Pastor Wilbert Miller
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park
Has anything in your life ever been urgent, really urgent?
Farmers understand urgency: the harvest must occur when the wheat is ripe. There is no tomorrow. The time is now.
I know a bit about the urgency of the harvest. I worked on a farm in high school and college. One summer day, Herb Minch, my boss, informed me that we would build a forty-five-foot silo made of hundreds and hundreds of cumbersome concrete slabs. I had no idea how long building a silo would take but imagined a week, maybe even two or three—after all, there were others chores to be done along the way: cows to be milked, stalls to be mucked, hay to be baled. Imagine my alarm when I discovered we would unload all the cumbersome slabs from a flatbed trailer one day and carry them twenty-five yards to the building site the next where the silo would be built that very day. When I rode my motorcycle home each of those two nights, on dark winding West Virginia country roads, I was certain I was about to die. My stomach was bloody and scraped. I felt like a prizefighter knocked silly in the third round at Madison Square Garden. I quickly grasped the urgency of the harvest.
Jesus understood the urgency, as well, even though he was a carpenter’s kid. You will remember, he was the one who said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
I once read an article in “National Geographic” magazine about wheat harvests in the plains of the United States. The article included eerie photos of combines, lights ablaze, harvesting wheat at four in the morning. Wheat farmers run their combines, night and day, when the wheat is ripe. No delays, no excuses. The time is now.
How many of us would stay up all night to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of heaven? Can’t this wait until tomorrow, maybe a month, perhaps even a year? We might harbor serious concerns about a person who exhibits an acute sense of urgency, someone who seems incapable of waiting: are they suffering from some psychological malady that compels them to act so brashly? Take it easy, we say. What’s the rush? Shouldn’t we discuss matters first, hold a congregational meeting, make certain every opinion is adequately considered before acting?
According to Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is so near that sick folks need cured today! the dead need raised now! lepers cleansed immediately! demons cast out instantly! That’s the rush!
These are urgent days and we must travel light. All Jesus offers us for the journey is a little bread and wine, a bit of water, and a Bible; that’s it—no excess baggage. Jesus urged us, “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff.” Travel light for the Gospel’s sake. Get on with it!
Oh, and by the way, Jesus never promised such a calling would be easy: “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…they will hand you over to councils and flog you…and you will be dragged before the governors and kings because of me…” Not a single word about success by the way—just urgency.
While it may sound overwhelming, I know you sense the urgency because I have been watching you for a year now. In just the past few weeks, quite a few of you have picked up immediately and rushed off to visit your ailing mothers and your niece. You packed light; no time to waste. You didn’t count the cost of the plane or train ticket; you didn’t even think to ask your employer whether your time away would be considered vacation time or sick leave. You just took off immediately for love’s sake to places like Virginia and Florida.
You sense the urgency, of course you do. I have watched you visit your dear friend week after week who lives in a continuing care facility. She is mired in the dense fog of her autumn years. She can’t quite remember who you are. You often feel ill-at-ease, not sure what to say, and yet, knowing the harvest is so near, you start singing the first thing that comes to mind:
“Jesus loves me! This I know, for the Bible tells me so;
little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me, yes, Jesus loves me,
yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.”
Oh, I have not only been watching you, I have also been reading your Facebook posts. Just this morning, you wrote this: “There was once a woman who had a little three-year-old boy. And they were loved and a complete family of two, even unto themselves, but then she met a man and fell in love with him. And one day she invited this man to meet her son.
“As my dad tells it, he was sitting on the sofa in my mom’s little apartment and I was staring at him for a long time, as I marched circles around a coffee table in front of that sofa and quietly checked him out from head to toe. After several minutes of this I finally stopped, pointed at him, and declared, “YOU are my daddy.”
“At this point most men would’ve laughed nervously and quietly made a mental note to not date this woman (and her precocious kid) ever again. But my dad just smiled and looked at me and said “ok.” And we have never EVER looked back on the verbal contract we entered into on that day. Ever.
“I love to hear and watch my father tell this story because he his face lights up and he always smiles, and I know that he really, really loves me. And I know that he knows I really, really love him”…That, dear friends, is the urgency of the harvest. Telling someone that we love them, not tomorrow, but today.
A good friend of mine received a card from a venerable pastor on the day he was ordained a minister of the church in the holy office of Word and Sacraments. The card simply read, “Dear George, it will be a glorious struggle.” This wise servant of the Lord knew what he was talking about: he served deep in North Philadelphia’s inner-city. Whenever a row house was a burning inferno or a teenager was gunned down, desperate families came knocking at Father Black’s door first, no matter the hour. They knew that he understood: the harvest is now, not tomorrow.
You know that, too. There is nothing quite so invigorating as being called by Jesus to join the glorious struggle for the life of our groaning world as you are enveloped in the wonder of the kingdom of heaven fast approaching. When Jesus calls you and you follow immediately, that is pure gospel joy.
The Day of Pentecost
Numbers 11:24-30; Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23
4 June 2017
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
The City of New York
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s a good thing today’s Gospel empowers us to forgive one another. I confess to you that I chose to use the alternative reading – the fascinating story of Eldad and Medad from Numbers 11 – for the First Lesson and the account of the Day of Pentecost from Acts 2 for the Second Reading – and did not tell Donald or Bonnie. Oh, well. It was so good to hear Joe reading that story about the Spirit being let loose on the children of Israel and to hear Lois reading the story of people from every nation under heaven and eloquently managing those names. So I confess that mess-up.
And while I’m confessing, it’s safe to tell you this now, some forty-plus years after ordination, many of them serving on a synod staff and even as a bishop in one place or another…it’s safe to tell you, I think:
Early on I had a rather anti-authoritarian take on church governance. I was not at all sure,
when the ELCA was constituting, that we should have bishops at all. (It was a long time ago. Now I see some value in it. Lois and I have been at very nice events because of the office I hold.) I had this tendency toward being like Eldad and Medad in the First Reading, thinking that you don’t have to go through anything like a process to be ordained. But, the book of Numbers says, “the spirit rested on them” – and that, apparently, was enough. Joshua tried to intervene and follow constitutional processes for candidacy, but Moses said he wanted all of God’s people to be prophets with the spirit resting on them. Well, that would be something.
It’s a great story, but not one to be thrown in a bishop’s face if you are coming for an initial interview. We have rules, after all. Constitutional provisions, after all. And the pastor of this congregation, Wilbert Miller, is even on the Candidacy Committee appointed to help apply those rules to renegade Eldads and Medads….and Bobs, I suspect, if I were to go through the process.
Such rules are good. They have protected innocent people from renegade leaders. They have spared the church all kinds of embarrassment, not to mention lawsuits. But, sometimes, the Holy Spirit just does renegade things still.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. (Acts 2:1-2)
There they were, about a hundred and twenty of them, worrying about what they were going to do without Jesus, when they heard a holy hurricane headed their way. Before any of them could defend themselves, that mighty wind had blown through the entire house,
putting flames above their heads, and they were filled up with it – every one of them was filled with the mighty breath of God. Then something clamped down on them and the air came out of them in languages they did not even know they knew. Like they were theologians with Ph. Ds. in linguistics. They set up such a racket that they drew a crowd.
It was bigger than the G-7 Summit and the United Nations put together! People from all over the world who were in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Pentecost came leaning in the windows and pushing through the doors, surprised to hear someone speaking their own language so far from home. Parthians stuck their heads through the door expecting to see other Parthians, and Libyans looked around for other Libyans, but what they saw instead were a bunch of Galileans from northern Israel dressed in overalls and Converse sneakers – fishing folk and farmers – all going on and on about God’s mighty acts. Prophesying like first-century Eldads and Medads.
Before the day was over, the church had grown from one hundred twenty to more than three thousand people. Shy people had become bold, scared people had become gutsy, and lost people had found a sure sense of direction. Disciples who had not believed themselves capable of anything without Jesus discovered abilities within themselves they never knew they had. When they opened their mouths to speak, they sounded like Jesus. When they laid their hands upon the sick, it was as if Jesus himself had touched them.
Soon they were doing things they had never seen anyone but Jesus do, and there was no explanation for it, except that they had dared to breathe on the day of Pentecost. They had sucked in God’s own breath and they had been transformed by it. The Holy Spirit had entered into them the same way it had entered into Mary, the Mother of our Lord, and for the same reason: it was time for God to be born again – not in one body this time but in a body of believers who would receive the breath of life from their Lord and pass it on, using their own bodies to distribute the gift.
The Book of Acts is the story of their adventures, which is why I like to think of it as the gospel of the Holy Spirit. We’ve heard a lot from Acts during the Sundays of Easter, and now we go back to the start of it today. In the first four books of the New Testament, the Gospels,
we learn the good news of what God did through Jesus Christ. In the Book of Acts, we learn the good news of what God did through the Holy Spirit, by performing resuscitation on a room full of well-intentioned people like us, who became a force that changed the history of the world.
The question for me today, and therefore for you, the question worth working at a bit,
is whether we still believe in a God who acts like that. Do we still believe in a God who blows through closed doors and sets our heads on fire? Do we still believe in a God with power to transform us, both as individuals and as a people? Or have we come to an unspoken agreement that our God is old and tired by now, riding around in a celestial golf-cart, someone to whom we may address our prayer requests but not anyone we really expect to change our lives?
The Holy Spirit is hard to define. Most of us can at least begin to talk about God the Father,
creator of heaven and earth, who makes the sun shine and the rain fall and is concerned about global warming. We do all right, for the most part, with the Son of God, Jesus, who, asleep on the hay, was human like us: our savior, teacher, helper, friend.
But how do you describe God the Holy Spirit? I’ll give you a minute to think about it.
There is some very fine teaching available, written by very smart people. But I hope you do not believe it. Do not be satisfied with it. I hope none of you rests until you have felt the Holy Spirit blow through your own life, rearranging things, opening things up and maybe even setting you on fire.
There is nothing you can do to make it happen, as far as I know, except to pray “Come, Holy Spirit” every chance you get. If you don’t want anything to change in your life, then for heaven’s sake don’t pray that prayer, but if you are the type of person who likes to feel the power of God, then you are probably a good candidate for that Holy Spirit prayer. But just a warning: You might become an Eldad or a Medad.
But asking for the Holy Spirit is only half the equation. The other half is recognizing it when it comes. I find there are a lot of people who say they have never encountered God as Father, Son, or Holy Spirit, but when they start talking about their lives, when they start giving testimony like many did at our synod assembly, it seems pretty clear to me they have. A lot of these folks I’ve met just didn’t have a name for it, did not know what to call the experience of God living in them. So they wrote it off.
But you may have had such experiences of God; let me name a couple of ways the Holy Spirit moves today.
One famous way is to give people a sense of new beginning. You take a deep breath for the first time in months and your chest opens up and you get a second wind. You can call that anything you want. I call it the Holy Spirit acting.
Another way the Spirit works is to give people a way back into relationship. Maybe this kind of thing has happened to you here, as you found this community of faith a welcoming place for you. Maybe because this community is inclusive, musical, liturgical, welcoming, a place of beauty with people of beauty. It’s why I’m here as often as I can be. Your heart has opened and a reunion with the church has started. You can call that anything you want, but it’s God the Holy Spirit.
Once you get the hang of it, the evidence is easier and easier to spot. Whenever two plus two does not equal four but five – whenever you find yourself speaking with an eloquence you know you do not have, or offering forgiveness you did not mean to offer – whenever you find yourself taking risks you thought you did not have the courage to take, or you reach out to someone you intended to walk away from – you can be pretty sure that you are learning about the gospel of the Holy Spirit. And more than that, you are taking part in it,
breathing in and breathing out, taking God into you and giving God back to the world again with some of yourself attached.
Do we still believe in a God who acts like that? Do you? More importantly, do we still experience a God who acts like that? Do we still have room for Eldad and Medad in the church? I do not know what your answer is, but I hope you will discover one, maybe starting right now. Join with me and your pastor and Eldad and Medad and the disciples and all who have answered that call of God.
Breathe in. Breathe out. And see what happens next.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo
Metropolitan New York Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Discovering Heaven-Up and Down, Up and Down”
(John 17: 1-11; Acts 1: 6-14)
May 28, 2017 (Seventh Sunday of Easter)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
Central Park West-New York City
Do you ever catch yourself dreaming of heaven? What will it be like? Who will be there? Where exactly is heaven?
Ever since we were kids, we have asked: “Mommy, how far is heaven up in the sky? Daddy, does heaven really have cotton candy clouds and streets lined with gold? Grandma, will Boomer be waiting for me, with his tail wagging, when I get to heaven?”
As we grow older, our speculation intensifies, though masked in more sophisticated jargon: Who will get into heaven? Is heaven a state of mind or an actual place? Given that we no longer hold the antiquated three-tier vision—heaven way up there, earth right here, and hell way down there—where exactly is heaven?
I give thanks for musicians, poets, and artists who help us explore these questions with greater imagination. As our hymn sang last Sunday, the creative souls dazzle us with heavenly “wonder, love, and praise.”
Our choir, week after week, dazzles us with such heavenly wonder, love, and praise. Since I will be away next Sunday on our choir’s final day before taking a well-deserved summer break, I would like to express my deepest appreciation to our cantor Donald Meineke and our choir for your breathtaking music. You point us toward heaven as we join the melody of angels, saints, and martyrs singing “Holy, holy, holy.”
During the offering today, our choir will sing In Paradisum, breathtaking music from Gabriel Faure’s Requiem. Listen to the words:
May the angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs receive you at your arrival and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem.
May choirs of angels receive you
and with Lazarus, once (a) poor (man),
may you have eternal rest.
I have used these words at countless funerals. They magnify our heavenly vision, not only as we gaze upon martyrs and angels, but also as we gaze at Lazarus, once a homeless beggar. I did far too many funerals for my homeless brothers and sisters while serving in my previous congregation. I used this text about Lazarus every time. The words of the funeral Mass invite us to think of heaven differently than we typically do. Who imagines skanky Lazarus with matted hair and feet wrapped in plastic bags joining Saint Peter and the angel Gabriel as they welcome us into the Pearly Gates? Those who are homeless might be surprised to find a kindred spirit in such an honorable heavenly welcoming committee. What a vision, huh?
I have a hunch that most of us look upward when we think of heaven. After all, the Bible does say that “Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” If that’s how it happened, why ever look down?
And yet, we need to listen a bit further, to the angel who asked the disciples: “Why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
This is where Lazarus, “once a poor man,” enters the picture. With an angel’s invitation, we cast our heavenly eyes, not only up, but also down. Is it possible to catch a glimpse of heaven right here on earth, in this place?
A number of you have been volunteering at Holy Trinity Women’s Shelter in the community room. I thank you for your devotion. You have happily helped twelve women call Holy Trinity “home” for six months out of the year. As you have lent a loving hand, you have been blessed to see a few of Lazarus’ sisters. This vision did not occur by gazing up into heaven, not exactly here where the Tiffany windows dance and the altar mosaics mesmerize; you have discovered the risen savior in our basement—as far down, down, down in this place as you can go; definitely not up, up, and away. Let us never forget Jesus’ words, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” This is artistic imagination at its finest, learning to spot heaven in earth’s surprising people, in the broken, hapless, and forlorn.
We dare not forget a few of the final words Jesus spoke to his disciples the evening before he died: “And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” This Jesus Christ, who has gone up to heaven, can also be discovered down here in the shattered and forgotten.
Quite a few years ago, when we lived in Washington, D.C., I baptized our next-door neighbor, Anthony Stokes. “Little Ant,” as we fondly called him, was a rambunctious sort and an acolyte at our church. One night, thirteen-year-old Anthony was shot to death by a fourteen-year old right around the corner from where we all lived. I told Anthony’s grandmother that we would not let her dear grandson’s senseless murder be in vain. We would rage against our nation’s intoxicating madness for guns, madness, by the way, that continues seemingly unchecked nearly twenty-five years later. I told her that we would call for life instead of death in our beloved inner-city neighborhood. And so, when Anthony’s funeral concluded, we processed out of the church, with incense, cross, torches, and a throng of people including our city councilman and Anthony’s football team; we solemnly marched down Monroe Street with the hearse bearing “Little Ant’s” body. I concluded the funeral liturgy on his row house steps. Right before I prayed the words of the commendation (“Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, Anthony”), I said to hundreds and hundreds of people, “We need to do our very best to make our city streets as holy as our sanctuaries.” I could just as easily have said, “We need to see heaven down here on earth as well as way up in heaven.”
For those of us given to speculating about heaven, let us not forget that God offers us the precious opportunity to glimpse heaven right here, this side of the kingdom come. While Christ is risen and ascended, he is also here today: “Take and eat, this is my body given for you.” Yes indeed, though we say goodbye, we also say hello.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
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!”
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.”
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!