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“Do Not Be Afraid of Tyrannosaurus Rexes and the Like”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Do Not Be Afraid of Tyrannosaurus Rexes and the Like”
Bach Vespers at Holy Trinity
24th Sunday after Pentecost (November 19, 2017)

The words “do not be afraid” appear in the Bible 365 times. I must confess I didn’t count them; I am accepting a popular contemporary theologian’s word on this matter. Whether 365 or 291 times, that’s a lot of “do not be afraids.” But, in all honesty, we probably all need about 365 “do not be afraids” to tote around with us as the shadows lengthen and the evening falls.

Have I told you that I detested setting my clock back two weeks ago? I hate looking out the parish house windows at 5 p.m. and seeing darkness. Are you like that?

As a kid, my worst fear was going down in the basement to get my mother canned tomatoes or strawberry jam. Parts of the basement were eerie, unfinished floor in some parts and exposed beams with aged wiring snaking around up above. I was petrified someone would turn off the lights and I would end up down there, all alone, suffocated by darkness.

Psychotherapists among us could likely lend me immeasurable help in exploring my fear of the dark (“Wilk, what causes you to take off running when the lights are turned off?). I suspect I am not the only one here tonight afraid of the creeping darkness and the ebbing light.

Think about it: why do we humans light candles when it gets dark? Is it just to create a mellow mood? Is it simply so we can see? Or is there something more profound afoot? Do we keep the candles aflame because we are petrified that lions, tigers, and tyrannosaurus rexes will burst into our caves any moment and gobble us up?

No sooner had we begun tonight’s evening prayer than I began chanting, “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who led your people Israel…by a pillar of fire by night.” I pleaded to God on your behalf, “Enlighten our darkness by the light of your Christ; may his Word be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.”

We censed the precious little light piercing the darkness on the high altar. And then we began to chant as the sweet smoke floated heavenwards: “O Lord, I call to you; come to me quickly; hear my voice when I cry to you.” We implored God to wrap this place’s deep darkness with holy candlelight.

Deep in our souls, we who are gathered here tonight long for light and we do our best to pass that light, one to another. We gathered here do the best we can, somehow, someway, singing and praying, “Do not be afraid.”

The Danish writer Karen Blixen, more commonly known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, once said, “Any sorrow can be borne if a story can be told about it.”

When the Antioch Chamber Ensemble sings Bach’s motet, “Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir” (“Be not afraid, I am beside you”), in a few moments, they will sing what Cantor Bach composed for a funeral in Leipzig. Bach’s deepest musical instincts, when death nipped at the heels of those he loved and served, was to start whistling. Don’t you whistle when it gets dark?

Our most profound human instinct when ol’ Tyrannosaurus Rex noses through our cave door, or at least when the doctor enters bearing a diagnosis that breaks our heart, is to beg someone to light a candle, tell a story, or sing a song. We sense this as tiny children when our parents tuck us into bed and turn off the lights; we beg them to tell us one more story.

We have grown older now but monsters still lurk amidst the dust balls beneath our beds. The monsters have different names now—cancer, divorce, alcoholism, loneliness, melancholy—but they are terrifying nonetheless.

When old Nebuchadnezzar’s henchmen hauled the Israelites off to Babylonian captivity, the prophet Isaiah started whistling. The accompanying words sounded something like this, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

That was 2500 years ago. It has grown dark once again and we are afraid all over again. And so, we sing Isaiah’s song and pray and light candles and do our best to reassure one another, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

“Nervousness in the Face of Monstrous Glory”

Pastor Wilbert Miller Sermon
Easter Morning (April 16, 2017)
“Nervousness in the Face of Monstrous Glory”
Matthew 28: 1-10
The Evangelical Lutheran of the Holy Trinity
Central Park West, the City of New York

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

When I interviewed to become Holy Trinity’s pastor exactly one year ago, a number of you wondered, if I were called, how long I would remain as your pastor. I presume the question arose due to my receding hairline, creeping balding spot, and graying temples. It was a fair question. I first offered a pious response, “I will remain as long as the Holy Spirit intends or until you kick me out—whichever comes first.” The other answer, less holy perhaps but likely far more honest, was my standard reply to queries regarding pastoral longevity: “I will remain as long as I am nervous when I mount these pulpit steps.”

I am a firm believer that if one isn’t jittery on a day like this—the good kind, the empowering kind that makes tummies flutter and knees knock—then the magnificence of Easter has probably not been adequately grasped. To be perfectly blunt, this is a once in a life-time opportunity—or at least once in a year—to announce to you, to the best of my pedestrian abilities, that God has routed the devil and death has been destroyed forever.

With that said, I am as nervous as Mary Magdalene and the other Mary when they went to inspect Jesus’ burial site only days after he died.

I bet you are a tad nervous as well. You are wondering: what really happened that first Easter morning when the dew was still on the grass?

Let us not be too quick to answer. Perhaps it is best to let Easter wonder sink in before we utter a word. John Updike writes:

Let us not seek to make [Easter] less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty…

The four gospel writers certainly did not make things “less monstrous.” They exercised considerable restraint when explaining Jesus resurrection.

The old African-American Spiritual asks, “Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?” It certainly would be a nice this morning if I were to tell you exactly who witnessed Jesus rising from the tomb that Easter dawn, but all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are mum on this particular subject. There is no mention of someone seeing Jesus jump from his death bed and announce, with trumpet and timpani accompaniment, “Top of the morning! Happy Easter to you all! Alleluia!” The gospels are unusually subdued, silent really, when describing how Jesus burst from the grave. They resist the temptation to make resurrection wonder less monstrous than it really is. What we inevitably witness is the aftermath of the resurrection, Jesus appearing to various women and disciples after God has raised him up.

What the gospel writers do speak about, however, are the emotions of those who came to the sepulcher and received the stunning news that “he is not here; for he has been raised.”

The women and especially the men are described as fearful and befuddled. This morning’s gospel from Matthew claims Mary and the other Mary ran from the tomb with “fear and great joy.” Fear and great joy—I love that—such a monstrous mixture of emotions when you think about it.

Fear and great joy can easily occur when we stake our lives on the claim that God raised Jesus from the tomb. The thought of God routing death makes us joyful and yet, as is said, we have never seen a resurrection! And so, there is fear as well as joy.

The renowned Yale Professor Jaroslav Pelikan said it this way: “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen—nothing else matters.”

With that being said, we push all our chips to the center of the table, staking our every last cent on Jesus being raised from the dead. It is the only thing that matters!

At the conclusion of worship this morning, you will be invited to “Go in peace. Practice resurrection!” These words come from the Kentucky writer and farmer Wendell Berry. Practice resurrection—that’s how we bet everything that death has been destroyed.

Holy Trinity has been in existence for 149 years now. The only reason we are here is to practice resurrection—the only reason! Countless people just like you have staked millions of dollars over the years here at Central Park West to proclaim that God’s answer to death is always an emphatic “no” and God’s answer to life is always a resounding “yes.”

Death must never be the final answer! We say “yes” to life in this place by operating a women’s homeless shelter downstairs and serving a Saturday meal for those down on their luck so they may know that God longs for them to have a warm bed and a hot meal. Yes to life!

We spent a fortune over the years on stunning music. Our deepest desire is to assist you in singing “alleluia” with the saints and angels whenever you are lost in life’s dingy alleys and have lost the capacity to whistle in the dark.

You practice resurrection, I know you do. You gather at the graveyard in the Spring drizzle. After the last clod of damp dirt hits the casket and everyone returns to their automobiles, you lag behind with the grieving widow. You are tongue-tied. You couldn’t prove resurrection to her if your life depended on it but you hug her nonetheless, hoping that might suffice. Your knees knock and that is a good thing because you are pointing her beyond the grave, beyond neat, domesticated answers you are so tempted to offer. And yet, you opt for the monstrous message, the one you cannot explain but that offers hope in your best friend’s deepest hour of need, the one that is good news and proclaims that Jesus has defeated death for her and the one she loves.

The reason we make such a fuss this morning, with timpani and strings, brass and flowers, and with you!, is because we believe we have a story to tell and a song to sing. You are at the tomb this very moment as sure as those women were there that first Easter morning. You have come to church and your tummy flutters as you hear the news that the tomb is empty and Christ is risen.

I pray this message will fill you with fear and great joy. Run from here and practice resurrection for all this suffering world…Oh yes, and may you always be nervous as you proclaim…

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!