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“Finding Solace in Fierce Places”

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.

“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.

“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.