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“The Delightful Sound of Rattling Bones”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
“The Delightful Sound of Rattling Bones”
(Ezekiel 37: 1-14; John 11: 1-45)
April 2, 2017 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

Of all the scenes in the Bible, the valley of dry bones must be the creepiest. Can you imagine God leading you by the hand and forcing you to look out over a valley of bones picked dry by vultures? What a shocking sight it must have been for the prophet Ezekiel.

If the sight of dry bones was not bad enough, God had to rub it in and ask Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

Have you ever looked out over a valley where, no matter how hard you struggled, you could not muster a smidgeon of hope? You gaped and wondered whether the bones could live; the only answer you could muster was, “Not in a million years!”

Ezekiel was not feeling particularly hopeful either. God’s people had recently been annihilated by King Nebuchadnezzar’s mighty army, the brightest and best of Israel had been hauled off to Babylon, and Jerusalem smoldered in ashes. God’s promise, the one about being a chosen nation and a kingdom of priests, was only a faint memory if at all. Ezekiel was crushed. When God asked, “Can these bones live?” the best he could propose was a scrawny, “O Lord God, you know.”

It was so strange that God asked Ezekiel whether the bones could live. Ezekiel had been brutally honest about Israel’s future. He had done the unthinkable and prophesied against his good neighbors, his beloved family, his cherished nation. He uttered brutal words on God’s behalf: “I will bring a sword upon you, and I will destroy your high places…Wherever you dwell your cities shall be waste and your high places ruined.”

Ezekiel understood exactly what Israel deserved. And yet, words of judgment are never the final ones for those who work for God—never! Judgment is only part of the equation and certainly never the life-giving part. It’s easy to find what’s bad in someone else. Such is the stuff of bullies who are far better criticizing others than building them up. People love to throw grenades and bark, “I am just telling the truth,” but such ruthless judgments alone are the coward’s way and never finally the way of the people of God.

Ezekiel could have looked out over that wretched valley littered with bones and when God asked, “Can these bones live?” uttered, “Are you kidding me? They got exactly what they deserved.” But that’s not what Ezekiel did. He didn’t just stop with judgment as tempting as that might have been. Faithful imagination always looks beyond dry bones and finds a way to proclaim, “O Lord God, you know.”

That, by the way, is where the creepy part of this story begins to give way to wonder. Because Ezekiel believed in a God of life, no matter how stunned and desperate the situation appeared, he still sought a way to prophesy hope. Listen: “Suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.”

And Ezekiel didn’t stop there either. There was more: “I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

You have stood at that deathly valley of misery, a valley flowing with tears, a valley of restless nights. You have been there with Mary and Martha after their brother Lazarus died asking “why”? Mary and Martha cried, you cried, Jesus cried. So sad, so hopeless, just a valley of dry bones, and yet in that valley, by God’s grace, death is never the end of the conversation; instead, it leaves the answer in God’s hand just as Ezekiel uttered, “Only you know Lord.” All now hangs on the wondrous answers of God.

Gracie Allen, the comedian and zany wife of George Burns, once said, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” I love those words: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

The church’s story is always a cautionary tale against placing a period where God has placed a comma. The church, at its best, positions itself in the midst of bones. When all the angry judgments have been cast and the “I told you sos” have been lobbed, the church discovers a way to proclaim, “These bones shall live.” Together, we stand in the valley, listening carefully for the delightful sound of rattling bones.

But you know this. Perhaps someone has been your Ezekiel. When your insides felt like a carved-out cantaloupe, someone helped you stare into the desperate valley long enough so you finally were able to hear the delightful sound of bones rattling together.

Or perhaps you have been Ezekiel. With eyes burnt from constant weeping, you have found courage enough to put your arm around another long-sufferer and helped that wounded soul sing, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

I suppose that is why the church and our ministry are always held in suspicion, even in distain. We gather with scoundrels and villains, in intensive care units and graveyards, with people and in places where only God can make bones rattle to life.

Last Sunday morning when the choir sang the gorgeous strains of Psalm 23, I thought about skipping my sermon altogether—I really did. I was so moved by the music, so deeply touched to realize what a trusted friend Psalm 23 has been throughout my life, accompanying me through some pretty scary occasions and rough stretches. As the choir sang, I thought of you as well and I realized how God has been with you in your own valley of bones.

And so, my dear friends, whenever you find yourself gazing on dry bones, remember that God promises to come into your midst and to serenade you with the delightful music of rattling bones coming back into life. Please, please, never place a period where God only places a comma.

“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!

 

“The Old, Old Story of Jesus and His Love”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
March 19, 2107 (3rd Sunday in Lent)
“The Old, Old Story of Jesus and His Love”
John 4: 5-42
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

If that just felt like an incredibly long reading, you are right.  It is the longest conversation Jesus had with anyone in all the gospels.

There is something we dare not lose sight of in this lengthy conversation.  Jesus took the time to speak with another person—not in mindless chatter, but in-depth dialog, the kind where you get to know one another deeply.  I hope you paid attention and didn’t get bored.

I am often struck by conversations I have with people and am unnerved by their lack of curiosity.  When meeting people for the first time—often clergy colleagues—I will ask where they grew up, where they went to college and seminary, what congregations they have served, what their families are like. They are more than happy to talk about themselves, at length, with considerable embellishment!  I am often saddened, however, when it is my turn to tell my story; their minds seem to wander and they don’t appear to care an iota about hearing my story; they don’t ask me a single question.  And remember, these are pastors paid to listen carefully to others!

I confess: I am not always the best listener either.  On Thursday, I had a conversation with our illustrious congregational president Craig Wilson.  He showed considerable interest in me: are you working too much, pastor; I hear your dog Cisco is having some struggles. I talked Craig’s ear off.  He had just gotten often a long night’s work, writing news; he was driving home when he received word that his wife, Mary Lou, had been in an automobile accident; he was rushing to see how she was doing.  Craig even told me about his dogs and chuckled about the prayer near my office desk—the last gift my mother gave me before she died: “God, help me be the person my dog thinks I am.” When our conversation was over, I kept wondering: had I shown nearly the interest in Craig that he had shown in me?  Had I listened as much as I had spoken?

In today’s long gospel reading, a model conversation is heard.  Jesus was thirsty and the woman at the well sensed that.  We don’t just hear Jesus talking AT the Samaritan woman or just trying to get his thirst needs met and we don’t just hear the woman talking AT Jesus.  Instead, an amazing dialog occurred: Jesus listened attentively to the woman and, somehow in the process, figured out that she had had five husbands—I assume Jesus did this, not by some magical gift of ESP, but rather by listening carefully.  The woman was so astounded by Jesus’ listening skills that she told others, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

What is most remarkable is that Jesus even had the conversation.  Not only did he talk to the woman, at the well, at noon—something a good Jewish man would never be caught doing—but he talked with a woman who, at least according to his tradition, was a religious outsider (a Samaritan) and had innumerable husbands.  Every religious sensibility exhorted Jesus to steer clear; instead he risked breaking down rigid boundaries and moving beyond ancient resentments so that a community of love might be created. Jesus accomplished astonishing ministry simply by talking with—and not AT—another person, telling his story and listening to hers.

If our community here at Holy Trinity is to bring life to others, we need to listen to one another as Jesus did.  We need to tell our own stories and be equally fascinated by other’s.

And yet, there is something more to high-quality conversation.  It is essential we weave God’s story into one another’s stories because, finally, that story will make all the difference. That story provides hope for those haunted by abuse, embraces a parent who fears their precious little one will never return home again, and gives courage to those who wonder if our nation will continue to be one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.  God’s story must be told.

Little children know this.  As we tuck them into bed, they almost always say, “Can you tell me one more story?  Please, please, please.”  That final story is the one that makes all the difference; it is the one that fends off ghosts, petrifies goblins, and trounces monsters all the while providing hope well into the deep, dark night.

Lent is an opportunity to hear and tell that story with renewed vigor.  I pray you are reading our fabulous Lenten devotional booklet, “O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days”—you wrote it after all!  As you read the astonishing daily devotions, listen carefully to your brothers and sisters telling their stories and listen how they weave their stories into the story of Jesus’ final days.

I sense that many of us are yearning for a better story these days, a story of hope, a story of truth, a story of lasting love. You lamented to me in recent days: “I am fasting from Facebook during Lent; we canceled cable television; I stopped my subscription to The New Yorker.  So much conversation and yet I need something different.”  You are sensing you need a better story to go with your story and the world’s; you are desperately in need of God’s story.

The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to American in the 1930s and taught just up the street at Union Theological Seminary at 120th and Broadway.  Bonhoeffer preferred attending the African American churches in Harlem, particularly Abyssinian Baptist Church where the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. preached at the time and where Calvin Butts now preaches.  He went there because, as he wrote: “In New York, they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.”

It’s easy to ramble on about ourselves.  It’s also easy to run on and on, complaining, “Ain’t it terrible,” about the current political situation.  But, deep down, we need more.  We are thirsty for one more story, the one that will quench our horrendous thirst.  We need the old, old story of Jesus and his love for us and for our groaning world.

“Finding Solace in Fierce Places”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Finding Solace in Fierce Places”
Matthew 4: 1-11
March 5, 2017 (First Sunday in Lent)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan

When we moved to San Diego twelve years ago, we were thrilled to be living only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean.  Surprisingly, we never dipped our toes into that great expanse of water, not once.  We fell in love with something else instead, the desert, a place we had no idea existed in California until we arrived. We went hiking and camping in the Anza-Borrego Desert and Death Valley every chance we got.

The desert, at least for us, is hauntingly beautiful: sand as far as you can see, like the ocean in a way; the only disruption, a prickly cactus here and there.  The sun beats down unmercifully, the wind howls, the sand bites; it is utterly quiet, maddeningly so at times.

Jesus went to such a fierce landscape, the place where the devil chose to weave his diabolical web.  Give the devil his due: he waited until Jesus was hungry and thirsty, until there wasn’t a peep of noise.  He came knocking when Jesus was susceptible to a tempting deal or two.

The desert’s ferociousness can cause you to hear strange voices and see bizarre things, especially when you are thirsty and disoriented.  That’s when the devil strikes.

“Jesus,” he said, “if you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  Jesus was hungry, the world was hungry; this was a good deal for everyone involved.

“Jesus, if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”  Jesus was feeling helpless so why not opt for this offer of power and glory?

And then, in perhaps the craftiest of deals, the devil said, “All these I will give you”—pointing to the lands that stretched as far as Jesus could see—“if you will fall down and worship me.”  At a moment of extreme vulnerability, Jesus was offered the world.  Imagine what he could have done with such authority at his fingertips: he could have fed every hungry heart and ruled the world with his own vision of love.

There was a catch to these enticing, devilish proposals as there almost always are when supremacy and grandeur are offered.  Jesus would have had to sacrifice a few of his ideals—just a few—for an apparent greater glory of ruling the world.  Was the trade-off worth it?  What do you think?

As we gather for our Sacred Conversations downstairs in the community room immediately following Mass today, we will engage in an exercise which will reveal how brutally difficult it is to listen amidst solitude and loneliness.  Most of us prefer the incessant chatter of radios, Smartphones, and television talking heads to soothe the evening just a tad.  The ruthless New York City Desert exacts a brutal toll at three in the morning, in our bedroom, with its own cruel silence: our minds run wild and we are terrified.  We ponder our looming deaths, our shortcomings, our failures.  Absolute silence…except the winds howling…the hawks circling overhead…and an occasional screaming police siren.  Being all alone in the harsh urban desert, even for ten or fifteen minutes, is grueling.

Our Quote for the Week in today’s bulletin says: “Most people’s wilderness is inside them, not outside…Our wilderness is an inner isolation. It’s an absence of contact. It’s a sense of being alone—boringly alone, or saddeningly alone, or terrifyingly alone” (H.A. Williams).

It was in such isolation that Jesus was tempted; it is in such isolation that we are tempted as well.

Here’s an invaluable Lenten learning, a gift for you: the way Jesus withstood every devilish temptation was by reaching for Holy Scripture on his desert nightstand.  Of course, the Bible was not exactly there for Jesus simply to pull down from the nightstand but it didn’t matter: Jesus had committed God’s word to memory for such a time as this, words like “One does not live by bread alone…Do not put the Lord your God to the test…Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”—all these memories of God’s Word bolstered Jesus to find solace in the fierce landscape of life.

These forty days of Lent are our desert in the city.  We have stripped our liturgy to barebones: the “A-word” (you thought I was going to say it, didn’t you?) has been buried until Easter; the crosses are draped in purple reminding us how our sin blocks out the splendor of God’s love; Jesus’ words from Calvary, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me,” echo deep in our souls.  Ashes, purpled cross, loneliness, tomb, mortality…We can barely stand this fierce landscape and yet, if we face the silence with God’s word at hand, all will finally be well with our souls.

Ivan Illich writes, “The emptiness of the desert makes it possible to learn the almost impossible: the joyful acceptance of our uselessness.”   Yes, in our uselessness we reach for God.  At our most desperate and vulnerable, we discover our salvation.

When all our tricks have been tried and failed—our intellect, talents, and winsomeness, all that and more—only then do we feel compelled finally to reach out for God’s hand.

The quirky New York poet, Walt Whitman, said it so well in his “Leaves of Grass”:

After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, the ethnologist,
Finally comes the poet worthy of that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.

That, my dear friends, is why you have come here this morning.  You have tried everything and you still live in this desert called “Manhattan;” you are still hungry and thirsty.  Here the true son of God comes singing his songs.  These songs are your hope; they are your friend when you are all alone and all else fails.  Reach across your bed stand for the poet worthy of that name, Jesus Christ.  Tasting his bread of life and sipping his cup of salvation come down from heaven, may you be lifted up on angels’ wings.

“723,794 Days or So and Waiting”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“723,794 Days or So and Waiting”
First Sunday of Advent (November 27, 2016)
Psalm 122; Romans 13: 11-14; Matthew 24: 36-44

Two Sundays ago, I wanted to be in church more than I can ever remember in my entire life.  Really!  I eagerly anticipated singing with you, lifting up our prayers together, and gathering at the Lord’s table.

Today isn’t too different.  I love Advent.  I got all antsy last night as I thought about being with you this morning, singing the Advents hymns I adore and chanting Psalm 122.  I feel like I could have written the words to today’s Psalm, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”

Since arriving here, I have come to relish our Psalm singing.  I can’t wait to hear how our choir interprets their verses—each remarkably different, each breathtakingly magnificent—and how Donald Meineke highlights our Psalm with his magical organ accompaniments.

Saint Paul writes: “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”

Coming to the Lord’s house and singing Psalms and Advent hymns wakes us up to God’s presence. The church has other Advent techniques to awaken us as well, the color blue for instance.  If you are an early riser, you know the sky is deep blue just before sunrise.  Advent blue reminds us that God’s son will soon dawn.  It is so easy to grow downcast as the days grow darker.  After eleven years in California, I had forgotten how dark it gets here—and how early!  We need light, especially Christ the light of the world.

In the face of such deep darkness, the church also lights candles.  We light them on the Advent wreath, one after another.  We will create Advent wreaths in the parish hall today so you can mark time for Christ’s coming in your home.

The green Advent wreath reminds us that, even as the Central Park trees have become barren, life prevails in this cold winter.  The pine scent wafting in the air even prompts us through smell to await Christ’s coming.

Though it is dark outside, we come to the Lord’s house with great anticipation, yearning for Christ’s return among us.  We commit ourselves financially to Holy Trinity so that this neighborhood will not lose hope.  Our 2017 pledging has already grown more than 7% from last year’s total and, God willing, quite a few of you will join the excitement today, using the pledge card in your bulletin and making a financial commitment for the coming year.  We have so much reason to hope!  Your pledge is one Advent candle you bear so that the forlorn among us will not grow discouraged.  We are here at the corner of 65th and Central Park West, reminding people of Jesus’ promise: “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming…you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Waiting can be grueling.  Some grow impatient as if their broken dreams are like shattered precious china.  Imagine what it must have been like for the earliest Christians who came forty years after Jesus had been crucified.  They had heard Jesus and his closest followers announce that he would come again maybe even in their lifetime.  They believed this good news.  And yet, as each year passed, they wondered: had Jesus sold them a bill of goods? Their cherished Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed; their brothers and sisters were being tortured and executed.  “Christ, are you coming or not?” they pleaded.

Is it any different for you?  It may be worse!  By my inaccurate calculation, 723,794 days or so have gone by since Jesus left this earth…and still no Jesus.  Like little children impatiently awaiting Santa’s arrival, you anticipate Jesus’ coming…or have you grown too cynical to wait?

Maybe your precious temple has not been destroyed and maybe your loved ones have not been fed to the lions for their faith, but you so want Jesus to return in your life. You desperately want someone to take note of you and to say, “I love you”; you crave a meaningful job that will finally give you some measure of satisfaction and address some of the world’s deepest needs; you want to stop your excessive drinking, this time for good.  There are countless nights when you frantically wonder and pitifully wail, “Jesus, are you coming again or should I look for someone else?”

For such unrelenting restlessness, this place exists.  It is why we just courageously prayed, together, “Stir up you power, Lord Christ and come.”  It is why in a matter of moments we will confess “Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” some of us weakly as others more confidently urge us on.  It is why we will shout with one voice, even as some falter: “Christ has died. Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.”

The Advent church, at our best, navigates the terrifying shadows together, telling one another a story or two the best we are able that Christ will not forsake us and that he will come again.  The Advent church draws close to a dear friend in the hospital who is fearful of what the coming night will bring and so needs a story of hope.  Such a church gathers with a neighbor around a dining room table at two in the morning in the face of a cruel betrayal and promises the sun will rise again.  This Advent church sings the Alleluia story at a freshly dug grave as everyone returns to their cars and the grieving spouse’s world has turned upside down. We tell the story that Christ will come again, here, now, in a way, pray God, that all will hear.  So, let us sing to one another and tell the old, old story that Christ will come again.

Yes, indeed, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”