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“Lifting up the Lowly, Rising Above 36”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Lifting up the Lowly, Rising Above 36”
Luke 1: 26-55
August 13, 2017 (Mary, Mother of Our Lord)

“Today we lift up Mary, Mother of Our Lord…Okay, let’s deal with the rhinoceros in this Lutheran room immediately.  When you saw Mary and her son, Jesus, and read “Mary, Mother of Our Lord” on the bulletin cover, you might have thought, “Lutherans don’t believe in Mary!”  Let me say straight away: one of our Lutheran confessional documents (“The Formula of Concord”) states: “We believe, teach, and confess, that Mary did not conceive and bear a mere and ordinary human being, but the true Son of God; for that reason she is rightly called and in truth is the Mother of God.”

Did you hear that: the Mother of God!  Theotokos!!!

We confess every week, “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary and became truly human.”

We dare not forget the critical role Mary played in Christ’s life and in salvation history: she is a model of faith for us all.

When the angel Gabriel came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you…You shall bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,” Mary was shocked: “How can this be, since I have no husband?”  How right she was: she was a gangly teenager, from a backwater town, far too young to have a baby.

We have said something similar this morning, “How can racism and bigotry in this country ever end?”

We might even say it about our church, Holy Trinity: how can Christ appear here?  Dagmar and I were at the Newport Jazz Festival last weekend. We had a stunning time.  Our favorite was Maria Schneider and her orchestra; imagine my surprise this morning when our wonderful soloist, Anna Lenti, told me that her father taught Ms. Schneider at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester.

Upon our return, I immediately went to the church office to see how many of you attended worship last Sunday.  36!  I hate to admit this publicly because, first of all, I don’t want to discourage you, and secondly, I put all my sermons on Facebook and our website.  You can already hear the whispers: “What’s going on at Holy Trinity?  36 at worship?”  You may be thinking along similar lines, “Apparently the new pastor is sinking the ship!”  36 causes me similar concerns so I protest: July attendance was the highest in at least the past five years…Who wants Holy Trinity to look like Podunk?

We can easily become depressed these days, in so many ways and in so many places.  But with Mary as our pioneer, we are encouraged to rise above 36 and to believe that “with God nothing will be impossible.”

But it’s not easy.  It wasn’t easy for Mary either.  As soon as her little son was born, she and her husband Joseph, with diaper-clad Jesus in tow, were off and running to Egypt, hounded by a paranoid king threatened by just about any pipsqueak who came his way.  It was pretty much like that until Mary ended up at the foot of the cross, weeping, as her dear son breathed his last.  Poor, poor Mary.

Luckily, Mary, good Jewish girl she was, had powerful memories.  She remembered the other blessed women down through the ages, barren women like Sarah, Rebekah, and even Mary’s older cousin Elizabeth.  None of these women had reason to hope, none except that they had heard from someone, in a place like this, that with God nothing will be impossible.  And, yes indeed, they all became mommies.

That’s why we hold up Mary today, not because she is our savior—she is not—but because she believed and announces to us that with God nothing will be impossible.

Those who follow Jesus are invited to be like Mary.  We are the ones who go to intensive care units and pray for those in the valley of the shadow of death; we are the ones who pray for peace while North Korea and Venezuela and the United State rattle their sabers; we are the ones who stand up and say racism and white nationalism are horrible and we won’t sleep well until the madness stops.  Yes, we are called by an angel to tell those we love and the world that with God nothing will be impossible.

Are we able to do that here at Holy Trinity?

In a few months, we will begin a marvelous journey, celebrating 150 years of proclaiming in this place that with God nothing will be impossible.  I hope we will throw caution to the wind as Mary did when she told people she was going to be the Mother of God.  I hope we risk just about everything trying to make our ministry as vibrant as possible well into the future.  Unless we do that, we have no business being here and certainly no business celebrating this congregation’s rich tradition as we are summoned into a bright future.

Will people think us nuts as we have already begun contemplating renovation of this sanctuary so that this place remains a breathtaking oasis of God’s goodness for years to come?  Will they think us mad to contemplate such an investment as so many churches are closing their doors for good?  Shouldn’t we be careful, go slowly?

We will need to remember those barren women who courageously trusted that God would provide and plowed straight into the future.  That’s what we are doing right now. Our world-famous choir will sing Bach’s greatest music, including his B-Minor Mass; they will soon come out with a glorious recording of the music of Samuel Capricornus.  We have scheduled some of the finest preachers in the Lutheran church: our former Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, Barbara Lundblad-the amazing preacher who taught up the street at Union Seminary, the astonishing hymn writer Susan Briehl, the first openly gay bishop in the Lutheran Church and brilliant Luther scholar Guy Erwin, and our own beloved bishop Robert Rimbo.  Are we crazy to celebrate God’s presence so extravagantly…Crazy only if we don’t follow Mary.

My seminary classmate, Barbara Brown Taylor, writes: “Mary’s trust [that with God nothing will be impossible] is really all she has.  What she does not have is a sonogram, or a husband, or an affidavit from the Holy Spirit that says, ‘The child is really mine.’  All she has is her unreasonable willingness to believe that the God who has chosen her will be part of whatever happens next…”

That’s all we have, too, the trust that God chooses us to bear Christ in this place.

“Carving Rotten Wood and Riding Lame Horses”

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
Mary, Mother of Our Lord (August 14, 2016)
Luke 1: 46-55
“Carving Rotten Wood and Riding Lame Horses”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
Alma Quigley went to Woodsdale Junior High School.  She lived in a shotgun shack in one of Wheeling’s tumble-down neighborhoods.  She wore stained skirts and threadbare blouses. The ornery boys mocked her; if any of their pals got too close to Alma, their stomach-churning taunt began instantly, “You have cooties.”

Then, one day a miracle occurred.  Colin Masterson, the handsomest and most athletic boy in our school, asked Alma to the spring dance.  As soon as we acne-faced teenagers heard the news, our view of Alma Quigley changed instantly: what exquisite beauty had Colin discovered that we had overlooked since we were in kindergarten?

Has it ever happened to you?  Out of the blue, someone looked straight into your eyes and said, “My, do you have a beautiful smile.”  Or at the Passing of the Peace, the person next to you said, “Did anyone ever tell you what a lovely voice you have?”  Simple words changed your life and for the better.

A similarly marvelous thing happened to Mary when God chose her to be the mother of Jesus.  Out of the blue, Mary became breathtakingly beautiful and she knew it.   Mary sang the song that the church has sung at Evening Prayer ever since, “My soul magnifies the Lord…for the Lord has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…the Mighty One has done great things for me…”  God invited Mary to the dance and that invitation changed the world forever.

Martin Luther said it this way: “God can carve the rotten wood and ride the lame horse.”  Mary was, after all, younger than gold medalist gymnast Simone Biles and her tiny Olympic gymnast cohorts and, like Alma Quigley, she had cooties.  If you think otherwise, recall how people wagged their tongues, wondering exactly who the father of her baby might be.

Mary was as an unlikely choice to be the Mother of God, as Luther called her, as unlikely as an undocumented Mexican immigrant or inner-city African American teenager in our day.

People often say to me, “Pastor, I am looking forward to hearing the Word of God proclaimed from the pulpit this morning,” I always wonder: Do you really want to hear the heart of Luke’s gospel or would you prefer a more appetizing gospel?  If you are clamoring for the Word of God this morning, see how this little nugget works for you: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”

I am always grateful to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters for their theological claims about Mary.  Beliefs such as the Immaculate Conception (the belief that Mary was conceived like us all except without original sin or its stain), the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (the claim that at the end of Mary’s life she was assumed, body and soul, into heaven, just as Enoch, Elijah had been before her), and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary are attempts to give deserved honor to Jesus’ mother, Mary.  And yet, I worry what, to my mind, are nonbiblical doctrines, may have the unintended consequence of making Mary more than she was when God chose her, more than you and I were when God chose us with “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  Such lofty theological sentiments may diminish the wonder of God stooping down and choosing Mary and you and me to aid in the heavenly plan of salvation.

You will learn that my favorite author is Annie Dillard; you may hear her name more than you ever wished!  She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for her book, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”   I adore Annie Dillard’s ability to discover the sacred amidst the mundane.  In her book, “Holy the Firm,” she writes of the little church she attends.  Listen: “On Sunday mornings I quit the house and wander down the hill to the white frame church in the firs. On a big Sunday there might be twenty of us there; often I am the only person under sixty, and feel as though I’m on an archaeological tour of Soviet Russia…the minister is a Congregationalist, and wears a white shirt. The man knows God. Once, in the middle of the long pastoral prayer of intercession for the whole world — for the gift of wisdom to its leaders, for hope and mercy to the grieving and pained, succor to the oppressed, and God’s grace to all — in the middle of this he stopped, and burst out, “Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week.” After a shocked pause, he continued reading the prayer. Because of this, I like him very much…We had a wretched singer once, a guest from a Canadian congregation, a hulking blond girl with chopped hair and big shoulders, who wore tinted spectacles and a long lacy dress, and sang, grinning, to faltering accompaniment, an entirely secular song about mountains. Nothing could have been more apparent than that God loved this girl; nothing could more surely convince me of God’s unending mercy than the continued existence on earth of the church.”

Aren’t we all bit like that tiny church in the firs with the pastor in the white shirt and the hulking girl with the chopped hair and big shoulders?  Where in the world did we ever get the quaint notion that God chooses our little ragtag gathering on this scorching humid August morning to be instruments of heavenly love?  Why, of course, because God carves rotten wood and rides lame horses. God chose a thirteen-year-old girl from Bethlehem to be the Mother of Lord.  And if God did that, God can also choose us to be servants of the most high.  That is why the choir sings today, the incense floats to the ceiling, and we sing, “Magnify, my soul, God’s greatness.”

God indeed has done great things for us, cooties and all.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

This Week at Holy Trinity

This Week at Holy Trinity

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Mary, Mother of Our Lord – August 14, 2016
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Pastor Miller’s Sermon:  “Carving the Rotten Wood & Riding the Lame Horse”

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