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“Always Room for Another Angel”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Always Room for Another Angel”
(Genesis 18: 1-10a)
St. Michael & All Angels & Blessing of the Holy Trinity Icon

St. Michael and All Angels…do fluff-winged creatures stir your imagination?

Who doesn’t like angels? We call our children “little angels,” we top off our Christmas trees with gorgeous golden angels, the sight of tiny cherubim causes our heart to go aflutter.

We love talking about angels, too: what exactly are angels, how do you think they really look, do they hover over our heads this very moment? Cherubim and seraphim and archangels, Gabriel and Raphael and Michael—they appear as soft as new fallen snow and at other times ferocious enough to wage war against the devil.

I hate to disillusion you, but most of these angelic ponderings hold little fascination for me. I would never enter an angel shop and, for the life of me, I can’t imagine wearing an angel t-shirt. Do they have wings, halos—I could care less!

What does matter to me is what angels do.

The Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson, who died a few weeks ago, wrote: “An angel is simply one to whom God gives a mission and whose own reality is constituted by this mission.” We might say angels are like John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd in “The Blues Brothers:” they are on a mission from God.

Did you ever stop to think that you might be an angel? Aren’t you on a mission from God?

This morning, we bless our beautiful new Holy Trinity icon. This icon was painted (or prayed as the Orthodox Church would say) by the Russian monk Andrei Rublev in 1425 AD. It is referred to as “The Old Testament Trinity” or “The Hospitably of Abraham.” Rublev painted this icon so people’s hearts could be put to rest in a time of enormous social and political upheaval.

Gazing on this tender icon calms our anxious hearts as we rest in the lap of divine love in a similarly tumultuous and hate-filled time. We behold a loving God, the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—our congregation’s name.

Western Christian art often portrays God differently: The Father is an old bearded white guy; Jesus is seen at his heavenly Father’s bosom; and the Holy Spirit is frequently depicted as a dove hovering overhead.

Andrei Rublev portrayed God as three angels, reminding us of those mysterious characters who once visited Abraham and Sarah at the oaks of Mamre: is it the Lord, are they wandering men out in the wilderness, could they be angels?

Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon, as all icons do, gently invites us to gaze through a window into eternity, to mediate on God’s beauty and on the wonder of God’s kingdom. It feels other-worldly with their hands and faces a bit out of perspective—not as we usually see things—more heavenly perhaps. Mystery sweeps across the Three as if in perpetual motion. They fill us with awe. The Holy Trinity invites us into deeper prayer, pleads with us to be more loving to one another.

Icons are like delicious meals whose flavor can never be adequately grasped. See the color blue on all three angels symbolizing the divinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. See their golden halos radiating holiness. See the scepters in their hands inviting us to ponder their Lordship, three in one and one in three. Look how the three gather around the table, an altar, just like this one. Be amazed that these three loving figures do not dominate the room: there is always an additional place at God’s table for another angel—for you, for me, for all those in our groaning world. Notice the rectangle in the front, just below the chalice: enter the narrow way, I beg of you, so they seem to say; be the loving community in our name, Holy Trinity, here at 65th and Central Park West. So much going on in this icon, so much beauty, wonder, and awe.

One of Holy Trinity’s pastors, the Rev. William Lazareth, who served here from 1983-1988, and then became the bishop of this Metropolitan New York Synod, wrote an article with the Romanian Orthodox theologian Dan-Ilie Ciobetea, in the book “Icons: Windows on Eternity.” “This image of the divine Trinity rules out all egotism—whether individual or collective—all life-destroying separation, any subordination or levelling of persons,” wrote your former pastor and bishop. “It invites all humanity to make this world a permanent eucharist of love, a feast of life.”

The angels/ the Holy Trinity/ the Lord came to announce to Abraham and Sarah that their barrenness would soon come to an end and that they would become parents of a bouncing baby boy. These three mysterious ones come to us today, as well, inviting us to be angels on a mission of love in this place. We have no wings or halos—I don’t think! We are plainer than that, of course, but we are certainly just as wondrous. Look around this very moment and see if you can spot an angel sitting near you.

I am deeply touched that you have given my favorite icon, in honor of my 40th anniversary of ordination, to be hung downstairs in our community room. We will gaze upon these blessed Three at countless suppers and celebrations; homeless women will rest well knowing that these holy angels watch over them and that the wicked one will have no power over them; and the good people of HUG who assemble on Saturdays will discover that three other divine wanderers in search of a loving community have joined them for a meal in our community room.

My seminary professor, the late Father Henri Nouwen wrote, “I pray that Rublev’s icon will teach many how to live in the midst of a fearful, hateful and violent world while moving always deeper into the house of love.” That is why this icon was created six hundred years ago, not just for people in Russia then but for us here now as well. This icon invites us to be a faithful people, to dance together with angels at the table of perfect love with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

“The Terrifying Story of Abraham and Isaac”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
“The Terrifying Story of Abraham and Isaac”
(Genesis 22: 1-14)
April 2, 2017 (Vespers on the Fifth Sunday in Lent)

I will never forget Roger Barnes reading the story of Abraham and Isaac at worship. Like Abraham, Roger had a son, his name was Edward. Roger began to read, tentatively: “And God said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’” His eyes welled up with tears. He read a bit further: “Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife,” and he choked up. Roger tried to read further, “And Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘My father!’ And he said, ‘Here am I, my son,’” and he sobbed.

Only when Roger came to God’s words, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me,” did his weeping subside.

You will likely dab a tear or two tonight as you listen to Nathan Hodgson and Timothy Keeler sing Benjamin Britten’s stunning “Abraham and Isaac.”

The story is one of the most terrifying of all the biblical texts. If you and I had been in charge of choosing what belonged in the Bible, we surely would have strenuously opposed inclusion of this horrific story in sacred canon. The account of Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac on a scorching fire is the stuff that gives religion a bad name and causes people to steer clear of the church altogether. The story prompts the crazy behavior of zealots who end up asserting, “I was just following God’s orders.” It goads terrorists to drive trucks into innocent gatherings and it incites fanatics to bomb abortion clinics. We wonder: did they hear some bizarre, beckoning voice similar to the one that commanded Abraham to climb that mountain and sacrifice his son Isaac?

As we watch heartbroken Abraham trudge up the mountain with his adoring son Isaac at his side, we can imagine saying exactly what Martin Luther who said, “I certainly admit my dullness; my donkey remains standing below and cannot ascend the mountain.” In fact, we pray tenaciously that we will never climb that mountain of brutality even if God commands us to do so.

As we contemplate this tale, we are driven to probe what God was up to. We dare not leave our brains with the ushers as we enter worship—we must not! We come here and leave here, wrestling with this chilling text until we better understand what in the world God is trying to tell us.

Many of us have faced something as horrendous as Abraham. Our excruciating pain has caused us to search frantically through our Bibles until the pages are crumpled and drenched with tears. We have stood on that terrible mountain with the horrific fire burning, begging the good Lord to spare us and those we love.

Soon after we listen to Britten’s “Abraham and Isaac,” we will chant a prayer: “Blessed Lord God, you have caused the holy scriptures to be written for the nourishment of your people. Grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, comforted by your promises, we may embrace and forever hold fast to the hope of eternal life, which you have given us in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.”

Tales like Abraham and Isaac inevitably drive us to hear and read, mark and learn, and inwardly digest in a way we may never have done before. We will likely find ourselves engaged in extended, even heated, conversation. We will demand, “What was that story all about, anyway?”

If we chew on this story, we will be better for it. We will realize how much Abraham adored his son Isaac: this wonder child, after all, was the one for whom Abraham and Sarah had waited for years and years. I pray you will come to the stunning realization that Isaac was also God’s dearly beloved child. Never forget: if Isaac had died, God’s chosen people would have disappeared from the face of the earth. Not only did the thought of Isaac burning on the bonfire break Abraham’s heart, more importantly, God’s heart was the first to break at the thought of Isaac roasting away. And, with even a little more grappling, you may come to realize—if you haven’t already—that you, too, are a precious child in God’s sight.

Never forget: God is the first to weep whenever the monstrous fires of hatred and death rage around us. Whatever is going on in the story of Abraham and Isaac, if you listen carefully enough, you will certainly hear God weeping. As frightening and bizarre as this story may seem, God eventually provided a ram in the thicket: Isaac did not die in this story! Also, remember, please, that God provided another ram in the thicket, God’s very son, Jesus Christ our Lord. It was not, and never is, God’s intention for even one little child to die. God loved Abraham and Isaac, and God loves you and me, now and forever.

“Yahweh Jumps Jacob at the Jabbok”

The Rev. Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Yahweh Jumps Jacob at the Jabbok”
Genesis 32: 22-31
Sunday, October 16, 2016 (22nd Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jacob was coming home after years and years of being away.

If you remember the story, Jacob was a scoundrel.  He was the second of twins; Esau was his brother.  Jacob was not in line to be #1, as in #1 to receive the lion’s share of the family inheritance.  Esau, due to be the first born, was supposed to have his name placed prominently in neon atop the family tent.  But, as I just mentioned, Jacob was a scoundrel.  Never satisfied with being second in the chain of command, he grabbed his brother Esau’s heel on the way from mommy’s womb and slipped out in first place at what he mistakenly thought to be the finish line.

There was much more to come for Jacob.  In fact, things started going downhill soon after he received his shiny gold medal in the birthing room.  Like all who achieve their success through skullduggery, Jacob was dogged by controversy and by those who despised him.  He was chockfull of braggadocio, boasting about his riches, his power, and his cunning.  Jacob even hoodwinked his elderly father Isaac into giving him the prized family blessing.

As the years went by, Esau never became any cheerier about his roguish brother Jacob.  When he heard that he was coming home after all those years away, he immediately went out to meet him with 400 men in tow.

Jacob was scared to death of what his brother might do so he sent gifts—goats, ewes and rams, camels, cows, bulls—and lots of them.  Even with that, Jacob, as so often happens to tricksters when their shenanigans catch up with them, was petrified by what his brother might do, even though, for appearance sake, he oozed substantial bluster.

When Jacob finally arrived at the river Jabbok and was almost home, he sent his family ahead.  That means, of course, he was all alone and empty-handed: no army to defend him; no Xanax to soothe his nerves; no therapist to ease his terror.  It was now just Jacob the conniving scoundrel at the Jabbok.

Suddenly, rather than deliberating about what Esau might do to him, Jacob started pondering the mess he had made of his life.  Quiet moments will do that when we have time to consider what we have done.  As I said, Jacob was all alone, just him and his guilty conscience.

And then, out of the blue, Yahweh jumped Jacob at the Jabbok.

It is a stunning story.  Jacob and the unknown assailant wrestled fiercely throughout the night till daybreak.

Jacob was exhausted and his hip was knocked out of joint in the frantic skirmish; nevertheless, he refused to give up.  Ever the haughty one, Jacob demanded that the stranger at the Jabbok bless him.  And it was there that the stranger, God, said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

As a result of that desperate struggle, Jacob limped the rest of his life and yet, somehow, it was a good limp because, rascal though he was, God was with him and brought him down to size in the process.

Who knows exactly what happened that night when Yahweh jumped Jacob at the Jabbok but I’ll bet you can guess because you have been at that river, alone in the darkness, your mind racing as you frantically paced back and forth on the riverbank.  You have recalled the occasions when you hurt your brother, lied to your mother, betrayed your beloved. You have been petrified and heartbroken.

My experience is that the finest people of faith are those who have scraped their knees and nursed guilty consciences; quite simply, they limp.  When they comfort others who are struggling, rarely, if ever, do they offer easy answers: they know better than that because, well, they don’t have perfect answers.  They, too, have sought God in the dark night of the soul.  Often, what they do provide is a damaged shoulder for another suffering person to cry on; they tell that person to wait until God provides for them.  They know it will be a wrestling match much like the one Jacob had with Yahweh at the Jabbok and they are not afraid to admit it.

Churches are remarkably similar to people because, of course, they are made up of people.  Holy Trinity is the fifth church I have served during my thirty-nine years of ministry.  Each congregation has been different and each, though blessed like Jacob, has had a limp.  They have all had their shortcomings—as have I, by the way.  The best congregations, though, just like faithful people, are well aware that they are imperfect and thus their greatest blessing is that, though they limp, they are always found waiting on the Lord.

But who am I to tell you.  You know that.  You love your family and yet you know your family is imperfect.  It is said that a dysfunctional family is where there is more than one person in it.  The church is no different.  We began our worship this morning confessing our sins; actually the confession came even before we began.  In those moments, we wrestled with God and our own consciences and then, out of the blue, God blessed us by saying, “I forgive all yours sins.”  We walked away from that moment limping but with a new spring in our step.  Only then did the organ begin to play, the procession move forward, and we start singing to the rafters, “Glory to God in the highest!”

That is Jacob’s story and it is ours as well.  After every lonely and restless night and after every battle with those we love, we have noticed we are limping but also, as they say, blessed.

The limping ones make for the finest people and the richest communities. They have their foibles, confusions, and faults, of course they do.  And yet, as Leonard Cohen reminds us:

There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

And that light, of course, is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

This Week at Holy Trinity

This Week at Holy Trinity

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost-October 16, 2016
Mass –
11 o’clock in the morning

Join the growing number of members, prospective members, and visitors worshiping together at Holy Trinity.

Pastor Miller’s Sermon: “Yahweh Jumps Jacob at the Jabbok”