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“Oh, the Exclamation Point”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Oh, the Exclamation Point”
Luke 21: 25-36
Bach Vespers (BWV 70-“Wachet! betet! betet! wachet!”)
Christ the King (November 26, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

The Bible’s apocalyptic literature gives religion a bad name. That whacky end of the world stuff is grist for “The New Yorker” cartoons and makes people steer clear of the church altogether even when Bach is billed.

Wouldn’t you agree that this evening’s cantata is similar. No sooner had we settled into our pews for a long winter’s nap than Herr Bach grabbed us by the neck with a ferocious musical flurry: instruments storming, voices bursting—“Wachet! Betet! Betet! Wachet!” WATCH! PRAY! PRAY! WATCH!

Did you perchance notice the exclamation points, not one but four?

I am never quite sure how to use the exclamation point properly but I have discovered that my sermon manuscripts are littered with them: if one exclamation point does the trick, a million must certainly be sublime!

But of the whimsical exclamation point, Strunk and White in their classic writing guide, “The Elements of Style,” warn: “Do not attempt to emphasize simple statements by using a mark of exclamation. The exclamation mark is to be reserved for use after true exclamations or commands.”

Why then, I ask you, does Cantor Bach feel compelled to use four in a row: Watch—exclamation point! Pray—exclamation point! Pray—exclamation point! Watch—exclamation point! Could it be that Bach believed German literary style trumped English usage! Don’t get upset…Just wondering.

You know as well as I that something serious is going on tonight. Bach is kicking us in the pants, especially those of us who thought we could come here for a genteel Sunday evening concert and not be bombarded by religious madness. We never expected end-of-the-world stuff to assault our hearing.

Exclamation points rule the night as the trumpet blasts, the strings and reeds rage, and the choir storms. WATCH! PRAY! PRAY! WATCH! Wild-eyed and disheveled Johann Sebastian Bach is wandering up and down Central Park West with a hand drawn placard that announces, “Be frightened, you stubborn sinners, the Lord of glory is coming!”—that’s Bach by the way, not I.

If you haven’t, I urge you to go see the Edvard Munch exhibit at the Breuer. While it is entitled “Between the Clock and the Bed,” if they had asked me, I would have name it “Norwegian Seasonal Affective Disorder Art.” The lively colors of Munch’s paintings are dulled by “bronchitis, isolation, sleeplessness, restlessness, despair, drunkenness, unending screams.”

I loved the exhibit much like I love this evening’s cantata. Even with “You stubborn sinners…O sinful generation, unto eternal heartache…Let us quickly flee from Sodom…” ringing in our ears, even with stormy, depressing, angry, apocalyptic, bizarre language pummeling us, Bach is not done. Pay attention as the angelic voices of the Holy Trinity Bach Choir and the gorgeous accompaniment of period instruments weave their enchanting charm; note how your eyes suddenly twinkle, your feet start tapping, your heart pleasantly palpitates.

Composers of religious music worthy the name have the astonishing gift of weaving hope amidst the furious desperation of our lives. They are no different than the Old Testament prophets. No matter how judgmental and scolding, hope inevitably sneaks in.

My Old Testament professor Brevard Childs expected us seminarians to locate hope in every prophet no matter how vindictive they first sounded; that was always our homework, night after night, find the hope. Tonight, your task is the same: listen to the cantata and locate hope.

So curious: just when we are about to storm out of this church’s big red doors, convinced we have run into another bizarre religious cult where the pastor harangues us and the musicians point us to an eternal inferno, just then, when we have all but given up finding any semblance of a peaceful evening in this place, suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, we are enthralled by majestic words of hope.

Listen: “Raise your heads upward and be comforted, you devout ones, at your souls’ blooming. You shall flourish in Eden to serve God eternally…Jesus leads [you] into stillness, to that place where pleasure abounds.”

Now that deserves at least four exclamation points right in a row!!!! Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch! And, by all means, hope!

“Where Is the King?”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Where Is the King?”
(Matthew 25: 31-46)
November 26, 2017 (Christ the King Sunday)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

A blessed Christ the King morning, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I am the son and grandson and husband of realtors. That means, for a lifetime, I have been told that housing prices are directly linked to three critical factors: location, location, and location. You New Yorkers know this even if you don’t have realtors in the family: $1.5 million might get you 800 square feet if you are lucky. Yes indeed, location, location, location.

On this Christ the King Sunday location is critical as well—you know that, too. Last Sunday, at our adult forum, we discussed “All the Lutheran Questions I Am Afraid to Ask.” The most pressing question was the pesky one about sheep and goats. Put another way, who is ending up in heaven and who’s headed for hell?

Whether driven by fear or fascination, we can’t ponder the question enough: who will join Jesus as he sits on his throne of glory and who will graze with the goats in the eternal fires of Hades. We wonder about the destination of Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, and, to be blunt, even of Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians.

It’s dicey.

We so want to end up on the right side! We have heard about the heavenly side for our entire lives, the side where the streets are lined with gold, the gates constructed of exquisite pearls, and angels will serenade us forever.

Oh yes, we wonder: who will end up in heaven and who will end up in hell?

I increasingly wonder if we might just be looking for heaven in all the wrong places. I am reminded of the charming children’s book, “Where’s Waldo.” We snuggle up together and search and search for Waldo and it seems, every time, Waldo pops up in the strangest places.

Might Jesus do the same thing? What if we get to heaven and it looks just like New York City? What if the entire heavenly welcoming committee is composed of people who keep us awake at night, cause us to clench our fists, and make our blood pressure skyrocket? What if the heavenly receiving line is composed of the same people who make us want to change jobs just to get away from them, move out of our apartments because they drive us nuts, and change churches because they seem so unchristian?

I wonder, what if we get to heaven and it is no different from right here, right now.

It’s curious that when Christ the King gives us instructions as to “Where’s Jesus,” this is almost precisely what he tells us: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 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.”

Flabbergasting! We have been looking for Christ the King in such different places. Positively discombobulating! Where is Jesus?

The clues have nothing to do with pearly gates and golden-lined streets. And, if you look at the company this king keeps, Jesus is not to be found with the lords and the ladies, the well-heeled and the well-kempt, or even with the unspoiled and the goody two shoes. We don’t even see him hobnobbing with those who can expound precisely on Lutheran theology or wax eloquently about the quaint niceties of proper liturgy.

No, Christ the King is found with the hungry and outcast, the naked and sick, the slobs and scallywags.

This entire church year at Holy Trinity has been devised in such a way to equip us in discovering heavenly splendor in the mundane affairs of our daily living, in simple things like bread and wine and water, in run of the mill folks like you and me. We have been told that Jesus can be found with parents who aren’t quite sure if the baby Jesus is theirs or not; he is found not in palatial splendor but in a reeking barn out back; he never dines with powerful politicos except when they are after his neck; he is hounded persistently by the holy pious ones. More often than not, this most peculiar king is located with hookers and pimps, nincompoops and cheats, flimflam artists and also rans. And to cap it off, his enthronement is, of all places, on a nauseating cross in a Jerusalem trash heap. Who would think to look for Jesus in the ordinary occasions of life, in people that madden us, in locations that goad us to flee in dread and disgust?

I really am not certain about this sheep and goat stuff. I am even less certain about who will end up in heaven and who will be cast to the hellfires—that’s God’s business not mine or yours. What increasingly surprises me though—and actually gives me considerable hope—is that our king, more often than not, is found grazing with the goats, and goats that are the least heavenly breed of all.

Could it be, though, that we catch a peek of heaven this very moment? Of all places, we gaze into heaven right here at 65th and Central Park West as Christ the King gathers with us, misfits and malcontents, nervous nellies and the great unwashed. “Take and eat, this is my body given for you,” says Christ the King…“for you and you and you.”

Where is Christ the King? Let’s start looking right here, now, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Do Not Be Afraid of Tyrannosaurus Rexes and the Like”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Do Not Be Afraid of Tyrannosaurus Rexes and the Like”
Bach Vespers at Holy Trinity
24th Sunday after Pentecost (November 19, 2017)

The words “do not be afraid” appear in the Bible 365 times. I must confess I didn’t count them; I am accepting a popular contemporary theologian’s word on this matter. Whether 365 or 291 times, that’s a lot of “do not be afraids.” But, in all honesty, we probably all need about 365 “do not be afraids” to tote around with us as the shadows lengthen and the evening falls.

Have I told you that I detested setting my clock back two weeks ago? I hate looking out the parish house windows at 5 p.m. and seeing darkness. Are you like that?

As a kid, my worst fear was going down in the basement to get my mother canned tomatoes or strawberry jam. Parts of the basement were eerie, unfinished floor in some parts and exposed beams with aged wiring snaking around up above. I was petrified someone would turn off the lights and I would end up down there, all alone, suffocated by darkness.

Psychotherapists among us could likely lend me immeasurable help in exploring my fear of the dark (“Wilk, what causes you to take off running when the lights are turned off?). I suspect I am not the only one here tonight afraid of the creeping darkness and the ebbing light.

Think about it: why do we humans light candles when it gets dark? Is it just to create a mellow mood? Is it simply so we can see? Or is there something more profound afoot? Do we keep the candles aflame because we are petrified that lions, tigers, and tyrannosaurus rexes will burst into our caves any moment and gobble us up?

No sooner had we begun tonight’s evening prayer than I began chanting, “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who led your people Israel…by a pillar of fire by night.” I pleaded to God on your behalf, “Enlighten our darkness by the light of your Christ; may his Word be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.”

We censed the precious little light piercing the darkness on the high altar. And then we began to chant as the sweet smoke floated heavenwards: “O Lord, I call to you; come to me quickly; hear my voice when I cry to you.” We implored God to wrap this place’s deep darkness with holy candlelight.

Deep in our souls, we who are gathered here tonight long for light and we do our best to pass that light, one to another. We gathered here do the best we can, somehow, someway, singing and praying, “Do not be afraid.”

The Danish writer Karen Blixen, more commonly known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, once said, “Any sorrow can be borne if a story can be told about it.”

When the Antioch Chamber Ensemble sings Bach’s motet, “Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir” (“Be not afraid, I am beside you”), in a few moments, they will sing what Cantor Bach composed for a funeral in Leipzig. Bach’s deepest musical instincts, when death nipped at the heels of those he loved and served, was to start whistling. Don’t you whistle when it gets dark?

Our most profound human instinct when ol’ Tyrannosaurus Rex noses through our cave door, or at least when the doctor enters bearing a diagnosis that breaks our heart, is to beg someone to light a candle, tell a story, or sing a song. We sense this as tiny children when our parents tuck us into bed and turn off the lights; we beg them to tell us one more story.

We have grown older now but monsters still lurk amidst the dust balls beneath our beds. The monsters have different names now—cancer, divorce, alcoholism, loneliness, melancholy—but they are terrifying nonetheless.

When old Nebuchadnezzar’s henchmen hauled the Israelites off to Babylonian captivity, the prophet Isaiah started whistling. The accompanying words sounded something like this, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

That was 2500 years ago. It has grown dark once again and we are afraid all over again. And so, we sing Isaiah’s song and pray and light candles and do our best to reassure one another, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

“Forget about the Shovel and Boiler and Do Ministry Instead!”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Forget about the Shovel and Boiler and Do Ministry Instead!”
Matthew 25: 14-30
November 19, 2017 (24th Sunday after Pentecost)

“By the way, the parable of the talents is not Jesus’ hottest investment strategy! He is not offering advice on whether you should invest conservatively or aggressively in volatile emerging international markets.

Jesus’ parable is advice on how to live the Christian life with gusto.

As you know, a property owner entrusted three of his servants with large sums of money before going on a trip. He gave one five talents, another two, and the third one talent.

The servant with the five talents traded aggressively with what was entrusted to him and doubled his money. The second did likewise and also doubled up. The third servant, terrified what his master might do if he lost the money, took a shovel and buried his talent in the ground.

When the master returned, he poured lavish praise on the two who had risked substantially but was extremely harsh on the scaredy cat.

As I said, this parable is not Jesus’ investment strategy offering guidance for our congregation to see how much money we can amass in Chase Bank. Rather, Jesus is commending courageousness and extravagance and lambasting timidity and miserliness. He urges us to risk everything for the sake of the Gospel.

Why do I say this? Jesus told his parable only days before he ended up hanging on a cross. Jesus lost everything because he lived life to the fullest. His life was one of courageous and extravagant love. All that he could do as he breathed his last was to trust that God would provide—he didn’t have a penny to his name!

Christian congregations can be funny birds. We don’t always trust that God will provide so we hedge our bets, doing everything we can to control our destinies. Over my forty years of ministry, the biggest congregational fights I have been involved in have had to do with money. Some congregations limp along, fearful over how much money—or how little—they have in the bank, refusing to risk for the Gospel’s sake. One of my dear friends referred to such ministries as “no hits, no runs, no errors.” They are the kind of churches, by the way, that measure their ministries by how large their endowments are. Such places remind me of the bumper sticker that reads, “Whoever has the most toys when she dies wins.” Rich perhaps, but dead and gone nonetheless.

Exciting ministry never happens when we take the shovel and bury our treasure in the ground. In fact, you just heard Jesus say to the one afraid of taking a risk that he would be cast into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth—so much for timidity and miserliness!

Do you think Jesus who said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” gives a hoot about how much money we have in the bank? Give me a break!

I have been fortunate to serve five very different congregations during my forty years of ministry. I have served black and white and Hispanic congregations, gay and straight, deep inner-city and affluent suburbs, places teeming with Republicans and Democrats. I served a church with a yearly budget totaling $37,000 and one with an endowment of $2.5 million. My experience has been that the vitality of ministry has little to do with how much money a church has in the bank and everything to do with whether the people of God are willing to take risks for the Gospel’s sake. I have seen wealthy churches obsess over whether they would have enough to fix a leaky roof. On the other hand, I served one congregation that dreamed of calling a pastor from El Salvador to begin ministry with the growing Hispanic community but was uncertain whether we would have enough money; then, one Christmas Eve, I walked into my office and found a $25,000 check on my chair with a note that simply said, “Let’s quit talking and let this ministry begin immediately!” Courage and extravagance for the sake of the gospel!

The question for us here at Holy Trinity is what we plan to do with the considerable talents God has entrusted to us. Will we risk them for the Gospel’s sake or will we take a shovel and bury them in the ground, fearful that the roof might leak, the boiler explode, or the elevator go on the blink? I don’t think I am too bold to suggest that fourteen people are joining our congregation in the next few weeks, not because of our roof, elevator, and boiler, but because they detect courage and extravagance rather than miserliness and fear!

At our church council meeting on Tuesday evening, we voted to bring the Saturday luncheon ministry called HUG back under our congregation’s wings. For nearly forty years now, this has been a separate 501c3 non-profit outreach; from now on this program for senior citizens and homeless folks will be run solely by and funded by The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity. On behalf of the council, I invite you to consider making a gift to this ministry. $200 will provide meals for forty people on Saturday afternoon; $10,000 will fund the program for an entire year and ensure its future with no worries and even allow us to dream bigger. Why not give a Christmas gift to a friend whom you have no idea what to give and say on the Christmas card, “40 people will be served lunch in your honor…Merry Christmas.” And if you can’t make a financial gift, why not volunteer?

This, my dear friends, is how ministry here at Holy Trinity is going to thrive. We are going to risk what God has given us for the sake of this suffering world.

Vibrant churches never reach for the shovel to bury the treasures God has entrusted to them. Rather, they do ministry with risk and courage and extravagance. May excitement prevail at 65th and Central Park West, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.