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“Frolicking Down at the River”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Frolicking Down at the River”
(Mark 1: 4-11)
The Baptism of Our Lord (transferred) & The Baptism of Vivienne Marie Francis
January 14, 2018

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

The gospel of Mark opens this way, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Hearing the words “good news,” we expect quaint mangers and gentle lambs, regal magi and beautiful Mary. What Mark does instead is launches off with a thirty-year old Jesus hanging out with the riff raff down at the river.

I know a thing or two about rivers having grown up 600 yards from Wheeling Creek, a pintsize tributary emptying into the mighty Ohio. The underbellies of rivers are not pretty. Rusty beer cans bob along their banks, dead fish float in the weeds, rats scamper here and there, big ol’ black snakes slither amidst the other creepy flotsam and jetsam…I wonder if the Jordan River was like that.

You can imagine the crowd Jesus joined. They had failed every New Year’s resolution they had ever made and this time around were restlessly waiting to jump into the Jordan for John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to see how that might work.

If Mark is to believed, that Jesus’ baptism is good news, what’s up?

Jesus was with pimps and prostitutes, for goodness sakes, rednecks and ultranationalists, drunks and deplorables, the wild and wooly. Jesus wasn’t teaching them how to hold their noses and swim. Oh no, he dove in with them and got as drenched as a puppy in a fire hydrant.

Let’s admit it though: there is a sort of romanticism about it all. You know what I mean: there are sinners whose misguided ways and ugly diatribes do not irritate us in the least. We all have our favorite sinners whose foibles and foul-ups make us laugh and applaud.

A good rule I learned in divinity school is if any bit of scripture, including Jesus at the river with the sinners, doesn’t make us squirm, it is highly unlikely we are grasping how it shocked the original hearers.

The early church was horrified by Jesus frolicking at the river. What in the world was he doing with those stinking sinners? Wasn’t Jesus pure and spotless? Shouldn’t he have been hiding in the bushes, folding his pure hands in prayer and piously begging for God’s mercy on those dreadful sinners?

And come to think of it, aren’t there people in our own day who can never be washed clean, who deserve our endless rage, whose company we should never keep? I am sure you can think of one or two such people this morning. That, by the way, is the way of the world: create insiders and outsiders, good and bad, saved and eternally doomed. Remarkably, that’s not what Jesus did. He frolicked with the sinners down at the river.

Early on Friday morning, at about 2:30 in the morning, I woke up tossing and turning. The very question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth,” weighed heavy on my mind. Our president had apparently made denigrating remarks about the people of Haiti and Africa. My mind was running wild: can anything good come out of Haiti or Bethlehem, Namibia or Jerusalem—I had baptized kids from these very places. And, of course, more to the point, can anything good come out of Wheeling, West Virginia (my hometown) or New York City (where you and I live and do ministry together) or God knows where?” Again, Jesus joined all manner of folks, the good, the bad, and the ugly, people from Haiti and Africa; he even dared dip his toes with the ornery folks of the wild Upper West Side.

Oh my, do we need dreamers these days who have the courage to imagine people from Haiti and Africa, from the Republican and Democratic side of the aisle, all part of God’s kingdom. We do well to remember such a dreamer this morning, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.” He imagined all kinds of children gathering together at the river, splishing and splashing to beat the band.

In a few moments, Vivienne Marie Francis will be baptized. As water pours down her little face, God will call her “beloved daughter” just as so long-ago God called Jesus “beloved son.” You and I will promise to spend a lifetime helping Vivienne remember this day when she was washed in holiness, when God lovingly looked in her eyes and said, “You are mine, dear Vivienne.” Sadly, there will almost certainly be other voices in Vivienne’s life—as there are in all of ours—voices that will try to convince her that she is not so special in God’s eyes. But you and I, family and brothers and sisters in Christ, will tell Vivienne over and over again that she is special in God’s sight.

And so, let us now go to the water hand-in-hand with Vivienne and let us watch as God, more delighted than a river otter, frolics with her and us.

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

Consecration Sunday Sermon

Pastor Cynthia Krommes
(Senior Pastor, St. John’s Lutheran Church, Phoenixville, PA)
Pentecost 23 A, 2017 (Matthew 25: 1-13)
November 12, 2017
Holy Trinity Lutheran, Manhattan

It is a joy to be here and especially, to serve as your Consecration Sunday preacher.  I’m not the first pastor from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania to preach in this pulpit.  The Rev. Dr. Robert Hershey who served here for 21 years, began his ordained ministry at Central Lutheran Church in Phoenixville, a congregation which later merged with St. John’s.  A while ago, a man stopped by my office and gave me a book of Pastor Hershey’s sermons entitled Think About These Things.  I read the beautifully crafted sermons and they did make me think.  Then last week, my husband John and I attended Bach Vespers, a ministry Holy Trinity began during Pastor Hershey’s tenure, now 50 years ago. Your faithful stewardship of the Gospel proclaimed through word, sacrament, music and deeds, has kept the lights on at Holy Trinity for 150 years.

“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  Matthew 25: 12

Wednesday is Bible study day at St. John’s where the focus is the Gospel for the coming Sunday.  There are two studies, one in the morning at the Episcopal House, a low-income housing community for the elderly and the other in the evening in the Fireside Room at St. John’s.   The morning one is made up of mostly older women in their 70’s and 80’s, some of whom have “lost their filters” if you know what I mean.  If they think it, they say it.  After the text is read, the question is asked, “So what caught your attention?”  This week Sissy immediately responded, “This whole thing is just wrong.”  She went on, “Didn’t Jesus tell us to share.  They weren’t wise bridesmaids, they were stingy ones.  Then the bridegroom locks the door and doesn’t let the foolish ones in even though they ran all over town to get more oil when he was the one who was late. It’s just not right!”  Almost everyone around the table nodded in agreement.  I suspect that when some of you heard the passage read this morning that ended with the proclamation, “The Gospel of the Lord,” while your mouth responded, “Praise to you, O Christ,” your mind was thinking, “What?!”

Putting this text in context helps.  It’s Holy Week. Jesus has left the temple precincts where there’d been significant conflict with the religious authorities.  In his parting shot he calls them hypocrites and a brood of vipers.  Now he’s preparing his followers for what is to come and not just his crucifixion, but what will follow his death and resurrection.  A second context for the text comes when Matthew’s writing his Gospel, 50 years later. The church has been waiting and waiting and waiting for Jesus to return and is losing hope. So, Matthew includes four of Jesus’ parables which are known as the Advent parables because they anticipate the coming reign of God.  They are stories about faithfulness, perseverance, readiness, obedience, compassion and specifically with the ten bridesmaids, stewardship.

Stewardship is everything we do after we say, “We believe.”  I like how Brother Curtis Almquist of the Society of St. John the Evangelist puts it, he writes, “In our baptism we give up both the delusion and the burden of possessing life.  We acknowledge that we are neither the author nor finisher of life. We’re a steward of life, an ambassador on a short-term, mortal assignment by Christ. Who knows for how long?”  Then he concludes, “Give it your all; you will be given all you need.” (http://www.tens.org/resources/blog/stewardship)   To be bluntly honest, five of the bridesmaids gave it their all and five did not.  I suspect on any given day we might be one of the wise or one of the foolish, or perhaps both.

So how do we keep oil in our lamps?  How do we show forth the light of Christ in our lives?  How do we live as baptized, as consecrated ones?  How are we stewards of life?

First, worship weekly.  I heard Church historian and Reformation scholar, Timothy Wengert, preach a sermon in chapel at the Philadelphia seminary in which he said that on Sunday after worship he feels confident and full of faith, but by Friday it’s all but gone, so he runs back the bath, word and meal, hungry for grace.  That’s true for me.  For you, too?  All I have to do is read the front page of the New York Times.  I’ve spent most of the past year feeling numb and then last week our national addiction to guns and violence violated the holy, sacred space of First Baptist Church in Sutherland Spring, and Jesus was crucified once again.  Numbness turned to tears.  Oh, how we need to be here, living under the sign of the cross, in a community of faith that dares to call evil, evil and good, good, that dares to tell the truth.

You, the people of Holy Trinity dare to not only to tell, but to sing the truth.  Last Sunday, my husband John and I heard the truth sung in Bruhns’ Cantata at Bach Vespers that “even though we are much too weak to wield the sword of the spirit, there stands by us, a mighty hero who has overcome Death, Sin, Hell and world…the foe conquered, the race is run, for all has ended to our delight. Triumph!” Worship weekly.

Pray daily.  At the Wednesday Evening Bible Study, the question was asked, “How do you keep oil in your lamp?”  Around the circle, we went and just about everyone said, “I pray.”  One woman shared her nightly prayer and it was beautiful.  Another, a recent widower who is deeply grieving the death of his beloved wife, teared up and said, “All I have to say is Dear God, and I know that I am not alone.”  Now there might be some here who do not know how to pray.  In fact, when we do newcomers’ class at St. John’s often a brave soul confesses he’s clueless when it comes to prayer.  That’s when our Lord’s prayer can be very helpful.  Pause after each phrase and ponder what that means for you.  “Our Father….I am not alone…..give us our daily bread….bread for me and the beggar in the park…forgive my trespasses….my envy and lust, my greed and self-centeredness….for thine is the kingdom, which means it belongs to you God, not to the elite and their politicians or even me.  Amen.  Oil for your lamp, pray daily.

Serve joyously, or as Brother Curtis said, “Give it your all.”  You are an ambassador on a short term, mortal assignment by Christ.  Elsie had given it her all, but now her husband was dead and she was living at Parkhouse, the county home, stuck in a wheel-chair, missing him, her friends, her house, her everything.  I was there with communion not knowing what to say so I prayed “God, help me help her.”  Then, by grace, God did.  That day Elsie was commissioned to be the St. John’s Missionary at Parkhouse.  She said, “What do I do?”  I replied, “You are going to have to figure that out, but I think it is mostly loving other residents and the staff.”  She figured it out and the next time I visited was full of stories about the people on her floor and how wonderful they were.  She said the residents started taking turns praying before meals.  She told me about a man named David who refused to leave his room. Elsie said, “I just wheeled myself to his room and told him, there is a place for you at the table and when you aren’t there we miss you. Besides we can’t pray until everyone’s present. And you know what?  He wheeled himself to the table.”

You are God’s missionary.  It might be as a member of a board who dares to ask the difficult questions that go beyond what’s legal to what’s ethical. There’s a difference.  Or taking supper to a sick neighbor or you’ll figure it out.  But know, mostly it has to do with love.  Serve joyously.

Give generously.  It’s important to have discipline when it comes to giving because every time we turn around someone is trying to sell us something that promises to make our lives better, easier, more satisfying.  If we buy it, there’s a short-term high and we do feel better, but it’s temporary and before long we need another fix.  Just look in your closets and you know this is true.  In Phoenixville people rent storage units, bigger than many Manhattan apartments, crammed with stuff they bought to make their lives better, easier and more satisfying.  No wonder there are so many foolish bridesmaids, out of oil with bad credit ratings.
This is where proportional giving – giving a percentage of our income towards or beyond a tithe which is ten percent – is a blessing.  It makes us think about our money and what we do with it.  It instills discipline and helps us to use our resources on what really matters.  To give is to make a difference beyond ourselves, it makes life worth living.  Give generously!

Giving keeps the lights on, literally and figuratively.  And they were on here last Sunday evening when the dark came early as the marathon was ending.  All day long thousands ran and ran and ran.  Just as we do every day, sometimes making progress, sometimes not.  At Holy Trinity the lights were on and a young man and his mother saw that and came into this holy, sacred space and through music and words heard the truth.  He had run the race and proudly wore the light blue poncho to prove it.  It was a moment of personal victory, but he, they, needed more than that and knew it.  After Vespers he shook your pastor’s hand and thanked him, for the light.  The race is run and all ends to our delight.  Triumph. Amen.

“Putting on Our Saint Detectors”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Putting on Our Saint Detectors”
Matthew 5: 1-12
November, 5, 2017 (All Saints’ Sunday)

I adore All Saints’ Sunday.  In all fairness, I have probably said the same thing about Advent, Christmas, and Easter, but, honestly, I do love All Saints’ Sunday.

When I was a pastor in Washington, D.C., one of my colleagues took off All Saints’ Day to run in—guess what—the New York Marathon.  He was entitled to do that but his decision always baffled me.  Today, we remember those dear ones who have died, not only during this year but through the years.  We imagine our loved ones standing before the heavenly throne and singing with us, “For All the Saints,” and our tears flow freely.  Who would skip All Saints’ Day for a marathon?

It is not always easy, though, to detect the saints, especially the living ones who are sometimes a bit too close for our comfort.  How is it possible to spot blessedness in the weepy ones, in those who opt for peacemaking instead of belligerence?  Who would ever think to look for a saint in the pathetically persecuted for the gospel’s sake?  We stand clear of these bedraggled ones.  Perhaps that’s why my colleague might just be running in this morning’s marathon and not worshiping at his church.

I love All Saints’ Sunday because it is a breathtaking opportunity to see one another as God sees us and not as we often see one another.

When I was sixteen, I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Triadelphia, West Virginia, to apply for my learner’s permit.  I had thoroughly studied the driver’s booklet: I knew the speed limit in school zones and was clear how many 3.2% beers one could slug down before being hauled off to the drunk tank. The officer overseeing my test said, “Take off your glasses and read the third line on the eye chart.”  Ever obedient, I took off my glasses.  Rather than saying, “E, U, W, Q,” I said, “What wall is the eye chart on?”  Exasperated, my tester said, “Okay, Miller, put back on your glasses and never, I say never, put the keys into the ignition without your glasses hanging on your nose.”

All Saints’ Day is when we put on our “saints’ glasses” and God points us in the right direction; otherwise, saint detecting can be exhausting and exasperating.

Have you ever gone saint-detecting in your Bible?  Saint Peter, for instance, whose likeness hangs here on the altar wall, denied ever having known Jesus the very night before he was crucified. Saint Mary Magdalene was said to have been possessed by seven devils.  Saint Paul—on the mosaic wall behind me—before being struck by lightning at his conversion, boasted that he was quite adept at killing Christians.

On and on the shabby parade of saints goes, even beyond the Bible, among all the baptized—the very definition of a saint.  Saint Augustine, who influenced Martin Luther, said, “Give me chastity and continence, but not now.”  Saint Francis, before he gave away all his earthly possessions and started talking kindly to birds, was one of the great playboys of the Western world.

And it isn’t just the fancy-schmancy saints.  There are the pesky ones, those saints who sleep beside us, work in our office, and sit near us on Sunday morning.  Most of these saints are not particularly well known and they sometimes drive us crazy.  But you know them: your mom always thought you were the at center of the world even when you kept her awake all hours of the night wondering where you were; your Sunday school teacher captivated you with the story of David and Goliath when you were six years old; your eleventh grade English teacher said you would excel one day when almost everyone else called you a scalawag teenager.  They touched your life and yet only you and a few relatives will visit their graves after their funerals.

Next Sunday is Consecration Sunday.  Leading up to that special day in our life together, we have heard wonderful stories told by Kathy Yates and Time Cage and in a few moments by Lois Rimbo of saints who taught them how to be generous so that church’s like this could flourish.  Next Sunday, you and I will be invited to continue this grand tradition of sainthood.  Saints here at Holy Trinity, for the past 150 years, have delighted in being generous to Christ’s work.  Look at this breathtaking altar, these jaw-dropping mosaics of the saints, this gorgeous building, these beautiful stained-glass windows—all gifts from saints like you.

I have been blessed to know a host of generous saints during my lifetime as have you, big-hearted people who had the strange priority and joy of giving lavish gifts to Jesus. I think of Frieda Hightower, a single woman—many called her “an old maid.”   She had been abused as a kid, lived in a dull apartment, wore clothes that she likely purchased at the Salvation Army, and drove a twenty-three-year-old rusted-out Buick Skylark.  Her only extravagance—and it was excessive!—was that she was the biggest giver in our church.  I always assumed she was one of those people who, when they die, are discovered to be multimillionaires with thousands of dollars hidden in the mattress.  But, not Frieda.  When she died, we discovered she was penniless.  She had literally given everything she had to her church.  Her greatest delight, in what was a rather lonely life, was spending a fortune on the gifts in the form of yearly pledge to her church.

You would never have guessed Frieda was a saint.  It required saints’ glasses to do that. Remember: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Apparently, many of you decided not to run in the New York Marathon.  You have navigated through police barriers and large crowds to wind your way into this holy place, teeming with sainthood, both living and dead.  We are an odd lot to be called saints; we might never call ourselves saints.   But with saints’ glasses, we suddenly see that we have been made exquisite saints by the power of God.  May this be your greatest delight.

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