“Orphaned,” a sermon preached by the Rev. Abigail G. Henderson, at First Congregational Church of Minnesota, UCC, on May 29, 2011.
John 14: 15–21
“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus tells the disciples. Bold words from a man about to die.
Lest we get too comfortable in the victory of Easter, this week’s lectionary Gospel reading takes us back to the drama of the pre-resurrected Jesus. We are reminded that before he died, Jesus prepared his disciples for the strange paradox of resurrection, which is this: despite his triumph over death, Jesus will not continue his ministry as usual. His friends can no longer count on his comforting presence and wisdom. He will leave them alone to navigate the same cruel world that crucified him.
Jesus anticipates how this reality will make the disciples feel: orphaned. Left behind. Abandoned. Grieving. His promise to stay with them, despite his apparent absence, carries the weight and power of biblical tradition. According to many a prophet, this is one of God’s most basic charges to the people: care for the widow and the orphan.
Has life left you orphaned, literally or figuratively? I don’t want to use the term “orphan” lightly, for it is a cruel state of being. The term itself derives from the Greek orphanos, meaning “bereaved.” The most compelling expressions of bereavement I’ve ever seen come from the work of Käthe Kollwitz, the artist featured on our bulletin cover today. Kollwitz was a German printmaker and sculptor who chronicled the devastation of the two World Wars. She illustrated death not through fallen soldiers but through the faces and bodies of the survivors they left behind.
It is hard to look into the eyes of the widows and orphans she depicts. On the one hand, they are so alien—looking out at us from a time and place few of us can imagine. But on the other hand, I would say, they are so hauntingly familiar. We’ve seen these faces on the news and on our city streets. We’ve even, dare I say, been these faces, in our experiences of deep personal loss. The widows and orphans speak to a profound knowledge of human suffering that touches us all, at one point or another.
I struggled with feelings of bereavement this past week. Now, let me say, nobody died; I wasn’t hungry or homeless, not “orphaned” in the classic and most painful sense. But I was watching distressing events unfold at our State legislature. I’m speaking, of course, of the debate and passage of the amendment that would define legal marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
I spent several hours there on Saturday, standing in a crowd composed of both supporters and protestors. I was a protestor, and at one point, I had two supporters on either side of me. They looked like nice people. At one point, one of them turned to me. I was engaged in the protestors chant, “No hate in our state,” and she said, “We don’t hate.” I said, “Yes, you do.” I said this because, at that moment, I felt hated—singled out, disrespected, insulted all for the sake of my love for my partner. She shook her head, and all at once it hit me, the cruel absurdity of our exchange, the chasm that opened up between me and this other human being, and the dreadful waste of time and money that was taking place. I imagined the resources that will surely pour into the marriage “debate” over the next 18 months, and my heart felt heavy for the Minnesotans without homes, without food, without jobs; for the widows and orphans crying out for our attention; for LGBT Minnesotans, young and old, whose dignity and wellbeing will be affected by this ballot referendum.
“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus promised. “In a little while the world will no longer see me.”
It has been a long time indeed since the world has seen Jesus of Nazareth. Over 2,000 years now. How has his promise to his followers held up, over time?
Before even attempting to answer that impossible question, let’s look more carefully at the promise itself. The crux of his assurance is this: Jesus will ask God to give the people an Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, or, in the words of the message translation, “a friend.” The Greek word is Paraclete, notoriously difficult to translate because it means so many things—counselor, comforter, helper, intercessor. We sum it all up in the title “Holy Spirit,” and I’ll admit that I don’t easily relate to this active presence described in John. It’s tempting to envision the Holy Spirit as this thing that swoops in and alters and improves things somehow.
Maybe the problem lies in that verb—swooping. It implies that the Holy Spirit isn’t already present but must make a grand entrance, which is not what Jesus really says. Jesus basically says that the Holy Spirit is already there—it always has been, it always will be. It is we have to do the swooping—that is, it is we who have to be active, to be engaged in the act of loving God, in order to experience transformation.
I think I witnessed this kind of activity a week ago Saturday. I left the Capitol after several hours of standing, chanting, singing, and praying. I felt pretty blue. I knew the likely outcome of the House’s vote. My partner was exhausted from a long day’s work and fell asleep early, but I stayed up watching the live feed from Capitol. And I listened to a speech from the floor by Rep. John Kriesel, a veteran of the Iraq War and a Republican from Cottage Grove. As he spoke, you could hear the protestors cheering and singing in the background. I’d like to read you excerpts from what he said, transcribed imperfectly by me:
If this was five six years ago I would’ve voted yes… everything changed, I went to Iraq and I was in an incident and I nearly died. I remember laying there looking down and seeing my legs mangled and pretty much guaranteeing that I was done deal… and I remember thinking of my wife and kids, that’s what crossed my mind. It woke me up, it changed me. And as bad as that day sucked, I learned a lot and it changed who I am for the better. It’s made me think about this issue. What would I do without my wife? She makes me happy. Life is hard. We’re in a really tough time in our history. Happiness is so hard to find for people. So they find it, they find someone that makes them happy and we want to take that person away… we want to say, oh, you can be together, you can love that person, but you can’t marry them. That’s wrong. I disagree with it. This amendment doesn’t represent what I went to fight for… hear that out there? That’s the America I fought for, and I’m proud of it.
Now, I don’t want to put words in Rep. Kriesel’s mouth other than the ones he spoke on record. I don’t want to point to this and say, “There is the work of the Holy Spirit!” For one thing, I don’t know how he thinks about these matters. But I’ll tell you this: he stirred something in me, and in countless other people who watched him. What he stirred up was hope. Comfort. Courage. That precious sense of having company, of not being alone.
We all know that the vote passed despite the passionate words of many opponents. We all know that the next 18 months will be grueling and hurtful. Terrible things will be said, and other causes neglected, for the sake of, essentially, maintaining the status quo in Minnesota—it’s not like gay marriage is legal. The outcomes of all this are uncertain, but I am certain of this: in the midst of so much heartache, there will be evidence of grace.
And it is our job—perhaps our uniquely Christian job to witness relentlessly to both the pain and the beauty. That is what the ancient followers of Jesus did: they told the stories, over and over, of God’s mysterious participation in human life. Not all the stories are pretty. Not all them end well. But they move, and they repeat, and they manifest themselves in new ways in this very day and age.
I think it is most fitting to discuss witnessing on Memorial Day weekend. Memorial Day was originally called Dedication Day, and it was a response to the most profoundly divisive time in our history—the American Civil War. The unprecedented level of slaughter that occurred changed the way our culture deals with death. In particular, as historian Drew Gilpin Faust explains, this era marked the first time the government took responsibility for accounting for and respectfully burying all its dead. It raised a troubling new question: how to we preserve our humanity and ourselves within the world of modern warfare?
I think Jesus’ answer to that question would be deceptively simple. “Follow my commandments,” he said. The greatest of these is love.
“I will not leave you orphaned,” he promised.
May it be so.