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!
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!”
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.”