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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.”

“Finding Solace in Fierce Places”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Finding Solace in Fierce Places”
Matthew 4: 1-11
March 5, 2017 (First Sunday in Lent)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan

When we moved to San Diego twelve years ago, we were thrilled to be living only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean.  Surprisingly, we never dipped our toes into that great expanse of water, not once.  We fell in love with something else instead, the desert, a place we had no idea existed in California until we arrived. We went hiking and camping in the Anza-Borrego Desert and Death Valley every chance we got.

The desert, at least for us, is hauntingly beautiful: sand as far as you can see, like the ocean in a way; the only disruption, a prickly cactus here and there.  The sun beats down unmercifully, the wind howls, the sand bites; it is utterly quiet, maddeningly so at times.

Jesus went to such a fierce landscape, the place where the devil chose to weave his diabolical web.  Give the devil his due: he waited until Jesus was hungry and thirsty, until there wasn’t a peep of noise.  He came knocking when Jesus was susceptible to a tempting deal or two.

The desert’s ferociousness can cause you to hear strange voices and see bizarre things, especially when you are thirsty and disoriented.  That’s when the devil strikes.

“Jesus,” he said, “if you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  Jesus was hungry, the world was hungry; this was a good deal for everyone involved.

“Jesus, if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”  Jesus was feeling helpless so why not opt for this offer of power and glory?

And then, in perhaps the craftiest of deals, the devil said, “All these I will give you”—pointing to the lands that stretched as far as Jesus could see—“if you will fall down and worship me.”  At a moment of extreme vulnerability, Jesus was offered the world.  Imagine what he could have done with such authority at his fingertips: he could have fed every hungry heart and ruled the world with his own vision of love.

There was a catch to these enticing, devilish proposals as there almost always are when supremacy and grandeur are offered.  Jesus would have had to sacrifice a few of his ideals—just a few—for an apparent greater glory of ruling the world.  Was the trade-off worth it?  What do you think?

As we gather for our Sacred Conversations downstairs in the community room immediately following Mass today, we will engage in an exercise which will reveal how brutally difficult it is to listen amidst solitude and loneliness.  Most of us prefer the incessant chatter of radios, Smartphones, and television talking heads to soothe the evening just a tad.  The ruthless New York City Desert exacts a brutal toll at three in the morning, in our bedroom, with its own cruel silence: our minds run wild and we are terrified.  We ponder our looming deaths, our shortcomings, our failures.  Absolute silence…except the winds howling…the hawks circling overhead…and an occasional screaming police siren.  Being all alone in the harsh urban desert, even for ten or fifteen minutes, is grueling.

Our Quote for the Week in today’s bulletin says: “Most people’s wilderness is inside them, not outside…Our wilderness is an inner isolation. It’s an absence of contact. It’s a sense of being alone—boringly alone, or saddeningly alone, or terrifyingly alone” (H.A. Williams).

It was in such isolation that Jesus was tempted; it is in such isolation that we are tempted as well.

Here’s an invaluable Lenten learning, a gift for you: the way Jesus withstood every devilish temptation was by reaching for Holy Scripture on his desert nightstand.  Of course, the Bible was not exactly there for Jesus simply to pull down from the nightstand but it didn’t matter: Jesus had committed God’s word to memory for such a time as this, words like “One does not live by bread alone…Do not put the Lord your God to the test…Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”—all these memories of God’s Word bolstered Jesus to find solace in the fierce landscape of life.

These forty days of Lent are our desert in the city.  We have stripped our liturgy to barebones: the “A-word” (you thought I was going to say it, didn’t you?) has been buried until Easter; the crosses are draped in purple reminding us how our sin blocks out the splendor of God’s love; Jesus’ words from Calvary, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me,” echo deep in our souls.  Ashes, purpled cross, loneliness, tomb, mortality…We can barely stand this fierce landscape and yet, if we face the silence with God’s word at hand, all will finally be well with our souls.

Ivan Illich writes, “The emptiness of the desert makes it possible to learn the almost impossible: the joyful acceptance of our uselessness.”   Yes, in our uselessness we reach for God.  At our most desperate and vulnerable, we discover our salvation.

When all our tricks have been tried and failed—our intellect, talents, and winsomeness, all that and more—only then do we feel compelled finally to reach out for God’s hand.

The quirky New York poet, Walt Whitman, said it so well in his “Leaves of Grass”:

After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, the ethnologist,
Finally comes the poet worthy of that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.

That, my dear friends, is why you have come here this morning.  You have tried everything and you still live in this desert called “Manhattan;” you are still hungry and thirsty.  Here the true son of God comes singing his songs.  These songs are your hope; they are your friend when you are all alone and all else fails.  Reach across your bed stand for the poet worthy of that name, Jesus Christ.  Tasting his bread of life and sipping his cup of salvation come down from heaven, may you be lifted up on angels’ wings.

“This Little Light of Mine”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“This Little Light of Mine”
(Matthew 5: 13-20)
February 5, 2017 (5th Sunday after Epiphany)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan

Holy Trinity’s stained-glass windows are so stunning. I love walking into the church early in the morning just as the sun begins to shine through them.  I have watched you marvel at the windows as well, pulling out your phones and taking pictures of the wonder of sun and glass dancing together.

Which is your favorite window?  Mine is the “Second Coming of Christ” created by the Tiffany Studios of New York and installed here in 1904.

Those who enter this holy space for the first time, after the sun has set, are clueless as to how much beauty awaits them when the sun finally peaks through the windows.  While the stained-glass never changes, there is a profound difference in the splendor, depending on how much light is shining through.

There is something else about these windows.  Regardless whether it is night or day, no one walking outside of Holy Trinity can imagine the wonder that awaits them when they finally arrive inside here and see the light shining through them.  Stained-glass windows frankly seem to be for the edification of insiders.  The question then is how will those on the outside ever know the glory these windows convey?

When I was a pastor on the Main Line of Philadelphia, we went to great lengths lighting our windows from the inside out.  After every worship service, our custodian Bill Dougherty set up temporary workshop spotlights to shine light through the windows to make certain the stories of God’s love depicted in those windows came alive for all outside passersby.

We are much like these stained-glass windows.  Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.”

We come here, week after week, so that, somehow, Christ’s love might be revealed through us out into the world.  In this place, we are discombobulated by the stories that followers of Jesus actually give away what they have to the poor; we hear that Christians turn the other cheek to those who strike them; we even hear that we love our enemies.  Unless we hear and even see these strange words of Jesus over and over again, we will grow as dull and lifeless as these windows in the wee hours of darkness.

Too often the church is content to operate an insider’s game.  Oh, sure the music can soar and the liturgy can be breathtaking but unless the loveliness of God’s light shines beyond our brick and mortar, beyond our own individual wants and needs, we risk being lackluster stained-glass windows at three in the morning or, as St. Paul said, noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

You know as well as I that much of what happens in places like this can easily become not much more than a confirmation of the world’s dastardly ways.  From pulpits just like this, preachers lambast people with revolting vitriol and drive their followers to become acolytes for all manner of vile acts purportedly done in Christ’s.  It is why so many have given up going to church altogether: rather than a place where brilliant light emanates from hallowed halls like this, all they witness are the confirmation of the dismal shadows and shocking darkness of the world’s wretched hatred and appalling arrogance.

The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who taught just up the street at Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote, “Worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God.”

The most remarkable congregations I know are the ones where breathtaking prayer stimulates them to carry Christ’s light to the dark, dangerous corners of this world. These churches make people shiver in wonder as they behold the majesty of worship dancing hand-in-hand with ministries of compassion and prophetic witness.

During these initial days of Black History Month, I am reminded of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  You have heard his spellbinding preaching in the sanctuary, stirring worshipers to be salt and light.  And yet the special appeal of Dr. King is that he didn’t remain in the sanctuary for long.  He always left the building!  He exhorted his followers to let Christ’s light shine, not just inside the church but outside in the world as well.

You will remember Dr. King was deeply shaped by the nonviolent philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi who, himself, was shaped by the nonviolent life of Jesus.  Nonviolence holds fast to Jesus’ peculiar belief that love can triumph over hatred, and light can shine during the darkest of days.  It is never easy to follow in Dr. King’s footsteps; it is far easier simply to adore him.  Some of his most ardent followers knew this of him.  They begged him to forsake nonviolence and to angrily strike back in the face of vicious racist attacks, but Dr. King would have none of it.  He always sought the higher road, Jesus’ road.  When he spoke out against our nation’s participation in the war in Viet Nam, some closest to him begged him not to get off point: they believed speaking out against Viet Nam would detract from what, in their minds, was the crucial focus on the Civil Rights movement here in the United States.  Again, Dr. King would have none of it.  He had a dream that was far bigger, a dream where all God’s children would live in peace.

These are tough days for many of us to dream, let alone to love.  You have told me how vicious political quarrels are ripping your family apart, how you can’t talk civilly anymore to some of your dearest friends.  Christmas was unbearable for some of you as you sat at dinner and pretty much said nothing of substance to those you love, opting to bury your true feelings and pretending that all was well in our nation.  Hateful things are being said by many people these days, Republican and Democrat alike, liberal and conservative, and, yes, Christian and Muslim and Jew.  Hateful things!

That is why it is so important to gather here this morning and to hear once again the stories of these windows where the Son of God, Jesus Christ, shines thorough gloom and death with the brilliant light of hope and life.  We are here so we might burn more brightly, so we might be a gorgeous people of love not hate, a people who dare to love even our enemies.

We do well to remember Dr. King’s words during this Epiphany season, this blessed season of light: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Let us pray that by God’s grace we will let our little light shine.