3 West 65th St | New York, NY 10023 | 212.877.6815

“Have You Thanked God for This Failure Already?”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Have You Thanked God for This Failure Already?”
Jeremiah 28: 5-9
July 2, 2017 (4th Sunday after Pentecost)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

Please look at today’s sermon title: “Have You Thanked God for This Failure Already?”…Well, have you?

It is almost impossible to imagine thanking God for our failures.  For our successes, of course, but for our failures?  We hate failure and unmercifully attack anyone who suggests we have failed in any way.

That is why the people of Judah, God’s chosen ones, detested the prophet Jeremiah: he called attention to their failures.  Jeremiah’s mission, from God, was to come to an arrogant and over-confident nation and to tell them, “Throw up your hands in defeat, surrender; you are going down!”

There were prophets at the time far more positive than Jeremiah.  They loved kowtowing to church members and citizens alike.  They liked nothing more than appearing in the New York Times and on Fox News hand-in-hand with the powerbrokers.  They ridiculed Jeremiah as a pessimistic fool: things weren’t nearly as bad as he made them out to be.

Hananiah was such a false prophet; he told people what they wanted to hear and that Jeremiah was nuts to boot: Judah certainly was not going to be conquered by Nebuchadnezzar and it was the height of foolishness even to suggest surrendering to an enemy nation.  False prophets never call people to task, never speak of their failures, never demand they change.

Jeremiah would have none of Hananiah’s deceitful shenanigans no matter how positive his words sounded to others.  As hard as it was for Jeremiah to preach doom and gloom—precisely because he loved the people of Judah so much, nevertheless, he told them that their days were numbered.  They had not trusted God, they had taken advantage of the poor for their own selfish gain, and they were making alliances with neighboring idolatrous nations.  According to Jeremiah, they were going down.

None of us likes someone who slings such pessimistic bile our way.  It hurts.  We get defensive and ugly when someone points to our failures.

Have you ever thought that that those who point to our failures are doing us a favor?

Arvo Pärt is one of the most popular church music composers of our age.  At his commencement address at Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, he tells the story of being at Pühtista Monastery in Estonia, sitting in the yard, in the shadow of the bushes, with his notebook in hand.  A little girl came up to him and asked, “What are you doing?  What are you writing?”  He told her that he was trying to write music but it was not turning out well.  And then the ten-year old girl spoke these unexpected words, “Have you thanked God for this failure already?”

Arvo Pärt says that the human soul is the most sensitive of instruments and if not tuned to God’s purpose, our music will be worthless.  In order to make God’s music, we must accept our failures and purify our souls.

Pärt counsels us not to grieve when we write little and poorly; rather we should grieve when we pray little and poorly and live in the wrong way.  Arvo Pärt urges us to confess our failures and to reach for God.  When we do this, all will suddenly become beautiful because God is finally making an appearance in our music—whatever music we make—and we are no longer playing our own selfish little ditties.

We all sit in our monastery yards with notebooks in hand, incapable of producing a single lovely note.  We all fail.  So often, when this occurs, we make believe all is well; we call that the “elephant in the room.”  We cannot bear the thought of failure.  We play “make believe” with our spouses, quarreling and refusing to admit our own mistakes; we play make believe in our church, acting as if we are the only ones who know what is best for our life together; we play make believe in our nation as the right castigates the left, Democrats vilify Republicans, and all of us flounder amid the dangerous myth that only our opinions are the flawless ones.  Whenever we make believe we are perfect, we quit praying and humility proves beyond our grasp; all that anyone ends up seeing is our wretched arrogance and our ludicrous foolishness.

Have you thanked God for this failure already?

Remarkably, Judah’s hope came when it failed.  As God’s people were carted off to Babylonian exile, they finally had the opportunity to turn to God.

This is worth remembering as we approach the 4th of July and this congregation nears our 150th anniversary.  No church, no nation, no person is ever perfect.  Never!  We are all failures bound together by our imperfect humanity.  When I say failures, what I mean to suggest is that our beauty comes only when we let God’s beauty be reflected through our imperfections.

You have seen this beauty in someone who admits to their terrible struggles and countless failures.  I once heard a person whom I adore and actually thought was pretty perfect, publicly admit to standing in court for the sentencing of his dear son.  He talked about how he turned to his therapist repeatedly to get through the day.  In his publicly revealed struggles, this person became more beautiful to me than ever.  I suddenly saw hope in my own struggles; rather than repelling me by his failures, he drew me closer.  God was now in the forefront and it was a stunning sight to behold.

Nations fail, too, but to admit that feels like treason.  We prefer to say, “My nation right or wrong” and “Our nation, the greatest on all the earth.”  The finest nations and best leaders never believe themselves beyond reproach; they are always seeking how to achieve freedom more perfectly, always debating how to create justice for all, always pondering how to protect God’s good earth from our selfish desires.

William Sloane Coffin, Jr. once said: “There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country.”  That is, of course, who Jeremiah was and that is who we can be.

Maybe it is not such a bad thing for individuals, churches, and nations to carry on a lover’s quarrel as the prophet Jeremiah did with Judah. And maybe it is not such a bad thing to fail.  When we do so, we make room for God and that is a beautiful thing.

Have you thanked God for this failure already?

“God Loves Misfits and Liars, Murderers and Scumbags, Scoundrels and Scalawags.”

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller’s Sermon at Bach Vespers
at The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
“God Loves Misfits and Liars, Murderers and Scumbags, Scoundrels and Scalawags.”
Reformation Sunday, October 30, 2016
Jeremiah 31: 31-34

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

As most of you are aware, today is a special day in the Lutheran church: this is Reformation Sunday—hence we are decorated in red.  Reformation Day actually occurs tomorrow, October 31, All Hallows Eve, when Martin Luther is reported to have banged his 95 Theses on the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.  This occurred in 1517.

All manner of havoc was unleashed the day that pesky Augustinian monk announced to all the world—or at least to those coming to church the next morning, on All Saints’ Day—that he wanted to debate a few key and thorny issues with his beloved church.

Just a hammer, a few nails, and a piece of paper unleashed a ruckus like few others in the history of the world.  To put it a mildly, Luther was destined for the Revolutionary Hall of Fame.

What I want to say tonight is that Martin Luther had NO INTEREST in creating a new church or even disrupting the one he loved; he certainly had no interest in having an entire Christian denomination named after him.  What he did want was to dust off a few key areas of the church’s life that, to his mind, were preventing people from being touched fully by God’s magnificent love.

For many years, we Lutherans were much like those long-suffering Chicago Cub fans on an Autumn evening.  Instead of singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” we took great delight in gathering on Reformation Day, beating our theological breasts like a bunch of wild Neanderthals, and singing “A Mighty Fortress” as loudly as we could, whether we could carry a tune or not—we even threw in a bit of Johann Sebastian Bach with timpani and brass just to be certain we were as rowdy as possible.  What sadly occurred on those occasions was, rather than celebrating God’s love for us, we rejoiced in how much we despised our Roman Catholic neighbors. Whether we realized it or not, we pathetically reveled in the division of Christ’s body, the church, here on earth.

The Reformation principle for far too long was much like the high theology my Grandma Miller held fast to: if Roman Catholics do it, Lutherans don’t; and, conversely, of course, if Roman Catholics don’t do it, Lutherans do.  Take for instance this evening’s Vesper’s liturgy: the incense, chanting, and elaborate vestments would convince my dear grandma beyond a shadow of the doubt that her grandson is destined for hell.  Why?  Of course, that is what Catholics do!

But that is not what the Reformation was or is about. What our tradition at its best holds up is the long-standing belief—both Jewish and Christian—that we heard in this evening’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah: God will forgive our iniquity, and remember our sin no more.

(And, by the way, remarkably, Pope Francis—our Pope by the way—will gather for worship tomorrow at the Lutheran cathedral in Lund, Sweden, as the observance of the 500th year of the Reformation begins.  While there will be no Mass—further indication of the tragic brokenness of the church, it is with much delight that we behold Christ’s church mending inch-by-inch, forsaking ancient bitterness for renewed joy.  God certainly knows that our tearful world desperately needs our united witness to God’s love for those who are broken and forlorn and certainly not our shabby divisions that have tarnished the church’s witness for far too long.)

That was why Luther took hammer and nail and paper to the Castle Church door: to make certain that even 499 years later, we know that God forgives all our peccadillos and remembers our depravity no more.

Martin Luther would urge us tonight: read through your Bible. It is filled with a hodgepodge of flamboyant scoundrels from beginning to end.  Remember Adam and Eve—I doubt I need to tell you their sultry story.  And there was Jacob who stole his brother Esau’s birthright and lied up a storm to his blind daddy Isaac.  And then King David whose Psalms we have been singing with much delight this evening: old David made every modern-day politician seem like a paragon of spotless virtue with his disgusting affair with Bathsheba and his murderously vicious rampaging ways.  On and on the Bible goes: Peter-you remember him, he claimed he didn’t even know Jesus even as Jesus hung dying on a cross; and Paul—he took positive delight in murdering the earliest Christians.  These are but a few of the misfits who litter the Bible with muddles of mayhem.

And yet, over and over again, out of the blue, we also hear biblical messages like Jeremiah’s, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”  Jeremiah could easily recount the biblical litany of heroes who happened also to be liars, murders, and scumbags and yet, every time, God forgave these foul-ups and failures for their transgressions.  That’s exactly how Luther urged us to read the Bible: he wanted us to proclaim from pulpits like this and with the cantata we are about to hear that no matter how dastardly the act, there is always hope for us in God’s eyes.

People often ask me, “What do Lutherans believe?”  I tell them this, “We believe God loves misfits and liars, murderers and scumbags, scoundrels and scalawags.”  That is why we pull out the brass and timpani tonight and let ‘er rip—because God remembers our sin no more.  Amen.

“There Is a Free Lunch for Everyone”

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller’s Reformation Day Sermon
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
Sunday, October 30, 2016
“There Is a Free Lunch for Everyone”
Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Romans 3: 19-28; John 8: 31-36

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

A few years ago I was interviewed by “The Reader.”  This magazine has a section called “Sheep and Goats” in which the worship, music, architecture, sermons, friendliness, and even snacks of a church are rated on a one to five-star system.  This free weekly with lots of Botox and medical marijuana ads can be picked up on virtually every San Diego street corner along with all manner of unsavory publications.  The interviewer asked me what subject I most like to preach about.  I told him simply, “There is a free lunch for everyone.”

His eyes glazed over straightaway.  He clearly hoped for a more theologically profound response, expecting me to say I love to wax eloquently on the rapture, predestination, or even delicate political issues and who the next President of the United States of America should be.  When I told him I like to preach on “there is a free lunch for everyone,” the interview spiraled downhill, and fast.

People often ask me—and I imagine you too—what Lutherans believe.  When I say Lutherans believe in law and gospel, word and sacrament, justification by faith apart from works prescribed by the law, their eyes glaze over.  To get the conversation revved up again, I usually say something like this: if you worship with us on Sunday morning, you will find our liturgy resembles the Roman Catholic Church because we are, after all, cousins; we don’t believe, however, that the Pope has absolute authority and, oh by the way, our pastor is married.

These answers always beg other questions: are you like Methodists?  Presbyterians?  Baptists?  What do you believe about Holy Communion?  With all these questions looming, I have come to believe the simplest and best Lutheran answer is that we believe God offers a free lunch for everyone.  That is, of course, why Martin Luther banged his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, 499 years ago.

The Presbyterian minister and writer Frederick Buechner describes what I call “free lunch theology” this way: “Grace is something you can never get but only be given.  There’s no way to earn it, deserve it, or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.”

We know better than that though.  We have become masters at reading the fine print. We know nothing in this world is free.  My favorite fine print these days is found in advertisements for miracle drugs.  These sensational medicines claim to eradicate all manner of aches and ails, enable us to live almost forever, and infuse us with unimaginable powers as we approach our autumn years.  Then always come the warnings, in fine print: taking this drug may cause unintended side effects such as heart attacks, insomnia, athletes foot, excessive gas, or other mind-boggling maladies that may last longer than four hours and for which you must immediately see your doctor…Just as you suspected, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

All the fine print makes it almost impossible to fathom the Reformation’s guiding principle that grace is free for all.  This is precisely why most of us madly scramble to read the fine print: we must have to believe to be saved, to be baptized, to confess Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, or, at the very least, to be a very good person.

Take stewardship for instance: “Pastor, are you saying I don’t have to give a nickel to be saved, that I can come along for a free ride and leave the driving to others?”

Let me attempt to answer that.  We are about to embark on our 2017 stewardship campaign here at Holy Trinity.  There is an incredible buzz in the air these days.  Worship attendance is higher than it has been in at least four years; your giving this year is projected to be the highest that it has been in the history of this congregation.  Worship and music is beyond belief.  Our future at the corner of 65th and Central Park is very bright indeed!

To make our ministry continue to grow and flourish, each of us must do our part.  And you are doing just that!  We gathered for three listening sessions this summer at which you offered dreams to make this an even more vibrant congregation, things like moving our baptismal font to a more central location, improving our sound system, painting the parish hall; all these things are being planned or are in the process of happening.  Our Finance Committee met three hours on Thursday evening; our Capital Project Committee met four hours last Saturday; our Church Council has been listening to your dreams.  Serious planning and considerable hard work are being done to make our considerable dreams become realities.

To achieve our dreams, here and beyond our doors, each of us needs either to increase our pledge by between 5-10% for the coming year or, if we have never pledged, to do so this year.

In about a week, you will receive your pledge card in the mail.  I pray that you will join Dagmar and me in giving serious consideration to how you will financially support our astonishing ministry.  Some will give $500 a week, others $1 a week; each gift is essential to our proclaiming Christ to this community.

These are amazing days.  Won’t you do your part in making our dreams come true by making a pledge?  I guarantee you this: if every one of us commits to announcing that FREE LUNCH IS SERVED HERE at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity, our ministry will blossom well into the future.  That’s why we pledge and that is why Luther banged the 95 Theses on the church door.  He wanted everyone to know, Roman Catholic and Lutheran, pledger and nonpledger, $500 or $1 a week offeror: there is a free lunch served to all of us by Jesus Christ.

Guess what: lunch is ready!  So, come: the gifts of God for the people of God.  For free…and with no fine print!

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

This Week at Holy Trinity

This Week at Holy Trinity

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost –October 23, 2016
Mass –
11 o’clock in the morning

Join the growing number of members, prospective members, and visitors worshiping together at Holy Trinity.

Pastor Miller’s Sermon: “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place ”

(more…)