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“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!’”

“Searching for Hope”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon at Bach Vespers
“Searching for Hope”
Malachi 4: 1-2a
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the  Holy Trinity
November 13, 2016

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

I have never been too confident that flipping open the Bible to a random page will provide the perfect answer in the time of need.  More often than not, when I have tried that method, it has not worked out well.

I actually tried that method in preparation for this sermon, hoping to impress you with some extraordinary demonstration of divine intervention.  What I came up with is a nugget from Ezekiel: “The building that was facing the temple yard on the west side was seventy cubits broad; and the wall of the building was five cubits thick round about, and its length ninety cubits.”

So much for resorting to the flip open the Bible method.

In all candor, my preference all along was to stick to the venerable ecclesiastical tradition of reading the biblical text appointed by an ecumenical group of liturgical and biblical scholars; this is called the lectionary.  Using this vaunted ritual, I ended up with a reading from the prophet Malachi, the last book in Hebrew Scripture: “The day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4: 1-2a).

How did the religious scholars know this day would come?

Would you agree that these have been some of the most bewildering days in our nation’s history?  I assume some of you are celebrating Donald Trump’s election as our next president but I won’t ask you to raise your hands here on the Upper West Side.  I have run into far more people who are angry, grief-stricken, and disillusioned.  Our Wednesday evening Mass felt like a funeral: people were weeping and hugging each other; you could almost hear them shriek, “Please do not let me go.”  If you are celebrating tonight, please understand the pain of young people who have never experienced anything like this; try to feel the fear of Latinos and African Americans, the LBGTQ community and women, who have heard reprehensible things said about them in recent months.

I don’t know what camp you are in, but for those who consider Johann Sebastian Bach the so-called fifth evangelist along with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, please attend to a few words from this evening’s cantata:

Who only lets dear God rule
and hopes in Him at all times,
God will wondrously support
in every torment and sorrow.

I must confess that while I have been thrilled by the music of Bach’s cantatas during my first month as Holy Trinity’s pastor, the words have left me cold—and I am married to a German!  I have hardly known what to do with Herr Bach’s words.  Tonight’s words strike me differently: it as if the old wizard of Saint Thomas Kirche knew these nights would come and thus has generously sprinkled magical dust over us:

Think not, in the heat of your despair,
When lightning and thunder crack
and threatening weather makes you anxious,
  that you are abandoned by God.
God is also there in the greatest need,
yes, even in death,
for His own with His grace.

The surprising gift is that Bach could feel our heartache.  He lost ten of his twenty children before they reached adulthood.  He had tasted the ashes of death; he understood uncertain futures.  He knew what it means to lean on the everlasting arms of God.

And yet, for Bach, ever the faithful one, his message never ended with “Ain’t it terrible.”  There was hope to be found, in the words, in the music.

That is true as well with the biblical story.  My Old Testament professor in seminary, Brevard Childs, required us to search for the hope in every prophetic book for our homework assignment.  He insisted hope was to be found if we only looked hard enough.  He said our calling as future pastors would be to find hope when those entrusted to our care gave up the search.

My dear friends, if your heart is broken, see if you can hear hope tonight. If you are shouting for joy, try to offer hope to the forlorn.  Our nation needs people bearing hope.

And when you grasp on to hope, go out into this dark night and sing the words of this evening’s cantata to everyone you meet:

Sing, pray and walk in God’s ways…
and trust in heaven’s rich blessing,
then it will be renewed in you;
for whoever places his confidence
in God, God will never abandon.

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

“America! America! God Shed His Grace on Thee”

“America!  America! God Shed His Grace on Thee”
Sermon at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church-Manhattan
November 13, 2016 (26th Sunday after Pentecost)
Psalm 98; Malachi 4: 1-2a; Luke 21: 5-19

In the last congregation I served, soon after I arrived, I began the practice of praying for our elected leaders by name; that meant we prayed for our President George W. Bush and our Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.  One member was horrified: how conservative is our new pastor? he wondered.

Let me forewarn you: we will observe that practice in this congregation as well, praying for our current President Barack Obama and our newly elected President Donald Trump.

We are, after all, citizens of a democracy.  Democracy allows for change, for better and for worse. Democracy can be quite messy as our nation’s history reveals.  President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address this week, November 19, 1863, in the face of the horrors of the Civil War; citizens spilled blood, not against foes from distant shores, but against family members and neighbors.  Our great President said, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”  Familiarity with history is essential: imagine the fear people must have had for this great country’s future as Seminary Ridge (as in the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg) stood littered with the lifeless bodies of young soldiers.

And now this week…

Our Lutheran tradition places great weight on the exercise of power.  Government, far from being a swampy cesspool that must be drained, is the necessary venue where decisions are made for the common good.  We believe political service to be a noble calling from God just like a pastor or doctor or farmer.  While democracy does not bring about the kingdom of God, good government does do necessary things like providing for the easily forgotten, protecting the defenseless, and seeing that roads and bridges are built and well maintained.

Having served as a pastor in Washington, D.C. for thirteen years and having counted many fine public servants, Democrat and Republican, as parishioners and friends, I know how thankless the calling of government work can be.  Count me out when talking about draining the swamp: I give thanks for hard-working and decent public officials.

While we Lutherans believe government a noble calling, we do not deem it a blank check.  Bad government tramples the rights of the innocent, inhibits religious liberty, and despoils God’s good creation.  None of us who call ourselves Christian dare acquiesce to horrific name calling or mistreatment of Mexican immigrants or African Americans, people in the LGBTQ community or the disabled, women or Muslims.  We have a calling as citizens: we must hold our president accountable to the highest standards when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable and we will pray that he will achieve such breathtaking heights of decency and compassion so that all people in this land are treated equally with liberty and justice for all.  And when our president lifts up the lowly, he will receive our utmost support.

I love today’s Psalm 98: “O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” This Psalm’s beauty is achieved when all creation sings in harmony to the glory of God.  Lyre and trumpet, sea and porpoise, flood and hill—all make a joyful noise to the Lord.

Let us not jeopardize this glorious song. The moment anyone, president or citizen, starts singing off key, recklessly endangering creation’s song of praise to God, let us call him or her back to our Creator’s perfect song.

You know that God sent God’s only son so that the broken, despised, and poor might join this song.  If the Bible is anything, it is a musical score that insists on the inclusion of the voices of widows, orphans, and refugees in singing a new song.  The moment we see these blessed poor thrown from the choir loft, we have no option but to demand that our political leaders restore them to the choir. Whenever even one broken soul is left out, creation’s music turns sour.

These days should not surprise a single one of us who has listened to Jesus.  He just told us moments ago: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…they will arrest you and persecute you…You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.”  As desperate as this sounds, never forget what Jesus added: “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

For far too many months now we have heard the obnoxious music that attacks and repels, humiliates and accuses.  It has been jarring and ugly, dissonant and destructive.  We are here at 65th and Central Park West for one reason and one reason only: to sing a new song to the Lord.  We dare not join in the horrid music that this world too easily sings; rather we are called to sing a new song.  Moses and Jeremiah, Saint Paul and Saint Stephen, Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa and Anne Frank—they sang music that seeks the best for God’s suffering creation. We remember these blessed ones, not because they were rich or powerful, but because they strove to sing Mother Mary’s song, “My soul proclaims the greatest of the Lord because he has put the mighty down from their thrones and exalted those of low degreed and the rich he has sent empty away.”  The history of God’s people reveals this is never an easy song to sing.  History is one story after another of those of low degree being trampled upon.  The church’s finest hour in every age has occurred when God’s people have struggled against seemingly insurmountable odds to ensure that the hungry are filled with good things in God’s name.

Some people in our nation are very happy this morning, some are furious, some are heartbroken, some say, “wait and see.”  Whatever your feelings, we gather here as a hopeful people who believe God’s love for the oppressed and forsaken will prevail.

At the end of this Mass, we will sing “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies.”  I pray, in one glorious harmony, we will sing, “America!  America!  God shed his grace on thee.”