“I will not leave you orphaned. . . .” John 14:18
My mother kept a Baby Book for each of her daughters. As the oldest mine was full of cute pictures, reflections and notes about my progress as I grew from an infant to a child to a teenager. She filed old report cards, class pictures and other memorabilia within its pages. My sisters had baby books too, theirs not quite as detailed because with each additional daughter there was so much more for her to do. I loved to sit on my bed and read that book. It contained memories I was too young to know I had. Then one day, when I was ten, I found an envelope in it addressed to me. In it was a letter from my mother written two years earlier that was to be opened upon the event of her death. She and my Dad had gone to a Billiards and Bowling Ball Convention in California which involved air travel and made her nervous. Ever curious, I opened the letter even though my mom was alive and well in the kitchen preparing supper. When I read it, however, I imagined her death and my Dad’s too, deaths that would leave me and my sisters, orphans. For the first time I realized that they could die and I wept and wept and wept. Her letter was full of love, including instructions to be a good girl, to be kind to my sisters, advice on dating and finding the right man to marry, which, much later, she agreed, I did.
I still remember the feeling – one that I know many of you have felt – of deep loss, of anguish in the separation, of not being ready to be the matriarch or the patriarch in their stead, of calling them on the phone only to realize they won’t, they can’t, answer. COVID19 had made this so much more difficult – instead of being surrounded by friends and family during a time of grief, there’s no more than 10 people allowed at the graveside, carefully positioned six feet apart, with masks. No casseroles, no services, no greeting lines, no luncheons, no hugs, no stories told and memories shared, orphaned.
Orphaned. Surely, Jesus knew this is how his disciples would feel – orphaned, lost and alone. That’s why he brings it up – not in a letter to be opened in event of his death, which, by the way, was in less than 24 hours, but in conversation at the table, following a meal, on the night in which he was betrayed. Last week we explored the beginning of this conversation. Jesus “re-frames” what’s happening – shifting the focus of the disciples from having troubled hearts to trusting ones, from demanding proof to living by faith. Then Jesus has the audacity to tell them that even though he is going away, they are to do greater works than he did. This might be the most challenging thing Jesus ever said. Jesus changed water into wine, he healed the lame, multiplied the loaves and fishes, gave sight to the blind man and raised the dead. It’s one thing to trust him and to live by faith, it’s quite another to do “greater works” than he did. And especially since he’s going away and will not be around to help them figure it all out. Let me tell you in that letter my mom wrote to my third-grade self, probably the most challenging thing after realizing may parents could die was that I needed to be nice to my sisters. How was I ever going to do that?
Just as my mom wrote her letter out of love, Jesus gives his final instructions to his disciple out of love. “If you love me,” he says, “show it by doing what I told you to do.” Then Jesus teaches them on how to live and promises they will have an advocate, the Spirit, who will walk with them, everywhere and always. Jesus already served as their advocate. But now, he’s leaving them and they will be accompanied by the Spirit as will everyone who follows Jesus, including you and me.
I’ve seen how this works in our ministry with refugees. When they arrive, the resettlement team becomes their advocate, helping them with finding housing, food, a job, school, literacy, transportation, medical care. The team walks side by side with the refugees. But then bit by bit, experience by experience, they learn how to do more and more, reading, working, shopping, becoming self-sufficient and interconnected with others in community. Then there comes the day when it’s their turn to be an advocate with other refugees and help them make a home. It has always been this way in our community – the Lenni Lenape guiding the first immigrants, who guided the next and the next and the next until one day, on the third Saturday in May, everyone parades across Veterans Memorial Bridge from the north-side turns left onto Bridge Street, then turns right onto Main rejoicing in the precious gift of the Spirit of life together in community.
But not this year. This year the Spirit is busy with other life-giving, life-saving business – with providing medical care, food, support, encouragement, guidelines to keep everyone safe, simple kindness, volunteers and so much more. The Spirit is using us here at St. John’s – sharing God’s love through worship on YouTube and sharing resources through a donation from our Outreach funds to support the work of the borough, non-profits and the Phoenixville Office of Emergency Management as they care for those in need in our town. Through the Spirit, others have made masks, delivered meals to the elderly, created on-line resources for children and prayed, prayed, prayed. Jesus sends the Spirit to be the Advocate of God’s love in the world. He said, “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 just a few verses, Jesus will sum up his commandments with just one: “love one another as I have loved you.”
That’s the heart of it, isn’t it? Even if we are going crazy being coop-up, obeying guidelines, wearing masks, keeping social distance, we do so out of love for one another. Even if others are annoying, we continue to love, because we’ve been loved. Even if we’re angry and fearful, we are loved and called to share love. And because we are so loved, we can never be orphaned. Jesus is with us, with you, always. Amen.