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Sermons

“Frolicking Down at the River”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Frolicking Down at the River”
(Mark 1: 4-11)
The Baptism of Our Lord (transferred) & The Baptism of Vivienne Marie Francis
January 14, 2018

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The gospel of Mark opens this way, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Hearing the words “good news,” we expect quaint mangers and gentle lambs, regal magi and beautiful Mary. What Mark does instead is launches off with a thirty-year old Jesus hanging out with the riff raff down at the river.

I know a thing or two about rivers having grown up 600 yards from Wheeling Creek, a pintsize tributary emptying into the mighty Ohio. The underbellies of rivers are not pretty. Rusty beer cans bob along their banks, dead fish float in the weeds, rats scamper here and there, big ol’ black snakes slither amidst the other creepy flotsam and jetsam…I wonder if the Jordan River was like that.

You can imagine the crowd Jesus joined. They had failed every New Year’s resolution they had ever made and this time around were restlessly waiting to jump into the Jordan for John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to see how that might work.

If Mark is to believed, that Jesus’ baptism is good news, what’s up?

Jesus was with pimps and prostitutes, for goodness sakes, rednecks and ultranationalists, drunks and deplorables, the wild and wooly. Jesus wasn’t teaching them how to hold their noses and swim. Oh no, he dove in with them and got as drenched as a puppy in a fire hydrant.

Let’s admit it though: there is a sort of romanticism about it all. You know what I mean: there are sinners whose misguided ways and ugly diatribes do not irritate us in the least. We all have our favorite sinners whose foibles and foul-ups make us laugh and applaud.

A good rule I learned in divinity school is if any bit of scripture, including Jesus at the river with the sinners, doesn’t make us squirm, it is highly unlikely we are grasping how it shocked the original hearers.

The early church was horrified by Jesus frolicking at the river. What in the world was he doing with those stinking sinners? Wasn’t Jesus pure and spotless? Shouldn’t he have been hiding in the bushes, folding his pure hands in prayer and piously begging for God’s mercy on those dreadful sinners?

And come to think of it, aren’t there people in our own day who can never be washed clean, who deserve our endless rage, whose company we should never keep? I am sure you can think of one or two such people this morning. That, by the way, is the way of the world: create insiders and outsiders, good and bad, saved and eternally doomed. Remarkably, that’s not what Jesus did. He frolicked with the sinners down at the river.

Early on Friday morning, at about 2:30 in the morning, I woke up tossing and turning. The very question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth,” weighed heavy on my mind. Our president had apparently made denigrating remarks about the people of Haiti and Africa. My mind was running wild: can anything good come out of Haiti or Bethlehem, Namibia or Jerusalem—I had baptized kids from these very places. And, of course, more to the point, can anything good come out of Wheeling, West Virginia (my hometown) or New York City (where you and I live and do ministry together) or God knows where?” Again, Jesus joined all manner of folks, the good, the bad, and the ugly, people from Haiti and Africa; he even dared dip his toes with the ornery folks of the wild Upper West Side.

Oh my, do we need dreamers these days who have the courage to imagine people from Haiti and Africa, from the Republican and Democratic side of the aisle, all part of God’s kingdom. We do well to remember such a dreamer this morning, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.” He imagined all kinds of children gathering together at the river, splishing and splashing to beat the band.

In a few moments, Vivienne Marie Francis will be baptized. As water pours down her little face, God will call her “beloved daughter” just as so long-ago God called Jesus “beloved son.” You and I will promise to spend a lifetime helping Vivienne remember this day when she was washed in holiness, when God lovingly looked in her eyes and said, “You are mine, dear Vivienne.” Sadly, there will almost certainly be other voices in Vivienne’s life—as there are in all of ours—voices that will try to convince her that she is not so special in God’s eyes. But you and I, family and brothers and sisters in Christ, will tell Vivienne over and over again that she is special in God’s sight.

And so, let us now go to the water hand-in-hand with Vivienne and let us watch as God, more delighted than a river otter, frolics with her and us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“This Wretched Child Will Disturb Us All”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“This Wretched Child Will Disturb Us All”
(Matthew 2: 1-12)
The Epiphany of Our Lord (transferred)
January 7, 2018
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A blessed New Year to you and a blessed Epiphany—actually the 13th day of Christmas, not the 12th! And a blessed 150th Anniversary to The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity as we begin celebrating this astonishing year.

We do well on this first Sunday of our 150th anniversary year to remember one of this congregation’s luminary pastors of yesteryear of which there have been quite a few! The Rev. Paul Scherer was Holy Trinity’s pastor from 1920 to 1945. He preached on national radio and delivered the preeminent preaching lectures, the Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School, in 1943. After his ministry here, he went on to teach preaching at Union Theological Seminary at 120th and Broadway.

One Epiphany morning long ago, Dr. Scherer stood in this pulpit and said: “[The Gospel] makes trouble even at Christmas time. Matthew says, ‘When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him’ (Matt. 2:3). I wonder if it should bother us more than it does?” His remarks are as timely today as they were nearly eighty years ago.

The good reverend was suggesting to worshipers like us that we too easily forget what a threat this tiny child is. He went on, “This wretched child has come to disturb us all.”

Whether true or apocryphal, a pastor, who worked for our national church when its offices were at Madison Avenue and 36th Street, told me there was a day when members were driven up to our doors in limousines and greeted by ushers in tails and white gloves and then grandly escorted into the comforting confines of this hallowed hall.

Is it any wonder Dr. Scherer went on to say that Epiphany morning after all were settled in: “The candlelight service is so lovely. The carols, we say, are ‘out of this world.’ They are perhaps too far out.” The pastor must have seen firsthand how prone we are at taming this wretched Child of Bethlehem in order to appease the status quo.

I imagine that was the case for the chief priests and scribes as well. They, like us, were pretty good folks who probably did the best they could. They were thrilled to be at King Herod’s side, enthralled by his electrifying charisma. They had to make a few compromises along the way, of course they did. Herod after all was as paranoid as could be. The religious leaders had to be sickened by Herod’s dastardly slaughter of the little boys two years old and under who threatened his throne, but hey, that’s the price we pay to be close to the king.

Who isn’t exhilarated by power and influence? Don’t we all wish our ministry to be more magnificent: perhaps an even more splendid sanctuary, a loftier endowment, more powerful people? It is easy to forget that we have come to worship that disturbing child born in a barn.

Apparently, not everyone has been mesmerized by visions of grandeur. Take for instance the wise men. They followed a star and arrived in Jerusalem, a city as glamorous as New York. They came on elegant camels, were dressed in stylish robes, and brought exquisite gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Imagine what kind of king they expected.

The wise men immediately had an audience with King Herod and his band of religious scholars who knew exactly where this Christ Child was to be found: “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet…for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.” Like so many honorable religious leaders, the scribes and chief priests knew the story impeccably and yet, for whatever reason, conveniently forgot exactly who this little child was. As Pastor Scherer reminded Holy Trinity worshipers in words that continue to reverberate through this place, “This wretched child has come to disturb us all.”

What was and is so disturbing is that his rule is so gentle. Rejected aliens and unsavory sinners and nauseating poor folks gather at his lowly throne and end up forming his inner cabinet.

The wise men—call them Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar if you wish—teach us a thing or two about faithfulness. As we begin this 150th anniversary year, it will be easy to long for more—a fine marble floor, a more exquisite organ, a larger endowment, a boiler that pumps heat to every room with exactness—and I have a hunch these will come in due time. But that is not where we have been called to find the Christ Child today. Today, we find him in simple stuff, bread and wine and garbled words of this boondock preacher.

This building was filled to capacity on Wednesday evening as our choirs and instrumentalists thrilled those who came to hear the magical Praetorius’ Vespers. As the sounds of “Good Christians Friends Rejoice” echoed from floor to rafter and from side aisle to side aisle, the gathered throng clapped and rejoiced with the angels. And yet, the little child of Bethlehem was also lurking somewhere else, somewhere beyond the beaten path to Jerusalem or even Bethlehem where we expect him most.

The music I heard upstairs guided me like a star downstairs where I found God’s simple Son gathered with twelve timid women who sought warm refugee on a frigid evening; they huddled in the inn called Holy Trinity Winter Women’s Shelter. That was magical as well and well worth a standing ovation.

I am not certain you caught it, but after the wise men adored the Christ Child, Matthew’s gospel writes, “And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.”

It is easy to be mesmerized by the power and splendor of Herod’s dreams; it is far more challenging to grasp that God’s Son is already here amidst chipped linoleum, a rented organ, and a creaky heating system, and even among you and me. Perhaps that is why, after all these years, Pastor Scherer continues to remind us, “This wretched child has come to disturb us all.”

May God bless us in this 150th year at Holy Trinity, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“The Perfect Gift”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“The Perfect Gift”
Luke 2: 22-40
First Sunday of Christmas (December 31, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

Every Christmas, one of my biggest thrills, next to hauling home our tree blocks on end and celebrating our dear Savior’s birth with you, is contemplating the fantasy gifts in the annual Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogue.  A few years ago, I so wanted to give Dagmar Neiman Marcus’ dancing fountains created by the folks who did the ones outside the Bellagio in Las Vegas; we could have had those fountains in our back yard, choreographed to music of our choosing (thank heavens I didn’t give Dagmar the fountains because moving them from San Diego to Manhattan would have been a bear and putting them on Holy Trinity’s rooftop would have been virtually impossible).

This year’s Neiman Marcus gifts were more practical.  There was the pair of Rolls-Royces, one blue, one orange, for the paltry sum of $885,375. I didn’t spring for the set because I couldn’t afford the parking costs after splurging on the autos.  The more charming gift was the one Dagmar and I contemplated giving you: instead of squeezing into our apartment following today’s Mass for the 2nd Annual Miller’s New Year’s Eve Sherry Hour, we could have had 150 rooms at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square, tonight, New Year’s Eve!  Imagine if we had purchased that gift: we would all soon be off for a Times Square rooftop extravaganza with food, drinks, DJ, killer view of the ball drop, and rooms for each of you. All for $1.6 million!

It is never easy to give the perfect gift.  There was that one, the one wrapped up at the Presentation of Our Lord in Jerusalem.  Mary and Joseph took their first born to the Temple and did as God’s law to Moses stipulated: they were purified after childbirth and they consecrated their first-born to God and offered a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.

One of the people awaiting the perfect gift was old Simeon.  He had been at the temple for years, hoping the gift would bring his salvation and the salvation of the entire world.  You can imagine Simeon’s delight as Mary and Joseph placed their tiny child into his gnarled hands; you can see his cloudy eyes sparkle as he lifted this perfect gift heavenwards and proclaimed: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples.”  He could shut his weary eyes anytime now for he had finally received what he had been awaiting, God’s little Son.

Only moments after Simeon lifted the Babe of Bethlehem, Anna, who had spent her widowhood at the temple, night and day, fasting and praying, also savored this heavenly gift.

We Lutherans are particularly fond of Anna and Simeon. In what is perhaps most unique to our Lutheran tradition, we sing Simeon’s gorgeous Nunc Dimittis after receiving Holy Communion: “Now, let your servant go in peace…My own eyes have seen the salvation…”

The one holy catholic and apostolic church adores singing Simeon’s song at Compline, our final night prayer before closing our eyes at the end of day.  We are like children praying, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”  Along with Simeon, we close our eyes in stillness, confident that God protects us as darkness settles in.

We sing Simeon’s song one more time, at the close of the funeral liturgy, when our loved ones have closed their eyes the final time this side of the kingdom come.  Immediately after we have heard the pastor say, “Receive your servant into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light,” with tears streaming down our faces, we join Simeon in song, “Lord, now let your servant go in peace.”

Simeon and Anna, though in their autumn years, were crammed with vigorous hope. They gathered at their beloved temple and reminisced about the past but also dreamed of the future.  The past summoned them into the future; they were confident that their and our future is in God’s hands.

We are called to be Simeon and Anna here at Holy Trinity.  Beginning tomorrow, we will spend a year reminiscing about 150 years of exemplary ministry in this place.  We will recall the saints who have lifted up the Christ Child for the salvation of the world.  We will do more than look backward and reminisce, however.  Like Anna and Simeon, we will also hope.  We will sing stunning music, hear the Lutheran church’s finest preachers.  Our calling has been and will continue to be to wait for our salvation to come to this great city of New York as a vulnerable and loving child, Jesus Christ our Lord, and then to tell the world what we have heard and seen and tasted.

The Christ Child is the perfect gift for a time such as this, for us, for those we love, and for those we are called to serve.  Happy New Year and Happy 150th, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“Glad Tidings of Great Joy”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Glad Tidings of Great Joy”
Luke 2: 1-20
Christmas Eve (December 24, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

On behalf of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity, I wish you a very happy Christmas!  Your presence adds wonder to this holy night and we are thrilled that you are here!

Let me offer my sincerest apologies in advance with hopes that I don’t place a damper on this glorious Christmas evening.  Every preaching professor vehemently warns against what I am about to do.  But please bear with me as I tell you the truth this one time.

Over the past forty-one years, I have found preparing Christmas Eve sermons an excruciatingly grueling task and this one has been even more so. It isn’t because I began preparing yesterday at the last minute; oh no, I have pondered this sermon for months, meditating on Saint Luke’s Christmas gospel, reading sermons of the great preachers, and perusing my file of Christmas quotes stowed away just for this extraordinary evening.  I know you come with great anticipation: to behold stunning decorations, to sing glorious carols, and to be bathed in beautiful candlelight.  I suspect you even come with hopes of being transfixed by this sermon, or at the very least, hoping it will be mercifully brief.

That’s why I have toiled over this sermon.  I have stared into space for hours on end, frantically searching for a salutary word worth saying to you and just as quickly deleting each typed word as too mediocre and unfitting for a night such as this.  Some of our staff have peeked into my office and asked, “Is everything alright, Wilk?”  My best guess why it is so impossible to prepare this blasted thing is because I so desperately want it to be perfect for you and, as you have already surmised, perfection is beyond my grasp and, as you all know, that can be terribly discouraging.

The difficult part does not come in reflecting on that first Christmas 2000 years ago—that’s easy.  Mary and Joseph placing the Babe in a manger because there was no room in the inn, angels announcing “glad tidings of great joy” to the shepherds and the shepherds then running off to Bethlehem to see the great thing that had taken place—we love this story and are enchanted by the wonder of it all; it grows in every new telling in indescribable ways.

We also love embellishing the story, adding a little here, a bit there, trying to make it more perfect than it was the first time around.  Think of “Away in the Manger”: “The cattle are lowing; the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes…”  Really?  The Bible never mentions the baby Jesus not crying but we have romanticized his birth to make it flawless.  And that other carol, “Silent Night”: you will easily sing the words without the program in a few minutes, “All is calm, all is bright,” and tears will roll down your cheeks—I hate to disillusion you but my instincts suggest that Bethlehem, rather than being silent, was a raucous place with frazzled throngs dashing this way and that to sign up for Emperor Augustus’ exasperating registration.

We have even touched up the Christmas story in our northern climes to make it even more enchanting, adding ever-present Christmas trees no matter that the trees must be shipped in from Vermont and Pennsylvania and Quebec.  And then there is that dreaming of a white Christmas: did you know there is only a 22% chance of it ever snowing in New York City on Christmas Eve?  But I will confess, that part about hearing sleigh bells—perhaps no snow but if you wander over to Central Park following our Christmas Eve celebration you might hear the jingle, jingle of horse drawn carriages—exquisite but not quite perfect.

While the memories of yesteryear are enchanting, they can play tricks on us and haunt us pretty badly.  A baby that doesn’t cry, a silent night, sleigh bells in the snow—is it any wonder we never achieve perfection in our family gatherings and personal lives and even in the sermons we write and hear?  Is it surprising that some call Christmas “depression alley” as we stare idly into space, realizing we will never experience the perfection our memories and dreams create?

Oh, for sure, we should remember Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus; we should fondly recall going to Christmas Eve Candlelight services with grandma and grandpa and mom and dad years ago.  And yet, the wonder of Christmas is not just that God came 2000 years ago but that God comes tonight and tells us, “For unto you is born this day a Savior.” God comes, not amidst the perfection we long for, but amidst our mixed-up lives, cockeyed country, and reeling world.  Think of Emperor Augustus and wicked Herod, the befuddled husband and the highly pregnant teenager on a sweaty donkey’s back about to give birth to the Son of God here on earth; ponder the stinking stable and the pushy crowds.  That’s how Christmas was the first time around and, dear friends, that is how it is tonight…Hardly perfect, but, then again, when God comes to town, Christmas is always perfect.  It is as if God says, “Perfect or not, here I come.”

I invite you in a few moments to cup your hands and watch mother Mary gently place her precious Child into the manger you have created; listen attentively as she lovingly says to you, “The body of the Christ Child given for you.”

I pray that in years to come you will have fond memories of worshiping here tonight and that those memories will help you discover the Christ Child wherever you may be and in whatever you face.  Even when all is not quite perfect—just like this sermon—may God come to you and proclaim glad tidings of great joy, “ For unto you is born this night a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”

“Pondering Heavenly Mystery”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Pondering Heavenly Mystery”
Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 24, 2017)
Luke 1: 26-38
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

In a few hours, multitudes will gather here to celebrate our dear Savior’s birth.  Many will come for the spectacle of decorations and candlelight and the magic of carols and hearing again the unforgettable story, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…”  The only question will be: will the announcement of our dear Savior’s birth be wondrous news or ho-hum news for those who come?

For Jesus’ mother, the news of Christ’s coming birth was wondrous news; it was also inconceivable news. Not in a million years did Mary imagine she would become the Mother of God—that is the difference between God’s good news and our hackneyed news: God’s ways are not our ways and almost always set us on edge.

The Bible reports that when Mary heard, “The Lord is with you,” she “pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”  She was frightened and the angel had to reassure her, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”  Why would we be any different?

Sometimes, rather than delighting in the flabbergasting news that God did a new thing through Mary, we feel compelled to ask all manner of pigheaded questions, squeezing out every ounce of wonder from God’s coming to earth as a tiny baby. The operating principle seems to be: if the virgin birth makes no sense to me, it cannot be true.  Rather than lifting ourselves up to God’s marvelous ways, we try to drag God deep into the gutter of our humdrum understandings.

On Thursday evening, we went with our son, Caspar, to the Broadway musical, “The Book of Mormon.”  It is funny and quite profane.  It is a spoof on the Mormons but it could just as easily have been a spoof on Christians.  Beliefs like the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ from the dead are also ripe for skeptics’ ridicule.  The things that really matter for us Christians, our central tenets, require a leap of faith that transcends how we typically think.  Without faith, our beliefs, especially Jesus being the Son of God and born of the Virgin Mary, are simply convenient material for Broadway scorn and frivolity.

We can do better…We must do better…The world craves better.  I’m not talking about the “Book of Mormon,” by the way, I’m taking about lifting up the central matters of our Christian faith.

While the Virgin Mary was flabbergasted by the angelic news that she was about to become the Mother of God, never once did she protest, “Angel Gabriel, your words are claptrap.”  Instead, she pondered how this could possibly be.  Even after her little baby boy was born and the shepherds had adored her precious little one, “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.”  She did her best to comprehend what God was up to.

I long for a community like Mary, one that finds its greatest joy in celebrating the deepest mysteries of life.  We can find mystery right here at baptism when plain old New York City tap water is stirred up with God’s word and a little baby becomes a child of God before our very eyes; we can find mystery this morning as the ordinary stuff of bread and wine become stunning gifts from heaven.  On our best days, we dig into our heart like Mary so we can proclaim with joy, “For with God nothing will be impossible.”

You have certainly noticed how young and old alike yearn for mystery and wonder.  Millions are standing in line to see the movie, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”  And it isn’t just at the movies.  Our elderly homebound members are enthralled as I read to them on your behalf, “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  We long for something beyond the drivel that our tiny minds can grasp, something that converts our ordinary routines into heavenly amazement.

Oh, to be a community that believes God can enter our mixed-up lives with mystery and wonder in inexplicable ways…and for the better!  Has this ever happened to you?  You drank ferociously for thirty-two years, consuming a fifth of bargain-basement vodka every day to numb your pain; your life was all but ruined.  You entered rehab but fell off the wagon, not once but repeatedly.  Then one day, mysteriously—was it God?—you poured a fine bottle of Grey Goose Vodka down the drain.  And that very evening, you sheepishly attended your first AA meeting in ages, in a dingy church basement with sputtering fluorescent lights.  You gawked at the floor and mumbled a few inaudible words but audible enough, “Hi, I’m Ralph and I’m an alcoholic.”  You haven’t had a drink since, 4,966 days and counting—but, hey, who’s counting?  As you look back, while it feels awkward to admit, you believe an angel—Gabriel perhaps?—landed on your shoulder that day and said, “Do not be afraid…For with God nothing will be impossible.’”

How astonishing that when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was about to be the Mother of God, she realized she would be more than she could ever be on her own and she started singing, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”  She started imagining other things as well, that God would bring down the mighty from their thrones, exalt those of low degree, fill the hungry with good things, and even send the rich away empty.  Mary was given a vision far bigger than her own…mysterious, far-fetched, and breathtaking!

It has been 2,000 years now and we are still dreaming with Mary.  We can’t quite fathom how it will all unfold and yet, for some odd reason, we do not lose heart.

May your finest Christmas gift be the faith to trust that God can do the impossible for you and those you love.

“Swallow Some Darkness”

Swallow Some Darkness”
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
(John 1: 6-8, 19-28)
December 17, 2017 (Third Sunday of Advent)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

I can only assume if you are in charge of lighting at a Broadway show, your job is to make certain the spotlight shines on the star. I also assume, from time to time, unexpected actors come out of the blue and attract more light than was previously expected.

I remember that happening in the 1969 cult classic movie, “Easy Rider. ” Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were longhaired hippies traveling across the United States on their souped up Harley Davidson choppers. Everyone knew these two, but the actor that mesmerized me was someone I had never heard of by the name of Jack Nicholson; he played a daffy lawyer who bailed Captain America and his pal Billy out of jail.

Some stars have the charisma to push themselves into the limelight. John the Baptist was such a character. The crowds flocked to him. And yet, he refused to let the light shine his way.

“Are you the Messiah?” the crowds breathlessly wondered. “No,” said John.

“Are you Elijah?” “I am not.”

“Are you the prophet?” “No.”

Why didn’t John grab some attention?

Most of us crave center stage with shining lights. We love being told how wonderful we are.

John refused such stardom: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” These words were not even original to John; he copied them straight out of the prophet Isaiah.

John kept pointing beyond himself to the other one who, according to him, he was “not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

Are you able to point the spotlights beyond yourself? Have you ever said, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” or, at least, “I don’t have all the answers”? It’s not an easy thing to do.

People often ask me obscure Bible questions about which I am clueless. It happened at our Wednesday evening Bible study when Damon Gray asked me about a Greek word in the Nativity story. I was tempted to offer a brilliant answer even though I was clueless. My hope was that no one would notice my dim-witted response and I would look none the worse for the wear. It is almost impossible for me to say, “I don’t have a clue.” I prefer to say, “Shine the light on me!”

You have witnessed the absurdity of people who cannot sit quietly and wait on the Lord or, more to the point, cannot shut up! I have seen it. I have been to countless synod assemblies of our Lutheran church, as have quite a few of you, where the same pastors and the same lay people feel compelled to stand up and offer their unparalleled wisdom on perplexing matters; apparently, in their minds, no one else possesses their matchless knowledge. Over and over again they go to the microphone; over and over again they babble on and on and on. And then there are the others folks, the ones who rarely—actually never—stand up to speak; they are the majestic ones who know they don’t have all the answers and realize it is best to sit still, remain quiet, and wait and listen.

John the Baptist had such majesty. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes: “John the Baptist does not have the ultimate or full message—but his glory and genius is that he knows that! He hands it over to the one who does” (Richard Rohr, From Wild Man to Wise Man, pg. 48).

Advent teaches us to wait for answers that are beyond our grasp but not beyond God’s. We wait between Jesus’ coming at Bethlehem and his coming again; we have no idea when or where or how he will return and any answer seems harebrained. Sometimes we do best to be still, remain quiet, and wait and listen.

A number of years ago, during the Iraq War, the then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was asked by a reporter whether he thought the war was immoral. He paused for twelve seconds, an interminably long time for live radio, and said, “‘Immoral’ is a short word for a very long discussion” (Rupert Short, Rowan’s Rule: The Biography of the Archbishop of Canterbury, pg. 289). Archbishop Williams did not rush to offer an answer to a monstrously difficult question. He allowed the question to hang silently in the air.

I increasingly am drawn to individuals and communities who resist the need to have all the answers when no easy ones seem apparent. My favorite theologian Douglas John Hall taught for many years at McGill University in Montreal. He has committed a lifetime to grappling with weighty and challenging theological matters. Like many brilliant people who realize there is so much more they do not know than what they do know, Dr. Hall says there are occasions when we must swallow some darkness.

I heard Dr. Hall deliver three substantial lectures a few years ago when he was 84 years old. During one of those lectures, which he delivered sitting down, he spoke of swallowing some darkness. One of his most brilliant students, married and the father of a small child, was struck down with leukemia. Dr. Hall told us that he had no answer why such a dreadful thing would happen to such a remarkable young man. It was at that moment of vulnerability that Dr. Hall seemed most brilliant to me and why I continue to like him very much and why I emailed this sermon to him immediately before worship began this morning.

Perhaps that is what it is to be Advent people, a humble people whose majesty comes not in having all the answers to life’s most nagging questions but rather the dignity to wait patiently, trusting that the good Lord will provide the finest answers in due time. That is why we wait like John the Baptist and let the stage lights shine on Jesus.

And, by the way, that is why fifty-two pink roses grace our sanctuary this Third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete (“Joy Sunday”): their blooming joy reminds us that Christ’s promise to come again is with us throughout the year, even during our darkest days.

Wait, my dear friends, wait for the Lord.

“Catching Our Fancy”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Catching Our Fancy”
(Luke 1: 39-56)
Bach Vespers: J.S. Bach’s Magnificat (BWV 243)
December 10, 2017
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

Funny thing how God catches our fancy in the unlikeliest of people.

It happened three years ago when I was a pastor in San Diego.  We had a considerable outreach to the homeless community, including free medical and dental, acupuncture and legal clinics, and a hospice program for homeless dying; we fed 200 people, twice a week.  We rubbed shoulders with God’s unlikeliest friends, day-after-day.

Jordan and Addison, shall we call them, were two unlikely ones.  They came knocking at the church door and wondered if they could speak with me.  They were homeless and Addison was eight months pregnant.  Once my office door was tightly closed, they apologized profusely and embarrassedly asked if I would be willing to marry them.

For some reason—it must have been God’s grace—I said I would do more than marry them; if they wished, we would create the most magical wedding of all.  Instead of having the wedding in my office with just the two of them and me, we would have the ceremony on our church patio, immediately before the Friday morning meal.  200 of their homeless friends would be guests of honor and Jordan and Addison would process right through their midst.  My wife, Dagmar, made a beautiful bridal bouquet; Dorothy and Dale donated a stunning cake; Ladonna saw to it that the wedding couple was feted in great delight; Mary made certain that Addison had a dashing bridal dress that highlighted her stunning beauty and swollen belly.

People hardened by repeated rebuffs and shattered by years of wretched street-living watched in wonder, weeping with gladness and cheering with abandon.  When I announced Jordan and Addison as husband and wife, out-of-the-blue, a group of Anglican and Lutheran theologians who happened to be at our church as part of the national gathering of the American Academy of Religion broke into a spectacular rendition of “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.”

The wedding caught everyone’s fancy.  A picture of it appeared in our national church magazine, “Living Lutheran,” and a friend of mine who teaches the highfalutin subject of Trinitarian theology at one of our seminaries told me that the wedding was the most powerful presentation of the week for a number of his colleagues and him: “Wilk, I felt like old Simeon in the Bible who upon seeing the baby Jesus said, ‘I can now go in peace, for I have seen my salvation.’ That’s how I felt after Jordan and Addison’s wedding.”

In a few moments we will hear Mary’s “Magnificat.” While the seventeen-piece orchestra and the Holy Trinity Bach Choir will lift us to the angels, never forget the song was first sung by a young woman who would soon be highly pregnant and snubbed by refined company; people would snidely ask, “And who exactly is the daddy of her baby?”   And, of course, to this very day, outrageous comments continue to be made about Mary as her calling as the Mother of God is compared to the sleazy goings on of an adult politician reported to have had dalliances with young, minor girls.

Mary and Joseph were not terribly different from Jordan and Addison; they were suspect candidates in playing such a significant part in God coming to earth. God could have chosen kings and queens in ornate palaces but instead opted to come to earth by way of a very poor and very young girl.

In one of my five favorite books, “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” Willa Cather writes:  “There is always something charming in the idea of greatness returning to simplicity—the queen making hay among the country fields—but how much more endearing was the belief that [the Holy Family], after so many centuries of history and glory, should return to play their first parts in the persons of a humble Mexican family, the lowliest of the lowly, the poorest of the poor—in a wilderness at the end of the world where the angels could scarcely find them.”

Willa Cather’s poetic eyes saw God coming by way of poor Mexican peasants and this caught her fancy.

In these days of Advent, as you watch and wait and listen, may you have poetic eyes.  Resist letting Bach’s music sentimentalize the “Magnificat;” refuse to let it lift you into the netherworld of luxurious aesthetic enchantment.  Instead, carefully attend to the words: “For God has regarded the low estate of his hand-maiden…He has put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.”

Watch God come to Mary and Joseph and Jordan and Addison.  And, if you are so blessed, may God come to you as well in those places and on those occasions where angels can scarcely find you.  May the charm of it all catch your fancy and may you, with Mary, proclaim, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

“Those Holy Fools”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Those Holy Fools”
(Mark 1: 1-8)
2nd Sunday in Advent (December 10, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

The beloved gospel of Saint Luke tells the Christmas story with such childlike enchantment.  Heavenly announcements are made to unsuspecting women like Elizabeth and Mary and the baby Jesus lies in the manger with adoring shepherds and singing angels.  This is the Christmas story we love.

There is another story, though, a more adult one.  The gospel of Mark does not ease us into Christmas; Mark never mentions the baby Jesus, not once.  No sooner has Mark begun, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” than we hear that raving fool, John the Baptist, down at the muddy stream called Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Mark’s gospel does not make for cheery Christmas cards or enchanting nativity scenes above fireplaces.  If you disagree, look at your own home decorations: does John the Baptist appear anywhere in your house along with Mary and Joseph, Wise Men and shepherds, sheep and camels?

Mark’s gospel is not for those obsessed with “merry Christmas” as they stand around the cash register singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus;” the account of John the Baptist has not been read at a single office Christ party in history, those affairs where we prefer singing “Silent Night” with spiked eggnog in hand.

The house lights never soften in Mark’s gospel; we are not offered lovely little candles; there are no sweet carols with lovely harps and strings.  No, dear friends, there is not an iota of sentimentality.  From the very start, Mark’s gospel screams for a change of heart, for repentance of sins, beginning, of course, with each of us.

One of my favorite descriptions of John the Baptist comes from Sara Miles’ book, “Jesus Freak”: “John the Baptist was, not to put too fine a point on it, a total nutcase, sort of like the unwashed guy with the skanky dreadlocks and the plastic bags over his socks who sleeps in the entryway of the library…He railed at decent temple-goers, shouting that their sacred ceremonies were useless, threatening them with damnation if they didn’t repent.”

I have discovered that the people best able to shake us up and get us to change our lives for the better are the ones who have nothing to lose.  They tend not to rub elbows with the big shots in town and rarely are they the pastors of big steepled churches with fat endowments.  They come, instead, from ministries like the Salvation Army where folks shake bells and dress in silly outfits; they are to be found at the rundown Rock of Ages Church with the gaudy neon cross out front.   Most of us sneer at these people and call their ministries irrelevant and yet they invariably say things we don’t want to hear and cause us think in ways we never have before.  Deep down, they make us realize how beholden we are to power, privilege, and the almighty dollar.  You see, these ministries don’t have to impress a soul!

John the Baptist was like that.  He was a Nazirite devoted to God, living in the godforsaken desert far from polite society; he didn’t trim his beard or cut his hair.  Even when he was in prison, he dared tell the ruler and his new wife, who until recently had been his sister-in-law, that his manner of living was shameful…You have noticed, I’m sure, that powerful rulers and important people tend to get hopping mad when their unsavory dating and bedroom habits are critiqued.  Pure and simple: John was a pain in the neck until his neck was loped off and was no more.  John the Baptist had nothing to lose either.

By the way, I have lots to lose when it comes to doing the right thing.  I make all manner of compromises so that I can retain some semblance of being a successful pastor in this city that never sleeps.  I cozy up to people who appear to make a difference in this world and dare not offend anyone who might fill Holy Trinity’s coffers.  It is hard for me to repent, to turn around, to confess my sins.  About the only time I stand up for what matters is when it will make you and me look pretty prophetic without touching my retirement account or Holy Trinity’s endowment.  Do you know what I mean? We prefer pointing fingers at other people’s unsultry habits and tend not to critique our own dastardly behaviors.

Because my life is so compromised—and perhaps yours as well, God sends folks like John the Baptist our way.  They drive us nuts because they are always pointing out how out of whack our ways of living are with God’s ways.

It is why God blesses us with John the Baptist and other holy fools like him.

Think of the Amish communities.  Whenever we talk about such out of step groups, we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to prove the inconsistencies in their lifestyles and, yet still, as we watch them go down the road in their horse-drawn buggies with their long beards and black dresses, we catch ourselves lamenting how suffocated we have become by our insatiable desires for more and more.  Don’t the Amish folks “foolish ways” cause you to yearn for a simpler life?

On my best days, I thank God for holy fools.

I give thanks for monastic communities where people retreat to faraway places, close the doors for a lifetime, and pray to God for the life of the world.  Did you know we have a Lutheran monastery in Oxford, Michigan, called St. Augustine’s House?  The prior (leader of that community) trained me to be a pastor and spent his entire ministry in our nation’s toughest inner-city neighborhoods before heading off to pray during the autumn years of his life.  This monastery’s very presence makes me wish I prayed and worshiped a whole lot more.

Yes, I give thanks for the foolish ones who do not seem as stained by the incessant desires and demands of the world than I.  They actually try to do as Jesus said: they sell all they have and give it to the poor; they take Jesus’ words seriously, “Love your enemies;” they even pray unceasingly.

They are the gentle fools who invite us to look at ourselves.  They are John the Baptist’s friends who dare to call us to repent, to give up our incessant habits of greed and power-grabbing.  They tell us that if we turn around, even a bit, and look for Christ coming as a little child, our lives will be much better for it.

“Living on God’s Clock”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Living on God’s Clock”
(Mark 13:24-37)
1st Sunday of Advent (December 3, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

Advent comes from the Latin word adventus which means coming.  Jesus promised that he would come again but he left precious few particulars as to his exact time table. He did entrust us with this: “For you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or a dawn.”

Funny thing: while we do not know when Jesus will come again, we continue to anticipate his return, lighting candles one-by-one on this ringed wreath, clothing the church in the dark blue bruise of the winter’s morning sky just before sunrise, and marking our waiting, day-by-day, with the lovely Holy Trinity Advent calendar of your prayerful making.

Admit it: waiting can be tough as darkness envelops us and scares us half to death.

Author Annie Proulx recently said at the National Book Awards ceremony: “We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds…The television sparkles with images of despicable political louts and sexual harassment reports. We cannot look away from the pictures of furious elements, hurricanes and fires, from the repetitive crowd murders by gunmen burning with rage. We are made more anxious by flickering threats of nuclear war.”

In spite of the dire circumstances that tempt us to surrender all hope, quaint communities of courage and confidence endure, doing our best to act as Jesus would have us: “Keep alert…Keep awake.”

We come here this morning in these days of despicableness, fury, and rage and still, somehow, someway, cry out, “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.” We plead to heaven to spare us from surrendering to dark bruise of gloom.

Nevertheless, as I have said and as you well know, waiting is hard, excruciatingly so when we are waiting on someone else’s clock. Anthropologists claim that the most difficult thing for travelers visiting other countries, except for dealing with a foreign language, is coming to grips with how others keep time.

We actually do that this morning whether we realize it or not.   We the people of God are compelled to come to grips with the time-keeping of another strange and exotic country, the kingdom of God.  As we snuggle here in God’s lap, we catch ourselves fidgeting like rambunctious preschoolers, glancing at our watches and fiddling with our cellphones. We have places to go, things to do, people to see.  We are programmed to watch and wait for 58 minutes and 58 minutes only, the length of an episode of “Game of Thrones,” “Downton Abbey,” or “The Walking Dead.”  Watching and waiting beyond that, even here on God’s clock, can seem well-nigh impossible.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, says that in our waiting, we all become Jews once more.  We, too, long for God to keep the promises made to our ancestors.  We yearn for God to surprise us, ambush us, and carry us off to the Promised Land; that yearning is magnified as we watch our world crumbling or when someone we love deeply does not love us back.  The wait can be terrible.  It is at the moment when there seems not an iota of hope remaining that we encourage one another to stay awake and be alert for Christ’s coming.  That is, of course, what it means that we all become Jews once more.

Oh yes, some of us are not so good at keeping alert and waiting.  We have been to the doctor’s office, anxious and on high alert.  We waited and waited for the doctor.  We got testy with the receptionist, showed no mercy toward the nurse’s apologies, and, when the doctor finally did appear, breathless from saving a life in the operating room, we shot him stares of chilly curtness.

When we get edgy and feel like we are the only ones who have ever faced perilous times, we do well to pray mightily that we might learn to live on God’s clock and not ours.  This is when we are enormously blessed if we try to emulate the time-keeping practices of our Jewish brothers and sisters, so many who live right here in our community and quite a few, by the way, who worship with us at Bach Vespers every Sunday evening.  They are the promised children of God, after all, who have been waiting for an unbearably long time since God’s first promises to Abraham and Sarah.  So much has happened since then: their blessed Jerusalem was overrun by outside conquerors and, so many years later, their loved ones were slaughtered in the Holocaust.  The Jewish people have been sorely tempted over the ages to surrender any hope that God will come to them; and yet, even when they have faced the unimaginable cruelties of countless maniacal despots, for centuries and centuries, they have trudged to their synagogues with their children and grandchildren in tow and believed that the Messiah will come.

Advent gives us a similar language of hope, an audacious language of longing amidst the wintery seasons of life where we live between our dreams and God making them come true.

The pastor Winn Collier says that “Advent provides an important corrective to the fables governing our lives.  We expect our starts to bolt from the gate.  Energy!  Exertion!  Strategic master plans!   But with Advent we start by waiting.  We Sabbath.”

It has been said that Advent is the best time to plant tulips, a strange thing to do as the days grow dark, the air becomes frosty, and the ground freezes.  Remarkably, the church invites us to plant tulips in our hearts during these darkest days of the year and then to wait patiently for God’s presence to sprout within us and around us.

And so, here we are again, awake and waiting.  Though perhaps lonely and ailing, unappreciated and shocked, we light candles nonetheless.  As the one little candle flickers in the howling wind, let us join hands and confidently pray, “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.”

“Oh, the Exclamation Point”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Oh, the Exclamation Point”
Luke 21: 25-36
Bach Vespers (BWV 70-“Wachet! betet! betet! wachet!”)
Christ the King (November 26, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

The Bible’s apocalyptic literature gives religion a bad name. That whacky end of the world stuff is grist for “The New Yorker” cartoons and makes people steer clear of the church altogether even when Bach is billed.

Wouldn’t you agree that this evening’s cantata is similar. No sooner had we settled into our pews for a long winter’s nap than Herr Bach grabbed us by the neck with a ferocious musical flurry: instruments storming, voices bursting—“Wachet! Betet! Betet! Wachet!” WATCH! PRAY! PRAY! WATCH!

Did you perchance notice the exclamation points, not one but four?

I am never quite sure how to use the exclamation point properly but I have discovered that my sermon manuscripts are littered with them: if one exclamation point does the trick, a million must certainly be sublime!

But of the whimsical exclamation point, Strunk and White in their classic writing guide, “The Elements of Style,” warn: “Do not attempt to emphasize simple statements by using a mark of exclamation. The exclamation mark is to be reserved for use after true exclamations or commands.”

Why then, I ask you, does Cantor Bach feel compelled to use four in a row: Watch—exclamation point! Pray—exclamation point! Pray—exclamation point! Watch—exclamation point! Could it be that Bach believed German literary style trumped English usage! Don’t get upset…Just wondering.

You know as well as I that something serious is going on tonight. Bach is kicking us in the pants, especially those of us who thought we could come here for a genteel Sunday evening concert and not be bombarded by religious madness. We never expected end-of-the-world stuff to assault our hearing.

Exclamation points rule the night as the trumpet blasts, the strings and reeds rage, and the choir storms. WATCH! PRAY! PRAY! WATCH! Wild-eyed and disheveled Johann Sebastian Bach is wandering up and down Central Park West with a hand drawn placard that announces, “Be frightened, you stubborn sinners, the Lord of glory is coming!”—that’s Bach by the way, not I.

If you haven’t, I urge you to go see the Edvard Munch exhibit at the Breuer. While it is entitled “Between the Clock and the Bed,” if they had asked me, I would have name it “Norwegian Seasonal Affective Disorder Art.” The lively colors of Munch’s paintings are dulled by “bronchitis, isolation, sleeplessness, restlessness, despair, drunkenness, unending screams.”

I loved the exhibit much like I love this evening’s cantata. Even with “You stubborn sinners…O sinful generation, unto eternal heartache…Let us quickly flee from Sodom…” ringing in our ears, even with stormy, depressing, angry, apocalyptic, bizarre language pummeling us, Bach is not done. Pay attention as the angelic voices of the Holy Trinity Bach Choir and the gorgeous accompaniment of period instruments weave their enchanting charm; note how your eyes suddenly twinkle, your feet start tapping, your heart pleasantly palpitates.

Composers of religious music worthy the name have the astonishing gift of weaving hope amidst the furious desperation of our lives. They are no different than the Old Testament prophets. No matter how judgmental and scolding, hope inevitably sneaks in.

My Old Testament professor Brevard Childs expected us seminarians to locate hope in every prophet no matter how vindictive they first sounded; that was always our homework, night after night, find the hope. Tonight, your task is the same: listen to the cantata and locate hope.

So curious: just when we are about to storm out of this church’s big red doors, convinced we have run into another bizarre religious cult where the pastor harangues us and the musicians point us to an eternal inferno, just then, when we have all but given up finding any semblance of a peaceful evening in this place, suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, we are enthralled by majestic words of hope.

Listen: “Raise your heads upward and be comforted, you devout ones, at your souls’ blooming. You shall flourish in Eden to serve God eternally…Jesus leads [you] into stillness, to that place where pleasure abounds.”

Now that deserves at least four exclamation points right in a row!!!! Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch! And, by all means, hope!