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Sermons

“Jesus Comes to Thomas, Amelia Rose, and Us”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Jesus Comes to Thomas, Amelia Rose, and Us”
John 20: 19-31
April 23, 2017 (2nd Sunday of Easter)

Thomas is often called “Doubting Thomas.”  Unfortunately, claiming that Thomas doubted Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the disciples probably plays a bit fast and loose with the whole truth about him.

Thomas was absent the evening of the resurrection when Jesus appeared to the other ten.  It is easy to ridicule him for saying, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe”—easy to ridicule Thomas but hardly fair.  Thomas didn’t so much doubt as demand proof that Jesus had actually appeared to the disciples.  Is someone so terrible just because they want proof of what is impossible to believe?

It is easy to forget the whole story about Thomas.  Thomas was the one who said of Jesus, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  That was a whiff of courage on Thomas’ part as Jesus drew dangerously close to Jerusalem where he would soon die.

Thomas also asked the tough questions when others felt too shy or too silly to do so.  When Jesus was with the disciples at the Last Supper, he spoke to them about going to his Father’s house.  Thomas was courageous enough to ask the question on everyone’s mind: “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”  Yet again, Thomas demonstrated honesty not doubt.  He wanted to know what in the world was up.

While we know the nickname, “Doubting Thomas,” we probably are not as familiar with his other moniker, “The Twin.”  The Bible gives no indication who Thomas’ twin was but I like Frederick Buechner’s suggestion: “If you want to know who the other twin is, I can tell you.  I am the other twin, and unless I miss my guess, so are you.”

Aren’t we all Thomas’ twin: we soar to courageous heights and then promptly plummet to cowardly lows.

Many of us find it easy to criticize folks like Thomas.  We have the time of our lives at parties mimicking their quirks and mocking their shortcomings.  Everyone slaps their knees in riotous laughter at our hilarious barbs.  But, Jesus never joins our catty conversations.  He always removes himself from such sarcastic goings-on; he is always so understanding of those who come up short of our so-called “exacting standards.”

Jesus could have easily lambasted every, single disciple.  They repeatedly demonstrated failure of nerve and revealed all manner of double-dealing behavior.  Jesus could have hollered, “Shame on you all.”  But on that first Easter evening, when Thomas was absent, Jesus came and stood among the ten disciples and said, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.”  Remarkable when you think about it: not a single word of rebuke.

Eight days later, Thomas was in the house.  The doors were shut and, somehow, again, Jesus made it through and stood among them.  And, once again, Jesus said, “Peace be with you,” and once again, there was no ferocious scolding.  The disciples watched closely to see how Jesus would respond to Thomas’ demand to see his wounds before he believed.  Astonishingly, Jesus was the essence of grace; he drew so close to Thomas and lovingly said to him, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side…”

Jesus, of course, had already died on the cross, already forgiven each of them with arms outstretched.  Now, yet again, he showered them with love.  There was no need to say, “Shame on you!”

There is another interesting detail in this story.  Though he was risen, Jesus still had wounds in his hands and his side.  I can’t figure out why Jesus still had the crucifixion wounds—he was risen after all—but let me take a guess.

We bear our wounds and imperfections, too, and you have noticed, I’m sure, we still are called the body of Christ.  Why doesn’t God call perfect people to do ministry in this world?  Why not brilliant people who can offer perfect answers to the most difficult questions of life?  Why not people who never stumble?  Why does God call us with all our failures and crashes?

In a few moments, we will baptize Amelia Rose von Bargen.  Now, admittedly, from her parents and grandparents’ vantage point, she is a tiny bundle of perfection.  But, come on mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, we know better.  Little Amelia Rose had barely entered this world before she screamed up a storm. “Drop everything and feed me,” she shrieked the best she was able.  God did not say, “Shame on you, Amelia Rose, for demanding such special attention.”  Instead, God brings her, this morning, to the center of the universe; with the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” she becomes Jesus’ precious sister and ours as well.  We have no idea why God does this except for love’s sake.

I have a hunch Amelia Rose will be much like Thomas.  Who knows whether she will scream or laugh or be quiet and mellow as the baptismal water is poured over her head in a few moments?  As she grows older, I’ll bet she will have moments that will delight mom and dad and others that will exasperate them.  Whatever happens, all the while, you must remember, she is a treasured child of God.

I have no idea why Jesus still bore the wounds after he rose from the dead.  I wish everything had been perfect, don’t you?  Maybe it was.  Maybe Jesus was showing us that he could bear our sorrows, disappointments, and failures even when we shout bloody murder because the world does not revolve around us.

Jesus is here today, yet again, this time with us, wounds and all, in the water spilled over Amelia Rose and in the meal of bread and wine.

We will not hear a single, “Shame on you.”  Instead, Jesus will say, “Peace be with you.”

And hearing that, we will shout, “Alleluia!  Christ is risen!”

“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.

“The Delightful Sound of Rattling Bones”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
“The Delightful Sound of Rattling Bones”
(Ezekiel 37: 1-14; John 11: 1-45)
April 2, 2017 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

Of all the scenes in the Bible, the valley of dry bones must be the creepiest. Can you imagine God leading you by the hand and forcing you to look out over a valley of bones picked dry by vultures? What a shocking sight it must have been for the prophet Ezekiel.

If the sight of dry bones was not bad enough, God had to rub it in and ask Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

Have you ever looked out over a valley where, no matter how hard you struggled, you could not muster a smidgeon of hope? You gaped and wondered whether the bones could live; the only answer you could muster was, “Not in a million years!”

Ezekiel was not feeling particularly hopeful either. God’s people had recently been annihilated by King Nebuchadnezzar’s mighty army, the brightest and best of Israel had been hauled off to Babylon, and Jerusalem smoldered in ashes. God’s promise, the one about being a chosen nation and a kingdom of priests, was only a faint memory if at all. Ezekiel was crushed. When God asked, “Can these bones live?” the best he could propose was a scrawny, “O Lord God, you know.”

It was so strange that God asked Ezekiel whether the bones could live. Ezekiel had been brutally honest about Israel’s future. He had done the unthinkable and prophesied against his good neighbors, his beloved family, his cherished nation. He uttered brutal words on God’s behalf: “I will bring a sword upon you, and I will destroy your high places…Wherever you dwell your cities shall be waste and your high places ruined.”

Ezekiel understood exactly what Israel deserved. And yet, words of judgment are never the final ones for those who work for God—never! Judgment is only part of the equation and certainly never the life-giving part. It’s easy to find what’s bad in someone else. Such is the stuff of bullies who are far better criticizing others than building them up. People love to throw grenades and bark, “I am just telling the truth,” but such ruthless judgments alone are the coward’s way and never finally the way of the people of God.

Ezekiel could have looked out over that wretched valley littered with bones and when God asked, “Can these bones live?” uttered, “Are you kidding me? They got exactly what they deserved.” But that’s not what Ezekiel did. He didn’t just stop with judgment as tempting as that might have been. Faithful imagination always looks beyond dry bones and finds a way to proclaim, “O Lord God, you know.”

That, by the way, is where the creepy part of this story begins to give way to wonder. Because Ezekiel believed in a God of life, no matter how stunned and desperate the situation appeared, he still sought a way to prophesy hope. Listen: “Suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.”

And Ezekiel didn’t stop there either. There was more: “I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

You have stood at that deathly valley of misery, a valley flowing with tears, a valley of restless nights. You have been there with Mary and Martha after their brother Lazarus died asking “why”? Mary and Martha cried, you cried, Jesus cried. So sad, so hopeless, just a valley of dry bones, and yet in that valley, by God’s grace, death is never the end of the conversation; instead, it leaves the answer in God’s hand just as Ezekiel uttered, “Only you know Lord.” All now hangs on the wondrous answers of God.

Gracie Allen, the comedian and zany wife of George Burns, once said, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” I love those words: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

The church’s story is always a cautionary tale against placing a period where God has placed a comma. The church, at its best, positions itself in the midst of bones. When all the angry judgments have been cast and the “I told you sos” have been lobbed, the church discovers a way to proclaim, “These bones shall live.” Together, we stand in the valley, listening carefully for the delightful sound of rattling bones.

But you know this. Perhaps someone has been your Ezekiel. When your insides felt like a carved-out cantaloupe, someone helped you stare into the desperate valley long enough so you finally were able to hear the delightful sound of bones rattling together.

Or perhaps you have been Ezekiel. With eyes burnt from constant weeping, you have found courage enough to put your arm around another long-sufferer and helped that wounded soul sing, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

I suppose that is why the church and our ministry are always held in suspicion, even in distain. We gather with scoundrels and villains, in intensive care units and graveyards, with people and in places where only God can make bones rattle to life.

Last Sunday morning when the choir sang the gorgeous strains of Psalm 23, I thought about skipping my sermon altogether—I really did. I was so moved by the music, so deeply touched to realize what a trusted friend Psalm 23 has been throughout my life, accompanying me through some pretty scary occasions and rough stretches. As the choir sang, I thought of you as well and I realized how God has been with you in your own valley of bones.

And so, my dear friends, whenever you find yourself gazing on dry bones, remember that God promises to come into your midst and to serenade you with the delightful music of rattling bones coming back into life. Please, please, never place a period where God only places a comma.

“A Tawdry King, A Cowardly Saint, and Bedraggled Runts Like Us”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Vespers Sermon
“A Tawdry King, A Cowardly Saint, and Bedraggled Runts Like Us”
1 Samuel 16: 1-13;
Text of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Le reniement de Saint Pierre
March 26, 2017 (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

Over and over again in the Bible, God calls the most complex characters to carry out ministry in this world.

Two such characters are with us this evening, King David and Saint Peter. They are giants of the faith and yet dreadfully flawed.

Take King David for instance. It all started out rather innocuously. Samuel went to Jesse to see whether one of his boys might have sufficient intellect and chutzpah to be the next king of Israel.

Eliab was the first son to be paraded before Samuel. He was tall and handsome, a strapping figure to be sure. Anyone on the lookout for royal stature would have picked Eliab in a heartbeat. But abruptly, God’s voice came booming from heaven and vetoed Samuel’s preliminary pick: “Look not to his appearance and to his lofty stature.”

And so, Samuel resumed the search. Seven of Jesse’s sons were marched before him, one-by-one, and each summarily rejected by God. It was the eighth, the ruddy one with beautiful eyes, who caught God’s attention. David was an after-thought being the runt of the litter. It was befuddling really because, as you know, then and now, we prefer leaders who are big and powerful. We are skeptical of runtiness!

Ted Schneider was the pastor of St. Luke’s-Silver Spring, the largest Lutheran congregation in metropolitan Washington, DC. Every year, our national Lutheran church holds a retreat where only the senior pastors of our largest congregations are invited. Needless to say, I have never been invited since I have served runts of the litter—ruddy and beautiful congregations, but runts nonetheless. Pastor Schneider, who went on to be the Lutheran bishop of Washington, D.C., told me that, almost without exception, the pastors of these congregations with more than 2500 members were 6’6” tall with sweeping white manes and deep, resonant voices. When they walk into cocktail parties, you take notice. Pastor Schneider stood out among these eye-catching titans—or actually he didn’t: he is 5’6”, I think.

King David was the runt, too, and yet everyone took notice and that’s what eventually caused problems. He captivates us by slaying the giant Goliath and crafting the gorgeous Psalms we sing on evenings like this. He was unlike anyone Israel had ever seen—so self-assured, so charming, so debonair; no one questioned David’s God-given ability to lead Israel. And yet, like so many compelling leaders, David sickens us to this day no matter how much we adore him.

Those blessed with unusual gifts are often the ones who must be kept in check. Down through history, those with the greatest promise have often unleashed the most unfathomable havoc. One need only look at David’s hideous affair with beautiful Bathsheba: watch the cover-up as he eventually had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, killed on the front line of battle. Powerful men, when crossed, can be ruthless and have the potential to unleash all manner of mayhem.

We also welcome Saint Peter tonight as the choir sings this evening’s cantata. Peter was like David in so many ways. Though called to be Jesus’ right-hand man, all did not turn out as planned. When Jesus was arrested and his death was imminent, Peter slinked into the shadows and denied ever having known his best friend. Peter had three chances to stand up for Jesus and three times he cowered like a beaten puppy.

What is so astonishing is that God even called Peter and David. You would think God would have known better…and maybe God did.

Rabbi David Wolpe, in his book, David: The Divided Heart, writes: “Throughout his journey, David, though sinful and rebuked, is never faithless. His failures do not make him doubt—or reject—God; rather, they intensify his devotion.”

Rabbi Wolpe continues: “Conventional religion has a regrettable tendency to do surgery on the human soul, leaving only the exalted parts. But readers of the Bible find that [it] is filled with flawed human beings and fraught situations against the backdrop of charged sanctity.”

Peter was no different. The classics scholar Erich Auerbach notes that in all of Greco-Roman literature, there is no story like Peters’ encounter with the servant girl in the high priest’s courtyard. “Peter is the leader of the Christian movement, and yet the literature of the movement implicates him in a tawdry deception with dialogue so realistic that it’s embarrassing” (Richard Lischer, The End of Words).

We like happy endings where our heroes are perfect and courageous but that, dear friends, is not the biblical story. God chooses flawed folks like David and Peter to do heavenly work here on earth.

And, by the way, God chooses you and me to do similar work as well. In spite of our cowardice and braggadocio, doubts and tawdry desires, God picks us to let God’s grace shine through to those we encounter day after day.

Take heart in the odd flaws of heroes and saints like King David and Saint Peter. After all, you and I join them to do God’s work here on earth. There is hope for us, dear friends, there is hope.