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

“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.

“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.”

“There Is a Free Lunch for Everyone”

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller’s Reformation Day Sermon
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
Sunday, October 30, 2016
“There Is a Free Lunch for Everyone”
Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Romans 3: 19-28; John 8: 31-36

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

A few years ago I was interviewed by “The Reader.”  This magazine has a section called “Sheep and Goats” in which the worship, music, architecture, sermons, friendliness, and even snacks of a church are rated on a one to five-star system.  This free weekly with lots of Botox and medical marijuana ads can be picked up on virtually every San Diego street corner along with all manner of unsavory publications.  The interviewer asked me what subject I most like to preach about.  I told him simply, “There is a free lunch for everyone.”

His eyes glazed over straightaway.  He clearly hoped for a more theologically profound response, expecting me to say I love to wax eloquently on the rapture, predestination, or even delicate political issues and who the next President of the United States of America should be.  When I told him I like to preach on “there is a free lunch for everyone,” the interview spiraled downhill, and fast.

People often ask me—and I imagine you too—what Lutherans believe.  When I say Lutherans believe in law and gospel, word and sacrament, justification by faith apart from works prescribed by the law, their eyes glaze over.  To get the conversation revved up again, I usually say something like this: if you worship with us on Sunday morning, you will find our liturgy resembles the Roman Catholic Church because we are, after all, cousins; we don’t believe, however, that the Pope has absolute authority and, oh by the way, our pastor is married.

These answers always beg other questions: are you like Methodists?  Presbyterians?  Baptists?  What do you believe about Holy Communion?  With all these questions looming, I have come to believe the simplest and best Lutheran answer is that we believe God offers a free lunch for everyone.  That is, of course, why Martin Luther banged his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, 499 years ago.

The Presbyterian minister and writer Frederick Buechner describes what I call “free lunch theology” this way: “Grace is something you can never get but only be given.  There’s no way to earn it, deserve it, or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.”

We know better than that though.  We have become masters at reading the fine print. We know nothing in this world is free.  My favorite fine print these days is found in advertisements for miracle drugs.  These sensational medicines claim to eradicate all manner of aches and ails, enable us to live almost forever, and infuse us with unimaginable powers as we approach our autumn years.  Then always come the warnings, in fine print: taking this drug may cause unintended side effects such as heart attacks, insomnia, athletes foot, excessive gas, or other mind-boggling maladies that may last longer than four hours and for which you must immediately see your doctor…Just as you suspected, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

All the fine print makes it almost impossible to fathom the Reformation’s guiding principle that grace is free for all.  This is precisely why most of us madly scramble to read the fine print: we must have to believe to be saved, to be baptized, to confess Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, or, at the very least, to be a very good person.

Take stewardship for instance: “Pastor, are you saying I don’t have to give a nickel to be saved, that I can come along for a free ride and leave the driving to others?”

Let me attempt to answer that.  We are about to embark on our 2017 stewardship campaign here at Holy Trinity.  There is an incredible buzz in the air these days.  Worship attendance is higher than it has been in at least four years; your giving this year is projected to be the highest that it has been in the history of this congregation.  Worship and music is beyond belief.  Our future at the corner of 65th and Central Park is very bright indeed!

To make our ministry continue to grow and flourish, each of us must do our part.  And you are doing just that!  We gathered for three listening sessions this summer at which you offered dreams to make this an even more vibrant congregation, things like moving our baptismal font to a more central location, improving our sound system, painting the parish hall; all these things are being planned or are in the process of happening.  Our Finance Committee met three hours on Thursday evening; our Capital Project Committee met four hours last Saturday; our Church Council has been listening to your dreams.  Serious planning and considerable hard work are being done to make our considerable dreams become realities.

To achieve our dreams, here and beyond our doors, each of us needs either to increase our pledge by between 5-10% for the coming year or, if we have never pledged, to do so this year.

In about a week, you will receive your pledge card in the mail.  I pray that you will join Dagmar and me in giving serious consideration to how you will financially support our astonishing ministry.  Some will give $500 a week, others $1 a week; each gift is essential to our proclaiming Christ to this community.

These are amazing days.  Won’t you do your part in making our dreams come true by making a pledge?  I guarantee you this: if every one of us commits to announcing that FREE LUNCH IS SERVED HERE at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity, our ministry will blossom well into the future.  That’s why we pledge and that is why Luther banged the 95 Theses on the church door.  He wanted everyone to know, Roman Catholic and Lutheran, pledger and nonpledger, $500 or $1 a week offeror: there is a free lunch served to all of us by Jesus Christ.

Guess what: lunch is ready!  So, come: the gifts of God for the people of God.  For free…and with no fine print!

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