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Sermons

“O God, Turn Me into a Unicorn”

 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.

 

 

“What to Render unto Caesar”

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.

 

 

“What Are You Wearing to the Wedding?”

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.”

Such excitement!

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.

“Gun Control Begins Here”

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.

 

 

“Always Room for Another Angel”

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.

“The Disgusting Offense of God’s Grace”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
“The Disgusting Offense of God’s Grace”
(Matthew 20:1-6)
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.

“The Holy Cross: Irrational Humbug or the Power of God?”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“The Holy Cross: Irrational Humbug or the Power of God?”
(1 Corinthians 1: 18-24; John 3: 13-17)
September 17, 2017 (Holy Cross Day)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West

Please let me brag. I know I have told you this before but allow me one more moment of braggadocio: I attended Yale Divinity School. I tell you this with hopes of impressing you because, deep down, I harbor intense feelings of inferiority when it comes to my degree. Yale Divinity School ain’t all it is cracked up to be at least in the grand scope of things. It is often referred to as “the back door to Yale”—and with considerable justification. Half the people applying to the divinity school are accepted while only between 5 and 10% get into Yale Law and Yale Medical which, by the way, is about what the same acceptance rate as down the street at Juilliard where many of Holy Trinity’s fine musicians attended school.

There are other causes for my pathetic spasms of academic inadequacy.  A few years ago, in the “Yale Alumni Magazine,” Dr. Eugene P. Cassidy, a graduate of the much-vaunted medical school, wrote: “Isn’t it time Yale euthanized the Divinity School?  This academy for irrational humbug is an embarrassment to the real graduate schools.”

If Dr. Cassidy were here today, don’t you imagine he would find our Holy Cross goings-on nothing more than a load of poppycock?

In all humility and in no way meant to scold Dr. Cassidy, there have been occasions when the likes of Dr. Cassidy have curtly announced to a grieving family that their loved one has died and then quickly left the room.  I, with my silly divinity school degree of irrational humbuggery in hand, have sometimes been left to clean up the mess.  To be fair, I’m sure many doctors feel like failures when they are unable to keep a person alive any longer and must deliver the devastating news to the crestfallen family that their loved one is “gone.”

In no way do I want to be critical of doctors.  Like you, I know fabulous ones, a few who kept me alive eleven years ago.  In truth, don’t we all stumble and bumble in the face of death, searching for the right words when none seem available, none at least that will bring back to life those we love?  Perhaps that is why, for those of us here this morning, the only words that feel right are somehow deeply woven into the Holy Cross.  Like our hymn at the gospel, we cry out:

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
save in the death of Christ, my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

There is something about this Holy Cross Day that begs us tell the truth and not beat around the bush.  This day invites us to admit that death is inevitable for us all and yet also to proclaim that death is never the final word.  We may prefer to make believe, to say we pass away, float into the ethereal netherworld, or as some Californians are fond of writing in obituaries, transition from this world to the next.  But let us not kid ourselves: we die!

I once was talking to a church member about his funeral plans.  He was a big-time television personality in a major city.  He told me what hymns to sing, who would deliver the eulogies, where he would be laid to rest.  He prefaced it all with this, “Pastor, if I die…”  He caught himself but his “if I die” hung in the air a bit too long and reflected the thought many of us harbor in our magical thinking when our mortality comes up.  Deep down, we are so scared of dying that we prefer to play the game of “if I die.”

Martin Luther knew better.  He once wrote: “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”  You can guess, I’m sure, that Luther was a theologian of the cross.  He knew we don’t pass away or transition to Lalaland or float into the clouds.  He called the darn thing what it is: death!

The Holy Cross leads our way this and every Sunday morning.  We are reminded that if Jesus is God’s son then, in fact, God died an ugly death before our eyes—sweat, blood, tearing tendons, bulging eyes.  Our God went where we will all finally go, deep into the ground, where only God can raise us up.

It has often been asked, where was God when six million Jewish people were dying in Hitler’s concentration camps.  The best answer I have heard is, “God was there dying with the Jews.”  For many, this is foolishness, irrational humbuggery, but for others this is the very power of God.

I know how depressing this sounds, especially on this day as so much wonderful ministry is about to unfold here at Holy Trinity. You have returned from vacation, the choir is singing, programs are returning—these are thrilling days. This will be a stunning year as we prepare to celebrate 150 years of bearing the cross of Christ in New York City.  The greatest hits of Johann Sebastian Bach will be celebrated during the 50th year of our renowned Bach Vespers.  Some of the most distinguished preachers in the Lutheran church will be in our pulpit, including the Rev. Susan Briehl whose gorgeous hymn, “Holy God, Holy and Glorious,” we will sing at Communion.  Through the entire, thrilling year, we will lift up the cross, that pathetic instrument of suffering and death that wise and pious folks view as foolishness and twaddle and yet what we proclaim to be very power of God.

God does not avoid death: God confronts death, dies, and conquers death as Jesus is raised from the dead…Oh, and by the way, God conquers our death as well.

Christ’s death and resurrection is the most comforting word we can offer when we journey with others into the valley of the shadow of death. Let us tell anyone who will listen, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Yes, let us risk being called irrational humbuggers as we proclaim to the world that God is with us for better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and, yes, even in death, in the name of the Holy Cross, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Promises, Promises at Water’s Edge”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Promises, Promises at Water’s Edge”
(Romans 13: 8-14; Matthew 18: 15-20
September 10, 2017 (14th Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West & 65th

In a few moments, we will make a lot of promises.  Margot’s parents, Christine and Steven, will make promises; her godparents, Elizabeth and Jens, will make promises, too, as will her grandmas and grandpas.  Promises, promises.  We will all make promises.

Margot is such a precious little child.  She may need a story tonight when she awakens at three in the morning and a pesky monster lurks under her crib.  Mommy and daddy—you will come running and you must be able to tell a story that will calm her fears and let her know God is with her.

This will happen countless times in her life.  Some of Margot’s first words will be, “Tell me a story.”  You might tell her “Goldilocks,” “Good Night Moon,” “The Velveteen Rabbit.”  Her eyes will be wide open as she listens and she will almost always beg you, “Tell me one more story.”

That’s why we make promises this morning.  We promise to place the holy scriptures in Margot’s hands so she may know that one last story where God is with her every moment of her life.

In our second reading this morning, St. Paul told the Christians in Rome that their highest calling was to love one another.  That is one way of saying that our highest calling is to dig deep for the one last story that will comfort our friends and family.

Jesus told countless stories to do just that.  One was about ninety-nine sheep who behaved themselves and one rascal that wandered away.  The astonishing thing—unlike almost any story we know—is that the shepherd risked ninety-nine sheep in order to save one mischief-maker.  Jesus told this story so we might know the extent to which God goes to save us from disaster.  He told another story, one about forgiving a person.  How many times must we forgive someone who has done us wrong?  Jesus’ story suggested not once or twice but at a bare minimum of 490 times.

These stories are worth telling…and hearing.

Never forget this: we are not the only ones making promises this morning.  God makes promises, too, to Margot and to all of us, to be with us and to love us no matter what life brings.

Think of all the people who need such a story this morning.

What story should we tell the people in the Caribbean and Florida?  Might we tell them that once upon a time there was a horrific storm a thousand times worse than Irma or Harvey?

Remember? God was so frustrated with the treachery of his children that he annihilated just about everything and everyone, except for Noah and his family and a few scraggly animals on a rickety boat.  As the waters finally began to subside, after forty days and forty nights of terror, God was heartbroken by the destruction God had rained down on the beloved creation.  The final part of the story which we must never forget is how God stretched a rainbow across the sky.  You can see the tears sliding down God’s face as he says, “Never again will I deliver such devastation on my dear children.”  We promise to tell this story on God’s behalf to the people of the Caribbean and Florida this morning.

Oh yes, think of everyone who needs a story.

Tomorrow morning, I will offer prayers at Engine 40/ Ladder 35 Firehouse.  Twelve of thirteen men on duty at the firehouse two blocks from here at 66th and Amsterdam perished that day when they went to rescue their brothers and sisters at the raging Twin Tower inferno.  (The relic at the altar this morning is Twin Tower rubble now kept permanently in the pastor’s office; it was a gift from the firehouse to Holy Trinity’s pastor, Robert Scholz, who provided exemplary pastoral care during those horrific days.)  What story might I tell on your behalf, tomorrow, to parents, wives, and children who continue to grieve the loss of loved ones?  I probably will tell them something like this, “Yea though I walk through the valley of death, I shall fear no evil.”

It is not always easy to keep our promise, to tell a compelling and comforting story of God’s presence when evil lurks and does its dirty dance.  That is why we dare not forget the story of the baptismal waters where, here today, great sea monsters will try to grab Margot’s little toe and pull her under and yet, in the midst of the fury, God will go to battle to rout the great Leviathan of the deep and to save Margot.  Is it any wonder she might scream as water streams down her face?

The only story finally worth telling is when, once upon a time, the world tried to keep God from loving us by hanging Jesus on the cross.  You know the story—the greatest one ever told.  Death was not the end of that story nor can it ever be when we are telling God’s stories.  Never!  We champion life: for hurricane victims, families grieving the loss of firemen sixteen years later, and dreaming refugees fearful that they might be carted off from this country they love.

Keep telling that story to Margot, when she dances for the first time, when she walks down the aisle with the love of her life, when she has her first baby.  Tell that story, too, when she breaks up with her first boyfriend and is crushed, when she comes down with a weird cough that while likely harmless scares you to death; tell the story of God’s love when she calls late at night from college a million miles away and says, “Mommy and daddy, I need to talk.”

That’s why we go to the water now.  Yes, in years to come, tell Margot Elizabeth Rocchio about what happened today, something like this: “My dear and precious Margot, once upon a time, long ago, we dressed you in a beautiful white gown and took you to church.  You were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and then you were anointed with oil because you are a queen in God’s sight.  Yes, on that day, precious Margot, God promised to love you forever and ever.”

“New York, New York: A Number One, Top of the List”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“New York, New York: A Number One, Top of the List”
Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
September 3, 2017 (13th Sunday after Pentecost”
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

After fourteen months in the Big Apple, I think I’m starting to get Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York thing, the “A Number One, Top of the List” thing—who doesn’t want that!

Not in a million years did I ever imagine I would ever consider betraying my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates and contemplate becoming a Yankee fan.  The Pirate’s victory over the Yankees in the 1960 World Series is tattooed on my heart.  When little Bill Mazeroski hit THE HOMERUN in the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game, the Pirates became world champions.  You zealous Yankee fans remember Maris and Mantle, Berra and Howard.  I will never forget Dick Groat and “The Deacon” Vernon Law, and my hero, number 21, Roberto Clemente.

Funny thing, though, I might be edging over to the dark side.  Yesterday, Dagmar and I walked into Yankee Stadium for the fourth time this year.  I saw “27 World Series Championships” emblazoned just above the press box in that adorable, swirly Yankee script and gazed out at Monument Park where The Babe, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio are immortalized.  It all made me a tad teary-eyed.

Who doesn’t want to be “A Number One, Top of the List” in New York, New York?  Jesus’ disciples wanted it, too—well, not exactly in New York, but you get the drift.  Peter and his cohorts dropped their fishing nets and tax ledgers and abandoned their families with high hopes that following the Son of the living God would bring them fame and perhaps even fortune.

We all join the disciples with our lofty wishes—for our jobs and families and here for our church.  But just as we start getting all puffy-chested about our accomplishments, Jesus blasts us, “Get behind me, Satan!”

We immediately lean on Peter for support because Jesus’ words devastate us so and then, in the midst of our swoon, just for good measure, Jesus adds, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

It makes no sense.  We always thought being a Christian would make us happier, maybe even successful, famous and rich, certainly “A Number One, Top of the List.”

Arnold Bruins will be baptized in a few moments.  I love adult baptisms because adults have the option of running out of here on their own steam right before the water is lavishly poured.

Anne Lamott writes of this messy thing Arnold is about to do: “Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rain and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time it’s holy, and absurd. It’s about surrender, giving in to all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched.”

As water soaks through Arnold, he will be reminded that he has just joined a community that, on our best days, tries to follow Saint Paul’s mandate: “Bless those who persecute you…do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly…Do not repay anyone evil for evil…live peaceably with all…”

In groups like Rotary, when you join, they make it all nice and pretty.  I know this because I once was in Rotary, was actually the president-elect before we moved out of town.   They shook my hand, gave me a nice shiny pin with a fake diamond in the middle, and said they were a great group that did marvelous things for people like eradicating polio throughout the world—and that was all true.  In this place when you join, we drench you and, for good measure, in case you aren’t already humiliated enough, we say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

It’s the darndest thing.  Is it any wonder the church isn’t exactly A Number One, Top of the List?

Douglas John Hall is now ninety years old and taught theology at McGill University in Montreal for many years.  I adore Dr. Hall if for no other reason than because of a few lines he wrote in his book, “The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World.”  I have sent his words to countless pastors whose churches faced seemingly insurmountable crisis and I have even sent them to a few bishops encountering cantankerous congregations and sometimes harebrained pastors—there are only a few!  I now share Dr. Hall’s words as a gift to you: “How could we have listening to the Scriptures all these centuries…like the Beatitudes (“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account”) and yet formed in our collective mind the assumption that Christian faith would be credible only if it were popular, numerically superior, and respected universally?  How could we have been contemplating the ‘despised and rejected’ figure at the center of this faith for two millennia and come away with the belief that his body, far from being despised and rejected, out to be universally approved and embraced.”

Oddly, Jesus calls us to be a community that measures being “A Number One, Top of the List” by whether we take up the cross and follow him.  God willing, we will call success what the rest of the world calls failure: we will give our riches away to the poor; we will do our best to bite our tongues when someone has been very nasty to us; and we will even try to love those who can’t stand us and whom, frankly, we find insufferable as well.

That is the community Arnold joins as we now pour water all over him. Together we proclaim that being “A Number One, Top of the List” has everything to do with following Jesus and we will do our best to love one another in Christ’s name no matter how tough life’s challenges may become and, yes, even if the Yankees don’t make it to the World Series.  In spite of it all, we believe we are “A Number One, Top of the List” because we have been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“Now That Peter Has Answered, What Do You Say?”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Now That Peter Has Answered, What Do You Say?”
Matthew 16: 13-20
August 27, 2017 (12th Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West

Who doesn’t love answering Jesus’ question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

The disciples immediately got in on the act. They raised their hands the moment Jesus called on them and they breathlessly answered, “People are saying you are John the Baptist, Elijah, or Jeremiah, and others say you are one of the prophets.”

We want to answer, too. We want to be the first to tell Jesus what others are saying: “Some say you are the best person who ever lived, kind of a super Martin Luther King, Jr. or a wonder-working Mahatma Gandhi but even better; others claim you are almost like God; some actually declare you are God; and still others confess that you are completely human and completely divine all at the same time.

Oh yes, we love reporting what others say: “Did you hear what President Trump said yesterday; my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Burt, always said this about the Palmer Method of penmanship; my pastor preached exactly on that issue last Sunday; my mommy warned of that when I was six-years old.”

We are quite proficient reporting on what others say.

Now, let me forewarn you: never come knocking at my office door and say, “Pastor, people are saying.” Never! To be blunt, if you tell me, “People are saying,” I will look you straight in the eye and say, “I don’t want to hear what others are saying, I want to hear what you say! Put your money where your mouth is.” Oh, and by the way, expect the exact same thing from me…at least on my best days.

I know this sounds unusually harsh but I am only trying to do what Jesus did. After the disciples blurted out all they had heard regarding what others were saying about him, Jesus asked them point blank, “But who do you say that I am?” As you might imagine, there was dead silence, as there so often is when convictions are required rather than opinions. Answering “Who do you say that I am?” demands guts; we must stand up and be counted.

Actually, one person did blurt out who he thought Jesus was and, as you might imagine, it was good ol’ Peter. Never shy to offer his slant on matters of the day, Peter instantly declared, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Don’t you love him?

And for that answer, Jesus presented him with this impressive ecclesiastical accolade: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it”…Oh, and by the way, we have followed suit and put up a mosaic in Peter’s honor, right here at Holy Trinity altar’s, just off to Jesus’ side.

I don’t for a minute think Jesus called Peter “Rocky” because he was a theological genius: Jesus had to know from experience that Peter was not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. I also doubt whether Peter’s new nickname had much, if anything, to do with him offering his own courageous opinion rather than that of others. Jesus must have had an inkling that, only hours before he would die, Peter would cower when it mattered most. A young girl would query Peter, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean?” and Peter would get all shaky-kneed, just about upchuck, and stutter, “I tell you, I do not know the man”—and he would allegedly do this not just once but three times. Sounds like no answer at all.

Whatever the case, never forget Jesus’ response to Peter’s answer as to who he was: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” When all was said and done, Peter’s confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” had nothing to do with his convictions, with his heroism, or even with his brilliance; it had everything to do with God. Peter’s answer to “who do you say that I am” may seem like he had just won the ¾ of a billion-dollar heavenly lottery, but don’t be fooled. Peter didn’t even realize that his answer actually meant that God had come very close to dolts like him and would come close to all those who followed him down through the centuries, including you and me. No matter how idiotic our answers regarding who Jesus is or how profound they might sound, Jesus comes to us anyway. We must never forget, just as for Peter, God has provided us with our best answer and that is Jesus who comes to be our brother.

I think that’s why Jesus called Peter the rock and why he calls us the rock in our own peculiar way. We can be such cowards, falling back on the old saw, “people are saying.” We can sometimes tremble and claim we hardly know Jesus when our answers matter most. In spite of our foul-ups and flame outs, God has come to earth in Jesus to put up with our foolishness and cowardice and even when we try to convince others that we are the bee’s knees.

Yes, we are the rock, not because we are so much better than the rest of the world or cleverer than just about anyone else or fearless heroes beyond compare. We know full well that our boldest moments often come when huge cheering crowds march at our sides and we don’t have a thing to lose; likewise, our worst moments often come when we are standing all alone and must say exactly what we think. In spite of all our corny, cowardly, and halfhearted answers, Jesus for some odd reason builds the church on our scrawny and sometimes pompous shoulders. If we can at least know that—and that will be our best answer—we can almost certainly be like Peter, the rock, called to serve Christ here in this place at 65th and Central Park West.

Who knows, maybe someday there might be a mosaic of us right up there with Peter, standing at Jesus’ side! Amazing, huh?