Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Saint Zebedee, Mender of Nets and Floater of Boats”
Mark 1: 14-20
Third Sunday after Epiphany (January 21, 2018)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park
All that we know about Zebedee is that he was the father of James and John and the husband of Salome; oh yes, we also know he was a fisherman, owned a boat, and had a few hired hands. That’s what we know, that’s it.
There certainly must be more. So, I went searching in my “Anchor Bible Dictionary” to see if I was missing something. Here’s what I found: “It is nowhere recorded that Zebedee actively participated in the ministry of Jesus as did his wife and sons.” According to my Bible dictionary, Zebedee is a biblical blip and not viewed in a particularly glowing light as history looks back on him.
Then there are Zebedee’s sons. Whatever it was about Jesus and the few words he spoke at the Sea of Galilee that day (“Follow me and I will make you fish for people”), James and John were so enthralled that they dropped everything and chased after Jesus.
Poor Zebedee. James and John left their father with the leaky boats and stinky nets. Imagine how frantic their mother Salome must have been at their hasty departure. We don’t hear whether James and John even said “goodbye.” What resonates loud and clear is how they left in a mad rush to follow Jesus. We adore their speedy fervor and have named countless churches after them—St. James and St. John.
And yet, I cannot get poor Zebedee out of my mind. While we may indeed have no idea whether Zebedee participated in Jesus’ ministry, one thing is certain: he was bequeathed the boring routines of fishing as his sons helped Jesus drive out demons, feed thousands, and make the crippled walk. Because Zebedee was content with his calling to carry out the mundane responsibilities of life, I advocate we set aside a day in the church year—today!—to commemorate “Saint Zebedee, Mender of Nets and Floater of Boats.”
In every age, someone has to mind the nets and float the boats; someone has to pay the bills and offer the Sunday tithe; someone has to do the laundry and wash the dishes while others head off for greater glory.
There are, of course, those lifted up in lights; that is their calling. 150 years ago, almost to the day (January 27, 1868), twenty-five men (so say our historic records) gathered in the home of Peter Moller to extend a call to Holy Trinity’s first pastor, Dr. Gottlob F. Krotel. All our former pastors’ pictures, by the way, hang right outside the nave here; the names of the cantors who have overseen Bach Vespers for the past 50 years (John Weaver, Frederick Grimes, and Rick Erickson) are appearing in every Bach Vesper’s bulletin this year. But what about the thousands of others who have quietly given offerings, served on committees, and visited the sick? Most of their names—your names actually—are nowhere to be found. Your only glory is to gather here Sunday after Sunday in God’s lap and to receive the Lord’s heavenly meal.
How many of you can identify with Zebedee?
I am wondering: if you had the opportunity to change the name of The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity to St. Zebedee at our upcoming congregational meeting on Sunday, February 25, would you vote affirmatively? Wouldn’t that be a charming way to celebrate our 150th anniversary year? Aren’t most of your callings lived beyond the spotlight’s glare just like Zebedee’s? Your lives are far more mundane and much less divine, far more Zebedeesian than Jamesian or Johnsian, I might say. How many of you, far from feeding 5,000 on a mountaintop, as did James and John, end up scooping one spoonful after another of pureed squash into your ailing mother’s mouth? How many of you long to be on the highlight reels, charismatic and forceful, only to discover your ministry is slogging through another day as you hang onto a tiny sliver of sanity or try your best in a dead-end job? These are your daily tasks for now and, to be honest, Martin Luther would call them your finest ministries. For some reason beyond your understanding, you have been called to mend nets and float boats.
Of course, James and John’s lives were far more glamorous—look at their names in the Bible! Who wouldn’t love to leave the leaky boat behind and scuttle every broken dream for a shiny new one? It seems Jesus calls most of you to less dazzling ministries and yet just as important ones. When God calls, your choice is simply to say “yes” or “no;” rarely are you afforded the luxury of considering the pizazz factor.
For now, you are simply called—some to craft and speak a gracious word to someone whose politics you abhor and some to stand up for justice by doing nothing more than casting a vote or marching on a Saturday morning; some of you are called to hunker down in your autumn years riding out the sometimes heartbreaking storm as faithfully as you are able.
At least for this day, rather than being captivated by the glamor of James and John and all the other faithful ones whose names are in lights, let us give thanks for Zebedee—after all, quite a few of us live mundane lives just like his. Yes, today, let us commemorate Saint Zebedee, Mender of Nets and Floater of Boats.
Swallow Some Darkness”
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
(John 1: 6-8, 19-28)
December 17, 2017 (Third Sunday of Advent)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park
I can only assume if you are in charge of lighting at a Broadway show, your job is to make certain the spotlight shines on the star. I also assume, from time to time, unexpected actors come out of the blue and attract more light than was previously expected.
I remember that happening in the 1969 cult classic movie, “Easy Rider. ” Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were longhaired hippies traveling across the United States on their souped up Harley Davidson choppers. Everyone knew these two, but the actor that mesmerized me was someone I had never heard of by the name of Jack Nicholson; he played a daffy lawyer who bailed Captain America and his pal Billy out of jail.
Some stars have the charisma to push themselves into the limelight. John the Baptist was such a character. The crowds flocked to him. And yet, he refused to let the light shine his way.
“Are you the Messiah?” the crowds breathlessly wondered. “No,” said John.
“Are you Elijah?” “I am not.”
“Are you the prophet?” “No.”
Why didn’t John grab some attention?
Most of us crave center stage with shining lights. We love being told how wonderful we are.
John refused such stardom: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” These words were not even original to John; he copied them straight out of the prophet Isaiah.
John kept pointing beyond himself to the other one who, according to him, he was “not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
Are you able to point the spotlights beyond yourself? Have you ever said, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” or, at least, “I don’t have all the answers”? It’s not an easy thing to do.
People often ask me obscure Bible questions about which I am clueless. It happened at our Wednesday evening Bible study when Damon Gray asked me about a Greek word in the Nativity story. I was tempted to offer a brilliant answer even though I was clueless. My hope was that no one would notice my dim-witted response and I would look none the worse for the wear. It is almost impossible for me to say, “I don’t have a clue.” I prefer to say, “Shine the light on me!”
You have witnessed the absurdity of people who cannot sit quietly and wait on the Lord or, more to the point, cannot shut up! I have seen it. I have been to countless synod assemblies of our Lutheran church, as have quite a few of you, where the same pastors and the same lay people feel compelled to stand up and offer their unparalleled wisdom on perplexing matters; apparently, in their minds, no one else possesses their matchless knowledge. Over and over again they go to the microphone; over and over again they babble on and on and on. And then there are the others folks, the ones who rarely—actually never—stand up to speak; they are the majestic ones who know they don’t have all the answers and realize it is best to sit still, remain quiet, and wait and listen.
John the Baptist had such majesty. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes: “John the Baptist does not have the ultimate or full message—but his glory and genius is that he knows that! He hands it over to the one who does” (Richard Rohr, From Wild Man to Wise Man, pg. 48).
Advent teaches us to wait for answers that are beyond our grasp but not beyond God’s. We wait between Jesus’ coming at Bethlehem and his coming again; we have no idea when or where or how he will return and any answer seems harebrained. Sometimes we do best to be still, remain quiet, and wait and listen.
A number of years ago, during the Iraq War, the then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was asked by a reporter whether he thought the war was immoral. He paused for twelve seconds, an interminably long time for live radio, and said, “‘Immoral’ is a short word for a very long discussion” (Rupert Short, Rowan’s Rule: The Biography of the Archbishop of Canterbury, pg. 289). Archbishop Williams did not rush to offer an answer to a monstrously difficult question. He allowed the question to hang silently in the air.
I increasingly am drawn to individuals and communities who resist the need to have all the answers when no easy ones seem apparent. My favorite theologian Douglas John Hall taught for many years at McGill University in Montreal. He has committed a lifetime to grappling with weighty and challenging theological matters. Like many brilliant people who realize there is so much more they do not know than what they do know, Dr. Hall says there are occasions when we must swallow some darkness.
I heard Dr. Hall deliver three substantial lectures a few years ago when he was 84 years old. During one of those lectures, which he delivered sitting down, he spoke of swallowing some darkness. One of his most brilliant students, married and the father of a small child, was struck down with leukemia. Dr. Hall told us that he had no answer why such a dreadful thing would happen to such a remarkable young man. It was at that moment of vulnerability that Dr. Hall seemed most brilliant to me and why I continue to like him very much and why I emailed this sermon to him immediately before worship began this morning.
Perhaps that is what it is to be Advent people, a humble people whose majesty comes not in having all the answers to life’s most nagging questions but rather the dignity to wait patiently, trusting that the good Lord will provide the finest answers in due time. That is why we wait like John the Baptist and let the stage lights shine on Jesus.
And, by the way, that is why fifty-two pink roses grace our sanctuary this Third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete (“Joy Sunday”): their blooming joy reminds us that Christ’s promise to come again is with us throughout the year, even during our darkest days.
Wait, my dear friends, wait for the Lord.
Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“The Holy Cross: Irrational Humbug or the Power of God?”
(1 Corinthians 1: 18-24; John 3: 13-17)
September 17, 2017 (Holy Cross Day)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West
Please let me brag. I know I have told you this before but allow me one more moment of braggadocio: I attended Yale Divinity School. I tell you this with hopes of impressing you because, deep down, I harbor intense feelings of inferiority when it comes to my degree. Yale Divinity School ain’t all it is cracked up to be at least in the grand scope of things. It is often referred to as “the back door to Yale”—and with considerable justification. Half the people applying to the divinity school are accepted while only between 5 and 10% get into Yale Law and Yale Medical which, by the way, is about what the same acceptance rate as down the street at Juilliard where many of Holy Trinity’s fine musicians attended school.
There are other causes for my pathetic spasms of academic inadequacy. A few years ago, in the “Yale Alumni Magazine,” Dr. Eugene P. Cassidy, a graduate of the much-vaunted medical school, wrote: “Isn’t it time Yale euthanized the Divinity School? This academy for irrational humbug is an embarrassment to the real graduate schools.”
If Dr. Cassidy were here today, don’t you imagine he would find our Holy Cross goings-on nothing more than a load of poppycock?
In all humility and in no way meant to scold Dr. Cassidy, there have been occasions when the likes of Dr. Cassidy have curtly announced to a grieving family that their loved one has died and then quickly left the room. I, with my silly divinity school degree of irrational humbuggery in hand, have sometimes been left to clean up the mess. To be fair, I’m sure many doctors feel like failures when they are unable to keep a person alive any longer and must deliver the devastating news to the crestfallen family that their loved one is “gone.”
In no way do I want to be critical of doctors. Like you, I know fabulous ones, a few who kept me alive eleven years ago. In truth, don’t we all stumble and bumble in the face of death, searching for the right words when none seem available, none at least that will bring back to life those we love? Perhaps that is why, for those of us here this morning, the only words that feel right are somehow deeply woven into the Holy Cross. Like our hymn at the gospel, we cry out:
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
save in the death of Christ, my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.
There is something about this Holy Cross Day that begs us tell the truth and not beat around the bush. This day invites us to admit that death is inevitable for us all and yet also to proclaim that death is never the final word. We may prefer to make believe, to say we pass away, float into the ethereal netherworld, or as some Californians are fond of writing in obituaries, transition from this world to the next. But let us not kid ourselves: we die!
I once was talking to a church member about his funeral plans. He was a big-time television personality in a major city. He told me what hymns to sing, who would deliver the eulogies, where he would be laid to rest. He prefaced it all with this, “Pastor, if I die…” He caught himself but his “if I die” hung in the air a bit too long and reflected the thought many of us harbor in our magical thinking when our mortality comes up. Deep down, we are so scared of dying that we prefer to play the game of “if I die.”
Martin Luther knew better. He once wrote: “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” You can guess, I’m sure, that Luther was a theologian of the cross. He knew we don’t pass away or transition to Lalaland or float into the clouds. He called the darn thing what it is: death!
The Holy Cross leads our way this and every Sunday morning. We are reminded that if Jesus is God’s son then, in fact, God died an ugly death before our eyes—sweat, blood, tearing tendons, bulging eyes. Our God went where we will all finally go, deep into the ground, where only God can raise us up.
It has often been asked, where was God when six million Jewish people were dying in Hitler’s concentration camps. The best answer I have heard is, “God was there dying with the Jews.” For many, this is foolishness, irrational humbuggery, but for others this is the very power of God.
I know how depressing this sounds, especially on this day as so much wonderful ministry is about to unfold here at Holy Trinity. You have returned from vacation, the choir is singing, programs are returning—these are thrilling days. This will be a stunning year as we prepare to celebrate 150 years of bearing the cross of Christ in New York City. The greatest hits of Johann Sebastian Bach will be celebrated during the 50th year of our renowned Bach Vespers. Some of the most distinguished preachers in the Lutheran church will be in our pulpit, including the Rev. Susan Briehl whose gorgeous hymn, “Holy God, Holy and Glorious,” we will sing at Communion. Through the entire, thrilling year, we will lift up the cross, that pathetic instrument of suffering and death that wise and pious folks view as foolishness and twaddle and yet what we proclaim to be very power of God.
God does not avoid death: God confronts death, dies, and conquers death as Jesus is raised from the dead…Oh, and by the way, God conquers our death as well.
Christ’s death and resurrection is the most comforting word we can offer when we journey with others into the valley of the shadow of death. Let us tell anyone who will listen, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Yes, let us risk being called irrational humbuggers as we proclaim to the world that God is with us for better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and, yes, even in death, in the name of the Holy Cross, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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!