Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Wildly Extravagant Ministry”
Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
July 16, 2017 (6th Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West
During the next few weeks, Jesus will tell us a few parables about the kingdom of heaven. His stories about wheat and weeds, a tiny mustard seed, buried treasure, a fine pearl, a fisherman sorting through good fish and bad ones, will invite us to see the Christian life much more exuberantly than most of us typically do.
Jesus might stun us this morning as he tells of the most peculiar seed-sower. The sower flings seeds every which way—onto rock-hard paths, lousy soil, and weed patches; thank goodness, some seeds end up in good soil. No hoeing, no fertilizing, no soil analysis at the local community college’s agricultural branch—seeds are simply hurled hither and yon in what appears a wildly careless fashion.
I adore this extravagant seed-sowing technique, I suppose, in large part, because of how I grew up. My parents taught me a far different style: seeds are to be planted precisely, in straight lines, at correct depths, and in carefully prepared soil. I detest gardening to this day because of the mind-numbingly cautiousness of it all!
I learned a similar risk-adverse style when it comes to money: save it and never spend it foolishly.
I remember taking a vacation to Sea Isle City at the Jersey shore. My mom and dad kept a financial logbook the entire way. Every penny spent was recorded: gas purchases, Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls, camping site costs, even the cokes, pizza, and salt water taffy bought on the boardwalk. At one point—at least this is how I remember it—dad warned us, “We are running very low on cash. We must be careful or we will run out of money.” I have a hunch we weren’t quite as low as he made us out to be—dad was far too cautious for that; instead, he was teaching us to be frugal. I do not remember that vacation as a particularly extravagant or fun one; what I do remember was, at times, being scared to death that we might run out of money!
This may sound unusually harsh toward my father but dad was a very good man. He grew up in the depression and thriftiness was undoubtedly drilled into him by his parents. His chief goal in life—and he passed it on to me—was to leave his children and grandchildren enough money so that we could go to any college that accepted us and that as the years went by we would never have to worry—no extravagances, not an ounce, just care for his family’s future.
Some good church people are like my father. Don’t call them miserly; such a view demeans their well-intentioned sacrifices for the well-being of future generations. These folks invariably are some of the most generous givers to the church’s ministry.
Churches can easily begin to mimic the anxieties of such good and prudent people. They save money for leaky roofs and, lo and behold, when leaks appear, they become nervous nellies: how can we possibly spend our hard-saved money to repair our roof, we will go broke?
I know a few churches like that; they have literally died with millions of dollars in the bank. They had oodles of money available to proclaim the good news of Jesus to the community but they were too afraid to do that. How distasteful to be extravagant, they always thought. Oh, for sure, they ended up with invincible roofs…they also died rich.
Communities and people who have ears to hear Jesus’ parable of the outlandish sower are inevitably far more vigorous and certainly more exciting. Jesus wanted us to know that God will create a harvest beyond our imagining, especially if we only dare scatter seeds extravagantly in God’s name. Today is the day to announce that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near—not tomorrow!
How extravagant are you? Now, please, don’t answer too quickly. In a congregation I once served, an active member repeatedly voiced harsh criticisms to me because, in his mind, we weren’t spending enough on his favorite pet projects. He criticized our church as “penny wise and pound foolish” as we tried to get years of deficit spending under control—which we did. There was only one catch: while he criticized us for being cheapskates, he didn’t give one cent to the church’s ministry, not one! Don’t feel sorry for him: he drove a fancy sports car! It is a good idea that whenever we get the urge to demand our church to be more extravagant, we first examine how generous we are ourselves.
Anyway, I can guarantee you that people will be far more attracted to extravagant ministry than miserly ministry! People can see extravagant joy a mile away and they can smell miserly fear from even further.
We are called to follow the one who gave away everything, including his life, in love for his neighbors.
To be completely honest, a number of churches that have touched me most deeply over the years are long gone. One church had a building as grand as Holy Trinity’s. Ministry flourished day and night. Bills were paid by what I call the “shoebox method,” placing them in a shoebox and prioritizing what had to be remitted immediately before gas, electricity, or water was turned off. Thousands of people were touched with Christ’s love in this breathtaking place but it is now dead and gone; a Buddhist monastery is in its place. But I, along with many others, continue to bear the excitement of having been part of that place, a ministry that exuberantly celebrated the life Jesus promised in the face of constant threats of death. That’s how we learned to do ministry and, God willing, that’s how we will do it here.
You know of such extravagance because you have been there. You have dropped clods of dirt mixed with your warm tears on your loved one’s casket; you have taken Jesus’ extravagant promise to heart: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of what falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
One day, these words will be spoken over all our graves. We will be planted in the ground with the assurance that we will sprout up and live forever.
May our hearts be filled with joy as we hear Jesus’ wild story of the extravagant giver and may we fling seeds of hope and joy into all the world.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Discovering Heaven-Up and Down, Up and Down”
(John 17: 1-11; Acts 1: 6-14)
May 28, 2017 (Seventh Sunday of Easter)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
Central Park West-New York City
Do you ever catch yourself dreaming of heaven? What will it be like? Who will be there? Where exactly is heaven?
Ever since we were kids, we have asked: “Mommy, how far is heaven up in the sky? Daddy, does heaven really have cotton candy clouds and streets lined with gold? Grandma, will Boomer be waiting for me, with his tail wagging, when I get to heaven?”
As we grow older, our speculation intensifies, though masked in more sophisticated jargon: Who will get into heaven? Is heaven a state of mind or an actual place? Given that we no longer hold the antiquated three-tier vision—heaven way up there, earth right here, and hell way down there—where exactly is heaven?
I give thanks for musicians, poets, and artists who help us explore these questions with greater imagination. As our hymn sang last Sunday, the creative souls dazzle us with heavenly “wonder, love, and praise.”
Our choir, week after week, dazzles us with such heavenly wonder, love, and praise. Since I will be away next Sunday on our choir’s final day before taking a well-deserved summer break, I would like to express my deepest appreciation to our cantor Donald Meineke and our choir for your breathtaking music. You point us toward heaven as we join the melody of angels, saints, and martyrs singing “Holy, holy, holy.”
During the offering today, our choir will sing In Paradisum, breathtaking music from Gabriel Faure’s Requiem. Listen to the words:
May the angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs receive you at your arrival and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem.
May choirs of angels receive you
and with Lazarus, once (a) poor (man),
may you have eternal rest.
I have used these words at countless funerals. They magnify our heavenly vision, not only as we gaze upon martyrs and angels, but also as we gaze at Lazarus, once a homeless beggar. I did far too many funerals for my homeless brothers and sisters while serving in my previous congregation. I used this text about Lazarus every time. The words of the funeral Mass invite us to think of heaven differently than we typically do. Who imagines skanky Lazarus with matted hair and feet wrapped in plastic bags joining Saint Peter and the angel Gabriel as they welcome us into the Pearly Gates? Those who are homeless might be surprised to find a kindred spirit in such an honorable heavenly welcoming committee. What a vision, huh?
I have a hunch that most of us look upward when we think of heaven. After all, the Bible does say that “Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” If that’s how it happened, why ever look down?
And yet, we need to listen a bit further, to the angel who asked the disciples: “Why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
This is where Lazarus, “once a poor man,” enters the picture. With an angel’s invitation, we cast our heavenly eyes, not only up, but also down. Is it possible to catch a glimpse of heaven right here on earth, in this place?
A number of you have been volunteering at Holy Trinity Women’s Shelter in the community room. I thank you for your devotion. You have happily helped twelve women call Holy Trinity “home” for six months out of the year. As you have lent a loving hand, you have been blessed to see a few of Lazarus’ sisters. This vision did not occur by gazing up into heaven, not exactly here where the Tiffany windows dance and the altar mosaics mesmerize; you have discovered the risen savior in our basement—as far down, down, down in this place as you can go; definitely not up, up, and away. Let us never forget Jesus’ words, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” This is artistic imagination at its finest, learning to spot heaven in earth’s surprising people, in the broken, hapless, and forlorn.
We dare not forget a few of the final words Jesus spoke to his disciples the evening before he died: “And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” This Jesus Christ, who has gone up to heaven, can also be discovered down here in the shattered and forgotten.
Quite a few years ago, when we lived in Washington, D.C., I baptized our next-door neighbor, Anthony Stokes. “Little Ant,” as we fondly called him, was a rambunctious sort and an acolyte at our church. One night, thirteen-year-old Anthony was shot to death by a fourteen-year old right around the corner from where we all lived. I told Anthony’s grandmother that we would not let her dear grandson’s senseless murder be in vain. We would rage against our nation’s intoxicating madness for guns, madness, by the way, that continues seemingly unchecked nearly twenty-five years later. I told her that we would call for life instead of death in our beloved inner-city neighborhood. And so, when Anthony’s funeral concluded, we processed out of the church, with incense, cross, torches, and a throng of people including our city councilman and Anthony’s football team; we solemnly marched down Monroe Street with the hearse bearing “Little Ant’s” body. I concluded the funeral liturgy on his row house steps. Right before I prayed the words of the commendation (“Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, Anthony”), I said to hundreds and hundreds of people, “We need to do our very best to make our city streets as holy as our sanctuaries.” I could just as easily have said, “We need to see heaven down here on earth as well as way up in heaven.”
For those of us given to speculating about heaven, let us not forget that God offers us the precious opportunity to glimpse heaven right here, this side of the kingdom come. While Christ is risen and ascended, he is also here today: “Take and eat, this is my body given for you.” Yes indeed, though we say goodbye, we also say hello.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Just Telling Stories and Eating Dinner”
Luke 24: 13-35
April 30, 2017 (Third Sunday of Easter)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Rick Barr was two years ahead of me in seminary. He came back to visit us at the divinity school after serving three months in a little congregation along the coast of Maine. We were delighted to see Rick and thrilled to hear his initial impressions of parish ministry.
“There is no job like it,” he told us. “I go to the Hidden Cove Diner every morning at 7 o’clock. All I do is drink coffee, eat scrambled eggs and hash browns, and chatter with the locals until our heads fall off. Can you believe the church pays me just to hang out and tell stories? What a life!”
Maybe in these days when our Lutheran church is facing a severe clergy shortage, we should create a marketing campaign with Rick in mind: “If you like drinking coffee at Starbucks and telling stories, you will love ministry in the Lutheran church.”
If today’s resurrection story is any indication, that’s pretty much how ministry happened after Jesus rose from the dead. Two men, one whose name was Cleopas, were on their way to Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. Jesus had been dead three days. The two fellows talked and talked. They had placed all their hopes on Jesus, trusting he would change the world and their lives for the better. He was gone now and their hearts were broken.
Out of the blue, a stranger joined them. On and on they gabbed with him, for two and a half hours, all the way to Emmaus.
They spoke of their shattered hopes. They told the stranger how Jesus had been condemned to die by the religious authorities and political leaders and then promptly crucified. They talked about the women who had reported to them that Jesus had risen. The stories went on and on. They told about how some of their associates went to the tomb but did not find the body.
The stranger got in on the conversation, too: “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” They were clueless that this was Jesus talking…and listening. He led them in an old-fashioned Bible study of sorts, beginning with Moses and the prophets; he “interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
For some reason, the two forlorn wanderers got it into their heads to invite this story-telling stranger to their house for supper and to ask him to stay for the night. Intended or not, their invitation was a stroke of genius. St. Luke writes: “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…”
Yes, you noticed: they came to know the Risen Christ in the telling of stories and the breaking of bread.
The story-telling, by the way, didn’t stop in Emmaus. After telling stories and breaking bread, “they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread”—quite similar to what Rick Barr told us about doing ministry at First Church on the Green up in Maine.
It seems so simple, almost too simple: telling stories and breaking bread, exactly what we are doing here, right now. Shouldn’t there be more to it if we are to know our Risen Savior?
When I was ordained forty years ago, one of the gifts my parents gave me, in addition to this beautiful white cope, was a little black box. In it are a tiny silver bread box and a diminutive plate, a teensy cruet for wine and a miniscule silver chalice. Whenever I go to the hospital or visit homebound members, I take this box along with a miniscule Bible our oldest son Sebastian gave me on Christmas when he was one year old (forty years later, I can barely read the fine print). That’s all I need for ministry—actually all I’ve got: a little book of Bible stories and an insignificant box for serving a meal of Christ’s body and blood.
I must confess there have been occasions when I have yearned for far fancier accoutrements than a box and a book. Whenever I visit you in the hospital and see doctors in their freshly laundered lab coats with their names and fancy titles embossed in red, I wish I had some breathtaking trappings, too, like a stethoscope flung around my neck and a crowd of adoring interns and residents nipping at my heels. Shouldn’t we all have more powerful symbols and soaring stuff when speaking of heavenly things?
All I have to accomplish my heavenly craft on earth are a little book and a tiny box…And really, all we have for ministry in this place is the story of a risen carpenter from Nazareth and a little water and bread and wine. That’s it or, as the Lutheran reformers were fond of saying in Latin, satis est (that is enough).
We can get terrible inferiority complexes about this. We want so much more. We often catch ourselves measuring our success by bigger buildings, bigger congregations, bigger endowments. We repeatedly ask one another, “Are we growing? How big is our church now?” In the face of our gigantic dreams, all we have for ministry are a book and bread and wine and water.
The earliest Lutheran reformers realized we would hanker for more impressive things. And so, in our chief confessional document, the “Augsburg Confession” (Confessio Augustana in Latin), the church is defined as “the assembly of saints in which the Gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.” That is it—a book, water, bread and wine. And that is exactly what so excited Rick Barr about ministry: we are at our best whenever we are telling stories and eating.
Yes, indeed, that is more than enough! Because, of course….
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
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.
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!