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.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
Bach Vespers, December 11, 2016 (3rd Sunday of Advent)
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.
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.
Mary, Mother of Our Lord – August 14, 2016
Mass – 11 o’clock in the morning
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Pastor Miller’s Sermon: “Carving the Rotten Wood & Riding the Lame Horse”
Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 20, 2015
Mass at 11:00 a.m. Readings: Micah 5:1-5a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:29-55. Pastor George Detweiler preaches and presides.