Pastor Wilbert Miller
Sermon at Bach Vespers
“When Enemies Seem Just About Everywhere We Look”
Sunday, February 19, 2017 (7th Sunday after Epiphany)
Matthew 5: 38-48
The words, “Love your enemies,” are simple to domesticate. They easily become trite fodder for crossed-stitched samplers hung on our dining room walls.
And yet, if the truth be told, Jesus’ invitation to turn our cheeks and to love our enemies has bedeviled many good people for a long time. While I may not be a very good person, the directive regarding enemy love has bedeviled me most of my life. I concocted a college minor called “Peace Studies” to try to come to grips with what Jesus was saying. I took courses on pacifism and Christian nonviolence from a very good Quaker, created an independent study on the works of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton who had much to say about enemy love, and took history courses that examined how nations have tried to coexist throughout the ages with other pesky enemy nations. You may or may not want to know, but my senior thesis was my “Conscientious Objector” papers which I then submitted to my local draft board in Wheeling, West Virginia, during the Viet Nam conflict.
It has been forty-four years now since those papers were handed to the draft board and yet, to this day, enemy loving continues to befuddle me. The classic question asked of those who claim that they will refuse to fight in any war is, “What would you have done in the face of Adolph Hitler?” That is an important question to ponder and points to how monstrously difficult it is to live purely in this world no matter how hard we try.
It is so simple to be naïve about matters of war and peace and even simpler to be self-righteous prigs about loving our enemies or defending the common good.
For those of us who live comfortably, it is convenient to get all teary-eyed as we place our hands over our hearts and sing the National Anthem at the Yankee’s game all the while leaving the bloodier stuff to less fortunate souls who do not have the advantage of good educations and fat parental investment portfolios. Unless we or our own children are in the line of fire, we dare not arrogantly rattle our sabers in the name of God and country or profess purity about refusing to engage in armed conflicts, especially if we are benefitting from others’ sacrifices. Whether we bear arms or refuse to, loving our enemies is dreadfully difficult.
As I have said, this question of how to love our enemies has bedeviled me a long time. As a Lutheran, I do not come from one of the historic peace churches like the Quakers, Mennonites, and Amish. We Lutherans have typically had a cozier relationship with the state; perhaps it is in our blood to be warriors as opposed to peace lovers.
You will soon hear these words in this evening’s Bach cantata: “A Christian should strive to be dove-like and live without falsity or malice.” The question: how to do that? Asked another way, “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you for being dove-like?”
To be frank, it takes a fool to love one’s enemy, a fool like Jesus, a clown who died on the cross for those who hated his guts.
A fool…Actually, the fool has a rich tradition in some churches. The holy fool is revered in the Eastern Orthodox Church and held in similar esteem to bishops and priests, deacons and monks.
It takes fools to love their enemies because they typically have nothing to lose. They have no houses to defend because they most often sleep in the bushes in Central Park or on church steps like Holy Trinity’s. When we pass them on the street with their matted beards or soiled dresses, if we have heard of holy fools, we might blessedly find ourselves wondering if we could ever be so blessed not to have the many wretched cares that so easily drive us to hate others. What would it take to be a fool like that?
These fools, often found in Russian writers like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, are particularly prevalent when the church and the empire have gotten too cozy with one another. They are not the least bit impressed when the emperor holds his coronation at the cathedral on the hill or at all awestruck when Caesar shows up at the church across the street on the day of his elevation to high office. If anything, the fool is on the church doorsteps with a sign that says, “Love your enemy.”
Could it be that one of the deepest joys awaiting us is learning to love our enemies? On this Presidents’ Day weekend, we do well to remember a very good man and a very fine president, Abraham Lincoln, who once said, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
When we make our enemies our friends, our lives are changed for the better. Not only do we quit seething in bitterness, we also create a vision of living in peace. Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes all people blind.”
Maybe it is not such a risk to love. Maybe in loving our enemies, we catch a glimpse of life lived at full stretch. Maybe we should try it, especially in these contentious days when our enemies seem just about everywhere we look.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
Matthew 5: 38-48
February 19, 2017 (7th Sunday after Epiphany)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
G. K. Chesterton was a late nineteenth and early twentieth century English writer and lay theologian. He once wrote: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”
When we think of our enemies, our first inclination is likely not to think of our neighbors or those belonging to our church. The word “enemy” makes us instinctively look for terrorists and spies living far across the ocean, certainly not those who haunt our local Starbucks.
My experience suggests that Chesteron is on to something. The farther our enemies live from us, the easier it is to pontificate about loving them—after all, we don’t see them daily and aren’t forced to put up with their shenanigans. The nearer our enemies, the more likely they are to infuriate us—after all, we know them so much better!
I speak from experience. On Monday evening, Dagmar, our younger son Caspar, and I attended the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden. We had dreamed of this for years and even considered flying here to see the doggies when we were living in California. We have been particularly enthralled by the public-address announcer David Frei who says things that make us smile. I can imagine him introducing your current Holy Trinity dog in residence, Cisco, at the Garden: “The Boykin Spaniel, the state dog of South Carolina, is bred for the rigors of low-country waterfowl hunting. He loves to hunt pigeons and squirrels in Central Park and imaginary animals in tiny Upper West Side apartments. Do not let his cheery disposition, curly brown hair, floppy ears, and adorable eyes fool you: though a doting companion, the buoyant Boykin is not for the faint of heart.”
We were thrilled to be at the dog show. Sitting immediately behind us were four people who were investing their parents’ entire trust fund on $12.50 beers. As the night wore on, they got funnier in their own minds and more obnoxious in ours. These were our neighbors and I wanted to clobber them. I kept thinking about what I could say that would humiliate these hot shots in the presence of their lovely dream dates. Suddenly, the enemies Jesus told us to love were sitting a row behind us and kicking our chairs throughout their drunken escapade.
Funny, isn’t it, how our nearest neighbors are often our enemies. Some of you have heard me say that when and if I arrive at the Pearly Gates, if a congregational meeting is in session, I will ask Saint Peter if there is another option besides heaven. Think of those church meetings you have attended where nuclear wars have been waged in Jesus’ name over such monumental matters as the color of paint for the parish hall, the choice of hymns, the use of incense, and where coffee hour should be held. Forget about enemies lurking in Russia, Syria, and ISIS camps, our enemies are closer and far more dangerous and, often, they are Lutherans!
This loving of enemies—and neighbors—is so difficult. Perhaps that is why it took Jesus to show us how to do it. No matter what people turned their back on him, friend and foe alike, Jesus loved them all the way to the cross. We do well to keep our eyes on him, to see how he loved his enemies. Jesus never gave up on those he loved nor does he give up on us. Even when we fail to love those who drive us nuts, Jesus keeps loving us back.
I hope that you have a few good role models who have taught you a thing or two about enemy loving. I doubt any of you have heard of the Rev. Will Campbell though some of you may know him as the Rev. Will B. Dunn, the bombastic preacher with the broad-brimmed clerical hat in the comic strip “Kudzu.” The only reason I know Will Campbell is because I heard him speak at the divinity school I was attending and where he had graduated twenty-five years earlier; I was mesmerized by the story he told, a story about enemy loving.
The good Reverend Campbell was a contrarian sort of fellow. He was active in the civil rights movement and left his job as the chaplain at the University of Mississippi when he started receiving death threats over his views on integration. He was the only white person Dr. Martin Luther King invited to the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He helped escort African American students through angry mobs in an attempt to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Will Campbell eventually abandoned organized religion, accusing the Southern Protestant churches in particular of standing silent in the face of bigotry.
You may be thinking, I wish I could have met him. But wait, there is more. Reverend Campbell was a real, honest-to-goodness, down to earth, Southern enemy lover. Not only did he stand up for black folks, he harbored the quaint belief that Jesus also died for racists. This odd notion prompted him to become a chaplain of sorts to members of the Ku Klux Klan; he visited James Earl Ray in prison after he assassinated his good friend Dr. King in 1968. Now, that, my friends, is enemy loving in the extreme and it does cause us to wonder, “Jesus, you don’t mean all our enemies, do you?”
We easily let Jesus’ words, “Love your enemy,” fall off our lips like melting butter on a warm cinnamon bun but sometimes the enemy is so close it isn’t even our neighbor. Sometimes the enemy we loathe dwells deep within ourselves. Some of our fiercest hatreds and most abusive behaviors are directed not at others but at ourselves where self-loathing threatens to annihilate us. Jesus invites us to love this enemy with tender compassion. Indeed, when you feel angriest at someone else, always, always, first look to see what enemy lurks deep within you that infuriates you so. See whether you are able to love yourself before trying to love your neighbor.
“Love your enemy,” says Jesus. A good place to start this enemy loving is in our own neighborhood, in our own our own church, in our own heart. These are good training grounds if we ever are interested in trying to love those who live outside our zip code.
By the way, you learned how to do this as a little tyke but may have forgotten. Let’s review: whenever fury starts doing its dirty business inside your heart, immediately begin to sing that simple children’s song, “Jesus loves me! this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Remember: Jesus loves you and all your neighbors and he wishes you would, too.
Pastor Wilbert Miller
“Precious Treasure of Final Words”
(Deuteronomy 30: 15-20)
February 12, 2017, Bach Vespers
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
The Israelites were almost to the Promised Land, almost, but they just as easily could have been a million miles away. It had been a long haul, forty grueling years to be precise. God’s chosen people wandered aimlessly through the wilderness; poisonous snakes attacked them; they argued bitterly; they even doubted whether God was all that their fathers and mothers had made God out to be. Sure, God freed them from Pharaoh’s brutal slave camps but that was forty years ago and that was long enough to lose every ounce of hope.
We just heard a few of Moses’ final words spoken to his friends and family with whom he had been through so much. Moses had spotted the Promised Land through his sunburnt, cataract eyes, but he had heard from God that he would never cross over the Jordan to the land of milk and honey.
These final speeches are created in love and uttered in tenderness. They recall heartbreaking squabbles and betrayals and do their best to make amends; they contemplate the what-ifs and understand that all things can never quite be as wished; they even invent future hopes and dreams right on the spot.
You know how this goes because you have been there with your beloved spouse, your mother, your father. Final words are precious treasures to be cherished forever. I remember the last ones I spoke with my father face-to-face. I hated to leave his bedside, sensing those were our final words. I listened carefully because I knew I was hearing what meant most to my father. He told me to take care of my mother. Then, he said things that would surprise you if you didn’t know him. He spoke of finances—my father, after all, was schooled in that discipline and it guided his plans and determined the personal sacrifices he made on behalf of those he loved. In those final moments, he wanted to do his best to make certain his loved ones were protected.
That’s how it was for Moses. You might as well have been there with him on the far side of the Jordan as he spoke his final words—he was, after all, speaking to you: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess…Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”
“Choose life” sounds so daunting. Experience tells us what it told the Israelites: life is messier and more difficult than that, especially when we try to be faithful to God. Experience also tells us that God is faithful to us, in every age, even if we turn our backs on God and the journey becomes unbearable. Over and over again, God coaxes us back home, talking lovey-dovey to us and doing everything possible to get us to choose life and not opt for death.
Moses’ final words were his way of telling every generation that God chooses us. These words must be on every good Jew’s lips and heart, when lying down and when rising, upon entering home and when leaving: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” These words are placed in the mezuzah at the doorway of every Jewish home as a reminder. We who are Christian inherit this stunning memory and lively exhortation to choose life, never forgetting that God has created us in God’s image.
It is so easy to forget who God is, so easy to create our own modern day golden calves. Political ideologies and charismatic leaders, political and religious alike, cause us to forget who is in charge; flashy consumer goods entice us to believe that we can be as good as God if not even better; the latest smartphones are our beguiling Tower of Babel, tempting us to assume we can have perfect answers to life’s most monstrous mysteries simply by typing a few letters or saying, “Siri, why does God let evil exist?” Moses knew of these atrocious idolatrous temptations that would lure us time and again from choosing life and casting us into the dangerous wastelands of desolation.
Moses is here tonight tenderly urging us, on God’s behalf, to choose life. Moses’ hopes and prays that our lives will be much richer when we realize that The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. Moses only has a few words left and so he says to us, “God who freed our ancestors from bondage can free us, too.”
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“The Grammar of Grace”
Matthew 5: 21-37
February 12, 2017 (Sixth Sunday after Epiphany)
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church-Manhattan
Miss Ball was my eighth-grade English teacher, the best I ever had. She forced us to diagram sentences, learn all the prepositions by memory, and know how to use who and whom, he and him, and she and her, properly. Eleanor Ball did not suffer fools gladly: she once told me, before an assembled throng of fourteen year-olders, that I was the poorest English student of the entire Miller clan and that included my parents and sister, aunts and uncle.
If you had a teacher like Miss Ball, you were drilled in the figures of speech: alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia. I particularly struggled with remembering the difference between metaphor, simile, and hyperbole. I will not bore you with the specifics but I invite you to review what Miss Ball said about hyberbole: “Hyperbole is an extravagant statement used for the purpose of emphasis or heightened effect.”
Here are a few hyperboles: “If you insult a brother or sister…and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire…If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away…”
I, at least, pray Jesus was overstating the case here just to turn us from sin.
I wonder if this is hyberbole: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” If this is not stretching the case for effect, I am fearful you will soon be running off to make up with your sisters and brothers and never return to put your offering in the plate. I fear attendance at Holy Communion will be pretty sparse!
Here’s why this all seems hyperbole to me. Martin Luther teaches us, over and over again, that we cannot be perfect. One of the primary reasons we teach our children the Ten Commandments is not so much to make them good little girls and boys but more to the point to help them realize they are hopeless sinners in need of God’s grace.
It is so tough to admit we are sinners. We easily point our finger at others—you are a miserable sinner!—but it is another matter altogether to point that same finger at ourselves.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his little book, “Life Together,” writes: “The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So, everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So, we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!”
Could it be that Jesus wants to shock us, scare us straight, so we know, without a doubt, that we cannot achieve perfection—even if we so desperately want to?
Church folks find it hard to admit to imperfection. There are some groups, however, that are pretty good at this. If you have ever attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, you know that recovering alcoholics admit their shortcomings the moment the meeting begins, “Hello, I am Scotty and I am an alcoholic.” AAers are well versed in the twelve steps because they are read at every meeting. Here are steps one and two: 1-We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable; 2-We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Do you know anyone who possesses such courage—elegance?—to admit their lives are unmanageable, that they need something beyond themselves—like God—to turn their lives around?
I recently saw such a person. Patti Smith is, we might say, the 71-year old punk rock queen-mother of New York; she is also a serious author who has written the National Book Award winner, “Just Kids,” and my favorite, “M Train.” She represented Bob Dylan at the recent Nobel Prize awards on December 10. She sang Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a song she has known since she was a teen-ager.
Patti Smith writes: “Every spare moment was spent practicing it, making certain that I knew and could convey every line…I sang the words to myself, over and over…I bought a new suit, I trimmed my hair, and felt that I was ready.
“….And then suddenly it was time…As I sat there, I imagined laureates of the past walking toward the King to accept their medals. Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Albert Camus. Then Bob Dylan was announced as the Nobel Laureate in Literature, and I felt my heart pounding…I heard my name spoken and I rose. As if in a fairy tale, I stood before the Swedish King and Queen…
“The first verse was passable, a bit shaky, but I was certain I would settle. But instead I was struck with a plethora of emotions, avalanching with such intensity that I was unable to negotiate them…Unaccustomed to such an overwhelming case of nerves, I was unable to continue…
“As I took my seat, I felt the humiliating sting of failure…”
If you have not seen Patti Smith’s performance that night in Stockholm, Sweden, I beg you to go to YouTube. You will witness a beautiful woman, not because of her perfection but because of the depths of her fragile nature. As she sings and stumbles and is repeatedly rendered speechless and apologetic, the camera sweeps the audience and catches a woman in the audience so deeply moved by Patti Smith’s stunning humanity that she is wiping away tears. You might call that a moment of grace, an occasion when someone is rendered beautiful not because of make-believe perfection but because of the profound honesty that she needs something more to help her get through the night.
I believe Jesus uses hyperbole, shocking stuff like plucking out eyes, chopping off hands, and sending people straight to hell fire, so we might all realize we are God’s beautiful, precious children. I pray that this place’s deepest glory will come as we witness one another’s brokenness being bathed in the forgiving waters of heavenly grace. If we do this, others will pass by here and be moved by tears because they will see just how much God loves us…and them, too.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“This Little Light of Mine”
(Matthew 5: 13-20)
February 5, 2017 (5th Sunday after Epiphany)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
Holy Trinity’s stained-glass windows are so stunning. I love walking into the church early in the morning just as the sun begins to shine through them. I have watched you marvel at the windows as well, pulling out your phones and taking pictures of the wonder of sun and glass dancing together.
Which is your favorite window? Mine is the “Second Coming of Christ” created by the Tiffany Studios of New York and installed here in 1904.
Those who enter this holy space for the first time, after the sun has set, are clueless as to how much beauty awaits them when the sun finally peaks through the windows. While the stained-glass never changes, there is a profound difference in the splendor, depending on how much light is shining through.
There is something else about these windows. Regardless whether it is night or day, no one walking outside of Holy Trinity can imagine the wonder that awaits them when they finally arrive inside here and see the light shining through them. Stained-glass windows frankly seem to be for the edification of insiders. The question then is how will those on the outside ever know the glory these windows convey?
When I was a pastor on the Main Line of Philadelphia, we went to great lengths lighting our windows from the inside out. After every worship service, our custodian Bill Dougherty set up temporary workshop spotlights to shine light through the windows to make certain the stories of God’s love depicted in those windows came alive for all outside passersby.
We are much like these stained-glass windows. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.”
We come here, week after week, so that, somehow, Christ’s love might be revealed through us out into the world. In this place, we are discombobulated by the stories that followers of Jesus actually give away what they have to the poor; we hear that Christians turn the other cheek to those who strike them; we even hear that we love our enemies. Unless we hear and even see these strange words of Jesus over and over again, we will grow as dull and lifeless as these windows in the wee hours of darkness.
Too often the church is content to operate an insider’s game. Oh, sure the music can soar and the liturgy can be breathtaking but unless the loveliness of God’s light shines beyond our brick and mortar, beyond our own individual wants and needs, we risk being lackluster stained-glass windows at three in the morning or, as St. Paul said, noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.
You know as well as I that much of what happens in places like this can easily become not much more than a confirmation of the world’s dastardly ways. From pulpits just like this, preachers lambast people with revolting vitriol and drive their followers to become acolytes for all manner of vile acts purportedly done in Christ’s. It is why so many have given up going to church altogether: rather than a place where brilliant light emanates from hallowed halls like this, all they witness are the confirmation of the dismal shadows and shocking darkness of the world’s wretched hatred and appalling arrogance.
The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who taught just up the street at Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote, “Worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God.”
The most remarkable congregations I know are the ones where breathtaking prayer stimulates them to carry Christ’s light to the dark, dangerous corners of this world. These churches make people shiver in wonder as they behold the majesty of worship dancing hand-in-hand with ministries of compassion and prophetic witness.
During these initial days of Black History Month, I am reminded of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You have heard his spellbinding preaching in the sanctuary, stirring worshipers to be salt and light. And yet the special appeal of Dr. King is that he didn’t remain in the sanctuary for long. He always left the building! He exhorted his followers to let Christ’s light shine, not just inside the church but outside in the world as well.
You will remember Dr. King was deeply shaped by the nonviolent philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi who, himself, was shaped by the nonviolent life of Jesus. Nonviolence holds fast to Jesus’ peculiar belief that love can triumph over hatred, and light can shine during the darkest of days. It is never easy to follow in Dr. King’s footsteps; it is far easier simply to adore him. Some of his most ardent followers knew this of him. They begged him to forsake nonviolence and to angrily strike back in the face of vicious racist attacks, but Dr. King would have none of it. He always sought the higher road, Jesus’ road. When he spoke out against our nation’s participation in the war in Viet Nam, some closest to him begged him not to get off point: they believed speaking out against Viet Nam would detract from what, in their minds, was the crucial focus on the Civil Rights movement here in the United States. Again, Dr. King would have none of it. He had a dream that was far bigger, a dream where all God’s children would live in peace.
These are tough days for many of us to dream, let alone to love. You have told me how vicious political quarrels are ripping your family apart, how you can’t talk civilly anymore to some of your dearest friends. Christmas was unbearable for some of you as you sat at dinner and pretty much said nothing of substance to those you love, opting to bury your true feelings and pretending that all was well in our nation. Hateful things are being said by many people these days, Republican and Democrat alike, liberal and conservative, and, yes, Christian and Muslim and Jew. Hateful things!
That is why it is so important to gather here this morning and to hear once again the stories of these windows where the Son of God, Jesus Christ, shines thorough gloom and death with the brilliant light of hope and life. We are here so we might burn more brightly, so we might be a gorgeous people of love not hate, a people who dare to love even our enemies.
We do well to remember Dr. King’s words during this Epiphany season, this blessed season of light: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Let us pray that by God’s grace we will let our little light shine.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Singing in the Dark Night”
Candlemas/ Presentation of Our Lord
February 2, 2017
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church-New York City
Christmas was forty days ago. Even though our trees have been tossed curbside and our decorations packed away for weeks now, we continue to long for the Christ Child’s light in our lives.
This evening is an embarrassment of riches if you are still longing for Christmas light. We celebrate Candlemas, blessing the candles that will light our way through this year. No matter how dark these days, we dare not forget Christ is our light.
We also celebrate the Presentation of Our Lord, recalling how Mary came out of the seclusion of childbirth and, with her husband Joseph, brought their precious little Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem as scripture mandated.
And, yes indeed, today is even Groundhog Day. While it may seem a frivolous festival observed by furry Phil and his Punxsutawney pals, it is, in fact, more than that: it is the day when people yearn for the distressing winter darkness to give way to the tender, spring light.
Old Simeon and feeble Anna watched and waited at the Temple for years and years just to answer that very question: would light enter the darkness? Imagine Simeon’s delight as he took the tiny child from Mary’s affectionate hands into his own arthritic ones. Watch as he lifts Jesus to the heavens; be enchanted by his raspy yet riveting voice singing one of the most enthralling hymns the world has ever heard:
Lord, now let your servant go in peace, according to your word:
My own eyes have seen the salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of every people;
A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.
Simeon could now calmly close his eyes one final time for he had beheld the light that would guide his path through death to life forever.
Lutherans have had a unique love affair with Simeon’s canticle called the Nunc Dimittis in Latin. At the conclusion of funerals, we open our clenched fists and let our loved ones soar to heaven as if letting a caged bird fly free. With voices breaking, we sing the best we are able, “O Lord, now let your servant go in peace.”
We sing Simeon’s exquisite song at the final prayer service of the day, Night Prayer (Compline). We are reminded that every night, as we close our eyes, we die a little death, and yet we trust that when we finally die, we can do so in peace as did Simeon and Anna.
Tiny children sense this little death as monsters lurk beneath their beds. They pray the simplest and yet sincerest of prayers:
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I shall die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
As we grow older, the darkness is no less terrifying. We watch the evening news, horrified at what might come while we sleep. Monsters lurk this time out in the world we love. We implore Simeon and Anna to come by our side and to support our singing, “Oh Lord, now let your servant go in peace.”
One of my most cherished pastoral memories is gathering at Elsa Mae Rhodes’ bedside at the National Lutheran Home in Rockville, Maryland. These were her final moments this side of the kingdom-come. Elsa Mae was the ninety-eight-year-old daughter of African American slaves. She endured the vile cruelties hurled her way and yet, remarkably, never lost hope and refused to surrender to bitterness. Her daughter and I held vigil in the wee hours as Elsa Mae readied herself for the final journey to the far side of the Jordan. We watched as the light faded in her cataracted eyes, as the memories scampered through her withered mind, and then we heard her begin to feebly and softly sing, not indignantly, but exquisitely:
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
We gather here tonight to praise God for a similar blessing of the light.
In a matter of moments, you will receive a bit of bread and a sip of wine. Somehow, someway, this is the very body and blood of that tiny Christ Child for whom you have waited. As the glorious taste lingers in your mouth, may you sing a confident song even as darkness blankets the earth, “Lord, now let your servant go in peace…For my own eyes have seen my salvation.”
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Dizzy and Blessed”
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
(Matthew 5: 1-2; 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31)
January 29, 2017 (4th Sunday after Epiphany)
If you are a connoisseur of church websites as am I, you are aware that every one of them has a picture of the congregation at worship and, in every picture, the crowd is overflowing. You have probably noticed that there are lilies or poinsettias in every picture. You’ve got it: the pictures are always taken on Easter or Christmas Eve when the gatherings are the largest. No congregation dares use a picture taken on July 23. We all want to look big and important.
That is why the Sermon on the Mount or the Beatitudes feels so unnerving. Jesus forces us to look at our lives upside down. We prefer worldly standards, standards of power and wisdom; we are repulsed by the standards of Christ’s cross that appear weak and foolish.
Listen, for a moment, to Eugene Peterson’s Beatitudes from his “Message” translation of the Bible: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.” Make you squirm?
In these days, no matter what our political persuasion, we want to be powerful, to fight for what we believe to be right, just, and sensible. Blessed are the peacemakers—are you kidding me? These days call for backbone and fisticuffs, a tough streak that gets results done TODAY.
I suppose that is why it is so hard to be a Christian, at least the kind of Christian Jesus seemed to envision.
We began worship this morning with a cross leading the way. Did that, by chance, make you feel a bit queasy? My dear friends, Jesus died on that cross. You can almost imagine Pontius Pilate using the water-boarding technique as he screamed at Jesus, “What is truth?” We feel so unsettled when we are forced to listen to St. Paul’s dribble, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the woe world to shame the strong.” “No way!” we holler. We prefer the powerful and important.
When I was a pastor in Washington, D.C., we got word that President Clinton might be worshiping with us on Sunday morning. Volunteers dusted every nook and cranny, trimmed bushes and raked leaves, removed the clutter of old bulletins and frayed offering envelopes stuffed in the pews; those in charge of refreshments made certain they were fit for a queen…or at least a president.
…By the way, President Clinton never showed up that morning. Remarkably, though, a lot of important people did show up. They were not powerful or important by worldly standards but they did end up feeling honored by a spic and span church, stunning music, and delicious food.
What if we treated every person with such honor and respect, or in Jesus’ terminology, as blessed by God? What if we celebrated the presence of the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the meek, and the bedraggled—US!—as if we were the most important people in the world? What if, this morning, we saw the world as Jesus saw it? What if we viewed people from Syria and Iran, Iraq and Libya, Somalia and Sudan and Yemen, as blessed?
I know what you are thinking, “Pastor, Stop! That’s all I read these days on my iPhone, all that I hear on television. I came here for shelter from the storm not more blather from a guy who, quite frankly, doesn’t have a clue about the world order. Hush.” And yet, shouldn’t we at least try, as the Bible commands us, to see the widow and orphan, the strangers and sojourners, through the immensity of God’s love and not through the narrowness of our little hearts? Of course, you are right: that’s seeing the world upside down and that’s not easy. Didn’t I tell you seeing the world through God’s eyes will make us dizzy?
New Year’s Day fell on Sunday this year. Attendance was spotty that morning, not a worship service we will show on our website. I ended up opening our front doors. There was quite a bit of trash around the steps. Having no gloves or broom, I tore off a piece of cardboard from a discarded box to create a make-shift dustpan. I gingerly cleaned up cast-off Kleenex and other disgusting rubble. As I bent low to pick up a lipstick-stained cigarette butt, two visitors stopped to inquire when worship began. They were from central Pennsylvania—a retired pastor and his wife. Later that week, they sent a lovely email. Regrettably for me, they made no mention of my “towering sermon” that day—not a word! What they did mention, though, was their amazement that the pastor of this so-called “prestigious Lutheran congregation on Central Park” was picking up trash; “there must be a sermon there somewhere,” they said. What they realized—and what I had forgotten—was that Jesus was coming to church that New Year’s morning. They were so delighted by the possibility of it all and there I was, begrudgingly at best, cleaning up trash on Jesus’ behalf.
The Beatitudes work like that. They surprise us with whom Jesus calls blessed. Think of just one of the beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Have you ever felt so walked over and ignored that not in a million years would you expect Jesus to tap you on the shoulder? Maybe that’s why the Beatitudes are so unsettling: they invite us to see ourselves and our neighbors just as Jesus saw the poor and orphaned and, yes, the aliens…as blessed. It isn’t just presidents who are important. Suddenly, by heavenly standards, we are all important, no matter how much is in our pocketbook or from what country we come.
When I was feeling so sorry for myself that New Year’s morning, I forgot there was no greater honor than to clean the church steps, hold the door open, and usher Jesus in. If only I had noticed Jesus down on his knees picking up the cigarette butts with me, I would probably have been much happier and certainly more blessed.
Do we notice Jesus in our lives? I wonder if Jesus would have been turned back yesterday at JFK Airport—you do know what he looked like and, if the truth be told, many of those who followed him thought the best way to bring about the kingdom of heaven was through violence.
It’s so easy to forget that God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. Let us always remember that Jesus chooses us, too, by bowing down to us and calling us blessed.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
Matthew 4: 12-23
January 22, 2017 (3rd Sunday after Epiphany)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
The gospel reading we just heard demonstrates why we should be extremely careful when making important decisions in life.
Jesus had only twelve choices for the disciples who would assist him in proclaiming that the kingdom of God had come near. If you had been in his place, wouldn’t you have exercised extraordinary vigilance in picking your dream team?
Professional football teams do that. They spend enormous amounts of personnel time and money studying which players to choose in the college draft. Character, speed, strength, agility, intelligence—these are carefully analyzed before any player is picked. Teams have high hopes of assembling the next Super Bowl team so every choice on their fifty-three-player roster matters.
Jesus didn’t have a fifty-three-player roster, his was composed of twelve. Given that, you might be surprised how he went about selecting his disciples. Jesus walked along the Sea of Galilee and, from all appearances, chose the first guys he came across. Matthew makes no mention of whether Jesus had a head-hunting firm conduct advanced interviews but I doubt it.
Perhaps Jesus should have been more judicious. He came up short on all twelve of his selections; they all ended up being clunkers. His first choice, Peter, was a compulsive liar, denying ever having known Jesus when push came to shove; another pick, Judas, sold Jesus up Calvary’s hill for thirty pieces of silver; and the other ten disciples, well, they were nowhere to be seen when Jesus breathed his last. Losers, cowards, reprobates…you name it. Quite candidly, Jesus’ choices do not come off as particularly imaginative or insightful.
And how astute were Peter and Andrew, James and John? When Jesus said, “Follow me,” they dropped everything and followed immediately. Admittedly, the swiftness of their decisions sounds awfully holy, but honestly, would you really have followed Jesus the minute he snapped his fingers? Wouldn’t you have analyzed the job description first, talked to people whose judgment you respected, and asked about the compensation and benefits package? For goodness sakes, the disciples were being asked to turn their backs on their boats and nets and family and to follow a quirky Galilean rabbi…Wouldn’t you have said something like, “I am flattered, Jesus, but give me a few days to study this whole thing and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”
And yet, that’s not what happened. There was a sense of urgency. The kingdom was near and Jesus had to act decisively and swiftly. There was no time to dilly-dally.
We all want to be successful, don’t we? We listened to our parents who counseled us to count the costs, to be certain we are doing the right thing before jumping in head first.
The Christian life is no different. We have our questions about our faith and want to get them answered the best we are able before we say, “I do and I ask God to help and guide me.” Maybe we should read one more book, attend one more class, have one more meeting with the pastor, make certain we don’t do anything we will regret later. And, as citizens of this nation, we want to listen to all sides before standing up for the poor and vulnerable. We fear that one error in judgment will ruin the day. Give it all time, see how it all unfolds—really…not exactly eager for the kingdom of God.
The church is no different. We engage in painstaking research before acting. Study, study, study…count, count, count…discuss, discuss, discuss. When you called me as your pastor, you did exactly that as far as I can tell. You spent a year-and-a-half in an interim process before choosing your next pastor. You analyzed Holy Trinity’s strengths and challenges and pondered how best to move forward. The Call Committee invested an enormous amount of time reading candidates’ exhaustive bios, parsing our in-depth answers to questions provided by our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, interviewing us face-to-face, and calling our references to make certain we were telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You flew Dagmar and me all the way from California to New York—not once, but twice. You watched carefully to see which of the three forks we used to eat our entrées; you listened to my chanting with high hopes I could carry some semblance of a tune. The entire congregation had the opportunity to “meet and greet” on a Saturday afternoon and to ask any pressing questions you might have. You listened to me preach to see whether I kept you awake or immediately sent you to Lalaland. And then, with fingers crossed and heads bowed, you voted…This all didn’t exactly occur immediately.
Most of us have a million and one reasons why we should be patient and prudent: resources our limited and rash decisions will be costly for years to come. We worry about making a mistake we will regret and yet, in some ways, Jesus made twelve flagrant ones. None of his disciples stood out in a crowd and none stood up for Jesus when his life was on the line.
The disciples must have felt like they had made a mistake as well, especially when they saw Jesus hanging on the cross. Why had they been so impulsive, why had they dropped their day jobs to follow the abysmal failure named Jesus? Maybe they should have listened more carefully to their parents and exercised more patience when making such a significant decision.
Perhaps that is why today’s gospel reading is so useful for us. Just as he called the first disciples, Jesus calls us now to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near. There is an urgency to act, not tomorrow or next month or next year, but now…immediately…on behalf of all God’s children.
Our decisions, of course, will be filled with ambiguity, even fear; that’s why they are called leaps of faith. Finally, we must trust that God is leading us and guiding us and will excuse our errors in judgment due to our eagerness to act in this suffering world on God’s behalf.
Oh, and by the way, God calls us, we don’t call God. God knows we will stumble or our all-knowing God wouldn’t have called us in the first place!
And so, let’s get going and believe that God supports us every step of the way.
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.