Sermon at Vespers
The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
“Standing on Tiptoe”
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2016
Romans 13: 11-14
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The heroes of the faith down through the ages have known that it is time to wake up. They have lived life in full stretch, in lavish expectation, and on tiptoe.
The Lutheran pastor Philipp Nicolai is such a hero. He lived in Germany in the sixteenth century. Imagine his dismay as the plague killed 1300 of his congregants, 170 in one week. He could either fall asleep in disgust or seek how to comfort his parishioners. He chose the latter, writing a gorgeous hymn whose breathtaking strains take your breath away as they punctuate this night, “Wake, awake, for night is flying.”
Pastor Nicolai had to stand on tiptoe to see above the death and heartbreak. Of tippy-toe standers, Saint Paul wrote, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrew 11: 1).
The heroes of the faith defy the darkness and courageously sing of a new day when most have resigned themselves to drone on in miserable dirges. The tiptoe standers take the long view, gazing over distant mountains to the Promised Land even while their feet are sunk deep in desert sand.
I think of prophets like Isaiah singing soaring poetry of peace when the world is at war; they imagine swords being beaten into plowshares even as the machinery of battle raucously rattles. Or who can forget Martin Luther King, Jr.’s stunning vision announced amidst the horrifying pandemonium of high-powered fire hoses and snarling attack dogs? It is hard not to join his music: “I have a dream that one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.” Dr. King stood on tiptoe.
So often we lose the courage to live life in full stretch, dreaming in vibrant colors. Sometimes, rather than chanting soaring testimonials to God’s presence, we warble hackneyed ditties that lull everyone to sleep with their sentimental triviality.
The story is told of the nineteenth century German poet Heinrich Heine as he stood with a friend at Amiens Cathedral in France. As they gazed upon this stunning structure, Heine’s friend asked why great architecture was no longer created. Heine answered: “In those days [people] had convictions, whereas we moderns only have opinions, and something more is needed than an opinion to build a Gothic cathedral.”
Every age needs people with more than an opinion. We need people with conviction, people who stand on tiptoe for what matters most.
One of the great temptations on evenings such as this is to lift up only the giants of the faith, people like Isaiah and Martin Luther King, Phillip Nicolai and Dietrich Buxtehude and Heinrich Schutz. Doing this makes believe that only the virtuosos of art and music, prophesy and preaching, can make a difference in the world. We risk being lulled into slumber, giving little old you and me a free pass when it comes to living lives that matter in our groaning world.
I have been struck in my first few months here at Vespers that we stand together on tiptoe whether we realize it or not. We come to listen to the finest music of the ages overflowing with conviction. But we do more: we all sing with wonder. In our music-making, we pray that in our world entrenched in deep gloom as the shadows lengthen that indeed light will break forth.
I recently read a poem that invites us to stand on tiptoe and sing. Listen…
I like a growling congregation,
hope creaking through difficult lives;
I like choirs of bright voices,
light filling dark places;
But best I like indifferent singing,
the soloist who gets the high notes flat,
the warbler who makes herself heard over all,
the organist who embarks on an extra verse;
For here is the greater challenge to love,
amid fastidiousness, vanity, human failing;
here, in spite of me appears the greater blessing,
on finding love sweeter than any singing.
(Meg Bateman, “Music in Church”)
You may not be capable of singing the soprano aria or playing the tricky violin part but you are essential to the wonder of this evening. Just by showing up, you demonstrate that you are awake and yearn for the light. When it is your turn, grab your hymnal and stand on tiptoe…sing and dream so all the world can hear that Christ is coming soon.