance or Celebration?”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“500 Years of the Reformation: Repentance or Celebration?”
(Romans 3: 19-28; John 8: 31-36)
Reformation Sunday (October 29, 2017)

Happy 500th Anniversary of the Reformation!

Five hundred years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther is said to have nailed 95 theses onto the Castle Church doors in Wittenberg, Germany.  Herr Doktor Luther wanted to debate a number of critical points with the church.  The powers-that-be were none too pleased with his audacious thoughts and brazen manner and thus the events of the Reformation began to unfold.

Perhaps you have noticed today’s sermon title, “500 Years of the Reformation: Repentance or Celebration?”  I have been wondering: do we repent for the past 500 years or do we celebrate them?

I must confess that all the Reformation events leading up to today have not caught my fancy.  I’m not sure why.   Holy Trinity has sponsored no trips to Wittenberg; we have no cutouts with Martin Luther and his wife Katie through which you can stick your heads and put the picture on Facebook.

Now, to be sure, I have a certain fondness for things German.  I am married to a lovely German.  I have traveled to all the requisite “holy sites of Lutheranism” and paid my due homage.  Our boys and even our dog Cisco are fluent in Luther’s mother language—and their mother’s, and our younger son, Caspar, lives and works in Hamburg, Germany.  So, I am not exactly turning my back on the Lutheran heritage.

One of my guesses why I am not exactly euphoric over all the Reformation howling has to do with how I—and I imagine many of you—grew up.  We Lutherans gathered in the biggest space available which, in Wheeling, West Virginia, meant a school gymnasium; we had the requisite mass choir with timpani and brass; we invited the most famous out-of-town preacher we could get to deliver an anti-Catholic/pro-Lutheran stemwinder that brought us all to a fevered pitch.  The first hymn, like this morning, was “A Mighty Fortress.”  Goose bumps formed, tears trickled, and we sang louder than we should have.

We, of course, celebrated that Luther had called the people of God to cherish that particular Pauline theological doctrine proclaiming there is not a darn thing we can do to save ourselves and that our salvation is a glorious gift from God.  There were other things we celebrated as well like Luther translating the Bible into a language people could actually understand and his gutsy stand against the church’s sale of indulgences, those “get out of hell free cards” for deceased grandma and grandpa that also helped underwrite the church’s ambitious building projects in Rome.

For sure, Martin Luther was a man of prodigious talents and, for that, we give thanks and I suppose God excuses our excessive merriment this morning.

But on those Reformation days of yore when some of us were kids, I never remember repenting. Do you?  Some of you may be scratching your head, “What was to repent?”

Remember when Suzanna Mueller announced to her good Lutheran parents that she was marrying Bronco Zaleski who attended St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church?  They were madly in love but both sides of the aisle were devastated.  The wedding was the tensest thing you ever did see as good Catholics smugly went up for Communion and pious Lutherans sat in their pews scowling…Sad.

Pure and simple, we dare not celebrate the division of Christ’s church. If we do, we are complicit in the continued crucifixion of Christ’s body on the cross!  Whenever the church is divided, we must lament the tragic part our own antagonism plays in damaging the proclamation of God’s goodness.

It seems we are getting better though.  We have found it within ourselves, by God’s grace of course, to listen to what Roman Catholics think and believe and they have been listening to us as well.  We have spent far more time seeking our commonalities and much less time lambasting one another’s differences; and, remarkably, the one holy catholic and apostolic church appears to be slowly mending.

We have come a long way.  In a few days, Lutherans of the Metropolitan New York Synod will cram into St. John the Divine for the 500th Observance of the Reformation.  My hope is that we will both repent and celebrate.  If there is a scent of triumphalism, my hunch and hope is that it will surface as we give thanks that many Christian denominations are desperately seeking how to break down the ancient barriers that have for far too long hampered our proclamation of God’s grace; we will also pray mightily that we may sing one gorgeous melody infused with the unique and lovely sounds of all our varied and rich traditions.

I experienced this glorious melody a few years ago when I attended Mass with my Roman Catholic sister-in-law and the priest of her tiny village church in Rotenburg, Germany, encouraged me, a Lutheran pastor, to come forward to receive the body and blood of Christ; it was a breathtaking moment.  Roman Catholics rejoice similarly when they come here and are welcomed to join us in receiving the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.

500 years after Luther, we repent for all those times when we have acted in ways that have gotten in God’s way.   And, 500 years later, we also celebrate all that is bringing our Christian family closer together.  The last thing the world needs today is Christians squabbling with one another.  We need to rise above our differences and proclaim God’s love to all the groaning world.

We deck our church in red today because, like in every age, God never forsakes the church.  And that calls for a celebration!  And so, I say, “Happy 500th Reformation Day!”

 

“O God, Turn Me into a Unicorn”

 Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon

“O God, Turn Me into a Unicorn”
Romans 8: 26-30
At the Inauguration of Fifty Years of Bach Vespers
at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
October 22, 2017 (20th Sunday after Pentecost)

Are there occasions when you find it almost impossible to pray? Do you sometimes question the validity of your prayers? Or have you simply given up on praying altogether?

The poet Christian Wiman writes of looking up at night and seeing his little child Eliza standing in the doorway.

“‘Daddy,’ she said, ‘I can’t sleep. Every time I close my eyes, I’m seeing terrible things.’

“I suggested she pray to God,” writes Wiman. “This was either a moment of tremendous grace or brazen hypocrisy (not that the two can’t coincide) since I am not a great pray-er myself…Nevertheless, I suggested that my little girl get down on her knees and bow her head and ask God to give her good thoughts—about the old family house in Tennessee that we’d gone to just a couple of weeks earlier, for example, and the huge green yard with its warlock willows and mystery thickets, the river with its Pleistocene snapping turtles and water-bearded cattle, the buckets of just-picked blueberries and the fried Krispy Kremes and the fireflies smearing their strange radiance through the humid Tennessee twilight. I told her to hold that image in her head and ask God to preserve it for her.

“‘Oh, I don’t think so, Daddy.’ She looked me right in the eyes.

“‘What do you mean, Eliza? Why not?’

“‘Because in Tennessee I asked God to turn me into a unicorn and’—she spread her arms wide in a disconcertingly adult and ironic shrug—‘look how that’s worked out.’”

Oh, the disappointments! You have likely besought God, at one time or another, to turn you into a unicorn of sorts and when you haven’t sprouted that singular, delightful horn, you have uttered in resignation, “I have no idea how to pray….in fact, I am not sure I believe in the efficacy of prayer at all.”

When I was installed as Holy Trinity’s pastor last November, I promised before you here at Vespers that I would “pray for God’s people.” I hate to admit that I have found it challenging to keep that promise. It is not that I don’t want to pray; I desperately do. I long for my prayers to be as inevitable as walking our dog Cisco in the morning, checking how many “likes” I have on Facebook, and reading the Yankee’s box score. But, sadly, my prayers do not often work out like that.

I so want to pray well as I imagine do many of you. I am always in search of the perfect prayer book, you know the one with beautifully gilded pages, the lovely delicate ribbons, and the first letter of each chapter gorgeously drawn—this book will certainly be the magical elixir that rouses my drowsy prayer life….You know how that goes!

I have experimented with prayer styles over the years, too, often resorting to the simple Jesus Prayer of the Eastern Orthodox Church, repeating the simple phrase, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” over and over again. They say if you repeat this often enough—maybe 10,000 times in a day—your prayer will become part of your heart. (This prayer, by the way, was made famous in JD Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey,” picking up on the Russian spiritual classic, “The Way of the Pilgrim”—do read that delightful book.) Perhaps you experiment with prayer styles—Zen, Yoga, Centering Prayer, morning walks in Central Park—all in hopes of becoming a unicorn, healthier, happier, more tranquil and certainly more loving. And yet how often do you throw up your hands like little Eliza and cry out, “Look how that has turned out”?

The fourth century desert father Saint Anthony of Egypt, once said, “A true prayer is one that you do not understand.”

When our prayers feel so feeble, nonexistent even, maybe that is when sufficient room has been made for God to draw closer than we ever imagined and actually to pray for us. St. Paul’s says of our sometimes stumbling and bumbling prayer life, put to music in Bach’s motet we will soon hear: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

Perhaps one of those profound prayers too deep for words occurs this evening.

Tonight, we inaugurate the fiftieth year of Bach Vespers at Holy Trinity. For all those years, people like you have, at least, come for the dazzling music of Johan Sebastian Bach, often seeking tranquility in the midst of turbulent times (Vespers started in 1967 during the height of the Viet Nam War). Could it be that this gorgeous music is our most profound prayer in a way we can barely fathom—how do so many of you say it, “I just come for the music.” Could it be in the tapping of our toes, humming along with the choir, closing our weary eyes at some gorgeous turn of phrase, could it be that the Spirit is interceding for us with sighs too deep for words?

Thank you for being here tonight as we begin our 50th year celebration Bach Vespers. May God bless you with the gift of music as you offer whatever your prayer may be and, if it be God’s will, may you be turned into a unicorn.

 

 

“What to Render unto Caesar”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon

“What to Render unto Caesar”
October 22, 2017 (20th Sunday after Pentecost)
Matthew 22: 15-22

The Pharisees and Herodians joining together to seek advice from Jesus on the tricky matter of, shall we say, church and state is as weird as the National Rifle Association and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals uniting to ask Jesus whether it is lawful to kill muskrats. The Pharisees and Herodians were not kissing cousins. When they sweet-talked Jesus, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance to the truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality,” we smell a rat.

Their question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not,” showed no interest in what Jesus believed. If Jesus said it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, in the Pharisees’ eyes, he would break the commandment, “You shall have no other gods.” If Jesus answered that it was unlawful to pay taxes, he would appall the Herodians who were especially fond of the empire. The Pharisees and the Herodians shared one common goal: Jesus’s blood.

You know how Jesus answered their question. The quote floats around in your biblical brainpan, especially from the King James Version, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

There must be an uncomplicated answer as to what is due the emperor and what is due God. The IRS, after all, tells us every year what is due the emperor. Even our church, in a few weeks, will ask us to consider making a pledge, perhaps a tithe (10% of our income), to support the Lord’s work here at Holy Trinity? Straightforward, huh…or is it?

When you hear Jesus’ answer, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s,” it sounds an awfully lot like something the great Yankee Yogi Berra might say: “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical” or “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

We are not so good when it comes to pondering vexing questions. We want answers, now!

You have heard someone, I’m sure, when asked a particularly vexing question, say, without a moment’s pause, “There are three simple points to consider.” I always wonder: how do they come up with three points so quickly; why not two points or four? I tend to be suspicious of people who speak authoritatively and immediately on thorny issues.

And there are some thorny issues floating around these days. Take for instance, how the United States should respond to North Korea which threatens to rain down havoc on God’s planet? I suppose one answer might be, “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” or perhaps “Do nothing” is another. From my limited vantage point, no answer seems as simple as three points: ready, aim, fire. I always pray that our president and congress, you and I too, will struggle mightily with such tough questions, deliberating and agonizing together, disagreeing with one another even, and certainly praying.

Don’t you smell a rat whenever another person, especially a leader, seems incapable of grappling with the perplexity and seriousness of monstrous questions, especially when the lives of young people and innocent civilians are at stake?

Abraham Lincoln, when asked whether God was on his side, did not launch into the old saw, “Of course, God is on our side, we are the United States of America.” Lincoln instead said: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” Lincoln was a humble leader who dared wonder whether he was on God’s side.

When the United States first invaded Iraq in 2003, the then Secretary of State Colin Powell was reminded that his boss, President George W. Bush, was in bed by ten and slept like a baby; General Powell reportedly replied, “I sleep like a baby, too—every two hours I wake up screaming.” That is not nationalistic flag-waving, macho-politics, or even three bombastic points to incite the political base. That is a leader who struggled through the night because he was dealing with matters of life and death.

Another president who understood the immensity of such questions was Dwight Eisenhower. Only days after the end of World War II, General Eisenhower, who had been in the thick of such a dreadful war, said, “Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in blood of his followers and sacrifices of his friends.”

Tough questions bring us to our knees and tenderize our hearts with humility. Tough questions bid us to struggle together for the best answers when none seem apparent. We must ask as did Lincoln whether we are on God’s side and perhaps it is not such a bad thing to wake up screaming like a baby as did Colin Powell whenever blood might be spilled because of our decisions. The best answers come when we have prayed long and hard, waiting on the Lord to give us a new song to sing, not one of our foolish concocting but of God’s wondrous creating.

When Jesus said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” his opponents “were amazed; and they left him and went away.” He didn’t offer a simple answer to a tough question. He offered an answer that bid faithful people to ponder, “Are we on God’s side?”

What if we struggle together with what is right and just, always seeking to make certain we are singing God’s song? If we do, I’ll bet people will be amazed.