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“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.”

“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!

“Do Not Be Afraid of Tyrannosaurus Rexes and the Like”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Do Not Be Afraid of Tyrannosaurus Rexes and the Like”
Bach Vespers at Holy Trinity
24th Sunday after Pentecost (November 19, 2017)

The words “do not be afraid” appear in the Bible 365 times. I must confess I didn’t count them; I am accepting a popular contemporary theologian’s word on this matter. Whether 365 or 291 times, that’s a lot of “do not be afraids.” But, in all honesty, we probably all need about 365 “do not be afraids” to tote around with us as the shadows lengthen and the evening falls.

Have I told you that I detested setting my clock back two weeks ago? I hate looking out the parish house windows at 5 p.m. and seeing darkness. Are you like that?

As a kid, my worst fear was going down in the basement to get my mother canned tomatoes or strawberry jam. Parts of the basement were eerie, unfinished floor in some parts and exposed beams with aged wiring snaking around up above. I was petrified someone would turn off the lights and I would end up down there, all alone, suffocated by darkness.

Psychotherapists among us could likely lend me immeasurable help in exploring my fear of the dark (“Wilk, what causes you to take off running when the lights are turned off?). I suspect I am not the only one here tonight afraid of the creeping darkness and the ebbing light.

Think about it: why do we humans light candles when it gets dark? Is it just to create a mellow mood? Is it simply so we can see? Or is there something more profound afoot? Do we keep the candles aflame because we are petrified that lions, tigers, and tyrannosaurus rexes will burst into our caves any moment and gobble us up?

No sooner had we begun tonight’s evening prayer than I began chanting, “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who led your people Israel…by a pillar of fire by night.” I pleaded to God on your behalf, “Enlighten our darkness by the light of your Christ; may his Word be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.”

We censed the precious little light piercing the darkness on the high altar. And then we began to chant as the sweet smoke floated heavenwards: “O Lord, I call to you; come to me quickly; hear my voice when I cry to you.” We implored God to wrap this place’s deep darkness with holy candlelight.

Deep in our souls, we who are gathered here tonight long for light and we do our best to pass that light, one to another. We gathered here do the best we can, somehow, someway, singing and praying, “Do not be afraid.”

The Danish writer Karen Blixen, more commonly known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, once said, “Any sorrow can be borne if a story can be told about it.”

When the Antioch Chamber Ensemble sings Bach’s motet, “Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir” (“Be not afraid, I am beside you”), in a few moments, they will sing what Cantor Bach composed for a funeral in Leipzig. Bach’s deepest musical instincts, when death nipped at the heels of those he loved and served, was to start whistling. Don’t you whistle when it gets dark?

Our most profound human instinct when ol’ Tyrannosaurus Rex noses through our cave door, or at least when the doctor enters bearing a diagnosis that breaks our heart, is to beg someone to light a candle, tell a story, or sing a song. We sense this as tiny children when our parents tuck us into bed and turn off the lights; we beg them to tell us one more story.

We have grown older now but monsters still lurk amidst the dust balls beneath our beds. The monsters have different names now—cancer, divorce, alcoholism, loneliness, melancholy—but they are terrifying nonetheless.

When old Nebuchadnezzar’s henchmen hauled the Israelites off to Babylonian captivity, the prophet Isaiah started whistling. The accompanying words sounded something like this, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

That was 2500 years ago. It has grown dark once again and we are afraid all over again. And so, we sing Isaiah’s song and pray and light candles and do our best to reassure one another, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”