3 West 65th St | New York, NY 10023 | 212.877.6815

“Shaking Our Fists at God”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Vespers Sermon
“Shaking Our Fists at God”
March 19,2017 (Third Sunday in Lent)
Exodus 17: 1-7

We just heard Israel complaining…yet again.

If you read the book of Exodus, you will be struck by Israel’s constant whining. They had not even crossed the Red Sea before they started bellyaching.  When they looked back and saw the Egyptian army in pursuit, they grumbled to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?…It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:11-12).

It is a miracle, not so much that the sea divided, but that God didn’t say, “I have had it with you.  Get yourselves across this stinking sea on your own!”

It was only three days since they had witnessed the enemy army drowning in the sea; rather than celebrating their liberation from brutal slavery, God’s children complained to Moses: “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:24).

And yet again, another miracle: instead of zapping God’s beloved people, God told Moses to place some wood in the water and a sweet drink would be created for these desperately thirsty people.

As people are wont to do, only weeks later, yet again, they forgot God’s miraculous love for them.  They got hungry again and began grumbling again to Moses: “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3).

And again, a miracle.  This time manna from heaven.

And then, what we just heard: the people were thirsty…again.  And, yes, they complained again. “Give us water to drink!  Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

And, yes, you guessed it, another miracle: God told Moses to use his staff and water would come from the rock…and it did!

Are you seeing a pattern, by the way?

One commentator has suggested that the greatest miracle among all the staggering miracles, greater than the sea separating, greater than manna falling from heaven, greater than water bursting from the rock, was God’s patience.

And, of course, it is not just the whiny Israelites in the desert so long ago.  We are no different!  Why does God put up with our griping, our everlasting questions, and our pathetic lack of faith?

It would be easy to conclude from all the quarreling and contentiousness that God would prefer us to shut our mouths and never ask a single question.  Some faith, by the way, is like that: it is of the sheepish variety that teaches that if we ask a single question of God, we are terrible sinners destined for the scorching fires of hell.  This is the polite kind of faithfulness, the kind that never raises its voice to God, never asks an awkward question of the Almighty, never clenches its fist toward heaven.

Interestingly and surprisingly to many, Jesus was not nearly as sheepish as some of us when it came to questioning God.  As we near Holy Week, we will hear Jesus ask a few hard-hitting questions.  For those of courteous faith, Jesus’ frank questions will startle us, perhaps scandalize us; they may even force some of us to explain away what Jesus was really asking.

The night before Jesus died, when he went to Gethsemane to pray, he was not a good, little boy in the classic sense, the kind who never raises his voice in the face of doubt and torment.  Much to our surprise, Jesus uttered these astonishing words: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”  Jesus asked the hard question, of course, he did, and yet—and note this well—he also then waited for God to answer.  Jesus’ conversation was not a monologue with God; Jesus expected God to answer him in the midst of his agony.

In those final hours as Jesus hung on the cross, he shocks us as he screamed the most famous faith question of all, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

And yet, Jesus’ questions were never the final word.  He always, always, then waited for his heavenly Father to answer what he did not know.

We will all arrive at those moments when we complain, when we ask the hard questions similar to those of the Israelites, when we will feel completely disillusioned.  We will be in our own wilderness, on our own cross, as mad as a rattlesnake in the desert sun.  And yet, another miracle will occur: God will listen to us and God will answer, not necessarily as we wish but in a fashion that reveals that only God knows what is best for us.

The miracle, as we have been saying repeatedly during these days of Lent, is that “the LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

“Burst Egos and the Glory of God”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s
Vesper’s Sermon
2nd Sunday in Lent (March 12, 2017)
Romans 4: 1-5; 13-17
“Burst Egos and the Glory of God”

William Muehl preached to my classmates and me on our first day at Yale Divinity School. Our future preaching professor looked out over the proud throng of students in Marquand Chapel and noted how delighted our parents must be that we would soon be pastors serving Christ’s beloved church. He also noted how thrilled our grandmas and grandpas were with our apparent holiness and profound piety. He then paused for what seemed an eternity; he looked over the entire incoming class of seminarians. Then he said, “Admit why you are really here: you could not get into Yale Law School or Yale Medical School”…we had not even yet come to discover that the divinity school was unfortunately known as and euphemistically called the “back door to Yale”—and thus our holy and academic egos were burst very quickly!

…And here I am tonight. I have made it thus far by faith! I join so many of my heirs, a cast of ridiculous characters who ended up doing the Lord’s work in spite of their repugnant flaws and because, frankly, nothing else seemed to work out.

This morning at Mass, we heard about Abram. He and his wife, Sarai, were an unlikely couple for God to call on to be the parents of a great nation. They were well into their nineties; their AARP cards were terribly crinkled and their life savings were almost exhausted. They were supposed to be parents of a great nation and they had no children yet to construct the foundations of such a nation. It was clear: if they were going to be the progenitors of a great nation, God better get busy.

I think you know: a geriatric miracle occurred; Abram and Sarai became the proud parents of a bouncing baby boy named Isaac.

We heard of another unlikely character at Mass this morning—we just read a bit from one of his letters to the people of Rome. His name was Saul…at least for a while. He was a wretched fellow, the unlikeliest of all to do the Lord’s work. This guy made his reputation killing Christians and was proud of it. He kept up his deadly ways until he was struck by lightning. With that, his name suddenly changed from Saul to Paul and he ended up being one of the greatest evangelists the church has ever known—even better than Jim Swaggert!

All these folks were unlikely applicants to do the Lord’s work and perhaps that’s just the way God likes it. It was Paul himself who said that Abraham became great, not because of his goodness but because of the goodness of God and because God loved him.

There are other unlikely characters too—you! I would talk about myself as unlikely but I have already confessed my difficulties getting into law school and medical school. What about you? Do you measure up to do the Lord’s work? My experience is that except for a few self-righteous prigs, most of you feel underwhelmed by your faithfulness and not particularly perky about your holiness prospects. You say things like, “I am a terrible Christian” or “You are the good person who does the Lord’s work, not me” or “I wish I could believe this stuff, but I just can’t.”

We get it into our minds that it is up to us alone to do the Lord’s work and, for whatever reason, many of us don’t feel up to the task. According to Saint Paul, when we do good for the kingdom of God, it is due to the Lord and not to us. The fancy theological term for this, by the way, is the grace of God.

God loves us deeply, each of us. While we may be none too impressed by our contributions to the world, somehow, by the grace of God, each of us in our own way—maybe in a very small way but in our way nonetheless—will do something very good that will tilt this world ever so slightly for the better…all because of the grace of God.

I have told you of a few of my desert island books. One is Graham Greene’s stunning “The Power and the Glory.” The main character is a wretched whiskey priest always searching to wet his whistle. He is a sloshed bum who sickens himself worst of all. He knows his shortcomings better than anyone. But when the powers that be in Mexico forbid the church from preaching God’s word to suffering souls, baptizing little-bitty babies, and giving people the gifts of Christ’s body and blood who hunger for heavenly food, of all the unlikely people, the old drunken priest is the one who tramps over the hot, arid Mexican mountains, from one desperate town to the next, risking his neck so poor peasants might hear and taste once again the wondrous presence of God even while he is always on the lookout for another cheap bottle of booze. By the grace of God and surpassing anything the pathetic priest realizes, he bears mercy for a tormented land.

This cast of unlikely characters should show you how God weaves heavenly wonder in our midst. You may say, “I am not too religious” or even “Pastor, if only you knew the truth about me.” And yet, it is at that very moment, exactly when we think we are miserable foul-ups and sinners that God’s glory shines through us. There is hope, my dear friends; God works through people just like you and me.

“Better or Best”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Better or Best”
Matthew 4: 1-11
Lenten Vespers at
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

Just one little question for you this evening: do you believe in the devil?
Call him what you wish, Satan, Lucifer, the Evil One—you pick the name.  Do you believe in the devil, the one who, according to the gospel accounts, tempted Jesus in the wilderness?

Let me quit playing sophomoric games with you.  I believe in the devil.

Now, not for a minute do I think this wily one has a tail, dresses up in a red suit, and totes a pitchfork.  The devil—at least the one I believe in—is far craftier than that.  The devil I believe in is a devious virtuoso.

I fear we do not give the devil his due.  He weaves his diabolical magic with a technique almost impossible to detect or, at least, to call evil.  The devil loves to get us believing we are doing so well when, in fact, we are up to our necks in evil.  Martin Luther claimed the Satan does his most malicious work when we think all is going swimmingly.

Soon after Jesus had been baptized in the Jordan by John and God had announced from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” just when Jesus had the world at his fingertips, the devil pounced.

Again, give the devil his due: he had done his homework. The only way he could get close to Jesus was by making a few proposals too good to resist.  The devil wove his wicked web by offering Jesus an opportunity to solve the world’s worst problems; all Jesus had to do was make a few paltry concessions.

“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  The devil played to Jesus’ loving side, the side yearning to feed every hungry soul in the world. If you could feed just one starving baby with a distended belly—or even a few—just by doing a little dance with the devil, wouldn’t you mull over the proposal?

Satan tempted Jesus to be spectacular as well.  The whole world could belong to Jesus if only he bowed ever so slightly Satan’s way…just slightly mind you, not so terribly far.

The devil is ingeniously shrewd: he tempts us with choosing between better or best, not between worst or best.  The devil tempts us to make a little compromise here, a tiny concession there, nothing particularly offensive and, in sacrificing the best, this world might just be a better place in the process.

The earliest Christians were wary of the colossal dangers of opting for better rather than best.  The emperor asked them to offer just a pinch of incense on his altar and he promised all would well—just a smidgeon; no one would ever know the difference or care that you had bowed just a little Caesar’s way instead of God’s and you would soon forget the ugly compromise you made anyway.

I promise you, the devil is coming our way if he hasn’t already.  The devil knows how fond we are of power and prestige and yes, of doing the right thing even if for the wrong reasons.  All this, of course, to care for the world—nothing unsavory or vulgar.  Churches often measure success by the friends we have in high places: we know the price exacted, the silence we must observe, and yet rubbing elbows with such lofty folks is so intoxicating that the price of not speaking the truth seems well worth it.

Better or best…You know the choices; you face them every day.  A little compromise here, a slight bow to evil there—nothing much and all for the good of the cause—kind of like jumping off the temple top in order to save the world.  Not too much to ask, wouldn’t you agree?

Being a child of God is almost always costly unless, of course, we opt to just get along.  We can make believe there are two sides to every issue, never making a decision that is costly and never siding with the downtrodden if it might upset a solitary soul.

Jesus’ wilderness journey was a painful one that led straight up Calvary’s hill to the cross.  He could have saved himself but that would have been opting for better rather than best; he could have received the adulation of adoring throngs by playing footsies with a few brawny politicians and a handful of smooth operating, compromising religious officials.  Jesus would have none of it. He refused to turn his back on the outcasts—you and me, declining to make concessions to the devil in the process.

We are now on a forty-day journey called Lent. We will face countless opportunities to choose better or best.  We can say that jobs matter all the while letting poisonous gases suffocate God’s good earth; we can say that tough cuts must be made to the poorest so that the ravenous appetites of the deadly military are fed in the name, of course, of peace.

The real Lenten journey occurs, not just for forty days, but throughout our lifetime.  It is an arduous sojourn. We stumble and fall, scrape our knees and bloody our noses.  God understands how hard it is and God welcomes us home every time we have been satisfied with better rather than best.  And at that very moment when God embraces us, we know what is best, God’s son dying for us even when we have tried and failed.