Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Never Said a Mumblin’ Word”
April 9, 2017 (Palm Sunday/ Passion of Our Lord)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
Every year, one of the many Holy Week tasks is determining how the Passion of Our Lord will be read. Some years the choir sings of Jesus’ final hours on earth; other years, two people read the entire story from Matthew, Mark, or Luke. This morning, we thought it would be a good idea to involve a host of people in Saint Matthew’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion. As you have just experienced, this offered each of you an opportunity to tell some part of Jesus’ death.
The first decision for today’s reading was to determine how many readers were necessary for the various parts. Next, I gave careful thought to who should read each part. I worried about a few of the key rolls. How to ask delicately: “I was wondering if you would you like to be Peter;” “I think you would make a splendid Pilate;” worst of all perhaps, “Have you ever thought about being Judas at church on Palm Sunday?” More than once in my ministry, someone has been terribly offended by one of my requests; rather than feeling honored, they have blurted out, “Pastor, how dare you ask me to be Judas?” Oh, the landmines of pastoral ministry!
And then, I wondered about the rest of you: would your feelings be hurt if you were asked to shout out the crowd’s atrocities: “He deserves death,” “Let him be crucified,” “Hail, King of the Jews”? I can hear a few of you muttering this very moment, “I would never say such a thing. Who do you think I am anyway?”
After all that, there were two other daunting challenges: who to choose to be the narrator and who to be Jesus? The narrator was easy: pick someone who can read clearly and with solemnity.
But Jesus. That was dicier. This went beyond choosing someone who could be heard. This person, the chief character, must read flawlessly and profoundly.
What surprised me this year and always has—shocked me might be more precise—is how little Jesus said in Matthew’s gospel. Given the scarceness of Jesus’ words in his final hours, a four-year-old could do this part admirably—or even I could. As the old African-American spiritual would have it, “Jesus never said a mumblin’ word.”
How many words would you have uttered if you had been in Jesus’ place—what with Judas betraying you, Peter getting all weak-kneed and turning his back on you, and Pilate being gutless as he gauges the political winds? Add to that cast of hapless clowns, what would you have said in the face of the macho soldiers and jeering crowds, the ripping thorns and driving nails, the sour wine and piercing spear, and the disgusting spitting in your face. Do you think you would have remained silent for even a second in the face of such cruelty or would you have spewed forth heaps of bile?
The old seventh century desert monk John of the Ladder wrote, “Jesus by his silence shamed Pilate.” In truth, Jesus’ silence shames us all. We are, after all, a people of many words and so easily offended; we have opinions on a host of matters regardless of what knowledge we might possess; we abhor silence and covet having the final word on every issue.
There is soaring dignity in this man Jesus, especially given the few words he spoke. There is exquisite elegance in how he let his actions speak for him. So few words…so few words.
During this week, we will once again walk with Jesus. All the characters in today’s story with the exception of Jesus are so maddening. While we hate the thought of filling in for them, honesty compels us to confess that we are much like them. The passion narrative we have just heard from the gospel of Matthew, far from being antiquated and irrelevant, is as fresh and timely as ever.
Oh, how few words Jesus spoke. Oh, his wondrous silence. Jesus never said a mumblin’ word but, oh, how he loves us. On a day such as this, we do well to listen or, better yet, to watch every move Jesus makes.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“This Little Light of Mine”
(Matthew 5: 13-20)
February 5, 2017 (5th Sunday after Epiphany)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
Holy Trinity’s stained-glass windows are so stunning. I love walking into the church early in the morning just as the sun begins to shine through them. I have watched you marvel at the windows as well, pulling out your phones and taking pictures of the wonder of sun and glass dancing together.
Which is your favorite window? Mine is the “Second Coming of Christ” created by the Tiffany Studios of New York and installed here in 1904.
Those who enter this holy space for the first time, after the sun has set, are clueless as to how much beauty awaits them when the sun finally peaks through the windows. While the stained-glass never changes, there is a profound difference in the splendor, depending on how much light is shining through.
There is something else about these windows. Regardless whether it is night or day, no one walking outside of Holy Trinity can imagine the wonder that awaits them when they finally arrive inside here and see the light shining through them. Stained-glass windows frankly seem to be for the edification of insiders. The question then is how will those on the outside ever know the glory these windows convey?
When I was a pastor on the Main Line of Philadelphia, we went to great lengths lighting our windows from the inside out. After every worship service, our custodian Bill Dougherty set up temporary workshop spotlights to shine light through the windows to make certain the stories of God’s love depicted in those windows came alive for all outside passersby.
We are much like these stained-glass windows. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.”
We come here, week after week, so that, somehow, Christ’s love might be revealed through us out into the world. In this place, we are discombobulated by the stories that followers of Jesus actually give away what they have to the poor; we hear that Christians turn the other cheek to those who strike them; we even hear that we love our enemies. Unless we hear and even see these strange words of Jesus over and over again, we will grow as dull and lifeless as these windows in the wee hours of darkness.
Too often the church is content to operate an insider’s game. Oh, sure the music can soar and the liturgy can be breathtaking but unless the loveliness of God’s light shines beyond our brick and mortar, beyond our own individual wants and needs, we risk being lackluster stained-glass windows at three in the morning or, as St. Paul said, noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.
You know as well as I that much of what happens in places like this can easily become not much more than a confirmation of the world’s dastardly ways. From pulpits just like this, preachers lambast people with revolting vitriol and drive their followers to become acolytes for all manner of vile acts purportedly done in Christ’s. It is why so many have given up going to church altogether: rather than a place where brilliant light emanates from hallowed halls like this, all they witness are the confirmation of the dismal shadows and shocking darkness of the world’s wretched hatred and appalling arrogance.
The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who taught just up the street at Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote, “Worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God.”
The most remarkable congregations I know are the ones where breathtaking prayer stimulates them to carry Christ’s light to the dark, dangerous corners of this world. These churches make people shiver in wonder as they behold the majesty of worship dancing hand-in-hand with ministries of compassion and prophetic witness.
During these initial days of Black History Month, I am reminded of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You have heard his spellbinding preaching in the sanctuary, stirring worshipers to be salt and light. And yet the special appeal of Dr. King is that he didn’t remain in the sanctuary for long. He always left the building! He exhorted his followers to let Christ’s light shine, not just inside the church but outside in the world as well.
You will remember Dr. King was deeply shaped by the nonviolent philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi who, himself, was shaped by the nonviolent life of Jesus. Nonviolence holds fast to Jesus’ peculiar belief that love can triumph over hatred, and light can shine during the darkest of days. It is never easy to follow in Dr. King’s footsteps; it is far easier simply to adore him. Some of his most ardent followers knew this of him. They begged him to forsake nonviolence and to angrily strike back in the face of vicious racist attacks, but Dr. King would have none of it. He always sought the higher road, Jesus’ road. When he spoke out against our nation’s participation in the war in Viet Nam, some closest to him begged him not to get off point: they believed speaking out against Viet Nam would detract from what, in their minds, was the crucial focus on the Civil Rights movement here in the United States. Again, Dr. King would have none of it. He had a dream that was far bigger, a dream where all God’s children would live in peace.
These are tough days for many of us to dream, let alone to love. You have told me how vicious political quarrels are ripping your family apart, how you can’t talk civilly anymore to some of your dearest friends. Christmas was unbearable for some of you as you sat at dinner and pretty much said nothing of substance to those you love, opting to bury your true feelings and pretending that all was well in our nation. Hateful things are being said by many people these days, Republican and Democrat alike, liberal and conservative, and, yes, Christian and Muslim and Jew. Hateful things!
That is why it is so important to gather here this morning and to hear once again the stories of these windows where the Son of God, Jesus Christ, shines thorough gloom and death with the brilliant light of hope and life. We are here so we might burn more brightly, so we might be a gorgeous people of love not hate, a people who dare to love even our enemies.
We do well to remember Dr. King’s words during this Epiphany season, this blessed season of light: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Let us pray that by God’s grace we will let our little light shine.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“The Name of Jesus”
Luke 2: 15-21
January 1, 2017
The Name of Jesus (New Year’s Day)
Names tell us volumes about a family’s hopes and dreams and memories.
Quite honestly, I have never been wild about my name, Wilbert, so when our first son came on the scene we named him Sebastian. That name bears gravitas here at Holy Trinity, a place known internationally for our Bach Vespers. It would be logical for you to think that Dagmar and I named our firstborn after Johann Sebastian Bach but I must disappoint you. When Dagmar was pregnant, we were watching an international track meet, the Bislett Games in Oslo, Norway, on July 17, 1979. Sebastian kicked inside Dagmar for the first time just as the British middle distance runner Sebastian Coe kicked in the mile run, breaking the world record; hence the name Sebastian. And, yes, I must confess, dear Holy Trinity, we named our son after an athlete, not after a certain German musician.
When we visited my Grandma Miller so she could meet her new great-grandson, she was not at all amused by his name, Sebastian: “Isn’t Wilbert, your name and your father’s and your grandfather’s, perfectly fine? You pastors give your children the stupidest names!”
By the way, we named our next son, Caspar…Guess what Grandma Miller thought of that? You guessed it: she wept, but surprisingly, this time, she wept tears of joy. Never mind that his classmates might bully him with taunts of “Caspar the Friendly Ghost.” The name Caspar, you see, was her father’s name as it was Dagmar’s great-grandfather’s.
Today, we give thanks for another name, the name of God’s son, Jesus. This name was not plucked from a three-dollar name book purchased at the Nazareth grocery counter. Our Savior’s name came from heaven. Even before the child was conceived in Mary’s womb, an angel informed Joseph, “You shall call his name Jesus…” The name Jesus is rich in meaning: he shall save his people from their sins.
If you learn a person’s name, such knowledge inevitably draws you closer. “Hello, Jane. Good morning, Ernie.” People understand that when you call them by name, you have taken the time to know them, to care for them. They will likely want to know your name, too, and to learn more about you.
Knowing one another’s names creates community. We can spend years and years deliberating on how to make our congregation flourish, pouring over sophisticated studies, but I guarantee you: one of the most effective tools for creating a vibrant church community is getting to know one another by name. I suggest we all take the time to learn at least one person’s name at the passing of the peace this morning; make it your New Year’s resolution to meet a new person every Sunday. I know it will stretch some of our comfort zones, especially those of us who are introverts, but learning one another’s names will make our community friendlier and livelier.
One of the finest compliments I have received since becoming your pastor came on Friday afternoon. The mother and father of a bride-to-be rang our bell and wanted to see the sanctuary where their daughter will be married in June. They had never met a single one of us. In a matter of moments, though, she commented on how friendly Holy Trinity is and how she had felt rebuffed by other New York churches that simply wanted to discuss pricey wedding fee structures and elaborate wedding policies. Their good feelings had nothing to do with our claiming to be a friendly church in our bulletin, not an iota to do with a long-range plan we devised to make our church grow. It did have everything to do with Bonnie, our office manager, welcoming her with a smile; Serge, our property manager, graciously showing her the church; Donald, our cantor, telling the family what wonderful music they can have at their wedding. This proud mother and father were called by name and treated with kindness. That’s how names work and the power they bear for the vibrant life of Christ’s church.
Yes indeed, how we use names speaks volumes. Did you know that your hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, includes Luther’s Small Catechism in the very back? Please turn to page 1160, to the Ten Commandments. The Second Commandment: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” Luther understood the gift of having God’s name on our lips and the power it invokes. In his explanation of the Second Commandment Luther writes: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not curse, swear, practice magic, lie, or deceive using God’s name, but instead use that very name in every time of need to call on, pray to, praise, and give thanks to God.”
What a priceless gift to be entrusted with God’s name, a name we can call upon in every moment of life, in good times and in crisis, to call on, pray to, praise, and give thanks.
While most of you probably don’t remember it, there was a moment when you gained a totally new dimension as your name was intricately woven with God’s life-giving name. These wondrous words were spoken to you at your baptism, “Name, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Your family and friends in Christ stood at your side as water flowed down your face and God’s beautiful name brightened everything about you and everything that was to come in your life and even in your death.
As you walk around town today, remember always that your name is delightfully intertwined with God’s name. And never forget that all the people sitting near you at worship this morning are filled with God’s good name as well. And finally, as a special gift for you throughout this New Year: always call to mind that this breathtaking place is richly cloaked in God’s name, Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.