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“This Wretched Child Will Disturb Us All”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“This Wretched Child Will Disturb Us All”
(Matthew 2: 1-12)
The Epiphany of Our Lord (transferred)
January 7, 2018
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

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

A blessed New Year to you and a blessed Epiphany—actually the 13th day of Christmas, not the 12th! And a blessed 150th Anniversary to The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity as we begin celebrating this astonishing year.

We do well on this first Sunday of our 150th anniversary year to remember one of this congregation’s luminary pastors of yesteryear of which there have been quite a few! The Rev. Paul Scherer was Holy Trinity’s pastor from 1920 to 1945. He preached on national radio and delivered the preeminent preaching lectures, the Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School, in 1943. After his ministry here, he went on to teach preaching at Union Theological Seminary at 120th and Broadway.

One Epiphany morning long ago, Dr. Scherer stood in this pulpit and said: “[The Gospel] makes trouble even at Christmas time. Matthew says, ‘When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him’ (Matt. 2:3). I wonder if it should bother us more than it does?” His remarks are as timely today as they were nearly eighty years ago.

The good reverend was suggesting to worshipers like us that we too easily forget what a threat this tiny child is. He went on, “This wretched child has come to disturb us all.”

Whether true or apocryphal, a pastor, who worked for our national church when its offices were at Madison Avenue and 36th Street, told me there was a day when members were driven up to our doors in limousines and greeted by ushers in tails and white gloves and then grandly escorted into the comforting confines of this hallowed hall.

Is it any wonder Dr. Scherer went on to say that Epiphany morning after all were settled in: “The candlelight service is so lovely. The carols, we say, are ‘out of this world.’ They are perhaps too far out.” The pastor must have seen firsthand how prone we are at taming this wretched Child of Bethlehem in order to appease the status quo.

I imagine that was the case for the chief priests and scribes as well. They, like us, were pretty good folks who probably did the best they could. They were thrilled to be at King Herod’s side, enthralled by his electrifying charisma. They had to make a few compromises along the way, of course they did. Herod after all was as paranoid as could be. The religious leaders had to be sickened by Herod’s dastardly slaughter of the little boys two years old and under who threatened his throne, but hey, that’s the price we pay to be close to the king.

Who isn’t exhilarated by power and influence? Don’t we all wish our ministry to be more magnificent: perhaps an even more splendid sanctuary, a loftier endowment, more powerful people? It is easy to forget that we have come to worship that disturbing child born in a barn.

Apparently, not everyone has been mesmerized by visions of grandeur. Take for instance the wise men. They followed a star and arrived in Jerusalem, a city as glamorous as New York. They came on elegant camels, were dressed in stylish robes, and brought exquisite gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Imagine what kind of king they expected.

The wise men immediately had an audience with King Herod and his band of religious scholars who knew exactly where this Christ Child was to be found: “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet…for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.” Like so many honorable religious leaders, the scribes and chief priests knew the story impeccably and yet, for whatever reason, conveniently forgot exactly who this little child was. As Pastor Scherer reminded Holy Trinity worshipers in words that continue to reverberate through this place, “This wretched child has come to disturb us all.”

What was and is so disturbing is that his rule is so gentle. Rejected aliens and unsavory sinners and nauseating poor folks gather at his lowly throne and end up forming his inner cabinet.

The wise men—call them Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar if you wish—teach us a thing or two about faithfulness. As we begin this 150th anniversary year, it will be easy to long for more—a fine marble floor, a more exquisite organ, a larger endowment, a boiler that pumps heat to every room with exactness—and I have a hunch these will come in due time. But that is not where we have been called to find the Christ Child today. Today, we find him in simple stuff, bread and wine and garbled words of this boondock preacher.

This building was filled to capacity on Wednesday evening as our choirs and instrumentalists thrilled those who came to hear the magical Praetorius’ Vespers. As the sounds of “Good Christians Friends Rejoice” echoed from floor to rafter and from side aisle to side aisle, the gathered throng clapped and rejoiced with the angels. And yet, the little child of Bethlehem was also lurking somewhere else, somewhere beyond the beaten path to Jerusalem or even Bethlehem where we expect him most.

The music I heard upstairs guided me like a star downstairs where I found God’s simple Son gathered with twelve timid women who sought warm refugee on a frigid evening; they huddled in the inn called Holy Trinity Winter Women’s Shelter. That was magical as well and well worth a standing ovation.

I am not certain you caught it, but after the wise men adored the Christ Child, Matthew’s gospel writes, “And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.”

It is easy to be mesmerized by the power and splendor of Herod’s dreams; it is far more challenging to grasp that God’s Son is already here amidst chipped linoleum, a rented organ, and a creaky heating system, and even among you and me. Perhaps that is why, after all these years, Pastor Scherer continues to remind us, “This wretched child has come to disturb us all.”

May God bless us in this 150th year at Holy Trinity, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Where Is the King?”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Where Is the King?”
(Matthew 25: 31-46)
November 26, 2017 (Christ the King Sunday)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

A blessed Christ the King morning, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I am the son and grandson and husband of realtors. That means, for a lifetime, I have been told that housing prices are directly linked to three critical factors: location, location, and location. You New Yorkers know this even if you don’t have realtors in the family: $1.5 million might get you 800 square feet if you are lucky. Yes indeed, location, location, location.

On this Christ the King Sunday location is critical as well—you know that, too. Last Sunday, at our adult forum, we discussed “All the Lutheran Questions I Am Afraid to Ask.” The most pressing question was the pesky one about sheep and goats. Put another way, who is ending up in heaven and who’s headed for hell?

Whether driven by fear or fascination, we can’t ponder the question enough: who will join Jesus as he sits on his throne of glory and who will graze with the goats in the eternal fires of Hades. We wonder about the destination of Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, and, to be blunt, even of Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians.

It’s dicey.

We so want to end up on the right side! We have heard about the heavenly side for our entire lives, the side where the streets are lined with gold, the gates constructed of exquisite pearls, and angels will serenade us forever.

Oh yes, we wonder: who will end up in heaven and who will end up in hell?

I increasingly wonder if we might just be looking for heaven in all the wrong places. I am reminded of the charming children’s book, “Where’s Waldo.” We snuggle up together and search and search for Waldo and it seems, every time, Waldo pops up in the strangest places.

Might Jesus do the same thing? What if we get to heaven and it looks just like New York City? What if the entire heavenly welcoming committee is composed of people who keep us awake at night, cause us to clench our fists, and make our blood pressure skyrocket? What if the heavenly receiving line is composed of the same people who make us want to change jobs just to get away from them, move out of our apartments because they drive us nuts, and change churches because they seem so unchristian?

I wonder, what if we get to heaven and it is no different from right here, right now.

It’s curious that when Christ the King gives us instructions as to “Where’s Jesus,” this is almost precisely what he tells us: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Flabbergasting! We have been looking for Christ the King in such different places. Positively discombobulating! Where is Jesus?

The clues have nothing to do with pearly gates and golden-lined streets. And, if you look at the company this king keeps, Jesus is not to be found with the lords and the ladies, the well-heeled and the well-kempt, or even with the unspoiled and the goody two shoes. We don’t even see him hobnobbing with those who can expound precisely on Lutheran theology or wax eloquently about the quaint niceties of proper liturgy.

No, Christ the King is found with the hungry and outcast, the naked and sick, the slobs and scallywags.

This entire church year at Holy Trinity has been devised in such a way to equip us in discovering heavenly splendor in the mundane affairs of our daily living, in simple things like bread and wine and water, in run of the mill folks like you and me. We have been told that Jesus can be found with parents who aren’t quite sure if the baby Jesus is theirs or not; he is found not in palatial splendor but in a reeking barn out back; he never dines with powerful politicos except when they are after his neck; he is hounded persistently by the holy pious ones. More often than not, this most peculiar king is located with hookers and pimps, nincompoops and cheats, flimflam artists and also rans. And to cap it off, his enthronement is, of all places, on a nauseating cross in a Jerusalem trash heap. Who would think to look for Jesus in the ordinary occasions of life, in people that madden us, in locations that goad us to flee in dread and disgust?

I really am not certain about this sheep and goat stuff. I am even less certain about who will end up in heaven and who will be cast to the hellfires—that’s God’s business not mine or yours. What increasingly surprises me though—and actually gives me considerable hope—is that our king, more often than not, is found grazing with the goats, and goats that are the least heavenly breed of all.

Could it be, though, that we catch a peek of heaven this very moment? Of all places, we gaze into heaven right here at 65th and Central Park West as Christ the King gathers with us, misfits and malcontents, nervous nellies and the great unwashed. “Take and eat, this is my body given for you,” says Christ the King…“for you and you and you.”

Where is Christ the King? Let’s start looking right here, now, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Forget about the Shovel and Boiler and Do Ministry Instead!”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Forget about the Shovel and Boiler and Do Ministry Instead!”
Matthew 25: 14-30
November 19, 2017 (24th Sunday after Pentecost)

“By the way, the parable of the talents is not Jesus’ hottest investment strategy! He is not offering advice on whether you should invest conservatively or aggressively in volatile emerging international markets.

Jesus’ parable is advice on how to live the Christian life with gusto.

As you know, a property owner entrusted three of his servants with large sums of money before going on a trip. He gave one five talents, another two, and the third one talent.

The servant with the five talents traded aggressively with what was entrusted to him and doubled his money. The second did likewise and also doubled up. The third servant, terrified what his master might do if he lost the money, took a shovel and buried his talent in the ground.

When the master returned, he poured lavish praise on the two who had risked substantially but was extremely harsh on the scaredy cat.

As I said, this parable is not Jesus’ investment strategy offering guidance for our congregation to see how much money we can amass in Chase Bank. Rather, Jesus is commending courageousness and extravagance and lambasting timidity and miserliness. He urges us to risk everything for the sake of the Gospel.

Why do I say this? Jesus told his parable only days before he ended up hanging on a cross. Jesus lost everything because he lived life to the fullest. His life was one of courageous and extravagant love. All that he could do as he breathed his last was to trust that God would provide—he didn’t have a penny to his name!

Christian congregations can be funny birds. We don’t always trust that God will provide so we hedge our bets, doing everything we can to control our destinies. Over my forty years of ministry, the biggest congregational fights I have been involved in have had to do with money. Some congregations limp along, fearful over how much money—or how little—they have in the bank, refusing to risk for the Gospel’s sake. One of my dear friends referred to such ministries as “no hits, no runs, no errors.” They are the kind of churches, by the way, that measure their ministries by how large their endowments are. Such places remind me of the bumper sticker that reads, “Whoever has the most toys when she dies wins.” Rich perhaps, but dead and gone nonetheless.

Exciting ministry never happens when we take the shovel and bury our treasure in the ground. In fact, you just heard Jesus say to the one afraid of taking a risk that he would be cast into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth—so much for timidity and miserliness!

Do you think Jesus who said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” gives a hoot about how much money we have in the bank? Give me a break!

I have been fortunate to serve five very different congregations during my forty years of ministry. I have served black and white and Hispanic congregations, gay and straight, deep inner-city and affluent suburbs, places teeming with Republicans and Democrats. I served a church with a yearly budget totaling $37,000 and one with an endowment of $2.5 million. My experience has been that the vitality of ministry has little to do with how much money a church has in the bank and everything to do with whether the people of God are willing to take risks for the Gospel’s sake. I have seen wealthy churches obsess over whether they would have enough to fix a leaky roof. On the other hand, I served one congregation that dreamed of calling a pastor from El Salvador to begin ministry with the growing Hispanic community but was uncertain whether we would have enough money; then, one Christmas Eve, I walked into my office and found a $25,000 check on my chair with a note that simply said, “Let’s quit talking and let this ministry begin immediately!” Courage and extravagance for the sake of the gospel!

The question for us here at Holy Trinity is what we plan to do with the considerable talents God has entrusted to us. Will we risk them for the Gospel’s sake or will we take a shovel and bury them in the ground, fearful that the roof might leak, the boiler explode, or the elevator go on the blink? I don’t think I am too bold to suggest that fourteen people are joining our congregation in the next few weeks, not because of our roof, elevator, and boiler, but because they detect courage and extravagance rather than miserliness and fear!

At our church council meeting on Tuesday evening, we voted to bring the Saturday luncheon ministry called HUG back under our congregation’s wings. For nearly forty years now, this has been a separate 501c3 non-profit outreach; from now on this program for senior citizens and homeless folks will be run solely by and funded by The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity. On behalf of the council, I invite you to consider making a gift to this ministry. $200 will provide meals for forty people on Saturday afternoon; $10,000 will fund the program for an entire year and ensure its future with no worries and even allow us to dream bigger. Why not give a Christmas gift to a friend whom you have no idea what to give and say on the Christmas card, “40 people will be served lunch in your honor…Merry Christmas.” And if you can’t make a financial gift, why not volunteer?

This, my dear friends, is how ministry here at Holy Trinity is going to thrive. We are going to risk what God has given us for the sake of this suffering world.

Vibrant churches never reach for the shovel to bury the treasures God has entrusted to them. Rather, they do ministry with risk and courage and extravagance. May excitement prevail at 65th and Central Park West, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Putting on Our Saint Detectors”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Putting on Our Saint Detectors”
Matthew 5: 1-12
November, 5, 2017 (All Saints’ Sunday)

I adore All Saints’ Sunday.  In all fairness, I have probably said the same thing about Advent, Christmas, and Easter, but, honestly, I do love All Saints’ Sunday.

When I was a pastor in Washington, D.C., one of my colleagues took off All Saints’ Day to run in—guess what—the New York Marathon.  He was entitled to do that but his decision always baffled me.  Today, we remember those dear ones who have died, not only during this year but through the years.  We imagine our loved ones standing before the heavenly throne and singing with us, “For All the Saints,” and our tears flow freely.  Who would skip All Saints’ Day for a marathon?

It is not always easy, though, to detect the saints, especially the living ones who are sometimes a bit too close for our comfort.  How is it possible to spot blessedness in the weepy ones, in those who opt for peacemaking instead of belligerence?  Who would ever think to look for a saint in the pathetically persecuted for the gospel’s sake?  We stand clear of these bedraggled ones.  Perhaps that’s why my colleague might just be running in this morning’s marathon and not worshiping at his church.

I love All Saints’ Sunday because it is a breathtaking opportunity to see one another as God sees us and not as we often see one another.

When I was sixteen, I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Triadelphia, West Virginia, to apply for my learner’s permit.  I had thoroughly studied the driver’s booklet: I knew the speed limit in school zones and was clear how many 3.2% beers one could slug down before being hauled off to the drunk tank. The officer overseeing my test said, “Take off your glasses and read the third line on the eye chart.”  Ever obedient, I took off my glasses.  Rather than saying, “E, U, W, Q,” I said, “What wall is the eye chart on?”  Exasperated, my tester said, “Okay, Miller, put back on your glasses and never, I say never, put the keys into the ignition without your glasses hanging on your nose.”

All Saints’ Day is when we put on our “saints’ glasses” and God points us in the right direction; otherwise, saint detecting can be exhausting and exasperating.

Have you ever gone saint-detecting in your Bible?  Saint Peter, for instance, whose likeness hangs here on the altar wall, denied ever having known Jesus the very night before he was crucified. Saint Mary Magdalene was said to have been possessed by seven devils.  Saint Paul—on the mosaic wall behind me—before being struck by lightning at his conversion, boasted that he was quite adept at killing Christians.

On and on the shabby parade of saints goes, even beyond the Bible, among all the baptized—the very definition of a saint.  Saint Augustine, who influenced Martin Luther, said, “Give me chastity and continence, but not now.”  Saint Francis, before he gave away all his earthly possessions and started talking kindly to birds, was one of the great playboys of the Western world.

And it isn’t just the fancy-schmancy saints.  There are the pesky ones, those saints who sleep beside us, work in our office, and sit near us on Sunday morning.  Most of these saints are not particularly well known and they sometimes drive us crazy.  But you know them: your mom always thought you were the at center of the world even when you kept her awake all hours of the night wondering where you were; your Sunday school teacher captivated you with the story of David and Goliath when you were six years old; your eleventh grade English teacher said you would excel one day when almost everyone else called you a scalawag teenager.  They touched your life and yet only you and a few relatives will visit their graves after their funerals.

Next Sunday is Consecration Sunday.  Leading up to that special day in our life together, we have heard wonderful stories told by Kathy Yates and Time Cage and in a few moments by Lois Rimbo of saints who taught them how to be generous so that church’s like this could flourish.  Next Sunday, you and I will be invited to continue this grand tradition of sainthood.  Saints here at Holy Trinity, for the past 150 years, have delighted in being generous to Christ’s work.  Look at this breathtaking altar, these jaw-dropping mosaics of the saints, this gorgeous building, these beautiful stained-glass windows—all gifts from saints like you.

I have been blessed to know a host of generous saints during my lifetime as have you, big-hearted people who had the strange priority and joy of giving lavish gifts to Jesus. I think of Frieda Hightower, a single woman—many called her “an old maid.”   She had been abused as a kid, lived in a dull apartment, wore clothes that she likely purchased at the Salvation Army, and drove a twenty-three-year-old rusted-out Buick Skylark.  Her only extravagance—and it was excessive!—was that she was the biggest giver in our church.  I always assumed she was one of those people who, when they die, are discovered to be multimillionaires with thousands of dollars hidden in the mattress.  But, not Frieda.  When she died, we discovered she was penniless.  She had literally given everything she had to her church.  Her greatest delight, in what was a rather lonely life, was spending a fortune on the gifts in the form of yearly pledge to her church.

You would never have guessed Frieda was a saint.  It required saints’ glasses to do that. Remember: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Apparently, many of you decided not to run in the New York Marathon.  You have navigated through police barriers and large crowds to wind your way into this holy place, teeming with sainthood, both living and dead.  We are an odd lot to be called saints; we might never call ourselves saints.   But with saints’ glasses, we suddenly see that we have been made exquisite saints by the power of God.  May this be your greatest delight.

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

Stunning Sundays at Holy Trinity!

Stunning Sundays at Holy Trinity!

All Saints Sunday Mass

November 5

11:00 AM

All Saints’ Sunday Reminders
1-BRING PICTURES of dear saints in your life and place them at the altar when you arrive.
2-REMEMBER THE TIME CHANGE: set your clocks back one hour.
3-PLAN ON A FEW EXTRA MINUTES TO COME TO CHURCH due to the New York City Marathon…You can get to church and, in fact, it is fun to gather for worship on such a hustle and bustle day…Just plan on coming a bit early to navigate the crowds.