3 West 65th St | New York, NY 10023 | 212.877.6815

“A Moment of Quiet Stillness”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“A Moment of Quiet Stillness”
Isaiah 40: 21-31; Mark 1: 29-39
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
February 4, 2018
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

In the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, we watch an entire day in Jesus’ life.  It begins at the synagogue on the Sabbath, where Jesus drives out an evil spirit from a man ranting and raving during his sermon.  He leaves this mad house and heads to Peter and Andrew’s home for supper and a much-needed breather.  Before he tastes even one hors d’oeuvre, he must first heal Peter’s mother-in-law.  And as soon as the sun goes down and the Sabbath draws to a close, people still swarm around Jesus, hoping he will be the one to heal their sick relatives.

One wonders how Jesus survived the frenzy.

I have told you about one of my favorite seminary professors, Henri Nouwen.  I will never forget his sermon on this morning’s gospel reading.  With his Dutch accent and expressive hands, he said: “‘In the morning, long before dawn, [Jesus] got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there.’  In the center of breathless activities, we hear a restful breathing.  Surrounded by hours of moving we find a moment of quiet stillness.”

Henri warned us of ministry’s pressures. He counseled us, as soon as we arrive at a new congregation, to tell the members that, except in extreme emergencies, there is an hour in each day which cannot be interrupted.  If people call during this sacrosanct hour, the parish administrator should tell them the pastor is busy at prayer with God.  He told us this message is as vital for parishioners as for pastors.

The Christian life can be bone-wearying.  You know that.  The moment you received word that your mother had been rushed to the hospital, you left work immediately and flew across the country to comfort her.  You stayed with her night and day.  You were so exhausted one evening that you left your dear mother to go home for a quick nap and a much-needed shower.  Your beloved mother died while you were away.  You have beaten yourself up for fifteen years now for not being there at her darkest hour. Caring people are often like that: they can’t do enough for others and they often don’t do enough for themselves.

The weight of caring can consume good people.  There is a name for it, “compassion fatigue.”  Compassion fatigue particularly haunts those who are vehement about justice for the downtrodden.  I have watched people deeply committed to ministry, in the city and to the poorest, burn out from exhaustion and become haunted by bitterness, alcoholism, and despair.

I so admire the Sabbath-keeping tradition of Orthodox Jews.  When sundown arrives on Friday evening, they drop everything; no more work is to be done—no cooking, no turning light switches on and off, no driving to the synagogue, and as you New Yorkers know, no pressing of hospital elevator buttons. Funny thing what our good Jewish neighbors can teach us Lutherans about grace, the grace of resting on the Sabbath in the arms of God.

In her book, Keeping the Sabbath Holy, Marva Dawn writes: “A major blessing of Sabbath keeping is that it forces us to rely on God for our future.  On that day we do nothing to create our own way.  We abstain from work, from our incessant need to produce and accomplish…The result is that we can let God be God in our lives.”

People often ask me—and I’m sure they ask you—about ministry here at Holy Trinity: “What does your church do?”  I always answer, “We worship.”  Inevitably there is silence, befuddlement.  “Worship? What else do you do?”   Worship is clearly not enough in our busy, success driven world.  When I mention that we also have a women’s shelter and a Saturday meal program, they suddenly liven up and all seems better.

And yet, we must not forget or apologize that worship has been the cornerstone witness of this community for 150 years. Few congregations stick around for 150 years if they don’t worship regularly and well and it is the rare person who can confront injustice and serve those in need over the long haul without taking a break.

Sabbath-keeping is happening right now.  You have turned off your smart phones; if you haven’t, please do!  Sabbath keeping releases us from the incessant cacophony of cantankerous news and the one-upmanship madness of Facebook.  Yes, you are Sabbath-keeping, taking a break.  You are not even watching the lead-up to the Super Bowl even though some of us have hedged our bets with Isaiah’s reassuring words, “They shall mount up with wings like eagles.”  Do you feel helpless, out of touch?  If so, good: your whole life is now in God’s hands.

Sabbath-keeping does not just happen here on Sunday morning.  Dagmar and I have so enjoyed our Miller Mondays in New York—walking in Central Park and along the Hudson, moseying through the Metropolitan Museum, reveling at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and in two months returning to the great cathedral, Yankee Stadium.  I hope you have a place or two where you can find a moment of quiet stillness and enchantment.  Those places, my dear friends, are grace, sheer delight.

Resting is a good thing and God commends it, “Remember the Sabbath Day.”  God even models this behavior. After six grueling days creating the heavens and the earth, I like to think of God flopping those massive EEE heavenly feet up on a La-Z-Boy and binge watching something or other on Netflix.

Take care of yourself so that you can take care of others.  Yes indeed, as the prophet promises, “Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Treat yourself to a Sabbath.  Enjoy the rest.

“Cracked Jars”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Cracked Jars”
Mark 1: 21-28
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (January 28, 2018)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

There is something majestic about great preachers. If you have ever been blessed to hear one, you know the experience is unforgettable, as thrilling as hearing a lonely loon cry on a deserted lake or seeing the sun rise over Central Park early in the morning.

The most powerful preacher I have ever heard is William Slone Coffin. He was one of the prophetic voices of the late 1960s and early 70s; he preached at Yale and Riverside Church. The story is told that when the young Reverend Coffin and his wife-to-be went to tell her father, the great pianist Arthur Rubenstein, of their impending marriage, Rubenstein said, “Great, I’m now going to have Billy Graham as a son-in-law,” to which Coffin responded, “That’s right, just like I am going to have Liberace as a father-in-law.” Like Rubenstein, we often don’t expect much from our preachers and yet Coffin filled the university chapel in the days when most college students preferred nursing hangovers to sitting through Sunday morning worship services. His preaching stirred listeners to discover God’s authoritative voice in rousing ways, in unimaginably tumultuous times.

Not all preaching is like that. Some of it is downright mind-numbing and puts you to sleep quicker than a baby’s lullaby. You have figured that out by now, I’m afraid. The dicey part of preaching, you see, is that God leaves the task to human-beings, rickety people like me, and that can sometimes be a gloomy prospect for people like you.

The southern preacher Fred Craddock writes in his autobiography about discovering the humanity of preaching: “I cannot resist telling…the keen disappointment I felt that day when, as an eighteen-year-old, I stood behind that pulpit. ‘I had never stood behind the pulpit; I had seen it only from the front. As I sat in the big chair waiting for the moment to stand and speak, I could see inside the pulpit. What a mess! A few broken hand fans, a clock, old worship bulletins, part of an angel’s wing, golf tees, Christmas tree bulbs, a melted candle, and a glass of water with green scum on it.”

Perhaps you have never come up here to peek into this pulpit’s innards but you have surely figured out the jumble of it all because you confront my wobbly preaching week after week.

When the people of Capernaum heard Jesus preach in their synagogue, it is reported that they were astounded because he taught them as one having authority. Peculiar, don’t you think: what else should they have expected besides authority? Doesn’t it make you wonder what other kind of sermons they had heard…Well, I think you know!

Come to think of it, have you ever heard a sermon that could cast out unclean spirits, make the lame walk, open a blind eye or two? Any sermon, ever?

You have come here this morning, yet again, longing for a sermon uttered with authority from this gimpy preacher from the hills of West Virginia.

Please, make no mistake: the only authority I bear comes from Jesus; all else is, as they say and as you know, sinking sand or, at the least, poppycock.

One of the things I love most about being Lutheran is our utter honesty about how God comes to us in cracked, clay jars. We do not pretend to rule the empire. We know darn well that God comes to us most often, not in power and glory or pomp and circumstance, but in the rickety stuff of bread and wine, in damaged people like you, and in flimsy preachers like me. The biggest risk we make is believing our preachers are better than anyone else or at least not nearly as broken. Whenever we do this, we set ourselves up for crushing disappointment. I can tell you: we preachers are a shabby lot whose authority comes, at best, not from deep within our souls, but from far, far off, from the very heart of God. Said another way, our authority comes only when we tell the story of Jesus and his deep, deep love and admit that the tellers of such tales, people just like me and listeners just like you, are frightfully flawed.

Walt Whitman, in his “Leaves of Grass,” says it this way:

“After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,
After the noble inventors—after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the Poet, worthy that name:
The true Son of God shall come,
singing his songs.”

We clay-feeted ones do our best, no matter our trade or calling in life, to look beyond ourselves for power and strength, inspiration and authority. We rear our children the best we can, never having taken a single course in high school or college telling us how to go about this overwhelming task; we look to God for help as we hobble along doing the best we can. We try to please God as we strive to live faithfully in this church; you know as well as I that we bumble along the way, doing our best when our best isn’t particularly inspired or honorable. But maybe that is not so bad. Just when we realize how flimsy we are, God is standing here, inviting us to look beyond ourselves. After we have sailed the oceans, mesmerized the masses with stunning music, and even then come up short, then and only then do we catch ourselves praying to the Poet worthy that name, the only one who can give us strength and guidance in heart-breaking times such as this.

That is why we are here this morning, to sing the song of Jesus, the one about him being gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. That, my dear friends, is the authority we bear, in cracked earthen pots, to the glory of God and for the good of this suffering world.

“Saint Zebedee, Mender of Nets and Floater of Boats”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Saint Zebedee, Mender of Nets and Floater of Boats”
Mark 1: 14-20
Third Sunday after Epiphany (January 21, 2018)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

All that we know about Zebedee is that he was the father of James and John and the husband of Salome; oh yes, we also know he was a fisherman, owned a boat, and had a few hired hands. That’s what we know, that’s it.

There certainly must be more. So, I went searching in my “Anchor Bible Dictionary” to see if I was missing something. Here’s what I found: “It is nowhere recorded that Zebedee actively participated in the ministry of Jesus as did his wife and sons.” According to my Bible dictionary, Zebedee is a biblical blip and not viewed in a particularly glowing light as history looks back on him.

Then there are Zebedee’s sons. Whatever it was about Jesus and the few words he spoke at the Sea of Galilee that day (“Follow me and I will make you fish for people”), James and John were so enthralled that they dropped everything and chased after Jesus.

Poor Zebedee. James and John left their father with the leaky boats and stinky nets. Imagine how frantic their mother Salome must have been at their hasty departure. We don’t hear whether James and John even said “goodbye.” What resonates loud and clear is how they left in a mad rush to follow Jesus. We adore their speedy fervor and have named countless churches after them—St. James and St. John.

And yet, I cannot get poor Zebedee out of my mind. While we may indeed have no idea whether Zebedee participated in Jesus’ ministry, one thing is certain: he was bequeathed the boring routines of fishing as his sons helped Jesus drive out demons, feed thousands, and make the crippled walk. Because Zebedee was content with his calling to carry out the mundane responsibilities of life, I advocate we set aside a day in the church year—today!—to commemorate “Saint Zebedee, Mender of Nets and Floater of Boats.”

In every age, someone has to mind the nets and float the boats; someone has to pay the bills and offer the Sunday tithe; someone has to do the laundry and wash the dishes while others head off for greater glory.

There are, of course, those lifted up in lights; that is their calling. 150 years ago, almost to the day (January 27, 1868), twenty-five men (so say our historic records) gathered in the home of Peter Moller to extend a call to Holy Trinity’s first pastor, Dr. Gottlob F. Krotel. All our former pastors’ pictures, by the way, hang right outside the nave here; the names of the cantors who have overseen Bach Vespers for the past 50 years (John Weaver, Frederick Grimes, and Rick Erickson) are appearing in every Bach Vesper’s bulletin this year. But what about the thousands of others who have quietly given offerings, served on committees, and visited the sick? Most of their names—your names actually—are nowhere to be found. Your only glory is to gather here Sunday after Sunday in God’s lap and to receive the Lord’s heavenly meal.

How many of you can identify with Zebedee?

I am wondering: if you had the opportunity to change the name of The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity to St. Zebedee at our upcoming congregational meeting on Sunday, February 25, would you vote affirmatively? Wouldn’t that be a charming way to celebrate our 150th anniversary year? Aren’t most of your callings lived beyond the spotlight’s glare just like Zebedee’s? Your lives are far more mundane and much less divine, far more Zebedeesian than Jamesian or Johnsian, I might say. How many of you, far from feeding 5,000 on a mountaintop, as did James and John, end up scooping one spoonful after another of pureed squash into your ailing mother’s mouth? How many of you long to be on the highlight reels, charismatic and forceful, only to discover your ministry is slogging through another day as you hang onto a tiny sliver of sanity or try your best in a dead-end job? These are your daily tasks for now and, to be honest, Martin Luther would call them your finest ministries. For some reason beyond your understanding, you have been called to mend nets and float boats.

Of course, James and John’s lives were far more glamorous—look at their names in the Bible! Who wouldn’t love to leave the leaky boat behind and scuttle every broken dream for a shiny new one? It seems Jesus calls most of you to less dazzling ministries and yet just as important ones. When God calls, your choice is simply to say “yes” or “no;” rarely are you afforded the luxury of considering the pizazz factor.

For now, you are simply called—some to craft and speak a gracious word to someone whose politics you abhor and some to stand up for justice by doing nothing more than casting a vote or marching on a Saturday morning; some of you are called to hunker down in your autumn years riding out the sometimes heartbreaking storm as faithfully as you are able.

At least for this day, rather than being captivated by the glamor of James and John and all the other faithful ones whose names are in lights, let us give thanks for Zebedee—after all, quite a few of us live mundane lives just like his. Yes, today, let us commemorate Saint Zebedee, Mender of Nets and Floater of Boats.

“Frolicking Down at the River”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Frolicking Down at the River”
(Mark 1: 4-11)
The Baptism of Our Lord (transferred) & The Baptism of Vivienne Marie Francis
January 14, 2018

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

The gospel of Mark opens this way, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Hearing the words “good news,” we expect quaint mangers and gentle lambs, regal magi and beautiful Mary. What Mark does instead is launches off with a thirty-year old Jesus hanging out with the riff raff down at the river.

I know a thing or two about rivers having grown up 600 yards from Wheeling Creek, a pintsize tributary emptying into the mighty Ohio. The underbellies of rivers are not pretty. Rusty beer cans bob along their banks, dead fish float in the weeds, rats scamper here and there, big ol’ black snakes slither amidst the other creepy flotsam and jetsam…I wonder if the Jordan River was like that.

You can imagine the crowd Jesus joined. They had failed every New Year’s resolution they had ever made and this time around were restlessly waiting to jump into the Jordan for John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to see how that might work.

If Mark is to believed, that Jesus’ baptism is good news, what’s up?

Jesus was with pimps and prostitutes, for goodness sakes, rednecks and ultranationalists, drunks and deplorables, the wild and wooly. Jesus wasn’t teaching them how to hold their noses and swim. Oh no, he dove in with them and got as drenched as a puppy in a fire hydrant.

Let’s admit it though: there is a sort of romanticism about it all. You know what I mean: there are sinners whose misguided ways and ugly diatribes do not irritate us in the least. We all have our favorite sinners whose foibles and foul-ups make us laugh and applaud.

A good rule I learned in divinity school is if any bit of scripture, including Jesus at the river with the sinners, doesn’t make us squirm, it is highly unlikely we are grasping how it shocked the original hearers.

The early church was horrified by Jesus frolicking at the river. What in the world was he doing with those stinking sinners? Wasn’t Jesus pure and spotless? Shouldn’t he have been hiding in the bushes, folding his pure hands in prayer and piously begging for God’s mercy on those dreadful sinners?

And come to think of it, aren’t there people in our own day who can never be washed clean, who deserve our endless rage, whose company we should never keep? I am sure you can think of one or two such people this morning. That, by the way, is the way of the world: create insiders and outsiders, good and bad, saved and eternally doomed. Remarkably, that’s not what Jesus did. He frolicked with the sinners down at the river.

Early on Friday morning, at about 2:30 in the morning, I woke up tossing and turning. The very question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth,” weighed heavy on my mind. Our president had apparently made denigrating remarks about the people of Haiti and Africa. My mind was running wild: can anything good come out of Haiti or Bethlehem, Namibia or Jerusalem—I had baptized kids from these very places. And, of course, more to the point, can anything good come out of Wheeling, West Virginia (my hometown) or New York City (where you and I live and do ministry together) or God knows where?” Again, Jesus joined all manner of folks, the good, the bad, and the ugly, people from Haiti and Africa; he even dared dip his toes with the ornery folks of the wild Upper West Side.

Oh my, do we need dreamers these days who have the courage to imagine people from Haiti and Africa, from the Republican and Democratic side of the aisle, all part of God’s kingdom. We do well to remember such a dreamer this morning, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.” He imagined all kinds of children gathering together at the river, splishing and splashing to beat the band.

In a few moments, Vivienne Marie Francis will be baptized. As water pours down her little face, God will call her “beloved daughter” just as so long-ago God called Jesus “beloved son.” You and I will promise to spend a lifetime helping Vivienne remember this day when she was washed in holiness, when God lovingly looked in her eyes and said, “You are mine, dear Vivienne.” Sadly, there will almost certainly be other voices in Vivienne’s life—as there are in all of ours—voices that will try to convince her that she is not so special in God’s eyes. But you and I, family and brothers and sisters in Christ, will tell Vivienne over and over again that she is special in God’s sight.

And so, let us now go to the water hand-in-hand with Vivienne and let us watch as God, more delighted than a river otter, frolics with her and us.

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

“Those Holy Fools”

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.