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“The Name of Jesus”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“The Name of Jesus”
Luke 2: 15-21
January 1, 2017
The Name of Jesus (New Year’s Day)

Names tell us volumes about a family’s hopes and dreams and memories.

Quite honestly, I have never been wild about my name, Wilbert, so when our first son came on the scene we named him Sebastian.  That name bears gravitas here at Holy Trinity, a place known internationally for our Bach Vespers.  It would be logical for you to think that Dagmar and I named our firstborn after Johann Sebastian Bach but I must disappoint you.  When Dagmar was pregnant, we were watching an international track meet, the Bislett Games in Oslo, Norway, on July 17, 1979.  Sebastian kicked inside Dagmar for the first time just as the British middle distance runner Sebastian Coe kicked in the mile run, breaking the world record; hence the name Sebastian.  And, yes, I must confess, dear Holy Trinity, we named our son after an athlete, not after a certain German musician.

When we visited my Grandma Miller so she could meet her new great-grandson, she was not at all amused by his name, Sebastian: “Isn’t Wilbert, your name and your father’s and your grandfather’s, perfectly fine? You pastors give your children the stupidest names!”

By the way, we named our next son, Caspar…Guess what Grandma Miller thought of that?  You guessed it: she wept, but surprisingly, this time, she wept tears of joy.  Never mind that his classmates might bully him with taunts of “Caspar the Friendly Ghost.”  The name Caspar, you see, was her father’s name as it was Dagmar’s great-grandfather’s.

Today, we give thanks for another name, the name of God’s son, Jesus.  This name was not plucked from a three-dollar name book purchased at the Nazareth grocery counter.  Our Savior’s name came from heaven.  Even before the child was conceived in Mary’s womb, an angel informed Joseph, “You shall call his name Jesus…”  The name Jesus is rich in meaning: he shall save his people from their sins.

If you learn a person’s name, such knowledge inevitably draws you closer.  “Hello, Jane.  Good morning, Ernie.”  People understand that when you call them by name, you have taken the time to know them, to care for them.  They will likely want to know your name, too, and to learn more about you.

Knowing one another’s names creates community.  We can spend years and years deliberating on how to make our congregation flourish, pouring over sophisticated studies, but I guarantee you: one of the most effective tools for creating a vibrant church community is getting to know one another by name.  I suggest we all take the time to learn at least one person’s name at the passing of the peace this morning; make it your New Year’s resolution to meet a new person every Sunday.  I know it will stretch some of our comfort zones, especially those of us who are introverts, but learning one another’s names will make our community friendlier and livelier.

One of the finest compliments I have received since becoming your pastor came on Friday afternoon.  The mother and father of a bride-to-be rang our bell and wanted to see the sanctuary where their daughter will be married in June.  They had never met a single one of us.  In a matter of moments, though, she commented on how friendly Holy Trinity is and how she had felt rebuffed by other New York churches that simply wanted to discuss pricey wedding fee structures and elaborate wedding policies.  Their good feelings had nothing to do with our claiming to be a friendly church in our bulletin, not an iota to do with a long-range plan we devised to make our church grow.  It did have everything to do with Bonnie, our office manager, welcoming her with a smile; Serge, our property manager, graciously showing her the church; Donald, our cantor, telling the family what wonderful music they can have at their wedding.  This proud mother and father were called by name and treated with kindness.  That’s how names work and the power they bear for the vibrant life of Christ’s church.

Yes indeed, how we use names speaks volumes.  Did you know that your hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, includes Luther’s Small Catechism in the very back?  Please turn to page 1160, to the Ten Commandments.  The Second Commandment: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.”  Luther understood the gift of having God’s name on our lips and the power it invokes.  In his explanation of the Second Commandment Luther writes: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not curse, swear, practice magic, lie, or deceive using God’s name, but instead use that very name in every time of need to call on, pray to, praise, and give thanks to God.”

What a priceless gift to be entrusted with God’s name, a name we can call upon in every moment of life, in good times and in crisis, to call on, pray to, praise, and give thanks.

While most of you probably don’t remember it, there was a moment when you gained a totally new dimension as your name was intricately woven with God’s life-giving name.  These wondrous words were spoken to you at your baptism, “Name, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  Your family and friends in Christ stood at your side as water flowed down your face and God’s beautiful name brightened everything about you and everything that was to come in your life and even in your death.

As you walk around town today, remember always that your name is delightfully intertwined with God’s name.  And never forget that all the people sitting near you at worship this morning are filled with God’s good name as well.  And finally, as a special gift for you throughout this New Year: always call to mind that this breathtaking place is richly cloaked in God’s name, Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

“God Loves Misfits and Liars, Murderers and Scumbags, Scoundrels and Scalawags.”

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller’s Sermon at Bach Vespers
at The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
“God Loves Misfits and Liars, Murderers and Scumbags, Scoundrels and Scalawags.”
Reformation Sunday, October 30, 2016
Jeremiah 31: 31-34

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

As most of you are aware, today is a special day in the Lutheran church: this is Reformation Sunday—hence we are decorated in red.  Reformation Day actually occurs tomorrow, October 31, All Hallows Eve, when Martin Luther is reported to have banged his 95 Theses on the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.  This occurred in 1517.

All manner of havoc was unleashed the day that pesky Augustinian monk announced to all the world—or at least to those coming to church the next morning, on All Saints’ Day—that he wanted to debate a few key and thorny issues with his beloved church.

Just a hammer, a few nails, and a piece of paper unleashed a ruckus like few others in the history of the world.  To put it a mildly, Luther was destined for the Revolutionary Hall of Fame.

What I want to say tonight is that Martin Luther had NO INTEREST in creating a new church or even disrupting the one he loved; he certainly had no interest in having an entire Christian denomination named after him.  What he did want was to dust off a few key areas of the church’s life that, to his mind, were preventing people from being touched fully by God’s magnificent love.

For many years, we Lutherans were much like those long-suffering Chicago Cub fans on an Autumn evening.  Instead of singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” we took great delight in gathering on Reformation Day, beating our theological breasts like a bunch of wild Neanderthals, and singing “A Mighty Fortress” as loudly as we could, whether we could carry a tune or not—we even threw in a bit of Johann Sebastian Bach with timpani and brass just to be certain we were as rowdy as possible.  What sadly occurred on those occasions was, rather than celebrating God’s love for us, we rejoiced in how much we despised our Roman Catholic neighbors. Whether we realized it or not, we pathetically reveled in the division of Christ’s body, the church, here on earth.

The Reformation principle for far too long was much like the high theology my Grandma Miller held fast to: if Roman Catholics do it, Lutherans don’t; and, conversely, of course, if Roman Catholics don’t do it, Lutherans do.  Take for instance this evening’s Vesper’s liturgy: the incense, chanting, and elaborate vestments would convince my dear grandma beyond a shadow of the doubt that her grandson is destined for hell.  Why?  Of course, that is what Catholics do!

But that is not what the Reformation was or is about. What our tradition at its best holds up is the long-standing belief—both Jewish and Christian—that we heard in this evening’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah: God will forgive our iniquity, and remember our sin no more.

(And, by the way, remarkably, Pope Francis—our Pope by the way—will gather for worship tomorrow at the Lutheran cathedral in Lund, Sweden, as the observance of the 500th year of the Reformation begins.  While there will be no Mass—further indication of the tragic brokenness of the church, it is with much delight that we behold Christ’s church mending inch-by-inch, forsaking ancient bitterness for renewed joy.  God certainly knows that our tearful world desperately needs our united witness to God’s love for those who are broken and forlorn and certainly not our shabby divisions that have tarnished the church’s witness for far too long.)

That was why Luther took hammer and nail and paper to the Castle Church door: to make certain that even 499 years later, we know that God forgives all our peccadillos and remembers our depravity no more.

Martin Luther would urge us tonight: read through your Bible. It is filled with a hodgepodge of flamboyant scoundrels from beginning to end.  Remember Adam and Eve—I doubt I need to tell you their sultry story.  And there was Jacob who stole his brother Esau’s birthright and lied up a storm to his blind daddy Isaac.  And then King David whose Psalms we have been singing with much delight this evening: old David made every modern-day politician seem like a paragon of spotless virtue with his disgusting affair with Bathsheba and his murderously vicious rampaging ways.  On and on the Bible goes: Peter-you remember him, he claimed he didn’t even know Jesus even as Jesus hung dying on a cross; and Paul—he took positive delight in murdering the earliest Christians.  These are but a few of the misfits who litter the Bible with muddles of mayhem.

And yet, over and over again, out of the blue, we also hear biblical messages like Jeremiah’s, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”  Jeremiah could easily recount the biblical litany of heroes who happened also to be liars, murders, and scumbags and yet, every time, God forgave these foul-ups and failures for their transgressions.  That’s exactly how Luther urged us to read the Bible: he wanted us to proclaim from pulpits like this and with the cantata we are about to hear that no matter how dastardly the act, there is always hope for us in God’s eyes.

People often ask me, “What do Lutherans believe?”  I tell them this, “We believe God loves misfits and liars, murderers and scumbags, scoundrels and scalawags.”  That is why we pull out the brass and timpani tonight and let ‘er rip—because God remembers our sin no more.  Amen.

“Carving Rotten Wood and Riding Lame Horses”

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
Mary, Mother of Our Lord (August 14, 2016)
Luke 1: 46-55
“Carving Rotten Wood and Riding Lame Horses”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
Alma Quigley went to Woodsdale Junior High School.  She lived in a shotgun shack in one of Wheeling’s tumble-down neighborhoods.  She wore stained skirts and threadbare blouses. The ornery boys mocked her; if any of their pals got too close to Alma, their stomach-churning taunt began instantly, “You have cooties.”

Then, one day a miracle occurred.  Colin Masterson, the handsomest and most athletic boy in our school, asked Alma to the spring dance.  As soon as we acne-faced teenagers heard the news, our view of Alma Quigley changed instantly: what exquisite beauty had Colin discovered that we had overlooked since we were in kindergarten?

Has it ever happened to you?  Out of the blue, someone looked straight into your eyes and said, “My, do you have a beautiful smile.”  Or at the Passing of the Peace, the person next to you said, “Did anyone ever tell you what a lovely voice you have?”  Simple words changed your life and for the better.

A similarly marvelous thing happened to Mary when God chose her to be the mother of Jesus.  Out of the blue, Mary became breathtakingly beautiful and she knew it.   Mary sang the song that the church has sung at Evening Prayer ever since, “My soul magnifies the Lord…for the Lord has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…the Mighty One has done great things for me…”  God invited Mary to the dance and that invitation changed the world forever.

Martin Luther said it this way: “God can carve the rotten wood and ride the lame horse.”  Mary was, after all, younger than gold medalist gymnast Simone Biles and her tiny Olympic gymnast cohorts and, like Alma Quigley, she had cooties.  If you think otherwise, recall how people wagged their tongues, wondering exactly who the father of her baby might be.

Mary was as an unlikely choice to be the Mother of God, as Luther called her, as unlikely as an undocumented Mexican immigrant or inner-city African American teenager in our day.

People often say to me, “Pastor, I am looking forward to hearing the Word of God proclaimed from the pulpit this morning,” I always wonder: Do you really want to hear the heart of Luke’s gospel or would you prefer a more appetizing gospel?  If you are clamoring for the Word of God this morning, see how this little nugget works for you: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”

I am always grateful to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters for their theological claims about Mary.  Beliefs such as the Immaculate Conception (the belief that Mary was conceived like us all except without original sin or its stain), the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (the claim that at the end of Mary’s life she was assumed, body and soul, into heaven, just as Enoch, Elijah had been before her), and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary are attempts to give deserved honor to Jesus’ mother, Mary.  And yet, I worry what, to my mind, are nonbiblical doctrines, may have the unintended consequence of making Mary more than she was when God chose her, more than you and I were when God chose us with “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  Such lofty theological sentiments may diminish the wonder of God stooping down and choosing Mary and you and me to aid in the heavenly plan of salvation.

You will learn that my favorite author is Annie Dillard; you may hear her name more than you ever wished!  She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for her book, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”   I adore Annie Dillard’s ability to discover the sacred amidst the mundane.  In her book, “Holy the Firm,” she writes of the little church she attends.  Listen: “On Sunday mornings I quit the house and wander down the hill to the white frame church in the firs. On a big Sunday there might be twenty of us there; often I am the only person under sixty, and feel as though I’m on an archaeological tour of Soviet Russia…the minister is a Congregationalist, and wears a white shirt. The man knows God. Once, in the middle of the long pastoral prayer of intercession for the whole world — for the gift of wisdom to its leaders, for hope and mercy to the grieving and pained, succor to the oppressed, and God’s grace to all — in the middle of this he stopped, and burst out, “Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week.” After a shocked pause, he continued reading the prayer. Because of this, I like him very much…We had a wretched singer once, a guest from a Canadian congregation, a hulking blond girl with chopped hair and big shoulders, who wore tinted spectacles and a long lacy dress, and sang, grinning, to faltering accompaniment, an entirely secular song about mountains. Nothing could have been more apparent than that God loved this girl; nothing could more surely convince me of God’s unending mercy than the continued existence on earth of the church.”

Aren’t we all bit like that tiny church in the firs with the pastor in the white shirt and the hulking girl with the chopped hair and big shoulders?  Where in the world did we ever get the quaint notion that God chooses our little ragtag gathering on this scorching humid August morning to be instruments of heavenly love?  Why, of course, because God carves rotten wood and rides lame horses. God chose a thirteen-year-old girl from Bethlehem to be the Mother of Lord.  And if God did that, God can also choose us to be servants of the most high.  That is why the choir sings today, the incense floats to the ceiling, and we sing, “Magnify, my soul, God’s greatness.”

God indeed has done great things for us, cooties and all.

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

Sermon: Bach Vespers – April 12, 2015

The Rev. George Detweiler

Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4

(Note: The musical information in this meditation is from John Eliot Gardiner’s book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven)

Bach was 22 when he wrote this cantata for his audition in Mühlhausen. This was his second or perhaps third cantata, but the first in which he attempted to paint narrative in music. The success of this cantata and of the audition moved him from the role of a virtuoso organist to that of a daring composer of figural music, and, I would add, ardent promoter of the theology of Martin Luther. (more…)

Sermon: Advent 4b – December 21, 2014

The Rev. Dr. William Heisley

Lessons: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Psalmody; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

Today physical and spiritual realities are joined on earth and in heaven and our modern minds’ longing for clarity is not satisfied.  The physical is joined with the spiritual.  But how can this be?

Right here in New York City, at 93rd Street and Park Avenue, is the Russian Orthodox “Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign.”  “Our Lady of the Sign” is the title of a famous and classic icon of Mary.  This icon, written on wood in vibrant colors over and over, across the centuries, so that all who want might pray before it depicts the Virgin who is Jesus’ mother.  This is the maiden who became Mother of God.  And she sits as a sign of the joining of earth and heaven. Her hands are open – open to all of earth and all of heaven.  Open to the presence of God in her life.  Her hands are open and there on her breast, she carries an image and the image is of priestly Jesus.  This is Jesus the Emmanuel, God with us.  This is the One who is to come and who has come through Mary by the power of God.  This is the One who is God in our lives. (more…)