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“The Holy Cross: Irrational Humbug or the Power of God?”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“The Holy Cross: Irrational Humbug or the Power of God?”
(1 Corinthians 1: 18-24; John 3: 13-17)
September 17, 2017 (Holy Cross Day)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West

Please let me brag. I know I have told you this before but allow me one more moment of braggadocio: I attended Yale Divinity School. I tell you this with hopes of impressing you because, deep down, I harbor intense feelings of inferiority when it comes to my degree. Yale Divinity School ain’t all it is cracked up to be at least in the grand scope of things. It is often referred to as “the back door to Yale”—and with considerable justification. Half the people applying to the divinity school are accepted while only between 5 and 10% get into Yale Law and Yale Medical which, by the way, is about what the same acceptance rate as down the street at Juilliard where many of Holy Trinity’s fine musicians attended school.

There are other causes for my pathetic spasms of academic inadequacy.  A few years ago, in the “Yale Alumni Magazine,” Dr. Eugene P. Cassidy, a graduate of the much-vaunted medical school, wrote: “Isn’t it time Yale euthanized the Divinity School?  This academy for irrational humbug is an embarrassment to the real graduate schools.”

If Dr. Cassidy were here today, don’t you imagine he would find our Holy Cross goings-on nothing more than a load of poppycock?

In all humility and in no way meant to scold Dr. Cassidy, there have been occasions when the likes of Dr. Cassidy have curtly announced to a grieving family that their loved one has died and then quickly left the room.  I, with my silly divinity school degree of irrational humbuggery in hand, have sometimes been left to clean up the mess.  To be fair, I’m sure many doctors feel like failures when they are unable to keep a person alive any longer and must deliver the devastating news to the crestfallen family that their loved one is “gone.”

In no way do I want to be critical of doctors.  Like you, I know fabulous ones, a few who kept me alive eleven years ago.  In truth, don’t we all stumble and bumble in the face of death, searching for the right words when none seem available, none at least that will bring back to life those we love?  Perhaps that is why, for those of us here this morning, the only words that feel right are somehow deeply woven into the Holy Cross.  Like our hymn at the gospel, we cry out:

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
save in the death of Christ, my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

There is something about this Holy Cross Day that begs us tell the truth and not beat around the bush.  This day invites us to admit that death is inevitable for us all and yet also to proclaim that death is never the final word.  We may prefer to make believe, to say we pass away, float into the ethereal netherworld, or as some Californians are fond of writing in obituaries, transition from this world to the next.  But let us not kid ourselves: we die!

I once was talking to a church member about his funeral plans.  He was a big-time television personality in a major city.  He told me what hymns to sing, who would deliver the eulogies, where he would be laid to rest.  He prefaced it all with this, “Pastor, if I die…”  He caught himself but his “if I die” hung in the air a bit too long and reflected the thought many of us harbor in our magical thinking when our mortality comes up.  Deep down, we are so scared of dying that we prefer to play the game of “if I die.”

Martin Luther knew better.  He once wrote: “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”  You can guess, I’m sure, that Luther was a theologian of the cross.  He knew we don’t pass away or transition to Lalaland or float into the clouds.  He called the darn thing what it is: death!

The Holy Cross leads our way this and every Sunday morning.  We are reminded that if Jesus is God’s son then, in fact, God died an ugly death before our eyes—sweat, blood, tearing tendons, bulging eyes.  Our God went where we will all finally go, deep into the ground, where only God can raise us up.

It has often been asked, where was God when six million Jewish people were dying in Hitler’s concentration camps.  The best answer I have heard is, “God was there dying with the Jews.”  For many, this is foolishness, irrational humbuggery, but for others this is the very power of God.

I know how depressing this sounds, especially on this day as so much wonderful ministry is about to unfold here at Holy Trinity. You have returned from vacation, the choir is singing, programs are returning—these are thrilling days. This will be a stunning year as we prepare to celebrate 150 years of bearing the cross of Christ in New York City.  The greatest hits of Johann Sebastian Bach will be celebrated during the 50th year of our renowned Bach Vespers.  Some of the most distinguished preachers in the Lutheran church will be in our pulpit, including the Rev. Susan Briehl whose gorgeous hymn, “Holy God, Holy and Glorious,” we will sing at Communion.  Through the entire, thrilling year, we will lift up the cross, that pathetic instrument of suffering and death that wise and pious folks view as foolishness and twaddle and yet what we proclaim to be very power of God.

God does not avoid death: God confronts death, dies, and conquers death as Jesus is raised from the dead…Oh, and by the way, God conquers our death as well.

Christ’s death and resurrection is the most comforting word we can offer when we journey with others into the valley of the shadow of death. Let us tell anyone who will listen, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Yes, let us risk being called irrational humbuggers as we proclaim to the world that God is with us for better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and, yes, even in death, in the name of the Holy Cross, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Bach Vespers – April 12, 2015

The Rev. George Detweiler

Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4

(Note: The musical information in this meditation is from John Eliot Gardiner’s book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven)

Bach was 22 when he wrote this cantata for his audition in Mühlhausen. This was his second or perhaps third cantata, but the first in which he attempted to paint narrative in music. The success of this cantata and of the audition moved him from the role of a virtuoso organist to that of a daring composer of figural music, and, I would add, ardent promoter of the theology of Martin Luther. (more…)