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“Immediately!”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Immediately!”
Matthew 4: 12-23
January 22, 2017 (3rd Sunday after Epiphany)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan

The gospel reading we just heard demonstrates why we should be extremely careful when making important decisions in life.

Jesus had only twelve choices for the disciples who would assist him in proclaiming that the kingdom of God had come near.  If you had been in his place, wouldn’t you have exercised extraordinary vigilance in picking your dream team?

Professional football teams do that.  They spend enormous amounts of personnel time and money studying which players to choose in the college draft.  Character, speed, strength, agility, intelligence—these are carefully analyzed before any player is picked.  Teams have high hopes of assembling the next Super Bowl team so every choice on their fifty-three-player roster matters.

Jesus didn’t have a fifty-three-player roster, his was composed of twelve.  Given that, you might be surprised how he went about selecting his disciples.  Jesus walked along the Sea of Galilee and, from all appearances, chose the first guys he came across.  Matthew makes no mention of whether Jesus had a head-hunting firm conduct advanced interviews but I doubt it.

Perhaps Jesus should have been more judicious.  He came up short on all twelve of his selections; they all ended up being clunkers.  His first choice, Peter, was a compulsive liar, denying ever having known Jesus when push came to shove; another pick, Judas, sold Jesus up Calvary’s hill for thirty pieces of silver; and the other ten disciples, well, they were nowhere to be seen when Jesus breathed his last.  Losers, cowards, reprobates…you name it.  Quite candidly, Jesus’ choices do not come off as particularly imaginative or insightful.

And how astute were Peter and Andrew, James and John?  When Jesus said, “Follow me,” they dropped everything and followed immediately.  Admittedly, the swiftness of their decisions sounds awfully holy, but honestly, would you really have followed Jesus the minute he snapped his fingers?  Wouldn’t you have analyzed the job description first, talked to people whose judgment you respected, and asked about the compensation and benefits package?  For goodness sakes, the disciples were being asked to turn their backs on their boats and nets and family and to follow a quirky Galilean rabbi…Wouldn’t you have said something like, “I am flattered, Jesus, but give me a few days to study this whole thing and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”

And yet, that’s not what happened.  There was a sense of urgency.  The kingdom was near and Jesus had to act decisively and swiftly.  There was no time to dilly-dally.

We all want to be successful, don’t we? We listened to our parents who counseled us to count the costs, to be certain we are doing the right thing before jumping in head first.

The Christian life is no different.  We have our questions about our faith and want to get them answered the best we are able before we say, “I do and I ask God to help and guide me.”  Maybe we should read one more book, attend one more class, have one more meeting with the pastor, make certain we don’t do anything we will regret later.  And, as citizens of this nation, we want to listen to all sides before standing up for the poor and vulnerable.  We fear that one error in judgment will ruin the day.  Give it all time, see how it all unfolds—really…not exactly eager for the kingdom of God.

The church is no different.  We engage in painstaking research before acting.  Study, study, study…count, count, count…discuss, discuss, discuss.   When you called me as your pastor, you did exactly that as far as I can tell.  You spent a year-and-a-half in an interim process before choosing your next pastor.  You analyzed Holy Trinity’s strengths and challenges and pondered how best to move forward.  The Call Committee invested an enormous amount of time reading candidates’ exhaustive bios, parsing our in-depth answers to questions provided by our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, interviewing us face-to-face, and calling our references to make certain we were telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  You flew Dagmar and me all the way from California to New York—not once, but twice.  You watched carefully to see which of the three forks we used to eat our entrées; you listened to my chanting with high hopes I could carry some semblance of a tune.  The entire congregation had the opportunity to “meet and greet” on a Saturday afternoon and to ask any pressing questions you might have.  You listened to me preach to see whether I kept you awake or immediately sent you to Lalaland.  And then, with fingers crossed and heads bowed, you voted…This all didn’t exactly occur immediately.

Most of us have a million and one reasons why we should be patient and prudent: resources our limited and rash decisions will be costly for years to come.  We worry about making a mistake we will regret and yet, in some ways, Jesus made twelve flagrant ones.  None of his disciples stood out in a crowd and none stood up for Jesus when his life was on the line.

The disciples must have felt like they had made a mistake as well, especially when they saw Jesus hanging on the cross.  Why had they been so impulsive, why had they dropped their day jobs to follow the abysmal failure named Jesus?  Maybe they should have listened more carefully to their parents and exercised more patience when making such a significant decision.

Perhaps that is why today’s gospel reading is so useful for us.  Just as he called the first disciples, Jesus calls us now to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near.  There is an urgency to act, not tomorrow or next month or next year, but now…immediately…on behalf of all God’s children.

Our decisions, of course, will be filled with ambiguity, even fear; that’s why they are called leaps of faith.  Finally, we must trust that God is leading us and guiding us and will excuse our errors in judgment due to our eagerness to act in this suffering world on God’s behalf.

Oh, and by the way, God calls us, we don’t call God.  God knows we will stumble or our all-knowing God wouldn’t have called us in the first place!

And so, let’s get going and believe that God supports us every step of the way.

“Look Whom Jesus Is with at the Jordan!”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Look Whom Jesus Is with at the Jordan!”
Matthew 3: 13-17
Baptism of Our Lord (January 8, 2017)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan

Today, as water crashes over us and we are dripping from our baptismal remembrance, we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In the spirit of celebration, let’s roll the film.

See John the Baptist out in the middle of the Jordan River, about three feet deep, in a white shirt, skinny black tie, and rubber hip waders amidst a motley crowd of riff-raff.  Watch him thrust them under the water and wash away their sins.

And, goodness gracious, there stands Jesus, right at water’s edge!  Can you believe your eyes?  He’s there with the double-crossing camel dealer, the flamboyant drag queen, the corporate executive convicted of bilking clients of millions, and that floozy neighbor constantly getting thrown into the county drunk tank—how dare he get so close to them!

Okay, let’s stop the film for a second and catch our breath…

Didn’t you always think Jesus is God’s son?  Why in the world is he hanging out with such a notorious crowd of lowlifes?

Let the film continue.

Do you notice there are also some modest and holy looking folks in line to be baptized?  They appear to be nervously quivering, churning with doubt and silently rotting away at the core; their sins are tucked far back in the furthest reaches of their bedroom closet, hidden under extra bedsheets and grandma’s old comforter, out of sight from devout company; they are fearful someone will find out.

Look closely at water-logged John.  Do you notice how he keeps glancing out of the corner of his eye?  He appears to have spotted his cousin Jesus standing in line for baptism—see how John trembles!  Listen carefully; can you hear him: “Why in God’s name is Jesus here?  Why does he want to be baptized?  He is God’s Son, the sinless one.  I need to be baptized by him!”

Now, we can get all misty-eyed about this, but let’s not kid ourselves.  Jesus’ baptism has not always been an occasion for celebration.  His presence with such a horde of sinners has embarrassed the church down through the ages, actually, to be more precise, it has horrified the church.

One of our finest Lutheran liturgical scholars, Gordon Lathrop, suggests that Jesus’ baptism was actually not about his becoming pure for our sake but rather becoming dirty for us.  How can God’s son become dirty? you ask.  He gets dirty the very same way this precious little thing born in Bethlehem ended up dying the filthiest death imaginable, in love for all his brothers and sisters, on the cross at Calvary.

While we celebrate Jesus’ baptism this morning, truth be told, if we are not also appalled and fuming, we likely have not quite grasped how deeply God’s grace runs for us.

When I mentioned a bit earlier who Jesus was in line with—drag queens, painted ladies, Ponzi schemers—my hunch is that most of you smiled and poked someone in the side.  There is, after all, a quaint delight in seeing Jesus with such company—it makes our open-minded Upper West Side hearts quiver in delight. But I want to up the ante to explore just how open we really are to God’s grace.

I must tell you in advance, what I am about to say comes with no small amount of fear and trembling; I really do fear that I may offend some of you and cause you deep anger.  If that occurs, I beg you in advance, please forgive me.

Let the film roll and let’s locate Jesus once again.  Now look carefully.  Do you notice that he has his arm around a gangly young white guy with a weird bowl hair cut?  That can’t be Dylann Roof, can it, the same Dylann Roof who attended a Bible study at historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a year and a half ago and brutally murdered nine parishioners?  Even after family members said, “I forgive you, my family forgives you,” Dylann Roof wrote, “I would like to make it crystal clear I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”

Listen, listen…I think you can just make out the conversation Jesus is having with Dylann, “Dylann, dear brother, it is never too late to repent.”

While the film is stopped momentarily, let me remind us all, in case we have forgotten, that Dylann Roof’s family are members of one of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations and that two of the African American pastors murdered that evening, Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the Rev. Daniel Simmons, graduated from our Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina?

Jesus standing at Dylann Roof’s side…He can’t possibly be doing that, can he?

As you know, the penalty phase of Dylann Roof’s trial is now in session.  Should he be executed?  Are there ever any of God’s children in line with Jesus who should be executed, who are unloved by God?  Said another way, how dare we cut short the life of anyone whom Jesus loves?

As I think I mentioned, Jesus’ baptism inevitably scandalizes polite company.  Grace is messy; it can be numbing, sickening, and offensive.  That’s why we now start the film rolling again.  Watch as Jesus slips and slides up out of the muddy river, dripping wet from head to toe.  Listen carefully as God proudly proclaims from on high, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

There is something about Jesus’ willingness to stand in line at the Jordan and submit to this baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins that pleases God and horrifies us.

Look one final time as the film nears completion.  Are you surprised to catch sight of yourself standing there at the Jordan?  Sometimes, it is almost impossible to believe the words of that old hymn:

“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea…
For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind.
And the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.”

What a thrill to hear the water crashing and to celebrate God’s amazing grace for this terribly mixed up world…and for us, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“Whether to Go or Not”

The Rev. Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Whether to Go or Not”
January 5, 2017 (Eve of the Epiphany of Our Lord)
Matthew 2: 1-12

When the Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem, this is the first question they asked, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” They had made it to Jerusalem by the guiding of a star but they needed additional help. They needed someone well versed in biblical matters to help them find God’s son.

As you can well imagine, the chief priests and scribes in Jerusalem knew exactly where to find the Messiah—after all, they were experts in such matters and so they told the Magi: “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

This information leaves us befuddled: if the religious leaders and Bible scholars knew where to find the Christ Child, why didn’t they hot tail it to Bethlehem themselves—it was only six miles away?

Matthew does not provide us with an answer to our question so let’s venture a guess: they needed more information!

Good people often need more information before acting decisively: we want to do things right. I have a hunch that those religious scholars in Jerusalem read religious tomes night and day, searching for exactly the right answer. And yet, isn’t it the truth that finally God beckons us to start the hike to Bethlehem without all the answers? Isn’t there a point when we finally must act, even though it is done with considerable fear and trembling? At this point, all we can do is trust that God will be gracious and merciful even if we take a wrong turn or two on the journey?

Maybe the religious leaders and scholars weren’t convinced God would be merciful to them if they made an error in judgment.

Or…might the religious leaders have hesitated to go to Bethlehem, not because they didn’t have enough information, but because they had too much? Perhaps they knew King Herod’s fearsome side, sensing that worshiping the tiny Savior would cause him to unleash all manner of mayhem throughout Judea. Maybe they had learned their history lessons well; maybe they knew that Herod, far from being confident and bold, was actually thin-skinned and insecure and would blow a gasket and butcher a bunch of innocent little boys under two if they went to Bethlehem. Maybe they determined that by not going to seek the Messiah, they would spare the world Herod’s disgusting violence. Could it be by exercising a modicum of patience, the chief priests and scribes were actually the real “wise men” in this story?

Each of us finally faces the question whether or not to go to Bethlehem. In the coming year, our congregation will inevitably face tough questions—as the people who follow Jesus always do. It would be presumptuous for me to speculate how 2017 will unfold for us here at Holy Trinity, but the question is: will we side with the poor babe who ended up in rundown housing in Bethlehem and whose parents ended up carrying him off as a refugee to a distant land or will we be more prudent than that, opting for calm instead?

Think about it: right now, as we worship, twelve homeless women are eating and sleeping in our shelter downstairs. They are our sisters and they are much like our brother Jesus whose parents found no room in the inn. Will we stand up for them if push comes to shove or will we opt for peace and calm, fearing how the Herods in our own day might respond? Clearly the religious leaders and scholars opted for peace and calm; clearly the Wise Men risked mayhem to side with the poor baby in Bethlehem…What will our decision be?

The world was turned upside on that first Epiphany because Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar opted to take a little six-mile hike to Bethlehem and to present their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to God come to earth. They had no idea what fury would soon be unleashed by that bully Herod and his minions. What was guaranteed was that if they wanted to behold the face of God, they would have to oppose the powerful and side with a poor, vulnerable child.

God invites us tonight to take the six-mile journey, over and over again, and to invite others to join us in the thrill of worshiping the sweet Babe of Bethlehem. It is a simple journey and yet an often treacherous and bewildering one.

Ours is a harsh and astonishing calling to be the people of God in this world. The only guarantee we have is that Christ awaits us at the manger, murmuring, “Take and eat, given for you.” And that is enough for now and, really, it is all we will ever need.