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“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.”