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“Frolicking Down at the River”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Frolicking Down at the River”
(Mark 1: 4-11)
The Baptism of Our Lord (transferred) & The Baptism of Vivienne Marie Francis
January 14, 2018

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The gospel of Mark opens this way, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Hearing the words “good news,” we expect quaint mangers and gentle lambs, regal magi and beautiful Mary. What Mark does instead is launches off with a thirty-year old Jesus hanging out with the riff raff down at the river.

I know a thing or two about rivers having grown up 600 yards from Wheeling Creek, a pintsize tributary emptying into the mighty Ohio. The underbellies of rivers are not pretty. Rusty beer cans bob along their banks, dead fish float in the weeds, rats scamper here and there, big ol’ black snakes slither amidst the other creepy flotsam and jetsam…I wonder if the Jordan River was like that.

You can imagine the crowd Jesus joined. They had failed every New Year’s resolution they had ever made and this time around were restlessly waiting to jump into the Jordan for John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to see how that might work.

If Mark is to believed, that Jesus’ baptism is good news, what’s up?

Jesus was with pimps and prostitutes, for goodness sakes, rednecks and ultranationalists, drunks and deplorables, the wild and wooly. Jesus wasn’t teaching them how to hold their noses and swim. Oh no, he dove in with them and got as drenched as a puppy in a fire hydrant.

Let’s admit it though: there is a sort of romanticism about it all. You know what I mean: there are sinners whose misguided ways and ugly diatribes do not irritate us in the least. We all have our favorite sinners whose foibles and foul-ups make us laugh and applaud.

A good rule I learned in divinity school is if any bit of scripture, including Jesus at the river with the sinners, doesn’t make us squirm, it is highly unlikely we are grasping how it shocked the original hearers.

The early church was horrified by Jesus frolicking at the river. What in the world was he doing with those stinking sinners? Wasn’t Jesus pure and spotless? Shouldn’t he have been hiding in the bushes, folding his pure hands in prayer and piously begging for God’s mercy on those dreadful sinners?

And come to think of it, aren’t there people in our own day who can never be washed clean, who deserve our endless rage, whose company we should never keep? I am sure you can think of one or two such people this morning. That, by the way, is the way of the world: create insiders and outsiders, good and bad, saved and eternally doomed. Remarkably, that’s not what Jesus did. He frolicked with the sinners down at the river.

Early on Friday morning, at about 2:30 in the morning, I woke up tossing and turning. The very question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth,” weighed heavy on my mind. Our president had apparently made denigrating remarks about the people of Haiti and Africa. My mind was running wild: can anything good come out of Haiti or Bethlehem, Namibia or Jerusalem—I had baptized kids from these very places. And, of course, more to the point, can anything good come out of Wheeling, West Virginia (my hometown) or New York City (where you and I live and do ministry together) or God knows where?” Again, Jesus joined all manner of folks, the good, the bad, and the ugly, people from Haiti and Africa; he even dared dip his toes with the ornery folks of the wild Upper West Side.

Oh my, do we need dreamers these days who have the courage to imagine people from Haiti and Africa, from the Republican and Democratic side of the aisle, all part of God’s kingdom. We do well to remember such a dreamer this morning, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.” He imagined all kinds of children gathering together at the river, splishing and splashing to beat the band.

In a few moments, Vivienne Marie Francis will be baptized. As water pours down her little face, God will call her “beloved daughter” just as so long-ago God called Jesus “beloved son.” You and I will promise to spend a lifetime helping Vivienne remember this day when she was washed in holiness, when God lovingly looked in her eyes and said, “You are mine, dear Vivienne.” Sadly, there will almost certainly be other voices in Vivienne’s life—as there are in all of ours—voices that will try to convince her that she is not so special in God’s eyes. But you and I, family and brothers and sisters in Christ, will tell Vivienne over and over again that she is special in God’s sight.

And so, let us now go to the water hand-in-hand with Vivienne and let us watch as God, more delighted than a river otter, frolics with her and us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“This Wretched Child Will Disturb Us All”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“This Wretched Child Will Disturb Us All”
(Matthew 2: 1-12)
The Epiphany of Our Lord (transferred)
January 7, 2018
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A blessed New Year to you and a blessed Epiphany—actually the 13th day of Christmas, not the 12th! And a blessed 150th Anniversary to The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity as we begin celebrating this astonishing year.

We do well on this first Sunday of our 150th anniversary year to remember one of this congregation’s luminary pastors of yesteryear of which there have been quite a few! The Rev. Paul Scherer was Holy Trinity’s pastor from 1920 to 1945. He preached on national radio and delivered the preeminent preaching lectures, the Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School, in 1943. After his ministry here, he went on to teach preaching at Union Theological Seminary at 120th and Broadway.

One Epiphany morning long ago, Dr. Scherer stood in this pulpit and said: “[The Gospel] makes trouble even at Christmas time. Matthew says, ‘When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him’ (Matt. 2:3). I wonder if it should bother us more than it does?” His remarks are as timely today as they were nearly eighty years ago.

The good reverend was suggesting to worshipers like us that we too easily forget what a threat this tiny child is. He went on, “This wretched child has come to disturb us all.”

Whether true or apocryphal, a pastor, who worked for our national church when its offices were at Madison Avenue and 36th Street, told me there was a day when members were driven up to our doors in limousines and greeted by ushers in tails and white gloves and then grandly escorted into the comforting confines of this hallowed hall.

Is it any wonder Dr. Scherer went on to say that Epiphany morning after all were settled in: “The candlelight service is so lovely. The carols, we say, are ‘out of this world.’ They are perhaps too far out.” The pastor must have seen firsthand how prone we are at taming this wretched Child of Bethlehem in order to appease the status quo.

I imagine that was the case for the chief priests and scribes as well. They, like us, were pretty good folks who probably did the best they could. They were thrilled to be at King Herod’s side, enthralled by his electrifying charisma. They had to make a few compromises along the way, of course they did. Herod after all was as paranoid as could be. The religious leaders had to be sickened by Herod’s dastardly slaughter of the little boys two years old and under who threatened his throne, but hey, that’s the price we pay to be close to the king.

Who isn’t exhilarated by power and influence? Don’t we all wish our ministry to be more magnificent: perhaps an even more splendid sanctuary, a loftier endowment, more powerful people? It is easy to forget that we have come to worship that disturbing child born in a barn.

Apparently, not everyone has been mesmerized by visions of grandeur. Take for instance the wise men. They followed a star and arrived in Jerusalem, a city as glamorous as New York. They came on elegant camels, were dressed in stylish robes, and brought exquisite gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Imagine what kind of king they expected.

The wise men immediately had an audience with King Herod and his band of religious scholars who knew exactly where this Christ Child was to be found: “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet…for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.” Like so many honorable religious leaders, the scribes and chief priests knew the story impeccably and yet, for whatever reason, conveniently forgot exactly who this little child was. As Pastor Scherer reminded Holy Trinity worshipers in words that continue to reverberate through this place, “This wretched child has come to disturb us all.”

What was and is so disturbing is that his rule is so gentle. Rejected aliens and unsavory sinners and nauseating poor folks gather at his lowly throne and end up forming his inner cabinet.

The wise men—call them Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar if you wish—teach us a thing or two about faithfulness. As we begin this 150th anniversary year, it will be easy to long for more—a fine marble floor, a more exquisite organ, a larger endowment, a boiler that pumps heat to every room with exactness—and I have a hunch these will come in due time. But that is not where we have been called to find the Christ Child today. Today, we find him in simple stuff, bread and wine and garbled words of this boondock preacher.

This building was filled to capacity on Wednesday evening as our choirs and instrumentalists thrilled those who came to hear the magical Praetorius’ Vespers. As the sounds of “Good Christians Friends Rejoice” echoed from floor to rafter and from side aisle to side aisle, the gathered throng clapped and rejoiced with the angels. And yet, the little child of Bethlehem was also lurking somewhere else, somewhere beyond the beaten path to Jerusalem or even Bethlehem where we expect him most.

The music I heard upstairs guided me like a star downstairs where I found God’s simple Son gathered with twelve timid women who sought warm refugee on a frigid evening; they huddled in the inn called Holy Trinity Winter Women’s Shelter. That was magical as well and well worth a standing ovation.

I am not certain you caught it, but after the wise men adored the Christ Child, Matthew’s gospel writes, “And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.”

It is easy to be mesmerized by the power and splendor of Herod’s dreams; it is far more challenging to grasp that God’s Son is already here amidst chipped linoleum, a rented organ, and a creaky heating system, and even among you and me. Perhaps that is why, after all these years, Pastor Scherer continues to remind us, “This wretched child has come to disturb us all.”

May God bless us in this 150th year at Holy Trinity, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.