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“Pull Out the Stops and Let ‘er Rip”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Pull Out the Stops and Let ‘er Rip”
Luke 24: 13-32
April 16, 2017 (Easter Evening Bach Vespers)

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The day after my mother died, I sorted through her most cherished possessions. I was drawn to her books and spotted the Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary she had given my father one Christmas years ago. There was a tiny envelope taped to the title page with my father’s name on it. I carefully opened this secret treasure. The card read: “Wib, there aren’t words in this book that can express my love for you! Your loving wife, Susan.”

The women and men who experienced that first Easter were left searching for adequate words, too. God had done a new thing: God had raised Jesus from the dead. Rather than shouting celebratory words, they were befuddled, terrified, skeptical. They had never seen anything like it!

We are no different. We lack the necessary words to explain what God has done for us in raising Jesus Christ from the tomb. All our words fall short of describing the astonishing power of God’s love for us no matter how hard we try. And maybe that’s a good thing.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes: “Throughout the Gospel, Jesus holds back from revealing who he is because, it seems, he cannot believe that there are words that will tell the truth about him in the mouths of others.”

Isn’t Archbishop Williams correct? Almost any explanation we offer cheapens the spectacle of that first Easter when Jesus rose from the dead. Our lackluster words inevitably jeopardize the wild power of God; we so easily domesticate God’s great victory over sin and death with our narrow vocabularies and scant imaginations. Perhaps the best we can do tonight is bathe in the incomprehensible glory and overwhelming wonder of the Christ’s resurrection.

According to the gospel of Saint Luke, that first evening, only hours after Jesus had risen from the tomb, the disciples were on their way to Emmaus. They were talking up a storm, trying to make sense of it all. In the midst of their bewildered chattering and dazed strolling, Jesus joined them. At first, they didn’t notice him. They just kept yakking away. It was only after lots of talking and an intimate meal that their eyes were finally opened and they realized who was there with them. They said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

While they lacked sufficient words to express what happened that night, they came to know the Risen Christ in the telling of stories and the breaking of bread, things we love doing in this place every Sunday and are doing this very moment.

As the shadows lengthen and the evening comes on this glorious Easter—as will finally occur in all our lives as well—we walk together on our dusty Emmaus Road, telling the resurrection story to one another through the glorious music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Some of us will sing with considerable gusto, convinced Jesus has been raised from the dead. Others are not so sure and thus a bit more reserved. All of us, in our own way, hope that God has destroyed death for us, our loved ones, and this groaning world.

While she is not typically included among the pantheon of musicians honored here at Holy Trinity, indulge me, please, as I quote Grace Slick. She belted out such classics as “White Rabbit” and “Crown of Creation” with the Jefferson Airplane. She knows a thing or two about celebrating, having done a masterful job of it in the late 60s at Woodstock just up the road and at that raucous affair called Altamont in California. Of her singing abilities, Ms. Slick says: “I had limited range-about four notes, and all of them are loud. I don’t do cute little songs because, for whatever reason, I can’t sing softly.”

I suppose we all have limited range when it comes to singing about Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection melody requires more than a solo; sometimes an overflow Easter congregation is best. You see, it always takes at least two to gospel, one to sing and another to listen. And it requires an entire heavenly chorus to proclaim, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

You will take the Easter song with you tonight, from here to the gloomy intensive care unit where your best friend hangs on for dear life. It will be up to you to do the singing. Like Ms. Slick, you may have a limited range as the only accompaniment is the dreadful beep, beep, beep, of the medical apparatus and yet, somehow, someway, you will sing beautifully, “Alleluia! Christ is risen.”

An old Benedictine monk and worship professor of mine instructed us soon-to-be pastors how to create worship on festival nights such as this. Puffing on an ever-present cigarette in one of those long, elegant holders, Father Aidan Kavanagh urged us to “pull out the stops and let ‘er rip.” I suppose there is a holier way of saying it but likely not a more precise one.

Our joy and job this evening, in prayer and words and song, is to convince one another that Jesus Christ has burst form the tomb as those pesky little deaths nip at our heels. So, on this Easter evening, let’s jack up the volume like Grace Slick, be marvelous as Johann Sebastian Bach would have us be, and pull out the stops and let ‘er rip in celebration that Jesus Christ has risen today.

A blessed Easter to you all.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

“The Crooked Lines of Good and Evil”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’ Sermon
“The Crooked Lines of Good and Evil”
Matthew 27: 33-50
April 9, 2017 (Palm Sunday/ Passion of Our Lord)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

In a few moments, we will hear Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata, “Lord Jesus Christ, True Man and God.” In addition to the gorgeous music, I pray that you will be struck by the stunning words:

O Head, full of blood and wounds,
full of suffering and shame!
O Head, bound in mockery
with a crown of thorns!
O Head, once beautifully adorned
with the highest honor and beauty,
now rather supremely defiled:
be greeted by me!

If you have come this evening just for music, you could just as easily be a block away at Lincoln Center.  Bach’s cantata is far more than an aesthetical outing on a Spring evening.  Who can miss its melancholic nature?  We are with Mary at the foot of the cross.

A number of years ago, I read this: “[Mary and her son Jesus] were likely looking at one another face to face.  Much later, beginning in the Middle Ages, artists would depict a very tall cross, with Mary and the others far below at its foot.  But historians believe that the cross was probably about seven feet tall.  They were face to face.  The sweat, the blood, the tearing tendons, the twitching, the wrenching, the bulging eyes—she would have seen it all quite clearly, as clearly as she saw him so long ago when she held him safely to her breast” (John Richard Neuhaus, “Death on a Friday Afternoon”).

The church begins Holy Week today, Palm Sunday, as we remember Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.  This day is also called the Passion of Our Lord; we recall the horrific events that unfolded as Jesus loved us to the end and we stare at our suffering Savior, face to face.

Bach’s cantata directs us to our deepest humanity.  There, in the depths of our souls, we hear far more than stunning music: we gaze deeply into our hearts and behold the one who is everything we are and everything we are not.

There are occasions when we are stunned by our courage: we march with protest banners unfurled in solidarity with the downtrodden.  We feel like we are on the streets of Jerusalem, shouting at the top of our lungs, “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

And yet, honesty compels us to tell another story about ourselves as well.  We are sometimes sickened by our failure of nerve.  As innocent Syrian children are gassed to death and military strikes are waged, we are clueless what should be done.  Is retaliating with our own deadly weapons a useful response to the barbarity of poisonous gas or should we merely sit by quietly and prayerfully as little children scream for our help?  Yes indeed, we cry helplessly into the evening sky, “O Lord, I know not what I do!”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the esteemed rabbi who taught just up the street at the Jewish Theological Seminary, at 122nd and Broadway, once said, “Some are guilty, all are responsible.”

Some may demur, “I would never do such a thing.”  But honesty calls us to confess.  We are the Judases who, for a measly bit of silver, make a few shabby compromises so our retirement accounts stretch a bit further into our autumn years; we are the Peters cringing when it comes time to tell the truth—all we can muster is the meek contention that our pint-size voices won’t make any difference, anyway.  We are caught in the vicious cogs that go round and round.  We watch as the thorny crown is placed on Jesus’ head and listen as the crowd derides him.  We listen in disgust as the pundits’ blather on and feel so impotent as the mightier ones weave their dirty work.

The Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.”  He sounds a lot like Saint Paul who said: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

Johann Sebastian Bach understood these words.  His music is sung most profoundly and powerfully when we all comprehend the crooked lines of good and evil running through our hearts.  This is the pathos that moves us deeply and causes us to leave evenings such as this saying, “That was hauntingly breathtaking!”  Our hearts have been deeply touched.

This may all sound a tad too dismal, teeming with eighteenth century Germanic gloom, despair, and resignation.  And yet, remember such were never Bach’s final words.  There was always hope to be found.  You will hear it again at the conclusion of the cantata, just when you thought the morning would never come:

When everything shudders at the last hour,
and when a cold death-sweat
bathes limbs already stiff,
when my tongue cannot speak other than through sighs
and this heart breaks…

The soul rests in Jesus’ hands,
when earth covers this body…
I am unafraid of death,
because my Jesus will awaken me again.

Listen for words of hope: “I am unafraid of death, because my Jesus will awaken me again.”

“The Terrifying Story of Abraham and Isaac”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
“The Terrifying Story of Abraham and Isaac”
(Genesis 22: 1-14)
April 2, 2017 (Vespers on the Fifth Sunday in Lent)

I will never forget Roger Barnes reading the story of Abraham and Isaac at worship. Like Abraham, Roger had a son, his name was Edward. Roger began to read, tentatively: “And God said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’” His eyes welled up with tears. He read a bit further: “Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife,” and he choked up. Roger tried to read further, “And Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘My father!’ And he said, ‘Here am I, my son,’” and he sobbed.

Only when Roger came to God’s words, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me,” did his weeping subside.

You will likely dab a tear or two tonight as you listen to Nathan Hodgson and Timothy Keeler sing Benjamin Britten’s stunning “Abraham and Isaac.”

The story is one of the most terrifying of all the biblical texts. If you and I had been in charge of choosing what belonged in the Bible, we surely would have strenuously opposed inclusion of this horrific story in sacred canon. The account of Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac on a scorching fire is the stuff that gives religion a bad name and causes people to steer clear of the church altogether. The story prompts the crazy behavior of zealots who end up asserting, “I was just following God’s orders.” It goads terrorists to drive trucks into innocent gatherings and it incites fanatics to bomb abortion clinics. We wonder: did they hear some bizarre, beckoning voice similar to the one that commanded Abraham to climb that mountain and sacrifice his son Isaac?

As we watch heartbroken Abraham trudge up the mountain with his adoring son Isaac at his side, we can imagine saying exactly what Martin Luther who said, “I certainly admit my dullness; my donkey remains standing below and cannot ascend the mountain.” In fact, we pray tenaciously that we will never climb that mountain of brutality even if God commands us to do so.

As we contemplate this tale, we are driven to probe what God was up to. We dare not leave our brains with the ushers as we enter worship—we must not! We come here and leave here, wrestling with this chilling text until we better understand what in the world God is trying to tell us.

Many of us have faced something as horrendous as Abraham. Our excruciating pain has caused us to search frantically through our Bibles until the pages are crumpled and drenched with tears. We have stood on that terrible mountain with the horrific fire burning, begging the good Lord to spare us and those we love.

Soon after we listen to Britten’s “Abraham and Isaac,” we will chant a prayer: “Blessed Lord God, you have caused the holy scriptures to be written for the nourishment of your people. Grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, comforted by your promises, we may embrace and forever hold fast to the hope of eternal life, which you have given us in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.”

Tales like Abraham and Isaac inevitably drive us to hear and read, mark and learn, and inwardly digest in a way we may never have done before. We will likely find ourselves engaged in extended, even heated, conversation. We will demand, “What was that story all about, anyway?”

If we chew on this story, we will be better for it. We will realize how much Abraham adored his son Isaac: this wonder child, after all, was the one for whom Abraham and Sarah had waited for years and years. I pray you will come to the stunning realization that Isaac was also God’s dearly beloved child. Never forget: if Isaac had died, God’s chosen people would have disappeared from the face of the earth. Not only did the thought of Isaac burning on the bonfire break Abraham’s heart, more importantly, God’s heart was the first to break at the thought of Isaac roasting away. And, with even a little more grappling, you may come to realize—if you haven’t already—that you, too, are a precious child in God’s sight.

Never forget: God is the first to weep whenever the monstrous fires of hatred and death rage around us. Whatever is going on in the story of Abraham and Isaac, if you listen carefully enough, you will certainly hear God weeping. As frightening and bizarre as this story may seem, God eventually provided a ram in the thicket: Isaac did not die in this story! Also, remember, please, that God provided another ram in the thicket, God’s very son, Jesus Christ our Lord. It was not, and never is, God’s intention for even one little child to die. God loved Abraham and Isaac, and God loves you and me, now and forever.