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“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.