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“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.

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“What to Render unto Caesar”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon

“What to Render unto Caesar”
October 22, 2017 (20th Sunday after Pentecost)
Matthew 22: 15-22

The Pharisees and Herodians joining together to seek advice from Jesus on the tricky matter of, shall we say, church and state is as weird as the National Rifle Association and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals uniting to ask Jesus whether it is lawful to kill muskrats. The Pharisees and Herodians were not kissing cousins. When they sweet-talked Jesus, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance to the truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality,” we smell a rat.

Their question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not,” showed no interest in what Jesus believed. If Jesus said it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, in the Pharisees’ eyes, he would break the commandment, “You shall have no other gods.” If Jesus answered that it was unlawful to pay taxes, he would appall the Herodians who were especially fond of the empire. The Pharisees and the Herodians shared one common goal: Jesus’s blood.

You know how Jesus answered their question. The quote floats around in your biblical brainpan, especially from the King James Version, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

There must be an uncomplicated answer as to what is due the emperor and what is due God. The IRS, after all, tells us every year what is due the emperor. Even our church, in a few weeks, will ask us to consider making a pledge, perhaps a tithe (10% of our income), to support the Lord’s work here at Holy Trinity? Straightforward, huh…or is it?

When you hear Jesus’ answer, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s,” it sounds an awfully lot like something the great Yankee Yogi Berra might say: “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical” or “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

We are not so good when it comes to pondering vexing questions. We want answers, now!

You have heard someone, I’m sure, when asked a particularly vexing question, say, without a moment’s pause, “There are three simple points to consider.” I always wonder: how do they come up with three points so quickly; why not two points or four? I tend to be suspicious of people who speak authoritatively and immediately on thorny issues.

And there are some thorny issues floating around these days. Take for instance, how the United States should respond to North Korea which threatens to rain down havoc on God’s planet? I suppose one answer might be, “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” or perhaps “Do nothing” is another. From my limited vantage point, no answer seems as simple as three points: ready, aim, fire. I always pray that our president and congress, you and I too, will struggle mightily with such tough questions, deliberating and agonizing together, disagreeing with one another even, and certainly praying.

Don’t you smell a rat whenever another person, especially a leader, seems incapable of grappling with the perplexity and seriousness of monstrous questions, especially when the lives of young people and innocent civilians are at stake?

Abraham Lincoln, when asked whether God was on his side, did not launch into the old saw, “Of course, God is on our side, we are the United States of America.” Lincoln instead said: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” Lincoln was a humble leader who dared wonder whether he was on God’s side.

When the United States first invaded Iraq in 2003, the then Secretary of State Colin Powell was reminded that his boss, President George W. Bush, was in bed by ten and slept like a baby; General Powell reportedly replied, “I sleep like a baby, too—every two hours I wake up screaming.” That is not nationalistic flag-waving, macho-politics, or even three bombastic points to incite the political base. That is a leader who struggled through the night because he was dealing with matters of life and death.

Another president who understood the immensity of such questions was Dwight Eisenhower. Only days after the end of World War II, General Eisenhower, who had been in the thick of such a dreadful war, said, “Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in blood of his followers and sacrifices of his friends.”

Tough questions bring us to our knees and tenderize our hearts with humility. Tough questions bid us to struggle together for the best answers when none seem apparent. We must ask as did Lincoln whether we are on God’s side and perhaps it is not such a bad thing to wake up screaming like a baby as did Colin Powell whenever blood might be spilled because of our decisions. The best answers come when we have prayed long and hard, waiting on the Lord to give us a new song to sing, not one of our foolish concocting but of God’s wondrous creating.

When Jesus said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” his opponents “were amazed; and they left him and went away.” He didn’t offer a simple answer to a tough question. He offered an answer that bid faithful people to ponder, “Are we on God’s side?”

What if we struggle together with what is right and just, always seeking to make certain we are singing God’s song? If we do, I’ll bet people will be amazed.

 

 

“What Are You Wearing to the Wedding?”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“What Are You Wearing to the Wedding?”
(Matthew 24: 1-14)
October 15, 2017 (19th Sunday after Pentecost)

The moment the parents receive the news, “We are getting married,” they immediately make their own announcement, “Let the wedding planning begin.”

I know this from experience.  The church is the first place parents call, well actually, shortly after they contact grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles, siblings, bridal shop, ballroom, limo service, photographer, cosmetician, nail salon, and honeymoon resort.

The out-of-breath parents, both on the phone, blurt out, “Pastor, Susie Marie is getting married to Bradley Joe.  How does November 30 look on Holy Trinity’s calendar?”  Not thinking carefully enough, I ask, “Don’t you think that’s rushing it a bit?  November 30 is a month away and it falls on a Thursday.”

“Oh,” says the electrified mother, “silly me, not this year, Pastor, we’re talking 2019.  We were afraid the date might get booked if we didn’t call immediately.”

Such excitement!

To show the parents how much I care, I probe a bit, “How many people do you expect at this extravaganza?”

“We are thinking small, 50 or 60,” says the father, mindful that his retirement account may soon dip lower than it did during the 2008 financial debacle.

Once the date is established, the planning begins in earnest.  The guest list soars from 53 to 315, not counting Great Uncle Rodney from Wyoming who detests New York’s honking taxis and the over-paid Yankees.

As the big day approaches, invitations are created, “damask cream white” with satin silver bows; when you open them, the couple-to-be pops up in a Central Park horse drawn carriage.  These, by the way, cost mom and pop a paltry $4038.

You understand the investment though.  The king and queen have anticipated this day since their little princess was born.  They began rehearsing when she was three, dressing her in the stunning “Wrinkled Bedsheet Collection” and teaching her to hold her head high, keep her back straight, and smile to the left and right as she processed through the living room.

Once the invitations are sent out, with hand-calligraphed addresses in silver ink, the mother runs to the mail box daily, precisely at 2:15 p.m., awaiting the RSVPs.  And, every day, she makes the sad walk back to the house, crestfallen that only sixteen people have responded, including surprisingly, Uncle Ernie and Aunt Henrietta from Cheyenne.  There are few days without tears.  The parents’ disappointment intensifies to misery and rage.  What was supposed to be a joyful celebration is spinning into a gloomy fiasco.

One wonders why no one responds.  This is the wedding of the century after all.  You would respond and I have to.  I have been to such weddings, one where The Drifters of “Under the Boardwalk” fame sang and the bridesmaids were models from the Ford agency here in New York and the groomsmen included a congressman, a former NBA player, and a smattering of corporate execs; another where I performed the marriage of General Colin and Alma Powell’s son.  Who would miss those affairs?

This is precisely when Jesus’ parable begins to make us edgy.  The banquet is ready, the oxen and calves slaughtered, the caviar on crushed ice, the string quartet tuned, and no one showing up at the club. The king and queen blow gaskets and send out their slaves to investigate where everyone is.  Apparently, the A-Listers have more important things to do.  The parents’ fury knoweth no bounds; they order the ungratefuls murdered and, for good measure, their city burnt to ashes.

If this isn’t disturbing enough, the royal family then sends out the slaves to invite the homeless folks who sleep in the bushes near the gated club and a few others whose hideous shopping carts line the church steps only hours before the wedding.  These neglected outcasts will certainly come, don’t you think?  And yet there is another problem.  The king continues to bristle, this time because the B-Listers don’t appear at the wedding in Chanel dresses and Armani suits.  They certainly don’t have the money for such extravagance and, even if they did, it’s a tad late to expect them to head off to Madison Avenue to purchase swanky nuptial attire.

Let me add a disclaimer right now: I am not making this up; this is Jesus’ story not mine.  In case you haven’t quite picked up on the royals’ rage, they have the ill-clad B-Listers “bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness” where, as far as the king and queen are concerned, they can weep and gnash their teeth for ages unto ages.

I have learned from experience: never mess with the parents of the bride and groom!

Increasingly these days, people don’t seem to be showing up for this feast on Sunday whether here at Holy Trinity or Cheyenne.  Our attendance is growing but, still, there seem to be more pressing priorities—Jet’s game, fall foliage jaunts, brunch at who knows where, and brushing up on the crossword puzzle in the Time’s Sunday Magazine…So much to do, so little time.

I get the busyness but apparently, like the parents of the newlyweds, God is not amused.

I have no way of knowing for certain but I have a hunch Jesus told this parable so that when we receive our invitation to the Feast of the Lamb, we will realize how much God yearns for our presence.  God has prepared the finest meal imaginable for us this morning, overflowing with the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.  God has been making plans for this day for a long time, actually forever.

Really, can you believe you made it on the guest list?  Jesus is here!  Perhaps the only remaining question at this point is, “What are you wearing to the wedding?”  Well, actually, that apparently doesn’t matter because God has invited you and you are here this morning.

God is so glad you have come today, so enjoy, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.