Pastor Wilbert Miller’s
2nd Sunday in Lent (March 12, 2017)
Romans 4: 1-5; 13-17
“Burst Egos and the Glory of God”
William Muehl preached to my classmates and me on our first day at Yale Divinity School. Our future preaching professor looked out over the proud throng of students in Marquand Chapel and noted how delighted our parents must be that we would soon be pastors serving Christ’s beloved church. He also noted how thrilled our grandmas and grandpas were with our apparent holiness and profound piety. He then paused for what seemed an eternity; he looked over the entire incoming class of seminarians. Then he said, “Admit why you are really here: you could not get into Yale Law School or Yale Medical School”…we had not even yet come to discover that the divinity school was unfortunately known as and euphemistically called the “back door to Yale”—and thus our holy and academic egos were burst very quickly!
…And here I am tonight. I have made it thus far by faith! I join so many of my heirs, a cast of ridiculous characters who ended up doing the Lord’s work in spite of their repugnant flaws and because, frankly, nothing else seemed to work out.
This morning at Mass, we heard about Abram. He and his wife, Sarai, were an unlikely couple for God to call on to be the parents of a great nation. They were well into their nineties; their AARP cards were terribly crinkled and their life savings were almost exhausted. They were supposed to be parents of a great nation and they had no children yet to construct the foundations of such a nation. It was clear: if they were going to be the progenitors of a great nation, God better get busy.
I think you know: a geriatric miracle occurred; Abram and Sarai became the proud parents of a bouncing baby boy named Isaac.
We heard of another unlikely character at Mass this morning—we just read a bit from one of his letters to the people of Rome. His name was Saul…at least for a while. He was a wretched fellow, the unlikeliest of all to do the Lord’s work. This guy made his reputation killing Christians and was proud of it. He kept up his deadly ways until he was struck by lightning. With that, his name suddenly changed from Saul to Paul and he ended up being one of the greatest evangelists the church has ever known—even better than Jim Swaggert!
All these folks were unlikely applicants to do the Lord’s work and perhaps that’s just the way God likes it. It was Paul himself who said that Abraham became great, not because of his goodness but because of the goodness of God and because God loved him.
There are other unlikely characters too—you! I would talk about myself as unlikely but I have already confessed my difficulties getting into law school and medical school. What about you? Do you measure up to do the Lord’s work? My experience is that except for a few self-righteous prigs, most of you feel underwhelmed by your faithfulness and not particularly perky about your holiness prospects. You say things like, “I am a terrible Christian” or “You are the good person who does the Lord’s work, not me” or “I wish I could believe this stuff, but I just can’t.”
We get it into our minds that it is up to us alone to do the Lord’s work and, for whatever reason, many of us don’t feel up to the task. According to Saint Paul, when we do good for the kingdom of God, it is due to the Lord and not to us. The fancy theological term for this, by the way, is the grace of God.
God loves us deeply, each of us. While we may be none too impressed by our contributions to the world, somehow, by the grace of God, each of us in our own way—maybe in a very small way but in our way nonetheless—will do something very good that will tilt this world ever so slightly for the better…all because of the grace of God.
I have told you of a few of my desert island books. One is Graham Greene’s stunning “The Power and the Glory.” The main character is a wretched whiskey priest always searching to wet his whistle. He is a sloshed bum who sickens himself worst of all. He knows his shortcomings better than anyone. But when the powers that be in Mexico forbid the church from preaching God’s word to suffering souls, baptizing little-bitty babies, and giving people the gifts of Christ’s body and blood who hunger for heavenly food, of all the unlikely people, the old drunken priest is the one who tramps over the hot, arid Mexican mountains, from one desperate town to the next, risking his neck so poor peasants might hear and taste once again the wondrous presence of God even while he is always on the lookout for another cheap bottle of booze. By the grace of God and surpassing anything the pathetic priest realizes, he bears mercy for a tormented land.
This cast of unlikely characters should show you how God weaves heavenly wonder in our midst. You may say, “I am not too religious” or even “Pastor, if only you knew the truth about me.” And yet, it is at that very moment, exactly when we think we are miserable foul-ups and sinners that God’s glory shines through us. There is hope, my dear friends; God works through people just like you and me.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Sunday, December 18, 2016 – 11 o’clock in the morning
Sermon at Vespers
The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
“Standing on Tiptoe”
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2016
Romans 13: 11-14
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The heroes of the faith down through the ages have known that it is time to wake up. They have lived life in full stretch, in lavish expectation, and on tiptoe.
The Lutheran pastor Philipp Nicolai is such a hero. He lived in Germany in the sixteenth century. Imagine his dismay as the plague killed 1300 of his congregants, 170 in one week. He could either fall asleep in disgust or seek how to comfort his parishioners. He chose the latter, writing a gorgeous hymn whose breathtaking strains take your breath away as they punctuate this night, “Wake, awake, for night is flying.”
Pastor Nicolai had to stand on tiptoe to see above the death and heartbreak. Of tippy-toe standers, Saint Paul wrote, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrew 11: 1).
The heroes of the faith defy the darkness and courageously sing of a new day when most have resigned themselves to drone on in miserable dirges. The tiptoe standers take the long view, gazing over distant mountains to the Promised Land even while their feet are sunk deep in desert sand.
I think of prophets like Isaiah singing soaring poetry of peace when the world is at war; they imagine swords being beaten into plowshares even as the machinery of battle raucously rattles. Or who can forget Martin Luther King, Jr.’s stunning vision announced amidst the horrifying pandemonium of high-powered fire hoses and snarling attack dogs? It is hard not to join his music: “I have a dream that one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.” Dr. King stood on tiptoe.
So often we lose the courage to live life in full stretch, dreaming in vibrant colors. Sometimes, rather than chanting soaring testimonials to God’s presence, we warble hackneyed ditties that lull everyone to sleep with their sentimental triviality.
The story is told of the nineteenth century German poet Heinrich Heine as he stood with a friend at Amiens Cathedral in France. As they gazed upon this stunning structure, Heine’s friend asked why great architecture was no longer created. Heine answered: “In those days [people] had convictions, whereas we moderns only have opinions, and something more is needed than an opinion to build a Gothic cathedral.”
Every age needs people with more than an opinion. We need people with conviction, people who stand on tiptoe for what matters most.
One of the great temptations on evenings such as this is to lift up only the giants of the faith, people like Isaiah and Martin Luther King, Phillip Nicolai and Dietrich Buxtehude and Heinrich Schutz. Doing this makes believe that only the virtuosos of art and music, prophesy and preaching, can make a difference in the world. We risk being lulled into slumber, giving little old you and me a free pass when it comes to living lives that matter in our groaning world.
I have been struck in my first few months here at Vespers that we stand together on tiptoe whether we realize it or not. We come to listen to the finest music of the ages overflowing with conviction. But we do more: we all sing with wonder. In our music-making, we pray that in our world entrenched in deep gloom as the shadows lengthen that indeed light will break forth.
I recently read a poem that invites us to stand on tiptoe and sing. Listen…
I like a growling congregation,
hope creaking through difficult lives;
I like choirs of bright voices,
light filling dark places;
But best I like indifferent singing,
the soloist who gets the high notes flat,
the warbler who makes herself heard over all,
the organist who embarks on an extra verse;
For here is the greater challenge to love,
amid fastidiousness, vanity, human failing;
here, in spite of me appears the greater blessing,
on finding love sweeter than any singing.
(Meg Bateman, “Music in Church”)
You may not be capable of singing the soprano aria or playing the tricky violin part but you are essential to the wonder of this evening. Just by showing up, you demonstrate that you are awake and yearn for the light. When it is your turn, grab your hymnal and stand on tiptoe…sing and dream so all the world can hear that Christ is coming soon.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“723,794 Days or So and Waiting”
First Sunday of Advent (November 27, 2016)
Psalm 122; Romans 13: 11-14; Matthew 24: 36-44
Two Sundays ago, I wanted to be in church more than I can ever remember in my entire life. Really! I eagerly anticipated singing with you, lifting up our prayers together, and gathering at the Lord’s table.
Today isn’t too different. I love Advent. I got all antsy last night as I thought about being with you this morning, singing the Advents hymns I adore and chanting Psalm 122. I feel like I could have written the words to today’s Psalm, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”
Since arriving here, I have come to relish our Psalm singing. I can’t wait to hear how our choir interprets their verses—each remarkably different, each breathtakingly magnificent—and how Donald Meineke highlights our Psalm with his magical organ accompaniments.
Saint Paul writes: “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”
Coming to the Lord’s house and singing Psalms and Advent hymns wakes us up to God’s presence. The church has other Advent techniques to awaken us as well, the color blue for instance. If you are an early riser, you know the sky is deep blue just before sunrise. Advent blue reminds us that God’s son will soon dawn. It is so easy to grow downcast as the days grow darker. After eleven years in California, I had forgotten how dark it gets here—and how early! We need light, especially Christ the light of the world.
In the face of such deep darkness, the church also lights candles. We light them on the Advent wreath, one after another. We will create Advent wreaths in the parish hall today so you can mark time for Christ’s coming in your home.
The green Advent wreath reminds us that, even as the Central Park trees have become barren, life prevails in this cold winter. The pine scent wafting in the air even prompts us through smell to await Christ’s coming.
Though it is dark outside, we come to the Lord’s house with great anticipation, yearning for Christ’s return among us. We commit ourselves financially to Holy Trinity so that this neighborhood will not lose hope. Our 2017 pledging has already grown more than 7% from last year’s total and, God willing, quite a few of you will join the excitement today, using the pledge card in your bulletin and making a financial commitment for the coming year. We have so much reason to hope! Your pledge is one Advent candle you bear so that the forlorn among us will not grow discouraged. We are here at the corner of 65th and Central Park West, reminding people of Jesus’ promise: “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming…you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Waiting can be grueling. Some grow impatient as if their broken dreams are like shattered precious china. Imagine what it must have been like for the earliest Christians who came forty years after Jesus had been crucified. They had heard Jesus and his closest followers announce that he would come again maybe even in their lifetime. They believed this good news. And yet, as each year passed, they wondered: had Jesus sold them a bill of goods? Their cherished Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed; their brothers and sisters were being tortured and executed. “Christ, are you coming or not?” they pleaded.
Is it any different for you? It may be worse! By my inaccurate calculation, 723,794 days or so have gone by since Jesus left this earth…and still no Jesus. Like little children impatiently awaiting Santa’s arrival, you anticipate Jesus’ coming…or have you grown too cynical to wait?
Maybe your precious temple has not been destroyed and maybe your loved ones have not been fed to the lions for their faith, but you so want Jesus to return in your life. You desperately want someone to take note of you and to say, “I love you”; you crave a meaningful job that will finally give you some measure of satisfaction and address some of the world’s deepest needs; you want to stop your excessive drinking, this time for good. There are countless nights when you frantically wonder and pitifully wail, “Jesus, are you coming again or should I look for someone else?”
For such unrelenting restlessness, this place exists. It is why we just courageously prayed, together, “Stir up you power, Lord Christ and come.” It is why in a matter of moments we will confess “Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” some of us weakly as others more confidently urge us on. It is why we will shout with one voice, even as some falter: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”
The Advent church, at our best, navigates the terrifying shadows together, telling one another a story or two the best we are able that Christ will not forsake us and that he will come again. The Advent church draws close to a dear friend in the hospital who is fearful of what the coming night will bring and so needs a story of hope. Such a church gathers with a neighbor around a dining room table at two in the morning in the face of a cruel betrayal and promises the sun will rise again. This Advent church sings the Alleluia story at a freshly dug grave as everyone returns to their cars and the grieving spouse’s world has turned upside down. We tell the story that Christ will come again, here, now, in a way, pray God, that all will hear. So, let us sing to one another and tell the old, old story that Christ will come again.
Yes, indeed, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”
The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller’s Reformation Day Sermon
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
Sunday, October 30, 2016
“There Is a Free Lunch for Everyone”
Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Romans 3: 19-28; John 8: 31-36
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A few years ago I was interviewed by “The Reader.” This magazine has a section called “Sheep and Goats” in which the worship, music, architecture, sermons, friendliness, and even snacks of a church are rated on a one to five-star system. This free weekly with lots of Botox and medical marijuana ads can be picked up on virtually every San Diego street corner along with all manner of unsavory publications. The interviewer asked me what subject I most like to preach about. I told him simply, “There is a free lunch for everyone.”
His eyes glazed over straightaway. He clearly hoped for a more theologically profound response, expecting me to say I love to wax eloquently on the rapture, predestination, or even delicate political issues and who the next President of the United States of America should be. When I told him I like to preach on “there is a free lunch for everyone,” the interview spiraled downhill, and fast.
People often ask me—and I imagine you too—what Lutherans believe. When I say Lutherans believe in law and gospel, word and sacrament, justification by faith apart from works prescribed by the law, their eyes glaze over. To get the conversation revved up again, I usually say something like this: if you worship with us on Sunday morning, you will find our liturgy resembles the Roman Catholic Church because we are, after all, cousins; we don’t believe, however, that the Pope has absolute authority and, oh by the way, our pastor is married.
These answers always beg other questions: are you like Methodists? Presbyterians? Baptists? What do you believe about Holy Communion? With all these questions looming, I have come to believe the simplest and best Lutheran answer is that we believe God offers a free lunch for everyone. That is, of course, why Martin Luther banged his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, 499 years ago.
The Presbyterian minister and writer Frederick Buechner describes what I call “free lunch theology” this way: “Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it, deserve it, or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.”
We know better than that though. We have become masters at reading the fine print. We know nothing in this world is free. My favorite fine print these days is found in advertisements for miracle drugs. These sensational medicines claim to eradicate all manner of aches and ails, enable us to live almost forever, and infuse us with unimaginable powers as we approach our autumn years. Then always come the warnings, in fine print: taking this drug may cause unintended side effects such as heart attacks, insomnia, athletes foot, excessive gas, or other mind-boggling maladies that may last longer than four hours and for which you must immediately see your doctor…Just as you suspected, there is no such thing as a free lunch.
All the fine print makes it almost impossible to fathom the Reformation’s guiding principle that grace is free for all. This is precisely why most of us madly scramble to read the fine print: we must have to believe to be saved, to be baptized, to confess Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, or, at the very least, to be a very good person.
Take stewardship for instance: “Pastor, are you saying I don’t have to give a nickel to be saved, that I can come along for a free ride and leave the driving to others?”
Let me attempt to answer that. We are about to embark on our 2017 stewardship campaign here at Holy Trinity. There is an incredible buzz in the air these days. Worship attendance is higher than it has been in at least four years; your giving this year is projected to be the highest that it has been in the history of this congregation. Worship and music is beyond belief. Our future at the corner of 65th and Central Park is very bright indeed!
To make our ministry continue to grow and flourish, each of us must do our part. And you are doing just that! We gathered for three listening sessions this summer at which you offered dreams to make this an even more vibrant congregation, things like moving our baptismal font to a more central location, improving our sound system, painting the parish hall; all these things are being planned or are in the process of happening. Our Finance Committee met three hours on Thursday evening; our Capital Project Committee met four hours last Saturday; our Church Council has been listening to your dreams. Serious planning and considerable hard work are being done to make our considerable dreams become realities.
To achieve our dreams, here and beyond our doors, each of us needs either to increase our pledge by between 5-10% for the coming year or, if we have never pledged, to do so this year.
In about a week, you will receive your pledge card in the mail. I pray that you will join Dagmar and me in giving serious consideration to how you will financially support our astonishing ministry. Some will give $500 a week, others $1 a week; each gift is essential to our proclaiming Christ to this community.
These are amazing days. Won’t you do your part in making our dreams come true by making a pledge? I guarantee you this: if every one of us commits to announcing that FREE LUNCH IS SERVED HERE at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity, our ministry will blossom well into the future. That’s why we pledge and that is why Luther banged the 95 Theses on the church door. He wanted everyone to know, Roman Catholic and Lutheran, pledger and nonpledger, $500 or $1 a week offeror: there is a free lunch served to all of us by Jesus Christ.
Guess what: lunch is ready! So, come: the gifts of God for the people of God. For free…and with no fine print!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.