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“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.

“Making the Crooked Straight”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Making the Crooked Straight”
2nd Sunday of Advent (December 4, 2016)
Isaiah 11: 1-10; Matthew 3: 1-12

How thrilling it was to watch our first Thanksgiving Day Parade from the parish house roof.  What a delight to see the Sponge Bob Square Pants, Angry Bird Red, and Aflac Duck balloons; we even had our eyes peeled for the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man who made his initial appearance at Holy Trinity in the movie “Ghostbusters.”  What charmed me most, though, was watching a grandpa place his three tiny grandchildren in the perfect fourth-floor apartment window looking up Central Park West (directly across the street from here) so the little ones would be looking in the right direction when Santa Claus came to town.

So much tempted them to look in the wrong direction—sirens, helicopters, confetti blowing in the wind, even two stilt walkers crashing to the street.  But grandpa pointed them properly and they were looking directly into Santa’s eyes when his reindeer escorted him past their window.

Advent is the church season that gets us looking in the right direction for Christ’s coming.  John the Baptist is our grandpa who places us perfectly to look straight into Jesus’ eyes when he arrives in our lives.  John coaxes us every way he can: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!”

Sara Miles, in her quirky and delightful book, “Jesus Freak,” writes of John the Baptist, “[He] was, not to put a fine point on it, a total nutcase, sort of like the unwashed guy with the skanky dreadlocks and the plastic bags over his socks who sleeps in the entryway to the library…”

John’s weirdness gets our attention.  Admit it: it takes someone screaming raucously, dressing bizarrely, and saying outlandish things to point us toward Christ.

Bob Kraus was a dear friend of mine and an orthopedic surgeon.  He had performed thousands of hip and knee replacements in his day.  I once asked him at a Rotary luncheon about the agony involved in such surgery.  He said, “Wilk, when I go into a patient’s room following surgery, I ask, ‘Are you in pain?’  When they say, ‘Yes, Doc, excruciating,’ I say, “Good, the surgery worked.’”  Change is painful and it rarely happens overnight.

By the way, it takes an aircraft carrier three to four miles to turn 180 degrees.  Congregations are said to change direction similarly, as in, not too quickly.  That is not meant to suggest we should not attempt change.  Quite frankly, if a Christian community does not recalibrate and change course from time-to-time, it will almost certainly miss the wonder of Christ’s presence. Vibrant congregation are unflinchingly bold when it comes to changing course.

Another word for change is repentance and that is as painful as knee surgery.  We prefer our old, destructive habits to breaking our achy, arthritic souls and starting afresh.  We detect such refusals to repent when people let their personal relationships deteriorate, refusing to change a single thing about themselves—they prefer to point fingers at others!  We see it as people drink themselves to the grave, refusing to attend Alcoholics Anonymous because, as they would have it, “They are just a bunch of bums.”  We see the difficulty to repent as we prefer destroying God’s planet to changing our extravagant ways for the good of those who will follow us.

Repentance is hard work and yet repentance is good work, work that changes us for the better.

Dagmar and I and our boys used to drive from Washington, DC, to Wheeling, West Virginia, to visit my parents.  The route twisted through the mountainous regions of Maryland and West Virginia.  If you know anything about “God’s country,” you realize how hard it is to get there from here.  While a map will indicate you can get here to there in a flash, you have likely not factored in the steep inclines, treacherous hairpin turns, and resulting traffic jams.  It often takes two hours to go forty-five miles.

Imagine our surprise, when someone had the outlandish idea to dig straight through the mountain and create Interstate 68.  Some swore it could never be done.  Admittedly, it did take twenty-five years, but the crooked road was made straight with dreaming and daring, sacrifice and hard work.

Think about how accustomed we are to crooked ways of living.  Take war for instance: we have always done it that way, so we say.  Right?  All the way back to Cain and Abel there has been squabbling and fisticuffs.  Those who urge us to love our enemies are deemed fools.  And yet, what if we trusted that God can do the impossible?

Did you listen to the prophet Isaiah this morning?  “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.”  This, dear friends, is God’s vision, not ours.  Turning around is never up to us—thank God!  It takes grandpa in some instances, John the Baptist in others, and always God.  Martin Luther said it this way, “God can carve the rotten wood and ride the lame horse.”

We are an Advent people.  That’s why we are here at Holy Trinity.  We have every reason to be incredibly confident for the future of our beloved congregation because our future is in God’s hands.  To watch God turn us around, rotten wood, lame horse, and all, is remarkably exciting.

Oh, to be like those children on Thanksgiving Day looking in the right direction when Santa comes.

…Dear God, stir up our hearts and make the crooked straight and point us in the right direction when Jesus comes into our midst. Amen.