Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Those Holy Fools”
(Mark 1: 1-8)
2nd Sunday in Advent (December 10, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park
The beloved gospel of Saint Luke tells the Christmas story with such childlike enchantment. Heavenly announcements are made to unsuspecting women like Elizabeth and Mary and the baby Jesus lies in the manger with adoring shepherds and singing angels. This is the Christmas story we love.
There is another story, though, a more adult one. The gospel of Mark does not ease us into Christmas; Mark never mentions the baby Jesus, not once. No sooner has Mark begun, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” than we hear that raving fool, John the Baptist, down at the muddy stream called Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Mark’s gospel does not make for cheery Christmas cards or enchanting nativity scenes above fireplaces. If you disagree, look at your own home decorations: does John the Baptist appear anywhere in your house along with Mary and Joseph, Wise Men and shepherds, sheep and camels?
Mark’s gospel is not for those obsessed with “merry Christmas” as they stand around the cash register singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus;” the account of John the Baptist has not been read at a single office Christ party in history, those affairs where we prefer singing “Silent Night” with spiked eggnog in hand.
The house lights never soften in Mark’s gospel; we are not offered lovely little candles; there are no sweet carols with lovely harps and strings. No, dear friends, there is not an iota of sentimentality. From the very start, Mark’s gospel screams for a change of heart, for repentance of sins, beginning, of course, with each of us.
One of my favorite descriptions of John the Baptist comes from Sara Miles’ book, “Jesus Freak”: “John the Baptist was, not to put too fine a point on it, a total nutcase, sort of like the unwashed guy with the skanky dreadlocks and the plastic bags over his socks who sleeps in the entryway of the library…He railed at decent temple-goers, shouting that their sacred ceremonies were useless, threatening them with damnation if they didn’t repent.”
I have discovered that the people best able to shake us up and get us to change our lives for the better are the ones who have nothing to lose. They tend not to rub elbows with the big shots in town and rarely are they the pastors of big steepled churches with fat endowments. They come, instead, from ministries like the Salvation Army where folks shake bells and dress in silly outfits; they are to be found at the rundown Rock of Ages Church with the gaudy neon cross out front. Most of us sneer at these people and call their ministries irrelevant and yet they invariably say things we don’t want to hear and cause us think in ways we never have before. Deep down, they make us realize how beholden we are to power, privilege, and the almighty dollar. You see, these ministries don’t have to impress a soul!
John the Baptist was like that. He was a Nazirite devoted to God, living in the godforsaken desert far from polite society; he didn’t trim his beard or cut his hair. Even when he was in prison, he dared tell the ruler and his new wife, who until recently had been his sister-in-law, that his manner of living was shameful…You have noticed, I’m sure, that powerful rulers and important people tend to get hopping mad when their unsavory dating and bedroom habits are critiqued. Pure and simple: John was a pain in the neck until his neck was loped off and was no more. John the Baptist had nothing to lose either.
By the way, I have lots to lose when it comes to doing the right thing. I make all manner of compromises so that I can retain some semblance of being a successful pastor in this city that never sleeps. I cozy up to people who appear to make a difference in this world and dare not offend anyone who might fill Holy Trinity’s coffers. It is hard for me to repent, to turn around, to confess my sins. About the only time I stand up for what matters is when it will make you and me look pretty prophetic without touching my retirement account or Holy Trinity’s endowment. Do you know what I mean? We prefer pointing fingers at other people’s unsultry habits and tend not to critique our own dastardly behaviors.
Because my life is so compromised—and perhaps yours as well, God sends folks like John the Baptist our way. They drive us nuts because they are always pointing out how out of whack our ways of living are with God’s ways.
It is why God blesses us with John the Baptist and other holy fools like him.
Think of the Amish communities. Whenever we talk about such out of step groups, we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to prove the inconsistencies in their lifestyles and, yet still, as we watch them go down the road in their horse-drawn buggies with their long beards and black dresses, we catch ourselves lamenting how suffocated we have become by our insatiable desires for more and more. Don’t the Amish folks “foolish ways” cause you to yearn for a simpler life?
On my best days, I thank God for holy fools.
I give thanks for monastic communities where people retreat to faraway places, close the doors for a lifetime, and pray to God for the life of the world. Did you know we have a Lutheran monastery in Oxford, Michigan, called St. Augustine’s House? The prior (leader of that community) trained me to be a pastor and spent his entire ministry in our nation’s toughest inner-city neighborhoods before heading off to pray during the autumn years of his life. This monastery’s very presence makes me wish I prayed and worshiped a whole lot more.
Yes, I give thanks for the foolish ones who do not seem as stained by the incessant desires and demands of the world than I. They actually try to do as Jesus said: they sell all they have and give it to the poor; they take Jesus’ words seriously, “Love your enemies;” they even pray unceasingly.
They are the gentle fools who invite us to look at ourselves. They are John the Baptist’s friends who dare to call us to repent, to give up our incessant habits of greed and power-grabbing. They tell us that if we turn around, even a bit, and look for Christ coming as a little child, our lives will be much better for it.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Living on God’s Clock”
1st Sunday of Advent (December 3, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park
Advent comes from the Latin word adventus which means coming. Jesus promised that he would come again but he left precious few particulars as to his exact time table. He did entrust us with this: “For you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or a dawn.”
Funny thing: while we do not know when Jesus will come again, we continue to anticipate his return, lighting candles one-by-one on this ringed wreath, clothing the church in the dark blue bruise of the winter’s morning sky just before sunrise, and marking our waiting, day-by-day, with the lovely Holy Trinity Advent calendar of your prayerful making.
Admit it: waiting can be tough as darkness envelops us and scares us half to death.
Author Annie Proulx recently said at the National Book Awards ceremony: “We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds…The television sparkles with images of despicable political louts and sexual harassment reports. We cannot look away from the pictures of furious elements, hurricanes and fires, from the repetitive crowd murders by gunmen burning with rage. We are made more anxious by flickering threats of nuclear war.”
In spite of the dire circumstances that tempt us to surrender all hope, quaint communities of courage and confidence endure, doing our best to act as Jesus would have us: “Keep alert…Keep awake.”
We come here this morning in these days of despicableness, fury, and rage and still, somehow, someway, cry out, “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.” We plead to heaven to spare us from surrendering to dark bruise of gloom.
Nevertheless, as I have said and as you well know, waiting is hard, excruciatingly so when we are waiting on someone else’s clock. Anthropologists claim that the most difficult thing for travelers visiting other countries, except for dealing with a foreign language, is coming to grips with how others keep time.
We actually do that this morning whether we realize it or not. We the people of God are compelled to come to grips with the time-keeping of another strange and exotic country, the kingdom of God. As we snuggle here in God’s lap, we catch ourselves fidgeting like rambunctious preschoolers, glancing at our watches and fiddling with our cellphones. We have places to go, things to do, people to see. We are programmed to watch and wait for 58 minutes and 58 minutes only, the length of an episode of “Game of Thrones,” “Downton Abbey,” or “The Walking Dead.” Watching and waiting beyond that, even here on God’s clock, can seem well-nigh impossible.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, says that in our waiting, we all become Jews once more. We, too, long for God to keep the promises made to our ancestors. We yearn for God to surprise us, ambush us, and carry us off to the Promised Land; that yearning is magnified as we watch our world crumbling or when someone we love deeply does not love us back. The wait can be terrible. It is at the moment when there seems not an iota of hope remaining that we encourage one another to stay awake and be alert for Christ’s coming. That is, of course, what it means that we all become Jews once more.
Oh yes, some of us are not so good at keeping alert and waiting. We have been to the doctor’s office, anxious and on high alert. We waited and waited for the doctor. We got testy with the receptionist, showed no mercy toward the nurse’s apologies, and, when the doctor finally did appear, breathless from saving a life in the operating room, we shot him stares of chilly curtness.
When we get edgy and feel like we are the only ones who have ever faced perilous times, we do well to pray mightily that we might learn to live on God’s clock and not ours. This is when we are enormously blessed if we try to emulate the time-keeping practices of our Jewish brothers and sisters, so many who live right here in our community and quite a few, by the way, who worship with us at Bach Vespers every Sunday evening. They are the promised children of God, after all, who have been waiting for an unbearably long time since God’s first promises to Abraham and Sarah. So much has happened since then: their blessed Jerusalem was overrun by outside conquerors and, so many years later, their loved ones were slaughtered in the Holocaust. The Jewish people have been sorely tempted over the ages to surrender any hope that God will come to them; and yet, even when they have faced the unimaginable cruelties of countless maniacal despots, for centuries and centuries, they have trudged to their synagogues with their children and grandchildren in tow and believed that the Messiah will come.
Advent gives us a similar language of hope, an audacious language of longing amidst the wintery seasons of life where we live between our dreams and God making them come true.
The pastor Winn Collier says that “Advent provides an important corrective to the fables governing our lives. We expect our starts to bolt from the gate. Energy! Exertion! Strategic master plans! But with Advent we start by waiting. We Sabbath.”
It has been said that Advent is the best time to plant tulips, a strange thing to do as the days grow dark, the air becomes frosty, and the ground freezes. Remarkably, the church invites us to plant tulips in our hearts during these darkest days of the year and then to wait patiently for God’s presence to sprout within us and around us.
And so, here we are again, awake and waiting. Though perhaps lonely and ailing, unappreciated and shocked, we light candles nonetheless. As the one little candle flickers in the howling wind, let us join hands and confidently pray, “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.”
A Note from the Transition Team
Last Spring, we were invited to serve as the Transition Team to begin to prepare for the next phase of Holy Trinity’s ministry. We are an assortment of members: long-time and newer, youngish and somewhat older, and busy with all that life in New York City demands. We all share a love for Jesus Christ and a wholehearted commitment to Christ’s loving and embracing church.
The Rev. George Detweiler
We just read about “a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side” of Jesus’ tomb, who announced to the women that “he has been raised…go, tell his disciples and Peter…he is going ahead of you to Galilee.”
In Matthew’s Gospel, it is “an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven,” who “came and rolled back the stone and sat on it,” and who announced that “he is going ahead of you to Galilee”
In Luke’s Gospel, “suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.” (The women)
And in John’s Gospel, there are “two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying”
But in Mark it is just a young man, who is not described as an angel. Why this adjective? What does it mean? (more…)
The Second Sunday in Lent – March 1, 2015
Mass at 11:00 AM. Readings: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38. Pastor George Detweiler will preside and preach.
On the second Sunday of Lent we move from the temptations of Jesus to the first of his predictions of his passion: that he will undergo great suffering, be rejected and killed, and after three days rise again. Peter objects and is called Satan by Jesus.
Jesus then teaches his disciples what all of this means for them and us: that we are to deny ourselves and follow him; that by trying to hang on to – to control – our life, we will lose it. But by letting go of control of it and trusting him we will gain it. (more…)