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“The Perfect Gift”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“The Perfect Gift”
Luke 2: 22-40
First Sunday of Christmas (December 31, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

Every Christmas, one of my biggest thrills, next to hauling home our tree blocks on end and celebrating our dear Savior’s birth with you, is contemplating the fantasy gifts in the annual Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogue.  A few years ago, I so wanted to give Dagmar Neiman Marcus’ dancing fountains created by the folks who did the ones outside the Bellagio in Las Vegas; we could have had those fountains in our back yard, choreographed to music of our choosing (thank heavens I didn’t give Dagmar the fountains because moving them from San Diego to Manhattan would have been a bear and putting them on Holy Trinity’s rooftop would have been virtually impossible).

This year’s Neiman Marcus gifts were more practical.  There was the pair of Rolls-Royces, one blue, one orange, for the paltry sum of $885,375. I didn’t spring for the set because I couldn’t afford the parking costs after splurging on the autos.  The more charming gift was the one Dagmar and I contemplated giving you: instead of squeezing into our apartment following today’s Mass for the 2nd Annual Miller’s New Year’s Eve Sherry Hour, we could have had 150 rooms at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square, tonight, New Year’s Eve!  Imagine if we had purchased that gift: we would all soon be off for a Times Square rooftop extravaganza with food, drinks, DJ, killer view of the ball drop, and rooms for each of you. All for $1.6 million!

It is never easy to give the perfect gift.  There was that one, the one wrapped up at the Presentation of Our Lord in Jerusalem.  Mary and Joseph took their first born to the Temple and did as God’s law to Moses stipulated: they were purified after childbirth and they consecrated their first-born to God and offered a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.

One of the people awaiting the perfect gift was old Simeon.  He had been at the temple for years, hoping the gift would bring his salvation and the salvation of the entire world.  You can imagine Simeon’s delight as Mary and Joseph placed their tiny child into his gnarled hands; you can see his cloudy eyes sparkle as he lifted this perfect gift heavenwards and proclaimed: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples.”  He could shut his weary eyes anytime now for he had finally received what he had been awaiting, God’s little Son.

Only moments after Simeon lifted the Babe of Bethlehem, Anna, who had spent her widowhood at the temple, night and day, fasting and praying, also savored this heavenly gift.

We Lutherans are particularly fond of Anna and Simeon. In what is perhaps most unique to our Lutheran tradition, we sing Simeon’s gorgeous Nunc Dimittis after receiving Holy Communion: “Now, let your servant go in peace…My own eyes have seen the salvation…”

The one holy catholic and apostolic church adores singing Simeon’s song at Compline, our final night prayer before closing our eyes at the end of day.  We are like children praying, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”  Along with Simeon, we close our eyes in stillness, confident that God protects us as darkness settles in.

We sing Simeon’s song one more time, at the close of the funeral liturgy, when our loved ones have closed their eyes the final time this side of the kingdom come.  Immediately after we have heard the pastor say, “Receive your servant into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light,” with tears streaming down our faces, we join Simeon in song, “Lord, now let your servant go in peace.”

Simeon and Anna, though in their autumn years, were crammed with vigorous hope. They gathered at their beloved temple and reminisced about the past but also dreamed of the future.  The past summoned them into the future; they were confident that their and our future is in God’s hands.

We are called to be Simeon and Anna here at Holy Trinity.  Beginning tomorrow, we will spend a year reminiscing about 150 years of exemplary ministry in this place.  We will recall the saints who have lifted up the Christ Child for the salvation of the world.  We will do more than look backward and reminisce, however.  Like Anna and Simeon, we will also hope.  We will sing stunning music, hear the Lutheran church’s finest preachers.  Our calling has been and will continue to be to wait for our salvation to come to this great city of New York as a vulnerable and loving child, Jesus Christ our Lord, and then to tell the world what we have heard and seen and tasted.

The Christ Child is the perfect gift for a time such as this, for us, for those we love, and for those we are called to serve.  Happy New Year and Happy 150th, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“Catching Our Fancy”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Catching Our Fancy”
(Luke 1: 39-56)
Bach Vespers: J.S. Bach’s Magnificat (BWV 243)
December 10, 2017
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

Funny thing how God catches our fancy in the unlikeliest of people.

It happened three years ago when I was a pastor in San Diego.  We had a considerable outreach to the homeless community, including free medical and dental, acupuncture and legal clinics, and a hospice program for homeless dying; we fed 200 people, twice a week.  We rubbed shoulders with God’s unlikeliest friends, day-after-day.

Jordan and Addison, shall we call them, were two unlikely ones.  They came knocking at the church door and wondered if they could speak with me.  They were homeless and Addison was eight months pregnant.  Once my office door was tightly closed, they apologized profusely and embarrassedly asked if I would be willing to marry them.

For some reason—it must have been God’s grace—I said I would do more than marry them; if they wished, we would create the most magical wedding of all.  Instead of having the wedding in my office with just the two of them and me, we would have the ceremony on our church patio, immediately before the Friday morning meal.  200 of their homeless friends would be guests of honor and Jordan and Addison would process right through their midst.  My wife, Dagmar, made a beautiful bridal bouquet; Dorothy and Dale donated a stunning cake; Ladonna saw to it that the wedding couple was feted in great delight; Mary made certain that Addison had a dashing bridal dress that highlighted her stunning beauty and swollen belly.

People hardened by repeated rebuffs and shattered by years of wretched street-living watched in wonder, weeping with gladness and cheering with abandon.  When I announced Jordan and Addison as husband and wife, out-of-the-blue, a group of Anglican and Lutheran theologians who happened to be at our church as part of the national gathering of the American Academy of Religion broke into a spectacular rendition of “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.”

The wedding caught everyone’s fancy.  A picture of it appeared in our national church magazine, “Living Lutheran,” and a friend of mine who teaches the highfalutin subject of Trinitarian theology at one of our seminaries told me that the wedding was the most powerful presentation of the week for a number of his colleagues and him: “Wilk, I felt like old Simeon in the Bible who upon seeing the baby Jesus said, ‘I can now go in peace, for I have seen my salvation.’ That’s how I felt after Jordan and Addison’s wedding.”

In a few moments we will hear Mary’s “Magnificat.” While the seventeen-piece orchestra and the Holy Trinity Bach Choir will lift us to the angels, never forget the song was first sung by a young woman who would soon be highly pregnant and snubbed by refined company; people would snidely ask, “And who exactly is the daddy of her baby?”   And, of course, to this very day, outrageous comments continue to be made about Mary as her calling as the Mother of God is compared to the sleazy goings on of an adult politician reported to have had dalliances with young, minor girls.

Mary and Joseph were not terribly different from Jordan and Addison; they were suspect candidates in playing such a significant part in God coming to earth. God could have chosen kings and queens in ornate palaces but instead opted to come to earth by way of a very poor and very young girl.

In one of my five favorite books, “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” Willa Cather writes:  “There is always something charming in the idea of greatness returning to simplicity—the queen making hay among the country fields—but how much more endearing was the belief that [the Holy Family], after so many centuries of history and glory, should return to play their first parts in the persons of a humble Mexican family, the lowliest of the lowly, the poorest of the poor—in a wilderness at the end of the world where the angels could scarcely find them.”

Willa Cather’s poetic eyes saw God coming by way of poor Mexican peasants and this caught her fancy.

In these days of Advent, as you watch and wait and listen, may you have poetic eyes.  Resist letting Bach’s music sentimentalize the “Magnificat;” refuse to let it lift you into the netherworld of luxurious aesthetic enchantment.  Instead, carefully attend to the words: “For God has regarded the low estate of his hand-maiden…He has put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.”

Watch God come to Mary and Joseph and Jordan and Addison.  And, if you are so blessed, may God come to you as well in those places and on those occasions where angels can scarcely find you.  May the charm of it all catch your fancy and may you, with Mary, proclaim, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

“Living on God’s Clock”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Living on God’s Clock”
(Mark 13:24-37)
1st Sunday of Advent (December 3, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

Advent comes from the Latin word adventus which means coming.  Jesus promised that he would come again but he left precious few particulars as to his exact time table. He did entrust us with this: “For you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or a dawn.”

Funny thing: while we do not know when Jesus will come again, we continue to anticipate his return, lighting candles one-by-one on this ringed wreath, clothing the church in the dark blue bruise of the winter’s morning sky just before sunrise, and marking our waiting, day-by-day, with the lovely Holy Trinity Advent calendar of your prayerful making.

Admit it: waiting can be tough as darkness envelops us and scares us half to death.

Author Annie Proulx recently said at the National Book Awards ceremony: “We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds…The television sparkles with images of despicable political louts and sexual harassment reports. We cannot look away from the pictures of furious elements, hurricanes and fires, from the repetitive crowd murders by gunmen burning with rage. We are made more anxious by flickering threats of nuclear war.”

In spite of the dire circumstances that tempt us to surrender all hope, quaint communities of courage and confidence endure, doing our best to act as Jesus would have us: “Keep alert…Keep awake.”

We come here this morning in these days of despicableness, fury, and rage and still, somehow, someway, cry out, “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.” We plead to heaven to spare us from surrendering to dark bruise of gloom.

Nevertheless, as I have said and as you well know, waiting is hard, excruciatingly so when we are waiting on someone else’s clock. Anthropologists claim that the most difficult thing for travelers visiting other countries, except for dealing with a foreign language, is coming to grips with how others keep time.

We actually do that this morning whether we realize it or not.   We the people of God are compelled to come to grips with the time-keeping of another strange and exotic country, the kingdom of God.  As we snuggle here in God’s lap, we catch ourselves fidgeting like rambunctious preschoolers, glancing at our watches and fiddling with our cellphones. We have places to go, things to do, people to see.  We are programmed to watch and wait for 58 minutes and 58 minutes only, the length of an episode of “Game of Thrones,” “Downton Abbey,” or “The Walking Dead.”  Watching and waiting beyond that, even here on God’s clock, can seem well-nigh impossible.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, says that in our waiting, we all become Jews once more.  We, too, long for God to keep the promises made to our ancestors.  We yearn for God to surprise us, ambush us, and carry us off to the Promised Land; that yearning is magnified as we watch our world crumbling or when someone we love deeply does not love us back.  The wait can be terrible.  It is at the moment when there seems not an iota of hope remaining that we encourage one another to stay awake and be alert for Christ’s coming.  That is, of course, what it means that we all become Jews once more.

Oh yes, some of us are not so good at keeping alert and waiting.  We have been to the doctor’s office, anxious and on high alert.  We waited and waited for the doctor.  We got testy with the receptionist, showed no mercy toward the nurse’s apologies, and, when the doctor finally did appear, breathless from saving a life in the operating room, we shot him stares of chilly curtness.

When we get edgy and feel like we are the only ones who have ever faced perilous times, we do well to pray mightily that we might learn to live on God’s clock and not ours.  This is when we are enormously blessed if we try to emulate the time-keeping practices of our Jewish brothers and sisters, so many who live right here in our community and quite a few, by the way, who worship with us at Bach Vespers every Sunday evening.  They are the promised children of God, after all, who have been waiting for an unbearably long time since God’s first promises to Abraham and Sarah.  So much has happened since then: their blessed Jerusalem was overrun by outside conquerors and, so many years later, their loved ones were slaughtered in the Holocaust.  The Jewish people have been sorely tempted over the ages to surrender any hope that God will come to them; and yet, even when they have faced the unimaginable cruelties of countless maniacal despots, for centuries and centuries, they have trudged to their synagogues with their children and grandchildren in tow and believed that the Messiah will come.

Advent gives us a similar language of hope, an audacious language of longing amidst the wintery seasons of life where we live between our dreams and God making them come true.

The pastor Winn Collier says that “Advent provides an important corrective to the fables governing our lives.  We expect our starts to bolt from the gate.  Energy!  Exertion!  Strategic master plans!   But with Advent we start by waiting.  We Sabbath.”

It has been said that Advent is the best time to plant tulips, a strange thing to do as the days grow dark, the air becomes frosty, and the ground freezes.  Remarkably, the church invites us to plant tulips in our hearts during these darkest days of the year and then to wait patiently for God’s presence to sprout within us and around us.

And so, here we are again, awake and waiting.  Though perhaps lonely and ailing, unappreciated and shocked, we light candles nonetheless.  As the one little candle flickers in the howling wind, let us join hands and confidently pray, “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.”

“Oh, the Exclamation Point”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Oh, the Exclamation Point”
Luke 21: 25-36
Bach Vespers (BWV 70-“Wachet! betet! betet! wachet!”)
Christ the King (November 26, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

The Bible’s apocalyptic literature gives religion a bad name. That whacky end of the world stuff is grist for “The New Yorker” cartoons and makes people steer clear of the church altogether even when Bach is billed.

Wouldn’t you agree that this evening’s cantata is similar. No sooner had we settled into our pews for a long winter’s nap than Herr Bach grabbed us by the neck with a ferocious musical flurry: instruments storming, voices bursting—“Wachet! Betet! Betet! Wachet!” WATCH! PRAY! PRAY! WATCH!

Did you perchance notice the exclamation points, not one but four?

I am never quite sure how to use the exclamation point properly but I have discovered that my sermon manuscripts are littered with them: if one exclamation point does the trick, a million must certainly be sublime!

But of the whimsical exclamation point, Strunk and White in their classic writing guide, “The Elements of Style,” warn: “Do not attempt to emphasize simple statements by using a mark of exclamation. The exclamation mark is to be reserved for use after true exclamations or commands.”

Why then, I ask you, does Cantor Bach feel compelled to use four in a row: Watch—exclamation point! Pray—exclamation point! Pray—exclamation point! Watch—exclamation point! Could it be that Bach believed German literary style trumped English usage! Don’t get upset…Just wondering.

You know as well as I that something serious is going on tonight. Bach is kicking us in the pants, especially those of us who thought we could come here for a genteel Sunday evening concert and not be bombarded by religious madness. We never expected end-of-the-world stuff to assault our hearing.

Exclamation points rule the night as the trumpet blasts, the strings and reeds rage, and the choir storms. WATCH! PRAY! PRAY! WATCH! Wild-eyed and disheveled Johann Sebastian Bach is wandering up and down Central Park West with a hand drawn placard that announces, “Be frightened, you stubborn sinners, the Lord of glory is coming!”—that’s Bach by the way, not I.

If you haven’t, I urge you to go see the Edvard Munch exhibit at the Breuer. While it is entitled “Between the Clock and the Bed,” if they had asked me, I would have name it “Norwegian Seasonal Affective Disorder Art.” The lively colors of Munch’s paintings are dulled by “bronchitis, isolation, sleeplessness, restlessness, despair, drunkenness, unending screams.”

I loved the exhibit much like I love this evening’s cantata. Even with “You stubborn sinners…O sinful generation, unto eternal heartache…Let us quickly flee from Sodom…” ringing in our ears, even with stormy, depressing, angry, apocalyptic, bizarre language pummeling us, Bach is not done. Pay attention as the angelic voices of the Holy Trinity Bach Choir and the gorgeous accompaniment of period instruments weave their enchanting charm; note how your eyes suddenly twinkle, your feet start tapping, your heart pleasantly palpitates.

Composers of religious music worthy the name have the astonishing gift of weaving hope amidst the furious desperation of our lives. They are no different than the Old Testament prophets. No matter how judgmental and scolding, hope inevitably sneaks in.

My Old Testament professor Brevard Childs expected us seminarians to locate hope in every prophet no matter how vindictive they first sounded; that was always our homework, night after night, find the hope. Tonight, your task is the same: listen to the cantata and locate hope.

So curious: just when we are about to storm out of this church’s big red doors, convinced we have run into another bizarre religious cult where the pastor harangues us and the musicians point us to an eternal inferno, just then, when we have all but given up finding any semblance of a peaceful evening in this place, suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, we are enthralled by majestic words of hope.

Listen: “Raise your heads upward and be comforted, you devout ones, at your souls’ blooming. You shall flourish in Eden to serve God eternally…Jesus leads [you] into stillness, to that place where pleasure abounds.”

Now that deserves at least four exclamation points right in a row!!!! Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch! And, by all means, hope!

“Pity the Bride…Is the Groom Coming or Not?”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Pity the Bride…Is the Groom Coming or Not?”
at Bach Vespers (J.S. Bach’s BWV 140 Wachet Auf)
November 12, 2017
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

Please forgive my arrogance, but I actually do believe I can improve on Jesus’ parable about the ten bridesmaids.  The tension could be dramatically heightened if the focus were placed on the bride and not the ten bridesmaids.   Honestly, who do you think was more jittery awaiting the groom’s belated arrival, the bridesmaids or the bride-to-be?

You know as well as I that the bride was the panicky one.  Come on, what did the bridesmaids care?  For them, the weekend wedding festivities were like one big Chi Omega sorority homecoming party.  The bridesmaids were decked out in silky green dresses, chic six-inch heels, and exquisite hairdos, and had already drunk way too many flutes of mimosas.  While they would never admit it publicly, they were going to have lots of fun whether the groom showed up or not. For better or worse, they would have a story to tell for a lifetime.  Why would the bridesmaids be nervous?

But pity the poor bride.  She pranced back and forth in the bridal room, tears making her dazzling makeup job look like a runny Rorschach ink blot test.  She hysterically asked the rabbi, not once but three times, “Has this ever happened to you before? Tell me the truth, rabbi, has it?”

All the while the organist was playing—ten minutes, twenty-two minutes, forty-six minutes.

The ushers were wondering where their pal was but they were chuckling under their breath.

The poor grandparents, this was their worst nightmare for their precious “little princess” as they nervously peeked at their watches.

And the guests were whispering, “He’s from too classy a family not to show, don’t you think?”

The identical thing happened to the early Christians.  They had placed their hopes on Jesus’ countless promises to come again.  Nevertheless, one year led to the next.  Fifty, sixty, seventy years after he died and rose and still no Jesus.

It was not just them.  The organist has been playing preludial music now, awaiting the bridegroom’s entrance, for two thousand years.  We cry out like the petrified bride, “Come, Lord Jesus, come, where in the world are you?”

That’s where the bridesmaids earned their beautiful bouquets and lodging in the elegant rooms of the manor house.  Their job, when the groom still hadn’t shown up, was to keep their lamps trimmed and burning so the bride’s spirits would not fade into the darkness.  While only five of the ten bridesmaids had enough oil left in their lamps when the groom finally did arrive, the truth is that all ten became drowsy and fell asleep.  Waiting is tough, especially when expectations are running high.

Have you ever had to wait, really wait, sometimes against all sensible hope?  Alexandre Dumas, the author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, writes, “All human wisdom is summed up in two words; wait and hope.”

And yet you all know how hard it is to hope deep into the night, singing all the while.  Much of the world has given up hope.  We continue to send our sons and daughters off to ferocious foreign wars; God’s planet is wheezing; homeless folks line our streets; and the guns, oh the guns—have we already lost track of the last mass murder at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas?  Will it ever end?  Better said, will Christ come again to save us from the wretched mess we have made?

If God calls us to do anything tonight, it is to encourage one another to keep hoping that Christ will keep his promises and come again.  We do all manner of hopeful things while we wait.  We forgive one another when forgiving seems well-nigh impossible.  We raise our voices a little louder when the poor are trampled by the oblivious rich and the arrogant powerful.  And we make music, yes, we make music, when far too many have hung their harps in the willows and forgotten the beloved songs of Zion.

Do you remember those old-fashioned weddings when the pastor asked, “If anyone can show just cause why they may not be lawfully joined together, let them speak now or forever hold their peace”?  That’s when it was good to have the bridesmaids dressed and ready.  If Uncle Ernie or Aunt Hildegard made a peep, the sisters of Chi Omega would shoot a wicked glance their way or even pounce!  They were all about hope…PERIOD.

That’s why we are here this evening.  Let us resume the breathtakingly beautiful music-making, in the darkness, with our lamps trimmed and burning.  Let us help each other hope that the groom, Christ our Lord, will come again and that peace will prevail for us and for this groaning world.