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“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.

“A Most Peculiar King”

Sermon by Pastor Wilbert Miller
At The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
“A Most Peculiar King”
(Luke 23: 33-43)
The Feast of Christ the King (November 20, 2016)

In the Name of Christ the King, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“The Crucified God”…I remember the first time I heard of this book written by the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann.  I was horrified—“The Crucified God?!?”  I had always thought God was above such barbarity.  God, after all, looks down from heaven, refusing to dive into our muddled affairs here on earth.  And yet, in a few moments, we will confess in the words of the Nicene Creed that God did exactly that, ending up crucified, dead and buried.

We cry, foul!  That’s no way to treat God and, far worse, it is no way for God to behave.  God must stand clear of the riff-raff.  Respectable gods are untouchable.

We conclude another church year today, Christ the King.  The entire year has been a tutorial in helping us spot this most peculiar king amidst the chaos.  We are like school children trying to locate God in a religious version of “Where’s Waldo.”

Christ the King is so hard to find, especially if we seek him among the company we expect: the landed gentry, the power-brokers, the goody two-shoes.  When God came to earth, his Son was born in a stinky stable, in the alleyway of oblivion—and here we thought we would find him in an ornate palace. When he preached his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, family and friends tried to toss him off a cliff; they were outraged that he sided with the trampled upon, the broken, the prisoners—this is no king! When the Son of God met up with religious leaders, they scolded him for hanging with fraudulent tax collectors and scandalous prostitutes—no king here.  When he died, his enthronement occurred, not inside a majestic pyramid, but on an ugly instrument of torture and execution.  Where’s Christ the King?

Jesus is a most peculiar king, especially for those who prefer their kings a bit less sullied and far more formidable.

Where might we spot such a king?  Jesus helps us in our search: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Whoever dreams of finding God in people like this?

When Holy Trinity’s Call Committee interviewed me about nine months ago, they asked about the themes you might expect to hear in my preaching.  I told them of my favorite character in all of literature, Mr. Fruit.  Mr. Fruit appears in the novel, “The Prince of Tides.”  He lives in a little village in South Carolina’s low country.  Every town has a Mr. Fruit as does every church.  He is the misfit who directs the 5 p.m. traffic at the busiest intersection and yet is not the constable; he leads the 4th of July parade, waving a tiny American flag, always marching proudly ahead of the high school band, the VFW float, and the mayor in the vintage Cadillac.  Remarkably, the people of Colleton are not embarrassed at all by Mr. Fruit; in fact, they usher him to the center of their life. The author Pat Conroy notes: the character of any community is measured by how it treats its Mr. Fruits.

Most of us avoid the Mr. and Ms. Fruits.  They drive us crazy.  And yet, we dare not forget Christ the King who said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

As we arrive at the end of another church year, we are invited to behold this most peculiar king. So often, we look for him in all the wrong places and, even when we stare at him face-to-face, we end up befuddled.

We have a number of staff members living in this building—your fine cantor Donald Meineke and your pastor and his wife, Dagmar.  You treat us quite nicely.  Others live here though you have not formally met them.  This evening, immediately after I am installed as your pastor and the front doors are locked tight, a few hapless souls will spread out their raggedy beds on our front steps.  Jesus will be among them as he promised he would but we may be tempted to reckon the whole lot as revolting vermin scampering around our building.  Some will object, they always do, though they will couch their indignation in a more refined manner.  Our natural inclination is to keep our church tidy, free of riff-raff, certainly free of controversy.  Even if taking such risks lifts up God’s blessed poor ones, we prefer a bit less drama.

Soon after we arrived, I met a woman at a party who lives two blocks from here.  As soon as she found out I was Holy Trinity’s new pastor, she launched into her speech.  I was panicky.  She proceeded to thank me that this church allows homeless people to sleep at our doors.  She knows the well-honed opposition—she lives here after all.  She then added, “I am Jewish, but I so admire your ministry.”  Interesting, isn’t it, how so-called “outsiders” sometimes glimpse this peculiar king more quickly than those who think they know him so well?

On this final Sunday of the church year, it would be easy to get caught up in the royal razzle-dazzle.  But, surprisingly, today’s gospel reading reveals a different kind of king, one nailed to Calvary’s tree between two other despicable criminals; that is God’s royal enthronement.

Maybe we are best when people wag their tongues and ridicule us for the company we keep.  Maybe we are far closer to our king when we end up being Mr. and Ms. Fruit ourselves, standing up for the hungry and the thirsty, the sick and naked, the outcast and refugees, and getting punched in the nose every step of the way by the powerful.  All we can do is trust that our peculiar king will defeat wickedness and death through breathtaking love and bring all his subjects to life everlasting.

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

“America! America! God Shed His Grace on Thee”

“America!  America! God Shed His Grace on Thee”
Sermon at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church-Manhattan
November 13, 2016 (26th Sunday after Pentecost)
Psalm 98; Malachi 4: 1-2a; Luke 21: 5-19

In the last congregation I served, soon after I arrived, I began the practice of praying for our elected leaders by name; that meant we prayed for our President George W. Bush and our Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.  One member was horrified: how conservative is our new pastor? he wondered.

Let me forewarn you: we will observe that practice in this congregation as well, praying for our current President Barack Obama and our newly elected President Donald Trump.

We are, after all, citizens of a democracy.  Democracy allows for change, for better and for worse. Democracy can be quite messy as our nation’s history reveals.  President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address this week, November 19, 1863, in the face of the horrors of the Civil War; citizens spilled blood, not against foes from distant shores, but against family members and neighbors.  Our great President said, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”  Familiarity with history is essential: imagine the fear people must have had for this great country’s future as Seminary Ridge (as in the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg) stood littered with the lifeless bodies of young soldiers.

And now this week…

Our Lutheran tradition places great weight on the exercise of power.  Government, far from being a swampy cesspool that must be drained, is the necessary venue where decisions are made for the common good.  We believe political service to be a noble calling from God just like a pastor or doctor or farmer.  While democracy does not bring about the kingdom of God, good government does do necessary things like providing for the easily forgotten, protecting the defenseless, and seeing that roads and bridges are built and well maintained.

Having served as a pastor in Washington, D.C. for thirteen years and having counted many fine public servants, Democrat and Republican, as parishioners and friends, I know how thankless the calling of government work can be.  Count me out when talking about draining the swamp: I give thanks for hard-working and decent public officials.

While we Lutherans believe government a noble calling, we do not deem it a blank check.  Bad government tramples the rights of the innocent, inhibits religious liberty, and despoils God’s good creation.  None of us who call ourselves Christian dare acquiesce to horrific name calling or mistreatment of Mexican immigrants or African Americans, people in the LGBTQ community or the disabled, women or Muslims.  We have a calling as citizens: we must hold our president accountable to the highest standards when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable and we will pray that he will achieve such breathtaking heights of decency and compassion so that all people in this land are treated equally with liberty and justice for all.  And when our president lifts up the lowly, he will receive our utmost support.

I love today’s Psalm 98: “O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” This Psalm’s beauty is achieved when all creation sings in harmony to the glory of God.  Lyre and trumpet, sea and porpoise, flood and hill—all make a joyful noise to the Lord.

Let us not jeopardize this glorious song. The moment anyone, president or citizen, starts singing off key, recklessly endangering creation’s song of praise to God, let us call him or her back to our Creator’s perfect song.

You know that God sent God’s only son so that the broken, despised, and poor might join this song.  If the Bible is anything, it is a musical score that insists on the inclusion of the voices of widows, orphans, and refugees in singing a new song.  The moment we see these blessed poor thrown from the choir loft, we have no option but to demand that our political leaders restore them to the choir. Whenever even one broken soul is left out, creation’s music turns sour.

These days should not surprise a single one of us who has listened to Jesus.  He just told us moments ago: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…they will arrest you and persecute you…You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.”  As desperate as this sounds, never forget what Jesus added: “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

For far too many months now we have heard the obnoxious music that attacks and repels, humiliates and accuses.  It has been jarring and ugly, dissonant and destructive.  We are here at 65th and Central Park West for one reason and one reason only: to sing a new song to the Lord.  We dare not join in the horrid music that this world too easily sings; rather we are called to sing a new song.  Moses and Jeremiah, Saint Paul and Saint Stephen, Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa and Anne Frank—they sang music that seeks the best for God’s suffering creation. We remember these blessed ones, not because they were rich or powerful, but because they strove to sing Mother Mary’s song, “My soul proclaims the greatest of the Lord because he has put the mighty down from their thrones and exalted those of low degreed and the rich he has sent empty away.”  The history of God’s people reveals this is never an easy song to sing.  History is one story after another of those of low degree being trampled upon.  The church’s finest hour in every age has occurred when God’s people have struggled against seemingly insurmountable odds to ensure that the hungry are filled with good things in God’s name.

Some people in our nation are very happy this morning, some are furious, some are heartbroken, some say, “wait and see.”  Whatever your feelings, we gather here as a hopeful people who believe God’s love for the oppressed and forsaken will prevail.

At the end of this Mass, we will sing “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies.”  I pray, in one glorious harmony, we will sing, “America!  America!  God shed his grace on thee.”