May 17, 2020/Sixth Sunday of Easter

Call to Worship/Psalm 66:8-20 (NRSV)

Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard,
who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.
For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs;
you let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.
I will come into your house with burnt offerings;
I will pay you my vows, those that my lips uttered
and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
I will offer to you burnt offerings of fatlings,
with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats.
Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me.
I cried aloud to him, and he was extolled with my tongue.
If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.
But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer.
Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer
or removed his steadfast love from me.

Opening Prayer

God of all time and space,
you initiated the relationship of love and generosity with creation
at a time before and beyond all knowing.
Through the Word and the Spirit,
you continue in eternal love for all that you created.
Fill us with a deep and abiding awareness of your presence,
your call, and your grace in our lives and in our world.
Shape us to into the people you have made us to be –
poured out in creative mercy
for the sake of Jesus Christ in all creation. Amen.

Scripture/John 14:15-21 (NRSV)

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

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

Message

In the last scene of the musical Camelot, King Arthur spins out a song filled with memories of what had been the most idyllic place on earth. Alone on stage, the broken, forgiving king begs us to remember:

Ask ev’ry person if they’ve heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if they have not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
Called Camelot!
Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot.

Keep the story going begs King Arthur. Pass it on to your children and your children’s children; and in the very remembering, you will keep the dream alive. In the midst of the despair around you, recall this time, this special place. And, perhaps—who knows—perhaps this one brief, shining moment will come again.

We’re tempted to hear Jesus singing Arthur’s song as he gathers with his disciples for the last time. Jesus knew he would soon be betrayed by one of his closest followers—betrayed, arrested, and finally killed. Here at the Passover table, Jesus spins out his last words to his closest friends. We can well imagine Jesus calling them to remember the wondrous wisp of glory they had shared when light had come into the darkness of the world. With such a song the disciples could go on, sustained by the memory of this one great life, waiting and hoping Jesus would soon return.

The whole Gospel of John could be a Camelot song, for they were written long after Jesus was gone. This gospel was written backwards, in the midst of a community for whom Jesus was only a memory. Most of those in John’s community had never met Jesus. Most, if not all, the disciples were dead. The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed in 70 AD—a sign for many that the end-time would soon come. But the end-time didn’t come. Life went on and that was, in many ways, the hardest part of all. Jesus hadn’t returned even when all the signs seemed right. This community of believers felt pushed to the very edge of despair, and that despair could defeat them. The gospel writer knew the dangers of such despair. So it was that the author of John’s Gospel poured many of the things Jesus said into this one section of the Gospel known as “The Farewell Discourses.” It’s a bit like The Last Lecture Series in some colleges, where professors are asked what they would say if they knew it was their last chance to speak. Here at the table, Jesus says the same things over and over in different ways with the central word being love.

• “If you love me you will keep my commandments.”
• “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.
• “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.”
• “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

“But how can we do that?” the disciples must have wondered. Knowing they had a hard time loving each other even while Jesus was with them, how could believers love like that in John’s community where memory was fading? Let’s just keep singing about that time when Jesus was here. “Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief shining moment…”

But Jesus did not sing that song. Jesus didn’t call the disciples to hold up his life as memory but rather as presence. “I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus said, “I am coming to you.” What a strange thing to say on the night of betrayal and arrest. It seems he should have said something to the effect, “I am leaving you.” Jesus didn’t deny what was going to happen. “In a little while the world will no longer see me,” Jesus said, “but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.

Jesus was calling his disciples to live and love in ways that seemed impossible. They couldn’t do it, not without the Spirit. The Spirit is the other theme repeated over and over around the table. Sometimes Jesus says the Advocate, like someone who stands beside you in a court of law. Sometimes he says Helper, sometimes Spirit of Truth. When Jesus said, “I am coming to you,” he didn’t mean he would return like an old friend from a long journey. Jesus would be with believers in a different way. Or perhaps we could say that God would be with them in a different way because Jesus had been there. The eternal, cosmic Word of God became flesh in Jesus. That’s what the author of John wrote at the very beginning of this Gospel. The Spirit, which blew like a wind over the face of the deep at the creation, took on flesh in the One who now sat with them at the table. This Living Word had just bent down to wash the disciples’ dirty feet—the feet of those who would, just a few hours later, betray, deny, and abandon Jesus. You can’t get a much more down-to-earth example than that. Jesus was very clear. The Spirit that dwells in me will abide also in you.

Shortly before this, Jesus had said something audacious. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father.” If anyone other than Jesus had made such a claim, we would call it blasphemy. Yet, that’s what Jesus said that night at the table. Even as God breathed into lifeless clay to create a living person, the Spirit will breathe the presence of Jesus into you. In the power of the Spirit, Jesus will continue to be present with you. “I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you.”

Love and the Spirit-these two are at the center of Jesus’ farewell message, his Last Lecture Series. “Love one another as I have loved you” and “The Spirit of Truth will abide with you when I am gone.” A little later in this same chapter, Jesus says, “The Holy Spirit, whom God will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of all that I have said to you.” That is, Jesus was saying: You don’t know everything yet. You have more to learn. Every generation will be faced with new questions and moral perplexities. Does the sun revolve around the earth or is it the other way around? Is war ever just? What are the best ways to bear one another’s burdens? Where is the dividing line between church and state? Jesus knew there were some questions the sacred writings didn’t address. Jesus also acknowledged that there were some things he had never talked about. “The Spirit will be your tutor,” he said, “guiding you into all the truth.”

Rosemary Radford Reuther is a church historian. She says there are two things the church must do. One is to pass on the tradition from one generation to another. We might say this is like King Arthur’s song: “Ask ev’ry person if they’ve heard the story and tell it loud and clear if they have not.” Tell the story of Jesus to your children and your children’s children. But that’s not all, says Reuther. There is a second thing the church must do. Be open to the winds of the Spirit by which the tradition comes alive in each generation. That is different than Camelot, deeper than memory.

At the very end of this chapter, Jesus seems to be ready to leave. He says, “Rise, let us be on our way.” You can almost see him getting up from the table, then realizing that he forgot to say something. “I am the vine,” he says, sitting down again, “and my Father is the vine grower. Abide in me as I abide in you.” But how can we abide in Jesus? He has told the disciples over and over, repeating himself at the table: You will abide in me through the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit will teach you how to love one another. The Spirit will keep us connected, said Jesus. You to me, all of us to God. And you to one another.

Years ago, 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, because 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. “I will not leave you orphaned,” said Jesus. “I am coming to you.”
This promise is far deeper than Camelot, and it wasn’t only for Jesus’ disciples, but also for you and for me. The Spirit ties us to Jesus. We feel a tug on the rope whenever we are tempted to settle for answers that seem to be easier but cannot give life. May God who breathed life into lifeless clay breathe life and hope into you now and in all the days to come.

Prayer for Others

As we have often failed to be obedient to your will in our lives
as individual disciples and as a church,
we pray that you will forgive us and enliven us
to be and to do the gospel of Christ.
Open us to your Spirit’s urgings,
and awaken us to live faithfully as your people
In a changing, often hurting world.

Center us now, O God,
on your presence in this place among your people,
as we lift up our hearts desires,
our soul’s deepest needs,
our hungers, our fears, and our failures.

We pray for those around us who need your care,
and ask that you would make of us your instruments
of healing, peace and redemption.
We pray especially for those we name now in the silence of our hearts_______.
Reveal your presence with them and with us, God of life,
that as people of renewed faith and vitality,
we may be empowered to serve your world,
and so give glory to you;
for we offer our prayers and our lives in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer

And now with the confidence of the children of God, let us pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

Closing Thought/Commission & Benediction

Dorothy Day, The Reckless Way of Love—
Whenever I groan within myself and think how hard it is to keep writing about love in these times of tension and strife, which may at any moment become for us all a time of terror, I think to myself, “What else is the world interested in?” What else do we all want, each one of us, except to love and be loved, in our families, in our work, in all our relationships? God is love. Love casts out fear. Even the most ardent revolutionist, seeking to change the world, to overturn the tables of the money changers, is trying to make a world where it is easier for people to love, to stand in that relationship to each other. We want with all our hearts to love, to be loved. And not just in the family but to look upon all as our mothers, sisters, brothers, children. It is when we love the most intensely and most humanly that we can recognize how tepid is our love for others. The keenness and intensity of love brings with it suffering, of course, but joy too, because it is a foretaste of heaven.

Go now knowing that God is as close to us as our latest breath.
Give sacrificially to others as Christ has given himself to us.
Let the commandments of loving God and one another fuel your imagination, shape your words, and guide your actions.

And may God greet your prayers with constant love;
may Christ Jesus give you life through his own;
and may the Spirit of truth abide with you and within you, always.

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord! Amen.