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“The Perfect Gift”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“The Perfect Gift”
Luke 2: 22-40
First Sunday of Christmas (December 31, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park

Every Christmas, one of my biggest thrills, next to hauling home our tree blocks on end and celebrating our dear Savior’s birth with you, is contemplating the fantasy gifts in the annual Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogue.  A few years ago, I so wanted to give Dagmar Neiman Marcus’ dancing fountains created by the folks who did the ones outside the Bellagio in Las Vegas; we could have had those fountains in our back yard, choreographed to music of our choosing (thank heavens I didn’t give Dagmar the fountains because moving them from San Diego to Manhattan would have been a bear and putting them on Holy Trinity’s rooftop would have been virtually impossible).

This year’s Neiman Marcus gifts were more practical.  There was the pair of Rolls-Royces, one blue, one orange, for the paltry sum of $885,375. I didn’t spring for the set because I couldn’t afford the parking costs after splurging on the autos.  The more charming gift was the one Dagmar and I contemplated giving you: instead of squeezing into our apartment following today’s Mass for the 2nd Annual Miller’s New Year’s Eve Sherry Hour, we could have had 150 rooms at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square, tonight, New Year’s Eve!  Imagine if we had purchased that gift: we would all soon be off for a Times Square rooftop extravaganza with food, drinks, DJ, killer view of the ball drop, and rooms for each of you. All for $1.6 million!

It is never easy to give the perfect gift.  There was that one, the one wrapped up at the Presentation of Our Lord in Jerusalem.  Mary and Joseph took their first born to the Temple and did as God’s law to Moses stipulated: they were purified after childbirth and they consecrated their first-born to God and offered a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.

One of the people awaiting the perfect gift was old Simeon.  He had been at the temple for years, hoping the gift would bring his salvation and the salvation of the entire world.  You can imagine Simeon’s delight as Mary and Joseph placed their tiny child into his gnarled hands; you can see his cloudy eyes sparkle as he lifted this perfect gift heavenwards and proclaimed: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples.”  He could shut his weary eyes anytime now for he had finally received what he had been awaiting, God’s little Son.

Only moments after Simeon lifted the Babe of Bethlehem, Anna, who had spent her widowhood at the temple, night and day, fasting and praying, also savored this heavenly gift.

We Lutherans are particularly fond of Anna and Simeon. In what is perhaps most unique to our Lutheran tradition, we sing Simeon’s gorgeous Nunc Dimittis after receiving Holy Communion: “Now, let your servant go in peace…My own eyes have seen the salvation…”

The one holy catholic and apostolic church adores singing Simeon’s song at Compline, our final night prayer before closing our eyes at the end of day.  We are like children praying, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”  Along with Simeon, we close our eyes in stillness, confident that God protects us as darkness settles in.

We sing Simeon’s song one more time, at the close of the funeral liturgy, when our loved ones have closed their eyes the final time this side of the kingdom come.  Immediately after we have heard the pastor say, “Receive your servant into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light,” with tears streaming down our faces, we join Simeon in song, “Lord, now let your servant go in peace.”

Simeon and Anna, though in their autumn years, were crammed with vigorous hope. They gathered at their beloved temple and reminisced about the past but also dreamed of the future.  The past summoned them into the future; they were confident that their and our future is in God’s hands.

We are called to be Simeon and Anna here at Holy Trinity.  Beginning tomorrow, we will spend a year reminiscing about 150 years of exemplary ministry in this place.  We will recall the saints who have lifted up the Christ Child for the salvation of the world.  We will do more than look backward and reminisce, however.  Like Anna and Simeon, we will also hope.  We will sing stunning music, hear the Lutheran church’s finest preachers.  Our calling has been and will continue to be to wait for our salvation to come to this great city of New York as a vulnerable and loving child, Jesus Christ our Lord, and then to tell the world what we have heard and seen and tasted.

The Christ Child is the perfect gift for a time such as this, for us, for those we love, and for those we are called to serve.  Happy New Year and Happy 150th, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“Singing in the Dark Night”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Singing in the Dark Night”
Candlemas/ Presentation of Our Lord
February 2, 2017
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church-New York City

Christmas was forty days ago.  Even though our trees have been tossed curbside and our decorations packed away for weeks now, we continue to long for the Christ Child’s light in our lives.

This evening is an embarrassment of riches if you are still longing for Christmas light.  We celebrate Candlemas, blessing the candles that will light our way through this year. No matter how dark these days, we dare not forget Christ is our light.

We also celebrate the Presentation of Our Lord, recalling how Mary came out of the seclusion of childbirth and, with her husband Joseph, brought their precious little Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem as scripture mandated.

And, yes indeed, today is even Groundhog Day.  While it may seem a frivolous festival observed by furry Phil and his Punxsutawney pals, it is, in fact, more than that: it is the day when people yearn for the distressing winter darkness to give way to the tender, spring light.

Old Simeon and feeble Anna watched and waited at the Temple for years and years just to answer that very question: would light enter the darkness?  Imagine Simeon’s delight as he took the tiny child from Mary’s affectionate hands into his own arthritic ones.  Watch as he lifts Jesus to the heavens; be enchanted by his raspy yet riveting voice singing one of the most enthralling hymns the world has ever heard:
Lord, now let your servant go in peace, according to your word:

My own eyes have seen the salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of every people;
A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.

Simeon could now calmly close his eyes one final time for he had beheld the light that would guide his path through death to life forever.

Lutherans have had a unique love affair with Simeon’s canticle called the Nunc Dimittis in Latin.  At the conclusion of funerals, we open our clenched fists and let our loved ones soar to heaven as if letting a caged bird fly free.  With voices breaking, we sing the best we are able, “O Lord, now let your servant go in peace.”

We sing Simeon’s exquisite song at the final prayer service of the day, Night Prayer (Compline).   We are reminded that every night, as we close our eyes, we die a little death, and yet we trust that when we finally die, we can do so in peace as did Simeon and Anna.

Tiny children sense this little death as monsters lurk beneath their beds.  They pray the simplest and yet sincerest of prayers:

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I shall die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

As we grow older, the darkness is no less terrifying. We watch the evening news, horrified at what might come while we sleep. Monsters lurk this time out in the world we love. We implore Simeon and Anna to come by our side and to support our singing, “Oh Lord, now let your servant go in peace.”

One of my most cherished pastoral memories is gathering at Elsa Mae Rhodes’ bedside at the National Lutheran Home in Rockville, Maryland.  These were her final moments this side of the kingdom-come.  Elsa Mae was the ninety-eight-year-old daughter of African American slaves.  She endured the vile cruelties hurled her way and yet, remarkably,  never lost hope and refused to surrender to bitterness.  Her daughter and I held vigil in the wee hours as Elsa Mae readied herself for the final journey to the far side of the Jordan.  We watched as the light faded in her cataracted eyes, as the memories scampered through her withered mind, and then we heard her begin to feebly and softly sing, not indignantly, but exquisitely:

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

We gather here tonight to praise God for a similar blessing of the light.

In a matter of moments, you will receive a bit of bread and a sip of wine.  Somehow, someway, this is the very body and blood of that tiny Christ Child for whom you have waited.  As the glorious taste lingers in your mouth, may you sing a confident song even as darkness blankets the earth, “Lord, now let your servant go in peace…For my own eyes have seen my salvation.”