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“Wildly Extravagant Ministry”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Wildly Extravagant Ministry”
Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
July 16, 2017 (6th Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West

During the next few weeks, Jesus will tell us a few parables about the kingdom of heaven.  His stories about wheat and weeds, a tiny mustard seed, buried treasure, a fine pearl, a fisherman sorting through good fish and bad ones, will invite us to see the Christian life much more exuberantly than most of us typically do.

Jesus might stun us this morning as he tells of the most peculiar seed-sower.  The sower flings seeds every which way—onto rock-hard paths, lousy soil, and weed patches; thank goodness, some seeds end up in good soil.  No hoeing, no fertilizing, no soil analysis at the local community college’s agricultural branch—seeds are simply hurled hither and yon in what appears a wildly careless fashion.

I adore this extravagant seed-sowing technique, I suppose, in large part, because of how I grew up. My parents taught me a far different style: seeds are to be planted precisely, in straight lines, at correct depths, and in carefully prepared soil.  I detest gardening to this day because of the mind-numbingly cautiousness of it all!

I learned a similar risk-adverse style when it comes to money: save it and never spend it foolishly.

I remember taking a vacation to Sea Isle City at the Jersey shore.  My mom and dad kept a financial logbook the entire way.  Every penny spent was recorded: gas purchases, Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls, camping site costs, even the cokes, pizza, and salt water taffy bought on the boardwalk.  At one point—at least this is how I remember it—dad warned us, “We are running very low on cash.  We must be careful or we will run out of money.”  I have a hunch we weren’t quite as low as he made us out to be—dad was far too cautious for that; instead, he was teaching us to be frugal.  I do not remember that vacation as a particularly extravagant or fun one; what I do remember was, at times, being scared to death that we might run out of money!

This may sound unusually harsh toward my father but dad was a very good man.  He grew up in the depression and thriftiness was undoubtedly drilled into him by his parents.  His chief goal in life—and he passed it on to me—was to leave his children and grandchildren enough money so that we could go to any college that accepted us and that as the years went by we would never have to worry—no extravagances, not an ounce, just care for his family’s future.

Some good church people are like my father.  Don’t call them miserly; such a view demeans their well-intentioned sacrifices for the well-being of future generations.  These folks invariably are some of the most generous givers to the church’s ministry.

Churches can easily begin to mimic the anxieties of such good and prudent people. They save money for leaky roofs and, lo and behold, when leaks appear, they become nervous nellies: how can we possibly spend our hard-saved money to repair our roof, we will go broke?

I know a few churches like that; they have literally died with millions of dollars in the bank.  They had oodles of money available to proclaim the good news of Jesus to the community but they were too afraid to do that.  How distasteful to be extravagant, they always thought.  Oh, for sure, they ended up with invincible roofs…they also died rich.

Communities and people who have ears to hear Jesus’ parable of the outlandish sower are inevitably far more vigorous and certainly more exciting.  Jesus wanted us to know that God will create a harvest beyond our imagining, especially if we only dare scatter seeds extravagantly in God’s name. Today is the day to announce that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near—not tomorrow!

How extravagant are you?  Now, please, don’t answer too quickly.  In a congregation I once served, an active member repeatedly voiced harsh criticisms to me because, in his mind, we weren’t spending enough on his favorite pet projects.  He criticized our church as “penny wise and pound foolish” as we tried to get years of deficit spending under control—which we did.  There was only one catch: while he criticized us for being cheapskates, he didn’t give one cent to the church’s ministry, not one!  Don’t feel sorry for him: he drove a fancy sports car!  It is a good idea that whenever we get the urge to demand our church to be more extravagant, we first examine how generous we are ourselves.

Anyway, I can guarantee you that people will be far more attracted to extravagant ministry than miserly ministry!  People can see extravagant joy a mile away and they can smell miserly fear from even further.

We are called to follow the one who gave away everything, including his life, in love for his neighbors.

To be completely honest, a number of churches that have touched me most deeply over the years are long gone.  One church had a building as grand as Holy Trinity’s.  Ministry flourished day and night.  Bills were paid by what I call the “shoebox method,” placing them in a shoebox and prioritizing what had to be remitted immediately before gas, electricity, or water was turned off.  Thousands of people were touched with Christ’s love in this breathtaking place but it is now dead and gone; a Buddhist monastery is in its place.  But I, along with many others, continue to bear the excitement of having been part of that place, a ministry that exuberantly celebrated the life Jesus promised in the face of constant threats of death.  That’s how we learned to do ministry and, God willing, that’s how we will do it here.

You know of such extravagance because you have been there.  You have dropped clods of dirt mixed with your warm tears on your loved one’s casket; you have taken Jesus’ extravagant promise to heart: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of what falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

One day, these words will be spoken over all our graves.  We will be planted in the ground with the assurance that we will sprout up and live forever.

May our hearts be filled with joy as we hear Jesus’ wild story of the extravagant giver and may we fling seeds of hope and joy into all the world.

“Nervousness in the Face of Monstrous Glory”

Pastor Wilbert Miller Sermon
Easter Morning (April 16, 2017)
“Nervousness in the Face of Monstrous Glory”
Matthew 28: 1-10
The Evangelical Lutheran of the Holy Trinity
Central Park West, the City of New York

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

When I interviewed to become Holy Trinity’s pastor exactly one year ago, a number of you wondered, if I were called, how long I would remain as your pastor. I presume the question arose due to my receding hairline, creeping balding spot, and graying temples. It was a fair question. I first offered a pious response, “I will remain as long as the Holy Spirit intends or until you kick me out—whichever comes first.” The other answer, less holy perhaps but likely far more honest, was my standard reply to queries regarding pastoral longevity: “I will remain as long as I am nervous when I mount these pulpit steps.”

I am a firm believer that if one isn’t jittery on a day like this—the good kind, the empowering kind that makes tummies flutter and knees knock—then the magnificence of Easter has probably not been adequately grasped. To be perfectly blunt, this is a once in a life-time opportunity—or at least once in a year—to announce to you, to the best of my pedestrian abilities, that God has routed the devil and death has been destroyed forever.

With that said, I am as nervous as Mary Magdalene and the other Mary when they went to inspect Jesus’ burial site only days after he died.

I bet you are a tad nervous as well. You are wondering: what really happened that first Easter morning when the dew was still on the grass?

Let us not be too quick to answer. Perhaps it is best to let Easter wonder sink in before we utter a word. John Updike writes:

Let us not seek to make [Easter] less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty…

The four gospel writers certainly did not make things “less monstrous.” They exercised considerable restraint when explaining Jesus resurrection.

The old African-American Spiritual asks, “Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?” It certainly would be a nice this morning if I were to tell you exactly who witnessed Jesus rising from the tomb that Easter dawn, but all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are mum on this particular subject. There is no mention of someone seeing Jesus jump from his death bed and announce, with trumpet and timpani accompaniment, “Top of the morning! Happy Easter to you all! Alleluia!” The gospels are unusually subdued, silent really, when describing how Jesus burst from the grave. They resist the temptation to make resurrection wonder less monstrous than it really is. What we inevitably witness is the aftermath of the resurrection, Jesus appearing to various women and disciples after God has raised him up.

What the gospel writers do speak about, however, are the emotions of those who came to the sepulcher and received the stunning news that “he is not here; for he has been raised.”

The women and especially the men are described as fearful and befuddled. This morning’s gospel from Matthew claims Mary and the other Mary ran from the tomb with “fear and great joy.” Fear and great joy—I love that—such a monstrous mixture of emotions when you think about it.

Fear and great joy can easily occur when we stake our lives on the claim that God raised Jesus from the tomb. The thought of God routing death makes us joyful and yet, as is said, we have never seen a resurrection! And so, there is fear as well as joy.

The renowned Yale Professor Jaroslav Pelikan said it this way: “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen—nothing else matters.”

With that being said, we push all our chips to the center of the table, staking our every last cent on Jesus being raised from the dead. It is the only thing that matters!

At the conclusion of worship this morning, you will be invited to “Go in peace. Practice resurrection!” These words come from the Kentucky writer and farmer Wendell Berry. Practice resurrection—that’s how we bet everything that death has been destroyed.

Holy Trinity has been in existence for 149 years now. The only reason we are here is to practice resurrection—the only reason! Countless people just like you have staked millions of dollars over the years here at Central Park West to proclaim that God’s answer to death is always an emphatic “no” and God’s answer to life is always a resounding “yes.”

Death must never be the final answer! We say “yes” to life in this place by operating a women’s homeless shelter downstairs and serving a Saturday meal for those down on their luck so they may know that God longs for them to have a warm bed and a hot meal. Yes to life!

We spent a fortune over the years on stunning music. Our deepest desire is to assist you in singing “alleluia” with the saints and angels whenever you are lost in life’s dingy alleys and have lost the capacity to whistle in the dark.

You practice resurrection, I know you do. You gather at the graveyard in the Spring drizzle. After the last clod of damp dirt hits the casket and everyone returns to their automobiles, you lag behind with the grieving widow. You are tongue-tied. You couldn’t prove resurrection to her if your life depended on it but you hug her nonetheless, hoping that might suffice. Your knees knock and that is a good thing because you are pointing her beyond the grave, beyond neat, domesticated answers you are so tempted to offer. And yet, you opt for the monstrous message, the one you cannot explain but that offers hope in your best friend’s deepest hour of need, the one that is good news and proclaims that Jesus has defeated death for her and the one she loves.

The reason we make such a fuss this morning, with timpani and strings, brass and flowers, and with you!, is because we believe we have a story to tell and a song to sing. You are at the tomb this very moment as sure as those women were there that first Easter morning. You have come to church and your tummy flutters as you hear the news that the tomb is empty and Christ is risen.

I pray this message will fill you with fear and great joy. Run from here and practice resurrection for all this suffering world…Oh yes, and may you always be nervous as you proclaim…

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

“Pull Out the Stops and Let ‘er Rip”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Pull Out the Stops and Let ‘er Rip”
Luke 24: 13-32
April 16, 2017 (Easter Evening Bach Vespers)

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The day after my mother died, I sorted through her most cherished possessions. I was drawn to her books and spotted the Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary she had given my father one Christmas years ago. There was a tiny envelope taped to the title page with my father’s name on it. I carefully opened this secret treasure. The card read: “Wib, there aren’t words in this book that can express my love for you! Your loving wife, Susan.”

The women and men who experienced that first Easter were left searching for adequate words, too. God had done a new thing: God had raised Jesus from the dead. Rather than shouting celebratory words, they were befuddled, terrified, skeptical. They had never seen anything like it!

We are no different. We lack the necessary words to explain what God has done for us in raising Jesus Christ from the tomb. All our words fall short of describing the astonishing power of God’s love for us no matter how hard we try. And maybe that’s a good thing.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes: “Throughout the Gospel, Jesus holds back from revealing who he is because, it seems, he cannot believe that there are words that will tell the truth about him in the mouths of others.”

Isn’t Archbishop Williams correct? Almost any explanation we offer cheapens the spectacle of that first Easter when Jesus rose from the dead. Our lackluster words inevitably jeopardize the wild power of God; we so easily domesticate God’s great victory over sin and death with our narrow vocabularies and scant imaginations. Perhaps the best we can do tonight is bathe in the incomprehensible glory and overwhelming wonder of the Christ’s resurrection.

According to the gospel of Saint Luke, that first evening, only hours after Jesus had risen from the tomb, the disciples were on their way to Emmaus. They were talking up a storm, trying to make sense of it all. In the midst of their bewildered chattering and dazed strolling, Jesus joined them. At first, they didn’t notice him. They just kept yakking away. It was only after lots of talking and an intimate meal that their eyes were finally opened and they realized who was there with them. They said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

While they lacked sufficient words to express what happened that night, they came to know the Risen Christ in the telling of stories and the breaking of bread, things we love doing in this place every Sunday and are doing this very moment.

As the shadows lengthen and the evening comes on this glorious Easter—as will finally occur in all our lives as well—we walk together on our dusty Emmaus Road, telling the resurrection story to one another through the glorious music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Some of us will sing with considerable gusto, convinced Jesus has been raised from the dead. Others are not so sure and thus a bit more reserved. All of us, in our own way, hope that God has destroyed death for us, our loved ones, and this groaning world.

While she is not typically included among the pantheon of musicians honored here at Holy Trinity, indulge me, please, as I quote Grace Slick. She belted out such classics as “White Rabbit” and “Crown of Creation” with the Jefferson Airplane. She knows a thing or two about celebrating, having done a masterful job of it in the late 60s at Woodstock just up the road and at that raucous affair called Altamont in California. Of her singing abilities, Ms. Slick says: “I had limited range-about four notes, and all of them are loud. I don’t do cute little songs because, for whatever reason, I can’t sing softly.”

I suppose we all have limited range when it comes to singing about Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection melody requires more than a solo; sometimes an overflow Easter congregation is best. You see, it always takes at least two to gospel, one to sing and another to listen. And it requires an entire heavenly chorus to proclaim, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

You will take the Easter song with you tonight, from here to the gloomy intensive care unit where your best friend hangs on for dear life. It will be up to you to do the singing. Like Ms. Slick, you may have a limited range as the only accompaniment is the dreadful beep, beep, beep, of the medical apparatus and yet, somehow, someway, you will sing beautifully, “Alleluia! Christ is risen.”

An old Benedictine monk and worship professor of mine instructed us soon-to-be pastors how to create worship on festival nights such as this. Puffing on an ever-present cigarette in one of those long, elegant holders, Father Aidan Kavanagh urged us to “pull out the stops and let ‘er rip.” I suppose there is a holier way of saying it but likely not a more precise one.

Our joy and job this evening, in prayer and words and song, is to convince one another that Jesus Christ has burst form the tomb as those pesky little deaths nip at our heels. So, on this Easter evening, let’s jack up the volume like Grace Slick, be marvelous as Johann Sebastian Bach would have us be, and pull out the stops and let ‘er rip in celebration that Jesus Christ has risen today.

A blessed Easter to you all.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

“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.