Sunday, May 25, 2014

I Will Not Leave You

John 14:15-21
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.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Plan

            Last Friday I opened my mailbox and saw two significant pieces of correspondence.  One was from the pension board of the Presbyterian Church (USA); the other was from a federal entity that shall remain nameless, but trust me, you don’t want to get a letter from this entity.  I decided to be brave and open the unwanted entity epistle first.  It was bad news.  Bad.  Bad.  News.  After calling a few people to vent and seek advice, then collapsing into a panic attack that required many deep breaths into a paper bag, I calmed down enough to finally open the letter from my board of pensions.  It was something I’d been expecting; the copy of my health, spiritual, financial, vocational plan that I’d created at the CREDO conference last year.  Receiving a copy of the plan was a way for participants to assess how we’ve done following our plan over the past year.  My plan was in a separate envelope and attached to it was a letter from one of the persons who administers the CREDO program.  I know this letter is sent to every participant.  While I can’t quote his exact words, at the end of the letter he thanked me for my ministry to the church and for the blessing I have been to others. 

            You’re probably thinking that I’m about to write that reading those words changed my whole outlook on the bad news I’d just received.  Maybe you expect my next sentence to say that I realized at that moment that everything would ultimately be okay.  If that is what you’re thinking, dear reader, you’re wrong.  Upon reading those words I lost it all over again. 

            Blessing to the church?  To others?  Great.  That’s great, I thought, but I feel kicked in the teeth by my vocation.  All I could see was that I had failed.  I had failed in my personal life, my professional life, and no matter how hard I tried or worked I couldn’t seem to get ahead; financially, spiritually, professionally.  My self-composed, excessively long list of failures and shortcomings, a list I have worked valiantly this past year to let go of, curled itself around me like a snake.  And Winston Churchill’s black dog of depression, which I’ve also spent the last year training to heel, sprang back seemingly larger than ever.

            I spent the majority of my weekend dancing between despair and rage.  On Sunday, it was only through sheer will that I was able to stand in the pulpit and preach about love and intimate relationship with God without crying.  Intellectually, I knew, I know, that all the nasty things I say about myself in these moments aren’t true.  I know in my head that I have many blessings, and that I am far better off than so many others.  I can logically articulate that this bad news isn’t going to ultimately ruin my life.  But my perfectionism and my depression, which I’ve discovered walk hand-in-hand, do their damndest to convince me otherwise. 

            But the good news is – and yes there is good news – while I felt like I've spent this year inching my way forward a few feet at a time only to be propelled backward the length of a football field, I have come a long way.  I know this is true because my perspective did come back.  I was able to recognize more quickly that not all of this is my doing or my mistake.  Bad news doesn’t automatically mean that I am doomed to failure.  Bad news doesn’t meant that I’m a failure at all.  Have I failed?  Sure.  Who hasn’t?  But am I failure?  No.  I’m not. 

            It took more courage than I thought I had to finally open up my envelope and review the plan for health and well-being I made last year.  But I did.  I opened it thinking I knew every promise I’d made myself, and everything that I had accomplished or not.  But I had forgotten one thing.  At the bottom of each page, I’d written in big, bold letters, “I WILL FORGIVE MYSELF.”  I will forgive myself.  Just four words.  They sound easy, but they are so hard to do.  Yet those four words brought me back.  Those four words reminded me that I am not lost.  The black dog won’t win, and even if I don’t always believe it or see it, my ministry and my friendship have been a blessing to others.  And I am blessed, so blessed, in return.  So I will forgive myself.  It’s going to be hard, but I will.  That’s my plan.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Dwelling Place

John 14:1-14
May 18, 2014

            A creative writing teacher I had in college gave an assignment in which we were asked to describe a home that was significant to us.  It could be the home we grew up in, or the home where we lived at the time.  It was our choice.  Whatever home we chose, we had to pick one room to begin with and start describing.  His purpose behind this was that as we began to describe the rooms, memories would be stirred; memories that could be used in our writing.  He was right. 
            If I were to be given this assignment today, I would write about the kitchen in my childhood home in Nashville.  It was not an extraordinary kitchen.  It contained all of the elements you expect in a kitchen: stove, refrigerator, shelves, cupboards, and a built-in cutting board that slid out like a drawer.  My mom used that board for rolling out cookie dough and kneading bread dough, and you get the idea.  A lot of baking happened in that kitchen.  I didn’t quite grasp cooking in my childhood, nor in my adulthood, but I did learn to bake.  The kitchen table we had then is the table I have in my house now.  We ate meals at that table.  At Christmas we made homemade candy at that table.  When our variety of friends would come over, we always seemed to end up in the kitchen, at the table, talking, laughing, eating.  When my friend Cynthia and I were playing at my house, we would take over the entire table for the elaborate variety of baked goods we made out of playdough.  Family, friends, neighbors were in and out of that kitchen on a regular basis.  I know my friends knew their way around our kitchen as well as I did.  My sister and brother’s friends were the same. 
            The memories I have of that kitchen are endless.  But what I remember is not just what we did in the kitchen, it’s who was there.  It’s the relationships that were built and lived out in that kitchen that I remember most vividly.  The kitchen was indeed our dwelling place.               
            The idea of dwelling place is central to this passage from John.  I suspect that it’s also the most misunderstood aspect of these verses in John’s gospel.  Yet, in order to fully understand what’s happening in our passage, it’s important to see what’s taking place in the larger context.  A colleague pointed out that chapter 14, indeed chapters 14, 15, 16, and 17 of John’s gospel, constitute what we might think of as a commencement speech from Jesus to the disciples.  This is a fitting analogy considering it is graduation time for schools, colleges and universities.  In these chapters, in this commencement speech, Jesus spells out to the disciples one last time everything about who he is, who God is and who they are in relationship to one another.  He makes it clear to the disciples what must happen to him in order to fulfill God’s will on earth.  Once we reach Chapter 18, Jesus will be betrayed, arrested and will make his way to the cross.  So Jesus is telling it all to the disciples.  It is his commencement speech.  But unlike other commencement speeches we would hear at graduations, it is not directed to the disciples because they are leaving.  It is Jesus who will be doing the leaving.  And the Jesus of the fourth gospel does not hesitate to go to the cross.  He is “keen” to do so.  John’s Jesus is ready to go.  The cross is something that must happen to fulfill God’s ultimate plan.  So he is keen to make his way.  Jesus is keen to return to the Father.  But his leaving does not mean that the disciples will be forgotten.  Jesus’ leaving means that now it is the disciples’ turn.  Upon Jesus’ leaving, it will be their turn, their responsibility to continue the work and the ministry that Jesus started.  They will not be alone in this.  Jesus promises them in the verses immediately following these that they will receive the Advocate, the Holy Spirit who will be with them forever. 
            But even before they learn of this Advocate, Jesus gives them reassurance.  He reassures the disciples that he has a home for them.  As I stated, this is a misunderstood idea.  Whenever I’ve read this passage in the past, and certainly the way I’ve heard it interpreted by other preachers time and time again, is that Jesus is referring literally to his home in heaven with God.  It is a geographical location.  “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places.”  Or in other versions it is “many rooms” or “many mansions.”  Yet whatever word is used, it is commonly understood as location.  Jesus is going to join God in a place called heaven.  In that place called heaven, Jesus is preparing a place for them and for us.  It is geography. 
            It is no wonder that we hear this passage used in funeral services.  When someone we love dies, we all want to be reassured that we will see them again.  So hearing that our loved one has gone to live in one of the many rooms or dwelling places that Jesus has prepared gives us comfort.  The idea that my grandmother is sitting in a heavenly kitchen waiting for me keeps me going.   But this is John’s gospel.  John wrote in metaphor.  To John, the idea of a dwelling place was not a room in a house or a spot on a map.  A dwelling place symbolized relationship.  Jesus spoke of his intimate relationship with God the Father.  Jesus told them about his origins in God the Father. 
When Jesus said, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places,” he wasn’t referring to the guest rooms available in heaven.  He wasn’t speaking of a divine bed and breakfast.  Instead he was referring to his intimate relationship with God. Jesus was making it clear to the disciples that an intimate relationship with God was available to those who seek God through him.    
            Jesus came to make this intimate relationship with God possible.  In John’s gospel the incarnation of Jesus, the Word made flesh and living in our midst, changes forever humanity’s relationship with God and God’s relationship with God’s children.  According to commentator Gail O’Day, Jesus, in John’s gospel, “is the tangible presence of God’s love in the world.”  So Jesus going to the cross is what must happen.  Again, John’s Jesus is anxious, keen, to go to the cross.  He is anxious to go to his Father.  Because going to the cross is what will make it possible for the disciples and all who know Jesus to have this intimate relationship with the Father. 
            So in order for the disciples to commence their work, they must believe.  “Believe in God.  Believe also in me.”  The grammar behind Jesus’ words is important.  In the Greek, there is an implied condition of fact.  When Jesus tells the disciples, “Believe in God, believe in me,” what he is really saying is “Believe in God, which you already do.”  “Believe in me, which you already do.”  Yet it would seem that the disciples don’t trust their belief.  When they hear Jesus speak of them knowing the way to the place where Jesus is going, they take him literally.  There must be an actual path they have to follow to reach this destination of which Jesus speaks. 
            But Jesus speaks to them again in words that have a deeper meaning.  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” 
            This is probably the second most misunderstood, misinterpreted statement in this passage.  We hear Jesus’ words as words of exclusion and judgment.  But Jesus is reminding them that he is the incarnate Word of God.  He is God’s love made flesh.  God’s love.  If they believe in him and they do, if they know him and they do, then they know the Father.  If they have seen Jesus, they have seen the Father.  But if you still can’t grasp all this, Jesus says, then look at the works that I have done.  Believe in me because of what I have accomplished.
            Jesus goes on to tell them that even if the disciples only believe because of Jesus’ works, they will still do greater works than even Jesus has accomplished.  They are to commence.  Go into the world, the world that Jesus is leaving but not abandoning, and bring the good news.  Go into the world, trusting in Jesus, Father and Son, because of the good works they have seen him accomplish.  Go into the world knowing that their good works will be even greater than what Jesus himself has done.   They must commence. 
            They must commence because they have and will continue to have a deep and abiding relationship with God through Jesus.  This relationship isn’t just something that will occur in a future place and time, it is right now.  They have already been in intimate, loving relationship with God, because they have been in relationship with Jesus.  Yet this intimate relationship with love incarnate, this dwelling place, is not the end.  It is the beginning.  It is the foundation on which their works are built.  It is because of this relationship that they are able to commence. 
            That is just as true for us.  It seems to me that when we see a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus as the goal, we miss the point.  Our relationships with Jesus are necessary, vital, but we aren’t called to rest complacently in that relationship.  We are called, as the disciples were before us, to commence.  It is in our relationship with God through Jesus that we find the courage and strength to go out; to do works that witness to God’s love for the world.  Each of us must trust in the dwelling place, the home, we have with God.  But we can’t simply think it will come at a later date.  We have that dwelling place now.  We have that home now.  Our call is to open our home to all of God’s children.  Let us commence.  Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen.