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“A Moment of Quiet Stillness”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“A Moment of Quiet Stillness”
Isaiah 40: 21-31; Mark 1: 29-39
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
February 4, 2018
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

In the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, we watch an entire day in Jesus’ life.  It begins at the synagogue on the Sabbath, where Jesus drives out an evil spirit from a man ranting and raving during his sermon.  He leaves this mad house and heads to Peter and Andrew’s home for supper and a much-needed breather.  Before he tastes even one hors d’oeuvre, he must first heal Peter’s mother-in-law.  And as soon as the sun goes down and the Sabbath draws to a close, people still swarm around Jesus, hoping he will be the one to heal their sick relatives.

One wonders how Jesus survived the frenzy.

I have told you about one of my favorite seminary professors, Henri Nouwen.  I will never forget his sermon on this morning’s gospel reading.  With his Dutch accent and expressive hands, he said: “‘In the morning, long before dawn, [Jesus] got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there.’  In the center of breathless activities, we hear a restful breathing.  Surrounded by hours of moving we find a moment of quiet stillness.”

Henri warned us of ministry’s pressures. He counseled us, as soon as we arrive at a new congregation, to tell the members that, except in extreme emergencies, there is an hour in each day which cannot be interrupted.  If people call during this sacrosanct hour, the parish administrator should tell them the pastor is busy at prayer with God.  He told us this message is as vital for parishioners as for pastors.

The Christian life can be bone-wearying.  You know that.  The moment you received word that your mother had been rushed to the hospital, you left work immediately and flew across the country to comfort her.  You stayed with her night and day.  You were so exhausted one evening that you left your dear mother to go home for a quick nap and a much-needed shower.  Your beloved mother died while you were away.  You have beaten yourself up for fifteen years now for not being there at her darkest hour. Caring people are often like that: they can’t do enough for others and they often don’t do enough for themselves.

The weight of caring can consume good people.  There is a name for it, “compassion fatigue.”  Compassion fatigue particularly haunts those who are vehement about justice for the downtrodden.  I have watched people deeply committed to ministry, in the city and to the poorest, burn out from exhaustion and become haunted by bitterness, alcoholism, and despair.

I so admire the Sabbath-keeping tradition of Orthodox Jews.  When sundown arrives on Friday evening, they drop everything; no more work is to be done—no cooking, no turning light switches on and off, no driving to the synagogue, and as you New Yorkers know, no pressing of hospital elevator buttons. Funny thing what our good Jewish neighbors can teach us Lutherans about grace, the grace of resting on the Sabbath in the arms of God.

In her book, Keeping the Sabbath Holy, Marva Dawn writes: “A major blessing of Sabbath keeping is that it forces us to rely on God for our future.  On that day we do nothing to create our own way.  We abstain from work, from our incessant need to produce and accomplish…The result is that we can let God be God in our lives.”

People often ask me—and I’m sure they ask you—about ministry here at Holy Trinity: “What does your church do?”  I always answer, “We worship.”  Inevitably there is silence, befuddlement.  “Worship? What else do you do?”   Worship is clearly not enough in our busy, success driven world.  When I mention that we also have a women’s shelter and a Saturday meal program, they suddenly liven up and all seems better.

And yet, we must not forget or apologize that worship has been the cornerstone witness of this community for 150 years. Few congregations stick around for 150 years if they don’t worship regularly and well and it is the rare person who can confront injustice and serve those in need over the long haul without taking a break.

Sabbath-keeping is happening right now.  You have turned off your smart phones; if you haven’t, please do!  Sabbath keeping releases us from the incessant cacophony of cantankerous news and the one-upmanship madness of Facebook.  Yes, you are Sabbath-keeping, taking a break.  You are not even watching the lead-up to the Super Bowl even though some of us have hedged our bets with Isaiah’s reassuring words, “They shall mount up with wings like eagles.”  Do you feel helpless, out of touch?  If so, good: your whole life is now in God’s hands.

Sabbath-keeping does not just happen here on Sunday morning.  Dagmar and I have so enjoyed our Miller Mondays in New York—walking in Central Park and along the Hudson, moseying through the Metropolitan Museum, reveling at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and in two months returning to the great cathedral, Yankee Stadium.  I hope you have a place or two where you can find a moment of quiet stillness and enchantment.  Those places, my dear friends, are grace, sheer delight.

Resting is a good thing and God commends it, “Remember the Sabbath Day.”  God even models this behavior. After six grueling days creating the heavens and the earth, I like to think of God flopping those massive EEE heavenly feet up on a La-Z-Boy and binge watching something or other on Netflix.

Take care of yourself so that you can take care of others.  Yes indeed, as the prophet promises, “Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Treat yourself to a Sabbath.  Enjoy the rest.

“Cracked Jars”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Cracked Jars”
Mark 1: 21-28
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (January 28, 2018)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

There is something majestic about great preachers. If you have ever been blessed to hear one, you know the experience is unforgettable, as thrilling as hearing a lonely loon cry on a deserted lake or seeing the sun rise over Central Park early in the morning.

The most powerful preacher I have ever heard is William Slone Coffin. He was one of the prophetic voices of the late 1960s and early 70s; he preached at Yale and Riverside Church. The story is told that when the young Reverend Coffin and his wife-to-be went to tell her father, the great pianist Arthur Rubenstein, of their impending marriage, Rubenstein said, “Great, I’m now going to have Billy Graham as a son-in-law,” to which Coffin responded, “That’s right, just like I am going to have Liberace as a father-in-law.” Like Rubenstein, we often don’t expect much from our preachers and yet Coffin filled the university chapel in the days when most college students preferred nursing hangovers to sitting through Sunday morning worship services. His preaching stirred listeners to discover God’s authoritative voice in rousing ways, in unimaginably tumultuous times.

Not all preaching is like that. Some of it is downright mind-numbing and puts you to sleep quicker than a baby’s lullaby. You have figured that out by now, I’m afraid. The dicey part of preaching, you see, is that God leaves the task to human-beings, rickety people like me, and that can sometimes be a gloomy prospect for people like you.

The southern preacher Fred Craddock writes in his autobiography about discovering the humanity of preaching: “I cannot resist telling…the keen disappointment I felt that day when, as an eighteen-year-old, I stood behind that pulpit. ‘I had never stood behind the pulpit; I had seen it only from the front. As I sat in the big chair waiting for the moment to stand and speak, I could see inside the pulpit. What a mess! A few broken hand fans, a clock, old worship bulletins, part of an angel’s wing, golf tees, Christmas tree bulbs, a melted candle, and a glass of water with green scum on it.”

Perhaps you have never come up here to peek into this pulpit’s innards but you have surely figured out the jumble of it all because you confront my wobbly preaching week after week.

When the people of Capernaum heard Jesus preach in their synagogue, it is reported that they were astounded because he taught them as one having authority. Peculiar, don’t you think: what else should they have expected besides authority? Doesn’t it make you wonder what other kind of sermons they had heard…Well, I think you know!

Come to think of it, have you ever heard a sermon that could cast out unclean spirits, make the lame walk, open a blind eye or two? Any sermon, ever?

You have come here this morning, yet again, longing for a sermon uttered with authority from this gimpy preacher from the hills of West Virginia.

Please, make no mistake: the only authority I bear comes from Jesus; all else is, as they say and as you know, sinking sand or, at the least, poppycock.

One of the things I love most about being Lutheran is our utter honesty about how God comes to us in cracked, clay jars. We do not pretend to rule the empire. We know darn well that God comes to us most often, not in power and glory or pomp and circumstance, but in the rickety stuff of bread and wine, in damaged people like you, and in flimsy preachers like me. The biggest risk we make is believing our preachers are better than anyone else or at least not nearly as broken. Whenever we do this, we set ourselves up for crushing disappointment. I can tell you: we preachers are a shabby lot whose authority comes, at best, not from deep within our souls, but from far, far off, from the very heart of God. Said another way, our authority comes only when we tell the story of Jesus and his deep, deep love and admit that the tellers of such tales, people just like me and listeners just like you, are frightfully flawed.

Walt Whitman, in his “Leaves of Grass,” says it this way:

“After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,
After the noble inventors—after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the Poet, worthy that name:
The true Son of God shall come,
singing his songs.”

We clay-feeted ones do our best, no matter our trade or calling in life, to look beyond ourselves for power and strength, inspiration and authority. We rear our children the best we can, never having taken a single course in high school or college telling us how to go about this overwhelming task; we look to God for help as we hobble along doing the best we can. We try to please God as we strive to live faithfully in this church; you know as well as I that we bumble along the way, doing our best when our best isn’t particularly inspired or honorable. But maybe that is not so bad. Just when we realize how flimsy we are, God is standing here, inviting us to look beyond ourselves. After we have sailed the oceans, mesmerized the masses with stunning music, and even then come up short, then and only then do we catch ourselves praying to the Poet worthy that name, the only one who can give us strength and guidance in heart-breaking times such as this.

That is why we are here this morning, to sing the song of Jesus, the one about him being gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. That, my dear friends, is the authority we bear, in cracked earthen pots, to the glory of God and for the good of this suffering world.