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“Orphans No More”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Orphans No More”
John 14: 15-21
May 21, 2017 (Sixth Sunday of Easter)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

My heart plummets every time I hear Jesus’ words, “I will not leave you orphaned.”  I know Jesus meant no harm; in fact, I’m sure he intended to cheer us up.  But the word “orphan” flusters me nonetheless…  Let me explain.

When I was in second grade at Woodsdale School, a number of my little classmates were orphans.  They lived at the Wheeling Children’s Home, a sprawling castle straight out of a Dickens novel.  The kids wore humdrum clothing and had shabbier haircuts than the ones my father gave me.  It was all perfectly adequate if you had nowhere else to live but it scared me to death: might I, one day, end up in the children’s home on Orchard Road?

Don’t we all fear ending up orphans?

That is why, about twelve hours before his crucifixion, Jesus gathered his beloved disciples for a final supper and promised them, “I will not leave you orphaned.”

Oh, the horror abandonment!

The cruelest thing I can recall doing as a parent occurred when our son Caspar was six years old.  We were on our way from Washington, D.C. to Wheeling, West Virginia, to visit my parents.  We stopped at our favorite rest area that had fascinating exhibits about the construction of stunning Interstate 68 running through the mountains of Western Maryland.  After exploring the displays, we went outside and hid behind a kiosk.  We were certain Caspar would find us but he barely looked for us.  He instantly thought he had been deserted.  By the time we realized the terror that had overcome him, he was sprinting across the pedestrian bridge spanning the interstate.  We screamed, “Caspar, Caspar,” but to no avail; he could not hear us.  Once he reached the other side, to our utter revulsion, he spotted the lot where our car was parked and ran back, straight across the six-lane highway, with huge semis sweeping down through the mountains at seventy miles an hour.  Thank God, he ran fast and, thank God, we got to him.

How terrible to be left alone!

Jesus knew we would feel deserted after his crucifixion, not just in the immediate days following but down through the centuries as well.  Just entering this sanctuary can feel terribly isolating.  We come here bruised and broken, desperately longing for someone’s attention.

My greatest goal for Holy Trinity is that every person who enters this holy place will feel showered with Christ’s love—it has been my goal at every church where I have the pastor.  Even if this morning is your first time here and you had hoped to sneak in here undetected, sit alone, and examine the goings-on from afar, I still hope you end up feeling a bit overwhelmed by someone’s friendliness.  To be honest, I hope you feel the welcome a bit like overcooked evangelical fervor.  Isn’t it better to have someone take notice of you than to slink out of here with ne’er a word of welcome uttered your way?

You know how awkward it feels to be an outsider.  You have visited a church for the first time or arrived at a party and not known a soul.  For introverts like me, introductions and mingling are exhausting work.  The usher hands you a bulletin with nothing more than a perfunctory nod; when the peace is passed, you watch others cheerfully hug and kiss and you feel a million miles away.  Even though a few folks say “peace” to you, the word doesn’t feel nearly as familiar as what you observe others feeling toward one another. This all makes you feel edgy.  As the week wears on, you finally muster the courage to tell a coworker about visiting a church where the music was stunning, the sermon stirring, and the architecture soaring; unfortunately, the only lasting taste you have is not a soul talked to you.  You felt abandoned, rather like an orphan.  It was exhausting.

I pray that we might all have eyes of Christ, eyes that, upon entering this sanctuary, immediately begin looking for someone who is alone.  What a wonderful gift if our initial inclination is not to seek the ones we know best but rather to seek out the stranger, the one we have never met.

On that final night, Jesus said to his friends, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  (Listen carefully to those words put to gorgeous music during this morning’s offertory anthem.)  Of these words, “keep my commandments,” Martin Luther writes: “Christ says, ‘I ask and demand no more than this one thing, that you faithfully preach about me, watch over my Word and Sacrament, show affection and harmony among one another for my sake, and patiently bear the adversities that this entails for you.’”  Luther could easily have said, “Keep your eyes out for the visitor and the lonely one and shower them with affection—they need it.”

Jesus asks us to be babysitters until he returns.  We are the ones responsible for telling the frightened and lonely and the self-conscious, “Your mommy and daddy will be back soon” or, better yet, “Jesus will come again.”  And, until he returns, we spread out a meal for one and all and say, “Take and eat.”

We are fast approaching the summer months—you can feel the heat already.  Soon after Dagmar and I arrived last summer, one of the first things you told us was: “Don’t worry if no one shows up the second Sunday you are here.  That says nothing about what people think of you.  Everyone leaves New York on summer weekends.”  When I was a pastor in Washington, D.C., this exodus had a churchly title similar to Christmas, Lent, and Easter; it was called “Beachtide.”

My deepest desire is for each of you to have a delightful summer; you deserve a sabbath, a rest at the beach, a hike in the mountains, a breather where your soul is refreshed from the city’s onslaught.  But, when you are in town, please do as Jesus asks: keep his commandments and show up here.  People need you to welcome them and to love them and my hunch is you need it too.

Just to assure one another that we have not been left orphaned, let us proclaim yet again, “Alleluia!  Christ is risen!”

“We Are All Jesus Has Got at 65th and Central Park West”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“We Are All Jesus Has Got at 65th and Central Park West”
John 14: 1-14
Fifth Sunday of Easter (Mother’s Day)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

Whether you are interested or not, here’s a glimpse into how I write my sermons.

I read the upcoming lessons a week or so in advance.  I jot down words and phrases that strike me.  I note initial ideas that stir me up, even ponder what sets my mind to wander.  Then I put question marks by all that baffles me.

When I read today’s gospel, I, like you, had heard it at countless funerals: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”

But there was more—and these words threw me for a loop: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

Quite bluntly: “Jesus, do you really mean to say we will do greater works than you?  That sounds like blasphemy!  It is impossible to do greater works than you!”

My immediate impulse—which I confess I acted on—was to go immediately to my bookshelf to see what my favorite preachers have said about these words of Jesus in the past.  I also reached for biblical commentaries, those dense, sometimes impenetrable books, written by biblical scholars that examine the Bible, verse by agonizing verse, helping us grasp what these ancient texts are all about.

One of my seminary professors warned against turning too quickly to the great preachers and scholars for their ponderings and answers.  He advised us, first, to trust our own initial reactions: what does this biblical text say to you?

“You will do great works than I do?”

We need to sit with these words, listen to them, pray with them.  So let us, for a moment, do just that.

Listen again: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

When I listened carefully, I realized that we don’t really do these things alone.  We only do them when we call upon the name of Jesus.

I have been blessed to have excellent bishops and I am thrilled with my new one—you should have heard Bishop Rimbo’s stem-winder of a sermon yesterday at the concluding worship service of our synod assembly in Tarrytown.  Harold Jansen was my bishop in Washington, D.C.  I will never forget Bishop Jansen preaching at a jam-packed Reformation service at the National Cathedral; he claimed that, and I quote, “We are the only Lutherans Washington’s got.”  There was some immediate bounce back: there was at least one other brand of Lutherans in the DC environs who believed ELCA Lutherans were not all Washington’s got.  I always think of Bishop Jansen’s words wherever I have been called to ministry.

We are the only Lutherans 65th and Central Park West has got.  The only ones!  In fact, we are the only Christian congregation for quite a few blocks.  There are a few synagogues nearby, the Society for Ethical Culture just down the street on Central Park West, and the Mormons a block away with Moroni blowing his golden rooftop trumpet.  But God entrusts this corner to our care.  Whenever we slack off, squabble, get lazy, or become stingy, we risk losing this corner for God’s work.  Jesus has risen after all and has left this corner to our care, in his name.  We are all Jesus has got.

I have watched now for ten months to see what you do in Jesus’ name.  You haven’t told me all that you do but I have heard.  You visit homebound members regularly.  You go to the hospital after a dear friend has had delicate and frightening surgery.  You show up at our women’s shelter and at HUG, downstairs, and no one even knows you were there.  You write your congressional representatives pleading that they not forget the most vulnerable or forsake the poorest.  Some of you have committed yourselves to this congregation’s ministry for years and years, in good times and bad, refusing to take leave and always leaning on God’s everlasting arms.  There is so much more that I don’t know about—how you travel to spend the weekend with your aging mother, how you let your twenty-something child stay at home as he madly searches for a meaningful job, how you take your neighbor to detox in the middle of night.  You, by the way, are not Mother Teresa or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther or Martin Luther King, but that is not the point.  You are all God’s got and God has called you, not them, to bear the gospel in this place.

Consider your own mother on this Mother’s Day.  Very few of us have had famous mothers.  Our mothers have had their ups and downs.  In most cases, God willing, they have done their best to convey Christ’s love to us.  And yet, think about it: of all the courses they took in school—biology and algebra, physics and home economics—they never took a course in how to be a mom; they learned on the fly and have done the best they could.  And yet, they are still the first ones we turn to, even if we are older now and even if they died years ago.  We want to tell them immediately our best and worst news.  We want them to embrace us and sometimes we just want to cry on their shoulders. When you called me as your pastor last April, the first person I thought to call with the news was my mother even though she had died ten years earlier.  Our mothers are the only mothers we have got and the good ones do the best they can.

And it isn’t just our mothers; it is our brothers and sisters in Christ as well.  We are the only ones Christ has got to bear one another’s burdens.  That is why it is so important for each of us to do our very best to show up here as often as we can on Sunday morning.  We come not just for our own edification; we also come because others expect us; they really want to see us.  They want us to embrace them; they want to tell us their deepest pains, to share their greatest joys.

We are all God’s got here in this place.  That is why Jesus tells us that we will do greater works that he.  What a gift!

Let us celebrate that gift and seek every opportunity to tell one another, “Alleluia!  Christ is risen.”

“Just Telling Stories and Eating Dinner”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Just Telling Stories and Eating Dinner”
Luke 24: 13-35
April 30, 2017 (Third Sunday of Easter)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

Rick Barr was two years ahead of me in seminary.  He came back to visit us at the divinity school after serving three months in a little congregation along the coast of Maine.  We were delighted to see Rick and thrilled to hear his initial impressions of parish ministry.

“There is no job like it,” he told us.  “I go to the Hidden Cove Diner every morning at 7 o’clock.  All I do is drink coffee, eat scrambled eggs and hash browns, and chatter with the locals until our heads fall off.  Can you believe the church pays me just to hang out and tell stories?  What a life!”

Maybe in these days when our Lutheran church is facing a severe clergy shortage, we should create a marketing campaign with Rick in mind: “If you like drinking coffee at Starbucks and telling stories, you will love ministry in the Lutheran church.”

If today’s resurrection story is any indication, that’s pretty much how ministry happened after Jesus rose from the dead.  Two men, one whose name was Cleopas, were on their way to Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.  Jesus had been dead three days.  The two fellows talked and talked.  They had placed all their hopes on Jesus, trusting he would change the world and their lives for the better.  He was gone now and their hearts were broken.

Out of the blue, a stranger joined them.  On and on they gabbed with him, for two and a half hours, all the way to Emmaus.

They spoke of their shattered hopes.  They told the stranger how Jesus had been condemned to die by the religious authorities and political leaders and then promptly crucified.  They talked about the women who had reported to them that Jesus had risen.  The stories went on and on.  They told about how some of their associates went to the tomb but did not find the body.

The stranger got in on the conversation, too: “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  They were clueless that this was Jesus talking…and listening.  He led them in an old-fashioned Bible study of sorts, beginning with Moses and the prophets; he “interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

For some reason, the two forlorn wanderers got it into their heads to invite this story-telling stranger to their house for supper and to ask him to stay for the night.  Intended or not, their invitation was a stroke of genius.  St. Luke writes: “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…”

Yes, you noticed: they came to know the Risen Christ in the telling of stories and the breaking of bread.

The story-telling, by the way, didn’t stop in Emmaus.  After telling stories and breaking bread, “they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.  They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread”—quite similar to what Rick Barr told us about doing ministry at First Church on the Green up in Maine.

It seems so simple, almost too simple: telling stories and breaking bread, exactly what we are doing here, right now.  Shouldn’t there be more to it if we are to know our Risen Savior?

When I was ordained forty years ago, one of the gifts my parents gave me, in addition to this beautiful white cope, was a little black box.  In it are a tiny silver bread box and a diminutive plate, a teensy cruet for wine and a miniscule silver chalice.  Whenever I go to the hospital or visit homebound members, I take this box along with a miniscule Bible our oldest son Sebastian gave me on Christmas when he was one year old (forty years later, I can barely read the fine print).  That’s all I need for ministry—actually all I’ve got: a little book of Bible stories and an insignificant box for serving a meal of Christ’s body and blood.

I must confess there have been occasions when I have yearned for far fancier accoutrements than a box and a book.  Whenever I visit you in the hospital and see doctors in their freshly laundered lab coats with their names and fancy titles embossed in red, I wish I had some breathtaking trappings, too, like a stethoscope flung around my neck and a crowd of adoring interns and residents nipping at my heels.  Shouldn’t we all have more powerful symbols and soaring stuff when speaking of heavenly things?

All I have to accomplish my heavenly craft on earth are a little book and a tiny box…And really, all we have for ministry in this place is the story of a risen carpenter from Nazareth and a little water and bread and wine.  That’s it or, as the Lutheran reformers were fond of saying in Latin, satis est (that is enough).

We can get terrible inferiority complexes about this.  We want so much more.  We often catch ourselves measuring our success by bigger buildings, bigger congregations, bigger endowments.  We repeatedly ask one another, “Are we growing?  How big is our church now?”  In the face of our gigantic dreams, all we have for ministry are a book and bread and wine and water.

The earliest Lutheran reformers realized we would hanker for more impressive things.  And so, in our chief confessional document, the “Augsburg Confession” (Confessio Augustana in Latin), the church is defined as “the assembly of saints in which the Gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.”  That is it—a book, water, bread and wine.   And that is exactly what so excited Rick Barr about ministry: we are at our best whenever we are telling stories and eating.

Yes, indeed, that is more than enough!  Because, of course….

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

“Jesus Comes to Thomas, Amelia Rose, and Us”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Jesus Comes to Thomas, Amelia Rose, and Us”
John 20: 19-31
April 23, 2017 (2nd Sunday of Easter)

Thomas is often called “Doubting Thomas.”  Unfortunately, claiming that Thomas doubted Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the disciples probably plays a bit fast and loose with the whole truth about him.

Thomas was absent the evening of the resurrection when Jesus appeared to the other ten.  It is easy to ridicule him for saying, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe”—easy to ridicule Thomas but hardly fair.  Thomas didn’t so much doubt as demand proof that Jesus had actually appeared to the disciples.  Is someone so terrible just because they want proof of what is impossible to believe?

It is easy to forget the whole story about Thomas.  Thomas was the one who said of Jesus, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  That was a whiff of courage on Thomas’ part as Jesus drew dangerously close to Jerusalem where he would soon die.

Thomas also asked the tough questions when others felt too shy or too silly to do so.  When Jesus was with the disciples at the Last Supper, he spoke to them about going to his Father’s house.  Thomas was courageous enough to ask the question on everyone’s mind: “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”  Yet again, Thomas demonstrated honesty not doubt.  He wanted to know what in the world was up.

While we know the nickname, “Doubting Thomas,” we probably are not as familiar with his other moniker, “The Twin.”  The Bible gives no indication who Thomas’ twin was but I like Frederick Buechner’s suggestion: “If you want to know who the other twin is, I can tell you.  I am the other twin, and unless I miss my guess, so are you.”

Aren’t we all Thomas’ twin: we soar to courageous heights and then promptly plummet to cowardly lows.

Many of us find it easy to criticize folks like Thomas.  We have the time of our lives at parties mimicking their quirks and mocking their shortcomings.  Everyone slaps their knees in riotous laughter at our hilarious barbs.  But, Jesus never joins our catty conversations.  He always removes himself from such sarcastic goings-on; he is always so understanding of those who come up short of our so-called “exacting standards.”

Jesus could have easily lambasted every, single disciple.  They repeatedly demonstrated failure of nerve and revealed all manner of double-dealing behavior.  Jesus could have hollered, “Shame on you all.”  But on that first Easter evening, when Thomas was absent, Jesus came and stood among the ten disciples and said, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.”  Remarkable when you think about it: not a single word of rebuke.

Eight days later, Thomas was in the house.  The doors were shut and, somehow, again, Jesus made it through and stood among them.  And, once again, Jesus said, “Peace be with you,” and once again, there was no ferocious scolding.  The disciples watched closely to see how Jesus would respond to Thomas’ demand to see his wounds before he believed.  Astonishingly, Jesus was the essence of grace; he drew so close to Thomas and lovingly said to him, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side…”

Jesus, of course, had already died on the cross, already forgiven each of them with arms outstretched.  Now, yet again, he showered them with love.  There was no need to say, “Shame on you!”

There is another interesting detail in this story.  Though he was risen, Jesus still had wounds in his hands and his side.  I can’t figure out why Jesus still had the crucifixion wounds—he was risen after all—but let me take a guess.

We bear our wounds and imperfections, too, and you have noticed, I’m sure, we still are called the body of Christ.  Why doesn’t God call perfect people to do ministry in this world?  Why not brilliant people who can offer perfect answers to the most difficult questions of life?  Why not people who never stumble?  Why does God call us with all our failures and crashes?

In a few moments, we will baptize Amelia Rose von Bargen.  Now, admittedly, from her parents and grandparents’ vantage point, she is a tiny bundle of perfection.  But, come on mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, we know better.  Little Amelia Rose had barely entered this world before she screamed up a storm. “Drop everything and feed me,” she shrieked the best she was able.  God did not say, “Shame on you, Amelia Rose, for demanding such special attention.”  Instead, God brings her, this morning, to the center of the universe; with the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” she becomes Jesus’ precious sister and ours as well.  We have no idea why God does this except for love’s sake.

I have a hunch Amelia Rose will be much like Thomas.  Who knows whether she will scream or laugh or be quiet and mellow as the baptismal water is poured over her head in a few moments?  As she grows older, I’ll bet she will have moments that will delight mom and dad and others that will exasperate them.  Whatever happens, all the while, you must remember, she is a treasured child of God.

I have no idea why Jesus still bore the wounds after he rose from the dead.  I wish everything had been perfect, don’t you?  Maybe it was.  Maybe Jesus was showing us that he could bear our sorrows, disappointments, and failures even when we shout bloody murder because the world does not revolve around us.

Jesus is here today, yet again, this time with us, wounds and all, in the water spilled over Amelia Rose and in the meal of bread and wine.

We will not hear a single, “Shame on you.”  Instead, Jesus will say, “Peace be with you.”

And hearing that, we will shout, “Alleluia!  Christ is risen!”

“Story-Telling around the Fire”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Story-Telling around the Fire”
April 15, 2017 (Easter Vigil)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Elie Wiesel writes, “God created humanity because God likes stories.” This night proves his point.

The Easter Vigil is a night of stories; they go on and on and on. If you are not an admirer of story-telling, this night is not for you. If you love stories, tonight is heavenly.

This is not a hasty affair. It as if we are preparing a fine meal that requires hours and hours. The Vigil is the longest service of the church year. We have come to tell stories, long stories, God’s stories. We cannot be rushed.

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. The story had power, and room for growth.”

On the best of nights, the stories we tell have power and room for growth. We gather with loved ones and dear friends. One story leads to another, each becomes more tantalizing. “If you think creation is amazing, listen to Noah’s ark…I can one up that tale with the one about Ezekiel watching dry bones rattle back to life…If you think that’s astounding, let me tell you about Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego in the fiery furnace.” On and on we go, weaving magical tales with indescribable power. These stories boost our spirits, soothe our souls, and stir our imaginations. Hours fly by until someone inevitably says, “You are never going to believe what time it is.”

God’s stories are the richest because they have aged richly over thousands of years. These stories are crammed with God’s holiness, brimming with God’s defiance of death. Tonight, in their umpteenth telling, they trounce the enemy yet again and exalt the sufferer. You have noticed, I’m sure, these stories always champion the little guy who is down and out and the unlikeliest rascal always ends up winning the prize.

We tell these stories when none other will do, when only God’s power and glory can generate wonder in us. That is why we are here tonight, to tell one more story, the perfect one, yet again. This perfect story, the final one, told right after we are tucked in and immediately before the lights are turned off for the final time, claims that God raised Jesus from the dead. This story gives us courage to do as God’s faithful storytellers have done throughout the ages: we dare stand at the grave and sing “Alleluia.” And, as if that is not enough, we do something even more unlikely. As the body of our loved one is lowered into the grave, we courageously proclaim: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord makes his face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace.” This story claims there are other stories yet to be heard, other stories only God can tell.

What we do here requires a flight of fantasy. Our presence reminds me of a church similar to ours, a little-bitty place in Island Pond, Vermont, where the rector got the odd idea to hold an Easter Vigil just like this one. Only a handful of people showed up. Garrett Keizer writes: “The act is so ambiguous because its terms are so extreme: The Lord is with us, or we are pathetic fools.”

Only story tellers gather in places like Island Pond, Vermont, and New York, New York, where the terms are so extreme. We are entrusted with an unlikely story, the one of Jesus of Nazareth who was unceremoniously nailed to a tree and left to rot in a tomb and yet, by the power of God, was raised from the dead. This is our story, this is our song.

Tomorrow morning, a throng will gather here and it will be astonishing and well worth it. But tonight, perhaps this is the most dazzling of all liturgies—not because of its intricate nature, but because we are so small: if the Lord is not with us, we are indeed pathetic fools, but, if the Lord is here, as we trust is the case, this is the most stunning of nights. Yes, indeed, this is the perfect night to put the story of the empty tomb to the test.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!