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“O God, Turn Me into a Unicorn”

 Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon

“O God, Turn Me into a Unicorn”
Romans 8: 26-30
At the Inauguration of Fifty Years of Bach Vespers
at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
October 22, 2017 (20th Sunday after Pentecost)

Are there occasions when you find it almost impossible to pray? Do you sometimes question the validity of your prayers? Or have you simply given up on praying altogether?

The poet Christian Wiman writes of looking up at night and seeing his little child Eliza standing in the doorway.

“‘Daddy,’ she said, ‘I can’t sleep. Every time I close my eyes, I’m seeing terrible things.’

“I suggested she pray to God,” writes Wiman. “This was either a moment of tremendous grace or brazen hypocrisy (not that the two can’t coincide) since I am not a great pray-er myself…Nevertheless, I suggested that my little girl get down on her knees and bow her head and ask God to give her good thoughts—about the old family house in Tennessee that we’d gone to just a couple of weeks earlier, for example, and the huge green yard with its warlock willows and mystery thickets, the river with its Pleistocene snapping turtles and water-bearded cattle, the buckets of just-picked blueberries and the fried Krispy Kremes and the fireflies smearing their strange radiance through the humid Tennessee twilight. I told her to hold that image in her head and ask God to preserve it for her.

“‘Oh, I don’t think so, Daddy.’ She looked me right in the eyes.

“‘What do you mean, Eliza? Why not?’

“‘Because in Tennessee I asked God to turn me into a unicorn and’—she spread her arms wide in a disconcertingly adult and ironic shrug—‘look how that’s worked out.’”

Oh, the disappointments! You have likely besought God, at one time or another, to turn you into a unicorn of sorts and when you haven’t sprouted that singular, delightful horn, you have uttered in resignation, “I have no idea how to pray….in fact, I am not sure I believe in the efficacy of prayer at all.”

When I was installed as Holy Trinity’s pastor last November, I promised before you here at Vespers that I would “pray for God’s people.” I hate to admit that I have found it challenging to keep that promise. It is not that I don’t want to pray; I desperately do. I long for my prayers to be as inevitable as walking our dog Cisco in the morning, checking how many “likes” I have on Facebook, and reading the Yankee’s box score. But, sadly, my prayers do not often work out like that.

I so want to pray well as I imagine do many of you. I am always in search of the perfect prayer book, you know the one with beautifully gilded pages, the lovely delicate ribbons, and the first letter of each chapter gorgeously drawn—this book will certainly be the magical elixir that rouses my drowsy prayer life….You know how that goes!

I have experimented with prayer styles over the years, too, often resorting to the simple Jesus Prayer of the Eastern Orthodox Church, repeating the simple phrase, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” over and over again. They say if you repeat this often enough—maybe 10,000 times in a day—your prayer will become part of your heart. (This prayer, by the way, was made famous in JD Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey,” picking up on the Russian spiritual classic, “The Way of the Pilgrim”—do read that delightful book.) Perhaps you experiment with prayer styles—Zen, Yoga, Centering Prayer, morning walks in Central Park—all in hopes of becoming a unicorn, healthier, happier, more tranquil and certainly more loving. And yet how often do you throw up your hands like little Eliza and cry out, “Look how that has turned out”?

The fourth century desert father Saint Anthony of Egypt, once said, “A true prayer is one that you do not understand.”

When our prayers feel so feeble, nonexistent even, maybe that is when sufficient room has been made for God to draw closer than we ever imagined and actually to pray for us. St. Paul’s says of our sometimes stumbling and bumbling prayer life, put to music in Bach’s motet we will soon hear: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

Perhaps one of those profound prayers too deep for words occurs this evening.

Tonight, we inaugurate the fiftieth year of Bach Vespers at Holy Trinity. For all those years, people like you have, at least, come for the dazzling music of Johan Sebastian Bach, often seeking tranquility in the midst of turbulent times (Vespers started in 1967 during the height of the Viet Nam War). Could it be that this gorgeous music is our most profound prayer in a way we can barely fathom—how do so many of you say it, “I just come for the music.” Could it be in the tapping of our toes, humming along with the choir, closing our weary eyes at some gorgeous turn of phrase, could it be that the Spirit is interceding for us with sighs too deep for words?

Thank you for being here tonight as we begin our 50th year celebration Bach Vespers. May God bless you with the gift of music as you offer whatever your prayer may be and, if it be God’s will, may you be turned into a unicorn.

 

 

“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.”

“Welcome, All You Ornery Boys and Girls”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Welcome, All You Ornery Boys and Girls”
Romans 7: 15-25a; Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost-July 9, 2017
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
Central Park West in New York City

I once heard a wise pastor be a bit critical of parents who bring their children to Sunday School just so they can learn how to be good little girls and boys.  He wasn’t being grumpy, he simply felt there had to be more.  Children must also learn they are not good little girls and boys.

What about us?  Have we simply come here this morning to learn how to be good? I hope we have come for more, to tell God the truth about ourselves or, as the church would have it, to confess our sins.

Saint Paul’s genius is his understanding of how hard it is for us to be good, impossible really. You must admit he is on to something when he writes, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Even when we do something good, Paul suspects we have ulterior motives: we do good for the wrong reasons—so others will take note of how thoughtful and generous we are, how pious and courageous we are.  Or how often are we holy, not particularly to help those who are suffering, but to pave our way into heaven.

Don’t Paul’s words ring true for you— “I do not do the good I want”?

One of my favorite Confirmation Class sessions is teaching the Ten Commandments.  I love asking kids, “Have you ever sinned?”  They always look nervously into their laps.  No hands go up until the class misfit raises his—the one the others always point to when trouble occurs.  I then ask, “Is Jimbo the only sinner here?”  And then, one-by-one, hands are sheepishly raised.  I always then tell the class, “If you say you are not a sinner, you are a liar and that makes you a sinner, too.”

Have you ever sinned?

Perhaps the problem is, deep down, we believe we can be perfect.  Isn’t that why so many steer clear of the church when troubles arise in our lives—we don’t feel like we measure up to the holy folks!  Countless people have said to me behind my closed doors, “Pastor, you are never going to believe this about me.”  What I always want to say is, “Just try me.  The only thing I refuse to believe is that you are perfect.”  It is not because I know them so well but because I know myself so well.  Whatever made us think we can be perfect?

We begin almost every worship service with this blunt confession, “We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.”  The church reminds us, even before we have sung the first hymn, that we are here because we are sinners not because we are good boys and girls.

Don’t fret, though, there is more.  Even before we sang, “Dearest Jesus, at Your Word,” I declared “the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”—all your sins not just the teensy ones!  And, if that is not enough, in a few moments, God will serve us a lunch, not because we deserve it, but because God loves us so much.

The finest Christian communities refuse to prance around in peacock perfection, masquerading as a bunch of goody two shoes who deem themselves holier, more liturgically correct, more socially committed than everyone else.  They know better.  All they really can admit to is being a motley concoction of broken souls in desperate need of Jesus and they embrace anybody who dares tell a similar truth about themselves.

I love broken churches—broken people, too—those that reflect Alcoholics Anonymous.  These folks need help, they need each other, they need God!  Such churches walk in the graceful tradition of Saint Paul and Martin Luther.

One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, writes: “When they first start talking at a meeting, they introduce themselves by saying, ‘I am John. I am an alcoholic,’ ‘I am Mary. I am an alcoholic,’ to which the rest of the group answers each time in unison, ‘Hi, John,’ ‘Hi, Mary.’”

Have you ever been to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or a similar twelve step group?

“They tell where they went wrong and how day by day they are trying to go right. They tell where they find the strength and understanding and hope to keep trying. Sometimes one of them will take special responsibility for another—to be available at any hour of day or night if the need arises. There’s not much more to it than that, and it seems to be enough. Healing happens. Miracles are made.”

Buechner goes on: “You can’t help thinking that something like this is what the church is meant to be and maybe once was before it got to be big business. Sinners Anonymous. ‘I can will what is right but I cannot do it,’ is the way Saint Paul put it, speaking for all of us. ‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.’”

“‘I am me. I am a sinner.’

“‘Hi, you.’

“Hi, every Sadie and Sal. Hi, every Tom, Dick, and Harry. It is the forgiveness of sins, of course. It is what the church is all about.”

God’s possibility begins whenever we are at our wit’s end and have no more tricks in our own paltry bags.  We need Jesus.  And in that need, Jesus says to us: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

We will soon be served the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.  Amazing really when, only moments ago, we admitted that “we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.”  But, that does not seem to matter to Jesus and that, of course, is the gospel: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

So glad you have come here today, you ornery little boys and girls.

“Burst Egos and the Glory of God”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s
Vesper’s Sermon
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.