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“Christ the Servant”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Christ the Servant”
John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
April 13, 2017 (Maundy Thursday)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

In 2006, I was hospitalized with pulmonary emboli.  If you are like I was at the time, you may be clueless as to what a pulmonary embolism is.  Simply put: it is a clot on the lung—at least that is my pedestrian knowledge of the potentially fatal malady.  One embolism will kill you; I had four.  It was touch and go.  I spent five days in the intensive care unit and Dagmar faithfully watched over me.  Thank God, I made it to the other side of that dark, dreadful tunnel.

Toward the end of my hospitalization, the charge nurse asked who my favorite staff person had been.  I experienced my share of personnel–pulmonologists, cardiologists, nurses, x-ray technicians, phlebotomists, house-keeping staff, physical therapists, even a few caring pastors and a kindly bishop.  The person I cherished most, though, was a nurse’s aide.

One evening, Claudia came to my room and asked if I would like a sponge bath.  The experience was exquisite, more luxurious than anything offered at a deluxe Southern California spa.  As she sponged my wretched body, tears welled up in my eyes.  I was overwhelmed by her tenderness.  Claudia’s calling was to anoint suffering patients with sweet-smelling oils of healing.

Of all those who tended to me, this servant worked twelve hour days and was one of the lowest paid hospital employees.  When I told the charge nurse Claudia was the finest person sent my way—a gift from God really, he immediately asked, “Any nurses, doctors, you wish to add?”  They were all extraordinary—well, except the cranky blood-drawer who cursed my crummy veins—and yet I will always cherish Claudia.

Tonight, we remember another servant, the most exquisite one, Jesus.  He did what only servants do: he washed his disciples’ dusty, sweaty feet.  His dear friends were dumbfounded: “Who are you to do this to me?”  There were others who were befuddled over the years.  One of the great historic heresies that continues in our own age is the belief that God could not possibly come to earth as Jesus, as a servant: the Almighty does not stoop so low to wash smelly feet.

Yes, tonight, Maundy Thursday, is about as low as Jesus could get.  As one of his closest friends devised a sordid plan to betray him and others lacked the courage to stand by his side when the powerful pushed and shoved, even then Jesus washed their feet, even then he forgave them all that was soon to unfold, even then he shared the most intimate meal with them, even then he loved them until the end.

Washing one another’s feet must be the most awkward act of the entire church year. If you are like me, you look forward to foot-washing as much as you do to filing your 2016 income tax return.  Don’t you imagine quite a few have steered clear of this evening altogether for fear that they might be cajoled into washing someone else’s feet?  Some churches, perhaps the wiser ones, just don’t do it.  I read one church’s Holy Week schedule announcing washing of hands instead of feet—that certainly is a creative approach to remedy the inelegance of what is soon to unfold, much more palatable it seems to me.

I take no delight in washing another’s feet.  I will do my own, but not yours if I can help it.  I am not particularly fond of taking off my shoes in public either.  I had a sign on my dresser that warned me not to wear holey socks this evening.  Foot-washing strips us down to our basest humanity; we become so vulnerable.

By the way, no one is compelled to wash another person’s feet tonight.  However, if you choose to remain on the sidelines, watch closely nonetheless; recall how Jesus commanded us to love one another and how he loved those who fell short of his love to the very end.  Judas soon betrayed Jesus.  Peter, who had previously said quite proudly, “You will never wash my feet,” overestimated himself; he had no way of knowing how soon he would shrink from his high ideals and repeatedly deny ever having known his dearest friend.  In spite of the horrid betrayal, denials, and cowardice—not by Jesus’ detractors but by those who adored him most—Jesus was glorified through his deep affection for his friends and enemies.  Remember how he broke bread with them and touched them with heavenly grandeur even as their courage plummeted to disgusting depths.

The heavenly pendulum swings so low this evening that it is almost impossible to discern God’s presence with us.

Maybe it’s a good thing we are uncomfortable—servanthood does that to us.  And when God becomes our servant, that really is excrutiating, so much so that it becomes almost unbearable…and yet, what wondrous love Christ has for us.

And so, I invite you forward now to be servants of one another.  If you prefer not, then at least remember the servanthood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“The Crooked Lines of Good and Evil”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’ Sermon
“The Crooked Lines of Good and Evil”
Matthew 27: 33-50
April 9, 2017 (Palm Sunday/ Passion of Our Lord)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

In a few moments, we will hear Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata, “Lord Jesus Christ, True Man and God.” In addition to the gorgeous music, I pray that you will be struck by the stunning words:

O Head, full of blood and wounds,
full of suffering and shame!
O Head, bound in mockery
with a crown of thorns!
O Head, once beautifully adorned
with the highest honor and beauty,
now rather supremely defiled:
be greeted by me!

If you have come this evening just for music, you could just as easily be a block away at Lincoln Center.  Bach’s cantata is far more than an aesthetical outing on a Spring evening.  Who can miss its melancholic nature?  We are with Mary at the foot of the cross.

A number of years ago, I read this: “[Mary and her son Jesus] were likely looking at one another face to face.  Much later, beginning in the Middle Ages, artists would depict a very tall cross, with Mary and the others far below at its foot.  But historians believe that the cross was probably about seven feet tall.  They were face to face.  The sweat, the blood, the tearing tendons, the twitching, the wrenching, the bulging eyes—she would have seen it all quite clearly, as clearly as she saw him so long ago when she held him safely to her breast” (John Richard Neuhaus, “Death on a Friday Afternoon”).

The church begins Holy Week today, Palm Sunday, as we remember Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.  This day is also called the Passion of Our Lord; we recall the horrific events that unfolded as Jesus loved us to the end and we stare at our suffering Savior, face to face.

Bach’s cantata directs us to our deepest humanity.  There, in the depths of our souls, we hear far more than stunning music: we gaze deeply into our hearts and behold the one who is everything we are and everything we are not.

There are occasions when we are stunned by our courage: we march with protest banners unfurled in solidarity with the downtrodden.  We feel like we are on the streets of Jerusalem, shouting at the top of our lungs, “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

And yet, honesty compels us to tell another story about ourselves as well.  We are sometimes sickened by our failure of nerve.  As innocent Syrian children are gassed to death and military strikes are waged, we are clueless what should be done.  Is retaliating with our own deadly weapons a useful response to the barbarity of poisonous gas or should we merely sit by quietly and prayerfully as little children scream for our help?  Yes indeed, we cry helplessly into the evening sky, “O Lord, I know not what I do!”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the esteemed rabbi who taught just up the street at the Jewish Theological Seminary, at 122nd and Broadway, once said, “Some are guilty, all are responsible.”

Some may demur, “I would never do such a thing.”  But honesty calls us to confess.  We are the Judases who, for a measly bit of silver, make a few shabby compromises so our retirement accounts stretch a bit further into our autumn years; we are the Peters cringing when it comes time to tell the truth—all we can muster is the meek contention that our pint-size voices won’t make any difference, anyway.  We are caught in the vicious cogs that go round and round.  We watch as the thorny crown is placed on Jesus’ head and listen as the crowd derides him.  We listen in disgust as the pundits’ blather on and feel so impotent as the mightier ones weave their dirty work.

The Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.”  He sounds a lot like Saint Paul who said: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

Johann Sebastian Bach understood these words.  His music is sung most profoundly and powerfully when we all comprehend the crooked lines of good and evil running through our hearts.  This is the pathos that moves us deeply and causes us to leave evenings such as this saying, “That was hauntingly breathtaking!”  Our hearts have been deeply touched.

This may all sound a tad too dismal, teeming with eighteenth century Germanic gloom, despair, and resignation.  And yet, remember such were never Bach’s final words.  There was always hope to be found.  You will hear it again at the conclusion of the cantata, just when you thought the morning would never come:

When everything shudders at the last hour,
and when a cold death-sweat
bathes limbs already stiff,
when my tongue cannot speak other than through sighs
and this heart breaks…

The soul rests in Jesus’ hands,
when earth covers this body…
I am unafraid of death,
because my Jesus will awaken me again.

Listen for words of hope: “I am unafraid of death, because my Jesus will awaken me again.”

“Never Said a Mumblin’ Word”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Never Said a Mumblin’ Word”
(Matthew 26:14-27:66)
April 9, 2017 (Palm Sunday/ Passion of Our Lord)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

Every year, one of the many Holy Week tasks is determining how the Passion of Our Lord will be read.  Some years the choir sings of Jesus’ final hours on earth; other years, two people read the entire story from Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  This morning, we thought it would be a good idea to involve a host of people in Saint Matthew’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion.  As you have just experienced, this offered each of you an opportunity to tell some part of Jesus’ death.

The first decision for today’s reading was to determine how many readers were necessary for the various parts. Next, I gave careful thought to who should read each part.  I worried about a few of the key rolls.  How to ask delicately: “I was wondering if you would you like to be Peter;” “I think you would make a splendid Pilate;” worst of all perhaps, “Have you ever thought about being Judas at church on Palm Sunday?”  More than once in my ministry, someone has been terribly offended by one of my requests; rather than feeling honored, they have blurted out, “Pastor, how dare you ask me to be Judas?”  Oh, the landmines of pastoral ministry!

And then, I wondered about the rest of you: would your feelings be hurt if you were asked to shout out the crowd’s atrocities: “He deserves death,” “Let him be crucified,” “Hail, King of the Jews”?  I can hear a few of you muttering this very moment, “I would never say such a thing.  Who do you think I am anyway?”

After all that, there were two other daunting challenges: who to choose to be the narrator and who to be Jesus?  The narrator was easy: pick someone who can read clearly and with solemnity.

But Jesus.  That was dicier.  This went beyond choosing someone who could be heard.  This person, the chief character, must read flawlessly and profoundly.

What surprised me this year and always has—shocked me might be more precise—is how little Jesus said in Matthew’s gospel.  Given the scarceness of Jesus’ words in his final hours, a four-year-old could do this part admirably—or even I could.  As the old African-American spiritual would have it, “Jesus never said a mumblin’ word.”

How many words would you have uttered if you had been in Jesus’ place—what with Judas betraying you, Peter getting all weak-kneed and turning his back on you, and Pilate being gutless as he gauges the political winds?  Add to that cast of hapless clowns, what would you have said in the face of the macho soldiers and jeering crowds, the ripping thorns and driving nails, the sour wine and piercing spear, and the disgusting spitting in your face.  Do you think you would have remained silent for even a second in the face of such cruelty or would you have spewed forth heaps of bile?

The old seventh century desert monk John of the Ladder wrote, “Jesus by his silence shamed Pilate.”  In truth, Jesus’ silence shames us all.  We are, after all, a people of many words and so easily offended; we have opinions on a host of matters regardless of what knowledge we might possess; we abhor silence and covet having the final word on every issue.

There is soaring dignity in this man Jesus, especially given the few words he spoke.  There is exquisite elegance in how he let his actions speak for him.  So few words…so few words.

During this week, we will once again walk with Jesus.  All the characters in today’s story with the exception of Jesus are so maddening.  While we hate the thought of filling in for them, honesty compels us to confess that we are much like them.  The passion narrative we have just heard from the gospel of Matthew, far from being antiquated and irrelevant, is as fresh and timely as ever.

Oh, how few words Jesus spoke.  Oh, his wondrous silence.  Jesus never said a mumblin’ word but, oh, how he loves us.  On a day such as this, we do well to listen or, better yet, to watch every move Jesus makes.