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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.”

“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!”

“Christ the Servant”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Christ the Servant”
John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
April 13, 2017 (Maundy Thursday)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City

In 2006, I was hospitalized with pulmonary emboli.  If you are like I was at the time, you may be clueless as to what a pulmonary embolism is.  Simply put: it is a clot on the lung—at least that is my pedestrian knowledge of the potentially fatal malady.  One embolism will kill you; I had four.  It was touch and go.  I spent five days in the intensive care unit and Dagmar faithfully watched over me.  Thank God, I made it to the other side of that dark, dreadful tunnel.

Toward the end of my hospitalization, the charge nurse asked who my favorite staff person had been.  I experienced my share of personnel–pulmonologists, cardiologists, nurses, x-ray technicians, phlebotomists, house-keeping staff, physical therapists, even a few caring pastors and a kindly bishop.  The person I cherished most, though, was a nurse’s aide.

One evening, Claudia came to my room and asked if I would like a sponge bath.  The experience was exquisite, more luxurious than anything offered at a deluxe Southern California spa.  As she sponged my wretched body, tears welled up in my eyes.  I was overwhelmed by her tenderness.  Claudia’s calling was to anoint suffering patients with sweet-smelling oils of healing.

Of all those who tended to me, this servant worked twelve hour days and was one of the lowest paid hospital employees.  When I told the charge nurse Claudia was the finest person sent my way—a gift from God really, he immediately asked, “Any nurses, doctors, you wish to add?”  They were all extraordinary—well, except the cranky blood-drawer who cursed my crummy veins—and yet I will always cherish Claudia.

Tonight, we remember another servant, the most exquisite one, Jesus.  He did what only servants do: he washed his disciples’ dusty, sweaty feet.  His dear friends were dumbfounded: “Who are you to do this to me?”  There were others who were befuddled over the years.  One of the great historic heresies that continues in our own age is the belief that God could not possibly come to earth as Jesus, as a servant: the Almighty does not stoop so low to wash smelly feet.

Yes, tonight, Maundy Thursday, is about as low as Jesus could get.  As one of his closest friends devised a sordid plan to betray him and others lacked the courage to stand by his side when the powerful pushed and shoved, even then Jesus washed their feet, even then he forgave them all that was soon to unfold, even then he shared the most intimate meal with them, even then he loved them until the end.

Washing one another’s feet must be the most awkward act of the entire church year. If you are like me, you look forward to foot-washing as much as you do to filing your 2016 income tax return.  Don’t you imagine quite a few have steered clear of this evening altogether for fear that they might be cajoled into washing someone else’s feet?  Some churches, perhaps the wiser ones, just don’t do it.  I read one church’s Holy Week schedule announcing washing of hands instead of feet—that certainly is a creative approach to remedy the inelegance of what is soon to unfold, much more palatable it seems to me.

I take no delight in washing another’s feet.  I will do my own, but not yours if I can help it.  I am not particularly fond of taking off my shoes in public either.  I had a sign on my dresser that warned me not to wear holey socks this evening.  Foot-washing strips us down to our basest humanity; we become so vulnerable.

By the way, no one is compelled to wash another person’s feet tonight.  However, if you choose to remain on the sidelines, watch closely nonetheless; recall how Jesus commanded us to love one another and how he loved those who fell short of his love to the very end.  Judas soon betrayed Jesus.  Peter, who had previously said quite proudly, “You will never wash my feet,” overestimated himself; he had no way of knowing how soon he would shrink from his high ideals and repeatedly deny ever having known his dearest friend.  In spite of the horrid betrayal, denials, and cowardice—not by Jesus’ detractors but by those who adored him most—Jesus was glorified through his deep affection for his friends and enemies.  Remember how he broke bread with them and touched them with heavenly grandeur even as their courage plummeted to disgusting depths.

The heavenly pendulum swings so low this evening that it is almost impossible to discern God’s presence with us.

Maybe it’s a good thing we are uncomfortable—servanthood does that to us.  And when God becomes our servant, that really is excrutiating, so much so that it becomes almost unbearable…and yet, what wondrous love Christ has for us.

And so, I invite you forward now to be servants of one another.  If you prefer not, then at least remember the servanthood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“The Delightful Sound of Rattling Bones”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
“The Delightful Sound of Rattling Bones”
(Ezekiel 37: 1-14; John 11: 1-45)
April 2, 2017 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

Of all the scenes in the Bible, the valley of dry bones must be the creepiest. Can you imagine God leading you by the hand and forcing you to look out over a valley of bones picked dry by vultures? What a shocking sight it must have been for the prophet Ezekiel.

If the sight of dry bones was not bad enough, God had to rub it in and ask Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

Have you ever looked out over a valley where, no matter how hard you struggled, you could not muster a smidgeon of hope? You gaped and wondered whether the bones could live; the only answer you could muster was, “Not in a million years!”

Ezekiel was not feeling particularly hopeful either. God’s people had recently been annihilated by King Nebuchadnezzar’s mighty army, the brightest and best of Israel had been hauled off to Babylon, and Jerusalem smoldered in ashes. God’s promise, the one about being a chosen nation and a kingdom of priests, was only a faint memory if at all. Ezekiel was crushed. When God asked, “Can these bones live?” the best he could propose was a scrawny, “O Lord God, you know.”

It was so strange that God asked Ezekiel whether the bones could live. Ezekiel had been brutally honest about Israel’s future. He had done the unthinkable and prophesied against his good neighbors, his beloved family, his cherished nation. He uttered brutal words on God’s behalf: “I will bring a sword upon you, and I will destroy your high places…Wherever you dwell your cities shall be waste and your high places ruined.”

Ezekiel understood exactly what Israel deserved. And yet, words of judgment are never the final ones for those who work for God—never! Judgment is only part of the equation and certainly never the life-giving part. It’s easy to find what’s bad in someone else. Such is the stuff of bullies who are far better criticizing others than building them up. People love to throw grenades and bark, “I am just telling the truth,” but such ruthless judgments alone are the coward’s way and never finally the way of the people of God.

Ezekiel could have looked out over that wretched valley littered with bones and when God asked, “Can these bones live?” uttered, “Are you kidding me? They got exactly what they deserved.” But that’s not what Ezekiel did. He didn’t just stop with judgment as tempting as that might have been. Faithful imagination always looks beyond dry bones and finds a way to proclaim, “O Lord God, you know.”

That, by the way, is where the creepy part of this story begins to give way to wonder. Because Ezekiel believed in a God of life, no matter how stunned and desperate the situation appeared, he still sought a way to prophesy hope. Listen: “Suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.”

And Ezekiel didn’t stop there either. There was more: “I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

You have stood at that deathly valley of misery, a valley flowing with tears, a valley of restless nights. You have been there with Mary and Martha after their brother Lazarus died asking “why”? Mary and Martha cried, you cried, Jesus cried. So sad, so hopeless, just a valley of dry bones, and yet in that valley, by God’s grace, death is never the end of the conversation; instead, it leaves the answer in God’s hand just as Ezekiel uttered, “Only you know Lord.” All now hangs on the wondrous answers of God.

Gracie Allen, the comedian and zany wife of George Burns, once said, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” I love those words: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

The church’s story is always a cautionary tale against placing a period where God has placed a comma. The church, at its best, positions itself in the midst of bones. When all the angry judgments have been cast and the “I told you sos” have been lobbed, the church discovers a way to proclaim, “These bones shall live.” Together, we stand in the valley, listening carefully for the delightful sound of rattling bones.

But you know this. Perhaps someone has been your Ezekiel. When your insides felt like a carved-out cantaloupe, someone helped you stare into the desperate valley long enough so you finally were able to hear the delightful sound of bones rattling together.

Or perhaps you have been Ezekiel. With eyes burnt from constant weeping, you have found courage enough to put your arm around another long-sufferer and helped that wounded soul sing, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

I suppose that is why the church and our ministry are always held in suspicion, even in distain. We gather with scoundrels and villains, in intensive care units and graveyards, with people and in places where only God can make bones rattle to life.

Last Sunday morning when the choir sang the gorgeous strains of Psalm 23, I thought about skipping my sermon altogether—I really did. I was so moved by the music, so deeply touched to realize what a trusted friend Psalm 23 has been throughout my life, accompanying me through some pretty scary occasions and rough stretches. As the choir sang, I thought of you as well and I realized how God has been with you in your own valley of bones.

And so, my dear friends, whenever you find yourself gazing on dry bones, remember that God promises to come into your midst and to serenade you with the delightful music of rattling bones coming back into life. Please, please, never place a period where God only places a comma.