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“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.

Daily Devotion – Thursday, March 2, 2017

Matthew 26:17-19

On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.'” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.

Here the disciples act as Jesus asked. They listened, they acted. St. Benedict begins his Rule with “Listen, child of God…” When I read his Rule, I felt that those first words were the entirety of the Rule; the rest is but commentary. Listen! (more…)

“It Takes Two to Gospel: One to Speak and One to Listen”

“It Takes Two to Gospel: One to Speak and One to Listen”
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
November 6, 2016 (25th Sunday after Pentecost)
Luke 20: 27-39

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

Listen carefully, please.  It takes two to gospel: one to speak and one to listen.

You have given me fourteen minutes this morning to say anything I want.  If I do not practice gospelling, you may end up sitting here, miserable and comatose, never having the opportunity to respond.

What if I say: “I am the expert—just ask me.  If only you listen carefully, all will be well.  I have, after all, been educated in religious matters and I know what is best for you.”

That, dear friends, is not gospelling…that is a snooty monologue!

The finest preachers listen to their flocks: they know their names, their deepest hungers, their most profound hurts.  When they stand up in pulpits like this, they do not presume to have all the answers in advance: they have listened carefully to others and to God before ever uttering a word.

In this morning’s story of Jesus’ encounter with the Sadducees, gospelling is undetectable.  The Sadducees, the educated and religious elite, pretended to be eager to hear Jesus’ beliefs about the resurrection and who would be married to whom in heaven.  It quickly became evident that they had no interest in listening to Jesus.  Their conversation was shameless intellectual gamesmanship masquerading as religious inquiry.

This so-called conversation occurred the final week of Jesus’ life.  He had already entered Jerusalem on a donkey and would die in a matter of days.  Much of what occurred during Jesus’ final days was not gospelling.  By the time the Sadducees asked Jesus about heavenly matters, the chief priests and scribes had already cross-examined him as to by what authority he did the things he did, and, soon after that, they asked Jesus whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not.  These questions were all traps like asking someone: “Have you quit beating your spouse?”  There were no correct answers—at least in their minds—though Jesus surprised his interrogators every time.  These religious leaders had no interest in what Jesus had to say.  They had one intention: to entrap Jesus and to kill him.

I imagine most of us have grown weary of the current political climate.  Don’t you sense that about all that is occurring these days is one person seeking to entrap another?   If we were seeking the common good for this nation—Republican and Democrat, Trump and Clinton supporters alike—wouldn’t we listen more carefully to one another rather than call each other names?  What might this nation turn out to be if we pondered together how we might best uphold our highest ideals that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?  What if our greatest yearning was for this vision to flourish from sea to shining sea?

What if we who are white listened carefully to those of us who are black when explaining why “Black Lives Matter”?   I recently was in a conversation with a number of revered African American pastors well into their 80s; they talked of routinely being picked up by police officers.  I had never heard such a thing and I needed to listen to these esteemed clergymen before pontificating on “Black Lives Matter.”

What if we listened to West Virginia coal miners down on their luck, those who have worked hard in incredibly dangerous conditions and now are as angry as hornets as environmental concerns take away their jobs?  How might we care for them and find them dignified work?

And what about police officers, the good ones, like those watching over the marathoners and their families this morning, those who, if we only listen, will tell how their spouses and children breathe a sigh of relief every time they return home safely from a perilous job.  Have we taken the time to listen?

A few years ago, “Christian Century” (considered the flagship magazine among mainline Protestantism) published a series of articles entitled, “How My Mind Has Changed.”  These essays were written by distinguished theologians and pastors.  I sadly remember one influential Lutheran theologian writing that his mind had not changed…I found that very sad.  Wasn’t the Spirit moving in his life or was he perfect just as he was?

Effective gospelling occurs only when we listen with an intent to understand God’s will and are willing to change our uncompromising positions for the good of all humankind.

I recently heard of such gospelling. The Rev. Dr. Frank Senn is a respected Lutheran liturgical scholar and pastor.  He recently presided at his son’s wedding to another man.  This may not surprise you but it did me.  Pastor Senn, after all, is the leader of the Society of the Holy Trinity, a group of Lutheran pastors that has tended to have negative views about our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s 2009 decisions to be more affirming of LBGTQ people.  Here is a bit of what I wrote Pastor Senn on Friday: “Dear Frank, Your willingness to preside at your son’s wedding is a moving testimony, at least to me, of someone who is willing to listen and even change as well as to speak.”  I wonder how closely Pastor Senn listened to his son’s hopes and dreams.  This was gospelling!

In writing to Pastor Senn, I was, of course, thinking about this morning’s gospel reading: what might have happened differently on that Good Friday if the Sadducees had listened to Jesus’ hopes and dreams for his brothers and sisters before they had pontificated on their certainties and tried to entrap Jesus?

In these contentious days leading to Tuesday’s election and following the outcome, one of the precious gifts of the Spirit is and certainly will be to listen to one another, to believe that God is alive in our lives, and that, yes, our minds can be changed for the better.

And that brings me to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity.  I pray that we may model gospelling among ourselves; rather than having all the answers in advance, may we may listen to one another.  Even if the stakes seem minimal like what color to paint the parish hall or where to position the baptismal font, may we listen carefully to one another as we seek how best to proclaim God’s good news here at 65th and Central Park West.

May God bless our congregation and nation with the gifts of listening as well as speaking.  May we gospel together.

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