Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“O God, Turn Me into a Unicorn”
Romans 8: 26-30
At the Inauguration of Fifty Years of Bach Vespers
at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
October 22, 2017 (20th Sunday after Pentecost)
Are there occasions when you find it almost impossible to pray? Do you sometimes question the validity of your prayers? Or have you simply given up on praying altogether?
The poet Christian Wiman writes of looking up at night and seeing his little child Eliza standing in the doorway.
“‘Daddy,’ she said, ‘I can’t sleep. Every time I close my eyes, I’m seeing terrible things.’
“I suggested she pray to God,” writes Wiman. “This was either a moment of tremendous grace or brazen hypocrisy (not that the two can’t coincide) since I am not a great pray-er myself…Nevertheless, I suggested that my little girl get down on her knees and bow her head and ask God to give her good thoughts—about the old family house in Tennessee that we’d gone to just a couple of weeks earlier, for example, and the huge green yard with its warlock willows and mystery thickets, the river with its Pleistocene snapping turtles and water-bearded cattle, the buckets of just-picked blueberries and the fried Krispy Kremes and the fireflies smearing their strange radiance through the humid Tennessee twilight. I told her to hold that image in her head and ask God to preserve it for her.
“‘Oh, I don’t think so, Daddy.’ She looked me right in the eyes.
“‘What do you mean, Eliza? Why not?’
“‘Because in Tennessee I asked God to turn me into a unicorn and’—she spread her arms wide in a disconcertingly adult and ironic shrug—‘look how that’s worked out.’”
Oh, the disappointments! You have likely besought God, at one time or another, to turn you into a unicorn of sorts and when you haven’t sprouted that singular, delightful horn, you have uttered in resignation, “I have no idea how to pray….in fact, I am not sure I believe in the efficacy of prayer at all.”
When I was installed as Holy Trinity’s pastor last November, I promised before you here at Vespers that I would “pray for God’s people.” I hate to admit that I have found it challenging to keep that promise. It is not that I don’t want to pray; I desperately do. I long for my prayers to be as inevitable as walking our dog Cisco in the morning, checking how many “likes” I have on Facebook, and reading the Yankee’s box score. But, sadly, my prayers do not often work out like that.
I so want to pray well as I imagine do many of you. I am always in search of the perfect prayer book, you know the one with beautifully gilded pages, the lovely delicate ribbons, and the first letter of each chapter gorgeously drawn—this book will certainly be the magical elixir that rouses my drowsy prayer life….You know how that goes!
I have experimented with prayer styles over the years, too, often resorting to the simple Jesus Prayer of the Eastern Orthodox Church, repeating the simple phrase, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” over and over again. They say if you repeat this often enough—maybe 10,000 times in a day—your prayer will become part of your heart. (This prayer, by the way, was made famous in JD Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey,” picking up on the Russian spiritual classic, “The Way of the Pilgrim”—do read that delightful book.) Perhaps you experiment with prayer styles—Zen, Yoga, Centering Prayer, morning walks in Central Park—all in hopes of becoming a unicorn, healthier, happier, more tranquil and certainly more loving. And yet how often do you throw up your hands like little Eliza and cry out, “Look how that has turned out”?
The fourth century desert father Saint Anthony of Egypt, once said, “A true prayer is one that you do not understand.”
When our prayers feel so feeble, nonexistent even, maybe that is when sufficient room has been made for God to draw closer than we ever imagined and actually to pray for us. St. Paul’s says of our sometimes stumbling and bumbling prayer life, put to music in Bach’s motet we will soon hear: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
Perhaps one of those profound prayers too deep for words occurs this evening.
Tonight, we inaugurate the fiftieth year of Bach Vespers at Holy Trinity. For all those years, people like you have, at least, come for the dazzling music of Johan Sebastian Bach, often seeking tranquility in the midst of turbulent times (Vespers started in 1967 during the height of the Viet Nam War). Could it be that this gorgeous music is our most profound prayer in a way we can barely fathom—how do so many of you say it, “I just come for the music.” Could it be in the tapping of our toes, humming along with the choir, closing our weary eyes at some gorgeous turn of phrase, could it be that the Spirit is interceding for us with sighs too deep for words?
Thank you for being here tonight as we begin our 50th year celebration Bach Vespers. May God bless you with the gift of music as you offer whatever your prayer may be and, if it be God’s will, may you be turned into a unicorn.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“What to Render unto Caesar”
October 22, 2017 (20th Sunday after Pentecost)
Matthew 22: 15-22
The Pharisees and Herodians joining together to seek advice from Jesus on the tricky matter of, shall we say, church and state is as weird as the National Rifle Association and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals uniting to ask Jesus whether it is lawful to kill muskrats. The Pharisees and Herodians were not kissing cousins. When they sweet-talked Jesus, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance to the truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality,” we smell a rat.
Their question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not,” showed no interest in what Jesus believed. If Jesus said it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, in the Pharisees’ eyes, he would break the commandment, “You shall have no other gods.” If Jesus answered that it was unlawful to pay taxes, he would appall the Herodians who were especially fond of the empire. The Pharisees and the Herodians shared one common goal: Jesus’s blood.
You know how Jesus answered their question. The quote floats around in your biblical brainpan, especially from the King James Version, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
There must be an uncomplicated answer as to what is due the emperor and what is due God. The IRS, after all, tells us every year what is due the emperor. Even our church, in a few weeks, will ask us to consider making a pledge, perhaps a tithe (10% of our income), to support the Lord’s work here at Holy Trinity? Straightforward, huh…or is it?
When you hear Jesus’ answer, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s,” it sounds an awfully lot like something the great Yankee Yogi Berra might say: “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical” or “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
We are not so good when it comes to pondering vexing questions. We want answers, now!
You have heard someone, I’m sure, when asked a particularly vexing question, say, without a moment’s pause, “There are three simple points to consider.” I always wonder: how do they come up with three points so quickly; why not two points or four? I tend to be suspicious of people who speak authoritatively and immediately on thorny issues.
And there are some thorny issues floating around these days. Take for instance, how the United States should respond to North Korea which threatens to rain down havoc on God’s planet? I suppose one answer might be, “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” or perhaps “Do nothing” is another. From my limited vantage point, no answer seems as simple as three points: ready, aim, fire. I always pray that our president and congress, you and I too, will struggle mightily with such tough questions, deliberating and agonizing together, disagreeing with one another even, and certainly praying.
Don’t you smell a rat whenever another person, especially a leader, seems incapable of grappling with the perplexity and seriousness of monstrous questions, especially when the lives of young people and innocent civilians are at stake?
Abraham Lincoln, when asked whether God was on his side, did not launch into the old saw, “Of course, God is on our side, we are the United States of America.” Lincoln instead said: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” Lincoln was a humble leader who dared wonder whether he was on God’s side.
When the United States first invaded Iraq in 2003, the then Secretary of State Colin Powell was reminded that his boss, President George W. Bush, was in bed by ten and slept like a baby; General Powell reportedly replied, “I sleep like a baby, too—every two hours I wake up screaming.” That is not nationalistic flag-waving, macho-politics, or even three bombastic points to incite the political base. That is a leader who struggled through the night because he was dealing with matters of life and death.
Another president who understood the immensity of such questions was Dwight Eisenhower. Only days after the end of World War II, General Eisenhower, who had been in the thick of such a dreadful war, said, “Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in blood of his followers and sacrifices of his friends.”
Tough questions bring us to our knees and tenderize our hearts with humility. Tough questions bid us to struggle together for the best answers when none seem apparent. We must ask as did Lincoln whether we are on God’s side and perhaps it is not such a bad thing to wake up screaming like a baby as did Colin Powell whenever blood might be spilled because of our decisions. The best answers come when we have prayed long and hard, waiting on the Lord to give us a new song to sing, not one of our foolish concocting but of God’s wondrous creating.
When Jesus said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” his opponents “were amazed; and they left him and went away.” He didn’t offer a simple answer to a tough question. He offered an answer that bid faithful people to ponder, “Are we on God’s side?”
What if we struggle together with what is right and just, always seeking to make certain we are singing God’s song? If we do, I’ll bet people will be amazed.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“What Are You Wearing to the Wedding?”
(Matthew 24: 1-14)
October 15, 2017 (19th Sunday after Pentecost)
The moment the parents receive the news, “We are getting married,” they immediately make their own announcement, “Let the wedding planning begin.”
I know this from experience. The church is the first place parents call, well actually, shortly after they contact grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles, siblings, bridal shop, ballroom, limo service, photographer, cosmetician, nail salon, and honeymoon resort.
The out-of-breath parents, both on the phone, blurt out, “Pastor, Susie Marie is getting married to Bradley Joe. How does November 30 look on Holy Trinity’s calendar?” Not thinking carefully enough, I ask, “Don’t you think that’s rushing it a bit? November 30 is a month away and it falls on a Thursday.”
“Oh,” says the electrified mother, “silly me, not this year, Pastor, we’re talking 2019. We were afraid the date might get booked if we didn’t call immediately.”
To show the parents how much I care, I probe a bit, “How many people do you expect at this extravaganza?”
“We are thinking small, 50 or 60,” says the father, mindful that his retirement account may soon dip lower than it did during the 2008 financial debacle.
Once the date is established, the planning begins in earnest. The guest list soars from 53 to 315, not counting Great Uncle Rodney from Wyoming who detests New York’s honking taxis and the over-paid Yankees.
As the big day approaches, invitations are created, “damask cream white” with satin silver bows; when you open them, the couple-to-be pops up in a Central Park horse drawn carriage. These, by the way, cost mom and pop a paltry $4038.
You understand the investment though. The king and queen have anticipated this day since their little princess was born. They began rehearsing when she was three, dressing her in the stunning “Wrinkled Bedsheet Collection” and teaching her to hold her head high, keep her back straight, and smile to the left and right as she processed through the living room.
Once the invitations are sent out, with hand-calligraphed addresses in silver ink, the mother runs to the mail box daily, precisely at 2:15 p.m., awaiting the RSVPs. And, every day, she makes the sad walk back to the house, crestfallen that only sixteen people have responded, including surprisingly, Uncle Ernie and Aunt Henrietta from Cheyenne. There are few days without tears. The parents’ disappointment intensifies to misery and rage. What was supposed to be a joyful celebration is spinning into a gloomy fiasco.
One wonders why no one responds. This is the wedding of the century after all. You would respond and I have to. I have been to such weddings, one where The Drifters of “Under the Boardwalk” fame sang and the bridesmaids were models from the Ford agency here in New York and the groomsmen included a congressman, a former NBA player, and a smattering of corporate execs; another where I performed the marriage of General Colin and Alma Powell’s son. Who would miss those affairs?
This is precisely when Jesus’ parable begins to make us edgy. The banquet is ready, the oxen and calves slaughtered, the caviar on crushed ice, the string quartet tuned, and no one showing up at the club. The king and queen blow gaskets and send out their slaves to investigate where everyone is. Apparently, the A-Listers have more important things to do. The parents’ fury knoweth no bounds; they order the ungratefuls murdered and, for good measure, their city burnt to ashes.
If this isn’t disturbing enough, the royal family then sends out the slaves to invite the homeless folks who sleep in the bushes near the gated club and a few others whose hideous shopping carts line the church steps only hours before the wedding. These neglected outcasts will certainly come, don’t you think? And yet there is another problem. The king continues to bristle, this time because the B-Listers don’t appear at the wedding in Chanel dresses and Armani suits. They certainly don’t have the money for such extravagance and, even if they did, it’s a tad late to expect them to head off to Madison Avenue to purchase swanky nuptial attire.
Let me add a disclaimer right now: I am not making this up; this is Jesus’ story not mine. In case you haven’t quite picked up on the royals’ rage, they have the ill-clad B-Listers “bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness” where, as far as the king and queen are concerned, they can weep and gnash their teeth for ages unto ages.
I have learned from experience: never mess with the parents of the bride and groom!
Increasingly these days, people don’t seem to be showing up for this feast on Sunday whether here at Holy Trinity or Cheyenne. Our attendance is growing but, still, there seem to be more pressing priorities—Jet’s game, fall foliage jaunts, brunch at who knows where, and brushing up on the crossword puzzle in the Time’s Sunday Magazine…So much to do, so little time.
I get the busyness but apparently, like the parents of the newlyweds, God is not amused.
I have no way of knowing for certain but I have a hunch Jesus told this parable so that when we receive our invitation to the Feast of the Lamb, we will realize how much God yearns for our presence. God has prepared the finest meal imaginable for us this morning, overflowing with the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. God has been making plans for this day for a long time, actually forever.
Really, can you believe you made it on the guest list? Jesus is here! Perhaps the only remaining question at this point is, “What are you wearing to the wedding?” Well, actually, that apparently doesn’t matter because God has invited you and you are here this morning.
God is so glad you have come today, so enjoy, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Gun Control Begins Here”
(Matthew 21: 33-36)
October 8, 2017 (18th Sunday after Pentecost)
You have come here this morning for a host of reasons. Perhaps you are visiting this city that purportedly never sleeps and decided to come and check out this congregation’s rich musical tradition; maybe you are here because, well, that’s what your parents taught you to do every Sunday morning when you were a kid. You might be here longing to snuggle beneath God’s gentle wings after a frenzied week. Have any of you perchance come to hear what this wrinkled and humdrum preacher might say about last Sunday evening’s massacre in Las Vegas?
If you have come to hear my take on Las Vegas, be assured I have preached about guns a time or two during my years of ministry. One Spring, the church I served in inner-city Philadelphia was packed, night after night, as enraged African American citizens demanded justice following the cold-blooded murder of ten-year old Tracy Chambers by white snipers. I preached at YBB Mushala’s funeral, the father from Tanzania who worked for Voice of American and was murdered with a shotgun at the tavern he owned near Howard University. I once disarmed a member ready to blow his brains out. Many of you have already heard quite a few of my other gun stories. Oh yes, have I ever preached about guns!
Let me be clear lest I sound muddled: I despise guns, absolutely abhor them.
Our nation is plagued by a dreadful gun epidemic. The United States has only 4.4% of the world’s population and yet we own almost half the world’s civilian-owned guns.
We are numb. Perhaps numbness is the best day-by-day survival technique we can adopt in this gun-crazed country. Why were we not more shocked when we awakened Monday morning to hear the horrifying news that Stephen Paddock had unleashed the deadliest mass shooting in our history, killing 58 and injuring more than 500? Las Vegas today, Sandy Hook yesterday, who knows where tomorrow? Numb!
Regardless of what you think about the 2nd Amendment and how the right to keep and bear arms relates to militias, I harbor the quirky assumption that most of you, perhaps all of you, believe there is one pesky little commandment that puts that amendment to shame: “You shall not kill.”
Yes indeed, I intend to speak about guns this morning and, in particular, how they apply to this lovely vineyard God has entrusted to our care at 65th and Central Park West. While we may not be packing a pistol this morning, we may be packing an attitude just as lethal. This is where gun control begins for us.
Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me—let us not believe in childish fairytales! Words are deadly, one of the most violent weapons we brandish.
Frederick Buechner urges when we pray at night “to remember not just the wars fought on a national scale, but also the wars that we’re all of us engaged in—aggressive wars to gain control, to get the upper hand, to have the last word, to get our way, fought not with weapons or even letters, but with silences and tones of voice and all the ways we know of fighting with each other. We’re often at war with the people we love the best.” He goes on, “…at the end of the day, as you look back over your wars, ask yourself, who were you fighting today? Did you deliver the knockout blow? Was it worth it?”
Churches, lamentably, are notorious for our lethal artilleries. I have heard reports of people jumping across tables and engaging in fist fights at council meetings. One assistant to the bishop told me about a church in his synod that was forced to institute a policy forbidding members to bring guns to church meetings—imagine that! Many have been moved to tears at such meetings, vowing never to return; sadly, some never have. Such meetings cause me to say—often not in jest—if I get to heaven and a council meeting or congregational meeting is in session, I will ask Saint Peter if there is perchance another option for eternity.
Before we talk about deranged killers in Las Vegas and Orlando, Sandy Hook and Charleston, let us examine ourselves. How we treat one another in this vineyard speaks volumes about what we believe about violence. Today’s gospel reading invites us to a higher way, to seek Jesus’ face in every person here, especially those with whom we disagree. We dare not revert to that pathetic old saw, “This is New York and that’s how we do things.” Nonsense! God invites us to a more excellent vision: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Oh yes, we are obliged to speak about gun control and that conversation must begin here. And yet there is so much more to talk about. Jesus comes to this vineyard this morning. That is, of course, why we should pray that God will disarm us all. The first epistle of John says, “Whoever does not love abides in death.” Constant bitterness and lingering rancor lead to death, in ourselves and families, in our churches and nation. When we plead with God for all to be disarmed, we are praying for life for our friends and our enemies.
When we arrived here this, God offered us a breathtaking weapons exchange; we were invited to trade in our own deadly weapons of bitterness and hatred, pettiness and selfishness, for the astonishing forgiveness of God. In a few moments, as we pass the peace of Christ, my deepest longing is that we will hear the heavenly words, “The peace of Christ be with you always,” from one who has done us wrong or whom we have offended.
That, my dear friends, is how we best begin the conversation about gun control, here in this vineyard edging on Central Park. By the grace of God, may we lay our weapons down and open our hearts, receiving and sharing the love of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Always Room for Another Angel”
(Genesis 18: 1-10a)
St. Michael & All Angels & Blessing of the Holy Trinity Icon
St. Michael and All Angels…do fluff-winged creatures stir your imagination?
Who doesn’t like angels? We call our children “little angels,” we top off our Christmas trees with gorgeous golden angels, the sight of tiny cherubim causes our heart to go aflutter.
We love talking about angels, too: what exactly are angels, how do you think they really look, do they hover over our heads this very moment? Cherubim and seraphim and archangels, Gabriel and Raphael and Michael—they appear as soft as new fallen snow and at other times ferocious enough to wage war against the devil.
I hate to disillusion you, but most of these angelic ponderings hold little fascination for me. I would never enter an angel shop and, for the life of me, I can’t imagine wearing an angel t-shirt. Do they have wings, halos—I could care less!
What does matter to me is what angels do.
The Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson, who died a few weeks ago, wrote: “An angel is simply one to whom God gives a mission and whose own reality is constituted by this mission.” We might say angels are like John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd in “The Blues Brothers:” they are on a mission from God.
Did you ever stop to think that you might be an angel? Aren’t you on a mission from God?
This morning, we bless our beautiful new Holy Trinity icon. This icon was painted (or prayed as the Orthodox Church would say) by the Russian monk Andrei Rublev in 1425 AD. It is referred to as “The Old Testament Trinity” or “The Hospitably of Abraham.” Rublev painted this icon so people’s hearts could be put to rest in a time of enormous social and political upheaval.
Gazing on this tender icon calms our anxious hearts as we rest in the lap of divine love in a similarly tumultuous and hate-filled time. We behold a loving God, the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—our congregation’s name.
Western Christian art often portrays God differently: The Father is an old bearded white guy; Jesus is seen at his heavenly Father’s bosom; and the Holy Spirit is frequently depicted as a dove hovering overhead.
Andrei Rublev portrayed God as three angels, reminding us of those mysterious characters who once visited Abraham and Sarah at the oaks of Mamre: is it the Lord, are they wandering men out in the wilderness, could they be angels?
Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon, as all icons do, gently invites us to gaze through a window into eternity, to mediate on God’s beauty and on the wonder of God’s kingdom. It feels other-worldly with their hands and faces a bit out of perspective—not as we usually see things—more heavenly perhaps. Mystery sweeps across the Three as if in perpetual motion. They fill us with awe. The Holy Trinity invites us into deeper prayer, pleads with us to be more loving to one another.
Icons are like delicious meals whose flavor can never be adequately grasped. See the color blue on all three angels symbolizing the divinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. See their golden halos radiating holiness. See the scepters in their hands inviting us to ponder their Lordship, three in one and one in three. Look how the three gather around the table, an altar, just like this one. Be amazed that these three loving figures do not dominate the room: there is always an additional place at God’s table for another angel—for you, for me, for all those in our groaning world. Notice the rectangle in the front, just below the chalice: enter the narrow way, I beg of you, so they seem to say; be the loving community in our name, Holy Trinity, here at 65th and Central Park West. So much going on in this icon, so much beauty, wonder, and awe.
One of Holy Trinity’s pastors, the Rev. William Lazareth, who served here from 1983-1988, and then became the bishop of this Metropolitan New York Synod, wrote an article with the Romanian Orthodox theologian Dan-Ilie Ciobetea, in the book “Icons: Windows on Eternity.” “This image of the divine Trinity rules out all egotism—whether individual or collective—all life-destroying separation, any subordination or levelling of persons,” wrote your former pastor and bishop. “It invites all humanity to make this world a permanent eucharist of love, a feast of life.”
The angels/ the Holy Trinity/ the Lord came to announce to Abraham and Sarah that their barrenness would soon come to an end and that they would become parents of a bouncing baby boy. These three mysterious ones come to us today, as well, inviting us to be angels on a mission of love in this place. We have no wings or halos—I don’t think! We are plainer than that, of course, but we are certainly just as wondrous. Look around this very moment and see if you can spot an angel sitting near you.
I am deeply touched that you have given my favorite icon, in honor of my 40th anniversary of ordination, to be hung downstairs in our community room. We will gaze upon these blessed Three at countless suppers and celebrations; homeless women will rest well knowing that these holy angels watch over them and that the wicked one will have no power over them; and the good people of HUG who assemble on Saturdays will discover that three other divine wanderers in search of a loving community have joined them for a meal in our community room.
My seminary professor, the late Father Henri Nouwen wrote, “I pray that Rublev’s icon will teach many how to live in the midst of a fearful, hateful and violent world while moving always deeper into the house of love.” That is why this icon was created six hundred years ago, not just for people in Russia then but for us here now as well. This icon invites us to be a faithful people, to dance together with angels at the table of perfect love with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Wilbert Miller
“The Disgusting Offense of God’s Grace”
September 24, 2017 (16th Sunday after Pentecost)
The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is a month away. As October 31 nears, you will hear a lot about grace. We Lutherans beat our breasts when we hear the word “grace.” We are so proud that we have foresworn the revolting thought of anyone getting into heaven by doing even one good work. Oh, yes, we are sinners, we are Lutherans, we are champions of grace.
I suspect, however, that most of us are not quite as enamored with grace as we claim. The quaint thought that God saves the good, bad, and ugly with no apparent distinctions can be downright offensive. Plain ol’ grace can be as disgusting as someone cutting in front of us in the Fairway Market checkout line. Plain ol’ grace feels like giving a leg up to someone who hasn’t done nearly as much as we think we have done.
There is no such thing as a free lunch, we grouse. “Come on, Pastor, we may be saved by grace but we have to do something, we at least have to believe!” “Sure, I believe in grace but if I don’t treat my neighbor well, what’s it all worth? There have to be a few good works along the way on my part or the world will disintegrate.”
Today’s gospel shocks those of us who support an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. We would never dream of coming to work late and expect to be paid the same as the person showing up at six-forty-five in the morning. How can Jesus commend such an outrageous business practice? We work hard and deserve every cent we get. And, oh by the way, we obey the laws of land, pay our fair share of taxes, and don’t panhandle on Broadway.
A good friend of mine, a very committed church person and a very successful businessman, more than once came to me in desperation and complained: “Pastor, if we ran our business the way you run the church, it would be dead.” I told him, without fail, “You are exactly right. And, that’s why yours is a business and ours is the church.”
Have you ever pondered what grace is? Frederick Buechner writes: “Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about anymore than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace…A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do.”
It is so easy to mess up the beauty of grace, to end up believing we must offer God some of our expert assistance in the process of being saved and God saving the world—God could never do that alone!
Think about how it works here at Holy Trinity. We are proud of our outreach ministries. Don’t you tell others about our homeless shelter where twelve women call Holy Trinity’s community room their living room? Who doesn’t celebrate HUG where, for forty years now, fifty people have enjoyed a warm Saturday meal and a little friendship here? And we are delighted this morning to receive the news that members—YOU! —have contributed $2550 to Lutheran Disaster Response to help those digging out from the hurricanes. And while we may not mention Bach Vespers in the same breath, isn’t it similar? We spend the largest amount of any outreach ministry on a host of people who come to Vespers week in and week out and allege, “I’m not religious, I just come for the music.”
We love these ministries and those they serve and well we should. But don’t we occasionally resent having to bear the load? We heat this barn, worry how to fill it up on Sunday morning, and patch its leaky roof. Shouldn’t we get a little more credit?
Oops, I forgot one other ministry for outliers, that free Sunday brunch that has been served here at Holy Trinity for nearly 150 years! Regardless of what dastardly thing we have done during the week and in spite of our scanty offerings, we are served free Sunday brunch, right now. We are the workers hired at the end of the day to whom Jesus says, “This is my body and blood given and shed for you.” That, dear friends, is grace.
St. John Chrysostom lived in the fourth century; he was the archbishop of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). He preached a sermon that continues to be read in Eastern Orthodox churches at every Easter Vigil. His sermon might surprise those active Christians among us who tend to look down our noses at folks who show up just on Easter. They would never consider setting foot in this sanctuary on a toasty September Sunday morning and yet, to our disgust, they parade their dressed-up families up the center aisle every Easter morning, sitting in the very front pew so they can smell the lilies and sing “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” to brass and timpani accompaniment. They act as if they belong here!
You can imagine how old Chrysostom lambasted them…or can you? “Let those who have toiled since the first hour, let them now receive their due reward; let any who came after the third hour be grateful to join in the feast, and those who may have come after the sixth, let them not be afraid of being too late; for the Lord is gracious and He receives the last even as the first…He has pity on the last and He serves the first…Come you all: enter into the joy of your Lord. You the first and you the last, receive alike your reward; you rich and you poor, dance together; you sober and you weaklings, celebrate the day…”
Sounds a bit like Jesus, don’t you think. It’s a crazy method of bookkeeping, the first being last and the last being first; it’s no way to run a successful business. And yet, when we realize we, too, have received free tickets to this Sunday feast served by God, oh my goodness, what a joyous celebration it is.