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Sacred Conversations

Sundays during Lent; immediately following Mass

“How Much of This Stuff Do I have to Believe to Be a Member of Holy Trinity?” facilitated by the Rev. Wilbert Miller (Pastor, Holy Trinity)

Downstairs in the Community Room

“A Tawdry King, A Cowardly Saint, and Bedraggled Runts Like Us”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Vespers Sermon
“A Tawdry King, A Cowardly Saint, and Bedraggled Runts Like Us”
1 Samuel 16: 1-13;
Text of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Le reniement de Saint Pierre
March 26, 2017 (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

Over and over again in the Bible, God calls the most complex characters to carry out ministry in this world.

Two such characters are with us this evening, King David and Saint Peter. They are giants of the faith and yet dreadfully flawed.

Take King David for instance. It all started out rather innocuously. Samuel went to Jesse to see whether one of his boys might have sufficient intellect and chutzpah to be the next king of Israel.

Eliab was the first son to be paraded before Samuel. He was tall and handsome, a strapping figure to be sure. Anyone on the lookout for royal stature would have picked Eliab in a heartbeat. But abruptly, God’s voice came booming from heaven and vetoed Samuel’s preliminary pick: “Look not to his appearance and to his lofty stature.”

And so, Samuel resumed the search. Seven of Jesse’s sons were marched before him, one-by-one, and each summarily rejected by God. It was the eighth, the ruddy one with beautiful eyes, who caught God’s attention. David was an after-thought being the runt of the litter. It was befuddling really because, as you know, then and now, we prefer leaders who are big and powerful. We are skeptical of runtiness!

Ted Schneider was the pastor of St. Luke’s-Silver Spring, the largest Lutheran congregation in metropolitan Washington, DC. Every year, our national Lutheran church holds a retreat where only the senior pastors of our largest congregations are invited. Needless to say, I have never been invited since I have served runts of the litter—ruddy and beautiful congregations, but runts nonetheless. Pastor Schneider, who went on to be the Lutheran bishop of Washington, D.C., told me that, almost without exception, the pastors of these congregations with more than 2500 members were 6’6” tall with sweeping white manes and deep, resonant voices. When they walk into cocktail parties, you take notice. Pastor Schneider stood out among these eye-catching titans—or actually he didn’t: he is 5’6”, I think.

King David was the runt, too, and yet everyone took notice and that’s what eventually caused problems. He captivates us by slaying the giant Goliath and crafting the gorgeous Psalms we sing on evenings like this. He was unlike anyone Israel had ever seen—so self-assured, so charming, so debonair; no one questioned David’s God-given ability to lead Israel. And yet, like so many compelling leaders, David sickens us to this day no matter how much we adore him.

Those blessed with unusual gifts are often the ones who must be kept in check. Down through history, those with the greatest promise have often unleashed the most unfathomable havoc. One need only look at David’s hideous affair with beautiful Bathsheba: watch the cover-up as he eventually had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, killed on the front line of battle. Powerful men, when crossed, can be ruthless and have the potential to unleash all manner of mayhem.

We also welcome Saint Peter tonight as the choir sings this evening’s cantata. Peter was like David in so many ways. Though called to be Jesus’ right-hand man, all did not turn out as planned. When Jesus was arrested and his death was imminent, Peter slinked into the shadows and denied ever having known his best friend. Peter had three chances to stand up for Jesus and three times he cowered like a beaten puppy.

What is so astonishing is that God even called Peter and David. You would think God would have known better…and maybe God did.

Rabbi David Wolpe, in his book, David: The Divided Heart, writes: “Throughout his journey, David, though sinful and rebuked, is never faithless. His failures do not make him doubt—or reject—God; rather, they intensify his devotion.”

Rabbi Wolpe continues: “Conventional religion has a regrettable tendency to do surgery on the human soul, leaving only the exalted parts. But readers of the Bible find that [it] is filled with flawed human beings and fraught situations against the backdrop of charged sanctity.”

Peter was no different. The classics scholar Erich Auerbach notes that in all of Greco-Roman literature, there is no story like Peters’ encounter with the servant girl in the high priest’s courtyard. “Peter is the leader of the Christian movement, and yet the literature of the movement implicates him in a tawdry deception with dialogue so realistic that it’s embarrassing” (Richard Lischer, The End of Words).

We like happy endings where our heroes are perfect and courageous but that, dear friends, is not the biblical story. God chooses flawed folks like David and Peter to do heavenly work here on earth.

And, by the way, God chooses you and me to do similar work as well. In spite of our cowardice and braggadocio, doubts and tawdry desires, God picks us to let God’s grace shine through to those we encounter day after day.

Take heart in the odd flaws of heroes and saints like King David and Saint Peter. After all, you and I join them to do God’s work here on earth. There is hope for us, dear friends, there is hope.

 

 

“With a Little Spit and Mud”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“With a Little Spit and Mud”
John 9: 1-41
March 26, 2017 (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

The man was born blind for goodness sakes…Jesus and his disciples passed by him as so many others had, day after day.

Curiously, however, no sooner had the disciples passed by the blind man than they asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The disciples’ initial reaction was not to alleviate the man’s suffering; instead they probed why he was born blind: had he sinned or his parents? They wanted to study the matter of suffering a little more deeply.

There continues to be a lot of suffering in the world. People are hungry and homeless, refugees and unemployed, depressed and addicted. Is our initial impulse to speculate on why they suffer or do we act immediately to alleviate their agony?

Jesus answered the disciples’ question curtly: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work.”

Did you hear Jesus’ answer: the man was born blind so “that the works of God might be made manifest in him.”

Enough speculation, Jesus said. Let God’s work begin! It’s getting dark.

There wasn’t a moment to spare because Jesus was going to die soon. And so, he spat on the ground, made clay with the spittle, and wiped it on the blind man’s eyes. Jesus then told him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam,” and soon after that, the fellow returned without a white cane and German Shepherd on a leash and he began to dance.

Just wondering…If you walked down the street after Mass today and passed a blind man, would any of you spit in the mud and wipe a bit of the concoction on his eyes? Do you sense the urgency Jesus sensed or are you a bit more cautious? Rather than stooping down for a little spit and mud, might you suggest we first form a task-force or at the very least do a cost analysis? After all, don’t we want to make certain that spit and mud is acceptable to all even if it might heal a blind man?

I did my seminary internship in 1976 at Emanuel Lutheran Church in South Philadelphia. Emanuel was the largest African American Lutheran congregation in America located in the rough and tumble Southwark Housing project where thousands and thousands of people lived. One day, fourteen-year old Kenny Williams was shot in the head on the twenty-first floor of one of the dilapidated twenty-five story high-rises as he and his two friends played a fatal game of Russian roulette.

I was at the church when my internship supervisor, Pastor John Cochran, called and said: “Drop everything and come immediately. Bring a silver bowl for baptism and oil for anointing. Kenny has had massive trauma to the brain and is on life support.”

Soon after “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” had been declared and water was dabbed on dear Kenny’s blood-soaked head, he breathed his last.

That Thursday evening, following the seven o’clock Mass, our broken-hearted staff sat in the pastor’s office, staring numbly into space. Pastor Cochran’s question will stay with me for a lifetime: “Why hadn’t Kenny been baptized before he was on his death bed? Why hadn’t we sensed the urgency?”

Like Kenny’s baptism, the healing of the blind man rings of urgency for Jesus. There was no time to speculate as to why he was born blind; he had to be healed, now, not tomorrow. Bring the spit and mud!
Remarkably, even after Jesus had done the miraculous, the Pharisees, good and faithful ones they were, still had nagging questions, “This man is not from God for he does not keep the sabbath.” Never mind that the blind man could now see for the first time in his life! The issue for good religious folks was whether all the rules had been followed. As so often is the case when merciful things are done, the Pharisees concluded that, in fact, Jesus had broken the commandment by healing the blind man on the sabbath; he never should have healed the guy.

My experience has often been that when the most good is done, there are complaints and critiques, not by bad people, mind you, but by good, caring people: a congregational meeting should have been held first to seek the mind of the membership; it was a splendid idea but didn’t you realize a few “influential people” might leave the church in disgust; or someone who knows the Bible will inevitably say, as did the Pharisees, “Couldn’t you have waited until Monday after the sabbath?” And, of course, you can hear them demand, “Why in the world did you have to use spit and mud on the Upper West Side?”

Jesus gathers us here this morning to remind us, yet again, that there is an urgency to act in his name, not tomorrow, not in six months, but today, now! It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there. What we do may be sloppy but, much more importantly, what we do might save a person’s life.

Our actions may come in small ways, volunteering in our Women’ Shelter or just bringing a few new pairs of women’s underwear for those who live here six months of the year; you may help at the Saturday meal for HUG for those living on life’s edges; or you may make a generous contribution to the courageous work of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service helping those seeking a safe place to call home (with your generosity, we are well on our way to collecting $4000). When we do these things, today, God’s goodness is made manifest in this place and in our lives.

When Jesus saw the man born blind, the incessant deliberations ceased and the gracious healing began. The old rugged cross loomed near and it was time to act.

I pray that our ministry here at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity may always be filled with a similar sense of urgency. Now is the time to use some spit and mud!

 

“Shaking Our Fists at God”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Vespers Sermon
“Shaking Our Fists at God”
March 19,2017 (Third Sunday in Lent)
Exodus 17: 1-7

We just heard Israel complaining…yet again.

If you read the book of Exodus, you will be struck by Israel’s constant whining. They had not even crossed the Red Sea before they started bellyaching.  When they looked back and saw the Egyptian army in pursuit, they grumbled to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?…It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:11-12).

It is a miracle, not so much that the sea divided, but that God didn’t say, “I have had it with you.  Get yourselves across this stinking sea on your own!”

It was only three days since they had witnessed the enemy army drowning in the sea; rather than celebrating their liberation from brutal slavery, God’s children complained to Moses: “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:24).

And yet again, another miracle: instead of zapping God’s beloved people, God told Moses to place some wood in the water and a sweet drink would be created for these desperately thirsty people.

As people are wont to do, only weeks later, yet again, they forgot God’s miraculous love for them.  They got hungry again and began grumbling again to Moses: “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3).

And again, a miracle.  This time manna from heaven.

And then, what we just heard: the people were thirsty…again.  And, yes, they complained again. “Give us water to drink!  Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

And, yes, you guessed it, another miracle: God told Moses to use his staff and water would come from the rock…and it did!

Are you seeing a pattern, by the way?

One commentator has suggested that the greatest miracle among all the staggering miracles, greater than the sea separating, greater than manna falling from heaven, greater than water bursting from the rock, was God’s patience.

And, of course, it is not just the whiny Israelites in the desert so long ago.  We are no different!  Why does God put up with our griping, our everlasting questions, and our pathetic lack of faith?

It would be easy to conclude from all the quarreling and contentiousness that God would prefer us to shut our mouths and never ask a single question.  Some faith, by the way, is like that: it is of the sheepish variety that teaches that if we ask a single question of God, we are terrible sinners destined for the scorching fires of hell.  This is the polite kind of faithfulness, the kind that never raises its voice to God, never asks an awkward question of the Almighty, never clenches its fist toward heaven.

Interestingly and surprisingly to many, Jesus was not nearly as sheepish as some of us when it came to questioning God.  As we near Holy Week, we will hear Jesus ask a few hard-hitting questions.  For those of courteous faith, Jesus’ frank questions will startle us, perhaps scandalize us; they may even force some of us to explain away what Jesus was really asking.

The night before Jesus died, when he went to Gethsemane to pray, he was not a good, little boy in the classic sense, the kind who never raises his voice in the face of doubt and torment.  Much to our surprise, Jesus uttered these astonishing words: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”  Jesus asked the hard question, of course, he did, and yet—and note this well—he also then waited for God to answer.  Jesus’ conversation was not a monologue with God; Jesus expected God to answer him in the midst of his agony.

In those final hours as Jesus hung on the cross, he shocks us as he screamed the most famous faith question of all, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

And yet, Jesus’ questions were never the final word.  He always, always, then waited for his heavenly Father to answer what he did not know.

We will all arrive at those moments when we complain, when we ask the hard questions similar to those of the Israelites, when we will feel completely disillusioned.  We will be in our own wilderness, on our own cross, as mad as a rattlesnake in the desert sun.  And yet, another miracle will occur: God will listen to us and God will answer, not necessarily as we wish but in a fashion that reveals that only God knows what is best for us.

The miracle, as we have been saying repeatedly during these days of Lent, is that “the LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

“The Old, Old Story of Jesus and His Love”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
March 19, 2107 (3rd Sunday in Lent)
“The Old, Old Story of Jesus and His Love”
John 4: 5-42
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

If that just felt like an incredibly long reading, you are right.  It is the longest conversation Jesus had with anyone in all the gospels.

There is something we dare not lose sight of in this lengthy conversation.  Jesus took the time to speak with another person—not in mindless chatter, but in-depth dialog, the kind where you get to know one another deeply.  I hope you paid attention and didn’t get bored.

I am often struck by conversations I have with people and am unnerved by their lack of curiosity.  When meeting people for the first time—often clergy colleagues—I will ask where they grew up, where they went to college and seminary, what congregations they have served, what their families are like. They are more than happy to talk about themselves, at length, with considerable embellishment!  I am often saddened, however, when it is my turn to tell my story; their minds seem to wander and they don’t appear to care an iota about hearing my story; they don’t ask me a single question.  And remember, these are pastors paid to listen carefully to others!

I confess: I am not always the best listener either.  On Thursday, I had a conversation with our illustrious congregational president Craig Wilson.  He showed considerable interest in me: are you working too much, pastor; I hear your dog Cisco is having some struggles. I talked Craig’s ear off.  He had just gotten often a long night’s work, writing news; he was driving home when he received word that his wife, Mary Lou, had been in an automobile accident; he was rushing to see how she was doing.  Craig even told me about his dogs and chuckled about the prayer near my office desk—the last gift my mother gave me before she died: “God, help me be the person my dog thinks I am.” When our conversation was over, I kept wondering: had I shown nearly the interest in Craig that he had shown in me?  Had I listened as much as I had spoken?

In today’s long gospel reading, a model conversation is heard.  Jesus was thirsty and the woman at the well sensed that.  We don’t just hear Jesus talking AT the Samaritan woman or just trying to get his thirst needs met and we don’t just hear the woman talking AT Jesus.  Instead, an amazing dialog occurred: Jesus listened attentively to the woman and, somehow in the process, figured out that she had had five husbands—I assume Jesus did this, not by some magical gift of ESP, but rather by listening carefully.  The woman was so astounded by Jesus’ listening skills that she told others, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

What is most remarkable is that Jesus even had the conversation.  Not only did he talk to the woman, at the well, at noon—something a good Jewish man would never be caught doing—but he talked with a woman who, at least according to his tradition, was a religious outsider (a Samaritan) and had innumerable husbands.  Every religious sensibility exhorted Jesus to steer clear; instead he risked breaking down rigid boundaries and moving beyond ancient resentments so that a community of love might be created. Jesus accomplished astonishing ministry simply by talking with—and not AT—another person, telling his story and listening to hers.

If our community here at Holy Trinity is to bring life to others, we need to listen to one another as Jesus did.  We need to tell our own stories and be equally fascinated by other’s.

And yet, there is something more to high-quality conversation.  It is essential we weave God’s story into one another’s stories because, finally, that story will make all the difference. That story provides hope for those haunted by abuse, embraces a parent who fears their precious little one will never return home again, and gives courage to those who wonder if our nation will continue to be one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.  God’s story must be told.

Little children know this.  As we tuck them into bed, they almost always say, “Can you tell me one more story?  Please, please, please.”  That final story is the one that makes all the difference; it is the one that fends off ghosts, petrifies goblins, and trounces monsters all the while providing hope well into the deep, dark night.

Lent is an opportunity to hear and tell that story with renewed vigor.  I pray you are reading our fabulous Lenten devotional booklet, “O Lord, Throughout These Forty Days”—you wrote it after all!  As you read the astonishing daily devotions, listen carefully to your brothers and sisters telling their stories and listen how they weave their stories into the story of Jesus’ final days.

I sense that many of us are yearning for a better story these days, a story of hope, a story of truth, a story of lasting love. You lamented to me in recent days: “I am fasting from Facebook during Lent; we canceled cable television; I stopped my subscription to The New Yorker.  So much conversation and yet I need something different.”  You are sensing you need a better story to go with your story and the world’s; you are desperately in need of God’s story.

The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to American in the 1930s and taught just up the street at Union Theological Seminary at 120th and Broadway.  Bonhoeffer preferred attending the African American churches in Harlem, particularly Abyssinian Baptist Church where the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. preached at the time and where Calvin Butts now preaches.  He went there because, as he wrote: “In New York, they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.”

It’s easy to ramble on about ourselves.  It’s also easy to run on and on, complaining, “Ain’t it terrible,” about the current political situation.  But, deep down, we need more.  We are thirsty for one more story, the one that will quench our horrendous thirst.  We need the old, old story of Jesus and his love for us and for our groaning world.