May 25, 2014
The first artist to perform at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969 was Richie Havens. I’m unclear as to how well-known Havens was before the festival, but he was definitely known afterward; especially after the release of the movie of the concert.
Havens was asked to continue playing for three hours because so many of the artists were delayed in arriving. Traffic on the New York Thruway was literally stopped. When we lived in New York State, longtime residents told us that the stories about people just leaving their cars on the thruway and walking were true. So with the New York thruway becoming a parking lot, other performers were having a hard time getting to Yasgur’s Farm.
But Havens was there, and in his performance he improvised a song that became known as Freedom. But Freedom was a reworking of the spiritual, Motherless Child.
“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child. Oh Lord, sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home.”
Most spirituals, perhaps the majority of them, have their roots in slavery. What a terrible irony that such glorious, soul-stirring music was born out of one of the greatest tragedies in our country’s history. Motherless Child began in slavery as well. The earliest known recording of it is by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1870. It’s not a surprise that lyrics like these would have been sung by slaves. The auction block ripped apart families on a regular basis. Mothers and children were separated and sold. The motherless child was a cruel reality.
I can’t equate, nor would I try, any loss or grief I’ve experienced to what a family would feel at being sold away from one another. Yet I think the ache and longing expressed by these words is something most of us can relate to, because in one way or another we have all suffered loss. We don’t have to be motherless children literally to know loss. We don't have to be orphans in order to empathize with the pain of being left behind by someone we love.
So I think we can understand, at least in part, what the disciples must have been feeling listening to Jesus tell them goodbye.
Our passage this morning follows immediately on the verses we read last week. These verses and these next chapters leading up to the crucifixion are known as the Final Discourse. Last week I also referred to them as Jesus’ commencement speech. I think they are also his long goodbye. This is what Jesus and the disciples are in the midst of; the long goodbye. But Jesus is not just leaving them alone, forsaken. They will receive the Advocate who will be them forever. They will receive the Spirit of truth. They will not be like motherless children. He tells them, “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.”
The word “orphaned” in the biblical context carries several meanings. There is the literal meaning: a child who has lost one or both parents. Orphaned and fatherless are often used interchangeably. But orphaned can also mean, bereaved, lonesome, and lost.
The disciples, regardless of the health and well-being of their physical parents, were not orphans according to the first definition of the word. They were all grown men, not children left alone in the world. But Jesus is making it clear that he will leave them, and the prospect of that reality makes them orphans in the second sense of the word. With Jesus’ death, they will be bereaved. They will be lonesome and lost. They will be like motherless children. We see this lived out once Jesus is crucified. It was a group of motherless children who received the incredible, bizarre and unbelievable news that Jesus was risen.
But in the moment that our passage narrates, the disciples could not yet fully understand the resurrection. They could only hear the news that Jesus would leave them. But in this long goodbye, Jesus makes a promise. They will not be orphaned. The Advocate will be with them. This Advocate, this Spirit of truth, will give them the power and strength to do greater works than even Jesus has done. The Advocate will give them the strength to follow the commandments that Jesus has given them. The Advocate will empower them to become the community of faith that Jesus has been modeling all along. The Advocate will help them do great works of love. The Advocate will enable the disciples to abide in Jesus just as Jesus abides in the Father, and the Father abides in him. If they abide in Jesus, then the Father will also abide in them.
Jesus promises the disciples the Advocate. This then is a story of Pentecost. That seems confusing because according to the church calendar Pentecost is still two weeks away. But just as Easter is not relegated to one Sunday or one ecclesiastical season, the same is true for Pentecost. In our verses the Spirit does not come whooshing in as it will in the Acts story. The Spirit comes in promise. The Spirit is the Advocate. What does an advocate do? An advocate, by official definition, is “one who pleads the case or the cause of another”. An advocate is “one who supports or promotes the interest of another”. The Spirit as Advocate then will lead the way for the disciples in their ongoing ministry, their following the commandments of Jesus, their works of love. For that is what Jesus commanded them to do – love. And the Advocate will help them in this great and wonderful task. The Advocate will embolden them to love.
I think the challenge for the disciples, and for us, is to realize that being given the gift of the Holy Spirit is as powerful as being given the gift of resurrection. We talk a lot about the Spirit in worship. I pray for the power and the movement of the Spirit just about every Sunday. We will make a big deal of Pentecost in a few weeks, as we should. But I wonder if we don’t sometimes see the Holy Spirit as a consolation prize. We can’t have Jesus physically in our midst. We don’t necessarily encounter God the Father as we read about in scripture. So we get the Spirit. One commentator referred to the Holy Spirit as the quiet one in the Trinity. But receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit is powerful and wonderful and terrifying. It’s all this and more because for one thing we cannot control the Spirit any more than we can put God in a box or make Jesus the kind of person we want him to be. The Spirit really does blow where it will. And if we pray for it to come into our presence, we better be ready for what that means. The Spirit effects change. The Spirit shakes up and knocks down. The Spirit, our Advocate, makes what we do here in this place, in our lives, matter. It’s why we can hear these words, written thousands of ago, and recognize their meaning for us today.
The Spirit would make it possible for the disciples to keep the commandments Jesus gave them. It would make it possible for them to love as they were loved. The Spirit makes it possible for us to do this as well. We have to remember that the Spirit is not a separate entity from God the Father and God the Son. When we receive the Spirit, we receive the love of the Father and the redemption of the Son. As a friend of mine pointed out, when we receive the Spirit it is in us. It is not something external to our being, it is in us. The love and power and spark of God, Father, Son and Spirit, is alive in us. It seems to me that that is what Jesus meant when he spoke of abiding. We live and abide in God, and God lives and abides in us. Just as the disciples were not left alone in their grief and loss and confusion, neither are we. We have the Advocate, the Spirit. It not only guides us and persists with us, it is in us. It opens our eyes to the presence of God all around us. It reveals Christ in the stranger. It makes grace and mercy real. It moves us to love. And in this broken world, where violence and death seem to reign, where literal orphans number in the millions, there can be no greater act than for us to love. May the Spirit move within us this day and every day, so that we may keep the commandments we have been given. May the Spirit move within us this day and every day, so that we can love fiercely, passionately, and extravagantly all of God’s beloved children. Let all of us say, “Alleluia!” Amen.