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“This Little Light of Mine”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“This Little Light of Mine”
(Matthew 5: 13-20)
February 5, 2017 (5th Sunday after Epiphany)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan

Holy Trinity’s stained-glass windows are so stunning. I love walking into the church early in the morning just as the sun begins to shine through them.  I have watched you marvel at the windows as well, pulling out your phones and taking pictures of the wonder of sun and glass dancing together.

Which is your favorite window?  Mine is the “Second Coming of Christ” created by the Tiffany Studios of New York and installed here in 1904.

Those who enter this holy space for the first time, after the sun has set, are clueless as to how much beauty awaits them when the sun finally peaks through the windows.  While the stained-glass never changes, there is a profound difference in the splendor, depending on how much light is shining through.

There is something else about these windows.  Regardless whether it is night or day, no one walking outside of Holy Trinity can imagine the wonder that awaits them when they finally arrive inside here and see the light shining through them.  Stained-glass windows frankly seem to be for the edification of insiders.  The question then is how will those on the outside ever know the glory these windows convey?

When I was a pastor on the Main Line of Philadelphia, we went to great lengths lighting our windows from the inside out.  After every worship service, our custodian Bill Dougherty set up temporary workshop spotlights to shine light through the windows to make certain the stories of God’s love depicted in those windows came alive for all outside passersby.

We are much like these stained-glass windows.  Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.”

We come here, week after week, so that, somehow, Christ’s love might be revealed through us out into the world.  In this place, we are discombobulated by the stories that followers of Jesus actually give away what they have to the poor; we hear that Christians turn the other cheek to those who strike them; we even hear that we love our enemies.  Unless we hear and even see these strange words of Jesus over and over again, we will grow as dull and lifeless as these windows in the wee hours of darkness.

Too often the church is content to operate an insider’s game.  Oh, sure the music can soar and the liturgy can be breathtaking but unless the loveliness of God’s light shines beyond our brick and mortar, beyond our own individual wants and needs, we risk being lackluster stained-glass windows at three in the morning or, as St. Paul said, noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

You know as well as I that much of what happens in places like this can easily become not much more than a confirmation of the world’s dastardly ways.  From pulpits just like this, preachers lambast people with revolting vitriol and drive their followers to become acolytes for all manner of vile acts purportedly done in Christ’s.  It is why so many have given up going to church altogether: rather than a place where brilliant light emanates from hallowed halls like this, all they witness are the confirmation of the dismal shadows and shocking darkness of the world’s wretched hatred and appalling arrogance.

The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who taught just up the street at Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote, “Worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God.”

The most remarkable congregations I know are the ones where breathtaking prayer stimulates them to carry Christ’s light to the dark, dangerous corners of this world. These churches make people shiver in wonder as they behold the majesty of worship dancing hand-in-hand with ministries of compassion and prophetic witness.

During these initial days of Black History Month, I am reminded of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  You have heard his spellbinding preaching in the sanctuary, stirring worshipers to be salt and light.  And yet the special appeal of Dr. King is that he didn’t remain in the sanctuary for long.  He always left the building!  He exhorted his followers to let Christ’s light shine, not just inside the church but outside in the world as well.

You will remember Dr. King was deeply shaped by the nonviolent philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi who, himself, was shaped by the nonviolent life of Jesus.  Nonviolence holds fast to Jesus’ peculiar belief that love can triumph over hatred, and light can shine during the darkest of days.  It is never easy to follow in Dr. King’s footsteps; it is far easier simply to adore him.  Some of his most ardent followers knew this of him.  They begged him to forsake nonviolence and to angrily strike back in the face of vicious racist attacks, but Dr. King would have none of it.  He always sought the higher road, Jesus’ road.  When he spoke out against our nation’s participation in the war in Viet Nam, some closest to him begged him not to get off point: they believed speaking out against Viet Nam would detract from what, in their minds, was the crucial focus on the Civil Rights movement here in the United States.  Again, Dr. King would have none of it.  He had a dream that was far bigger, a dream where all God’s children would live in peace.

These are tough days for many of us to dream, let alone to love.  You have told me how vicious political quarrels are ripping your family apart, how you can’t talk civilly anymore to some of your dearest friends.  Christmas was unbearable for some of you as you sat at dinner and pretty much said nothing of substance to those you love, opting to bury your true feelings and pretending that all was well in our nation.  Hateful things are being said by many people these days, Republican and Democrat alike, liberal and conservative, and, yes, Christian and Muslim and Jew.  Hateful things!

That is why it is so important to gather here this morning and to hear once again the stories of these windows where the Son of God, Jesus Christ, shines thorough gloom and death with the brilliant light of hope and life.  We are here so we might burn more brightly, so we might be a gorgeous people of love not hate, a people who dare to love even our enemies.

We do well to remember Dr. King’s words during this Epiphany season, this blessed season of light: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Let us pray that by God’s grace we will let our little light shine.

“Singing in the Dark Night”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Singing in the Dark Night”
Candlemas/ Presentation of Our Lord
February 2, 2017
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church-New York City

Christmas was forty days ago.  Even though our trees have been tossed curbside and our decorations packed away for weeks now, we continue to long for the Christ Child’s light in our lives.

This evening is an embarrassment of riches if you are still longing for Christmas light.  We celebrate Candlemas, blessing the candles that will light our way through this year. No matter how dark these days, we dare not forget Christ is our light.

We also celebrate the Presentation of Our Lord, recalling how Mary came out of the seclusion of childbirth and, with her husband Joseph, brought their precious little Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem as scripture mandated.

And, yes indeed, today is even Groundhog Day.  While it may seem a frivolous festival observed by furry Phil and his Punxsutawney pals, it is, in fact, more than that: it is the day when people yearn for the distressing winter darkness to give way to the tender, spring light.

Old Simeon and feeble Anna watched and waited at the Temple for years and years just to answer that very question: would light enter the darkness?  Imagine Simeon’s delight as he took the tiny child from Mary’s affectionate hands into his own arthritic ones.  Watch as he lifts Jesus to the heavens; be enchanted by his raspy yet riveting voice singing one of the most enthralling hymns the world has ever heard:
Lord, now let your servant go in peace, according to your word:

My own eyes have seen the salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of every people;
A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.

Simeon could now calmly close his eyes one final time for he had beheld the light that would guide his path through death to life forever.

Lutherans have had a unique love affair with Simeon’s canticle called the Nunc Dimittis in Latin.  At the conclusion of funerals, we open our clenched fists and let our loved ones soar to heaven as if letting a caged bird fly free.  With voices breaking, we sing the best we are able, “O Lord, now let your servant go in peace.”

We sing Simeon’s exquisite song at the final prayer service of the day, Night Prayer (Compline).   We are reminded that every night, as we close our eyes, we die a little death, and yet we trust that when we finally die, we can do so in peace as did Simeon and Anna.

Tiny children sense this little death as monsters lurk beneath their beds.  They pray the simplest and yet sincerest of prayers:

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I shall die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

As we grow older, the darkness is no less terrifying. We watch the evening news, horrified at what might come while we sleep. Monsters lurk this time out in the world we love. We implore Simeon and Anna to come by our side and to support our singing, “Oh Lord, now let your servant go in peace.”

One of my most cherished pastoral memories is gathering at Elsa Mae Rhodes’ bedside at the National Lutheran Home in Rockville, Maryland.  These were her final moments this side of the kingdom-come.  Elsa Mae was the ninety-eight-year-old daughter of African American slaves.  She endured the vile cruelties hurled her way and yet, remarkably,  never lost hope and refused to surrender to bitterness.  Her daughter and I held vigil in the wee hours as Elsa Mae readied herself for the final journey to the far side of the Jordan.  We watched as the light faded in her cataracted eyes, as the memories scampered through her withered mind, and then we heard her begin to feebly and softly sing, not indignantly, but exquisitely:

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

We gather here tonight to praise God for a similar blessing of the light.

In a matter of moments, you will receive a bit of bread and a sip of wine.  Somehow, someway, this is the very body and blood of that tiny Christ Child for whom you have waited.  As the glorious taste lingers in your mouth, may you sing a confident song even as darkness blankets the earth, “Lord, now let your servant go in peace…For my own eyes have seen my salvation.”