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“Precious Treasure of Final Words”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
“Precious Treasure of Final Words”
(Deuteronomy 30: 15-20)
February 12, 2017, Bach Vespers
Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

The Israelites were almost to the Promised Land, almost, but they just as easily could have been a million miles away.  It had been a long haul, forty grueling years to be precise.  God’s chosen people wandered aimlessly through the wilderness; poisonous snakes attacked them; they argued bitterly; they even doubted whether God was all that their fathers and mothers had made God out to be.  Sure, God freed them from Pharaoh’s brutal slave camps but that was forty years ago and that was long enough to lose every ounce of hope.

We just heard a few of Moses’ final words spoken to his friends and family with whom he had been through so much.  Moses had spotted the Promised Land through his sunburnt, cataract eyes, but he had heard from God that he would never cross over the Jordan to the land of milk and honey.

These final speeches are created in love and uttered in tenderness.  They recall heartbreaking squabbles and betrayals and do their best to make amends; they contemplate the what-ifs and understand that all things can never quite be as wished; they even invent future hopes and dreams right on the spot.

You know how this goes because you have been there with your beloved spouse, your mother, your father. Final words are precious treasures to be cherished forever.  I remember the last ones I spoke with my father face-to-face.  I hated to leave his bedside, sensing those were our final words.  I listened carefully because I knew I was hearing what meant most to my father. He told me to take care of my mother.  Then, he said things that would surprise you if you didn’t know him.  He spoke of finances—my father, after all, was schooled in that discipline and it guided his plans and determined the personal sacrifices he made on behalf of those he loved.  In those final moments, he wanted to do his best to make certain his loved ones were protected.

That’s how it was for Moses.  You might as well have been there with him on the far side of the Jordan as he spoke his final words—he was, after all, speaking to you: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess…Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”

“Choose life” sounds so daunting.  Experience tells us what it told the Israelites: life is messier and more difficult than that, especially when we try to be faithful to God.  Experience also tells us that God is faithful to us, in every age, even if we turn our backs on God and the journey becomes unbearable.  Over and over again, God coaxes us back home, talking lovey-dovey to us and doing everything possible to get us to choose life and not opt for death.

Moses’ final words were his way of telling every generation that God chooses us.  These words must be on every good Jew’s lips and heart, when lying down and when rising, upon entering home and when leaving: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” These words are placed in the mezuzah at the doorway of every Jewish home as a reminder.  We who are Christian inherit this stunning memory and lively exhortation to choose life, never forgetting that God has created us in God’s image.

It is so easy to forget who God is, so easy to create our own modern day golden calves.  Political ideologies and charismatic leaders, political and religious alike, cause us to forget who is in charge; flashy consumer goods entice us to believe that we can be as good as God if not even better; the latest smartphones are our beguiling Tower of Babel, tempting us to assume we can have perfect answers to life’s most monstrous mysteries simply by typing a few letters or saying, “Siri, why does God let evil exist?” Moses knew of these atrocious idolatrous temptations that would lure us time and again from choosing life and casting us into the dangerous wastelands of desolation.

Moses is here tonight tenderly urging us, on God’s behalf, to choose life.  Moses’ hopes and prays that our lives will be much richer when we realize that The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.  Moses only has a few words left and so he says to us, “God who freed our ancestors from bondage can free us, too.”

“The Grammar of Grace”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“The Grammar of Grace”
Matthew 5: 21-37
February 12, 2017 (Sixth Sunday after Epiphany)
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church-Manhattan

Miss Ball was my eighth-grade English teacher, the best I ever had.  She forced us to diagram sentences, learn all the prepositions by memory, and know how to use who and whom, he and him, and she and her, properly.  Eleanor Ball did not suffer fools gladly: she once told me, before an assembled throng of fourteen year-olders, that I was the poorest English student of the entire Miller clan and that included my parents and sister, aunts and uncle.

If you had a teacher like Miss Ball, you were drilled in the figures of speech: alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia.  I particularly struggled with remembering the difference between metaphor, simile, and hyperbole.  I will not bore you with the specifics but I invite you to review what Miss Ball said about hyberbole: “Hyperbole is an extravagant statement used for the purpose of emphasis or heightened effect.”

Here are a few hyperboles: “If you insult a brother or sister…and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire…If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away…”

I, at least, pray Jesus was overstating the case here just to turn us from sin.

I wonder if this is hyberbole: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”  If this is not stretching the case for effect, I am fearful you will soon be running off to make up with your sisters and brothers and never return to put your offering in the plate.  I fear attendance at Holy Communion will be pretty sparse!

Here’s why this all seems hyperbole to me.  Martin Luther teaches us, over and over again, that we cannot be perfect.  One of the primary reasons we teach our children the Ten Commandments is not so much to make them good little girls and boys but more to the point to help them realize they are hopeless sinners in need of God’s grace.

It is so tough to admit we are sinners.  We easily point our finger at others—you are a miserable sinner!—but it is another matter altogether to point that same finger at ourselves.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his little book, “Life Together,” writes: “The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner.  So, everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship.  We dare not be sinners.  Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous.  So, we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy.  The fact is that we are sinners!”

Could it be that Jesus wants to shock us, scare us straight, so we know, without a doubt, that we cannot achieve perfection—even if we so desperately want to?

Church folks find it hard to admit to imperfection.  There are some groups, however, that are pretty good at this.  If you have ever attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, you know that recovering alcoholics admit their shortcomings the moment the meeting begins, “Hello, I am Scotty and I am an alcoholic.” AAers are well versed in the twelve steps because they are read at every meeting.  Here are steps one and two: 1-We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable; 2-We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Do you know anyone who possesses such courage—elegance?—to admit their lives are unmanageable, that they need something beyond themselves—like God—to turn their lives around?

I recently saw such a person.  Patti Smith is, we might say, the 71-year old punk rock queen-mother of New York; she is also a serious author who has written the National Book Award winner, “Just Kids,” and my favorite, “M Train.”  She represented Bob Dylan at the recent Nobel Prize awards on December 10.  She sang Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a song she has known since she was a teen-ager.

Patti Smith writes: “Every spare moment was spent practicing it, making certain that I knew and could convey every line…I sang the words to myself, over and over…I bought a new suit, I trimmed my hair, and felt that I was ready.

“….And then suddenly it was time…As I sat there, I imagined laureates of the past walking toward the King to accept their medals. Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Albert Camus. Then Bob Dylan was announced as the Nobel Laureate in Literature, and I felt my heart pounding…I heard my name spoken and I rose. As if in a fairy tale, I stood before the Swedish King and Queen…

“The first verse was passable, a bit shaky, but I was certain I would settle. But instead I was struck with a plethora of emotions, avalanching with such intensity that I was unable to negotiate them…Unaccustomed to such an overwhelming case of nerves, I was unable to continue…

“As I took my seat, I felt the humiliating sting of failure…”

If you have not seen Patti Smith’s performance that night in Stockholm, Sweden, I beg you to go to YouTube.  You will witness a beautiful woman, not because of her perfection but because of the depths of her fragile nature.  As she sings and stumbles and is repeatedly rendered speechless and apologetic, the camera sweeps the audience and catches a woman in the audience so deeply moved by Patti Smith’s stunning humanity that she is wiping away tears.  You might call that a moment of grace, an occasion when someone is rendered beautiful not because of make-believe perfection but because of the profound honesty that she needs something more to help her get through the night.

I believe Jesus uses hyperbole, shocking stuff like plucking out eyes, chopping off hands, and sending people straight to hell fire, so we might all realize we are God’s beautiful, precious children.  I pray that this place’s deepest glory will come as we witness one another’s brokenness being bathed in the forgiving waters of heavenly grace.  If we do this, others will pass by here and be moved by tears because they will see just how much God loves us…and them, too.

“This Little Light of Mine”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“This Little Light of Mine”
(Matthew 5: 13-20)
February 5, 2017 (5th Sunday after Epiphany)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan

Holy Trinity’s stained-glass windows are so stunning. I love walking into the church early in the morning just as the sun begins to shine through them.  I have watched you marvel at the windows as well, pulling out your phones and taking pictures of the wonder of sun and glass dancing together.

Which is your favorite window?  Mine is the “Second Coming of Christ” created by the Tiffany Studios of New York and installed here in 1904.

Those who enter this holy space for the first time, after the sun has set, are clueless as to how much beauty awaits them when the sun finally peaks through the windows.  While the stained-glass never changes, there is a profound difference in the splendor, depending on how much light is shining through.

There is something else about these windows.  Regardless whether it is night or day, no one walking outside of Holy Trinity can imagine the wonder that awaits them when they finally arrive inside here and see the light shining through them.  Stained-glass windows frankly seem to be for the edification of insiders.  The question then is how will those on the outside ever know the glory these windows convey?

When I was a pastor on the Main Line of Philadelphia, we went to great lengths lighting our windows from the inside out.  After every worship service, our custodian Bill Dougherty set up temporary workshop spotlights to shine light through the windows to make certain the stories of God’s love depicted in those windows came alive for all outside passersby.

We are much like these stained-glass windows.  Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.”

We come here, week after week, so that, somehow, Christ’s love might be revealed through us out into the world.  In this place, we are discombobulated by the stories that followers of Jesus actually give away what they have to the poor; we hear that Christians turn the other cheek to those who strike them; we even hear that we love our enemies.  Unless we hear and even see these strange words of Jesus over and over again, we will grow as dull and lifeless as these windows in the wee hours of darkness.

Too often the church is content to operate an insider’s game.  Oh, sure the music can soar and the liturgy can be breathtaking but unless the loveliness of God’s light shines beyond our brick and mortar, beyond our own individual wants and needs, we risk being lackluster stained-glass windows at three in the morning or, as St. Paul said, noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

You know as well as I that much of what happens in places like this can easily become not much more than a confirmation of the world’s dastardly ways.  From pulpits just like this, preachers lambast people with revolting vitriol and drive their followers to become acolytes for all manner of vile acts purportedly done in Christ’s.  It is why so many have given up going to church altogether: rather than a place where brilliant light emanates from hallowed halls like this, all they witness are the confirmation of the dismal shadows and shocking darkness of the world’s wretched hatred and appalling arrogance.

The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who taught just up the street at Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote, “Worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God.”

The most remarkable congregations I know are the ones where breathtaking prayer stimulates them to carry Christ’s light to the dark, dangerous corners of this world. These churches make people shiver in wonder as they behold the majesty of worship dancing hand-in-hand with ministries of compassion and prophetic witness.

During these initial days of Black History Month, I am reminded of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  You have heard his spellbinding preaching in the sanctuary, stirring worshipers to be salt and light.  And yet the special appeal of Dr. King is that he didn’t remain in the sanctuary for long.  He always left the building!  He exhorted his followers to let Christ’s light shine, not just inside the church but outside in the world as well.

You will remember Dr. King was deeply shaped by the nonviolent philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi who, himself, was shaped by the nonviolent life of Jesus.  Nonviolence holds fast to Jesus’ peculiar belief that love can triumph over hatred, and light can shine during the darkest of days.  It is never easy to follow in Dr. King’s footsteps; it is far easier simply to adore him.  Some of his most ardent followers knew this of him.  They begged him to forsake nonviolence and to angrily strike back in the face of vicious racist attacks, but Dr. King would have none of it.  He always sought the higher road, Jesus’ road.  When he spoke out against our nation’s participation in the war in Viet Nam, some closest to him begged him not to get off point: they believed speaking out against Viet Nam would detract from what, in their minds, was the crucial focus on the Civil Rights movement here in the United States.  Again, Dr. King would have none of it.  He had a dream that was far bigger, a dream where all God’s children would live in peace.

These are tough days for many of us to dream, let alone to love.  You have told me how vicious political quarrels are ripping your family apart, how you can’t talk civilly anymore to some of your dearest friends.  Christmas was unbearable for some of you as you sat at dinner and pretty much said nothing of substance to those you love, opting to bury your true feelings and pretending that all was well in our nation.  Hateful things are being said by many people these days, Republican and Democrat alike, liberal and conservative, and, yes, Christian and Muslim and Jew.  Hateful things!

That is why it is so important to gather here this morning and to hear once again the stories of these windows where the Son of God, Jesus Christ, shines thorough gloom and death with the brilliant light of hope and life.  We are here so we might burn more brightly, so we might be a gorgeous people of love not hate, a people who dare to love even our enemies.

We do well to remember Dr. King’s words during this Epiphany season, this blessed season of light: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Let us pray that by God’s grace we will let our little light shine.

“Singing in the Dark Night”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Singing in the Dark Night”
Candlemas/ Presentation of Our Lord
February 2, 2017
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church-New York City

Christmas was forty days ago.  Even though our trees have been tossed curbside and our decorations packed away for weeks now, we continue to long for the Christ Child’s light in our lives.

This evening is an embarrassment of riches if you are still longing for Christmas light.  We celebrate Candlemas, blessing the candles that will light our way through this year. No matter how dark these days, we dare not forget Christ is our light.

We also celebrate the Presentation of Our Lord, recalling how Mary came out of the seclusion of childbirth and, with her husband Joseph, brought their precious little Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem as scripture mandated.

And, yes indeed, today is even Groundhog Day.  While it may seem a frivolous festival observed by furry Phil and his Punxsutawney pals, it is, in fact, more than that: it is the day when people yearn for the distressing winter darkness to give way to the tender, spring light.

Old Simeon and feeble Anna watched and waited at the Temple for years and years just to answer that very question: would light enter the darkness?  Imagine Simeon’s delight as he took the tiny child from Mary’s affectionate hands into his own arthritic ones.  Watch as he lifts Jesus to the heavens; be enchanted by his raspy yet riveting voice singing one of the most enthralling hymns the world has ever heard:
Lord, now let your servant go in peace, according to your word:

My own eyes have seen the salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of every people;
A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.

Simeon could now calmly close his eyes one final time for he had beheld the light that would guide his path through death to life forever.

Lutherans have had a unique love affair with Simeon’s canticle called the Nunc Dimittis in Latin.  At the conclusion of funerals, we open our clenched fists and let our loved ones soar to heaven as if letting a caged bird fly free.  With voices breaking, we sing the best we are able, “O Lord, now let your servant go in peace.”

We sing Simeon’s exquisite song at the final prayer service of the day, Night Prayer (Compline).   We are reminded that every night, as we close our eyes, we die a little death, and yet we trust that when we finally die, we can do so in peace as did Simeon and Anna.

Tiny children sense this little death as monsters lurk beneath their beds.  They pray the simplest and yet sincerest of prayers:

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I shall die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

As we grow older, the darkness is no less terrifying. We watch the evening news, horrified at what might come while we sleep. Monsters lurk this time out in the world we love. We implore Simeon and Anna to come by our side and to support our singing, “Oh Lord, now let your servant go in peace.”

One of my most cherished pastoral memories is gathering at Elsa Mae Rhodes’ bedside at the National Lutheran Home in Rockville, Maryland.  These were her final moments this side of the kingdom-come.  Elsa Mae was the ninety-eight-year-old daughter of African American slaves.  She endured the vile cruelties hurled her way and yet, remarkably,  never lost hope and refused to surrender to bitterness.  Her daughter and I held vigil in the wee hours as Elsa Mae readied herself for the final journey to the far side of the Jordan.  We watched as the light faded in her cataracted eyes, as the memories scampered through her withered mind, and then we heard her begin to feebly and softly sing, not indignantly, but exquisitely:

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

We gather here tonight to praise God for a similar blessing of the light.

In a matter of moments, you will receive a bit of bread and a sip of wine.  Somehow, someway, this is the very body and blood of that tiny Christ Child for whom you have waited.  As the glorious taste lingers in your mouth, may you sing a confident song even as darkness blankets the earth, “Lord, now let your servant go in peace…For my own eyes have seen my salvation.”

“Dizzy and Blessed”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Dizzy and Blessed”
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
(Matthew 5: 1-2; 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31)
January 29, 2017 (4th Sunday after Epiphany)

If you are a connoisseur of church websites as am I, you are aware that every one of them has a picture of the congregation at worship and, in every picture, the crowd is overflowing.  You have probably noticed that there are lilies or poinsettias in every picture.  You’ve got it: the pictures are always taken on Easter or Christmas Eve when the gatherings are the largest.  No congregation dares use a picture taken on July 23.  We all want to look big and important.

That is why the Sermon on the Mount or the Beatitudes feels so unnerving.  Jesus forces us to look at our lives upside down.  We prefer worldly standards, standards of power and wisdom; we are repulsed by the standards of Christ’s cross that appear weak and foolish.

Listen, for a moment, to Eugene Peterson’s Beatitudes from his “Message” translation of the Bible: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.  You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.”  Make you squirm?

In these days, no matter what our political persuasion, we want to be powerful, to fight for what we believe to be right, just, and sensible.  Blessed are the peacemakers—are you kidding me?  These days call for backbone and fisticuffs, a tough streak that gets results done TODAY.

I suppose that is why it is so hard to be a Christian, at least the kind of Christian Jesus seemed to envision.

We began worship this morning with a cross leading the way.  Did that, by chance, make you feel a bit queasy?  My dear friends, Jesus died on that cross.  You can almost imagine Pontius Pilate using the water-boarding technique as he screamed at Jesus, “What is truth?”  We feel so unsettled when we are forced to listen to St. Paul’s dribble, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the woe world to shame the strong.”  “No way!” we holler.  We prefer the powerful and important.

When I was a pastor in Washington, D.C., we got word that President Clinton might be worshiping with us on Sunday morning.  Volunteers dusted every nook and cranny, trimmed bushes and raked leaves, removed the clutter of old bulletins and frayed offering envelopes stuffed in the pews; those in charge of refreshments made certain they were fit for a queen…or at least a president.

…By the way, President Clinton never showed up that morning.  Remarkably, though, a lot of important people did show up.  They were not powerful or important by worldly standards but they did end up feeling honored by a spic and span church, stunning music, and delicious food.

What if we treated every person with such honor and respect, or in Jesus’ terminology, as blessed by God?  What if we celebrated the presence of the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the meek, and the bedraggled—US!—as if we were the most important people in the world?  What if, this morning, we saw the world as Jesus saw it?  What if we viewed people from Syria and Iran, Iraq and Libya, Somalia and Sudan and Yemen, as blessed?

I know what you are thinking, “Pastor, Stop!  That’s all I read these days on my iPhone, all that I hear on television.  I came here for shelter from the storm not more blather from a guy who, quite frankly, doesn’t have a clue about the world order. Hush.”  And yet, shouldn’t we at least try, as the Bible commands us, to see the widow and orphan, the strangers and sojourners, through the immensity of God’s love and not through the narrowness of our little hearts?  Of course, you are right: that’s seeing the world upside down and that’s not easy.  Didn’t I tell you seeing the world through God’s eyes will make us dizzy?

New Year’s Day fell on Sunday this year.  Attendance was spotty that morning, not a worship service we will show on our website.  I ended up opening our front doors.  There was quite a bit of trash around the steps.  Having no gloves or broom, I tore off a piece of cardboard from a discarded box to create a make-shift dustpan.  I gingerly cleaned up cast-off Kleenex and other disgusting rubble.  As I bent low to pick up a lipstick-stained cigarette butt, two visitors stopped to inquire when worship began.  They were from central Pennsylvania—a retired pastor and his wife.  Later that week, they sent a lovely email.  Regrettably for me, they made no mention of my “towering sermon” that day—not a word!  What they did mention, though, was their amazement that the pastor of this so-called “prestigious Lutheran congregation on Central Park” was picking up trash; “there must be a sermon there somewhere,” they said.  What they realized—and what I had forgotten—was that Jesus was coming to church that New Year’s morning.  They were so delighted by the possibility of it all and there I was, begrudgingly at best, cleaning up trash on Jesus’ behalf.

The Beatitudes work like that.  They surprise us with whom Jesus calls blessed.  Think of just one of the beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Have you ever felt so walked over and ignored that not in a million years would you expect Jesus to tap you on the shoulder?  Maybe that’s why the Beatitudes are so unsettling: they invite us to see ourselves and our neighbors just as Jesus saw the poor and orphaned and, yes, the aliens…as blessed.  It isn’t just presidents who are important.  Suddenly, by heavenly standards, we are all important, no matter how much is in our pocketbook or from what country we come.

When I was feeling so sorry for myself that New Year’s morning, I forgot there was no greater honor than to clean the church steps, hold the door open, and usher Jesus in.  If only I had noticed Jesus down on his knees picking up the cigarette butts with me, I would probably have been much happier and certainly more blessed.

Do we notice Jesus in our lives?  I wonder if Jesus would have been turned back yesterday at JFK Airport—you do know what he looked like and, if the truth be told, many of those who followed him thought the best way to bring about the kingdom of heaven was through violence.

It’s so easy to forget that God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.  Let us always remember that Jesus chooses us, too, by bowing down to us and calling us blessed.