Pastor Wilbert Miller
“The Disgusting Offense of God’s Grace”
September 24, 2017 (16th Sunday after Pentecost)
The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is a month away. As October 31 nears, you will hear a lot about grace. We Lutherans beat our breasts when we hear the word “grace.” We are so proud that we have foresworn the revolting thought of anyone getting into heaven by doing even one good work. Oh, yes, we are sinners, we are Lutherans, we are champions of grace.
I suspect, however, that most of us are not quite as enamored with grace as we claim. The quaint thought that God saves the good, bad, and ugly with no apparent distinctions can be downright offensive. Plain ol’ grace can be as disgusting as someone cutting in front of us in the Fairway Market checkout line. Plain ol’ grace feels like giving a leg up to someone who hasn’t done nearly as much as we think we have done.
There is no such thing as a free lunch, we grouse. “Come on, Pastor, we may be saved by grace but we have to do something, we at least have to believe!” “Sure, I believe in grace but if I don’t treat my neighbor well, what’s it all worth? There have to be a few good works along the way on my part or the world will disintegrate.”
Today’s gospel shocks those of us who support an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. We would never dream of coming to work late and expect to be paid the same as the person showing up at six-forty-five in the morning. How can Jesus commend such an outrageous business practice? We work hard and deserve every cent we get. And, oh by the way, we obey the laws of land, pay our fair share of taxes, and don’t panhandle on Broadway.
A good friend of mine, a very committed church person and a very successful businessman, more than once came to me in desperation and complained: “Pastor, if we ran our business the way you run the church, it would be dead.” I told him, without fail, “You are exactly right. And, that’s why yours is a business and ours is the church.”
Have you ever pondered what grace is? Frederick Buechner writes: “Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about anymore than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace…A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do.”
It is so easy to mess up the beauty of grace, to end up believing we must offer God some of our expert assistance in the process of being saved and God saving the world—God could never do that alone!
Think about how it works here at Holy Trinity. We are proud of our outreach ministries. Don’t you tell others about our homeless shelter where twelve women call Holy Trinity’s community room their living room? Who doesn’t celebrate HUG where, for forty years now, fifty people have enjoyed a warm Saturday meal and a little friendship here? And we are delighted this morning to receive the news that members—YOU! —have contributed $2550 to Lutheran Disaster Response to help those digging out from the hurricanes. And while we may not mention Bach Vespers in the same breath, isn’t it similar? We spend the largest amount of any outreach ministry on a host of people who come to Vespers week in and week out and allege, “I’m not religious, I just come for the music.”
We love these ministries and those they serve and well we should. But don’t we occasionally resent having to bear the load? We heat this barn, worry how to fill it up on Sunday morning, and patch its leaky roof. Shouldn’t we get a little more credit?
Oops, I forgot one other ministry for outliers, that free Sunday brunch that has been served here at Holy Trinity for nearly 150 years! Regardless of what dastardly thing we have done during the week and in spite of our scanty offerings, we are served free Sunday brunch, right now. We are the workers hired at the end of the day to whom Jesus says, “This is my body and blood given and shed for you.” That, dear friends, is grace.
St. John Chrysostom lived in the fourth century; he was the archbishop of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). He preached a sermon that continues to be read in Eastern Orthodox churches at every Easter Vigil. His sermon might surprise those active Christians among us who tend to look down our noses at folks who show up just on Easter. They would never consider setting foot in this sanctuary on a toasty September Sunday morning and yet, to our disgust, they parade their dressed-up families up the center aisle every Easter morning, sitting in the very front pew so they can smell the lilies and sing “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” to brass and timpani accompaniment. They act as if they belong here!
You can imagine how old Chrysostom lambasted them…or can you? “Let those who have toiled since the first hour, let them now receive their due reward; let any who came after the third hour be grateful to join in the feast, and those who may have come after the sixth, let them not be afraid of being too late; for the Lord is gracious and He receives the last even as the first…He has pity on the last and He serves the first…Come you all: enter into the joy of your Lord. You the first and you the last, receive alike your reward; you rich and you poor, dance together; you sober and you weaklings, celebrate the day…”
Sounds a bit like Jesus, don’t you think. It’s a crazy method of bookkeeping, the first being last and the last being first; it’s no way to run a successful business. And yet, when we realize we, too, have received free tickets to this Sunday feast served by God, oh my goodness, what a joyous celebration it is.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Discovering Heaven-Up and Down, Up and Down”
(John 17: 1-11; Acts 1: 6-14)
May 28, 2017 (Seventh Sunday of Easter)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
Central Park West-New York City
Do you ever catch yourself dreaming of heaven? What will it be like? Who will be there? Where exactly is heaven?
Ever since we were kids, we have asked: “Mommy, how far is heaven up in the sky? Daddy, does heaven really have cotton candy clouds and streets lined with gold? Grandma, will Boomer be waiting for me, with his tail wagging, when I get to heaven?”
As we grow older, our speculation intensifies, though masked in more sophisticated jargon: Who will get into heaven? Is heaven a state of mind or an actual place? Given that we no longer hold the antiquated three-tier vision—heaven way up there, earth right here, and hell way down there—where exactly is heaven?
I give thanks for musicians, poets, and artists who help us explore these questions with greater imagination. As our hymn sang last Sunday, the creative souls dazzle us with heavenly “wonder, love, and praise.”
Our choir, week after week, dazzles us with such heavenly wonder, love, and praise. Since I will be away next Sunday on our choir’s final day before taking a well-deserved summer break, I would like to express my deepest appreciation to our cantor Donald Meineke and our choir for your breathtaking music. You point us toward heaven as we join the melody of angels, saints, and martyrs singing “Holy, holy, holy.”
During the offering today, our choir will sing In Paradisum, breathtaking music from Gabriel Faure’s Requiem. Listen to the words:
May the angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs receive you at your arrival and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem.
May choirs of angels receive you
and with Lazarus, once (a) poor (man),
may you have eternal rest.
I have used these words at countless funerals. They magnify our heavenly vision, not only as we gaze upon martyrs and angels, but also as we gaze at Lazarus, once a homeless beggar. I did far too many funerals for my homeless brothers and sisters while serving in my previous congregation. I used this text about Lazarus every time. The words of the funeral Mass invite us to think of heaven differently than we typically do. Who imagines skanky Lazarus with matted hair and feet wrapped in plastic bags joining Saint Peter and the angel Gabriel as they welcome us into the Pearly Gates? Those who are homeless might be surprised to find a kindred spirit in such an honorable heavenly welcoming committee. What a vision, huh?
I have a hunch that most of us look upward when we think of heaven. After all, the Bible does say that “Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” If that’s how it happened, why ever look down?
And yet, we need to listen a bit further, to the angel who asked the disciples: “Why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
This is where Lazarus, “once a poor man,” enters the picture. With an angel’s invitation, we cast our heavenly eyes, not only up, but also down. Is it possible to catch a glimpse of heaven right here on earth, in this place?
A number of you have been volunteering at Holy Trinity Women’s Shelter in the community room. I thank you for your devotion. You have happily helped twelve women call Holy Trinity “home” for six months out of the year. As you have lent a loving hand, you have been blessed to see a few of Lazarus’ sisters. This vision did not occur by gazing up into heaven, not exactly here where the Tiffany windows dance and the altar mosaics mesmerize; you have discovered the risen savior in our basement—as far down, down, down in this place as you can go; definitely not up, up, and away. Let us never forget Jesus’ words, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” This is artistic imagination at its finest, learning to spot heaven in earth’s surprising people, in the broken, hapless, and forlorn.
We dare not forget a few of the final words Jesus spoke to his disciples the evening before he died: “And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” This Jesus Christ, who has gone up to heaven, can also be discovered down here in the shattered and forgotten.
Quite a few years ago, when we lived in Washington, D.C., I baptized our next-door neighbor, Anthony Stokes. “Little Ant,” as we fondly called him, was a rambunctious sort and an acolyte at our church. One night, thirteen-year-old Anthony was shot to death by a fourteen-year old right around the corner from where we all lived. I told Anthony’s grandmother that we would not let her dear grandson’s senseless murder be in vain. We would rage against our nation’s intoxicating madness for guns, madness, by the way, that continues seemingly unchecked nearly twenty-five years later. I told her that we would call for life instead of death in our beloved inner-city neighborhood. And so, when Anthony’s funeral concluded, we processed out of the church, with incense, cross, torches, and a throng of people including our city councilman and Anthony’s football team; we solemnly marched down Monroe Street with the hearse bearing “Little Ant’s” body. I concluded the funeral liturgy on his row house steps. Right before I prayed the words of the commendation (“Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, Anthony”), I said to hundreds and hundreds of people, “We need to do our very best to make our city streets as holy as our sanctuaries.” I could just as easily have said, “We need to see heaven down here on earth as well as way up in heaven.”
For those of us given to speculating about heaven, let us not forget that God offers us the precious opportunity to glimpse heaven right here, this side of the kingdom come. While Christ is risen and ascended, he is also here today: “Take and eat, this is my body given for you.” Yes indeed, though we say goodbye, we also say hello.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion
Sunday, April 9, 2017 – 11 o’clock in the morning
Thoughts from Pastor Miller
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Sunday, April 2, 2017 – 11 o’clock in the morning
Thoughts from Pastor Miller
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Sunday, March 26, 2017 – 11 o’clock in the morning
Thoughts from Pastor Miller