“Not Orphans” John 14: 15-21 May 21, 20 Rev. Maynard Atik
“From about half-past ten in the evening to about half an hour after midnight. Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob. Not the God of philosophers and scholars. Absolute certainty. Beyond reason. Joy. Peace. Forgetfulness of the world and everything but God. The world has not known thee, but I have known thee. Joy! Joy! Joy! Tears of joy!”
Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher, carried these words on himself, wherever he went, until the day he died to commemorate his conversion experience. It described his personal plunge into the words of our readings for today, where in the Acts of the Apostles a characteristic of humanity is described, which “Searches for God and perhaps reaches, gropes for God and finds God….” And in John’s gospel with Jesus’ promise to his followers: “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. This knowledge will be the gift of the Holy Spirit whom the world cannot receive, but you know him because the spirit abides in you.”
I don’t know if you have read any of Pascal’s writings or even heard of him. Society has been fed so richly from his ongoing mystical experience of his Savior-God through his writings But most of us have not thus been overwhelmed by the awesome love of god, and the tremendum of the wholeness of life in Jesus, as Pascal was. Most of us have received it in a far more plodding way.
The first time I saw the southwestern coast of Norway in 1967 was an experience of that order. My 2 aunts, Hjørdis & Martha, and uncle Alf & I, along with a well-stocked picnic basket, trudged along the narrow winding road heading south out of Stavanger, up, down, around. My uncle said, “Just around this bend we’ll stop, for the world lies around the next corner.” And there it burst upon me, this world of perpendicular, right down to the sea; farms perched high on little flat green patches, with sheep or cattle grazing at the edge; of crashing surf, pounding the rocks; of water, snow & trees. I gasped, speechless. What I remember, however, was the quiet reverent smile, which played around the mouth of my uncle as he drank in, probably for the 100th time, if not more, a sight that was indeed his world.
I think the first time I saw that God was in Christ & Christ in God & I in Christ & he in me was as a child. It was Christmas Eve in our small apartment in Brooklyn & we were reveling in our gifts, when I happen to notice my parents. They had no presents but had smiles of total happiness as they watched their only child. I did not know then, what I had seen.
I saw it much later in my father’s eyes when I happened upon him unawares in their Brooklyn co-op apartment looking into the blue eyes of his little towhead 2 1/2 month grandson, David, who together with me just arrived back from Norway. And then, a few years later, my father dandling his tiny dimpled blond haired, blue eyed grandaughter, Kirsten, on his knee. I did not know it then, either, what I had seen. I saw it working my first shift as a chaplain at St. Paul’s chapel by Ground Zero, that haven of respite care for the construction workers, firefighters, police & others working in the pit, sifting & searching for 12 hours at a time for anything connected to the victims. That haven covered, adorned with letters, banners, messages of the spirit. There were meals, massage therapists & chiropractors to work out aches & pains from backbreaking work, podiatrists to care for burned & blistered feet from the intense heat. There was music offered on the piano from the workers or other volunteers – classical, gospel, hymns, all soothing to the ear & for the soul. And then at noon there was Holy Communion amid the quiet holy commotion. Stepping back, with tears streaming down my face, I said to myself God is here in this place & we have been baptized for this moment.
I saw it on a hill in a Brooklyn cemetery where a family, members of my home congregation where I served, after nearly 8 months, gathered to lay their loved one, Lars Qualben, to rest. He was killed on 9/11, body recovered late January, & buried in May. Their faith also told them that they were baptized for that moment. Tender, touching words were spoken to the one who died. Hymns were sung that gave wings to their faith testifying that they too are not left orphaned even in their grief & sorrow, that they are in Christ as much as Christ is in them.
I have known it in a moment of fear of death when I was diagnosed with skin cancer & had to go under the knife, 24 years ago, and in 2013 when I underwent spinal fusion. I have known it in the peace, which follows long periods of painful – sometimes shameful self-examination, when I was cared for by a congregation, who as the sheep took loving care of their shepherd.
I have known it at times of prayer, at times of worship, at times when I am swimming laps, at times in fellowship with friends over a Manhattan, at times at the sacrament of Holy Communion. Because I was baptized into this wholeness, which overwhelmed the Frenchman Pascal. And the God of my baptism has followed me all the days of my life, & literally besieged me with goodness & love, by helping me to see by this “Other” Advocate, that the one who came in water and Spirit, comes in people and the Spirit, words and the Spirit, birds, flowers, sky & the Spirit, choices, work, exercise, meals, hymns, friendship, music, massages & the Spirit. For in that day we shall see that he is in the Father & we are in him & Christ is in us.
And people will say, “How do you know?” And we shall say, “The spirit’s gift of faith has told me so.”
This faith, my faith has told me that I will not be left desolate, be an orphan. My faith has told me that Another Advocate is the continued Easter presence of Jesus with me. This Other Advocate is not the next best thing to Jesus. This Holy Spirit will do for the Church & me what Jesus has done for the disciples. This Other Advocate will call alongside, stand alongside. An advocate is the one whose name you call when you are hauled into court to speak in your name & in your place; when the school or work or neighbor or political bully is beating you up on whatever playground is yours; when you wake up from a bad dream in the middle of the night. An advocate is the one who comes to your defense, your rescue, your comfort, and Jesus has done that for his disciples. But Another Advocate will serve that function for us. That advocate will feed & strengthen my faith, our faith. And so our faith says we will not be left desolate, be an orphan.
Our faith keeps us experiencing the sure confidence that Easter counts for everything, that Christ is risen, that the crucified & risen Lord is the Lord over this world, even now, & especially over everything that happened in the Pit at Ground Zero, or in Syria, Russia, North Korea & Afghanistan or in the corporate board room, the oval office, especially the oval office, the operating room, because the Pit is not the last word, nor is Syria, Russia, North Korea or Afghanistan, the last word; nor is the board room or the oval office, especially this oval office, or the operating room the last word. And they will ask, “How can you verify it?” And we will say, “By my thankfulness for the gift of life and the gift of hope.”
Recently, I read something rather odd: “The reason mountain climbers are tied together is to keep the sane ones from going home.” Whoever said that was playing with us a bit, for we know mountain climbers are tied together to keep from getting lost or going over a cliff. But there’s another piece of truth here. When things get tough up on the mountain, when fear sets in, many a climber is tempted to say, “This is crazy! I’m going home.” The life of faith can be like that: doubts set in, despair overwhelms us, and the whole notion of believing in God seems crazy. Jesus knew his disciples would have days like that. So he told them we’re tied together like branches on the vine-or like climbers tied to the rope-tied together by the Spirit, to trust in One who is always more than we can understand, to keep us moving ahead on the journey of faith, to encourage us when believing seems absurd. That makes so much sense during this transition time as a congregation, patiently hungering for a new pastor and during this new presidential administration as a country, anxious over the consequences of this administration’s actions & decisions, yet driven to become more active for the sake of our country’s heritage to welcome the needy, forgotten and despairing.
Jesus says to you & me, “I will not leave you orphaned; I will come to you.” Orphaned. Alone. Without guidance. Without support. Without parents. Without anyone. Mostly, “Orphaned” means being so isolated in this world that it feels like no one cares whether or not we live or die. Orphaned. Really depressing. At least, it can be—and terrifying, too. Although an image of children first comes to mind when we use that word, any of us can be orphaned at any age. In fact, on any given day, a lot of us are orphaned, at least in spirit.
It’s interesting that Jesus uses the word “Orphaned” in our reading, as it is such a potent metaphor for what he was about to do, which was to leave his beloved disciples and go and die He surely knew that his death would—and rightly so—strike fear and terror in those who loved him, those he loved so closely and so well, so sacrificially. He surely knew they would be left vulnerable. He surely knew they would panic. He surely suspected they would turn and run for their own lives, abandoning him the very moment things got rough. He surely knew all of these things but loved them anyway. Yet his words in our gospel reveal none of his own sense of loss and panic, his own sense of being orphaned. He speaks only of love of God, the coming of “Another” Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will never leave, “The Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive … (who) abides with you and in you.” Whether they heard him or not, he only speaks words of hope.
And so, we are not orphans. “…And my Father will love [you] and will come to [you] and make our home with [you].” Not visit. Not pass through from time to time. Not send a postcard. “We will come to [you] and make our home with [you].” Because of Jesus’ continued presence with us through his spirit, Easter counts for everything; wholeness is life – his life, our life, this life, all life, the life to come. It is his gift of himself. Amen.