Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Whenever I hear that word “heaven,” I instinctively look UP…way up into the sky. And yet, what we just heard from that pesky book of Revelation is as discombobulating as a Coney Island roller-coaster ride: rather than looking up, we are invited to look around and see heaven coming down, “down out of heaven from God.”
God offers us a spectacular glimpse of heaven, not up in the sky somewhere, but right here at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity.
What a thrill to see heaven coming to the city.
Our family came from Wheeling, West Virginia, to attend the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows. Imagine me, a thirteen year old, seeing Michelangelo’s Pieta behind bullet-proof glass and sitting in the driver’s seat of the newly introduced Mustang at the Ford Motor pavilion.
The Fair was thrilling but there was something far more electrifying afoot for this small town boy. My father had told me about his favorite preacher, the Rev. Dr. Robert D. Hershey; I had heard of him since I could walk. Pastor Hershey served at Holy Communion Lutheran Church in Philadelphia when my father was a student at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1940s. Dr. Hershey moved from there to become your pastor from 1953 until 1974. He was a nationally known preacher and your world famous Bach Vespers began during his pastorate.
We worshiped here at Holy Trinity on a hot, humid July Sunday morning—some of you have warned Dagmar and me that the summer weather has not changed a bit. I gazed upon heavenly splendor in your dazzling sanctuary and have dreamed of this place ever since! It is a thrill beyond measure to be here fifty-two years later. My father must be weeping buckets of bliss seeing me in your pulpit and joining our singing with the heavenly choir of saints and martyrs.
(Please allow me a personal aside: I returned to New York twelve years later. I met my wife-to-be, Dagmar, the week of July 4, 1976, as tall ships sailed up the Hudson and fireworks danced delightfully over New York Harbor during the bicentennial celebration. Dagmar had come from Germany to Brooklyn’s old Lutheran Medical Center as a volunteer medical student and guess who was doing Clinical Pastoral Education in the same hospital that summer. If you want to hear of heaven coming down to this holy city in a way that might surpass anything in the book of Revelation, imagine Dagmar and me having our first kiss beneath the Verrazano Bridge.)
N. T. Wright, the New Testament Scholar and retired Anglican bishop of Durham, England, writes: “Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven.”
Your calling in this place is not to have your eyes snatched from earth up into heaven but rather to have them glued on God’s coming into your midst, this very moment.
As you ponder calling me as your next pastor, the only question worth asking me is this: how do you plan on leading our congregation in “colonizing earth with the life of heaven”?
I have been praying overtime about this, how we might colonize earth with the life of heaven here at 65th and Central Park West—I have actually been pondering this question since I was thirteen!
I can only imagine how heaven comes alive for you every time you step into this gorgeous church building—whimsical gargoyles, soaring music, brilliant Tiffany windows, sparkling mosaics, and exceptional liturgy welcome you—all within a cello’s throw of Lincoln Center. That seems heavenly bliss enough, don’t you think? But there is more; there must be more! Here’s what Jesus commends for the heavenly project to appear at 65th and Central Park West or, in his words, “for thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven”: Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Since you have asked me a batch of questions in recent days—as well you should—permit me to ask you just one: if someone walks into Holy Trinity for the first time or the hundred and twentieth, will they say, “Oh my, how they love one another”? That is the critical question in how people will know whether they have set foot into a place imbued with Christ’s goodness.
When I met with your exceptional and delightful call committee in March, I sensed the members wanted me to dream a grand vision for Holy Trinity’s future. I must be bluntly honest: should you call me as your pastor, I will not come with a grand vision; rather I will come with a simple vision—we Lutherans do tend to the simple side after all! This vision, incidentally, has been championed by you and your pastors and musicians in an exemplary manner for years and years. While “simple” may sound too pedestrian, pejorative even, for an occasion such as this, we Lutherans actually believe it is in the simplest gifts that we are afforded the finest opportunity to peep into heaven.
Yes indeed…through ordinary bread from Trader Joe’s up the street, we hear, “This is my body given for you;” in rot gut wine purchased at the corner market along with Dr. Scholl’s foot powder comes the invitation, “Drink you all of it, this cup is the new covenant in my blood;” with water gushing forth from New York’s aging pipes, we see Christians created before our eyes “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit;” and, perhaps most jarringly, through rickety words uttered by a shabby preacher like me, somehow, you end up shouting, “The Word of the Lord.” Lutherans believe these simple things are more than enough to lift us up on God’s shoulders to see and taste, touch and smell and hear, heaven coming into our midst.
I remember hearing a Lutheran pastor say that when you arrive in heaven there will be a sign over the Pearly Gates that reads: “From the Wonderful People Who Brought You New York City, the New Jerusalem!” He was right, of course he was. What grander vision for the future of Holy Trinity than to invite people through those big red doors back there, to behold heaven every Sunday morning in bread and wine and water and the word?
You dear people of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity: God offers you such a glorious vision, here at the edge of your own idyllic Garden of Eden, Central Park West…Heaven in the city…How lucky you are.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!