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“Do Not Be Afraid of Tyrannosaurus Rexes and the Like”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Do Not Be Afraid of Tyrannosaurus Rexes and the Like”
Bach Vespers at Holy Trinity
24th Sunday after Pentecost (November 19, 2017)

The words “do not be afraid” appear in the Bible 365 times. I must confess I didn’t count them; I am accepting a popular contemporary theologian’s word on this matter. Whether 365 or 291 times, that’s a lot of “do not be afraids.” But, in all honesty, we probably all need about 365 “do not be afraids” to tote around with us as the shadows lengthen and the evening falls.

Have I told you that I detested setting my clock back two weeks ago? I hate looking out the parish house windows at 5 p.m. and seeing darkness. Are you like that?

As a kid, my worst fear was going down in the basement to get my mother canned tomatoes or strawberry jam. Parts of the basement were eerie, unfinished floor in some parts and exposed beams with aged wiring snaking around up above. I was petrified someone would turn off the lights and I would end up down there, all alone, suffocated by darkness.

Psychotherapists among us could likely lend me immeasurable help in exploring my fear of the dark (“Wilk, what causes you to take off running when the lights are turned off?). I suspect I am not the only one here tonight afraid of the creeping darkness and the ebbing light.

Think about it: why do we humans light candles when it gets dark? Is it just to create a mellow mood? Is it simply so we can see? Or is there something more profound afoot? Do we keep the candles aflame because we are petrified that lions, tigers, and tyrannosaurus rexes will burst into our caves any moment and gobble us up?

No sooner had we begun tonight’s evening prayer than I began chanting, “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who led your people Israel…by a pillar of fire by night.” I pleaded to God on your behalf, “Enlighten our darkness by the light of your Christ; may his Word be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.”

We censed the precious little light piercing the darkness on the high altar. And then we began to chant as the sweet smoke floated heavenwards: “O Lord, I call to you; come to me quickly; hear my voice when I cry to you.” We implored God to wrap this place’s deep darkness with holy candlelight.

Deep in our souls, we who are gathered here tonight long for light and we do our best to pass that light, one to another. We gathered here do the best we can, somehow, someway, singing and praying, “Do not be afraid.”

The Danish writer Karen Blixen, more commonly known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, once said, “Any sorrow can be borne if a story can be told about it.”

When the Antioch Chamber Ensemble sings Bach’s motet, “Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir” (“Be not afraid, I am beside you”), in a few moments, they will sing what Cantor Bach composed for a funeral in Leipzig. Bach’s deepest musical instincts, when death nipped at the heels of those he loved and served, was to start whistling. Don’t you whistle when it gets dark?

Our most profound human instinct when ol’ Tyrannosaurus Rex noses through our cave door, or at least when the doctor enters bearing a diagnosis that breaks our heart, is to beg someone to light a candle, tell a story, or sing a song. We sense this as tiny children when our parents tuck us into bed and turn off the lights; we beg them to tell us one more story.

We have grown older now but monsters still lurk amidst the dust balls beneath our beds. The monsters have different names now—cancer, divorce, alcoholism, loneliness, melancholy—but they are terrifying nonetheless.

When old Nebuchadnezzar’s henchmen hauled the Israelites off to Babylonian captivity, the prophet Isaiah started whistling. The accompanying words sounded something like this, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

That was 2500 years ago. It has grown dark once again and we are afraid all over again. And so, we sing Isaiah’s song and pray and light candles and do our best to reassure one another, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

“Forget about the Shovel and Boiler and Do Ministry Instead!”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Forget about the Shovel and Boiler and Do Ministry Instead!”
Matthew 25: 14-30
November 19, 2017 (24th Sunday after Pentecost)

“By the way, the parable of the talents is not Jesus’ hottest investment strategy! He is not offering advice on whether you should invest conservatively or aggressively in volatile emerging international markets.

Jesus’ parable is advice on how to live the Christian life with gusto.

As you know, a property owner entrusted three of his servants with large sums of money before going on a trip. He gave one five talents, another two, and the third one talent.

The servant with the five talents traded aggressively with what was entrusted to him and doubled his money. The second did likewise and also doubled up. The third servant, terrified what his master might do if he lost the money, took a shovel and buried his talent in the ground.

When the master returned, he poured lavish praise on the two who had risked substantially but was extremely harsh on the scaredy cat.

As I said, this parable is not Jesus’ investment strategy offering guidance for our congregation to see how much money we can amass in Chase Bank. Rather, Jesus is commending courageousness and extravagance and lambasting timidity and miserliness. He urges us to risk everything for the sake of the Gospel.

Why do I say this? Jesus told his parable only days before he ended up hanging on a cross. Jesus lost everything because he lived life to the fullest. His life was one of courageous and extravagant love. All that he could do as he breathed his last was to trust that God would provide—he didn’t have a penny to his name!

Christian congregations can be funny birds. We don’t always trust that God will provide so we hedge our bets, doing everything we can to control our destinies. Over my forty years of ministry, the biggest congregational fights I have been involved in have had to do with money. Some congregations limp along, fearful over how much money—or how little—they have in the bank, refusing to risk for the Gospel’s sake. One of my dear friends referred to such ministries as “no hits, no runs, no errors.” They are the kind of churches, by the way, that measure their ministries by how large their endowments are. Such places remind me of the bumper sticker that reads, “Whoever has the most toys when she dies wins.” Rich perhaps, but dead and gone nonetheless.

Exciting ministry never happens when we take the shovel and bury our treasure in the ground. In fact, you just heard Jesus say to the one afraid of taking a risk that he would be cast into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth—so much for timidity and miserliness!

Do you think Jesus who said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” gives a hoot about how much money we have in the bank? Give me a break!

I have been fortunate to serve five very different congregations during my forty years of ministry. I have served black and white and Hispanic congregations, gay and straight, deep inner-city and affluent suburbs, places teeming with Republicans and Democrats. I served a church with a yearly budget totaling $37,000 and one with an endowment of $2.5 million. My experience has been that the vitality of ministry has little to do with how much money a church has in the bank and everything to do with whether the people of God are willing to take risks for the Gospel’s sake. I have seen wealthy churches obsess over whether they would have enough to fix a leaky roof. On the other hand, I served one congregation that dreamed of calling a pastor from El Salvador to begin ministry with the growing Hispanic community but was uncertain whether we would have enough money; then, one Christmas Eve, I walked into my office and found a $25,000 check on my chair with a note that simply said, “Let’s quit talking and let this ministry begin immediately!” Courage and extravagance for the sake of the gospel!

The question for us here at Holy Trinity is what we plan to do with the considerable talents God has entrusted to us. Will we risk them for the Gospel’s sake or will we take a shovel and bury them in the ground, fearful that the roof might leak, the boiler explode, or the elevator go on the blink? I don’t think I am too bold to suggest that fourteen people are joining our congregation in the next few weeks, not because of our roof, elevator, and boiler, but because they detect courage and extravagance rather than miserliness and fear!

At our church council meeting on Tuesday evening, we voted to bring the Saturday luncheon ministry called HUG back under our congregation’s wings. For nearly forty years now, this has been a separate 501c3 non-profit outreach; from now on this program for senior citizens and homeless folks will be run solely by and funded by The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity. On behalf of the council, I invite you to consider making a gift to this ministry. $200 will provide meals for forty people on Saturday afternoon; $10,000 will fund the program for an entire year and ensure its future with no worries and even allow us to dream bigger. Why not give a Christmas gift to a friend whom you have no idea what to give and say on the Christmas card, “40 people will be served lunch in your honor…Merry Christmas.” And if you can’t make a financial gift, why not volunteer?

This, my dear friends, is how ministry here at Holy Trinity is going to thrive. We are going to risk what God has given us for the sake of this suffering world.

Vibrant churches never reach for the shovel to bury the treasures God has entrusted to them. Rather, they do ministry with risk and courage and extravagance. May excitement prevail at 65th and Central Park West, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Pity the Bride…Is the Groom Coming or Not?”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Pity the Bride…Is the Groom Coming or Not?”
at Bach Vespers (J.S. Bach’s BWV 140 Wachet Auf)
November 12, 2017
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

Please forgive my arrogance, but I actually do believe I can improve on Jesus’ parable about the ten bridesmaids.  The tension could be dramatically heightened if the focus were placed on the bride and not the ten bridesmaids.   Honestly, who do you think was more jittery awaiting the groom’s belated arrival, the bridesmaids or the bride-to-be?

You know as well as I that the bride was the panicky one.  Come on, what did the bridesmaids care?  For them, the weekend wedding festivities were like one big Chi Omega sorority homecoming party.  The bridesmaids were decked out in silky green dresses, chic six-inch heels, and exquisite hairdos, and had already drunk way too many flutes of mimosas.  While they would never admit it publicly, they were going to have lots of fun whether the groom showed up or not. For better or worse, they would have a story to tell for a lifetime.  Why would the bridesmaids be nervous?

But pity the poor bride.  She pranced back and forth in the bridal room, tears making her dazzling makeup job look like a runny Rorschach ink blot test.  She hysterically asked the rabbi, not once but three times, “Has this ever happened to you before? Tell me the truth, rabbi, has it?”

All the while the organist was playing—ten minutes, twenty-two minutes, forty-six minutes.

The ushers were wondering where their pal was but they were chuckling under their breath.

The poor grandparents, this was their worst nightmare for their precious “little princess” as they nervously peeked at their watches.

And the guests were whispering, “He’s from too classy a family not to show, don’t you think?”

The identical thing happened to the early Christians.  They had placed their hopes on Jesus’ countless promises to come again.  Nevertheless, one year led to the next.  Fifty, sixty, seventy years after he died and rose and still no Jesus.

It was not just them.  The organist has been playing preludial music now, awaiting the bridegroom’s entrance, for two thousand years.  We cry out like the petrified bride, “Come, Lord Jesus, come, where in the world are you?”

That’s where the bridesmaids earned their beautiful bouquets and lodging in the elegant rooms of the manor house.  Their job, when the groom still hadn’t shown up, was to keep their lamps trimmed and burning so the bride’s spirits would not fade into the darkness.  While only five of the ten bridesmaids had enough oil left in their lamps when the groom finally did arrive, the truth is that all ten became drowsy and fell asleep.  Waiting is tough, especially when expectations are running high.

Have you ever had to wait, really wait, sometimes against all sensible hope?  Alexandre Dumas, the author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, writes, “All human wisdom is summed up in two words; wait and hope.”

And yet you all know how hard it is to hope deep into the night, singing all the while.  Much of the world has given up hope.  We continue to send our sons and daughters off to ferocious foreign wars; God’s planet is wheezing; homeless folks line our streets; and the guns, oh the guns—have we already lost track of the last mass murder at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas?  Will it ever end?  Better said, will Christ come again to save us from the wretched mess we have made?

If God calls us to do anything tonight, it is to encourage one another to keep hoping that Christ will keep his promises and come again.  We do all manner of hopeful things while we wait.  We forgive one another when forgiving seems well-nigh impossible.  We raise our voices a little louder when the poor are trampled by the oblivious rich and the arrogant powerful.  And we make music, yes, we make music, when far too many have hung their harps in the willows and forgotten the beloved songs of Zion.

Do you remember those old-fashioned weddings when the pastor asked, “If anyone can show just cause why they may not be lawfully joined together, let them speak now or forever hold their peace”?  That’s when it was good to have the bridesmaids dressed and ready.  If Uncle Ernie or Aunt Hildegard made a peep, the sisters of Chi Omega would shoot a wicked glance their way or even pounce!  They were all about hope…PERIOD.

That’s why we are here this evening.  Let us resume the breathtakingly beautiful music-making, in the darkness, with our lamps trimmed and burning.  Let us help each other hope that the groom, Christ our Lord, will come again and that peace will prevail for us and for this groaning world.

Consecration Sunday Sermon

Pastor Cynthia Krommes
(Senior Pastor, St. John’s Lutheran Church, Phoenixville, PA)
Pentecost 23 A, 2017 (Matthew 25: 1-13)
November 12, 2017
Holy Trinity Lutheran, Manhattan

It is a joy to be here and especially, to serve as your Consecration Sunday preacher.  I’m not the first pastor from Phoenixville, Pennsylvania to preach in this pulpit.  The Rev. Dr. Robert Hershey who served here for 21 years, began his ordained ministry at Central Lutheran Church in Phoenixville, a congregation which later merged with St. John’s.  A while ago, a man stopped by my office and gave me a book of Pastor Hershey’s sermons entitled Think About These Things.  I read the beautifully crafted sermons and they did make me think.  Then last week, my husband John and I attended Bach Vespers, a ministry Holy Trinity began during Pastor Hershey’s tenure, now 50 years ago. Your faithful stewardship of the Gospel proclaimed through word, sacrament, music and deeds, has kept the lights on at Holy Trinity for 150 years.

“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  Matthew 25: 12

Wednesday is Bible study day at St. John’s where the focus is the Gospel for the coming Sunday.  There are two studies, one in the morning at the Episcopal House, a low-income housing community for the elderly and the other in the evening in the Fireside Room at St. John’s.   The morning one is made up of mostly older women in their 70’s and 80’s, some of whom have “lost their filters” if you know what I mean.  If they think it, they say it.  After the text is read, the question is asked, “So what caught your attention?”  This week Sissy immediately responded, “This whole thing is just wrong.”  She went on, “Didn’t Jesus tell us to share.  They weren’t wise bridesmaids, they were stingy ones.  Then the bridegroom locks the door and doesn’t let the foolish ones in even though they ran all over town to get more oil when he was the one who was late. It’s just not right!”  Almost everyone around the table nodded in agreement.  I suspect that when some of you heard the passage read this morning that ended with the proclamation, “The Gospel of the Lord,” while your mouth responded, “Praise to you, O Christ,” your mind was thinking, “What?!”

Putting this text in context helps.  It’s Holy Week. Jesus has left the temple precincts where there’d been significant conflict with the religious authorities.  In his parting shot he calls them hypocrites and a brood of vipers.  Now he’s preparing his followers for what is to come and not just his crucifixion, but what will follow his death and resurrection.  A second context for the text comes when Matthew’s writing his Gospel, 50 years later. The church has been waiting and waiting and waiting for Jesus to return and is losing hope. So, Matthew includes four of Jesus’ parables which are known as the Advent parables because they anticipate the coming reign of God.  They are stories about faithfulness, perseverance, readiness, obedience, compassion and specifically with the ten bridesmaids, stewardship.

Stewardship is everything we do after we say, “We believe.”  I like how Brother Curtis Almquist of the Society of St. John the Evangelist puts it, he writes, “In our baptism we give up both the delusion and the burden of possessing life.  We acknowledge that we are neither the author nor finisher of life. We’re a steward of life, an ambassador on a short-term, mortal assignment by Christ. Who knows for how long?”  Then he concludes, “Give it your all; you will be given all you need.” (http://www.tens.org/resources/blog/stewardship)   To be bluntly honest, five of the bridesmaids gave it their all and five did not.  I suspect on any given day we might be one of the wise or one of the foolish, or perhaps both.

So how do we keep oil in our lamps?  How do we show forth the light of Christ in our lives?  How do we live as baptized, as consecrated ones?  How are we stewards of life?

First, worship weekly.  I heard Church historian and Reformation scholar, Timothy Wengert, preach a sermon in chapel at the Philadelphia seminary in which he said that on Sunday after worship he feels confident and full of faith, but by Friday it’s all but gone, so he runs back the bath, word and meal, hungry for grace.  That’s true for me.  For you, too?  All I have to do is read the front page of the New York Times.  I’ve spent most of the past year feeling numb and then last week our national addiction to guns and violence violated the holy, sacred space of First Baptist Church in Sutherland Spring, and Jesus was crucified once again.  Numbness turned to tears.  Oh, how we need to be here, living under the sign of the cross, in a community of faith that dares to call evil, evil and good, good, that dares to tell the truth.

You, the people of Holy Trinity dare to not only to tell, but to sing the truth.  Last Sunday, my husband John and I heard the truth sung in Bruhns’ Cantata at Bach Vespers that “even though we are much too weak to wield the sword of the spirit, there stands by us, a mighty hero who has overcome Death, Sin, Hell and world…the foe conquered, the race is run, for all has ended to our delight. Triumph!” Worship weekly.

Pray daily.  At the Wednesday Evening Bible Study, the question was asked, “How do you keep oil in your lamp?”  Around the circle, we went and just about everyone said, “I pray.”  One woman shared her nightly prayer and it was beautiful.  Another, a recent widower who is deeply grieving the death of his beloved wife, teared up and said, “All I have to say is Dear God, and I know that I am not alone.”  Now there might be some here who do not know how to pray.  In fact, when we do newcomers’ class at St. John’s often a brave soul confesses he’s clueless when it comes to prayer.  That’s when our Lord’s prayer can be very helpful.  Pause after each phrase and ponder what that means for you.  “Our Father….I am not alone…..give us our daily bread….bread for me and the beggar in the park…forgive my trespasses….my envy and lust, my greed and self-centeredness….for thine is the kingdom, which means it belongs to you God, not to the elite and their politicians or even me.  Amen.  Oil for your lamp, pray daily.

Serve joyously, or as Brother Curtis said, “Give it your all.”  You are an ambassador on a short term, mortal assignment by Christ.  Elsie had given it her all, but now her husband was dead and she was living at Parkhouse, the county home, stuck in a wheel-chair, missing him, her friends, her house, her everything.  I was there with communion not knowing what to say so I prayed “God, help me help her.”  Then, by grace, God did.  That day Elsie was commissioned to be the St. John’s Missionary at Parkhouse.  She said, “What do I do?”  I replied, “You are going to have to figure that out, but I think it is mostly loving other residents and the staff.”  She figured it out and the next time I visited was full of stories about the people on her floor and how wonderful they were.  She said the residents started taking turns praying before meals.  She told me about a man named David who refused to leave his room. Elsie said, “I just wheeled myself to his room and told him, there is a place for you at the table and when you aren’t there we miss you. Besides we can’t pray until everyone’s present. And you know what?  He wheeled himself to the table.”

You are God’s missionary.  It might be as a member of a board who dares to ask the difficult questions that go beyond what’s legal to what’s ethical. There’s a difference.  Or taking supper to a sick neighbor or you’ll figure it out.  But know, mostly it has to do with love.  Serve joyously.

Give generously.  It’s important to have discipline when it comes to giving because every time we turn around someone is trying to sell us something that promises to make our lives better, easier, more satisfying.  If we buy it, there’s a short-term high and we do feel better, but it’s temporary and before long we need another fix.  Just look in your closets and you know this is true.  In Phoenixville people rent storage units, bigger than many Manhattan apartments, crammed with stuff they bought to make their lives better, easier and more satisfying.  No wonder there are so many foolish bridesmaids, out of oil with bad credit ratings.
This is where proportional giving – giving a percentage of our income towards or beyond a tithe which is ten percent – is a blessing.  It makes us think about our money and what we do with it.  It instills discipline and helps us to use our resources on what really matters.  To give is to make a difference beyond ourselves, it makes life worth living.  Give generously!

Giving keeps the lights on, literally and figuratively.  And they were on here last Sunday evening when the dark came early as the marathon was ending.  All day long thousands ran and ran and ran.  Just as we do every day, sometimes making progress, sometimes not.  At Holy Trinity the lights were on and a young man and his mother saw that and came into this holy, sacred space and through music and words heard the truth.  He had run the race and proudly wore the light blue poncho to prove it.  It was a moment of personal victory, but he, they, needed more than that and knew it.  After Vespers he shook your pastor’s hand and thanked him, for the light.  The race is run and all ends to our delight.  Triumph. Amen.