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“The Perfect Gift”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“The Perfect Gift”
Luke 2: 22-40
First Sunday of Christmas (December 31, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

Every Christmas, one of my biggest thrills, next to hauling home our tree blocks on end and celebrating our dear Savior’s birth with you, is contemplating the fantasy gifts in the annual Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogue.  A few years ago, I so wanted to give Dagmar Neiman Marcus’ dancing fountains created by the folks who did the ones outside the Bellagio in Las Vegas; we could have had those fountains in our back yard, choreographed to music of our choosing (thank heavens I didn’t give Dagmar the fountains because moving them from San Diego to Manhattan would have been a bear and putting them on Holy Trinity’s rooftop would have been virtually impossible).

This year’s Neiman Marcus gifts were more practical.  There was the pair of Rolls-Royces, one blue, one orange, for the paltry sum of $885,375. I didn’t spring for the set because I couldn’t afford the parking costs after splurging on the autos.  The more charming gift was the one Dagmar and I contemplated giving you: instead of squeezing into our apartment following today’s Mass for the 2nd Annual Miller’s New Year’s Eve Sherry Hour, we could have had 150 rooms at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square, tonight, New Year’s Eve!  Imagine if we had purchased that gift: we would all soon be off for a Times Square rooftop extravaganza with food, drinks, DJ, killer view of the ball drop, and rooms for each of you. All for $1.6 million!

It is never easy to give the perfect gift.  There was that one, the one wrapped up at the Presentation of Our Lord in Jerusalem.  Mary and Joseph took their first born to the Temple and did as God’s law to Moses stipulated: they were purified after childbirth and they consecrated their first-born to God and offered a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.

One of the people awaiting the perfect gift was old Simeon.  He had been at the temple for years, hoping the gift would bring his salvation and the salvation of the entire world.  You can imagine Simeon’s delight as Mary and Joseph placed their tiny child into his gnarled hands; you can see his cloudy eyes sparkle as he lifted this perfect gift heavenwards and proclaimed: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples.”  He could shut his weary eyes anytime now for he had finally received what he had been awaiting, God’s little Son.

Only moments after Simeon lifted the Babe of Bethlehem, Anna, who had spent her widowhood at the temple, night and day, fasting and praying, also savored this heavenly gift.

We Lutherans are particularly fond of Anna and Simeon. In what is perhaps most unique to our Lutheran tradition, we sing Simeon’s gorgeous Nunc Dimittis after receiving Holy Communion: “Now, let your servant go in peace…My own eyes have seen the salvation…”

The one holy catholic and apostolic church adores singing Simeon’s song at Compline, our final night prayer before closing our eyes at the end of day.  We are like children praying, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”  Along with Simeon, we close our eyes in stillness, confident that God protects us as darkness settles in.

We sing Simeon’s song one more time, at the close of the funeral liturgy, when our loved ones have closed their eyes the final time this side of the kingdom come.  Immediately after we have heard the pastor say, “Receive your servant into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light,” with tears streaming down our faces, we join Simeon in song, “Lord, now let your servant go in peace.”

Simeon and Anna, though in their autumn years, were crammed with vigorous hope. They gathered at their beloved temple and reminisced about the past but also dreamed of the future.  The past summoned them into the future; they were confident that their and our future is in God’s hands.

We are called to be Simeon and Anna here at Holy Trinity.  Beginning tomorrow, we will spend a year reminiscing about 150 years of exemplary ministry in this place.  We will recall the saints who have lifted up the Christ Child for the salvation of the world.  We will do more than look backward and reminisce, however.  Like Anna and Simeon, we will also hope.  We will sing stunning music, hear the Lutheran church’s finest preachers.  Our calling has been and will continue to be to wait for our salvation to come to this great city of New York as a vulnerable and loving child, Jesus Christ our Lord, and then to tell the world what we have heard and seen and tasted.

The Christ Child is the perfect gift for a time such as this, for us, for those we love, and for those we are called to serve.  Happy New Year and Happy 150th, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“Gun Control Begins Here”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Gun Control Begins Here”
(Matthew 21: 33-36)
October 8, 2017 (18th Sunday after Pentecost)

You have come here this morning for a host of reasons. Perhaps you are visiting this city that purportedly never sleeps and decided to come and check out this congregation’s rich musical tradition; maybe you are here because, well, that’s what your parents taught you to do every Sunday morning when you were a kid. You might be here longing to snuggle beneath God’s gentle wings after a frenzied week. Have any of you perchance come to hear what this wrinkled and humdrum preacher might say about last Sunday evening’s massacre in Las Vegas?

If you have come to hear my take on Las Vegas, be assured I have preached about guns a time or two during my years of ministry. One Spring, the church I served in inner-city Philadelphia was packed, night after night, as enraged African American citizens demanded justice following the cold-blooded murder of ten-year old Tracy Chambers by white snipers. I preached at YBB Mushala’s funeral, the father from Tanzania who worked for Voice of American and was murdered with a shotgun at the tavern he owned near Howard University. I once disarmed a member ready to blow his brains out. Many of you have already heard quite a few of my other gun stories. Oh yes, have I ever preached about guns!

Let me be clear lest I sound muddled: I despise guns, absolutely abhor them.

Our nation is plagued by a dreadful gun epidemic. The United States has only 4.4% of the world’s population and yet we own almost half the world’s civilian-owned guns.

We are numb. Perhaps numbness is the best day-by-day survival technique we can adopt in this gun-crazed country. Why were we not more shocked when we awakened Monday morning to hear the horrifying news that Stephen Paddock had unleashed the deadliest mass shooting in our history, killing 58 and injuring more than 500? Las Vegas today, Sandy Hook yesterday, who knows where tomorrow? Numb!

Regardless of what you think about the 2nd Amendment and how the right to keep and bear arms relates to militias, I harbor the quirky assumption that most of you, perhaps all of you, believe there is one pesky little commandment that puts that amendment to shame: “You shall not kill.”

Yes indeed, I intend to speak about guns this morning and, in particular, how they apply to this lovely vineyard God has entrusted to our care at 65th and Central Park West. While we may not be packing a pistol this morning, we may be packing an attitude just as lethal. This is where gun control begins for us.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me—let us not believe in childish fairytales! Words are deadly, one of the most violent weapons we brandish.

Frederick Buechner urges when we pray at night “to remember not just the wars fought on a national scale, but also the wars that we’re all of us engaged in—aggressive wars to gain control, to get the upper hand, to have the last word, to get our way, fought not with weapons or even letters, but with silences and tones of voice and all the ways we know of fighting with each other. We’re often at war with the people we love the best.” He goes on, “…at the end of the day, as you look back over your wars, ask yourself, who were you fighting today? Did you deliver the knockout blow? Was it worth it?”

Churches, lamentably, are notorious for our lethal artilleries. I have heard reports of people jumping across tables and engaging in fist fights at council meetings. One assistant to the bishop told me about a church in his synod that was forced to institute a policy forbidding members to bring guns to church meetings—imagine that! Many have been moved to tears at such meetings, vowing never to return; sadly, some never have. Such meetings cause me to say—often not in jest—if I get to heaven and a council meeting or congregational meeting is in session, I will ask Saint Peter if there is perchance another option for eternity.

Before we talk about deranged killers in Las Vegas and Orlando, Sandy Hook and Charleston, let us examine ourselves. How we treat one another in this vineyard speaks volumes about what we believe about violence. Today’s gospel reading invites us to a higher way, to seek Jesus’ face in every person here, especially those with whom we disagree. We dare not revert to that pathetic old saw, “This is New York and that’s how we do things.” Nonsense! God invites us to a more excellent vision: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Oh yes, we are obliged to speak about gun control and that conversation must begin here. And yet there is so much more to talk about. Jesus comes to this vineyard this morning. That is, of course, why we should pray that God will disarm us all. The first epistle of John says, “Whoever does not love abides in death.” Constant bitterness and lingering rancor lead to death, in ourselves and families, in our churches and nation. When we plead with God for all to be disarmed, we are praying for life for our friends and our enemies.

When we arrived here this, God offered us a breathtaking weapons exchange; we were invited to trade in our own deadly weapons of bitterness and hatred, pettiness and selfishness, for the astonishing forgiveness of God. In a few moments, as we pass the peace of Christ, my deepest longing is that we will hear the heavenly words, “The peace of Christ be with you always,” from one who has done us wrong or whom we have offended.

That, my dear friends, is how we best begin the conversation about gun control, here in this vineyard edging on Central Park. By the grace of God, may we lay our weapons down and open our hearts, receiving and sharing the love of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

“Promises, Promises at Water’s Edge”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Promises, Promises at Water’s Edge”
(Romans 13: 8-14; Matthew 18: 15-20
September 10, 2017 (14th Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West & 65th

In a few moments, we will make a lot of promises.  Margot’s parents, Christine and Steven, will make promises; her godparents, Elizabeth and Jens, will make promises, too, as will her grandmas and grandpas.  Promises, promises.  We will all make promises.

Margot is such a precious little child.  She may need a story tonight when she awakens at three in the morning and a pesky monster lurks under her crib.  Mommy and daddy—you will come running and you must be able to tell a story that will calm her fears and let her know God is with her.

This will happen countless times in her life.  Some of Margot’s first words will be, “Tell me a story.”  You might tell her “Goldilocks,” “Good Night Moon,” “The Velveteen Rabbit.”  Her eyes will be wide open as she listens and she will almost always beg you, “Tell me one more story.”

That’s why we make promises this morning.  We promise to place the holy scriptures in Margot’s hands so she may know that one last story where God is with her every moment of her life.

In our second reading this morning, St. Paul told the Christians in Rome that their highest calling was to love one another.  That is one way of saying that our highest calling is to dig deep for the one last story that will comfort our friends and family.

Jesus told countless stories to do just that.  One was about ninety-nine sheep who behaved themselves and one rascal that wandered away.  The astonishing thing—unlike almost any story we know—is that the shepherd risked ninety-nine sheep in order to save one mischief-maker.  Jesus told this story so we might know the extent to which God goes to save us from disaster.  He told another story, one about forgiving a person.  How many times must we forgive someone who has done us wrong?  Jesus’ story suggested not once or twice but at a bare minimum of 490 times.

These stories are worth telling…and hearing.

Never forget this: we are not the only ones making promises this morning.  God makes promises, too, to Margot and to all of us, to be with us and to love us no matter what life brings.

Think of all the people who need such a story this morning.

What story should we tell the people in the Caribbean and Florida?  Might we tell them that once upon a time there was a horrific storm a thousand times worse than Irma or Harvey?

Remember? God was so frustrated with the treachery of his children that he annihilated just about everything and everyone, except for Noah and his family and a few scraggly animals on a rickety boat.  As the waters finally began to subside, after forty days and forty nights of terror, God was heartbroken by the destruction God had rained down on the beloved creation.  The final part of the story which we must never forget is how God stretched a rainbow across the sky.  You can see the tears sliding down God’s face as he says, “Never again will I deliver such devastation on my dear children.”  We promise to tell this story on God’s behalf to the people of the Caribbean and Florida this morning.

Oh yes, think of everyone who needs a story.

Tomorrow morning, I will offer prayers at Engine 40/ Ladder 35 Firehouse.  Twelve of thirteen men on duty at the firehouse two blocks from here at 66th and Amsterdam perished that day when they went to rescue their brothers and sisters at the raging Twin Tower inferno.  (The relic at the altar this morning is Twin Tower rubble now kept permanently in the pastor’s office; it was a gift from the firehouse to Holy Trinity’s pastor, Robert Scholz, who provided exemplary pastoral care during those horrific days.)  What story might I tell on your behalf, tomorrow, to parents, wives, and children who continue to grieve the loss of loved ones?  I probably will tell them something like this, “Yea though I walk through the valley of death, I shall fear no evil.”

It is not always easy to keep our promise, to tell a compelling and comforting story of God’s presence when evil lurks and does its dirty dance.  That is why we dare not forget the story of the baptismal waters where, here today, great sea monsters will try to grab Margot’s little toe and pull her under and yet, in the midst of the fury, God will go to battle to rout the great Leviathan of the deep and to save Margot.  Is it any wonder she might scream as water streams down her face?

The only story finally worth telling is when, once upon a time, the world tried to keep God from loving us by hanging Jesus on the cross.  You know the story—the greatest one ever told.  Death was not the end of that story nor can it ever be when we are telling God’s stories.  Never!  We champion life: for hurricane victims, families grieving the loss of firemen sixteen years later, and dreaming refugees fearful that they might be carted off from this country they love.

Keep telling that story to Margot, when she dances for the first time, when she walks down the aisle with the love of her life, when she has her first baby.  Tell that story, too, when she breaks up with her first boyfriend and is crushed, when she comes down with a weird cough that while likely harmless scares you to death; tell the story of God’s love when she calls late at night from college a million miles away and says, “Mommy and daddy, I need to talk.”

That’s why we go to the water now.  Yes, in years to come, tell Margot Elizabeth Rocchio about what happened today, something like this: “My dear and precious Margot, once upon a time, long ago, we dressed you in a beautiful white gown and took you to church.  You were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and then you were anointed with oil because you are a queen in God’s sight.  Yes, on that day, precious Margot, God promised to love you forever and ever.”

“New York, New York: A Number One, Top of the List”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“New York, New York: A Number One, Top of the List”
Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
September 3, 2017 (13th Sunday after Pentecost”
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

After fourteen months in the Big Apple, I think I’m starting to get Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York thing, the “A Number One, Top of the List” thing—who doesn’t want that!

Not in a million years did I ever imagine I would ever consider betraying my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates and contemplate becoming a Yankee fan.  The Pirate’s victory over the Yankees in the 1960 World Series is tattooed on my heart.  When little Bill Mazeroski hit THE HOMERUN in the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game, the Pirates became world champions.  You zealous Yankee fans remember Maris and Mantle, Berra and Howard.  I will never forget Dick Groat and “The Deacon” Vernon Law, and my hero, number 21, Roberto Clemente.

Funny thing, though, I might be edging over to the dark side.  Yesterday, Dagmar and I walked into Yankee Stadium for the fourth time this year.  I saw “27 World Series Championships” emblazoned just above the press box in that adorable, swirly Yankee script and gazed out at Monument Park where The Babe, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio are immortalized.  It all made me a tad teary-eyed.

Who doesn’t want to be “A Number One, Top of the List” in New York, New York?  Jesus’ disciples wanted it, too—well, not exactly in New York, but you get the drift.  Peter and his cohorts dropped their fishing nets and tax ledgers and abandoned their families with high hopes that following the Son of the living God would bring them fame and perhaps even fortune.

We all join the disciples with our lofty wishes—for our jobs and families and here for our church.  But just as we start getting all puffy-chested about our accomplishments, Jesus blasts us, “Get behind me, Satan!”

We immediately lean on Peter for support because Jesus’ words devastate us so and then, in the midst of our swoon, just for good measure, Jesus adds, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

It makes no sense.  We always thought being a Christian would make us happier, maybe even successful, famous and rich, certainly “A Number One, Top of the List.”

Arnold Bruins will be baptized in a few moments.  I love adult baptisms because adults have the option of running out of here on their own steam right before the water is lavishly poured.

Anne Lamott writes of this messy thing Arnold is about to do: “Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rain and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time it’s holy, and absurd. It’s about surrender, giving in to all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched.”

As water soaks through Arnold, he will be reminded that he has just joined a community that, on our best days, tries to follow Saint Paul’s mandate: “Bless those who persecute you…do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly…Do not repay anyone evil for evil…live peaceably with all…”

In groups like Rotary, when you join, they make it all nice and pretty.  I know this because I once was in Rotary, was actually the president-elect before we moved out of town.   They shook my hand, gave me a nice shiny pin with a fake diamond in the middle, and said they were a great group that did marvelous things for people like eradicating polio throughout the world—and that was all true.  In this place when you join, we drench you and, for good measure, in case you aren’t already humiliated enough, we say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

It’s the darndest thing.  Is it any wonder the church isn’t exactly A Number One, Top of the List?

Douglas John Hall is now ninety years old and taught theology at McGill University in Montreal for many years.  I adore Dr. Hall if for no other reason than because of a few lines he wrote in his book, “The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World.”  I have sent his words to countless pastors whose churches faced seemingly insurmountable crisis and I have even sent them to a few bishops encountering cantankerous congregations and sometimes harebrained pastors—there are only a few!  I now share Dr. Hall’s words as a gift to you: “How could we have listening to the Scriptures all these centuries…like the Beatitudes (“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account”) and yet formed in our collective mind the assumption that Christian faith would be credible only if it were popular, numerically superior, and respected universally?  How could we have been contemplating the ‘despised and rejected’ figure at the center of this faith for two millennia and come away with the belief that his body, far from being despised and rejected, out to be universally approved and embraced.”

Oddly, Jesus calls us to be a community that measures being “A Number One, Top of the List” by whether we take up the cross and follow him.  God willing, we will call success what the rest of the world calls failure: we will give our riches away to the poor; we will do our best to bite our tongues when someone has been very nasty to us; and we will even try to love those who can’t stand us and whom, frankly, we find insufferable as well.

That is the community Arnold joins as we now pour water all over him. Together we proclaim that being “A Number One, Top of the List” has everything to do with following Jesus and we will do our best to love one another in Christ’s name no matter how tough life’s challenges may become and, yes, even if the Yankees don’t make it to the World Series.  In spite of it all, we believe we are “A Number One, Top of the List” because we have been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“The Grace to Change Our Minds”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
“The Grace to Change Our Minds”
Matthew 15: 21-28
August 20, 2017 (Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West

These are tumultuous times, times that in the words of Mitt Romney cause “racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast heart of America to mourn.”

As white supremacists parade swastikas through American streets, neo-Nazis present Hitlerian salutes in front of synagogues, and Ku Klux Klan members wave Confederate flags in African Americans’ faces, we must examine our souls this morning and cry out in horror, “My God, my God!”

One of you asked me following worship on Wednesday evening, “What can I do?” Your question was borne in fear for our nation and for our African American, Jewish, Muslim, and LGBTQ brothers and sisters. You have participated in countless protest marches and called your representatives in Washington, but the madness continues; in desperation, you wonder, “What else can I do?”

My answer may seem surprisingly passive, simplistic even. I said, “What you can do is go to church.”

I believe going to church is the most radical thing we can do in these perilous times—not the only thing, mind you, but the most radical thing. This is where we gather to hear a different word—not a partisan word from Republicans or Democrats or a brawling word from CNN or MSNBC, The New York Times or Breitbart. Here we gather to receive a creative word from God amidst the jarring cacophony of anti-Semites, the harsh screams of racists, and the pathetic whimpers of scaredy-cats. The word we hear in this place implores us to seek an uncommon way, a way overflowing with love for our enemies. This fresh way of viewing the world challenges the very core of our being: “There is neither Greek nor Jew, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran martyr who sacrificed his life against the Nazi madness, seemed to agree that church-going in tough times is exactly what we should do: “The early morning belongs to the Church of the risen Christ. At the break of light the church remembers the morning on which death and sin lay prostrate in defeat and new life and salvation were given to mankind.”

The word of God that raised Jesus from the dead has the exact same power to eradicate the demonic insanity that threatens to rip our nation asunder. Yes, indeed, we come to church this morning to learn a different language so that when we leave here today, we are able to speak the vibrant language of God’s love to our suffering world.

The story we just heard may not sound at all like the life-giving word we are in search of on a day such as this. The Canaanite woman who approached Jesus was an old enemy of his “people.” It seemed only natural for Jesus to detest her; she came from across the border after all, Syria, and worshiped gods repugnant to God’s chosen people. It seems like the wrong word for today because Jesus plummeted to sickening lows of racial superiority. As the woman knelt before him, pleading for her demon-possessed daughter, Jesus’ response was disgusting: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

The Canaanite woman refused to surrender, she would not be deterred: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Outcast that she was, she believed God’s word could overcome hatred and because of that stunning confidence, Jesus said, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And, of course—surprise, surprise—Jesus changed how he felt about this woman from the other side!

It may sound blasphemous to suggest that Jesus changed his mind and yet have we not come here this morning for an extraordinary word from God, a word not of our own making but of God’s, a word that can set this world upside down? Far from being blasphemous, to be able to change one’s mind is a gracious gift from God.

Perhaps you think changing your mind—or Jesus changing his—is a demonstration of weakness. If that’s what you think, know that God changed God’s mind as well.

In the story of Noah, after annihilating pretty much every human-being and the entire creation, God stretched out a rainbow in the sky and changed God’s mind: “The waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9). On another occasion, when the Israelites created a golden calf and God was beside himself with fury, Moses implored the Lord to think twice before wiping them out. And, once again, a surprising word: “And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people” (Exodus 32). Did you hear that? God repented, God changed God’s mind!

Far from heresy, as I said, the greatest grace is the astonishing news that if God can change God’s mind, God can certainly change our minds and our enemy’s.

I know this can happen because it happened to me a few months ago when an African American Lutheran pastor worshiped right here on Sunday morning. At the Passing of the Peace, I unfortunately did not greet her personally. While we met after worship, she was quite upset and said so on Facebook. I was crestfallen. I quickly built up walls of defense as to why I was right and she was wrong: I didn’t notice her; I would never do such a thing; I have served African American congregations; we raised our sons in African American communities; I was arrested at the South African Embassy in Washington, DC, protesting its racist apartheid regime. But it didn’t take long to realize that I had overlooked the pain she was feeling at having been left out all the while trying to justify my inaction. At that moment, God spoke a new word to me that changed my mind and, hearing that word, I apologized to her publicly on Facebook and wrote her a personal note begging her forgiveness. When she wrote back thanking me, I felt a great grace extended to me from her and from God…I pray that I was changed for the better.

We are pointing a lot of fingers these days, uttering lots of harsh words. Could some of our anger be borne in the frustration that nothing will ever change—in our enemies who seem so brazenly wicked, with our families whom we so vigorously disagree, and even in the dark caverns of our own shady hearts? I wonder…

That is precisely why we need to go to church in these tumultuous times. It is in this place where we hear that God can change anyone, including our enemies and, yes indeed, even ourselves.