The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller’s Sermon
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
“Oh, to Live in a Place Like This”
Psalm 84: 1-7; Luke 18: 9-14
October 23, 2016 (23rd Sunday after Pentecost)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
As most of you are aware, Dagmar and I came here from San Diego. I hesitate to compare the Upper West Side with that city on the Pacific Ocean but you should know San Diego calls itself “America’s Finest City” and it is often said that it has the most perfect climate of any place in the world.
When Southern Californians starting receiving news that we were moving back to the East coast, here to Holy Trinity, there was the inevitable sense of betrayal, with the very first question almost always being: “How will you ever deal with the snow and the suffocating humidity?”
Well, we just barely survived the suffocating humidity and we are currently ordering L. L. Bean duck boots and snuggly flannel pajamas with footsies to see whether we can endure the brutal New York winters.
I must tell you, though, as I told many West Coasters, I have so missed autumn. The reds and yellows and oranges are gorgeous colors in God’s palate; not to have seen those vivid colors for eleven years made me feel worse than a little girl missing three dazzling crayons in her gigantic 64 Crayola box.
How thrilling it is to be here. We walk through Central Park every day. We pick up leaves and snap pictures on our iPhones and put them on Facebook. We stand in amazement of God’s glorious creation. As much as we loved California, I feel like the song has come true, “Country road, take me home, to the place I belong”—not to West Virginia perhaps, but close, to autumn in Manhattan. These fall days are magical beyond belief.
The Psalmist had similar feelings when travelling to Jerusalem to see the great temple. “How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts. My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.” Can you imagine the excitement of a bone-weary pilgrim longing to stand in God’s house on earth? Everyone had told him of this stunning place. His heart beat faster and his eyes were wide in wonder; he couldn’t wait to catch the first glimpse of the God’s house rising over the rolling hills of Jerusalem.
Deep in our soul is a longing to be near the Lord. While we sometimes lose touch with this yearning, it lingers there somewhere. Saint Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” The aching desire to be in the Lord’s presence is similar to being on vacation in a stunning, exclusive resort: no matter how elegant it may be, we still long to get back home to our familiar bed with our own treasured pillow.
If you aren’t familiar with Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible called “The Message,” I commend it to you. Pastor Peterson’s translation offers a fresh way of hearing what might have become a bit too stunted or familiar to us. Almost always his renderings bring a smile to my face and a bit of laughter. Listen to a few verses of today’s Psalm 84:
What a beautiful home, GOD-of-the-Angel-Armies!
I’ve always longed to live in a place like this,
Always dreamed of a room in your house,
where I could sing for joy to God-alive!
I like that, “I’ve always longed to live in a place like this.”
Whenever Dagmar and I have been in search of a home to buy, we have held fast to a particularly hard-learned philosophy: if we like it, we cannot afford it! In my first interview with Holy Trinity’s Call Committee, I asked whether we would be expected to live in the parish house abutting the church or if we could purchase our own home. They stared in disbelief at the idiocy of my question and said, “Yes, you must live here.” We decided to look around anyway, just for fun, and quickly confirmed our timeless house-hunting philosophy and the Call Committee’s wisdom: if we like it, it costs at least $4 million!
It is a similar feeling to what the fellow in today’s gospel reading had. He realized he was unfit to live in the Lord’s house. He was, after all, a miserable tax collector, loathed by everyone. He counted himself among all the other rotten thieves, rogues and adulterers who neither deserved nor received any measure of kindness from God’s more exclusive company. The nearest he came to entering the Lord’s house was out where the garbage cans were kept as he cried out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
That was until Jesus took this devious tax collector by the hand and ushered him into the most elegant room in God’s house even though he felt unworthy to hang out even in the basement.
Like the tax collector, many of us feel we cannot afford to live in the Lord’s house. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” we cry out. And then, to our utter surprise, Jesus takes us by the hand and leads us into the most elegant dining room we have ever seen and says, “Take and eat…drink you all of it.”
Of course, our initial judgment is the correct one: we cannot afford to live here, in the wondrous courts of the Lord’s house, and yet we so desperately want to live here, just like the swallows and sparrows that built their nests in the nooks and crannies of God’s holy temple in Jerusalem. Like those busy little birds, we want to live in God’s presence. Being here on Sunday morning feels like walking through Central Park on a crisp autumn morning: we behold the vibrancy of God’s love in all of its heavenly magnificence, especially as we taste the bread of angels and the cup of salvation.
For some reason that only God knows, we have been ushered into this holy court this morning. I hope the words spoken to you at the beginning of this Mass, “Your sins are forgiven,” are still ringing your ears. I pray, too, that, like the Psalmist, God has made your wish come true, “I have always longed to live in a place like this.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.