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“Look Whom Jesus Is with at the Jordan!”

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.

“Why Again Did We Invite John?”

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.

“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.

Sermon: Bach Vespers – April 12, 2015

The Rev. George Detweiler

Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4

(Note: The musical information in this meditation is from John Eliot Gardiner’s book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven)

Bach was 22 when he wrote this cantata for his audition in Mühlhausen. This was his second or perhaps third cantata, but the first in which he attempted to paint narrative in music. The success of this cantata and of the audition moved him from the role of a virtuoso organist to that of a daring composer of figural music, and, I would add, ardent promoter of the theology of Martin Luther. (more…)

Sermon: The Baptism of Our Lord – January 11, 2015

The Rev. Dr. William Heisley

Lessons: Genesis 1:1-15; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

“He saw the heavens torn apart.”  Jesus came up out of the River Jordan, dripping wet and he, at least he, maybe others, but at least he, saw the heavens torn apart.  Torn wide open as if at that moment God came to earth.  As if God were breaking open the celestial sphere to say to us meager, us mere human beings, this is my Son.  This, too, is God.  Jesus saw the heavens torn apart.  It’s not often that we see something like that. (more…)