Music Ministry

Worship Assistants

Recent Sermons

Sermons Archive 2005-2015

Sermons offered by the Rev. Wilk Miller

December 27, 2015 "Protective Parents"
December 24, 2015 "Only Phubbing…or God Coming to Us Face-to-Face"
December 20, 2015 "Finding Blessings in the Tiniest Package of All"
December 13, 2015 "Grace Precedes Repentance"
December 6, 2015 "Here's Johnny"
November 29, 2015 "O Lord, How Shall I Meet You?"
November 22, 2015 "Christ the King and Our Thoughts This Week"
November 15, 2015 "As the Shadows Lengthen"
November 8, 2015 "The Enthralling Smell of Sheep"
November 1, 2015 "God’s Beautiful Gift of Saints"
October 25, 2015 "Freed from Those Crazy Dreams"
October 24, 2015 "One Wild and Precious Life (Mickey Lester memorial)"
October 18, 2015 "Called to Affectionate Awkwardness and Quiet Compassion"
October 11, 2015 "The Sweep of Grace"
October 4, 2015 "Tell Me One More Story"
September 27, 2015 "Not As Fragile As We Think"
September 20, 2015 "You Have Told Us Three Times. Enough!"
September 13, 2015 "Rendered Silent"
August 30, 2015 "Getting Dirty"
August 23, 2015 "Jesus in the Bargain Basement, with Us"
August 16, 2015 "Fantasy...and True!"
August 9, 2015 "Under the Solitary Broom Tree"
August 2, 2015 "Too Hot, Too Cold, or Just Right?"
July 26, 2015 "Feeding Our Hungry Hollow"
July 19, 2015 "Supreme Rest"
July 18, 2015 "The Good Fight of Faith (Memorial Service for the Rev. Jim Hallerberg"
July 12, 2015 "Paying Attention to the Prophets—and Finding Hope"
July 5, 2015 "Oh to Be a Prophet"
June 28, 2015 "A Day in the Life"
June 21, 2015 "Peace! Be Still!"
June 14, 2015 "Sleep Soundly Tonight"
June 7, 2015 "The Truth Shall Make You Odd"
May 31, 2015 "What Does God Think About Us?"
May 24, 2015 "Come Holy Spirit, Come"
May 17, 2015 "Saying Goodbye"
May 10, 2015 "Happy Mother's Day"
May 9, 2015 "Memorial Service for Dorothy Magdich"
May 7, 2015 "Funeral Homily for Jerry Kuck"
May 3, 2015 "Something There Is that Does Not Love a Wall"
April 26, 2015 "The Good Shepherd"
April 12, 2015 "Utter Graciousness"
April 5, 2015 "Eloquent Listeners"
April 4, 2015 "The Day After and the Day Before"
April 3, 2015 "As the Darkness Settles"
April 2, 2015 "The Table Open to All"
March 29, 2015 "What Wondrous Love"
March 28, 2015 "Memorial Service for Marlyss Carlson"
March 22, 2015 "Mansions and Jets, Nooses and Crosses"
March 15, 2015 "The Colossal Arc of God’s Grace"
March 8, 2015 "Send in the Clowns"
March 1, 2015 "The Dark and Terrifying Side"
February 22, 2015 "O Felix Culpa"
February 18, 2015 "Lent: the Best of Times"
February 15, 2015 "Kisses from God"
February 8, 2015 "The Authentic Rhythm of Ministry"
February 1, 2015 "With Authority"
January 25, 2015 "Immediately"
January 11, 2015 "Joining the River Frolickers"
January 4, 2015 "Power and Room for Growth"
December 28, 2014 "Listening to Our Elders"
December 24, 2014 "It Never Snows in Southern California"
December 21, 2014 "Pondering Mystery"
December 14, 2014 "A Window with a View"
December 7, 2014 "Looking in the Right Direction"
November 30, 2014 "Stir Up Your Power, Lord Christ, and Come"
November 23, 2014 "Where's the King?"
November 20, 2014 "Satis Est: Just Bread, Wine, Water, and Words (Paper Delivered at the Society of Anglican and Lutheran Theologians)"
November 16, 2014 "Thank God for Risk Takers"
November 9, 2014 "What about the Bride-to-Be?"
November 2, 2014 "Poets in a Flattened Prose World"
October 31, 2014 "Sonia at the Gate"
October 26, 2014 "Free from Calcification"
October 19, 2014 "Those Vexing Questions"
October 12, 2014 "Properly Dressed for the Wedding"
October 5, 2014 "The Harmony of Creation"
September 28, 2014 "Warthogs Marching to the Kingdom"
September 21, 2014 "Beyond Golden Age Thinking"
September 14, 2014 "No Period Where God Has Placed a Comma"
September 7, 2014 "Treat Them Like a Gentile and a Tax Collector"
August 31, 2014 "I Adore Peter"
August 24, 2014 "God Loves Us Poor Schmucks Anyway"
August 17, 2014 "Remembering Robin Williams"
August 10, 2014 "Walking on Water"
July 27, 2014 "The Kingdom of Heaven in Every Nook and Cranny"
July 20, 2014 "Celebrating 25 Years as an RIC Congretaion: Sermon by the Rev. Dr. R. Guy Erwin"
July 13, 2014 "Sowing Extravagantly and Exuberantly"
July 6, 2014 "Learning the Unforced Rhythms of Real Grace"
June 29, 2014 "There’s Hope for Us Yet"
June 22, 2014 "Ol' Cousin Ernie"
June 15, 2014 "Oh, Yes, It Matters What You Believe"
June 8, 2014 "Just Me, Just You"
June 1, 2014 "Rock and Rolling Here on Earth"
May 31, 2014 "Saint George the Meek One"
May 25, 2014 "George Washington's Nostril"
May 18, 2014 "Grace Under Fire"
May 11, 2014 "The Good Shepherd’s Soothing Voice"
May 4, 2014 "Just Talking"
April 27, 2014 "Do Not Be Afraid"
April 20, 2014 "Practicing Resurrection"
April 19, 2014 "Telling God’s Stories down at the River"
April 18, 2014 "Shush...Be Quiet"
April 17, 2014 “Our Deep Needs"
April 13, 2014 “Not Busy at All"
April 6, 2014 “Soaring Higher Than the Misty Precinct of the Probable"
March 30, 2014 “Not Yet What We Shall Be"
March 23, 2014 “Beyond the Thumperian Principle"
March 16, 2014 “Leaving Home for Another Home" (Memorial Service for Irmgard Vragel)
March 16, 2014 “Leaving Home"
March 09, 2014 “The Gift of Limits"
March 5, 2014 “Ashes-More Than A Dash"
March 2, 2014 “Salvation Mountain"
February 23, 2014 “Loving Our Enemies"
February 16, 2014 “To Be Saved Is to Be Gathered"
February 9, 2014 “Grace Amidst Scraped Knees and Busted Jaws"
February 2, 2014 “My Eyes Have Seen the Salvation"
January 26, 2014 “Casting Our Nets Wider and Deeper"
January 19, 2014 “Here is the Lamb of God!"
January 12, 2014 “Hanging with the Carnival Crowd"
January 11, 2014 “Waiting for the Christ Child" (Memorial Service of Resurrection for George Willis Helling)
January 5, 2014 “The Joy of Gift Giving"
December 29, 2013 “Keeping Our Candle Burning"
December 24, 2013 “I Want to Hold Your Hand"
December 22, 2013 “God’s Messed Up Family"
December 15, 2013 “Watching for Jesus"
December 8, 2013 “Turning to Live Life Fully"
December 1, 2013 “Stir Up Your Power, Lord Christ, and Come"
November 24, 2013 “The Stooping King"
November 17, 2013 “Keeping the Myth Alive"
November 10, 2013 “God’s Presence amidst a Pile of Bricks"
November 3, 2013 “Let the River Rock You Like a Cradle" (Installation of the Rev. Lawrence Hand at Calvary Lutheran-Solana Beach)
November 3, 2013 “Thanking God for Our Oldest Members"
October 20, 2013 “Prayer of Perfect Freedom"
October 6, 2013 “Woosh"
September 29, 2013 “Listening and Looking for Angels"
September 15, 2013 “The Church Is Not a Business"
September 8, 2013 “A Fearsome Call"
September 1, 2013 “Watch How We Eat"
August 25, 2013 “The Power of God's Word"
August 18, 2013 “Coming to Bring Division"
August 15, 2013 “Restoring a Junked TR3 (Funeral for Earl Francis Hagen)"
August 11, 2013 “Do Not Be Afraid"
August 4, 2013 “The Friendliest Woman We Have Ever Known"
August 4, 2013 “A Poverty Proposal"
July 28, 2013 “Ask, Search, Knock"
July 14, 2013 “Bledding and Bruised, Broken"
July 7, 2013 “You Mean That's a Call?"
June 30, 2013 “Edgwood's Golden Age"
June 23, 2013 “Muzzling the Black Dog"
June 16, 2013 “Judged with Mercy"
June 9, 2013 “Digging to China"
June 2, 2013 “Rock and Roll Sunday"
May 26, 2013 “Feeling Stupid Isn’t So Bad"
May 12, 2013 “Sea Monsters, Beware"
May 5, 2013 “Finding Heaven in the City"
April 28, 2013 “Love One Another"
April 27, 2013 “Moving Jesus' Work Along"
April 14, 2013 “Jesus' Presence in the Ordinary"
April 7, 2013 “We Believe"
March 31, 2013 “You Can't Domesticate the Resurrection"
March 30, 2013 “Stories Told with the Power of God"
March 29, 2013 “Making Coffee on Good Friday"
March 28, 2013 “Servanthood"
March 24, 2013 “The Holy Week Journey"
March 17, 2013 “The Extravagant Gifts of God"
March 10, 2013 “A Lenten Celebration"
March 3, 2013 “Repent"
February 24, 2013 “Counting Stars"
February 13, 2013 “The Bright Sadness of Lent"
February 10, 2013 “Candles in the Wind"
February 3, 2013 “Pluckin’ and Pullin’, Buildin’ and Plantin’"
January 27, 2013 "Jubilee Words"
January 20, 2013 "When the Wine Runs Out"
January 13, 2013 "Down at the River"
January 6, 2013 "Epiphany: Quite a Story to Tell"
December 30, 2012 "Finding Jesus in God's House"
December 24, 2012 "Peering into the Christ Child’s Face"
December 23, 2012 "For the Kids in the Back Row"
December 16, 2012 "Teaching a Stone to Talk"
December 9, 2012 "Keep Christ in Christmas"
December 2, 2012 "Honoring the Past—Embracing the Future"
November 25, 2012 "Ease Up on Pilate"
November 18, 2012 "Resting on Jesus’ Shoulder"
November 11, 2012 "Reckless Extravagance in Yellow Flip-Flops"
November 4, 2012 "Saint Detectors"
October 28, 2012 "Dusting Off the Treasure of God’s Grace"
October 21, 2012 "Front Seat Window"
October 14, 2012 "Free Lunch"
October 7, 2012 "Creation Afoot"
September 30, 2012 "The Nippers and The Nipped"
September 23, 2012 "A Weird Dream"
September 16, 2012 "Passing the Test with Our Lives"
September 9, 2012 "Busting Down the Door"
September 2, 2012 "Well Chosen Words"
August 26, 2012 "Home Sweet Home"
July 29, 2012 "Simply Magical!"
July 22, 2012 "The Grace of Rest"
July 15, 2012 "The Mad and Glorious Hallelujah Dance"
July 8, 2012 "Let’s Talk Credentials"
July 1, 2012 "The Gift of Tears"
June 24, 2012 "Just Five Smooth Stones and a Sling"
June 17, 2012 "The Ruddy Runt King"
June 10, 2012 "The King Thing"
June 3, 2012 "Restless Until We Rest in God"
May 27, 2012 "Come, Holy Spirit, Come"
May 20, 2012 "The Ministry of Waiting"
May 13, 2012 "What a Friend We Have in Jesus"
May 6, 2012 "Saint Raymond the Boysenberry Grower"
April 29, 2012 "Called by Name"
April 22, 2012 "A Matter of Affection"
April 15, 2012 "Rumspringa"
April 8, 2012 "No to Death, Yes to Life"
April 7, 2012 "Let Me Tell You a Story"
April 6, 2012 "Amidst the Heart of Darkness"
April 5, 2012 "You Will Have to Learn to Do This for Yourself"
April 1, 2012 "Hosanna or Crucify Him-Which Is It?"
March 25, 2012 "The Glorious Struggle"
March 18, 2012 "Quite a Beastly Text"
March 11, 2012 "There's a Crack in Everything"
March 10, 2012 "Memorial Service for Michelle Matson"
February 26, 2012 "Never Again"
February 22, 2012 "Remember that You Are Dust"
February 19, 2012 "Up and Down the Hill"
February 12, 2012 "Touch Has a Memory"
February 5, 2012 "A Deserted Place"
January 29, 2012 "What's for Dinner?"
January 22, 2012 "God Calls You to Follow"
January 15, 2012 "In Line with the Sinners"
January 6, 2012 "Six Miles from Bethlehem"
January 1, 2012 "The Sweet Name of Jesus"
December 24, 2011 "The Babe of Bethlehem for You"
December 18, 2011 "Nothing is Impossible with God"
December 11, 2011 "Waiting on the Lord"
December 4, 2011 "Down at the River"
November 27, 2011 "Entering the Darkness with Christ's Light"
November 20, 2011 "A Most Peculiar King"
November 19, 2011 "Memorial Service for the Rev. George W. Carlson"
November 13, 2011 "Joyous Risk-Taking"
November 6, 2011 "Saint Detection"
October 30, 2011 "The Gift of Grace"
October 23, 2011 "Which Commandment Is the Greatest?"
October 16, 2011 "Our Highest Allegiance"
October 9, 2011 "Grace Upon Grace"
October 2, 2011 "Tending God's Vineyard"
September 25, 2011 "Liver and Onions and Stewed Tomatoes"
September 18, 2011 "A Free Brunch for All"
September 11, 2011 "Remembering 9/11"
September 4, 2011 "The Community Oozing Mercy"
August 28, 2011 "Who, Me? Yes You!"
August 21, 2011 "Set Free in the Bulrushes"
August 14, 2011 "In Praise of Mind Changers"
August 7, 2011 "Schadenfruede."
July 31, 2011 "2:43 a.m."
July 17, 2011 "Jacob on the Run"
July 10, 2011 "Quite a Family!"
July 3, 2011 "Celebrating the Ordinary"
June 26, 2011 "A Ram in the Thicket"
June 19, 2011 "Standing on the Train Station Platform and Rendered Speechless"
June 12, 2011 "Have You Ever Experienced Pentecost?"
June 5, 2011 "Stay in the City"
May 29, 2011 "Stop, Look, and Listen—And Only Then Speak"
May 15, 2011 "Both Shepherd and Lamb"
May 8, 2011 "Christ’s Presence Amidst the Odor of Melancholy"
May 1, 2011 "Resurrection Heroes"
April 24, 2011 "Resurrection: Only God's Possibility"
April 23, 2011 "Tell Me One More Story"
April 22, 2011 "Oh, What Wondrous Love"
April 21, 2011 "Shoes"
April 17, 2011 "Never Said A Mumblin' Word"
April 10, 2011 "Death Stinketh"
April 3, 2011 "From Blaming to Healing"
March 27, 2011 "Its Beauty Is in Its Length"
March 20, 2011 "That Look of Faith in Your Eyes"
March 13, 2011 "The Church's Middle Passage"
March 9, 2011 "Embracing Our Failures As Our Lenten Discipline"
March 6, 2011 "The Teeter-Totter of Life and Ministry"
February 27, 2011 "What's A Care?"
February 20, 2011 "The Badwater 135"
February 6, 2011 "Epiphany Light Boxes"
January 30, 2011 "The Cross at the Intersection of 3rd and Ash"
January 23, 2011 "Twiterpated"
January 16, 2011 "Let the Splish-Splashing Begin"
January 9, 2011 "Who Would You Have Been?"
January 2, 2011 "Stuttering Words Come Alive"
December 26, 2010 "O, Those Wonderful Carols and Stories"
December 24, 2010 "The Long, Crooked Line of Christmas"
December 19, 2010 "Joseph, the Righteous Man"
December 12, 2010 "The Drip, Drip, Drip of God’s Mercy"
December 11, 2010 "Just One Last Story"
December 5, 2010 "People Get Ready, There's a Train A Comin'"
November 28, 2010 "The Way of the Unanswered Question"
November 21, 2010 "Christ the King, the Clown of Sorrows"
November 14, 2010 "Those Contrarian Christians"
November 7, 2010 "The Wal-Mart Saints"
October 31, 2010 "A Tattooist Worthy of Tattooery"
October 24, 2010 "Who Is Best?"
October 17, 2010 "Jacob Jumped at the Jabbok"
October 3, 2010 "Habakkukians"
September 26, 2010 "Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet"
September 19, 2010 "Razzle-Dazzle"
September 12, 2010 "Love's Obsession"
September 11, 2010 "Bread and Wine and Water and a Bible"
September 5, 2010 "Why All the Shouting?"
August 29, 2010 "Eating in the Smoking Section"
August 22, 2010 "Bent Over No More"
August 15, 2010 "The Gear and Tackle and Trim of Ministry"
August 8, 2010 "Do Not Be Afraid"
August 1, 2010 "How is Your Life?"
July 25, 2010 "Chasing Real Rabbits"
July 18, 2010 "Flipping the Tent Flap Open"
July 11, 2010 "Are You All In?"
July 4, 2010 "God Shed His Grace on Thee"
June 27, 2010 "Jesus, You Must Be Kidding"
June 20, 2010 "A Most Modern Story"
June 13, 2010 "The Family Tree"
June 6, 2010 "Do You Believe in Miracles?"
May 30, 2010 "The Immensity of God"
May 23, 2010 "S.D.G."
May 22, 2010 "Remarks delivered at California Equality on Harvey Milk Day"
May 16, 2010 "Jail House Rock"
May 9, 2010 "Choosing Our Words Well"
May 2, 2010 "No More Gated Communities"
April 25, 2010 "Now, Was That So Hard?"
April 18, 2010 "Do You Want to Get Away?"
April 11, 2010 "Free to Doubt"
April 4, 2010 "A Most Monstrous Story!"
April 3, 2010 "That We May Be Exalted"
April 2, 2010 "Twenty Degrees Darker than Total Darkness"
April 1, 2010 "Let the Triduum Begin"
March 28, 2010 "Did You Say, Crucify Him?"
March 21, 2010 "Blessed Extravagance"
March 14, 2010 "So Who is The Prodigal?"
March 7, 2010 "A Free Lunch for All"
February 28, 2010 "A Hen"
February 21, 2010 "Save Us from the Time of Trial"
February 17, 2010 "Keeping A Holy Lent"
February 14, 2010 "Remember to Say Your Prayers"
February 7, 2010 "In Search of Excellence?"
January 31, 2010 "Words Chosen Well and with Love"
January 24, 2010 "The Nine Word Sermon"
January 17, 2010 "The Water Blushed"
January 10, 2010 "Epiphany Glasses"
January 3, 2010 "Opting for a Different Road"
December 27, 2009 "Those Blessed Questions"
December 24, 2009 "The Christ Child's Light"
December 20, 2009 "Wonderment in the Air"
December 13, 2009 "Wow!"
December 6, 2009 "Rewriting Our Lives"
November 29, 2009 "Raise Your Heads"
November 22, 2009 "Our King on the Other Side of Brokenness"
November 15, 2009 "Large Stone and Large Buildings"
November 8, 2009 "Living Life on the Edge"
November 1, 2009 "Jesus Wept"
October 25, 2009 "Defining Grace"
October 19, 2009 "My Broken Body for You"
October 18, 2009 "Be Healed!"
October 11, 2009 "Priceless"
October 4, 2009 "The Creation Symphony"
September 27, 2009 "What an Amazing Beauty Queen!"
September 20, 2009 "Oh, Those Kids!"
September 13, 2009 "Is There Anything Worth Dying For?"
September 6, 2009 "Getting on with Ministry"
August 30, 2009 "A Hugging and Kissing Love"
August 23, 2009 "That God's Table May Be Open to All"
August 16, 2009 "Consecrating All Life"
August 9, 2009 "A Troubled Family"
August 2, 2009 "All Bread is Holy"
July 26, 2009 "Gorgeous Extravagance"
July 19, 2009 "Rest Awhile"
July 12, 2009 "The Dance of Life"
July 5, 2009 "Oh Beautiful for Spacious Skies"
June 28, 2009 "Kicking Down the Door"
June 21, 2009 "Sailing on Stormy Seas"
June 14, 2009 "Just a Shrub"
June 7, 2009 "The Grandeur of God Draws Close"
May 31, 2009 "No Longer L-O-U-D-E-R AND S-L-O-W-E-R"
May 24, 2009 "Still Easter After All These Weeks"
May 17, 2009 "Swoopings of the Spirit"
May 10, 2009 "Words Chosen Carefully and Lovingly"
April 26, 2009 "All Occasions Invite His Mercies"
April 19, 2009 "Earth Day Sermon by the Rev. Bill Radatz"
April 12, 2009 "Only God Can Resurrection"
April 9, 2009 "Jesus' Hands"
April 5, 2009 "A Harsh and Dreadful Love"
March 29, 2009 "A Tattooed Heart"
March 22, 2009 "Necessary Pain"
March 15, 2009 "Accomplished at Saying No...And Even Yes"
March 8, 2009 "Little Deaths"
March 1, 2009 "Rainbow Love"
February 28, 2009 "Memorial Service for Delores Praefke"
February 25, 2009 "The Humpty Dumpty Dilemma"
February 22, 2009 "Whistle While You Work"
February 15, 2009 "Dipping in the Jordan"
February 8, 2009 "Do Not Disturb"
February 1, 2009 "Singing His Song"
January 25, 2009 "Treasures in the Trash"
January 18, 2009 "Just You and Me"
January 11, 2009 "Not a Pretty Start"
January 4, 2009 "When Love Comes to Town"
December 28, 2008 "Dying a Good Death"
December 24, 2008 "Beggars at the Manger"
December 21, 2008 "A Perfectly Fine Tent"
December 14, 2008 "Just Plain John"
December 7, 2008 "O Comfort My People"
November 30, 2008 "The Dark Bruise of Advent"
November 23, 2008 "King Jesus' Friends"
November 16, 2008 "Fighting the Fear of Scarcity"
November 9, 2008 "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning"
November 2, 2008 "God's Quotidian Saints"
October 19, 2008 "God Grant Us Civility"
October 12, 2008 "This Magic Moment"
October 5, 2008 "Tending God's Vineyard at 3rd and Ash"
September 28, 2008 "Just Say NO"
September 21, 2008 "Free Lunch"
September 14, 2008 "Christ's Body Broken For You"
August 31, 2008 "Not So Neat and Tidy"
August 24, 2008 "Life-Saving Words"
August 17, 2008 "Jesus Changes His Mind"
August 10, 2008 "Water-Walking or Elevators and Pew Cushions"
August 3, 2008 "Drenched with Holiness"
July 27, 2008 "A Mustard Seed Kind of Place"
July 20, 2008 "Let the Weeds Grow"
July 13, 2008 "An Extravagant Planting Style"
July 6, 2008 "Godspeed to Paul Moorman"
June 29, 2008 "Liar and Murderer, Saint and Sinner"
June 22, 2008 "Are You Nevous?"
June 15, 2008 "We're All God's Got"
June 8, 2008 "Erring on the Side of Mercy"
June 1, 2008 "Sensible Building Plans"
May 25, 2008 "Do Not Worry"
May 18, 2008 "Hold Your Head Up High"
May 11, 2008 "What Got into Her?"
May 9, 2008 "Memorial Service for Leonard Mischley"
May 4, 2008 "Stay Here in the City"
April 27, 2008 "Orphaned No more"
April 13, 2008 "Sheep Talk"
April 12, 2008 "Memorial Service for Jacob Umlauf"
April 6, 2008 "Easter Eyes"
March 30, 2008 "The Circuitous Journeys of Faith"
March 23, 2008 "Groping for the Right Words"
March 22, 2008 "My Dad is Stronger than Your Dad"
March 20, 2008 "Few Words Indeed"
March 16, 2008 "The Heart of Christ in the Heart of the City"
March 9, 2008 "Questions at the Bone Yard"
February 24, 2008 "An Uncommon Patience"
February 17, 2008 "Words that Work"
February 10, 2008 "Better or Best"
February 6, 2008 "A Most Peculiar Practice"
February 3, 2008 "Up and Down, Down and Up"
January 27, 2008 "An Admirer or a Disciple?"
January 20, 2008 "Chargers, Patriots, or Lamb?"
January 13, 2008 "An Awkward Moment"
January 6, 2008 "And They Worshiped Him"
December 30, 2007 "What About the Other 364 Days?"
December 23, 2007 "Almost Purebred"
December 16, 2007 "Necessary Wonder"
December 9, 2007 "Extravagant Imagination"
December 2, 2007 "730,000 Days and Waiting"
November 25, 2007 "Stuffed Animals and Books"
November 18, 2007 "Those Wonderful Creative Hands"
November 11, 2007 "It's All in the Context"
November 4, 2007 "The Saints We Love"
October 28, 2007 "The First Cannot Win the Day"
October 21, 2007 "Wrestling Nights"
October 14, 2007 "Our Right, Our Duty and Joy"
October 7, 2007 "A Mustard Seed Kind of Place"
September 30, 2007 "Where Lazarus is Poor No More"
September 23, 2007 "In Praise of the Mob"
September 16, 2007 "The Mind of God"
September 9, 2007 "So Don, What Preaches Today?"
September 9, 2007 "No Hidden Costs"
September 2, 2007 "Elwood Rudner's Truck"
August 26, 2007 "My Friend, Mr. Fruit"
August 19, 2007 "Running with a Cloud of Witnesses"
August 12, 2007 "God's Time or Yours?"
August 5, 2007 "Bigger Barns"
July 29, 2007 "Teach Us to Pray"
July 22, 2007 "Saint Requirement"
July 15, 2007 "Just Do It!"
July 8, 2007 "No Stuff"
July 1, 2007 "Help Wanted: Slick Marketing Representative"
June 24, 2007 "The Importance of a Name"
June 23, 2007 "Memorial Service for Stewart Dillahunt"
June 17, 2007 "Pretty Woman"
June 10, 2007 "Little Lightning Flashes"
June 3, 2007 "The Greatest Mystery in Heaven and on Earth"
May 27, 2007 "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?"
May 13, 2007 "Goodness Gracious"
April 29, 2007 "What a Choir!"
April 22, 2007 "Brushes and Paints"
April 15, 2007 "Make Room for Thomas"
April 8, 2007 "Pull Out the Stops and Let 'er Rip"
April 7, 2007 "A-Splishing and A-Splashing"
April 5, 2007 "Feet"
April 1, 2007 "Irrational Humbug. An April Fool?"
March 25, 2007 "Spring Training"
March 18, 2007 "So Much for Tough Love"
March 11, 2007 "Sixteen Days and Counting"
March 4, 2007 "Forty Days in the Hen House"
February 21, 2007 "Life is Short"
February 18, 2007 "Mixing Up a Batch of TNT"
February 11, 2007 "Just Words"
February 4, 2007 "The Only Life We Have"
January 28, 2007 "Spoken With Love"
January 21, 2007 "Memorial service for Barney Piper"
January 21, 2007 "What Part of the Body of Christ Are You?"
January 14, 2007 "Exquisite Extravagance"
January 7, 2007 "Secrets"
December 31, 2006 "Think 'Confirmation Class'"
Christmas Eve, 2006 "Six Miles Southwest of Jerusalem"
December 24, 2006 "What a Mess"
December 17, 2006 "Rejoice in the Lord Always"
December 10, 2006 "No Slumber Party Theology Here"
December 3, 2006 "A Strange Beginning"
November 26, 2006 "So, You Are a King"
November 24, 2006 "Vivian Dillahunt"
November 19, 2006 "A La-Z-Boy and an Ottoman"
November 5, 2006 "November Courage"
October 29, 2006 "Who Would Have Thought It?"
October 22, 2006 "Life in a Minor Key"
October 8, 2006 "Mending Creation"
October 1, 2006 "A House Where Love is Found"
July 9, 2006 "Our Thorny Selves"
July 2, 2006 "There May Yet Be Hope"
June 25, 2006 "Job, Chap. 38"
June 18, 2006 "Summertime and the Livin' Is Easy"
June 11, 2006 "Not By My Reason"
June 4, 2006 "Fired Up and Buckled Up"
May 14, 2006 "Cooties Gone, Dancing Now"
May 7, 2006 "From Cowardice to Courage"
April 30, 2006 "Huddling in the Attic"
April 16, 2006 "For...."
April 13, 2006 "Maundy Thursday, 2006"
April 9, 2006 "Palm Sunday, 2006"
March 27, 2006 "Susan Miller Memorial Service"
March 12, 2006 "Lamaze on Ash"
March 5, 2006 "Spitting at Satan"
February 26, 2006 "A Wink of Wonder"
February 12, 2006 "The Burden of the Bells"
February 5, 2006 "An Essential Balancing Act"
January 29, 2006 "Miss Burns Said"
January 22, 2006 "St. Zebedee the Mender of Nets and Floater of Boats"
January 15, 2006 "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
January 8, 2006 "What a gorgeous mess"
December 24, 2005 "The best and worst of nights"
December 18, 2005 "Mary sings the blues"
December 11, 2005 "We need a poet"
December 4, 2005 "Imagine"

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church-San Diego
December 27, 2015
First Sunday of Christmas
"Protective Parents"

Luke 2:41-52
Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

I asked Dagmar to marry me forty years ago, at Christmas, in the little German village of Barnstorf. This event promised much celebration. There was one slight problem, however: I was in the land of deep tradition and deep tradition stipulated that I not only ask Dagmar to marry me but that I also ask her parents whether they thought this a virtuous idea.

I was not particularly charmed by this tradition but I realized no one was kidding. I hemmed and hawed. Finally, when Dagmar and I were in the basement fetching dinner beverages, she shoved me into her father’s work room where he was preparing kindling for the holiday fire, said, “Now, ask him!” and slammed the door behind me. There we stood, I sheepishly and my hoped for father-in-law at attention.

“What can I do for you, Wilk?” He asked.

“Well…it’s kind of a rather big question,” I stuttered. “I would like your consent to marry your daughter.”

“That is a big question,” he said. “Dagmar’s mother and I will talk about this and we will let get back to you.”

I was shocked. I had thought this question a mere formality. I finally found Dagmar hiding in some shadowy nook in the house and I exploded: “I am taking the first flight out of here!”—oops, there was no airport in this dinky village of 5,000 inhabitants; I was stuck.

I suppose you have surmised that Dagmar’s parents did eventually consent to my matrimonial proposal. They lined leather chairs around the fire place on New Year’s Eve, excused themselves for a few moments, and returned with champagne—a bit delayed for my taste but how do you say in German, “better late than never?”

What ever had caused their procrastination? Maybe it was some ancient Teutonic marriage ritual or perhaps they were not particularly enthralled by my shoulder length hair, wire rim glasses, flannel shirt, and corduroy jeans. There was, by the way, a question and answer session in front of the fireplace prior to the popping of the cork. “So, where is it you plan on being a pastor?” I told them at a very little, struggling congregation in inner-city Philadelphia that was flat broke. The other thorny issue was that the only U.S. preacher they had ever heard of was Billy Graham; was I anything like him?

What I finally realized was that their delayed response was caused by their deep love for their daughter. We had only been together for a total of eight weeks before that Christmas. We had corresponded by mail from September until December. This was the kind of deal if someone comes to my office and wants to get married, I gently as possible tell them this is not at all a wise idea. Dagmar’s parents were scared to death for their youngest child.

Today, only three days after Christmas Eve, we hear the story of Jesus and his family when he was only twelve. This is the only gospel story in which Jesus’ childhood, beyond his birth, is mentioned. The family was in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. For some odd reason, Mary and Joseph went a day’s journey after leaving and did not miss their boy at all. When they finally did miss him, they, too, were scared to death. It took them three days to find their precious son. They finally found him at the Temple where he was mesmerized by the religious teachers…That’s all we hear about Jesus until he was thirty and things never got much better for his parents.

From the moment Mary became pregnant to the moment Jesus died, there were thorny issues. No one was certain who Jesus’ father was—was it Joseph or, as the angel claimed, God. No sooner had Mary given birth to the Christ Child than wicked Herod flew into a maniacal rage, killing every boy two years and under with hopes that one of the little ones would be, as the Wise Men claimed, the king of the Jews.

On and on it went, story after story about Jesus and his mother Mary and almost all of them heartbreaking. There was that moment at the wedding in Cana when Mary expressed concern to her son that the wine was running out and the wedding might be ruined; Jesus snottily responded: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

Mary worried. One time she and Jesus’ brothers tried to rescue him from his destructive religious fanaticism and he paid them no mind; in fact, he told someone to let his waiting family know, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”

It’s hard to be a good parent. And, from a child’s perspective, it’s hard to be the child of over protective parents.

There comes a time when parents must let go and there comes a marvelous moment when children finally realize how much their parents have loved them along the way. Mary and Joseph had to let their little boy plummet from the backyard swing set in Nazareth and bloody his nose (this tale, by the way, is not in the Bible); they had to watch his passion for God in heaven and see how this shaped him to stand up for the unclean and outcast. And there were those agonizing final hours when Mary realized she had been right all along: she heard the crowds scream, “Crucify him.” As she looked into her son’s eyes for the final time, she heard Jesus beg his friends to watch over his mother after he breathed his last.

The greatest mystery in these days of Christmas is that our God loves us and comes to be with us. As we listen to the story of that babe born in a manger, we hear of a God who became just like us. This parent, our creator and redeemer and sanctifier, is a helicopter parent, forever hovering over us and seeking how best to protect us from the errors, tragedies, and failures we all face.

Christmas is a story about a family like ours and caring parents who must finally let go and let God be God. It is about a son who gives the gift of his life for his beloved family, for you and for me. That is our Christmas gift from God.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church-San Diego
December 24, 2015
Christmas Eve
Luke 2: 1-20
"Only Phubbing…or God Coming to Us Face-to-Face"

Once again, on behalf of all the members of First Lutheran Church, I wish you a very blessed Christmas. I pray…

[Cell phone call comes to Pastor Miller.]

…that each of you and all those you love will be filled with the joy of the Christ Child’s birth.


[Pastor Miller holds up hand, pulls out cell phone from pocket, and listens to caller.]

Excuse me. One second please. I hate when this happens but I really must answer this call.

What just happened to you? Studies indicate you shut down. You quickly realized something or someone is more important to me than you. Whether the phone rings madly in the next thirteen minutes or simply sits here on the pulpit, you are going to be uneasy; you will wonder just how important you are to me…and you don’t like it one bit!

Believe or not, there is now a word in the dictionary for this occurrence. Does anyone know the word? Phubbing. Phubbing is the act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention. Have any of you phubbed since this worship service began?

Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, claims that our culture is in danger of losing the art of face-to-face conversation. She tells us what we already know: we hide behind our computer screens and Iphones, editing and revising until we present ourselves, not as we are, but as we wish we were. We spend an inordinate amount of time on Facebook brushing up our photos and making our narratives sound like we are in a perpetual state of joy.

God could have texted and tweeted, emailed and Facebooked, even sent a carrier pigeon or a telegram. God could have stayed far away in heavenly bliss. When God is in heaven and not here on earth, we assume God is phubbing. We wonder whether God is paying attention as we face terrifying illnesses, deep loneliness, or unimaginable violence.

“God, are you out there? Are you even listening?” we cry. Have you ever screamed this into the evening sky?

When we sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” that churchy word Emmanuel means “God with us.” God no longer stays far away but comes close and joins our mixed up families.

We received a Christmas card today in which the mother said, “Had a very rough year despite our perky newsletter…Our daughter Brenda is really struggling.”

When God touched down in Bethlehem, God’s family was struggling just like our friends. “Who was this baby Jesus’ father anyway? Why didn’t they make hotel reservations ahead of time instead of depending on the flimsy circular they picked up at that seedy road stop? Weren’t they smart enough to know Mary would go into labor when the ERs were packed and every urgent care shut down for the night?” The best this exhausted family could do—the only thing really—was to place their newborn son in a manger.

God draws so close to us in Bethlehem that we hardly know whether the baby Jesus is simply a child or true God from true God, begotten not made. What kind of God becomes human just like you and me? The answer is, of course, Emmanuel, God with us.

God understands that face-to-face conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that can be done. It is where we experience the joy of being listened to and understood.

The author and preacher Frederick Buechner writes of a place where we are listened to and understood. The people who gather there are, “in one sense…strangers who know each other only by their first name and almost nothing else about each other. In another sense they are best friends who little by little come to know each other from the inside out instead of the other way around, which is the way we usually do it…They know something about each other’s frailties, failures, fears. They know something too about each other’s strengths, hopes, gladness and about where they have found it.”

Quite a few of you go this room where saying, “I am Jim and I am an alcoholic,” is how you draw close to others. You discover deep peace in this room where everyone listens to one another, face-to-face.

God comes so close to us tonight. That is why we proclaim, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” God hugs those of you whose families are in shambles and God weeps with those of you who, when hearing “merry Christmas,” feel even lonelier. God jumps for joy with those of you who can barely contain your delight—your daughter and son-in-law told you only moments before you entered here that they are pregnant, you were hired yesterday to your dream job, your doctor called and said, “I’ve got good news for you.”

God comes to Bethlehem to cry and laugh with you; God comes to downtown San Diego to mourn and dance with you.

This evening’s bulletin cover has been under my church desk since I first saw it at the Kaiser Wilhelm Church in Berlin many years ago. The Rev. Kurt Reuber drew this picture. In addition to being a pastor, he was also a doctor in the German army at the Battle of Stalingrad, considered by many as the bloodiest battle in the history of warfare where approximately two million people were killed. Pastor Reuber quickly realized his medical skills were incapable of providing what was ultimately needed. So he drew a picture on the back of his military map (note the fold marks on the drawing). The German words light, life, and love appear on the right side and Christmas 1942 on the left. He hung the “Stalingrad Madonna” on a bunker wall, a Christmas gift for weary and frightened soldiers. This was how Pastor Reuber came face-to-face and brought the Christ Child to those in deep danger.

I encourage you to take your bulletin home. Cut out the “Stalingrad Madonna” and place it on your desk or in your Bible. May it remind you that God draws near to you as a vulnerable baby, sharing your sadness and joy, your nightmares and dreams.

It would be so good, right now, to share the gift of the Christ Child with someone you love. Despite everything I have said up until now, please take out your hand-held devices; call someone dear to you. Tell them you are in the middle of Christmas Eve worship and just wanted them to know that Christ the Savior is born for them. If you don’t have a phone, ask someone if you can borrow theirs or simply turn to a neighbor and wish them a very merry Christmas….Go ahead now.

[Time for calling.]

God has drawn close to you this night. May you see God face-to-face and may you and those you love have a very happy Christmas.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church-San Diego
December 20, 2015
Fourth Sunday in Advent
Micah 5: 2-5a; Luke 1: 39-55
"Finding Blessings in the Tiniest Package of All"

Christmas is almost here. Gifts, large and small, will soon be under the tree with a riot of colorful wrapping paper and sparkly bows.

What is the first Christmas you recall? Remember how you could barely sleep as you cocked your ears and listened for Santa and his reindeers’ pitter-patter as they landed on your roof? The stockings were hung and cookies and milk were on the mantel for the overworked man from the North Pole.

Do you remember how your eyes locked onto the gifts under the Scotch pine as you came down the stairs in your pajamas? You looked for the biggest box of all. You crossed your fingers, praying: “Make that one big box mine, baby Jesus, and I will be good for the rest of my life.” You hoped the smaller gifts were for your sister; and the soft, flimsy one with socks or underwear—“please, Lord, make that for my ornery brother.” You wanted the big one.

You have learned over time that the finest gifts often come in tiny packages, but don’t you still catch yourself longing to open the biggest present of all?

It takes constant guidance to get excited about small gifts. It is impossible to believe our greatest delight can come in the puny and miniscule.

We, the people of God, are taught over and over again to search for wonder in the seemingly insignificant gifts, gifts like bread and wine and water. We heard such instruction moments ago from the prophet Micah: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel…” Bethlehem—so dinky, so trivial. This little town is six miles or so south of the big city, Jerusalem, where the sophisticated folks live in fancy homes, wield power, and attend those prestigious houses of worship. What good can come out of the little town of Bethlehem?

The Bible constantly reminds us to choose the smallest package and yet to expect the largest gift. Today, we hear of two women, Elizabeth and Mary. They are both pregnant. One is a gangly teenager and the other in her autumn years, well past the time to expect a child. They are little people: Mary has no reason to hope yet and Elizabeth has long given up hope.

But God does great things in small packages. The greatest grace—the biggest surprise—is that a young girl and an old woman trust the words of an angel that they are essential to God’s plan. When Mary comes to Elizabeth’s house to tell her she is pregnant, old Elizabeth, six months pregnant with her own surprise baby, John the Baptist, immediately proclaims: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Elizabeth has eyes of faith and mysteriously sees that this young girl is the mother of God or as the Orthodox Church would have it in such a beautiful word, Theotokos.

Even though Mary is far too young to imagine she is pregnant, let alone the mother of God, she sings one of our most gorgeous hymns, the Magnificat (we just sang Holden Evening Prayer’s version which this congregation loves so much): “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my sprit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and his holy is his name.” Astonishing gifts in tiny packages.

Are you able to detect blessings in small packages? During the past week here at First Lutheran, God has urged us to pick the smallest gifts and then to proclaim: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”

Last Sunday we went caroling to our oldest members. Geri Engelke and Barbara Hagen were thrilled to see us, especially the young ones in our group. These two women are our Elizabeths. They have been members here for about seventy years. They love this church even though it has witnessed challenging times in downtown over the years. The minute Geri saw us, she proclaimed her own delightful Magnificat, “Oh, my church, First Lutheran! I love my church!” Such a beautiful gift in such fragile packages.

Two days ago, Friday, as we have done every Friday morning for the past forty years, we fed God’s blessed poor. And through the amazing work of the Third Avenue Charitable Organization, 250 gifts were given to a host of weary souls for whom this gift was likely their only gift. Some will not even receive a card from their families. They are packages that sometimes are never chosen from under the tree. They are as lowly as Mary and Joseph and Elizabeth and Zechariah and just as important to God’s eternal plan.

One of our dear brothers living on the streets, walked out the church entrance, proudly carrying his blanket and tarp, and said to me, “I was hungry and you fed me; I was naked and you clothed me.” I looked him in the eyes and said, “Do you know who that means you are, Robert? You are Jesus.” He smiled and said, “I don’t think so.” Sometimes the finest packages come to us when we cannot imagine God loving us. Priceless gifts in beaten up packages.

Today, our littlest members will put on the Christmas pageant for us. We will wipe away tears, smile unlike we have smiled in quite a while. As we look at the rascally sheep, the fidgety angels, and the cute shining star picking her nose we will know that God is looking down on First Lutheran Church. Our tiny ones will point us to the Christ Child and tell us as only our precious children can, “Christ the Savior is born, Christ the Savior is born.”

Imagine all that has occurred among us in just a week. Here in this place that is growing in stunning ways and yet in a place of which it could be easily said, “But you, O First Lutheran Church of San Diego, who are one of the little clans, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule the nations.” Here, in this pipsqueak place we know so well we have seen the Christ Child in the most vulnerable, the least respected, and the too easily forgotten. That is Christmas, my dear friends. Open your eyes and, by God’s grace, choose the tiniest package of all.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church-San Diego
December 13, 2015
Third Sunday in Advent
Zephaniah 3: 14-20; Luke 3:7-18
"Grace Precedes Repentance"

For those who were here last Sunday, I warned you that John the Baptist would be back and he is here with a vengeance and he is not happy. If you do not believe me, listen to what John said 2000 years ago to those who followed him into the wilderness: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” And, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

I cautioned you that he was going to be grumpy.

To be fair, John was influenced by the great biblical voices before him—and they were not particularly cheerful sorts either. He listened, for instance, to Zephaniah. For those who have not committed the 39 Old Testament books to memory, only Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi remain in the Old Testament after Zephaniah. Today’s reading comes from the final chapter of Zephaniah, the 3rd chapter. The six verses we read are just about the only happy ones in the entire book of Zephaniah; the rest are like watching a rattlesnake trying to talk.

In case you don’t plan on reading your Bible this afternoon, here is a snapshot of what Zephaniah said on behalf of the Lord: “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth…I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. I will make the wicked stumble. I will cut off humanity from the face of the earth, says the Lord.” Apparently John the Baptist wasn’t the only one in a foul mood.

And then the strangest thing occurs. With only 12 verses remaining in the entire book, God changes God’s mind. We heard that dramatic transformation moments ago: “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies….I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.”

In this season of Advent, we think a lot about repentance and our sins, of turning around in a new direction. But today, we are invited to ponder, not only our repenting, but also God’s. Did you ever imagine God would repent? After all, God is omnipotent, all powerful, all wise, immortal and invisible. God has every reason to destroy us and yet, instead of destruction, God changes God’s mind and tenderly embraces us with forgiveness and offers us a brand new day. That’s exactly what happens in Zephaniah.

Today, the Third Sunday in Advent, is called Gaudete Sunday; Gaudete is the Latin word for rejoice. As the days grow shorter and darker and colder, the church dares to light the third candle on the Advent wreath and call it the joy candle. The joy is that God repents even before we do.

The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth once said, “Grace precedes repentance.” When we experience God loving us despite our missteps, even though we deserve harsh punishment, suddenly we feel encouraged to repent, to tell the whole truth about ourselves—call it confession if you wish.

It has been said that security breeds honesty and insecurity fosters deceit. Perhaps you are fortunate enough to have met someone in your life who makes you feel secure enough to bare your entire soul—your loving spouse, a dear friend, a trusted pastor, a caring therapist. Because of their kindness and attentiveness to you, you find yourself spilling out your heart to them because you feel the security of grace and not the harsh lashes of judgment. These are the dear ones who, though you are weeping and trembling and miserable, say to you, “You will be okay. Don’t worry. You are loved.” I hope this has happened to you a time or two. If it has, you know what the joy of forgiveness feels like.

When I was in seminary, my Old Testament professor Brevard Childs told us students: there is not a single book in the Bible that does not offer hope. Even when the reading can get awfully dismal and feel terribly judgmental—like the book of Zephaniah or the words of John the Baptist—you must keep searching for hope. Dr. Childs said that hope is always present somewhere, in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament. Said another way, the gospel, good news, is woven throughout the entire Bible. And, said yet another way, God is making all things new, including us. So never give up searching for hope.

In his book, “Mere Christianity,” C. S. Lewis writes: ““Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what God is doing. God is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently God starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is God up to? The explanation is that God is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but God is building a palace. God intends to come and live in it Himself.”

In these days, as it gets colder and darker, God comes to prepare our hearts to receive the Christ Child. Sometimes the preparation hurts, sometimes it is confusing, and yet, frankly, for those with eyes of faith, it is always beautiful. God is doing everything possible to let us know we are God’s dear children. Like little ones who joyfully jump into Santa’s lap, let us all jump into God’s lap, that great big graceful and loving lap.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church-San Diego
December 6, 2015
Second Sunday in Advent
"Here's Johnny"

Luke 3: 1-6
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Every year, on this the Second Sunday in Advent, as we draw closer and closer to the celebration of Christ’s birth, we run headlong into that oddball John the Baptist. We can’t avoid him. And let me warn you in advance: if you think you can sleep walk through this morning without hearing his harangues, think again; Johnny will be back next Sunday in full force. Dogone it, John the Baptist shows up every year and every year we worry that he will ruin the party.

John the Baptist is the kind of guy we try to avoid at all costs. He pounds on the pulpit, points his finger at us, and utters creepy phrases like “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”— enough already! John is the reason so many claim not to come to church anymore. Every time we hear him, we feel worse.

And yet, to be honest, I wonder if we should give cranky ol’ John a chance. Our unsympathetic reaction to his carping about repentance probably says more about our mixed-up selves than about him. Maybe, deep down, we know our lives are a mess and we simply don’t have the courage to admit it and try to change. It’s far easier to blame John.

Could it be the grouchy part of repentance, the part that drives folks from the church, is only part of the story? Our reaction to repentance reminds me of those people who show up at church for the first time on Stewardship Sunday and conclude all the church ever talks about is money and never return. They refuse to hear anything else. Let us give repentance a chance. Let us reflect more carefully on the literal sense of the Greek word for repentance, metanoia. Metanoia means change of mind not just regret for the past. What if, when listening to John, instead of hearing a rant and storming out, we listen carefully as he digs into his rhetorical bag of tricks? What if in his voice raised beyond our comfort level, he helps us discover the newfound joy that can only be found in the glorious forgiveness into which Jesus invites us?

How many of us hope our lives will change for the better and yet refuse to change a single thing we do or say? How many of us wish others would change their insufferable ways and we could go on our merry way changing not an iota about ourselves? Isn’t that why we love to grumble about others: if they would only change, everything would fine and we would no longer have to look seriously at ourselves.

Repentance is hard work. Whenever I hear the word “repentance,” I think of my friend Dr. Hayward Green who was an orthopedic surgeon. He once told me that when he went into patients’ hospital rooms after hip and knee replacements, he always asked, “Are you in pain?” If they answered, “Yes, Doc, excruciating pain,” he would say, “Great! The surgery worked.” Repentance is radical surgery; it breaks and chisels and removes what has caused us horrible misery in our lives for a long time. We hate the pain; we hate hearing the hard words about our self-centeredness; we detest admitting it could be our fault and not someone else’s when things turn sour. Rather than doing the hard work of repentance, we often prefer running, changing churches or jobs or spouses. After all, I am fine, it is he….or she. Are we willing to repent or not?

Fourteen people were killed in San Bernardino, part of our Pacifica Synod, on Wednesday and seventeen more injured. In 209 of 336 days this year, at least one shooting has left four or more people injured or dead in the United States. Maybe this seems normal to some, but from my perspective, our nation has a gun problem. Packing automatic weapons as if we are living in a modern day Wild West seems preposterous to me. Shooting at someone every time we have a difference seems outlandish. Is anyone willing to imagine a different world where life rather than death prevails, where peace rather than violence is tried first, where we seek to understand one another’s differences rather than shoot each other? Are we willing to start with ourselves or must others change first? Remember that song of yesteryear, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” That’s how repentance works, how a better world is created. It begins with you, with me; we are the first to turn around.

I love Frederick Buechner’s definition of repentance: “To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’”

Repentance should never be viewed negatively. As an old church desert father said, “Repentance is the daughter of hope and the refusal to despair.” Repentance is the belief that God forgives us and that our lives and our world can be turned around for the better. Repentance believes beginning with me, with you, can make all the difference.

The truth is, at our best, we are a repentance church. The biggest compliment new members pay First Lutheran Church when they join here is that we are a community where those have stumbled a time or two or three are welcomed into the very heart of our life together. Of course, you know who these stumblers are: they are you and I! I have said it before and I will say it again: First Lutheran reminds me of Alcoholics Anonymous at worship on Sunday morning. Perhaps that churchy word “repentance” startles us; maybe AA language works better for some of us: we admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable; we came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity; we made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Sounds like repentance to me.

We are all drunks, by the way—drunk on arrogance, drunk on selfishness, drunk on self-pity, drunk on booze, drunk on despair. I suppose it is why another old church father, Saint Isaac of Syria, claimed that perceiving one’s own sins is more important than performing miracles or having supernatural mystical visions.

Oh to listen to cranky John the Baptist and to turn our lives around so we are facing in the right direction when God places the Christ Child in our arms. That is a miracle! What else can we say but “Wow!” Oh the joy of repentance.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church-San Diego
November 29, 2015
First Sunday in Advent
"O Lord, How Shall I Meet You?"

Luke 21:25-36
Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

The season of Advent begins today and raises the question for each of us, “O Lord, how shall I meet you?”

Some of you have already begun meeting the Lord, in one way or another, putting up your Christmas trees, shopping on black Friday for those you love, baking cookies and sending your Christmas cards. This is a start but there is something far deeper. You see, the Lord has come to us and now the only question remains: Lord, how shall I meet you?

I suppose every generation feels that it faces unique challenges unlike any other in history. Don’t we, in our own way, feel the wind howling into our faces and the hounds nipping our heels? What other generation has faced the threat of global warming? What other generation has faced such sophisticated weaponry? What other generation—at least in our country—has had so much and yet felt like it had so little?

Every age has had its version of the nightly news making it feel out of control. Our first reading recounts Babylon conquering God’s holy city of Jerusalem and hauling the brightest and best into exile; this was 600 years before Jesus. These banished ones became so desperate, we are told, that they hung their harps in the willows and couldn’t even remember their favorite songs— imagine not being able to sing Silent Night and Amazing Grace. How could these people hope when they had lost the capacity to hum their favorite songs in the howling wind?

The gospel of Luke, which we begin reading at worship this morning and will read throughout this church year, reveals that things have gone haywire in Jesus’ time as well. Soon after Jesus died, Jerusalem and the beloved Temple were in ruins and the Roman Empire had pressed its fierce thumb on God’s children.

We, of course, face our own desperation. Dagmar and I have been watching the PBS News Hour. The way we do this is she holds up our brand new $20 antenna and I tell her where to stand—do you think she has to stand in some far off location for the entire hour—I’ll let you guess. A few nights ago, as the news concluded, I asked Dagmar in all seriousness, “Am I hopelessly depressed or are things darker than ever before or are we simply watching too much television?” Help me: is it just me or are these unusually dark times?

Are you as depressed as I am by the Russian jet shot down by Turkey, the shooting of 17 year-old LaQuan McDonald by a Chicago police officer, not once but sixteen times, the continued grizzly news of ISIS, the upsetting warnings about traveling during this Thanksgiving weekend, and now, believe it or not, another terror monger—not ISIS by the way but homegrown in the USA—gunning down innocent folks in Colorado Springs? It has been said that if these kind of dastardly events don’t concern us and even depress us, we are likely not paying attention to the evil in our world or have simply grown so numb that the nauseating violence and devastation do not touch our souls any longer.

Did Luke write these words for his day or ours? “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

The Advent question doesn’t attempt to discern whether these days are darker than 600 years before Christ or fifty years after his death. It is not a question to make us afraid but rather one to bolster our hope. It is the question of every age: are we able to discover Christ’s presence in the darkness?

The German pastor and hymn writer Paul Gerhardt wrote 130 classic Lutheran hymns. In the hymn we will sing in a few moments, Gerhardt asks, “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You?” He faced his own dark days in the 1600s. Four of Pastor Gerhardt’s sons died in infancy, his wife died after they had been married only 13 years, and he was mistreated by one of the congregations he served for holding fast to Lutheran confessional doctrine. Gerhardt’s beloved Advent hymn has lifted the church’s spirits in dark days ever since.

Rejoice, then, you sad-hearted,
who sit in deepest gloom,
who mourn your joys departed
and tremble at your doom.
All hail the Lord’s appearing!
O glorious Sun, now come,
send forth you beams so cheering
and guide us safely home.

As our world grows darker and colder in these wintry days, the church does not give up hope. We have lit the first candle on the Advent wreath, the candle of hope. We will light one candle after another, for four weeks in a row, until on Christmas Eve, this sanctuary is ablaze in candlelight wonder.

The liturgical color for Advent is deep blue, the color of the sky early in the morning as we eagerly long for the rising of the warm Son of God. Even the green wreath, formed in a circle of eternity, quietly announces life to us; as other trees lose their leaves, this evergreen lives on into the icy winter. In all of this we are reminded that God’s presence cannot be overcome by the wintry darkness of our lives or of our world.

Paul Gerhardt’s question, “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You?” is why we gather together this morning. It is why we beg God that we might pray unceasingly during these days, searching for Christ’s presence in our midst. It is why we make our pledges to this church’s ministry and offer them this morning—so Christ’s light might burn brightly here at 3rd and Ash. It is why we have fed hungry people here for forty years and still do—not because we are such good people—we know better than that!—but because we are expectant people standing on tippy-toe, seeking to meet Christ in the hungry folks who come to our doors.

Christ promises to be with us this morning and this is cause for great delight and deep hope. May we all seek his presence in these days, praying for grace to answer the question well, “O Lord, how shall I meet you.”

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church-San Diego
November 22, 2015
Christ the King Sunday
John 18: 33-37
"Christ the King and Our Thoughts This Week"

“Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’”

What has been going through your mind this week as you have reflected on the barbaric violence in places like Paris, Beirut, Mali, and Egypt? What are your thoughts regarding the refugees flooding out of Syria and seeking asylum in our nation?

Here’s what I have been thinking. I have thought of the words on the Statue of Liberty in light of the refugees seeking asylum from Syria: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

I have thought about 1938 as Hitler stepped up his assault on the Jewish people. 67.4% of those polled in the United States at that time said that our nation should deny Jewish people entry into the United States—there was fear that they might be communists. Sadly, as fear swept this nation, the United States refused to admit over 900 Jewish refugees who had sailed from Hamburg, Germany, on the passenger ship St. Louis. Those passengers were returned to Europe. 254 of those passengers (nearly 28 percent) are known to have died in the Holocaust.

I have thought of our suspicions of Muslims as presidential candidates have said, “There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror.” Have they not heard of the Ku Klux Klan and the Westboro Baptist Church in Wichita, Kansas, who claim to be faithful Christians?

I watched France’s resolve as jet planes attacked ISIS strongholds and I clenched my fists in support as President Francois Hollande has said, “We will lead the fight, and it will be merciless.” Pilate was the governor and faced tough decisions as do our own leaders facing ISIS barbarity.

What have your thoughts been this week?

Pilate had lots of thoughts running through his mind. What was he to do with Jesus as the Jewish authorities and the crowds clamored for his neck? If Jesus claimed to be the king of the Jews, then he was saying that he was God; and, of course, Pilate’s sworn loyalty was to Caesar, not Jesus, and Caesar was, after all, the true king. Pilate scratched his head, asked Jesus questions, sought the crowd’s opinion, consulted with religious leaders. Finally, Pilate washed his hands of the whole mess and handed over Jesus to die. Such tough decisions where there are no easy or perfect answers come with the territory in the fierce calling of political leadership.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the church year. Our gospel reading reminds us that we follow a king who stood before Pilate and faced his own brutal death sentence. We, the people of God, look to this king who teaches us a far different way. Rather than hate our enemies, Jesus urges us to love them. Rather than ostracize outsiders, Jesus calls us to invite them to the table of love. Is it any wonder Jesus ended up on the cross? Was he simply a naïve fool?

The discussion about how to react to ISIS or how to respond to those from Syria seeking refuge in our country will not end soon. We face tough questions and simplistic answers will not do.

Reinhold Niebuhr taught theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City during WWI1 and into the 1950s as the Soviet Union amassed more and more power. Niebuhr knew there were no easy and perfect solutions. He also knew that the United States bore an extra burden of responsibility being the most powerful nation in the world. I believe Niebuhr would urge us today to be realistic about the decisions we must make. These tough decisions hardly ever offer perfect or neat solutions in which everyone agrees, and yet our strong nation must make decisions for the good of all humanity.

Niebuhr wrote: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”

Throughout this year, we have watched King Jesus side with us when we have made terrible mistakes, when we have been arrogant and self-centered, even when we have fallen flat on our faces. King Jesus has eaten with us every Sunday morning, becoming as dirty as we are just by passing us the bread and wine.

Jesus tells us: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.” In his love for us, Jesus surrendered all worldly power. When we are confused and have no simple answers, when we are sore afraid, when basically good people disagree vehemently about what is the right thing to do, we need to remind ourselves that King Jesus is near. He is not powerful and regal but weak and vulnerable. He is with us today, in the decisions we must make, fraught with confusion and vengeance and fear; he is with us as we seek the best solutions we can possibly achieve. At the end of every day, especially these days, let us confess our shortcomings and give thanks to our king who is merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church-San Diego
November 15, 2015
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Daniel 12: 1-3; Mark 13: 1-8
"As the Shadows Lengthen"

So, now that we are two weeks into daylight savings time, how are you liking it? I loved the extra hour of sleep the first night; aside from that, I am hating the darkness, especially as I drive home from the church and the sun is long gone. If I were a politician, my number one campaign promise would be to eliminate daylight savings time. It seems to me that our bodies have a natural longing for the light and a deep aversion to darkness, dreading the demise of all that we hold dear.

The church’s final worship service of the day is called Compline; it is held right before we close our eyes at night. At that night service, we pray: “O Lord, support us all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, in your mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Do you need this prayer as much as I do, even though it is morning? The shadows lengthen, darkness shrouds our lives, and we cry to God for help. The devastating events in Paris two nights ago numb us once again. Those murderous attacks where so many lost their lives were 5,700 miles away and yet they felt like they occurred in our backyard. Once again, we will be forced to be more vigilant, we will grow more wary, and we will fear for those we love.

It is why at baptisms here at First, we renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God. This is not play-acting! We do not do this sheepishly or with hands nonchalantly in our pockets. We lift our hands in defiance of all that is evil and brutal. We face west where darkness falls, where death feels so close as the sun goes down. I suspect most of us have the ashy taste of death in our mouths as we gather before God this morning.

In our gospel reading, darkness cloaks Jesus more and more and yet the disciples are oblivious to his looming death even though it will occur in a matter of days. They are like giddy school children on their first field trip to the big city, gawking at Jerusalem’s magnificent Temple, pointing in amazement, “what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings.” Whenever I hear them, I think of .Little Red Riding Hood: “Grandmother, what big eyes you have.” As the disciples gape, the shadows lengthen and Jesus will be nailed to the cross very soon.

Jesus warns his disciples and us, “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” and yet he also tells us that this is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

Darkness creeps close. Have you ever said, “My world is crumbling.”

Our ministry is our plea for those we love, especially in these gruesome days of violence and death: “God, do not let crumbling and dying be the last word.” When we tuck our tiny children into bed, almost always they plead, “Tell me one more story.” And it isn’t just the little ones who make this plea. Our oldest members, in their nineties, ask the same thing: “Please, do a little story-telling, the one about Jesus bringing light into the darkness, life into our world of death. You see, pastor, these golden years are not what they are cracked up to be. I need a story.”

That one last story is told in this morning’s reading from Daniel as well. It is a stunning vision of resurrection for God’s children facing the dastardly mayhem of the brutal regime of Antiochus Epiphanes IV—the mayhem is similar to what France is facing in these days. Daniel’s last story proclaims to those who suffer such wretchedness that “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to everlasting contempt.”

How many of you long for one last story? You face all manner of darkness—alcoholism, divorce, lost jobs, mental illness, terminal illness, homelessness, loneliness, the death of a precious loved one. You need someone to draw close and whisper in your ear, “This is not the final word. There is one last story.” That is why we have gathered Sunday after Sunday, throughout this year, to remind one another that “Christ will come again.” That is why we are being asked to make a financial pledge to this wonderful ministry: it is our opportunity to support the story-telling here at 3rd and Ash. Sometimes we desperately need to hear this story, other times we need to tell it to someone else as their hope fades fast.

We are invited by the church through the ages to place our hopes on what can, at first glance, appear so puny as we, like the disciples, are wont to marvel at big stones and big buildings. We are invited to trust, not in our flimsy delights and thin desires and idolatrous ecclesiastical monuments, but rather we are invited to trust in the everlasting promises of God.

The best of our Lutheran tradition never points us to the magical, stupendous, or gargantuan for our salvation—never! We are invited, rather, to find God in unadorned words that I stumble to proclaim to you and you struggle to proclaim to ones you love caught in the dusk of death. We discover God in bread and wine and water, stuff that can appear so insignificant and pointless, and yet stuff that is always available, even in the darkest hour. No matter how trivial this muddle of broken pottage may seem, Jesus promises that simple words and water and bread and wine will never fail us.

In a few moments, as you hear “take and eat…drink you all of it,” may you discover, again, that one last story worth your hearing. And, for God’s sake, may it give you peace in these days.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church-San Diego
November 8, 2015
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
"The Enthralling Smell of Sheep"

Mark 12:38-44
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Pope Francis has caught the world’s attention. He captivates us because he draws so close to the poor and vulnerable. Perhaps you have seen the picture of Pope Francis embracing a terribly disfigured man suffering from repulsive looking facial tumors. It’s almost impossible to look at the man’s face; we might go to the other side of the street when passing him. Not Francis: he laid his hands on the man, prayed with him, and then gathered the man’s face deep into his breast. Some feared for the pope: what if the man with the repugnant face suffered from some deadly, contagious disease; was it dangerous for the pope to touch him so tenderly? This didn’t matter to Francis. The picture of the two men embracing one another has melted the world’s hard heart.

Not long after he became pope, Francis castigated priests who seldom go beyond themselves, spending most of their time quibbling over theology or the microscopic details of the liturgy. He encouraged the church’s shepherds to get out of their offices and to be permeated with “the smell of sheep.”

In today’s readings, we see God’s people permeated with “the smell of the sheep” as they draw close to the outcast, the sinful, and the poor. In the reading from 1 Kings, the prophet Elijah draws near to the widow from Zarapheth who, with her son, is close to starvation; they have next to nothing left. When Elijah gets close to this forbidden foreigner, he ends up smelling like a sheep and, in so doing, his life is saved as the widow feeds him with what little she has left. In Hebrews, Jesus draws so close to his brothers and sisters that the odor of our sin causes him to end up dying on the cross. And in the gospel, Jesus watches with awe as a woman puts her very last coins into the Temple coffers. Jesus is not impressed by the muckety mucks who give large sums out of their wealth; he is much more moved by the poor woman giving her two final coins out of her desperate poverty.

How willing are you to smell like sheep? As we approach our stewardship season here at First Lutheran, you are given the opportunity to draw close to those Christ loves. You will receive your pledge card in the mail, early next week. Every member of First is invited to smell like sheep, to draw as close to this ministry as you financially dare. If you have never pledged, please join your brothers and sisters in Christ in supporting our ministry in this way for the first time in your life. If you have pledged—which, by the way, most of you do and I thank you—the church council asks you to consider, if at all possible, to increase your giving by 3% or even more.

(A pledge is a spiritual discipline. It helps you determine how you will go about your own ministry in the coming year as you offer financial gifts to make Christ’s love known in this place. Your pledge gives your church a much better idea what it can expect from you as it plans ministry in 2016.)

People often ask me why First is experiencing such growth. They seem surprised when I say, in my mind, the homeless community saved First Lutheran Church and has made it vibrant. (That is not meant to suggest, however, that our ministry of Word and Sacrament is not foremost to all we do; it is!) But our considerable outreach to God’s blessed poor has given us an identity and a reason to exist. That may not be the only reason you come to First Lutheran or even the primary reason, but I would venture to guess you all tell your friends about our ministry to the homeless and underserved folks of San Diego.

This congregation has dared to smell like sheep over the past forty years, since Bread Day began and hungry people were fed on our patio on Friday morning. Wouldn’t you agree that over time, the smell of sheep can actually become quite enthralling? We look at poor people day after day, people like the widow of Zarapheth and the poor woman of Jerusalem, people whom God loves very much. We have invited these folks into the heart of our life together. Their presence—could they be Christ himself among us—has made us vibrant.

Pastor John Steinbruck was a dear friend of mine who died recently. He was the pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, D.C. Luther Place is a lot like First Lutheran. Pastor Steinbruck was fond of speaking of vertical and horizontal statistics. He delighted in railing against what he called the church’s penchant for lifting up vertical statistics, those statistics forever pointing to heaven in the sky, measuring ministry by how many are at worship on Sunday, how many new members are received, how many baptisms have occurred. Whether apocryphal or not, Pastor Steinbruck claims he sent in his annual congregational report to the synod office, declaring thousands of new members joining Luther Place in one year; these were horizontal members, of course, those so easily forgotten that our church doesn’t even ask about them and has no category for them. These horizontal members are the ones who slept in the church and ate warm meals there. The so-called bag ladies were, for Pastor Steinbruck, just like the biblical widows: they reinvigorated his congregation’s struggling ministry and helped countless others see Jesus in fresh and remarkable ways. Luther Place became known around the country and the world and I can tell you, if you went near it, it always smelled of sheep. Ministry became horizontal, heaven come to earth, and grace was unveiled on the city streets.

You have chosen to be a member of a similar congregation, one that smells like sheep most of the time—sometimes smellier than we would wish. But in smelling like sheep, Christ draws near to us and we discover our salvation. The closer we draw to the vulnerable and the outcast, the closer we are to God. Could it be that our sheep-smell is attracting other people here at 3rd and Ash?

God has blessed us with a remarkable congregation and we thank God you have chosen to be part of this amazing place. When you make your financial pledge to our ministry for 2016, see how being a bit smelly draws you closer and closer to Christ, the great shepherd of the sheep.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church-San Diego
November 1, 2015
All Saints' Day
Isaiah 25: 6-9; Revelation 21: 1-6; John 11: 32-44
"God’s Beautiful Gift of Saints"

Mr. Fruit appears in Pat Conroy’s novel, “Prince of Tides.” Mr. Fruit is developmentally disabled and lives in the tiny community of Colleton, in the low country of South Carolina. Mr. Fruit directs traffic on the village streets at his own whim and proudly leads the annual Fourth of July parade, whether asked or not. Pat Conroy writes, “Any community can be judged in its humanity or corruption by how it manages to accommodate the Mr. Fruits of the world.”

[But you don’t have to go to Colleton. This morning, at First Lutheran, a man who had imbibed in the heavenly vision of well aged wine way too early in the morning, sat through parts of the liturgy in some personal disrepair. The test for our community, at this All Saints’ liturgy, was to watch how we would treat him. Lo and behold, he was sitting in the very front row and was invited to process out at the end of the worship, joined by the pastor and the deacon. As one member suggested, “The Spirit sent him to us today!”]

Our congregation’s character can be judged by how we discover sainthood in the Mr. Fruits of the world and, in our case, in one another and the many who come to us throughout the week.

On this All Saints’ Day we discover sainthood among many who are dear to us, especially Marlyss Carlson, Dorothy Magdich, Jerry Kuck, the Rev. Jim Hallerberg, and Mickey Lester. Each of these beautiful saints had a profound impact on this community.

In the Lutheran way of thinking, saints are those we rub shoulders with. We don’t lift them up because they have performed two or three certifiable miracles. It is miracle enough that they came here with walkers, sometimes in agony, sometimes soon after their doctor said, “I am so sorry to break this news to you;” they wanted to be with us, in the presence of God, in their final days. It is miracle enough that all five were generous to our ministry, all making financial pledges to First Lutheran Church over the years, including in 2015.

Each saint was baptized far from here—in places like Moorhead, Minnesota, Jacksonville, Illinois, Pillager, Minnesota, Storm Lake, Iowa, and Centerville, South Dakota. It may not have escaped your notice that Lutherans are the densest in the great Midwest. The moment water was poured over their little heads, their brothers and sisters in Christ were given the opportunity to behold their sainthood as they went about the routines of their daily lives.

Marlyss Carlson loved the church and had the uncanny knack, even as she suffered, always to ask, first, how you were doing. Jerry Kuck shied away from the spotlight; he delighted in stuffing the Sunday bulletins early on Friday morning and coming here to read his Bible before worship began. Dorothy Magdich was a member here the longest of those we remember today, since the 1950s; even in death, she was generous, leaving $25,000 (along with her husband Emil) to our endowment fund so ministry might continue even after death. The Reverend Jim Hallerberg, Ginger’s husband, could often be seen weeping in delight as Jared played a Bach organ work; he also expressed his staunch theological convictions in a manner that brought to mind ol’ Martin Luther. Mickey Lester, who died most recently, only two weeks ago, traveled twenty miles to come to church every Sunday morning; she and her husband John opened their lovely home in Rancho Santa Fe at Christmas time for eleven years with magical hospitality.

Paul writes: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints.”

No saint, of course, is perfect; we knew these folks too well to make believe that they were. We lived with them, worked with them, argued with them, and, of course, we loved them and they loved us. We knew their flaws and failures, their triumphs and tenderness. They knew us, too, and were tuned in to our stunning sainthood and rascally sinnerhood.

The character of this community is measured not only in how we love the saints but also in how we weep at their graves just as Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus. We weep not because we are without hope; we weep because we have dared to love. There is nothing more pathetic than a person who does not invest enough to become vulnerable with others, who seems incapable of getting close to others and weeping at their graves. When someone loses a spouse, a parent, or treasured friend, I worry most, not when there is a flood of tears but when there is an absence of tears. Tears are God’s gift, almost sacramental, signs that we have dared to love and to love well. Only self-centered people have no tears at the grave.

Faithful Christians weep not only at the grave, however. As the ancient funeral liturgy beautifully puts it, “Yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.” For those who have plumbed the depths of sainthood in others, especially in the face of the death, we become marvelously imaginative. Our first and second readings this morning demonstrate such imagination.

Isaiah speaks of that mountain of the LORD where a feast of rich food and well-age wines will be served and God will wipe away the tears from all faces. Haven’t you at times wondered, will I ever stop crying for the one I loved? Isaiah paints a breathtaking picture of a heavenly feast where we will cry no more and, surprise, surprise, where God will serve us and our loved ones—imagine that, God serving us in heaven!

The book of Revelation (the last book of the Bible) creates another dazzling vision. We see a new heaven and a new earth, and in the city! I once heard a preacher say that when we get to heaven, there will be a sign above the pearly gates that reads, “Brought to you by the folks who brought you San Diego!” (by the way, in all candor, he suggested the sign would read New York). Can you fathom such a place where there is no death, no crying, no pain? How blessed are you when God creates such glorious images on your heart.

Today is a wondrous day. We thank God for the saints who have touched our lives. They were not perfect but they were created by God and we loved them so very much. We mourn their loss and yet we dance and sing alleluia on this All Saints’ Day because those we loved died in comforting promise of the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.

Let us thank God for the beautiful gift of saints who have touched our lives. May that be one of the finest marks of this community’s character.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church-San Diego
October 25, 2015
Reformation Sunday
Romans 3: 19-28
"Freed from Those Crazy Dreams"

We all have dreams. In fact, I read somewhere that if you do not dream, you are actually dead.

Do you ever have the dream where you are on your way to church—actually coming across the church patio—and all you have on is your pajamas? There is another dream that I would bet almost all of us have. It is the one where we are having a test the very next morning. There is no way we will pass the test given our lack of study. In our dream, we do not even own the necessary books to study for the test and we have skipped most of the required classes during the term.

This morning, Sophia Lovell and Melody Ruth will affirm the promises their parents made for them at baptism when they were babies. They will be confirmed as we pray mightily for the Holy Spirit to alight on them yet again. I bet Sophia and Melody have butterflies dancing in their bellies. Each of them will recite her confirmation verse before the entire congregation. Admit it: you would be nervous, too!

Let me assure you that I am not going to ask them to recite Martin Luther’s explanation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed or to tell the assembled multitude the date Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. And yet Sophia and Melody will still be nervous.

The truth is we all get jittery from time-to-time. Maybe those crazy dreams that plague us have something to do with our not quite being prepared and almost never meeting the expectations we set for ourselves.

Our brother in Christ, Martin Luther, suffered from similar jitters. No matter how hard he tried, he never felt good enough. This failure to be the good and faithful person he thought he should be haunted him.

I suppose we are all like Luther. Those dreams that haunt us must have something to do with our inability to meet the standards we set for ourselves and the standards that others set for us. Luther’s church set standards for him that he simply could not achieve—he was never good enough in his mind. Our experience nearly 500 years later isn’t too terribly different. Aren’t we all running from self-judgment? Don’t we play all kinds of games for fear that someone will find out we and our families are not perfect and that we are not the very best at what we do?

Our own Lutheran church, in my mind, played a similar game for years and years. For those of you who were blessed or cursed by two or three years of confirmation instruction, you probably hearken back to the “good ol’ days” when you had to memorize Luther’s “Small Catechism,” knowing the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles’ Creed by heart; on top of that, you were expected to recite, by memory, Luther’s explanations of these important items of our faith. In some churches, students were forced to stand before the church council and answer questions fired at them; in others, students actually stood before the entire congregation as they were grilled by holier-than-thou know it alls. It is really kind of funny. While we observe the Reformation as the day when we were freed from all manner of legalistic claptrap—a day, by the way, that we should never celebrate: who in their right mind celebrates the division of Christ’s church?— our old Lutheran methods of confirmation instruction led us falsely to believe that our knowledge and memory work made us better Christians and might even save us—another sort of temptation to good works.

A number of years ago I heard William Willimon, the former chaplain at Duke University and then a Methodist bishop in Alabama, say that what we should do on confirmation day is say to our young people—Sophia and Melody today—that God loves them regardless of whether they have memorized all this kind of stuff or not. Rather than asking fourteen year olds what they believe to be the nature of the Holy Trinity at an age when they are trying to figure out exactly who they are and how to combat acne, wouldn’t it be far better just to tell them straight out that God loves them?

Luther was stunned and delighted when he read the words of Paul in a new and refreshing manner: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For ‘no human being will be justified in his sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” Suddenly Luther realized, for the first time in his life, that he had to pass no tests of any kind to receive the wondrous grace of God.

Most of us are beyond confirmation age by now. And yet, I imagine we continue to struggle with what others think of us; we are still plagued by our own self-doubt and confusion; and, honestly, who among us this morning doesn’t have a few questions about who God is?

Just like Melody and Sophia, we all need someone to tell us, just as St. Paul told Luther, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” What a glorious day this Reformation Sunday will be if each of us hears that God loves us no matter what we have achieved, no matter what we have done wrong, no matter how much we understand or believe about God.

Luther risked his life so that you might know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you are all welcome to God’s table this morning. There are no tests to be taken, no verses to be memorized, no achievements to be attained. God loves you, today and forever. And that’s that! Sleep soundly and forget those crazy dreams. Amen. Amen. Amen.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church-San Diego
October 24, 2015
Sermon Preached at Memorial Service for Mickey Lester
"One Wild and Precious Life"

If your doctor told you that you had thirty days to live, what would you do?

Mickey Lester gave you the astonishing gift of watching how she answered that question as she lived her final days with those of you she loved so deeply.

John, you said the worst day of your life was receiving the startling and agonizing news that Mickey had a virulent form of Leukemia. I imagine Mickey’s entire family was stunned. We all were. Bishop Mark Holmerud of the Sierra Pacifica Synod emailed me this morning expressing his shock: “I could never have imagined the last time I was at First would be the last time I would see Mickey in this life—she was as vibrant as ever.”

She was only seventy years old and looked forty-three. How could she possibly be walking in the valley of the shadow of death? You would have bet the ranch—or at least the South Dakota cabin—that Mickey would live to be 102.

How Mickey lived her last days reminds me of Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day”:

Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

No sooner had Mickey received word that she was very sick than she ran off to her granddaughter’s birthday party at the beach. Never mind the sun, the heck with the heat; Mickey had one wild and precious life to live and she was going to live it with you, with gusto.

When her doctor gave her the worst news imaginable, Mickey said, “I’m going to beat this!” This didn’t surprise you from the woman who ran thirty marathons, hiked to Mt. Everest’s base camp, and, most daring of all, had a chicken coop in Rancho Santa Fe. She taught you how to cherish every day of life whether you have many days to go or only one more.

Martin Luther was once asked what he would do if he heard his world was ending tomorrow; he said he would plant a tree today.

For twenty-one days after receiving the dreadful Leukemia news, Mickey planted trees. She trusted that God was with her in life and in death. I received a call from her—it’s still on our answering machine: “Wilk, I received terrific news. It is a miracle. My blood counts have changed for the better. The doctor can’t believe it.” Ever effervescent, there was no room for pessimism. You had similar conversations with Mickey, I know.

Every day was for living, even the final ones at Scripps Green Hospital. What would you have done in those days—ask that no one visit, mourn your ghastly luck, or, as Dylan Thomas suggested, “rage, rage against the dying of the light”?

You, family and friends who faithfully gathered at Mickey’s side, know she did it far differently. Never was her hospital room empty—the more the merrier was her mantra. Thank God she had a private room or you all would have driven her roommate crazy! The hospital’s welcome desk didn’t even look up her room number: they knew it by heart because so many of you were there. People stood against the wall, pictures of family and trips to France and the cabin in South Dakota were everywhere. Art work created by the grandchildren she so adored bloomed like colorful flowers wherever you looked.

Even in the final days as the shadows lengthened and the evening fell, Mickey lived one wild and precious life with beauty and grace. The hospital ordeal can make you look haggard and ashen but, wouldn’t you agree, Mickey looked as radiant as ever with her full head of gorgeous hair shining in the light, her California suntan glistening, and her dazzling smile ever present.

Did she know you were there? As Drew read her letter to Grandma, Mickey rose up and reached out—thrilled! As you sang “Jesus Loves Me” and recited the 23rd Psalm, guess who repeated every, single word? She knew you were there. She also knew the Christ Child had come to be with her and you, not in the manger at Bethlehem, but this time in a sterile hospital room in La Jolla. As we sang “Silent Night,” “sleep in heavenly peace” took on a new meaning as you entrusted your dear one into God’s hands.

Mickey’s one wish—actually, I think it would be more appropriate to say, her one demand—was that her memorial service be here at First Lutheran. It has not escaped our notice that the Lesters come further than anyone else to attend worship here every Sunday morning, twenty miles one way. To be truthful, you were rarely on time—Mickey was always toting eggs from the chicken coop and John’s hands were filled with freshly baked goodies for hospitality hour. Mickey even brought little chicks one Sunday morning in Advent and turned this place into a madhouse as children went wild with delight. Mickey knew this place would be jammed this morning but it didn’t matter. She must have thought, I will teach you, even in death, how to live this one wild and precious life as you rub shoulders and squeeze tightly together in Jesus’ arms and hear God promise me—and you—that death has been defied through the resurrection of Jesus Christ to eternal life.

For those of you who gather here this morning (Mickey’s dear husband, her wonderful children, her grandchildren, her brother and sister, and all of you who loved her so), I am certain Mickey would urge you to live this one wild and precious life with vigor and merriment whether you have only one day to live or eighty more years. She would remind you that her beautiful Savior lived to be only thirty-three and yet crammed unimaginable life into those few short years. Like Jesus, Mickey trusted that God was with her every step of the way and that, as the ancient funeral rite would have it, “Even at the grave, we sing Alleluia.” Is it any wonder she lived her one wild and precious life until she breathed her last? She trusted that she would sleep in heavenly peace forever and ever.

May you trust that too, even in the midst of your tears and broken hearts, that Mickey has begun to embark on yet another wondrous journey. Watch Saint Mickey who, even in death, trusts that through the resurrection of Jesus, her one wild and precious life will continue…this time into eternity. I encourage you, in Christ’s name, open your hands and hearts and let her fly wildly and freely into heaven. Amen.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church-San Diego
October 18, 2015
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
"Called to Affectionate Awkwardness and Quiet Compassion"

Mark 10:35-45
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Sometimes it is almost impossible to comprehend the Christian life let alone live it. That’s the way it was for the disciples. Three times Jesus told them he would soon die and three times the disciples acted as buffoons, clueless as to what Jesus was talking about.

I don’t want to speak for you but I often find it hard to figure out what Jesus is talking about too: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Oh sure, on one hand, we understand Jesus, don’t we? His words sound so quaint, so well worn, fit for a cross-stitched sampler on the living room wall. We only have to stare at the cross to get that Jesus had to die for us. But, even when we get it, we don’t quite fathom how to follow.

Newly baptized adults often tell me that they thought becoming Christians would make life so much easier. What they soon, however, is that things seemed to get worse and not particularly better. Don’t we all imagine that if we follow Jesus, our problems will go away, our bills will be paid, and we will be successful at pretty much anything we try?

As I think you know, that is often not what happens. Perhaps the great German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it best, “When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die.” Suddenly, when we are baptized, rather than using all our resources for ourselves and our insatiable needs and wants and desires and our longings for personal prosperity, we start sharing generously with others, even cancelling our cell phone and cable television—imagine that?—and becoming more and more generous to the ministry of Jesus and all his suffering brothers and sisters. When you joined this church, you were asked, “Do you promise to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.” Do you recall what you said: “I do and I ask God to help and guide me.” Has this promise sunk deeply into to your soul over time? Suddenly, you are doing things that most people don’t do: you are caring for homeless folks and standing up for downtrodden people’s rights even as others ridicule you for the company you keep; you are turning your cheek when someone makes a fool of you; you cannot bring yourself to laugh at racist or sexist jokes even though it your good friend who is telling them. Suddenly being baptized feels pretty messy.

Anne Lamott say: "Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rain and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that's a little sloppy because at the same time it's also holy, and absurd. It's about surrender, giving in to all those things we can't control; it's a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched.”

Yes, the Christian life often feels sloppy and off balance.

One of the things you called me to do me as your pastor more than ten years ago, on your behalf, is to be with our dear sisters and brothers in Christ who are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. This week, I have done just that with Mickey Lester and her family. Mickey died two days ago, on Friday morning, after a very quick struggle with leukemia. As soon as I found out that Mickey had died, I called her husband John to tell him I was on my way to their house. John didn’t answer the phone. All I got was the answering machine and a beep. For some reason, when it was time for me to leave a message, my mind went absolutely blank—yes, absolutely blank; I was speechless. I didn’t know if one of the grandchildren would pick up the phone and receive message; I was uncertain who had and had not heard yet that Mickey had died. I had no words. I felt awfully foolish. Rather than mastering the situation, I had to turn to Jesus the Risen One to provide answers for John and his family as they began to mourn the death of vibrant Mickey, the one they—and we—loved so much. Shouldn’t I, the pastor, have had all the answers? I had none at that moment.

Maybe you are like me. And maybe we are all a bit like James and John, the sons of Zebedee. We want seats of honor when Jesus arrives in glory or, at least, we want the perfect answers to life’s toughest questions. Who wants to look the fool?

And yet, what I discover over and over again—and my hunch is that you discover the same thing—is that when we come up empty-handed with seemingly no answers at all, all we can do is look to Jesus and that, of course, is the best answer of all.

This week, our member Robin Withers posted these words by the African American writer James Baldwin, “The most dangerous creation of any society is the [person] who has nothing to lose.” We Christians, it seems to me, are most dangerous when we are all sloppy and wet and off balance and have nothing to lose. On such occasions, we are simply the baptized servants of God with no easy words, if any, to speak, no fancy titles, no wonderfully sounding magical formulas. The best we can offer those we love is our affectionate awkwardness and our quiet compassion. We simply follow Jesus to the cross and trust that in the face of inexplicable injustice, deep confusion, and unfathomable death, God will answer as he answered on Easter morning when Christ rose from the tomb. It isn’t an easy place to be, as you well know, but, according to Jesus, that is exactly where we, his servants, should be, where life springs from death and sorrow turns into joy.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church-San Diego
October 11, 2015
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
"The Sweep of Grace"

Mark 10:17-31
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”  Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”  Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

Many important discussions I am part of eventually get down to this: “But that’s not what the Bible says!”

Picking and choosing our favorite Bible quotes is something we all do. There are things in the Bible that we love, things that challenge us, and things that make us feel miserable. Think about the stuff in the Bible: marriage and divorce, homosexuality, coveting our neighbor’s stuff, God’s people on vicious rampages. On and on it goes.

I find today’s gospel reading a terrific text for those who lament that people don’t take the Bible seriously anymore. Listen for a moment and tell me how seriously you take the Bible: “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Have you sold what you own? All of it? And thus I ask you: do you take the Bible seriously or not?

Funny, isn’t it, when the Bible gets too close to the bone, especially those passages that challenge how we live our own lives, we become fidgety and say, “You aren’t supposed to take THAT literally” and, of course, when we want to substantiate a cause or point dear to us, we claim, “But that’s what the Bible says.” I have discovered that almost all of us are fundamentalists on some matters in the Bible and not so much on others. The point is, we pick and choose what to be fundamentalist about.

I am a fundamentalist when it comes to today’s gospel story. My heroes throughout my life have been those who have sold everything and given it to the poor. Dorothy Day, whom Pope Francis mentioned a few weeks ago, took Jesus at his word; she sold everything she had and not only gave her money to the poor but lived with the poor as well. Saint Francis of Assisi, whom we commemorated last Sunday, came from a prosperous family; he, too, was a fundamentalist, giving everything he owned away, even the clothes off his back. These folks took the Bible seriously.

Chuck Matthei came to our college campus when I was twenty years old and I have not forgotten him even forty-four years later. Chuck wore plain khaki work clothes, top and bottom, and canvas tennis shoes rather than leather ones so as not to use the skins of animals. He lived simply and believed this would make the world a more peaceful place.

I have never quite gotten over my heroes giving everything away and yet their example seems well nigh impossible for me. I have a lovely home, nice clothes (have you noticed my nine-year old black suit?), and a beautiful new 2000 Toyota Camry with 83,000 miles and a brand new thermostat (it was my mother’s car and then our son’s and now I have inherited it). I live happily in the lap of luxury.

Today’s gospel reading has haunted me most of my life; it judges me. I doubt whether I will ever sell all that I own and give the money to the poor. Never.

This story is so well known that it is easy to overlook a few other parts. Not only does Jesus tell the young man to sell all that he has—you might not be able to get beyond that, by the way—but, it also says, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” How easy it is to miss these few words. If Jesus loved the rich man who couldn’t bear the thought of giving away his stuff, he must love you and me as well. The rich man wasn’t such a bad sort. He had kept the commandments since he was a young boy. He was doing the best he could to lead a good life.

Do me a favor: never judge others regarding how they live their lives according to the “Word of God” unless you have sold all that you have and given it to the poor. Is that a deal? Remember, please, these words of Jesus: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Perhaps you, like the rich man, are feeling miserable right about now, in a hopeless bind because you haven’t sold all that you have. You, like he, might be uttering in exasperation, “Then who can be saved?”

Are you still listening? I hope you haven’t given up yet. Once again, READ THE WHOLE THING! Then Jesus looked at this man whom he loved and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Did you hear that: “For God all things are possible.”

Every Christian tradition has a shiny gem. I love the Roman Catholic Church’s ability to speak with the authority as most of the world takes note and the pope appears on the front page. I love the Russian Orthodox Church’s mysterious beauty at worship with gorgeous vestments, ethereal music, and sweet-smelling incense. I deeply admire the historic peace churches, the Quakers, Mennonites, and Amish, who feel called by God to live simply and nonviolently. We have something to learn from all these traditions. What I love about Lutherans is our uncompromising insistence on the sweep of God’s grace in our lives.

When we hear the story of the rich man, we realize we are all rich folks who fall short of God’s glory—maybe not materially rich, but, in some way, we all fall short of being faithful followers of Jesus. We all end up desperately groaning, “Then who can be saved?” We Lutherans, through Martin Luther and St. Paul’s help, have discovered there is not a thing we can do to save ourselves. On such occasions, we can end up feeling like bewildered camels helplessly staring at the eye of a needle and wondering how in the world we will ever squeeze through. Our Lutheran gift to the world is our insistence that God can get us through the needle, rich men and women, poor ones too, and those of us who just don’t seem capable of getting anything right.

No matter how far we fall short of the glory of God, we hear it said of a rich man, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Jesus is looking at you this morning, too, and loves you. After all, for God all things are possible.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
October 4, 2015
Preached at Saint Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church
Ardmore, Pennsylvania
on Their 250th Anniversary Year
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
"Tell Me One More Story"
(Pastor Miller served as St. Paul’s senior pastor from 1995-2005.)

I am delighted to be here with your exceptional pastors Skip McDowell and Laura Tancredi, to hear once again the fine music of Andy Heller and the St. Paul’s choirs, and to renew old friendships and create new ones.

Californians are in awe when I tell them you are celebrating 250 years of ministry in Christ’s name. The church I serve, First Lutheran, is the oldest Lutheran congregation in Southern California and you are twice as old as we are. So, on behalf of all the youngsters out west, I wish you a very happy 250th anniversary.

You originally scheduled me to preach last Sunday. I have a hunch your pastors discovered that today’s readings are about divorce and they flip-flopped: “Let’s reschedule Wilk Miller for October 4 and tell him the Philly roads can’t handle Pope Francis and him at the same time.” I refuse to take the bait!

Listen, instead…to a few words from Hebrews: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”

Elie Wiesel, the Jewish Nobel laureate, writes, “God created humanity because [God] likes stories.”

You have been telling stories here almost every day of the week since 1765, the year Great Britain levied the Stamp Act on the thirteen colonies. I can think of few congregations that tell God’s stories as often and as well as you.

I recall one such story you have passed on from one generation to the next…

Once upon a time, long ago, in the moldy basement of St. Paul’s old school house, where bodies were stored in the winter until the ground thawed for spring burials, exhausted slaves hid there on their way to freedom. I have no idea whether this actually occurred and yet many of you have likely told someone that your church was part of the Underground Railroad—I hope you have anyway! That’s how good stories work: they grow and grow, become deeply ours, and make us nobler because we have heard them and told them.

You heard God say here, maybe in Sunday School, maybe from this pulpit, “You must love the strangers living in your midst, for you, yourselves, were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” This story speaks to you now as you have sponsored refugee families and tended to those down on their luck in this very neighborhood. See how the story lives, here, today?

We all have stories to tell. Since you have so graciously flown me across the country, indulge me, please, as I tell the favorite story of the congregation I now serve. Like all enchanting tales, we all tell it a bit differently and it is magnified in every new telling.

In the 1960s and 70s, First Lutheran Church, located in downtown San Diego, was uncertain whether it would last much longer. The neighborhood was littered with rowdy beer joints, seedy tattoo parlors, sleazy houses of ill repute, and drunken sailors—come to think of it, our neighborhood is still filled with bars though much more upscale and tattoo parlors though frequented by a far hipper crowd and rundown flop houses have been replaced by one and two bedroom condos costing over a million dollars.

Back then, congregations were fleeing the city like rats jumping off a sinking ship. Our congregation, for some odd reason, stayed—we say the Holy Spirit made us do it. First Lutheran furiously brainstormed about how to attract new members—some things, by the way, are the same on both coasts! I don’t know whether members used sticky-notes, magic-markers, and fancy consultants but, in 1975, they did create a puny program called “Bread Day.” A group of retired folks baked bread and brewed coffee, thinking this the perfect scheme to attract oodles of well-dressed new members. As I am sure you would assume—you might even have voted to nix the program before the first cup of coffee was brewed, not a single office worker took advantage of this scrumptious gastronomical opportunity (this was before stopping at Starbucks became the coolest thing in the world to do). But guess what: lots of homeless people thought free bread and warm coffee a nifty idea. 200 or so hungry folks have been coming to our church for lunch and dinner, twice a week, ever since, for forty years and counting. This evangelism gimmick which seemed a pathetic failure for not attracting a tonier clientele has morphed into more than food. 300 people come to our church every week for our free medical, dental, acupuncture, and legal clinics and for a recently started hospice program for people dying on the streets. Does our story remind you of another one about a few loaves feeding 5,000 people? Funny how stories work, isn’t it?

Enough about First Lutheran. We are here to celebrate your anniversary, to tell your old, old stories as they compel you into the future.

I trust the story of Dr. Anna Kugler continues to be required knowledge for those taking the arduous test to become new members here. If, by chance, you flunked the exam, let me do a bit of remedial work. You have named a room after Dr. Kugler and her memorial marker stands in your cemetery. She was born in Ardmore in 1856 and grew up at St. Paul’s. After her education at Women’s Medical College and an internship at Norristown State Asylum, she sailed off for distant shores at the age of twenty-seven. She spent the rest of her life serving God’s blessed poor in what is now the Guntur Medical Mission in an Indian city of nearly a million people. I always picture little Anna Kugler, in bobby socks and paten-leather shoes, listening with fascination as her Sunday School teacher tenderly recites Jesus’ words: “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:  for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink.” Who might the next Anna Kugler be in your Sunday School who, upon hearing of Jesus, the poor and hungry one, heads off to tend to God’s suffering ones? See why you love to tell the stories of Jesus and his love!

There are other stories as well, much like you tell your little ones as the shadows lengthen and the darkness falls. You tuck your sleepy cherub into bed while wicked toe-eating monsters lurk just beneath the mattress and your darling one implores, “Mommy, daddy, tell me one more story.” That final story is always the one worth telling.

You tell the identical story as your best friend entrusts a beloved spouse or precious child to a far deeper darkness: “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” You numbly stare into that gloomy chasm and then, surprisingly, almost beyond belief, there is yet one more story to be told. Your pastors Skip and Laura raise their hands and proclaim a brave blessing: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord’s face shine on you with grace and mercy. The Lord look upon you with favor (+) and give you peace.” There is no other story that dares proclaim that though we die, we shall live forever. This is the one final story we all long for, the one you have been telling in this place, with great devotion, for 250 years.

When people ask me about St. Paul’s, I tell them you are a very good and generous people whose gift of telling God’s stories in all the seasons of life is beyond compare. I pray that you will tell that one last story, the one of God’s son bursting from the tomb, for years and years to come. In its telling, may you continue to provide hope for every person who enters these blessed doors.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church, San Diego
September 27, 2015
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
"Not As Fragile As We Think"

Mark 9:38-50
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Few words of Jesus thrust as sharply for me as the ones we just heard. The particular words that stab like a finely honed dagger are:

“John said to [Jesus], ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.’”

There is so much in me that wants to protect the purity of Christ’s church. There are people who say things that drive me nuts and embarrass me to call myself a Christian. Many of the television evangelists do this to me with their slick and clichéd presentations and ever-present appeals for money. Some church traditions don’t believe what I believe and don’t stand up for what First Lutheran stands up for and I want to stand up and correct them. They seem so judgmental, so narrow-minded, so nasty.

Do Jesus’ words dig deep into you at all?

Have you ever said, “Those folks aren’t Christian.” I hear it said all the time and I say myself. That’s why Jesus takes me aback when he says, “Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

Do you wonder what our world longs for most these days? Watch the news. Hundreds trampled to death on the Hajj in Saudi Arabia; people drowning on their way from Syria to Europe; immigrants dying from lack of water in the California desert; the environment being ruined degree by degree. On and on it goes. I can’t even remember some of the stuff because of the many tragedies.

And yet, for all the world’s crying needs, it seems everywhere we look, Christians are wrangling, disagreeing, dividing: I am a Bible believing Christian, I am a progressive Christian, I am an orthodox Christian, I am a Lutheran. On and on it goes. Over and against, over and against.

When Pope Francis stood before the United States Congress on Thursday morning, I was struck by how many people were listening, how many seem mesmerized. There was something, at least for me, in Pope Francis’ words that transcended partisan backbiting. Of course, each side of the political aisle might have felt slapped on the wrist if it was listening carefully. Those for birth control, abortion rights, and LGBT equality might have wiggled with the talk about the traditional family. Those longing for tighter borders, the death penalty, and a free-market economy might have gotten jittery in the pope’s calls to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Who among us might have quaked a bit as he called us “not be taken aback by [the refugee] numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation …We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”

Honestly, though most of us here this morning do not call ourselves Roman Catholics, weren’t we proud when the pope finished speaking in the hall of the most powerful nation in the world and, instead of then wining and dining with the political honchos, headed off to eat lunch with the homeless folks of Washington, DC, a meal like those served here twice a week for the past forty years? As you watched and, now, as you think back, don’t Jesus’ words ring in your ears: “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

As I look around and listen, I wonder if the world has much greater needs than our petty squabbles, those of Catholics and Baptists, ELCA Lutherans and Missouri Synod Lutherans, Episcopalians and the Church of God in Christ. I wonder if the world hungers for something deeper, more profound, for a church that rubs elbows with the poorest, seeks humility rather than power, longs for life everywhere, and demonstrates a capacity to show love and compassion toward enemies.

Pope Francis mentioned four people by name in his speech to Congress: two of those, Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln, are known to us; two others were Roman Catholics, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, who may be a bit more unfamiliar. Dorothy Day gave up a career as a budding intellectual, sold all of her possessions, and spent her entire life not only working with but also living with God’s blessed poor in New York City. Thomas Merton, he too an intellectual in the Bohemian era, became a Trappist monk and lived most of his life in the solitude of Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky. From that cloister, Merton once said: “Do not be too quick to condemn [those] who no longer believe in God: for it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice and mediocrity and materialism and selfishness that have chilled their faith.”

Perhaps we Christians, conservative and liberal alike, squabble too much. Perhaps God doesn’t need us micromanaging every little theological nuance, every social justice position, every little liturgical item.

I remember preaching a sermon about twenty-five years ago in which I compared the church to a fragile piece of hand-blown glass. I said that we need to be very careful how we deal with our fragile, beloved church. Following that sermon, a bishop in attendance came to me and said, “Wilk, I don’t think the church is nearly as fragile as you make it out to be.” I have not forgotten his words, and I think he was right. Said another way, God can take care of God’s self. Perhaps what God needs most from us, more than our perfect positions and brilliant insights, is our willingness to give a thirsty person a cup of water to drink.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church, San Diego
September 20, 2015
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
"You Have Told Us Three Times. Enough!"

Mark 9:30-37
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He [Jesus] did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Our sons, Sebastian who is 35 and Caspar who is 30, repeatedly say to me in downright exasperation, “Dad, you have told us that three times. Enough!” I confess there are occasions when I don’t remember telling them three times but there are others when I want to say, “I am telling you the third time to make sure you understood the first two.”

There is something in our nature that longs to protect those we love. One way we struggle to do this is by repeating ourselves ad nauseam or doing what moderns call “helicoptering” as we hover over our loved ones.

The last time I visited my father in the hospital before he died, he was still helicoptering. He was 73, I was 47. It was dad’s last chance to give me financial advice. While his constant counsel sometimes drove me nutty, I know why he never stopped hovering: he loved Dagmar and me and Sebastian and Caspar and wanted to make certain all would be well for us in the future.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus told his disciples, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” This wasn’t the first time Jesus had told them this and it wouldn’t be the last. We heard him say almost the identical thing last Sunday and, while we won’t hear it next week, Jesus did tell his disciples a third time, almost verbatim, what was going to happen to him. I feel so much better that Jesus helicoptered, too.

Jesus was only thirty-two or thirty-three at the time so his mind certainly wasn’t fogged up when he made, not one, but three passion predictions. You can’t blame Jesus. He must have wanted his dearest friends to know what was about to unfold for him and the steep price they would have to pay to follow him. Jesus even tells us today, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And, seemingly for emphasis, last week he told us, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” The Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan says it this way, “If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.”

The gospel life is not easy to grasp or to live and so we must hear about it over and over again. The disciples were clueless what Jesus was talking about when he told them he would soon die violently and they were too embarrassed to ask. Instead of admitting their confusion, they babbled on and on about who among them was the greatest. And then Jesus, like a teacher catching ornery students passing notes back and forth in class, asked point blank, “What were you arguing about?”

We understand the disciples. They seemed far more interested in having their own gifts and skills applauded than following Jesus to the cross. This desire to be the greatest was not just the penchant of Jesus’ bumbling disciples or of Muhammad Ali shouting “I am the greatest” or of John Lennon proclaiming the Beatles more popular than Jesus; it is not even reserved for presidential candidates who comb their hair peculiarly. We all want to be on center stage, whether by being the most spectacular, the most socially committed, the most spiritual, or even the most humble (beware of the humble ones). You name it and we want to be the greatest.

Jesus sits down with all of us who feel so underappreciated and tells us what one psychiatrist claims the greatest secret of all mental health: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” We joke about these words because they are so hard to hear and yet they may be worth struggling with if we really want to find lasting meaning in our lives.

Remember how Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died? Those words, “Jesus wept,” are often chosen by some hulking teenage boy, thick in the quagmire of adolescence, who must pick a confirmation verse and repeat it by memory before the entire congregation. When he announces his verse, “Jesus wept,” the rest of the class snickers and slaps each other on the back. Sadly, if this seemingly tough kid dared to weep and didn’t pretend to be the strongest and coolest and greatest, he might taste a bit of salvation later in life when his best friend is killed in an auto accident, when he loses his third job in a row, or when his wife leaves him with the precious baby in tow. Oh, to be vulnerable, oh, to weep.

Jesus was so vulnerable. The night before he died he was in the garden sweating blood himself and crying, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me.” And, only hours later, as he hung on the cross, we witness him even more vulnerable as he begged, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” You can feel the weakness as you see the tears drip down his cheeks.

Maybe that’s why Jesus placed a little child on his lap and told his disciples, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” You know how kids are. Martin Luther constantly asks the question in his Small Catechism, in German, Was ist das? It is the kid’s question, “What is this?” when there is no easy answer: why does an elephant have a trunk, why does a camel have a hump; why do kids make fun of me, why does grandma have to die; why does Jesus tell us not to pick on our enemies, why is he always telling us to stand last in line? Was ist das? Kids don’t have to pretend they know everything.

It is hard to fathom why Jesus had to die for us and just as hard to follow him. I suppose that is why he treats us like children and tells us, not once but three times, that “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” See how much he loves us, over and over again.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church, San Diego
September 13, 2015
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
"Rendered Silent"

Mark 8:27-38
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” they were like Jeopardy contestants slamming down their buttons at a world record clip. John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets—they offered all these answers, and fast!

And then Jesus asked this sobering question, “And who do you say that I am?” Jesus was no longer satisfied with the disciples using that obnoxious line cowards love to use, “People are saying,” when fearful to stand up for themselves. This time Jesus asked Peter to demonstrate his guts and stand up for himself. Peter didn’t disappoint: he pressed his button quickly and with resolve and answered, “You are the Messiah.”

“Who do you say that I am?” How do you answer Jesus? I will give you a few seconds……….

Most of us are conditioned to respond quickly. We learned this in kindergarten as we put up our hands before the teacher even finished asking the question—that’s what smart boys and girls do. We want to be speedy on the button.

We expect those who serve us to be speedy as well. Would you vote for a presidential candidate who said, “I am uncertain how to respond to terrorism, global warming, and the economy. Let me think about that.” We might even say, “You are fired!” We expect decisiveness from our leaders. If you asked your pastor, “Who do you think Jesus is,” wouldn’t you be disappointed if I said, “Give me a few days to think about that and I’ll get back to you.”

We seem to have lost the capacity to sit in silence if we ever had it in the first place. We find it almost impossible not to offer an immediate answer, any answer. Why are we incapable of sitting and praying until we have a true word from God?

Dagmar and I recently watched a BBC series called “The Worricker Trilogy.” It is about an M15 agent whose life is turned upside down by a sudden change in England’s political climate. We found the acting stunning; in particular, we were mesmerized by how the actors used silence, not saying a word for seconds on end—yes only a few seconds in a television show can feel like an eternity. We talked about how few movies—how few occasions of any sort really—allow silence. Background music punctuates just about everything these days.

Been to a baseball game lately? What used to be a game of leisurely silence on a summer evening has become an avalanche of frenzied noise. The church has gotten in on the act too. Watch the preachers on channels 33 through 66; no silence, no mystery—these preachers have all the answers and in staccato rapidity. Even our liturgies can’t bear the silences—something must be going on all the time. The operative principle seems to be that any words, any music, is better than sitting in silence, in the mystery of our Lord and Savior.

When Jesus told his disciples that he must “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again,” Peter immediately rebuked him. Peter was puzzled by what Jesus said and yet was unable to keep his mouth shut. He couldn’t just sit and ponder what Jesus said was soon to happen; instead, saying something seemed preferable to saying nothing at all. You know what Jesus said in the face of Peter’s need to answer quickly: “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus didn’t hate Peter, of course he didn’t. He simply wanted Peter to rest in the mystery of his impending death and resurrection. Jesus must have wanted to tell Peter, “Don’t raise your hand and try to answer every question. It’s okay Peter, it’s okay to remain silent once in a while. I will still love you.”

Jesus then said to Peter: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” After hearing this, don’t you think it a good idea to be silent? Is it any wonder that in Mark’s gospel, after he performed miracles or said something earth-shaking, Jesus told the disciples to keep quiet and not to tell anyone.

In our Quote for the Week Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, explains Jesus’ warning not to say anything: “Throughout Mark’s 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. What will be said of him is bound to be untrue.”

You know as well as I that there are occasions when we simply have no answers. We weep, shake our fists, and scream into the dark night, “God, what were you thinking!” Sickness has broken in and we do have not a clue what to say; we have failed ourselves and those we love and the only words come in our broken confession to God; our best friend’s husband has died unexpectedly and she opens the door and not a word comes out of our mouth, we simply hug her. At these times, we are forced to sit and listen. On these occasions, it is a remarkable gift of grace to be able to wait quietly on the Lord.

As we stare at the cross this morning and hear it said, yet again, that Jesus is our salvation, we are invited to rest in the mystery of that good news. Don’t say a word, Jesus lovingly says to us. Don’t press your button. Don’t be quick with an answer.

Jesus invites us here to sing and pray and wait and listen for God’s word to punctuate these Sunday moments. We wait well when we take our little ones to Sunday School and head off to the adult Bible study. These are occasions to plumb the mystery of Christ’s love. When we see Jesus hanging on the cross, let us not be too uncomfortable when we are rendered silent. It is a good and graceful thing just to sit and bathe in the mystery and wonder of Christ’s goodness to us.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church, San Diego
August 30, 2015
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
"Getting Dirty"

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

How old were you when you first heard that cleanliness is next to godliness? While you won’t find this quote in the Bible, our parents used it to their advantage when we were young— brush your teeth, wash your hands, straighten up your room. This cleanliness business has run deep in our veins ever since.

The church conveys a similar message. We want things clean around here. Even with all the ministry that happens during the week, ours is the cleanest church I have ever known, thanks to our excellent custodian Mark Best, and we feel good about it.

Most of us are probably more like the Pharisees and scribes than we care to admit. We long for cleanliness. Church architecture has gone to great lengths to maintain this longing. That door way in the back, between the sanctuary and the lounge, for ages and ages, was intended to separate the baptized from the unbaptized. Ancient church practice prohibited the great unwashed from coming any further than that door—this, after all, is holy space, God’s sanctuary.

How many of you grew up with an altar railing in the church? This also was meant to separate the clean from the unclean or, dare I say, the riff-raff (you) from the priestly sorts (ah yes, me…and the altar guild). While we don’t have an altar railing, we have two steps leading way up to the Lord’s Table, making it perfectly clear where the holy of holies is located.

I like to get in on the act, too. I often tell people this is the only sacred place we have at First. While we are running out of room for all our programs, we dare not pollute this holy room by using it for anything but worship of God. What if we let homeless folks sleep in here during the week? Not a bad idea, but imagine the abuse our sanctuary would take, the scuffed walls, broken windows, smells of body odor and spilled coffee wafting here on Sunday morning. Some of us might even quit worshiping here should the streets invade our beloved holy of holies.

It was precisely this cleanliness attitude—my attitude, too, I confess—that confronted Jesus when his disciples ate with dirty hands. The Pharisees and scribes were not such bad folks; they simply were fond of decorum and couldn’t stomach filth in consecrated environs. They were, by the way, on the Bible’s side on this matter; read the Bible if you don’t believe me. Who wants to share food with someone who hasn’t washed their hands or drink from a cup that has been shared by others? How many of you drink from the cup here? Even though Jesus took a cup and said, “Drink you all of it,” we protect our purity codes by dipping our bread into the wine instead.

To make matters more confusing, Jesus eats with us today. Right before we receive the body and blood of Christ, I will declare to you, in the words of the ancient church liturgy, “Holy things for holy people.” You will quite rightly protest by shouting back at me, “One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God.” What horrified the Pharisees and scribes, horrifies you as well. We are unclean; only one is holy! Is it any wonder some of you refuse to come forward to receive the body and blood of Christ? As one of you told me just last Sunday, “I am unworthy to receive these precious gifts from Jesus.”

One of my liturgy professors Gordon Lathrop writes, “The image of Jesus in the New Testament discloses one who did not protect his ritual purity, who freely gave away his holy separation.” The thought of a dirty Jesus is hard for us to fathom, especially for those of us who grew up believing that faithfulness is keeping clean and as perfect as possible.

I had a dear friend whose church had a ministry much like ours with astonishing outreach to homeless women. He once told me about the hundreds of thousands of dollars necessary every year to carry on that ministry. I was shocked when he then added, “Wilk, no money is too dirty for me when it comes to serving our suffering brothers and sisters.” What he was saying is that he was willing to get his hands dirty for the sake of Jesus’ brothers and sisters on the street.

How dirty are you willing to get for others?

I have wondered lately whether the rancor in our public political discourse has much to do with our belief that we can remain squeaky clean and still make a difference in this world. It increasingly strikes me that no one is perfect, left or right, Republican or Democrat; we must finally get dirty if we are going to make a difference. Listen to any political debate and pay attention to the judgments of uncleanliness hurled back and forth; it is the purity language of the scribes and Pharisees. Just a few days ago, someone told me that those working on Capitol Hill and in the White House are idiots. This person imagines he is more brilliant than any of them and has all the correct answers; he cannot fathom making compromises, getting his hands dirty for a greater good. His sense of purity, like the Pharisees, is sacrosanct and, in his mind, above reproach. I wonder if he thinks Jesus was an idiot too.

Such nasty rhetoric is so self-righteous. As we disagree about how to protect innocent people in other lands, how to cherish the unborn, what to do with immigrants seeking a better life, how to protect our environment while not sacrificing job creation, who is right between police and citizens, there is often a belief that one side is so pure and the other is so woefully filthy.

It seems to me that tackling any issue that matters will inevitably involve compromise; said another way, we will have to get dirty. Some think this taint of imperfection can be avoided but I have a hunch these sorts run the risk of being just like the Pharisees and scribes.

It can be so hard to get dirty, especially when we so desperately want to be pure and right. We find it almost impossible to get our parents’ voices out of our heads, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”

If we are lucky, this morning we will catch sight of Jesus making the ultimate compromise and coming to touch us with his body and blood. How dare he get dirty for our sake, we wonder? One prays we will be struck by how dirty Jesus gets for us and, seeing that, we will leave this place and dare to get dirty for others.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church, San Diego
August 23, 2015
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
"Jesus in the Bargain Basement, with Us"

John 6:56-69
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” With words like this from Jesus, you should not be surprised that the earliest Christians were accused of being cannibals. Outsiders weren’t exactly sure what was going on inside those Christian house churches, but the reports they received that these Christians claimed to eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood gave them the heebie-jeebies.

Is it any wonder after Jesus said these things that he added these words, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Aren’t you glad he gives us permission to struggle with what occurs at Holy Communion?

My deepest longing on Sundays is to soar into the stratosphere, explaining to you exactly what happens to the bread and wine. If I approach this matter with sufficient intellectual savvy, you might just walk out of here saying, “Wow, Pastor Miller is really smart. He explained everything to us this morning about Christ’s body and blood.”

As much as I long to impress you, I am almost certain this is a deadheaded approach to Jesus’ claims of being the bread come down from heaven. And yet, how many of you, like me, harbor the belief that you can plumb the mystery of Holy Communion?

When people discover that we commune little children here at First Lutheran no matter the age—yes, even if one year olds—some object. “Pastor,” they say, “I am against little children receiving Holy Communion. They can’t possibly understand what is happening and they will never appreciate it.”

Whenever someone says this, I always want to say—and sometimes I do, “Why don’t you tell me what happens. How much must you understand in order to be admitted to the Lord’s Table? Should you be able to quote Luther’s Small Catechism?” You might say, “Absolutely.”

Let me refresh you on what Luther says about Holy Communion lest there be a test this morning before you come forward to receive the bread and wine: “What is the Sacrament of the Altar? Answer: Instituted by Christ himself, it is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, given to us Christians to eat and to drink.” Even if you can spout that off, what in the world does “the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine” mean? Do we adults come close to understanding this….or even believing it? What is required to pass the Communion test?

Not to sound overly romantic but I often wonder whether children have a better idea of what occurs at Communion than I do. When we hear, “Take and eat, this is my body given for you,” who has a better shot a taking Jesus at his word: a four year old who says, “That’s what Jesus said,” or a sixty-four year old who divides by four and quibbles over the details? Or, if a child comes with hands extended and daddy whispers, “Not yet, sweetie,” what do you guess the child is thinking as she cries all the way back to her seat? My guess is she understands she has been excluded from the Lord’s meal by this community. I once refused a young person the bread and wine on Easter morning—before it was common to commune little ones; after I blessed her and went on to the next person, she uttered angrily, “Cheap priest!” I ask you, who understands better?

Not to put too fine a point on this but how much of this does any of us understand? The gift of the altar is such a humble gift. God coming to earth causes so many people problems with the Christian faith: how can God be born in a stable with sheep and goats, to a human mother; how can God be human, burping and wreaking of body odor; how can God end up nailed to a cross and die?

These questions arise when God comes low to the ground, all the way down to the bargain basement. We cannot quite fathom why God wants to come this far down to be with sinners like you and me.

I am currently reading David Brooks’ book entitled “The Road to Character.” He begins his introduction by saying there are two ways to live life, the resume way and the eulogy way. The one way is what we use on our resumes; the other way is what we hope will be said of us in eulogies when we die. The resume way of life soars into the clouds, above others—like Donald Trump in his helicopter—with stunning accomplishments, staggering feats, and superb victories, running all over lesser sorts who get in our way. The eulogy way does not talk about how much we had in the bank, how big our houses were, where we got our degrees, or what important people we knew; the eulogy way of life focuses on our down to earth achievements: our sacrifices on behalf of others, our longing to love those different from us, our adherence to a discipline for a greater good.

Tom Brokaw, the television news anchor, reflects on his life upon receiving the news that he has cancer. In his book “A Lucky Life Interrupted,” Brokaw writes of the people who have moved him in interviews he has done over the years. People expect him to list people like Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Nelson Mandela, Golda Meir. Brokaw says the people who have touched him most deeply are folks like “the lone white physician living in and tending to the two or three thousand black people in a squatters’ camp north of Cape Town, South Africa…the brave Swiss nurse from the International Red Cross who provided [Brokaw] with a file of the ‘disappeared’ peasant boys who had been grabbed by the junta during the El Salvador civil war.” These are eulogy kind of people, the bargain basement sorts, who live life on the margins, caring for others above themselves.

Jesus, the bread come down from heaven, is, of course, the chief of all eulogy ones. “Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on the cross.”

Maybe this is why Holy Communion is so difficult to grasp. It flies so low to the ground, confronting so much common wisdom regarding what makes life meaningful. Rather than being above others, Jesus ends up with a bunch of hapless sinners, yes, with you and me.

Perhaps we do well to be confused about this holy meal. Maybe then Jesus can feed us all, young and old, good and bad, brilliant and a tad dense. We can all taste his body and blood down here in the bargain basement.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church, San Diego
August 16, 2015
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
"Fantasy...and True!"

John 6:51-58
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” Can you make sense of these words?

Here’s the intellectual routine I go through these days when I am up floundering theologically and biblically: I Google. So, what to Google when Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever…” I could Google “Living Bread” but that seems a bit daunting, huh? So, I Googled “fantasy.”

The dictionary defines “fantasy”: “the faculty or activity of imagining things, especially things that are impossible or improbable.” Now, admittedly, this may not be the best thing for a man of the cloth to expound upon from the pulpit. You rightly ask, “Are you saying that Jesus being the bread come down from heaven is impossible or improbable, a fantasy?”

As my newfound Google wisdom seems to counsel, when in doubt, Google again...and I did. This time, I Googled “Top Grossing Movies of All Time.” Don’t ask why I did that! What movies do you think appear on this list—this, by the way, is where one of those newfangled worship screens would come in handy:

#11—I have got to add this one, “ET,” to the top ten list!
#10: “Shrek 2”
#9: “The Dark Knight Rises”
#8: “Avengers: The Age of Ultron”
#6 & 7: “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and Star Wars: A New Hope”
#5: “The Dark Knight”
#4: “Jurassic World”
#3: “The Avengers”
#2: “Titanic”
#1: “Avatar”

Except for “Titanic,” the movies people are flocking to are fantasies and, according to Rachel Line, our parish administrator, even “Titanic” might easily be considered a fantasy except, of course, the bit about the sinking boat!

What is it about this fantasy stuff? Could it be these movies invite us to view the universe in ways we never imagined before?

If people are paying millions to heighten wonder, why is it that so much of the church seems bent on taking the opposite track, wringing out every ounce of wonder possible?

Think of how we wring out the mystery and wonder of Holy Communion. How many times have you been in discussions about what happens to the bread and wine at Holy Communion? Does the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ? Is Christ somehow spiritually present in the bread and wine, kind of floating over our celebration here this morning? Is it a nice memorial meal akin to a summer family reunion when we remember Uncle Ernie and Grandma Flanders except this time we remember dear Jesus? To my mind, these discussions suck out the wonder, ounce by painful ounce.

Maybe it because I am Lutheran or maybe it is because I am a numbskull or maybe it is because I am both but I like Luther’s explanation of Holy Communion: Jesus said, “Take and eat this is my body given for you….Drink you all of it, this cup is the new covenant in my blood,” and that is enough. Quite simply, if Jesus promises this, then Luther trusts Jesus’ words, “This is my body and my blood.”

Wouldn’t you agree that there is something quite mysterious about what we do here this morning: take and eat; drink you all of it? What worries me is that when we try to wring the mystery out of Holy Communion so that we all think we comprehend what this is about to occur, we end up—in my mind—making it as boring and lifeless as raccoon road kill.

It may surprise you to learn that recent polls indicate that more and more young people are attending worship services filled with mystery—vestments, bells, incense, chanting, and, oh yes, lots of darkness and candles. Is it any wonder some go to Yoga and Zen Buddhism where gongs are heard, incense floats, and chanting is heard? Could it be we have wrung out so much of the mystery and wonder of our Christian worship that people are seeking it in other more esoteric religions? Of course, some like the huge auditoriums, big screens, Starbucks stands in the narthex, rock bands, and charismatic pastors dressed in Levis and Tommy Bahama shirts but many are longing for mystery and fantasy, just like in the movies.

Shouldn’t what we do here fill this sanctuary with wonder and awe? If we proclaim that Jesus comes down from heaven into our midst in bread and wine, shouldn’t we come with arms extended and hands cupped and feel as the ancient hymn would have it, “Let all mortal flesh keep silence?” The minute we enter this sanctuary, shouldn’t a reverent hush fall over our proceedings as we stand in awe and reverence of the mystery about to unfold?

Pat Conroy, author of “Prince of Tides,” writes, “Without ecstasy, the mass is a puppet show with human hands” (The Death of Santini, pg. 270).

One of my favorite poems—after I here Barbara Lundblad commend it—is Stephen Dunn’s “At the Smithville Methodist Church.” The poem is about parents who have pretty much given up on church but decide to send their little daughter to Vacation Bible School for the arts and crafts. Imagine their surprise when she comes back home one day wearing a “Jesus Saves” button and singing “Jesus Loves Me.” Dunn writes:

Could we say Jesus
doesn't love you?

It had been so long since we believed, so long
since we needed Jesus…

that our children would think of him like Lincoln
or Thomas Jefferson.
Soon it became clear to us: you can’t teach disbelief
to a child,

only wonderful stories, and we hadn't a story
nearly as good…

Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes.
You can’t say to your child

“Evolution loves you.” The story stinks
of extinction and nothing

exciting happens for centuries. I didn’t have
a wonderful story for my child
and she was beaming. All the way home in the car
she sang the songs,
occasionally standing up for Jesus.

Most of us are like that little girl: we have come here in search of a fanciful story that will lift our spirits. We have navigated the maddening marathon traffic and braved the heat to be here morning. I hope you experience mystery, fantasy, and wonder when you receive the bread and here the words, “This is my body given for you.”

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church, San Diego
August 9, 2015
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 19: 4-8; John 6: 35, 41-51
"Under the Solitary Broom Tree"

The sight of Elijah sitting under a solitary broom tree is odd and awfully sad.

Like most biblical readings on Sunday morning, this one needs to be placed into context if we are to catch its power. At first hearing, the story of Elijah under the solitary broom tree is not particularly surprising. We have all been in some wilderness, worn out and in need of a breather. What comes next, though, is disturbing: Elijah asks the LORD that he might die. How many of you have ever been that down in the dumps?

If you have ever been at wits end, it is likely some bit of bad luck drove you there. Maybe you lost your job, perhaps an addiction took its fierce tool, maybe a relationship went sour, perhaps a child was in a bad way, maybe you were quite sick. Such occasions can drive us to pretty low spots.

What is surprising about today’s story of Elijah is that he was coming off a monumental victory. He had no reason to be depressed. He had just routed 450 of wretched King Ahab and wicked Queen Jezebel’s finest prophets. In a staggering match worthy of a pay-per-view prize fight from Las Vegas, Elijah stood toe-to-toe with the prophets of Baal with his mug stuck right in their faces, shouting, “Give me your best shot!” Elijah told the punk prophets to slaughter a bull and place it on a pile of wood. He then exhorted them to pray to their god Baal to light the fire; not a thing happened. Then, just like the boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. does before a world championship prize fight, Elijah mugged for the cameras and called down the Lord God of Israel to ignite his wood and roast his bull. Elijah’s barbeque ignited faster than a California wildfire in August. As such victors do, Elijah commanded his entourage, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” What ensued is one of those Old Testament scenes that cause us misgivings about the Bible, especially those of us who particularly are fond of a cuddly God: the slaughter was on, not of a bull this time but of 450 of Baal’s prophets.

What I find odd is that immediately after this epic bloodbath, Elijah was on the run; he certainly was not celebrating. He didn’t run because he lost; he ran because he won convincingly with, as they say, God on his side. Elijah was dead tired, conked out under a solitary broom tree. It was there that an angel interrupted his sleep and gave him a meal of cake and fresh water; it was enough to energize him for a journey of forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

When you go home today, read Elijah’s entire story and see how he ran—he was always on the run in good times and bad times, too. He was no dummy; he knew that successful victories are often only the beginning of problems with enemies. As we have learned in our own nation, routs of our opponents do not necessarily bring peace; they often bring even worse chaos.

I wonder if Elijah’s story, on the run and under the tree, was God’s way of reminding him who was in charge.

We all have a pesky tendency to forget about God when things are going swimmingly well. We like to take the credit for our victories. Could it be that Elijah’s story is a cautionary tale, reminding us even when we are on top of the world that God is still in control? Hasn’t it happened to you? You have achieved a particularly pleasing success and you are feeling mighty proud of yourself when, in a flash, someone pops your balloon: “Who do you think you are; you think you are so special; you need a little humility drilled into you.” Even during our mountaintop experiences, we can feel on the run under a solitary broom tree.

Over and over again, we find God’s people on the run, often on journeys of exactly forty days and forty nights like Elijah or sometimes even for forty years like the Israelites in the wildness. Whenever we hear “forty,” we can rest assured if God’s people don’t trust God, they will soon be dead ducks. The Israelites had just crossed the Red Sea when they got hungry and thirsty. It was so easy for them to feel proud of their astonishing accomplishment and of their extraordinary leader Moses. Their new found freedom was worthy of a New York tickertape parade. It was easy for them to forget that God led them from slavery to safety. Could it be that God forced them to rely on manna from heaven for forty years so they would never forget who provided for them, even in good times? And, by the way, Jesus battled Satan in the wilderness, too, for forty days and forty nights; even he had to rely on his heavenly Father to survive the evil one’s onslaught.

The bad days certainly are understandable when we face despair. The good ones are more puzzling: why am I feeling so miserable when things are so good? I wonder if this is how God turns us toward heaven from whence comes our help. When we find ourselves down in the dumps even when things are going particularly well, perhaps those inexplicable low feeling are God’s way of knocking on our door to tell us who is in control of our lives; maybe they are a gift pointing us to God.

We gather here today and once again are told who controls our lives as God gives us the bread of life. It is why a wonderful Lutheran church deep in inner-city Brooklyn was fond of saying, “God’s people are at God’s altar every Sunday.” The people of St. John the Evangelist knew that Satan was alive and well in the miserable housing projects they called home; they knew, too, that unless they turned to God repeatedly, they, like Elijah, were goners. And so their congregation’s motto called them to God’s altar week after week.

Thank God, many of us have it a bit better. Sometimes going to the beach or the mountains on Sunday morning seems a perfectly fine idea and maybe even a better one than being at God’s altar every Sunday. It is so easy to forget our blessings, especially when things are going well. We gather today, like Elijah, to be reminded, yet again, that God is with us. It is indeed right, our duty and joy, to sit under a solitary broom tree this morning in the presence of the Lord and receive the bread of life.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church, San Diego
August 8, 2015
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
"Too Hot, Too Cold, or Just Right?"

John 6:24-35
So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

So I am wondering: how does the temperature feel to you this morning—too hot, too cold, or just right?

My greatest theological discovery over the years has been that the temperature is rarely if ever perfect in church sanctuaries. This discovery began when I was a youngster in the 60s and our church, Edgwood Lutheran, installed that new-fangled contraption called central air. My dad said: “Watch, Wilk. It will never be perfect. Some will say, ‘It’s probably fine but I frankly am a bit chilly and need a sweater every Sunday.’ Others will furiously fan and madly mutter, ‘Couldn’t we get things cooler in here?’”

So, which is it for you—too hot, too cold, or just right?

We should have learned by now that most things are rarely just right. I have found, for instance, even when the church is jammed to the gills, like today and last Sunday, while most of us are thrilled beyond belief, inevitably someone will say, “It was much too crowded this morning. I could hardly find a seat. I prefer worship when attendance is sparse.”

I don’t mean to bellyache. What I am saying is that there is something in all of us—call it original sin if you wish—that eventually gets to grumbling and whining. Nothing ever seems perfect.

The story we heard this morning from the book of Exodus is a case in point. While it describes the Israelites thousands of years ago, it could just as easily describe us. The Israelites had just been freed from years of brutal slavery in Egypt. We can only imagine how bad those years were. We know from our own American history that slaves are rarely treated well and are often treated horribly.

Things changed overnight for the Israelites. Under the inspired leadership of Moses and the miraculous hand of God, they fled Pharaoh’s brutal regime and crossed the Red Sea. This story is filled with wonder—ask Cecil B. DeMille if you don’t believe me. How could this ragtag group of Israelites possibly free themselves from the robust Egyptian army? How could the Red Sea split apart just at the last second and usher those hapless slaves to safety while, just as quickly, close tighter than a clam, munching up the pursuing army into oblivion? You would think the Israelites would never forget those astonishing events.

Just ponder, for a moment, your own tendency for moaning and groaning and then guess how long it took before the Israelites forgot about what God had done for them at the sea. According to the Bible, they were whining about the terrible water within three weeks of their stunning independence march, and not many weeks after that they were getting cranky about the miserable food. Some even claimed this freedom business was not all it was cracked up to be and they would just as well be back toiling in Pharaoh’s dreadful brickyards.

Have you ever wondered where we learn such grumpy habits? I suppose it would take paying a good therapist a small fortune, for a long while, to dig deep enough even to begin to discover from whence our habits of griping and growling emanate.

According to Exodus, these habits go back thousands of years, as far back as the Israelites in the wilderness. Our mommies and daddies, grandmas and grandpas, even our great-great grandmas and grandpas, have taught us admirably when it comes to murmuring. I don’t know about your family, but in my household growing up, our favorite Sunday dinner conversation began this way, “So, what did you think about church today?”…If your family was anything like mine, I don’t need to tell you how these discussions proceeded.

So as not to whine any longer from this pulpit—lest some of you storm out and miss the First stunning Lutheran Summer Gospel Choir and the extraordinary Arnessa Rickett—let me change course. Let’s see how God handles our cranky occasions.

When we listen to the Israelites yapping in the wilderness, we expect a voice shouting from heaven like an hysterical 5 a.m. rooster: “One more word out of your whiny mouths and you are all on the express train back south. If you think this food and water is bad here, just wait and see what I dish out to you down in old Egyptland. Enough!”

Remarkably, that’s not how God handles the Israelites’ prickly moments and it is not how God handles ours either. According to Holy Scripture, when the people griped about the crummy water and the wretched food, God, in a flash, supplied them with water tastier than bottled Evian and rained down manna from heaven that left them wondering what in the world it was. Rather than retribution, God met their every need.

Isn’t this God’s story over and over again? Every Sunday we come stumbling into this too hot or too cold or just right sanctuary, confessing our sins. It was just last Sunday we were here, telling God of our foul ups and failures and hearing God say for the millionth time, “I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Surprise, surprise, we are here again, only seven days later, saying the same lame thing, “We confess we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.”

Looking at the Israelites in the wilderness is like seeing ourselves in the mirror. We come here today and as the Israelite received that manna from heaven, we receive similar bread as Jesus says to us, “Take and eat. Drink this, all of you.”

It is likely that we have all been grumbling a bit this week about something or other and yet God provides us with the body and blood of his son. It isn’t a lot—about as much as that manna mystery food—but then again, the little bit of bread and the tiny sip of wine we are about to receive is more than we will ever need.

So, how is the temperature now?

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church, San Diego
July 26, 2015
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
"Feeding Our Hungry Hollow"

John 6:1-21
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

If you have ever been in the wilderness, you know how hungry you can get. I took a number of church youth groups canoeing in Ontario, Canada’s Algonquin Park. We canoed every day for long, exhausting stretches. These were teenagers and they were constantly famished. One day, as we ate lunch on the banks of Otter Lake, Aurelio accidentally dropped two carrot sticks; the entire group dove frantically to retrieve those measly morsels rolling in the dust as if they were the finest French cuisine. No “yikes!” no “how can you eat that disgusting stuff?” These kids were hungry; if they didn’t scrounge up every last bit of food, they would die.

Even downtown San Diego can feel like a wilderness, albeit a harsh urban one. People come to our First Lutheran lakeside door all the time, asking for food. Others come Sunday morning, like you, now, and are hungry, too, hungry for affection, hungry to end drinking marathons, hungry for loved ones to get better soon.

Some of us are hungry for our world where African Americans are treated wretchedly, homeless people are thought of as expendable, God’s gorgeous planet suffers the abuse of our extravagant appetites, and crazed and hateful people shoot worshipers and terrify movie goers. All this makes our stomachs feel like cantaloupes carved hallow.

We are all on a wilderness journey of some sort and starving. We are here searching for a story bigger than ourselves, a story which, as Bil Wright sang moments ago, will give us everything we need, a story that will fill our hungry hollow.

We just heard such a story, the feeding of 5,000 hungry people in another wilderness. There is a nagging question that accompanies this story: were five barley loaves and two fish really enough to feed the crowd? We have puzzled over this story since we first heard it as three year olds. We try to explain it the best we are able. Maybe everyone, upon seeing the little boy pull out a little bread and a few fish from his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle backpack, caught his sharing spirit; maybe they dug into their own backpacks, too, and shared what they had secretly squirreled away for themselves only moments earlier. This business of sharing is a perfectly fine idea but frankly I don’t think the story of the 5000 is about sharing.

Maybe the feeding of all those folks was accomplished because people pinched off only what they needed and then passed the bread and fish along to their neighbors. I also don’t believe this story is an ancient primer on conservation, teaching us how to save precious resources by using only what we absolutely need.

You noticed that once all 5,000 people were fed, the Bible says, “They were satisfied.” And then Jesus told them to “gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” This, my dear friends, is not a story about what happens when we conserve or share. This is a story of God’s extravagance for us.

We dare not domesticate the wonder of this story so our little minds can grasp it. This is a miracle for goodness sakes that can only be accomplished by God. It tells of God’s lavishness whether we are stingy or generous, self-centered or compassionate. This story left in God’s hands electrifies almost every hearer, every time, and thrills us beyond belief.

The late Peter Gomes, long time chaplain of Harvard University, said: “The people of the Bible may not know what a miracle is, at least in a rational or intellectual sense, but they know one when they see one, like the farmer down Maine who was asked if he believed in infant baptism. ‘Believe in it?’ he said. ‘Why, I’ve even seen it.’ The shepherds did not ask themselves if they ‘believed’ they saw an angel; they went in fear and haste and worshiped at the manger. The blind man who was given his sight did not ask to understand what happened to him; he acknowledged with simple eloquence that he could see. The five thousand, once hungry and now satisfied, do not appear to ask questions of supply and demand and ‘How did he do it?’ but recognize that something unusual has happened…A miracle is a message from God.”

I’m sure most of you can easily tell this story without your Bible in hand. Two disciples are befuddled how possibly to feed such a hungry throng. Jesus tells them, in spite of the huge crowd, they must feed everyone. The disciples argue that even six months wages couldn’t do the trick. And, as you know, they then find a little boy with five barley loaves and two fish. And with that, Jesus feeds everyone and they still gather leftovers.

If left to our own devices, would a single one of us tell such a outlandish story? This is God’s story, not ours. Whenever we tell it, we proclaim loudly, “The gospel of the Lord”— not my gospel, not your gospel, but the gospel of the Lord. This story is for us, today, when we have come to believe our souls cannot possibly be fed. This story is for First Lutheran Church that, at times, looks around these few blocks and wonders how we can possibly feed every hungry person and, at the same time, have enough left to address the other hungers confronting this congregation.

Every once in a while, it is good just to sit and listen to this old, old story and soak up as much of its wonder as possible. You know, a little boy with five barley loaves and two fish… 5,000 people eating their fill…Leftovers galore. Is it any wonder we are telling this 2,000 years later? This is a story that invites us to let God do the feeding.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church, San Diego
July 19, 2015
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
"Supreme Rest"

Mark 6:30-56
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray. When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

You mean you don’t have to do anything to be saved? That is a preposterous, lazy, useless, and unholy thing to say! You didn’t really say, did you, that you don’t have to do a single thing to be saved?

I know you have all heard the famous quote, “God helps those who helps themselves.” As they say, if the Bible says it, it must be true. There is only one slight problem: the Bible doesn’t say “God helps those who help themselves.” It sounds awfully good, I‘ll admit, but either Mr. Aesop of fable fame or ol’ Benjamin Franklin of “Poor Richard’s Almanac” fame came up with this nugget lauding hard work and ingenuity….Oh, and by the way, you can’t find hide nor hair of this quote in the Bible.

Now admittedly some will say, “God worked for six days.” And I will say in turn, “What about the seventh?” Remember that day, the do nothing day, the day to kick back and do something you really enjoy? I imagine God in a La-Z-Boy recliner, with a blade of grass between the teeth and a cup of ice tea in hand, with not a care in the world.

Of the Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” Martin Luther writes in the Large Catechism: “Our word ‘holy day’ or ‘holiday’ is so called from the Hebrew word ‘Sabbath,’ which properly means to rest that is, to cease from labor…”

But that business about ceasing from labor, especially for those of us who think, “God helps those who help themselves,” must be the lost eleventh commandment that Moses misplaced on his way down the mountain.

In spite of our lustings after hard work, over and over again, we hear Jesus say to his disciples, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Rest a while!

For Christians, the idea of rest takes on an ominous tone: you mean you don’t have to do anything to be saved? Fiddlesticks!

The genius of Martin Luther—or perhaps his good luck—was discovering the golden nugget of resting grace in the writings of Saint Paul: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—“ (Ephesians 2: 8).

Can this free gift of God possibly be, we wonder, we who have been schooled to read the small print that there is no such thing as a free lunch?

The resistance to a free lunch is why so many Christians cannot abide with the thought of infant baptism. How can a little tyke like Mary Alice, soon to be baptized, possibly be saved? She is only four months old! Mary Alice cannot even walk to the baptismal pool; she can’t even swim for goodness sakes. She cannot make a single promise. She cannot renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God. She cannot confess her faith in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Mary Alice talks a lot, to be sure, but, sad to say, at this point anyway, not a word she says makes a hill of beans of sense; she cannot even say “Mama, Papa, or brother Wallace.” All she seems capable of is smiling, screaming for mommy’s milk, and pooping in her diapers.

Shouldn’t we wait a bit and not rush to baptize Mary Alice? Maybe we should wait until she is thirteen or so when she can, on her own, say, “I believe in God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.”

There is another way of looking at this, however. It is God’s way, the way that turns our world upside down and subverts our every expectation. We grow up believing, one way or another, that God helps those who help themselves. How is it possible then for Mary Alice to help herself this morning? Well, the good news of the gospel is God does it all for her, with not an iota of effort on her part. It is as if she is resting in a big ol’ Lay-Z-Boy in God’s lap.

Well….well…well…she can’t help herself and that is the point! Martin Luther loved baptism precisely because it proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is nothing we or Mary Alice can do to save ourselves. Not a thing!

Remember again what Jesus kept saying to his disciples, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Doing that is so hard for many of us. That is another quality of baptism that I love but hardly have ever talked about, if ever. Baptism is supreme rest. Only God can save us—and Mary Alice today—from sea monsters that lurk just below the surface, threatening to bite off our every toe. There is not a thing in the world we can do. Is it any wonder babies scream—not a thing they can do? Well, the best we can do is rest awhile in the lap of God.

When we go back to our little river here at First Lutheran, let us take a deep, deep breath and trust that God is saving us, yet again, from our sins. Let us trust, too, that God takes Mary Alice in those huge almighty hands and protects her from every evil thing in this world that will threaten her and scare her parents and those who love her half to death.

So, let us go with Jesus down to the river and rest a while. Let us splash and frolic in the water like happy otters. Let us remember that this vacation is for free, at that resort known as the baptismal river, for us and for the sake of the world.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church, San Diego
July 18, 2015
Memorial Service of Resurrection
for the Rev. James W. Hallerberg
1 Timothy 6: 12; Ephesians 5: 10-17; John 10: 1-6, 27-30
"The Good Fight of Faith"

When I asked Ginger what she would say about Jim if she were preaching today, she mentioned a multitude of admirable qualities; among them, Jim’s incredibly caring spirit and his willingness to go out of his way to make another person’s life easier. She then noted, rather sheepishly, “Jim could be kind of bombastic.” You can tell how much she loved Jim by her nuanced “KIND OF bombastic.” Of course, none of us knew this side of Jim, did we?

Jim’s confirmation verse was: “Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” You must confess it is quite discerning for a thirteen year old to intuit how his life will unfold. You could see him weeping buckets of joyful tears as one of his dear grandchildren, Sebastian, read his grandpa’s confirmation verse in Luther’s German.

Saint Paul writes that “each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Let’s be honest—and Jim would demand that of us today: not all of us are blessed with Jim’s gifts of tenacity and resolve nor perhaps should we all but let us thank God that Jim was.

Saint John of Patmos writes to the church in Laodicea in the book of Revelation: “I know you inside and out, and find little to my liking. You’re not cold, you’re not hot—far better to be either cold or hot! You’re stale. You’re stagnant. You make me want to vomit.” (Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” translation)

Would any of you ever think to say that Pastor Jim Hallerberg was neither hot nor cold? Jim pushed all his chips to the center of the table, betting everything he had that Christ has been raised from the dead and that the church should welcome every seeking soul—every seeking soul!—to hear and taste God’s love.

In his voluminous directives for today’s service, the good Reverend Hallerberg asked his adoring family and befuddled pastor to send out this announcement: ‘The service will probably last two hours and be filled with music. If that sounds like something you would like to attend, join us. If not, please don’t.” And he added, “You know Jim!”…In Jim’s honor, I suggest you quit looking at your watches and iPhones!

Jim could not bear the thought of Christ’s resurrection being cast into some forty-five minute sound bite liturgy. His highest hope was that, amidst your sadness, you might be filled with the joy of Christ’s victory over death on this day.

Jewish Rabbi and biblical scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel once said as if speaking of Jim, “A person has grace when the throbbing of his heart is audible in his voice; when the longings of his soul animate his face.” Jim was well known for weeping through worship services—some piece of Bach stirring his soul, some slanting of Scripture creating goose bumps anew, some outcast receiving Christ’s body and blood touching him deeply. Jim’s heart throbbed with grace in all those holy moments as if beholding a lost sheep—maybe even beholding himself—being rescued and embraced by the good shepherd.

None of us had the opportunity to meet Martin Luther, but don’t you imagine ol’ Herr Doktor Luter was much like Jim. Jim loved Luther’s words: “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” Jim was a theologian of the cross: he called a thing what it is! You could say his life was a ceaseless shattering of indifference.

The first time I heard Jim speak was at a gathering of Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod clergy. The topic was women in the ministry. (Pastor Gloria Espeseth was part of that panel.) Jim demanded that all our church doors be opened wider and wider so that, in that case, women might become pastors. I remember thinking, no wonder this guy was brought up on heresy charges in the LCMS.

His hard-hitting words, by the way, were not reserved simply for the LCMS. Jim was an equal opportunity employer and was more than happy to cast tough words the ELCA’s way should he deem such censure warranted.

But make no mistake: Jim’s bombastic side was not simply to masquerade as the devil’s advocate or to stand arrogantly above his colleagues as some ecclesiastical lone ranger. Jim simply found it impossible to keep his mouth shut whenever he deemed the astonishing news of Christ’s victory over death being surrendered or domesticated in any way; he went ballistic when any of God’s children were snubbed of heavenly largesse; and he had absolutely no tolerance for purity cults where like minded people celebrated one another’s exceptional sanctity. If anyone attempted to shrink the playing field of God’s grace, even an iota, Jim’s sting was nastier than a scorpion’s—never lukewarm, never mushy on eternal matters!

The great theologian Jaroslav Pelikan, formed as was Jim in the exceptional orthodox and confessional crucible of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod educational system, wrote in his own rather blistering manner: “If Christ is raised, nothing else matters. If Christ is not raised, nothing matters.”

Jim believed in Christ’s resurrection. I cannot remember anyone in my thirty-eight years of ministry more prepared to die than Jim Hallerberg. It wasn’t that he did not cherish his life and family—he adored you and treasured the opportunity to talk about you…incessantly. And yet, his entire life—from the time the water dripped over his head as a tiny baby until he breathed his last—was preparing himself and you, as the ancient funeral would have it, “to sing alleluia even at the grave.” Yes indeed, if Christ is raised, nothing else matters. In his final moments on earth, Jim heartily sang with Saint Paul, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”

If you listen carefully just about now, you can hear Jim’s raucous laugh roaring like a Midwestern tornado through this sanctuary as he crosses over the Jordan to join the saints at the throne of God. He would say to you now—not bombastically, by the way, but tenderly and gently, “In the hymns you sing, the words you speak, the music you play, the bread your eat, and the wine you drink, my dear family and brothers and sisters in Christ, may you hear the shepherd calling me, the Rev. James W. Hallerberg, into the eternal arms of God” and may that beautiful voice fill you with peace.”

Oh dear Saint Jim, servant of the Holy Office of Word and Sacraments, you have fought the good fight of faith on Christ’s behalf. Well done, good and faithful servant, in the name of the Father, and (+) of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church, San Diego
July 12, 2015
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 7: 7-15; Mark 6: 14-29
"Paying Attention to the Prophets—and Finding Hope"

Another Sunday, another prophet. Ezekiel last week, Amos today.

Of Amos, Frederick Buechner writes: “When the prophet Amos walked down the main drag, it was like a shoot-out in the Old West. Everybody ran for cover. His special target was the ‘beautiful people,’ and shooting from the hip, he never missed his mark. He pictures them sleek and tanned at Palm Beach, Acapulco, St. Tropez. They glisten with [pricey sunscreen]. The stereo is piped out over the marble terrace. Another tray of Bloody Marys is on the way. A vacationing bishop plunges into the heated pool.

“With one eye cocked on them, [Amos] has his other cocked on the unbeautiful people—the varicose ?veins of the old waiter, the pasty face of the starch-fed child, the Indian winos passed out on the railroad siding, the ragged woman fumbling for food stamps at the check-out counter.

“When justice is finally done, Amos says, there will be hell to pay. The happy hour will be postponed indefinitely...The cashmere sweaters, the tangerine-colored slacks, the flower[s] will all fade like grass. Nothing but a few chicken bones will mark the place where once the cold buffet was spread out under the royal palms.”

Amos is my favorite prophet. He lived 750 years before Jesus. He was a simple farm boy, a dresser of sycamore trees and a shepherd. He came from the Southern Kingdom known also as Judah; he lived in the Podunk town of Tekoa, four miles or so south of another Podunk town called Bethlehem. His mission from God, should he accept it, was to travel to the Northern Kingdom called Israel and to unleash a diatribe as if God were speaking which, of course, God was. What was dicey about Amos’ mission was that Israel was a far cry from the Podunk town he came from. Israel was a land awash in pride, prosperity, and splendor. Amos was sickened by the spectacle of well mannered gentry living in their summer and winter palaces adorned with costly ivory and gorgeous couches with damask pillows on which they reclined at their sumptuous feasts.

Prophets tend not to be particularly charming when they catch a nauseating whiff of the rich getting richer and the poor hitting rock bottom. Read Amos—it’s only ten pages—and concentrate on the brutal words he snapped off like a pit-bull at the people of Israel: “They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes— they that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted…”

The rich and powerful were not at all enamored by Amos’ candor. You can feel the vile attack they launched his way 2750 years later: “Go back where you came from, you miserable hick. You are a simple farmer; who do you think you are telling us sophisticates about economic policy?” It was as if Amos were a fieldworker come up from Mexico, speaking about the threat of global warming to oil barons and presidential candidates.

Prophets are maddening. They march to the beat of a different drummer—that drummer, by the way, was and is God; and, as you know, God’s ways are not our ways. Prophets always seem grumpy when most folks are celebrating and they are singing merrily when others are chanting dirges.

My Old Testament seminary professor Brevard Childs led us through the prophets, book-by-book: Ezekiel and Jeremiah, Isaiah and Hosea, Habakkuk and Amos. I will never forget Mr. Childs telling us—and I hope you don’t forget either—no matter how vitriolic a prophet’s message, if we look carefully enough, we will find hope. Sometimes hope is hidden in the final few verses of a prophet’s book, so you have to read the entire thing. You can even find hope in Amos if you look hard enough. After refusing to pull a single punch, Amos spoke these words to defiant Israel on God’s behalf, and on the final page no less: “I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land which I have given them.” Did you hear those words dripping with grace: “They shall never again be plucked up out of the land…”

Some people—maybe even a few of us—are mesmerized by prophets who speak tough words to the rich and powerful. We enjoy the shaking fists of righteous indignation. And yet, at least according to Mr. Childs, that was never the entire prophetic way. Somewhere in each of the prophets, hope is to be found.

Even John the Baptist, given what seemed his crazed and critical ways, pointed beyond himself to the one greater than himself, the one filled with grace and love, the one who embraced the unlovable and dined with the outcasts. John the Baptist was a tough gun-slinger, too, so tough that he lost his head to Herod for speaking truth to power; and yet, AND YET, until the moment his head was lopped off, John was always pointing beyond his somber ways to the beautiful savior, Jesus Christ our Lord, who bore hope for every single miserable sinner.

We who call ourselves Christians do well to pay attention to the prophets. We will hear truthful and tough words when injustice is afoot and we will hear graceful words when we are down on our luck and our souls are sick. We who watch Jesus carefully will discover that, no matter how angry he got, finally he always spoke a word of forgiveness, a word of life. That word was spoken to each of us from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

That’s how love works: always surprising, always gracious. It comes when we are numb and defeated, when we don’t have an iota of dignity left; then, out of the blue, we hear a prophet coming over the mountain and singing on God’s behalf, “I will never do that to you again.”

Perhaps comedian Gracie Allen captured the prophetic task most accurately, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” Even when the words sound impossibly harsh, listen for more, listen for hope; that is, after all, the prophet’s way and God’s way, too.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church, San Diego
July 5, 2015
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Ezekiel 2: 1-5; Mark 6: 1-13
"Oh to Be a Prophet"

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be an Old Testament prophet like Isaiah or Jeremiah, Hosea or Amos, or Ezekiel? What would it be like to shake your fist in rage against the powers and powerful?

I have known a few people over the years who have claimed to be prophets. In almost every case, I have been suspicious of their lofty claims. These self-styled prophets have more often than not struck me as audacious, arrogant, and mean-spirited.

The biblical prophets did not wake up one morning and say, “I think I will be a prophet today.” Often, when God came calling them, they kicked and screamed. They weren’t particularly enamored with the prospect of speaking harsh words to family, friends, and neighbors, people they dearly loved.

Take for instance Ezekiel. He loved his native land, God’s chosen nation of Israel. Ezekiel knew of his nation’s arrogance, how it sided with other neighboring godless nations in attempts to protect itself (such an unsavory relationship, by the way, is as old as the hills as nations side up with brutal regimes to shore up their own defenses: think USA and the Soviet Union in World War II). Ezekiel watched the rich get richer on poor people’s backs in his own land. But when God told him to tell those dear to him that they were “a rebellious house,” Ezekiel sounded very much like he was having a lover’s quarrel with those closest to him.

The reason I mistrust self-proclaimed prophets is they so often seem either to detest the people they are speaking to or detest their own native land. They delight in being the “devil’s advocates,” forever embarrassing others and asking nasty questions that would infuriate them if such questions were directed at them. Bitterness and judgmentalism are their tenor and love for those to whom they speak is rarely, if ever, in evidence.

Let me tell you of a person I consider a modern day prophet. The Rev. John Steinbruck was the pastor of Luther Place Church in Washington, D.C. He looked like a prophet with a great gray beard and intense eyes. He was more than willing to take on government and church officials; sometimes he ended up in jail for his beliefs. His prophetic language could be as colorful as a sailor which he actually was for many years. He delivered a few of his choice words to me when we were neighboring pastors. Whenever he called and I suspected he was not happy with something I had done or said or a position I had taken, I would hold the telephone two and a half feet from my ear as he launched into one of his infamous diatribes.

People were quite fond of calling Pastor Steinbruck a prophet and I believe he was. And yet, it often seemed to me that some pastors who tried to emulate his prophetic candor missed one of John’s essential qualities. My dear friend supported me in some pretty tough times. He called me repeatedly when I faced some powerful detractors who were nipping at my heels. John’s pastoral sensitivity to Dagmar and me and our boys continued long after we moved from Washington, even when we were here at First. Only weeks before he died, a few months ago, after we shared how much we loved each other, I hung up the phone and realized, even as he struggled with cancer and Parkinson’s, even in the valley of the shadow, he had yet again just been a pastor to me. This rugged prophet had a deeply sensitive and loving soul. Soon after he died, I told his wife Erna that John was a delightful combination of irascible prophet and tender pastor; his irascibility and tenderness went hand-in-hand.

Real prophets are like that. They take on matters in this world because their hearts are broken by the orneriness of the powerful, the unjust ways of the rich, and the ugly ways of those who hold all the cards; and yet their hearts are equally broken when they must speak harsh words to a rebellious people because, after all, they are so deeply in love with them.

On this 4th of July weekend, let us all pray to God for loving prophets’ hearts. What I mean is, may we be able to call this nation which we love to its highest ideals and not make believe all is well. When we watch one African American church after another burned to the ground in the south, may God refuse to let us remain silent and pretend all is hunky dory in the ol’ USofA. We need to be as honest as Ezekiel and dare to say ours is a rebellious nation.

Now, I suspect some of you are tired of hearing such stuff. You may hold to that old adage, if you don’t like it here in the United States, then pack up and go to another country; you believe this is the best nation in the world. People who say such things, in my mind, miss 50% of the prophetic equation. They fail to understand that we have fallen short of what God expects of us. One of the greatest dangers in a nation like ours, a nation entrusted with more power than any other nation in history, is to make believe there is no such thing as sin within our borders and, even if there is, it is much worse somewhere else. This naiveté only gives rise to sickening spectacles of gun violence, racism, torture, and all manner of other ruthless behaviors. Such unaccountable patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel and has not an iota to do with anything God would have us be.

Now, I know, others of you are saying, “Let ‘em have it, Pastor Miller!” But that ain’t exactly the prophetic spirit either—it misses about 50% of the prophetic spirit, too. Like Ezekiel, we are called to love this nation, to call it to higher ground, to cherish its founding principles of liberty and justice for all God’s people. Nevertheless, every hard word we proclaim should pierce our very heart for, after all, we do love this nation and the people who live here. Ours should always be a lover’s quarrel.

You have noticed, I’m sure, in your own personal life, those you love most deeply are also the ones with whom you have your most boisterous quarrels—or is it just that way for Dagmar and me? You say things to them you wouldn’t dare say to any one else, even to a vicious opponent. Why is it we reserve some of our deadliest venom for those we love? I suspect, deep down, it is because we trust that at the end of the day, peace and love will prevail as we yearn for the deepest good for one another.

As we celebrate our nation’s birthday, we are all called to exercise a similar spirit, a spirit that dares to tell the truth and yet a spirit that also loves deeply. The two go hand-in-hand.

We who gather here this day understand that our nation, no matter how much we love it, is never finally the kingdom of God. Ours is an imperfect nation and there is only one perfect nation, the kingdom of God for which we all long. And so, we come to God, time and again, praying for our land and its leaders, asking God to shine His grace on thee. We pray that through the perfect example of Jesus and by his grace, we may be provided sufficient passion to stand up for what is just and good and to love one another as Christ has loved us.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church, San Diego
June 28, 2015
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Mark 5: 21-43
"A Day in the Life"

The crowd was frantic. People were plagued by all manner of ailments—demons, leprosy, lameness, blindness—and they wanted a piece of Jesus.

There were no emergency rooms, no urgent care facilities. Healing came slowly, if at all, and so the frenzy in the presence of Jesus the Healer was beyond belief.

We just heard of two terrifying illnesses. One involved the child of a respected synagogue leader; Jairus’ little daughter was near death. Has your little child ever been near death or even had a bloody nose or a nasty cut requiring six stitches? You know the frenzy; you want to be first in line at the emergency room no matter that others are holding pink plastic containers vomiting their guts out and gasping for air on the verge of a heart attack. “Scuttle your silly triage system and well established hospital protocol,” you scream. “Treat my baby now or there is going to be hell to pay.” Jairus was frantic; his little daughter was dying.

Jesus went with Jairus the minute he heard about the little girl. There was one problem though as so often happens when rock stars are in town. Unbeknownst to Jesus, a woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years—twelve years—came up behind him. She was frantic, too. She touched Jesus’ cloak certain this would stop her incessant bleeding.

What was Jesus to do? The little girl was far away, breathing her last, and Jesus had a ways to go; and yet this woman had been bleeding for so long. Have you ever faced such a dilemma? Sure the little girl was dying but the hemorrhaging woman had been forbidden from entering the synagogue by the biblical book of Leviticus and thus was deemed unclean by her community; she was dying in another way. If you love coming to church, you understand how the woman hurt being on the outside, so wanting to get in.

The past few days have been remarkable and yet frantic ones in this nation. Some have felt the doors swing wide open; others have felt the doors shut more tightly than ever. Those of you who know your health care will remain intact feel like you have touched the hem of Jesus’ garment and you have said a prayer, “Thank you, Jesus, thank you.”

Others of you, gay and lesbian, transgender and bisexual, and your family and friends never thought a day like Friday would come in your lifetime—it is often how the Spirit feels when hope comes out of no where! You are overjoyed that the Supreme Court has cast its blessing on gay marriage in this nation. Like that woman bleeding, you have waited for these healing words from our government and for similar healing words from your beloved church. The doors feel wider open for you this morning than ever before. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s words ring so true for you: “It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” Is it any wonder you are smiling and crying tears of joy, waving your rainbow colors every which way?

But, others of you, African Americans, like the people of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, feel the doors slammed shut in your face as racism and gun violence have raised their ugly heads yet again. You want Jesus, too; you are frantic, wondering whether your freedom will ever come.

This wide range of emotions was pretty much a day in the life of Jesus. Some celebrated, others mourned, and yet all prayed to Jesus to heal them and give them new life.

What is amazing is that Jesus stopped for the woman. He took the time to have a little prayer with her and to heal her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” He stopped even though Jairus’ daughter was dying. Or could it be that because of Jesus’ hesitation she might already have died? You know how Jairus was feeling: he was beside himself with anxiety, anger even, as Jesus’ journey to heal his little girl was interrupted to bring joy to one outcast woman.

My seminary professor, Henri Nouwen, once told us future pastors, “You know…my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.”

The bleeding woman was an interruption in Jesus’ schedule as, frankly, was the dying little girl. Jesus had not planned it this way and yet, in truth, his entire life was one interruption after another, concluding with the big one in Jerusalem when he still had so many places to go, so many people to heal, so many celebrations to attend; and then, suddenly, everything stopped and he ended up on the cross.

The wonderful thing about today’s gospel reading is that the woman was healed and Jesus made it to Jairus’ house in time to bring the little girl back to life.

I could sit here and tell you it will always turn out that way but you know better. Sometimes bleeding women spend lifetimes weeping tears of misery and exclusion. Sometimes little girls die far too young. But what we discover in today’s gospel is that Jesus kept on doing ministry, loving those who came to him, whether happy or sad, insider or outsider. Jesus trusted that God would provide no matter how things looked at the present time.

Those of you in the LGBT community feel that Jesus has stopped everything and finally brought you enormous healing. Those of you who are African American are wondering whether such healing will ever come. Those of you who are sick or have loved ones dying anxiously await Jesus to come quickly and wonder if healing will come today.

Whether you are overjoyed this morning, deeply worried, or angry as a hornet, may you trust that God will open a door to your deepest longing. May we cry together, laugh together, and celebrate together, trusting that Jesus will finally come to heal our every ill.

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
First Lutheran Church, San Diego
June 21, 2015
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
"Peace! Be Still!"

Mark 4:35-41
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

We come here, once again, mourning the slaughter of holy innocents—this time those who simply wanted to read their Bibles at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

How many of you have pointed an accusatory finger since you first heard of the horrific shootings:

  • Pointed a finger at those who nauseatingly continue to flaunt their confederate flags, nostalgic for former days of slavery?
  • Pointed a finger at those who tote their guns hither-and-yon as if this is the very essence of our nation?
  • Pointed a finger at extremists who wreak havoc as people gather to pray whether at Synagogue, Mosque, or Church?

    Maybe it is a good and healthy thing to point an accusatory finger from time to time, to boil over with “righteous indignation,” to let the anger seethe out.

    And yet is our rage ever quite so simple? I thought I knew what I wanted to preach about this morning until I read the letter from Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Her letter shook me to the core. Listen:

    “It has been a long season of disquiet in our country. From Ferguson to Baltimore, simmering racial tensions have boiled over into violence. But this … the fatal shooting of nine African Americans in a church is a stark, raw manifestation of the sin that is racism.”

    And then this from Bishop Eaton that brings the tragedy too close to home:

    “Two of the victims – the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the Rev. Daniel Simmons of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston – were graduates of [our] Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.”

    If that doesn’t make you tremble, then this:

    “The suspected shooter is a member of an ELCA congregation. All of a sudden and for all of us, this is an intensely personal tragedy. One of our own is alleged to have shot and killed two who adopted us as their own.”

    We are reliving the story in Genesis of Cain and Abel as brother murders brothers and sisters. We can hear God weeping for God’s children this morning: “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” Seeing the blood of the martyrs run down the aisle of Mother Emanuel’s sanctuary, the ancient prayer shapes more perfectly on our lips, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

    This heartbreaking event in Charleston, in God’s house, leads many of us here this morning, seeking shelter from the howling winds of mayhem.

    In truth, Jesus is not terribly different from us. In today’s gospel reading, he says to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” And the gospel notes, “And leaving the crowd behind, they took [Jesus] with them in the boat, just as he was.” Jesus, too, longs to go to a quiet place to pray, a place much like Bible study at Emanuel AME Church.

    We can hardly imagine how frantic Jesus’ days are, what with sick people, possessed people, and angry ones, too, hounding him night and day. But admit it: doesn’t a smile come across your face when you see Jesus sleeping on a pillow as a vicious storm rages and the disciples are beside themselves as their flimsy boat rocks wildly from stem to stern?

    And then the most surprising thing occurs—and are we any different? The disciples shake Jesus from his deep sleep and shout to him above the thunderous wind, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

    This is our question this morning, our question on behalf of the people of Charleston, South Carolina, for every African American person who tastes the bitter sting of racism yet again, for anyone among us who has been touched by the ferocity of violence or mourned the death of one we have loved. Is Jesus asleep at the wheel, oblivious to our sinking? Has our teeny boat rocked and swayed so terribly that we are certain we are going under?

    And then, just as suddenly, Jesus’ eyes open; he stretches his arms to the heavens, almost nonchalantly, and yawns, and then rants into the teeth of the tempest, “Peace! Be still!”

    At least for me, just to hear this story calms me down. If Jesus can still the wicked winds and the raging sea, I presume he can also calm the madness of this present age.

    Sometimes, we do well, especially on this Father’s Day, to listen carefully to a loving father or a wise elder who has endured a violent storm or two. I think particularly this morning of historic Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. This rich church tradition, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, started as it faced a raging storm. The Reverend Richard Allen and other African Americans attended St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia and faced disgusting racism. They walked out of that congregation and formed their own, the venerable Mother Bethel Church.

    Richard Allen had certainly heard the story of Jesus calming the storm when he was a little slave child. He most certainly had learned to sing a host of African American Spirituals like “Swing Low, Swing Chariot” and “Steal Away to Jesus,” songs that sustained him and his brothers and sisters in the faith amidst the storms, just like “Stand by Me,” “Peace Like a River,” and “Precious Lord” sustain us this morning.

    Our nation is once again caught in the eye of a perfect storm. We feel the confusion, taste the rage, shake our fists for justice. Racism once again rears its ugly head and gun violence takes its monstrous toll. In the midst of it all, however, there are those who teach us a better way, a way informed by a profound trust in Jesus who sleeps soundly in the boat with his head on the pillow. The family members of those murdered at Mother Emanuel know the story and they trust Jesus. How else could these grieving families, at the initial court hearing of the accused murderer Dylann Roof, exercise such astonishing grace by offering their forgiveness to him? How else could they pray that the Lord might be merciful to Dylann Roof rather than ranting that he rot in hell? These grieving folks are confident Jesus can calm the storm and we have much to learn from them as the display considerable grace amidst a catastrophic calamity.

    We come here this morning, yet again, for a thousand reasons. It behooves us to set our eyes on Jesus as he sleeps peacefully on his downy pillow as storms of life howl. In the face of our faults and failures, our wraths and confusion and sadness, let us stand by Jesus and trust he will shout to all that would upset our tiny boat, “Peace! Be Still!”

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    June 14, 2015
    Third Sunday after Pentecost
    "Sleep Soundly Tonight"

    Mark 4:26-34
    He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

    The predictions for the future of Christ’s church are bleak in many quarters. You can rarely attend a church gathering without hearing about the demise of the church we love. A good friend of mine, who was a faithful pastor for forty years and attends church every Sunday, recently said to me, “The church is a dinosaur on its way to extinction.” At our recent synod assembly, there was quite a bit of talk about declining and dying congregations. A few presentations made me wonder whether it is possible to turn things around. Is it just the churchy circles I travel in or do you find yourself in such conversations, too?

    Someone recently asked me, “What makes First Lutheran different? Why are we growing?”

    There was a time, I must confess, when I would gladly have offered answers to why some churches grow—hard working and generous laity not amused by controversy, committed staff, vibrant and faithful worship, courageous mission in the immediate neighborhood, willingness to change—I would have offered these as characteristics of growing congregations. And yet as the years go by, I have grown more cautious as to why some churches thrive and others die. I have watched—as have you—seemingly invincible churches go belly-up. One such church was a Lutheran one in Philadelphia. It was an original megachurch, filling Temple University’s football stadium on Easter morning with more than 10,000 people; it had a 100 foot tower overlooking North Broad Street and 170 stained-glass windows; it closed its doors for good twenty-three years ago. And who among us ever would have bet on the once high-flying Crystal Cathedral ending up bankrupt—Dr. Schuller’s ministry was the standard by which many churches measured their success or failure and many pastor swore by his seminars about how to “grow the church.”

    It is easy to congratulate ourselves when the going is good—like these days at First. It is even easier to criticize ourselves when the going gets tough. While there are certainly answers to why some churches grow and others fail, increasingly, such answers feel naive and silly, at least to me.

    Perhaps we can get a few clues about the future of Christ’s church by examining Jesus’ parable that we just read, the one about the sewer of seeds. It seems so simple: seeds must be sewn; laziness, pathetic excuses, and half-hearted commitment are unacceptable. I know of churches and Christians who prefer to sit idly by, not expending much energy or creativity for excellence in ministry, refusing to change a single thing as the church goes down the tubes. The motto of some of these shrinking places seems to be: let Jesus plant the seeds and we will sit idly by.

    That’s not what Jesus calls us to do. He calls us to work hard in the fields, including here at First Lutheran. Whether pastor or musician, ushers or altar guild members, choir members or worshipers, we are called to do the best we can do. All of us! We do this, not because we think our efforts will bring about the kingdom of God or get us into heaven—Jesus tells us they won’t; we do this because we delight in scattering seeds on Jesus’ behalf.

    We are also called to plant seeds in other places of our lives besides this little corner of God’s creation. At their children’s baptisms, parents promise to sew seeds by bringing their children to God’s house and placing the Holy Scriptures into their hands. Parents worry and worry. Inevitably a time will come when their children will moan and groan about going to church or, eventually, quit going altogether. Faithful parents experience such guilt: where have we gone wrong? they ask. This is precisely when Jesus says, “Go to bed and don’t worry.”

    I had a seminary professor who suggested that children’s refusal to go to church may be a natural part of the growth process—just like seeds that do some of their growing out of sight. He urged us not to bludgeon nineteen and twenty-two year olds with our demands that they attend church or bludgeon ourselves when they don’t. He counseled parents to let the growth process take its course.

    Barbara Brown Taylor asks: “What is it that makes your heart chatter in your chest? What feeds your ulcer, makes your shoulder cramp, keeps you awake at night? Where are you busiest protecting yourself and those you love? Where does it seem as if there is ultimately no hope, and where is it that in particular that you do not quite trust God to be God?”

    Do you fret about terrorism, the drought, cancer, poverty, divorce, addiction, pollution? Do you think it is your responsibility to bring these demons under control?

    Once we have planted the seeds, Jesus implores us to go to bed and sleep soundly, not to worry…to let God be God. According to Jesus, the growth of the seed is up to God and yet that is so hard for us to believe: how can God possibly make the seeds grow without our brilliance, initiative, and passion? How dare we sleep?

    I have been taking the trolley to work lately—one of our cars is caput. Every time I walk up Third Avenue and catch my first glimpse of First Lutheran, I am struck—and I hate to admit it—by how inconsequential our building looks—how will significant seeds grow here at 3rd and Ash? We could worry ourselves silly that our little seed will never attain the heights of St. Peter’s in Rome, the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., or Chartres Cathedral in France. And, to tell the truth, it is highly unlikely we will ever become one of those places; it is more probable, so says Jesus, that we will become, at best, an impressive shrub. Don’t worry, says Jesus. Then, of course, unbeknownst to us, while we sleep, our mustard seed kind of place will put forth large branches so that the birds of the air can make nests.

    Have you noticed birds making their nests in the midst of your shrubby life or here at our beloved church? In a world that worries so much, may God make you trust that the seeds you plant will grow, not by your efforts, but by the wondrous grace of God. Sleep soundly tonight, sleep in peace.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    June 7, 2015
    Second Sunday after Pentecost
    "The Truth Shall Make You Odd"

    Mark 3:20-35
    Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

    “Oh no, it’s my son Jesus again! Whatever has gotten into him?” Mary is beside herself as is everyone else, from family to friends to religious authorities. All are convinced Jesus has gone out of his mind…lulu, daffy, cuckoo.

    Already, in a mere three chapters in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has done a host of things that are causing people to question his mental stability. He has gone out to the muddy Jordan to be baptized by someone appearing nuttier than he is. He has spent forty days in the scorching desert claiming to have seen Satan and even to have been tempted by him. He has been preaching up a storm: “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel”—tell the truth, when you come upon such a street corner preacher, what side of the street do you end up on? Jesus has had twelve choices to pick his movement’s cream of the crop and not a one strikes us as particularly sensible or clever. Jesus goes to a synagogue and, out of the blue, right in the middle of his sermon, a fellow plagued with an unclean spirit starts popping off; rather than having the ushers haul him out or at least calling the police, Jesus goes toe-to-toe with this ranting lunatic, shouting, “Be silent, and come out of him!”—what would you think if I engaged in such verbal jousting this morning? On and on Jesus goes: claiming to heal a woman and a few other hapless sorts, eating with repulsive sinners and reprehensible tax collectors, and on countless occasions, turning his back on sacred tradition as his followers pluck ears of grain on the Sabbath and as he and the boys stuff themselves with tender delights as holier than thous observe the fast with long and pious faces.

    Is it any wonder Jesus’ opponents as well as his most loyal followers are concerned for his sanity? What if you are his mother or brother or sister and he shouts at you when you come to him out of concern for his well-being: “Who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers!” he shouts. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Yikes!

    Jesus’ family, friends, religious sorts, and we, too, I suspect, expect things to be a tad more holy. Over the years so much of Christianity in our country has been viewed as the arena where good and well-scrubbed folks congregate on Sunday morning. The pastor has been thought of as the “gentleman” in our midst; the laity wear their Sunday finest, keep nice summer homes, and drive the shiniest cars in town. Is it any wonder that we are surprised, befuddled really, as we watch one church after another close its doors for good here in the United States and Europe and see churches in such seemingly desperate places as Africa, Asia, and Central and South America bursting at the seams? I suppose the well-scrubbed have better things to do on Sunday morning—reading the New York Times on the veranda, sipping caffé lattes at Starbucks, sunning on fashionable San Diego beaches while in those poorer places, they are so excited about Jesus coming to town that they can hardly stay in their church seats.

    We often are shocked by the company Jesus keeps. As you are likely aware, we are using a more contemporary translation of the Lord’s Prayer during the summer months. By most scholarly accounts, this version is faithful to the original Greek. Nevertheless, I imagine some of us will have a hankering for the statelier King James Version just as those in Luther’s day preferred the more elegant Latin to the pedestrian German. Though they did not understood an iota of Latin, it seemed uncouth that God would speak to them in the language they heard every Saturday night at the corner biergarten. Said another way: shouldn’t God speak in a manner that we find excruciatingly difficult to comprehend and yet which has a holy ring to it rather than the language little ol’ you and I use in the midst of the mundane affairs of our ordinary lives?

    It reminds me of those world renowned theologians who came to divinity school from time to time when I was a student. Some of their sermons were absolutely impenetrable and yet, when worship was over, one student after another claimed the preaching to be astonishing. I once asked one of my classmates, “What exactly did he say?” He said, “I have no idea but it must have been profound because I didn’t understand a word.”

    Eugene Peterson wrote a very understandable translation of the Bible. When we use “The Message” Bible here, inevitably quite a few of us snicker because it hits us right between the eyes; we understand what is being said. Pastor Peterson notes: “We often thoughtlessly suppose that language dealing with a holy God and holy things should be stately, elevated, and ceremonial. But it is a supposition that won’t survive the scrutiny of one good look at Jesus—his preference for homely stories and his easy association with common people, his birth in a stable and his death on cross. For Jesus is the descent of God to our lives just as we are and in the neighborhoods in which we live...” (Eugene Peterson, “Eat This Book”).

    We long for holier language in more elegant precincts. Our worship here at First is often punctuated by sirens screaming. Our inclination—at least mine—is to pause for the world’s humdrum interruptions to pass so we can resume our holy pursuits. And yet, in Jesus’ zany ministry, he is forever appearing with people like you and me, where sirens scream daily and people are beside themselves worrying and dying. As we watch Jesus go about his ministry, we discover we need not make believe we are someone we aren’t. Jesus calls us to a similar ministry, in season and out of season, where we proclaim Christ crucified and risen right here on this measly little corner of Third and Ash.

    Quite simply, Jesus invites us to discover holiness in the places we spend our lives. If we follow him, I suspect respectable citizens will think us batty and this congregation will be deemed on the lunatic fringe—that, by the way, occurs more often than you might imagine as people call to complain about our ministry with the blessed poor and as some visitors walk out of here as if they have been stranded for an hour in outer space. The southern writer Flannery O’Connor was probably spot on when she said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”

    Whenever we are looking for Jesus, a good place to search for him is amidst the madcap and messed up, in places like First Lutheran and with folks like us. How strange, how wonderful!

    Oh Jesus, what has ever gotten into you?

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    May 31, 2015
    Holy Trinity Sunday
    Isaiah 6: 1-8; Romans 8: 12-17; John 3:1-17
    "What Does God Think About Us?"

    A very happy Holy Trinity Sunday to you all, in the name of the Father, and (+) of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

    This is an odd day, the only one in the church year when we lift up a doctrine like the Holy Trinity.

    If you are not a particular churchy sort or don’t haunt Lutheran churches too often, this might seem an even odder day. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—what in the world is that?

    Let me try to be as clear as mud: this day begs the monstrously difficult question, “What do you think about God?” (Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to stand and share your thoughts.) Our simple answer—but not really simple at all—is that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    I have spent most of my life studying this question of God—that’s what pastors are paid to do. I have read thousands of books, have attended a host of theological conferences, was a religion major at Wittenberg University, spent three additional years at Yale Divinity School, and did additional graduate work at our Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia. All if this was an attempt by a dimwitted fellow like me to try to figure out who God is. I must confess, after all the studying, there are times when I wonder if I am more befuddled than ever.

    Now, I must say, there are pastors, theologians, and lay people who don’t seem in the least bit befuddled when it comes to explaining who God is—and this happens, by the way, with liberals as well as conservatives. Some of the theologians and pastors who have deeply touched me are incredibly strident, arrogant, and acerbic: they claim to know exactly who God is or isn’t—just ask them! I’ll bet you know a few family members, neighbors, and coworkers who have the God question neatly locked up and are more than willing to persuade you of their tidy answers to the immensity of God.

    My favorite theologian Douglas John Hall has a different take on who God is. He writes, “There must always be a prominent element of modesty, or even tentativeness and hesitancy, in what we profess concerning the knowledge of God. The Creed (any Christian creed!) should be whispered, not shouted.” This, by the way, is not false modesty on Dr. Hall’s part nor is it some kind of cavalier “it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe;” his modesty about the knowledge of God comes after a lifetime of trying to plumb divine depths. He has written a host of books, including a dense, three volume set entitled “Christian Theology in a North American Context.” Douglas John Hall invites us to discover a God far greater than our tiny minds can grasp, a God so magnificent that we must constantly look beyond ourselves and our neat little answers, realizing over and over again that God is far greater than we are and far greater than we can possibly grasp.

    I wonder if it might be better to ask a different question on this Holy Trinity Sunday. Rather than asking, “What do you think about God?” might we be better off asking, “What does God think about us?”

    The Psalmist asked the question this way: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

    Have you ever stared into the night sky and wondered how God can possibly care for little ol’ you? Have you ever looked at a newborn baby, at those ten gorgeous toes and those ten amazing fingers, and wondered how God can create something so beautiful and love this little baby so much…and forever?

    What exactly does God think about you?

    People come to my office all the time, wallowing in misery, wondering about their own self worth. “How could God ever care for me” they ask, “given what I have done? How can God possibly forgive me and love me?” Have you ever had similar thoughts?

    This is where it becomes so important to know the Bible. We don’t read and learn the Bible to win Jeopardy contests or to appear holier than others. We read and learn the Bible so we can hear to what great lengths God goes to love us. After all the reading, studying, and meditating on Scripture, we may not have all the answers about who God is, but what a blessing if we catch a glimpse of what God thinks about us. That’s why we read the Bible, to discover that God loves us no matter what dastardly things we do—things for which we are convinced there is no possibility of forgiveness but which apparently God has different thoughts—that, by the way, is the difference between our great God and us.

    In our gospel reading this morning, Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night, wondering about his soul. Jesus tells him those wonderful words that we seem unable to get out of our heads, words we can hardly believe, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

    “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son...” For you, for me, for the whole world….That’s what God thinks of us! We need to hear these words over and over again because it is so hard to get into our heads let alone our hearts that God loves each one of us.

    As you heard upon entering the sanctuary this morning, this table is open to all God’s children, yes, to you and to me. It seems almost inconceivable, offensive even: “I am not a Lutheran, I am a horrible sinner, I am not sure I understand or even believe a thing this church is talking about, let alone have a clue about who God is.” Well, it all starts here, here where God provides a free lunch for all of us. Martin Luther once described evangelism this way: it is one beggar telling another beggar where to find food—not where to find all the answers, mind you, but where to find food.

    So dance to the table this morning where Father, Son, and Holy Spirit lovingly nudge each other one way or the other just to make a bit of room for you and me. We are not invited to the table because we are so holy or because we understand exactly who God is. We are invited because of what God thinks of us and that is, of course, that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

    For now, this seems more than enough to know…In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    May 24, 2015
    Acts 2: 1-21; John 15: 26-27; 16:4b-15
    "Come Holy Spirit, Come"

    As you probably are aware, until that day of Pentecost, the disciples were a pathetic collection of cowards and scoundrels, nincompoops and nitwits. And then, suddenly, fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection, wind began to howl and tongues of fire alit upon Jesus’ followers. Out of the blue, Peter, the one who less than two months earlier had denied ever knowing his friend Jesus, became ten times the man he had ever been; he began preaching up a storm in the public square of Jerusalem, the same vicinity where, earlier, he had cowered in the alleyway, telling a young girl he had no idea who Jesus was. This time around, filled with the Spirit, he enticed 3,000 people to be baptized that very day. Just like that, the world was turned on its head and, frankly, it has never been the same since. That’s why we are decked out in red today: we celebrate the astonishing birthday of the church.

    That was 2,048 years ago. What about today? Are we not all, at times, a bit like the disciples, timid tiptoers and bumbling buffoons, finding countless reasons not to go where God invites heroes to tread? And then, just as suddenly as on that first Pentecost, we find ourselves surprised as we stand up for Jesus and wonder where we ever found the courage.

    You know from experience that whenever God does a new thing, we can get mighty uncomfortable. This newness can be as painful as breaking in a brand new pair of shoes.

    This church has found that to be the case in downtown San Diego for the past 127 years. From what I can gather from every previous pastor and every lay member who has been around for a while, challenge after challenge has tested this congregation’s very heart and soul. God has entrusted these few square blocks to our care and yet nothing has ever remained the same. Things continue to change almost every day. We have been plagued by bars and tattoo parlors and houses of prostitution in the past; we have sadly watched neighboring churches leave us for other places and, a bit bewildered and lonely, we have wondered whether we should follow suit.

    We face similar challenges today. How do we engage in authentic ministry with the many young adults and people of means moving downtown—quite a few of us, by the way—while also caring for the blessed poor whom God has entrusted to our care? How to be Spirit led here at 3rd and Ash for all God’s people—that is the question.

    The Pentecost answer is a simple one though quite scary if we believe the church has to do more than business as usual. The church that wants to be Spirit led is called to stretch out its hands to the sky and pray something that sounds almost like it could be a Rolling Stones’ song, those boys from Britain who will be playing later today just a few blocks from here. How can we do rousing ministry that sets people on their heads as Sir Mick, craggedy ol’ Keith, youngster Ronnie Woods turning 68 this week, and 74 year old AARP poster child drummer Charlie Watts do? Can we be as compelling with our own song, relying on the power of God, singing and shouting, “Come Holy Spirit, Come?”

    When we pray this short yet explosive prayer, we never quite know what will happen. My favorite explanation of what might occur when we pray for the Spirit to land on us comes from writer Annie Dillard: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

    Said another way, when we pray, “Come Holy Spirit, come,” the Spirit can be as much a discomforter as a comforter. The Spirit is always nudging us to speak of the Lord’s goodness in ways that people can understand: that’s exactly what happened on that first Pentecost as the disciples miraculously spoke in languages that every nationality could understand and that’s exactly what happens in this place in these days if we rely on the Spirit’s power.

    A number of months ago one of you asked about possibly changing the version of the Lord’s Prayer we use at worship on Sunday morning. (We have been using this more contemporary version on Wednesday evenings in Lent for at least ten years now.) This updated version of the Lord’s Prayer has appeared in our last two Lutheran hymnals, dating back thirty-seven years to 1978. The so-called “contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer” is considered the most faithful translation of the New Testament’s original language; it was done by the church’s finest biblical and linguistic scholars. At our council meeting on Tuesday evening, a number of people spoke of using this version in previous congregations. This updated version of the Lord’s Prayer uses words we commonly use among ourselves. We pray “your name” instead of “thy name”— does anyone here say “thy” much; “forgive our sins” rather than “our trespasses”—do you ever speak of trespasses; and “save us from the time of trial” rather than “lead us not into temptation”—does anyone really believe God goes about tempting us to sin—I always thought that was Satan’s job!

    Some of us might find changing the words to the Lord’s Prayer scarier than a mighty wind and scorching flames—after all, many of us have prayed the King James Version our entire lives. King James English, even originally, was the language of the aristocracy, a highfalutin language over the heads of the common folks. For others, you will breathe a sigh of relief as we use words that you and your children understand and use every day. As I said, the Spirit can be a comforter and discomforter all at once. The most important question is: which translation allows us, most clearly, to proclaim and know God’s love? That is, of course, the Pentecost question and challenge!

    Our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton in this month’s The Lutheran writes: “We are not called to be the church of the past nor the church of some distant future, but to be the church right now. For whatever reason, we are the ones God is using at this time, in this messiness.”

    We are not running an ancient museum here. We are not pretending to be worshiping in 1517 Wittenberg or 1850 Victorian England. What we do here is announce God’s love today, May 24, 2015, in a manner that people will comprehend. This is the only time you and I have to be the church—not yesterday, not tomorrow, but today. As God has done in this church for 127 years, yet again, God invites us to speak courageously and creatively in ways that touch this community with the grace and power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.

    We, the comforted and discomforted alike, dare to pray, “Come Holy Spirit, come.”

    A blessed Pentecost to you!

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    May 17, 2015
    Seventh Sunday of Easter; Ascension of Our Lord (transferred)
    Acts 1: 1-11; Luke 24: 44-53
    "Saying Goodbye"

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    Do you have a tradition of saying goodbye with those you love?

    I asked one of you on Thursday, “How does your family say goodbye?” You told me your family has an extreme ritual. Everyone goes out onto the driveway; you kiss and hug each other, telling one another how much you love them and what a joy it has been to be together; when they get into the car and go out the driveway, you follow them onto the street, waving; your loved ones waves back, with arms stuck out the window, gesturing madly for as far as you can see each other; they wildly honk their horn for a quarter mile and everyone who passes thinks you are all nuts…How we say goodbye to one another is very important.

    Today, we hear of how Jesus says goodbye as he ascends into heaven. The Ascension of Our Lord is an important festival in the church year and yet, since it always falls on a Thursday, exactly forty days after Jesus rose from the dead (remember those forty days—Noah and his family on the high seas for forty stormy days and nights; the Israelites in the wilderness, actually not forty days but forty years; Elijah traveling to the mountain for forty days and forty nights; and Jesus in the wilderness for forty days)….Over and over we hear of forty days when God’s people behold the power of God in ways that, to most people, are invisible and mysterious. Today we do what is called “transferring the feast,” having Ascension three days after what should actually have fallen on Thursday.

    Ascension, whether on the actual day or three days later, is an odd sort of feast. We, like the disciples two thousand years before us, stand agog, staring into heaven. Heaven—what is it like; where exactly is it? how does Jesus go up into heaven? Is it any wonder we stand staring into the sky? Even though we confess Sunday after Sunday, “and he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father,” we are a bit befuddled.

    All this business about heaven….really? It seems so old fashioned, so medieval, so passé. We are moderns after all, progressive folks. The truth is, though, all of us, no matter how sophisticated we may think we are, catch ourselves, just like the disciples, staring up into heaven, wondering what will happen to us and those we love when we die: will we ascend into heaven? Said another way: how will we say goodbye?

    When my father was dying, his time did not come quickly. He hung on for a number of months and was under hospice care. Mom and Dad lived 400 miles from us at the time. On some Sundays, after church was over, I would drive from Philadelphia to Wheeling, West Virginia, for a few days. On other Sundays, following worship, when I thought Dad might about to be breathing his last, I would take a plane to the Pittsburgh Airport and rent a car. While I was not with my father when he finally bid adieu to this earth and when he entrusted himself into the arms of our heavenly Father, whenever I left his bed at my parents’ home or his hospital room at the Ohio Valley General Hospital, a gorgeous dance occurred between us, realizing this goodbye might be the final one this side of the kingdom come. We knew every departure—and we had sensed this since I was a little kid—might be the final one.

    Deep down, don’t we all sense any goodbye might be the final one? Throughout our lives, don’t we honk horns, wave madly, kiss and hug, and say fanciful words of endearment for, as we all know, these might be our final words and final blessings to one another?

    Jesus knew this. He had been with his disciples forty days after his resurrection, but this final time, at Bethany, before he was swept into heaven, he lifted his hands and blessed them.

    Jesus knew his disciples would need to remain on earth so he said to them, “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

    Here we are. We, too, are told by Jesus to stay in the city, yes, this city, San Diego. For 127 years now, we have gathered here and longed for the power of the Spirit to descend upon us from on high. We have not left here, fleeing to greener pastures. We have stayed right here in the city praying for the Spirit’s power so that we might send blessings in Jesus’ name upon all who come by here at Third and Ash.

    Our ministry here and in the many places we live our lives is an elaborate dance of blessing, saying goodbye to one another, well, every time we leave. Whenever we walk away from another person, whether here this morning, in a hospital room, or dropping off a child at kindergarten or college on the first day, whether we leave angry or sad, elated or in despair, Jesus calls us always to be mindful this goodbye might be our final one.

    And so, we pray that we will never forget Jesus’ blessing upon us, how he touches us and tells us to remain here in the city. With that blessing, we become a community. We stay right here, telling others that Jesus will come again and be with us forever. Until then, we are the goodbye community on behalf of Jesus, assuring those we love and those we serve…Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    May 10, 2015
    Sixth Sunday of Easter
    "Happy Mother's Day"

    John 15:9-17
    As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    This Mother’s Day does not get off to a particularly good start if we forget to give thanks for our mothers who have poured out their love on us. Also, how tragic not to give thanks to God for another mother, Mother Earth.

    One of the most astonishing artists of our own California landscape is black and white photographer Ansel Adams. He once said, “I believe the world is incomprehensibly beautiful—an endless prospect of magic and wonder.”

    You and I know of that magic and wonder. Imagine what a tragedy if our grandchildren cannot one day splash in mud puddles. Haven’t you prayed for rain in recent days? And, on Friday morning, weren’t you enthralled as you awoke to the pitter-patter of rain serenading you outside your bedroom window? The writer John Updike says, “Rain is grace” and while he didn’t say it, rain is most certainly grace in southern California.

    The psalmists says it this way, “For God has done marvelous things…Let the sea roar and all that fills it…Let the floods clap their hands.” We know what joyful music the roaring surf and screeching parrots, the rushing wind and singing porpoise make. What if these sounds disappear from creation’s choir because of our extravagant appetites and reckless habits?

    I have felt a bit tense lately when I think of the environment. I have not been particularly heavily involved in the “green movement”—we don’t own a hybrid or electric car, we have no solar panels; in fact, we have a swimming pools which gulps water voraciously—and so I don’t for a second want to sound the self-righteous one with all the answers. But, nevertheless, I am worried about the creation God has entrusted to our care.

    The LA Times noted on Wednesday of the San Bernardino National Forest, “Instead of the typical deep green color, large swaths of pine trees now don hues of death, their dehydrated needles turning brown and burnt-red because of the state’s worsening drought.” Estimates suggest that 12.5 million trees in California’s national forests have already been killed off because of the current drought.

    Obviously, there have been droughts down through history and there certainly is no consensus as to whether droughts are caused by global warming. Nevertheless, 2013 was the driest year in 119 years of record keeping in California. Global warming or not, we are short on water that nourishes Mother Earth and our San Diego neighborhood is one of the worst when it comes to using water not intended for us.

    When I was a pastor in inner-city Philadelphia, one of the great games played by teenagers was busting on another person’s mother. It started out rather innocuously: “Your momma’s feet are so big she wears aircraft carriers” or “Your momma is so dumb, she runs out and checks her mail box every time AOL tells her, ‘You’ve got mail!’” This all caused laughter and one-upmanship. But you learned quickly how far you could go before fists began to fly. If you said something like, “Your momma is so stupid she got locked in a supermarket and died of starvation,” you were venturing on dangerous territory. When you called a guy’s mother fat or ugly, things could get nasty fast: kids wanted to protect their mother at all costs because, of course, their mothers had protected them.

    I wonder if there is anything that makes us so angry that we will stand up and fight for our dear Mother Earth.

    Our habits are so entrenched that we feel foolish trying to make a difference. It all seems pretty overwhelming. There are, however, ways each of us can defend what God has entrusted to our care—little things like taking shorter showers—long showers are one of the culprits. One of you told me you place a bucket in the shower to catch the runoff and use it to water your garden. Another of you told me, when you wash your hair in the shower, you lather up and then turn off the water until it is time to rinse. Little things, simple things, but why not defend dear Mother Earth. Another takes a sponge bath from the sink every other day.

    We are trying to defend Mother Earth here at First. We have started to conserve in the past month. I must confess this all started because we wanted to save money; if we didn’t curb our use of electric and gas, our bills would move into a different category and double. In the month of April we used 20% less energy than in previous months. We have been turning out lights in rooms not being used—it is dark sometimes when you walk through but who cares if it is protecting what God has created. Thanks to our property committee and Dick Krueger, we have replaced almost every light in our building the past few weeks with much more energy efficient bulbs—oh, and mostly free, thanks to SDGE. And we have exercised greater caution with our AC usage—have you noticed?

    Interestingly, standing up for Mother Earth comes with costs. One of the best known experts on what makes churches grow said in the 1970s that churches had to have air-conditioning if they wanted to grow. I hate to admit it but I think he is right. We live in a culture that expects perfect climate—we San Diegans know that best. What if it got a bit warmer on Sunday morning, what might you do: would you say, I am not going to church today, it will be too hot, or would you give thanks for protecting Mother Earth? What if we left some stuff out of the bulletins and used less paper, would you complain or praise creation?

    “Dance and blow the trumpets….shout to God….Sing….Sing to the Lord a new song.” That is what Psalm 98 calls us to do. Are we willing to risk singing a new song to protect Mother Earth, God’s handiwork?

    Some of the most gorgeous instruments that sing a new song to the Lord are birds and they are in trouble. The New Yorker magazine notes the wondrous cacophony of birds at the endangered Salton Sea just east of San Diego. “Seabirds fish there—white and brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants. There are egrets, ibis, ducks and geese, stilts, dowitchers, and avocets; at one point, three and a half million eared grebes were counted. Yuma clapper rails, which are endangered, browse the freshwater marshes created by the farm ditches and canals.” Are we willing to change our habits to protect these birds which, in their own beautiful way, proclaim God’s wondrous creative power?

    Our God can do marvelous things. By God’s grace, we can use the human ingenuity with which God has blessed us and we can love the planet more if we even begin to take baby steps.

    Satan loves to convince us that our baby steps make no difference. God, though, calls each of us to sing a new song, to do things differently, baby steps or not.

    This wondrous God raised Jesus from the dead. Dare we believe that by the grace of this mighty God can use us to protect Mother Earth?

    In praise of the one who does amazing things, let us stand and proclaim that amazing new song…

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    May 9, 2015
    Memorial Service for Dorothy Magdich

    The apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit…each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

    On the occasion of the death of Saint Dorothy Magdich, it is a good thing to seek precision on what her gifts were in the name of the Lord.

    I asked Dorothy’s daughter, Barbara Jeanne, what she would say if she were preaching this afternoon. With careful thought and a deep breath, she said—and she gave me permission to say this so don’t worry, “I think you know Mom was stubborn.” Did anyone else here know that about Saint Dorothy?

    I am aware that such a description might not sound like a gift or even particularly appropriate to mention on a day like this. I looked in the dictionary to see what exactly the definition of stubborn is: “Refusing to change one's mind or course of action despite pressure to do so; unyielding or resolute; dogged or persistent.” I can almost hear Dorothy saying, “Pastor, what in the world are you talking about?”

    But stubborn can also be defined as “stick-to-itiveness.” It can be a positive virtue that is resolute in its commitments to something greater than oneself. A person can stubbornly love you and that, by the way, is what Dorothy felt toward her daughter Barbara Jeanne and her son-in-law Gene; it is what she felt for her dear husband Emil and their son Barry Jacob; it is what she felt toward her family and her sister Bubby who is here today from Victorville with her husband Bruce. Dorothy also had a resolute love for her church First Lutheran and for Bethesda Lutheran, on 25th Street, which closed its doors in 1965.

    Whenever I brought Holy Communion to Dorothy, the conversations were guaranteed to be robust. As soon as I sat down, she was ready: “Pastor, I am not sure I agree with this business of communing little children” or “Pastor, can you explain to me our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s decision regarding gay and lesbian people?” She was never wishy-washy. She had her reasons, perhaps formed in confirmation class long ago in Minnesota or arrived at through years as a faithful church member. Though she had an opinion on almost every matter, never did that mean she was close-minded. Once she stated her case or asked her question, she listened intently. Our conversations, like conversations I am sure you and Dorothy had, were fruitful ones, ones which invited both people to listen carefully, to pray profoundly, and, yes, to seek the will of God in every matter.

    As saints do, Dorothy understood there were matters worth fighting for. I don’t mean dirty or selfish fighting. I mean fighting that believes certain things matter. In our first reading today, Paul writes: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Dorothy asked that these words be read today. They were, for her, far more than sweet words to be hung on the dining room wall. They were words to be clung to in the valley of the shadow of death. They were words of hope for you who, she knew, would be here today entrusting her into the arms of God. Does it surprise you she was so resolute about these words? Don’t you think there is saintly virtue in standing up for the promise of eternal life for yourself and those you love?

    And, Saint Dorothy cared steadfastly for God’s blessed poor. You can imagine her shaking her fist and proclaiming Martin Luther King’s words, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” In places like Metro United Methodist Urban Ministry, Uptown ministries, and here at TACO and Bread Day, Dorothy was a champion of those down on their luck. We have discovered here that those who often get the most done for God’s blessed poor are those who doggedly refuse to take no for an answer and are rarely satisfied with the answer, “We can’t do that because….” You can see Dorothy cock her head and ask, “Well, why can’t we do that?” She was not embarrassed to take a stand for the suffering. As the poem she loved by Ralph Waldo Emerson says: “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

    Paul Moorman testified to Dorothy making him breathe easier. Paul was central to our feeding program here for quite a few years. Soon after Dorothy died, Paul wrote to say how Dorothy and Emil raised him up from desperation, smoothed off his rough edges, and treated him like family.

    In the traditional worship service for the burial of the dead, there is a part called In Paradisum. I would ask you to bow your heads now and listen as we say them on Dorothy’s behalf:

    "May the angels lead you into paradise;
    may the martyrs come to welcome you and take you to the holy city,
    the new and eternal Jerusalem.
    May choirs of angels welcome you and lead you to the bosom of Abraham;
    and where Lazarus is poor no longer may you find eternal rest."

    Our vision this day is that when Dorothy arrives in heaven, there will be a choir of angels singing. She will join Lazarus who is poor no more and who thanks her for serving and standing up for people just like him. And, lest we forget, the martyrs will take Dorothy’s hand and lead her into the heavenly city—these martyrs, by the way, were much like Dorothy: they believed that there are matters in life worth fighting for, actually worth dying for.

    Dorothy anticipated this day; she planned the service with Jared. She made certain that we would read certain lessons, sing particular hymns, and use the church’s funeral liturgy. She wanted you to know, you whom she loved so much and you who loved her, that as psalmist said, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

    We stand here together today, with the family and friends she loved, in the church she adored, and we give thanks for her committed life and we say of her, “Well done, Saint Dorothy, good and faithful servant.”

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    May 7, 2015
    at Miramar National Cemetery
    San Diego, California
    Funeral Homily for Jerry Kuck

    Matthew 6: 25-33
    Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

    Did you hear those words? “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them...Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

    Your husband and father, grandfather and friend, knew a thing or two about birds and flowers…or, should I say, more properly, canaries and irises? He watched the canaries closely, caring for hundreds of them…The irises—I have never seen anything like your front lawn!

    Jerry was usually the first to arrive at church on Sunday morning. He went straight into the sanctuary and began to read his Bible. I have no idea what he read, but I imagine he was giving prayerful thought to how God cared for the birds and flowers….and him and you, too. Jesus said, “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown in the oven, will he not much more clothe you-you of little faith.”

    I don’t need to tell you death came like a thief in the night for Jerry. When the surgeon told you he maybe had a month at most to live—and it ended up being a matter of only days—those final days could have been terrible. But, from my perspective, watching you, those days were rich and wondrous ones for you and for him.

    There were tears, of course, as there well should be when the one you love dies, but there was also laughter and there were memories.

    As you look at Jerry’s picture on the bulletin, honestly, was there anyone quite as friendly? Those who gathered at Christy’s Donuts every day thought he owned the place—he was so gregarious and friendly! He was not there so much to eat donuts and drink coffee as to enjoy the camaraderie of friends and strangers…to talk! You in the Iris Society: what will you ever do without your membership chairman extraordinaire? And at our church First Lutheran, we will miss Jerry’s smiling face and his kind words as he brought donuts for the homeless on Friday morning and stuffed our Sunday bulletins.

    How could he be so humble, so kind, so gentle? My hunch: he knew canaries and irises. He had spent a lifetime watching God protect such simple things and, if God tended to the irises and the canaries, then God would certainly tend to Jerry. The words must have rung in his ears on those final days, Jesus words: “Therefore do not worry…but strive first for the kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

    I can hear Jerry now, as he looks at you with a twinkle in his eye and the ever-present sweet smile, saying to you (Kim and Kim and Michelle and your families and all of you, his dear friends), “Do not worry….If God watches over the birds of the air and the flowers, God will certainly watch over me and you.”

    Jerry Kuck was a very good man. Now entrust him to God; open your hands and let him fly, like a bird, into God’s arms forever.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    May 3, 2015
    Fifth Sunday of Easter
    "Something There Is that Does Not Love a Wall"

    Acts 8:26-40
    Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    The Five Man Electrical Band was a one hit wonder rock and roll band. Their song “Signs” reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 list in 1971. Listen to a few words:

    Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
    Blockin’out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
    Do this, don't do that, can’t you read the sign?

    We have all seen the signs: “Warning: This property is patrolled by attack dogs: Keep out”…“Private property: If you can read this you are within range.” Some signs are classier but reek even more of exclusivity: “Pheasant Run Country Club: Members Only”…“Meadow Estates: Residents and Guests only.” Classy or not, we catch the drift.

    The church gets in on the act, too. Here at First whenever urination and defecation, beer cans and vodka bottles, begin to drive us batty, we are tempted to erect a sign, not a crude sign with guns and attack dogs, maybe a more tasteful one in the form of an architecturally appealing wrought iron fence. This fence might allow us to close up securely at night, keeping out skateboarders, drinkers, and druggies, and letting us sleep in heavenly peace.

    Robert Frost said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” And yet, lest we forget, he started his poem this way, “Something there is that does not love a wall.”

    In this morning’s first reading, we heard of the Ethiopian eunuch who was kept out by a wall. Being from Ethiopia in those days was akin to our saying “She’s from Timbuktu” or “He’s from Mars.” Not only was he from as far away as far away could be, he was not one of God’s chosen ones…and there was that other pesky matter of being a eunuch.

    When we hear about the eunuch returning home to Ethiopia after trying to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, we can be pretty certain he ran into a sign blocking his entrance. The Temple’s sign was certainly a holy one and yet I don’t need to tell you that so-called holy signs are often the worst ones when it comes to shutting people out.

    Imagine the excitement the Ethiopian eunuch must have felt as he arrived at the Temple doors the very first time after a long trip from Ethiopia and imagine his profound disappointment as the usher blocked his entrance and said, “We would love to let you in but the fifth book in our sacred scripture, Deuteronomy, states clearly, ‘He whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the assembly of the LORD.’”

    Have you ever been barred entrance by a “Keep Out” sign? Have you been let go from a job because you were too old? Have you waited tearfully for a party invitation that all your friends received and yours never came? Have you actually gotten in the church door only to have the preacher lambast you with sacred scripture: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them” (this, by the way, from the biblical book of Leviticus, only two books before the one the eunuch heard). It all reeks of exclusivity and arrogance, of guards at the gate saying kindly yet forcefully, “Sorry, no further.”

    What is so remarkable about this morning’s reading from Acts is that Philip ran after the ostracized Ethiopian eunuch after he had been refused entrance at the Temple. Philip didn’t hide behind the Bible to keep the eunuch out forever. He caught him and engaged with him in a Bible study about the prophet Isaiah and, lo and behold, he baptized the eunuch and welcomed him into the family of God.

    Should Philip have conformed to Deuteronomy’s sacred regulations, refusing to let the eunuch enter the church? So often, Christians are content to do just that, hiding behind a few biblical words that shout “keep out” all the while claiming to honor the pure word of God. Sometimes it sounds more sophisticated with a sign on the front of the church that says “We preach the pure and true word of God”—such a sign is almost always a slap down of some other tradition judged not to be preaching the pure and true word of God!

    When Philip baptized the eunuch, his Bible suddenly expanded far beyond a few convenient verses in Deuteronomy. The arch of Philip’s Bible and ours, even two thousand years later, opened up in spectacular and tantalizing new ways. Philip demonstrated a willingness to err on the side of mercy, not out of a flippant disregard for God’s word, but rather out of a deep yearning to love a brother just as Jesus had loved him when he became a sheep led to the slaughter.

    I have the privilege of leading new members’ classes here at First; we have had quite a few lately. It is a joy to hear many of you tell why you are joining this congregation. You mention our vibrant worship, that we have been a Reconciling in Christ congregation for twenty-six years welcoming the LGBT community, and how we haved cared for God’s blessed poor for forty years now. Some of you mention the diversity of this place.

    Last Saturday morning at a TACO training event, Pastor Bill Radatz asked participants to think of what particular value we would like etched on our tombstone. I chose “cherishing diversity” even though I am not always capable of achieving this because of my own faults. As I listen to you, I sense you cherish a similar value for this congregation. With God guiding us, we do our best to tear down any wall and rip down any sign that might keep our brothers or sisters out. With God leading us, we refuse to hide behind any single biblical verse that might exclude someone from tasting God’s love in this place.

    You and I are called to be like Philip. We are called to proclaim that Jesus was killed because he erred on the side of mercy. We also are called to proclaim that God raised Jesus from the dead because he dared to love all kinds of unlovable folks just like you and me.

    The best communities are not the perfect ones—there is no such thing as a perfect community, by the way. The best communities beg for forgiveness over and over again when they notice they have hung an exclusive sign in their midst, known or unbeknownst to them, and they do their best to change their age-old restrictive and elitist habits. The finest communities engage endlessly in dialog, listening to one another and struggling to keep doors wide open so all who wish might dine at the Lord’s Table.

    If God has welcomed us here this morning, whatever makes us think we should put up a wall? Perhaps the best we can do is erect a sign on our little patch here at 3rd and Ash that says, “All our welcome in this place.”

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    April 26, 2015
    Fourth Sunday of Easter-Good Shepherd Sunday
    "The Good Shepherd"

    John 10:11-18
    “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    A few weeks ago, Dagmar and I went hiking in one of our favorite California spots, Palm Canyon Trail in Borrego Springs. To our delight, just as we began our hike, quite a few people on their return leg said, “Keep you eyes open for the bighorn sheep.” And keep our eyes open we did. We soon came upon a spectacular flock of sheep, including the head honcho himself, standing on a rock with his majestic curlicue horns. As he grandly stood on that rock, all the other sheep—babies and mommies and, I assume, aunts and cousins—merrily and obliviously grazed behind him, feeding on grasses and two little ones fed on mommy. The head honcho didn’t eat a thing. He stood guard, protecting his family.

    I know nothing about the habits of bighorn sheep. What I suspect, though, is the head honcho was prepared to sacrifice himself if a mountain lion, coyote, or a few giddy San Diego hikers came too close.

    On this day, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday as we always do on this day. We worship Jesus Christ our Savior who watches over us and has sacrificed his life to protect each of us.

    When we experience the wonder of our Shepherd’s sacrificial love, we might be compelled to try to protect others with a similar love, doing our best to stand in for the Good Shepherd. We know how it feels to be a loner and outsider and then have the Good Shepherd risk everything to save us.

    This past Wednesday morning, the Lutheran pastors of San Diego gathered for worship and fellowship as we do every week. We welcomed an Imam from the Islamic community. He came in late and sat behind all the other pastors during worship. I pondered throughout the entire sermon (I was not preaching!) whether I should invite him to join our circle where we would soon receive the body and blood of Christ. Would he, a Muslim, be offended by such a gesture? Was such a thought naïvely ignorant and even rude on my part? Would my fellow clergy feel I was committing a theological faux pas by inviting him to join us baptized Christians for Holy Communion? Honestly, throughout the entire sermon, I wondered what the Good Shepherd would do.

    What would you have done?

    And then I hearkened back to wise words from a former bishop of mine. I once asked him whether it was appropriate to visit the home of someone who almost certainly would not be too thrilled to see me at the door. He said, “Wilk, you never have to apologize when you come bearing the love of the Good Shepherd.” I have not forgotten good Bishop Jansen’s pastoral words.

    Have you ever wondered whether you should invite someone to church? Simple, I know, but for many, scary.

    Churches spend inordinate amounts of time doing sophisticated studies, engaging in brainstorming, and having weekend retreats, all with the purpose of trying to get more people to come to church. Surveys indicate the primary reason people join churches is not because of the preaching, the music, or even the outreach. The chief reason they join is because someone like you acted as a bighorn sheep and told them they knew a place where they would be welcome, safe, and loved, a place many of us have found right here. Have you invited anyone to church lately? I think you would agree that this is a place worth inviting people to! Was Bishop Jansen correct when he said, “You never have to apologize when you come bearing the love of the Good Shepherd?”

    In today’s second reading, we hear this said of Jesus: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” John goes on, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

    Honestly, what risk is it for us to invite someone to church? The miniscule risk hardly compares to what our Ethiopian Christian brothers and sisters are facing these days in order to proclaim the Risen Savior. What risk is it simply to call someone on the phone and say, “I haven’t seen you at church in ages. We miss you on Sunday morning. Are you okay?”— not nearly as risky as the head honcho bighorn sheep protecting his flock or Jesus protecting us.

    I am currently reading “H Is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald. It is a stunning memoir about the author’s profound grief following her father’s death and how she takes up the ancient art of falconry to see her through. As she trains her young goshawk and remembers her dear father, she recalls the time he was walking through a park in London and caught sight of an amazing wintry evening sky. He saw a small boy playing by the frozen boating lake and said to him, “Look up, look at that. Remember you saw that. You’ll never see it again.” The author notes “how the world is full of signs and wonders that come, and go, and if you are lucky you might see them. Once, twice. Perhaps never again.”

    Think of what we see and hear in this place. If we are attentive, we might just hear God speaking to us and taste the meal of the Good Shepherd. We watch for other people, too, welcoming outcasts, comforting the grieving, caring for the lonely, pointing everyone to the breathtaking sight of the Risen Savior. How can we not go tell others, “Look up, look at that. Remember you saw that.”

    So, would you have invited the Imam forward to Holy Communion or not?

    If we go the steep precipice where a little lamb shudders for her very life, don’t you have a hunch that the Good Shepherd would have risked the other ninety-nine little lambies for the sake of the one that shuddered for her life? I think we know the answer.

    “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    April 12, 2015
    Second Sunday of Easter
    "Utter Graciousness"

    John 20:19-31
    When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    Are you mesmerized by this morning’s bulletin cover? The painting, “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas,” was done by the Italian artist Caravaggio in the early 1600s. What draws me in is the utter graciousness the Risen Christ shows as he lovingly guides Thomas to place his finger in his pierced side.

    We just heard Thomas say, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Jesus does not ridicule Thomas for this remark; rather he draws Thomas closer and closer to his side.

    I am also drawn in by the disciples’ apparent concern for their brother Thomas. Never do they call him “Doubting Thomas” as so many have down through the centuries. Never do they scold him for demanding to see the nail marks in Jesus’ hands and to place his hand in Jesus’ pierced side before he will believe.

    Note well, however: never does Jesus or one of the disciples praise Thomas for his questions. That is not the point. This text is not a celebration of doubt. The emphasis, rather, is on the longing of the resurrection community to bring one another to believe the astonishing news that Christ was raised from the tomb on Easter morning.

    There are all kinds of believers and all kinds of doubters. Some believers have little tolerance for questioners. Rather than seeking how to bring these folks to the center of the community, they can be so arrogant, rudely shoving away those who do not have all the answers. On the other hand, unbelievers and questioners can demonstrate a similar arrogance as they endeavor to strip away the church’s centuries old rich traditions and demand that others frolic with them in pastures of blissful uncertainty.

    What impresses me in John’s post resurrection account is the utter graciousness Jesus, the disciples, and Thomas demonstrate to one another. Believers invite questioners deeper and questioners do not ridicule others for their beliefs.

    Has it ever struck you how some church people revel in negatively critiquing others? I have heard people say: “Our church is so busy. We have meetings almost every night.” And then this, “And we have all those extra meetings in the parking lot, over the telephone, and at people’s homes.” The busyness, of course, centers on conflict, people confusing ministry with backbiting and criticism of others. I have heard more than one report of council meetings where people have literally climbed over tables to physically assault other members; I actually heard of a council meeting where members were forbidden to bring their guns to the table; sadly, I have participated in council meetings where some have delighted in being the self-appointed “devil’s advocate,” constantly questioning those who are doing the hard work of ministry. This cannot possibly be what the psalmist had in mind when saying, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” or what our Risen Savior was thinking when he entered that room and said, “Peace be with you.”

    I must tell you I am extremely grateful that there is so precious little wrangling here at First Lutheran Church. Of course, we do not all agree on every matter—how could we given the nature of our ministry? What we do not seem to do, however, God willing, is measure our ministry by sophomoric quibbling and perpetual bickering. Time is too short for such nonsense concocted in the devil’s workshop. I pray, and I know you do, too, that we have more serious matters to attend to here at 3rd and Ash. Our calling is much more urgent.

    Today’s Psalm133 is one of the shortest of the 150 Psalms. You might have been surprised how quickly it went by. Hear just a bit of it again: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity. It is like precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.” Unity is a lovely mess flowing all over the place.

    We saw such a gorgeous mess here on Maundy Thursday in Holy Week when we confessed our sins. Three pastors anointed each worshiper with oil as their sins were absolved. When we had finished our confession and absolution of sins, oil was all over my freshly washed Easter robe, running down my arms and saturating my worship book. The oily mess was a reminder of the utter recklessness of God’s grace: God forgave each of us as so abundantly that oil spilled down our foreheads and all over the place.

    The resurrection community cares for one another with a similar abundant graciousness in Jesus’ name. We saw that occur three weeks ago as twenty-five of us from First stood at the courthouse in solidarity with our African American brothers and sisters who felt that they were being treated unjustly by our justice system. We saw it as you offered $15,000 during Lent to the Oromo Christian Fellowship of San Diego, a developing Ethiopian ministry of our Pacifica Synod. We see it today as eight wonderful people are joyfully welcomed into this community as together we seek to announce the good news of the Risen Christ to this little area of San Diego God calls us to tend. We will see it a bit later as our youngest members receive their first communions and savor being included fully in this community of faith. All of this is the utter graciousness of brothers and sisters living together in unity and peace.

    We could be busy judging each others’ beliefs or the lack thereof….but that would take so much time away from proclaiming the Risen Savior.

    “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” and tell the world………Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    April 5, 2015
    Mark 16: 1-8
    "Eloquent Listeners"

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    I must apologize to you for just having read the most puzzling Easter story in the entire Bible.

    In Mark’s resurrection story, the three women came to the tomb early on Sunday morning to anoint Jesus’ body. Cemeteries can be scary places. To make matters worse, the women discovered the tomb’s entrance stone had been rolled away. Give the women credit: they entered, albeit apprehensively. And when they looked around, they saw the strangest thing: a young man was sitting there in a white robe and he said to them, “Do not be alarmed…Jesus has been raised from the dead.” What would you have done if that mysterious person had said that to you?

    Mark says the women “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them...” No lilies, no “alleluias,” not an Easter bonnet in sight. They took off running as fast as their feet would carry them. “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

    Those of you well versed in the Bible are probably going run home and take another look at Mark’s ending. You may already be Googling to prove me wrong. You don’t quite remember it ending with “and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.”

    I confess in advance, you will find eleven additional bracketed verses. Scholars believe these verses a later addition; perhaps they were early Christians’ attempt to make sense of Mark’s befuddling ending. If you wanted to create a courageous church, the last thing you would do is end your story so pathetically with women fleeing from the tomb, speechless, and afraid.

    Mark’s ending is puzzling because we live in such a wordy culture. Tweets, text messages, Facebook postings, emails—you name it and we will find a word for it. We detest silence: “At least I said something!” Any word is better than “they said nothing to any one.”

    Mark must have sensed the women’s bewilderment as they numbly gazed at the spot where Jesus had been laid. What were they supposed to say? What would you have said? The women’s language, our language, has no words to express the wonder of Easter, the astonishing news that God has spit in Satan’s face and conquered death forever. No one had ever seen a resurrection for goodness sakes. Maybe it is a good thing that Mark honors the silence.

    Tennessee Senator Howard Baker died last summer. When I heard of his death, I thought back to his gracefulness while serving on the Senate committee investigating the Watergate break-ins. You might remember those days when words were thrown around pretty haphazardly; liberals and conservatives accused each other of all manner of dastardly behavior. I fear not much has changed. When tension and confusion run high, our words can become pathetically shoddy. One of the stunning things said of Senator Baker was that he was “an eloquent listener.”

    I can hardly think of a better tribute etched on one’s tombstone: “an eloquent listener.” How many times have you come to an empty tomb and had no answers? You have felt terribly uncomfortable, inept really. One prays you have found the grace to become an eloquent listener on those occasions, listening not for your own shrill voice but for the soothing voice of God. This, after all, is the only word that matters at life’s eerie tombs.

    The story is told of the Jewish biblical scholar Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel visiting a grieving family. Rabbi Heschel went into the house, sat down for forty-five minutes, did not utter a word, and then stood up and left. You would think such a renowned man of God would have had a few choice biblical quotes to offer the family of his dear friend. Instead, he was quiet, an eloquent listener waiting for God.

    You have been to such a tomb, I’m sure. You received word that your college roommate was in the Willow Grove Hospital. This was not the first time you visited him. You parked your car and sat there for a few moments, wondering what in the world to say to him. You sheepishly entered the room and saw the once dazzling student and supremely funny guy shaking and shrunken, staring blankly into space. All you could do was hug him. Kind of like the three women, huh? Almost any word felt shabby.

    It takes courage to stand at empty tombs and to be eloquent listeners. Sometimes we feel so foolish. We long for words we wouldn’t dream of saying on our own in a million years, God’s words, words like “Alleluia! Christ has risen!”

    [Jared Jacobsen starts playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”]

    …Oh, by the way: Opening Day is tomorrow. The San Diego Padres face the detested Los Angeles Dodgers—sorry Dodger fans. Just think how many kids harbor dreams of being major league players on opening day. Jim Leyland, who coached the Detroit Tigers before retiring, once said, “No one grows up in baseball pretending that they’re pitching or hitting in Triple A.” Remember when you were ten, standing on a dirt patch and acting as if you were standing at home plate in Dodger Stadium, ready to give a hundred mile an hour fastball a ride to deep center field? Any lesser dream would have been pathetic.

    [Jared fades out “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”…]

    Our own Merv Rettenmund played in four World Series, two with the Baltimore Orioles and two with the Cincinnati Reds (aka “The Big Red Machine,” perhaps the greatest team ever fielded); Merv also coached four World Series teams, including our beloved Padres in 1998 against those no-name Yankees. Merv, please show us one of your eight rings…To my knowledge, no one else here today has ever stood at home plate in the World Series, but we have all dreamed of doing just that.

    It is so good to dream. We the people of God are called to dream, too. That’s why we are here this morning. We dream of discovering a word or two that will equip us when we arrive at those frightening tombs of life.

    Perhaps the best we can do this Easter morning is to be eloquent listeners, waiting for God to equip us with right words to make a difference, words that will hit it out of the park. When we have listened to the stunning news that Christ has been raised from the dead, we will be ready to shout “Alleluia!” This is the word that angels and saints sing in heaven for eternity. It is the word that surpasses anything we could dream of saying on our own. It celebrates what God has done and continues to do when we are speechless and yet when something must be said. It rejoices that God will bring life in those places where we are struck speechless.

    There comes a time, though, when we can no longer remain silent. There comes a time when we must dare to stand up and speak out. Our families and friends and our world desperately need well chosen words at life’s tombs, not any harebrained words but dazzling words chosen well, words with a heavenly ring to them, words that tell others that sickness, death, and injustice are never the final word.

    And so, do not give up your Easter dreaming. Sit in eloquent silence until God provides you with just the right word. When you hear that God has destroyed death and raised his son from the dead, let this amazing news sink in a bit and then take off running, swinging for the fences and telling others…

    “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    April 4, 2015
    Easter Vigil
    "The Day After and the Day Before"

    Most of you have felt the numbness the day after the funeral. It is so dreadful.

    When my father died eighteen years ago, I told my mother I would get up the morning after the funeral and help her with a few financial matters. When I awoke, my stomach was cramped and I felt like I had come down with the flu. Untold emotions were rising up, ones I had been holding in for days and weeks—perhaps years. I was in agony.

    Has this ever happened to you?

    We gather here tonight, a day after Jesus’ funeral. (Some of you from Saint Peter’s just buried your beloved member, Don Snowden, here in First’s columbarium.)

    Jesus’ body has been placed in the tomb. We know tomorrow’s story of the empty tomb, and yet it is still odd how this evening feels.

    I assume most of you here this evening are “church junkies” who have attended every Holy Week service this week. You have experienced soaring emotions, the thrill of waving palms and shouting “Hosanna” and the joy of eating a holy supper with Jesus; you have also felt your plummeting spirits as you caught yourself shouting “Crucify him” and you were no where to be found when Jesus breathed his last.

    As so often happens after someone we love has died, we feel the regrets: Why did I ever say such a nasty thing to him? Why couldn’t I at least have sent her a short note to express my concern and love? Why was I not there when she breathed her last? Has anything like that ever happened to you a day later?

    In his book, “Backpacking with the Saints,” Belden Lane writes: “If April is the cruelest month, as they say, Holy Saturday in April is the hardest day of all. Death lies just behind (still fresh) and resurrection (highly unlikely) is still far off. It’s a day of endless waiting, stretching on (it seems) to infinity. Life sucks on a Holy Saturday in April.”

    That may be too raw of a way of saying it on this holy night, but we get the point: “Like sucks on Holy Saturday in April.”

    Usually, when life is that dismal, that wearisome, we human beings dig deep and begin to tell exquisite stories to one another. This story-telling must be the chief characteristic that distinguishes us from our creaturely brothers and sisters like poodles and porcupines, sea lions and salamanders, peacocks and Persian kitties.

    The day after the funeral when the days ahead appear endless, we gather around kitchen tables, living room fireplaces, and patio fire-pits. As it gets darker and darker, we play with our sticks in the fire and watch the embers turn red; we are mesmerized by the sparks soaring toward heaven. It is so quiet. And then, by the grace of God, someone recalls a story and musters the courage to say, “Do you remember the time?”

    That’s what we do tonight, when death lies just behind us and resurrection still awaits. We tell stories to one another, not any stories, of course, but stories that will see us through until Easter morning, stories of God’s love…Do you remember the time….

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    April 3, 2015
    Good Friday
    "As the Darkness Settles"

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

    In the waning hours of this Friday evening, we have heard the tragic news by now: our savior has been brutally executed and buried.

    The sun, God’s son, has set, and darkness shrouds the land. As the shadows lengthen and the darkness settles, even after so many years, dreary emptiness, bitter sadness, and profound quietness blanket the land.

    In planning this liturgy, one aspect we have often discussed is the darkness—should there be at least some light or should we let the darkness grow as evening falls? Should the print be extra big so you can read the words or should we place no bulletins in your hands so you do not feel compelled to follow along at the appropriate times?

    There are no easy answers. We could keep the lights on full blast and you could read every word. We could put the hymns in 36 point font and you could read the words to every hymn until the final candle is extinguished.

    We have decided there is a different way. The darkness makes some of us feel helpless, out of control. Even though we are familiar with the gracious confines of this sanctuary and feel in safe hands with the company we keep, there is, nevertheless, some irritation. We can’t read the words all that well and the hymns we think we should have memorized over the years do not come as easily as we would wish. We feel helpless. We are as dependent on God as was Jesus when he breathed his last, this day, so long ago.

    We have no answers. Our Lord has been crucified. Just about any answer to “Why did Jesus have to die?” feels absurd and hackneyed. We must simply sit in the darkness and wait for God to come to our rescue.

    In each of our lives, a time will certainly come—if it has not already—when we will have no answer and we will simply have to sit in the darkness, waiting on the Lord and praying for God to deliver us from whatever little or large deaths confront us. As God did for his dear son Jesus, our beloved brother, we pray that he one day will do for us as well.

    And so we sit in the darkness and we wait, trusting that God will come to us and provide for us and for those we love.

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

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    April 2, 2015
    Maundy Thursday
    "The Table Open to All"

    You have noticed that our table this evening is more central than usual. It is in the middle of the sanctuary and we are gathered around it. It is not elevated, not even two little steps higher than us. It is not separate from us, keeping us the unclean ones away from holy things. Tonight, holy things are brought right into our midst.

    When I was growing up, we ate most holiday meals at Grandma Miller’s house. At those special meals, there was the stately dining room table, the “grown up table” as we called it. I don’t remember for certain but I imagine eight to ten people—adults—sat around that table—Grandma at one end, Uncle Frank at the other, my mom and dad and aunts and uncles around it.

    No kids sat at that table. We sat at card tables at the edge of the dining room, out into the hallway or even in the kitchen. We little ones longed for that day when we would be ushered to the big table but, we sensed deep down there is a season for everything and the season for sitting at the grown up table had not yet arrived.

    I imagine you had similar table traditions in your family.

    Who sits at the table tells volumes about what you need to know about a community. Look around and see who is here tonight. Perhaps more pointedly, look around and see who is not here.

    There are some Christian traditions, as you know, that have rigid eating traditions, inviting some forward and not permitting others to receive the body and blood of Christ. These restrictions are meant to maintain the holiness of the table, making certain that all who eat and drink know exactly what they are doing and have even confessed their sins in advance before receiving these most holy things.

    We have a bit different eating tradition here at First Lutheran, to the delight of many and, I imagine, to the consternation of some. We welcome all, member or not, Lutheran or not. We say, “All are welcome here to receive the body and blood of Jesus. This is the Lord’s table to which all are invited.”

    If any meal instructs how we try to do things here at First, Jesus’ last supper, observed on this evening, is one we dare not forget. The disciples were all there. They had harbored such high hopes in the past. They had walked with Jesus and seen him do all manner of miracles and perform countless healings. These were the same ones who would commit future mistakes….and soon. Judas was there, he who would betray Jesus for a little cash. Peter was there, he who would in hours say he never knew Jesus. The other ten were there, too; they were much beloved by Jesus and yet they would finally desert him and leave him all alone on the cross. That night, the night before Jesus died, they would ask, “Is it I, Lord;” all twelve would wait with baited breath. We know the answer to “Is It I, Lord?” It was “yes” for them and it is “yes” for us, too.

    What is remarkable is the intimacy the disciples experienced that night with Jesus, a similar intimacy we experience tonight. “Take and eat, this is my body given for you.” No matter what we will do or what we have done, we are all here tonight, at the grown up table. Everything that is about to occur—the forgiveness of sins, the washing of feet, the eating of the bread and wine—all of this is Jesus’ way of welcoming those of us who have no business here to sit around the table with him.

    How good, Lord, to be here.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    Palm Sunday/Passion of Our Lord
    March 29, 2015
    Mark 14: 1- 15: 47
    "What Wondrous Love"

    In past years on this Palm Sunday and Passion of Our Lord, we have had two people read the entire passion narrative. Most of us have sat by, not idly I hope, but listening intently. This year, we are all getting in on the act; we all have a part to play in this morning’s reading.

    As I prepared for this morning, I faced a vexing problem: who to choose to read what parts? With the exception of Jesus, the narrator, and the centurion with one tiny line, almost all the other parts are particularly unflattering and even inflammatory to the reader. Imagine how dicey it was for me, a person’s pastor, to ask, “Would you be willing to be Pilate, only for a day of course?’ “How would you like to be Judas—please don’t take it personally?” Is there a kind way to say, “You will make a terrific Peter as he betrays Jesus.” How to say nicely, “I think you will make a fabulous high priest." I trembled when I approached our readers: might they lash out at me for asking them to read a particularly ugly part?

    Most of you were not asked to be one of these bumbling traitors, cowardly liars, or insufferable wretches, but don’t breathe too easily. Your part is coming soon. I have a hunch you might say, under your breath but crankily nonetheless, “Who does he think I am? Why is he having me say, “Crucify him!” I would not say such offensive and vitriolic words in a million years! Never!”


    Mark’s passion account does not paint a rosy picture of almost anybody, including us. We all end up cast in an unflattering light. Of course, we loved shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” as we gathered on the patio before processing into the sanctuary this morning. We loved waving our palm branches and lustily singing, “All glory, laud and honor.” But, frankly, we are an erratic lot. There are amazing occasions when we wonder where our courage came from, where we ever got the audacity to stand up against evil; and yet there are far too many times when we disgust ourselves with our pathetic lack of nerve and our feeble attempts to champion what is good and right. Why is it that we get all weak kneed and then are left wondering what ever happened to us? We don’t remain heroes for long.

    Mark’s passion account simply tells the truth, the truth about folks in Jesus days, including his best friends, and the truth about us, today. The story exposes a colossal failure of nerve and a colossal achievement of love, then and now.

    You will hear it unfold momentarily, even after we have savored the delicious meal of Christ’s love, even after Jesus tells us he will love us to death. What follows is what so often follows, a failure of nerve, a collapse of courage.

    Listen to all those whom Jesus loved and whose actions make us tremble 2,000 years later—not just the predictable suspects like the high priest and Pilate but the unexpected ones like his closest friends, Peter and Judas.


  • They laid hands on him and arrested him.
  • They presented “false testimony against him.
  • They bound Jesus and led him away.
  • They shouted, “Crucify him.”
  • They flogged him.
  • Twisted some thorns into a crown, and put it on him.
  • They struck him on the head with a reed.
  • They spat on him.
  • They stripped him.
  • They crucified him.
  • They derided him.
  • They filled a sponge with sour wine and offered it to him.

    You get the picture. Strong, violent, abusive behavior; coarse, caustic, ugly language. It makes us feel tremble after all these years.

    Nevertheless, in the midst of it all, we can’t help but fall down on our knees and confess him as the king of glory. No matter what part we play in Jesus’ passion, he loves us all even to the end. Oh, what wondrous love is this.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    March 28, 2015
    Memorial Service for Marlyss Carlson
    Luke 12: 22-31

    No matter how sick Marlyss was—and you know she was sick—she came to church.

    We here at First Lutheran Church will not forget Marlyss coming across the patio in her final days. She walked a bit slower, her body a willowy bean pole but beautiful nonetheless. You could tell things were not easy for her and yet, as one of her favorite hymns will proclaim at communion, she found joy like a fountain in the presence of the Lord. It was here and in places like this where she found God awaiting her arrival. What a joy it was for her to sing her beloved hymns, listen to treasured words from scripture, and taste the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.

    Day-by-day, she told you, “I am getting weaker, more tired.” She was getting very close to dipping her toes into the Jordan one final time, making the final journey across the river, the one that began at her baptism so long ago. This time she would go all the way to the other side, to the glorious land flowing with milk and honey, the place she had heard promised since she was a tiny child in Albert City, Iowa.

    How many of you who loved and admired Marlyss have wondered, “How can I get a faith like hers, one that will see me through all life’s trials?” Well, there are answers.

    Marlyss’ faith was given birth in the Mission Covenant Church and then in the particular brand of Lutheranism, the Swedish sort, known as the Augustana Lutheran Church.

    Her faith continued to blossom as she met her lifetime sweetheart George at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. Then, in places like the Lutheran Church of the Cross in Riverside, California, First Lutheran Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Christ Lutheran Church here in Pacific Beach, to working with Pacific Media Ministry, with her beloved partner in the gospel George, she heard the stories of God’s love and she shared them with others, including many of you, over and over again.

    Marlyss discovered a profound richness in the hearing and telling of these enchanting stories. She knew that one day she and those she loved would desperately need one more story, the one about Jesus being raised from the dead.

    These old, old stories of Jesus and his love sustained Marlyss. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1950, sixty-five years ago! Her husband suffered a major heart attack when he was only forty-nine. These challenges could have loomed over her head like Damocles’ sword and she could have spent most of her adult years as a hopeless pessimist; remarkably, as you well know, that is not what happened. Somehow, she found a way to live life fully and it was that exuberant faithfulness that touched so many of you. Marlyss Carlson taught you how to find joy in setbacks, richness in trials, and hope amidst life’s challenges.

    I was honored to be with Marlyss’ family the day she died. I want to thank you for letting me be present for those sacred moments. I watched your family, schooled in the faith by your mother and father, grandmother and grandfather, walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

    Of course, you wept tears, tears of grace, tears borne in thanksgiving for rich memories, tears of opening your hands and letting your beloved one fly to heaven. I watched in awe—as did many doctors and nurses in the intensive care unit of Scripps La Jolla—as you sang one hymn after another at her bedside, all by heart, as if you were standing around the piano in the living room on Christmas Eve—Blessed Assurance and Precious Lord, Amazing Grace and Beautiful Savior, even Silent Night; you, of course, sang the mandatory hymn for such occasions, “Children of the Heavenly Father”—in English and, yes indeed, in Swedish.

    As Marlyss prepared to set sail on the final journey across the river, I am certain she wanted you to know, “You shall fear no evil for the Lord is with me.” That was what her entire life was about. As she breathed her last breaths this side of the kingdom come, in some mysterious way, rather than having you tend to her—which you did so well—she was tending to you. Listening carefully in those remaining moments, you could almost hear her say—because you had heard her say such things for a lifetime—“Please don’t worry about me, Cathy and Mike and Greg and Sue and Mary. Care for your families, tend to those you love. Tell them that grandma is now in God’s arms.” That’s just how Marlyss was.

    To say that Marlyss was a woman of grace is to understate the case. To say she was the quintessential pastor’s wife does not quite say it well enough. She had the uncanny knack of pointing the spotlight away from herself, onto you. She crafted every word she said to you just like she did in her annual Christmas card. Words were never trivial. She always remembered to ask about someone special in your life and about you, always tilting the spotlight just so, so it shined on you.

    I know……She would leave here every Sunday morning and say, “Wilk, thank you so much for proclaiming the Word to us this morning. Your sermons are so special, so powerful.” Now, I know better than that; not all my words are so special by a long shot, but Marlyss was always lifting me up even when I forgot to lift her up. (By the way, I am hoping someone will fill her role on Sunday morning here at First Lutheran Church!)

    As I considered this afternoon’s gospel reading, I was drawn to the words Jesus spoke to his disciples. Now there was a person who could have focused the spotlight on himself—after all he was God’s son. And yet, his entire life was about shining his light on others. No matter how difficult life became (remember: “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me”), nevertheless, Jesus trusted God would not forsake him.

    Marlyss knew this story so well. Since she was a little girl in lacy socks and paten-leather shoes, she sat at church, mesmerized by the thought that God cared for the lilies and the sparrows; she knew if God’s eye is on the sparrow, then God’s eye was certainly on her. She trusted that her savior watched over her. No matter what befell her, she moved ever closer toward the kingdom with a spring in her step, knowing that death was not the end. Would worrying add a single hour to her life? She knew the answer was no. And so she strived for the kingdom of God, a striving that brought her great considerable peace and let us behold her astonishing grace. Her deepest prayer certainly was that you might be comforted by a similar peace on this day.

    Listen…….Can you hear her say, “Oh children of the heavenly father, my dear ones, trust that I am safely gathered in God’s bosom. Know that God’s loving purpose is to preserve me and you pure and holy.”

    Whether in Swedish or English, Marlyss Carlson celebrated God’s promise for her and for you. May you now entrust her into the holy courts of God’s kingdom forever. She would want it just that way.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    March 22, 2015
    Fifth Sunday in Lent
    “Mansions and Jets, Nooses and Crosses”

    John 12:20-33
    Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

    “Father, glorify thy name!” That word “glorify” creates all kinds of dramatic pictures in our minds. “Glorify” causes us to envision Jesus the high priest dressed in snazzy, dazzling robes, sitting high up in front of the Temple, praying all manner of highfalutin prayers.

    In recent days, at least on my Facebook page, there has been quite a bit of conversation about a few “high priests” of our own day. Pastor Joel Osteen is one of the most watched evangelists on television. Some of you tell me you watch him and I don’t doubt he touches some of you. I must frankly say, however, I hope you don’t send him a penny. Pastor Osteen lives in a 17,700 square foot mansion recently accessed at $10.6 million. You’ve got to admit, though, he’s one glorified high priest.

    And then there is Pastor Creflo Dollar. He recently asked his followers to pledge $300 and up to buy him a $60 million Gulfstream jet so he can spread the gospel—of Christ’s cross, I wonder? If his flock does not cough up the necessary change, apparently he will be forced to resort to one of his two measly Rolls Royces. Whether you hear him proclaim Jesus’ name or not, please don’t send him a Lenten offering either.

    Glorify thy name!

    In the letter to the Hebrews, our high priest Jesus offers prayers with loud cries and tears, hoping he might be spared agony and death. According to that letter’s writer, Jesus did not glorify himself. Instead, he was submissive to his heavenly father and ended up suffering and dying for our sake…No mansion, no jet, just a cross.

    Seventy years ago, on April 9, a German theologian and pastor by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hung to death in the Flossenburg Concentration Camp. He died only days before World War II ended. When thinking of our Lutheran brother Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we are reminded of what Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

    Such a heroic life can feel like it is reserved only for religious superstars. It might seem foreign to our everyday experience. But, I’ll bet, if you think for a few seconds, each of you can relate to this strange glory.

    The Lutheran preacher Edmund Steimle said: “The ‘name’ of the Father is glorified, made evident to those who will see, not in choirs of angels or visions or in a bright, golden sky, but in the moment of brokenness, defeat, and death. The ‘glory’ of God—the presence of God when it is most clearly evident to us on earth—is focused on a man dying on a cross.”

    On the day a colleague of mine was ordained to serve a rough and tumble, struggling inner-city congregation, the preacher told him and the congregation, “It will be a glorious struggle.”

    Of course, almost anything worth doing in life is going to be a glorious struggle. There are, as the old wedding vows claim, better days and worse days, richer days and poorer ones, sicker days and, one prays, healthier ones.

    Newly weds promise to love each other “till death us do part.” Anyone who is married, has been married, or is contemplating marriage, adores the glorious side of holy matrimony when hearts go madly pitter-patter. It is the struggle part of marriage that most of us are not particularly fond of.

    When couples come to my office announcing their intentions to marry, they sit snuggly on my little couch, tenderly holding hands and staring into each other’s eyes with adoring gaiety. I may be jaundiced, but I am not particularly impressed by such giddy love. I always ask these love birds, “How do you fight?” Notice: not “Do you fight” rather “How do you fight?”

    The church in its infinite wisdom down through the ages has understood that any commitment worth its salt will be glorious and it will be a struggle as well.

    There are married couples that eventually throw in the towel: “It just doesn’t feel like it used to.” This always causes me to scratch my head. “Were you too nervous to pay attention on your wedding day? Do you not remember promising for better for worse? Did you think marriage was only for days when your knees were knocking and your hearts pounding? What exactly was your understanding about those poorer, sicker, and worse days?”

    We, the people of God, are called to a similar way of life, a marriage of dying to self and committing ourselves to others in Christ’s name. Those who only worry about themselves and maintaining their own brilliant ideas and profound insights have not yet grasped “Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a lovely book entitled “Life Together.” Bonhoeffer understood the glorious struggle. He wrote: “Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream…But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams…By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world…Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’ sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise given to it.”

    We all have wish dreams of what makes for the perfect church: what issues the pastor should preach about from the pulpit, assuming we think he should preach about any issues at all; what hymns we should sing and at what tempo and volume; what closets should be used by what groups—now there’s one worth dying for! On and on it goes. Who doesn’t adore the glorious part, the sprouting of wheat part? It is the falling into the ground part that gets to us, the part where we are forced to admit someone else may have an idea worth paying attention to, especially for the sake of the community even though we may think the idea particularly harebrained.

    The glorious struggle also occurs in the raising of our children as they start thinking their parents a bit old-fashioned and out of touch; in relationships with our neighbors who play their music too loud and too late and with far too much bass at two in the morning; in our discussions as straight-laced Republicans and daffy Democrats seeking a more perfect union. Life lived fully and with others is rarely easy, especially if we are in it for the long haul. Jesus understood this. More than once he cried out into the evening sky, weeping buckets of tears. And yet, no matter what we did or do, Jesus kept loving us all the way to the cross. This was no wish dream, this was reality.

    God bless you in your holy journey here at 3rd and Ash and in the places you are called to live and work. In all the little deaths you face daily, may you rejoice in the glorious struggle as you behold the wonder of Christ’s love.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    March 15, 2015
    Fourth Sunday in Lent
    “The Colossal Arc of God’s Grace”

    John 3:14-21
    And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

    Is there a more familiar passage in the Bible than “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

    The words seem easy to understand, short and to the point. That’s probably why we often see them on roadside signs, sporting event placards, and bumper stickers. Beware, however, and be highly suspicious: any theological insight that can fit neatly onto a bumper sticker almost certainly does not get to the heart of the matter.

    Some would interpret this Bible verse to mean that all you have to do to be saved is to believe. Sounds simple enough, huh? Of course this simplistic interpretation begs the pesky, age-old question, “What about those who do not believe in Jesus? Will they be saved?”

    I’ll bet there have been a billion sermons preached on these words from John’s gospel. Quite a few of them have claimed quite emphatically, with fists banging the pulpit, “If you do not believe, you are going to rot in hell for eternity.”

    For my money, this claim of who will be saved and who will rot in hell does not grapple sufficiently with God’s amazing grace. At least in my Bible, Jesus is repeatedly talking about welcoming hapless sinners back home; we see him constantly cozying up to hapless sorts given up for lost.

    You may be one of those who claims you have to believe to get into heaven—and, by the way, this is a venerable Christian tradition. But, if you have concluded that only believers are going to be saved, reflect, please, on the too easily overlooked part of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world”…not some of the world, not the believer part of the world; rather, God so loved the world.

    I learned in seminary how extremely hazardous it is to excise one little verse from scripture and then to say, “Here is the definitive answer.” That, by the way, is why most Lutherans do not have bumper stickers: we can’t fit the immensity of God’s grace on a three by twelve inch piece of sticky paper. The colossal arc of God’s grace is everywhere you look in the Bible, including, by the way, in the Old Testament. Over and over again, sinners are being forgiven and losers are becoming winners, all because of God’s relentless goodness.

    We dare not forget the verse that follows John 3:16, verse 17 of course: “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

    Okay, I confess it can be challenging. You might be saying right about now, “Pastor, that’s just too simplistic.” And so, lest you accuse me of being a raving liberal who haphazardly scuttles the entire Bible, I will read John 3:18 to satisfy you: “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

    My beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, biblical and theological understanding comes at a steep price. If we think we have all the answers, especially bumper sticker sorts, we probably have not fathomed the immensity of God’s love for us.

    No matter what you believe, whether you think you must believe to be saved or if you believe God saves every suffering soul, I invite you, at least this morning, to approach these verses from John a bit differently. Look with me at how believing can provide us with the exquisite gift of hope this side of heaven and hell.

    This past Friday morning, I was deeply honored to be with Marlyss Carlson and her family as Marlyss breathed her final breaths this side of the kingdom come. It was a terribly heartbreaking occasion: everyone loved Marlyss! But I must tell you there was also unparalleled joy. If you had been there, you would have experienced the peace of God which passes all understanding. We all dabbed tears, sang “Children of the Heavenly Father” in English and Swedish and “Silent Night” by heart, and spoke of mom and grandma now being in heaven with her beloved husband George, things, by the way, only believers dare say at times like this.

    None of this is meant to judge nonbelievers; far from it. Rather, it is to yearn that all people on their deathbeds might experience similar joy beyond measure, trusting that our Savior who died on the cross was also raised from the dead on Easter morning to conquer death for us and those we love. Believers are gifted with the ability to stare death in the face and yet trust that death never is the final word.

    As Marlyss’s family sang and prayed and spoke of heaven, they were a remarkable witness to me and to others attentively watching them—nurses and doctors and the wonderful staff at Scripp’s La Jolla’s intensive care unit. Death did not trump the morning. God’s victory over death was the dominant theme.

    It wasn’t just in those final hours in the hospital. Many of you were moved seeing Marlyss come through the church doors, Sunday after Sunday, no matter how weary she was—and she was weary in those final months. With every reason not to come to worship, this woman of deep faith longed to be here so she could be reminded, yet again, by all of you, that even at the grave she could still sing “Alleluia.”

    Do you have to believe to go to heaven? Frankly, I have not been to heaven as yet so I hesitate to give the definitive answer with fists pounding on this pulpit. What I do believe, though, is that God’s deepest desire is to save the entire world, all God’s children, you and me. What I saw on Friday morning is one remarkable woman of faith who walked through the valley of the shadow of death with supreme confidence, trusting that God was with her and death would never be the final word.

    And so, we continue our Lenten walk, hand in hand, under the shadow of the cross. One day, each of us will enter our own dark Calvary. I hope that when this occurs, as indeed it will, death will not be the final answer for you. Instead, I pray you will cherish the knowledge that God so loved the world that He gave his only son for all the world, including you. May this belief be your strength, your hope, and your salvation.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    March 8, 2015
    Third Sunday in Lent
    1 Corinthians 1: 18-25
    “Send in the Clowns”

    1 Corinthians 1:18-25
    For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

    Even in Lent, there are occasions for astonishing joy. Count the forty days of Lent and you will notice there are more than forty: Sundays are not counted because they are always a celebration of the resurrection of our Lord With the joy mixed in, that may be why Lent is often called the season of bright sadness.

    [Jared Jacobsen starts playing Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” as sermon continues.]

    Imagine my joy on getting Bob Dylan’s newest album, “Shadows in the Night.” Every song he sings on this album was once sung by none other than the “Chairman of the Board,” “Old Blues Eyes” himself, Francis Albert Sinatra. Life doesn’t get much better for me, hearing two of my favorite musical giants (both whom Dagmar and I have seen live) get connected together on a few American standards like “Some Enchanted Evening.”

    I do have one criticism however. One of my favorite Sinatra songs, Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” does not appear on this album.

    I love “Send in the Clowns” perhaps because it reminds me so much of you and me. We are, after all, called to be followers of the chief clown, Jesus Christ himself.

    [Jared Jacobsen phases out “Send in the Clowns.”]

    Does such language alarm you? Does it seem to take Christ’s name in vain, a violation of one of those commandments Moses brought down from the mountain? If you are a bit offended, listen once again to Saint Paul: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.”

    This clown Jesus refused to lift a finger when the very people he loved delivered him to his own death. Many of you have been attending the Sunday adult Bible study class, hearing about the “The Passion Stories According to the Four Gospels.” You have been reading our congregation’s stunning devotional booklet, “Lead Us to Calvary.” And, when you leave here this morning, gaze upon the beautiful and haunting Stations of the Cross in the lounge created by our members.

    In every case, what you see is the unveiling of the clown. Here was a man who could have had all the power in the world but chose instead to sacrifice every iota in order to love you and me. Here was a man who, in his final days of his passion, barely said a mumblin’ word in defense of himself. Here was a man who didn’t lift a finger because all ten were nailed to the cross. This clown was passive, hence “The Passion.” He let the world knock him over the head with a hammer and, surprise, surprise, he loved us still. Some might call such a fellow a clown.

    You and I are called to follow this clown dressed in clippity-clop shoes, a big red bulbous nose, and an outlandish clown suit, although, at the end, he was stripped bare even of that.

    Saint Paul writes: “God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.” We must admit, there are occasions of glory when the clown and his followers stun the world—at least those not too proud or wise to see.

    I remember watching television fifty years ago today when I was fourteen years old. If you were born before that, you remember too. Perhaps you are younger, but you have seen the pictures and heard the stories of a whole circus of clowns marching hand-in-hand across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama. As heads were beaten and racial slurs hurled, a crowd of jesters who had carefully studied the Clown of Nazareth, let angry racists take their best shot at them as they danced across the bridge. That day was so brutal it is remembered as “Bloody Sunday.” These folks practiced the clownish routine of active nonviolent love, rising above the anger, violence, and hatred in order to get the fundamental American right to vote.

    They were foolish enough to believe the stories they had heard since they were little ones in church basements were true. They actually believed the words came right out of God’s mouth, ludicrous words like “love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” They somehow didn’t come to believe the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” was a multiple choice question maybe to be followed and maybe not; rather they took God at God’s word and did their level best to love those who attacked them! To this day, we watch the crossing of that bridge in Selma with mouths agape as if watching the Flying Wallendas high above the big-top on the high wire. We are moved to tears of awe yet again—you could call it confronting the power of God in weakness stronger than human strength.

    There are occasions in our own lives when we do not simply have to hearken back 2,000 years ago or even fifty years to behold the clown. Next Sunday evening, March 15, at about 5:00 p.m., I invite you to join me and other member congregations of the San Diego Organizing Project on the steps of the Broadway courthouse. We will gather to support a young African American man, Aaron Harvey. Aaron Harvey is being tried under Penal Code 182.5; this is a conspiracy law that basically says active gang members can be charged for crimes committed by other members—even if they were not involved in the crime. The law states that if one promotes or benefits from the crime, he, too, can be convicted. While Aaron has no criminal convictions, he is facing the possibility of life in prison.

    I have met and heard Aaron Harvey speak. I don’t know him well but I am prepared to become a clown on his behalf and I invite you to do so as well. It seems to me that this penal code is directed primarily at African American and Hispanic young men. I honestly cannot imagine such a convoluted law being used against a young white man from La Jolla for hanging with surfing dopesters or against white collar businessmen who, wittingly or unwittingly, have been acquainted with unsavory business associates and perhaps done a business deal or two with them along the way. At least to me, this is to break another one of those pesky commandments, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Martin Luther explained the commandment this way: “We should fear and love God, so that we do not lie about, betray or slander our neighbor, but excuse him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.”

    Is Aaron Harvey guilty because he is from Lincoln Park where gangs apparently flourish? Imagine what might happen if you or your child grew up in such a neighborhood and could not help but have some friends associated with gangs. Would you refuse to talk to your neighbors? Would you not pay attention to Jesus’ words, “Love your neighbor?”

    [Jared Jacobsen plays a little “Send in the Clowns” from here on out.]

    Unquestionably, if we try to follow Jesus, we run the very real danger of looking like clowns. Nevertheless, we follow the clown God sent into our midst, the one convicted for guilt by association, the one who hung on the cross for the wretched company he kept. Lest we be confused, that wretched company is you and I. Lest we forget, unless we are convicted for the company we keep, we are not being the people of God and our doors are not yet open wide enough.

    It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at this clown’s love. What I do know is we are invited to follow his clipity-clop clown shoe prints, trying to love our brothers and sisters the best we are able…So, dear God, please send in the clowns.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    March 1, 2015
    Second Sunday in Lent
    “The Dark and Terrifying Side”

    Mark 8: 31-38
    Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

    As I think most of you know, Dagmar spent last Thursday evening in the emergency room. She was writhing in pain and her blood pressure skyrocketed over 200. In the helter-skelter world of jam-packed waiting rooms, with frantic patients and jittery families (husbands!), the no nonsense nurse checked Dagmar’s blood pressure and oxygenation and took her medical history with a minimum of fuss.

    This young nurse carefully guarded the emergency room protocol, making certain it did not become an all out madhouse. She understood everyone’s desire for preferential treatment, whether they were on death’s doorstep or simply perturbed by an ingrown toenail. She moved through her routine without a smidgen of emotion.

    Sadly, our nurse lost any capacity to shower compassion on frantic souls as she clung stringently to the hospital’s rules and regulations. I suppose you might call this, in the parlance, keeping an emotional distance or maintaining appropriate boundaries. Whatever it was, this nurse dared not gaze into Dagmar’s weary eyes, hold her trembling hand, or simply say, “Sweetheart, I so apologize. This waiting stinks. I feel helpless too.” Deep down, I believe she was frightened, too, feeling just about as helpless as anyone else there that night. The only difference was she dared not admit her vulnerability.

    What we and others so desperately needed that night was someone who would suffer a bit with us. We longed for someone to cross over to the dark and terrifying side where there were precious few good answers.

    Part of being a follower of Jesus is a willingness to enter the dark and terrifying side, the land of confusion and suffering of others. The church calls this bearing the cross of Christ, losing our life for the sake of the gospel. This is never easy and it doesn’t always make us happier; sometimes it can be terrifying. And yet, when we finally do something that matters, our mind has a peculiar way of forgetting the frivolous things that hound us so and transporting us to higher ground. It is almost unimaginable if we are sitting with someone dying or someone in the throes of depression that we will spend even a second fretting over how many “likes” or friends we have on Facebook. Life suddenly transcends our petty preferences and paltry desires.

    Donald Shriver, the once president of Union Seminary in New York City, quoted an eminent psychiatrist: “The greatest secret of mental health comes down to us in the words, ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life…will save it.’”

    Sometimes, when you do your best ministry in Jesus’ name, you feel like a miserable failure. As you go about your daily activities and care for the needs of others, you are often a tad confused; there are no guarantees that what you are doing is necessarily right. You even wonder, “Have I screwed up entirely?”

    Have you ever stayed up through the night, caring for a screaming child with a burning fever and stopped up head? As bone weary as you are the next morning, have you noticed that you feel more alive than ever, far more human? That’s often what happens when we bear the cross: we lose our life and yet end up saving it.

    Have you ever visited an aging person slipping into the soupy fog of the autumn years? She isn’t quite sure she remembers who you are. This makes it all the more difficult because you are not certain what to say, stumbling for the right words. One sentence does not easily lead to the next. You feel self-conscious and embarrassed; you are not particularly charming; you feel like an inept fool. And yet, when you leave the care facility, emotionally spent, you have an extra spring in your step. Yes, that, too, is bearing the cross.

    Watch Jesus’ ministry and see how he repeatedly crossed over to the dark and terrifying side, the forbidden areas filled with uncertainty, places holy people refused to go, places of filth and death. Watch how he touched the unclean and risked his own religious purity. Watch how he healed on the Sabbath and drove the religious sorts nuts. Over and over again, Jesus moved into messy situations with no good answers. He constantly erred on the side of mercy whether it seemed particular right to onlookers or not. This, by the way, is what finally landed him on the cross. Even when he died, Jesus was taken outside the city gates, to the dreaded land of the religiously unclean. That, my dear friends, is bearing the cross.

    It is into such a land we are called, to places where more sensible and successful folks refuse to go, places filled with demons and confusion, agony and anger. We go where easy answers are not to be found, where people scream into the night sky. All we can do is embrace a suffering soul or two with a hug, a tear, and a bit of confusion, too, bearing only the compassion of our suffering savior.

    On Friday, a couple of you told me what an incredible experience it is to come here every Friday morning to serve food to our hungry patio parishioners. At first glance, one might wonder how this can possibly bring meaning. You are not paid to come here—not a penny; you arrive at six in the morning; some of you head off to work after slicing and dicing tomatoes and potatoes and pouring juice and coffee; you could be enjoying retirement on the golf course or sitting under a hair dryer at the beauty parlor. And yet, for forty years now, you have had smiles on your faces. This must be what Jesus meant when he called you “to deny yourself and take up your cross and follow Jesus.” Somehow, I sense you are gaining your life.

    There will be precious little certainty in our ministry of bearing the cross. No matter how good we think we are, we will often come up short, way short. Some will judge us harshly for what we do in Jesus’ name as we side up to losers and nincompoops. At the end of the day, we can only turn to Jesus and place everything in his lap, not convinced by how good we are or what good we have done. All we can do, yet again, is pray the ancient prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

    That, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is what it means to bear the cross….The good news, of course, is that even as you lose your life, mysteriously, you gain it, too.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    February 22, 2015
    First Sunday in Lent
    “O Felix Culpa”

    Mark 1:9-15
    In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

    When was the last time you said, “What is the world coming to?”

    I said it only days ago when I first heard of the barbaric beheadings of twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya by ISIS.

    And you? Perhaps you have recently said, “What is the world coming to?” on hearing of yet another mass murder, a pastor abusing a vulnerable child, or a respected politician doing a sweetheart deal with a large corporation. Maybe you said, “What is the world coming to?” watching a polar icecap melt into the sea or hearing of another precious animal of God’s good creation now extinct.

    Never have times been so bad, we think. But, whenever we say that, we must pause and say: “Really? Have you seen the pictures of Jews at Auschwitz or African Americans hanging from trees in Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas? Have you seen West Virginia mountaintops abandoned as hellish wastelands after large coal companies raped God’s gorgeous environment?”

    The good old days, hearkening for better times…really? What about the Civil War in our own nation when brothers killed brothers? What about the Crusades when all manner of barbarity was done, not by radical Islam, but in the name of Jesus against Muslims and others?

    The church longs for the good old days, too, for those blessed times when Sunday Schools had three hundred children and almost everyone attended worship on Sunday morning.

    These misty-eyed longings make believe that there were once better days, days even after the fall in the Garden of Eden when humans were once again perfect or at a far lot better than we are today.

    These idyllic longings, by the way, are idolatry! They are the Devil’s offer for us to think we can create perfection in our world. It is the very offer with which the Devil tempted Jesus when he was in the wilderness. This devilish offer suggests we can bring about perfection, we can change the world better than God can, we can end poverty with our ingenious proposals—and we can do all of this on our own.

    Of course, we long to make things better—creating a perfect government, ending homelessness once and for all, making all of us nice girls and boys.

    Noah and his family must have had similar longings as they rocked on the ark, hearing the horrific screams of every other human being in the world and the helpless shrieks of every animal as they all breathed their last.

    It was into this story that God stepped. God didn’t promise that humanity would finally get better, that the good folks would conquer the evil ones. In fact, the story has little, if anything, to do with humanity, with you and me. It has everything to do with God.

    When God looked out over the destruction, God must have thought, “How could I have annihilated what I created, all that I celebrated as very good?” With a broken heart, God said, “Never again.” Remarkably, God’s mind was changed. God stretched a rainbow across the sky, more a reminder to God than to us. “Never again will I do such monstrous things to human beings and my beloved creation. Every time I look into the sky and see the rainbow, it will be my heavenly ‘time out,’ my occasion to go into my divine corner and withhold destruction, no matter how angry I may be and no matter how deserving my children may be of such punishment.”

    Lent can become the worst and most tempting form of idolatry. All the things we take up and give up can easily fool us into thinking we have become very good indeed and hardly sin anymore, if at all. This is idolatry, the crazy belief that we can become perfect. The greatest gift Martin Luther bestowed on the church was the recognition that we cannot be perfect. The gift that went along with that, of course, was that, while we can never be perfect, nevertheless, God loves us.

    To admit we are imperfect enables us to look at God’s big, beautiful rainbow in the sky. In a fine book I just finished reading, Backpacking with the Saints, Belden Lane, writes: “Failure is what occasions the extraordinary gift of God’s grace. O felix culpa (O happy sin), the medieval liturgy proclaimed—this tragedy that makes possible such astonishing forgiveness!” (pg. 132). O happy sin!

    This forty day Lenten journey, if it is to be anything, is our contemplation of God’s love for us in the face of our happy sin. When we see a rainbow in the sky, we are invited to realize that God is looking at that identical rainbow, being reminded of how much God loves you and me and all the little critters in this glorious universe.

    Our theme for this Lenten journey is “Lead Us to Calvary.” This journey is not a reflection on our goodness; rather it is a reflection on God’s goodness. As we attend adult Bible study on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, we will see how much God loves us, so much that God’s son died on the cross for our sake. Over and over again, we will remind one another of Gethsemane, of Jesus’ agony, of his thorn-crowned brow, of his love for you and me.

    I invite you on this forty day journey, when you enter worship and as you leave, to stop at our beautiful baptismal pool. Dip your fingers into the water and make the sign of the cross. Remember that you, like Noah, were once cast into the raging sea. Remember how God routed the sea monsters lurking there and called you “a child of God.” Even when you say, “What is the world coming to?” think of the rainbow and remind yourself that God says, “Never again.” As Frederick Buechner urges us, “Cling to these words [never again] like a life raft in a high sea.”

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    February 18, 2015
    Ash Wednesday
    Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51; Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21
    “Lent: the Best of Times”

    Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” begins this way: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

    Which is Lent for you: is it the best of times in the church year or the worst of times?

    For those who find Lent the worst of times, you are already muttering under your breath: “How dare he smudge ashes on my forehead? How dare he say, ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.’”

    There are others of you who, surprisingly, find this Lenten season the best of times. Last night at Council, one of our members said, “Ever since childhood, I have loved Lent more than any other time of the church year.”

    Which is it for you: is Lent the best of times or the worst of times?

    During this Lenten journey, you are going to hear a lot about the cross. You can see the cross looming in the center of this sanctuary; unless you keep your eyes open, you will almost certainly stumble over it. You may find all the Lenten talk of the cross quite depressing.

    Martin Luther said that the theology of the cross is nothing more and nothing less than “calling the thing what it actually is.” You could say the theology of the cross is simply telling the truth.

    In a few moments, you will write your sins down on a piece of paper, the sins that separate you from God. Your inclination may be to say, “Pastor, sin is too hard a word” but that is not calling the thing what it actually is, that is not telling the truth. You know and I know the things we do that separate us from God and from one another. Today, we dare to tell the truth: we are all sinners.

    We will also burn our sins (written on paper) to create ashes mixed with ashes from the palms of last Palm Sunday. I will smudge them on your forehead with the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This can sound so harsh, uncivilized really. Against all the lies that our polite society loves to tell, lies like “Oh no, you will not die” or “You have a long time to live,” the church calls the thing what it actually is: we are all going to die—perhaps this afternoon, maybe in the middle of this night, maybe in twenty-two years.

    Before many of us could walk, our parents gathered with us at cribside, showed us how to fold our hands and taught us to tell the truth: “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.”

    Some call this too dreadful of a prayer to teach our precious little ones—too brutally honest, too focused on death. For my money, however, “Now I lay me” zeroes in on truth-telling at an early age. Our parents do their best to tell us that, one day, we will die, maybe even tonight.

    There must be more, though, than simply saying we will all die, something more than writing our sins on a piece of paper, something more than ashes and “remember that you are dust…”

    I have a hunch that for those of you who will say, “This is the best of times,” you will adopt a Lenten discipline for the next forty days. You will search for another truth to counter the harsh truth of “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” You will attend Sunday morning Bible study searching for that other truth as you learn more about God’s love for you in the gospels’ Passion stories; you will reflect on what the cross has to say about God’s forgiveness of your sins. You will join your brothers and sisters in Christ reading the wonderful First Lutheran Lenten devotional booklet, “Lead Us to Calvary” (available in lounge as you leave); you might even cast to memory some of Mark’s passion story. Some of you have already told me you plan to look beyond yourself, to fast at least one meal a week and give the money you save to the Oromo Christian Fellowship, the Lutheran mission of Ethiopian Lutherans in our own city we are supporting this Lent; I know you are doing this because two of you have already each given $500 each in sacrificial offerings. For those who will say this is the best of times, you will be at worship on Wednesday evening—and Sunday morning— drawing nearer and nearer to God.

    For those who will say this is the best of times, today is only the beginning. What follows in the next forty days is hearing the whole truth, the truth of our sin and yet the truth also that we are forgiven because God loves us so much. Yes, we will hear in painfully honest words that we will all die but we will also hear another even more profound truth that Christ has conquered our death and through his resurrection, we too shall go to heaven.

    May you draw closer and closer to the cross of Christ and may you experience God’s forgiveness and love as you have never experienced it before.

    May this forty day Lenten journey be the best of times for you.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    February 15, 2015
    Transfiguration of Our Lord
    “Kisses from God”

    Mark 9:2-9
    Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

    It is easy to judge Peter in today’s gospel reading. When Peter says to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah,” we know what he is up to. He doesn’t want to go back down into the valley to do ministry. The mountaintop is just fine, thank you very much!

    Before the disciples and Jesus climb the mountain, Jesus tells them, including Peter, that he will soon die on the cross. For good measure, Jesus adds, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”

    Imagine being in Peter’s place. Jesus’ words ring through your mind. You can’t get rid of them. What lies ahead is frightening, not only for Jesus, but for you too.

    That trip to the mountain is a lifesaver. You need it badly—a little time to get away, to be alone, to enjoy the view, to sit with Jesus around the campfire, to tell stories.

    I get Peter, don’t you? Haven’t you had times in your life when all you wanted to do is stay on the mountain, especially when times are tough? Or dare I ask? Out of the blue, someone lambasted you, someone you actually liked, and called you, in more words or less, Satan? It has happened to me and with those very words.

    Remember when Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”

    Wounds like that don’t heal quickly if at all. Thirty-five years later and they still sting your soul. You can’t forget what your best friend has said to you. You want to get away in the worst way.

    People come to me all the time and ask, “Pastor, what did I ever do to deserve this?”

    “Why did my husband pick up and leave me, calling me a miserable human being as the door slammed on his way out? I raised the kids, stayed home and sacrificed my own job. Why?”

    “I have worked for the company for twenty-seven years, never late to work. I gave it my everything. How could they possibly let me go, saying I wasn’t carrying my load?”

    There are a million reasons why we want to get away to the mountain.

    It even happens here at church. On most days, we try to be faithful to Jesus the best we are able, carrying on the tricky balancing act of caring for those in deepest need while also trying to be good neighbors to those who aren’t particularly happy with what we do here.

    On Tuesday, I met with two such neighbors who are frustrated with what they call “the homeless problem” in our neighborhood. (By the way: my hunch is that every homeless person on our city streets would say the same thing about a “homeless problem”—they would love to be indoors.) They say if we would stop feeding hungry people, quit opening our bathrooms and having clinics, drug abuse, alcoholism, and all manner of sordid behavior would go away—at least here.

    They are nice women; they treated me kindly. And, quite frankly, there is some behavior on these few blocks that disgusts me, too. And yet, what I finally had to tell them was that we are compelled by Jesus to do the ministry we do. We have no choice. Jesus has told us that what to do for the hungry and naked, we do to him. Both these women live in what is now called “The Tower,” the building this congregation started in the early 1960s for senior citizens on fixed incomes—again, we felt compelled by the call from Jesus to do provide housing they now enjoy.

    How often we think we are doing the faithful thing and yet find there are those who are hopping mad at us, some who even call us Satan? You can call that bearing the cross of Christ.

    It is why it is so good to go up the mountain every once-in-a-while, simply to sit with Jesus and get our bearings straight.

    When Peter, James, and John go up the mountain, they see Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. Somehow, someway, they see the great ones, Moses and Elijah, standing before them with Jesus. Is it any wonder that Peter wants to stay? This is transfiguration!

    Jesus knows his friends need a break, a break from trying to follow him to Calvary. In the months ahead others will certainly attack them, too, for trying to be faithful to Jesus.

    We need to cherish these “get away moments” for we also are called to come down the mountain and follow the cross of Jesus Christ in our lives—caring for our children and parents, neighbors and dear friends, the best we are able.

    I pray that each of us will keep going back up the mountain. I believe the mountain always starts here around simple words spoken, wine poured, and bread broken, all in Christ’s name. These are not just symbols. If that’s all they are, as the writer Flannery O’Connor once said, “Then the hell with it.” Something more is afoot here.

    We need the power that comes from these moments so we can go back out onto the city streets to address the shrieks of horror that repel us and draw near to people who so desperately need Jesus’ touch from our very own hands. We need to discover the remarkable things in this amazing creation that have been made by the One who somehow has the power to make bread and wine also the body and blood of Christ.

    If we learn to behold Christ in simple things here, we will have eyes to see God’s presence just about everywhere we look. The well known Trappist monk Thomas Merton called these occasions “kisses from God.”

    Have you been kissed by God lately? I hope you find God’s Valentine kisses hiking in the Laguna Mountains, trekking through the Anza Borrego Desert, frolicking in the Pacific Ocean, eating fine meals in candlelight with good friends. Dagmar and I were kissed by God as we watched the heartbreaking movie, “Still Alice,” on Friday evening. It was a painful movie about early onset Alzheimer’s but a beautiful movie, nonetheless, as love prevailed in the midst of unfathomable pain. I felt more human for having seen this movie.

    Have you been kissed by God? Go to Petco Park in April and see grass greener than you have ever seen the color green before. See how God can change your life and give you courage.

    We are called to discover God’s beauty on the mountain, here on Sunday morning and in the ordinary routines of our lives.

    May you have more than your fair share of transfiguration moments and may they sustain you when you go down the mountain with Jesus, as you must.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    February 8, 2015
    Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
    “The Authentic Rhythm of Ministry”

    Mark 1: 29-39
    As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

    I have told you a time or two about one of my favorite seminary professors. Just in case you weren’t here, he was the Dutch Catholic priest Henri Nouwen. I will never forget his sermon on this morning’s gospel reading. He began, in his lovely Dutch accent and his incredibly expressive hands: “In the middle of…healing suffering people, casting out devils, responding to impatient disciples, traveling from town to town and preaching from synagogue to synagogue—we find these quiet words, ‘In the morning, long before dawn, [Jesus] got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there.’ In the center of breathless activities we hear a restful breathing. Surrounded by hours of moving we find a moment of quiet stillness. In the heart of much involvement there are words of withdrawal.”

    Henri Nouwen prayed that his students would learn to treasure this essential rhythm and never forget it. But I must confess, it takes work and it is so easy to forget.

    When we tell others of our ministry here at First, we love telling of all the things we do. One of the first things we tell others about is our outreach to the homeless and underserved community—at least, I do.

    And yet, I hope we never forget to lift up the other part of our life together, the part that occurs every Sunday morning when we come to this lonely place and pray.

    In our fast paced world, it is so easy to measure our worth by what we do. The second question we ask at a party after asking someone their name is “what do you do?”

    Whenever anyone asks me, “What does your congregation do?” at my best, I say, “We worship.” This almost always catches the person short. They wonder: is he some kind of smart aleck? You know their next question, “What else do you do?” To give the questioner the benefit of the doubt, everyone assumes a church worships so, naturally, the next question must be, “What else do you do?”

    I fear, however, that the quick transition to “what else do you do?” does not rest long enough in worship. I fear worship is not considered important enough. Isn’t worship the fluff of ministry, the nonessential stuff? Isn’t what we do for others the far more important part of who we are?

    Today’s gospel reading is a corrective to our penchant for measuring our worth as Christians only by what we do for others. Today’s gospel invites us to see things differently, to see worship and service as the authentic rhythm of ministry.

    As you have heard over the past couple of weeks, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus maintains a furiously fast paced life. You need to be in spiritual shape to keep up with him. In the mere ten verses of this morning’s reading, Jesus heals Simon’s feverish mother-in-law—that would be enough for one day’s work for me—but not for Jesus. He also has a throng of people gathered at the door of the house where he is staying. They haven’t come for his autograph. Some are sick, others are possessed by demons. If you have dealt with sickness or demons, you know the emotional toll it takes. It makes you say, “Let’s go to lunch or, better yet, let’s call it a day, I’m pooped.”

    If we want to follow Jesus, we must meticulously observe the exact rhythm he followed. We dare not stray from it one iota unless, of course, we think we are better than Jesus or more resilient!

    I have been struck over the years that congregations with the most vibrant outreach ministries almost always observe this rhythm with absolute diligence. The congregations I admire most have exhilarating worship and exhilarating outreach to the community. The two are inextricably linked, they go hand-in-hand. These congregations are in it, not just for a few years or as long as everyone has the energy or passion to care for others. They are in it for the long haul like First has been for 127 years and counting. We could have forsaken the city long ago and gone to greener pastures when the going got tough but we chose to stay here in the city. There still are days when we get so exhausted trying to serve the least and the lost in downtown San Diego that we are tempted to move out—at least spiritually. And there are those who would love to see us move out, to stop what we are doing with the sick and those plagued by demons! I suppose they hope we do get exhausted and do give up. It can be tough and demanding to care for others in Jesus’ name.

    Don’t you long for the rhythm that Jesus models? Maybe your life doesn’t feel particularly heroic, maybe you don’t feel like you are saving the world; and yet, you care for your ailing mother or your little baby who screams in the middle of every night; maybe you are helping a person plagued with the cruel demons of drug abuse or mental illness. You catch yourself saying, “I am so tired, so exhausted. I need a break. I’m not sure I can go on one more day.”

    What we hear today is Jesus giving us permission to take a break. For those called to care for others, taking a break, going to a lonely place to pray, is not a luxury; it is an essential part of ministry. If Jesus needed to go to a lonely place to pray—and he did all the time—what makes us think we are any different?

    I hope I never forget Henri Nouwen reading these words, “In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed.” He knew the temptations we would face to measure our worth by how busy we are.

    I hope you don’t forget his words either. Do yourself a favor: go to a lonely place and pray…over and over and over again. Consider it ministry to yourself and those you love.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    February 1, 2015
    Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
    “With Authority!”

    Mark 1:21-28
    They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

    “Authority” as in “They were astounded at [Jesus’] teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, not as the scribes.”

    When we hear the word “authority,” we probably think of it as linked to power, top-down, my way or the highway authority that can be controlling, abusive, manipulative, and deadly if need be. This authority will go to any length to get its way.

    Authority? What to make of this word?

    Jesus’ authority came from God. He did not need to look elsewhere. There were no diplomas on his wall, no certificates granted by a bishop or national church; we have no idea how many scrolls were in his possession. His authority did not come from killing others to maintain control; in fact, he let others kill him, trusting that God would still maintain authority.

    When people listened to Jesus and watched him, they said, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority!” A mere few words, “Be silent, and come out of him!” were enough to astonish them. It was as if God had spoken before their very eyes.

    Do you ever long for a word of authority?

    Nine years ago when I was deathly sick in the intensive care unit, I had no interest in having someone come in and talk with me. You might remember I even asked for no visitors. I was fighting for my life. I longed for an authoritative word from God though. I wanted to hear a favorite Psalm read like a good night story: “He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.” I hungered for a bit of bread and thirsted for a sip of wine—all I could consume really—and to hear a few accompanying words filled with authority, “This is my body and blood, given and shed for you.” No small talk, nothing about movies or books—something, you know, I love to talk about—no chatter about how someone else had conquered pulmonary emboli before me. Just a word from Jesus, a word of authority.

    Someone wrote a note to our church a few weeks ago; it simply said, “Worship here has restored my faith in the church.” Our worship, your worship, the words we speak to one another, here. Just our saying, “Peace be with you” and “we lift our hearts up to the Lord”—those kind of words spoken with authority, with gusto, have restored this person’s faith in the church. Imagine that!

    When we gather here, we give witness to our seriousness about the authority God has over demons. Our congregation’s signature moment comes when we raise our hands at baptism in defiance of the evil one and all the forces that defy God and shout, “I renounce them.” I honestly have never seen another congregation do this though this is an ancient tradition of the church.

    We know there is a world outside these doors filled with demons and we long for an authoritative word from God that will rout them; that’s why we shout, “I renounce them.” Like the ailing man from Capernaum, we have demons, too, demons that keep us awake at night, demons that drive us to tears, demons that cause us to pray our finest prayer, “Please, Lord God, please, please, please.”

    There is a gift in this community. Together, we seek God’s word, not our word, not the Democratic or Republican Party’s word, not a liberal or conservative word, not the United States of America’s word, not even dear Martin Luther’s word. We seek God’s word. At our best, we burn with passion to be spoken to and to speak with God’s authority.

    There is always a risk when, like Jesus, we seek such authority and dare to say to the demons, “Enough! Be silent and come out of him!”

    I hate to break the news to you but we may be in for another skirmish here at First Lutheran, this time with the City of San Diego. We received a letter this week called a “First Notice of Violation.” This, by the way, is not an honorary gold embossed certificate signed by Mayor Faulconer and Councilman Gloria to be hung on our church wall, but, then again, we might end up hanging that letter front and center!

    The letter states: “It is unlawful for any responsible person whose premises abut any portion of a public street or parking strip to fail to maintain any public walkway thereon in a condition free from waste, weeds, or any other plant growth.”

    We have no idea yet what this is all about—not a clue—but we have our suspicions. We have a gardening group that keeps our little urban oasis beautiful so weeds and plant growth must not be the problem. We have a volunteer, Dion, who is here twice a day, cleaning up everything from trash to human waste so that certainly can’t be the issue. Our custodian, Mark Best, power washes the property regularly and Glen Stroman picks up all the trash here on Sunday morning. All these folks make God’s house spotless, inside and out. So what do you think the problem might be?

    We fear we are being targeted, not for our dirty property, but for the ministry we carry on with our homeless brothers and sisters at no cost to city or county, state or federal government. It is a ministry that feeds and provides acupuncture, medical, dental and legal clinics and a hospice-like program for those dying on the streets—all for free. We suspect we are being blamed for the encampments around our property. I doubt Ace Parking has received a “First Notice of Violation;” I doubt rich developers are being blamed for creating exorbitant housing costs far out of reach of poor folks; I doubt our City Council is being blamed for the pathetically inadequate bathroom facilities in downtown San Diego—something, by the way, our church provides at no cost to our city. We fear we are being targeted by those who say, “If you didn’t do what you do for homeless people, there would be no encampments in this area, no trash, no human waste.”

    Of course, we could put our tails between our legs and bow to the powers that be and to those far richer than we but that would not be to do speak with the authority of Jesus. Let us never forget Jesus authoritative words for they are our guiding document on this matter: “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

    It can be scary to speak and live with such authority but it can also be thrilling.

    Three weeks ago, Shelby Mehlow Morris was baptized here. What stunned us was that she not only didn’t scream but she actually frolicked in the waters. As terrifying as it was for her to be thrust in the deep waters, nude, to do battle with the Evil One, I believe Shelby saw Jesus somewhere down there in the deep water, wrestling with the Devil for her sake. That might be just why, immediately after she was baptized and anointed, she tried to go right back into the water. She was thrilled by it all.

    Little Shelby taught us something that day we dare not forget. To do battle with the Devil can be scary business, but, with Jesus at our side, it can be thrilling business as well.

    Like Shelby, let us do ministry with authority here and wherever we are called to be God’s people. Let us kick up our heals and frolic in the scary waters, knowing that Jesus is with us. If we do this, people might just be amazed that we speak with the authority of God.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    January 25, 2015
    Third Sunday after Epiphany
    Jonah 3: 1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20

    Mark 1: 14-20
    Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

    When Jesus came to Peter and Andrew, James and John, at the lakeshore and said, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” according to Mark’s gospel, they immediately left their nets and followed him.

    Would you have done that? Immediately? Or would you have asked for a bit more time to consider the salary and the benefits package and made certain someone was lined up to help your aging father in the family fishing business? Wouldn’t you have wanted to study the profit and risk spreadsheet? People have always told me, “That’s using your head.”

    The first disciples’ seem utterly irresponsible and reveal not an iota of leadership potential. Who was this guy Jesus anyway? What were his credentials? Did he have any track record?

    Twenty-five of you attended Pastor Jack Lindquist’s study on Mark’s gospel last week between services. He said you can read Mark’s gospel in one sitting. You have probably discovered by now that this quick read leaves you breathless. You soon realize just how urgent Jesus’ ministry was.

    On my recent romp through Mark’s gospel, one word that confronted me like a garish neon light blinking on a strip mall is “immediately.” In the first eleven verses of Mark’s gospel, Jesus was baptized by John and “immediately the heavens opened and the Spirit descended upon him and a voice from heaven said, ‘You are my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.’” No time for Jesus’ birth, no time for his growing up. Mark gets down to business, fast.

    In the next verse, 12, Mark writes, “The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness.”

    And the next verse says, “For forty days Jesus was tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.”

    The ushers should have given you snorkels as you entered church this morning. Mark’s frenzied pace leaves you no time to catch your breath.

    And verse 16….are you still breathing: “And passing along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’” Guess what? Peter and Andrew immediately left their nets—not a second to spare.

    Verse 19….how are you doing? “And going a little further, [Jesus] saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending their nets. And immediately”—how did you ever know?—“he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and followed him.”

    Yikes….all that in 20 short verses of Mark’s first chapter, less than a page. At this point you are exhausted and need a vacation.

    And the action doesn’t stop there. In verse 21: “And they went into Capernaum; and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught.”

    On and on Mark goes with Jesus and his new friends. It finally took a cross to stop Jesus and even then, thank God, Jesus’ frenetic pace only subsided for three short days.

    Nestled amidst those introductory verses, Jesus said: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” The kingdom of God is at hand, now, today, this very moment. Is it any wonder there is such a rush? I’m sure you have caught the sense of urgency by now.

    As I pondered the past year (2014) at First Lutheran, preparing my annual report, I was struck by your sense of urgency, too—your generosity, your volunteer work in this place, your faithfulness at worship on Sunday morning. You are not counting the cost or the bottom line. Immediately you go!

    We face some challenges here at First as anyone who dares to follow Jesus does. Our building gets incredible use. We are bursting at the seams, wondering where we will ever find enough space for all we do here in Christ’s name—a marvelous problem, by the way. Clinics actually do examinations in one of our bathrooms, space is so tight. We must replace lights on the second floor, tent our building for termites, replace the roof over our second floor. With the growing number of children, we must ask how best to teach them the old, old story of Jesus and his love. It all is going to cost money. Our council has spent months calculating the costs and you have made generous pledges for the coming year.

    As we tell the First Lutheran/TACO story, what excites people most about this place are the risks we take, the sense of immediacy in our ministry. The kingdom of God is at hand, Jesus has told us. The time is now!

    Of course, we are not all risk-takers like Peter and Andrew, James and John—at least how they appear in this morning’s gospel reading. Some of us are more cautious, less spontaneous. We are more like Jonah.

    When God called Jonah to go to Nineveh (a city in modern day Iraq) to call the people to repent, Jonah counted the cost: he placed sticky notes all over his living room walls and created countless spreadsheets. Finally, he decided the best plan was to go in exactly the opposite direction in which God was calling him. Going to Nineveh was not worth the risk. It finally took some daring sailors to throw Jonah off the boat, a hungry fish to swallow him up and spew him out, and a second unyielding call from God, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

    Jonah was a reluctant prophet. He was so furious with God that he gave a grouchy eight word sermon, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” not caring what happened. And wouldn’t you know it, God used petulant, calculating, and risk adverse Jonah to save 120,000 people and even some cattle to boot.

    What we see in the calls of Peter and Andrew, James and John, and even in kicking and screaming Jonah is that God can use anyone to proclaim that the kingdom of God is at hand. I have a hunch God can use you and me, too. So, off we go.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    January 18, 2015
    Second Sunday after Epiphany
    “Here's to All the Piccolo Players”

    John 1:43-51
    The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

    Philip and Nathanael: who were they? Why wasn’t I able to remember much about them as I sat down to ponder this morning’s sermon? Am I stupid—a real possibility, of course. But I soon discovered it wasn’t just that. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have next to nothing to say about Philip and John doesn’t say much more. As to Nathanael: the only place he appears in any of the four gospels is in today’s reading. Pure and simple: these two fellows are fairly unremarkable.

    We write off such undistinguished characters pretty quickly. We prefer the giants of the faith, the colorful, exciting, courageous ones.

    On this weekend, we remember one of the giants of our faith, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We remember his astonishing contribution to our nation—as we should, calling us to live together as brothers and sisters. Who will ever forget his towering words? “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” We Lutherans love it when people mistake Martin Luther King, Jr. for Martin Luther—it all works in our favor!

    There is a danger, though, in remembering only the giants. Sometimes we treat them as more than human because of their towering intellect, sheer force of personality, or infectious charisma. We preachers add to this risk when we constantly lift up people like Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa, in our sermons. The lurking danger is that you might end up thinking that ordinary folks like us need not apply to be followers of Jesus, that we are really pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

    Do you know who Claudette Colvin was? Mary Louise Smith?

    Claudette Colvin was fifteen years old when she was arrested for refusing to go the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Mary Louise Smith was arrested a few months after Claudette Colvin; she was eighteen. You might say too young to put their lives on the line, too young to follow Jesus in any significant way.

    You know who Rosa Parks was. And yet young Claudette and Mary Louise came before Rosa Parks. She, too, refused to go to the back of the bus and yet her act came months after her younger compatriots. Who knows how these two young women enhanced Rosa Parks’ courage? To be honest, she was an unlikely candidate, too, to be a person of note. She was forty-two years old at the time of her act of civil disobedience and was “nothing more” than a common seamstress at the Montgomery Fair department store. You soon realize that young Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith and seamstress Rosa Parks were like stones thrown into a lake and the ripples started going further and further.

    And there were others. Think of the people in the civil rights movement attacked by snarling dogs and pelted with fire hoses when they simply longed for black people to be treated with dignity and with equality? You know the pictures that are in our bulletin this morning but can you name a single person in them? Nevertheless, we honor their courage and willingness to do what followers of Jesus are all called to do, to love our enemies, nonviolently.

    All these folks had every reason not to follow Jesus—they were too young, not important enough, not particularly charismatic. And yet, in their own critical ways, they stepped in line with Jesus and invited others to come and see what it means to be one of his followers.

    And, by the way, even Dr. King could have balked at following Jesus. He was pretty young, too, and thus had a convenient excuse. Do you realize he was only twenty-six years old when he got caught up in the events of Montgomery, Alabama; only thirty-four when he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and proclaimed, “I have a dream.” It’s hard to believe he was only thirty-nine when his life was snuffed out by a sniper’s bullet. Was he too young to follow Jesus? I doubt a single one of us would say so.

    If the truth be told, those who have touched our lives most deeply are pretty ordinary folks. It was our mothers and fathers who brought us to Sunday School, our grandmas and grandpas who taught us how to fold our hands and bow our heads and say, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” It was our Sunday School teachers who first told us the wondrous story of little Samuel and the old priest Eli. They are the simple ones sitting next to us now at worship who have faced the hopeless rampages of drinking out of control and yet have told us there actually can be happiness on the other end of the gruesome alcoholic tunnel. They are the ones who have taught us to love people quite different from ourselves and convinced us how wondrous such an adventure can be.

    Martin Luther King, Jr. was such a person. He was nothing more than a preacher’s kid, a “PK” we might call him. He was also a drum major for justice. He created a vision that most of us find quite compelling—we even pause a day or two in this country to honor his memory. And yet, as any drum major will tell you, it takes lots of instruments with different shapes, sizes, and sounds to make up a band.

    One of the things my father was proudest of in his life was being the drum major of the University of Pennsylvania marching band. He loved telling me how he led that large band into Philadelphia’s Franklin Field on game day to a rousing Sousa march. As they marched in, he threw his baton over the goal post every game and caught it every time. Though a drum major, my father knew how important every instrument in the band is. He once told me the most difficult instrument to carry in a long parade is not the gigantic tuba but the tiny piccolo which can become excruciatingly exhausting to hold up over a long parade route. He also told me the little piccolo provides dramatic accent in many of the greatest marches.

    None of us here this morning is particularly famous. We aren’t drum majors like Dr. King. We are, instead, the piccolo players like Philip and Nathanael, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith and Rosa Parks. And yet, our accent is essential to the life of the people of God. Jesus comes to us today, young and old, not particularly well known or charismatic, and says, “Follow me.” May you join the wonderful march of faith with your piccolo in hand. May the music you play be rousing and stunning and may Jesus lead your way.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    January 11, 2015
    Baptism of Our Lord
    “Joining the River Frolickers”

    Mark 1: 4-11
    John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

    “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” That’s how Mark launches into his gospel. So, what exactly is the good news, especially in its early stages? You would think it must have something to do with the birth of Jesus—that’s good news. But, unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark has no shepherds, manger, wise men, or angels, and, in fact, no baby Jesus. Oddly, the first time we see Jesus in Mark’s gospel is down at the Jordan River; he is a grown man, about thirty years old. Jesus down at the river does not conjure up images of quaint mangers, gentle lambs, or heavenly angels. I know something about rivers.

    I grew up about 400 yards from a river, Wheeling Creek actually, a little tributary emptying into the mighty Ohio. Typically, rusty beer cans bobbed along the banks, dead fish floated in the weeds, rats scampered here and there, and big ol’ black snakes slithered amidst the nasty flotsam and jetsam. I wonder if the Jordan was like that.

    You can guess what kind of crowd joined Jesus at the river. They were hapless folks restlessly waiting to jump into the Jordan for John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. They were at their wits end, having failed every New Year’s resolution they ever made.

    The preacher Fred Craddock, born down in Tennessee, knows a thing or two about river baptisms. “…of all people the one who should be exempt from baptism is Jesus. Why should he not stand high on the bank and watch the others…those who need a second chance, those who messed it up, those who have waded out so deep into trouble that going across and going back is all the same? Let the people who have drifted so far from mother’s prayers and father’s instruction that nobody can help them, let them come...But Jesus? Why is Jesus here?”

    If Mark is correct that Jesus’ baptism is indeed good news, we should see what’s up. Look! Jesus is cozying up with the riff-raff and the rambunctious, the pimps and the prostitutes, the shocking and the shameful, the drunks and the deplorable, the wild and the wooly. He isn’t just standing there urging them to hold their noses and jump; he dives in with them, frolicking with them like an ecstatic river otter. Jesus is human for goodness sakes! He is drenched with water from head to foot.

    Jesus’ baptism started embarrassing the church even before he went under. If he is God’s son, why in the world did he have his sins washed away? John the Baptist wondered that and we do, too.

    For those of you hooked on Downton Abbey, you know by now that English aristocrats never mix with the servants—call them river frolickers if you like. The servants don’t speak unless spoken to; they don’t reveal a thing about their personal lives—joys or sadnesses; they never sup with the blue bloods, eating instead in the manor’s gloomy basement. Royalty always keeps its distance and the upper hand and we expect God to do the exact same thing. And yet, the good news, the gospel, according to Mark, is that heavenly royalty comes down from heaven to the basement and eats and laughs, cries and dies, with flailing river frolickers like you and me.

    When Jesus joins us at the river, God immediately proclaims from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” That is heavenly language for “attaboy.”

    Last Sunday evening, following episode one of the fifth season of Downton Abbey, “The Manners of Downton Abbey” aired. There is a rigid formula for how royalty is to behave—how they are to sit, stand and walk, eat, drink and talk. All of this, said the commentator, is done with hopes of maintaining the English aristocracy which is under enormous pressure around the time of the First and Second World War.

    What is remarkable about the good news of Jesus Christ is that God does exactly opposite of what the aristocracy of Downton Abbey does: God flouts royal manners and floats down the river with us. This flouting of manners and floating with you and me is why Jesus constantly got into trouble and why the religious and political aristocracy eventually nailed him to the tree.

    This morning, we will gather at the river with Shelby Alene Mehlow Morris. Jesus will be with us as he always is. There will be no rats or blacksnakes slithering around, and yet it will be a scary place nonetheless. If Shelby sniffles a bit, don’t for a moment think she is being unruly. She is instinctively intuiting that the river is a cruel and perilous place. This is where the devil lurks, doing his best to grab Shelby by her precious little toes and pull her under.

    As we gather with Shelby and her family, we will catch ourselves holding our breath. Is that a bit too much water? Is it too chilly? How dare we strip off her beautiful baptismal gown and thrust her into such a fierce wrestling match, nude? Will she scream? These concerns are reasons why the church has constantly tried to tame the baptismal river over the years, making rivers into pools and pools into fonts and fonts into risk-free little bowls. Such attempts to domesticate the mighty river end up not taking our breath away; rather, we almost forget that a struggle with the devil is going on full tilt. Today, you will know Shelby is in a battle royale. As she stretches out her little hands seeking help from someone, anyone; you have got to believe she is reaching for Jesus.

    As the water pours over Shelby and we remember our baptisms, we will give thanks that God has become one of us and goes down to the river with us, every moment of our lives, especially when we are reaching for Jesus to save us. That, of course, is good news, the gospel.

    So, come on river frolickers, let’s head down to the river. Know that Christ holds Shelby’s hand and yours too, not aloofly standing on the bank looking down from on high, but jumping in, splish-splashing with us, today and forever.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    January 4, 2015
    Epiphany of Our Lord (transferred)
    “Power and Room for Growth”

    Matthew 2:1-12
    In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

    The story we have just heard is perfect for this first Sunday in the New Year, at least from my perspective. We know it so well and yet, in other ways, it is as fresh as a brand new baby’s bottom every time we hear it.

    What we do know…

  • It occurred in the time of King Herod.
  • Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
  • Wise men were from the East saw a star rising and came to pay the king of the Jews homage—and, by the way, the king they were seeking was not Herod!
  • King Herod became jealous and called holy men to his side to inquire what was up and they quoted Scripture to him.
  • Herod met secretly with the wise men to learn when the star had appeared.
  • He sent them to Bethlehem in search of the child.
  • When the arrived at the house, they saw Mary and the child.
  • They knelt down and paid him homage, opening treasures chests filled with gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
  • And they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod so they went home another way.

    What we do not know…

  • We have no idea how many wise men there were, whether three or two or five, or if their names were really Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.
  • We know they were from the East but not exactly from where in the east.
  • Unless I am missing something, they might even have been walking—Matthew never mentions camels.
  • And interestingly, according to our reading, they found Mary and child in a house…there is no mention of a manger.

    I love this story because it does what all amazing stories do: it grows on us even after 2,000 years. How many of you have a manger scene in your home? I’ll bet none of you have the Christ Child in a house? And does your manger scene have a camel? I am even told some pastors’ families have named one of their children Caspar in delight of all this. The story gets richer and richer every time we tell it as we add wonderful new embellishments.

    The story fills our imagination. There is a wicked, crazed king who becomes madly jealous and there is an innocent, loving baby who becomes the world’s king in the eyes of many.

    The power of this story is that it becomes our very own. It gets under our skin. One of my favorite writers, Pat Conroy, who wrote “The Prince of Tides,” says a good story has “power and room for growth.”

    Like the story of the wise men, I think our ministry here at 3rd and Ash is a good story because it is filled with God’s power and has room to grow, too. I have been struck in the past few months by just how magical this place is and yet, I must confess to you, sometimes I catch myself worrying.

    I have had a few restless nights lately because the roof over the offices and clinics may need replaced soon; on Friday, a light on the second floor start buzzing out eerie sparks and we were told that all the antiquated fixtures on the second floor probably need replaced; we have found out that we will need to tent our entire building to rid it of termites. It will all cost money. It makes me nervous because we are still a bit short on our pledges for 2015—though a record number of you have made pledges already. I suppose when I toss and turn most at night is when I forget that God has more stories to tell in this place than we can tell ourselves.

    For my devotions in these early days of the New Year, I am reading the gospel of Mark which we will hear read most often at worship this year. Mark’s Passion will provide the framework for our 2015 Lenten devotional booklet which Frank DeLouise will talk about between services this morning. Pastor Jack Lindquist will provide a three week series of classes starting next Sunday to help us look more in depth at Mark and how that gospel influenced Matthew and Luke.

    What has amazed me is how Mark’s story is filled with the power of God. It never stops. Jesus calms storms, brings a dead child back to life, heals a woman who has been hemorrhaging for twelve years, feeds five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. Mark tells us over and over again how the power of God enters people’s lives like yours and mine through this Christ Child named Jesus.

    The wise men, in many ways, were like we are. We hardly know what they believed, where they came from, or how they earned a living. What do know is that they followed a star to find the infant king. And yet, even with the mystery and all the unknowns, this story sparks our imagination. It calls us to be just as daring as the wise men in the face of all that discourages us from believing that God’s power is still at work in our lives.

    Like I said I have been nervous about whether God will act in this New Year like God acted so long ago. And then, out of the blue, God leads me to reflect on just a few months in our life together here where 3rd intersects with Ash. On November 21, we had a wedding of two homeless people, Ron and Artemis, that caught the imagination of many visiting theologians; because of what they saw and went out telling others around this nation of ours, a picture of the wedding appears in this month’s Lutheran magazine. Could things get better than that? And then, only two days later, thirteen members joined our congregation, with four baptisms; one former seminary president said he had never seen anything like it and a visiting pastor said, “Jesus was all over the place.” Did we have any reason to hope for more? Well, on Sunday, December 14, twenty of our littlest ones appeared in our Christmas pageant—where did they ever come from? They took our breath away and surprised us beyond measure. And then on Christmas Eve this place was packed to the gills and candlelight flooded out onto our patio as we sang “Go Tell It on the Mountain” to our city and all our homeless brothes and sisters sleeping on the streets. My, oh, my…and the New Year has hardly started and we have already had a memorial service on our patio for one of our beloved “patio parishioners”—and this has caught the imagination of quite a few, too.

    Our life together in this place is a rich story that has power and room for growth because God is with us. Herod could not imagine riches beyond his nose; in fact, he could only think about himself and his selfish little world. The wise men, though, kept traveling until they found riches beyond measure and surprise, surprise, they found it all in a baby, the Christ Child.

    May this place be filled with wise men, wise women, and wise children, with camels, stables, and mangers—and even a roof that doesn’t leak, lights that shine without sparking, and a sanctuary free of termites. May our story grow and grow because of the power of God.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    December 28, 2014
    First Sunday of Christmas
    Luke 2: 22-40
    “Listening to Our Elders”

    Luke 2:22-40
    When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

    At a recent meeting whose location and purpose will go unmentioned—though I am happy to announce it was not at First Lutheran, we were discussing speakers for a future event. When the prospective speakers were presented, the group was asked what it thought. Hardly five seconds elapsed before someone said, “They’re all old, white people.” The person was correct on both counts.

    As I drove home, however, I became more and more uneasy with the remark. Not that we shouldn’t look for diversity in presenters; we should. I was troubled that two old folks might not be deemed particularly well suited for the program we were planning.

    When Mary and Joseph, good Jewish people that they were, brought their forty day old baby to the temple for his presentation and for Mary’s ritual purification, there were two old people eagerly awaiting their arrival. Their names were Simeon and Anna and they were old.

    When I was a kid, my parents counseled me over and over, “Respect your elders.” I don’t think this was some idle bit of manners along with saying “Yes, Sir” or “Yes, Ma’am” and doffing my cap when I knocked at the doors of my paper route customers—something, by the way, my parents expected me to do. As the years have gone by, I believe my parents’ instruction to respect my elders had something to do with teaching me how to search for wisdom among those who have learned a thing or two through the act of living.

    As I venture into the infancy stages of old age myself, I find myself drawn more and more to the wisdom of my elders. In recent weeks, I have spent quite a bit of time on the telephone with an old friend of mine who has taught me more than any other Lutheran pastor about what it means to be a prophetic witness in our world. He is eighty-four years old and his doctor has told him his days on earth are numbered. We have had the wonderful opportunity to say our goodbyes and to tell each other how much we love each other— this, by the way, not typical language for two old guys. He is about the age Anna and Simeon were and I am learning volumes from him about dying well—and with considerable grace.

    Somehow, it often takes elders filled with wisdom to teach us how to embrace death. My friend reminds me so much of Simeon and Anna in today’s gospel reading. They, too, were learning how to die, devoting their lives to seeing the Christ Child so they might depart in peace when their time came.

    The wisdom of old age is rarely starry-eyed. Most people who have made it into their 80s and 90s have witnessed disappointment, wrong turns, and rejections as well as delight, triumphs, and affirmation. They have learned how to seek the Christ Child in the midst of what life has dealt them and no matter in what seasons they are living.

    Two weeks ago, about twenty of us sang Christmas carols and read Luke’s nativity story to some of our oldest members. This was a splendid opportunity to behold our own Annas and Simeons, to see how the announcement of our dear Savior’s birth brought hope to them in the autumn years of their lives.

    I am always astonished when we visit our oldest members. Sometimes there is a glimmer of acknowledgement of who we are and sometimes there is simply foggy confusion. And yet, invariably, when we read “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus” or sing “Away in the manger no crib for a bed,” there is recognition of who is present: not our presence necessarily but certainly the presence of the Christ Child. And how do I know? Because their lips start moving and they speak and sing every word. How amazing to watch and listen to our elders: they know the Christ Child is with them and their eyes sparkle like content little babies.

    Simeon and Anna had waited their entire lives for that tiny child to enter the temple. The moment they saw him, they were then able to die in peace. Their entire lives had been a dress rehearsal for eternity—the praying, the worshiping, the watching, the offerings. Simeon’s astonishing words, “Lord, now let your servant go in peace for my eyes have seen your salvation,” demonstrated that he knew he needed nothing more than this child’s presence in order to face his own death. He could now die well, in peace, with considerable grace.

    The church never forgets Simeon’s words. One of the unique characteristics of the Lutheran liturgy is singing Simeon’s words, known as the Nunc Dimittis, after receiving Holy Communion (as we will do this morning). We also sing these words at the church’s final prayers of the evening, called Compline. Simeon’s wise words are also used at one other very important time in the church’s worship life, at the conclusion of the funeral liturgy. Right before we leave the church and go to the cemetery to say our final goodbyes to those we have loved, we sing, “Now, let your servant go in peace;” we entrust these dear ones into the arms of the Christ Child.

    I am delighted we have invited two old folks, Anna and Simeon, to worship with us this morning. They teach us how to live life fully and how to die well. They point us to the greatest gift we can ever receive, whether we are young or old, the gift of the Christ Child, our peace and our salvation.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    December 24, 2014
    Christmas Eve
    Luke 2: 1-20
    “It Never Snows in Southern California”

    Once again, on behalf of all the members of First Lutheran Church, I wish you and those you love a very blessed Christmas.

    (Jared Jacobsen-piano- and Will Pierce-guitar-start playing.)

    The sun is shining, the grass is green
    The orange and palm trees sway
    I've never seen such a day in Beverly Hills, L.A.
    But it's December the 24th and I am longing to be up North

    I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
    Just like the ones I used to know
    Where the tree-tops glisten and children listen
    To hear sleigh bells in the snow

    I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
    With every Christmas card I write
    May your days be merry and bright
    And may all your Christmases be white.

    Okay, I know exactly what you are thinking: Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” on this most holy of nights? Leave Bing Crosby to where the surf meets the turf at ol’ Del Mar and not here at First Lutheran Church on Christmas Eve. Why in the world did we just sing that song?

    When I heard “White Christmas” at our congregational Christmas party a few weeks ago, I wasn’t certain I had ever heard the first verse—or paid attention to the words. Having spent most of my life in places where white Christmases are a real possibility, I never gave a second thought imagining grass being green and the orange and palm trees swaying on Christmas Eve or having the air-conditioning running in the sanctuary for that matter.

    I’ll bet none of you have received a single Christmas card with angels sitting on top of palm trees. Have you seen a single Budweiser commercial with Clydesdales dashing through the beach sand pulling a one horse open sleigh?

    Do you still catch yourself dreaming of a white Christmas or a least a perfect one? Do you still get nestled all snug in your bed while visions of sugar-plums dance in your head? I’ll bet you do.

    When I traveled to Germany the first time over Christmas break in 1976, I had a dream of the perfect Christmas. I was going to ask Herr Bernhard Schwedesdy for his daughter’s hand in marriage. I was almost certain Dagmar would say “yes” to my proposal; the more harrowing obstacle was convincing her parents to let their daughter cross the Atlantic and marry some Billy Grahamesque preacher from America. Though I was nervous as a hummingbird, I was thrilled nonetheless. We would soon celebrate Christmas Eve in the 800 year old stone church just up the hill from Dagmar’s house where, if Herr Schwedesky gave me the go-ahead, we would be married. With the sanctuary Christmas tree aglow in real candlelight and “Silent Night” sung in its original language, all pointed to absolute perfection. And then, out of the blue, a gangly group of awkward teenagers mounted the altar steps, dressed, not in freshly washed red and white robes with starched ruffled collars, but in holey blue jeans and wrinkled flannel shirts. I spotted not a single violin, cello, or trumpet. Unless my ears were playing tricks on me, I was not hearing the majestic strains of an angelic harp but the jingle-jangle of a tambourine, the jarring notes of a harmonica, and the off-kilter tuning of a $39.95 guitar. Imagine my shock when the youth choir burst not into lovely, gentle “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” but the raucous protest song “We Shall Overcome”…and in that dastardly language of English! As worship concluded and we went out into the chilly midnight air, my father-in-law-to-be queried me to see whether I was suitable for his daughter: “What did you think of the worship?” On my best behavior—after all, I did desire his daughter’s hand in marriage—I said, “I thought it was lovely.” He said to me, “I thought it was horrible.”

    (Music to Away in the Manger starts.)

    Don’t we all have visions of the perfect Christmas dancing in our heads?

    Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
    the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
    The stars in the sky looked down where he lay,
    the little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.
    The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
    but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes;
    I love thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
    and stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.

    No crying he makes! Really? I thought Christmas is about God becoming human, an honest-to-goodness baby boy. If God becomes human, there must be crying and, not to put too fine a point on it, the little Lord Jesus must engage in an ample amount of pooping and peeing—so human, just like you and I.

    Funny how our imaginations play tricks on us, creating visions of sugar plum perfection that will never come true. I pulled out our trusty “Oxford Atlas of the World” last night to see exactly where Bethlehem is in relation to San Diego. The latitudinal line between the two cities stretches almost straight across.

    (Music for “In the Bleak Midwinter” starts.)

    Though we long for the idyllic Christmas where snow coats the ground like in Belgrade and Buffalo, Bismark and Brussels, our weather tonight is remarkably similar to what the Holy Family experienced that first Christmas long ago. It is almost guaranteed it will not snow in Bethlehem tonight nor here.

    And yet Christmas carols long for a snowy kind of place.

    In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
    earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
    snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
    in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

    Snow had fallen, snow on snow….Maybe you are a tad crestfallen because you did not catch sight of even a dusting of snow on your way to church this evening. The wonder of Christmas is that the Christ Child comes to us not in the way we wish things were but in spite of the way things are—at least, that’s how it happened 2,000 years ago. Taxes were being collected by mighty Emperor Augustus; crazy King Herod was a jealous fool; the exhausted family could find no lodgings on their exhausting 100 mile journey from Nazareth as highly pregnant Mary bounced on a sway backed donkey; Jesus was born in rinky-dink Bethlehem, about six miles or so south of the bustling capital city of Jerusalem.

    You will notice the floral arrangement here at the ambo (lectern). Yesterday morning when one of our homeless patio parishioners saw the arrangement, he said, “I thought tomorrow night was Christmas Eve, not Palm Sunday.” I told him this arrangement celebrates Christmas in Southern California. We are not making believe tonight, scattering fake snow about the sanctuary and pretending our horses and sleighs await us in the parking lot. We aren’t even shipping in live sheep and camels for one night only.

    Lasting wonder finally cannot be discovered by simply reminiscing about magical Bethlehem so many years ago. The wonder will certainly not be found in snow on snow— at least here at 3rd and Ash—because, as the Mamas and Papas almost knew, it never snows in Southern California. The wonder will not even be found in an absolutely quiet baby because, to be truthful, there is no such thing, even the Babe of Bethlehem.

    The wonder of Christmas Eve will be found as God comes into your life tonight, perfect or not, just the way you are. And so, as you receive Holy Communion in a few moments, cup your hands just so, forming a manger with great care, not a make believe manger mind you, but a very real manger. Gaze at the precious Christ Child placed gently into your hands; as he looks lovingly up into your eyes, listen to his baby talk, “Take and eat, this is my body given for you.”

    No matter whether there is snow falling or palm tree swaying, good feelings or prickly tension, whether you are hail and hearty or on the edge of sickness or despair, God comes to you tonight, in this little town of San Diego where the temperature is 66 degrees and the grass is getting greener. The Christ Child is here tonight; that is God’s promise of perfection for you and those you love.

    May you have a very blessed and happy Christmas.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    December 21, 2014
    Fourth Sunday of Advent
    Luke 1: 26-38
    “Pondering Mystery”

    Luke 1:26-38
    In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

    The day is called the Annunciation of Our Lord. On that day, the church recalls teenager Mary receiving the mind-boggling news that she was about to be the mother of a baby boy—actually, the church says Mary was about to be the Mother of God, Theotokos in Greek. The same gospel we just heard is read on that day.

    Can you guess on what day the church celebrates Mary receiving the news from the angel Gabriel: “Guess what? You are pregnant.” A clue: it does not fall four days before Christmas. Another clue: do like you do when hearing of any other pregnancy and count backwards nine months on your fingers—November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, and, yes, March, March 25. The Annunciation of Our Lord falls on that day, exactly nine months before Jesus is born on Christmas.

    Neither Joseph nor Mary anticipated the announcement of her pregnancy. As so often is the case, God’s good news rendered them incredulous. It was beyond their capacity for imagination. That is, by the way, the difference between God’s good news and our old, hackneyed news: God’s ways are not our ways; and they are, often times, well, unbelievable.

    We pastors often get together to discuss texts like the one we just heard. Sometimes, rather than delighting in the astonishing power of God doing a new thing, we straight away begin to shred the mystery of God as fast as kids ripping open Christmas presents. We quibble about the possibility of a virgin birth. The operating principle seems to be: if it makes no sense to us, then it cannot be true. Rather than trying to lift ourselves to heavenly thinking, we drag God down into the gutter of our thin, pedestrian insights.

    I don’t want to be too harsh on my colleagues. I am no different. After all, the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary was not particularly easy for her to fathom either. The Bible reports that when Mary heard that “the Lord is with you,” she “pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” She was frightened and the angel had to reassure her, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”

    Almost always when God is doing a new thing, we experience some degree of fear. It is no longer business as usual or, as my dear friend, Pastor John Steinbruck is fond of saying, “It is no longer no hits, no runs, no errors.” We feel out of control. Our world is turned upside down.

    Note well however: never did Mary not believe; never did Mary say, “Angel Gabriel, your words are baloney, simply symbolic.” What she did do was contemplate the news: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Even after her baby had been born and the shepherds had come to see her precious little one, the Bible observes, “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Rather than twisting God’s marvelous new thing into something her little human mind could grasp, she pondered what God was up to.

    I long for a community that embraces the deepest mysteries of life. On our best days, we do just that here at First Lutheran Church. Sunday after Sunday, we pray for wonder to fill our lives and the lives of those we love. When someone you love has learned their body is riddled with some creepy, virulent disease, just like Mary, you are greatly troubled and yet you still dare to hope. You pray for healing for the one who only moments ago heard the doctor’s haunting words, “She doesn’t have much longer to live.” Like Mary, somehow, you dig deep down into your soul and hold onto the words, “For with God nothing will be impossible.” Does your prayer sound reasonable? Probably not. Does God work on your timeline? Rarely. Do you believe God has the power to act beyond your understanding? I certainly hope so.

    Perhaps the unimaginable has happened to you. You drank ferociously for twenty-three years, in the end consuming a fifth of cheap vodka every day. You were miserable, all but ruined, the shattered pieces of your life trailing in your wretched wake. You had been to detox and sober for eight months but fell off the wagon, again. Then one day, inexplicably, you didn’t drink; you poured a pretty fine bottle of vodka down the drain. You sheepishly attended your first AA meeting in a long time, in a dingy church basement with decrepit wooden slat chairs, and you said words that amazed even you, “Hi, I’m____and I’m an alcoholic.” You haven’t had a drink for eleven years and 222 days—but who’s counting? You are filled with wonder. As you think back over those years, you say, “An angel landed on my shoulder and said, ‘Do not be afraid…For with God nothing will be impossible.’”

    You have probably noticed these days, young and old alike have a hankering for mystery and wonder. Movies like The Hobbit, Chronicles of Narnia, and Star Wars are blockbusters with lines around the blocks of movie theaters. Could it be that most of us are longing for something beyond what our little minds can grasp? Maybe we, the people of God, should pay attention to these yearnings for mystery and not wipe them away the minute we stand in wonderment.

    What kind of community might ours be if, more and more, we open ourselves to the mystery of God? Who might be drawn here if we dare to proclaim that God can change mixed up lives like ours? What might happen if we pray for wonders to occur in the lives of those we love, wonders we could never bring about ourselves?

    What is so astonishing about Mary is that when the angel Gabriel told her about being the Mother of God, she somehow discovered the grace to sit back and ponder the message from heaven. And in the pondering, she became more than she could ever be on her own. Out of the blue, she started singing a marvelous song called the Magnificat (my soul magnifies the Lord), the song we will sing momentarily. If she could imagine becoming the Mother of God, then Mary could just as easily imagine God bringing down the mighty from their thrones, exalting those of low degree, filling the hungry with good things, and even sending the rich away empty. Thank God, Mary had a vision bigger than her own. Thank God she could imagine with God nothing is impossible. Even after 2,000 years we are still singing Mary’s song; not because we understand exactly what God did through her and not because we have seen the things come true of which she so lovingly sang. We go about our ministry with the hurting and the dying and the homebound and the homeless and those dear ones we love, reassuring one another that God can do the impossible. Why? I suppose, in part at least, because we have watched Mary and listened to her singing. Like Mary, we can’t quite fathom how it will all unfold and yet we still do not lose hope.

    May these days be enchanting ones for you and may your finest Christmas gift be having the capacity to trust that God can do the impossible for you and for all those you love.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    December 14, 2014
    Third Sunday of Advent
    Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11
    “A Window with a View”

    John 1:6-28
    There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
    This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

    A few years ago, Dagmar and I spent a small fortune putting a huge window in our living room. Our window is from floor to ceiling and stretches across our entire living room. It is a room with a view! You can look out through it to the eastern mountains. On a clear day you can see 6,512 foot Cuyamaca Peak. This is particularly thrilling for me because, as I think you know, I come from the mountain state, West Virginia. Imagine my disappointment when I learned that the highest peak in West Virginia, Spruce Knob, is a mere 4,863 feet high; that is 1,700 feet less than the mountain we stare at out of our living room window. Nevertheless, I still like John Denver’s words, “Almost heaven, West Virginia.”

    But here’s the problem with our stunning window. Every once in a while it gets a smudge or two on it. Since it isn’t the easiest window to clean, the smudge sometimes remains longer than Dagmar would like. And with a smudge—even a tiny one—we catch ourselves staring more and more at the smudge and less and less at majestic Cuyamaca Peak. No matter how we turn our heads to change the sight lines, the smudge still ends up being central to our view.

    And, of course, sometimes, we can get so caught up in how lovely our window is that we forget why we put it there in the first place.

    This time of year, Advent, we gather to focus our attention on Christ. That is why our church is here and why it has been here for 126 years now. That is why, between First and TACO’s ministry, we will spend more than $600,000 this year so people can catch a view of the Christ Child.

    On our best days, the view of Christ is crystal clear and stunning; there is no question we are staring at Christ, the Lord’s anointed one. Whether we are bringing good news to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, or comforting those who mourn, at our best, we are always pointing to Christ’s presence in whose name we do all the amazing ministry that occurs here day-by-day.

    But, frankly, it is not always easy to see beyond our window! Sometimes, perhaps unbeknownst to us, a smudge suddenly appears and hinders our view of Christ.

    Today, we have our children’s pageant. We have been looking forward to this day for quite a while. We have more and more sheep and enough wise men to sing “We Three Kings.” We could have three baby Jesuses if we wanted; in fact, today, our baby Jesus is a baby girl (Hannah). If we so chose, we could promulgate some kind of heresy where there is more than one Jesus, more than one Virgin Mary, and more than one Joseph—I suppose the heresy would be called polyholyfamilism.

    I don’t need to tell you how easy it will be to stare at our children and be filled with wonder—and that is a good thing. We will watch the unruly sheep—just like the ones outside Bethlehem—going every which way except where the shepherds want them to go: they will run to their parents rather than sitting in the fields by night; they will try to extricate themselves of their cute sheep heads; they will have ants-in-their pants, maybe even forcing the spot light their way instead of toward the baby Jesus. One of the wise men might pick his nose at the manger as he adores the Christ Child. We will shed a tear or two and it will do our hearts well. As our oldest members whom we will sing carols to this afternoon are so fond of saying, “How amazing to have so many children at First Lutheran Church.” It will be easy to congratulate ourselves as the number of children here grows and grows. But the important question remains: are we able to see the Christ Child through our children? Like John the Baptist, do our dear little ones point us to someone greater than themselves? I’m sure they will.

    And we will bless 200 sleeping bags and tarps this morning; they will be given out to our patio parishioners at breakfast this coming Friday morning. Could there ever be a better nativity display? Isn’t this what the Bible calls our attention to when Luke writes that there was no room in the inn? This isn’t make believe where we ship in a few live sheep and donkeys and even a camel for a “living nativity” on our patio; this is the real deal, seeing the baby Jesus in our homeless brothers and sisters right outside this building on the streets of San Diego.

    And yet, it is easy to get caught just looking at the window. We might to be tempted to hand out the sleeping bags on Friday and begin to feel pretty good about ourselves, neglecting even to mention the story of our dear Savior’s birth.

    John the Baptist faced the exact dilemma. When he started preaching on the banks of the Jordan River, people tried to cast the spotlight directly onto him. They thought he might be the Messiah for whom they had long awaited or Elijah or one of the great prophets. They even asked him, “Who are you?” With all the temptation to take center stage, John resisted, saying, “I am the voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” He pointed out the window to Christ coming over the distant eastern mountain.

    There is so much that is happening around here, giving us the splendid opportunity to be just like John the Baptist, to “make straight the way of the Lord.” In these days as you hold to what is good, may your own life be a beautiful window of sorts. As people look your way, may you point them beyond yourself, always, to the Christ Child.

    Let us now rejoice as our little ones point us to the Christ Child.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    December 7, 2014
    Second Sunday of Advent
    Isaiah 40: 1-11; Mark 1: 1-8
    “Looking in the Right Direction”

    Mark 1:1-8
    The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

    As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
    “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way;
    the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

    John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

    During this church year, the gospel reading you will hear read most often will come from the book of Mark. We just heard the first words of that gospel.

    Mark’s gospel might surprise you. You would think it would begin with angelic announcements to Mary and Joseph that they are about to be the parents of a baby boy. Mark doesn’t mention this at all. You look for shepherds and angels and sheep and donkeys and certainly for the baby Jesus lying in a manger and yet all to no avail. Not a word about any of this in Mark’s gospel.

    The first character you hear of in Mark’s gospel is John the baptizer preaching in the wilderness. This may strike you as odd: the first time John the Baptist and his younger cousin Jesus appear, they are about thirty years old. I bet none of you is particularly enthralled with the madman John starting things off as he stands at the Jordan River bank ranting about “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

    John the Baptist reminds us of the crazy uncle who ruins our family Christmas. Every single year he bursts through the door and starts mouthing off about something. And, ever single year, on the second and third weeks of Advent, Uncle John the Baptist barges right in here, in our dining room, dressed in worn out camel’s hair rags and munching on locusts and wild honey. Worst of all he rants and raves to anyone within earshot—US!—“Repent of your sins.” We get fidgety; we hope the ushers will take matters into their hands and toss him out; we wonder why the pastor doesn’t shut him up. We are anticipating the children’s Christmas pageant next week, candlelight and singing “Silent Night” in a few more weeks; we are not keen on enduring the tirade of this madman.

    And yet, there is something about John that draws us closer. Oh sure, some of us come just to see this bizarre character like watching a terrible accident on The 8, but others detect something deeper. As we listen to John’s preaching, we begin to wonder how we might go about changing our own lives. John drives us inward, deep into our own hearts. He touches a nerve within us: if we only listen to him, things might get better.

    Sometimes we need a person with the courage to tell us to change our habits. We need a person who will do an intervention of our souls, not just our alcohol consumption—though that isn’t such a bad thing—but all the twisted and hackneyed routines curved in on ourselves, routines that prevent us from ever even peaking at the Christ Child. John the Baptist dares to tell us that Jesus should come first in our lives, that we should worship regularly, give more generously to Christ’s ministry in this place, read our Bible daily, and pray without ceasing. John the Baptist dares to say the hard word which, when uttered, might just change our lives for the better.

    I have a movie recommendation for you: “Foxcatcher.” It is currently playing at the Hillcrest Cinema so that almost guarantees the movie is not going to be a blockbuster. Let me tell you in advance of your forking out ten bucks that this movie is not a barrel of laughs; in fact, there is only one laugh in the entire film. This movie is not entertaining in the least. But I believe it is an important movie. It is about John DuPont who was an heir to the DuPont chemical fortune. He lived a few miles from where we last lived in suburban Philadelphia on his palatial Foxcatcher farm. Because he had oodles of money, people overlooked the devils that haunted him. The local police department got funding from him; Villanova University got an athletic center from him; the U.S. Wrestling Federation got a state-of-the art wrestling center on his Newtown Square estate. No one dared tell John DuPont to repent: there was too much money at stake. Finally, his life unraveled and he murdered Olympic wrestling gold medalist Dave Schultz. If someone had dared to say a hard word, things might have turned out differently for John DuPont and many others whose lives he touched.

    Sometimes we watch people we love unravel before our very eyes because we do not have the guts—or the heart—to call them to repent. The word “repent” is so hard to say. Sometimes we don’t dare repent ourselves—we can’t stomach the word either! We prefer going on our merry way, living as we always have, killing ourselves physically, mentally, and socially. Our habits of addiction, consumption, and self-centeredness make us more and more miserable and we do not do a thing about it. We become lonelier and lonelier, wasting every penny we have on our own selfish desires and caring mostly for ourselves.

    When John the Baptist comes along, he has the audacity and deep heart to tell us to live differently, to change. It is an intervention worth listening to. If we do, we might end up with lives far more meaningful.

    Whenever there is something astonishing to see, Dagmar directs me to look as if I am staring at a clock: “Look at that hawk almost at three o’clock. There’s a whale at exactly eleven o’clock.” If I get turned in the right direction, I behold the breathtaking wonder of the soaring hawk or the breaching whale. When John cries out, “Repent,” he is telling us exactly where to look: “Turn around so you can see Christ coming into your life.” Often times, it is a 180 degree turn.

    I know this all can seem quite depressing during this time of Christmas preparation. We might be mumbling, “This is exactly why the church is dying: who wants to hear of repentance on December 7? Give us the baby Jesus; let us sing Christmas carols.” But, for the people of God, Advent is the time to get ourselves turned in the right direction so when the Christ Child comes down the royal highway, we are looking toward him and he can walk straight into our arms.

    And so, these days of repentance are actually a very good time, a joyful time. Who wants to miss the Christ Child? Sometimes it takes an abrupt jerk to turn us around: no diplomacy, no warm, fuzzy words—there is absolutely no time for such subtlety. People who love us dare to grab us by the shoulders and scream, “Repent.” The astonishing thing is we end up looking in the right direction, staring at the Christ Child face-to-face, and our lives are changed forever.

    Happy Advent!

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    November 30, 2014
    First Sunday of Advent
    Isaiah 64: 1-9; Mark 13: 24-37
    “Stir Up Your Power, Lord Christ, and Come”

    Mark 13:24-37
    Jesus said: “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

    Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

    “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

    “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

    You have noticed, I’m sure, that the days are getting darker. At this time of year, we lose about 1 ½ minutes of daylight each day. By the time December 21 rolls around, we will have the darkest day of the year with only 9½ hours of daylight.

    I am not a big aficionado of these dark days. I hate leaving work when night has fallen—no walks, no jogs, just darkness.

    This is also a time of darkness in the church. We start today by lighting only one candle on the Advent wreath and one candle on the altar. The color is blue, the deep, dark color of the sky just before sunrise.

    The church, like our world, cries out into the Advent darkness, “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come!”

    Our world is so dark these days. I am not just talking about the evening sky or this sanctuary. I’m talking about Jerusalem, ISIS, the Ukraine. I’m talking about Ferguson. I’m talking about your life, the life you are embarrassed to tell anyone about.

    So what do you make of Ferguson? Was Michael Brown, an eighteen year old African American gunned down on the evening of August 9, innocent? Or was Officer Darren Wilson simply doing his duty when he stopped Michael Brown who fit the description of someone who had just stolen a box of cigarillos from a convenience store when all hell broke loose? I imagine you have your thoughts. And yet, surprisingly, when I talked to quite a few of you this week, asking what you would say if you were preaching this morning, not a single one of you gave me a simple or conclusive answer.

    I don’t want to pass the buck. I wish I were a bit more courageous this morning. I wish I could shake my fist and proclaim “the truth.” But I am confused.

    Let me tell you what I think I do know.

    Anthony was thirteen years old when he was killed by a fourteen year older. He was our neighbor; I baptized Anthony; he was an acolyte in our church who would have lighted the Advent wreath on a morning like this. Upon receiving word that he had been murdered, I immediately visited Anthony’s family. Upon leaving their home, a reporter from the Washington Post was waiting for me at curbside. She asked, “How well did you know Anthony?” I told her what I just told you. She then asked me, “Was Anthony a good boy?” I said to her: “You would never ask me that question if Anthony had grown up in a white, affluent area of Washington, D.C., and attended an upscale private school. Never when family and friends are grieving the death of a thirteen year old”—or for that matter, Michael Brown—“should your first question be, ‘Was he a good boy?’”

    What else I know is that never in my life have I worried about what might happen when I am stopped by the police. Never! Twelve years ago I was stopped for running a red light, something, by the way, I immediately admitted doing: the sun was in my eyes and I completely missed the light. At Rotary the next day, I told the police chief how respectfully his officer had treated me. When I showed up in court, the judge who, unbeknownst to the arresting officer, was the father of one of our son’s classmates, asked me, “How do you plead, Reverend?” I said, “Your honor, guilty.” He looked at me weirdly and said, “Reverend, you don’t have to plead guilty.” Then he looked at the arresting officer standing next to me and asked him, “Does the good reverend look like a menace to society?” A bit befuddled and uncomfortable, the officer said, “No, your honor.” That is my biggest scrape with the law. It does not escape me that I am a privileged, white clergyman who happened to be wearing a clerical collar the day I was stopped and when I appeared in court—I may be dumb but I’m not stupid.

    Are you surprised to hear that, following Michael Brown’s death, a Pew poll found that four in five blacks believe the shooting raises important questions about race, compared with only thirty-seven percent of whites? Also, almost half of whites said that race was getting too much attention in the discussion of Brown’s death.

    Here is also what I know. In 2012, according to data compiled by the FBI, approximately 410 Americans were “justifiably” killed by police and approximately 127 police officers were killed. In that same year, British police officers fired their weapons three times and no one was fatally shot. This I know: our nation has an alarming gun problem.

    My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, it is dark outside, very dark.

    So, does the church have anything to say amidst these dark days? I believe we do but it might not be what you expect or want me to say. I believe we are called to watch and wait. That does not mean we are called to sit passively by twiddling our thumbs or that we should not be outraged or even that we should all agree. What it means is that we, the people of God, must watch and wait, not watching and waiting idly, but watching and waiting actively as we long for Christ’s presence to bring light into our darkness.

    During October and November, we watched and waited here at First Lutheran Church. We listened to one another’s stories, stories in most cases we had never heard, stories that surprised us, stories that saddened us. We heard African American member Robin Withers tell of when she was a little girl and a white classmate urged her to go home, take a bath, and wash off her black. We heard Nance Lovell tell of the racism she and her family faced for being Japanese Americans.

    This may not seem like much to you, but how often do we take the time to listen to one another’s stories? Three quarters of white Americans live in an entirely white network with no minority presence. The church sadly is part of that statistic and, in fact, is probably worse. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing ‘In Christ there is no East or West,’ we stand in the most segregated hour of America.” Things have not changed. Our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, at its founding in 1988, set a goal of becoming a denomination made up of 10% of people of color or whose primary language is other than English. Twenty-five years later, we are failing to come close to that goal, with a membership of about 2% of people of color.

    I find this all troubling and confusing but I am not without hope and I hope you aren’t either. We are just like those people in Isaiah’s time who believed that God can make our world better and so we come here and cry out to our heavenly Father, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”

    As dark as these days are, we keep alert and awake during these dark days of Advent, trusting that the Lord will come. As we wait, we mourn the death of Michael Brown and we are deeply saddened for his parents. As we wait, we pray for the safety of police officers and that they will be filled with the grace to protect all God’s children from violence and harm. As we wait, we listen to one another’s stories, hoping for a word that might be fresh and change us for the better. As we wait, we plead, “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come!”

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    November 23, 2014
    Christ the King Sunday
    Matthew 25: 31-46
    “Where's the King?”

    Matthew 25:31-46
    “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

    When our sons, Caspar and Sebastian, were little, one of our great evening joys was snuggling and reading Where’s Waldo? We looked and looked and looked for Waldo. We looked for Waldo in all the wrong places, thinking we had found him—“There’s Waldo!”—only to realize we had not. We giggled. Sometimes we got exasperated. But we kept looking and when we found Waldo, there was excitement galore: “There’s Waldo! I found Waldo!”

    In a few moments, during Communion, we will sing, “Soon and very soon we are going to see the king.” It is like finding Waldo. How exactly will we know when we have spotted Christ the King?

    We have spent this year—like so many years before—searching for this peculiar king. We have celebrated his birth in Bethlehem seeing if we can find him in a little babe; we have looked carefully at his odd dining habits with outcasts and riffraff seeing if he might be there at dinner; we have examined his astonishing healings of sickly sorts thinking he surely must be there amidst such wonder; we have even pondered his death and resurrection, wondering if these events might help us find Christ the King.

    We are a community that snuggles together, when our hearts are broken, when we have never been happier, when we are lonely beyond belief, when we are in the depths of despair, when booze has taken its fierce toll. Yes, we snuggle together and help one another spot Christ the King.

    We just read what, to my ears over 9 ½ years as your pastor, must be your favorite biblical passage. It is from the 25th chapter Matthew: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

    Fifteen of you have decided this might be an opportune place to come searching for this odd king called Jesus and so you are joining our community of faith this morning.

    In some ways, frankly, this is an unlikely place to find King Jesus. We do not have thousands worshiping here. Our building, though lovely to my eyes and probably many of yours, isn’t exactly the Crystal Cathedral. We don’t have a fancy youth program spending thousands to take our children on exotic mission trips and we don’t have a fancy youth room with air-hockey, ping-pong, Xbox, and a 54 inch television. Remarkably, however, a number of you still choose to rear your children here, baptizing them and bringing them to Sunday morning worship. I must tell you, I believe you are doing a very noble thing: it may ring of arrogance, but I believe you are bringing your children to one of the finest church youth programs in the world. Your children grow up here among a community that believes, instead of having all their wants and desires catered to, they have a pretty good chance of spotting Jesus in this pipsqueak place amongst the most vulnerable, broken, and downtrodden that this city knows.

    In a few moments, we will celebrate the baptisms of Bresaria, Kamaria, Dreceon, and Niyana. We will renounce that pesky devil with hands outstretched and our voices lifted in defiance of the evil one. If I were a bit more daring, I would follow another ancient tradition and have you spit in Satan’s face. Water will be all over the place and we will sing alleluia to beat the band, trusting the king is amidst all this splishing and splashing. And following the baptisms and reception of new members into this holy assembly, you will come with hands outstretched and I will place an insignificant morsel of bread into your hand—hardly the stuff of royalty—and yet you will look at that tiny piece and say, “Amen,” for you have found the king.

    On Friday morning, Ron Barry and Artemis Williams were married right out on our patio. This was a first in this congregation’s 126 year history. It was the largest wedding I have been part of here: the patio was filled with those coming for their morning breakfast and the Society of Anglican and Lutheran Theologians was also meeting here. Dorothy Hunter and Dale Cleland donated a delicious cake; Dagmar Miller made a stunning bridal bouquet; and the theologians and homeless folks formed an impromptu acapella choir to sing the most glorious wedding music I have ever heard: they sang “Amazing Grace” as the bride processed across our patio to the chapel doors and then our finest theologians, as if angels from heaven, broke into “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” as the bride and groom processed down the middle of the patio as husband and wife.

    I doubt whether this place has ever had so many of our Lutheran church’s deepest thinkers together at one time than in the past couple of days. They used quite a bit of lofty language, words like apocalyptic and eschatological, existential and apophatic, words that, at least for me, are difficult to fathom. One of my favorite Lutheran theologians was here, someone who taught me “Trinitarian Theology”—a topic that will make your head swim! And yet, as he was about to leave the conference, he said to me at the door: “Wilk, I feel just like old Simeon in the Bible who upon seeing the baby Jesus said, ‘I can now go in peace, for I have seen my salvation.’ That’s how I felt after Ron and Artemis’ wedding.” Can you believe it: one of our church’s finest theological minds said he saw Jesus right here, at our Bread Day meal, something we have been doing now for forty years?

    So, where is Christ the King? Keep you eyes wide open because, according to Jesus, the odds are pretty strong that you might find him right here this morning. See if you can spot him as four young people are baptized and fifteen astonishing people join our community of faith. See if you can see him as you Pass the Peace and stare into one another’s face. See if you can find him in the simple gifts of bread and wine. See if you can find him on the streets surrounding this church as you leave worship this morning. I am positive we can find Christ the King here this morning—at least that’s what he has told us.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    "Satis Est: Just Bread, Wine, Water, and Words"
    Paper Delivered at the Society of Anglican and Lutheran Theologians (SALT)
    Thursday, November 20, 2014

    When Dr. John Hoffmeyer asked me to give a little paper today, I immediately began to tremble. I then scrutinized your names, the institutions you represent, and the titles of your presentations, and I trembled all the more. You see, I am just a parish pastor.

    I heard Richard John Neuhaus in the summer of 1976, before he converted to Roman Catholicism and before he became the editor of First Things. He was, at the time, the pastor of the Lutheran Church of Saint John the Evangelist (Saint John the Mundane as he liked to call it), a congregation in Brooklyn’s tough Williamsburg section. He was preaching at the installation of the new pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The service was held at a neighboring church because Trinity’s church building had been recently condemned and they were now meeting in a nondescript row house.

    The pastor and people of Trinity seemed a desperate lot. Pastor Neuhaus said something that day I will not forget: “You may feel quite poor and bedraggled today. I want to assure you, however, that you have more than enough to carry out effective ministry. All you need for the church to be present is bread, wine, water, and the word and, the last I looked, Manhattan has these in spades.”

    Hence my topic: “Satis est: just bread, wine, water, and words.” More than enough! This via Article VII of the Augsburg Confession: “It is taught among us that one holy Christian church…is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.”

    The Gospel and sacraments are what Gerard Manley Hopkins calls the ‘gear and tackle and trim” of pastoral ministry. Gordon Lathrop writes: “Words, stories, sacraments, images, gestures: pastors have really nothing else” (Gordon Lathrop, The Pastor, pg. 1).

    I fear the church often does not deem such stuff as nearly enough, especially in these days when we seem obsessed with the demise of Christendom and watch once venerable and invincible churches close their doors for good. We are tempted to add fluff to ministry’s “gear and tackle and trim.” When churches and pastors and, yes, seminaries and professors too, fear for our lives, how blessed are we who discern that bread, wine, water, and the word are sufficient, satis est, for the journey God calls us on.

    My favorite essay on this matter is by Joseph Sittler. The title alone is worth the price of admission: “The Maceration of the Minister.” Listen to how timely his words are even fifty-five years after he delivered them at Yale’s Beecher Lectures: “The church says that it wants better preaching—and really means it. But there is in this demand some bitter irony for the preacher. To preach well requires time, reflection, solitude; and the church makes other demands of the preacher that annihilate these three requirements. Visit the former student some years later in what he or she calls inexactly the ‘study,’ and one is more than likely to find the pastor accompanied by volumes taken from the student room. Filed on top of these will be mementos of present concerns: a roll of blueprints; a file of negotiations between the parish, the bank, and the Board of Missions; samples of asphalt tile; and a plumber’s estimate” (Joseph Sittler, Grace Notes and Other Fragments, pgs. 57, 58).

    We parish pastors pride ourselves on such piles, positively reveling in our jam-packed desk diaries or, for the technologically sophisticated, our Iphones, that announce to any who care: “I can’t meet for six weeks; not a free day til’ then; already working 80 hours a week.” Satis est is offensive or at least embarrassing to those of us who want so much more.

    I should know better though…Not only did I hear Pastor Neuhaus declare that bread, wine, water, and the word are enough, I was similarly reminded three years earlier on my first day of seminary. Our future homiletics professor Bill Muehl gazed out at us from Marquand Chapel’s stately white pulpit and reflected on how thrilled we must be to be students at Yale Divinity School. He noted that our parents were thrilled, too, though not quite so happy to be paying the tuition. And our grandmas and grandpas—they watched proudly from afar as we heeded the Lord’s call as had Jeremiah and Isaiah, Elizabeth and Mary, before us. And then Mr. Muehl threw this devastating kidney punch our way: “Admit it: you are here because you couldn’t get into law school or medical school.” Lest we ever forget, he was reminding most of us that we would spend the better part of our lives being JUST parish pastors.

    And yet, I still catch myself flouting that pesky commandment about coveting my neighbor’s ox and ass. I long to be more than just a parish pastor. It happens most often when I visit hospitals. I carry my humble little black Almy communion kit stuffed with bits of bread, a few sips of wine, and my tiny Bible given to me by our oldest son on his first Christmas. When I gawk at the doctors with lofty titles regally stitched on their freshly starched white lab coats, stethoscopes hanging stylishly around their necks, and adoring residents genuflecting at their heels, I feel miserably mediocre. Satis est is hardly enough!

    And I dare say it is not just I. Others seem to want more, too. People often ask me what our church “does.” Trying to resist vainglory, I like to say, “We worship every Sunday.” This answer hardly seems adequate; it draws people up short. There is inevitably the follow-up question, “What else do you do?” There must be more than worship if our ministry is truly authentic.

    At First Lutheran Church, the gathering around bread, wine, water and the word instructs all else we do—as least I pray it does. Of course, we do other things—see how easily I succumb to vainglory’s enticements and entrapments! When you arrive tomorrow morning, you will see a beehive of activity: medical, dental, acupuncture, and legal clinics; social workers attending to a myriad of needs; 200 people or so gathered for the morning meal as they have done for forty years. If you come at 8:45 a.m., you are invited to participate in a first on our patio: we will have a wedding of two homeless folks, Ron and Artemis…And yet, when you ask what we do here, at my best, I say, “We worship every Sunday.”

    In a society mesmerized by flashier programs and chock-full calendars, it is inconceivable that God can be revealed in places like this through simple gifts of bread, wine, water, and the garbled words of preachers like me.

    And yet, isn’t worship where it all begins, where the vision is birthed? Dr. Ellen Beck, the director of our medical clinic, recently told me about a talk she was giving to her synagogue community. She was using the first chapter of Isaiah. I am shamed to admit I had never quite caught Isaiah’s words: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless; plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1: 16-17). Most of us laud the church when it seeks justice and corrects oppression. What Dr. Beck called to my attention are the words easily lost in the rush. According to Isaiah, we have to “learn to do good.” Learning such practices of the heart does not come in the air we breathe— even in lovely and temperate San Diego. We need to hear Jesus time and again: “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me” (Matthew 25: 34-36). Who among us could imagine discovering God amidst such wretchedness unless someone taught us how?

    I have to pinch myself almost daily to remember Jesus’ instruction. A few weeks ago, just after noon, as our largest Al-Anon group was meeting in this room, a fellow in a wheelchair dropped his tattered trousers in the center of our patio—right out there!—and proceeded to do his business. I furiously flew out of my study and screamed, “Get out of here. You are disgusting!” His only reply, “I had to go.” He then begged of me, “Could I have a clean wash rag to clean my bottom and a fresh pair of pants?” In my rage, I had to be reminded to do good. How easily I glossed over Jesus’ words, “I was naked and you clothed me.”

    Just a pastor….just a pastor.

    Does any literary character portray the “justness” of ministry better than the whiskey priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and The Glory? He is a pathetic soul: he is constantly in search of one more gulp of brandy; he has fathered a child; he flees the Mexican authorities trying to put a kibosh on his crazed hocus pocus routine. In spite of his pitiableness, this hapless holy man carts Christ to the forlorn and broken. He is all they have. He brings baptism to little ones whose parents eagerly await his arrival in their bleak villages; he hears the confessions of those burdened by seemingly unforgivable transgressions; he anoints those hounded by death; he lugs the outlawed bread and wine from pillar to post. Just an outcast shepherd carting broken words and trifling stuff. It takes a poet’s eyes to detect holiness in such bleak circumstances.

    My liturgics professor, Benedictine monk Aidan Kavanagh, warned us against trying to add fluff to such bleak circumstances, especially in the liturgy. In his delightful little book, The Elements of Rite, he instructs: “The altar table is kept free of contraptions such as elaborate bookstands, pots, cruets, plastic things, electrical apparatus, aids to piety, and the efforts of floral decorators. The book of the Word and the sacrament of the Word are adornment enough.”

    Father Kavanagh was all too familiar with our wont to add our own ill-advised flourishes to the “gear and tackle and trim” of ministry. I recently attended a liturgy at which the presiding minister, following the fraction, added his perky invitation to Jesus’ unadorned “Take eat…Drink you all of it.” At that retreat, where we clergy were hard at work adding our own charismatic, personal touches to anything and everything in sight, he apparently could not fathom how Jesus’ ostensibly humdrum words were enough to win the day.

    Kavanagh urges: “Place yourself in the background…One should engage in liturgy so that attention is called to the logos rather than to one’s own virtuosity…Strive for simplicity.”

    Our culture is so often mesmerized by more and more. In the midst of such materialistic saturation, are we able to behold beauty in simplicity—in the arthritic yet ever faithful hand reaching for Christ’s body; in the bare and time-worn Gregorian chant; in the ancient and cobwebby church at dusk, poorly lit but richly radiant? Simplicity… simplicity… Do we still mount the pulpit and preach the simple Gospel with fear and trembling; do our hands quake as we lift the bread, elevating Christ’s body for the 3,848th time? Oh my, do I ever hope so! I always tell our members, “When I am no longer nervous on Sunday morning, that is the day I leave this place.”

    Willa Cather, in Death Comes for the Archbishop, spots holiness in the simplicity of the fierce New Mexican landscape. She writes: “There is always something charming in the idea of greatness returning to simplicity—the queen making hay among the country fields—but how much more endearing was the belief that [the Holy Family], after so many centuries of history and glory, should return to play their first parts in the persons of a humble Mexican family, the lowliest of the lowly, the poorest of the poor—in a wilderness at the end of the world where the angels could scarcely find them” (Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop, pg. 80).

    Cather invites us to search for the Holy Family in the poor and lowly who hang out at places just like this.

    Sonja Turner was just such a person. Her funeral was held here a few weeks ago on Reformation Day. Her ashes will be interred in our columbarium aside the remains of her other homeless brothers and sisters who found an urban oasis here at 3rd and Ash. Sonja sat at the top of our patio stairs for three years, from morning until late at night. Estranged from her family in New England and not having seen her children for years, she found solace here as volunteers and staff of our homeless hospice program, “Simon’s Walk,” accompanied her through the valley of the shadow of lung cancer; they found her places to live indoors in her final year or so and were holding her hand as she breathed her last. Somehow, these folks glimpsed Christ’s beauty in this disheveled homeless woman.

    Is anyone better at discovering Christ’s presence in such simple people, places, and things than Annie Dillard? Is there a lovelier description of satis est than when Annie purchases communion wine at the local village store? “How can I buy communion wine? Who am I to buy the communion wine? Someone has to buy the communion wine. Having wine instead of grape juice was my idea, and of course I offered to buy it. Shouldn’t I be wearing robes and, especially, a mask? Shouldn’t I make the communion wine? Are there holy grapes, is there holy ground, is anything here holy? There are no holy grapes, there is no holy ground, nor is there anyone but us. I have an empty knapsack over my parka’s shoulders; it is cold, and I’ll want my hands in my pockets...There must be a rule for the purchase of communion wine. ‘Will that be cash, or charge?’ All I know is that when I go to this store—to buy eggs, or sandpaper, broccoli, wood screws, milk—I like to tease a bit, if he’ll let me…And I’m out on the road again walking, my right hand forgetting my left. I’m out on the road again, walking, and toting a backload of God…Here is a bottle of wine with a label, Christ with a cork. I bear holiness splintered into a vessel, very God of very God, the sempiternal silence personal and brooding, bright on the back of my ribs. I start up the hill.” (Annie Dillard, Holy The Firm, pgs. 63, 64)

    Whether in universities, seminaries, or local assemblies, we are the ones called, as Walter Bruggemann urges, to bring poetry to a prose flattened world. We are the artists who somehow paint God’s presence in just bread, wine, water and words, helping people delight in toting a backload of God in the ordinary routines of life.

    Here’s how Garret Keizer does that as he describes the first Easter Vigil held at his little congregation in Island Pond, Vermont: “The candle sputters in the half darkness, like a voice too embarrassed or overwhelmed to proclaim the news: ‘Christ is risen.’ But it catches fire, and there we are, three people and a flickering light—in an old church on a Saturday evening in spring, with the noise of the cars and their winter-rusted mufflers outside. The moment is filled with the ambiguities of all such quiet observances among few people, in the midst of an oblivious population in a radically secular age. The act is so ambiguous because its terms are so extreme: the Lord is with us, or we are pathetic fools. I like it that way. I believe God likes it that way. My worry is always that others will be discouraged rather than exalted by the omnipresence of the two possibilities.” (Garret Keizer, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees, pg. 73)

    It seems to me that we are all pathetic fools, and yet, apparently, that is not such a bad thing. The Orthodox Church has an order reserved just for such fools, holy fools albeit, an order as worthy as the ones reserved for bishops, priests, and deacons. Aren’t we all fools, lay and clergy, struggling to keep our eyes locked on the simple gifts that, according to Jesus, bear life for our suffering world? Sometimes, as Father Timothy Ware points out, it is hard to tell whether these holy fools among us are on the verge of breakdown or breakthrough. Or as an Orthodox priest friend of mine is fond of saying, “These holy fools are a gift of God, but, please God, do not send quite so many our way!” And yet, Saint Paul reminds us lest we forget: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1: 25).

    What if we pray for poetic eyes capable of seeing our Sunday gathering of fools as the kingdom meal? If our Sunday mornings do not reflect how we wish our world to be, dare we scuttle Jesus’ promised presence among such simple gatherings and foolish people for some shoddy pottage of our own contriving? Shouldn’t we instead confess our sin, sin that, just like in Paul’s Corinthian days, separates the rich from the poor? As we Pass the Peace, might we have poetic eyes enough to see who is missing and at that very moment pray for grace to make our Sunday gatherings foretastes of the feast to come where all God’s children gather together for a delicious taste of grace? See, how powerful “just worshipping” can be if we courageously trust Jesus’ promise to be present with us and those we are called to love.

    It is not easy to discover Christ amidst such simplicity, especially when the so called brightest and best, the most entrepreneurial minds of our day, are paid filthy fortunes to lure us into believing that more is better. May we cling to Saint Paul’s words, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

    You, dear theologians of our beloved church, are called to be our finest poets, pointing us to more exquisite gatherings where we behold Christ’s presence just in bread, wine, water, and words. That, of course, is more than enough.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    November 16, 2014
    Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
    Matthew 25: 14-30
    “Thank God for Risk Takers”

    Matthew 25:14-30 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

    We just heard Jesus tell a parable about three people entrusted with a little extra cash from their owner. One was given five talents, another two, and another one. While the owner was away, the people with five talents and two talents took risks with their master’s money, doubling what they had been given. The third person, the one with one talent, dug a hole and buried it in the ground.

    When the owner returned, he commended the two risk-takers and promised to give them more. The scaredy cat, rendered useless because he was so petrified by what his master might do if he lost his talent, was ordered to be tossed into the outer darkness where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

    Are you a risk-taker or are you scaredy cat? Don’t hear me asking if you climb rock faces in Yosemite or drive your Ninja Suzuki like a mad man on The 8. I am asking whether you take risks with the gifts God has given you to further God’s kingdom here on earth.

    I suppose we all, in one way or another, are afraid to fail. And yet, it is those who dare to risk who make a difference.

    The Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan once said: “I must put it plain. Without exception, the mentors of my lifetime have been failures. They went so far as to claim the ‘right to fail,’ an audacious notion on the face of it…Their motto and perhaps our own: Better fail for the right reason than make it big for the wrong!”

    Our church council took a risk earlier this year. As you know, we have been doing our best to carry on an astonishing ministry here at First Lutheran Church. Since we have a little bit of money in the bank, the council wondered how to be most responsible with this money, especially with that given by a number of families at the death of their loved ones. After talking to financial experts, praying, and listening to those who felt such a step might be too risky, irresponsible even, the council took the bold step of investing $62,000 in the stock market. What if the stock market tumbled as it did five years ago?

    We talked about what it means to be fiduciaries of this congregation’s resources. Fiduciary, of course, is a business term, but fiduciary comes from the Latin word fides, meaning to be faithful. How are we to be most faithful? In no way am I suggesting that what the council did was the only way to act nor that it is even necessarily right to invest in the stock market. What we did was measure the risk, consider our social responsibility, and our responsibility to the ministry we love, and then we jumped. Of course, the market could have tumbled, and still could, but I am pleased to note our risk has witnessed a 9.5% increase in what we invested.

    Have you ever taken a risk? Over 50% of you have already handed in your pledge card, promising to support our ministry in 2015. This is a risk. One of our newest members came to me last week and said: “This is the first time I have ever made a pledge. I might not have any money next year so please take this envelope.” This person is far from rich. When I opened the envelope, there was $240 in cash. That’s a risk.

    The biggest risk-taker of all was our heavenly Father who sent his son to earth to live among us and to die for us. As you well know, he was murdered. Was it too big of a risk? Actually, in dying and rising for us, Jesus assures us we never have to fear when we take risks. We can even fail, trying to do what is right, and that is not the end of the world.

    While we may be tempted to bury our talent or two in the ground, I have a sneaking suspicion most of us are mesmerized by risk takers. Dr. Seuss’s first book, And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was rejected by twenty-seven publishers; the twenty-eighth publisher accepted it and sold six million copies. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team; I think you know what happened to him when he refused to give up. Albert Einstein’s doctoral dissertation was deemed irrelevant and fanciful, rejected; do you by chance remember Einstein?

    A psychotherapist once told me the most successful people are the ones least afraid of failing. Even though they lose their jobs and are turned down for their dream jobs repeatedly, they never give up and they keep on risking.

    I have a hunch that this holds true for Christ’s church as well. The finest ministries keep on risking. The most uninspiring ones have hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank—I know one church with millions—and yet are so afraid of their own shadow that they bury every thing they have in the ground for a “rainy day.” The only rainy day they ever face comes when they shut their sanctuary doors the final time and have millions in the bank although, I guess, to be fair, their roof does not leak! Said another way: they die rich. How uninspiring, how boring, how fiduciarly irresponsible.

    One church I have always deeply admired is located in one of our nation’s poorest inner-city neighborhoods. It never has a red cent. And yet, it has a parish day school, a sizeable staff, and its doors are open morning, noon, and night. The church is forever taking crazy risks. Do you know how they pay their bills? They put them in a shoebox and have an end of the month examination: which bills must be paid in order to keep the heat and lights on? It is a daring and breathtaking ministry. I pray that we might risk using what God has given us in creative ways that proclaim Christ’s love here in downtown San Diego, never afraid precisely because we have nothing to fear. God has already won the day for us through Jesus Christ our Savior; now let’s risk.

    And risk you do! In the next seven days here at First Lutheran, we will witness a few risks. This coming Friday, we will have a first: Ron and Artemus will be married here. We have had many weddings at First over the years but this one will be different: two homeless people will be married on our patio right before the “Bread Day” meal is served. And on Sunday, four young people will be baptized here, joining eleven others who will affirm their faith. It is always risky to stand at the water and watch God do battle with Satan: yes, indeed, our heavenly Father wages war with the deadly dragon in the roiling waters and we trust that God will always win…This is going to be a breathtaking week.

    You have joined a church that does some crazy things and in the midst of it all, if we listen, we can hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servants.” Thank God, you refuse to bury your treasure in the ground.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    November 9, 2014
    Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
    Matthew 25: 1-13
    “What about the Bride-to-Be?”

    Matthew 25: 1-13
    “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

    Please forgive my arrogance, but I believe I can improve on the parable we just heard Jesus tell about the ten bridesmaids.

    I actually think the tension in the parable could be heightened dramatically if the ten bridesmaids were replaced with the bride-to-be. Honestly, who do you think was more nervous awaiting the groom’s arrival, the bridesmaids or the bride-to-be?

    The Tiffany wedding invitations had been sent out, the elegant beach club rented, the hippest band in town booked, thousands spent on flowers, and the Dior wedding dress was gorgeous—dad wasn’t going to retire nearly as early as he once wished.

    I can assure you from experience the bride is always the most nervous. The bridesmaids could care less. Wedding weekend is like a college Chi Omega sorority party. They’ve got the silky green and pink dresses, six inch heals, make-up by Desiree’s of Hollywood, and they already have had way too much to drink. If the groom doesn’t show up, that will be a riveting story to tell for a lifetime. Why be nervous?

    But pity the poor bride in today’s parable. She nervously pranced back and forth in the church’s bridal room, shaking like a palm branch blown by a fierce Santa Ana wind and tears flowing to make her mascara look like a Rorschach ink blot test.

    Would the bridegroom appear or not? She had heard the tales of horror. She hysterically asked the pastor, not once but three times, “Has this ever happened to you before?”

    All the while the organist was playing—ten minutes, twenty-two minutes, forty-six minutes. The ushers were wondering where their pal was. The poor grandparents— this was their worst imaginable nightmare for their precious “little one.” The invited guests were busy whispering, “He’s too classy to do this...or is he?”

    This very thing happened to the early Christians. They had placed their hopes on Jesus, the bridegroom, coming again. In fact, the church is often called “The Bride of Christ.” Nevertheless, one year led to the next. Fifty, sixty, seventy years after Jesus died and rose and still no Jesus. The organist has been playing preludial music as we wait the bridegroom’s entrance for two thousand years now. Jesus said he would come again; where is he?

    Here we are, like those bridesmaids. It isn’t easy keeping our lamps trimmed and burning.

    Keep your lamps trimmed and burning,
    keep your lamps trimmed and burning,
    keep you lamps trimmed and burning,
    for the time is drawing nigh.

    Sisters, don’t grow weary,
    brothers, don’t grow weary,
    children, don’t grow weary,
    for the time is drawing nigh.

    Sometimes the bridesmaids’ job is to keep the bride’s spirits up when she grows weary. While only five of the ten had enough oil in their lamps when the groom finally did arrive, the truth is that all ten became drowsy and slept. It is tough to wait, especially when expectations are running high.

    Have you ever had to wait? Alexandre Dumas, the author of such books as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, writes, “All human wisdom is summed up in two words; wait and hope.” And yet it is hard to hope deep into the night and to sing all the while.

    Darker midnight lies before us,
    darker midnight lies before us,
    darker midnight lies before us,
    for the time is drawing nigh. [Refrain]

    We, the people of the church, are the bridesmaids, called to keep our lamps trimmed and burning. Much of the world has long since given up hope. We continue to send our sons and daughters to brutal foreign wars; God’s planet is sucking wind and we wonder if it is too late; we walk out of the doors of our beloved church and see more and more homeless folks more desperate than ever.

    If we are called to do anything here at First Lutheran Church, then we are called to be people of hope, encouraging one another to keep waiting for Christ’s arrival into our midst. We do all manner of hopeful things as we wait. We forgive one another’s sins. We baptize our little ones and teach them Christ’s promise that he will come again. We share a meal every Sunday, believing this a glimpse of the wedding feast that will go on forever in heaven.

    We saw a community of waiting here on Wednesday evening as forty of us gathered to listen to the poignant and breathtaking stories of Nance Lovell, Robin Withers, Maureen Taylor, and Shaun Travers. They told us of the ridicule and racism they and their families have faced through the years. They trembled as they told their stories and quite a few of us wiped away tears with them.

    With our lamps trimmed and burning, we watch together well into the night, praying all the while for a brand new morning when the bridegroom will arrive and racial harmony will flourish throughout our nation.

    Lo, the morning soon is breaking,
    lo, the morning soon is breaking,
    lo, the morning soon is breaking,
    for the time is drawing nigh. [Refrain]

    One of the wonderful ways to keep hope alive in a community such as ours is by placing our offering in the Sunday morning plate. When we join together, everyone carrying part of the load, we bring the strength of ten bridesmaids and not just five. When we join hands in solidarity and do our part for this astonishing community, we help one another wait for the coming of the bridegroom Jesus.

    In our church, in these very days, we invite one another to share the responsibility of hoping by making a commitment, a pledge, to our church’s ministry in 2015. To accomplish our ambitious ministry of hope for the coming year, a ministry far larger than a place our size should expect to carry out, all ten of us bridesmaids need to help carry the weight. Won’t you please make a commitment for 2015, even if you have never done so before? Won’t you fill out a pledge card this year even if you have never thought of doing such a thing? Won’t you help keep hope alive in this place and join all the other bridesmaids in our congregation who are trying to keep oil in their lamps?

    There is deep joy when all ten bridesmaids join hands with the bride and wait with hope for Jesus. Our church has been here in downtown San Diego for 126 years and counting. We have a rich history and, remarkably, these days are as rich as they have ever been.

    By the grace of God, let us assure one another, in the midst of all the challenges we face, that the bridegroom is fast on his way. Let us keep our lamps trimmed and burning.

    Christian, journey soon be over,
    Christian, journey soon be over,
    Christian, journey soon be over,
    for the time is drawing night. [Refrain]

    Keep your lamps trimmed and burning,
    keep your lamps trimmed and burning,
    keep your lamps trimmed and burning,
    for the time is drawing nigh. [Refrain]

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    November 2, 2014
    All Saints' Sunday
    “Poets in a Flattened Prose World”

    Matthew 5:1-12
    When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

    Walter Brueggmann is a very popular contemporary biblical scholar who seems to write a new book about every week. One of his finest, in my mind, is entitled Finally Comes the Poet. He urges preachers like me to assault the imagination, to be dramatic, artistic, inviting people. He invites us to “become poets that speak against a flattened prose world.”

    We all gather on this All Saints’ Sunday with the expressed purpose of being poets that speak against a flattened prose world.

    So what exactly do such poets sound like? In a few moments, we will confess our historic faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. That’s what poetry sounds like. And yet, for some, this creed is nothing more than cobwebby gobbledygook destined for history’s trash heap.

    Our San Diego Lutheran pastors group is currently involved in a bit of emailing with one another. It all began when one of our colleagues suggested, and I quote, “The creeds no longer summarize what we believe.”

    When I read his words, I was horrified and deeply troubled. You see, when pastors are ordained as ministers of the church, we promise, with God’s help, to preach and teach in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the creeds and confessions of the church. To be a pastor in our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is not to spout off our new-fangled ideas on a host of matters; rather, we are called to be faithful to the traditions of our church through the ages.

    Come about now, you may be nodding off; in fact, I think I hear one of you snoring. “The ancient creeds of the church,” you say. “The Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds? What’s the big deal?”

    The big deal is that in these creeds we confess that Christ died and on the third day rose from the dead. Not only do we confess this, we also claim to believe in the communion of saints and the resurrection of the body. At least for me, these are beliefs worth fighting for! I am not impressed by any of my colleagues who want to scuttle God’s victory over death along with the belief that we are all saints watched over forever by God in exchange for some modern cheap trinkets that offer little hope for eternal life for you and those you have loved. If resurrection and the communion of saints have no meaning, then rip my ordination stole to shreds and let me sell pots and pans door-to-door. Without the hope of the resurrection to eternal life, I have nothing worth peddling to you nearly as good as Teflon pans and a slice and dicer thrown in for good measure.

    I don’t mean to be harsh. I think I get my colleague. Believing that our loved ones are now in heaven is not the easiest thing to grasp. We moderns are a rational people after all. We have landed on the moon, corralled the atom, and found ways to protect ourselves from a host of monstrous diseases. Given our apparent success rate—not counting, by the way, war, racism, and the growing disparity between the rich and poor—if we don’t understand something, we quickly throw it away as the silly superstition of ignorant people. Nevertheless, I disagree with my colleague who wants to scuttle the historic beliefs of the church for some modern day gibberish.

    As we gather today, I want us to believe more than we can easily understand. I want the mystery of God’s power oozing into your life and mine, the mysterious power that forgives the sins of nasty people, raises dead people we love from the grave, and ushers us all into the holy precincts of heaven.

    To believe this requires imagination and a poet’s heart. We must get beyond our little selves, our puny minds, and listen to the promises of those greater than ourselves.

    Take for instance Jesus’ beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

    Honestly, who among us can fathom this astonishing vision of Jesus? Those who mourn will be comforted? We would love to believe this but our everyday experience proves otherwise. The meek will inherit the earth? If that is true, why do the rich and powerful always win?

    And there is the startling poetic vision from Revelation: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb’”

    Can you imagine your dear loved ones singing to the Lamb?

    This morning, you are poets. You have placed your loved ones’ pictures at the altar and written their names in “The Book of Remembrance.” You will soon chant their names and dab away a tear or two all the while.

    The ancient church teaches us to be poets in a flattened prose world. We sing of things yet unseen and yet promised by God; that’s why we are here this morning. A flattened world simply says our loved ones are dead and gone. And yet the church is considerably more poetic; it assaults the imagination. The church’s vision is far livelier, far more winsome.

    We chant the names of Irmgaard Vragel, George Nakashima, and George Helling. We utter the names of those we have loved and those we have sat next to at church. We remember before God some who drove us half-crazy and yet whom we dare call saints because we believe that, like all of us who are sinners of God’s redeeming, no matter how irascible, prickly our loved ones may be, somehow, by God’s grace, they will end up in heaven….Sheer poetry!

    There may be no more imaginative day in the church year than today other than perhaps Easter when Jesus spit in the devil’s face and rose from the dead and Christmas when God became a bouncing baby boy. On this day, we believe that our flesh and bone are saints in God’s eyes and that, while we cannot quite fathom how it is that they are raised from the dead, we listen to church’s poetry through the ages until we can sing its song, “But then there breaks a yet more glorious day: the saints triumphant rise in bright array; the King of glory passes on his way. Alleluia! Alleluia!”

    May God bless you with the vivid imagination of a poet; may you hear the voices of those you love singing with the saints, the angels, and the martyrs in heaven, this day and forever.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    The Service of Resurrection
    Sonia Marie Turner-Sampson
    October 31, 2014
    “Sonia at the Gate”

    Luke 16: 19-31
    “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

    Sonia Marie Turner-Sampson was our Lazarus at the gate. We will not forget her sitting at the top of our patio steps, welcoming us here every morning and, more often than not, saying “good night” as we left at eight or nine in the evening. She was so kind; she kept watch over our patio and church.

    Often times, when we gather on occasions like this, we have so much to say: we remember a person’s achievements, comfort their grieving family, laugh at the good times we had together. Sadly, this morning, there will be little of that. We don’t know lots of stories about Sonia; we don’t know her family; we don’t know much, if anything, about when she was a little girl in Vermont.

    Yes, Sonia was our Lazarus at the gate. How many times did I simply pass her by, saying not much more than “good morning, Sonia,” not spending enough time to talk and learn her stories? There was a profound loneliness we all felt passing her on the top step of the stair case. Where did she go when she left here at night? Who watched over her to protect her? Did she receive a Christmas card as of late?

    “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”

    So utterly alone…

    And yet, astonishingly, in her final year or so, a group of caring folks gathered around Sonia. They are here this morning. We give thanks for the people who cared for Sonia at the board and care where she stayed in her final days, offering her dignity and comfort. I also am grateful for those of you who live on the streets, as did Sonia, and who watched over her—I know you did because you told me so. Nance Lovell along with Elaine Bertram and the other Simon’s Walk volunteers and Jim Lovell, the Director of the Third Avenue Charitable Organization (TACO)—you all cared deeply for Sonia; you got to know her better than many; you took the time to listen to her stories; you offered her dignity and compassionate care when she needed it most. I thank you for raising her up beyond the dogs licking her sores. You embraced her, cried with her, dreamed with her, made promises to care for her at the end. You talked to her about today. She wanted a church service and you have made sure this happened.

    Strangely, Sonia rarely if ever set foot in this sanctuary—her place, I guess, was at the gate with Lazarus, perhaps a holier place than here, who really knows? Isn’t it a mysterious wonder that we gather to thank God for her life and to entrust her to God? Who knows exactly what she thought when she sat at the top of the steps, her little outdoor sanctuary, her oasis, smoking those little cigarillos? Do you think she ever dreamed of abandoning her step, to come through the church doors, into this sanctuary? Or do you think she had more wonderful dreams?

    Sonia told the Simon’s Walk folks that she wanted one thing in her funeral and that was to have John Lennon’s lovely “Imagine” played. We will listen to it in a few moments, but hear a few words.

    Imagine no possessions
    I wonder if you can
    No need for greed or hunger
    A brotherhood of man
    Imagine all the people
    Sharing all the world...

    You may say I'm a dreamer
    But I'm not the only one
    I hope someday you'll join us
    And the world will live as one…

    Whatever Sonia dreamed, I pray she knew the story of Lazarus.

    “Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here.’” What a dream!

    Maybe she was imagining a day when she would arrive in heaven and Lazarus would be at the gate welcoming her home. They knew each other at 3rd and Ash, I’m sure they did. With a little imagining, you can hear Lazarus welcoming her into heaven now as he says to Sonia, “You are not going to believe the table set for you here where we gather in God’s presence with angels singing.”

    Like John Lennon, the church, at its best, has had a poetic imagination. The church refuses to look at Sonia at the top of the stairs and say this is how things will be forever.

    At the conclusion of this service, we will use the poetry from the traditional requiem mass. It is known as In Paradisum (into Paradise) and is sung at the conclusion of the funeral liturgy as we will do. See if you can hear the church’s ancient dream for Sonia?

    Into paradise may the angels lead you.
    At your coming may the martyrs receive you
    and lead you into the holy city, Jerusalem.
    May a choir of angels welcome you,
    and where Lazarus is poor no more, may you have everlasting rest.

    Let us dare to imagine this for Lazarus and for our dear Sonia.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    October 26, 2014
    Reformation Sunday
    Romans 3: 19-28; John 8: 31-36
    “Free from Calcification”

    Romans 3: 19-28
    Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

    John 8:31-36
    Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

    Our toilet kept getting stopped up this week and we kept on plunging. The plumber quickly discerned the problem: the calcium in the water was forming deposits in our pipes and prohibiting the free flow of water. We were calcified!

    Martin Luther ran into calcification, too, a calcified church. The build-up was blocking the free flow of God’s grace to the children of God.

    Our plumber dealt with our calcified toilet by using harsh chemicals. Here’s what Luther did. He reportedly went to the castle church at Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517, and banged 95 Theses on the church door. Luther knew people would be coming for worship the next day, All Saints’ Day, so he put his 95 debating points on the church bulletin board. This was like putting announcements on the kiosk in our lounge. He wanted to rid the church of calcium deposits.

    You know what happened when Luther nailed his debating points on the church door. As is the typical response to revolutionaries, the powers that be did not take kindly to Luther’s ideas. Who wants to change what seems perfectly fine? The one in charge of defending the church against Luther’s zeal was Pope Leo X. I don’t need to go into detail this morning but suffice it to say Pope Leo was not thrilled with Luther and Luther was not thrilled with Pope Leo.

    As the Pope and his minions started booing louder and louder and threatening Luther’s life, Luther became more and more vitriolic and refused to back down.

    Let me make a confession to you: I find reading much of Martin Luther a laborious and disturbing chore. To say that he hated Pope Leo X is an understatement. Luther would look at litter on Third Avenue and see the pope’s ugly face. He would hear thunder on a rainy day and be reminded of the pope’s grating voice. Luther would look at a freshly painted wall and say that the hideous pope was hiding just beneath. Luther detested the pope.

    Sometimes we forget why Luther was so hopping mad. Now hear this: Luther was not anti-Catholic; in fact, he was a high-quality Roman Catholic; he was a good and faithful Augustinian monk. What’s more, during the Reformation, Luther was essentially conservative when it came to many areas of the church’s life. Unlike more radical protestant reformers of his day who destroyed stained glass windows, toppled statues of saints, and stripped down the Mass until there was rarely, if ever, Holy Communion on Sunday morning, Luther would have none of it. He did not want to offend the faithful. That is why, to this day, when Roman Catholics worship here at First Lutheran, they are often startled: “This seems just like my Catholic church,” they say. Many Lutheran churches chant the liturgy, have stained glass windows, wear vestments, and use incense. Luther’s guiding principle was not my Grandma Miller’s which was: if Catholics do it, I won’t, or, if Catholics don’t do it, I will. Luther had no desire to destroy the church he loved.

    What Luther did want to do was rid the church of the calcium deposits that were blocking the free flow of God’s grace. As a good German, he was more than willing to kick and scream, even to be boisterously potty mouthed if that was advantageous in getting God’s mercy flowing freely once again. He didn’t want to start a “Lutheran” church; he didn’t want to get rid of the Roman Catholic Church; he wanted God’s grace to rule supreme.

    That is why Luther had so much trouble with those pesky indulgences, those useless pieces of paper that you could purchase from some church functionary to get your loved ones out of purgatory and into heaven. Luther considered this all devilish nonsense. The only way to get to heaven was, not through some silly piece of useless paper bought from some ecclesiastical puppet, but rather by the free grace of God.

    Martin Luther loved Saint Paul, in particular this morning’s first reading from Romans: “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Did you hear that: justified by his grace as a gift. No indulgences bought at the church bookstore right next to the Starbucks stand, just plain, old grace and for free, a gift.

    You and I can muck up God’s gift of grace as badly as the Catholic Church did in the sixteenth century—and we do! We harbor the illusion that some of us are more deserving of God’s goodness than others. Evelyn Mosley was such soul. She meant well; she loved her son Derrick. He was arrested with $28,000 in cash in his pockets, a high powered handgun tucked into his belt, and lots of crack cocaine in his possession. When I visited Derrick’s mother at her apartment in Clifton Terrace, she lamented that her poor son Derrick was a victim of circumstances—the illusion, by the way, most mothers harbor about their irascible sons when they get into trouble. She said: “Derrick is such a nice boy. He just got caught up in the wrong crowd.”

    The church does not side with Evelyn Mosley on this one. We began our worship service this morning saying, “We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.” We are all bad boys and bad girls. The heck with the wrong crowd, we are the problem!

    Dear Evelyn and most of us are afraid to admit our utter depravity for fear God will no longer love us. When people come to my office and confess their sins, they almost always say, “Pastor, you are never going to believe this about me. I am so embarrassed to tell you this.” What they are saying is, “Pastor, you are going to be surprised to discover that I am a sinner.” This is the calcium deposit of the church. We so easily forget that God loves every one of us and that every one of us is a sinner. No need for indulgences! No need for the excuse that we ended up with the wrong crowd! No need to say, “Pastor, you are not going to believe this about me!” We have all like sheep gone astray, we are all captive to sin, and God has sent Jesus to bring us back home.

    It is said that only moments before Luther died, he said, “We are all beggars. This is true.” Luther understood that he was deserving of nothing from God, even at death. Luther knew there was nothing he could do to save himself. Nothing—not with indulgences, not by detesting Roman Catholics, not by being Lutheran, not even by attending church every Sunday. God’s grace is free. That is the Reformation principle, that is at the heart of what Lutherans believe.

    And so as we gather on this Reformation Sunday and make the audacious claim that God’s love is free of charge to every, single one of us. “You mean you don’t even have to be good to be saved?” “Nope!” “You don’t have to tithe to be saved?” “Nope,” said Luther, “you don’t have to do anything. God’s grace is a gift for one and all.” That’s why we dress the church in red today. That’s why we celebrate. The calcium deposits have been wiped away and God’s grace is flowing freely once again for you and for me.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    October 19, 2014
    Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
    Isaiah 45: 1-7; Matthew 22:15-22
    “Those Vexing Questions”

    Matthew 22:15-22
    Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

    The Pharisees and Herodians coming together to see Jesus was akin to the Communist Party and the Tea Party celebrating a hootenanny together or the National Rifle Association and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals gathering together for a croquet match on the front lawn. The Pharisees and Herodians were as different as a lamb and a rattlesnake.

    When they said to Jesus with one united voice, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance to the truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality,” we smell a rat. The sweet gamesmanship didn’t conceal their hidden motive—and Jesus knew it. They both wanted to spring on Jesus. “Tell us, then, what you think. It is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

    This question is much like, “Have you quit beating your wife?” It is framed in such a way as to allow no good answer. Every answer indicts you.

    If Jesus had said it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, he would have appeared to break the commandment, “You shall have no other gods,” and this would have proved to the Pharisees that Jesus was an idolater. However, if Jesus had said it was unlawful to pay taxes, he would have appeared a treasonous revolutionary, appalling the Herodians who had a certain fondness for the empire. The Pharisees and the Herodians each had a different dog in this fight. What they shared in common was a desire to have Jesus dead.

    You know how Jesus answered their question. You have likely used his answer a time or two for some thorny question regarding allegiance to our own nation. Maybe you have quoted the King James Version, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

    Really though, what exactly is due the emperor and what is due God? There must be a way to calculate this, a simple formula. Doesn’t the IRS tell us exactly what is due the emperor? And won’t our church in a few weeks encourage us to give 10% of our income (a tithe) to the Lord’s work? That’s straightforward enough, huh? Or is it?

    Jesus’ answer sounds like something the old Yankee catcher Yogi Berra might say, “When you arrive at a fork in the road, take it.” Or like the Zen Koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

    We are not so good when it comes to pondering such questions. We want answers, now! “Just tell me!”

    “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” What in the world does this mean?

    I weary at those who have immediate answers to such vexing questions. I sometimes try to give my own quick answers, too, hoping to appear on top of my game. Have you ever witnessed a person who has barely heard the question and immediately answers authoritatively, “There are three salient points to consider.” I always wonder why three points. Why not two or four? Three points sounds so profound, so decisive.

    There are so many tough questions in our world and in our church. I pray that our president and our congress, our bishops and pastors, our laity, struggle long and hard with tough questions. For instance, how should the United States deal with the barbaric ISIS group—there’s a tough question. Of course, we could “take them out,” there barbarism certainly seems deserving of such a decisive response but does such a quick solution solve the long term hatred such groups harbor toward our nation? Is it really as simple as three main points: ready, aim, fire?

    I have always admired leaders who don’t make believe that questions of life and death, what to render to God and country, are easy to answer. Abraham Lincoln, when asked whether God was on his side said, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right.” There was a leader who struggled with what to give to God and what to give country.

    It has been said that for those who call the emperor “Lord” and for those who call the emperor “Satan,” answers are always simple, black and white. But, for the people of God, we must think more deeply; we must ponder when to support the state and when to resist nationalistic jingoism due to a much higher calling. God and country are never, by the way, on equal footing. Never! The great preacher William Sloane Coffin was fond of saying, “God and country are not one word.”

    What to give to the emperor? What to give to God?

    Just when we think we have figured out the answers, with three salient points, God surprises the pants off us. In our first reading today, the Israelites thought they had God figured out: they knew whose side God was on, after all, they were the chosen ones. But, out of the blue, when they had been in captivity in Babylon for years and years, God sent an enemy to free them. Their liberator was Cyrus. It was unthinkable that a nonbeliever, an emperor from Persia (Iran), could possibly be God’s anointed one, the Messiah, and yet that is exactly what the prophet Isaiah proclaimed. Cyrus was going to free the people of God.

    There is a surprise in this, a new song to sing. There is enormous power in believing that God can do a new thing when we are stumped for answers.

    What I love about today’s story of Jesus with the Pharisees and Herodians is that he offers no simple solutions. It is almost as if he is saying to us, “If you want to know what to give to the emperor and what to give to God, you are going to have to struggle long and hard together.”

    The struggle is rarely easy when it comes to things that matter, whether in the church or in the world. Tough questions drop us to our knees in repentance, tenderize our hearts with humility. Tough questions invite us to struggle for correct answers. The beauty is, as people of faith, such struggles return us again and again to God. We keep wondering, as did Lincoln, whether we are on God’s side. We meet with one another—as we will do on three upcoming Wednesday evenings to discuss matters of race in our community and nation. We scratch our heads together; we listen to one another’s stories, learning things we never knew before. We wait on the Lord to teach us a new song.

    Blessings come, not from sheer force of personality, not when we have the right answers or three salient points. Blessings come when we are people marked by curiosity, when we dare to confess our confusion and wait and listen for Christ to give us the only answers that matter.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    October 12, 2014
    Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
    Isaiah 25: 1-9; Philippians 4: 1-9; Matthew 22: 1-14
    “Properly Dressed for the Wedding”

    Matthew 22:1-14
    Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14For many are called, but few are chosen.”

    I must be blunt. I have attended more weddings than anyone here today. The stories could fill a book.

  • The bride-to-be came running to me, hysterical, even before I had parked my car for the rehearsal. She and her husband-to-be had just had a fist fight. She asked, “Pastor, what should I do?”

  • It was a scorching August afternoon. The bride and groom were just about ready to say “I do.” The groom stared nervously at me and kept mumbling, “I need a drink of water.” I told him everything would be fine. No sooner had I announced them husband and wife than the groom passed out right into my arms.

  • The wedding couple knelt at the altar for their nuptial blessing. After I prayed, “Let your love be a seal upon their hearts, a mantle about their shoulders, and a crown upon their foreheads,” I whispered to the freshly minted newlyweds, “You may now stand.” The bride looked up at me warily and said, “I don’t think I can get up.”

    The stories go on and on.

    None of my wedding stories compare, though, to the one Jesus told of the king’s son. The wedding was a catastrophe from the get-go. As the gold-embossed invitations were hand delivered, there was a pathetic lack of interest to attend the social event of the century at the king’s palace. The invitees were not only blasé about their royal invitations, they also killed the invitation deliverers. The king did not take lightly to being snubbed and even less to having his staff bumped off. He sent his troops out for a little retribution: they slaughtered the ungrateful invitees and torched their city.

    The king, still spitting mad about all the rejections of his matrimonial invitations, decided to reach out to those who don’t typically get invited to such regal affairs, those who would not in a million years get past the palace guard scrutiny.

    I have never had a wedding like that…..Actually, come to think of it, I have. It was scheduled for a Saturday in February. The night before the wedding, a blizzard was forecast. You may have heard that our nation’s capitol is not particularly adept at snow removal. The bride’s mother called me, devastated and frantic: “What will we do, pastor?” Not thinking clearly, I said, “Let’s hold the wedding on Sunday morning. That will give the city a day to shovel the foot of snow.” We threw out the regular Sunday bulletins and used the wedding bulletins instead. The B-List ended up in attendance, people who unexpectedly entered for worship and ran into the bride and her attendants preparing to process down the aisle to the majestic strains of Jeremiah Clarke’s “Trumpet Voluntary.” Some of the people who walked through the doors that morning had never been invited to a wedding and yet were treated to a luscious catered champagne brunch on a gorgeous snowy morning in the shadow of the White House.

    That’s kind of what happened when the B-List showed up at the wedding at the king’s place. The only problem was that one poor guy showed up dressed a bit too shabbily for the occasion. The poor fellow hadn’t been invited in the first place; he had no time to go to the Armani store to purchase his fashionable wedding apparel. And yet, for his apparent indiscretion, the king told the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Does that, by chance, trouble you?

    While I am your pastor, I confess to being befuddled by this parable of Jesus. I have read biblical scholars insights as to why the inappropriately dressed guy was given the heave-ho but I am unconvinced. All that I can imagine is Jesus’ parables are meant to befuddle us; they are so lively that they keep us wondering what in the world is going on, causing us to ask one another, “Do you get this?” Could it be that Jesus’ parables are meant to keep working on us at our deepest levels?

    I don’t have an inside tract on wisdom—as if you hadn’t already noticed!—and yet I do have an insight as to why the badly dressed guy got the boot. It actually involves another wedding I attended. I was not the pastor at this one, not the friend of the wedding couple. I was the groom! Our wedding was in the quaint village of Barnstorf, Germany, in an 800 year old stone church just up a cobblestone path from where Dagmar grew up. Not well versed in German wedding etiquette—actually not versed at all, I relied on my bride-to-be to lead me through the intricate matrimonial planning morass. One particularly thorny issue was similar to today’s parable: “Dagmar, what should I wear?” Dagmar, more knowledgeable than I about Germanic marriage protocol, said, “Wear that black clergy suit you just bought for your ordination in a month and we’ll buy a silver and black tie when you arrive in Germany.” I took my bride-to-be at her word regarding all Teutonic haberdashery matters. Imagine my surprise—actually horror—when I arrived at my very own wedding only to discover that every, single man was wearing a black tuxedo, even Heinrich the neighboring farmer…Well, not every man. My father was wearing a blue seersucker suit—after all, he had received sartorial instructions from his son. My only friend at the wedding was a Roman Catholic priest who came from Holland; he wore a baby blue leisure suit.

    This memory of ending up at my own wedding completely ill-dressed haunts me thirty-seven years later. I would have felt much better in a black tuxedo; my dad would have too; and I assume my Dutch friend would have opted for a tux rather than his disco-spiffy Saturday Night Fever outfit if he had only known.

    My own wedding attire—or the lack thereof—has got me thinking about Jesus’ parable. The words from our second lesson in Philippians help: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Whether we are on the A-List or the B-List, we are invited to celebrate at the banquet, this banquet, this morning. We can’t afford Versace or Chanel and, if we could, we would likely use the money for something more practical, something worthy of celebrating the Lord’s presence in our lives. Not for a second do I think this parable is some Puritanical edict to get us Californians to forsake wearing blue jeans and flip-flops to church and to don ties and dresses instead.

    Jesus has gone out to the streets to invite each of us here this morning. We really have no business being here—not one of us! No matter what threads we wear this morning, no matter what finery we can or cannot afford, we are invited to adorn ourselves with joy and wonder. Christ invites us to this banquet and we certainly can rejoice and be glad. As we rejoice, we are clothed in splendor indeed. And dressed like that, we will never get thrown out of here.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    October 5, 2014
    Saint Francis Day (transferred)
    Genesis 1: 20-25; Matthew 6: 25-33
    “The Harmony of Creation”

    Matthew 6: 25-33 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

    If we were to vote on our favorite saint, I imagine Saint Francis would win hands down. Even those of you a bit taken aback by the whole “saint thing” still might sneak a statue of Saint Francis into your backyard garden.

    There is a charming naiveté about Francis that tickles us. He referred to the wind and sun, the fire and moon and stars as his brothers and sisters.

    Be honest, though: what kind of kook talks to birds? One day Francis was walking by some of his feathery brothers and sisters. He asked them if they would stay awhile and listen to him preach. He said: “My brother and sister birds, you should praise your Creator and always love him: He gave you feathers for clothes, wings to fly and all other things that you need. It is God who made you noble among all creatures, making your home in thin, pure air. Without sowing or reaping, you receive God’s guidance and protection.”

    Isn’t there a deep longing within us to be connected to creation like Francis was? Don’t we long to feel God’s creative breath still radiating through creation? I suspect that is why Francis is our favorite saint: we watch him revel in God’s kingdom right here on earth and we wish to do the same thing.

    In a few moments, we will celebrate Holy Communion. We will sing of our longing to be connected to all of creation— “Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” If only we took note of this beautiful world as Francis did, we might sing our Sanctus, our Holy, Holy, Holy, with deeper delight, greater gusto. We might worry less about tomorrow as we join the birds of the air and lilies of the field in their own delightful creation dance.

    I know many of you are blessed with the naiveté of Francis. You talk to your dogs and cats! Over my years of ministry, I have come to realize that when you lose your beloved kitty or puppy, a pastoral call is as important then as when you lose a spouse or parent. These animals are a gift from heaven; they teach us how to love better and to treasure this wonderful earth more.

    I learn this from our dog Cisco every day. (We got Cisco, by the way, a Boykin Spaniel, ten years ago today. We were going to name him Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi but a family in our church, that very weekend, announced they had adopted a little girl from China and named her Francis. How could we possibly name our dog Francis that weekend? So, he became Cisco as in San Francisco.) This morning, he and I walked up Mount Helix. Just in that short walk of thirty minutes or so, he smelled every bush, chased a flittering butterfly, was thrilled to see a baby Golden Retriever, and was positively electrified when he found an old moldy tennis ball long lost in the weeds, aging well Cisco seemed to think, with all kinds of delicious exotic tastes and smells. As he scampered along with his tail wagging wildly, delighting in his new found treasure, he put a spring in my Sunday morning step as well; he bid me to open my eyes wider and to stand in awe of all the things, great and small, God has made.

    It is as if our inquisitive pets are the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning writing:

    “Earth's crammed with heaven,
    And every common bush afire with God,
    But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
    The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”

    There was an article in a recent issue of The New Yorker magazine on the actor Al Pacino. Pacino talked about how, when he performs live theatrical productions, he focuses on someone in the audience in order to make his acting more poignant and present. One evening, as he looked out into the darkness of the audience, he spotted two eyes riveted on him. His acting soared that night. He had never seen two eyes watch him quite so intently. When the house lights were turned back on at the conclusion of the play and he made his bows, he immediately searched for those gorgeous eyes that had been paying such close attention to him. Imagine Al Pacino’s surprise when he discovered the one who had been so mesmerized by his acting was none other than a Seeing Eye dog.

    The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says “the miracle is not to walk on water but on the earth.” Oh, to walk on earth, to be locked in on God’s creation like that Seeing Eye dog, to relish the chickadees and loons, the rivers and streams, the sequoias and chaparral, the dandelions and wild orchids. (Take a look at our new art show, “All Creatures Great and Small;” see how some of our members have locked into the wonder of God’s creation.)

    When we say that we “believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth” we are proclaiming that God delights in chubby gopher snakes and quivering dragonflies, arid deserts and roaring oceans. During those six wondrous days of creation, God heard the beautiful music of the wind whistling, the bumblebees buzzing, and crickets chirping and determined that all was good.

    The sad fact, however, is that we humans are jeopardizing the magnificent harmony that continues to delight God. The Audubon Society notes that all twenty birds on the national “Common Birds in Decline” list lost at least half their populations in just four decades. This includes the sparrow, the chickadee, the rufous hummingbird, and the whip-poor-will, birds whose songs we have taken for granted since we were babies. Imagine, if you can, that, unless we change our reckless habits, those who follow us on this good earth might never hear such stunning music again. We must pray to God to give us the grace to protect the environment and to cherish what God has created.

    Such commitment is essential if we are going to do what we do here every Sunday morning. You see, Christ’s presence is revealed to us in the stuff of creation, in simple gifts really, flowing water, fresh bread, gulps of wine. Lutherans proclaim that is how we know Jesus, in these gifts of bread and wine and water. Oh, to walk on earth, to smell the bread, to taste the wine, to be soothed by the baptismal waters.

    The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew 1, the leader of the Orthodox Church has said: “Everything that lives and breathes is sacred and beautiful in the eyes of God. The whole world is a sacrament. The entire created cosmos is a burning bush of God’s uncreated energies. And humankind stands as a priest before the altar of creation… if only we have the eyes of faith to see it.”

    When you leave here today, be a priest and delight in God’s gorgeous creation. Dagmar and I do just that almost every night as a Great Horned owl sings a sacred cantata to us as we go to sleep. With the “who, who, who” of this stunning midnight aria—sometimes a mating duet I do believe—we become priests amidst these sacramental voices of creation. The owl’s hooting changes how we pray as does the wolf’s howl, the wild parrot’s screeching, and the plaintive cry of the loon. Doesn’t their sacramental music-making raise chills on you? Suddenly, we are naïve again like Saint Francis.

    In a few moments as you join heaven and earth singing “Holy, holy, holy,” keep your eyes wide open, for you are promised to see Christ in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, in the very stuff of creation.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    September 28, 2014
    Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
    Matthew 21: 23-32
    “Warthogs Marching to the Kingdom”

    Matthew 21:23-32 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

    We are often taken aback by the utterly promiscuous love of God. Like parents who warn their children about hanging around with roughnecks, we want to warn God to stay away from the riffraff.

    Today’s parable is a case in point. Two sons are called by their father to work in the vineyard. When the father asks son #1 to work, he says, “I will not.” Later on son #1 has a change of heart and heads off to work. Son #2 is the “yes son,” the one who immediately says what he knows his father wants to hear, but, as you will remember, reconsiders his quick “yes” and, upon further reflection, decides not to go to work.

    Jesus asks, “Which of the two did the will of the father?” We all know the answer: “son #1.” After all, he eventually did the will of the father.

    Jesus then says: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believe him.”

    We delight in seeing the tax collectors and prostitutes getting acclaim from Jesus, especially in the face of those arrogant religious leaders. We knew it would turn out that way. Call it “The Pretty Woman Syndrome,” the movie in which the dashing millionaire played by Richard Gere falls in love with the gorgeous street corner hooker played by Julia Roberts. We create our own religious Pretty Woman fairy-tale, saying that Jesus loved the tax collectors and prostitutes more than the chief priests and elders. We want it that way—it gives us hope. The religious leaders talk a holy game but are actually judgmental jerks; we delight in seeing them fall flat on their faces. We knew along that they would get their comeuppance and we are thrilled. After all, don’t there have to be good folks and bad folks in every story?

    Listen once again, carefully, to what Jesus says: “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” On first hearing, our knee jerk reaction is: “Yep, we knew it all along: the tax collectors and prostitutes are headed to heaven; the chief priests and elders, those pious nincompoops, are headed to the eternal fires of hell. But that is not what Jesus says. Were you paying attention to him? All that he says is that the tax collectors and the prostitutes well enter the kingdom of God ahead of you, ahead of the chief priests and scribes. Ahead of you does not mean instead of you!

    We “good folks” have a tough time with the promiscuous love of God. We expect there to be consequences for bad folks and rewards for good ones; we cheer for the humble crowd to end up in heaven and hope the holier than thou crowd descends to hell.

    The southern writer Flannery O’Connor, in her short story “Revelation,” tells of a young college girl, Mary Grace, who is sitting in the doctor’s office waiting room when the insufferably prim and proper Mrs. Turpin and her husband Claud enter. There is one chair left in the room and Mrs. Turpin insists that her husband take that seat. She sees a dirty toddler with a runny nose stretched across two seats and can’t stomach the child’s dirty, uncouth mother who doesn’t make him move over for Mrs. Turpin. Mary Grace watches this all unfold with great contempt. Finally, fed up with Mrs. Turpin’s haughty attitude, she blurts out, “"Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog."

    Have you ever wanted to call someone an “old wart hog,” especially the person that you feel better than, holier than, work harder than, are more generous than, more compassionate than?

    But Flannery O’Connor doesn’t stop her story with “go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog” even though we wish she did. She continues. Mrs. Turpin arrives home, devastated by what Mary Grace has said and incredulous how she has been treated. In grappling with what has occurred at the doctor’s office, she has a vision as if from heaven:

    “There was a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk...A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and a band of black [folks] in white robes, and a battalion of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, has always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

    Just like the chief priests and elders, Mrs. Turpin and Claud do not end up in hell. What remarkable visions the promiscuous love of God creates, with wart hogs and pious prigs, snot nosed kids and white trash, priests and elders, tax collectors and prostitutes, marching together toward the heavenly feast. If you listen, you can hear the joyous music of the bass drum and tuba, banjo and trumpets and trombones, playing away as you march hand-in-hand with that motley gang of saints on your way to the kingdom of God. Amazing, isn’t it, the company God keeps? So promiscuous is our God’s love, so promiscuous. Who knows what our position will be in the parade, but, according to Jesus, we will be marching in it. That’s enough information for me and I hope for you, too. So, by the gracious invitation of God, let’s join the parade.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    September 21, 2014
    Saint Matthew Day
    Matthew 9: 9-13
    “Beyond Golden Age Thinking”

    Matthew 9:9-26 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

    Do you ever engage in “Golden Age Thinking?” Do you nostalgically hearken back to some bygone era when, at least to your recollection, the living was easy and the fish were jumping? That is “Golden Age Thinking.”

    The church is particularly prone to such reminiscing: remember when there were 300 children in Sunday School, thousands came to worship, and five women’s circles did everything from sending quilts to Tanzania to preparing church suppers at every church function? Remember when….That is “Golden Age Thinking.”

    Such recollecting can be treacherous and sometimes quite deadly.

    Whenever we church folks hearken back to some golden age, the good old days, and get all misty-eyed, it is a pretty good idea to keep on looking back, back, back, all the way back to Jesus.

    Let’s look back to when Jesus called the twelve disciples. You have got to believe that he wanted to fill all the slots with exceptionally talented people, highly regarded by their peers for stellar intellect, visionary thinking, and supreme courage.

    Funny thing: when Jesus chose his disciples—let’s call them his executive staff—he seemed to be haphazardly throwing darts…and blindfolded to boot. Jesus came to the twelve and simply said, “Follow me”—no initial interviews, no exhaustive resumes, no character references, just those two words, “Follow me.”

    Take for instance Matthew. Matthew was an odd sort of fellow for Jesus to choose—and an odd sort of fellow to be lifted up here this morning. Matthew was a hated tax collector. What was Jesus thinking? Politicians—even the dumbest—have figured out that running on a platform championing higher taxes is a sure way to lose. Almost everyone detests tax collectors. I just finished writing our quarterly tax bill to the United States Treasury. While I understand the wisdom of taxes for a host of worthy purposes, the truth is that Dagmar and I didn’t uncork the champagne bottle when I returned from mailing our check at the post office.

    Jesus had twelve choices—about the number we have for First Lutheran’s church council. Unless we are in the mode of saying, “We’ll take anyone with a pulse,” we want to fill these leadership positions with quality people: are they respected by the congregation; do they delight in living amidst our community; do they offer unique insights that will help us move positively into the future; do they give generously to First’s ministry and make a yearly pledge; do they attend worship faithfully? If you only have twelve choices, you want them to count.

    The gospels make no mention of the disciples’ credentials or commitments when Jesus came calling. They did not appear particularly well qualified. They often came off like bumbling Keystone Cops.

    Peter, who seemed one of Jesus’ preferred picks, fouled up over and over again and suffered from a failure of nerve at the most inconvenient times. I need not tell you about Judas. The other disciples: where were they when Jesus was dying on the cross? And Matthew: what do you know about him other than that he was a detested tax collector? Our bulletin cover notes, as does our Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal, that in addition to being an apostle, Matthew was an evangelist. We have draped the church in red, signifying that Matthew died a martyr’s death. Most of this appears to be wishful thinking on the church’s part. Matthew almost certainly did not write the gospel bearing his name and the Bible makes no mention of how he died. Is it possible the church has a need to pad Matthew’s resume, to make him something more than a detested tax collector called by Jesus to be one of the twelve? Asked another way: isn’t it enough simply to be called by Jesus no matter who we are?

    When I consider Jesus’ choice of Saint Matthew, I find myself pondering Saint Paul’s words: “For consider your call, brothers and sisters; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”

    On these saints’ days, when we delight in the breathtaking achievements of particular saints, it is essential to keep in mind the sinner part, too. At least from our Lutheran perspective “saint and sinner” go hand-in-hand no matter how glittering the accomplishments we attribute to our favorite saints. We dare not forget their pesky failures even when we are busy lauding their astonishing accomplishments.

    And so that business of “Golden Age Thinking.” Just like Matthew who was computing taxes on his abacus when Jesus said, “Follow me,” we gather here this morning. The truth is we are all God has got, each with our unique skills and each, if we are honest, with our own unsightly blemishes. We are neither the church 2,000 years ago nor the church of 1955. Jesus comes to you and me today, 2014, here at 3rd and Ash.

    To tell the truth, this is a pretty special time to be the church in this place. We have a rich 126 year history and yet we are writing our own chapter in that book today. We are serving the homeless and working poor community like never before (we had a funeral on our patio on Friday morning for Yolanda Johnson, a woman who had been encamped cross the street for quite a few years); worship attendance continues to grow; your generosity is continues to push to record levels; new members keep joining; and look at the kids!

    But we bumble and stumble, too. That is simply the truth. That is why we remember Jesus’ twelve disciples, including Matthew the Tax Collector. Couldn’t Jesus have chosen better? And us? We keep trying to be faithful and the wonder of it all is even when we fall flat on our faces, our eyes mysteriously are looking straight up to Jesus for help….And, come to think of it, that is what saints are supposed to do: keep their eyes on Jesus.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    September 14, 2014
    Holy Cross Day
    1 Corinthians 1: 18-24; John 3: 13-17
    “No Period Where God Has Placed a Comma”

    This time of the year feels….well….perfect. Sunday School is starting, the choir is singing, the church picnic is today; the patio is cleaned and trimmed.

    Do you remember your first day of school? Perfect, too, huh? Your notebook was brand new with divider tabs arranged “just so” marking geography, arithmetic, English, and spelling; your pencils were sharpened, with full erasers. The best thing, though, was that you still had straight A's—no pitiable test results or incomplete homework assignments yet to shatter your dreams. Hope reigned supreme. Do you recall those first days of perfection?

    Thumb through the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and see how much perfection you can find. You will find an inordinate amount of discussion about Jesus’ dying. Nothing seems perfect for God’s son. When Jesus dies on the cross, we, with him, end up broken and forlorn. Oh, of course, we believe our heavenly Father raised Jesus from the dead and yet, 2,000 years later, we are still waiting for Jesus’ return and crying out, “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”

    Most of us hate waiting, especially for God. When we get antsy, we inevitably provide our own answers; any answer will do really, as long as it eases our pain or the pain of those we love.

    Who can call the death of a daughter or son, parent or spouse, good? Unwilling to wait, we end up calling death good, saying something like “God wanted him more” or “she will be happier now in heaven.” We know our answers are fraudulent but we can’t bear waiting for God.

    Martin Luther said: “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”

    Saint Paul was a theologian of the cross. He wrote, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” That’s calling a thing what it actually is: death is the last enemy! Paul knew that to utter such truthful words would make him appear the fool and yet he believed that, somehow, the very power of God was to be discovered in Christ’s cross. Indeed, God would destroy death one day.

    The honest answers are the most difficult to articulate and require agonizing patience as we wait for God.

    In addition to three years of seminary and a year of full time internship, every future Lutheran pastor is required to complete one quarter of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). These three months are spent in a hospital, prison, or psychiatric institution. I did my CPE at the Lutheran Medical Center, an inner-city hospital in Brooklyn, New York. I met Dagmar there in 1976. During this experience, I had to learn to wait and yet found such waiting excruciatingly painful.

    I doubt I will ever forget my first evening on call. I was a nervous as a hummingbird. I slept—or was supposed to sleep—in the doctors’ quarters across the street overlooking the emergency room. Every ten minutes or so I rose from bed, walked to the window, and looked down to see what horrific tragedy the ambulance had brought to the ER doors. I fretfully played out scenarios in my mind, rehearsing words I would use when the distraught woman heard her husband’s heart attack was fatal; or what I would tell the twenty year old husband whose wife’s delivery had been botched and, rather than celebrating a little baby, would be mourning his lovely wife’s looming death. All that happened on my first night. I learned quickly that I few if any answers at all.

    The theology of the cross, at its most basic level, is much akin to what Gracie Allen once said, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” Said as Lutherans: never call evil good just because we need an answer.

    Christ’s death on the cross was like that. The comma just lingered, Jesus nailed to the tree, until God raised him from the dead. There are many times in our lives when we must wait for God. As we wait, we join Jesus’ plaintive cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Any period we place where God has placed a comma is as inauthentic and silly as “don’t worry, be happy.”

    Faithful people, people of the cross, learn to wait for God. We watch Jesus to learn how to wait when the waiting is agonizingly grueling.

    One of my graduate school professors Gordon Lathrop reminds pastors “not to have all the answers.” Not having all the answers is particularly hazardous for pastors who are looked to for answers to life’s most vexing challenges. After all, that’s why you come to me; that’s why you come here on Sunday morning—for answers. Lathrop writes in a little book simply called The Pastor: “Wise pastors are frequently face-to-face with their own limits, their own helplessness in the face of sorrow, sin, and loss. They must simply keep silence and be there.” Such patience is hard for any of us, pastor or lay person, who wants everything to be perfect, like on the first day of school or the first Sunday of the fall.

    Many of you ask me, why do we Lutherans make the sign of the cross? “I thought only Catholics did that,” you say. Luther urges us in his Small Catechism to make the sign of the cross upon waking in the morning and before going to bed. It is why we dip our fingers into the baptismal pool on our way to worship and as we leave. Each dripping dip reminds us that God is with us in our waiting, night and day, as God was with Jesus in his own agony on the cross.

    Our ministry here in downtown San Diego is lived under the cross of Christ. There are tough days when you wish we could end homelessness this very moment. There are tough days when you sit with the one you love, wishing that all would get better. You pray the world’s warring madness will go away. You wait...and wait. You silently place your arm around a homeless person, you take your loved one by the hand not saying a word, you come here, again, and dare to pray for peace when peace seems so far away. You trace the sign of the cross over your body and theirs, over the entire world really; you trust that God who raised his dear son Jesus from the dead because he loved the world so much, will make us, those we love, and this groaning world rise from all the little deaths we encounter day after day. Yes, we trust that God will place the period exactly where it belongs. When God does that, all will be perfect.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    September 7, 2014
    Matthew 18: 15-20
    Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
    “Treat Them Like a Gentile and a Tax Collector”

    Matthew 18:15-20 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

    Three of my ten-year old friends and I started a club called “The Copperheads.” We had a dream of the perfect club. We constructed our clubhouse from overgrown shrubbery, weeds, and poison ivy. We gathered around the bonfire made from discarded trash to celebrate our formation. Once we had accomplished the ceremonial initiatory rites, we got down to establishing guidelines for who could be ushered into our illustrious, new organization. As I recall, Catholics, girls, and seven-year olds need not apply. With our lofty rules in place, we smoked a dry, rotten reed as testament to our unbending resolve.

    These days, as churches seem shrinking just about everywhere, some believe the remedy to such decline is to do as we youngsters did, tighten the guidelines and create more stringent standards. It only seems reasonable that the more we hold each other accountable, the better off the church will be.

    There are congregations—well regarded ones in fact—that hold each other accountable. All members are required to make a yearly commitment to the church. In addition to giving 10% of their income to the church’s ministry, members promise to read their Bibles daily, pray for other members, and participate in ministries that address the needs of our suffering world. Sounds good, huh? I now ask you: would you measure up to such rigorous standards?

    Even though many of us would be tossed out, we still have a hankering for a little purity—of course, the kind of purity that we determine. I imagine Jesus gives us today’s gospel to check our longings for purity. He tells us that if a person offends us we should go and point out the fault to that person. If we are not listened to, then we should get a few other folks to go with us as witnesses. And, if that doesn’t work, call a congregational meeting—sounds Lutheran, huh? If the person still refuses to listen, treat him or her as a tax collector or Gentile.

    Am I correct in assuming that every one of us knows someone we would like to put through such rigorous scrutiny? But I wonder if this is what Jesus had in mind? Did Jesus give us this exacting rule as a bludgeon to destroy people who are offensive to us or did he give us this rule as a scalpel to be used quite delicately to restore our brothers and sisters back to the very heart of the community?

    One of my favorite books on how to live in community is by the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His book “Life Together” examines how his underground seminary was to live together in harmony. It seems to me his ideas work just as well for us today. Bonhoeffer writes: “Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him [or her] a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.”

    What is your wish dream for First Lutheran Church? Do you have an idea that could make this a better place? We can all probably think of someone who should be spoken to frankly about carrying their load in our life together.

    If you think Bonhoeffer is wrong about this wish dream, think of how many people leave congregations because their wish dream is not fulfilled: the preacher is boring; the council talks too much about money; the people are unfriendly; the ministry is too conservative, too liberal; the liturgy is old fashioned; the hymns new fangled and hard to sing. On and on….ever in search of the perfect community.

    Bonhoeffer goes on, “Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive.”

    When couples come to me planning to be married, I always ask them, “How do you fight?” Notice: I do not ask, “Do you fight?” I ask, “How do you fight?” I simply assume two people, if they have a pulse, squabble. Isn’t that what we claim on the wedding day, “For better or worse?” I always tell those about to marry that the beauty of the traditional marriage vows is that they tell the truth about what marriage will be like—for better or worse—rather than weaving some dream of perfection between two people In my mind, the danger for any marriage or life together in Christian community is not disagreements or even differing opinions for what is best but rather the inability to discuss such differences openly and fairly. The best couples know each other’s weaknesses and yet never give up: they keep trying to improve their relationship with one another. They do not live in a wish dream of perfection, believing some pious fairy tale told to them by grandma that there is such a thing as a perfect marriage made in heaven. The best relationships understand that living together is always a work in progress.

    Here at First Lutheran, just like in marriage, where two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name, we know we are not perfect. We begin our worship, not with “Good morning, isn’t everything lovely today;” rather we begin by confessing that all is not lovely or well. Today, even before we sang our first hymn, we confessed “all the ways, known and unknown, that we reject and undermine God’s steadfast love.”

    Are we perfect here at First Lutheran? No indeed. Are our families perfect? I’ll let you answer that but most of us know what Martha Manning learned when she asked her therapist, “Why are there so many problems in my family?” to which the therapist responded, “Because there are so many people in it.”

    Never forget: Jesus tells us to treat every person who has failed to be restored back into the community as tax collectors and Gentiles. Some people hear this as a hatchet-job and say: “Absolutely! Toss them out of the church! Excommunicate them!” When we say this, we conveniently forget that Jesus called a tax collector, Matthew, to be in his inner circle of twelve disciples; and, of course, it seems whenever Jesus sat down at table, there happened to be tax collectors and sinners supping with him; and even when a tiny baby, old Simeon said of Jesus that he was to be “a light to the Gentiles.” Far from casting out tax collectors and Gentiles from the inner sanctum of the club house, Jesus lived and died flinging doors wide open to welcome imperfect people like you and me to his mercy table.

    “Take and eat,” Jesus says to us, not because we meet his exacting standards of excellence but because he loves us so.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    August 31, 2014
    Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
    “I Adore Peter”

    We have gotten to know the disciple Peter pretty well over the past four Sundays. You might be wondering, “Why so much Peter? I thought we came to worship Jesus Christ.”

    Just to refresh your memory, on Sunday, August 10, we heard of Peter’s disastrous escapade trying to walk on water. We laughed at him and yet, with a bit of refection, we realized taking even two steps before sinking wasn’t too shabby even though he ultimately needed to be rescued by Jesus. A week later, we heard of the Canaanite woman—an outsider—begging Jesus to heal her daughter. As soon as the disciples saw her, they ranted, “Send her away-she is an outsider, a Canaanite.” While Peter was not mentioned by name, we have got to believe he was in the thick of the action. And then last Sunday, Peter finally rose to the occasion. When Jesus asked him point blank, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter hit the bull’s eye: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” With that stellar answer, Jesus said the famous words: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…” Peter must have run home as fast as he could to excitedly tell his family, “Jesus called me ‘The Rock’!”

    Is your life like Peter’s, up and down, courageous and cowardly, faithful and selfish? Have you sickened yourself and said, “I have no idea what got into me.” Have you ever thought, “If people only knew the truth about me, they would think me a fraud.” And then, just when you are feeling at your lowest, have you said something that made a lonely person’s day brighter, telling her how much she means to you? Or have you, out of the blue, almost without thinking, spoken out on an issue that particularly matters, a stand that took guts on your part and caused considerable angst in your circle of friends?

    And yet, as so often happens, just when your festering wounds were healing, you fouled up again. At least that’s how it happened to Peter. No sooner had he gotten the answer right and received his “The Rock” diploma than he sank to pathetic depths of disappointment once again.

    That’s where we find Peter today. This time Jesus told his dear friends that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Peter couldn’t bite his tongue: “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Peter thought he would be honored again for his answer, this time for standing up and protecting Jesus from death. Have you ever thought you were being particularly daring and gallant only to be attacked and ending up crestfallen and miserable?

    Just like that, Jesus lambasted Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter didn’t know what had hit him.

    Have I told you that I adore Peter? What I particularly adore are Peter’s constant attempts to get things right and to please Jesus. Of course there were the failures of nerve, the obnoxious arrogance, the pathetic denials, but, by and large, he was the kind of guy I would like to have as a member of our church….working hard to get it right.

    Actually, we have quite a few members like Peter….me….you….

    Have you ever wanted to stand up for something you thought was right and then, in retrospect, wondered what ever happened to make you look the fool? When I was in seminary, I joined a number of my classmates at the federal courthouse in New Haven, Connecticut. We were there to protest government funding of the B1 bomber. We had had enough of sophisticated, high-priced weaponry and drawn out warfare. We wanted to be the ones who helped put a stop the warring madness even if it was simply carrying a placard saying “No B1 Bombers.” As such rallies so often do, this one, too, brought out its share of kooks as well as idealists. I can think of countless protests I have been involved in when my best intentions plummeted because of some numbskull’s idiocy. At this one in New Haven, of all the people, the congressional candidate for the communist party spoke. The following Monday one of my professors pulled me aside after class and said, “Wilk, I saw you on television marching in support of the communist party’s candidate for congress.” Even with best intentions, I ended up looking like Peter, somewhat the fool.

    We, of course, don’t have to go to New Haven, forty years ago. We can stay right here at First Lutheran Church. How many of us are members of this church because, like Peter, we want to follow Jesus? We are kind of proud, aren’t we, when someone says, “Oh, you are a member of that social justice church.” We get all teary-eyed when someone compliments us, “Wow, your church walks the walk.” When Jesus said to Peter, “You are the rock,” it is as if he is speaking to us.

    And then, we hear that someone has threatened to sue our church for attracting an unsavory element or that we are being sued by someone whom we have tried to serve. Both have happened in recent years, more than once, actually more than twice! Some of our accusers claim there would be no drugs or alcohol or urination or defecation anywhere near here if we didn’t attract the so-called “unsavory element.” And all along we thought we were following Jesus: “I was stranger and you welcomed me; I was hungry and you gave me food; I was sick and you took care of me.” Well, are we right or wrong?

    Jesus understands our peaks and valleys, our successes and failures, our ugliness and beauty. His entire ministry was constantly ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong element. If he was crucified for any reason, it was for the company he kept. They didn’t sue Jesus though; they crucified him!

    And Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

    The beauty of a community like this is that we should never be surprised by our failure of nerve or even our judgmentalism of others. How often do we feel our motives are pure and holy? How often do we creep toward unbridled pride (arrogance)? We Lutherans NEVER claim perfection as our “corporate logo.” Rather, we keep trying to live faithfully as Jesus would have us live. Sometimes we have our moments of glory, other times we fall flat on our faces. But Jesus understands: that’s why he loves us so. He fell on his face over and over again, too. If you don’t believe me, look at the cross. But never forget, Jesus added these words: “...and on the third day I will be raised.”

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    August 24, 2014
    Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
    Matthew 16: 13-20
    “God Loves Us Poor Schmucks Anyway”

    We just heard Jesus ask two questions. The first, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” was an easy one for the disciples to answer and it is probably an easy one for us to answer as well. The disciples reported that some said Jesus was John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. We might raise our hands and add to that list: some say the Son of Man is a good man like Mahatma Gandhi or a chief religious leader like Mohammed or that he teaches us how to be good or that he is the best man who ever lived.

    There are, of course, many answers to “who do people say that the Son of Man is?” In the movie Talladega Nights, Will Farrell offers one such answer. He plays a NASCAR race car driver by the name of Ricky Bobby. At dinner one night, he begins to pray, “Dear Lord Baby Jesus.” After he mentions Dear Lord Baby Jesus more than his wife can stomach, she says: “You know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him baby. It’s a bit odd and off puttin’ to pray to a baby.” Ricky Bobby says to his wife: “Well look, I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m sayin’ grace. When you say grace, you can say it to grown up Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus, or whatever you want.”

    After Jesus asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” he put the disciples on the spot: “Who do you say that I am?”

    It is always easier to tell what others are saying than to tell what we believe. It has taken me a long time not to pay much attention to people who come to my office, close the door behind them, and say, “Pastor, people are saying…” Be forewarned: whenever someone says this to me, I always say, “And what do you say?”

    Peter said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter, known for his ego-trips, sinking in the sea, and three denials of ever having known Jesus, nailed this one. He said that Jesus was the Messiah, God come to earth.

    I imagine people ask you, too, what you believe. What I almost always say, as most of you know, is that with God, there is a free lunch for every suffering soul no matter what.

    You might think this answer a bit flimsy. How can you possibly tell your neighbor, “My pastor says God gives us a free lunch.” You might be wondering how the brighter lights of our church answer this question. I had the opportunity Wednesday morning to find out. I had a telephone conversation with a professor who teaches “Trinitarian Theology” at our seminary in Philadelphia. The course sounds scary and it is: I took it a few years ago! The professor is bright enough to teach such a daunting subject about the very nature of God. Here’s what he told me: “Wilk, I wish our seminarians and Lutheran pastors would finally just preach this: We are a bunch of schmucks and God loves us anyhow.” When he said this, I thought he was going to add something more profound but there was dead silence. I thought he might chuckle; not a peep. He let his profound theological insight as to who Jesus is sink in: “We are a bunch of schmucks and God loves us any how.”

    You may not particularly like my free lunch answer or my friend’s God loves all us schmucks answer, so, I ask you, who do you say that Jesus is?

    You may not want to stand up and answer that question right about now but ponder this: if police burst through our sanctuary doors and you were arrested in the next few minutes for being a Christian, would how you live your life provide enough evidence to convict you of believing in Jesus? Billy Graham once said it this way: “Give me five minutes with a person's checkbook, and I will tell you where their heart is.” If someone leafed through your checkbook, would they have a clue what you believe about Jesus?

    The author Pat Conroy’s mother said to her children, speaking of those who tried to save the Jews during World War II, “I want to raise a family that will hide Jews” (The Death of Santini, pg. 236). There is a glimpse into what it means to believe in Jesus.

    Or, how about our church? What might a visitor tell others that we believe? I would hope visitors would say we sing and pray and pass the peace and eat bread and drink wine like nobody’s business, as if Jesus rose from the dead and actually is standing right here among us this morning.

    Or…This past Friday morning was a busy one at First Lutheran Church. Hundreds of people received their Friday morning meal on our patio. People waited in line to see doctors in our clinics. And, for the first time, people were able to apply for food stamps here rather than at some crowded county office building. It was hectic; we ran out of room. In midstream we had to ask the Friday Women’s AA meeting to move to another room. We were a bit on edge—at least I was! We had to take a breath or two…or three. And later in the day, there was a group of people camped out at the edge of our patio making an unholy racket. When I was leaving on Friday, I called up to Jim Lovell and said, “I’m leaving before I do any more damage.” When I got home and looked back on the day in prayer, I realized we are a community that believes that Jesus is somehow present, not only here at worship, but in the midst of what can get pretty crazy and sometimes a bit heated and maddening in this place.

    Who do you say that the son of man is? As I think you know, my go-to-guy for such a question is Dr. Douglas John Hall. He taught theology at McGill University in Montreal and is now eighty-six years old. In what he claims to be his final book of many books, including his three volume magnum opus regarding theology in a North American context, he writes: “There must always be a prominent element of modesty, or even tentativeness and hesitancy, in what we profess concerning the knowledge of God.” This, by the way, is not a call to wishy-washiness when it comes to what we believe. What it is, however, is a call to modesty when we confess, “I believe…”

    Of course, in these days of confusion and tribulation, we want stand on street corners and mountaintops and shout what we believe—the heck with tentativeness and hesitancy! When the rhetoric on television drives us nuts and religious extremists, including Christians in our own nation, scare the pants off of us, we want to stand up and be counted, to say exactly what we believe. We want to shout louder, shake our fists more boldly, and call our so-called opponents nasty names that will stick. And yet, when we do this, we inevitably create our own trail of tawdry litter that hardly bespeaks of a God who comes among us to love us.

    In the midst of our challenges to be the people of God in our own neighborhoods and among our own families, as we receive the shocking news of the barbaric butchery of one of our citizens in another country, as we receive the shocking news of the barbaric butchery of a young African American man in Ferguson, Missouri simply because of the color of his skin, as ancient religions in the Middle East demonstrate barbaric butchery among one another, who exactly do we say Jesus is?

    At least for today, my best answer is this: Jesus comes into our midst and gives us a free lunch in spite of the terrible messes we create or, if you prefer, God loves us poor schmucks anyway and sends us Jesus …Who do you that Jesus is?

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    August 17, 2014
    Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
    Matthew 15: 21-28
    “Remembering Robin Williams”

    Matthew 15:21-28 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

    Perhaps you have read this morning’s sermon title, “Remembering Robin Williams.” Just to let you know: this is not Robin Williams’ funeral—he was not a member of this congregation and I doubt any of us are related to him.

    He was a supremely funny man, however. He made us laugh with jokes like “Why do they call it rush hour when nothing moves?” and “Spring is nature’s way of saying... ‘Let’s Party’” and “If it’s the Psychic Network why do they need a phone number?” and a host of others that are probably not fit for this particular hour.

    He was also a supremely gifted Academy Award actor who caused us to wipe away a tear or two like never before. What is your favorite Robin Williams movie—Patch Adams, The Fisher King, Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Morning, Viet Nam, or Good Will Hunting?

    I have sensed in the past few days—if Facebook posts are any indication—that many of you, like me, have been touched by his heartbreaking suicide. It seems to me, though, that something deeper is afoot. I wonder if Robin Williams’ depression, his drug addiction and alcoholism, his newly revealed struggles with Parkinson’s Disease remind us of struggles and demons that have hounded us or someone we love.

    My hunch is that 98% of us have struggled with such demons in one way or another and the other 2% of us are afraid to admit it.

    How fitting that today’s gospel reading is about the Canaanite woman. She struggled with a particularly ferocious demon harassing her daughter; that’s why she came to Jesus. Sadly, similar to the churches that refuse to do funerals for those who have committed suicide, Jesus wanted nothing to do with this woman. There is no other Bible passage that paints Jesus in such horrid colors. When the frantic woman came shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon,” Jesus called her an outcast: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

    The frantic woman did not let Jesus’ rudeness stop her. She came right back at him, pathetically throwing herself at Jesus’ feet and pleading, “Lord, help me.” In an even harsher voice, Jesus hurled a racial slur at her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Surprisingly, the woman refused to take no for an answer, badgering Jesus yet a third time: “Yes, Lord,” she said, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table.”

    It is then that her persistence finally paid off and caused Jesus to say: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the frantic woman’s daughter was healed instantly.It is then that her persistence finally paid off and caused Jesus to say: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the frantic woman’s daughter was healed instantly.

    Robin Williams, the Canaanite woman’s daughter, you, someone you love—don’t we all long for healing?

    So often on occasions when life turns gloomy, books are some of my dearest friends. They have helped me make sense of some my own dark moments. One such dear friend I return to over and over again is William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. Like Robin Williams, Styron struggled with severe depression. And like Williams, he seemed to have everything going for him: he was a Pulitzer Prize winning author who wrote, among other notable books, Sophie’s Choice which was turned into a movie starring Meryl Streep. What we see is that depression is an equal opportunity employer.

    While Styron doesn’t call his illness a demon, he might as well. “Our perhaps understandable modern need to dull the sawtooth edges of so many of the afflictions we are heir to has led us to banish the harsh old-fashioned words: madhouse, asylum, insanity, melancholia, lunatic, madness,” he writes. “But never let it be doubted that depression, in its extreme forms, is madness.”

    Maybe you understand the pain of which Styron writes. Maybe that’s why you braved this morning’s marathon bedlam to be here. Perhaps you, too, have come pleading to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”

    Of his severe depression, William Styron writes: “It is of great importance that those who are suffering a siege, perhaps for the first time, be told—be convinced, rather—that the illness will run its course and that they will pull through. A tough job this; calling “Chin up!” from the safety of the shore to a drowning person is tantamount to insult, but it has been shown over and over again that if the encouragement is dogged enough—and the support equally committed and passionate—the endangered one can nearly always be saved. Most people in the grip of depression at its ghastliest are, for whatever reason, in a state of unrealistic hopelessness, torn by exaggerated ills and fatal threats that bear no resemblance to actuality. It may require on the part of friends, lovers, family, admirers, an almost religious devotion to persuade the sufferers of life’s worth, which is so often in conflict with a sense of their own worthlessness, but such devotion has prevented countless suicides.”

    Most of us were taught early on to always say our prayers. And so here we are again, almost reflexively, praying for ourselves and our loved ones. I don’t know all your stories but I know quite a few. Your presence here this morning is a testament to your belief that Jesus will bring you and those you love safely through the wilderness of despair, alcoholism, and the myriad of untold agonies that hound you and those you love. Like that Canaanite woman, you have not given up hope; you keep praying, no matter how feeble your prayers, no matter how slim the hope.

    One of my fondest memories of Robin Williams is the manic interview he did a number of years ago with James Lipton on “Inside the Actors Studio.” Lipton asked Williams, “If heaven exits what would you like to hear God say as you arrive at the Pearly Gates?” Williams said: “There is seating near the front. The concert begins at five. It'll be Mozart, Elvis and one of your choosing.” And after a pause, Williams added, “If heaven exists, to know that there’s laughter, that would be a great thing. Just to hear God go, [“A rabbi, a priest, and a Lutheran minister walked into a bar…’”]

    May God grant us laughter in the midst of all we face. May God grant us strength not to surrender to despair but instead be blessed by dear friends and family, trusted brothers and sisters in Christ, good therapists and wise pastors, supportive 12 step groups, who help us keep up the good fight until, at the far end of the dark and fearsome tunnel, we once again laugh again and bathe in the warm light of Christ’s glory.

    Now I invite you to something we have not done at First Lutheran in my nine years here. I invite you, if you wish, to come forward to be anointed with the oil of healing. You don’t need to say a word except your first name. Simply come forward as did the Canaanite woman and we will say a prayer of healing for you or for someone for whom you wish us to pray (please give us their name).

    Here in this place God promises to free of us of our peskiest demons and lead us beside the still waters of healing. Come forward now and receive the fragrant oil of healing.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    August 10, 2014
    Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
    Matthew 14: 22-33
    “Walking on Water”

    Matthew 14: 22-33
    Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

    The Bible doesn’t tell us how far Peter walked on water. What’s your guess—two steps, four, perhaps ten at the most? Of Peter’s water walk, Saint Matthew writes: “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!’”

    We know, of course, that Jesus could walk across the Pacific Ocean, from here to Hawaii and back, if he so wished. With Peter, water-walking was another matter altogether. When he tried to walk on water and began to sink, that tickles our funny bone.

    When Peter said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” we look at each other and are embarrassed for him and a bit disgusted. We have heard Peter say such things before. He was always the big shot of the twelve disciples, wanting to be at Jesus side in glory and telling anyone who would listen that he was to be called “The Rock,” so named by Jesus himself. Just like the disciples, most of us have grown sick of Peter’s braggadocio and theatrics. And so, when he said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” we hope he is dumb enough to try. Along with James and Andrew, we watch Peter take his first nervous steps. We jab each other in the ribs like guys on a Bassmaster fishing boat; we say things like: “Go for it Pizza Pie; take a giant step for mankind, big fella; float like a dragonfly.”

    I know as well as you that as Peter began to sink, his scream, “Lord, save me,” echoed through the Galilean night. And I know, as do you, that Jesus castigated Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” when he lost courage. We know all this.

    But, just for a moment, don’t you think taking six steps or even two on a lake battered by fierce winds ain’t too shabby? Honestly, how many steps do you think you could take before sinking?

    There is something deep within us that likes to see the daring ones sink. We are like those Olympic judges who hold up score cards as divers risk their necks from 10 meters up doing outrageous three and a half somersaults with half twists. We prefer sitting in the security of our living rooms, hoping they will do belly smackers and holding up our cards with 3.5s and 3.0s out of ten; and, of course, our biggest risk is falling out of our La-Z-Boys because we are laughing so hard.

    I wonder if we are a bit rough on Peter because most of us don’t have the guts to get out of the boat and to try walking on water. How many of us have the faith to try even half a step? Church people all too often are the judges who criticize anyone who has the guts to try a new and difficult dive. I have noticed that the harshest critics in the church are often the ones who take no risks themselves, who offer very little money for the mission of the church and yet have a million answers as to how things should best be done.

    Three days ago, when we were visiting our son Sebastian in Philadelphia, we drove by the church where I did my internship in south Philadelphia, located only eight blocks from where our oldest son Sebastian is currently living. You have heard me speak of this church before—it was incredibly formative in shaping how I do ministry even almost forty years later. Emanuel Lutheran Church was located deep in the Southwark Housing Project where 4,000 or so people lived within two or three square city blocks in those urban renewal monstrosities that never should have been built. When I was there, it was the largest African American congregation in the Lutheran Church in America; at the Easter Vigil that year we baptized forty-eight people. It was a place much like our own congregation, a place that rarely slept. It had worship twice a day, every day; it had a parish school. The neighborhood, at least then, could be a hostile place however: four kids in the parish died violent deaths the year I was there and both pastors were held up at gun point. And yet, it was a magical place to be.

    As we drove by on Thursday, I saw what I already knew: this once proud congregation is no longer a Lutheran church; in fact, it is not even a Christian church. It is now a Buddhist Temple with a ten foot high Buddha sitting outside the door where kids used to line up in the morning for parochial school.

    It would be easy to ridicule all those who gave so much to that church, those who actually, at times, risked their very lives. Like Peter, they all tried to walk on water. What were they ever thinking? But as I stood and stared dumbfounded at the Buddha and as the tall steeple stretched into the sky weather worn and battered, I thought of all those whose lives were touched deeply by that ministry. Am I correct in thinking it was better to have tried and ultimately failed than not to have had the courage to try at all? Perhaps this once bustling place now stands as a testament that only God can save us from the wicked winds of life and that salvation will all come in God’s good time. Maybe we failed but God will never fail.

    Another person who touched me deeply during my seminary days was William Sloane Coffin. He once said: “I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, and then you grow wings.” The faithful ones are like Peter: they try to leap into the water, even while others are laughing and judging, even when the leapers are almost certain they will fall in the drink or at least be judged no matter how many steps they take.

    For my money, Peter is the most faithful one in the boat. His faith is borne of bravery to jump out of the boat, knowing he will be ridiculed by his friends and yet, trusting that Jesus will finally catch him no matter how wet he gets.

    Jesus invites us all to join Peter and to sprout water-wings, to jump out of the boat and to walk on water. Of course, eventually, our faith will fail us and we will fall in the drink—that is always the way it works—that is why we need Jesus. Deep in our Lutheran tradition is the belief that no matter how strong and daring our faith, there will come those occasions when we begin to sink into the drink. We Lutherans are fond of calling water-walking and water-sinking as saint and sinner. But, oh to be a community of water-walkers, to splish and splash, trusting that Jesus will catch us. Even when we start to sink, what a glorious sight when Jesus pulls us from the drink yet again, just as he did when we were put under the baptismal waters as tiny babies and we started screaming like Peter. What a sight to see Jesus pull us up and call us by name, again and again and again.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    July 27, 2014
    Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
    Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
    “The Kingdom of Heaven in Every Nook and Cranny”

    Every once in a while Dagmar and I will be sitting in the living room reading the LA Times when, out of the blue, she will ask me something like, “What does serendipity mean?” I rarely say, “I don’t have a clue.” Instead, I make something up like, “Serendipity is like finding wonder in a surprising way or like enjoying a day when you never expected to.” I never quote my 1976 edition of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary: “Serendipity is the faculty of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” Such a wooden definition just doesn’t cut it.

    Jesus kind of makes his definitions on the run too. When he defines the kingdom of heaven he sounds like a teenager at Comic-Con. “Heaven is like, like ah, well, you know, like…” Jesus fires off five likes in a row: the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the ground…it is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened…it is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field…it is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it….it is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind…”

    So let’s try doing what Jesus does. Turn to the person next to you and say what the “kingdom of heaven” is like. Please, don’t think too hard or be too proud.

    I have no idea what you said but I doubt you gave some fancy pants definition from Webster’s. Here is what my Webster’s says of heaven: “The dwelling place of the Deity and the joyful abode of the blessed dead; a spiritual state of everlasting communion with God.” Now honestly: who would define heaven like that? You probably said heaven is like eating funnel cake at the San Diego County Fair or like watching a baby walk the first time or like spreading out on a hammock on a summer day with not a care in the world or like saying “I love you” the first time to the person you really love.

    Heaven, of course, is much richer than any of that. It is much too rich for a static dictionary definition. Heaven is even richer than a few Bible verses. When we hear of heaven, it is always an invitation to imagine what only God knows. When we think we have defined heaven adequately, it is probably safe to say our definition is feeble at best and barely touches the splendor of heaven.

    Funny thing: when Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven, he doesn’t talk about streets lined with gold or pearly gates (though there is one pearl in his definition of heaven). Jesus sees the inbreaking of the kingdom of heaven right before our eyes in the nooks and crannies of life, here, now, in things easily overlooked like yeast and seeds and bushes and fish. Who would ever describe the kingdom of heaven like a measly mustard seed that, at its greatest, becomes a big bush?

    Article VII of the Augsburg Confession—one of the chief confessional documents of our Lutheran church—says: “It is taught among us that one holy Christian church…is the assembly of all believers, among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.” That’s elaborate theological language for saying the kingdom of heaven is discovered as we tell stories of God’s love to people who so need to hear such stories, as we share chunks of bread and sips of cheap wine purchased at Vons. What peculiar ways, really, to glimpse the kingdom of heaven.

    You can actually discover the kingdom of heaven right here, in this brick building, a building, I’m told, that before the steeple was added in 1999, was so insignificant that people coming to worship the first time walked right by, mistaking our dear church for a branch of the telephone company. Our little pile of red bricks is hardly St. Peter’s in Rome or Chartres in France, not Hagia Sophia in Istanbul or Saint Basil’s in Moscow. Just a scrawny seed are we.

    We are not a megachurch seating 20,000 people—we can fit about 150 here when squeezed tighter than sardines in oil. Your pastor is not a spellbinding entertainer like Rick Warren and doesn’t promise you get rich schemes like Joel Osteen. We are not even close to being the largest Lutheran church in America. Mount Olivet in Minneapolis wins that prize hands down with 15,782 members, 66 times more members than we have; 3,200 worship there on a typical Sunday morning, a figure that takes us six months to achieve in our little mustard seed place.

    And yet, remarkably, we claim to see the kingdom of heaven here. Not in perfect people, not in masters of the universe, not in soaring architecture….Just you and me and a bit of bread and a sip of wine and a little water and a few garbled words. Who would ever define the kingdom of heaven like that?

    And yet, I’ll bet you have caught yourself saying, “At our church…” However you finish the sentence, you are saying in more words or less, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” At our church, with only 237 members, we feed hundreds of people every week and have been doing so for nearly forty years. At our mustard seed joint, three bishops were here as we celebrated twenty five years of openly welcoming the LGBT community. Our pile of bricks hardly has enough room to squeeze all the recovering alcoholics who gather here at AA meetings during the week, trying to make it one day at a time. Doctors and lawyers, acupuncturists and dentists, and social workers literally squeeze into every vacant closet to tend to the pressing needs of the downtrodden—we are crammed with the presence of God here. A mustard seed kind of place for sure and yet a place where the kingdom of heaven can be found in rich and glorious ways if we only dare look in the nooks and crannies and closets of our beloved church.

    The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that becomes the greatest of shrubs, like yeast that becomes an astonishing loaf of bread, like a pearl worth giving your entire life for, like a little church on a city corner where you actually do give your life because you imagine that God loves this place very much and actually enjoys hanging out here during the week….The kingdom of heaven is like…

    The Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
    Bishop of the Southwest California Synod/
    Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
    Bishop of the Southwest California Synod/ Evangelical Lutheran Church in America July 20, 2014, First Lutheran Church, San Diego, California Sixth Sunday after Pentecost/ First Lutheran Church Celebrates 25 Years as a Reconciling in Christ Congregation Isaiah 44:6-8; Psalm 86:11-17; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

    [Jesus] put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?' He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he replied, 'No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"

    Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field." He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

    It is so wonderful to be with you this morning here at First Lutheran in San Diego, especially on this great occasion: San Diego Pride, and this congregation’s twenty-fifth anniversary as one which welcomes GLBT sisters and brothers as part of its Christian fellowship. We’ve come so far: our national church and so many of its congregations are now welcoming, but twenty-five years ago that was not to be taken for granted, and this church was ahead of the trend. Yesterday at the parade, riding on the back of that convertible, Rob and I could clearly see the great joy of many people happy that our church has come so far; today we celebrate again that progress—and how congregations like this one have helped make this tremendous change possible by your strong, persistent, and early witness. I thank God for you, and for your work in this church.

    It’s also joyful for me to share this weekend with my two California bishop-colleagues Murray Finck and Mark Holmerud, whom I admire and whose leadership—in different ways, times, and places—has also helped draw this church into new openness toward the GLBT community, and with it, into new faithfulness to the gospel of God’s love. It’s also a very meaningful fact that the same weekend we three are here in San Diego, the funeral of the Rev. Stanley Olson, last bishop of this synod for the Lutheran Church in America (one of the ELCA’s predecessor churches) was being held in Northern California. Bishop Olson was a pioneer in helping the Lutheran church open up to gay and lesbian people, and I know that he was proud of how far our church has come today. His spirit smiles on us this weekend, I am quite sure, and we thank God today for his life and witness. May we, with him, know grace and peace in God our Creator and our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

    This morning’s Gospel lesson, the parable of the wheat and the weeds, is, to be honest, a pretty difficult one. In it, Jesus describes the kingdom of God as like a field of wheat compromised by weeds growing among the wheat. These weeds had been planted by a mysterious, malicious enemy who sowed them among the wheat without the owner’s knowledge. And like the parable of the sower and the different soils we heard last Sunday, it doesn’t stop with metaphor, but goes on to explain itself in fairly literal terms: the wheat are the righteous and the weeds those who oppose God, who coexist in the world and even in the church until God sorts them out at the final judgment.

    Obviously this parable offered a way for early Christians to understand how to live in a world that didn’t share their values, or perhaps even to live within a church where not everybody agreed or got along, for it emphasizes the master’s choice to allow the wheat and the weeds to remain together until God eventually sorts them out. It explains why God allows those who seem to oppose God to live and even to flourish in the same field as those who are godly and good. It acknowledges the existence of evil, and consoles the people of God by telling them that the righteous are loved by God even when the world in which they live seems choked by weeds.

    That's reassuring, for this has been a week in which it has been hard not to think about evil in the world, and tempting to call out to God for justice among humans. The terrible downward spiral of violence in Gaza; the callous and cynical response of Russia and the Ukrainian separatists after shooting down a passenger plane full of people completely unconnected to that conflict; the bitterness expressed by some of our fellow-citizens to the situation of the flood of unaccompanied minors at our borders; even the ongoing polarization of our political society that has helped bring our government to a halt—all these tempt us to cry out to God for justice.

    How tempting it is to use this parable to judge this difficult world in those simple terms, blaming the evil we don’t understand on a mysterious, malevolent force beyond us, sowing weeds in an otherwise righteous world. It is the natural thing for us to want to judge, to explain how good and evil can coexist so closely, and to find ways not to blame the evil on God or on ourselves. We want to judge because we want to understand all these things that have made us sad and angry and frustrated, and because we are eager to do right—to know who to support and who to blame—just as early Christians needed to understand the complexity and perversity of human desire in their own time.

    But judging others and the world around is us a temptation I believe the parable urges us to resist. The really crucial part of the story lies in the response of the owner of the wheat field to learning that his field is full of weeds. For when the servants offer to go and pull the weeds, he tells them not to—that at this point they couldn’t tell the weeds from the wheat. Better to just let them grow together until the harvest, and sort them out then, when their differences are apparent. Jesus uses this parable to hold us back from our strong temptation to judge others prematurely— for judgment belongs to God, and to God alone.

    This isn’t easy to hear, for we would like to call out injustice now, and challenge evil, and separate the wheat from the weeds. But I think there is still wisdom in it—and it has to do with our inability, like the servants in the parable, to distinguish between wheat and weeds in the world around us. We so want to judge; our sense of right and wrong is so strong, and the hurt felt in the world around us calls out to us to act on our neighbors’ behalf. But Jesus casts doubt on our judgment.

    This parable is ultimately not a lesson about the complete and ultimate difference between wheat and weeds, but about the complexity of reality: that our world is both a weedy place and at the same time full of worthy wheat, where everything grows together and we can’t always tell the difference. And more important yet—only God can tell the difference. The ultimate lesson here is not that we should despair at the weeds, but that we should avoid the temptation of deciding too early who’s a weed and who’s a blade of wheat—that we are not capable of this. That sorting, that dividing is heavenly work—indeed God’s own work, and humans should not be doing it, even in God’s name.

    Though it is tempting, especially when evil seems so clear, we judge others at our extreme peril. We in the GLBT community know this first-hand— that drawing black-and-white judgments only makes victims out of some and self-righteous hypocrites out of others. Only those who can live with complexity can remain faithful to the hope that in God’s own time, that what is ultimately and completely good will be lifted up, and what is ultimately and completely bad and selfish will be thrown away and removed from our lives. In the meanwhile we are stuck with a mixed, in-between situation: loved and promised grace, we are saved; caught in our own anxious lack of faith, we are sinners. We are weeds and wheat together.

    This lesson warns us—but it does not warn us to be afraid of having “weeds” in our midst. Those, we’re stuck with until God brings all things to their conclusion. And perhaps it’s a good thing we’re caught in this ambiguity, because we need it! For example, when I hear Christians condemn other Christians, I immediately want to jump in and condemn the condemners! Like yesterday in the parade, when the small group of Christian hecklers challenged our tolerance and acceptance as itself an evil, and accused us of unfaithfulness,

    My instinctive reaction is almost as bad as theirs—they accuse us of sowing weeds among the wheat, and my first reaction is to think, “no, you’re the ones doing that.” But that’s just stupid. It’s not that simple. We are people who see the world (at least on the issue of the acceptance of gay and lesbian people, their leadership, and their relationships) in new ways, and we fear that obsolete ways of understanding humanity and human relationships challenge our status as Christians and even threaten our existence. But we are not the wheat and they the weeds. We can’t fight prejudice with new prejudice.

    We all have to live together in a world—even in a church—in which the wheat and the weeds are, practically speaking, often indistinguishable from each other. We can tell some things by people’s external behavior, or by what they say they think, but none of these give us a reliable window into their souls—all of us have mixed motives for our feelings and convictions. And we should know that enough to be modest in our judging of others.

    In the end, this parable is not about being able to tell right from wrong, but actually about our ultimate inability to do so, at least in the way that God can. It is not trying to tell us that right and wrong are the same, but that it is hard for us, from our earthbound perspective, to distinguish them reliably and for all time—we humans can only judge by what we experience, and our judgment is inevitably not the same as God’s. Here's the good news: God's judgment is based on love and mercy, the mercy shown to all of us in Christ, the mercy that we are to show one another when we refrain from judging and see our neighbors through eyes of love. God loves us as we are, as we really are, as God made us. In the meanwhile, Jesus challenges us (and this is not the easy path, but the hard one) to be humble and patient in judging others and perhaps even in judging ourselves. Let everyone with ears listen! Amen.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    July 13, 2014
    Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
    Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
    “Sowing Extravagantly and Exuberantly”

    Our family is a bunch of gardeners. My parents lived in an old converted barn in the hills of West Virginia. They had an old picture of cows eating out of a trough area which eventually became our recreation room. My dad’s idea of heaven was gardening in the moonlight.

    Gardening is in my wife’s genes, too. The lawn around Dagmar’s childhood home in the quaint German village of Barnstorf resembled the putting greens at Torrey Pines; her father’s roses rivaled Balboa Park’s. If you don’t know, Dagmar has inherited her father’s love of gardening: she has never met a plant she won’t adopt from some godforsaken trash heap along the roadside.

    My claim to horticultural fame is not as stellar. I worked on Herb and Carol Minch’s prize winning dairy farm in high school and college. I baled hay, cut corn, mucked stalls, and fed the cows; I even helped build a forty foot concrete slab silo in a day that convinced me I was near death as I struggled to ride my motorcycle home late that night.

    All the gardeners I have known are a tad finicky. Each has cautioned me: “Wilk, that was an iris not a weed; why did you pull it? Wilk, you have to be more careful mowing around the azalea bushes.” Even Kit Brothers, our First Lutheran Saturday morning gardening guru extraordinaire, has warned me: “Wilk, don’t murder the bougainvillea bushes; you are using the wrong tool and chopping off every branch indiscriminately.” Gardeners exercise a certain seed by seed, bulb by bulb, bush by bush, branch by branch precision that drives me nutty.

    You may be surprised to know, given my considerable shoulder-rubbing with esteemed gardeners and farmers, my favorite agriculturalist continues to be Jesus. I adore his gardening techniques though, as far as I can tell, he didn’t know a hill of beans from a mound of manure. He was a carpenter’s kid after all. If Jesus had told parables about cabinet making or floor refinishing, you might respect his expertise but, as to gardening, you shake your head in puzzlement or even dismay. Jesus’ style was not the careful, monotonous, seed-by-seed planting technique preferred by gardening connoisseurs. He simply flung seeds every which way and, as you would expect, invariably, seeds landed on rocky ground and pathways hard as rocks and amidst thorns. Do you think Jesus bothered to read the seed packet instructions to find out whether they were sun tolerant? No! He flung those seeds where they were bound to be scorched to death. Jesus seemed clueless when it came to gardening but you’ve got to admit his technique is infectiously fun; when you draw close to him, you can have a blast.

    I have increasingly become suspect of long range planning in the church. Now, don’t hear me wrong: I am not advocating a visionless ministry. But often times I find these processes slam the breaks on creativity and risk-taking; they curb enthusiasm, extravagance, and delight. They do not take Jesus’ planting methods to heart. Inevitably someone comes up with a breathtaking idea—let’s build a building on our parking lot with solar panels, ten floors, rooms for people in recovery, office space for our expanding ministry, and an additional level for parking. No sooner has the beautiful dreamer flung this lavish proposal into our laps than we start picking the dream apart like ravenous pigeons: Where would we get the money? How could a congregation our size do such a thing? What would the neighbors say? Would it ever get past the San Diego building inspectors? Maybe you have an objection yourself this very moment!

    Or what about a dream involving all those kids who have arrived here from Central America—what to do with them all? I wonder what would happen if some good old fashioned American ingenuity were tried, the kind that brought almost every one of our ancestors here from some foreign land—ask Native Americans if you don’t believe me. What if we looked at another legal landscape besides “Send the children back! We have a law and by that law.” What if we creatively pondered Jesus’ words, “Let the little children come unto me.” Or, what if, in today’s climate infatuated with being “faithful Americans” (most recently witnessed by our Supreme Court’s decision not to force companies to pay health care for birth control if they find doing so goes against their religious beliefs), what if being faithful Americans drove us to pay attention to all the words of the Bible, like those of Moses: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry” (Exodus 22: 21-23). Have you noticed how choosy we are when it comes to what laws we follow in the Bible?

    I confess I don’t have a good plan for caring for these children. I can’t claim to be terribly knowledgeable about the whole conundrum. What I can tell you is that I am listening to those who know better than I, to those flinging seeds this very moment. I have heard of families who have said, “We will adopt two.” I have heard of congregations who have opened their parish halls. Might we pray to the extravagant planter Jesus to see whether there is a better way to deal with children fleeing Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador where the violence rates are the highest in the world? Dare we trust God for an answer, the God who calls us to care for the strangers and orphans in our midst? Might we adopt a posture of welcome, relying only on God’s promise that our extravagance will bear an astonishing harvest?

    Jesus’ parable of the sower, rather than calling us to reasonableness, invites us to exuberant extravagance. Jesus calls us to the kind of ministry we would do if we still had the jolly hearts of kids. For Jesus, dullness was a failure of nerve and never an option. Jesus was never dull! Words describing Jesus’ parable of the sower are exuberant, extravagant, delightful, risky, reckless, profligate, cheerful, even prodigal; words that never come to mind are miserly, cost effective, calculating the bottom line, cautious, careful, lackluster. Never was Jesus what my good friend Pastor John Steinbruck always warned against, “no hits, no runs, no errors.”

    What is so astonishing about Jesus’ wacky planting style is that fruit magically appears, yielding a hundredfold, in another case, sixty, and in another thirty no matter the soil. There is an embarrassment of riches.

    Jesus never said success is up to us. He simply called us to do some extravagant planting. And so, in Jesus’ name, whether you are rocky, weedy, or good soil, go out into the world like little children, flinging the seeds of God’s abundant love and laughing and dancing all the day long. God apparently will take care of the rest, at least according to that distinguished gardener Jesus.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    July 6, 2014
    Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
    Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30
    “Learning the Unforced Rhythms of Real Grace”

    Are you tired, worn out?

    That’s why I love holiday weekends. Give me an extra day of rest and I am on top of the world, thanking God for this marvelous gift from heaven. How many of you have been enjoying this 4th of July weekend—and really, it’s just one extra day.

    What have you been doing these past few days? Dagmar and I sawed down a dead tree in our back yard, barbecued steaks on the grill, watched five different fire work displays from our back porch, and went mad searching for the German-France World Cup game on the radio—who won by the way? I shouldn’t tell you this, but after reading Citizens of London, a serious book about three Americans who urged the United States to join England’s cause in World War II, I needed a break. So, in thanksgiving for the freedoms we have as citizens of this nation and in honor of an extra day off, I read The Noble Hustle, a book about a guy playing in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas—hey, I am entitled to a little junk in my life.

    And how did you celebrate our nation’s birthday?

    Are you tired? Worn out? Jesus knows you are. Whether on the job or hunting for a job, taking care of your children or tending the grandkids, trying to deal with the homeless situation in downtown San Diego or making plans for the Three Bishops coming here in two weeks—whatever you have been doing, I bet you are tired and worn out.

    Here’s Jesus’ cure as noted in Eugene Peterson’ The Message translation of the Bible: “Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of real grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

    The thought of getting away with Jesus and swimming in the unforced rhythms of grace is an enchanting one.

    We bear such enormous loads. I recently read that people in the United States suffer worse anxiety than just about anyone else in the world. That surprised me. Most of us have more than anyone has had in the history of the world. We have roofs over our heads, at least one car in the garage, cable television, Iphones, vacations; and yet we are terribly anxious. Some studies suggest that we have too many choices and that is the cause of our anxiety. Researchers have discovered that people living in Mexico suffer dramatically less anxiety than we do here. We know the poverty south of the border and the violence, and yet, surprisingly, when Mexicans move here, their symptoms of anxiety rise significantly just like ours. (Scott Stossel, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind)

    I wonder if we are anxious, tired, and worn out because we have just about everything except what we need most.

    Did you pay attention to this morning’s prayer of the day? I like to say that the prayer of the day is a kind of liturgical Cliff’s Notes on the service about to unfold; listen carefully, and you will have a pretty good idea about the theme of the day’s worship. If you were not paying attention, listen again: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” These are famous words from St. Augustine who lived in the fourth century and who greatly influenced Martin Luther. We are tired and worn out, having everything except the one thing that will give us rest. Our deepest anxiety, whether we realize it or not, is that we are not resting in the Lord. Deep in our soul is a profound yearning for God and unless we have this need met, we are likely going to be a mess.

    Sometimes, it is just when we wonder whether we can make it another day that God’s grace sweeps over us. While we probably would never call those miserable moments “grace,” aren’t they the ones that most often lead us to God? Aren’t they the occasions when we finally realize we are missing something fundamental in our lives? The poet Scott Cairn writes: “… ‘our weakness’ is the beginning of all that is good and beautiful.”

    Those of you who are active in Alcoholics Anonymous know this. Steps 2 and 3 of the 12 Steps speak powerfully to you. Step 2 says: “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Step 2 articulated what you knew: you were about to go insane or die a tragic death without letting someone greater than you carry your heavy load. Alcohol was not doing the trick.

    And then Step 3: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.” Remarkably, this isn’t as easy it as sounds. Strangely, we seem to want to bear the load, to run the show. We want power and control. We always want to be right. This longing for power and control does not create happy people nor does it create happy people around us. I watch people who are miserable and resentful because they never take a break and yet they will not let anyone else share their load. Step 3 is that astonishing moment when we finally muster the courage to say, “You’re right, I’m not perfect.”

    Miraculously, it is often in the weariness of trying to be perfect that our heads start tilting in the right direction. This new tilt is borne out of the weariness of longing for perfection, trying to do everything ourselves and being miserable and angry. And then, by the sheer grace of God, we say “enough” and suddenly see God standing right in front of us, ready to bear our load. As AA says, we have hit bottom and bottom is an enormous blessing. We have alienated family and friends, lost our jobs, and feel like complete losers. And yet, how odd that the gutter is a gift.

    Suddenly, we begin to relax. We celebrate July 4th weekend and don’t do a thing, not worrying that others will accuse us of being lazy. And, if we do a thing, it is something like going to the Padres game, grilling hamburgers and hotdogs, watching the neighborhood parade as we wave our little flags with everyone else… and smiling all the way. We no longer need to control our world.

    Or maybe we just sit in silence and rest in the Lord. The surprise comes when we realize God is with us even when we are doing nothing; we feel the tension lift and realize God is carrying our burdens. We are just sitting there and breathing easy. Life is wonderful.

    This morning, I hope you left your burdens at the door. If you didn’t, take a moment now, in silence, to lay your burdens down….

    Now, accept the unforced rhythms of real grace. Be comfortable just being here, singing and praying. Even let your mind wander in God’s presence and don’t feel guilty at all if you are missing key points of the service—it’s a nice think just to rest in God’s lap. As one writer has noted, this hour at worship is a “royal waste of time”—it is the junk novel of our religious life.

    Come now to the meal set before you. Eat what you have not cooked, drink what you have not labored for. Taste the deliciousness of heaven. Rest in the Lord and be ever thankful.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    June 29, 2014
    Festival of Saint Peter and Saint Paul
    Acts 12: 1-11; 2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 17-18; John 21: 15-19
    “There's Hope for Us Yet”

    For you died-in-the-wool Lutherans, today’s worship centering on Saint Peter and Saint Paul might be a bit painful. The word “saint” makes you wince as if you just took a giant gulp of rotten milk. Some of you were told along the way that Lutherans don’t believe in saints. And if that doesn’t roast your Lutheran chicken, why do we call today the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul? Every time this festival falls on Sunday, I, too, am a bit taken aback but not for the reason you think.

    You see, when we lived in Washington, D.C., I used to pass by the National Cathedral every morning as I took our boys to school. If you haven’t been to this church of epic proportions—the second largest in the United States, do so on your next trip to our nation’s capitol. It is a carnival for the eyes. One of the stained glass windows is the Space Window, honoring the landing on the moon, with a fragment of lunar rock at its center. Helen Keller and Woodrow Wilson are buried there. And, on March 31, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached his final Sunday sermon at that great stone pulpit, before dying a martyr’s death just like Peter and Paul.

    The official name of the place is actually the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. What always made my skin crawl is not that it is named after saints but that it is named after a murderer and a liar. You are probably wondering how dare I call these two pillars of the Christian church a liar and a murder. Maybe you have belonged to a St. Paul’s or St. Peter’s Church yourself.

    Lest I be accused of being a liar myself, let me quote a bit of scripture. Of Saint Peter the Bible writes: “Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard [as Jesus stood before Caiaphas the high priest]. And a maid came up to him, and said, ‘You also were with Jesus the Galilean.’ But he denied it before them all, saying, ‘I do not know what you mean.’ And when he went out to the porch, another maid saw him, and she said to the bystanders, ‘This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.’ And again he denied it with an oath, ‘I do not know the man.’ After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, ‘Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.’ Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, ‘I do not know the man.’” Don’t you agree that Peter, who was supposed to be Jesus’ right hand man, was a miserable liar?

    And Paul? Aren’t we Lutherans the ones who get all teary-eyed when Paul is quoted: “By grace you have been saved.” Maybe you don’t mind Peter being called a liar—after all, it is Roman Catholics who claim their pope to follow in his line—but how dare I call Paul a murderer? Let me again quote scripture: “Now when they heard these things [Stephen said], they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.” That Saul, who was cheering Stephen’s stoning to death like soccer fans cheering on team USA, had a name change a bit latter in life, after his conversion; Saul became Paul. Now, if you are more befuddled than ever why we call Peter and Paul saints, don’t fret.

    You heard in today’s gospel reading how Peter actually redeemed himself. Soon after he lied three times about knowing Jesus, Jesus asked Peter soon after he resurrection if he loved him, and Peter said, not once, but three times, “Yes, Lord; you know I love you”; he even added that he would feed Jesus’ sheep. This is a fantastic description of redemption, going from cowardly liar to courageous follower of Jesus in a matter of days.

    And in this morning’s Second Reading, Paul writes: “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Astonishing! Paul went from being involved in the dastardly murder of the first Christian martyr, Saint Stephen, to spilling his own blood, as did Peter, for Jesus’ sake.

    Peter and Paul—honestly, aren’t these guys you can relate to?

    Dorothy Day, one of my favorite modern saints, founded the Catholic Worker in New York City, a radical group of Christians who not only work with homeless people but also live with them and give away all their possessions—actually a group from the Catholic Worker here in San Diego hands out clothes at First Lutheran once a month. When people called Dorothy Day a saint—which they often did even while she was still living, here is what she said: “I’m tired of hearing myself called saintly. Such a way of disregarding what we all have to do in our own ways—follow God’s lead! To call me saintly is to rob and cheat me—of my very humanity! I am as mean and nasty in my head and my heart as all the rest of us here. Every day we fail spiritually. Who is an exception to that—who gets an A plus in the eyes of God? Not me! Just this morning, I was thinking of someone I know with a terrible anger and scorn in my heart! I tried to forget the person; I worked on the soup line, serving others in order to help myself a little!” Now there is a saint…and a sinner! Does this ring a bell in your own life?

    Aren’t we all a bit like Paul and Peter and Dorothy Day? We are a curious concoction of spineless cowards who, out of the blue, stand up for an outcast loner and surprise even ourselves with our heroism and compassion; we sometimes lift another’s spirits from the dark depths of despair and then, only seconds later, have a titanic explosion that sickens even ourselves; we sometimes give generously of our time and resources and then do the math and discover we pay more for our monthly cable television bill than we give for the Lord’s work here at 3rd and Ash. Maybe that’s why we have a problem lifting up saints—we know ourselves all too well. And yet, maybe that’s why we should challenge ourselves to celebrate this day: we, too, are like Peter and Paul, saints all of us, limping along to do the Lord’s work.

    Well, here is the good news on this Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Peter was a liar, Paul was a murderer, and both were lifted from the gutter and washed in the blood of the lamb. We can’t stop singing about them because they remind us so much of ourselves and we see how much God loved them. They give us so such hope. Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Saint You and Saint Me….You have got to admit: today is kind of fun!

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    June 22, 2014
    Second Sunday after Pentecost
    Genesis 21: 8-21; Matthew 10: 24-39
    “Ol' Cousin Ernie”

    Today’s first reading from Genesis is a tantalizing soap opera. God promised Sarah and Abraham that they would be the parents of a great nation and that they would have a baby boy to make this claim come true. Any such hope seemed preposterous since the two of them were card carrying AARP members going on thirty years. They waited and waited and still no son. In the rush for a son, any son, Sarah’s beautiful young lady-in-waiting, Hagar, became pregnant by Abraham and gave birth to Ishmael. Sarah was livid: how could an Egyptian woman and not God’s chosen ones bear a son?

    Then, wouldn’t you know it, out of the blue, Sarah delivered the miracle baby. His name was Isaac which means laughter; only a stand-up comedian could dream of such a birth to parents pushing ninety. Even when the baby was in the baby buggy, Sarah snarled at Abraham, “We’ve got God’s blessing for our son, Isaac, not for your stinking mutt Ishmael.” You would think God’s chosen ones would act more civilly. The BBC series “Downton Abbey” has nothing on this juicy tale.

    Maybe this story doesn’t strike you as particularly scandalous; after all, your family has a story that rivals it. You are a faithful sort. You attend church almost every Sunday and drop your envelope in the plate when it passes by, and yet you are caught in an infuriating muddle with someone in your family. His name is Ernie; he is your cousin from back east. He regularly sends you emails that make your blood boil. The subject lines read: “what is our nation coming to,” “throw the bum out of office,” “California is going to the dogs,” “new pope is the antichrist.” Against your better judgment, you open the emails and they ooze bigoted venom, conspiracy theory lunacy, and know-it-all insights from the one who, the last you heard, thought Wyoming was the capitol of Mississippi. You wonder: doesn’t Ernie know the commitments I make in my life; doesn’t he understand my values; he must know sending me such rubbish will infuriate me as much as Hagar’s baby boy infuriated Sarah.

    You try your best, you really do. The first time you respond, you are as gentle as possible—not a particularly brilliant idea, you realize, when Ernie promptly sends you membership information for the “Mad Hatters’ Militia.” The next email you receive, you decide to respond with six exclamation points at the end of your subject line and, just as you feared, ol’ Ernie is waiting for you at the other end of cyberspace with absolute glee. Warning: do not engage email nut cases; they will send you even more emails! Finally, you have a breathtaking inspiration: why not make every one of Ernie’s messages go straight to your trash bin without passing your eyesight… Have you noticed: you still catch yourself peeking?

    You finally muster the courage, after considerable prayer, and write your sweet cousin, telling him that, regrettably, you will no longer be reading or responding to his harangues. You hate to do this. You have such fond memories of summers with Ernie at Lake Woopdido when you were kids and fear this will end it all; nevertheless, you can no longer stomach his racist attacks on our president and his ferocious stabs at anyone who shows the least bit compassion for the downtrodden and rejected. Sadly, just as you expect, no sooner do you press “send” than he emails you straight away and says, “Okay, Miss High and Mighty, whatever you wish!” With that, you realize Jesus was right when he said: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own house, including, of course, cousin Ernie.”

    For some reason, you thought it would get easier the day you joined the church and said, “I believe in God the Father almighty creator of heaven and earth.” While you are no poster child for sainthood, Jesus’ words ring truer and truer: “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

    Oscar Romero was the Archbishop of San Salvador in the 1970s. He knew a thing or two about people like cousin Ernie except his acquaintances didn’t send emails: they were thought to be national death squads that killed him in 1980 while he celebrated Mass in a hospital chapel. Archbishop Romero took Jesus seriously when it came to caring for the poor; he refused to make sleazy compromises with the powers that be even though his commitment to Jesus finally spelled his death. He once said: “Those who, in the biblical phrase, would save their lives—that is, those who want to get along, who don’t want commitments, who don’t want to get into problems, who want to stay outside of a situation that demands the involvement of all of us—they will lose their lives. What a terrible thing to have lived quite comfortably, with no suffering, not getting involved in problems, quite tranquil, quite settled, with good connections politically, economically, socially—lacking nothing, having everything. To what good? They will lose their lives.”

    It is so hard to do the right thing, whether siding with the poor and rejected or telling the likes of cousin Ernie to cease and desist. Imagine how difficult it was for Abraham as Sarah badgered him to toss Hagar and Ishmael out of their tent. He knew he had a responsibility to Hagar and Ishmael and yet, he grew so weary of his beloved wife’s diatribes that he finally said, “Okay Sarah, have your way,” and he cut Hagar and Ishmael lose and cast them out into the hostile desert of Beersheba. Abraham regretted the decision until the day he died.

    Has this ever happened to you? Did you ever want peace so badly that you made a rotten decision just to calm things down and have discovered now, eighteen years later, the decision still haunts you?

    What is remarkable is that no matter what terrible decisions were made between Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, God never abandoned a single one of them. Even though God’s blessing of a great nation went to Abraham and Sarah’s miracle baby Isaac and not to Hagar’s son Ishmael, nevertheless, God provided for Hagar and Ishmael as they hungered and thirsted in the desert heat. Special blessing or none at all, right decision or wrong one altogether, as the Sunday School song goes, all are precious in God’s sight.

    Even in our own family, God doesn’t forsake the email fanatic or the email deleter. Perhaps this is the lesson to be learned this morning: there’s a wideness in God’s mercy that is wider than the sea. God hears the cries of the infuriated and the infuriating and sends his son Jesus to live with us all and to die for us all too. No matter how we respond to Ernie or even if we happen to be Ernie, God welcomes us all here this morning. So, get off your computer and come to the Table of the Lord.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    June 15, 2014
    Holy Trinity Sunday
    Genesis 1: 1 – 2:4; Matthew 28: 16-20
    “Oh, Yes, It Matters What You Believe”

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

    This morning’s first reading is African American poet James Weldon Johnson’s rendering of “The Creation” from his book God’s Trombones. Let me tell you why I chose this nonbiblical reading—something we rarely do, if ever, here at First Lutheran Church. Here’s what I love:

    And far as the eye of God could see
    Darkness covered everything,
    Blacker than a hundred midnights
    Down in a cypress swamp.

    That’s not all I love. “After God created light and spangled the night with the moon and the stars, hurled the world, spat out the seven seas and green grass and red flowers and pine trees,” God said: “That’s good!”

    But that’s not all I love. Listen:

    Then God walked around,
    And God looked around
    On all that he had made.
    He looked at his sun,
    And he looked at his moon,
    And he looked at his little stars;
    He looked on his world
    With all its living things,
    And God said: I’m lonely still.

    And I love this too:

    God thought and thought,
    Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!

    Can’t you just feel God’s love as Johnson writes:

    This Great God,
    Like a mammy bending over her baby,
    Kneeled down in the dust
    Toiling over a lump of clay
    Tell he shaped it in his own image;

    Then into it he blew the breath of life,
    And man became a living soul.
    Amen. Amen.

    What I hope you sense in Johnson’s stunning poetry is a God who is lonely without us and so loves us into being.

    As we ponder the complex, mysterious, and often times exasperating doctrine of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, it is important to grasp that what all this fancy theological talk boils down to is showing us how much God loves the world and you and me. This is the “for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son” God; this is the God who, when he saw his children distraught after Jesus’ death, raised him from the dead and then filled us with the Holy Spirit so we could be assured of God’s presence with us in the good times and bad times of life.

    Sometimes, I’m afraid, we—maybe I—get so caught up in the subtleties of theological debate that we forget what God does and that, of course, is to love the world. Maybe we forget what James Weldon Johnson knew: God is lonely without us joining Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at the mercy table.

    Maybe the old adage is correct, a picture is worth a thousand words. The picture on your bulletin is an icon. The Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity, of which there are about 300 million adherents worldwide, believe icons (actually not pictures) to be windows into heaven, inviting worshipers to glimpse what awaits us in eternity with Christ.

    This particular icon, “The Holy Trinity,” also called “The Hospitality of Abraham,” depicts the love of the Trinity. Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev who lived in Russian in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century paints the Trinity gathered around the table; at this table there is a place set for you and me. When the Holy Trinity is seen from this perspective, then perhaps it does matter what we believe.

    As you well know, there are those who say, “It really doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe.” I know people say this in an attempt to accept those who differ from them and not to cause offense—and this is understandable given our own Christian tradition’s horrible treatment over the centuries of those who differ from us. But do any of us really think it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe? I hope not!

    I am currently slogging through three books, about 3,000 pages in all, on the life of Winston Churchill (William Manchester’s The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill). I am struck by all the people during Churchill’s life who believed and yet whose belief was very different from God is love. Josef Stalin believed strongly: he believed that communism was a good thing, a way the suffering masses could finally share some of the basic necessities of life; he believed this so passionately that he was willing to brutally slaughter anyone who got in the way of his vision and communism’s message. 50-80 million people were killed in World War II. Of those, 21-28 million were Russians. Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” Stalin was a believer; the question for us today is: did it really not matter what Stalin believed as long as he believed?

    As I said, we believe the heart of our Trinitarian belief is that God is love. This belief matters!

    If you could make one wish, what would it be? Sarah Nelson just graduated from high school and will enter Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, in the fall. Sarah is visiting San Diego this weekend courtesy of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the organization that makes the wishes of young people facing terminal and chronic illnesses come true. Sarah came here a few years ago on a church mission trip with her church, First Lutheran, in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. She was so touched by the experience of serving breakfast to the homeless community that her number one wish when coming to San Diego was to serve on our food line. Can you imagine, before going to the beach or the San Diego Zoo or Sea World, Sarah Nelson served God’s blessed poor here at First Lutheran on Friday morning? What an astonishing wish!

    I am not certain how exactly Sarah articulates her Lutheran faith but what I saw in her Friday was a profound confession in the God who calls her to love others as God loves her. I suspect Sarah’s faith has something to do with a table and seeing that all God’s children gather together around Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You could call that a profound belief in the Holy Trinity.

    The one place Father, Son, and Holy Spirit appears in the gospel is when Jesus calls his disciples to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Maybe we are called to do more than just talk about the nature of God. Maybe we are called to go out and do something, to show God’s love by inviting people to come and gather at our wonderful river and to be baptized. Maybe our deepest concerns and most pressing debates should center on how to keep our tables as wide open as Andrei Rublev’s icon, as welcoming as Sarah made our tables on Friday, making our greatest wish be that all people know that God is lonely and wants us to come and join the meal of heaven here on earth. Yes, it matters very much what we believe, Father, (+) Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    June 8, 2014
    Acts 2: 1-21
    “Just Me, Just You”

    Almost everyday, one of you walks through the church office. You are on your way to do one of a million tasks necessary to keep God’s love alive at our little corner of God’s creation. Sitting in my office and not sure who is “out there,” I shout, “Hello.” Almost always, you say, “It’s just me.” It’s just me….delivering bread and wine for Sunday, bringing supplies for the Friday morning meal with the homeless…picking up materials for Sunday School… just me getting the agenda for church council, counting the Sunday collection….just me clipping the bushes and picking up trash around the church.

    Maybe you were six when your first grade teacher hollered, “You aren’t ever going to amount to anything.” For fifty-eight years, you can still feel your teacher’s harangue and you say, “It’s just me” as if, of course, “just me” will never be good enough. Your skills don’t amount to much in your eyes, not particularly heroic or noble or brilliant.

    This past Monday, we laid George Nakashima to rest at El Camino Memorial Park. After taps had been played, the American flag presented, and a final blessing pronounced, a gravedigger quietly and reverently took his shovel and filled the hole where George’s ashes had been placed. I don’t know his name— he was never introduced. And yet, we all watched a servant of God, a high priest in holy robes made of khaki, shovel spadeful after spadeful of dirt into the grave. Someone had to do that job and he did it beautifully and honorably.

    And then there was Peter, just Peter, Jesus’ right hand man so said Jesus. Just a fisherman, a coward, really. Peter thought he could follow Jesus wherever he went but the cross loomed so large and Peter was no where to be found….Just Peter…Just you…just me…

    And then Pentecost came. If Pentecost is anything, it is God saying against every voice we have heard since we were six, no matter our foul-ups and failures, “I want just you.”

    On that Pentecost long ago, fifty days after Passover and just about fifty days after Jesus died, Jews gathered once again in Jerusalem to celebrate the giving of the law to Moses. Peter, who had disgusted himself rather than distinguishing himself, was suddenly delivering a stem-winder of a sermon that set the world upside down and brought thousands to believe in the Risen Lord. Out of the blue that day, people who could barely utter a proper sentence in their own language, sounded like linguistic scholars from Oxford, speaking in a host of foreign tongues. Suddenly, cowards and curmudgeons, scalawags and scoundrels, pipsqueaks and prissy pious sorts, were proclaiming that God was doing a new thing. Ordinary people were setting the world afire with the love of God. That was and is Pentecost.

    Today, like Peter and all the other bumbling riffraff before us, we are called to be the church, God’s hands, legs, and mouthpiece in this world…Just us…We are all God has.

    Martin Luther understood the “just meness, just usness” of it all. In his Small Catechism, he writes: “I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith.” Luther noted that the Spirit makes us ten times the people we were before the Spirit landed on us. When the Spirit touches us with rushing wind and gorgeous flames, “just me, just us” are more than enough.

    Today, we deck the church out in the Spirit’s color of red; we have seven red candles blazing away, calling to mind the gifts given by the Spirit. We—just us—receive wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord as described by the prophet Isaiah or perhaps blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power and might as described in Revelation.

    Ordinary people like Peter and the gravedigger, just you, just me, are equipped with the necessary tools to do Christ’s work in the world—ordinary work, but when done in God’s name, oh so beautiful.

    Hear the poem “Make the Ordinary Come Alive” by William Martin:

    Do not ask your children
    to strive for extraordinary lives.
    Such striving may seem admirable,
    but it is a way of foolishness.
    Help them instead to find the wonder
    and the marvel of an ordinary life.
    Show them the joy of tasting
    tomatoes, apples, and pears.
    Show them how to cry
    when pets and people die.
    Show them the infinite pleasure
    in the touch of a hand.
    And make the ordinary come alive for them.
    The extraordinary will take care of itself.

    The curse of sin is believing we need to be more than ordinary to be the people of God. The curse of sin makes us believe that being a faithful spouse, a caring parent, or a compassionate neighbor is not enough. Sin makes us crave to be more than we have been created and baptized to be.

    Pentecost recaptures the vision that being created in God’s image is enough, being baptized in God’s name is more than we will ever need. Pentecost is the holy brainstorm that with the Spirit burning in us, we can change the world no matter how ordinary we may think we are and no matter how ordinary the things we do may seem.

    Quite a few of us are going to the baseball game this afternoon between the Padres and the Washington Nationals. Baseball is a lot like Pentecost. San Diego’s own Ted Williams—probably the greatest hitter who ever lived—once said, “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a person can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.” Williams batted over .400 just once, had a lifetime average of .344, and is considered the greatest hitter ever to have played the game.

    On Pentecost, God lifts us up, people whose average is far worse than four out of ten. Most weeks we begin worship saying, “It’s just me again, God, and I have sinned again, too.” And every week God tells us, “You are forgiven.” And then with a pat on the rump, God sends us out into the field with old Saint Peter and the gravedigger by our side where we are called to make a difference in our suffering world.

    That is why the church is painted red today. We celebrate that God has called “just us” to be the people of God in this world. Just me, just you. Is it any wonder we cry out, “Come, Holy Spirit, come.”

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    June 1, 2014
    Seventh Sunday of Easter
    Acts 1: 6-14; John 17: 1-11
    “Rock and Rolling Here on Earth”

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    We Christians love speculating about when Christ will come again and how it will occur? Even though it is beyond our intellectual grasp, we keep trying. Best sellers have been written about these questions—by local authors I am told—who apparently have the inside track on who will be swept into heaven and what poor shmucks will be left behind.

    Some things never change. Only forty days after Easter, right before Jesus ascended into heaven, people were asking him the identical question, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Did you hear that: “It is not for you to know.” Said another way: we should not try to speculate on matters only God can answer.

    And then Jesus was swept up into heaven on Ascension Day. As they stood gawking at Jesus floating up through the clouds, two mysterious robed men asked the apostles, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” I don’t know about you, but if I had been there, I would have been looking straight up!

    Even though we seem constantly tempted to stare toward heaven, we are called instead to look around us, to witness to God’s presence here on earth, in downtown San Diego, and in our daily lives wherever that may find us.

    Today is the Seventh Sunday of Easter, three days after the Ascension of Our Lord. This is the last time this year I will cajole you to scream louder and louder, “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

    We also have the audacity to celebrate “Rock and Roll Sunday” today—that, by the way, is a First Lutheran thing and not on the official ELCA liturgical calendar. Of course we know the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon is occurring on our city streets this very moment. We could sit here belly-aching about why thousands of people are running 26.2 miles instead of coming here to church but, hey, there is a world out there—get over it! We could bemoan that the streets are blocked from here to Ashtabula—as I confess I did in a recent letter to the then Acting Mayor Todd Gloria—but, hey, there is a world out there. In a sense, what we do today is not to look up but around and out. We seek ways to relate to our world so that all people might celebrate the joy of the Risen and Ascended Lord. Yes, we rock and roll in our own holy way.

    So much of Christianity is dour and spiritless, pessimistic and gloomy. I go into churches that give me the willies. You have been to those places, too, places that make you wonder if they have a pulse. The music is bland, the preaching is shabby, the sanctuary is a mess, and the congregation’s spirit is snoozy at best. You are one of only twenty- one in attendance and never are you greeted because, as they say, “We didn’t know you were a visitor.” One only wishes these places would quit staring up into heaven and look around, here, on earth, and do a little rock and rolling.

    Now, you know I must mention a few rockers on this Feast of Rock and Roll. Just a year ago, Dagmar and I blew our life savings and whooped it up at the Rolling Stones’ 50th Anniversary Tour in Anaheim with other gray, balding, and waist-expanding revelers. I worried considerably about how to dress for the occasion and felt much better when the guy sitting next to me had an imprinted baseball cap with “National Geographic Antarctica Tour.” The moment Mick Jagger strutted onto stage and Keith Richards (married to a devout Lutheran whose brother is a Lutheran pastor) started playing “Get Off My Cloud,” the crowd went nuts. This was living on earth! And, oh yes, dear Bob Dylan, of whom I always said, “I want to hear him before he dies,” and then I almost died. We heard him in 2006, one of the first times in three months I had not been tied to an oxygen tube; as Dylan rasped “Trying to Get to Heaven,” I wept with joy and considerable relief—I had seen Dylan, not in heaven, but here on earth, while we were both alive.

    “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” God gives us this life to live, now, today. Our life as the people of God can be a bit different from that of rock and rollers’ and yet it is my conviction we have something to learn from them as far as celebrating life goes. Maybe the rocksters can teach us how to celebrate Christ’s astonishing resurrection from the dead this side of the kingdom come with a little pizzazz and joy to boot.

    Of course, we the people of God yearn for a greater power than the strains of Jimi Hendrix’s Fender Stratocaster and Rick Wakeman of Yes and his Hammond B-3 organ, or the thundering Ludwig drum beat of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. We wait for the thrill of the Spirit’s music in our midst, played out as we go about our lives in this world of ours.

    In a little article going around on Facebook, a nurse who has sat at the bedside of many dying people lists the five most common regrets they have in their final days. They all seem to me to involve not having celebrated life when they had a chance: 1) I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me; 2) I wish I didn’t work so hard; 3) I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings; 4) I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends; 5) I wish that I had let myself be happier. Sounds like people who missed the Spirit’s music here on earth.

    In the classic movie “Shawshank Redemption,” Andy, the character played by Morgan Freeman, says, “It comes down to a simple choice, get busy living or get busy dying.” As Christians, we are called to be about living now that death has been destroyed.

    Maybe today’s rock and rolling will help remind us to keep our heads out of the clouds, celebrating our Risen and Ascended Savior in everything we do here on earth.

    I read a lovely article after poet Maya Angelou died this past Wednesday. Referring to her poem “I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings,” the writer noted that some will say of Maya Angelou, “Death has released her and now she is in heaven. I beg to differ. Angelou is not in heaven now. Her writings show a joyful person who was never not in heaven.”

    And you….and I….are we in heaven now, here, as we celebrate that Christ has destroyed death and will we be in heaven as we go out onto the San Diego streets where people run today? Come on, let’s rock and roll, celebrating that Christ has risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. But before we do, for old time’s sake, let’s give one more rip-rollicking, rocking shout here on earth….

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    May 31, 2014
    Memorial Service of Resurrection for George Hiroshi Nakashima
    1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18; Matthew 6: 25-33
    “Saint George the Meek One”

    George Nakashima was a saint. And, yes indeed, George Nakashima is a saint.

    In the Lutheran tradition, a saint is one who is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. A saint is often someone we know quite well. He walks among us; we love him; he loves us. He is your father, your grandfather, your father-in-law, your friend, your neighbor. A real flesh-and- blood saint exasperates us from time-to-time and, of course, we exasperate him. These saints, yes George Nakashima, cling to the promise of their Lord: “neither nor death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creation, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

    That is a fancy way of describing Saint George Hiroshi Nakashima, one who, even at death, trusts in the Lord.

    There is another description of a saint you may know. It is simpler. Frederick Buechner writes, “In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.”

    For the past few weeks, those of you who loved George have had ample opportunity to reflect on how he touched your life. You have just heard Jim, Essie, and Al share their poignant remembrances. Nance and Jim and Isabelle and Sophia, Jack and Angie and Ethan and Simon, you have been telling stories these days. Some of the stories of your father and grandfather have made you laugh; others have made you cry. All the stories are of a saint who was close to you, a handkerchief dropped into your hands by God.

    George was a quiet man, a humble man. He didn’t waste precious words. If you didn’t know George particularly well, let Jesus’ words paint his picture, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or your body, what you will wear.” One wonders how much of that simplicity came from the family’s Buddhist roots. George didn’t need lots of stuff. When he was baptized as an adult in the 70s, he heard another simple message, this time from Jesus: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

    Eugene Peterson paraphrases this text in his The Message translation of the Bible: “Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.”

    As you have reflected on the one you loved, you have likely wondered what made him who he was. You might also have wondered what gifts deep in Saint George’s soul have impacted you, traits you are well aware of and others so subtle you may not even realize them.

    Well, you know the stories better than anyone. You know how your father was shipped off to internment camps at Tulee Lake, California, and Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho, during World War II. He was a teenager, thirteen or so. Imagine: along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans, off he went to those ghastly maximum security centers lined with barbed wire and dotted with guard towers. Imprisoned, not to be trusted. One can only wonder how such an experience shaped Saint George’s soul. And yet, remarkably, not much later, with no fanfare, he served this nation well and with honor in Korea. This nation will present you, his family, with a flag from George’s president Barack Obama on Monday at El Camino Cemetery; this nation will play taps as it honors him one final time before he is laid to rest. Think of the journey from dreadful internment camps to honors from the President of the United States! Who ever knows for sure how, at such an early age, such an experience shaped this man you loved? You can only imagine it taught him to treasure the simple pleasures of life—fishing and bowling, binding together at the family grocery store to make ends meet, the pleasures of time spent with family, tending to a pretty much useless plot of land in Descanso with his brothers, and serving as an active lay person at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Claremont where he was willing to do everything and anything from being an usher to a trustee to the church custodian to the gardener.

    We do well to thank God for the life of a simple saint and to entrust him into the eternal promises of eternal life. You know the world doesn’t pay much attention to the quiet and humble ones, the ones who don’t demand much of others. The simple saints are easily passed by. Perhaps that is why Jesus made certain we look at them as precious gifts from heaven: “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.” In a world where meekness is rarely applauded and too often scorned, we pause this afternoon to give thanks for God’s holy flirtation with us through Saint George the Meek One.

    As his death drew near, as will happen to each of us, George was no longer in control. Like his Lord nailed to the cross, George was helpless. In those final days, it was my honor to bring your father and grandfather the simple gifts of bread and wine brimming with God’s word. It was easy to miss the power of these simple gifts from heaven. Yet, for a man who had taken pleasure all his life in simple things and was able to locate wonder in the midst of them, he came to his final days with hands wide open; he did not have to clutch on tightly to useless stuff. His hands were open to receive the promise of God: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”

    Listen now as he enters the gates of heaven. Hear the heavenly voice proclaim, “Welcome, Saint George Hiroshi Nakashima the Meek One.” Oh so simple and yet oh so beautiful.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    May 25, 2014
    Sixth Sunday of Easter
    Acts 17: 22-31
    “George Washington's Nostril”

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    In a few weeks, you will have the rare opportunity to purchase some of the finest used items in all of Southern California. Do not miss the fourth annual TACO “Homeless Treasures” rummage sale or, as I call it, the world’s largest church junk sale.

    At the risk of being thrown out of my home by my wife or this worship service by Martha Radatz, let me offer a word of advice to eager bargain hunters. DO NOT purchase a 2,000 piece crossword puzzle of Mount Rushmore no matter how priceless it may first seem. You will spend weeks and weeks putting this colossal puzzle together only to arrive at the final piece on the mountainside, George Washington’s nostril, and discover there is no nostril to be found. No matter how exquisite your other 1,999 pieces, without our first president’s nostril, your puzzle is worthless.

    The apostle Paul preached at the Areopagus in Athens. This was the place in that cosmopolitan Greek city where intellectuals gathered to debate the perplexing philosophical and religious questions of the day. Paul was no dummy. When it was his turn to talk, he had the crowd eating out of his hand. He told them how extremely religious they were. He had walked around their city and seen their diverse religious practices. He took time to understand what they believed; he found out who their favorite philosophers and poets were and even quoted them, “In him we live and move and have our being.”

    And yet for Paul there had to be something more than simply being clever and winning a philosophical sparring match. He believed that the resurrection of Jesus was the foundational piece of the Christian puzzle. Without Christ’s resurrection, the Christian puzzle was much like Mount Rushmore without Washington’s nostril.

    In 1 Corinthians 15: 17, Paul wrote candidly: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”

    When it was Paul’s turn to talk at the Areopagus in Athens, Greece, he said: “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

    Our “Quote of the Week” mentions a national survey conducted a few years ago. The survey discovered our society longs to hear three things more than any other: 1) I love you; 2) You are forgiven; and 3) Supper is ready.

    If this survey is correct, then the resurrection of Jesus is the essential piece of the puzzle. Christ’s resurrection guarantees that we are loved and forgiven and that there is a meal prepared for us, not just today, but forever. God raised Jesus from the dead so this message might be experienced for eternity, by all people.

    When Jared and I meet on Tuesday to plan worship for the upcoming Sunday, we do not have to decide what biblical texts to use. These texts have already been chosen for us by an ecumenical committee of biblical and worship scholars who have created a three year pattern of readings centered on the readings of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with John interspersed throughout the year. It is why when you tell your Methodist, Episcopalian and Presbyterian neighbors about what happened at your church on Sunday morning, they might just say, “We had the identical Bible readings at our church yesterday.”

    This week, though, I must take exception to the scholars’ choice of verses included in our first reading. They have omitted one verse that, to my mind, is critical to the faithful reporting of Paul’s speech at the Areopagus. After Paul had buttered up his listeners, lauded their profound spiritual yearnings, and praised Athens’s stunning religious architecture, he proceeded to place the nostril on George Washington—oops, the resurrection on Christ’s life and death. Though vs. 32 is conveniently omitted from this morning’s reading, I want you to hear it: “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’”

    In this age, when the church seems less and less relevant to more and more people, as fewer and fewer people attend church, and as many churches close their doors for the final time, we yearn to make our message attractive to people. The last thing we want to do is drive people away. We long to put our best foot forward so as not to appear prejudiced, obsolete, intolerant, or downright repulsive—as many Christians sadly have done down through the ages. In an effort to be viewed as accepting and loving, we sometimes bend over a bit too far. We, too, ask of Paul, “Why did you have to go talk about the resurrection in that public forum? Didn’t you know it would turn off modern, progressive, and rational people and make them think you a fool—or at least judgmental to the more open-minded?”

    Paul believed, however, that the entire Christian enterprise was at stake: the resurrection was the guarantee of God’s love and forgiveness for all people, the offering of God’s free lunch to all the hurting world. Paul didn’t want to turn people off nor did he want to appear the curmudgeon but he believed deep in his heart that if Christ was not raised from the dead, his message was more worthless than a 2000 piece puzzle missing Washington’s nostril.

    The resurrection of Jesus is why we are here this morning and it is why this church has been here, in downtown San Diego, for 126 years. We believe that Jesus’ victory over death makes all the difference. There are many who commend First Lutheran for our good works with the poor and disenfranchised over the years—and that is a good thing; there are others who praise us as we cry out for those who have been on the outside looking in for far too long—and that seems very nice. But, here, in this place, we stake everything, not just on being good folks and not just doing nice things—after all, there are even atheists in the world who do very good things, maybe even better things than some of us; rather, we stake everything on Jesus dying and rising from the dead for us and for our salvation and for the salvation of the entire world. This belief is like George Washington’s nostril; this is Christ our one and only foundation. We believe that the one message that makes this place unique is that God has brought back to life the one person who teaches us to love everyone who enters our door; God raises from the dead the one who forgives those who much of the world finds unforgivable, including ourselves; Jesus’ resurrection proves that there will be a free lunch for every suffering soul, this morning and for ages unto ages, forever and ever. Putting the one final piece, Jesus’ resurrection, into the puzzle is our Easter way of shouting,

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    May 18, 2014
    Fifth Sunday of Easter
    Acts 7: 55-60; John 14: 1-4
    “Grace Under Fire”

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    A number of you have asked me about the recent Bob Dylan concert. I deeply appreciate your interest. For those of you who are unaware, Jim and Nance Lovell and I attended Dylan’s concert the night before our synod assembly began two weeks ago in Honolulu. As I have told a number of you, “If you like Dylan, the concert was breathtaking; if you are not a Dylan fan, you would have likely found it bewildering.”…Well, I am a huge Bob Dylan fan!

    I learned something new a few days ago as I researched some Dylan esoterica. It is in regards to his 1966 song Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35. Just to refresh your memory in case the fog of the 1960s has caused you some forgetfulness:

    “Well, they'll stone ya when you're trying to be so good
    They'll stone ya just a-like they said they would
    They'll stone ya when you're tryin' to go home
    Then they'll stone ya when you're there all alone
    But I would not feel so all alone
    Everybody must get stoned.

    Dear ol’ Bob was apparently not thinking of the intoxication caused by the California state flower when he penned these words; rather, he was thinking of the stoning of faithful people like the first Christian martyr, Stephen, whom we heard about in our first reading this morning…Bob is a quirky guy; that’s why I love him.

    2 Timothy 3:12 says, “Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” These words are akin to those of the one who, much to my chagrin, does not appear in the biblical canon and has not yet received the Nobel Prize for Literature. “They’ll stone ya when you’re trying to be so good” sounds very much like “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Well, enough of these Dylan musings…

    Today’s first reading pictures Saint Stephen being battered with deadly stones as Saul—who later becomes Paul, who later becomes influential to our dear Martin Luther—looks on with some glee. The gospel reading portrays Jesus with his disciples the night before he is crucified. Both Stephen and Jesus reveal extraordinary grace under fire.

    As the angry mob pelts Stephen, he prays, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Stephen not only prays for his persecutors, he prays for them with a “loud voice.” Imagine praying for your enemies, with a loud voice, so God can hear your every word on their behalf amidst the slurs and stones hurled your way.

    And then there is Jesus. He says to his closest friends, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” The King James Version says it a bit differently, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” I prefer the King James translation. The majestic vision of mansions stirs my imagination much more than the pedestrian vision of “dwelling places.”

    My childhood friend, Teddy Johnson, lived in a sprawling mansion just off Orchard Road in my hometown of Wheeling, West Virginia. I loved visiting him, exploring room-after-gorgeous room, riding the elevator, and entering his parents’ palatial living quarters. Only last week, I went to to see if by chance this mansion happens to be for sale.

    I don’t know how you dream about the mansion Jesus prepares for you and for those you love, but my hunch is you have thought a time-or-two about a place beyond your imagination, a place only God can create, a place filled with unfathomable love, infinite grace, and untold mercy.

    If ever there was a Bible reading in which context is critical, this is the one. Jesus’ words, “a mansion prepared for you,” are not saturated with mushy sentimentality that cause us to say, “That’s easy for you to say, Jesus.” Jesus speaks these soothing words only moments after he fingers Judas as the one who will sell him down the river and only hours before Peter gets all weak-kneed and denies ever having known Jesus. If ever there was an occasion for vitriol and venom, this is it. What we discover instead is Jesus’ grace under fire, a grace Saint Stephen replicates as he bleeds to death a few years later.

    Jesus and Stephen are models of the godly life and yet whenever we strive to follow in their path, sadly, we find the going well ne’er impossible—or is it just I? When someone does me wrong, I eventually find some justification to react with fury, albeit with a “humorous” verbal jab, a “harmless” innuendo, or simply avoiding the person altogether. Do you know what I mean? As the old Spiritual sings, “Sometimes it causes me to tremble.”

    We cannot leave Maundy Thursday too quickly, the night Jesus speaks of preparing a mansion for those he loves. That’s why, even amidst this glorious Easter season, we do well to reflect on Jesus’ deep love for us no matter what we seem to do to him. Our “alleluias” are cheap if we forget the cost of Jesus’ victory over death; the aroma of our lilies is deadly if we don’t remember Jesus’ love for his betrayers and deniers, folks just like you and me. The words we cherish, “In my Father’s house are many mansions,” are purchased with love beyond measure as Jesus refuses to lift a finger even as the nails drive deeply and the crowd shouts loudly.

    We try to be so good. Over and over again we try to love our enemies or at least those who get under our skin and cause us sleepless nights. We sometimes find it almost impossible to love our adversaries as Jesus loves us, to seek their forgiveness as does Saint Stephen. In fact, at times, as our enemies walk all over us, we wonder if it is even wise to try to love them as Jesus does us. In our own nation, there are those who feel it is the “Christian thing”—oh my!—to arm themselves to the hilt; it is only right to blast away our enemies! And our nation, though apparently taxed to the hilt in the minds of some, always has an insatiable appetite for larger and more sophisticated weaponry and money always seems available even as the encampments of homeless folks around our church get larger and larger and we seem rendered helpless to come up with much funding for these dear people who are treated as refuse of our nation. After all, some contend, we are not Jesus; we are not even Saint Stephen.

    Like a four year old trying to play a cello or a ninety year old trying to waltz with elegance, our dance of grace under fire is often filled with dissonant squeaks and hideous missteps no matter how hard we try. As we live together here in community, especially today when we welcome so many new members into our parish family, we are reminded of the importance of living together with graciousness and forgiveness. This community is a laboratory of sorts: if we can’t love each other here in this place, what chance do we have with people living in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria and Israel? We know it is not easy. We know we will fail over and over again. Nevertheless, like listening to YoYo Ma or watching Fred Astaire, we keep trying to replicate Jesus’ grace notes of forgiveness, his dance steps of love. As we keep trying and while sometimes we are more successful than at others, we always stand in considerable awe of Jesus as nails and jeers never trump his love for us. He is pure grace under fire or, perhaps, you might say, “They'll stone ya when you're trying to be so good.” Or, you might say…

    Alleluia! Christ is risen.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    May 11, 2014
    Fourth Sunday of Easter
    Acts 2: 42-47; Psalm 23; John 10: 1-10
    “The Good Shepherd’s Soothing Voice”

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    There is an old adage: “You have two ears and one mouth. You should use them in the proportion in which God gave them to you.” Said another way, we are called to listen carefully and mightily for the Good Shepherd’s voice calling us to green pastures and still waters.

    We start listening for voices early on. Researchers say a baby starts hearing sounds in the womb at around eighteen weeks—a mother’s heartbeat, blood whooshing through the umbilical cord. By week twenty-five, the baby can hear voices and will soon start to recognize them. It is said this is a good time to speak lovingly to your baby because a baby's heart rate often slows down when mommy is speaking, a sign that the baby not only hears and recognizes the sound, but is calmed by it. Two of my seminary classmates, when they prayed at night, sang “Amazing Grace” to their baby in the womb.

    Just think of all the voices we hear, soothing and startling. How are we to know which is the Shepherd’s voice? The earliest Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They gathered to listen carefully to the voice of the crucified and risen savior. Faithful mothers and nurturing women as well teach their precious little ones, young and old alike, to hear the distinctive and lovely voice of the Risen Christ.

    When we baptize here, we ask parents: “Do you promise to live with [your children] among God’s faithful people, bring them to the word of God and the holy supper, teach them the Lord’s prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, place in their hands the holy scriptures…” These questions, by the way, are not asked just to parents; the entire assembly “promises to support these children and pray for them in their new life in Christ.”

    Parents soon realize these promises are far easier kept on the day of baptism than when the kids start moaning and groaning, “Do we have to go to church today?” Our administrator Rachel Line gave Dagmar and me an Easter card; on the cover is a little boy dressed to the nines, and inside he asks, “Do we have to go to church on Easter? Didn’t we just go on Christmas Eve?”

    As our dear children grow, soccer and baseball are competing voices; Saturday night out in the teenage years soon becomes the intoxicating siren voice. At least in my mind, part of faithful parenting, especially on this Mother’s Day, is figuring out how to convince our children that it is actually a good thing for them to come to church. Even when they refuse to go and seem to win the day—and by the way, some of these children are thirty and forty and sixty-five years old!—we pray to God to make us graceful in the holy work of convincing our children to go where they can hear what the Shepherd’s voice sounds like. We do this not to be authoritative ogres but rather knowing our precious ones will come to a day when they must discern between the life-giving voice of the Shepherd and the evil voices that do their darndest to fleece our kids with cheap and deadly thrills.

    There are so many ugly voices that are far from good news. Think of all the voices that have called you worthless, good-for-nothing, fatso, ugly, you have cooties, scum ball, lazy, idiot, wimp, or even I am afraid the news is not so good. Think how these voices have made you cringe and weep, how even after years and years, they reverberate in your soul and the sting continues.

    Well, come on pastor, doesn’t everyone intuitively know the shepherd’s voice? One of my favorite segments on the Jay Leno show—is he still on television, by the way?—is the part called “Jay Leno Goes Jaywalking.” Leno asks biblical questions to unsuspecting adults on the street—not children: On the first day of creation God said, ‘Let there be____?’ and the person answers peace; How many commandments are there? and the answer-admittedly a stab in the dark—12; How long ago was Jesus born? 400 years ago? to which Leno says, About when Columbus was born, huh? Who was swallowed by the whale? Pinocchio? Oh no, Moby Dick. This would be funny if it weren’t so sad. The sadness is that so many of us and those we love do not know the Shepherd’s voice when we need it most.

    Not only do we learn to listen early on, hearing is also thought to be the last sense to remain with us at the end of life. A rule of thumb when visiting a loved one in the hospital is to assume that no matter how unresponsive they may seem, they hear every word you say. Suddenly, your every word has the possibility of being the Shepherd’s voice in the sacred journey through the valley of the shadow of death.

    Indeed, the Shepherd’s voice always brings good news. Martin Luther wrote, “The proclamation of the Gospel is nothing else than Christ coming to us, or we being brought to him.” That is why the gospel is read in our midst during the Easter season. The astonishing news that the slaughtered Shepherd has risen from the dead and comes again to talk with us makes us positively giddy. Deep down, we know there will come a day when we cannot sing “alleluia” and on those sad occasions we will hearken back to these fifty Easter days when we banged tambourines and clapped unlike good Lutherans usually do and sang “alleluia” madly.

    I love Saint John Chrysostom’s Easter sermon. “Golden Tongue” as he was called gave this sermon 1600 years ago and it is still read in Eastern Orthodox churches on Easter morning. See whether you can hear the Good Shepherd’s voice speaking to you.

    If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.

    And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away. Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

    O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

    The Good Shepherd is calling you this very moment enter into the joy of your Lord, to drink from the cup brimming with salvation. May you hear his wondrous voice this morning and at the hour of your death may you hear him gently whisper, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”

    Hearing the Risen Shepherd speak to us, what else can we do but shout…

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    May 4, 2014
    Third Sunday of Easter
    Luke 24: 13-35
    “Just Talking”

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    My ordination certificate hangs on my church office wall along with my college and seminary diplomas. The certificate reads: “In the name of the Father, and of Son, and of the Holy Spirit…Be it known that our Brother the Reverend Wilbert Smith Miller was ordained a Minister of the Church in the Holy Office of the Word and Sacrament according to the Confession and Order of the Lutheran Church in America and the authority of the Western Pennsylvania- West Virginia Synod on the twenty-fifth day of June in the Year of our Lord 1977 at Edgwood Lutheran Church, Wheeling West Virginia.”

    I remember that day like it was yesterday. Dagmar and I had been married a little more than a month before in her 800 year old church just 150 yards up the hill from her home in the little village of Barnstorf, (then) West Germany. Following our wedding, we traveled with our parents through Germany, flew to Philadelphia were I gave my call sermon, flew to Wheeling, West Virginia, where I was ordained, and then packed a U-Haul truck and travelled across the Pennsylvania Turnpike and began ministry in inner-city southwest Philadelphia with a month long Vacation Bible School day camp. It was a whirlwind journey.

    In all of the days since, I have been mindful I am called to be a Minister of the Church in the Holy Office of Word and Sacrament.

    I want to thank you for allowing me to be exactly that: to preach God’s word and celebrate Baptism and Holy Communion among you.

    When I was in seminary, David Bart returned to campus after a year serving a small town church in Maine. David was a bright guy. He was also a serious jock, too; he was an assistant coach of the Yale lacrosse team; he and I took a trip once to scout the West Point Cadets lacrosse team—don’t ask what I know about lacrosse. I will never forget how thrilled David was on his return to the divinity school. He was a cheerleader for ordained ministry. We all gathered in Porter Hall and David told us there was nothing better than being a pastor. He said, “You won’t believe it. They actually pay you to go to the local diner on Tuesday morning and talk with the locals over heaping plates of sausage, eggs, and biscuits, and mugs of steaming coffee. Can you believe they pay me just for talking?”

    I want to thank you for paying me just for talking.

    The truth is we pastors are often embarrassed by our odd and wondrous calling. We have no stethoscopes around our necks; we don’t appear before judges in our well cut Brooks Brothers suits; we could never design a house or run a fancy business. We are simply called to tell stories, serve a simple meal of bread and wine, and gather at pools of water where we get babies soaking wet and call them children of God.

    We pastors are tempted to want to do more. After all, just telling stories is hardly the stuff of giant killers or corporate executives. How can we change the world with broken words and a little bread, sips of wine, and some water? My parents gave me a little black box on the day of my ordination. In some ways it is a terribly insignificant box. In it are a small container with insignificant wafers; a little cruet for what is typically pretty cheap wine; a tiny chalice; and a little plate. That is it! I am not sure my parents intended it or not but the little black box has said to me over the years, this is all you’ve got, Wilk: a little wine, a little bread, accompanied by the words of Jesus. That’s it!

    In truth, churches have often demanded “more” from their pastors, too, more than just story-telling. Many suspect words, bread and wine, and water just not enough for their pastor to do in this wild world of ours. Some churches demand “more” of their pastors, and yet I fear in demanding “more,” the church ends up getting much less, sacrificing what is truly essential in how we see the Risen Christ in our midst—the only gift, by the way, that really distinguishes us Christians from other very good people throughout the world.

    My favorite essay on ministry is entitled “Maceration of the Minister.” It was written by the American Lutheran theologian Dr. Joseph Sittler more than fifty years ago. He writes: “The church says that it wants better preaching—and really means it. But there is in this demand some bitter irony for the preacher. To preach well requires time, reflection, solitude; and the church makes other demands of the preacher that annihilate these three requirements.” Sittler goes on: “Visit the former student [of the seminary] some years later in what he or she calls inexactly the ‘study,’ and one is more than likely to find the pastor accompanied by volumes taken from the student room. Filed on top of these will be mementos of present concerns: a roll of blueprints; a file of negotiations between the parish, the bank, and the Board of Missions; samples of asphalt tile; and a plumber’s estimate.”

    Somewhere along the line, we sensed Word and Sacrament are not enough to justify a pastor’s existence and salary. We want our pastor to do more.

    This is where I want to thank you good people of First Lutheran Church. First of all, there are quite a few of you who can do finances far better than I—but don’t let my late father know that. You can also bake cookies, clean floors, wash communion ware, do social ministry, and cut bushes better than I. I thank God that you do these things well in this place and let me do what my friend Rick celebrated in ministry: to tell stories and serve a meal called the body and blood of Christ.

    Now, I know you can tell stories, too, and I know you do. You visit old friends and tell them Jesus is on their side. You go to hospitals where your neighbor is holding on for dear life and leave three fragrant roses there from your garden. You bring someone from your AA meeting here to worship and say “you will be surprised how welcome you will feel here.”

    Said another way, you understand the Easter story. Long ago, soon after Jesus rose from the dead, he simply walked along the road to Emmaus and started talking to two of his forlorn disciples. Jesus just talked with them and they had no idea who he was. Jesus just talked like we are doing right now. When they arrived in the village that night, guess what? They sat down at the table, and Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Does all this remind you of what we are doing here this morning?

    And suddenly, in the telling of stories along a dark road and in the breaking of bread around a table, the disciples’ eyes were opened and they recognized the Risen Christ. It was as simple as that; there were no blueprints, no paint samples, no plumbing contracts—not that there is anything a matter with those things and not that your pastor is too good to unstop a toilet or carry a few chairs from room to room. But the disciples knew Jesus simply in the telling of stories and in the breaking of bread.

    Imagine that…Simply in the telling of the stories and the breaking of bread, we proclaim, Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    April 27, 2014
    Second Sunday of Easter
    John 20: 19-31
    “Do Not Be Afraid”

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    I tell parents before their child’s baptism, “Do not be upset if your child screams.” I have told this to Emmet Coffey’s and Hannah Jensen’s parents too.

    Of course, we would prefer everything to be nice and pretty. That’s why we dress up these precious little bundles of joy. That’s why we invite the family from near and far. Everyone is so excited.

    And then, someone, usually me, rains on the parade—literally rains on the parade! We go down to the river, holding our breath and hoping Hannah and Emmet won’t scream and hoping even more that the pastor won’t drop them into the water or put them too far under.

    Before we know it, Emmet and Hannah are plunged into this wild river and there is water everywhere. Grandma and grandpa want to scream: “Do something. We have never seen anything like this. Enough!”

    Realizing these concerns for decorum and the absence of screaming, the church has tended to domesticate these furious waters over the years. The church moved from raging rivers, deep lakes, and mighty oceans to pools in separate buildings called baptisteries to little fonts in the sanctuary which, according to my seminary worship professor, make baptisms look like “elephants in birdbaths.”

    Historically, baptismal pools eerily resembled caskets where people are supposed to be placed after they die; some pools were shaped like a cross. You couldn’t help but think these waters are awfully dangerous. We so want to take away the fear though. Perhaps you remember baptisms where just a splash of water was placed on the baby’s head and then the pastor quickly wiped off that little bit of offending water with a lovely napkin provided by the altar guild. Even here, where we have gotten a bit rowdy with the water, we pour in a touch of warm water in advance to make baptism more like a Southern California spa than the frigid Pacific Ocean.

    And yet, however we try to tame these raging waters—whether in roaring oceans or placid fonts—deep down, the devil lurks and tries his darndest to bite off our precious little ones’ toes. And, no matter how domesticated the waters, we still wonder whether God can indeed rout the evil one at baptism and deliver us from death to life along with Christ.

    Following Jesus’ death on the cross, the overwhelming emotion was fear. Jesus was dead and what now? Even when the tomb was empty there was fear. Even when the Risen Christ appeared to the women and the disciples, there was fear not joy. How is it possible for death not to be the final word? Even for us, our deepest fear is what happens when we die?

    Over and over again, in the face of profound fear and sadness, angels and Jesus come to say, “Do not be afraid” and “Peace be with you,” over and over again.

    We just heard of Thomas’ fear. He was not in the upper room when Jesus appeared on Easter evening. Thomas said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” We have badmouthed Thomas as the doubting one for years, but do we really think we would have been any different? Imagine if we had given our lives to Jesus, sold our accounting business or deserted the family fishing business, given up everything except for a raggedy pair of sandals and a threadbare tunic. Imagine if we staked our entire life on this gentleman being the Son of God and not just some fanatical sectarian crackpot and then suddenly see him hanging on the cross. Not only was our good friend dead but our dreams were shattered and we looked like a fool.

    Do you believe Jesus has destroyed death? I suspect most of us harbor some deep-seated fear about death that just won’t go away. Maybe your automobile has those fancy automatic locks you can flip in a flash when you stop at a red light at 10:30 at night. Maybe you have invested a small fortune in a home security system or, better yet, a large fortune to live in a gated community or locked down condominium where guards salute your going out and coming in. Even here at First Lutheran Church, security guards patrol our building at night, appeasing our fear at $5,000 a year. Are you afraid Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead and we are still living in a Good Friday world?

    I know someone who is really afraid. In a recent speech, Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association said: “We are sad not because we fear something is going wrong, but because we know something already has gone wrong…It’s why more and more Americans are buying firearms and ammunition — not to cause trouble, but because we sense that America is already in trouble.”

    I confess—even on this baptismal day—I find arming up for peace a peculiar and alarming thought. And yet it has always been that way. The disciples were afraid, too. Maybe not cowards armed to the hilt with sophisticated weaponry but hiding in an upper room as far away as possible and with doors locked drum tight.

    What about Hannah and Emmet? Do we trust that God will watch over them as they plunge into the wild river and grow in years? As God has destroyed the great sea monsters before them, routed Pharaoh’s mighty army, made Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace a laughing stock, and conquered the cross and raised Jesus from the dead, we believe God will trounce the evil one here this morning. When Emmet and Hannah come up dripping wet, blinking their eyes and flailing their arms, I pray we will breathe a collective sigh of relief or, better yet, sing alleluia. Just as Thomas proclaimed, “My Lord and my God,” a week after Jesus’ resurrection, we will shout for joy that Satan has again been routed and our dear little ones are back on safe shores.

    And, by the way, that’s why we gather here week after week. We gather to proclaim that Christ is risen and we are in God’s hands forever no matter how fearful we may be.

    And so, in the spirit of the old baptismal rite when the ancients spit in the devil’s eye, let us spit, too, in our own way. Let us now stand…and let us shout with joy as we go down to the river,

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    April 20, 2014
    Easter Day/The Resurrection of Our Lord
    Matthew 28: 1-10
    “Practicing Resurrection”

    Alleluia! Christ is risen!

    Life does not get any better than this. With all of you here in your Easter finery, we gather in a packed church to celebrate that Christ Jesus has risen from the dead.

    And yet the first Easter was not exactly like today. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb early in the morning to pay homage to Jesus’ body and his body was not there; the tomb was empty. An angel standing there told them: “Do not be afraid. He is not here for he has been raised.” With that, they left quickly in “fear and great joy.”

    Be honest: if you visited the cemetery when the dew was still on the grass and found a pile of freshly dug dirt, an empty grave, and an angel telling you, “He has been raised from the dead,” would you laugh or cry? That is usually what happens when God’s resurrection power is afoot.

    At the conclusion of worship this morning, you will not be invited to “Go in peace. Explain the resurrection;” rather you will be invited to “Go in peace. Practice resurrection!” We will not leave here trying to explain the resurrection. How could we? No one saw Jesus burst from the tomb according to the biblical witness in Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John. Resurrection is a dance only God can do and a dance only God can teach us to do. What we do, just like those first women, is run from the tomb in fear and great joy and tell someone, anyone, that Christ has been raised from the dead. Yes indeed, we “practice resurrection.”

    You might wonder what practicing resurrection looks like. According to the Kentucky poet Wendell Berry, it looks like “something that does not compute.” God raising Jesus from the dead does not compute. How might you practice resurrection in your life?

    Last Friday morning, our church bell rang and a San Diego Sheriff was standing at the door along with two San Diego Police Department officers. Really? Three cops to apprehend little old me! The sheriff was here to serve me and three other staff members a summons from a disgruntled person whom we have helped in our various outreach ministries—this, by the way, is not the first time we have been sued in recent years for what we do here in the name of the Risen Savior. The two policemen were here for an entirely different reason, to help a confused soul we worried might be of danger to himself or others coming and going from our various clinics and twelve step programs. People often say, “What an amazing ministry you have here at First Lutheran and TACO (Third Avenue Charitable Organization)”—that, of course, is the great joy side. There is another side, however, the one filled with fear when the police are knocking and we must trust God is with us here at 3rd and Ash or else we are pathetic fools. Yes, we practice resurrection.

    Practicing resurrection inevitably comes with heavy doses of fear and great joy. On Good Friday afternoon eighty-six year old member Geri Engelke, a member here for sixty-nine years, received news that little Hannah Grace Jensen and Emmet Blair Coffey are being baptized here next Sunday and that fifteen people will join this congregation on May 18. She said: “I am so thrilled. There were times we thought we would have to close the doors of our dear First Lutheran for good”—that was the fear side of doing ministry in one of our nation’s urban centers. And then Geri made me shiver: “But, Pastor, could not shut our doors. We had to stay in the city. We could not leave the city. We had to stay downtown and do ministry and now our church is growing.” That, my dear friends, is practicing resurrection.

    (Beautiful Savior plays softly)

    The resurrection dance occurred at Mercy Hospital in Hillcrest on Wednesday morning—it happens in the oddest places if we only keep our eyes open. Ronnie and Betty Lou Nelson travelled here a month ago from Minneapolis to hear the San Diego Opera’s Don Quixote. Ronnie has written countless hymns and liturgical works in our Lutheran hymnals. A day before the opera, he broke his hip and began sliding downward. This Wednesday, I annointed his forehead with the fragrant oil of baptismal hope on your behalf and on behalf of all those praying for him at his home church, Westwood Lutheran Church in Saint Louis Park, Minnesota. I then said, “Ronnie, as you have helped so many sing Alleluia with the angels even in the face of death and at the grave, we now sing alleluia for you.” And then his wife, his daughter Rachel, and I quietly began singing the signature hymn of the renowned St. Olaf College Choir where Ron and Betty Lou met years ago. Ronnie died early Friday morning and yet, thank God, his family is not without Easter hope. Won’t you help the family practice resurrection this very moment…

    Beautiful Savior, King of creation,
    Son of God and Son of Man!
    Truly I'd love Thee, truly I'd serve thee,
    Light of my soul, my Joy, my Crown.

    Wherever we go, whatever we do, we are called to sing Easter alleluias. Of course, we need not always be sad. God raised Jesus from the tomb so we might celebrate with great joy. In his Good Friday hymn, Peter Abelard asks Christ to “grant us the laughter of your Easter grace.”

    Good writers, artists, and musicians teach us to practice resurrection with laughter and great joy. At our oldest son Sebastian’s graduation from Dartmouth College a few years ago, the historian David McCullough spoke. Although he never mentioned resurrection, he invited us to live life fully, this life Jesus redeemed by dying on the cross and rising victoriously from the dead. Listen to McCullough’s advice: “Whatever you do in life, don't do it lukewarmly. Remember there are truly exceptional people in life. Learn to recognize them. And to respect them. Read every chance you get. Read a book called Life on a Little Known Planet. It's about insects. It will make you feel better. Write some real letters. Someday tell your own children about the teachers who meant a lot to you. Never check out of a hotel without tipping the maid. And sometime gather up some brushes and paints and go out somewhere in the open air and paint a picture. I mean it. Give it a try, even if you never have -- especially if you never have.” And then he spoke of the American painter  Robert Henri whose vigorous paintings of valiant bullfighters, vivacious Mexican women, and vibrant gypsies currently hang at the San Diego Museum of Art. David McCullough said of Robert Henri, “He painted like a man coming over the top of a hill, singing.”

    Oh, for that to be said of us: we practice resurrection as if we are coming over the top of a hill, singing. What if we go to the meanest, deadliest, most heartbreaking places in our lives and start singing alleluia, proclaiming that death is never God’s final word? What if Easter joy trumps our deepest fears and we get the giggles and can’t stop laughing? What if Jesus’ resurrection causes us to love our enemies when hatred seems far more apropos?

    (congregation stands)

    Oh to practice resurrection…To anoint the dying with the oil of hope, to feed the hungry in downtown San Diego year-after-year, to spit in the devil’s eye for the sheer orneriness of it, to tip the hotel maid a little extra, to dance with our children. Oh, to gather together, today, on Easter morning, with some fear and oodles of great joy, and to sing with reckless abandon…

    Alleluia! Christ Is Risen!

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    April 19, 2014
    Easter Vigil
    “Telling God’s Stories down at the River”

    The Jewish writer and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel once said that “God created humanity because God likes stories.” This night proves his point. If you have never been to an Easter Vigil, you will soon learn this is a night of stories. You will also soon learn this is not a particularly quick affair; in fact, this is the longest service of the church year. We are here to tell stories, long stories, God’s stories.

    On the best of nights, we are never in a rush to leave. When we gather with those we love, good friends and dear family, we savor stories. We sit around dining room tables, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning, over cups of coffee and goblets of wine, telling rich and magical yarns that lift our spirits and ennoble our humanity. We sit out on patios with fires aglow just like the one we had on our patio moments ago and we remember when… Hours pass by quicker than we noticed until, inevitably, someone looks at her watch and says, “You are not going to believe what time it is.” All the time we have been telling stories; one leads to another. When storytelling is done at its finest, we can barely wait for one to end so we can tell the next unforgettable one that just came to mind. It could go on like this forever. No one wants to leave.

    In his memoir, The Death of Santini, the southern author Pat Conroy writes, “As they talked, the story began to build and change, as all great stories do.” We don’t much care for the nuances. Our remembrances are more powerful than that. “The story had power, and room for growth,” said Conroy.

    We tell one another God’s stories tonight. They are the richest of all because they have been aged over thousands of years and with thousands of tellings to those in desperate need of a lively tale capable of routing the enemy. They have gained considerable power and wonder as they have been told in song and art and writing. They are crammed with the holiness of God and brimming with God’s defiance of death and championing of the underdog. We have told these stories when no other would do, when some remembrance of God’s power and glory was all that would do. This is why we are here tonight. We listen for the perfect story for our life and for those we love.

    By grace, we will recall this night when stories flowed like well-aged wine and we were convinced we could spit in the devil’s eye and Jesus would rise from the dead with each of us in hand. Now that’s a story!

    So, let the storytelling begin as we gather here at this wild river bank, around this warm and holy fire.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    April 18, 2014
    Good Friday
    John 18: 1- 19: 42
    “Shush...Be Quiet”

    It happens every Good Friday. As the story leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion unfolds, I have less and less desire to preach. Cry, perhaps…Be silent, for sure…But preach, hardly.

    I pondered whether even to stand up here this evening. We have journeyed well together through this awe-inspiring Lenten season and Holy Week; we have stood face-to-face with Jesus’ immeasurable love for us in countless ways. We have walked day-by-day, for forty days, pondering another passion story according to Saint Matthew. We have meditated on the astonishing reflections many of you created in the “When We Survey the Wondrous Cross” devotional booklet. We have followed under the shadow of the cross, giving more than $6,000 sacrificially to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s World Hunger Appeal. And we have just heard another passion account, this one from St. John’s gospel.

    I am well aware that however I try to explain why Jesus died on the cross, my words will ultimately fall short and run up against the cross—the cross of mystery, the cross of wonder, the cross of unfathomable love. The only adequate response seems not a sermon but rather adoration and wonder, simply to sit here in the darkness and marvel yet again as did the centurion who exclaimed, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”As you will note in my writing for tomorrow in our Lenten booklet, it has been said that “the church is like a swimming pool in which all the noise comes from the shallow end.” I would hate that to be said of us gathered here tonight. To scream and shout, to ramble on about this great mystery of God’s affection for us seems inappropriately shallow. I think I hear you now whispering, “Shush, pastor, shush. Be quiet.” And so shush I will.

    Jesus’ love invites us into the great silence. Now all is in God’s hands…Oh come let us adore him.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    April 17, 2014
    Maundy Thursday
    Exodus 12: 1-4, 11-14; I Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 3: 1-17, 31b-35
    “Our Deep Needs”

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

    We now begin a three day worship pilgrimage called the Triduum: it begins tonight and culminates at the great Vigil of Easter on Saturday evening. You will notice there is no final benediction this evening or tomorrow on Good Friday; that benediction comes at the conclusion of the Easter Vigil. We need at least three days to tell the marvelous story of God’s love for us through the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. So, throw out your watches immediately, shut off your iPhones, and savor God’s deep love flowing over you, love, by the way, we all so desperately need.

    I recently visited one of our patio parishioners in the hospital. Our staff knows this charming person quite well. We have had our fair share of squabbles with him, tossing him off the premises a time or two and calling the cops to calm him down. When I entered his hospital room, everything stopped. The woman visiting him looked at me in bewilderment; the nurse did a double take. Our friend said: “Pastor Miller, what are you doing here? Pastor Miller, I can’t believe you came to visit me. Oh, Pastor Miller.”

    Now I ask you, who do you think felt better? Whose deep needs were being met, his or mine?

    We often pretend we have no deep needs. When we do this, we rob ourselves of our humanity and people steer clear of us because we appear so unapproachable. It has been said that sin is the fear of our neediness. When we say we have no needs, we live as if we do not need Jesus or anyone else for that matter to tend to us.

    As this three-day worship service unfolds, God will recognize we are all in need. We are in need of the removal of the horrible stain of sin and will breathe a sigh of relief when we hear we are forgiven in the name of the Triune God. We are in need of love and will be greatly stirred when someone tenderly washes our feet. We are in need of wonder and will be overwhelmed as we taste the simple bread and wine and are told they are gifts from heaven, the very body and blood of Christ.

    Tonight, we pray for faith and courage to join the needy ones as our deep needs are met, to comfort the afflicted ones as our afflictions are soothed, to call one another out of despair as our misery is relieved, to bring others that peace which passes all understanding as a similar peace fills us on this holy night.

    I often reflect on our ministry with the homeless community. I believe this ministry is one of the greatest blessings this congregation has received over 126 years in downtown San Diego. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t look out my office window and realize what a slender thread separates me from those who will sleep on the city streets tonight—if there is a thread at all. It is not because we are so good, so caring, so compassionate that makes this community do what it does; rather it is because, as Martin Luther said only moments before he died, we are all beggars. Whenever we begin to think this ministry is ours to control, we have lost its most profound meaning and forfeited any understanding of what grace is all about.

    Jesus comes to the poor and the sick. Those, of course, who have no needs, who are well, have no need of Jesus the physician. Tonight, Jesus comes to tend to us.

    In these blessed hours about to unfold, may Jesus meet our deepest needs.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    April 13, 2014
    Palm Sunday/Passion of Our Lord
    Matthew 26: 14 – 27:54
    “Not Busy at All”

    Do you take pride in how busy you are? Do you feel more important and valuable when you look at your iPhone calendar and say, “I can’t meet you before May 18th.” If you are retired do you say, “Never been busier; don’t have enough hours in the day.” And in this congregation, don’t we measure our “success” by how much happens here? Busyness—doing for others, working ‘til midnight—there is a deep satisfaction knowing we work hard and well meeting the desperate needs of our suffering world and caring for those we love.

    Who could be busier than Jesus? He tried to go to deserted places for breaks, praying for an hour here, an hour there. And yet, no sooner had he discovered solitude than needy folks were nipping at his heals. People wanted Jesus to heal their sick children, bring their dead brothers back to life, cast out demons that had haunted them for years. If we want a model of busyness, Jesus is the one.

    …And then everything came crashing down…Suddenly, Jesus wasn’t busy at all.

    That is what today is about, this Sunday called “Passion.” The word “passion” is often interpreted to mean “pain” but it means so much more. Passion means being dependent on others, waiting and waiting, losing control of our lives, not doing a thing.

    The moment Jesus was arrested, watch how he became the object of other people’s actions and how he could do nothing. His clothes were torn, he was bound and handed over to Pilate, a crown of thorns was placed on his head; people spat on him, stripped and mocked him, offered him sour vinegar when he thirsted. His hands were nailed to the tree. He was helpless. As the old spiritual says, “He never said a mumblin’ word, not a word.” All Jesus could do was wait, wait on God to provide.

    As you listen to the Passion of Our Lord according to Matthew’s gospel this morning, your mind might wander—this isn’t such a bad thing, by the way. Hearing God’s word might cause you to remember a time when you had to wait forever, feeling out of control, useless really. Your humanity was wrenched away.

    You were in intensive care, captive to tubes and wires running all over your body—you could only trust in God to free you.

    You waited into the wee hours of the morning; you dreaded picking up the telephone; you could only trust the good Lord would bring your precious little one home safely.

    Your mind might wander during the Passion reading as you remember waiting in beautiful ways, too. You watched a butterfly land on a rose petal just yesterday. You spent an entire day curled up on the couch enthralled by Wendell Berry’s Jaybar Crow. Here, today, at worship, you wait in wonder: you listen to Jared Jacobsen’s astonishing organ playing; you gaze upon another of Dagmar Miller’s lovely flower arrangement; you look at the stunning “Stations of the Cross” in the lounge created by Lee Kaercher, Chuck Leib, Melody Baker, and Francie Montgomery. You are surprised to hear the pastor say that your gazing and reading and listening are as important as anything you create with your own hands and mind; just sitting in awe and reverence at God’s creation is a thing of beauty in itself and can make this world a much better place. Nevertheless, if you are a person who cares for the needs of this world and measures your meaning by busyness, such wondrous waiting often brings a tinge of guilt because you feel like you are doing nothing at all!

    Gathered here this morning can make us feel so inadequate. Inevitably, someone will ask, “What else does your church do besides worship?” as if gathering around simple gifts of words and water, bread and wine, is not enough. Perhaps, though, our finest ministry is when we simply sit with one another and with Jesus in all our sorrow and pain, all our uncertainty and bewilderment, all our celebration and merriment. Sometimes we have so few words and the ones we do utter seem so inadequate. During this Holy Week, I pray we will learn how to wait a little more and that we will measure our truest meaning, not in our busyness, but in Jesus’ love for us, he the one who waited to die and trusted God would provide. This week watch and listen to our Savior who could do nothing and yet in that nothingness did everything for us.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    April 6, 2014
    Fifth Sunday in Lent
    Ezekiel 37: 1-14; John 11: 1-45
    “Soaring Higher Than the Misty Precinct of the Probable”

    There are times when people ask me to pray for them that I can barely utter, “Let us pray.” If I do muster the nerve, the person requesting my prayers is probably clueless what exactly it is I am praying for.

    You see, I don’t want to appear the fool. If a woman wants me to pray that she will get a handsome, brilliant, and rich husband, I pray in my best stentorian tone of King James English, “O God, maketh this woman walketh willingly into the future with considerable dignity and outright faithfulness, upright in your holy name, no matter who crosses her path or whatsoever may not befall her in future days”—at least it sounds impressive!

    You get the drift: hedge my bets and, if I pray long enough, perhaps she will walk out the door and forget why she ever came to me in the first place.

    That, by the way, is called feeble praying.

    In today’s gospel reading, Mary is far from feeble. She knew all along that Jesus could answer her prayers. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Do you have that kind of faith? Do you believe you and those you love will not die if only Jesus is with you?

    The nineteenth century Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard once said that when we stand before God our imagination must “soar higher than the misty precinct of the probable.”

    So often, we seem satisfied to remain in the misty precinct of the probable when we pray. One wonders if it is really even necessary to call upon Jesus in such tame and lackluster prayers. Our prayers end up being a stamp of approval on whatever inevitably comes down the pike. There is little verve, little imagination, little belief that, if God is involved, things might turn out differently than one darn thing after another.

    How do you pray?

    Today’s reading from Ezekiel offers us a tutorial on how to pray imaginatively. The Lord leads Ezekiel on a grand tour of a wretched boneyard, filling his eyes with the sickening spectacle of death and his nostrils with the ghastly stench of decay. Bones are everywhere, dead bones of course. Once Ezekiel has the chance to take in the devastation, the Lord asks him, “Can these bones live?” What would you say? This is not just a smidgen of death lurking, mind you; this is major league death. Ezekiel gazes at the ravaged valley and says, “O Lord, you know.” What he means is, “I don’t have a clue!”

    Then the Lord gives Ezekiel a little prayer instruction: “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live.” Suddenly, Ezekiel starts imagining beyond the misty precinct of the probable. God puts words in Ezekiel’s mouth that he would never think to utter on his own in a million years.

    The late Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon once noted that the critical issue facing the church is not abortion or human sexuality, capital punishment or even biblical interpretation. He believed the church “is in a war between dullness and astonishment.” Isn’t he right? Our prayers can be so pathetically scrawny, so dismally dull. They can just as easily be prayed by someone who has never heard the rattling of bones coming back to life; they can be prayed by someone who has never heard that dead ol’ Lazarus walked out of the cemetery one brilliant day; indeed, some prayers are so dull someone who doesn’t pay much credence to Jesus rising from the dead on Easter morning could pray them.

    Our prayers, Christian prayers, are to be vigorous, heroic, imaginative, death-defying, energetic, creative, ingenious. Our prayers should ask God to do something no one else can possibly do. Our prayers should be so outrageously bold that, if Jesus has not risen from the dead, they end up being senseless and sound as silly as a basset hound singing the Hallelujah Chorus.

    Are your prayers spirited and imaginative or spineless and humdrum?

    I love Gracie Allen’s line, “Never put a period where God puts a comma.” You could ask whether we are grammarians of life or death. Do we simply accept the way things are and place a great big period at the end of misery, disappointment, and grief, or, no matter how desperate the situation we face, do we let a comma sit there knowing God will take care of us and those we love?

    We have now just drawn within two weeks of Easter. In the next fourteen days, we need a crash course in wonder and mystery. We must learn to keep our eyes and ears open, never to put a period where God puts a comma; we need to pray boldly. Listen how Jesus prayed on the night before he was hauled off to the cross: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26:39). Oh, to pray like that, to tell God exactly what is on our hearts and not make our prayers so bland that they lose all their zest and vitality. When you pray for those you love who are gasping their final breaths, pray that they will live! God will know what to do with your prayer but pray for what is on your heart. When your are depressed beyond belief, pray for God to let you once again sing like a lark and dance like a dragonfly.

    If you really want to learn to pray, join the church at the cemetery sometime when we place the body of a dear brother or sister in Christ in a freshly dug grave. Listen what the church dares to say: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord look upon you with favor (+) and give you peace.” That is imagination. Even with tears spilling down our cheeks, the church prays for a blessing upon the one to whom, at least for now, we bid farewell. We are bold. We dare not let death ever be our final word. We pray for life…always.

    During these days as you contemplate Jesus’ death, learn to pray for resurrection, for Jesus, for yourself, and for those you love.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    March 30, 2014
    Fourth Sunday in Lent
    John 9: 1-41
    “Not Yet What We Shall Be”

    You have noticed, I’m sure, today’s readings are not in your bulletin. That is not a mistake. The blind man did not have the luxury of reading along either. So, in solidarity with him, we had to listen carefully to Jesus’ voice today—and, of course, that careful listening makes all the difference.

    Our lives are like the story of the healing of the blind man. If you don’t believe me, think about what just happened to you during the reading. Were you astonished by the healing of the blind man that occurred in just two verses or did your blood pressure rise as one verse led to the next for forty-one long verses? Were you mesmerized by the spit and mud or miffed because you couldn’t follow along in your bulletin?

    Life is like that. Miracles abound all around us and our tempers flair; Jesus touches our lives countless times every day and we are content surfing on our mobile devices and watching junk on television.

    I often think about this on my way home after worship on Sunday morning; I am flabbergasted at how much passed by me without my paying attention in the least—and I’m the worship leader! There are days when I do not hear a word the lector reads from the Bible—not a word. I catch myself singing away on our hymns yet not paying a moment’s notice to the words. There are occasions when I receive the bread and wine and do not even realize Jesus’ body and blood are on my lips like a huge heavenly kiss.

    How often does Christ’s presence swoop past you as your mind wanders to a million and one places except for the one place where Jesus Christ is right here with you now?

    During this Lenten journey, I am doing my best to pay attention to Jesus’ presence in my life as many of you are too. Reading our devotional booklet, “When We Survey the Wondrous Cross,” I have been trying to savor every word of Saint Matthew’s passion as if chewing each bite thirty times before swallowing. I have heard things I do not recall hearing before. For instance, I don’t think I never noticed that all the disciples claimed they would never deny Jesus. It never registered with me that the disciples fell asleep, not once, but three times while Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. I don’t think I realized when Jesus was arrested and taken to Caiaphas the high priest, Peter sat with the guards to see how it would all end. And perhaps I knew it and forgot but it seemed new to me that Judas brought back the thirty pieces of silver he had received for fingering Jesus and threw it down on the Temple floor.

    There is a dangerous tendency to think we will grasp our faith all at once or never at all. We think we must get a 100 on every faith test or else. If you were able to listen to all 41 verses of today’s gospel, you heard a blind man on a journey of understanding: it took him time to understand Jesus was the Son of Man. When Jesus spit on the mud and placed it on his eyes and healed him, he didn’t fall on his knees and cry out, “Thank you, Jesus!” in fact, he said nothing. When people asked him who Jesus was, he said, “He is a prophet”—not the most terribly profound answer regarding the person who had just made him see for the first time in his life. The Pharisees asked him whether Jesus was a sinner for healing him on the Sabbath and the newly healed man said he did not rightly know but he was blind and now could see. Then Jesus came to him again and asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He hadn’t quite grasped what had just occurred so he asked, “Who is he, sir? Tell me so that I may believe in him.” When Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you,” the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him…Amazing, really, how the man became more and more aware over those forty-one verses and how his faith grew and grew—almost makes it worth listening to the story.

    Our lives are so similar. We wish we had amazing faith all at once but it never quite works that way. Our lives are works in progress filled with foolish failures, sickening sins, and a pathetic obliviousness to God’s presence in our lives and then we surprise ourselves with faithfulness, courage, and moments of astonishing clarity and insight.

    We have had quite a few conversations in our Wednesday evening Lenten class on baptism about the desire of some to be rebaptized. This longing for a fresh baptism is understandable, especially when we have done something reprehensible to friend or family or let ourselves down by some sickening behavior or turned our backs on our Lord like Peter and his pals did. Said coarsely, “We have blown our baptism and we want to get it right this time.” This is where it is helpful for the age-old wisdom of the church’s creeds to ring in our ears: “We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sin.”

    There is a tendency—at least on my part—to think one and done, like the NCAA single elimination tournament. We are either in or out, saint or sinner, faithful or a mess. But our faith life never works like that. It is a journey of peaks and valleys, victories and defeats, discoveries and losses. We find ourselves confessing our sins over and over again as we just did at the beginning of worship. We never get it all right. If we had to get baptized every time we sinned, we would create a worse water shortage in Southern California than we already have.

    The life of faith is a journey. We sink down in sin and are lifted up by God again and again and again. Martin Luther said: “This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”

    You may be feeling a bit bad and sad right about now—maybe your mind has wandered; maybe you are still seething because we read all 41 verses and we read all 42 verses last week; maybe you are itching to get out of here. Know this: through it all, Jesus is with you.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    March 23, 2014
    Third Sunday in Lent
    Exodus 17: 1-7; Romans 5: 1-11; John 4: 5-22
    “Beyond the Thumperian Principle”

    We just heard two conversations. The first is the Israelites quarreling with Moses. They are lost in the godforsaken wilderness and are furious. They would prefer just about anything, including being back in Egypt eating leaks, garlic, and cucumbers, than being out in the middle of "Nowheresville" wondering where their next sip of water might come from. The other conversation is between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. This is a surprising conversation in that Jesus daringly meets a five-time married woman at the well, at noon; she happens to be a Samaritan—lowly scum in the eyes of good Jewish people.

    Two conversations.

    How many of you were taught the “Thumperian Principle” when you were young? This principle of conversation emanates from the movie Bambi. The rabbit Thumper remarks that little Bambi is “kinda wobbly.” Thumper’s mom scolds him and makes him repeat what his father impressed upon him early that morning, “If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all.” Many of us grew up drilled in the “Thumperian Principle”: keep your mouth shut unless you have something nice to say.

    The biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann tries to teach us a different conversational approach, especially when talking with God. He describes three kinds of Psalms: Psalms of Orientation, Psalms of Disorientation, and Psalms of New Orientation. What you might call the Thumperian Psalms are Psalms of Orientation and New Orientation; they are happy Psalms filled with joy and thanksgiving, Psalms like “Make a joyful noise to the Lord.” Brueggemann suggests that there is danger if we only know Psalms that look on the sunny side of life. What we end up doing is shutting down a significant part of our lives that longs to be articulated.

    Believe it or not, there are Psalms that give voice to the darker side of life. Psalms of Disorientation teach us “that there is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate” (Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms). If we withhold the dark parts of our lives, we act as if God is not big enough to take our best shot and our biggest disappointments.

    You may wonder what some of these Psalms are in case you are looking for your Gideon Bible at the Las Vegas Hilton after dropping a bundle and you are furious at those who have bilked you. Try Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”—you can see the psalmist shaking his fist at God! How about Psalm 35: “May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame…may ruin overtake them by surprise—may the net they hid entangle them, may they fall into the pit, to their ruin.” Have you ever wanted to say something like that to God only to be halted by the “Thumperian Principle?”

    You may or may not be surprised to learn that Psalm 13 and Psalm 35 are never chanted at our worship services. Never. In fact in our previous hymnal, the Lutheran Book of Worship, these Psalms were excised from it, supposing I imagine, that we Lutherans are far too genteel to sing such harsh language to God on Sunday morning.

    However, if conversation between two people is going to be genuine, we must get real. In his book, Telling Secrets, Frederick Buechner writes of his father’s suicide when he and his brother were little boys. Even though they saw their father’s body being wheeled out of the garage, their mother forbade them from talking about what happened. The pain, the confusion, the anger was buried deep inside these boys for years and it percolated like a raging tea kettle. Only as an adult, through therapy and writing, was Frederick Buechner able to articulate the tragedy that occurred years earlier and had affected him one way or another throughout his life.

    The Israelites who wandered in the hot, dusty desert can be our teachers when we are struck dumb from telling the secrets of our lives, the truth you might say. Of course they were angry with God; they had every right to be: they were hot, thirsty, and hungry. They didn’t hide their anger. They demanded of God, via Moses, “Give us water to drink!” Why are we so afraid to do as the Israelites did and tell God exactly what is on our hearts?

    We heard another conversation this morning. It is the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in all four gospels. Jesus is thirsty and the woman is thirsty too. She is thirsty because she is a pariah of her community. She has never had the opportunity to pour out her heart to anyone. The living water she receives from Jesus is that he listens carefully to her, treating her tenderly and responding in a way that makes her realize he is the Messiah. Miraculously, her life-long thirst is quenched.

    In this touching and lengthy conversation, there is give and take. This is not a monologue where Jesus does all the talking about his amazing miracles and the huge crowds he has attracted as the poor woman sits twiddling her thumbs with her eyes rolled back in her head. Jesus cares enough for this woman to let her talk and he listens.

    Have you ever been caught on the wrong side of a monologue? Have you ever had someone go on and on and on about all their important achievements and never once ask how you are doing? Or have you ever had someone read you the riot act, priding themselves on “telling the truth?” Someone once attacked me unmercifully and then said, “My mother taught me to be bold and honest.” What his mother apparently didn’t teach him was how to listen to the other person. When I responded to his scathing comments with thoughts of my own, he stormed off for good. Honest conversation is a two way street: it requires speaking and listening.

    We all long to be in such conversations. We are hungry to tell our story—not just the good parts, but the bad parts as well, the broken parts—and to have someone listen with love and tenderness.

    If you didn’t read Melinda Person’s astonishing reflection in First’s Lenten booklet, “When We Survey the Wondrous Cross” for March 19, do so this afternoon. In my mind Melinda’s piece is the finest account of Lutheran theology with never saying “Luther” that I can ever remember hearing. Melinda tells of growing up believing in a very angry God, the kind of God who shakes a finger at her and never gives her a word edgewise and is forever punishing her. Melinda courageously tells her secret to us of burying her pain in alcohol until she finally discovers the true God who loves her and listens to her pain—just like Jesus did with the Samaritan woman. I thank Melinda for her unflinching honesty because I venture to guess, in one way or another, all of us need a God to turn to, a God who will listen to our every word and then tell us how much he loves us. That, of course, is what Lent is about: it is discovering our Savior who listens to us even as he trudges to the cross and we cower in a million ways. Even as Jesus bears the weight of the cross with sweaty and bloody brow and we chatter to him on and on and on, Jesus listens intently and once we are done, says, “I love you.”

    That is conversation.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    March 16, 2014
    Second Sunday in Lent/Memorial Service for Irmgard Vragel
    Genesis 12: 1-4a
    “Leaving Home for Another Home”

    Irmgard Vragel’s life was remarkably congruent with the church’s life: the church’s creeds were her creeds; the church’s confessions were her confessions; the community’s life together was her life; Christ’s promises were her promises.

    Even as the family planned today’s funeral liturgy, realizing a few of you would not have known Irmgard Vragel, it seemed altogether fitting on this Second Sunday in Lent to give thanks to God for the life of a dear saint, to mourn her death, and to entrust her into God’s arms.

    As you noticed in our first reading this morning, God called Abraham and Sarah to begin a journey. This journey called two seventy year olds to depart the country they knew, leaving family and friends behind. God promised that they would eventually arrive in a new land, become a great nation, and be blessed with many ancestors.

    We have cherished the witness of Abraham and Sarah down through the ages because they trusted only that God would keep his promises as they left home for a new home.

    Sometimes, though, Abraham and Sarah can seem so passé. What are we to make of folks who lived nearly 4,000 years ago? What does their witness have to do with us?

    When Irmgard Vragel knew that her time was short on this side of the kingdom come, she said she would very much like her memorial service to be today, Sunday morning. When Irmgard died in middle of the night this past Thursday and her family gathered at Grossmont Hospital to bless her body one final time and to say some lovely, heartfelt farewells, it struck me that today’s readings are perfect ones for this community and Irmgard’s family as we do our best to make her death and the hope of the resurrection nestle into our Lenten journey.

    My sermon title, picked two months ago, is “Leaving Home.” I had thought this a proper way to capture Abraham and Sarah’s journey to an unknown land. When Irmgard was dying, I realized she, too, was leaving home for an unknown land. Like her forbearers, Abraham and Sarah, she was, as the prayer for the evening vespers service says: “called to ventures of which she could not see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.” The hope, of course, is that God will “give her faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where she goes, but only that God’s hand is leading her and God’s love supporting her; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

    Irmgard was fond of superlatives. She adored words like magnificent and glorious, beautiful and wonderful, delightful and exquisite. She used these words to describe her family and friends, her brothers and sisters in Christ. She was gracious and thankful to a fault. She always talked about her family. She talked a lot about her churches, too: St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Chicago; Our Father Lutheran Church in Littleton, Colorado; and here at First Lutheran Church. I never heard Irmgard utter a disparaging word about any of these congregations or their pastors or people—that is a miracle! From the moment she was swept up into the confirmation program at St. Luke’s under the tutelage of legendary Lutheran pastor A.R. Kretzmann (who became her father figure), she latched on to all that is good and enriching about our Lutheran tradition. When I say all that is good and enriching, what I mean is that she was receiving adequate travel instructions for the day she would leave home one final time, as she must, and go to the home promised to her in heaven.

    As you know, leaving home is rarely easy. You remember the first time you left home at five years old, heading for kindergarten. You left the comfort and security of what was familiar and comfortable and went out into the great big, frightening world.

    Not only is leaving home frightening for a five year old, it is also frightening for a 91 year old. When Krista and I told Irmgard that she did not have much longer to live, she gasped and said, “I am shocked! Shocked!”—shocked as we all will be on receiving such devastating news. And yet, she didn’t stop with being shocked. Within seconds, as her impending death began to settle in, you watched a woman of faith go deep to the well for support. She was going to a new home she had heard lots about but never seen. As the necessary journey began to register, you could see her miraculously reach back over years. She dug so deep that she repeated her confirmation verse from almost eighty years earlier:

    For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the children of God. (Romans 8:14)

    She pondered some more, searching for travel instructions. She then asked to hear her and her dear husband Kurt’s favorite psalm, Psalm 27:

    The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
    The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

    In those final moments, we saw how a saint prepares to face the ultimate journey, returning to dust and trusting that God would bring her home. This is why we call her Saint Irmgard.

    God blessed us with Saint Irmgard. Quite a few of you have sent me incredibly touching emails in the past few days, telling me how Irmgard touched your life, with a kind word just when you needed it. She was a mother and grandmother to many of you when yours were so far away. And she, of course, touched her children Krista and Paul and Kurt and your families. You have been pouring over memories of her for days: how she went back to college at a rather precarious age; how she and your father built a wonderful cabin in the woods of Wisconsin where you gathered year-after-year; of her driving down the street, way too slowly, with horns honking and irate drivers gesturing and she, all the way saying, “All is wonderful: isn’t it a beautiful ride?” To know Irmgard Vragel was to know a woman of considerable grace for whom life was for living and part of that living was moving to new places later in life—to Colorado and then to San Diego and now to heaven—places filled with enchantment and marvelous new people.

    Irmgard told her family in her final days, “I want to be a party girl again!” Of course, at her age, unless she left these shores for a new home in a new country, she could never be a party girl. Her body was failing her and dancing and entertaining, at least on these shores, were impossibilities. And so, to be a party girl, she had to set sail, like Abraham and Sarah set sail before her, trusting only that God would lead her and guide her to her exquisite new home in heaven.

    Like a child riding on a two-wheeler for the first time, we must now push Irmgard off, trusting that God is leading her and guiding her. Open your clenched hands and let her glide away to a new land. Watch her with eyes wide as she walks into the heavenly city where priceless jewels line a street paved with gold. You can hear the superlatives in her ever present German accent, “Ooooh, this is simply magnificent, beautiful, astonishing, brilliant!”

    Saint Irmgard taught us how to journey well. Now, may we trust, as she trusted, that God welcomes her into her new home forever.

    Saint Irmgard, well done good and faithful traveler.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    March 16, 2014
    Second Sunday in Lent
    Genesis 4: 1-4a
    “Leaving Home”

    Can you remember far, far back when you left home for the first time? It must have been terribly frightening for your little heart and for those who sent you off as well. Here is a lovely poem (To a Daughter Leaving Home) by Linda Pastan that might jog your memory…

    When I taught you
    at eight to ride
    a bicycle, loping along
    beside you
    as you wobbled away
    on two round wheels,
    my own mouth rounding
    in surprise when you pulled
    ahead down the curved
    path of the park,
    I kept waiting
    for the thud
    of your crash as I
    sprinted to catch up,
    while you grew
    smaller, more breakable
    with distance,
    pumping, pumping
    for your life, screaming
    with laughter,
    the hair flapping
    behind you like a
    handkerchief waving

    It was like that for Abraham and Sarah except they were in their seventies. God called them to do the unimaginable and leave the familiarity of home for an unknown place. They could trust that God would keep the promises made to them, including giving children to barren Sarah and making of them a great nation, or else, of course, they could stay home.

    Many people choose to stay home. When we were living in Philadelphia, I remember a report about how many Philadelphians never leave home—they are born in Philly, go to school in Philly, work in Philly, and die in Philly. My hunch is that many of you are different: you moved to California from someplace else. That means deep in the California fabric is a people who have left home. Maybe that is why the VW Microbus is our state bird!

    I love the prayer from our church’s Vesper liturgy:

    Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

    Just about anything worth doing in life involves the risk of leaving home. We head off to college or enlist in the military; we get married and start a new family; we take new jobs, filled with challenges, often in entirely new places. All these journeys, if done well, involve praying that God will lead us and support us all the way.

    Lent is such a journey. Many of you have stripped down to the bare essentials—you are eating less, giving away money to our ELCA Hunger Appeal. You are consciously changing age old habits that are ingrained and familiar, downsizing your soul to make ample room as you push off to a new country with only God leading you and supporting you.

    You are stocking up for the journey as well. With the room you have made from downsizing your soul, you have room to spare to read the astonishing First Lutheran Lenten booklet, “When We Survey the Wondrous Cross” (yesterday, on our Saturday morning Lenten run/walk, Richard Philips commented to me how proud I must be of your remarkably faithful writing—and he is right: I have been tremendously moved by what you have written and the art work you have offered). You are filling up for the journey with worship and classes: on Wednesday, we had the largest number of people at midweek Lenten activities in memory—this sanctuary was very full. And a sizeable group of you is even gathering on Saturday mornings, caring for your bodies so that they, too, are fit for the journey.

    Of course, you all know, just like Abraham and Sarah and the little girl riding her two-wheeler without mommy holding onto her, you will have crashes and scrapes and bruises. Your college work will come crashing down; your mental health will feel out of control; your marriage will become fragile; your children will keep you awake years on end; your job will make you miserable. Wherever your journey takes you far from home, you will be blessed if you believe God can do the impossible and support you through its entirety. Seventy years old, Abraham and Sarah believed God would enable them to have a baby…and God did. We, too—if God is with us on this oft’ crazy, frightening, and exhilarating journey called life—will have lives well worth living.

    This past week, I along with many of you have given much thought to an unexpected leaving of home that has deeply saddened this community. Irmgard Vragel died in the middle of the night on Thursday. Even at 91, she was going to an unknown country as we all will, and she could only trust that God was leading her and supporting her—as I pray we all will, too, when that day comes.

    Upon hearing that her life was nearly ended, she said, “I am shocked! Shocked!” And yet, remarkably, she didn’t stop with being shocked. The moment the news of her impending death began to register, Irmgard went deep into the well for support for this mysterious and glorious journey. She was going to a new home she had only heard of but never seen and so she dug deep, so deep that she repeated her confirmation verse from nearly eighty years ago:

    For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the children of God. (Romans 8:14)

    Then she reflected some more, searching for bread for the journey. She asked to hear Psalm 27, the favorite Psalm of her and her dear husband Kurt:

    The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
    The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

    A life worth living is a life that risks leaving home. The rich life travels to distant shores, searches for new vistas, longs for what is new and exotic. The Lenten journey is meant to equip us with bread for all those journeys that matter most in our lives. We will all take that final journey to a place we have only heard promises about but never seen. May we trust that God is leading us and guiding us. May we get on our bikes and head out on the road.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    March 9, 2014
    First Sunday in Lent
    Genesis 2: 15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4: 1-11
    “The Gift of Limits”

    In this morning’s first reading from the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve come face-to-face with the limits of their knowledge. They want more than they can have or even need. God tells them there is one tree in the Garden of Eden that is off limits to them and, for the life of them, they can’t imagine why that is so. The thought of any lingering ignorance is intolerable for Adam and Eve.

    I hate limits, too. Barely a day goes by that I don’t wish I were smarter. I wish I knew the difference between Russia, the Ukraine, and Crimea and could point out what’s what on a map and explain exactly what is happening in that part of the world. The same goes for these blasted Sunday sermons: I wish I could tell stories that would enchant you, jokes that would cause you to laugh raucously, and never have one of you drift off into never, never land.

    Don’t you wish you had a little more—a little more knowledge, a little more beauty, a little more charisma—or, of course, a little less weight around your midsection?

    One of first books our parents read to us was “The Little Engine that Could.” Before anything terrible had occurred in most of our lives, we were taught that with a little optimism and hard work we could accomplish anything. No one ever taught us that we would face unachievable wishes or devastating circumstances beyond our control.

    Maybe no one said exactly this to you but I’ll bet it was said in one way or another: never look weak; always look your charming best; never be satisfied with second place. Even now, you are constantly buying clothes and automobiles you can’t afford, going on diets and exercise regimes, changing jobs and spouses.

    Don’t you wish you could pick just one piece of fruit from the tree in the garden? If you could, you would then have a profound and helpful answer for your dearest friend whose little three year old daughter died tragically. Without the fruit, you just sit at her kitchen table, stumped, with not a clue why this happened to her precious little one.

    If we are faithful Christians, shouldn’t we all have answers to life’s most difficult questions?

    Funny thing: Jesus didn’t fall for the devil’s bait to have more and more, more success, more relevancy, more power, more answers. When the devil tempted Jesus, it was not with some silly offers to eat delicious Godiva chocolates, play the California Superlotto Plus, or have one more frosty on Saturday night. Satan was craftier than that. Satan typically tempts us, not with sleazy choices—although that occurs too, but rather with invitations to sacrifice what is best for what is merely better.

    One of my good friends and role models for ministry was a terrific pastor in one of our nation’s poorest cities. He once said to me, “Wilk, no money is too dirty for me when it comes to serving the needs of the poor.” I have not forgotten his comment. I remember what he said positively not negatively: why struggle with your own goodness when you can meet the deep hunger of needy souls? Why worry about your high ideals when you can meet pressing needs of those suffering most? Why not compromise a little and make a big difference?

    Adam and Eve would have jumped for that dirty money in a second. They couldn’t fathom limits on what they knew or what they did. They went to the one tree, the one that was the difference between them and God, and chomped on a piece of fruit. They thought they were entitled to know everything—just like God. Jesus, on the other hand, was promised the world and unimaginable power and yet he knew that there was more to life: “One does not live on bread alone.” He realized there were things in this world he could never accomplish, deep needs he couldn’t address fully. In the face of such obstacles, relying on the word of God was enough for Jesus.

    I am suspicious of anyone who has all the answers. I always wonder when people are posed with an extremely complex question how they immediately respond, “There are three important points to consider and then rattle on forever.” Why three? Why not Four? Two? Three thousand?

    Increasingly, I admire people who do not need to have all the answers, people with sufficient humility to keep quiet and not say a word, to leave the tough questions to God. (This does not mean, by the way, that we do not welcome and embrace the considerable confessional and creedal tradition of our church down through the ages or that we do not try to learn more. Perhaps worse than claiming to have all the answers is the arrogance of thinking we know more than anyone who has come before us, that we can simply scuttle our theological heritage in some flippant desire to appear most progressive and open-minded!) Why is there evil in the world? Why do some people die far too young? Who ends up in heaven?—tough questions. The temptation, of course, is to appear bright and to offer answers when we are pretty much clueless.

    God limits our knowledge for a reason. It has been said that people on sinking ships complain of many things, but not of distractions during their prayers. Perhaps you have discovered this yourself. Have you ever had an unbearable night when you could not sleep a wink? You tossed and turned, went outside and walked a mile in the darkness, and you were still anxious as a hummingbird. At 4 a.m., you recollected you had heard somewhere about not living by bread alone. These words got you thinking and you picked up your Bible and turned to the Psalms. Mysteriously, you ended up at Psalm 3: “You are a shield around me, O Lord, my Glorious One, who lifts up my head. To the Lord I cry aloud and He answers me from His holy hill. I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me. I will not fear.” It was at that moment when you felt out of control that God came to you and you rested in God’s arms for the first time in a long time.

    As we embark on our Lenten journey and mull over our devotional booklets (“When We Survey the Wondrous Cross), attending to Jesus’ last days, we will discover that he was deeply in need in those final few days. Rather than being the champion of the moment, he was too human for most of our tastes. He didn’t have all the answers; he even cried out “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” He did not jump down from the cross but hung there helplessly. He was befuddled and yet we do not forget him. We remember he had the grace to trust God in his deepest hour of need and that trust has made all the difference for us and those we love.

    When we do not have all the answers to life’s most difficult challenges and perplexing questions, perhaps it is best to view these confusions as a gift from God, a gift that causes us to turn to our Lord Jesus Christ for answers or at least for solace. When we return to Jesus in need, we end up with far more than we will ever need.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    March 5, 2014
    Ash Wednesday
    Psalm 51; Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17; Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21
    “Ashes-More Than A Dash”

    People often ask me, “What is First Lutheran’s worship like?” I think I know what the person is trying to get at: are we high church with incense and bells or do we have praise worship with guitars and drums? I usually say, “We worship the best we are able, using the finest traditions of the church and the best of what is new and wonderful.”

    If we had gathered together to create today’s worship, what do you think we would have created? I doubt a single one of us would have come up with the idea of smudging ashes on people’s foreheads or saying, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I can hear the comments now: too depressing; how dare we place deathly ashes an infant’s head; what if the person is in her final days, not in a million years should we say, “Remember that you are dust.”

    Left to our own devices, we might smile real big and give every worshiper a brand new Bible to read for the next forty days; we might even give every worshiper a crocus plant on their way out (after all Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “spring”). We certainly wouldn’t place much emphasis on a person’s estrangement from God or dare mention their sinfulness.

    I received an email yesterday about a church—a Lutheran one by the way—that is being far more creative. It is having “Ash and Dash” today. I suspect this means you run in, get your ashes, and be on your way: don’t dilly-dally around pondering your sin or give much thought how to make Christ more central to your life. “Ash and Dash”—get what you want and get on to the exercise club or coffee bar.

    This is exactly why I give thanks for the traditions of the church. Telling the truth about who we are, saying things like, “Remember that you are dust,” takes more courage and honesty than most of us have and it requires years of experience to fathom how such words offer hope for us and the world. Ash Wednesday incorporates the wisdom of Christians down through the ages who have stared death straight on and discovered that our only lasting hope is Jesus Christ our Lord.

    You have figured out by now that I favor things tested by time and not just by my own whims and wants and fancies. I prefer my ashes from a sanctuary, amidst a liturgy, within a community struggling to live the Christian life. Here we are invited to keep a holy Lent by pondering God’s word, praying that God’s grace might be more central to who we are, fasting perhaps for the first time and giving sacrificially to the ELCA Hunger Appeal, and seeking to care for the needs of others beyond my own selfish desires.

    If we only “Ash and Dash”—even though, I’m certain this is one church’s attempt at being relevant and welcoming—at day’s end, I suspect all we are left with is the odd taste of dust in our mouths, a smudge of ash on our pillows, and the nagging question, “Did he really say to dust I will return?”

    We need insightful people who have tasted dust at the cemetery or who have flirted with death themselves to tell us how this ash word, finally God’s word, has imbued them with life and not death, with hope and not despair. Such conversations cannot be discussed on a dash! They take time, at least forty days and forty nights—and usually far longer—days simmered in worship, bathed in prayer, and imbued with Godly conversation with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

    If the truth be told, that is what we pray will occur for you during the next forty days, that you will become more aware of your own impending death whenever it will come—that is simply the truth—and that confronting the fleeting nature of life, you will steep your every moment in the rich grace of Christ. As you taste Christ’s love, you will be compelled to love others as he has loved you. The church’s age-old wisdom is that when we are drawing our final breaths this side of Paradise, the only thing worth knowing is that we are in God’s heavenly hands forever—this, by the way, is easy to forget when we are dashing from one darned thing to another.

    During this forty day journey, we will study scripture together, read a fine novel together, talk about our own baptisms and funerals together; we will read one another’s thoughts about Jesus’ passion found in our marvelous Lenten booklet, “When We Survey the Wondrous Cross,” in which many of you have offered gorgeous devotional pieces; we will hear how one astonishing musician Johann Sebastian Bach put St. Matthew’s passion to music. Through it all, we will pray for the strength to look beyond dust, our dust, leaning on one another all the way.

    You know as well as I that this message of a God who offers his Son for our sake takes far more than a dash to comprehend. And so, during these forty days, experience a lightness of being, a spring in your step, experience, perhaps for the first time ever, how much you are loved by Jesus Christ our Lord.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    March 2, 2014
    Transfiguration of Our Lord
    Matthew 17: 1-9
    “Salvation Mountain”

    Peter had good days and bad days. Peter answered Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” brilliantly: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” For that answer, Jesus said to his number one disciple, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah…you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” Peter called his parents immediately and said, “Guess what Mom and Dad?”…That was a good day.

    There were bad days, too. No sooner had Peter claimed Jesus to be the Messiah than Jesus said he was going to die soon. Peter was so proud of his previous correct answer and feeling quite confident, so he said to Jesus, “This shall never happen to you!” And then, from out of no where, Jesus blasted him, “Get behind me, Satan!”…That was, of course, a bad day.

    Has your world ever come crashing down on you just when you were feeling on top of it?

    Yesterday, I visited Irmgard Vragel in the intensive care unit at Grossmont Hospital. She was her typical elegant and marvelous self. But, at a rather low point in our conversation, she said, “I had my Lent all planned out: I had rides scheduled to church and was looking forward to Jim Hallerberg’s Sunday Bach presentations and Wednesday Holden Evening Prayer. And then everything came crashing down.” I said to Irmgard, “Maybe this is how you will observe a holy Lent this year.”

    Pesky intrusions inevitably upset our best plans. We rarely get the luxury of planning our lives just as we wish.

    I love the marriage vows in the old wedding service—“for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.” The church in its wisdom tells the newly married couple that true love occurs in valleys as well as on mountaintops. One of my deepest fears for those whose hearts are going pitter-patter on their wedding day is that there will most assuredly come poorer days, sicker days, even days filled with death, and they will be blindsided by it all as if this is not part of marriage. I pray they will love each other then, too, when they are deep in the valley.

    In a sense, that is what this Day of the Transfiguration is all about. Just as soon as Jesus thrashed Peter half-to-death by calling him Satan, he took him and his friends James and John up a mountain. Suddenly, Jesus stood before them, dazzling white, with two other great mountain men, Moses and Elijah. Anyone who has had an experience like that wants to remain basking in the light forever, especially if you know struggles are waiting at the bottom of the hill.

    I remember such a time, quite a few years before we came to San Diego. Our family went on the longest vacation we ever took to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, one of my favorite places in the world. When the final day of our vacation arrived and we were all packed up to return home, I lingered behind in the bedroom and began to cry. I knew what was down in the valley—our church had been going through a particularly rough stretch. I didn’t want to do ministry with some of the grumpy people who awaited our return. I wanted to build a dwelling right there at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and remain forever. But, as it has happened to you, I’m sure, it happened to me: God called me to return and care for God’s people.

    This is the necessary rhythm of the Christian life. We all need to get away, to lie in the sun a bit too long just for the fun of it, to build sand castles and watch them wash away, to read more junk novels than is good for our health, to watch a silly movie every night and eat popcorn, to ooh and aah at fireworks. To do all this and not feel a trace of guilt—such rest is a Godly gift.

    This past Monday Dagmar and I went up a mountain, Salvation Mountain, which appears on your bulletin cover. The mountain is 140 miles from here, about ten miles east of the Salton Sea, in the middle of nowhere, just outside the desolate village of Niland. Salvation Mountain, resplendent with garishly painted Bible verses and colorful flowers, trees, waterfalls, and bluebirds, is a burst of color in a harsh and barren desert. This 50 feet high and 150 feet wide mountain is made of adobe clay. Leonard Knight, who died three weeks ago in El Cajon, spent thirty years on his labor of love.

    Salvation Mountain is everything I detest about art and everything I am suspicions of in religion: Leonard once said, "Love Jesus and keep it simple."

    Dagmar and I had to return from Salvation Mountain as Jesus said we would. I have been surprised how the mountain has stayed with me this week. It was pouring down rain Friday morning when we had our regular Friday morning meal with homeless folks as we have done here for 39 years. Pouring rain and Bread Day don’t mix well. People were crammed into the lounge and on the 2nd floor walkway and tarps lined the floor. Oddly though, when I looked out over the lounge and saw all those damp children of God waiting for a warm breakfast, I realized this is our family and so I led the group in our family meal prayer which might be yours as well, “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest.” Even in the valley of swirling wind and driving rain, Jesus was with us. I kept thinking of Salvation Mountain and “Love Jesus and keep it simple.” I think of it today, with you, too.

    Leonard Knight probably knew that none of us gets to stay at Salvation Mountain forever. We must return home in our overheating cars and gas-eating rvs whether we want to or not. We go down the mountain to care for our ailing husband caught in the fog of advancing years—something we always hoped would never happen; we go to the valley, awaiting another frantic call from our daughter in rehab—we prayed desperately this would never occur in our family. We return home to discover the dreaded letter that our job has been discontinued—we always thought hard work and ingenuity would be enough.

    Jesus knew this would happen. Peter hoped it wouldn’t. You know the story. Jesus came back down the mountain with Peter, James, and John and all hell broke loose and Jesus ended on a cross and then burst from the tomb Easter morning. Through it all, Peter, James, and John had their ups and downs. The night before Jesus died, Peter denied ever having known his dear friend Jesus. Jesus hung dying on the cross before their very eyes and they slunk into the woodwork, miserable cowards all. And then, fifty days or so after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter preached the most courageous sermon the world has ever heard, proclaiming in Jerusalem’s public square that Jesus Christ had been raised from the dead.

    We are all a lot like Peter: for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. Jesus urges us to go up the mountain. Go up to be strengthened for certainly you will come down again—you must. The valley is waiting for you where you will tend the deepest needs of people you desperately love. You will remember seeing Jesus standing before you—on a day trip to Salvation Mountain perhaps, a cruise with good friends from your congregation, a hike in the Cuyumaca Mountains, a frolic in the Pacific—and that memory will make all the difference.

    Good days and bad days—we all have them.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    February 23, 2014
    Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
    Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5: 38-48
    “Loving Our Enemies”

    Jesus’ words bear repeating: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…” In case that is too subtle, Jesus follows with this: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…”

    Unless we have completely domesticated Jesus’ words making them as toothless as a newborn puppy, we are wondering right about now what to make of all this.

    After all, the Word of God resists all our efforts at domestication. The Word of God resists our desire to create God in our own image. The Word of God is ever challenging us and changing us.

    “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

    When we hear this, our natural question to Jesus is, “So, what would you do with Adolph Hitler or, more recently, Osama Bin Laden?” We simply assume this is an easy question to answer for godly people.

    I recently read Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II by Lynne Olson. I was dumbfounded by how much resistance there was to the United States entering the war against Hitler. Most of us learned in our high school history classes that the United States immediately swooped in and stood against Hitler. That simply is not the case. Sixteen million people had just been killed in World War I, including 116,000 U.S. soldiers. Even though reports of Hitler’s mad butchery of the Jewish people were increasingly arriving on these shores, there was trepidation to enter another war—and certianly anti-Semitism too. Much to my surprise, some of the strongest dovish reaction came from the Republican Party. Heated debate continued until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and then, and only then, did the United States enter World War II. I always thought heated arguments regarding our nation’s participation in war started with Viet Nam and continued up until today with the Middle East but apparently not so.

    I am one who always thanks God that there are vigorous arguments whenever the question of whether to enter a war is raised. It is only the simple-minded and the pathologically brutal who think war is a no-brainer. Whenever the taking of human life is being pondered, debate should be the order of the day.

    The debate among Christians has almost always been fierce when it comes to matters of war and peace. After all, we are heirs of Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek and to love our enemy. Entire Christian traditions have set forward the notion that to follow Jesus means to do just as he said when it comes to loving our enemies. The refusal to fight in any war has been a noble stance in the church’s history, especially for the historic peace churches like the Quakers, Mennonites, and the Amish.

    Many other Christians, including Lutherans, have found wiggle room in our theology in order to endorse participation in war. Lutherans typically point to Luther’s Two Kingdoms Theory” that believes that civil rulers are ordained by God and called to maintain justice within the state and to wield the sword when being invaded. So, too, the “Just War Theory” lays out necessary conditions for engaging in a just war. Some of these conditions are that all other means have been tried and failed and that the use of arms must not produce greater harm than the evil sought to be eliminated. (Some argue, by the way, that no modern warfare can possibly meet these standards.) Such positions lean heavily on Jesus’ words, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”

    How we love our enemies on the other side of the globe is probably not the best place to start our discussion of how to turn the other cheek. A better place to begin is here at home: how do we treat our troublesome neighbors, our insufferable spouse, or our irritating colleagues? If we can’t live in happy marriages and get along together in our churches and at our jobs, what makes us think we have much to say about how to address foreign nations?

    You know and I know being perfect as Jesus commands us is impossible. We face enormous challenges with no good answers. More often than not we make haunting decisions, not between better and best, but between worse and worst. You make such decisions daily, decisions of which you are your own harshest judge. But you know that not to act is to be a coward and cowardice is far worse than acting and being wrong.

    On most issues that matter in this world, there are profound disagreements. Our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has experienced such disputes recently around issues of human sexuality. Surprisingly—and this may be news to some—such divisive squabbles are as old as the hills in the church: Are you with Paul or Apollos or Cephas; the Eastern and Western church split more than a 1,000 years ago and remains split to this day; and our only little clan of Lutherans these days has more flavors to offer than Baskin Robbins.

    This morning, right before you receive Holy Communion, I will break the bread and say these ancient words, “Holy things for holy people.” You know better though: you know no one is deserving of this meal about to be served. And so when I say, “Holy things for holy people,” you will disagree vigorously and shout out, “One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God.”

    And yet we keeping returning here Sunday after Sunday not because we are perfect or even holy but because we find perfection and holiness impossible and are desperately in need of forgiveness. We come here, in many cases, because we have tried to do the right thing and to love one another and have been sickened by our dismal failures.

    I frankly am glad we never get too comfortable with how we treat our enemies, whether across this sanctuary, across 3rd Avenue, or across the ocean. Two great American generals understood the cost of growing too comfortable with hatred. General Dwight Eisenhower upon being honored by London following World War II said: “Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in blood of his followers and sacrifices of his friends.” A more modern day general Colin Powell said it this way, “…the Big Stick is not a magic wand.”

    And so we come here this morning to discover real magic and to learn how to love our enemies. Watch as our dear friend Jesus forgives us…yet again. This meal is not for perfect people or even holy people; it is for you and me who struggle to follow Jesus and find the going tough. Nevertheless, with perfect love, he whispers in our ear, “Take and eat.”

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    February 16, 2014
    Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
    Matthew 5: 21-37
    “To Be Saved Is to Be Gathered”

    The Sermon on the Mount (some of which we just heard) can be terribly gloomy and remarkably dispiriting. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away” or “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away”—if we took Jesus’ words seriously, this worship space would look like a MASH unit with every one of us blind and limbless, and, so often times, we simply prefer to joke about these words of Jesus.

    But, do you think Jesus was joking when he gave them to us?

    I believe Jesus was deadly serious. These words offer significant insight about how to keep our world safe, especially when we are fuming rattlesnakes—whether with one another or with enemy nations. Jesus’ words instruct us how to create relationships with one another that are good and honorable and wholesome. We are counseled not to be angry with anyone; we are told not to commit adultery or even to lust after another person.

    I think you will agree that these are hard words—impossible?—to follow. And yet, for some reason, we keep reading them to one another on Sunday morning and teaching them to our children. There is something deep in the heart of the Christian community—at its very best, I believe—that doesn’t give up on these words as excruciating and discombobulating as they can be for us. They judge us more harshly than a fire and brimstone preacher, and yet we sense they somehow point us to a beautiful vista just around the bend that only Jesus can lead us to. As we prayed in our Prayer of the Day, “Because we are weak mortals we accomplish nothing good without [Jesus].” And so, while we find it next to impossible to be reconciled to someone who has done us wrong or to whom we have done wrong, we keep returning here. We keep confessing our shorting-comings the moment worship begins—as if we can’t wait to get our misdeeds off our chests—and we eagerly await God’s grace to wash over us so we can live the better way.

    It is rarely easy though. I just finished reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. This book is recommended reading by the San Diego Organizing Project, the organizing ministry of which First Lutheran is a part. This is an excellent book to read during Black History Month; however, it is not for the faint of heart. The author suggests that, while our nation no longer has slavery or Jim Crow laws, the new way African American people are kept down is by stringent jail sentences for the possession of narcotics and, in particular, crack cocaine. Our jails are filled with black and brown men who have been caught with this particular drug. Housewives in La Jolla do not receive harsh prison sentences for abusing prescription drugs; teenage lacrosse players from Mount Helix are not typically incarcerated for smoking grass or facing a harsh three-strikes policy. We have saved our harshest treatment for black men, treatment which is wildly disproportionate to the nature of the crime!

    Alexander notes that five times more deaths are caused in our nation every year by drunk drivers and alcohol abuse than by drug abuse; nevertheless, we reserve our deadliest venom for small time drug users and petty street-corner dealers. Black and brown men, even when they have done their time, are forever labeled felons, making it exceedingly difficult to get decent jobs and housing and impossible to exercise the right to vote; she calls this “the new Jim Crow.”

    Having read this book, I wonder how good we are doing with what Jesus has commanded us to do in reconciling ourselves with our brothers and sisters who have broken the law. Is it any wonder that people scream for the 10 Commandments to hang on courthouse walls but never Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount? Imagine if rehabilitation and not vengeance guided our courts of law…

    Now, I suppose some of you are disagreeing with what little you have already heard me say. Perhaps you are thinking, “I am sick of hearing such stuff. Don’t we have an African America president? Don’t we have affirmative action? Now we aren’t supposed to put criminals into jail?”

    I will soon be inviting you to have a conversation around the issues raised by Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow.” Is there something this congregation can do regarding our prisons that are disproportionately filled with black men, especially when statistics demonstrate over and over again that drug use is an “equal opportunity employer” in our nation? I served in one of our nation’s richest areas in suburban Philadelphia and I can tell you unequivocally that drug use and drug trafficking are alive and well at our finest schools and in our most affluent communities.

    It seems to me there is something worse than disagreeing with issues of racism in our society and that, of course, is simply remaining silent. Alexander writes: “The idea that we may never reach a state of perfect racial equality—a perfect racial equilibrium—is not cause for alarm. What is concerning is the real possibility that we, as a society, will choose not to care. We will choose to be blind to injustice and the suffering of others.”

    Our former presiding bishop Mark Hanson who was with us last year on this very weekend called our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to be people of moral deliberation. That means we are to tackle tough issues like racism, war and peace, and human sexuality, reading our Bibles together, listening to the experiences of one another, disagreeing—sometimes spiritedly, and looking for God to be among us to give us good and decent answers to life’s most difficult and perplexing questions.

    Nine years ago when you were about to call me as your pastor, you asked me what I was looking for in a congregation. I said I was looking for three things: 1-a congregation located downtown in one of our nation’s largest cities; 2-a congregation that unapologetically worships the best that it is able; and 3-a congregation willing to tackle the toughest issues of the day with considerable dignity and grace.

    When we talk about how we treat one another—whether we are talking about how the housed treat the homeless, how straights treat gays, or how whites treat blacks and browns—we are being a community of moral deliberation. While we are not perfect by a long stretch and while we may disagree, we never stop talking and praying together. We have heard Jesus speak about loving one another and we, by golly, will keep on trying.

    The noted ethicist Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School contends: “You cannot live by the demands of the [Sermon on the Mount] on your own, but that is the point. The demands of the sermon are designed to make us depend on God and one another….The sermon, therefore, is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus. To be saved is to be gathered.”

    And, so here we are gathered once again. We have dared to read Jesus’ tough words about how we are to treat one another. We have confessed how tough we find this to do. We have heard one preacher’s take on this. Now, we pray, with God’s grace, to be the people of God, not afraid to tackle the toughest issues of the day with dignity and grace as we depend on God and one another.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    February 9, 2014
    Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
    Matthew 5: 13-20
    “Grace Amidst Scraped Knees and Busted Jaws”

    I have been thinking a lot this week about Jesus saying, “You are the light of the world.” We give every newly baptized person a baptismal candle and say, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

    I have also been thinking about our stained glass windows here in our sanctuary and the lovely ones from our old church on 2nd Avenue, now in our library, which we will bless this morning. Quite a few of you have come to me following worship and told me how the sun shone through the windows in a particular manner, making some glorious design somewhere in our worship space.

    As magical as the colors of these windows are, without light shining through them, they are pretty much lifeless and basically worthless. Drive by the church at night and you will discover if the inside lights are not burning brightly, you cannot make heads or tails of these stained glass windows. Look at our historic windows in the library: without back-lighting, they might as well not be hanging there.

    I have also been thinking if Christ does not shine through us, we are pretty much worthless, too. There is a tendency, of course, to say all that matters is our doing good works for others. But if this occurs without Christ’s shining through us, we become dull; what people catch a glimpse of is not the wonder of Christ but instead of us. They say, “Isn’t she wonderful,” but never look into Christ’s eyes; they are so focused on us that they never catch sight of Christ the Light of the World that gives us lasting life and eternal joy.

    Our gospel reading this morning comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. His words our marching orders for the Christian community, a community that has been saved by Christ and has already caught a peak at what life can be with Christ’s gorgeous light shining through us. Letting our light shine assumes Christ’s light is already brightly shining through us.

    How dangerous it is to think we can be the light alone without Christ. Have you ever heard someone say (Let’s call him Pastor Smith), “I go to Pastor Smith’s church.” Pastor Smith oversees a church as big as a shopping center, with a huge pulpit; Pastor Smith sometimes appears on television and every week on the “Pastor Smith Radio Show” on your AM dial. Watch what happens when Pastor Smith retires; there is a terrible identity crisis: “Things just aren’t the same without Pastor Smith’s charisma,” people say. It was Pastor Smith all along whose light was shining and not Christ’s. The minute Pastor Smith left, the church lost its direction, its reason for living, and the once influential congregation ended up belly-up.

    St. Paul understood the danger of being a lone ranger, the center of attention, and not letting Christ’s light shine through him...and through us for that matter. In today’s second reading, Paul writes to one of the earliest Christian communities in Corinth: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Paul knew the potential menace of being a spell-binding preacher with all the light directly spotted on him. As you listen to Paul, he can seem like such a sad sack. There are occasions when he is preaching that people actually fall asleep as he drones on. But Paul decided this didn’t matter: he didn’t want people to follow him anyway; he wanted people to follow Jesus Christ, and for that matter, only Christ crucified.

    It isn’t just the big-pulpit preachers or the mega-churches, however. We all have feet of clay until Christ’s light shines through us. One preacher, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher of the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York, knew this. He had a reputation of being quite a pulpit spellbinder as well as a reputation with the women. Frederick Buechner (actually at the Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School) writes of Beecher looking at himself in the mirror shaving on Sunday morning before he preaches: “When he looks in the mirror all in a lather…what he sees is eight parts chicken, phony, slob; that’s the tragedy. The gospel is the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, also bled for.” We are all like that preacher when we stare in the mirror. And yet the news of the gospel is that extraordinary things happen to us when Jesus shines through us. That is the story we are all called to tell.

    “Zacchaeus, little, fat, roly-poly Zacchaeus climbs up a sycamore tree a crook and climbs down a saint. Paul sets out a hatchet-man for the Pharisees and comes back a fool for Christ” (Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth). We all have our stories to tell. Our most compelling ones are those when we gave ourselves up for dead, or at least bleeding in the mirror, and Jesus found us and bled for us. The gospel story we tell of ourselves to others is that with God all things are possible.

    That is what it means to let our light shine. It is a truth we have experienced time and again, having been lost and then found, blind and then suddenly seeing, and we can’t wait to tell others. It is not our light; it is Christ’s light shining through us like light shining through one of our beautiful stained glass window.

    I just finished reading Robert Hilburn’s book, Johnny Cash: The Life. You can probably sing “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire” even if you aren’t a country music aficionado. Johnny Cash was one of those Christians who always seemed to have scuffed knees and a busted jaw. He read his Bible, went to church, and loved singing old gospel tunes like “He Turned Water into Wine,” “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder,” and “Far Side Banks of Jordan;” and yet he struggled with a ferocious drug habit, eating amphetamines like they were M&M’s, and leaving his own tawdry trail of womanizing like ol’ Reverend Beecher. He knew better than anyone how ugly and wretched he looked. And yet, strangely, he touched people’s lives. There was something authentic about the man who began his shows simply, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” He sang songs of flaws and failure. In spite of his chipped stained glass life, you sensed Christ’s light shining through him anyway. The men doing hard time at Folsom Prison and San Quentin saw that light shining through. To look at Johnny Cash was to see what his savior could do. The “Man in Black” echoed St. Paul’s words, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” If you have listened much to Johnny Cash, you have probably had some of your own vulnerability opened up; you have seen the possibility of Jesus redeeming you, too.

    At Cash’s funeral, Bob Dylan’s eulogy stated: “Blessed with a profound imagination, [Johnny Cash] used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul.” And Bono of U2 said: ‘I think he was a very godly man, but you had the sense that he spent his time in the desert. And that just made you like him more. It gave his songs some dust.”

    “You are the light of the world.” Each one of us is like a stained glass window with our songs of dust. We are like a country-western song, too. Let me give country a little try:

    “If Christ’s light isn’t shinin’ through you,
    you ain’t worth a plugged nickel.
    If Christ is shinin’ through you, though,
    you are a mighty pert window
    filled with the power of God.”

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    February 2, 2014
    Presentation of Our Lord
    Luke 2: 22-40
    “My Eyes Have Seen the Salvation”

    Believe it or not, it has been 40 days since Christmas. God’s people are mesmerized with the number 40—40 days in Lent; Jesus in the wilderness 40 days; Noah in the storm 40 days and 40 nights; Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness 40 years.

    40 days after Christmas, February 2…Today is an embarrassment of riches. What should we call today? We could call today Super Bowl Sunday; or the Feast of Punxsutawney Phil; or the Purification of the Blessed Virgin as Mary went to the Temple to be purified after childbirth; or Candlemas when churches bless the candles to be used in the coming year on this final day of the 40 day Christmas season (our poinsettias are up for grabs, by the way, after our second service); or we could call today the Presentation of Our Lord.

    We are opting for celebrating the Presentation of Our Lord when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. They consecrated their firstborn son, as scripture mandated, this in gratitude for God sparing the Israelite firstborn when the Egyptian boys were killed due to Pharaoh’s disobedience for not freeing God’s people from slavery.

    Mary and Joseph were actually to present a year-old lamb and a young pigeon as an offering. Since they could not afford a lamb, the book of Exodus allowed them to offer an additional dove or pigeon instead and that is what they did because they were poor.

    Old Simeon and Anna were at the Temple that day with eyes wide open. They had been hanging around the Temple forever, worshiping, fasting, and praying, waiting to see their salvation face-to-face before they died.

    Their greatest wish was fulfilled that day, 40 days after Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Only God’s Spirit could possibly allow them to behold their salvation in a tiny, poor baby boy.

    Whenever I hear the story of Simeon and Anna, I think of Alex Haley’s Roots as Omoro lifts his son Kunta Kinte up to the night sky and utters, "Behold, the only thing greater than yourself." Simeon did likewise, lifting Jesus to the heavens with his achy, arthritic hands and singing his glorious song in his old, raspy voice:

    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.

    That song of Simeon, known as the Canticle of Simeon or in Latin the Nunc Dimittis, sears deep into our hearts and into the church’s heart as well. The church has treasured Simeon’s words down through the centuries and sung it an awfully lot. We Lutherans have been encouraged to sing “Lord, now let your servant go in peace” immediately after receiving the body and blood of Christ at Communion as we will do this morning. Just as Simeon and Anna saw their salvation in the poor, baby boy, we will behold our salvation in the poverty of bread and wine. This is all we need, it is enough.

    We love singing Simeon’s song at the conclusion of our love ones’ funerals immediately after the pastor prays this prayer:

    Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

    With broken voices, we commend our precious moms and dads, husbands and wives, grandmas and grandpas, into God’s almighty arms, singing, “Lord, now let your servant go in peace.”

    We also sing Simeon’s song at the final prayer service of the day; this service is called Night Prayer or Compline. Each night as we close our eyes, we die a little death. Just as we commend our loved ones to God’s care at funerals, we entrust ourselves to God’s care before we go to sleep.

    Tiny children sense this little death as monsters lurk beneath the bed and they pray the simplest and yet perhaps the most sincere prayer:

    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 frightening. It is in the middle of the night that our worst fears haunt us, when we jump from our beds and pace the house franticly, panicked, scared beyond measure. Monsters lurk, not under the bed this time, but entwined deep in our souls. It is in the deepness of night that we beg old Simeon and Anna to come by our side and to help us pray.

    Martin Luther understood the night. In his Small Catechism, he instructs us to make the sign of the cross (+) in remembrance of our baptisms, to recite the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, and to pray Luther’s lovely nighttime prayer:

    I give thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son,
    that you have graciously protected me today.
    I ask you to forgive me all my sins,
    where I have done wrong, and graciously to protect me tonight.
    Into your hands I commend myself: my body, my soul, and all that is mine.
    Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have not power over me. Amen.

    After we pray these words, Luther directs us: “Then quickly lie down and sleep in peace.’

    We have come here, not at night but in the morning, searching for our salvation as did Simeon and Anna so long ago. If we are to behold the Christ Child here, it will be in simple gifts—the garbled and inadequate words of this preacher, the broken and fragile words we pray and read and sing to one another, and the homely bread and cut-rate wine we eat and drink together. As the bread is placed into your hands this morning and as you sip the wine, pray with Simeon and Anna, “Lord, now let your servant go in peace…For my own eyes have seen the salvation.”

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    January 26, 2014
    Third Sunday after Epiphany
    Isaiah 9: 1-4; 1 Corinthians 1: 10-18; Matthew 4: 12-23
    “Casting Our Nets Wider and Deeper”

    I am geographically challenged. Whenever I run across what, to my mind, are obscure places like Micronesia and Gabon, Moldova and Macedonia, British Columbia and Georgia, I am in deep trouble. Dagmar tells me to look these places up in the atlas lest I appear stupid but our atlas is heavy and I’m lazy.

    In today’s Gospel, Jesus cuts ties with Nazareth, a familiar place where he has grown up. He goes to make his home in the obscurity of Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. Where exactly is that?

    We need to pay attention to these pesky places not simply reading on and glossing over them. In the Bible—as in great literature—there are few wasted words.

    We learned to write differently. When in doubt, pad your writing, add words. Remember what you wrote in sixth grade when the world history test asked who Amerigo Vespucci was: “Amerigo Vespucci was a very, very great man. He was one of the most famous explorers ever known to any human being. He traveled to new lands, unknown lands, very great lands, very far away. Vespucci was a really great explorer. His friends called him Amerigo.” We wrote lots of words and of course we wrote nothing.

    Words in the Bible have power to create and to destroy, to build up and to tear down: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

    And so we dare not gloss over Zebulun and Naphtali. They are in the Bible for a reason and we need to discover why.

    So, that’s what I did this week. I searched my biblical dictionaries and my trusty biblical atlas to find our more about Zebulun and Naphtali. They are two of twelve tribes of Israel named after Jacob’s twelve sons. They are located way up in the northern part of Israel. What is important to know about Zebulun and Naphtali is that they are swallowed up by the enemy ruler Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria in 732 B.C.

    Jesus moves to the territory of Zebulun and Napthali about 700 years after they are swiped from God’s hands by enemy hands. This is the gospel writer Matthew’s way of saying Jesus is casting his fishing nets wider and deeper. Jesus goes to live amidst Gentiles, people different from the Jewish people he grew up with and was familiar with. He casts his nets to strangers, enemies, and people with different beliefs, all with hopes of catching them back for God. He will eventually command his disciples to do the exact same thing, to go to the ends of the earth making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells his followers to fish in deeper and wider waters and no longer be restricted to the same old familiar fishing hole. Said in modern parlance, no longer are we called simply to fish the known waters of Norway and Sweden and Germany and their descendants; now we are called to toss our nets wider and deeper to people and places like Eritrea and Peru and Indonesia.

    This year marks First Lutheran’s 25th year as a Reconciling in Christ congregation. That means we have sought to cast our nets wider and deeper to the gay, lesbian, transgendered, and bisexual people of San Diego for at least a quarter of a century. While not everyone has accepted how we at First Lutheran fish, First Lutheran has always dared to fish in unknown and uncharted waters.

    And yet, we cannot rest on past laurels. As we enter our 126th year of ministry in downtown San Diego, we need to ask how we might cast our nets most effectively today, to young adults downtown who are particularly inspired by the church, to people who have given up on the church for all manner of reasons, and to people who feel like outcasts whenever they enter a church building like this one.

    I am convinced that the most vibrant congregations are always casting their nets wider and deeper no matter what the risks involved. The most vibrant congregations are rarely ghettoes of like-minded people but instead are constantly going fishing in unfamiliar territory and becoming much more vibrant for it. There are inevitably critics who will criticize our fishing habits and the risks we take and urge us to stay closer to shore, but we cannot help ourselves. We are constantly in search of new fishing holes.

    You need go no further than Sunday morning worship to find out how daringly we might cast our nets. Look at how we pass the Peace on Sunday morning. I imagine we all agree that we are a rather rambunctious lot when it comes to passing the Peace. Few of us stand in our little reserved space. We love flying around the sanctuary like butterflies. But here is a caution from people who study worship patterns. If you love fluttering around the sanctuary, make a point of going to everyone and not just the people you know. I have heard it said that the passing of the Peace can be the most discriminating liturgical rite of all especially when we think we are being so open. Outsiders and introverts can feel completely left out as they stand all alone in their little isolated space watching everyone else hug and pass the Peace and they are wondering why no one hugs them or even extends their hand to them? Today, when you pass the Peace, cast your net wider and deeper: go to someone you do not know and share Christ’s Peace with them.

    Epiphany is the season of the church year when we see God casting the net wider and deeper in unusual places and to unexpected people, to people often on the outside looking in. During Epiphany, there are people who behold the Christ Child for the first time.

    Epiphany occurs when it is once again getting lighter outside. Let us pray that we may be an Epiphany church throughout the year, seeking how to make Christ’s light shine on more and more people, from east and west, north and south. May all people see Christ’s light burning brightly here at 3rd and Ash, leading them to discover Christ in their lives and here at First Lutheran Church.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    January 19, 2014
    Second Sunday after Epiphany
    John 1: 29-42
    “Here is the Lamb of God!”

    Last Sunday morning did my heart well. I was ready to head to the baptismal pool and begin our worship service when all of a sudden I heard such a clatter, actually a roar, coming across our patio. It sounded like a tornado. I looked out the lounge windows and what should appear but Melody and Scott Ruth running toward the church like there was no tomorrow. Their mother and father were at their heals but Melody and Scott were ahead by a mile. They whisked through the door, quickly got their bulletins from the ushers—on the run, and made a mad dash to their seats here in the sanctuary.

    My heart leapt for joy. For seven days now, I have thought about Scott and Melody running wildly across the patio on their way to church. They reminded me of John the Baptist as he announced, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” Melody and Scott didn’t exactly use John’s words but the affect was strikingly similar. They were about to behold the Lamb of God, Jesus, in the gifts of words and bread and wine, here, on Sunday morning.

    I have no idea what had gotten into Scott and Melody but, at least to my diminutive imagination, it was if Jesus was inviting them in—“Come and See.” So they were on the run.

    Each of us has come here this morning, maybe not in a frantic dash across the patio but in anticipation nonetheless. As John the Baptist told others, someone has told us at one time or another during our life, “Here, on Sunday morning, you can discover the Lamb of God.” And so we have walked and taken the bus and ridden in our cars. Maybe we have all but given up expecting to see the Lamb of God, but we are here again nevertheless. Maybe we are fighting yawns, maybe a bit crestfallen, not expecting to see much. But someone has told us that the Lamb of God can be discovered in this place and so here we are.

    Have you ever thought about why you come to church? After all, even when we discover the Lamb, he is so weak, so insignificant. We discover him, at best, in my sermons which hardly rival the great pulpit oratory down through the centuries or even in this day and age; we discover him in this building, hardly the soaring architecture of Westminster Abbey or Notre Dame Cathedral; we discover him in our hymn-singing while, not the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, about the best we can do.

    We catch glimpses, tiny peeks really, that convince us we have seen Jesus. It happened to me last week as we sang our Psalm. Frankly, our voices didn’t come close to lifting off the roof, but when I wasn’t singing with the men, I was listening to the women. And I was deeply touched. Deeply. I told Jared afterwards that as I listened to your voices, it was magical, as if I were listening to angels singing to the Lamb.

    We will sing “O Lamb of God” immediately before receiving the body and blood of Christ in bread and wine this morning. To sing this song is the tradition of the church down through the ages. We likely will not be bowled over by God’s presence: God’s presence is much gentler than that. But, remarkably, for many, tasting Christ in the simple gifts of wine and wheat is more than enough. It actually makes some people run across the patio at full steam—to see Jesus.

    And, of course, when we see the Lamb of God, it can turn our world upside down. This weekend we remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who would have been 85 years old just a few days ago on January 15. I learned something this week on a Facebook post by First member Robin Withers. Did you know that Dr. King actually was born Michael King Jr., the son of the Rev. Michael King Sr., better known as “Daddy King”? In the 1930s, the senior King changed their names in honor of German pastor Martin Luther, the leader of the 16th century Protestant Reform movement. Their names were never legally changed. Both Martins, Martin Luther of the 1500s and Martin Luther King, Jr. of the 1960s, changed the world because they believed that God was active in the simple gifts of words and bread and wine and water. One Martin bucked considerable tradition of his beloved church, believing that word and sacrament are enough to behold the Lamb of God and to save us from all that ails us. The other Martin stood against snarling dogs, exploding bombs in his family living room, and a sniper’s deadly bullet, and believed that a few well chosen words telling about standing on a mountaintop and seeing the Promised Land were a pretty good way to view life: he offered his life so that we might see the little light of the Lamb bringing hope to a very angry world.

    In a few moments, we will gather at the waters for the baptism of Olivia June Etzel. “Come and see,” says Jesus to Olivia and all who love her. So back we will go, splashing up a racket and believing that as tiny little Olivia is washed in the waters of baptism, she will be offered life in Christ. With just a few words and a little splish-splashing, she will be protected by the little lamb forever and ever.

    It doesn’t matter who we are: Scott and Melody running across the patio on their way to church; little Olivia being brought to the water by her parents, Clint and Shelley, to receive life and protection forever; the great Martins finding the vulnerable Lamb powerful enough to speak a word of God’s grace to a suffering people and a volatile world; or any one of you this morning coming in search of the Lamb.

    May we give thanks that we are here and when we see the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, may we run out into the world, letting our little light shine so that all people may behold God’s salvation in the simple gifts of bread and wine and water.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    January 12, 2014
    Baptism of Our Lord
    Matthew 3: 13-17
    “Hanging with the Carnival Crowd”

    When I was a kid, my pals and I loved going down to the muddy banks of Wheeling Creek. My parents warned me: “Watch for snakes and rats.” They also cautioned me that lots of shady characters hung around the creek.

    The Carnival happened to be in town one day when we ventured down to the creek. The ring toss booth, the Tilt-a-Wheel, and the Crazy House of Mirrors were only steps away. My parents warned me about the carnival, too. “Keep your hands in your pockets and watch your wallet. Don’t dare do any games of chance—they’re all fixed. Don’t go on any of the rides, especially the upside down ones—they are rickety and not to be trusted. Never go into the Human Oddities Tent with the fire-eater, sword swallower, and fat lady.” The only thing I was allowed to do was buy a cotton candy and a sno-cone.

    We were mesmerized by the carnival and the creek. Boys being boys, down we went, seeing how many skips our flat stones could make across the water and how close we could get to water’s edge without falling in. And then, I turned around and standing right behind me, breathing down my neck, was the man from the Human Oddities Tent, the menacing one with the terribly disfigured face. My heart stopped. I didn’t know where to look.

    Going down to the river is dangerous business. Lots of shady characters down there and you never know who you will meet.

    Funny thing: Jesus picked his way through the weeds, went down to the river, and ended up with lots of people his parents had warned him about, carnival folks probably. Shady characters, all of them—rejected ones, losers, drunks, riff-raff, rip-off artists.

    It may not seem like such a big deal that Jesus went down to the river, but it scandalized early Christians and it has caused no small amount of head-scratching ever since. Some still cannot quite fathom why God would frolic with the carnival crowd. Baptism, after all, was and is for those soiled by years of sin. If you are the son of man, get out of the water—and quick!

    We have looked for all manner of ways to explain why Jesus stood in line for a baptism of repentance to have his sins washed away. No matter how we look at it, it’s almost too much to bear.

    So, why did Jesus get baptized? John the Baptist wondered the exact thing when he saw Jesus standing in line: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” And Jesus said to him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

    Well isn’t that nice? But what is righteousness? My seminary preaching professor prohibited us from using such religious words in sermons and leaving it at that. Such words, he said, make everyone nod their heads in a sort of apathetic agreement and yet they have no idea what you are talking about and simply drift off into never-never land.

    Righteousness? What if I asked you right now to turn to each other and define “righteousness”: could you do that? I am not sure I could.

    When I can’t define these well worn churchy words, m favorite “go-to-person” for useful definitions that make sense to me is Frederick Buechner. Of righteousness, he writes:

    “You haven't got it right!" says the exasperated piano teacher. Junior is holding his hands the way he's been told. His fingering is unexceptionable. He has memorized the piece perfectly. He has hit all the proper notes with deadly accuracy. But his heart's not in it, only his fingers. What he's playing is a sort of music but nothing that will start voices singing or feet tapping. He has succeeded in boring everybody to death including himself.
    Jesus said to his disciples, "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven." (Matthew 5:20) The scribes and Pharisees were playing it by the Book. They didn't slip up on a single do or don't. But they were getting it all wrong.
    Righteousness is getting it all right. If you play it the way it's supposed to be played, there shouldn't be a still foot in the house.

    If Reverend Buechner is right, every foot must have been tapping when Jesus dipped his toe into the water to be baptized. Some people probably knew Jesus, others did not. Those who did started whispering, “Isn’t that the guy who is supposed to be God’s son? What is he doing here with us?” But as such things go, there was delight, too: if this was God’s son, and he was with the cast-offs, us, then everyone’s foot was tapping.

    I have always thought the church is at its best when it is accused of the company it keeps, you might say for spending too much time down at the river. In every age, as you well know, there are unclean ones, those considered beyond the pale, carnival types! Good Christians don’t hang with people “like that.” Whenever the church is caught amidst such unsavory company, you probably have the best chance of spotting Jesus—that’s where he feels most comfortable. Far more dangerous for the church is when we are commended for the company we keep, when we start dropping names of the important, prestigious, and wealthy members of our church. If there is no dirt under our nails, Jesus probably wouldn’t be caught in line with us.

    I asked our recent new members class how they would characterize the Lutheran church. What makes us distinct—not necessarily better but distinct? Some said “grace,” others said our liturgical worship. One participant said, “Lutherans believe that it is even possible for Hitler to get into heaven.” Wow! That is a definition of grace my preaching professor would have been proud of. That is Jesus definitely standing in line down at the river. The very thought scandalizes us. And when we are scandalized, we are probably very close to defining what Jesus meant when he said he had to fulfill all righteousness.

    At Jesus’ baptism God signals the end to our masquerade party where we dress up and pretend to be somebody we are not. In Jesus’ baptism, God loves us enough to join us at the river, whoever we may be. In fact, as Jesus goes deep into the Jordan, God proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

    The church at its best announces that the masquerade part is over. The church at its best shouts through the river valley, “Come one, come all. Come as you are, come and be loved! Come to the carnival and rejoice.”

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    Memorial Service of Resurrection
    George Willis Helling
    Luke 2: 22-33
    “Waiting for the Christ Child”

    The gospel reading we just heard is appointed for the First Sunday after Christmas. It is a fitting text to be read this afternoon, too, as we give thanks for the life of George Willis Helling who died only days after Christmas.

    Simeon was what, in modern parlance, we would call “a church rat”—actually we would call him a “temple rat.” He loved hanging around the Temple in Jerusalem. He had heard from the Holy Spirit long ago that he would see his Messiah before he died. And so he waited and he waited. He hung around the Temple doing a million and one things on the off chance that the Messiah might stop by and appear before his very eyes.

    George Helling was a lot like old Simeon. George was a “church rat” too. He loved the church. He loved it so much that he met his dear wife Kay at a summer church event for—now get this—Lutheran girls and women.

    I imagine Simeon knew oodles about the history of the Jerusalem Temple as George knew oodles about First Lutheran Church. We just finished celebrating our 125th anniversary of ministry in downtown San Diego. By my accounting, George was around in one way or another for about 75 of those 125 years. He joined here—actually a block or so over on 2nd Avenue at the old church—in 1937 as a seventeen year older. He married Kay at First Lutheran in 1943. He knew the history of this place like the back of his hand. During the past year, he came to me over and over again with all manner of historic treasures: a lantern that had hung outside the old church on 2nd Avenue and three lovely stained glass windows from there which are now hanging in our library (you are invited to see these treasures at the end of this service).

    Like Simeon, George was waiting for the Christ Child. Whether he was the treasurer of the church or its president, counting money in the back room or baking bread and cooking soup for Bread Day—in everything he did, he had his eyes open in case the Christ child appeared.

    One day, the Savior of the world did appear to Simeon at the Temple. The Savior was a six week old baby named Jesus, a wee tyke to be sure. This little Child changed Simeon. You have noticed, I’m sure, how babies have a mysterious power over grown men. Muscular men with calloused hands become gentle as pillows when handed a baby; stern ones with gruff voices adopt a falsetto and start cooing like an infant. The Christ Child worked such magic on Simeon—on George Helling too.

    You can see the withered old man with cataracts and arthritic fingers gently taking the baby from mother Mary’s hands. You can hear proud papa, Joseph, saying to him, “Be very careful now.” And then Simeon lifts the tiny Babe toward heaven and sings a bit off key but for all to hear nonetheless:

    Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
    For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
    Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
    A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

    The church has treasured Simeon’s beautiful words over the years. We traditionally sing the Song of Simeon, also called the Nunc Dimittis, at the church’s Night Prayer-Compline right before we go to sleep; Lutherans love using the words immediately after receiving Holy Communion, rejoicing that we have seen our Savior; and, of course, we use the words at funerals like today. We proclaim that we need not fear the night, whether falling asleep—which is a little death in itself—or closing our eyes for the final time this side of the kingdom come.

    It was my honor to be George’s pastor in his final days. As you know, his stroke rendered him incapable of doing most of life’s tasks. But there was something he could still do. After all those years of hanging around churches and doing the Lord’s work, meeting his wife at a summer church camp in Sandusky, Ohio, he was more than capable of eagerly awaiting his Savior in his final days.

    It has been my tradition of my ministry over the years to make one final visit to someone in the congregation who is in desperate straights only hours before the celebratory Christmas Eve Service. This year George was that final visit. I do this to watch how the Christ Child brings hope and peace in the most trying circumstances. So off I went to St. Paul’s Health Care Center just up the street on Nutmeg. I came with my little black box with bread and wine and my little Bible. George squeezed my hand; far more importantly, he knew I bore the Christ Child on your behalf. Through his twisted mouth he joined me as we sang “Silent night, holy night…;” I read words he had heard since a child—“In those days a decree went our from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled…;” then we prayed—you prayed with him, too, I know you did—“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name;” and then I took a tiny crumb of bread, dipped it into a little wine, and placed it on his lips—“take and eat, this is my body and blood given and shed for you.”

    As I looked at George, it was hard for me to get some words out for I was watching Simeon, too. I was watching a man whose entire life had come to this moment. Oh, how George loved life—his wife of seventy years, his family far and wide who has treated him and Kay so well, his neighbors, his house overlooking the canyon, his garden, his clubs and organizations, his church—life was for living. I can almost hear George echoing Saint Paul’s words, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” He loved life that much. He would understand your tears in these days; the tears are a gift from God, reminders of all the two of you held so dear, reminders of a life lived well.

    And yet….and yet….like Simeon, George could let go of this life. Baptized so many years ago in Cleveland, Ohio, he learned over his ninety-three years of life from pastors and Sunday School teachers and parents that he need not fear death. His entire life was preparation for those final days of trusting that the Lord has a place for him in heaven.

    You know that though. When you visited him in those final days, he pointed to the sky, to heaven really. His pointing was his song. George was saying to you:

    Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
    For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.

    May you find great comfort in knowing that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate George or you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

    Imagine him now seeing Christ face-to-face…He has been waiting for this for a very long time.

    Dear Saint George, well done good and faithful servant.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    Epiphany of Our Lord (Transferred)
    January 5, 2014
    Isaiah 60: 1-6; Matthew 2: 1-12
    “The Joy of Gift Giving”

    When you were little, were you mesmerized by the Wise Men? Whether there were two or three or four, you didn’t exactly know or care—the Bible didn’t tell you—but the thought of three kings as in “We Three Kings of Orient Are” held you spellbound. You knew they were from back “East” but that could have been any number of exotic countries that seemed breathtaking to you as a little one. Whether they had wonderful names like Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, you will never know. What you did know and loved was that they came bearing gifts, wonderful gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

    There is something enchanting about receiving gifts and giving gifts. We love receiving gifts—what did you receive for Christmas? Did you get everything you wanted? I suppose, though, that many of us love giving gifts as much as we do receiving them and maybe more. We think about the perfect gifts for our loved ones for months in advance of Christmas.

    It was once a family tradition in our house—actually until we moved to San Diego and the movers told us our gift giving passion was far too expensive. Every year, there was one gift I would give Dagmar in a very big, heavy box. The boys and I would say in unison, “Guess what it is mom?” Dagmar would hold it up to her head like the Amazing Kreskin on the Johnny Carson Show; she would rattle the heavy box as much as she could; then she would open it. “What do you think it is, mom?” the boys would cry. Every year, the heavy gift was the same, an old black bowling ball that had been liberated from a roadside trash pile and stuck in our basement. The only time it was ever used was at Christmas. Of course, the bowling ball was not the gift—though we loved it very much. The real gift came in a box as light as a feather, a box carefully placed beside the bowling ball. The real gift was necklace in a turquoise Tiffany box or a scarf in a pinkish Hermes box. At least for me, to give such a gift is to be filled with joy and an opportunity to say how much I love my wife.

    The Wise Men or Magi or astrologers or magicians or kings came bearing their precious gifts. They had been led by a star and ended up in Jerusalem. The religious leaders and scholars pointed them toward Bethlehem. You can still feel their joy to this day. They had the gold, frankincense, and myrrh in hand, carefully tucked away in the camels’ packs. They were so eager to bring their gifts to the Savior of the world.

    Their gifts were remarkable because the Magi were not insiders. They were not Jewish, those of the favored religious persuasion in that day. They were from as far away as far away could be and as outside as outside could get. And yet…there was something deep inside them that drove them to offer their treasured gifts to the Christ Child.

    Even more remarkable is that they risked life and limb to give their gifts. They were well aware that a madman named Herod was out to annihilate this tiny child; they had sensed his furious jealousy just under his skin when he asked them to report back what they had seen. How astonishing, really, that the Wise Men kept on going. What a glorious surprise that they risked everything in order to offer their gifts to this Babe of Bethlehem.

    Today is called Epiphany because God is revealed to humanity. And not revealed to just any humans, but today to outsiders, to the unclean, to weird astrologers, to people who have no business expecting God to come to them, to you and me. Today is Epiphany because the Wise Men are our heirs and our heroes, outsiders invited to be insiders by the sheer grace of God. Because of their absolute delight, nothing could stop the Magi from bringing their gifts cradleside.

    Of course, we like receiving gifts, but there comes a point when receiving is not enough. There is something deep in humanity that loves giving gifts. When we don’t offer our best to others, what is deepest and richest about us is lost and we become like animals out in the forest, foraging for our own needs. To be fully human is to give as well as to receive.

    We don’t give to appease an angry God who is out to get us. We give because God comes to earth to be with us as a vulnerable and tiny child. And, if we are fully human, we can’t help but give and give generously because we are so happy.

    There is a deep sadness in people who clutch too tightly to what is theirs, people who only wait to receive gifts and praise and affirmation from others and seem altogether incapable of offering such gifts to others. People who do not have the capacity to give are typically pretty sad people.

    My seminary professor Henri Nouwen was fond of telling the story of a person who had a beautiful bird. Because of this person’s love for the bird, she held it tighter and tighter. She so feared the bird would fly away. Not able to open her hands and to give the bird life, she suffocated the bird to death. If only she had opened her hands and let the bird fly freely, she would have flown freely too.

    So much of life is like that. When we refuse to share with others for fear we will end up with nothing, we, too, suffocate and become lifeless and dull.

    But I don’t need to tell you that. Many of you have been so generous to the Christ Child as he lives here in this place through our ministry. I am delighted to announce that we will end the year 2013 with a positive cash flow of approximately $45,000. You have given the highest amount of money ever offered to the Christ Child in this place and, by the way, that doesn’t include the $88,000 you have given for our 125th anniversary appeal. 98 of you (households) have made pledges to help make Christ’s name known in this place in 2014, nearly $300,000, again a record commitment. I trust that you have found great joy in your remarkable gift giving of money and the other amazing talents you so freely offer to Christ’s name here. Like the Wise Men, you come here week after week, with your gold, frankincense, and myrrh, not because you have to, not because it will get you a cushy seat in heaven, but simply because offering such gifts at the feet of the Christ Child brings you enormous joy and makes you feel so alive.

    As you come again today with your gifts and draw near to the manger once again to behold the Christ Child in bread and wine, may you discover the joy of the Magi and experience great delight.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    First Sunday of Christmas
    December 29, 2013
    Matthew 2: 13-23
    “Keeping Our Candle Burning”

    When I was in college, the biggest worship service of the year was the Christmas candlelight service that took place right before we went home for winter break. Wittenberg’s large Weaver Chapel was standing room only as students sat in the aisles and lined the walls. At the end of the service, just as we did here on Christmas Eve, everyone’s candle was lit, we sang “Silent Night,” and then we went out into the cold, dark winter evening. The tradition was to see how long we could keep our candles burning. Even as the cold wind blew fiercely, we did our best to keep our little flame aglow. Inevitably, the candlelight went out and there was disappointment: we had hoped this year would be different, that we could keep our candles burning until we got back to our dormitory rooms.

    Christmas is like that. Whether we are committed believers or ones who can’t quite grasp the “Jesus thing,” I have a hunch we all hope that this Christmas things will be different. I wonder if Christmas Eve is our most crowded service of the year because, deep down, we harbor such deep hopes for ourselves, our families, and all creation.

    And yet…..inevitably our Christmas candle flickers out. Sometimes the so-called “Christmas Spirit” lasts longer than we expected—maybe a day or two, perhaps a week. Sometimes the spirit is extinguished almost as soon as our candle is lit.

    Your family came to church together for the first time in a long time; the gifts looked lovely scattered around the Christmas tree; the decorations in your home were perfect. How long did your Christmas candle burn?

    Maybe you hoped the gifts you gave this year would be perfect and yet you knew immediately, as soon as the gifts were opened, that you had made an error in judgment and you were crestfallen…and the candle began to flicker. You hoped you wouldn’t drink so much champagne or that someone you love would go easy on the eggnog…and the candle went out. Maybe the old family quarrel reared its ugly head sooner than expected and you limped off to bed with no candlelight to guide you.

    We all have visions of a perfect Christmas: four inches of snow even in San Diego, sleighs gliding by our homes, carolers singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” outside our living room window, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, a happy family of twelve gathered around the dining room table. And yet…

    And yet, as Richard Rodriguez notes in his most recent book, Darling, “There’s nothing so over as Christmas.” Do you agree? “There’s nothing so over as Christmas.”

    That is why we do well to recall over and over again the first Christmas. No sooner is Jesus born and do the Wise Men bear their gifts than wicked Herod goes stark raving nuts. What we quickly see if we tell the whole Christmas story is that much of the light of Christmas is quickly snuffed out—at least the light we expect.

    Nevertheless, we do well to tell the whole story of Jesus’ birth and nothing but the truth of that whole story. We do well to tell the story because in its telling, we discover that God comes amidst disappointments, jealousies, and failures. God accompanies the baby Jesus and his parents Mary and Joseph as they trudge to Egypt. It is the biblical story told over and over again how God accompanies God’s precious children in good times and bad times, when the candle is burning and when the candle has all but been extinguished and disappointment fills the air.

    Today, we will baptize Owen William Carter, the son of Doug and Leah Carter, the brother of Henry Carter, and the grandson of Martha and Bill Radatz. As baptisms always are, this will be a joyous occasion as Owen becomes a child of God. It’s hard to imagine a better Christmas gift. And yet, we must tell the whole story. Even now, it is a monumental battle between good and evil, between Satan and God. That is why we use so much water here: we want people to see the great struggle occurring. In the early church, those who were baptized were anointed twice, once before and once after baptism. The anointing before baptism—which we do not do—involved lots of oil poured generously over the baptismal candidate’s head and oozing down his/her nude body. Like any great wrestling match, the church believed this was the greatest match of all, a heavyweight bout between good and evil, God and Satan, and thus it was wise to limber up the baptismal candidate’s muscles for the battle soon to ensue.

    We could domesticate these waters, using a tiny font and using hardly any water at all. We could tame these baptismal waters lest tiny Owen scream and embarrass his parents and grandparents and make the rest of us worshipers uncomfortable. But when we domesticate the waters, we don’t tell the whole story. The whole story is that God is with us in the bad times as well as the good times, when we are sinners as well as when we are saints. Whether Owen makes not a peep or screams bloody murder, God will be present this day. And as Owen grows in the faith, there will be good times and bad times, successes and failures, times of belief and perhaps times of flagging faith. The true Christmas story is that God will accompany Owen and those who love him and those who pray for him on the entire journey, from his own manger to his own Egypt and to his own Nazareth wherever life takes him.

    If the true Christmas story is told, it reveals the God who never gives up on us. Even when God’s little son Jesus ends up on the cross at Calvary, even then God does not stop: God does the most amazing thing ever and raises Jesus from the dead. Even on this glorious day in the midst of this Christmas season, we cannot quite get the cross out of our minds. Even with little Owen, we dare not forget: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

    What a journey it will be for Owen as he bears his baptismal candle through life. It will be a journey much like ours, I’m sure. And yet, no matter how brightly the flame burns or gloomily it flickers, we do well to remember that God is with Owen and God is with us.

    May you have a very blessed Christmas.

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

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    Christmas Eve
    December 24, 2013
    Luke 2: 1-20
    “I Want to Hold Your Hand”

    Once again, a blessed Christmas to you all from all the good people of First Lutheran Church…

    It is not always easy being a pastor’s kid. I must confess, though, our sons Caspar and Sebastian have been marvelous ones.

    A few weeks ago, trying to keep his old man current and hip, Caspar called from law school to tell me that this is the 50th Anniversary of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Not willing to leave it at that, he offered me a subtle idea: “Dad, I think there is a Christmas Eve sermon in this.”

    To tell you the truth, I wasn’t certain how to tie in “the Fab Four” with angels and shepherds, Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. And yet, as I pondered fifty years of the Beatles, the idea struck me like a flash from heaven—exactly what our son Caspar had in mind, I’m sure!

    Groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Yardbirds, turned the world upside down in the 60s with the so-called British Invasion. Nothing has been the same since as we started growing our hair longer, dancing more wildly, and wearing all manner of raggedy clothes our parents had worked hard to spare us from.

    You come here tonight for another music invasion. It didn’t happen on the Ed Sullivan Show or in New York’s Shea Stadium, but out in the fields, just outside Bethlehem in Judea. The name of the group was “The Angels.” Their greatest hit continues to be at the top of the charts: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all.” Ever since that free concert attended by a group of ragtag shepherds—as ragtag as anything Woodstock witnessed, we have been singing songs about that astonishing night when “The Angels” first sang as God came to earth as a baby.

    These songs are deeper in our souls than “Hey Jude” and “Eleanor Rigby.” We need no words in front of us. We simply lean back, close our eyes, and sing the songs we have sung since we were little ones…

    (Sing first vs. “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”)

    Music is in the air tonight, music we love. “That’s my favorite carol!” we say and then we realize we have said that about seven other carols—they all are our favorites. Perhaps at no other time in our lives do we draw quite so close to heaven as heaven comes down to us. As we sing, we mysteriously hear the voices of those we love accompanying us from heaven—our mothers and fathers, our grandpas and grandmas. They taught us these songs, after all, before we could even walk.

    Last Sunday, we watched our youngest ones here at First’s Christmas pageant. We were captivated as shepherds and unruly lambs zigzagged up the aisle to pay homage to Mary and Joseph and the Babe of Bethlehem; we dabbed tears as the Wise Men, all three and a half feet tall of them, rambled to the front of the sanctuary precariously bearing their gifts. We were transported back over the years: we were once the enchanting angels wearing the crooked haloes and cotton wings; we were the proud shepherds wearing potato sacks sewn by grandma and carrying crooks made in grandpa’s shop; some of us were Wise Men, clutching stunning gifts our moms had created the night before; we don’t quite remember when we were lambs except for the pictures in the tattered family photo albums. Many of us are older now: the lambs have matured, the shepherds don’t make it out to the fields quite as much, and the Wise Men’s arthritic hips make it impossible to mount our camels as we once did but we still sing the carols as if we were toddlers again…

    (Sing first vs. “O Little Town of Bethlehem”)

    No matter how challenging our lives may be, the Christmas songs quiet our spirits. Last Friday, as is our tradition in this place, we gave Christmas gifts and cookies to more than 200 people who gathered for the regular Friday morning meal, a meal that has been served every Friday morning here for nearly thirty-nine years. As people came to get their gifts, they were like children again. Even with the gruesome challenges of the street and the constant fear of violence that such a home brings, nothing could dampen the Christmas delight of our modern day Holy Family. You only had to look into the faces of our brothers and sisters to see that Christ had come to this stable of sorts at 3rd and Ash. As we sang the carols and read the Christmas story, the patio, often rambunctious and noisy, became as quiet and reverential as this sanctuary on this blessed night. Magically, hope had come near to God’s blessed poor. Won’t you sing with them now as they tuck into their sleeping bags on our city streets…

    (Sing first vs. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”)

    Yes, this is a magical time. Sunday evening, eighteen of us, including a bunch of youngsters, went caroling. One of our stops was at a board and care home where twelve old folks—one woman was 104—sat staring blankly at us. As we sang “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Away in the Manger,” they magically sang every word. Dorothy Petry, another of our oldest members, sang a duet with me of “Silent Night” though she doesn’t know exactly who I am or where I am from. We beheld a miracle as heaven broke into that home of weary shepherds gathered at the manger. Maybe you surprise yourself this time of year, too, how you remember almost every word of the beloved carols…

    (Sing first vs. “The First Noel”)

    The songs are deep in our hearts. MK Asante has written a book entitled Buck: A Memoir. He writes of the mean streets of inner-city Philadelphia, streets our family knows well. He calls the place Killadephia, Pistolvania. And yet, in the midst of the almost daily tragedies, Asante knows the joy of music, especially hiphop music. He writes, “Love is learning the song in someone’s heart and singing it to them when they forget.”

    I can think of no better description of what Christmas night is than God coming to earth to teach us the song deep on our hearts, even when we forget it. Whether we are tiny tots with ants in our pants waiting for Santa, young adults mesmerized by the joyous candlelight of new relationships, people in midlife wondering if there is any song worth singing, or those whose journey’s end here on earth is near at hand—for all of us, God comes down to us this night and sings with us.

    Come to think of it, God is coming down to earth this Christmas night, here, now, singing to one and all, “I want to hold your hand.”

    Let us now stand and sing with the angels their number one hit, “Gloria in excelsis deo.”

    (Sing “Angels We Have Heard on High”)

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    Fourth Sunday in Advent
    December 22, 2013
    Matthew 1: 18-25
    “God's Messed Up Family”

    While I should know better, I still harbor the sentimental suspicion that there are a few perfect families out there. Don’t you know a family or two that seems perfect? After all, you are receiving the Christmas letters just about now that report all manner of dazzling accomplishments: seven year old Johnny is destined to play in the 2030 World Cup Soccer finals; Susie is in fourth grade and devoured Grapes of Wrath and Gone with the Wind in six days; dad is one of the world’s finest marathoners in his age class—or at least in our family; and mom, sixty-three and counting, resembles Bo Derrick in the movie “Ten” (that actually is in our Christmas letter because Dagmar and I saw Bo two months ago). Are you able to read past the first few sentences of these insufferable letters without shredding them into a million pieces and tossing them into the trash?

    While we didn’t read the first 17 verses of Matthew’s gospel this morning for fear you might shred the bulletin over who begat whom, suffice it to say that all is not well with Jesus’ family. If you could ever get past the impossible names like Nahshon, Amindadab, and Jehoshaphat, you might find that Jesus comes from a family a lot like yours and mine, a family filled with murderers and scoundrels, cheats and liars, adulterers and misfits, the kind of family you don’t hear about in Christmas letters. Matthew’s first chapter is a peculiar and awkward way to announce Jesus’ birth.

    The first time we hear of Joseph, he is in the mess of his life—like everyone else in his family has been over the last fifteen hundred years or so. This mess occurs in the very first chapter of Matthew’s gospel. The woman he plans to marry is pregnant and, you guessed it, Joseph ain’t daddy.

    What is so startling about the first chapter of Matthew is that God comes to earth in spite of the scandals. We are still horrified 2,000 years later, wondering who exactly Jesus’ parents are. We wouldn’t dare admit to such a chaotic family situation in our family Christmas letters.

    Christmas can be tough for many of us because all is not calm and all is not bright. While the tinsel is hung, the lights are shining, and everyone is singing Noel, the good cheer can magnify the pain we feel and make these supposed joyous days that much tougher.

    What is so amazing about Joseph is that he refuses to expose Mary, his fiancée, to public disgrace. He refuses to make a fool of her thereby making himself look pure and spotless. Joseph could demand a trial to see whether Mary is guilty and thus make himself look guiltless. He knows he has Scripture on his side: “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst” (Deuteronomy 22: 23-24). Rather than doing what the Bible calls for and judging Mary, Joseph loves her instead and, for 2,000 years and counting, we have honored Joseph for being a just man in the midst of a very mixed up situation.

    Pope Francis set the world on its head recently when in regards to homosexuality, he said, “Who am I to judge?” Rather than quoting Scripture and condemning gay and lesbian people to the outer darkness (by the way, you can find anything in scripture to justify hatred), he opted to err on the side of mercy and love.

    While many of us love to debate whether Mary was a virgin, what should be far more startling and controversial is that God comes to us at all, especially when all is not calm and all is definitely not bright. How is it possible for this great God, this omnipotent and omnipresent God, to become a baby in such a pathetic line of lowlifes? This God refuses to abandon us on a doorstop no matter how chaotic things may be.

    The favorite carol for many of us paints it all in a much more positive light: “The little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” Really? What kind of baby was Jesus anyway? I hate to be so blunt only days before Christmas but didn’t this little baby Jesus soil his diapers too? Matthew’s gospel includes dirty diapers and all.

    I imagine you loved our children’s Christmas pageant last Sunday. We will remember that baby Jesus (aka Owen Carter) didn’t make a peep; that Melody and Sophia, Alena and Scott, said all their lines without fail; and that the Wise Men and shepherds were perfect. But there was the pesky matter of the unruly sheep: one little lamb took off his entire sheep outfit, not wanting to get fleeced, I’m sure; another lamb smiled at the audience as if running for political office and steered completely clear of the Christ Child in the manger. We wiped away tears because of the humanity of it all. They are our children after all and we love them. We saw Christmas through their eyes. In some ways it was imperfect but amidst the imperfection we beheld the Christ Child and the perfection of Christmas shined brightly.

    In two days, on Christmas Eve, we will hear the more enchanting nativity story from Luke’s gospel, the one with Jesus in the manger, the shepherds in the fields, and the angels singing from heaven. But in the magic of Christmas, we dare not forget Matthew’s gospel, the one with the screwed up family and the dirty diapers. This is not Norman Rockwell’s Christmas but it is most of ours.

    One of the greatest dangers this time of year is sentimentality. Sentimentality robs us of the gospel, for us. You could even call sentimentality sin. Perfection, Pollyanna, saccharine—call it what you like—does no justice to God at Christmas. God comes in the midst of a mess—Joseph’s mess, our mess. This is the good news, this is the Christmas gospel.

    All was not calm and all was not bright that first Christmas. Joseph was not Jesus’ father as far as we know: he trudged to Bethlehem with his pregnant girlfriend to file taxes; he fled to Egypt to protect the baby and mother from crazed Herod’s death squads; he patiently taught Jesus the carpentry trade in Nazareth though Jesus abruptly left town with a band of fisherman and tax collectors to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven was near. Joseph did all this quietly and with astonishing decency.

    I imagine you can relate to Joseph, you who cannot write shimmering Christmas letters this year. You wonder why you are not feeling particularly cheery during these supposedly cheery days. You cross your fingers that no one ever finds out the truth about you and your family. I suppose, however, this is why we do well to know Joseph, the just and decent man. God called him in the midst of a messed up family, to play an essential role in the birth of Jesus. Dare we think we are any different?

    May you be filled with wonder as God comes to you in these days and may you, like Joseph, cherish the part you play in our dear Savior’s birth.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    Third Sunday in Advent
    December 15, 2013
    Matthew 11: 2-11
    “Watching for Jesus”

    This may or may not interest you—I’ll let you determine that. Until I became your pastor in 2005, there was never a day in my then twenty-eight years of ministry that I did not wear a black clergy shirt and white collar—except on days off. Never. Some of my colleagues and parishioners thought I actually slept in black. It was unthinkable for me to visit a hospital in a sports shirt and God forbid I take Holy Communion to an elderly member in a floral Tommy Bahama Hawaiian shirt and not my clerical garb.

    It is too long of a story why this all changed for me in California and at First Lutheran but I have noticed something interesting in my haberdashery changes. Yesterday, I was outside with our Saturday morning landscaping crew doing the tasks Kit Brothers assigned me. Kit does not assign me much detail work for fear how the place might look when I am done but, thankfully, he does let me use my trusty power tools, my handy-dandy electric hedge trimmer and my pretty cool leaf blower. When I am dressed “undercover” in sweatshirt and baseball cap, people pass by without paying me a moment’s notice. When I say, “hello,” people invariably respond half-heartedly with “hi” or “mornin’” or often not a word at all, wondering who the weird guy is sweating up a storm and huffing and puffing. For a while I couldn’t figure out what I had done to deserve such feeble responses and total snubs until it finally hit me. Now I say, “Hey, it’s me, Pastor Miller” and almost always the response is something to the effect, “Oh, Pastor Miller, I didn’t know it was you” or “Oh, Pastor Miller, I didn’t realize you worked on Saturday” (meaning, by the way, “Pastor Miller, finally you are working!”).

    Isn’t it interesting how our responses to people change, depending upon whom we are talking to? I suppose—although I hate to admit it—when people think I am just a “lowly gardener,” they pass by with hardly a word. Sad, really, that it takes a black shirt and white collar to get any respect.

    Now, I know what you are thinking, especially those of you who were here yesterday: did I walk by the pastor without saying “hello”? To be honest, I wouldn’t have realized what was happening if I didn’t do it myself.

    Oh yes, I do it. Here’s a little name dropping for you. I performed the wedding for General Colin Powell’s son and daughter-in-law-to-be when I was in Washington, D.C. What do you think my office desk looked like that afternoon when the good general walked into my office? The sanctuary? Dagmar even took my suit to the dry cleaners and I shined my shoes! We had no idea who would be attending the wedding and I won’t bore you with who did. Suffice it to say, when the Chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff is in the house, you make your mother and father proud by behaving yourself and tucking in your shirt.

    When John the Baptist was in jail about to have his head chopped off, he wondered if Jesus was the one who was to come. In other words, had he prepared for the right person or not? You have got to sympathize with poor John. If you have prepared your house for an important visitor, you know the deep disappointment if the person doesn’t show up. John spent his entire life preparing for the Messiah to come. He did everything imaginable to help others get ready for Jesus’ coming: he used harsh words if necessary and utilized outrageous theatrics; he wore attention-getting garb and even ate locusts. From even before he was born, he leapt in his mother’s womb when he heard Mary tell Elizabeth that she was going to have a baby boy. Yes, everything John did was preparing for the coming of the Messiah.

    Imagine, then, when John the Baptist is sitting there in prison and things don’t seem to be panning out as he expected. In truth, it is rarely easy to see Jesus coming into our midst—have you seen him lately? This Jesus, the Messiah, the one we make such a big deal about this time of year, you know how it ended up for him, on the cross. Did he come or didn’t he? For 2,000 years now, Jesus’ followers have had to make do by discovering his presence in simple stuff, almost too simple really, stuff like bread and wine and water, stuff like the oft’ inarticulate ramblings of this humdrum preacher. We have been forced to discover Jesus in a community like the one here this morning—remember: “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Is it any wonder then, from time-to-time, that we, like John, scratch our heads and ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or we to wait for another?”

    And so here we are again.

    At our 9:00 a.m. service today, we are delighted to receive seven new members into our parish family. I am not exactly sure how many people have joined this year but I would say more than thirty. And yet, when we look at “you” and “you” look at us, it is kind of like people seeing me gardening: we wonder how exactly it is again that we are to discover Jesus in these seven new people and how you seven will discover him in us?

    At 11:00 a.m., our youngest children will present the Christmas pageant for us. This is not meant to take us back 2000 years ago—that has already happened. Now, we are called to have eyes of faith and see the wonder, the magic, of Christmas through the eyes of our little ones. Don’t miss a beat for Christ is coming in the most unexpected ones even as sheep wander every which way, and shepherds scurry every which way through the sanctuary to retrieve their errant charges.

    There is much to be joyful for this morning. And yet, for some it is the saddest time of year, especially for those whose eyes are shut. As Charles Dickens said in the first sentence of The Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Quite simply, are we able to discover Jesus in our lives or aren’t we?

    I would urge you as I must regularly urge myself: keep your eyes open. Every person you pass today—the tattooed, nose ringed teenager, the homeless person with his house on his back, the homebound elderly person who can’t quite remember who you are, the spouse you quarrel with repeatedly, the petulant child who gives you fits—every person might be Jesus…Oh yes, and the gardener—remember when Jesus rose from the dead how Mary Magdalene mistook the Risen Christ for just the “gardener”? You just never know how Jesus will come to you.

    Watch…watch carefully.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    Second Sunday in Advent
    December 8, 2013
    Isaiah 11: 1-10; Matthew 3: 1-12
    “Turning to Live Life Fully”

    Did I just hear you correctly? Did you say, “Praise to you, O Christ”? Apparently, you didn’t think John the Baptist was talking to you when he said, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Perhaps he was talking to someone else, maybe just to the Sadducees and Pharisees 2,000 years ago. What about “even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire”— “Praise to you, O Christ!” you said.

    Really? We typically do not respond so jubilantly to such gloomy, churchy words like sin and judgment. We take issues with those words that give Christianity a bad name and make us nauseous about the whole Jesus enterprise. Today’s key word “repentance” sounds bad, too, especially on this Second Sunday of Advent as most of the world is doing its darndest to be happy with spiked eggnog, trimmed trees, and Christmas carols being sung everywhere but here.

    One of my “go to people” for fresh definitions of worn out and busted churchy words is Frederick Buechner. In our “Quote for the Day,” he defines repentance this way: “To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying ‘Wow!’”

    Rather than seeing repentance as something negative, having to do with an angry God slapping us on the hand, perhaps repentance is quite positive, about a loving God who jumps every which way to get us to turn our heads so we will not miss the glory that is already in our lives and the beauty that is about to come.

    It is not always easy to look in the right direction, especially if we have been looking the wrong way for so long. Those of you who have had knee surgery know this. I have learned to keep my pastoral visits short when visiting you as you keep your vomit pans at the ready as mechanical machines make your new knees go up and down, up and down. While new knees are a modern day miracle really, the pain of turning in a new direction is apparently excruciating.

    Repentance is similar. If our souls are arthritic and filled with all manner of nastiness and sloth, bitterness and selfishness—which all our souls are by the way—the pain of living life anew can be overwhelming.

    After apartheid crumbled in South Africa, Nelson Mandela could have been a very bitter man. He spent 27 years in prison. Mandela had a prophet’s vision, though, a vision that sounded a lot like “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” Nelson Mandela called people to repent, that hard turning around of telling the truth to one another about past injustices and yet also of seeking how to live together in peace. We will not soon forget this prophet who cried in the wilderness to a nation, to the world: he called us all not to languish in past bitterness and hatred too long but to begin to see each other, black and white, in a new way and say, “Wow!”

    Advent is a season of the church year that begs us to repent, not out of spite or anger, but out of love, so we can all say “wow” together. Turn in the right direction, says the church, and you might see Christ coming any minute now.

    Sometimes it pays to repent, to turn in a different direction. In this month’s Lutheran magazine, there is a story about the world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell who came to Washington, D.C., to perform at a black-tie concert where tickets were $100. The Washington Post asked Bell to perform at a D.C. subway stop at 7:50 in the morning. Dressed in a sweatshirt and ball cap, Joshua Bell took out his $3.5 million Stradivarius, laid out his velvet lined violin case for passersby to throw in money, and started playing his favorite classical pieces. He played for forty minutes. 1,100 people passed by and only seven stopped more than a minute. If only they had repented, looked in a different direction, stopped, and listened, they would have heard astonishing music and had a story to tell for a lifetime.

    I am often called to repentance by fine movies, to see life differently. Go see the movie Nebraska. An old man spends his autumn years mostly in the fog of dementia. He begins walking along busy highways from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to cash in his million dollar prize from publishing clearing house. Many write him off as beyond help but his son accompanies him on this muddled journey. You know what will happen when they arrive at the publishing clearing house office but it doesn’t much matter at that point. Far more important is that the son has repented and has begun to see a gift of God as he accompanies his confused father on this Midwestern odyssey.

    Repentance comes in books, too, in authors’ words. Good writers are supreme teachers in helping us view the world afresh. I have told you of my favorite character in all of literature, Mr. Fruit, who appears in Pat Conroy’s book The Prince of Tides. In our family Christmas letter, I write this of Mr. Fruit: “Mr. Fruit is in every community, our own community of course. He directs traffic at rush hour with no one going nuts; he leads the 4th of July parade with a little American flag without being tossed out as a pest; he ushers at our church on Sunday morning not quite catching all the cues but bringing us to tears of joy nonetheless. Of Mr. Fruit and his ilk, Conroy says something to the affect, ‘The character of a community is measured by how it treats its Mr. Fruits.’” You could call this repentance, suddenly discovering wonder in the oddest people, people we once hardly noticed and, if we did, saw them as nuisances and quickly cast them aside. Now, we suddenly say, “Wow!”

    Yes, when we repent, we see Christ coming to us in all manner of people and for that we are a richer people. Sometimes it takes someone like John the Baptist or Nelson Mandela or a good friend to point us another way so we might live life more fully. From what I can tell, this repenting, this turning to celebrate life, is well worth shouting, “Praise to you, O Christ,” and with gusto. We might just see the Christ Child coming our way.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    First Sunday in Advent
    December 1, 2013
    Isaiah 2: 1-5; Matthew 24: 36-44
    “Stir Up Your Power, Lord Christ, and Come”

    I love to pray “Stir up your power, O Lord Christ, and come!” It is so muscular, so audacious, so in-your-face. Stir up your power and come!

    Most of us have prayed this prayer our entire lives. Our ancestors prayed it too. In fact, Christians have prayed it since the time of Jesus Christ.

    There comes a point, though, when we grow weary of praying “Come, Lord Jesus.” We become gloomy about the prospects of Christ ever returning again. Rather than feeling muscular and audacious, the prayer begins to feel a bit silly and trite, kind of like a cliché of those creepy freeway signs that allege “Christ is coming soon.”

    The gospel-writer Matthew understands our frustration. He wrote his gospel about forty years after Jesus died and Christians were already getting antsy. Jesus’ mother Mary was likely dead; the original disciples had all probably died; Saint Paul and Saint Peter had been martyred; Jerusalem had been destroyed. The faithful believed that Jesus was coming back as he had promised but one year led to the next and still no Jesus; hope was fading fast.

    It has been 2,000 years now. We still pray “Stir up you power, O Lord Christ, and come” and still no Jesus. We even sing during our Eucharistic Prayer, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again,” and, you’ve got it, still no Jesus. Oh sure, we claim that Christ is present in the words we speak and the bread we eat and the wine we drink, but, honestly, didn’t we hope for more?

    There are so many spectacular promises in the Bible and yet we are still waiting for them to come true. Take Isaiah’s promises that we heard in this morning’s first reading: swords shall be beaten in to ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. People just like us have been announcing these promises for 2,700 years now. There comes a time when we finally need a reality check, maybe cutting our losses and saying, “Enough.” Have you looked around lately? Are wars ending?

    Look how many churches are closing their doors for the final time and how others are shrinking at an alarming rate. Maybe the church where you grew up is dead and gone. Even the kingpins like the Chrystal Cathedral have shut their doors. The decline in the church knows no denominational boundaries; it does not seem limited to liberal or conservative. It makes you wonder if this decline, in large part, is due to the fact that Christ has not come again. Could it be this fellow Jesus was just another con artist in a long line of religious crackpots whose memory, after 2,000 years, is simply fading into history? Maybe there are better things to do in life than to trust this guy Jesus.

    And yet, remarkably, there have been communities of people in every age who have staked their lives on Christ coming again. Another word for that is faith, offering your very best in the belief Christ will keep his promises even though they seem a few thousand years overdue.

    The gospel writer Matthew was the cheerleader for some early Christians. He told his brothers and sisters in the faith “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Even though they didn’t know the day or hour, nevertheless, Matthew urged them to “keep awake” and to “be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

    Who do we have to urge us on? Well, here we are, gathered together again at the beginning of yet another Advent, another new church year, as those we have loved have gathered down through the ages. Our bulletin is filled with announcements urging us to look for Christ’s coming—buying gifts for the homeless, baking cookies for them, caroling at the homes of our oldest members, joining together at an evening party at the Lester’s around delicious food, good company, and delightful carol singing—all this to help us watch for Christ’s coming into our midst.

    I know of your amazing faith and hope. To date, 72 of you have made pledges to ministry here at First Lutheran Church totaling $235,705. Your pledge is one way you offer your best, trusting that such a gift is worth it and Christ will keep his promise and come again.

    You watch for Christ’s coming as you visit your older friends, when you support your kids who are grown up but still finding it tough to land on their two feet. You bring your little ones here, Sunday after Sunday, even when they kick and scream, letting them know your hope for them that Christ will show up in this place in the simple gifts of words and water, wine and wheat.

    Halford Luccock taught preaching at my alma mater, Yale Divinity School. He once wrote these words: “Nothing really great ever happened without a great many lives being lived in expectation. Those are the kind of folk by which the world moves forward, always standing on tiptoe.”

    You are a tiptoe people. This community is a tiptoe people. We stand on tiptoe together watching for Christ to come. We change the color of our worship space to blue, that deep color in the sky just before the sun comes up, trusting that indeed God’s Son will rise in our midst too. Then we light candles on our Advent wreath, one by one until all four are blazing, trusting again that Christ will come. We sing, “O Come, O Come, Emanuel,” longing for God to be with us.

    We are now going to sing perhaps the greatest of all Lutheran Advent hymns, “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying.” It was written in the 1500’s by the Lutheran pastor Philipp Nicolai who lived in the German town of Unna. A terrible plague devastated the village killing more than 1,300 people. Pastor Nicolai also became ill and prepared to die. He wrote this hymn, not out of despair but out of hope: “Rise and prepare the feast to share; go, meet the bridegroom, who draws near.” He stood on tiptoe, looking beyond death to Christ’s return.

    2,000 years after Christ was born and died, rose and ascended, we show up here and stand on tiptoe. Together, weak and strong, faint hearted and strong willed, we bear the promise for those we love, for those who have lost the will to sing. Together, we sing, “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.”

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    Christ the King Sunday
    November 24, 2013
    Luke 23: 33-43
    “The Stooping King”

    If you were alive on November 22, 1963, you remember exactly where you were that horrible afternoon when you heard Walter Cronkite announce: “In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this shooting.” You were glued to the television from then on and, not much later, these staggering words, “President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.” I was in seventh grade geography class; where were you?

    The days before November 22 were filled with such hope. We saw space ships soaring to unimaginable places and humans orbiting the earth. John F. Kennedy was Camelot: he was so dashing and handsome and his wife, Jackie, so elegant and lovely.

    And then suddenly, especially for those who did not live through World War II, we lost our innocence that November day, fifty years ago.

    It seems every chapter of human history is punctuated with moments of towering achievement and of nauseating collapse.

    This week, we remembered another such occasion of achievement and collapse. We marked the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg. Like Kennedy, Lincoln was about as close to a king as our nation gets. We witnessed the best of humanity as people stood bravely to end the despicable institution of slavery; and yet, for all its gallantry, that war also brought its own sickening sting of failure as the fields of Gettysburg—actually fields surrounding our Lutheran seminary—flowed with the blood of so many of this nation’s young.

    So it seems we humans cannot move forward without moving backward, too. Success and failure, bravery and cowardice, good and evil, always seem to walk hand-in-hand.

    Over and over again, down through history, humanity’s towering achievements are swallowed up by the ravenous appetites of madness and cruelty. Whether it is a great leader humiliated by some tawdry personal failure or a proud nation callously killing innocent people in the name of peace, over and over again, we witness what is so awe-inspiring and extraordinary about humanity slinking down to what is so disgusting and abhorrent.

    It is into such a world that Jesus steps and to such a people he comes. Even if he had come when we were at our best, he would have been stooping quite low. King Jesus comes not just to enjoy the magnificent strains of Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart, but also to hear the deadly screams of Buchenwald and the revolting shrieks from our own nation’s death chambers. Jesus comes not only to gaze upon the magnificence of Rembrandt, Renoir, and Van Gogh but also to behold the ugliness of children dying from starvation while others revel in unimaginable wealth.

    Jaroslav Pelikan, the once Lutheran theologian at Yale, notes of our King Jesus that by “most generous readings, Gospels give us one hundred days [his life]; but for the last two or three days of Jesus’ life, they provide a detailed, almost hour-by-hour scenario.” There is something about those final days, those agonizing moments, that mesmerizes us. As Jesus inches to the cross, people draw closer and closer…watching, waiting. Is it possible they notice how low this king has stooped to be with them? Is it possible they realize how much this king loves them despite their cruel adventures and cowardly failures? Is it any wonder our king’s coronation occurs on the cross?

    Even as he breathes his last, when his anger could have raged at a fever pitch, instead…instead, Jesus tenderly looks over the crowd, you and me really, each of us, and gasps, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Even to the criminal who deserves to be nailed to the cross at Jesus’ side, instead of ridicule or condemnation, Jesus lovingly says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

    We have been there. We may be there now. We have had our celebration days when everything goes right, when we dance for joy and shout with glee. But not much later, we plummet to new lows when we shock ourselves with our failure of nerve and our pathetic behavior.

    And yet, this king sees us and comes—he limping, we limping, he bleeding, we bleeding, he embracing, we embraced by him. Oh his deep love. Oh our King! That is why we have come here this morning, yet again, to catch a glimpse of him and his love for us, to adore him.

    As we have reminisced this year, celebrating 125 years of ministry in this place, I imagine what gives us the most joy is that Christ has come to this congregation over the years regardless of our crowning achievements or even our miserable failures. As I have often said, First Lutheran Church reminds me of Alcoholics Anonymous at worship on Sunday morning. I know we are not all drunks but I do know we are all broken. What never ceases to amaze me is that Christ comes to us in spite of it all. That is why this 125th anniversary year has been so special. We are a community that doesn’t always get it right—in spite of how other preachers and I have bragged to the contrary during this year. We have faced a failure of nerve from time-to-time, and yet, what we give thanks for is that, in spite of our foibles and failings and follies, Christ continues to come to us and lift us up again. This congregation has been at its best, not when we have had crowning achievements and heroic ministry, but when on behalf of King Jesus, we have embraced one another in our brokenness and failures, speaking a word of forgiveness in Christ’s name and looking to a new day.

    As we end yet another church year and are on the verge of a new one, let us give thanks for our king, King Jesus, a king who stoops down to be with us. And may we, in his name and by his grace, embrace every suffering soul who enters these doors and may we crown them with our king’s wondrous love, this day and always.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    Twenty-Sixth Sunday After Pentecost
    November 17, 2013
    Isaiah 65: 17-25
    “Keeping the Myth Alive”

    When we were in Washington, D.C., the Roman Catholic parish next door to us was Saint Augustine’s. St. Augustine’s was a destination parish for people from around the world because of its electrifying gospel choir. Seats at Sunday morning Mass were always at a premium. It was an exciting place to be.

    Father Ray Kemp was the pastor and then was followed by Father John Mudd, a friend of ours. Father Mudd told Dagmar and me that when he began his ministry at Saint Augustine’s, Father Kemp pulled him aside and said, “John, keep the myth alive.” His message was as bold as a western gunslinger. Father Kemp was telling his successor to keep this congregation vibrant, with an amazing gospel liturgy and terrific social outreach programs.

    You could say Isaiah was telling the people of Israel to keep the myth alive in our first reading this morning. Things were desperate in Jerusalem when Isaiah spoke. As we heard last week, when the people returned from Babylonian exile, their holy city was a wreck and their temple in ruins. And yet, as prophets almost always are, Isaiah was counter-intuitive. His enthusiastic and hopeful message flew in the face of a bunch of sad sacks still tasting the bitter ashes of exile and gasping the gloom of tomorrow. Isaiah was ever the dreamer. He spoke of a new heaven and a new earth when all that his friends seemed capable of doing was bellyaching about how miserable things were. Isaiah told them that God was creating something new and that soon and very soon the sounds of weeping would give way to delightful laughter echoing throughout Israel’s countryside.

    And then perhaps most surprising of all, Isaiah painted a mesmerizing picture of a wolf and a lamb feeding together. How audacious of Isaiah to create such a peaceful vision when all that these people had felt of late was being a measly little ping pong ball violently bounced back and forth by powerful surrounding nations like Assyria, Babylon, and Persia.

    Isaiah kept the myth alive and 2500 years later we still delight in telling it to one another, the one of the wolf and the lamb. We still harbor hope of peace because one person, Isaiah, dared to dream.

    I grew up a bit differently. When I was young, I seem to remember my father being quite skeptical about using superlative adjectives. Dad didn’t care much for words like wonderful, exquisite, astonishing, amazing, remarkable. I never heard him use such words. Dad was more one to keep it real, to be guarded, measured. After all, if such audacious words did not come to fruition, we might end up looking the fools. My father was a wonderful father whom I miss greatly even almost 17 years after he died and yet he never wanted to be caught being excessively exuberant when what was really called for was steady, moderate, restrained forecasts about what was going to occur in our lives.

    I suppose there is a call both for excessive dreamers and restrained realists. There were indeed prophets in Israel’s time whose words were grave and somber and measured. And yet, for my money, at least in these days, here at First Lutheran, we are called to be dreamers like Isaiah, folks who dare to keep the myth alive. We are called to proclaim that God loves 3rd and Ash because, as you well know, we are the only ones entrusted to this little corner of God’s creation. If we are not exuberant about God’s overflowing presence here, then who will be?

    So how do we keep the myth alive? Well, we gather here Sunday after Sunday and we proclaim that this simple meal about to be served is indeed a foretaste of the feast to come. Talk about keeping the myth alive! We proclaim that what occurs here in these few moments is actually a glimpse into heaven. How can we keep from singing if we are tasting manna dropped from heaven in the gifts of bread and wine, meager though they may be? Don’t you think a few excessive words like astonishing, extraordinary, and surprising are in order?

    And we pray here at worship in a wildly bold, gallant, unflinching, and fearless fashion. We pray for the deathly ill that God will restore them to good health. We pray for the ferociously addicted that they may become sober once again. We pray for peace throughout the world when people seem far more adept at hating and killing each other than frolicking together like little lambs and wolf cubs. What kind of people pray such audacious prayers if we are not keeping the myth alive?

    And as we come here day after day to this ministry we love, we see miracles occur repeatedly—now there is a myth worth keeping alive. We see hungry and bedraggled, worn and tired people coming here to taste delicious warm soup and cholesterol roof- raising donuts and thousands of warm cups of coffee. For thirty-eight years now and counting, members of this congregation and our good friends have been telling folks that you can actually see Jesus come through our food line on Mondays and Fridays if you only keep your eyes open wide enough. Have you ever heard of such a gloriously magnificent myth?

    As you know, we are in the midst of our annual stewardship appeal, inviting each other to generously support this astonishing ministry. We ask each other to make a pledge, to dig deep to sustain this glimpse of heaven here in downtown San Diego. While we are not the biggest or glitziest church around, nevertheless, we have been led to believe that God has a special fondness for our little corner of the universe and because of that, we offer our hard earned money so that others might glimpse a bit of heaven in this place.

    It seems to me that we are at our finest as an exuberant, faithful people when we risk proclaiming a superlative vision, not any vision mind you, but a magnificent and grand one that declares that Jesus can actually be seen here in this place, day after day and week after week.

    By God’s grace, may we keep the myth alive.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    Twenty-Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
    November 10, 2013
    Luke 6: 20-31
    “God’s Presence amidst a Pile of Bricks”

    I don’t think I have ever heard the Old Testament book of Haggai read at worship. Have you? Today is the only Sunday a reading from Haggai appears in our three year lectionary and it is an alternative reading at that. That means you could come to worship your entire life and never hear a peep from Haggai.

    Could you find the book of Haggai in your Bible without looking in the index? Could you tell your neighbor what Haggai is about? Here’s a little refresher just in case.

    Haggai is one of twelve minor prophets. They are called minor not because they are less important than the other prophets; they are minor because they are small in heft. In my Bible, Haggai takes up a page and a half; at two chapters, next to Obadiah, Haggai is the shortest book in the entire Old Testament. The three major prophets are far heftier: Jeremiah is about 100 pages; Isaiah 121 pages; and Ezekiel 80 pages or so.

    Haggai was written a little more than 500 years before Christ, soon after God’ people returned to Jerusalem following their forty year forced exile in Babylon. Upon their arrival home, they discovered their beloved temple in ruins. It was like seeing the Twin Towers toppled only worse—this was God’s house after all. They were a demoralized bunch of returnees.

    The book of Haggai is an old fashioned stewardship sermon. Haggai called God’s people to rebuild the Temple and rebuild it they did. The only problem was that the new Temple never matched the splendor of the Temple King Solomon had built. The people were crestfallen. It was as if God had moved from a La Jolla mansion to a shack in the Anza Borrego Desert.

    No matter how insignificant the Temple was, Haggai was ever the cheerleader. He reminded the people of God’s ancient promise: "I am with you, do not fear, My Spirit remains among you. There can be greater glory in your lesser circumstances."

    Of course, gathered here today, we do not look for God in the Jerusalem Temple. We look for God here, at 3rd and Ash. In the grand scheme of things, our building is not a particularly towering testament to architecture grandeur either. First Lutheran is no cathedral with soaring stained glass windows, precious statuary, bejeweled communion vessels, or charming gargoyles. In fact, I have heard people say that until the steeple was recently added to our church in 2000, some walked right by thinking we were the telephone company.

    Nevertheless, we are a lot like Haggai. We have come to believe that God is somehow present in this insignificant pile of bricks and motley collection of people and, like Haggai, we do our best to convince visitors that our claim is genuine. A man from Virginia worshipped with us in August while attending a tech conference. Two weeks later, he sent us a check for $500; two weeks after that, he sent another one for $500; then a check came in the mail for $2,000; and this week yet another for $500. I called him on Tuesday to thank him for his generosity. He said: “I want to give to a church that is doing something in the community. I was deeply touched by your church’s vision and loved worshipping with you.”

    Visitors behold God’s splendor in our little pile of bricks and motley collection of people all the time. It was reported to me just this week that someone on our national Lutheran staff in Chicago recently visited us and believes this congregation should be the number one teaching parish in the ELCA, lifting up how to couple vibrant Word and Sacrament ministry with stunning outreach to the poor of the community. In that sense, you could say we are a dazzling cathedral.

    We have just completed a marvelous 125th anniversary celebration and are now on the cusp of another new year. Our Finance Committee and Church Council are diligently preparing the 2014 budget to be presented at our December 8 congregational meeting. I cross my fingers every year, hoping the projected increase for ministry will not overwhelm us and that we will be able to afford our plans. This year, after sharpening our pencils and proposing modest increases, we calculate that each of us will need to prayerfully consider increasing our giving by 5%. Dagmar and I will do that. I invite you to join us in increasing your giving by 5% if at all possible.

    You will receive your pledge cards in the mail in a few days. If you have pledged in the past, please continue this important spiritual discipline as you have so generously done and make a pledge for 2014. If you are a new member, I invite you to make a pledge for the first time here at First: let your church know what it can expect from you financially in the coming year. And, if you have been a member for a while and not yet pledged, please consider making this the year as you join your brothers and sisters in Christ in supporting our church in this important way.

    People often ask, “How much should I pledge?” The best answer is the biblical one: make a tithe, giving 10% of your income to support God’s ministry. You might be wondering what the typical First Lutheran member pledges. Last year 92 member/households made pledges averaging $60 a week. Some of you are able to give much more and others give quite generously though the dollar amount is smaller. One member pledges $1 a week, another nearly $400. Each pledge is treasured and each pledge is essential to our ministry.

    Of the second Temple built during Haggai’s time, it is said: “What was lacking in architectural beauty was covered over by the great devotion that the people lavished upon it, and above all, by the conviction that it was the place where Yahweh was enthroned in the midst of Israel.”

    First Lutheran is similar. We trust that God is with us and our financial commitment is one way we point to God’s presence in this place.

    As we encourage one another to pledge, First Lutheran Church takes this invitation to heart as we tithe 10% of all our giving and send that amount beyond our doors, literally supporting ministry around the world.

    We cherish what happens in our pile of bricks and within our motley collection of people, and we cherish what happens in Christ’s name throughout the world.

    We have seen God in this place and we want others to see God too.

    Thanks be to God!

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    Installation of the Rev. Lawrence Hand
    Calvary Lutheran Church-Solana Beach, California
    All Saints' Sunday
    November 3, 2013
    "Let the River Rock You Like a Cradle">br>

    Has anyone here known Pastor Larry Hand longer than 35 years? I have and thus I have known your new pastor longer than anyone here today, including his wife Janine.

    Pastor Hand was the first seminary fieldwork student I supervised back in the prehistoric era of 1978 when IBM Selectric typewriters and Gestetner mimeograph machines were the rage. During that year, at another Calvary Lutheran Church, an African American congregation deep in the inner-city of Philadelphia, I taught your pastor everything he knows which he will gladly tell anyone who will listen is absolutely nothing.

    Pastor Larry Hand also followed me at that Philadelphia Calvary in his first call as an ordained pastor (and my predecessor there, Pastor Bill Radatz, is here afternoon). All to say, we know each other quite well.

    When you know someone well, you love reminiscing. It goes like this: “Larry, remember Father Howard Black at Holy Cross Lutheran Church?” (Holy Cross was at 9th and Lehigh on the mean streets of North Philly.) Father Black told our colleague, Pastor George Loewer, on his installation day, “It will be a glorious struggle.”

    On days like this we love the “glorious” part and avoid the “struggle” part like Del Mar thoroughbreds swatting flies with their tails. We prefer coating everything with lovely veneer. And yet, as the people of God have known in every age, ministry is always glorious and always a struggle.

    Martin Luther once said: “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”

    Take All Saints’ Sunday for instance. Saints—aren’t they the super Christians, the perfect ones? And yet, when we are theologians of the cross, when we call the thing what it actually is, we realize saints are a curious concoction of saint and sinner all wrapped into one splendid mess.

    We know that saint and sinner stuff about ourselves. We have moments of heroic valor and then, sometimes in a flash, moments of disgusting cowardice, of tender compassion and then, much too suddenly, of revolting selfishness.

    We know that about our church, as well, and yet, oh how we try to make believe. If you think I am wrong, go to any church website and look at the picture of the congregation at worship: the sanctuary is always packed. Look closely and, you guessed it, you will spot poinsettias or lilies, meaning every picture is taken on Easter morning or Christmas Eve. Very few churches dare reveal how things look on Sunday morning, July 23.

    Don’t you adore the glorious part? After all, you devote a significant part of your life to this place called Calvary—your precious time, lots of money, even your tears and laughter. That’s why you are here this afternoon instead of watching the Bassmaster Fishing Tournament on television. You love this place! You so want it to be filled with saints and are aghast when sinners inch in as well, including, of course, yourself.

    Eugene Peterson is a wise pastor and has written The Message translation of the Bible. He says: “The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world.”

    Successful or not, saint or sinner, you are harboring high hopes for Calvary Lutheran Church right about now. You have called a dashingly handsome pastor who loves to surf, has a honkingly huge motorcycle, keeps his abs and pecs in perfect tone, and plays a pretty mean bass guitar in your praise band; he has stunning academic credentials, hides his age much better than I with hair producted just so; to top it off, he is thrilled to be your new pastor. Add to all that, he has an impressive church pedigree: his late father was the much beloved bishop of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod; your pastor was an assistant to two bishops and his wife Janine was both of those bishops’ administrator. Pastor Hand and Janine worked closely with hundreds of congregations in good times and bad, for richer and poorer; they received countless, frantic calls from alarmed pastors and traumatized parishioners—people like you and me—sometimes it was me!—scared to death for their churches. (Perhaps you have noticed that we typically call synod staff, people like Larry and Janine were or our Bishop Murray is, when we have tried everything in our pastoral tool kit and professional arsenal and nothing seems to be working. We then expect the synod to perform miracles.) Larry and Janine know of the church’s glorious struggle to be the people of God.

    Garret Keizer serves a quintessential little New England congregation in Island Pond, Vermont. In his book, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees, he tells of their first Easter Vigil, a service for which he harbors high hopes. “There are two people, a husband and wife, in the church when I arrive at 7:30 p.m…We extinguish the lights in the church, except for one small lamp on the organ by which to read our books…The [paschal candle] sputters in the half darkness, like a voice too embarrassed or overwhelmed to proclaim the news, ‘Christ is risen.’ But it catches fire, and there we are, three people and a flickering light—in an old church, on a Saturday evening in spring, with the noise of cars and their winter-rusted mufflers outside…the Lord is with us, or we are pathetic fools.” He then adds: “I like it that way. I believe God likes it that way.”

    Here we are at Calvary—Solana Beach. I believe God likes it this way too. You are entrusted with a most peculiar message. It is not a message of make-up or veneer; it is much more honest than that. St. Paul writes of the message you bear, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” This message you carry to one another is that God comes down to earth to be with you, today, just as you are, saint and sinner, or, yes indeed, we are pathetic fools.

    By the way…What were you on Halloween? Did you make believe you were a goblin or Pope Francis, Snow White or Bozo the Clown, a Ninja warrior or Superman? Today, a few days after Halloween, on this All Saints’ Sunday, we take off our costumes, wash off our make-up, stare into the mirror, and discover we are children of God, baptized in water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…and that is enough.

    As you install your wonderful pastor this afternoon, do not insist he wear an outrageous costume he has no business wearing. Pastor Hand is like Jeremiah and so many other prophets and pastors before him. When the Lord calls him here to Calvary, Larry utters, “Certainly not I, Lord.” My dear friends, don’t expect more from your pastor than God expects. Do not expect him to dress up Calvary Lutheran Church in a costume you should not be caught dead in. Do not make believe your pastor is ministering to a group of saints who are not sinners and do not expect him to love the saints and shun the sinners. Your pastor is not called to masquerade as a magician waving a magical wand or a shaman burning mysterious roots to the evil gods; he is simply another curious saint and sinner called to love every suffering soul who enters this place.

    As I have said, I know your new pastor quite well. He has a pastoral heart; he prays and reads his Bible early, every morning—I have actually seen him do that when staying at our home. A number of you have already excitedly told me, “We are so thrilled to have Larry as our pastor.” One of you has even said, “He is so humble. There is not an arrogant bone in his body.” Pastor Hand comes to you today, not with all the answers, not with a holier-than-thou attitude, not with a promise to put 1,000 people in the pews every Sunday, not even with a scheme to get rid of every sinner. Pastor Hand knows better than that. He knows what this congregation needs and you know it, too: you need Christ to call each and every one of you blessed—you who feel poor and hungry and reviled and drunk and angry and insulted and sad and confused and broken. You need someone to creep back to the water with you as you live in God’s presence, tasting yet again his body and sipping his blood.

    Larry and I share a deep devotion to rock and roll. Over the years, we have told each other of our latest musical discoveries and recollected favorite oldies…Here’s how we do it: “Larry, have you heard the one by Richie Havens of Woodstock fame called “Follow”? In that song, he sings: ‘Let the river rock you like a cradle.’”

    “Let the river rock you like a cradle.”

    That is my hope for you, Pastor Hand, and for you, the good people of Calvary Lutheran Church. Creep back to the water together, saint and sinner, over and over again, and, for God’s sake, let the river rock you like a cradle.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    All Saints' Sunday
    November 3, 2013
    Luke 6: 20-31
    “Thanking God for Our Oldest Members”

    My favorite definition of a saint comes from Frederick Buechner: “In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.”

    I love vibrant handkerchiefs and scarves. I can imagine them floating down from heaven in the form of saints.

    You have probably noticed that my dear wife Dagmar loves scarves and regularly wears them to worship. Every Christmas or so, I splurge and get her a colorful scarf that we both take delight in.

    On this All Saints’ Sunday, we thank God for blessing this congregation by dropping saintly handkerchiefs into our midst, for our delight. Each has a stunning design.

    This morning, we remember two lovely saints, Doris Shimizu and Earl Hagen, who floated into our midst and now are counted among the saints in heaven. Each brought remarkable joy to this congregation. Now they join the saints, angels, and martyrs as they sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” with us today.

    There are other handkerchiefs that flutter delightfully into our midst.

    At least for Lutherans, we claim that we become a saint, not by three certifiable miracles and a decree from the pope. All we deem necessary for sainthood is baptism: a little water—or a lot of water as is our practice here—and the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” That’s it and guess what: we are all saints. As we sing our prayer today, we will thank God for four little people who were made saints this year before our very eyes: Audrey Garton and Charlotte Garton, Phillip Valencia and Scarlett Pease.

    I always experience a peculiar sadness at funerals. The death of love ones brings its own deep grief. But that is not the only sadness. I have found in thirty-six years of ministry, at every funeral, I have always been able to discover some unique quality in each person for which we can thank God. Admittedly, it is not always easy. One of my preaching professors cautioned us of this in a particularly memorable lecture on preaching at funerals. He warned us that finding the special quality in a person is not always easy. He told of the time he preached at the funeral of a reputed mobster. What to say? He said, “This community will not be the same now that old Billy has passed on.”

    What often saddens me is that we often wait until a person dies to offer a lovely bouquet to them. If I have heard it once, I have heard it a thousand times, “I wish she had been here to hear what was said about her.” Why do we wait?

    Today, on the final Sunday of our glorious 125th anniversary celebration, we honor the nineteen oldest members of First Lutheran Church, thirteen who are able to be with us. Some of you are wondering: what is the necessary age requirement to be honored? We arbitrarily chose 82 as the cut off date.

    Today, we thank God for our wise elders, for their commitment to this congregation and other congregations like it throughout their lifetimes.

    Visitors who hear about the often risky ministry of First Lutheran Church often ask me, “How do the older members feel about the crazy things that occur at First? You know, being a Reconciling in Christ congregation for 24 years, feeding the hungry for 38 years?” I always say, “Are you kidding me! These older members are the ones who started much of the wild and crazy stuff that happens here.”

    In our quote of the day, William Sloane Coffin says it this way: “I’ve noticed that the older, the more gnarled the cherry tree, the greater the profusion of blossoms. And sometimes the oldest and dustiest bottles hold the most sparkling wine. I’m drawn by faces lined with crow’s feet, those ‘credentials of humanity,’ beautifully lit from within.”

    As we look at the profusion of blossoms, the sparking wine, the credentials of humanity, in the exquisite handkerchiefs in our midst this morning, we are aware of how richly blessed we are. These nineteen people have done unimaginable things in the name of God in this place and in places very much like it.

    Many of them have buried their beloved spouses here and taught us how to mourn our beloved dead with considerable grace, trusting deeply in the promise of the resurrection to eternal life.

    Quite a few have been members here for years and years. They resisted going to other churches in “safer neighborhoods,” churches which were bigger. Even as some wondered whether First’s doors would remain open, they persevered, and, surprise, surprise, today, First Lutheran Church is one of the growing congregations in our synod.

    They have contributed generously to our ministry, offering thousands and thousands of dollars over the years so that Christ’s goodness might be heard at this little corner of God’s universe.

    And, even as they age, they take great delight in the young adults joining our church, the littlest ones bringing forth the offering at worship, and the six of our young people confirmed last week….Their church is in good, young hands and they praise God for it.

    Yes, our nineteen oldest members are some of the splendid handkerchiefs God has dropped into our midst over 125 years. In their own exceptional and stunning ways, these saints have pointed us beyond themselves to the one who dropped them here in the first place, to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    We will say more about each of them a bit later in our service, but, for now, I would ask the congregation to stand as we thank God for these nineteen saints and as we thank them for their commitment to this wonderful ministry, First Lutheran Church.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost October 20, 2013
    Luke 18: 1-8
    “Prayer of Perfect Freedom”

    There are occasions on Sunday morning when we hear a biblical reading or sing a Psalm and it echoes in our soul and chafes at our heart for weeks on end.

    Take for instance the Psalm we sang two weeks ago.

    O daughter of Babylon,
    doomed to destruction,
    happy shall they be who repay you
    for what you have done to us.

    Happy shall they be
    who take your little ones
    and dash them against a rock! (Psalm 137)

    Have you been wondering why such words appear in the Bible and why we dare to sing them on Sunday morning? The words seem like ones that would delight lunatics like Charles Manson and his ilk. Dashing a child against a rock! Barbarian! Ruthless! Strike those words from the Bible!

    Let’s ask the question differently: have you ever been so angry that you have uttered under your breath, “I wish she were dead.” The minute the thought creeps into your mind, you feel vile and despicable. After all, you were taught early on that good little boys and good little girls dare not think such thoughts let alone speak them. And yet, aren’t there occasions when you want to shake your fists and scream?

    Today’s gospel reading might help us think about our prayer life. It might act as a guide on how to present our deepest feelings to God, especially when we feel like we are about to boil over.

    The widow stands before the hanging judge and says exactly what is on her mind: “Grant me justice against my opponent.” She pulls no punches.

    The very thought of that hanging judge—he has been called unjust, dishonest, unrighteous—makes most of us fidget. We nervously watch him as he arrogantly leans back in his huge burgundy leather chair with his eyes cast to the ceiling in boredom. He hovers over his court scowling, with fingers crossed on his belly and thumbs twiddling in circles. At any moment, we expect him to slam down his antique gavel in disgust and growl with fierce contempt, “Enough!” He is the hanging judge after all and defendants and prosecutors cower before him equally.

    Jesus says this judge “neither feared God nor had respect for people.” He repeatedly refuses the widow’s request when she enters his courtroom. I suppose most of us would give up after our first attempt. But not the widow. She doggedly keeps returning to the judge. She wrangles, haggles, argues, pushes, demands, cajoles. She does whatever is necessary to get her way with this arrogant arbitrator.

    As you know, the judge finally grows weary of her irksome harassment and grants her justice just to be done with her.

    Jesus then says: “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and might. Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” Jesus doesn’t tell us to be nice little boys and little girls. He exhorts us to cry to God day and night, to be honest with our emotions and persistent with our appeal—nag, shake your fists, demand of God, pull no punches. And if the unjust judge grants the wishes of a nagging woman, imagine what God will do for any of us.

    Jesus was schooled in the Psalms as a boy after all. He memorized and recited lines like "Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against a rock.” He understands that prayer means telling God exactly what’s on our mind.

    These honest prayers are the ones we pray in the back room when no one is paying attention to us….well, except God. You could call them the secret prayers of the heart. They are like the prayer in our quote for the day from Mary Gordon’s book Pearl: “She…speaks to her dear friend in what she knows is the language of prayer: the speech of perfect freedom, pure desire.” That is the kind of prayer we need, the prayer of perfect freedom, pure desire. We trust that behind closed doors we can tell God anything and everything that’s on our mind and God is more than capable of sorting through the wildness of our emotions, the sourness of our anger, and the staleness of our disappointment.

    The closest many of us come to praying such honest prayers is in the therapist’s office at $125 an hour. While the price is steep, we cherish those fifty therapeutic minutes behind closed doors where we have discovered a place to utter our deepest sadness, our worst fears, our most wretched rage. Sometimes just to get things off our chest is worth its price in gold….By the way, you are welcome to do the same thing with your pastor, for free, if you can only get past being good little girls and good little boys.

    Walter Brueggemann is a marvelous Old Testament scholar. One of his books, Praying the Psalms, has played a powerful influence on how I think about prayer. Bruggemann notes that the Psalms teach us to speak of human experience in an honest, freeing way. Honest prayer before God is quite different from the cover-up speech most of us are used to. In most arenas where people live, we are expected and required to make believe, to say what we think people want to hear, not what we are really feeling. “As a result, our speech is dulled and mundane. Our passion has been stilled and is without imagination. And mostly the Holy One is not addressed, not because we dare not, but because God is far away and hardly seems important.”

    If you have read the Psalms, you have likely fallen in love with whoever wrote them. You have felt just like the Psalmist; you have had those nights when your bed is flooded with tears, mornings when you feel like you lie in the midst of lions, and afternoons when the enemy tramples over you, again and again.

    And yet, the good little girl and good little boy lingers and we shy away from praying like the psalmist. How dare we tell God exactly what we are thinking—as if God does not already know!

    And this is where Walter Brueggemann’s little book, Praying the Psalms, is worth its price in gold. When we say those nasty things to God, sharing our most evil desires, Brueggemann notes that we do nothing more than speak to God. We do not explode at the person who is driving us mad. We do not act but we speak. And here is the priceless gem: this harsh and vitriolic language is offered to God and not to our enemy. Our angry prayers are offered behind closed doors, between God and us only. In a sense, we get to test drive our nasty emotions with God. And when we explode before the throne of heaven, we learn to trust that God will deal with all that bedevils us quite well and sort out what is destructive and life-giving for all involved.

    There is a nugget of grace when we learn to pray like the psalmist. More often than not, such honesty helps us free ourselves from enormous burdens and poisonous hatreds that infect our soul; soon we open our eyes feeling like God has answered our prayers and, surprise, surprise, the sun is shining and we are ready to go out into the world in peace, kicking our heals all the way.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost October 6, 2013
    Luke 17: 5-10

    One of the dangers of reading a Bible passage on Sunday morning is that we don’t often know what comes before it or after it. This morning’s gospel reading is a case in point; it begins this way: “The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” Why in the world do the disciples want their faith increased? We have to go back, right before they say “Increase our faith!” to discover the answer. Jesus tells them, “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” Aha! There’s the answer. I presume most of us would demand of Jesus, “Increase our faith!” if we had to forgive a person once a day let alone seven—that is a lot of forgiving.

    There are a number of front-page newspaper pictures that stick with me. One is of beaming Harry Truman holding up the Chicago Daily Tribune that proclaims prematurely, “Dewey defeats Truman.” Another is of Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and Franklin Roosevelt sitting together magisterially at Yalta. The picture most indelibly printed on my mind is of a naked, terrified Vietnamese girl running for her life as napalm rains down upon her village. Do you remember that picture?

    Twenty-four year old Army helicopter pilot John Plummer was in charge of that mission. Plummer saw the photo of the nine-year old girl the very next day. He said, “[That photo] just knocked me to my knees…I knew I could never talk about this.” For years he was tormented by little Kim Phuc running and screaming, “Too hot, too hot!”

    Twenty five years later, Plummer heard that little girl, now an adult, would be speaking in Washington, D.C., so he went to listen to her. In her speech, she said, “If I could talk face-to-face with the pilot who dropped the bombs, I would tell him we could not change history, but we should try to do good things for the present.”

    After hearing this, Plummer dashed off a note that said, “I am the man.” He pushed through the crowd and came to the woman. All he could say is, “I’m sorry, I’m just so sorry,” to which Kim Phuc responded, “It’s all right. I forgive. I forgive.”

    You can imagine John Plummer desperately praying to Jesus, “Increase my faith,” and you can almost hear Jesus respond, “John, if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Said another way: John Plummer had the necessary faith all along. All he needed was to say “I’m sorry” and, of course, all Kim Phuc had to say was “I forgive.” In that exchange of asking and receiving forgiveness, their humanity was enriched beyond measure.

    The disciples had done amazing things during their brief three years with Jesus: they had dropped their fishing nets—their very livelihoods, abandoned their families, and followed Jesus at the snap of a finger. They had faced the furious taunts of angry mobs, seen Jesus feed thousands and heal some very sick people. Nevertheless, they felt incapable of forgiving their brother or sister once in a day let alone seven times.

    There is the pesky part of today’s gospel where Jesus says: “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

    In other words, Jesus says to the disciples and to us, “You have enough faith in you already. Now offer forgiveness to one another.”

    We have enough faith here at First Lutheran Church, too. You have heard me repeat two Latin words dear to Lutherans in my sermons and teaching: satis est. Satis est means “it is enough.” In classic Lutheran theology, especially in our chief confessional document, the Augsburg Confession written not by Martin Luther but by Philipp Melanchthon, it states all we need for the church to be present is “that the Gospel is preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word.” Yes, in the simple gifts of bread and wine and water and God’s word we are given faith enough to move mountains or uproot mulberry trees. That is all this congregation has ever needed for 125 years to make a difference in this community.

    Perhaps you have seen the program on PBS of two red-tailed hawks that set up housekeeping at one of New York City’s most fashionable addresses overlooking Central Park. The two hawks draw large crowds curious to witness their exotic mating habits. To the delight of the crowds, three little hawks are born—I call them hawklets but I don’t believe there is such a word. Eventually, it comes time for the little ones to fly. Living fashionably high above Manhattan means these little hawklets will have to make a maiden flight that starts a bit higher than that of most of their other little hawk compatriots. They are very nervous when it comes time to take their first flight. Daddy hawk flies around, sweeping up and down before them, frantically trying to get them to take that first frightening leap. They hop around madly, their wings flutter, they nervously peak down from their nest—all to say, “Daddy, we can’t do it; increase our faith.” But daddy knows better. And then a huge gust of wind magically sweeps the babies out of their nest and suddenly they are soaring over Central Park. Oh my, how they fly.

    William Sloane Coffin says, “I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, and then you grow wings.”

    Sometimes it takes an unexpected gust of wind to make us forgive one another. But when we say those few wondrous words, “I forgive you,” words we have never dared utter for fear of plummeting to the menacing cement sidewalk below, we discover to our delight that we are soaring like we have never done before. Suddenly we are more human, more like God intends us to be.

    So tonight, when you bow your head and say your bed time prayers and find yourself praying, “Dear God, increase my faith,” how about this time changing your prayer a bit; this time pray, “Dear God, you have already filled me with faith beyond measure; now let me leap like a little hawklet and let me soar as I bring your forgiveness to our suffering world.”


    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    September 29, 2013
    Daniel 10: 10-14; 12: 1-3; Revelation 12: 7-12; Luke 10: 17-20
    “Listening and Looking for Angels”

    “St. Michael and All Angels”…just the sound of the words makes you breathe a bit easier.

    When our boys, Sebastian and Caspar, were little, we concluded our bedtime prayers every night with Martin Luther’s evening prayer: “Into thy hands I commend my body and soul and all that is mine. Let thy holy angels have charge of me, that the wicked one may have no power over me. Amen.” The thought of holy angels hovering over us with glorious wings aflutter made us sleep more soundly.

    This angel talk may strike you as a bit weird. We are modern, sophisticated people after all and, to our knowledge, we have never seen an angel. And yet, it is reported that most Americans believe in angels; in fact, fifty-five percent believe they have been helped or saved by a guardian angel. That probably means there are a few of us here this morning who trust that angels are watching over us.

    Whether you believe in them or not, don’t you love those adorable angels with chubby little faces, blond curly hair, and feather soft wings? And, if you don’t believe in angels, don’t you kind of wish you did? Perhaps you have a little golden angel pin on your blouse protecting you from all manner of mayhem or a wooden angel sitting with legs crossed on your fireplace mantel or a magnetic angel guarding the food in your refrigerator.

    In the Bible, angels appear when trouble is afoot. They always seem to be saying, “Do not be afraid.” An angel told Abraham not to sacrifice his son Isaac upon the blazing fire. An angel appeared to Daniel, in today’s reading in fact, when the Prince of Persia was before him and his friends were facing uncertain futures. An angel told Mary she was soon to be the mother of the Christ Child—but not to be afraid. Angels fluttered over the fields, telling the shepherds of the dear Savior’s birth. An angel came to John as he huddled in a cave on the island of Patmos and told him to remain strong even as his brothers and sisters in the faith were being slaughtered.

    Angels always point beyond themselves. Angels always bring words of comfort from God, words of “do not be afraid.” Angels, as we like to say, always give God the glory. That’s why we lift up Saint Michael and the Angels today because they are so masterful at pointing us to God. They are, pure and simple, messengers of God’s word come to earth.

    I love it when we say in our Communion liturgy, “And so with angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, and with all the hosts of heaven, we praise your name and join their unending hymn.” With that glorious angelic chorus at our side, our worship is grander, our song fuller, our troubled souls lighter. As you sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” this morning, listen for the angels.

    Has an angel ever sung to you?

    Barbara Parfin had an excruciating first half of life. She was born with grotesque deformities. She was missing an entire right hand and left foot. Her face was so disfigured that you could barely understand a word she said as she drooled down her chin and spit saliva toward you. People always did a double take when they saw her; children laughed at her. You can imagine Barbara’s agony. Over the years, Barbara had faithfully visited a member of our congregation in Philadelphia who was in her 90s. She brought considerable cheer to this lonely woman. On one visit, her elderly friend said to her, “Barbara, why don’t you go to seminary?” Barbara was stunned. How could she go to seminary with all her challenges? But she did and she is now a rostered leader in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Barbara believed that old woman was an angel singing to her.

    Has an angel ever sung to you?

    Frederick Buechner writes: “Angels are powerful spirits whom God sends into the world to wish us well. Since we don’t expect to see them, we don’t.”

    Dagmar and I hiked the Noble Canyon Trail in Mount Laguna this past Monday. It was a gorgeous day with a fresh autumn breeze wafting in the air. Our little Boykin Spaniel Cisco led the way like a fluffy teddy-bear, bouncing to and fro in great delight, his tiny clipped tail wagging furiously with glee. Dagmar and I stopped for a moment to drink in this beautiful place but I confess I never thought to thank God….And then an angel nudged me—I am embarrassed to say it actually took me a couple of days to realize an angel had been there all along on that beautiful day. It took an angel to tell me what a gift God’s creation is here in southern California when I am with my beloved wife and our happy dog.

    As Frederick Buechner notes, “Since we don’t expect to see them, we don’t.” But what if by the grace of God we keep our eyes and ears open a little wider? What if, like the shepherds amidst baaing sheep and shooting stars, we look and listen for the wonder of Christ with us. Maybe it is a friend who comforts us as we face what seems a devastating situation filled with heartache; maybe it is as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean and we are almost certain we are staring into the face of God. Days or even months later, it strikes us: we were touched by an angel.

    Watch carefully this morning as the bread and wine are lifted; see if you can hear an angel, “The body and blood of Christ given for you.” As we now sing “Angels We Have Heard on High,” listen to the angels sing with us…Life doesn’t get much better!

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    September 15, 2013
    Luke 15: 1-10
    “The Church Is Not a Business”

    A good friend of mine is a very successful businessman and a committed church person. Over the years, he and I have enjoyed conversation at a favorite Italian restaurant and at baseball games. Inevitably, the conversation turns to the church we both love. And, inevitably, we discuss congregational finances and programs. And inevitably, he says to me, “No successful business would ever run its finances and programs like the church does”—oh, and by the way, he is not a member of First Lutheran. And inevitably I say, “You are exactly right. Thank God, the church is not a business.”

    Now, don’t get me wrong. The church needs to use best practices from the business world to enhance how it proclaims the gospel. The church needs to be as wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove. The church must make tough decisions just like the business world and it should expect excellence from members and staff alike.

    But now hear this: the church is not a business!

    It has always seemed to me that we Christians are unduly harsh on the Pharisees and the Scribes. The moment we hear the name Pharisee or Scribe, we smell a rat. However, in today’s gospel reading, I wonder if the Pharisees and the Scribes are a lot like my business friend who says, “No successful business would ever run itself like a church.”

    Put yourself in place of the Scribes and Pharisees and try to see things from their perspective. They were good Jewish people; their greatest desire was to be as faithful as possible to the ways of God in the world. They were concerned about Jesus’ ways. Everywhere they turned, Jesus seemed to be dining with tax collectors and sinners and prostitutes, healing on the Sabbath, eating with dirty hands. Every such miscue meant God’s people were closer and closer to disaster; in modern parlance, Jesus had things on a slippery slope. Jesus’ way was certainly no way to run a business.

    When we have a new members' class here at First Lutheran, someone inevitably asks about our standards here. Specifically, they wonder how much they are expected to give to the ministry of our church and how often they must attend services. Are active members only those who tithe, giving 10% of their income and who attend services at least three out of four weeks in the month—good standards, it seems to me, for a vibrant business. You might be surprised to know, however, that to be considered an active member here at First Lutheran Church, according to our constitution, you have to give at least one penny over a two year period and you are expected to attend worship at least once during the same time period. I can hear my good friend screaming this very moment, “Pastor, that is no way to run a business!” (I had to look up our church constitution this morning to make sure I was correct! The standards seem far too lax.)

    There are churches—very good and committed ones—that have stringent membership standards. One of the most active churches I know and most committed to the poor of its community, requires its members to make a written covenant every year. Each member must agree to give a tithe, attend worship regularly, and participate in one of the congregation’s social ministry projects. If you do not want to make such a covenant to ministry, you need not be a member.

    There is part of me, the Scribe and Pharisee part, that is attracted to such stringent standards. Couldn’t we tighten up our constitution just a little bit? If we did, we would never have to talk about money again and our sanctuary would be full every Sunday. The ninety-nine healthy sheep would be like their friends, pigs in mud…but the one lost sheep would be a goner for sure.

    There have always been movements in church history and probably always will be that have wanted to protect the ninety-nine at the expense of the one. They are purity cults. Like the Scribes and Pharisees, these movements have wanted to intensify membership standards and tighten things up. It sounds quite holy really—we should all read the Bible, give 10% of our income to the church’s ministry, volunteer at TACO, come to landscaping day once a month, sing in the choir, and pray every day. And yet, inevitably, such standards wring the neck of the gospel and the only winners are those self-righteous enough to stand around in a circle, holding hands and baaing, thanking God they are not like that pathetic lost sheep hanging on for dear life on some desolate cliff.

    I remember a theologian saying the most radical thing the church can do is gather together on Sunday morning. I have always believed this to be the case. Whenever we gather here, we can easily look around and see who is missing. Maybe it is someone you are very close to and wonder where she has been the past six weeks. Maybe you look around and wonder why our congregation is not more reflective of our greater community—where are the Spanish speakers, the African Americans, the young adults, the elderly, the homeless? The ideal of this meal is where all are welcome. Not just some, not just the most committed, not just the well scrubbed, not just the pious, but all one hundred sheep.

    A community that gathers in Jesus’ name is always concerned about the one missing sheep. I once heard it said that the difference between Alcoholics Anonymous and the church is that when a latecomer arrives at an AA meeting, everyone gasps a sigh of relief and says, “We are so happy you are here. We thought you had fallen off the wagon,” whereas in the church, when someone arrives late, we grumble, “Why is he always arriving late?” Oh, to be like AA! Isn’t the church at its best when the ninety-nine risk everything for the sake of the one lost one? Isn’t the church at its best when the ninety-nine celebrate the return of the one who was lost and now is found?

    I believe more and more that what my good friend says is one of the highest compliments the church can receive: “We do not run ourselves as a business.” All we have to do is look to Jesus. It makes no sense that he went to the cross at thirty-three. Think what quality years of ministry Jesus still had ahead of him, think of all the lives he could have touched if he hadn’t given his life for the one measly lost sheep, one just like you and me. I guess that’s why I am thankful that the church does not run itself like a business or a purity cult. If it did, I am afraid at least I would be left out on some desolate cliff, hanging on for dear life by my bleeding fingertips. How good it is that we are here today, ninety-nine and one, all gathered together by our Good Shepherd.

    The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
    First Lutheran Church, San Diego
    September 8, 2013
    Sixteeth Sunday after Pentecost
    Luke 14: 25-33
    “A Fearsome Call”

    ““Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” What in the world are we to make of these words of Jesus? Let’s admit it: Jesus says some pretty maddening things….Hate your mother and father?

    In many circles, “family values” seem to be the highest of all Christian priorities. We used to see billboards touting, “The family that prays together stays together.” Now candidates run for political office placing family values at the top of their platforms. There is a conservative Christian movement called “Focus on the Family.” I even hear people who hold Mormons in high regard; though their beliefs differ dramatically from ours, some are impressed with the Mormons because of their emphasis on the family.

    Given all this stress on family, when Jesus calls us to hate our family, we might say, “Wait just a minute. The Fourth Commandment calls me to honor my father and mother not to hate them.”

    Whenever I think of what is best about Christianity—what is at the center of our faith—love is at the top of the list. Jesus told us: “Love your enemies, do good to