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“Make America Great!”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Make America Great!”
At the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
January 15, 2017 (2nd Sunday after the Epiphany)
John 1: 29-42

I first lived in New York in the summer of 1976. I was participating in a program called Clinical Pastoral Education at the Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn that teaches pastoral care to seminary students. It also helps future pastors, as they are fond of saying, “get in touch with their feelings” through intensive group activities.

One group activity occurred on a Tuesday morning when our supervisors, Sister Teresa and Father John, asked us, “If you were an animal, what would you be?” That was a moment of crisis for me: I was certain my quest to become a pastor had abruptly ended; for the life of me, I could not come up with a suitable animal.

Forty years later, I am still perplexed: what animal would I be?

And you, what animal would you be?

It is puzzling. I probably would opt to be a scorpion or grizzly bear—though I would never admit such yearnings publicly. I would choose such an animal because of its penchant for unleashing ferocious bites in order to protect the helpless.

My heroes have all had a ferocious and venomous side. That is not to suggest they have not been astonishing pastors—they have; and yet they have never been afraid to bare their teeth when shielding the most vulnerable against the ravenous appetites of the powerful. They have stood up for what Jesus stood up for and cherished the people Jesus treasured.

One of my heroes is the late John Steinbruck, the longtime pastor of Washington, DC’s Luther Place Memorial Church. While blessed with a remarkable pastoral heart that created such visionary ministries as the N Street Village for homeless women and the Lutheran Volunteer Corps for recent college graduates, he could spew rancor at DC’s power brokers that would cause you to duck if you happened to be in the way. He was a curious concoction of animals, really: though often as gentle as a lamb, he could also be as thick-skinned as a hippopotamus when standing up for the weak…In my dreams, I would be like my dear friend John whose calling it was to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

With that said, it always comes as a surprise, at least to me, that when John and Andrew noticed Jesus, they exclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God!”

A lamb…Did any of you choose to be a lamb?

Four figures are carved into Holy Trinity’s pulpit. They represent the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. With the exception of Matthew who is symbolized with an angel-like figure, the others are symbolized with animals and dangerous ones at that: Mark, a lion; Luke, an ox; and John, an eagle. The eagle’s beak is so sharp, by the way, that when our custodians were putting up the Christmas trees, Christian accidentally bumped his head on the beak and the beak drew blood…An eagle’s beak, quite a symbol for bold and forceful preaching!

But a lamb? Who would ever brag, “Our pastor preaches like a gentle, little lamb”?

Tomorrow, our nation pauses to give thanks for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. His soaring rhetoric could be as fearless as a shark and could sting like a hornet. It behooves us during these decisive days of our nation’s life to recall Dr. King’s final sermon preached at Washington’s National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, only five days before he was assassinated. Listen carefully: “…we have difficult days ahead in the struggle for justice and peace, but I will not yield to a politic of despair. I’m going to maintain hope as we come to Washington in this campaign. The cards are stacked against us. This time we will really confront a Goliath. God grant that we will be that David of truth set out against the Goliath of injustice, the Goliath of neglect, the Goliath of refusing to deal with the problems, and go on with the determination to make America the truly great America that it is called to be.”

Did you hear Dr. King’s words, “to make America the truly great America that it is called to be”? As you are aware, president-elect Donald Trump has been proclaiming a remarkably similar phrase.
My dear friends, as the people of God, we are called to pray mightily for our newly elected president Donald Trump as he installed this coming Friday, January 20. We are called to pray just as Martin Luther King prayed, calling on God to fill Donald Trump with this nation’s deepest values of liberty and it highest aspirations of justice for all people. We are also called to pray that, by God’s amazing grace, President Trump will exhibit breathtaking courage whenever little people are trampled upon and chewed up by the rich and arrogant. Oh yes, pray for our president-elect we must.

When the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about making America the truly great America that it is called to be, he did so as a follower of the lamb. Dr. King never grew weary or hateful; he was a man of utmost dignity and supreme bravery. In the face of high-pressured hoses, snarling attack dogs, and even a deadly bomb that blasted through his own home while his wife, Coretta, and ten-week old daughter, Yolanda, were there, he pled with his followers to follow a different way, Jesus’ way, the way of love toward those filled with hatred, the way of decency toward those perpetrating all manner of wickedness upon those who wanted to be treated as human beings.

As you know, Martin Luther King was gunned down for speaking fearlessly, not on behalf of himself mind you, but on behalf of God’s defenseless and abandoned ones—that, my dear friends, is what it means to make America great.

I sadly confess, I am never quite certain what animal to choose. I often find myself preferring ferocious lions and violent sharks at my side when the going gets tough. Nevertheless, the truth is, we are called to follow the gentle lamb, the Savior who died for every one of God’s children…Such a vision would truly make American great again. Pray we must, O dear God, pray we must.

“Look Whom Jesus Is with at the Jordan!”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Look Whom Jesus Is with at the Jordan!”
Matthew 3: 13-17
Baptism of Our Lord (January 8, 2017)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan

Today, as water crashes over us and we are dripping from our baptismal remembrance, we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In the spirit of celebration, let’s roll the film.

See John the Baptist out in the middle of the Jordan River, about three feet deep, in a white shirt, skinny black tie, and rubber hip waders amidst a motley crowd of riff-raff.  Watch him thrust them under the water and wash away their sins.

And, goodness gracious, there stands Jesus, right at water’s edge!  Can you believe your eyes?  He’s there with the double-crossing camel dealer, the flamboyant drag queen, the corporate executive convicted of bilking clients of millions, and that floozy neighbor constantly getting thrown into the county drunk tank—how dare he get so close to them!

Okay, let’s stop the film for a second and catch our breath…

Didn’t you always think Jesus is God’s son?  Why in the world is he hanging out with such a notorious crowd of lowlifes?

Let the film continue.

Do you notice there are also some modest and holy looking folks in line to be baptized?  They appear to be nervously quivering, churning with doubt and silently rotting away at the core; their sins are tucked far back in the furthest reaches of their bedroom closet, hidden under extra bedsheets and grandma’s old comforter, out of sight from devout company; they are fearful someone will find out.

Look closely at water-logged John.  Do you notice how he keeps glancing out of the corner of his eye?  He appears to have spotted his cousin Jesus standing in line for baptism—see how John trembles!  Listen carefully; can you hear him: “Why in God’s name is Jesus here?  Why does he want to be baptized?  He is God’s Son, the sinless one.  I need to be baptized by him!”

Now, we can get all misty-eyed about this, but let’s not kid ourselves.  Jesus’ baptism has not always been an occasion for celebration.  His presence with such a horde of sinners has embarrassed the church down through the ages, actually, to be more precise, it has horrified the church.

One of our finest Lutheran liturgical scholars, Gordon Lathrop, suggests that Jesus’ baptism was actually not about his becoming pure for our sake but rather becoming dirty for us.  How can God’s son become dirty? you ask.  He gets dirty the very same way this precious little thing born in Bethlehem ended up dying the filthiest death imaginable, in love for all his brothers and sisters, on the cross at Calvary.

While we celebrate Jesus’ baptism this morning, truth be told, if we are not also appalled and fuming, we likely have not quite grasped how deeply God’s grace runs for us.

When I mentioned a bit earlier who Jesus was in line with—drag queens, painted ladies, Ponzi schemers—my hunch is that most of you smiled and poked someone in the side.  There is, after all, a quaint delight in seeing Jesus with such company—it makes our open-minded Upper West Side hearts quiver in delight. But I want to up the ante to explore just how open we really are to God’s grace.

I must tell you in advance, what I am about to say comes with no small amount of fear and trembling; I really do fear that I may offend some of you and cause you deep anger.  If that occurs, I beg you in advance, please forgive me.

Let the film roll and let’s locate Jesus once again.  Now look carefully.  Do you notice that he has his arm around a gangly young white guy with a weird bowl hair cut?  That can’t be Dylann Roof, can it, the same Dylann Roof who attended a Bible study at historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a year and a half ago and brutally murdered nine parishioners?  Even after family members said, “I forgive you, my family forgives you,” Dylann Roof wrote, “I would like to make it crystal clear I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”

Listen, listen…I think you can just make out the conversation Jesus is having with Dylann, “Dylann, dear brother, it is never too late to repent.”

While the film is stopped momentarily, let me remind us all, in case we have forgotten, that Dylann Roof’s family are members of one of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations and that two of the African American pastors murdered that evening, Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the Rev. Daniel Simmons, graduated from our Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina?

Jesus standing at Dylann Roof’s side…He can’t possibly be doing that, can he?

As you know, the penalty phase of Dylann Roof’s trial is now in session.  Should he be executed?  Are there ever any of God’s children in line with Jesus who should be executed, who are unloved by God?  Said another way, how dare we cut short the life of anyone whom Jesus loves?

As I think I mentioned, Jesus’ baptism inevitably scandalizes polite company.  Grace is messy; it can be numbing, sickening, and offensive.  That’s why we now start the film rolling again.  Watch as Jesus slips and slides up out of the muddy river, dripping wet from head to toe.  Listen carefully as God proudly proclaims from on high, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

There is something about Jesus’ willingness to stand in line at the Jordan and submit to this baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins that pleases God and horrifies us.

Look one final time as the film nears completion.  Are you surprised to catch sight of yourself standing there at the Jordan?  Sometimes, it is almost impossible to believe the words of that old hymn:

“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea…
For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind.
And the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.”

What a thrill to hear the water crashing and to celebrate God’s amazing grace for this terribly mixed up world…and for us, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“Whether to Go or Not”

The Rev. Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Whether to Go or Not”
January 5, 2017 (Eve of the Epiphany of Our Lord)
Matthew 2: 1-12

When the Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem, this is the first question they asked, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” They had made it to Jerusalem by the guiding of a star but they needed additional help. They needed someone well versed in biblical matters to help them find God’s son.

As you can well imagine, the chief priests and scribes in Jerusalem knew exactly where to find the Messiah—after all, they were experts in such matters and so they told the Magi: “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

This information leaves us befuddled: if the religious leaders and Bible scholars knew where to find the Christ Child, why didn’t they hot tail it to Bethlehem themselves—it was only six miles away?

Matthew does not provide us with an answer to our question so let’s venture a guess: they needed more information!

Good people often need more information before acting decisively: we want to do things right. I have a hunch that those religious scholars in Jerusalem read religious tomes night and day, searching for exactly the right answer. And yet, isn’t it the truth that finally God beckons us to start the hike to Bethlehem without all the answers? Isn’t there a point when we finally must act, even though it is done with considerable fear and trembling? At this point, all we can do is trust that God will be gracious and merciful even if we take a wrong turn or two on the journey?

Maybe the religious leaders and scholars weren’t convinced God would be merciful to them if they made an error in judgment.

Or…might the religious leaders have hesitated to go to Bethlehem, not because they didn’t have enough information, but because they had too much? Perhaps they knew King Herod’s fearsome side, sensing that worshiping the tiny Savior would cause him to unleash all manner of mayhem throughout Judea. Maybe they had learned their history lessons well; maybe they knew that Herod, far from being confident and bold, was actually thin-skinned and insecure and would blow a gasket and butcher a bunch of innocent little boys under two if they went to Bethlehem. Maybe they determined that by not going to seek the Messiah, they would spare the world Herod’s disgusting violence. Could it be by exercising a modicum of patience, the chief priests and scribes were actually the real “wise men” in this story?

Each of us finally faces the question whether or not to go to Bethlehem. In the coming year, our congregation will inevitably face tough questions—as the people who follow Jesus always do. It would be presumptuous for me to speculate how 2017 will unfold for us here at Holy Trinity, but the question is: will we side with the poor babe who ended up in rundown housing in Bethlehem and whose parents ended up carrying him off as a refugee to a distant land or will we be more prudent than that, opting for calm instead?

Think about it: right now, as we worship, twelve homeless women are eating and sleeping in our shelter downstairs. They are our sisters and they are much like our brother Jesus whose parents found no room in the inn. Will we stand up for them if push comes to shove or will we opt for peace and calm, fearing how the Herods in our own day might respond? Clearly the religious leaders and scholars opted for peace and calm; clearly the Wise Men risked mayhem to side with the poor baby in Bethlehem…What will our decision be?

The world was turned upside on that first Epiphany because Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar opted to take a little six-mile hike to Bethlehem and to present their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to God come to earth. They had no idea what fury would soon be unleashed by that bully Herod and his minions. What was guaranteed was that if they wanted to behold the face of God, they would have to oppose the powerful and side with a poor, vulnerable child.

God invites us tonight to take the six-mile journey, over and over again, and to invite others to join us in the thrill of worshiping the sweet Babe of Bethlehem. It is a simple journey and yet an often treacherous and bewildering one.

Ours is a harsh and astonishing calling to be the people of God in this world. The only guarantee we have is that Christ awaits us at the manger, murmuring, “Take and eat, given for you.” And that is enough for now and, really, it is all we will ever need.

“The Name of Jesus”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“The Name of Jesus”
Luke 2: 15-21
January 1, 2017
The Name of Jesus (New Year’s Day)

Names tell us volumes about a family’s hopes and dreams and memories.

Quite honestly, I have never been wild about my name, Wilbert, so when our first son came on the scene we named him Sebastian.  That name bears gravitas here at Holy Trinity, a place known internationally for our Bach Vespers.  It would be logical for you to think that Dagmar and I named our firstborn after Johann Sebastian Bach but I must disappoint you.  When Dagmar was pregnant, we were watching an international track meet, the Bislett Games in Oslo, Norway, on July 17, 1979.  Sebastian kicked inside Dagmar for the first time just as the British middle distance runner Sebastian Coe kicked in the mile run, breaking the world record; hence the name Sebastian.  And, yes, I must confess, dear Holy Trinity, we named our son after an athlete, not after a certain German musician.

When we visited my Grandma Miller so she could meet her new great-grandson, she was not at all amused by his name, Sebastian: “Isn’t Wilbert, your name and your father’s and your grandfather’s, perfectly fine? You pastors give your children the stupidest names!”

By the way, we named our next son, Caspar…Guess what Grandma Miller thought of that?  You guessed it: she wept, but surprisingly, this time, she wept tears of joy.  Never mind that his classmates might bully him with taunts of “Caspar the Friendly Ghost.”  The name Caspar, you see, was her father’s name as it was Dagmar’s great-grandfather’s.

Today, we give thanks for another name, the name of God’s son, Jesus.  This name was not plucked from a three-dollar name book purchased at the Nazareth grocery counter.  Our Savior’s name came from heaven.  Even before the child was conceived in Mary’s womb, an angel informed Joseph, “You shall call his name Jesus…”  The name Jesus is rich in meaning: he shall save his people from their sins.

If you learn a person’s name, such knowledge inevitably draws you closer.  “Hello, Jane.  Good morning, Ernie.”  People understand that when you call them by name, you have taken the time to know them, to care for them.  They will likely want to know your name, too, and to learn more about you.

Knowing one another’s names creates community.  We can spend years and years deliberating on how to make our congregation flourish, pouring over sophisticated studies, but I guarantee you: one of the most effective tools for creating a vibrant church community is getting to know one another by name.  I suggest we all take the time to learn at least one person’s name at the passing of the peace this morning; make it your New Year’s resolution to meet a new person every Sunday.  I know it will stretch some of our comfort zones, especially those of us who are introverts, but learning one another’s names will make our community friendlier and livelier.

One of the finest compliments I have received since becoming your pastor came on Friday afternoon.  The mother and father of a bride-to-be rang our bell and wanted to see the sanctuary where their daughter will be married in June.  They had never met a single one of us.  In a matter of moments, though, she commented on how friendly Holy Trinity is and how she had felt rebuffed by other New York churches that simply wanted to discuss pricey wedding fee structures and elaborate wedding policies.  Their good feelings had nothing to do with our claiming to be a friendly church in our bulletin, not an iota to do with a long-range plan we devised to make our church grow.  It did have everything to do with Bonnie, our office manager, welcoming her with a smile; Serge, our property manager, graciously showing her the church; Donald, our cantor, telling the family what wonderful music they can have at their wedding.  This proud mother and father were called by name and treated with kindness.  That’s how names work and the power they bear for the vibrant life of Christ’s church.

Yes indeed, how we use names speaks volumes.  Did you know that your hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, includes Luther’s Small Catechism in the very back?  Please turn to page 1160, to the Ten Commandments.  The Second Commandment: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.”  Luther understood the gift of having God’s name on our lips and the power it invokes.  In his explanation of the Second Commandment Luther writes: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not curse, swear, practice magic, lie, or deceive using God’s name, but instead use that very name in every time of need to call on, pray to, praise, and give thanks to God.”

What a priceless gift to be entrusted with God’s name, a name we can call upon in every moment of life, in good times and in crisis, to call on, pray to, praise, and give thanks.

While most of you probably don’t remember it, there was a moment when you gained a totally new dimension as your name was intricately woven with God’s life-giving name.  These wondrous words were spoken to you at your baptism, “Name, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  Your family and friends in Christ stood at your side as water flowed down your face and God’s beautiful name brightened everything about you and everything that was to come in your life and even in your death.

As you walk around town today, remember always that your name is delightfully intertwined with God’s name.  And never forget that all the people sitting near you at worship this morning are filled with God’s good name as well.  And finally, as a special gift for you throughout this New Year: always call to mind that this breathtaking place is richly cloaked in God’s name, Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

“The Perfect Christmas”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Christmas Eve Sermon
“The Perfect Christmas”
December 24, 2016
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

Don’t you long for the perfect Christmas, one where snow gently falls and your horsedrawn sleigh drops you off right here at Holy Trinity’s doors?  Never mind that there is only a 25% chance of a white Christmas in these parts, we can still harbor dreams of perfection, can’t we?

While dreaming of Christmas perfection, let’s talk a bit about trees.  Dagmar and I recently went on an epic journey in search of our first New York Christmas tree.  The evergreens at Lowes, a mere two blocks from here, appeared exquisite to my clumsy eye but did not measure up to my dear wife’s exacting Teutonic standards.  Both of us regarded the ones sold only three blocks away as stunning though a tad pricey for our proletarian pocketbooks.  Finally, a Holy Trinity parishoner merrily reported to Dagmar that a bodega at 82nd and Columbus was selling enchanting conifers at sensible Manhattan prices.  Eureka!  We discovered our flawless tannenbaum for sixty-five bucks, including free delivery, that is until our salesman found out we live at 65th and Central Park West and grumbled, “Are you kidding me, mister?  We don’t deliver there!”  And so, ever the devoted husband, I risked a coronary and schlepped our seven-foot wonder-tree twenty-two blocks via the arduous Central Park route so as not to impale any innocent pedestrians.

You have likely engaged in similar sapling deliberations: will an artificial tree suffice or must you have the real thing with needles falling all over the living room floor; will your lights yet again be the sublime white ones or might you try something friskier this year like blinking, colored lights with chasers?

What lengths we go seeking perfection and how miserable the never-ending search makes us.  I wonder if that is why God comes to us as a helpless child.  The moment we catch sight of the tiny Babe of Bethlehem, we sense God creeping into our ordinary routines, our petty disputes, and our distressing blunders.

It is almost unimaginable that God comes amidst the messes we have made but you know how the story goes.  Mary and Joseph trudged seventy miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem on dusty, rutted roads just to be enrolled in the census.  Highly pregnant Mary was jarred to and fro on a stubborn, sweaty, swayback donkey.  When the holy family finally arrived, the city of David was nothing more than a backwater Podunk kind of place six miles south of the bustling metropolis of Jerusalem; Bethlehem certainly lacked the obligatory splendor for newborn kings.  Not only that, God’s little family ended up in a rickety shed because even the seedy Econo Lodge and Motel 6 had been booked months in advance; as they say, there was no room in the inn.

At first glance or the thousandth, this story is hopelessly flawed. The inconvenient trip, the half-pint rulers, the fleabag accommodations—everything was bleak.  Quite bluntly, the God of creation came among us in diapers.

You know how messy diapers devastate our visions of sugar plum Christmas perfection—your health is shakier than last year, you obsess over your enduring sorrows, and this ferociously unstable world makes the age of Caesar Augustus seem like an adorable kitty-cat video.

Even with “she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths” ringing in your ears, candlelight piercing the darkness, and “Silent night, holy night” echoing through this sanctuary, there is a hollowness for some of you.  Even with the Christ Child’s body and blood fresh on your lips, you may still crave something more.

I have adored the picture on this evening’s bulletin since I first saw it a number of years ago at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin.  The Kaiser Wilhelm Church, by the way, is exactly where the truck barreled through the annual Christmas market festivities on Monday, killing twelve and injuring dozens.  (Believe it or not, I had planned to use this picture long before that brutal attack.)

The artist, the Rev. Kurt Reuber, was a pastor and a doctor in the German army during the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942.  More than two million people lost their lives in what is considered the bloodiest battle in history.  Pastor Reuber realized his medical skills were incapable of providing what was ultimately needed so he drew “The Stalingrad Madonna” on the back of his military map (note the fold marks).  The German word Weihnachten (Christmas) appears with licht (light), leben (life), and Liebe (love) along with im Kessel Festung Stalingrad (in the cauldron of the Stalingrad fortress).  Pastor Reuber hung this picture on a wretched bunker wall as a Christmas gift to weary soldiers craving the Christ Child’s presence at their side.  Similar to how God came to shepherds out in the fields, this time God came to terrified soldiers trapped in a ferocious hell.

The “Stalingrad Madonna” is as timely today as it was seventy-four years ago.  Take this picture home with you as a little Christmas gift, hang it on a wall.  May it remind you that God comes to you at all those inopportune moments of imperfection, proclaiming, “for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

We never really are able to choose exactly what our Christmas will be like.  I’ll bet one of you has a diamond ring in your pants pocket and, in a few hours, will ask the lovely person at your side to marry you.  One of you is delighted to have your family together for the first time in quite a while.  For a number of you, this night is tinged with melancholy as you recall Christmases past and those you have deeply loved.

The gift of Christmas is that God comes down from heaven on this holy night and is placed into our hands as a vulnerable Savior, with the words, “This is my body given for you.”  The Christ Child embraces you, not as you wish but just as you are.

May you have a very happy Christmas and may you find perfection beyond all measure with the Christ Child at your side.

“Those Stinking Christmas Letters”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Those Stinking Christmas Letters”
December 18, 2016 (4th Sunday of Advent)
Matthew 1: 1-25
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

So, tell me, are your family and friends as brilliant and successful as ours at least according to their Christmas letters?  Do their mistletoe missives overwhelm you with mind-boggling exploits and sentimental cheeriness?  You know: “Little Johnny, only 4 ½ years old, scored twenty-three goals in his first three soccer games as throngs of spellbound scouts from premier colleges looked on.  Dazzling Suzie, a few days shy of ten, presented a dazzling accordion recital in October at the local Y; some believe she may be the first accordion prodigy ever to receive early admission to Julliard.  As for mom and dad, our countless successes simply cannot be contained in this extraordinarily modest Christmas epistle.”

In all these stinking letters, the marriages are tranquil, the children’s exploits mind-boggling, and the trips exotic.  Why isn’t your family perfect?  Why does your beguiling teenager, Brock, regard his biggest—and only—achievement to be keeping his acne under control?  You would never dare mention that your precious little Abigail spends every waking hour locked in her room with shades drawn, obsessing on her iPhone with who knows whom about who knows what.  Add to that, your job stinks and your annual performance evaluation was rotten.

Sometimes coming to church only exacerbates matters.  You sneakily look around and everyone seems so cheery and successful.  You think and spot HER: I’ll bet she finished her Christmas shopping in September and mailed her 200+ Christmas cards the day after Thanksgiving, each with a sweet, personal, hand-written note.

Tell the truth: these idyllic Christmas letters drive you nuts!

Here is some pastoral advice—a Christmas gift really: if you are tired of everyone else looking perfect, read the Christmas story according to Saint Matthew.  This gospel does not resemble Luke’s jollier version where the babe is wrapped in swaddling clothes, the shepherds lovingly tend their adorable sheep by night, and the angels sing enchanting melodies from heaven above.  Matthew’s account tells us more about Joseph and less about Mary and frankly Joseph comes off a bit the buffoon: Mary is in a family way and Matthew ain’t the daddy.  Matthew writes of Joseph’s baffling quandary, “Being a righteous man and unwilling to expose [Mary] to public disgrace, [he] planned to dismiss her quietly.”  That is, of course, until an angel appears and says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

Matthew includes this tawdry mess in his Christmas letter.  Can you believe it—there for all the world to read!  Would you tell others that your daughter is pregers and no one has yet figured out who pops is?  Come on: you would never want Aunt Tilley and Uncle Tito catching whiff of this humiliating scandal.

Today, wishing to spare you the agony, we opted not to read the first sixteen verses of Matthew’s gospel known as the genealogy of Jesus Christ.  While the thought of Jesus’ family tree may sound fascinating to you, the church has avoided Matthew 1: 1-17 like liver and onions, never, ever reading it aloud on any Sunday morning in the entire three-year lectionary cycle.  And when people attempt to read through the Bible in a year, these long lists of descendants are usually skipped over with ne’er a misgiving.  That all means, we never may know the whole truth and nothing but the truth about Jesus’ family.

Just for fun, let me read you a few verses: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.  Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David…”  It goes on ad nauseam until, mercifully, we arrive at this: “…Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”

In those initial verses, you hear things about Jesus’ family that make your blood curl and cause you to feel a lot better about your family.  While we won’t delve into Jesus’ entire family history this morning, trust me when I tell you, it is filled with murderers and scoundrels, cheats, adulterers, and harlots.   If you don’t believe me, go home this afternoon and investigate who exactly Tamar and Rahab and Jacob and David are; see what mischief and mayhem they mastermind.  I warn you: keep your Bible inside a brown paper sack—it is disgusting stuff.

Why aren’t the revolting exploits of Jesus’ ancestors left out of the Bible or at least doctored up so polite company like us will not be offended only a few days before Christmas?  And yet, isn’t this the kind of Christmas letter you read from start to finish; its candor makes you feel so much better about your own bumbling family.

Saint Matthew’s Christmas letter tells us the truth about the folks God chooses to hang around with in this world.  God does not come to an imaginary wonderland abounding in purity and loveliness; God comes to a real world teeming with mayhem and tomfoolery…a world just like ours.

If you wish, you can look around this room and make believe others are far more perfect than you but I promise you…I promise you…this simply is not the case: no one here today is perfect, thus saith the Lord!  In every age, God comes amidst scoundrels and misfits, cranks and foul-ups, among people just like us.  To know this is receive the greatest Christmas gift of all because “unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.”

On behalf of all those naughty and zany people in Jesus’ family, I wish you a very blessed Christmas.  Like Joseph, may you know the Christ Child coming to you.