Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Pull Out the Stops and Let ‘er Rip”
Luke 24: 13-32
April 16, 2017 (Easter Evening Bach Vespers)
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The day after my mother died, I sorted through her most cherished possessions. I was drawn to her books and spotted the Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary she had given my father one Christmas years ago. There was a tiny envelope taped to the title page with my father’s name on it. I carefully opened this secret treasure. The card read: “Wib, there aren’t words in this book that can express my love for you! Your loving wife, Susan.”
The women and men who experienced that first Easter were left searching for adequate words, too. God had done a new thing: God had raised Jesus from the dead. Rather than shouting celebratory words, they were befuddled, terrified, skeptical. They had never seen anything like it!
We are no different. We lack the necessary words to explain what God has done for us in raising Jesus Christ from the tomb. All our words fall short of describing the astonishing power of God’s love for us no matter how hard we try. And maybe that’s a good thing.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes: “Throughout the Gospel, Jesus holds back from revealing who he is because, it seems, he cannot believe that there are words that will tell the truth about him in the mouths of others.”
Isn’t Archbishop Williams correct? Almost any explanation we offer cheapens the spectacle of that first Easter when Jesus rose from the dead. Our lackluster words inevitably jeopardize the wild power of God; we so easily domesticate God’s great victory over sin and death with our narrow vocabularies and scant imaginations. Perhaps the best we can do tonight is bathe in the incomprehensible glory and overwhelming wonder of the Christ’s resurrection.
According to the gospel of Saint Luke, that first evening, only hours after Jesus had risen from the tomb, the disciples were on their way to Emmaus. They were talking up a storm, trying to make sense of it all. In the midst of their bewildered chattering and dazed strolling, Jesus joined them. At first, they didn’t notice him. They just kept yakking away. It was only after lots of talking and an intimate meal that their eyes were finally opened and they realized who was there with them. They said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
While they lacked sufficient words to express what happened that night, they came to know the Risen Christ in the telling of stories and the breaking of bread, things we love doing in this place every Sunday and are doing this very moment.
As the shadows lengthen and the evening comes on this glorious Easter—as will finally occur in all our lives as well—we walk together on our dusty Emmaus Road, telling the resurrection story to one another through the glorious music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Some of us will sing with considerable gusto, convinced Jesus has been raised from the dead. Others are not so sure and thus a bit more reserved. All of us, in our own way, hope that God has destroyed death for us, our loved ones, and this groaning world.
While she is not typically included among the pantheon of musicians honored here at Holy Trinity, indulge me, please, as I quote Grace Slick. She belted out such classics as “White Rabbit” and “Crown of Creation” with the Jefferson Airplane. She knows a thing or two about celebrating, having done a masterful job of it in the late 60s at Woodstock just up the road and at that raucous affair called Altamont in California. Of her singing abilities, Ms. Slick says: “I had limited range-about four notes, and all of them are loud. I don’t do cute little songs because, for whatever reason, I can’t sing softly.”
I suppose we all have limited range when it comes to singing about Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection melody requires more than a solo; sometimes an overflow Easter congregation is best. You see, it always takes at least two to gospel, one to sing and another to listen. And it requires an entire heavenly chorus to proclaim, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”
You will take the Easter song with you tonight, from here to the gloomy intensive care unit where your best friend hangs on for dear life. It will be up to you to do the singing. Like Ms. Slick, you may have a limited range as the only accompaniment is the dreadful beep, beep, beep, of the medical apparatus and yet, somehow, someway, you will sing beautifully, “Alleluia! Christ is risen.”
An old Benedictine monk and worship professor of mine instructed us soon-to-be pastors how to create worship on festival nights such as this. Puffing on an ever-present cigarette in one of those long, elegant holders, Father Aidan Kavanagh urged us to “pull out the stops and let ‘er rip.” I suppose there is a holier way of saying it but likely not a more precise one.
Our joy and job this evening, in prayer and words and song, is to convince one another that Jesus Christ has burst form the tomb as those pesky little deaths nip at our heels. So, on this Easter evening, let’s jack up the volume like Grace Slick, be marvelous as Johann Sebastian Bach would have us be, and pull out the stops and let ‘er rip in celebration that Jesus Christ has risen today.
A blessed Easter to you all.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Great Vigil of Easter and First Mass of Easter
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Christ the Servant”
John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
April 13, 2017 (Maundy Thursday)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
In 2006, I was hospitalized with pulmonary emboli. If you are like I was at the time, you may be clueless as to what a pulmonary embolism is. Simply put: it is a clot on the lung—at least that is my pedestrian knowledge of the potentially fatal malady. One embolism will kill you; I had four. It was touch and go. I spent five days in the intensive care unit and Dagmar faithfully watched over me. Thank God, I made it to the other side of that dark, dreadful tunnel.
Toward the end of my hospitalization, the charge nurse asked who my favorite staff person had been. I experienced my share of personnel–pulmonologists, cardiologists, nurses, x-ray technicians, phlebotomists, house-keeping staff, physical therapists, even a few caring pastors and a kindly bishop. The person I cherished most, though, was a nurse’s aide.
One evening, Claudia came to my room and asked if I would like a sponge bath. The experience was exquisite, more luxurious than anything offered at a deluxe Southern California spa. As she sponged my wretched body, tears welled up in my eyes. I was overwhelmed by her tenderness. Claudia’s calling was to anoint suffering patients with sweet-smelling oils of healing.
Of all those who tended to me, this servant worked twelve hour days and was one of the lowest paid hospital employees. When I told the charge nurse Claudia was the finest person sent my way—a gift from God really, he immediately asked, “Any nurses, doctors, you wish to add?” They were all extraordinary—well, except the cranky blood-drawer who cursed my crummy veins—and yet I will always cherish Claudia.
Tonight, we remember another servant, the most exquisite one, Jesus. He did what only servants do: he washed his disciples’ dusty, sweaty feet. His dear friends were dumbfounded: “Who are you to do this to me?” There were others who were befuddled over the years. One of the great historic heresies that continues in our own age is the belief that God could not possibly come to earth as Jesus, as a servant: the Almighty does not stoop so low to wash smelly feet.
Yes, tonight, Maundy Thursday, is about as low as Jesus could get. As one of his closest friends devised a sordid plan to betray him and others lacked the courage to stand by his side when the powerful pushed and shoved, even then Jesus washed their feet, even then he forgave them all that was soon to unfold, even then he shared the most intimate meal with them, even then he loved them until the end.
Washing one another’s feet must be the most awkward act of the entire church year. If you are like me, you look forward to foot-washing as much as you do to filing your 2016 income tax return. Don’t you imagine quite a few have steered clear of this evening altogether for fear that they might be cajoled into washing someone else’s feet? Some churches, perhaps the wiser ones, just don’t do it. I read one church’s Holy Week schedule announcing washing of hands instead of feet—that certainly is a creative approach to remedy the inelegance of what is soon to unfold, much more palatable it seems to me.
I take no delight in washing another’s feet. I will do my own, but not yours if I can help it. I am not particularly fond of taking off my shoes in public either. I had a sign on my dresser that warned me not to wear holey socks this evening. Foot-washing strips us down to our basest humanity; we become so vulnerable.
By the way, no one is compelled to wash another person’s feet tonight. However, if you choose to remain on the sidelines, watch closely nonetheless; recall how Jesus commanded us to love one another and how he loved those who fell short of his love to the very end. Judas soon betrayed Jesus. Peter, who had previously said quite proudly, “You will never wash my feet,” overestimated himself; he had no way of knowing how soon he would shrink from his high ideals and repeatedly deny ever having known his dearest friend. In spite of the horrid betrayal, denials, and cowardice—not by Jesus’ detractors but by those who adored him most—Jesus was glorified through his deep affection for his friends and enemies. Remember how he broke bread with them and touched them with heavenly grandeur even as their courage plummeted to disgusting depths.
The heavenly pendulum swings so low this evening that it is almost impossible to discern God’s presence with us.
Maybe it’s a good thing we are uncomfortable—servanthood does that to us. And when God becomes our servant, that really is excrutiating, so much so that it becomes almost unbearable…and yet, what wondrous love Christ has for us.
And so, I invite you forward now to be servants of one another. If you prefer not, then at least remember the servanthood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Up the Hill and Down the Hill”
(Matthew 17: 1-9)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
February 26, 2017 (Transfiguration of Our Lord)
Whenever I hear today’s gospel reading, for some reason, I think:
Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.
In the Transfiguration of our Lord, Peter, James, John, and Jesus went up the hill. They went up for a bit of rest from the weary work of ministry. They went up because Peter, James, and John were dreadfully upset and disillusioned: Jesus had just announced to them that he would soon suffer and die a horrendous death. They went up the hill to get away, to be alone for a time, to ponder what was about to happen.
And up on the hill, an amazing thing occurred: Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. Even more stunning, the three disciples suddenly saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah.
They needed this vision in the worst way. Only a week earlier, Jesus had told them the shocking news that he was about to die, not peacefully but violently. The powers, threatened by Jesus’ invitation to care for the poor and love their enemies, were none too happy: they did not take kindly to having their ways challenged, especially when it affected the bottom line of profits, authority, and reputation.
Oh, how the disciples and Jesus needed to get away from it all, to go up the hill.
The disciple Peter had tried to do what good friends do when hearing the fatal diagnoses of family and friends: he told Jesus he didn’t need to die. Jesus, in a fit of fiery anger, said to Peter in return, “Get behind me, Satan.”
Ministry is often messy if we care at all about doing what is right…
Actually, some ministry is not messy at all, the boring kind that refuses to see the world as God sees it. Some ministry is content to make certain everyone gets along even if that means putting up with all manner of injustices that trample upon others.
Authentic ministry, on the other hand, is forever taking risks in Jesus’ name. It gets bruised and battered, not, by the way, over silly matters that some churches seem so adept at squabbling about. Authentic ministry gets bruised and battered because it dares to stand up for the bruised and battered. That kind of ministry, by the way, dares to come down the hill.
If we are to engage in authentic and vibrant ministry here on the Upper West Side of New York City, we need to honor the rhythms of going up the hill and down the hill.
Today, we are up the hill. We stand here before Jesus, beholding the dazzling light of his presence. We hear Jesus speaking to us. Right here, in this place, we are strengthened to go back down the hill, as we must, to do ministry in the world.
I have seen very fine people who have done stunning ministry crash and burn because they have neglected the necessary rhythm of going up and down the hill. These lay members and pastors and their families have toiled for the disenfranchised and yet, all too often, bearing too heavy a load, have come to say, “I can’t take it anymore.” Quite a few of these compassionate folks have frankly been skeptical about giving much attention to excellent worship. They have said, “We need to do the real stuff of ministry, not sit in our sanctuaries and fool with the fringes.” I know these people—very well and very intimately: they have worked long into the night, every night; revolvers have literally been stuck to their heads; bullets have crashed through their kitchen windows as they and their children celebrated New Year’s Eve. Hard, agonizing work. Some have stood up when recalcitrant congregational members have refused to open their doors to the community as they tried their best to integrate the membership or hoped to call a pastor from Central America who could effectively evangelize to a changing neighborhood; they have faced fiery opposition when trying to speak a welcoming word to the LGBTQ community. It has gotten bloody and contentious and, sometimes, sadly, these committed folks have thrown up their hands and said, “I have had it with the church. Enough!”
The most enduring ministries with which I am familiar couple the finest worship with the finest outreach to the vulnerable. There is no apology for ministry up the hill or down the hill. These ministries dare to get their hands dirty often times in the toughest neighborhoods of our country. These people know the necessity of being in the valley with the suffering and on the mountaintop with Jesus and Moses and Elijah.
Isn’t that why we are here today? We are here not to get a cheap fix of fluffy religion or to escape the world and all that haunts it. We are here to behold beauty, to hear Christ speak to us, to taste his body and blood, to sing with the saints and angels…And then, of course, we will go back down the hill again, as we must, where the cross looms. We will carry the vision we have beheld here and the alleluias we have sung here and we will be strengthened all the day long. We will go to hospitals where people suffer horribly; we will volunteer in homeless shelters where unfortunate souls huddle with all their nasty revulsions; we will confront the maddening issues of our day head-on wherever the vulnerable are trampled upon. It will be bloody; in fact, if there is no blood, it is highly unlikely we will be doing the work Jesus calls us to do.
And so, up and down the hill we go, up to be refreshed and down to serve, up to gaze on beauty and down to confront ugliness, up to taste salvation and down to feed those who have not had a good meal in ages.
Up and down, up and down we go, always singing “alleluia” and always with Jesus at our side.