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“Singing in the Dark Night”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Singing in the Dark Night”
Candlemas/ Presentation of Our Lord
February 2, 2017
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church-New York City

Christmas was forty days ago.  Even though our trees have been tossed curbside and our decorations packed away for weeks now, we continue to long for the Christ Child’s light in our lives.

This evening is an embarrassment of riches if you are still longing for Christmas light.  We celebrate Candlemas, blessing the candles that will light our way through this year. No matter how dark these days, we dare not forget Christ is our light.

We also celebrate the Presentation of Our Lord, recalling how Mary came out of the seclusion of childbirth and, with her husband Joseph, brought their precious little Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem as scripture mandated.

And, yes indeed, today is even Groundhog Day.  While it may seem a frivolous festival observed by furry Phil and his Punxsutawney pals, it is, in fact, more than that: it is the day when people yearn for the distressing winter darkness to give way to the tender, spring light.

Old Simeon and feeble Anna watched and waited at the Temple for years and years just to answer that very question: would light enter the darkness?  Imagine Simeon’s delight as he took the tiny child from Mary’s affectionate hands into his own arthritic ones.  Watch as he lifts Jesus to the heavens; be enchanted by his raspy yet riveting voice singing one of the most enthralling hymns the world has ever heard:
Lord, now let your servant go in peace, according to your word:

My own eyes have seen the salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of every people;
A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.

Simeon could now calmly close his eyes one final time for he had beheld the light that would guide his path through death to life forever.

Lutherans have had a unique love affair with Simeon’s canticle called the Nunc Dimittis in Latin.  At the conclusion of funerals, we open our clenched fists and let our loved ones soar to heaven as if letting a caged bird fly free.  With voices breaking, we sing the best we are able, “O Lord, now let your servant go in peace.”

We sing Simeon’s exquisite song at the final prayer service of the day, Night Prayer (Compline).   We are reminded that every night, as we close our eyes, we die a little death, and yet we trust that when we finally die, we can do so in peace as did Simeon and Anna.

Tiny children sense this little death as monsters lurk beneath their beds.  They pray the simplest and yet sincerest of prayers:

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I shall die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

As we grow older, the darkness is no less terrifying. We watch the evening news, horrified at what might come while we sleep. Monsters lurk this time out in the world we love. We implore Simeon and Anna to come by our side and to support our singing, “Oh Lord, now let your servant go in peace.”

One of my most cherished pastoral memories is gathering at Elsa Mae Rhodes’ bedside at the National Lutheran Home in Rockville, Maryland.  These were her final moments this side of the kingdom-come.  Elsa Mae was the ninety-eight-year-old daughter of African American slaves.  She endured the vile cruelties hurled her way and yet, remarkably,  never lost hope and refused to surrender to bitterness.  Her daughter and I held vigil in the wee hours as Elsa Mae readied herself for the final journey to the far side of the Jordan.  We watched as the light faded in her cataracted eyes, as the memories scampered through her withered mind, and then we heard her begin to feebly and softly sing, not indignantly, but exquisitely:

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

We gather here tonight to praise God for a similar blessing of the light.

In a matter of moments, you will receive a bit of bread and a sip of wine.  Somehow, someway, this is the very body and blood of that tiny Christ Child for whom you have waited.  As the glorious taste lingers in your mouth, may you sing a confident song even as darkness blankets the earth, “Lord, now let your servant go in peace…For my own eyes have seen my salvation.”

“With a Story to Tell and a Song to Sing”

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller’s
Sermon at Bach Vespers
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
October 9, 2016
“With a Story to Tell and a Song to Sing”
2 Timothy 2: 8-15

It is my joy to welcome you to this glorious tradition of Bach Vespers.  As the new pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity, I hope you will discover God’s presence in these evening moments.  Also, please join us at the reception, downstairs, immediately following this evening’s liturgy where I look forward to meeting you.

One of my worst fears as a child was ending up alone in the basement.  Every once and a while, someone mistakenly turned off the basement lights and I was alone, scared to death.  I screamed and ran through the deep darkness.  Monsters and ghosts lurked there, of course, and I ran as fast as my little feet could carry me, scampering for the light.

Those childish fears seem silly except don’t we adults fear the darkness as well?   Remember Dylan Thomas’s words:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Whether tiny tots or aging ones, we harbor a primal fear that when the sun goes down, the end will follow, soon and forever.

We gather together tonight yet again to rage against the dying of the light.

The Jewish people have given thanks to God down through the ages for that pillar of fire that led them through the dark wilderness into the brilliant light of the Promised Land.

The church, too, celebrates that Christ faced the agony and horror of the cross to offer his hand to lead us from every terror of the night into the promise of life everlasting.

For forty-nine years now, Holy Trinity has invited friends and neighbors to gather in this holy space for Evening Prayer, Vespers.  As the sun goes down, glorious music has pierced the darkness, raging against the dying of the light.

The Danish writer Karen Blixen (better known as Isak Dinesen) writes it this way: “Any sorrow can be borne if a story can be told about it.”  I suppose you could say any darkness can be endured if a song can be sung about it.

The two motets we just heard are by Johnann Christoph Bach (Johann Sebastian Bach’s first cousin once removed).  The first motet reeks of despair born amidst the horrendous plagues and vicious wars of the 17th century where the average life expectancy was just under forty and twelve percent of children died before their first year.

Man that is born of woman has but a short time to live and is full of misery.
He comes up and is cut down like a flower, as fleeting as a shadow and with no abiding place.
How futile and fleeting is the life given to man.
Scarcely born into this world, he is marked out for death…
All mortals are sinners and must perish at un unexpected hour.

Have you ever felt such despair?  Are you silently walking through the dark wilderness right now?  If the truth be told, we will all face a little death this very night as we close our eyes and fall asleep.  This sleep has been called a rehearsal for the final and real thing.

Yes, despair hangs in the air and yet, in the classic Lutheran formulation, the harps cannot remain hanging in the willows for long. There must be another song.  We all need a tale told, a song sung.  The second motet we just heard is such a song:

The righteous,
Though he dies before his time,
Nevertheless finds rest…
For his soul finds comfort in the Lord.
Thus with Him at his side
he hurry out of wicked life.

We long for a melody of hope in the face of any dissonance of despair.  In this evening’s reading from Second Timothy, Saint Paul speaks of the hardships he endures so that “the Word of God is not chained.”  That is why we are here tonight.  We are little children being tucked into bed as the lights are turned off.  We beg God to tell us one more story, to sing us one more song, before we close our eyes and fall asleep.  That story, of course, is the one that gives us confidence that if we endure with the Lord, we shall reign with him.

And so, tonight, yet again, we sing a song, pray a prayer, and listen to the music of angels, all in high hope that as we go out into the evening darkness we will have a spring in our step, a hope in our heart, a melody in our soul.