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“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.

“Standing on Tiptoe”

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.