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“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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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