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.”