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“Nervousness in the Face of Monstrous Glory”

Pastor Wilbert Miller Sermon
Easter Morning (April 16, 2017)
“Nervousness in the Face of Monstrous Glory”
Matthew 28: 1-10
The Evangelical Lutheran of the Holy Trinity
Central Park West, the City of New York

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

When I interviewed to become Holy Trinity’s pastor exactly one year ago, a number of you wondered, if I were called, how long I would remain as your pastor. I presume the question arose due to my receding hairline, creeping balding spot, and graying temples. It was a fair question. I first offered a pious response, “I will remain as long as the Holy Spirit intends or until you kick me out—whichever comes first.” The other answer, less holy perhaps but likely far more honest, was my standard reply to queries regarding pastoral longevity: “I will remain as long as I am nervous when I mount these pulpit steps.”

I am a firm believer that if one isn’t jittery on a day like this—the good kind, the empowering kind that makes tummies flutter and knees knock—then the magnificence of Easter has probably not been adequately grasped. To be perfectly blunt, this is a once in a life-time opportunity—or at least once in a year—to announce to you, to the best of my pedestrian abilities, that God has routed the devil and death has been destroyed forever.

With that said, I am as nervous as Mary Magdalene and the other Mary when they went to inspect Jesus’ burial site only days after he died.

I bet you are a tad nervous as well. You are wondering: what really happened that first Easter morning when the dew was still on the grass?

Let us not be too quick to answer. Perhaps it is best to let Easter wonder sink in before we utter a word. John Updike writes:

Let us not seek to make [Easter] less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty…

The four gospel writers certainly did not make things “less monstrous.” They exercised considerable restraint when explaining Jesus resurrection.

The old African-American Spiritual asks, “Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?” It certainly would be a nice this morning if I were to tell you exactly who witnessed Jesus rising from the tomb that Easter dawn, but all four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are mum on this particular subject. There is no mention of someone seeing Jesus jump from his death bed and announce, with trumpet and timpani accompaniment, “Top of the morning! Happy Easter to you all! Alleluia!” The gospels are unusually subdued, silent really, when describing how Jesus burst from the grave. They resist the temptation to make resurrection wonder less monstrous than it really is. What we inevitably witness is the aftermath of the resurrection, Jesus appearing to various women and disciples after God has raised him up.

What the gospel writers do speak about, however, are the emotions of those who came to the sepulcher and received the stunning news that “he is not here; for he has been raised.”

The women and especially the men are described as fearful and befuddled. This morning’s gospel from Matthew claims Mary and the other Mary ran from the tomb with “fear and great joy.” Fear and great joy—I love that—such a monstrous mixture of emotions when you think about it.

Fear and great joy can easily occur when we stake our lives on the claim that God raised Jesus from the tomb. The thought of God routing death makes us joyful and yet, as is said, we have never seen a resurrection! And so, there is fear as well as joy.

The renowned Yale Professor Jaroslav Pelikan said it this way: “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen—nothing else matters.”

With that being said, we push all our chips to the center of the table, staking our every last cent on Jesus being raised from the dead. It is the only thing that matters!

At the conclusion of worship this morning, you will be invited to “Go in peace. Practice resurrection!” These words come from the Kentucky writer and farmer Wendell Berry. Practice resurrection—that’s how we bet everything that death has been destroyed.

Holy Trinity has been in existence for 149 years now. The only reason we are here is to practice resurrection—the only reason! Countless people just like you have staked millions of dollars over the years here at Central Park West to proclaim that God’s answer to death is always an emphatic “no” and God’s answer to life is always a resounding “yes.”

Death must never be the final answer! We say “yes” to life in this place by operating a women’s homeless shelter downstairs and serving a Saturday meal for those down on their luck so they may know that God longs for them to have a warm bed and a hot meal. Yes to life!

We spent a fortune over the years on stunning music. Our deepest desire is to assist you in singing “alleluia” with the saints and angels whenever you are lost in life’s dingy alleys and have lost the capacity to whistle in the dark.

You practice resurrection, I know you do. You gather at the graveyard in the Spring drizzle. After the last clod of damp dirt hits the casket and everyone returns to their automobiles, you lag behind with the grieving widow. You are tongue-tied. You couldn’t prove resurrection to her if your life depended on it but you hug her nonetheless, hoping that might suffice. Your knees knock and that is a good thing because you are pointing her beyond the grave, beyond neat, domesticated answers you are so tempted to offer. And yet, you opt for the monstrous message, the one you cannot explain but that offers hope in your best friend’s deepest hour of need, the one that is good news and proclaims that Jesus has defeated death for her and the one she loves.

The reason we make such a fuss this morning, with timpani and strings, brass and flowers, and with you!, is because we believe we have a story to tell and a song to sing. You are at the tomb this very moment as sure as those women were there that first Easter morning. You have come to church and your tummy flutters as you hear the news that the tomb is empty and Christ is risen.

I pray this message will fill you with fear and great joy. Run from here and practice resurrection for all this suffering world…Oh yes, and may you always be nervous as you proclaim…

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

“The Crooked Lines of Good and Evil”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’ Sermon
“The Crooked Lines of Good and Evil”
Matthew 27: 33-50
April 9, 2017 (Palm Sunday/ Passion of Our Lord)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

In a few moments, we will hear Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata, “Lord Jesus Christ, True Man and God.” In addition to the gorgeous music, I pray that you will be struck by the stunning words:

O Head, full of blood and wounds,
full of suffering and shame!
O Head, bound in mockery
with a crown of thorns!
O Head, once beautifully adorned
with the highest honor and beauty,
now rather supremely defiled:
be greeted by me!

If you have come this evening just for music, you could just as easily be a block away at Lincoln Center.  Bach’s cantata is far more than an aesthetical outing on a Spring evening.  Who can miss its melancholic nature?  We are with Mary at the foot of the cross.

A number of years ago, I read this: “[Mary and her son Jesus] were likely looking at one another face to face.  Much later, beginning in the Middle Ages, artists would depict a very tall cross, with Mary and the others far below at its foot.  But historians believe that the cross was probably about seven feet tall.  They were face to face.  The sweat, the blood, the tearing tendons, the twitching, the wrenching, the bulging eyes—she would have seen it all quite clearly, as clearly as she saw him so long ago when she held him safely to her breast” (John Richard Neuhaus, “Death on a Friday Afternoon”).

The church begins Holy Week today, Palm Sunday, as we remember Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.  This day is also called the Passion of Our Lord; we recall the horrific events that unfolded as Jesus loved us to the end and we stare at our suffering Savior, face to face.

Bach’s cantata directs us to our deepest humanity.  There, in the depths of our souls, we hear far more than stunning music: we gaze deeply into our hearts and behold the one who is everything we are and everything we are not.

There are occasions when we are stunned by our courage: we march with protest banners unfurled in solidarity with the downtrodden.  We feel like we are on the streets of Jerusalem, shouting at the top of our lungs, “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

And yet, honesty compels us to tell another story about ourselves as well.  We are sometimes sickened by our failure of nerve.  As innocent Syrian children are gassed to death and military strikes are waged, we are clueless what should be done.  Is retaliating with our own deadly weapons a useful response to the barbarity of poisonous gas or should we merely sit by quietly and prayerfully as little children scream for our help?  Yes indeed, we cry helplessly into the evening sky, “O Lord, I know not what I do!”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the esteemed rabbi who taught just up the street at the Jewish Theological Seminary, at 122nd and Broadway, once said, “Some are guilty, all are responsible.”

Some may demur, “I would never do such a thing.”  But honesty calls us to confess.  We are the Judases who, for a measly bit of silver, make a few shabby compromises so our retirement accounts stretch a bit further into our autumn years; we are the Peters cringing when it comes time to tell the truth—all we can muster is the meek contention that our pint-size voices won’t make any difference, anyway.  We are caught in the vicious cogs that go round and round.  We watch as the thorny crown is placed on Jesus’ head and listen as the crowd derides him.  We listen in disgust as the pundits’ blather on and feel so impotent as the mightier ones weave their dirty work.

The Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.”  He sounds a lot like Saint Paul who said: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

Johann Sebastian Bach understood these words.  His music is sung most profoundly and powerfully when we all comprehend the crooked lines of good and evil running through our hearts.  This is the pathos that moves us deeply and causes us to leave evenings such as this saying, “That was hauntingly breathtaking!”  Our hearts have been deeply touched.

This may all sound a tad too dismal, teeming with eighteenth century Germanic gloom, despair, and resignation.  And yet, remember such were never Bach’s final words.  There was always hope to be found.  You will hear it again at the conclusion of the cantata, just when you thought the morning would never come:

When everything shudders at the last hour,
and when a cold death-sweat
bathes limbs already stiff,
when my tongue cannot speak other than through sighs
and this heart breaks…

The soul rests in Jesus’ hands,
when earth covers this body…
I am unafraid of death,
because my Jesus will awaken me again.

Listen for words of hope: “I am unafraid of death, because my Jesus will awaken me again.”

“Never Said a Mumblin’ Word”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Never Said a Mumblin’ Word”
(Matthew 26:14-27:66)
April 9, 2017 (Palm Sunday/ Passion of Our Lord)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

Every year, one of the many Holy Week tasks is determining how the Passion of Our Lord will be read.  Some years the choir sings of Jesus’ final hours on earth; other years, two people read the entire story from Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  This morning, we thought it would be a good idea to involve a host of people in Saint Matthew’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion.  As you have just experienced, this offered each of you an opportunity to tell some part of Jesus’ death.

The first decision for today’s reading was to determine how many readers were necessary for the various parts. Next, I gave careful thought to who should read each part.  I worried about a few of the key rolls.  How to ask delicately: “I was wondering if you would you like to be Peter;” “I think you would make a splendid Pilate;” worst of all perhaps, “Have you ever thought about being Judas at church on Palm Sunday?”  More than once in my ministry, someone has been terribly offended by one of my requests; rather than feeling honored, they have blurted out, “Pastor, how dare you ask me to be Judas?”  Oh, the landmines of pastoral ministry!

And then, I wondered about the rest of you: would your feelings be hurt if you were asked to shout out the crowd’s atrocities: “He deserves death,” “Let him be crucified,” “Hail, King of the Jews”?  I can hear a few of you muttering this very moment, “I would never say such a thing.  Who do you think I am anyway?”

After all that, there were two other daunting challenges: who to choose to be the narrator and who to be Jesus?  The narrator was easy: pick someone who can read clearly and with solemnity.

But Jesus.  That was dicier.  This went beyond choosing someone who could be heard.  This person, the chief character, must read flawlessly and profoundly.

What surprised me this year and always has—shocked me might be more precise—is how little Jesus said in Matthew’s gospel.  Given the scarceness of Jesus’ words in his final hours, a four-year-old could do this part admirably—or even I could.  As the old African-American spiritual would have it, “Jesus never said a mumblin’ word.”

How many words would you have uttered if you had been in Jesus’ place—what with Judas betraying you, Peter getting all weak-kneed and turning his back on you, and Pilate being gutless as he gauges the political winds?  Add to that cast of hapless clowns, what would you have said in the face of the macho soldiers and jeering crowds, the ripping thorns and driving nails, the sour wine and piercing spear, and the disgusting spitting in your face.  Do you think you would have remained silent for even a second in the face of such cruelty or would you have spewed forth heaps of bile?

The old seventh century desert monk John of the Ladder wrote, “Jesus by his silence shamed Pilate.”  In truth, Jesus’ silence shames us all.  We are, after all, a people of many words and so easily offended; we have opinions on a host of matters regardless of what knowledge we might possess; we abhor silence and covet having the final word on every issue.

There is soaring dignity in this man Jesus, especially given the few words he spoke.  There is exquisite elegance in how he let his actions speak for him.  So few words…so few words.

During this week, we will once again walk with Jesus.  All the characters in today’s story with the exception of Jesus are so maddening.  While we hate the thought of filling in for them, honesty compels us to confess that we are much like them.  The passion narrative we have just heard from the gospel of Matthew, far from being antiquated and irrelevant, is as fresh and timely as ever.

Oh, how few words Jesus spoke.  Oh, his wondrous silence.  Jesus never said a mumblin’ word but, oh, how he loves us.  On a day such as this, we do well to listen or, better yet, to watch every move Jesus makes.

“Resting in the Lap of God”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Resting in the Lap of God”
Matthew 17: 1-9
Bach Vespers
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
February 26, 2017 (Transfiguration of Our Lord)

O Lord, how good to be here, here on this mountaintop with a gorgeous view of Central Park, here where we will soon pray: “O Lord, support us all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, in your mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
We have longed for this place of holy rest and blessed peace.  However we say it—“I love Bach,” I love incense,” “I love Vespers,” even “I like the refreshments”—we come here where the busy world is hushed and where we can pray and sing and listen to glorious music.  We feel as did Saint Augustine so long ago when he said, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

Three little words in tonight’s reading, “six days later,” tell us volumes.

Do you know what occurred six days before Peter, James and John climbed the mountain with Jesus and gloriously witnessed the astonishing sight of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus together?  Six days earlier Peter had the audacity to suggest to Jesus that he need not suffer and die.  Peter was doing what dear friends do, protecting Jesus the best way he knew how from dying a horrific death.  We often say a similar thing to those we love, “You will not die,” though we know they will soon breathe their last. We cannot bear their suffering and death and we really do not know what to say so we say what we think is best no matter how flimsy our words may be.

Jesus would have none of Peter’s dismissive words even though Peter meant well.  In what may be the most stinging rebuke in all of Scripture, Jesus said to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.”

If your best friend called you Satan, how long would it take you to get over the scolding—twenty-four hours, six days…a lifetime?  Harsh words hurt!

From what we can tell, Jesus began the healing process with Peter six days later as they hiked up the mountain.

I don’t know exactly what brings you here tonight, what stuff won’t go away—the sting of a relationship gone sour, the heartache of declining health, the discouragement of a country in turmoil.  My guess is, whether it is sickness or health, joy or sadness, your heart is restless and you have come yearning to rest in the lap of God.

As I mentioned, the three words, “six days later,” are important.  When you hear “six days later,” do you perchance think of creation?   God toiled for six days, creating the heavens and the earth, giraffes and bumble bees, beautiful baby girls and ornery little boys, gleaming oceans and towering mountains.  I don’t know why, but whenever I think of the seventh day—the one that came after God had worked so hard on the previous six—I imagine God plopping down in an overstuffed La-Z-Boy, kicking off huge, dirty work boots, falling asleep and snoring away.

Jesus, Peter, James and John trudged up the mountain on the sixth day.  The seventh day was to be their delight.  Oh, how they needed to kick off their work boots and to rest awhile.

God knows we need our rest day as well. God also knows just how suspicious our culture is of rest.  And so, protecting us from the beguiling temptation of incessant work, God gives us the gift, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” God realizes all the silly stuff that tempts us: “I don’t have a free day until May 22…I work 169 hours a week”—all this trying to prove our worth, all the while forgetting that God loves us just the way we are.

I worry about people who don’t rest and I sense people worry about me when I don’t rest.  We are frightened when we watch people lose their centers of gravity; they have been seduced to believe they are the only ones who can make this great big world go round.  We quickly forget that God makes the planets spin and not us!

This evening, on the Transfiguration of Our Lord, we rest just as did Peter, James, and John, and, yes, even as did Jesus.  During these holy moments, we do absolutely nothing to prove our worth; it is, as the theologian Marva Dawn suggests, “a royal waste of time.”

By the way, it is a good idea, if you haven’t done so already, to turn off your stupid phones.  I was taught in seminary by the good Benedictine monk, Aidan Kavanagh, to take off my watch before worship begins—that was, by the way, before we had these stupid phones and instead communicated home to our parents with carrier pigeons.  Father Kavanagh told us just to rest in God’s presence and not to worry about time; in fact, he said, these holy moments are beyond space and time.

For now, I beg you, remember the Sabbath, delight in the music, and rest as the shadows lengthen and the evening comes.  Remember: when you leave here tonight, there will be no bragging rights as to who worked the hardest because you will have done nothing.  You will have wasted an hour and twenty minutes in God’s lap as Jesus was transfigured before your very eyes…and that is more than enough.

“Up the Hill and Down the Hill”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Up the Hill and Down the Hill”
(Matthew 17: 1-9)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
February 26, 2017 (Transfiguration of Our Lord)

Whenever I hear today’s gospel reading, for some reason, I think:

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.

In the Transfiguration of our Lord, Peter, James, John, and Jesus went up the hill.  They went up for a bit of rest from the weary work of ministry.  They went up because Peter, James, and John were dreadfully upset and disillusioned: Jesus had just announced to them that he would soon suffer and die a horrendous death.  They went up the hill to get away, to be alone for a time, to ponder what was about to happen.

And up on the hill, an amazing thing occurred: Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.  Even more stunning, the three disciples suddenly saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah.

They needed this vision in the worst way.  Only a week earlier, Jesus had told them the shocking news that he was about to die, not peacefully but violently.  The powers, threatened by Jesus’ invitation to care for the poor and love their enemies, were none too happy: they did not take kindly to having their ways challenged, especially when it affected the bottom line of profits, authority, and reputation.

Oh, how the disciples and Jesus needed to get away from it all, to go up the hill.

The disciple Peter had tried to do what good friends do when hearing the fatal diagnoses of family and friends: he told Jesus he didn’t need to die.  Jesus, in a fit of fiery anger, said to Peter in return, “Get behind me, Satan.”

Ministry is often messy if we care at all about doing what is right…

Actually, some ministry is not messy at all, the boring kind that refuses to see the world as God sees it.  Some ministry is content to make certain everyone gets along even if that means putting up with all manner of injustices that trample upon others.

Authentic ministry, on the other hand, is forever taking risks in Jesus’ name.  It gets bruised and battered, not, by the way, over silly matters that some churches seem so adept at squabbling about.   Authentic ministry gets bruised and battered because it dares to stand up for the bruised and battered. That kind of ministry, by the way, dares to come down the hill.

If we are to engage in authentic and vibrant ministry here on the Upper West Side of New York City, we need to honor the rhythms of going up the hill and down the hill.

Today, we are up the hill.  We stand here before Jesus, beholding the dazzling light of his presence.  We hear Jesus speaking to us.  Right here, in this place, we are strengthened to go back down the hill, as we must, to do ministry in the world.

I have seen very fine people who have done stunning ministry crash and burn because they have neglected the necessary rhythm of going up and down the hill.  These lay members and pastors and their families have toiled for the disenfranchised and yet, all too often, bearing too heavy a load, have come to say, “I can’t take it anymore.”  Quite a few of these compassionate folks have frankly been skeptical about giving much attention to excellent worship.  They have said, “We need to do the real stuff of ministry, not sit in our sanctuaries and fool with the fringes.”  I know these people—very well and very intimately: they have worked long into the night, every night; revolvers have literally been stuck to their heads; bullets have crashed through their kitchen windows as they and their children celebrated New Year’s Eve.  Hard, agonizing work.  Some have stood up when recalcitrant congregational members have refused to open their doors to the community as they tried their best to integrate the membership or hoped to call a pastor from Central America who could effectively evangelize to a changing neighborhood; they have faced fiery opposition when trying to speak a welcoming word to the LGBTQ community.  It has gotten bloody and contentious and, sometimes, sadly, these committed folks have thrown up their hands and said, “I have had it with the church.  Enough!”

The most enduring ministries with which I am familiar couple the finest worship with the finest outreach to the vulnerable.  There is no apology for ministry up the hill or down the hill.  These ministries dare to get their hands dirty often times in the toughest neighborhoods of our country.  These people know the necessity of being in the valley with the suffering and on the mountaintop with Jesus and Moses and Elijah.

Isn’t that why we are here today?  We are here not to get a cheap fix of fluffy religion or to escape the world and all that haunts it.  We are here to behold beauty, to hear Christ speak to us, to taste his body and blood, to sing with the saints and angels…And then, of course, we will go back down the hill again, as we must, where the cross looms.  We will carry the vision we have beheld here and the alleluias we have sung here and we will be strengthened all the day long.  We will go to hospitals where people suffer horribly; we will volunteer in homeless shelters where unfortunate souls huddle with all their nasty revulsions; we will confront the maddening issues of our day head-on wherever the vulnerable are trampled upon. It will be bloody; in fact, if there is no blood, it is highly unlikely we will be doing the work Jesus calls us to do.

And so, up and down the hill we go, up to be refreshed and down to serve, up to gaze on beauty and down to confront ugliness, up to taste salvation and down to feed those who have not had a good meal in ages.

Up and down, up and down we go, always singing “alleluia” and always with Jesus at our side.