Never Orphaned

a sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter [Year A]

John 14:15-21 and Acts 17:22-31

Jesus’ words to his disciples this morning reveal he is very in tune to a basic human fear and feeling that everyone has had at some point. It is the fear of being left behind or left alone, left with no one who will watch after you and take care of you. “I will not leave you orphaned,” he assures them. “I am coming to you.” Even as he is preparing to undergo his own suffering and his own feelings of rejection, here we see a tender, perceptive side of Jesus who is intuitive about what his friends are going through. They are worried about being abandoned.

I don’t remember this event from my early childhood, but my father remembers, and he’s told me about it. When the Disney movie Bambi was re-released in 1982 my dad took me to the movie theater to see it and my mom stayed home with my younger sister. I would have been in the second grade at that point—so about eight years old—and I think it was one of our earliest father-son bonding moments. As many of you may know, Bambi tells the story of a young deer in the forest who grows up becoming steadily aware not just of the other animal friends but of the dangers around him. At one point in the movie Bambi’s mother, who is the young deer’s only guardian, is shot by a hunter and dies. The young Bambi crawls out of the safety of the thicket where he’s been hiding and frantically runs through the worsening snow, calling out for his mother to have no one answer.

It has been called one of the most traumatic movie scenes of all time, especially through the eyes of an 8-year-old. Apparently it traumatized me because what my father remembers and I don’t is that later that night as he was sitting on the edge of my mattress, tucking me in bed and helping me say my prayers, I looked up at him and asked out of the blue, “Daddy, what’s going to happen to me if you die?” He said he felt entirely unprepared to contemplate his own mortality at that moment as the lump rose in his throat. I don’t think we went to a movie together for a while after that. I think that’s when we started going to sporting events.

“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus says, and this morning I imagine some might be celebrating our first Mother’s Day without our mother or maternal figure and feeling a little orphaned. But it’s not just death that takes people from us. I ran into a man this week while I was birding who shared with me right there on the boardwalk, both of us holding our cameras, that his retirement is much lonelier than he had planned. His wife, as he explained, is in a memory care facility with early onset Alzheimer’s and their children have backed away from helping much.

That awareness of possible abandonment or loneliness is something that never really goes away, whether it is from parents, spouses, siblings, or friends. From the moment God first looked at man and said, “It is not good for him to be alone” we were meant to be in relationship with one another. Jesus understands this, and he understands that his disciples feel terribly apprehensive about a life without his guidance and leadership and most importantly, his love. This is the love that has bound them together as masters and servants who wash the feet of one another. It is the love that has filled the room as bread has been broken together and a cup of wine passed around. To imagine life without this love is something the disciples are likely finding hard to imagine, as he has literally just had to tell them not to let their hearts be troubled.

And so he sits on the edge of their mattress, tucking them in for a life of sharing their faith and suffering, assuring them he has thought this through. This separation from him they may experience will not be forever. In fact, it won’t even be long. He will die, but he will come again and they will see him. “I will not leave you orphaned.”

On one level here we can say Jesus is speaking about his resurrection. The disciples can’t comprehend that at this point, but Jesus does really mean that although the authorities will arrest him and execute him on a cross, he will be able to overcome it all. He will live again and he’s going to eat with them and hang out with them again.

But on a deeper level Jesus is speaking about his absence once he ascends to the Father. He won’t orphan them because he will send another Advocate to be with them and having that Advocate will be just like having Jesus with them again. This Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will abide in them and in their life together in such a way that Jesus will be in them. They will be able to keep Jesus’ commandments, specifically the commandment to love one another, because this Spirit will dwell among them. They will not feel orphaned because this Advocate will do such a good job at animating them with Jesus and his love that it will be as if Jesus himself is there. And the Advocate ends up doing a really good job! The community of disciples hits rough patches here and there but overall it grows and touches more and more people with Jesus’ love.

I’m not sure we modern disciples necessarily feel orphaned by Jesus anymore. Not only do we now stand on the other side of the resurrection from when the disciples first heard this, but we’ve also lived and carried on for a really long time with this Advocate guiding us and bringing us into the presence of Jesus. The church is the love of Jesus we’re used to. But I think we do feel sometimes that it would be easier for everybody if Jesus had just stayed around in his bodily form instead of ascending. Then he could just continue hanging out with everyone—field our questions, allay our fears, do some miracles here and there. If Jesus could have stayed around until today because he has life eternal why did he choose to leave us with this Advocate like some kind of babysitter?

As many of you know, Taylor Swift is in the middle of her Eras tour right now. It’s a big deal. People are crowding into parking lots outside of venues just to hear her. To know what Taylor Swift is truly like, or so her fans say, and to experience her in all her glory, one really must have a ticket to one of those shows. You may be a fan, you may really like her music and know a lot about her, but to truly be able to say you have experienced Taylor Swift you need to be in the arena when she is singing and performing. And indeed, when tickets went on sale last November, a record number of people agreed, demand for them crashed Ticketmaster within minutes. To see as many fans as possible, Taylor has to keep the concerts going,  visiting town after town.

With the Holy Spirit that Jesus sends, no one needs to physically be in Jesus’ presence anymore. No one needs to see him in his sandals or touch the hem of his coat or get a ticket to whatever the next stop on his tour is because now Jesus can be everywhere and all at the same time There is no “Eras of Jesus” stadium tour, no lines to see Jesus and maybe get his autograph—which is what would have happened if the plan had been for Jesus to stick around as one person all this time.

Now he dwells in his followers. Now our relationships with each other bring him to life to every corner of the earth. We keep his commandments and his trademark love is made known everywhere.

Saint Paul makes this exact point when he travels to ancient Athens, which was a city that had all kinds of different faiths represented in it. He tries to convince them of the truth of Jesus and inspire faith in them. Pointing out, one by one, all of the different temples around them that have all been built to different deities, Paul says that the one true God, the one who created all things, does not need a temple. “This God does not live in shrines made by human hands…for ‘in him we live and move and have our being.’” In a land that would have understood that gods are always attached to certain elements and locations in the natural world, be they silver or gold or water or stone, Paul presents a God that dwells in and among people. Paul wants people to know a living God that moves around all over the place, calling all people to repentance, wherever and whoever they are, not bound by nature…not bound even by death because this God is with his people wherever they happen to be.

St. Paul Preaching in Athens (Raphael, 1515)

And we, my friends, are those people. Whether we are keeping Jesus’ commandments here on a Sunday morning when we happen to be in our temple or whether we are out in the world where God calls us to work and live through our vocations, we are those people. We are Jesus’ people, who are never left alone by God and who are constantly keeping his commandments of love, because he loves us all of the time.

We are those people and so therefore we do not leave the world orphaned. We stick with people in their suffering. We celebrate with them in their joys. We set up hospitals and recovery clinics and literal orphanages in order to reveal love for those the world often does leave behind. We go in right after the hurricane hits or the famine strikes and we stay until the last house is rebuilt and the last belly is filled. The family who joins this morning as new members, the Dicksons, came from one former congregation that had to shut its doors but instead of selling the property and giving the money to the Synod they decided to set up a trust, the annual proceeds from which were invested right back into the community organizations they had participated in and supported—the soup kitchens and food pantries—when the congregation was alive and vibrant.

This is all to say that we, no matter where we are, we keep ourselves in tune to what people are feeling. Now we sit with the world on the edge of the mattress, in the dark, listen to their fears, and promise them we’re here for the long haul. And we do this not because that’s what Jesus would have done or would have wanted us to do, but because that is what Jesus is doing. In and through us.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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