"NOT ORPHANED" - Psalm 121; John 14: 1-3, 15 - 21

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Texts: Psalm 121; John 14:1-3; 15-21

“Not Orphaned”

            Listen now for the Word of God – our second lesson - as it comes this day from John’s gospel. I am reading from chapter 14:1-3, 15-21:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

15”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.17This 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.

18”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They 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.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

The reading of these words from John get me thinking, not of Sunday morning worship, but of our regular gathering in this sanctuary for funerals and memorial services. In fact, in all my years of pastoral ministry, I have preached on this passage on a Sunday morning only one time and it was in conjunction with another passage. Jesus says – “believe in God, believe also in me; in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places; . . . I will not leave you orphaned, . . . .” -

We tend to long for those words, open our hearts and lives to those words the most, when we gather in our grief, when we bury our loved ones, when we need sincere encouragement and hope.

But I also think these are especially good words for today – for Mother’s Day, . . . and for this season in our life and culture.

“Believe in God, believe also in me; . . . I will not leave you orphaned.”

Perhaps your mother died NOT long ago, and this is your first Mother’s Day without her.

Perhaps your mother died long ago, . . . or maybe the relationship died long ago . . . and you have been dealing with that loss for most of your life.

Perhaps you wanted more than anything to be a mother, but you were never able to bear a child.

Or it may be that your memories of childhood are filled with unforgettable pain. You may have felt like an orphan for a long time even though your parents are alive.

Or maybe it is just the creeping sensation that we are drifting through life, battered by storms and circumstances, never sure who to trust or what to do.

"I will not leave you orphaned," Jesus said. This is not a word in the past tense. It is a word for today, and for any time we feel abandoned, or discouraged.

Were the disciples of Jesus worried about becoming orphans? Where do these words come from? What was going on with Jesus and the disciples to make these words so clear and pertinent for so very many circumstances of life?

Clearly, Jesus’ words were not sinking in with his disciples. His words were not sticking, were not really translating with the disciples, because he keeps making this point. At the beginning of chapter 13, it says this: “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father,” so he gathered his disciples around him for a meal. He told them he would be leaving them. He said, “where I am going you cannot come.” But he gave them an example of how to live – he got up from the table and washed their feet. And he said, “So if I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

And then still at the same table, same night, he said one of you will betray me. And they got nervous: “is it I?” Others asked, “is it I?” Then Judas left the room; and Jesus said again, “I am only with you a little while. . . . but here, I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this, everyone will know you are my disciples.”

But the confusion, understandably, continued. Peter asked, “where are you going? Why can I not follow you now?”

Three chapters pass with this kind of discussion and uncertainty from the disciples . . . and Jesus’ constant answer.

It is almost like that saying that I keep in my study: “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

It is like the theologian stating in one sentence the essence of the gospel message.

It is like the final lecture of a professor – what would you say in your final lecture?

It is like the commencement address – key words to those going off on graduation day. Well, the message in these chapters: this is Jesus’ main thing. This is Jesus’ demonstration of the gospel. This is Jesus’ last lecture. This is Jesus’ commencement address.

And so Jesus says, “do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. . . . . I will not leave you orphaned.” And this is what you do: keep my commandments, which is to “love one another.”

It is not like the disciples had not heard this. Did Jesus think the disciples had already forgotten what he said a few minutes before? Did the disciples wonder why Jesus was repeating himself? They didn't ask.

Jesus goes on, connecting the love commandment to a promise: "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever." What did Jesus mean? Who or what is this "Advocate"? Some versions of the Bible translate the Greek word as "Counselor." The word comes from the language of the courtroom --- an advocate who will stand with you, who will speak on your behalf. Jesus goes on to call this Advocate "the Spirit of truth" and a bit later "the Holy Spirit." Advocate and Holy Spirit seem one and the same in this gospel. This Advocate/Spirit will ABIDE with them, will “make a home with them.”  This Advocate will empower them to love one another even as Jesus has loved them. But more than that: through the presence of the Spirit, Jesus will be with them even after he goes away.

So, . . . No wonder we read this passage at funerals and times of loss. Jesus is always trying to assure us that we are never alone, or on our own. “Believe in God, believe also in me. I will not leave you orphaned.”

But it can also be hard – SO HARD - to “believe” this.

We often feel very alone, . . . and on our on.

We often feel very disheartened by what happens around us.

We often lack in hope about how things might change in the foreseeable future.

Here is what commentator Dale Bruner says about this passage. Into the “slough of despond” that can be our life, Jesus throws “a rope of hope.” (I love that!) The antidote to a troubled spirit, and a discouraged heart, according to Jesus, speaking to his disciples - which includes us – “is a freshly trusting relation with God and his Son, who knows how to calm storms and reach ports.” With careful explication of the text, Bruner reminds us that we should take our eyes off of ourselves. That is kind of hard to do – because we are so accustomed to doing it ourselves; we are so used to finding our way ourselves. But while we can do lots of things, we cannot do everything. So much is beyond our control. So many people and circumstances let us down. So much happens that is just going to happen. But the promise holds. God is alive and well. God is at work always. God is trustworthy. God is present in Jesus. God is present in the Advocate – who never leaves us. We can only trust God! So Jesus pleads with us: “Please do!” “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe. Lean into God. (see D. Bruner, The Gospel of John – a commentary, p. 809)

The answer to a troubled heart and a disheartened spirit, according to this passage, is a freshly trusting relation with God and his Son, who knows how to calm storms and to reach ports.

This, my friends - this freshly trusting relation with God - is something we have to practice. We have to work at it – because the disheartening forces, and the challenges that come our way can be really difficult. So much can happen to make us doubt, get discouraged.

Gregory Boyle, in his latest book about his important ministry with the gangs in the projects in Los Angeles, says that, following his talks around the country, he almost always gets asked if he has ever come close to losing his faith. People ask this because he has buried 220 kids, all killed because of gang violence – kids he has loved, and kids killed by kids he loved. He says he has never shaken his fist at God. He does not see God as the accomplice to these killings. What did God have to do with it?

In correspondence with a priest in Ireland, Jackie Kennedy wrote that she felt bitter toward God after the assassination of her husband. “How could God let this happen?” she asked. But God wasn’t in the Texas School Book Depository, aiding and abetting. Boyle reminds us, and applies this to his work. “God was – and is – in the heartbreak and in the insights born of sadness. God was and is in the arms that wrap around our grief. I have felt this every time a kid is gunned down.” Or when facing impossible decisions. “Or when you are given a cancer diagnosis (which happened to Boyle) Such things don’t shake your faith – they shape it.”

Some things, Boyle continues, are random and other things are meant to be in our control. So God is with me when bad things happen and God is rooting for me when I need to decide things. And I am okay with that. “I do not need God to be in charge of my life. I only need God to be at the center of my life.” (G. Boyle, Barking at the Choir, p. 22)

Isn’t that great?!

So Jesus says, “Believe in God, believe also in me. . . . I will not leave you orphaned. . . . because I live, you will live. . . . And love.”

Like most things that Jesus says, it fills us with consolation, covers us with grace, comforts us and holds us; and yet ALSO lays out a path for our living.

And we have to work, and practice, at remembering it –

We keep remembering, maybe, by memorizing scripture – like those words from Psalm 121 – “my help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth;” “he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep; the Lord is your keeper, . . . the Lord will keep your life, . . . the Lord will watch over your coming and going, forever.” That is the promise!

We keep remembering too by singing the faith, (like we just sung, about the “Mighty Power of God”, or will sing in a minute, “In the Bulb there is a flower.” And we keep sharing in community, and urging one another on when times get tough. This is how we practice and remember.

“Do not let your hearts be too troubled.”

We keep remembering, by reciting – as I try to do – in the face of uncertainty and chaos – “we trust God.” This is a fact and this is our ongoing goal – because it can be so fleeting. We put our faith, we lean into, not just the news of the day, or the worries of our lives. We believe in God, who gives us an Advocate, who will never leave us.

And when we remember, we are also reminded us how to live – with love. The Advocate – the Spirit – will also empower us to live with LOVE, promoting the reign of God in our lives. We have to keep leaning into, working on, building the kind of world that God intends. It seems to say, “as I will not leave you orphaned, don’t leave anyone behind.”

So the combination of the two – the promise and the expectation – actually deepen our faith and shape us as disciples.

One more brief story from Greg Boyle and Homeboy Ministries: one of the tutors at Homeboy, a tiny Japanese American woman named June, was teaching literacy skills, and helping many of the gang-recovering kids to fill out forms. One of the homies she was working with was named Fili. When the form asked for his height, he didn’t know how to answer - because he was confined to a wheel chair from gun violence. Sitting in his chair, he was about 3 feet. Ms. June asked him to extend his arms wide. She took out a measuring tape and measured from fingertip to fingertip. (see Boyle, Barking, p. 159)

“You’re six feet tall, “ she tells him matter-of-factly.

Our true height in love, our true depth of faith, it seems, is measured in how expansively we can outstretch our arms, with generosity and love.

Lots of things happen to us. Lots of things shape us: losses and pains, uncertainties and chaos. But our calling – our way of living as disciples – is remembering Jesus’ main message in this text: “believe in God, . . . do not be troubled; . . . you are not orphaned. . . . Love!”

Jesus comes to make the world a more wholesome and hopeful place. This changes everything about our lives – we are NOT ORPHANED. Jesus calls us always to be part of the healing and redeeming of the world in love. This changes everything about our lives too. May it be so. Amen.

Prayer of Commitment: Fill us with your Spirit in such a way that we, O God, are comforted and consoled AND increasingly committed to compassion and care, following Jesus. Amen

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on May 13, 2018. This is a rough manuscript.