Message by Rev Jenny Carter
May 13, 2018
(Based on John 17:6-19)
Last week, I visited my family in Williams Lake. After dinner as we sat around the living room – sipping a glass of after dinner wine – the subject of God came up. That is not newsworthy – the subject of God and Jesus and spirituality often come up when we gather for family meals. We fairly often discuss who God is, how God might be at work in the world, and where it is we experience God most fully in our lives. My daughter and son-in-law are young adults in search of their own expression of spirituality – an expression that makes sense for them, and helps them to continue to grow into the best versions of themselves. Their quest for spirituality, their search for God, is real and given that they have a relative in “the business” so to speak, we find ourselves sharing these kinds of conversations often. They are searching, and sometimes they find, and sometimes they feel adrift, and sometimes they feel abandoned.
That’s not the story. The story was that as we sat talking grand themes, and about wounded hearts, and what a “good and faithful life” looks like – my youngest grand-daughter Eliana (who is four) was sitting in our midst colouring. As we adults were lamenting the state of the world and wondering where God was in all of that, without even taking her eye off of the page she was colouring, she said, in her sweet little lispy voice, “Well it’s really easy. God is in everything. I know God.”
I asked her, “You know God?” to which she replied, “yes.” “I know God. His name is Kevin and Kevin takes care of everything”. When I asked her how she knew God’s name was Kevin, she looked at me – and I am pretty sure she rolled her eyes – and said, “Kevin takes care of heaven. How can you not know Kevin?” Indeed, how can I not know Kevin?
Funny how sometimes our faith experience is so strong and our connection to the Holy is so powerful that we simply know that God is with us, just like we know the person sitting next to us is “with us.” Yet at other times how God, and Jesus, feel like an undiscovered country faraway from where we live. How can this be? How can it be that sometimes the harder we look for God and Spirit, the more alone we feel.
A few weeks ago, a few of us were in Israel. We followed in Jesus’ footsteps. We tried to catch a glimpse of him through the mists of time and through a shared experience. In our own ways, as individuals, I think we were all searching for him even if we might not have used those exact words. Yet, searching is what we were about. We searched for a sense of presence, a hint of the holy, a nudging of spirit that would let us know that yes – yes, God, Christ, Spirit was with us, not only with us, but as close to us as our very breath. It’s hard to be spiritual when surrounded by well-armed soldiers and razor wire.
I don’t know what I was expecting. I guess I was kind of hoping that those 15 days away would be filled with nothing but holy experiences of God. It is called “the holy land” after all! I guess I was hoping that with every step I took, I would feel some spiritual tingle somewhere. That didn’t happen for me. I don’t think it happened for anyone else either.
Yet that isn’t to say that we didn’t have moments where one, or another of us, would be overwhelmed with a sense of connection to God – a sense of the presence of Christ. For some of us it happened in the wilderness of Galilee – for some it happened in a 1,000 year old church built by the crusaders, for others it was an experience of the Spirit by the Jordan River with the sprinkling of river water on their forehead, or the sharing of communion in the Garden of Gethsemane. While some places moved some people to tears – those very same places left others feeling nothing.
Maybe that’s how it works – maybe sometimes when we search for God, we tend to look in the usual places – the expected places – and when we don’t find God in those places we feel disappointed, or let down, or even abandoned. Or perhaps we assume that an experience of the holy will come with appropriate lighting, a chorus of angels, and a deep and profound sense of peace. But what if that is not what it is like all of the time? What if God is found where we need God to be? What if we let go of the “usual” places and looked for God in the unexpected places? The places we never thought to look for the Holy? What if we let go of our expectations of what that encounter will be, and simply be open to the encounter?
In many ways our reading from John’s gospel is about finding Jesus, finding God, finding our connection to all that is holy and life giving in the most unlikely of places. As is often the case, the context in which a story takes place is everything when it comes to biblical interpretation. And the context of this passage – Thursday evening, the eve of Jesus’ crucifixion and departure from his disciples – matters. It really matters.
It matters because it is an unlikely place, a hard grief filled place, and it helps set the scene for Jesus’ words of promise to his disciples. Those men and women who had followed faithfully, sometimes understanding what Jesus was saying, and sometimes missing the point completely – were about to go through a horrendous experience. An experience where they would lose their friend and leader, and where, at least for a while, it would seem as is God had abandoned them and all that they hoped for their lives.
What we heard read was a prayer that Jesus was offering to God on behalf of his friends who were about to go through a dark and grief filled time all on their own. As one of the people at bible study on Monday said, this prayer simply oozes with love and promise and is so powerful that if you really take the words in, you just might melt with all the love Jesus had for his followers. There are three parts to this prayer and promise, each one holds, I believe, a powerful truth of where God is, and what God is about.
The first part of this prayer is clear. It tells us that the world can be a difficult place. This perhaps doesn’t seem like much of a promise of good news. But it is the truth, and given how many voices in our culture invite us to imagine that if we just buy the right product, or support the right cause or candidate, if we just do everything right, then life will be smooth and easy. Yet we know this isn’t true. The promise Jesus hints at in these words is that the church, the faith community, needs to be a place where we can stop pretending that all is perfect, and begin to tell each other the truth. The truth that sometimes we are not fine. The truth that some things hurt. The truth that sometimes we are afraid.
This life of ours is at times beautiful and difficult, wonderful and painful. Jesus knows that his death will be really painful and challenging for his disciples, and he does not sugar coat the truth. We shouldn’t sugar coat the truth either.
The second part of the prayer tells us that our faith, our Christianity, does not provide an escape from life’s difficulties, but rather offers us the means to not only get through the difficulties but to even flourish among them. One of the more heart rending elements of this prayer, I think, comes when Jesus prays that God not take his followers out of this world, but to protect them as they move and live in it. So often we want to skirt the hard times, to deny their impact, find someone to blame – sometimes we want to hope beyond hope that some magical act, some divine intervention, will take all of the hard stuff away. So we pray and pray for the hard times to disappear, and when they don’t, we think we haven’t been heard, or that God has stopped caring, or that we are undeserving.
But here is the promise: God, however you envision God, is with you in the hard times. Perhaps not as a sense of deep presence and power – because when we are hurting we can’t really keep our spiritual radar as fine-tuned as we can when we are feeling happy – but God, Christ, Spirit is there none the less. Perhaps in the presence of a live person, the touch of a hand, or in the beauty of a sunrise. A presence mediated by those who are a part of our world.
The third part of this prayer reminds us that each one of us is here for a purpose. We are here to care for this world, and its people. While we are always called to this purpose in both big and small ways – both when we are alone and when we are together as a gathered community – it is especially important to engage these acts of caring when we are in search of the holy and having trouble finding it. Jesus’ words about being “given” the people whom he in turn “gives” to the world – are empowering and help us find our direction.
These words remind us that as followers we have been chosen and sent into our world to make a positive difference. We are reminded that as messed up as the world might be, as messed up as we ourselves might be, we are entrusted with the holy work of healing and redemption, and that no matter if we are successful or a colossal failure, that we are beloved.
As we begin another week, let’s start with owning our own belovedness. Whether we know God and know that God’s name is Kevin, or if we are struggling to find God this week, let us begin at the place Jesus began – the world and its people (us included) are beloved.