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Sermons

“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.

 

 

“With a Little Spit and Mud”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“With a Little Spit and Mud”
John 9: 1-41
March 26, 2017 (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

The man was born blind for goodness sakes…Jesus and his disciples passed by him as so many others had, day after day.

Curiously, however, no sooner had the disciples passed by the blind man than they asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The disciples’ initial reaction was not to alleviate the man’s suffering; instead they probed why he was born blind: had he sinned or his parents? They wanted to study the matter of suffering a little more deeply.

There continues to be a lot of suffering in the world. People are hungry and homeless, refugees and unemployed, depressed and addicted. Is our initial impulse to speculate on why they suffer or do we act immediately to alleviate their agony?

Jesus answered the disciples’ question curtly: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work.”

Did you hear Jesus’ answer: the man was born blind so “that the works of God might be made manifest in him.”

Enough speculation, Jesus said. Let God’s work begin! It’s getting dark.

There wasn’t a moment to spare because Jesus was going to die soon. And so, he spat on the ground, made clay with the spittle, and wiped it on the blind man’s eyes. Jesus then told him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam,” and soon after that, the fellow returned without a white cane and German Shepherd on a leash and he began to dance.

Just wondering…If you walked down the street after Mass today and passed a blind man, would any of you spit in the mud and wipe a bit of the concoction on his eyes? Do you sense the urgency Jesus sensed or are you a bit more cautious? Rather than stooping down for a little spit and mud, might you suggest we first form a task-force or at the very least do a cost analysis? After all, don’t we want to make certain that spit and mud is acceptable to all even if it might heal a blind man?

I did my seminary internship in 1976 at Emanuel Lutheran Church in South Philadelphia. Emanuel was the largest African American Lutheran congregation in America located in the rough and tumble Southwark Housing project where thousands and thousands of people lived. One day, fourteen-year old Kenny Williams was shot in the head on the twenty-first floor of one of the dilapidated twenty-five story high-rises as he and his two friends played a fatal game of Russian roulette.

I was at the church when my internship supervisor, Pastor John Cochran, called and said: “Drop everything and come immediately. Bring a silver bowl for baptism and oil for anointing. Kenny has had massive trauma to the brain and is on life support.”

Soon after “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” had been declared and water was dabbed on dear Kenny’s blood-soaked head, he breathed his last.

That Thursday evening, following the seven o’clock Mass, our broken-hearted staff sat in the pastor’s office, staring numbly into space. Pastor Cochran’s question will stay with me for a lifetime: “Why hadn’t Kenny been baptized before he was on his death bed? Why hadn’t we sensed the urgency?”

Like Kenny’s baptism, the healing of the blind man rings of urgency for Jesus. There was no time to speculate as to why he was born blind; he had to be healed, now, not tomorrow. Bring the spit and mud!
Remarkably, even after Jesus had done the miraculous, the Pharisees, good and faithful ones they were, still had nagging questions, “This man is not from God for he does not keep the sabbath.” Never mind that the blind man could now see for the first time in his life! The issue for good religious folks was whether all the rules had been followed. As so often is the case when merciful things are done, the Pharisees concluded that, in fact, Jesus had broken the commandment by healing the blind man on the sabbath; he never should have healed the guy.

My experience has often been that when the most good is done, there are complaints and critiques, not by bad people, mind you, but by good, caring people: a congregational meeting should have been held first to seek the mind of the membership; it was a splendid idea but didn’t you realize a few “influential people” might leave the church in disgust; or someone who knows the Bible will inevitably say, as did the Pharisees, “Couldn’t you have waited until Monday after the sabbath?” And, of course, you can hear them demand, “Why in the world did you have to use spit and mud on the Upper West Side?”

Jesus gathers us here this morning to remind us, yet again, that there is an urgency to act in his name, not tomorrow, not in six months, but today, now! It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there. What we do may be sloppy but, much more importantly, what we do might save a person’s life.

Our actions may come in small ways, volunteering in our Women’ Shelter or just bringing a few new pairs of women’s underwear for those who live here six months of the year; you may help at the Saturday meal for HUG for those living on life’s edges; or you may make a generous contribution to the courageous work of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service helping those seeking a safe place to call home (with your generosity, we are well on our way to collecting $4000). When we do these things, today, God’s goodness is made manifest in this place and in our lives.

When Jesus saw the man born blind, the incessant deliberations ceased and the gracious healing began. The old rugged cross loomed near and it was time to act.

I pray that our ministry here at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity may always be filled with a similar sense of urgency. Now is the time to use some spit and mud!

 

“Shaking Our Fists at God”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Vespers Sermon
“Shaking Our Fists at God”
March 19,2017 (Third Sunday in Lent)
Exodus 17: 1-7

We just heard Israel complaining…yet again.

If you read the book of Exodus, you will be struck by Israel’s constant whining. They had not even crossed the Red Sea before they started bellyaching.  When they looked back and saw the Egyptian army in pursuit, they grumbled to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?…It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:11-12).

It is a miracle, not so much that the sea divided, but that God didn’t say, “I have had it with you.  Get yourselves across this stinking sea on your own!”

It was only three days since they had witnessed the enemy army drowning in the sea; rather than celebrating their liberation from brutal slavery, God’s children complained to Moses: “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:24).

And yet again, another miracle: instead of zapping God’s beloved people, God told Moses to place some wood in the water and a sweet drink would be created for these desperately thirsty people.

As people are wont to do, only weeks later, yet again, they forgot God’s miraculous love for them.  They got hungry again and began grumbling again to Moses: “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3).

And again, a miracle.  This time manna from heaven.

And then, what we just heard: the people were thirsty…again.  And, yes, they complained again. “Give us water to drink!  Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

And, yes, you guessed it, another miracle: God told Moses to use his staff and water would come from the rock…and it did!

Are you seeing a pattern, by the way?

One commentator has suggested that the greatest miracle among all the staggering miracles, greater than the sea separating, greater than manna falling from heaven, greater than water bursting from the rock, was God’s patience.

And, of course, it is not just the whiny Israelites in the desert so long ago.  We are no different!  Why does God put up with our griping, our everlasting questions, and our pathetic lack of faith?

It would be easy to conclude from all the quarreling and contentiousness that God would prefer us to shut our mouths and never ask a single question.  Some faith, by the way, is like that: it is of the sheepish variety that teaches that if we ask a single question of God, we are terrible sinners destined for the scorching fires of hell.  This is the polite kind of faithfulness, the kind that never raises its voice to God, never asks an awkward question of the Almighty, never clenches its fist toward heaven.

Interestingly and surprisingly to many, Jesus was not nearly as sheepish as some of us when it came to questioning God.  As we near Holy Week, we will hear Jesus ask a few hard-hitting questions.  For those of courteous faith, Jesus’ frank questions will startle us, perhaps scandalize us; they may even force some of us to explain away what Jesus was really asking.

The night before Jesus died, when he went to Gethsemane to pray, he was not a good, little boy in the classic sense, the kind who never raises his voice in the face of doubt and torment.  Much to our surprise, Jesus uttered these astonishing words: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”  Jesus asked the hard question, of course, he did, and yet—and note this well—he also then waited for God to answer.  Jesus’ conversation was not a monologue with God; Jesus expected God to answer him in the midst of his agony.

In those final hours as Jesus hung on the cross, he shocks us as he screamed the most famous faith question of all, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

And yet, Jesus’ questions were never the final word.  He always, always, then waited for his heavenly Father to answer what he did not know.

We will all arrive at those moments when we complain, when we ask the hard questions similar to those of the Israelites, when we will feel completely disillusioned.  We will be in our own wilderness, on our own cross, as mad as a rattlesnake in the desert sun.  And yet, another miracle will occur: God will listen to us and God will answer, not necessarily as we wish but in a fashion that reveals that only God knows what is best for us.

The miracle, as we have been saying repeatedly during these days of Lent, is that “the LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

“The Old, Old Story of Jesus and His Love”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
March 19, 2107 (3rd Sunday in Lent)
“The Old, Old Story of Jesus and His Love”
John 4: 5-42
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

If that just felt like an incredibly long reading, you are right.  It is the longest conversation Jesus had with anyone in all the gospels.

There is something we dare not lose sight of in this lengthy conversation.  Jesus took the time to speak with another person—not in mindless chatter, but in-depth dialog, the kind where you get to know one another deeply.  I hope you paid attention and didn’t get bored.

I am often struck by conversations I have with people and am unnerved by their lack of curiosity.  When meeting people for the first time—often clergy colleagues—I will ask where they grew up, where they went to college and seminary, what congregations they have served, what their families are like. They are more than happy to talk about themselves, at length, with considerable embellishment!  I am often saddened, however, when it is my turn to tell my story; their minds seem to wander and they don’t appear to care an iota about hearing my story; they don’t ask me a single question.  And remember, these are pastors paid to listen carefully to others!

I confess: I am not always the best listener either.  On Thursday, I had a conversation with our illustrious congregational president Craig Wilson.  He showed considerable interest in me: are you working too much, pastor; I hear your dog Cisco is having some struggles. I talked Craig’s ear off.  He had just gotten often a long night’s work, writing news; he was driving home when he received word that his wife, Mary Lou, had been in an automobile accident; he was rushing to see how she was doing.  Craig even told me about his dogs and chuckled about the prayer near my office desk—the last gift my mother gave me before she died: “God, help me be the person my dog thinks I am.” When our conversation was over, I kept wondering: had I shown nearly the interest in Craig that he had shown in me?  Had I listened as much as I had spoken?

In today’s long gospel reading, a model conversation is heard.  Jesus was thirsty and the woman at the well sensed that.  We don’t just hear Jesus talking AT the Samaritan woman or just trying to get his thirst needs met and we don’t just hear the woman talking AT Jesus.  Instead, an amazing dialog occurred: Jesus listened attentively to the woman and, somehow in the process, figured out that she had had five husbands—I assume Jesus did this, not by some magical gift of ESP, but rather by listening carefully.  The woman was so astounded by Jesus’ listening skills that she told others, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

What is most remarkable is that Jesus even had the conversation.  Not only did he talk to the woman, at the well, at noon—something a good Jewish man would never be caught doing—but he talked with a woman who, at least according to his tradition, was a religious outsider (a Samaritan) and had innumerable husbands.  Every religious sensibility exhorted Jesus to steer clear; instead he risked breaking down rigid boundaries and moving beyond ancient resentments so that a community of love might be created. Jesus accomplished astonishing ministry simply by talking with—and not AT—another person, telling his story and listening to hers.

If our community here at Holy Trinity is to bring life to others, we need to listen to one another as Jesus did.  We need to tell our own stories and be equally fascinated by other’s.

And yet, there is something more to high-quality conversation.  It is essential we weave God’s story into one another’s stories because, finally, that story will make all the difference. That story provides hope for those haunted by abuse, embraces a parent who fears their precious little one will never return home again, and gives courage to those who wonder if our nation will continue to be one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.  God’s story must be told.

Little children know this.  As we tuck them into bed, they almost always say, “Can you tell me one more story?  Please, please, please.”  That final story is the one that makes all the difference; it is the one that fends off ghosts, petrifies goblins, and trounces monsters all the while providing hope well into the deep, dark night.

Lent is an opportunity to hear and tell that story with renewed vigor.  I pray you are reading our fabulous Lenten devotional booklet, “O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days”—you wrote it after all!  As you read the astonishing daily devotions, listen carefully to your brothers and sisters telling their stories and listen how they weave their stories into the story of Jesus’ final days.

I sense that many of us are yearning for a better story these days, a story of hope, a story of truth, a story of lasting love. You lamented to me in recent days: “I am fasting from Facebook during Lent; we canceled cable television; I stopped my subscription to The New Yorker.  So much conversation and yet I need something different.”  You are sensing you need a better story to go with your story and the world’s; you are desperately in need of God’s story.

The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to American in the 1930s and taught just up the street at Union Theological Seminary at 120th and Broadway.  Bonhoeffer preferred attending the African American churches in Harlem, particularly Abyssinian Baptist Church where the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. preached at the time and where Calvin Butts now preaches.  He went there because, as he wrote: “In New York, they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.”

It’s easy to ramble on about ourselves.  It’s also easy to run on and on, complaining, “Ain’t it terrible,” about the current political situation.  But, deep down, we need more.  We are thirsty for one more story, the one that will quench our horrendous thirst.  We need the old, old story of Jesus and his love for us and for our groaning world.

“Burst Egos and the Glory of God”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s
Vesper’s Sermon
2nd Sunday in Lent (March 12, 2017)
Romans 4: 1-5; 13-17
“Burst Egos and the Glory of God”

William Muehl preached to my classmates and me on our first day at Yale Divinity School. Our future preaching professor looked out over the proud throng of students in Marquand Chapel and noted how delighted our parents must be that we would soon be pastors serving Christ’s beloved church. He also noted how thrilled our grandmas and grandpas were with our apparent holiness and profound piety. He then paused for what seemed an eternity; he looked over the entire incoming class of seminarians. Then he said, “Admit why you are really here: you could not get into Yale Law School or Yale Medical School”…we had not even yet come to discover that the divinity school was unfortunately known as and euphemistically called the “back door to Yale”—and thus our holy and academic egos were burst very quickly!

…And here I am tonight. I have made it thus far by faith! I join so many of my heirs, a cast of ridiculous characters who ended up doing the Lord’s work in spite of their repugnant flaws and because, frankly, nothing else seemed to work out.

This morning at Mass, we heard about Abram. He and his wife, Sarai, were an unlikely couple for God to call on to be the parents of a great nation. They were well into their nineties; their AARP cards were terribly crinkled and their life savings were almost exhausted. They were supposed to be parents of a great nation and they had no children yet to construct the foundations of such a nation. It was clear: if they were going to be the progenitors of a great nation, God better get busy.

I think you know: a geriatric miracle occurred; Abram and Sarai became the proud parents of a bouncing baby boy named Isaac.

We heard of another unlikely character at Mass this morning—we just read a bit from one of his letters to the people of Rome. His name was Saul…at least for a while. He was a wretched fellow, the unlikeliest of all to do the Lord’s work. This guy made his reputation killing Christians and was proud of it. He kept up his deadly ways until he was struck by lightning. With that, his name suddenly changed from Saul to Paul and he ended up being one of the greatest evangelists the church has ever known—even better than Jim Swaggert!

All these folks were unlikely applicants to do the Lord’s work and perhaps that’s just the way God likes it. It was Paul himself who said that Abraham became great, not because of his goodness but because of the goodness of God and because God loved him.

There are other unlikely characters too—you! I would talk about myself as unlikely but I have already confessed my difficulties getting into law school and medical school. What about you? Do you measure up to do the Lord’s work? My experience is that except for a few self-righteous prigs, most of you feel underwhelmed by your faithfulness and not particularly perky about your holiness prospects. You say things like, “I am a terrible Christian” or “You are the good person who does the Lord’s work, not me” or “I wish I could believe this stuff, but I just can’t.”

We get it into our minds that it is up to us alone to do the Lord’s work and, for whatever reason, many of us don’t feel up to the task. According to Saint Paul, when we do good for the kingdom of God, it is due to the Lord and not to us. The fancy theological term for this, by the way, is the grace of God.

God loves us deeply, each of us. While we may be none too impressed by our contributions to the world, somehow, by the grace of God, each of us in our own way—maybe in a very small way but in our way nonetheless—will do something very good that will tilt this world ever so slightly for the better…all because of the grace of God.

I have told you of a few of my desert island books. One is Graham Greene’s stunning “The Power and the Glory.” The main character is a wretched whiskey priest always searching to wet his whistle. He is a sloshed bum who sickens himself worst of all. He knows his shortcomings better than anyone. But when the powers that be in Mexico forbid the church from preaching God’s word to suffering souls, baptizing little-bitty babies, and giving people the gifts of Christ’s body and blood who hunger for heavenly food, of all the unlikely people, the old drunken priest is the one who tramps over the hot, arid Mexican mountains, from one desperate town to the next, risking his neck so poor peasants might hear and taste once again the wondrous presence of God even while he is always on the lookout for another cheap bottle of booze. By the grace of God and surpassing anything the pathetic priest realizes, he bears mercy for a tormented land.

This cast of unlikely characters should show you how God weaves heavenly wonder in our midst. You may say, “I am not too religious” or even “Pastor, if only you knew the truth about me.” And yet, it is at that very moment, exactly when we think we are miserable foul-ups and sinners that God’s glory shines through us. There is hope, my dear friends; God works through people just like you and me.

“Better or Best”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Better or Best”
Matthew 4: 1-11
Lenten Vespers at
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

Just one little question for you this evening: do you believe in the devil?
Call him what you wish, Satan, Lucifer, the Evil One—you pick the name.  Do you believe in the devil, the one who, according to the gospel accounts, tempted Jesus in the wilderness?

Let me quit playing sophomoric games with you.  I believe in the devil.

Now, not for a minute do I think this wily one has a tail, dresses up in a red suit, and totes a pitchfork.  The devil—at least the one I believe in—is far craftier than that.  The devil I believe in is a devious virtuoso.

I fear we do not give the devil his due.  He weaves his diabolical magic with a technique almost impossible to detect or, at least, to call evil.  The devil loves to get us believing we are doing so well when, in fact, we are up to our necks in evil.  Martin Luther claimed the Satan does his most malicious work when we think all is going swimmingly.

Soon after Jesus had been baptized in the Jordan by John and God had announced from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” just when Jesus had the world at his fingertips, the devil pounced.

Again, give the devil his due: he had done his homework. The only way he could get close to Jesus was by making a few proposals too good to resist.  The devil wove his wicked web by offering Jesus an opportunity to solve the world’s worst problems; all Jesus had to do was make a few paltry concessions.

“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  The devil played to Jesus’ loving side, the side yearning to feed every hungry soul in the world. If you could feed just one starving baby with a distended belly—or even a few—just by doing a little dance with the devil, wouldn’t you mull over the proposal?

Satan tempted Jesus to be spectacular as well.  The whole world could belong to Jesus if only he bowed ever so slightly Satan’s way…just slightly mind you, not so terribly far.

The devil is ingeniously shrewd: he tempts us with choosing between better or best, not between worst or best.  The devil tempts us to make a little compromise here, a tiny concession there, nothing particularly offensive and, in sacrificing the best, this world might just be a better place in the process.

The earliest Christians were wary of the colossal dangers of opting for better rather than best.  The emperor asked them to offer just a pinch of incense on his altar and he promised all would well—just a smidgeon; no one would ever know the difference or care that you had bowed just a little Caesar’s way instead of God’s and you would soon forget the ugly compromise you made anyway.

I promise you, the devil is coming our way if he hasn’t already.  The devil knows how fond we are of power and prestige and yes, of doing the right thing even if for the wrong reasons.  All this, of course, to care for the world—nothing unsavory or vulgar.  Churches often measure success by the friends we have in high places: we know the price exacted, the silence we must observe, and yet rubbing elbows with such lofty folks is so intoxicating that the price of not speaking the truth seems well worth it.

Better or best…You know the choices; you face them every day.  A little compromise here, a slight bow to evil there—nothing much and all for the good of the cause—kind of like jumping off the temple top in order to save the world.  Not too much to ask, wouldn’t you agree?

Being a child of God is almost always costly unless, of course, we opt to just get along.  We can make believe there are two sides to every issue, never making a decision that is costly and never siding with the downtrodden if it might upset a solitary soul.

Jesus’ wilderness journey was a painful one that led straight up Calvary’s hill to the cross.  He could have saved himself but that would have been opting for better rather than best; he could have received the adulation of adoring throngs by playing footsies with a few brawny politicians and a handful of smooth operating, compromising religious officials.  Jesus would have none of it. He refused to turn his back on the outcasts—you and me, declining to make concessions to the devil in the process.

We are now on a forty-day journey called Lent. We will face countless opportunities to choose better or best.  We can say that jobs matter all the while letting poisonous gases suffocate God’s good earth; we can say that tough cuts must be made to the poorest so that the ravenous appetites of the deadly military are fed in the name, of course, of peace.

The real Lenten journey occurs, not just for forty days, but throughout our lifetime.  It is an arduous sojourn. We stumble and fall, scrape our knees and bloody our noses.  God understands how hard it is and God welcomes us home every time we have been satisfied with better rather than best.  And at that very moment when God embraces us, we know what is best, God’s son dying for us even when we have tried and failed.

“Finding Solace in Fierce Places”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Finding Solace in Fierce Places”
Matthew 4: 1-11
March 5, 2017 (First Sunday in Lent)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan

When we moved to San Diego twelve years ago, we were thrilled to be living only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean.  Surprisingly, we never dipped our toes into that great expanse of water, not once.  We fell in love with something else instead, the desert, a place we had no idea existed in California until we arrived. We went hiking and camping in the Anza-Borrego Desert and Death Valley every chance we got.

The desert, at least for us, is hauntingly beautiful: sand as far as you can see, like the ocean in a way; the only disruption, a prickly cactus here and there.  The sun beats down unmercifully, the wind howls, the sand bites; it is utterly quiet, maddeningly so at times.

Jesus went to such a fierce landscape, the place where the devil chose to weave his diabolical web.  Give the devil his due: he waited until Jesus was hungry and thirsty, until there wasn’t a peep of noise.  He came knocking when Jesus was susceptible to a tempting deal or two.

The desert’s ferociousness can cause you to hear strange voices and see bizarre things, especially when you are thirsty and disoriented.  That’s when the devil strikes.

“Jesus,” he said, “if you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  Jesus was hungry, the world was hungry; this was a good deal for everyone involved.

“Jesus, if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”  Jesus was feeling helpless so why not opt for this offer of power and glory?

And then, in perhaps the craftiest of deals, the devil said, “All these I will give you”—pointing to the lands that stretched as far as Jesus could see—“if you will fall down and worship me.”  At a moment of extreme vulnerability, Jesus was offered the world.  Imagine what he could have done with such authority at his fingertips: he could have fed every hungry heart and ruled the world with his own vision of love.

There was a catch to these enticing, devilish proposals as there almost always are when supremacy and grandeur are offered.  Jesus would have had to sacrifice a few of his ideals—just a few—for an apparent greater glory of ruling the world.  Was the trade-off worth it?  What do you think?

As we gather for our Sacred Conversations downstairs in the community room immediately following Mass today, we will engage in an exercise which will reveal how brutally difficult it is to listen amidst solitude and loneliness.  Most of us prefer the incessant chatter of radios, Smartphones, and television talking heads to soothe the evening just a tad.  The ruthless New York City Desert exacts a brutal toll at three in the morning, in our bedroom, with its own cruel silence: our minds run wild and we are terrified.  We ponder our looming deaths, our shortcomings, our failures.  Absolute silence…except the winds howling…the hawks circling overhead…and an occasional screaming police siren.  Being all alone in the harsh urban desert, even for ten or fifteen minutes, is grueling.

Our Quote for the Week in today’s bulletin says: “Most people’s wilderness is inside them, not outside…Our wilderness is an inner isolation. It’s an absence of contact. It’s a sense of being alone—boringly alone, or saddeningly alone, or terrifyingly alone” (H.A. Williams).

It was in such isolation that Jesus was tempted; it is in such isolation that we are tempted as well.

Here’s an invaluable Lenten learning, a gift for you: the way Jesus withstood every devilish temptation was by reaching for Holy Scripture on his desert nightstand.  Of course, the Bible was not exactly there for Jesus simply to pull down from the nightstand but it didn’t matter: Jesus had committed God’s word to memory for such a time as this, words like “One does not live by bread alone…Do not put the Lord your God to the test…Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”—all these memories of God’s Word bolstered Jesus to find solace in the fierce landscape of life.

These forty days of Lent are our desert in the city.  We have stripped our liturgy to barebones: the “A-word” (you thought I was going to say it, didn’t you?) has been buried until Easter; the crosses are draped in purple reminding us how our sin blocks out the splendor of God’s love; Jesus’ words from Calvary, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me,” echo deep in our souls.  Ashes, purpled cross, loneliness, tomb, mortality…We can barely stand this fierce landscape and yet, if we face the silence with God’s word at hand, all will finally be well with our souls.

Ivan Illich writes, “The emptiness of the desert makes it possible to learn the almost impossible: the joyful acceptance of our uselessness.”   Yes, in our uselessness we reach for God.  At our most desperate and vulnerable, we discover our salvation.

When all our tricks have been tried and failed—our intellect, talents, and winsomeness, all that and more—only then do we feel compelled finally to reach out for God’s hand.

The quirky New York poet, Walt Whitman, said it so well in his “Leaves of Grass”:

After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, the ethnologist,
Finally comes the poet worthy of that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.

That, my dear friends, is why you have come here this morning.  You have tried everything and you still live in this desert called “Manhattan;” you are still hungry and thirsty.  Here the true son of God comes singing his songs.  These songs are your hope; they are your friend when you are all alone and all else fails.  Reach across your bed stand for the poet worthy of that name, Jesus Christ.  Tasting his bread of life and sipping his cup of salvation come down from heaven, may you be lifted up on angels’ wings.

“Resting in the Lap of God”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Resting in the Lap of God”
Matthew 17: 1-9
Bach Vespers
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
February 26, 2017 (Transfiguration of Our Lord)

O Lord, how good to be here, here on this mountaintop with a gorgeous view of Central Park, here where we will soon pray: “O Lord, support us all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, in your mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
We have longed for this place of holy rest and blessed peace.  However we say it—“I love Bach,” I love incense,” “I love Vespers,” even “I like the refreshments”—we come here where the busy world is hushed and where we can pray and sing and listen to glorious music.  We feel as did Saint Augustine so long ago when he said, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

Three little words in tonight’s reading, “six days later,” tell us volumes.

Do you know what occurred six days before Peter, James and John climbed the mountain with Jesus and gloriously witnessed the astonishing sight of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus together?  Six days earlier Peter had the audacity to suggest to Jesus that he need not suffer and die.  Peter was doing what dear friends do, protecting Jesus the best way he knew how from dying a horrific death.  We often say a similar thing to those we love, “You will not die,” though we know they will soon breathe their last. We cannot bear their suffering and death and we really do not know what to say so we say what we think is best no matter how flimsy our words may be.

Jesus would have none of Peter’s dismissive words even though Peter meant well.  In what may be the most stinging rebuke in all of Scripture, Jesus said to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.”

If your best friend called you Satan, how long would it take you to get over the scolding—twenty-four hours, six days…a lifetime?  Harsh words hurt!

From what we can tell, Jesus began the healing process with Peter six days later as they hiked up the mountain.

I don’t know exactly what brings you here tonight, what stuff won’t go away—the sting of a relationship gone sour, the heartache of declining health, the discouragement of a country in turmoil.  My guess is, whether it is sickness or health, joy or sadness, your heart is restless and you have come yearning to rest in the lap of God.

As I mentioned, the three words, “six days later,” are important.  When you hear “six days later,” do you perchance think of creation?   God toiled for six days, creating the heavens and the earth, giraffes and bumble bees, beautiful baby girls and ornery little boys, gleaming oceans and towering mountains.  I don’t know why, but whenever I think of the seventh day—the one that came after God had worked so hard on the previous six—I imagine God plopping down in an overstuffed La-Z-Boy, kicking off huge, dirty work boots, falling asleep and snoring away.

Jesus, Peter, James and John trudged up the mountain on the sixth day.  The seventh day was to be their delight.  Oh, how they needed to kick off their work boots and to rest awhile.

God knows we need our rest day as well. God also knows just how suspicious our culture is of rest.  And so, protecting us from the beguiling temptation of incessant work, God gives us the gift, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” God realizes all the silly stuff that tempts us: “I don’t have a free day until May 22…I work 169 hours a week”—all this trying to prove our worth, all the while forgetting that God loves us just the way we are.

I worry about people who don’t rest and I sense people worry about me when I don’t rest.  We are frightened when we watch people lose their centers of gravity; they have been seduced to believe they are the only ones who can make this great big world go round.  We quickly forget that God makes the planets spin and not us!

This evening, on the Transfiguration of Our Lord, we rest just as did Peter, James, and John, and, yes, even as did Jesus.  During these holy moments, we do absolutely nothing to prove our worth; it is, as the theologian Marva Dawn suggests, “a royal waste of time.”

By the way, it is a good idea, if you haven’t done so already, to turn off your stupid phones.  I was taught in seminary by the good Benedictine monk, Aidan Kavanagh, to take off my watch before worship begins—that was, by the way, before we had these stupid phones and instead communicated home to our parents with carrier pigeons.  Father Kavanagh told us just to rest in God’s presence and not to worry about time; in fact, he said, these holy moments are beyond space and time.

For now, I beg you, remember the Sabbath, delight in the music, and rest as the shadows lengthen and the evening comes.  Remember: when you leave here tonight, there will be no bragging rights as to who worked the hardest because you will have done nothing.  You will have wasted an hour and twenty minutes in God’s lap as Jesus was transfigured before your very eyes…and that is more than enough.

“Up the Hill and Down the Hill”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Up the Hill and Down the Hill”
(Matthew 17: 1-9)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
February 26, 2017 (Transfiguration of Our Lord)

Whenever I hear today’s gospel reading, for some reason, I think:

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.

In the Transfiguration of our Lord, Peter, James, John, and Jesus went up the hill.  They went up for a bit of rest from the weary work of ministry.  They went up because Peter, James, and John were dreadfully upset and disillusioned: Jesus had just announced to them that he would soon suffer and die a horrendous death.  They went up the hill to get away, to be alone for a time, to ponder what was about to happen.

And up on the hill, an amazing thing occurred: Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.  Even more stunning, the three disciples suddenly saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah.

They needed this vision in the worst way.  Only a week earlier, Jesus had told them the shocking news that he was about to die, not peacefully but violently.  The powers, threatened by Jesus’ invitation to care for the poor and love their enemies, were none too happy: they did not take kindly to having their ways challenged, especially when it affected the bottom line of profits, authority, and reputation.

Oh, how the disciples and Jesus needed to get away from it all, to go up the hill.

The disciple Peter had tried to do what good friends do when hearing the fatal diagnoses of family and friends: he told Jesus he didn’t need to die.  Jesus, in a fit of fiery anger, said to Peter in return, “Get behind me, Satan.”

Ministry is often messy if we care at all about doing what is right…

Actually, some ministry is not messy at all, the boring kind that refuses to see the world as God sees it.  Some ministry is content to make certain everyone gets along even if that means putting up with all manner of injustices that trample upon others.

Authentic ministry, on the other hand, is forever taking risks in Jesus’ name.  It gets bruised and battered, not, by the way, over silly matters that some churches seem so adept at squabbling about.   Authentic ministry gets bruised and battered because it dares to stand up for the bruised and battered. That kind of ministry, by the way, dares to come down the hill.

If we are to engage in authentic and vibrant ministry here on the Upper West Side of New York City, we need to honor the rhythms of going up the hill and down the hill.

Today, we are up the hill.  We stand here before Jesus, beholding the dazzling light of his presence.  We hear Jesus speaking to us.  Right here, in this place, we are strengthened to go back down the hill, as we must, to do ministry in the world.

I have seen very fine people who have done stunning ministry crash and burn because they have neglected the necessary rhythm of going up and down the hill.  These lay members and pastors and their families have toiled for the disenfranchised and yet, all too often, bearing too heavy a load, have come to say, “I can’t take it anymore.”  Quite a few of these compassionate folks have frankly been skeptical about giving much attention to excellent worship.  They have said, “We need to do the real stuff of ministry, not sit in our sanctuaries and fool with the fringes.”  I know these people—very well and very intimately: they have worked long into the night, every night; revolvers have literally been stuck to their heads; bullets have crashed through their kitchen windows as they and their children celebrated New Year’s Eve.  Hard, agonizing work.  Some have stood up when recalcitrant congregational members have refused to open their doors to the community as they tried their best to integrate the membership or hoped to call a pastor from Central America who could effectively evangelize to a changing neighborhood; they have faced fiery opposition when trying to speak a welcoming word to the LGBTQ community.  It has gotten bloody and contentious and, sometimes, sadly, these committed folks have thrown up their hands and said, “I have had it with the church.  Enough!”

The most enduring ministries with which I am familiar couple the finest worship with the finest outreach to the vulnerable.  There is no apology for ministry up the hill or down the hill.  These ministries dare to get their hands dirty often times in the toughest neighborhoods of our country.  These people know the necessity of being in the valley with the suffering and on the mountaintop with Jesus and Moses and Elijah.

Isn’t that why we are here today?  We are here not to get a cheap fix of fluffy religion or to escape the world and all that haunts it.  We are here to behold beauty, to hear Christ speak to us, to taste his body and blood, to sing with the saints and angels…And then, of course, we will go back down the hill again, as we must, where the cross looms.  We will carry the vision we have beheld here and the alleluias we have sung here and we will be strengthened all the day long.  We will go to hospitals where people suffer horribly; we will volunteer in homeless shelters where unfortunate souls huddle with all their nasty revulsions; we will confront the maddening issues of our day head-on wherever the vulnerable are trampled upon. It will be bloody; in fact, if there is no blood, it is highly unlikely we will be doing the work Jesus calls us to do.

And so, up and down the hill we go, up to be refreshed and down to serve, up to gaze on beauty and down to confront ugliness, up to taste salvation and down to feed those who have not had a good meal in ages.

Up and down, up and down we go, always singing “alleluia” and always with Jesus at our side.

“When Enemies Seem Just About Everywhere We Look”

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.