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“Lifting up the Lowly, Rising Above 36”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Lifting up the Lowly, Rising Above 36”
Luke 1: 26-55
August 13, 2017 (Mary, Mother of Our Lord)

“Today we lift up Mary, Mother of Our Lord…Okay, let’s deal with the rhinoceros in this Lutheran room immediately.  When you saw Mary and her son, Jesus, and read “Mary, Mother of Our Lord” on the bulletin cover, you might have thought, “Lutherans don’t believe in Mary!”  Let me say straight away: one of our Lutheran confessional documents (“The Formula of Concord”) states: “We believe, teach, and confess, that Mary did not conceive and bear a mere and ordinary human being, but the true Son of God; for that reason she is rightly called and in truth is the Mother of God.”

Did you hear that: the Mother of God!  Theotokos!!!

We confess every week, “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary and became truly human.”

We dare not forget the critical role Mary played in Christ’s life and in salvation history: she is a model of faith for us all.

When the angel Gabriel came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you…You shall bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,” Mary was shocked: “How can this be, since I have no husband?”  How right she was: she was a gangly teenager, from a backwater town, far too young to have a baby.

We have said something similar this morning, “How can racism and bigotry in this country ever end?”

We might even say it about our church, Holy Trinity: how can Christ appear here?  Dagmar and I were at the Newport Jazz Festival last weekend. We had a stunning time.  Our favorite was Maria Schneider and her orchestra; imagine my surprise this morning when our wonderful soloist, Anna Lenti, told me that her father taught Ms. Schneider at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester.

Upon our return, I immediately went to the church office to see how many of you attended worship last Sunday.  36!  I hate to admit this publicly because, first of all, I don’t want to discourage you, and secondly, I put all my sermons on Facebook and our website.  You can already hear the whispers: “What’s going on at Holy Trinity?  36 at worship?”  You may be thinking along similar lines, “Apparently the new pastor is sinking the ship!”  36 causes me similar concerns so I protest: July attendance was the highest in at least the past five years…Who wants Holy Trinity to look like Podunk?

We can easily become depressed these days, in so many ways and in so many places.  But with Mary as our pioneer, we are encouraged to rise above 36 and to believe that “with God nothing will be impossible.”

But it’s not easy.  It wasn’t easy for Mary either.  As soon as her little son was born, she and her husband Joseph, with diaper-clad Jesus in tow, were off and running to Egypt, hounded by a paranoid king threatened by just about any pipsqueak who came his way.  It was pretty much like that until Mary ended up at the foot of the cross, weeping, as her dear son breathed his last.  Poor, poor Mary.

Luckily, Mary, good Jewish girl she was, had powerful memories.  She remembered the other blessed women down through the ages, barren women like Sarah, Rebekah, and even Mary’s older cousin Elizabeth.  None of these women had reason to hope, none except that they had heard from someone, in a place like this, that with God nothing will be impossible.  And, yes indeed, they all became mommies.

That’s why we hold up Mary today, not because she is our savior—she is not—but because she believed and announces to us that with God nothing will be impossible.

Those who follow Jesus are invited to be like Mary.  We are the ones who go to intensive care units and pray for those in the valley of the shadow of death; we are the ones who pray for peace while North Korea and Venezuela and the United State rattle their sabers; we are the ones who stand up and say racism and white nationalism are horrible and we won’t sleep well until the madness stops.  Yes, we are called by an angel to tell those we love and the world that with God nothing will be impossible.

Are we able to do that here at Holy Trinity?

In a few months, we will begin a marvelous journey, celebrating 150 years of proclaiming in this place that with God nothing will be impossible.  I hope we will throw caution to the wind as Mary did when she told people she was going to be the Mother of God.  I hope we risk just about everything trying to make our ministry as vibrant as possible well into the future.  Unless we do that, we have no business being here and certainly no business celebrating this congregation’s rich tradition as we are summoned into a bright future.

Will people think us nuts as we have already begun contemplating renovation of this sanctuary so that this place remains a breathtaking oasis of God’s goodness for years to come?  Will they think us mad to contemplate such an investment as so many churches are closing their doors for good?  Shouldn’t we be careful, go slowly?

We will need to remember those barren women who courageously trusted that God would provide and plowed straight into the future.  That’s what we are doing right now. Our world-famous choir will sing Bach’s greatest music, including his B-Minor Mass; they will soon come out with a glorious recording of the music of Samuel Capricornus.  We have scheduled some of the finest preachers in the Lutheran church: our former Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, Barbara Lundblad-the amazing preacher who taught up the street at Union Seminary, the astonishing hymn writer Susan Briehl, the first openly gay bishop in the Lutheran Church and brilliant Luther scholar Guy Erwin, and our own beloved bishop Robert Rimbo.  Are we crazy to celebrate God’s presence so extravagantly…Crazy only if we don’t follow Mary.

My seminary classmate, Barbara Brown Taylor, writes: “Mary’s trust [that with God nothing will be impossible] is really all she has.  What she does not have is a sonogram, or a husband, or an affidavit from the Holy Spirit that says, ‘The child is really mine.’  All she has is her unreasonable willingness to believe that the God who has chosen her will be part of whatever happens next…”

That’s all we have, too, the trust that God chooses us to bear Christ in this place.

“Just Telling Stories and Eating Dinner”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Just Telling Stories and Eating Dinner”
Luke 24: 13-35
April 30, 2017 (Third Sunday of Easter)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

Rick Barr was two years ahead of me in seminary.  He came back to visit us at the divinity school after serving three months in a little congregation along the coast of Maine.  We were delighted to see Rick and thrilled to hear his initial impressions of parish ministry.

“There is no job like it,” he told us.  “I go to the Hidden Cove Diner every morning at 7 o’clock.  All I do is drink coffee, eat scrambled eggs and hash browns, and chatter with the locals until our heads fall off.  Can you believe the church pays me just to hang out and tell stories?  What a life!”

Maybe in these days when our Lutheran church is facing a severe clergy shortage, we should create a marketing campaign with Rick in mind: “If you like drinking coffee at Starbucks and telling stories, you will love ministry in the Lutheran church.”

If today’s resurrection story is any indication, that’s pretty much how ministry happened after Jesus rose from the dead.  Two men, one whose name was Cleopas, were on their way to Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.  Jesus had been dead three days.  The two fellows talked and talked.  They had placed all their hopes on Jesus, trusting he would change the world and their lives for the better.  He was gone now and their hearts were broken.

Out of the blue, a stranger joined them.  On and on they gabbed with him, for two and a half hours, all the way to Emmaus.

They spoke of their shattered hopes.  They told the stranger how Jesus had been condemned to die by the religious authorities and political leaders and then promptly crucified.  They talked about the women who had reported to them that Jesus had risen.  The stories went on and on.  They told about how some of their associates went to the tomb but did not find the body.

The stranger got in on the conversation, too: “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  They were clueless that this was Jesus talking…and listening.  He led them in an old-fashioned Bible study of sorts, beginning with Moses and the prophets; he “interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

For some reason, the two forlorn wanderers got it into their heads to invite this story-telling stranger to their house for supper and to ask him to stay for the night.  Intended or not, their invitation was a stroke of genius.  St. Luke writes: “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…”

Yes, you noticed: they came to know the Risen Christ in the telling of stories and the breaking of bread.

The story-telling, by the way, didn’t stop in Emmaus.  After telling stories and breaking bread, “they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.  They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread”—quite similar to what Rick Barr told us about doing ministry at First Church on the Green up in Maine.

It seems so simple, almost too simple: telling stories and breaking bread, exactly what we are doing here, right now.  Shouldn’t there be more to it if we are to know our Risen Savior?

When I was ordained forty years ago, one of the gifts my parents gave me, in addition to this beautiful white cope, was a little black box.  In it are a tiny silver bread box and a diminutive plate, a teensy cruet for wine and a miniscule silver chalice.  Whenever I go to the hospital or visit homebound members, I take this box along with a miniscule Bible our oldest son Sebastian gave me on Christmas when he was one year old (forty years later, I can barely read the fine print).  That’s all I need for ministry—actually all I’ve got: a little book of Bible stories and an insignificant box for serving a meal of Christ’s body and blood.

I must confess there have been occasions when I have yearned for far fancier accoutrements than a box and a book.  Whenever I visit you in the hospital and see doctors in their freshly laundered lab coats with their names and fancy titles embossed in red, I wish I had some breathtaking trappings, too, like a stethoscope flung around my neck and a crowd of adoring interns and residents nipping at my heels.  Shouldn’t we all have more powerful symbols and soaring stuff when speaking of heavenly things?

All I have to accomplish my heavenly craft on earth are a little book and a tiny box…And really, all we have for ministry in this place is the story of a risen carpenter from Nazareth and a little water and bread and wine.  That’s it or, as the Lutheran reformers were fond of saying in Latin, satis est (that is enough).

We can get terrible inferiority complexes about this.  We want so much more.  We often catch ourselves measuring our success by bigger buildings, bigger congregations, bigger endowments.  We repeatedly ask one another, “Are we growing?  How big is our church now?”  In the face of our gigantic dreams, all we have for ministry are a book and bread and wine and water.

The earliest Lutheran reformers realized we would hanker for more impressive things.  And so, in our chief confessional document, the “Augsburg Confession” (Confessio Augustana in Latin), the church is defined as “the assembly of saints in which the Gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.”  That is it—a book, water, bread and wine.   And that is exactly what so excited Rick Barr about ministry: we are at our best whenever we are telling stories and eating.

Yes, indeed, that is more than enough!  Because, of course….

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!

“The Name of Jesus”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“The Name of Jesus”
Luke 2: 15-21
January 1, 2017
The Name of Jesus (New Year’s Day)

Names tell us volumes about a family’s hopes and dreams and memories.

Quite honestly, I have never been wild about my name, Wilbert, so when our first son came on the scene we named him Sebastian.  That name bears gravitas here at Holy Trinity, a place known internationally for our Bach Vespers.  It would be logical for you to think that Dagmar and I named our firstborn after Johann Sebastian Bach but I must disappoint you.  When Dagmar was pregnant, we were watching an international track meet, the Bislett Games in Oslo, Norway, on July 17, 1979.  Sebastian kicked inside Dagmar for the first time just as the British middle distance runner Sebastian Coe kicked in the mile run, breaking the world record; hence the name Sebastian.  And, yes, I must confess, dear Holy Trinity, we named our son after an athlete, not after a certain German musician.

When we visited my Grandma Miller so she could meet her new great-grandson, she was not at all amused by his name, Sebastian: “Isn’t Wilbert, your name and your father’s and your grandfather’s, perfectly fine? You pastors give your children the stupidest names!”

By the way, we named our next son, Caspar…Guess what Grandma Miller thought of that?  You guessed it: she wept, but surprisingly, this time, she wept tears of joy.  Never mind that his classmates might bully him with taunts of “Caspar the Friendly Ghost.”  The name Caspar, you see, was her father’s name as it was Dagmar’s great-grandfather’s.

Today, we give thanks for another name, the name of God’s son, Jesus.  This name was not plucked from a three-dollar name book purchased at the Nazareth grocery counter.  Our Savior’s name came from heaven.  Even before the child was conceived in Mary’s womb, an angel informed Joseph, “You shall call his name Jesus…”  The name Jesus is rich in meaning: he shall save his people from their sins.

If you learn a person’s name, such knowledge inevitably draws you closer.  “Hello, Jane.  Good morning, Ernie.”  People understand that when you call them by name, you have taken the time to know them, to care for them.  They will likely want to know your name, too, and to learn more about you.

Knowing one another’s names creates community.  We can spend years and years deliberating on how to make our congregation flourish, pouring over sophisticated studies, but I guarantee you: one of the most effective tools for creating a vibrant church community is getting to know one another by name.  I suggest we all take the time to learn at least one person’s name at the passing of the peace this morning; make it your New Year’s resolution to meet a new person every Sunday.  I know it will stretch some of our comfort zones, especially those of us who are introverts, but learning one another’s names will make our community friendlier and livelier.

One of the finest compliments I have received since becoming your pastor came on Friday afternoon.  The mother and father of a bride-to-be rang our bell and wanted to see the sanctuary where their daughter will be married in June.  They had never met a single one of us.  In a matter of moments, though, she commented on how friendly Holy Trinity is and how she had felt rebuffed by other New York churches that simply wanted to discuss pricey wedding fee structures and elaborate wedding policies.  Their good feelings had nothing to do with our claiming to be a friendly church in our bulletin, not an iota to do with a long-range plan we devised to make our church grow.  It did have everything to do with Bonnie, our office manager, welcoming her with a smile; Serge, our property manager, graciously showing her the church; Donald, our cantor, telling the family what wonderful music they can have at their wedding.  This proud mother and father were called by name and treated with kindness.  That’s how names work and the power they bear for the vibrant life of Christ’s church.

Yes indeed, how we use names speaks volumes.  Did you know that your hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, includes Luther’s Small Catechism in the very back?  Please turn to page 1160, to the Ten Commandments.  The Second Commandment: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.”  Luther understood the gift of having God’s name on our lips and the power it invokes.  In his explanation of the Second Commandment Luther writes: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not curse, swear, practice magic, lie, or deceive using God’s name, but instead use that very name in every time of need to call on, pray to, praise, and give thanks to God.”

What a priceless gift to be entrusted with God’s name, a name we can call upon in every moment of life, in good times and in crisis, to call on, pray to, praise, and give thanks.

While most of you probably don’t remember it, there was a moment when you gained a totally new dimension as your name was intricately woven with God’s life-giving name.  These wondrous words were spoken to you at your baptism, “Name, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  Your family and friends in Christ stood at your side as water flowed down your face and God’s beautiful name brightened everything about you and everything that was to come in your life and even in your death.

As you walk around town today, remember always that your name is delightfully intertwined with God’s name.  And never forget that all the people sitting near you at worship this morning are filled with God’s good name as well.  And finally, as a special gift for you throughout this New Year: always call to mind that this breathtaking place is richly cloaked in God’s name, Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.