3 West 65th St | New York, NY 10023 | 212.877.6815

“The Grace to Change Our Minds”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
“The Grace to Change Our Minds”
Matthew 15: 21-28
August 20, 2017 (Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West

These are tumultuous times, times that in the words of Mitt Romney cause “racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast heart of America to mourn.”

As white supremacists parade swastikas through American streets, neo-Nazis present Hitlerian salutes in front of synagogues, and Ku Klux Klan members wave Confederate flags in African Americans’ faces, we must examine our souls this morning and cry out in horror, “My God, my God!”

One of you asked me following worship on Wednesday evening, “What can I do?” Your question was borne in fear for our nation and for our African American, Jewish, Muslim, and LGBTQ brothers and sisters. You have participated in countless protest marches and called your representatives in Washington, but the madness continues; in desperation, you wonder, “What else can I do?”

My answer may seem surprisingly passive, simplistic even. I said, “What you can do is go to church.”

I believe going to church is the most radical thing we can do in these perilous times—not the only thing, mind you, but the most radical thing. This is where we gather to hear a different word—not a partisan word from Republicans or Democrats or a brawling word from CNN or MSNBC, The New York Times or Breitbart. Here we gather to receive a creative word from God amidst the jarring cacophony of anti-Semites, the harsh screams of racists, and the pathetic whimpers of scaredy-cats. The word we hear in this place implores us to seek an uncommon way, a way overflowing with love for our enemies. This fresh way of viewing the world challenges the very core of our being: “There is neither Greek nor Jew, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran martyr who sacrificed his life against the Nazi madness, seemed to agree that church-going in tough times is exactly what we should do: “The early morning belongs to the Church of the risen Christ. At the break of light the church remembers the morning on which death and sin lay prostrate in defeat and new life and salvation were given to mankind.”

The word of God that raised Jesus from the dead has the exact same power to eradicate the demonic insanity that threatens to rip our nation asunder. Yes, indeed, we come to church this morning to learn a different language so that when we leave here today, we are able to speak the vibrant language of God’s love to our suffering world.

The story we just heard may not sound at all like the life-giving word we are in search of on a day such as this. The Canaanite woman who approached Jesus was an old enemy of his “people.” It seemed only natural for Jesus to detest her; she came from across the border after all, Syria, and worshiped gods repugnant to God’s chosen people. It seems like the wrong word for today because Jesus plummeted to sickening lows of racial superiority. As the woman knelt before him, pleading for her demon-possessed daughter, Jesus’ response was disgusting: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

The Canaanite woman refused to surrender, she would not be deterred: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Outcast that she was, she believed God’s word could overcome hatred and because of that stunning confidence, Jesus said, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And, of course—surprise, surprise—Jesus changed how he felt about this woman from the other side!

It may sound blasphemous to suggest that Jesus changed his mind and yet have we not come here this morning for an extraordinary word from God, a word not of our own making but of God’s, a word that can set this world upside down? Far from being blasphemous, to be able to change one’s mind is a gracious gift from God.

Perhaps you think changing your mind—or Jesus changing his—is a demonstration of weakness. If that’s what you think, know that God changed God’s mind as well.

In the story of Noah, after annihilating pretty much every human-being and the entire creation, God stretched out a rainbow in the sky and changed God’s mind: “The waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9). On another occasion, when the Israelites created a golden calf and God was beside himself with fury, Moses implored the Lord to think twice before wiping them out. And, once again, a surprising word: “And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people” (Exodus 32). Did you hear that? God repented, God changed God’s mind!

Far from heresy, as I said, the greatest grace is the astonishing news that if God can change God’s mind, God can certainly change our minds and our enemy’s.

I know this can happen because it happened to me a few months ago when an African American Lutheran pastor worshiped right here on Sunday morning. At the Passing of the Peace, I unfortunately did not greet her personally. While we met after worship, she was quite upset and said so on Facebook. I was crestfallen. I quickly built up walls of defense as to why I was right and she was wrong: I didn’t notice her; I would never do such a thing; I have served African American congregations; we raised our sons in African American communities; I was arrested at the South African Embassy in Washington, DC, protesting its racist apartheid regime. But it didn’t take long to realize that I had overlooked the pain she was feeling at having been left out all the while trying to justify my inaction. At that moment, God spoke a new word to me that changed my mind and, hearing that word, I apologized to her publicly on Facebook and wrote her a personal note begging her forgiveness. When she wrote back thanking me, I felt a great grace extended to me from her and from God…I pray that I was changed for the better.

We are pointing a lot of fingers these days, uttering lots of harsh words. Could some of our anger be borne in the frustration that nothing will ever change—in our enemies who seem so brazenly wicked, with our families whom we so vigorously disagree, and even in the dark caverns of our own shady hearts? I wonder…

That is precisely why we need to go to church in these tumultuous times. It is in this place where we hear that God can change anyone, including our enemies and, yes indeed, even ourselves.

“Water Walkers Who Refuse to Wait for the Catastrophe”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon as We Prayed for Our Nation
“Water Walkers Who Refuse to Wait for the Catastrophe”
Matthew 14: 22-23
Wednesday Evening Mass, August 16, 2017

This wasn’t the first time Peter had said something so preposterous. He was always the big shot, wanting to be at Jesus’ side in glory and telling anyone who would listen that Jesus called him “The Rock.” Like the disciples, we have grown weary of Peter’s antics. When he says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” we, along with James and Andrew, jab each other in the ribs and say to Peter: “Go for it Pizza Pie; take a giant step for mankind, big fella; float like a dragonfly.”

The Bible doesn’t tell us how far Peter walked on water. What’s your guess—two steps, perhaps four? Saint Matthew does write: “Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, be became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” As Peter screamed, Jesus castigated him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

In the midst of our merriment at Peter the buffoon, aren’t we a bit jealous of his bravado? After all, taking just a few measly steps on a wind-battered lake ain’t exactly shabby. How many steps do you think you could take before sinking into the sea?

In these days, it’s easy to sit in our La-Z Boys and judge those who get out of the boat and try to quell the sickening racism and disgusting anti-Semitism occurring in our nation. We all have our opinions of what is appropriate and inappropriate. Like Olympic diving judges holding up scorecards, we evaluate anyone who takes a step or two off the high dive to try to bring justice to our reeling nation. It’s easy to judge from a safe distance; it is far more dangerous to step into the raging sea with hopes that things might get a bit better.

What do you think: is it better to try and fail or to be rendered impotent by our desire to act perfectly before taking a single step?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the great saints of the twentieth century. You are probably aware that he had a cushy job teaching just up the street at Union Theological Seminary. But as Hitler began to rear his ugly head, Bonhoeffer had to make difficult decisions: whether to leave the safe confines of United States soil for his beloved German homeland and, eventually, whether to be involved in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. People could and would judge him but Bonhoeffer found it more unbearable to stand idly by as Jewish people faced the slaughter. In the finest of Lutheran tradition, Bonhoeffer “sinned boldly;” he dared to act because he was already saved by a merciful God. Risky, of course, but, for Bonhoeffer there was no alternative. Oh yes, he was hung at Hitler’s Flossenburg Concentration Camp only days before World War II ended….Feels a bit to me like sinking into the sea for what you believe. But we do not forget Saint Dietrich.

Listen to his words and tell me if you have heard anything more timely in recent days: “If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” One thing is clear: there is no room for anti-Semitism and racism in the Christian life. We must take risks and we must do what we can to stop the madness in our own day.

At the beginning of this evening’s worship service, Steve Aurand played one of my favorite liturgical pieces, Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.” Steve asked whether this was appropriate for this evening and I said, “More than appropriate, it is perfect!”

Jesus invites us to join the clowns, folks like Saint Peter and Saint Dietrich, those willing, in faith, to jump out of the boat and to walk on water. For my money, Peter is the most faithful clown in the disciple boat—as was Bonhoeffer after him! Their faith was borne of bravery and deep faithfulness, knowing they would be ridiculed when their boats began to sink and yet trusting that Jesus would catch them no matter how wet they got.

I pray that each of us will step out of this boat (this holy space, by the way, is called a nave after the Latin word “navis” which means “ship”). We will leave this boat tonight and, I pray, by faith, boldly and lovingly walk on water. There is far too much hatred these days, far too much vitriol aimed at those with whom we disagree. Let us not be coopted by the haters; let us not use their ugly ways to try to accomplish loving results. Let our biggest risk of water-walking be to love those who think differently than us and to stand with those too easily crushed by the rich and powerful.

Let us dare, in Christ’s name, to build a house where all are welcome, in this congregation and throughout this nation.

“The Grammar of Grace”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“The Grammar of Grace”
Matthew 5: 21-37
February 12, 2017 (Sixth Sunday after Epiphany)
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church-Manhattan

Miss Ball was my eighth-grade English teacher, the best I ever had.  She forced us to diagram sentences, learn all the prepositions by memory, and know how to use who and whom, he and him, and she and her, properly.  Eleanor Ball did not suffer fools gladly: she once told me, before an assembled throng of fourteen year-olders, that I was the poorest English student of the entire Miller clan and that included my parents and sister, aunts and uncle.

If you had a teacher like Miss Ball, you were drilled in the figures of speech: alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia.  I particularly struggled with remembering the difference between metaphor, simile, and hyperbole.  I will not bore you with the specifics but I invite you to review what Miss Ball said about hyberbole: “Hyperbole is an extravagant statement used for the purpose of emphasis or heightened effect.”

Here are a few hyperboles: “If you insult a brother or sister…and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire…If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away…”

I, at least, pray Jesus was overstating the case here just to turn us from sin.

I wonder if this is hyberbole: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”  If this is not stretching the case for effect, I am fearful you will soon be running off to make up with your sisters and brothers and never return to put your offering in the plate.  I fear attendance at Holy Communion will be pretty sparse!

Here’s why this all seems hyperbole to me.  Martin Luther teaches us, over and over again, that we cannot be perfect.  One of the primary reasons we teach our children the Ten Commandments is not so much to make them good little girls and boys but more to the point to help them realize they are hopeless sinners in need of God’s grace.

It is so tough to admit we are sinners.  We easily point our finger at others—you are a miserable sinner!—but it is another matter altogether to point that same finger at ourselves.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his little book, “Life Together,” writes: “The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner.  So, everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship.  We dare not be sinners.  Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous.  So, we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.  The fact is that we are sinners!”

Could it be that Jesus wants to shock us, scare us straight, so we know, without a doubt, that we cannot achieve perfection—even if we so desperately want to?

Church folks find it hard to admit to imperfection.  There are some groups, however, that are pretty good at this.  If you have ever attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, you know that recovering alcoholics admit their shortcomings the moment the meeting begins, “Hello, I am Scotty and I am an alcoholic.” AAers are well versed in the twelve steps because they are read at every meeting.  Here are steps one and two: 1-We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable; 2-We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Do you know anyone who possesses such courage—elegance?—to admit their lives are unmanageable, that they need something beyond themselves—like God—to turn their lives around?

I recently saw such a person.  Patti Smith is, we might say, the 71-year old punk rock queen-mother of New York; she is also a serious author who has written the National Book Award winner, “Just Kids,” and my favorite, “M Train.”  She represented Bob Dylan at the recent Nobel Prize awards on December 10.  She sang Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a song she has known since she was a teen-ager.

Patti Smith writes: “Every spare moment was spent practicing it, making certain that I knew and could convey every line…I sang the words to myself, over and over…I bought a new suit, I trimmed my hair, and felt that I was ready.

“….And then suddenly it was time…As I sat there, I imagined laureates of the past walking toward the King to accept their medals. Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Albert Camus. Then Bob Dylan was announced as the Nobel Laureate in Literature, and I felt my heart pounding…I heard my name spoken and I rose. As if in a fairy tale, I stood before the Swedish King and Queen…

“The first verse was passable, a bit shaky, but I was certain I would settle. But instead I was struck with a plethora of emotions, avalanching with such intensity that I was unable to negotiate them…Unaccustomed to such an overwhelming case of nerves, I was unable to continue…

“As I took my seat, I felt the humiliating sting of failure…”

If you have not seen Patti Smith’s performance that night in Stockholm, Sweden, I beg you to go to YouTube.  You will witness a beautiful woman, not because of her perfection but because of the depths of her fragile nature.  As she sings and stumbles and is repeatedly rendered speechless and apologetic, the camera sweeps the audience and catches a woman in the audience so deeply moved by Patti Smith’s stunning humanity that she is wiping away tears.  You might call that a moment of grace, an occasion when someone is rendered beautiful not because of make-believe perfection but because of the profound honesty that she needs something more to help her get through the night.

I believe Jesus uses hyperbole, shocking stuff like plucking out eyes, chopping off hands, and sending people straight to hell fire, so we might all realize we are God’s beautiful, precious children.  I pray that this place’s deepest glory will come as we witness one another’s brokenness being bathed in the forgiving waters of heavenly grace.  If we do this, others will pass by here and be moved by tears because they will see just how much God loves us…and them, too.