3 West 65th St | New York, NY 10023 | 212.877.6815

“Now That Peter Has Answered, What Do You Say?”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Now That Peter Has Answered, What Do You Say?”
Matthew 16: 13-20
August 27, 2017 (12th Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West

Who doesn’t love answering Jesus’ question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

The disciples immediately got in on the act. They raised their hands the moment Jesus called on them and they breathlessly answered, “People are saying you are John the Baptist, Elijah, or Jeremiah, and others say you are one of the prophets.”

We want to answer, too. We want to be the first to tell Jesus what others are saying: “Some say you are the best person who ever lived, kind of a super Martin Luther King, Jr. or a wonder-working Mahatma Gandhi but even better; others claim you are almost like God; some actually declare you are God; and still others confess that you are completely human and completely divine all at the same time.

Oh yes, we love reporting what others say: “Did you hear what President Trump said yesterday; my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Burt, always said this about the Palmer Method of penmanship; my pastor preached exactly on that issue last Sunday; my mommy warned of that when I was six-years old.”

We are quite proficient reporting on what others say.

Now, let me forewarn you: never come knocking at my office door and say, “Pastor, people are saying.” Never! To be blunt, if you tell me, “People are saying,” I will look you straight in the eye and say, “I don’t want to hear what others are saying, I want to hear what you say! Put your money where your mouth is.” Oh, and by the way, expect the exact same thing from me…at least on my best days.

I know this sounds unusually harsh but I am only trying to do what Jesus did. After the disciples blurted out all they had heard regarding what others were saying about him, Jesus asked them point blank, “But who do you say that I am?” As you might imagine, there was dead silence, as there so often is when convictions are required rather than opinions. Answering “Who do you say that I am?” demands guts; we must stand up and be counted.

Actually, one person did blurt out who he thought Jesus was and, as you might imagine, it was good ol’ Peter. Never shy to offer his slant on matters of the day, Peter instantly declared, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Don’t you love him?

And for that answer, Jesus presented him with this impressive ecclesiastical accolade: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it”…Oh, and by the way, we have followed suit and put up a mosaic in Peter’s honor, right here at Holy Trinity altar’s, just off to Jesus’ side.

I don’t for a minute think Jesus called Peter “Rocky” because he was a theological genius: Jesus had to know from experience that Peter was not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. I also doubt whether Peter’s new nickname had much, if anything, to do with him offering his own courageous opinion rather than that of others. Jesus must have had an inkling that, only hours before he would die, Peter would cower when it mattered most. A young girl would query Peter, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean?” and Peter would get all shaky-kneed, just about upchuck, and stutter, “I tell you, I do not know the man”—and he would allegedly do this not just once but three times. Sounds like no answer at all.

Whatever the case, never forget Jesus’ response to Peter’s answer as to who he was: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” When all was said and done, Peter’s confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” had nothing to do with his convictions, with his heroism, or even with his brilliance; it had everything to do with God. Peter’s answer to “who do you say that I am” may seem like he had just won the ¾ of a billion-dollar heavenly lottery, but don’t be fooled. Peter didn’t even realize that his answer actually meant that God had come very close to dolts like him and would come close to all those who followed him down through the centuries, including you and me. No matter how idiotic our answers regarding who Jesus is or how profound they might sound, Jesus comes to us anyway. We must never forget, just as for Peter, God has provided us with our best answer and that is Jesus who comes to be our brother.

I think that’s why Jesus called Peter the rock and why he calls us the rock in our own peculiar way. We can be such cowards, falling back on the old saw, “people are saying.” We can sometimes tremble and claim we hardly know Jesus when our answers matter most. In spite of our foul-ups and flame outs, God has come to earth in Jesus to put up with our foolishness and cowardice and even when we try to convince others that we are the bee’s knees.

Yes, we are the rock, not because we are so much better than the rest of the world or cleverer than just about anyone else or fearless heroes beyond compare. We know full well that our boldest moments often come when huge cheering crowds march at our sides and we don’t have a thing to lose; likewise, our worst moments often come when we are standing all alone and must say exactly what we think. In spite of all our corny, cowardly, and halfhearted answers, Jesus for some odd reason builds the church on our scrawny and sometimes pompous shoulders. If we can at least know that—and that will be our best answer—we can almost certainly be like Peter, the rock, called to serve Christ here in this place at 65th and Central Park West.

Who knows, maybe someday there might be a mosaic of us right up there with Peter, standing at Jesus’ side! Amazing, huh?

 

 

“Water Walkers Who Refuse to Wait for the Catastrophe”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon as We Prayed for Our Nation
“Water Walkers Who Refuse to Wait for the Catastrophe”
Matthew 14: 22-23
Wednesday Evening Mass, August 16, 2017

This wasn’t the first time Peter had said something so preposterous. He was always the big shot, wanting to be at Jesus’ side in glory and telling anyone who would listen that Jesus called him “The Rock.” Like the disciples, we have grown weary of Peter’s antics. When he says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” we, along with James and Andrew, jab each other in the ribs and say to Peter: “Go for it Pizza Pie; take a giant step for mankind, big fella; float like a dragonfly.”

The Bible doesn’t tell us how far Peter walked on water. What’s your guess—two steps, perhaps four? Saint Matthew does write: “Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, be became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” As Peter screamed, Jesus castigated him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

In the midst of our merriment at Peter the buffoon, aren’t we a bit jealous of his bravado? After all, taking just a few measly steps on a wind-battered lake ain’t exactly shabby. How many steps do you think you could take before sinking into the sea?

In these days, it’s easy to sit in our La-Z Boys and judge those who get out of the boat and try to quell the sickening racism and disgusting anti-Semitism occurring in our nation. We all have our opinions of what is appropriate and inappropriate. Like Olympic diving judges holding up scorecards, we evaluate anyone who takes a step or two off the high dive to try to bring justice to our reeling nation. It’s easy to judge from a safe distance; it is far more dangerous to step into the raging sea with hopes that things might get a bit better.

What do you think: is it better to try and fail or to be rendered impotent by our desire to act perfectly before taking a single step?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the great saints of the twentieth century. You are probably aware that he had a cushy job teaching just up the street at Union Theological Seminary. But as Hitler began to rear his ugly head, Bonhoeffer had to make difficult decisions: whether to leave the safe confines of United States soil for his beloved German homeland and, eventually, whether to be involved in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. People could and would judge him but Bonhoeffer found it more unbearable to stand idly by as Jewish people faced the slaughter. In the finest of Lutheran tradition, Bonhoeffer “sinned boldly;” he dared to act because he was already saved by a merciful God. Risky, of course, but, for Bonhoeffer there was no alternative. Oh yes, he was hung at Hitler’s Flossenburg Concentration Camp only days before World War II ended….Feels a bit to me like sinking into the sea for what you believe. But we do not forget Saint Dietrich.

Listen to his words and tell me if you have heard anything more timely in recent days: “If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” One thing is clear: there is no room for anti-Semitism and racism in the Christian life. We must take risks and we must do what we can to stop the madness in our own day.

At the beginning of this evening’s worship service, Steve Aurand played one of my favorite liturgical pieces, Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.” Steve asked whether this was appropriate for this evening and I said, “More than appropriate, it is perfect!”

Jesus invites us to join the clowns, folks like Saint Peter and Saint Dietrich, those willing, in faith, to jump out of the boat and to walk on water. For my money, Peter is the most faithful clown in the disciple boat—as was Bonhoeffer after him! Their faith was borne of bravery and deep faithfulness, knowing they would be ridiculed when their boats began to sink and yet trusting that Jesus would catch them no matter how wet they got.

I pray that each of us will step out of this boat (this holy space, by the way, is called a nave after the Latin word “navis” which means “ship”). We will leave this boat tonight and, I pray, by faith, boldly and lovingly walk on water. There is far too much hatred these days, far too much vitriol aimed at those with whom we disagree. Let us not be coopted by the haters; let us not use their ugly ways to try to accomplish loving results. Let our biggest risk of water-walking be to love those who think differently than us and to stand with those too easily crushed by the rich and powerful.

Let us dare, in Christ’s name, to build a house where all are welcome, in this congregation and throughout this nation.

“A Tawdry King, A Cowardly Saint, and Bedraggled Runts Like Us”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Vespers Sermon
“A Tawdry King, A Cowardly Saint, and Bedraggled Runts Like Us”
1 Samuel 16: 1-13;
Text of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Le reniement de Saint Pierre
March 26, 2017 (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

Over and over again in the Bible, God calls the most complex characters to carry out ministry in this world.

Two such characters are with us this evening, King David and Saint Peter. They are giants of the faith and yet dreadfully flawed.

Take King David for instance. It all started out rather innocuously. Samuel went to Jesse to see whether one of his boys might have sufficient intellect and chutzpah to be the next king of Israel.

Eliab was the first son to be paraded before Samuel. He was tall and handsome, a strapping figure to be sure. Anyone on the lookout for royal stature would have picked Eliab in a heartbeat. But abruptly, God’s voice came booming from heaven and vetoed Samuel’s preliminary pick: “Look not to his appearance and to his lofty stature.”

And so, Samuel resumed the search. Seven of Jesse’s sons were marched before him, one-by-one, and each summarily rejected by God. It was the eighth, the ruddy one with beautiful eyes, who caught God’s attention. David was an after-thought being the runt of the litter. It was befuddling really because, as you know, then and now, we prefer leaders who are big and powerful. We are skeptical of runtiness!

Ted Schneider was the pastor of St. Luke’s-Silver Spring, the largest Lutheran congregation in metropolitan Washington, DC. Every year, our national Lutheran church holds a retreat where only the senior pastors of our largest congregations are invited. Needless to say, I have never been invited since I have served runts of the litter—ruddy and beautiful congregations, but runts nonetheless. Pastor Schneider, who went on to be the Lutheran bishop of Washington, D.C., told me that, almost without exception, the pastors of these congregations with more than 2500 members were 6’6” tall with sweeping white manes and deep, resonant voices. When they walk into cocktail parties, you take notice. Pastor Schneider stood out among these eye-catching titans—or actually he didn’t: he is 5’6”, I think.

King David was the runt, too, and yet everyone took notice and that’s what eventually caused problems. He captivates us by slaying the giant Goliath and crafting the gorgeous Psalms we sing on evenings like this. He was unlike anyone Israel had ever seen—so self-assured, so charming, so debonair; no one questioned David’s God-given ability to lead Israel. And yet, like so many compelling leaders, David sickens us to this day no matter how much we adore him.

Those blessed with unusual gifts are often the ones who must be kept in check. Down through history, those with the greatest promise have often unleashed the most unfathomable havoc. One need only look at David’s hideous affair with beautiful Bathsheba: watch the cover-up as he eventually had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, killed on the front line of battle. Powerful men, when crossed, can be ruthless and have the potential to unleash all manner of mayhem.

We also welcome Saint Peter tonight as the choir sings this evening’s cantata. Peter was like David in so many ways. Though called to be Jesus’ right-hand man, all did not turn out as planned. When Jesus was arrested and his death was imminent, Peter slinked into the shadows and denied ever having known his best friend. Peter had three chances to stand up for Jesus and three times he cowered like a beaten puppy.

What is so astonishing is that God even called Peter and David. You would think God would have known better…and maybe God did.

Rabbi David Wolpe, in his book, David: The Divided Heart, writes: “Throughout his journey, David, though sinful and rebuked, is never faithless. His failures do not make him doubt—or reject—God; rather, they intensify his devotion.”

Rabbi Wolpe continues: “Conventional religion has a regrettable tendency to do surgery on the human soul, leaving only the exalted parts. But readers of the Bible find that [it] is filled with flawed human beings and fraught situations against the backdrop of charged sanctity.”

Peter was no different. The classics scholar Erich Auerbach notes that in all of Greco-Roman literature, there is no story like Peters’ encounter with the servant girl in the high priest’s courtyard. “Peter is the leader of the Christian movement, and yet the literature of the movement implicates him in a tawdry deception with dialogue so realistic that it’s embarrassing” (Richard Lischer, The End of Words).

We like happy endings where our heroes are perfect and courageous but that, dear friends, is not the biblical story. God chooses flawed folks like David and Peter to do heavenly work here on earth.

And, by the way, God chooses you and me to do similar work as well. In spite of our cowardice and braggadocio, doubts and tawdry desires, God picks us to let God’s grace shine through to those we encounter day after day.

Take heart in the odd flaws of heroes and saints like King David and Saint Peter. After all, you and I join them to do God’s work here on earth. There is hope for us, dear friends, there is hope.