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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.

“Orphans No More”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Orphans No More”
John 14: 15-21
May 21, 2017 (Sixth Sunday of Easter)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

My heart plummets every time I hear Jesus’ words, “I will not leave you orphaned.”  I know Jesus meant no harm; in fact, I’m sure he intended to cheer us up.  But the word “orphan” flusters me nonetheless…  Let me explain.

When I was in second grade at Woodsdale School, a number of my little classmates were orphans.  They lived at the Wheeling Children’s Home, a sprawling castle straight out of a Dickens novel.  The kids wore humdrum clothing and had shabbier haircuts than the ones my father gave me.  It was all perfectly adequate if you had nowhere else to live but it scared me to death: might I, one day, end up in the children’s home on Orchard Road?

Don’t we all fear ending up orphans?

That is why, about twelve hours before his crucifixion, Jesus gathered his beloved disciples for a final supper and promised them, “I will not leave you orphaned.”

Oh, the horror abandonment!

The cruelest thing I can recall doing as a parent occurred when our son Caspar was six years old.  We were on our way from Washington, D.C. to Wheeling, West Virginia, to visit my parents.  We stopped at our favorite rest area that had fascinating exhibits about the construction of stunning Interstate 68 running through the mountains of Western Maryland.  After exploring the displays, we went outside and hid behind a kiosk.  We were certain Caspar would find us but he barely looked for us.  He instantly thought he had been deserted.  By the time we realized the terror that had overcome him, he was sprinting across the pedestrian bridge spanning the interstate.  We screamed, “Caspar, Caspar,” but to no avail; he could not hear us.  Once he reached the other side, to our utter revulsion, he spotted the lot where our car was parked and ran back, straight across the six-lane highway, with huge semis sweeping down through the mountains at seventy miles an hour.  Thank God, he ran fast and, thank God, we got to him.

How terrible to be left alone!

Jesus knew we would feel deserted after his crucifixion, not just in the immediate days following but down through the centuries as well.  Just entering this sanctuary can feel terribly isolating.  We come here bruised and broken, desperately longing for someone’s attention.

My greatest goal for Holy Trinity is that every person who enters this holy place will feel showered with Christ’s love—it has been my goal at every church where I have the pastor.  Even if this morning is your first time here and you had hoped to sneak in here undetected, sit alone, and examine the goings-on from afar, I still hope you end up feeling a bit overwhelmed by someone’s friendliness.  To be honest, I hope you feel the welcome a bit like overcooked evangelical fervor.  Isn’t it better to have someone take notice of you than to slink out of here with ne’er a word of welcome uttered your way?

You know how awkward it feels to be an outsider.  You have visited a church for the first time or arrived at a party and not known a soul.  For introverts like me, introductions and mingling are exhausting work.  The usher hands you a bulletin with nothing more than a perfunctory nod; when the peace is passed, you watch others cheerfully hug and kiss and you feel a million miles away.  Even though a few folks say “peace” to you, the word doesn’t feel nearly as familiar as what you observe others feeling toward one another. This all makes you feel edgy.  As the week wears on, you finally muster the courage to tell a coworker about visiting a church where the music was stunning, the sermon stirring, and the architecture soaring; unfortunately, the only lasting taste you have is not a soul talked to you.  You felt abandoned, rather like an orphan.  It was exhausting.

I pray that we might all have eyes of Christ, eyes that, upon entering this sanctuary, immediately begin looking for someone who is alone.  What a wonderful gift if our initial inclination is not to seek the ones we know best but rather to seek out the stranger, the one we have never met.

On that final night, Jesus said to his friends, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  (Listen carefully to those words put to gorgeous music during this morning’s offertory anthem.)  Of these words, “keep my commandments,” Martin Luther writes: “Christ says, ‘I ask and demand no more than this one thing, that you faithfully preach about me, watch over my Word and Sacrament, show affection and harmony among one another for my sake, and patiently bear the adversities that this entails for you.’”  Luther could easily have said, “Keep your eyes out for the visitor and the lonely one and shower them with affection—they need it.”

Jesus asks us to be babysitters until he returns.  We are the ones responsible for telling the frightened and lonely and the self-conscious, “Your mommy and daddy will be back soon” or, better yet, “Jesus will come again.”  And, until he returns, we spread out a meal for one and all and say, “Take and eat.”

We are fast approaching the summer months—you can feel the heat already.  Soon after Dagmar and I arrived last summer, one of the first things you told us was: “Don’t worry if no one shows up the second Sunday you are here.  That says nothing about what people think of you.  Everyone leaves New York on summer weekends.”  When I was a pastor in Washington, D.C., this exodus had a churchly title similar to Christmas, Lent, and Easter; it was called “Beachtide.”

My deepest desire is for each of you to have a delightful summer; you deserve a sabbath, a rest at the beach, a hike in the mountains, a breather where your soul is refreshed from the city’s onslaught.  But, when you are in town, please do as Jesus asks: keep his commandments and show up here.  People need you to welcome them and to love them and my hunch is you need it too.

Just to assure one another that we have not been left orphaned, let us proclaim yet again, “Alleluia!  Christ is risen!”

“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!

“Never Said a Mumblin’ Word”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Never Said a Mumblin’ Word”
(Matthew 26:14-27:66)
April 9, 2017 (Palm Sunday/ Passion of Our Lord)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

Every year, one of the many Holy Week tasks is determining how the Passion of Our Lord will be read.  Some years the choir sings of Jesus’ final hours on earth; other years, two people read the entire story from Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  This morning, we thought it would be a good idea to involve a host of people in Saint Matthew’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion.  As you have just experienced, this offered each of you an opportunity to tell some part of Jesus’ death.

The first decision for today’s reading was to determine how many readers were necessary for the various parts. Next, I gave careful thought to who should read each part.  I worried about a few of the key rolls.  How to ask delicately: “I was wondering if you would you like to be Peter;” “I think you would make a splendid Pilate;” worst of all perhaps, “Have you ever thought about being Judas at church on Palm Sunday?”  More than once in my ministry, someone has been terribly offended by one of my requests; rather than feeling honored, they have blurted out, “Pastor, how dare you ask me to be Judas?”  Oh, the landmines of pastoral ministry!

And then, I wondered about the rest of you: would your feelings be hurt if you were asked to shout out the crowd’s atrocities: “He deserves death,” “Let him be crucified,” “Hail, King of the Jews”?  I can hear a few of you muttering this very moment, “I would never say such a thing.  Who do you think I am anyway?”

After all that, there were two other daunting challenges: who to choose to be the narrator and who to be Jesus?  The narrator was easy: pick someone who can read clearly and with solemnity.

But Jesus.  That was dicier.  This went beyond choosing someone who could be heard.  This person, the chief character, must read flawlessly and profoundly.

What surprised me this year and always has—shocked me might be more precise—is how little Jesus said in Matthew’s gospel.  Given the scarceness of Jesus’ words in his final hours, a four-year-old could do this part admirably—or even I could.  As the old African-American spiritual would have it, “Jesus never said a mumblin’ word.”

How many words would you have uttered if you had been in Jesus’ place—what with Judas betraying you, Peter getting all weak-kneed and turning his back on you, and Pilate being gutless as he gauges the political winds?  Add to that cast of hapless clowns, what would you have said in the face of the macho soldiers and jeering crowds, the ripping thorns and driving nails, the sour wine and piercing spear, and the disgusting spitting in your face.  Do you think you would have remained silent for even a second in the face of such cruelty or would you have spewed forth heaps of bile?

The old seventh century desert monk John of the Ladder wrote, “Jesus by his silence shamed Pilate.”  In truth, Jesus’ silence shames us all.  We are, after all, a people of many words and so easily offended; we have opinions on a host of matters regardless of what knowledge we might possess; we abhor silence and covet having the final word on every issue.

There is soaring dignity in this man Jesus, especially given the few words he spoke.  There is exquisite elegance in how he let his actions speak for him.  So few words…so few words.

During this week, we will once again walk with Jesus.  All the characters in today’s story with the exception of Jesus are so maddening.  While we hate the thought of filling in for them, honesty compels us to confess that we are much like them.  The passion narrative we have just heard from the gospel of Matthew, far from being antiquated and irrelevant, is as fresh and timely as ever.

Oh, how few words Jesus spoke.  Oh, his wondrous silence.  Jesus never said a mumblin’ word but, oh, how he loves us.  On a day such as this, we do well to listen or, better yet, to watch every move Jesus makes.

“Burst Egos and the Glory of God”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s
Vesper’s Sermon
2nd Sunday in Lent (March 12, 2017)
Romans 4: 1-5; 13-17
“Burst Egos and the Glory of God”

William Muehl preached to my classmates and me on our first day at Yale Divinity School. Our future preaching professor looked out over the proud throng of students in Marquand Chapel and noted how delighted our parents must be that we would soon be pastors serving Christ’s beloved church. He also noted how thrilled our grandmas and grandpas were with our apparent holiness and profound piety. He then paused for what seemed an eternity; he looked over the entire incoming class of seminarians. Then he said, “Admit why you are really here: you could not get into Yale Law School or Yale Medical School”…we had not even yet come to discover that the divinity school was unfortunately known as and euphemistically called the “back door to Yale”—and thus our holy and academic egos were burst very quickly!

…And here I am tonight. I have made it thus far by faith! I join so many of my heirs, a cast of ridiculous characters who ended up doing the Lord’s work in spite of their repugnant flaws and because, frankly, nothing else seemed to work out.

This morning at Mass, we heard about Abram. He and his wife, Sarai, were an unlikely couple for God to call on to be the parents of a great nation. They were well into their nineties; their AARP cards were terribly crinkled and their life savings were almost exhausted. They were supposed to be parents of a great nation and they had no children yet to construct the foundations of such a nation. It was clear: if they were going to be the progenitors of a great nation, God better get busy.

I think you know: a geriatric miracle occurred; Abram and Sarai became the proud parents of a bouncing baby boy named Isaac.

We heard of another unlikely character at Mass this morning—we just read a bit from one of his letters to the people of Rome. His name was Saul…at least for a while. He was a wretched fellow, the unlikeliest of all to do the Lord’s work. This guy made his reputation killing Christians and was proud of it. He kept up his deadly ways until he was struck by lightning. With that, his name suddenly changed from Saul to Paul and he ended up being one of the greatest evangelists the church has ever known—even better than Jim Swaggert!

All these folks were unlikely applicants to do the Lord’s work and perhaps that’s just the way God likes it. It was Paul himself who said that Abraham became great, not because of his goodness but because of the goodness of God and because God loved him.

There are other unlikely characters too—you! I would talk about myself as unlikely but I have already confessed my difficulties getting into law school and medical school. What about you? Do you measure up to do the Lord’s work? My experience is that except for a few self-righteous prigs, most of you feel underwhelmed by your faithfulness and not particularly perky about your holiness prospects. You say things like, “I am a terrible Christian” or “You are the good person who does the Lord’s work, not me” or “I wish I could believe this stuff, but I just can’t.”

We get it into our minds that it is up to us alone to do the Lord’s work and, for whatever reason, many of us don’t feel up to the task. According to Saint Paul, when we do good for the kingdom of God, it is due to the Lord and not to us. The fancy theological term for this, by the way, is the grace of God.

God loves us deeply, each of us. While we may be none too impressed by our contributions to the world, somehow, by the grace of God, each of us in our own way—maybe in a very small way but in our way nonetheless—will do something very good that will tilt this world ever so slightly for the better…all because of the grace of God.

I have told you of a few of my desert island books. One is Graham Greene’s stunning “The Power and the Glory.” The main character is a wretched whiskey priest always searching to wet his whistle. He is a sloshed bum who sickens himself worst of all. He knows his shortcomings better than anyone. But when the powers that be in Mexico forbid the church from preaching God’s word to suffering souls, baptizing little-bitty babies, and giving people the gifts of Christ’s body and blood who hunger for heavenly food, of all the unlikely people, the old drunken priest is the one who tramps over the hot, arid Mexican mountains, from one desperate town to the next, risking his neck so poor peasants might hear and taste once again the wondrous presence of God even while he is always on the lookout for another cheap bottle of booze. By the grace of God and surpassing anything the pathetic priest realizes, he bears mercy for a tormented land.

This cast of unlikely characters should show you how God weaves heavenly wonder in our midst. You may say, “I am not too religious” or even “Pastor, if only you knew the truth about me.” And yet, it is at that very moment, exactly when we think we are miserable foul-ups and sinners that God’s glory shines through us. There is hope, my dear friends; God works through people just like you and me.