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“Just Telling Stories and Eating Dinner”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Just Telling Stories and Eating Dinner”
Luke 24: 13-35
April 30, 2017 (Third Sunday of Easter)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

Rick Barr was two years ahead of me in seminary.  He came back to visit us at the divinity school after serving three months in a little congregation along the coast of Maine.  We were delighted to see Rick and thrilled to hear his initial impressions of parish ministry.

“There is no job like it,” he told us.  “I go to the Hidden Cove Diner every morning at 7 o’clock.  All I do is drink coffee, eat scrambled eggs and hash browns, and chatter with the locals until our heads fall off.  Can you believe the church pays me just to hang out and tell stories?  What a life!”

Maybe in these days when our Lutheran church is facing a severe clergy shortage, we should create a marketing campaign with Rick in mind: “If you like drinking coffee at Starbucks and telling stories, you will love ministry in the Lutheran church.”

If today’s resurrection story is any indication, that’s pretty much how ministry happened after Jesus rose from the dead.  Two men, one whose name was Cleopas, were on their way to Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.  Jesus had been dead three days.  The two fellows talked and talked.  They had placed all their hopes on Jesus, trusting he would change the world and their lives for the better.  He was gone now and their hearts were broken.

Out of the blue, a stranger joined them.  On and on they gabbed with him, for two and a half hours, all the way to Emmaus.

They spoke of their shattered hopes.  They told the stranger how Jesus had been condemned to die by the religious authorities and political leaders and then promptly crucified.  They talked about the women who had reported to them that Jesus had risen.  The stories went on and on.  They told about how some of their associates went to the tomb but did not find the body.

The stranger got in on the conversation, too: “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  They were clueless that this was Jesus talking…and listening.  He led them in an old-fashioned Bible study of sorts, beginning with Moses and the prophets; he “interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

For some reason, the two forlorn wanderers got it into their heads to invite this story-telling stranger to their house for supper and to ask him to stay for the night.  Intended or not, their invitation was a stroke of genius.  St. Luke writes: “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…”

Yes, you noticed: they came to know the Risen Christ in the telling of stories and the breaking of bread.

The story-telling, by the way, didn’t stop in Emmaus.  After telling stories and breaking bread, “they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.  They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread”—quite similar to what Rick Barr told us about doing ministry at First Church on the Green up in Maine.

It seems so simple, almost too simple: telling stories and breaking bread, exactly what we are doing here, right now.  Shouldn’t there be more to it if we are to know our Risen Savior?

When I was ordained forty years ago, one of the gifts my parents gave me, in addition to this beautiful white cope, was a little black box.  In it are a tiny silver bread box and a diminutive plate, a teensy cruet for wine and a miniscule silver chalice.  Whenever I go to the hospital or visit homebound members, I take this box along with a miniscule Bible our oldest son Sebastian gave me on Christmas when he was one year old (forty years later, I can barely read the fine print).  That’s all I need for ministry—actually all I’ve got: a little book of Bible stories and an insignificant box for serving a meal of Christ’s body and blood.

I must confess there have been occasions when I have yearned for far fancier accoutrements than a box and a book.  Whenever I visit you in the hospital and see doctors in their freshly laundered lab coats with their names and fancy titles embossed in red, I wish I had some breathtaking trappings, too, like a stethoscope flung around my neck and a crowd of adoring interns and residents nipping at my heels.  Shouldn’t we all have more powerful symbols and soaring stuff when speaking of heavenly things?

All I have to accomplish my heavenly craft on earth are a little book and a tiny box…And really, all we have for ministry in this place is the story of a risen carpenter from Nazareth and a little water and bread and wine.  That’s it or, as the Lutheran reformers were fond of saying in Latin, satis est (that is enough).

We can get terrible inferiority complexes about this.  We want so much more.  We often catch ourselves measuring our success by bigger buildings, bigger congregations, bigger endowments.  We repeatedly ask one another, “Are we growing?  How big is our church now?”  In the face of our gigantic dreams, all we have for ministry are a book and bread and wine and water.

The earliest Lutheran reformers realized we would hanker for more impressive things.  And so, in our chief confessional document, the “Augsburg Confession” (Confessio Augustana in Latin), the church is defined as “the assembly of saints in which the Gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.”  That is it—a book, water, bread and wine.   And that is exactly what so excited Rick Barr about ministry: we are at our best whenever we are telling stories and eating.

Yes, indeed, that is more than enough!  Because, of course….

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

“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.

Truth and Numbers

Truth and Numbers

I’ve just finished skimming through the Muhlenberg College Annual Report 2013-2014.  I am proud to be a Mule, a 1971 graduate of this fine institution of higher education.  I’m even prouder that my alma mater has grown in excellence in all things since I left its beautiful confines.

I’m reminded of this every time I read a Muhlenberg publication.  This time I started by reading College President Peyton Helm’s article called “Raters of the Liberal Arts: Pick Your Poison.”  President Helm discusses the current craze for outside institutions and publications to rate colleges and universities ranging from the sublime, like Top Liberal Arts Colleges, to the ridiculous, like Colleges Most Obsessed with Squirrels.

Then he reminds readers that what they are about to experience in looking through the glossy annual report, packed with gorgeous photos and dauntingly good statistics, is that all of this really doesn’t matter.  What matters is that people are educated by the school and our society is bolstered by its graduates.

Statistics don’t tell the whole story.

This is a difficult truism for those of us who have dedicated our lives to the Church of Jesus Christ.  It is normally our deep longing, our compulsion, for the Church to grow beyond all expectations, to our buildings to burst at the seams as they are magnify the Lord God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in praise and service.

And just this week the Roman Catholics in New York City announced that they would close dozens of churches.  Our Synod struggles continually to aid congregations to not only keep their doors open, but also to stay relevant to the mission of the Gospel in our various contexts.  But then I need to ask, how do you measure these things?  What marks a ministry as successful?

Business tells us that the stronger the profit is the more successful the institution is.  The arts tell us that the more that the art is consumed (museum visitors, concert goers, etc.) the more successful the enterprise is.

Jesus tells us that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he is there.  Seems like that’s ultimate success.  Having the Lord of Life in your midst.

Not that this is an easy thing for me.  I will always hold on to the wish, the deep desire, to see pews packed with eager worshippers, because I know that what we do together shapes us, forms us, molds us, as nothing else can do, making us God’s loved children and emissaries in continually evolving, ever-new ways.

So for me there’s a balance to be struck.  Like the faculty and administration of Muhlenberg College we strive for excellence at Holy Trinity.  But like their President, we need to be reminded that the ultimate goal is not numbers.  It is praise.

 It is life lived in the heart of God.