Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sermon, Easter 6, John 14:15-21

Well, here's something I haven't done in awhile:


I want to tell you a story about an old priest. He had served St. Swithin’s for as long as anyone could remember. This priest cared for his congregation like a mother cares for her children. He was there to welcome and instruct new members. He baptized new converts and the children of parishioners. He held catechism courses for all those desiring to be confirmed. He married sons and daughters and he buried mothers and fathers. He welcomed all people of the community into the parish because, as he put it, they were too small to do otherwise. He also performed minor maintenance of the building and grounds since the congregation couldn’t afford to pay professionals.

One day he discovered that he was dying. The fact he was going to die didn’t bother him so much as the fact that his small congregation would be left leaderless, set adrift by the tides of time. And that bothered him more than he could say. So he set about planning for his imminent departure.

He recruited some new people to be visible leaders. He invited and trained several others to lead services. He found a retired priest who was willing to make emergency pastoral visits. He trained a building and grounds crew and a new parish secretary. And he preached sermons focusing on the presence of the Holy Spirit and how, even though he would not be with them, they would not be abandoned.

The people were, understandably, reluctant at first, eventually becoming resigned to the fact that this chapter of his life was over. There was some anger and plenty of tears throughout the process. But with his guidance, they began to take more and more ownership of both the physical facility and their spiritual lives.

Finally the day came when he died. He passed quietly from this world to the next surrounded by friends and family. A memorial service was held with the expected laughter and tears, and the congregation mourned his passing. But then an interesting and, as he would way, predictable thing happened: they began to put their assigned roles to work and they made the decision that they could not let their parish die.

People began doing building maintenance on a regular basis for things they could handle. In addition to pitching in with yard work, people learned of plumbing and electrical experience in their midst. They discovered they had a continued interest in education and found teachers among them, as well as a willingness to invite outsiders to make presentations. Their worship leaders continued to develop their skills. And the surrounding community that had seen this place as the sleepy little church on the outskirts of town now saw a place thriving with activity and spirit. Their sense of parish community deepened and they recognized the gift of God’s grace and spirit everywhere they looked.

Liturgically speaking, we are in an interesting place. For the first three Sundays of Easter, we hear resurrection stories: Jesus appearing in the room with the disciples, the road to Emmaus, and a salmon bake on the beach. On the last three Sundays of Easter we hear selections from Jesus’ lengthy farewell discourse from John’s gospel, which took place during the Last Supper before his trial and crucifixion.

Why this dual focus? It’s Easter, man! Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! Shouldn’t we be focusing on the joys of the resurrection? Isn’t this why we don’t recite the confession, why I make you stand for the prayers and communion, and why there is an Easter egg hunt next week? If we are focused on the resurrection, why go back to the time of the Last Supper and Jesus’ impending death?

The answer to that question is because, liturgically speaking, Jesus ascends to the Father this Thursday (it says so on the calendar). Yes, we are celebrating Easter and the resurrection; but, through the assigned readings, we are also being prepared for Jesus’ departure, just as he was preparing those eleven disciples for his imminent departure in the form of the crucifixion.

Those disciples had given up three years of their lives, leaving behind families, friends and careers. They had agreed to follow an itinerant preacher because of his claims to be of God, his miracle works and their search for something bigger than themselves. Three years of teaching and miracles and a firsthand experience with the divine ends with a betrayal and crucifixion. Jesus is taking this time to prepare them for his absence.

“I will not leave you orphaned. In a little while the world will not see me, but you will see me.” Jesus foreshadows his crucifixion and resurrection. He is acknowledging that they will feel like orphans. But he also gives them hope that they will see him again shortly.

The disciples went through the trauma of the crucifixion, the despair of his death, the feeling of being abandoned and left to their own devices, and the joy of the resurrection. That wasn’t the end of the story. The next part came with his appearances and his ascension. And this time the disciples were ready to be on their own. But they weren’t totally on their own because the Advocate, the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit, came to abide in them.

I told the story of the dying priest and the living congregation because it symbolizes today’s gospel. The leader was going to die and be taken from his congregation, leaving them to fend for themselves. The leader of the disciples was going to die and be taken from them, leaving them to fend for themselves. And in both cases, the priest and Jesus prepared the people to carry on. In both cases, the congregation and the disciples discovered that they were capable, that theirs wasn’t a shallow faith, that they would carry on, and, more importantly, that the Holy Spirit dwelled within in them.

Liturgically speaking, these are interesting times as our days with the resurrected Christ are coming to a close and he prepares us for life after the ascension. My prayer for this congregation is that we see these times as more than liturgical dates on our calendars and see them as the days when the Holy Spirit abides in us leading us to do greater things. My prayer for this congregation is that we live Spirit-filled and interesting lives. Amen.


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