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“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.

“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.