Swallow Some Darkness”
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
(John 1: 6-8, 19-28)
December 17, 2017 (Third Sunday of Advent)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park
I can only assume if you are in charge of lighting at a Broadway show, your job is to make certain the spotlight shines on the star. I also assume, from time to time, unexpected actors come out of the blue and attract more light than was previously expected.
I remember that happening in the 1969 cult classic movie, “Easy Rider. ” Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were longhaired hippies traveling across the United States on their souped up Harley Davidson choppers. Everyone knew these two, but the actor that mesmerized me was someone I had never heard of by the name of Jack Nicholson; he played a daffy lawyer who bailed Captain America and his pal Billy out of jail.
Some stars have the charisma to push themselves into the limelight. John the Baptist was such a character. The crowds flocked to him. And yet, he refused to let the light shine his way.
“Are you the Messiah?” the crowds breathlessly wondered. “No,” said John.
“Are you Elijah?” “I am not.”
“Are you the prophet?” “No.”
Why didn’t John grab some attention?
Most of us crave center stage with shining lights. We love being told how wonderful we are.
John refused such stardom: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” These words were not even original to John; he copied them straight out of the prophet Isaiah.
John kept pointing beyond himself to the other one who, according to him, he was “not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
Are you able to point the spotlights beyond yourself? Have you ever said, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” or, at least, “I don’t have all the answers”? It’s not an easy thing to do.
People often ask me obscure Bible questions about which I am clueless. It happened at our Wednesday evening Bible study when Damon Gray asked me about a Greek word in the Nativity story. I was tempted to offer a brilliant answer even though I was clueless. My hope was that no one would notice my dim-witted response and I would look none the worse for the wear. It is almost impossible for me to say, “I don’t have a clue.” I prefer to say, “Shine the light on me!”
You have witnessed the absurdity of people who cannot sit quietly and wait on the Lord or, more to the point, cannot shut up! I have seen it. I have been to countless synod assemblies of our Lutheran church, as have quite a few of you, where the same pastors and the same lay people feel compelled to stand up and offer their unparalleled wisdom on perplexing matters; apparently, in their minds, no one else possesses their matchless knowledge. Over and over again they go to the microphone; over and over again they babble on and on and on. And then there are the others folks, the ones who rarely—actually never—stand up to speak; they are the majestic ones who know they don’t have all the answers and realize it is best to sit still, remain quiet, and wait and listen.
John the Baptist had such majesty. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes: “John the Baptist does not have the ultimate or full message—but his glory and genius is that he knows that! He hands it over to the one who does” (Richard Rohr, From Wild Man to Wise Man, pg. 48).
Advent teaches us to wait for answers that are beyond our grasp but not beyond God’s. We wait between Jesus’ coming at Bethlehem and his coming again; we have no idea when or where or how he will return and any answer seems harebrained. Sometimes we do best to be still, remain quiet, and wait and listen.
A number of years ago, during the Iraq War, the then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was asked by a reporter whether he thought the war was immoral. He paused for twelve seconds, an interminably long time for live radio, and said, “‘Immoral’ is a short word for a very long discussion” (Rupert Short, Rowan’s Rule: The Biography of the Archbishop of Canterbury, pg. 289). Archbishop Williams did not rush to offer an answer to a monstrously difficult question. He allowed the question to hang silently in the air.
I increasingly am drawn to individuals and communities who resist the need to have all the answers when no easy ones seem apparent. My favorite theologian Douglas John Hall taught for many years at McGill University in Montreal. He has committed a lifetime to grappling with weighty and challenging theological matters. Like many brilliant people who realize there is so much more they do not know than what they do know, Dr. Hall says there are occasions when we must swallow some darkness.
I heard Dr. Hall deliver three substantial lectures a few years ago when he was 84 years old. During one of those lectures, which he delivered sitting down, he spoke of swallowing some darkness. One of his most brilliant students, married and the father of a small child, was struck down with leukemia. Dr. Hall told us that he had no answer why such a dreadful thing would happen to such a remarkable young man. It was at that moment of vulnerability that Dr. Hall seemed most brilliant to me and why I continue to like him very much and why I emailed this sermon to him immediately before worship began this morning.
Perhaps that is what it is to be Advent people, a humble people whose majesty comes not in having all the answers to life’s most nagging questions but rather the dignity to wait patiently, trusting that the good Lord will provide the finest answers in due time. That is why we wait like John the Baptist and let the stage lights shine on Jesus.
And, by the way, that is why fifty-two pink roses grace our sanctuary this Third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete (“Joy Sunday”): their blooming joy reminds us that Christ’s promise to come again is with us throughout the year, even during our darkest days.
Wait, my dear friends, wait for the Lord.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Those Holy Fools”
(Mark 1: 1-8)
2nd Sunday in Advent (December 10, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park
The beloved gospel of Saint Luke tells the Christmas story with such childlike enchantment. Heavenly announcements are made to unsuspecting women like Elizabeth and Mary and the baby Jesus lies in the manger with adoring shepherds and singing angels. This is the Christmas story we love.
There is another story, though, a more adult one. The gospel of Mark does not ease us into Christmas; Mark never mentions the baby Jesus, not once. No sooner has Mark begun, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” than we hear that raving fool, John the Baptist, down at the muddy stream called Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Mark’s gospel does not make for cheery Christmas cards or enchanting nativity scenes above fireplaces. If you disagree, look at your own home decorations: does John the Baptist appear anywhere in your house along with Mary and Joseph, Wise Men and shepherds, sheep and camels?
Mark’s gospel is not for those obsessed with “merry Christmas” as they stand around the cash register singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus;” the account of John the Baptist has not been read at a single office Christ party in history, those affairs where we prefer singing “Silent Night” with spiked eggnog in hand.
The house lights never soften in Mark’s gospel; we are not offered lovely little candles; there are no sweet carols with lovely harps and strings. No, dear friends, there is not an iota of sentimentality. From the very start, Mark’s gospel screams for a change of heart, for repentance of sins, beginning, of course, with each of us.
One of my favorite descriptions of John the Baptist comes from Sara Miles’ book, “Jesus Freak”: “John the Baptist was, not to put too fine a 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 of the library…He railed at decent temple-goers, shouting that their sacred ceremonies were useless, threatening them with damnation if they didn’t repent.”
I have discovered that the people best able to shake us up and get us to change our lives for the better are the ones who have nothing to lose. They tend not to rub elbows with the big shots in town and rarely are they the pastors of big steepled churches with fat endowments. They come, instead, from ministries like the Salvation Army where folks shake bells and dress in silly outfits; they are to be found at the rundown Rock of Ages Church with the gaudy neon cross out front. Most of us sneer at these people and call their ministries irrelevant and yet they invariably say things we don’t want to hear and cause us think in ways we never have before. Deep down, they make us realize how beholden we are to power, privilege, and the almighty dollar. You see, these ministries don’t have to impress a soul!
John the Baptist was like that. He was a Nazirite devoted to God, living in the godforsaken desert far from polite society; he didn’t trim his beard or cut his hair. Even when he was in prison, he dared tell the ruler and his new wife, who until recently had been his sister-in-law, that his manner of living was shameful…You have noticed, I’m sure, that powerful rulers and important people tend to get hopping mad when their unsavory dating and bedroom habits are critiqued. Pure and simple: John was a pain in the neck until his neck was loped off and was no more. John the Baptist had nothing to lose either.
By the way, I have lots to lose when it comes to doing the right thing. I make all manner of compromises so that I can retain some semblance of being a successful pastor in this city that never sleeps. I cozy up to people who appear to make a difference in this world and dare not offend anyone who might fill Holy Trinity’s coffers. It is hard for me to repent, to turn around, to confess my sins. About the only time I stand up for what matters is when it will make you and me look pretty prophetic without touching my retirement account or Holy Trinity’s endowment. Do you know what I mean? We prefer pointing fingers at other people’s unsultry habits and tend not to critique our own dastardly behaviors.
Because my life is so compromised—and perhaps yours as well, God sends folks like John the Baptist our way. They drive us nuts because they are always pointing out how out of whack our ways of living are with God’s ways.
It is why God blesses us with John the Baptist and other holy fools like him.
Think of the Amish communities. Whenever we talk about such out of step groups, we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to prove the inconsistencies in their lifestyles and, yet still, as we watch them go down the road in their horse-drawn buggies with their long beards and black dresses, we catch ourselves lamenting how suffocated we have become by our insatiable desires for more and more. Don’t the Amish folks “foolish ways” cause you to yearn for a simpler life?
On my best days, I thank God for holy fools.
I give thanks for monastic communities where people retreat to faraway places, close the doors for a lifetime, and pray to God for the life of the world. Did you know we have a Lutheran monastery in Oxford, Michigan, called St. Augustine’s House? The prior (leader of that community) trained me to be a pastor and spent his entire ministry in our nation’s toughest inner-city neighborhoods before heading off to pray during the autumn years of his life. This monastery’s very presence makes me wish I prayed and worshiped a whole lot more.
Yes, I give thanks for the foolish ones who do not seem as stained by the incessant desires and demands of the world than I. They actually try to do as Jesus said: they sell all they have and give it to the poor; they take Jesus’ words seriously, “Love your enemies;” they even pray unceasingly.
They are the gentle fools who invite us to look at ourselves. They are John the Baptist’s friends who dare to call us to repent, to give up our incessant habits of greed and power-grabbing. They tell us that if we turn around, even a bit, and look for Christ coming as a little child, our lives will be much better for it.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Look Whom Jesus Is with at the Jordan!”
Matthew 3: 13-17
Baptism of Our Lord (January 8, 2017)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
Today, as water crashes over us and we are dripping from our baptismal remembrance, we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the spirit of celebration, let’s roll the film.
See John the Baptist out in the middle of the Jordan River, about three feet deep, in a white shirt, skinny black tie, and rubber hip waders amidst a motley crowd of riff-raff. Watch him thrust them under the water and wash away their sins.
And, goodness gracious, there stands Jesus, right at water’s edge! Can you believe your eyes? He’s there with the double-crossing camel dealer, the flamboyant drag queen, the corporate executive convicted of bilking clients of millions, and that floozy neighbor constantly getting thrown into the county drunk tank—how dare he get so close to them!
Okay, let’s stop the film for a second and catch our breath…
Didn’t you always think Jesus is God’s son? Why in the world is he hanging out with such a notorious crowd of lowlifes?
Let the film continue.
Do you notice there are also some modest and holy looking folks in line to be baptized? They appear to be nervously quivering, churning with doubt and silently rotting away at the core; their sins are tucked far back in the furthest reaches of their bedroom closet, hidden under extra bedsheets and grandma’s old comforter, out of sight from devout company; they are fearful someone will find out.
Look closely at water-logged John. Do you notice how he keeps glancing out of the corner of his eye? He appears to have spotted his cousin Jesus standing in line for baptism—see how John trembles! Listen carefully; can you hear him: “Why in God’s name is Jesus here? Why does he want to be baptized? He is God’s Son, the sinless one. I need to be baptized by him!”
Now, we can get all misty-eyed about this, but let’s not kid ourselves. Jesus’ baptism has not always been an occasion for celebration. His presence with such a horde of sinners has embarrassed the church down through the ages, actually, to be more precise, it has horrified the church.
One of our finest Lutheran liturgical scholars, Gordon Lathrop, suggests that Jesus’ baptism was actually not about his becoming pure for our sake but rather becoming dirty for us. How can God’s son become dirty? you ask. He gets dirty the very same way this precious little thing born in Bethlehem ended up dying the filthiest death imaginable, in love for all his brothers and sisters, on the cross at Calvary.
While we celebrate Jesus’ baptism this morning, truth be told, if we are not also appalled and fuming, we likely have not quite grasped how deeply God’s grace runs for us.
When I mentioned a bit earlier who Jesus was in line with—drag queens, painted ladies, Ponzi schemers—my hunch is that most of you smiled and poked someone in the side. There is, after all, a quaint delight in seeing Jesus with such company—it makes our open-minded Upper West Side hearts quiver in delight. But I want to up the ante to explore just how open we really are to God’s grace.
I must tell you in advance, what I am about to say comes with no small amount of fear and trembling; I really do fear that I may offend some of you and cause you deep anger. If that occurs, I beg you in advance, please forgive me.
Let the film roll and let’s locate Jesus once again. Now look carefully. Do you notice that he has his arm around a gangly young white guy with a weird bowl hair cut? That can’t be Dylann Roof, can it, the same Dylann Roof who attended a Bible study at historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a year and a half ago and brutally murdered nine parishioners? Even after family members said, “I forgive you, my family forgives you,” Dylann Roof wrote, “I would like to make it crystal clear I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”
Listen, listen…I think you can just make out the conversation Jesus is having with Dylann, “Dylann, dear brother, it is never too late to repent.”
While the film is stopped momentarily, let me remind us all, in case we have forgotten, that Dylann Roof’s family are members of one of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations and that two of the African American pastors murdered that evening, Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the Rev. Daniel Simmons, graduated from our Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina?
Jesus standing at Dylann Roof’s side…He can’t possibly be doing that, can he?
As you know, the penalty phase of Dylann Roof’s trial is now in session. Should he be executed? Are there ever any of God’s children in line with Jesus who should be executed, who are unloved by God? Said another way, how dare we cut short the life of anyone whom Jesus loves?
As I think I mentioned, Jesus’ baptism inevitably scandalizes polite company. Grace is messy; it can be numbing, sickening, and offensive. That’s why we now start the film rolling again. Watch as Jesus slips and slides up out of the muddy river, dripping wet from head to toe. Listen carefully as God proudly proclaims from on high, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
There is something about Jesus’ willingness to stand in line at the Jordan and submit to this baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins that pleases God and horrifies us.
Look one final time as the film nears completion. Are you surprised to catch sight of yourself standing there at the Jordan? Sometimes, it is almost impossible to believe the words of that old hymn:
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea…
For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind.
And the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.”
What a thrill to hear the water crashing and to celebrate God’s amazing grace for this terribly mixed up world…and for us, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Why Again Did We Invite John?”
Matthew 11: 2-11
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016
These days leading up to Christmas are so thrilling. Given the looming excitement of this wondrous season of Advent, why in the world did we invite John the Baptist to be with us, not only this morning, but for two Sundays in a row? You do know, after all, that John is inclined to ruin gatherings such as this. He dresses in foul-smelling camel’s hair. His exotic diet of locusts and wild honey is revolting. And his oratory style leans tediously toward provocative words like “repent” and “brood of vipers” and inflammatory phrases like “those who do not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John is too sanctimonious and blunt for our uptown tastes. He reminds me of Uncle Gabriel in the movie, “Avalon.” Uncle Gabriel always arrives late at the family Thanksgiving dinner and he always expects the family to wait for him. Finally, the family has had enough and eats without him. Gabriel is furious: “You started without me? You cut the turkey without me?” He then says to his wife, “Come on. They eat without us, we go. Your own flesh and blood and you couldn’t wait? You cut the turkey? That’s it. That’s the last time we come for Thanksgiving.”
John ruins parties just like Uncle Gabriel did. Why do we keep inviting him back to church only days before we celebrate our dear Savior’s birth?
True to his reputation, when John shows up this morning, he is not even here with us but is in Herod’s hoosegow instead, waiting to have his head lopped off. Apparently, he acted mischievously with Herod, daring to insinuate that this powerful ruler acted immorally when marrying his own brother’s wife. It is never wise to speak ill of powerful people, no matter how disgusting their behavior, unless, of course, you wish to have your head on a platter along with John’s.
Why did we invite John to worship today? After all, today is “Rejoice Sunday” or, using the fancy-schmancy Latin phrase, “Gaudete Sunday.” We light a pink candle on our Advent wreath, the joy candle. We can hardly wait for the Christ Child. We place pink roses on the high altar to heighten the sense of jubilant anticipation.
When discussing the final people on today’s guest list, we were finally won over by the argument that John has staked everything on Jesus being the coming Messiah. Even before he was born, when Mary came to tell John’s mother that she was about to be the mother of God, John the Baptist leaped with joy inside Elizabeth’s womb. Given that prenatal acrobatic tour de force alone, John should be here, don’t you think?
And one other thing: like John, not all of us are head over heels in gladness this morning. You don’t have to raise your hand, but if you are down in the dumps right about now, aren’t you glad John is sitting next to you? He understands how you feel. He asks the same question you have been asking while others seem to be having so much more fun these days than you are. John’s question to Jesus, “Are you he who is to come or shall we look for another?” makes you want to say, “That’s exactly what I wanted to ask but was afraid people would think I am a heretic.”
Even with that said, why again did we invite John today? Our joy is palpable this morning as eighteen people join our congregation. Quite a few of you who have been members of Holy Trinity for thirty years or so have said, “I have never seen anything like it.” It is an astonishing Christmas present as we watch and wait for Christ’s presence here at 65th and Central Park West. This throng of new members makes us feel that our Advent prayer, “Stir up your power and come,” has been answered.
And yet…the question still hounds us, “Are you he who is to come?”
In a few moments, new members and those who are already members will confess that we believe in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Most, if not all, of us will say the words of the Apostles’ Creed at the appropriate time and yet a few of us will wonder—though be fearful to ask— “How much of this stuff do I have to believe to be a member at Holy Trinity?” What if I waver like John, “Are you he is to come?” We don’t mean to be cantankerous, we just feel compelled to be honest. What if doubts arise from time-to-time about the virgin birth or Jesus being the true son of God or whether we, too, will rise from the dead—can we still call ourselves “Christian” and say, “I do and I ask God to help and guide me” when it is time to join Holy Trinity?
Maybe John isn’t such a bad fellow to have at our side today. He puts his arms around us and urges us to bare our souls. He doesn’t flinch when we ask, “Are you he is to come?” because he has asked the exact same thing.
And yet, never forget, in the face of John’s question, Jesus says of this guy we invited to today’s party, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist.”
That’s why we invited John today. He joins us as we promise to support one another in our disappointments and anxieties, confusions and questions.
Perhaps the lasting joy of this Third Sunday in Advent is that Christ does not seem the least bit annoyed by our question, “Are you he is to come?” And so, we light the pink candle and have the pink roses because Jesus loves us, doubts and all.
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.