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“Frolicking Down at the River”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Frolicking Down at the River”
(Mark 1: 4-11)
The Baptism of Our Lord (transferred) & The Baptism of Vivienne Marie Francis
January 14, 2018

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The gospel of Mark opens this way, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Hearing the words “good news,” we expect quaint mangers and gentle lambs, regal magi and beautiful Mary. What Mark does instead is launches off with a thirty-year old Jesus hanging out with the riff raff down at the river.

I know a thing or two about rivers having grown up 600 yards from Wheeling Creek, a pintsize tributary emptying into the mighty Ohio. The underbellies of rivers are not pretty. Rusty beer cans bob along their banks, dead fish float in the weeds, rats scamper here and there, big ol’ black snakes slither amidst the other creepy flotsam and jetsam…I wonder if the Jordan River was like that.

You can imagine the crowd Jesus joined. They had failed every New Year’s resolution they had ever made and this time around were restlessly waiting to jump into the Jordan for John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins to see how that might work.

If Mark is to believed, that Jesus’ baptism is good news, what’s up?

Jesus was with pimps and prostitutes, for goodness sakes, rednecks and ultranationalists, drunks and deplorables, the wild and wooly. Jesus wasn’t teaching them how to hold their noses and swim. Oh no, he dove in with them and got as drenched as a puppy in a fire hydrant.

Let’s admit it though: there is a sort of romanticism about it all. You know what I mean: there are sinners whose misguided ways and ugly diatribes do not irritate us in the least. We all have our favorite sinners whose foibles and foul-ups make us laugh and applaud.

A good rule I learned in divinity school is if any bit of scripture, including Jesus at the river with the sinners, doesn’t make us squirm, it is highly unlikely we are grasping how it shocked the original hearers.

The early church was horrified by Jesus frolicking at the river. What in the world was he doing with those stinking sinners? Wasn’t Jesus pure and spotless? Shouldn’t he have been hiding in the bushes, folding his pure hands in prayer and piously begging for God’s mercy on those dreadful sinners?

And come to think of it, aren’t there people in our own day who can never be washed clean, who deserve our endless rage, whose company we should never keep? I am sure you can think of one or two such people this morning. That, by the way, is the way of the world: create insiders and outsiders, good and bad, saved and eternally doomed. Remarkably, that’s not what Jesus did. He frolicked with the sinners down at the river.

Early on Friday morning, at about 2:30 in the morning, I woke up tossing and turning. The very question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth,” weighed heavy on my mind. Our president had apparently made denigrating remarks about the people of Haiti and Africa. My mind was running wild: can anything good come out of Haiti or Bethlehem, Namibia or Jerusalem—I had baptized kids from these very places. And, of course, more to the point, can anything good come out of Wheeling, West Virginia (my hometown) or New York City (where you and I live and do ministry together) or God knows where?” Again, Jesus joined all manner of folks, the good, the bad, and the ugly, people from Haiti and Africa; he even dared dip his toes with the ornery folks of the wild Upper West Side.

Oh my, do we need dreamers these days who have the courage to imagine people from Haiti and Africa, from the Republican and Democratic side of the aisle, all part of God’s kingdom. We do well to remember such a dreamer this morning, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.” He imagined all kinds of children gathering together at the river, splishing and splashing to beat the band.

In a few moments, Vivienne Marie Francis will be baptized. As water pours down her little face, God will call her “beloved daughter” just as so long-ago God called Jesus “beloved son.” You and I will promise to spend a lifetime helping Vivienne remember this day when she was washed in holiness, when God lovingly looked in her eyes and said, “You are mine, dear Vivienne.” Sadly, there will almost certainly be other voices in Vivienne’s life—as there are in all of ours—voices that will try to convince her that she is not so special in God’s eyes. But you and I, family and brothers and sisters in Christ, will tell Vivienne over and over again that she is special in God’s sight.

And so, let us now go to the water hand-in-hand with Vivienne and let us watch as God, more delighted than a river otter, frolics with her and us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“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.