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“The Holy Cross: Irrational Humbug or the Power of God?”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“The Holy Cross: Irrational Humbug or the Power of God?”
(1 Corinthians 1: 18-24; John 3: 13-17)
September 17, 2017 (Holy Cross Day)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West

Please let me brag. I know I have told you this before but allow me one more moment of braggadocio: I attended Yale Divinity School. I tell you this with hopes of impressing you because, deep down, I harbor intense feelings of inferiority when it comes to my degree. Yale Divinity School ain’t all it is cracked up to be at least in the grand scope of things. It is often referred to as “the back door to Yale”—and with considerable justification. Half the people applying to the divinity school are accepted while only between 5 and 10% get into Yale Law and Yale Medical which, by the way, is about what the same acceptance rate as down the street at Juilliard where many of Holy Trinity’s fine musicians attended school.

There are other causes for my pathetic spasms of academic inadequacy.  A few years ago, in the “Yale Alumni Magazine,” Dr. Eugene P. Cassidy, a graduate of the much-vaunted medical school, wrote: “Isn’t it time Yale euthanized the Divinity School?  This academy for irrational humbug is an embarrassment to the real graduate schools.”

If Dr. Cassidy were here today, don’t you imagine he would find our Holy Cross goings-on nothing more than a load of poppycock?

In all humility and in no way meant to scold Dr. Cassidy, there have been occasions when the likes of Dr. Cassidy have curtly announced to a grieving family that their loved one has died and then quickly left the room.  I, with my silly divinity school degree of irrational humbuggery in hand, have sometimes been left to clean up the mess.  To be fair, I’m sure many doctors feel like failures when they are unable to keep a person alive any longer and must deliver the devastating news to the crestfallen family that their loved one is “gone.”

In no way do I want to be critical of doctors.  Like you, I know fabulous ones, a few who kept me alive eleven years ago.  In truth, don’t we all stumble and bumble in the face of death, searching for the right words when none seem available, none at least that will bring back to life those we love?  Perhaps that is why, for those of us here this morning, the only words that feel right are somehow deeply woven into the Holy Cross.  Like our hymn at the gospel, we cry out:

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
save in the death of Christ, my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

There is something about this Holy Cross Day that begs us tell the truth and not beat around the bush.  This day invites us to admit that death is inevitable for us all and yet also to proclaim that death is never the final word.  We may prefer to make believe, to say we pass away, float into the ethereal netherworld, or as some Californians are fond of writing in obituaries, transition from this world to the next.  But let us not kid ourselves: we die!

I once was talking to a church member about his funeral plans.  He was a big-time television personality in a major city.  He told me what hymns to sing, who would deliver the eulogies, where he would be laid to rest.  He prefaced it all with this, “Pastor, if I die…”  He caught himself but his “if I die” hung in the air a bit too long and reflected the thought many of us harbor in our magical thinking when our mortality comes up.  Deep down, we are so scared of dying that we prefer to play the game of “if I die.”

Martin Luther knew better.  He once wrote: “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”  You can guess, I’m sure, that Luther was a theologian of the cross.  He knew we don’t pass away or transition to Lalaland or float into the clouds.  He called the darn thing what it is: death!

The Holy Cross leads our way this and every Sunday morning.  We are reminded that if Jesus is God’s son then, in fact, God died an ugly death before our eyes—sweat, blood, tearing tendons, bulging eyes.  Our God went where we will all finally go, deep into the ground, where only God can raise us up.

It has often been asked, where was God when six million Jewish people were dying in Hitler’s concentration camps.  The best answer I have heard is, “God was there dying with the Jews.”  For many, this is foolishness, irrational humbuggery, but for others this is the very power of God.

I know how depressing this sounds, especially on this day as so much wonderful ministry is about to unfold here at Holy Trinity. You have returned from vacation, the choir is singing, programs are returning—these are thrilling days. This will be a stunning year as we prepare to celebrate 150 years of bearing the cross of Christ in New York City.  The greatest hits of Johann Sebastian Bach will be celebrated during the 50th year of our renowned Bach Vespers.  Some of the most distinguished preachers in the Lutheran church will be in our pulpit, including the Rev. Susan Briehl whose gorgeous hymn, “Holy God, Holy and Glorious,” we will sing at Communion.  Through the entire, thrilling year, we will lift up the cross, that pathetic instrument of suffering and death that wise and pious folks view as foolishness and twaddle and yet what we proclaim to be very power of God.

God does not avoid death: God confronts death, dies, and conquers death as Jesus is raised from the dead…Oh, and by the way, God conquers our death as well.

Christ’s death and resurrection is the most comforting word we can offer when we journey with others into the valley of the shadow of death. Let us tell anyone who will listen, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Yes, let us risk being called irrational humbuggers as we proclaim to the world that God is with us for better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and, yes, even in death, in the name of the Holy Cross, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Promises, Promises at Water’s Edge”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Promises, Promises at Water’s Edge”
(Romans 13: 8-14; Matthew 18: 15-20
September 10, 2017 (14th Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West & 65th

In a few moments, we will make a lot of promises.  Margot’s parents, Christine and Steven, will make promises; her godparents, Elizabeth and Jens, will make promises, too, as will her grandmas and grandpas.  Promises, promises.  We will all make promises.

Margot is such a precious little child.  She may need a story tonight when she awakens at three in the morning and a pesky monster lurks under her crib.  Mommy and daddy—you will come running and you must be able to tell a story that will calm her fears and let her know God is with her.

This will happen countless times in her life.  Some of Margot’s first words will be, “Tell me a story.”  You might tell her “Goldilocks,” “Good Night Moon,” “The Velveteen Rabbit.”  Her eyes will be wide open as she listens and she will almost always beg you, “Tell me one more story.”

That’s why we make promises this morning.  We promise to place the holy scriptures in Margot’s hands so she may know that one last story where God is with her every moment of her life.

In our second reading this morning, St. Paul told the Christians in Rome that their highest calling was to love one another.  That is one way of saying that our highest calling is to dig deep for the one last story that will comfort our friends and family.

Jesus told countless stories to do just that.  One was about ninety-nine sheep who behaved themselves and one rascal that wandered away.  The astonishing thing—unlike almost any story we know—is that the shepherd risked ninety-nine sheep in order to save one mischief-maker.  Jesus told this story so we might know the extent to which God goes to save us from disaster.  He told another story, one about forgiving a person.  How many times must we forgive someone who has done us wrong?  Jesus’ story suggested not once or twice but at a bare minimum of 490 times.

These stories are worth telling…and hearing.

Never forget this: we are not the only ones making promises this morning.  God makes promises, too, to Margot and to all of us, to be with us and to love us no matter what life brings.

Think of all the people who need such a story this morning.

What story should we tell the people in the Caribbean and Florida?  Might we tell them that once upon a time there was a horrific storm a thousand times worse than Irma or Harvey?

Remember? God was so frustrated with the treachery of his children that he annihilated just about everything and everyone, except for Noah and his family and a few scraggly animals on a rickety boat.  As the waters finally began to subside, after forty days and forty nights of terror, God was heartbroken by the destruction God had rained down on the beloved creation.  The final part of the story which we must never forget is how God stretched a rainbow across the sky.  You can see the tears sliding down God’s face as he says, “Never again will I deliver such devastation on my dear children.”  We promise to tell this story on God’s behalf to the people of the Caribbean and Florida this morning.

Oh yes, think of everyone who needs a story.

Tomorrow morning, I will offer prayers at Engine 40/ Ladder 35 Firehouse.  Twelve of thirteen men on duty at the firehouse two blocks from here at 66th and Amsterdam perished that day when they went to rescue their brothers and sisters at the raging Twin Tower inferno.  (The relic at the altar this morning is Twin Tower rubble now kept permanently in the pastor’s office; it was a gift from the firehouse to Holy Trinity’s pastor, Robert Scholz, who provided exemplary pastoral care during those horrific days.)  What story might I tell on your behalf, tomorrow, to parents, wives, and children who continue to grieve the loss of loved ones?  I probably will tell them something like this, “Yea though I walk through the valley of death, I shall fear no evil.”

It is not always easy to keep our promise, to tell a compelling and comforting story of God’s presence when evil lurks and does its dirty dance.  That is why we dare not forget the story of the baptismal waters where, here today, great sea monsters will try to grab Margot’s little toe and pull her under and yet, in the midst of the fury, God will go to battle to rout the great Leviathan of the deep and to save Margot.  Is it any wonder she might scream as water streams down her face?

The only story finally worth telling is when, once upon a time, the world tried to keep God from loving us by hanging Jesus on the cross.  You know the story—the greatest one ever told.  Death was not the end of that story nor can it ever be when we are telling God’s stories.  Never!  We champion life: for hurricane victims, families grieving the loss of firemen sixteen years later, and dreaming refugees fearful that they might be carted off from this country they love.

Keep telling that story to Margot, when she dances for the first time, when she walks down the aisle with the love of her life, when she has her first baby.  Tell that story, too, when she breaks up with her first boyfriend and is crushed, when she comes down with a weird cough that while likely harmless scares you to death; tell the story of God’s love when she calls late at night from college a million miles away and says, “Mommy and daddy, I need to talk.”

That’s why we go to the water now.  Yes, in years to come, tell Margot Elizabeth Rocchio about what happened today, something like this: “My dear and precious Margot, once upon a time, long ago, we dressed you in a beautiful white gown and took you to church.  You were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and then you were anointed with oil because you are a queen in God’s sight.  Yes, on that day, precious Margot, God promised to love you forever and ever.”

“New York, New York: A Number One, Top of the List”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“New York, New York: A Number One, Top of the List”
Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
September 3, 2017 (13th Sunday after Pentecost”
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

After fourteen months in the Big Apple, I think I’m starting to get Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York thing, the “A Number One, Top of the List” thing—who doesn’t want that!

Not in a million years did I ever imagine I would ever consider betraying my beloved Pittsburgh Pirates and contemplate becoming a Yankee fan.  The Pirate’s victory over the Yankees in the 1960 World Series is tattooed on my heart.  When little Bill Mazeroski hit THE HOMERUN in the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game, the Pirates became world champions.  You zealous Yankee fans remember Maris and Mantle, Berra and Howard.  I will never forget Dick Groat and “The Deacon” Vernon Law, and my hero, number 21, Roberto Clemente.

Funny thing, though, I might be edging over to the dark side.  Yesterday, Dagmar and I walked into Yankee Stadium for the fourth time this year.  I saw “27 World Series Championships” emblazoned just above the press box in that adorable, swirly Yankee script and gazed out at Monument Park where The Babe, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio are immortalized.  It all made me a tad teary-eyed.

Who doesn’t want to be “A Number One, Top of the List” in New York, New York?  Jesus’ disciples wanted it, too—well, not exactly in New York, but you get the drift.  Peter and his cohorts dropped their fishing nets and tax ledgers and abandoned their families with high hopes that following the Son of the living God would bring them fame and perhaps even fortune.

We all join the disciples with our lofty wishes—for our jobs and families and here for our church.  But just as we start getting all puffy-chested about our accomplishments, Jesus blasts us, “Get behind me, Satan!”

We immediately lean on Peter for support because Jesus’ words devastate us so and then, in the midst of our swoon, just for good measure, Jesus adds, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

It makes no sense.  We always thought being a Christian would make us happier, maybe even successful, famous and rich, certainly “A Number One, Top of the List.”

Arnold Bruins will be baptized in a few moments.  I love adult baptisms because adults have the option of running out of here on their own steam right before the water is lavishly poured.

Anne Lamott writes of this messy thing Arnold is about to do: “Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rain and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time it’s holy, and absurd. It’s about surrender, giving in to all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched.”

As water soaks through Arnold, he will be reminded that he has just joined a community that, on our best days, tries to follow Saint Paul’s mandate: “Bless those who persecute you…do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly…Do not repay anyone evil for evil…live peaceably with all…”

In groups like Rotary, when you join, they make it all nice and pretty.  I know this because I once was in Rotary, was actually the president-elect before we moved out of town.   They shook my hand, gave me a nice shiny pin with a fake diamond in the middle, and said they were a great group that did marvelous things for people like eradicating polio throughout the world—and that was all true.  In this place when you join, we drench you and, for good measure, in case you aren’t already humiliated enough, we say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

It’s the darndest thing.  Is it any wonder the church isn’t exactly A Number One, Top of the List?

Douglas John Hall is now ninety years old and taught theology at McGill University in Montreal for many years.  I adore Dr. Hall if for no other reason than because of a few lines he wrote in his book, “The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World.”  I have sent his words to countless pastors whose churches faced seemingly insurmountable crisis and I have even sent them to a few bishops encountering cantankerous congregations and sometimes harebrained pastors—there are only a few!  I now share Dr. Hall’s words as a gift to you: “How could we have listening to the Scriptures all these centuries…like the Beatitudes (“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account”) and yet formed in our collective mind the assumption that Christian faith would be credible only if it were popular, numerically superior, and respected universally?  How could we have been contemplating the ‘despised and rejected’ figure at the center of this faith for two millennia and come away with the belief that his body, far from being despised and rejected, out to be universally approved and embraced.”

Oddly, Jesus calls us to be a community that measures being “A Number One, Top of the List” by whether we take up the cross and follow him.  God willing, we will call success what the rest of the world calls failure: we will give our riches away to the poor; we will do our best to bite our tongues when someone has been very nasty to us; and we will even try to love those who can’t stand us and whom, frankly, we find insufferable as well.

That is the community Arnold joins as we now pour water all over him. Together we proclaim that being “A Number One, Top of the List” has everything to do with following Jesus and we will do our best to love one another in Christ’s name no matter how tough life’s challenges may become and, yes, even if the Yankees don’t make it to the World Series.  In spite of it all, we believe we are “A Number One, Top of the List” because we have been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.