Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Make America Great!”
At the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
January 15, 2017 (2nd Sunday after the Epiphany)
John 1: 29-42
I first lived in New York in the summer of 1976. I was participating in a program called Clinical Pastoral Education at the Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn that teaches pastoral care to seminary students. It also helps future pastors, as they are fond of saying, “get in touch with their feelings” through intensive group activities.
One group activity occurred on a Tuesday morning when our supervisors, Sister Teresa and Father John, asked us, “If you were an animal, what would you be?” That was a moment of crisis for me: I was certain my quest to become a pastor had abruptly ended; for the life of me, I could not come up with a suitable animal.
Forty years later, I am still perplexed: what animal would I be?
And you, what animal would you be?
It is puzzling. I probably would opt to be a scorpion or grizzly bear—though I would never admit such yearnings publicly. I would choose such an animal because of its penchant for unleashing ferocious bites in order to protect the helpless.
My heroes have all had a ferocious and venomous side. That is not to suggest they have not been astonishing pastors—they have; and yet they have never been afraid to bare their teeth when shielding the most vulnerable against the ravenous appetites of the powerful. They have stood up for what Jesus stood up for and cherished the people Jesus treasured.
One of my heroes is the late John Steinbruck, the longtime pastor of Washington, DC’s Luther Place Memorial Church. While blessed with a remarkable pastoral heart that created such visionary ministries as the N Street Village for homeless women and the Lutheran Volunteer Corps for recent college graduates, he could spew rancor at DC’s power brokers that would cause you to duck if you happened to be in the way. He was a curious concoction of animals, really: though often as gentle as a lamb, he could also be as thick-skinned as a hippopotamus when standing up for the weak…In my dreams, I would be like my dear friend John whose calling it was to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.
With that said, it always comes as a surprise, at least to me, that when John and Andrew noticed Jesus, they exclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God!”
A lamb…Did any of you choose to be a lamb?
Four figures are carved into Holy Trinity’s pulpit. They represent the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. With the exception of Matthew who is symbolized with an angel-like figure, the others are symbolized with animals and dangerous ones at that: Mark, a lion; Luke, an ox; and John, an eagle. The eagle’s beak is so sharp, by the way, that when our custodians were putting up the Christmas trees, Christian accidentally bumped his head on the beak and the beak drew blood…An eagle’s beak, quite a symbol for bold and forceful preaching!
But a lamb? Who would ever brag, “Our pastor preaches like a gentle, little lamb”?
Tomorrow, our nation pauses to give thanks for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. His soaring rhetoric could be as fearless as a shark and could sting like a hornet. It behooves us during these decisive days of our nation’s life to recall Dr. King’s final sermon preached at Washington’s National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, only five days before he was assassinated. Listen carefully: “…we have difficult days ahead in the struggle for justice and peace, but I will not yield to a politic of despair. I’m going to maintain hope as we come to Washington in this campaign. The cards are stacked against us. This time we will really confront a Goliath. God grant that we will be that David of truth set out against the Goliath of injustice, the Goliath of neglect, the Goliath of refusing to deal with the problems, and go on with the determination to make America the truly great America that it is called to be.”
Did you hear Dr. King’s words, “to make America the truly great America that it is called to be”? As you are aware, president-elect Donald Trump has been proclaiming a remarkably similar phrase.
My dear friends, as the people of God, we are called to pray mightily for our newly elected president Donald Trump as he installed this coming Friday, January 20. We are called to pray just as Martin Luther King prayed, calling on God to fill Donald Trump with this nation’s deepest values of liberty and it highest aspirations of justice for all people. We are also called to pray that, by God’s amazing grace, President Trump will exhibit breathtaking courage whenever little people are trampled upon and chewed up by the rich and arrogant. Oh yes, pray for our president-elect we must.
When the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about making America the truly great America that it is called to be, he did so as a follower of the lamb. Dr. King never grew weary or hateful; he was a man of utmost dignity and supreme bravery. In the face of high-pressured hoses, snarling attack dogs, and even a deadly bomb that blasted through his own home while his wife, Coretta, and ten-week old daughter, Yolanda, were there, he pled with his followers to follow a different way, Jesus’ way, the way of love toward those filled with hatred, the way of decency toward those perpetrating all manner of wickedness upon those who wanted to be treated as human beings.
As you know, Martin Luther King was gunned down for speaking fearlessly, not on behalf of himself mind you, but on behalf of God’s defenseless and abandoned ones—that, my dear friends, is what it means to make America great.
I sadly confess, I am never quite certain what animal to choose. I often find myself preferring ferocious lions and violent sharks at my side when the going gets tough. Nevertheless, the truth is, we are called to follow the gentle lamb, the Savior who died for every one of God’s children…Such a vision would truly make American great again. Pray we must, O dear God, pray we must.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Look Whom Jesus Is with at the Jordan!”
Matthew 3: 13-17
Baptism of Our Lord (January 8, 2017)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
Today, as water crashes over us and we are dripping from our baptismal remembrance, we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the spirit of celebration, let’s roll the film.
See John the Baptist out in the middle of the Jordan River, about three feet deep, in a white shirt, skinny black tie, and rubber hip waders amidst a motley crowd of riff-raff. Watch him thrust them under the water and wash away their sins.
And, goodness gracious, there stands Jesus, right at water’s edge! Can you believe your eyes? He’s there with the double-crossing camel dealer, the flamboyant drag queen, the corporate executive convicted of bilking clients of millions, and that floozy neighbor constantly getting thrown into the county drunk tank—how dare he get so close to them!
Okay, let’s stop the film for a second and catch our breath…
Didn’t you always think Jesus is God’s son? Why in the world is he hanging out with such a notorious crowd of lowlifes?
Let the film continue.
Do you notice there are also some modest and holy looking folks in line to be baptized? They appear to be nervously quivering, churning with doubt and silently rotting away at the core; their sins are tucked far back in the furthest reaches of their bedroom closet, hidden under extra bedsheets and grandma’s old comforter, out of sight from devout company; they are fearful someone will find out.
Look closely at water-logged John. Do you notice how he keeps glancing out of the corner of his eye? He appears to have spotted his cousin Jesus standing in line for baptism—see how John trembles! Listen carefully; can you hear him: “Why in God’s name is Jesus here? Why does he want to be baptized? He is God’s Son, the sinless one. I need to be baptized by him!”
Now, we can get all misty-eyed about this, but let’s not kid ourselves. Jesus’ baptism has not always been an occasion for celebration. His presence with such a horde of sinners has embarrassed the church down through the ages, actually, to be more precise, it has horrified the church.
One of our finest Lutheran liturgical scholars, Gordon Lathrop, suggests that Jesus’ baptism was actually not about his becoming pure for our sake but rather becoming dirty for us. How can God’s son become dirty? you ask. He gets dirty the very same way this precious little thing born in Bethlehem ended up dying the filthiest death imaginable, in love for all his brothers and sisters, on the cross at Calvary.
While we celebrate Jesus’ baptism this morning, truth be told, if we are not also appalled and fuming, we likely have not quite grasped how deeply God’s grace runs for us.
When I mentioned a bit earlier who Jesus was in line with—drag queens, painted ladies, Ponzi schemers—my hunch is that most of you smiled and poked someone in the side. There is, after all, a quaint delight in seeing Jesus with such company—it makes our open-minded Upper West Side hearts quiver in delight. But I want to up the ante to explore just how open we really are to God’s grace.
I must tell you in advance, what I am about to say comes with no small amount of fear and trembling; I really do fear that I may offend some of you and cause you deep anger. If that occurs, I beg you in advance, please forgive me.
Let the film roll and let’s locate Jesus once again. Now look carefully. Do you notice that he has his arm around a gangly young white guy with a weird bowl hair cut? That can’t be Dylann Roof, can it, the same Dylann Roof who attended a Bible study at historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a year and a half ago and brutally murdered nine parishioners? Even after family members said, “I forgive you, my family forgives you,” Dylann Roof wrote, “I would like to make it crystal clear I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”
Listen, listen…I think you can just make out the conversation Jesus is having with Dylann, “Dylann, dear brother, it is never too late to repent.”
While the film is stopped momentarily, let me remind us all, in case we have forgotten, that Dylann Roof’s family are members of one of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations and that two of the African American pastors murdered that evening, Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the Rev. Daniel Simmons, graduated from our Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina?
Jesus standing at Dylann Roof’s side…He can’t possibly be doing that, can he?
As you know, the penalty phase of Dylann Roof’s trial is now in session. Should he be executed? Are there ever any of God’s children in line with Jesus who should be executed, who are unloved by God? Said another way, how dare we cut short the life of anyone whom Jesus loves?
As I think I mentioned, Jesus’ baptism inevitably scandalizes polite company. Grace is messy; it can be numbing, sickening, and offensive. That’s why we now start the film rolling again. Watch as Jesus slips and slides up out of the muddy river, dripping wet from head to toe. Listen carefully as God proudly proclaims from on high, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
There is something about Jesus’ willingness to stand in line at the Jordan and submit to this baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins that pleases God and horrifies us.
Look one final time as the film nears completion. Are you surprised to catch sight of yourself standing there at the Jordan? Sometimes, it is almost impossible to believe the words of that old hymn:
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea…
For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind.
And the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.”
What a thrill to hear the water crashing and to celebrate God’s amazing grace for this terribly mixed up world…and for us, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Whether to Go or Not”
January 5, 2017 (Eve of the Epiphany of Our Lord)
Matthew 2: 1-12
When the Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem, this is the first question they asked, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” They had made it to Jerusalem by the guiding of a star but they needed additional help. They needed someone well versed in biblical matters to help them find God’s son.
As you can well imagine, the chief priests and scribes in Jerusalem knew exactly where to find the Messiah—after all, they were experts in such matters and so they told the Magi: “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
This information leaves us befuddled: if the religious leaders and Bible scholars knew where to find the Christ Child, why didn’t they hot tail it to Bethlehem themselves—it was only six miles away?
Matthew does not provide us with an answer to our question so let’s venture a guess: they needed more information!
Good people often need more information before acting decisively: we want to do things right. I have a hunch that those religious scholars in Jerusalem read religious tomes night and day, searching for exactly the right answer. And yet, isn’t it the truth that finally God beckons us to start the hike to Bethlehem without all the answers? Isn’t there a point when we finally must act, even though it is done with considerable fear and trembling? At this point, all we can do is trust that God will be gracious and merciful even if we take a wrong turn or two on the journey?
Maybe the religious leaders and scholars weren’t convinced God would be merciful to them if they made an error in judgment.
Or…might the religious leaders have hesitated to go to Bethlehem, not because they didn’t have enough information, but because they had too much? Perhaps they knew King Herod’s fearsome side, sensing that worshiping the tiny Savior would cause him to unleash all manner of mayhem throughout Judea. Maybe they had learned their history lessons well; maybe they knew that Herod, far from being confident and bold, was actually thin-skinned and insecure and would blow a gasket and butcher a bunch of innocent little boys under two if they went to Bethlehem. Maybe they determined that by not going to seek the Messiah, they would spare the world Herod’s disgusting violence. Could it be by exercising a modicum of patience, the chief priests and scribes were actually the real “wise men” in this story?
Each of us finally faces the question whether or not to go to Bethlehem. In the coming year, our congregation will inevitably face tough questions—as the people who follow Jesus always do. It would be presumptuous for me to speculate how 2017 will unfold for us here at Holy Trinity, but the question is: will we side with the poor babe who ended up in rundown housing in Bethlehem and whose parents ended up carrying him off as a refugee to a distant land or will we be more prudent than that, opting for calm instead?
Think about it: right now, as we worship, twelve homeless women are eating and sleeping in our shelter downstairs. They are our sisters and they are much like our brother Jesus whose parents found no room in the inn. Will we stand up for them if push comes to shove or will we opt for peace and calm, fearing how the Herods in our own day might respond? Clearly the religious leaders and scholars opted for peace and calm; clearly the Wise Men risked mayhem to side with the poor baby in Bethlehem…What will our decision be?
The world was turned upside on that first Epiphany because Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar opted to take a little six-mile hike to Bethlehem and to present their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to God come to earth. They had no idea what fury would soon be unleashed by that bully Herod and his minions. What was guaranteed was that if they wanted to behold the face of God, they would have to oppose the powerful and side with a poor, vulnerable child.
God invites us tonight to take the six-mile journey, over and over again, and to invite others to join us in the thrill of worshiping the sweet Babe of Bethlehem. It is a simple journey and yet an often treacherous and bewildering one.
Ours is a harsh and astonishing calling to be the people of God in this world. The only guarantee we have is that Christ awaits us at the manger, murmuring, “Take and eat, given for you.” And that is enough for now and, really, it is all we will ever need.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“The Name of Jesus”
Luke 2: 15-21
January 1, 2017
The Name of Jesus (New Year’s Day)
Names tell us volumes about a family’s hopes and dreams and memories.
Quite honestly, I have never been wild about my name, Wilbert, so when our first son came on the scene we named him Sebastian. That name bears gravitas here at Holy Trinity, a place known internationally for our Bach Vespers. It would be logical for you to think that Dagmar and I named our firstborn after Johann Sebastian Bach but I must disappoint you. When Dagmar was pregnant, we were watching an international track meet, the Bislett Games in Oslo, Norway, on July 17, 1979. Sebastian kicked inside Dagmar for the first time just as the British middle distance runner Sebastian Coe kicked in the mile run, breaking the world record; hence the name Sebastian. And, yes, I must confess, dear Holy Trinity, we named our son after an athlete, not after a certain German musician.
When we visited my Grandma Miller so she could meet her new great-grandson, she was not at all amused by his name, Sebastian: “Isn’t Wilbert, your name and your father’s and your grandfather’s, perfectly fine? You pastors give your children the stupidest names!”
By the way, we named our next son, Caspar…Guess what Grandma Miller thought of that? You guessed it: she wept, but surprisingly, this time, she wept tears of joy. Never mind that his classmates might bully him with taunts of “Caspar the Friendly Ghost.” The name Caspar, you see, was her father’s name as it was Dagmar’s great-grandfather’s.
Today, we give thanks for another name, the name of God’s son, Jesus. This name was not plucked from a three-dollar name book purchased at the Nazareth grocery counter. Our Savior’s name came from heaven. Even before the child was conceived in Mary’s womb, an angel informed Joseph, “You shall call his name Jesus…” The name Jesus is rich in meaning: he shall save his people from their sins.
If you learn a person’s name, such knowledge inevitably draws you closer. “Hello, Jane. Good morning, Ernie.” People understand that when you call them by name, you have taken the time to know them, to care for them. They will likely want to know your name, too, and to learn more about you.
Knowing one another’s names creates community. We can spend years and years deliberating on how to make our congregation flourish, pouring over sophisticated studies, but I guarantee you: one of the most effective tools for creating a vibrant church community is getting to know one another by name. I suggest we all take the time to learn at least one person’s name at the passing of the peace this morning; make it your New Year’s resolution to meet a new person every Sunday. I know it will stretch some of our comfort zones, especially those of us who are introverts, but learning one another’s names will make our community friendlier and livelier.
One of the finest compliments I have received since becoming your pastor came on Friday afternoon. The mother and father of a bride-to-be rang our bell and wanted to see the sanctuary where their daughter will be married in June. They had never met a single one of us. In a matter of moments, though, she commented on how friendly Holy Trinity is and how she had felt rebuffed by other New York churches that simply wanted to discuss pricey wedding fee structures and elaborate wedding policies. Their good feelings had nothing to do with our claiming to be a friendly church in our bulletin, not an iota to do with a long-range plan we devised to make our church grow. It did have everything to do with Bonnie, our office manager, welcoming her with a smile; Serge, our property manager, graciously showing her the church; Donald, our cantor, telling the family what wonderful music they can have at their wedding. This proud mother and father were called by name and treated with kindness. That’s how names work and the power they bear for the vibrant life of Christ’s church.
Yes indeed, how we use names speaks volumes. Did you know that your hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, includes Luther’s Small Catechism in the very back? Please turn to page 1160, to the Ten Commandments. The Second Commandment: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” Luther understood the gift of having God’s name on our lips and the power it invokes. In his explanation of the Second Commandment Luther writes: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not curse, swear, practice magic, lie, or deceive using God’s name, but instead use that very name in every time of need to call on, pray to, praise, and give thanks to God.”
What a priceless gift to be entrusted with God’s name, a name we can call upon in every moment of life, in good times and in crisis, to call on, pray to, praise, and give thanks.
While most of you probably don’t remember it, there was a moment when you gained a totally new dimension as your name was intricately woven with God’s life-giving name. These wondrous words were spoken to you at your baptism, “Name, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Your family and friends in Christ stood at your side as water flowed down your face and God’s beautiful name brightened everything about you and everything that was to come in your life and even in your death.
As you walk around town today, remember always that your name is delightfully intertwined with God’s name. And never forget that all the people sitting near you at worship this morning are filled with God’s good name as well. And finally, as a special gift for you throughout this New Year: always call to mind that this breathtaking place is richly cloaked in God’s name, Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Christmas Eve Sermon
“The Perfect Christmas”
December 24, 2016
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
Don’t you long for the perfect Christmas, one where snow gently falls and your horsedrawn sleigh drops you off right here at Holy Trinity’s doors? Never mind that there is only a 25% chance of a white Christmas in these parts, we can still harbor dreams of perfection, can’t we?
While dreaming of Christmas perfection, let’s talk a bit about trees. Dagmar and I recently went on an epic journey in search of our first New York Christmas tree. The evergreens at Lowes, a mere two blocks from here, appeared exquisite to my clumsy eye but did not measure up to my dear wife’s exacting Teutonic standards. Both of us regarded the ones sold only three blocks away as stunning though a tad pricey for our proletarian pocketbooks. Finally, a Holy Trinity parishoner merrily reported to Dagmar that a bodega at 82nd and Columbus was selling enchanting conifers at sensible Manhattan prices. Eureka! We discovered our flawless tannenbaum for sixty-five bucks, including free delivery, that is until our salesman found out we live at 65th and Central Park West and grumbled, “Are you kidding me, mister? We don’t deliver there!” And so, ever the devoted husband, I risked a coronary and schlepped our seven-foot wonder-tree twenty-two blocks via the arduous Central Park route so as not to impale any innocent pedestrians.
You have likely engaged in similar sapling deliberations: will an artificial tree suffice or must you have the real thing with needles falling all over the living room floor; will your lights yet again be the sublime white ones or might you try something friskier this year like blinking, colored lights with chasers?
What lengths we go seeking perfection and how miserable the never-ending search makes us. I wonder if that is why God comes to us as a helpless child. The moment we catch sight of the tiny Babe of Bethlehem, we sense God creeping into our ordinary routines, our petty disputes, and our distressing blunders.
It is almost unimaginable that God comes amidst the messes we have made but you know how the story goes. Mary and Joseph trudged seventy miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem on dusty, rutted roads just to be enrolled in the census. Highly pregnant Mary was jarred to and fro on a stubborn, sweaty, swayback donkey. When the holy family finally arrived, the city of David was nothing more than a backwater Podunk kind of place six miles south of the bustling metropolis of Jerusalem; Bethlehem certainly lacked the obligatory splendor for newborn kings. Not only that, God’s little family ended up in a rickety shed because even the seedy Econo Lodge and Motel 6 had been booked months in advance; as they say, there was no room in the inn.
At first glance or the thousandth, this story is hopelessly flawed. The inconvenient trip, the half-pint rulers, the fleabag accommodations—everything was bleak. Quite bluntly, the God of creation came among us in diapers.
You know how messy diapers devastate our visions of sugar plum Christmas perfection—your health is shakier than last year, you obsess over your enduring sorrows, and this ferociously unstable world makes the age of Caesar Augustus seem like an adorable kitty-cat video.
Even with “she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths” ringing in your ears, candlelight piercing the darkness, and “Silent night, holy night” echoing through this sanctuary, there is a hollowness for some of you. Even with the Christ Child’s body and blood fresh on your lips, you may still crave something more.
I have adored the picture on this evening’s bulletin since I first saw it a number of years ago at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. The Kaiser Wilhelm Church, by the way, is exactly where the truck barreled through the annual Christmas market festivities on Monday, killing twelve and injuring dozens. (Believe it or not, I had planned to use this picture long before that brutal attack.)
The artist, the Rev. Kurt Reuber, was a pastor and a doctor in the German army during the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942. More than two million people lost their lives in what is considered the bloodiest battle in history. Pastor Reuber realized his medical skills were incapable of providing what was ultimately needed so he drew “The Stalingrad Madonna” on the back of his military map (note the fold marks). The German word Weihnachten (Christmas) appears with licht (light), leben (life), and Liebe (love) along with im Kessel Festung Stalingrad (in the cauldron of the Stalingrad fortress). Pastor Reuber hung this picture on a wretched bunker wall as a Christmas gift to weary soldiers craving the Christ Child’s presence at their side. Similar to how God came to shepherds out in the fields, this time God came to terrified soldiers trapped in a ferocious hell.
The “Stalingrad Madonna” is as timely today as it was seventy-four years ago. Take this picture home with you as a little Christmas gift, hang it on a wall. May it remind you that God comes to you at all those inopportune moments of imperfection, proclaiming, “for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
We never really are able to choose exactly what our Christmas will be like. I’ll bet one of you has a diamond ring in your pants pocket and, in a few hours, will ask the lovely person at your side to marry you. One of you is delighted to have your family together for the first time in quite a while. For a number of you, this night is tinged with melancholy as you recall Christmases past and those you have deeply loved.
The gift of Christmas is that God comes down from heaven on this holy night and is placed into our hands as a vulnerable Savior, with the words, “This is my body given for you.” The Christ Child embraces you, not as you wish but just as you are.
May you have a very happy Christmas and may you find perfection beyond all measure with the Christ Child at your side.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Those Stinking Christmas Letters”
December 18, 2016 (4th Sunday of Advent)
Matthew 1: 1-25
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
So, tell me, are your family and friends as brilliant and successful as ours at least according to their Christmas letters? Do their mistletoe missives overwhelm you with mind-boggling exploits and sentimental cheeriness? You know: “Little Johnny, only 4 ½ years old, scored twenty-three goals in his first three soccer games as throngs of spellbound scouts from premier colleges looked on. Dazzling Suzie, a few days shy of ten, presented a dazzling accordion recital in October at the local Y; some believe she may be the first accordion prodigy ever to receive early admission to Julliard. As for mom and dad, our countless successes simply cannot be contained in this extraordinarily modest Christmas epistle.”
In all these stinking letters, the marriages are tranquil, the children’s exploits mind-boggling, and the trips exotic. Why isn’t your family perfect? Why does your beguiling teenager, Brock, regard his biggest—and only—achievement to be keeping his acne under control? You would never dare mention that your precious little Abigail spends every waking hour locked in her room with shades drawn, obsessing on her iPhone with who knows whom about who knows what. Add to that, your job stinks and your annual performance evaluation was rotten.
Sometimes coming to church only exacerbates matters. You sneakily look around and everyone seems so cheery and successful. You think and spot HER: I’ll bet she finished her Christmas shopping in September and mailed her 200+ Christmas cards the day after Thanksgiving, each with a sweet, personal, hand-written note.
Tell the truth: these idyllic Christmas letters drive you nuts!
Here is some pastoral advice—a Christmas gift really: if you are tired of everyone else looking perfect, read the Christmas story according to Saint Matthew. This gospel does not resemble Luke’s jollier version where the babe is wrapped in swaddling clothes, the shepherds lovingly tend their adorable sheep by night, and the angels sing enchanting melodies from heaven above. Matthew’s account tells us more about Joseph and less about Mary and frankly Joseph comes off a bit the buffoon: Mary is in a family way and Matthew ain’t the daddy. Matthew writes of Joseph’s baffling quandary, “Being a righteous man and unwilling to expose [Mary] to public disgrace, [he] planned to dismiss her quietly.” That is, of course, until an angel appears and says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
Matthew includes this tawdry mess in his Christmas letter. Can you believe it—there for all the world to read! Would you tell others that your daughter is pregers and no one has yet figured out who pops is? Come on: you would never want Aunt Tilley and Uncle Tito catching whiff of this humiliating scandal.
Today, wishing to spare you the agony, we opted not to read the first sixteen verses of Matthew’s gospel known as the genealogy of Jesus Christ. While the thought of Jesus’ family tree may sound fascinating to you, the church has avoided Matthew 1: 1-17 like liver and onions, never, ever reading it aloud on any Sunday morning in the entire three-year lectionary cycle. And when people attempt to read through the Bible in a year, these long lists of descendants are usually skipped over with ne’er a misgiving. That all means, we never may know the whole truth and nothing but the truth about Jesus’ family.
Just for fun, let me read you a few verses: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David…” It goes on ad nauseam until, mercifully, we arrive at this: “…Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”
In those initial verses, you hear things about Jesus’ family that make your blood curl and cause you to feel a lot better about your family. While we won’t delve into Jesus’ entire family history this morning, trust me when I tell you, it is filled with murderers and scoundrels, cheats, adulterers, and harlots. If you don’t believe me, go home this afternoon and investigate who exactly Tamar and Rahab and Jacob and David are; see what mischief and mayhem they mastermind. I warn you: keep your Bible inside a brown paper sack—it is disgusting stuff.
Why aren’t the revolting exploits of Jesus’ ancestors left out of the Bible or at least doctored up so polite company like us will not be offended only a few days before Christmas? And yet, isn’t this the kind of Christmas letter you read from start to finish; its candor makes you feel so much better about your own bumbling family.
Saint Matthew’s Christmas letter tells us the truth about the folks God chooses to hang around with in this world. God does not come to an imaginary wonderland abounding in purity and loveliness; God comes to a real world teeming with mayhem and tomfoolery…a world just like ours.
If you wish, you can look around this room and make believe others are far more perfect than you but I promise you…I promise you…this simply is not the case: no one here today is perfect, thus saith the Lord! In every age, God comes amidst scoundrels and misfits, cranks and foul-ups, among people just like us. To know this is receive the greatest Christmas gift of all because “unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.”
On behalf of all those naughty and zany people in Jesus’ family, I wish you a very blessed Christmas. Like Joseph, may you know the Christ Child coming to you.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
Bach Vespers, December 11, 2016 (3rd Sunday of Advent)
James 5: 7-10
“’Twas the night before Christmas,
when all through the house
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.”
I hope you still remember being nestled all snug in your bed. But I’ll bet you have other memories as well. While Clement Clarke Moore does not say so, I am almost certain he left this part out of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” to please his editors:
“The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads…
and revelations of ants pirouetted in their pajamas.”
Remember how hard it was to sleep the night before Christmas? You so wanted the beautiful pony or that exquisite Rawlings Mickey Mantle baseball glove. Every thirty-seven minutes, you restlessly got out of bed and scampered down the hallway to your parent’s bedroom. “Has Santa come yet?” you eagerly asked. They told you, “Quick, go back to bed or Santa will hear you and not come down the chimney.” The wait was agonizing; ants pirouetted in your “pjs.”
We just heard these words from the New Testament’s epistle of James, “Be patient, therefore, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.”
Our impatience no longer has to do with Dasher and Dancer’s hoofbeats. Our anxieties have become more grown up and much more complicated.
A few weeks ago I told you about my favorite books. One book is “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness” by William Styron. Styron, who also wrote “Sophie’s Choice,” tells of his agonizing bouts with depression. You can tell from the title, “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness,” that Styron is not a romantic when it comes to his struggles. And yet, I will never forget his invitation to patience: “It is of great importance that those who are suffering a siege, perhaps for the first time, be told—be convinced, rather—that the illness will run its course and they will pull through.”
The greatest gift in such tribulation, so writes Styron, is to have loved ones close-by assisting you in the journey of patience: “Most people in the grip of depression at its ghastliest are, for whatever reason, in a state of unrealistic hopelessness, torn by exaggerated ills and fatal threats that bear no resemblance to actuality.” And then this: “It may require on the part of friends, lovers, family, admirers, an almost religious devotion to persuade the sufferer of life’s worth…”
Sounds similar to James, “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.”
These days, as we prepare again to celebrate the coming of the Christ Child, are meant for us to persuade one another of life’s worth. Together, we are patient; together, we say, “Wait and Christ will enter your life.”
People of great grace teach us to wait, to look beyond our dark caverns to the one who comes bearing gifts of healing and hope.
Mary the mother of Jesus was such a person. Even when she could not make heads or tails out of the angel’s message that she would soon be the mother of God’s child and, in fact, was greatly troubled by the thought of it all, nevertheless, she waited patiently and pondered these things in her heart. At every Vespers here we sing Mary’s song of patient waiting, the Magnificat, as we cense the altar and you. As the incense wafts toward you this evening, may the sweet-smelling smoke remind you that Christ will come into your life.
You have seen such patience, I’m sure, in the elderly whose bodies grow frailer and whose minds become more fragile. Nevertheless, they exhibit great grace, teaching us to bear all things and hope all things. Time has taught them to wait, patiently. They are like the lilies of the field and the sparrows of the sky who do not worry about tomorrow.
Patience allows us to wait for something greater. We forsake the shoddy, the temporary, and the mediocre and believe that the Savior of the nations will come in God’s good time. This savior will put an end to all that is ugly and deeply troubling and bring goodness and beauty to us and those we love and to our suffering world, forever and ever. And so, my dear friends, be patient until the coming of the Lord.
The Rev. Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Why Again Did We Invite John?”
Matthew 11: 2-11
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016
These days leading up to Christmas are so thrilling. Given the looming excitement of this wondrous season of Advent, why in the world did we invite John the Baptist to be with us, not only this morning, but for two Sundays in a row? You do know, after all, that John is inclined to ruin gatherings such as this. He dresses in foul-smelling camel’s hair. His exotic diet of locusts and wild honey is revolting. And his oratory style leans tediously toward provocative words like “repent” and “brood of vipers” and inflammatory phrases like “those who do not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John is too sanctimonious and blunt for our uptown tastes. He reminds me of Uncle Gabriel in the movie, “Avalon.” Uncle Gabriel always arrives late at the family Thanksgiving dinner and he always expects the family to wait for him. Finally, the family has had enough and eats without him. Gabriel is furious: “You started without me? You cut the turkey without me?” He then says to his wife, “Come on. They eat without us, we go. Your own flesh and blood and you couldn’t wait? You cut the turkey? That’s it. That’s the last time we come for Thanksgiving.”
John ruins parties just like Uncle Gabriel did. Why do we keep inviting him back to church only days before we celebrate our dear Savior’s birth?
True to his reputation, when John shows up this morning, he is not even here with us but is in Herod’s hoosegow instead, waiting to have his head lopped off. Apparently, he acted mischievously with Herod, daring to insinuate that this powerful ruler acted immorally when marrying his own brother’s wife. It is never wise to speak ill of powerful people, no matter how disgusting their behavior, unless, of course, you wish to have your head on a platter along with John’s.
Why did we invite John to worship today? After all, today is “Rejoice Sunday” or, using the fancy-schmancy Latin phrase, “Gaudete Sunday.” We light a pink candle on our Advent wreath, the joy candle. We can hardly wait for the Christ Child. We place pink roses on the high altar to heighten the sense of jubilant anticipation.
When discussing the final people on today’s guest list, we were finally won over by the argument that John has staked everything on Jesus being the coming Messiah. Even before he was born, when Mary came to tell John’s mother that she was about to be the mother of God, John the Baptist leaped with joy inside Elizabeth’s womb. Given that prenatal acrobatic tour de force alone, John should be here, don’t you think?
And one other thing: like John, not all of us are head over heels in gladness this morning. You don’t have to raise your hand, but if you are down in the dumps right about now, aren’t you glad John is sitting next to you? He understands how you feel. He asks the same question you have been asking while others seem to be having so much more fun these days than you are. John’s question to Jesus, “Are you he who is to come or shall we look for another?” makes you want to say, “That’s exactly what I wanted to ask but was afraid people would think I am a heretic.”
Even with that said, why again did we invite John today? Our joy is palpable this morning as eighteen people join our congregation. Quite a few of you who have been members of Holy Trinity for thirty years or so have said, “I have never seen anything like it.” It is an astonishing Christmas present as we watch and wait for Christ’s presence here at 65th and Central Park West. This throng of new members makes us feel that our Advent prayer, “Stir up your power and come,” has been answered.
And yet…the question still hounds us, “Are you he who is to come?”
In a few moments, new members and those who are already members will confess that we believe in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Most, if not all, of us will say the words of the Apostles’ Creed at the appropriate time and yet a few of us will wonder—though be fearful to ask— “How much of this stuff do I have to believe to be a member at Holy Trinity?” What if I waver like John, “Are you he is to come?” We don’t mean to be cantankerous, we just feel compelled to be honest. What if doubts arise from time-to-time about the virgin birth or Jesus being the true son of God or whether we, too, will rise from the dead—can we still call ourselves “Christian” and say, “I do and I ask God to help and guide me” when it is time to join Holy Trinity?
Maybe John isn’t such a bad fellow to have at our side today. He puts his arms around us and urges us to bare our souls. He doesn’t flinch when we ask, “Are you he is to come?” because he has asked the exact same thing.
And yet, never forget, in the face of John’s question, Jesus says of this guy we invited to today’s party, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist.”
That’s why we invited John today. He joins us as we promise to support one another in our disappointments and anxieties, confusions and questions.
Perhaps the lasting joy of this Third Sunday in Advent is that Christ does not seem the least bit annoyed by our question, “Are you he is to come?” And so, we light the pink candle and have the pink roses because Jesus loves us, doubts and all.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Poets and Dreamers”
Vespers on the 2nd Sunday of Advent (December 4, 2016)
Isaiah 11: 1-10
There is something about poetry that is at once exasperating and exhilarating.
Could poetry’s exasperation and exhilaration be that it invites us to think in unimaginable ways?
Take Isaiah’s poetic vision for example: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”
Can you even begin to fathom the wolf living with the lamb, any wolf, any lamb? And yet, what wonder.
One of the most enchanting times in my life was the late 1960s and early 70s. Some of you remember those times when some of us dared believe that the lion and the calf could live in peace. Perhaps you sported bib overalls and made the peace sign way too often, wore your hair long and danced in flowing skirts to the music of the Grateful Dead, and pronounced quaint clichés like “make love not war.” And yet, those days were crammed with poetry.
As so often happens when we dare to dream, quite a few of us were clubbed in the kneecaps. Remember being told, “That’s naïve, that’s not how the world works. Get real!” Your poetic fantasies faded and you ended up living in a prose flattened world; you traded in your tie-dyed shirts for Brooks Brothers suits, you sacrificed your idealistic dreams for realistic drivel. Things quickly became humdrum and mind-numbing. Is it any wonder schools slash budgets for the arts and music—away with wonder, away with poetry, let’s get real!
The church is now in the second week of Advent (see the second candle ablaze on the Advent wreath). This is a season of poetry, imagining lives changed for the better and the world blanketed in peace; most peculiarly, we believe this enchanting vision will be accomplished by a helpless babe of dubious birth from a Podunk town in Israel.
You know what happened to the child, the same thing that happens to poets who get in the way of brutally heartless regimes: our Savior was clubbed in the kneecaps and hung on a cross.
In last week’s “New Yorker” magazine, Mary Karr writes: “If you ever doubted the power of poetry, ask yourself why, in any revolution, poets are often the first to be hauled out and shot…We poets may be crybabies and sissies, but our pens can become nuclear weapons.” Poets do not use words to bully, poets use words to create, as in, “And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”
Poets, visionaries, musicians….
I must confess a dirty little secret: I love name-dropping, love it! One name I have started dropping since arriving here at Holy Trinity is that of someone who attended Bach Vespers as you are doing now.
Once upon a time, on a crowded Sunday night, when all was dark except a few flickering candles, a long-haired, bespectacled gent sat here at the altar rail, craning his neck and looking straight back, way up into the organ loft where the orchestra and choir performed the Bach cantata. Guess who it was? Let me give you a clue:
You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.
This dreamer was our neighbor, living seven blocks from here at the Dakota. Again, as has happened to so many poets who have dared to dream, John Lennon was gunned down thirty-six years ago, this very week, on December 8, 1980.
Thank God for dreamers who invite us to a higher vision. The musical poet Johann Sebastian Bach was another such dreamer. His music rouses us to conceive the world more fancifully and gorgeously. Listen to a few words from tonight’s cantata:
Kill us through your kindness;
awaken us through your grace…
Kill us through your kindness. Oh my…. Let the poetry ring…
As you leave here, the sirens of a prose flattened world will struggle to deaden your heart: “Same old quarrels in the car on the way home. Same old tensions at dinner. Same tired beginning on Monday” (Walter Brueggemann). In the face of such deadening darkness, may God’s hopeful poetry shrink the gloom a bit. And when morning comes, may the angels still be at your side as you sing the music of the lamb and the lion frolicking together, the melody of a little child leading the way into a world of peace forever and ever.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Making the Crooked Straight”
2nd Sunday of Advent (December 4, 2016)
Isaiah 11: 1-10; Matthew 3: 1-12
How thrilling it was to watch our first Thanksgiving Day Parade from the parish house roof. What a delight to see the Sponge Bob Square Pants, Angry Bird Red, and Aflac Duck balloons; we even had our eyes peeled for the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man who made his initial appearance at Holy Trinity in the movie “Ghostbusters.” What charmed me most, though, was watching a grandpa place his three tiny grandchildren in the perfect fourth-floor apartment window looking up Central Park West (directly across the street from here) so the little ones would be looking in the right direction when Santa Claus came to town.
So much tempted them to look in the wrong direction—sirens, helicopters, confetti blowing in the wind, even two stilt walkers crashing to the street. But grandpa pointed them properly and they were looking directly into Santa’s eyes when his reindeer escorted him past their window.
Advent is the church season that gets us looking in the right direction for Christ’s coming. John the Baptist is our grandpa who places us perfectly to look straight into Jesus’ eyes when he arrives in our lives. John coaxes us every way he can: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!”
Sara Miles, in her quirky and delightful book, “Jesus Freak,” writes of John the Baptist, “[He] was, not to put a fine point on it, a total nutcase, sort of like the unwashed guy with the skanky dreadlocks and the plastic bags over his socks who sleeps in the entryway to the library…”
John’s weirdness gets our attention. Admit it: it takes someone screaming raucously, dressing bizarrely, and saying outlandish things to point us toward Christ.
Bob Kraus was a dear friend of mine and an orthopedic surgeon. He had performed thousands of hip and knee replacements in his day. I once asked him at a Rotary luncheon about the agony involved in such surgery. He said, “Wilk, when I go into a patient’s room following surgery, I ask, ‘Are you in pain?’ When they say, ‘Yes, Doc, excruciating,’ I say, “Good, the surgery worked.’” Change is painful and it rarely happens overnight.
By the way, it takes an aircraft carrier three to four miles to turn 180 degrees. Congregations are said to change direction similarly, as in, not too quickly. That is not meant to suggest we should not attempt change. Quite frankly, if a Christian community does not recalibrate and change course from time-to-time, it will almost certainly miss the wonder of Christ’s presence. Vibrant congregation are unflinchingly bold when it comes to changing course.
Another word for change is repentance and that is as painful as knee surgery. We prefer our old, destructive habits to breaking our achy, arthritic souls and starting afresh. We detect such refusals to repent when people let their personal relationships deteriorate, refusing to change a single thing about themselves—they prefer to point fingers at others! We see it as people drink themselves to the grave, refusing to attend Alcoholics Anonymous because, as they would have it, “They are just a bunch of bums.” We see the difficulty to repent as we prefer destroying God’s planet to changing our extravagant ways for the good of those who will follow us.
Repentance is hard work and yet repentance is good work, work that changes us for the better.
Dagmar and I and our boys used to drive from Washington, DC, to Wheeling, West Virginia, to visit my parents. The route twisted through the mountainous regions of Maryland and West Virginia. If you know anything about “God’s country,” you realize how hard it is to get there from here. While a map will indicate you can get here to there in a flash, you have likely not factored in the steep inclines, treacherous hairpin turns, and resulting traffic jams. It often takes two hours to go forty-five miles.
Imagine our surprise, when someone had the outlandish idea to dig straight through the mountain and create Interstate 68. Some swore it could never be done. Admittedly, it did take twenty-five years, but the crooked road was made straight with dreaming and daring, sacrifice and hard work.
Think about how accustomed we are to crooked ways of living. Take war for instance: we have always done it that way, so we say. Right? All the way back to Cain and Abel there has been squabbling and fisticuffs. Those who urge us to love our enemies are deemed fools. And yet, what if we trusted that God can do the impossible?
Did you listen to the prophet Isaiah this morning? “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” This, dear friends, is God’s vision, not ours. Turning around is never up to us—thank God! It takes grandpa in some instances, John the Baptist in others, and always God. Martin Luther said it this way, “God can carve the rotten wood and ride the lame horse.”
We are an Advent people. That’s why we are here at Holy Trinity. We have every reason to be incredibly confident for the future of our beloved congregation because our future is in God’s hands. To watch God turn us around, rotten wood, lame horse, and all, is remarkably exciting.
Oh, to be like those children on Thanksgiving Day looking in the right direction when Santa comes.
…Dear God, stir up our hearts and make the crooked straight and point us in the right direction when Jesus comes into our midst. Amen.