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“Wildly Extravagant Ministry”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Wildly Extravagant Ministry”
Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
July 16, 2017 (6th Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West

During the next few weeks, Jesus will tell us a few parables about the kingdom of heaven.  His stories about wheat and weeds, a tiny mustard seed, buried treasure, a fine pearl, a fisherman sorting through good fish and bad ones, will invite us to see the Christian life much more exuberantly than most of us typically do.

Jesus might stun us this morning as he tells of the most peculiar seed-sower.  The sower flings seeds every which way—onto rock-hard paths, lousy soil, and weed patches; thank goodness, some seeds end up in good soil.  No hoeing, no fertilizing, no soil analysis at the local community college’s agricultural branch—seeds are simply hurled hither and yon in what appears a wildly careless fashion.

I adore this extravagant seed-sowing technique, I suppose, in large part, because of how I grew up. My parents taught me a far different style: seeds are to be planted precisely, in straight lines, at correct depths, and in carefully prepared soil.  I detest gardening to this day because of the mind-numbingly cautiousness of it all!

I learned a similar risk-adverse style when it comes to money: save it and never spend it foolishly.

I remember taking a vacation to Sea Isle City at the Jersey shore.  My mom and dad kept a financial logbook the entire way.  Every penny spent was recorded: gas purchases, Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls, camping site costs, even the cokes, pizza, and salt water taffy bought on the boardwalk.  At one point—at least this is how I remember it—dad warned us, “We are running very low on cash.  We must be careful or we will run out of money.”  I have a hunch we weren’t quite as low as he made us out to be—dad was far too cautious for that; instead, he was teaching us to be frugal.  I do not remember that vacation as a particularly extravagant or fun one; what I do remember was, at times, being scared to death that we might run out of money!

This may sound unusually harsh toward my father but dad was a very good man.  He grew up in the depression and thriftiness was undoubtedly drilled into him by his parents.  His chief goal in life—and he passed it on to me—was to leave his children and grandchildren enough money so that we could go to any college that accepted us and that as the years went by we would never have to worry—no extravagances, not an ounce, just care for his family’s future.

Some good church people are like my father.  Don’t call them miserly; such a view demeans their well-intentioned sacrifices for the well-being of future generations.  These folks invariably are some of the most generous givers to the church’s ministry.

Churches can easily begin to mimic the anxieties of such good and prudent people. They save money for leaky roofs and, lo and behold, when leaks appear, they become nervous nellies: how can we possibly spend our hard-saved money to repair our roof, we will go broke?

I know a few churches like that; they have literally died with millions of dollars in the bank.  They had oodles of money available to proclaim the good news of Jesus to the community but they were too afraid to do that.  How distasteful to be extravagant, they always thought.  Oh, for sure, they ended up with invincible roofs…they also died rich.

Communities and people who have ears to hear Jesus’ parable of the outlandish sower are inevitably far more vigorous and certainly more exciting.  Jesus wanted us to know that God will create a harvest beyond our imagining, especially if we only dare scatter seeds extravagantly in God’s name. Today is the day to announce that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near—not tomorrow!

How extravagant are you?  Now, please, don’t answer too quickly.  In a congregation I once served, an active member repeatedly voiced harsh criticisms to me because, in his mind, we weren’t spending enough on his favorite pet projects.  He criticized our church as “penny wise and pound foolish” as we tried to get years of deficit spending under control—which we did.  There was only one catch: while he criticized us for being cheapskates, he didn’t give one cent to the church’s ministry, not one!  Don’t feel sorry for him: he drove a fancy sports car!  It is a good idea that whenever we get the urge to demand our church to be more extravagant, we first examine how generous we are ourselves.

Anyway, I can guarantee you that people will be far more attracted to extravagant ministry than miserly ministry!  People can see extravagant joy a mile away and they can smell miserly fear from even further.

We are called to follow the one who gave away everything, including his life, in love for his neighbors.

To be completely honest, a number of churches that have touched me most deeply over the years are long gone.  One church had a building as grand as Holy Trinity’s.  Ministry flourished day and night.  Bills were paid by what I call the “shoebox method,” placing them in a shoebox and prioritizing what had to be remitted immediately before gas, electricity, or water was turned off.  Thousands of people were touched with Christ’s love in this breathtaking place but it is now dead and gone; a Buddhist monastery is in its place.  But I, along with many others, continue to bear the excitement of having been part of that place, a ministry that exuberantly celebrated the life Jesus promised in the face of constant threats of death.  That’s how we learned to do ministry and, God willing, that’s how we will do it here.

You know of such extravagance because you have been there.  You have dropped clods of dirt mixed with your warm tears on your loved one’s casket; you have taken Jesus’ extravagant promise to heart: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of what falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

One day, these words will be spoken over all our graves.  We will be planted in the ground with the assurance that we will sprout up and live forever.

May our hearts be filled with joy as we hear Jesus’ wild story of the extravagant giver and may we fling seeds of hope and joy into all the world.

“Welcome, All You Ornery Boys and Girls”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Welcome, All You Ornery Boys and Girls”
Romans 7: 15-25a; Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost-July 9, 2017
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
Central Park West in New York City

I once heard a wise pastor be a bit critical of parents who bring their children to Sunday School just so they can learn how to be good little girls and boys.  He wasn’t being grumpy, he simply felt there had to be more.  Children must also learn they are not good little girls and boys.

What about us?  Have we simply come here this morning to learn how to be good? I hope we have come for more, to tell God the truth about ourselves or, as the church would have it, to confess our sins.

Saint Paul’s genius is his understanding of how hard it is for us to be good, impossible really. You must admit he is on to something when he writes, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Even when we do something good, Paul suspects we have ulterior motives: we do good for the wrong reasons—so others will take note of how thoughtful and generous we are, how pious and courageous we are.  Or how often are we holy, not particularly to help those who are suffering, but to pave our way into heaven.

Don’t Paul’s words ring true for you— “I do not do the good I want”?

One of my favorite Confirmation Class sessions is teaching the Ten Commandments.  I love asking kids, “Have you ever sinned?”  They always look nervously into their laps.  No hands go up until the class misfit raises his—the one the others always point to when trouble occurs.  I then ask, “Is Jimbo the only sinner here?”  And then, one-by-one, hands are sheepishly raised.  I always then tell the class, “If you say you are not a sinner, you are a liar and that makes you a sinner, too.”

Have you ever sinned?

Perhaps the problem is, deep down, we believe we can be perfect.  Isn’t that why so many steer clear of the church when troubles arise in our lives—we don’t feel like we measure up to the holy folks!  Countless people have said to me behind my closed doors, “Pastor, you are never going to believe this about me.”  What I always want to say is, “Just try me.  The only thing I refuse to believe is that you are perfect.”  It is not because I know them so well but because I know myself so well.  Whatever made us think we can be perfect?

We begin almost every worship service with this blunt confession, “We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.”  The church reminds us, even before we have sung the first hymn, that we are here because we are sinners not because we are good boys and girls.

Don’t fret, though, there is more.  Even before we sang, “Dearest Jesus, at Your Word,” I declared “the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”—all your sins not just the teensy ones!  And, if that is not enough, in a few moments, God will serve us a lunch, not because we deserve it, but because God loves us so much.

The finest Christian communities refuse to prance around in peacock perfection, masquerading as a bunch of goody two shoes who deem themselves holier, more liturgically correct, more socially committed than everyone else.  They know better.  All they really can admit to is being a motley concoction of broken souls in desperate need of Jesus and they embrace anybody who dares tell a similar truth about themselves.

I love broken churches—broken people, too—those that reflect Alcoholics Anonymous.  These folks need help, they need each other, they need God!  Such churches walk in the graceful tradition of Saint Paul and Martin Luther.

One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, writes: “When they first start talking at a meeting, they introduce themselves by saying, ‘I am John. I am an alcoholic,’ ‘I am Mary. I am an alcoholic,’ to which the rest of the group answers each time in unison, ‘Hi, John,’ ‘Hi, Mary.’”

Have you ever been to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or a similar twelve step group?

“They tell where they went wrong and how day by day they are trying to go right. They tell where they find the strength and understanding and hope to keep trying. Sometimes one of them will take special responsibility for another—to be available at any hour of day or night if the need arises. There’s not much more to it than that, and it seems to be enough. Healing happens. Miracles are made.”

Buechner goes on: “You can’t help thinking that something like this is what the church is meant to be and maybe once was before it got to be big business. Sinners Anonymous. ‘I can will what is right but I cannot do it,’ is the way Saint Paul put it, speaking for all of us. ‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.’”

“‘I am me. I am a sinner.’

“‘Hi, you.’

“Hi, every Sadie and Sal. Hi, every Tom, Dick, and Harry. It is the forgiveness of sins, of course. It is what the church is all about.”

God’s possibility begins whenever we are at our wit’s end and have no more tricks in our own paltry bags.  We need Jesus.  And in that need, Jesus says to us: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

We will soon be served the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.  Amazing really when, only moments ago, we admitted that “we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.”  But, that does not seem to matter to Jesus and that, of course, is the gospel: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

So glad you have come here today, you ornery little boys and girls.