Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Lifting up the Lowly, Rising Above 36”
Luke 1: 26-55
August 13, 2017 (Mary, Mother of Our Lord)
“Today we lift up Mary, Mother of Our Lord…Okay, let’s deal with the rhinoceros in this Lutheran room immediately. When you saw Mary and her son, Jesus, and read “Mary, Mother of Our Lord” on the bulletin cover, you might have thought, “Lutherans don’t believe in Mary!” Let me say straight away: one of our Lutheran confessional documents (“The Formula of Concord”) states: “We believe, teach, and confess, that Mary did not conceive and bear a mere and ordinary human being, but the true Son of God; for that reason she is rightly called and in truth is the Mother of God.”
Did you hear that: the Mother of God! Theotokos!!!
We confess every week, “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary and became truly human.”
We dare not forget the critical role Mary played in Christ’s life and in salvation history: she is a model of faith for us all.
When the angel Gabriel came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you…You shall bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,” Mary was shocked: “How can this be, since I have no husband?” How right she was: she was a gangly teenager, from a backwater town, far too young to have a baby.
We have said something similar this morning, “How can racism and bigotry in this country ever end?”
We might even say it about our church, Holy Trinity: how can Christ appear here? Dagmar and I were at the Newport Jazz Festival last weekend. We had a stunning time. Our favorite was Maria Schneider and her orchestra; imagine my surprise this morning when our wonderful soloist, Anna Lenti, told me that her father taught Ms. Schneider at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester.
Upon our return, I immediately went to the church office to see how many of you attended worship last Sunday. 36! I hate to admit this publicly because, first of all, I don’t want to discourage you, and secondly, I put all my sermons on Facebook and our website. You can already hear the whispers: “What’s going on at Holy Trinity? 36 at worship?” You may be thinking along similar lines, “Apparently the new pastor is sinking the ship!” 36 causes me similar concerns so I protest: July attendance was the highest in at least the past five years…Who wants Holy Trinity to look like Podunk?
We can easily become depressed these days, in so many ways and in so many places. But with Mary as our pioneer, we are encouraged to rise above 36 and to believe that “with God nothing will be impossible.”
But it’s not easy. It wasn’t easy for Mary either. As soon as her little son was born, she and her husband Joseph, with diaper-clad Jesus in tow, were off and running to Egypt, hounded by a paranoid king threatened by just about any pipsqueak who came his way. It was pretty much like that until Mary ended up at the foot of the cross, weeping, as her dear son breathed his last. Poor, poor Mary.
Luckily, Mary, good Jewish girl she was, had powerful memories. She remembered the other blessed women down through the ages, barren women like Sarah, Rebekah, and even Mary’s older cousin Elizabeth. None of these women had reason to hope, none except that they had heard from someone, in a place like this, that with God nothing will be impossible. And, yes indeed, they all became mommies.
That’s why we hold up Mary today, not because she is our savior—she is not—but because she believed and announces to us that with God nothing will be impossible.
Those who follow Jesus are invited to be like Mary. We are the ones who go to intensive care units and pray for those in the valley of the shadow of death; we are the ones who pray for peace while North Korea and Venezuela and the United State rattle their sabers; we are the ones who stand up and say racism and white nationalism are horrible and we won’t sleep well until the madness stops. Yes, we are called by an angel to tell those we love and the world that with God nothing will be impossible.
Are we able to do that here at Holy Trinity?
In a few months, we will begin a marvelous journey, celebrating 150 years of proclaiming in this place that with God nothing will be impossible. I hope we will throw caution to the wind as Mary did when she told people she was going to be the Mother of God. I hope we risk just about everything trying to make our ministry as vibrant as possible well into the future. Unless we do that, we have no business being here and certainly no business celebrating this congregation’s rich tradition as we are summoned into a bright future.
Will people think us nuts as we have already begun contemplating renovation of this sanctuary so that this place remains a breathtaking oasis of God’s goodness for years to come? Will they think us mad to contemplate such an investment as so many churches are closing their doors for good? Shouldn’t we be careful, go slowly?
We will need to remember those barren women who courageously trusted that God would provide and plowed straight into the future. That’s what we are doing right now. Our world-famous choir will sing Bach’s greatest music, including his B-Minor Mass; they will soon come out with a glorious recording of the music of Samuel Capricornus. We have scheduled some of the finest preachers in the Lutheran church: our former Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, Barbara Lundblad-the amazing preacher who taught up the street at Union Seminary, the astonishing hymn writer Susan Briehl, the first openly gay bishop in the Lutheran Church and brilliant Luther scholar Guy Erwin, and our own beloved bishop Robert Rimbo. Are we crazy to celebrate God’s presence so extravagantly…Crazy only if we don’t follow Mary.
My seminary classmate, Barbara Brown Taylor, writes: “Mary’s trust [that with God nothing will be impossible] is really all she has. What she does not have is a sonogram, or a husband, or an affidavit from the Holy Spirit that says, ‘The child is really mine.’ All she has is her unreasonable willingness to believe that the God who has chosen her will be part of whatever happens next…”
That’s all we have, too, the trust that God chooses us to bear Christ in this place.
Pastor Wilbert Miller
“How Often Do You Use the Word ‘Like’”
Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
July 30, 2017 (Eighth Sunday after Pentecost)
Perhaps you have experienced the exasperation of trying to define a particular word or phrase to someone and coming up short.
There are the big words like antidisestablishmentarianism. My friends and I knew this word in sixth grade but, not in a million years, could we have told you what it means.
Then there are the tough ones like inchoate, circumlocution, and exigent; most of us have never used them in a sentence and we are clueless as to what they mean.
And then there are those churchy words like faith, grace, and mercy. My seminary preaching professor forbade us from using such go-to-words in sermons because, while they sound awfully holy coming from pulpits like this on Sunday morning, most people don’t have an inkling what they really mean.
Take for instance that pesky phrase the “kingdom of heaven.” Can you define that?
You can, of course, revert to your Webster’s. Kingdom: the spiritual reign or authority of God often depicted as being above the sky or a state of being eternally in the presence of God after death.
One thing is for certain, when I try to define the kingdom of heaven, I stumble and bumble: “The kingdom of heaven is like…you know… like…well…uh…like…you know.”
You have probably noticed a speech pattern of late where people rely heavily on the word “like.” “Like,” by the way, is replacing “you know” as a go to word.
Linguists say that we use “like” unconsciously as we try to gather our thoughts, not sure what it is we want to say. The problem, they claim, is that when overused, words like “like” and “you know” make us sound nervous and incapable of explaining what we mean.
If you are a bit embarrassed right now because you use “like” as much as a D- tenth-grader, you may be relieved to hear that Jesus used the word “like” five times in today’s gospel reading when trying to define the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, he said, like yeast in dough, like buried treasure, like a fine pearl, like a net cast into the sea.
Could it possibly be that Jesus was as challenged as we when trying to define the kingdom of heaven?
The Bible offers clues about what the kingdom of heaven is like. In heaven, we will sing “Holy, holy, holy” with the angels before the throne of God. The book of Revelation claims heaven will shine with the glory of God, and its brilliance will be like a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. Isaiah describes heaven as the lovely place where death is swallowed up for ever and the Lord God wipes away tears from all our faces. While these majestic visions are instructive, I have a hunch we still catch ourselves stuttering, “The kingdom of heaven is like…well…you know…. like.”
Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to ordinary things like nets, yeast and dough, and pearls. He even claimed the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, the smallest seed in the world, and yet it becomes the greatest of shrubs where birds make their nests. A shrub, perhaps a big bush—certainly not a soaring tree—this is the kingdom of heaven!
When I try to describe the kingdom of heaven, I increasingly turn to poets and novelists rather than theologians and biblical scholars—but, please, don’t tell a soul! Take for instance the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
Earth is crammed with heaven.
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
According to Browning, if we don’t see every common bush as an occasion to discover God, we will likely end up sitting around plucking blackberries.
Do you have poetic eyes? Will you discover the kingdom of heaven this afternoon as you walk through Central Park—in the majestic American Elms lining the walkway just across the way, in the staccato-mad cadences of the red-bellied woodpecker, and in the lazy boats as lover’s glide across the lake? Is God somewhere thereabouts?
Annie Dillard, the writer I spoke about last week and whom I adore, regularly discovers God in mustard seed kind of places and doughy kind of folks. “On Sunday mornings I quit the house and wander down the hill to the white frame church in the pines…The church women all bring flowers for the altar; they haul in arrangements as big as hedges, of wayside herbs in season, and flower from their gardens, huge branches of foliage and blossoms as tall as I am, in vases the size of tubs, and the altar still looks empty, irredeemably linoleum, and beige. We had a wretched singer once…a hulking blond girl with chopped hair and big shoulders, who wore tinted spectacles, a long lace dress, and sang, grinning, to faltering accompaniment, an entirely secular song about mountains. Nothing could have been more apparent than that God loved this girl; nothing could more surely convince me of God’s unending mercy than the continued existence on earth of the church.”
How about The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity: are you able to spot the kingdom of heaven in this mustard seed place? Are you able to glimpse heaven in the words of this broken-down preacher, in the rotgut wine purchased on the fly at the corner drugstore, and in the plastic disks passed off as Christ’s body? Can you catch sight of the kingdom in our pedestrian missteps and pathetic insecurities as we do our best to speak gentle words to our detractors instead of bombastic ones? Do you gaze at the kingdom as we try to arouse rich people to bow to the poor and to urge our leaders to pray as did Solomon when he asked of the Lord, “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil”? Maybe that’s a shrubby kind of kingdom dream but I believe it something like what Jesus had in mind when he described the kingdom of heaven.
Yes indeed, earth is crammed with heaven right here at 65th and Central Park West. This mustard seed kind of place called Holy Trinity and the doughy people we are rubbing shoulders with this very moment are like…you know…. like…uh…. like the kingdom of heaven.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“For God’s Sake, Let the Weeds Grow!”
Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
July 23, 2017 (7th Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park
This is an amazing day as we receive seven new members into our Holy Trinity family. Quite a few of you have said, “This is terrific. What a gift from God.” Yes indeed, our hopes are high!
Those joining are excited, too. You do not take this step lightly. You have thought about this for a while, looking around at churches, even exploring other denominations. You are praying, “Make this the perfect faith community.”
We all want our life together to be perfect. Jesus understands our longings. That’s why he tells the parable of the wheat and weeds.
In today’s parable, we are reminded—and glaringly—how oblivious Jesus is to rational horticultural practices. He tells us to let the weeds sprout up with the wheat and all will turn out fine. “Jesus, you have got to be kidding!” we protest. Nevertheless, Jesus urges calm and we agree to excuse his botanical naïveté; he is, after all, our Savior.
Like Jesus, I am no gardening enthusiast. There have been countless occasions when Dagmar has flown off to Germany with no choice but to tolerate my mismanagement of her prize-winning gardens. In advance of the gut-wrenching separation—from the gardens, Dagmar has taken me by hand, warily expounding on how to water and how to discern ripeness in vegetables and fruit; she inevitably provides a tutorial for dummies on the minute differences between weeds and blossoms. Invariably, upon her return, Dagmar weeps: “Wilk, those were artichokes you pulled out, not dandelions.” I always promise to do better the next time.
While many of us have no gardening experience or have purposely chosen to live in this concrete jungle to avoid the nauseating nuances of flowers and weeds, we all yearn for Eden. That’s why Jesus instructs us, “Leave the wheat and weeds alone or you might end up ruining the good stuff. I will take care of the rest.” Jesus knows we want things to be impeccable and, in the face of the least little flaw, we will drive ourselves and others nuts in seeking perfection.
This longing is nothing new. We are embarking on the 500th year of the Reformation when the reformers yearned for a purer church. Protestants and Roman Catholics remain tragically divided as we attempt to separate weeds from wheat. You may believe things are purer because of Martin Luther and his sidekicks, but don’t forget the wars waged over pure doctrine, the heads lopped off, and the families devastated when their beautiful Catholic daughters married vulgar Lutheran boys. And that was not the only time the church was torn asunder. 500 years prior to the Reformation, in 1054, another theological squabble led to the Eastern and Western Church divide. And that wasn’t even the first monumental fracas. Remember how the first Jewish Christians tussled with the Gentile Christians over the earth-shattering issue of whether believers should be circumcised? Oh, how we long for perfection and what ugly rubble we create in pursuit of it. Could it be that every 500 years or so, we, the people of God, forget what Jesus has told us about wheat and weeds, and try once again to purify the church with our own preferred gardening techniques? Perhaps you have noticed the church is at it again, this time, issues of human sexuality are causing all manner of discord and people are ripping out wheat and weeds in all kinds of devastating ways. Oh, if we only would listen to Jesus: let the wheat and weeds grow together, he said, particularly since you are clueless what is a weed and what is wheat.
Something within us believes we can achieve perfection and, doggonit, we will stir up all manner of havoc in the struggle. When our personal lives and families, church and nation, are flawed, instead of doing as Jesus commands and letting the wheat and weeds coexist, we rip everything asunder, inevitably losing precious artichokes in the process.
I have a hunch Holy Trinity attracts lots of folks in search of purity. Would you agree? How many of us are here because we love the liturgy being “just so,” reflecting the venerable church traditions through the ages? We want to bow right, make the sign of the cross at the precise times, sing theologically fitting hymns with only the finest music, and wear appropriate vestments even when it is 95 degrees and soupy…By the way, I like it that way, too, or I wouldn’t have accepted your call to become the pastor here and I certainly wouldn’t be wearing this toasty get-up this muggy morning.
And yet, we need to be careful. My favorite author Annie Dillard writes: “The higher Christian churches – where, if anywhere, I belong—come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.”
Perhaps our freedom comes when we ease up a bit, taking ourselves less seriously and letting the weeds and wheat coexist. Rather than becoming nervous wrecks if we commit a nauseating faux pas like making an improper left turn instead of right as we process to the altar, let us manage a little smile, trusting that God will spare us the raging fires of hell and mysteriously let us enter into heaven. You could call this grace.
In a few moments, when the bread is broken at the altar, I will say, “Holy things for holy people.” You know better than that, of course you do, and you will shout out the ancient response, “Only one is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God.”
Here’s what is astonishing: pure and spotless Jesus comes among us, repellant weeds that we are, looks straight into our eyes, and says, “Let the weeds remain.”
Perhaps Jesus, crummy gardener that he is, knows a thing or two about beautiful flowers. Maybe he knows beautiful flowers are nothing more than trained weeds…or at least forgiven ones.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Wildly Extravagant Ministry”
Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
July 16, 2017 (6th Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West
During the next few weeks, Jesus will tell us a few parables about the kingdom of heaven. His stories about wheat and weeds, a tiny mustard seed, buried treasure, a fine pearl, a fisherman sorting through good fish and bad ones, will invite us to see the Christian life much more exuberantly than most of us typically do.
Jesus might stun us this morning as he tells of the most peculiar seed-sower. The sower flings seeds every which way—onto rock-hard paths, lousy soil, and weed patches; thank goodness, some seeds end up in good soil. No hoeing, no fertilizing, no soil analysis at the local community college’s agricultural branch—seeds are simply hurled hither and yon in what appears a wildly careless fashion.
I adore this extravagant seed-sowing technique, I suppose, in large part, because of how I grew up. My parents taught me a far different style: seeds are to be planted precisely, in straight lines, at correct depths, and in carefully prepared soil. I detest gardening to this day because of the mind-numbingly cautiousness of it all!
I learned a similar risk-adverse style when it comes to money: save it and never spend it foolishly.
I remember taking a vacation to Sea Isle City at the Jersey shore. My mom and dad kept a financial logbook the entire way. Every penny spent was recorded: gas purchases, Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls, camping site costs, even the cokes, pizza, and salt water taffy bought on the boardwalk. At one point—at least this is how I remember it—dad warned us, “We are running very low on cash. We must be careful or we will run out of money.” I have a hunch we weren’t quite as low as he made us out to be—dad was far too cautious for that; instead, he was teaching us to be frugal. I do not remember that vacation as a particularly extravagant or fun one; what I do remember was, at times, being scared to death that we might run out of money!
This may sound unusually harsh toward my father but dad was a very good man. He grew up in the depression and thriftiness was undoubtedly drilled into him by his parents. His chief goal in life—and he passed it on to me—was to leave his children and grandchildren enough money so that we could go to any college that accepted us and that as the years went by we would never have to worry—no extravagances, not an ounce, just care for his family’s future.
Some good church people are like my father. Don’t call them miserly; such a view demeans their well-intentioned sacrifices for the well-being of future generations. These folks invariably are some of the most generous givers to the church’s ministry.
Churches can easily begin to mimic the anxieties of such good and prudent people. They save money for leaky roofs and, lo and behold, when leaks appear, they become nervous nellies: how can we possibly spend our hard-saved money to repair our roof, we will go broke?
I know a few churches like that; they have literally died with millions of dollars in the bank. They had oodles of money available to proclaim the good news of Jesus to the community but they were too afraid to do that. How distasteful to be extravagant, they always thought. Oh, for sure, they ended up with invincible roofs…they also died rich.
Communities and people who have ears to hear Jesus’ parable of the outlandish sower are inevitably far more vigorous and certainly more exciting. Jesus wanted us to know that God will create a harvest beyond our imagining, especially if we only dare scatter seeds extravagantly in God’s name. Today is the day to announce that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near—not tomorrow!
How extravagant are you? Now, please, don’t answer too quickly. In a congregation I once served, an active member repeatedly voiced harsh criticisms to me because, in his mind, we weren’t spending enough on his favorite pet projects. He criticized our church as “penny wise and pound foolish” as we tried to get years of deficit spending under control—which we did. There was only one catch: while he criticized us for being cheapskates, he didn’t give one cent to the church’s ministry, not one! Don’t feel sorry for him: he drove a fancy sports car! It is a good idea that whenever we get the urge to demand our church to be more extravagant, we first examine how generous we are ourselves.
Anyway, I can guarantee you that people will be far more attracted to extravagant ministry than miserly ministry! People can see extravagant joy a mile away and they can smell miserly fear from even further.
We are called to follow the one who gave away everything, including his life, in love for his neighbors.
To be completely honest, a number of churches that have touched me most deeply over the years are long gone. One church had a building as grand as Holy Trinity’s. Ministry flourished day and night. Bills were paid by what I call the “shoebox method,” placing them in a shoebox and prioritizing what had to be remitted immediately before gas, electricity, or water was turned off. Thousands of people were touched with Christ’s love in this breathtaking place but it is now dead and gone; a Buddhist monastery is in its place. But I, along with many others, continue to bear the excitement of having been part of that place, a ministry that exuberantly celebrated the life Jesus promised in the face of constant threats of death. That’s how we learned to do ministry and, God willing, that’s how we will do it here.
You know of such extravagance because you have been there. You have dropped clods of dirt mixed with your warm tears on your loved one’s casket; you have taken Jesus’ extravagant promise to heart: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of what falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
One day, these words will be spoken over all our graves. We will be planted in the ground with the assurance that we will sprout up and live forever.
May our hearts be filled with joy as we hear Jesus’ wild story of the extravagant giver and may we fling seeds of hope and joy into all the world.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Welcome, All You Ornery Boys and Girls”
Romans 7: 15-25a; Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost-July 9, 2017
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
Central Park West in New York City
I once heard a wise pastor be a bit critical of parents who bring their children to Sunday School just so they can learn how to be good little girls and boys. He wasn’t being grumpy, he simply felt there had to be more. Children must also learn they are not good little girls and boys.
What about us? Have we simply come here this morning to learn how to be good? I hope we have come for more, to tell God the truth about ourselves or, as the church would have it, to confess our sins.
Saint Paul’s genius is his understanding of how hard it is for us to be good, impossible really. You must admit he is on to something when he writes, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Even when we do something good, Paul suspects we have ulterior motives: we do good for the wrong reasons—so others will take note of how thoughtful and generous we are, how pious and courageous we are. Or how often are we holy, not particularly to help those who are suffering, but to pave our way into heaven.
Don’t Paul’s words ring true for you— “I do not do the good I want”?
One of my favorite Confirmation Class sessions is teaching the Ten Commandments. I love asking kids, “Have you ever sinned?” They always look nervously into their laps. No hands go up until the class misfit raises his—the one the others always point to when trouble occurs. I then ask, “Is Jimbo the only sinner here?” And then, one-by-one, hands are sheepishly raised. I always then tell the class, “If you say you are not a sinner, you are a liar and that makes you a sinner, too.”
Have you ever sinned?
Perhaps the problem is, deep down, we believe we can be perfect. Isn’t that why so many steer clear of the church when troubles arise in our lives—we don’t feel like we measure up to the holy folks! Countless people have said to me behind my closed doors, “Pastor, you are never going to believe this about me.” What I always want to say is, “Just try me. The only thing I refuse to believe is that you are perfect.” It is not because I know them so well but because I know myself so well. Whatever made us think we can be perfect?
We begin almost every worship service with this blunt confession, “We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.” The church reminds us, even before we have sung the first hymn, that we are here because we are sinners not because we are good boys and girls.
Don’t fret, though, there is more. Even before we sang, “Dearest Jesus, at Your Word,” I declared “the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”—all your sins not just the teensy ones! And, if that is not enough, in a few moments, God will serve us a lunch, not because we deserve it, but because God loves us so much.
The finest Christian communities refuse to prance around in peacock perfection, masquerading as a bunch of goody two shoes who deem themselves holier, more liturgically correct, more socially committed than everyone else. They know better. All they really can admit to is being a motley concoction of broken souls in desperate need of Jesus and they embrace anybody who dares tell a similar truth about themselves.
I love broken churches—broken people, too—those that reflect Alcoholics Anonymous. These folks need help, they need each other, they need God! Such churches walk in the graceful tradition of Saint Paul and Martin Luther.
One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, writes: “When they first start talking at a meeting, they introduce themselves by saying, ‘I am John. I am an alcoholic,’ ‘I am Mary. I am an alcoholic,’ to which the rest of the group answers each time in unison, ‘Hi, John,’ ‘Hi, Mary.’”
Have you ever been to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or a similar twelve step group?
“They tell where they went wrong and how day by day they are trying to go right. They tell where they find the strength and understanding and hope to keep trying. Sometimes one of them will take special responsibility for another—to be available at any hour of day or night if the need arises. There’s not much more to it than that, and it seems to be enough. Healing happens. Miracles are made.”
Buechner goes on: “You can’t help thinking that something like this is what the church is meant to be and maybe once was before it got to be big business. Sinners Anonymous. ‘I can will what is right but I cannot do it,’ is the way Saint Paul put it, speaking for all of us. ‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.’”
“‘I am me. I am a sinner.’
“Hi, every Sadie and Sal. Hi, every Tom, Dick, and Harry. It is the forgiveness of sins, of course. It is what the church is all about.”
God’s possibility begins whenever we are at our wit’s end and have no more tricks in our own paltry bags. We need Jesus. And in that need, Jesus says to us: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
We will soon be served the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. Amazing really when, only moments ago, we admitted that “we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.” But, that does not seem to matter to Jesus and that, of course, is the gospel: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
So glad you have come here today, you ornery little boys and girls.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Have You Thanked God for This Failure Already?”
Jeremiah 28: 5-9
July 2, 2017 (4th Sunday after Pentecost)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park
Please look at today’s sermon title: “Have You Thanked God for This Failure Already?”…Well, have you?
It is almost impossible to imagine thanking God for our failures. For our successes, of course, but for our failures? We hate failure and unmercifully attack anyone who suggests we have failed in any way.
That is why the people of Judah, God’s chosen ones, detested the prophet Jeremiah: he called attention to their failures. Jeremiah’s mission, from God, was to come to an arrogant and over-confident nation and to tell them, “Throw up your hands in defeat, surrender; you are going down!”
There were prophets at the time far more positive than Jeremiah. They loved kowtowing to church members and citizens alike. They liked nothing more than appearing in the New York Times and on Fox News hand-in-hand with the powerbrokers. They ridiculed Jeremiah as a pessimistic fool: things weren’t nearly as bad as he made them out to be.
Hananiah was such a false prophet; he told people what they wanted to hear and that Jeremiah was nuts to boot: Judah certainly was not going to be conquered by Nebuchadnezzar and it was the height of foolishness even to suggest surrendering to an enemy nation. False prophets never call people to task, never speak of their failures, never demand they change.
Jeremiah would have none of Hananiah’s deceitful shenanigans no matter how positive his words sounded to others. As hard as it was for Jeremiah to preach doom and gloom—precisely because he loved the people of Judah so much, nevertheless, he told them that their days were numbered. They had not trusted God, they had taken advantage of the poor for their own selfish gain, and they were making alliances with neighboring idolatrous nations. According to Jeremiah, they were going down.
None of us likes someone who slings such pessimistic bile our way. It hurts. We get defensive and ugly when someone points to our failures.
Have you ever thought that that those who point to our failures are doing us a favor?
Arvo Pärt is one of the most popular church music composers of our age. At his commencement address at Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, he tells the story of being at Pühtista Monastery in Estonia, sitting in the yard, in the shadow of the bushes, with his notebook in hand. A little girl came up to him and asked, “What are you doing? What are you writing?” He told her that he was trying to write music but it was not turning out well. And then the ten-year old girl spoke these unexpected words, “Have you thanked God for this failure already?”
Arvo Pärt says that the human soul is the most sensitive of instruments and if not tuned to God’s purpose, our music will be worthless. In order to make God’s music, we must accept our failures and purify our souls.
Pärt counsels us not to grieve when we write little and poorly; rather we should grieve when we pray little and poorly and live in the wrong way. Arvo Pärt urges us to confess our failures and to reach for God. When we do this, all will suddenly become beautiful because God is finally making an appearance in our music—whatever music we make—and we are no longer playing our own selfish little ditties.
We all sit in our monastery yards with notebooks in hand, incapable of producing a single lovely note. We all fail. So often, when this occurs, we make believe all is well; we call that the “elephant in the room.” We cannot bear the thought of failure. We play “make believe” with our spouses, quarreling and refusing to admit our own mistakes; we play make believe in our church, acting as if we are the only ones who know what is best for our life together; we play make believe in our nation as the right castigates the left, Democrats vilify Republicans, and all of us flounder amid the dangerous myth that only our opinions are the flawless ones. Whenever we make believe we are perfect, we quit praying and humility proves beyond our grasp; all that anyone ends up seeing is our wretched arrogance and our ludicrous foolishness.
Have you thanked God for this failure already?
Remarkably, Judah’s hope came when it failed. As God’s people were carted off to Babylonian exile, they finally had the opportunity to turn to God.
This is worth remembering as we approach the 4th of July and this congregation nears our 150th anniversary. No church, no nation, no person is ever perfect. Never! We are all failures bound together by our imperfect humanity. When I say failures, what I mean to suggest is that our beauty comes only when we let God’s beauty be reflected through our imperfections.
You have seen this beauty in someone who admits to their terrible struggles and countless failures. I once heard a person whom I adore and actually thought was pretty perfect, publicly admit to standing in court for the sentencing of his dear son. He talked about how he turned to his therapist repeatedly to get through the day. In his publicly revealed struggles, this person became more beautiful to me than ever. I suddenly saw hope in my own struggles; rather than repelling me by his failures, he drew me closer. God was now in the forefront and it was a stunning sight to behold.
Nations fail, too, but to admit that feels like treason. We prefer to say, “My nation right or wrong” and “Our nation, the greatest on all the earth.” The finest nations and best leaders never believe themselves beyond reproach; they are always seeking how to achieve freedom more perfectly, always debating how to create justice for all, always pondering how to protect God’s good earth from our selfish desires.
William Sloane Coffin, Jr. once said: “There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country.” That is, of course, who Jeremiah was and that is who we can be.
Maybe it is not such a bad thing for individuals, churches, and nations to carry on a lover’s quarrel as the prophet Jeremiah did with Judah. And maybe it is not such a bad thing to fail. When we do so, we make room for God and that is a beautiful thing.
Have you thanked God for this failure already?
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Martin Luther or Philip Melanchthon…How Do You Vote”
The Commemoration of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession (June 25, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City
I’m sure you could stand up here right now and wax eloquently about Martin Luther: how he boisterously banged 95 theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany; how he defiantly declared, “Here I stand; I can do no other;” how he raged against Pope Leo X saying outrageous things like, “After the devil himself, there is no worse folk than the pope and his followers.”
But what would you say about Philip Melanchthon if called upon? You could report that he said of Martin Luther, “I would rather die than be separated from this man;” that Melanchthon was a lay person—like most of you—and not a pastor; and though not a pastor, he taught Greek, New Testament, and theology at the same university as Luther in Wittenberg.
While dear friends, Luther and Melanchthon’s personalities were worlds apart. Luther came off as arrogant and cocksure while Melanchthon was a peaceful sort, frequently seeking harmony with people who disagreed with him on key religious matters.
Luther once wrote: “I had to fight with rabble and devils, for which reason my books are very warlike. I am the rough pioneer who must break the road; but Master Philip comes along softly and gently, sows and waters heartily, since God has richly endowed him with gifts.”
It’s odd, really, that we know so little about Melanchthon for he wrote the most significant Lutheran document of faith. How many of you, when reading this morning’s bulletin cover, “The Commemoration of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession,” wondered what’s up with this?
Here is a little history lesson about the Augsburg Confession, not because I am so bright but because I was ordained on this day forty years ago; I served a church named “Augustana” (Latin for Augsburg) where our son, Caspar, was baptized and our other son, Sebastian, was an extraordinary thurifer who could create more clouds of incense anywhere south of heaven; I was installed at another church on this day; and yes, today, you celebrate with me on my 40th anniversary of ordination. Is it any wonder I finally was able to learn what the Augsburg Confession is? And yes, all along the way, on all these Augustana occasions, my dear wife, Dagmar, has supported me and guided me.
The Holy Roman Emperor wanted to know why the Lutheran reformers were making such a fuss in the 1500s and so, like any school teacher would do with unruly school children, Charles V asked the reformers to write a paper on what they believed and to present it in Augsburg, Germany, on June 25, 1530 (487 years ago). The Augsburg Confession is the result and is one of seven confessional documents included in our Lutheran confessional book, “The Book of Concord.”
Understandably, some of you are murmuring right about now, “Pastor, preach about Jesus and skip the Lutheran lecture.” You may even be boiling: “Pastor, today is NYC Pride. Preach something that touches our lives, something that is relevant!” I understand, honestly I do, and yet I believe the Augsburg Confession is a wondrous invitation to live vibrantly in our church and world, especially in these contentious days.
It is vitally important to know that Philip Melanchthon, rather than lambasting the opponents of the reformation, sought to illuminate the similarities that Roman Catholics and the emerging Lutheran movement shared. The Augsburg Confession exudes Melanchthon’s humble spirit, often referred to as irenic in character.
I like that word “irenic” though I must confess when I first heard it, I had to pull out my Webster’s to see what it means. Irenic means “aiming for peace.”
I dare say some of us who call ourselves Lutherans don’t fancy ourselves as particularly irenic. We delight in Luther’s bluster as he angrily shakes his fists at his detractors. Even though Luther championed Christ’s love for all people, we must be honest: his firm stands helped fracture the church in ways that have menaced us for 500 years. You know that: you have attended a funeral only to hear, “Only Catholics can come forward to receive the body and blood of Christ.” You married a Roman Catholic and horrified poor grandma for ages unto ages.
Admittedly, there are occasions when we must stand up for the truth and yet, sadly, there are inevitably necessary losses that ensue. If individuals, congregations, and entire denominations end up divided because of our beliefs, we must admit we have fallen pathetically short in achieving the vision for which Christ prayed on the night he died that his followers might be one as he was one with his heavenly Father.
It seems to me, in these days when families and congregations, religions and nations, are so frightfully divided, we do well to look at Philip Melanchthon. He shows us how to seek a better way with our adversaries through respect and humility instead of bluster and swagger. As long as Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox, let alone Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, quarrel and kill one another, we have much to confess and precious little to celebrate. As long as we, the body of Christ, endlessly squabble with one another, Jesus continues to be ripped asunder on the cross.
The prophet Isaiah said: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Yes, God’s deepest longing is for peace to prevail among all people.
I have spent forty years now as a minister of the Church in the Holy Office of Word and Sacraments. As I reflect over those years, I must confess there have been occasions when I should have been far more like Philip Melanchthon; all too often, humility and understanding of others have eluded me and that deeply saddens me. On other occasions, when I should have been far more daring and adventurous, like Luther, I have been a cowardly lion.
I have discovered over the years that the Christian life—at least for me—is an endless struggle between cowardice and courage, bombast and humility. At least I never seem to get it quite right. Whenever we err on the side of cowardice and bombast, let us fall to our knees and pray for the godly gifts of courage and humility and for the wisdom to know which is the necessary gift at a particular time.
On this day of New York City Pride, I am mindful how our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has fought, sometimes ferociously, for and against our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender brothers and sisters. While we have made significant strides in recent years to open our Lutheran doors wider, we still need to pray that we might open them even wider. This is where the seemingly cobwebby Augsburg Confession is so important. Our central Lutheran confession claims that the church is present wherever the gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel. When we preach and eat and baptize together, we all taste the gifts of heaven, whether gay or straight, black or white, Republican or Democrat, young and old, rich and poor, yes, even Lutheran or Roman Catholic.
So, on this day, how do you cast your vote…for Martin Luther the bombastic one or Philip Melanchthon the humble one? I can assure you these two giants of the faith would urge you to vote only for God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Pastor Wilbert Miller
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park
Has anything in your life ever been urgent, really urgent?
Farmers understand urgency: the harvest must occur when the wheat is ripe. There is no tomorrow. The time is now.
I know a bit about the urgency of the harvest. I worked on a farm in high school and college. One summer day, Herb Minch, my boss, informed me that we would build a forty-five-foot silo made of hundreds and hundreds of cumbersome concrete slabs. I had no idea how long building a silo would take but imagined a week, maybe even two or three—after all, there were others chores to be done along the way: cows to be milked, stalls to be mucked, hay to be baled. Imagine my alarm when I discovered we would unload all the cumbersome slabs from a flatbed trailer one day and carry them twenty-five yards to the building site the next where the silo would be built that very day. When I rode my motorcycle home each of those two nights, on dark winding West Virginia country roads, I was certain I was about to die. My stomach was bloody and scraped. I felt like a prizefighter knocked silly in the third round at Madison Square Garden. I quickly grasped the urgency of the harvest.
Jesus understood the urgency, as well, even though he was a carpenter’s kid. You will remember, he was the one who said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
I once read an article in “National Geographic” magazine about wheat harvests in the plains of the United States. The article included eerie photos of combines, lights ablaze, harvesting wheat at four in the morning. Wheat farmers run their combines, night and day, when the wheat is ripe. No delays, no excuses. The time is now.
How many of us would stay up all night to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of heaven? Can’t this wait until tomorrow, maybe a month, perhaps even a year? We might harbor serious concerns about a person who exhibits an acute sense of urgency, someone who seems incapable of waiting: are they suffering from some psychological malady that compels them to act so brashly? Take it easy, we say. What’s the rush? Shouldn’t we discuss matters first, hold a congregational meeting, make certain every opinion is adequately considered before acting?
According to Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is so near that sick folks need cured today! the dead need raised now! lepers cleansed immediately! demons cast out instantly! That’s the rush!
These are urgent days and we must travel light. All Jesus offers us for the journey is a little bread and wine, a bit of water, and a Bible; that’s it—no excess baggage. Jesus urged us, “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff.” Travel light for the Gospel’s sake. Get on with it!
Oh, and by the way, Jesus never promised such a calling would be easy: “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…they will hand you over to councils and flog you…and you will be dragged before the governors and kings because of me…” Not a single word about success by the way—just urgency.
While it may sound overwhelming, I know you sense the urgency because I have been watching you for a year now. In just the past few weeks, quite a few of you have picked up immediately and rushed off to visit your ailing mothers and your niece. You packed light; no time to waste. You didn’t count the cost of the plane or train ticket; you didn’t even think to ask your employer whether your time away would be considered vacation time or sick leave. You just took off immediately for love’s sake to places like Virginia and Florida.
You sense the urgency, of course you do. I have watched you visit your dear friend week after week who lives in a continuing care facility. She is mired in the dense fog of her autumn years. She can’t quite remember who you are. You often feel ill-at-ease, not sure what to say, and yet, knowing the harvest is so near, you start singing the first thing that comes to mind:
“Jesus loves me! This I know, for the Bible tells me so;
little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me, yes, Jesus loves me,
yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.”
Oh, I have not only been watching you, I have also been reading your Facebook posts. Just this morning, you wrote this: “There was once a woman who had a little three-year-old boy. And they were loved and a complete family of two, even unto themselves, but then she met a man and fell in love with him. And one day she invited this man to meet her son.
“As my dad tells it, he was sitting on the sofa in my mom’s little apartment and I was staring at him for a long time, as I marched circles around a coffee table in front of that sofa and quietly checked him out from head to toe. After several minutes of this I finally stopped, pointed at him, and declared, “YOU are my daddy.”
“At this point most men would’ve laughed nervously and quietly made a mental note to not date this woman (and her precocious kid) ever again. But my dad just smiled and looked at me and said “ok.” And we have never EVER looked back on the verbal contract we entered into on that day. Ever.
“I love to hear and watch my father tell this story because he his face lights up and he always smiles, and I know that he really, really loves me. And I know that he knows I really, really love him”…That, dear friends, is the urgency of the harvest. Telling someone that we love them, not tomorrow, but today.
A good friend of mine received a card from a venerable pastor on the day he was ordained a minister of the church in the holy office of Word and Sacraments. The card simply read, “Dear George, it will be a glorious struggle.” This wise servant of the Lord knew what he was talking about: he served deep in North Philadelphia’s inner-city. Whenever a row house was a burning inferno or a teenager was gunned down, desperate families came knocking at Father Black’s door first, no matter the hour. They knew that he understood: the harvest is now, not tomorrow.
You know that, too. There is nothing quite so invigorating as being called by Jesus to join the glorious struggle for the life of our groaning world as you are enveloped in the wonder of the kingdom of heaven fast approaching. When Jesus calls you and you follow immediately, that is pure gospel joy.
The Day of Pentecost
Numbers 11:24-30; Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23
4 June 2017
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
The City of New York
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s a good thing today’s Gospel empowers us to forgive one another. I confess to you that I chose to use the alternative reading – the fascinating story of Eldad and Medad from Numbers 11 – for the First Lesson and the account of the Day of Pentecost from Acts 2 for the Second Reading – and did not tell Donald or Bonnie. Oh, well. It was so good to hear Joe reading that story about the Spirit being let loose on the children of Israel and to hear Lois reading the story of people from every nation under heaven and eloquently managing those names. So I confess that mess-up.
And while I’m confessing, it’s safe to tell you this now, some forty-plus years after ordination, many of them serving on a synod staff and even as a bishop in one place or another…it’s safe to tell you, I think:
Early on I had a rather anti-authoritarian take on church governance. I was not at all sure,
when the ELCA was constituting, that we should have bishops at all. (It was a long time ago. Now I see some value in it. Lois and I have been at very nice events because of the office I hold.) I had this tendency toward being like Eldad and Medad in the First Reading, thinking that you don’t have to go through anything like a process to be ordained. But, the book of Numbers says, “the spirit rested on them” – and that, apparently, was enough. Joshua tried to intervene and follow constitutional processes for candidacy, but Moses said he wanted all of God’s people to be prophets with the spirit resting on them. Well, that would be something.
It’s a great story, but not one to be thrown in a bishop’s face if you are coming for an initial interview. We have rules, after all. Constitutional provisions, after all. And the pastor of this congregation, Wilbert Miller, is even on the Candidacy Committee appointed to help apply those rules to renegade Eldads and Medads….and Bobs, I suspect, if I were to go through the process.
Such rules are good. They have protected innocent people from renegade leaders. They have spared the church all kinds of embarrassment, not to mention lawsuits. But, sometimes, the Holy Spirit just does renegade things still.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. (Acts 2:1-2)
There they were, about a hundred and twenty of them, worrying about what they were going to do without Jesus, when they heard a holy hurricane headed their way. Before any of them could defend themselves, that mighty wind had blown through the entire house,
putting flames above their heads, and they were filled up with it – every one of them was filled with the mighty breath of God. Then something clamped down on them and the air came out of them in languages they did not even know they knew. Like they were theologians with Ph. Ds. in linguistics. They set up such a racket that they drew a crowd.
It was bigger than the G-7 Summit and the United Nations put together! People from all over the world who were in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Pentecost came leaning in the windows and pushing through the doors, surprised to hear someone speaking their own language so far from home. Parthians stuck their heads through the door expecting to see other Parthians, and Libyans looked around for other Libyans, but what they saw instead were a bunch of Galileans from northern Israel dressed in overalls and Converse sneakers – fishing folk and farmers – all going on and on about God’s mighty acts. Prophesying like first-century Eldads and Medads.
Before the day was over, the church had grown from one hundred twenty to more than three thousand people. Shy people had become bold, scared people had become gutsy, and lost people had found a sure sense of direction. Disciples who had not believed themselves capable of anything without Jesus discovered abilities within themselves they never knew they had. When they opened their mouths to speak, they sounded like Jesus. When they laid their hands upon the sick, it was as if Jesus himself had touched them.
Soon they were doing things they had never seen anyone but Jesus do, and there was no explanation for it, except that they had dared to breathe on the day of Pentecost. They had sucked in God’s own breath and they had been transformed by it. The Holy Spirit had entered into them the same way it had entered into Mary, the Mother of our Lord, and for the same reason: it was time for God to be born again – not in one body this time but in a body of believers who would receive the breath of life from their Lord and pass it on, using their own bodies to distribute the gift.
The Book of Acts is the story of their adventures, which is why I like to think of it as the gospel of the Holy Spirit. We’ve heard a lot from Acts during the Sundays of Easter, and now we go back to the start of it today. In the first four books of the New Testament, the Gospels,
we learn the good news of what God did through Jesus Christ. In the Book of Acts, we learn the good news of what God did through the Holy Spirit, by performing resuscitation on a room full of well-intentioned people like us, who became a force that changed the history of the world.
The question for me today, and therefore for you, the question worth working at a bit,
is whether we still believe in a God who acts like that. Do we still believe in a God who blows through closed doors and sets our heads on fire? Do we still believe in a God with power to transform us, both as individuals and as a people? Or have we come to an unspoken agreement that our God is old and tired by now, riding around in a celestial golf-cart, someone to whom we may address our prayer requests but not anyone we really expect to change our lives?
The Holy Spirit is hard to define. Most of us can at least begin to talk about God the Father,
creator of heaven and earth, who makes the sun shine and the rain fall and is concerned about global warming. We do all right, for the most part, with the Son of God, Jesus, who, asleep on the hay, was human like us: our savior, teacher, helper, friend.
But how do you describe God the Holy Spirit? I’ll give you a minute to think about it.
There is some very fine teaching available, written by very smart people. But I hope you do not believe it. Do not be satisfied with it. I hope none of you rests until you have felt the Holy Spirit blow through your own life, rearranging things, opening things up and maybe even setting you on fire.
There is nothing you can do to make it happen, as far as I know, except to pray “Come, Holy Spirit” every chance you get. If you don’t want anything to change in your life, then for heaven’s sake don’t pray that prayer, but if you are the type of person who likes to feel the power of God, then you are probably a good candidate for that Holy Spirit prayer. But just a warning: You might become an Eldad or a Medad.
But asking for the Holy Spirit is only half the equation. The other half is recognizing it when it comes. I find there are a lot of people who say they have never encountered God as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit, but when they start talking about their lives, when they start giving testimony like many did at our synod assembly, it seems pretty clear to me they have. A lot of these folks I’ve met just didn’t have a name for it, did not know what to call the experience of God living in them. So they wrote it off.
But you may have had such experiences of God; let me name a couple of ways the Holy Spirit moves today.
One famous way is to give people a sense of new beginning. You take a deep breath for the first time in months and your chest opens up and you get a second wind. You can call that anything you want. I call it the Holy Spirit acting.
Another way the Spirit works is to give people a way back into relationship. Maybe this kind of thing has happened to you here, as you found this community of faith a welcoming place for you. Maybe because this community is inclusive, musical, liturgical, welcoming, a place of beauty with people of beauty. It’s why I’m here as often as I can be. Your heart has opened and a reunion with the church has started. You can call that anything you want, but it’s God the Holy Spirit.
Once you get the hang of it, the evidence is easier and easier to spot. Whenever two plus two does not equal four but five – whenever you find yourself speaking with an eloquence you know you do not have, or offering forgiveness you did not mean to offer – whenever you find yourself taking risks you thought you did not have the courage to take, or you reach out to someone you intended to walk away from – you can be pretty sure that you are learning about the gospel of the Holy Spirit. And more than that, you are taking part in it,
breathing in and breathing out, taking God into you and giving God back to the world again with some of yourself attached.
Do we still believe in a God who acts like that? Do you? More importantly, do we still experience a God who acts like that? Do we still have room for Eldad and Medad in the church? I do not know what your answer is, but I hope you will discover one, maybe starting right now. Join with me and your pastor and Eldad and Medad and the disciples and all who have answered that call of God.
Breathe in. Breathe out. And see what happens next.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo
Metropolitan New York Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Discovering Heaven-Up and Down, Up and Down”
(John 17: 1-11; Acts 1: 6-14)
May 28, 2017 (Seventh Sunday of Easter)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
Central Park West-New York City
Do you ever catch yourself dreaming of heaven? What will it be like? Who will be there? Where exactly is heaven?
Ever since we were kids, we have asked: “Mommy, how far is heaven up in the sky? Daddy, does heaven really have cotton candy clouds and streets lined with gold? Grandma, will Boomer be waiting for me, with his tail wagging, when I get to heaven?”
As we grow older, our speculation intensifies, though masked in more sophisticated jargon: Who will get into heaven? Is heaven a state of mind or an actual place? Given that we no longer hold the antiquated three-tier vision—heaven way up there, earth right here, and hell way down there—where exactly is heaven?
I give thanks for musicians, poets, and artists who help us explore these questions with greater imagination. As our hymn sang last Sunday, the creative souls dazzle us with heavenly “wonder, love, and praise.”
Our choir, week after week, dazzles us with such heavenly wonder, love, and praise. Since I will be away next Sunday on our choir’s final day before taking a well-deserved summer break, I would like to express my deepest appreciation to our cantor Donald Meineke and our choir for your breathtaking music. You point us toward heaven as we join the melody of angels, saints, and martyrs singing “Holy, holy, holy.”
During the offering today, our choir will sing In Paradisum, breathtaking music from Gabriel Faure’s Requiem. Listen to the words:
May the angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs receive you at your arrival and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem.
May choirs of angels receive you
and with Lazarus, once (a) poor (man),
may you have eternal rest.
I have used these words at countless funerals. They magnify our heavenly vision, not only as we gaze upon martyrs and angels, but also as we gaze at Lazarus, once a homeless beggar. I did far too many funerals for my homeless brothers and sisters while serving in my previous congregation. I used this text about Lazarus every time. The words of the funeral Mass invite us to think of heaven differently than we typically do. Who imagines skanky Lazarus with matted hair and feet wrapped in plastic bags joining Saint Peter and the angel Gabriel as they welcome us into the Pearly Gates? Those who are homeless might be surprised to find a kindred spirit in such an honorable heavenly welcoming committee. What a vision, huh?
I have a hunch that most of us look upward when we think of heaven. After all, the Bible does say that “Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” If that’s how it happened, why ever look down?
And yet, we need to listen a bit further, to the angel who asked the disciples: “Why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
This is where Lazarus, “once a poor man,” enters the picture. With an angel’s invitation, we cast our heavenly eyes, not only up, but also down. Is it possible to catch a glimpse of heaven right here on earth, in this place?
A number of you have been volunteering at Holy Trinity Women’s Shelter in the community room. I thank you for your devotion. You have happily helped twelve women call Holy Trinity “home” for six months out of the year. As you have lent a loving hand, you have been blessed to see a few of Lazarus’ sisters. This vision did not occur by gazing up into heaven, not exactly here where the Tiffany windows dance and the altar mosaics mesmerize; you have discovered the risen savior in our basement—as far down, down, down in this place as you can go; definitely not up, up, and away. Let us never forget Jesus’ words, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” This is artistic imagination at its finest, learning to spot heaven in earth’s surprising people, in the broken, hapless, and forlorn.
We dare not forget a few of the final words Jesus spoke to his disciples the evening before he died: “And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” This Jesus Christ, who has gone up to heaven, can also be discovered down here in the shattered and forgotten.
Quite a few years ago, when we lived in Washington, D.C., I baptized our next-door neighbor, Anthony Stokes. “Little Ant,” as we fondly called him, was a rambunctious sort and an acolyte at our church. One night, thirteen-year-old Anthony was shot to death by a fourteen-year old right around the corner from where we all lived. I told Anthony’s grandmother that we would not let her dear grandson’s senseless murder be in vain. We would rage against our nation’s intoxicating madness for guns, madness, by the way, that continues seemingly unchecked nearly twenty-five years later. I told her that we would call for life instead of death in our beloved inner-city neighborhood. And so, when Anthony’s funeral concluded, we processed out of the church, with incense, cross, torches, and a throng of people including our city councilman and Anthony’s football team; we solemnly marched down Monroe Street with the hearse bearing “Little Ant’s” body. I concluded the funeral liturgy on his row house steps. Right before I prayed the words of the commendation (“Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, Anthony”), I said to hundreds and hundreds of people, “We need to do our very best to make our city streets as holy as our sanctuaries.” I could just as easily have said, “We need to see heaven down here on earth as well as way up in heaven.”
For those of us given to speculating about heaven, let us not forget that God offers us the precious opportunity to glimpse heaven right here, this side of the kingdom come. While Christ is risen and ascended, he is also here today: “Take and eat, this is my body given for you.” Yes indeed, though we say goodbye, we also say hello.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!