Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Promises, Promises at Water’s Edge”
(Romans 13: 8-14; Matthew 18: 15-20
September 10, 2017 (14th Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West & 65th
In a few moments, we will make a lot of promises. Margot’s parents, Christine and Steven, will make promises; her godparents, Elizabeth and Jens, will make promises, too, as will her grandmas and grandpas. Promises, promises. We will all make promises.
Margot is such a precious little child. She may need a story tonight when she awakens at three in the morning and a pesky monster lurks under her crib. Mommy and daddy—you will come running and you must be able to tell a story that will calm her fears and let her know God is with her.
This will happen countless times in her life. Some of Margot’s first words will be, “Tell me a story.” You might tell her “Goldilocks,” “Good Night Moon,” “The Velveteen Rabbit.” Her eyes will be wide open as she listens and she will almost always beg you, “Tell me one more story.”
That’s why we make promises this morning. We promise to place the holy scriptures in Margot’s hands so she may know that one last story where God is with her every moment of her life.
In our second reading this morning, St. Paul told the Christians in Rome that their highest calling was to love one another. That is one way of saying that our highest calling is to dig deep for the one last story that will comfort our friends and family.
Jesus told countless stories to do just that. One was about ninety-nine sheep who behaved themselves and one rascal that wandered away. The astonishing thing—unlike almost any story we know—is that the shepherd risked ninety-nine sheep in order to save one mischief-maker. Jesus told this story so we might know the extent to which God goes to save us from disaster. He told another story, one about forgiving a person. How many times must we forgive someone who has done us wrong? Jesus’ story suggested not once or twice but at a bare minimum of 490 times.
These stories are worth telling…and hearing.
Never forget this: we are not the only ones making promises this morning. God makes promises, too, to Margot and to all of us, to be with us and to love us no matter what life brings.
Think of all the people who need such a story this morning.
What story should we tell the people in the Caribbean and Florida? Might we tell them that once upon a time there was a horrific storm a thousand times worse than Irma or Harvey?
Remember? God was so frustrated with the treachery of his children that he annihilated just about everything and everyone, except for Noah and his family and a few scraggly animals on a rickety boat. As the waters finally began to subside, after forty days and forty nights of terror, God was heartbroken by the destruction God had rained down on the beloved creation. The final part of the story which we must never forget is how God stretched a rainbow across the sky. You can see the tears sliding down God’s face as he says, “Never again will I deliver such devastation on my dear children.” We promise to tell this story on God’s behalf to the people of the Caribbean and Florida this morning.
Oh yes, think of everyone who needs a story.
Tomorrow morning, I will offer prayers at Engine 40/ Ladder 35 Firehouse. Twelve of thirteen men on duty at the firehouse two blocks from here at 66th and Amsterdam perished that day when they went to rescue their brothers and sisters at the raging Twin Tower inferno. (The relic at the altar this morning is Twin Tower rubble now kept permanently in the pastor’s office; it was a gift from the firehouse to Holy Trinity’s pastor, Robert Scholz, who provided exemplary pastoral care during those horrific days.) What story might I tell on your behalf, tomorrow, to parents, wives, and children who continue to grieve the loss of loved ones? I probably will tell them something like this, “Yea though I walk through the valley of death, I shall fear no evil.”
It is not always easy to keep our promise, to tell a compelling and comforting story of God’s presence when evil lurks and does its dirty dance. That is why we dare not forget the story of the baptismal waters where, here today, great sea monsters will try to grab Margot’s little toe and pull her under and yet, in the midst of the fury, God will go to battle to rout the great Leviathan of the deep and to save Margot. Is it any wonder she might scream as water streams down her face?
The only story finally worth telling is when, once upon a time, the world tried to keep God from loving us by hanging Jesus on the cross. You know the story—the greatest one ever told. Death was not the end of that story nor can it ever be when we are telling God’s stories. Never! We champion life: for hurricane victims, families grieving the loss of firemen sixteen years later, and dreaming refugees fearful that they might be carted off from this country they love.
Keep telling that story to Margot, when she dances for the first time, when she walks down the aisle with the love of her life, when she has her first baby. Tell that story, too, when she breaks up with her first boyfriend and is crushed, when she comes down with a weird cough that while likely harmless scares you to death; tell the story of God’s love when she calls late at night from college a million miles away and says, “Mommy and daddy, I need to talk.”
That’s why we go to the water now. Yes, in years to come, tell Margot Elizabeth Rocchio about what happened today, something like this: “My dear and precious Margot, once upon a time, long ago, we dressed you in a beautiful white gown and took you to church. You were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and then you were anointed with oil because you are a queen in God’s sight. Yes, on that day, precious Margot, God promised to love you forever and ever.”
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“New York, New York: A Number One, Top of the List”
Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
September 3, 2017 (13th Sunday after Pentecost”
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park
After fourteen months in the Big Apple, I think I’m starting to get Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York thing, the “A Number One, Top of the List” thing—who doesn’t want that!
Not in a million years did I ever imagine I would ever consider betraying my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates and contemplate becoming a Yankee fan. The Pirate’s victory over the Yankees in the 1960 World Series is tattooed on my heart. When little Bill Mazeroski hit THE HOMERUN in the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game, the Pirates became world champions. You zealous Yankee fans remember Maris and Mantle, Berra and Howard. I will never forget Dick Groat and “The Deacon” Vernon Law, and my hero, number 21, Roberto Clemente.
Funny thing, though, I might be edging over to the dark side. Yesterday, Dagmar and I walked into Yankee Stadium for the fourth time this year. I saw “27 World Series Championships” emblazoned just above the press box in that adorable, swirly Yankee script and gazed out at Monument Park where The Babe, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio are immortalized. It all made me a tad teary-eyed.
Who doesn’t want to be “A Number One, Top of the List” in New York, New York? Jesus’ disciples wanted it, too—well, not exactly in New York, but you get the drift. Peter and his cohorts dropped their fishing nets and tax ledgers and abandoned their families with high hopes that following the Son of the living God would bring them fame and perhaps even fortune.
We all join the disciples with our lofty wishes—for our jobs and families and here for our church. But just as we start getting all puffy-chested about our accomplishments, Jesus blasts us, “Get behind me, Satan!”
We immediately lean on Peter for support because Jesus’ words devastate us so and then, in the midst of our swoon, just for good measure, Jesus adds, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
It makes no sense. We always thought being a Christian would make us happier, maybe even successful, famous and rich, certainly “A Number One, Top of the List.”
Arnold Bruins will be baptized in a few moments. I love adult baptisms because adults have the option of running out of here on their own steam right before the water is lavishly poured.
Anne Lamott writes of this messy thing Arnold is about to do: “Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rain and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time it’s holy, and absurd. It’s about surrender, giving in to all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched.”
As water soaks through Arnold, he will be reminded that he has just joined a community that, on our best days, tries to follow Saint Paul’s mandate: “Bless those who persecute you…do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly…Do not repay anyone evil for evil…live peaceably with all…”
In groups like Rotary, when you join, they make it all nice and pretty. I know this because I once was in Rotary, was actually the president-elect before we moved out of town. They shook my hand, gave me a nice shiny pin with a fake diamond in the middle, and said they were a great group that did marvelous things for people like eradicating polio throughout the world—and that was all true. In this place when you join, we drench you and, for good measure, in case you aren’t already humiliated enough, we say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
It’s the darndest thing. Is it any wonder the church isn’t exactly A Number One, Top of the List?
Douglas John Hall is now ninety years old and taught theology at McGill University in Montreal for many years. I adore Dr. Hall if for no other reason than because of a few lines he wrote in his book, “The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World.” I have sent his words to countless pastors whose churches faced seemingly insurmountable crisis and I have even sent them to a few bishops encountering cantankerous congregations and sometimes harebrained pastors—there are only a few! I now share Dr. Hall’s words as a gift to you: “How could we have listening to the Scriptures all these centuries…like the Beatitudes (“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account”) and yet formed in our collective mind the assumption that Christian faith would be credible only if it were popular, numerically superior, and respected universally? How could we have been contemplating the ‘despised and rejected’ figure at the center of this faith for two millennia and come away with the belief that his body, far from being despised and rejected, out to be universally approved and embraced.”
Oddly, Jesus calls us to be a community that measures being “A Number One, Top of the List” by whether we take up the cross and follow him. God willing, we will call success what the rest of the world calls failure: we will give our riches away to the poor; we will do our best to bite our tongues when someone has been very nasty to us; and we will even try to love those who can’t stand us and whom, frankly, we find insufferable as well.
That is the community Arnold joins as we now pour water all over him. Together we proclaim that being “A Number One, Top of the List” has everything to do with following Jesus and we will do our best to love one another in Christ’s name no matter how tough life’s challenges may become and, yes, even if the Yankees don’t make it to the World Series. In spite of it all, we believe we are “A Number One, Top of the List” because we have been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Now That Peter Has Answered, What Do You Say?”
Matthew 16: 13-20
August 27, 2017 (12th Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West
Who doesn’t love answering Jesus’ question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
The disciples immediately got in on the act. They raised their hands the moment Jesus called on them and they breathlessly answered, “People are saying you are John the Baptist, Elijah, or Jeremiah, and others say you are one of the prophets.”
We want to answer, too. We want to be the first to tell Jesus what others are saying: “Some say you are the best person who ever lived, kind of a super Martin Luther King, Jr. or a wonder-working Mahatma Gandhi but even better; others claim you are almost like God; some actually declare you are God; and still others confess that you are completely human and completely divine all at the same time.
Oh yes, we love reporting what others say: “Did you hear what President Trump said yesterday; my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Burt, always said this about the Palmer Method of penmanship; my pastor preached exactly on that issue last Sunday; my mommy warned of that when I was six-years old.”
We are quite proficient reporting on what others say.
Now, let me forewarn you: never come knocking at my office door and say, “Pastor, people are saying.” Never! To be blunt, if you tell me, “People are saying,” I will look you straight in the eye and say, “I don’t want to hear what others are saying, I want to hear what you say! Put your money where your mouth is.” Oh, and by the way, expect the exact same thing from me…at least on my best days.
I know this sounds unusually harsh but I am only trying to do what Jesus did. After the disciples blurted out all they had heard regarding what others were saying about him, Jesus asked them point blank, “But who do you say that I am?” As you might imagine, there was dead silence, as there so often is when convictions are required rather than opinions. Answering “Who do you say that I am?” demands guts; we must stand up and be counted.
Actually, one person did blurt out who he thought Jesus was and, as you might imagine, it was good ol’ Peter. Never shy to offer his slant on matters of the day, Peter instantly declared, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Don’t you love him?
And for that answer, Jesus presented him with this impressive ecclesiastical accolade: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it”…Oh, and by the way, we have followed suit and put up a mosaic in Peter’s honor, right here at Holy Trinity altar’s, just off to Jesus’ side.
I don’t for a minute think Jesus called Peter “Rocky” because he was a theological genius: Jesus had to know from experience that Peter was not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. I also doubt whether Peter’s new nickname had much, if anything, to do with him offering his own courageous opinion rather than that of others. Jesus must have had an inkling that, only hours before he would die, Peter would cower when it mattered most. A young girl would query Peter, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean?” and Peter would get all shaky-kneed, just about upchuck, and stutter, “I tell you, I do not know the man”—and he would allegedly do this not just once but three times. Sounds like no answer at all.
Whatever the case, never forget Jesus’ response to Peter’s answer as to who he was: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” When all was said and done, Peter’s confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” had nothing to do with his convictions, with his heroism, or even with his brilliance; it had everything to do with God. Peter’s answer to “who do you say that I am” may seem like he had just won the ¾ of a billion-dollar heavenly lottery, but don’t be fooled. Peter didn’t even realize that his answer actually meant that God had come very close to dolts like him and would come close to all those who followed him down through the centuries, including you and me. No matter how idiotic our answers regarding who Jesus is or how profound they might sound, Jesus comes to us anyway. We must never forget, just as for Peter, God has provided us with our best answer and that is Jesus who comes to be our brother.
I think that’s why Jesus called Peter the rock and why he calls us the rock in our own peculiar way. We can be such cowards, falling back on the old saw, “people are saying.” We can sometimes tremble and claim we hardly know Jesus when our answers matter most. In spite of our foul-ups and flame outs, God has come to earth in Jesus to put up with our foolishness and cowardice and even when we try to convince others that we are the bee’s knees.
Yes, we are the rock, not because we are so much better than the rest of the world or cleverer than just about anyone else or fearless heroes beyond compare. We know full well that our boldest moments often come when huge cheering crowds march at our sides and we don’t have a thing to lose; likewise, our worst moments often come when we are standing all alone and must say exactly what we think. In spite of all our corny, cowardly, and halfhearted answers, Jesus for some odd reason builds the church on our scrawny and sometimes pompous shoulders. If we can at least know that—and that will be our best answer—we can almost certainly be like Peter, the rock, called to serve Christ here in this place at 65th and Central Park West.
Who knows, maybe someday there might be a mosaic of us right up there with Peter, standing at Jesus’ side! Amazing, huh?
Pastor Wilbert Miller
“The Grace to Change Our Minds”
Matthew 15: 21-28
August 20, 2017 (Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West
These are tumultuous times, times that in the words of Mitt Romney cause “racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast heart of America to mourn.”
As white supremacists parade swastikas through American streets, neo-Nazis present Hitlerian salutes in front of synagogues, and Ku Klux Klan members wave Confederate flags in African Americans’ faces, we must examine our souls this morning and cry out in horror, “My God, my God!”
One of you asked me following worship on Wednesday evening, “What can I do?” Your question was borne in fear for our nation and for our African American, Jewish, Muslim, and LGBTQ brothers and sisters. You have participated in countless protest marches and called your representatives in Washington, but the madness continues; in desperation, you wonder, “What else can I do?”
My answer may seem surprisingly passive, simplistic even. I said, “What you can do is go to church.”
I believe going to church is the most radical thing we can do in these perilous times—not the only thing, mind you, but the most radical thing. This is where we gather to hear a different word—not a partisan word from Republicans or Democrats or a brawling word from CNN or MSNBC, The New York Times or Breitbart. Here we gather to receive a creative word from God amidst the jarring cacophony of anti-Semites, the harsh screams of racists, and the pathetic whimpers of scaredy-cats. The word we hear in this place implores us to seek an uncommon way, a way overflowing with love for our enemies. This fresh way of viewing the world challenges the very core of our being: “There is neither Greek nor Jew, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran martyr who sacrificed his life against the Nazi madness, seemed to agree that church-going in tough times is exactly what we should do: “The early morning belongs to the Church of the risen Christ. At the break of light the church remembers the morning on which death and sin lay prostrate in defeat and new life and salvation were given to mankind.”
The word of God that raised Jesus from the dead has the exact same power to eradicate the demonic insanity that threatens to rip our nation asunder. Yes, indeed, we come to church this morning to learn a different language so that when we leave here today, we are able to speak the vibrant language of God’s love to our suffering world.
The story we just heard may not sound at all like the life-giving word we are in search of on a day such as this. The Canaanite woman who approached Jesus was an old enemy of his “people.” It seemed only natural for Jesus to detest her; she came from across the border after all, Syria, and worshiped gods repugnant to God’s chosen people. It seems like the wrong word for today because Jesus plummeted to sickening lows of racial superiority. As the woman knelt before him, pleading for her demon-possessed daughter, Jesus’ response was disgusting: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
The Canaanite woman refused to surrender, she would not be deterred: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Outcast that she was, she believed God’s word could overcome hatred and because of that stunning confidence, Jesus said, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And, of course—surprise, surprise—Jesus changed how he felt about this woman from the other side!
It may sound blasphemous to suggest that Jesus changed his mind and yet have we not come here this morning for an extraordinary word from God, a word not of our own making but of God’s, a word that can set this world upside down? Far from being blasphemous, to be able to change one’s mind is a gracious gift from God.
Perhaps you think changing your mind—or Jesus changing his—is a demonstration of weakness. If that’s what you think, know that God changed God’s mind as well.
In the story of Noah, after annihilating pretty much every human-being and the entire creation, God stretched out a rainbow in the sky and changed God’s mind: “The waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9). On another occasion, when the Israelites created a golden calf and God was beside himself with fury, Moses implored the Lord to think twice before wiping them out. And, once again, a surprising word: “And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people” (Exodus 32). Did you hear that? God repented, God changed God’s mind!
Far from heresy, as I said, the greatest grace is the astonishing news that if God can change God’s mind, God can certainly change our minds and our enemy’s.
I know this can happen because it happened to me a few months ago when an African American Lutheran pastor worshiped right here on Sunday morning. At the Passing of the Peace, I unfortunately did not greet her personally. While we met after worship, she was quite upset and said so on Facebook. I was crestfallen. I quickly built up walls of defense as to why I was right and she was wrong: I didn’t notice her; I would never do such a thing; I have served African American congregations; we raised our sons in African American communities; I was arrested at the South African Embassy in Washington, DC, protesting its racist apartheid regime. But it didn’t take long to realize that I had overlooked the pain she was feeling at having been left out all the while trying to justify my inaction. At that moment, God spoke a new word to me that changed my mind and, hearing that word, I apologized to her publicly on Facebook and wrote her a personal note begging her forgiveness. When she wrote back thanking me, I felt a great grace extended to me from her and from God…I pray that I was changed for the better.
We are pointing a lot of fingers these days, uttering lots of harsh words. Could some of our anger be borne in the frustration that nothing will ever change—in our enemies who seem so brazenly wicked, with our families whom we so vigorously disagree, and even in the dark caverns of our own shady hearts? I wonder…
That is precisely why we need to go to church in these tumultuous times. It is in this place where we hear that God can change anyone, including our enemies and, yes indeed, even ourselves.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon as We Prayed for Our Nation
“Water Walkers Who Refuse to Wait for the Catastrophe”
Matthew 14: 22-23
Wednesday Evening Mass, August 16, 2017
This wasn’t the first time Peter had said something so preposterous. He was always the big shot, wanting to be at Jesus’ side in glory and telling anyone who would listen that Jesus called him “The Rock.” Like the disciples, we have grown weary of Peter’s antics. When he says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” we, along with James and Andrew, jab each other in the ribs and say to Peter: “Go for it Pizza Pie; take a giant step for mankind, big fella; float like a dragonfly.”
The Bible doesn’t tell us how far Peter walked on water. What’s your guess—two steps, perhaps four? Saint Matthew does write: “Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, be became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” As Peter screamed, Jesus castigated him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
In the midst of our merriment at Peter the buffoon, aren’t we a bit jealous of his bravado? After all, taking just a few measly steps on a wind-battered lake ain’t exactly shabby. How many steps do you think you could take before sinking into the sea?
In these days, it’s easy to sit in our La-Z Boys and judge those who get out of the boat and try to quell the sickening racism and disgusting anti-Semitism occurring in our nation. We all have our opinions of what is appropriate and inappropriate. Like Olympic diving judges holding up scorecards, we evaluate anyone who takes a step or two off the high dive to try to bring justice to our reeling nation. It’s easy to judge from a safe distance; it is far more dangerous to step into the raging sea with hopes that things might get a bit better.
What do you think: is it better to try and fail or to be rendered impotent by our desire to act perfectly before taking a single step?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the great saints of the twentieth century. You are probably aware that he had a cushy job teaching just up the street at Union Theological Seminary. But as Hitler began to rear his ugly head, Bonhoeffer had to make difficult decisions: whether to leave the safe confines of United States soil for his beloved German homeland and, eventually, whether to be involved in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. People could and would judge him but Bonhoeffer found it more unbearable to stand idly by as Jewish people faced the slaughter. In the finest of Lutheran tradition, Bonhoeffer “sinned boldly;” he dared to act because he was already saved by a merciful God. Risky, of course, but, for Bonhoeffer there was no alternative. Oh yes, he was hung at Hitler’s Flossenburg Concentration Camp only days before World War II ended….Feels a bit to me like sinking into the sea for what you believe. But we do not forget Saint Dietrich.
Listen to his words and tell me if you have heard anything more timely in recent days: “If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” One thing is clear: there is no room for anti-Semitism and racism in the Christian life. We must take risks and we must do what we can to stop the madness in our own day.
At the beginning of this evening’s worship service, Steve Aurand played one of my favorite liturgical pieces, Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.” Steve asked whether this was appropriate for this evening and I said, “More than appropriate, it is perfect!”
Jesus invites us to join the clowns, folks like Saint Peter and Saint Dietrich, those willing, in faith, to jump out of the boat and to walk on water. For my money, Peter is the most faithful clown in the disciple boat—as was Bonhoeffer after him! Their faith was borne of bravery and deep faithfulness, knowing they would be ridiculed when their boats began to sink and yet trusting that Jesus would catch them no matter how wet they got.
I pray that each of us will step out of this boat (this holy space, by the way, is called a nave after the Latin word “navis” which means “ship”). We will leave this boat tonight and, I pray, by faith, boldly and lovingly walk on water. There is far too much hatred these days, far too much vitriol aimed at those with whom we disagree. Let us not be coopted by the haters; let us not use their ugly ways to try to accomplish loving results. Let our biggest risk of water-walking be to love those who think differently than us and to stand with those too easily crushed by the rich and powerful.
Let us dare, in Christ’s name, to build a house where all are welcome, in this congregation and throughout this nation.