Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“For God’s Sake, Let the Weeds Grow!”
Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
July 23, 2017 (7th Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park
This is an amazing day as we receive seven new members into our Holy Trinity family. Quite a few of you have said, “This is terrific. What a gift from God.” Yes indeed, our hopes are high!
Those joining are excited, too. You do not take this step lightly. You have thought about this for a while, looking around at churches, even exploring other denominations. You are praying, “Make this the perfect faith community.”
We all want our life together to be perfect. Jesus understands our longings. That’s why he tells the parable of the wheat and weeds.
In today’s parable, we are reminded—and glaringly—how oblivious Jesus is to rational horticultural practices. He tells us to let the weeds sprout up with the wheat and all will turn out fine. “Jesus, you have got to be kidding!” we protest. Nevertheless, Jesus urges calm and we agree to excuse his botanical naïveté; he is, after all, our Savior.
Like Jesus, I am no gardening enthusiast. There have been countless occasions when Dagmar has flown off to Germany with no choice but to tolerate my mismanagement of her prize-winning gardens. In advance of the gut-wrenching separation—from the gardens, Dagmar has taken me by hand, warily expounding on how to water and how to discern ripeness in vegetables and fruit; she inevitably provides a tutorial for dummies on the minute differences between weeds and blossoms. Invariably, upon her return, Dagmar weeps: “Wilk, those were artichokes you pulled out, not dandelions.” I always promise to do better the next time.
While many of us have no gardening experience or have purposely chosen to live in this concrete jungle to avoid the nauseating nuances of flowers and weeds, we all yearn for Eden. That’s why Jesus instructs us, “Leave the wheat and weeds alone or you might end up ruining the good stuff. I will take care of the rest.” Jesus knows we want things to be impeccable and, in the face of the least little flaw, we will drive ourselves and others nuts in seeking perfection.
This longing is nothing new. We are embarking on the 500th year of the Reformation when the reformers yearned for a purer church. Protestants and Roman Catholics remain tragically divided as we attempt to separate weeds from wheat. You may believe things are purer because of Martin Luther and his sidekicks, but don’t forget the wars waged over pure doctrine, the heads lopped off, and the families devastated when their beautiful Catholic daughters married vulgar Lutheran boys. And that was not the only time the church was torn asunder. 500 years prior to the Reformation, in 1054, another theological squabble led to the Eastern and Western Church divide. And that wasn’t even the first monumental fracas. Remember how the first Jewish Christians tussled with the Gentile Christians over the earth-shattering issue of whether believers should be circumcised? Oh, how we long for perfection and what ugly rubble we create in pursuit of it. Could it be that every 500 years or so, we, the people of God, forget what Jesus has told us about wheat and weeds, and try once again to purify the church with our own preferred gardening techniques? Perhaps you have noticed the church is at it again, this time, issues of human sexuality are causing all manner of discord and people are ripping out wheat and weeds in all kinds of devastating ways. Oh, if we only would listen to Jesus: let the wheat and weeds grow together, he said, particularly since you are clueless what is a weed and what is wheat.
Something within us believes we can achieve perfection and, doggonit, we will stir up all manner of havoc in the struggle. When our personal lives and families, church and nation, are flawed, instead of doing as Jesus commands and letting the wheat and weeds coexist, we rip everything asunder, inevitably losing precious artichokes in the process.
I have a hunch Holy Trinity attracts lots of folks in search of purity. Would you agree? How many of us are here because we love the liturgy being “just so,” reflecting the venerable church traditions through the ages? We want to bow right, make the sign of the cross at the precise times, sing theologically fitting hymns with only the finest music, and wear appropriate vestments even when it is 95 degrees and soupy…By the way, I like it that way, too, or I wouldn’t have accepted your call to become the pastor here and I certainly wouldn’t be wearing this toasty get-up this muggy morning.
And yet, we need to be careful. My favorite author Annie Dillard writes: “The higher Christian churches – where, if anywhere, I belong—come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.”
Perhaps our freedom comes when we ease up a bit, taking ourselves less seriously and letting the weeds and wheat coexist. Rather than becoming nervous wrecks if we commit a nauseating faux pas like making an improper left turn instead of right as we process to the altar, let us manage a little smile, trusting that God will spare us the raging fires of hell and mysteriously let us enter into heaven. You could call this grace.
In a few moments, when the bread is broken at the altar, I will say, “Holy things for holy people.” You know better than that, of course you do, and you will shout out the ancient response, “Only one is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God.”
Here’s what is astonishing: pure and spotless Jesus comes among us, repellant weeds that we are, looks straight into our eyes, and says, “Let the weeds remain.”
Perhaps Jesus, crummy gardener that he is, knows a thing or two about beautiful flowers. Maybe he knows beautiful flowers are nothing more than trained weeds…or at least forgiven ones.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Orphans No More”
John 14: 15-21
May 21, 2017 (Sixth Sunday of Easter)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
My heart plummets every time I hear Jesus’ words, “I will not leave you orphaned.” I know Jesus meant no harm; in fact, I’m sure he intended to cheer us up. But the word “orphan” flusters me nonetheless… Let me explain.
When I was in second grade at Woodsdale School, a number of my little classmates were orphans. They lived at the Wheeling Children’s Home, a sprawling castle straight out of a Dickens novel. The kids wore humdrum clothing and had shabbier haircuts than the ones my father gave me. It was all perfectly adequate if you had nowhere else to live but it scared me to death: might I, one day, end up in the children’s home on Orchard Road?
Don’t we all fear ending up orphans?
That is why, about twelve hours before his crucifixion, Jesus gathered his beloved disciples for a final supper and promised them, “I will not leave you orphaned.”
Oh, the horror abandonment!
The cruelest thing I can recall doing as a parent occurred when our son Caspar was six years old. We were on our way from Washington, D.C. to Wheeling, West Virginia, to visit my parents. We stopped at our favorite rest area that had fascinating exhibits about the construction of stunning Interstate 68 running through the mountains of Western Maryland. After exploring the displays, we went outside and hid behind a kiosk. We were certain Caspar would find us but he barely looked for us. He instantly thought he had been deserted. By the time we realized the terror that had overcome him, he was sprinting across the pedestrian bridge spanning the interstate. We screamed, “Caspar, Caspar,” but to no avail; he could not hear us. Once he reached the other side, to our utter revulsion, he spotted the lot where our car was parked and ran back, straight across the six-lane highway, with huge semis sweeping down through the mountains at seventy miles an hour. Thank God, he ran fast and, thank God, we got to him.
How terrible to be left alone!
Jesus knew we would feel deserted after his crucifixion, not just in the immediate days following but down through the centuries as well. Just entering this sanctuary can feel terribly isolating. We come here bruised and broken, desperately longing for someone’s attention.
My greatest goal for Holy Trinity is that every person who enters this holy place will feel showered with Christ’s love—it has been my goal at every church where I have the pastor. Even if this morning is your first time here and you had hoped to sneak in here undetected, sit alone, and examine the goings-on from afar, I still hope you end up feeling a bit overwhelmed by someone’s friendliness. To be honest, I hope you feel the welcome a bit like overcooked evangelical fervor. Isn’t it better to have someone take notice of you than to slink out of here with ne’er a word of welcome uttered your way?
You know how awkward it feels to be an outsider. You have visited a church for the first time or arrived at a party and not known a soul. For introverts like me, introductions and mingling are exhausting work. The usher hands you a bulletin with nothing more than a perfunctory nod; when the peace is passed, you watch others cheerfully hug and kiss and you feel a million miles away. Even though a few folks say “peace” to you, the word doesn’t feel nearly as familiar as what you observe others feeling toward one another. This all makes you feel edgy. As the week wears on, you finally muster the courage to tell a coworker about visiting a church where the music was stunning, the sermon stirring, and the architecture soaring; unfortunately, the only lasting taste you have is not a soul talked to you. You felt abandoned, rather like an orphan. It was exhausting.
I pray that we might all have eyes of Christ, eyes that, upon entering this sanctuary, immediately begin looking for someone who is alone. What a wonderful gift if our initial inclination is not to seek the ones we know best but rather to seek out the stranger, the one we have never met.
On that final night, Jesus said to his friends, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (Listen carefully to those words put to gorgeous music during this morning’s offertory anthem.) Of these words, “keep my commandments,” Martin Luther writes: “Christ says, ‘I ask and demand no more than this one thing, that you faithfully preach about me, watch over my Word and Sacrament, show affection and harmony among one another for my sake, and patiently bear the adversities that this entails for you.’” Luther could easily have said, “Keep your eyes out for the visitor and the lonely one and shower them with affection—they need it.”
Jesus asks us to be babysitters until he returns. We are the ones responsible for telling the frightened and lonely and the self-conscious, “Your mommy and daddy will be back soon” or, better yet, “Jesus will come again.” And, until he returns, we spread out a meal for one and all and say, “Take and eat.”
We are fast approaching the summer months—you can feel the heat already. Soon after Dagmar and I arrived last summer, one of the first things you told us was: “Don’t worry if no one shows up the second Sunday you are here. That says nothing about what people think of you. Everyone leaves New York on summer weekends.” When I was a pastor in Washington, D.C., this exodus had a churchly title similar to Christmas, Lent, and Easter; it was called “Beachtide.”
My deepest desire is for each of you to have a delightful summer; you deserve a sabbath, a rest at the beach, a hike in the mountains, a breather where your soul is refreshed from the city’s onslaught. But, when you are in town, please do as Jesus asks: keep his commandments and show up here. People need you to welcome them and to love them and my hunch is you need it too.
Just to assure one another that we have not been left orphaned, let us proclaim yet again, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“We Are All Jesus Has Got at 65th and Central Park West”
John 14: 1-14
Fifth Sunday of Easter (Mother’s Day)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Whether you are interested or not, here’s a glimpse into how I write my sermons.
I read the upcoming lessons a week or so in advance. I jot down words and phrases that strike me. I note initial ideas that stir me up, even ponder what sets my mind to wander. Then I put question marks by all that baffles me.
When I read today’s gospel, I, like you, had heard it at countless funerals: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”
But there was more—and these words threw me for a loop: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”
Quite bluntly: “Jesus, do you really mean to say we will do greater works than you? That sounds like blasphemy! It is impossible to do greater works than you!”
My immediate impulse—which I confess I acted on—was to go immediately to my bookshelf to see what my favorite preachers have said about these words of Jesus in the past. I also reached for biblical commentaries, those dense, sometimes impenetrable books, written by biblical scholars that examine the Bible, verse by agonizing verse, helping us grasp what these ancient texts are all about.
One of my seminary professors warned against turning too quickly to the great preachers and scholars for their ponderings and answers. He advised us, first, to trust our own initial reactions: what does this biblical text say to you?
“You will do great works than I do?”
We need to sit with these words, listen to them, pray with them. So let us, for a moment, do just that.
Listen again: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
When I listened carefully, I realized that we don’t really do these things alone. We only do them when we call upon the name of Jesus.
I have been blessed to have excellent bishops and I am thrilled with my new one—you should have heard Bishop Rimbo’s stem-winder of a sermon yesterday at the concluding worship service of our synod assembly in Tarrytown. Harold Jansen was my bishop in Washington, D.C. I will never forget Bishop Jansen preaching at a jam-packed Reformation service at the National Cathedral; he claimed that, and I quote, “We are the only Lutherans Washington’s got.” There was some immediate bounce back: there was at least one other brand of Lutherans in the DC environs who believed ELCA Lutherans were not all Washington’s got. I always think of Bishop Jansen’s words wherever I have been called to ministry.
We are the only Lutherans 65th and Central Park West has got. The only ones! In fact, we are the only Christian congregation for quite a few blocks. There are a few synagogues nearby, the Society for Ethical Culture just down the street on Central Park West, and the Mormons a block away with Moroni blowing his golden rooftop trumpet. But God entrusts this corner to our care. Whenever we slack off, squabble, get lazy, or become stingy, we risk losing this corner for God’s work. Jesus has risen after all and has left this corner to our care, in his name. We are all Jesus has got.
I have watched now for ten months to see what you do in Jesus’ name. You haven’t told me all that you do but I have heard. You visit homebound members regularly. You go to the hospital after a dear friend has had delicate and frightening surgery. You show up at our women’s shelter and at HUG, downstairs, and no one even knows you were there. You write your congressional representatives pleading that they not forget the most vulnerable or forsake the poorest. Some of you have committed yourselves to this congregation’s ministry for years and years, in good times and bad, refusing to take leave and always leaning on God’s everlasting arms. There is so much more that I don’t know about—how you travel to spend the weekend with your aging mother, how you let your twenty-something child stay at home as he madly searches for a meaningful job, how you take your neighbor to detox in the middle of night. You, by the way, are not Mother Teresa or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther or Martin Luther King, but that is not the point. You are all God’s got and God has called you, not them, to bear the gospel in this place.
Consider your own mother on this Mother’s Day. Very few of us have had famous mothers. Our mothers have had their ups and downs. In most cases, God willing, they have done their best to convey Christ’s love to us. And yet, think about it: of all the courses they took in school—biology and algebra, physics and home economics—they never took a course in how to be a mom; they learned on the fly and have done the best they could. And yet, they are still the first ones we turn to, even if we are older now and even if they died years ago. We want to tell them immediately our best and worst news. We want them to embrace us and sometimes we just want to cry on their shoulders. When you called me as your pastor last April, the first person I thought to call with the news was my mother even though she had died ten years earlier. Our mothers are the only mothers we have got and the good ones do the best they can.
And it isn’t just our mothers; it is our brothers and sisters in Christ as well. We are the only ones Christ has got to bear one another’s burdens. That is why it is so important for each of us to do our very best to show up here as often as we can on Sunday morning. We come not just for our own edification; we also come because others expect us; they really want to see us. They want us to embrace them; they want to tell us their deepest pains, to share their greatest joys.
We are all God’s got here in this place. That is why Jesus tells us that we will do greater works that he. What a gift!
Let us celebrate that gift and seek every opportunity to tell one another, “Alleluia! Christ is risen.”
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Finding Solace in Fierce Places”
Matthew 4: 1-11
March 5, 2017 (First Sunday in Lent)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
When we moved to San Diego twelve years ago, we were thrilled to be living only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. Surprisingly, we never dipped our toes into that great expanse of water, not once. We fell in love with something else instead, the desert, a place we had no idea existed in California until we arrived. We went hiking and camping in the Anza-Borrego Desert and Death Valley every chance we got.
The desert, at least for us, is hauntingly beautiful: sand as far as you can see, like the ocean in a way; the only disruption, a prickly cactus here and there. The sun beats down unmercifully, the wind howls, the sand bites; it is utterly quiet, maddeningly so at times.
Jesus went to such a fierce landscape, the place where the devil chose to weave his diabolical web. Give the devil his due: he waited until Jesus was hungry and thirsty, until there wasn’t a peep of noise. He came knocking when Jesus was susceptible to a tempting deal or two.
The desert’s ferociousness can cause you to hear strange voices and see bizarre things, especially when you are thirsty and disoriented. That’s when the devil strikes.
“Jesus,” he said, “if you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Jesus was hungry, the world was hungry; this was a good deal for everyone involved.
“Jesus, if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus was feeling helpless so why not opt for this offer of power and glory?
And then, in perhaps the craftiest of deals, the devil said, “All these I will give you”—pointing to the lands that stretched as far as Jesus could see—“if you will fall down and worship me.” At a moment of extreme vulnerability, Jesus was offered the world. Imagine what he could have done with such authority at his fingertips: he could have fed every hungry heart and ruled the world with his own vision of love.
There was a catch to these enticing, devilish proposals as there almost always are when supremacy and grandeur are offered. Jesus would have had to sacrifice a few of his ideals—just a few—for an apparent greater glory of ruling the world. Was the trade-off worth it? What do you think?
As we gather for our Sacred Conversations downstairs in the community room immediately following Mass today, we will engage in an exercise which will reveal how brutally difficult it is to listen amidst solitude and loneliness. Most of us prefer the incessant chatter of radios, Smartphones, and television talking heads to soothe the evening just a tad. The ruthless New York City Desert exacts a brutal toll at three in the morning, in our bedroom, with its own cruel silence: our minds run wild and we are terrified. We ponder our looming deaths, our shortcomings, our failures. Absolute silence…except the winds howling…the hawks circling overhead…and an occasional screaming police siren. Being all alone in the harsh urban desert, even for ten or fifteen minutes, is grueling.
Our Quote for the Week in today’s bulletin says: “Most people’s wilderness is inside them, not outside…Our wilderness is an inner isolation. It’s an absence of contact. It’s a sense of being alone—boringly alone, or saddeningly alone, or terrifyingly alone” (H.A. Williams).
It was in such isolation that Jesus was tempted; it is in such isolation that we are tempted as well.
Here’s an invaluable Lenten learning, a gift for you: the way Jesus withstood every devilish temptation was by reaching for Holy Scripture on his desert nightstand. Of course, the Bible was not exactly there for Jesus simply to pull down from the nightstand but it didn’t matter: Jesus had committed God’s word to memory for such a time as this, words like “One does not live by bread alone…Do not put the Lord your God to the test…Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”—all these memories of God’s Word bolstered Jesus to find solace in the fierce landscape of life.
These forty days of Lent are our desert in the city. We have stripped our liturgy to barebones: the “A-word” (you thought I was going to say it, didn’t you?) has been buried until Easter; the crosses are draped in purple reminding us how our sin blocks out the splendor of God’s love; Jesus’ words from Calvary, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me,” echo deep in our souls. Ashes, purpled cross, loneliness, tomb, mortality…We can barely stand this fierce landscape and yet, if we face the silence with God’s word at hand, all will finally be well with our souls.
Ivan Illich writes, “The emptiness of the desert makes it possible to learn the almost impossible: the joyful acceptance of our uselessness.” Yes, in our uselessness we reach for God. At our most desperate and vulnerable, we discover our salvation.
When all our tricks have been tried and failed—our intellect, talents, and winsomeness, all that and more—only then do we feel compelled finally to reach out for God’s hand.
The quirky New York poet, Walt Whitman, said it so well in his “Leaves of Grass”:
After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, the ethnologist,
Finally comes the poet worthy of that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.
That, my dear friends, is why you have come here this morning. You have tried everything and you still live in this desert called “Manhattan;” you are still hungry and thirsty. Here the true son of God comes singing his songs. These songs are your hope; they are your friend when you are all alone and all else fails. Reach across your bed stand for the poet worthy of that name, Jesus Christ. Tasting his bread of life and sipping his cup of salvation come down from heaven, may you be lifted up on angels’ wings.
First Sunday in Lent
Sunday, March 5, 2017 – 11 o’clock in the morning
Thoughts from Pastor Miller