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

“The Disgusting Offense of God’s Grace”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
“The Disgusting Offense of God’s Grace”
(Matthew 20:1-6)
September 24, 2017 (16th Sunday after Pentecost)

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is a month away. As October 31 nears, you will hear a lot about grace. We Lutherans beat our breasts when we hear the word “grace.” We are so proud that we have foresworn the revolting thought of anyone getting into heaven by doing even one good work. Oh, yes, we are sinners, we are Lutherans, we are champions of grace.

I suspect, however, that most of us are not quite as enamored with grace as we claim. The quaint thought that God saves the good, bad, and ugly with no apparent distinctions can be downright offensive. Plain ol’ grace can be as disgusting as someone cutting in front of us in the Fairway Market checkout line. Plain ol’ grace feels like giving a leg up to someone who hasn’t done nearly as much as we think we have done.

There is no such thing as a free lunch, we grouse. “Come on, Pastor, we may be saved by grace but we have to do something, we at least have to believe!” “Sure, I believe in grace but if I don’t treat my neighbor well, what’s it all worth? There have to be a few good works along the way on my part or the world will disintegrate.”

Today’s gospel shocks those of us who support an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. We would never dream of coming to work late and expect to be paid the same as the person showing up at six-forty-five in the morning. How can Jesus commend such an outrageous business practice? We work hard and deserve every cent we get. And, oh by the way, we obey the laws of land, pay our fair share of taxes, and don’t panhandle on Broadway.

A good friend of mine, a very committed church person and a very successful businessman, more than once came to me in desperation and complained: “Pastor, if we ran our business the way you run the church, it would be dead.” I told him, without fail, “You are exactly right. And, that’s why yours is a business and ours is the church.”

Have you ever pondered what grace is? Frederick Buechner writes: “Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about anymore than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace…A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do.”

It is so easy to mess up the beauty of grace, to end up believing we must offer God some of our expert assistance in the process of being saved and God saving the world—God could never do that alone!

Think about how it works here at Holy Trinity. We are proud of our outreach ministries. Don’t you tell others about our homeless shelter where twelve women call Holy Trinity’s community room their living room? Who doesn’t celebrate HUG where, for forty years now, fifty people have enjoyed a warm Saturday meal and a little friendship here? And we are delighted this morning to receive the news that members—YOU! —have contributed $2550 to Lutheran Disaster Response to help those digging out from the hurricanes. And while we may not mention Bach Vespers in the same breath, isn’t it similar? We spend the largest amount of any outreach ministry on a host of people who come to Vespers week in and week out and allege, “I’m not religious, I just come for the music.”

We love these ministries and those they serve and well we should. But don’t we occasionally resent having to bear the load? We heat this barn, worry how to fill it up on Sunday morning, and patch its leaky roof. Shouldn’t we get a little more credit?

Oops, I forgot one other ministry for outliers, that free Sunday brunch that has been served here at Holy Trinity for nearly 150 years! Regardless of what dastardly thing we have done during the week and in spite of our scanty offerings, we are served free Sunday brunch, right now. We are the workers hired at the end of the day to whom Jesus says, “This is my body and blood given and shed for you.” That, dear friends, is grace.

St. John Chrysostom lived in the fourth century; he was the archbishop of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). He preached a sermon that continues to be read in Eastern Orthodox churches at every Easter Vigil. His sermon might surprise those active Christians among us who tend to look down our noses at folks who show up just on Easter. They would never consider setting foot in this sanctuary on a toasty September Sunday morning and yet, to our disgust, they parade their dressed-up families up the center aisle every Easter morning, sitting in the very front pew so they can smell the lilies and sing “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” to brass and timpani accompaniment. They act as if they belong here!

You can imagine how old Chrysostom lambasted them…or can you? “Let those who have toiled since the first hour, let them now receive their due reward; let any who came after the third hour be grateful to join in the feast, and those who may have come after the sixth, let them not be afraid of being too late; for the Lord is gracious and He receives the last even as the first…He has pity on the last and He serves the first…Come you all: enter into the joy of your Lord. You the first and you the last, receive alike your reward; you rich and you poor, dance together; you sober and you weaklings, celebrate the day…”

Sounds a bit like Jesus, don’t you think. It’s a crazy method of bookkeeping, the first being last and the last being first; it’s no way to run a successful business. And yet, when we realize we, too, have received free tickets to this Sunday feast served by God, oh my goodness, what a joyous celebration it is.

“For God’s Sake, Let the Weeds Grow!”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“For God’s Sake, Let the Weeds Grow!”
Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
July 23, 2017 (7th Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

This is an amazing day as we receive seven new members into our Holy Trinity family.  Quite a few of you have said, “This is terrific.  What a gift from God.”  Yes indeed, our hopes are high!

Those joining are excited, too.  You do not take this step lightly.  You have thought about this for a while, looking around at churches, even exploring other denominations.  You are praying, “Make this the perfect faith community.”

We all want our life together to be perfect.  Jesus understands our longings.  That’s why he tells the parable of the wheat and weeds.

In today’s parable, we are reminded—and glaringly—how oblivious Jesus is to rational horticultural practices.  He tells us to let the weeds sprout up with the wheat and all will turn out fine. “Jesus, you have got to be kidding!” we protest.  Nevertheless, Jesus urges calm and we agree to excuse his botanical naïveté; he is, after all, our Savior.

Like Jesus, I am no gardening enthusiast.  There have been countless occasions when Dagmar has flown off to Germany with no choice but to tolerate my mismanagement of her prize-winning gardens.  In advance of the gut-wrenching separation—from the gardens, Dagmar has taken me by hand, warily expounding on how to water and how to discern ripeness in vegetables and fruit; she inevitably provides a tutorial for dummies on the minute differences between weeds and blossoms.  Invariably, upon her return, Dagmar weeps: “Wilk, those were artichokes you pulled out, not dandelions.”  I always promise to do better the next time.

While many of us have no gardening experience or have purposely chosen to live in this concrete jungle to avoid the nauseating nuances of flowers and weeds, we all yearn for Eden.  That’s why Jesus instructs us, “Leave the wheat and weeds alone or you might end up ruining the good stuff.  I will take care of the rest.”  Jesus knows we want things to be impeccable and, in the face of the least little flaw, we will drive ourselves and others nuts in seeking perfection.

This longing is nothing new.  We are embarking on the 500th year of the Reformation when the reformers yearned for a purer church.  Protestants and Roman Catholics remain tragically divided as we attempt to separate weeds from wheat.  You may believe things are purer because of Martin Luther and his sidekicks, but don’t forget the wars waged over pure doctrine, the heads lopped off, and the families devastated when their beautiful Catholic daughters married vulgar Lutheran boys.  And that was not the only time the church was torn asunder.  500 years prior to the Reformation, in 1054, another theological squabble led to the Eastern and Western Church divide.  And that wasn’t even the first monumental fracas.  Remember how the first Jewish Christians tussled with the Gentile Christians over the earth-shattering issue of whether believers should be circumcised?  Oh, how we long for perfection and what ugly rubble we create in pursuit of it.  Could it be that every 500 years or so, we, the people of God, forget what Jesus has told us about wheat and weeds, and try once again to purify the church with our own preferred gardening techniques?  Perhaps you have noticed the church is at it again, this time, issues of human sexuality are causing all manner of discord and people are ripping out wheat and weeds in all kinds of devastating ways.  Oh, if we only would listen to Jesus: let the wheat and weeds grow together, he said, particularly since you are clueless what is a weed and what is wheat.

Something within us believes we can achieve perfection and, doggonit, we will stir up all manner of havoc in the struggle.  When our personal lives and families, church and nation, are flawed, instead of doing as Jesus commands and letting the wheat and weeds coexist, we rip everything asunder, inevitably losing precious artichokes in the process.

I have a hunch Holy Trinity attracts lots of folks in search of purity.  Would you agree?  How many of us are here because we love the liturgy being “just so,” reflecting the venerable church traditions through the ages?  We want to bow right, make the sign of the cross at the precise times, sing theologically fitting hymns with only the finest music, and wear appropriate vestments even when it is 95 degrees and soupy…By the way, I like it that way, too, or I wouldn’t have accepted your call to become the pastor here and I certainly wouldn’t be wearing this toasty get-up this muggy morning.

And yet, we need to be careful.  My favorite author Annie Dillard writes: “The higher Christian churches – where, if anywhere, I belong—come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.”

Perhaps our freedom comes when we ease up a bit, taking ourselves less seriously and letting the weeds and wheat coexist.  Rather than becoming nervous wrecks if we commit a nauseating faux pas like making an improper left turn instead of right as we process to the altar, let us manage a little smile, trusting that God will spare us the raging fires of hell and mysteriously let us enter into heaven.  You could call this grace.

In a few moments, when the bread is broken at the altar, I will say, “Holy things for holy people.”  You know better than that, of course you do, and you will shout out the ancient response, “Only one is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God.”

Here’s what is astonishing: pure and spotless Jesus comes among us, repellant weeds that we are, looks straight into our eyes, and says, “Let the weeds remain.”

Perhaps Jesus, crummy gardener that he is, knows a thing or two about beautiful flowers.  Maybe he knows beautiful flowers are nothing more than trained weeds…or at least forgiven ones.

“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!

 

“Look Whom Jesus Is with at the Jordan!”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Look Whom Jesus Is with at the Jordan!”
Matthew 3: 13-17
Baptism of Our Lord (January 8, 2017)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan

Today, as water crashes over us and we are dripping from our baptismal remembrance, we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In the spirit of celebration, let’s roll the film.

See John the Baptist out in the middle of the Jordan River, about three feet deep, in a white shirt, skinny black tie, and rubber hip waders amidst a motley crowd of riff-raff.  Watch him thrust them under the water and wash away their sins.

And, goodness gracious, there stands Jesus, right at water’s edge!  Can you believe your eyes?  He’s there with the double-crossing camel dealer, the flamboyant drag queen, the corporate executive convicted of bilking clients of millions, and that floozy neighbor constantly getting thrown into the county drunk tank—how dare he get so close to them!

Okay, let’s stop the film for a second and catch our breath…

Didn’t you always think Jesus is God’s son?  Why in the world is he hanging out with such a notorious crowd of lowlifes?

Let the film continue.

Do you notice there are also some modest and holy looking folks in line to be baptized?  They appear to be nervously quivering, churning with doubt and silently rotting away at the core; their sins are tucked far back in the furthest reaches of their bedroom closet, hidden under extra bedsheets and grandma’s old comforter, out of sight from devout company; they are fearful someone will find out.

Look closely at water-logged John.  Do you notice how he keeps glancing out of the corner of his eye?  He appears to have spotted his cousin Jesus standing in line for baptism—see how John trembles!  Listen carefully; can you hear him: “Why in God’s name is Jesus here?  Why does he want to be baptized?  He is God’s Son, the sinless one.  I need to be baptized by him!”

Now, we can get all misty-eyed about this, but let’s not kid ourselves.  Jesus’ baptism has not always been an occasion for celebration.  His presence with such a horde of sinners has embarrassed the church down through the ages, actually, to be more precise, it has horrified the church.

One of our finest Lutheran liturgical scholars, Gordon Lathrop, suggests that Jesus’ baptism was actually not about his becoming pure for our sake but rather becoming dirty for us.  How can God’s son become dirty? you ask.  He gets dirty the very same way this precious little thing born in Bethlehem ended up dying the filthiest death imaginable, in love for all his brothers and sisters, on the cross at Calvary.

While we celebrate Jesus’ baptism this morning, truth be told, if we are not also appalled and fuming, we likely have not quite grasped how deeply God’s grace runs for us.

When I mentioned a bit earlier who Jesus was in line with—drag queens, painted ladies, Ponzi schemers—my hunch is that most of you smiled and poked someone in the side.  There is, after all, a quaint delight in seeing Jesus with such company—it makes our open-minded Upper West Side hearts quiver in delight. But I want to up the ante to explore just how open we really are to God’s grace.

I must tell you in advance, what I am about to say comes with no small amount of fear and trembling; I really do fear that I may offend some of you and cause you deep anger.  If that occurs, I beg you in advance, please forgive me.

Let the film roll and let’s locate Jesus once again.  Now look carefully.  Do you notice that he has his arm around a gangly young white guy with a weird bowl hair cut?  That can’t be Dylann Roof, can it, the same Dylann Roof who attended a Bible study at historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a year and a half ago and brutally murdered nine parishioners?  Even after family members said, “I forgive you, my family forgives you,” Dylann Roof wrote, “I would like to make it crystal clear I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”

Listen, listen…I think you can just make out the conversation Jesus is having with Dylann, “Dylann, dear brother, it is never too late to repent.”

While the film is stopped momentarily, let me remind us all, in case we have forgotten, that Dylann Roof’s family are members of one of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations and that two of the African American pastors murdered that evening, Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the Rev. Daniel Simmons, graduated from our Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina?

Jesus standing at Dylann Roof’s side…He can’t possibly be doing that, can he?

As you know, the penalty phase of Dylann Roof’s trial is now in session.  Should he be executed?  Are there ever any of God’s children in line with Jesus who should be executed, who are unloved by God?  Said another way, how dare we cut short the life of anyone whom Jesus loves?

As I think I mentioned, Jesus’ baptism inevitably scandalizes polite company.  Grace is messy; it can be numbing, sickening, and offensive.  That’s why we now start the film rolling again.  Watch as Jesus slips and slides up out of the muddy river, dripping wet from head to toe.  Listen carefully as God proudly proclaims from on high, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

There is something about Jesus’ willingness to stand in line at the Jordan and submit to this baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins that pleases God and horrifies us.

Look one final time as the film nears completion.  Are you surprised to catch sight of yourself standing there at the Jordan?  Sometimes, it is almost impossible to believe the words of that old hymn:

“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea…
For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind.
And the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.”

What a thrill to hear the water crashing and to celebrate God’s amazing grace for this terribly mixed up world…and for us, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“Be patient”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
Bach Vespers, December 11, 2016 (3rd Sunday of Advent)
“Be patient”
James 5: 7-10

“’Twas the night before Christmas,
when all through the house
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.”

I hope you still remember being nestled all snug in your bed.  But I’ll bet you have other memories as well.  While Clement Clarke Moore does not say so, I am almost certain he left this part out of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” to please his editors:

“The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads…
and revelations of ants pirouetted in their pajamas.”

Remember how hard it was to sleep the night before Christmas?  You so wanted the beautiful pony or that exquisite Rawlings Mickey Mantle baseball glove.  Every thirty-seven minutes, you restlessly got out of bed and scampered down the hallway to your parent’s bedroom. “Has Santa come yet?” you eagerly asked.  They told you, “Quick, go back to bed or Santa will hear you and not come down the chimney.”  The wait was agonizing; ants pirouetted in your “pjs.”

We just heard these words from the New Testament’s epistle of James, “Be patient, therefore, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.”

Our impatience no longer has to do with Dasher and Dancer’s hoofbeats.  Our anxieties have become more grown up and much more complicated.

A few weeks ago I told you about my favorite books.  One book is “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness” by William Styron.  Styron, who also wrote “Sophie’s Choice,” tells of his agonizing bouts with depression.  You can tell from the title, “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness,” that Styron is not a romantic when it comes to his struggles.  And yet, I will never forget his invitation to patience: “It is of great importance that those who are suffering a siege, perhaps for the first time, be told—be convinced, rather—that the illness will run its course and they will pull through.”

The greatest gift in such tribulation, so writes Styron, is to have loved ones close-by assisting you in the journey of patience: “Most people in the grip of depression at its ghastliest are, for whatever reason, in a state of unrealistic hopelessness, torn by exaggerated ills and fatal threats that bear no resemblance to actuality.”  And then this: “It may require on the part of friends, lovers, family, admirers, an almost religious devotion to persuade the sufferer of life’s worth…”

Sounds similar to James, “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.”
These days, as we prepare again to celebrate the coming of the Christ Child, are meant for us to persuade one another of life’s worth.  Together, we are patient; together, we say, “Wait and Christ will enter your life.”

People of great grace teach us to wait, to look beyond our dark caverns to the one who comes bearing gifts of healing and hope.

Mary the mother of Jesus was such a person.  Even when she could not make heads or tails out of the angel’s message that she would soon be the mother of God’s child and, in fact, was greatly troubled by the thought of it all, nevertheless, she waited patiently and pondered these things in her heart.  At every Vespers here we sing Mary’s song of patient waiting, the Magnificat, as we cense the altar and you.  As the incense wafts toward you this evening, may the sweet-smelling smoke remind you that Christ will come into your life.

You have seen such patience, I’m sure, in the elderly whose bodies grow frailer and whose minds become more fragile.  Nevertheless, they exhibit great grace, teaching us to bear all things and hope all things.  Time has taught them to wait, patiently.  They are like the lilies of the field and the sparrows of the sky who do not worry about tomorrow.

Patience allows us to wait for something greater.  We forsake the shoddy, the temporary, and the mediocre and believe that the Savior of the nations will come in God’s good time.  This savior will put an end to all that is ugly and deeply troubling and bring goodness and beauty to us and those we love and to our suffering world, forever and ever.  And so, my dear friends, be patient until the coming of the Lord.