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“Whether to Go or Not”

The Rev. Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Whether to Go or Not”
January 5, 2017 (Eve of the Epiphany of Our Lord)
Matthew 2: 1-12

When the Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem, this is the first question they asked, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” They had made it to Jerusalem by the guiding of a star but they needed additional help. They needed someone well versed in biblical matters to help them find God’s son.

As you can well imagine, the chief priests and scribes in Jerusalem knew exactly where to find the Messiah—after all, they were experts in such matters and so they told the Magi: “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

This information leaves us befuddled: if the religious leaders and Bible scholars knew where to find the Christ Child, why didn’t they hot tail it to Bethlehem themselves—it was only six miles away?

Matthew does not provide us with an answer to our question so let’s venture a guess: they needed more information!

Good people often need more information before acting decisively: we want to do things right. I have a hunch that those religious scholars in Jerusalem read religious tomes night and day, searching for exactly the right answer. And yet, isn’t it the truth that finally God beckons us to start the hike to Bethlehem without all the answers? Isn’t there a point when we finally must act, even though it is done with considerable fear and trembling? At this point, all we can do is trust that God will be gracious and merciful even if we take a wrong turn or two on the journey?

Maybe the religious leaders and scholars weren’t convinced God would be merciful to them if they made an error in judgment.

Or…might the religious leaders have hesitated to go to Bethlehem, not because they didn’t have enough information, but because they had too much? Perhaps they knew King Herod’s fearsome side, sensing that worshiping the tiny Savior would cause him to unleash all manner of mayhem throughout Judea. Maybe they had learned their history lessons well; maybe they knew that Herod, far from being confident and bold, was actually thin-skinned and insecure and would blow a gasket and butcher a bunch of innocent little boys under two if they went to Bethlehem. Maybe they determined that by not going to seek the Messiah, they would spare the world Herod’s disgusting violence. Could it be by exercising a modicum of patience, the chief priests and scribes were actually the real “wise men” in this story?

Each of us finally faces the question whether or not to go to Bethlehem. In the coming year, our congregation will inevitably face tough questions—as the people who follow Jesus always do. It would be presumptuous for me to speculate how 2017 will unfold for us here at Holy Trinity, but the question is: will we side with the poor babe who ended up in rundown housing in Bethlehem and whose parents ended up carrying him off as a refugee to a distant land or will we be more prudent than that, opting for calm instead?

Think about it: right now, as we worship, twelve homeless women are eating and sleeping in our shelter downstairs. They are our sisters and they are much like our brother Jesus whose parents found no room in the inn. Will we stand up for them if push comes to shove or will we opt for peace and calm, fearing how the Herods in our own day might respond? Clearly the religious leaders and scholars opted for peace and calm; clearly the Wise Men risked mayhem to side with the poor baby in Bethlehem…What will our decision be?

The world was turned upside on that first Epiphany because Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar opted to take a little six-mile hike to Bethlehem and to present their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to God come to earth. They had no idea what fury would soon be unleashed by that bully Herod and his minions. What was guaranteed was that if they wanted to behold the face of God, they would have to oppose the powerful and side with a poor, vulnerable child.

God invites us tonight to take the six-mile journey, over and over again, and to invite others to join us in the thrill of worshiping the sweet Babe of Bethlehem. It is a simple journey and yet an often treacherous and bewildering one.

Ours is a harsh and astonishing calling to be the people of God in this world. The only guarantee we have is that Christ awaits us at the manger, murmuring, “Take and eat, given for you.” And that is enough for now and, really, it is all we will ever need.

“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.

“Why Again Did We Invite John?”

The Rev. Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Why Again Did We Invite John?”
Matthew 11: 2-11
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016

These days leading up to Christmas are so thrilling.  Given the looming excitement of this wondrous season of Advent, why in the world did we invite John the Baptist to be with us, not only this morning, but for two Sundays in a row?  You do know, after all, that John is inclined to ruin gatherings such as this.  He dresses in foul-smelling camel’s hair.  His exotic diet of locusts and wild honey is revolting.  And his oratory style leans tediously toward provocative words like “repent” and “brood of vipers” and inflammatory phrases like “those who do not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

John is too sanctimonious and blunt for our uptown tastes.  He reminds me of Uncle Gabriel in the movie, “Avalon.”  Uncle Gabriel always arrives late at the family Thanksgiving dinner and he always expects the family to wait for him.  Finally, the family has had enough and eats without him.  Gabriel is furious: “You started without me?  You cut the turkey without me?”  He then says to his wife, “Come on.  They eat without us, we go.  Your own flesh and blood and you couldn’t wait?  You cut the turkey?  That’s it. That’s the last time we come for Thanksgiving.”

John ruins parties just like Uncle Gabriel did.  Why do we keep inviting him back to church only days before we celebrate our dear Savior’s birth?

True to his reputation, when John shows up this morning, he is not even here with us but is in Herod’s hoosegow instead, waiting to have his head lopped off.  Apparently, he acted mischievously with Herod, daring to insinuate that this powerful ruler acted immorally when marrying his own brother’s wife.  It is never wise to speak ill of powerful people, no matter how disgusting their behavior, unless, of course, you wish to have your head on a platter along with John’s.

Why did we invite John to worship today?  After all, today is “Rejoice Sunday” or, using the fancy-schmancy Latin phrase, “Gaudete Sunday.”  We light a pink candle on our Advent wreath, the joy candle.  We can hardly wait for the Christ Child.  We place pink roses on the high altar to heighten the sense of jubilant anticipation.

When discussing the final people on today’s guest list, we were finally won over by the argument that John has staked everything on Jesus being the coming Messiah.  Even before he was born, when Mary came to tell John’s mother that she was about to be the mother of God, John the Baptist leaped with joy inside Elizabeth’s womb.  Given that prenatal acrobatic tour de force alone, John should be here, don’t you think?

And one other thing: like John, not all of us are head over heels in gladness this morning.  You don’t have to raise your hand, but if you are down in the dumps right about now, aren’t you glad John is sitting next to you?  He understands how you feel.   He asks the same question you have been asking while others seem to be having so much more fun these days than you are.  John’s question to Jesus, “Are you he who is to come or shall we look for another?” makes you want to say, “That’s exactly what I wanted to ask but was afraid people would think I am a heretic.”

Even with that said, why again did we invite John today?  Our joy is palpable this morning as eighteen people join our congregation.  Quite a few of you who have been members of Holy Trinity for thirty years or so have said, “I have never seen anything like it.”  It is an astonishing Christmas present as we watch and wait for Christ’s presence here at 65th and Central Park West.  This throng of new members makes us feel that our Advent prayer, “Stir up your power and come,” has been answered.

And yet…the question still hounds us, “Are you he who is to come?”

In a few moments, new members and those who are already members will confess that we believe in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Most, if not all, of us will say the words of the Apostles’ Creed at the appropriate time and yet a few of us will wonder—though be fearful to ask— “How much of this stuff do I have to believe to be a member at Holy Trinity?”  What if I waver like John, “Are you he is to come?”  We don’t mean to be cantankerous, we just feel compelled to be honest.  What if doubts arise from time-to-time about the virgin birth or Jesus being the true son of God or whether we, too, will rise from the dead—can we still call ourselves “Christian” and say, “I do and I ask God to help and guide me” when it is time to join Holy Trinity?

Maybe John isn’t such a bad fellow to have at our side today.  He puts his arms around us and urges us to bare our souls.  He doesn’t flinch when we ask, “Are you he is to come?” because he has asked the exact same thing.

And yet, never forget, in the face of John’s question, Jesus says of this guy we invited to today’s party, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist.”

That’s why we invited John today.  He joins us as we promise to support one another in our disappointments and anxieties, confusions and questions.

Perhaps the lasting joy of this Third Sunday in Advent is that Christ does not seem the least bit annoyed by our question, “Are you he is to come?”  And so, we light the pink candle and have the pink roses because Jesus loves us, doubts and all.