Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
May 17, 2020
John 14: 15-21
”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
In a sermon on this particular piece of Scripture, Barbara Brown Taylor shares a childhood remembrance. As the oldest of three daughters, she was the designated babysitter. When her parents would go out for the evening, she was the one left in charge. The routine was always the same. Her father would sit her down and remind her how much he and her mother trusted her, not only because she was the oldest but because she was the most responsible. And being the most diligent and oldest of the three daughters, she would not let the house burn down. She would not open the door to strangers. She wouldn’t let her little sisters fall down the basement stairs and hurt themselves.
Before leaving, her mother would give her the telephone number of where they would be for the evening and tell the girls when they would be home. The three sisters would then walk their parents to the front door and kiss them goodbye. Then the front door would lock from the outside and the new regime would begin. Taylor was in charge! She said that she remembers her sisters looking back at her with something between fear and hope. But the girls had a good time. They played games together. They read books aloud. They enjoyed snacks. They laughed at one another’s jokes. But as the night wore on, they grew more and more anxious. They wondered, “Where is Mommy and Daddy? Where did they go? When will they ever be back?”
Older sister did her best to remind her younger sisters that they were just fine and not to worry. She was there to take care of them until their parents returned. She promised that if they would go to sleep that she would make sure that Mommy and Daddy would kiss them goodnight when they returned home. The only problem came when fearful thoughts entered older sister’s mind. What if their parents had had a terrible accident? They might never come home again, the sisters might be split apart, each sent to a different foster home so they would never see each other again. Anxiety took over her thoughts and she created the most dire circumstance of fear, repeating it over and over in her mind.
I think that Barbara Brown Taylor’s story speaks well to our present time and situation. During the current pandemic it may seem as if our preferred life of secured routine has left us for a time. The world is not as safe or as predictable as we wish. We are in charge of what happens in our life even though it feels as if we have no control. While we hope for the best, our anxiety creates scenarios of the worst. We may wonder if God is with us through it all. If God is absent, where did God go and when will God return? Are we left alone to deal with these circumstances beyond our wisdom and our ability?
The gospel lesson for the Sixth Sunday of Easter is another part of what is known as Jesus’ last discourse from the book of John. Following the Last Supper in the Upper Room, following Judas’ decision to arrange a betrayal, following Jesus’ warning to Peter of impending denial, Jesus spoke to his disciples about leaving. He said that he would be going away yet he said that he would be coming back. He didn’t say that he would be stopping by every day to check on them. He didn’t say that he would call them every hour to see how things were going. He promised that he would come in the form of the Holy Spirit- an advocate, a helper. “I will not leave you orphaned.”
We can only imagine the fear in that room. We can only imagine the confusion and uncertainty. What was going to come next? What would be expected of each of them? That was when Jesus looked them right in the eyes and said, “Please do not be afraid. It is going to be just fine. I know that it looks bad and sounds bad. But in the end I will be with you in a way that you cannot imagine. I will be with you in a Spirit that you can understand and will enable you to be connected to me in a living and lasting way. You will not be alone. It will be just fine.”
I read about a sixth grade teacher in Pittsburgh who has a final day of school assignment for her departing class. She asks them to consider what they have experienced in sixth grade, how they began the years and how they have changed. She asks them to write a note that next year’s sixth graders can read on the first day of school. What did you enjoy the most? What did you find was most important? What is the most important thing? What thing should you not worry about? I thought it was a wonderful tool to relieve some anxiety and uncertainty that surely accompanies the first day of school.
That’s about where we are in the living of these days. We might feel that we are left alone to our own knowledge and strength and ability. We want some reassurance. We want to know that something greater and stronger and smarter than us is not only present but in charge. We want to be assured that somebody loves us.
Jesus tells his disciples of the one who is coming who will be with them in their times of celebration and trial. It is the Spirit, the Helper, the Advocate. The word used in early Scripture translations was Paraclete, which means someone called alongside to help or to assist. The Paraclete is our counselor, our intercessor, and our comforter. Richard Burridge writes that the original meaning of the word was “to give strength or courage.” Jesus’ disciples were given this Helper for the strength and courage to minister to a hurting world. We as disciples of Jesus are given the same Helper for strength and courage.
How do we find that presence? How do we encourage others to find that presence? Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father.” Jesus told his disciples to keep his commandments. He made certain that the word “love” was front and center. If you love others, it won’t be hard for you to figure out what to do next, even in times of fear and uncertainty. If you love one another, doing what is right and good will come more naturally and easily. Jesus tells us, “If you love me, you will do what I have commanded you to do. If you love one another, I will be with you despite the difficulty of your situation.” Be agents of my love. Be examples of my grace and mercy.
In a Facebook post this past Tuesday, theologian and author Parker Palmer quoted a poem by Anne Hillman entitled, “We Look With Uncertainty.”
We look with uncertainty
Beyond the old choices for
To a softer, more permeable aliveness
Which is in every moment
At the brink of death;
For something new is being born in us
If we but let it.
We stand at a new doorway,
Awaiting that which comes…
Daring to be human creatures,
Vulnerable to the beauty of existence.
Learning to love.
In his comments, Palmer talks about uncertainty making us anxious. When things are “normal,” we soothe ourselves with the illusion that we are in control- until we are reminded that we are really not. But uncertainty, rightly held, can generate creativity, offering situations that give life rather than diminish it. He urges all of us to use this time to wrap ourselves around what he calls “good questions” to bring the better world we want and need into being. We are to consider where we might find the presence of God and how our actions and attitude might contribute to bringing that presence to others.
That’s how Jesus taught it long ago. He would not leave his disciples alone. By doing as he taught, by living as he lived, they would find him with them always. In our current time of fear and darkness, we are not alone. We are not orphaned. Jesus is with us. Jesus is with us when we are the point where God’s love and mercy and grace become active in our world.