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“Story-Telling around the Fire”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Story-Telling around the Fire”
April 15, 2017 (Easter Vigil)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Elie Wiesel writes, “God created humanity because God likes stories.” This night proves his point.

The Easter Vigil is a night of stories; they go on and on and on. If you are not an admirer of story-telling, this night is not for you. If you love stories, tonight is heavenly.

This is not a hasty affair. It as if we are preparing a fine meal that requires hours and hours. The Vigil is the longest service of the church year. We have come to tell stories, long stories, God’s stories. We cannot be rushed.

In his memoir, The Death of Santini, the southern author Pat Conroy writes: “As they talked, the story began to build and change, as all great stories do. The story had power, and room for growth.”

On the best of nights, the stories we tell have power and room for growth. We gather with loved ones and dear friends. One story leads to another, each becomes more tantalizing. “If you think creation is amazing, listen to Noah’s ark…I can one up that tale with the one about Ezekiel watching dry bones rattle back to life…If you think that’s astounding, let me tell you about Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego in the fiery furnace.” On and on we go, weaving magical tales with indescribable power. These stories boost our spirits, soothe our souls, and stir our imaginations. Hours fly by until someone inevitably says, “You are never going to believe what time it is.”

God’s stories are the richest because they have aged richly over thousands of years. These stories are crammed with God’s holiness, brimming with God’s defiance of death. Tonight, in their umpteenth telling, they trounce the enemy yet again and exalt the sufferer. You have noticed, I’m sure, these stories always champion the little guy who is down and out and the unlikeliest rascal always ends up winning the prize.

We tell these stories when none other will do, when only God’s power and glory can generate wonder in us. That is why we are here tonight, to tell one more story, the perfect one, yet again. This perfect story, the final one, told right after we are tucked in and immediately before the lights are turned off for the final time, claims that God raised Jesus from the dead. This story gives us courage to do as God’s faithful storytellers have done throughout the ages: we dare stand at the grave and sing “Alleluia.” And, as if that is not enough, we do something even more unlikely. As the body of our loved one is lowered into the grave, we courageously proclaim: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord makes his face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace.” This story claims there are other stories yet to be heard, other stories only God can tell.

What we do here requires a flight of fantasy. Our presence reminds me of a church similar to ours, a little-bitty place in Island Pond, Vermont, where the rector got the odd idea to hold an Easter Vigil just like this one. Only a handful of people showed up. Garrett Keizer writes: “The act is so ambiguous because its terms are so extreme: The Lord is with us, or we are pathetic fools.”

Only story tellers gather in places like Island Pond, Vermont, and New York, New York, where the terms are so extreme. We are entrusted with an unlikely story, the one of Jesus of Nazareth who was unceremoniously nailed to a tree and left to rot in a tomb and yet, by the power of God, was raised from the dead. This is our story, this is our song.

Tomorrow morning, a throng will gather here and it will be astonishing and well worth it. But tonight, perhaps this is the most dazzling of all liturgies—not because of its intricate nature, but because we are so small: if the Lord is not with us, we are indeed pathetic fools, but, if the Lord is here, as we trust is the case, this is the most stunning of nights. Yes, indeed, this is the perfect night to put the story of the empty tomb to the test.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

“Nervousness in the Face of Monstrous Glory”

Pastor Wilbert Miller Sermon
Easter Morning (April 16, 2017)
“Nervousness in the Face of Monstrous Glory”
Matthew 28: 1-10
The Evangelical Lutheran of the Holy Trinity
Central Park West, the City of New York

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

When I interviewed to become Holy Trinity’s pastor exactly one year ago, a number of you wondered, if I were called, how long I would remain as your pastor. I presume the question arose due to my receding hairline, creeping balding spot, and graying temples. It was a fair question. I first offered a pious response, “I will remain as long as the Holy Spirit intends or until you kick me out—whichever comes first.” The other answer, less holy perhaps but likely far more honest, was my standard reply to queries regarding pastoral longevity: “I will remain as long as I am nervous when I mount these pulpit steps.”

I am a firm believer that if one isn’t jittery on a day like this—the good kind, the empowering kind that makes tummies flutter and knees knock—then the magnificence of Easter has probably not been adequately grasped. To be perfectly blunt, this is a once in a life-time opportunity—or at least once in a year—to announce to you, to the best of my pedestrian abilities, that God has routed the devil and death has been destroyed forever.

With that said, I am as nervous as Mary Magdalene and the other Mary when they went to inspect Jesus’ burial site only days after he died.

I bet you are a tad nervous as well. You are wondering: what really happened that first Easter morning when the dew was still on the grass?

Let us not be too quick to answer. Perhaps it is best to let Easter wonder sink in before we utter a word. John Updike writes:

Let us not seek to make [Easter] less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty…

The four gospel writers certainly did not make things “less monstrous.” They exercised considerable restraint when explaining Jesus resurrection.

The old African-American Spiritual asks, “Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?” It certainly would be a nice this morning if I were to tell you exactly who witnessed Jesus rising from the tomb that Easter dawn, but all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are mum on this particular subject. There is no mention of someone seeing Jesus jump from his death bed and announce, with trumpet and timpani accompaniment, “Top of the morning! Happy Easter to you all! Alleluia!” The gospels are unusually subdued, silent really, when describing how Jesus burst from the grave. They resist the temptation to make resurrection wonder less monstrous than it really is. What we inevitably witness is the aftermath of the resurrection, Jesus appearing to various women and disciples after God has raised him up.

What the gospel writers do speak about, however, are the emotions of those who came to the sepulcher and received the stunning news that “he is not here; for he has been raised.”

The women and especially the men are described as fearful and befuddled. This morning’s gospel from Matthew claims Mary and the other Mary ran from the tomb with “fear and great joy.” Fear and great joy—I love that—such a monstrous mixture of emotions when you think about it.

Fear and great joy can easily occur when we stake our lives on the claim that God raised Jesus from the tomb. The thought of God routing death makes us joyful and yet, as is said, we have never seen a resurrection! And so, there is fear as well as joy.

The renowned Yale Professor Jaroslav Pelikan said it this way: “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen—nothing else matters.”

With that being said, we push all our chips to the center of the table, staking our every last cent on Jesus being raised from the dead. It is the only thing that matters!

At the conclusion of worship this morning, you will be invited to “Go in peace. Practice resurrection!” These words come from the Kentucky writer and farmer Wendell Berry. Practice resurrection—that’s how we bet everything that death has been destroyed.

Holy Trinity has been in existence for 149 years now. The only reason we are here is to practice resurrection—the only reason! Countless people just like you have staked millions of dollars over the years here at Central Park West to proclaim that God’s answer to death is always an emphatic “no” and God’s answer to life is always a resounding “yes.”

Death must never be the final answer! We say “yes” to life in this place by operating a women’s homeless shelter downstairs and serving a Saturday meal for those down on their luck so they may know that God longs for them to have a warm bed and a hot meal. Yes to life!

We spent a fortune over the years on stunning music. Our deepest desire is to assist you in singing “alleluia” with the saints and angels whenever you are lost in life’s dingy alleys and have lost the capacity to whistle in the dark.

You practice resurrection, I know you do. You gather at the graveyard in the Spring drizzle. After the last clod of damp dirt hits the casket and everyone returns to their automobiles, you lag behind with the grieving widow. You are tongue-tied. You couldn’t prove resurrection to her if your life depended on it but you hug her nonetheless, hoping that might suffice. Your knees knock and that is a good thing because you are pointing her beyond the grave, beyond neat, domesticated answers you are so tempted to offer. And yet, you opt for the monstrous message, the one you cannot explain but that offers hope in your best friend’s deepest hour of need, the one that is good news and proclaims that Jesus has defeated death for her and the one she loves.

The reason we make such a fuss this morning, with timpani and strings, brass and flowers, and with you!, is because we believe we have a story to tell and a song to sing. You are at the tomb this very moment as sure as those women were there that first Easter morning. You have come to church and your tummy flutters as you hear the news that the tomb is empty and Christ is risen.

I pray this message will fill you with fear and great joy. Run from here and practice resurrection for all this suffering world…Oh yes, and may you always be nervous as you proclaim…

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

“Pull Out the Stops and Let ‘er Rip”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Pull Out the Stops and Let ‘er Rip”
Luke 24: 13-32
April 16, 2017 (Easter Evening Bach Vespers)

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The day after my mother died, I sorted through her most cherished possessions. I was drawn to her books and spotted the Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary she had given my father one Christmas years ago. There was a tiny envelope taped to the title page with my father’s name on it. I carefully opened this secret treasure. The card read: “Wib, there aren’t words in this book that can express my love for you! Your loving wife, Susan.”

The women and men who experienced that first Easter were left searching for adequate words, too. God had done a new thing: God had raised Jesus from the dead. Rather than shouting celebratory words, they were befuddled, terrified, skeptical. They had never seen anything like it!

We are no different. We lack the necessary words to explain what God has done for us in raising Jesus Christ from the tomb. All our words fall short of describing the astonishing power of God’s love for us no matter how hard we try. And maybe that’s a good thing.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes: “Throughout the Gospel, Jesus holds back from revealing who he is because, it seems, he cannot believe that there are words that will tell the truth about him in the mouths of others.”

Isn’t Archbishop Williams correct? Almost any explanation we offer cheapens the spectacle of that first Easter when Jesus rose from the dead. Our lackluster words inevitably jeopardize the wild power of God; we so easily domesticate God’s great victory over sin and death with our narrow vocabularies and scant imaginations. Perhaps the best we can do tonight is bathe in the incomprehensible glory and overwhelming wonder of the Christ’s resurrection.

According to the gospel of Saint Luke, that first evening, only hours after Jesus had risen from the tomb, the disciples were on their way to Emmaus. They were talking up a storm, trying to make sense of it all. In the midst of their bewildered chattering and dazed strolling, Jesus joined them. At first, they didn’t notice him. They just kept yakking away. It was only after lots of talking and an intimate meal that their eyes were finally opened and they realized who was there with them. They said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

While they lacked sufficient words to express what happened that night, they came to know the Risen Christ in the telling of stories and the breaking of bread, things we love doing in this place every Sunday and are doing this very moment.

As the shadows lengthen and the evening comes on this glorious Easter—as will finally occur in all our lives as well—we walk together on our dusty Emmaus Road, telling the resurrection story to one another through the glorious music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Some of us will sing with considerable gusto, convinced Jesus has been raised from the dead. Others are not so sure and thus a bit more reserved. All of us, in our own way, hope that God has destroyed death for us, our loved ones, and this groaning world.

While she is not typically included among the pantheon of musicians honored here at Holy Trinity, indulge me, please, as I quote Grace Slick. She belted out such classics as “White Rabbit” and “Crown of Creation” with the Jefferson Airplane. She knows a thing or two about celebrating, having done a masterful job of it in the late 60s at Woodstock just up the road and at that raucous affair called Altamont in California. Of her singing abilities, Ms. Slick says: “I had limited range-about four notes, and all of them are loud. I don’t do cute little songs because, for whatever reason, I can’t sing softly.”

I suppose we all have limited range when it comes to singing about Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection melody requires more than a solo; sometimes an overflow Easter congregation is best. You see, it always takes at least two to gospel, one to sing and another to listen. And it requires an entire heavenly chorus to proclaim, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

You will take the Easter song with you tonight, from here to the gloomy intensive care unit where your best friend hangs on for dear life. It will be up to you to do the singing. Like Ms. Slick, you may have a limited range as the only accompaniment is the dreadful beep, beep, beep, of the medical apparatus and yet, somehow, someway, you will sing beautifully, “Alleluia! Christ is risen.”

An old Benedictine monk and worship professor of mine instructed us soon-to-be pastors how to create worship on festival nights such as this. Puffing on an ever-present cigarette in one of those long, elegant holders, Father Aidan Kavanagh urged us to “pull out the stops and let ‘er rip.” I suppose there is a holier way of saying it but likely not a more precise one.

Our joy and job this evening, in prayer and words and song, is to convince one another that Jesus Christ has burst form the tomb as those pesky little deaths nip at our heels. So, on this Easter evening, let’s jack up the volume like Grace Slick, be marvelous as Johann Sebastian Bach would have us be, and pull out the stops and let ‘er rip in celebration that Jesus Christ has risen today.

A blessed Easter to you all.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

“Christ the Servant”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Christ the Servant”
John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
April 13, 2017 (Maundy Thursday)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

In 2006, I was hospitalized with pulmonary emboli.  If you are like I was at the time, you may be clueless as to what a pulmonary embolism is.  Simply put: it is a clot on the lung—at least that is my pedestrian knowledge of the potentially fatal malady.  One embolism will kill you; I had four.  It was touch and go.  I spent five days in the intensive care unit and Dagmar faithfully watched over me.  Thank God, I made it to the other side of that dark, dreadful tunnel.

Toward the end of my hospitalization, the charge nurse asked who my favorite staff person had been.  I experienced my share of personnel–pulmonologists, cardiologists, nurses, x-ray technicians, phlebotomists, house-keeping staff, physical therapists, even a few caring pastors and a kindly bishop.  The person I cherished most, though, was a nurse’s aide.

One evening, Claudia came to my room and asked if I would like a sponge bath.  The experience was exquisite, more luxurious than anything offered at a deluxe Southern California spa.  As she sponged my wretched body, tears welled up in my eyes.  I was overwhelmed by her tenderness.  Claudia’s calling was to anoint suffering patients with sweet-smelling oils of healing.

Of all those who tended to me, this servant worked twelve hour days and was one of the lowest paid hospital employees.  When I told the charge nurse Claudia was the finest person sent my way—a gift from God really, he immediately asked, “Any nurses, doctors, you wish to add?”  They were all extraordinary—well, except the cranky blood-drawer who cursed my crummy veins—and yet I will always cherish Claudia.

Tonight, we remember another servant, the most exquisite one, Jesus.  He did what only servants do: he washed his disciples’ dusty, sweaty feet.  His dear friends were dumbfounded: “Who are you to do this to me?”  There were others who were befuddled over the years.  One of the great historic heresies that continues in our own age is the belief that God could not possibly come to earth as Jesus, as a servant: the Almighty does not stoop so low to wash smelly feet.

Yes, tonight, Maundy Thursday, is about as low as Jesus could get.  As one of his closest friends devised a sordid plan to betray him and others lacked the courage to stand by his side when the powerful pushed and shoved, even then Jesus washed their feet, even then he forgave them all that was soon to unfold, even then he shared the most intimate meal with them, even then he loved them until the end.

Washing one another’s feet must be the most awkward act of the entire church year. If you are like me, you look forward to foot-washing as much as you do to filing your 2016 income tax return.  Don’t you imagine quite a few have steered clear of this evening altogether for fear that they might be cajoled into washing someone else’s feet?  Some churches, perhaps the wiser ones, just don’t do it.  I read one church’s Holy Week schedule announcing washing of hands instead of feet—that certainly is a creative approach to remedy the inelegance of what is soon to unfold, much more palatable it seems to me.

I take no delight in washing another’s feet.  I will do my own, but not yours if I can help it.  I am not particularly fond of taking off my shoes in public either.  I had a sign on my dresser that warned me not to wear holey socks this evening.  Foot-washing strips us down to our basest humanity; we become so vulnerable.

By the way, no one is compelled to wash another person’s feet tonight.  However, if you choose to remain on the sidelines, watch closely nonetheless; recall how Jesus commanded us to love one another and how he loved those who fell short of his love to the very end.  Judas soon betrayed Jesus.  Peter, who had previously said quite proudly, “You will never wash my feet,” overestimated himself; he had no way of knowing how soon he would shrink from his high ideals and repeatedly deny ever having known his dearest friend.  In spite of the horrid betrayal, denials, and cowardice—not by Jesus’ detractors but by those who adored him most—Jesus was glorified through his deep affection for his friends and enemies.  Remember how he broke bread with them and touched them with heavenly grandeur even as their courage plummeted to disgusting depths.

The heavenly pendulum swings so low this evening that it is almost impossible to discern God’s presence with us.

Maybe it’s a good thing we are uncomfortable—servanthood does that to us.  And when God becomes our servant, that really is excrutiating, so much so that it becomes almost unbearable…and yet, what wondrous love Christ has for us.

And so, I invite you forward now to be servants of one another.  If you prefer not, then at least remember the servanthood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“The Crooked Lines of Good and Evil”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’ Sermon
“The Crooked Lines of Good and Evil”
Matthew 27: 33-50
April 9, 2017 (Palm Sunday/ Passion of Our Lord)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

In a few moments, we will hear Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata, “Lord Jesus Christ, True Man and God.” In addition to the gorgeous music, I pray that you will be struck by the stunning words:

O Head, full of blood and wounds,
full of suffering and shame!
O Head, bound in mockery
with a crown of thorns!
O Head, once beautifully adorned
with the highest honor and beauty,
now rather supremely defiled:
be greeted by me!

If you have come this evening just for music, you could just as easily be a block away at Lincoln Center.  Bach’s cantata is far more than an aesthetical outing on a Spring evening.  Who can miss its melancholic nature?  We are with Mary at the foot of the cross.

A number of years ago, I read this: “[Mary and her son Jesus] were likely looking at one another face to face.  Much later, beginning in the Middle Ages, artists would depict a very tall cross, with Mary and the others far below at its foot.  But historians believe that the cross was probably about seven feet tall.  They were face to face.  The sweat, the blood, the tearing tendons, the twitching, the wrenching, the bulging eyes—she would have seen it all quite clearly, as clearly as she saw him so long ago when she held him safely to her breast” (John Richard Neuhaus, “Death on a Friday Afternoon”).

The church begins Holy Week today, Palm Sunday, as we remember Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.  This day is also called the Passion of Our Lord; we recall the horrific events that unfolded as Jesus loved us to the end and we stare at our suffering Savior, face to face.

Bach’s cantata directs us to our deepest humanity.  There, in the depths of our souls, we hear far more than stunning music: we gaze deeply into our hearts and behold the one who is everything we are and everything we are not.

There are occasions when we are stunned by our courage: we march with protest banners unfurled in solidarity with the downtrodden.  We feel like we are on the streets of Jerusalem, shouting at the top of our lungs, “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

And yet, honesty compels us to tell another story about ourselves as well.  We are sometimes sickened by our failure of nerve.  As innocent Syrian children are gassed to death and military strikes are waged, we are clueless what should be done.  Is retaliating with our own deadly weapons a useful response to the barbarity of poisonous gas or should we merely sit by quietly and prayerfully as little children scream for our help?  Yes indeed, we cry helplessly into the evening sky, “O Lord, I know not what I do!”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the esteemed rabbi who taught just up the street at the Jewish Theological Seminary, at 122nd and Broadway, once said, “Some are guilty, all are responsible.”

Some may demur, “I would never do such a thing.”  But honesty calls us to confess.  We are the Judases who, for a measly bit of silver, make a few shabby compromises so our retirement accounts stretch a bit further into our autumn years; we are the Peters cringing when it comes time to tell the truth—all we can muster is the meek contention that our pint-size voices won’t make any difference, anyway.  We are caught in the vicious cogs that go round and round.  We watch as the thorny crown is placed on Jesus’ head and listen as the crowd derides him.  We listen in disgust as the pundits’ blather on and feel so impotent as the mightier ones weave their dirty work.

The Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.”  He sounds a lot like Saint Paul who said: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

Johann Sebastian Bach understood these words.  His music is sung most profoundly and powerfully when we all comprehend the crooked lines of good and evil running through our hearts.  This is the pathos that moves us deeply and causes us to leave evenings such as this saying, “That was hauntingly breathtaking!”  Our hearts have been deeply touched.

This may all sound a tad too dismal, teeming with eighteenth century Germanic gloom, despair, and resignation.  And yet, remember such were never Bach’s final words.  There was always hope to be found.  You will hear it again at the conclusion of the cantata, just when you thought the morning would never come:

When everything shudders at the last hour,
and when a cold death-sweat
bathes limbs already stiff,
when my tongue cannot speak other than through sighs
and this heart breaks…

The soul rests in Jesus’ hands,
when earth covers this body…
I am unafraid of death,
because my Jesus will awaken me again.

Listen for words of hope: “I am unafraid of death, because my Jesus will awaken me again.”

“Never Said a Mumblin’ Word”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Never Said a Mumblin’ Word”
(Matthew 26:14-27:66)
April 9, 2017 (Palm Sunday/ Passion of Our Lord)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

Every year, one of the many Holy Week tasks is determining how the Passion of Our Lord will be read.  Some years the choir sings of Jesus’ final hours on earth; other years, two people read the entire story from Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  This morning, we thought it would be a good idea to involve a host of people in Saint Matthew’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion.  As you have just experienced, this offered each of you an opportunity to tell some part of Jesus’ death.

The first decision for today’s reading was to determine how many readers were necessary for the various parts. Next, I gave careful thought to who should read each part.  I worried about a few of the key rolls.  How to ask delicately: “I was wondering if you would you like to be Peter;” “I think you would make a splendid Pilate;” worst of all perhaps, “Have you ever thought about being Judas at church on Palm Sunday?”  More than once in my ministry, someone has been terribly offended by one of my requests; rather than feeling honored, they have blurted out, “Pastor, how dare you ask me to be Judas?”  Oh, the landmines of pastoral ministry!

And then, I wondered about the rest of you: would your feelings be hurt if you were asked to shout out the crowd’s atrocities: “He deserves death,” “Let him be crucified,” “Hail, King of the Jews”?  I can hear a few of you muttering this very moment, “I would never say such a thing.  Who do you think I am anyway?”

After all that, there were two other daunting challenges: who to choose to be the narrator and who to be Jesus?  The narrator was easy: pick someone who can read clearly and with solemnity.

But Jesus.  That was dicier.  This went beyond choosing someone who could be heard.  This person, the chief character, must read flawlessly and profoundly.

What surprised me this year and always has—shocked me might be more precise—is how little Jesus said in Matthew’s gospel.  Given the scarceness of Jesus’ words in his final hours, a four-year-old could do this part admirably—or even I could.  As the old African-American spiritual would have it, “Jesus never said a mumblin’ word.”

How many words would you have uttered if you had been in Jesus’ place—what with Judas betraying you, Peter getting all weak-kneed and turning his back on you, and Pilate being gutless as he gauges the political winds?  Add to that cast of hapless clowns, what would you have said in the face of the macho soldiers and jeering crowds, the ripping thorns and driving nails, the sour wine and piercing spear, and the disgusting spitting in your face.  Do you think you would have remained silent for even a second in the face of such cruelty or would you have spewed forth heaps of bile?

The old seventh century desert monk John of the Ladder wrote, “Jesus by his silence shamed Pilate.”  In truth, Jesus’ silence shames us all.  We are, after all, a people of many words and so easily offended; we have opinions on a host of matters regardless of what knowledge we might possess; we abhor silence and covet having the final word on every issue.

There is soaring dignity in this man Jesus, especially given the few words he spoke.  There is exquisite elegance in how he let his actions speak for him.  So few words…so few words.

During this week, we will once again walk with Jesus.  All the characters in today’s story with the exception of Jesus are so maddening.  While we hate the thought of filling in for them, honesty compels us to confess that we are much like them.  The passion narrative we have just heard from the gospel of Matthew, far from being antiquated and irrelevant, is as fresh and timely as ever.

Oh, how few words Jesus spoke.  Oh, his wondrous silence.  Jesus never said a mumblin’ word but, oh, how he loves us.  On a day such as this, we do well to listen or, better yet, to watch every move Jesus makes.

“The Terrifying Story of Abraham and Isaac”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
“The Terrifying Story of Abraham and Isaac”
(Genesis 22: 1-14)
April 2, 2017 (Vespers on the Fifth Sunday in Lent)

I will never forget Roger Barnes reading the story of Abraham and Isaac at worship. Like Abraham, Roger had a son, his name was Edward. Roger began to read, tentatively: “And God said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’” His eyes welled up with tears. He read a bit further: “Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife,” and he choked up. Roger tried to read further, “And Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘My father!’ And he said, ‘Here am I, my son,’” and he sobbed.

Only when Roger came to God’s words, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me,” did his weeping subside.

You will likely dab a tear or two tonight as you listen to Nathan Hodgson and Timothy Keeler sing Benjamin Britten’s stunning “Abraham and Isaac.”

The story is one of the most terrifying of all the biblical texts. If you and I had been in charge of choosing what belonged in the Bible, we surely would have strenuously opposed inclusion of this horrific story in sacred canon. The account of Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac on a scorching fire is the stuff that gives religion a bad name and causes people to steer clear of the church altogether. The story prompts the crazy behavior of zealots who end up asserting, “I was just following God’s orders.” It goads terrorists to drive trucks into innocent gatherings and it incites fanatics to bomb abortion clinics. We wonder: did they hear some bizarre, beckoning voice similar to the one that commanded Abraham to climb that mountain and sacrifice his son Isaac?

As we watch heartbroken Abraham trudge up the mountain with his adoring son Isaac at his side, we can imagine saying exactly what Martin Luther who said, “I certainly admit my dullness; my donkey remains standing below and cannot ascend the mountain.” In fact, we pray tenaciously that we will never climb that mountain of brutality even if God commands us to do so.

As we contemplate this tale, we are driven to probe what God was up to. We dare not leave our brains with the ushers as we enter worship—we must not! We come here and leave here, wrestling with this chilling text until we better understand what in the world God is trying to tell us.

Many of us have faced something as horrendous as Abraham. Our excruciating pain has caused us to search frantically through our Bibles until the pages are crumpled and drenched with tears. We have stood on that terrible mountain with the horrific fire burning, begging the good Lord to spare us and those we love.

Soon after we listen to Britten’s “Abraham and Isaac,” we will chant a prayer: “Blessed Lord God, you have caused the holy scriptures to be written for the nourishment of your people. Grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, comforted by your promises, we may embrace and forever hold fast to the hope of eternal life, which you have given us in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.”

Tales like Abraham and Isaac inevitably drive us to hear and read, mark and learn, and inwardly digest in a way we may never have done before. We will likely find ourselves engaged in extended, even heated, conversation. We will demand, “What was that story all about, anyway?”

If we chew on this story, we will be better for it. We will realize how much Abraham adored his son Isaac: this wonder child, after all, was the one for whom Abraham and Sarah had waited for years and years. I pray you will come to the stunning realization that Isaac was also God’s dearly beloved child. Never forget: if Isaac had died, God’s chosen people would have disappeared from the face of the earth. Not only did the thought of Isaac burning on the bonfire break Abraham’s heart, more importantly, God’s heart was the first to break at the thought of Isaac roasting away. And, with even a little more grappling, you may come to realize—if you haven’t already—that you, too, are a precious child in God’s sight.

Never forget: God is the first to weep whenever the monstrous fires of hatred and death rage around us. Whatever is going on in the story of Abraham and Isaac, if you listen carefully enough, you will certainly hear God weeping. As frightening and bizarre as this story may seem, God eventually provided a ram in the thicket: Isaac did not die in this story! Also, remember, please, that God provided another ram in the thicket, God’s very son, Jesus Christ our Lord. It was not, and never is, God’s intention for even one little child to die. God loved Abraham and Isaac, and God loves you and me, now and forever.