Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
Mark 1: 21-28
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (January 28, 2018)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park
There is something majestic about great preachers. If you have ever been blessed to hear one, you know the experience is unforgettable, as thrilling as hearing a lonely loon cry on a deserted lake or seeing the sun rise over Central Park early in the morning.
The most powerful preacher I have ever heard is William Slone Coffin. He was one of the prophetic voices of the late 1960s and early 70s; he preached at Yale and Riverside Church. The story is told that when the young Reverend Coffin and his wife-to-be went to tell her father, the great pianist Arthur Rubenstein, of their impending marriage, Rubenstein said, “Great, I’m now going to have Billy Graham as a son-in-law,” to which Coffin responded, “That’s right, just like I am going to have Liberace as a father-in-law.” Like Rubenstein, we often don’t expect much from our preachers and yet Coffin filled the university chapel in the days when most college students preferred nursing hangovers to sitting through Sunday morning worship services. His preaching stirred listeners to discover God’s authoritative voice in rousing ways, in unimaginably tumultuous times.
Not all preaching is like that. Some of it is downright mind-numbing and puts you to sleep quicker than a baby’s lullaby. You have figured that out by now, I’m afraid. The dicey part of preaching, you see, is that God leaves the task to human-beings, rickety people like me, and that can sometimes be a gloomy prospect for people like you.
The southern preacher Fred Craddock writes in his autobiography about discovering the humanity of preaching: “I cannot resist telling…the keen disappointment I felt that day when, as an eighteen-year-old, I stood behind that pulpit. ‘I had never stood behind the pulpit; I had seen it only from the front. As I sat in the big chair waiting for the moment to stand and speak, I could see inside the pulpit. What a mess! A few broken hand fans, a clock, old worship bulletins, part of an angel’s wing, golf tees, Christmas tree bulbs, a melted candle, and a glass of water with green scum on it.”
Perhaps you have never come up here to peek into this pulpit’s innards but you have surely figured out the jumble of it all because you confront my wobbly preaching week after week.
When the people of Capernaum heard Jesus preach in their synagogue, it is reported that they were astounded because he taught them as one having authority. Peculiar, don’t you think: what else should they have expected besides authority? Doesn’t it make you wonder what other kind of sermons they had heard…Well, I think you know!
Come to think of it, have you ever heard a sermon that could cast out unclean spirits, make the lame walk, open a blind eye or two? Any sermon, ever?
You have come here this morning, yet again, longing for a sermon uttered with authority from this gimpy preacher from the hills of West Virginia.
Please, make no mistake: the only authority I bear comes from Jesus; all else is, as they say and as you know, sinking sand or, at the least, poppycock.
One of the things I love most about being Lutheran is our utter honesty about how God comes to us in cracked, clay jars. We do not pretend to rule the empire. We know darn well that God comes to us most often, not in power and glory or pomp and circumstance, but in the rickety stuff of bread and wine, in damaged people like you, and in flimsy preachers like me. The biggest risk we make is believing our preachers are better than anyone else or at least not nearly as broken. Whenever we do this, we set ourselves up for crushing disappointment. I can tell you: we preachers are a shabby lot whose authority comes, at best, not from deep within our souls, but from far, far off, from the very heart of God. Said another way, our authority comes only when we tell the story of Jesus and his deep, deep love and admit that the tellers of such tales, people just like me and listeners just like you, are frightfully flawed.
Walt Whitman, in his “Leaves of Grass,” says it this way:
“After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,
After the noble inventors—after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the Poet, worthy that name:
The true Son of God shall come,
singing his songs.”
We clay-feeted ones do our best, no matter our trade or calling in life, to look beyond ourselves for power and strength, inspiration and authority. We rear our children the best we can, never having taken a single course in high school or college telling us how to go about this overwhelming task; we look to God for help as we hobble along doing the best we can. We try to please God as we strive to live faithfully in this church; you know as well as I that we bumble along the way, doing our best when our best isn’t particularly inspired or honorable. But maybe that is not so bad. Just when we realize how flimsy we are, God is standing here, inviting us to look beyond ourselves. After we have sailed the oceans, mesmerized the masses with stunning music, and even then come up short, then and only then do we catch ourselves praying to the Poet worthy that name, the only one who can give us strength and guidance in heart-breaking times such as this.
That is why we are here this morning, to sing the song of Jesus, the one about him being gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. That, my dear friends, is the authority we bear, in cracked earthen pots, to the glory of God and for the good of this suffering world.