Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Pondering Heavenly Mystery”
Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 24, 2017)
Luke 1: 26-38
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park
In a few hours, multitudes will gather here to celebrate our dear Savior’s birth. Many will come for the spectacle of decorations and candlelight and the magic of carols and hearing again the unforgettable story, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” The only question will be: will the announcement of our dear Savior’s birth be wondrous news or ho-hum news for those who come?
For Jesus’ mother, the news of Christ’s coming birth was wondrous news; it was also inconceivable news. Not in a million years did Mary imagine she would become the Mother of God—that is the difference between God’s good news and our hackneyed news: God’s ways are not our ways and almost always set us on edge.
The Bible reports that when Mary heard, “The Lord is with you,” she “pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” She was frightened and the angel had to reassure her, “Do not be afraid, Mary.” Why would we be any different?
Sometimes, rather than delighting in the flabbergasting news that God did a new thing through Mary, we feel compelled to ask all manner of pigheaded questions, squeezing out every ounce of wonder from God’s coming to earth as a tiny baby. The operating principle seems to be: if the virgin birth makes no sense to me, it cannot be true. Rather than lifting ourselves up to God’s marvelous ways, we try to drag God deep into the gutter of our humdrum understandings.
On Thursday evening, we went with our son, Caspar, to the Broadway musical, “The Book of Mormon.” It is funny and quite profane. It is a spoof on the Mormons but it could just as easily have been a spoof on Christians. Beliefs like the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ from the dead are also ripe for skeptics’ ridicule. The things that really matter for us Christians, our central tenets, require a leap of faith that transcends how we typically think. Without faith, our beliefs, especially Jesus being the Son of God and born of the Virgin Mary, are simply convenient material for Broadway scorn and frivolity.
We can do better…We must do better…The world craves better. I’m not talking about the “Book of Mormon,” by the way, I’m taking about lifting up the central matters of our Christian faith.
While the Virgin Mary was flabbergasted by the angelic news that she was about to become the Mother of God, never once did she protest, “Angel Gabriel, your words are claptrap.” Instead, she pondered how this could possibly be. Even after her little baby boy was born and the shepherds had adored her precious little one, “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.” She did her best to comprehend what God was up to.
I long for a community like Mary, one that finds its greatest joy in celebrating the deepest mysteries of life. We can find mystery right here at baptism when plain old New York City tap water is stirred up with God’s word and a little baby becomes a child of God before our very eyes; we can find mystery this morning as the ordinary stuff of bread and wine become stunning gifts from heaven. On our best days, we dig into our heart like Mary so we can proclaim with joy, “For with God nothing will be impossible.”
You have certainly noticed how young and old alike yearn for mystery and wonder. Millions are standing in line to see the movie, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” And it isn’t just at the movies. Our elderly homebound members are enthralled as I read to them on your behalf, “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” We long for something beyond the drivel that our tiny minds can grasp, something that converts our ordinary routines into heavenly amazement.
Oh, to be a community that believes God can enter our mixed-up lives with mystery and wonder in inexplicable ways…and for the better! Has this ever happened to you? You drank ferociously for thirty-two years, consuming a fifth of bargain-basement vodka every day to numb your pain; your life was all but ruined. You entered rehab but fell off the wagon, not once but repeatedly. Then one day, mysteriously—was it God?—you poured a fine bottle of Grey Goose Vodka down the drain. And that very evening, you sheepishly attended your first AA meeting in ages, in a dingy church basement with sputtering fluorescent lights. You gawked at the floor and mumbled a few inaudible words but audible enough, “Hi, I’m Ralph and I’m an alcoholic.” You haven’t had a drink since, 4,966 days and counting—but, hey, who’s counting? As you look back, while it feels awkward to admit, you believe an angel—Gabriel perhaps?—landed on your shoulder that day and said, “Do not be afraid…For with God nothing will be impossible.’”
How astonishing that when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was about to be the Mother of God, she realized she would be more than she could ever be on her own and she started singing, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” She started imagining other things as well, that God would bring down the mighty from their thrones, exalt those of low degree, fill the hungry with good things, and even send the rich away empty. Mary was given a vision far bigger than her own…mysterious, far-fetched, and breathtaking!
It has been 2,000 years now and we are still dreaming with Mary. We can’t quite fathom how it will all unfold and yet, for some odd reason, we do not lose heart.
May your finest Christmas gift be the faith to trust that God can do the impossible for you and those you love.
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!”
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
11 o’clock in the morning
Pastor Miller’s Sermon This Sunday
How Often Do You Use the Word “Like”
(please read & meditate on Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52 in advance of worship)