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“Saying, ‘Thank You'”

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller’s Sermon
“Saying, ‘Thank You.’”
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
Luke 17: 11-19
October 9, 2016 (Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost)
“The Baby Center” website offers this insight for parents teaching their children to say “thank you”: “Some children as young as twelve months will try to copy your ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ for example, ‘peees’ and ‘ta, ta.’”

I imagine your parents drilled these words into your pintsize noggins: “What do you say to Mrs. Brown?” “Did you thank Mr. Little?”

Even when your noggins grew to adult sizes, your parents did not relent in their mannerly instruction: “I don’t mean to nag but did you send Mr. and Mrs. Johnson a thank you note for the lovely silver fondue set they gave you for your wedding?”

As “The Baby Center” website reminds us: “Learning to say thank you can take years of training and encouragement.”

The need for continual training and encouragement is nowhere clearer than in the case of the ten lepers.  Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem.  Ten lepers saw him and begged for healing: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”  One of the ten was a double loser: not only did he have the dreaded skin disease, worse yet, he was a detested Samaritan, a reviled religious outsider.
They all knew who could deliver the goods; maybe they knew too well.  Perhaps they took Jesus’ healing power for granted.

You know how the story goes.  They were all losers and yet only one celebrated the wonder of the miraculous healing.  Like a Mexican immigrant who gets a job cleaning rooms at Motel 6, the tenth leper took nothing for granted: he was an outsider and constantly ridiculed.  He was the only one who remembered to do as his parents had taught him; he returned to Jesus and said, “Thank you.”

Whether we care to admit it or not, we who gather here Sunday after Sunday are losers as well—doubly, triply, some more so.  We stand here this morning before the humdrum stuff of bread and wine.  Like the other nine, we can take it all for granted, wondering whether anything special really happens here.  Is this trifling wafer really the body of Christ?

When I was a seminarian working at the Masonic Home and Hospital in Wallingford, Connecticut, I offered an elderly, confused woman a similar wafer with identical words, “The body of Christ given for you.”  She angrily looked at me and said, “I am not going to eat a piece of cardboard!”

We are in constant need of a revival of wonder.  We need eyes to see that something special happens here, the miracle of God’s presence in our lives.

Sometimes, when we arrive at worship on Sunday morning, rather than seeking to behold the wonder of God’s grace, we get caught up in the dreary game of looking for things to complain about—do you do that? how is the temperature, can I hear the readings, how boring is the sermon, are the prayers too long, do I know the hymns?  Rather than being artists, poets, and musicians exploring divine wonder, we end up like Olympic diving officials on the side of the pool, `holding up cards to rate the ecclesiastical goings-on.   So gloomy, so absent of thanksgiving.

David Brooks, in his book “The Road to Character,” writes that public language has become demoralized.  He notes that in the twentieth century, the use of the word “gratitude” is down forty-nine percent.”

When we forget to be grateful, we risk become morose dullards rather than people of wonder.  The moment we enter the doors here, every, single Sunday, let us always remember we are in the presence of the Lord and let us seek ways to offer our constant gratitude to God.

We call this meal a host of names: Mass, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper.  It is also called Holy Eucharist which means “thanksgiving,” as in “thank you God for feeding me with this bread of heaven.”  What can possibly be more exciting than receiving this wondrous bread in the palm of our hands?

My favorite writer Annie Dillard writes about similar wonder as she buys communion wine for her little church: “How can I buy the communion wine?  Who am I to buy the communion wine?  Someone has to buy the communion wine.  Having wine instead of grape juice was my idea, and of course I offered to buy it.  Shouldn’t I be wearing robes and, especially, a mask?  Shouldn’t I make the communion wine?  Are there holy grapes, is there holy ground, is anything here holy?  There are no holy grapes, there is no holy ground, nor is there anyone but us.”  After she buys the wine where she can also purchase eggs, sandpaper, broccoli, wood screws, and milk, she goes on, “I’m out on the road again walking, and toting a backload of God.”

A backload of God…Ten were healed and only one realized he was toting a backload of God.

Musicians and artists, writers and poets, teach us to pay attention and to say “thank you.” Are we amazed at the music-making that occurs in this place?  Last Sunday as I listened to our choir singing the Psalm, I was stunned: I had never heard anything like it.  Everywhere I have lived, someone has eventually said, “You must hear the music at Holy Trinity in New York City.”  My dear friends, angels have been sent into our midst.  Let us thank God for the heavenly music that is ours like in few other places in the world.

Mary Oliver is a poet who teaches us to be a people of gratitude.  In her poem, “When Death Comes,” writes:

When death comes…I want to say:
all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom,
taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up
simply having visited this world.

We have been invited here this morning as brides married to amazement and bridegrooms taking the world into our arms.  Right here, we are married to God through the simple gifts of bread and wine.

Pay attention, be amazed, and, by all means, give thanks: you will soon be bearing a backload of God.

“Carving Rotten Wood and Riding Lame Horses”

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
Mary, Mother of Our Lord (August 14, 2016)
Luke 1: 46-55
“Carving Rotten Wood and Riding Lame Horses”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
Alma Quigley went to Woodsdale Junior High School.  She lived in a shotgun shack in one of Wheeling’s tumble-down neighborhoods.  She wore stained skirts and threadbare blouses. The ornery boys mocked her; if any of their pals got too close to Alma, their stomach-churning taunt began instantly, “You have cooties.”

Then, one day a miracle occurred.  Colin Masterson, the handsomest and most athletic boy in our school, asked Alma to the spring dance.  As soon as we acne-faced teenagers heard the news, our view of Alma Quigley changed instantly: what exquisite beauty had Colin discovered that we had overlooked since we were in kindergarten?

Has it ever happened to you?  Out of the blue, someone looked straight into your eyes and said, “My, do you have a beautiful smile.”  Or at the Passing of the Peace, the person next to you said, “Did anyone ever tell you what a lovely voice you have?”  Simple words changed your life and for the better.

A similarly marvelous thing happened to Mary when God chose her to be the mother of Jesus.  Out of the blue, Mary became breathtakingly beautiful and she knew it.   Mary sang the song that the church has sung at Evening Prayer ever since, “My soul magnifies the Lord…for the Lord has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…the Mighty One has done great things for me…”  God invited Mary to the dance and that invitation changed the world forever.

Martin Luther said it this way: “God can carve the rotten wood and ride the lame horse.”  Mary was, after all, younger than gold medalist gymnast Simone Biles and her tiny Olympic gymnast cohorts and, like Alma Quigley, she had cooties.  If you think otherwise, recall how people wagged their tongues, wondering exactly who the father of her baby might be.

Mary was as an unlikely choice to be the Mother of God, as Luther called her, as unlikely as an undocumented Mexican immigrant or inner-city African American teenager in our day.

People often say to me, “Pastor, I am looking forward to hearing the Word of God proclaimed from the pulpit this morning,” I always wonder: Do you really want to hear the heart of Luke’s gospel or would you prefer a more appetizing gospel?  If you are clamoring for the Word of God this morning, see how this little nugget works for you: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”

I am always grateful to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters for their theological claims about Mary.  Beliefs such as the Immaculate Conception (the belief that Mary was conceived like us all except without original sin or its stain), the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (the claim that at the end of Mary’s life she was assumed, body and soul, into heaven, just as Enoch, Elijah had been before her), and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary are attempts to give deserved honor to Jesus’ mother, Mary.  And yet, I worry what, to my mind, are nonbiblical doctrines, may have the unintended consequence of making Mary more than she was when God chose her, more than you and I were when God chose us with “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  Such lofty theological sentiments may diminish the wonder of God stooping down and choosing Mary and you and me to aid in the heavenly plan of salvation.

You will learn that my favorite author is Annie Dillard; you may hear her name more than you ever wished!  She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for her book, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”   I adore Annie Dillard’s ability to discover the sacred amidst the mundane.  In her book, “Holy the Firm,” she writes of the little church she attends.  Listen: “On Sunday mornings I quit the house and wander down the hill to the white frame church in the firs. On a big Sunday there might be twenty of us there; often I am the only person under sixty, and feel as though I’m on an archaeological tour of Soviet Russia…the minister is a Congregationalist, and wears a white shirt. The man knows God. Once, in the middle of the long pastoral prayer of intercession for the whole world — for the gift of wisdom to its leaders, for hope and mercy to the grieving and pained, succor to the oppressed, and God’s grace to all — in the middle of this he stopped, and burst out, “Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week.” After a shocked pause, he continued reading the prayer. Because of this, I like him very much…We had a wretched singer once, a guest from a Canadian congregation, a hulking blond girl with chopped hair and big shoulders, who wore tinted spectacles and a long lacy dress, and sang, grinning, to faltering accompaniment, an entirely secular song about mountains. Nothing could have been more apparent than that God loved this girl; nothing could more surely convince me of God’s unending mercy than the continued existence on earth of the church.”

Aren’t we all bit like that tiny church in the firs with the pastor in the white shirt and the hulking girl with the chopped hair and big shoulders?  Where in the world did we ever get the quaint notion that God chooses our little ragtag gathering on this scorching humid August morning to be instruments of heavenly love?  Why, of course, because God carves rotten wood and rides lame horses. God chose a thirteen-year-old girl from Bethlehem to be the Mother of Lord.  And if God did that, God can also choose us to be servants of the most high.  That is why the choir sings today, the incense floats to the ceiling, and we sing, “Magnify, my soul, God’s greatness.”

God indeed has done great things for us, cooties and all.

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