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“Be patient”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
Bach Vespers, December 11, 2016 (3rd Sunday of Advent)
“Be patient”
James 5: 7-10

“’Twas the night before Christmas,
when all through the house
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.”

I hope you still remember being nestled all snug in your bed.  But I’ll bet you have other memories as well.  While Clement Clarke Moore does not say so, I am almost certain he left this part out of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” to please his editors:

“The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads…
and revelations of ants pirouetted in their pajamas.”

Remember how hard it was to sleep the night before Christmas?  You so wanted the beautiful pony or that exquisite Rawlings Mickey Mantle baseball glove.  Every thirty-seven minutes, you restlessly got out of bed and scampered down the hallway to your parent’s bedroom. “Has Santa come yet?” you eagerly asked.  They told you, “Quick, go back to bed or Santa will hear you and not come down the chimney.”  The wait was agonizing; ants pirouetted in your “pjs.”

We just heard these words from the New Testament’s epistle of James, “Be patient, therefore, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.”

Our impatience no longer has to do with Dasher and Dancer’s hoofbeats.  Our anxieties have become more grown up and much more complicated.

A few weeks ago I told you about my favorite books.  One book is “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness” by William Styron.  Styron, who also wrote “Sophie’s Choice,” tells of his agonizing bouts with depression.  You can tell from the title, “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness,” that Styron is not a romantic when it comes to his struggles.  And yet, I will never forget his invitation to patience: “It is of great importance that those who are suffering a siege, perhaps for the first time, be told—be convinced, rather—that the illness will run its course and they will pull through.”

The greatest gift in such tribulation, so writes Styron, is to have loved ones close-by assisting you in the journey of patience: “Most people in the grip of depression at its ghastliest are, for whatever reason, in a state of unrealistic hopelessness, torn by exaggerated ills and fatal threats that bear no resemblance to actuality.”  And then this: “It may require on the part of friends, lovers, family, admirers, an almost religious devotion to persuade the sufferer of life’s worth…”

Sounds similar to James, “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.”
These days, as we prepare again to celebrate the coming of the Christ Child, are meant for us to persuade one another of life’s worth.  Together, we are patient; together, we say, “Wait and Christ will enter your life.”

People of great grace teach us to wait, to look beyond our dark caverns to the one who comes bearing gifts of healing and hope.

Mary the mother of Jesus was such a person.  Even when she could not make heads or tails out of the angel’s message that she would soon be the mother of God’s child and, in fact, was greatly troubled by the thought of it all, nevertheless, she waited patiently and pondered these things in her heart.  At every Vespers here we sing Mary’s song of patient waiting, the Magnificat, as we cense the altar and you.  As the incense wafts toward you this evening, may the sweet-smelling smoke remind you that Christ will come into your life.

You have seen such patience, I’m sure, in the elderly whose bodies grow frailer and whose minds become more fragile.  Nevertheless, they exhibit great grace, teaching us to bear all things and hope all things.  Time has taught them to wait, patiently.  They are like the lilies of the field and the sparrows of the sky who do not worry about tomorrow.

Patience allows us to wait for something greater.  We forsake the shoddy, the temporary, and the mediocre and believe that the Savior of the nations will come in God’s good time.  This savior will put an end to all that is ugly and deeply troubling and bring goodness and beauty to us and those we love and to our suffering world, forever and ever.  And so, my dear friends, be patient until the coming of the Lord.

“Poets and Dreamers”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Poets and Dreamers”
Vespers on the 2nd Sunday of Advent (December 4, 2016)
Isaiah 11: 1-10

There is something about poetry that is at once exasperating and exhilarating.

Could poetry’s exasperation and exhilaration be that it invites us to think in unimaginable ways?

Take Isaiah’s poetic vision for example: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

Can you even begin to fathom the wolf living with the lamb, any wolf, any lamb? And yet, what wonder.

One of the most enchanting times in my life was the late 1960s and early 70s.  Some of you remember those times when some of us dared believe that the lion and the calf could live in peace.  Perhaps you sported bib overalls and made the peace sign way too often, wore your hair long and danced in flowing skirts to the music of the Grateful Dead, and pronounced quaint clichés like “make love not war.”  And yet, those days were crammed with poetry.

As so often happens when we dare to dream, quite a few of us were clubbed in the kneecaps.  Remember being told, “That’s naïve, that’s not how the world works.  Get real!”  Your poetic fantasies faded and you ended up living in a prose flattened world; you traded in your tie-dyed shirts for Brooks Brothers suits, you sacrificed your idealistic dreams for realistic drivel.  Things quickly became humdrum and mind-numbing.  Is it any wonder schools slash budgets for the arts and music—away with wonder, away with poetry, let’s get real!

The church is now in the second week of Advent (see the second candle ablaze on the Advent wreath).  This is a season of poetry, imagining lives changed for the better and the world blanketed in peace; most peculiarly, we believe this enchanting vision will be accomplished by a helpless babe of dubious birth from a Podunk town in Israel.

You know what happened to the child, the same thing that happens to poets who get in the way of brutally heartless regimes: our Savior was clubbed in the kneecaps and hung on a cross.

In last week’s “New Yorker” magazine, Mary Karr writes: “If you ever doubted the power of poetry, ask yourself why, in any revolution, poets are often the first to be hauled out and shot…We poets may be crybabies and sissies, but our pens can become nuclear weapons.”  Poets do not use words to bully, poets use words to create, as in, “And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”

Poets, visionaries, musicians….

I must confess a dirty little secret: I love name-dropping, love it!  One name I have started dropping since arriving here at Holy Trinity is that of someone who attended Bach Vespers as you are doing now.

Once upon a time, on a crowded Sunday night, when all was dark except a few flickering candles, a long-haired, bespectacled gent sat here at the altar rail, craning his neck and looking straight back, way up into the organ loft where the orchestra and choir performed the Bach cantata.  Guess who it was?  Let me give you a clue:

You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.

This dreamer was our neighbor, living seven blocks from here at the Dakota.  Again, as has happened to so many poets who have dared to dream, John Lennon was gunned down thirty-six years ago, this very week, on December 8, 1980.

Thank God for dreamers who invite us to a higher vision. The musical poet Johann Sebastian Bach was another such dreamer.  His music rouses us to conceive the world more fancifully and gorgeously.  Listen to a few words from tonight’s cantata:

Kill us through your kindness;
awaken us through your grace…

Kill us through your kindness.  Oh my…. Let the poetry ring…

As you leave here, the sirens of a prose flattened world will struggle to deaden your heart: “Same old quarrels in the car on the way home. Same old tensions at dinner.  Same tired beginning on Monday” (Walter Brueggemann).  In the face of such deadening darkness, may God’s hopeful poetry shrink the gloom a bit.  And when morning comes, may the angels still be at your side as you sing the music of the lamb and the lion frolicking together, the melody of a little child leading the way into a world of peace forever and ever.

“Standing on Tiptoe”

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.