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“The Holy Cross: Irrational Humbug or the Power of God?”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“The Holy Cross: Irrational Humbug or the Power of God?”
(1 Corinthians 1: 18-24; John 3: 13-17)
September 17, 2017 (Holy Cross Day)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West

Please let me brag. I know I have told you this before but allow me one more moment of braggadocio: I attended Yale Divinity School. I tell you this with hopes of impressing you because, deep down, I harbor intense feelings of inferiority when it comes to my degree. Yale Divinity School ain’t all it is cracked up to be at least in the grand scope of things. It is often referred to as “the back door to Yale”—and with considerable justification. Half the people applying to the divinity school are accepted while only between 5 and 10% get into Yale Law and Yale Medical which, by the way, is about what the same acceptance rate as down the street at Juilliard where many of Holy Trinity’s fine musicians attended school.

There are other causes for my pathetic spasms of academic inadequacy.  A few years ago, in the “Yale Alumni Magazine,” Dr. Eugene P. Cassidy, a graduate of the much-vaunted medical school, wrote: “Isn’t it time Yale euthanized the Divinity School?  This academy for irrational humbug is an embarrassment to the real graduate schools.”

If Dr. Cassidy were here today, don’t you imagine he would find our Holy Cross goings-on nothing more than a load of poppycock?

In all humility and in no way meant to scold Dr. Cassidy, there have been occasions when the likes of Dr. Cassidy have curtly announced to a grieving family that their loved one has died and then quickly left the room.  I, with my silly divinity school degree of irrational humbuggery in hand, have sometimes been left to clean up the mess.  To be fair, I’m sure many doctors feel like failures when they are unable to keep a person alive any longer and must deliver the devastating news to the crestfallen family that their loved one is “gone.”

In no way do I want to be critical of doctors.  Like you, I know fabulous ones, a few who kept me alive eleven years ago.  In truth, don’t we all stumble and bumble in the face of death, searching for the right words when none seem available, none at least that will bring back to life those we love?  Perhaps that is why, for those of us here this morning, the only words that feel right are somehow deeply woven into the Holy Cross.  Like our hymn at the gospel, we cry out:

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
save in the death of Christ, my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

There is something about this Holy Cross Day that begs us tell the truth and not beat around the bush.  This day invites us to admit that death is inevitable for us all and yet also to proclaim that death is never the final word.  We may prefer to make believe, to say we pass away, float into the ethereal netherworld, or as some Californians are fond of writing in obituaries, transition from this world to the next.  But let us not kid ourselves: we die!

I once was talking to a church member about his funeral plans.  He was a big-time television personality in a major city.  He told me what hymns to sing, who would deliver the eulogies, where he would be laid to rest.  He prefaced it all with this, “Pastor, if I die…”  He caught himself but his “if I die” hung in the air a bit too long and reflected the thought many of us harbor in our magical thinking when our mortality comes up.  Deep down, we are so scared of dying that we prefer to play the game of “if I die.”

Martin Luther knew better.  He once wrote: “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”  You can guess, I’m sure, that Luther was a theologian of the cross.  He knew we don’t pass away or transition to Lalaland or float into the clouds.  He called the darn thing what it is: death!

The Holy Cross leads our way this and every Sunday morning.  We are reminded that if Jesus is God’s son then, in fact, God died an ugly death before our eyes—sweat, blood, tearing tendons, bulging eyes.  Our God went where we will all finally go, deep into the ground, where only God can raise us up.

It has often been asked, where was God when six million Jewish people were dying in Hitler’s concentration camps.  The best answer I have heard is, “God was there dying with the Jews.”  For many, this is foolishness, irrational humbuggery, but for others this is the very power of God.

I know how depressing this sounds, especially on this day as so much wonderful ministry is about to unfold here at Holy Trinity. You have returned from vacation, the choir is singing, programs are returning—these are thrilling days. This will be a stunning year as we prepare to celebrate 150 years of bearing the cross of Christ in New York City.  The greatest hits of Johann Sebastian Bach will be celebrated during the 50th year of our renowned Bach Vespers.  Some of the most distinguished preachers in the Lutheran church will be in our pulpit, including the Rev. Susan Briehl whose gorgeous hymn, “Holy God, Holy and Glorious,” we will sing at Communion.  Through the entire, thrilling year, we will lift up the cross, that pathetic instrument of suffering and death that wise and pious folks view as foolishness and twaddle and yet what we proclaim to be very power of God.

God does not avoid death: God confronts death, dies, and conquers death as Jesus is raised from the dead…Oh, and by the way, God conquers our death as well.

Christ’s death and resurrection is the most comforting word we can offer when we journey with others into the valley of the shadow of death. Let us tell anyone who will listen, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Yes, let us risk being called irrational humbuggers as we proclaim to the world that God is with us for better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and, yes, even in death, in the name of the Holy Cross, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Welcome, All You Ornery Boys and Girls”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Welcome, All You Ornery Boys and Girls”
Romans 7: 15-25a; Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost-July 9, 2017
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
Central Park West in New York City

I once heard a wise pastor be a bit critical of parents who bring their children to Sunday School just so they can learn how to be good little girls and boys.  He wasn’t being grumpy, he simply felt there had to be more.  Children must also learn they are not good little girls and boys.

What about us?  Have we simply come here this morning to learn how to be good? I hope we have come for more, to tell God the truth about ourselves or, as the church would have it, to confess our sins.

Saint Paul’s genius is his understanding of how hard it is for us to be good, impossible really. You must admit he is on to something when he writes, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Even when we do something good, Paul suspects we have ulterior motives: we do good for the wrong reasons—so others will take note of how thoughtful and generous we are, how pious and courageous we are.  Or how often are we holy, not particularly to help those who are suffering, but to pave our way into heaven.

Don’t Paul’s words ring true for you— “I do not do the good I want”?

One of my favorite Confirmation Class sessions is teaching the Ten Commandments.  I love asking kids, “Have you ever sinned?”  They always look nervously into their laps.  No hands go up until the class misfit raises his—the one the others always point to when trouble occurs.  I then ask, “Is Jimbo the only sinner here?”  And then, one-by-one, hands are sheepishly raised.  I always then tell the class, “If you say you are not a sinner, you are a liar and that makes you a sinner, too.”

Have you ever sinned?

Perhaps the problem is, deep down, we believe we can be perfect.  Isn’t that why so many steer clear of the church when troubles arise in our lives—we don’t feel like we measure up to the holy folks!  Countless people have said to me behind my closed doors, “Pastor, you are never going to believe this about me.”  What I always want to say is, “Just try me.  The only thing I refuse to believe is that you are perfect.”  It is not because I know them so well but because I know myself so well.  Whatever made us think we can be perfect?

We begin almost every worship service with this blunt confession, “We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.”  The church reminds us, even before we have sung the first hymn, that we are here because we are sinners not because we are good boys and girls.

Don’t fret, though, there is more.  Even before we sang, “Dearest Jesus, at Your Word,” I declared “the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”—all your sins not just the teensy ones!  And, if that is not enough, in a few moments, God will serve us a lunch, not because we deserve it, but because God loves us so much.

The finest Christian communities refuse to prance around in peacock perfection, masquerading as a bunch of goody two shoes who deem themselves holier, more liturgically correct, more socially committed than everyone else.  They know better.  All they really can admit to is being a motley concoction of broken souls in desperate need of Jesus and they embrace anybody who dares tell a similar truth about themselves.

I love broken churches—broken people, too—those that reflect Alcoholics Anonymous.  These folks need help, they need each other, they need God!  Such churches walk in the graceful tradition of Saint Paul and Martin Luther.

One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, writes: “When they first start talking at a meeting, they introduce themselves by saying, ‘I am John. I am an alcoholic,’ ‘I am Mary. I am an alcoholic,’ to which the rest of the group answers each time in unison, ‘Hi, John,’ ‘Hi, Mary.’”

Have you ever been to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or a similar twelve step group?

“They tell where they went wrong and how day by day they are trying to go right. They tell where they find the strength and understanding and hope to keep trying. Sometimes one of them will take special responsibility for another—to be available at any hour of day or night if the need arises. There’s not much more to it than that, and it seems to be enough. Healing happens. Miracles are made.”

Buechner goes on: “You can’t help thinking that something like this is what the church is meant to be and maybe once was before it got to be big business. Sinners Anonymous. ‘I can will what is right but I cannot do it,’ is the way Saint Paul put it, speaking for all of us. ‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.’”

“‘I am me. I am a sinner.’

“‘Hi, you.’

“Hi, every Sadie and Sal. Hi, every Tom, Dick, and Harry. It is the forgiveness of sins, of course. It is what the church is all about.”

God’s possibility begins whenever we are at our wit’s end and have no more tricks in our own paltry bags.  We need Jesus.  And in that need, Jesus says to us: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

We will soon be served the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.  Amazing really when, only moments ago, we admitted that “we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.”  But, that does not seem to matter to Jesus and that, of course, is the gospel: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

So glad you have come here today, you ornery little boys and girls.

“Martin Luther or Philip Melanchthon…How Do You Vote”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Martin Luther or Philip Melanchthon…How Do You Vote”
The Commemoration of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession (June 25, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City

I’m sure you could stand up here right now and wax eloquently about Martin Luther: how he boisterously banged 95 theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany; how he defiantly declared, “Here I stand; I can do no other;” how he raged against Pope Leo X saying outrageous things like, “After the devil himself, there is no worse folk than the pope and his followers.”

But what would you say about Philip Melanchthon if called upon?  You could report that he said of Martin Luther, “I would rather die than be separated from this man;” that Melanchthon was a lay person—like most of you—and not a pastor; and though not a pastor, he taught Greek, New Testament, and theology at the same university as Luther in Wittenberg.

While dear friends, Luther and Melanchthon’s personalities were worlds apart.  Luther came off as arrogant and cocksure while Melanchthon was a peaceful sort, frequently seeking harmony with people who disagreed with him on key religious matters.

Luther once wrote: “I had to fight with rabble and devils, for which reason my books are very warlike. I am the rough pioneer who must break the road; but Master Philip comes along softly and gently, sows and waters heartily, since God has richly endowed him with gifts.”

It’s odd, really, that we know so little about Melanchthon for he wrote the most significant Lutheran document of faith.  How many of you, when reading this morning’s bulletin cover, “The Commemoration of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession,” wondered what’s up with this?

Here is a little history lesson about the Augsburg Confession, not because I am so bright but because I was ordained on this day forty years ago; I served a church named “Augustana” (Latin for Augsburg) where our son, Caspar, was baptized and our other son, Sebastian, was an extraordinary thurifer who could create more clouds of incense anywhere south of heaven; I was installed at another church on this day; and yes, today, you celebrate with me on my 40th anniversary of ordination.  Is it any wonder I finally was able to learn what the Augsburg Confession is?  And yes, all along the way, on all these Augustana occasions, my dear wife, Dagmar, has supported me and guided me.

The Holy Roman Emperor wanted to know why the Lutheran reformers were making such a fuss in the 1500s and so, like any school teacher would do with unruly school children, Charles V asked the reformers to write a paper on what they believed and to present it in Augsburg, Germany, on June 25, 1530 (487 years ago).  The Augsburg Confession is the result and is one of seven confessional documents included in our Lutheran confessional book, “The Book of Concord.”

Understandably, some of you are murmuring right about now, “Pastor, preach about Jesus and skip the Lutheran lecture.”  You may even be boiling: “Pastor, today is NYC Pride.  Preach something that touches our lives, something that is relevant!”  I understand, honestly I do, and yet I believe the Augsburg Confession is a wondrous invitation to live vibrantly in our church and world, especially in these contentious days.

It is vitally important to know that Philip Melanchthon, rather than lambasting the opponents of the reformation, sought to illuminate the similarities that Roman Catholics and the emerging Lutheran movement shared.  The Augsburg Confession exudes Melanchthon’s humble spirit, often referred to as irenic in character.

I like that word “irenic” though I must confess when I first heard it, I had to pull out my Webster’s to see what it means.  Irenic means “aiming for peace.”

I dare say some of us who call ourselves Lutherans don’t fancy ourselves as particularly irenic.  We delight in Luther’s bluster as he angrily shakes his fists at his detractors.  Even though Luther championed Christ’s love for all people, we must be honest: his firm stands helped fracture the church in ways that have menaced us for 500 years.  You know that: you have attended a funeral only to hear, “Only Catholics can come forward to receive the body and blood of Christ.” You married a Roman Catholic and horrified poor grandma for ages unto ages.

Admittedly, there are occasions when we must stand up for the truth and yet, sadly, there are inevitably necessary losses that ensue.  If individuals, congregations, and entire denominations end up divided because of our beliefs, we must admit we have fallen pathetically short in achieving the vision for which Christ prayed on the night he died that his followers might be one as he was one with his heavenly Father.

It seems to me, in these days when families and congregations, religions and nations, are so frightfully divided, we do well to look at Philip Melanchthon.   He shows us how to seek a better way with our adversaries through respect and humility instead of bluster and swagger. As long as Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox, let alone Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, quarrel and kill one another, we have much to confess and precious little to celebrate.  As long as we, the body of Christ, endlessly squabble with one another, Jesus continues to be ripped asunder on the cross.

The prophet Isaiah said: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”  Yes, God’s deepest longing is for peace to prevail among all people.

I have spent forty years now as a minister of the Church in the Holy Office of Word and Sacraments.  As I reflect over those years, I must confess there have been occasions when I should have been far more like Philip Melanchthon; all too often, humility and understanding of others have eluded me and that deeply saddens me.  On other occasions, when I should have been far more daring and adventurous, like Luther, I have been a cowardly lion.

I have discovered over the years that the Christian life—at least for me—is an endless struggle between cowardice and courage, bombast and humility. At least I never seem to get it quite right. Whenever we err on the side of cowardice and bombast, let us fall to our knees and pray for the godly gifts of courage and humility and for the wisdom to know which is the necessary gift at a particular time.

On this day of New York City Pride, I am mindful how our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has fought, sometimes ferociously, for and against our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender brothers and sisters.  While we have made significant strides in recent years to open our Lutheran doors wider, we still need to pray that we might open them even wider. This is where the seemingly cobwebby Augsburg Confession is so important.  Our central Lutheran confession claims that the church is present wherever the gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel.  When we preach and eat and baptize together, we all taste the gifts of heaven, whether gay or straight, black or white, Republican or Democrat, young and old, rich and poor, yes, even Lutheran or Roman Catholic.

So, on this day, how do you cast your vote…for Martin Luther the bombastic one or Philip Melanchthon the humble one?  I can assure you these two giants of the faith would urge you to vote only for God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

“Orphans No More”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Orphans No More”
John 14: 15-21
May 21, 2017 (Sixth Sunday of Easter)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

My heart plummets every time I hear Jesus’ words, “I will not leave you orphaned.”  I know Jesus meant no harm; in fact, I’m sure he intended to cheer us up.  But the word “orphan” flusters me nonetheless…  Let me explain.

When I was in second grade at Woodsdale School, a number of my little classmates were orphans.  They lived at the Wheeling Children’s Home, a sprawling castle straight out of a Dickens novel.  The kids wore humdrum clothing and had shabbier haircuts than the ones my father gave me.  It was all perfectly adequate if you had nowhere else to live but it scared me to death: might I, one day, end up in the children’s home on Orchard Road?

Don’t we all fear ending up orphans?

That is why, about twelve hours before his crucifixion, Jesus gathered his beloved disciples for a final supper and promised them, “I will not leave you orphaned.”

Oh, the horror abandonment!

The cruelest thing I can recall doing as a parent occurred when our son Caspar was six years old.  We were on our way from Washington, D.C. to Wheeling, West Virginia, to visit my parents.  We stopped at our favorite rest area that had fascinating exhibits about the construction of stunning Interstate 68 running through the mountains of Western Maryland.  After exploring the displays, we went outside and hid behind a kiosk.  We were certain Caspar would find us but he barely looked for us.  He instantly thought he had been deserted.  By the time we realized the terror that had overcome him, he was sprinting across the pedestrian bridge spanning the interstate.  We screamed, “Caspar, Caspar,” but to no avail; he could not hear us.  Once he reached the other side, to our utter revulsion, he spotted the lot where our car was parked and ran back, straight across the six-lane highway, with huge semis sweeping down through the mountains at seventy miles an hour.  Thank God, he ran fast and, thank God, we got to him.

How terrible to be left alone!

Jesus knew we would feel deserted after his crucifixion, not just in the immediate days following but down through the centuries as well.  Just entering this sanctuary can feel terribly isolating.  We come here bruised and broken, desperately longing for someone’s attention.

My greatest goal for Holy Trinity is that every person who enters this holy place will feel showered with Christ’s love—it has been my goal at every church where I have the pastor.  Even if this morning is your first time here and you had hoped to sneak in here undetected, sit alone, and examine the goings-on from afar, I still hope you end up feeling a bit overwhelmed by someone’s friendliness.  To be honest, I hope you feel the welcome a bit like overcooked evangelical fervor.  Isn’t it better to have someone take notice of you than to slink out of here with ne’er a word of welcome uttered your way?

You know how awkward it feels to be an outsider.  You have visited a church for the first time or arrived at a party and not known a soul.  For introverts like me, introductions and mingling are exhausting work.  The usher hands you a bulletin with nothing more than a perfunctory nod; when the peace is passed, you watch others cheerfully hug and kiss and you feel a million miles away.  Even though a few folks say “peace” to you, the word doesn’t feel nearly as familiar as what you observe others feeling toward one another. This all makes you feel edgy.  As the week wears on, you finally muster the courage to tell a coworker about visiting a church where the music was stunning, the sermon stirring, and the architecture soaring; unfortunately, the only lasting taste you have is not a soul talked to you.  You felt abandoned, rather like an orphan.  It was exhausting.

I pray that we might all have eyes of Christ, eyes that, upon entering this sanctuary, immediately begin looking for someone who is alone.  What a wonderful gift if our initial inclination is not to seek the ones we know best but rather to seek out the stranger, the one we have never met.

On that final night, Jesus said to his friends, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  (Listen carefully to those words put to gorgeous music during this morning’s offertory anthem.)  Of these words, “keep my commandments,” Martin Luther writes: “Christ says, ‘I ask and demand no more than this one thing, that you faithfully preach about me, watch over my Word and Sacrament, show affection and harmony among one another for my sake, and patiently bear the adversities that this entails for you.’”  Luther could easily have said, “Keep your eyes out for the visitor and the lonely one and shower them with affection—they need it.”

Jesus asks us to be babysitters until he returns.  We are the ones responsible for telling the frightened and lonely and the self-conscious, “Your mommy and daddy will be back soon” or, better yet, “Jesus will come again.”  And, until he returns, we spread out a meal for one and all and say, “Take and eat.”

We are fast approaching the summer months—you can feel the heat already.  Soon after Dagmar and I arrived last summer, one of the first things you told us was: “Don’t worry if no one shows up the second Sunday you are here.  That says nothing about what people think of you.  Everyone leaves New York on summer weekends.”  When I was a pastor in Washington, D.C., this exodus had a churchly title similar to Christmas, Lent, and Easter; it was called “Beachtide.”

My deepest desire is for each of you to have a delightful summer; you deserve a sabbath, a rest at the beach, a hike in the mountains, a breather where your soul is refreshed from the city’s onslaught.  But, when you are in town, please do as Jesus asks: keep his commandments and show up here.  People need you to welcome them and to love them and my hunch is you need it too.

Just to assure one another that we have not been left orphaned, let us proclaim yet again, “Alleluia!  Christ is risen!”