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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.”