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!”