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“Forget about the Shovel and Boiler and Do Ministry Instead!”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Forget about the Shovel and Boiler and Do Ministry Instead!”
Matthew 25: 14-30
November 19, 2017 (24th Sunday after Pentecost)

“By the way, the parable of the talents is not Jesus’ hottest investment strategy! He is not offering advice on whether you should invest conservatively or aggressively in volatile emerging international markets.

Jesus’ parable is advice on how to live the Christian life with gusto.

As you know, a property owner entrusted three of his servants with large sums of money before going on a trip. He gave one five talents, another two, and the third one talent.

The servant with the five talents traded aggressively with what was entrusted to him and doubled his money. The second did likewise and also doubled up. The third servant, terrified what his master might do if he lost the money, took a shovel and buried his talent in the ground.

When the master returned, he poured lavish praise on the two who had risked substantially but was extremely harsh on the scaredy cat.

As I said, this parable is not Jesus’ investment strategy offering guidance for our congregation to see how much money we can amass in Chase Bank. Rather, Jesus is commending courageousness and extravagance and lambasting timidity and miserliness. He urges us to risk everything for the sake of the Gospel.

Why do I say this? Jesus told his parable only days before he ended up hanging on a cross. Jesus lost everything because he lived life to the fullest. His life was one of courageous and extravagant love. All that he could do as he breathed his last was to trust that God would provide—he didn’t have a penny to his name!

Christian congregations can be funny birds. We don’t always trust that God will provide so we hedge our bets, doing everything we can to control our destinies. Over my forty years of ministry, the biggest congregational fights I have been involved in have had to do with money. Some congregations limp along, fearful over how much money—or how little—they have in the bank, refusing to risk for the Gospel’s sake. One of my dear friends referred to such ministries as “no hits, no runs, no errors.” They are the kind of churches, by the way, that measure their ministries by how large their endowments are. Such places remind me of the bumper sticker that reads, “Whoever has the most toys when she dies wins.” Rich perhaps, but dead and gone nonetheless.

Exciting ministry never happens when we take the shovel and bury our treasure in the ground. In fact, you just heard Jesus say to the one afraid of taking a risk that he would be cast into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth—so much for timidity and miserliness!

Do you think Jesus who said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” gives a hoot about how much money we have in the bank? Give me a break!

I have been fortunate to serve five very different congregations during my forty years of ministry. I have served black and white and Hispanic congregations, gay and straight, deep inner-city and affluent suburbs, places teeming with Republicans and Democrats. I served a church with a yearly budget totaling $37,000 and one with an endowment of $2.5 million. My experience has been that the vitality of ministry has little to do with how much money a church has in the bank and everything to do with whether the people of God are willing to take risks for the Gospel’s sake. I have seen wealthy churches obsess over whether they would have enough to fix a leaky roof. On the other hand, I served one congregation that dreamed of calling a pastor from El Salvador to begin ministry with the growing Hispanic community but was uncertain whether we would have enough money; then, one Christmas Eve, I walked into my office and found a $25,000 check on my chair with a note that simply said, “Let’s quit talking and let this ministry begin immediately!” Courage and extravagance for the sake of the gospel!

The question for us here at Holy Trinity is what we plan to do with the considerable talents God has entrusted to us. Will we risk them for the Gospel’s sake or will we take a shovel and bury them in the ground, fearful that the roof might leak, the boiler explode, or the elevator go on the blink? I don’t think I am too bold to suggest that fourteen people are joining our congregation in the next few weeks, not because of our roof, elevator, and boiler, but because they detect courage and extravagance rather than miserliness and fear!

At our church council meeting on Tuesday evening, we voted to bring the Saturday luncheon ministry called HUG back under our congregation’s wings. For nearly forty years now, this has been a separate 501c3 non-profit outreach; from now on this program for senior citizens and homeless folks will be run solely by and funded by The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity. On behalf of the council, I invite you to consider making a gift to this ministry. $200 will provide meals for forty people on Saturday afternoon; $10,000 will fund the program for an entire year and ensure its future with no worries and even allow us to dream bigger. Why not give a Christmas gift to a friend whom you have no idea what to give and say on the Christmas card, “40 people will be served lunch in your honor…Merry Christmas.” And if you can’t make a financial gift, why not volunteer?

This, my dear friends, is how ministry here at Holy Trinity is going to thrive. We are going to risk what God has given us for the sake of this suffering world.

Vibrant churches never reach for the shovel to bury the treasures God has entrusted to them. Rather, they do ministry with risk and courage and extravagance. May excitement prevail at 65th and Central Park West, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Don’t Miss These Holy Trinity Announcements!

Don’t Miss These Holy Trinity Announcements!

23rd Sunday after Pentecost Mass
Consecration Sunday  
       November 12         
11 a.m.   

Pastor Cindy Krommes Preaching

We are delighted to welcome Pastor Cindy Krommes as our guest preacher for Consecration Sunday.  She has served as the senior of St. John’s Lutheran Church, Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, for twenty-one years and also served as pastor of St. Bartholomew’s Lutheran Church in Trenton, New Jersey. She is a graduate of Susquehanna University and the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and earned her Doctor of Ministry degree in preaching from the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, where she also served as the Secretary of the Board of Trustees.


“The Disgusting Offense of God’s Grace”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
“The Disgusting Offense of God’s Grace”
(Matthew 20:1-6)
September 24, 2017 (16th Sunday after Pentecost)

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is a month away. As October 31 nears, you will hear a lot about grace. We Lutherans beat our breasts when we hear the word “grace.” We are so proud that we have foresworn the revolting thought of anyone getting into heaven by doing even one good work. Oh, yes, we are sinners, we are Lutherans, we are champions of grace.

I suspect, however, that most of us are not quite as enamored with grace as we claim. The quaint thought that God saves the good, bad, and ugly with no apparent distinctions can be downright offensive. Plain ol’ grace can be as disgusting as someone cutting in front of us in the Fairway Market checkout line. Plain ol’ grace feels like giving a leg up to someone who hasn’t done nearly as much as we think we have done.

There is no such thing as a free lunch, we grouse. “Come on, Pastor, we may be saved by grace but we have to do something, we at least have to believe!” “Sure, I believe in grace but if I don’t treat my neighbor well, what’s it all worth? There have to be a few good works along the way on my part or the world will disintegrate.”

Today’s gospel shocks those of us who support an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. We would never dream of coming to work late and expect to be paid the same as the person showing up at six-forty-five in the morning. How can Jesus commend such an outrageous business practice? We work hard and deserve every cent we get. And, oh by the way, we obey the laws of land, pay our fair share of taxes, and don’t panhandle on Broadway.

A good friend of mine, a very committed church person and a very successful businessman, more than once came to me in desperation and complained: “Pastor, if we ran our business the way you run the church, it would be dead.” I told him, without fail, “You are exactly right. And, that’s why yours is a business and ours is the church.”

Have you ever pondered what grace is? Frederick Buechner writes: “Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about anymore than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace…A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do.”

It is so easy to mess up the beauty of grace, to end up believing we must offer God some of our expert assistance in the process of being saved and God saving the world—God could never do that alone!

Think about how it works here at Holy Trinity. We are proud of our outreach ministries. Don’t you tell others about our homeless shelter where twelve women call Holy Trinity’s community room their living room? Who doesn’t celebrate HUG where, for forty years now, fifty people have enjoyed a warm Saturday meal and a little friendship here? And we are delighted this morning to receive the news that members—YOU! —have contributed $2550 to Lutheran Disaster Response to help those digging out from the hurricanes. And while we may not mention Bach Vespers in the same breath, isn’t it similar? We spend the largest amount of any outreach ministry on a host of people who come to Vespers week in and week out and allege, “I’m not religious, I just come for the music.”

We love these ministries and those they serve and well we should. But don’t we occasionally resent having to bear the load? We heat this barn, worry how to fill it up on Sunday morning, and patch its leaky roof. Shouldn’t we get a little more credit?

Oops, I forgot one other ministry for outliers, that free Sunday brunch that has been served here at Holy Trinity for nearly 150 years! Regardless of what dastardly thing we have done during the week and in spite of our scanty offerings, we are served free Sunday brunch, right now. We are the workers hired at the end of the day to whom Jesus says, “This is my body and blood given and shed for you.” That, dear friends, is grace.

St. John Chrysostom lived in the fourth century; he was the archbishop of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). He preached a sermon that continues to be read in Eastern Orthodox churches at every Easter Vigil. His sermon might surprise those active Christians among us who tend to look down our noses at folks who show up just on Easter. They would never consider setting foot in this sanctuary on a toasty September Sunday morning and yet, to our disgust, they parade their dressed-up families up the center aisle every Easter morning, sitting in the very front pew so they can smell the lilies and sing “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” to brass and timpani accompaniment. They act as if they belong here!

You can imagine how old Chrysostom lambasted them…or can you? “Let those who have toiled since the first hour, let them now receive their due reward; let any who came after the third hour be grateful to join in the feast, and those who may have come after the sixth, let them not be afraid of being too late; for the Lord is gracious and He receives the last even as the first…He has pity on the last and He serves the first…Come you all: enter into the joy of your Lord. You the first and you the last, receive alike your reward; you rich and you poor, dance together; you sober and you weaklings, celebrate the day…”

Sounds a bit like Jesus, don’t you think. It’s a crazy method of bookkeeping, the first being last and the last being first; it’s no way to run a successful business. And yet, when we realize we, too, have received free tickets to this Sunday feast served by God, oh my goodness, what a joyous celebration it is.