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“Catching Our Fancy”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Catching Our Fancy”
(Luke 1: 39-56)
Bach Vespers: J.S. Bach’s Magnificat (BWV 243)
December 10, 2017
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

Funny thing how God catches our fancy in the unlikeliest of people.

It happened three years ago when I was a pastor in San Diego.  We had a considerable outreach to the homeless community, including free medical and dental, acupuncture and legal clinics, and a hospice program for homeless dying; we fed 200 people, twice a week.  We rubbed shoulders with God’s unlikeliest friends, day-after-day.

Jordan and Addison, shall we call them, were two unlikely ones.  They came knocking at the church door and wondered if they could speak with me.  They were homeless and Addison was eight months pregnant.  Once my office door was tightly closed, they apologized profusely and embarrassedly asked if I would be willing to marry them.

For some reason—it must have been God’s grace—I said I would do more than marry them; if they wished, we would create the most magical wedding of all.  Instead of having the wedding in my office with just the two of them and me, we would have the ceremony on our church patio, immediately before the Friday morning meal.  200 of their homeless friends would be guests of honor and Jordan and Addison would process right through their midst.  My wife, Dagmar, made a beautiful bridal bouquet; Dorothy and Dale donated a stunning cake; Ladonna saw to it that the wedding couple was feted in great delight; Mary made certain that Addison had a dashing bridal dress that highlighted her stunning beauty and swollen belly.

People hardened by repeated rebuffs and shattered by years of wretched street-living watched in wonder, weeping with gladness and cheering with abandon.  When I announced Jordan and Addison as husband and wife, out-of-the-blue, a group of Anglican and Lutheran theologians who happened to be at our church as part of the national gathering of the American Academy of Religion broke into a spectacular rendition of “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.”

The wedding caught everyone’s fancy.  A picture of it appeared in our national church magazine, “Living Lutheran,” and a friend of mine who teaches the highfalutin subject of Trinitarian theology at one of our seminaries told me that the wedding was the most powerful presentation of the week for a number of his colleagues and him: “Wilk, I felt like old Simeon in the Bible who upon seeing the baby Jesus said, ‘I can now go in peace, for I have seen my salvation.’ That’s how I felt after Jordan and Addison’s wedding.”

In a few moments we will hear Mary’s “Magnificat.” While the seventeen-piece orchestra and the Holy Trinity Bach Choir will lift us to the angels, never forget the song was first sung by a young woman who would soon be highly pregnant and snubbed by refined company; people would snidely ask, “And who exactly is the daddy of her baby?”   And, of course, to this very day, outrageous comments continue to be made about Mary as her calling as the Mother of God is compared to the sleazy goings on of an adult politician reported to have had dalliances with young, minor girls.

Mary and Joseph were not terribly different from Jordan and Addison; they were suspect candidates in playing such a significant part in God coming to earth. God could have chosen kings and queens in ornate palaces but instead opted to come to earth by way of a very poor and very young girl.

In one of my five favorite books, “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” Willa Cather writes:  “There is always something charming in the idea of greatness returning to simplicity—the queen making hay among the country fields—but how much more endearing was the belief that [the Holy Family], after so many centuries of history and glory, should return to play their first parts in the persons of a humble Mexican family, the lowliest of the lowly, the poorest of the poor—in a wilderness at the end of the world where the angels could scarcely find them.”

Willa Cather’s poetic eyes saw God coming by way of poor Mexican peasants and this caught her fancy.

In these days of Advent, as you watch and wait and listen, may you have poetic eyes.  Resist letting Bach’s music sentimentalize the “Magnificat;” refuse to let it lift you into the netherworld of luxurious aesthetic enchantment.  Instead, carefully attend to the words: “For God has regarded the low estate of his hand-maiden…He has put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.”

Watch God come to Mary and Joseph and Jordan and Addison.  And, if you are so blessed, may God come to you as well in those places and on those occasions where angels can scarcely find you.  May the charm of it all catch your fancy and may you, with Mary, proclaim, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

“Lifting up the Lowly, Rising Above 36”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Lifting up the Lowly, Rising Above 36”
Luke 1: 26-55
August 13, 2017 (Mary, Mother of Our Lord)

“Today we lift up Mary, Mother of Our Lord…Okay, let’s deal with the rhinoceros in this Lutheran room immediately.  When you saw Mary and her son, Jesus, and read “Mary, Mother of Our Lord” on the bulletin cover, you might have thought, “Lutherans don’t believe in Mary!”  Let me say straight away: one of our Lutheran confessional documents (“The Formula of Concord”) states: “We believe, teach, and confess, that Mary did not conceive and bear a mere and ordinary human being, but the true Son of God; for that reason she is rightly called and in truth is the Mother of God.”

Did you hear that: the Mother of God!  Theotokos!!!

We confess every week, “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary and became truly human.”

We dare not forget the critical role Mary played in Christ’s life and in salvation history: she is a model of faith for us all.

When the angel Gabriel came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you…You shall bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,” Mary was shocked: “How can this be, since I have no husband?”  How right she was: she was a gangly teenager, from a backwater town, far too young to have a baby.

We have said something similar this morning, “How can racism and bigotry in this country ever end?”

We might even say it about our church, Holy Trinity: how can Christ appear here?  Dagmar and I were at the Newport Jazz Festival last weekend. We had a stunning time.  Our favorite was Maria Schneider and her orchestra; imagine my surprise this morning when our wonderful soloist, Anna Lenti, told me that her father taught Ms. Schneider at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester.

Upon our return, I immediately went to the church office to see how many of you attended worship last Sunday.  36!  I hate to admit this publicly because, first of all, I don’t want to discourage you, and secondly, I put all my sermons on Facebook and our website.  You can already hear the whispers: “What’s going on at Holy Trinity?  36 at worship?”  You may be thinking along similar lines, “Apparently the new pastor is sinking the ship!”  36 causes me similar concerns so I protest: July attendance was the highest in at least the past five years…Who wants Holy Trinity to look like Podunk?

We can easily become depressed these days, in so many ways and in so many places.  But with Mary as our pioneer, we are encouraged to rise above 36 and to believe that “with God nothing will be impossible.”

But it’s not easy.  It wasn’t easy for Mary either.  As soon as her little son was born, she and her husband Joseph, with diaper-clad Jesus in tow, were off and running to Egypt, hounded by a paranoid king threatened by just about any pipsqueak who came his way.  It was pretty much like that until Mary ended up at the foot of the cross, weeping, as her dear son breathed his last.  Poor, poor Mary.

Luckily, Mary, good Jewish girl she was, had powerful memories.  She remembered the other blessed women down through the ages, barren women like Sarah, Rebekah, and even Mary’s older cousin Elizabeth.  None of these women had reason to hope, none except that they had heard from someone, in a place like this, that with God nothing will be impossible.  And, yes indeed, they all became mommies.

That’s why we hold up Mary today, not because she is our savior—she is not—but because she believed and announces to us that with God nothing will be impossible.

Those who follow Jesus are invited to be like Mary.  We are the ones who go to intensive care units and pray for those in the valley of the shadow of death; we are the ones who pray for peace while North Korea and Venezuela and the United State rattle their sabers; we are the ones who stand up and say racism and white nationalism are horrible and we won’t sleep well until the madness stops.  Yes, we are called by an angel to tell those we love and the world that with God nothing will be impossible.

Are we able to do that here at Holy Trinity?

In a few months, we will begin a marvelous journey, celebrating 150 years of proclaiming in this place that with God nothing will be impossible.  I hope we will throw caution to the wind as Mary did when she told people she was going to be the Mother of God.  I hope we risk just about everything trying to make our ministry as vibrant as possible well into the future.  Unless we do that, we have no business being here and certainly no business celebrating this congregation’s rich tradition as we are summoned into a bright future.

Will people think us nuts as we have already begun contemplating renovation of this sanctuary so that this place remains a breathtaking oasis of God’s goodness for years to come?  Will they think us mad to contemplate such an investment as so many churches are closing their doors for good?  Shouldn’t we be careful, go slowly?

We will need to remember those barren women who courageously trusted that God would provide and plowed straight into the future.  That’s what we are doing right now. Our world-famous choir will sing Bach’s greatest music, including his B-Minor Mass; they will soon come out with a glorious recording of the music of Samuel Capricornus.  We have scheduled some of the finest preachers in the Lutheran church: our former Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, Barbara Lundblad-the amazing preacher who taught up the street at Union Seminary, the astonishing hymn writer Susan Briehl, the first openly gay bishop in the Lutheran Church and brilliant Luther scholar Guy Erwin, and our own beloved bishop Robert Rimbo.  Are we crazy to celebrate God’s presence so extravagantly…Crazy only if we don’t follow Mary.

My seminary classmate, Barbara Brown Taylor, writes: “Mary’s trust [that with God nothing will be impossible] is really all she has.  What she does not have is a sonogram, or a husband, or an affidavit from the Holy Spirit that says, ‘The child is really mine.’  All she has is her unreasonable willingness to believe that the God who has chosen her will be part of whatever happens next…”

That’s all we have, too, the trust that God chooses us to bear Christ in this place.

“Those Stinking Christmas Letters”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Those Stinking Christmas Letters”
December 18, 2016 (4th Sunday of Advent)
Matthew 1: 1-25
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

So, tell me, are your family and friends as brilliant and successful as ours at least according to their Christmas letters?  Do their mistletoe missives overwhelm you with mind-boggling exploits and sentimental cheeriness?  You know: “Little Johnny, only 4 ½ years old, scored twenty-three goals in his first three soccer games as throngs of spellbound scouts from premier colleges looked on.  Dazzling Suzie, a few days shy of ten, presented a dazzling accordion recital in October at the local Y; some believe she may be the first accordion prodigy ever to receive early admission to Julliard.  As for mom and dad, our countless successes simply cannot be contained in this extraordinarily modest Christmas epistle.”

In all these stinking letters, the marriages are tranquil, the children’s exploits mind-boggling, and the trips exotic.  Why isn’t your family perfect?  Why does your beguiling teenager, Brock, regard his biggest—and only—achievement to be keeping his acne under control?  You would never dare mention that your precious little Abigail spends every waking hour locked in her room with shades drawn, obsessing on her iPhone with who knows whom about who knows what.  Add to that, your job stinks and your annual performance evaluation was rotten.

Sometimes coming to church only exacerbates matters.  You sneakily look around and everyone seems so cheery and successful.  You think and spot HER: I’ll bet she finished her Christmas shopping in September and mailed her 200+ Christmas cards the day after Thanksgiving, each with a sweet, personal, hand-written note.

Tell the truth: these idyllic Christmas letters drive you nuts!

Here is some pastoral advice—a Christmas gift really: if you are tired of everyone else looking perfect, read the Christmas story according to Saint Matthew.  This gospel does not resemble Luke’s jollier version where the babe is wrapped in swaddling clothes, the shepherds lovingly tend their adorable sheep by night, and the angels sing enchanting melodies from heaven above.  Matthew’s account tells us more about Joseph and less about Mary and frankly Joseph comes off a bit the buffoon: Mary is in a family way and Matthew ain’t the daddy.  Matthew writes of Joseph’s baffling quandary, “Being a righteous man and unwilling to expose [Mary] to public disgrace, [he] planned to dismiss her quietly.”  That is, of course, until an angel appears and says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

Matthew includes this tawdry mess in his Christmas letter.  Can you believe it—there for all the world to read!  Would you tell others that your daughter is pregers and no one has yet figured out who pops is?  Come on: you would never want Aunt Tilley and Uncle Tito catching whiff of this humiliating scandal.

Today, wishing to spare you the agony, we opted not to read the first sixteen verses of Matthew’s gospel known as the genealogy of Jesus Christ.  While the thought of Jesus’ family tree may sound fascinating to you, the church has avoided Matthew 1: 1-17 like liver and onions, never, ever reading it aloud on any Sunday morning in the entire three-year lectionary cycle.  And when people attempt to read through the Bible in a year, these long lists of descendants are usually skipped over with ne’er a misgiving.  That all means, we never may know the whole truth and nothing but the truth about Jesus’ family.

Just for fun, let me read you a few verses: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.  Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David…”  It goes on ad nauseam until, mercifully, we arrive at this: “…Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”

In those initial verses, you hear things about Jesus’ family that make your blood curl and cause you to feel a lot better about your family.  While we won’t delve into Jesus’ entire family history this morning, trust me when I tell you, it is filled with murderers and scoundrels, cheats, adulterers, and harlots.   If you don’t believe me, go home this afternoon and investigate who exactly Tamar and Rahab and Jacob and David are; see what mischief and mayhem they mastermind.  I warn you: keep your Bible inside a brown paper sack—it is disgusting stuff.

Why aren’t the revolting exploits of Jesus’ ancestors left out of the Bible or at least doctored up so polite company like us will not be offended only a few days before Christmas?  And yet, isn’t this the kind of Christmas letter you read from start to finish; its candor makes you feel so much better about your own bumbling family.

Saint Matthew’s Christmas letter tells us the truth about the folks God chooses to hang around with in this world.  God does not come to an imaginary wonderland abounding in purity and loveliness; God comes to a real world teeming with mayhem and tomfoolery…a world just like ours.

If you wish, you can look around this room and make believe others are far more perfect than you but I promise you…I promise you…this simply is not the case: no one here today is perfect, thus saith the Lord!  In every age, God comes amidst scoundrels and misfits, cranks and foul-ups, among people just like us.  To know this is receive the greatest Christmas gift of all because “unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.”

On behalf of all those naughty and zany people in Jesus’ family, I wish you a very blessed Christmas.  Like Joseph, may you know the Christ Child coming to you.

“Be patient”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
Bach Vespers, December 11, 2016 (3rd Sunday of Advent)
“Be patient”
James 5: 7-10

“’Twas the night before Christmas,
when all through the house
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.”

I hope you still remember being nestled all snug in your bed.  But I’ll bet you have other memories as well.  While Clement Clarke Moore does not say so, I am almost certain he left this part out of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” to please his editors:

“The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads…
and revelations of ants pirouetted in their pajamas.”

Remember how hard it was to sleep the night before Christmas?  You so wanted the beautiful pony or that exquisite Rawlings Mickey Mantle baseball glove.  Every thirty-seven minutes, you restlessly got out of bed and scampered down the hallway to your parent’s bedroom. “Has Santa come yet?” you eagerly asked.  They told you, “Quick, go back to bed or Santa will hear you and not come down the chimney.”  The wait was agonizing; ants pirouetted in your “pjs.”

We just heard these words from the New Testament’s epistle of James, “Be patient, therefore, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.”

Our impatience no longer has to do with Dasher and Dancer’s hoofbeats.  Our anxieties have become more grown up and much more complicated.

A few weeks ago I told you about my favorite books.  One book is “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness” by William Styron.  Styron, who also wrote “Sophie’s Choice,” tells of his agonizing bouts with depression.  You can tell from the title, “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness,” that Styron is not a romantic when it comes to his struggles.  And yet, I will never forget his invitation to patience: “It is of great importance that those who are suffering a siege, perhaps for the first time, be told—be convinced, rather—that the illness will run its course and they will pull through.”

The greatest gift in such tribulation, so writes Styron, is to have loved ones close-by assisting you in the journey of patience: “Most people in the grip of depression at its ghastliest are, for whatever reason, in a state of unrealistic hopelessness, torn by exaggerated ills and fatal threats that bear no resemblance to actuality.”  And then this: “It may require on the part of friends, lovers, family, admirers, an almost religious devotion to persuade the sufferer of life’s worth…”

Sounds similar to James, “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.”
These days, as we prepare again to celebrate the coming of the Christ Child, are meant for us to persuade one another of life’s worth.  Together, we are patient; together, we say, “Wait and Christ will enter your life.”

People of great grace teach us to wait, to look beyond our dark caverns to the one who comes bearing gifts of healing and hope.

Mary the mother of Jesus was such a person.  Even when she could not make heads or tails out of the angel’s message that she would soon be the mother of God’s child and, in fact, was greatly troubled by the thought of it all, nevertheless, she waited patiently and pondered these things in her heart.  At every Vespers here we sing Mary’s song of patient waiting, the Magnificat, as we cense the altar and you.  As the incense wafts toward you this evening, may the sweet-smelling smoke remind you that Christ will come into your life.

You have seen such patience, I’m sure, in the elderly whose bodies grow frailer and whose minds become more fragile.  Nevertheless, they exhibit great grace, teaching us to bear all things and hope all things.  Time has taught them to wait, patiently.  They are like the lilies of the field and the sparrows of the sky who do not worry about tomorrow.

Patience allows us to wait for something greater.  We forsake the shoddy, the temporary, and the mediocre and believe that the Savior of the nations will come in God’s good time.  This savior will put an end to all that is ugly and deeply troubling and bring goodness and beauty to us and those we love and to our suffering world, forever and ever.  And so, my dear friends, be patient until the coming of the Lord.