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“Do Not Be Afraid of Tyrannosaurus Rexes and the Like”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Do Not Be Afraid of Tyrannosaurus Rexes and the Like”
Bach Vespers at Holy Trinity
24th Sunday after Pentecost (November 19, 2017)

The words “do not be afraid” appear in the Bible 365 times. I must confess I didn’t count them; I am accepting a popular contemporary theologian’s word on this matter. Whether 365 or 291 times, that’s a lot of “do not be afraids.” But, in all honesty, we probably all need about 365 “do not be afraids” to tote around with us as the shadows lengthen and the evening falls.

Have I told you that I detested setting my clock back two weeks ago? I hate looking out the parish house windows at 5 p.m. and seeing darkness. Are you like that?

As a kid, my worst fear was going down in the basement to get my mother canned tomatoes or strawberry jam. Parts of the basement were eerie, unfinished floor in some parts and exposed beams with aged wiring snaking around up above. I was petrified someone would turn off the lights and I would end up down there, all alone, suffocated by darkness.

Psychotherapists among us could likely lend me immeasurable help in exploring my fear of the dark (“Wilk, what causes you to take off running when the lights are turned off?). I suspect I am not the only one here tonight afraid of the creeping darkness and the ebbing light.

Think about it: why do we humans light candles when it gets dark? Is it just to create a mellow mood? Is it simply so we can see? Or is there something more profound afoot? Do we keep the candles aflame because we are petrified that lions, tigers, and tyrannosaurus rexes will burst into our caves any moment and gobble us up?

No sooner had we begun tonight’s evening prayer than I began chanting, “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who led your people Israel…by a pillar of fire by night.” I pleaded to God on your behalf, “Enlighten our darkness by the light of your Christ; may his Word be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.”

We censed the precious little light piercing the darkness on the high altar. And then we began to chant as the sweet smoke floated heavenwards: “O Lord, I call to you; come to me quickly; hear my voice when I cry to you.” We implored God to wrap this place’s deep darkness with holy candlelight.

Deep in our souls, we who are gathered here tonight long for light and we do our best to pass that light, one to another. We gathered here do the best we can, somehow, someway, singing and praying, “Do not be afraid.”

The Danish writer Karen Blixen, more commonly known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, once said, “Any sorrow can be borne if a story can be told about it.”

When the Antioch Chamber Ensemble sings Bach’s motet, “Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir” (“Be not afraid, I am beside you”), in a few moments, they will sing what Cantor Bach composed for a funeral in Leipzig. Bach’s deepest musical instincts, when death nipped at the heels of those he loved and served, was to start whistling. Don’t you whistle when it gets dark?

Our most profound human instinct when ol’ Tyrannosaurus Rex noses through our cave door, or at least when the doctor enters bearing a diagnosis that breaks our heart, is to beg someone to light a candle, tell a story, or sing a song. We sense this as tiny children when our parents tuck us into bed and turn off the lights; we beg them to tell us one more story.

We have grown older now but monsters still lurk amidst the dust balls beneath our beds. The monsters have different names now—cancer, divorce, alcoholism, loneliness, melancholy—but they are terrifying nonetheless.

When old Nebuchadnezzar’s henchmen hauled the Israelites off to Babylonian captivity, the prophet Isaiah started whistling. The accompanying words sounded something like this, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

That was 2500 years ago. It has grown dark once again and we are afraid all over again. And so, we sing Isaiah’s song and pray and light candles and do our best to reassure one another, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

“Poets and Dreamers”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Poets and Dreamers”
Vespers on the 2nd Sunday of Advent (December 4, 2016)
Isaiah 11: 1-10

There is something about poetry that is at once exasperating and exhilarating.

Could poetry’s exasperation and exhilaration be that it invites us to think in unimaginable ways?

Take Isaiah’s poetic vision for example: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

Can you even begin to fathom the wolf living with the lamb, any wolf, any lamb? And yet, what wonder.

One of the most enchanting times in my life was the late 1960s and early 70s.  Some of you remember those times when some of us dared believe that the lion and the calf could live in peace.  Perhaps you sported bib overalls and made the peace sign way too often, wore your hair long and danced in flowing skirts to the music of the Grateful Dead, and pronounced quaint clichés like “make love not war.”  And yet, those days were crammed with poetry.

As so often happens when we dare to dream, quite a few of us were clubbed in the kneecaps.  Remember being told, “That’s naïve, that’s not how the world works.  Get real!”  Your poetic fantasies faded and you ended up living in a prose flattened world; you traded in your tie-dyed shirts for Brooks Brothers suits, you sacrificed your idealistic dreams for realistic drivel.  Things quickly became humdrum and mind-numbing.  Is it any wonder schools slash budgets for the arts and music—away with wonder, away with poetry, let’s get real!

The church is now in the second week of Advent (see the second candle ablaze on the Advent wreath).  This is a season of poetry, imagining lives changed for the better and the world blanketed in peace; most peculiarly, we believe this enchanting vision will be accomplished by a helpless babe of dubious birth from a Podunk town in Israel.

You know what happened to the child, the same thing that happens to poets who get in the way of brutally heartless regimes: our Savior was clubbed in the kneecaps and hung on a cross.

In last week’s “New Yorker” magazine, Mary Karr writes: “If you ever doubted the power of poetry, ask yourself why, in any revolution, poets are often the first to be hauled out and shot…We poets may be crybabies and sissies, but our pens can become nuclear weapons.”  Poets do not use words to bully, poets use words to create, as in, “And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”

Poets, visionaries, musicians….

I must confess a dirty little secret: I love name-dropping, love it!  One name I have started dropping since arriving here at Holy Trinity is that of someone who attended Bach Vespers as you are doing now.

Once upon a time, on a crowded Sunday night, when all was dark except a few flickering candles, a long-haired, bespectacled gent sat here at the altar rail, craning his neck and looking straight back, way up into the organ loft where the orchestra and choir performed the Bach cantata.  Guess who it was?  Let me give you a clue:

You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.

This dreamer was our neighbor, living seven blocks from here at the Dakota.  Again, as has happened to so many poets who have dared to dream, John Lennon was gunned down thirty-six years ago, this very week, on December 8, 1980.

Thank God for dreamers who invite us to a higher vision. The musical poet Johann Sebastian Bach was another such dreamer.  His music rouses us to conceive the world more fancifully and gorgeously.  Listen to a few words from tonight’s cantata:

Kill us through your kindness;
awaken us through your grace…

Kill us through your kindness.  Oh my…. Let the poetry ring…

As you leave here, the sirens of a prose flattened world will struggle to deaden your heart: “Same old quarrels in the car on the way home. Same old tensions at dinner.  Same tired beginning on Monday” (Walter Brueggemann).  In the face of such deadening darkness, may God’s hopeful poetry shrink the gloom a bit.  And when morning comes, may the angels still be at your side as you sing the music of the lamb and the lion frolicking together, the melody of a little child leading the way into a world of peace forever and ever.