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“Make America Great!”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Make America Great!”
At the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
January 15, 2017 (2nd Sunday after the Epiphany)
John 1: 29-42

I first lived in New York in the summer of 1976. I was participating in a program called Clinical Pastoral Education at the Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn that teaches pastoral care to seminary students. It also helps future pastors, as they are fond of saying, “get in touch with their feelings” through intensive group activities.

One group activity occurred on a Tuesday morning when our supervisors, Sister Teresa and Father John, asked us, “If you were an animal, what would you be?” That was a moment of crisis for me: I was certain my quest to become a pastor had abruptly ended; for the life of me, I could not come up with a suitable animal.

Forty years later, I am still perplexed: what animal would I be?

And you, what animal would you be?

It is puzzling. I probably would opt to be a scorpion or grizzly bear—though I would never admit such yearnings publicly. I would choose such an animal because of its penchant for unleashing ferocious bites in order to protect the helpless.

My heroes have all had a ferocious and venomous side. That is not to suggest they have not been astonishing pastors—they have; and yet they have never been afraid to bare their teeth when shielding the most vulnerable against the ravenous appetites of the powerful. They have stood up for what Jesus stood up for and cherished the people Jesus treasured.

One of my heroes is the late John Steinbruck, the longtime pastor of Washington, DC’s Luther Place Memorial Church. While blessed with a remarkable pastoral heart that created such visionary ministries as the N Street Village for homeless women and the Lutheran Volunteer Corps for recent college graduates, he could spew rancor at DC’s power brokers that would cause you to duck if you happened to be in the way. He was a curious concoction of animals, really: though often as gentle as a lamb, he could also be as thick-skinned as a hippopotamus when standing up for the weak…In my dreams, I would be like my dear friend John whose calling it was to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

With that said, it always comes as a surprise, at least to me, that when John and Andrew noticed Jesus, they exclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God!”

A lamb…Did any of you choose to be a lamb?

Four figures are carved into Holy Trinity’s pulpit. They represent the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. With the exception of Matthew who is symbolized with an angel-like figure, the others are symbolized with animals and dangerous ones at that: Mark, a lion; Luke, an ox; and John, an eagle. The eagle’s beak is so sharp, by the way, that when our custodians were putting up the Christmas trees, Christian accidentally bumped his head on the beak and the beak drew blood…An eagle’s beak, quite a symbol for bold and forceful preaching!

But a lamb? Who would ever brag, “Our pastor preaches like a gentle, little lamb”?

Tomorrow, our nation pauses to give thanks for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. His soaring rhetoric could be as fearless as a shark and could sting like a hornet. It behooves us during these decisive days of our nation’s life to recall Dr. King’s final sermon preached at Washington’s National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, only five days before he was assassinated. Listen carefully: “…we have difficult days ahead in the struggle for justice and peace, but I will not yield to a politic of despair. I’m going to maintain hope as we come to Washington in this campaign. The cards are stacked against us. This time we will really confront a Goliath. God grant that we will be that David of truth set out against the Goliath of injustice, the Goliath of neglect, the Goliath of refusing to deal with the problems, and go on with the determination to make America the truly great America that it is called to be.”

Did you hear Dr. King’s words, “to make America the truly great America that it is called to be”? As you are aware, president-elect Donald Trump has been proclaiming a remarkably similar phrase.
My dear friends, as the people of God, we are called to pray mightily for our newly elected president Donald Trump as he installed this coming Friday, January 20. We are called to pray just as Martin Luther King prayed, calling on God to fill Donald Trump with this nation’s deepest values of liberty and it highest aspirations of justice for all people. We are also called to pray that, by God’s amazing grace, President Trump will exhibit breathtaking courage whenever little people are trampled upon and chewed up by the rich and arrogant. Oh yes, pray for our president-elect we must.

When the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about making America the truly great America that it is called to be, he did so as a follower of the lamb. Dr. King never grew weary or hateful; he was a man of utmost dignity and supreme bravery. In the face of high-pressured hoses, snarling attack dogs, and even a deadly bomb that blasted through his own home while his wife, Coretta, and ten-week old daughter, Yolanda, were there, he pled with his followers to follow a different way, Jesus’ way, the way of love toward those filled with hatred, the way of decency toward those perpetrating all manner of wickedness upon those who wanted to be treated as human beings.

As you know, Martin Luther King was gunned down for speaking fearlessly, not on behalf of himself mind you, but on behalf of God’s defenseless and abandoned ones—that, my dear friends, is what it means to make America great.

I sadly confess, I am never quite certain what animal to choose. I often find myself preferring ferocious lions and violent sharks at my side when the going gets tough. Nevertheless, the truth is, we are called to follow the gentle lamb, the Savior who died for every one of God’s children…Such a vision would truly make American great again. Pray we must, O dear God, pray we must.

“Rendered Silent”

Sermon Preached by Pastor Wilbert Miller
The Night After the Presidential Election
“Rendered Silent”
Galatians 6: 6-10; John 15: 9-12
November 9, 2016
There are those occasions when those of us who typically do a lot of talking are rendered speechless.  The events of last evening and today have done that to me.

Dagmar and I were at the Jacob Javits Convention Center last night.  We thought we would be part of history as the first woman was elected president.  It did not pass our notice, however, that this morning’s New York Times might have a headline similar to the “Chicago Daily Tribune’s” on November 3, 1948, announcing “Dewey Defeats Truman” only to realize Truman defeated Dewey.

Last evening started out with lots of cheering and merry-making, lots of words really.  As the evening wore on and the returns from state after state started to roll in, words subsided, at least at the Clinton gathering.  There was an eerie silence as we rode the subway home.  One pastor wrote that she had not seen anything like it since 9/11.

I know I should have lots of words tonight, but I confess I really do not know what to say.

I am reminded of a story told of the venerable Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary at 123rd and Broadway.  A dear friend had just died and he went to visit the family.  It is said that Rabbi Heschel walked through the front door, took a seat in the living, stayed for forty-five minutes and, at the end of his visit, stood up and said farewell.  Apparently, he never said a word during those forty-five minutes.

Grief can do that to you.  Anger can do it. Confusion can do it as well.

Another reason I feel at a loss for words tonight is that I am mindful that our nation has spoken in favor of a candidate I know was not the choice of quite a few of you here tonight.

How do we move forward?  How to do we, as Saint Paul urged us, work for the good of all?

Working for good can be very tough especially when our emotions are raw.  When a candidate called those we love nasty names, ridiculed whole classes of people, belittled those down on their luck, and even called some of us hateful names, we feel justified in resorting to similar tactics ourselves.

Will we resort to such vicious tactics ourselves?

On Sunday, I preached about listening to one another.  That is not particularly easy when you fear your liberties might be snatched from you any minute.

What I failed to note on Sunday was that we need to listen to God as well as to one another.  Perhaps that is what Rabbi Heschel was doing when he visited that grieving family and was rendered silent.  Perhaps that is what we are called to do this night as well: to listen for God’s voice so we don’t get drawn into the fuming cacophony of bitterness, anger, and rage.

If we listen carefully for God, we will almost certainly hear Jesus speaking to us in words we might not think to use in a million years on a night like this.  Listen carefully to those words once again: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Let us never forget that Jesus spoke these words, not when everyone was congratulating him on being Christ the King, but on the night before he died.  This alone should render us silent.

The Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard said, “The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.”

Whether we celebrate tonight or are more dazed than we can remember, let us not forget that we gather at the feet of a very unusual leader, one who invites us to love our enemies, who claims that the poor are blessed, who tells us to turn the other cheek, who begs us not to sue one another.  Perhaps that is why it is best simply to be quiet tonight and to listen to the one who implored us with some of his very last words here on earth, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

“There Is a Free Lunch for Everyone”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week at Holy Trinity

This Week at Holy Trinity

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

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

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

(more…)

“With Ears Open and Mouths Closed”

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
Sunday, September 11, 2016
Holy Cross Day & the Commemoration of the 15th Anniversary of 9/11
“With Ears Open and Mouths Closed”
Numbers 21: 4b-9; Psalm 98; 1 Corinthians 1: 18-24; John 3: 13-17

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

You remember exactly where you were when the tragic events happened. You remember where you were when President Kennedy was assassinated, when John Lennon was murdered seven blocks from here at the Dakota, when Princess Diana was killed in an automobile accident.  You certainly remember where you were when you first saw the horrifying pictures of planes flying into the Twin Towers; some of you even remember the smoke and flames, the sirens and screams.  Those occasions are often, as the song would have it, the end of the innocence.

September 11, 2001 was the end of the innocence at least in this nation.  Never before had we been attacked by an outside invader.  This was, in most of our minds, a peaceful nation until the towers crumbled.  Then there was an end of the innocence.

With that day came the fear and the hatred, the confusion and the questions.  As you probably remember, there were those who offered strident answers soon after the towers fell, but the wiser ones knew better than to answer too quickly.  The wiser ones were quiet at least for a while.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Scholz was Holy Trinity’s pastor on that fateful day. Scholz wrote of those excruciating days in a devotional book entitled “Wachet Auf: A September 11th Remembrance” (it is available for you at the back of the nave this morning.) He ministered to many of you and to the families and firemen of the firehouse at 46th and Amsterdam where twelve out of thirteen firemen who answered the call that day were killed.  (We continue that relationship that Pastor Scholz forged.  Joe Chappel sang a stirring rendition of “Jacob’s Ladder” at the firehouse this morning with one particularly poignant verse he wrote himself; and I prayed there with the family and friends of those who lost their lives that day.)  Pastor Scholz created a prayer that he believed captured the essence of what those who want to help at any time should do.  Please bow your head in prayer: “Gracious God, grant us the grace to keep our ears open and our mouths closed, that we might offer to others in need that gracious acceptance you have offered us through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

Keep our ears open and our mouths closed?  Aren’t Christians supposed to provide convincing biblical texts to excruciatingly difficult questions in times of crisis?  I must confess though: when I hear people quickly answer monstrous questions such as why there is evil and violent death, I always wonder how they come up with such cocksure answers so quickly.

Perhaps it is a gift that the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11 falls the same day as we celebrate the Holy Cross.  Like 9/11, the holy cross leaves many of us with as many questions as it does provide answers.

When I was in seminary, we had an entire course dedicated to the question called “Atonement Theory”: why did Jesus die on the cross?  did God put his son to death for our sake so we wouldn’t have to die such a death ourselves?  was it sinful humanity that angrily nailed him to the tree?  did Jesus die for our sins so we might see how much God loves us?

Make no mistake: there are theologians and pastors who, if preaching here this morning, would answer why Jesus died with bold certainty.  I confess to you it has never been quite so easy for me: I have always been puzzled by the cross of Christ.

Perhaps you are one of those who feels guilty for not having quick answers to tough questions.  Please know this: Jesus didn’t have ready-made answers either.  Remember what he said as he hung on the cross?  Jesus didn’t sing confidently and cheerily, “Oh what a beautiful morning.”  Instead his screaming voice echoed throughout the world, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  Notice, dear friends: this is a painful question about death not a pious answer.

We have little respect for those who are unable to provide convincing answers to baffling questions: good doctors should tell us exactly what’s ailing us; the best presidential candidates should offer solutions to how the economy will prosper; faithful pastors should comfort us with confident reasons why little babies die agonizing deaths.  We want answers; we do not want to sit with questions.

The story is told of a pastor’s kid who asked his father what he did when he visited families who had just lost a loved one.  His father said, “I make the coffee”—that is a wise pastor!

One of my graduate school professors, Dr. Gordon Lathrop, cautions pastors—but he could easily caution us all— “not to have all the answers.”  He writes: “Wise pastors are frequently face-to-face with their own limits, their own helplessness in the face of sorrow, sin, and loss.  They must simply keep silence and be there.”

On this day, fifteen years after the horrific sight of planes flying into the towers, we gather around the cross of Christ and before a few hallowed remnants from those towers kept in the pastor’s office here as sacred relics.  We would love to return to the age of innocence but we gather here in some silence before the awful love of God.

The holy cross reminds us that even in the face of the most inexplicable and horrible wrath this great city has ever known, God suffered similar agony as well. That is why gather here, silently, with questions, and gaze upon the cross, trusting that this is never the final word, that, in fact, from these very ashes hope springs and new life rises on Easter morn.

There are those horrible days when we remember exactly where we were and what we were doing.  You could call it the end of the innocence.  I pray it is more.  I pray that on such occasions, you will always know that the Crucified God loves you in the name of Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.