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“Story-Telling around the Fire”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Story-Telling around the Fire”
April 15, 2017 (Easter Vigil)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Elie Wiesel writes, “God created humanity because God likes stories.” This night proves his point.

The Easter Vigil is a night of stories; they go on and on and on. If you are not an admirer of story-telling, this night is not for you. If you love stories, tonight is heavenly.

This is not a hasty affair. It as if we are preparing a fine meal that requires hours and hours. The Vigil is the longest service of the church year. We have come to tell stories, long stories, God’s stories. We cannot be rushed.

In his memoir, The Death of Santini, the southern author Pat Conroy writes: “As they talked, the story began to build and change, as all great stories do. The story had power, and room for growth.”

On the best of nights, the stories we tell have power and room for growth. We gather with loved ones and dear friends. One story leads to another, each becomes more tantalizing. “If you think creation is amazing, listen to Noah’s ark…I can one up that tale with the one about Ezekiel watching dry bones rattle back to life…If you think that’s astounding, let me tell you about Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego in the fiery furnace.” On and on we go, weaving magical tales with indescribable power. These stories boost our spirits, soothe our souls, and stir our imaginations. Hours fly by until someone inevitably says, “You are never going to believe what time it is.”

God’s stories are the richest because they have aged richly over thousands of years. These stories are crammed with God’s holiness, brimming with God’s defiance of death. Tonight, in their umpteenth telling, they trounce the enemy yet again and exalt the sufferer. You have noticed, I’m sure, these stories always champion the little guy who is down and out and the unlikeliest rascal always ends up winning the prize.

We tell these stories when none other will do, when only God’s power and glory can generate wonder in us. That is why we are here tonight, to tell one more story, the perfect one, yet again. This perfect story, the final one, told right after we are tucked in and immediately before the lights are turned off for the final time, claims that God raised Jesus from the dead. This story gives us courage to do as God’s faithful storytellers have done throughout the ages: we dare stand at the grave and sing “Alleluia.” And, as if that is not enough, we do something even more unlikely. As the body of our loved one is lowered into the grave, we courageously proclaim: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord makes his face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace.” This story claims there are other stories yet to be heard, other stories only God can tell.

What we do here requires a flight of fantasy. Our presence reminds me of a church similar to ours, a little-bitty place in Island Pond, Vermont, where the rector got the odd idea to hold an Easter Vigil just like this one. Only a handful of people showed up. Garrett Keizer writes: “The act is so ambiguous because its terms are so extreme: The Lord is with us, or we are pathetic fools.”

Only story tellers gather in places like Island Pond, Vermont, and New York, New York, where the terms are so extreme. We are entrusted with an unlikely story, the one of Jesus of Nazareth who was unceremoniously nailed to a tree and left to rot in a tomb and yet, by the power of God, was raised from the dead. This is our story, this is our song.

Tomorrow morning, a throng will gather here and it will be astonishing and well worth it. But tonight, perhaps this is the most dazzling of all liturgies—not because of its intricate nature, but because we are so small: if the Lord is not with us, we are indeed pathetic fools, but, if the Lord is here, as we trust is the case, this is the most stunning of nights. Yes, indeed, this is the perfect night to put the story of the empty tomb to the test.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

“With a Little Spit and Mud”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“With a Little Spit and Mud”
John 9: 1-41
March 26, 2017 (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

The man was born blind for goodness sakes…Jesus and his disciples passed by him as so many others had, day after day.

Curiously, however, no sooner had the disciples passed by the blind man than they asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The disciples’ initial reaction was not to alleviate the man’s suffering; instead they probed why he was born blind: had he sinned or his parents? They wanted to study the matter of suffering a little more deeply.

There continues to be a lot of suffering in the world. People are hungry and homeless, refugees and unemployed, depressed and addicted. Is our initial impulse to speculate on why they suffer or do we act immediately to alleviate their agony?

Jesus answered the disciples’ question curtly: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work.”

Did you hear Jesus’ answer: the man was born blind so “that the works of God might be made manifest in him.”

Enough speculation, Jesus said. Let God’s work begin! It’s getting dark.

There wasn’t a moment to spare because Jesus was going to die soon. And so, he spat on the ground, made clay with the spittle, and wiped it on the blind man’s eyes. Jesus then told him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam,” and soon after that, the fellow returned without a white cane and German Shepherd on a leash and he began to dance.

Just wondering…If you walked down the street after Mass today and passed a blind man, would any of you spit in the mud and wipe a bit of the concoction on his eyes? Do you sense the urgency Jesus sensed or are you a bit more cautious? Rather than stooping down for a little spit and mud, might you suggest we first form a task-force or at the very least do a cost analysis? After all, don’t we want to make certain that spit and mud is acceptable to all even if it might heal a blind man?

I did my seminary internship in 1976 at Emanuel Lutheran Church in South Philadelphia. Emanuel was the largest African American Lutheran congregation in America located in the rough and tumble Southwark Housing project where thousands and thousands of people lived. One day, fourteen-year old Kenny Williams was shot in the head on the twenty-first floor of one of the dilapidated twenty-five story high-rises as he and his two friends played a fatal game of Russian roulette.

I was at the church when my internship supervisor, Pastor John Cochran, called and said: “Drop everything and come immediately. Bring a silver bowl for baptism and oil for anointing. Kenny has had massive trauma to the brain and is on life support.”

Soon after “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” had been declared and water was dabbed on dear Kenny’s blood-soaked head, he breathed his last.

That Thursday evening, following the seven o’clock Mass, our broken-hearted staff sat in the pastor’s office, staring numbly into space. Pastor Cochran’s question will stay with me for a lifetime: “Why hadn’t Kenny been baptized before he was on his death bed? Why hadn’t we sensed the urgency?”

Like Kenny’s baptism, the healing of the blind man rings of urgency for Jesus. There was no time to speculate as to why he was born blind; he had to be healed, now, not tomorrow. Bring the spit and mud!
Remarkably, even after Jesus had done the miraculous, the Pharisees, good and faithful ones they were, still had nagging questions, “This man is not from God for he does not keep the sabbath.” Never mind that the blind man could now see for the first time in his life! The issue for good religious folks was whether all the rules had been followed. As so often is the case when merciful things are done, the Pharisees concluded that, in fact, Jesus had broken the commandment by healing the blind man on the sabbath; he never should have healed the guy.

My experience has often been that when the most good is done, there are complaints and critiques, not by bad people, mind you, but by good, caring people: a congregational meeting should have been held first to seek the mind of the membership; it was a splendid idea but didn’t you realize a few “influential people” might leave the church in disgust; or someone who knows the Bible will inevitably say, as did the Pharisees, “Couldn’t you have waited until Monday after the sabbath?” And, of course, you can hear them demand, “Why in the world did you have to use spit and mud on the Upper West Side?”

Jesus gathers us here this morning to remind us, yet again, that there is an urgency to act in his name, not tomorrow, not in six months, but today, now! It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there. What we do may be sloppy but, much more importantly, what we do might save a person’s life.

Our actions may come in small ways, volunteering in our Women’ Shelter or just bringing a few new pairs of women’s underwear for those who live here six months of the year; you may help at the Saturday meal for HUG for those living on life’s edges; or you may make a generous contribution to the courageous work of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service helping those seeking a safe place to call home (with your generosity, we are well on our way to collecting $4000). When we do these things, today, God’s goodness is made manifest in this place and in our lives.

When Jesus saw the man born blind, the incessant deliberations ceased and the gracious healing began. The old rugged cross loomed near and it was time to act.

I pray that our ministry here at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity may always be filled with a similar sense of urgency. Now is the time to use some spit and mud!

 

“Shaking Our Fists at God”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Vespers Sermon
“Shaking Our Fists at God”
March 19,2017 (Third Sunday in Lent)
Exodus 17: 1-7

We just heard Israel complaining…yet again.

If you read the book of Exodus, you will be struck by Israel’s constant whining. They had not even crossed the Red Sea before they started bellyaching.  When they looked back and saw the Egyptian army in pursuit, they grumbled to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?…It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:11-12).

It is a miracle, not so much that the sea divided, but that God didn’t say, “I have had it with you.  Get yourselves across this stinking sea on your own!”

It was only three days since they had witnessed the enemy army drowning in the sea; rather than celebrating their liberation from brutal slavery, God’s children complained to Moses: “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:24).

And yet again, another miracle: instead of zapping God’s beloved people, God told Moses to place some wood in the water and a sweet drink would be created for these desperately thirsty people.

As people are wont to do, only weeks later, yet again, they forgot God’s miraculous love for them.  They got hungry again and began grumbling again to Moses: “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3).

And again, a miracle.  This time manna from heaven.

And then, what we just heard: the people were thirsty…again.  And, yes, they complained again. “Give us water to drink!  Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

And, yes, you guessed it, another miracle: God told Moses to use his staff and water would come from the rock…and it did!

Are you seeing a pattern, by the way?

One commentator has suggested that the greatest miracle among all the staggering miracles, greater than the sea separating, greater than manna falling from heaven, greater than water bursting from the rock, was God’s patience.

And, of course, it is not just the whiny Israelites in the desert so long ago.  We are no different!  Why does God put up with our griping, our everlasting questions, and our pathetic lack of faith?

It would be easy to conclude from all the quarreling and contentiousness that God would prefer us to shut our mouths and never ask a single question.  Some faith, by the way, is like that: it is of the sheepish variety that teaches that if we ask a single question of God, we are terrible sinners destined for the scorching fires of hell.  This is the polite kind of faithfulness, the kind that never raises its voice to God, never asks an awkward question of the Almighty, never clenches its fist toward heaven.

Interestingly and surprisingly to many, Jesus was not nearly as sheepish as some of us when it came to questioning God.  As we near Holy Week, we will hear Jesus ask a few hard-hitting questions.  For those of courteous faith, Jesus’ frank questions will startle us, perhaps scandalize us; they may even force some of us to explain away what Jesus was really asking.

The night before Jesus died, when he went to Gethsemane to pray, he was not a good, little boy in the classic sense, the kind who never raises his voice in the face of doubt and torment.  Much to our surprise, Jesus uttered these astonishing words: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”  Jesus asked the hard question, of course, he did, and yet—and note this well—he also then waited for God to answer.  Jesus’ conversation was not a monologue with God; Jesus expected God to answer him in the midst of his agony.

In those final hours as Jesus hung on the cross, he shocks us as he screamed the most famous faith question of all, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

And yet, Jesus’ questions were never the final word.  He always, always, then waited for his heavenly Father to answer what he did not know.

We will all arrive at those moments when we complain, when we ask the hard questions similar to those of the Israelites, when we will feel completely disillusioned.  We will be in our own wilderness, on our own cross, as mad as a rattlesnake in the desert sun.  And yet, another miracle will occur: God will listen to us and God will answer, not necessarily as we wish but in a fashion that reveals that only God knows what is best for us.

The miracle, as we have been saying repeatedly during these days of Lent, is that “the LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

“Immediately!”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Immediately!”
Matthew 4: 12-23
January 22, 2017 (3rd Sunday after Epiphany)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan

The gospel reading we just heard demonstrates why we should be extremely careful when making important decisions in life.

Jesus had only twelve choices for the disciples who would assist him in proclaiming that the kingdom of God had come near.  If you had been in his place, wouldn’t you have exercised extraordinary vigilance in picking your dream team?

Professional football teams do that.  They spend enormous amounts of personnel time and money studying which players to choose in the college draft.  Character, speed, strength, agility, intelligence—these are carefully analyzed before any player is picked.  Teams have high hopes of assembling the next Super Bowl team so every choice on their fifty-three-player roster matters.

Jesus didn’t have a fifty-three-player roster, his was composed of twelve.  Given that, you might be surprised how he went about selecting his disciples.  Jesus walked along the Sea of Galilee and, from all appearances, chose the first guys he came across.  Matthew makes no mention of whether Jesus had a head-hunting firm conduct advanced interviews but I doubt it.

Perhaps Jesus should have been more judicious.  He came up short on all twelve of his selections; they all ended up being clunkers.  His first choice, Peter, was a compulsive liar, denying ever having known Jesus when push came to shove; another pick, Judas, sold Jesus up Calvary’s hill for thirty pieces of silver; and the other ten disciples, well, they were nowhere to be seen when Jesus breathed his last.  Losers, cowards, reprobates…you name it.  Quite candidly, Jesus’ choices do not come off as particularly imaginative or insightful.

And how astute were Peter and Andrew, James and John?  When Jesus said, “Follow me,” they dropped everything and followed immediately.  Admittedly, the swiftness of their decisions sounds awfully holy, but honestly, would you really have followed Jesus the minute he snapped his fingers?  Wouldn’t you have analyzed the job description first, talked to people whose judgment you respected, and asked about the compensation and benefits package?  For goodness sakes, the disciples were being asked to turn their backs on their boats and nets and family and to follow a quirky Galilean rabbi…Wouldn’t you have said something like, “I am flattered, Jesus, but give me a few days to study this whole thing and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”

And yet, that’s not what happened.  There was a sense of urgency.  The kingdom was near and Jesus had to act decisively and swiftly.  There was no time to dilly-dally.

We all want to be successful, don’t we? We listened to our parents who counseled us to count the costs, to be certain we are doing the right thing before jumping in head first.

The Christian life is no different.  We have our questions about our faith and want to get them answered the best we are able before we say, “I do and I ask God to help and guide me.”  Maybe we should read one more book, attend one more class, have one more meeting with the pastor, make certain we don’t do anything we will regret later.  And, as citizens of this nation, we want to listen to all sides before standing up for the poor and vulnerable.  We fear that one error in judgment will ruin the day.  Give it all time, see how it all unfolds—really…not exactly eager for the kingdom of God.

The church is no different.  We engage in painstaking research before acting.  Study, study, study…count, count, count…discuss, discuss, discuss.   When you called me as your pastor, you did exactly that as far as I can tell.  You spent a year-and-a-half in an interim process before choosing your next pastor.  You analyzed Holy Trinity’s strengths and challenges and pondered how best to move forward.  The Call Committee invested an enormous amount of time reading candidates’ exhaustive bios, parsing our in-depth answers to questions provided by our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, interviewing us face-to-face, and calling our references to make certain we were telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  You flew Dagmar and me all the way from California to New York—not once, but twice.  You watched carefully to see which of the three forks we used to eat our entrées; you listened to my chanting with high hopes I could carry some semblance of a tune.  The entire congregation had the opportunity to “meet and greet” on a Saturday afternoon and to ask any pressing questions you might have.  You listened to me preach to see whether I kept you awake or immediately sent you to Lalaland.  And then, with fingers crossed and heads bowed, you voted…This all didn’t exactly occur immediately.

Most of us have a million and one reasons why we should be patient and prudent: resources our limited and rash decisions will be costly for years to come.  We worry about making a mistake we will regret and yet, in some ways, Jesus made twelve flagrant ones.  None of his disciples stood out in a crowd and none stood up for Jesus when his life was on the line.

The disciples must have felt like they had made a mistake as well, especially when they saw Jesus hanging on the cross.  Why had they been so impulsive, why had they dropped their day jobs to follow the abysmal failure named Jesus?  Maybe they should have listened more carefully to their parents and exercised more patience when making such a significant decision.

Perhaps that is why today’s gospel reading is so useful for us.  Just as he called the first disciples, Jesus calls us now to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near.  There is an urgency to act, not tomorrow or next month or next year, but now…immediately…on behalf of all God’s children.

Our decisions, of course, will be filled with ambiguity, even fear; that’s why they are called leaps of faith.  Finally, we must trust that God is leading us and guiding us and will excuse our errors in judgment due to our eagerness to act in this suffering world on God’s behalf.

Oh, and by the way, God calls us, we don’t call God.  God knows we will stumble or our all-knowing God wouldn’t have called us in the first place!

And so, let’s get going and believe that God supports us every step of the way.

“America! America! God Shed His Grace on Thee”

“America!  America! God Shed His Grace on Thee”
Sermon at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church-Manhattan
November 13, 2016 (26th Sunday after Pentecost)
Psalm 98; Malachi 4: 1-2a; Luke 21: 5-19

In the last congregation I served, soon after I arrived, I began the practice of praying for our elected leaders by name; that meant we prayed for our President George W. Bush and our Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.  One member was horrified: how conservative is our new pastor? he wondered.

Let me forewarn you: we will observe that practice in this congregation as well, praying for our current President Barack Obama and our newly elected President Donald Trump.

We are, after all, citizens of a democracy.  Democracy allows for change, for better and for worse. Democracy can be quite messy as our nation’s history reveals.  President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address this week, November 19, 1863, in the face of the horrors of the Civil War; citizens spilled blood, not against foes from distant shores, but against family members and neighbors.  Our great President said, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”  Familiarity with history is essential: imagine the fear people must have had for this great country’s future as Seminary Ridge (as in the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg) stood littered with the lifeless bodies of young soldiers.

And now this week…

Our Lutheran tradition places great weight on the exercise of power.  Government, far from being a swampy cesspool that must be drained, is the necessary venue where decisions are made for the common good.  We believe political service to be a noble calling from God just like a pastor or doctor or farmer.  While democracy does not bring about the kingdom of God, good government does do necessary things like providing for the easily forgotten, protecting the defenseless, and seeing that roads and bridges are built and well maintained.

Having served as a pastor in Washington, D.C. for thirteen years and having counted many fine public servants, Democrat and Republican, as parishioners and friends, I know how thankless the calling of government work can be.  Count me out when talking about draining the swamp: I give thanks for hard-working and decent public officials.

While we Lutherans believe government a noble calling, we do not deem it a blank check.  Bad government tramples the rights of the innocent, inhibits religious liberty, and despoils God’s good creation.  None of us who call ourselves Christian dare acquiesce to horrific name calling or mistreatment of Mexican immigrants or African Americans, people in the LGBTQ community or the disabled, women or Muslims.  We have a calling as citizens: we must hold our president accountable to the highest standards when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable and we will pray that he will achieve such breathtaking heights of decency and compassion so that all people in this land are treated equally with liberty and justice for all.  And when our president lifts up the lowly, he will receive our utmost support.

I love today’s Psalm 98: “O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” This Psalm’s beauty is achieved when all creation sings in harmony to the glory of God.  Lyre and trumpet, sea and porpoise, flood and hill—all make a joyful noise to the Lord.

Let us not jeopardize this glorious song. The moment anyone, president or citizen, starts singing off key, recklessly endangering creation’s song of praise to God, let us call him or her back to our Creator’s perfect song.

You know that God sent God’s only son so that the broken, despised, and poor might join this song.  If the Bible is anything, it is a musical score that insists on the inclusion of the voices of widows, orphans, and refugees in singing a new song.  The moment we see these blessed poor thrown from the choir loft, we have no option but to demand that our political leaders restore them to the choir. Whenever even one broken soul is left out, creation’s music turns sour.

These days should not surprise a single one of us who has listened to Jesus.  He just told us moments ago: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…they will arrest you and persecute you…You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.”  As desperate as this sounds, never forget what Jesus added: “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

For far too many months now we have heard the obnoxious music that attacks and repels, humiliates and accuses.  It has been jarring and ugly, dissonant and destructive.  We are here at 65th and Central Park West for one reason and one reason only: to sing a new song to the Lord.  We dare not join in the horrid music that this world too easily sings; rather we are called to sing a new song.  Moses and Jeremiah, Saint Paul and Saint Stephen, Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa and Anne Frank—they sang music that seeks the best for God’s suffering creation. We remember these blessed ones, not because they were rich or powerful, but because they strove to sing Mother Mary’s song, “My soul proclaims the greatest of the Lord because he has put the mighty down from their thrones and exalted those of low degreed and the rich he has sent empty away.”  The history of God’s people reveals this is never an easy song to sing.  History is one story after another of those of low degree being trampled upon.  The church’s finest hour in every age has occurred when God’s people have struggled against seemingly insurmountable odds to ensure that the hungry are filled with good things in God’s name.

Some people in our nation are very happy this morning, some are furious, some are heartbroken, some say, “wait and see.”  Whatever your feelings, we gather here as a hopeful people who believe God’s love for the oppressed and forsaken will prevail.

At the end of this Mass, we will sing “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies.”  I pray, in one glorious harmony, we will sing, “America!  America!  God shed his grace on thee.”