Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sixth Easter, 2011

(A)John 14: 15-21

Grace and peace on this Sunday, and as we would note this morning a confluence in our calendars of several themes. The Sixth Sunday of the Easter Season, with continuing focus on the central Christian affirmation of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus, and the message and meaning of that resurrection for us. Thus our gospel reading from St. John, continuing in the 14th chapter, which we began last Sunday with the reading from the first part, “In my Father’s House are many mansions,” and “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The promise, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and bring you to myself, that where I am there ye may be also.”

And this morning that is followed by the promise that in the meantime, before he comes for us, we will be sustained and nourished and empowered to live in the Father’s love and in Christ by the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, who will abide with us and keep us connected to the Father and the Son. Anticipating Whitsunday and Pentecost, now just Sunday after next, and we can almost hear those great hymns: Come Holy Spirit, come!

In the mix with the Easter season moving toward its dramatic festival conclusion, though, we also would know that by very long tradition the first weekdays of this Sixth Week of Easter have been called Rogation Days (“rogation” a word meaning a certain kind of prayer, as we still have in common English the word “interrogation”), the Sixth of Easter Rogation Sunday, and the custom is that these are days when the church blesses the fields as they are planted in anticipation of the harvest to come, with prayers of thanksgiving for God’s continuing care and with supplications for those who labor, and for seasonable weather, and for the material well-being of the community. To take the seasonal turning of the earth from winter to spring, darkness to light, barrenness to abundance, and to let those patterns speak to us of resurrection. Renewal. New life. Abundant and eternal.

When I was rector of St. Paul’s in Bloomsburg we had relationship with a little chapel about 20 miles north of town in the old farming community of Benton, St. Gabriel’s, and it was our custom to go up there in the afternoon on Sixth Easter for Evensong and a blessing of the seed and the fields and for a fun potluck supper with games and music. A day about our dependence on God, and about our stewardship of God’s world. And perhaps we in our urban and suburban gardens this week will want to say a prayer of blessing and thanksgiving, as we had reflected for us in the introit and opening hymn this morning.

And of course also the flags out this weekend in front of our homes, and ceremonies in cemeteries, and vigils and brass bands and parades, for Memorial Day, as we have reflected in the final hymn of this service. I believe the holiday on the calendar originally “Decoration Day,” from a time after our American Civil War when mothers and wives and children would go out to the burial grounds to mark the graves of the fallen. Though of course we have more on our mind and in our hearts today than ancient history or even the stories my grandfather would tell from the time of the Great War, or that my dad and so many others would tell from the time of the Second War, and to think of Korea, and Viet Nam. As we offer in our own prayers every Sunday and through the week remembrance of those dear to this congregation serving now in so many places around the world, and of those who go out into battle, and those loved ones at home who have them in their hearts. We give thanks for their service and sacrifice, on this spring Sunday, and pray always for a lasting peace. And in this moment of national prayer, also, gathering in our thoughts all the departed, those we have known and loved, those no longer of living memory, but known to God, and also all about resurrection hope.

So a rich Sunday in the midst of a late spring holiday weekend, and with thanks for the word that Bishop Price shared with us about the first part of John 14 last Sunday morning in that wonderful service, I would like to pause just over this passage the continuation of that great chapter as we have read it this morning, and simply to highlight one sentence, one verse, John 14:18: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” John’s word here in the Greek, the adjective, orphanous, literallly something like "bereft," in the NRSV the easy translation “orphaned," with the association of a child who has lost a parent, some translators give “desolate,” and in the English of the familiar King James translation Jesus says, “I will not leave you comfortless.” All in any event to speak of, to remind us of the consolation and companionship and love and spiritual sustenance the disciples knew and experienced in the presence of Jesus.

And there in the scene of that Upper Room and Last Supper Jesus says, again and again, what is to happen tomorrow on that hilltop outside the city is a departure and separation and loss that is at one and the same time and in a more profound way an arrival and a reunion and a restoration, a renewal and a deepening, an extension, a completion.

In the passage we read from the first part of this chapter last Sunday Jesus said, “and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and bring you to myself, that where I am there ye may be also.” And as Bishop Price told us, this promise addressed two truths at once. The truth of the return of the Son of Man at what will be both the last day and the first day, in the place prepared for us in the eternal presence of the Father, and the Truth of the anticipation of that return here and now in the lives of his disciples, here and now in those who are and will be Christ’s Body, and who will share in the foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet. Here and now. Soon and already. “I will not leave you orphaned, desolate, comfortless; I am coming to you.”

One of the most influential theologians of the 20th century was an American, Howard Thurman, whose work was especially influential on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His most famous work—and the one which I have read—is called “Jesus and the Dispossessed.” And in that book Thurman takes a long, hard look at Christianity in its faithfulness to the life and message of Jesus, to ask whether in so many places in in so many eras the Church hasn’t become simply a resting place for the comfortable. He asks the Church instead, in a memorable phrase, what good news is there here “for the man whose back is against the wall?” I’m going to have some things to say next Sunday, as we come in the calendar to the Sunday of the "season within a season" of the Ascension, about the recent buzz around the radio evangelist Howard Camping and his prediction of the date and hour of the second coming of Jesus a week ago Saturday. I’m going to talk some about what he got wrong, but I also want to talk about what he got right, and we have an anticipation of it here. To ask, Christian people, if I’m really in trouble, is there any hope for me, any hope that things can get better, get good, get right for me, here and now, here and right now?

I’m not going to be able to unpack all that here this morning. Perhaps something we can continue to do in our thoughts and prayers together. But Thurman’s point is straightforward, which is that if the good news is true, then it needs to be good news here and now and for real. It needs to make a difference. And what we’re going to see in the Ascension and in the miracle of Whitsunday and Pentecost is that Jesus didn’t tell his friends simply to hunker down and lie low and wait patiently in quiet corners for his return. What he says to them instead is that for them, for us, in him, the future is now. The future is now. And this all Holy Spirit. When we turn to him, he comes alive in us. It begins today.

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