Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“The Truth Will Make You Free”
John 8: 31-36
500th Commemoration of the Reformation
October 29, 2017
Bach Vespers (Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott)
Please let me say to you, “Happy 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.”
And, while I am at it, please excuse any Lutherans sitting near you who sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” a bit too rambunctiously for your taste. We simply cannot help ourselves as we ruminate on our fearless leader, Herr Doktor Martin Luther. We love his vigor against Pope Leo X; we adore his courage, standing before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and proclaiming, “I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. May God help me, Amen;” we revere his towering intellect, translating the Bible into the German vernacular. Forgive us, please, at least tonight, for being a bit more boisterous than is typical for us pokerfaced Lutherans as we cheer for our guy, the fellow who turned the world upside down.
We Lutherans, by the way, have gotten into hot water over the years, making claims about Luther similar to those who stood before Jesus and said, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” We have sung grandiose things at worship as our choir just did; were you paying attention to what they sang: “Long live Luther, long live Melanchthon! Long live you luminaries of this land!”—and I am told the uncensored version actually has something, that the sopranos sang, about giving honor to the Elector Frederick the Wise—that can’t possibly be Psalm 119 as it states in our bulletin, can it?
On his best days, Luther would censure us for raising our beer steins too high in his honor. It was he, after all, who warned: “People should not call themselves Lutherans, but Christians…How did I, poor stinking bag of maggots that I am, come to the point where people call the children of Christ by my evil name?”
Oh, the dangers of this 500th observance of the Reformation. I don’t need to tell you the other side of Luther, the outrageous and bombastic, arrogant and horrid side. Think of the tragic fault lines between Lutheran and Roman Catholic; think of the ecclesiastic squabbles that have led to horrific wars. You have likely experienced similar family brawls, all because we claim to bear a greater truth than someone else.
And there is the other abhorrent part, Luther’s anti-Semitism. Some of Luther’s writings on the Jewish people are so vile that our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declared in 1994: “Lutherans feel a special burden because of certain elements in the legacy of the reformer Martin Luther and the catastrophes, including the Holocaust of the twentieth century, suffered by Jews in places where the Lutheran churches were strongly represented.”
If we are honest about the Reformation and, believe it or not, if we are true to Luther, we must tell the truth because, after all, we proclaim truth-telling will make us all free. And the truth is that Luther was human, very much so.
A few months ago, I attended a lecture by the Luther scholar Thomas Kaufmann who teaches at the University of Göttingen in Germany. One participant was particularly exasperated by Luther’s anti-Semitism. Professor Kaufmann simply said, “Say goodbye to Luther the hero!”
In our apologies for Luther’s anti-Semitism, our Lutheran church also noted: “Luther proclaimed a gospel for people as we really are, bidding us to trust a grace sufficient to reach our deepest shames and address the most tragic truths.”
That’s the good side of Luther, the truth that proclaims that all our heroes—including us!—are clay-feeted. We can be breathtakingly courageous and remarkably brilliant one day and pathetically cowardly and disgustingly offensive the next.
The Lutheran legacy we celebrate on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation is that God never gives up on us. As he so often did, Luther said it best, “God can carve the rotten wood and ride the lame horse.”
One of my favorite books is Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory.” It is about “a seedy little half-baked, cowardly, adulterous, whiskey priest in revolutionary Mexico.” Frederick Buechner writes: “Every life he touches is somehow brought a little more to life by his presence, making him a saint in a way, not a saint in the sense of a plaster saint, of a haloed saint, but a saint in the sense of a person as mixed up as the rest of us through whom, nonetheless, God’s grace was able to work.”
Luther was like the whisky priest as, by the way, is the church on earth and as are we all. The wonder is that God makes music through scoundrels and vagabonds, ragamuffins and jailbirds, Luther and Bach, and, yes, you and me. Our music-making, each in our own way, is as wondrous and brilliant as Luther’s “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.” For that alone, it is well worth celebrating this 500th observance of the Reformation. As we lift our beer steins high, let us give glory to God alone on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“500 Years of the Reformation: Repentance or Celebration?”
(Romans 3: 19-28; John 8: 31-36)
Reformation Sunday (October 29, 2017)
Happy 500th Anniversary of the Reformation!
Five hundred years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther is said to have nailed 95 theses onto the Castle Church doors in Wittenberg, Germany. Herr Doktor Luther wanted to debate a number of critical points with the church. The powers-that-be were none too pleased with his audacious thoughts and brazen manner and thus the events of the Reformation began to unfold.
Perhaps you have noticed today’s sermon title, “500 Years of the Reformation: Repentance or Celebration?” I have been wondering: do we repent for the past 500 years or do we celebrate them?
I must confess that all the Reformation events leading up to today have not caught my fancy. I’m not sure why. Holy Trinity has sponsored no trips to Wittenberg; we have no cutouts with Martin Luther and his wife Katie through which you can stick your heads and put the picture on Facebook.
Now, to be sure, I have a certain fondness for things German. I am married to a lovely German. I have traveled to all the requisite “holy sites of Lutheranism” and paid my due homage. Our boys and even our dog Cisco are fluent in Luther’s mother language—and their mother’s, and our younger son, Caspar, lives and works in Hamburg, Germany. So, I am not exactly turning my back on the Lutheran heritage.
One of my guesses why I am not exactly euphoric over all the Reformation howling has to do with how I—and I imagine many of you—grew up. We Lutherans gathered in the biggest space available which, in Wheeling, West Virginia, meant a school gymnasium; we had the requisite mass choir with timpani and brass; we invited the most famous out-of-town preacher we could get to deliver an anti-Catholic/pro-Lutheran stemwinder that brought us all to a fevered pitch. The first hymn, like this morning, was “A Mighty Fortress.” Goose bumps formed, tears trickled, and we sang louder than we should have.
We, of course, celebrated that Luther had called the people of God to cherish that particular Pauline theological doctrine proclaiming there is not a darn thing we can do to save ourselves and that our salvation is a glorious gift from God. There were other things we celebrated as well like Luther translating the Bible into a language people could actually understand and his gutsy stand against the church’s sale of indulgences, those “get out of hell free cards” for deceased grandma and grandpa that also helped underwrite the church’s ambitious building projects in Rome.
For sure, Martin Luther was a man of prodigious talents and, for that, we give thanks and I suppose God excuses our excessive merriment this morning.
But on those Reformation days of yore when some of us were kids, I never remember repenting. Do you? Some of you may be scratching your head, “What was to repent?”
Remember when Suzanna Mueller announced to her good Lutheran parents that she was marrying Bronco Zaleski who attended St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church? They were madly in love but both sides of the aisle were devastated. The wedding was the tensest thing you ever did see as good Catholics smugly went up for Communion and pious Lutherans sat in their pews scowling…Sad.
Pure and simple, we dare not celebrate the division of Christ’s church. If we do, we are complicit in the continued crucifixion of Christ’s body on the cross! Whenever the church is divided, we must lament the tragic part our own antagonism plays in damaging the proclamation of God’s goodness.
It seems we are getting better though. We have found it within ourselves, by God’s grace of course, to listen to what Roman Catholics think and believe and they have been listening to us as well. We have spent far more time seeking our commonalities and much less time lambasting one another’s differences; and, remarkably, the one holy catholic and apostolic church appears to be slowly mending.
We have come a long way. In a few days, Lutherans of the Metropolitan New York Synod will cram into St. John the Divine for the 500th Observance of the Reformation. My hope is that we will both repent and celebrate. If there is a scent of triumphalism, my hunch and hope is that it will surface as we give thanks that many Christian denominations are desperately seeking how to break down the ancient barriers that have for far too long hampered our proclamation of God’s grace; we will also pray mightily that we may sing one gorgeous melody infused with the unique and lovely sounds of all our varied and rich traditions.
I experienced this glorious melody a few years ago when I attended Mass with my Roman Catholic sister-in-law and the priest of her tiny village church in Rotenburg, Germany, encouraged me, a Lutheran pastor, to come forward to receive the body and blood of Christ; it was a breathtaking moment. Roman Catholics rejoice similarly when they come here and are welcomed to join us in receiving the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.
500 years after Luther, we repent for all those times when we have acted in ways that have gotten in God’s way. And, 500 years later, we also celebrate all that is bringing our Christian family closer together. The last thing the world needs today is Christians squabbling with one another. We need to rise above our differences and proclaim God’s love to all the groaning world.
We deck our church in red today because, like in every age, God never forsakes the church. And that calls for a celebration! And so, I say, “Happy 500th Reformation Day!”
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.
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, 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.
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.