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“Glad Tidings of Great Joy”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Glad Tidings of Great Joy”
Luke 2: 1-20
Christmas Eve (December 24, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

On behalf of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity, I wish you a very happy Christmas!  Your presence adds wonder to this holy night and we are thrilled that you are here!

Let me offer my sincerest apologies in advance with hopes that I don’t place a damper on this glorious Christmas evening.  Every preaching professor vehemently warns against what I am about to do.  But please bear with me as I tell you the truth this one time.

Over the past forty-one years, I have found preparing Christmas Eve sermons an excruciatingly grueling task and this one has been even more so. It isn’t because I began preparing yesterday at the last minute; oh no, I have pondered this sermon for months, meditating on Saint Luke’s Christmas gospel, reading sermons of the great preachers, and perusing my file of Christmas quotes stowed away just for this extraordinary evening.  I know you come with great anticipation: to behold stunning decorations, to sing glorious carols, and to be bathed in beautiful candlelight.  I suspect you even come with hopes of being transfixed by this sermon, or at the very least, hoping it will be mercifully brief.

That’s why I have toiled over this sermon.  I have stared into space for hours on end, frantically searching for a salutary word worth saying to you and just as quickly deleting each typed word as too mediocre and unfitting for a night such as this.  Some of our staff have peeked into my office and asked, “Is everything alright, Wilk?”  My best guess why it is so impossible to prepare this blasted thing is because I so desperately want it to be perfect for you and, as you have already surmised, perfection is beyond my grasp and, as you all know, that can be terribly discouraging.

The difficult part does not come in reflecting on that first Christmas 2000 years ago—that’s easy.  Mary and Joseph placing the Babe in a manger because there was no room in the inn, angels announcing “glad tidings of great joy” to the shepherds and the shepherds then running off to Bethlehem to see the great thing that had taken place—we love this story and are enchanted by the wonder of it all; it grows in every new telling in indescribable ways.

We also love embellishing the story, adding a little here, a bit there, trying to make it more perfect than it was the first time around.  Think of “Away in the Manger”: “The cattle are lowing; the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes…”  Really?  The Bible never mentions the baby Jesus not crying but we have romanticized his birth to make it flawless.  And that other carol, “Silent Night”: you will easily sing the words without the program in a few minutes, “All is calm, all is bright,” and tears will roll down your cheeks—I hate to disillusion you but my instincts suggest that Bethlehem, rather than being silent, was a raucous place with frazzled throngs dashing this way and that to sign up for Emperor Augustus’ exasperating registration.

We have even touched up the Christmas story in our northern climes to make it even more enchanting, adding ever-present Christmas trees no matter that the trees must be shipped in from Vermont and Pennsylvania and Quebec.  And then there is that dreaming of a white Christmas: did you know there is only a 22% chance of it ever snowing in New York City on Christmas Eve?  But I will confess, that part about hearing sleigh bells—perhaps no snow but if you wander over to Central Park following our Christmas Eve celebration you might hear the jingle, jingle of horse drawn carriages—exquisite but not quite perfect.

While the memories of yesteryear are enchanting, they can play tricks on us and haunt us pretty badly.  A baby that doesn’t cry, a silent night, sleigh bells in the snow—is it any wonder we never achieve perfection in our family gatherings and personal lives and even in the sermons we write and hear?  Is it surprising that some call Christmas “depression alley” as we stare idly into space, realizing we will never experience the perfection our memories and dreams create?

Oh, for sure, we should remember Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus; we should fondly recall going to Christmas Eve Candlelight services with grandma and grandpa and mom and dad years ago.  And yet, the wonder of Christmas is not just that God came 2000 years ago but that God comes tonight and tells us, “For unto you is born this day a Savior.” God comes, not amidst the perfection we long for, but amidst our mixed-up lives, cockeyed country, and reeling world.  Think of Emperor Augustus and wicked Herod, the befuddled husband and the highly pregnant teenager on a sweaty donkey’s back about to give birth to the Son of God here on earth; ponder the stinking stable and the pushy crowds.  That’s how Christmas was the first time around and, dear friends, that is how it is tonight…Hardly perfect, but, then again, when God comes to town, Christmas is always perfect.  It is as if God says, “Perfect or not, here I come.”

I invite you in a few moments to cup your hands and watch mother Mary gently place her precious Child into the manger you have created; listen attentively as she lovingly says to you, “The body of the Christ Child given for you.”

I pray that in years to come you will have fond memories of worshiping here tonight and that those memories will help you discover the Christ Child wherever you may be and in whatever you face.  Even when all is not quite perfect—just like this sermon—may God come to you and proclaim glad tidings of great joy, “ For unto you is born this night a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”

“Pondering Heavenly Mystery”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Pondering Heavenly Mystery”
Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 24, 2017)
Luke 1: 26-38
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

In a few hours, multitudes will gather here to celebrate our dear Savior’s birth.  Many will come for the spectacle of decorations and candlelight and the magic of carols and hearing again the unforgettable story, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…”  The only question will be: will the announcement of our dear Savior’s birth be wondrous news or ho-hum news for those who come?

For Jesus’ mother, the news of Christ’s coming birth was wondrous news; it was also inconceivable news. Not in a million years did Mary imagine she would become the Mother of God—that is the difference between God’s good news and our hackneyed news: God’s ways are not our ways and almost always set us on edge.

The Bible reports that when Mary heard, “The Lord is with you,” she “pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”  She was frightened and the angel had to reassure her, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”  Why would we be any different?

Sometimes, rather than delighting in the flabbergasting news that God did a new thing through Mary, we feel compelled to ask all manner of pigheaded questions, squeezing out every ounce of wonder from God’s coming to earth as a tiny baby. The operating principle seems to be: if the virgin birth makes no sense to me, it cannot be true.  Rather than lifting ourselves up to God’s marvelous ways, we try to drag God deep into the gutter of our humdrum understandings.

On Thursday evening, we went with our son, Caspar, to the Broadway musical, “The Book of Mormon.”  It is funny and quite profane.  It is a spoof on the Mormons but it could just as easily have been a spoof on Christians.  Beliefs like the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ from the dead are also ripe for skeptics’ ridicule.  The things that really matter for us Christians, our central tenets, require a leap of faith that transcends how we typically think.  Without faith, our beliefs, especially Jesus being the Son of God and born of the Virgin Mary, are simply convenient material for Broadway scorn and frivolity.

We can do better…We must do better…The world craves better.  I’m not talking about the “Book of Mormon,” by the way, I’m taking about lifting up the central matters of our Christian faith.

While the Virgin Mary was flabbergasted by the angelic news that she was about to become the Mother of God, never once did she protest, “Angel Gabriel, your words are claptrap.”  Instead, she pondered how this could possibly be.  Even after her little baby boy was born and the shepherds had adored her precious little one, “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.”  She did her best to comprehend what God was up to.

I long for a community like Mary, one that finds its greatest joy in celebrating the deepest mysteries of life.  We can find mystery right here at baptism when plain old New York City tap water is stirred up with God’s word and a little baby becomes a child of God before our very eyes; we can find mystery this morning as the ordinary stuff of bread and wine become stunning gifts from heaven.  On our best days, we dig into our heart like Mary so we can proclaim with joy, “For with God nothing will be impossible.”

You have certainly noticed how young and old alike yearn for mystery and wonder.  Millions are standing in line to see the movie, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”  And it isn’t just at the movies.  Our elderly homebound members are enthralled as I read to them on your behalf, “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  We long for something beyond the drivel that our tiny minds can grasp, something that converts our ordinary routines into heavenly amazement.

Oh, to be a community that believes God can enter our mixed-up lives with mystery and wonder in inexplicable ways…and for the better!  Has this ever happened to you?  You drank ferociously for thirty-two years, consuming a fifth of bargain-basement vodka every day to numb your pain; your life was all but ruined.  You entered rehab but fell off the wagon, not once but repeatedly.  Then one day, mysteriously—was it God?—you poured a fine bottle of Grey Goose Vodka down the drain.  And that very evening, you sheepishly attended your first AA meeting in ages, in a dingy church basement with sputtering fluorescent lights.  You gawked at the floor and mumbled a few inaudible words but audible enough, “Hi, I’m Ralph and I’m an alcoholic.”  You haven’t had a drink since, 4,966 days and counting—but, hey, who’s counting?  As you look back, while it feels awkward to admit, you believe an angel—Gabriel perhaps?—landed on your shoulder that day and said, “Do not be afraid…For with God nothing will be impossible.’”

How astonishing that when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was about to be the Mother of God, she realized she would be more than she could ever be on her own and she started singing, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”  She started imagining other things as well, that God would bring down the mighty from their thrones, exalt those of low degree, fill the hungry with good things, and even send the rich away empty.  Mary was given a vision far bigger than her own…mysterious, far-fetched, and breathtaking!

It has been 2,000 years now and we are still dreaming with Mary.  We can’t quite fathom how it will all unfold and yet, for some odd reason, we do not lose heart.

May your finest Christmas gift be the faith to trust that God can do the impossible for you and those you love.

“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.