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“Jesus Comes to Thomas, Amelia Rose, and Us”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Jesus Comes to Thomas, Amelia Rose, and Us”
John 20: 19-31
April 23, 2017 (2nd Sunday of Easter)

Thomas is often called “Doubting Thomas.”  Unfortunately, claiming that Thomas doubted Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the disciples probably plays a bit fast and loose with the whole truth about him.

Thomas was absent the evening of the resurrection when Jesus appeared to the other ten.  It is easy to ridicule him for saying, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe”—easy to ridicule Thomas but hardly fair.  Thomas didn’t so much doubt as demand proof that Jesus had actually appeared to the disciples.  Is someone so terrible just because they want proof of what is impossible to believe?

It is easy to forget the whole story about Thomas.  Thomas was the one who said of Jesus, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  That was a whiff of courage on Thomas’ part as Jesus drew dangerously close to Jerusalem where he would soon die.

Thomas also asked the tough questions when others felt too shy or too silly to do so.  When Jesus was with the disciples at the Last Supper, he spoke to them about going to his Father’s house.  Thomas was courageous enough to ask the question on everyone’s mind: “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”  Yet again, Thomas demonstrated honesty not doubt.  He wanted to know what in the world was up.

While we know the nickname, “Doubting Thomas,” we probably are not as familiar with his other moniker, “The Twin.”  The Bible gives no indication who Thomas’ twin was but I like Frederick Buechner’s suggestion: “If you want to know who the other twin is, I can tell you.  I am the other twin, and unless I miss my guess, so are you.”

Aren’t we all Thomas’ twin: we soar to courageous heights and then promptly plummet to cowardly lows.

Many of us find it easy to criticize folks like Thomas.  We have the time of our lives at parties mimicking their quirks and mocking their shortcomings.  Everyone slaps their knees in riotous laughter at our hilarious barbs.  But, Jesus never joins our catty conversations.  He always removes himself from such sarcastic goings-on; he is always so understanding of those who come up short of our so-called “exacting standards.”

Jesus could have easily lambasted every, single disciple.  They repeatedly demonstrated failure of nerve and revealed all manner of double-dealing behavior.  Jesus could have hollered, “Shame on you all.”  But on that first Easter evening, when Thomas was absent, Jesus came and stood among the ten disciples and said, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.”  Remarkable when you think about it: not a single word of rebuke.

Eight days later, Thomas was in the house.  The doors were shut and, somehow, again, Jesus made it through and stood among them.  And, once again, Jesus said, “Peace be with you,” and once again, there was no ferocious scolding.  The disciples watched closely to see how Jesus would respond to Thomas’ demand to see his wounds before he believed.  Astonishingly, Jesus was the essence of grace; he drew so close to Thomas and lovingly said to him, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side…”

Jesus, of course, had already died on the cross, already forgiven each of them with arms outstretched.  Now, yet again, he showered them with love.  There was no need to say, “Shame on you!”

There is another interesting detail in this story.  Though he was risen, Jesus still had wounds in his hands and his side.  I can’t figure out why Jesus still had the crucifixion wounds—he was risen after all—but let me take a guess.

We bear our wounds and imperfections, too, and you have noticed, I’m sure, we still are called the body of Christ.  Why doesn’t God call perfect people to do ministry in this world?  Why not brilliant people who can offer perfect answers to the most difficult questions of life?  Why not people who never stumble?  Why does God call us with all our failures and crashes?

In a few moments, we will baptize Amelia Rose von Bargen.  Now, admittedly, from her parents and grandparents’ vantage point, she is a tiny bundle of perfection.  But, come on mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, we know better.  Little Amelia Rose had barely entered this world before she screamed up a storm. “Drop everything and feed me,” she shrieked the best she was able.  God did not say, “Shame on you, Amelia Rose, for demanding such special attention.”  Instead, God brings her, this morning, to the center of the universe; with the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” she becomes Jesus’ precious sister and ours as well.  We have no idea why God does this except for love’s sake.

I have a hunch Amelia Rose will be much like Thomas.  Who knows whether she will scream or laugh or be quiet and mellow as the baptismal water is poured over her head in a few moments?  As she grows older, I’ll bet she will have moments that will delight mom and dad and others that will exasperate them.  Whatever happens, all the while, you must remember, she is a treasured child of God.

I have no idea why Jesus still bore the wounds after he rose from the dead.  I wish everything had been perfect, don’t you?  Maybe it was.  Maybe Jesus was showing us that he could bear our sorrows, disappointments, and failures even when we shout bloody murder because the world does not revolve around us.

Jesus is here today, yet again, this time with us, wounds and all, in the water spilled over Amelia Rose and in the meal of bread and wine.

We will not hear a single, “Shame on you.”  Instead, Jesus will say, “Peace be with you.”

And hearing that, we will shout, “Alleluia!  Christ is risen!”

“Christ the Servant”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Christ the Servant”
John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
April 13, 2017 (Maundy Thursday)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

In 2006, I was hospitalized with pulmonary emboli.  If you are like I was at the time, you may be clueless as to what a pulmonary embolism is.  Simply put: it is a clot on the lung—at least that is my pedestrian knowledge of the potentially fatal malady.  One embolism will kill you; I had four.  It was touch and go.  I spent five days in the intensive care unit and Dagmar faithfully watched over me.  Thank God, I made it to the other side of that dark, dreadful tunnel.

Toward the end of my hospitalization, the charge nurse asked who my favorite staff person had been.  I experienced my share of personnel–pulmonologists, cardiologists, nurses, x-ray technicians, phlebotomists, house-keeping staff, physical therapists, even a few caring pastors and a kindly bishop.  The person I cherished most, though, was a nurse’s aide.

One evening, Claudia came to my room and asked if I would like a sponge bath.  The experience was exquisite, more luxurious than anything offered at a deluxe Southern California spa.  As she sponged my wretched body, tears welled up in my eyes.  I was overwhelmed by her tenderness.  Claudia’s calling was to anoint suffering patients with sweet-smelling oils of healing.

Of all those who tended to me, this servant worked twelve hour days and was one of the lowest paid hospital employees.  When I told the charge nurse Claudia was the finest person sent my way—a gift from God really, he immediately asked, “Any nurses, doctors, you wish to add?”  They were all extraordinary—well, except the cranky blood-drawer who cursed my crummy veins—and yet I will always cherish Claudia.

Tonight, we remember another servant, the most exquisite one, Jesus.  He did what only servants do: he washed his disciples’ dusty, sweaty feet.  His dear friends were dumbfounded: “Who are you to do this to me?”  There were others who were befuddled over the years.  One of the great historic heresies that continues in our own age is the belief that God could not possibly come to earth as Jesus, as a servant: the Almighty does not stoop so low to wash smelly feet.

Yes, tonight, Maundy Thursday, is about as low as Jesus could get.  As one of his closest friends devised a sordid plan to betray him and others lacked the courage to stand by his side when the powerful pushed and shoved, even then Jesus washed their feet, even then he forgave them all that was soon to unfold, even then he shared the most intimate meal with them, even then he loved them until the end.

Washing one another’s feet must be the most awkward act of the entire church year. If you are like me, you look forward to foot-washing as much as you do to filing your 2016 income tax return.  Don’t you imagine quite a few have steered clear of this evening altogether for fear that they might be cajoled into washing someone else’s feet?  Some churches, perhaps the wiser ones, just don’t do it.  I read one church’s Holy Week schedule announcing washing of hands instead of feet—that certainly is a creative approach to remedy the inelegance of what is soon to unfold, much more palatable it seems to me.

I take no delight in washing another’s feet.  I will do my own, but not yours if I can help it.  I am not particularly fond of taking off my shoes in public either.  I had a sign on my dresser that warned me not to wear holey socks this evening.  Foot-washing strips us down to our basest humanity; we become so vulnerable.

By the way, no one is compelled to wash another person’s feet tonight.  However, if you choose to remain on the sidelines, watch closely nonetheless; recall how Jesus commanded us to love one another and how he loved those who fell short of his love to the very end.  Judas soon betrayed Jesus.  Peter, who had previously said quite proudly, “You will never wash my feet,” overestimated himself; he had no way of knowing how soon he would shrink from his high ideals and repeatedly deny ever having known his dearest friend.  In spite of the horrid betrayal, denials, and cowardice—not by Jesus’ detractors but by those who adored him most—Jesus was glorified through his deep affection for his friends and enemies.  Remember how he broke bread with them and touched them with heavenly grandeur even as their courage plummeted to disgusting depths.

The heavenly pendulum swings so low this evening that it is almost impossible to discern God’s presence with us.

Maybe it’s a good thing we are uncomfortable—servanthood does that to us.  And when God becomes our servant, that really is excrutiating, so much so that it becomes almost unbearable…and yet, what wondrous love Christ has for us.

And so, I invite you forward now to be servants of one another.  If you prefer not, then at least remember the servanthood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“The Delightful Sound of Rattling Bones”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
“The Delightful Sound of Rattling Bones”
(Ezekiel 37: 1-14; John 11: 1-45)
April 2, 2017 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

Of all the scenes in the Bible, the valley of dry bones must be the creepiest. Can you imagine God leading you by the hand and forcing you to look out over a valley of bones picked dry by vultures? What a shocking sight it must have been for the prophet Ezekiel.

If the sight of dry bones was not bad enough, God had to rub it in and ask Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

Have you ever looked out over a valley where, no matter how hard you struggled, you could not muster a smidgeon of hope? You gaped and wondered whether the bones could live; the only answer you could muster was, “Not in a million years!”

Ezekiel was not feeling particularly hopeful either. God’s people had recently been annihilated by King Nebuchadnezzar’s mighty army, the brightest and best of Israel had been hauled off to Babylon, and Jerusalem smoldered in ashes. God’s promise, the one about being a chosen nation and a kingdom of priests, was only a faint memory if at all. Ezekiel was crushed. When God asked, “Can these bones live?” the best he could propose was a scrawny, “O Lord God, you know.”

It was so strange that God asked Ezekiel whether the bones could live. Ezekiel had been brutally honest about Israel’s future. He had done the unthinkable and prophesied against his good neighbors, his beloved family, his cherished nation. He uttered brutal words on God’s behalf: “I will bring a sword upon you, and I will destroy your high places…Wherever you dwell your cities shall be waste and your high places ruined.”

Ezekiel understood exactly what Israel deserved. And yet, words of judgment are never the final ones for those who work for God—never! Judgment is only part of the equation and certainly never the life-giving part. It’s easy to find what’s bad in someone else. Such is the stuff of bullies who are far better criticizing others than building them up. People love to throw grenades and bark, “I am just telling the truth,” but such ruthless judgments alone are the coward’s way and never finally the way of the people of God.

Ezekiel could have looked out over that wretched valley littered with bones and when God asked, “Can these bones live?” uttered, “Are you kidding me? They got exactly what they deserved.” But that’s not what Ezekiel did. He didn’t just stop with judgment as tempting as that might have been. Faithful imagination always looks beyond dry bones and finds a way to proclaim, “O Lord God, you know.”

That, by the way, is where the creepy part of this story begins to give way to wonder. Because Ezekiel believed in a God of life, no matter how stunned and desperate the situation appeared, he still sought a way to prophesy hope. Listen: “Suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.”

And Ezekiel didn’t stop there either. There was more: “I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

You have stood at that deathly valley of misery, a valley flowing with tears, a valley of restless nights. You have been there with Mary and Martha after their brother Lazarus died asking “why”? Mary and Martha cried, you cried, Jesus cried. So sad, so hopeless, just a valley of dry bones, and yet in that valley, by God’s grace, death is never the end of the conversation; instead, it leaves the answer in God’s hand just as Ezekiel uttered, “Only you know Lord.” All now hangs on the wondrous answers of God.

Gracie Allen, the comedian and zany wife of George Burns, once said, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” I love those words: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

The church’s story is always a cautionary tale against placing a period where God has placed a comma. The church, at its best, positions itself in the midst of bones. When all the angry judgments have been cast and the “I told you sos” have been lobbed, the church discovers a way to proclaim, “These bones shall live.” Together, we stand in the valley, listening carefully for the delightful sound of rattling bones.

But you know this. Perhaps someone has been your Ezekiel. When your insides felt like a carved-out cantaloupe, someone helped you stare into the desperate valley long enough so you finally were able to hear the delightful sound of bones rattling together.

Or perhaps you have been Ezekiel. With eyes burnt from constant weeping, you have found courage enough to put your arm around another long-sufferer and helped that wounded soul sing, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

I suppose that is why the church and our ministry are always held in suspicion, even in distain. We gather with scoundrels and villains, in intensive care units and graveyards, with people and in places where only God can make bones rattle to life.

Last Sunday morning when the choir sang the gorgeous strains of Psalm 23, I thought about skipping my sermon altogether—I really did. I was so moved by the music, so deeply touched to realize what a trusted friend Psalm 23 has been throughout my life, accompanying me through some pretty scary occasions and rough stretches. As the choir sang, I thought of you as well and I realized how God has been with you in your own valley of bones.

And so, my dear friends, whenever you find yourself gazing on dry bones, remember that God promises to come into your midst and to serenade you with the delightful music of rattling bones coming back into life. Please, please, never place a period where God only places a comma.

“With a Little Spit and Mud”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“With a Little Spit and Mud”
John 9: 1-41
March 26, 2017 (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

The man was born blind for goodness sakes…Jesus and his disciples passed by him as so many others had, day after day.

Curiously, however, no sooner had the disciples passed by the blind man than they asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The disciples’ initial reaction was not to alleviate the man’s suffering; instead they probed why he was born blind: had he sinned or his parents? They wanted to study the matter of suffering a little more deeply.

There continues to be a lot of suffering in the world. People are hungry and homeless, refugees and unemployed, depressed and addicted. Is our initial impulse to speculate on why they suffer or do we act immediately to alleviate their agony?

Jesus answered the disciples’ question curtly: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work.”

Did you hear Jesus’ answer: the man was born blind so “that the works of God might be made manifest in him.”

Enough speculation, Jesus said. Let God’s work begin! It’s getting dark.

There wasn’t a moment to spare because Jesus was going to die soon. And so, he spat on the ground, made clay with the spittle, and wiped it on the blind man’s eyes. Jesus then told him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam,” and soon after that, the fellow returned without a white cane and German Shepherd on a leash and he began to dance.

Just wondering…If you walked down the street after Mass today and passed a blind man, would any of you spit in the mud and wipe a bit of the concoction on his eyes? Do you sense the urgency Jesus sensed or are you a bit more cautious? Rather than stooping down for a little spit and mud, might you suggest we first form a task-force or at the very least do a cost analysis? After all, don’t we want to make certain that spit and mud is acceptable to all even if it might heal a blind man?

I did my seminary internship in 1976 at Emanuel Lutheran Church in South Philadelphia. Emanuel was the largest African American Lutheran congregation in America located in the rough and tumble Southwark Housing project where thousands and thousands of people lived. One day, fourteen-year old Kenny Williams was shot in the head on the twenty-first floor of one of the dilapidated twenty-five story high-rises as he and his two friends played a fatal game of Russian roulette.

I was at the church when my internship supervisor, Pastor John Cochran, called and said: “Drop everything and come immediately. Bring a silver bowl for baptism and oil for anointing. Kenny has had massive trauma to the brain and is on life support.”

Soon after “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” had been declared and water was dabbed on dear Kenny’s blood-soaked head, he breathed his last.

That Thursday evening, following the seven o’clock Mass, our broken-hearted staff sat in the pastor’s office, staring numbly into space. Pastor Cochran’s question will stay with me for a lifetime: “Why hadn’t Kenny been baptized before he was on his death bed? Why hadn’t we sensed the urgency?”

Like Kenny’s baptism, the healing of the blind man rings of urgency for Jesus. There was no time to speculate as to why he was born blind; he had to be healed, now, not tomorrow. Bring the spit and mud!
Remarkably, even after Jesus had done the miraculous, the Pharisees, good and faithful ones they were, still had nagging questions, “This man is not from God for he does not keep the sabbath.” Never mind that the blind man could now see for the first time in his life! The issue for good religious folks was whether all the rules had been followed. As so often is the case when merciful things are done, the Pharisees concluded that, in fact, Jesus had broken the commandment by healing the blind man on the sabbath; he never should have healed the guy.

My experience has often been that when the most good is done, there are complaints and critiques, not by bad people, mind you, but by good, caring people: a congregational meeting should have been held first to seek the mind of the membership; it was a splendid idea but didn’t you realize a few “influential people” might leave the church in disgust; or someone who knows the Bible will inevitably say, as did the Pharisees, “Couldn’t you have waited until Monday after the sabbath?” And, of course, you can hear them demand, “Why in the world did you have to use spit and mud on the Upper West Side?”

Jesus gathers us here this morning to remind us, yet again, that there is an urgency to act in his name, not tomorrow, not in six months, but today, now! It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there. What we do may be sloppy but, much more importantly, what we do might save a person’s life.

Our actions may come in small ways, volunteering in our Women’ Shelter or just bringing a few new pairs of women’s underwear for those who live here six months of the year; you may help at the Saturday meal for HUG for those living on life’s edges; or you may make a generous contribution to the courageous work of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service helping those seeking a safe place to call home (with your generosity, we are well on our way to collecting $4000). When we do these things, today, God’s goodness is made manifest in this place and in our lives.

When Jesus saw the man born blind, the incessant deliberations ceased and the gracious healing began. The old rugged cross loomed near and it was time to act.

I pray that our ministry here at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity may always be filled with a similar sense of urgency. Now is the time to use some spit and mud!

 

“The Old, Old Story of Jesus and His Love”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
March 19, 2107 (3rd Sunday in Lent)
“The Old, Old Story of Jesus and His Love”
John 4: 5-42
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

If that just felt like an incredibly long reading, you are right.  It is the longest conversation Jesus had with anyone in all the gospels.

There is something we dare not lose sight of in this lengthy conversation.  Jesus took the time to speak with another person—not in mindless chatter, but in-depth dialog, the kind where you get to know one another deeply.  I hope you paid attention and didn’t get bored.

I am often struck by conversations I have with people and am unnerved by their lack of curiosity.  When meeting people for the first time—often clergy colleagues—I will ask where they grew up, where they went to college and seminary, what congregations they have served, what their families are like. They are more than happy to talk about themselves, at length, with considerable embellishment!  I am often saddened, however, when it is my turn to tell my story; their minds seem to wander and they don’t appear to care an iota about hearing my story; they don’t ask me a single question.  And remember, these are pastors paid to listen carefully to others!

I confess: I am not always the best listener either.  On Thursday, I had a conversation with our illustrious congregational president Craig Wilson.  He showed considerable interest in me: are you working too much, pastor; I hear your dog Cisco is having some struggles. I talked Craig’s ear off.  He had just gotten often a long night’s work, writing news; he was driving home when he received word that his wife, Mary Lou, had been in an automobile accident; he was rushing to see how she was doing.  Craig even told me about his dogs and chuckled about the prayer near my office desk—the last gift my mother gave me before she died: “God, help me be the person my dog thinks I am.” When our conversation was over, I kept wondering: had I shown nearly the interest in Craig that he had shown in me?  Had I listened as much as I had spoken?

In today’s long gospel reading, a model conversation is heard.  Jesus was thirsty and the woman at the well sensed that.  We don’t just hear Jesus talking AT the Samaritan woman or just trying to get his thirst needs met and we don’t just hear the woman talking AT Jesus.  Instead, an amazing dialog occurred: Jesus listened attentively to the woman and, somehow in the process, figured out that she had had five husbands—I assume Jesus did this, not by some magical gift of ESP, but rather by listening carefully.  The woman was so astounded by Jesus’ listening skills that she told others, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

What is most remarkable is that Jesus even had the conversation.  Not only did he talk to the woman, at the well, at noon—something a good Jewish man would never be caught doing—but he talked with a woman who, at least according to his tradition, was a religious outsider (a Samaritan) and had innumerable husbands.  Every religious sensibility exhorted Jesus to steer clear; instead he risked breaking down rigid boundaries and moving beyond ancient resentments so that a community of love might be created. Jesus accomplished astonishing ministry simply by talking with—and not AT—another person, telling his story and listening to hers.

If our community here at Holy Trinity is to bring life to others, we need to listen to one another as Jesus did.  We need to tell our own stories and be equally fascinated by other’s.

And yet, there is something more to high-quality conversation.  It is essential we weave God’s story into one another’s stories because, finally, that story will make all the difference. That story provides hope for those haunted by abuse, embraces a parent who fears their precious little one will never return home again, and gives courage to those who wonder if our nation will continue to be one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.  God’s story must be told.

Little children know this.  As we tuck them into bed, they almost always say, “Can you tell me one more story?  Please, please, please.”  That final story is the one that makes all the difference; it is the one that fends off ghosts, petrifies goblins, and trounces monsters all the while providing hope well into the deep, dark night.

Lent is an opportunity to hear and tell that story with renewed vigor.  I pray you are reading our fabulous Lenten devotional booklet, “O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days”—you wrote it after all!  As you read the astonishing daily devotions, listen carefully to your brothers and sisters telling their stories and listen how they weave their stories into the story of Jesus’ final days.

I sense that many of us are yearning for a better story these days, a story of hope, a story of truth, a story of lasting love. You lamented to me in recent days: “I am fasting from Facebook during Lent; we canceled cable television; I stopped my subscription to The New Yorker.  So much conversation and yet I need something different.”  You are sensing you need a better story to go with your story and the world’s; you are desperately in need of God’s story.

The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to American in the 1930s and taught just up the street at Union Theological Seminary at 120th and Broadway.  Bonhoeffer preferred attending the African American churches in Harlem, particularly Abyssinian Baptist Church where the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. preached at the time and where Calvin Butts now preaches.  He went there because, as he wrote: “In New York, they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.”

It’s easy to ramble on about ourselves.  It’s also easy to run on and on, complaining, “Ain’t it terrible,” about the current political situation.  But, deep down, we need more.  We are thirsty for one more story, the one that will quench our horrendous thirst.  We need the old, old story of Jesus and his love for us and for our groaning world.