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“500 Years of the Reformation: Repentance or Celebration?”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“500 Years of the Reformation: Repentance or Celebration?”
(Romans 3: 19-28; John 8: 31-36)
Reformation Sunday (October 29, 2017)

Happy 500th Anniversary of the Reformation!

Five hundred years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther is said to have nailed 95 theses onto the Castle Church doors in Wittenberg, Germany.  Herr Doktor Luther wanted to debate a number of critical points with the church.  The powers-that-be were none too pleased with his audacious thoughts and brazen manner and thus the events of the Reformation began to unfold.

Perhaps you have noticed today’s sermon title, “500 Years of the Reformation: Repentance or Celebration?”  I have been wondering: do we repent for the past 500 years or do we celebrate them?

I must confess that all the Reformation events leading up to today have not caught my fancy.  I’m not sure why.   Holy Trinity has sponsored no trips to Wittenberg; we have no cutouts with Martin Luther and his wife Katie through which you can stick your heads and put the picture on Facebook.

Now, to be sure, I have a certain fondness for things German.  I am married to a lovely German.  I have traveled to all the requisite “holy sites of Lutheranism” and paid my due homage.  Our boys and even our dog Cisco are fluent in Luther’s mother language—and their mother’s, and our younger son, Caspar, lives and works in Hamburg, Germany.  So, I am not exactly turning my back on the Lutheran heritage.

One of my guesses why I am not exactly euphoric over all the Reformation howling has to do with how I—and I imagine many of you—grew up.  We Lutherans gathered in the biggest space available which, in Wheeling, West Virginia, meant a school gymnasium; we had the requisite mass choir with timpani and brass; we invited the most famous out-of-town preacher we could get to deliver an anti-Catholic/pro-Lutheran stemwinder that brought us all to a fevered pitch.  The first hymn, like this morning, was “A Mighty Fortress.”  Goose bumps formed, tears trickled, and we sang louder than we should have.

We, of course, celebrated that Luther had called the people of God to cherish that particular Pauline theological doctrine proclaiming there is not a darn thing we can do to save ourselves and that our salvation is a glorious gift from God.  There were other things we celebrated as well like Luther translating the Bible into a language people could actually understand and his gutsy stand against the church’s sale of indulgences, those “get out of hell free cards” for deceased grandma and grandpa that also helped underwrite the church’s ambitious building projects in Rome.

For sure, Martin Luther was a man of prodigious talents and, for that, we give thanks and I suppose God excuses our excessive merriment this morning.

But on those Reformation days of yore when some of us were kids, I never remember repenting. Do you?  Some of you may be scratching your head, “What was to repent?”

Remember when Suzanna Mueller announced to her good Lutheran parents that she was marrying Bronco Zaleski who attended St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church?  They were madly in love but both sides of the aisle were devastated.  The wedding was the tensest thing you ever did see as good Catholics smugly went up for Communion and pious Lutherans sat in their pews scowling…Sad.

Pure and simple, we dare not celebrate the division of Christ’s church. If we do, we are complicit in the continued crucifixion of Christ’s body on the cross!  Whenever the church is divided, we must lament the tragic part our own antagonism plays in damaging the proclamation of God’s goodness.

It seems we are getting better though.  We have found it within ourselves, by God’s grace of course, to listen to what Roman Catholics think and believe and they have been listening to us as well.  We have spent far more time seeking our commonalities and much less time lambasting one another’s differences; and, remarkably, the one holy catholic and apostolic church appears to be slowly mending.

We have come a long way.  In a few days, Lutherans of the Metropolitan New York Synod will cram into St. John the Divine for the 500th Observance of the Reformation.  My hope is that we will both repent and celebrate.  If there is a scent of triumphalism, my hunch and hope is that it will surface as we give thanks that many Christian denominations are desperately seeking how to break down the ancient barriers that have for far too long hampered our proclamation of God’s grace; we will also pray mightily that we may sing one gorgeous melody infused with the unique and lovely sounds of all our varied and rich traditions.

I experienced this glorious melody a few years ago when I attended Mass with my Roman Catholic sister-in-law and the priest of her tiny village church in Rotenburg, Germany, encouraged me, a Lutheran pastor, to come forward to receive the body and blood of Christ; it was a breathtaking moment.  Roman Catholics rejoice similarly when they come here and are welcomed to join us in receiving the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.

500 years after Luther, we repent for all those times when we have acted in ways that have gotten in God’s way.   And, 500 years later, we also celebrate all that is bringing our Christian family closer together.  The last thing the world needs today is Christians squabbling with one another.  We need to rise above our differences and proclaim God’s love to all the groaning world.

We deck our church in red today because, like in every age, God never forsakes the church.  And that calls for a celebration!  And so, I say, “Happy 500th Reformation Day!”

 

“What Are You Wearing to the Wedding?”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“What Are You Wearing to the Wedding?”
(Matthew 24: 1-14)
October 15, 2017 (19th Sunday after Pentecost)

The moment the parents receive the news, “We are getting married,” they immediately make their own announcement, “Let the wedding planning begin.”

I know this from experience.  The church is the first place parents call, well actually, shortly after they contact grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles, siblings, bridal shop, ballroom, limo service, photographer, cosmetician, nail salon, and honeymoon resort.

The out-of-breath parents, both on the phone, blurt out, “Pastor, Susie Marie is getting married to Bradley Joe.  How does November 30 look on Holy Trinity’s calendar?”  Not thinking carefully enough, I ask, “Don’t you think that’s rushing it a bit?  November 30 is a month away and it falls on a Thursday.”

“Oh,” says the electrified mother, “silly me, not this year, Pastor, we’re talking 2019.  We were afraid the date might get booked if we didn’t call immediately.”

Such excitement!

To show the parents how much I care, I probe a bit, “How many people do you expect at this extravaganza?”

“We are thinking small, 50 or 60,” says the father, mindful that his retirement account may soon dip lower than it did during the 2008 financial debacle.

Once the date is established, the planning begins in earnest.  The guest list soars from 53 to 315, not counting Great Uncle Rodney from Wyoming who detests New York’s honking taxis and the over-paid Yankees.

As the big day approaches, invitations are created, “damask cream white” with satin silver bows; when you open them, the couple-to-be pops up in a Central Park horse drawn carriage.  These, by the way, cost mom and pop a paltry $4038.

You understand the investment though.  The king and queen have anticipated this day since their little princess was born.  They began rehearsing when she was three, dressing her in the stunning “Wrinkled Bedsheet Collection” and teaching her to hold her head high, keep her back straight, and smile to the left and right as she processed through the living room.

Once the invitations are sent out, with hand-calligraphed addresses in silver ink, the mother runs to the mail box daily, precisely at 2:15 p.m., awaiting the RSVPs.  And, every day, she makes the sad walk back to the house, crestfallen that only sixteen people have responded, including surprisingly, Uncle Ernie and Aunt Henrietta from Cheyenne.  There are few days without tears.  The parents’ disappointment intensifies to misery and rage.  What was supposed to be a joyful celebration is spinning into a gloomy fiasco.

One wonders why no one responds.  This is the wedding of the century after all.  You would respond and I have to.  I have been to such weddings, one where The Drifters of “Under the Boardwalk” fame sang and the bridesmaids were models from the Ford agency here in New York and the groomsmen included a congressman, a former NBA player, and a smattering of corporate execs; another where I performed the marriage of General Colin and Alma Powell’s son.  Who would miss those affairs?

This is precisely when Jesus’ parable begins to make us edgy.  The banquet is ready, the oxen and calves slaughtered, the caviar on crushed ice, the string quartet tuned, and no one showing up at the club. The king and queen blow gaskets and send out their slaves to investigate where everyone is.  Apparently, the A-Listers have more important things to do.  The parents’ fury knoweth no bounds; they order the ungratefuls murdered and, for good measure, their city burnt to ashes.

If this isn’t disturbing enough, the royal family then sends out the slaves to invite the homeless folks who sleep in the bushes near the gated club and a few others whose hideous shopping carts line the church steps only hours before the wedding.  These neglected outcasts will certainly come, don’t you think?  And yet there is another problem.  The king continues to bristle, this time because the B-Listers don’t appear at the wedding in Chanel dresses and Armani suits.  They certainly don’t have the money for such extravagance and, even if they did, it’s a tad late to expect them to head off to Madison Avenue to purchase swanky nuptial attire.

Let me add a disclaimer right now: I am not making this up; this is Jesus’ story not mine.  In case you haven’t quite picked up on the royals’ rage, they have the ill-clad B-Listers “bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness” where, as far as the king and queen are concerned, they can weep and gnash their teeth for ages unto ages.

I have learned from experience: never mess with the parents of the bride and groom!

Increasingly these days, people don’t seem to be showing up for this feast on Sunday whether here at Holy Trinity or Cheyenne.  Our attendance is growing but, still, there seem to be more pressing priorities—Jet’s game, fall foliage jaunts, brunch at who knows where, and brushing up on the crossword puzzle in the Time’s Sunday Magazine…So much to do, so little time.

I get the busyness but apparently, like the parents of the newlyweds, God is not amused.

I have no way of knowing for certain but I have a hunch Jesus told this parable so that when we receive our invitation to the Feast of the Lamb, we will realize how much God yearns for our presence.  God has prepared the finest meal imaginable for us this morning, overflowing with the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.  God has been making plans for this day for a long time, actually forever.

Really, can you believe you made it on the guest list?  Jesus is here!  Perhaps the only remaining question at this point is, “What are you wearing to the wedding?”  Well, actually, that apparently doesn’t matter because God has invited you and you are here this morning.

God is so glad you have come today, so enjoy, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.